Purchase The Girl Who Wasn’t Dead Here
One moment Jenny was gazing at the stars. The next, icy cold water surrounded her as she slipped beneath the surface with barely a splash. Her muddled brain took too long to figure out that it wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t until she felt pinpricks of pain from the cold that she realized she was under water and if she didn’t do something she was going to run out of air.
She tried to lift her arms, to pull through the water the way she had on swim team to reach the surface, but her arms didn’t move; they were tied behind her back. Panic bubbled inside her chest and she almost screamed. That would have been the end. Talking herself down, she started to kick. Her dress was too tight around her thighs and too heavy at her feet, but she began to move.
Lungs burning, she breached the surface and took a deep, gasping breath before going under again. She needed her hands. She could keep popping up for breaths, but she couldn’t stay up long with her hands behind her back. When she came up for another breath she managed to balance above the water a few seconds, spotting the shore to her left. She went under again, pulling her wrists apart, trying to tear whatever tied her hands. Plastic bit into her wrists and she kicked to the surface again, fighting to stay up as she took quick breaths.
Under again, she twisted her wrists and tugged. Her left thumb slipped under whatever bound her and then her hands were free. She kicked to the surface and tipped her head back, forcing her legs and the weighty dress up enough so she floated. She could still feel what had been binding her on her right arm and she lifted it to see a plastic zip tie.
She lay back, floating and catching her breath until her teeth began to chatter. If she didn’t hurry she would give in to that cold. Gathering all her strength, she turned to swim for shore. The dress made it almost impossible. She floated again, fumbling for the zipper at the side of the dress. She went under twice before working the zipper down and shoving and kicking herself free of the fabric. In only her bra and underwear the water was colder than ever. She swam for shore. She had to get out of the river before her body temperature dropped too low. The current pulled at her tired limbs, threatening to whisk her away even as she fought against it.
Her feet touched bottom and she struggled forward, falling to a crawl when it was shallow enough. Finally free of the water, she collapsed and rolled to her back. Above her, the stars still shimmered brightly.
Beep, beep, beep.
Gabe woke slowly, fighting through a haze of too little sleep and too much beer as his phone repeatedly beeped somewhere near him. He groped for the bedside table, his hand bashing into hard wood instead of landing on the cardboard box that sat beside his bed. Sitting up, he looked around the room, wondering where the hell he was. Beside him a girl rolled away, turning her naked back to him. He blinked rapidly and then rubbed his eyes. His mouth tasted like something had died in it. Vague images of the night before came back to him as he finally spotted his phone on the floor. He grabbed it and silenced the alert. On the screen a little envelope flashed at him, announcing a new text message. Above it he saw the time, not even eight. Ungodly early.
Yawning, he stood and stretched before scratching his bare chest and looking around for his clothes. He spotted his boxers and jeans half under the bed and bent to pull them out. Tugging them on, he glanced around the room for his shirt. It lay in a crumbled heap on the desk his hand had smacked into when he reached for his phone. He pulled the shirt over his head and ran a hand over his short black hair. Still enough product in it from the night before that it couldn’t look too bad.
His eyes were drawn to the baggie of white powder on the desk. He scratched his chest again, glancing over his shoulder at the girl. She still hadn’t moved. He picked up the baggie and tested its weight in his palm before dropping it back to the desk. Had he snorted any last night? He didn’t think so. God, he hoped not. It had been months since he’d touched the stuff. Not since the shit show that had been senior prom. He rubbed at his nose, but didn’t get the feeling that he’d done lines.
He should call his sponsor even though the guy would say he wasn’t going to meetings as often as he should. He’d probably get another lecture about giving up drinking too. But fuck that. It was college. He had no intention of ever doing coke again, but what was college without a few beers?
Backing away from the desk and the temptation sitting there, he headed for the door. He half thought about waking the girl, but whatever. It wasn’t like he even remembered her name. Waking her was just asking for awkwardness. He stepped out of her door and found himself in a house. That was a surprise. She must be in a sorority. All the more reason to get the hell out of Dodge. All he needed was some middle-aged den mother coming at him.
He hurried down a big set of stairs and made it out the front door without running into anyone. The early morning sun was a harsh bastard punching him in the eye sockets. He shut one eye and left the other one at a squint as he got his bearings and turned toward the dorms. It was October and he still expected it to be cold, even though the Los Angeles weather was far from it. Once his eyes became accustomed to the sun he pulled his phone out and checked the text. It was a picture message from an unknown number, but he opened it anyway. He’d probably given his number to a dozen girls the night before. Maybe someone felt lonely.
What he saw stopped him cold. He recognized the girl holding that morning’s paper and smirking out of his screen, but it was impossible. His ex-girlfriend Jenny Lewis, presumed dead since prom, yet somehow alive. Her long tangle of dirty blonde hair that he’d loved to run his fingers through had been chopped to her chin and dyed a rich auburn color. His stomach roiled and he bent at the waist, vomiting a sludge of beer and half-digested junk food from the night before. He straightened and wiped at his lips before running his tongue around his mouth and spitting to clear the residue. A couple of guys walking on the other side of the street started to laugh, but he didn’t pay any attention.
He looked at his phone again, finally reading the words that accompanied the photo: I know you killed me and I have proof. Meet me at Pinewood Cabins, number twelve. Friday night, six o’clock.
Gabe bent and vomited again.
“Marissa Penn.” The voice crackled over the PA system in the small waiting area near her gate. Hefting her bag to her shoulder, Marissa hurried to the desk.
“Hi, I’m Marissa.”
“Hello, dear.” The older woman behind the desk looked up and gave Marissa a sickly sweet smile she couldn’t force herself to return. “Good news, we were able to get you a seat on the 1:40 flight to Philadelphia and from there it’s just a short connecting flight to Albany. How does that sound?”
“Amazing. Thanks.” Marissa found a smile for the helpful woman as relief flooded her. She’d rent a car in Albany and be home in Yates before dark.
“You’re welcome. Now let’s get your ticket together.”
Minutes later, Marissa clutched her ticket, one step closer to home. A place she was dreading. She glanced at her watch. Ten minutes until they started boarding. With her original flight canceled due to engine issues, she’d spent the last four hours running from gate to gate as they tried to get her on a flight that would put her anywhere near home. Her eyes shifted from the gate to the wine bar just across the way. She needed a damn drink. Ten minutes would be enough. Hell, she could probably finish two.
Shoving the ticket into her purse, she dug into an extra pocket and pulled out the ID that said she was twenty-one as she crossed to the bar. The list was short and expensive. She chose a Cabernet from Sonoma and the bartender didn’t even ask to see her ID. She smiled at him as she paid, making sure to leave him a generous tip. Settling back on the bar stool, she crossed one leg over the other, letting her three-inch tan heel dangle slightly from her foot. The first sip of wine was so delicious she almost let out a moan of pleasure.
“Good?” The bartender flashed her an easy smile. He probably wasn’t much more than twenty-one himself, and lip-smacking sexy with richly dark skin and close curls. He wasn’t exactly someone she would date and bring home to her parents. Mostly because as open and forward thinking as they claimed to be she knew anyone she dated who wasn’t white had better be something a little more special than a bartender. Still, under other circumstances she wouldn’t have minded getting to know him.
“Very good.” She gave him a flirty smile, unable to help herself as she pushed her long blonde hair over one shoulder. “It’s so smooth and rich in my mouth.”
He returned her smile and uncorked the bottle again, pouring enough to top it off. “Where are you headed today?”
“Home.” Her smile faded.
“I take it you’re not too happy about it?” He raised one perfect eyebrow. He really was delectable.
“Not at all.” She hadn’t been home since she left for college, hadn’t planned on going back again. Her family did Christmas in Hawaii most years so there was no need to go near that shit little town. “Let’s just say I find myself to be much more of an LA girl than a small town New York girl.”
“Small town New York, huh? Like cows and tractors?” He leaned on the bar, tantalizingly close.
“Exactly.” She raised her glass to him and took another long swallow. For a fleeting moment she imagined what it would be like to blow off the flight and have him show her some private area of the airport, maybe hop a flight to Vegas for the weekend.
“So why are you going?” He tilted his head, warm brown eyes on hers.
Marissa swirled her wine glass grimly, watching the red liquid spin. She thought about the text she’d woken up to two days ago from Jenny. Dead Jenny. She’d let Jenny slip from her mind the moment she boarded a plane for LA last summer. Who needed to look back? She took another long swallow of wine, finishing the glass. She was running out of time before her flight. The bartender watched her patiently, waiting for an answer.
“An old friend is in town and it seems like she’d really like to see me.” Marissa pushed her empty glass toward him and reached over to snag the pen from behind his ear. She scrawled her name and number on a napkin. “I’ll be back within the week. Give me a call.”
She lifted her bag and strode toward the gate, heels clacking with a confidence she wasn’t quite feeling.
“You got that oil change done?”
Liam looked up to see his dad hanging out of the office door. He’d been wiping his hands, a million miles away from the shop, thinking about the text he’d gotten yesterday morning. His dad raised his eyebrows, waiting for an answer. He rapped the door twice with his knuckles.
“Just finished up.” Liam tossed the blackened rag back in the sink.
“Go ahead and grab lunch then. We got that big job coming in this afternoon.”
His dad frowned at him. “You okay?”
No, not at all. But how do you explain to your dad that you got a text from a dead girl?
Liam rolled his eyes. “I’m fine.”
His dad stepped out of the office and walked closer, big arms crossed over his chest. The act practically split the rolled up sleeves of his work shirt. “You haven’t been smoking weed before work, have you?”
“Dad, really?” Liam gave him a look. Ever since catching Liam smoking a joint behind their garage the past summer, he’d been trying to balance his parental concern with his acceptance that his son was eighteen and old enough to make his own choices.
“What? You’ve been spaced out yesterday and today. As far as I’m concerned you’re a grown up and it’s not like I can ground you for smoking some dope.” Same old, same old. “But as your boss I can’t have you coming to work stoned. You got to be alert in a garage or people get hurt.”
“I don’t smoke before work.” Not any more at least. Not now that he was taking the job seriously. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“All right.” His dad nodded, still eyeing him. “Just keep your head on straight.”
“I will, Dad.”
“Go get some lunch.” He clapped Liam on the shoulder and turned back to his office.
Liam headed for the door, stopping to take off his stained coveralls. He checked himself in the mirror by the door. His dad’s warnings that a black man had to be better than his white peers at all times was so ingrained that he barely thought about it. When Liam was young, he couldn’t understand how to be better so he learned to look better. It wasn’t like he wore slacks and button downs, but jeans couldn’t be too baggy and shirts had to be clean. As he got older, he began to understand what his dad had meant, but dressing decently was habit now.
At the pizza place a block away, Liam ordered the lunch special, two cheese slices and a Coke. It wasn’t until he sat on the bench out front to eat that he realized he was barely hungry. Still, he forced down a slice, scrolling through his phone with one hand to reread the text from Jenny for the hundredth time.
He stared at the picture of her holding the newspaper, wondering how the hell she could be alive. She’d drowned. Everyone knew that and yet here she was. Pinewood Cabins sat an hour outside of town in the middle of nowhere. He’d been to a couple parties out there, but those were always in the summer. This late in the season he doubted they were that busy. Was that why she wanted to meet out there? He swallowed hard, thinking of the last time he’d seen her.
He’d been angry, angrier than he’d been before or since. She’d pretty much taken his dreams and smashed them to nothing. He had to meet her. Had to see her. But that would mean getting his dad to let him leave work early on a Friday. He’d want to know why and Liam wasn’t sure what to tell him because he damn sure wasn’t going to tell the truth.
Liam picked up his remaining slice of pizza. He’d give it to his dad, sweeten the pot so to speak, before asking him if he could leave early Friday.
The road to Pinewood Cabins was as empty as Kyla remembered. Woods crowded in from either side, trees arching over the pavement and making it appear later than it was. She glanced at the dash clock, not much after five. She’d be there just about on time.
Of course she still had no idea why she’d dropped everything and come running. She supposed it was hard to say no to someone you thought was dead. Still, she’d spent the last five months building a new life that had nothing to do with Yates. She’d planned on never returning to the place that held so many bad memories, and never getting near her wreck of a father again. But here she was.
Jenny Lewis. There had been no mistaking her in the picture, even though she’d cut and dyed her hair. She still had those big dark eyes that seemed to see everything in the whole world and that half-smirk that used to make Kyla’s stomach flutter.
One look at the picture and she’d been taken back to their first kiss, frenzied and unexpected. They’d met on the pier, neither of them sure what to do with their newfound friendship. The pier had seemed like a safe place to talk without any of their friends finding out. They’d made awkward small talk as they walked down the break wall, but it got easier as they sat there together in the darkness.
In a moment of silence, Kyla leaned in and kissed Jenny. She’d been so lightheaded with nerves she’d expected to pass out. Instead, she felt Jenny lean into the kiss. When Jenny’s hand found her hip Kyla’s heart doubled its pace. Warm desire still washed through her when she thought about it nearly a year later.
Kyla chewed absently at her lip as she drove. Her lips were already dry and she kept trying to stop herself before they cracked and bled, but she was too nervous. It had been almost exactly five months since prom night when she’d last seen Jenny, since everything changed. Since Jenny had refused one last time to break up with Gabe and make their relationship official.
“Fuck,” Kyla said to the empty car. “Why the hell did I fall for the popular girl?”
Of course Jenny was beautiful. Long limbs, dirty blonde hair and a swim-toned body, but it was more than that. It was the way her mouth twisted in a smirk when she was amused, it was how she bit her nails to nothing to deal with nerves she never otherwise showed. It was how she knew just what it was like to have shitty parents.
If it hadn’t been for that, maybe they might never have spoken. She’d found Jenny in the girl’s bathroom one morning, touching up her makeup. It was clear she’d been crying.
“You okay?” Kyla had asked warily. She normally gave the popular girls a wide berth.
“Fine.” But Jenny’s eyes filled with tears even as she said it. She swiped at them before giving up and turning away from the mirror. She crossed to the heater that stood under the windows and sank to it. “Fuck. No, I’m not okay.”
Kyla shifted from foot to foot, thumbs tucked into the straps of her backpack. She didn’t want to hear about Jenny Lewis’s breakup or whatever other lame drama. But she had to ask. “What’s going on?”
Jenny wiped her eyes and spoke up to the ceiling. “It’s my birthday. I’m eighteen and that means the people who have been collecting a paycheck on me the last year don’t need me around anymore.”
“What?” Kyla didn’t understand. “Your parents kicked you out?” She’d often wondered if her dad would ever go that far, but she figured she was safe at least until graduation.
Jenny had met Kyla’s eyes and corrected her. “My foster parents kicked me out.”
It had been the start of an unexpected friendship that had become more. Turning into the long drive for Pinewood Cabins, Kyla continued worrying at her lip. She was fast approaching her last chance to turn back. Instead, she drove on, slowing only as she approached the office. She pulled in to park and sat a moment, building up her courage before heading inside.
A bell jangled over the door as she opened it. An older man stood up from where he had been reading behind the counter. Without thinking her eyes went to the book, an old Stephen King paperback. He smiled at her from under a wide nose and gray hair.
“Evening. How can I help you?” He tucked his hands into his pockets as he spoke, a picture perfect innkeeper.
“Hi.” Kyla forced a smile. “I’m here to visit cabin twelve?”
“Alrighty-roo. Let me just print you up a visitor’s pass for your car.” The man bent over the computer, clicking a series of buttons before standing again as the printer kicked to life behind him. He gave her a knowing look, eyes twinkling. “Some sort of party going on out there?”
“What?” Kyla didn’t have to fake her confusion as she blinked at the man.
The man laughed. “Not a problem. I know you kids like to have your get-togethers, sit around the campfire and all that. I turn a blind eye so long as no trouble happens. You’re the third one to get a pass for that cabin tonight.”
“I am?” Kyla chewed at her lip, tension growing. Who the hell else was there?
“Yup.” He held out the parking pass and winked. “Try to keep it to a dull roar, would you?”
Kyla nodded and barely stopped herself from running back to her car. As she was going down the steps another car pulled in beside hers, an old silver beast that she would have recognized anywhere. She stopped in shock as Liam Finn stepped out.
He’d toned up in the last few months. Not that he was chubby before, but he seemed sleeker now. Or maybe that was just because seeing him again sent a burst of happiness through her. She wondered if he was still working on comics. If she’d known he was going to be there she would have brought the ones she’d been publishing as part of a student life blog at college. He’d love them.
“Kyla?” Liam looked surprised as he slammed the door. “What are you doing here?”
“Good to see you too.” Kyla crossed her arms and leaned back against the stair rail with a grin.
Liam shook his head and stepped forward. “I’m sorry, that made me sound like a dick. Of course it’s good to see you.” He wrapped his arms around her in a hug that used to be so familiar and was now awkward. He stepped back and reached to tug at the end of her brown hair where it fell past her shoulders. “Like the purple highlights.”
“Magenta.” Kyla bit the inside of her cheek. Emotions warred within in her. There was elation at seeing her best friend again, but also unease knowing they hadn’t been in a good place the last time they spoke. But damn, it was good to see him.
Liam shook his head, as if he was feeling it too. “Seriously, what the hell are you doing here? I thought you were in Albany.”
Kyla worried at her lip a moment. “I’m going to bet we’re both here for cabin twelve.”
Liam didn’t have to answer. He looked like she’d just slapped him in the face. His jaw clenched and he looked away.
“How did you—”
She nudged him toward the stairs. “Get your pass. I’ll wait for you before we drive up.”