Dad moved us into a cramped studio apartment on the fifth floor of the Cedar Dove apartment complex when he accepted his newest job opportunity. We’d made the drive, only two states over, packing our measly belongings into three suitcases before hitting the road. But that’s how we lived, out of suitcases, never putting down roots. Dad’s a rep for a pharmaceutical company. He trains hospital staff about new drugs and once he’s done, he’s stationed at a new hospital. He loves it, he calls our life an adventure. People must be jealous of all the places we’ve been, all the things we’ve seen, he’d tell me.
He comes home to find me sprawled on the couch that came with the apartment, flipping through channels on the small t.v. I watch his hands, he holds a small array of post cards. He’s always done this, collecting a post card from each place we visit and tucking it neatly in a small scrapbook. It’s always seemed like some sort of bread crumb trail to me. If we ever go missing, people will know the last place we were. I turn my attention glumly back to the t.v.
I hear the sound papers make when they brush together and know he’s flipping through the cards, picking the right one worthy enough for the scrapbook.
“How’d school go today?” Dad asks.
I shrug, though the movement is hidden by my loose fitting hoodie. “Fine.”
“Your tone says otherwise.” He sets the cards on the table near the door and crosses the room, taking a seat next to me. “Are you having trouble again?”
I chuckle at his phrasing, trouble. “Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
Dad clasps his hands together in his lap. “I could make a call…”
I sit up quickly. “Don’t do that, please. I’m fine.” His expression is unappeased, so I continue. “We’ll be gone in a few weeks anyway.”
The concern flickering in his eyes fades before he nods his head. “Alright, then.”
“I’m gunna hit the hay, early day tomorrow,” I say, retreating hastily from the room.
He watches me go, closing my bedroom door and even then I still feel him staring. I pull a bottle off my dresser and shake a couple of pills into my palm before swallowing them down dry. The only good thing about my dad’s job is I get great drugs.
I’m out like a light in two minutes flat.
It had taken the footballers of Cedar High School just half a week to discover the new kid and about fifteen minutes to make him feel welcome. Unfortunately by welcome I mean upend in the nearest dumpster. Did I mention the new kid is me?
Dumpsters smell like sour milk and mothballs and battery acid. The smell mingles in your mouth and stays there, especially when it’s constantly reintroduced. The only way I’ve found to get rid of it is cigarettes. The taste of dirt does wonders.
To say that bullies’ tactics are cliché would be an understatement. At this point, I would find it refreshing for some dumb jock to steal my gym clothes or give me a swirly. But no. Dumpsters are all I get.
It’s usually the footballers who like to upend me, but depending on the school, it could be the lacrosse team, or the basketball team, even the theater kids. I’ll admit, that one was a surprise, but at a school for performing arts, someone’s got to be on top.
I find myself leaning against the cool stone façade of my current high school, popping a cigarette between my lips and lighting it. I blow the smoke out through my nostrils and shrug my satchel into a more comfortable position across my shoulder.
A group of footballers sashay across the front lawn, several of them looking familiar. Sniveling idiots with leather on their shoulders and rocks in their heads. They cast me wry glances before turning toe in my direction. Luckily, the first bell rings and they decide against whatever they were going to do, chuckling as they head inside.
I can’t help the eye roll that happens as I take one last puff and crush the butt beneath my shoe.
Week two has given me enough time to memorize my schedule, my teachers’ names, and my locker combination. I haven’t bothered to make any friends, there’s no point. I spend lunch roaming the hallways, turkey sandwich in hand. A display case catches my eye and I notice it celebrates the Cedar Baron’s winning streak. The football team’s trophies and awards dazzle under the small fluorescent lights above, but those aren’t what concern me. Mounted in the middle of the showcase is a team photo. The name plate beneath gives away my tormenters’ names. Tad Drake, quarterback, Dillion Powell, receiver, Franklin Weal, Line man. I narrow my eyes at Tad Drake’s glowing face in the photo.
A girl trips over my foot and curses at me as she hurries down the hall. I don’t even have time to apologize as she’s fifteen feet away by the time I register what happened. The bell rings and I throw the remaining half of my sandwich into the nearest trashcan before heading to science class.
The remainder of the day goes by without incident. Kids swarm the hallways, slamming lockers and buzzing about homework. I shove textbooks into my satchel and retreat from the building, using the chaos as my own cloak of invisibility from Tad and company. Feeling safe only when I’ve slid into a seat on the bus, I let out a sigh and turn my head to the window.
In the spirit of Christmas, I decided I needed to write something that encompasses the holiday spirit! Nobody loves Christmas as much as Spring does in this new piece. Enjoy.
(Warning, there is some foul language.)
The tree was glistening, the lights flashing in an organized rhythm. Blue. Green. Red. Blue. Green. Red. The stockings were hung on the fireplace mantel, arranged by age and size. Mom. Dad. Hunter. And me, Spring. The milk and cookies were placed on the traditional Christmas plate my grandmother had given us when we were just babies. It looked like a Christmas magazine spread.
It was perfect, a flawless family holiday. Oh how I’d been wanting one for so many years. Ever since Hunter moved away for college and Mom and Dad started fighting, it hadn’t been like this. Each year I would call, stop by, hope that the decorations would be hung, that my mom would ask me to come over and bake her special Christmas cookies. Each year that I was denied, that my Mom said she was too busy, that there was no point and that I should have fun with my friends, a part of me would crack.
My brother was too busy with his college buddies and drinking to even answer my calls, my family had fallen apart. My father was always in his study, a strong glass of whiskey beside him, while he chatted with other women online. They thought I didn’t know about all their indiscretions, but I did.
But this year was going to be different. I decided I’d hang the decorations myself. Exactly how mom used to do. I baked the cookies in my mother’s oven, making sure they were just right. I poured just the right amount of milk for Santa. The presents were carefully placed under the twinkling lights. Everything was perfect.
I took in my masterpiece once more before a moan behind me broke my concentration.
“Mm, ahh!” My mother calls from behind her duct tape. Her blue eyes frantically searching mine. Her blonde hair pressed against her cheek from the sweat beading down her temples. I kneel in front of her and push the hair behind her ear. Her breaths are coming in pants as she tries to communicate with me. I shake my head at her, it’s not time yet. It isn’t midnight, it isn’t Christmas yet.
Movement to the left of Mother. My father, wiggling his hands, attempting to free the zip ties I’d placed on them. I know it must hurt, I don’t want to hurt them. I just want to be a family again. This is the only way. Mother looks into father’s eyes, tears falling from both. I think this is the first real emotion they’ve shown one another in years.
Lastly, my brother, Hunter. The brother I haven’t spoken to in almost six months. A brother who posts photos of himself with different girls every night, drinks and drugs in his system. Ignoring what was happening to our family. Ignoring his sister as she spiraled into loneliness. The duct tape I placed on him is barely allowing him to breathe. Bright green ecstasy pills I shoved into his mouth, telling him to not swallow. He needs to learn constraint. To abstain from the evilness of drugs.
I look up at the ticking clock, only eight more minutes til Christmas. A giddiness builds inside me. I look back to my family, who are all panting, sweating and eyeing me like I’m crazy. Frankly, I’m the one sane one in this family. I grip the kitchen knife harder in my hand, wishing time would move by faster. I look out the window, the snowflakes falling in the lights reminding me of when I was a child and would stay up to watch the white blanket covering our small town.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I say, to no one really. Whimpers escape my mother. “Christmas is the most joyous season, wouldn’t you agree?”
My mother shuts her eyes tightly, her chin falling. I leap over to her, grabbing her chin and pulling her face to mine. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mother?” I ask politely. She nods frantically. Sobbing behind her gag.
I nod back, giving her my best smile. I walk into the kitchen and check on my punch, a family recipe. I take the large ladle and make sure all the pills I’d put in it earlier are dissolved. Almost there, perfect.
A crashing sounds sends me into the living room. Hunter has somehow escaped his duct taped hands, and is now pulling the tape off his mouth.
“You crazy bitch!” He spits at me. I take a deep breath and hold the knife up for protection as he comes towards me.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Jesus Christ, Spring!”
“I had to!” I sob, holding the knife out farther, halting his movements. Mom and Dad are now frantically trying to escape, eyes darting between their two children. “You don’t understand. Our family was falling apart!” I cry, a tear escaping my eye as well.
Hunter takes another step towards me and I slash the knife in front of him, he jumps back, his hands out in a soothing gesture. “Okay, just…let’s just put the knife down, Spring. Okay? We’ll put the knife down, let Mom and Dad out, and we can celebrate Christmas.” His head turns towards the clock. “Only four minutes left, right?”
I check, he’s right. Only four minutes. Maybe Hunter is right, maybe everyone is ready to celebrate Christmas. “O-okay.” I stutter.
Hunter lays his hand out, palm up in front of him. “Just, pass the knife over, okay?”
I grip it tightly once, before letting it go in his hand.
He takes a step back, towards Mom and Dad. “I’m just going to let them go, okay? Just so we can be together.”
Together. That is a nice word. Soon, we’ll be together forever.
“Oh, thank god.” My mothers voice rushes out, pulling Hunter to her and gripping his cheeks as she cries.
“Jesus.” My father mutters, pulling them both into his body. Protecting them, from me. Don’t they see, they don’t need to be scared of me. We’re a family. I take a step towards them, wanting to be a part of it all. They hesitate, but allow me into their fold.
After a moment of bonding, they all let go. I can tell they are shaking and unsure what to do.
I look at the clock one more time. One minute, perfect. It’s time for punch and Christmas.
“I’m going to get us some punch. Then we can sit by the fire and open presents, just like we used to, right Momma?” I say.
She nods. “Right.”
I quickly head into the kitchen, pouring ladle fulls of punch into the crystal goblets we’d always used. All the pills are dissolved, they won’t even taste it. Soon, every day will be like Christmas.
“Here.” I say, passing everybody their own glass. My mothers sloshes in her nervousness.
“Spring…I, maybe we should talk about what’s happening here?” My father asks.
Anger rushes into me. “NO! No. We’re going to celebrate Christmas like a family, like tradition!”
“Okay…okay, but after. After we need to…”
“Not now.” I snap. “It’s time. Let’s count down?”
“Ten. Nine. Eight.” Dad starts.
“We all sip on zero.”
“Seven. Six. Five.” Hunter.
“Four. Three. Two.” Mom.
This idea came to in a dream so I just sat down for ten minutes and this poured out. I’m really excited to explore this.
When I was fifteen, I had to make a choice. A big choice, a life changing one. Not just for me, but for the life of the little one I had grown for the last nine months.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do, Josie?” My mother asked, gripping my hand so tight it lost feeling. I know she wanted me to keep the baby, to raise it. But, I wasn’t ready. I was still a child myself, I couldn’t give this child what it deserved. A family, support and stability. I could see the tears starting to build in my mother’s blue eyes. Her lip trembled and her breathing had picked up. I didn’t want to break my mother’s heart as well, but I’d already made up my mind. It took me that moment, with only a week left til my due date, to get to this office.
I looked up to Mrs. Talbot’s soft eyes, she had been my rock through all of this, not pressuring me. Always being understanding. She was the director of the adoption agency I decided to go with. She found the best family to take my baby, to give it the things I wasn’t able to. Marcus, the baby’s father, was out of the picture. He was older than me, and the moment he found out how old I really was and what had happened, he split. Never to be heard from again. I had grown up without a father as well and I would never wish that on my baby. I rested my hand on my large belly, feeling the dips and rolls as the little one fought for room inside my under developed body.
“It’s alright, Josie. This is all up to you, everything is in your hands.” I know Mrs. Talbot was trying to be supportive, but that comment cut me to the quick. I picked up the blue pen that was resting in front of me. I gripped it so hard it nearly shot across the room. The moment I brought the tip down on the line that would officially release me of my baby, my mother broke down. Her sobs wracking her body.
“I’m sorry, I can’t…I just…” With that, she took off, out of the room to who knows where. I wanted to comfort her, she had been there for me my whole life, with nothing but love. But this wasn’t something I could help her through. I was barely holding myself together.
I looked up one more time to the kind, older woman in front of me. She gave me a reassuring smile. And with that, I signed my name.
I gave up my baby.
And…every day for the last nine years, I’ve cried for the life I never got to hold. To know. I never even found out if I had a boy or a girl. The adoption was closed. The moment I pushed the tiny body out of my own, a nurse swaddled it and took it out of the room, shutting the door behind her. That was the first night the dreams came.
They haven’t left.
That’s why today, I’m at Mrs.Talbot’s office. Desperation pulled me here. I need answers. I need to know my baby is safe, is taken care of. I want to know if I gave birth to a little boy with my blue eyes or a little girl with my dark blonde hair. I won’t be able to sleep for another ten years if I don’t.
With that thought, I pull open the large door with Miracle Adoption Agency printed on the glass.
It seems to me the only way I can find out what that book is about is by playing detective. The only other person who might know about that book and about Torres is Lionel’s friend, Ashley. Lionel was suspicious when he saw Ashley hauling Torres’ suitcases into a trunk. I get the feeling Ashley is the right person to talk to.
I wait an hour after Lionel leaves. After feeding my mother some bogus excuse about meeting up with a friend at the movies, I slip out the front door and down the street to wait for the bus. On the bus I pick a seat near the back, beside the window. I brought along the photo with the message from the book as evidence that should prove to Ashley that I’m serious.
A half hour later, I hop off the bus and walk two blocks.
Taking a deep breath, I enter the hotel, the automatic doors making a swishing sound as they open. The lobby is sort of dingy with brown tiled flooring and sad yellow walls. I look around, searching for an employee as I walk to the front desk. After a moment, I ring the little bell. “Hello?”
A guy emerges from a door behind the desk labeled Manger’s office. He has dark hair with purple that obscures a large portion of the left side of his face. He cracks a smile when he sees me.
“Welcome to the Clairvine Hotel. Can I check you in?”
“I’m not a guest. I was actually looking for someone who works here, his name is Ashley.”
“Hi, I’m Cass. I’m a friend of Lionel’s.”
Ashley looks me over, his eyes softening. “Well it appears he has good taste in friends.”
I refrain from laughing and act slightly flustered. “I, uh, I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions.”
“Sure,” Ashley says. “Let’s go somewhere a little more private.”
I nod and follow him to the breakfast area across the lobby. We sit at a table tucked in the far corner.
“So, how can I help you?”
“Have you known Lionel long?”
Ashley chuckles. “We go way back.”
I consider this. “Okay, well I’m just going to cut to the chase.” I glance around quickly before continuing. “You were the one who told Lionel where Torres was staying.”
“So you know what Lionel was going to do, right?”
Ashley cocks his head. “Yes and no. I knew he was going to steal something that he thought should belong to him. I don’t know what it was though.” He leans forward, crossing his arms on the table. “How do you know about that? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t spill incriminating stuff like that to just anyone.”
“Well—“ I stammer, caught off guard.
Ashley’s eyes narrow. “You went with him, didn’t you?”
“I… that’s beside the point,” I say, my cheeks beginning to blush. This wasn’t part of the plan. “Look, he found what he was looking for but then he lost it…”
“Did you know you could be considered an accessory to murder in addition to breaking and entering?” Ashley says, his tone cool as he disregards what I just said.
“Do you like him?”
“Lionel? No!” I exclaim, my cheeks burning now. “Okay, shut up and just focus okay? And just so you know, you could be considered an accessory as well. You are the one who leaked Lionel information.”
“Touché,” Ashley says, grinning. He leans back in his chair. “What did you want to know?”
“Do you know anything about this?” I pull the photo from my pocket and slide it across the table. Ashley snatches it up and inspects it, flipping it over and reading the message. He grins.
“Good ol’ Dal Torres. Always had a sense of humour.”
“This was in the book Lionel stole. The book was a fake, it had blank pages.”
“A book?” Ashley’s eyes slide to the side.
“Do you have any idea why Torres would go to the trouble of creating a fake book?”
“Did Lionel tell you what the real book contains?”
I bite my lip, trying to come up with something that’s not as lame as the truth, but Ashley beats me to the punch.
“Ah,” he says, his face a mix of interest and dark intent. “That’s what you’re really here about, isn’t it.”
This isn’t going how I thought it would at all. I need to get out of here, before I give away too much, plus this guy is starting to creep me out with his mind reading B.S. I stand from the table. “You know what, I shouldn’t have bothered you, you clearly don’t know anything.”
Ashley grabs my wrist as I pass. “Why don’t you ask Lionel about all the sporting events he accompanied Torres to. That might answer your question.” He lets go and I walk quickly away. “See you around, Cass,” he calls after me, sending a chill up my spine.
I hold the book in my hands as I leave Cassidy’s house. She wasn’t happy about my sudden departure after lunch, and even less happy about my asking to take the book with me. After I explained she wasn’t going to be able to do anything with a fake book anyway, she let me go, though not before casting me yet another clouded glare.
I left her the photo with the message though, it’s of no use to me anyway.
I can’t shake my suspicions of Ashley, no matter how much I try. He’s up to something, but I can’t figure out his connection to Torres. Maybe if I pay him a visit, show him the book, and gage his reaction, I might make some headway.
With the idea in mind, I walk faster, heading towards the nearest bus stop. Then something occurs to me. If I show up at the hotel hours after I just told him I lost what I stole, that would look weird. I should wait a day or two.
What an annoying word. Wait.
I let out a huff and take a seat on the bench at the bus stop as the wind picks up, blowing leaves and garbage around in a little circle on the sidewalk. I guess the only place I can go is home for now.
After lunch my mother finally lets me go up to my room. It was agony trying to eat at a normal pace while I could feel the book pressing against my skin beneath my jacket. I close the door and pull the book from my jeans, holding it with both hands as I cross the room to my bed.
I wonder what it could hold. Maybe government secrets? Details about a drug smuggling operation? Incriminating photos?
My heart races as I crack open the cover. The first page is blank. I flip to the next page. Same thing. In frustration I thumb through the entire book. Every single page is blank. What the hell? I hold the book upside down and shake it. Something flutters out and lands on my covers. Picking it up, I realize it’s a photo of Dal Torres holding up a middle finger to the camera. I turn the photo over and there’s a message scrawled in sloppy writing that reads: “To the idiot who thinks it’s easy to steal from Dal Torres, think again.”
“Why do you have the book?”
I look up startled to find Lionel standing in my doorway. “What are you doing here?” I sputter.
“I came to check on you, I felt bad about what you saw last night,” he says, striding into the room, “But that’s beside the point. Why do you have the book?”
“I found it when we were searching for it. I wanted to know what the big secret was. Surprise, it’s a whole lot of nothing.” I hold up the photo and Lionel snatches it from my hand.
He studies the picture, then flips it over, reading the message. His faces blanches and he tosses the photo down and picks the book up off the bed, flipping through the pages.
“I don’t understand,” Lionel whispers.
“What’s not to understand? You thought you were smart, but Torres was smarter.”
Lionel closes the book, staring down at me. “But if this was just a fake, why did Torres act so upset when he saw us in his room? Why wouldn’t he just let us get away, why start a fight when he saw I had a knife? It doesn’t make any sense.”
I draw my knees up. “I don’t know.”
Lionel sits down beside me, his eyes far away as he contemplates. “Is it possible Ashley was involved…?”
“You keep mentioning Ashley. Why would he want to screw you over? Aren’t you friends?”
“I thought so.” Lionel leans back, resting on his elbows. “If I tell you about Ashley and Dal Torres, will you promise not to freak out? I mean, you’re already involved, more than you should be.”
“You’re regretting bringing me along in the first place, aren’t you?” I guess.
Lionel grimaces. “A little. Why did you agree to come along? I mean, you don’t really seem like the kind of girl who enjoys breaking and entering.”
I laugh. “I’m not. I just needed to do something exciting.”
“Yeah. You thought it would be some elaborate explanation?” I smile, gathering my hair over one shoulder and finger combing the knots out. “Plus my friend needed some help. Anyway, before we get any more sidetracked, you were going to tell me about Ashley and Torres. Spill.”
Lionel casts me a dubious look before staring up at the ceiling. “You are one strange girl, Cass. Okay, where do I start?”
“Cassidy?” my mother asks, popping her head inside my room. “I was wondering if Lionel would like some to eat. There’s still some leftover souvlaki from lunch.”
Lionel perps up, his eyes smiling of their own accord. “I’d love some. I’m starving.”
I give Lionel a dark look. He’s clearly thankful for the interruption. He really doesn’t want to tell me what’s in that book. But I’ll find out one way or another. I smile at my mother. “That’d be great. Thanks, Mom.”
We get up and follow my mother downstairs. I whisper to Lionel on the stairs. “We aren’t done talking about the book.”
Lionel offers me a small grimace and averts his eyes.
The lobby is a moderately sized space, with a tiled floor and small breakfast area to the left. Ashley stands behind the front desk in his beige polo with the hotel’s logo on the front. He looks up from his computer as I approach, his black hair, streaked with purple, falling lazily over one eye. His lips quirk up at the corner.
I cross my arms over the raised counter and play it cool. I don’t want to let him know I suspect him of anything. “Ash.”
He looks around quickly before lowering his voice. “How did things go last night?”
I laugh. “How do you think it went? Torres is dead.”
A couple descends the stairs nearby, talking loudly to each other. They come to a stop at the desk a foot away from me. Tourists have no sense of personal space.
“Yeah, can I get a city map?” The balding man says.
Ashley flashes them his best customer service smile. “Sure thing. Can I get you a popular sites pamphlet as well?”
“Didn’t you hear him?” The wife asks in a nasally voice. “Just get a map.”
“Right away.” Ashley pulls a folded map from a drawer and hands it to the husband. “Have a great day.”
The wife rolls her eyes as the husband grabs the pamphlet and they head out the automatic doors. I wait until the doors close before speaking again.
“Things went badly.”
“Did you at least get what you were looking for?”
I frown. “Well yeah, but then I sort of lost it…”
“You lost something that was important enough to kill for?” Ashley laughs incredulously. “Jesus.”
“Were you working last night?”
Ashley sobers. “I had a morning shift yesterday.”
“So you weren’t here when the cops showed up?”
“Just wondering, in case you had heard anything they said. If they had any leads or anything.”
“Oh,” Ashley nods. “Sorry. But this might help you out.” He reaches under the desk and pulls out my pocket knife, handing it over the counter.
I snatch it from his hand. “Where did you find this?”
“Behind the hotel earlier when I was taking out the trash. I recognized the handle and thought I better get it back to you before someone else found it and put two and two together.”
“So what are you going to do about the lost thing you stole from Torres?” Ashley asks.
“Honestly? I have no idea, but I’ll figure it out.”
“Let me know how it goes.”
“Sure. I’m going to get going though. I don’t want to be seen around here for a few days.”
“I understand. Best of luck.” Ashley dips his chin and grins as I cross the lobby and exit the hotel.
Outside, I flip the knife over and over again in my hands, staring down at the snakeskin pattern printed on the handle. I hadn’t even noticed I’d dropped it. I suppose I should be grateful to Ashley for returning it, but I still can’t shake the feeling he’s crooked. What was he doing loading up Torres’ suitcases? Why didn’t the police collect them as evidence?
But what about Cassidy? I’ve been so caught up in finding that book that I’ve completely forgotten Cass’ feelings. She wasn’t prepared for me killing someone and I haven’t even talked to her about it. She’s got to be freaking out. I should drop by her house and talk to her. That’s what a friend would do.
I tuck the knife into my back pocket and catch the next bus at the stop down the street.