Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter Six

Strange, isn’t it, being in a self-constructed cage? The girl constantly tests the bars in her mind in the way of a tongue poking at an aching tooth. Are they still there? Are they still too close together to slip free?

They are, and the girl doesn’t know what to do. She recognizes the easiest key to use on the locked door—to give in to the wills of others, crawling or dancing or pretending as they wish. Give in and stay quiet. That is how she lived most of her life before the black wolf slipped in and showed her how to savage and howl. When one learns to bite, how can one then unlearn it?

Yet the girl has lost her fine pelt. While she can no longer pretend her old life fits, those nights of moon and fur remain far out of reach. What key can she find among ashes and scorched hide?

The key of resistance. Let them expose her vulnerabilities. Let them cut up her past and restitch it as they see fit. Let them test her family’s patience and her lover’s willingness to take her ugliness. But can she stand it? Can she risk losing everything to repulsion?

The girl crouches in her cage and shakes, watching the past bleed into the present. If she will not pick one or the other, then she must wait until a new key reveals itself. She must endure until, hopefully, it is not too late.

Alice knew it was impossible to remain furtive without Colton noticing. To stop eating and instead push at the food on her plate because her stomach churned. To go from gleefully cleaning him in the shower to pretending she had a headache and needed more sleep, arm curled against her body to make sure the bandaging stayed in place. Soon enough, his frustration thickened the air in the way of heavy clouds gathering into a thunderstorm, but he remained as silent as she.

Although no further burns appeared on any part of her body, Alice began to hear footsteps throughout the day, the same angry tread as when Magdalene had paced back and forth, frustrated by words that refused to leave her mind. Sometimes, Alice thought she smelled cigarette smoke, too, although the pack remained untouched in the cardboard box each time she looked. And once, while alone in the house and brewing a pot of mid-morning coffee, she even found a carton of cream waiting on the counter. She never took her coffee with anything, but Magdalene had always insisted on filling her cup half-full with it.

Alice began to pace, herself, waiting for Darby to call and give her one final chance to give in. Trying to decide what her answer would be when that ultimatum came. In the meantime, she read through the manuscript again and again, hands shaking while imagining her father’s reaction to so much of her sordid history being revealed. Worse, she could see how her mother’s early behavior now mimicked her own. Sleepless nights, paranoia clinging to her bones, hearing and seeing things… With Darby and Rob’s threats hanging over heard, she even began to understand why the ticking of a clock had been such torment to her mother.

And of course, there were the nightmares. Magdalene always loomed in them, bearing down on Alice like a wrathful star, and one night it simply became too much for her to hide. She woke up clawing at the sheets, shrieking at the feeling of blood running down her hair and shoulders from where Magdalene had tried fitting a freshly-skinned pelt over her.

Then an arm hard with muscle caught her writhing body, and Colton’s voice rumbled against her ear, thick with sleep yet steady. “Easy. Easy, you’re safe.”

She just whimpered, fumbling for the bedside lamp before he stretched over her to turn it on, himself. Light revealed her to be drenched in sweat instead of blood, and at that, she fell limp and shaking.

“What’s wrong?” He pulled her close, and she wanted nothing more than to melt in him.

She ducked her head into the hollow his throat, unable to keep her voice steady. “Just a nightmare.”

“Another one.” It wasn’t a question.

She nodded, still shivering.

“What about?”

“I don’t…”

“You do remember. Your fear’s growing in your scent, not fading.”

When she didn’t say anything, he caught her chin. His hand remained gentle as he tipped her head toward his, but his stare was nothing less than a challenge.

“You’re lying to me. Been lying for a week, now. Ever since the human visited.”

Alice dropped her gaze from his and licked lips gone very dry.

“You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. We’ve fucked twice in the last week. You can’t even look at me. What’s wrong?”

When it became obvious that she intended to remain silent, his hand tightened against her face, and the rasp in his voice turned desperate. “Alice. Talk to me.

Her chin trembled with suppressed tears. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Why not?”

“I…”

Why?

“I’m too scared.” The words wrenched themselves out of her as a sob as some of Rob’s photos flashed through her mind. Too scared of what he would think, too scared of what would happen.

There was a long pause from him, and suddenly she couldn’t take how poisonous she felt in his presence. He held her like something precious, something to be adored, and still she lied to him. His muscles bunched in tension as she pulled free, and his snarl was one of pure frustration, but he let her slide out of bed and leave, silent while she shrugged on a robe and stumbled for the doorway. Every part of her burned; her eyes with tears, her cheeks with shame, and her body with lingering memories.

A headache throbbed at her temples as she looked at the nearest clock. Hours until dawn. She stayed up, anyway, sitting in the kitchen with a mug of tea as the tension within her grew muddied with weariness. As her overtired brain drew up snatches of her mother’s erratic behavior and stubborn silences to compare with her own, she painted with the dregs at the bottom of the mug, needing something to do while she worried.

Did anything about her mother make more sense than before, now seeming right and understandable as her own madness seeped in? Had any of it flickered into clarity, like learning enough of a language for inane sounds to crystallize into beautiful words? Alice didn’t feel like it had at all. Instead, an increasing panic overtook her. Everything had spun out of her control, even her own reactions.

Her brush flickered over the paper in sharp strokes as she painted the face that haunted her dreams. The sharp cheeks and angular jaw. The eyes that could never settle on being just one color. The mysterious tilt of those lips, secretive and knowing. Alice wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry that she still remembered Magdalene’s features well enough to paint them, and accurately, too.

Perhaps the truth was that this was all inevitable, merely hurried on by Darby’s vengefulness and obsession. Perhaps she would never be free of Magdalene, and those empty spaces would never be filled in. The idea turned her entire being into knots of anguish, and her strokes became violent as she brought to life this woman that she had never fully understood. The brush hairs grew splayed from the abuse. Coffee splattered over the table’s surface.

Heedless, Alice drove herself to exhaustion, intent on drawing Magdalene from her head in the way of venom from a bite. Desperate for some sense of control restored to her life. Desperate to give herself an ending more hopeful than the bitter idea that she had been a doll all along, and now she was merely a broken one. And the entire time, those eyes seemed to mock her...

Eventually, Alice realized she’d stopped painting. She blinked with sleep-crusted eyes, one cheek pressed against the cool surface of the table. Then a hand brushed hair from the other side of her face. For one blissful moment, sleep blurred her awareness too much for her to remember anything even as she recognized Colton’s touch and moved into it with a hum.

Then it all came spilling back, and she jerked upright, flushing. “It’s already morning?”

What a foolish question, for sunlight streamed through the windows. A foolish question, but Colton still nodded. He had already dressed for work, hair damp from a shower.

Her heart lurched as she rose from the chair. “I can make something to take with you.”

“Forget it. Just wanted to be sure you knew I’d gone off to the mill.”

Instead of leaving her to wake up with no way of knowing whether he had left for work or had left for good. Even while angry, he’d decided not to put her through hours of panic over the possibility that she’d been abandoned.

Tears welled in her eyes, and the words tumbled out before she could stop them. “It was about Magdalene. The nightmare I had last night.”

At that, the frown lines on his forehead deepened, and his eyes lost some of their distance. When his gaze dropped to the table, she pushed the painting toward him.

He turned it around to look at it. “What about her?”

Oh, how she wished to spit out the words. To admit everything that clawed at her thoughts, day in and day out. At least she could feel clean in her honesty. Strands of hair had fallen into her face, again, and she distractedly reached up to push them aside while fumbling for the courage to reveal it all.

Then she gasped, seeing that furious painting and restless sleeping had loosened the bandage enough to reveal the skin beneath. Before she could even think to hide her arm, Colton snarled and caught her hand. “The fuck is this?”

His grip on her wrist was painless but unyielding, and she had no choice but to sit there and watch his expression as he realized she’d lied to him.

“A burn from the oven?” he said, rage thick in his voice.

“I…”

“Are you doing this to yourself?”

Her voice caught in her throat as she realized she truly didn’t know the answer.

Then he looked at her, and her heart shattered as if it truly had been porcelain. His expression… That seething mix of concern, and confusion, and suspicion. How many times had she seen her father stare at her mother in that way?

“I’m so sorry,” she managed. “I never wanted to do this. To be like this.”

“To be like what?” A growl slipped into his words.

Crazy. Erratic. A misery in your life.

But she was already crying too hard to answer, breath hitching in her chest. When he swore to himself, she twisted her wrist free of his grip. “Just go. You’ll be late for work.”

“Fuck the mill. I won’t leave while you’re like this.”

And she didn’t want him to see her while she was like this. Already, she could hear a shrill note in her voice that had also been in her mother’s. “It’s all right. I’ll be fine.”

“Fine?” Now he sounded incredulous, and that hurt more than the most savage bite.

“Colton, please.” Her voice cracked on the last word.

He swore again, but this time she refused to look up, and after several agonizing moments, he left the kitchen. Then the door slammed, and in another heartbeat or two, his truck roared away. The tears streaming down her face felt like they scalded her skin.

Salt tracks still marked her cheeks while she poured her second cup of coffee for the morning. Just as she sipped at it, her phone rang.

Her stepmother’s voice sounded bright, cheerful, and from an entirely different world. “How are you, honey?”

Alice’s expression shifted into something more pleasant, a hardwired reaction to such questions. “Fine, thanks.”

“I didn’t call at a bad time?”

“Not at all.”

“Good. We hear so little from you that I’m never sure when it’s a good hour to reach you. Anyway… I have a big favor to ask. Fleur only now told me that she volunteered to take cupcakes to her school’s harvest festival tomorrow. And to make things more difficult, they can’t be just any kind. Their flavor and decoration has to fit the autumn theme. Fleur’s never baked anything so complicated and I’m such a bad cook that I set an egg on fire when I try boiling it. Is there any way you can come over today and help make…”

Alice waited patiently until her stepmother’s voice came back, the words imbued with doubt. “Apple pie cupcakes with cinnamon buttercream frosting. She found the recipe on Pinterest.”

Cupcakes were fussy little things. Alice knew Denise would have trouble trying to make them. And getting out of the house would probably do her more good than crying in bed for the rest of the day. “Sure, I’m happy to help. Email me the recipe and I’ll come over with all the ingredients.”

“You’re an angel. Does eleven work for you?”

“Fine.”

“Fantastic. See you then, sweetheart.” Denise made kissing noises before hanging up.

After setting the phone down, Alice looked out the nearest window, taking in the cinnamon-colored trunks and bright green needles of the trees that marked the beginning of the forest. The sight left her feeling like she stood at a grave, but she made herself stand up, anyway, and start getting ready.

Before leaving, she made a shepherd’s pie. The notes for reheating it came easily enough, but then she found herself staring at the blank space left on the paper, struggling to put into words everything she wanted to tell Colton. In the end, only one sentence seemed honest enough. I love you.

She spent the forty-five minute drive in silence. Her ears popped several times as rugged mountains sank into gentle humps of land covered in wild grass and weeds. The winding road straightened out, smoothed out. Human architecture no longer cowered in the shadow of giant pines and instead, row upon row of houses covered the hills, white walls and red roofs clear even at a distance. Shopping centers sprawled close to the road, calling at drivers with bright signs. It wasn’t the asphalt jungle of a city, but civilization still reigned, and Alice already found herself missing the forest. The low hills and wide skies made her feel vulnerable and exposed.

In the light of day and without a vibrant party inside it, her father and stepmother’s house looked plain yet well-groomed. Alice didn’t feel one way or another about it; this wasn’t the one that cradled memories of her mother. Alice supposed it was bravado of some sort that her father hadn’t transplanted them to another area after her mother’s disappearance. Perhaps just a desperate attempt to keep things normal. But after he had met and married Denise, he’d unbent enough to sell the original house and buy this one.

Denise couldn’t crack an egg into a pan without making a mess, but she loved gardening, and a huge yard ripe for planting had been the selling point for her. At the time, Alice had thought it very odd that her staid father would listen to an impractical reason like that. Later on, she realized it was because Denise had saved him in many ways.

Her mother’s disappearance had left a deep wound, and Denise had been something normal, something good. It was really no surprise that Magdalene insulting her during the one and only time they’d all gone to dinner together had led to her father’s polite ultimatum. Alice had never found out what Denise thought about it, or how much of that decision had come from her. It left her nervous as she rang the doorbell and waited, fingers twisting against the handles of the grocery bags.

But as soon as Denise opened the door, she smiled, eyes crinkled at the corners in genuine warmth. “Alice. I’m so glad you could come over.”

Alice nodded, feeling her mask-like smile snap into place while Denise led her inside, still talking. “Fleur isn’t here; she’s busy at a leadership meeting. I told her not to wait until the last minute when she volunteers for something like this, but you know how girls that age are. Although you were never like that. You always seemed so much older. Responsible.”

Alice just smiled again, feeling dead inside.

The batter for the cupcakes was straightforward to an experienced home baker like Alice, and she took charge of the pretty, aqua-colored stand mixer that looked as though it had never been used. Denise added paper liners to the muffin tins and then leaned on the counter and chattered while Alice measured ingredients and added them in.

“Shannon has been asking after you. She’s spent the past year in France and brought back a boyfriend. He’s in training to become a pastry chef, and makes the best croissants you can imagine.”

Alice nodded while adding the sour cream to the batter. The bandage on her arm itched, but she knew better than to scratch it.

“Oh, and Felicia has two children now, can you believe it? A boy and a girl named Jack and Jane. She missed our anniversary party to stay home and watch them, but I know she’s very interested in getting back in touch, too.”

When Alice only made a neutral noise while scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula, Denise’s voice changed slightly. “Sweetheart, it would be a good idea to get out more. None of your old friends have seen you even though you’ve been back for two months, and we never hear you talk about new ones.”

“I left them back in the city. We really didn’t have much in common besides Magdalene.” If she could have felt anything, it would have been shock over her casual mention of a very forbidden subject. How strange, that her life crumbling apart would leave her less fearful.

Awkward silence lingered between them before Denise said, “Well… That part of your life is over, and it’s okay to let it go.”

Her stepmother’s hand felt like a stranger’s as it squeezed hers, but Alice recognized the attempt at comfort, and made herself look away from the mindless movements of the mixer to smile at the other woman.

Encouraged, Denise added, “What happened to her sounded awful, but we’re still here and we have no problem at all helping you back on your feet.”

And Alice learned just how that would happen while doling batter into the waiting cupcake liners. Surely she remembered Melanie Stiles? The daughter of a family friend. Well, she had a baby shower planned in the beginning of December and would love it if Alice went. Oh, and June Townsend? An associate of Alice’s father. She must have remembered June. She now ran a sanctuary for golden retrievers and was always happy to take on volunteers to help with the dogs.

Alice pretended to pay attention as plans were made for her. Inwardly, though, she questioned the neat trappings of suburban life. Was this really what she wanted? Was this why Darby and Rob’s threats had frightened her so? True, the life of her parents was safe and good, as solid as cement poured into carefully-measured wooden frames and left to harden into a foundation.

If she started down this path, then what? How soon before Denise’s talk turned toward that of friends with bachelor sons? Alice could see it all mapped out before her, careful notches made in the measuring stick every time she stepped a bit closer to this comfortable, established life. A husband with a high salary and solid connections, a career under her belt that she could either juggle or give up when children came along, a house with neat hedges and bright, spacious rooms… It was their peace offering, she knew, their willingness to help her reach these things even though she had mired herself in scandal by going off with Magdalene.

What would more scandal do? If she kept quiet and showed the cabin to Darby to prevent the past from crawling out into the open, this was what she would have saved. Not her life with Colton—she had tried protecting that, and look how it had already crumbled.

You chased him off, whispered that vicious part of her mind. Sent him away like a dog.

The thought hurt, but the next words were even worse, slithering up from the deepest of fears. He would have soon left, anyway. No one keeps company with a madwoman unless they’re mad, themselves.

It got harder and harder to look happy as Denise continued talking. When her stepmother’s phone rang, Alice felt her shoulders sag in relief, and quickly made the frosting while the cupcakes baked. Once they were out of the oven, a fifteen-minute rest in the freezer would leave them cool enough to be decorated, and then she could go home to the forest.

She was piping frosting on the final row of cupcakes when Denise appeared in the kitchen doorway, the phone angled away from her face so that she could whisper at Alice. “You remember Rachel, don’t you? One of my oldest friends?”

Vaguely. As soon as she nodded, Denise added, “We’re having a late lunch today to talk about a few things for the Halloween charity auction. I asked her if she’d mind you coming along, and she’s so excited to see you. I’m sure the others will be, too. Can you make it?”

“I…” Something in Alice’s expression must have indicated that her stammer could be taken as a “yes,” because her stepmother flashed a smile at her.

“Great,” she whispered, and then her voice rose to its usual strength. “Rachel, that sounds fantastic. Alice is excited to see everyone. I know, five years!”

Later, as Denise drove her to the bistro, her stepmother sounded more sober. “Things might be a little awkward at first, but it’s not your fault. Nicole is going through a rough period in her life but insisted on coming to help out with the auction details. She just signed her divorce papers today, so don’t breathe a word about her ex-husband unless she brings him up. In fact, probably not even then.”

Alice hardly listened, every muscle in her body tight with tension at having to pretend everything was good and normal for a while longer. Time didn’t move quite right, but she remained aware enough to recognize the bistro as that of a family friend’s, and to follow her stepmother inside and dutifully murmur greetings to the three women waiting for them. Her blood froze as she was introduced in return. More people to remember her. More people to feel a jolt of recognition if rumors ever flew about Tom Corrigan’s daughter being involved in drugs and sex parties. Her heart knotted in fear even as she sat down and took the offered menu.

She was the youngest at the table by at least ten years, and bore their sighs and teasing remarks over her youth with patience, already remembering how she had always felt at these sorts of things—a quiet outsider who said little to avoid showing just how baffled the other women left her.

Nerves twisted her stomach as she ordered the first thing on the menu. “The sea bass, please.”

“Fish for lunch? Honey, you’re not old enough to worry about your weight.” That was from Rachel, who was thinner than Alice and had a face bearing the tight perfection of a scalpel’s touch. Her red hair gleamed in thick waves, framing the diamonds glittering at her neck.

“It’s so depressing when clothes no longer fit,” said Brianne, who Alice now remembered. She’d been a source of gossip, herself, back when Alice had been in grade school. The very young wife of one of her father’s associates. Twenty-three to her husband’s forty-one. The whispers had included turns of phrase like gold digger and mid-life crisis.

Looking at her now, Alice could see why Brianne would have stunned anyone into ignoring social tittering. Her heart-shaped face and bronze skin glowed even as she groaned, “Yesterday, I found some old jeans from before Logan was born. I almost cried when I couldn’t get them up past my thighs.”

“What does it matter?” said Nicole, her pink-painted nails looking more like claws as they curled around her wine. She had a beauty that would have been delicate as a girl but now came off as brittle. Alice watched her fingers flex and wondered if they would break before the glass did.

Undaunted by the lack of response, Nicole added, “Even when you starve yourself, exercise until you drop, and spend a fortune on erasing wrinkles and sagging skin, he still loses interest in you.”

There was a brief pause before Alice’s stepmother said in a bright voice, “Ladies, since we’re waiting for our salads, how about we discuss the list for the silent part of the auction? I was thinking—”

I was thinking about Irv,” said Nicole, and then glared around the table as if daring anyone else to brush away her rage for a second time. All the others, even Denise, glanced away, but Alice found herself staring back at this woman she hardly knew, finding an echo of her own possible future in that heavily made-up face.

“Tom’s daughter,” said Nicole, slowly.

Alice heard Denise hiss in a breath, but it was as if Nicole’s outburst had rendered everyone else speechless, and her words, ever so slightly slurred with the warmth of alcohol, continued unabated. “I remember you. Always so quiet. What happened to you? No, that doesn’t matter. Here’s the important thing: are you in love with someone?”

“Nicole—” said Denise, her tone losing its friendliness, and Alice realized that for all her stepmother’s warmth, she would side with Alice’s father in keeping their family safe from whispers and raised eyebrows. Magdalene was to be scrubbed away. Those entire five years were.

Alice knew her role to play: keep quiet and let others explain. She knew it and therefore was as surprised as anyone to hear herself respond, and worse, respond with the truth. “Yes. He’s wonderful.”

Such a foolish, vulnerable answer, but there was no hint of mockery in Nicole’s face. “Of course he is. And you want to keep him. Well, then, talk to him. Don’t lie, even if you think it’ll make you look perfect. Look at me. I did nothing but lie to keep mine smiling, and look at what I’ve become.”

“Nicole, honey, people are beginning to look,” murmured Rachel, quickly fluffing at her hair as if to make sure that at least she would look put-together beneath curious glances.

The other woman ignored her, gaze now dropping from Alice’s as she continued. “I didn’t like Guillaume. I didn’t even understand half of what he said! But I was so tired of being alone in that house day after day, year after year, not knowing how to talk to Irv about anything during the rare times he was home. I told so many lies about myself that I forgot what the truth even was.”

She slammed her wineglass down with that last word, and the stem shattered, spilling wine everywhere. Brianne, the nearest to her, yelped and jumped up to avoid the mess. Rachel and Denise both hissed words to Nicole, but the woman had broken with her glass, sobbing into the soiled tablecloth.

As her stepmother sighed and motioned at a waiter discreetly waiting nearby, Alice found herself reaching for Nicole’s hand. When her fingers wrapped around heavy rings and paper-thin skin, the other woman hiccuped and looked up, again.

“You always were a sweet little thing. Don’t end up like me. Go tell your wonderful man everything. Everything. You’ll never hurt him more than when you lie.”

At that point, Denise walked around the table and tried coaxing Nicole upright with a hand against either shoulder. “Come on, sweetheart. We’re all know you’re having a hard time. Let’s just schedule this meeting for another day.”

All the fight seemed to have left Nicole, and the woman stood without resistance, clumsily reaching for her purse. She alone seemed unaware of curious looks following her out, while the other women only pretended that they didn’t notice.

Alice drifted after them. Nicole’s words rang in her head like bells, stirring the part of her that still remembered the cool touch of moonlight on fur and the excitement of freshly-spilled blood, and she remained lost in thought until her stepmother called her over to the car.

As Denise began driving back to the house, she said, “I’m so sorry about that; I didn’t think she would completely fall apart.”

When Alice shrugged it off, her voice turned curious. “He’s wonderful?”

Alice already regretted having said that, but there was no taking it back. “I’ve been seeing someone for a few months. Quietly.”

Her stepmother didn’t seem to know what to say. “Is it serious?”

“I’m about to find out.” And with those words, fresh panic rippled through her, but so did something else: a new determination.

Her attempts at ignoring the strange things that had been happening to her, at pushing away her crippling fear of becoming like her mother… None of them had worked. Why was she even here? To put on a brave face and convince people she was all right? She wasn’t. Nicole’s words had lit a seething need within her, one that wouldn’t be satisfied until she found Colton and revealed everything. If she had driven him away, then he should know why it had really happened. And if she was going mad, then she could at least say how much she loved him before she finished the spiral down into a paranoid shell like her mother.

She left for home as soon as possible, impatience pushing her to drive faster than usual while she tried calling the sawmill, wanting to hear his voice, wanting to finally explain. Fear choked her when the man who took her call admitted that Colton had never shown up for his shift.

Tears blurred her eyes after she hung up, and she blinked rapidly, trying to clear her sight. Had he left for the forest? Well, she still wouldn’t give up, not now. She had to find him. She had to—

A form flashed in front of the car, a blur of movement more than an actual shape. Alice gasped, stomping on the brakes even as her mind scrambled to take in what was happening. Something in the road… God, she would kill it...

Even as she wrenched the wheel, the car swerved close enough to see the figure in full, feet now planted on the asphalt. She had only a heartbeat to take in that familiar, wicked smile before the metal railing loomed. Tires squealed, metal crunched, and Alice felt the sickening sensation of airlessness for one breathless moment. Then the world jolted around her and closed in.

Slowly, she grew aware of herself breathing, and of how the sun glittered through the fractured windshield like dew on spiderwebs. Footsteps crunched in the leaves, slow and steady as they drew near. When she whimpered, mouth refusing to shriek for help, someone leaned in through the driver’s window, heedless of the broken glass. Despite the crumpled metal all around, Alice managed to turn her head, blinking as blood dripped down her face.

Magdalene smiled, a cigarette hanging loosely from the hand that braced itself against the window frame. “You never could understand subtext, could you?”

More wetness trickled down Alice’s cheeks; she wasn’t sure if it was blood or tears.

In the brilliant light, Magdalene’s eyes looked amber. A dip of her head that left them in shadow, and they turned black. Just like when she had been alive. “It’s not that mangy fucking wolf I’m after. What I want, dear Alice, is you.”

Alice’s breath scraped against her throat as she choked out syllables. “But… Indigo?”

The smile faded from Magdalene’s face. “She’s been gone for years. You’re all I have, and I’m not leaving this world alone.”

Then her free hand reached for the broken glass of the window. Most of the pane had fractured into glittering chips, but one piece was big enough to hold like a razor blade, and its edge gleamed just as wickedly.

Alice still couldn’t move, but now a shriek flew out of her, terror driving it on as Magdalene angled the piece for her neck, smiling again.

Then a sound rose above her ragged voice. The rumbling of a truck slowing down. Magdalene recoiled, the piece of glass gleaming as it dropped from her hand. Even when she disappeared, as silent and sudden as a snuffed candle flame, Alice continued to scream, thrashing against the metal trapping her still.

A man slid down the muddy walls of the ditch, his words drowned out until her voice faded into wracking sobs that made her body flare in pain.

“You’ll be all right. Ma’am? You’ll be fine. I already called 9-1-1. Everything’s fine.”

“No,” she managed, but the word was too mangled by her hiccups of breath to be understood. Fine? It was all very far from being fine.

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