by Tiahna Skye, 1480 words
As the sirens wailed, lights were popping on all through the town. It was the middle of the night, but it was rare to hear such a commotion in the quiet little mountain town. The residents came pouring out their houses in bathrobes and slippers, hoping for some hint of what might be happening. It was impossible to miss the flames licking up to the sky, the smell of smoke choking the air. On many streets, neighbors huddled together trying to guess what was on fire.
“Is it the church?!”
“No, I think it might be the auto repair on Main. The smell is awful! Burnt rubber maybe – you know, tires.”
“I’m going inside to watch the news. Y’all are welcome to join me. I’ll put on a pot of coffee, and we’ll get the deets without breathing that nasty smoke.”
Amy stood at her window watching the fire grow. She knew, she just knew, it was the diner. Madison was ten miles east of home, but as dawn broke the smoke was clear to see. A memory long forgotten sliced through her. She could hear his gravelly voice, “You don’t want to mess with me. I’ll burn it all down.” Tears dripped down her ashen cheeks as she quietly shook her head and whispered, “No. No no no. This can’t be happening.” Is this my fault, she wondered?
Guilt consumed her. Why had she let Alice convince her to come? The voice on the other end of the phone line had sounded so familiar. Goosebumps had crawled across her skin. Some part of her knew this girl was a key to the mystery she had been trying to solve since she gave birth to Meghan. She wasn’t awake when she gave birth. It all happened so fast. She had felt dizzy and nauseous and the last thing she remembered was calling a nurse. When she woke, the nurse told her the baby was fine and she should get some rest. It was hard to think. Amy felt like she had cotton filling her brain. Her thoughts were jumbled, but she knew there was something very wrong, something she could not quite remember.
Alice was a strange girl, and Amy was no closer to knowing what she wanted than the day Alice first contacted her. In an odd way, she looked a lot like Meghan. Their eyes were virtually the same, and though Alice’s hair was unkempt, it was the exact same color as Meghan’s. There was something so compelling about her and Amy couldn’t bring herself to walk away. She had been here in Madison for weeks, but she just kept hoping that Alice could answer the question she had lived with for decades. She couldn’t let it go. She wouldn’t let it go. Something happened in that operating room and Amy would have no peace until she figured it out.
Amy had not contacted her family even once since she had been gone. She knew her mother must be worried – Phyllis had just enough information to know the situation could be dangerous. She had seen the Ancestry.com report and her fears had been confirmed. Willoughby was not dead. She had already been suspicious, but when she saw there was another daughter the exact same age as Meghan, the truth was too plain to deny.
Phyllis had tried desperately to convince Amy not to go. “Amy, what good can come of this? Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.” When that didn’t work, she reminded Amy that she was no spring chicken and could not possibly run the diner by herself. As soon as Amy told her that Meghan would come to help at the diner, Phyllis knew the battle was lost. All she could do was caution her daughter to be careful… and not to set her hopes too high.
After the first week came and went, Amy thought about calling but didn’t want to listen to her mother and daughter beg her to come home. She was so close to finding out. With just a little more time, she might actually be able to put the past behind her once and for all.
Excelsior winged through the thick air, following the blond man through the woods. He watched him hide the gas can under a bush next to a giant redwood tree before continuing his run back to his hide-away deep in the woods. The man would have to pay for what he had done. Excelsior had no patience for wanton cruelty. Dipping his golden-brown wing to the right, he turned and headed back to the diner.
Sven kept banging on the door. “Open up you little twerp! I swear I’ll break your nose if this door isn’t open in ten seconds.”
“What the hell?” shouted a still sleepy Dwayne as he slipped his right foot into his boot. Couldn’t a guy get some peace? Shoving his hair out of his eyes, he went to open the door, “Get out”, Sven shouted “Get out! The building’s on fire!” Instantly wide-awake Dwayne tried to go back in his room to collect his few belongings, the codes he had made, the evidence he had found so far. Sven grabbed his arm roughly and pulled Dwayne along behind him. Coughing, eyes watering, and with fear gripping their guts, the two men raced to the door. Sven cursed as he tried to turn the knob, his flesh burning. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Sven knew he couldn’t let that stop him. He grabbed the knob again and screamed in pain as he pushed the door open. The tavern crackled and spat as they sprinted into the yard. Both men bent over their knees, gasping for fresh air. The smell of gasoline and rancid oil hung in the air, adding an acrid smell to the stench of fire.
Meghan and Ted had been talking with Phyllis long into the night. Phyllis had revealed a lot. Ted seemed to know most of the story already and encouraged her to tell Meghan the truth. She knew it was time and shared the secret she had kept for so long. Ted held her hand comfortingly as Gran poured out all that she knew. “Meghan dear, try to understand we did this to protect you. Your father…well, let’s just say he was not a good man.” Ted jumped in and confessed that he knew Willoughby was up to no good, but he was family. His eyes foggy with age, filled with regret as he told Meghan the worst of it. “Darling girl, you have a sister, a twin sister.”
She had a twin sister?! How could that be? How could her mother have kept something so important from her? There was so much more she wanted to know, but seeing how exhausted Gran was, Meghan sent her to bed. Phyllis went willingly. Her body ached as she worked her way up to her room, each stair creaking when she stepped on the dried-out wood. It wouldn’t be long now she knew, and she was glad. She was done with this life of hers. She had done her best to take care of those she loved, to protect them, and if that meant keeping secrets, she didn’t regret it. But she was tired now – so very tired.
Meghan and Ted sat at the worn kitchen table trying to process what they had learned. It seemed this town was full of mysteries. Both of them jolted when they heard the sirens. Each looked at the other in shock. Could this be it? Meghan thought. Ted, speaking as slowly as ever unfurled his large body from his chair with a soft groan, “Well now, I guess we best go see what is happening.” Meghan simply nodded in resignation and headed to the door, Ted following behind, shoulders slumped in the posture of a broken man. He didn’t like secrets, never had. He knew they always brought trouble.
The firefighters looked grim as they battled the blaze. It had started at the diner, but quickly spread to the building next door. “This town is a tinder box” Alex grumbled as he continued to hose down the fire. It was true. Most of the buildings were old and the ramshackle additions and sub-par compliance with building codes only made things worse. The interiors of the buildings were a maze of hallways that were almost impossible to navigate with all the smoke. He prayed nobody was in the buildings because they sure as hell couldn’t go in. With a loud crash, the roof of the diner caved in sending up a gigantic spray of sparks and flames. The heat was so intense Alex thought it could probably be felt a mile away. A long wail of pain was the last sound heard from the diner.