Wildwood - Jadie Jones - ebook
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Tanzy Hightower is not crazy. At least, that’s what she tells herself. Crazy looks more like her mother, who studies each sunrise with the same fascination other women give tabloid magazines in the grocery store checkout line. Crazy sounds like the woman on the radio claiming there’s a whole separate world existing parallel to our own. Still, Tanzy can’t deny the tingle of recognition she feels each time she sees her mother standing at the kitchen window, or hears the panic in the woman’s voice coming through the speakers of her father’s truck.Tanzy intends to follow her father’s footsteps into the professional horse world. But the moment she watches him die on the back of a horse in an accident she feels responsible for, everything changes.On the first anniversary of his death, a fight with her mother drives her back to her father’s farm in the middle of a stormy night. Neither Tanzy nor life as she knows it escapes unchanged when she is struck by lightning and introduced to a world... unseen, and receives proof her father’s death was no accident.Two strangers seem too willing to help her navigate her new reality: Vanessa Andrews, a psychiatrist who believes lightning chooses who it strikes, and Lucas, a quiet, scarred stable hand with timing that borders on either perfect or suspect. But Tanzy has secrets of her own. Desperate for answers and revenge, Tanzy must put her faith in their hands as her past comes calling, and her father’s killer closes in.

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Wildwood

The Hightower Trilogy: 1

Jadie Jones

Contents

Prologue

Part I

1. Traditions

2. For Every Action

3. The River

4. Ghost

5. Remember Me

6. Graduation

Part II

7. Nineteen

8. Sometimes The End Comes First

9. Lucky

10. Two Of A Kind

11. Flight Or Fight

12. Enemies Closer

13. Home

14. The Witch And The Devil

15. All In

16. A Castle For A Queen

17. Have A Little Faith In Me

18. Leap

Part III

19. A Path To Where I First Began

20. Selection

21. I Choose Spera

22. Scars

23. Freedom

24. Revelation

25. Honor

26. Sing For Me

27. Chains And Crowns

28. An Offer

29. Burned

30. Ashes To Ashes

31. Wide Awake

32. The Calm Before The Storm

33. Red In The Morning

34. Love And Lies

35. Surrounded

36. Collide

About the Author

Tanzy Needs You

The Parliament House

Prologue

Virginia’s trees look like they’re burning. Most of them blaze crimson or gold, but some still have a chokehold on their green. I wish they’d give it up already. Leaves are more beautiful when they’re dying.

Part One

Traditions

The sweet scent of coconut pancakes draws me from the edge of sleep. I smile, knowing my mother is standing in the kitchen downstairs mixing batter, no doubt wearing a few clumps of it in her coal black hair. I toss my denim quilt aside, cool air whisking across my skin, and blink against the warm light of dawn that filters through the old lace curtain panel covering my window and sets the worn wood floor of my room aglow. The constant autumn rain must have finally offered a reprieve. My mother will be happy to see it. She’s convinced a clear sunrise on a person’s birthday is a sign of good things to come.

As I pull on jeans and a shirt, Dad’s laughter rumbles up the stairs, and then the fire alarm chirps. Mom has probably burned a pancake on the griddle.

In the kitchen, Dad is opening the window behind the sink, and Mom is perched on one foot in a wooden chair with her back to me, stretching to fan the smoke away from the alarm.

“I swear this thing is too sensitive,” she mutters. There’s a streak of flour on her hip and a glob of batter on the sleeve of her T-shirt. My mother can forecast rain better than any meteorologist. She can predict the approach of a gust of wind a few minutes before it roars across the Shenandoah Valley, but she can’t cook to save her life.

There are three plates on the table. Two of them are still empty. Mine has a short stack of blobby pancakes and a streak of runaway butter. A couple charred pancakes are tossed on the counter, and one more is on the floor at the foot of the trash can.

My dad grins at her over his shoulder and catches sight of me standing in the door.

“Happy birthday, Tanzy!” he says. “It’s the big eighteen. You know, Hope, Tanzy’s an adult now. You should make her do the cooking,” he teases, and snaps a washcloth in my direction. His smile is all teeth, and his amber eyes glitter. It’s the one physical trait we share. Otherwise, I don’t look much like either of my parents.

“I’ve made her coconut pancakes for her birthday every birthday since she was six. She may not be home for her birthday next year.” Mom’s chin quivers. She presses her lips together.

“I’ll come home for my birthday, Mom.” I slide into my seat and shovel in a bite. It isn’t cooked all the way through, but it’s warm, and sweet enough to chew and swallow without making too much of a face.

“Thank you, Tanzy,” she says, casting a mock glare at my dad. He winks at me before disappearing through the door that leads to the back porch. He reappears less than a minute later with two mason jars full of wild flowers.

“For my girls,” he says, and places one on the window sill and the other in the middle of the kitchen table. “Birthdays are big days for moms, too.”

“Travis, when did you pick these? Did you leave any flowers in the garden?” Mom arranges the blossoms with her nimble fingers, and then leans into them, breathing deep.

“Why do you think I got up early this morning? It’s freezing out there,” he says, watching her. “Weatherman said the temp is going to drop overnight and the whole valley will be covered in frost tomorrow morning. They’ll all be dead in twenty-four hours anyway.”

“Weatherman is wrong,” she replies, one corner of her mouth curling up.

Dad snorts. “We’ll see.” He rolls his eyes, but I know he believes her. “Eat up, Tanzy. We have a lot to do today.”

“Tanzy has school today,” Mom replies.

“You cook her coconut pancakes, and then she comes with me to the farm. You have your tradition, we have ours.” He winks at me. “Besides, she’s a senior. Isn’t the rest of this school year just for show? And who says she’s going to college? What if she decides to ride professionally?”

“Travis Hightower,” Mom scolds. “We’ll argue about this tomorrow. As for today, stick to tradition.” She wipes her hands on the front of her pants. “But make sure you pick up any homework assignments while you’re out. And please get home before dark. I made a dinner reservation for six p.m.”

Dad makes a face. “Isn’t that a little early?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s when normal people eat dinner,” I say, and then choke down a sticky clump of semi-cooked batter.

“We are as normal as normal gets,” Dad replies. “We’ll do our best, honey. Let’s get a move on, Tee. I’ll take my breakfast to go.” Dad kisses mom on the cheek, scoops a fresh stack of pancakes onto a paper towel with one hand and picks up his metal coffee mug with the other, and then heads through the back door toward the truck.

“Have fun,” Mom concedes, “and please be careful.” She glances out the window at the streaked sky and gnaws on her bottom lip. Her fingernails tap a quick rhythm on the countertop. I take my plate to the kitchen sink and follow her gaze to the glowing dawn. I wonder what she sees in it, and why she seems to hunt it for answers every morning.

“We’ll be fine, Mom,” I offer.

“I know.”

“Thanks for breakfast,” I say. “I really will come back every year, no matter where I go after graduation. Nobody does coconut pancakes like you do.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” She looks at me, blinking rapidly. “Now go, the day’s wasting,” she says, and then turns back to the sun. I steal one more glimpse of her, and follow Dad to the truck.

We ride in silence for the first few minutes. Dad rolls up the pancakes with one hand so he can eat them like a burrito while he drives. Once he finishes, he wipes his mouth with the paper towel and then tucks it into the pocket of his flannel shirt.

“I don’t know why you like those,” he says, and sucks at his teeth.

“I haven’t liked them since I was about ten,” I admit.

Dad lets out a honk of a laugh. “You’re a good girl, Tanzy,” he says. He turns up the volume on his favorite radio station to listen to the morning show. The voices fade in and out for the first few minutes as we make our way to the main road. The radio host’s voice becomes audible, announcing the beginning of the routine Science Fact or Fiction Friday segment.

“With us today is Dr. Andrews, who has a rather extraordinary theory about light and lightning, and some compelling studies to back up her claims. Dr. Andrews, thank you for joining us.”

“Thank you for having me,” she answers.

“So Dr. Andrews, give us your science fact.”

“Did you know that the human eye sees less than one percent of the color spectrum, and our ears hear less than one percent of the sound spectrum?”

“No, I did not.”

“What do you think is in all that clear, all that quiet?”

Dad glances at the radio dial as if checking the station.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it,” the host answers.

“What if I was to tell you that there’s an entirely separate world in the clear, undetectable by human senses.”

“A world?” the host repeats. I shift in my seat.

“Yes, a world,” the woman continues. “A world happening around us all the time. It has been operating alongside ours like two plays on one stage.”

“Do you have proof of this world?”

“None that you’d believe,” she replies. A chill of interest conjures goose bumps from my elbows to my wrist. I pull the sleeves on my jacket down to cover my knuckles.

“Well it’s pretty safe to invent something that you claim you can’t prove.”

“There’s nothing safe about it,” she answers.

“I’m not sure what this has to do with light or lightning.” The host’s voice raises an octave, and his question sounds more like an accusation. I lean toward the dash.

“Lightning and other weather events aren’t random. They’re tools of—”

“Okay, that’s all the nonsense I can take for one morning,” Dad interjects, his voice filling the cab, and turns the knob on the radio until a country song comes in clear enough to recognize. “Ruined my morning show and my drive,” he grumbles. “Let’s hope your mom didn’t hear that woman spreading her paranoid crap. She’ll stuff our house with furniture from floor to ceiling just to take up all the empty space. A world in the clear.” He huffs. “What’s wrong with these radio shows and news reports anymore? All they do is try to stir people up. They’ll give any nut a microphone and air time so long as it’ll get a reaction out of somebody.”

My gaze drifts out of my window, and to the clear air whistling by the car as we wind down a tree lined road, soaring skyward until it fades to black thousands of miles above us. Maybe it’s just the sound of the tires grinding against the asphalt vibrating through the bottom of the old Ford truck, or the whine of air curling around the hood, but the silence seems fuller than it did a moment ago.

“You are your mother’s daughter,” Dad says softly. “Don’t give wild hares prime real estate in your head. Your mom thinks her fears keep her safe, that they prepare her. All fear does is build walls, Tanzy—walls she can’t break because she’s convinced herself they’re useful.”

“I can cook. And I would rather be outside than inside,” I say, listing off the first two differences I can think of between my mother and me. I can’t imagine islanding myself at home the way she does. We only have one vehicle because she doesn’t like to drive and won’t go anywhere alone. In the last year, the walls of my room, of every room in our house, have felt a little closer in than they did before, the ceilings lower, too. Still, my heart sinks. I have felt the rabbit of nervousness race through me with nothing prompting the chase. What if, one day, I need walls the way she does?

“Before you came along, your mom couldn’t stand to spend a whole day inside. Hell, even a single lazy morning would make her agitated, and she’d need to go for a ride. Then she had that bad fall, and she didn’t want to have another one. Taking a risk has a higher price tag attached to it when you have someone depending on you. And it’s not just that. Being a parent changes things—changes everything. You see the world through the eyes of someone whose sole purpose becomes keeping a tiny, helpless baby safe. This world we’re in has more sharp edges and teeth than you realize.”

“Now who’s paranoid?” I smile at him.

“You’ll see one day, if you decide to have a kid of your own,” he says, his gaze following the nose of the truck as he makes a turn.

“That’s a big if,” I say.

“It’s also a long ways off. It better be, anyway.” He winks.

“Dad, seriously.” I fold my arms across my front. “But is Mom . . . is she okay? I know me leaving next year is hard on her. But she wants me to go, doesn’t she?”

“Of course she does. She’ll feel better once you know what you want to do and where you’re going. It’s the unknown that bothers her most. But you don’t need to worry about her. She’s stronger than you could ever imagine. I think when you have to raise yourself like she did, well, it shapes your perspective.”

“What really happened to her parents? I know you guys have said no one knows, but I always thought maybe it was some secret you were keeping until I was an adult or something. I am eighteen now.” I raise an eyebrow, and try to keep my tone light.

“It’s just something your mom isn’t willing to talk about. It took me a long time to accept it, and it’s natural for you to be curious. That’s a piece of your family and your history, too. But whatever it is, your mom keeps it from us for her own reasons, and I have learned to respect that.”

“I know.” I bite at the inside of my cheek, my mind still digging at the dark place in my mother’s past. I’m not as curious about who the people were in her life as I am interested in who she was during it.

I stare at the eastern horizon. Dad has watched the sunrise through the windshield of his truck on this drive to Wildwood Horse Farm six days a week for as long as I can remember. Nested against the west side of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the sunrises are long and spectacular. Mostly, so are the days. The sun comes up. The horses eat. Some of them are worked through training exercises, some are shown to potential buyers, and the rest are turned loose to run in the pasture. Stalls are cleaned. Water buckets are filled. Aisles are swept. Students are taught. The horses eat again. The sun goes down. He drives home. Aside from the sun, Dad controls everything at Wildwood. He is the head trainer there, and the biggest gear in the proverbial clock, making the other parts turn.

Next year will be different. Where will I be? Mornings will either find me in a saddle, working to climb the rungs of the international show jumping circuit, or sitting in a desk with a college text book propped open in front of me. Either way, it won’t be here in this truck. It’s hard to imagine my world changing so unequivocally while theirs remains the same, save my absence.

We pull into the parking lot at Wildwood Farm. We are the first car here. Dad could turn over the first daily chores to the staff, but he likes to be the one to start each day, to see how each horse has come through the night, and wants to be the one to discover anything out of the ordinary, not be told about it secondhand.

Today, the morning runs like clockwork. I am allowed to come to the farm for my birthday, but I’m certainly not allowed to throw off the farm’s routine. I wouldn’t want it to. The routine is a heartbeat, a living thing, breathing life into the cracked concrete aisles and faded barn walls. A horse farm isn’t wood and sand and grass and steel. It’s the movement that happens around and in and on the wood and sand and grass and steel.

After a quick lunch, we unload a tractor trailer’s worth of alfalfa into the hay shed. My dad throws a bale of hay like most people toss laundry into a hamper—easy and mindless. I grit my teeth to keep from grunting with the effort it takes to try to keep up with him. By the time we’re halfway through, sweat beads along my scalp and trickles into my ears. The radio show from this morning resurfaces in my mind. Dad’s right, that woman was a loon. She’s probably never worked a day on a farm, never felt the ache of real labor, the release of exhaustion. If she’d just look around at her own world, maybe she wouldn’t need to invent something invisible, and impossible to prove or disprove.

My thoughts drift to my mother. I don’t know how different I would be if I grew up without parents or any family to speak of. Who would she be if she’d had the security of walls and home-cooked meals, no matter how badly they were burned? I wish she’d tell me about her life growing up, and I wish she would want to be here with us on days like this. Maybe a hard day of farm work is exactly what she needs to remember that life doesn’t always have a twist lurking around every corner.

Dad waves at the driver as the empty rig pulls up the driveway.

“Do you want to take Teague and Harbor for a ride in the woods, Tanzy?” he asks. “It’s the first pretty day we’ve had in a while. It’s not going to last, though. The radar looks busy again in about an hour.”

I pause, studying his face for any sign he’s kidding. I still have stalls to clean, and he has three client horses on the schedule for training sessions. Dana McDaniel, his assistant manager, has the day off. Not to mention my mother expects us home at a decent hour. There’s no time for a leisure ride on our own horses.

“Your mom was right. This might be your last birthday at home for a while, depending on where you are next year. We should make the most of it,” he continues.

“Okay,” I answer slowly, waiting for him to change his mind or list off what we need to take care of before we tack our horses. Instead, he retrieves his helmet from his office and heads to his horse’s stall. I hustle to Harbor’s stall, buckle her halter, and jog down the aisle to where Dad has tied Teague for tacking.

“We haven’t done this in too long, Tanzy,” he says on an exhale as we finish fitting the bridles to our horses. “Life is short. Too short. Sometimes you have to slow down and take in the view. I don’t care what that whack job said on the radio this morning. A big clear sky is one of my favorite things on earth, and I think we should go enjoy a little piece of it. Let’s ride up the ridge. I bet the river is up high with all this rain we’ve had.”

“Are you sure we have time? Mom did say to stick to tradition. Leaving work behind . . .” I trail off and glance back at his office door, imagining the to-do list printed on the whiteboard. It’s only half-done. “Well, it’s not tradition,” I finish. My middle stirs and twists. Is this just one of the wild hares dad was talking about before? Is this how it all starts, and then one day I’m staring out my window at the sun, reading its color and clarity for omens of the day to come? My entire life is going to change in a matter of months. Change is a good thing.

“Maybe it’s time we start a new tradition. A birthday trail ride sounds like a good one. Are you coming?” Dad asks.

I steel myself with a quick breath in. Harbor peers at me, black eyes round and soft. “Yep, here we come,” I say, and lead her down the hall.

For Every Action

The trail to the ridge is narrow and overgrown, and runs along the top of a ravine. Dad and Teague take the lead. Our horses pick their way carefully down the path, trees encroaching from the left, and the ground giving way to a growing drop on the right. The river roars and spits at us from the chasm floor. Teague spooks as a fallen branch sweeps downstream, spinning in the frothy current.

“Easy, boy,” Dad calls out, his voice low and gravelly. Teague settles beneath my dad, but his tail still arches with awareness.

Harbor’s head swivels from her neck, and her ears are pricked so hard they nearly touch. I step deeper into my stirrups and stretch taller in the saddle, preparing to slow or steady Harbor if she bolts.

“We should’ve worked them in the arena first; ridden some steam off,” I shout over the noise of the river.

“We’ll be fine,” he answers. “They’ll be worn out by the time we get to the top.”

We continue the ride in silence, each of us focused on our horses. The climb steepens, and the terrain becomes rocky. The roar of the river fades with the increasing distance to the bottom. The trees begin to thin out. The few that remain are tall and spindly. The lookout point becomes visible ahead, and already we can see where the tips of far off mountains cut into the cloudy horizon like the teeth of a saw.

With miles around us visible and the sound of the river faded to a whisper, Harbor finally relaxes, stretching her neck out low in front of her. I pat her sweaty shoulder and glance ahead at Teague. His back legs and flanks are covered in white lather. Rivets of sweat dribble down his cheeks.

“Teague still seems pretty keyed up,” I say.

“We’ll both sleep good tonight,” Dad says with a grunt as he blocks Teague’s sudden sideways movement with his leg. Teague bows away from the pressure and nearly crab-steps into a tree.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Dad says to his horse. “I don’t know that you’d survive a single day in the wild.” Teague snorts and shakes his head.

I smile at the two of them. “You treat that horse like he’s the son you never had.”

“Who says he’s not?” Dad takes the reins in one hand and strokes Teague’s dripping neck with the other.

Dad reaches the summit first, and moves Teague over so I can stand Harbor beside him. The green of the valley spills out below us. Overhead, heavy clouds skirt across the sky. Sunlight and shadows play tag on the emerald floor. I watch a shadow race to the end of the green, and then grow as it climbs the wooded foothills bordering the other side. Teague drops his head and searches the ground for something to nibble on, finally relaxed enough to be interested in potential food.

“See, there can’t be a world in the clear. The rays of sun pass right through.” Dad points to a beam of light that pierces through the cloud cover and turns a column of clear to gold. “There’s not nothing there. Or there’s already enough there. Whichever way you want to look at it.”

“That lady really got you worked up, huh?” I peer at him.

An acknowledging smile pulls at the corners of Dad’s mouth. “It’s not that.” He stares out across the valley. “It’s your mom, and how people like that woman pray on sensitive, innocent souls like her.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said.” He pauses. “Sometimes, this world finds innocence, and does whatever it can to save it, grow it, and help it last. But other times, it tracks the innocent like a wolf tracks a lamb, and when people target the innocent at heart . . .” He pauses and shakes his head. “It just upsets me, is all.”

“Dad—”

“Hold on, now Tanzy. I’m not finished.”

“Okay.”

“That’s why I want you to go chase down whatever dream you have. Whatever it is that makes you happy to get out of bed in the morning, you go after it, and don’t you let anyone or anything stop you. Distance, time, stepping stones, setbacks—they’re all a part of it. You can make mistakes. You can take wrong turns and the long way. But if you get your sights set on something, something that really, truly moves you, don’t you dare quit. You promise me?”

I stare at him. My eyes and throat burn. “I promise.”

“Good. Now let’s get off this damn ridge before the storm rolls in.” He pulls his helmet off and rakes his fingers through his auburn hair. “Lord have mercy I haven’t sweated like this in a minute.”

I stare past him and out across the clear, wondering if there’s a dream he gave up on, or if this is his dream and he has everything he’s ever wanted. I nearly ask him, but hesitate when a gap in the clouds allows the sunlight to beam through. Between the moisture in the air and the position of the sun, a rainbow blankets the valley. The colors intensify, becoming iridescent. I lean forward, my breath in my throat. Something big and dark passes across the face of it. I glance up at the sun, but it’s still in plain view.

“Dad, look.” I point. “What is that?” I whisper.

“What is what?” He drops his helmet back on his head and follows my gaze.

“That.” I look from the rainbow to my dad and back again. The colors have begun to fade, but they’re still plain to be seen.

“What do you see?” He frowns.

The dark thing circles, then swoops upward.

“Dad, that! Look at that!”

“Tanzy, I don’t see anything,” he says, frustration punctuating his words. Teague whirls, excited by the sudden shift in energy. “Whoa, boy. Easy.” Dad clamps down on the reins and then eyeballs the ledge, which is precariously close. Beyond it, the rest of the rainbow vanishes, and the moving shadow fades into the dark places on the valley floor.

“I thought you knew better than to startle a green horse, much less on the edge of a cliff,” he grumbles.

“Sorry,” I murmur, flushing. What had I just seen? Why hadn’t he seen it too? Or was he not as impressed with the rainbow effect as I was? That shadow though . . . it moved differently than the dark places cast on the ground by the passing clouds.

“No, no. I’m the one who’s sorry.” He heaves an exhale. “A horse has to get used to unexpected things happening around it. I just like a little more wiggle room than this when they do.”

Cold wind sails across the ridge. A spritz of early rain patters the ground, and the valley is swallowed up in the shadow of thick storm clouds. Lavender lightning forks across the sky.

“Come on. It’s about to get ugly.” Dad wheels Teague to face down the path. Teague bounces sideways, eager to have turned toward home. “Don’t tell your mom I let us get caught in the rain. I’ll never hear the end of it,” he calls over his shoulder.

I snort, imagining the face she’d make. If she’d been here, she would’ve known exactly how long we had before we needed to start back down the trail. It’d be really nice if we were all here together. Maybe if she saw the valley and how beautiful it is, she’d start riding again.

“Hey Dad, do you think we could convince Mom to ride up here with us for your birthday? I think this is a pretty great new tradition.” I shield my face from the sting of rain.

“What was that, Tanzy?”

“I said . . .” A flash of blue light draws my eye to the right, at the same time Harbor jumps left. Is lightning already that close? No thunder comes. The only sounds are the rain drumming the earth, and the growing hum of the river. The clear place above a tree branch distorts and ripples, outlined in a sapphire glow. The blue fades to deep purple and then inky black, and begins to spread inward, vibrating and grainy like static on a television screen as it fills in the space. I don’t know what it is, but Teague won’t like it.

“You said what?” Dad prompts.

“Dad, stop,” I call out.

“What’s wrong?” Dad twists in the saddle to look back at me, so he doesn’t see the crackling black not ten feet away from his horse, or that Teague is lifting his head, pricking his ears. Teague’s haunches tense, and he coils deep into his hocks like the compression of a metal spring. I suck in a breath, and the brisk air pricks my chest from the inside, when the darkness tumbles from the tree and fills the narrow trail.

Dad rights himself, trying to stay center as Teague shifts beneath him, but he’s too late. Teague rears to full height, striking the air, and rips the reins out of Dad’s hands. Dad throws his weight forward, encouraging his horse to land, and claws for the reins, but they’ve sailed over the top of Teague’s head, and dangle out of reach. My heart pounds in my chest. The trail is narrow, the rocky footing slick as wet glass. If Teague takes off, Dad will have no way to stop him, and the horse will almost certainly fall.

“Dad, jump off!” I scream. “Jump off!”

Teague lands, and bounds straight upward, his nose on the ground, his spine curled in a wave. Dad wraps his legs around Teague’s barrel, his empty stirrups swinging with Teague’s explosion. Teague’s hooves touch down again, and his steel shoes slide on a stretch of flat, wet rock at the same instant that the stirrup irons strike his sides. He scrambles and leaps forward.

“Dad!” My scream floods my ears and echoes in my brain. I know it’s my voice, but it sounds foreign and far off. The world slows down. My heart pounds on the base of my throat. He leans back, ripping at Teague’s mane. The lip of the ravine is two strides away. One stride.

“Jump off!” I shriek. Harbor peddles backward, and I realize I’m squeezing her reins. I kick her sides, urging her forward, desperate to catch any piece of Teague in hopes of slowing him down.

Teague leaps into the air, and disappears over the side. I blink once, disbelieving that the trail is empty, that Teague and Dad are not on it, that Teague just jumped off the edge of a cliff with my father on his back.

They’re gone . . . They’re gone.

“Dad!” I fling myself from Harbor, straining to hear them hit the water. “Dad!” My pulse hammers against my palms. My legs wobble beneath me as I sprint to the spot they went over. Below, the swollen river is brown with silt and frothy with turbulence. There’s no sign of them. Could he have landed on the bank somehow?

“Dad! Dad! Can you hear me?” A rumble of thunder drowns out my voice. The sky opens, and sheets of rain pour down. I steal a glimpse down the path, but whatever I’d seen is gone. Had it been real? What if it hadn’t been there, and hadn’t been what spooked Teague? What if . . . what if I did?

I grab hold of a sapling and throw my legs over the side, preparing to slide to the bottom. A dark place coasts under the surface of the water. I squeeze the skinny tree trunk as new fear washes over me, when Teague’s head and neck emerge from the water. I nearly call out for him. Then Teague glances off of a jut in the bank, spins around, and slides back under the brown water. My stomach lurches, and the air leaves my lungs.

“Dad!” I lean forward, searching the water for any sign of him. My heart hammers against my ribs. I lean farther out, searching for the best way down. The heel of my boot slips in the mud. I clutch at the tree, but my fingers lose their hold of the skinny, slick trunk, and I tumble into the ravine.

Roots and rock tear at my skin as I try to slow myself down. The water rushes toward me, and I pummel through the churning surface. The chill of the river nearly makes me inhale. I twist around, but I can’t tell which way is up. The current slams into my back, sending me into a barrel roll. I curl myself in a ball so my feet are pointed downstream, but the force of the river pushes my helmet over my eyes and nose, and the chin strap digs into my throat. I fumble with the buckle, burning precious seconds of the oxygen I have left. Finally, the helmet releases, and I peel it off my face and let it go.

Starbursts bloom in front of my eyes. I push my arms straight down, forcing my body up. My chest constricts, demanding fresh air. I push up again, and my face breaks through the surface. I gulp in a breath, and am slammed sideways by another wall of water.

“Dad!” I can barely hear myself over the rapids. Water pours into my mouth faster than I can spit it out. I descend a rapid and am sucked back under. I keep my face trained toward the surface so I don’t lose my position. I kick out for anything to push off of. The water is too deep. A new current slams me from the side, and catapults me above the surface. I cough and sputter. My teeth clatter together. “Dad,” I try to shout, but I’m barely taking in enough air to breathe.

Ahead, the river doubles in width until it disappears around a curve. On the right bank is a sliver of a beach. I spin myself around, and swim hard for the patch of dry ground. If I miss it, I won’t have enough energy to find another way out. My legs flail behind me, and I paddle as fast as I can, but the current is still too strong. I’ve barely shifted my position, and I’m nearly even with the bank. I’d have to swim straight across to reach it in time.

My boots and jacket have filled with water. The added weight drags me further down with every movement. Another wave smacks me in the face. I gasp and wipe at my face, trying not to lose sight of the bank. The river carries me down a short drop, and pushes me back below the surface before I can draw a new breath. An icy current tosses me sideways, and I lose my position. Under water, I search for a hint of day light, but the water is cloudy and I’m moving too fast. The second I see a bright spot, I’m swept out of reach.

My lungs throb. Thick cold permeates my core. My arms flail along with the current, and my legs barely kick out behind me. I stretch my fingers above me, hunting for air, and find none. Even though everything in my mind screams not to, my mouth opens, and my lungs release the stale air. I close my eyes. The heaviness turns into the sensation of weightlessness, and I feel like I’m flying.

As darkness closes in around me, something solid slides around my waist and jerks me upright. Dad’s here. The thought sets my nerve endings on fire, and ignites one last ounce of fight inside me. I open my eyes and give one last kick. The water turns from murky brown to tan, and then I burst through the surface. I gasp in a breath, and then another, the world around me spinning. Two strong hands take hold of my shoulders and steer me forward. Grit and water speckle my eyes and make it hard to focus. I blink clear for half a second. Directly ahead of us is a short, flat bank. My feet contact the river bed, and a sob of relief escapes me.

“We made it,” I mumble through tears. Dad releases me. I stumble forward on shaking legs for three steps until they give out beneath me, and I plunge into the river up to my shoulders. I jab my fingers into the riverbed, anchoring myself in place. I heave for several seconds, emotion and exhaustion coming out of me in choked cries. We’re okay. We’re going to be okay.

I drag myself forward. The bank is slimy and covered in rotting leaves and debris, and the wind and rain batter my trembling body. I crawl to the high side of the beach, shielded from the driving rain by a fallen tree. I scoot to the side to leave a place for Dad in the meager shelter, and then turn back to look at him. The bank is empty,

“Dad?” I swing my gaze up stream and rub my eyes, certain he’ll appear. “Dad!” The word is a razor in my throat. I lurch to my feet and stumble to the edge of the water. He was just with me, wasn’t he? He saved me. He pulled me out of the water. So where is he?

I shrug out of my soaked jacket and step ankle deep in the water. This placid spot in the river lasts all of about twenty feet before the rapids begin again. My heart accelerates and cool dread snakes through me. I can’t go back out there. My knees give out and I catch myself with my hands.

My head swims with possibilities. Dad is the strongest man I know. He could raft this whole river on his back if he had to. Couldn’t he? Maybe he went for help . . . he got me to a safe bank and he went for help.

But what if he’s not fine? What if . . .? Even the idea of it digs a hole inside of me.

I stare through the rain at the river, and then look behind me at the wall of earth. I might be able to climb the fallen tree to a better vantage point. I move to the tree, and try to pull myself up. My muscles tremble with exhaustion. There’s no strength left. There’s no way I will be able to climb out on my own.

What if we both die today, and leave Mom alone? Tears spill from me at the thought of her pacing from wall to wall, staring out the window at the sun every morning, wondering what’s left to be taken away. Had she seen this in the sun, or some hue of caution? Is that why she told us to stick to tradition?

“Help,” I call out, pressing my cheek into the grimy, wet tree. It’s barely loud enough to reach my own ears. “Mom. Mom. Help.”

“Tanzy!” a voice shouts. “Travis! Tanzy!” The sound of it strikes me like an electrocution. I whirl around, grab a branch, and wave it.

“I’m here!” I use everything I have left to yell.

Movement at the top of the opposite bank draws my gaze. A dark horse appears with a rider on its back, holding a trailing Harbor by the reins. I can’t see a face, but the rider’s short limbs and jockey-style position is a dead giveaway. It’s Dana, my father’s assistant who shouldn’t be here. I have never been so glad to see my father’s assistant in all my life. I should’ve known she’d be riding, even on her day off.

“Help! Dana!” I wave my arms, flinging the branch. Harbor turns in my direction and freezes, pulling back on her reins. Dana stops her horse, and follows Harbor’s focus across the river.

She brackets her mouth with her hands to make a little megaphone before shouting: “Tanzy! What happened? Are you okay?”

“I . . . I’m okay. Dad’s here, too. Do you see him?” I try to answer, but my voice is swallowed up by the roar of the river. My breathing comes fast, and a tremble runs the length of me as I stare at the water, and then peer up the hill.

“I can’t hear you. Stay there. I’m going to get help! Stay right there!”

I drop to the sand, exhausted, and watch the river. If it wasn’t Dad who pulled me out, was it just the current spitting me into the bend? Wouldn’t it have done the same for Dad if he came this far? I check the length of the bank again, but it’s still empty.

If it was neither my dad nor the current, what was it? And why did it push me out of the water and not him? I force the thought aside. It didn’t save Dad because he didn’t need it. He must’ve found a way up and out, and is headed back to the barn for help, or he thinks I rode back for help and he’s going to find me. He got out of this river somehow. I know he did.

We’re going to be okay. I hug my knees to my chest, pushing against the tiny hole this thought can’t quite fill all the way up.

The River

The world around me is thick and black. Roaring fills my ears. My heart races. I can’t breathe, can’t swallow. There’s too much sand in my eyes. I can’t open them. My chest burns. In the dark, a sliver of pinkish light becomes visible. My mind races for the light. The pressure in my chest swells to bursting, and all at once I jolt awake. Still the trapped feeling lingers. I throw the heavy quilt to the floor, and clutch at my chest, gasping until my breathing becomes normal.

“Tanzy,” my mother says from beside me, and touches my arm. “It’s okay, honey. I think you were having a bad dream.”

“Have they found Dad yet?” I ask. The roof of my mouth is hot and sticky.

“Not yet,” Dana answers from the chair in the corner of my room.

“How long was I asleep?” I pull myself up to sitting. My limbs are sore, and my skin a kaleidoscope of scrapes and bruises.

“Just through the night. It’s early,” Mom says.

“We haven’t found Teague, either,” Dana continues. “We searched the river and the woods until it was too dark to see. There’s a team of divers at the farm now . . .” she trails off, her eyes flitting in my mom’s direction. “They’re going to search the river, just to be sure he isn’t there.”

“You are absolutely sure he went into the river, too?” Mom clasps my forearm with both hands.

“He went in first. Teague got spooked and took off. There was this . . . this thing in front of Teague. He was scared, and he didn’t have anywhere to go . . . he just, he just went over.” My voice cracks.

“What thing?” Dana leans forward in her chair.

“It . . . I don’t know what it was. It was like a flash of light that turned into something pitch black. At first I thought it was part of the storm, but it was . . . it’s almost like it was alive.” I shake my head at myself. “I know how crazy it sounds, but it seemed like it blocked the path on purpose. Teague was going too fast to stop, and Dad . . .” I stop, biting back how Dad should’ve jumped off, should’ve never tried to stay on a horse bolting along a ledge. I look from Dana, who’s watching me with concern on her face, to my mom, whose expression has hardened, and my heart sinks. “It’s what I saw. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“You went through a lot yesterday, Tee.” Dana stands. “I have heard that our minds sometimes skew or block memories to protect us from reliving the moment. Give it time. It’ll come back. You focus on feeling better. Hope, I will call you with any news. There’s no need for you guys to be out there right now.”

“Thank you, Dana.” My mother’s voice is strangled. She puts a hand on her throat and steals a glimpse of the sun through my window. Dana gives me a tight smile, and then shows herself out.

In the quiet, I watch my mom watch the sky. A tear rolls down her cheek. She swallows, blinking.

“What do you see out there, Mom?” I ask before I can stop myself.

She turns to me, her bright eyes wide. “I just, I think better when I look out.”

“What are you thinking about?” I whisper, not believing her, but not willing to push her for the truth.

“Where your dad is.”

“I thought . . . I thought I felt him in the river. He saved me. I felt him.”

Mom studies me through her tears. “He would do anything to save you. Anything.”

“But if he was there, if he saved me . . . where did he go?”

A cry escapes my mother. I scoot closer, and take her hands in mine. Together, we stare out into the clear morning.

“Did you . . .” I start, unsure of how to finish. Did she know something bad would happen if we broke tradition? Did she see it in the dawn? Does she see anything in the clear? Would she believe the woman on the radio?

“Do you believe in things we can’t see?” I finally ask.

My mother stiffens. “Do you mean like an afterlife?”

“No. I mean . . . the air we see, and accept that it’s clear, that there’s nothing there but, well, air. Do you think there’s something in it?”

“Like atoms or molecules or . . .” She trails off, her expression a question mark.

“No.” I work my lower lip between my teeth, trying to decide how to explain what I mean.

“Where is this coming from?” she asks, softening.

“There was a woman on the radio yesterday morning. She said there’s a world in the clear. And when Dad and I were on the ridge, I saw something.”

“What did you see?” She narrows her eyes.

“A huge rainbow. It covered the whole valley. There was something dark under it, moving fast. And then everything just disappeared.”

Mom’s expression hardens, as does her grip on my arm. “Does that have anything to do with what happened?”

“I . . . I’m not sure.” I glance at my arm, startled by the pressure she’s applying.

“You said Teague was spooked by something, and then a shadow blocked his path.” She pushes, her grip unyielding.

“He hadn’t been right the whole ride.” I pause, blinking back tears. Teague had most likely been spooked by the sound of my voice. If I hadn’t yelled . . . if I had kept my mouth shut about the shadow, Dad would’ve had more time to react.

Downstairs, the phone rings. Mom’s whole body tenses. Anticipation and dread are two corsets, squeezing tight around my middle.

“Stay in bed. I will be right back.” She jumps out of the seat and bolts from my room. I listen to her descend the stairs, and then slip out of bed and paint myself against the door frame, straining to hear her end of the conversation.

“Hightower residence, this is Hope speaking,” my mother says, her voice unnaturally high. In my mind, I can see her strangling the phone with one hand and chewing her nails on the other. “Hi, Dana,” she continues. I tiptoe to the banister. “That’s . . . that’s terrible. No, no go ahead and take care of it. There’s no reason for Tanzy to see that.” Her voice drops an octave, and I can tell she’s turned her back to the doorway that leads to the stairs and where I stand. They must have found Teague.

“I need to go out there. I want to see the river,” she says.

I freeze. Mom hasn’t been to Wildwood in months, maybe longer.

“Dana, my husband is still out there somewhere. I need to be there.” She pauses. I hear her feet pace the tile floor. “There’s just something I need to see.” After another pause she adds, “I want to see my husband’s horse. It’s important to me.”

I blink, questioning what I’ve just heard. My mother hasn’t touched a horse in a year, and I’m not sure she could pick Teague out of a pasture. Then again, Teague was Dad’s pride and joy. She can’t take care of my father. Maybe seeing to his horse’s body is the closest thing she has for now.

“No, Tanzy needs to rest. I can’t ask her to drive me. Will you come pick me up? I’ll have a neighbor sit with her.”

I rush down the stairs, clinging to the banister to keep from stumbling. When she hangs up the phone, I’m standing behind her.

“You’re not coming, Tanzy,” she says without turning around.

“Yes, I am.”

“No. It’s too soon. You need to rest. They found Teague, and they’re going to bury him. You don’t need to see that. You’re not ready to see that.”

“Yes, I am!”

“Tanzy, please. I am begging you. This is going to be hard enough.” She deflates. Her arms hang at her sides. “I need to know you’re home, safe in your bed. That’s the only way I’ll be strong enough to look into the river and . . .”

“And what, Mom?”

“I’ll know, Tanzy. One way or the other, I’ll know.”

“You’ll know . . .” I trail off. She turns around, and we lock stares. “You’ll know if Dad is gone,” I whisper.

She doesn’t respond.

“Then I need to be there,” I state.

“I’m not strong enough to keep us both together,” she whispers.

“I’m not asking you to be,” I plead. “Let me go with you. Let me be there for you.”

Mom nods, and bursts into tears. I wrap my arms around her shuddering frame, and we sink to the tile floor.

“What if he’s gone, Tanzy?” She lets out a sob. I squeeze my fist around a lock of her hair. “I don’t know how to do this without him.”

“We don’t know, yet. We don’t know,” I murmur. Inside, the little hole I felt open inside me yesterday grows wider and deeper. It’s black as night and ice cold, and I know. I know. But I can’t say it.

We’re waiting in the driveway when Dana’s truck rumbles to a stop in front of our house. She does little more than raise an eyebrow at me when I climb in the back seat. Mom sits in the front passenger seat. Dana turns off the radio, and we ride to the farm in silence.

I watch the sun paint the sky through Dana’s windshield, and my breathing quickens. Yesterday’s drive roars to life in my mind—the pancakes, the radio show, the smell of alfalfa. I pull the sleeves of my hoodie over my knuckles and press my hands against my mouth, forcing myself to slow how fast I’m inhaling. My eyes and nose burn with the threat of new tears. I close my eyes and recall my mother and her need for me to be strong enough for us both.

We pull into the parking lot. A flatbed trailer is already there, and two men are off loading a skid steer with a front bucket attachment. I look away, unable to stop myself from envisioning how they’ll use the bucket to move Teague’s body. I wonder why Mom wants to see him. Will it be the proof she needs that Dad went into the river?

“Take me to the river,” Mom whispers.

Dana opens her mouth and then closes it, a rebuttal probably stalled in her mouth. She glances at me, as if asking for permission, and I nod.

“We can take the Gator,” Dana says, breaking the silence, and we follow Dana to the front of the barn, where the UTV is parked. Mom waits for me to slide in first, but I step aside and motion her ahead of me so she’ll be in the middle.

Dana drives the Gator carefully out across the pasture and into the woods. I train my eyes straight ahead, but I can’t help noticing the shadows that lean out from behind every tree and shift along the forest floor. The moment we turn onto the ridge path, my pulse skyrockets and my hands turn clammy.

“We won’t be able to drive much farther,” Dana says. “The path gets pretty steep and narrow.”

“That’s okay. We can stop here.” Mom points to a grassy shoulder. Dana pulls off and kills the engine. The river isn’t as swollen today, the rapids less angry. Still, my legs are shaking so hard I can barely stand. I support myself on the hood of the Gator, and clamor out so Mom can step down. She shields her eyes and scans the path.

“What’s the best way to the water?” Mom asks.

“Hope, you can’t go down there,” Dana says gently.

“That’s why I’m here,” Mom replies. “Now show me the way down.”

“I’m going with you,” I say. She lifts her gaze and focuses on me, the word “no” rounding her mouth. Instead, she presses her lips in a line, and turns to the river. I fall in step behind her, and we follow Dana down the trail.

Once we reach the river, Dana points to an easy drop to the bank below, and then steps aside to let us go down without her. Mom toes out of her shoes, and walks out onto the shore with her feet bare. I fumble my way to her side, slipping more than once on the slick rocks. At the water’s edge, she closes her eyes and tilts up her chin. Her black hair blows loose behind her. Sunlight catches in it, revealing mahogany undertones that I can’t recall ever noticing before. She opens her hands and lets them hang at her sides. I stare at her, mystified. She’s not a religious person, and I have only ever set foot in a church when Dad’s parents made us during their only visit south, but in this moment, she looks like she’s praying. Her pale skin is marble smooth, and her frame barely stirs with breath. She could be a statue on this riverbank. Bathed in sunlight, she is aglow, and it’s as if I am seeing her for the first time.

Without opening her eyes, she crouches down and reaches for the water. Even though the river is calmer and transparent here, I have to stop myself from grabbing her shirt and hauling her backward. I step closer to her side, ready to catch her if she loses her balance. She reaches through the surface and allows the current to play with her fingers. She shudders, and a jagged breath parts her lips. Her eyes open briefly, then she squeezes them shut, and new tears roll out.

“Mom?” I bend down and touch the center of her back.