Everyone has secrets. It was a phrase my mother used to say. The words echoed in the wind around me, a ghost from my past whispering in my ear. I tightened my scarf to help block the cold. Again. And again. Until the fringe hung evenly on the front of my coat. I breathed a sigh of relief even though the wind still rushed past my ears.
The rain from earlier tonight should have left the ground slippery, but the dense canopy of trees in the woods had preserved the freshly fallen leaves’ texture. And I was thankful that it had. My feet crunching through the brown leaves helped to drown out the sound of the wind.
It was growing colder every night. Soon the woods would be covered in a blanket of peaceful snow. And with the snow would come silence. There was nothing better than silence.
I wound through the trees, ducking beneath broken limbs as I descended the hill from my house. It had been a long time since I walked to the lake. My usual trail was hard to make out. The path my feet had made over the years was nearly covered in fresh foliage and buried under a layer of autumn leaves. I preferred staying in my house. Indoors, to be more specific. There was too much noise out here. And too much uncertainty. There was really no reason to come out when I had such a beautiful view of the lake from the comfort of my own home. But I had been itching to see it in person again.
Before the woods could block my view at the base of the hill, I glanced to the right to see the row of cookie-cutter houses in the distance. My family had lived in one of those houses. A perfect house. In the perfect neighborhood. A perfect little life. At least, that’s how it looked from the outside. You could never truly be sure. After all, everyone has secrets.
I grimaced at the phrase and adjusted my scarf higher this time in order to cover my ears. Once. Twice. Three times, until it lay perfectly even again.
It was only another minute until I reached the edge of the lake. It was beautiful. And deserted. And freezing. I resisted the urge to adjust my scarf again. Instead, I pictured my mother kneeling beside the water. Sometimes I wondered if it was really a memory or just a figment of my imagination. Because in all honesty, it was one of the only vivid memories I had of my mother from when I was a child. She had knelt down to look me in the eyes, holding my face and wiping away the tear stains.
“One white lie never hurt anyone,” my mother had said. “Everyone has secrets. But a big lie?” She lifted her ruined silk blouse that I had butchered to make a dress for my Barbie. “You do not lie about big things. Big lies have big consequences.”
The gentle touch of her hand on my face had become sharper, her fingertips biting into my skin.
I had wanted to confess. I had wanted to tell her I was sorry. But for some reason, the words hadn’t wanted to escape. And I couldn’t nod my head because she was holding my chin so tightly in her hand.
“Consequences, Violet. There are consequences to big lies.”
I remembered her pushing my head under the cold water for so long that I breathed in a lungful of it. I could still hear my stepfather’s laughter in my head. He had watched it all unfolding and didn't care one bit that my mother was trying to drown me.
I blinked and the image of her disappeared. One of my only living, breathing memories of my mother. It was bittersweet. There had been such a tender moment there. But I wasn’t sure it outweighed the feeling of fire in my lungs when I couldn’t breathe. I still missed her desperately, even though I shouldn’t have. I stared out at the still water of the lake. I most certainly shouldn’t have.
But it was better to hold on to the sweetness of a moment. It was better to remember the good things instead of the bad. I knew that better than anyone. I had lost my mother when she was far too young. A short life was one of the hardest things to cope with. It made you forgive any wrongs. Or maybe it just made you crave even the bad memories because you just missed the person so damn much.
I felt a tear run down my cheek. And I was very aware of the fact that there was no one to wipe it away now. I drew closer to the lake and stared down at my reflection. I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I was well into my mid-twenties, yet I still cried at the lake like a child. I still escaped here when I needed a moment to myself. Everything had changed, yet nothing at all.
The silence suddenly felt overwhelming. Maybe a part of me still craved being in one of those stupid perfect houses in that stupid perfect neighborhood. I wanted the façade even if it wasn’t real. I didn’t want to hurt this much.
A loud boom echoed through the trees, sending birds fleeing to the sky. Through the layers of my scarf it sounded like a gunshot. Every now and then a crazy person would hunt in these woods even though it was against the law. Another shot went off and I flung myself to the ground. Only I was on the edge of the lake...so instead of solid ground, I plunged into the water with a splash that sounded almost as loud as the gunshot in my ears.
For a moment it felt like my head was being held underneath the surface. Like my mother's hand was gripping my hair so tightly it hurt. But then it felt a lot more like I was being pulled into the cold depths from below. Something heavy and sinister clutched to my ankle. Pulling me lower and lower. I reached for the surface as I continued to sink.
It was the layers pulling me deeper. I knew how to swim, it was just impossible with these heavy clothes. I wrestled with my scarf that was much too tight after all my adjustments. And I unzipped and pushed my coat off my shoulders.
This time when I kicked my legs, I easily rose to the surface. I gasped for air as I hauled myself up onto solid ground. On my hands and knees, I choked and sputtered up water.
I finally breathed out only air and saw my exhale in a puff of smoke. It was cold, but it wasn’t that cold. I lifted my head and squinted my eyes. A soft orange glow was on the horizon in the distance. Fire. I was still trying to catch my breath, but the enormity of the situation made it harder to fill my lungs. Shit. It felt like my heart was beating out of my chest.
I pushed myself up onto my feet and ran back toward my house, to the hill that overlooked the perfect little neighborhood below. It didn’t look so perfect anymore. One of the houses was completely engulfed in flames. Or what was left of it. There was barely any house there. It was just rubble ablaze. The boom hadn’t been from a gun. That house must have exploded.
I could already hear sirens in the distance. They’d take care of the flames. They’d make sure they didn’t spread into the trees. They wouldn’t let them reach me.
But nothing I thought eased my rapid heartbeat. My mother’s words still echoed in my head. Everyone has secrets. The problem was, I had three of them. And I lived out here for a reason. I shook my head. One white lie never hurt anyone. And as far as I was concerned, neither did three. I reached for my scarf to adjust it, but my hand came up short.
I looked back at the lake. I had a dozen other scarves, but that was my only winter jacket. For a moment I was frozen. It wasn’t just because I was freezing cold. It was because I didn’t know what to do. Run back down the hill to help? That house would be swarming with people in just a minute. Jump back into the water and find my jacket? It was too cold. But it wasn’t the temperature of the water that was preventing that option. I didn’t want to feel like I was drowning again.
A chill ran down my spine. And it wasn’t from the cool wind against my wet clothes. Or even from the horrific scene in front of me.
I started walking farther up the hill. My mind was having trouble calming down, but it was like my body knew what to do. I had to get home. Houses didn’t just explode out of nowhere. Well, maybe sometimes they did. A gas leak or some other easy explanation. But sometimes a person caused the leak. Human error. Or worse. There’d be an investigation. Cops would swarm the woods searching for the culprit. I was the only person that lived out here. And I did not want them invading my privacy. I had too much to lose.
My whole body was shaking by the time I reached my house. I wanted to believe it was because of my soaked clothes and the cold wind. But I knew it wasn't. I felt like I was running out of precious time.
The chipped white paint on my wrap-around porch was already illuminated with the red and blue of distant sirens. The cops would be here soon. I opened and closed the front door as quietly as possible, but the creak of the rusty hinges marred the silence.
I tried to take a slow, steadying breath so I could concentrate on everything I needed to do. Wet clothes. I touched my soaked sweater. Changing wasn’t an important task, but I couldn’t stop shaking. Maybe it would help. I pulled the thick layers off, jumping on one foot then the next as I removed my jeans. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom with the pile of wet clothes in my hands. Each creaky stair made me cringe. No matter how much work I put into this house, it still seemed to be falling apart.
I discarded my wet clothes on the bathroom floor and grabbed my robe. After I took care of everything, I could take a nice hot shower and try to rid the image of the cool lake from my mind. And hang up the clothes. But my feet wouldn’t move. I just stared down at the pile of clothes on my spotless tiled floor. Ignore the wet clothes! I backed out of the bathroom. And then went back in. Backed out. Then in. Then out. Then in. Three times. Damn it! I ran out of the bathroom and grabbed some hangers from my closet. Stupid wet clothes. I carefully hung up the soaked garments on the shower curtain bar above the tub. And then evenly spaced them out. It was absolute perfection. It was also an absolute waste of valuable time.
My mind was racing. How long had I spent doing that? Five minutes tops? They’d still be taking care of the fire. I grabbed my binoculars from the vanity, pulled one of the horizontal blinds down, and peered out the window. There was no sign of the fire spreading into the woods. Just its glow in the distance and the red and blue lights in the sky.
And…and a person. I blinked. There was a woman running through the woods. More specifically, running up my hill in the middle of the woods. The woman glanced over her shoulder at the fire and then picked up her pace. She ran right past my pickup truck and into the cover of the trees again.
I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that the lunatic running through the woods was the culprit of the explosion. Which made my deepest fears a reality. The cops would follow her. They’d follow her all the way up here, directly toward me. I glared daggers at the spot where the woman had disappeared through the trees. She’d just led the cops straight to my doorstep.
I put the binoculars down next to the other identical two and tried to focus again. It had taken me a few minutes to run back home. A few minutes to hang up my wet clothes. I pulled my hair into a bun on the top of my head as I paced around the bathroom. There was still time. The cops wouldn’t necessarily know that she had run into the woods. It was dark now. It would be hard for them to find her trail even in the light since the ground was covered in fall leaves. They wouldn’t know she had basically run up to my house. I’d be fine.
My pep talk didn’t calm me down. At all. Especially since it ignored the fact that someone may have seen the woman run into the woods. Nosy neighbors could probably point the cops in the right direction. My direction. And I knew for a fact that the Windy Park community was full of nosy neighbors. I heard their whispers. I knew what they said about me.
I ran out of the bathroom and crouched down at the foot of my bed. My fingers dug into the side of the loose board as I pried it up. Just like it had been a long time since I had been to the lake, it had been a long time since I had lifted up this loose board as well. Things were good. I was good. I hadn’t let my memories bother me in a long time. But here I was. Staring down at every incriminating thing I owned. Well, not necessarily incriminating. Just…suspicious. Suspicious to stupid cops who heard stupid gossip from stupid neighbors.
The ironic thing was that I had planned to go through all of this tonight anyway. I let myself remember once a year. I used to always do it on the anniversary of when my heart was shattered into a million tiny pieces. But it had gotten pushed back every year, had changed seasons a few times even. Sometimes it was just a little too hard to remember. Maybe six years was the amount of time that would finally allow me to find peace.
I picked up the shoebox and tossed the lid off. Inside were just a bunch of short letters from my boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. How unusual was it to keep notes from an ex? I didn’t really know. I had no one to ask. But it felt unusual that I hadn’t dated anyone since he had skipped town. Six years. Six years I had waited for him to come back. That wasn’t exactly bad, just pathetic. I looked down at the letters. In a lot of ways, this box held my most valuable possessions. It was like I had packaged up my heart in this box and closed the lid on it. I could practically feel my heartbeat in my fingertips as I held the box in my hands.
Why was I hung up on him anyway? He was a complete asshole. He had just left in the middle of the night. He left me. He was the reason I was at the lake tonight. It was our meeting spot. We had both grown up in Windy Park and it was an easy place to sneak off to. We were young and in love. And then…we suddenly weren’t.
He was the reason I was stuck in this godforsaken rundown house. Some of my best memories of him were here in the woods. Throwing rocks at the window of this house. Telling ghost stories of its previous inhabitants who had left it abandoned. I shook my head. There was nothing haunted about this house. It just held all the memories of him. And I couldn’t leave. I don’t know why I couldn’t leave. But I felt most at home tucked away in the woods. Stuck in the past.
I lifted up the letter from the bottom of the box. The last note I had ever gotten from him. We used to sneak them to each other between classes. A slight brush of skin as our palms touched to exchange them. A tingle that made me feel more alive than I ever had. My eyes scanned the creased page.
Only three weeks until we’re out of here. Us against the world, babe. Us against the world.
Forever and always,
Six years ago we had planned to run away together. He was going to take me to LA. We had big dreams, the two of us. Until he decided he didn’t want to be a we. He was probably a screenwriter in Hollywood by now. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t own a TV. And I never went to the movies. I barely left the freaking house. He had never needed me to accomplish his dreams. All I'd ever done was hold him back.
I stared down at the page, still confused about what possibly could have changed in the several hours between him writing this note and the time that evening that he skipped town early without me. But in my heart I knew. He had figured out my secret. And abandoned me. I needed him more than ever and he had abandoned me. Big lies have big consequences. My mom’s words rattled around in my head again. She was certainly right about that. The problem was, I never meant to lie. I was always going to tell him. I was just waiting until he whisked me away from this town like the knight in shining armor I thought he was. Yup, he was most definitely a hotshot in Hollywood by now. I wasn’t much of a dreamer, yet I had believed every word out of his mouth. Surely the box-office numbers would reflect his master storytelling.
I tossed the letters back in the box. They weren’t the reason I had opened up the floorboard. A few harmless notes from an ex weren’t incriminating. All they meant was that I was a creepy broken-hearted loner in the woods. No, the letters weren’t the incriminating thing hidden beneath my floorboards. It was the handgun that I was worried about.
END OF CHAPTER 1
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