The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Nineteen

NINETEEN

A small dusting of snow fell on the village of Bellriver as the town gathered to say a final farewell to one of its beloved townspeople. The funeral was held on the town common; though Kerry Greaves was not in attendance herself, her ashes, safely tucked away in an urn, sat upon a table in the gazebo, where Reverend Winchester addressed the town.

Jeannie Fellows didn’t listen to a word. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out despite the small flakes that fell around them, and her entire family was gathered. She wore a black dress, even after Mark’s protests against it, and her knees were cold, but Jeannie didn’t care.

It was over now, had been for days. That deep stretch of sadness, of hatred, of fear and anxiety had come to an end. Their harrowing ordeal had come and gone, taking both Kerry and Tanner with it; but what had begun years in the making had finished on the shore of Cavalry Pond.

Bellriver was safe again. And the quiet Jeannie hadn’t even realized that had descended over their merry little village like a bed of ashes, a film of soot over glass, had gone too, and with it, the fear that’d kept to the streets.

She saw faces she hadn’t seen in what felt like several lifetimes, even if it had only been a day since Kerry’s disappearance. And then the horrors that came to follow. But they were there today, the entire town it seemed had come to whisper a final prayer of the remains of a girl that had once loved them as they still loved her.

Chief Lizzie Hastings was there, clothed in what Jeannie guessed had to be her husband’s flannel. It was much too big for her, but she wore it well; owned it in a way that only she could. Beside her in full uniform were Officer Christian Mercer and a rested Anderson Darcy.

Jeannie’s gaze rested on the young woman, who watched the reverend like she might be quizzed on every word that he said. It was nice that they were there; after all, if it weren’t for them, she didn’t where she might be right now. And Tanner Driscoll might have gotten away . . .

But he didn’t, she reminded herself, sucking in a breath of cool, crisp morning air, and exhaling. Thick vapors of steam formed before her face, ascending towards the snowy sky like a ghost, reaching for the sun.

Mark took her hand then, and she held it tight.

“She would have liked this,” he whispered against her head as he brought his lips down and kissed her slowly.

Jeannie stared straight ahead. Tears marked her face, but they weren’t the same kinds of tears she’d shed in the few days that had come to pass. These were goodbye tears; and with her bleary gaze, she lifted her head, now nestled beneath Mark’s chin, and stared up into the sun—and somewhere, far beyond, perhaps someone was staring back.

“She would have hated this,” Jeannie laughed. “No one’s taking pictures.”

“But we will,” he told her. “Not now, not today. But from now on. We’ll remember what we have. What we are. To each other.” Again, he kissed her, this time on the brow, and Jeannie shivered against the sudden warmth—then leaned into it, holding on tight.

Jeannie said, “I want to remember her. All of her.”

“And we will. It’ll take some time to get used to the idea of a life without her, but we’ll take each day one at a time. Each moment. And we’ll mend,” he whispered. “As we already have begun to.” Mark had his arms around her now, and she leaned back against him, lifting her head and shutting her eyes.

“I can’t wait to marry you,” she said.

He loosened a small chuckle, a purr of warmth against the nape of her neck.

“And I, you.”

Piper Sheridan helped Donnie bring a round of drinks over to the group. Pennilyn had just finished—for the third time since Mercer and Andi had arrived at the Depot for lunch—telling the entire place about what was now referred to as the “Judas kiss” that Jeannie sprang on Tanner only days before.

“I wish I could have seen it,” Piper said, slipping into a booth beside Old Resa. “Is it true they found Jillian Sweetwater’s car in Cavalry Pond?”

Donnie nodded. “I still wonder how he got the thing down there.”

“And the murder weapon was just in the trunk?”

“Yep,” Pennilyn said. “Tanner’s camera. All bloody and broken. And Kerry’s bag with her laptop was in there too.”

Piper looked amazed. “Who would have thought?” She lowered her voice and glanced around. “Is it true, though? Is he . . .?”

No one said anything, but a few eyes shifted to the officers sitting at the counter.

“Dead,” Andi suddenly said, and then all were on her. “He’s dead.”

She had killed him. It wasn’t her intention, Mercer didn’t think, but then again, when it came down to it, it was either Tanner Driscoll, the killer, or Chief Hastings—and Mercer would forever be grateful for the decision that she made.

Hattie was shaking her head. “It’s over now,” she said, patting Pennilyn on the hand. “Now. Let’s drink.”

“And forget,” Pennilyn said, downing the last of her current beer.

“No,” Old Resa told her partner, smiling brightly. “Drink. And remember.”

Andi paid her bill and stood. Still, people watched her. They had been for days. She was the one who pulled that trigger—and Mercer knew there were people in this town who would not see what she did as the heroic action that it was.

In fact, he suspected Old Resa was one of them, for certain.

But, as Harriet had said, it was over. There was no going back, no turning the tides of time. She couldn’t un-pull that trigger—and Mercer wouldn’t want her to. It was over. Done. Now it was time for Bellriver to return to what it used to be.

“You’re leaving?” he asked her.

She nodded. “I’m not ready,” Andi told him.

And he didn’t need to ask what she meant, because he already knew. This was too much too soon. For a while, Anderson Darcy would be the talk of the town. But not for long. Soon, something better—or worse, depending how you saw it—would come along, and everyone would forget what happened there.

Maybe forget isn’t the right word. But grow. Maybe they would grow to accept it, see it for what it was, and move on towards something better.

“I’ll call you later,” she told him, and left.

Mercer stood, staring at the door—once again kicking him for not having the sense to say something. Something to make her turn around. To stop her from walking away again and again.

Suddenly, Harriet was beside him. “You should go after her.”

He opened his mouth to tell her he didn’t know what she meant, but one look into her eyes told him it was crap. Harriet knew—probably before he even did.

“I don’t know where she’s going.”

“I do.” And so, she told him.

Mercer found Andi right where Harriet said she would be. He’d known of Hadley’s Cove ever since he was a child, although it went by a different name back then, he was certain. But he’d forgotten it over the years. Never really had time to go out into the water, whether to fish, or swim, or simply stare.

But as he stepped from the darkness of the shadowed forest and out into the open, he found himself wondering how such a beautiful place could still be so preserved in a town full of talk. It was exactly how he remembered it; perhaps the sand looked fresher, but the formation of the stones, the curve of the land, even the colors of the trees . . . Nothing had changed.

“I didn’t think many people knew about this place,” Andi said without turning around. She stood at the water’s edge, not unlike he had done no more than a handful of days ago, out beyond Sullivan Harris’s house. On this very lake, in fact. Just across the way.

That’s where Andi’s eyes were, he thought. That’s where her mind was.

“You know, I used to come here all the time when I was a kid.”

The glanced back at him. Her face was set, her eyes firm, dark.

“Can I tell you a story?”

She didn’t say anything, but after a moment, he saw her nod.

“I was in love with the same girl from ages seven to twenty-three. She completely and totally ruined me for other women. Gretchen Davert. We dated for a while. And I knew, even as a kid, that whoever I ended up with, she would love this place just as much as I did. Not because it was convenient. Not because it was beautiful. But because, right here, time doesn’t really exist. Sure, the trees will tell you otherwise. And the water, too, when it freezes. But it’s . . . it’s home to this other kind of peace. When you’re here, you don’t want to leave. You could be cold, you could be tired, and yet, something about it will make you want to stay.

“It’s funny, really. But the moment I fell out of love with Gretchen was when I brought her here. I guess that was the last time I was in this very spot,” he said, coming to the realization as he spoke. “She didn’t love this place. Didn’t see it for what it was. Or what it could be, I guess. And so I let her go. And years later it came to my attention that we would never have been happy together. But years—years, Andi—would have been shaved off my life. But it was this place, and I . . .”

“You know what, no,” he said, holding up a hand, stopping himself. “That wasn’t the last time I was here. It was later. It was the night . . .”

When Andi looked at him, he was smiling. Really, truly smiling.

She was taken aback.

It was amazing how something could go from one thing to another in a single instant.

“It was the night I asked Juliann to marry me,” he said. “That’s the last time I was here. I knew she was the one because I brought her here, and she felt it, Andi. She felt what this place was, not only to me, but what it could be for her. An escape.”

We’ve healed each other, Juliann had written in a letter—the very letter he kept in the shadows of his bureau, locked away. Initially because it didn’t mean anything to him. And now, standing there beside Andi at Hadley’s cove, it finally did.

It was never our intention when we met, but we did. We were crippled. And now we’re not. He sighed, recalling her words. We’ve been mended, I think, she’d written, not an explanation, just her understanding. And there’s no sense in dressing a wound no longer there. No sense in going on as though we’re anything but what we never knew we needed to be. Whole.

And that’s exactly how Christian Mercer felt. For the first time since she’d left, he was whole again.

He had his home. His job. The chief. And now he had Andi Darcy, as well.

Their love wasn’t dead, just absent. Living separately, like two flames divided.

For that’s what they were, Mercer often thought. Flames.

They would never again exist together like they once had, but when one flame died out, the other was there to ignite it once more. And you could take that flame, take it a thousand miles, further, but it didn’t diminish the flame left behind. It let it burn, let it shine, gave it the hope of kindling another.

We’re whole now, Juliann had written. And from that moment forward, each morning when Mercer came to stand before St. John’s, he didn’t do it to recall the past. To stir up old feelings, a hurt left by her absence. He did it to remind himself of what she left him with. The fact that they were whole now.

Whole at long last.

Somewhere along the way, without even meaning too, they’d mended each other.

“We may not be anything anymore,” Mercer continued. “But that isn’t really the point of this story. Andi, it’s this place . . . There a reason why it’s secret. Because, as crazy as it sounds, Bellriver has a way of knocking you down. But it also had this—a place to pick yourself up again. A place to dust off your knees and rise. Continue again.”

Andi was smiling now, he realized.

She didn’t say anything, not at first. Then, from within her coat, she pulled out what looked to Mercer very much like a letter. He gingerly took it, but when he flipped open the envelope, he realized what it was: an invitation to Jeannie and Mark’s wedding. He’s gotten one the day before.

“I love this place,” Andi said, grinning. Then, casting her gaze first at the card, and then up into Mercer’s eyes, she said, “I’m going to need a date, you know.”

“I know,” he said, smiling back.

And they stood there as time stopped.

Lizzie Hastings kneeled before the Harrowing Tree. She didn’t know how long she sat there, but when a gentle hand landed on her shoulder, she lifted her head and, slowly, so slowly, rose into the embrace of her waiting husband.

“I wanted to show you something,” he whispered into her ear as he held her close. Lizzie could actually feel the familiar warmth of his body through his coat, seeping into her, and she shivered.

She smiled as she pulled away. “Is it what I think it is?”

He didn’t answer, but simply turned his head, and when Lizzie followed his gaze, she nearly crumpled to her knees.

A little girl, no older than three at the very most, wandered through the tall grass, twirling in the open, catching snowflakes on her tongue. And though she was inexplicably older than the small, infantile form they’d buried in that very spot decades before, Lizzie Hastings knew with every fiber of her being that it was her daughter.

She covered her mouth with gloved fingers and slowly started out towards the small girl, playing out on Hollow Hill—and she was momentarily given pause by the juxtaposition of it all. Such vibrant life, nearly glowing, spinning, flying, just feet from the place where the victim of a heinous, violent crime had once lain not days before.

And then Lizzie Hastings stepped forward, and her daughter stopped, smiling brightly. Whether or not it was real, or just a fragment of wistful fancy of the mind, Hastings cared very little. For she had a new definition of what a ghost really was, and she would carry it with her from that day forward, until the day that she would become one herself, left there to watch over someone else.

A soft breeze rattled the nearly leafless branches of the Harrowing Tree, and as though it were shedding all the fear and the derision and the ugliness that had forever been associated with its being, snow fell from the arms that held the sky above their heads.

“The Harrowing Tree,” Mercer had once said, turning his nose up at it. “What a silly name.”

Hastings had shaken her head. “It’s not silly at all. This tree stands, my young friend, despite all that has come its way. It has weathered every storm that has come to be since the day it first split from the ground. And though this town may face some harrowing times, this tree will always hold the sky above our shoulders. And it will be there when the harrowing has come to pass. This is the Harrowing Tree,” she said, “because despite the darkness that may come to town, it still grows. Just as we do. And it’s beautiful,” Hastings said, just as she did now.

It’s beautiful.

For the very first time, Lizzie Hastings held her daughter in her arms.

And for the time being, all was right with the world.

Anderson Darcy stood in the center of her living room and, hands on her hips, spun in a circle, smiling.

“I think that was the last box,” Mercer said. “Are you sure it’s okay that I stay here?”

Andi smiled, taking in the space that had previously looked so empty, while choked will of boxes that, until then, had been left unopened for the most part.

But now they were open. She was unpacked. And she wasn’t alone anymore.

“I like your style, Mister,” she said, pulling him into a kiss. “Waiting until the last box to ask me if I’ve changed my mind.” She held him close, and Mercer kissed her back, stronger, pushing into her, holding her firm. “But lucky for you,” she told him, twirling away with a smile stamped across her face, “I kind of like you, Kit.”

Kit.

Mercer scowled at the name, and yet there was something so comforting about that look now.

And oddly enough, that was the first time Mercer felt like that name actually fit his person.

The phone rang and Andi skipped to get it. When she picked it up, it was her father, calling from New Mexico.

“Yeah, dad,” she said, wandering to the window. “I’m happy here. Yes, I’m sure.” And as she said this, her eyes looked through the trees—not at the Harrowing Tree, which was hidden from view, along with all its ghosts—but at the police station, the crest of which she could just see above the tree tops. “This is home now.”

Three weeks later, the phone on Chief Hasting’s desk rang.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Alice,” she said, and at the sound of the name, both Andi and Mercer wandered into the room.

“Ten bucks it’s another deer,” she said.

Mercer shook his head. “No, no. Last week she had a duck trapped in her attic. I don’t think it’s a duck.”

“You’re on,” she said.

Hastings pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, still nodding as she listened.

“You’re both wrong,” she told them. “Alison Caldwell has a turkey in her kitchen. And while this may not sound like a big deal with the holidays fast approaching, this turkey still has its neck. And it is very much alive.”

Mercer looked at Andi.

“Fine,” she said. “I’m on it.”

“Have that money for me when you get back.”

Andi gave him the finger as she walked away.

“And make sure this one doesn’t fight back!” he called as he heard the door slam shut.

Chief Hastings was smiling, even after she’d hung up the phone.

“You look happy,” she said. “Really happy.”

Mercer nodded, a grin stretched wide across his face. “I am.”

“And Juliann? You’ve moved on?”

“Of course not,” Mercer said, pausing to observe her. “But I guess it’s never really over when it comes to that kind of thing. I’ve moved on. I’m happy. We’re over, her and I, and I no longer wait for the day when she’ll somehow wander back through my door—especially because our house is no longer standing.” He chuckled at the thought, and then stopped when he saw the small black book closed on her desk.

Hastings had been going to therapy long before she’d come back to work, and though she’d stopped for the duration of the case, she’d since continued going. Mercer knew this was the journal she kept—the journal she wrote in whenever she remembered her husband. Something slight, like the way he parted his hair, or the way he buttoned his shirt . . .

Chief Hastings tried for a smile, but he caught her slight wince. She looked pale, all of a sudden, like she might be sick.

“Is everything alright?”

“Never really over,” she echoed, an winced again. Flinched, even.

Mercer cleared his throat. “Chief?”

“No, Mercer,” she told him. “It’s not over.”

Lizzie Hastings saw it in a flash, like a bullet expelled from the chamber of a gun. Saw images, places. Faces, people. Moving, slowly, like visions.

Hastings didn’t realize she was doubled over, as though in pain, her hands covering her eyes, until Mercer wrapped his arms around her. Holding on. Tethering her to the present. The now.

“What’s happening to me?” she asked through clenched teeth. Her entire body was shaking, as though she were an addict long overdue for a quick fix.

She felt Mercer move, one hand lifting from her, and when she raised her eyes to her number two, he was holding her journal.

“Is it because of this?” he asked, squinting, one brow arched higher than the other.

She shook her head. “I’ve hardly opened the thing,” she shivered. “I’m supposed to, but I don’t.”

Surprise bloomed in Mercer’s eyes, if only for a moment.

“I’ve seen you write it in this thing nearly every day, Chief.”

She looked stunned. “I haven’t. Look.”

Hastings reached for it with tremulous hands, but Mercer flipped back the leather cover for her. Inside—

Lizzie Hastings took the journal, suddenly terrified of what she saw there, staring back at her.

Three words. Repeated over—

She turned the page with Mercer’s help.

And over—

Hastings dragged her thumb along the journal’s pages.

And over again. Each set of words carved into the page more viciously than the one before.

Tears welled to the surface of her eyes. She ran her fingers over the page, the words, the rips and tears where her pen ruined the paper.

And, once more, she lifted her eyes to Mercer’s.

“It’s not over.”

He shook his head, lowering his gaze to the journal. “What does it mean? It’s not over . . .”

Again, those words. Like impartial screams, a roar of static, ringing out, climbing louder—blotting out the world, the light.

And then Lizzie Hastings saw the car wreck. She saw it the same was as before. The way she did every time she’d shut her eyes and allowed herself to look back on it.

It happened so fast that it looked slow.

They were hit from the side. They were at a stoplight, she thought.

An explosion of wrath and ruin, as metal wrought, glass shattered into dust, and the mangled evisceration of sound and time bled together.

Only . . .

Hastings took in a shar breath.

For, this time, the fog had been lifted.

And Lizzie Hastings saw a face staring back at her.

Smiling.

She opened her eyes. She was on the floor this time, curled against the hardwood floor. A trickle of blood had run from her nose, and it covered her lips.

Mercer held her in his arms, clutched to him, and he was repeating her name over and over, trying to soothe her back to health.

“It’s not over,” she weakly moaned, and Mercer froze. Hastings lied there, letting him hold her, like the son she never had. Terrified of what might happen should she move.

He was holding her together. She wasn’t ready to fall to pieces.

“The Faraday murder,” she said, staring into open space. “It’s not over.”

Lizzie Hastings closed her eyes, and once again she saw the face. His face. The face of Thomas Faraday.

The face of a ghost.

“But that’s impossible,” said Mercer. “He’s dead.”

“Is he?”

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