The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Seventeen

SEVENTEEN

Late the following evening, Chief Lizzie Hastings sat alone in a booth at the Depot. Save for Donnie, she had the entire place to herself, and though she wasn’t hungry, she was already on her third beer.

She was tired. So tired, in fact, that she never even saw the truck pull into the small parking lot. It was snowing now, fairly hard, swallowing up the last of the light and dispelling flakes like it was the middle of December. Her eyes navigated the stormy white and found their way to the police station across the common, where, somewhere just beyond those distant windows, Mercer sat.

He’d been released from the hospital sometime that morning, and though she’d made sure that he’d gotten some rest at home, he was already back to work, claiming the night shift as his own.

“I like it at night,” he said. “It’s quiet.”

Hastings thought maybe a little too quiet for her own comfort, but finally relented and allowed him to suit up, as long as he took it easy. She was one phone call away—and she hadn’t gone far.

A figure appeared at her table, and Hastings smiled as Donnie handed her another beer.

“My fair Nostradamus,” she said, “already predicting my next move.”

Donnie grinned, but glanced over his shoulder. “Actually, this one was bought for you by that little lady over there.”

Hastings’s brows narrowed, and she peered over the top of the booth and saw Anderson Darcy standing in the doorway.

“Mind if I have a word?” she asked.

The Chief raised her beer. “Keep this coming, and you can have as many words as you want.”

Christian Mercer sat alone in the police station, staring a hole in the back of the chair where Andi used to sit. Chief Hastings had finally relented and gone to get some sleep at home—or so he thought—while Mercer promised that, should he feel at all faint, that he should call her immediately. But Mercer felt fine now that the antifreeze had been flushed from his system. Now, all he wanted was to be home—and nowhere in the world did he feel as at home as he did at the PD.

He was parked in his office chair, where he played with the chain that hung around his throat, never taking his eyes off the absent chair before him as he took out the bottle of scotch he kept in his desk and poured a drop into a glass.

He sipped it slowly.

There was a reason Mercer still wore his wedding ring whenever he went out. Why he never took it off when he drank, alone, at the pub over in Hilltown, or even at Cow Bell’s.

He wasn’t afraid of starting over. Of moving on. There was almost something slightly freeing about the idea—about getting a clean slate. But every time he even allowed himself to consider the possibility of beginning again with someone new, a woman that wasn’t Juliann, he found himself paralyzed—ensnared by his complete and utter belief in the notion that everyone only gets one great love of their life. And Mercer already had his.

And lost his.

The thought of starting from scratch tired him to no end. The familiar unfamiliarity, the awkward tip-toe of conversation, dancing a two-step around the fact that, at any given moment, something might go terribly wrong. All the while wondering anxiously what it was exactly that was going on in the other person’s mind.

Mercer grimaced at the idea.

Absently, he fingered the silver chain at his throat, mostly hidden by the collar of his shirt, upon which hung his ring. It felt heavier these days; still, he bore the burden of being reminded of what had come to pass, and he did so entirely conscious of what it did to him, how it made him feel, of how it kept him from moving on, moving forward, simply so that he might cling to the last lifeline of his ruined marriage.

It was like an anchor, keeping him from beating against the rocks, and the open seas beyond. Keeping him trapped in a raging storm, lost in the dark—because sometimes it felt better in the dark, where the light couldn’t shed its glow on what’s cracked and broken. On something that could never be entirely whole again.

But more than that, it was like the one fix he needed to keep him going.

Mercer liked the way it felt every time he put that ring back on his finger. Like Juliann was still his, in the off way that one person could really be another’s’, in every sense of the word. But whenever that ring came on her knew he lost touch with reality a little bit more each time. And for what?—so he could wake each day sprawled out across a bed gone cold, in a world not unlike the reflection of a mirror, twisted and out of sorts. Utterly wrong, backwards.

He fingered the fold of his shirt collar, his fingers itching for the last remnant of a phantom life. Every part of him wished he could ease back into the folds of delirium and convince himself it was real—really real. And maybe he could. Maybe it was that simple. Maybe—

Just then, Anderson Darcy clattered into the room, her clumsy feet scuffing their way across the old hardwood floor of the station.

Mercer simply blinked.

He made no move to hide the scotch, and Andi never asked him to. Instead, she crossed the room, throwing her coat into a ball on one of the chairs, and simply pulled his now-empty glass towards her across the desk. She tapped its rim twice, indicating that he should pour.

Neither said anything.

He filled her cup a third of the way before opening a drawer in his desk and pulled out a second glass. Mercer poured again and set the bottle down. They clanged glasses.

“What are you doing back here?”

From the pocket of her jeans, Andi drew out her badge. “As of five minutes ago, I’m back on the case. Still no gun,” she said, indicating her empty holster. “But I’m back.”

Mercer warmed at the very thought. “What changed her mind?”

“It could have been the beers,” said Andi, who offered a weak smile, shaking her head. “Or the fact that I apologized.”

“Did you now?”

“I didn’t tell her that I knew I was right. Or that I had my reasons. I did. I still do. I won’t apologize for that. But I did apologize for being so abrupt.”

“She accepted that?”

“Not right away, no.” Andi bounced her drink against her lips. “But she came around.”

Mercer nodded and, holding up his glass, downed his scotch. Andi was quick to follow.

“Officer Darcy,” Mercer said, wiggling his brows. “Drinking on the job? What will the chief think?” he teased, feigning exasperation. His eyes widened.

Darcy sighed and relaxed into the absent chair across the desk from him, slipping down so her head rested against its back.

“Well, considering I just left her, drinking at the Depot,” she said, taking up the bottle and pouring another round, “I think she would be proud.” Her eyes found their way to his over her glass.

Mercer’s lips twitched up at the corners, and it stopped Andi in her tracks.

“Is that a real smile, Officer Mercer? I thought for sure Chief Hastings was full of it when she said you had a nice one.” But Andi stopped herself.

He quirked a brow. “Really? How nice?”

Andi flushed ever so slightly, a gentle reddening that crept its way over the arches of her cheekbones. She smiled, and it was in that exact moment that Mercer saw, possibly for the very first time, the way his trainee’s eyes grew twice in size whenever she looked into his own.

Darcy cleared her throat and stood. This time when she downed her scotch, she pushed her empty glass towards him and turned, pushing in her chair.

She looked like she was on the cusp of saying something, her mouth working almost in perfect synchrony with her searching eyes, darting over his own, simultaneously too quick and not quite quick enough.

Mercer swallowed. “Yes?”

“Forget it,” she said, and he did. “It’s nothing.”

Beneath his shirt, Mercer became increasingly aware of the ring, thump-thumping itself against the spot over his heart with ever move he made, however slight.

“Goodnight . . . Officer Mercer,” Andi said, grabbing her coat. She wrapped it around her arms and lingered a moment more, staring at him from across the small room of the station before heading for the door. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

He offered a brief nod.

The door clattered shut behind her before he could think of anything intelligent to say. So, he sat there, staring and, at last, took one final swig of the scotch. Before long, he capped the bottle, dropping it, along with the glasses, back into his drawer.

“Goodnight, Officer Darcy,” he murmured to no one and nothing, staring off out the station window, first at the snow, coming down in sheets, and then fixedly at his own reflection, thin and weak in the bright, hazy glow of the overhead lamps.

With a long breath drawn into his lungs, Mercer reached down into his shirt for his wedding ring—and he pulled, breaking the clasp against the nape of his neck. He held it before him, still dangling from its chain. Its reflection shone in the glass, right where it caught the light.

And with a heavy breath out, Mercer pulled open the very same drawer of his desk and lowered it in—for the very first time ignoring the small engraving in its surface.

Sometimes love didn’t last the eternity it was initially promised. Then again, most things didn’t.

Slowly, Mercer shut the drawer.

It was time, he knew. Time to let what was dead lie in peace. It was time to give up the ghost. But the dead never stayed buried for very long.

They always had a way of coming back to us. For better and for worse.

Andi sagged against the stairwell railing the moment the station door clicked shut at her back. She staggered won a few steps before dropping into a sitting position halfway down.

Her wounds were still fresh, and God forbid she allowed herself to forget about the pain for even a moment, there was always that same breath-catching, searing ache, waiting just around the next corner to remind her of exactly just how okay she really was—or, rather, wasn’t.

The bruises on her side hurt so bad they made her eyes water. Or at least that’s what she told herself, wiping at the single tear that dared to fall.

It’s my bruises from the car accident. That’s all.

Andi licked her lips. They still tasted of scotch, but it no longer tasted any good. Sickly, in a way, like returning to an apple that’s been left out in the sun for far too long.

Funny, really, she couldn’t help but think, how quickly something could go from good to bad. From peaceful to painful. Right to wrong.

Andi Darcy sat in that stairwell for far longer than she would ever actually admit. But one once—once—did she ever look back at the station door, and allowed herself to wonder whether or not she shouldn’t wak back up those steps. Shouldn’t walk ack into that room, throw her coat to the floor and . . .

But she didn’t.

Instead, she picked herself up off those steps, leaning into the railing the whole way down, and she stepped out into the snow.

Andi stood there a moment, breathing slowly. The cold was sharp, so unlike anything she’d ever known before—and yet it was invigorating, the way the cold could crawl through you in waves. Freeze you from the inside out, numbing you straight drown to your very core.

Slowly, Andi raised her head, letting the snow gather on her cheeks, her lashes. Her lips.

Outstanding, she couldn’t help but think. The numb before the thaw. The complete lack of feeling, the emptiness not unlike plunging head-first into the dark, plummeting just out of reach of humanity. Of feeling. Of light. That single instant before the feeling flows back into your veins. The lights flicker back on, illuminating all that’d been lost amongst the shadows.

Andi blinked against the cold, the night, and stared up into the smoke-stained twilight only for a moment more—a moment that she held onto, that she would box up, fit into her back pocket, and return to whenever she needed it most

An escape. From the world, from reality, from the pain and the chaos of it all. From feeling, emotion. An escape, both from and to—to a speck of time unhindered by fear and heartbreak. To a moment that tells of days gone quiet. Days when death and murder weren’t always loitering at the back of everyone’s minds.

When Andi at last lowered her head, her eyes caught those of another. Across the road, up the steps of the Depot, and across the room to a booth in the back to where, just on the other side of the window, Lizzie Hastings sat.

She smiled, a grin that not only met her eyes, but seemed to transform her entire face. She practically looked as though she were glowing.

Andi offered a smile back, and the chief raised her beer in a good-night salute. Andi considered going back in for a drink, even sitting with her for a while, but changed her mind.

The walk to her truck was quick. She’d parked on the side of the station, out of the way, safe from snowplows and sanders.

The moment her door was shut against the snow and cold, Andi sagged back into her seat and tried to breathe some life back into her numb hands—nearly as useless at the moment as though she had nothing but stumps where her wrists me their end.

She fumbled with her keys, revving the engine until her headlights cut streaks through the dark, hardly noticeable beyond the chin layer of snow on her windshield.

Andi reached for her wipers when, out of the dark, something cold and hard pressed itself against the side of her head.

A gun.

“Drive,” came the voice of the figure beside her, dace lost in the shadows of a ski-mask.

“Drive,” the voice came again, hissed so quietly that Andi Darcy couldn’t discern the figure’s gender.

The invisible hand trembled in the dark, and the gun raped against the flat of her skull.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she eased her truck into drive, and in the silence of the night, they stole into the shadows.

Braving the consequences, Andi dared ask: “Where?”

“Until I say stop.”

And in that moment, Anderson Darcy knew who killed Kerry Greaves.

Just down the road, while Mercer stared methodically at nothing, and while Chief Hastings drank herself awake, and while Anderson Darcy was taken into the night, a house began to burn. The fire started out low, chasing the canals of gasoline that ran up the steps of the porch.

The old wood caught easily, but the snow was falling in heavy, white sheets, and for a moment there, Mark thought that it might douse the flames. But then the porch caught, followed by the old wooden shutters, and soon the entire front of the house was engulfed in golden, burning light.

The heat was enough to singe his cheeks.

Mark could do little more than watch. Still, the gun felt heavy in his hand. Would he have to use it? He prayed to God he wouldn’t. But as he watched the fire grow, spread, come alive, he knew there might not be any other way.

Transform—that’s what the house did. From something livable, something ordinary and welcoming, it transformed, becoming something forever vacant, something out of the ordinary in the worst of ways. Something on the verge of destruction.

Mark’s grip on the gun tightened.

People could transform as well. For better, sure. And for worse—much, much worse.

And sometimes it was entirely necessary.

Before long, the streets were filled with spectators, standing out in the snow to watch as Officer Christian Mercer’s house first burned, then fell to pieces. There was a time when you couldn’t tell what was ash and what was snow.

There was a time when Bellriver did not house killers.

That time was over.

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