Don’t Say a Word – Amber Lynn Natusch

When I was eight, I learned what evil was. Not the generic kind of evil that people use to describe bad things, but real and true evil of the most biblical sense. The kind that defies explanation. The kind that you can never scrub from your mind once you encounter it. Dad and Gramps had taken me to Matthew’s Ice Cream Shop after a baseball game that day. I’d finally won after a six-game losing streak. Dad thought that win was worthy of celebrating, so the three of us crammed into the two-person booth in the back of the shop with an ice cream sundae, equipped with spoons longer than my forearm. I was three bites in when Dad’s phone rang. I watched his proud expression fall to one of horror before he masked it with his official FBI face. The one that gave nothing away. But it was too late. I’d already seen the truth behind the lie. “Where is she?” he’d asked, staring off past where Gramps and I sat. “I understand. I’ll be right in.

” He hung up the phone, then slid out of the booth. “I’m so sorry, Kylene. You and Gramps will have to celebrate without me. It’s work … I have to go.” He turned to walk away, but Gramps stopped him in his tracks. “They found that Woodley girl, didn’t they, Bruce?” My father looked over his shoulder to Gramps, his lips pressed into a thin, grim line. He nodded once, and I could feel Gramps go tense beside me. That nod had meant far more to him than it had to me. I mean, finding the girl who had been missing from one town over was a good thing, right? She’d been gone for a long time; shouldn’t they have looked happier? Wasn’t that something worth celebrating? I would find out later that it wasn’t something to celebrate at all. Gramps and I watched as my father’s pace hastened on his way to the car.

I turned to Gramps and started my interrogation. I’d always been my father’s daughter. “Is Daddy going to bring her home? Is that why he had to leave?” Gramps’ expression softened, and he wrapped his arm around me, pulling me close to him. “No, Junebug. That’s not why he had to go.” “Then why?” “Well, I reckon your daddy’s gonna go find the person that took that girl away. He’s gonna keep him from ever doin’ that to anyone else ever again.” “Because Daddy stops the bad guys, right?” “He sure does, Junebug. He sure does.” “Okay.

…” “Now, eat your ice cream before it makes a big ole mess of this table.” He scooped some onto his spoon and took a bite, smiling as he swallowed it. But that smile never reached his eyes, and even at that young age, I knew something was wrong. I sat up on my knees and grabbed his face in my hands. It was then that I saw the unshed tears still welled in the corners of his eyes. “Gramps, what’s wrong?” He forced a laugh and kissed me on my forehead to dismiss my concerns. But even at eight, I was not so easily derailed. “Tell me why you’re sad, Gramps.” When he realized I had no intention of dropping it, he sighed. “Because every time your father gets one of those calls, it reminds me that there are people in this world—truly evil people that don’t belong.

” “You see those people, right? In the prison?” He nodded. “I sure do. And your daddy helps put ’em there.” “Gramps, how do you know someone is a bad guy?” He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, tucking a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “You don’t, Junebug. Ain’t no way to know for sure ’til it’s too late.” I remember letting those words soak into my mind—trying to give them context when I had none for them. They sank to the bottom of my consciousness until later that night when I sat at the top of the stairs and eavesdropped on my parents’ conversation. I heard my father recount the vivid details of what had happened to Sarah Woodley. How she’d been taken after school never to be seen alive again.

How her body showed that she’d been tortured and beaten before she died. He used words I didn’t recognize at the time. Words I didn’t understand fully until I was older. When I learned them, I remembered what my father said that night and my stomach roiled with realization. At the tender age of eight, I learned that a monster could be lurking behind every passing smile, every friendly neighbor, every pillar of the community. It cast the world in a much darker light. Made me question everything. It was those suspicious traits that had made my father an amazing investigator, but even he’d fallen victim to a faceless evil. And that truth was a wake-up call. It wasn’t enough for me to be as smart as my father—I needed to be smarter.

If I wasn’t, he would rot in prison—or die long before his murder sentence was served. And I could end up as dead as Sarah Woodley. ONE I shot awake in an uncomfortable hospital chair, my neck throbbing. With a jolt, my hand went to my throat, visions of being stabbed with a needle rampant in my mind. My heart pounded against my fractured ribs—the soundtrack from the night I’d been attacked. The same as the day my father’s verdict had been handed down. Apparently, some memories don’t fade with time. The pain brought me back to the present, and I realized it was just a nightmare—the same one I’d been having ever since Donovan Shipman and Luke Clark tried to kill me. Two attempted homicides in one night; a stretch by even Jasperville standards. My best friend, Garrett, lay in the hospital bed with wires and machines attached to him.

I could finally hear the beeping and chirping over the blood pounding in my ears. It had been only a few days since his surgery, but he had already been downgraded from the ICU, which meant I could visit him. Finally. Those few days had felt like a lifetime. Quietly, I stood up and walked over to him, slipping my hand in his. I gave it a squeeze to see if he’d reflexively do the same, but I felt nothing. He hadn’t woken up once. At least not while I was conscious. My other hand drifted to his face to brush his dark hair aside. I lightly grazed the few pale parts around the edge of it that weren’t an awful shade of bruised.

Even though it had been over a week since the attack, it was still shocking to see him like that. He’d been beaten so badly that I knew it would take a while for the rest of the swelling to go down. I’d gotten off easy in comparison. My arm was no longer in a sling but it was stiff and sore, and my ribs still hurt when I breathed too deeply. Both injuries seemed like hangnails compared to Garrett’s. The doctors told his father that he was lucky he’d pulled through. His internal bleeding had been substantial. Though they expected him to make a full recovery, I couldn’t help but worry. The only reason Garrett had been with me that night was because he didn’t want me to go alone. He wanted to have my back, as always.

His need to keep me safe had nearly cost him his life—that was a bitter pill to swallow. As I stared at his injured face, his eyes flickered a few times before slowly opening. He looked up at me with utter confusion and I stifled a squeal. His brown eyes darted around the room, undoubtedly trying to figure out where he was. “It’s okay, Garrett. You’re in the hospital. You’ve been unconscious for a while…” “Hospital…?” he asked, his voice hoarse and garbled, like he had cotton balls in his mouth. “You need some water.” I ignored his question and grabbed the cup next to his bed. I angled the straw so he could take a sip without moving more than necessary.

Once he’d drained the entire thing, he looked at me, awaiting an answer. I hesitated, unsure of how much to say. “Yeah, you’re in the hospital.… Do you remember what happened after homecoming?” His brow scrunched with concentration. It took a moment, but when his eyes went wide, I knew he did. They were filled with fear. “Are you all right?” he asked. It was like a blow to the chest. After all he’d suffered, he was still worried about me. Tears ran down my face.

“Are you crying? Why are you crying?” “Could you back off for a minute and just let me enjoy the fact that you’re awake?” I answered, choking on a laugh. “And of course I’m crying, you jerk! I thought you were going to die!” It must have hurt him to do it, but he smiled. “Drama queen.” “Screw you, Higgins! If you’d found my near-lifeless body like I found yours, you’d be a hot mess over it.” “True.” His smile faded. “I’m glad I didn’t.” His fingers brushed against mine, and I took his hand again, gripping it tight. I didn’t want to let go. “When Donovan attacked me, all I kept thinking about was if he’d somehow gotten to you already.

I tried so hard to get away, but that son of a bitch hit me from behind. I never really stood a chance. Then I saw his attention snap back toward the road and I knew you were okay—that he hadn’t found you yet. It was little consolation, but it was something to cling to.” Tears rolled down my cheeks again. “I’m so sorry, Garrett. I’m the reason you’re in here.” He shook his head, the movement slow and careful, but clear. “I chose to go with you. I knew it was risky.

” “Right—risky because we could have gotten caught breaking and entering Mark Sinclair’s house. Not because Donovan was going to try to kill us.” Before he could reply, one of the machines next to me blared, damn near giving me a heart attack. A moment later, a nurse came in. “You’re awake,” she noted with a smile. “I’ll let the doctors know.” “Do I have to go?” I asked, sounding a little more desperate than I’d meant to. I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Sympathetic eyes took me in, then fell to where our hands were clasped. “No, honey.

You can stay,” she said, clearly misreading the situation. But I didn’t care. She could assume we were dating if it got me what I wanted. “Just go easy on him, and if anything changes before the doctor arrives, you come running, okay?” I nodded, and she left. “So, what happened?” Garrett asked. “With Donovan?” “The short version is that Donovan was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder, amongst other things. He was shot, not fatally unfortunately, and I found you and brought you to the hospital. The end.” He looked at the faint bruises on my face and his eyes narrowed. “What’s the long version?” “That’s something I’ll tell you when you’re lounging on Gramps’ couch assuming your role as remote control hog, okay?” He rolled his eyes.

It was about the only movement he could make without hurting himself. “Are you at least gonna tell me who shot the bastard?” I hesitated for a second. “Some FBI agent. I guess Striker had him keeping an eye on me. Thank God he showed up when he did.” He looked content with my reply but I wasn’t sure how he’d take the news I still had to share. I took a deep breath, unsure how to brace him for the truth. But Garrett was a lot like me. Sometimes sugarcoating it only made things worse. “There’s something else you should know—about AJ.

” Garrett somehow managed to look menacing in a hospital johnny. “He never took those topless pictures of me. Donovan told me—he was the one that did it. He used AJ’s camera to cover his ass.” Garrett said nothing for longer than I was comfortable with, and I squeezed his hand to make sure he hadn’t lapsed into an eyes-open coma. “Garrett … say something.” “Oh my God.…” “I know. It’s a lot to take in.” “Yeah.

” Garrett’s expression went blank, and I worried I’d have to run and get the nurse in a minute if he didn’t perk up. Beneath the shades of green and blue engulfing his expression, Garrett went pale. “You know what? We can talk about this later. It’s hard to drop bombs on you like this when you’re hooked up to all these machines. You look so pitiful.” Garrett laughed, which quickly turned into a painful cough, and I grabbed my water bottle to help ease it. “Do you want me to call your dad? Let him know you’re awake?” I asked. He shook his head. “Garrett, he’s your father—” “And he’s partly the reason I’m in here.” “So am I.

” “That’s different.” “Not really.” I hesitated for a second and Garrett saw right through me. No traumatic brain injury could stop him from that. “What’s going on?” Garrett asked, trying—and failing—to shift his torso over on the bed. I reached over to help him, but he waved me off with a weak flick of his wrist. “It’s about your dad, Garrett. He knows that I know about him—about the bribe he took.” I hesitated for a moment to let those facts sink in before continuing. “But there’s more.

Your dad is somehow involved with my dad’s case. He knows my dad is innocent, Garrett. He told me so.” Before Garrett had a chance to respond, a female doctor in a white coat swept into the room and started checking his monitors. “I need to speak with the patient and run a few tests,” she said to me over her shoulder. “Do you mind waiting in the reception area?” “No, that’s fine. I was just leaving.” I looked down at Garrett, then bent over and gently kissed his forehead. “I’ll be back soon, okay? Get better. I need you back at that godforsaken school.

I can’t survive it without you.” “Don’t worry. I’ll be back on my feet in no time.” “And that’s exactly what I’m trying to assess, so if you two are finished,” the doctor said, giving me a stern look. “Sorry. I’ll see you later, Garrett.” “Later it is. Love you, Ky.” I swallowed hard against the surge of emotions that shot through me. “Love you, too.

” I wiped my damp eyes the second I stepped out into the hallway. As I did, Sheriff Higgins approached, wearing his uniform, firearm and all. The strongest flash of déjà vu went through my mind, dragging up unwelcome memories. Memories of a hospital room, a syringe, and a deranged killer—the one the sheriff helped save me from. Things between the two of us had been strained before that night, mainly because of his behavior during the photo scandal two years earlier. But following homecoming, they’d been tense at best. We had a secret to keep, one that kept him from being tied to Luke Clark’s death. One that would keep him in the clear with the faceless evil, the Advocatus Diaboli, who was responsible for framing my father and Luke’s attempt on my life—but it came at a cost. We had to keep up appearances, which proved easier than I’d have thought. He was good at being a dick.

“Kylene,” he said by way of greeting as he stopped in front of me. “Sheriff.” “I got a call. They said he’s awake.” “He is,” I replied with a genuine smile. “And he’s perfect. Same old Garrett.” The sheriff let out a breath. “Thanks for being here. I’m glad he wasn’t alone when he woke up.

” He gave me a tight nod and headed for his son’s room. I hurried out of the hospital, needing to escape the reminder of what had happened to me the night of the attack. Now that Garrett was awake and going to be okay, I realized going back there would be damn near impossible. I wished I could erase it from existence and take my memories along with it.

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