Unhinged: Chapters 1 – 5

-1-

Nobody heard the guttural, agonized moan rising from the bowels of Amy Forsythe’s Webster Hall dorm room. The 1993 Christmas break had all but emptied the Montclair State University campus, leaving Amy as one of a small handful holed up in the all-female residence hall. The frigid wind prowling the campus gusted and whistled around the corner just past her window. Manhattan stood in frozen silence eighteen miles to the east.

Amy staggered, pressing her back against the wall and reaching with trembling arms to steady herself. Tree branches swayed outside her third-floor window, and their shadows brushed the moonlit walls. Another wave of abdominal cramping threatened, and Amy hunched over with grim anticipation. Her long brown hair hung in her face, damp with a sweat that had grown cold.

Something was wrong. And she was scared.

She willed herself to keep moving, her abdomen biting at her with every half step. Sweat pinned her nightgown to the small of her back and her armpits, and the rest of her slender frame wasn’t far behind. Making her way in the dark, her next step brought a shock of cold to her right foot as she stepped off the rug and onto the vinyl flooring. She knew she was across from her desk and near the overhead light switch. She groped with splayed fingers before the knuckle of her right pinky finger found the switchplate, then the switch, and flipped it up. The light was blinding, and Amy turned her head and squinted until her eyes adjusted.

They found focus on the twin beds. Hers was the disheveled twin on the right, to which she had no immediate plans to return. There would be no riding this out. She gasped as the biting graduated to a white-hot pain knifing through her. Her mind may have still been numb from the positive pregnancy test ten weeks ago, but her body had pressed ahead without her.

I don’t want to die.

She steeled herself and turned back toward the front door, catching a glimpse of her right hand. Given what she had been through for the past hour or more, the blood-smeared, trembling hand that lingered on the switch plate was no surprise to her.

Still trying to steady herself, her gaze drifted until it settled on the collage hanging on the wall above her desk. Mom, Dad, and friends looked content, their smiles, laughs, and hugs frozen in time. In the early days following the breakup—and preceding the pregnancy test—she would sit and stare at it, taking in every last detail of every photo, getting lost in their moments before the fear and isolation returned to reclaim her. Pain was the special guest star tonight, and the collage never looked more like just a bunch of pictures than it did now.

Amy’s gaze fell to her desk, where her cordless phone rested in its charger. She had, for a nanosecond, considered taking it into the bathroom with her at the onset of her fifth wave of cramping. But the bleeding hadn’t been all that heavy then. If she wanted the phone now, she’d have to walk on fire to get to it.

She took a few deep breaths to psyche herself for the effort. Her abdomen took on a life of its own, banding and squeezing in ways she’d never imagined possible. She cried out and her knees buckled. The wall was all that was keeping her upright. A deeper, colder sweat licked her skin. She saw stars, and they multiplied at an alarming rate, whiting her vision…

Now or never.

She pushed herself away from the wall and dove toward the desk, fighting to stay on her feet. The pain bit into her with the ferocity of a goring tusk.

Game, set, and match.

No more stars, just darkness and a feeling of slow, weightless descent…

###

The double doors to the Mountainside Hospital emergency room shot open and birthed the gurney with Amy strapped in. The paramedics called out her vitals to the emergency room nurses and physician as all rushed down the corridor with the precision of a luge team. Amy heard them describe her as in and out of consciousness, and in her dazed state, she wondered which was the case now? The fluorescent lights whipped past overhead, shadowing and silhouetting their faces. Her eyes settled on a familiar-looking young man. She furrowed her brow and tried to form the word. A single syllable escaped her lips twice before she again succumbed to the darkness.

“Tom…”

###

She awakened to the steady beat of her own pulse, opening her eyes and finding focus on the greenish-yellow blip of the heart monitor. Thin bands of florescent lighting bled in from the hallway, offering just enough light to map the confines of the hospital room. From the dull ache in her nether region and the intravenous line in her right forearm, she guessed that she was on the really good stuff. There were gaps in her memory: she had passed out in her dorm room, followed by the gurney ride, and, of course waking up—or was it regaining consciousness? Did it even matter? She’d felt like she was dying, and passing out had been a merciful act on her body’s part.

My body…

She craned her neck for a view of her abdomen, but a gnawing sensation forced her to reconsider. Glancing to her right, she spied the bed’s remote hanging from the bed frame. She steeled herself for pain and reached for it, careful not to twist or pinch the intravenous lines in her right arm. Palming the remote, she slid her index finger onto the nearest button and pressed. The bed rose four inches before Amy released it, fearing the return of the goring tusk. She glanced down at her abdomen and, with the lightest of touches, felt the bandages beneath her hospital gown. Did I have surgery?? The heart monitor registered her quickening pulse before a couple of deep breaths returned it to a calmer rhythm.

Just a little higher.

Amy pressed the button again, raising the bed another two inches. A bit of pressure built in her midsection at this angle, but no pain.

“Not too much, now, honey,” a deep, feminine voice called from the doorway.

Amy flailed, fumbling the remote and sending it clanging against the bed frame. Her legs kicked the blanket up, the dull ache in her nether region spiking to a blunt pain before subsiding. The heart monitor chastised her in staccato fashion, and she shot a glance toward the door, but the nurse’s silhouette towered at her bedside. Amy’s gaze traveled up her body, and she figured her to be approaching six feet tall. The light above the bed switched on, and a kind, gentle face gazed back at her.

“That better? Sorry I startled you. You’re in Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. My name is Celia, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. I’m just making my rounds. Would you like some—”

“How did I get here?”

“Your floor monitor, Yolanda, found you and called an ambulance. She also gave us the number for Graham Forsythe. Your father?”

What? Wait…

Amy furrowed her brow and said, “He’s overseas on business.”

“Well, we got a hold of him, and he’s taking the first flight home. That’s my kind of dad.”

Amy nodded her agreement. The thought of her father flying home from London to be at her side brought tears to her eyes. He was always there for her, but this was huge. She felt a pang of guilt at disrupting an important business trip, but he’d dismiss that thought as pure nonsense. No business was more important than family business.

“If I have it right, mom is deceased?” Celia asked.

“Yes, long time ago,” Amy said. She had lost her mom in her teens, and she had felt her absence more acutely in the past few months than ever before. Amy touched her bandaged midsection with her fingertip. “What happened to me?”

“You had emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy.”

“Ectopic?” Amy asked. She had no idea what it meant, but it sounded… what was the right word?

Alien.

“That’s where the egg grows outside of the uterus or, in your case, your cervix. It can be very painful, and in rare cases, life-threatening. Were you working with an OB/GYN?”

Amy shook her head in sheepish acknowledgment that she did not.

“We have several on staff here, if you need a recommendation. You’ll want to continue your care with a licensed professional once you’re discharged. You were in pretty serious condition when they brought you in, but you’re going to be fine. I am sorry for your loss.”

Those last words hung in the air, and Amy felt a rush of emotions through the haze of the narcotics. She was grateful to be alive, and she regretted keeping her pregnancy secret. It had almost cost her life, and her unborn child had not survived. Pangs of remorse and shame tugged at her. The deep sense of comfort her dad flying home gave her was tempered by the thought of explaining the last few months to him. Amy blinked away tears. Celia lifted a tissue box from the rolling table and offered it to her.

“Thank you.”

“Would you like a few moments alone?”

She shook her head.

“That’s okay.”

“All right. First things first.”

Celia reached across Amy for the remote. The top of Amy’s head tingled, and a sensation of being outside of her own body overwhelmed her…

The lifeless body of a young lady in her late teens, jammed awkwardly and partially buried in a crawl space. Still wearing her thin red pinstriped waitress uniform.

“Oh my God,” Amy blurted through tears. She squeezed her eyes shut, but that did nothing to diminish the image in her mind’s eye. It lingered for several seconds, then was gone.

Celia backed away, her brow furrowed.

“I bump you, sweetie? I’m sorry—”

“It’s not you,” Amy said, adding, “I saw something and…”

Amy’s eyes darted about the room, half expecting the dead teen to have materialized at the foot of her bed, or in the corridor, or just outside her window. Celia followed Amy’s gaze around the room, puzzled, before she looked back at her patient.

Amy had no doubt about what she saw, and absolutely no idea how. Maybe it was a hallucination? A reaction to the sedative? Was she dreaming all of this?

“I saw a… dead woman. Late teens, in a waitressing outfit.”

Celia stared at her with her mouth agape.

“I know how it sounds,” Amy added, wanting no part of an overnight stay in the psychiatric ward.

Celia rallied from her stupor to respond.

“Have you ever experienced a reaction to medication?”

“Not that I can recall,” Amy said. “And I’ve never, ever experienced anything like that before.”

“Let’s hope that’s the last time. I’ll make a note in your chart for the doctor,” Celia said. “Can I bring you back anything?”

“Water, please?”

“Water, it is.”

Celia hustled out.

Amy took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. She was no psychiatrist, but she doubted she was experiencing a hallucination. And she’d expect a reaction to the sedative would continue as long as she was on it. Not a hallucination and not a reaction. What possibility did that leave open? Celia’s return with a pitcher and a small plastic cup brought a merciful end to her internal monologue. Ice sloshed within the pitcher in rhythm with Celia’s brisk strides. She paused at Amy’s bedside to fill the cup and set the pitcher on the tray table. She glanced at Amy.

“Ready for a sip?”

“Please.”

Celia brought the cup to Amy’s lips, and she took a tentative sip. The cold water felt wonderful inside her mouth and traced a cool path to her empty stomach. Her next sip bore a mouthful, but Celia preempted the third sip by withdrawing the cup.

“Just sip it, honey. We need to slow it down to keep it down.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

Celia brought the cup back to Amy’s lips and she sipped.

“There we go.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. How’s the pain?”

“Not bad.”

“That’s what I like to hear. More?” she asked, bringing the cup toward Amy’s mouth.

“No, thank you,” Amy said with a shake of her head.

Celia set the cup on the tray table.

“Anybody else I should call for you, honey?”

Amy shook her head again. Her best friend and roommate, Dawn Keller, was spending Christmas with her family in New York. She had invited Amy to join them—insisted, as a matter of fact—but Amy found it easier to hide a pregnancy when she didn’t have to look her best friend in the eye as she lied. Though Dawn wouldn’t be one to judge her, Amy was ashamed to tell anyone, and she feared her deception would drive a wrecking ball through their friendship.

“What about Tom?” Celia asked.

“What about him?” Amy asked, her hopes rising. She tried to sound nonchalant, but the heart monitor tattled on her rising pulse rate.

“When they brought you in, you called out for him.”

“I don’t remember doing that.”

“You were in and out of consciousness. When we realized you were pregnant, we thought he might be the father.”

“He is…was,” Amy replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “But he didn’t know.”

“You sure about that, honey?”

Amy nodded.

“He used protection. It was only… that one time.”

Tom Chambers had been her first. He was tall, dark, and handsome—it sounded cliché, but in the flesh, it was never out of vogue—and she’d been very flattered by his dogged pursuit. They’d dated for a month before he’d invited her home. Home was an upscale neighborhood in Basking Ridge, and though his mom and dad were home, the house was quite large and the walls quite thick. Tom had proven a gentle lover, but he’d grown distant after their lone encounter. The phone calls, the lunches in the Student Center, the pub crawls… everything ceased. Always an excuse, and with time, Amy stopped asking. Right before finals, Amy had spotted Tom leaving the Student Center with a pretty blonde. Sherri, she believed her name was.

Celia spied a tear traveling down Amy’s cheek and pulled another tissue from the tissue box atop the rolling table.

“Thank you,” Amy said as she wiped tears and blew a runny nose.

“You’re welcome. I’m gonna let the doctor know you’re awake. Are you ready for anything more than water?”

“No, thank you.”

“Be right back. You have a call button if you need me,” she said, pointing to it.

“Okay.”

Celia left the room. Amy settled back into the silence, wishing the painkillers and sedatives could numb her soul if not cleanse it. She—

“Amy?” a familiar voice said.

She opened her eyes to find Dawn Keller approaching her bedside. Amy burst into tears, but Dawn kept a brave front and embraced her with great care. Her eyes glistened before a renegade tear breached her lower right eyelid.

“It’s okay… it’s okay…”

“I was pregnant,” Amy whispered in her ear.

“I had a feeling. I’m so sorry, Amy. For all you’ve been through.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” she winked, and the overhead light made her brilliant green eyes sparkle. At five foot eight, Dawn was noticed as much for her eyes as for her stature. Her natural beauty didn’t hurt, either. She came from a good family, and her younger sister, Eve, was entering her freshman year at Montclair State. Dawn was fond of saying she embraced her mission in life, which was to coax Amy out of her shell.

Wrecking ball, indeed.

“How did you hear?” Amy asked.

“Yo’ called me.”

Worth her weight in diamonds, that Yolanda. Still…

“I’m sorry to distract you from your family—”

“You’re my family, too.”

Amy smiled.

“I’m sorry, miss, but visiting hours are over,” Celia said as she entered. “They begin again at eight.”

“Is it okay if I spend the night?” Dawn asked.

“I’m sorry. It’s a liability issue,” Celia said.

“Can I bring some of her clothes back from the dorm? Montclair State is five minutes from here,” Dawn said.

“Of course.”

“Thank you,” Dawn said before turning to Amy. “Anything in particular?”

“Something loose fitting. Thanks.”

“Be right back.”

She gave Amy a quick, gentle hug and slipped out.

“You warm enough?” Celia asked as she approached the bed.

“I am, thanks.”

Celia grabbed the remote for the bed and lowered it several inches.

“That better on your abdomen?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Celia cradled Amy’s head and repositioned her pillow beneath it for better support.

“That good, or would you like another one? I know these are kind of thin.”

“Another one would be great.”

Celia’s eyes went to the shelf over Amy’s bed. She leaned forward and reached for an extra pillow, grabbing and fluffing it. Amy’s head tingling returned, and the out-of-body sensation followed…

The dead young lady in the crawl space stares vacantly to the heavens. A glimpse of her nametag: Iris.

“Iris,” Amy read aloud, her body stiff with fear.

Celia continued to fluff the second pillow, slowly shaking her head.

“Iris,” she echoed, her voice distant.

Celia pinned the second pillow to Amy’s face and dropped her considerable girth on Amy’s head, burying it.

-2-

Amy kicked and thrashed with a vengeance, but Celia snaked her arms around Amy’s head and drew it tight against her ample bosom. Amy turned her head to the right and stole a quick breath before Celia closed the gap. She had a good fifty pounds on Amy and much of it was muscle. The crushing pressure made it impossible to breathe and brought excruciating pain to Amy’s nose. Each time she moved to relieve it, Celia shifted to reestablish it. The intravenous line had ripped out of Amy’s right arm, but she ignored it and groped for a part of Celia, any part. She thrust her knees into Celia’s kidneys and back, coaxing grunts, but Celia’s grip held.

Amy planted her heels on the bed and bucked her hips. Two pops from her abdomen told her she was at least two stitches down. She also created enough space to snake her arms up toward Celia’s right hand. Amy’s adrenaline levels skyrocketed as her breathing grew more labored. Her left hand found Celia’s hair, and she seized a handful in a death grip, jerking it down with everything she had. Celia’s head twisted to the right, but she anchored herself and held her ground.

Celia brought her right hand up from behind Amy’s neck and clawed at Amy’s right cheek, drawing blood. It was Celia’s first mistake, and Amy pounced on it.

Tired, hurry.

Amy seized Celia’s pinky finger and snapped it back, breaking it clean. Celia bellowed in agony, arching her back and lunging for her mangled digit. Amy held on tight and was able to draw a huge breath as fresh air suddenly flooded her face. The pillow had been snatched away, and Amy watched as a small army of nurses and doctors tugged at Celia. It took two security officers to pry Celia’s mangled digit from Amy’s grip.

###

Amy nodded once she could see the foot of the bed, and the nurse halted the rise of the bed’s head. A clear tube brought oxygen to Amy’s nostrils, and she trembled intermittently despite the increased sedative dosage.

Detective Mike Lansing stood sentry in the doorway. He was a shade over six feet, with wavy salt and pepper hair framing his handsome face. He’d been an athlete in his college days and had retained the upper hand despite the first headwinds of middle age. The faint chime of a distant elevator’s bell drew his attention. A single step brought him into the corridor, and he took a long look to his right, but remained where Amy could see him.

A patrolman exited the elevator and hustled toward Lansing, his face all business, the clacking of his shoes echoing in the corridor. Within seconds, he was whispering in Lansing’s ear.

“It was exactly as she described it, right down to the name tag,” he said. “The body of Iris Brown, only daughter of Celia Brown, in the crawl space, in her waitress uniform.”

“Medical examiner share any thoughts?”

“Early signs point to strangulation, but until they perform the autopsy…”

“Got it. Thanks.”

This was unfamiliar territory for Lansing, though Amy seemed as mystified as he by what had transpired here tonight. Where the police department was concerned, clairvoyance was a form of entertainment. Yet, here he was, tasked with making sense of something that challenged that sensibility. Challenged his sensibility.

“Twilight Zone, huh?” the patrolman said with a hint of a grin. Lansing’s glare snuffed it. The patrolman flushed.

“Sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“Fair enough. Can you stand watch here tonight?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you. I’ll notify your C.O.”

The patrolman grimaced and nodded.

“That you’re standing watch. The rest is just between us.”

“Appreciate that, sir.”

Lansing turned back to Amy. His gut told him she had nothing to do with Iris Brown’s death. He tried to fathom how she could describe a crime scene—and solve a murder—from a hospital bed, without ever having laid eyes on the victim or set foot on the scene. Setting aside his wonderment and skepticism, he reentered the room and approached her bedside, remaining there until her father arrived.

The gesture would not be forgotten.

-3-

The modest ranch home sat on a quarter acre of crab grass, with a pair of towering oak trees crowding the front yard and an eyesore of a storage shed out back. The morning sky was dusted orange and backlit by a sun that still lingered beneath the horizon. Track lighting cast a ghostly pall in the kitchen, but the rest of the home was dark. The garage was the hub of activity at this early hour, and laughter echoed from within.

An impressive selection of tools hung from wall-mounted hooks and brackets inside the garage. A workbench was folded to a fraction of its size and tucked away in the corner, with a folding table occupying its abandoned spot in the center of the room. A 2013 wall calendar of voluptuous women in tool belts and little else teased from the far wall. It would be fair to say that the garage was cleaner and more inviting than the inside of the house, and the owner, Gus Portman, would have no quarrel with it.

A bottle of Wild Turkey sat atop the card table, drained to within a couple of fingers of its final resting place in the recycle bin. Mitchell Burnham tipped his glass, watching the liquor approach its edge without breaching it, then turned it in slow circles and watched the liquor roll around within. Like everything else in his life, it was at his mercy.

Burnham’s dirty-blond hair was a nest of kinks and curls as uncompromising as he was. He was country strong and then some, his body honed by the brute physicality of years of hard labor. On his best day, he was quiet yet volatile, and no one treaded gentler around him than those who knew him best. He hadn’t lost a fight since junior high, and that had been at the hands of his father.

Four men crowded the tiny table on folding chairs, and Burnham fit right in with the other three: Gus, a balding, cigar-chomping slob who just so happened to call this place home; Everett Smalley, a burly auto mechanic whose wardrobe consisted of old work shirts with his name embroidered above the breast; and Stu, Everett’s dim bulb of a son, who enjoyed fleeting relationships with employment, hookers, and hygiene. Stu rose from his chair and thrust his belly forward, tapping his belt buckle and grinning like a fool. It was nickel, of the Harley Davidson variety, and fronted a leather belt.

“Check it out, boys. Harley and me, born to ride,” Stu crowed.

“Sure that’s not a girl’s buckle?” Everett said, ribbing his son.

“Could be, if she rides right,” Stu said, thrusting his pelvis skyward before settling back into his chair.

Gus shuffled with a practiced hand and dealt the cards. Everett and Stu swiped each card and filed them into their hands, but Burnham let his pile build while he drained his glass. He’d no sooner set his glass down then Stu was pouring him another. This didn’t register with Burnham, or if it did, he didn’t let on. His eyes were on Gus. Gus spied Burnham watching him, paused his deal, and waited.

“You still sell those disposable phones?” Burnham asked in his deep, baritone voice.

“You mean the Tracphones? Sure,” Gus said.

“I’ll be stopping by for one.”

“Got one of those phones for me, Gus?” Stu asked.

“Disposable don’t mean free,” Gus said.

“I got money, Mr. Helpful. Just cashed my unemployment check,” Stu said.

“They’re thirty dollars,” Gus said.

Stu furrowed his brow in disbelief and guffawed.

“What’s disposable about a thirty-dollar phone?”

“Put Stu down for none, Gus,” Everett said with a cackle.

“Put me down for stealin’ the damn thing,” Stu muttered.

“Put you down, period,” Gus said.

Everett cackled again. Burnham stifled a rare grin, but not before Stu caught sight of it and did an animated double take.

“Check this out, boys!” Stu said. “Somebody left a smile layin’ around, and Mitch tried it on!”

Gus cast a wary glance at Burnham, but Burnham took the ribbing in stride. A lot of liquor had passed their lips over the past several hours, and Gus knew that Burnham under the influence was best handled by the bomb squad. Stu poured them both another round, then tipped back in his chair. His eyes were glazed, his cheeks flushed. He flashed Burnham a devilish grin, the sorry state of his teeth reminiscent of a Halloween mask.

“Whatcha need a phone for, Mitch?” Stu asked, grinning ear to ear.

“That’s not your business,” Everett said to his son, shaking his head.

“What? We’re just talkin’ here.”

Stu leaned closer to Burnham.

“You know that’s what people do on the phone, right? They… talk.”

“How ’bout showin’ some respect, Stu?” Gus said.

Stu raised his hands in surrender.

“All right, all right,” he said, and picked up his cards. “Just passin’ the time with a little chit chat, that’s all.”

He winked at Burnham.

“The other day at the store, that daughter of yours found me plenty entertaining.”

With lightning speed, Burnham caught Stu with a hammer fist to the solar plexus, sending him and his folding chair crashing into the cement floor. Burnham drove his work boot into Stu’s throat while Stu fought against it to no avail. Everett charged and seized Burnham’s arm, but Burnham shifted his weight and sent Everett tumbling over the table like a rag doll. Gus grabbed Everett’s arm and spared him an ugly fall.

Burnham glared down at Stu and watched his eyes roll back in his head. A punch slammed into Burnham’s left cheek, snapping his head to the right. He stepped off of Stu’s neck to steady himself. Stu rolled onto his side and curled into the fetal position, clutching his throat and gasping for air.

Burnham turned, glaring down the barrel of the loaded .357 Magnum in his face. At the far end of the barrel, he met Gus’s wide-eyed but determined glare. Gus was keeping an enraged Everett at bay.

“He meant nothing by it, and you know it,” Gus said.

“You got to that piece in a hurry, Gus,” Burnham said. “Just how close was it?”

“Close enough to be of use.”

“We finished here?”

Gus’s heart pounded so hard, he was certain that Burnham could hear it. He knew drawing down was taking a chance, but letting bad blood linger with Burnham would be reckless. Better to shoot him now than train the weapon on him as he left.

“We’re finished,” Gus said, and drew down.

Burnham met Everett’s glare.

“Stop by the shop, you want to talk some more,” Everett said with a snarl.

They glared at each other for a long time before Burnham dropped his glance to Stu.

“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” Stu croaked.

Burnham spat at Stu’s face and Everett lunged. Gus blocked Everett’s path with his own ample frame and glared at Burnham.

“Get out of my house.”

Burnham eyeballed them for several of the longest seconds of Gus’s life. Gus knew Burnham was debating taking it to another level, and it scared the crap out of him, weapon or not. To his relief, Burnham turned and left. He took his sweet time, but he left.

-4-

The August air remained thick with heat and humidity ten days into the month. School buses would be back in force in a matter of weeks, belching open their doors to bleary-eyed students and wreaking havoc with traffic patterns, but cool autumn mornings seemed in the distant future. The tease of a soft breeze whisked in off of the rolling hills of Stockholm before dissipating.

At first glance, the commercial space that housed WXYZ-FM in Franklin resembled a strip mall. It was situated to the rear of a tiny office park off the main downtown thoroughfare. The building’s front was dominated by a flat roof that pitched almost straight down, meeting the embedded stone and cement exterior just over halfway down. A cluster of satellite dishes stood to its right and a tower protruded from its roof.

Setting foot inside proved a unique experience. Electronics loomed everywhere, from the flat-screen televisions, to the state-of-the-art microphones and electronics in the studio, to the servers, portable hard drives, and backup generators behind the locked steel doors. From wall to wall on any given day, the place buzzed with activity and energy. Today was no exception.

The studio offered a cozy setup, with three microphones strategically positioned in relation to the ergonomically designed furniture; two more mikes stood at the ready in the event of technical difficulties, or a swollen guest list. Plexiglass windows surrounded the studio, providing a bird’s eye view for staffers and producers of the on-air personalities, Austin “Country” Greer and Ed Zimmerman.

Country was an institution at WXYZ, having walked through its doors not long after the foundation’s cement had cured in the mid-eighties. His six-foot-three frame tipped the scales just north of two-fifty, but he was light on his feet and had them lining up to dance at industry and office parties. He was born for radio, his baritone voice possessing an air of authority coupled with the charisma of a good old country boy. Guests quickly found themselves at ease with Country, and he was never more at ease than when he was facing a microphone. Country had Ed to thank for his moniker, and it had everything to do with Country looking like Bigfoot when Ed stood beside him. That moniker was the closest Ed ever came to commenting on his size. It also marked one of the few times Ed’s brain beat his mouth to the punch, or at least managed a dead heat. Only because Country liked it did it stick, but he was gracious enough to thank Ed.

Where Country was an institution, Ed was more of an on-air warden. He was known to be blunt—even abrasive—with the listeners, and he reveled in his role. He joined WXYZ after a revolving door’s-worth of co-hosts had come and gone in Country’s early years. Not all were bad, but Ed’s unpredictability brought an element to the show that couldn’t be quantified—except, of course, in the ratings. Ed was five eleven with a major assist from his cowboy boot collection, though to the fairer sex his mantra was, “six feet, give or take.” He fashioned himself a ladies’ man and pointed to his three failed marriages as proof positive. He had a rep for being tight with the buck, the only thing tighter being the jeans he crammed it into.

Country sat up straight in his high-backed chair, his right leg crossed, and glanced through the studio’s Plexiglass at the wall clock before he spoke.

“We’ll return after these messages from our sponsors,” Country said, nodding through the glass to a petite, clipboard-toting intern. Her name was Lynette, and she responded with a nod and a thumbs up before disappearing down the hall.

###

Lynette turned the corner and hustled down the corridor as she had on countless occasions. She stopped at a door bearing a sign that read “Green Room” and gave a polite knock before ducking her head in.

“Amy, you’re on in two.”

“Thanks, Lynette,” Amy responded with a wink, rising from the plush couch and finishing off her bottled water. She tossed it in the recycle bin and followed Lynette out. Amy’s brown hair now stopped at her shoulders in a trendy, cosmopolitan cut. She wore a simple but stylish jacket and skirt, and she wore it well. She still had a year or two before forty would come knocking, but she was in better shape than women half her age.

She rounded the corner and caught Country’s eye, coaxing a big smile from him and returning one of her own. Country set both feet on the floor and stood to await her entrance. Ed lifted his feet from his own desktop and returned them to the floor, squaring toward the door. Amy opened it and Country met her with a hug.

“Good to see you,” Amy said.

“Good to see you, too. Thanks for being here.”

Ed‘s gaze took the scenic route, beginning at Amy’s calves and working its way up. He rose from his chair hoping for a close encounter of his own, and Amy obliged with the type of hug reserved for uncles whose hands tend to roam. Country pulled out a chair for Amy, and Lynette handed her a set of headphones. Amy settled into her chair and slipped the headphones on. Country and Ed followed suit.

“Thirty seconds,” Lynette called as she hustled out of the room.

“Thank you much,” Country said, just beating the closing door. Lynette flashed another thumbs up, checked the clock on the wall, and gestured to Country. Country winked back, and did what he does best.

“We’re a minute shy of ten on Friday morning at WXYZ, and that means a very special guest is once again in our midst. Joining us, and taking your calls live, is respected medium Amy Dylan. Amy calls it like she sees it, and she’s been an audience favorite for more than a decade. Great to have you here again, Amy.”

“It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.”

“Now, we’ve got a busy switchboard on this end, ladies and gentlemen, but don’t let that stop you from trying. The number is 1-8-6-6-5-5-5-W-X-Y-Z; that’s 8-6-6-5-5-5-9-9-9-9.”

Country glanced at his monitor.

“Pete from Sparta, you’re on the air. What’s your question for Amy?”

A brief silence was followed by a dismissive chuckle.

“My question is, does she enjoy jerking people around with her head games?” He sounded in his late teens, with an edge to his voice that conveyed anger and an underlying nervousness.

“I’m not aware of a single listener—besides yourself—who’s expressed that sentiment, Pete. Do you have a specific example we can discuss?” Country asked.

“Only every minute of every show that’s ever aired.”

“Well, Pete, either you missed the word ‘specific,’ or you chose to ignore it.”

“I chose to ignore it, just as all of you choose to ignore the truth behind this show. It’s smoke and mirrors.”

“And you’re basing your opinion on what?”

“Common sense, logic, thinking for myself…”

“What about facts? Can you present a few facts for consideration?”

“How about this… Amy may be more perceptive than most people, but otherwise, she’s no different than anyone else out there.”

Country glanced in Amy’s direction, but Amy was already on it.

“I’m not sure how you can make assumptions with such confidence without knowing me, but I’ll say this: a lot of people have talents—or call them gifts, if you like—that they can’t explain. I count myself amongst them. I can understand your skepticism, because I was once a skeptic, too. We may just have to agree to disagree.”

“That’s it, then, huh? Just keep livin’ the lie, label those who don’t buy into it skeptics, and pretend the problem is with their thinking, not yours.”

“You seem awful quick to judge, Pete,” Country said.

“And you seem awful defensive.”

“If you were substantiating your claims, that would be one thing—” Country began.

“I’d say your fifteen minutes are up, Pete, and not a moment too soon,” Ed said.

“Let’s hear him out,” Amy suggested as she glanced at the guys.

Country settled back in his chair. Ed mimed his own death by hanging.

“It took some effort to be the first caller, Pete. It was important to you. Why?” Amy asked.

“To drag you out of your comfort zone. To remind your listeners that this show is about entertainment, and nothing more. You’re not saving lives.”

“I’d dare to say that you know nothing about my comfort zone. I agree, I’m not saving lives, but I’d like to think I’m making them a bit better. It’s no secret this show is meant to entertain, but I also hope to inform in my own small way. I’ll leave it to the listeners to decide. And you never answered my question—why was calling in so important to you?”

“Why does it have to be important to me? Maybe I’m just here for entertainment value?”

“Well, I’m beyond bored, Pete. You got anything else?” Ed asked.

An awkward silence ensued, with everyone waiting for Pete’s final volley.

A syringe stabbed the bend of the tourniquet-bound left arm, burrowing for any of the collapsed veins lurking in the vicinity. The surrounding skin was littered with tracks. Fifteen-year-old Pete grimaced in discomfort.

Pete broke the silence.

“Just one last question for Amy, if she’s game?”

“Let’s have it.”

“Can you tell me something about me?”

“I can tell you something about you—” Ed began, but Country waved him off.

Country then covered his mike, and turned to Amy. “You have nothing to prove to this guy. Your call.”

“Anything?” Pete challenged.

“You were on the wrong track for a while.”

Pete gasped.

“By track, do you mean…?”

“You know what I mean. You’ve searched in all the wrong places, and you’ve got lots of tracks to show for it, but they’re far behind you now. You really can’t see them anymore. And that’s where they need to stay.”

“Does that answer your question, Pete?” Country asked.

“It does. Amy—thanks. Sorry about before.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for calling. Take care.”

Country glanced at his monitor, patched the next caller in.

“You’re on the air, what’s your question for Amy?”

“Yeah, what crawled up Pete’s ass and went rabid?”

“Wish you hadn’t shared that mental picture; do you have a real question for Amy?”

“Uh…”

“Two seconds…”

The caller sighed.

“Crap.”

“If it comes back to you, we’ll be here,” Country said before he disconnected the call. He stabbed at the next phone line. “Good morning, you’re on the air. Do you have a question for Amy?”

“Baba Booey! Baba Booey! Baba Booey!”

“Give Howard my best,” Country said, and disconnected again.

“Must be the full moon,” Ed muttered loud enough for all to hear.

Forty-five minutes later, Pete’s call was still the main topic of conversation. It had become rare for a listener to challenge Amy, but it never failed to stir up her fan base. Amy had long ago made peace with the public whispers and impolite stares. They had grown infrequent but never quite ceased.

She glanced at the clock: five minutes to eleven, time for one more call when they returned from the station break. Pete’s call had her thinking back to the very beginning, to the scared, naïve, college girl masquerading in a young woman’s body. A child carrying a child. It had been the longest ten weeks of her young life. Like Pete, she had made poor choices and found her way through them. They both bore the scars of their choices. They would never be the same, nor would they want to be. Like Pete, she had emerged from it a different person—a better person, she dared to think.

She’d lived a reclusive life with her father until she had come to terms with what had happened. As she learned to work with her gift, her frustration over her lack of command became less common. Instead, she viewed herself as a vessel, and consistent practice improved her concentration and her clarity. Over time, she discovered ways to coax the visions, but there were no guarantees of success. She came to accept that she saw what she was meant to see, when she was meant to see it. Skeptics were another matter; the whispers in public never ceased, but they had dwindled to a minimum over time. Pete had rushed to judgment, but Amy’s first instincts had been no different in those early days when she spent countless sleepless nights searching for answers.

“All set, Amy?”

“All set,” she replied with a confidence she didn’t feel while she tried to shake the funk from her trip down memory lane.

Lynette scurried into their line of vision and eyeballed the clock. Two thumbs up. Country winked.

“You’re back with WXYZ, and we appreciate your sticking with us this morning. We’ve got time for one more caller. Tina, you’re on the air with Amy; what’s your question?”

Silence on the air.

“Tina, you still with us? You’re on the air—”

“Sorry, sorry, I’m here. Just so nervous…”

“No need to be nervous, we’re just two people talking,” Country grinned. “What’s your question for Amy?”

“It’s an honor to talk to you, Amy. I’ve been listenin’ for as long as I can remember. You’ve helped me even when you weren’t talking to me, and I wanted to thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome.”

A brief silence followed before a male muttered in the background. Country furrowed his brow.

“Who’s with you, Tina?” he asked.

“He’s my boyfriend,” she said, quickly adding, “and much more than a boyfriend.”

A male’s powerful right-handed slap landed flush on the left side of a waifish, thirty-something woman’s face. She fell to the floor and brought her trembling left hand to her cheek, stunned.

“I see a woman being hit, Tina. Late thirties, bleached blonde.”

“Oh my God, that’s my mom,” Tina said in a voice choked with emotion.

“Who hit your mom, Tina?”

“He’d kill me if he knew I was talking about this—”

“Who, Tina? Who hurt your mom?”

The question was met with silence, other than the boyfriend’s whispers.

“Tina, was it your dad who hurt your mom?”

“He’s not—he’s my stepfather.”

“Your stepfather hurt your mom?”

“Yes,” she said, on the brink of tears. “Then she ran out and he went after her. He came back and wouldn’t tell me anything. I need to know she’s okay.”

“Can you leave? I can put you in touch with people who can help—”

“He’ll find us. He swore it.”

“Have you spoken to the police?”

“The police are afraid of him. Everyone’s afraid of him.”

“Would you like me to speak to the authorities for you?”

“No, I just need to know she’s okay. Is she?”

“I wish I could answer that, Tina. I’m not getting anything right now. Can I ask you a question?”

“Okay.”

“Your mom’s not the only one he’s hit, is she?”

Tina sobbed. The boyfriend whispered to her, his voice insistent, but gentle, rising over a high-pitched noise. Ed pressed his earphones to his ears and closed his eyes in concentration.

“I’m so sorry, Tina,” Amy said.

Tina composed herself, sniffled.

“It’s okay.”

A noise in the background drew a gasp from Tina.

“Hold on…”

Sounds of the phone being muffled or shuffled escaped the speakers before the line fell silent. Amy, Country, and Ed glanced at each other, held a collective breath.

“Tina?” Amy called, before adding several seconds later, “Tina, are you still with us?”

Amy glanced at Ed, who tracked the call on his monitor. His fingers raced over his keyboard, then paused, his eyes fixed on a particular field. He sighed, glanced back at Amy, and shook his head.

Amy clenched her jaw in frustration. Her mind raced.

“Tina, if you can hear me, call me back when you have a chance. If I’m not here, leave a number where I can reach you. I’d like to help.”

Amy glanced to Country, who took it from there.

“Tina, we look forward to hearing from you again at your earliest convenience. And that is our show for today, folks. We hope you’ve enjoyed this last hour as much as we have. We want to thank Amy Dylan and our listeners for making it all possible. We’ll be back after this brief message from our sponsors,” Country said.

Amy and Country peeled their headphones from their ears and rested them on their shoulders. Country let out a big sigh of relief.

“That was intense.”

Amy nodded, but her eyes were on Ed. Country spun his chair to face Ed, who was a picture of concentration huddled over his soundboard listening to his headphones. He replayed the end of the call over and over, then removed his headphones and set them on his desk. He turned to face them.

“Talk to her,” he said. “That’s what he said right before she hung up.”

“Something made her drop off in a hurry,” Country said.

“If it was something she heard, I didn’t pick it up,” Ed said.

Country glanced Amy’s way.

“Maybe she’ll call back,” he said, the doubt evident in his voice.

Amy wasn’t convinced, either.

###

The mother-in-law unit stood vacant, having been orphaned many years back when much of the main dwelling collapsed. Sunlight nudged through the dirty windows on the east and west walls, though nothing shy of a supernova could bring warmth to this room with its peeling paint of muted whites gone gray with age.

Tina stuffed her cell phone into her jeans pocket and tucked her long, dark brown hair behind her ears as she always did when she was nervous. She was lean, and her long-sleeved T-shirt flattered her modest curves.

“You need to go now. Just let me deal with this,” she said, gripping Jared’s elbow.

He turned to her. He was tall and husky, a bit of baby fat camouflaging the handsome young man beneath. His forest green T-shirt was snug on his torso and covered the waist line of his jeans. She could smell his cologne. Even in her agitated state, it aroused her.

“I thought he didn’t know about this place?”

“There is no such place out here.”

“Well, this was my idea, too.”

“Jared, please,” she pleaded in a whisper.

The snapping of hinges brought an abrupt end to their debate. The door rattled against the outside of the house and on its way to the ground before falling silent. Jared and Tina clasped hands, only to think better of it and stand a polite distance from each other. Jared glanced at her, and Tina could see the fear in his eyes despite his brave front. In that split second, their love for each other grew deeper.

Jared shuffled to his left without a sound and peered down the short hallway. The linoleum floor in the kitchen groaned with each approaching footfall from the steel-toed work boots.

Burnham turned the corner, stopping in his tracks at the sight of Jared. Jared’s extremities tingled and his stomach lurched. He resisted the urge to gulp, but there was nothing he could do about the color draining from his face. Burnham continued straight for him, his predatory eyes boring into him. He entered the doorway and his glare found Tina. Jared wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Burnham’s glare darkened. Maybe murderous was the right word. Jared did gulp this time, and almost flinched when Burnham raised his right arm and pointed at him, his glare still on Tina.

“You got no business here.”

“I asked him to come,” Tina said.

“And who asked you?” he said, and shifted his icy glare to Jared. “Those ears of yours not work?”

Jared glanced at Tina, and she pleaded with her eyes.

Go.

Jared started for the door.

“This way’s faster,” Burnham said as he palmed the side of Jared’s head and drove him into the window. Jared’s head and left shoulder shattered the pane, raining shards of glass onto the floor at his feet.

“Leave him alone!” Tina screamed as she charged and wedged herself between them.

Jared jerked free of Burnham’s grip and tumbled to the floor, then touched the side of his head with his left hand and glanced at it. No blood. Tina crouched beside him.

“Are you cut?” Tina asked, but she didn’t wait for an answer. She turned his head sideways and brushed glass from his hair.

“I’m fine,” he said, the edge to his voice a mixture of anger and shock. He stole a glance at Burnham and found him smirking.

“You sure?” Tina asked.

“I’m sure.”

Tina’s fingers found a long, thin piece of glass and drew it into her left palm, wrapping her fingers to conceal it.

“Please go now. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”

“Okay,” Jared said, rising to his feet and shooting Burnham an angry but fleeting glance.

“You ready to back that look up?” Burnham said.

Tina glared back at him.

“You ready to go to jail? ’Cause I got no problem sending you.”

“Gonna let her fight your battles?” Burnham asked.

“Enough!”

She stepped in front of Jared and locked eyes with him.

“Later, okay?”

“Okay.”

He kept his eyes on the hallway and left the room.

“Thanks for being here,” she called after him. He waved without turning back. She glared at Burnham with contempt. The door shut and they glared at each other for a moment that would have been prolonged and awkward to anyone else. Tina broke the silence.

“Where’s Mom?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care, either.”

Tina shook her head, livid.

“When did you become such a scumbag?”

Burnham took a step toward her. She firmed her grip on the glass shard as much as she dared.

“You gonna hit me again?” she asked, her lip curling into a snarl.

“Why? Is pretty boy gonna save you?”

“You underestimate him.”

“Call him back. I’ll wait.”

“No. When you least expect it…”

Burnham slapped her face, and what sounded like a gunshot felt like a sledgehammer against the left side of her head. Her knees buckled and she stumbled backward. She fell onto the bed, the bedsprings groaning beneath her in a pitchy protest. The left side of her face tingled and felt hot; the question would be not whether it swelled, but to what degree. She brought her left hand to it.

“You mean like that?” he said.

She rose from the bed, her grip on the glass shank tight enough to draw blood from her palm.

“I mean like this—”

She lunged for him, leading with the shard. He sidestepped her strike and seized her wrist. He held fast for a moment as she struggled to pry her arm from his grasp. She kneed his groin and he released her arm, sending it toward her body. She stiffened and her eyes widened in terror. She raised her right hand—her empty, bloodied right hand—and stared at it until the white-hot pain kicked in.

She turned to face him, the shank protruding from her throat. She trembled and stumbled backward again, her throat muscles trying to swallow, to cough, to get it out. She reached for him, her eyes pleading and terrified and desperate, her own blood choking her. She began to hyperventilate, and a sucking sound escaped the wound with each small breath. She reached for the exposed portion of the shank with her left hand, but he pulled her hand away. Panicked, she flailed at him, but he pinned her arms at her sides.

-5-

Shadows grappled on the wall, forming a thicket of arms, legs, and butting heads. Body blows, panting, and grunting escalated in volume and intensity, punctuated by the impact of Amy landing on her back. She slapped the mat to break her fall and her timing was perfect, but the weight of her one-hundred-ninety-pound assailant still knocked much of the wind out of her.

He straddled her and clutched her throat with powerful arms. Amy seized his right arm, shot her hips up, and scissored his neck with her legs. He stiffened, but she swung her legs to her left and dropped him on his back. He struggled to break free, but she had the leverage and knew how to use it. She tucked his seized arm, leaned back, and raised her hips skyward. She locked his elbow and applied pressure to hyperextend it. He tapped out against her thigh and she released his limb. They untangled themselves and remained on the floor, catching their breath.

“Very nice, Amy,” Paul panted. “You okay? Too rough?”

“Define okay?” she managed, winded. Her shoulder-length brown hair was matted to her skull. “And you can quit pretending… to be out of breath.”

“Who’s pretending?” he said with a weary grin.

The front door opened, and they craned their necks for a glimpse of the teenaged girl who entered. Olivia—or Liv, as she had come to be called—was rather tall for her age, and pretty, with long dark hair like her mother once had. Liv shut the door behind her before turning and spotting them on the floor.

“Kick his ass, Mom,” she called, then dropped her key into her purse and headed for the kitchen.

“It doesn’t look kicked?” Amy said with dismay.

“Take it from the source,” Paul said. He rocked back, performed a backward roll, and sprung to his feet. He extended his hand and helped Amy to her feet.

###

Prior to Amy purchasing the home, the rec room had been a fourth bedroom. Amy and Liv took to repurposing it within weeks of moving in. Amy used it for training, and Liv entertained her friends. It saw as much use as any room in the house.

Paul braced Amy’s leg against his shoulder and worked her through the last of a cool-down stretching routine.

“Next session, we’re spring-cleaning,” he said. “Lots of kicking, more MMA moves… the whole arsenal’s getting a make-over.”

“I feel a cold coming on.”

He smiled. He slowly released her leg and helped her to her feet.

“I’ll see you next week. You know the drill,” he said.

“Fluids, potassium, rest, repeat,” she said. “Thanks, Paul. Say hi to Kelsey for me.”

“Will do,” he said, before calling out to the kitchen, “Be good, Liv!”

“Bye!” Liv called back.

Amy gave Paul a quick, platonic hug and showed him out.

When she entered the kitchen, Amy found Liv leaning against the countertop and sipping a glass of orange juice. The kitchen was not large, but they put the space to great use thanks to tips gleaned from their mutual enjoyment of the HGTV makeover shows. The same could be said for the house as a whole; while it didn’t boast the curbside presence of some of its neighbors, its spacious and inviting interior made people feel cozy but not cramped. Amy settled into a chair at the butcher-block table. Liv joined her.

“Good day at school?”

“Better than most.”

“Awesome. What’s his name?”

“Think he said it was Pete?” Liv said. “A little full of himself, and a major skeptic.”

Amy raised her eyebrows. Liv shrugged.

“What? We had a substitute.”

“Thought maybe you’d met a nice boy.”

“You want me to have a boyfriend?”

“I want you to stop listening to the show.”

“Nothing could stop me from listening.”

“Need I remind you you’re sixteen?”

“Need I remind you I’m sixteen?”

Amy sighed.

“Dad would’ve wanted to kick his ass, talking to you like that.”

A lump caught in Amy’s throat at the mention of Ty, but she rallied.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

It was Liv’s turn to raise her eyebrows. She took the last swallow of orange juice and set her glass on the counter.

“Saying you lie to people and they believe it and kiss your ass, that isn’t bad?”

“There’s much worse.”

“Then you’d be okay with someone speaking to me like that?”

“I’d be okay with kicking their… don’t you have homework?”

Liv laughed an infectious laugh, and the precocious teen in her retreated behind a megawatt smile. Amy loved hearing her laugh, hearing the echoes of Ty in it. Liv gave Amy’s shoulder a squeeze on her way out of the kitchen, mouthing “ooh!” as she marveled at her lean muscle mass. Amy smiled on reflex, but her thoughts had drifted.

###

One year had passed since their college graduation, but Amy was going through the motions and Dawn Keller knew it. Amy had dated very little since her recovery, but it wasn’t for a lack of interest. Becoming involved meant discussing her gift, and none of her suitors had come close to earning the level of trust she needed to open up about her deepest secrets.

Further complicating things was the six-figure settlement she’d reached with Mountainside Hospital to suppress the news of her near death at the hands of Celia Brown. A lawyer her father had hired had negotiated the settlement, which sealed the lips of all parties involved. Celia Brown’s arrest for the murder of her daughter made the news, but other than naming the hospital as her place of employment, no further connection was made. Amy didn’t need to work, provided she maintained a modest lifestyle. Most people assumed her father’s money kept her from poverty, but he was a man of modest wealth.

Tonight, Amy was looking forward to spending a fun-filled evening with her closest friend. It was Ladies’ Night at Rascals Comedy Club on Bloomfield Avenue, and Amy and Dawn were dressed to turn heads. They weaved their way through the crowd to the bar, and Dawn ordered drinks for them, something cold and pretty with straws. A pair of barstools was vacated a short time later, and they settled in. They still had a good hour or more before the show started. Amy surveyed their surroundings, invigorated by the energized vibe of the crowd. Dawn kept one eye on Amy and drew a long sip from her drink’s straw. Amy could feel Dawn’s eyes on her.

“You’re staring,” she teased without looking Dawn’s way.

“Not used to seeing you in public.”

“You’re not the only one. I’ve missed it.”

“Me, too,” Dawn said with a smile, then raised her glass and toasted, “Happy Thursday.”

“Happy Thursday,” Amy echoed, and they brought their glasses together for a gentle knock, mindful of their contents.

“Is crashing a toast still in?” a male voice said. They turned to its owner, a handsome young man their age.

“Cary, so good to see you!” Dawn squealed, and gave him a big hug. “This is my best friend, Amy. Amy, this is Cary.”

“Nice to meet you, Amy,” he said, and offered his hand. Amy shook it.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

Cary gestured to his friend, standing just behind Amy.

“This is my friend, Ty.”

Dawn raised her glass.

“Nice to meet you, Ty.”

“You, too.”

Amy turned with a raised glass and a polite smile. Her eyes met his, and the attraction—the chemistry—was instantaneous. He was handsome in a guy-next-door way, with curly, light brown hair and a winning smile. He brought his glass to hers with the gentlest of touches.

“Nice to meet you, Amy.”

“Nice to meet you, too.”

Amy blushed, then wondered if Ty could tell in the bar’s lighting. His grin spread to an incredible smile and put that matter to rest. Rather than feeling embarrassed, Amy felt warm all over. She knew it had nothing to do with her drink.

“What are you drinking?”

Amy furrowed her brow. She hadn’t ordered it, and hadn’t thought to ask.

“I have… no idea.”

Ty laughed infectiously. Amy beamed. She could listen to that laugh all night.

“Next one’s on me,” he said.

“Very kind of you.”

“My pleasure.”

Amy stole a glance back at Dawn. She was talking to Cary, but she caught Amy’s eye and gave a quick wink that went undetected by the guys.

###

Tyler Dylan received Amy’s father’s blessing to propose to Amy six months later. He took to one knee on a pier behind her father’s beach house, and Amy had never been more certain about anything in her life. They were married six months later in a private ceremony on the lawn. Nine months and one smooth pregnancy later, Olivia Leigh Dylan was born. As apprehensive as Amy had been about another pregnancy, she had been that much more determined to start a family with Ty. He’d proven as marvelous a father as he’d been a husband, and Amy looked back on her years with Ty as the happiest of her life. A cruel twist of fate took him from her, from them, four summers later.

###

It had been a gorgeous day in the summer of 2000 when the family gathered for a reunion at the Asbury Park home rented by Ty. He’d insisted on making all of the preparations, and Amy marveled at his calm while a flurry of activity swirled around him. With the family enjoying a catered lunch and a breathtaking ocean view, it was clear he had it under control.

The home was a converted bungalow with hardwoods throughout the downstairs. Three modest bedrooms huddled upstairs, but the kitchen was getting all of the traffic this afternoon. At the back of the house, the weather-beaten wooden deck told tales of summer suns and storms long past. Stepping off the deck, it was about a thirty-foot walk across a thriving lawn and a thin strip of sandy beach to the Atlantic. Just beyond the reach of the surging tide, the family had set up camp for the afternoon. Adults lounged in beach chairs beneath a cluster of umbrellas while children of all ages frolicked in the surf. From time to time, adults would chase down the youngest to reapply sunscreen. Set in the sand near the umbrellas was a large cooler, which the adults were quick to dub “the treasure chest.”

Amy thought Ty seemed distracted for the last hour or so, a thought compounded when his cell phone rang and he strayed from earshot to answer it in as nonchalant a manner as he could muster. He dug it from his pocket and retreated to a spot several steps behind the cooler. The din of the rushing tide and a light breeze made taking a phone call on the beach all but impossible. He cupped his hand around the phone and spoke loudly, but the words were unintelligible to Amy. She rose from her beach chair, her curiosity piqued.

Ty pocketed his phone and stole a glance back. With her approach, he realized he was busted, but he looked relieved.

“Good news, I hope?” she asked.

“The best.”

“Anything you can share?”

“I’m ready to jump out of my skin.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

“And I hadn’t noticed you not noticing,” he said, glancing back at the beach house. Amy followed his gaze, puzzled.

“Noticing what?”

“I love that house, don’t you?” he asked.

“No changing the subject,” she said with a coy grin.

“I’m not.”

“Yes, I love the house. I could live here.”

“Would you settle for summers?”

“What?”

“As of two minutes ago, it’s our summer home,” he said, his smile radiating. Amy was stunned speechless.

“Oh my God, say something—”

“Can we afford this?”

“Yes. The stock my grandfather left me covered half. We can afford the rest. We’d better afford the rest,” he added with that infectious laugh of his.

Amy gave him a passionate kiss until good-natured shouts of “get a room” separated them. Ty stepped away and turned to the group.

“She came on to me.”

The ladies groaned and tossed ice cubes at him. Amy turned to them, her face crimson.

“Are you pregnant again?” Ty’s Aunt Sue asked. She was in her early sixties and fit. The breeze swept her chocolate-colored bangs askew.

“No, but we bought a new crib, just in case,” Ty said, gesturing to the house.

“Oh my God, he bought the house!” Sue shouted and rushed them. Others, including the kids, followed, shouting with joy. The kids had no idea why they were screaming, but they weren’t about to let a minor detail get in the way of their fun.

Graham embraced Ty and whispered to him for a long while. She watched the ocean breeze tousle her dad’s thick dark hair. It reminded her of beach trips past, his hair rippling in the wind while they strolled and gathered shells. His work overseeing renovations and construction for a major hotel chain involved worldwide travel, but he had a way of making his presence felt even when he was away. ‘It only takes one phone call,’ he would say, and he proved it that dark night in Montclair, hopping a flight from Heathrow to join a caring detective at her bedside. He released the embrace and turned to Amy. She recognized the look on his face, a look she’d seen so many times growing up.

A look of pride.

He stepped toward her, smiled his winning smile, and embraced her.

“So happy for you, honey. Congratulations.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll grab the bubbly,” Ty said. He trudged through the sand toward the house.

“I’ll give you a hand,” Amy called, and started after him. He glanced back and waved her off.

“I’ve got it covered. You enjoy.”

“Quick kiss?”

“Got that covered, too,” he said, and pecked her on the mouth. He continued on, taking several steps before stealing a glance back at her. They traded smiles and Amy retreated for her beach chair.

Amy watched Liv and Graham play in the surf. It was waist deep on Liv and lingered around his calves. Liv was determined to splash her grandfather and he played it to the hilt, reacting in dramatic fashion every time the smallest amount of water landed on him. Liv giggled and splashed harder, encouraged by her success.

###

Ty set the champagne bottle in a bucket of ice and grabbed a stack of plastic cups from the kitchen counter with his right hand. He gripped the handle of the bucket with his left hand and started for the door. He slowed to a stop and frowned, his glance shifting to witness the gradual, involuntary descent of his left arm. He swayed and the bucket crashed to the floor. He stumbled backward and lunged for the kitchen counter, but his left arm betrayed his will. His head hit the counter with a sickening thud and he collapsed to the floor.

###

Graham hoisted Liv high above his head, and she called to Amy, all smiles, and positioned her tiny arms like airplane wings. Amy smiled and waved back. The out-of-body sensation overwhelmed her…

Ty sprawled on the floor, motionless, his eyes open. Mouthing something.

Amy shot out of her chair and bolted for the beach house. Her strides were awkward in the shifting sand, and she sent a fair share flying with each leg kick. All eyes went to her as the family stopped whatever they were doing.

Ty lay motionless on the floor, except for his mouth. His lips came together, then parted, then together again.

“Meee…” he uttered, the long “e” trailing off in an anguished moan. The sliding glass door opened and Amy cried out.

“Ty!”

She rushed in and dropped to her knees beside him.

“Where are you hurt?” She glanced back to the patio door and shouted, “Call nine one one!”

Aunt Sue appeared in the doorway and gasped. She turned back toward the beach and waved her arms, frantic.

“Nine one one, Ty’s hurt! We need an ambulance!” Amy gripped Ty’s left hand with her right.

“Just tell me where it hurts,” she said. She looked at her right hand and frowned—Ty’s left hand remained limp in hers. No grip at all.

“Ty, can you hear me?”

His eyes shifted around, and she didn’t like what she was seeing in them. His gaze was distant, unsure. She brought her head close to his and looked him in the eyes.

“Ty, it’s Amy. Do you know where you are?”

Again his lips came together in his struggle to speak.

“Meee…”

“He’s having a stroke,” Amy said, fighting back tears. “Ty, we’re gonna get you help, okay? I’m staying right here with you.”

Aunt Sue knelt beside them and held his right hand, choking back tears.

“Help’s on the way,” a breathless uncle called on approach to the patio doorway. “Hang in there, Ty.”

“Hear that, Ty? Help is coming. Just stay with me,” Amy said, careful not to move him. Please, God. Please. She spied the puddle of blood creeping out from under Ty’s head and burst into tears.

Sue followed Amy’s gaze to the spreading puddle and could hold her tears no more.

The ambulance had arrived in record time, but Ty had lost consciousness on the way to the hospital. He was pronounced dead a short time after his arrival.

###

In the wake of his passing, Amy invested all of her energy into making sure Liv thrived. The family gave her tremendous support, with her father and her in-laws at the forefront. She had sold the beach house a year later, the excruciating pain of her loss outweighing her determination to honor his memory. It was a decision that, over time, she had come to regret.

She looked forward to being with him again, but until then, there was a life to live and a young lady to raise. She glanced to the heavens with a wistful smile and sighed.

Amazon buy button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *