NA Romantic Mystery, 70,000 words
After a car accident eighteen-year-old Kara Jones learns that her dad isn’t actually related to her. With the help of nerdy ex-classmate, Derek Miller, Kara must follow a trail of clues that starts with her mother’s lies and ends with a madman.
When I open my eyes, the world is a blur of noise and lights that spins around me like a tornado. Red, blue. Red, blue. White. The white makes my head pound. The lights swirl until my head threatens to split in half, and I have to squint against the pounding glow of colors. I’m dizzy with pain, but even more agonizing is the noise. Muffled voices and the crunch of metal and glass. It bears down, spiraling around me and pressing me into a tight ball until I can’t breathe. Suffocating me.
My chest is tight as if something is sitting on me. My lungs are on fire, screaming for relief. I gasp, but only manage to get a teaspoonful of air, and my hands fly to my torso. Something is there. Something hard and immovable. My breath comes out in short gasps as I try to pull it away, but it doesn’t budge. The textured surface is familiar, but the pain in my lungs and the noise in my ears and the lights blinding me make it impossible to focus.
I need to focus.
I grip the surface harder. What’s the last thing I can remember? Where am I? A memory flashes through my mind. Darkness cloaked in a thick blanket of white. Snow. I was driving in the snow. Then the world spun out of control. Then pain. So much pain. It all comes flooding back, and my lungs tighten even more. I must have had an accident, and now I’m trapped. I’m going to die.
My world spins a little more, and the white lights brighten. Even with my eyes closed they penetrate my eyelids. My hands are still gripping the steering wheel—that’s what’s pressing against me—and my arms shake. The weight on my chest threatens to crush me. I push and squirm and gasp, but the pressure doesn’t subside, and a slow agonizing fire burns in my chest.
Something crunches near my face and I want to scream, but I don’t have enough air. All I manage is a small whimper, like a sick little dog. Something taps against the window, and it takes me a second to focus my eyes. The windshield has splintered into a thousand tiny cracks. I squint at the glass, and my eyes sting. I can just make out a person on the other side.
The scratchy sound that comes out of my mouth isn’t a word. My eyes sting even more, but when the sobs try to escape I want to scream. My body shakes, pressing me against the steering wheel. Splinters of pain radiate through every inch of my torso.
The person taps again and leans closer, yelling at me through the cracks. His voice is so deep it almost drowns out all the other noise. “Close your eyes and turn your face away.”
I react without thinking and squeeze my eyes shut. The world around me shatters, and crinkles, like yards of bubble wrap being balled up and tossed aside. Only louder and more terrifying. I can’t keep my eyes closed, and when I open them the man is so close I can feel his hot breath on my face.
“Help.” This time it sounds more like a word, but it’s still barely a whisper. There’s no way he heard it, but he nods like he understands.
“Hang on!” he yells, and his hand covers mine, still wrapped around the steering wheel.
He turns to shout over his shoulder, and other people come toward me. They’re all dressed alike in suits the color of spicy mustard. They swim around me, and my heart thumps to the beat of a strange metallic drum. No, not a drum. The whirling sound of a motor.
The guy holding my hand leans forward. “We have to use the Jaws of Life.”
My brain feels fuzzy, like I just woke up or I’ve been drinking, and the words don’t make sense at first. A man comes forward holding a piece of machinery. They’re going to cut me out. Somehow it’s more terrifying than not being able to breathe.
Thankfully, the guy still has my hand. I don’t want to be alone.
I shut my eyes, but open them back up when his hand moves off mine. He’s still there, and he yells something to me about protection. All I can think about is condoms, but that doesn’t make sense. Am I hallucinating?
Someone hands him a blanket, and he lays it across my body. He leans in closer to bring it up to my face. “I’ll be right here the whole time!”
The blanket is heavy and scratchy, and it’s even more difficult to breathe with it pressed against my face. But a hand wraps around mine, and it helps hold off the panic when the crunch of metal and glass rips through the car. My lungs throb. Tears fall down my cheeks, but I can’t even get enough air to really cry.
When the heaviness falls away from my chest and I finally get a big mouthful of air, the pain is almost too much. An ache spreads across my body from the inside out. But I can’t stop. I can’t keep my lungs from gasping for air, sucking it in like a man on death row getting his last glimpse of the sun. It sends a pleasant ache through my body.
The blanket is pulled away, and I’m met by the swirl of snow against the dark, night sky. Cool air surrounds me, and the world becomes a blur again. Red, blue. White. Red, blue. More shouting, more metal. This time it’s louder and brighter because the roof of my car has been peeled away. The same guy is in front of me. He squeezes my hand once before letting it go, but he doesn’t move. More people join him and suddenly half a dozen faces fight for my attention.
“We need to put this on you,” a woman says. Unlike the others, her shirt is dark blue. She wraps a stiff collar around my neck. It’s almost as constricting as the pain in my lungs, and now I feel like someone is sitting on my chest with their fingers wrapped around my throat.
I reach up to pull at it, but the same man tugs my hand away. “You need it.” The gentle tone breaks through my confusion and helps ease the terror.
Everyone is talking at once, then hands pull me out. I’m strapped to a board and rushed toward the whirling lights—red, white, red, white. The lights blind me, and I shut my eyes.
Doors slam and a siren screams. I have to squint because the lights are so bright. I shiver. The paramedics yell back and forth to each other and ask me questions I have a hard time focusing on. The pain in my chest spreads through my torso, and the slow-burning ache intensifies with each breath.
“Where are you hurting?” the woman asks.
“M-my chest.” My throat feels like it’s been scraped raw, and the words don’t sound like me. They’re too weak.
She cuts my shirt open. I want to cover myself, but my hands are strapped down. More questions fire at me. I try to focus. The lights are so bright, and the siren is so loud it isn’t easy. A needle pricks my arm. They started an IV. Is it that serious? Other than the pain in my chest, I don’t feel hurt.
“Do you remember what happened?”
“I-I was driving home from school. I’m a freshman at Ohio University.” I swallow. My throat feels full of cotton. “It was snowing and I lost control.” My eyes search the woman’s face, and I try to shake my head. “What did I hit?” Please don’t let it be another car. I couldn’t stand it if I’d hurt someone else.
“What’s your name?” the other EMT asks.
I focus on him for the first time. His face is covered in acne. Is he old enough to be a paramedic? “Kara,” I whisper. “Kara Jones.”
* * *
By the time Mom shoves the white curtain aside I’ve been poked, X-rayed and seen by countless doctors and nurses.
“Kara! I was so worried!”
She rushes toward me, her face streaked with tears and her dark hair damp. Snowflakes still cling to some of the strands. Under the lights, they melt into tiny droplets that shimmer on her head like diamonds. She grabs my hand and rubs it against her cheek like she’s trying to reassure herself I’m really here. The movement pulls at my IV, and the needle digs deeper. It’s like a bruise spreading through my veins.
I wince, and she drops my hand. “I’m so sorry, baby. Did that hurt?”
She pets me like a cat. I resist the urge to push her hand away. Where’s Dad? I need his calming presence. Mom makes me too nervous.
“Is Dad here?” I sound like someone who smokes a pack or two a day.
Mom bites her lower lip and flicks her hair out of her eyes. “He’s parking the car.”
She fidgets with the zipper on her jacket. Up, down, up, down. The zip is louder than the beeping of the medical equipment.
“I should go find the doctor.” She keeps zipping. I wish she would go. “Did they tell you anything?”
“My ribs are bruised.” Just breathing hurts, but talking is even worse. Every move causes pain to spread across my chest. “My spleen.”
Mom gasps, and her face goes as white as snow.
“Ah, Mrs. Jones.” The doctor comes in behind Mom. He’s Indian, but he has a British accent. Young and cute. I probably look like crap right now. “I’m Dr. Patel.”
Before Mom can start grilling the doctor, Dad walks in. His salt and pepper hair is matted and damp, and little drops of water glimmer on his glasses. But his gray eyes are focused on me, and he doesn’t seem to notice.
He stops halfway to my bed. His eyes travel over the tubes in my arms, going up to the bag that slowly drips liquid into my body. White-faced, he tugs at the sleeve of his jacket. It reminds me of something Mom would do.
He nods but doesn’t move. My parents are both statues.
Dr. Patel clears his throat. “Kara is one lucky girl. She has some bruising to her ribs and spleen, but nothing more serious. We’ll be admitting her for observation, and she could need a blood transfusion or two, but most likely it will heal on its own.”
Mom swallows and her face turns an odd shade that isn’t the least bit normal. Is she going to throw up? This is so typical of her. She didn’t hear a single positive thing Dr. Patel had to say, only the negative. Thank God I take after Dad; her constant negativity drives me nuts.
“No surgery?” she asks in a shaky voice.
Dr. Patel is already inching toward the door. “No, no. We try to avoid that these days. She really should just need rest, but we’ll want to observe her to make sure something more serious doesn’t happen.”
“Like the spleen rupturing.” Mom’s words are barely audible.
Dr. Patel stops and smiles, but it doesn’t look sympathetic. His eyes move toward the curtain before going back to Mom. “Mrs. Jones, I don’t think that’s going to happen. In Kara’s case, the damage does seem to be very minor.” He clears his throat. “Now, if you don’t have any further questions…” He looks back and forth between my parents, but neither one says a thing. “The nurse will be in soon to check on you.”
He disappears without another word, and Dad finally manages to get his feet moving. He comes to my side and pats my arm, but he’s not petting me the way Mom did. “You’re not in too much pain?”
I shake my head, but even that makes me wince. The corners of Dad’s mouth turn down and Mom looks away. Geez. That’s the problem with being an only child—your parents’ world revolves around you.
I suck in a deep breath and work on keeping my expression blank so my parents can’t see how much it hurts. “I’m fine,” I manage to get out. “It hurts, but it’s not serious.” Mom starts crying. “Really, Mom, I’m good.”
She nods and sniffs and comes over next to Dad. They stare down at me like I’m in a coffin, not a hospital bed. It makes me squirm, but even that hurts so I have to stop.
“Hi!” The nurse comes in and I want to let out a sigh of relief, but it would hurt too much. “We’re getting a room all ready for you upstairs. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get you out of the ER soon. OK?”
She’s young—probably fresh out of nursing school—and wearing too much makeup for someone working in an emergency room. With the way her hair and face are made up she’d look more at home in a skimpy nurse uniform dancing at a bachelor party than here in a pair of green scrubs. A giggle bubbles up inside me, and I press my lips together to keep it from popping out. Mom frowns at me, but Dad’s lips twitch like he knows what I’m thinking. It only makes me want to laugh even more. Of course, that would be stupid. If breathing hurts, laughing would probably make me pass out.
“The doctor said she might need a blood transfusion?” Mom is still playing with her zipper.
The nurse nods, picks up my chart, and scans it. Her lips press together, and her nose scrunches up like thinking hurts. It’s probably all that blonde hair. I can make fun because my hair is black like Mom’s.
When the nurse doesn’t look up from the chart Mom frowns. “Can we donate?”
Blondie finally glances up and flashes a dazzling smile like she’s in a commercial for some drug company. “Of course. We always need blood donors.”
“We’re both O,” Dad says.
Blondie’s smile fades. She looks back down at the chart. Her face scrunches up even more as her eyes scan the paper, and Mom grips my hand. Her fingernails dig into my skin. I want to shake her off, but that would hurt too much. I wiggle my fingers and hope she’ll get the point. She doesn’t ease up.
“What’s wrong?” Mom asks in a shaky voice.
Blondie looks up and arches an eyebrow. “Kara’s adopted?”
My heart sputters like a dying motor. “What?” My voice is raspy again, only this time it has nothing to do with my injuries.
“No!” Mom’s hand finally releases mine and goes to her throat. Her face goes two shades whiter. I didn’t think it was possible.
I stare at them, waiting for an explanation. Dad shakes his head. Mom just shakes.
“No.” Dad’s voice is firm, but there’s a small quiver to the word.
Blondie’s eyes get huge, and she clears her throat. “Oh. My mistake.” She stares at the floor.
Dad takes a small step away from Mom. “Why would you ask that?”
Blondie forces a smile and meets Dad’s eyes. “Must be a mistake in the chart. No big deal. I’ll look into it.” She practically runs toward the curtain. “Let me check on your room.”
The second she pulls the curtain shut, I turn on my parents. “I’m adopted!” My face is hot, and my breathing comes faster. It makes everything between my shoulders and waist ache, but I don’t care. How could they have kept this from me?
Mom smiles but it’s so tight it’s more like a grimace. “Of course you’re not. You’ve seen pictures of me when I was pregnant.”
That’s true. Still, what the hell was that all about? “Why would she say that?”
Mom’s hands shake. Dad stares at the floor. “You heard her. Just a mistake.” She clears her throat, and her eyes flit toward the curtain. “Let me go see what the confusion was. Maybe they got your chart mixed up with someone else’s. I don’t want there to be any more problems.” She’s already walking toward the curtain. She hasn’t looked at Dad once.
He looks up, and his gray eyes move over my face like he’s seeing me for the first time. My chest tightens, and it’s as if I’m right back in that car with the steering wheel pressed against me. Why does it seem like something awful is about to happen?
“It was a mistake.” He kicks at the floor and shoves his hands in his pockets. “I’m going to go check on your mom.”
He doesn’t close the curtain all the way, and I spot Mom at the nurse’s station. Her face is red as she yells at the nurse. She never yells. The nurse is crying. What the hell is happening?
The color drains from Mom’s face when Dad walks up. My throat tightens. They start to argue, and the nurses gathered around stare like they’re watching their favorite soap. Tears stream down Mom’s face when she reaches for Dad, and the terror inside me increases when he brushes her off. Dad glances my way once before turning around. He walks away, down the longest hallway I’ve ever seen. It gets longer, and the edges of my vision grow dark. The temperature shoots up sixty degrees in a matter of seconds until I can’t watch anymore. My head sways and the darkness closes in, and I let it.