“We knew they were coming one day, we just never imagined anything like…this.”
Imagine being invaded by the Chinese and they want something only you have.
However, giving it to them would mean the death of someone you love.
What would you do?
When The Chinese arrive in Ridge Manor, Florida; Sheriff Wayne is the only one who knows they are coming. He tried to warn the rest of the town, but no one would listen, and now it is too late. Joanna Marks has just come back to town after ten years on the run from her parents who did not want her to have the child she was carrying at only sixteen. The sudden death of her husband and father of her child forces her to come home just in time for the invasion. As the days pass in the small town, now heavily invaded by soldiers, Joanna and Wayne both realize something is off with this invasion and with their invaders. Why are there so many of them, especially in their little town, and why is the highest in command settling at City Hall? Why are there no airplanes in the sky, tanks or bombs going off? Where is their military and how could they invade the entire country so quickly? Each step closer to the truth is more terrifying than the last, and Joanna finds herself moving further from the world she knows and soon she dives into a world she did not know existed.
˃˃˃ This exhilarating new novel serves up a double dose of nail-biting, chilling suspense, twists, and shocking revelations as only Willow Rose can. This is determined to terrify you. No one is more addicting than the Queen of Scream.
Fans of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Blake Crouch, George Orwell, A.G. Riddle, and Andrew Mayne will be gripped by this page-turning Post-Apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, guaranteed to keep you reading till the next morning.
Targeted Age Group:: 13+
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 2 – PG
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
This summer I went on a vacation with my family to the Bahamas. In the airport we found a taxi to take us to our hotel on Paradise Island. Our driver – who called himself Shortcut Mike for a very apparent reason – was a funny man who showed us around and had a story for every corner we turned. One of these stories stuck with me and wouldn't let go. It was the story of the Chinese taking over the Bahamas, lot for lot, building for building. While driving around on the island Shortcut, Mike showed us how they were buying land all over the Bahamas and building big hotels and condos. They even bought the building next to the American embassy, forcing the embassy to move to a new location, since they couldn't have the Chinese looking into their backyard, so to speak. He also told us that the Chinese donated a brand new stadium. According to him, it was the Chinese government who was behind it. All of it. They created these companies and used them to buy land, and according to Shortcut Mike, they already owned almost half of the Bahamas. And then he said the sentence that I couldn't let go of. It kept haunting me for days afterward.
"We don't know what they want from us, but I have a feeling we'll find out soon."
I couldn't stop thinking about it when I came back home to Florida and started looking into what Mike had told us. I soon realized this was happening many places in the world, not only in the Bahamas but also on the African continent. The Chinese were buying land everywhere. And as I kept thinking about it I just kept imagining these soldiers marching, taking over the land – first the Bahamas, then the U.S. No matter where I looked, there they were by the millions and millions, taking over, emerging from what seems like nowhere, like a surge. The story in my mind was born, and soon it evolved. I started to think, what if you lived in this small town in Florida, and they came to your town and what if they stayed there, kept you alive because they wanted something from you? Because something in your town was the very reason for their invasion? And what if…what if they weren't really Chinese?
I won't reveal anymore since I have already said too much. But that is how The Surge was born. But again, that's just my imagination. It doesn’t necessarily mean an invasion is upon us.
At least I don't hope so.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
This summer I went on a vacation with my family to the Bahamas. In the airport we found a taxi to take us to our hotel on Paradise Island. Our driver – who called himself Shortcut Mike for a very apparent reason – was a funny man who showed us around and had a story for every corner we turned. One of these stories stuck with me and wouldn't let go. It was the story of the Chinese taking over the Bahamas, lot for lot, building for building. While driving around on the island Shortcut Mike showed us how they were buying land all over the Bahamas and building big hotels and condos. They even bought the building next to the American embassy, forcing the embassy to move to a new location, since they couldn't have the Chinese looking into their backyard, so to speak. He also told us that the Chinese donated a brand new stadium. According to him it was the Chinese government who was behind it. All of it. They created these companies and used them to buy land and according to Shortcut Mike, they already owned almost half of the Bahamas. And then he said the sentence that I couldn't let go of. It kept haunting me for days afterwards.
"We don't know what they want from us, but I have a feeling we'll find out soon."
I couldn't stop thinking about it when I came back home to Florida and started looking into what Mike had told us. I soon realized this was happening many places in the world, not only in the Bahamas, but also on the African continent. The Chinese were buying land everywhere. And as I kept thinking about it I just kept imagining these soldiers marching, taking over the land – first the Bahamas, then the U.S. No matter where I looked, there they were by the millions and millions, taking over, emerging from what seems like nowhere, like a surge. The story in my mind was born, and soon it evolved. I started to think, what if you lived in this small town in Florida, and they came to your town and what if they stayed there, kept you alive because they wanted something from you? Because something in your town was the very reason for their invasion? And what if…what if they weren't really Chinese?
I won't reveal anymore, since I have already said too much. But that is how The Surge was born. But again, that's just my imagination. It doesn’t necessary mean an invasion is upon us.
At least I don't hope so.
A sudden powerful forward or upward movement, especially by a crowd or by a natural force such as the waves or tide.
Ridge Manor, Florida
He was looking at the old phone. An antique, Lydia had called it. A collectible. Nothing but old junk, Wayne had thought. In his opinion, anything could be called an antique as long as it was old enough. But he would never say that to her face. He would never hurt her like that. And he hadn't thrown it away. It was hanging on the wall of his home office like it had since his dad died.
The old bastard.
The old phone was all he had left of him. Not that he needed anything to remind him of the fact that he had been alive. He had the scars on his back and the sound of his angry voice in his head, reciting the Bible or whatever he used to make Wayne miserable with. He didn't need no stinkin' phone to remind him of that…to remember that his old man had put his mark on this earth. There was no way he would ever forget.
Wayne didn't know why exactly he kept the old thing, or even why he had it staring at him from the wall. If it was for Lydia's sake or because it had been in the family for a very long time. It had belonged to Wayne's great-grandfather. That's how old it was.
"An antique Stromberg-Carlson double box telephone in walnut wood. A thing of beauty," Wayne's father-in-law had told him when Wayne showed it to him.
Wayne had found the old phone by accident when cleaning out the old man's stuff after he finally had the decency to leave this world and Wayne alone. Wayne guessed Lydia's father knew what he was talking about since he had devoted his life to selling antiques from that old shop next to the hardware store downtown. Wayne had asked how much he could get for it, but Lydia had told him not to sell it.
"It would look great on the wall in your office, don't you think?"
"It doesn't even work," he had complained. "What's the use?"
But Lydia had – of course – gotten her way and now when looking at it, Wayne had to admit it didn't look too terrible.
"Look at me, Dad! Look!"
At the sound of his daughter's voice, Wayne turned to look into the yard. Arlene was playing on the swings, going very high.
Wayne smiled with a soft sigh. There was nothing in the world that could melt his stubborn heart like this little girl. He had built her that swing set just before summer break and she had been on the darn thing all summer long. He didn't know how she did it, how she managed to play outside for hours in this heat.
Six-years-old going on seventeen.
Wayne shuddered at the very thought. It was a cliché but he really couldn't believe how fast she was growing up. He was afraid to miss even a moment of it.
"Look at me now, Daddy!" she yelled again.
Wayne laughed and got up from his chair, cup in his hand. He walked to the window to make sure she could see that he was watching her. He sipped his coffee while watching her and waving with the other hand.
"I see you, baby," he said. "I see you."
"Look at this, Daddy, look," she yelled as she let go of the chains on the swing and leaped through the air, then landed on her feet in the tall grass that Wayne had mowed just a few days ago, but already was knee high.
Wayne's heart stopped for just a second, but when he saw her smile followed by a ta-da, he laughed.
"Very nice," he said. "Very nice."
Wayne looked back at his desk and all the work he still needed to do. He was behind on his taxes and had gotten an extension, but he had to have it done this weekend. He sipped his coffee, looking at the stacks, wondering if it couldn't wait a few hours.
It is, after all, Sunday.
Wayne shrugged and sipped his coffee again, then turned to look at Arlene, but she was no longer there.
Wayne looked to all corners of the small yard, but she was nowhere to be seen. He hadn't heard the screen door slam shut as he would if she had run inside, and the yard was fenced in, so there was nowhere else she could have gone.
Something was terribly wrong, he just knew it was.
Heart in his throat, Wayne dropped his cup and the coffee spilled on the carpet. It left a stain for him to be reminded of this day for years to come.
That night, at precisely a quarter past midnight, the old Stromberg-Carlson rang for the first time in a hundred years.
Two years later
Martha Pattison was holding on tight to the handle under the ceiling of the small van. The bumpy road made her nervous.
"Are you sure he knows what he’s doing?" she whispered to her husband, Carl, just as the driver swung the old van out in front of a car. Martha let out a scream. Carl laughed.
"They drive a little…different down here," he said. "I’m sure he's got everything under control."
Just as Carl had said the words, the driver took a sharp turn and led them down a small street with slum houses on both sides.
"This doesn't look much like a safe neighborhood," Martha said, clinging to the handle even though it was slightly loose. The car was rustling and squeaking on the bumpy road.
"It's gonna be fine."
"You sure he's not just taking us to some place where his little friends are waiting with machetes to rob us of everything we have?"
Carl chuckled. "I'm pretty sure."
She snorted. "Pretty sure? That doesn't sound very reassuring."
"We're on vacation, Martha. Relax and enjoy it."
The van bumped back onto a bigger road and the driver took another sharp turn, made it out just in front of a car, and barely missed it. Martha screamed again. The driver looked in the mirror with a bright smile.
"Shortcut, ma'am. I know all of them on the island. That's why they call me Shortcut Mike."
"That's nice," Martha said, but she didn't mean it.
"Or you can call me M&M. Like the candy, not the rapper," he said with a loud laugh. He looked at Carl. "Here for vacation?"
"Yes," Carl said. "It's our thirty-year anniversary."
"Thirty years with Boss-Lady here, huh?"
Martha and Carl looked at each other, then smiled. M&M nodded.
"Very nice. Very nice. Well, welcome to the Bahamas. Best vacation you'll ever get. Here, we are too blessed to be stressed. If you're stressed when you're here, then you're not doing it right."
M&M burst into a loud laugh. On the dashboard, one of his three cell phones started to vibrate. He didn't even look at it.
"Ten kids," he said. "There's always something." Then he laughed again. He pointed out the windshield. "See those buildings over there? Chinese are building there. Gonna be the biggest buildings in all of the Bahamas."
"The Chinese, huh?" Carl asked surprised.
"Yes, Chinese are everywhere. They buy it in the name of some big company but that company is owned by the Chinese government. There are buildings like that shooting up everywhere around here. They have bought so much land they own half of the Bahamas now. And they gave the government money, lots of money. They even built that stadium over there as a gift for our government. Don't know what they want from us."
"Maybe they just like to go on vacation too. It is awfully beautiful here," Martha said as they drove over a tall bridge. In the distance, she could see many small islands and more boats than she had ever seen. She had heard about the beaches here, but now that she saw them, she realized they really were whiter than paper. She couldn't wait to feel the sand between her toes.
Martha had dreamt of this vacation for years, ever since Carl promised her they'd go for their thirty-year anniversary. They were going to spend the first four days at a small resort on Paradise Island before they continued their trip island hopping. It was the trip of a lifetime for Martha and she had been looking forward to it for years.
"I keep telling people they must want something," M&M continued on the subject of the Chinese. "But so far, they haven't said what. I guess we'll know soon enough, won't we?"
Paradise Island, Bahamas
The Sunrise Beach Club was just as cozy and small as Martha had hoped it would be. It was located right next door to the monstrous Atlantis, with all its water park and big restaurants. This place was quite the opposite. Sunrise Beach Club only had the one restaurant where Martha and Carl ate all their meals, getting served by locals, tasting the local food. Just the way they preferred it. There weren't many families there since all the children wanted to stay at the big Atlantis and go on the water slides, so Martha had the pool almost to herself. Carl preferred to sit in the shade and read the news on his iPad (at least that's what he said he did, but she knew he really played Candy Crush). Meanwhile, Martha spent most of the day submerged in the water, the only way she could cope with the strong heat. Being born and raised in Florida and living there all her life, Martha was used to the heat, but lately, with the hot flashes she was suffering from, it was getting harder to cope with it.
"You think we should call Josh?" she asked.
Carl didn't look up from his iPad. "We've only been gone one day, Martha. I don't even think they’ve had time to miss us yet."
Martha sighed and sank deeper into the water. It wasn't even cooling her down at all.
"But maybe they'd like to know that we made it over here all right," she said. "A lot can happen when flying."
"The flight here is less than an hour, Martha. Besides, if the plane had crashed, don't you think he would have heard?"
"I just wanted to tell him about the place and hear how Marley did at her recital."
Carl sighed. "Fine. Why don't you call them, then? No one's stopping you."
Martha looked at her watch. "Irene has her yoga class on Tuesdays at noon. She's barely made it home yet. I'll have to wait till later. Marley will be home around three. I'd like her to be there too so I can talk to her. I think I'll just swim a little longer, then call them."
"As you wish," Carl said, once again immersed in his iPad.
Martha looked at him and wondered if it really was worth spending all this money to get to this tropical paradise when all he did was the same as he would have had they stayed at the house. Martha sighed and thought of Joanna. Tomorrow, it was ten years ago since she had run away from home, pregnant and crying. They never spoke about it, but it was eating both her and Carl up. The child had to be almost ten now. They had missed out on everything. Didn't even know if their grandchild was a boy or a girl.
Does she have any other children? Is she married?
"I thought maybe we could go on one of those boat trips out to one of the small islands tomorrow," Martha said hopefully.
Carl didn't usually want to do much. Taking this trip was a huge step for him. Martha had been nagging him about going somewhere ever since Josh moved away from home. She had always believed she would be able to really fully enjoy life once the kids were grown. She had sacrificed everything for those two. Now it was supposed to be her time to have fun. She wanted to go places, stay in hotels, and eat food prepared by others. But Carl wasn't like that. At least not anymore. He used to be when they were younger. He used to talk about traveling. But all that had changed. Now he thought that Ridge Manor was such a pretty place there was no reason to go anywhere else. He liked the swamps surrounding the city and fishing on Lake Geneva.
"They come with food and everything," she continued when he didn't answer. "They sail you out to these deserted islands and you stay there for the day, eating lunch and stuff. Sounds really nice, don't you think?"
Carl answered with a shrug. "What's wrong with the resort?"
Martha didn't even respond. She knew how to handle him. "That's settled then. I'll have the nice lady at the reception book us tickets. And for tonight, I thought we should go downtown. Try one of the local places."
Carl didn't answer, but she knew he had heard her. She swam to the steps and got out of the water. It was almost three o'clock.
Paradise Island, Bahamas
"So rude. Can you believe how rude those people were?"
Martha snorted and threw her purse on the chair, then sat on the bed with a heavy sigh. The room smelled clean and the bed was made.
"Come on, Martha," Carl said. "It wasn't that bad."
"They were everywhere, Carl. Where did all those Chinese people come from all of a sudden? I didn't see a single one in the airport and now they're everywhere. Did you see how that lady almost pushed me off the boat because she was in a rush to get off on the island? I mean, who does that?"
"I’m sure she didn't mean to push you. And we don't really know that they were Chinese. They could be from anywhere. They could be American."
"And she didn't even say she was sorry when I yelled at her. Didn't even turn her head. So rude."
Carl sighed. He was still in his swim shorts and a T-shirt that had wet spots from his sweating. He had gotten way too much sun and his face was almost glowing red. Martha felt her own cheeks. Her skin was sore. She would have to remember to apply some after-sun later. Right now, she felt so tired. And disappointed. What was supposed to be a wonderful day on the water, eating exotic food on a deserted island, had turned out to be an utter nightmare. They had to fight off the Chinese just to get something to eat at the buffet. It was like they had no manners, just skipping the line and grabbing food right in front of her, eating everything so she and Carl were left with just a small piece of dry chicken and rice. But that wasn't the worst part of it. They had acted like Martha and Carl weren't good enough to be there, to eat with them. The way they had looked at Martha and Carl was with disgust. Like they were better than them. One lady had even moved her children from the table when Martha and Carl sat down next to them. Carl said she didn't do it because of them, but Martha was certain she did.
"At least the weather was nice," Carl tried while taking off his wet clothes.
"Pah. It's the Bahamas. The weather is always nice," Martha said, sulking.
Carl put on a new T-shirt and shorts, then sat on the bed next to her. "Don't let this ruin our vacation, Martha. People have always been rude when you travel. Remember when we went to Paris twenty years ago?"
Martha nodded with a scoff. "Oh, yeah. That was terrible."
"There you go. There's the smile."
Martha chuckled. "But this was different, Carl."
"What do you mean? How was it different?"
"It was like they thought we weren't even worthy of being in the same place as them. Didn't you see the way they looked at us? It made me feel really bad."
"Well…I hardly think…you're putting way too much into this, Martha. As always, you're making too big of a deal out of this. Now, I say we go and get ourselves an early dinner at the restaurant. I have my eye on that lobster and those fried little things that are so tasty."
"Yes, conch. I really liked those. And one of their beers, Kalik, is that what they call them? Or maybe I'll try that other one, the Sands, tonight. Hard choice, hard choice."
Carl reached out his hand towards Martha. She looked into his eyes. A sadness had grown into them on the day that Joanna left and it had been in there ever since. He had not been the same since then. But over time, Martha had learned to live with it, with the sadness and sorrow gnawing inside of her and with seeing it in him as well.
"What do you say?" he asked.
She grabbed his hand and let him help her get up from the soft bed. "I say that sounds like just what I need right about now."
Paradise Island, Bahamas
She was getting a little dizzy by the time it all went wrong. Three Bahamian beers did that to her. Carl had four before the food arrived and they were having the most wonderful conversation. Carl seemed livelier than he had for years and Martha soon relaxed and forgot about the fiasco at sea the same day. Carl was right. There were rude tourists everywhere you went. It had just been so long since they had last traveled that Martha had forgotten about it. It really wasn't something you should get yourself worked up over. It really wasn't. It would just end up ruining your vacation. Like back when they had been in Paris. Three times, Martha had almost gotten into a fight. Three times. Martha was usually a very peaceful person, but it had simply been too much for her.
The first time, she almost hit a guy at a small restaurant next to Sacre-Coeur. They had been inside the church in unbearable heat and, when they came out, Joanna didn't feel very well. They had walked to the closest restaurant, Le Ronsard, to buy some ice cream and sit down for a little while, but when they found a spot and Joanna sat down with Martha, the owner came over to them and told them to leave. The sitting area wasn't for people buying ice cream.
"But my daughter isn't feeling well," Martha said.
"Get out of here," the owner said, then turned his back on her without even looking at her when he said it.
That was when she lost it. After hours of standing in line to get inside the church, between people pushing and shoving and the heat and now the worry that her daughter was about to get sick, she lost it. Now, Martha didn't know much French, but she knew a few curse words from back when they had a French exchange student at the high school, and now they came in handy. She yelled them at him, then yelled at Carl, who had already received the first ice cream.
"We're getting out of here, now!"
Not understanding anything, Carl handed the ice cream back to the server lady, who didn't understand anything either, while Martha yelled a few more curse words at the owner before he finally returned and started yelling at her to her face. She had to seriously restrain herself to not slap him, but Carl had pulled her away just in time.
That was the first time.
The second time was when they were about to go sailing on the Seine on a tour boat. A Japanese woman came running up from behind and pushed Joanna to the side so the girl slammed into the wall and hurt her head. The lady didn't even stop to say she was sorry or anything, but continued on to the beginning of the line. Oh, the scenarios that went through Martha's head of how she was going to strangle that woman if she ever ran into her on the boat.
Luckily, she didn't.
The worst one was in the Eiffel Tower. They had made it to the second floor by elevator and had to wait in line for the last elevator to the top. The line was long and, by the time they had been waiting for forty-five minutes and were almost at the end, an Italian family with two kids walked right up and cut in front of them, cutting in front of several hundred people, pushing their way through like they owned everything. Martha held her place and, when the guy wanted to get past her, she blocked his way and told him he had to wait patiently like the rest of them and that there were no shortcuts. As a matter of fact, he and his lovely family had to go all the way back where the line started. But the guy wouldn't have it. He pushed her aside and started to move his family up front. Martha got angry and pulled his arm, then he lifted his hand and was about to hit her. Martha ducked and, while she did, he and his family snuck past her.
Back then, Martha had been very tired of tourists indeed, but to be completely honest, there was one thing she had been more upset about with the whole situation. And that was the fact that Carl never defended her. The Italian guy was about to hit her and Carl didn't even move or yell or do anything. That had hurt her because she realized he didn't have her back.
Ten years later, when Joanna came home pregnant, it happened again. When Joanna told them, Carl simply got up and left the kitchen. Martha had been alone. She hadn't known what to do, so she had told Joanna to never see this boy again and that she had to get rid of the child if she wanted to stay home.
The next day, Joanna was gone and Carl had blamed Martha ever since.
Paradise Island, Bahamas
They didn't notice the yelling. Not at first. Martha and Carl had both had too much to drink to realize what was going on in time. The restaurant was packed and it was karaoke night, so the music was loud and, frankly, not very good. Martha had slowly realized one thing: most Bahamians weren't very good singers. They were very eager and sweet, and the women were quite stunning, but so far, none of the singing had been very good. In fact, it was so bad it was becoming amusing.
It wasn't until the music abruptly stopped that Martha realized something was wrong, very wrong indeed. The loud yelling, people screaming, the sound of boots stomping, even shots were fired. Someone ran down the street, screaming and crying.
"What's going on?" Martha asked and looked around.
And that was when she saw it. Five or six soldiers in green uniforms and tall black boots, stern looks on their faces, had entered the terrace and were yelling at them all. People were screaming, some hiding under the tables.
"What the heck is going on?" Martha repeated and looked at Carl. He sat like a statue, his face whiter than the sand on the beach, and didn't say a word.
One of the soldiers ran to their table and started yelling at them. Martha didn't understand a single word. She rose to her feet, feeling the anger rise in her. Backed by a few too many Kaliks, she said:
"Now listen to me, young man. There is no need to yell. Would you be so kind as to tell me what is going on here?"
The man yelled in what Martha only assumed had to be Chinese since she didn't understand a single word and the guy looked very Chinese. She had been wrong about these things before, since she found it very hard to tell Asians apart. How was she to know if they were from Japan or Korea or some other place?
But, given the many Chinese people she had been with earlier in the day, it was only natural for her to assume these soldiers were Chinese as well.
"I don't understand what you're saying. What do you want?" she asked.
"Go to room," the man yelled.
"Excuse me?" she asked.
The guy lifted his gun and pointed it at her. Martha stared directly down the barrel and a hot flash rushed through her body. It was a very sobering experience.
"Go. To. Room," the soldier repeated.
Martha, still staring down the black hole in front of her, gulped and nodded. She reached out her arm towards Carl and found his hand.
"Okay. Okay," she said.
They hurried through the restaurant and, on the way, they saw a woman being beaten by two soldiers. Martha gasped and clasped her mouth when she realized it was the woman from reception, the nice lady who had taken such good care of them while they had been there and even gave them a new – and much better – room when Martha had complained about the air conditioning not working properly.
"Hurry," Martha said and pulled Carl's hand.
They ran to their room and, while people were screaming, she fumbled with the key. She had barely gotten it in the lock before another soldier ran to them, yelling in Chinese. Not being able to take any more, Martha screamed, "Please, don't hurt us; we're Americans. We're American citizens."
The soldier stopped.
"Americans? Americans?" he repeated it in a strange way, like a parrot repeating a word for the first time.
"Yes, yes, Americans," Martha said.
Thinking and hoping this meant they would be treated differently, that maybe this was an internal thing in the Bahamas, a coup of some sort that had nothing to do with them, Martha looked at him and nodded, repeating:
"Yes, yes, Americans."
The soldier smiled and Martha did too, feeling the traitorous feeling of relief, just as he lifted his rifle and knocked her out. As everything went black, all Martha could think of was conch fritters, for some strange reason.
Part One: Joanna
Ridge Manor, Florida
Joanna Marks swung her guitar over her shoulder as the bus came to a halt. She grabbed her daughter by the hand and they walked out. The bus hissed and took off. Joanna drew in a deep breath as she spotted the water tower in the distance with the town's name, Ridge Manor on the side of it. Ellie Mae looked up at her mother. The areas around her eyes and nose were still red and swollen from crying. It had been two weeks since her dad died and the realization had not really sunk in yet. For any of them.
"Is this it?" Ellie Mae asked and looked around.
"Yeah. Well, I told you it isn't much. Town's that way. We have to walk for a little. You up for that?"
The young girl nodded. "Sure."
Joanna grabbed the suitcase and they started to walk. The heat soon engulfed them. Joanna wrinkled her nose when she recognized the smell of her hometown, of the childhood she had tried so hard to forget.
"So, how far is it to the inn?" Ellie Mae asked.
"Ten minutes, I'd say," Joanna lied.
It was at least a fifteen-minute walk, maybe even twenty with Ellie's short legs, but the girl didn't need to know that. She would only start to complain and Joanna wasn't up for that right now. The grief of losing Jack still lingered deep within her. She had lost at least fifteen pounds taking care of him the past three months before the cancer finally got him.
This was not what was supposed to happen. It wasn't how it was to end. This was not the plan, Jack.
It had been a fast and aggressive one. It started in his lungs but by the time she had finally kicked him to the doctor because of that terrible cough, it had spread. It was everywhere. The doctors had tried their best but soon given up.
Damn cigarettes. Damn you for smoking them, Jack.
She didn't mean that. Of course, she didn't. She loved him and prayed he was in a better place now. A place with no pain, where he could breathe freely. She still couldn't really get rid of that look he would give her on the last days. He wouldn't let her leave his side. Terrified something would happen if she did and she wouldn't be there to say goodbye to him when he left.
The worst part was when he wasn't able to breathe. The panic in his eyes as he fought to do such a simple task. Hooked up to the oxygen mask, he would stare at her, eyes overwhelmed with anxiety, terrified to take the next breath. And all that time, she sat beside him, holding his hand, caressing his cheek, clinging on to that little hope for a last-minute miracle.
But it was too late.
So many times, she had beat herself up for not demanding that he go see the doctor sooner. She tried often to recall exactly when the coughing had started but she couldn't get it right. Fact was, it had been going on for a long time. Being a smoker as he was, he coughed all the time. But at some point, it got worse, and she had ignored it, told herself it was nothing. Heck, he was only twenty-seven. Who dies at twenty-seven?
Movie stars, rock stars. But not Jack. Not my Jack.
Joanna looked down at her daughter and held her hand tightly in hers. She was worried about her, of course she was. In her grief, it had been hard to take proper care of her. She had been neglected for months. Not intentionally. It just happened. While Joanna took care of Jack, there was no more energy, no more room to also care for their daughter.
That was about to change now. Everything was about to change. This was going to be a new start for them, a second chance.
"I can't wait to see the place," Ellie Mae said as they walked down Treiman Boulevard. An elderly couple stopped to stare at them. Joanna recognized them as Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett. They had been old when Joanna was a child and seemed almost ancient now. They didn't seem to recognize her, so she just nodded politely, pulled her daughter's arm, and moved on.
Ridge Manor, Florida
Wayne was sitting at his desk when they entered. He heard her voice first, then looked up as his secretary spoke to them. Wayne corrected his uniform and got up just as the secretary peeked inside. She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.
"I know. I'll be right there."
He walked outside, put on his best smile, the best he had been able to muster since his Arlene disappeared. The young woman looked at him, hiding insecurity behind her tough exterior. She was tattooed, barely any skin left on her arms and legs that wasn't colored in some shape or form. Her eyes bore lots of make-up, black make-up, heavy eyeliner. Her hair was dyed a reddish color that made her look paler than she was. Life had not been kind to her the past ten years. She still had those freckles, though, on her nose and cheeks. The young girl standing next to her had them too and looked an awful lot like her mother did back when Wayne had known her.
He let out a breath of air and scratched his forehead. "Joanna Pattison, as I live and breathe…"
"It's Marks now," she said with a suspicious glare. "You the sheriff these days? Really? You?"
He looked down at his uniform. "I guess so. Hard to imagine, huh?"
She nodded with a chortle. "You can say that again."
He looked at her with a sigh. "It's good to see you again, Joanna. I mean it."
"I heard about Jack," Wayne said. "I'm so sor…"
She stopped him. "Don't."
He looked at her, surprised. He felt a prickle of sweat forming on his brow. It was one of the hot ones today.
"I'm just…" she continued biting her lip. "I'm not ready to…well, to be frank, I don't know if I'll ever be, but just…not now, okay?"
He nodded, knowing and recognizing the deep grief very well. "All right. Let's go back to, it's good to see you, then. It really is, Joanna. I have thought a lot about you over the years. And who's this pretty young girl?"
"This is Miss Ellie Mae. Say hello to the sheriff, Ellie."
"Hi, Mr. Sheriff," she said.
He reached out his hand and shook hers. "Nice to meet you, Ellie Mae. You can call me Wayne. Everyone else does."
"Yes, Sheriff Wayne," she said with a cute smile, not hiding the fact that she had lost someone at a very young age. Wayne knew how it felt as an adult, but could hardly bear to think of how it had to feel for such a young person.
"Guess you're here for the key, huh?"
Joanna nodded. "To the inn, yes."
Wayne reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. Joanna looked surprised. He shrugged.
"I had a feeling you might be stopping by one of these days. Let's just leave it at that. So, you're gonna reopen the old place?"
Joanna nodded, rattling the keys in her hand. "Figured it was a way to give ourselves a new start, if you know what I mean."
He smiled. "Sure do. I sure do."
Her face clouded over. She bit down hard on her lip. "Well…I guess we better be going then."
Joanna grabbed her daughter's hand.
"It really is good to have you back, Joanna," Wayne said as she was about to leave. "And great that you're opening the old place again. Lots of folks are gonna get excited about that 'round here. Let us know if you need any help. Lots of people with skilled hands around here if you ever need anything."
Joanna smiled and opened the door. She let Ellie Mae exit first, holding the door for her. "I'll remember that. Thanks, Wayne."
"My pleasure." He saluted her goofily. "On behalf of the entire population of this town, I'd like to welcome you to Ridge Manor. Welcome home."
Ridge Manor, Florida
Ellie Mae was careful not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. It was a thing she had started doing ever since her dad got sick and Joanna had let her. If little quirks were the only thing she would suffer from going through this, then Joanna would take that any day. They approached the inn and then both stopped.
"Whoa!" Ellie Mae exclaimed.
Joanna was less impressed. The building housing Ridge Manor Inn was huge, four stories, with porches and wrought iron fences all around them. It had once been a very beautiful place, no doubt about it. She knew that, back in the day, it had been the pride of the town. But that was a long time ago.
"Is this really where daddy grew up?"
Joanna nodded, biting her lip to not feel emotional at the mention of Jack. "Sure is. His mother used to run the inn till she died eight years ago. Place has been empty since."
"Why didn't you and daddy move down here and take care of it when she died?" Ellie Mae asked, tilting her head to the side.
Joanna sighed and caressed her daughter's long blonde hair. "Well…it's a long story, baby. Another time. Let's look inside, shall we?"
Ellie Mae leaped up the flight of stairs leading to the front porch, Joanna tugging along after her, dragging their suitcase behind her. She put the guitar down next to the old porch swing that brought back some deep memories of her and Jack and almost made her lose it, but she kept her cool. She put the key in the door and turned it.
The smell that met them made them both exclaim in disgust.
"EEEW. What is that?" Ellie Mae asked as she covered her nose.
Joanna shrugged. "Probably dead birds or maybe another dead animal lying around here somewhere."
Ellie Mae lit up. "Cool."
They stepped inside what used to be the reception area. It didn't look as bad as Joanna had feared, but it was going to take a lot of work to get it up to date. Even back then, when Jack had lived there and Joanna had come to visit him, the place had been run down. Ever since Jack's dad had died in a car accident, his mother hadn't been able to take proper care of the old building. When she died, Jack inherited the place, but neither of them wanted to go back, so it had just been sitting there, waiting.
Joanna let out another deep sigh, suddenly overwhelmed by regret. She had thought of it as a way out for her and Ellie Mae. They were broke. All the money Joanna had made from singing had gone to Jack's hospital bills. He had been a bartender and, when he couldn't work anymore, that meant he didn't get paid. It was as simple as that. They had lived a carefree life until then. Never thought they would need insurance of any kind. Not at their young age. As soon as Jack died, their landlord kicked them out into the streets. Gave them a week to get their things together and leave.
The inn was all they had. It had to work. It simply had to.
"So, can I pick any room in the house to live in? Any room?"
Joanna chuckled. Her daughter's excitement was contagious. It had been a very long time since she last saw her this happy.
"Yes, sweetie. Any room."
The girl looked pensive at the bottom of the stairs. "But you'll still sleep with me, right?"
Joanna nodded. They had been sleeping together since Jack died. The nights were the worst. At night, she would often dream about him and wake up thinking he wasn't dead, only to once again realize that he wasn't there anymore. That was when she pulled her daughter really close to her and held her tight, praying she could fall back asleep.
"Of course. Now go make your pick."
Ellie Mae rushed up the stairs. Joanna looked around and was pleased to see that the place seemed solid enough; it looked like it needed mostly a lot of cleaning and painting.
"I found it!" she screamed from upstairs.
"Great," Joanna said and started up the stairs. As she put her hand on the massive wood railing, she remembered how she and Jack used to slide down it as young kids. It seemed like it had been just yesterday.
Ridge Manor, Florida
They quickly found out where the smell had come from. They saw it on the floor of the kitchen. Flies were everywhere, circling the massive body.
"What is it?" Ellie Mae asked and studied it curiously.
Joanna held her back so she wouldn't go too close. The stench was unbearable and Joanna held her hand in front of her nose as she made her way to the window and opened it.
"It's a deer," she said and looked at the lump on the tiles. Mushy sauce had oozed out of it and colored the white tiles. "At least I think it is."
Looking at the dead animal body brought Joanna back to the evening when Jack had died. It had come out of the blue. He had been better. He was lying in bed and looking at her. He was even smiling. He had grabbed her hand in his while she fed him soup. She had gotten up and walked to the kitchen to put the bowl away and, when she came back, he needed to go to the restroom. She had assisted him, letting him hold onto her shoulder, and that was when he collapsed. He simply sunk out of her arms and she couldn't hold onto him. His eyes rolled back in his head. Joanna screamed in panic as he slid onto the floor, then desperately grabbed him and pulled him back on the bed, while calling his name.
"Jack. Jack. Jack. Oh, please, dear God. Jack!"
He was still breathing through the oxygen mask for a few more seconds, then in the second he died, he opened his eyes shortly and she gasped, thinking he was waking up, but his eyes had merely rolled towards the sky like he was gazing for Heaven, longing to go, (at least that was what she liked to say afterwards). He breathed out, and then simply didn't take in a new one.
Joanna could still hear her own cries as she realized he was gone. She had screamed his name and cried, before realizing Ellie Mae was standing right behind her in complete shock, unable to speak or even cry.
To this day, she still didn't know what it had done to the girl to see her own father die.
But they had to move on, didn't they? Had to let go of him and move on. Life goes on. That's what was supposed to happen. Her only question was, how? How on earth do you keep going after something like this? How do you live on with these scars?
One day at a time.
"What do we do, Mom?" Ellie Mae asked, just like she had after the initial shock had gone away a couple of days after her father's passing. This time, with less urgency and desperation in her voice.
Joanna grabbed her phone. Sheriff Wayne picked up right away.
Startled that he would know it was her, she said: "Does your offer still stand?"
"Yes, you need help."
He said it as a statement, not a question, which she found to be slightly odd, but she shook it off. It wasn't that big of a surprise that she would need help, now was it?
"I do. There's a big dead animal of some sort in the kitchen and we need it removed."
"Doug and I will be there right away."
She hung up and looked at her phone for a second, remembering old Doug Morrison. He worked for the state parks and was a certified wildlife remover. He knew everything there was to know about the animals living in these parts. As a child, she had seen him wrestle many a gator or snake that had snuck itself into someone's garage or pool. It was always spectacular and the town's kids would gather to watch. Doug was an entertainer and could put on quite a show while he explained how to do that sort of thing.
Joanna looked at the decayed animal in front of her. This was probably not going to be quite as spectacular. But at least he would know what to do.
She grabbed her daughter's hand in hers. "Come on, baby. Let's wait for them outside."
Ellie Mae followed her, tiptoeing behind her, careful not to step on the lines between the tiles.
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