I was running from my past, but not by my own choice. Life has a way of making choices for you—or fathers, rather. My father had rather impulsively decided it was time to forget every sordid detail of his former existence, and guess who got caught in the fray? Me.
That was the only way to explain how I ended up in a podunk town, population 1,517—just enough people to plant some fence posts to house the cow pies and barn dances. Great. My idea of fun exactly.
My father called Splinter Bridge "quaint" and "mysterious" and a "great little adventure". You don't want to know what I called the place. Needless to say it wasn't pretty or at all appropriate within civilized company.
I could feel my arms straining under the weight of the box. It was one of many lovely heifers of assorted cans I'd carried to and from the shelves all morning, leaving my muscles burning with fatigue and my skin chaffed from cardboard corners. The cardboard box landed a little too hard, issuing a metal clatter. Air burst out the side of my cheek as I examined my reddened arms.
I appeared tired, but relatively calm to the outside world, but inside I could feel the mental tirade beginning with a tinge of stinging bitterness that had laced my thoughts all morning.
Didn't he even think to ask me if I wanted to be here? No, of course not! Because my feelings meant nothing. He just had to take me away from my friends—my life—in his quest to forget.
The only thing that meant squat to him was a cold can of beer. That's what he squandered our savings on; that's how he spent his time. He'd even used up the school fund that he and mom had set aside for me so that I'd have some cash for college. How was I supposed to pay for my education? More importantly, how was I supposed to find the cash to run away from him?
So mom died. And yeah, it sucked. It sucked so badly that I cried on and off for a good two weeks before I was able to pull myself together. I almost hadn't made it to the funeral. The viewing had been a nightmare, shaking all those hands and smiling at all those nameless, faceless lines of people. The stifling air, the condolences, her cold and lifeless form…
I threw the image from my mind as I began to stack the shelf.
But at least I could stand the site of the park my parents used to job through, I thought. At least I could stand the pancake house we used to dine at every Saturday morning. And mom's favourite cat. Dad had even stopped working at the University because my mom had taken some upgrading classes there once. Big freaking deal! He didn't have to go completely nutty over it! He was supposed to be the calm and sensible professor—it's what he'd always been!
And now look at me! I thought, arranging the spaghetti-Os that I'd haphazardly slapped onto the shelf. I'm working in Mr. Splinter's mart just so that I'll be able to pay for school next year.
I sighed and tried to calm down. There was no point in getting angry. It wouldn't change anything. There were lots of kids that had to work to pay for their education. So I'm not spoiled rotten anymore. So what?
In one year I'd be out of high school and I could go back to Edmonton. I could room with Beth and Tia just like we'd always planned. Everything would work out. It only took one year in a strange school.
I bit my lip as I pushed the cans even farther back to make room for another row. My father was right. Splinter Bridge was a weird place. In fact, it was downright odd. I mean, who expects to walk down a street and find people hanging laundry off their front porches? This is the twenty-first century for goodness' sake!
I actually imagined this town with this dense, almost dark aura around it. Which is really weird. Part of my overactive imagination or something of that sort.
"Lynne?" A voice asked and then a stern-looking lady was turning into the aisle with her hands on her hips. Sue Cortino. She was the owner and manager of Mr. Splinter's Mart. Great. "Is everything fine over here? I thought I heard slamming sounds."
"It's fine," I responded and swallowed, managing a simultaneous half-smile. I'm pretty sure I didn't convince her if her following reaction was any indication.
She frowned slightly, a crease running between her brows. She pulled a hand through her short red hair that was mussed because she was always messing with it. Part of her whole "the customers are being so difficult!" routine that I had witnessed for the past week. Translation: she was feeling harassed.
"Now Lynne," she said in an almost huffy tone. "It's really nice having you work here. But you need to be a little more careful with the goods. If you dent one of those cans, it'll be coming out of your pay check."
"Okay," I replied. I knew I should say something a little more apologetic. I needed this job badly. But I'm not exactly your most diplomatic person. What exactly was I supposed to say? "Sorry for slamming your cans against the shelf but it made me feel better"? I think I was better off leaving it at "okay".
Sue let out another "I'm about to lose my hair" sigh and dropped the hands from her hips. "It's fine. Just don't let it happen again."
I nodded, only hoping I could keep the promise. With my constantly wandering attention, sometimes it was hard to remember what I promised a couple days—even sometimes a couple hours—before, unless it was something really important. And no, I don't have ADD…or maybe I do, but I don't care to find out so I can end up popping pills for the rest of my life. Have you ever seen those old grannies whose jaws shudder because they took to many mind-altering drugs—either pharmaceutical or from the shifty guy at the corner—when they were younger?
Anyway, I was hoping Mrs. Cortino would leave me alone now because I was getting kind of uncomfortable under her scrutinizing stare. I mean, I wasn't going to disappear if she turned the other way.
"Are you okay, Lynne?" She asked. "You haven't talked much since you started working here."
I shrugged. How are you supposed to answer to a question like that? It's not like I want people to know that in the course of a few months my mother has died, my dad has become an alcoholic and rarely comes home at night—and when he does, it's usually with some stupid chic that's practically half his age. At least he's not a violent drunk.
I mean, who would want to spread that kind of information around about their family? It's embarrassing.
"I'm fine," I said.
"You sure?" she asked and when I nodded she just shrugged. "Okay, so I need to run next door for a couple of minutes for some business. If you need anything," she added with a nudge in the direction of the front desk, "just ask Eva. She knows the ropes around here."
"Thanks," I responded and turned back to my work as she moved toward the entrance. The bell above the door tinkled and I began placing a row of Raveoli next to the Spaghetti-Os. "Business" was Mrs. Cortino's term for going to chat with the Dry Cleaning lady next door. She wouldn't be back for at least an hour, which suited me fine. I already knew my duties. So thankfully I wouldn't need to ask Eva for help.
I knew it was bad to judge Eva on-sight, but I was the worst for that. My first thought was: she's a backstabber—which is totally stupid. I couldn't judge someone because she was probably the most beautiful girl in the whole town. But something about her made me uneasy. I'd never been comfortable around the popular crowd, and this girl had popular stamped on her forehead.
She was one of those voluptuous types that flirted with every guy and flaunted as much as she could in a public place. She had the long golden hair and huge warm brown eyes that guys found adorable. No, not adorable, hot.
If anyone was to be called adorable, it was me. My friends said that I looked like a six-week-old kitten. And trust me, that is not a compliment. I didn't want to be cute. I wanted to be beautiful.
"Lynne? Could you come up here for a second?"
Great. Miss Popularity herself calls. I got to my feet slowly, feeling the stiffness in my arms. "Just a second!" I called.
I rounded the corner curiously, eyes lifted to view Eva with a questioning look. I slowly moved to the counter top, hoping she wasn't going to try and hoist her chores off on me. "What did you want?"
Eva flashed an automatic smile, the one she flashed at everyone and held up two bottles of nail polish. She wasn't dressed like she normally did. She was wearing one of those business skirts with the suit jackets that business ladies wore. She had also clipped her hair back from her face, no doubt to show off her elegant cheekbones—thought made with a tinge of jealousy.
"Turquoise or dark amber?" She asked, holding the bottles closer for me to see.
I almost rolled my eyes. Don't be rude, I warned myself. It wouldn't do to go to school, already having made an enemy. Besides, Eva was trying to be nice. The least I could do was to try the same.
"The second," I responded. "It matches with your outfit. So why are you going with the sophisticated look?"
She shrugged with a conspiratorial smile. "There's this really hot guy who works at the drug store. Steve. He just finished college and moved back to town. And he's gotten so hot."
So she went for older men. No, she just went for guys in general. She probably dated every new guy she could get her hands on—like candy. A new flavor every week.
I frowned. "What happened to…"
"Keith?" She finished for me. "I told him to take a hike. He was getting too possessive."
I had no problem agreeing with her on that statement. Whenever he decided to haunt her at work, he only caused problems—especially if any of the male customers looked at her too long. Besides, he was a scary-looking guy with muscles two-times the size of a normal guy and a bloody dagger tattoo trailing down one arm.
"Told him to take a hike?" I repeated. "He doesn't look like the kind of person you'd say that to."
She batted out a hand and shrugged. "He's a pansy, really. Besides, he's too scared of the group to actually try anything. He was only dating me because he wanted to be one of us."
Woah. Self-centered much? But at least she was friendly.
I gave her a confused look. "Group?"
"That's me and my friends," She responded quickly, changing the subject. "So what about you? We never get newcomers in Splinter Bridge. Everyone who lives here has practically been here since birth. Some of the families have been here since their ancestors settled. Why did you move here? Give me all the juicy details."
I shrugged offhandedly and lied. "There's not much to say. Nothing interesting. My dad and I moved her because he thought it was a quaint little town. He wanted to live in a place like this. He said it would help…him write his novel." I finished hurriedly after a suspicious pause.
She gave me an odd look, but shrugged off the weird pause. "And you actually wanted to move? Didn't you leave a lot of friends behind?"
This subject was getting a little uncomfortable for me. I really didn't want to talk about this. But I didn't know how to get out of the subject so I continued. "I—"
Saved by the bell. Literally. Or the whirlwind more like. That's what the girl looked like as she stormed into the convenience store, her reddish-brown hair flipping up behind her. Her dark eyes were like slits and the dozens of freckles that dotted her face stood out starkly on her steaming red face.
It was Julie Cortino, the manager's daughter.
She stopped momentarily to send them an evil glare before stomping off into the back room.
Eva and I eyed each other for a moment before we set off in a fit of giggles. I tried not to laugh too hard. I didn't want to upset Julie even more, but her expression had been so comical—almost like a charging bull.
I took a deep breath and tried to stop myself from laughing, but one look at Eva's smirking face sent me off again. She heaved forward, clutching her stomach in return. Finally, we were both able to stop, gasping for breath.
"Don't smile," I warned, "You'll set me off."
She held up her arms in a defensive gesture. "No smiling."
I turned to take a look toward the back room. I said in a half-whisper. "What's up with her?"
Eva shrugged dubiously. "Like I know. Or care." She examined her nails. "Maybe her mother stopped her from getting into trouble again. The girl's self-destructive. And crazy. Half the time she's as drunk as a sewer rat. I heard that she woke up next to Carl after a wild party. I would absolutely die if I woke up next to Carl."
I shrugged. Being a newcomer, the name didn't mean anything to me.
"She really seems to hate us," I observed belatedly.
"Not you," Eva said, shrugging as if it were no big deal. "It's me that she hates. Her sister, Kim and I, used to be really good friends. Julie was really possessive of her and she didn't like me taking away all of her attention. When Kim died, for some reason Julie blamed me for her death…"
Eva sighed and bit her lip. "I really shouldn't talk about this. Sue wouldn't like it because she's afraid that anything to do with Kim will set Julie off even more. Julie's psycho enough as it is."
I nodded and didn't push the subject any further, even though I was bursting with curiosity. I didn't get the chance to anyway, because suddenly another figure burst through the door, looking harassed.
"Did Julie come through here?" Sue asked, her breath coming quickly, as if she'd just been running.
We pointed to the back room. Moments later, we heard arguing.
I tuned it out and turned back to Eva, who was looking impatiently at her watch. "Caysee's supposed to be here!" she said. "We're going to Kingsley to pick out a new car for me."
"Something's wrong with your Bug?" I asked.
Eva squirmed a little. "No…but I wanted to have a more sophisticated car. Maybe a Corvette or something—to impress Steve."
I just shook my head wonderingly. While her next door neighbours were probably hanging their laundry on the front porch, she had enough money to blow to get a new car whenever it struck her fancy. I was curious about what her parents did for livings but I didn't want to be too impertinent, so I didn't ask.
A small smile crossed my face. I could imagine what it would be like to be rolling in the dough like that. It would be bliss.
The overactive bell rang for a third time in the past couple of minutes. A tall and tawny girl with chin-cropped dark hair and chocolate coloured eyes gave me a dark look as she moved to the counter—like a bug ready to be squashed.
It left me thinking, 'Jeez, what did I ever do to you?' I didn't dare voice my opinion because she didn't just look like she wanted to squash me like a bug, she actually looked like she could do it. She was definitely an athlete, while…well, I'm uncoordinated to say the least. Plus, a cute little kitten—which was even worse.
"Caysee!" Eva called out, acting like she hadn't even caught the exchange. "Where have you been? My shifts been over for fifteen minutes!"
Caysee shrugged and kicked lightly at the side of the counter with a track-pant-clad leg. "Hiking at Grant Park. Now hurry up, I'm not waiting all day."
"Just a minute!" Eva protested to Caysee, twirling. I was backing away now. It felt uncomfortable to just stand here when I was no longer a part of the conversation and it was clear that Caysee didn't want me here—for whatever reason. "Do you think Steve will like?"
Caysee snorted derisively. "Does it matter? He'll be too scared to date you."
"No way!" Eva shot back. "He wasn't here in tenth—"
She cut off suddenly and they both sent glances in my direction. I just shrugged and backed the rest of the way into the aisle until they were hidden from view. A second later, Eva called to Sue to have someone work the cash register and the bell above the door rang, signalling their exit.
I shrugged and told my curiosity not to get the best of me. It was none of my business. Besides, it was probably just some inside joke.
"Julie! Go out and work the till!" I heard Mrs. Cortino call out.
I picked up the empty box that I'd left in the aisle and started to move toward the back room. I came to a halt as Julie burst out of the back room, grumbling. She gave me a dark look. "Watch it!"
I just shrugged. Julie's deal was her business.
Julie started to shove passed me and then thought better of it. She stopped and gave me an odd look before glancing about furtively. She gripped my elbow and carted me toward the glass fridge doors at the back.
"Hey! Ow! What—?" I nearly stumbled over my feet and her hand was pinching my arm. Before I could tell her to take her freaking hand off my arm, she had let go and turned to look at me. I finally managed to splutter. "What are you doing?"
She took another furtive glance, before hissing. "You shouldn't be hanging out with them."
"Who?" I asked, a little perturbed. I mean, who just comes up with this stuff? "Eva and Caysee?"
She nodded vigorously, her freckles standing out against her skin. "Yes. Their whole group. They're evil."
I frowned. I didn't particularly want to be in the middle of their argument—especially since Julie was supposedly kind of psycho. "Evil? Don't you think that's going a little far?"
"No!" Julie snapped. She swore. "Why can't you just listen to me? I'm trying to help you out!"
"Okay! Okay!" I lifted my arms in a peace gesture because she was beginning to work herself into a fit. "They're evil."
"And back-stabbers," Julie replied after taking a deep breath. She'd taken hold of my shoulders and was speaking intently. "They'd chew you up and spit you out. But I won't let them. My friends and I—we can protect you."
I almost snorted derisively. Sure, Caysee was a mean one. But Eva? She was a ditzy blonde, but friendly enough. And I'd rather be associated with her than a raving psycho lunatic.
"We're going to get back at them for all they've done!" Julie continued gleefully.
And you're telling me this why? "Um, great," I said. "I have to get back to work."
"No, wait a minute," Julie said. "I can't wait for you to meet my friends. They'll love you. And maybe you could help us with the plans."
"Fun," I replied weakly. So maybe it wasn't the best answer, but I didn't exactly want Julie all up in my face.
Julie was grinning unabashedly when her mother called out. "Julie! Where are you? You can't just leave the till like that! What if Carl and Jonas were to come in here? They would cart away the whole till for more of their drugs!"
Julie's head shot up and she scampered toward the front. I took a sigh of relief as soon as she had left. If only I could avoid her for the rest of the night…
There was the sound of feet again and I groaned. But it was Sue Cortino who showed up—not her daughter. She came up to me with a sympathetic look. "Julie wasn't bothering you, was she?" She asked in a hushed tone.
Before I could answer, she said. "Good! I'm glad. I wouldn't want to lose another employee because she scared you off. Don't worry about her. She's just a little….um…intense."
Intense? How about psycho?
"It's okay," I said aloud.
"Great!" Mrs. Cortino was nearly gushing. "Thank you so much. You know, Julie really is better once you get to know her. But she's not really good at making friends. Maybe you could say hi to her in the halls at school—or sit next to her! I'd really appreciate it. She's been through a hard time…"
"I—" Just say no! I ordered myself. This is not my problem. "I'll do what I can."
Mrs. Cortino lit up. She pulled me into a tight hug. "You are such a sweet girl, Lynne!"
"Thanks," I muttered, feeling a little stiff. And more than that, I was feeling guilty now.
Sue pulled back. "You know," she said. "You look tired. "Why don't you take the rest of the night off? You only have two hours left anyway."
"Thanks," I replied again, feeling relieved.
"Take care," Sue replied.
I hurried out the door and into the night before she could change her mind. I breathed in the early evening air and wished like the devil that I didn't have to come back here. But I knew I'd be back in a couple days.
I reluctantly trudged home.