TUESDAY OCTOBER 4, 2005

07:47 GMT-3

MAZ MOREAU

SEVEN TREES FARM | MERIDIA FALLS

I give my hair one last blast with the hairdryer; that will have to do. My bedroom is so warm and relaxing now, I can’t stop the yawn from erupting from my mouth. My jaw opens so wide, I fear it will dislocate. Even a cold shower didn’t wake me up. What the hell is wrong with me? I didn’t get home too late last night, did I?

Memories of that freaky magic door, the vault, and poor Mr. Randall swarm through my mind, like the ticks that forever attack this godforsaken town. Last night must have taken more out of me than I thought. I must have crashed as soon as I got to my room. My clothes lie in a crumpled pile on my dresser where I threw them after I woke this morning. Good job Mom doesn’t check on me anymore. The last time I slept in my day clothes, she had a bitch fit. But since dropping out of the pageant brigade, she dropped me like a lead weight.

I glance at my phone. Still no message from Steve. Maybe he ran a mile after last night. I wouldn’t blame him. Flipping open my phone, my finger hovers over Steve’s speed dial. No, wait! Don’t chase. He said he would call. I close my phone. Decision made.

I reach for my boots. They’re tucked under the dresser chair. I close my eyes, trying to remember how I actually got into bed last night; I can just remember falling onto it. I must have had at least seven hours sleep. So why in the hell do I feel so freakin’ tired?

I fight off another yawn and slide my feet into my boots. Something orangey-brown drops off the sole onto the shiny floorboards. It’s just mud — a weird colored mud. I pull them off and turn them over. A rim of orange mud runs around the bottom — they were clean before I set off last night. Must have been the forest or the chapel. I pull off a piece of the mud and rub it between my fingers. It crumbles like soft chalk.

Shit! There’s more dried mud on the floor. A line of orangey-brown footprints leads to my bed from the door, which means I left a trail through the house when I got home. Isaac’s gonna rip me a new one.

I jump off my bed and push open the bathroom door. Turning the faucet, I rinse off the mud. Orangey-brown streaks wash down the white enamel sink like tiny muddy streams.

Dashing back through the door, I stop at my dresser. My tired face stares back from the mirror — dark shadows hang under my eyes like storm clouds. I can’t face makeup right now. I need some coffee first. And lots of it.

Shaking my head at my reflection, I grab my other shoes from the closet. James Dean stares back at me from the poster on the back of the door. Moody and gorgeous as ever.

I close my eyes and kneel, clasping my hands together. “Please give me the strength to get through breakfast.” I stand and blow a kiss to James before closing the closet door, returning my secret savior to his sanctuary. If Candy every caught me doing that, she would launch that news around the town faster than she drives my Porsche on an empty road… My car. Memories of Mom taking the keys bang around in my head.

I knock on the closet door. “Remember I said strength, James.”

Coffee. My body yearns for a quick morning coffee fix. I grab my still-no-message-from-Steve phone from the bed and head downstairs.

I stop on the stairs and lift my right boot. The white carpet runner on the stairs is clean, pure white. That’s so weird. I glance back at my bedroom door. Where are the muddy footprints? They’ve been cleaned. Mom probably wouldn’t give a damn, but Isaac the Bastard will be on the warpath. Memories of his snarled words echo through my mind: “Don’t disrespect my generosity, little lady. I married your mother, not you.” My cheek stings at the memory of the back of the hand. I can’t breathe; my chest tightens as more of his venom spits through my thoughts. “I can put you back in the gutter… Just like I did with your dad.”

James Dean charges into my mind, vanquishing my evil stepdad. I stamp my foot down on the carpet. “Thank you, James,” I whisper, as I jump down the last couple of steps.

I head down the long hallway to the kitchen. The sound of the morning news on the TV blasts out of the open door.

“Yes, Mrs. Steele, I won’t forget.” Carmen, Mom’s housekeeper and cook, walks out of the kitchen. She straightens her long red coat and shakes her head. Pressing both hands to her chest, she flips her middle fingers, aiming the unseen gesture at my Mom. Caught in the moment, Carmen doesn’t notice me standing at the end of the hallway. A huge smile spreads across my face.

She finally notices and runs down to me. “I’m glad I caught you, Bonita,” she says, taking my arm and leading me into the dining room. “When I got here this morning, there was a trail of muddy footprints leading from the front door, right up to your room.”

“Shit!”

“Don’t worry. I cleaned it up before anyone could see.” She smiles, reaching out her soft hand to my face. “Be careful next time. You know what Mr. Steele is like.”

“Thank you, Carmen. You saved my life.”

She pulls on her dark brown wooly hat, and the smile fades from her face. “You have the same spirit as my Elena.”

I resist the urge to ask about her daughter. The last time I did, she broke down in tears — and Mom walked in on us. She turned up her bitch level to ten and threatened to sack poor Carmen.

Sensing my thoughts, Carmen smiles again. “Don’t worry, Bonita. I’ll be fine.” She gently strokes my cheek. “You look so tired.”

“I know,” I say. “I just can’t seem to catch a good night’s sleep.”

Carmen’s eyes open wide, and she nods her head. I spin around. Candy stands in the dining room doorway, hands on hips, posing like a model. She narrows her eyes and then turns in an exaggerated swing; her pink highlighted hair whips across her neck as she storms to the kitchen.

“Right, wish me luck,” I whisper.

Carmen smiles. “Have a nice day, Bonita.” She pulls her coat tight and then makes her way through the dining room, almost running to the front door. I’m not the only one always looking for a quick escape.

Coffee! I head into the kitchen for my coffee fix, relieved that Isaac the Bastard isn’t waiting for me. Instead, he’s stood at the counter, his white shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow. He leans forward, engrossed in the morning news on the TV.

Ignoring him, I walk past the kitchen table to the opposite counter and pull a jar of instant coffee from the cupboard.

“Carmen made a fresh pot of coffee,” Mom says, without looking up from her magazine. “I don’t know why you drink that cheap instant stuff.”

I grab a spoon and jam it in the jar, making sure it clinks against the edge. I’m not drinking it. Scooping out a spoonful, I tip the granules into my mouth. Steve calls it weird. I call it fuel.

“She was talking to Carmen again,” Candy says, glancing over her shoulder at me. A sneering grin spreads across her face.

Mom flips over a page in her magazine. “Don’t talk to the help, Marilyn. I’ve told—” She stops mid-sentence. Maybe she just remembered that I know about her and the farmhand.

Isaac turns the TV volume up, and the monotonous tones of the news presenter booms even louder through the kitchen. “After Environmental Health gave Green Willow Farm the all clear, Halifax’s premier apple supplier was hit by another tragedy last night. All their orchards were incinerated in what local police are calling an act of more than just vandalism.”

“Yes!” Isaac pumps his fist, then turns the TV volume down. He smiles, although an Isaac smile is more like a sneer.

I eat another spoonful of coffee and put the jar away, hiding my delight that Mom and Candy don’t give a shit about his apparent good news. Mom’s engrossed in her magazine, and Candy is texting on her phone. Ignoring Isaac is a no-no in this house.

He turns to me, his lips pressed tight together. His beady eyes look me up and down, like a bull ready to charge. He shakes his head, his tanned face turning red. It’s like he’s gonna explode. I almost expect steam to shoot out of nostrils as he turns to Candy.

“I told you before!” he says, his voice increasing in pitch. “No cell phones at the table!”

Candy’s eyes open wide, and her face takes on the same shade as Isaac’s red apples. I cross my arms and lean back on the counter. I guarantee she wasn’t expecting that for breakfast. I guess he couldn’t find a reason to tear me a new one, so his beloved Candy copped a mouthful instead. Maybe today will be a good day.

Isaac’s cell phone vibrates on the counter. He turns the TV volume down and answers the call. He listens for a while and then takes a quick breath, like his heart skipped a beat. He spins around to face the kitchen window, his hand clamped over the back of his neck. “When… How many… I’m not sure…” He lifts his arm, checking the time on his gold Rolex. “I’ll meet you there,” he says, his voice stuttering. “I’ll leave in twenty minutes.”

He ends the call and turns around, his face redder than before. A chime from Candy’s phone breaks the awkward silence. “I told you no phones!” He lunges at Candy, yanking the phone from her hands. She almost falls off her chair.

Isaac drops the phone onto the hard-tiled kitchen floor. He brings his polished shoe down onto it, shattering the case. Tiny pieces of pink plastic ping out in all directions like an exploding firework.

Oh my god! Where is the popcorn? A smile spreads across my face like wildfire. I can’t stop it. I don’t want to stop it. I quickly switch my phone to silent, not wanting it to get the same treatment.

Candy stands and glances over her shoulder at me. Shaking, she narrows her eyes, trying to aim some of her dad’s fury my way. My smile just gets wider as she storms out of the kitchen.

Mom walks over to Isaac, and she places her hand on his. “What’s wrong, dear?”

“An issue at work,” he says. “I’m going to have to leave early.” He checks his watch again. “At eight fifteen.”

Shit! Logan is picking me up at eight fifteen.

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