excerpt -touching smoke chapter one
“What’s the matter?” Mom honed in on my mood before I even realized I was chewing anxiously on my thumbnail.
“Nothing.” I quickly wiped the spit off on my jeans and stuffed my hands into my lap. My torn and bloody thumbnail glared up at me, a sick mockery of my lie.
“Fallon…” The warning tone was in effect.
It was a risk telling Mom when something was wrong. Her tendency to overreact was legendary. I spent a great deal of time and effort practicing to lie convincingly.
“Don’t lie to me.” But even practice didn’t help sometimes.
I gave my head a shake, fixing my attention out the passenger side window in clear avoidance. Pale sunlight splashed over blooming treetops. The golden rays spilled through the knotted branches in splinters that lay broken across the forest floor. Birds flittered from tree-to-tree; I could hear their elated chirping over the Rust-Bucket’s roaring engine.
“Fallon!” My mom seemed to think that the more she said my name in that I’m-your-mother-and-you’ll-answer-when-I-ask-you-something tone, I’d cave.
Usually, it worked. I may have been sixteen, but I feared my mother’s wrath like nothing else. She knew every one of my buttons and played them with skilled precision, like a maestro before an audience.
“It’s nothing!” I insisted, already knowing even before the words were out that she wouldn’t believe me.
“Okay.” Her sigh resounded of feigned remorse, as if she really didn’t want to have to do it and it hurt her more than it would hurt me — as if I believed that. Her hand wandered off the steering wheel and inched towards the radio.
I caved faster than a house of poorly placed cards in the wind. There was nothing worse than country music, and not just any country music, the old western kind that only played when you’re in the middle of nowhere and only two stations worked on the radio: ancient western and some guy ranting about the end of the world and demons.
Give me the crazy guy any day. Unfortunately, he only came out at nights, when he knew he could give you nightmares.
“Okay! Fine!” I grabbed her wrist before she could touch the knob. “I’ll talk!” I would have made a lousy spy. If I were ever captured, all the bad guy would have to do is threaten me with country music and I’d sing like a canary.
She didn’t actually smirk — my mother didn’t do that — but there was a satisfied tilt to her lips as she sat back and waited patiently for me to begin.
I faltered in my explanation. Every thread I grabbed proved to be the wrong way to start. My jumbled emotion kept knotting up inside me like yarn, tying up my tongue, making every attempt to speak impossible. Mom never interrupted me. Maybe because she knew how hard it was for me to talk about things I didn’t understand myself. I knew she would sit there, for hours if she had to, waiting, never breaking my concentration, until I was ready to speak just so long as I told her, she would wait.
“I had another dream,” I finally said, staring down at my lap as if the rest of my courage was somehow sitting there, waiting to be plucked up. But the only thing there was my hands, clenched together between my jean-clad thighs. Sweat squished between my palms. I wiped them on my jeans.
“What was it about?” she asked, casual with a tense undertone she was failing miserably to conceal.
Her knuckles blistered white around the steering wheel and there were slight pinch lines on either side of her lips. She stared with such fierce determination out the windshield that I half expected there to be scorch marks on the glass.
Mom was very pretty, much like those old black and white movie starlets they showed every so often on basic TV. She had beautiful cinnamon-colored hair that was naturally wavy when she didn’t cut it pixie-style and it always carried the lingering scent of citrus from her shampoo. She also had beautiful hooded, viridian-green eyes that seemed to always be shimmering like sunlight over a lake. Her complexion wasn’t as pale as mine was, but porcelain, and she was willowy, not gangly like me, but… graceful, like a dancer. No one ever believed Erin Braeden was my mother. We were as different as night and day physically. My hair was thicker, curler and the ripe shade of blackberries and it hung to my waist. It also had a life of its own, constantly creeping into my eyes when it was down, catching on things, and when the wind blew through it, the whole thing was one giant birds nest. I tried cutting it more than once, but it had a maddening way of growing back, longer and thicker than before. I eventually gave up and kept it in a tight braid down my back.
I averted my gaze. “I don’t remember.”
Liar, liar, pants on fire! But it was either lie or tell her about Amalie. Lying was safer.
The dreams had begun six months before and I could never remember more than a few seconds of it. It was always dark with flashes of light, like someone spinning around-and-around with a camera in a room full of candles. Every so often, I would see a flicker of a hand holding a pen over a faded journal, but the image would always dance away too quickly for me to read what was written. There were only two instances where I actually caught a glimpse of something tangible and both times, it was a name:
Amalie Nicolette Dennison
I didn’t know who she was or why she kept popping into my dreams every night or why I would wake up in the morning, dizzy with the salty scent of sea breeze hanging thick in the room, but I wished she would stop. I wasn’t sure my brain could take anymore sleepless nights.
“Where are we going?” I asked, needing a change of topic.
Thinking about Amalie always creeped me out and I didn’t like it. I refused to believe that I was some pod for spiritual communication as I’d heard it once called on a TV show somewhere in Alberta a few months back. The whole show had been ridiculous. Spirits from the beyond had better things to do than wander into the minds and dreams of the living. Besides, Amalie hadn’t left me any subliminal messages or announced the name of her killer — assuming she was murdered. She just kept trying to make me nauseous with the spinning and the lights or she was trying to drive me crazy from lack of sleep.
Honestly though, I blamed the whole thing on my mom. Would it have killed her to spend one night somewhere that didn’t look haunted? It was no wonder I was getting crazy dreams. My subconscious was begging for a hint of normalcy. But Mom wouldn’t see it that way.
“I was thinking we could just drive west for a while,” she answered, rhythmically tapping her unpainted fingers on the worn leather of the steering wheel in a way that meant she was in deep thought but was answering because she believed children should always have an answer when they ask a question, followed by, “What do you think?”
I thought I would like to head back to Nova Scotia, rent an apartment and stay there. But that answer would only earn me a deep sigh, a long speech about firsthand experiences, about how every teenager in the world would have loved to be in my shoes and how I should enjoy it and blah, blah, blah. I’d heard it all before.
So, instead, I replied dryly, “West — fun. Nothing there we haven’t seen a million times before.”
Either she didn’t pick up on my sarcasm — which was unlikely— or she chose to ignore it, which I was sure of, because nothing ever passed over her head.
“Actually, there’s a school I called the other day—”
Reflexively, I groaned. “Not another one…” I was ignored again.
“—they teach Latin and French.”
“Wow! Latin! That should come in handy oh… never!”
She spared me a glower from the corner of her eyes. “You will like this one and it’s only for a little while!”
Every time our funds began to decrease, Mom would stuff me in the most heavily guarded private school she could possibly find while she worked herself silly earning more travel money. She claimed it was a good opportunity for me to make new friends and learn something new. It also gave her a chance to do what she needed to get done without having to worry about leaving me alone in a motel. But what I never confessed to was that I stopped trying to make new friends after leaving the fourth grade for the sixth time in one year. I learned everything I needed to know from the mountain of textbooks, worksheets and notes I carted around with me from all the schools I had left behind over the years — and there were tons of those. The number was mindboggling so I never kept count. But she always insisted.
“Can’t we just use the money dad left me?”
I knew it was useless to ask, even before she speared me with a dark scowl. Mom never touched that money, except to pay for all the high priced schools she thought I needed. I think it was her way of making it up to me for missing out so much of my childhood to the open highway. Not that being stuck behind towering walls and iron gates was any better and I was sure dad would have told her so as well, had he not died when I was four.
“That money is for you to start your own life one day.”
One day. I knew my dad would have wanted Mom to use the money instead of working herself to death, but Mom refused to touch a penny of it in any way that didn’t involve my education.
“How long are we staying there?” I sighed heavily.
Mom shrugged. “I don’t know yet.” In other words, until she had enough cash to keep us afloat for a few months. That could be anywhere from three to six months.
Well, maybe it would be different this time. Maybe Amalie would behave for once. Maybe she’d go away. I believed that nearly as much as I believed the sleek, black motorcycle racing to catch our fender was on its way to rescue me.
The sun gleamed off the rider’s black helmet, and as I watched, he raised a hand and gave me a two-fingered salute.
My lips twitched, and I raised a hand and waved back through the side mirror. Deep down, I stifled the mindboggling pulse of familiarity that warmed my chest. I didn’t know him, yet the pull was unmistakable, as was the distinct sense of Déjà vu at seeing that exact bike a few days ago at a gas stop in Nova Scotia, and then again periodically for as long as I could recall, but always from a distance and always gone when I tried to get a closer look.
I must have been waving for too long, because my mother’s voice broke through my train of thought. “Fallon? What are you doing?”
I quickly stuffed my hand back between my thighs. “Nothing.”
But Mom wasn’t fooled. She took one glance into the rearview mirror and lost all coloring in her face. She cursed under her breath and floored the gas pedal.
Somewhere on Highway 1 heading west, four sets of jagged burn marks mar the asphalt where the Impala had all but ripped through the concrete. Black smoke billowed, choking the clear sky with the stench of burnt rubber. The motorcycle screeched, swerving under the attack. But where most would have shaken a fist and thrown a few curse words, the rider righted himself, leaned over his handlebars and sped up.
We were doing a hundred, and climbing. The needle quivered as we accelerated to speeds the Rust-Bucket was not accustomed to; the Impala groaned and shuddered, but kept pace.
“What’s going on?” I shrieked, partly out of soul chilling terror, partly to be heard over the clashing roar of two engines battling, one ours, the other the speeder behind us.
“Get down!” Mom shot back, hunched over the wheel, eyes narrowed on the road.
I wasn’t given time to follow orders. I was thrown back into my seat as the acceleration jumped nearly off the radar. I didn’t even think the Rust-Bucket could go that fast.
“Hold on!”
Jagged gashes scarred the leather dash where I clawed, forbearing, as I was smashed against the door. My skull ricocheted off the glass with a sickening thud, sending a burst of light exploding before my eyes. My spleen slammed into my ribs when mom suddenly hammered down on the brakes. My heart had already taken shelter into my throat, thrashing like a captured bird struggling for escape. I would have been panicked, but I was already having trouble reminding my lungs to breathe and my brain not to explode.
The Rust-Bucket nearly flipped. For a split second, that’s exactly what I was expecting, and in that second, my heart forgot to beat. I watched, paralyzed from the brain down, as the car skid as though on ice, rolling dangerously close to the ditch on the side of the road. The world seemed to clash, swirling in smears of greens and blues. I might have screamed, but even that seemed unlikely when I’d forgotten how.
Behind us, the motorcycle screeched, sounding like a desperate cry before it swerved under the rider’s erratic attempts at trying to miss the back end of the Impala. I was twisted in my seat before it even registered that I was no longer frozen. The leather headrest tore under my nails as I scrambled into the backseat, over duffle bags, blankets and fast food wrappers to watch with crippling horror as the bike squealed once before disappearing over the edge, into the ditch.
My soul screamed before the sound tore through the soft tissues of my esophagus and exploded from my lips. Time screeched to a halt. Everything froze, except the loud cracking of my heart and the bike, doing a nosedive over the lip and crashing.
“Fallon!” Only when my mother’s blunt nails peeled the skin on my arm did I realize she’d stopped me from throwing myself out the door.
I kept screaming. My sanity raged against reality. The world spun and dipped. Flashed crimson. Everything roared, swallowing the animal-like howls tearing through my lungs. I felt deranged, completely unhinged, like someone losing something so utterly precious to them that the very idea of living was unbearable. It was inconceivable. I wanted to die. I wanted to throw myself out of the car and dive into the ditch and… and what? What was wrong with me?
“Fallon? Fallon, calm down!” Although soothing, my mom’s tone did nothing to calm the hysteria eating me up inside.
“Don’t leave him!” I pleaded, only just then realizing I was sobbing like my heart would cease beating if I stopped. “Don’t leave him! Please!”
“We have to go,” she said, still holding on to me as she used her free hand to maneuver the Impala back onto the road.
“No!” I shrieked, renewing my thrashing, throwing myself against the door. “Don’t leave him!”
But she didn’t stop, and I was taken away, away from the other half of me.

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About the Author
Airicka Phoenix is the author of TOUCHING SMOKE (Touch Series Book #1) and TORRID, a short story as part of the <a href="">Whispered Beginnings: A Clever Fiction Anthology</a>. When she's not hammering away at the keyboard, she can be found banishing pirates or crawling through the attic looking for lost treasure with her kids. She loves baking, gardening and reading. She also likes to travel and take pictures of everything she comes across. When asked, Airicka describes herself as a sarcastic basket case that has an unhealthy addiction to chocolate, old movies and really bad jokes. She loves to laugh, make friends and write. If she could have one wish granted, it would be to spend one day as a fly-on-the-wall inside Stephen King's mind. If she could have two wishes granted, she would ask for a castle dedicated entirely to her overwhelming collection of books.

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