It’s so hard to believe that release day for this baby of mine is one week from tomorrow. It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking, it’s terrifying, but most importantly, IT’S ABOUT TIME!
To kick-off the countdown, I wanted to share an excerpt. The first chapter has already made the rounds, so I thought I’d give those of you following me on any or all platforms a look at chapter 2. Please know that I am grateful for each and every like, follow, RT, comment, review, to-read shelf add…everything. Thank you so much!
In this chapter we meet Brad, quite possibly the only ally Laurie has. I hope you enjoy it!
September 18, 2018
The scream stands out from the others, cutting over the crowd like a crashing jet. I stop walking, scan the masses for the source. A series of wails follows. It sounds like a woman, her cries high-pitched, hysterical. I crane my neck and peer over festivalgoers, but don’t see anyone in distress.
Luke tugs on my arm. “Come on, daddy.” He points the caramel apple in his other hand toward the Tilt-a-Whirl. At four years old, he’s too small to ride, but he loves to stand there and watch the thing spin in the air. I don’t get the thrill, but it makes him happy.
The cries seem to have stopped so I nod to Luke and start walking again, filing in behind the rest of the crowd. His sandy hair is getting shaggy and I make a mental note to have it trimmed before I send him back to Trish. It will give her one less thing to complain about, spare me the accusations of only wanting the fun part of parenting. Then again, it could give her one more thing to complain about. Too short or not short enough, too uneven or too even. I’m convinced she’s going to take the divorce out on me until the day I die. It’s my fault, she claims. Maybe she’s right. I never should’ve married her in the first place.
But if I hadn’t married her I wouldn’t have Luke.
He squeals as we step closer to the Tilt-a-Whirl, but his attention is quickly drawn to a booth beside us adorned in stuffed animals, the back wall covered in balloons. Throw a dart and a scrap of paper inside of the popped balloon reveals the level of the prize won. It’s almost always a number one, which equates to junk; a plastic bracelet, cheap toy car. Luke points to a giant stuffed tiger. I’d need to get a ten to win that and something tells me there is just one on the whole board.
“Play, Daddy!” he says, once again tugging on my hand. A hunk of caramel sticks to the side of his mouth.
“Wouldn’t you rather watch the Tilt-a-Whirl?” I’d rather go home, but that’s beside the point. I thought the outing might help clear my head, but too many people flood the streets for that to be possible. Their voices bounce in my skull, colliding with Mark’s words from earlier. Something isn’t right. I hear it on repeat, the seriousness in his tone raising goose bumps on my flesh.
Luke shakes his head. “Please, please, please!” It’s so hard to deny him. He’s the reason I’m training with Mark, getting out of firefighting and into investigations. Safer, less risk of leaving Luke partially orphaned. He’s also the reason I followed Trish to this apple-worshiping town after our divorce, preventing a three-hour distance from my son.
I pull my phone from my pocket and check the screen. Nothing from Mark yet. I stuff the device back into my front pocket. So much for clearing my head.
As a kid with neon blue hair passes, I wonder if this place might be what I really need my head cleared of. I glance around – a morbidly overweight man wearing a t-shirt three inches too short, a pair of pierced Goth-looking teenagers, and a group that may not be familiar with the concept of soap and water – and suspect that every trailer park in a sixty-mile radius is empty right now.
If I didn’t know that all carnivals attract these crowds, I’d be in the first cab out of town, swearing off apples for the rest of my life.
I reach for my wallet in my back pocket and focus on Luke, still gazing longingly at the stuffed tiger. “All right, buddy. I’ll try it once.” It’s easier to fork out a few bucks for a dart than to say no. It’ll be worth Luke’s smile, anyhow. He squeals and then pulls his caramel apple to his mouth for another bite.
“Five bucks,” the man in serious need of a shower and shave behind the counter tells me. When I was a kid, the game was a buck.
That horrifying scream sounds again, shrilling over the voices, cheers, and even the band down the street. It’s closer this time, or maybe I’ve just moved closer to it. Luke startles, squeezing my hand. His mouth hangs open in anticipation of the apple, but his arm freezes before the treat reaches it.
I look over my shoulder and then down at Luke. Whoever it is, she can’t be far, maybe a couple booths away. I need to check it out, see if I can help. My many hours of emergency training ingrained the instinct in me. I shove my wallet back in my pocket, pick Luke up, and take off toward those miserable wails. “The tiger!” Luke cries, his voice bouncing as I jog.
“We’ll come back later. I need to help someone.”
“Who?” Luke asks.
“I don’t know,” I tell him, my breathing heavy as I run.
Outside a booth ahead, right across from the Tilt-a-Whirl, people gather. I make my way through them and spot an older woman leaning over the counter, calling to someone. “What’s wrong?” I ask her.
Her eyes are wide, her face pale. She shakes her head. “I…I don’t know.” She points inside the booth. “She said she was getting a migraine, but then she started screaming.”
In the back of the booth, I see Laurie.
“It’s the baby’s mommy,” Luke says. He loves making little Emily laugh and watching her body shake with giggles. Since I bought the house next door, we often see Laurie going for a walk with Emily in the stroller. It’s not exactly coincidence that I happen to be near the street every time she passes.
Laurie keeps her eyes on the ground. She holds her hands to her head, her chest heaves like she can barely breathe, and she paces more frantically than I’ve ever seen. I squeeze around the counter into the booth and set Luke down. “Stay right here, okay?” I point at the Tilt-a-Whirl. “See, you can watch from right here.”
Luke nods but his eyes are on Laurie. I go to her, touch her arm. “Laurie, are you okay?” Stupid question. Clearly, she’s anything but okay.
She looks at me, her wide hazel eyes darting like a caged animal. She starts to step back as if she’s afraid of me, but then recognition settles in her face, softening the creases around her glistening eyes. A jumble of sounds rolls from her mouth like she’s trying to form words but can’t do it. “Eh…eh…e…”
I put my hands on her arms. “Emily? Is Emily okay?”
Her light brown hair bobs with frantic motion, but I don’t know if she’s nodding or shaking her head. Strands cling to her tear stained face, the rest disheveled like she’s been tearing at it.
I scan the small booth, its plywood walls and nylon roof. No one is inside except me, Laurie, and Luke. I try to keep my voice calm, but my breaths are heavy. “Where is Emily?”
Laurie starts shaking her head and waving her hands, more sounds tumbling from her mouth but still no words. I fumble for my cell.
“9-1-1?” the woman on the other side of the counter asks me.
“The sheriff is right up the block,” she says, pointing. “I’ll run get him.”
Sheriff Tilton. The last person I need to see tonight, a big part of the reason I needed to clear my head in the first place. Or maybe Mark’s bias is starting to rub off on me. That’s the more likely theory. Unfortunately for me, I represent Mark’s camp by association. No doubt Tilton will be less than thrilled to see me. But clearly Laurie needs help and he’s the best person to give it to her.
I catch sight of Luke. He leans against the counter, his head turning with the motion of the Tilt-a-Whirl. I turn back to Laurie, note the way her body trembles. I rub my hands over her arms and try to keep my voice soft, but not too quiet or she’ll never hear me over all this carnival noise. “Look at me.” She looks up and suddenly gasps before screaming. She pulls away and scoots backward, lodging herself in the corner of the booth.
“Laurie, it’s okay. It’s just me. Brad.” She crouches to the street, pulling her arms around herself. She’s breathing so hard I fear she’ll pass out. I squat to her level. “Are you hurt?” She doesn’t look hurt, just terribly shaken.
She stares at me like she’s never seen me before, but then her eyes flicker. “B…b…br…”
I nod and smile at her. “Yes, it’s just me. Brad. I want to help you. Can you take a few deep, slow breaths with me?” I make a show of sucking in a deep breath and she tries to follow suit but her chest shudders with each inhalation. I keep my voice soft. “Was Emily here with you?”
She seems to nod, shrug, and shake her head all at the same time. “Was anyone else here?”
I get the same response.
I glance back at Luke. Now he’s laughing, clapping his hands as he watches the ride spin. I need to do something with him. The flashing lights will only keep him occupied for so long and I can’t help Laurie and keep an eye on him at the same time.
The problem is, who do I call? I’m too new to town to know anyone very well. Laurie has watched Luke a few times, but that certainly isn’t an option. The logical choice is Trish but I can’t call her. I had to plead for an extra night with Luke as it was – something I never had to do when I had shared custody. But that was before she dragged me into court, before the judge made my life a living hell.
“While the court finds no reason to remove custody as Mrs. Chandler requests, Mr. Chandler’s lack of availability to the child, regardless of how warranted it may be, holds merit. It is in the best interest of stability for the child…”
I thought I was having a heart attack; the pain in my chest shot straight through me. This stranger was taking my son from me in some capacity, all because emergencies sometimes pulled me away from him.
No, not because of emergencies. Because Trish saw the opportunity to accuse me of being an absent parent. I just couldn’t believe that the judge agreed with her lunacy.
“Mr. Chandler will retain partial custody of the child, but only on weekends. The situation will be revaluated in three months.” With the bang of a gavel, he was gone and so was Luke.
That was almost three months ago, shortly after I moved to Jackson. Tomorrow I’m due in court for the follow up, no doubt to be another face off with Trish.
I definitely can’t call her with an emergency now.
Luke spins his head, mocking the motion of the carnival ride. He’ll be fine with me. I’ll make it work.
Laurie still sits in the corner of the plywood booth. She hugs her knees to her chest, but then as if realizing she’s lost touch with reality, she straightens her legs and pushes herself to her feet. She glances at the ground, then pulls her hands to her mouth, tears trickling down her cheeks. I follow her eyes to a small, pink object on the street. I step over to it and pick up a soft doll, the kind for a very young child. I turn to Laurie. “Is this Emily’s?”
She reaches for it, takes it from me, and clutches it to her chest. “Eh…em…E…”
But she pauses as if suddenly disoriented. Something flashes in her eyes and even though I can’t describe it, I know what it is; this helpless version of her vanishing, the real Laurie coming back to me.
She closes her eyes and takes a long, deep breath. Slowly, her eyes flutter open and she focuses on me. “Brad,” she says. She glances over her shoulder, carefully examining the small area around us, then leans in and rests her hand on my forearm. “I’m…so glad to see you,” she says between labored breaths, her voice a desperate whisper. Her hand trembles on my arm.
“Are you okay?” I ask, putting my hand over hers. “Is Emily…”
Laurie doesn’t let me finish, leans even closer, her breath warm on my ear. “I need help.”
I nod. “The sheriff should be on his way.”
She shakes her head wildly. “I don’t want…”
She stops speaking as a rough voice projects over the background banter. “What’s the problem?”
I turn to face the source: Sheriff Tilton.
Tilton’s bloodshot, drooping eyes make him look hung over or stoned, but it’s nothing new, his typical look. His uniform seems freshly pressed and the metal on his shirt and his gun glint beneath the flashing lights of the Tilt-a-Whirl. The woman has returned with him, her eyes wide with concern. She must know Laurie.
Though I doubt he’s waiting for permission, I motion Tilton inside the booth. Luke stares up at him before glancing back at Laurie, but the squeals across the street steal his attention again. “Chandler?” Tilton says. “What are you doing here?”
He’s as happy to see me as I guessed he would be. I brush it off, try to keep my voice level. “I was just up the street with my son when I heard her scream.” I turn away from him, try to block out any perceptions I’ve formed. I rest a hand on Laurie’s back, try to nudge her toward Tilton. “Tell the sheriff what happened.”
But she seems to be fading again. She clutches the pink doll to her chest, her eyes wide before she turns away, shaking her head, her breathing growing even faster. Her shoulders tremble and fresh tears roll down her cheeks. “Is Emily missing?” I ask.
Laurie’s gaze grows distant, but she parts her lips. “She…she’s gone.”
Tilton speaks up. “Laurie, do you know who has your daughter?”
“J…J…J…” She meets the sheriff’s eyes, but takes a step back like she doesn’t recognize him. By the way her eyes dart about and sweat beads on her forehead despite the cool night, I can tell we’ve definitely lost her again.
“Who did you see? Anyone?” Tilton asks.
Laurie doesn’t answer, starts pacing the small space again, pausing only long enough to thrust the doll at the sheriff. “Gone,” she cries. “Gone.”
He reaches for the doll, but she pulls it back like a greedy child. “Laurie,” he runs a hand over his head. “I’m going to do everything I can to find her but I need you tell me what you know. Can you do that?”
She looks at the wall of the booth and screams, but there’s nothing there. She glances at the street and jumps back as if a colony of snakes crawl at her, but again there is nothing. She shifts her gaze to the sheriff, her eyes widening as if seeing him for the first time. With a slight gasp, she takes a couple steps back.
I fight the urge to back away, too. This is nothing like the Laurie I know, the Laurie that was here just a moment ago. I wish I knew what she was thinking or seeing for that matter. They can’t be the same images I see. There is nothing here but makeshift walls and people she knows. Laurie tries to take another step back but she’s met the wall. She breathes even heavier as she points a finger at the sheriff. “Jake!” she blurts.
Tilton tips his head, his voice low. “You’re saying that Jake has Emily?”
Laurie seems to want to disappear into the wall, her back pressed firmly against it, her feet shuffling. I step closer to her, hoping she’ll catch sight of me instead of Tilton. “It’s Sheriff Tilton, Laurie.” I keep my voice soft. “But you just said Jake.”
She nods frantically.
I glance at the sheriff. By his expression, I know he’s thinking the same thing I am. Still, I play Laurie’s game, hope if she calms she’ll be able to speak to me again. “Jake has Emily?”
Those mumbled sounds tumble from her mouth again, gibberish I can’t even begin to understand. “J…J…J…” I think she’s nodding, but it’s hard to tell.
The sheriff steps forward, putting himself in Laurie’s line of vision. He puts his hands on his narrow hips, sticks out his ever-growing belly. “That doesn’t make sense.” At least he keeps his voice friendly. “You know that.”
She meets his eyes, her own widening. Tilton squints and shakes his head. “How could Jake have Emily?”
Laurie’s head is shaking and her teeth are chattering like she’s standing in a freezer. “J…J…” She groans a little then blows out a frustrated breath.
Sheriff Tilton shakes his head. “Jake can’t have Emily, Laurie. He’s dead.”