Layla makes friendships selectively. A ghost haunts her. Worst of all, everyone thinks she’s fine when inside the teen is falling apart. Suddenly, when things go south, the girl goes missing, but strangely, her cell phone is left behind.
In her absence from home, a family member learns of the horror that has become Layla’s life. After viewing an important clue, he knows that he must act fast…before his entire family is destroyed.
Layla sat in the back of the cab, turned to face the grimy back window, watching the building on Second Street fade away. She felt her mother pull the back of her jacket, urging Layla to turn around and sit properly, as the cab driver glared at her through the rear view window.
The vehicle smelled of old cigarettes, body odour, and sickly sweet from a batch of donuts, which someone had left the remnants of on the floor. Chris, her father, sat in the front passenger seat with the driver, who looked less than thrilled to have a guest so close to him. There were holes in his fingerless black woollen gloves, and his matching wool hat had so many little fabric balls, or ‘pilling’ as her mother Mary would describe it, it looked like he’d glued them on himself.
While Chris made small talk in front, the other four Dixons sat, cramped like sardines in a can, in the back. Tasha, Layla’s younger sister, was crammed in between Mary and her older sister Linda, who was so enthralled in a steamy romance novel she barely looked up when the driver pounded on the brakes so hard, had it not been for seatbelts, all five Dixons would have plummeted through the windshield.
“Damn Yankees!” the driver screeched. Chris recovered from the abrupt stop and gave him a disapproving look. “Err…Pardon the language.”
JFK Airport was a long drive from Manhattan, New York, where Layla had grown up. It was there where they were headed to catch a flight to North Carolina. All their belongings had already been shipped via long haul transport and Mary prayed they would arrive before the truck did. They didn’t have much, but she’d heard horror stories of people’s property being sold and distributed long before the owner arrived at their destination. Proof it was time for Mary to get out of New York and into a small town where her wholesome ideals of life and people would be restored. Layla adjusted her red toque, which had almost fallen off as the car jerked forward, and glanced at her mother, who returned the oh-my-god-this-guy-is-crazy look.
Poor little Tasha was buried under her mother’s arm, barely able to breathe. A small, muffled voice cried out and Mary lifted her arm, helping her youngest child, her baby, sit erect. “You going away?” the driver asked gruffly.
“Err…no, we’re actually moving to North Carolina,” Chris answered kindly.
The driver lifted a brow. “You got family there?” he ventured.
“No, we’re moving there on business,” Chris half-lied. Chris and Mary were doctors, and both worked in separate hospitals—Mary at New York Presbyterian, Chris at Lenox Hill— and they bought a commercial one-storey building, about the size of a house, in Holly Springs, just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. This would be the location of the private practice they were opening, a dream of both doctors for such a long time.
As her father answered with a veiled lie, Layla pulled her right hand to her face, feeling the small yellow bruise that remained. The kidney-shaped blemish around the underside of her left eye was still tender to touch. Her lip had healed nicely and her left arm, still in a sling, would take a few more weeks before returning to normal functioning.
She felt her cell phone vibrate in her pocket and forced her mother to lean sideways so she could retrieve it. Wincing from the lingering pain in her injured arm she checked the display and as Layla had expected, it was her best friend Carla.
“Is it Carla again?” Mary asked with mild irritation. “Can she not survive five minutes without you?”
It had been a difficult goodbye. Carla and Layla met in kindergarten and had been best friends since. Sure, they had the occasional argument, but they always made up. When news of the move was delivered to Carla, she had pushed Layla away, fearing she would be phased out once her friend moved to a new state. Had she known the implications, Carla might not have followed through with her friend’s important request.
“I’m moving eight hours away from her, mom, have a heart,” Layla balked as she pressed a button to accept the call.
“I can’t believe you’re gone,” Carla opened with. Her voice cracked, which surprised Layla, since Carla was not the emotional type. “Why couldn’t you just change schools? Why did your parents have to move you out of the city?”
“Carla, I can’t talk right now,” Layla said, talking to her the same way she did when she comforted her six year old sister. “We’re in the cab on our way to the airport right now. I’ll call you as soon as the flight lands, okay?”
“You better,” Carla warned, but the tone in her voice told Layla that it was an empty threat.
“I promise,” Layla said sweetly as she hung up.
“She’ll be fine,” Mary assured, patting her daughter on the knee. “Before you know it the summer will be here. Her mother already said she could come stay with us.”
Drawing in a deep breath, Layla stared out the window. She was worried. Carla never cried; the girl was tough as nails. Even when her father left she didn’t shed a tear. To be fair, she barely knew him, since he was a truck driver and away most of the time, but still. With her seemingly coming undone, Layla couldn’t help but feel anxious. Could Carla keep her secret?
Six months was a long time…
I can’t believe I live here. The house is a small, two-storey building with hanging flower baskets, a porch swing, fluffy pink balloon-style drapes on all the windows, and this creepy attic that they’re calling my bedroom. All it’s missing is a yappy white teacup poodle barking in the front yard and it’s grandma’s house.
I hated my grandmother. Not my dad’s mom, but my mom’s mom. But I’ll get to that later.
The people here talk as white trash as ever and they stare at me because of my New York accent. Well, how about their Southern twang? At least I don’t sound like a reject from the annual honky-tonk wheel-barrowing competition. This place sucks. I miss my apartment, where I could sit in my bedroom all day and listen to my iPod, talk on my cell phone to my friends and nobody would bother me.
Here, you can’t sit for five minutes without some creep knocking on your door with a pie or casserole in their hands, eager to welcome you to this stinking town. In New York, people mind their own business. I like it that way. I like having my own private life where you can do what you want and most people look the other way.
Already they know we’re from New York, so I’m constantly being asked “What’s Times Square like?”, or “How’s that Central Park? Is it really in the center of New York? That why they call it ‘Central’?”, and the best one yet: “Isn’t that where that show Friends was taped? You ever met who was it, Janice Anderson?”
And the most infuriating part is that this town is a bunch of Jesus freaks. My mother is in her glory. We’ve already had the pastor over for supper twice and we’ve only lived here a month.
The TV stations are all different out here, the internet connection sucks, there’s almost no place you can get Wi-Fi in any of the stinking coffee joints, and the way they dress is laughable. Nobody has ever heard of Prada or Coach, and when I mention Ugg they wait for me to finish, thinking I’m going to say ‘ugly’, or they pat me on the back because they think I’m choking.
Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the music. Remember the honky-tonk I mentioned? Well, that’s the kind of crap they listen to. The kind of music you’d listen to if you were at a rodeo or mucking down stalls at a horse ranch. Seriously. Nobody here has ever heard of Taylor Swift or Michael Bublé. When I mention Beyoncé, they ask me what her last name is. It’s ridiculous.
The only nice thing about living here is that I actually get to see my parents, and I’m not constantly stuck at home babysitting Tasha. Mom and dad were smart enough to buy a house around the corner from their medical practice. And I simply have to walk Tasha over after she gets off the bus and hand her off to Mrs. B, the medical secretary, who is only too pleased to take her so her four-year-old has someone to play with in the back room.
Besides, mom and dad are home in time for supper every night too, which is a huge bonus for me. No more take-out. The ‘Welcome to Holly Springs’ casseroles are still streaming in so we’ve barely had to cook anything. And when they do finally cease, I can finally sink my fingers back into the kitchen, something I’ve been wanting to do since the stove broke in our old apartment.
That’s another thing I’ll admit to. The kitchen is great. I’m told that the lady who lived here (someone’s grandma I’ll bet), used to cook and bake for Holy Trinity United Church, which consequently we attend now. So, the oven is unbelievable. It’s one of the ones with two compartments for cooking and a warming drawer in the bottom. It’s both conventional and convection and has a rapid preheat button so you no longer feel like it’d be quicker to rub two dry twigs together to get a faster heat source.
The stove is about the only modern thing in this town, and it’s in my house. Pretty cool. It must have been shipped from Raleigh or even Greensboro because the only appliance store in this town still sells typewriters.
Carla will have a cow when she comes in the summer because the guys here are very strange. They hold doors open for you and call you ‘ma’am’, even if you’re not retired. When they talk to you they’re actually looking above your breasts, even the shorter ones. Nobody flirts or makes fun of you either. Linda tried to flirt with a guy just last week and came home crying because he ignored her. And nobody noticed, or at least nobody mentioned they noticed, my bruises and busted arm.
I can’t tell you how much of a relief that is. Thankfully the cell phone plan mom and dad got me includes unlimited long distance, so I can call Carla whenever I want. She was only weepy that one time she called while I was in the cab on my way to JFK airport, which I’m grateful for. It’s tough being away from her.
We talk about lots of things, but never about what happened. We promised never to talk about that. If I have it my way she’ll be the only one who ever knows. I would just die if anyone ever found out. I’m hoping it’ll just go away along with my bruises.
Mom says my nightmares are from the adjustment to moving. It was a big step for me, having lived in New York all my life. They’re non-descriptive, like all the monsters have no faces and when they yell nothing comes out, but they’re terrifying and wake me up, screaming and soaking wet with sweat.
They started before we even talked about moving, which is what scares me. But my mom’s a doctor and she knows what she’s talking about.
I sure hope she’s right.
It was chilly enough that Layla had to place an afghan across her lap as she read while lying on the couch. Tasha sat in the armchair in the corner of the room while Mary was in the kitchen baking cookies for church the next day. Rock music reverberated from Linda’s room above the living room and Mary walked to the landing at the bottom of the stairs, raising her voice to ask if she could kindly turn the volume down.
When Linda didn’t answer, Mary hiked up her floor-length denim skirt and began walking up the stairs. Just as she was halfway up the stairs the doorbell rang. “Could you get that, Layla?”
Rolling her eyes, frustrated by the numerous uninvited visitors they always seemed to have, she dog-eared the page she was reading, set it on the wooden coffee table in front of the couch and scooched over to the window. Standing inconspicuously behind the gauze drapes, she checked to see who had called.
A lady, about sixty years old with curly, snow-white hair and a blue housedress poking out the bottom of her knee-length jacket, stood on the front stoop. In her hand was the proverbial pie plate covered with cellophane, cleverly wrapped into a ponytail-like heap on top, and a pretty pink bow in the center of a circle of pink ribbon. Her short-strapped black leather purse hung like a pendulum from her forearm. She had a warm smile on her face as she spied Tasha, who had snuck to the door without Layla’s knowledge, pushing her nose on the glass surround of their interior door.
Layla tutted as she scooted Tasha out of the way and opened the door. “Hi.”
“Well, hello there, Layla is it?” the lady ventured.
Layla pushed the latch on the storm door, allowing the lady entry. “Yes, that’s right.”
“I’m Winifred. My friends call me Winnie. Like the bear?” She offered Layla a gentle handshake and pinched Tasha’s cheeks just enough to make the six-year-old giggle. “And this must be Tasha. Is that short for Na-tasha?” the lady asked. “I know another little girl named Natasha, that’s why I asked,” she said, as if her story required explanation.
Mary walked down the steps; the volume of music had been reduced dramatically. Just a quiet pat of bass was heard every couple of seconds. “And you must be Mary, right?” The lady extended her hand. “I was just telling little Natasha here that my name is Winnie, like the bear?”
Layla smirked. Winnie had absent-mindedly renamed her sister ‘Natasha’. Tasha caught Layla’s look and giggled as the sixteen-year-old nudged her, reminding the six-year-old not to further embarrass the old woman.
“Nice to meet you, Winnie,” Mary said kindly. “I’d love to introduce you to my husband, but it’s his turn to work today. We take turns on Saturdays.”
“Yes, the clinic is wonderful. My grandson was in there just last week with an infected toe. Do you remember him?”
Mary hesitated. “I think Chris treated him, but yes, I remember him.”
“Daniel’s his name. Poor boy, his mama passed,” Winnie said numbly as she handed the pie to Mary and removed her jacket, draping it over the doorknob as if she knew the place. “Had a big ingrown toenail that ran amuck. Had to soak it and stick a needle in it to get the pus out,” she went on, ignoring the disgusted expression on Layla’s and Tasha’s faces.
Mary placed the pie on the counter as the woman followed her into the kitchen. Layla and Tasha scurried back into the adjoining living room, not wanting to hear any more about pus. “Yes, I remember. Is he feeling better?”
“Oh yes, that cream your husband gave him dried it up like a raisin overnight.”
Mary was pleased. “That’s good.”
Winnie eyed the pie on the counter. “That there’s my own recipe,” she said proudly. “Blackberry pie. Of course, it’s better in the summer when I can grow my own blackberries, but everyone says it’s the best in town.”
Pulling at the ribbon, Mary produced an opening in the cellophane and took in a deep breath. “I don’t doubt it. Smells delicious.”
“You baking something in there, dear?” Winnie asked, watching the oven timer count down from thirty-five minutes.
“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’m baking sugar cookies for church tomorrow.”
“Reverend Edwards is a lovely man, isn’t he?” Winnie changed the subject. “He used to date my Paula, you know.”
“Yes, ma’am. They were an item for a long time until his daddy got sick and he had to quit college.”
“Oh, so they dated in college, did they? I figured it would have been a high school romance.” Mary switched on the oven light and peered inside.
Winnie waved as her eyebrows furrowed. She looked angry for a moment. “No, my Paula wasn’t allowed to date until after high school. I wasn’t allowed to date until I was eighteen and look how I turned out.”
Layla, overhearing the conversation, scoffed under her breath. Linda had been dating since she was fifteen. Layla suddenly wondered what Winnie’s take on makeup and cell phones was.
Continuing, Winnie sat on the chair at the small luncheonette table along the wall opposite the oven. Her purse was firmly planted on her lap. “Been married to my Judge now for almost fifty years.”
Mary was impressed. “Wow, that’s remarkable. How old were you when you married?”
Winnie’s eyes went to the floor as she casually brushed an imaginary piece of dust off her shoe, as if the question made her uncomfortable. “Old enough,” she answered.
“And you have how many kids?”
“Four kids, seven grandchildren.” She answered by way of counting on her fingers. She named them all off, explaining where each lived and who was married, saving Paula for last.
Mary listened intently as she leaned against the counter. One foot was draped over the other as her arms remained crossed over her chest. “And how old is Paula?”
Peering over her shoulder as if someone might be listening, Winnie spoke behind her hand in a hushed tone. “Well as a matter of fact, me and Judge, we’re planning a surprise fiftieth birthday party for her next week.” She pulled a small white envelope out of the front opening of her purse. “Here’s your invitation. She’d like it very much if you could come.”
Mildly shocked, Mary accepted the envelope and attached it to the refrigerator door with a small red ladybug magnet. “I’m sure we would all love to come.”
Layla flopped her book down on her lap. The last thing she wanted to do was go to a birthday party for a total stranger. It was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. She blew a piece of hair from her face in frustration as the old woman continued yammering on incessantly.
“Then your young thing on the couch there, err…”
“Um, Layla, you mean?”
Winnie smiled. “Layla. She and Daniel, my grandson, are about the same age. They can meet at the party.”
Layla’s eyes widened. There was no way she was coming within ten feet of a guy who had nasty, pus-riddled feet or ingrown toenails. No way. She got up and carefully walked over to the kitchen, stopping at the wall so Winnie couldn’t see her. The old woman continued talking as Layla motioned to her mom, unbeknownst to Winnie. Mary glared at her and tipped her head sideways, letting her daughter know she’d better go back to the living room.
“You’ll see the whole Marshall clan there. I think you even met my youngest son, Bruce? He had some bad fish there a couple weeks ago and came to the clinic…”
Five minutes later, as Winnie finished talking about her children’s various ailments, she looked at her watch and said it was time for her to go. By that time, Layla was fuming. Not only had the old woman invited complete strangers to come to her daughter’s birthday, but she also had Layla and her grandson Daniel practically dating.
She missed New York more and more each day.
Old people are such hypocrites. So this old woman, Winnie, like the bear, as she proudly described herself, comes over and brings this pie, which by the way tasted like the stuff you have dried up at the corner of your mouth in the morning, and bragged about how her daughter wasn’t allowed to date until she was sixteen. Sixteen! Do you believe that! These people are freaks around here…
I did the math, and not only was Winnie approximately seventeen when she got married, but Paula, her daughter, was clearly conceived before Winnie married, because Paula was turning fifty and Winnie admitted that she and her husband hadn’t yet celebrated their golden anniversary. How’s that for hypocritical?
I’m so glad my parents don’t allow the constraints of society to dictate how they raise their children. In so many ways, more and more, I don’t think we belong in this town. I’m surprised my mother hasn’t blown up yet. But then again, that’s not in mom’s character. She’s used to being calm under the worst circumstances because she’s a doctor.
Okay, back to Winnie. She wants to set me up with her pus-footed grandson Daniel, just because we’re the same age. Where does she get off? Mom hasn’t RSVP’d for the party yet. Hopefully she’ll decline or someone will come down with the Ebola virus or something so we don’t have to go.
Okay, so I’m a little dramatic today…
A knock at the door woke Layla from a deep sleep. “Layla? It’s your turn to shower. Church starts in an hour.” It was Linda. Layla turned over and groaned, still sluggish from slumber.
The door opened. “Layla?” Linda’s voice was clear as her head appeared in the doorway.
“I’m up,” she croaked, slapping the back of her hand onto her forehead.
Linda chuckled as she entered the room fully and closed the door behind her. Towering at least a foot over Layla, Linda had to duck from the vaulted ceilings of the attic/bedroom. Layla’s bed was in the middle of the room, her dresser was flush with the corner wall, and a window was on the side that Layla’s back was facing. “No you’re not. What’s up with you, anyway? You not sleeping well?”
The older sister rested her behind on a corner of Layla’s chrome-framed bed. The metal was painted white, chipped from years of use. A refurbished antique four-drawer white dresser was throwing distance from Linda. “Not really.”
“I didn’t either when we first moved here. The climate is so different.”
Layla’s sleeplessness had nothing to do with climate, but she wasn’t about to tell Linda that. “I don’t even know what to wear there anymore.” Layla changed the subject. When they went to church in New York, everyone dressed the way they wanted. There was one guy who always showed up in a black trench coat, wearing Bermuda shorts regardless of the weather, and he had a purple Mohawk and about a dozen golden earrings aligned on his left earlobe.
Here, the whole congregation was clad in their Sunday best. All the women wore hats, even Mary reluctantly caved and bought one, acclimating herself to the women of Trinity United Church. Tasha adored wearing frilly dresses and black patent leather shoes, but Layla and Linda both refused to wear such apparel. “You have a skirt?” Linda asked, trying to be helpful.
“Just a denim one.”
“You can wear that and my long coat if you want. It’ll probably reach your ankles so nobody will know what’s under it.”
“Thanks,” Layla said, lifting herself up on her elbows. “You miss Brian?”
Layla saw Linda hold her breath for a moment. She looked nervous. Linda knew that Layla had no idea they were engaged. As far as Layla knew, Linda and Brian had only been dating for a couple of months before the move. Linda had been recluse since relocating, and Layla suspected it was homesickness for Brian.
“Sometimes. He calls me every night though, so it’s not so bad.”
Linda was two years Layla’s senior, but she failed grade two because of persistent ear infections that robbed her of time at school, so she would only graduate at the end of the year. Brian was also graduating this year, being a year younger than Linda. A question suddenly arose in Layla’s mind.
“You hoping to go to school out of state? Maybe the same one as Brian?”
Linda blushed. “Maybe.”
Layla smiled. Linda was a hopeless romantic. She’d read every Danielle Steele novel, despite her mother’s disapproval. The sixteen-year-old had a feeling her older sister had something like that in mind; it made no sense otherwise, that she would be so comfortable with leaving him so early in the relationship. “I thought you had something up your sleeve. Brian was too cool about you moving.”
Averting her younger sister’s gaze, Linda smirked. “Can you keep a secret?”
Hoisting herself up straight in bed, Layla eyes widened. “Sure.”
“Brian and I have been dating longer than you think.”
Layla’s mouth opened. “How long?”
Layla gasped. “What?”
“Shhh!” Linda placed her index finger on her lips. Her white blouse was buttoned up, completely concealing her neck. The eighteen-year-old reached up and fished a gold chain out from under her shirt. Layla watched patiently as Linda lifted a small trinket. She gasped again as she observed her older sister holding a gold ring as it dangled from the chain.
Layla’s hands steepled over her nose as she stifled a squeal. “Oh my God! Is that what I think it is?”
Linda didn’t answer, but she laid the princess-cut diamond ring on her palm. It wasn’t gleaming like a new jewel; rather, it had a patina like that of an antique. “It was Brian’s grandmother’s. When his mom and dad divorced, his father demanded it back from her. Since Brian is the only child, his father gave it to him for safekeeping until he got engaged.”
“So you’re engaged?” Layla was in shock.
Linda’s face told the tale. “It appears so.”
“Are you going to tell mom and dad?”
Her eyes flared. “No. Not until after college. And you can’t tell either, okay? Promise?”
Raising her right hand, as if swearing-in before a judge, Layla nodded emphatically.
“Good. Now go get in the shower before we’re late.”
Layla sat in bed for a moment, watching her older sister leave. Part of her remained completely stunned, a million questions finding their way inside her brain, but part of her felt absolutely relieved.
She was no longer the only one in the family with a secret.
You’re so not going to believe this! Linda and Brian are engaged! This is epic! Oh my God, wait’ll I tell Carla! And her and Brian have been together over a year! How did she pull that off?
Brian, from what I’ve known of him, is a good guy. He’s not much of a looker, but he’s really nice to Linda and all of us, plus he plays with Tasha, which is pretty surprising considering he’s an only child and likely hasn’t been around children much.
The twinkle in Linda’s eyes is so endearing, I love it. I only hope when I get engaged that I’m that happy. Only I won’t do it in secret, I have too much of a big mouth for stuff like that. I’d never be able to keep that to myself.
I can’t wait to call Carla…
“Oh, girl you better have a good reason for getting me outta bed before noon. My mother kept me up half the night watching black and white movies again,” Carla complained sleepily.
Carla’s father would never sit through the classics with her mother, so Carla learned to love them. It was their time together, and had been since she was old enough to say “Casablanca”.
“Sorry, I just had to call you before I go to church or I’m afraid I might burst!” Layla was almost squealing.
“What? What is it?” Carla was interested.
“You know Brian? My sister’s boyfriend?”
“The nerdy guy? What about him? He some overnight millionaire?” Carla added facetiously.
Layla ignored the sarcasm. “They’re engaged.”
“What do you mean ‘they’? Who got engaged? You mean Linda? Linda and Brian got engaged?”
Layla had been triumphantly nodding as Carla put the pieces together. “But didn’t they just start dating? Like a couple months ago or something?”
That was the best part. “Nope. Linda told me they’ve been together at least a year. She kept it secret from everyone.”
Carla scoffed. “Baloney. I don’t believe it for a minute.”
“I saw the ring,” Layla said, deadpan.
“Yeah, right,” Carla sneered.
“I’m not kidding,” Layla insisted. “I can send you a picture later.”
“If it’s true, which I don’t believe it is, you’ll never get Linda to let you take a picture of the ring.” Layla could picture the smirk on Carla’s face. “I bet she told you not to tell anyone, didn’t she?”
Layla hesitated. “Well, yeah, but—“
Carla heard the exasperation in her best friend’s voice and decided to let her off the hook. “Look, I believe you. But even if she does have a ring it doesn’t mean they’re getting married.”
Layla felt deflated. “Well, that’s true. But she did say they were going to try and go to the same University so they could be together and get married after.”
“She’s going to med school, right?”
“If Mom and Dad have their way, yeah.”
“And that’s like what? Seven years minimum?”
Carla chuckled with arrogance, making Layla want to slap her. “Don’t count your chickens, Layla. She probably didn’t tell your folks because deep down it’s just a pipe dream and she doesn’t want to ruffle feathers for nothing.”
“Well, regardless, she has a ring and she seems happy, which I guess is what matters right?”
“I suppose.” Carla paused. “At least she’s not miserable like you, right?”
“Shut up. I’m not that miserable. At least I don’t have to look at your ugly face every day anymore,” Layla joked, sensing Carla’s mood shift.
“Not until the summer, anyway.”
“Eight weeks with you and I’ll want to get married and leave the state, too,” Layla added. “Gotta go. Can’t keep the pastor waiting.”
“Pray for me.”