Well… release day is just around the corner. (May 25) Eeeepp! I shared the first two chapters of ENIGMA with my Newsletter readers last week, and this week I am going to share them here.
I’ll put pre-order links at the bottom if you care to click. (Gulp. Here goes nothing.) *It’s times like this wordpress had a tab key. It makes the format look wonky, but trust me, it will look right in the e-book/paperback.
Everyone always wants to know about the first fire I lit. I honestly don’t remember it. I was four.
From what my mom told the reporters, I stole her cigarette lighter while she was “napping” one day. She recited that story a hundred times to the countless reporters that flocked to our door. She relished the semi-fame that only TV crews could bring to our skanky little trailer park.
Apparently, I practically set the whole dump where I used to play on fire. Like I said, though, I don’t remember that first time, but I remember every one since.
It was as though something clicked on in my brain. Something inside ignited right along with that next blaze. Each fire brought with it a rush, a thrill of excitement and a profound sense of calmness. Each strike of a match became an extension of who I was: the strong part. The part no one could touch.
My mom never realized the craving that grew inside me after. No shocker there. She never noticed much about me. No one ever dreamed I would play with fire again. I took pride in that. I hid it well for so, so long. Those early years were dark. Darker than you can imagine. Fire was the only brightness to be found.
Let me be clear. There is no forgiveness for what I’ve done. I deserve what happened to me; of that, I have no doubt.
But, where … how do I even begin to explain?
I guess I’ll start with how I ended up here, which is, no doubt, the only beginning you’ll care about.
The beginning that ends with why.
California. That’s where I decided I was going to start my life over. It seemed like a good place to disappear into the masses. As good as any, I supposed. I had gotten it into my head that once I turned 18, things were going to get better. I’d be an adult. I’d be, I don’t know, smarter somehow.
This wasn’t the first time I’d run away from home, but it was sure as hell going to be the last. I couldn’t stay there. Not anymore. I knew leaving meant I’d have to hitch rides again; something I wasn’t looking forward to. But, I guess, nothing in life is free, especially not a lift from a trucker.
By the time I’d made it to Indiana, my soul was about as low as it could get. That’s where Al found me. I was sitting outside a convenience store, sizing up the truckers as they stopped to fuel up, wondering which one would be the least cruel to a hitcher. It was hard to gauge most of the time. The ones that looked the nicest often were the most sadistic.
Al didn’t say anything to me; he just stopped in front of me and handed me a Sprite and a Snickers bar. I looked up at him, my guard raised even though he looked like a hillbilly Santa. He wore a dirty white t-shirt, red suspenders, and a bright neon camo hat.
“Looks like you could use these more than I could,” he said.
“Thanks.” I hadn’t eaten since for far too long and I was hungry. I tore into the bar with the vigor of an animal, which is what I felt like. I had some money on me, but I tried never to spend it; only when starvation seemed imminent.
“You need a lift somewhere, missy?” he asked. I looked up and saw what appeared to be genuine kindness. I didn’t answer at first, mostly because I was chewing, but I was also wondering just how safe he’d be.
“You remind me of my daughter,” he said. “She would have been 18 this year.” His lips curled inward at an unpleasant memory. He had a dead kid. He struck me as the protective grandpa-type.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
I stood up. “Well, sure beats the hell out of this place.” I looked him in the eye. “What’s your price?”
“My price?” he asked, eyebrows shooting up to the sky.
“For the ride?”
His eyes softened, as though understanding what I was asking.
“How about you just help unload the truck when we get there and we call it square.” He hitched his thumb toward his truck.
“What’s in it, dead bodies?”
He chuckled. “Well, I guess that’s the gamble you’ll have to take if you want the lift.”
I looked back at the truck again. It had no logos or markings that would give any indication of what was inside. I chewed on my lip and looked at the other lingering truckers for a moment before deciding.
“My name’s Sarah,” I said, holding out my hand.
“I’m Al. Al King. Pleasure to meet you.”
Of course, in retrospect, I should have told him, “No, thanks” and taken my chances on another lift, but he seemed like a decent guy, and unknowingly or not, I really needed something decent in my life.
“So, what’s Mullen known for?” I asked, the second day on the road. The breakfast he’d bought for me still weighed heavy in my stomach. I’d forgotten what a real meal had felt like. While he had paid the tab, I had tucked two of the leftover biscuits into my bag to savor later.
“Oh, well, Mullen is a small town, so aside from cattle, probably The Sandhills,” Al replied with unmistakable pride.
“What’s that? A restaurant?” I asked.
“The Sandhills is more of an area of land than one set place. They’re basically grass-covered sand dunes. Awful pretty to look at. A might finer than out there,” he said, pointing to the vastness. I followed his gesture and looked out at the static view. We’d been driving for hours without coming across a single bump or curve in the road, not even in the landscape around it. It felt like we were never making any forward progress but, instead, frozen in this part of the world, forever.
“So you have cattle and green sand. Sounds awesome,” I muttered.
He laughed a deep, raspy laugh, the kind of laugh you get from years of smoking, although I didn’t see the remnants of cigarette butts in his ashtray; only loose change. I frowned, wishing he did smoke. I never actually smoked, but man, I loved to watch those embers burn.
“We have our fun,” he said.
I turned my head and rolled my eyes. “Sure.”
“You just wait until you see what you’re unloading tomorrow, darlin’.”
I let out a breath. “Can’t wait.”
Al’s smile shifted a bit. I got the sense he was going to start fishing for information soon. So far, he hadn’t said much, as though knowing I wasn’t going to speak until I was ready, if at all. But it was clear he had reached a point where the inquiries would begin.
“Mind if I ask how old you are?” he asked. He started with an easy one.
I got that question a lot. Most of the time if I got asked how old I was it was because the guy wanted to know if I was legal or not, which most of the time, I hadn’t been. With Al, I got the feeling that he was just curious, so I told the truth. “I’ll be 19 this month,” I said, looking down at my nails. They were caked in filth. They never seemed to get clean. I started picking at them.
Al looked over at me. “When?”
“Friday the 13th, of course.”
Al laughed. “Aren’t you the lucky one?”
I looked out at the horizon. “Cursed, is more like it.”
We didn’t talk for a few minutes, which was fine. It was easy riding with Al. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t ditch him at breakfast that morning. My normal rule was one day. Any more than that and you risked forming an unhealthy bond that even the nice ones had a hard time resisting, but something told me Al wasn’t like the others.
“So, Sarah. You got a last name?” he asked; his beady eyes squinted as he smiled.
“Brickle.” I realized after I said it, that I probably shouldn’t have. No one had asked or even cared what my last name was, so it sort of slipped out before I could take it back.
“Brickle? Interesting surname.”
I yawned. “Yeah, it’s actually dying out. I’m sure my mom was pissed at me for not being a boy so I could carry out the legacy,” I scoffed. One hell of a legacy that would be.
He laughed but didn’t let the subject drop as I’d hoped. “What about the rest of your family? Got some out this way, do you? Heading out for a visit?” I could hear the skepticism in his voice. So far, I had managed to keep our limited conversations away from my past.
“Nope,” I said, pulling my knees to my chest. I had already kicked off my shoes, so I flexed my feet a bit, enjoying the coolness of the cab.
He nodded, as though he expected as much.
“Your Mom know you’re out here?”
I let out a short breath. I figured I’d better nip this conversation before it escalated. “I had a mom, she was a meth addict. She died. My dad left when I was two. No other family. End of story, okay?”
If he was shocked by my bluntness, he didn’t show it.
“Can I ask one last question, and then, I promise, I’ll stop pestering you?” I could feel Al’s eyes flick over to me, waiting, so I rubbed my forehead as permission.
“What are you running from?”
“Honestly?” I asked.
He kept his eyes on the road but nodded.
I laid my head back against the seat and closed my eyes. “Myself.”
“Damn hard thing to hide from for long,” he said, simply.
I stretched my arms back and gave a hearty yawn. “Don’t I know it.”
I wasn’t tired so much as I was bored. I was getting antsy. I dug into my bag on the floor and pulled out a small wad of cash had. I’d learned a long time ago to never hold it all in one place. I had forty bucks in my shoe, six in my jeans and a ten spot in my bra. The backpack I’d lifted from the trash only held a few bills and a bit of loose change. I’m not proud of the services I had to provide to get what little money I had, but at least I wasn’t a drug addict throwing it all away. I was being frugal and saving everything I possibly could for that reset button in California.
I fished out six single bills and pressed them as flat as I could on the leg of my pants then placed them in the cup holder next to Al.
“For breakfast, earlier,” I said. I’d never actually eaten in a truck stop diner until that morning. “And for letting me sleep in the cab last night,” I added, placing another dollar in with the others.
“Keep your money,” he said.
I shook my head. “No, I owe you. It’s not much, I know, but please, take it.”
“It seems like you could use that money more than I could.”
I glanced over at him. He wasn’t saying it to be hurtful, but rather as a way of understanding. I sensed he’d find a way to sneak it back into my bag if I didn’t take it, so I relented. Letting out a breath, I reached out and grabbed the money and slid it back inside.
“You know, when I was about your age, I stole a car,” Al said.
My eyes narrowed in disbelief. He didn’t seem the type for grand-theft-auto.
“My old man’s car,” he continued.
I frowned. “Well, that’s not really the same thing.”
“He was the Sheriff at the time.”
I laughed. “Not smart.”
Al was watching the road, but his eyes looked far away, lost in thought. “After he cooled down, he asked me why I stole it. I shrugged and said, ‘I needed to get to Annabel’s place.’” He smiled. “She’s my wife now, see, but back then, I was smitten, and I needed to see her every minute of every day. I told him, ‘I needed that car so I could go see her.’” His smile faded a bit. “He said, ‘Son, you don’t need a car. You need a job. A car is just a thing, but a job gives you the freedom to choose your path.’”
I nodded politely because that seemed like what he wanted me to do.
“Do you have a job, waiting out there for ya, that is?” he asked.
I snorted. “I don’t even have a path.” It was meant to come out funny, but instead, it came out terribly sad.
Al pursed up his lips like he was thinking about how he could save my soul. I shook my head, amused.
“Look, I appreciate the lift, but I know what you’re trying to do.”
He looked over at me, one bushy white eyebrow lifted high. “What’s that, now?”
“I don’t need your advice.” I blinked. “I don’t need anything. Or anyone.” I said those words too low for him to hear. “After I unload whatever is on this truck, I’ll be out of your hair.”
Al surprised me by laughing. “So you want to remain an enigma, huh? Well, that’s all fine and good, I suppose.” He turned his attention to me for a moment. “I didn’t listen to my father when he lectured me, either.” His smile was kind, but I could tell he was upset. “See, the thing is. I have got myself in a bit of a pickle.”
“A pickle?” I snickered.
“Of sorts. My oldest son, Brad, well, he just graduated from the Police Academy.” Al smiled. “He takes after his grandpa.” The smile faded from his face. “But he’s going to be moving out to Boston next week to start work and won’t be around over the summer to help like he used to. I was hoping I’d be able to help Kyle this year instead, but Annabel’s taken ill, the kind of sick you don’t just bounce back from…” His eyes began to well up. “She needs me, see, and I can’t afford to hire someone to help him.”
Big Al’s eyes cleared as he gave me a proud smile. “He’s my youngest. Just turned 19. Boy is smart as a tack but as stubborn as a mule. He should be in college, making something of himself, but he’s insisted on staying on to take after the cattle and his mother when I go on runs,” he sighed. “Claims we’d never make it if he left, too.”
“Would you?” I asked, already sensing his answer.
Al’s eyes grew dark. “No. Probably not.”
“He’s not stubborn, then, just smart,” I offered. “Like you said.”
He gave me a thin smile. “Too smart for his own good.” Al took a deep inhalation as he stared down the long road that ran far into the never-ending horizon. “I can’t keep on like this much longer. Truckin’ is hard on your body, worse on your mind.”
“Amen to that,” I said, shifting positions for the hundredth time since breakfast.
He was still looking out onto the horizon. A heavy burden weighed on his mind so I sat and waited for him to compose himself. It wasn’t a time for talking. I had a sneaking suspicion he was gearing up to ask me to help him out and I wasn’t sure how I was going to answer him.
“Look, Sarah, I’ll be straight with you.” Al turned on his blinker and slowly eased off the highway, flicking on his hazards before he parked the rig. He turned to face me. “I know we just met, but I have a way of telling a bad seed from a good one,” he started.
I held up my hand in protest. “Let me stop you right there, Al.” I tucked a chunk of my dark hair around my ear; hair that I relied on in the past to mask my face, but here, it felt like he needed to be clear on who I really was. I needed him to see the real me. “You’re sweet and all, but I’m not who you think I am; I’m one of the bad seeds.”
He scoffed. “Nah, you just haven’t been given the right soil to grow in, that’s all.”
Such a simple statement, but one that tried to take up root in my soul, nevertheless. If only that were true… My eyes glazed over with emotion for half a second. I had to swallow down the thickness forming in my throat. I’d be damned if he was gonna make me cry.
“Come work for me,” he said. “Just for the summer, if you like. I can give you room and board,” he said, shifting to face me better, “and a ride to California.” At that, I looked up at him. “I go out in late September…I’d be happy to bring you along.”
All of my instincts told me to turn him down; to resist the temptation of feeling like I was needed somewhere, if only for a few months. But, of course, I didn’t. I told him I would help him, just for the summer. Little did I know that I had effectively set the wheels in motion; wheels that could never be stopped once I had laid eyes on Kyle.
(Warning: Graphic, Dark, Adult Content)