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Mary Elizabeth

22 Mar

What is it about love that drives even the sanest person stark raving mad? When love is brand new, you walk around smiling like a lunatic, giggling to yourself, in a perpetual state of ignorant bliss, one heartbeat away from busting out in spontaneous song and dance. You’re so in love with being in love that you develop an obsessive compulsion to play matchmaker. You want everyone around you to share in your delusional joy—your sister, your boss, the guy who picks up your trash. It becomes your mission in life to guide them toward their very own happily-ever-after, even if they don’t want to go there.

The very second you fall out of love, you come violently unhinged, desperate to make everyone else just as bloody miserable as you are—especially the two-timing whore you used to be so goddamn giddy about in the first place. Committing murder suddenly doesn’t seem so repugnant. It’s appealing, even. You plot. You plan. You turn stalker. You become obsessed and possessed. Your head spins in complete circles as you spew green bile whenever someone mentions your ex’s name. Complete strangers look at you like you’re off your meds, exactly as they had looked at you back when you were fresh in love and singing from the treetops, except this time they’re slowly backing away, dialing 911.

But you can’t sustain the adrenalized hatred for long. Eventually, you crash. And then you go numb. As your body and mind disconnect, autopilot kicks in and you enter a state of suspended animation. The world loses its color. Food has no flavor. There’s no hot or cold, no hard or soft, no good or bad.

Everything just… is.

The world spins. Time passes. You barely blink. You breathe in shallow breaths. You don’t laugh or cry or smile or feel pain. You can’t sleep. Or, maybe you sleep too much. It takes every ounce of energy you possess to occasionally shower and go to work.

Slowly but surely, as the days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, through innate self-preservation your sanity returns. A bird chirps, a brownie bakes, and you sense it. You almost feel normal again. So, you comb your hair, and take that first tentative step back into living.

You return phone calls, hang out with friends, go grocery shopping for something other than whiskey or ice cream. You let your guard down, run a marathon, join a garage band. You get a false sense of security that what had happened to you was a onetime thing—a fluke—a momentary weakness that will never, ever happen again. You’re smarter this time. Impervious to love. You flirt with the waitress. Ask her out. Take her home. But it’s all good. It’s just sex. Your heart is immune.

And then, when you least expect it, you gaze into a pair of baby blues from across the room—Bam!—your beige world turns Technicolor, and you’re cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs in love again.

For twenty-seven-year-old Nicholas Kelly, those blue eyes were hiding behind a pair of pink glasses perched on the button nose of a petite brunette who happened to be smack in the middle of a love-induced mental meltdown of her very own.

As the responding officer, he rolled onto the scene of the crime and paused to watch her under the flood lights of the Conoco gas station before climbing out of his squad car. She was full-on ape-shit, screaming like a banshee as she stood on the hood of a silver and black 1971 Chevelle SS, beating the hell out of the fully-restored classic with a metal baseball bat. She had the form and grace of a major leaguer, and the raw power of a woman scorned. Every hit was a home run. Glass shattered, metal crushed, and the poor sap who had pissed her off was forced to stand back and watch her destroy his manhood, one crack of the bat at a time.

Everything about her screamed perfection—from the braids in her hair that swung wildly, slowly coming undone, to the purple bra visible through her gauzy, white peasant blouse, down to her bare feet and matching purple toenail polish, she was perfect. She was tiny, elfish—adorable even—but she was dangerous. In a delicious kind of way. When she bent to smash the headlights, a trail of tattooed butterflies peeked out of the waistband of her shorts, fluttering up her slender, tanned back, and Nicholas came undone.

Aw, shit. He was in love.

~   *   ~

Submitted for this week’s Story Dam writing prompt, “Free Write.”

Ever have one of those stories that gnaws at the back of your brain stem, just dying to get out? Ever find yourself part of a writing group when this happens and you can’t tie that story in no matter how hard you try?

Us too.

So, let’s hope that you have one of these stories that needs to be set free!

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Lost

13 Jan

Jimmy wiped the last of the spilled water out of the cabinet base and packed up his tools. He listed the parts he used and his time on the work order, but it was more for his own records than anything else. He never billed Pastor Tom for repairs.

As he left the restroom, the door squeaked. He opened and closed it a few times, listening, and then set his tool box down. With a mallet and screwdriver, he popped out the offending hinge pin, cleaned it, and added a bit of chain lubricant. When he tested the door again, it was silent.

If only his mind could be as easy to silence. Squirt on a little lube, shut it up. Johnny Walker worked, sometimes, but only for a night.

He repacked his toolbox and lifted its heavy weight in his left hand. As he walked the narrow hallway that led to the exit near the sanctuary, the fingertips of his right hand brushed along the wall, an old habit he didn’t resist this time. The horsehair plaster was cool to the touch, uneven and heavily painted. His fingertips bumped over cracks, dipped into craters, the path foreign. He stood a good foot taller now than he had the last time his hand had traveled the wall. His stride stretched longer. He dropped his hand, and continued on without reaching.

In the archway, he paused. The afternoon was bright, but except for where the sunlight played in rainbows through the stained glass, the sanctuary remained shrouded in shadow. The church was old, gothic revival in design. Cherry paneling covered the walls. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The pews could hold a hundred people, twice that if they really packed in, and they had on many a Christmas Eve of past. He wondered if they still did.

After a moment of hesitation, he set his toolbox down and stepped inside. The air smelled cleaner than he remembered, free of the perfume of flowers and women, the cigarette smoke clinging to the jackets of men, but it still carried the comfort of lemon oil and sweet sage.

He slid into the pew on the left-hand side, second from the back, and slowly inched his way down to the other end, close to the wall. He placed his hands on the pew in front of him and closed his eyes, sitting without moving, without breathing. He heard nothing, except the screaming of his own mind. About his father. Brayden. What he’d lost.

About Ky.

Always, about Ky.

“It’s still there, you know.”

Startled, Jimmy turned in the direction of the voice, and watched as Pastor Tom settled into the pew behind him.

“What’s still there?” Jimmy asked, though he knew.

“Your name.”

Jimmy slid the hymnal in front of him over in the rack, revealing the first half of his name, carved into the cherry wood long ago. He traced the letters, the lines no longer splintered and fresh. They had been aged by a buildup of wood oil, smoothed by the polishing of other’s hands, his presence a shallow scar time was threatening to erase.

His thumb caressed the letters. “I sat and stared at this every Sunday morning for years. My mom thought it was remorse…” He shook his head. “I just hated that I got caught before I could finish.”

“If I let you carve the rest, will you come back again?”

Jimmy traced the J. The I. The M. The unfinished remainder of who he had once been. “I wish it were that simple.”

“It can be.” Tom set a folded pocketknife on the seat of the pew. “Once you realize you’ve been searching for Someone who has never left your side.”

****

This short was written for the “Where is it?” prompt on Story Dam. Write a descriptive piece (fiction or non-fiction) in which you or your character has lost something important.

Lingering Leftovers

6 Jan

The bitter wind whipped around Adam as he walked the curving length of his driveway to his mailbox, freezing his ears and stirring up the dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. With the holidays over, winter felt more like a cruel joke than the magical Wonderland it had seemed just a week prior. Christmas lights still adorned the houses along the cul-de-sac, but only Marge and Frank Stokes bothered to plug theirs in at night.

Typical of January, the mailbox was stuffed with bad news. Adam wrestled the awkward bundle out of the box and trudged back up the drive, flipping through the day’s delivery as he did.

Long gone were the festive envelopes containing warm, holiday greetings from family and friends. Now, credit card statements bulged with painful reminders of impulsive extravagances purchased for loved ones, and last-minute guilt-buys for those they loved less. The first shipment of their Year of Cheese had arrived—eight-ounces of Munster, courtesy of Uncle Monty. The gas bill felt heavier this month, as though the ink used to print that extra digit next to ‘Total Now Due’ weighed as much as the cash Adam would have to fork over to pay it.

“Kim?” Adam called out as he entered the house. The bitter wind swept in with him.

“In the kitchen!” his wife answered, her reply accentuated by the clinking slam of the dishwasher door.

Adam stepped around the cast-aside and broken RC helicopter their son, Aiden, had begged Santa for. His interest in it had lasted three days. Better than most gifts, but still disheartening, especially considering Adam was holding the bill for it in his hand.

“Hey.” Kim glanced up from the breakfast mess she was wiping off the kitchen counter. Her nose was still red and chapped from the last remnants of the flu bug Adam’s four-year-old nephew had gifted the entire family with on Christmas Eve. “I just remembered Colleen has that ACT prep thing this afternoon. It starts the same time as Katie’s ballet class, and I can’t be in both places at once. Can you drop her off, and I’ll pick her up after Aiden’s basketball camp.”

“Sure.”

“And then you’ll have to pick up Katie from ballet, because I promised Emily I’d take her around to sell Girl Scout cookies this afternoon.”

“That’s fine.” Damn. There went his plans to watch the game. Not that he would have been able to watch it on his new HDTV anyway.

His eyes drifted over to the den where Kim’s cranky Great-Aunt Tillie sat in his recliner, his remote in her hand, her chin to her heavily-perfumed chest as she napped. She hadn’t moved from that spot since she’d arrived on their doorstep a week before Christmas, uninvited, two suitcases and a diabetic cat in hand.

“When’s Tillie say she’s going home again?”

“I don’t know,” Kim grumbled as she scrubbed at a glop of dried jelly. “Every time I ask her, she says. ‘Oh…soon, dear.’ Well, soon can’t come soon enough for me. I swear the only time she lifts a finger around here is to point out everything I’m doing wrong. I’m half-tempted to stuff the old bag in a box and ship her and that damn cat back to Tucson myself.”

Adam grunted and held out a thick stack of mail wrapped in a rubber band.

“What’s this?” Kim glanced at the bundle. When her eyes landed on the yellow, postal-forward stickers with Tillie’s name and their address gracing the envelopes, she gasped in horror. “Oh— Shit!

“We got the credit card bill, too.” Adam tried to smile, but failed. He tossed her the box of cheese. “Merry Christmas.”

 

***

This short story was written for the Story Dam prompt Holiday Leftovers. Write a piece, non-fiction or fiction, in which your character is figuring out what to do with their “leftovers.”

The Night Shift

17 Dec

This month’s long prompt on Story Dam was to describe the people who make up the world in which our character lives.

Olivia has a lot of peeps in her world. The following short introduces you to the ones she hangs out with at work.

* * * * *

Olivia Hanson clocked into work at 2:05 p.m. and her boss, Sam Dubaugh, called her into his office at 2:05 and 14 seconds. Olivia loathed Sam, as did everyone else who worked at Garretson Enterprises, except for Stephie Klinger who was screwing him in a desperate attempt to be promoted to the front offices.

Yeah, like that would ever happen.

Olivia!” Sam barked out again when it took Olivia too long to snap to his command.

“Alright, alright,” Olivia muttered under her breath as she slid her timecard back into its slot and crossed the narrow hallway to Sam’s office.

Sam glared at her over his cluttered, metal utility desk as she slumped onto the chair across from him and waited for her daily butt-chewing to begin.

“You’re late.” Sam leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his barrel chest.

Sam was always trying to look intimidating, but Olivia didn’t know why he thought he needed to. He was a huge son of a bitch, made of rock instead of flesh. He intimidated everyone just by breathing. Everyone, except Olivia.

“Sorry. It won’t happen again,” she promised, not sounding the least bit sorry as she sucked on her fountain Dr. Pepper. They both knew damn well she would more than likely be late again before the week was up, but this routine of theirs was scripted and that was her line. She was obligated to say it. “Can I go now?”

“That’s your fifth tardy this month.”

“Sixth actually, but we’ll stick with five because it wasn’t my fault this time. Honest.”

“Uh-huh,” Sam grunted. He never believed her.

“Seriously! I got into an accident at the Get ‘n Go.”

“You back into the pumps again?”

“No,” Olivia grumbled. “A Dodge pickup.”

Sam’s frown deepened as he continued to stare her down. She stared back. Neither of them said a word as the second hand of the wall clock swept two full rotations around the number plate. Without breaking eye-contact, Olivia brought her lips back to the straw sticking out of the gigantic Styrofoam cup, and sucked.

“Don’t let it happen again,” Sam finally said, dismissing her with a wave.

He was a pushover.

Olivia took her time putting away her purse and slipping on her smock, and by the time she perched on her little stool it was 2:17 p.m. and Louise tsked in disapproval.

“Sorry.” Olivia did her best to look apologetic, but as soon as Louise turned her back, Olivia stuck out her tongue.

Louise hated Olivia with a passion, and the feeling was more than mutual. The woman was older than dirt and truly believed her shit don’t stink. Olivia had no clue if Louise’s shit did or didn’t stink, and she hoped she never found out.

Carla Rain bit back a laugh as Olivia nanny-nanny-boo-boo’ed the back of Louise’s head. Carla was a five-foot-tall, ninety-five pound, fifty-five-year-old alcoholic with a dirty mouth and no kids. She said if God wanted her to have children He would have handed them over to her fully potty-trained and old enough to drive her to the liquor store. She tried marriage once and didn’t like it, but was too cheap to get a divorce. The last time she saw her husband was in 1994. As far as she knows he’s still alive. No one’s ever told her otherwise.

“Spring washers today?” Olivia groaned. She hated the little parts, especially when she had a hangover. She’d be cross-eyed and half-blind before ten.

“Just for another few hours,” Carla assured her. “And then it’s battery contacts.”

“Awesome,” Olivia said, heavy on the sarcasm.

Garretson was top of the line in all of its manufacturing practices, except one—quality control. Armed with nothing more than a pair of calipers and a thick book of CAD drawings, Olivia and the other girls made up the entirety of the Quality Control Department. They sampled less than one-half of one-percent of the product going out the door. Most days Olivia just tried to look busy. Her job was pointless.

“Looks like someone had a good time on her date last night,” Izzie said with a smug smile. Of course she was smug. She was the one who had set Olivia up.

Newly-married and annoying about it, Isabel “Izzie” Bergman was Olivia’s best friend and the person responsible for Olivia being condemned to a life of misery at Garretson in the first place. On the morning Izzie went to apply at Garretson, she had sat in her car in Olivia’s driveway, dressed in her Sunday best and laying on the horn, begging Olivia to come with her. Since Olivia was already up and somewhat dressed, and had nothing better to do that day anyway, she had tagged along.

When the HR manager told Izzie what the starting pay at Garretson was, Olivia quickly calculated it as her way out of South Juliette and across the tracks to the greener pastures of Northside in no time at all. Without thinking it through, or even bothering to ask what the job entailed, Olivia quit her minimum-wage, cashier gig at Dickie’s Drugs via text message and signed her life away alongside Izzie.

Olivia worked one day and hated every second of it. The room was sweltering hot, dirty and loud. The metal dust floating in the air coated her teeth with grit. Worst of all, the smock they issued her smelled like Corn-Nuts. Everything about it sucked—big time. At exactly midnight, she ripped off the stinky smock and peeled out of the parking lot, swearing at the top of her lungs that she was never going back there again. Ever!

But she did.

She went back the next day, and the day after that. She never stopped going back. On her and Izzie’s five-year anniversary, Olivia swore with a wave of her fork around a mouthful of rum cake that, seriously, she was never coming back. Yet, there she was.

“Good drinks, shitty time,” Olivia corrected Izzie.

“What was wrong with Ryan? He’s a nice guy with blonde hair, blue eyes and he’s a Northsider—everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Quit being so picky.”

“Have you ever actually talked to the guy?” Olivia asked. “He could put Ambien out of business.”

“I’ve never met him. He and John golf together.”

Olivia laughed at the mental image. “Since when does John golf?”

Izzie’s husband, John, was a trash man for the city of Juliette. Every inch of his body was covered in tattoos and his goatee hung down to the middle of his chest. He was a scary-looking dude, but somehow he came across as cute and cuddly at the same time. It was weird.

“Three weeks ago maybe?” Izzie said as she thought about it, causing her perfectly-plucked brow to furrow and her pretty, little nose to wrinkle.

Izzie was so pretty and perfect it made Olivia gag. Mainly on her own raging jealously.

“Why were you late today?” Stephie asked. Since Stephie was screwing the boss, she thought that made her the boss, which pissed Louise off, because Louise thought Louise was the boss. It was laughable, especially when they tried to boss each other around.

“None of your business,” Olivia answered.

“Sleeping off your hangover?” Carla guessed.

“No, I backed into some guy at the Get ‘n Go.”

“Was he cute?” Izzie asked.

“I have no idea.” She hadn’t looked at him. “Knowing my luck he was probably hot as hell, and I just smashed up his truck.”

“He was probably your Carl, Jr.,” Melanie Neilson chimed in. She sighed with a dreamy, little smile as her hands fluttered up to her heart. Her eyes teared up and her chin began to quiver. Her hands fanned her face as she tried to fight it, but she lost the battle and ran for the restroom. No one followed her. That was just Mel. She cried all the time.

Melanie was only twenty-five, the same age as Olivia, but already married and divorced with four kids. Her ex, the aforementioned Carl, Jr., was supposedly a good man who just couldn’t kick a meth addiction. Melanie was certain he would find the Lord and get clean.

Their love for each other bordered on obsession. She only divorced him to get better government assistance after their fourth child was born. If she had waited a few more months to file, she would have received the assistance anyway. Carl, Jr. was arrested just outside of Omaha for driving the wrong way on I-80, nearly killing a family of four from Maryland. He was sentenced to five-to-ten in the State Pen for possession with intent to sell, and Mel was lost without him.

Izzie took a deep breath, and Olivia rushed to pop her ear buds into her ears and hit shuffle on her iPod before Izzie could exhale. Whenever Izzie took a deep breath she was about to delve into a long and winding, painfully-tedious story about John and how fabulously wonderful he was.

Usually it was one Izzie had already told Olivia the night before between shots at Kitty’s Place, the bar they currently favored because George Gregory Valish was the bartender. He was hot and made their drinks strong. Olivia would give her first-born to the devil for one night in heaven with George, and she had told him as much late one night after way too many whiskey sours. He had yet to take her up on the offer.

The night limped along and Olivia ran out of Dr. Pepper by the third hour. She took two extra smoke breaks to make up for it. Izzie and John were trying to make a baby, so Izzie rushed home at exactly midnight, leaving Olivia on her own as she walked into Kitty’s with just enough time to suck down three beers before last call. She threw a quarter into the jukebox, eliciting a collective groan from the room as the first bars of John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” played.

“You need to pick a new favorite song, Liv!” George called out as he slid a bottle down the bar to her usual stool.

“Aw, you all love it and you know it,” Olivia dismissed with a smile. She always smiled whenever she looked at George. It was an involuntary, knee-jerk reaction to how incredibly hot he was. Dark hair, tan skin, the face and body of a Roman god. Sexual perfection.

As Olivia perched on her stool and chugged her beer, George leaned in close and asked, “Who’s the guy you were with last night?”

“Jealous?”

“Maybe.”

“Some guy, Ryan, that Izzie hooked me up with,” Olivia said with a roll of her eyes. “She thinks he’s perfect for me.”

“Izzie’s wrong.”

“Why?”

George just smiled and moved back down the bar without another word.

“When are you gonna to grow a pair and ask me out?” she hollered after him.

“Someday, Liv,” he promised with a wink. “Someday.”

 

Dear Santa,

16 Dec

This week on Story Dam we had our choice of prompts. One was a really cool version of Mad Libs called Dam Libs, the other was to write a letter for Santa. My boys and I had a blast playing the Dam Libs, but after staring at that crazy paragraph for four days, the only thing I came up with was the realization that if I didn’t want to miss the deadline, I’d better stick with the letter to Santa!

The following letter is from Olivia Hanson, a character in one of my dusty little WIP’s. She’s all grown up in the story, but I always wondered what she had been like as a child. I looked through some old boxes in her trailer, and this is what I found.

***

Fashionably Late

9 Dec

We’re headed to the (office) Holiday Party this week on Story Dam!!

Unfortunately, Dan and Stacy had a hard time getting there.

*****

Fashionably Late

Stacy flew out of the bathroom on a steamy cloud, and ran straight for the closet. As she whipped one hanger after another across the rod in a flurried panic, her eyes flicked over to the clock on the nightstand, and then to Dan, who had just finished tying his shoes.

“I thought I told you to get dressed?” she snapped as she ripped something black off a hanger.

Dan looked down at his fully-clothed body in confusion. “I’m dressed.”

“I meant get dressed for the Christmas party, kochanie,” she said with an irritated sigh as she hurried over to the dresser.

Dan looked at his clothes again, even more confused. “I am dressed for the party, Stace.”

“You’re not wearing that.”

“Why not?” he asked as he checked himself out in the mirror. He puffed out his chest and smoothed his hands down the stupid, button-up shirt he’d put on just for her. Hell, he’d even tucked it into his khakis. “I look damn good.”

“You don’t match.” Stacy rifled through the dresser drawer and pulled out a handful of satin and lace.

“How can I not match? I’m wearing brown. Brown matches everything.”

“You’re wearing head-to-toe brown, Dan. You look like a six-foot tall turd.”

“The UPS man wears head-to-toe brown, and you think he’s hot.”

“You start delivering me expensive things wrapped in brown-paper packages, and I’ll think you’re hot poop, too,” Stacy said with a wink as she headed for the bathroom. “Until then, change your clothes.”

He grabbed her arm as she passed by, pulling her in close. His hand slipped into her robe, caressing her silky, perfumed skin as he rumbled in a seductive voice, “Oh, I got a package I could deliver to you.”

She rolled her eyes as she batted his hand away. “Just put on the shirt I bought you.”

“But it itches,” he complained as he let her go.

She ignored his whining. “Go start the truck and load up the cookie platters. I’ll be ready to go five minutes.”

“Five minutes, huh?” Dan gave her a skeptical once-over. She was dressed in a ratty robe with her hair wrapped in a towel, her face scrubbed clean and make-up free. “Maybe I better wait on starting the truck. I’ve only got a half a tank of gas.”

“Five minutes.” She slammed the door in his face. Before he could take a full step toward the hall, she hollered through the cherry wood, “And change your shirt!”

“Damn woman,” Dan grumbled, but he did as he was told, and then headed downstairs to do the rest of her bidding.

When he was done, he grabbed a beer from the fridge, figuring he had time. Hell, knowing her, he could catch the last half of the game. As he turned to do just that, his eyes landed on a very different Stacy than the one he had left upstairs exactly five minutes earlier. The ratty robe was long gone, replaced by a little, black dress that stole his breath away.

“Oh, Stace…”

“Well, how do I look?” She struck a gorgeous pose in the doorway, causing his blood to ignite and the bottle to slip from his hand. “I got my Spanx on tonight.”

“Sounds kinky.”

“Unfortunately, they’re not,” she said with a killer smile as he pulled her into his arms.

“Oh, look,” Dan said, and pointed up. “Mistletoe.”

Her gullible eyes followed his finger. “There’s no mistle—”

He cut her off with a kiss that started in the kitchen and ended with them being incredibly late for the party.

 

 

Night of Rest

2 Dec

We’re “Piecing Things Together” on Story Dam. This week’s prompt was to write a story using four, seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces.

 

*    *    *    *   *

 

Night of Rest

 

Cora had planned to find a cheap motel, but Tito offered to put her up. Exhausted, she accepted. She kissed his ruddy cheek and left him sitting in the kitchen, then carried her duffle down the narrow hall to the room on the left.

It was exactly as she remembered. Like the rest of his house, the room was crammed with junk he couldn’t bear to throw away, the heavy, walnut-stained furniture and Oriental rug layered with dust. She knew from experience the bed would be comfortable, warm, the pillow scented with the stale, heady aroma of barbequed brisket, the result of twenty years of pit smoke seeping in though the cracked caulking around the windows. It was the smell of home.

She made sure the door was shut tight, the lights turned low before she undressed. Tito would never walk in without knocking first, but with the rain drumming out a five stroke roll on the tin roof above she couldn’t be certain she’d hear him. She stripped down to her panties and stepped up to the grime-glazed mirror.

The faint bruise gracing her cheekbone that Tito had raised an eyebrow over at supper was nothing compared to the rage painted in angry blotches across her chest, stomach, and upper arms—fist prints, every one of them. They didn’t hurt anymore, not like they had when they were fresh. A broken rib was more than likely buried under the swelling, but like the others before, it would heal.

Stepping closer to the mirror, she took in a slow, careful breath and sucked in her stomach, watching her hands travel up her body until they cupped her breasts. They were smaller than they used to be, her muscle tone weak, the skin covering her stomach loose. Stretch marks lay barely visible under the varying purple hues. They were the mark of motherhood, a badge of honor she felt privileged to wear, but didn’t feel as though she deserved.

From the very beginning, she had been a horrible mother. She couldn’t even make it through nine months of pregnancy. Her daughter had been born after only 176 days, weighing nothing. She had been a terrifying shade of blue, incapable of crying, but she had long, thick eyelashes, ten perfect fingers, ten perfect toes. And she was a fighter.

Cora had named her Grace. But for the grace of God, Grace had survived. She had thrived. She was beautiful. She was funny. She loved the color pink and carried a purse on her dainty shoulder everywhere she went. Now two and a half, she could recite Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” word-for-word.

Tears burned Cora’s eyes as she turned away from her reflection in the mirror. Keith, the man who had promised before God to love, honor, and cherish her for as long as they both shall live, had beaten Cora to within an inch of her life, and, as she lay barely-conscious on the floor, had snatched Grace and vanished into thin air. After four days of searching, she’d tracked him down, hiding here in Wasatch County, where their life together had begun.

Cora sat on the bed and pulled her duffle onto her lap. Tucked deep at the bottom, wrapped in a thick wad of socks, was the gun she had purchased the first time her husband had beaten her. She’d never fired it, but she had carried it for three years, knowing there would come a day when she would press the cold, metal barrel against his temple, and pull the trigger.

That day would arise at dawn.