Date Published: January 22, 2018
Murder and madness infect a small town
For sixteen-year-old Ruthie Stroud, life on tiny Hemlock Island in the Pacific Northwest is an endless sea of boring green, in a place where everybody knows everybody’s business and nothing ever happens. Then her world is ripped apart when her parents divorce and a new man enters her mother’s life. But worse is yet to come.
When she drifts ashore on the mainland, hideously burned, Ruthie has a harrowing tale to tell. It begins with the murder of a family. It ends with her being the sole survivor of a cataclysm that sweeps her little island. As a detective attempts to unravel Ruthie’s story of murder and madness, only one horrifying conclusion can be drawn: whatever was isolated on remote Hemlock Island may now have come to the mainland. Is Ruthie safe? Is anyone?
I wake to pain, pain beyond comprehension, my skin on fire, only to find myself in a hospital bed, my arms bandaged, and wires snaking into machines. The burns are covered in white gauze and every motion, no matter how small, sends my nerves screaming. The air is heavy against my skin. And that smell. I can still smell the bitterness of my singed hair. I feel my head, expecting strands of hair, thick and wavy, but it’s gone. There are only splotches of emptiness, a topography of touch that alarms me. I wonder if it will ever grow back.
Tendrils of anxiety course through me, pulsing steadily. I need to wake up from whatever this is.
In spite of the pain, I caress my face and I have no eyebrows. Only stubble. No matter where I touch, my skin isn’t soft; it’s leather, a mask that rests too tightly against my skull. It’s like my skin is both expanding and contracting, pushing and pulling.
In the cyclone of terror, I remember. I remember everything.
I wish I didn’t. I wish it all away.
Around the room, there are no mirrors, and I know it’s no accident. It’s small comfort. I don’t want to see myself. I may never look in a mirror again. It’s only me and a bed, and colorful murals of elephants and giraffes on the wall, their cartoon smiles mocking me. I must be in the children’s wing, even though I’m sixteen. Next to me, an IV recedes into my vein. To my left is a button. It could be to call for assistance. Or to adjust the bed. But I think it’s something else. I think it’s for pain.
I could press it and disappear into numbness.
I could press it and just drift.
But there is something about pain. It’s the price of being alive.
The button is my litmus test.
I am stronger than my pain. I need to focus on something—anything. I need to distract myself.
I am not my pain.
I am Ruthie Stroud. I live at— wait—not anymore. I have a brother—no, not anymore.
I shut my eyes. I can’t shut them hard enough. Through the darkness, I still see fire. My world engulfed with flickering orange and reds. And the all-encompassing heat, heat beyond boiling, bordering on oblivion. Melting.
My last memory is coming ashore on the mainland, alone and fiercely tired. I didn’t walk, didn’t run. I moved, floating, held aloft by the most invisible of strings, my eyes on the horizon, people on the edges of my vision. Adults. I felt their gaze. The air was cool and moist and my skin so hot. Moving and moving; people staring. I hear them, words like police and 911 and oh my God. They surround me, a horde. They’re feral creatures, circling, their faces distorted. They are coming for me. I have no escape.
I scream and my world goes dark.
I open my eyes. A woman stands in the hospital room doorway. Her skin is the color of teak, her black hair pulled into a tight ponytail, and without a uniform, she’s clearly no nurse. I look down her button-down shirt and a badge is attached to her belt, a gun holstered at her side.
She says, not unkindly, “I’m Detective Perez from the Washington State Police.”
I knew the cops would get involved, even though they’re late. Far too late.
She waits for me to invite her in. “May I?”
I nod and my skin crinkles and cracks. She enters, pulling a chair beside my bed and sits down. Her brown eyes rest on me and then dart away. She can’t bear to look. I must seem a monster. She asks, “How are you feeling?”
I don’t know how to answer that question.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
Down the hall, I hear a child scream. From surgery or fear, I don’t know. I think fight the pain, fight the pain.
She speaks to me in soothing tones. “I need to ask you a few questions. About what happened. Can you talk?”
My mouth is dry, my throat sore, my vocal chords thrashed. I’d forgotten how much I screamed. I feel my skin wrinkle into deep crevices as I move my jaw, and it’s an effort to form words. Even my tongue feels burned; this strange muscle in my mouth. “Is my dad coming?”
“He’s on his way.” We share a bit of silence and I stare at the woman she is, the beautiful woman I will never be, and she says, “I’d like to start at the beginning. And if there’s ever a point where you need to stop, just let me know, okay?”
“There’s just one thing,” and I clear my throat. I force her to find my eyes. To see. To look. To understand.
“Don’t judge me,” I tell her. “I did what I had to.”
About the Author
James Morris is a former television writer who now works in digital media. He is the author of the Kindle Scout selectees What Lies Within and Melophobia, as well as the young adult suspense Feel Me Fall and trio of short stories Abraham Lincoln Must Die. Catch him at jamesmorriswriter.com.
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