Chapter One - Continued!
Darkness surrounded her as she walked beneath the canopy of stars. She tucked her hands in the pockets of her hoody, as a soft breeze caressed the exposed skin of her legs below her shorts.
Only a few minutes from her house, Abby had opted to walk the block to Myer’s Community Park. As luck would have it, her mother was too preoccupied with her own grief to question her going to bed before ten on a Saturday night. Her father, busy with consoling her, never noticed when Abby snuck out of her room, down the stairs, and out the front door. They wouldn’t check on her. Abby had given them no reason to doubt her throughout the years.
Armed with her thoughts and her cell phone, she raced over the sidewalk, ignoring the seed of dread swelling in her chest. Pinpoints of light dotted the indigo sky, only partly visible above the streetlights below. A dog barked in the distance, echoing through the balmy evening air.
She turned off the main road to the entrance of the park. The empty pavilion stood off to her right, next to the small playground, while the mouth of the vacant baseball field stretched out into the distance, yawning before her.
Longing reached under her ribcage, tugging at her heart. Hot summer days spent whittling away the hours at the park with GG and her grandfather pulled at her thoughts. They used to take her there during the week while her parents worked. Hours spent climbing the monkey bars, bouncing on the see-saw, pumping her legs on the swing, and spinning on the merry-go-round until she was dizzy formed a kaleidoscope of memories.
The clean scent of rain lingered in the damp night air. Goosebumps rose on her arms, as she hugged herself, trying to ward off a chill.
She walked past the slides, her feet sinking in the rubber mulch. When she reached the swings, she spun in a circle, surveying her surroundings for a sign she was not alone and found none. Taking a seat, she continued to eye the landscape. Nothing out of the ordinary popped out at her. The canopy of trees surrounding the small park loomed ominously in the dark. Their leaves rustled in the soft breeze, a soothing sound, if not for her mounting nerves.
She rubbed her arms, trying not to think of all the ways this could end poorly, most of them resulting in her lifeless body lying in the woods.
Closing her eyes, she inhaled a calming breath, trying to stifle the feeling of being watched.
Bright side, she thought. Look at the bright side.
This was exciting. It was taking her mind off of GG and how much she missed her…
The clinking of bottles pierced the quiet, and her eyes popped open. In her heightened state, her stomach rolled as her pulse raced.
A twig snapped, causing her to jump. Her heart lurched as she turned toward the sound behind her.
A figure loomed, tall and thin, in the inky darkness.
Standing, her legs trembled under her weight. A lock of dark hair blew in her eyes, obscuring her vision. “Hello?”
The figure lifted something large in front of their body. She couldn’t make out the shape, but the clinking continued, so she pushed her shoulders back, bracing herself, and calling louder. “Hello?”
The shadow froze, and she felt, rather than saw, the figure’s gaze on her.
Her mouth turned to sawdust as she took a step forward, wondering if this was some kind of trap but reminding herself to be brave. Despite her self-assurance, nothing could quell her tangled nerves. Not even the knowledge her grandmother would never put her in harm’s way. Because GG wasn’t there. She was dead.
She swallowed hard, her throat raw, as the figure stepped forward until the light of the moon illuminated the face. Abby made out the square jawline, the large eyes blinking at her in the night, set deep in a handsome face.
“The park’s closed. You shouldn’t be here.”
The baritone of his soft voice reverberated through her chest.
“Neither should you.”
He stepped closer until his features became clearer and recognition flickered through her head. “Do I know you?”
The boy squinted, then nodded. “We go to school together. I’m Kaden Oliver. You’re Abigail, right? We have chem and calculus together.”
Abby didn’t move as she stared at him with narrowed eyes. Was that the only place she knew him from?
“Why are you here?” For the first time, her eyes shifted to the large object she had seen in the dark. A garbage bag—the source of the clinking.
She relaxed her shoulders, the tension draining from her muscles and leaving behind an exhausting combination of relief and fatigue.
“Um, I collect the trash at the park. It’s sort of a side job, but I couldn’t get down here this morning, so…” He shrugged. “I heard about your grandma. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“How’d you hear about that?”
“You weren’t in class, and the teachers told us—”
“Why do people always say that?”
“Say what?” he asked.
“Why do people always say they’re sorry for someone’s loss when they die? I mean, you didn’t know her, right? So, what do you have to be sorry about? And if you did know her, then you may as well be saying sorry to yourself, which is just…weird.”
He shifted on his feet, one hand gripping the giant trash bag while the other hung uselessly at his side. He blinked his big, round eyes, and Abby found herself wondering what color they were. She couldn’t tell in the dark.
“Um…I think it’s just supposed to mean that you’re sorry someone is sad. Like, sorry for your loss. No one wants to go through this. Someone dying sucks. We’ve all been there. What else is there to say?”
“True.” She glanced away from him, back toward the entrance of the park and the still-empty lot. “So, the trash is the only reason you’re here?” she asked, though she couldn’t imagine he had anything to give her.
“Yeah.” He drug the word out like she was slow.
With a sigh, she turned back toward the swings. His company eased the edge of fear coating the back of her throat and took her mind off her reasons for being there in the first place, but standing there talking to him was pointless. Abby had come for a reason, and she needed to find out what that reason was.
“Hey, I can give you a ride home if you want.” She paused, turning her head, as he added, “You live close by, and I’m only a few minutes from here.”
She narrowed her eyes. “How do you know where I live?”
“Um, I don’t know. I just do, I guess.” He shrugged. “You want a ride?”
“No. I’m good.”
“Well, the park’s closed.”
Abby sighed and spun around. Her mouth pinched into a tight line of annoyance as she glared at him. “I know. You’ve already mentioned that. But I’m supposed to be meeting someone here, so if you’d finish collecting your trash and run along, I could get this over with and be on my way.”
“Who are you meeting?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you always this nosy?”
“It just seems weird.”
“It’s not that weird. I’m eighteen. Teenagers break the rules all the time. Maybe I’m meeting a boy here.”
“Is that any of your business?” When he continued to stare, saying nothing, she added, “Technically, you’re breaking the rules, too.”
“Yes, but I work here, so it’s more like I’m bending them, not breaking them.”
“Are you always this incorrigible?”
Abby eyed him one last time before turning her attention back to the darkness and the empty parking lot. This conversation was ridiculous.
Next to her, he rocked back on his heels and began whistling the theme song for Jaws while she struggled to ignore him.
Unable to take it any longer, she turned to him again, crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you have to do that? And why are you still here?”
“It seemed apt, considering the situation. You’re a girl, waiting by yourself in a park at night. Seems unsafe. Do you want me to wait with you?”
“Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. Cuz I’m a nice guy, and we go to school together, so you can trust me.” He stepped closer, and his sandy mop of hair fell in his eyes as he closed the gap.
Brown. His eyes were definitely brown.
She stared up at him, to the soft lines of his face. There was nothing disingenuous in the way he looked at her, but she couldn’t have someone with her when… Well, she didn’t know what. She only knew this was important, and she couldn’t screw it up. Whatever the purpose of this meeting, she had a feeling it didn’t entail involving other people.
“That doesn’t mean I can trust you. Besides, I’ll be fine. If they don’t show soon, I’m leaving.”
Kaden’s gaze locked on hers, and she could tell he was trying to decide whether or not he believed her. She must’ve convinced him because he hefted the bag of trash over his shoulder like Santa Claus. “Well, have a good night, Abby.”
He turned to leave, and for a moment, Abby wanted to race after him and ask him to stay. Maybe she did need someone there. Maybe she did need protecting. She had no idea, but she stood, feet planted and mulish in the spongy rubber.
As he headed over the hill and faded into the distance, she turned back toward the opening of the park.
Movement caught her eye.
A car parked.
She watched from a distance, squinting into the darkness. The hair rose on the back of her neck as a door opened and a small person stepped out. They didn’t bother to close the door. Instead, they moved in front of it and stood, staring into the depths of the park—staring right toward Abby, like they knew where she’d be all along.
Seconds passed as a knowing feeling washed over her. Her goosebumps from earlier returned. Shifting her gaze toward the hill where Kaden disappeared, she wondered if it was too late to run after him. Tell him she changed her mind. That he was right. She shouldn’t be there—alone—standing in the dark, waiting for a stranger.
But before she could do any such thing, GG’s letter flashed in her mind, and her feet moved on their own accord. Mulch turned to grass as she made her way across the playground toward the parking lot, her heart in her throat.
As she approached, the person became clearer, and she took in the sight of the old man. He hobbled a step closer. A thick wave of salt and pepper hair covered his head. Eyes, dark as onyx, never wavered from her face.
A shiver crept up her spine as he closed the distance between them, a gnarled cane in one hand and something small and dark in the other. The wind whipped her hair in her face and her eyes. Brushing away her dark locks, she tucked them behind her ears and waited, unsure of whether she had the courage to close the gap even if she wanted to. Planting her feet, it took all her energy to stand in place and not bolt in the other direction.
He drew closer, then paused in front of her—so close she could smell the tobacco on his breath. Wrinkles marred his olive complexion. Though he smiled, there was no relief in the gesture, and when he reached a hand out to her, he offered her the dark object.
Her eyes moved to his bony grip, taking in what appeared to be a leather-bound book.
“Abigail Bridges?” He rasped.
Her gaze darted back to his face. The acknowledgment shouldn’t have surprised her. Still, her eyes widened, and unable to speak, she nodded.
“I have something for you,” he said, his voice harsh like the sound of crunching gravel.
He extended the trembling hand and offered her the book. Though she hesitated, she eventually reached out. With sweat-dampened palms, she took the offering, noting the velvet-smooth feel of the cover, the crooked spine, and the worn edges peeking out from underneath it like years of wear had caused the pages to come loose. The book looked like it had lived a million lives.
She searched his dark eyes, unsettled by what she saw in them—sadness and pain like she had never seen before—and the weight of responsibility pressed down on her as she realized the burden of her grandmother’s dying wish was squarely on her shoulders.
Part of her wanted to give the book back, to drop it, and run while a part of her wanted to shake this man until his bones clacked and he gave her answers.
“What is it?” she asked.
Not for the first time, Abby wasn’t sure she wanted to be a part of this—unraveling the truth of her family secret. Not if creepy old men with canes, carrying gifts, were involved. Not if it had the power to turn her life upside down as GG had hinted.
She found her voice. “How did you know my grandmother?”
“That doesn’t matter now.” He raised a trembling, liver-spotted hand. The veins bulged from his skin like blue spaghetti. “Just one thing. You must only read it in private. No one can know you have this.” His voice shook with conviction. “No one.”
Abigail inhaled a shaky breath, caressing the book with her fingers. Glancing around her, she scanned the horizon for any sign of Kaden. Had he seen them?
Once she confirmed the empty playground, the stars in the sky, and the wind in the trees were the only things to witness their exchange, she turned back to see the old man had returned to his car. “Wait!”
She stepped forward, motioning for him to stop, but he ignored her. She couldn’t let him leave. Not yet.
She lunged forward, as the car’s engine roared to life. With one final bone-chilling glance at her, he backed out of the lot and left.
Clenching the book tighter in her grip, she watched him drive away. Adrenaline surged in her veins, and her limbs quaked. Her breath came in ragged puffs. Swallowing, she hugged the book close and headed out of the gravel lot, toward the path home.
Whatever was inside this book must be important, yet she had more questions than answers as she pumped her legs in a half-walk, half-jog as fast as her feet could carry her. She wanted nothing more than the safety of home. Part of her wished she had never left it. Part of her wanted all this to go away, while the other part of her clung to this gift GG had given her. Because as long as she was getting letters from the grave, it was like she wasn’t gone, and Abby didn’t have to think about it. She didn’t have to mull over the notion they’d never speak again or how she was never coming back.
As long as she had this shared secret—whatever it was—Abby could pretend.