Ten years ago…
It’s dark. Like when I hide under my bed and can’t see my hand in front of my face. But I’m not under my bed now.
Cold seeps into my body. My head rings; static blares in my ears.
I blacked out again, but this is different. Everything about this feels different.
There’s shuffling… some kind of panic in the air. My heart pounds and with the rapid blood flow brings a sharp stabbing pain that explodes in my neck. I try to open my eyes, push at the dark and reach for light, but a sticky coating covers my face. I suck in a breath, cough against the thick sludge that clogs my nose and throat. The metallic tang of blood turns my gut. I retch, hacking up something thick, and agony slices through my jaw.
“Oh fuck!” A deep masculine voice rips through my panic. “This one’s alive!”
I try again to open my eyes.
“We need an EMT!”
I need to get up, find somewhere to hide. Mom always gets angry after one of my blackouts and with the pain…oh God the pain…I can’t take one of her punishments.
My arms ache but I force them to my eyes to clear the dark haze that clouds my vision. Weight presses against my shoulder, keeping me down. No, I have to get out of here.
“Don’t move.” The voice, I try to place it. A neighbor? I don’t know who else—“ETA on the ambulance! This kid’s gonna bleed out!”
“What…” My voice makes no sound, only a low gurgle within my chest. I try to push up, reach out. Help me! Shadows dance behind my eyes.
“God have mercy—we’re gonna lose him!”
“Stay down!” A male voice is close. “Oh shit…don’t move!”
I slip in and out. Voices frantic but muted in my ears.
“Neighbors said he’s fifteen…”
“Help…” I cough and reach for the fire blazing in my jaw.
A firm grip wraps my neck. I struggle against it as it cuts off what little breath I’m able to take. “Hang on, son.” It loosens and I suck in a gulp of blessed air mixed with fluid that makes me cough.
“He’s gonna drown in his own blood if we don’t get him—”
“Son, can you hear us?”
I nod as best I can, reaching for the light. Don’t black out. Don’t give up.
“Did you do this, boy?” The thick growl of a different man sounds in the distance. His voice deeper.
I’m in so much trouble. I want to tell him I don’t remember. I have a condition. Lapses in memory. But I can’t get the words to make it to my mouth.
“They’re all dead.”
My heart kicks behind my ribs.
Dead? Who’s dead?
Dizziness washes over me and I don’t fight it. Nausea rips through my gut. The thick tang of vomit mixed with blood floods my mouth. I suck air, fight through the mud for oxygen. My lungs burn. I absorb the words and pray for a blackout to come. The dark that takes away all the pain, the shadow that tucks me in and shelters me.
The pounding pulse in my neck slows to a dull throb. The static between my ears turns to a purr. Warmth envelopes me.
“Son of a bitch.” More shuffling. “He’s our only witness.”
Words blur as I drift in and out of darkness. Not like the blackouts, but something different. Deeper. As if sleep pulls me, then releases me like a yo-yo.
“Dammit! We’re gonna lose him.”
The pain dies off. Peacefulness wraps around me. I drift back into night and welcome the dark I know will protect me.
There isn’t a single moment in life that compares to this one. Eh…I suppose if one day I meet the right guy who doesn’t mind playing second to my career goals, maybe a wedding would compare. Or not. I mean, weddings mean family and family means ripping open old wounds, and, well, that idea alone makes me want to vomit all over my knock-off Jimmy Choos.
No, I was right the first time. This moment is a game changer. It’s hit or miss, no room for second place. Five years in college, working my ass off and pulling in more student loans than I’ll be able to pay back in four lifetimes all teeters on thirty seconds of live newsfeed.
I shift restlessly in my seat, squinting back and forth between my phone and the dark road through the windshield. “Should be right up here, less than a mile.”
“Know that. Got the same address you did.” He turns left into a residential area, a decent part of town, middle- to lower-class neighborhood. “Besides, the place will be crawling with police. There’s no way we’ll miss it.”
I turn toward him and grin. “Police, but we’ll be the first and only news van.” I’m downright giddy! “This has to be perfect. We can’t afford to fuck this up.”
He grunts and I glare, annoyed by his nonchalance.
“I’m serious, Leaf. Make sure you get the right angle. I need this to be perfect. If the camera hits me funky, I look like a Cabbage Patch doll.” I smooth my skirt and blouse, wishing the outfit brought me more confidence, but instead I feel like one of those assassin bugs that wears the corpses of other bugs as armor. Not what I’m most comfortable in but at least I look enough the part to be taken seriously.
Fake it till you make it, Shyann.
“I got just as much riding on this as you do.” His voice is more animated than his usual lazy hippie drawl. He eyeballs me for a second. “Sure you’re ready for this?”
I swallow my nerves. “Of course I am. I was born ready for this.” My toes curl up, already cramping in my Timmy Shoos. Not sure they were even worth the eighteen bucks I paid for them.
“Good to hear, ’cause”—he squints at a grouping of emergency vehicles in front of a single-level home and slows to a stop—“it’s go time.”
I lean forward to gaze out the front window. An officer glares at our news van. Typical. An ambulance sits in the driveway, and the back doors are open and the cavity inside is empty. “They haven’t brought her out yet?”
“Shit! Let’s hurry!” Leaf scrambles between the seats into the back to grab his equipment.
“Do you have any idea what this means?” I pull the mirror down and frantically swipe on some lipstick. “It only happened, what, like—”
“Fourteen minutes ago.” The van door slides open with a loud whoosh.
I was at the station the second the call came over the police scanner. Code 240. Aggravated assault. Female. Unconscious, strangulation, no sign of forced entry.
After a string of serial assaults on women in Phoenix, less than 150 miles from the mountain town of Flagstaff, the similarities of this assault were too unique to ignore. Assault on women wasn’t unusual, but whoever was committing them over the last few months wasn’t sexually assaulting his victims. They were, as the Phoenix police had announced, “unusual in nature.” And now we had one in our town.
It’s a long shot, but it’s a shot worth taking.
Reporters from Phoenix won’t be here until morning. If this is what I think it is, we’ll be picked up live for the nine o’clock news. Only a few months out of school and I’ll be live in a top-ranking—number eleven to be exact—media market newscast.
Hopping from the van, heart pounding in my chest, I circle the front to find Leaf lining up a good shot. Butterflies explode in my gut as I shrug on my Burberry raincoat. The tag says Blurrberry and the signature plaid pattern is off by a black stripe or two, but a chance at national exposure calls for my very best fake designer clothes.
“This is it.” I pop in my earpiece and check the time. “Nine o’clock news starts in ten minutes. We have to be ready.”
Leaf mumbles something I ignore and I start planning my intro.
“Ladies and gentlemen…” I clear my throat and lower my voice. “The scene before us…” No, more emotion. That’s the key to this job, being completely emotionless, but infusing enough fake emotion so the viewers relate. Only the best broadcasters can do it, and I’m determined to be one of the best. “Big city terror ravages the town of Flagstaff, as what is speculated to be the eighth victim in a serial assault on women—”
“Shyann, you there?”
I adjust my earpiece at the sound of my producer Trevor’s voice, then speak into my mic. “We’re here.”
“Leaf, move left. If they bring out the woman on a stretcher, we’ll get a perfect view.” I shuffle into position. “There, perfect. We don’t have time to interview neighbors, but we’ll do the live feed and then you two get some faces on video. Tears, fear, all the shit that makes a good story.” He clears his throat. “Shyann, straighten your coat. You look like you just rolled out of bed in it.”
I glare at the camera and at the sound of Trevor’s chuckle, then roll my eyes.
“No smart-ass retort, honey? I’m shocked.”
My body heats with embarrassment and anger, which is kind of nice, seeing as we’re headed into the autumn months and my cheesy coat is doing very little to fight off the evening chill.
Trevor, my semi-boyfriend, loves humiliating me on-screen. He swears it keeps me humble. Says I’m hungrier than most, driven beyond what’s healthy. He also says I’m ruthless and have the emotional capacity of a gnat. Maybe he’s right, but I refuse to see my striving for success as a negative thing.
“Wake up, Shyann!” Trevor’s voice powers through my earpiece.
“I’m awake, asshole.” I press it and dip my chin to listen, not wanting to miss a single word of direction.
“There’s my girl.”
He’s not a bad guy; matter of fact, he’s a lot like me—motivated to do something big in order to make a name for himself. He’s ambitious and detached from petty things that get in the way of success. Now that I think about it, that’s where our similarities end. “How much time until we’re live?”
“We’re opening with your story. Tell us the basics, then stand by. We’ll do the local news but pop in as developments unravel.” He clears his throat and mumbles something to someone in the studio. “Be ready in five.”
I flash five fingers and then roll one to Leaf and he nods. “In five. We’re ready.”
“All right, Leaf’s feed, looks like he’s got a good visual of the police and the front door. If we can get them bringing the body bag out, that’s our money shot.”
“Body bag? The victims in Phoenix all survived the assaults.”
“I guess she could be alive, but if so, why are they taking so long to get her to the hospital? Either way, the shot’ll be epic if we get it.”
A fissure of discomfort slithers through my chest at the casual way we deal with death in the news. Sure, on-screen we’re the caring and empathetic news reporter, but inside we’re rejoicing to get a shot of a dead body? No, I push all that shit back and focus.
“Let’s do this— Whoa!” The heel of my shoe sinks into the ground. I flap my arms for balance and barely recover. The earth is mushier than usual after a couple days of rain, and even though this is one of the more developed neighborhoods in Flag, it’s still a city in the mountains, which means lots of natural ground.
“You better be all right. We’re on in three.”
Thanks for the concern, dick. “I’m good.” I put on a mask of professionalism while my skin practically vibrates with nervous energy.
I take my position, smooth my hair, and focus on my words.
If all goes well, I’ll get out of this hole-in-hell town and into a bigger market, which is one step closer to anchor. No one just out of college gets this kind of an opportunity. My professors always encouraged me to go for an anchor job, my half–Native American blood making me look just dark enough to be considered a minority but light enough to be desirable. It’s total bullshit, but I don’t make the rules. Can’t hate a girl for taking advantage, though. I have very specific career goals, and if using my ethnicity helps me to get there, so be it.
My momma always said I was meant for big things. I can still hear her voice in my head: “You’re too big for this world, Shyann.” Said I came out of the womb with goals and never stopped reaching for them. My chest cramps at the pride my momma would feel if she were alive today. She always pushed me to chase my dreams. God, I hope she can see me now.
“We’re on in five…four…”
I straighten my coat and look directly into the camera as Trevor counts down in my ear.
This is for you, Momma.
“Terror struck this quaint Flagstaff neighborhood as big-city crime moves north. After several assaults on women in Phoenix, all with identical trademarks, police have now moved their investigation to neighboring cities as another victim surfaces. The name of this most recent victim hasn’t been released, but her age, socioeconomic profile, and details of the crime fit other victims of who Phoenix police are now calling the Shadow. All the assaults were committed in the evening hours, with no witnesses, and the perpetrator is masked and wears gloves, leaving no forensic evidence behind. The call to this house behind me came in shortly after eight p.m. when the woman who lives here was found bloodied and unconscious—”
“There’s movement in the doorway,” Trevor says.
“…after a frantic nine-one-one call.”
“No! Let me go!” A young girl, a teenager, is practically carried out of the house by an officer. Leaf swings the camera to her. She’s curled into the chest of an older policeman, her shoulders bouncing as she sobs.
“Shyann!” Trevor’s voice booms through my earpiece, making me jump. “Keep talking. Leaf, get us a visual on the girl.”
“Oh, uh, it seems a…” The girl’s face twists in agony and I swallow past the thickness in my throat. “A girl who—”
“Mom, no… please, Mom!” Her guttural shriek pierces the air.
Another fissure slices through my chest and old feelings threaten to bubble to the surface.
Emotionless. Stay distant, Shyann.
“Seems to be the victim’s daughter—”
“Let me see her,” the girl pleads with police. “Oh, God, please…”
The girl’s anguish reaches through my chest and squeezes my heart. My throat grows tight. The backs of EMTs shuffle out the door as they carry a stretcher.
I ignore the girl as best I can and try to trudge on. “It seems…um…they’re—”
“No!” The girl throws her body onto the stretcher and it’s then I notice the woman on it is covered in a white sheet. Completely covered. Even her face.
Oh, God. She’s dead.
Trevor’s voice growls in my ear. “She’s dead! Get the shot!”
My stomach churns.
I nod. “It seems tragedy has taken a turn…um…for the…”
The young girl launches herself at the body again. The police hold her back while she kicks and screams for her mother.
My breath catches as memories flood my mind. I was just like her. Losing control of my body, kicking and wanting to inflict the kind of pain I was feeling. The heart-pumping panic, sudden coldness that blankets overheated skin causing uncontrollable shivers. And the terror, all of it shoots through me now like it did when I lost my momma.
“Shyann! Talk to her!” The levity in Trevor’s voice ignites my blood, replacing my frigid panic. “This is fucking gold.”
Leaf moves to get a better view and jerks his wide eyes for me get into the
shot. I turn back, studying the girl, remembering the confusion, the heartbreak, the all-consuming unfairness.
“Please don’t die…” Her anger turns to sobs of devastation so palpable they shake my foundation.
I take a wobbly step forward.
“Don’t be dead…”
“I swear to God, Shyann, if you don’t get in there and grab this story…this is our ticket. You hear me, dammit? Get your ass in there!”
I open my mouth to speak, Trevor’s demand in my ear pushing my lips to move, but there are no words.
Everything becomes irrelevant. My stupid fucking clothes, dreams of becoming an anchor for a national broadcast, all if it pales in the light of this girl’s recognizable anguish. Her cries rip through my unaffected façade and reach into my soul. It slices through vital organs and dives into the recesses where I’ve locked away my hate. Anger. Cruelty that a child would have to suffer through the loss of the single person in this world that ever understood her.
Trevor growls in my ear. “Shya—”
“I can’t.” The words come out with the force brought on by years of suppression.
“You can’t? We’re live! Talk!”
Leaf’s free hand rolls frantically through the air, his camera lens zeroing in like a weapon ready to cause mass destruction.
My head moves on my shoulders, conveying the one word that won’t leave my lips. No.
“Fuck it, she’s done!” Trevor’s voice shakes with fury. “Leaf, get in there now!”
Leaf moves before Trevor’s even done talking and shoves the camera lens into the girl’s face.
“No!” An impulse to shield her compels me forward. “Leave her alone.” I stumble over loose rocks, but it’s not enough to stop me. “Cut the feed!”
“Back off, Shyann! You’re—”
I tear out my earpiece and throw my body between the girl and the camera lens.
Leaf gasps, “What the fu—”
“Leave her alone!” I grab the camera and slam it into Leaf’s face so hard it sends him to his ass.
The firm clunk of the news camera rings in my ears and blood spills from just under Leaf’s eyebrow, signaling me to a single truth.
My short career in broadcast news has come to an end.
Five years fit into a few boxes now packed in the bed of my Ford Ranger. I never thought much about my lack of belongings. Makes sense I guess. If it wasn’t something I could wear or something I was studying, I had no use for it. The last five years of my life have consisted of meeting my basic needs—shelter, sleep, sustenance—and chasing after my career goals. Anything to keep from being forced back to the town I was raised in.
I had big plans when I left home. College, work, and get as far away from Payson as I could. Now here I am, a few months past graduation, and I made it ninety-four miles.
I was looking forward to bouncing around from small market to small market, going from one furnished studio apartment to the other, ready to pack up and go when a job opportunity called. If it called. Which after last week’s incident it probably never will.
“You sure you’re okay to drive home alone?” Trevor’s leaning against my truck, a coffee in one hand and wearing his stupid fucking aviator glasses that make him look nothing like Maverick. His styled dirty-blond hair doesn’t budge in the wind and his pale skin screams of a man who spends most of his days inside and behind a desk.
Maybe it’s growing up in a small town, or the closest men in my life being the build-it-yourself, hunt, and drink beer type, but his pleated golf shorts and lavender collared shirt tucked in like a good little preppy doesn’t make me weak in the knees. He’s handsome, gets plenty attention from women, but all he’s ever been for me is comfortable. He doesn’t bring out my inner sex goddess, nor does he completely repulse me.
“You sure you care?” I slam the tailgate shut a little harder than I need to.
He sighs. Loud. “Honey…”
I cringe inwardly at that ridiculous pet name.
“I do care, but you knew this would happen.”
Not even an ounce of sympathy, not that he’d understand why I did what I did. Trevor’s one of those robotic guys, prides himself in having zero emotions and preaches the importance of keeping all relationships, business or otherwise, feelings-free. It’s one of the things I dig about him—I mean, until now.
“This was your chance, Shyann. You blew it.” He laughs, but it’s more of a shocked I-can’t-believe-how-stupid-you-are chuckle. “You gave Leaf an orbital fracture. You fucked this up for all of us.”
“Thanks for the recap, Trevor.” I split my ponytail and pull it tight.
“You can’t expect to keep your job after that. You know better.”
“Just like a bad little puppy, you’re gonna rub my nose in it. I appreciate that.” As if I don’t already feel like shit. It’s not like I did it on purpose; it just happened.
Truth is, I’ve always had a horrible temper. I’ve managed to keep it under control; being away from my childhood home and the small town I grew up in made it easy. I distanced myself from everything that made me feel, until the newscast heard ’round the world. For me, there was no holding back.
He hooks me by the waist and pulls me into a one-arm hug, pressing our hips together. “Aw, don’t leave mad.” He kisses me and the smell of coffee on his breath mixed with his overly sweet cologne turns my stomach. “I wish you didn’t have to go back to that hick town.”
“It’s not a hick t-town. It’s a quaint m-mountain community.”
His eyes narrow. “You’re stuttering. You always stutter when you lie.”
“Whatever.” I press my hand against his chest to get some distance, and a small fire burns in my gut. “Besides, it’s only temporary until I figure out what my next move is.”
Trevor’s the one who got me the job at FBS. Job is a bit of an exaggeration, seeing as I only made enough money to pay for the necessities. Now I’ve got sixty-eight dollars in my account and my rent was past due until Trevor paid the six hundred dollars so I could get out of my lease. I’d feel bad for taking his money, but my only other option was asking my dad. Trevor was the lesser of two pride-squashing evils, and Lord knows I have little dignity left to spare.
He releases me and opens the truck door. “Drive safely and call me when you get there.” There’s a tiny hint of the man I remember meeting in my comm classes back when we had mutual respect for each other and our career goals. “Let me know what you decide.”
“Will do.” I slide into the driver’s seat and strap on my seat belt. “And…uh…I’ll send you a check as soon as I get some money.”
He shuts the door and leans down to poke his head through the open window. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you somewhere to stay while you figure all this out. It’s just—”
“Are we really doing this? Don’t act like you give a flying fuck where I end up, Trevor.”
Disapproval twists his mouth. “That mouth’ll keep getting you into trouble if you’re not careful, honey.”
I fight the urge to shove my finger down my throat. “I like my mouth. It’s honest.”
His lips brush across my cheekbone. “Get your shit together, then bring your dirty mouth back to me. I’ll see if there’s any job openings in town. Maybe the coffee shop’s hiring.” There’s a hint of humor in his voice.
“You’re an asshole.” How I ever ended up naked with him is a mystery. I mean, if lots and lots of tequila can be considered a mystery. After that it just seemed like an easy way to scratch an itch.
“You love me.”
I stare at him for a few seconds, realizing that I don’t love him. I care about him as much as a person who cares about nothing can, but that’s the extent. We established the ground rules from the beginning—no attachments, our careers come first, don’t get in each other’s way.
“I’ll be in touch.” I avoid his eyes and step on the gas, forcing him to step back from the truck. I don’t even look in the rearview mirror as I pull away.
I hit the road, grateful for the one thing my dad gave me besides my blue eyes that earned me my middle name—my truck. It’s small, only two seats, but it has four-wheel-drive and even though it’s the color of baby shit—the dealership calls it champagne—it’s been the most reliable thing in my life.
The highway stretches out before me, and talk radio blares static through my speakers. I punch off the obnoxious noise and force myself to sit in my own silence.
Stupid, stupid, Shyann.
Five years of college for what? I worked my butt off to get where I was, got handed the opportunity that would catapult my career, and killed my chances in a few seconds of live newsfeed. Now there isn’t a broadcast company in this country that will touch me. And I’m broke.
I know better than to let my personal feelings interfere with my work. As much as I regret what I did to end my short career, I can’t say I’d do anything differently. There’s no way I could exploit that young girl’s suffering.
The girl’s mother had a heart defect and the severe beating put too much stress on her heart and killed her. Not a painless death, I’m sure, but at least it was quick.
Unlike my momma’s.
No, she had to suffer for over two years, her body giving up at an agonizing pace, leaving her mind for last so she’d be completely aware of how she was dying. The memories slice through my mind’s eye, my dad holding her limp body, roaring his anger at God.
It was sitting in that cold church, watching every person in our town filter past me with words they hoped would ease my pain. That was when I decided I’d get out of Payson the second I graduated and never go back. I was angry, starving for a fight. Desperate to have my dad back rather than the empty man with the dead eyes who she left us with. He hated that I was leaving, never understood my need to run, to do all the things I promised my momma I’d do. We fought. Hard. Unforgivable words were exchanged, and we haven’t managed to patch our relationship since.
Now I’m crawling back to beg for mercy, the prodigal child, broke, jobless, and with debt hanging off me like dead weight. If there’s one thing I know for sure, Nash Jennings will never let me live this down.
He might be a proud man, but I’m just as proud. I’ll need time to save money, figure out my options, and the second I do I’m out of there. Yeah, this is my best option.
I’m meant for big things. This is simply a speed bump.