Winter Flower – Prologue
Sam – September 13
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.
The day before my sister Brenna disappeared I felt a hint of chill in the air as I stepped out of James Madison High School. Brenna stayed late for the drama club, because of course she was in drama, and I had stayed late for extra help in chemistry . I glanced to the end of the sheltered walkway, slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked toward the parking lot where Brenna and I were meeting up with Mom.
I didn’t even see Jake Fennel and his sidekick Matt until Jake slapped me in the face. With broad shoulders and powerful forearms, Jake had a military style crewcut and red, fleshy cheeks that looked out of place on someone so spiteful. Jerking me around had been his favorite activity since elementary school, when he’d punched me at Cynthia’s ninth birthday party.
When I close my eyes now, I can hear his sarcastic, harsh voice calling me a faggot or any of a thousand other cruelties.
“Hey, little bitch!” Jake said.
I tried to pull away, but Jake shoved me against the wall again, grabbing the front of my shirt. With half lowered eyelids, squeezed into narrow hateful slits, he whispered, “You told Mrs. Reed I was bothering you? Do you have a fucking death-wish?”
Matt, his sidekick, spit at my feet. “Bitch.”
“I ought to kick your ass.” Jake’s face flushed as he worked himself up.
Tears bubbled way too close to the surface. I wanted to run, or sink into the ground and disappear. I’d tried to be invisible in the three weeks since high school had started. Not so much luck. I’d hoped it would be better than middle school. Maybe the jerks and bullies who had made middle school miserable for me would find someone else to bother, or they’d mature, or the lessons of a hundred seminars on bullying would stick and they’d embrace brotherhood with people different from themselves.
Failing that, maybe I’d be invisible.
Brenna refused to be invisible. Bursting out of the doors of the gym, she saw me thrown up against the wall and marched toward us, face tight with anger.
She slapped Jake on the back of his head. “Let go, little jerk.”
Fear flashed across Jake’s face, reinforced most likely by the biker chain Brenna had hanging from her belt, the combat boots, and the crazy purple spiked hair. A deep, blue-green jewel, the same color as her eyes, pierced her right nostril.
Leaning forward to look eye-to-eye at Jake, she whispered, “I’m gonna jam my boot right up your ass if you don’t run away right now.”
Jake shoved me against the wall one last time. Backing off, he said, “You won’t always be around to protect the little freak, you crazy bitch.”
Jake Fennel was right. Brenna wouldn’t always be around to protect me. Not anymore. But I didn’t know that then, and when she turned to me after Jake and Matt’s retreat, I hugged her. “Thank you,” I said.
She didn’t reply at first, nor return the hug. “What are you going to do when I’m gone? Don’t you think it’s time you learned to stand up for yourself?”
“Gone?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
Eyes averted. “Never mind. Let’s go.”
I didn’t like her answer. But what was I going to do about it? Walking out to the parking lot, we saw Mom behind the wheel of the Mercedes Dad bought her Valentine’s year before last.
“Hey guys.” Closing her book and putting it in her purse behind the center console, she started the van. Seniority ruled, so Brenna in the front seat, me in the middle. “How was your day?”
“Okay,” Brenna said.
“Fine,” I echoed.
Mom shook her head and gave a wry smile. “I should know better than to ask teenagers anything.”
Erin – September 14
At ten o’clock, after my husband Cole and Brenna left for her drivers license test, it was time for me to get into gear. Only a few Department of Motor Vehicles offices were open on Saturday, so they would be gone a couple of hours. I had to put up the decorations, unlock the garage door, stage the car, lay out food, dishes, and fifteen other things, all before they got back. I texted my younger sister Lori: They’re leaving now. Come on over.
Brenna babbled with excitement, talking about all the things she wanted to do once she was legal to drive. Cole’s eyes locked on mine over her head, and the grin on his face gave me a shiver. After eighteen years of marriage—which had a lot of ups and some spectacular downs—Cole still had the power to make me weak in the knees.
“Sam!” I called up the stairs as I headed into the kitchen. Lori—now in her mid thirties—would arrive any minute. In the meantime, I pulled supplies from the pantry. Sodas. Chips. Pizza would be here at noon, along with Marion, Brenna’s best friend since elementary school. Though when I thought about it, I rarely saw them together these days.
The doorbell rang, and Sam called out. “I’ll get it!”
A few moments later, Lori came in the room, trailed by Sam. Lori had changed her hair since I’d seen her last, dyed a deep black and shaved around the ear on one side of her head. On a sixteen-year-old it might not have looked out of place, but Lori was thirty-five. Mom and Dad once despaired of her ever having a productive job, but her art had paid off—her latest masterpiece hung in the North Carolina Museum of Art.
“Oh, I missed you,” she crooned, slipping her arms around me.
The last few years had been tough on our relationship. Raleigh was a solid five-hour drive, so she didn’t make it up here often, nor did I frequently visit. Something was always going on with the kids—sports or concerts or other activities—and when I wasn‘t busy, she had gallery showings and other events taking up her time. The last couple of years, she’d been traveling throughout the South showing her work.
Having her here brought tears to my eyes.
She tilted her head. “Crying?”
I shrugged and laughed. “Just a little.”
Sam ignored everything, slipping into the den, undoubtedly to get back to a video game.
“Do we have time for a cup of coffee?”
“I’m sure we do; they’ll be a couple hours. What would you like? Decaf? Regular? Chai? I think I’ve got some others too.”
“Leaded, please. Is Brenna excited? Do you think she’ll ever speak to me again?”
“Yes, she’s excited about getting her license. She doesn’t know about the car yet. And… I don’t know.”
Lori nodded. She’s always been a confidante for Brenna, someone safe to talk to. It was a relationship I approved of—teenagers need an adult they can trust. But when Brenna started dating a twenty-year-old, concern for her safety overrode that trust. Lori had told me, and that precipitated a crisis. Now we had to wait, wondering if their relationship would recover.
“Did I do the right thing?”
“If you knew she was dating Chase and didn’t tell me, I’d have never forgiven you. So… yeah, you did the right thing.”
She nodded, her expression glum.
“The bad news,” I said. “She’s still seeing him.”
“Yeah. Cole is pissed. But he’s never around anyway, so a lot of help he is. I had to pick my battles… she’s committed to him. I’m not willing to lose my daughter in this battle.”
Lori sighed. “I don’t know what to say.”
“How about, thank God I don’t have teenagers?”
She snickered. “And Cole? How are things with him?”
I shrugged. “We’ve been in therapy, and he’s been making a real effort.” One corner of her mouth curled down, very. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” Because you’ll just repeat what you always say: leave him. And I’m not leaving my husband.
After the coffee, we got busy decorating the cavernous living room. Brenna thought she was too old for a birthday party, unless it was a bunch of too-cool teenagers standing around pretending to be cynical. But this party she’d be okay with, if only because of her gift.
Marion had arrived, and we finished setting up long before they got home—Cole sitting in the passenger seat, Brenna driving, a huge grin on her face. She pulled the car to a stop and parked behind Lori. They got out and Brenna gesture to Lori’s car. Cole shrugged and followed her as she skipped toward the house.
The front door opened. Lori, Sam and Marion shouted, “Happy birthday!”
Brenna’s eyes widened, blue highlighted by her purple hair. “Marion!” She grabbed her best friend in a huge hug.
Brenna didn’t even say hi to Lori, whose smile faltered. Sometimes Brenna could be such a bitch.
I tried to remind myself that selfishness was typical behavior for sixteen-year-olds.
But Brenna surprised me. She turned away from Marion and said, “Aunt Lori.” She reached for Lori, and Lori slipped her arms around my daughter. Brenna’s eyes were squeezed shut as she whispered, “I missed you.”
“You forgive me?” Lori asked.
“Yeah,” Brenna said.
“So, what’s first?” Cole asked. “Food? Or presents?”
“Presents,” Brenna said. “Are you kidding?”
He chuckled and our eyes met. I didn’t look away, instead giving him a half smile.
Cole swallowed and his mouth twitched into a smile. Maybe we had hope.
“All right,” he said. “Presents! Sam, can you help me with it?”
Sam stood and nodded. They walked out of the room.
Marion spoke in a shy voice and held out a hand gripping an envelope. “Here.”
Brenna smiled. “Can I open it?”
“Well, yeah,” Marion replied.
Brenna tore it open and whooped. “Fifty dollars!” She waved an iTunes gift card in the air.
“Nice,” Lori said.
“Thank you, bestie!” Brenna said as Sam and Cole came back in the room carrying a huge package wrapped in orange and blue paper. What? Had Cole gotten her something else? We’d agreed the car was enough… more than enough.
“Oh my,” Brenna said. Her eyes darted between the huge box and the more modest-sized gift Lori had brought.
“Open mine first,” Lori said quietly. “Otherwise you’ll forget it when you see what your mom and dad got you.”
Brenna smiled and tore open the gift. A huge smile spread on her face. “Oh my God, it’s beautiful!” she breathed. The box contained a stainless-steel bracelet, the chain embedded with stones that looked like jade.
“This looks handmade,” Brenna said.
Lori nodded. “I got it at the Ren Fair.”
“I love it,” Brenna said. She put it on her left wrist. It hung a little loose.
“You can have it adjusted,” Lori said. “The guy who made it local.”
Brenna smiled and hugged Lori.
She eyed the huge box, one eyebrow raised. “I can’t even imagine what this is,” she said.
“Open it and find out,” Cole suggested.
She ripped the paper. Underneath, a brown cardboard box. I gave Cole a puzzled look.
He winked at me.
Brenna got the box open, then muttered, “Are you kidding me?”
Inside was another box. Sam smiled. “This part was my idea.”
Ahhhh. Now it made sense. Brenna tore open the second box, only to find a third one inside. And an even smaller one in that. I completely believed that it was Sam’s idea to torture Brenna.
Brenna tore the smallest one open, growling, and her eyes widened. It was a small jewelry box, sized for a bracelet. She opened it, then looked up, eyes swiveling from me to Cole and back. Inside lay a set of keys with a “VW” logo on them.
“Um…” she said.
“Go look in the garage,” Cole said.
Brenna’s mouth gaped. She jumped to her feet and stumbled down the hall.
I stood and leaned close to him as we all followed her. “It’s been nice having you back,” I whispered to him.
“I still love you,” he said.
Shivers down my spine.
From the garage, Brenna’s voice echoed, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
Cole chuckled. “She found it.”
“I guess so,” I said. We strolled down the hall to the three-car-garage. Brenna sat in a brand new white VW Beetle with bright pink polka dots. Tears ran down her face.
“Can I take it for a drive?” she asked. “Can I? Can I?”
“Go!” Cole waved at her. “Go!”
She ran across the garage and threw her arms around me and Cole at the same time. “I love you, Daddy. I love you, Mom.”
Cole – September 15
I took a sip of my coffee and looked out the back bay window, a huge expanse of glass which overlooked the garden and backyard which sloped away from the house for the length of a football field. It was a lovely morning. Exquisite. I ought to feel good. Erin and I had slept in the same bed—for the first time in months. Brenna was growing up to be a delightful young woman, and Sam was getting good grades even with several advanced-placement classes.
To make Erin happy, I could tolerate Lori’s presence in the house for a few days. Thank God the place was big enough she could sleep at the other end of the house. Erin’s sister had never liked me, but over the last few years her level of tolerance had slipped. I was sure her only goal these days was to convince Erin to leave me.
I looked at my watch. Nine am. A conference call about the merger was scheduled for ten. I’d take that in my office while Erin was out at church with the kids. I’d never been much of a churchgoer, but all the same I hated the idea of a Sunday morning conference call. But I was under a lot of pressure with this merger. After the call, I’d have free time to prep my surprise for Erin and the kids. The day the kids got out of school for Christmas, we were flying to Europe. Two days in Paris (for Brenna, who idolized the French, God only knew why), two in Ireland (for Erin, who had distant Irish ancestry) and two more in London (for me and Sam). The tickets were in my desk—I was planning to present them over lunch after Erin returned from church with the kids.
“Cole?” Erin stepped into the kitchen. “Have you seen Brenna?”
“No,” I said. “Not since bedtime. Isn’t she in her room?”
Erin shook her head. “No. And her bed’s still made.”
“I… she made her bed?” I couldn’t keep the disbelief out of my tone.
“No. Sofia made it yesterday.” Sofia was our cleaning lady.
I stood up, setting my iPad on the table. I walked to the garage and opened it.
The Beetle wasn’t there.
“She must have gone over to a friend’s,” I said, unsure of myself.
Erin ignored me. She had her cell phone to her ear. Her eyes rolled and left hand jerked spasmodically. “It’s going straight to voicemail. I told her to keep her phone charged. She’s so irresponsible.”
I thought back to the night before. Brenna had been home for hours before we went to bed, and I hadn’t heard a car running or leaving the house. No doors opening or closing. But we’d been… occupied. I wouldn’t have noticed if a herd of cattle came racing through last night. After that both of us fell into a deep sleep. “Call her friends?”
She shrugged. “I guess. I was going to take her with me shopping after church. Where is she?”
“Careless,” I said. “Maybe she shouldn’t have the car after all.”
“I don’t know, Cole. I’m so frustrated with her!”
“Let’s give it a little while and try her again. I’m sure she’s at a friend’s sleeping in,” I said.
I sat back to finish my coffee and read the paper, but concentration eluded me.
What I didn’t know was my daughter was already gone: out of the house, out of town, out of our lives.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.
winter flower by Charles Sheehan-Miles
Publication Date: June 22, 2019