THE PAIN IN MY HEAD INTENSIFIED, throbbing in time with the slow beat of my heart. My blurry vision shifted from double to single with each blink of my eyes. I felt the back of my head from where the pain radiated; warm, sticky red coated my fingers. The cold grit of the tile could be felt through my thin t-shirt.
I looked up from where I was splayed on the floor, into the crazed, bloodshot eyes of a man I had known all my life—or at least I thought I’d known. I was instantly sober, the fog cleared and my heart raced. He was poised to strike, ready for the kill. Thick veins bulged in his neck; I could see them pulsing with each strained breath he took. I saw past him, to the ax raised above his head. Without hesitation, he brought it down to split my skull down the middle. Just before the blade was able to tear into my forehead, I freed myself of his strong grip and rolled onto my side, avoiding the axe—and infinite blackness—by mere inches.
I stood on wobbly legs, trying to pull air into my lungs as I turned to brace myself for the next attack. I was stunned to see the man who was a monster just moments before crumpled on the floor, face first on the Mexican tile. He opened his hand and let the ax slip from his grip. His shoulders shook.
He was sobbing.
"Dad?" I asked. I’d tried everything I could to take away his pain, and in return he had done his damnedest to make sure I felt the very depths of it.
"Get the fuck out of here!" he roared into the floor between sobs.
"Dad, let me help you," I begged, kicking the ax out of his reach.
"Get out of this house, and never fucking come back!" He reared up and sat back onto his knees, slowly lifting his head to face me. Drool leaked from the sides of his mouth. His eyes glistened with moisture. The stench of alcohol stung my nose when he spoke. I'd seen my father in a bad way before, but this was something else entirely. "I don't want to see you in this house ever again."
"Dad, just let me help you," I insisted. I could do just that: get him into rehab, grief counseling—whatever it took to make him stop feeling like his life was over.
I leaned over and grabbed him by the arm to help him up. "Don't fucking touch me!" He jerked out from my grip. "It's you...it should have been you. You're the reason they're gone." His words stung, but it wasn't the first time I heard him say them. It'd been two weeks of cleaning up his vomit and trying to stay out of the path of his drunken rage. "I wish it’d been you," he said, softer this time.
"Dad, you're drunk. You don't mean that."
“Yes, I do. I just tried to fucking kill you, Jake, and in all honesty, I wish I had." He looked me straight in the eye, and in that moment, he appeared completely in control. “It should have been you. You should be dead. Not them. I just wanted to fix it, trade you for them. Make it the way it should’ve been." His voice turned to a whisper. “You're dead to me now, boy."
Something inside me snapped.
If I had to choose a moment in time when I knew my life would be different going forward—when I knew I would be different—this would be it.
It was at this very moment that I knew in my soul I was capable of murder.
I picked up the ax, stood tall and headed straight for him, stepping around the overturned living room furniture. I raise the ax over my head and gripped it with both hands. The look of fear and surprise in my father’s eyes was welcome. I savored it. I wanted to remember that fear, to play it over and over in my head. He didn't even try to move out of the way. I swung down hard but stopped the blade less than an inch away from slamming it into his chest.
The sheer look of horror on his face did nothing to unnerve me. I was done fixing him. "Never forget that I stopped this time. Because if I ever see you again, I will tear your fucking heart out, old man." I threw down the ax and spat on him, making sure he knew he was as nothing to me as I was to him. I left him trembling on the floor and didn't so much as pause to look back at him before I ripped open the front door and stepped out into the night.
I lit a cigarette on the front porch before walking into the shadows of the driveway to mount my bike. I didn't bother to pack a bag.
There was nothing I needed or wanted from that house anymore.
As I started up the bike and let it roar, I could’ve sworn I heard my father wailing just beyond the noise of my engine. But, it was too late.
I was well past the point of going back.
In more ways than one.
That was four years ago.
Six days had passed since I last took a life, and now, my bike and I were headed back to the very place I hated most.
It wasn't even the money that fueled my work anymore. If I wasn’t the one doing the job, it would’ve been someone else. Maybe I thought that, in my own way, I was sparing some poor schmuck from a life I was better suited for.
I had no delusions of grandeur. Where other guys seemed to get hard for fast, expensive cars, I preferred the freedom of my bike. Buying a house meant putting down roots, which was the last thing I wanted, so I never lived anywhere longer than it took to complete the job. And I hated being bored, so when I needed to lay low after a high profile kill, I’d sell a little weed or some blow—just enough to keep me from being idle.
Idle hands make the devil’s work, Jake, Mom used to say.
Little did she know.
My hands were never idle. If the past few years taught me anything, it’s that the devil’s work is exactly what they were made for.
I had no plans to ever return to the place I’d once called home, not even when Reggie, the head mechanic at Dad’s shop and the only person from my hometown I kept in occasional contact with, called to say Dad’s next crawl into the bottle could be his last. Dad made his bed in hell, and I’m pretty sure it was laced with ashes, vomit and empty bottles of Jameson. But when Reggie told me the house I grew up in—the house my mother had loved up until the day she died in it—was in danger of being lost to the tax collector, something in me told me to go save it. Not for him.
I needed to help the only woman who’d ever loved me. The only thing I’d ever done for her until then was help her into an early grave.
In my hometown of Coral Pines—a tiny island off the Southwest coast of Florida—trucks with lift kits and big tires were worshiped, and their chrome gun racks shone brighter than Sunday morning sunlight through stained glass. If cities like New York and Chicago are called concrete jungles, then Coral Pines could easily be called a beach prison, or a tropical asylum. Or my favorite: a rancid fishtopia hell.
Nothing but tourists, rednecks and ghosts.
I wasn’t sure which I hated more.
The drifter lifestyle I’d adapted after I left that shit hole island suited me just fine. I rode from town to town, never stayed longer than a tank of gas would allow, and did the jobs that came to me through temporary post office boxes and untraceable cell phones. I never settled in one place long enough to make relationships that would matter.
That was exactly the way I wanted it.
I rarely told anyone my real name, which was nothing like home. Everyone in Coral Pines knew who I was, because everyone there knew everyone else—their life story, their mama’s maiden name, all the gory family details most people try hard to keep buried deep in their closets. Secrets just didn’t stay kept in Coral Pines.
Though I now had some worth keeping.
They may have known the Jake Dunn who was a screw-up as a kid, but they had no fucking clue who I was anymore. Not to mention, what I was capable of.
The Matlacha Pass was the two-lane bridge that delivered you either to or from Coral Pines. It was the only way on or off the island, and for the entire twenty-two years I had occupied the Earth, it’d been under construction. This was still the case on the day that I—under protest—crossed over it for the first time in years. The thick heat washed over me as I rode like I was pushing my bike through a wall of water. Every bit of the unease I’d felt blowing off of me the day I left this godforsaken place, rushed back with the familiar salty wind.
Memories of my brother’s funeral four years before were waiting there, too. I hadn’t expected to find my mother afterward, still wearing the short-sleeved black dress she wore to the church, face-down in the bathtub with a sawed-off at her side and what had been the better part of her head splattered across the pink shower tile. She hadn’t wanted to leave a mess. She’d said so in the note she left, but Mom didn’t know enough about guns to realize she had chosen the messiest of them all from Dad’s rack.
Dad had been a disaster at the funeral for my brother. He was in the psychiatric hospital two towns over for my mother’s. He always blamed me—not just for Mason’s death, but for Mom’s too. He told me more than once I should have been with Mason on the boat that morning, and it was my fault he ended up floating in the Coral Pines River. The real reason Dad hated me is because he thought it never should’ve been his perfect, straight A-earning, scholarship-winning, baseball captain and expert fisherman son who died that day. It should have been his weed-dealing, girl-chasing, fight-picking, school-skipping degenerate of a son.
It should have been me.
In some ways, I agreed with him. If it’d been me instead of Mason, Mom would still be alive. Dad wouldn’t be trying to drown himself in cheap whiskey, and there would be a few more people walking around in the land of the living. I contributed nothing and took everything. But to be fair about it, I also expected nothing from the godless world that ripped me apart at every turn.
I expected nothing, until the night I met a certain redhead with an attitude.
The night I met Abby Ford, my life changed forever.
I KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG when I walked across the stage on graduation day and was met with only the unenthusiastic slow claps from the sparse crowd. It’s not like I expected a standing ovation. I haven’t exactly played nice with my fellow classmates. I could’ve counted the number of real friends I had on one hand. Or no hands, actually. It was Nan’s usual whooping and hollering I expected to hear but was nowhere to be found.
Where was she?
An alarm went off in my head when our vice-principal, Miss Morgan, barged into the auditorium, letting the heavy metal doors slam shut behind her. Her heels clacked in quick succession across the shiny yellow floor. With a crook of her finger in my direction, she removed me from my seat. Her gaze was focused on the floor as she led me to the principal’s office in silence.
When I entered the office, Sheriff Fletcher sat behind the cluttered desk instead of the principal himself.
I took a quick mental inventory of anything I’d done recently that would warrant the honor of his visit. There was a dime bag in the back pocket of my shorts under my gold graduation gown, but since the sheriff’s weed policy was basically if you have it, pass it, I wasn’t overly concerned. Although having it on school property could result in some off-colored double standard policies or laws being applied. There hadn’t been a single marijuana arrest in Coral Pines the entire time I’ve lived here. It would be just my luck to be the very first one thrown behind bars for it. I’d also had an unfortunate incident involving the baseball field fence and a four-wheeler I’d borrowed—without the owner’s knowledge—but I was pretty sure there was no way for the sheriff to know it was me who caused the damage.
“Sheriff?” I tried to act casual, but my one-word greeting sounded like a question. Even with his lax attitude and loose interpretations of the law, I couldn’t stand the man. His family practically owned Coral Pines, so I was pretty sure Sheriff Fletcher had phoned in his police training. The only somewhat-decent member of the Fletcher family was Owen, a nice enough guy, if pretty boy man sluts were your thing.
The sheriff’s shirt was opened three buttons too many, as if to make sure that he wouldn’t be mistaken for a professional man of the law. A mass of curly black chest hair poked out of his collar and brushed the base of his throat. “Have a seat, Miss Ford.” He gestured with a fat, hairy finger to the chairs in front of the desk. Miss Morgan stood at his side with her hands folded in front of her, almost nun-like. Her tall, thin frame and high-wasted pencil skirt made her look like a giraffe next to the sheriff’s squatty physique. Her choppy, uneven bangs hung over her lashes and grazed her milky skin. Being a red-head, I was pretty damn pale; not even the death rays of the southern Florida sun could have changed that. Somehow, she managed to be even paler than me.
I took a seat and hoped that whatever this was would be over soon.
It had only been four years earlier, in another state at another school, in what seemed like another life, when the principal called me from my classroom and into the hallway to deliver the news that my father had overdosed. I’d been in foster care for over two years by then, and I hadn’t seen him in four. But the powers that be had thought his death was important enough to pull me from class, so I felt I owed it to them to fake some of the sadness I knew they were expecting from me.
What I really wanted to do was laugh at the satisfaction, at the justice of it all.
Happy couldn’t even begin to describe how I’d felt when they informed me of his death.
Nan had always said that God created man in his image. Where my father was concerned, God was either a sick, sadistic fuck or one hell of a lie people convinced themselves was the truth.
I kept that thought to myself when I was around Nan.
Dad had been at work when they found him in one of the bathroom stalls, sitting on the toilet with his pants down around his ankles, a syringe still hanging from his pocked-up arm. I was more surprised to hear he’d actually been at work than I was to hear he’d died. At least when it happened, he was with the only thing in his life he’d ever really loved: his needle.
Dad was a real winner.
The sheriff didn’t look me in the eyes. His gaze focused somewhere over my head, prolonging whatever news he’d come to deliver. As time passed, each of his breaths sounded more like strained snores. I grew impatient. “Maybe, you can just tell me why I’m here,” I blurted out.
“Sweetheart?” The word fell out of his mouth like he’d never used it before. “Who’s your next of kin?” The blood drained from my face. I didn’t answer him at first. I couldn’t find the words. My vision spun like I was looking at him through a kaleidoscope.
Next of kin? I thought. My only kin is Nan...
“Abby!” Miss Morgan snapped her fingers in my face. I hadn’t even seen her kneeling in front of me, but there she was. Behind her, the sheriff was sweating profusely and nervously. “Abby,” she repeated, softer now. “Nan was in an accident.” She enunciated each word as if she was teaching an English class.
“How?” I asked. “Her truck doesn’t even run. It’s been sitting in a junkyard and hasn’t been off blocks since September,” I said, as if somehow this fact would change the truth.
“Not a car accident, sweetie.” Miss Morgan looked to be in physical pain. “It was…an explosion.”
She squeezed my hand, but I flinched at her touch and immediately pulled away from her grip. “What the fuck?” I whispered. My heart pounded in my ears. I felt the blood in my veins turn to acid. My skin was about to burn off of my bones.
“That’s enough of that language, young lady.” Sheriff Fletcher had the audacity to scold me. He cleared his throat. “I do realize this is a difficult situation for you, and I’m very sorry.” Yeah, right. It sure sounded like he was. “I have to ask something: did your Nan tell you she needed money for anything, by chance? Do you know if she was having any sort of financial troubles?”
I shook my head. We didn’t live like royalty by any means, but her social security check and the money she made from selling her jams at the Sunday craft market was enough to pay the mortgage and keep me fed and clothed. “No,” I answered. “Not that I know of.”
Sheriff Fletcher groaned. “We have reason to believe your Nan was involved in some activities of a questionable nature.” He scratched at his five o’clock shadow. “She was in a mobile home in the middle of the Preserve when it exploded.”
There was no way this could be happening.
They had to be wrong.
The sheriff started to talk again as Miss. Morgan sat down next to me. She reached out in another attempt to put her hands over mine. I pulled away before she could.
“Sheriff Fletcher thinks the mobile home was involved in cooking drugs.” Her words were as awkward as she was.
“No, that has to be a mistake.” I started to rant like my words were being tossed around in a tornado. “Nan doesn’t have anything to do with drugs. I’ll call her right now... you can see for yourself”