The Harrowing Tree

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter Ten

TEN

Something doesn’t seem right about this,” Andi said, hanging up the phone.

Chief Hastings paced the floor. “I don’t buy it.”

“You don’t think someone stole her car?” asked Mercer.

“Not one bit.”

Andi slumped into a seat. “What would you have us do?”

Just then, before the chief could respond, her cellphone rang. “Yes?” she answered, slowing her pace. “Who am I speaking to?”

“Officer Gunderson, ma’am. Of Hilltown Police Department,” came a quick, almost nervous-sounding response. “I’m here at the home of Jillian Fellows and Mark Shumway.”

“Ah, yes. Anything to report?”

“Very little, I’m afraid,” Gunderson said. “The only thing we found was a key.”

“A key?”

Both Mercer and Andi looked up at this.

“A key to what?” asked the chief.

Gunderson responded, “A house key, ma’am.”

“What’s interesting about that?”

“Not much,” reported Gunderson. “Only that we’ve checked all the locks on this house and it’s clear to us that the key does not belong to this home.”

“You’re certain?”

“Positive.”

Chief Hastings nodded to herself. “Bring this key by the station on your way back to Hilltown.”

“Will do.”

“And Gunderson?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, boys, for your help.”

“You got it, chief.”

Hastings hung up.

Mercer, pushing off from his chair, stood to his feet. “What’s this about a key?”

“A house key,” said the chief. “Found in Kerry Greaves bedroom. Only, it belongs to a different house.”

“Stillwater’s?”

The chief shook her head and started for the door. “Give me a minute, would you. I need to . . . to check on something. To clear my head.” She looked back at her officers. “Keep this thought process going. Maybe list out the facts. See what you can connect.”

Mercer nodded. He opened his mouth to say something, but the chief was already out the door.

Andi picked up her phone. “Think its too late for some house calls?”

It was getting dark by the time Lizzie Hastings arrived at Hollow Hill. The snow was picking up, but there was still a slight blaze of sunshine beyond the Harrowing Tree, setting it ablaze.

She didn’t mind the drive, not when she was behind the wheel. It was only when someone else in that driver’s seat that she’d start to feel herself slip. Her control gone—and that’s what it was all about. At least, that’s what the doctors assumed. She wasn’t driving the day of the accident. She couldn’t have stopped it from happening even if she was, but at least imagining herself in control gave her some semblance of a hold over her emotions.

Still, she drove slowly, the snow pelting the windshield like dandelion fluff, gold where streaks of sunlight still split the heavens.

Hastings didn’t go to Hollow Hill as nearly as often as she once had. There was a time when she was there daily, kneeling before the only tree that stood watch over the pasture of long grass.

She watched now, through the window of her car, as the grass whipped and stirred in a frenzy, goaded by the sudden wind. Snow gathered on the windshield, and she flicked on the wipers, but after a few moments, decided to get out.

The air was cold on the bits of bare skin her coat did not cover. Her neck, her face, her wrists. Her hands, fingers.

She shivered and slowed, but the breeze continued, and soon, so did she.

The grass did not slow her. Hastings traipsed slowly into the deep until she was standing at the base of the Harrowing Tree, staring up at its glorious trunk, its wondrous branches. There were marks etched into its face, small nicks and scratches born from passing storms. She traced them now, running tremulous, ice-cold fingers over its flesh of bark and, where it was stripped away, if she closed her eyes, what felt almost like what she imagined bone to feel like.

Hastings, hands firm against the tree’s trunk, inclined her head to stare up at its branches. The burnished gold of daylight, just in the mere moments between when she’d pulled to a stop and now, had faded to a dying, orange haze, just barely sifting through.

The undersides of the branches were stark with black shadow, making the ends of each seem sharper, more severe, like knives twisted and knotted, given flesh and the ability to grow.

Hastings unclipped the strap on her gun, and set her service automatic down in the cold, hard dirt before the tree, then lowered herself into a kneel. From within the interior pocket of her coat, she drew out her badge and rested it down beside her gun.

Now she no longer felt like a cop. Just a woman. A human, functioning as all humans did, without the stress of bodies and killers and cases. Of death and murder and the pain that is not only the cause of one, but what is brought about by the other.

Pain.

Lizzie Hastings knew it well.

She lowered herself still, until her head was down in the dirt, forehead to ground, and she simply stayed there, breathing. In, out.

“Do you think she did it?” there came a deep, soothing voice.

Hastings did not rise, but simply lifted her head.

“Hard to say, really.”

Her husband fell into a crouch beside her and rested an arm around her shoulders, both in support of himself and of her. For a moment, just a brief second in time, Hastings was able to convince herself that she could really feel him there. Feel the weight of his arm, the warmth of his touch. The soft stir of his breathing.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve done this.”

“Only seems like it,” he told her. “It hasn’t really been that long.”

He was right, of course. But it felt like another lifetime altogether—and it was, she supposed. An entire life ago, one in which he was alive, and she was . . . happy. Or, at least happier. Much happier.

“What are you doing out here, love?”

Hastings laughed to herself, smiling a bitter smile up at the clouds. The snow gathering on her shoulders was piling up, and it left streaks of cool water sluicing down her cheeks where it melted against her face.

“I thought it would help.”

“Help solve this murder?”

A shake of the head, as much as she could offer.

“Help me escape. Just temporarily,” she said, shutting her eyes tight.

There was a pause in which silence set in so deeply and so firmly that she wondered if he’d gone. If, when she opened her eyes, she’d find him gone—if he’d ever really even been there to begin with.

“You can’t do this, you know,” he told her, and Hastings settled into the warm timber of his voice.

“Can’t what?” She looked at him now, tears in her eyes.

“Can’t look for reasons to escape. Can’t come looking for this. For me. Can’t come here,” he added as an afterthought. “To this place.” He played with her hair, running his cool fingers through it. Or maybe that was the wind. “You can’t let yourself get so lost in your past that you miss out on the present. I mean look at you . . .”

Hastings looked at him now. “I can’t.”

And he smiled at that. Or, at least, she imagined he would have.

“You can’t do this. You can’t just surrender to this.”

But that’s all Lizzie Hastings could think to do. It’s all she wanted. To go back. Reverse time. Find a hole in all of time and space, in the flesh of the universe itself, and fall through. Fall back into the passenger’s seat of her husband’s car.

She wanted it to take her too.

“Look at me,” he said, and his hands were on her face, cupping her cheeks, his thumbs racing in circles, wiping at the tears that she could almost disguise as snow, melted now.

“I want to go back. I want . . . I want to go back.”

And as she said this, it only occurred to her that she was no longer talking about the accident. About his car. But before, much, much earlier than that.

Slowly, slowly, her eyes fell to the gnarled roots of the tree, and the dirt beneath her hands.

Deeper still.

Hastings sighed into the touch of her husband, the warm squeeze of his fingers. Or maybe that was hypothermia setting in.

“Why . . .” She swallowed, breathing in the cold. Letting it in. “Why is it that I can only see you?”

“That’s easy,” he told her, pulling at her hand—and she knew it was him this time, because he held it, first in his own, then pressed against his heart, and lastly to the ground. The mound of dirt, where roots shot down, buried by half an inch of snow—just enough to whiten the earth. Leave it looking clean. Like death was unfamiliar with this hallowed place.

“You know me, my love,” he told her. “You know me. And that’s why you see me. Why you can feel me. Why I am here when you call, here when you need me.” He trailed his hands through her hair, down the sides of her face. “Even though I’m gone, you still have me. That’s why I’m here. Because you have me. All of me. That’s why.”

“And the others?”

The ones who’ve gone now, fallen as her husband had. Other bodies, now buried.

“You’ll see them again one day. Maybe not now. Not today.” He waved a hand to the surrounding pasture, the field that no longer ended in trees, but inky-black shadows. Like the floor of the ocean. “But they’re there. You’ll see. All around you.”

“But ghosts aren’t real. You . . . you’re not real.” She looked up at him, into him, through him. “Are they? Are you?”

He gripped her hand tight one last time. “I think you need to rethink your definition of ghost.”

And she would. Not now, though. Maybe one day.

Now, though, she held on tight. Allowed herself to surrender to a time when moments like these were infinite.

When there was no cap on their time together.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, staring up at the Harrowing Tree.

Lizzie Hastings smiled. “It always has been.”

Andi hung up the phone with a clap that startled Mercer out of his reverie.

“Everything okay, Darcy?”

He’d been so deep in thought he hadn’t even heard her pick up the phone.

“I just got off the phone with Biddy Erwin,” Andi said, tapping her pen against the flat of her desk. “She confirmed the chief’s suspicions. She dropped Kerry off at 211 Old Sugarhouse Road several times over the last few months. As did Barry Tucker and Declan Clancy.” She held up the envelope with Jeannie Fellow’s small list of names on it. “The other two only took her into town. But—”

Mercer leaned back in his chair. “211 Old Sugarhouse Road,” he echoed, then looked at her. “That’s not Jillian Sweetwater’s home. That’s”—he paused to think, his eyes going to a small map of Bellriver on one wall—“that’s the opposite end of town altogether.”

Andi bit her lip, settling back in her chair.

“Well, I guess we never could assume that her killer was the same person dealing her the pills.”

“We all saw the pictures,” Mercer said, nodding. “Someone was talking to Kerry in the photographs. Someone was on that porch with her.”

“And you think it’s the same person who lives at this address?”

He nodded. “I don’t think it could hurt to find out.”

“Then it’s settled,” came a voice from the doorway.

They both whipped their heads around to find Chief Hastings standing in the doorway. She was covered in a mountain of snow, which she shook all over the floor, tapping her boots against the wooden trim.

“I want you two headed up to Bellriver Heights to stakeout Jillian Sweetwater’s home.”

Both Andi and Mercer rose as one.

“While you’re doing that,” she said, “I’ll investigate this address. 211 Old Sugarhouse Road, you said?”

“Yes, chief,” said Andi.

“I think you’ll want this,” Mercer told her, and he showed her a key. “Officer Gunderson was just here. He dropped this off for you.”

Chief Hastings, forgetting her wet boots for the moment, walked across the station and took the key from her second in command. “You think this goes to the house at the address Darcy found?”

He nodded, reaching for his coat. “I’ll bet you anything it does.”

Hastings grinned. “You’re on. Dispatch duty if you lose.”

“And if I win?”

“You can have my job.”

Mercer, his smile fading in a single instant, asked, “Your job?”

From within her coat, Hastings drew out a rolled up newspaper. “I’m guessing you didn’t see this?”

They both shook their heads.

“This was from yesterday’s paper. We’ve all been so busy with everything . . . No matter, though.” Unrolling it, the chief flattened out the latest edition of the Bellriver Ringer on Mercer’s desk. “Don’t worry about it now. This second, I need you both on the move.”

But Mercer couldn’t keep his eyes from sweeping the headlines of the first page. And the picture—the only picture.

Of Chief Hastings, not quite staring at the camera, but somewhere beyond, someone out of focus.

The headline read: TIME FOR A CHANGE: THE RECALL WE ALL SAW COMING.

“They’re kicking you out?” Mercer asked, furious at the thought alone.

“Never mind that now, Mercer.”

Mercer. Not Kit.

“We have bigger fish to fry.”

“Who wrote it?”

“Mercer—?”

“Who?”

Andi chimed in with, “It says anonymous. Same with the photo.”

And yet, in a weird way, Andi couldn’t help but feel as though she’d seen that picture before.

Hastings stared. “I put in a to-go order for the both of you at the Depot. Head over and pick it up and then be on your way. I want eyes on Jillian Sweetwater tonight. Find out what she’s up to.”

Mercer didn’t like it. Any of it. The article, the fact that someone would write anything like it. The idea that he now had to simply drop it, walk away, and spend the rest of the night in silence—or, mostly silence—staking out a house of a person who may or may not have killed Kerry Greaves.

He was leaning towards may have, but still Mercer fumed.

“Darcy,” he said. “With me.”

And they were gone.

Until then, Anderson Darcy hadn’t done much exploring of Bellriver Heights. This was mostly because there was nothing really up there but dirt roads and woodland, with homes nestled in every couple hundred feet. But, as Mercer slowed to a grinding halt before Valley View Lookout, Andi felt her breath leave her all at once.

It wasn’t the height. In these past few weeks, driving from Bellriver down to Hilltown, or Bellriver to Pleasant Mill—or Bellriver to anywhere, really—she’d had her chance to get accustomed to a fair amount of heights. And they didn’t bother her, not like she expected them to.

No, it was the lights. They split the horizon, all gold and silver, some blues and greens and reds closer to town. The windows of homes surrounding the town common played host to flickering candles, both real and fake, and twinkle lights bordered the windows of all the small shops and businesses just down the road from the station.

Even the gazebo on the lawn of St. John’s was ablaze. All that was missing was the Christmas tree Mercer said would go up in its center.

“I see decorating season has already begun,” said Mercer, sighing somewhat dismally. “Christmas starts early in Bellriver.”

In awe, she asked, “Do you guys skip Thanksgiving altogether?”

“We don’t skip it,” Mercer explained. “It just doesn’t compare, I suppose. We give thanks, sure. But the people of Bellriver are already pretty thankful as it is. And the festivities that go along with Christmas are abundant. We need almost two whole months to get through it all.”

“Hence the lights.”

A nod in the dark. “Hence the lights.”

Andi knew she shouldn’t be so entirely surprised; Bellriver was beautiful. But this . . . this went far beyond anything she’d ever known before.

“Why is that, you think?”

“Why is it so lit up?”

She shook her head. “No, why do you think they’re thankful?”

Mercer stared, first at her, then the distant glow of town, shining from the dark.

“As I’m sure you’ve heard—or read on one of the twelve historical signs around town—Bellriver was founded in the late eighteenth century,” Mercer explained. “The settlers built log cabins and formed a sort of refuge for travelers. At first, people came and went, but as the years went on, the settlement became a village. Not many recall it’s original name. Though there are some that speculate it was Anaskemezi.”

Andi’s brow rose in the dark. “Try saying that five times fast.”

“No thanks,” Mercer mused, then continued. “It’s thought to mean, in the Abenaki language, ‘an oak,’ drawing one’s mind back to the tallest, oldest oak tree in town.”

“The Harrowing Tree,” said Andi.

Mercer nodded. “After the village was established, every year on Founders Day, they would put a giant bell on a cart and ride it all through town, ringing it. Hoping maybe someone in the great woodlands would hear and join them as a society. Only,” he said, sighing, “architecture was not the greatest strong suit of the men and women involved in our town’s founding, and when, several years later, they were ringing the bell, safely in its cart, out on a bridge, it collapsed.”

“The cart?”

“No, the bridge,” he said. “The bell toppled down into the River Vesper, and a few men and some children were thrown in as well. They would have died, it’s said, if it were not for a pilgrimage of travelers on the move. They’re home had been burnt down in some unfortunate accident—you’d have to hit the books for that one—and they were out in seek of refuge when they’d heard the bell. When they heard it, they debated whether it was a sign to flee, or a sign to help.

“Long story short, the travelers came and aided in the rescue of the fallen villagers, and many—if not all; don’t hold me to this—stayed and helped turn our town into what it is today.”

Andi, once more looking out over the world, whispered, “Bellriver.” And then, “It’s all lit up. Everything. Every house, every shop.” She shook her head. “When did they put lights on church? And the station, for that matter.”

Mercer made a low noise in his throat that sounded like the beginning of a chuckle. “Everyone used to put up the lights themselves. Hastings used to make me do it. It’s funny,” he said, “she’d always manage to come down with a sore back the moment the ladder came out.”

“So, you did this?”

He shook his head. “About a decade ago, the Allman brothers went around offering their “light up the town” fee. Now I just slip the boys a hundred every year and, presto, the lights are up, and the chief is never the wiser.”

Andi couldn’t help but grin. “The Allman brothers? As in Duane and Gregg?”

Mercer smirked. “Not the band, Darcy.”

“Considering both brothers are dead, I should hope not.”

At this, Mercer actually laughed.

“We should be moving on,” he said, and Andi nodded.

But they remained a few moments more, looking out at the entirety of town. At the snow, drifting down, large, thick flakes taking flight. It would stop soon, just a dusting, but even Mercer couldn’t help but marvel at the scene.

Only—as beautiful as it was—it wasn’t until Andi turned her head to look at him that he realized he’d given up on the snowy vista many moments before. And he’d been watching her. Only her.

“You good?”

He didn’t answer. Just stepped on the gas.

Old Resa collapsed onto their hard-backed sofa with a loud harrumph, nearly spilling her coffee, and she cast a quick glance to the rocking chair, pushed close to the fire. Katherine was still asleep—at long last. She was curled with her knees close to her chest and her arms wrapped tight around them, like she was cold.

Resa has covered her with a blanket, but the young girl must have gotten hot beside the fire, because it was now crumpled in a ball at her feet.

She didn’t love to babysit; Old Resa had never had any children of her own for a reason. But every time young Katherine was in her sights, Old Resa became a grandmother like the flip of a switch, all love and laughter. And the girl reminded her of a life she’d once waved her hands at.

Resa was thankful to Mark for bringing her into their lives. For sharing his own world with them; for showing her what she’d missed out on, and allowing her to get in on it now.

Katherine loved it there. Her mother lived in Pleasant Mill, so coming to Bellriver was like jumping into a woodland dream, where she could run out back and not get hit by a car.

Old Resa loved having here there, too. Even if Pennilyn didn’t—though, when it came down to it, she knew even Penny loved young Katherine. Possibly the most.

She yawned now and Old Resa watched her, tired herself.

She had an old photo album set out before her, and with coffee in hand, she was flipping through it. There were pictures of herself, of Pennilyn, Jeannie and Mark. All of them. Family portraits, funny faces, candid photos. There was even one of Bellriver PD. Chief Hastings wasn’t quite looking at the camera. And that grouchy Mr. Mercer was in a few, never smiling—unless he was with the chief, of course.

Old Resa flipped through the pages until she found one of Kerry. It was from years before, during Bellriver’s Fall Foliage Festival. Kerry had participated in a dance performed out on Hollow Hill, where the participants wore old-time dresses and twirled like druids, spinning around the Harrowing Tree.

She might have forgotten that day entirely were it not for the picture.

Only, Kerry wasn’t alone in this photograph.

There was a man.

His face was badly distorted by the light, but their hands were locked together.

Slowly, Old Resa drew the photo from the clear plastic and held it in her hands.

Her eyes lowered to the man’s boots.

And then she looked behind her, over the back of the couch, towards the front door, where the very same pair of boots had been left to dry on the mat.

Old Resa knew who the man was. And she suddenly had a very bad feeling about those boots.

While Katherine slept soundly in her chair, Old Resa stared deeply at the photograph one last time, suddenly overcome by a feeling of dread so profound that, without another thought, she threw it into the fire.

It crinkled in at the edges, folding up like something dying, then caught and burned bright.

The last thing Old Resa did that night before going to bed was put those boots in the far back of their hall closet, where no one would see them.

Mercer turned off his lights as he rounded the wooded corner towards the home of Jillian Sweetwater, and when he pulled to a stop, pulled the keys from the ignition, silencing the loud purr of the cruiser’s engine. Luckily, Sweetwater’s home was a blaze of light, shining through the trees, and he was able to shut down the cruiser within eyesight of her front door.

Andi instantly unbuckled and skootched down in her seat, and the rustle of paper alerted her to the fact that Mercer had already taken out the newspaper he’d snagged from the Depot.

“You can’t read it,” she said. “We have to stay focused. And the light will give us away—”

“I actually already read it.”

She looked at him.

“When you were inside getting the food.”

Andi swallowed. “And?”

“It’s bad.”

She didn’t see it happen, but she heard him crumple up the paper. Heard it tear. Fall to shreds.

“How bad?”

“Bad.”

Mercer still heard the words running through his head.

Chief Hastings is no longer the chief we once elected.

He ground his teeth.

She died in that accident with her husband. Now we’re allowing the shell of the woman we once cherished watch over our town.

Mercer’s hands fisted around the wheel, his knuckles going white.

We can’t have a hysterical woman taking the lead on this investigation.

He shut his eyes, tight.

“It’s just someone’s way of putting down the Chief.” He swallowed. “We’re having town elections coming up soon, and this”—Andi couldn’t see the paper, but she knew what he held was no longer readable—“is probably just someone’s idea of making the town think.”

Andi shook her head. “But what if it’s more than that?”

Mercer asked, “What do you mean?”

She stared down at her lap. “This whole thing. The murder. The Harrowing Tree. Chief Hastings. This article. What if it all adds up to something? What if it’s all connected?”

“How?”

“Someone hit me with their car, Mercer. And this article on the same day? What if they’re coming for us, one by one? Trying to knock us of their sent.”

“The killer, you mean?”

“Yes,” she said. “Kerry Greaves’ killer.

Mercer was silent for a while, thinking it over, but Andi didn’t believe he saw it that way.

“I think it’s just a coincidence.”

Andi rolled her eyes. “Some say coincidences are simply God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

“And so it’s God, then, that’s brought you to this conclusion, Darcy?”

She couldn’t see it, but Mercer was smiling now.

“No,” she sighed, “I just have a bad feeling about it. That there’s more going on here that we don’t realize. And what if you’re . . .” She stopped herself.

“Next?”

She looked at him in the shadows of the car. “What if they’re not done yet, Mercer?”

He made a motion in the dark, and she realized he was indicating the gun on his hip. “Then we’ll be ready for it.”

But he didn’t sound convinced, and that annoyed Andi—that he could simply brush past the notion of it all being connected. And yet, maybe he was right. Maybe she was simply being paranoid.

And what if she wasn’t?

Andi sighed, “Hungry?”

“Starving.”

She reached down and pulled out their food from the bag from the Depot.

“What’s the haul?”

“Burger,” she said, and then dug a little deeper, pulling out a second to-go tin. “And a chicken sandwich with”—she peered closer in the frail light and Mercer shined the light of his phone down to help her—“ranch dressing, I think?”

He nodded. “I’ll have the chicken.”

“Good luck,” she said. “It’s mostly ranch.”

“And that’s how I like it.”

“Despicable.”

She heard a low rumble of laughter from the driver’s seat and Andi smiled to herself in the dark.

“My wife always used to order me this, too. I never realized how much I ate at the Depot until after she left.” He snorted, opening his tin. The smell of ranch dressing wafted to Andi’s nose and she had to look away. “Now I’m a regular. Truly.”

“Just promise me you won’t turn into one of those guys.”

“What guys?”

“Exactly,” she said. “The ones who sit at the counter and waste away.”

There was a pause. “Some call that living, Darcy.”

She shook her head, even if he couldn’t see her. “I never want to become that. To feel so . . .”

“Useless.”

She stared at him. “Unneeded.”

“Who says no one needs them?”

Andi waited, then said, “Their wives.”

Mercer choked. He tried to staunch his laughter by shoving food into his mouth, but it only made it louder, somehow, and Andi couldn’t help but laugh with him.

“Do you think that’s what happened with my wife, Darcy? I became . . . unneeded?”

Andi shot him a look in the dark. “I didn’t mean to imply—”

She saw the wave of his hand in the dark and stopped.

“No need,” he told her. “We had our difficulties. If anything, I was needed too much.”

And I wasn’t there, Andi sensed was the next part of that sentence, but he didn’t continue.

“Can I ask . . .” Andi turned in her seat but stopped herself. She could see him better now; her eyes were adjusting to the dimness.

Mercer simply watched her. “You mean what happened?” He averted his eyes, and it was then that Andi noticed just how tired he looked, even in the dark. How exhausting this question must become, she imagined.

Still, she pressed further. “You always talk so highly of her—”

“I talk about her? When do I ever talk about her?” Mercer scrunched up his face, instantly defensive. His eyes darted back and forth, roving the dashboard, thinking back—or simply overthinking.

The latter was more likely, Andi surmised.

“Maybe not often,” she clarified, “but when you do . . .” She sighed slowly through her nose. “Your whole face lights up. Like you’re still with her.” Like it wasn’t really over—and maybe, she wondered, it wasn’t. Not for him, at least.

His eyes inched their way up the windshield, peering out into the darkness beyond. Searching, but not finding. Searching, but for what?

“We were married, Andi. Married. Actually married. That might not mean much to someone your age—”

“My age,” she whispered, nearly inaudible in the quiet of the truck. Andi stared directly ahead, her eyes burning holes in the glass. Beyond, she could Jillian Stillwater’s house, but she wasn’t seeing. Not really.

“But it means something to me,” he continued, doing his best to ignore Andi’s coment. “It means taking a leap, hoping you’ll land safely with your feet back on the ground. It means making a pact. To make each other happy.”

Andi simpered, “You don’t need to explain marriage to me, Mercer.”

“But I do. I do. Because you don’t know what it’s like. To go to bed one night knowing this—this right here—means I never have to be alone again. It means—”

“Mercer, stop.” Two words, a scream in the dark.

“It means knowing someone always has your back. Even when you’re not sure of yourself. They’re there. And—”

“Mercer, please.” Andi covered her face with her hands. “Please, just stop.”

But he didn’t. Couldn’t.

Because as much as Mercer was explaining, he was remembering.

“It means working. Really working. None of that millennial bullshit where a ring might mean as much as if it were made of candy, something you just pass around to the highest bidder—or the lowest. Or just a bidder. It means loyalty—”

Andi wasn’t sure what she was doing, or where she planned on going, but she opened the door of the cruiser and stepped out onto the uneven ground.

“Darcy?” Mercer was out of the truck, hot on her trail.

The dark opened before her to swallow Andi whole, all snow and shadows, trees rising out of the gloom like hands, reaching up, reaching out. An offer? A warning—telling her to stop?

Andi just wanted to walk. Walk until she couldn’t walk anymore.

Anywhere, she thought, had to be better than there.

She heard the quickening of Mercer’s steps behind her before he latched onto her arm and spun her around.

Andi wondered how he could see so well in the dark.

“Darcy, what the hell do you think you’re doing? The chief told us to stay put—”

“I am not a kid, Mercer.” She wrenched her arm free, stumbling back a step in the process. “I’m not.”

“Listen—”

“Andi was firm. “No.”

“Just listen, okay.”

She crossed her ars, but she didn’t say a word.

“Marriage is all of those things and more. It really is. But it’s also hard—”

“Good God, Mercer,” muttered Andi, who shouldered her way past him in the shadows. But Mercer moved like quicksilver, pulling her back around—and it was then that she realized she could see him. Not him, not entirely, but his eyes.

They glowed.

No.

They shown, mere glimmers, rheumy fragments of refracted starlight.

Eyes wet with tears.

Andi swallowed but didn’t move, didn’t fight him. Didn’t say anything at all, for that matter.

“It’s hard,” he said, “because there comes a moment when you realize the promise you’ve made to each other, the promise of forever, has to be broken. Because you realize some forevers don’t last a lifetime—that sometimes forever isn’t a unit of measuring time, but a way of measuring the love of two people. And sometimes,” Mercer told her, “sometimes—the love just runs out.”

Mercer’s grip on Andi’s forearm loosened and slipped, his thick fingers falling until they clutched her hand, small in his own.

Andi suddenly felt misshapen, out of sorts—and then he squeezed.

And again, Andi stumbled a step, only this time in the right direction. Towards him.

“Sometimes,” he breathed, his voice reduced to little more than a whisper, “good things just fall apart.”

And sometimes there’s a reason, Andi thought to say—but she didn’t. Wanted to, but wouldn’t. Couldn’t.

Mercer blinked. Hard, fast. They had a strobelight-like effect where Andi watched from the dark.

“Like attracts like,” he said. “And sometimes it’s wrong.” There was an edge of dinality to his voice, and Andi found her dropping his hand.

She yielded a step back, towards the cruiser. “We should get back, Mercer.”

But he stepped forward, closing the gap between them in one swift blink of the eyes, and he stood there—not touching, never touching—simply watching. And Andi suddenly couldn’t help but be reminded of the Harrowing Tree, and she thought, rather briefly, that maybe, just maybe, she could see the beauty in the thing.

Mercer stood as though on the cusp of anything and everything, trying to come to a decision.

So, Andi made it easier for him, and she took the choice off the table.

She turned. Andi felt him move, felt him reach out, but she was already walking away. And with every step she took, Andi was certain—certain, in a way she’d never been about anything before—that every sound she brought to life in that moment, every snap of a twig, every roll of a stone, the squak of her shoes on the freshly fallen snow, would forever makr this as the sound of walking away.

And as she went, she asked herself: Is this what I want?

“Come on,” she spoke. “It’s getting cold.” And it was, but in all reality, Andi was numb, from head to toe. She couldn’t feel it, couldn’t feel anything anymore. And the cold had very little to do with it.

All Mercer said was, “We never should have left the car.”

But Andi was glad they had. Glad she knew—knew what forever looked like.

And what it didn’t.

“It’s bullshit, you know.” Andi slammed her door and slouched in her seat, pulling the zipper of her coat all the way to her chin.

Mercer looked at her. “What is?” He said it softly, but firmly. Sadly.

“Like attracts to like.” Andi shook her head, staring straight ahead. She searched the dark, for shapes, faces, and where there was none, she drew them in the dark. Made her own.

She saw her father, her sister, her home town in New Mexico. Saw the sun, all warm and bright.

Andi said, “It’s bullshit.”

“Is it?”

She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. And when she opened them again, there was light—light everywhere. Floodlights had sprung to life, pooling out of Jillian Sweetwater’s driveway, spraying their cruiser in a burst of white, blinding heat.

And at the heart of that light stood the unmistakable silhouette of a woman, moving steadily, closer. In her arms was something long and heavy, and she trained it on them, right at their windshield.

Andi didn’t realize it was a shotgun until it was too late.

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