Part of the editing process is about taking a break and re-reading your edits and cutting out superfluous moments. So, I did that but I still think it's kind of pretentious. The present-tense was adding to making it suck, so I painstakingly went through and made it past tense. Let me know if you spot something in present tense because I'm pretty sure I didn't catch everything.

I'm writing on this one again. Horrah! The writing is slow (as re-writing always is), but I'm happy to be back in the saddle with Violet and her weird adventures. Hopefully this time around I can provide a more realistic, rugged experience.


Edited August 6th, 2013


Chapter One

The road ahead of me resembled a work of art. Harsh headlights illuminated the slate gray street, decorated with staggered yellow stripes, and darkness blurred around the zone of white light. Glinting green road signs told me that I was entering Lincoln County, crossing the border between the known and the unknown for many suburban Oklahomans.

I knew this land, though, better than I knew the college town where I lived. Even in the dark, I could see the vague outlines of the unoccupied acres of land where I played as a child, during my many excursions alone. I was a curious child, the sort that carried around a bag of jars in my backpack, just to collect specimens on the go. Dad knew from the very start that I would be the first and, most likely, only scientist in the family.

The gentle hum of my tires against the pavement was too much like a lullaby, and I switched on my car stereo to keep me awake. I sighed, rolled down the window, and let the wind attack my hair to the songs of Nirvana.

The clock on the dash glowed bright green, warning that the hour was late - 10:30PM, and with at least another half hour of driving to go. The remaining drive was dirt roads and hillsides.

It was late May, and the fresh scent of mowed grass teased my nose when I turned onto yet another unlit dirt road. In the distance, I saw the homes of local farmers and ranchers, orange porch lights winking in the dark. The cool spring breeze was rapturous and I remembered, not for the first time, that I was free.

I was free from the stress of finals, from the fear of being late for class, and especially free from the oppressive rants of my chauvinistic Comparative Religions professor. He treated his classroom like a stage on which he could proliferate his ideas on gender-based discrimination. Thinking about him made me clutch the wheel until my knuckles were white. And then I recalled how wonderful it felt to turn him in, to report his behavior to the head of his department. Served him right.

I relaxed once more, allowing the clean country air to work its magic. The best smell in the world, to a girl who was raised on a ranch, is manure. OK, maybe not manure, but definitely wet grass and dirt. The dirt in Oklahoma isn't like dirt everywhere else in the country, either. It's as red as Oklahoma politicians.

I felt a strong sense of loyalty to my backwards, Bible-toting state. The majority of the people there hated women, science, and free thought, but there were enough beautiful people to keep me there. One of those beautiful people was my father, Vance Mosely.

His beat-up red truck was parked on the gravel driveway, and I parked directly behind it. My engine went off with a whine and I shoved the key into my jeans pocket. I didn't have to lock my car, that far out into the boonies, but I did anyway. It was a habit, learned living on a college campus full of laptop-scavenging thieves. My first inclination was to run to the door and pound on it like a maniac until Dad answered, scooped me into his arms, and wished me a happy birthday. I was stopped by the black canopy over my head, which reminded me that it was 11:00PM, well past my early-rising dad's bedtime.

The planter on the porch barely concealed the spare house key. I kneeled, claimed the rusty old key, and jiggled it into the lock. It required a special sort of talent to get the door open. Even a robber would have become frustrated and left empty handed. I was a pro at it, and still I ended up wiggling the knob for a surplus of five minutes. Moths fluttered around my head as the belated porch light clicked on, providing the light I needed to see. After finally gaining access, I pushed open the door as carefully and quietly as possible.

The house was black, but I saw two glowing eyes in the darkness. A fierce bark jolted my senses. I fumbled for the light switch beside the door, eager to flip it on before Murphy bit off a limb. My fingers found the switch and the tiny, neatly-kept living room became illuminated by dim orange light.

"Murphy!" I whispered, dropping to my knees as the mix-breed whined out of sheer enthusiasm. "Daddy's asleep. Quiet, boy, quiet!"

I scrubbed his ears and clamped my hand around his snout, trying to hush his yips of elation. Murphy was a mutt with eerily pale blue eyes and a mostly-black coat, with brown slashed across his chest. He was shedding and his fur floated around my head in long strands. "Daddy is asleep," I repeated, as Murphy lovingly bit my hands.

"No, he isn't."

I glanced up to see Dad leaning against the doorway to the hall, wearing his pajamas and a grin the size of Texas. I struggled to my feet, warding off Murphy's aggressive affection, and wrapped my arms around Dad's neck. Dad was a tall man, taller than most, with pale blue eyes that mirrored mine. His nose was slightly misshapen, from being broken so many times, and his skin was rough and dark from sun exposure. His hair was dishwater blonde, like my natural hair color, although I often dyed mine dark brown.

"Happy Birthday, sweetheart." His voice was rich, a welcome timbre for my homesick ears.

I held onto him for as long as I could. Murphy's manic jumping and barking eventually brought us apart. I scrubbed the old dog's ears once more before meandering to the kitchen, where my true interest was. Our fridge used to be pristine white, when I was a little girl. At 20 years old, its color resembled that of an old newspaper clipping.

The refrigerator's door creaked open and the light blinked on, buzzing like a mosquito trap. There was a jar of pig's feet, which made me shudder, but no cake. Slowly, I closed the refrigerator door. Dad was watching me a few feet away, smirking.

"There's no cake," he sighed. "Not yet, at least. We can go into town tomorrow and get the ingredients, bake it together. I didn't expect you until morning."

"Well," I mumbled, shuffling through the cabinets. "I wanted to come home as soon as possible. Don't you have anything besides prunes and outdated bread? Ah-ha!" I plucked a Hostess box from the top shelf and extract the last Twinkie.

"Go ahead," he laughed, granting me permission where none was needed. "Just don't forget to check the expiration date."

"It's a Twinkie, Dad. It has no expiration date." I uncased the spongy yellow treat and leaned against the kitchen cabinet while I ate it. "You can go back to bed. I'll make up my old room."

"I already did," he said, grinning. "And if you go out, make sure you're back before midnight." He kissed my forehead and disappeared into his bedroom.

Murphy sat at my feet, sharp blue eyes peering up at me in expectation. My heart melted for the poor creature. He was never allowed table scraps, so I tossed him the last half of my Twinkie. He choked it down in delight, a dab of white appearing on the end of his nose, and followed me to the front door.

With the house key in my pocket, I slipped out into the night as quietly as I could. The grass swishing around my ankles and the sound of Murphy's collar jingling on his neck were the only sounds. It was late, and mosquitoes were flocking to my head like a giant glowing welcome sign. I couldn't be distracted. I had something I needed to do.

Beyond the grassy plains surrounding our land was a thick tangle of trees that, as a child, I called the Great Beyond. The line of towering trees disrupted the flat horizon abruptly, and at the heart of the wood, extended for miles in every direction. It was the barrier that separated my family and me from the rest of the world, the line drawn in the sand that set us apart. As an adult, it was no longer the playground I enjoyed as a little girl. Instead, it was a treacherous path of memories that, with every step deeper into the mouth of the wood, threatened to bog me down with grief.

The faint light of the moon was the only illumination I needed, weaving through the familiar worn walkways. Murphy trotted quietly behind me, as if disappearing into the night was the single most natural thing in the world. He knew the way just as well as I did, even though he was just a pup when we built the tree house.

About half a mile into the moon-bathed forest, a tree house was nestled high in the branches of a massive, leafy tree. The silver leaves perfectly concealed the shingled roof and the cloth flap that made up the makeshift door. It took a considerable amount of energy to hoist myself up the rope ladder that led to the platform, and by the time I reached the top a sheen of sweat glistened on my forehead.

Wooden floorboards creaked beneath my sneakers and I had to hunch over to enter the playhouse. Inside was a bench my father carved himself, as well as a few cabinets that contained coloring books and magazines. Two windows were cut out in opposite walls, allowing leaf-filtered moonlight to cast the distorted shadows of branches against the floor. I crawled to the shelf that was nailed to the wall furthest from the door and delicately removed a photo album from its dusty surface. I sat with my legs crossed, my back to the window, and opened the album.

The first pages portrayed Dad and Mom, kissing on the porch of our house. Mom seemed happy, even though, at the time the photos were taken, her marriage was falling apart. Murphy was wallowing in the dirt in one photo; in it, he was such a young pup that he could barely walk without toppling over. Smiling, I turned the pages, admiring each photo with shaking hands.

The fourth picture on the fifth page was of Victoria.

She was young, missing two teeth, with her golden blonde hair drawn into pigtails. A raspberry was in her hand, the dark juice from it staining her lips and the front of her overalls. Murphy was asleep on the porch in the background, and Mom was kneeling in the garden. Dad took the picture, obviously, because a baby-face version of me was plucking flowers from the ground and making a bracelet with the stems.

It was an acutely important photo, for me, and I lingered on it the longest. My fingers trembled as I traced the cheery face of nine-year-old Victoria, then the outline of my mother. The photo represented a time in my life when everything made sense – when the family was still together.

As the photos progressed, Mom became more sallow and peeved. She often stuck her hand in front of her face, to put off the photographer. Victoria and I grew, always grinning, always wearing muddy overalls. Murphy grew fastest, though, becoming massive and floppy in a matter of months. Then, suddenly, Mom disappeared from the photos altogether. She left, when Victoria was twelve and I was nine. The house fell into disrepair, as I continued to flip through the pages, and each photo of Dad was marred by that sad dullness in his eyes.

We grew up with astounding speed, and by the last page, Victoria was studying her college text books on her bed and I was squinting at the camera, wearing my high school's senior class t-shirt. That was the last photo of Victoria, and the remaining three photos were of me, alone, packing for college and showing off my dorm room.

Victoria, or Tori, as I called her, looked so lively in her last photo. Tori in the photo was barely 20, a vigorous student at the same university I later attended. Her course of study, though, was different than mine. She studied literature and art while I studied chemistry and biology. She wanted to be an author and high school teacher while I wanted to be a doctor. We were so very different, but best friends to the very last.

Several weeks after her twentieth birthday, Tori vanished. She didn't leave a note, she didn't exhibit odd behavior, she simply vanished. For any other twenty-year-old girl, such a disappearance would be strange, but for Tori it was downright wrong. She wouldn't have left us like Mom did. She wouldn't have deserted Dad and me.

Before her disappearance, my straight-A sister lived at home with her family and commuted an hour to school twice a week. She worked as a cashier at the Country Boy, a local grocery, and took as many online classes as she could. Being a high school senior, I admired my sister to no end. When she didn't come home from a walk in the woods one evening, my world literally shattered. Dad's did, too, and he sank into a depression that was only halted by his desire to send me off to college with a smile.

The state was upheaved, for a few weeks after the police report was filed. Then they gave up, the case ran cold, and officers attributed the tragedy to the flightiness of a young college student. The world grew quiet and life went on. I gave up hope

My tears dropped onto the yellowing pages of the photo album and I closed it. Carved into the opposite wall was the promise Tori and I made, when we were too young to understand the meaning of forever. I traced the rough outline of a heart, then the words etched within it:

Karina and Tori

Best Friends Forever

A shudder disrupted the sweetness of the moment – a shudder that rockd the ground and caused the entire playhouse to shake. Lights from an unknown source bleached the air white for one blinding moment before passing and whiting out the trees in the distance. The piercing shriek that accompanied the floodlights sent Murphy into a panic, yapping and howling with all his might. The ground shook again, this time with purpose, and I feared that the tree house would crumble, with me in it.

I couldn't descend the rope ladder quickly enough. The roar died out, Murphy's barking becoming the only sound. Thoughts of panic were sharp in my mind. What if it was a plane that crashed? I saw no flames, so that was unlikely. Then, I considered the possibility that it was just a low-flying plane, one that almost crashed. Still, I was unconvinced by my own theory and I decided that escape was the best course of action.

My feet hit the ground and Murphy rallied around my ankles, whining and writhing like he was on fire. I turned my shoulder away from the direction of the screech and began my jog toward home. Something stopped me, though. A low hum filled the air, followed by a soft thud, and I was faced with a decision. Would I satiate my curiosity at discovering a possible plane or helicopter crash or would I run home and call 911? Neither option was particularly appealing, so I was frozen in place, unable to choose one or the other.

The decision was made for me, though, when light spilled through the forest once more. I shielded my eyes, hissing at Murphy to stop his ruckus, and peered blearily through my fingers at the disturbance. A shadow fell over my vision, two shadows, in the elongated forms of two men. The light vanished, leaving me a blinking, wobbling mess, cowering against the trunk of a tree. My mind reeled and spots floated across my field of vision. My eyesight returned to normal after a considerable amount of time, and the first thing I saw was the men.

Their garbled speech met my ears and immediately I questioned what language they were speaking. It sounded like no language I knew of, except maybe Russian, but it was even too intricate to be that. I marveled for a dumb moment before I thought to hide. I hunched down behind a bush, but it was a useless effort when Murphy was barking savagely at my side.

The voices were incoherent and I hid my eyes from the forms of men among the trees. Suddenly, I could discern a few thickly-accented words.

"Hello? Is someone there? It is the girl, behind the plant."

Dammit, I thought, and closed my eyes even tighter against the threat of discovery. I thought that if I couldn't see them, somehow, they wouldn't be unable to see me. Logical thought flies out the window in situations like that, and so I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes to the reality of my predicament.

"Karena?" asked a deep voice, pronouncing my name incorrectly.

I was so shocked that I gasped audibly, making hiding no longer an option.