"Miranda's Trouble In Paradise"

Chapter 1
Hello Again


Some of y'all might still remember me, and a few of y'all might still be trying to forget me.  But, whatever, you can't keep someone like me quiet.  Trust me, many have tried.
If your memory is foggy, I'll give you a quick rundown.  I was married to a man, Farley, who ran around town, spreading his love like Oprah Winfrey gave out gifts to her audience.   "Here's some for you, and some for you.  Everybody gets some Farley loving."  And, apparently, everyone in the whole county was aware.  Minus one resident ... me.  And I tried.  I mean like I really tried with Farley, but in the end, I realized it's not a marriage when only one is willing to try.
After much soul searching, I packed him up and sent his cheating ass back to his mother.  
Enter Dougie Wilcox.  He was the kind of guy who represented everything that a high school girl dreams off.  He was a bad boy, smoked, dropped out of high school, talked the talk and walked the walk.  A bona-fide broke James Dean.
Trouble was, I met him when we were both in our thirties.  His bad boy charm lasted about three weeks.  Then he was just some guy who I kind of had to take care of.  What was mine was ours, and what was his was strictly off limits.  
It was my own damn fault.  I should have ignored his rules.  I should have helped myself to one of his pricey imported beers ... which by the way, I bought nine times out of ten.  But I didn't.   Don't we learn from our mistakes?  Some do.  Some are destined to repeat the cycle.
So, one day my coworker, Rita, mentions that Dougie said something about moving away.  News to me, but that inner voice says, "Miranda, go check it out."  Twenty minutes later, Dougie is chucking shit into his truck and speeding off.  Oh, the best part of this, he took the DVD player but left his son, Waylon.  His thirteen-year old son who had taken up residence on my couch.  The same kid who flipped me off when he thought I couldn't see him, greeted me with stony silences when we were in the room together.  
That ended up being a blessing in disguise.  It turns out, I like the kid.  He's smart, funny and is low maintenance.   Everything his daddy isn't. 
We're getting close to where we need to be.  I start hanging out with my neighbor, Aaron Earl, who I would have bet didn't have two nickles to rub together, but is actually well off. He's kind of a hippie prophet who cries over Hallmark movies.
Then there's this girl, Missy Toblerone, a "bestie" in tenth grade, who ended up being my arch nemesis.  She married the richest man in Patterson County.  Justin Toblerone was his name.  I never cared for him.  He was as prickly as a cactus and just as endearing.  Several years ago, Justin just disappeared.  No word, no note, no goodbye.  No way.  Missy cried crocodile tears for about a week, then she's out buying a nice little BMW and sexy clothes.  
The general consensus seemed to be Justin ran off.  No body, no crime.  I didn't buy that for one minute.  Justin didn't run away.  He was close to his parents.  No way in hell, would he put them through that.
But, I had my own set of problems to deal with.  I kind of threatened the town pervert with a pair of scissors, found his murdered body a couple of days later and been the prime suspect in his tragic end.  
Here we go again.  Something bad happens, you've gotta look for that silver lining.  The sheriff, Mitch Danning, started checking up on me.  First as a suspect, then as a friend, then, well, someone who loves me and wants to take care of me.
I ended up getting kidnapped by Missy, who shot this young deputy in the leg to prove how serious she was about our "friendship".  She took the whole best friends forever thing way too seriously.  We ended up fighting where the perverts body was found.  She was yelling at me, I was yelling at her and yada, yada, yada, when all of the sudden she blurts out how she didn't really kill Justin, she just stood there and watched him die.  She had the pervert dispose of the body.  But he decided to keep a little insurance and use it to blackmail her.  So she killed the pervert.  Clear as mud, right?
Thankfully, Mitch believed my innocence from the early stages.  He allowed for my hard headed tendencies.  He loves me, warts and all. Sounds awesome, right?  It is.  I love that he wants to take care of me.  I really do, but there's a part of me that just can't let go of the reins.  It took me a long time to go from the Miranda I used to be to the woman I am now.  
I have nothing to prove to anybody ... except myself.  I'm my own worst critic.  I mean it.  That bitch in the mirror, man, there are days I just can't even describe the dressing down she doles out.  But she's usually right.
But, before I can think about moving on with life, I have one thing I have to do.  I need to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox.  The police found his car and a little bit of blood, but nothing else.  All signs point to Missy.  She thinks it's pathetic I'm trying to find him.
It's eating Waylon up.  I need to find out for him.  And, maybe I need to know for myself as well.

Author Notes She's back!

Chapter 2
Extra Curricular


Miranda Jessup Buckley is back. Trying to find out what happened to Waylon's dad, Dougie Wilcox.


I've gotten into the habit of waking up early and having breakfast with Waylon before he heads out for the bus. We don't have any great conversations, since neither one of us is a morning person. But it's nice just to spend the time together.

"Any tests this week?" I ask, stirring the eggs in the pan. I try to fix him a good breakfast most mornings. Eggs or French toast, sometimes I go all out and fix shit on a shingle (chipped beef and gravy on toast, if you weren't raised by an ex-Army man.) But Thursdays are Waylon's favorite breakfast. I bring home the leftover donuts from The Little Eagle. The bakery in town drops off fresh donuts twice a week. We used to trash them but since Rita's boys are getting older and Waylon eats like two grown men, we alternate. She takes the discards home Monday afternoon and I take them Wednesday night.

Since Mitch and his deputies have been stopping in, our donut order has doubled.

Waylon yawns and let's out a big sigh. "I've got a geometry test tomorrow. But that's no big deal."

"I failed geometry. Had to retake it my junior year."

Waylon laughs. "How do you fail geometry? That's like failing English."

"Smart ass. I'll have you know, geometry is hard. I don't have a math brain. I'm much better at other things."

"But you passed it that second time, right?"

I pretend to busy myself with getting the plates. Truth is, I cut a deal with my teacher. I would babysit her bratty little girl one day a week in the summer. That kid was a nightmare. I should have just gotten a tutor.

"You never answered me," he says.

I plate the eggs and pull the toast out of the toaster before it starts smoking. "Breakfast is served," I say as I put his plate in front of him.

"You didn't pass, did you?"

I smile at him. "Of course I did," I lie.

He shuts up until he has scraped every bit of egg off the plate. "Okay, I gotta brush my teeth and go to the stupid bus stop."

I nod, motion for him to put his dish in the sink instead of leaving it on the table like he is going to do.

"I'll see you tonight," I call out as he races out of the bathroom and grabs his backpack off the table by the door. "Make good choices," I say without looking up.

After cleaning up the kitchen, I go take a quick shower and dress. I don't put on the store issue polo shirt, instead I pull a sweatshirt out of the back of my closet.

I've been thinking about Dougie a lot. I mean like more now than when he first left me. There is less imagined violence in my thoughts now. And, no, I'm not in love with Dougie. I just have to find out what happened to him. Dead or alive, I have to know.

I grab my work shirt, my keys and purse and head out to my car. I'll start searching the last place we know he was. The swamp called No Man's Land.

It's about thirty-five minutes away. I turn down one of those maintenance roads and hope that I don't get stuck. Still don't have a cell phone, so if I do get stuck, I'm shit out of luck.

No Man's Land is a very popular place with photographers. The likelihood of seeing a bear, a coyote or fox far outweigh the chances of not seeing one.

Since I don't have bear spray, mace or a weapon of any sort, I honk my horn twice. No idea if that will scare predators away, but it annoys the hell out of Waylon when I have to pick him up from school, so I'll assume it might be a deterrent to a curious bear.

I look around before I exit the car. I walk over to the spot where Dougie's truck was found. The passenger door was open, a few spots of blood on the floor mat and a smear of blood on the seat. The battery was dead because the headlights were left on. Keys had been in the ignition.

Lights on meant he drove out here or was forced out here after dark. I knew two things, one Dougie was trying to get financial backing for a get rich quick scheme, and he got money from Missy. Did he try to skip out with the money? Who or what would cause him to drive all the way out here?

I kick through some over grown weeds. A familiar brown bottle rolls out. It's one of those expensive brews Dougie used to drink. I study the weeds. It might not even belong to Dougie. There half hidden at the back edge of overgrowth is another bottle.

Dougie didn't drink and drive. If these bottles were his, he was here hiding or waiting. Then it hits me, maybe he wasn't alone. I crouch down and reach into weeds to grab both bottles, praying that there isn't a nest of copperheads or moccasins in there.

I pour out the dirty water and carry them back to my car. I put them in the floorboard of the passenger seat.

I start my car and pull back onto the main road. The radio isn't anything but ads but background noise sometimes quiets the needling thoughts. The disc jockey reminds me that the nine at nine is over and will return tomorrow at nine a.m. It is then that I realize, I'm going to be late to work.

"Damn it," I say to absolutely no one. No cell means I can't even call Rita to give her a heads up.

I push the gas pedal down with a little extra energy and decide I just might make it to work on time. I'll be pulling in the lot on two wheels but I'll be there.

Forty-five, turns into fifty, which quickly escalates to sixty-five. I could have made it to seventy miles per hour, had I not heard the jarring mating call of the men in blue.

Reluctantly, I look into the rear view mirror. Sure enough, the dazzling blue and white lights of Patterson County's finest are bearing down on me.

"Dammit," I mutter, pressing the break to pull over.

I place both hands on the wheel and prepare for the worst.

"License and registration."

It's Mitch. Of course, it's him. Every time I do something stupid, Mitch is there to bear witness. "Look, I know I was speeding, but I'm gonna be late for work."

"License and registration, please."

I exhale loudly as I reach for my purse. "Are we really going to do this?" I mutter, fighting to get my license out of my wallet.

"Oh, yes, Miranda, we are going to do this. The speed limit on this stretch of road is forty-five. Do you know what I clocked you at?"

"Over forty-five?"

"Seventy miles an hour. Twenty-five miles over the speed limit. Just what the hell were you driving so fast for?"

"I was trying not to be late for work. But, now it's a moot point."

"What are you doing out here?"

I'd rather eat glass than tell him the truth. "Are you gonna write me a ticket or not?"

He hands me the registration and my license back. "No. This time you get a pass, but I'm going to follow you back into town. Slow down. Understand?"

I force a smile. "Thank you officer."

He shakes his head, turns and walks back to his patrol car.

"Slow down," he shouts once more.

Gosh, he's cute when he's mad.

Chapter 3
Rita's Dilemma


So far, Miranda checks out the area where Dougie's truck was found over a year ago. She is determined to find out what happened to him. She gets pulled over for speeding by Mitch. Then he follows her to town.


It's bad enough that Mitch pulls me, lectures me, then follows me into town, but he follows me with the lights flashing. I really don't care while we're on the lonely stretch of road, but the closer we get to town, the more annoyed I get.

People are stopping to watch as I make sure to do exactly the speed limit with the light show behind me. If my speedometer shows one mile over the set limit, I hit the brakes, just so he has to.

Then I decide to pretend I'm in the world's shortest parade. I wave at all I pass by. Some wave back, but most just stare. Around Patterson, not a whole lot happens. We get an occasional murder but other than that it's pretty quiet. So, in my own way, my little parade route is giving the good folks of this county a little something to talk about. And talk they will.

I pull into the parking lot of The Little Eagle Gas and Go, ease into a parking space and turn off the car. I watch as Mitch drives slowly by and he has the nerve to blow me a kiss.

Guess what I did.

There is one car, other than Rita's, in the parking lot. Thank goodness.

Rita looks over at me as I rush through the door.

"Was that Mitch?" she asks.

"Yes. Yes, it was."

"Why did he have his lights on? And why are you late?"

"Don't ask and long story. Did I miss anything?" I grab the stupid vest with the ugly Eagle on the back and slip my arms into the sleeves.

"Not really." She looks down at her hand then starts tapping her nails on the counter.

Now, the Rita I know would be eagerly pumping me for details about the police escort and the lateness. But I can see she's preoccupied.

"What's wrong with you?"

She smiles but it looks like it pains her to do so.

"Okay. Suit yourself. I'll go check the restrooms and let you sit here."

I start around the counter but I hear a sigh come from her. I look over. Her lips are turned down and she looks, well, she looks pitiful.

"What's wrong?"

"I think Bill is, uh," she says, her words barely audible as her bottom lip quivers. "I think he's seeing somebody."

My first instinct is to tell her if she feels that, it's probably true. I wish someone had been that blunt with me. It would have saved me a lot of heartache. But this is Rita, my polar opposite. So, I do what any good friend does, I lie about my feelings on the subject.

"Bill? Cheat on you? That's silly."

She looks up, eyes brimming but hopeful. "You really think I'm being silly?"

"Yes. But, first, tell me why you think he's stepping out on you?"

"He's been coming home really late."

"Maybe he's getting overtime."

She shakes her head. "I thought that at first. But when I say late, Miranda, he's not getting home until after three in the morning."

"Does he have a drinking problem?"


I watch as she tries to keep herself from crying. It makes me think about all those nights Farley would come home late, tiptoeing into the bedroom, slinking into the bed because he thought I was asleep. I should have sat up and confronted him. That might have saved me years of humiliation and deception. But, I didn't. I just laid there in my bed, next to that deceitful bastard, all wrapped up in a blanket of lies.

"Rita, have you asked him?"

A single tear tolls down her cheek. "No. I'm afraid to."

"Afraid? You think he'll hit you?"

"No. I'm afraid he'll confess. I don't want to lose him, Miranda. I love him too much."

I nod. I want to tell her it's not love if you have to look the other way.


I call home on my lunch break. Waylon answers, then proceeds to chew into the phone.

"Can you stop eating for a second. Did you grab the mail by any chance?"

"Yeah. You got another letter from the Women's Correctional Center."

"Toss it with the others." I roll my eyes thinking about Missy and her delusional pen pal fantasy. "Anything else? "

"Piggly Wiggly ad, cable bill and two things addressed to resident."

"Okay. Just put them on the kitchen counter. How was school?"

"Dragon lady got socked in the tits."

I smile, thankful that Waylon can't see me. "Oh no. What happened?"

"She was trying to separate two girls who were fighting. One of them swung and Dragon lady's boobs got in the way. She crumpled like a paper bag."

I close my eyes and picture my ex-mother-in-law going down for the count. "Well, hope she wasn't hurt too bad."

He laughs into the phone. "Yeah, right."

"No comment. Make sure you lock up when it gets dark, okay?"

"Got it."

"See you when I get home."

I stir the soup I brought for my break and sit back in the chair. My life might not be perfect, but it's never dull.

As much as I want to find out what happened to Dougie, I have another pressing mystery to solve ... for Rita. Is Bill stepping out? And, if he is, God help him if I find out.

Chapter 4
By the Lights of the Trailer Par


So far, Miranda Jessup Buckley has set her sights on finding what happened to Dougie Wilcox, Waylon's dad. But her co-worker needs help to uncover her own mystery.


Nights at The Little Eagle can be busy as all get out or they can be dead. I prefer busy. Quiet time can give me too much time to think. I'm a doer not a thinker. Especially when the things I tend to think about involve murder and other bad things.

For a long time, Mitch and even my mom were trying to get me to talk to someone. But, I'm fine. You know how I know I'm fine? Because I survived. It's is in the past. End of story. I'm not throwing shade on people who need therapy, not in any way, shape or form. I just know it would be a waste of time for me.

Tonight, it's quiet. I've done my nightly check list, even swept and mopped the whole store. With an hour left, I sit on the stool behind the counter and thumb through one of the magazines Rita brings in. That kills about ten minutes.

Car lights flash in the windows. The car sits at the edge of the parking lot. My stomach flutters nervously. That night I was shot at fills my head.

Shake it off, Miranda. You can't go wetting your pants every damn time you see car lights. I stroll over to the door, carefully maneuvering to the side so I'm not a bulls eye target.

The car starts moving again. Slowly, pulling up to one of the pumps close to the store. It seems like forever before the driver gets out and walks around to the pump.

This guy must have never pumped his own gas because he just keeps lifting the nozzle and pressing the fuel button, but he doesn't put his credit card in.

After a minute of mild entertainment, I go over to the intercom and talk to him.

"You have to put your credit card in first."

I see him looking around, unsure where the voice is coming from.

"Sir, put the nozzle back and then insert the card strip down. Then follow the directions on the display screen."

He nods and does as he's told but still doesn't put in his card. He steps around his car and waves his hands.

"Oh, geez. Why is there always a problem at closing time."

I push through the front door and head over to the car.

"Did your card not work?"

This hunched over old man with a pinched up face shakes his head. "I've got cash. Do you take cash?"

"Yes, sir. You just need to come inside to pay with cash."

"I'm a relic, I know I am. Nobody uses cash anymore. Everybody wants me to pull out a card. I don't use cards, if I don't have to."

I nod, letting the old man rant about how cash used to be king, and how cashless society is going to be the downfall of America.

"I'll take your money and go turn on the pump, okay? How much do you want?"

He smiles and starts to walk back around to the pump. "Thirty dollars worth, please."

I run back inside to set the pump and get him his change from the two twenties he handed me.

When I return he's still fumbling with the nozzle. I feel bad for the old guy. He's from a different time. Things have changed and he hasn't been able to keep up.

"I tell you what, sir, today you are getting full service for the not so low price of self-service." I ease my way around him and start filling his tank.

He steps back, giving me space. "That's mighty kind of you, sweetheart. What's your name?"

"Miranda, and it's my pleasure."

"Alvin Starling. I'm glad I stopped in here tonight. Usually fill up on Fridays, at that Exxon near the Piggly Wiggly. But, I thought, Alvin, best get your old keister out tonight, there's a storm brewing off the coast. Can't wait until Friday. It'll be a mad dash for the pumps then." He puts his change into his wallet, glancing at the spinning meter to make sure he gets his full thirty dollars worth. "Yes sir, I'm glad I stopped in tonight. It's nice to meet you, Miss Miranda."

I tap out the last few drips into his tank then screw the cap back on.

"Well, it was nice to meet you, too, Mr. Starling. And, if we do end up getting that tropical storm, you take care."

I step away and wait patiently as he fixes his seat belt, before putting the car in drive, clipping the curb and driving off.

Poor old guy. I understand feeling like a relic. Some days the world is a comfortable place to be. Some days it's a foreign and unfriendly place.


A familiar black car is parked in front of my trailer. Maybe he changed his mind and is hand delivering that ticket.

I can see him, leaning against the hood of his car.

Without a word I waltz right by him. He reaches out, pulls me back and into his arms.

"You still mad?"

I twist to look him in the eyes. "Was that really necessary? "

"From my viewpoint, yes. It was very necessary."

I try to wriggle out of his arms. He waits, holding on to me. "Where were you coming from?"

"I have to know what happened, Mitch."

His grip loosens but he doesn't let me go. His jaw is set as he nods. "Damn, Miranda. We went over that area with a fine tooth comb. There isn't anything out there."

"I found two beer bottles."

Mitch laughs, but it's an exasperated sound. "So what? Miranda, people go out there all the time."

"It was his brand. Only one store in the entire county carries it. When I used to go pick it up for him, the clerk said I was the only one whoever bought it. He told me they might stop carrying it. I had to beg them not to."

Mitch let's his hands fall away from me. He looks down. "Miranda, are you still in love with him. Just tell me the truth. Cause I just don't know what to do right now."

Tina Turner comes to mind. What does love have to do with it? A man is missing. His son needs answers. But, I've said it all before. "No. I don't love him, Mitch. I love that boy in there. He needs us to figure this out. I could use your help, but if not your help, then your support."

He looks up, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. "I just needed to know."

"Don't waste time worrying about problems that don't exist. You're stuck with me." I snuggle up against him, drawing in the scent of his aftershave. "But, make no mistake, if you ever try that little stunt from this morning again, you will regret it."

I pull back to look at him. His eyes are closed and he has a peaceful smile on his face. "Are you going to sleep?"

He shakes his head. "No. Just thinking about your face when you had to hand me your license and registration."

He doesn't gloat, or act like a jack ass. He knows that wouldn't fly with me. Mitch Danner isn't like any man I've ever met.

And that, my friends, is a very good thing.

Chapter 5
Odd Behavior


So far, Miranda has been pulled over for doing seventy miles per hour in a forty-five mph zone. She admitted to Mitch she was investigating Dougie Wilcox's disappearance. She did not tell him she was going to find out if Rita's husband, Bill, was cheating on Rita.


I've met Rita's husband a few times. Not enough to be good buds with him, but enough to recognize him if I see him.

My day off plans fell through. It was supposed to be lunch with Momma and then going to watch Mitch and some of his deputies bowl. They're in a league that plays once a week. None of them are very good. Hate to say it, but it's actually comical to see them hype each other up over scores in the low eighties. Hopefully, they're better at law enforcement than they are at bowling.

But, Momma had to help a friend who is clearing out her house to downsize, and Mitch had to cover someone's shift. Even Waylon had plans ... school.

Perfect day to hop in my car and see if I can find Mr. Bill. I know his truck. It has a dent in the driver's door panel. Who am I kidding? It's not a dent, the door looks like crumpled aluminum foil. Driving around Patterson Proper, I spot it at the Ace Hardware. I pull into an empty spot near the edge of the parking lot and wait. My wait goes on longer than expected. Over an hour passes before he finally comes out. He has one small bag in his hand.

Who spends an hour in the hardware store? I slouch down as he backs up, then start my car. I follow him, making sure to stay a few car lengths behind him. He makes a few random stops before he makes a turn into his final destination.

Dammit. Bill gets out of his car, looks around, then crosses the parking lot to walk into Llarado's Gentlemen's Club. There are two things I believe to be true. No happily married man goes in there at two in the afternoon, and the name is misleading, the word gentleman, to be exact.

I wait for about forty-five minutes then give up. Tomorrow I'll ask Rita what time he gets home. I don't have a good feeling about this.


I love autumn. No I'm not a pumpkin spice latte kind of girl. I'm a thank goodness I can shut off the air conditioning and open the windows kind of girl.

Waylon teases me that despite getting that reward money from the Justin Toblerone case, I still act like I'm broke. In all fairness, I did spend some of the money. I paid off what remained on the trailer, got my car professionally detailed and four brand new tires. I have never been able to afford all four tires to be replaced at the same time.

But, money doesn't grow on trees. I'll likely never see that much money again. Why piss it away? There's going to come a day when Waylon is going to pick a college, and I don't want his choices limited by how much we can afford. That kid is smart, he needs to go to college. And, he will, if I have anything to do with it.

I pull into the Garden of Eden Mobile Home Park. Wave at old Mrs. Fine as she surveys the land, a cheap cigarette dangling between her wrinkle etched lips. A while back I thought we were at the start of an odd friendship, but I was wrong. She still treats me with disdain. Waylon hates her. She always tells him she's watching him. But then again, she watches everybody.

I walk back to the mailboxes by the main road and open mine to check. It's jam packed with fliers, requests for donations, and my daily letter from the Women's Correctional Center. I can't help but look at the envelope. She's drawn smiley faces on the back, two, to be exact, inside a lopsided heart. Missy Toblerone, doesn't understand boundaries.

What began in the tenth grade, and ended in the tenth grade for me, is still flourishing for her. Despite the fact that I have never written back, even went so far as to return the first few letters that made their way into my mailbox. It's Missy's world.

I walk into to the trailer and toss the fliers into the trash, toss Missy's unopened letter into the banker's box with the others, then grab a beer from the fridge, and go sit on the porch to wait for Waylon.

He looks like he's coming home from the war, the way he's walking. His eyes cast down, shoulders slumped, dust kicking up in little faded brown clouds as he drags his feet. He looks broken down and defeated.

"How was school?" I call as soon as he's in earshot distance.


"How'd you do on your geometry test?" I ask as he climbs the steps to plop down next to me.

"Eh. Fine. My teacher likes to test us on stuff that she hasn't covered yet. I passed but I don't think I aced it."

"That's not fair. Have you talked to her about it?"

"She's not real big on talking to us."

I take a liberal swig of my beer and shrug. "As long as you did the best you could. Do you want me to talk to her?"

Waylon shakes his head quickly. "No. No thank you. Dragon lady has me on her radar, don't need anyone else pissed off at me." He drags his back pack around and unzips it. "Wasn't this the kind of beer my dad drank?" He holds up an empty bottle. It's clean and looks like someone just finished it.

"Where'd you get that?" I reach over to take it from him. I look it over.

"I stopped to check the mail and it was propped up against the post of our box."

Who would do something like this? Missy is in prison, but she could have someone on the outside. Surprisingly, she had a courtroom full of supporters.

I start to toss the bottle into the outside trashcan but stop. Maybe it's evidence. Of course, maybe it's just a sick game that Missy is trying to play.

Either way, someone is toying with me and I aim to find out who and why.

Chapter 6
Fear and Burgers


So far, Miranda Jessup Buckley, is looking into the disappearance of Waylon's dad, Dougie. Seems like everywhere she looks she's finding empty beer bottles of the rare kind Dougie always drank. Is it a clue or is she grasping at straws. Meanwhile, Rita thinks her husband is cheating on her. Miranda decides to tail him.


I'm not sure why I haven't tossed the letters from Missy. It's not like I'm going to read them. I just throw them into this white banker's box and keep on keeping on.

She's been sending one letter per day since she got shipped half way across the state to the women's correctional facility near Asheville. Momma says that she sends the letters as a way of staying in my life. In her twisted mind, Missy probably thinks I'm waiting by the mailbox every afternoon. Anticipating a letter from my best friend.

All through the trial, Missy would turn around in her chair and wave at me. I kept waiting and hoping it would finally sink in she was going to jail. But, she never even stopped smiling idiotically when they read the verdict of guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Justin Toblerone and manslaughter in the death of Ed Preston.

"Why do you keep those letters?" Waylon asks when I come out of the bathroom.

"I don't really know. They could have a confession in them."

He frowns before continuing. "But you don't open them and read them."

"I might ... one day."

"Do you think she killed my dad?" His voice quivers ever so slightly.

I walk over and pull him into my arms. Right now, Waylon needs family, and I'm the closest thing he's got. "I really don't know. I pray that your daddy is just being stupid and sunning himself on a beach in Tahiti. Not a care in the world and oblivious to everything that's gone on here in Patterson."

Waylon pulls back. "You don't believe that though, do you?"

I try to smile, to be reassuring, but he sees right through it. "I sure as hell want to."

"Me, too." His words come out as mere whispers.

I shake off the funk that starts to settle on us. I step away and put my hands on my hips. "Time to get started on dinner. What are you in the mood for?"

"Hamburgers would be good," Waylon says with a shrug. "Or pizza. I don't care."

"I'll run and grab us two burgers from Patterson Deli. You want fries?"

He nods. "I'm gonna walk over and check on Aaron's place."

"You miss him, don't you?"

"He was cool. I can't believe he's trying to be a preacher."

I can't believe several things about Aaron. One, that he is, indeed, in seminary school and two, he gave up weed, and three, he finally stood up to his father. God certainly works in mysterious ways. "Ok. I'll be back soon," I say as he heads out the door with the key to Aaron's trailer dangling from his hand.

As I'm reaching for my purse, the phone rings. Only three people ever call me. It's either my momma, Matt or Rita, or it's Mitch.


"Hey, Miranda, it's me, Rita. I just wanted to give you a heads up."

"Matt on the warpath again?"

"No. He, uh, he hired a new employee."

"For what? Weekends?"

Rita pauses. It's never a good thing when Rita calls, in the first place. But, when she's hesitating, shit, it's usually bad news.

"Rita, is Matt gonna fire me?"

"Oh no. Oh my gosh, no. But he's been talking about how he doesn't like you being by yourself every night. So ..."

"So? Spit it out, Rita. Who did he hire?"

"He seemed really nice. He's going to be doing the grunt work, those are Matt's words. Taking out the trash. Moving the crates of drinks, that kind of stuff."

"Crap, when does he start?"

"Matt is training him tonight. But you'll meet him tomorrow when he comes in after school."

I pinch the bridge of my nose. "How come Matt didn't bother to run this by me?"

Rita laughs. She has this adorable little giggle that usually makes me smile. Not today. "Everybody knows he's petrified of you."

I get some satisfaction out of hearing that but it still doesn't excuse him. "You said school, please tell me it's college."

"No. He goes to high school. Really, Miranda, he seems like a nice kid. Don't, um, just don't..."

"What, Rita? Use your words. Don't what?"

"Don't be your usual sarcastic self. He's just a boy."

"I just might have to go visit the Little Eagle tonight. Top off my tank."

"Dang it. I knew I shouldn't have told you. Please don't tell Matt I told you. He's gonna be so mad."

I don't have time to listen to her berate herself. "See you tomorrow, Rita." I hang up the phone.


I pull into the parking lot and ease up next to the pump. My tank is just a few gallons shy of full, but my curiosity is eating me up.

Knowing that Matt is afraid of me, gives me new found power. And knowing that he purposely went behind my back and hired a high school body guard for me, well, it's both annoying and endearing.

I end up putting three gallons in my tank. I could do the mature thing, drive away and go pick up dinner, or I can waltz in and scare the crap out of Matt.

Come on, you all know what I'm going to choose.

Matt is busy showing his new recruit something on the counter when I push through the door. He looks up and dons his best "Welcome to the Little Eagle" smile. It takes just a second or two for it to register. His worst nightmare has just entered the premises.

"What's new, Matt?" I say, letting my gaze shift from him to the clean cut boy beside him.

"Oh, shit. I'm gonna kill Rita."

Chapter 7
Meeting Basketball Jones


So far, Miranda has been finding empty beer bottles in odd places. They are the rare brand that Dougie Wilcox used to drink. It has her wondering if Missy is messing with her from prison. Then Rita gives her a call to tell her how Matt is hiring a high schooler to help out at the store. Miranda decides to pay him a visit.


The look of concern on Matt's face does little to slow my procession to the cash register where he stands.

"So, what's, uh, going on?" I ask in a tone that could melt sugar.

He presses his lips together in a tense smile. "Just training our newest employee." He looks quickly over at the kid. "Miranda, this is Preston. He's going to be working a couple nights a week."

I look over at Preston. He looks familiar but I see people all day, every day. Then when he smiles it clicks. "Gatorade boy," I say.

He grins.

"I'm used to seeing you all sweaty."

Matt let's go a huge breath and smiles. "So you know him already? Good."

I direct my gaze back to Matt. "Matt, can I talk to you in the office? Please."

"I'm kind of in the middle of something."

"Matt, I said please. And, if please doesn't work, I'm sure I can find another word to use to help you understand how important it is that I talk to you."

Reluctantly, Matt nods. "Preston, look around the store, get to know what we carry. I'll be back in a second."

I throw open his office door and step aside so he can enter first. He winces as I close the door.

"Miranda, I know what your going to say."

"Do you, Matt? That's good. Cause I don't even know what I'm gonna say. No, wait, it's coming to me ... what the hell?"

"I'm not gonna have you closing up alone anymore."

"I don't need a babysitter."

He sits down in his worn office chair. "I think maybe you do."

"Put him on my days off. Or with Rita on Saturdays. I'm perfectly capable of working solo."

"He's staying."

"No. I'm not gonna work with some high school kid. For the love of God, do you know how annoying teenage boys are?"

"Come on, he goes to church on Sundays, he's an athlete. He's got one friend here in Patterson."

"And you think it's a good idea to expose him to me?" I laugh.

"Miranda, you can either accept this or find something else."

I look around the office. My jaw is tight and I feel that little nerve around my eyebrow starting to twitch. "If at the end of the first week, I don't like him, he's gone."

Matt shakes his head. "Earth to Miranda, I'm the boss. You work for me. If he gets canned, it's because I fire him. You get no say."

I walk out of the office, say a quick goodbye to Gatorade boy and storm across the parking lot to my car.


Waylon eats his burger, fries and three quarters of my fries. Within fifteen minutes he's scouring the cabinets in the kitchen looking for something else to eat.

"Do you have a tape worm or something?" I ask, amazed that he could still be hungry.

"We got anything sweet in this house?" He stands on his tiptoes to peer into the spice cabinet.

"Just me, sugar."

Waylon glances over, a look of disgust on his face. He turns back to continue his search.

"There's yogurt in the fridge," I say. "If you're desperate enough to look through the spice rack, you might settle for yogurt."

"Next time you go to the store can you get some cookies or something?"


Waylon closes the cabinet and peeks out the window over the sink. "Holy shit," he says, causing me to jump. "Aaron's here."

He all but trips over himself trying to get to the front door. Of course, I'm hot on his heels.

Waylon clears the porch steps and runs over to where Aaron is.

He looks so different yet exactly the same. His long scraggly hair has been trimmed, the Goodwill clothing ensemble been replaced by khakis and an Oxford shirt but his smile is still one hundred percent Aaron Earl.

He hugs Waylon then looks over at me. "Hey, Miranda. Been a while. You still dating that cop?"

"Yes. Still dating that cop. You still studying to be a preacher?"

Aaron smiles, holds up his forefinger and nods towards his trailer. "You mind if I come over for a few minutes? Need to run inside for a second. Got some things I want to run by y'all."

I always find it amazing that he wants to come to my dinky little trailer instead of us coming to his palatial one. But, he swears mine feels more like home. "Just come on in. Don't bother to knock." I turn and head back to my place. "Waylon, come on. He needs to take care of a couple things."

Fifteen minutes later, Aaron, clad in his beat up jeans, his old work shirt and barefoot pushes open the door.

"Well, Preacher man. How are things going?"

"I dropped out, so you tell me." Aaron looks away.

"How did God take the news?" I ask. I really can't tell if Aaron is happy or upset. I push one of the kitchen chairs out and he sits.

"Honestly, I think He's relieved."

"What happened?"

Aaron sits, shrugging. "No one thing really. I just assumed I'd feel joy studying about God. But I couldn't remember important verses. Heck, I couldn't recite the Lord's prayer with out a cheat sheet. I thought it would be more about loving thy neighbor and less about learning thy verses."

I look over at my very unique, hippie, man-child, heart of a poet, Hallmark philosopher neighbor. He sits back in the chair and smiles at Waylon first then turns it on me.

"Guess my dad was right. He said I'd quit before I finished it."

I want to tell him his dad is a jerk, but I can't. To be honest, I thought exactly the same thing.

Chapter 8
Start spreading the News.


So far, Miranda has set her sights on finding our what happened to Dougie Wilcox. Her neighbor, Aaron Earl, is back in town having dropped out of seminary school. She also found out she is going to have a high school boy working with her.


I feel bad for Aaron, but he's the kind of guy who jumps into things with both feet before he looks at where he's going to land. Sometimes the frying pan is preferable to the fire.

"Are you disappointed," Aaron asks after uncapping the beer I hand him.

"Aaron, you weren't happy. Why would I be disappointed in you giving up something that didn't make you happy?"

He guzzles over half and shrugs. "I don't want to tell my dad."

"Dammit, Aaron, would you grow up? You just tell him. You're almost thirty years old. You don't owe him any explanation. Just say, "Dad, I made a decision about my future. I don't feel like I've been called to be a preacher. I'm not sure what God wants me to do, but I'll let you know as soon as I figure it out."

Aaron cuts a sly look at Waylon then turns back to me. "Could you tell him that?" He grins as he brings his beer to his mouth.

"No. I can but I won't."

He tells us about some of the guys he was in seminary with. To be honest, a few sounded like bullies. Knowing Aaron like I do, he wore his heart on his sleeve the entire time.

"Oh, Miranda, I forgot to tell you. Matt called about ten minutes before you got home. Said to tell you to be on your best behavior tomorrow," Waylon says.

I narrow my eyes but say nothing. Does he think I'm going to be a raging lunatic? I'm not going to take my anger out on a kid.

"Matt took it upon himself to hire a high school kid to work a few nights a week with me."

Aaron nods. "That sounds like a good idea."

My head all but snaps as I look to see if he's serious.

"Well, you were kidnapped, and shot at." Aaron says.

"That's old news. I survived. I don't need a babysitter."

Waylon looks up from his phone. "If anyone needs a babysitter, it's you," he says, a laugh mingled in his words.

"Don't you have homework?"

Aaron scoots his chair closer. "He's worried about you. Hell, we all are. All that stuff you went through. You ain't a superhero, Miranda. You just kept on going. That was some traumatic shit."

"Thank you, Aaron, but I'm fine." I say. I take the empty bottle from his hand and walk over to throw it in the trash under the sink.

I busy myself washing the couple of utensils in the sink, officially ending the conversation. As I'm rinsing the soap from the knife in my hand I hear Waylon whisper to Aaron, "We've tried to get her to go talk to somebody, but she won't do it. Even Mitch said it's just a matter of time before it hits her."

I don't turn around. I just act like I haven't heard a thing. How dare they talk about me behind my back. I'm not some fragile little girl. I handled what happened. Instead of being proud of me, they're talking about me behind my back. And this new working arrangement, did Mitch put Matt up to that too?

"Aaron, welcome home. I'll see you tomorrow. I'm exhausted. I'm just going to turn in." I hug Aaron, pull away and look over at Waylon. "Finish your homework, and don't stay up too late."

"Night," Waylon says.

I step into the bathroom and turn on the shower. I hate feeling like I'm being watched and judged. Especially by those who should have my back.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. She's quiet ... for once. "Come on, I know you of all people have some salty little comment to say."

She feigns innocence. "Me? You're a tough chick. You don't need anyone. Least of all a shrink."

"I never said I didn't need anybody. I just don't like talking about my personal stuff to a complete stranger. Maybe that works for some."

She nods. "Therapy is for sissies, right? Not tough old broads like you."

"Stop. I'm gonna take a shower. I'm done talking to you."

My reflection rolls her eyes at me. "Can't even talk to yourself? Now that's real trust issues."


I toss most of the night, finally falling asleep just before dawn. I wake to hear Waylon rummaging through the kitchen cabinets for a pop tart or granola bar. I should get up, spend a little time with him but I don't. Instead I tug the blanket up over my head.

Today is one of those days where I just don't want to deal with anything or anybody. There's a headache starting to bloom in my skull. I could call out and lie, tell Rita I have a migraine but Matt would think I'm calling out because of the kid, Preston.

And why does he have to have that damn name? Ed Preston haunts my dreams still. Now I have to work with someone named Preston. Perfect.

I crawl out of bed and make a pot of coffee, maybe I can take a cup of coffee over to Aaron, but when I look through the kitchen window towards his trailer I see his truck is gone. It's just as well. I probably wouldn't be good company anyway.

I throw my jean jacket around my shoulders and carry my mug out to the porch. It's a peaceful morning. The early autumn cool not yet burned off by the sun.

"Haven't seen your cop boyfriend around much lately. You run him off too?" The scratchy voice of Mrs. "Two packs a day" Fine puts an end to the peace.

"No, Mrs. Fine. He's still around. Thanks for asking."

"I see your other boy toy is back in town."

"Yes, Aaron is back but he's not my boy toy."

She takes a drag on her cigarette then flicks the still glowing butt towards the road. "Whatever. It's none of my business who you sleep with."

I fight the urge to march over and punch her in the face. "Not sleeping with him."

She waves her hands. "Like I said, it's none of my business."

I take a big gulp of coffee. "It really isn't any of your business yet here you are bringing it up again." I stand and raise my mug in mock cheers. "You have a nice day, Mrs. Fine."

I wonder if when she dies, the earth is just going to open up and some demon is going to snatch her. Or should I start sharpening stakes just in case.

Chapter 9


So far, Miranda is trying to figure out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. Matt, her boss, has hired a high school boy to work with her and she isn't pleased. Rita, her co-worker, thinks her own husband is cheating on her. With all of this going on, Miranda is starting to show signs of wear.


I do my damned best at shaking off the encounter with that crusty old neighbor, Mrs. Fine. She is so abrasive and doesn't seem to care who she offends. The real problem with her is I sometimes see myself acting like her in the distant future. I've been called salty, bitchy, smart-ass and a few other names I'll leave to your imagination. But I never just blurt out things that are none of my business, so maybe there's still a little hope for me.

I hurry to get ready for work and as I'm driving I say on repeat, "I will be nice to the new guy. I will be nice to the new guy." Now, whether or not I actually follow through on this mantra, is anybody's guess.

There is no sign of Matt or his vehicle as I pull into the lot. Thank goodness. I did not say in my morning mantra "I will be nice to Matt."

Rita is ringing up some tourist for their gum and beer when I walk in. I ease around the counter and wait until she finishes the transaction with a "You enjoy your time here and swing on by if you need something else." When she says it, it sounds so genuine and sweet. She has this nice little southern accent and a real sweet smile. And, hell, she probably does mean it. When I say it, only an idiot would buy it.

"Did I miss anything?" I ask, tugging my red vest on.

Rita points to a plastic Big Eagle drink cup filled with pink carnations.

"So, hubby is begging forgiveness?"

Her smile falters a little. "Someone brought those for you, Miranda."

I lift the cup up. No little florist card attached, nothing to identify the giver. "Did they put the flowers in the cup or did you?"

"Oh, Miranda, I had just opened up and this car pulls up. A tiny little old man gets out and walks over to where I'm setting up the oil display. He clears his throat and says, 'Good morning, young lady, is Miss Miranda working today?' So, I told him you worked the afternoon shift. Well, he just looked so sad. He said he had a doctor's appointment this afternoon, but he told me to give you these."

I smile at Rita because I know she's swept up in this whole thing. "Rita, did you happen to get a name?"

Her eyes widen a little. "I, I did, but I can't remember it. Let me think. Stepford? Taylor? Does Stark ring a bell?"

"No. Could it have been Starling?"

She nods excitedly. "He was adorable. Tell me what's going on? Why did he bring you flowers?"

I place the cup back on the counter and shrug. "I pumped his gas for him the other night. He couldn't figure out how to pay with cash."

"That's weird. I thought everyone knew how to pump their own gas."

"Apparently, he doesn't."

She reaches over and rubs my upper arm. "You're a softie. You act all tough, but deep down, total marshmallow."

I cock my eyebrow and head for the cooler. "You ever say that again, and I'll kill you."


At exactly four o'clock, my smiling new co-worker walks through the glass doors of The Little Eagle Gas and Go, clad in khakis and a white polo shirt. Under his arm is his trusty basketball.

"Well, Preston, you're right on time. That's good. You, uh, got a game?" I say nodding to the ball.

Preston grins. "You never know when you might need it. It can be something to stave off boredom." He dribbles it through his legs. "It can entertain." He straightens and spins it perfectly on his fingertips. "And, last but certainly not least, it can be used as a weapon."

"A weapon?"

"A well placed ball to the face can definitely leave a mark."

Despite my earlier concerns about being nice to him, I think Preston and I are going to get along. He's quirky, no doubt, but he's happy like a golden retriever and just as cute.

He doesn't want to take a ten minute break, but I make him go sit in the office. "Just watch the monitors or look at your phone."

As I'm bending down to open a new box of bags for behind the counter, Preston comes out. "I just saw something weird on one of the screens," he says.

"What'd you see?" I ask, following him as he heads to the door.

"There was somebody standing there by the dumpster. But no cars are in the parking lot."

Trying not to get caught up in the drama he's creating I shrug it off. "People put stuff in our dumpster all the time."

Preston looks down at me. "He wasn't putting anything in there. He was just standing there. Just watching the store."

I ignore the chill that runs down my spine. "I don't see anybody, do you?"

Preston squints, then shakes his head. "No, but that was pure horror movie vibes."

Shake it off, Miranda. There is no boogeyman. The only boogeyman in your world is in prison.

Chapter 10
Two Cents


Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.

So far, Miranda is investigating the disappearance of Waylon's dad, and her former lover, Dougie Wilcox. She's low key investigating Rita, her co-worker's husband, since Rita thinks he's stepping out on her. Aaron Earl, has returned home from seminary school, having dropped out. And, now, she finds herself working with a new employee.


Mitch is waiting on the porch steps when I finally get home. He's a sight for sore eyes, I gotta admit.

"So, how were things at the Little Eagle tonight?"

"Riveting as always. You'll be happy to know I'm no longer working by myself. Matt hired a guy to help me close up a few nights a week." I leave out the niggling details about it being a kid.

He has a half smile on his face. "Should I be jealous?"

"I'm not gonna lie, he is cute. And, he's entertaining. Showed up with a basketball under his arm. I don't know much about the game but he seems pretty handy. He showed me some fancy dribbling, spun the danged ball on his fingertip for a good two minutes."

"Was he a Harlem Globetrotter?"

I laugh thinking about the light hair and wide eyes of Preston. "If he is, he's the whitest Globetrotter in the history of the team."

Mitch pats the spot next to him. "Well, I'm sure you're not happy, but knowing you aren't alone anymore, is a load off my mind."

I lean against him. "She's in prison, you realize that, don't you?"

Mitch slips his arm around my shoulder. "You realize there are other crazy people out in the world, don't you?"

I sigh as I look up at the sky. I know the next thing out of my mouth is going to make me sound crazy but I can't hold it in any longer. "I found one of Dougie's beer bottles, actually Waylon found it. It was propped up against the post under my mailbox."

"Miranda, it could just be a coincidence. Or, maybe some fruitcake thinks it's funny."

"Someone is messing with me, Mitch. Why is that so hard to believe?"

"Because, it's all random things. There's no evidence."

I shake my head and pull away. "And there it is. That damn cop logic."

He frowns. "I am a cop. It's not a switch that I can turn on or off. I deal in facts, evidence, deduction. You play things by ear."

"You should try it my way," I mumble.

He grins. "Perhaps, you could try it my way, once in a while."

I move back closer to him. He looks so handsome in the moonlight. I'm betting I look nine ways to crazy but I'll own it. "Mitch, someone was watching the store tonight. Just standing by the dumpster."

He's leaning in closer. "Maybe they were walking their dog."

"No dog to be seen," I whisper, puckering my lips for a kiss.

"Maybe it was an optical illusion. Maybe you're seeing things you want to see."

"If that were true, I'd have seen my favorite cop standing there."

"That so?" He brushes his lips against mine.

"Yes, that's so."

He kisses me, his fingertips graze my cheek. "Miranda, I worry about you. No one is as strong as you pretend to be."

"I'm not going to a shrink, Mitch. Let it go."

He finishes his kiss, then rises to his feet. "It isn't a sign of weakness. God knows, you don't want anyone to think you can't handle things. Just take this card. Don't throw it away." He reaches in his pocket and places a business card in my hand.

"What's this?"

"It's who we use for counseling at the Sheriff's office. Tyler went to her, I've been to her. She's good at what she does. Just think about it."

I clench my teeth. How many times do I have to say I'm fine before someone will believe me? I know he's concerned. And I agree, nine out of ten people would lose their shit if they had gone through what happened to me and Tyler at Haynes Pond. But I'm not like that. I'm a survivor. "I'll keep it. But no promises."

"No promises necessary," he says, and kisses the end of my nose.

The door squeaks open behind us.
"Oh, I wasn't sure you'd gotten home." It's Waylon.

I turn to look at him. "I'll be in in a few. Sorry. I should have let you know."

"No big deal. Hey, Mitch."

Mitch nods.

After the squeak of him closing the door, Mitch sits and takes me in his arms again. "I'm thinking maybe you and I can go paint the town red on Saturday night. How does that sound?"

"Graffiti. Sounds like a misdemeanor. "

"Shut up, Miranda," he laughs. "Dinner and drinks, then back to my place for dessert."

"What about your girls?"

"Molly is going out with friends and Sasha will most likely be with her boyfriend."

"Sounds good."

I look across the yard and see Aaron's porch light turn on. Mitch looks up then turns to me. "He's back for a visit, I see."

I shake my head. "Nope. He's just back."

"He can't be done with Seminary school. That takes years. He quit?"

"He said it wasn't for him."

"Well, shit, here he comes. The eternal third wheel." Mitch whispers with a laugh.


Aaron bounds down his steps and jogs over to where we are sitting. "Hey, what are y'all doing?"

"Just looking at the stars. What are you up to?"

Aaron doesn't wait to be invited to join us, he just sits next to me. "I've been thinking, you know, since I'm not going to pursue the preacher thing, I can still reach people."

I nod, not willing myself to ask how. It's late and I'm tired. But Mitch misses my lead and eagerly jumps.

"How are you going to do that?" he asks.

"Tik Tok."

"Come again?"

"I'll post videos everyday. From different spots around the county."

I glance at Mitch who sits with his mouth open. Heck, he may not even know what that is. But I can tell from the look on his face, he is about to crush Aaron's dream.

I gently elbow him as I turn to look Aaron in the eyes. "That is probably the most brilliant thing I've ever heard."

There are some people who can handle the truth, then there's Aaron.

Chapter 11
Over Easy


So far, Miranda has decided to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox who disappeared without a trace. Mitch, her sheriff boyfriend has reluctantly agreed to help her. An old man brought her flowers after she helped him pump gas and he appeared quite smitten with her.


Mitch swings by the following morning and takes me to breakfast. He's acting nervous and edgy, and all my mind can think is one thing.

I open the paper napkin and spread it across my lap. "What's up with you?" I ask.

He looks up, either dumbfounded by my question or shocked that I noticed. "What do you mean? I just wanted to take you to breakfast. No ulterior motive."

"Having a breakfast date is nice, but I'm calling bullshit."

Again, the panicked look.

"Mitchell, just spit it out."

He sighs but averts his eyes. "Miranda, it's just, uh, oh what the hell, I'm gonna come clean."

My stomach seems to draw up like a coin purse. "Are you breaking up with me?"

I might have actually cried had he not laughed out loud. "No. Why in the world would you think something like that?"

I bite my lip. Despite my being wrong about his intentions, he's up to something. And, if he's scared to tell me, I'm definitely nervous to hear it. "You're acting all nervous. It's not a good look on you, Mitch."

"Okay, okay. This is going to go badly no matter which way it comes out. Miranda, you see that woman at the counter? The one in the green sweater?"

I look over. I can see the side of her face. She's in her early thirties, I guess. Her hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, revealing an upturned nose and high cheekbones.

"Are, are you seeing her?" I try to keep the nauseous burst of panic down. "Mitch, please tell me the truth."

I fight the trailer park urge to run over and yank her off the stool by her perfect little ponytail. I can't look at Mitch.

"Miranda, I should have been honest with you."

I nod, grabbing my purse and pulling a twenty out of my wallet. "Thanks for breakfast, you, you, stupid ... oh, damn it. I was so stupid. Why did I think you'd want to be with me. I'm a train wreck."

Mitch looks around nervously. "Miranda, wait. It's not what you think. Calm down. That lady is Dr. Carrie Tate. She's the therapist we use at the Sheriff's department. I was going to introduce you so you could meet her and see she's not some buttoned up freak. Then I panicked and I regretted asking her to meet us here."

The good doctor turned around and waved. She was even prettier now. I wanted to not like her, but she has dimples. You can't hate someone with dimples. It's impossible.

"Miranda, meet Dr. Tate." Mitch stood as he motioned for her to join us at the table.

"Is that okay with you, Miranda?" She waits until I nod.

The waitress brings our food and pours Dr. Tate a cup of coffee.

"Sheriff Danner thinks you might like to talk to me about the events of the past couple of years." She smiles again, revealing those absolutely adorable dimples.

"Actually, the sheriff knows I don't want to talk to you, which is why he felt the need to ambush me."

Dr. Tate looks over at Mitch. "You did say she was honest."

"I'm not going to judge you. My job as a therapist is to help you understand your own feelings. To help process emotions."

I study the yolk on my egg. It's little dome perfect until I pop it with my fork. "No offense, but I know how I feel. I also know why I feel the way I do."

"You know, my dad hated that I became a therapist. He said, 'Be careful, Carrie. One day all that crazy is going to rub off on you.' But, I've never had a crazy person come to me. They are all just regular people who need my help to deal with the crazy things that happen to them."

I push my fork down and let the yoke spill over the grits on the plate. "In your professional opinion, do you think it's crazy to keep letters from someone who watched their own husband die, killed a man who was blackmailing her, tried to kill me, and more than likely is responsible for the disappearance of another man?"

She listens and pauses. "What does she say in these letters?"

"I don't know. I keep them in a box. Don't open them, just pull them out of the mailbox and toss them in."

"Maybe it's your way of keeping them in prison just like she is."

"So, it's a control thing?"

"Could be."

Mitch's beeper goes off. "Excuse me, I need to call into the station."

She waits until he steps away before speaking. "Why don't you want to talk to a professional?"

"Because. I'm doing fine. I don't need to lie on some couch and listen to someone make little judgemental sounds when I tell them about my childhood."

She laughs and it's almost as adorable as her stinking dimples. "Good thing I don't care about your childhood. Listen, we can talk anywhere. Want to sit on the beach? We can do that. Hike and talk? We can do that, too. I, uh, hate to break it to you, but we're talking right now."

"I guess we are."

"I think you are a very smart and savvy woman, Ms. Buckley. I don't think you're crazy or ready to break, but you've been through a lot of shit. It's only natural that it's going to come out."

"So, if I were to agree to meet with you, how much would that cost me? And how long would I be obligated to continue meeting with you?"

"There is no contract. Maybe just see if you like talking to me first."

I look down at the clotting yolk. Suddenly, I'm famished.

"Mind if I eat?" I ask. I don't wait for her response, just start shoveling the food in. "How about Thursday morning?" I put my hand in front of my mouth so she doesn't have to see my food.

Dr. Tate pulls out her phone and types something in. "Ten a.m. or earlier?"


She nods. "The address is on my card." She pulls a business card out of a silver holder and hands it to me.

"Can we meet on neutral ground?"

"Sure. Where would you like to meet then?"

I think back to where things started to go awry. "Haynes Pond."

"Okay. Nine o'clock on Thursday. Haynes Pond."

Mitch comes back to the table. I suspect there was no call. He probably had someone call to give him an out. "So, what did I miss?"

Carrie Tate says nothing. I let him wallow in silence for a few seconds before I decide to throw him a bone.

"We were discussing men," I say.

Mitch swallows and looks down uncomfortably.

Did I say I threw him a bone, I meant hand grenade.

Chapter 12


So far, Miranda has agreed to spy on Rita's husband. She feels like she was ambushed by Mitch into meeting a therapist. She likes Dr. Carrie Tate but is hurt by Mitch's deception.


While Mitch says goodbye to Dr. Tate, I excuse myself and step into the restroom. I splash some cold water on my face to stave off the anger I can feel building inside of me.

I love Mitch. I think he's probably one of the best things to ever happen to me. But this, this crossed the line. He went behind my back. And, even if he hadn't let on that she was there, this woman, doctor, total stranger was listening and watching me. And that's what makes me mad. I let my guard down.

My reflection clears her throat. "He did it because he cares about you. You went behind Aaron's back and brought in Mitch when he was trying to dive into Haynes Pond. You thought it was the right thing to do."

I snatch a paper towel off of the counter and blot my face. "It was the right thing to do. It was against the law."

"Miranda, you think you are always the smartest girl in the room," my reflection laughs.

I cock my eyebrow and straighten up. "In this situation, I am."

"Don't blow it with Mitch. He is a once in a lifetime guy. Just pout a little, let him ask for forgiveness and then get over it."

I look at myself. I'm not getting any younger. My reflection is right. Mitch is a catch. He's smart, handsome, a good and kind man. I'd be a fool to let him slip through my hands. But, he crossed the line. The line that I had clearly marked. I felt like a fool, an exposed fool. I've felt like this too many times before.

I draw in a deep breath and practice a winning smile in the mirror before stepping out of the safety of the ladies room.

"I know you're upset," Mitch says before I've fully cleared the threshold. "But, you liked her. Admit it. She's easy to talk to. She's not at all what you imagined, is she?"

I nod, my sharpened tongue suddenly seized with a case of paralysis.


I can't, for the life of me, bring myself to look at him.

"You're mad. Oh, crap. You're mad at me, aren't you?"

"You knew I didn't want to talk to anyone, yet you went and set up this whole clandestine thing. Tell me, Mitch, if I hadn't figured out something was going on, would you have made it seem like a coincidence that we ran into her here?"

"I'm worried. You shut down anytime someone says something about Missy and all that happened."

"I'm a big girl. I don't need a babysitter. You had no right to sic that therapist on me. No right."

His jaw clenches. "If the shoe was on the other foot, what would you have done?"

"I would have honored your wishes, Mitch. That's all. Because, in my book, being with the person you love, supporting them, that's what matters the most."

He pulls his keys from his pocket and brushes past me. "Guess we have different perspectives on what love means."

We ride in complete silence all the way back to my trailer. He hops out, opens my car door. There is no kiss, no mention of plans later in the week. Just a thanks for breakfast from me and a no problem from him.

My legs feel like lead as I climb the steps to my porch. I want to turn around and look back at him, but I can't take the look of disappointment on his face.

"See ya, Mitch," I call over my shoulder.

"Sure," he says, climbing back in his car and driving away.

I just said goodbye to the best man I've ever had in my life. And for what? My stupid pride.


Rita waves at me as I walk through the doors of the Little Eagle. I've still got my sunglasses on because my eyes are red from crying. I patted my face with witch hazel to get rid of the post crying puffiness but even Visine didn't cut through the redness in my eyes.

"How was your morning?" I ask.

"Fine. Had one rush but that was only for about twenty minutes. How was your morning?"

I pause, reach up and lower my glasses to allow her full visual of my eyes. "Not great."


"No. Mitch and I broke up."

Rita looks like a little girl who just found out there's no Santa Clause. "No. Y'all can't break up. Y'all are perfect together."

"Perfect is overrated."

"You cried?"

"Yes, Rita, I cried. I do occasionally shed a tear."

She nods but she still has a certain look of disbelief on her face. "I know every one cries, but you didn't even cry when all that craziness was happening with Missy and Ed. I'm just surprised."

"Okay. Let's just drop it. Has the beer inventory been done this week?" I ask. I need to focus on something.

"No. I can go do it, if you're too upset."

I reach for my vest and tuck the sunglasses into my purse. "I need something to do. Let me know when you want to take your lunch."

I pull the clipboard with the inventory sheet on it, off the nail in the wall and head for the coolers.

I start with Amsdel but by the time I get to Bud Lite, I'm a mess again.

"Dammit, Miranda, why didn't you forget your stupid pride and let it go? He's gone. You had one good man in your life and you threw him away."

The door to the cooler swings open. "You have a visitor," Rita calls out.

"Be right there," I say, wiping the back of my hand across my eyes.

Please let it be Mitch. Please, please, please be him.

But it isn't. It's that little old man, Mr. Starling.

"Oh, hello, Mr. Starling."

He starts to smile then notices my eyes and splotchy cheeks. "Oh, my, did someone die?"

For some reason, this strikes me as funny. "No sir. It's just one of those days."

"Well, I guess we all have a bad day now and again. I just wanted to stop in and thank you again for being so kind the other night. I'll be coming by on Friday to fill up."

"Ok, I'll see you on Friday."

Rita looks over and smiles as he slowly makes his way to the door.

"Mr. Starling," I call out. "Thank you for the flowers."

He smiles and nods before disappearing out the door.

"He's got a weird aura," Rita says. He smile fades as she looks back at me. "Somethings off with that one."

"Rita, he's one hundred and one years old. How off can he be? "

She shrugs, "It's just a feeling."

I don't really believe in that whole aura or colors thing, but now that she's mentioned it, Mr. Starling is definitely not as he appears.

Chapter 13
Mad Woman


So far, Miranda has started her investigation into Dougie's disappearance. She and Mitch have broken up.


Preston shows up shortly after four, about ten minutes after Rita leaves. He's in the back office clocking in.

The store phone rings so I grab it. "Good afternoon. Thank you for calling The Little Eagle Gas and Go, this is Miranda, how can I help you?"
The silence on the line goes on for several seconds. "Hello? How can I help you?"

I can see Preston walking to the front of the store. He isn't looking at me. He's making a beeline for the front door.

"I'm too busy for this shit," I mutter, eager to hang up the phone.

"Do you carry First Legion Dark?" The voice that speaks is muffled.

I feel the familiar jolt of seeing the beer bottles left where I can find them. First Legion Dark is Dougie's brand. "Who the hell is this?" I hiss into the phone. "What do you want?"

The line goes dead. I look up to see Preston running towards a pump.

I slam the phone down and race out after him.

"What's wrong, Preston?" I yell.

He grabs a nozzle away from a woman. "You can't do that," he's telling her.

She looks like one of those types that has lived with a silver spoon in her mouth since the day she graced the world with her arrival. Her hair is coiffed and sprayed with enough hair spray to offend the ozone several different ways. Her lips have been drawn on in an exaggerated fashion. Cleopatra wore less makeup than her.

"Hey, idiot." Her voice resembles nails on a chalk board. "Are you stupid? I have a boyfriend."

"You can't put diesel in your car." Preston points to the pump.

Miss Makeup scowls. "He said put the most expensive gas in his baby."

"Yes, Gas. Not diesel." Preston says.

"I'm calling the police." She walks to the driver's side door and pulls her phone out. "This is harassment. I don't have to put up with this."

I walk over to where Preston is replacing the nozzle. I link my arm through his and coax him back into the store.

"She's gonna ruin that car," he says, pausing to watch her lift the diesel nozzle again and try to fit it in the gas tank. "Maybe I should call the police," he moans.

I put my arm around him and quickly squeeze him. "You've learned your first lesson about working with the public."

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

"You can't fix stupid."

Preston smiles sadly. "Guess not."


Preston goes out just after seven and starts replacing the trash bags in the waste cans around the lot. He dumps the windshield washing stand and fills it back with fresh water.

I sweep around the front door and watch him. He's a nice kid. Lots of energy, so I keep him busy doing some of the mindless chores I never cared to do. A few times I sent him out with the broom and dust pan on a stick to sweep up cigarette butts and trash around the lot. But I do like him. He's like a big golden retriever, one who plays basketball.

A familiar car pulls into the lot. The driver stalks up to the door and heads right for me.

"Momma, to what do I owe this pleasure," I say. I can tell she's not stopping by for a social call. There is fire in her eyes.

"What happened this morning?"

I purse my lips. "Whatever do you mean?"

She plants her hands on her hips. "Miranda Lynn, don't you play coy with me. What happened at breakfast?"

"I'm guessing you already know."

"Have you lost your damned mind? Mitch loves you. I know it, Waylon knows it, the whole county knows it. But most of all, you know it. How could you let him just walk out of your life like that?"

I know she's my momma, but I've had just about enough right now. I put my hand down on the counter a tad more forcefully than I intend to.
"He knew how I felt, Momma. He knew I didn't want to see a shrink. He had someone there at breakfast. Waiting to ambush me. It was wrong."

She shakes her head and has a strange smile on her face. "For crying out loud, Miranda, it was my idea. He didn't want to do it. I told him how damned hard headed you are. I convinced him that once you met her and realized she was just a normal person, it would be fine. But you just had to be stubborn, didn't you?"

"He didn't tell me that."

"Of course he didn't. He probably thought he was protecting me."

I look away, idly drumming my fingers on the counter. "Well, the good news is, I'm meeting with Dr. Tate later this week."

She acknowledges my announcement but doesn't seem as thrilled as I thought she would be. "Call him, Miranda. Call him and tell him you were a fool and have come to your senses."

She's right. I know she's right. I was a fool. I should have pitched a fit, let him apologize and we could have moved on. Instead, Miranda Buckley, had to stick to her guns and walk away being right.

Momma leans forward and kisses my cheek. "Call him, Miranda. Don't let your pride get in the way of your happiness." She turns and leaves.

My hand hovers over the phone. Just pick it up. I lift it from the cradle. Suppose he doesn't answer? Suppose he realizes what a pain in the ass I really am?

I dial his number. One ring, two, three, I wait for his voice mail to pick up.

"Pick up, Mitch. Please pick up." I whisper.

The recording picks up, the beep sounds, now I grovel.

"It's me. Some things have come to light. If you haven't washed your hands of me, I'd like for us to talk."

I hang up and now I wait.

Chapter 14
Waiting Is The Hardest Part


So far, Miranda is being tormented by someone connected to Dougie Wilcox. She and Mitch have parted ways over a misunderstanding. She calls and leaves a message. Now she waits for him to call back ... or not.


After locking up and waiting for Preston's ride to come for him, I slump down in my car and start it. I'll be honest, I was hoping Mitch would be out here waiting for me. But the lot is deserted. It makes me want to cry all over again. I blew a good thing. I should have been more understanding. He loves me. I know this.

Enough. I'm not going to fret over something I have no control over. I extended the olive branch. He will either take it or he'll ignore it.

I'd like to think that, if I could go back to this morning, I would handle it differently, but Momma was right. I would probably handle it no differently.

I blame the lack of red flags with Mitch. For me, red flags are the things I brush aside, right or wrong. But, Mitch is pretty much perfect. I've never dealt with perfect. I remember reading an article once, probably in Cosmopolitan or Marie Clair magazine. It said that women who pick the wrong guy, time after time, don't do it because they want that kind of guy. They do it because they know what to expect. There is a certain security in repetition.

I turn into the Garden of Eden Park and the headlights bounce over Waylon and Aaron tossing a football in the front yard.

"Like old times," I say, mustering up my happy face.

"Why'd you and Mitch break-up?" Waylon asks, pausing as he winds up to toss the nerf football to Aaron.

It shouldn't surprise me that he found out. But how did he come about this information? "And you heard this how?"

"Your mom came by. Man, was she pissed off," he says, then laughs at the memory. "She forgot you were at work."

"Well, thank you for calling to warn me."

He shrugs. "Hey, you always tell me, 'Don't do the crime, if you don't want to do the time'."

I try to level him with a look but he continues to smirk. "So, are y'all done?"

Aaron shakes his head. "Waylon, show a little sensitivity. Love, both reciprocated and unrequited, are not something to joke about."

"Any calls?" I ask, ignoring the odd remark.

"One from the women's detention center, and no, before you ask, I did not accept the charges. Mail is on the table."

I trudge up the steps and as I go to open the door, I glance to see Aaron. There is something in his eyes. Something I don't like. I've seen it before and ignored it. It's interest. I won't say love because I seriously don't think he knows any better. But, his knowing Mitch and I aren't a thing at the present time, that might not be good.

"Homework done?" I call out.

"Yep. I even took the trash to the dumpster. Figured you'd be all mad when you got home."

I have no sooner gotten inside when my phone rings. I move faster than a fat kid reaching for the last cookie.

"Hello," I practically yell into the phone.

"Did you talk to him yet?" It's Momma.

"I left a message."

"A message? You need to talk to him, Miranda."

I pinch the bridge of my nose. "I know that. But it's hard to talk to someone if they won't answer the phone."

"You hurt his pride and his ego, he may need a few days."

"How did I hurt his ego?"

Momma sighs before answering. "He wants to take care of you. When you were in the hospital after Missy attacked you, he kept telling me how he should have been there. He was afraid of scaring you off. Miranda, honey, that man wants to take care of you. He's a good man. And you deserve a good man."

I bid her goodnight and walk back to my room. It's amazing how clear things are when you're standing on the outside looking in. But when you're smack dab in the middle, everything is jumbled.

If it's meant to be, he'll call back.


I sleep fitfully. Between waking up thinking about Mitch and the fifty other ways yesterday morning could have played out and the way Aaron was looking at me, I probably don't get more than four good hours of rest.

I give up at four-thirty and go hop in the shower. Waylon will be getting up in just over an hour. I brew my coffee, then grab my jacket to take it out on the porch.

The air is crisp. It can't be much warmer than fifty degrees. The good thing about living here on the coast, the morning is cool, the afternoon is perfect. Cold weather is rare. Snow is just a word we use in our imagination. I hold the hot mug between my hands and bring it close to my face.

As I bring it close to my mouth, the telephone inside rings.

"That's got to be Mitch."

I set the cup on the deck railing and race inside.

"Hello," I say, breathless with anticipation.

"Stop trying to find me."

My blood turns cold. It's a male voice. It's not Mitch.

"Dougie?" I whisper.

The line goes dead.

If it is Dougie, where has he been? If it isn't, who wants me to stop looking for him ... and why?

I stand there for a minute, the receiver in my hand. I'm shaking.

A noise behind me causes me to turn. There stands Waylon.

"Was that my dad?"

I feel a wave of cold roll over me. "I, I can't be certain but it sounded like him."

He looks around frantically. "What did he say? Is he okay?"

I blink as the reality of what's happened hits. "He told me to stop trying to find him."

Waylon moves to the couch, crumbling like a house of cards. He buries his face in his hands and moans.

Chapter 15
Star Sixty-nine


So far, Miranda has been investigating Dougie Wilcox's disappearance. She and Mitch have parted company and she's agreed to talk to a therapist. This morning, someone who sounded like Dougie, called and told her to stop looking for him.


The wake up call this morning still has me on edge. Poor Waylon is like a five year old, asking the same questions over and over. I'm not sure he should go to school but he waves off my suggestion to stay home.

"I'm not even sure it was your dad," I say, crossing over to sit by him on the couch.

"You said it sounded like him."

I nod slowly. "The voice did. But it was cold. Your dad was a lot of things but never cold."

Waylon stares off into space. I'm not even sure he's listening. All I can see is hurt and pain etched on his face.

I remember when we thought Dougie was texting Waylon that night to meet behind the Piggly Wiggly. Turns out it wasn't him. It was looney tunes, Missy Toblerone. But we figured it out because not once did the person sending the texts ask about Waylon. If it had been Dougie, he would have given me a message for Waylon.

I jump up and run back over to the phone. I dial star then six and nine.
The line rings. It rings eleven times and no one picks up. "Dammit."

"Who did you call?" Waylon mumbles.

"Old phone trick. Redials the last number that calls your phone. But there was no answer. I'm sorry, Way."

"I need to go to the bus stop."

"I can drop you off, if you want."

He shakes his head and walks towards the door to grab his backpack. "See ya tonight."

"Okay." I watch him walk out the front door. I feel just terrible for him. I couldn't care any more for him if I had given birth to him. But those three little words have never been uttered by either one of us.

And why not? What is it that is so intimidating about saying love?

Usually, there is no going back after those words are uttered. It's stepping from the friend zone into uncharted territory. This urgency comes over me, so I run out onto the porch.

"Hey, kiddo. Have a good day. Love ya."

He stops and half turns to look at me. A slight smile comes briefly to the corners of his mouth. "Back at ya."

I stand out there watching him as he makes his way down the gravel road to the stop. When he disappears around the bend in the road, I reluctantly go back inside.

Since I'm feeling so soft and lovey I dial Mitch's number.

"Hello," his voice is deep, the way it sounds first thing in the morning.

"Hey, look, I know you don't want to talk to me right now. So, please just give me a few minutes to say something."

He clears his throat. "Go ahead."

"I'm sorry. I know I love you. And I hope you love me. You try to protect me and I, I guess sometimes I just get overwhelmed. No one, other than my momma and daddy, has ever had my best interest at heart. I don't understand what you see in me, because frankly, I'm a mess."

"Miranda, yeah, you are a mess. A beautiful, passionate, and smart mess. You've never been anything but honest."

I close my eyes and listen to his voice.

"Can I come over?" I ask. "Would that be alright?"

He laughs softly into the phone. "That'd be nice. Miranda, don't get a speeding ticket but hurry."


He has breakfast on the stove when I get to his house. It's a small kitchen with appliances that date back to the seventies. He's standing in front of the stove in jeans and a gray t-shirt that has PCSD in black on the front.

"I'm sorry," I say as I wrap my arms around him. "I'm so sorry I didn't listen to you when you tried to talk it out. And, I'm sorry my momma talked you into it."

He moves the pan to a back burner and hugs me back. "It's okay. I crossed the line. The first time I had to see a counselor, I was so indignant. I almost quit the department. I was a man," he says, pulling away just enough to pound his fist into his chest. It's a dramatic gesture. "I didn't need to talk about my feelings. I needed to go to the gym, drink shots with my friends. But I went. Sat in the chair across from this grizzled old guy who looked as old as my grandfather. He was unimpressed with my surly attitude and quickly put me in my place. It took some time but I learned to trust him. I realized he wanted to walk me through it, not judge me."

I nod and place my head on his chest. I draw in his scent and listen to the rhythmic beat of his heart.

"I love you, Mitch. I don't know what I did to deserve you, but I can't imagine my life without you in it."

He looks into my eyes for a moment before touching his lips to mine. "This is a beautiful moment, and I hate for it to end, but I'm hungry enough to chew my own foot off. Sit. I'll bring the eggs and sausage over."

I sit at the table and watch him move around the kitchen with ease. Breakfast is delicious and even though he tries to stop me, I help him clean up the kitchen afterward.

"I think Dougie called the house," I blurt as I put the last plate in the cabinet. I need for someone else to hear it. I just need to share it with the one person I know I can trust.

He turns around, a stunned look on his face. "I'm sorry, what did you just say?"

"This morning. The phone rang and I thought it might be you but it wasn't. Somebody said 'stop trying to find me.' It sounded like Dougie. From what I can remember anyway."

"What else did he say?"

"Nothing. Just said that and hung up. I tried to hit star sixty-nine but it just rang."

Mitch frowns and scratches his chin. "Anybody else know about this?"

"Just Waylon. He's devastated."

"Poor kid. He's had a rough go in life. I'll give Dougie credit in one aspect. He did the right thing leaving Waylon with you."

I smile at him. "I need to ask you something, Mitch," I say, garnering strength to ask for something I'm pretty sure he won't like.

"Save your breath. I'll help you figure out what happened to or where Dougie is. One stipulation."

"And that is?"

"Open lines of communication. You and I work together as a team. No secrets."

"No secrets."

Secrets keep the world turning round. Big secrets and small secrets roll around daily like a giant ball of twine. But inside that ball of twine is one strand that belongs to Dougie Wilcox. At least, now I have someone I can trust helping me tug that strand of secrets out.

Chapter 16
First Nudie Bar


So far, Miranda has decided to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. She and Mitch have made up and are now going to investigate together.


Today is the day I'm supposed to meet with Carrie. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm still nervous. Worse case scenario is she realizes I'm a little unhinged. Best case scenario, I'm just as bat shit crazy as everybody else on the planet. Normal went the way of the dodo bird.

I pull down the road that leads to Haynes Pond. It's the first time since that night with Missy. It's just a place. It has no power over me yet every place I look a memory flashes before my eyes. I found Ed Preston's body. Aaron and Waylon found the sunken cars. Missy tried to kill me. I close my eyes, bringing my hand to my face. A phantom pain shoots across the bridge of my nose as I remember our scuffle on the muddy shore.

But good stuff happened here too. Mitch kissed me here. It was the beginning of my true happiness.

Dust kicks up as a car pulls in behind me. Carrie steps out of her small silver car and looks around.

I leave the sanctuary of my old reliable car to greet her.

"It's beautiful out here," she says, as she pulls her sunglasses out of her jacket pocket. "I can see why you picked here to meet."

The county had done a lot since that night to clean it up. All of the trash that had been dumped was cleaned up. They had even built a walkway that meandered through the marsh. There were a couple of benches and a pagoda with picnic tables and a charcoal grill. The pagoda was courtesy of the Toblerones, Justin's parents.

"Well, how do we do this?" I ask.

"We can walk. Or find a spot to sit. It's up to you."

"Just so you know, Missy Toblerone tried to kill me here."

"Who is Missy?"

"A girl who I've known since tenth grade. She watched her husband die while she ate a sandwich. A certified psychopath. She thought we were best friends. We were not. She tried to shoot me and when that didn't work, she hit me in the face with the gun."

"Whoa." Carrie lowers her glasses to peer at me. "Where is she now?"

"Women's Correctional Facility on the other side of the state. She writes me every day." As the words come out of my mouth I stifle a laugh. "You just can't make shit like this up."

"Did you go to the trial?"

"Most of it."

"What's in those letters?"

I shrug. "Never open them. I'm sure there's some twisted stuff in them."

"Why haven't you ever read them?"

I hadn't even realized we were walking until I find myself standing in front of the Justin Toblerone Pagoda. "Wow. This is really nice," I say, stepping up to walk around inside.

"So, you just toss them in the trash or burn them?"

"Huh?" I look at her wondering what she's talking about. "Oh, the letters. I just have them in a box."

Carrie doesn't react, not outwardly, at least. She does the doctor thing. An almost imperceptible nod to analyze this later.

"Nobody understands why I keep them still sealed and unopened. It's weird, I know."

"People do things that make sense to them. Maybe this makes sense to you."

I shake my head. "Nope."

She is easy to talk to. No judgement, just questions offered that I can either answer or ignore.

"Missy is doing time for murdering Ed Preston, plus covering up the death of her husband. But she did something else. My ex-boyfriend disappeared. Hasn't been heard from since he met up with Missy. There was blood in his truck but he hasn't been heard from since." I stop long enough to look over at her. "I think she might have killed him."

Carrie's gaze settles on my face. "Maybe that's why you keep the letters. A possibility that there might be confession in them."

I shrug. Why don't I tell her about the phone call this morning? It's like a secret only Waylon, Mitch and I know about. Was it Dougie? Or did I just want it to be?

"Miranda, you look like you have something to say."

"I'm just really tired. Can we call it a day?"

"Of course. I think it might be beneficial to meet once a week in the beginning. Same time next week?"

"Sure. Just between you and me, am I crazy, really crazy or off the charts?"

She grins. "I never tell stuff like that until after I've received payment from your insurance."

"Good to know."


Mitch grabs a pizza and brings it to the house. Waylon grabs four large slices and heads to the couch.

"Don't be shy," Mitch says to Waylon's retreating back.

"Thanks, Mitch," Waylon says.

While Waylon watches television, we take our pizza and ice cold beer out on the deck.

"How was your session with Carrie?"

I chew my mouthful before answering. "Good, I guess. She's nice. Not pushy, no questions about my childhood."

"Good, good. Are you going to talk to her again?"

"She wants to see me once a week in the beginning. We'll see. "

He nods, careful not to push. "So, the guys want us to come to the bowling alley tonight. Waylon is welcome."

A random thought flickers into my head like an incoming grenade. Rita's husband just might be on the prowl tonight.

"I've got a better idea. Let's go grab a drink."

"Sure. Live music in town at a couple of places."

"How about Llarado's? "

Mitch practically sprays his mouthful of beer in my face. "The tittie bar?"

"Gentlemen's club. Tittie bar is demeaning to all of those gentlemen."

He sets his beer next to his plate. "I know I'm going to regret asking this, but why do you want to go there? "

"I promised a friend I'd check something out."

"Ok. But you can't get mad at me for looking."

I swat at him. "Well, don't look, goofball."

He picks his plate up and cuts his eyes at me. "If I'm going into Llarado's against my will, I'm gonna look."

I finish my pizza enjoying the smirk on Mitch's face. After stacking my plate on his and heading to put them in the sink, I pause at the door. "Look all you want, but you're leaving your wallet in the car. I've heard those girls don't pay attention to the cheapskates."

Mitch stands and stretches. "Maybe they'll honor an IOU."

Chapter 17
Must Be Cold


So far, Miranda has met with the therapist, Carrie. She talks Mitch into going with her into the strip club, in search of Rita's husband.


The parking lot of Llarado's is full. It resembles the parking lot of Rose's two days before Christmas. Ironically, both Rose's and Llarado's would be full of men.

"Nervous?" I whisper into Mitch's ear as I hook my arm through his.

"This is a bad idea, Miranda. What kind of friend wants you to go into this kind of place just to check something out for them?"

I stop, pulling free long enough to face him. "Okay, I'm not gonna lie to you. Rita thinks her husband is stepping out on her. I was bored one day and followed him around for a while. He ended up coming here. He went inside and after an hour, well, he still hadn't come out so I left."

"Did she ask him if he's having an affair?"

"An affair, huh, I hate how it sounds so civilized. It's cheating, it's low. But, to answer your question, no, she did not."

"Why not? Never mind. Answer this. Did she ask you to follow him or are you just snooping?"

I bat my eyes innocently. "It was an implied request, Mitch."

He rolls his eyes. "Okay, Nancy Drew, let's get this over with."

The bouncer, who by the way, looks like he swallowed a Buick, gives both Mitch and me a long critical look. "Forty dollars," he holds out his meaty paw while Mitch pulls out two twenties from his wallet.

Once we get into the door, my breath catches in my throat. A mix of Aqua net, cheap men's cologne, cheap women's cologne, and stale beer all compete to take me out. I glance at Mitch, who is tucking his wallet into his back pocket.

"Forty bucks. I just willingly gave some meat head my hard earned money to go into a place I really didn't want to go into. Miranda, I love you, but after paying Forty bucks, make no mistake, I am looking."

"Okay. Look. No talking or touching. Look all you want." Quickly, I grab his hand and drag him towards the bar. "Beer?" I ask him.

He nods, staring intently at the countertop.

"Two Michelobs," I call out to the bartender. He pops the tops off and slides them across the bar to us.

I scan the room, recognizing several men who frequent The Little Eagle. Businessmen who always act like the Wonder bread family men are tossing greenbacks at girls who look young enough to be their daughters. I look towards the stage. A blonde bombshell is hanging by one tightly wrapped leg around the pole. A blonde guy with curly hair that bounces along with his enthusiastic gestures. I squint to get a better look. "Son of a bitch," I mutter. Why am I not surprised? It's not Rita's cheating husband all snuggled up to the stage, it's worse. It's my ex-husband, Farley. He's drunk, I can tell that from here. He's pretending to lasso the pole dancer while dancing to the music that's blaring overhead. In short, he looks like a cowboy having a seizure.

"What did you say that for? You see him?" Mitch turns to follow my gaze.

"Mitch, would you like to meet my ex-husband?"

I pull Mitch by the arm through the crowd until I'm beside Farley. "Never knew you could dance like that. What do you call that? The slime ball slide or the cheaters cha cha?"

"Holy shit, Miranda Lynn. You working here now?"

"No. No, I'm looking for someone. Why aren't you home reading bedtime stories to one of your eighty children? Aren't you a little old to be hanging out here?"

He grins. It's the same swarthy smile that used to greet me back in the good old days. How did I think he was attractive? I actually feel bad for his wife.

He waves a ten dollar bill at the girl as she comes down off the pole and starts crawling seductively towards him. "Hey, April, this is my ex-wife."

"Don't tell people that," I say. I look at the girl. She looks older than she probably is, with Cleopatra eyes and hot pink gloss on her lips. "Go home, Farley. You've got a wife who loves you. You've got all those dang kids. Be a real man."

Farley let's the girl slide the bill from his fingers as he smiles and winks at me. "Oh, Randa, you know there's enough Farley for everyone."

Mitch puts his arm around my shoulders. "Classy guy. I gotta say I'm surprised things didn't work out."

I elbow him playfully. "I don't see Bill anywhere," I say. I know I shouldn't be disappointed he isn't here, but I am. I was hoping to catch him.

A high pitched squeal sounds out to the left of us. "Mr. Danner. Oh my gosh." The squeal is followed by a nearly naked girl covered in glitter and tattoos as she tries to run towards us, on stiletto heels, much to the delight of every man in the bar.

"This should be good," I giggle. "Ooh, Mr. Danner."

Poor Mitch looks like a deer in headlights. He can't look at me, he can't make eye contact with the girl who is covering ground with surprising agility.

"Mr. Danner, hi, it's me, Carla. Remember me?"

"Of course," he says weakly. He swipes at a bead of sweat that rolls down the side of his face. "You're Carla."

She nods. "I went to Patterson Middle with Molly."

He looks around, as if surveying the room. I feel bad for him. Now, he definitely can't look at her. She's his daughter's age. She probably even spent the night with Molly. Back when glitter was solely for arts and crafts and tattoos were done with a sharpie during study hall.

"Hi, I'm Miranda. It's nice to meet you." I reach out and shake her hand. I move around Mitch to talk to her. "Can I ask you a question?"


"Do you know any guys named Bill who come in here?"

She seems to chew on it for a minute before answering. "Bill Templeton comes in sometimes. When he wants to close a deal. He's that real estate dude from the Proper. Can't think of anyone else named Bill. Wait ... the new janitor handyman is named Bill."

"Is he here tonight?"

She stands on her tiptoes and looks around. "Don't see him, sorry."

"Not Templeton. The janitor. Is he here?"

She nods. "In the back probably."

Someone calls out to Carla and she shifts into show mode.

"Come on, Mr. Danner, we need to see what's backstage." I say.

If Bill the janitor is the same Bill that I'm after, what is his story? And, is the Mr. Danner I walked in with the same Mr. Danner I'm leaving with?

Farley grabs my arm as I'm walking by. "How bout a kiss for old times sake?" He slurs his question as he looks at me through hooded eyes.

"I will. For all the money in your wallet."

He nods and pulls out four twenties and a five. He waves them lazily back and forth. "Pucker up."

I relieve him of the cash and put my finger to his lips. "Let me go brush my teeth. I'll be right back."

He flops back on the stool and smiles at Mitch. "She's something."

Mitch nods. Then follows me towards the back.

"You're really gonna kiss that guy?"

"What? No. I'm gonna give you your forty dollars back and mail the rest to his wife."

"Let's get back there and go home. I'm about done here," he says tiredly.

It's a funny thing about a partner, they might not always agree with you, but the good ones always have your back.

Chapter 18
Handyman Bill


So far, Miranda is getting clues about Dougie but she's still in the dark. She gets Mitch to go with her to Llarado's Gentlemen's Club to look for Rita's husband.


Mitch pulls his wallet back out of his pocket and withdraws the forty dollars. "Here, send it all to her."

"You're such a softie," I say, leaning over to plant a kiss on his cheek. "Now, are you ready for what's behind door number two?"

Another big burley man steps in front of us. "Restrooms are over there, sweetheart." He folds his arms in front of him.

"Oh, I just need to see my buddy, Bill. He's right back there." I stand on my tiptoes to point over his shoulder. "Shouldn't take more than a minute."

He doesn't budge. Just stares at me like it's the third time tonight he's heard that same excuse.

I try to think of another plausible reason. "Look, he's a cop. We need to talk to Bill."

Mitch groans and gently grabs my arm. "May I speak with you, over here?"

I hold up one finger to the guy, just to let him know I'll be right back.

"Stop telling people I'm a cop. I'm here with you as a favor. I'm not here in any official capacity. I'm not going to throw my badge around to get us into places we should not be."

I glance over at the guy. He's scanning the room, making sure all of the gentlemen are still acting like gentlemen.

"Miranda, are you hearing what I'm telling you?" Mitch touches my chin to make me look at him.

"I get it." I say, turning to go back and plead my case to the guard dog by the door.

"Since we can't go back there, could you get Bill to come out here?"

The guy looks at me then at Mitch. "You really a cop?"

Mitch nods, an uneasy smile on his face. "Sure am."

He waves his arm at the door and nods. "Five minutes. You've got five minutes. She can go back there, but I've got a few things I'd like to ask you."

I wink at Mitch and scurry around the bouncer to find Rita's elusive Bill.

There are about seven or eight girls back there, wearing next to nothing or wrapped up in a fleece robe.

All have fake nails, makeup and some have big curlers in their hair. They move about talking and laughing like it's a big sorority house.

They barely notice me milling around. An occasional hello or smile, but other than that, this little sorority couldn't care less that I'm here.

"Excuse me, can you point me in the direction of Bill the handyman?"

A stunning redhead pauses. She tosses her auburn locks over her shoulder. "Probably down that hall there. He doesn't come around us much." She winks like it's some secret we share.

I head in the direction she points. The yellow lighting overhead flickers. Seems like Bill the handyman hasn't gotten to replacing the bulbs yet.

"Bill," I call. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

A door creaks and a shadow looms large on the wall. The figure casting that shadow comes into view.

"Oh. Hey there, Miranda," his voice almost squeaks as he speaks. "What, uh, are you doing here?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing. Bill, why are you in the back hall of Llarado's?"

His shoulders sag and he motions for me to come into the room. "I work here."

I look around. It's a workshop. Cans of paint are stacked in one corner, a shelf is lined with rolls of toilet paper. There are wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers all hung up on the wall. It is exactly what it appears to be, a handyman's room.

"I can see that now. But I've got some bad news, Billy boy. Your wife thinks you have a girlfriend."

I'm not sure why, but this notion seems to be a surprise for him. Man logic is a remarkable thing. Why would she suspect him of such a deplorable act? A: he's out until 3 a.m. B: this is behavior he has never previously done. C: apparently he has neglected to tell her about his new employer.

"Why would she think that?"

I want to smack him. "You come home at 3 a.m. and probably smell like whatever that smell is that permeates the halls. You tell me why she would think that."

He sighs heavily. "She doesn't know what time I get home. She's always asleep."

I laugh. "She knows exactly when you crawl into bed. You need to come clean, Bill."

"I lost my job. This was all I could find. She's gonna be so pissed off." He looked miserable. "I was just going to work here until I could find something better."

I start walking towards the door but stop just short. "You know, Bill, she loves you. You have two beautiful boys together. Just talk to her. She just wants to know you still love her."

Bill let's a half smile come to his face. "Wish me luck," he says, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket.

I slip out of the room and find my way back to where Mitch and the bouncer are talking like old friends.

"Ready?" I ask.

"I think a new class starts in early January. But check into that ride along program I told you about." Mitch reaches over and shakes the guy's hand.

"Thanks, man."

I look over at Mitch as we weave our way through the throngs of men all clamoring to get a good view of the redhead who's moving like molten lava on the stage.

"Bet you ten bucks she's double jointed," I whisper. "What were you and your buddy talking about?"

He grins. "Wants to become a cop. He's smart. I enjoyed talking to him."

"So, I found Bill, not that you asked. He's working here because he lost his job. He was afraid to tell Rita because he thought she'd be pissed, and she was afraid to ask him what he was doing all these nights. Sheesh, communication is a dying art."

Mitch smiles and slips his arm around my shoulder. "Let's get out of here before I spot another one of my daughter's friends."

Strip clubs are definitely different than what I had imagined. Business deals, childhood friends, crappy ex-husbands and cheap cologne all meld together around beautiful women who provide exotic fantasy to a dull reality.

"So, do you think Rita will let him keep working here?"


"What would you do if I got a part-time job here?"

I lean into him. "Hope and pray that everyone of those young ladies has attended school with one of your daughters."

"Dang, Miranda. You've got an answer for everything."

Chapter 19


So far, Miranda has decided to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. Mitch agrees to help as long as she plays by the rules. She and Mitch check out the infamous Llarado's Gentlemen's Club to find out that Rita's husband, Bill, isn't cheating on her but rather working as a handyman.


Rita runs at me as soon as my foot crosses the threshold of The Little Eagle.

"He's not cheating on me. My Billy isn't cheating."

Her eyes are lit up like a Roman candle on the fourth of July. "I told you he wasn't." I haven't heard my name mentioned so I'm guessing old Bill came clean without letting her know I visited. "So, tell me what happened," I say. I'm hoping he told her the whole truth and didn't leave out any specific where he's currently employed.

Rita hands me my vest, the whole time rambling about being a fool for suspecting him and how they take their vows of marriage seriously. I listen as she tells me about his getting laid off and he's doing maintenance for the "club". It's none of my business but I wonder if she understands what kind of "club" it is. It ain't the country club, that's for sure.

I study my vest, checking for stains or loose threads. I have to look anywhere but at Rita. Because if I do look at her and he hasn't come completely clean about his new job, my face will tell her everything she doesn't want to hear.

"Oh, and get this, apparently your ex-husband got thrown out. Accused one of the dancers of stealing his money. Said it got ugly. They took his keys so he couldn't drive, and he had no money for a cab. Bill said the lowlife called his wife to come get him."

I look up, thinking about the money tucked in my purse. I am planning to give it to his wife. Poor woman, if I gave her twice that amount, it wouldn't begin to be enough. She will come around. It may take a while. She has little kids to think about now. But one day, maybe when they're grown up, she'll pack up and walk away.

"...did you hear me?"

"Sorry, what?"

"Does it bother you that he goes to places like that? "

I slip the vest on, making a mental note to carry it home tonight and wash it. "I don't care what he does. He's someone else's problem now."

Rita heads back to the office to start on the orders and I start restocking the coffee station.

There are three or four busy spurts throughout the morning. The day passes quickly.

Preston is scheduled to work tonight. As much as I was against having a helper, I kind of enjoy having him around. He's high energy, for sure. But he's a good kid. He's nothing like Waylon, who's reserved and takes it all in. No, Preston is all action. Like a tall, skinny bundle of kinetic energy, that can spin a basketball on his finger.

At three-fifty, the bell on the door sounds and I look up to see Mr. Starling shuffling into the store.

"It's not Friday, Mr. Starling. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Stopped in because I saw your car and I need a nice bottle of chardonnay. "

I cock an eyebrow. "You thought of The Little Eagle for nice wine?"

He grins. "My niece is coming to dinner. She likes it. Wine is wine to me. Maybe you can give me some guidance."

I walk away from the candy i was restocking and join him where the limited selection of wine is. "I only go by the label. If I think the label is cool, I'll buy it."

"Sounds good to me." He points at a bottle. "What do you think of this label?"

I scan the shelves. "Personally, I like this one better. Colorful."

He looks the bottle over. "It's a screw off cap. Is that good or bad?"

I shrug. "I don't think that really matters anymore. It's more convenient. No corkscrew? No problem."

He follows me to the counter. "Is that everything?" I ask.

"My Laura would have liked you." He smiles sadly.

"Was she your wife?"

"Yes. God rest her soul. Forty-eight years. I killed her."

I look up sharply. "What? That's a joke, right?"

"I wish it were. I did something very stupid, Miranda. I lost almost all of our money. I knew it was too good to be true. I fell for a ponzi scheme. Laura told me not to do it. I thought we'd get rich, you know? Have enough money to go on cruises, visit Europe. Stuff we always talked about. When I realized I'd been scammed, I begged her to forgive me. She said she did. Kept quoting our vows ... for better or worse, richer or poorer. But she just withdrew. More and more, she let go, until one day, she went to the bedroom, said she was going to lay down and rest before dinner," he says, his voice trailing off.

"I'm so sorry. What ever happened to the person who took your money?"

He looks up with misty eyes. "I don't know. He vanished. I was hoping you might know. I'm going to be honest with you. I heard the man was your boyfriend."

My heart catches in my throat. Dougie took his money. It doesn't make sense. He wasn't a criminal. Dougie might have been self absorbed but he didn't do things like that.

"Miranda, where is he?"

"I don't know. I swear I don't know."

He looks down sadly. "I just want my money back. If you hear from him, tell him about Laura. He may not care about me but he liked Laura when he met her. I could tell. Tell him he broke her heart." Mr. Starling waits quietly, watching me try to process the bombshell he just dropped on me.

"I'm so sorry. I haven't heard from him in almost two years."

Mr. Starling takes his wine, and without a word turns to leave. He pauses by the door. "Laura would have liked you, Miranda."

I feel my blood pumping, like frigid water it runs through my veins.

Damn it, Dougie. How many people did you drag into your investments? Call me. Call me, Dougie. This is bigger than just Waylon. It makes sense why he doesn't want to be found.

I wait until he drives away before I pick up the phone. "Mitch, I think Dougie was involved in some bad stuff. Can you swing by later?"

Chapter 20
Wisdom From Preston


So far, Miranda Jessup Buckley has tried to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. The more she tries to investigate, the darker it gets. Now, she realizes that old Mr. Starling has been planning to confront her about Dougie. Miranda wonders how Dougie could have scammed an innocent old man, and how many other people are looking for him.


Preston comes rushing through the double doors at exactly three-fifteen. His schedule here is no later than three-twenty. His hair is wet but brushed back and he looks like a young Clint Eastwood. He'd probably die if I told him he looked like the actor, who's every bit of eighty years old. But I remember watching reruns of Rawhide and he was a very handsome guy.

"You sweaty or just washed your hair?"

"Tryouts are next week. I was working on my dribbling. That's my weakest thing. Never been very good at it."

I nod and glance at the phone. Maybe if I think hard enough, Dougie will call. I have to find out if he knew what he was doing. Because the Dougie I knew, he just wasn't like that.

"No offense, Miss Miranda, but you look like shit. Are you hungover?"

Glaring, I fold my arms across my chest. "Really, Preston? What makes you think that was an appropriate question to ask?"

"My mom looks just like that whenever she has too much wine. She doesn't drink very often but when she does, she looks all pale and sweaty. Just like you do know."

"No. I'm not hungover. I just found out something that shocked me."

He leans forward on the counter, eager to hear. "What?"

He's seventeen. He has very little filter and he speaks without really thinking. I know if I tell him what I've learned about Dougie, he'll say something childish. When you're young, the world is black and white. There are good guys and bad guys. Things happen to other people, not to you. That's how I used to feel anyhow. I doubt much has changed.

"I've told you about Waylon," I say, pausing until he nods his head. "I just found out his dad scammed an old man out of several thousand dollars."

Preston raises his dark eyebrows, silent as he processes the information. "How do you know?"

"The old man told me."

Preston shrugs. "How do you know he's telling the truth?"

"He's an old man, Preston. Why would he lie?"

"Geez Louise, Miranda. People lie all the time. I've seen a man holding a Bible in one hand and say lie after lie. I had a coach lie to me, my parents and the school board about my broken arm. He said I fell because I was clumsy. He pushed me. He was a bully but he got away with it. He was a liar, and a damn good one. But I knew the truth. Just cause it comes out of someone's mouth doesn't mean it's the truth."

I open my mouth, stunned at the wisdom Preston, my high school, basketball spinning, hyperactive coworker just said. "I guess you're right."


Mitch comes in swinging a bag of food from the Patterson Deli. "Figured you might be hungry," he says, winking as he leans in for a kiss. "Want to eat at the picnic table out back?"

I nod and we cut through the store to leave out the back door.

"You sounded a little out of sorts earlier when you called. What's going on?"

I unwrap the club sandwich he brought me and my stomach flips a little as I think about what Mr. Starling said. "Do you remember a few weeks ago, I told you about that sweet little old man who brought me those flowers? Well, he said it was because I had been so nice and pumped his gas for him," I say then shake my head. "That was bullshit. Apparently, he had a run in with Dougie."

Mitch swallows his mouthful of food. "What kind of run in?"

"He said Dougie took several thousands of dollars from him and promised a huge return on his investment...then just disappeared."

"Dougie hit you up for money, didn't he?"

"Yes. But I never gave him a dime. Missy gave him some," I say. My mind suddenly blooms with thoughts of Missy figuring out he was scamming her. She could have lured him out to No man's land, killed him, then let the wild animals get rid of the evidence. "Maybe that's why she killed him."

Mitch wipes his mouth with a napkin. "She couldn't have killed him almost two years ago and he call you a few days ago. Miranda, think about it. Was it Dougie who called, was it him who's leaving beer bottles around for you to find? He can't be dead and doing all of that."

"Damn it, Mitch, why can't it be both?"

He grins. "Come to think about it, maybe it's the ghost of Dougie."

"Preston said that maybe the old man is lying. Why would he lie about something like that? He told me about his wife falling ill because of it. Said she just gave up. It was so sad."

Mitch reaches over and he brushes my hair back off my shoulder. "Im not saying the old guy is lying but people lie, Miranda."

"I know that. I was married to Farley, remember?"

"What's the old guy's name? I'll see if I can find out anything about him."

"Yeah, that'd be good," I say. "His name is Alvin Starling. See if you can find out anything about the death of his wife."

Mitch takes the pen from his pocket and jots it on a paper napkin. "I gotta run. I promised Molly I'd watch a movie with her."


Preston looks up from his phone as I come back to the counter. "I got all trash from the bathrooms, the office and behind the counter. I'm gonna go walk it to the dumpster."

"Preston, did that coach get in any trouble for hurting you?"

He hoists the garbage bags over his shoulder. "No, but I have a feeling the next time somebody gets hurt because of him, they just might realize I was telling the truth."

I learned two things tonight. Seventeen year-old boys can be wise beyond their years and maybe ghosts can dial the phone.

Chapter 21
God on YouTube


So far, Miranda Jessup Buckley is back to find out what happened to Dougie. Someone called to tell her to stop looking for him and she just found out an old man had been swindled out of money by Dougie.


Aaron is sitting on the porch with Waylon when I get home. He looks up and smiles when I finally get out of the car.

"Hey, Miranda. How was work tonight?" Aaron asks. "I know you just got home and all, but I'd really like to run something by you."

"Can I go inside for a minute?" I ask, shaking my car keys and my dirty work vest. "Give me five minutes."

He nods and immediately Waylon starts showing him something on his phone.

The trailer is messy. Waylon is forgetting to straighten the covers on his futon more often than not. There are dishes in the sink. Not just a couple of cups and a spoon, no, we are talking full dinner party sinkfuls. Seven course meals being served while I'm at The Little Eagle, apparently.

I mean, I get it. Why walk across the room for the glass you were just using when you want something else to drink. What is it, the depression?

I look around. The couch looks like it was used by four or five chimpanzees who suffer from ADHD.

"Waylon," I yell. "Please come inside ... now."

He saunters, no lie, he saunters in like he's just been crowned prom king. "Yeah?"

"When you look around this fine establishment, what do you see?"

"A couch, a T. V., refrigerator," he says.

I nod, making sure to look at each item as he lists it. "What else?"

He shrugs, but instead of that sauntering lad who came through the door a minute ago, he is now unsure. He has become a young man who is standing in the middle of a mine field. "I didn't make my bed?"

I frown. "I'm sorry, are you asking me? Was that a question?"

He sighs. He has just realized the danger he is in. He took one wrong step. Boom.

"The bed, the couch, the sink, and I haven't even gone into the bathroom yet. What do you think I'll find in the bathroom, Waylon?"

"A toilet, sink and shower," he says, a playful smirk on his sweet little face. He's young, he hasn't learned to read the room yet.

"Clean this place up. Got it? I'm going outside to talk to Aaron. While I'm doing that, you will look at every surface in this trailer and straighten it. Kitchen counters and all bathroom surfaces included."

His smirk deflates as fast as someone popping a party balloon with a fork.

"Thank you," I say as I cross to the door.

Aaron looks up as I walk out. I can tell by his eyes, he heard our little exchange.

"Am I wrong to make him clean up after himself?"

He shrugs. "It'll teach him how to take care of himself. You're good at this mom stuff."

I sit beside him, feeling much better now. "What did you want to run by me?"

He turns on his phone and taps an app. "This guy has a YouTube channel and it's called Parking Lot Advice. It's really cool. People send him questions and he tells them what to do. It's interesting because, well, sometimes he's in the parking lot of Starbucks or Target."

I shake my head. "Why is that interesting?"

"Because it's different. It makes him seem more real, you know, like he's more approachable."

He taps the screen and a handsome young guy starts talking. He's wearing a nice shirt, holding a Starbucks coffee cup, standing in a parking lot of a mall. "Hey guys, it's me, Adam, hanging out at the Twin Rivers Mall. Man, what a beautiful fall day it is ...," he says, all the while smiling a million dollar smile.

I put my hand on Aaron's arm. "He's very charming, Aaron, but what does this have to do with you?"

"This is what I want to do, Miranda. I want to be the guy who tells people it's okay to love God. It's okay if you don't want to go to church. You can still worship him."

"I think most people know that."

Aaron shakes his head. "But, they don't. If religion has done one thing, it's made us think that people who go to church are Christians, and the ones who don't are sinners."

I look over at him. The passion for this burns in his eyes. "I want to find places, around Patterson, that show the beauty of God's world. Then I want to teach people about Him."

I wonder how I got so lucky to have him as my neighbor and friend. He's open and honest. Doesn't care if people laugh at him. And they do. I mean, I've laughed at him. I've doubted him. He's proved me right and he's proved me wrong in those doubts.

"When do you want to start?"

He grins. "This weekend. I'd like you to help me film it, but, if you can't, maybe Waylon can."

I nod. Aaron will either turn an entire generation on to God, or he'll fail miserably. But, I'm gonna be right there with him. "Okay, I'm in."

He let's go a deep breath then a hoot. "I knew I could count on you."

He goes home, eager to script out his first message to the faceless audience of the world wide web. I stand and go inside.

I look around. The couch no longer looks like it belongs in a zoo, Waylon is finishing up the dishes. "The bathroom is clean. But, I couldn't find the white powder stuff for the toilet, so, I just used the brush in the water. But, it looks clean to me."

"Thank you, and I'm sure you did a great job."

"Is Aaron gone?"

"Yep. But, don't worry, cause we're gonna spend part of Saturday with him."

Waylon turns around, hands dripping soapy water, and a huge smile on his face. "Just like old times," he says.

I nod, but, part of me wonders how it can be like old times when we have all changed so very much.

Chapter 22


So far, Miranda Jessup Buckley has decided to find out what happened to Dougie. Someone called, claiming to be Dougie, warning her to stop trying to find him. Then a strange little old man told her that Dougie swindled him out of his money. This has Miranda's nerves on edge.


I lie in bed unable to relax and drift off to sleep. My mind, a mix of thoughts and questions, live wires that spark and shock as they bounce around.

Carrie had given me a list of things I could do to relax and settle down, along with a prescription for Ambien. I try the deep breathing exercises, then the exercise to visualize myself floating on a river. Unfortunately, I end up floating right on into Haynes Pond and Missy is standing on the shore, waving a gun at me. So, I give up on that little exercise in futility. Instead, I sit up, dig through the top drawer in my nightstand and pull out a small notebook and pen.

Aaron seems so excited about his new calling. And, yes, he was equally excited about going to theology school. I'm going out on a limb and say that Aaron has his own style and vision. Preacher school might not have been his cup of tea.

This YouTube thing might be more up his alley. Aaron doesn't want to preach, he wants to reach.

I write down places for him to host his talks. There's the beach, of course, but there are other beautiful places as well. The fields that are scattered along route 17 are beautiful. In a few weeks, the trees will start to turn the warm oranges and scarlets of autumn. Hell, Haynes Pond is nice now.

I try my best to stay focused on Aaron's new venture, but in every location I try to visualize, Mr. Starling appears. His sad eyes boring into mine. "Tell him he broke Laura's heart."

The list morphs into a list about Dougie. How much did he take from the Starlings? Who else trusted him? He was a small town boy. Everybody knew him. What would make him rip off people he grew up with?

It doesn't make sense. I lived with him for almost three years. He wasn't that kind of person. I know I miss red flags, but character is character. It wasn't in Dougie's character to blatantly lie and steal from people.

The last time I check on the time, it's two-fifteen in the morning. I write down questions, dozens and dozens of them. Questions about his disappearance, about any potential reasons, and finally one question.

What the hell happened to Dougie Wilcox?


My head hurts, like a hangover, when my eyes finally open in the morning. I missed Waylon leaving for the bus. The trailer is flooded with light. It's almost nine. I'm supposed to meet Carrie in eight minutes.

Part of me wants to cancel. I'm not in a friendly frame of mind this morning but maybe I need to bounce my thoughts and questions off of an unbiased person.

I dial her number. "Carrie, hey, it's me, Miranda. Uh, Miranda Buckley. I was hoping we could push my session back about thirty minutes. If you get this and that's okay, I'll be at Haynes Pond again. I'm sorry for the last minute notice-," I say, then hear the answering machine click off, the rest of my pathetic apology fades away.

I brush my hair and my teeth, splash some water on my face and with my keys in hand, I head out to my car.


Two young mothers with strollers are walking around the pathway. It's nice to see this place cleaned up. To them, this is a family destination. I think of the swarm of black flies peppering me as I turned over that abandoned couch. The unnatural color of the man laying beneath it.

I look out towards the water, the marshy grasses billowing in the light breeze, their reflection dancing in the rippled water.

"I should have brought us coffee," Carrie says, coming up behind me. "Get a late start?"

"Didn't sleep much last night."

"Did you fill that prescription I gave you?"

I shake my head. "Not much on drugs."

Carrie puts her hand on my arm. "If I thought you were taking them recreationally, I wouldn't have written it. Just have it filled, and when you need a little help."

"I've just had a lot on my mind."

She waits, not pushing or asking leading questions.

"An old man showed up at work yesterday. He said Dougie stole money from him. Promised him he'd get a huge return on it. Then, poof, Dougie's gone. Vanished without a trace, and so is the old man's money."

"Do you think Dougie planned his disappearance?"

A shiver passes through me. "I didn't, now, I'm just really confused."

"You said you thought Missy had something to do with his disappearance. Do you still feel that's the case?"

"She told me he hit her up for money. She gave him some. Suppose she found out it was a scheme to defraud people. Missy didn't deal with problems like most people."

"So, Missy killed him? Is that what you think?"

I dig the toe of my boot into the dark sand. "I did."

Carrie walks around and faces me. "You say you did. What makes you feel differently now?"

I chew the inside of my lip nervously. "He called me."

A slight frown creases her brow. Her eyes search my face. I don't know, maybe she's wondering if I've totally lost my mind. "Dougie called? You? And, you're sure it was him?"

I shrug. "Pretty sure."

Carrie folds her arms in front of her. "Well, that certainly changes things, doesn't it?"

I fold my arms in front of me as well. "It certainly does."

Chapter 23
Another Call


So far, Miranda has persuaded Mitch into helping her find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. She has a sleepless night and tells Carrie Tate, her therapist, that Dougie called her.


Rita is swamped when I walk in. A tour bus from Northern Virginia has taken up most of our parking lot. I see a swarm of silver and gray moving around the store. There must be forty senior citizens milling about. There are five women standing by the bathroom door.

"You work here?" A balding man, doused in Old Spice cologne grabs my arm as I'm about to round the corner to help Rita.

"In four minutes I do," I say, gently pulling my arm free.

"I used to come here as a kid. There was only three stores in Patterson. And they had a sign at the edge of town 'Welcome to the town of Patterson. Be courteous," he pauses long enough to wink at me. "And no coloreds after sundown'." He throws his head back and laughs.

"Well, now, isn't that something." I've never heard that before, and quite frankly, could have lived my life quite happily without knowing it.

"Times were simple then," he says reaching for my arm again.

I step back. "Is there something I can help you with?"

He leers, his tongue darts out against his lips. "Now we're talking."

I swallow the bile that creeps up into my throat. "Okay, Hugh Hefner, you are barking up the wrong tree. Why don't you move along and let me get to work."

His fingers run across his thinning hair. "I like you, girlie. You've got spunk."

"I got herpes, too, but I don't go around sharing it with everyone. Now hit the bricks."

He shuffles off, his attention moving to a group of senior women."

Rita shakes her head. "Herpes?"

"Hey, it worked, didn't it?" I laugh as she nods towards the door. "He's back."

I look over. Mr. Starling is walking into the store. "He blends right in," I mumble. "I don't think he's seen me. I'm going to run to the office for a few. If he asks for me, tell him I had to run out for a while."

I slip out, weaving between tourists. I step into the office and quickly close the door. I watch the monitors. Mr. Starling looking down each aisle. Looking for me. I can't do this today. I'm not Dougie. I'm not, in any way, shape or form, a part of what Dougie did. He approaches Rita, she shakes her head. Slowly, he shuffles back to the door and leaves. I watch him make his way to his car and he climbs in. But, he doesn't leave. Just sits in his car, watching the store.

I've had enough. I'm not someone who hides. Hiding draws things out. It makes you look like you're guilty. Makes you look scared. I'm none of those things.

I leave the security of the office, move through the sea of oldies and march out to his car.

"Oh, good, Miranda. I just came in to see you. The young lady told me you were out running errands. Tsk, tsk. I don't like liars."

"Mr. Starling, you cannot just drop by anytime you want. This is a place of business. My job, my livelihood is at stake."

He smiles, as if I've been asking him how he is doing. "Tell that young lady I don't care for liars, will you do that?" He puts his car in reverse and slowly backs up.

I step back on the curb, my heart hammering in my chest. I turn around and barely get two feet in the store before that old geezer grabs my hand and starts trying to tango with me. "Back off, Fred Astair. I've got one nerve left and you are on it."

He blanches before shrinking back.

Rita looks over, her eyes wide with surprise. "What happened? "

"Remember that comment you made about Mr. Starling? About a bad feeling?"

She nods.

"I think you're right. There is something very dark about him."

"Call Mitch."

"No. He'll think I'm being silly. I think I can handle an eighty five year old man."

Rita nudges me. "Speak of the devil."

Mitch walks through the double doors, and I swear, in my mind, it's in slow motion. His aviators hiding his gorgeous eyes and a half smile turning his lips.

"Are you here to arrest someone?" I tease. The tension melts as he comes over to lean on the counter.

"Who do I need to arrest?" he asks, pulling his glasses down far enough to peer over them. "Looks like a rough crowd."

I search for the handsy old guy. "That old fart by the sunglass rack, for one."

"What'd he do?"

"He took a shine to Miranda," Rita says.

Mitch frowns. "Sounds like he needs a commendation for good taste, to me."

"Not funny." I fold my arms across my chest.

"Want me to rough him up?"

"I'm glad you find this funny." I sigh heavily for effect but Mitch and Rita laugh it off.

"I came by because I did a research on Mr. Alvin Starling."

"He was just here. He creeps me out, Mitch. I feel like he holds me personally responsible for what Dougie might have done."

"He's a good law abiding citizen. No children. His wife, Laura, died of liver cancer almost two years ago."

I stop trying to do the math when he says the word cancer.

"He told me she died of a broken heart. She had cancer. It wasn't Dougie. Had nothing to do with him. Why would he try to put the blame on Dougie?"

"Grief does strange things to people. Maybe he just needs to blame someone." Mitch reaches over and cups my hand in between his. "I could pay him a little visit, would that make you feel better?"

"Maybe. Hopefully, he won't bother me anymore."

Mitch pushes his glasses back into position then nods at both Rita and me. "I'll swing by later. Call me if you need me."

Twenty minutes later the octogenarian bus was pulling out of the parking lot.

I pull a quarter from the register and flip it in the air. "Heads or tails?"

"Uh, tails, I guess. What are we flipping for?" Rita asks.

"Loser has to go clean the bathrooms."

Apparently, my luck continues to suck. I draw in one final lungful of good air before entering the women's restroom, and make a mental note to ask Matt for combat pay.

An hour later, as I'm dumping the mop water out back, Rita comes to the door.

"Miranda, phone."

"Who is it?" I ask, watching the dirty water roll down the pavement towards the grass.

"I don't know. They said it was urgent."

Hurriedly, I leave the bucket and run towards the door.

I grab the phone in the office. "Hello?" I say.

"Miranda, it's me. Don't hang up."


"I'm in deep shit, Babe. I'm in some real trouble."

I close my eyes. It's him. Dougie is alive.

Chapter 24
Truth or Consequences


So far, Miranda has made it her goal to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. She suspected that her old nemesis, Missy killed him, but he called. Now, she wants to know where he's been and what has he gotten himself into.


I clutch the phone. A million questions are sprinting around my head right now.

"What kind of shit, Dougie? The kind that makes you cut off contact with your own son?" I bark at him. I didn't realize how much anger I had until I realized he was hiding from us.

"I had to. There are people after me. You don't understand."

I try to relax the grip on the phone. I take one of those ridiculous cleansing breaths that Carrie taught me. All I feel is hot anger circulating through my lungs. "He thinks you're dead."

"Good. Let him keep thinking that."

"No. No, no, no. I'm not going to lie to him. He deserves better, Dougie."

I hear him groan, almost animal like, through the line. "If he thinks I'm dead, he's safe."

I tap my fingers on the desk. He's not making sense. He ripped some people off. He'll go to jail. Do the crime, do the time. "Just turn yourself in, Dougie. No one can hurt you when you're in jail."

He laughs. "Tell that to Jeffrey Epstein." He let's go a sigh. "I'm dead, Miranda. Stop looking for me. Everyone is safer if I'm out of the picture."

He doesn't say goodbye, the line just drops.

I try to make sense of what he's said. Who is after him? How am I going to act like I don't know he's alive? Why doesn't he want help?

My fingers are shaking as I dial home. Waylon answers on the third ring.

"Hey, what're you doing?"

"The dishes, fluffing pillows, wiping the counters and floors. You know, all the stuff I trash while you're working." There is a slight playful tone in his voice, but I know he's still a bit miffed because I called him out the other day.

"Good. Thank you. Maybe I'll raise your allowance."

"You don't give me any allowance."

I force a laugh. "Then maybe I'll start."

"Your mom is coming to pick me up in a little while. She wants to see a movie and asked me to go. I might not be here when you get home. Okay?"

I nod, thankful that my mom is going to be with him. "Sure. Have fun."

Rita sticks her head around the door frame. "Hey, I need to clock out. Sorry. I can hang around for a few minutes if you need me to."

I don't look up, but shake my head. "Is Preston here yet?"

"Not yet."

I muster a smile. "Okay. Clock out. I'll see you tomorrow."

Rita waits until I walk by to go in. "Miranda? Is everything okay?"



Preston talks non stop about basketball. He tells me what makes a good team player (someone whos happy to assist as much as score), his favorite NBA team (the Celtics), his favorite shot (a three from the corner), his worst game ever (playing a team that cheated, did dirty fouls, and kept calling him "white shadow").

"You're real quiet tonight," he says. "You getting sick?"

"I have a lot on my mind," I say, looking over at the window.

"Come over here. This is what I do when something is eating away at me," he says, jogging back to the office and coming out with his basketball. "Just dribble."

"I'm good."

"Then show me how good."

I try not to laugh at him. "I meant no thank you, not that I'm good at basketball."

"Ever play basketball?"

"Just during that period of hell on earth known as high school."

"What position were you?"

"I don't know. It was two weeks of phys ed." I take the ball from him and dribble it. Not bad for someone who hasn't touched one in twenty years, but not good either.

Immediately, Preston's hand shoots out and he steals it. "Gotta keep it lower. Did you see how quick I got that away from you?" He does his fancy dribbling, the ball going around his back, then between each leg.

I wait for him to knock over an end cap or for the ball to bounce off his foot and go shooting across the floor. But, of course, it doesn't. Preston is one with the ball.

"Hey, Coach," I say, nodding my head towards the office, "I'm going to go make a phone call."

"Can you put this back there?" He hands the basketball to me, then moves around behind the counter. "Are these hot dogs any good?" He points to the rotating grill.

"You tell me. I think those same hot dogs have been in there since 2016."

I close the door to the office, enough to hear if the store gets busy, but still gives me some privacy.

I dial Mitch's number.

"I was just thinking about you," he say in lieu of hello.

"You were? Do tell." I do my best to sound seductive while still dressed in jeans and my stupid Little Eagle attire.

"Lawrence Welk came on and I know how you enjoy those senior men," he says.

"You're a jack ass, you know that, Danner."

"No. I really was thinking about you. We never have had that fancy dinner date we've been planning. How about this weekend?"

I smile, thinking about how sweet Mitch is. He has me, but he still manages to keep sweeping me off my feet. "He called."

"I'll go talk to him tomorrow. I promise."

I swallow the lump in my throat. "Not Starling. Dougie called."


"About three hours ago. He said he messed up. There are people who are after him. He wants everyone to think he's dead. He said Waylon will be safer if he's gone."

A low whistle comes through the line. "I'm guessing, good ol' Dougie has pissed off more than Mr. Starling."

"I don't know if I can lie to Waylon."

Mitch is silent for a few seconds. "Then you have to ask yourself, Miranda, what would be easier, lying until we figure out what's going on or burying him. I'd be real careful about your choice. It sounds like Dougie messed with the wrong crowd."

After I hang up the phone, I lay my head on the desk. I think about Waylon and Dougie. Maybe it would be better for all of us if Dougie had just disappeared ... for good.

Chapter 25
Lights Off


So far, Miranda has decided to find out what happened to Dougie Wilcox. She thought he was dead but he's contacted her. He's in over his head and wants her to stop trying to find him and let him continue to play dead. But knowing Dougie is alive is going to put a wedge between what she wants to do and what she has to do, as far as Waylon is concerned.


I sit in my car until Preston's mom shows up to get him. Now, I have the long drive home to contemplate what I'm going to do about Waylon. There is no easy answer. Either I keep Waylon in the dark or I give him the information he so desperately wants to know. His dad is alive. Good news unless it puts Waylon or even me, in danger.

Dougie was only gone a few months when he returned hitting everybody up for money. I've never understood people who would sell their soul for money. It makes some do crazy things, like stripping for complete strangers, giving hard earned money just for the thrill of sticking it into some woman's g-string. There are worse things as well, scamming people, charging millions to people who need medicine to live a normal life. Money is the root of all evil and I'm not immune. When Mr. and Mrs. Toblerone gave me the two hundred grand reward for finding the remains, or at least part of the remains of their son, I could have turned it down. But I didn't. I thought about being able to provide for Waylon. I took the money.


Aaron waves as I drive past his trailer. He's changed since he went away. Hell, maybe it's me that's changed.

"You in a hurry?" he asks as I get out of my car. "Can I come over?"

"For a few. I'm gonna go take my stuff inside, I'll be out in a few."

I step inside and look around. Waylon might have exaggerated a bit on the housekeeping details but there weren't any dirty dishes in the sink, and the place had been picked up and straightened. "Good boy," I mutter.

Aaron hands me an ice cold beer as I join him on the porch.

"What's up?"

"Talked to my dad," Aaron says.

"And, how'd that go?"

He looks down but smiles sheepishly. "About as well as you'd expect. Said I wasted more money than a sailor on leave." He shrugs. "I guess that was an insult."

I've never met Aaron's father, but he sounds like a real gem. "It's your money, Aaron. Did you tell him that?"

"No. I was gonna tell him about the Tik Tok idea," he says, shaking his head, as dirty blonde bangs fall into his eyes. "Figure I'll hold off until I get a following."

I pop the top on the beer, trying to muster up a gentle reminder that it might take a while to get said followers. "Did you get your sermon written up for this weekend?"


"Yeah. You said we were going to film this weekend. Is that still on? Waylon is excited. Said it would be like the dream team reuniting, or something like that."

Aaron looks over. "We did make a good team."

"I guess we did. Those were different times, Aaron. Before Missy, Ed Preston being murdered, and Dougie taking off."

"What do you mean Dougie taking off? We don't know what happened to him. Miranda, why'd you say it like that?"

"Saying dead is too final," I say, the words barely coming out of my mouth. I can't look at him. If I do, he'll know something is up. I take a healthy swig from the beer.

"Waylon said he called. Is Dougie still alive?"

"I'm not even sure if it was him. Waylon didn't talk to him, I did, and I'm not sure if it was actually him." I look around, everywhere but at Aaron. "Waylon wants to think his daddy's still alive. End of story."

He doesn't push for more information and I'm thankful for that.

"So, things are getting pretty serious between you and that cop, huh?"

"The cop has a name, Aaron. And, yes. They are getting serious."

"Has he mentioned the M word yet?"

I turn to give him a questioning glance. "In English, Aaron."

"Has he asked you to marry him?"

"No. He has not. We are somewhere between butterflies in the stomach and doing each other's laundry on the scale of serious. Not at finishing each other's sentences, though, we are definitely close. Why? What have you heard?"

He settles back, eyes searching the starlit sky. "This is going to go over like a fart in church, but, here goes. I think I've fallen in love with you, Miranda."

I open my mouth to say something, anything really, but nothing comes out. What can I say that won't hurt him or incriminate me?

"Geez, Aaron, what brought this on?"

He frowns. "Shit. I knew I should have kept my mouth shut. But , I just thought you should know. It isn't sudden. I knew it a long time ago. But the timing was always off. First, Dougie left you, then you were dealing with Waylon. I couldn't think about anyone but you the whole time I was in seminary school. I didn't just wake up this morning and decide, hey, I'm gonna go tell Miranda I'm in love with her. I've felt this for a while."

There's no easy way to tell someone they stand no chance. And, it's not just because of Mitch. Aaron is like a little brother. He always has been.

"Aaron, as honored as I am, I'm not the one for you. I think deep down you know this."

He nods. "I'm gonna go now. If you don't mind, could you keep this between you and me?"

"I will. Goodnight, Aaron."

I look up at the sky. "God, are you testing me? Just asking."

Chapter 26
Truth Teller


So far, Miranda has found out that Dougie is alive, but claims to be in danger. Aaron has professed his love to her. Now, she has to decide if Waylon should know his father is alive.


I wait until Aaron turns off his porch light before I go in. I have no idea when to expect Waylon home. If I know my mother, she has taken him out to dinner, the movies, and now, despite popcorn overload, they are stopping for ice cream.

I need a good long shower. I need to wash the day and night off of me. I remember those old commercials, you know, the woman in the tub, laying back, eyes closed. She sighs and says, "Calgon, take me away."

Why'd they stop making that? There's a market for that. I guess people opted for Xanax instead.

I pull my t-shirt over my head, tossing it into the laundry basket, as I head into the bathroom.

I catch a glimpse of her. The mouthy broad in the mirror. Don't make eye contact, Miranda. If you don't pay attention to her, she can't start anything.

"I know you see me," she says. "Heard the preacher hand you his precious little heart. That must have come as a surprise ... not."

"Are you insinuating I've been stringing him along?"

Reflection bitch shakes her head. "How many times have you noticed him looking at you?"

"A lot of people look at me. That must come as a surprise ... not." I smile , feeling like I've one upped her.

"Ever feel like you've got a colossal ice cream cone with a triple scoop of drama?"

"Yep, and there's no cherry on top."

Reflection sighs. "Sounds like Waylon's home. You better start licking that ice cream, otherwise you're gonna be a sticky mess."

"You are a riot. What the hell should I do?"

"Miranda, you already know what you should do. What does a momma bear do for her cubs?"

"Protects them at all costs."

"Yes, ma'am. But, don't expect a thank you. That boy is gonna be pissed at the world if he finds out you kept it from him. Are you prepared to be the villain in this little fairytale?"

"Just tell me what to do, dammit."

"Put Waylon's safety first. Is Dougie telling the truth? Is he hiding from people who want to hurt him, or is he just afraid to get caught?"

I look at my reflection, weighing her cryptic advice. I, knowing now what I know about Dougie, am not sure if I can trust him. I'm pretty sure Dougie knows I'm involved with Mitch. Could he be afraid I'm going to turn him over to the cops? It doesn't sound like something he'd do, but then, I don't know Dougie. Guess I never really did.

I draw in a deep breath before pulling my night shirt over my bra and leaving the think tank, aka, the bathroom.

"How was the movie?" I say, smiling like I've won the lottery.

"Not what I thought it was," Momma says, one eyebrow cocked and her lips pursed.

"I liked it," Waylon says, a mischievous smile plastered on his face.

"Bad language? Violence? What got Momma so upset?"

He steals a glance at her. "Boobs. It was awesome." He laughs.

"That was all the movie was. I've never seen so many nipples in all of my life."

I look from my momma to Waylon. He couldn't be happier.

He puts his arm around her shoulder and I notice he's taller than her. "It was awesome," he mouths.

"Go get ready for bed." I nod towards his room.

I walk Momma out to her car. She's going on and on about how the movie was basically porn and every woman had fake boobs.

"He seemed to have enjoyed it."

"I tried to cover his eyes the first fifteen minutes of the movie, then I just gave up and started covering my own eyes. I'm sure he was in heaven watching it. Teenage boys are like that."

"It isn't just teenage boys. If it has a penis and a pulse, they like that kind of thing."

She opens her car door and slips into the seat. "Maybe next time, you and Mitch can join us."

I nod, then glance towards Aaron's trailer. "I got hit with a bombshell, right before y'all got home."

"You're not pregnant, are you?" Momma's eyes go wide.

"No. You've raised a very careful daughter."

Oddly, she doesn't look as relieved as I thought she would. "So, what about this bombshell?"

"Aaron," I say, nodding towards his trailer, "told me he's in love with me."

"Which one is Aaron?"

"The one who went off to Seminary."

"The goof who put his stupid knife in Waylon's book bag, almost got him kicked out of school? That guy?"

I already know how she feels about him. In my momma's eyes, there are two kinds of people in the world. Guys like Mitch, and the rest. Aaron is not in the Mitch category.

"I hope you told him to take a hike."

"I told him I wasn't the right girl for him."

"Then you told him to take a hike?"

I press my lips together before answering. "No. We are friends, Momma. He understands its not going anywhere. There is no need to tell him to take a hike."

"Don't be so nice that you screw things up with Mitch. You've got a good thing with him."

I gently close her car door and wave. I mouth thank you to her and start back stepping as she drives away.

The good news is I've shared the scoop of Aaron's proclamation ice cream. The bad news, I still have a giant scoop of Dougie, and it's starting to melt.

Chapter 27
Harmless Flirting


So far, Miranda has been contacted by Dougie and warned her to keep pretending he's dead. Aaron professed his love for her. And Miranda has to weigh the consequences of keeping Dougie's call from Waylon.


I ask Carrie to come to my trailer instead of meeting her at Haynes Pond. I have a good strong cup of coffee while I wait for her.

I shiver as the fall chill settles over me. The seasonal temperature change never used to bother me, but the older I get the more I feel it. I go grab a cardigan out of my closet and sit on the couch. I look out the window, trying to see if Aaron is still home.

Damn it, why did he have to tell me that? Things are gonna get weird now. I just know it. Clearly I'm a catch, but he couldn't handle me and my personality for one week. He's a gentle and sweet soul who would be an adoring boyfriend, I have no doubt. I just seem to be drawn to red flags, with the exception of Mitch, who has none, which is kind of a red flag in itself.

Why would nice, level headed, law upholding Mitch fall for me? I'm sarcastic, head strong and not above breaking the rules when needed. But he did. And as my momma reminds me every chance she gets "Mitch is a catch. Don't screw this up."

I'm so busy spying on Aaron, I nearly jump out of my skin when Carrie knocks on my front door.

"It's open, come on in," I say.

She steps through the door and holds out a bag. "Donuts. I couldn't resist."

"Coffee is there on the counter and the cups are in the cabinet to the left of the sink."

After she's fixed her coffee and joined me on the couch, she looks around. "Cute place. Very homey."

"Thanks," I say. I watch as she takes it all in.

"Ah, the tree of life," she says, motioning to the picture behind the couch. "I had one similar to it when I was in college."

I get the feeling that she has outgrown it and thinks I haven't.

"It's just there until I find something I like. You should have seen what was there before it. A giant poster of a Ford Mustang. Framed and mounted on foam board. Yes, siree, that made a statement."

Carrie's eyebrows lift in surprise. "Did you break up with Ford and fall in love with Chevy?" She's teasing.

"It was Dougie's." I say. "When he moved in, he took possession of everything in here."

"Tell me about Dougie. He sounds fascinating."

I wince. Dougie, fascinating? There are many ways to describe Dougie Wilcox but fascinating is no where on the list.

"Where should I start?"

"Beginning is always good." Carrie reaches for a powdered donut before settling back on the couch.

"I had been divorced from my husband for a little over two years. I was working one night at the Little Eagle and was trying to close up. He walked in, to buy beer. I remember seeing him around when I was in high school. He went to Patterson, I went to Cameron." I pause to take a sip of my coffee. "He was one of those guys who made you feel funny. You know what I mean? Wrong in all the right ways. I was transported right back to high school. I fell hook, line, and sinker."

"Sounds romantic."

I laugh, nearly spitting my mouthful of coffee all over her. "Dougie was that guy who peaked in high school. Still clinging to his glory days. I went from girlfriend to mother in a couple of months. He was, shall we say, high maintenance."

"But you loved him?"

This is a tough one. Did I love Dougie? I cared about him. Thought I was madly in love for a while, but it turned out I was in love with the idea of being in love with him.

"Why did y'all split?"

I shake my head. "No idea. I got wind of some information that he was moving out of the area. I left work, drove here and caught him packing up everything. I yelled that I couldn't possibly leave everything behind on such short notice." I look over at Carrie. I don't feel like I'm talking to a therapist. She's become my friend. "That's when I realized he had no intention of taking me with him. Dougie Wilcox was done with me."

Carrie reaches over and takes my cup from my hand, then places it on the coffee table. "That must have hurt."

"I didn't have time to hurt. I had to figure out how to take care of Waylon. Then there was that whole Ed Preston murder thing."

"So, you've never really dealt with it. You just sucked it up and moved on."

"That's what you do, isn't it?"

She doesn't respond right away. "I want you to do something. Write a letter to Dougie. Tell him exactly how you feel. The next time we meet up, you can read it out loud, then we burn it."

I wait for the punch line but apparently, Carrie is serious. "I know it sounds silly, but getting those feelings out and on paper does help with closure."

"I'll do my best."

There is another knock on my door. This time I get up to go see who it is.

"Morning, Aaron," I say, trying to keep my voice level. Act like nothing has changed. Just your good pal, Aaron, standing on your porch, holding a box from Amazon.

"This got delivered to me by mistake."

"Thanks for bringing it over." I meet his gaze before we both look away.

Before I know it, Carrie is beside me at the door. "I need to run grab something from my car," she says, as she scooches past us. Her dimpled smile appears as she looks at Aaron.

"Oh, Carrie Tate, this is my friend and neighbor Aaron Earl."

He smiles shyly as he nods a greeting.

After she goes to her car, I watch her lingering there. She casts a quick glance at him as he walks past.

"Nice to meet you, Aaron," she says.

A smile spreads across my face. She's interested in him. I can tell. This might end up being a good thing.

She looks up and sees me smiling at her. Her hand touches over her heart and she pats the spot.

"I think I'm in love," she giggles. "Now, tell me everything you know about Aaron Earl."

Oh, Carrie, Carrie, Carrie, I'll tell you about him, everything you need to know, just not the part that's going to break your heart. I'll never let on that Aaron's in love with me.

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