Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Hallowed Secrets" - Part III

PART III

I could barely make out the words from the dim light filtering through the leaves of the trees lining the wall from the streetlight over the wall. Something about stolen soul in trade for a broken heart…things went wrong…rescue that never came…the face not the same.
"What does any of this mean, Ashley?"
She moved back a few steps, her eyes scanning the cemetery. The voices we heard had drifted to the other side. A few playful screams screeched, followed by wicked laughter. I waited to see if anyone moved our direction…someone familiar…Jamie…Jason.
The hairs on the back of my neck twisted tight to my skin, a nervous chill skittering up my spine. As if reading my mind, Ashley spoke, her tone threatening.
"No one's coming, Samantha. All the clues are in the newer section. We're alone."
I remained behind Kevin's grave marker, using it as a shield. "Did you do that on purpose?"
She shifted sideways, her gaze trained on me. "What do you think? Of course I did."
"I don't get it."
"That's the beauty of it…you never 'get it,' Sam. You're oblivious or na├»ve. Maybe just stupid."
I recognized the simmering rage slowly reaching the boiling point. "I'm not stupid, Ashley. I know you want Jason back and using your body to lure him is cheap…but then, that's what you are—a 'user.' But he sees through your tricks. I also don't believe he slept with you."
Ashley tossed her golden mane back, her laugh unnatural…evil.
"Believe what you want. It only matters what everyone else thinks, anyway, and after tonight, they'll embrace my version. I'll have their sympathy and you, their hatred." She reached out and clawed my hand, drawing blood.
"Ouch! Why did you do that? Jason's right. You're crazy!"
I shook my hand, letting the cold air temper the burn. Something was off. A whispered warning kissed the shell of my ear, the voice familiar—Kevin. Get away from her, Sam. I whipped around expecting to find him standing next to me, but all I saw was Ashley matching my movements. I stepped back…she stepped forward. Suddenly she yanked on the sleeve of her pink shirt, shredding the shoulder seam.
"Look what Jason did when I refused his advances. We were here alone for so long…what were we doing? Jason didn't want to go with Buck. He wanted me alone…all to himself."
"No one is going to believe that lie. Jamie was here. Your shirt wasn't torn and Jason left with her."
Ashley picked up a rock, tapped her cheek with the stone. "True. Jamie will defend her counterpart to the death. That's what sister's do for their brother's, right Sam? Or not."
Tears welled in my eyes, and I stumbled over my foot when I moved again. I hadn't been there for Kevin. He'd come home from some girl's house a wreck. I couldn't tell if he'd been drinking or was high. He sounded angry.
"Watch your back, Samantha Barnes," he'd slurred at me, shaking his finger dangerously close to my eyes. "Stay away from that Jason kid." He twirled his hands in the air as if recreating a tornado. "Trouble surrounds him, trust me."
I wouldn't listen to anyone talk bad about Jason, least of all my messed up brother. When Jason called and asked me to go for a midnight drive along the ocean, I said yes, hoping we'd find someplace to make-out until dawn. Mom had gone with Dad on a short business trip and wouldn't return until the next day, so I decided to bend the rules and break curfew.
Kevin morphed into his surrogate parent role, warning me of the dangers of being out with a boy this time of night, then taking it further by forbidding me to leave. No way could he stop me. I'd be forced to tattle on his present physical condition while tending his impressionable "baby sister."
The headlights from Jason's car bounced across the ceiling of the living room. I picked up my purse and Kevin grabbed my elbow. "Sam, please don't go. Not tonight. There's weird stuff about Jason you don't know," he warned again. "Someone else."
"Jason's seeing another girl?" I'd asked, actually stopping to take stock in what Kevin had just said.
"No, not exactly. His ex. She's obsessed with him."
"Ashley? How do you know Ashley?"
At this point, Kevin slid down the wall, his long legs stretching out across the entry hall. His head lulled to the side, an idiotic grin slicing one side of his cheek. "I just do." The grin disappeared and he rolled onto his side…and puked.
"That's it. I'm out of here. Clean up your own mess."

Ashley drew a long gash along her cheek with the sharp edge of the rock, zapping me from my flashback into my own haunted story presently playing out. In the muted grays of the dark world surrounding the two of us, the fresh blood glowed brilliant red against her white skin.
I moved into a patch of light on the gravel path separating the family plots. Ashley followed like a reflection in a mirror.
"Or was it you, Sam? Jealous girlfriend attacks boyfriend's ex. Your skin is under my fingernails, after all." She dragged another, smaller scrape across her bare arm. "Yes, that's more believable. I mean everyone knows you vanished the night your brother died."
My legs felt like strings blowing in the wind, my mouth dry and unable to utter a word.
"I didn't vanish."
Ashley danced away a few feet and I followed as if caught in a weird spell.
Stop Samantha. Don't move.
"He was looking for you, you know."
"Who? Jason? I was with Jason."
"I know! But you weren't supposed to be! Don't you get it? Didn't you read the dumb ass clue?"
She moved a little further. I took a baby step the same direction."
"Remember that night, Sam? There was a full moon? Jason loves full moons—the way the landscape seems to glow, the sky inky black."
"Yeah, I know. Tell me who was looking for me."
I wished I had my cell phone. I needed to call someone or at least be able to shine some light. I hated the cemetery—the empty eerie quiet—the feeling of being watched. I also wanted to read the clue crumpled in my hand.
Ashley jumped out from behind a headstone. "Boo!" she laughed. "Did I scare you?"
My stomach dropped to my toes. "Fine, you scared me. I'm leaving now." I turned around, confused, having no idea what direction I faced. I couldn't see Kevin's grave.
I told you not to follow! "Shut up!" I screamed inside my head.
I started walking, not knowing where, just that I had to get away. Why hadn't anyone come back looking for us? How much time had passed?
"We were supposed to meet up that night," Ashley called out, stopping my escape. "I wanted to play one of Jason's dare games, have him rescue me at the last minute. You remember playing those silly games, don't you?" She twisted a long piece of her hair around her finger, slowly walking toward me. She let go one of her famous falsetto laughs. "Oh that's right. You were too chicken to play. Half the fun was making you scream. I'll bet you peed your pants a dozen times."
My hatred for Ashley grew each second, the anger building with her hurtful walk down 'memory lane.' I did remember those dangerous games we played—or she with Jamie and Jason, the summers of our preteen years.
Playing Ashley's favorite game, we lay on the hot asphalt of Main Street and waited for cars. Maybe it was fear, or plain common sense, but I always chickened out at the first hint of headlights and ran for the curb. Jamie would be next, but Jason would stay beside Ashley. If he moved, she challenged him to stay a couple seconds longer, locking hands. When the horn honked, Jason would jump up and pull Ashley with him. They'd laugh the rest of the night, and I'd lag behind, scared out of my wits and feeling like I had to throw up. If I headed for home when we rounded the block, Ashley would tease me. No, I never did wet my pants, but the humiliation of the accusation in front of Jason was torture enough.
I didn't realize we'd crossed to a side of the cemetery I'd only seen once, in daylight. The streetlights were too far away and couldn't penetrate through the thick branches, still holding enough leaves to form a screen. In the corner sat a maintenance shed or garage. The light on the corner of the building looked like it had been shot at or someone like Ashley who had a rock fixation, had smashed it. Either option left me in a dark, unfamiliar area. 
Sam, get out of the cemetery! Think of something…just get the hell out of here before it's too late.
"Too late?" I answered Kevin as if he stood beside me, urging me back the direction I came.
"Late for what?"
"The food," I answered quickly. "There won't be anything left and I'm hungry. Come on, let's go. Everyone will be back at the school by now and wondering where you are."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? To run and tell everyone what a lunatic I am."
"I don't know what's going on with you, but I swear I won't say anything. Between us, I promise."
Ashley twirled in a circle, arms stretched out. I worried she'd fall on the uneven ground and get hurt, sealing my fate. "You're so full of crap, Sam. You'll run straight to Jason, all teary-eyed and vulnerable. Jamie will swear an oath to have me removed as class president. Hell, they'll probably put you on the throne."
I reached for her when she tripped and she latched onto my arm."Jason never showed up. He chose you instead. If only he'd done what I'd asked…"
Help me, I pleaded in my mind. This time, no answer came.
"Ashley, this isn't funny. Let go. You're hurting me."
"As you wish."
She let go and I fell back, losing my footing and dropping into a large hole…an open grave.

Hallowed Secrets - Continued

PART II

I pressed against the side of the building, hidden in the shadows, watching Ashley link her arm through Jason's when he hesitated beneath the intricately scrolled ironwork that arched and curled over the entrance like the Angel of Death itself. When she gently eased her fingers through his messy locks of hair, stroking over his earlobe, he leaned into her whispered pleas. I surged with emotions I kept a tight rein on, but my self-control crumbled when his hand pressed her lower back and followed her through the archway.
Anger flared like fire chasing gasoline and jealousy fueled the blaze, momentarily blocking my vision behind thousands of tiny stars. A forced breath heaved from my chest and before I could grasp a rational thought, my feet pounded the pavement, sending me in the path of an oncoming car.
I froze in the headlights, horrid memories flashing in the blinding white until the blaring horn brought me crashing into the present. I leaped onto the curb, clutching my chest and ignoring the foul language as the car continued down the street. Bile licked the back of my throat and I swallowed hard to temper the nausea. Turning away from curious onlookers, definitely not wanting anyone to follow me, I closed my eyes and stepped over the metal threshold separating life and death.
I entered the cemetery.
Silence as thick as the darkness enveloped me, the living world behind the stone walls, completely shut out. I stepped behind a tree and took a moment to let my eyes adjust, scanning the shadows for Ashley and Jason. A taunting giggle echoed, almost sounding haunted. Another deeper, seductive laugh carried on the wind—Jason's.
I summoned all the bravery I could muster, which only filled my pinky finger, and walked toward the lusty sounds. Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, sounding too loud. My labored breaths bounced back to my ears from the nearby headstones as I moved across the grass…trespassed over graves.
Don't walk on the graves…the dead will haunt you. Too late. My dreams had been plagued for months with ghosts, visions of my brother sitting on the edge of my bed, and even at times, sensations of him pulling my hair. But the dreams faded the past month, alerting me a little more of me died along with the memories.
I swiped the unbidden tears from my cheeks, slowing my pace as I came closer to my destination. I could hear Ashley and Jason's voices on the other side of old man Carter's grave—a large medieval looking cross, tipped off center from an overgrown root of the oak tree a few feet away. I hid behind the cross when I saw their silhouetted bodies. Jason had his hands set on her waist, and Ashley's linked behind his neck.
I felt sick.
"Stop this, Ash. I'm not playing your game. I'm with Samantha and I don't want to hurt her." I heard the wet smack of a kiss and my knees buckled. "I said knock it off!" Jason sounded angry, but he didn't step outside of her arms.
"She'll never know. Come on. One night, that's all—like old times."
I watched the shadow of her hand graze down his chest, his abdomen, and blend into the blob of darkness where their bodies met. Jason moaned deep in his throat and rage burned behind my eyes. She's touching him…and he's letting her!
The jagged sound of a zipper pierced the quiet. I slid to the damp grass, unable to tear my gaze away from the nightmare playing out before me. Jason jumped back, away from Ashley's outstretched hand.
"No dammit! Don't!"
"Why not? You used to like—"
"Enough!" Jason roared. He yanked his zipper up. "I'm out of here."
"What? You'd just leave me in a graveyard alone? You're such an ass!"
"Better than what you are. Are you coming?"
"Go to hell!"
"Suit yourself." Jason turned and started walking. Ashley walked closer to where I'd scrunched tighter, not wanting to be discovered. Jason would think I was a jealous freak and purposely followed them…which I did.
"I'll tell everyone it was your fault," Ashley loudly dared. I heard the gravel shift when Jason's steps halted.
"I had nothing to do with what happened that night, and you know it."
A girlish bubble of laughter left Ashley's mouth. "Everyone knows you're an adrenalin junkie."
"I'm no such thing—"
"How you like drive without headlights the nights there's a full moon."
Jason thought it was cool how the moon made everything appear to glow.
"I only do it for a couple of minutes when there's no cars around," he defended.
"Or see if you can beat the train Millpond Crossing."
"I haven't done that since I was sixteen. It's dangerous."
"So is screwing without protection, but that didn't stop you at Ike's party. Poor Sammy…too sad to hang out with her boyfriend. What pathetic excuse did you give her for not answering her constant texts? Bet you didn't say it was because you were hooking up with me."
Jason's voice was close now. "I was drunk…too drunk. Your version of that night is different from how I remember it."
"Is it? Wonder what version Sam would believe?" Ashley moved close enough, the floral fragrance from her perfume wafted over me with the soft night breeze. Her voice lowered, as if she knew I sat a few feet away, listening. "You came to me, Jason, not the other way around. Sam was messed up after the accident and pushed you away. I was there for you."
So that's what happened? Why Jason suddenly acted so weird? I pulled my legs against my chest, biting my lip hard to ward off the tears. Jason slept with Ashley.
After a child dies, homes become living graveyards…family members ghosts passing through each other's lives with haunted faces, silent, until someone does—says the wrong thing. Broken silence proved worse—screaming, wailing, and endless blame. Reality horror shows.
My family imploded. I couldn't handle the constant drama and fastened myself to the only normal things in my life—school and friends. But as the remaining only child, I served as a constant reminder that I, too, could be taken from them at any moment. Smothered, stalked, my whereabouts questioned constantly, I withdrew from any social life, not wanting my friends, especially not Jason, subjected to interrogations, phone calls to parents to verify my stories, or being privately contacted by either of my parents with instructions on how to manage my grief.
Maybe I did push Jason away, but sleep with her…with any girl while I mourned? I didn't know who I hated most right now…Jason for losing self-control and betraying me—or Ashley for letting him.
I slipped on the grass when I tried to stand, sliding into a prone position and guaranteeing a deeply imbedded grass stain on my favorite jeans. No one apparently heard my "ugh" or felt the ground move when I landed, because Jason shouted loud enough to drown out any noise other than his own voice.
"That night turned into the biggest mistake of my life! You've held the threat of telling Sam over my head for six damn months! Don't you get it, Ash? I'm so done with you! No more threats. Leave me and Sam the hell alone. I've played your game and bowed to you demands—"
"Except for one," She shouted back. "Why won't you—"
"Dump Sam and come back to you?"
"To be honest, yes? After everything that's happened, why?"
I lifted my head, afraid to move any other part of my body. I needed to hear his answer, too.
"Because I love Sam. I don't care about you, Ashley. Not even as a friend…not after what you did. You're a nut job. I should to be with Sam right now, not the psycho bitch who caused her brother's accident."
What! Oh my hell! Ashley was the girl in the road?
She slapped Jason, the sound resonating like a fire cracker. I scrambled to my feet, ready to let my presence known when I heard Jamie call my name in the distance. I pressed into the black hollow of the oak tree, praying I wouldn't be discovered. Jason stood only a few feet away and if he knew I'd watched his and Ashley's performance, he'd hate me forever. And Ashley would win.
Jamie sounded breathless by the time she reached her brother and the tramp. She shined the flashlight directly in Jason's eyes. I panicked, watching the blue-white beam stretch my direction, but the same wayward root that tipped the Carter monument, deflected it away from my feet. I held my breath, imagining myself one with the rough bark scraping against my back.
Jason raised his arm over his brow. "Shut that damn thing off."
The light swirled as Jamie talked, gesturing with her hands at the same time. A wayward shaft of light swept across my feet, but no one noticed because another argument ensued.
"What exactly is going on, Jason? Why are you with her?"
Ashley scoffed. I couldn't see her, but I pictured her arm sliding in the crook of Jason's, or her thumb nail scraping a trail down his arm. "We're partners, remember? The last clues are here in the cemetery."
The beam now pointed heavenward with Jamie's crossed arms. "So where's your clue…or is there even one, Ashley?"
"You're such a witch, Jamie. And yes, there is a clue. We just haven't found it."
"Maybe you should change partners. I'll help you." The light flashed Jason again. "What's wrong with your face?"
Jason grabbed his sister's elbow and starting walking away. "Nothing. Come on, I'll help you find Sam." I heard his voice wander back Ashley's direction. "Game's over sweetheart. You lose. Just like before."
Ashley punched the air with her fists. "Drop dead, Jason!"
His answer drifted further away. "Fitting comeback, Ash. At least I have the choice to walk away. Too bad Kevin…"
And just like that, his voice vanished, taking my breath and possibly my last heartbeat with it. Too bad Kevin—what?
"Idiot. I won't be tossed aside like chewed gum. If he thinks he can replace me with that loser bitch, he's got another thing coming. If only she'd stayed away…"
Voices filled the cemetery, unruly and disrespecting of the spirits who owned the hallowed ground. Ashley spun around, heading in the direction of her adoring fans. Once I figured I was safe, I untangled from my oak sanctuary.
"I knew you were close. I smelled your cheap cologne."
My skin and skeleton seemed to rip apart at the shock of finding Ashley, arms folded, waiting on the other side of the tree. I smacked my chest, willing my heart to beat.
"Ashley! You scared the crap out of me!"
She circled me, crouching slightly as if a predatory creature surmising their prey. "How long have been tucked inside that termite infested tree?"
Impulsively, I brushed fingers through my hair, subconsciously worrying actual termites crawled along the shafts and would burrow into my brain while I slept. I swallowed the lump stuck in my throat, feeling my pulse behind my eyeballs from my heart still bouncing in my chest.
"Long enough," I declared, hoping she didn't catch the nervous warble in my tone.
"What exactly did you hear?"
"That you're a skank…oh, sorry, slut."
Ashley lunged at me, grabbing my hair in her fists and forcing me backward until my back slammed a grave marker. Kevin's. Angry and smarting, I butted my head against her face. She jumped back, pressing her hand to her face. A stream of blood trickled over her fingers.
"You broke my nose!"
"Right, like you weren't going to have it surgically altered at some point."
When she came at me again, I moved to the side, putting the tombstone between us.
That's when I spied the envelope glowing white against the charcoal-colored grass—the last clue. Ashley resembled the stone statues dotting the cemetery, turning rigid when I pulled out piece of paper. I stopped breathing all together.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Trick-or-Treat"

PART I

October 31st, "All Hallowed Eve," or in non-poetic terms, "Halloween," had finally arrived, putting an end to the relentless fanfare our school had been subjected to by our Senior Class President and royal pain in the ass, Ashley Daniels.
Wearing any hat that would insure her attention from head cheerleader, soprano soloist in the Madrigal Choir, the lead role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, she'd also somehow managed to convince the majority of mindless minions comprising my senior class, to vote her in as president. The fact that she could make a burlap bag look like designer clothes, and bounce her personal "pom-poms" just enough to hypnotize the entire male population of our school, only helped her cause.
The football team, including my hunky boyfriend, Jason, stood frozen, dollops of drool hanging off their gaped mouths, every time Ashley donned her cheerleader outfit and "jiggled" onto the field. I wore the exact outfit she did, followed third in line behind her, yet Jason failed to acknowledge my presence until I purposely shook my puff of shredded blue and white plastic in his eyes.
"Hi babe," he'd say, sheepish grin plastered on his berry red face. I couldn't help it if the team mascot, a grizzly bear, looked more like a guinea pig across my A cups while it looked like the "Incredible Hulk" stretched across Ashley's publicly declared "C's." I swear she stuffed her gym socks inside her bra. No one that small could be so well endowed and stand up straight.
I arrived at the school gymnasium an hour early as instructed by our bodacious leader, precariously carrying trays of cupcakes from Molly's Magic Sweets. I placed the five dozen cakey treats, a couple of ghosts having collided with Frankensteins and sporting green polka-dots, next to the basket holding the sealed envelopes. Five teams, four members to each one, handpicked by Ashley and her cronies, would participate in this year's "Spooktacular Scavenger Hunt," a town tradition and major fund raiser for the school.
I'd rather have stayed home and handed out cheap candy to the trick-or-treaters, than traipse all over town following clever clues and gathering donations at each destination. The scavenger hunt ended with the last clue in Johnstown's Cemetery, a place I avoided at all costs and not because it was scary in a crooked-eerie-angel-topped-tombstones way, but because a part of me was buried alive and slowly died every day over the past nine months.
"Don't you wish there was a way to open those and rearrange them so Ashley had to spend the night with all the chemistry and computer geeks?"
"I'll try and not take offense," I laughed, licking a remnant of frosting off my thumbnail from a pumpkin face I'd squeezed too hard.
Jamie, my best friend since third grade nudged my shoulder, sneaking the smashed pumpkin-faced cupcake and splitting it in half, hiding the bat-covered paper inside her purse. "Sorry. I forgot you loved chemistry…or at least your lab partner…Jason," she teased in a husky voice.
When I opened my mouth to object, she shoved the other half of chocolate cake between my lips, most of it crumbling to the floor. "Great. We'll probably be charged with theft and have to pay a hundred bucks for that cupcake." I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and cheesy-smiled at her. "Do I have crumbs in my teeth?"
"Don't worry. If you do, I'm sure my little bro will suck them away when he tongue tags you later." She brushed the fallen crumbs with her toe under the display table. "Where is my twin, anyway?"
"Probably in the showers. Practice ran late."
"Why don't you sneak in with him?"
I slapped her arm. "Jamie!"
Her lips curled into a smile the Devil would envy. "What? You don't think I hear you two going at it in his room? He may be downstairs, but his heat duct connects to my bedroom." My face flashed so hot, my skin should have melted. "Gotcha!" she laughed, "but judging by your reaction, my imagination isn't far off the mark."
Jamie palmed an envelope from the basket. "Ashley would, you know…join Jason in the showers if she had a chance."
"Don't remind me, okay? He claims he feels nothing for her and I shouldn't be jealous, but I can't help wondering, you know? I don't want to seem clingy, so I don't ask, but I watch her…"
"He's into you, Sam, more than he ever was with her. That was Freshman year. They were just horny teens with no brain function."
"You're talking about your twin brother. If he had no brain function—"
"Who has no brains? You Sis?"
I twirled at the sound of the voice, my stomach full of butterflies and heat instantly snaking through my veins. A hand wrapped the back of my neck, the other firmly at my lower back, pressing me against rock-hard abs. The smell of coconut shampoo and citrus body soap swamped my senses, and I nuzzled into the damp fabric of Jason's T-shirt. His lips pressed in a chaste kiss and returned, demanding a deeper one from my mouth.
"You smell good," I whispered before indulging in a nibble off his neck.
"Get a room!" shouted Buck, Jason's best friend.
Reluctantly, I stepped back, feeling the cold air from the open gymnasium doors slice between us. Jason kept my hand, tugging me to his side when the gym started filling with the football team and other classmates.
"Where's Ash? We need to get started." Jason dropped his dark gaze to my eyes for a second before sneaking a glimpse inside my shirt. "So we can finish," he said so low no one but me heard the intimate comment. If my bones hadn't already started turning spongy, I would have resented his reference to the nickname he gave her when they dated.
"I'm right here gorgeous!"
The room full of bodies parted like the Red Sea when she sauntered into the gym wearing skinny jeans so tight if there was a quarter in her back pocket, you'd see the year it was minted. Her pink button-up blouse was mostly "unbuttoned," leaving a gap just wide enough you could see the black bra she wore. When she sidled up to the side of Jason, tapping a manicured finger on the end of his chin, I could see the matching pink satin bow marking the front clasp.
"Miss me?" she purred in a sexy lilt.
I curled my arms around Jason's waist, my elbow purposely knocking her away. "Hardly," I sneered. Jason's arms folded around me, the soft kiss to the top of my head finally giving her a big enough hint to prowl elsewhere.
"Listen up 'peeps.' We've got two hours before Rogers Texas Grub arrives with our food." She held up two baskets—one with the assigned teams, and a second one with coordinating colored envelopes full of clues. "Let's see who has the winning team this year."
Luckily, I was on Jamie's, along with two other chemistry geeks. At least we had intelligent beings on our side. My stomach dipped to my toes when she read the last team. Buck and his girlfriend, Tina, an "Ashley wannabee," along with Ashley and…Jason.
Tears burned the edges of my eyes and my throat tightened. "That bitch!" I hissed.
Jason tipped my chin up with his finger. "Stop. I'm crazy about you. No other girls exist in my world—especially not Ash—ley." Oops. Major slip. "Sorry. I didn't mean to—"
"It's okay. I trust you. Let's just hurry and get this over with. I have a late curfew tonight."
"Oooh, your basement or mine?"
"I was thinking we could sneak into the hot tub at my grandma's clubhouse. She gave me the code and the security dude only works weekends to save money."
"No bathing suits?"
"Underwear, champ. Let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet."
Ashley grabbed Jason's arm and yanked him away, but his "thumbs up" and wicked wink, held a promise the night wouldn't be a total waste.
Jamie gave my shoulder a playful punch. "Come on 'bedroom eyes.' We're the last ones out of here. Those two dweebs, Owen and—"
"Marcus. At least try and remember their names?"
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. They've got the first three clues already figured out. We'll be done in no time and then we can shadow loverboy and his asshat ex to make sure we ruin any plans she's got brewing."
Fear pushed my lustful thoughts aside. "You don't think she's trying—"
"To get Jason back? Hell yeah! Open your love-blinded eyes, Sam. There's only so much a guy can take before he'll surrender…even Jason. Those boobs were hanging out for a reason tonight, and it wasn't to make a fashion statement."
"If she goes near him, I swear I'll kill her!"
Jamie looked around the room, ushering me out the door. "Keep your voice down. People take those kind of statements serious nowadays. Something happens to 'queeny' and you're the number one suspect."
My hearth thrummed loudly in my ears. I was serious. Johnstown's Cemetery held more than decaying corpses. Dark, seedy secrets, tucked alongside the dead and sealed in pleated satin. Everyone had a life riddle—some solved in the light of day, others revealed under a cloak of darkness.
The double-edged mysteries, however, took on a life of their own…lived beyond the graves of those thought to keep them sacred, and among the innocent or those pretending to be so. Puppets held by ghostly threads who danced on deadly marionette strings. Puppets like me…like Ashley.

We were running behind, the last clue Marcus thought he'd figured out, sending us in the wrong direction. The clue eluded to an "eight ball in a pocket,' and all three of us jumped on board when Marcus said it had to be Benny's Billiards, the only pool hall (and bar) in town. When we walked into the smoky tavern, all eyes trained on Jamie and me.
"Perverts," Jamie scowled before easing a hip onto a barstool. Before I could set my butt on one, the bartender threw his towel over his shoulder and leaned to Jamie. I suspected the numbers tallied in his brain fast—face, boobs, hair. He gave me a sideway glance for a second, then back to Jamie. Again, I'd failed some "jiggle scale."
"Need to see ID princess."
"We're here for clue three," I interjected, forcing his leer my direction and away from my girlfriend.
"Clue three? I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Marcus jumped into the conversation, explaining our brilliant deduction and showing the barkeep the clue. Turned out "BB" also meant "Burger Barn," where a deep pocket was code for large fries, and an eight ball represents their special Crazy Eight club sandwich combo.
Standing outside Burger Barn, I tried forcing the steamy puffs my breath created into rings, while Owen and Marcus wolfed a cheeseburger and Jamie decided to use the restroom. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of someone moving toward the graveyard. Ashley and Jason!
I reached in my pocket for my cell phone only to remember laying it on the counter at Benny's Billiards. Damn! When I pulled my hand out, a lime green piece of paper drifted to the sidewalk. The last clue…the one I'd already solved and kept secret from my teammates. The last destination would place me at the foot of a granite monument, marking a grave I hadn't visited in nine months.
Imagining the inscription carved into the glittering flecks, panic bubbled in my chest. My heart physically hurt it pounded so hard. "Kevin Gregory Barnes. A life taken too soon…" My brother—whose car careened off a cliff to avoid hitting a girl standing in the road. A girl who disappeared, but left a note on my brother's grave the day of the funeral.
A piece of paper, dampened by the fresh loam mound, pale peach in color, the cursive script squiggly, probably from a shaking hand.
I'm sorry. You weren't supposed to die.