Tuesday, May 16, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 14

City of Secrets

Chapter 14

Previously: Ms. Miller, the school guidance counselor, was found dead in her car--her throat slit--on the first day of school.
Penny woke in the middle of the night after a realistic nightmare featuring her brother's ghost, a mysterious stranger, and Ms. Miller's body. Just as she was falling back to sleep, Penny heard shouting from downstairs. 

Chapter 14
    As Penny crept down the hall, an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu came over her. This was so much like the dream she’d just woken up from that she wondered if she really had woken up. What if she was still dreaming? She thought about pinching herself, but then wondered if that actually worked. Couldn’t her dream-self just dream that she was feeling pain? She settled for a self-inspection instead, and was relieved to see that she was wearing the over-sized t-shirt with the periodic table of the element symbols for lead and zinc holding guitars and dancing. The shirt read “heavy metals” in fancy letters. Richie had bought it for her because she was always complaining about his music being too loud. He’d said she couldn’t complain because she also liked heavy metal. He hadn’t even called her a dork, though she figured he had to have been thinking it.

    She pushed the memory aside. It was too much. But at least she wasn’t wearing the rainbow pajamas of her middle school days, which meant that she was awake.

    “. . . just to insult me?” Her father’s voice drifted up the stairs.

    The only thing Penny could tell from the muffled response was that it came from a woman. Hope filled Penny’s heart, and she hurried the rest of the way down the stairs. She never thought she’d be happy to hear her parents arguing, but she was. Since Richie’s death, her mother hadn’t raised her voice above the dreamy whisper that was beginning to drive Penny insane. But if Vicky was angry enough to argue with her husband, then it meant she was feeling something again. It meant she was back.

    Knowing she shouldn’t, but unable to resist, Penny crept forward until she reached the kitchen. Staying clear of the dim yellow light that leaked into the hall, she pressed herself against the wall. The scent of coffee drifted to her nose.

    “Help? With what? We’re fine,” Douglas said.

    Penny bit back an exasperated sigh. She was tempted to run into the kitchen and shake the truth into her father. What was wrong with him? They were not fine. They were so far from fine, she wasn’t even sure what that was anymore.

    A harsh laugh drifted out of the kitchen. “Fine? Doug, your son is dead, your wife has checked out, and your daughter is a senior.”

    Penny’s heart sank. The voice didn’t belong to her mother. It sounded like her Aunt Sharon, but that couldn’t be right. Sharon lived in Boulder, which was about a four-hour drive. Penny hadn’t heard anything about Sharon planning a visit. If she’d just gotten there, it meant she’d been driving all night. But why? Wait . . . why was Penny being a senior on Sharon’s list of things that weren’t fine?

    “Don’t you think I know these things?” Douglas asked.

    “I think you have an uncanny ability to lie to yourself. This whole damn town does. It’s a sickness. One of many.”

    A chill went down Penny’s spine. She didn’t have a clue what her aunt was talking about, but the bitterness in her voice was surprising.

    “So you did come to insult me. You could’ve just done that over the phone.”

    “No, that’s not it. Doug, I’m sorry.” A short silence followed. Penny heard the clinking sound of a mug being set on the counter. “Our application was denied again.”

    More silence. Finally, Doug said, “Oh, Share, I’m so sorry. Look, I can’t imagine how hard this must be, but you can’t give up. You can—”

    “Jerry’s leaving me.” Her voice was flat. Hollow. Penny’s heart broke for her aunt. She hadn’t been that close with her Uncle Jerry, but she’d always thought he and Sharon had been good together. When she’d stayed with them over the summer, everything had seemed fine. Had that been an act?

    “Because of that?” A beat later, Douglas continued, “Then he’s an ass. The two of you are in this together. What does he think? That he can find someone—”

    “Who isn’t barren? That’s exactly what he thinks. And he’s right. Then he won’t need to go through the system to have a child.”

    Guilt washed over Penny. She’d had no idea that Sharon couldn’t have children—that she’d even wanted them. This was none of her business. She had no right to be eavesdropping.

    “He’s still an asshole. He should stand by—”

    “I don’t blame Jerry. I blame him.”

    Penny had been backing toward the stairs, when her father said, “Sharon.” Penny froze. She recognized that tone all too well. She was more accustomed to hearing it used on Richie, but it had been used on her a few times over the course of her life. It was her father’s warning tone. It meant, wherever you’re about to take this, don’t go any further. 

    Sharon must not have known about Doug’s warning tone, because she didn’t stop. “You know it’s true. He said I’d be free, and I was stupid enough to believe him. All I had to do was give up my chance at having children, and I could leave. I thought it was worth it. But I thought—I don’t know what I thought. I didn’t know how far he would take it. I didn’t think he could—”

    “Sharon. Shut. Your. Mouth.” Doug’s voice was low. Deadly. Penny had never heard her father like that before. When he was angry, he usually shouted. Penny thought the quiet anger was even more powerful, but she detected a note a fear in her father’s voice as well.

    Silence fell over the kitchen. Penny’s heart pounded, and she knew she needed to get upstairs. If her father caught her now, who knew how much trouble she’d be in. But she couldn’t bring herself to move. What Sharon had said didn’t make sense. Her father’s anger made even less sense. Nothing made sense anymore. Her nightmares, Richie’s death, Josh’s silence, Chase Martindale’s involvement. . . . Penny was tired of things not making sense, so she stayed right where she was. She deserved answers.

    When Douglas spoke again, his tone was calm. “What are you talking about? You haven’t been drinking, have you? While driving? What is wrong with you? You could get yourself killed. Vicky couldn’t handle that. Not after Kyle. After Richie.”

    Kyle? Who was Kyle?

    “Fuck you, Doug. You know I’m not drunk, and you know exactly what I’m talking about. He did this to me. It’s my punishment. I could’ve been Mrs. Conrad Martindale. I could’ve had everything I ever wanted. I could’ve had things I didn’t even know I wanted. But instead I chose freedom. Except I had no idea that I would never really—”

    There was a bang as what Penny assumed was a coffee mug was slammed down on the counter.

    Sharon gasped. “D—Doug.”

    “We. Aren’t. Supposed. To. Talk. About. It.”

    “Oh, come on, Douglas. He can’t hear us. He can’t possibly.”

    Penny rubbed her fingers to her temples, struggling to keep up. Who was the “he” they kept mentioning? Chase’s father? Had he and Sharon had a thing in high school? That was news, but it sounded like they had, or at least, Conrad had wanted them to. Whoever they were talking about, he was powerful, and they were afraid of him. Conrad Martindale easily fit that bill. But why was her dad afraid Conrad could hear them?

    “Sharon, you just accused him of causing your infertility and being responsible for five failed adoptions. Apparently you think he’s akin to God. You want to know what I think? Stress. It’s getting to you. It’s perfectly understandable. First, yet another adoption falls through, and then Jerry. We’re here for you Sharon, but you have to stop talking like this. It’s insane. You’re welcome to stay with us as long as you need.”

    Speaking of insane, how about this entire conversation? Penny thought. She didn’t like the way her dad was talking. One second he was right along with her aunt in Crazy Land, and the next he acted like he had no idea what she was talking about.

    “Like I’d stay here longer than I have to. Look, Douglas, I came here to talk about Penny.”

    Penny inched closer to the kitchen doorway. There was no way she was going upstairs now.

    “What about her?”

    Sharon let out a huff of air that might’ve been a laugh, but she didn’t sound amused. “What about her?” she echoed mockingly. “You really are a piece of work. What happened to you, Douglas?”

    “Back to the insults again, I see. Shall I brew another pot of coffee?”

    “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand,” Sharon said. “Staying here and taking the deal was one thing. A part of me actually gets it. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t tempted. But having children, knowing what would happen to them?”

    Penny felt like she’d accidentally wandered into a different, yet identical house, and was listening to a conversation between two people who sounded like her aunt and her father, but weren’t.

    “Not would. Could. Come on, Sharon. You think Vicky and I really believed it could happen to them? You think anyone believes it’s going to be their kids?”

    Penny was beginning to wonder if they’d laced the coffee with LSD. That would explain everything.

    “Is that what helps you sleep at night?” There was a pause before Sharon continued. “Look, you know Penny’s in danger. I can help you. I can get—”

    Penny’s stomach somersaulted. Danger? How was she in danger?

    “She’s not. Not anymore. He never—” Doug paused and let out a long sigh. “We shouldn’t even be talking about this. It’s too dangerous. But he never takes two sacrifices from one family. Even he isn’t that cruel.”

    Penny felt sick. Sacrifices? Had she heard that right? Were they talking about Conrad Martindale again? She’d come to the conclusion a long time ago that the entire Martindale family was completely heartless, but sacrifices? Her dad couldn’t possibly have meant that word literally. Except—two from one family. Richie. Chase had killed Richie. But his father—was he in on that? And how did Penny’s father fit into it? There was no way he knew about it. No way. He wouldn’t have let the Martindales—no matter how powerful they were—get away with it.

    “You’re just going to trust that?”

    “What choice do I have?” Doug asked.

    “Get Penny out of here. Let me take her. She can live with me, finish high school in Boulder.”

    What? Sharon hadn’t mentioned that idea when Penny had been there over the summer. Where was this coming from?

    “Are you insane? You know that won’t work. No one just leaves. It never ends well. Or have you forgotten?” Doug’s voice was eerily low, making Penny’s stomach churn.

    “That’s because people plan it. They think about it, they talk about it, they change their mind several times before actually doing it. Worse, they wait until he’s approached them. None of those things have happened to Penny. If I take her in the morning—no planning, no preparing—it will work. Doug, it’s the only way.”

    “God, Sharon, you don’t know had badly I want to say yes. If I thought—if I knew it would work, I would wake her up right now and send her away.”

    “Then do it.”

    Penny didn’t know what to think. Her father didn’t want her there. But why? Was she actually in danger?

    “Sharon, I can’t. It’s not worth the risk. You’ll be discovered. You’ll both be killed.”

    Penny’s stomach churned. Killed? He couldn’t be serious. This was insane. Killed by who? Just for leaving town? That was ridiculous. She’d been gone all summer, and nothing bad had happened.

    “So what are you going to do then? Just wait and see? Hope for the best?” Sharon asked, acid in her voice.

    “I don’t have a choice. None of us do.”

    “Douglas, don’t you get it? All bets are off. Gertie is dead. Gertie. After all these years. What do you think that means?”

    Gertie? Was she talking about Gertrude Miller? And why was she asking him what it meant? A crazy vagrant had killed Ms. Miller at random. It didn’t mean anything.

    “I think it means you’re under too much stress,” Doug said, his tone gentle.

    Sharon laughed harshly. “You once asked if I thought I was better than you. I told you I wasn’t, but I was wrong. I am better than you. I may have made sacrifices just to get out of this hell, but at least I sacrificed things that were mine. What did you do? You sacrificed your own son so you could have a little bit of power. I don’t care what you say. You knew it was a possibility. And now you’re going to sit back and let the same thing happen to your daughter.”

    “Get out.”

    “Doug, I—.”

    “You heard me. Get out.”

    “I—I didn’t mean it,” Sharon said, her voice shaking.

    Glass shattered against the wall. “Get out!”

    Penny gasped and threw her hand over her mouth, but Sharon’s shriek covered up the sound. Without another second’s hesitation, Penny turned and dashed up the stairs as her aunt and father continued to argue. “Damn it, Doug! Have you lost your mind?”

    “Sharon, get out. I’m not going—”

    Penny slammed her bedroom door shut and flung herself on the bed, throwing the blankets over her head.

    Oh god, oh god, oh god. What the hell was that? Heart pounding, she lifted the blankets and listened. The shouting had stopped. Everything was quiet. Eerily quiet.

    Maybe I never got out of bed. Maybe it was all a dream. The conversation she’d just overheard was exactly like something out of a dream. There wasn’t any other explanation. Nothing they’d said added up. Not a single word.

    Except it had felt real, unlike the earlier dream.

    No. No, Penny, it wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been. She lay back and closed her eyes as her breathing returned to normal. It was just a dream, it was just a dream, it was just a dream. She repeated it over and over until she fell back to sleep.

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