Weekly Writing Challenge

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Real life intruded this week and prevented me from adding to the ongoing story. I’ve chosen instead to share the first chapter of my current work in progress. BITTER HOLLOW. I hope you enjoy it. Like the story, the cover below is a work in progress. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

The past bleeds through.

It didn’t matter how high, or how thick we built the walls around the memories that gave us the most pain, one way or another they found their way through.

Laura left three months ago, and the pain of her leaving was as fresh as the day it happened. One moment she was there, in the next she was gone. There’d been no goodbyes, no enraged notes blaming me for all my shortcomings, or any drawn out arguments punctuated by the slamming of the door.

It was the opposite in fact.

A silence that spoke with the finality of death.  While I was working she left, moving to her sisters in Baltimore, back to the hectic pace and the bright lights of a lifestyle that blinded both of us to the truth when we were first wed in a union doomed to failure the moment we said, I do.

For Laura’s family I was from the wrong side of the tracks, a point they tried to drive home, but in the beginning her love for me blinded her to our differences. Though I was a beat cop with no education beyond high school, filled with rage at the people of a country I once tried to help, we managed to keep our marriage together for seven years. In that time her family started warming up to me, so much so that her dad invited me to a round of golf.

I declined, I’d never been interested in golf, couldn’t see what was so competitive about chasing a little white ball around. My refusal to join her dad on the links proved to be the first chink in the armor that was our marriage. It wasn’t long before others followed, spreading out from that first little crack like a spider web to culminate in the chasm that opened between us when we were forced to move to the mountains. Here the slower pace removed the blinders the bright lights and fast tempo of life in Baltimore put in place. For the first time she saw me for what I really was, and she didn’t like it.

It didn’t matter that in sixteen years with the Baltimore police I rose through the ranks from patrolman to lead detective heading up the major cases bureau. I was just another poser trying to be something I wasn’t, and I’d invaded her space, tricking her into believing I was something I wasn’t. At least to her way of thinking. She made that quite clear the last time we spoke. Argued would be a better description.

“Patrol six, this is base, over.” A feminine voice came from the radio mounted on the dash.

Keying the mic, I responded. “This is patrol six, go ahead, over.”

“Hey Bill, on nights again I see, over.”

“Story of my life, whatcha got Rosie? Over.”

“It’ll get better, it always does. They hit the circle K again in Red House, over.” Everyone in the office knew about Laura leaving, a couple even blamed me for what happened.

“That’s the second time this month, they need to close after midnight. I’m on my way, over.”

“Roger, Bill, this is base, out.”

There was no need for lights or sirens, the culprits were probably already in West Virginia, so I pulled a U-turn in the middle of 219 and headed south.

The road ahead lay shrouded in shadows as the ridge above burned with the light of the approaching day. Laura always liked the sunrise. Especially in the mountains when the first fingers of morning ignited the ridges in a fiery glow as the night sought refuge in the valleys below. There was something primal about the rebirth of the day, and how the darkness retreated before its approach, seeking refuge in secret places the light dare not follow.

Every morning she’d sit in her favorite chair on the deck as the last of the night fled from the dawn. It energized her in a way I never understood, and to be honest I was a little jealous of that private time she shared with the morning.

When I was home, I’d either be asleep, or would watch from the kitchen as I got ready for work. After she left I wondered what would have happened had I joined her. Would it have given us something in common, a private moment we could share that might have saved our marriage?

Or would my intrusion drive a deeper wedge into the emptiness between us. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason I stayed away. To be honest the night scared me. Things lived in the dark, old things without a care that would devour your sanity given half a chance. I’d seen them in Afghanistan and locked away the memory, but like I said, no matter how high and how thick you build those wall, sometimes the memories escaped.

The past bleeds through.

With the memory I saw her eyes again, ringed in black to ward off evil spirits, too bad it couldn’t ward off incoming fire, and my stomach cramped at the thought.  

The Circle K convenience store came into view, the lights over the gas pumps formed an island of safety, a beacon to weary travelers passing through the night. Why anyone would put a convenience store here, especially one open twenty-four hours a day, was beyond me. It made no sense. There wasn’t enough traffic to warrant the hours, but the owner persisted, so greedy he was afraid he might miss a buck if he locked his doors.

The remote location made it an idea target for those with less than honest intentions. It wasn’t like the convenience stores in Baltimore that were built like a bank with a thick walls of bullet-proof glass protecting the clerk. If you tried to shoot the clerk you ran the risk injuring yourself with a ricocheting bullet.

This circle K convenience store was like any other, a non-descript box sitting at an angle to the intersection. Over the pumps a large canopy with the Circle K logo at each corner provided protection against inclement weather. I pulled in beside an old pickup truck parked next to three farm tractors, the mud still fresh on their tires.  

Inside and to the right, several tables were set up to serve as a small dining area. One was occupied by four old men who spoke among themselves. They held styrofoam cups of coffee in aged hands seeking relief from the morning chill. It was as typical a scene as one would expect in such a place and I noted that the old men were the farming type, judging by their mud-covered boots, and the rides waiting outside. 

Still visibly shaken by his encounter, the young man at the counter, whose name tag happily identified him as Donald, stuttered as he struggled to answer my questions.

“Did you get a good look at him?”

“I couldn’t see his face clearly, he wore a ski mask,” the not so happy Donald replied.

“Did you see which way he went?”

“To the left I believe,” Donald answered after a moments consideration during which he stared at the front door as he struggled to remember, “but I’m not sure, I was afraid he was going to shoot me.”

“I understand.” I placed my hand on Donald’s shoulder, I needed him to settle and focus before he lost what little information he might have.

“It’s important we know which way he went when he left.” I reassured him, though it really didn’t matter. It was doubtful the direction of the robber’s escape would make much difference in the ensuing investigation, but I needed Donald to believe this so he could focus on what happened. I glanced up at the sign hanging over the register.

Smile, you’re on camera! It exclaimed in bold type beneath a smiley face. 

Under the sign a closed-circuit camera pointed down at the register, the red light below the lens dark. I’m sure the culprit knew the security camera was not working. It was a poor man’s security system only effective with those who had no intention of robbing the place to begin with.

“I don’t suppose there’s a video?” I asked anyway, feeling just a bit foolish for doing so, but you could never be sure when something might break your way.

Donald’s dispirited shrug was answer enough and I turned my attention to the conversation among the four old timers. A conversation centered on a woman it appeared each of them had known at one time or another.  One of them might have noticed something the others missed, I’d have to talk to them, but first I needed to call this in so we could get some of the state boys down here to take over. 

As a detective it would have taken an act of god to get me to turn a case over to another agency, the fact I was so anxious to do so now was just another indication of the new direction my life had taken. As a sheriff’s deputy with over six hundred square miles to cover and more than thirty thousand residents I didn’t have time to conduct a thorough investigation. I needed to be on patrol.

“Almost got him,” one of the old timers said and the comment drew my attention to outside. A white van was racing down route 219 towards us. It wasn’t the van that stood out. On the driver’s side, a bright red smear of what looked like blood ran from the front bumper to just before the rear wheel.

The van jerked right, then left, crossed the center lane as it left the road and shot across the small parking lot, bearing down on the pumps.

“Shut em down,” I shouted as I spun around. Donald was oblivious to the danger as I leaned across the counter. I shoved him out of the way with my shoulder as the image of a rising fireball filled my mind. Just like the FOB when rockets rained down from the mountain peaks above. I smacked the shut off and turned to watch, hoping I’d been fast enough.

The old men at the table were unable to react in time to save themselves as the gas pump crumpled beneath the bumper of the mini-van. There was a moment when I was confident the entire place was going to go up, a moment that thankfully passed as the van came to rest against the second pump after shearing the first from its mount, trapping it between the nose of the van and the second pump.

I raced outside, followed by the others. A woman sat behind the wheel staring straight ahead between the peaks of her white knuckles, her expression dazed.

She had been pretty once, when she was young, before the effects of gravity and indifference from the man she married had their way with her. Her cheeks were streaked with mascara, her eyes confused as she stared into the distance, her hands held the steering wheel in a death grip that made her knuckles stand out like jagged peaks. Reaching for the door handle I realized how fresh the blood was.

“Are you okay, Ma’am?”

She turned to look at me, her head moving so slow I imagined I could hear the creaking of her muscles. She carried a confused expression on her face, a thousand-yard stare that cut through me as she looked at something that wasn’t there. A memory possibly. I’d seen that look too many times before, the survivors of violent crimes wore a similar expression as their minds forced them to relive their terror.

“Where’s Harold?” she said, the blonde hair framing her face damp with sweat.

“Who’s Harold, Ma’am?”

“Harold, my husband,” one of her hands flew to her face and she gnawed on a knuckle as her eyes widened. “No, don’t,” she cried out, “please,” she pleaded.

“What happened?”

“No,” she moaned, closing her eyes and covering her face with her hands.

“That’s Harold’s wife?” one of the men behind me said and I spun around, a thousand thoughts ricocheting through my mind. Questions mostly, with why leading the pack.

Why was she afraid? Why was she running? It was obvious she was running from something, a hastily packed suitcase sat on the back seat, bits of clothing peeking out from around the edges. Where did the blood come from? Was it Harold’s? Why would she run her husband down?

“Harold who?” I asked instead.

“Harold Felton, he runs the vegetable stand on 219 every fall.”

That Harold, I realized as I recalled several run ins with the crusty old man whose customer service skills were in serious need of updating. That brought me back to why. A question I intended to answer.