The First-Chapter-That-Almost-Was for
The cold air stung as it whipped passed Cassie Harris’ face, smelling sharply of ice and pine resin. Her cheeks felt stiff and frozen, like they might crack in the rush of the wind. The sting of sweat and the warmth that followed always reminded her that no, she wasn't actually freezing, she was thawing. She drew a ragged breath, sucking the icy air past her chapped lips.
Over the rhythmic thudding of her sneakers on the pavement, she reminded herself: she was thawing. She was right in the middle of coming back to life, picking up the pieces of herself that had frozen solid and forcing them to move again, forcing life back into her existence.
The pavement was firm under her sneakers as she ran toward home. Anxiety, her constant companion, pushed her harder. It was easier to ignore the fear, the constant thrum of nerves, when she ran. She tried to avoid the puddles, but today they were everywhere. It was Spring. She was used to it by now. And, though annoying, it was still better than the snow and slush she had run through last week.
Last week. Where, although it was colder, the temperature didn't bother her nearly as much. Thawing. She was thawing. She tried to remember that.
The trees were still bare. Their stark branches reached into the cold, gray sky, taunting Cassie with mimicked whispers as the bark stretched and rubbed and prepared for the buds that would soon come forth. Unconsciously, she pushed a little harder, her legs straining to meet the demands of her mind.
Even if it were the whispers of the creatures of the forest, returned after a long, dormant winter, she wouldn't have been able to outrun them. A scrap of paper kicked up in a sudden gale of wind. She cringed and ran past it, jerking involuntarily when it brushed against her bare leg. Those posters, the ones with a picture of Laney Blake, describing her features, and the sketches of the men Cassie accused of kidnapping her, they lingered around town.
They weren't stapled to the telephone poles any longer. They weren't hung in the pizza place or the post office. But still, Cassie noticed them. The paper was no longer white, they were all stained and torn, lost to the wind and the woods, or fallen to the pavement and caught in storm drains. Or, fluttering passed on her afternoon runs.
It was his eyes, always so vivid, that plagued her still.
She rounded the corner, her street coming into view. Life was returning to the small neighborhood. Or rather, the shockingness of the death and loss it had experienced was fading. As spring came and the pall of winter receded, everything looked more hopeful. Patches of brown grass could be seen struggling through melted spots in the leftover snow. Early bloomers peeked from front gardens, pushing through the remaining frost. The Coopers had already raked their side yard, small piles of dead grass could be seen from the road. The plot of land looked bare, but clean, waiting for the grass to grow in again to a vibrant green. Until then, their ceramic gnome waited patiently by the corner of the house, his faded red hat shiny from the drips of water that fell continually from their roof.
Cassie's lungs burned, her throat felt raw. She was used to it by now. And it felt good in a way, an affirmation that she was still here. Her muscles were now thoroughly warmed from the run and sweat prickled at her hair line. She had told her parents that she was training for softball. It wasn't a complete lie. The season was due to start soon. But that wasn't the reason she started the daily runs.
Cassie just couldn't stand to be cooped up inside any longer. The winter had been long and hard with no Laney to turn to. Her friend Rebecca Murphy and she had become close; Cassie was grateful for it. Their relationship had firmed, two girls who had lost their best friends to murder. At least, that's what everyone else thought. And yes, Jessica Evans had been murdered. She was dead. Laney was not. Though a body that looked just like her had been buried, Laney Blake's name engraved on the headstone. The awful club that Cassie now belonged to, the one she and Rebecca formed exclusively, wasn't much comfort. Though Rebecca had been wonderful, stoic and warm, whenever they were together, the gaping hole of Laney and Jessica was present, an awful acknowledgement that neither girl was really whole.
Ryan filled in a lot of the blanks for Cassie. Their friendship had grown as fast as their relationship. But the snow was melting and he had started hiking again. His plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one, long thru-hike was set back into motion. She longed to join him. He constantly begged her to. Secretly, in a place she had trouble admitting even to herself, she thought accompanying him on the thru-hike would be exhilarating. Or, at least, she had felt that way. Now, she had trouble even contemplating joining him on the smaller day hikes. She wanted to; but she couldn't. She wouldn't admit it out loud, not even to Ryan, but the woods still terrified her.
They were out there. She knew they were. She felt their eyes. No, not their eyes, his eyes. Aiden.
He had been gone, at least, she thought he had been, for the winter. In those cold, barren months, with no foliage for him to hide behind, Cassie's gaze scanned the tree line. For so long, the shadows would draw her gaze and she'd start, staring down the secret pathways of the forest. She'd hear the soft creaking of the trees, the cracks as branches split and fell, the scuffled movement of tiny creatures. But it was never him. It was nothing. Just her imagination.
Until one day it wasn't.
Cassie waved towards the Sheridan house. The curtain twitched as she passed. She hoped it was the two-year-old, Randall. She wondered if he missed her. She hadn't babysat for them since her breakdown after Laney's disappearance. She didn't think she ever would again. It wasn't her choice, it was theirs. Ann and Peter Sheridan just didn't call for her anymore.
It wasn't surprising. The entire town had tightened its grip on their children. Teenagers who had never had curfews before suddenly did, everyone grumbling that they had to make it home before their parents "pitched a fit." Cassie noticed that more of the lawns in her neighborhood had stayed pristine all winter, no tracks from sleighs or marks from snowball fights, not even a grubby looking snowman. The children had been inside instead, watching television or playing video games, generally annoying their parents; but safe, not kidnapped, not murdered.
Cassie knew why, understood it better than anyone. She wished she could have told them all not to worry. She didn't feel they had to. None except her parents.
The shape-shifting men of the trees, the women who traveled with them seeking girls at carnivals, they were gone. Most of the them. And the only one left behind wasn't interested in anyone but Cassie.
Her home loomed before her, but another building drew her eye. Like a dark chasm you can't help but stare into, even though the rest of the world around may be exploding with light, the Blake's home hovered in her vision, blurred the rest of the street to insignificance.
Mr. Blake hadn't kept up with the shoveling, his front path was iced over, the only bare patches from where they had obviously tread. Piles of melting snow were left on the front porch and in random heaps in the driveway. The curtains that hung inside were all pulled, all except Laney's room. Cassie felt that was most likely because neither of the bereaved parents could stand to be in their dead daughter's old room.
The house was dark, uninviting, even in the soft twilight hour. All the other homes in the neighborhood were slowly starting to warm, lights were flicked on, the fluttering of images cast from televisions shimmered on glass windows, music and conversation and life all leaked from the homes that were shut tight against the elements. But not from the Blake house. There, all was silent, still.
Cassie wondered if they were even eating properly. She barely ever saw the lights on, even in the kitchen.
"Hi, honey. Have a nice run?"
Cassie hadn't even realized she had reached her own driveway, her thoughts still pulled to her best friend's old home. She looked up and smiled at her father, nodding her head. Patrick Harris had a shovel in his hand, a fleece hat with ear flaps over his typical disheveled, thinning hair, and pajama pants that were loud and obvious beneath his thick winter coat.
"Need a hand?" she asked. She had tried to offer help to Mr. Blake, only a couple weeks ago. He had refused. She moved toward her garage before her father answered, intending on grabbing the extra shovel. Her muscles were warm and she wouldn't feel the cold yet, even as the sweat started to dry on her skin.
"Don't worry about it," her father said as she passed. He bent back over the driveway, scraping the last patches of slush from the asphalt. "You'll freeze if you don't get inside. So will those, I suppose."
Her gaze was drawn to the front doorstep. Propped against the bottom stair was a small bouquet of flowers.
Just like last week. And the week before.
A course shiver rocked through her and suddenly she felt very cold.
She jogged to the front step, her sneakers getting soaked through from the sodden front lawn and the piles of melting snow, and stooped to pick up the purple flowers. They were fragrant and lush, the stems greener than anything else outside, the petals silky and fresh.
She would have thrown them right in the trash if her father hadn't been outside, eyeing her.
Her home was warm, the air enveloping her with the scents of baked lasagna, tea, a touch of dust, and now the overwhelming floral scent from the bouquet she held gingerly in her fingers. Her skin felt overheated and a bead of sweat dripped from her hair line down her temple.
"I know you feel fine when you're running but really, Cassie, you should wear something warmer," Cathy Harris admonished, her eyes down and on her handheld calendar. Before Cassie could even answer, her mother pulled the pen from her messy bun. She jotted something down. Another shift switch at the local emergency room where her mother worked, Cassie figured.
When her mother finally looked up, her eyes zeroed in on the flowers in her daughter's hand.
"Ooh! Another one?" she said, looking from the flowers to her daughter. "And the vase, it's like the last one. So unique."
Cassie shrugged, holding the bouquet reluctantly. When they had first started arriving, the fresh flowers in bark vases, her parents had assumed they were from Ryan. The very first time it had happened, Cassie had assumed it was from her boyfriend, too. But he had no idea what she was talking about when she thanked him. He had looked embarrassed about it, actually, wondering out loud if he was supposed to be getting her flowers. She waved him off, telling him not to worry about it.
She was glad now that he hadn't. These flowers, fragrant and beautiful and rare, would outshine anything someone could pick up in the local florist shop. They varied each time, the blossoms changed, but the vases didn't.
Though, technically, Cassie wasn't sure it was a vase. It wasn't glass or ceramic. It was a tightly woven gathering of bark lined internally with moss to keep in the moisture. The stems were dewy and fresh, the flowers healthy and vibrant. Cassie had never seen a vase that could keep flowers looking so good for so long. No, this was something else.
"Whatever you're doing to train that boy," Cathy said, breaking into Cassie's line of thought, "you're doing it right." Her gaze turned speculative with a touch of concern. Cassie shrugged and pointed vaguely to the stairs with the new flowers. Her mother nodded and Cassie took off toward her room.
She ditched the flowers as soon as she shut the door behind her. Her palms were itchy and warm from holding the bark. Her blinds were shut, she checked before she stripped out of her running clothes. She always had to do that now, check to make sure no one could be peeking in at her. She'd take a shower after dinner, but for now, she threw on a clean pair of sweatpants and a tee shirt.
Her room still felt like it had holes punched through it. Pieces were missing, obviously so. Nails hung empty from the walls, no picture frames dangling from them. That was because Cassie had ripped them all down in a fit of rage, anger at Laney driving her actions. Every picture had been one of the two of them. They were stored away now, deep at the back of her closet in a cardboard box with a smudged red fingerprint on the side. There were new things, too. A card Ryan got her on St. Valentine's Day, the necklace he gave her for Christmas that hung from her mirror when she was on a run, a book Rebecca leant her that she thought Cassie would enjoy; these things were now coloring patches of Cassie's room. Still, it felt empty, support beams were missing. Laney was still gone.
The fragrance of the flowers was potent in Cassie's small, heated bedroom. Now fully dressed, she moved to her window and yanked up the blinds. Cold air swirled into the room, sneaking icy fingers down her shirt and over her skin. She leant out into the darkening sky and threw the flowers as near to the woods as she could. They landed just outside the tree line behind a small hunk of ice, close to the last bouquet she had thrown.
Deep in the woods, on the back of the wind, a low, rough chuckle blew toward her.