Dane Foster tossed her camera bag over her shoulder and pulled her luggage off the airport carousel. She’d been in more airports in the last few months than she could count, and the routine left her disoriented. She’d usually have to find a guide to get her feet on the ground, but this time was different. This was home, or at least it used to be. For years she had pushed memories of East Tennessee out of her mind. It was a bit ironic that the one place she had spent years trying to get away from ended up being the one place she needed to be the most.
She stepped outside McGhee Tyson Airport and looked out at the Smoky Mountains looming in the distance, the mist rising in its iconic way, blanketing the tapestry in white clouds. It was a view she had never tired of seeing. She kicked herself for waiting so long to make the trip home. But the world had a way of eating up time and spitting out a used-up life like a dog’s chew toy.
It was certainly that way for her. After years roaming around the globe documenting one vicious atrocity after another as a freelance photojournalist for various print magazines, sacrificing everything, and losing everyone she’d cared for, she found herself jobless and right back where she’d started. But she’d made a promise to her best friend that one day they would come here together, and Dane would show her the splendor of the mountains and the unique culture of Appalachia. Michelle never got that chance, but Dane was determined to fulfill the promise just the same. In the months since Michelle’s death, Dane had been adrift, unable to find direction in her life. She spent days thinking of the past and longing for those she had lost. Losing Michelle had opened Pandora’s box, leaving Dane haunted with questions about her past, regrets for too many mistakes, and uncertainty of what to do next.
Dane grabbed the first cab waiting at the curb. She tossed her bag in the back seat and climbed inside.
“Where to, man?” the driver asked, barely looking up to see who had gotten into his car.
Dane smiled, the slow Southern accent taking her back to her younger years when life was easier, and time moved at a different pace. “Do they still have all those car dealerships along Alcoa Highway?” she asked.
As soon as she spoke the cabbie’s head snapped up, his eyes apologetic in the rearview mirror.
“Oh yes, ma’am. Sorry about that. I didn’t realize…But yeah, the whole strip is lined with ’em.”
“Good,” Dane said, leaning back against the seat. “Take me to the first one you come to.”
The cabbie nodded and put the car in gear. “Sure thing.”
An hour and five thousand dollars later, Dane pulled out of the Chrysler dealership in a 1995 Jeep Wrangler. There was no back seat, but she wouldn’t need that anyway. It was a far cry from the BMW she was used to driving, but it was exactly what she needed for now. Besides, she’d enjoy playing a little rough for a while.
Dane pulled into a gas station to fill up the tank and grab some snacks for the road. She picked up a copy of the Knoxville News Sentinel and a couple of smaller papers to catch up on the local news. It didn’t take long to pick up the theme of the drug epidemic ravaging the rural Appalachian communities.
A spark buzzed in her ear. No matter where she went in the world there was something tearing the people apart. In most places she had been it was war and religion. Why would this place be any different? It seemed the whole human race was out to destroy itself. She had done a pretty good job of destroying her part of it too. She was burned out, fried, washed-up. Those were just some of the phrases used to describe her as she was given her walking papers. She’d been back from Iraq six months before her boss finally pulled the plug on her. It was for the best. She had no interest in going back. It didn’t matter how much money there was to be made—nothing was worth that kind of hell.
She knew her boss had tried to give her a chance. Simon wasn’t a bad guy, but too many nights drinking and too little sleep hadn’t been the best remedy to chase the demons away. When everything caught up with her, her career was just one of the casualties left in the dust and debris.
Dane squeezed her eyes tight to black out the nightmares that forced their way into her waking life. She turned up the radio to shut out the sounds of the bombs exploding around her. She could still feel the heat of the blast. Her ears rang, a signal the headache was on its way.
A horn blared, and Dane jerked the steering wheel, narrowly missing the car next to her. She had been so caught up in the past, she had drifted into the other lane. She waved her apology to the other driver.
She sighed. At least the excitement had cleared her head. The headache would come no matter what, and the memories would be waiting. Dane looked to the mountains looming in the distance and wished Michelle could see them. She smiled to herself, imagining the trouble the two of them could get into together. Her smile faded as she thought of this as their last journey together. She had come here to lay Michelle’s memory to rest. Her body was miles away, but Dane had the overwhelming need to fulfill that last dream they had together. She hoped this would be the one thing that would quiet her nightmares and allow her to let Michelle go.
Dane hadn’t bothered to let her father know she was coming, but she wanted to see him. They hadn’t exactly been close, and they’d barely spoken in years. But she wanted to change that. She wasn’t a kid anymore. She had to stop running from her father and the loss of her mother. Her father had no idea what was going on in her life. But he had never cared about anything but the job, which she no longer had. How would she explain? She dreaded the look of disappointment she knew she would see in his eyes.
Dane shook her head, second-guessing herself. Why had she come here? What did she hope to find in the mountains and valleys of her past? She had been smothered here. She had been miserable. She hadn’t been able to wait until she could graduate and get as far away as possible. She had spent years wanting to leave and never look back, and that had been exactly what she had done.
Doubt grew in her mind until it was hard to think. She sat at a stop sign, staring down the road that led to her father’s house. Her heart raced as her anxiety grew. What was she so afraid of? Her father wasn’t a bad man. She wanted to believe they could find a way to talk to each other. She drove to the house and parked along the road. It was just as she remembered. The trees had grown, marking the passage of time, but everything else was the same as she remembered.
The front door opened, and a woman walked outside. Her red hair instantly had Dane’s blood boiling. Her stepmother was only seven years older than her. She had made Dane’s life a living hell since she was fourteen years old. She could hear her stepmother’s condescending voice pointing out a myriad of things she had done wrong, making sure to guilt Dane so she wouldn’t complain to her father.
Dane watched the woman as she got into her Mercedes. Her stepmother drove past without even a glance at her. Dane ground her teeth and gripped the steering wheel, fighting the urge to ram the Jeep into the side of the car. The moment passed, and she let out a long slow breath. Whatever she was looking for, she wasn’t going to find it here. She had nothing to say to her stepmother. She only wanted to see her father.
Dane scrolled through her phone, locating her father’s office number in her contacts. She took a deep breath and dialed.
“Foster Investments, how can I help you?” a woman’s lilting voice sang through the phone.
Dane took a deep breath. “I would like to speak with David Foster, please.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Foster is out of the office right now. May I ask who’s calling? I would be happy to pass on a message.”
Disappointment hit Dane like a punch to the gut. She contemplated leaving a message but didn’t know what to say. Hi, Dad. It’s only been five years since my last visit, but I thought we’d have lunch. Call me. “No, thank you. I’ll try again another time.”
She ended the call, wondering if this was all a sign she should just move on. What did she really expect? Part of her wanted to tell her father the truth about everything, needing his reassurance that despite everything, she would be okay. She returned to her contacts and called her father’s cell.
“Dane?” Her father’s voice sounded uncertain and held a hint of surprise.
“Hi, David. Yeah, it’s me.”
Dane took a deep breath. “Nothing. I’m in town for a couple of days. I hoped we could get together for lunch or something and catch up. There are some things I wanted to talk to you about.”
“You’re in town?” She heard a shuffling sound as if he had shifted the phone between his ear and shoulder as a strangely mechanical voice spoke in the background. She imagined him checking his watch. “Are you working on a story here?”
“Yeah, just for a couple of days, like I said, but it’s not work.”
There was more rustling on the line. “Not work. Is something wrong?”
“No. I just wanted to talk. It’s been a while.”
“I really wish I’d known you were coming. This is not a good time. I’m at the airport and my flight leaves in twenty minutes. I won’t be back until late next week.” He hesitated. “Maybe we could make some time then. Will you still be around?”
Dane closed her eyes. She shook her head. He’d likely been at the airport when she’d landed. If she’d bothered to call, she could have made the connection there. “I don’t know. I wasn’t planning on it.”
She heard more rustling on the line. “Like I said, this is a bad time. What did you want to talk about?”
Dane didn’t want to get into it over the phone and her questions couldn’t be answered in just a few rushed minutes. “Some things have happened.” She stopped herself. “I want to ask you some things about Mom.”
His sigh was thick. Even through the phone she could hear his disapproval. “What now?”
“I just need some answers, David.”
“Look, I have to board the plane. I don’t have time to get into this.”
“I guess I’ll just have to find out for myself,” Dane snapped, unable to hide her frustration. Since her mother’s death, David had been unwilling to talk about her. He always had an excuse not to answer Dane’s questions.
“Leave it alone, Dane. I don’t know what else you think there is to know. Don’t go looking for trouble.”
“Trouble? I just want to know about my family.”
“Look. We can talk about this another time. I have to go.”
Dane gritted her teeth. “Yeah, it was good talking to you.” She ended the call before he could respond. She blew out a frustrated breath. There was no point sticking around town. She’d promised Michelle they would see the mountains. Now was as good a time as any.
She put the Jeep in gear and drove away. She had no idea where she was going, but traveling and drinking seemed to be the only things she had going for her these days. She decided to head north. She had always wanted to see the place where her mother had come from. Maybe she’d find some of the answers at the beginning.
Dane had been driving for two hours. Fatigue and restlessness were getting the better of her. She hadn’t seen much more than mountains, run-down houses, and fields of hay for the past thirty miles or so. An old sign by the side of the road caught her attention as she neared the Kentucky state line. The sign was simple and to the point: the Cozy Corner Bar. Cold beer and cheap cigarettes. She doubted she would have many more chances to stop along the rural stretch of road. She guessed this place would be as good a place as she would get.
The building was small. It looked more like an old garage than a bar, but Dane decided to take a chance. She was thirsty and hungry and needed to stretch her legs. She circled the lot. All but two cars were parked in the back. She guessed this was the kind of place most people didn’t want to have their car seen from the road.
Dane parked in back and pulled an old cap from her duffel. As she stepped out onto the gravel parking lot, she scuffed her boots through the dirt to dull their polish. At least her jeans were worn and rough after too many miles through too many countries. She threw her bag over her shoulder, not bothering to lock the Jeep. Anything she wanted to keep, she’d take with her. There was no point in asking a thief to cut the top of the Jeep to take a look around.
The moment she stepped into the bar she knew her efforts to fit in had been pointless. She stood out like a pink flamingo at a rodeo. Every eye in the room followed her across the bar, an ominous silence following in her wake.
She took a seat at the end of the bar and turned on her stool so that her back was against the wall. She dropped her duffel on the floor at her feet along with her camera bag. She rolled her eyes. The bags were a dead giveaway that she didn’t belong in this place. Oh, well, it could be worse. At least she spoke the same language this time.
A tall woman with auburn hair pulled through the back of a Tennessee baseball cap greeted Dane. She had winter blue eyes, tan skin, and a look that said she was in charge.
“What’ll it be?” she asked, as if this was a test.
Dane glanced around the room. “Bud Light,” she said eyeing the bottle of Tennessee Whiskey on the wall just behind the woman’s head. Her mouth watered. She could almost taste the amber liquid on her tongue. But that was a demon she couldn’t afford to let out of the bottle tonight.
“Anything else?” the woman asked.
Dane swallowed. “No. That’s good for now, unless you’re available later.”
The woman looked Dane up and down. When their eyes met again, Dane could see the distrust as clear as shutters being drawn over fragile windows. Dane felt a shiver climb up her spine. The woman didn’t say anything in response, but her look was enough to stop Dane cold in her tracks. This might have been a bad idea.
Dane glanced back at the bottle of whiskey that seemed to whisper to her across the counter. Yeah, this was definitely a bad idea.
Dane sipped her beer and watched the bartender, letting her imagination conjure images of her long lean body, her tan skin and muscle telling the story of hard work and quiet passion.
She jumped when a young man theatrically plopped down on the barstool beside her.
“Hey, Emma,” he said to the bartender with a wide innocent smile.
She smiled back at him. “Hey, kid. You hungry?”
“Yep. How about a beer and a bologna sandwich?”
“Pimento cheese and pickles?” she asked.
His smile widened. “Yep.”
“Be right back,” she said before disappearing around the corner into the kitchen.
He drummed his fingers on the counter keeping time with the music playing from an old jukebox in the corner. He sang along to the tune, his head bobbing gently.
Dane smiled. She was amused by the young man. He seemed untouched by the evils of the world. He still carried the joy of a child. Dane tapped his shoulder. “Hey, you know her?” Dane asked, nodding behind the bar to where the woman had just been.
The young man smiled. “Of course. Emma’s my sister.”
Dane raised an eyebrow. “Really? What’s your name?”
“Curtis,” he answered as if she should already know who he was.
Dane raised her beer in salute. “I’m Dane. Dane Foster.”
Dane looked up as Emma came around the corner and placed a plate of food and a beer in front of Curtis. She studied the two, trying to put the pieces together. There was a huge age gap between them, and Dane wondered if Emma was really the young man’s sister.
“What have you been up to today, Curtis?” Emma asked, wiping her hands on a bar towel.
He shrugged. “Nothin’ much,” he said through a mouthful of sandwich. “I went down to the river with a couple of the guys. There’s an old bus parked down there near Parson’s Creek. We nosed around there for a while, but we never saw nobody around.”
Emma leaned over the bar. “You didn’t bother anything, did you?” She’d dropped her voice, but Dane could hear the urgency in her tone. “You know better than to mess with other people’s things.”
Curtis shook his head. “We didn’t do nothin’. Promise. We was just lookin’.”
Emma relaxed a little. “Okay, I believe you, but don’t go back around there, okay. I don’t want those boys getting you into trouble.”
Curtis smiled. “You worry too much. I ain’t doing nothin’ wrong.”
Emma placed her hand over his. “I know, sweetie. Just promise me you won’t go back there again.”
“All right, I won’t go,” Curtis agreed, sounding disappointed.
“Thank you.” Emma pointed to the empty plate. “Want another one?”
Curtis smiled again. “Can I have onions this time?”
Emma rolled her eyes and disappeared into the kitchen again.
Dane was amused by the whole interaction. “Sounds like your sister looks out for you quite a bit.”
Curtis turned to Dane, his eyes bright and cheery. “Emma’s always there for me.”
“Why is she so worried?”
“Aw, she’s always afraid I’ll get into trouble. She doesn’t like a lot of my friends. They get into a lot of trouble sometimes.”
“What kind of trouble?” Dane asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
Emma appeared with another sandwich for Curtis before he could answer. Emma glared at Dane. It seemed her distrust wasn’t just reserved for Curtis’s friends.
Dane held up her empty bottle. “Could I have another, and how about one of those sandwiches?”
Emma held Dane’s gaze without blinking. “Anything else?”
“No, ma’am. I believe that’s all for now.”
Dane talked with Curtis until Emma called for last call at midnight, learning all about his love for bologna sandwiches, peach cobbler, and riding through the mountain trails. She learned he and Emma lived together and she looked after him, and that his secret wish was to go to Alaska and pan for gold like the miners did in the old Westerns he still liked to watch on Sunday afternoon.
When Emma turned out the neon signs hanging around the room, Dane picked up her bags and paid her bill with cash, making sure to leave a generous tip.
Curtis eyed her duffel. “Where are you goin’?”
Dane shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’ll probably just sleep in my Jeep tonight.”
Curtis frowned. “You could stay at our place. Emma won’t mind. She rents out one of the rooms sometimes when people need a place to stay for a while.”
Dane glanced across the bar at Emma. She was stocking the coolers and didn’t seem to hear what Curtis had said.
“I don’t know. She didn’t seem to like me much,” Dane said, honestly.
Curtis laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll ask her.” He leaned over the bar. “Hey, Emma. Dane here doesn’t have a place to stay tonight. It’s okay that she stays at our place, right?”
Emma looked up, obviously caught off guard by the question. “Curtis, we’ve talked about you bringing strangers home.”
Curtis laughed. “Dane ain’t no stranger—she’s my friend.”
Dane lifted a hand and waved Emma off. “I don’t want to be a bother. If you could just tell me where I could find the nearest hotel, that will do.”
“No way,” Curtis protested. “You don’t wanna stay there. It’s a bad place. You’d be better off sleeping in your Jeep.”
Dane wondered what made the hotel so bad but really didn’t want to find out. She looked at Emma. “I’d be happy to pay for the room.”
Emma sighed again. “Fine, but I don’t allow drugs or any other illegal activity in my home. If that’s what you’re into, you may as well go on to the hotel.”
Dane shook her head. “No, ma’am.”
Emma stared at Dane, still making up her mind. “Oh, all right. You can stay.”
“Yes,” Curtis cheered.
“Can I help you finish up here?” Dane asked Emma.
“No, thanks, I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself,” Emma snapped.
“I’m sure you are, just thought I’d offer a hand.” Dane was determined not to flinch, but Emma had a way of making her feel like she was facing a guard dog who was showing its teeth.
Emma tugged her hair tighter through her ball cap and tucked the loose strands behind her ears. She looked tired, the kind of tired that said she hadn’t had enough sleep and had carried that chip on her shoulder for way too long.
“I’d like to help,” Dane tried again. “It’s the least I can do.”
Emma reached into a closet and handed Dane a broom.
Dane smiled, taking the olive branch.
Curtis joined in and they had the place closed up within an hour.
“I’ll ride with Dane,” Curtis announced as Emma locked up.
Emma pursed her lips in disapproval but didn’t say anything. She got into an old black Ford F-150 that looked like it had seen better days. It had rust around the fender wells and patches of Bondo dotted the side of the door and truck bed. By the look of things, there was no wonder why Emma rented out a room when she could. Dane didn’t imagine Emma made much money working at the bar.
“Thanks for getting your sister to let me stay tonight,” Dane said to Curtis.
“It’s no big deal. Don’t worry, Emma isn’t as scary once you get to know her a little. She takes care of everybody. You’ll like the house. My favorite part is the barn. I like to hang out in the hayloft and watch the birds build their nests. Did you know that barn swallows don’t land on the ground? They just fly through the air catching mosquitoes and flies and stuff. But they like to live in the barn.”
Dane was getting a pretty clear idea why Emma worried so much about Curtis. She imagined it was easy to take advantage of his childlike nature.
“Maybe you can show me the barn tomorrow,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t want to give her the tour tonight.
“Sure. Hey, that’s us up here on the right.”
Dane followed Emma’s old truck down a long winding dirt and gravel drive. An old farmhouse stood like the petrified bones of an ancient dinosaur. There was a large yard in the front, and the old barn was to the left. Its entry had no doors and looked like a large gaping black mouth swallowing up the night. The whole property was surrounded by trees. Floodlights flashed on as they approached, illuminating the weathered old porch. An empty porch swing swayed gently at one end.
Dane shivered. If she was the paranoid type, she’d imagine she had just stepped into a horror flick. She followed Curtis up to the house. An old dog lay on the porch with his back against the door. The boards of the steps creaked under her feet as she walked up onto the porch.
Emma reached down and touched the old dog to wake him. His fur was mottled, black and brown with patches of yellow. His face and muzzle were completely gray. He looked as if he had been here as long as the house.
Curtis reached down to pet the dog too. “Samson can’t hear anymore, so he lies against the door so he knows when we get home.”
Dane smiled. “Smart dog.”
Emma unlocked the door, glancing back at Dane. “How long will you be staying?”
Dane shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure where I am exactly. I’m trying to find my mother’s family. They live around here, I think.”
“Well, it’s twenty-five a night, or one twenty-five a week. That will include meals if you’re here when we eat. Breakfast is at nine, lunch is at one, and dinner is at the bar every night except Monday. I’m closed on Monday, so we eat here at the house at six.”
“Okay. I’ll just go ahead and pay you for the week, and we can see from there.”
Emma gave a single nod in agreement. She pushed the door open and led them into the house.
Dane noticed the smell of lavender in the air the moment they stepped into the room. The place was old, and the furnishings were well worn from years of use, but the place was clean and homey in an old-fashioned way. It was like everything else she’d seen so far. The whole place was like a page out of history.
Emma waved a hand, pointing around the house. “The kitchen is to the right and there’s a bathroom at the end of the hall. Your room is upstairs, the third door to the right.”
Dane looked up the stairs, counting the doors at the top of the landing.
“I’ll show her,” Curtis said cheerfully.
“There’s another bathroom at the top of the stairs, so you don’t have to come all the way down here,” Emma continued.
Dane fished her wallet from her back pocket and handed Emma the payment for the room. “I had considered trying to get you to take me home with you, but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Thank you for letting me stay.”
Emma rolled her eyes and took the money. “Don’t make me regret it.”
Dane frowned as Emma turned and walked into the kitchen. She almost changed her mind about the room. Emma was beautiful, but the cold shoulder had a bite. Dane wasn’t happy about staying where she wasn’t wanted. She’d had warmer welcomes in third world countries, where people barely had what they needed, let alone something to share.
“You comin’?” Curtis asked, already halfway up the stairs.
Dane looked up at his eager smile. At least Curtis was happy she was there. One night couldn’t hurt. “Sure. Lead the way.”
Emma closed the door to her room and secured the lock. She never liked having strangers in the house. Why hadn’t she just said no? She closed her eyes and sighed. Dane, who ever she was, was trouble. She could feel it. She saw it the moment Dane walked into the bar. She was a stranger here, and strangers in these parts meant they were looking for trouble or bringing trouble. Leave it to Curtis to bring trouble home. Dane certainly didn’t fit in here. She wore her hair short, and her clothes looked a little worn, but Emma would bet they were professionally cleaned. The Jeep Dane drove still had dealer tags and didn’t quite fit Dane’s tailored look. Emma didn’t know why Dane was here, but it was clear she didn’t belong.
She looked up at the ceiling, listening to the creak of the floorboards as Dane walked overhead. Emma wondered what she was doing. There wasn’t much in the house worth stealing, but she doubted Dane would take anything—she had her own money. Dane didn’t need the worthless trinkets left behind by their mother. There weren’t any pills to find in the medicine cabinets, and no other drugs in the house. But Emma doubted drugs were Dane’s game. She was a hard one to figure. Maybe she was a cop. Emma frowned. That could be it. If Dane was a cop, she wouldn’t last long here.
Emma tracked the sounds of Dane’s movements until she was certain Dane had gone to bed, before kicking off her own boots and clothes and crawling beneath the covers. It had been another long day, and tomorrow would be no different. She’d have to talk to Curtis about Dane. She didn’t want him getting too attached or mixed up in whatever Dane was up to.
Dane might talk the talk of a country girl, but she looked like city with a little dirt on her shoes. She was a little too thin, and there were shadows lurking in her eyes. She had a weariness about her that told Emma she was running from something or hiding something. She had been quietly attentive to everyone in the bar, and her confidence kept the predators in their seats, content to stalk her from a distance. If Dane stuck around, that distance wouldn’t last long. If she was a cop, she was in for a world of trouble from the locals. No one liked outsiders here, but cops from elsewhere were hated above all. This was the kind of town that didn’t trust the government, and even the local cops didn’t like to share with strangers.
Emma sighed and burrowed deeper under the covers. It seemed she’d only just closed her eyes when she heard the rooster crow. She squeezed her eyes tight and pulled the quilt over her head. “One more hour,” she pleaded. Was just one more hour too much to ask?
The rooster crowed again. “Guess so,” she mumbled as she threw back the quilt and pushed her legs over the edge of the bed. She sat there for a moment, putting off the day. A familiar smell began to fill the room. She frowned. Coffee?
Emma pushed her feet into her slippers and pulled on her father’s old robe. She stopped at the dresser and ran a brush through her hair before making a quick trip to the bathroom.
Dane sat at the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. The shadows beneath her eyes said she hadn’t slept much, and her hair stuck up slightly on one side. She wore a black T-shirt and loose-fitting black sleep pants.
“Good morning. I hope you don’t mind that I made the coffee,” Dane said as Emma walked into the room.
Emma poured her coffee and took a seat across from Dane. Dane was staring at her. “What?” Emma asked.
Dane shrugged. “Nothing. Just getting an idea what it would be like to wake up with you in the morning.”
Emma scowled. “Are you always this obnoxious?”
Dane gave a look of mock surprise. “Come on, the coffee isn’t that bad.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Look, you can rent the room, but that’s all you get. So give it up. I get enough of those stupid pickup lines at the bar.”
Dane grinned. “I bet.” She nodded to Emma’s cup. “How about more coffee then?” She stood and brought the carafe to the table, filling Emma’s cup and then her own.
Emma watched Dane, her eyes riveted to the scars marring Dane’s left hand, snaking up her arm in a mass of twisted flesh as if the skin had been melted. She wondered what had happened to cause the burns. She stifled the urge to reach out and touch Dane’s arm, as if the scars on her skin would give up Dane’s secrets.
She looked away when Dane sat the carafe on the table. She scolded herself for letting curiosity get the best of her. She sipped her coffee, searching for something to cover for her wandering thoughts. She wasn’t used to having anyone in the kitchen, and no one ever bothered to make coffee. “Thank you.” She blew across the steaming brew, studying Dane. She met Dane’s gaze, deciding on a direct approach. “Why are you here?”
Dane looked confused by the question.
“Jellico is a small place. We don’t have a lot to offer people here. There are no jobs, and there’s nothing to do here aside from hunting, fishing, driving around the woods, and drinking. It’s not exactly a vacation hub if you know what I mean.”
Dane shrugged. “I don’t know the answer exactly. My mother and her family were from around here. She died when I was young. I’ve been traveling for a while. I needed a change. I thought it would be nice to learn more about her, where she was from, what her family was like. I was tired and just happened to stop at your bar. End of story.”
Emma wasn’t convinced. Dane might have stopped here by chance, and maybe her story was true, but there was more—she could see it in Dane’s eyes as clear as her own reflection in the still waters of the pond. “A change from what? What are you running from?”
Dane shook her head. “Haven’t you ever wanted to push the pause button on your life and take a minute to find out what else is out there, what you’re missing?”
Emma pushed away from the table, avoiding the question. “Whatever you’re up to, leave Curtis out of it. He’s a good kid. He’s been through a lot and he doesn’t need to be drawn into whatever trouble you’re in.”
Dane met Emma’s gaze. “I’m not here to hurt anyone. I just needed a break from my life for a while. If you don’t want me here, I’ll go.”
Emma considered telling Dane to leave, but she really needed the money for the room. And if Dane was going to be in the area, Curtis would find her anyway.
“You don’t have to leave. I’m just asking you not to drag my family into any trouble. There’s enough of that going around already.”
“What kind of trouble?”
Emma sipped her coffee. “Never mind that.”
Footsteps on the stairs alerted them that Curtis was up. He bounded into the room like a child on Christmas morning.
“Hey, Dane, are you ready to see the barn?” he said as soon as his head was inside the door.
“Slow down, mister, since when do you get up this early?” Emma asked as he leaned down and kissed her cheek.
Curtis grinned. “I don’t know. I just woke up.”
“Well, since you’re up, you can go gather the eggs and feed the chickens.”
“Aw,” Curtis whined.
“Don’t give me lip, or I’ll have you do the dishes too.”
Curtis grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge. “Come on Dane, let’s get out of here before she gets ugly.”
Dane laughed. “Give me a minute to change. I’ll meet you outside.” She drained her coffee and rinsed her cup. She stopped at the door before leaving. “Thanks for letting me stay.”
Emma nodded, looking at Dane over the rim of her cup.
A few minutes later she heard the screen door close and looked out the window to see Dane walking across the lawn toward the barn. Curtis met her at the gate of the chicken coop, his hands moving as fast as his mouth as he talked. She smiled. He was such a little kid sometimes. He didn’t really have friends. Most people were cruel to him or used him in some way. He had always been a happy kid, but Emma knew he was lonely and just wanted to be liked.
Dane was playful and patient with Curtis, but Emma didn’t trust her. She couldn’t afford to trust.
Dane was eager to find out what she could about her mother. She had done a quick search online and had even looked through the old phone book lying next to the phone on the table in the living room. She had tracked down what she could on the ancestry sites and was beginning to wonder if any of her family had survived. She had some old records, but no current addresses. Most of the names she located were deceased.
“Hey, Curtis, do you know of anyone around here with the last name Stewart?”
Curtis thought for a moment. “Well, I went to school with Michael Stewart and his sister Stacey. They live in Coalfield now.”
“Coalfield.” Dane wasn’t familiar with the area and had never heard of the place. “How far is that from here?”
Curtis shrugged. “Not far, an hour or so, maybe more. Something like that.”
“What about their family? Do you know anything about them?”
“They used to live in Rugby, but I don’t know where.”
This wasn’t the answer she had hoped for, but at least she knew there were Stewarts in the area. Maybe they were her relatives.
“I have a buddy I go see sometimes in Rugby. If you want to go with me, we could ask him if he knows where we could find ’em.”
“Sure,” Dane answered. “Can you call him?”
Curtis shook his head. “I’ll get in touch with him. I’ll see if he’s around.”
Dane wanted to push, but Curtis had his way of doing things. She had to do this his way. Maybe she’d turn up something soon. She planned on going to county records as soon as they opened on Monday morning.
“So, you’re lookin’ for your momma?” Curtis asked.
Dane shook her head. “No, her family.”
“Why don’t you just ask her?”
Dane looked at Curtis, surprised by the question. “She died when I was young. I barely remember the stories she used to tell me about growing up around here.”
“My momma died too. I miss her sometimes.” Curtis looked up at Dane and smiled. “But now I have Emma.” He seemed to think about things for a while before asking his next question. “Is your daddy dead too?”
Dane frowned, remembering the way her father always avoided her questions about her mother. It was like he wanted to forget her. “No. He’s alive, but he won’t talk to me about her.”
“Yeah, I get it. Emma gets real sad when I talk about Momma and Daddy too. After Daddy died, Momma got real sad for a long time and she died too. Emma said Momma loved Daddy so much she just couldn’t live without him.” He was quiet for a moment. “Do you think that’s true? Can somebody love someone that much?”
Dane looked out over the farm from their perch in the hayloft. She thought of Michelle. They had been through a lot together. Michelle had been her best friend, the one person she could go to with anything. Michelle was the one person who always put up with her shit. Other than her mother, Michelle had been the only person she had ever loved. But here she was, alive and well, but Michelle wasn’t. Her parents were out of the question. Her father had remarried only months after her mother’s death.
“I don’t know, Curtis. I’ve never seen that before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Curtis stood and dusted himself off. “Want to drive me into town? I have somethin’ I have to do today.”
Dane shrugged, surprised yet relieved by the change of subject. “Sure.”
Curtis smiled. “Cool. I have to get somethin’ first. I’ll be right back.”
Dane watched Curtis come out of the barn below and move to an old storm shelter or cellar. She shook her head. Curtis was an odd kid, but she liked him. She stood and dusted herself off. She didn’t mind driving him around. It would give her a chance to get to know her way around, and maybe she could ask some of the locals about her mother. If she was with Curtis, maybe someone would be willing to talk to her.
Town turned out to be a row of small stores and a couple of fast-food joints. They stopped at a run-down mobile home with bags of trash piled outside the front door. An old Toyota Corolla sat on cinder blocks. The wheels and engine were missing, and the hood was propped up against the side of the house. A few chickens ran loose in the yard, and a brown dog tied to a tree next to the house barked as they pulled into the drive. An orange cat sat on the roof of the car casually licking its paw.
Curtis knocked on the door and waited. A gaunt looking young man with pale skin answered the door. His black hair looked like it had been pasted to his scalp with motor oil. He blinked against the sunlight as he peered down at Curtis.
“Hey, man,” Curtis said cheerfully.
The man rubbed his face with his hand. “Where the hell have you been, Curtis? I expected you yesterday.”
Curtis shrugged. “I was busy.”
The guy looked at Dane. “Who’s this?”
“That’s my friend Dane. She’s stayin’ with us for a while.”
“She looks like a narc.”
Curtis laughed. “Naw, Dane’s cool.”
“You better be right,” the thin man warned as he opened the door and walked away.
Dane took this as an invitation to enter and followed Curtis inside. The smell was the first thing to hit her. She cleared her throat and tried to get a grip, but the smell of body odor, vomit, and something she couldn’t quite place was assaulting. Her eyes watered.
Curtis sat next to the man on the couch. Dane wasn’t sure she wanted to touch anything in the room and chose a plain wooden chair after clearing away discarded sales circulars.
“You have my shit?” the man asked Curtis.
Curtis pulled a small bag out of his pocket and handed it over. The man opened the bag and smelled inside before handing Curtis money.
Dane couldn’t believe what was happening. She was sitting in the middle of a drug deal. She was going to kill Curtis.
“Hey, do you know where Michael Stewart’s staying?” Curtis asked.
The man frowned. “I haven’t seen him since school. Who wants to know?”
Curtis nodded to Dane. “Dane’s looking for the Stewarts.”
The man turned his gaze back to Dane. He looked distrustful as he scrutinized her more closely. “What’s it to you? Are you a fucking cop?”
Dane cleared her throat again, trying not to gag from the filth she felt attaching itself to her clothes. “No. I’m not a cop. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Mark,” he snapped.
Dane went on as if she wasn’t about to climb out of her skin. “I have family around here I’m trying to find.”
“Mark!” a woman called from another room.
“What?” he answered.
“Where are my fucking cigarettes?”
“How the hell would I know?”
Mark turned back to Dane, the flash of anger in his eyes and the bite in his voice telling her he was quickly losing his patience. “Mike went to the pen last year. It sounds like he’ll be there awhile.”
Dane frowned. This wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
“Mark?” the woman called again.
“Look, man, this isn’t a good time. You guys need to go.”
Dane stood and turned to leave. The man grabbed Curtis by the arm. “This better not be a problem, Curtis. And don’t be late next time.”
“It’s cool, Mark. Don’t worry.”
Dane slammed the door to the Jeep. “What the hell was that?” she asked, her voice raised. “What the fuck are you thinking, taking me to a damn drug deal?”
Curtis laughed. “It’s no big deal, Dane. It was just a little weed. Everybody around here does it.”
“Not me. Got it? Not me.”
“Fine. I just thought you wanted to find your family. Mark knows everybody. I thought he could help.”
Dane opened the window, hoping the breeze would blow out some of the stench clinging to her skin and clothes. She didn’t think Curtis had meant any harm, and it was hard to stay mad at him for long. “Look, man, you’ve got to be careful doing that shit. It’s illegal in Tennessee. You could go to jail. And thanks to you, I could have too.”
“You sound like Emma. But really, it’s no big deal. Besides, I have to do it sometimes.”
“Why? Why would you have to? Do you need money or something?”
“Naw. It’s nothin’ like that. Emma gives me money every week, and I get a check from the government.”
Dane was frustrated. “Then what do you mean, you have to do it?”
Curtis looked uncomfortable. “I’m not supposed to talk about it to nobody.”
“Curtis, are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No. I just have to. That’s all.”
Dane could see this wasn’t going anywhere. “Look, Curtis, if you’re in trouble, you can tell me. I’m your friend, remember? Friends talk about things. They tell each other secrets.”
Curtis wouldn’t answer.
“All right, at least promise me you won’t involve me in any more of your drops or deals or whatever you call it.”
Curtis bowed his head. “I’m sorry I made you mad.”
“I’m not mad, Curtis. I was scared.”
He nodded. “Sorry. I just wanted to help.”
“I know. Thanks for that part,” Dane said, relenting. She patted Curtis on the back, making their amends.
The familiar smile returned to his face and Dane’s heart softened. Curtis was a good kid, but he had no idea what he was doing.
“I’m hungry,” Curtis announced.
Dane smiled. “Good, I’m thirsty. Let’s go see how Emma’s day is going.”
Dane took a seat at the bar. There was only a handful of people mingling about, which made the room seem too quiet. Emma smiled at Curtis as he took the stool beside Dane.
“What’s up, kid?”
Curtis shrugged. “Not much. We’ve just been ridin’ around. Can I have a beer?”
Emma looked at Dane. “And you?”
Dane got the feeling Emma wanted to know more than her drink order. The distrust in her eyes was as thick as the rust on her truck. Emma wore the same baseball cap she’d had on the day before, her hair pulled back, exposing the gentle curve of her face and the strong set of her jaw. Despite Emma’s earlier warnings, she couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Emma was. She bit back the suggestive remark that was on the tip of her tongue.
“Bud Light and a shot of Jack.”
The storm clouds in Emma’s eyes darkened. She placed two beers on the counter and poured the whiskey. “It’s a little early for the hard stuff, isn’t it?”
“Not by my watch. What’s the point in waiting?”
Emma slid the glass in front of Dane. “Suit yourself.”
Dane disposed of the whiskey with one swift toss. She shook her head as the firewater burned its way through her system. The cold beer chased the fire to the pit of her stomach, freezing out the last embers of memory.
“It’s too quiet in here,” Dane said on her way to the old jukebox in the corner. The player was a relic. As the music filtered through the room, Dane inhaled the smell of stale beer that mingled with the cleaner Emma used on the bar. Like always Dane surrendered to the isolation that came from being a stranger. Most people would find it lonely, but she found comfort in the disconnect. Being an outsider meant she could see the world as it was without being tainted by expectation or disappointment.
She turned as a soft hand touched her back. A young woman with hair the color of midnight stepped beside her.
“Hello,” Dane answered.
“You mind?” The girl pressed a couple of numbers on the keypad. “I love to dance to this song.”
Dane straightened. “By all means.”
The woman took Dane’s beer from her hand and took a drink. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“Nope,” Dane replied, amused by the woman’s daring.
The woman swayed her hips, drawing Dane’s gaze to the exposed skin of her midriff. A gold bar pierced the skin of her belly button. She looped her thumb into the waistband of Dane’s jeans and gave her an inviting tug.
“Want to buy me a drink?”
Dane glanced around the room, taking in the faces as if reading signs on the wall. A man and woman were making out at the back table. Two old guys played cards in the corner. A man in dark jeans and black cowboy boots sat at the end of the bar nursing a beer. Dane studied him. He was in the perfect position to see her through his peripheral. His left foot was on the floor turned slightly in her direction. She shifted her gaze to Curtis at the end of the bar chatting to Emma. Emma glanced nervously at Dane, meeting her gaze with a slight shake of her head.
Dane wondered if Emma was warning her or just disapproving. Either way she wasn’t in the mood to play this game.
“Sorry, doll. I already have a date tonight.”
The woman stuck her bottom lip out in a pout. “Come on, just a little dance won’t hurt.”
Dane took a step back. “Maybe your boyfriend over there will take you for a spin.”
The woman straightened.
“Enjoy the drink and the music. But like I said, I already have a date tonight.”
Dane walked back to the bar, watching Emma’s eyes as she turned her back on the girl. Emma hadn’t taken her gaze off the man at the end of the bar. Her hand rested on the small bat she kept by the cash register.
The woman turned to the jukebox, swaying her hips from side to side. Dane shook her head. She nodded to Emma and tapped the bar. “Another round if you don’t mind.”
“How did you know?” Emma asked.
Dane took a drink of the beer. “Oldest trick in the book. I’m not that drunk or that stupid.”
“How often do they come in here?” Dane asked.
“They make the rounds. I see them in here a couple of times a month.”
Curtis turned to see what the fuss was about. He grinned. “Dang, Dane, how’d you say no to that?”
Dane slapped Curtis on the back. “Not my type, buddy.” She turned to Emma. “But how about you, Emma, want to dance?”
Emma shook her head. “I’m not that drunk or that stupid.” She picked up the empty bottles and walked away.
“What?” Dane asked with a smirk.
Dane lifted her drink to her lips as she cut her eyes at Curtis.
He laughed harder.
“Cut it out,” Dane warned, giving him a playful shove with her shoulder.
Dane sat in the hayloft watching the farm wake up. She was restless and hadn’t been able to sleep. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, trying to push back the headache. No matter how tired she was or how much she drank, the dreams always came. She wondered if she was doomed to relive that day over and over for the rest of her life.
The rooster crowed, signaling the time for the day to begin. It was a good thing she was an early riser. It wasn’t long before she saw Emma come out of the house to begin the morning chores. She started with feeding the chickens, and then she gathered the eggs, fed the pig in the pen beside the barn, and spent some time working in the garden. She used an old-fashioned blade to cut back overgrown weeds around the edge of the fence. She used a back and forth swing of the blade that sliced through the growth like a scythe in both directions of the swing. Grass and weeds were sliced and tossed aside, leaving a rough but effective cut. Dane was getting tired just watching her. Did she ever take a break?
Emma picked up an ax from the shed and headed for the back of the house. The dull thud of the ax sounded moments later. Dane knew Emma still hadn’t warmed to her much and didn’t have much to say to her, but if she was going to stay here, she needed to start pulling her weight. The money she gave Emma wouldn’t go far, and she was drinking her coffee and eating her food.
Dane decided it was time to intervene. She rounded the corner of the house just in time to see a dead pine tree fall away from the other corner of the house. The tree bounced once when it hit the ground, and branches snapped under the weight of the impact. The top of the tree was so brittle it broke into three pieces along the trunk. Dane jumped at the thundering sound of splintering wood.
Emma leaned on the ax handle as she wiped sweat from her brow. Her skin glistened in the morning sun as the light danced across the perspiration coating her neck and chest. Dane’s heart fluttered, and she felt a flash of warmth rush across her skin.
She gathered herself and walked toward Emma.
“Hey,” she said, not wanting to startle her. “Good job with that. Looks like it was ready to take out part of the house.”
Emma looked up as Dane approached. “You’re right. I should have done this a long time ago. I got lucky this time.” She took the ax and began chopping off branches along the trunk of the tree.
“Would you like some help?”
Emma stopped and handed the ax to Dane. “Suit yourself.”
Dane took the handle, placing her hand over Emma’s, trapping her fingers. “I’d be happy to help out with things around here. It would be good for me to stay busy, and I’d like to help. Maybe if you didn’t have to do everything around here you could get a little rest, relax a little.”
Emma pulled her hand away. “I can take care of myself. If you want to help, then help, but don’t expect any favors.”
“Ouch,” Dane said. “That isn’t what I meant. I’m just trying to help. I don’t want anything from you, Emma.” That wasn’t exactly true. Emma was beautiful. Dane would have to be crazy not to notice her.
Emma’s cheeks and neck turned red. Dane braced herself for the next round, expecting Emma to explode.
Emma squared her shoulders, steadying herself. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been rude to you, but all I have is Curtis and this farm and that bar. I’ve lost everything and everyone else. I can’t afford to lose this too.”
Dane took a step closer to Emma. “I’m not the bad guy. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I hope you’re right, city girl. I hope you’re right.” Emma turned and walked away, leaving Dane staring after her. What did Emma mean about losing everything and everyone? Was she talking about her parents? Why was she so afraid?”
Frustrated, Dane turned back to the tree and sank the ax into a branch. She kept swinging the ax as she tried to work through the conflict with Emma. Her thoughts twisted and took her back to another place. The sun was hot on her skin and sweat ran down her spine.
She was running late again. As expected, Michelle was pissed at her. “Just give me five minutes and I’ll meet you downstairs at the car,” Dane pleaded.
“Why do you always do this? It isn’t just your ass on the line, Dane—I need this job. I’m part of this team too.”
Dane grabbed Michelle’s arm. “I’m sorry, I screwed up, okay. It won’t happen again.”
Michelle shook her head. “Get your own ride this time. I’ve got to go.”
“Michelle,” Dane called as her best friend walked away, pushing through the hotel doors without looking back. She watched Michelle get into the car waiting at the curb. She glanced up at Dane, her eyes full of disappointment, then closed the door. An instant later a red ball of fire exploded in front of Dane. The glass front of the hotel shattered into a million flying shards of shrapnel slicing its way through everything in its path.
Dane hit the floor as glass and shards of metal and mortar rained down on her.
“Dane? Dane, are you okay?”
Dane frowned. Someone kept saying her name. Her head hurt. She reached up and pressed her hand to her forehead.
“Shit, Dane, answer me.”
Dane blinked. Emma’s blue eyes looked back at her with fear and concern. Dane frowned. “What happened?”
“Thank God. I thought you’d killed yourself,” Emma said with a heavy sigh.
“Why would I do that?” Dane was having a hard time figuring this out. One moment she was cutting a tree, the next she was getting blown up.
“You can’t just throw an ax around like that. You have to watch what you’re doing. You smashed through one of the dead branches and it flew back and hit you in the head.” Emma grimaced. “That’s one heck of a goose egg you’ve got there. That’s going to hurt for a while.”
Dane was mesmerized by Emma’s voice and the way she looked at her. She wanted Emma to keep talking so she would stay with her a little longer.
“You have pretty lips,” Dane mumbled.
Emma frowned. “What?”
“Tell me another story. I like your stories.”
Emma groaned. “Shit. This can’t be good.” She tugged Dane’s arm around her shoulder and helped her to her feet. “I think you have a concussion. We need to get you inside.”
Once inside Emma had Dane lie down on the sofa. “Stay here. I’ll get some ice.”
Dane sluggishly reached for Emma, not wanting her to leave.
“Here, hold this on your head.”
“Ouch,” Dane complained as the ice pressed into the wound. “It was all my fault. I’m sorry I was late. I should have been with you.”
Emma seemed confused. “Who are you talking to, sweetie?”
Dane frowned but wouldn’t answer, still having trouble keeping up with what was happening.
“I’m going to call an ambulance. You need to see a doctor.”
Dane pushed Emma away. “No. No hospital.”
“Dane, you hit your head really hard. You’re not making much sense right now. I need to have you looked at. This is serious.”
“No hospital,” Dane insisted, trying to get up.
Emma pushed Dane back down onto the sofa and sighed. “Okay, let me make a phone call. Just be still for now.” She had to get a grip. Panic was making her irrational. Her heart thundered a rapid beat in her ears, and all she wanted to do was hold her hand against Dane’s chest to feel the steady beat of her heart, reassuring and strong. Emma was scared. She had seen the limb snap back, hitting Dane in the head. Dane crumpled like a rag doll tossed to the ground. Dane was unconscious when she reached her. She had thought Dane was dead.
Emma reached for the phone, returning to her seat next to Dane the instant she had the cordless in her hand. Fear clutched her like a hand closing around her throat during the few seconds it took to retrieve the phone. Dane was lucky to be alive. Emma pressed her hand to Dane’s neck, feeling the strong steady pulse beneath her fingertips. She swallowed hard, feeling her fear loosen its grip. She took a deep relieved breath. She cupped Dane’s cheek in her hand, brushing her thumb lightly against Dane’s cheek. Dane’s skin was silky smooth and warm against her palm.
Emma hung up the phone just as Curtis bounded into the room.
“Dang, Emma, what did you do to Dane?”
Emma glared at him. “I didn’t do anything to her. She was cutting a branch off a dead tree and it snapped back and hit her in the head.”
Curtis laughed. “Don’t worry, Dane, that’s happened to me before too. And don’t worry about it when she yells at you. She just gets scared.”
“I didn’t yell at her,” Emma protested, her frustration getting the better of her. “You’re not helping, Curtis.”
Dane was quiet.
“How are you feeling,” Emma asked, kneeling on the floor beside her, checking the knot on her head.
Dane moved the ice pack. “I feel like someone hit me in the head with a baseball bat.”
Emma was relieved. This sounded more like Dane. “Do you know where you are?”
“I’m in your house.”
“Well, you sound better, at least. You were a little confused earlier. Will you go to the hospital now?”
Dane put the ice back on her head. “I don’t do hospitals. People tend to die there.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “You need to have your head checked.”
Dane laughed. “Believe it or not, you’re not the first person to tell me that.”
“This is serious,” Emma protested.
Dane reached for Emma’s hand, gripping her fingers in hers. “I know what a concussion feels like, and I’m sure you’re right. But I’ll be fine. If my headache gets worse or the confusion returns, I’ll go to the hospital. But right now, there’s no need to waste a day to have a doctor tell me the same thing.”
Emma was getting angry. And she didn’t want to think of the tingling sensation rippling through her hand where Dane’s fingers were laced with hers. “I can see I’m wasting my breath.” She turned to Curtis. “Watch her while I go get ready for work. Do not let her go to sleep.”
“All right,” Curtis agreed.
Dane watched Emma storm out of the room. “What’s her problem?”
Curtis shrugged. “She’s been a little sensitive about stuff like this since Momma and Daddy died.”
Dane considered the information. “I know you said your mother died of a broken heart, but what happened to your father?”
“A bad man shot him.”
Dane pushed up onto her elbows. “Who shot him?”
Curtis shrugged. “Nobody knows. Emma didn’t live here then. She lived somewhere in the city. She came home to help Momma for a while, but then Momma died too. I was still kind of little. I don’t remember much about it.”
Holy shit. No wonder Emma didn’t trust anyone. Someone murdered her father and ripped her family apart. She’d given her whole life to this place.
Curtis continued talking. “Erin came around for a while, but she didn’t like it here much.”
“That was Emma’s girlfriend. She stopped coming around after Momma died. Emma got real sad after that. It’s just been me and Emma ever since.”
Dane had a good idea what had happened. “Wow, I guess I’d be angry too.”
Dane spent part of the day going over county records and making phone calls, but her head hurt so bad she couldn’t read anymore, and no one would tell her anything over the phone. She was pretty sure she’d found a lead and was eager to check it out. She decided to have Curtis drive her around a while. If he was with her, people were a little more receptive to her questions.
She couldn’t stand the thought of just sitting around the house all day. At least driving would help her learn her way around better. She had town mastered, that was no big deal, but the smaller side roads twisted and wound through the mountains like a labyrinth. Just in the time she’d spent with Curtis, she’d realized many of the roads he’d used were not on her map. They were old logging roads or Jeep trails people had cut through the mountains as they cut timber.
Around here it wasn’t uncommon to see a family of six go up the road on an ATV on their way to church. They might not own a car, but a four-wheeler or a side-by-side ATV were part of their way of life and gave them access to places that were otherwise inaccessible except on foot. Dane had lucked out when she bought her Jeep. It was the perfect vehicle for what she needed to do here.
Dane went to the house, but Curtis wasn’t there. Her next stop was the bar. It was early, so the bar wasn’t busy yet. Just a few regulars sat around playing cards and watching a baseball game.
“Hey,” Dane said to Emma as she walked up to the bar. “Is Curtis around?”
Emma shook her head. “I thought he was with you. He’s supposed to be watching you today. How’s your head?”
“It still hurts a little, but it’s okay. Curtis didn’t want to go to the courthouse with me, so he bailed. I thought he’d be home when I got back, but he wasn’t at the house.”
“He hasn’t been around today. There’s no telling what he’s up to. What do you need him for anyway?”
“I think I found some information about my family. There’s a place I wanted to look at in Smoky Junction, but I don’t know if I can find it on my own.”
Emma frowned. “Be careful around there. People won’t like you poking around. Don’t turn around in anyone’s driveway or you might be met with a shotgun in your face. The Junction is a tight community. Most of those folks are related to each other and they don’t like strangers coming around.”
“Ha,” Dane laughed. “How is that any different than around here?”
“Trust me. We’re friendly compared to those people.”
Dane wasn’t laughing anymore. She had the feeling Emma was dead serious. “I don’t really need to talk to anyone, not yet anyway. There’s an old family cemetery up there that may give me some clues. I can’t believe it’s been so hard to get answers about this. I thought there would be more records at the courthouse.”
Emma sighed. “They’ve been trying to update the records for the past couple of years. Since they built the new justice center, anyway. People complain all the time that things are not right, that things have been lost, or entered wrong. You may do better going through the old archives, if you can get them to let you have access.”
Dane bristled. “Those are public records—they have to give me access.”
Emma shrugged. “They may not say no, but they may have a good story that keeps you out. Things work a lot different around here, big city, and you’re going to have to learn that if you plan on sticking around.”
Dane felt her resolve slip. Every turn she made seemed to put her up against a roadblock. Her shoulders slumped. “I need to find them. I need to know about my mother’s family. I need to know there’s something different for me.”
Emma frowned. “What do you mean?”
Dane looked away. “I’ve been around the world. I’ve done a lot of things and met a lot of people. But I’ve never done anything worth remembering. I remember my mother. She was something special. I’d like to think I have something of her in me. I need to know I’m more than a self-centered bastard.”
Emma flinched. “That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” She was shocked to hear Dane describe herself this way.
Dane looked Emma in the eye. “No. So far, I think it’s a pretty damn good assessment.”
Emma opened a beer and slid it across the bar to Dane. She wasn’t sure where this was going, but she had the feeling if Dane was up for talking, this was a story she would want to hear. “What are you talking about? What did you ever do to hurt anybody?”
“Thanks,” Dane said taking the beer. “I’ve spent so much time trying to run from my father that I didn’t see that I was being just like him. I was never there when it was important. I let people down. I just want to start over.”
“Why have you been running from your father?” Emma asked, wanting to keep Dane talking. That hit to her head might have shaken something loose.
Dane clenched and unclenched her teeth, making the muscle in her jaw jump. “He acted like my mother getting sick was something she did to him. It wasn’t like he was around most of the time anyway. He was always working, or that’s what he had us believe. I don’t know why he bothered marrying her if he thought so little of her. After she died, he refused to talk about her. It was as if he wanted to erase every memory of her. I was the constant reminder he couldn’t get rid of. He married his second wife only months after my mother died. I don’t know which of us was more eager for me to finish school and move out.”
The pain in Dane’s voice touched something deep inside Emma. “How old were you when your mother died?”
“Fourteen. I had four long years in that house pretending I didn’t exist, trying to avoid my father’s wife. I wasn’t allowed to go to college anywhere but the University of Tennessee. If I’d had my choice, I would have chosen something on the other side of the world. As soon as I graduated, I left. I haven’t seen my father in years. We’ve barely spoken. I get an email from time to time, but he’s mostly interested in my job.”
“What kind of job?” The more Dane talked, the more Emma found she wanted to know about her. Dane was a mystery. It had been easy to think of her as a troublemaker at first, but the truth was Dane upset her. Dane came from a world that had been stripped from Emma’s grasp. Dane was devilishly attractive, and Emma didn’t want to fall for her charms. Hearing Dane tell her story made her more relatable. Emma’s grip slipped on her resolve not to get close to Dane.
“I’m a photographer. I worked with an overseas news team for the last few years. You know, the stories you read about the real people in different countries, what their lives and cultures are like. Stories that help us see people as human and not as an enemy.”
“So you worked hard and made a life for yourself. What’s wrong with that?”
Dane grimaced. “Let’s just say, I wasn’t a very good friend. I used my past as an excuse to do whatever I wanted, no matter who it hurt.”
“Who did you hurt?”
Dane shook her head, not ready to tell that story. She never talked about what happened, too afraid she wouldn’t be able to control the memory once it escaped. She put the bottle down on the bar with a few bucks to cover the drink. “Thanks for listening, Emma. But that’s a story for another time.” She slid off the stool. “If you see Curtis, let him know I’m looking for him.”
“You aren’t going to go up there alone, are you?” Emma asked, her words thick with concern.
“It can’t hurt to go for a drive and visit a cemetery. I’ll be careful. Promise.”
“You could wait till tomorrow or at least until Curtis shows up.” Emma bit her lip. “I’ll even go with you on Monday if it can wait.”
Dane smiled. It meant a lot that Emma would offer to help her. “Thanks. I may take you up on that.”
“Dane,” Emma called.
Dane turned back to face Emma.
“We all make choices we regret. But regret isn’t a fair emotion. It takes away from what we were going through, what we were feeling in the moment. It’s like looking through a foggy window. Stories have a way of telling themselves if we give them time. Be patient. You’ll either find what you’re looking for, or it will find you.”
Dane frowned, not sure what Emma meant. She shrugged. “Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”
She stepped out into the sun, squinting against the blinding light. Her head still hurt. Maybe Emma was right. Maybe she should just take a break today. The dead weren’t going anywhere. She’d have more daylight tomorrow and maybe a clearer head.
“Where are we going, Curtis?” Dane asked. They were supposed to be going to the cemetery to look for her family, but Curtis had her off on a wild goose chase. They had been driving through rough Jeep trails for the past hour, and Curtis still wouldn’t clue her in on what he was up to.
The road widened and then opened into an expansive circular clearing. There was a large mound of dirt across the clearing with ATV tracks crisscrossing the sides. There was a huge fire pit in the center with evidence of frequent use.
“What is this place?” Dane asked, stopping the Jeep.
“It’s just a place where people party. We call it the four-lane.”
“Okay. It’s the party place. Why are we here?”
Curtis fidgeted with the old silver dollar he wore on a chain around his neck.
Dane was getting a bad feeling about this. Curtis was up to something.
“Look, man, give it up, or I’m turning this Jeep around and going home.”
“No. Just wait a minute,” Curtis protested. “I’m meeting a friend here. He told me he’d be here.”
Dane grabbed Curtis by the arm. “Why here? Why couldn’t you meet in town or at the bar? I warned you, Curtis—I don’t want anything to do with drugs.”
Curtis didn’t say anything.
“Emma doesn’t like me talking to Trevor.”
Dane frowned. “Who’s Trevor?”
Curtis turned in his seat to face her. “He’s my friend. He hangs out with me and doesn’t let people pick on me. I do things for him sometimes.”
The bad feeling Dane had earlier was getting worse.
The sound of an ATV roared through the trees. Someone was coming. Curtis opened the door and jumped out of the Jeep before Dane could stop him.
“Damn it.” This wasn’t good.
She waited at the edge of the tree line. She could see Curtis standing next to a side-by-side ATV. The driver was a big man with a bald head and a bushy black beard. Curtis was acting nervous. He kept shifting his feet and moving his hands around in the air. He stepped up to the ATV. His back was to Dane, making it hard for her to see what was happening. Curtis was suddenly very still.
Dane put the Jeep in gear and inched forward.
Curtis stepped away from the ATV. He was laughing. He had one hand in his pocket and waved to the man with the other. The man in the ATV spun the tires, throwing rocks and dirt behind him. He disappeared into the trees as quickly as he had arrived.
“What the hell was that about?” Dane asked the moment Curtis was back at the Jeep. “What are you mixed up with, Curtis?”
“Nothing, I promise.”
“Are you buying drugs from this guy?”
“No. He gives me weed sometimes, but that’s no big deal.”
Dane raised her eyebrows, surprised by the answer. “No big deal, huh? Then I guess it’s okay for Emma to know about this.”
“No,” Curtis said, his eyes wide with fear. “I told you, Emma doesn’t like me talking to Trevor. She’ll just get mad.”
“Is he one of the guys she doesn’t want you hanging out with that sometimes get you into trouble?”
Curtis dropped his head, suddenly interested in the strings hanging from a rip in his jeans. “Yeah. You aren’t going to tell her, are you?”
Dane wasn’t sure what she should do. Curtis was an adult, but not really. And Emma would kill her if anything happened to Curtis and she hadn’t said anything about this.
“If you don’t want me to tell Emma, you have to promise me you won’t meet with this guy anymore. You at least have to promise to tell me and let me go with you.”
“Trevor is my friend. I’m not doing anything wrong,” Curtis argued. He slumped his shoulders when Dane didn’t give in. “Fine. I’ll tell you.”
Dane sat back in her seat, satisfied this was the most she was going to get from Curtis. She turned the Jeep around. “Let’s get out of here. We’ve already wasted most of the morning with this. I still want to get to the cemetery today. No more stops and no more tricks. Do you understand?”
“Sorry, Dane. Don’t be mad.”
Dane shook her head, wondering what it would take to get through to the kid. “You can’t keep doing this to me, Curtis. I need to know I can trust you.”
Curtis sat up suddenly. “You can trust me. I keep secrets all the time. Everyone knows my word is good. You’ll see, Dane—I’ll take you today, and I’ll tell you when I see Trevor again. I always keep a promise.”
Dane knew Curtis meant what he said. She just wondered what promises he had made to Trevor.
Curtis led Dane down a narrow dirt path that looked more like a forgotten old driveway than a road. The brush had grown over into the road and scraped the sides of the Jeep as they crawled over the rocks and gullies carved into the path by off-road tires and heavy rains. The road suddenly disappeared into a fast-moving creek. The water didn’t look too deep, but she knew she risked sinking into the wet sandy soil if she didn’t get this right. She peered across, trying to judge the tracks climbing out of the water on the other side. She eased into the water, not pushing too hard, but making sure to keep the vehicle moving. She bounced and rocked as the Jeep maneuvered over the river rock. The water was getting high, but the old Jeep managed to keep running. Dane drove up the bank, relieved to have solid ground under her. Half a mile later she came to a clearing on a hill.
“This is it,” Curtis announced, sounding proud of himself.
Dane climbed out of the Jeep next to a large white oak tree. An old wooden chair leaned against the base of the tree, and a faded American flag hung proudly from a pole attached high up on the trunk. Dane worked her way through the overgrown grass and weeds, carefully reading the names on the stones. Some were so old she could barely make out the words. She was overwhelmed by the number of graves belonging to babies, their ages ranging from one day to only a handful of years. Many of the graves were marked simply with a flat rock turned on its side and driven into the ground. Faint grooves in the sandstone hinted of what had once been etched there. She pulled a pad of paper from her bag and placed it against one of the larger rocks. She rubbed against the paper with the side of a pencil. Slowly the grooves in the stone began to show as empty spaces on the page. Dane could make out a few of the words. “Jacob Wilks 18-something to 1896.”
Curtis whistled. “Dang, that’s a long time ago.”
“Yeah, it was.” Dane said moving on to the next grave. The earth had caved in from decay and the stone leaned sideways. A stick snapped under her foot. An eerie rattle sounded from the grave. Dane jumped back. The largest snake she had ever seen reared its head, its tail vibrating a warning for her to back off.
“Watch out, Dane.” Curtis pushed Dane back away from the snake. “You gotta be careful. That snake means business. You got too close to its nice comfy bed. I’ll take care of it.”
Curtis went to the woods and came back with a long stick.
“Hey, don’t hurt it. It was here first. He lives here—I’m just visiting.”
Curtis grinned. “I won’t hurt it. See how big he is? By the number of buttons on his tail, that snake’s gotta be at least seven or eight, hell, maybe even ten years old. This old guy has earned his way.”
Curtis slid the stick under the snake and gently lifted it out of the hole. The snake was even bigger than Dane thought. It had to be at least four feet long and three inches in diameter in the middle. Curtis carried the snake to the edge of the woods and lowered it to the ground, careful not to get in its path.
Dane grinned when Curtis turned back to her, smiling like he’d just won a ribbon at the fair.
“Thanks, man,” Dane said, with praise.
Curtis stuck his hands in his pockets looking sheepish. “What are you lookin’ for in these graves, anyway?”
“Answers,” Dane said turning back to the headstone. She brushed her hand across the cold gray stone, dislodging years of dirt and bits of moss. A name slowly emerged. Caldwell Stewart. “This is it.”
Dane took out her camera and snapped a picture of the stone. This was the first real lead she’d found since she started this journey. She moved on to the next stone. Mary George Stewart. Her heart sped up. Each new stone felt like a step closer to her own truth. Seeing the names made her feel like she had roots somewhere, that there was more to her than the cold distance she’d learned from her father.
She stopped at a large stone at the end of a row. It was newer than the others. The stone was gray granite, and weather and fungus had yet to tarnish the sheen of the polish or fill in the letters engraved on the surface. Isaak Stewart 1936–1986 and Ida George Stewart 1942–2007. Together in Heaven Forever. Dane ran her hand across the names as if stroking the weathered face of an elder. Curtis circled the grave, sticking close to Dane. He was unusually quiet.
“Hey, there’s writing on this side too,” he said excitedly, breaking the silence.
Dane circled the stone. Her heart fluttered. “Oh my God, these people are my grandparents.”
“I believe so,” Dane said, kneeling before the list of names identifying the couple’s children and grandchildren. “See this name here? Pearl Jean Stewart. That was my mother’s name.”
“That’s a nice name,” Curtis said, placing his hand on Dane’s shoulder.
Dane nodded again, a lump forming in her throat. “I never knew any of her family. I remember vague stories she used to tell me about her mother and sisters, but I don’t remember them ever visiting, or even ever talking to them on the phone. I didn’t know them at all.”
“Sorry, Dane. I can’t imagine not having family around. I’ve got Emma and a bunch of cousins around I can see anytime I want. I would be lonely if I didn’t have them.”
Dane patted his shoulder. “It’s okay, Curtis. I’m okay. I can learn about them now.” She took a picture of the stone, front and back. “They haven’t been gone that long. Someone has to know something about them, about my mother.”
“Like what?” Curtis asked.
“I want to know what she was like as a kid. What her life was like before she met my father. Why she never came back here. Why they were never a part of my life.” She turned to Curtis. “Do you know any of the names here?”
Curtis shook his head.
“What about the name George? Do you know anyone with that last name? It doesn’t seem too common, even around here.”
Curtis shrugged. “I don’t remember anybody named George.”
Dane wasn’t surprised, but she was still disappointed. She had the names she needed, and now she just needed to find someone who knew them, who would talk to her. If she was lucky, some of her family still lived around here.
“What will you do now? Curtis asked.
“I start asking questions, I guess. Who knows, I may get lucky just looking through the phone book.”
Curtis nodded. “Don’t worry, you’ll find them. I’ll help you find them.”
Dane put her arm around his shoulder. “Thanks, Curtis. You’re a good friend.”
He beamed. He threw his arm around her shoulder and they walked arm in arm back to the Jeep.
Dane’s stomach rumbled. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”
“I’m always hungry. I bet Emma will make us a sandwich.”
Dane laughed. “I bet she will.”
Dane followed Curtis into the bar and settled in her usual spot. The gentle hum of music and conversation surrounded her like the haunting voices of the dead. She was tired from searching for the answers she wanted and running from the memories she couldn’t forget.
“What’s up, Curtis?” Emma asked, wiping down the bar.
“Just hanging out. We found Dane’s grandparents’ graves today. Saw a big-ass rattler too. He must have been four feet long.”
Emma shook her head, looking to Dane. “Did you find the answers you were looking for?”
“Just a bunch of names for now. The ghosts weren’t talking, but maybe someone around here will.”
“Give it time,” Emma said gently.
Dane looked at the wall behind Emma’s head. “How about a shot of Jack and a beer.”
Emma glanced back at the bottle of Jack Daniel’s. “I don’t think you’ll find any answers in a bottle of Tennessee Whiskey.”
Dane tapped the bar with one finger. “No, but I’ve got a few things I would like to forget tonight, and my buddy Jack has the cure I’m looking for.”
Emma shook her head. “Suit yourself.” She poured a shot and set a bottle of beer on the counter in front of Dane.
“What about you, Curtis?”
Curtis grinned. “I’ll have a beer and a bologna sandwich with cheese, pickles, and onions.”
Emma laughed. “Of course, why did I even have to ask?”
Dane held up two fingers. “How about a double this time?”
Emma sighed and poured the drink.
“What’s her problem?” Dane asked as Emma went to the kitchen.
Dane took another drink, letting the whiskey burn its way down her throat before taking a drink of the ice-cold beer. The familiar burn of the whiskey collided with the cold chill of the beer creating the numbness that she was looking for. She knew it was only temporary. The past would be knocking on her door as soon as she opened her eyes in the morning. But if she was lucky, she wouldn’t remember the nightmares that would haunt her through the night.
“I’ll catch you later, Dane,” Curtis said finishing his beer and pushing his plate aside.
“Where are you going?”
“I got stuff to do.”
Curtis put his hand on Dane’s back and leaned close. “I’m going to see a girl,” he whispered into her ear.
“Really? Ha, you dog.”
Curtis smiled. “Don’t tell Emma. I don’t want her to lecture me.”
Dane slapped Curtis on the back. “All right, man. Good luck.”
As Curtis stepped away, a tall man with a thick beard and black cowboy hat took his seat. He nodded to Dane.
“How’s it going?” Dane said, tossing back the last of the whiskey.
The big man ordered a beer.
Dane signaled for another double. “Hey, what’s your name, man?” She felt a cold shiver run up her spine when the big man turned to her.
“Who wants to know?” His voice was so deep it rumbled when he spoke.
The guy looked at her like she was something he wanted to pick off the bottom of his shoe. He planted his elbows on the bar and leaned forward, blocking Dane with his huge arm.
“Okay. Guess you don’t want to talk. That’s cool. I was just wondering if you’ve ever heard of Pearl Jean Stewart?”
The big man’s beard bristled as he worked his jaw.
Dane took another drink. “She used to live around here. Ever heard of her?”
He turned up his beer and drained it. “I can’t help ya,” he grumbled. “Do ya mind? If I wanted to hear a woman yap in my ear all night, I would’ve stayed home.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sure, sorry.” Dane pinched her thumb and finger together in front of her mouth and moved her hand from one side to the other. “All zipped up. I won’t say another word. Sorry I bothered you.”
The big guy turned back to the bar.
Dane looked into her glass, swirling the amber liquid in the glass. She closed one eye and squinted into the liquid. Nope. No answers there either.