In Place of Never
Excerpt: Chapter 1
Faith is dead.
The words had formed my first thought every day for three years. Strangely, on the anniversary of her death, my mind was blank.
My bedroom door stood open, courtesy of my little sister, Prudence, no doubt. This was her way of nudging me into motion. Muted shades of gray light filtered through rain-washed windows, barely enough to illuminate dust motes floating overhead. Time to face the worst day of the year.
Sounds and scents of breakfast climbed two flights of stairs and settled into my thoughts with an eerie echo. I pulled clothes from the pile and brushed my teeth and hair. These were the things I’d only begun to appreciate before everything changed.
Far too soon, my toes curled over the top step outside my room. I pulled in a deep breath and braced my palms against cool stairwell walls, dragging my fingertips over the grooves and planes in the wood paneling as I inched downstairs.
From the quiet hallway outside our kitchen, life looked surreal, like the setting for a play with actors in motion but no audience or script. Dad’s clothes were as neat as a pin, and his hair fell in the same schoolboy style he’d outgrown thirty years ago. The morning paper lay open in front of him, beside a full cup of coffee that had lost its steam. Pru stood at the stove shoveling eggs from a pan onto a plate. She, too, appeared ready for the day, if I ignored the tremor in her hand and the strain in her brow. She nearly dropped the plate when she turned from the stove.
“Mercy.” She pressed a hand to her heart and stumbled to the table with the eggs. “Why are you just standing there?”
Dad turned blank eyes on me, unspeaking.
I moved to the counter and filled Mom’s favorite travel mug with coffee, ignoring the palpable tension. In sixty seconds, I’d be out the door with my free, portable caffeine.
Pru untied the apron from her waist and folded it on the counter. She stared at me. “Aren’t you eating?”
I sealed the mug. “No.” I needed to be anywhere but here.
Dad tensed. The paper crumbled around his tightened grip, but he wouldn’t get involved, especially not today. Today we’d pretend we were still a family. Three months from now, we’d do it again.
Pru bit her trembling lip. “Mercy.” The word was barely audible, even in the quietest house on Earth.
Something tore inside me, and I wavered, slowly sipping coffee until the bitter taste Mom had loved turned my stomach.
Dad pressed the paper against our ancient Formica tabletop and lifted cold coffee to his lips.
I settled onto a chair and tapped my nails over tiny flecks of gold and silver embedded in the table’s white surface. He and Mom had received the kitchen set as a wedding present from her parents. A grooved metal wrap curled around the table’s perimeter. My sisters and I had done homework at that table. Birthday cakes and Thanksgiving dinners were served there. When our family was whole, we’d played cards and board games together every Friday night. Family night. Lately, we were a family of ghosts, figurative and literal.
The legs of Dad’s chair scraped over worn linoleum. He poured his coffee into the sink and freed his jacket from the chair back where he’d sat. He threaded his arms though too-large holes. “I’ll be home late.”
Pru flopped her arms against her sides. “But you didn’t eat.”
He scooped his Bible and keys off the counter and pulled the front door closed behind him.
Pru collapsed into the seat across from me. Bony elbows slid across the tabletop. “Please eat something.”
“No thank you.”
Her frown deepened. “No one eats around here. It isn’t healthy.”
“We don’t sleep or talk either. At least we’re consistent.” A deep cringe pinched my heart. I’d promised myself not to provoke Pru. She was only a kid. The least I could do was use restraint and good manners. “Sorry.”
I stared into her wide blue eyes, wanting to say a million things I couldn’t. “You didn’t need to make breakfast. It’s not your responsibility.” The word lodged in my throat, filling the space until air struggled past.
Hurt welled in Pru’s eyes. “Whose responsibility is it then? Yours?” She stood in a burst of energy I couldn’t fathom, rocking her chair onto two legs before it settled with a thump. “I’m fifteen, not five.” Pru whirled through the room, dumping eggs in the trash and shoving dishes into the sink. Defeated by her loved ones before nine AM. It wasn’t fair.
She turned on her heels and glared at me. “You’re leaving in six weeks. Then what?” She bit her bottom lip and scrubbed a plate hard. “You could at least pretend you don’t want to go. Even if it’s a lie.”
“I’m not leaving. I’m going to college like everyone does.”
Her weary eyes drooped at the corners. “Not everyone.”
“Not Faith.” As if I needed the reminder. As if I didn’t think of that every day.
She dried her hands and pursed her lips. “What are you doing today?”
Thunder rocked the house. “I’m going out.”
“Out where? There’s a storm. Besides, my friends are coming over for movies and popcorn. Why don’t you stay? Company could take your mind off…stuff.”
“Me, Prudence, and the color guard?” I flipped a handful of sandy curls off Pru’s shoulder. “I’m not sure that’d be fun for anyone.”
“Can’t. I’m going to go see Mom and Faith. I’ll be home later.” Her doe-eyed expression stopped me short. Since when was Pru so needy? She’d certainly never needed me. Had she? Even if she had, what was I supposed to do about it? “If you want, you can come up to my room when your friends leave. We’ll eat cold pizza and drink warm soda after Dad falls asleep.” My throat constricted further with each word. Faith and I had spent many nights that way when Pru was small and sound asleep in her room next door.
She paled. “Maybe.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Maybe?” That was the best invitation I’d ever offered and she’d turned me down. Something was up. “Why? Do you have plans after Dad falls asleep?”
I sucked air. “You can’t go out after curfew.”
She crossed thin arms over her chest. “I said maybe. Anyways, since when do you care? Is this a joke? You think you’re in charge?”
My gut wrenched. Was I? Everyone ahead of me on the chain of command had either died or otherwise checked out. “You can’t stay out all night.”
She clenched her jaw.
I grabbed my bag off the coat tree and secured it cross body before she lashed out. “I can’t do this right now. I’ll be home soon. I won’t interrupt your movie day, but I will look for you tonight.”
Pru scoffed as I edged past her and out the door where Dad had disappeared minutes before.
My muddy Chucks waited on the rack against the railing.
Pru glared at me through the window.
I couldn’t stay. I had to visit Mom and Faith before the storm washed the roads away.
I gathered my hair into a knot as I sloshed through the rain toward the edge of town. Puddles splashed warm water onto my ankles. Raindrops swiveled patterns over my forehead into my eyes, blurring my vision and masking a hot tear of frustration on one cheek. The streets were empty of pedestrians. Cars with wipers on warp speed settled at stoplights or outside shops, collecting women in rain gear and children wielding umbrellas shaped like storybook characters.
Dad’s car sat alone in the church lot. He dreamed of inspiring the town and he prayed fervently for a healing of our broken community. The concept was nice if you weren’t one of his forgotten daughters.
I ducked my head and moved faster, dashing through the lot and across the intersection at Main Street. Soggy, wind-battered flyers waved from light posts on every corner. The annual River Festival returned this month, assuming St. Mary’s didn’t wash off the map before then. I tugged my hood over my ears and sloshed onto the sidewalk. American flags lined store windows. Support our Troops shirts and Uncle Sam bobbleheads monopolized every retail display in town. The Fourth of July fun was right on schedule, only a few days until the big parade and concert in the park. My family didn’t celebrate this weekend anymore.
Several yards away, two guys took shelter under the awning outside our local honky-tonk. Their laughter broke through the drumming of rain on rooftops and pounding of truck tires through puddles. Both were tall, dark, and out of place in my town. Instead of jeans and boots, like cowboys or country singers, or the shorts and gym shoes of locals and tourists, this pair wore black pants and dress shoes. Their matching V-neck shirts were equally out of place in St. Mary’s, West Virginia.
The broader one noticed me first. His smile vanished and his posture stiffened. He locked his wrists behind his back and nodded. The short sleeves of his shirt nipped his biceps. The ridiculous breadth of his chest
tested the limits of the thin black material. His clothes probably hid the grotesquely oversculpted figure of a body builder.
My feet slowed instinctively, weighing the merits of crossing the street to avoid them. Crossing meant moving away from my destination, staying meant eventually sharing a three-foot patch of cement with two guys already filling every spare inch.
The leaner, younger-looking one turned his face toward me. Black ink crawled up his neck from the collar of his shirt to his earlobe. A scar pierced one eyebrow and a thin silver hoop graced the corner of his mouth.
Dad wouldn’t approve.
I rounded my shoulders, withdrawing into my hoodie and averting my eyes.
The broad one whipped a hand out as I stepped onto their patch of cement. “Miss.”
I jumped back, wrapping my fingertips around the strap of my bag.
His enormous arm blocked my path. He clenched a mass of silk flowers in his fist. “For the lady.”
“Uh.” I pulled in a shallow breath. “No thank you.”
The younger one’s eyebrows dove together. “I think you’re scaring her.” His dark eyes settled on mine. His voice was deep and low. “Is he scaring you?”
The big guy handed the flowers to his friend and stepped back, palms up.
The younger one offered them to me, extending his arm slowly as if being careful not to frighten a wild animal. “I’m Cross. This is Anton. Anton thinks he’s a magician.”
I glanced over one shoulder at the church behind me before accepting the strange offer. A lifetime of forced manners pushed my name from my mouth. “Mercy.”
Cross’s lips twitched. “He’s a lot to take in, but he’s a marshmallow.”
I bit back an awkward smile as Anton protested the remark with a shove. “Mercy’s my name. It wasn’t an exclamation.”
Cross relaxed his posture. “Good to know.” He shoved his fingers into his pockets. “Do you live here?”
“Yeah.” A measure of unexplained confidence wound through me. “Not you, though.” I scrutinized their strange ensembles again. Their clothes were almost like costumes, or what I imagined a mortician would wear in the nineteen hundreds. “What are you doing here?” I sidestepped them, exchanging my view of the distant willows for a view of the church.
The low tenor of their voices collided as Cross said, “Visiting,” and Anton said, “Performing.”
Cross narrowed his eyes at Anton.
Interesting. A sign tucked into the corner of the honky-tonk’s window announced another round of live bands. Cash prizes and a guaranteed Nashville record executive in the audience meant lots of newcomers to St. Mary’s. Maybe these two were country singers. “Performing what?”
Again with the twin speak, Cross answered, “Nothing.”
Anton answered, “Everything.”
I frowned. “Well, that’s cleared up.” I waved the bouquet. “Thanks for the flowers.”
“You’re welcome,” they answered.
Dad’s face appeared in the church window, and I darted into the rain. “I have to go.”
I stuffed the flowers into my bag as I jogged away from the street of shops, closing the space between the willows and me. Thunder cracked in the distance. The storm was passing for now. I stepped into the pavilion outside St. Mary’s Cemetery with a sigh of relief. Willow trees lined our small town along the river’s west edge. Their craggy branches swept the earth with every gust of wind. The town cemetery stretched fingers of marble graves into the distance, marking lives lost in the mid-eighteen hundreds beside others lost in my lifetime. Two of those graves marked the lives of Porter women, Faith and Mary Porter. My older sister and my mother.
When the drops thinned to sprinkles, I made my way up muddy paths to their grave sites, sliding down as often as I moved forward. Dad said he’d chosen the spots at the top of the hill so Faith and Mom could look over our town. If they truly had a view, theirs was perfect.
The sopping earth squished under my weight as I left the path. A week of relentless rain had ruined the dirt roads and flooded the lowlands mercilessly.
I knelt before the headstones. “Hi. I bet you didn’t think I’d come in the storm.” Tears burned my eyes. I’d come selfishly. “You’re the only one I can talk to.”
I rubbed my wrist over each eye. “I am so amazingly sorry.”
Wind beat against the trees, shaking limbs and freeing wads of green leaves from their branches. “The storm’s gathering again.”
I wiped pine needles and dirt off Faith’s name. Wind tossed sticks and tiny American flags across the thick green grass. A batch of grave flowers rolled down the hill toward the river, reminding me of the ones in my bag.
“I have something today.” I unlatched my bag and pulled out the silk flowers. “Some very weird guys outside Red’s gave these to me. I think you should have them, Faith. I don’t bring you flowers enough. Maybe that’s why I ran into those two. You needed flowers.” I stabbed their plastic stems into the mushy ground and pressed the grass tight around them, anchoring them the best I could.
“I miss you. I wish you knew how much. Dad’s still trying to save the town. Pru’s still pretending she’s like everyone else. The color guard’s coming over for popcorn and movies.” I rolled my eyes. “I think she’s planning to sneak out tonight, and I don’t even know if it’s the first time.”
I settled in the wet grass and tilted my face to the sky. “I’ve never minded our summer storms. Remember when we used to dance in the rain until Dad begged us all inside? He’d laugh and say,” I mocked Dad’s deeper voice, “‘I guess the rumors are true. My girls don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.’”
A sound in the distance caught my attention. A rhythm. “Do you hear that?” Wind whipped through the trees, but the eerie sound of tinny pipes and organs floated to my ears. I rubbed my palms over gooseflesh-covered arms and an icy shiver slid down my spine.
I stood on wobbly knees and moved to the hill’s edge.
A line of black vehicles crawled along the river toward the campground. Each truck was marked with the symbol that once haunted my dreams. A fancy letter L, circled in curlicue lines and tiny words from another language. “The Lovell Traveling Sideshow came back?”
After three years, it was back.
I turned to my sister. “I bet they came for the River Festival. What should I do?”
I sensed her presence and felt her voice in the wind, obscured by the ringing in my ears. My weary conscience screamed, “Leave it alone,” but my every curious fiber disagreed.
I’d researched, cyberstalked, and obsessed over the Lovells off and on for two years before I backed off. I squinted at the caravan of trucks below. If one of them knew what happened to Faith, I needed to hear it. Maybe someone at their campsite could help me.
Dad refused me the courtesy of knowing what happened to my sister. When I’d followed him through our home begging, he’d said I was too young. Faith was too young. I should pray for peace. I’d scoured the local paper and Internet for information. Three years later, the only things I knew for sure were Faith was dead and Dad blamed the Lovells. I’d heard him and Mom after Faith’s funeral. He hated them, but it didn’t make any sense. Faith drowned. Dad believed the Lovells contributed to Faith’s death somehow, despite the coroner’s accidental drowning conclusion.
I looked over one shoulder at Faith’s headstone. “I’ve got to go. I’ll be back.” I rubbed wet palms against my jeans. My feet stumbled through the grass on autopilot. This was my chance.
I sprinted toward home, formulating a plan. First, I needed a shower and change of clothes. Next, I needed a picture of Faith from that summer. The Lovells probably saw thousands of new faces every year and three years had already passed. Expecting them to remember one girl from a town as unremarkable as ours was asking the impossible.
I slowed my pace on Main Street. Outside the honky-tonk, a fresh banner hung from the awning, a photo advertisement for the Lovell Traveling Sideshow. My mouth dropped open as my gaze swept over the ad. I missed the curb and planted one foot in ankle-deep runoff racing for the gutter. “Gross.” My palms hit the sidewalk, stopping me from a complete fall. The open flap of my bag dripped against my pant leg when I stood. I buckled the bag without looking, unable to drag my focus away from the banner. A woman covered in tattoos posed with a set of acrobats front and center. A shirtless strongman with a mask and endless muscles stood behind her. I tried to match Anton and his flowers to the masked man in the photograph. Was it possible?
A man in tuxedo tails pulled fire from his hat and a woman in a ball gown swallowed swords. Animals in black tutus and studded collars pranced at her feet. Behind the others stood a brown-eyed guy with neck ink, a guitar, and a frown. Cross was a performer all right. He was one of them. A Lovell.