2014 Camp NaNoWriMo excerpt: "The Girl Who Didn't Go"

The following first six chapters are a VERY ROUGH DRAFT I worked on during Camp NaNoWriMo in July 2014.

Lyla Parisi is your typical teenager, dealing with typical teen problems.  It’s Homecoming weekend and her mom, Maureen, forbids Lyla to join her three girlfriends for the traditional high school prank of hitting the football team’s houses with toilet paper.  Maureen is being a total pain with her sudden rules.  She’s been treating Lyla like a child ever since Lyla turned seventeen and it’s getting worse.  Lyla can’t wait to get out of the house, go to college and get away from her mom.  She just wants to live her life, her way.  Without Maureen’s interference.  Until it all changes…


Prologue: The Accident

"You never let me do anything!"

Lyla Parisi slammed her bedroom door so hard, the walls of the Victorian house shook. She didn't know what pissed her off more -- that her mom was forbidding her to go out with her friends or that she had just become a typical teenage stereotype thanks to the phrase she had just screamed at Maureen.

Lyla was lucky that her father was away on business. She would've been grounded for throwing such a fit and that would have been the end of the world. It was homecoming weekend after all.

Lyla didn't understand why her mother was treating her like a child. It seemed the minute she turned seventeen, Maureen decided to start keeping tabs on Lyla. After years of praising her only child for having such a good head on her shoulders, it seemed she'd suddenly lost faith in Lyla.

Lyla got the good grades her parents expected--honor roll in fact. She was a member of the swim team and had won several medals. She worked part-time at the police station, since she wanted to study forensics in college. She'd been driving for a year and had no tickets or accidents. Lyla was responsible, smart and worked hard.

And she had a serious boyfriend. She was practically a woman!  Well, almost. She was twenty-four hours away from the Homecoming Dance and Tyler Becker had a hotel room reserved.

Lyla and her three girlfriends had spent the better part of the week preparing for the dance and planning the traditional, good-natured pranks the juniors and seniors played at Bradford High. But suddenly, Maureen was refusing to let Lyla leave the house, and the girls had just bought enough toilet paper that afternoon to blanket the entire football team's houses.

"You can never have too much tee pee." Joanie Hughes, Lyla's closest friend of the three had touted earlier that day as she rolled the cart to her mom's minivan.

Joanie and Lyla had been friends since grade school, when they both wore horrid blue plaid uniforms. Joanie's family life was not exactly ideal. Her dad had left her mom and three siblings for a much younger woman at his law firm. Joanie's mom was devastated and not exactly engaged in Joanie's life, so Joanie practically lived at the Parisi house on the weekends. And once they graduated next year, and Lyla found the school of her choice, Joanie would tag along as her roommate, probably settling on an area of study where she didn't have to work too hard. Since Joanie's dad had major guilt, he regularly showered the Hughes kids with money. Joanie knew he'd pay for her to go wherever she wanted and that was wherever Lyla ended up.

Lyla thought her friend was the strongest person she knew. She didn't know what she would do if her parents ever split. Not that she thought there was a chance in hell of that happening. As far as she witnessed, Maureen and Jack never fought. They were both successful, her mom was a dentist and her dad owned and flew private jets. They did spend quite a bit of time apart due to Jack's flight schedule but Lyla was used to it, never knowing any different way of life, and she assumed Maureen had no problem with Jack's time away since she was a career woman.

Lyla was an only child and for the first three years of her life, Maureen cut her hours down to stay home until Lyla went to preschool. Then Maureen was back at her practice full-time and Lyla went to after school daycare. Having another baby wasn't in the cards for Maureen, so Lyla got used to the solitary life as an only child. She read a lot and kept to herself until she met Joanie, who became like a sister to her.

Joanie was the only person who knew about Lyla's big plan for tomorrow night with Tyler. She had finally agreed to have sex. Tyler would be her first. Joanie had told Lyla she didn't think it was such a great idea. She thought Tyler was a player and maybe Lyla should wait. Lyla was sure her friend was mistaken. Tyler loved her. Maybe love was too strong a word. But Lyla knew Tyler was really into her.

Andrea Richards and Melanie Lester were the other two girls that made up the quartet. Andi and Mel, as they liked to be called, first met Lyla and Joanie in Home-Ec class, and soon after, they became inseparable as a group.

Boy crazy and a brain when it came to math, Andi was a girly-girl who often wore dresses and had a perfect mane of blonde hair that bounced at her shoulders. Meanwhile, Mel was the tomboy. She wore leather jackets and concert t-shirts almost every day. Her hair was quite short and she sometimes heard the other kids whisper about whether she was a boy or a girl. She handled it well and seemed content with her looks and style.

Still, it was quite a sight to see when Mel modeled her Homecoming dress for the other girls.

"My god, you have legs?" Joanie joked, nudging Lyla. "Did you know she had legs?"

Andi bounced out of the other dressing room, squealing at the sight of all of them. "We look hot!"

Lyla was happy with her dress but her smile seemed tense.

Joanie's radar kicked in. While Andi was telling Mel all the ways she could make her short hair look a bit more feminine, Joanie leaned toward Lyla. "Wondering how it'll look on the floor of the hotel room?" She kept her voice low, knowing Lyla wanted to keep it a secret, even from the other girls.

Lyla rolled her eyes and shoved her friend playfully. "Quiet, you!" She practically whispered. Lyla twisted in front of the full-length mirror. "Do you think it looks okay on me?"

Joanie's mouth dropped open, "Okay? Sister, that dress is killer. All the guys are going to want to take you back to their rooms Saturday night."

Lyla dismissed her friend's comment; Joanie was just trying to be funny. She was always trying to be funny. Lyla was too critical of herself to realize how pretty she really was. Maybe she was sensitive because her mom was riding her ass on a lot of things lately, so Lyla felt less than perfect. She was tall, five-foot-eight--several inches taller than the other three girls and most of her classmates. She knew she was in good shape, thanks to the drills with the swim team every weekday morning. And she had some curves. They all admitted they wished they had Lyla's luck in the rack department, as they called it. Sometimes the girls would tease her and call her "the amazon"--it was an endearing nickname.

Lyla didn't know her looks were what some might call exotic. Her hair was long, straight and black. Her eyes were a brownish hazel, which was striking against her olive complexion. She had her Sicilian father and Irish mother to thank for that.

Now, as Lyla looked at the dress hanging on the outside of her closet door from her perch in her bedroom's window seat, she wondered if maybe her dress wasn't a bit too--what was the word--showy. She didn't really want to stand out in the crowd; she wanted to blend for once. And dammit, she wanted to go out with her friends tonight!

Lyla had her cell phone in her hand, debating on what to say to Joanie. How could she explain that her mom, again, had insisted on running and ruining her life?

What is her damn problem lately?

Lyla sighed, frustrated, and punched up Joanie's cell.

Two rings. "You ready to go, Miss Lyla? I'm just picking up Andi. We can swing by you next."

Lyla let out an exasperated breath, "No, I can't go."

Joanie was talking to whoever else was in the minivan; Lyla assumed Andi was getting in.

"Jo, you there? Did you hear me?" Lyla was getting even more annoyed. Her friends were already having fun without her.

"Hang on, Andi." Joanie spoke, her mouth far from the phone. "I'm back, sorry. What were you saying?"

"Maureen won't let me go. I'm pissed as hell." Lyla punched her hand into one of the several pillows that lined the window seat.

"What do you mean, she won't let you go? Do you need me to talk to her, Lyla? She'll listen to me." Joanie said matter-of-factly.

Lyla knew Maureen wasn't about to listen to her daughter's best friend. Joanie was high if she thought she had any pull with Lyla's mom these days. "No, don't bother. She's just doing it again, Jo. I don't get it."

Joanie seemed to cup her hand over the receiver, "Do you think she knows about...you know, tomorrow night with Tyler?"

Lyla heard Andi's lyrical voice, "What about tomorrow night with Tyler?"

"Shit, Joanie, I didn't want it to get out." Lyla felt even worse now.

Joanie quickly shushed Andi, and then made a clicking sound with her tongue. "No chance of sneaking out, huh?"

Maureen was probably sitting at the front window, making sure Lyla didn't shimmy down the trellis to try and sneak away.

"Please, she's probably got webcams hidden in the bushes these days. Whatever, you guys go have fun. I'll just see you tomorrow morning."

The four girls had appointments to get their hair and makeup done in the morning at Francine's, the local salon in town, before getting ready for their big night.

Lyla hung up, swearing under her breath.

She spent a good portion of the night on her computer, trying to distract herself. Thoughts kept rolling back to her friends, wondering what house they were at right now. She wouldn't even get to tee pee her own boyfriend's house.

What a crock.

She could hear the laughter of the other three girls in her head. Frustrated, Lyla started searching for colleges online. She couldn't wait to get out of the house. Maureen was being so weird. Once she was away at college with Joanie, her mom wouldn't be able to control every move she made.

Lyla went to bed around midnight, falling asleep while reading a romance novel she had picked up at the school library earlier in the week. It was her guilty pleasure. Not even Joanie knew she read those books. Lyla thought it might make her look silly so she kept it to herself. And she had to admit, she was hoping the steamy sections would help her prepare for her night with Tyler.

At 4:24am, the house phone at the Parisi residence rang. It rang almost six times before Lyla even realized it wasn't part of her dream. She could hear her mom talking down the hall.

Lyla glanced at her clock radio. Who could be calling this early? If it were Joanie, she would have called Lyla's cell directly. She never called the house phone. Maybe it was her dad? Lyla racked her brain to try and remember where Jack had flown to this time? Maybe wherever he was, with the time change, he didn't realize it was so early. She swung her legs off the bed and sat up, the book dropping off her bed onto the floor. Instantly, she remembered she was reading in bed because Maureen had kept her from going out with the girls. Lyla pushed the book away with her foot, pouting that she had missed an important night in her teenage life, thanks again, to Maureen.

Maureen, who was now knocking on Lyla's bedroom door softly.

Lyla sneered at the door, not answering. She rolled back into bed and turned her back to the door.

Lyla heard the door open slowly. Really, Mom?

"Lyla." Maureen whispered.

Lyla feigned sleep. The room remained quiet and Lyla was pretty sure her mom was just standing at the door. Weirdo. Then she heard her mom sniffle. Maureen was crying.

Lyla turned over quickly and sat up.

Even in the little bit of light coming through Lyla's window, she could see tears streaming down her mother's face.

Lyla threw the blankets off, "What's wrong? Is it Dad?" She reached over and turned the light on.

Maureen shook her head, barely able to emit an actual word. "No." She crossed the room and sat on the end of Lyla's bed.

Lyla shot off the bed, "What, Mom? What's going on?" She paced around her mom and her heart started to race.

Maureen shook her head, sobs started to escape from her mouth as she desperately tried to speak. Maureen reached out to Lyla, grasping onto her arm.

"Mom, you're starting to scare me. Who was that on the phone?" Lyla had never seen her mom so emotionally distraught. Something really terrible must have happened.

Maureen covered her face with her other hand, pulling Lyla closer until she could wrap her arm around Lyla's waist. Maureen finally spoke words, wet with tears. "It could have been you. It could have been you." Maureen took deep breaths, her throat made a weird rasping sound. "My god, Lyla, it could have been you."

The house phone started to ring again. Maureen's hold on Lyla tightened but Lyla managed to wriggle free. She rushed to her parent's bedroom, hearing her mom pleading with her not to answer it.

Breathlessly, Lyla picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"Lyla, honey? It's Mrs. Becker." Tyler's mom. She sounded as if she were crying too.

"Mrs. Becker, what's going on? My mom is sobbing. Is it my dad?" Lyla realized what a silly question that might be. Why would Tyler's mom know anything about Jack Parisi?

"Oh, no, honey. You're mom got a call already?"

"Yes, who called her? Why is she so upset?" Lyla hated when adults felt they had to keep things from her.

Mrs. Becker didn't answer her question, she just kept mumbling, "oh, oh dear" over and over.

"Mrs. Becker, my mom is so upset she can't even talk to me right now, it's starting to scare me." Lyla hoped the sympathy approach would work but Mrs. Becker wouldn't reply. Lyla heard talking in the background. "Is that Tyler? Let me talk to him." She heard the sound of the phone being handed over. "Tyler, is that you?"

A long sigh. "Hey, babe." He sounded sad.

"Ty, what the hell is going on?" Lyla hoped she didn't have to play the same game with her boyfriend.

Another long sigh. "My dad responded to an accident tonight." Tyler's dad was a police sergeant, which was how Lyla had gotten her part-time job at the police station. "A drunk driver hit a minivan on route thirty-one."

While accidents occurred in their small town of Pleasant Prairie on occasion, rarely would a phone call go out to the community. You'd read about it in the paper, someone would mention it in line at the grocery store. There had to be a reason why the Parisi phone was ringing at four-thirty in the morning.

Then it hit Lyla, like that first dive into the pool most mornings.

Ty said it was a minivan.

The realization of what he was telling her came over her and her skin started to feel cold and prickly.

Joanie was driving her mom's minivan with Andi and Mel with all that toilet paper for the Homecoming prank.

Tyler sighed again. "I'm sorry, Lyla."

The phone dropped from Lyla's hand as the words her mom had blurted through her tears suddenly made sense.

It could have been you.

#

Chapter One

The morning air was sharp and cool; as crisp as the leaves that were changing colors.

Long were the days of team practice; now Lyla Parisi swam for the sheer cardio and the solace.

At home, in Virginia, she'd swim as early as five a.m. most days. The health club in her high-rise condominium had an Olympic-sized pool with eight lanes where Lyla would always swim laps in the third lane from the left. This morning, however, she wasn't in her pool, and this wasn't Virginia.

Lyla had stepped off the plane and immediately went to Pleasant Prairie's YMCA, paid the guest pass fee and dove into the pool.

She didn't recognize the girl working behind the counter where she checked in and vice versa. Lyla exhaled in relief. The mousy, short-haired teenager did eye Lyla's carry-on suitcase for a moment. Lyla didn't stop to explain she only had it because she didn't stop at her mom's house. She needed to clear her mind first.

As Lyla's arms sliced through the water, her mind was concentrated for those thirty precious minutes. Stroke after stroke, lap after lap. Her long, tanned legs created moderate waves behind her as her head turned to the side with alternating strokes, taking in air, then blowing it out in the water. The bubbles parted and traveled up the sides of her face.

When her hand hit the wall for the last time, instead of coming out of the water, Lyla sank deep.

She'd done this enough times she knew exactly how many seconds she could stay under before oxygen deprivation would result in a shallow water blackout. Fortunately for her, the one time that happened, someone pulled her out of the water and revived her.

At this time of day, the pool was empty; probably because the serious swimmers came early and the usual club of women who came for "little shrimp" infant swimming lessons were dropping their older kids off at school.

Lyla held her breath and counted the time off in her head.

Underwater, sound was muffled and she stilled herself so all that she could hear was the filtration system for the pool and her own heart beating in her ears. Lyla closed her eyes and concentrated.

She didn't want to be here--back in her hometown for this misguided memorial for her friends.

Opening her eyes, the chlorine stung and muted yellow rays that came in from the skylights instantly started to fade as her lungs started to burn. Darkness closed in like the fade out to a movie. Just a few more seconds--

Lyla stood up, her head breaking through the waterline. She tried not to gasp that first breath of air, but sometimes she couldn't help herself. Especially when, a second before she'd pop out of the water, the faces of her three friends would appear as if they were meeting her to take her with them.

 

***

 

Not now, not like this.

Lyla knew she'd see him eventually, most likely at the memorial.

But today?

She just got here!  Despite the swim and the shower, she felt like she still had airplane funk on her. She was wearing an Adidas tracksuit for god's sake!  Her makeup bag was at the bottom of the suitcase that still sat in the living room, where she'd surely be seen if she tried to retrieve it.

Damn bay window!  And I just got here!

Tyler Becker was standing with Maureen on the driveway and Lyla's heart started to race. It had been a decade since she'd seen him.

Lyla prayed Maureen didn't invite him in. She tried to stay hidden behind the sheer curtains of her bedroom on the second floor.

When Tyler tilted the brim of his Pleasant Prairie PD baseball hat up, Lyla stepped back and out of sight but not before she got a glimpse of those eyes. Her heart fluttered a bit. Tyler's face hadn't aged much, but he'd definitely seasoned around those damn golden brown pools of--

Just remember how much you should hate him.

Lyla looked around the bedroom she once slept in. Maureen hadn't changed it one bit, except to fill the closets and dresser with off-season clothes Maureen and Randy wore.

Randy--ugh--aka replacement dad. Yeah right. Lyla had only met him twice. Once when Lyla graduated from college and again when Maureen and Randy were passing through on a road trip vacation to Florida and they insisted on stopping in Virginia. He was an okay guy as far as dentists went, but she still wasn't sold on the idea of him living in her childhood home and boinking her mother.

At least her dad's girlfriend had the decency to stay in her own home. Betty had no intention of marrying Jack as far as she could tell. Betty had her own life, her own home, and her own family. Randy, however, had somehow conned Maureen into shacking up.

Lyla heard a car door slam and slid slowly over to the window. Tyler was back in his squad and Maureen was walking back up the driveway.

Whew.

Lyla pulled on the tape holding up an Eminem poster she had hung up back when she was in high school. It seemed like such a long time ago--a lifetime ago. Sometimes it didn't even seem like it was her life. More like an after-school special whose sole purpose was to teach teens the dangers of drunk drivers who just appear out of nowhere.

Lyla ripped the poster off the wall and balled it up. When she turned back, she noticed the significant dent in the wall that it had covered. She heard the slam of the back door, pushed the memory of how the dent got there before it surfaced and headed down the stairs now that it was safe to retrieve her bags.

"Here, let me help you." Maureen reached for the duffle bag on the floor.

"I got it, mom." Lyla did her best not to viciously snatch the bag away from Maureen. She lifted the strap out of Maureen's hand.

Maureen looked helpless for a moment. "So, Randy will be home around six. I'd really like for us to have a family dinner tonight."

He's not family. Lyla's shoulders dropped slightly.

"And before you come up with some excuse, your father and Betty are joining us?"

"Dad's in town?" Lyla's mood perked up.

"We have reservations at Francesca's." Maureen looked at her watch, seeming a little nervous.

A sudden feeling that Maureen was hiding something came over Lyla. "Where are they staying?" Please not here, please not here.

Maureen hesitated to answer and looked out the window as if she'd heard a noise.

"Oh. Mom, you did not invite them to stay here?" Lyla put the duffle bag's strap over her shoulder, already knowing the answer.

"Lyla, your dad and I are still very close. It's silly for him not to stay in his own house. We have so much room."

But Lyla had already left the room, shaking her head.

You've got to be kidding me.

"Seven o'clock reservations, dear. Please be ready." Maureen shouted up the stairs after her.

Lyla shut her bedroom door, trying not to slam it like a child--like she wanted to.

At least Maureen didn't mention Tyler.

 

#

Chapter Two

So yeah--

Lyla Parisi was a child of divorce. Much like her friend Joanie had been, except Lyla's parents didn't leave one another for a younger model. It was a pretty amicable split but unfortunately it happened almost immediately after Lyla lost her three best friends. And right before her eighteenth birthday. And on a Friday - literally ruining her weekend and her life.

Somehow, a decade later, the four adults at the table seemed to be just fine with the setup. Maureen and Jack and their respective partners, that is. They laughed and talked as if the two of them hadn't been married almost twenty years. They were all like old friends. Lyla seemed to be the only one with the problem. Bile rose in her throat every time she looked at the scene at the table. Luckily, the Shiraz she ordered seemed to wash it down.

Francesca's was bustling with activity for a Thursday night. Lyla only hoped she wouldn't run into anyone she knew. She straightened the edges of her blouse that were curling in her lap and she smoothed the napkin over it. There were only so many ways she could distract herself before she finally had to cave in and give the table her attention.

What are they even talking about?

Jack turned to Lyla with a worried expression. "Did you know Russell Walsh, honey? Was he in your class?"

Russell Walsh? Why the heck are they talking about him?

Lyla shook her head. "No, he was a year or two older than me, I think."

Maureen chimed in, "But you knew him, right?"

"Why are you referring to him in past tense, Mother?" Lyla's brows furrowed as she squinted slightly at Maureen.

Maureen bit her lip. Randy, always Maureen's advocate for saying something she'd rather not, put his fork down. "Well, he's missing, Lyla."

Lyla raised her eyebrows. "Missing?"

Maureen nodded, apparently able to finish the story now. "He's been missing since Sunday. That's why Tyler came by today."

"I meant to thank you for not making me a party to that visit." Lyla picked up her fork and stabbed at a broccoli spear.

Jack cleared his throat. "Lyla, don't be snarky toward your mother."

"I wasn't, Dad, I'm just saying I'm glad she didn't spring him on me. I had just walked in the door for crying out loud." Lyla picked up her wine glass.

Maureen nodded, "I know you're still heart broken, dear."

Lyla laughed, almost spitting wine out of her mouth. "Heart broken?" She found herself stuttering. "I'm not heart broken, Mom. Jesus, please. I am not heart broken over that douchebag."

Jack shushed her. "Lyla, you're getting a little loud, honey. Please."

"I'm not heart broken." Lyla tipped her glass back, emptying its contents and set it on the table. She flattened her napkin on her lap again and practically whispered. "I couldn't give a shit."

Maureen's fork clattered onto her plate and Jack hissed out Lyla's name. Lyla spotted their waitress and held her finger up then pointed at her glass.

Randy, again, always the hero in a tough situation, changed the subject immediately. "So, Jack, how's that golf swing of yours these days?"

Lyla spent the rest of the meal in her wine glass. Thankfully, no one ordered dessert. As the check came, she slipped her jacket on. "I'm gonna walk. I'll see you all later."

Maureen started to protest but Lyla was already breezing past the table and was out the door into the cool night air.

It would be a hike home, but she was glad for the solitude. And the freedom.

Instead of walking toward home, she walked in the opposite direction, anxious for a quick peek at the City Center surrounding Francesca's. The little town she had cruised through in her mom's car back in high school was no longer some low rent shopping district. It was fancy now--with a wine bar, a jewelry store and an honest to god bookstore. The streetlights were new and now there were traffic lights instead of stop signs because the area was so busy.

Lyla eyed the store front where there used to be a florist. It was now a specialty toy store. Not toys, as in kid's toys, but toys as in collectables. Something more geared toward the adult with the disposable salary that must have that action figure he grew up with, except now instead of eight bucks, it was eighty.

Lyla kept walking until she found the bookstore. Funny enough, the store was originally a bookstore when she was little, then random renter's took over and it seemed every year it was a different store. It looked as if it were back to its original layout. And, it was open.

Lyla peered in the window, checking to see if she knew anyone inside. The coast was clear. She walked through the door and a little bell rang announcing her entrance.

The smell of books lingered around her. They must've imported that smell from the past. It was like she'd stepped into a time machine. She looked around at the rows of books stacked across the cherry wood shelves.

A paperback with a shirtless cowboy instantly got her attention and she reached for the romance novel.

"Can I help you?" The voice came from the back of the store.

Shit. Lyla knew that voice and her hand pulled back from the book.

An older woman stepped into the aisle to assess her customer. Her eyes lit up immediately. "Lyla? Oh my god, is that you, sweetheart?"

Juliet Becker, Tyler's mom, stood speechless for a moment then rushed down the long aisle and extended her arms toward Lyla.

"Hello, Mrs. Becker." Lyla tried not to sound disappointed. She let Mrs. Becker molest her with a tight hug. She even let the woman rock her back and forth in her arms. Lyla tried to hug back but Juliet Becker had her in such a hold, she was like a T-Rex with her arms pinned by her sides, unable to reach around the woman.

Mrs. Becker stood back holding Lyla's arms. "My goodness, look at you. You are just beautiful. You have really blossomed into a beautiful young lady."

"Thank you, Mrs. Becker." Lyla looked around. "Is this your store?"

Juliet waved her hand in the air, "Oh, gosh, no. I just work here sometimes. Keeps me busy."

T-minus five seconds til she mentions Ty.

"Have you seen Tyler yet?" Mrs. Becker, clueless to the reason for the break up ten years ago, looked optimistically at Lyla.

Lyla pretended to browse the shelves in awe. "No, not yet. I'm sure we'll run into each other at the memorial."

Mrs. Becker nodded solemnly. "Hopefully he'll be able to go. He's helping with the search party. Did your mom tell you about Russell Walsh?"

Lyla's eyes stopped scanning. Again with the missing Russell Walsh story. She turned to the woman, her training kicked in out of curiosity. "What exactly happened, Mrs. Becker? I heard he's been missing a few days?"

Mrs. Becker looked excited to be able to share the inside scoop. She was always one for a good tale to tell, considering her husband had been a police officer in Pleasant Prairie for over thirty years and now her son was too. "All I know is they last saw him at Red's Foxtail Bar, drunk as a skunk. I guess he turned down a few rides home and next thing they knew he was gone. He hasn't shown up to work, his friends have been calling his cell phone but, by now, the battery must be dead."

The word "dead' caused Mrs. Becker to shutter. You'd think with a cop as a husband, she'd be used to gruesome situations.

"I just feel bad for his kids." Mrs. Becker continued.

"Russ Walsh had kids?" Lyla was shocked.

"Two girls." Mrs. Becker nodded. "Just finalized his divorce a few weeks ago, I think."

Another marriage bites the dust, why am I not surprised.

"Such a shame. Those girls are so little. I just hope he's taking time to get his head screwed on straight and drying out. He's become a bit of a town drunk since the marriage broke up."

"Hmm." That was all Lyla could muster to comment. Her thoughts into the idea perhaps she might have one more drink before she headed home to her house of disarray. "Well, that is a shame. It was really nice seeing you, Mrs. Becker, I should really get going."

Mrs. Becker nodded, "Sure thing, dear." Her expression got even sadder, if that was possible. "Big weekend for you, I bet."

Lyla smiled, already pissed at Mrs. Becker's pity. "I guess I'll see you there."

Juliet Becker just hung her head, shaking it as if the tragedy they were memorializing this weekend had just happened and not a decade ago.

Lyla bid her goodbye and the bell rang again with her exit. Where's that bloody wine bar?

 

***

 

The Tannins wine bar was just as uppity as Lyla surmised. She half expected a lone acoustic guitar player sitting on a stool in the corner, singing songs to a room full of Prairie Snobs. That was a term that made Lyla laugh because they used it in grade school to describe the girls in the upper classes. They used to draw pictures of prairie dogs in their notebooks and name them: Kathy, Samantha, Josie, or any one of the girls in the class. They'd even add hairstyles to the pen-drawn animals to tell the girls apart. But, as it turned out, acoustic guitar night was Wednesday. She had just missed it.

Darn.

Lyla twisted the stem of her glass in her fingers, feeling a calmness come over her despite the thoughts running through her head.

Why had she bothered to come home? She'd rather be face first in fingerprint powder and desiccating corpses than be here.

Lyla gave in because Maureen begged her to and she knew if she didn't come home, Maureen would chastise her for years to come. That's why. She'd have to listen to the run through of the memorial over and over again. She could hear Maureen say "you would know all this if you had come"--so, she came. Knowing full well there was a whole team of people either waiting to see her crumble into a giant mess at the memorial or stay stoic as she always had.

She could hear the whispers.

"Do you think she ever got over it?"

"I hear she went to a shrink for years."

"Could you imagine? She's so strong. I'd lose my mind."

She'd heard them before. She knew the town was full of busy bodies who either wanted to see her fall apart or repent for being the one that lived. Joanie Hughes, Andrea Richards and Melanie Lester's parents let their girls go out that night, why did the Parisi girl get so lucky?

Lyla sighed finishing her wine, counting the hours in her head before she could get back on a plane to Virginia. About sixty hours, she figured out in her head. Lyla put a tip on the bar and slid off the barstool.

Damn. The wine had hit her a little harder than she expected. Two should've been your limit, dumbass. She couldn't help but think about Russell Walsh and Mrs. Becker saying he was basically shit-faced and then disappeared.

Lyla walked out the door of the wine bar in the direction of her house. She wasn't drunk, but definitely buzzed. That was fine by her. She had parental units to ignore when she got home. Hopefully, she could feign a hangover tomorrow and waste most of the day in her room. Luckily her mom hadn't donated all of her book collection. Maybe she could stay under the covers with one of her old steamy paperbacks.

Lyla could hear the gravelly cement under her feet and not much else, once she walked beyond the City Center. The streetlights weren't quite so bright once you got to the residential areas of Pleasant Prairie. Occasionally a car would drive by, headlights lighting the street before her. It was after ten and, not that she was freaked out walking down the streets of her hometown in the dark, she was just freaked out that she was in her hometown after being gone for a decade.

Lyla knew these streets well, had driven down most of them, usually with her girlfriends in the car. Until, that night, when the girls were gone forever.

Lyla saw another set of headlights lighting the road in front of her but instead of whizzing past her, the car was slowing. Lyla tucked her hands into her jeans pockets and picked up the pace. Not a running pace, just an "I know you're behind me, pervert, move along" pace. It was moments like this, she wished she carried her firearm.

A quick blast of a police siren jolted Lyla, causing her to stumble a bit.

"Jesus!" She yelped. She turned her head quickly as she continued to walk. The squad rolled up to the curb, its headlights shut off while the passenger window rolled down.

"Sorry!" The voice from inside the car called out.

Lyla knew that voice, just as she had known the voice of the woman inside the bookstore. They were related. Lyla slowed when she heard the squad car's engine turn off and the door open. Shit.

Tyler Becker alighted from the car, adjusting his hat before shutting the door. "I'm terribly sorry, miss, it's just..."

Lyla turned to face him, causing Tyler to stop in his tracks halfway across the short lawn between the street and the sidewalk.

"Lyla?" Tyler removed his hat, slowly approaching. A smile formed on his face.

Don't do that, really.

It was the smile that first melted Lyla's heart when she was sixteen. The right corner turned up more than the left and his tongue peeked out between his teeth that were perfectly straight from years of braces.

Lyla took a deep breath, realizing she was still buzzed and probably smelled like a vineyard. "Hello, Ty."

Tyler closed the distance between them, stepped onto the sidewalk and came to a quick stop. His smile faded a bit.

I'm making the "don't come near me face," I'll bet. Lyla adjusted her purse over her shoulder and sighed. "You startled me."

Tyler glanced back at the squad and looked down at the hat he was slowly twirling in his hand. "Sorry about that. I thought maybe you were one of our high school kids walking after curfew."

Lyla looked at her watch. "There's a curfew this early?"

Tyler took another step toward her and his smile faded. "Same one there's always been." He looked at her, confused as to why she was surprised.

Ah, since the accident. "Well, thanks for thinking I still look like a high schooler, I guess." Lyla shrugged.

Another step toward her, Tyler was now less than six feet away. "Are you heading home?"

Lyla crossed her arms in front of her and nodded. "Yeah, I had dinner with my parents and decided to walk it off."

Tyler bit his bottom lip, "Well, I don't know if you heard, but..."

Lyla interrupted him, "If you're about to tell me about Russ, yes, I've heard."

"It's not really safe to be walking around by yourself these days." Tyler stated in an official tone and motioned toward his squad. "Let me give you a ride home."

Lyla started to decline his offer.

"Lyla, really, it's not a good idea to walk home. Not until we figure out what happened to Walsh." Tyler seemed to be concerned.

Lyla reminded herself it was his job to be concerned for the safety of the community, even if she was no longer a part of it. She was just a visitor. So she nodded and started for the car.

Tyler made it to the passenger door first, opening it like he used to when they were dating. It made Lyla feel a little uneasy. She slid into the passenger seat, immediately taking in all the gadgets on the dashboard.

Tyler got in the driver's seat and started the engine. He'd put his hat back on and when Lyla glanced over, it struck her how much he resembled his dad.

"So do you think someone aided in Walsh's disappearance?" Lyla's forensic training kicked in, despite the wine buzz.

Tyler pulled the squad from the curb. "We're leaving all our options open right now. We just want to find him."

Lyla could smell his cologne in the close quarters of the car. The muskiness sent her right back to junior year.

"Can I be honest with you, Lyla?" Tyler glanced over.

Oh no. Possible options for what he was about to say raced through her mind. From her booze-flavored breath to their breakup, Lyla only hoped she didn't have the look of horror on her face.

"My mom just called me a little while ago and told me that you were roaming the streets alone." Tyler glanced over, looking apologetic.

"That's nice that she was concerned about me." Lyla looked out the window as they passed Andrea Richard's house. "Do the Richards still live back there?" She glanced in the car's side mirror.

"Yeah. Not much has changed. Everyone is pretty much still around Pleasant Prairie." He turned down her street. "You're one of the few that got out."

Tyler barely brought the car to a stop in front of her house and Lyla was already unbuckling her seat belt. She got out and peered back into the car.

"Thanks for the ride, maybe I'll see you at the memorial."

Before Tyler could respond, Lyla shut the door and headed up her driveway.

Please leave. Please leave. Lyla heard his door open and he called to her. Lyla spun on her heel.

Tyler leaned on the top of the open door. "Welcome home."

#

Chapter Three

Lyla never did like hymnal music. Even at a memorial, it sounded like the funeral all over again.

Earlier in the day, Maureen and Betty had gone to get their hair done while Lyla chose to sleep off her hangover. She didn't curse the three glasses of wine she'd drank the night before, she cursed Bobby Wagner.

She could recall the online news article as if it were yesterday.

 

Local Girls Killed by Drink Driver--Pleasant Prairie

A drunk driver has left three local high school girls dead in an accident on Route 31 last Thursday evening. Joanie Hughes, Melanie Lester and Andrea Richards, all Pleasant Prairie Community High School juniors, age 17, were traveling southbound at 11:20pm when Robert "Bobby" Wagner, 53, of Bardell County crossed over the median into oncoming traffic and struck the girls' minivan at 70 mph.

The girls had been out participating in pre-Homecoming activities and were pronounced dead on the scene by local authorities. Wagner was transported to Pleasant Prairie Memorial Hospital where he later died from extensive injuries.

A spokesperson for the girls' families stated, "This is a great loss to the families and the community. Our prayers go out to all who have lost someone in this terrible tragedy."

In honor of the three girls, the high school has cancelled the Homecoming Dance that was scheduled for Saturday evening at the Sterling Banquet Hall and is offering grief counseling to students and families at the banquet hall in lieu of the dance. Services for the girls will be published when available.

 

Lyla wished she had done something "in lieu of" coming home for the memorial. It just seemed so--pointless.

Thankfully, her hangover was annoying enough that she wouldn't be doing as much eye-rolling as she imagined. She'd keep her sunglasses on, her head down, and count the minutes until the day was over. That was the plan.

Jack insisted on driving all five of them--Maureen, Randy, Betty sat in the back seat of the SUV allowing the "guest of honor" as Maureen so awkwardly put it, to sit in the front seat. Jack and Randy talked about sports while the women tittered about how nice each other looked.

Lyla stared out the window, wordlessly, all the way to the church on the other side of town. Not much had changed in the landscape, she noticed.

Same old cookie cutter homes with their lawns cut in a diagonal pattern. Most of the newer homes were being built when Lyla was in high school but once the economy had tanked, only about fifty new homes made it to completion. A modern home occasionally broke up the monotony among the rows of ranch and colonials.

They passed the long row of connected retail buildings on Main Street that was once home to the local hardware store, a video rental place called Film At Eleven--which was a play on the address, 11 Main Street--and a greasy-spoon restaurant. The building had been gutted since Lyla had been gone and now housed high-end boutique shops, including one place called The Pampered Pup. Lyla grimaced at the tea shop, wondering who was shopping there.

Maureen answered as if she were reading her mind. "Oh, Betty, I have to take you to Spot of Tea this weekend. They have this Oolong tea that is just wonderful."

Lyla tuned her mother out and looked down at her small black handbag. She'd considered bringing her 9mm but didn't think it was necessary and wouldn't have fit anyway. Plus, she jokingly thought it would be too easy an out for her to put the damn thing to her head. Her mother would still expect her to attend the memorial, dead or alive.

Despite her actions in the pool most days, Lyla did not have suicidal thoughts. She just didn't want to be a part of the charade of tragedy she imagined the townspeople lived to talk about even ten years later. Like there hadn't been countless other smaller tragedies that had occurred in Pleasant Prairie since then. It was a small town, so every little thing that happened was a big deal but losing three high school girls still seemed to be the dark spot in the town's history.

Lyla brushed lint off her lap. Putting on a black dress and heels wasn't the worst thing in the world, and giving up a couple hours of her time to appease her mother would just earn her a less-warm place in hell, she figured. The corner of Lyla's mouth turned up at that thought and Jack nudged her.

"Sweetie, you okay?" Jack glanced at her. "You look like you're in on some inside joke."

That was her dad, always reading her like an open book. She'd always had such a great relationship with Jack, even after the divorce.

"I was just thinking about work." Lyla lied.

"Yeah, okay." Jack knew she lied. "So, any boyfriends I need to worry about?"

"They're too intimidated by my brains and bullets to bother, Dad." Lyla smiled.

Randy, of course, had to pipe in. "What kind of gun do you carry, Lyla?"

Lyla imagined Maureen elbowed Randy at that moment.

"A Baretta. It's a little heavier than the Glock but I like the way it fits in my hand." Lyla was glad for the distraction. Talking about work was the one thing she didn't mind doing.

"Have you ever had to fire it?" Randy asked.

"Only for training exercises," Lyla answered, hearing her mother sigh quietly from the back seat.

Jack pulled into the parking lot of the church and despite being twenty minutes early, the lot was already packed. Only a few spots behind the town's largest church were left.

Lyla and her family used to attend Christmas and Easter masses at St. John's when she was little and the building hadn't changed one bit. Fourteen individual stained glass windows, seven on each side of the church, depicting the Stations of the Cross. Lyla knew the story well from grade school. She spent the first six years of her education going to St. John's Elementary School which consisted of daily religion classes and weekly mass. She could recite from memory the tale of the man who was betrayed by his best friend that led to the crucifixion. That was the part that always stuck with Lyla and after her breakup with Tyler a decade ago; she knew what betrayal felt like.

Lyla now followed behind her parents and Randy and Betty around the back of the building. The couples walked hand in hand talking amongst themselves in low voices. The sidewalk was filled with attendees, solemnly heading into the side and front entrances to the church. Lyla peered from behind her sunglasses, waiting for someone to recognize her.

The music from the organist in the balcony was akin to Chopin's funeral march. Lyla couldn't help but shake her head as she followed her parents down the center aisle. She peered at the people in the wooden pews from behind her sunglasses. She noticed the look of recognition they'd get when their eyes fell on her face. It typically went from "who's that" to "oh my" in seconds. She'd expected it.

As her group stopped to file into a pew, a hand reached out and touched Lyla's arm. Lyla looked over at Juliet Becker, who was smiling sympathetically. Next to her in the pew were Tyler's sister, Barbara, and Tyler. He stared at his hands but Barbara smiled and waved. Lyla figured she was about drinking age now, but Barbara was too young to know much of what had happened back then. Lyla waved back and followed behind her dad into the pew. She sat behind Juliet Becker with a clear view of the side of Tyler's face.

Great.

Four young boys dressed in suits walked down the rows passing out the booklet for the service. It was a six-page spread containing the agenda for the memorial and information about each of the girls. Lyla opened hers slowly to the center. A collage of pictures filled the two sides; baby pictures, family shots, birthday parties and smack dab in the middle of both pages was Lyla's smiling face. The left side was a picture of her and the three girls, arms around each other in their high school gym uniforms and on the right side was a photo of her scooped up in Tyler's arms with Andi and Mel laughing and Joanie's expression that could only be described as judgmental, but in a light-hearted way.

Lyla remembered that day. Tyler was in his football uniform and they had just won the first game of the season junior year. She glanced up at him in the row in front of her. Could he possibly be even better looking than he was ten years ago? In the squad car last night, it was dark and she hadn’t dared spend too much time staring; now Lyla looked up at him again. He looked as about as thrilled as she felt to be there.

The priest started the service with a prayer and Lyla did her best to zone out the rest of the ceremony. Every time the crowd would sit or stand, Lyla was a hair behind in reacting. The second time they stood, Lyla allowed herself to study the rest of the crowd, but only the twelve or so rows in front of them. She wasn't about to turn around and see whose eyes were boring a whole in the back of her head. She couldn't say she recognized that many people but the first two rows were filled with the families of her dead girlfriends. Joanie's mom and three kids took up a whole row with Joanie's father and the woman Lyla assumed was Mr. Hughes' new wife. Andi's parents and her twin brother sat across from them with Mel's parents and her older brothers. The rows behind the girls' families were occupied by extended families that Lyla barely recalled seeing at the funerals.

Movement in the pews coxed Lyla from her trancelike state of staring. The crowd was turning left to right, offering their hands to one another. Lyla knew this was the "sign of peace" and suddenly she chilled. Would Tyler be turning to shake her hand?

It started with Juliet Becker. She turned around after hugging her daughter and reached for Lyla. Her hug was reminiscent of the hug in the bookstore last night and when she pulled back Lyla noticed the tears in her eyes. She immediately turned to Jack and the rest of the family, reaching out to them one at a time. Lyla stood stone still. Her eyes darted over the top of Juliet's head and she spotted Tyler moving out of the pew in the opposite direction.

Whew.

Lyla figured she was in the clear. Tyler headed toward the back of the church and Lyla assumed he was either being paged by the police department or he was excusing himself out of boredom. If she were in her right mind she'd follow in kind--

Lyla felt a hand on her shoulder and turn to her right. Tyler put his hand out to her. Lyla took it and instantly felt everyone's eyes upon her. Not just her family's or Tyler's; and when she looked around she confirmed it.

She looked up at Tyler. "What are you doing?" she whispered.

Tyler pursed his lips for a moment and leaned in to kiss her cheek.

Lyla was stunned as Tyler reached past her, shook hands with her father and left to go back to his seat.

She could feel the warmth of his fingers on her shoulder even after they had let go.

 

***

 

"Lovely, wasn't it?" Betty piped up from the back seat after several minutes of awkward silence.

Jack nodded as he drove all of them to The Clubhouse.

The restaurant across town was only open to invited guests of the Hughes, Richards and Lester families and of course, the Parisi's, the Becker's and several other friends of the families were attending.

The lobby was crowded but Lyla felt like she stuck out without even trying. Her height didn't help but it seemed everyone had his or her eye on her.

When Barbara Becker skipped up Lyla with a huge smile on her face as if she were still a little kid, Lyla welcomed the distraction.

"It's good to see you, runt." Lyla called Barbara by her childhood nickname, even though Barbara was full grown.

"Yeah, you too." Barbara's long, auburn bob swished over her cardigan-covered shoulders and her smile contained straight teeth from years of braces and headgear. "Tyler said he drove you home the other night. It's still weird seeing him behind the wheel of that squad car."

Lyla chuckled, even though the mention of Tyler's name made her panic. She didn't have to glance across the room to know where he was standing. She needed a drink and fast.

"You're legal, right?" Lyla murmured in Barbara's ear.

Barbara nodded and took Lyla's hand. She led her to the bar where some of the older men had already set up shop with their scotch and sodas. The young, male, bartender with tattoos noticed Barbara right away and smiled.

"Hey, Babs, who's your friend?" He wiped the counter down in front of her.

"This is Lyla and she needs one of your infamous Mind Erasers." Barbara flashed her smile at him and scooted onto one of the bar stools.

"So, it's 'Babs' now, huh?" Lyla snickered, adjusting the black purse strap on her shoulder.

"Cut it out or I'll tell him we used to call you 'the Amazon.'" Barbara nudged Lyla'a arm. "He's cute, isn't he?" Barbara nodded at the bartender.

Lyla regarded him for a moment and shrugged.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot, you like white-bread boys like my brother." Barbara smiled again as the bartender approached with their drinks. "Thanks, Scottie."

"Yeah, thanks, Scottie." Lyla picked up the highball filled with ice and multiple liquors. "What's in this again?"

"Bottom is Kahlua, and the top is vodka and tonic." Barbara moved the straw in her glass to the center. "Now the trick is to suck it all down through the straw. Hold them in the center of the glass."

Lyla mirrored Barbara's technique and clinked their glasses. She sucked through the straw quickly and tasted the coffee-flavored liqueur first. It was bitter but then followed with the explicit burn from the vodka. Both girls finished simultaneously and set their glasses on the bar.

Lyla exhaled and laughed to herself.

"Good?" Scottie asked them.

"Just what I needed." Lyla nodded. She looked at Barbara. "Who taught you to drink like this? I'm sure it wasn't your brother."

"I work here part time. After hours, the wait staff cleans up and drinks at a place down the street. Scottie has been teaching me the difference between good wines and good liquor." Barbara gazed longingly across the bar.

Lyla studied her for a moment. It was hard to believe this was Ty's little sister who used to play with dolls and steal his favorite video games.

Barbara knocked on the bar and held up two fingers to Scottie.

"Maybe we should slow down, sister." Lyla laughed.

"Why?" Barbara whipped her hair over her shoulder. "Come on, Lyla, I know you probably don't want to be here. Let's have some fun. You deserve it."

Lyla couldn't argue with the girl. She surveyed the room and saw that her mom was already deep in conversation with a woman in a green dress, who looked extremely interested in what Maureen was saying.

Another round arrived in front of them courtesy of Scottie and Lyla spotted Tyler on the other side of the bar watching them. She reached for the glass and turned to Barbara before sucking down the drink even faster than the last one.

"Okay, that should do for a while." Lyla wiped under her lower lip.

"What about you? Anyone in the man department back in Virginia?" Barbara nudged her.

"No one serious. There's been a few random guys but I work too much to have time for a life."

"Mom said you work as a CSI like those shows we used to watch." Barbara stated.

"Well, not exactly like the show, but close enough." Lyla leaned her elbow on the bar, putting her back to most of the room. The long mirror across the bar gave her full view of the crowd.

Barbara's eyes lit up. "Uh oh, busted."

In the reflection, Lyla watched as Tyler approached. She took a deep breath and signaled for Scottie.

"What are you girls doing over here?" He stepped up to Barbara's chair and put his hand on the back of it. When he looked at Lyla, his gaze lingered. Maybe it was the booze, but Lyla felt a little weak-kneed.

"Nothing, Ty, just catching up." Barbara waved him off.

Scottie dropped off another round of Mind Erasers and Tyler took the one Barbara was reaching for.

"Ty!"

"We don't need you embarrassing yourself or mom, okay?" He turned to Lyla. "And you--be careful."

Tyler clinked his glass with hers and started to drink the cocktail through the straw. Lyla raised the glass to her lips and grabbed the straw with her teeth. Halfway through, she started feeling the effects of the first two drinks.

"You're a big jerk." Barbara crossed her arms in protest. "Were just trying to have a little fun, Ty. It's not every day Lyla comes home and I just told her she deserves to get a little wasted if she wants. I mean between this farce and the news about her mom, I'm sure--"

Lyla noticed Tyler kick the bottom of Barbara's barstool and had stopped drinking.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Lyla asked, not sure what Barbara meant by "news."

Barbara was visibly flustered and stammered.

Lyla turned to find her mother still in deep conversation with the green dress woman. Confused, she turned back at Tyler and Barbara only to see his giving her a stern look.

"What did you mean, Barbara?"

"It's nothing." Tyler shrugged.

Lyla could see that it was something. Barbara's eyes seemed to instantly well up as if she'd just done something wrong.

Tyler's shoulders dropped and he finished the rest of the cocktail.

Lyla felt a wave come over her. It was the same feeling she'd gotten the night Tyler told her over the phone that her three girlfriends were dead. She slid off the stool and started for her mom.

Tyler caught up with her and grabbed her arm, stopping her.

"Lyla, to now. Not here."

Lyla turned on him. "What's going on, Ty?"

Before Tyler could answer, Jack Parisi was interrupting. "Hey, you two--"

Tyler looked at Jack with unease and Jack seemed to immediately understand his expression.

"Dad? What's going on with Mom?" Lyla put her hands on her hips.

"Sorry, Mr. Parisi, Barbara just assumed--"

"Assumed what?" Lyla turned on Tyler again.

Jack reached out and squeezed Tyler's shoulder. "Would you take her out of here, Tyler? We'll be out in a minute."

Tyler nodded and tugged on Lyla's arm, but she pulled out of his grasp.

"What the hell, Ty--" Lyla shouted loud enough people turned around to look.

"Just come with me, Lyla. Don't make a scene." Tyler spoke under his breath and took her arm again.

The Mind Erasers were definitely kicking in and a scowl formed on Lyla's face. She turned back to look for her mother and saw Jack approaching Maureen. They both turned to look at her with dread.

Tyler pulled Lyla's arm again and Lyla submitted. He dragged her outside to the parking lot. The sun was just starting to set.

Lyla jerked her arm from Tyler's grasp again and spun around, almost losing her footing. Tyler reacted quickly and put his arms around her waist, hugging her. Lyla's hands went to his chest and for a moment, she got lost in his embrace as she felt his hard muscles under her hands.

"Lyla? Lyla, sweetie?" Maureen called to her from the front door of the restaurant. A small group of people followed her.

Tyler released her and took a step back.

Lyla narrowed her eyes at the crowd; Maureen and Jack were rushing to her with Juliet Becker not far behind, her arms around an inconsolable Barbara.

"Mom, what the hell is going on?" Lyla walked toward her mother; her legs wobbled under her slightly but she was able to control them. She noticed Barbara had tear-streaked cheeks.

"Honey, I think maybe we should go home and talk." Jack reached out for Lyla but she pulled away.

"No, I want to know what's going on right now." Lyla crossed her arms.

Maureen sighed and looked up at Jack and shrugged.

Tyler backed away and went to his mom and sister. He directed them away from the threesome.

"Sweetie, I was going to wait to tell you because I don't know enough yet and I didn't want to worry you." Maureen stepped closer to Lyla.

"Tell me what? Because apparently, you've told other people. What's going on?"

Maureen chewed on my bottom lip. "They found a lump."

Lyla stood there, speechless for a moment. "A--what?"

Jack reached for Lyla but she stepped back.

"You--you have cancer?" Lyla frowned.

"Well, yes but--" Maureen started to respond.

"And you told everyone except me?" Lyla took another step back.

Jack sighed. "Not everyone, Lyla. Just our close friends."

Lyla looked over at Juliet Becker. "Since when is she your close friend?"

"Lyla." Jack cleared his throat. "Your mom has been close with Mrs. Becker for quite some time. Ever since Mr. Becker passed away."

Lyla glanced over at Tyler who looked away.

"You'd know that if you spent a little more time talking with your mother or coming home to visit." Jack stated.

Lyla looked at her father and her mouth hung open. Never, in her twenty-seven years, had he ever spoken to her with such a judgmental tone. She looked over at her mother in shock but Maureen seemed absurdly calm and it pissed her off.

Lyla turned on her heel and started to walk away from the group. They shouted after her but she grasped at the strap of her purse and walked faster as anger boiled up inside her.

She had to get away from them.

#

Chapter Four

Anger had consumed Lyla for the last six blocks and she didn't quite know how but she'd gotten as far as the busy main street.

"Shit." She blurted, looking around. It would be dark soon and she had to find a way home. She walked toward the parking lot of the local drug store on the corner.

Lyla reached into her purse and retrieved her cell phone. There were already a few missed calls, no doubt from her mom.

In her peripheral vision, she noticed a car slowing next to her. Lyla half expected Tyler's squad car but it wasn't a squad, it was brand new Dodge Challenger. Its dark blue paint shimmered under the parking lot lights. The driver's side tinted window lowered.

Tyler.

"Get in, Lyla." He cocked his head toward the passenger seat.

Lyla looked around the lot and toward the street. It's not like she had many options. It was definitely too far to walk home, especially in heels, and cabs were a bit of a rarity in Pleasant Prairie.

Lyla rounded the car and got in. The passenger seat's leather seemed to mold around her and a soft light blue hue emitted from the dashboard.

Tyler put the car in gear and pulled out of the lot onto the main road.

Neither of them spoke.

Tyler turned onto the main highway and stepped on it. The car roared to life around them and Lyla grasped the center console. He took it up to ninety-five miles per hour, missing the exit that would have led to her mom's house.

Lyla's breath started to quicken with the increase in speed and she knew exactly where he was heading.

The spot where the three girls were killed off route thirty-one was still memorialized on a regular basis. Flowers and stuffed animals, pictures of the girls and wooden crosses marked the side of the road where the minivan was found turned upside down. It was on the other side of the highway so Tyler slowed at the next exit, got off the highway and got right back on it again in the other direction. His foot hit the floor and they sped up to the markers.

He almost hit a hundred then quickly slowed down to ten miles per hour.

There was only one other car on the highway and it whizzed by as if they were standing still. Tyler slowed the car down even more as they passed the spot with the teddy bears and flowers and crosses.

At first, Lyla didn't look out the window. But at the last second, before it was out of sight, Lyla got a quick look at the memorial. Ribbons on the items blew in the wind and half a dozen lit candles surrounded the site. Lyla craned her head until she couldn't see it anymore then focused on the road in front of them.

"Punch it again, would ya?" She requested.

Tyler took a quick glance in his rearview mirror then put his foot to the floor. The tires squealed and the car took off like a rocket.

He finally slowed as they neared the exit to Maureen's house. Wordlessly, he took the main road to the side street, pulled into the driveway and killed the engine.

They sat in silence for what felt like five whole minutes.

"Barbara didn't know--" Tyler started.

"It's okay." Lyla responded before he could give more of the excuse. She looked through the front windshield at the house she grew up in. "I don't know why everyone thinks I'm so fragile. Like she couldn't tell me before I came all the way out here."

"She didn't think you'd come." Tyler stated.

Lyla's head whipped to look at him.

He shrugged.

Lyla's brows furrowed and she looked down at the purse in her lap. "Maybe I shouldn't have. It was kind of pointless."

Tyler rubbed his forehead. "It's that easy for you, huh?"

"What do you mean?"

"To just shrug it off like none of this affects you." He stared at her.

"I'm not shrugging anything--" Lyla turned in her seat. "Is that what everyone thinks?"

Tyler looked down at the steering wheel and didn't answer.

Lyla stammered a bit then composed herself. "God, whatever, like I care." She pushed the car door open and slammed it behind her, her heels clicking loudly up the driveway.

Tyler got out and started after her.

She was in the house and up that stairs to her room before he even got to the door.

Lyla threw the carry on suitcase on her bed and picked up a shirt she had tossed on the bed earlier in the day. She threw it into the suitcase and looked around the room, ignoring the fact that Tyler was standing in the doorway.

"Lyla--damn, your room. It's the same." He looked around like it was a museum. His finger ran over the ribbon she'd won from a meet her first year in high school. "Boy, your mom kept everything, huh?"

Lyla spun around to face him. "Don't give me shit because I've moved on Ty. Maybe you people should do the same." She turned away, feeling ashamed for sounding so insensitive.

"Hey!" Tyler crossed the room. His tall frame loomed over Lyla despite her natural height. "Everyone deals with it differently, so don't judge."

"I'm not." Lyla glared back at him.

"Yes, you are. You just said 'you people' like you weren't part of it."

"I wasn't part of it, remember? I'm the one that stayed home. I'm the one that lived." Lyla turned back to her suitcase. "Isn't that what they still say about me? I know everyone resents me."

Lyla heard Tyler sigh and then felt his hands on the tops of her shoulders.

"No one resents that you lived, Lyla." He squeezed her shoulders. "You're still part of this community whether you like it or not."

Lyla pulled away and crossed the room, putting her hands on her hips as she looked at the shelves of high school memories. "No, I'm not. I'm the enigma that survived because her mother kept her home. You know why my mom kept me home, right?" Lyla turned to look at Tyler.

"No."

"Because she didn't know how to tell me about the divorce."

"But they didn't divorce until almost a year later." Tyler sounded confused.

"Well, after the accident, they didn't want to overload me with so much trauma, I guess. Before the accident, my mom knew I was becoming much more independent, so she figured when she told me about the divorce, she'd never see me again. She was trying to keep me around as much as she could. And it looks like she's doing it all over again by not telling me about what's going on with her." Lyla stared at Tyler and she felt the reality of her words settle in. Cancer. Tears started to form and she turned away quickly.

Tyler crossed the room to her and took her in his arms. "It's gonna be okay."

Lyla tried to hold back, push him away, but it felt so good to be held. She heard the back door downstairs slam and Maureen call up to her. Lyla pushed Tyler away and wiped her face.

"Thanks for driving me home." Lyla walked back to the bed and set the suitcase on the floor. "Can you tell her I'll be down in a minute?" She walked to the door and waited for Tyler to leave.

"Sure." Tyler shoved his hands in his pockets. He lingered for a few moments. "You know, you can call if you need anything."

Lyla nodded and stared at the floor. Tyler took the hint and headed out. Lyla closed the door behind him and let out a weighty sigh.

 

***

 

The kitchen table in Maureen Parisi's home was the same one she'd had since Lyla was a little girl. It was rustic and wooden; the legs were reclaimed logs with rich details and it complimented the country-style decor of the kitchen. Lyla sat in one of the matching chairs, sipping hot tea as she listened to her mother tell her how she'd gone for a routine mammogram and there was a lump.

"The oncologist says we've caught it early enough so he thinks with radiation and chemotherapy, and of course a lumpectomy, my chance look good to beat it." Maureen sat at the table with her mug.

Jack had dropped her home and went back to the restaurant, knowing she'd need time alone with Lyla.

"Well, is he any good? Because we have the top doctors in Virginia since we're so close to DC."

Maureen waved her off. "We did our homework."

By 'we,' she meant Randy, Lyla suspected.

Maureen continued. "Based on the size of the lump, he thinks it's a good possibility it's only stage one, but we won't know until they take the lymph nodes."

"Well, when are they doing that?"

"Week after next." Maureen put the mug to her lips.

"Were you even going to tell me?" Lyla sat back and slouched in her chair.

"I didn't want you to worry, sweetie. There's nothing we can do until we know what we're dealing with, so no sense upsetting you." Maureen reached across the table but Lyla shrank from her touch.

"But you've told Tyler's family?" Lyla stood and took her mug to the sink.

"Juliet and I became very close over the years, Lyla. Especially after Teddy died." Maureen turned on her chair.

Lyla felt a brief stab of regret that she hadn't even acknowledged his dad's death either time she'd seen Tyler. It had been a little over three years but she should have said something to him; no matter how angry she still was about how their relationship ended. She rinsed her mug and set in on the other side of the sink.

"I'll come back for the surgery, if you want." Lyla turned and leaned against the counter.

Maureen looked up at her and Lyla saw the same vulnerability she'd witnessed the night of the accident a decade ago. Her mom smiled and got up from the table. She walked over to Lyla and hugged her.

"That would be nice, but totally unnecessary. If you can come back home, great, but don't worry if you can't come. Randy will be here and your dad and Betty said they'd sit with Randy in the waiting room. It's outpatient but they offered." Maureen stepped back and took Lyla's face in her hands. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, sweetie, but I didn't want you to worry."

Lyla omitted the part where Tyler told her that Maureen didn't think she'd come home. She straightened. "I have so much time off at work accumulated, it won't be a problem. I'm sure they can live without me for a few days."

Maureen hugged her again and looked out the kitchen window.

"Looks like your dad's back with Betty and Randy." Maureen reached into the cabinet and pulled out three more mugs.

"If you don't mind, Mom, I'm going to go up to bed." Lyla backed out of the kitchen.

"Sure, honey. See you in the morning."

Lyla went straight to her room and shut the door. She peeled out of her dress and kicked her shoes toward the closet. Tyler's presence was still formidable thanks to his cologne, which lingered in the room.

How long had it been--?

 

***

 

November, ten years ago--

The four-inch plastic trophy with the weighted stone base had sailed across Lyla's bedroom, nearly missing Tyler's head and smacked into the wall, leaving a sizable dent.

Tears filled her eyes that were rimmed in black charcoal; a look Lyla had picked up a few weeks after the funerals. She thought it helped distract people from the dark circles under her eyes that she'd gotten from a month of very little sleep. She had also hoped it would fend people off who wanted to approach her now that she was back in school.

For the month after the funerals of her three best friends, Lyla was home-schooled with a tutor. She was given the days assignments and lecture notes and she worked with another junior she didn't know very well for an hour after school each day to make sure she kept up. The first three weeks, Lyla would sleep until noon then barely tackle the reading. Then last week the tutor advised her high school guidance counselor that Lyla either come back to school or be held back a year.

Lyla didn't care what happened. All she knew was that she didn't want to go back to school. She didn't want to experience the staring and the whispers all day long like she knew would happen, based on the wakes, the funerals and the repasts for all the three girls. Not even Tyler could console her.

And boy, did he try.

Every evening after dinner, Tyler would come over and sit with Lyla in her room. He'd tell her all about school; what was going on, who was dating whom, and how the team was doing. Lyla would curl up on her bed next to him, pulling on random threads in her quilt, not talking. He'd kiss her forehead and promise to return tomorrow, unless it was Tuesday or Thursday--that's when Maureen and Jack would take her to the psychologist in town.

Dr. Sheila Montgomery specialized in posttraumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt. Based on Lyla's behavior, that pretty much summed up her diagnosis. She worked in a small, one story building by the railroad tracks. She had inherited the practice from her father, so the building was not exactly modern, but it had a homey feel to it. When Lyla went, she sat silent for the entire fifty-five minute for the first two weeks. Dr. M brought her out of her shell a little bit by the fifth session and when the tutor announced she'd have to go back to school, Lyla was determined to get Dr. M to understand why it was a ridiculous idea and find a way to get her out of going back.

"Lyla, short of changing schools, you have to continue your education." Dr. M moved her glasses up to the top of her head, pushing back her long auburn hair. She was in her fifties, close to Maureen's age, but was attractive in a different way and very fit for her age. She looked like a doctor. She wore fitted suits and matching heels and drove a Lexus that she parked on the side of the building.

"It's all pointless." Lyla crossed her arms and pouted. "Why can't I just use the tutor?"

"You're falling too far behind, Lyla. And why do you say it's pointless?" Dr. M cocked her head.

Lyla ignored the question and browsed the books Dr. M had on her shelves. "Why don't you have any medical reference books?" She pulled out The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Chbosky.

"What good would they do any of my patients? I leave those types of books at home where they belong, where I can impress my friends." Dr. M laughed lightheartedly.

As with most of their sessions, Dr. M would spend the last five minutes of the hour alone with Maureen and Jack, or sometimes, just Maureen. Their last session, Maureen assured Dr. M that no matter what, Lyla was going back to school.

And so she did--for a total of three days.

The first day, eyes rimmed in black and an outfit to match, Lyla trudged through the school halls alone. She kept her sunglasses on until one teacher finally forced her to take them off. Tyler tried to meet her at as many classrooms as he could to escort her to the next one. Lyla kept her mouth shut and her he'd in whatever text was meant for the class she was in.

By day three, someone finally started to try and talk to her. Unfortunately, it was the one girl she couldn't stand--Kathy King--one of the 'Prairie Snobs" she and the girls used to make fun of because of the way Kathy and her friends looked down on them. Kathy came from a well-to-do family of international investors and spent most of her time growing up being raised by a nanny. By twelve, she was having co-ed parties that were supposedly "supervised" by her alcoholic, anorexic, plastic surgery addicted stepmother. At sixteen, she was given a Porsche and a gold card, and after that, there was no living with her.

"So, I heard you went crazy." Kathy's voice sliced through the air behind Lyla as she stood in the locker room, dressed for gym but not exactly motivated to go to the basketball court.

Lyla sighed and stared into her locker, contemplating changing back into her street clothes.

"My step-mom's tennis partner is married to a pharmacist and she said you've been drugged up on the 'pams. You know, diazepam, lorazepam, clonazepam?" Kathy's snarkiness oozed over each drug name. "But I guess, who could blame you?"

Lyla slammed the locker shut and took a deep breath. She started to walk away but Kathy followed.

"What was it, Parisi? Losing the only friends you had or finding out your boyfriend put a baby in one of them?"

Lyla stopped so suddenly, Kathy almost walked into her. She tried to decipher the words Kathy just said. It didn't make any sense.

Kathy rounded to face Lyla. She had a look of satisfaction on her face followed by feigned shock.

"Oh, you didn't know, did you?" Kathy put her hand to her mouth, covering a smile.

"You're lying." Lyla balled her hands into tight fists at her sides.

"About them being your only friends? I'm positive that's true, Parisi--oh! You mean the part about Tyler Becker's fetus being found inside Joanie Hughes' belly?" Kathy crossed her arms in front of her. "No, that I know is true. You see, my gal Steph, her dad saw the autopsy reports and there was a baby in there. And Chief Becker recalled coming home one night from a late shift finding the two of them in Tyler's bed. I guess Mrs. Becker had gone out of town, and you were, well, with your family on some sad little vacation?"

Whatever Kathy said after that, fell on deaf ears, as Lyla sorted out what she was being told. Lyla knew Kathy was vindictive enough to make up stuff just to get her going but she had been on a family trip over the summer to Virginia to visit Maureen's sister. Mrs. Becker had gone to visit her own sister in Connecticut who was having a baby at the same time which was why Tyler showed up in Virginia with Joanie, surprising Lyla.

She remembered them saying they were bored. With Joanie's dad gone and her mom not exactly present in her life, and Tyler's dad running law enforcement for Pleasant Prairie, they didn't know what to do, so they figured a road trip would keep them occupied and they'd hopefully talk Lyla's parents into letting her ride in the car on the way back. Flashes of memories of them arriving at her Aunt Ginny's house, awkward and giddy all at the same time, had confused Lyla then but even more so now. Now she realized how strange they had acted and that Kathy's words might very well be true.

Lyla turned around and went back to the locker and started changing into her street clothes. She grabbed all her personal items but left her books and notebooks. Lyla didn't even stop by her regular locker that was three hallways away. She just walked out of the school and blindly, walked home.

Maureen was standing in the kitchen, washing dishes, when Lyla came in through the back door.

"Honey, why are you home? Did school let out early?" Maureen dried her hands on the towel.

Lyla didn't answer. She slammed her bedroom door, threw her purse onto the floor and dropped onto the bed. She curled into a fetal position and refused to answer the door when Maureen knocked.

Maureen came into the room but Lyla covered her face and ears with her arms and mumbled. "I'm not going back."

Two hour passed and another knock to her door went unanswered. The door opened.

"Lyla?" Tyler stood in the doorway; the guilt in his voice was obvious.

Lyla had been clenching her jaw so hard for the last two hours, when she opened her mouth, it hurt. "Go away."

"Lyla, let's talk about this," he pleaded, crossing the room to her bed.

Lyla sat up and launched off the bed.

Tyler took a step back.

"'Let's talk about this?' You mean, you're actually admitting it happened?" Lyla shrieked. She walked over to her bookcase, where she had lined up her swimming awards and ribbons. "Because I've been laying here for two hours playing it over and over in my mind. Remembering the way you too were so oddly behaving when you showed up at my aunt's house. I had a moment of panic when I saw you two together but then, I was just so happy to see my boyfriend and my best friend, I ignored it. Are you telling me everything that bitch Kathy King told me today was true?"

"Lyla, it was a mistake. I'm sorry." Tyler's shoulders dropped. "We missed you and we were bored so we got drunk and did something stupid."

"You missed me?" Lyla scoffed. "So sleeping with Joanie was what? Something to do?" She turned to the shelf; her hand went around the short statue that she'd received for one of her swimming championships.

"It meant nothing. We were so distraught over it, we knew we had to see you." Tyler's honesty was lost on Lyla.

"She had a baby inside her, Tyler!" Lyla shouted and hurled the trophy at him.

Tyler ducked and walked toward her. "I didn't know, Lyla. I seriously had put the whole thing out of my mind the minute I saw you at your aunt's place." He reached out for her.

"Don't touch me." Lyla shrank from him and stepped over to the dresser where the trophy now laid on the floor. "You need to leave. Don't bother coming back, ever."

"Lyla--"

"Ever!"

#

Chapter Five

Lyla rolled up her pajama bottoms and stuffed them in her carryon suitcase.

Her flight back to Virginia was in just a few hours and after her early morning swim at the Y that morning, she'd come home to find her father and Betty had left and her mom was making pancakes.

Maureen apologized for Jack leaving without saying goodbye but Betty's daughter had them over every Sunday for brunch and the drive was about an hour away.

After a long swim at the YMCA, Lyla came home to pack. She looked around her old bedroom, still amazed how much Maureen had kept. Maybe when she returned for her mom's surgery, she'd purge a few things, like the trophies. She glanced over at her bookshelf.

Lyla couldn't deny, she had considered taking a few of her favorites with her for her bookshelf at home.

I should just donate those right away.

She stepped over to her closet where Maureen stored the canvas recycled bags and pulled out two of them. She filled the bags with her old novels, stacking them on top of each other. As she crouched down to reach into the bottom shelf and pulled out the last few books, one of the books fell off the stack she shoved it into the second bag. It caught her eye and she instantly recognized it.

"Take a Chance on Love" by Sheila McInerny

The cover was a bit dusty but it was, no doubt, a trashy romance novel. The man in side profile on the left side of the front cover was shirtless; his muscles rippled in waves over his stomach and his face was mostly covered by a beige cowboy hat. The brim shaded half-closed eyes but peeking out from under the stetson was a set of full, parted lips. His gloved hand held a wound up lasso, the end of which surrounded the waist of the woman that faced him. She leaned back against a fence with her bust arching toward him. Her slender arms and hands reached out for the cowboy, her fingers just touching his belt buckle as her typical off-the-shoulder, seductively unbuttoned, peasant blouse revealed ample cleavage.

Lyla turned the book over in her hand and a bookmark slid out from the center of the book. She opened the book to the page revealing the sliver of cardboard inside. A small kitten with black fur and white paws sat inside a tea cup with the words: You make a PURRfect friend over it's head caused Lyla to feel slightly sick.

The bookmark was part of a birthday gift she'd gotten from Joanie. This was the book she had been reading the night of the accident.

It had fallen to the floor that night ten years ago and Lyla remembered she had kicked it across the floor in a rage and it had ended up under her dresser when it landed. Maureen must have found it when she cleaned up Lyla's room after she had moved to Virginia.

So much had happened since then. One minute she was preparing for Homecoming weekend and nervous about having sex with her boyfriend for the first time; basically living the life of a pretty normal high school girl. The next minute, she was moving to live with her aunt in Virginia to finish high school while going through intense therapy sessions with a psychologist Dr. M had recommended. The accident, finding out about Tyler and Joanie, and her inability to deal with her own mother had sent Lyla off the deep end and the best option was to remove her from the environment that kept reminding her of the tragedy that had surrounded her.

Lyla thumbed through the book. It was probably one of the few books she'd never finished. Lyla regarded it for a moment then tossed it on top of the clothes in her suitcase.

Maureen's voice filled the upstairs hall from the stairs below. "Lyla?"

Was her ride to the airport already there to pick her up?  She looked at her watch.

It's way too early.

Lyla picked up the heavy canvas bags and brought them downstairs. She started talking before she even hit the bottom stair. "Hey, Mom, could you have Randy take these books and donate them and if that's my ride, they're way too--oh!"

Tyler Becker stood in the living room, dressed in his police uniform. "Hey, Lyla." Tyler saw her struggling with the bags and crossed the room. "Here, let me help you.." He took both bags, his hands brushing hers. Lyla felt electricity run between their touch as if he had shocked her. She ran her hands down her thighs, smoothing her jeans. At least she wasn't wearing her tracksuit, like the other day. Lyla tugged on the hem of her navy and white striped shirt. Still not the best outfit I own.

Maureen entered the room. "Oh, there you are, Lyla. Tyler's here." Her mom smiled, raising her eyebrows as if to insinuate something.

"I can see that, Mom." Lyla sighed. "Where can I put those bags of books? I'd like Randy to take them to goodwill."

Maureen pointed to the area by the door. "Just put them next to the coat rack, Tyler."

Tyler set them down. "Any chance you can take a quick ride with me?" Tyler looked at Lyla gravely.

Lyla hesitated.

"It's police business." Tyler remarked.

Maureen made a noise and Lyla glared at her. "I guess so, but I have a car coming at three to take me to the airport." She pulled her jacket and purse off the coat rack. Without saying a word to her mom, she followed Tyler out the front door.

In the car with Tyler three times in four days. So weird. Maddy put her seat belt on as Tyler pulled out of the driveway. 

"You're already going back to Virginia?" Tyler slowed at the corner. He sounded slightly judgmental.

"Yeah, but I'll probably be back for my mom's surgery."

After a block, Tyler let out a loud sigh. "We think we found Russell Walsh."

By the tone in his voice, she could only assume it was bad and Lyla felt a jolt run through her. It was a feeling that hit her every time she had to "go to work" as she put it. When something bad happened, she kicked into gear, instantly thinking of possible causes. She kept her eye on the landscape out the window, trying not to appear too eager or interested. This wasn't her town anymore, this wasn't her problem.

"I was hoping you could help us." Tyler turned onto the highway. "Maybe give us your expert opinion."

"What makes you think I'm an expert?" Lyla glanced over at him.

"Come on, Lyla, I know what you do for a living." Tyler stated.

Lyla figured as much. Almost a thousand miles away and everyone still knew her business.

"Our M.E. is out on leave and we have some fill-in guy from two towns over. Despite the improvements this town has made, our forensics department is not one of them--and I have a hunch."

"Where did you find him?" Lyla looked across the seats at him. Tyler's eyes were dark and focused.

"In the creek, behind the Sterling Banquet Hall." Tyler brought the squad to a stop at the traffic light. "No one knows yet for sure if it's him. A small group of people found the body but they aren't one hundred percent sure it's really Walsh."

Lyla didn't ask any more questions. She reached in her purse for a small journal and pen she always carried with her. Removing the pen from the spine of the pad, she started making notes.

Six squads, a fire truck and an ambulance were already parked in the parking lot outside the banquet hall's doors. Seeing the building reminded Lyla that homecoming was supposed to be held there ten years ago. The dance she never made it to because all her friends were killed the night before.

A small group of people, four men and three women, were huddled together like it was winter, even though the season was months away. Two of the women looked like they had been crying. Lyla recognized them all.

Two of the men in the group saw Tyler getting out of the squad and walked over. He shook their hands, calling them by name. Tyler asked them to stay put and led Lyla toward the building's entrance that was flanked by four two story white columns holding up a roof.

Inside, the lobby hadn't changed since it originally opened over fifty years ago. Gold and maroon carpeting stretched across the lobby and ornate mirrored disks filled the walls giving it a 1970's feel. All that was missing was a disco ball. 

Several officers stood by the door to the larger banquet room. They acknowledged Tyler and stared at Lyla as she followed Tyler to the back door of the building.

Tyler pushed through the heavy door leading to a loading dock. Several officers were scattered along the creek. One was putting police tape up around a section of trees. The EMT's gathered together like a school clique, their stretcher at the ready with a body bag already laid over it.

Lyla looked down at the ground near the entrance and saw several scattered cigarette butts.

Tyler waved to one of the officers and the older man walked over.

"M.E.'S on his way, Beck."

Lyla caught the nickname the officer had called Tyler.

Tyler introduced Lyla to the officer. "This is Lyla Parisi. She's CSI from Virginia. I'd like her to have a look."

The officer nodded, lifting the yellow tape to let them by. Tyler reached out for Lyla's arm. She hesitated then let him help her along the rocks and mulch that lined the side of the creek. Although she was wearing boots with a good tread on the bottom of them, she certainly didn't want to fall into the cold river.

Pepper Creek ran from one end of Pleasant Prairie to the other. In some parts, it was a few inches deep. Here, behind the banquet hall, the creek was easily three feet deep, which was enough for someone to drown in, especially if they were face down.

That's exactly how the body was positioned in this case.

Lyla could see the form of a man. The back of his long sleeve red plaid shirt was tangled in shrubs that lined the creek. His body must have moved down the creek's stream and got stuck in the branches. But that was just a guess on Lyla's part.

As they neared the body and relatively flat land, Tyler dropped his hold on her.

"Lyla Parisi?" One of the officers recognized her.

Lyla looked up. "Jimmy Collins?  Is that you?"

The baby-faced red-headed boy from her childhood stood before her in a fire department uniform, still looking just as young as he did in high school. He reached out and took her hand, pulling her into an awkward hug causing her to almost lose her footing. Lyla laughed as she held onto him for a moment then composed herself.

Jimmy was always sweet and one of the few people that didn't make her cringe.

"You look great, LP." Jimmy had given her the nickname because he was a huge fan of record albums.

"I was half expecting to see you at the memorial yesterday." Lyla patted his shoulder.

"Ah, I had to work. Someone's gotta serve and protect this community." He winked at her.

Tyler cleared his throat. "Lyla, can you take a look at this?"

"Sure." She stepped across the rocks and leaned over to get a better look at the body. Until the M.E. got there, no one could touch the body other than confirm vitals, which were nonexistent in this case.

"Do you see his forehead?" Tyler asked.

It was partially submerged in the water but Lyla could see multiple contusions.

"Looks like he was hit with something." She leaned over a little further.

"Careful." Tyler's hand went around her waist, steadying her. "If we had enough deep water boots, I could get you in there."

An officer shouted to Tyler from the back door to the building that the M.E. had arrived. Moments later, a large man in a long-sleeve denim shirt and rubber overalls, appeared with a doctor's bag. His white hair was long and wispy; his large glasses were askew on his face. He looked more like a department store Santa than a medical examiner.

"You're kidding me, right?" Lyla mumbled to Tyler.

"Dr. Gabriel?" Tyler left Lyla on the rocks and hopped over to the shore. "I'm Sergeant Becker. Thanks for coming so quickly."

The doctor grumbled something about being at a family pig roast and walked out to the creek without stopping. He set his bag on the edge of the shore and instructed the officer in the water to turn the body. Lyla stepped to the side to get a better look and could see multiple marks across the forehead of the person. She could also see it was definitely Walsh.

The doctor stepped back onto the shore and picked up his bag. "Sergeant, it looks like this man had a little too much to drink and fell into the creek."

"What about the multiple contusions to his head?" Lyla asked.

The doctor raised an eyebrow at her and turned back to Tyler. "Most likely, the marks on his forehead are from the fall and rocks he hit along the way. I'll fill out the appropriate paperwork and send it to you. I take it you know the person?"

Lyla frowned. She knew damn well this wasn't the process for handling a dead body.

"Yes, we know him. I'll handle telling the family." Tyler reached out and shook the doctor's hand.

Lyla felt an argument rising up inside her but she reminded herself: Not my town anymore, not my problem. She stepped over to the shore unassisted, although Jimmy Collins rushed over to help her. She ignored him and walked up to Tyler.

"Am I done here?" She asked, glancing at her watch.

"Hang on." Tyler glared at the doctor who was walking away. "Dr. Gabriel, hang on a second." Tyler jogged over to the man who obviously was in a rush to leave.

Lyla couldn't hear what they were saying. She turned to watch as the EMT's worked with the officer in the water to get the body out of the creek and into the body bag they'd laid on the ground.

"Sad, huh?" Jimmy Collins stood behind her. "Wife and two kids--well, ex-wife, I guess."

Lyla nodded and turned around. "How about you, JC? Wife? Kids?"

Jimmy laughed. "Aw, heck no. Not in the cards for me just yet, I guess."

"Did you have some long time girlfriend from high school?" Lyla studied his face. The freckles were still there, along with kind, brown eyes. She had to admit he was a cutie.

"Sophie? Oh, hell, she's long gone. Married some guy she met in college." Jimmy's smile faded. "What about you? No Mr. LP?"

"Nope." She shook her head. "Just me and a goldfish I barely remember to feed. Especially when I'm working the hours I do."

Jimmy's smile returned. "So, how long are you in town?"

Lyla didn't get the chance to answer. Tyler inserted himself between them.

"Lyla, I need you to come to the morgue with me, if you don't mind." He waved to the EMT's. "Hey guys, before you zip up." He held up a finger and looked down at Lyla. "Look, that guy obviously couldn't care less about this situation, but Walsh's family has a right to know what happened and like I said, I have a hunch."

Tyler took her arm and guided her toward the stretcher. Walsh's body lay inside the rubber body bag, wet and smelling of rot. Tyler spread the bag open at his head.

Lyla scanned Walsh's forehead and looked up at Tyler. He nodded at her, and she understood why.

"Does anyone have a pair of gloves I can use?"

 

***

 

If there was one word Lyla could only use to describe the smell and feel of every morgue she'd ever stepped foot in it would be: cold.

Sure, the temperature of the room was kept low, but it was more the mix of antiseptic and steel and blood that made it a chilly environment. One devoid of feeling and emotion, where science ruled over conjecture and sympathy. It didn't matter how you felt about the subject lying on the table before you, the body never lied.

Lyla spent the last thirty minutes inspecting every inch of Walsh's body, clothed and nude, and she had come up with the only possible explanation for his death.

"Walsh has been dead at least two days. Drowning may have caused his death, but he had high levels of alcohol in his system and had several blows to the head that most likely knocked him unconscious, and that's why he drowned." Lyla washed her hands in the sink outside the exam room as Tyler leaned in the doorway. "I can't really tell right now what hit him, but it wasn't pavement and rocks."

Lyla's phone rang in her purse on the desk across the room and she looked at her watch. "Crap, I bet that's my mom. The car is probably at the house to take me to the airport."

Tyler nodded. "So foul play for sure then."

Lyla reached into her purse and pulled out her phone.

"Lyla, honey, the car is here. Are you on your way?" Maureen asked.

Lyla looked through the small porthole windows into the room where Walsh's body was laid out and sighed.

"I don't supposed I could talk you into staying a few extra days to help us investigate what happened?" Tyler asked.

Lyla locked eyes with him and started to speak.

"Lyla, honey, are you there?" Maureen's voice blasted into her ear.

"Yeah, sorry, Mom." She tore her eyes from Tyler's. "Send them away and tell them I'll call to reschedule. I'm canceling my flight."

 

***

 

Lyla had no idea what possessed her to stay other than she hated leaving any job unfinished.

Tyler assured her that any help she could offer would benefit Walsh's family and he'd make sure she had as much assistance as she needed.

With the body in one of the morgue's refrigerated drawers, she agreed to ride along with Tyler and Jimmy Collins to the Walsh's ex-wife's home to tell her the bad news. Hopefully, she'd be able to offer some information.

The two squads, Tyler and Lyla in one, Jimmy in the PPFD squad, rolled up to the Walsh home on McKinley Avenue just two hours after they'd been standing over Walsh's body in the creek.

The light gray colonial was one of the newer homes and was surrounded by well-manicured bushes and flowering plants. A woman stood on the front porch of the home on her tiptoes, watering a hanging basket filled with petunias. Lyla's smile faded as she saw the squad cars park in front of her house.

Lyla leaned forward in her seat to look past Tyler. "Who did you say he married again?"

"I didn't." Tyler turned the car off. "But he married Kathy King." He got out and shut the driver's side door.

Lyla sat in the car for a moment. Kathy "prairie snob" King? Just friction' great.

The door creaked as Jimmy opened the passenger side door for her. They exchanged smiled before following Tyler up the sidewalk to the house.

"Hey, Kath." Tyler's tone was compassionate.

"Hey, Ty." Kathy King, now obviously Kathy Walsh, set the plastic water canister on the porch and stepped down to the sidewalk. Her expression was suddenly suspicious. "Uh oh, what did Russ do now?" She gazed beyond Tyler, her stare settling on Lyla.

Lyla tried not to replay the day Kathy told her that Tyler had not only slept with Joanie but had impregnated her, but her efforts were thwarted and she felt a stab of hatred hit her in the gut.

"Kathy, I think maybe we should go inside. Are the girls around?" Tyler asked.

"What is she doing here?" Kathy sneered.

"Let's go inside, okay?" Tyler guided her arm, taking her upstairs. They followed Kathy into the house where her two daughters, who looked to be about five and seven years old, sat watching cartoons.

"Hannah, take Megan upstairs and go play okay?" Kathy shooed them away and the girls didn't even blink at the presence of two police officers in their house.

Kathy clicked off the television and her gaze settled on Lyla again as the four of them stood in the living room.

Lyla could see time had been cruel to Kathy. At twenty-eight, she looked as if she'd already had several trips to the plastic surgeon and her lips were over-filled with collagen.

"What's happened?" She turned her focus on Tyler.

"We found Russ, Kathy. And I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but they found his body in Pepper Creek." Tyler clasped his hands in front of him and let the news settle in.

"What do you mean his body? He's--he's dead?" Kathy frowned. Her face contorted and she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp.

Tyler reached out and touched Kathy's arm. "I'm really sorry, Kath. I know you two just went through some trying times and now this. If you need anything, you be sure to let us know."

Lyla watched Tyler with bewilderment. He knew damn well that Kathy caused the breakup she and Tyler went through a decade ago, yet he was still showing the woman compassion.

"I just don't understand. How could this have happened?" Kathy asked.

"Well, that's why we're here. We're trying to piece together what happened." Tyler pulled a small notebook from his pocket and opened it. "When did you last see or speak to Russ?"

Kathy frowned. "I don't know, a couple days ago maybe. The only time I see him is when he picks up the girls. And lately he hasn't been very reliable."

While Tyler continued to ask her some routine questions, Lyla looked around the room. A picture of the girls and Kathy with another man that was not Russ, sat on the side table next to the sofa. The girls had mouse ears hats on. She glanced over at Jimmy who was looking at the same picture and they exchanged eyebrow raises.

"Lyla, why are you standing in my living room?" Kathy's tone reeked of distaste.

Tyler answered for her. "Lyla's filling in for our medical examiner, Kathy. She works CSI in Virginia."

"CSI?" Kathy frowned again. "Why do you need CSI involved?"

"There were some--interesting bruises on Russ that might prove it wasn't an accident." Lyla spoke.

Kathy looked at Tyler. "What does that mean?"

Tyler sighed. "He may have been murdered."

Lyla watched Kathy's face turn from confusion to delight. "Murdered?" She laughed loudly. "What? Are you joking? Who the hell--" Kathy cocked her head to the side. "Well, I guess considering who he was working for, and the amount of money he owed him, I shouldn't be surprised."

"What are talking about, Kathy?" Lyla asked.

"I wouldn't expect you to know, Lyla." Kathy sneered. "I mean, you've been gone how long? What goes on in Pleasant Prairie really isn't any of your concern anymore, is it? I mean, why did you even bother coming back?"

"Okay, Kathy, that's enough. Listen, I need you to come identify the body to make it official. And then I need you to sit with me and make a statement about everything you know." Tyler tucked the notepad back in his pocket.

"Fine, but I have to find someone to watch the girls and I'm not coming if she's there." Kathy pointed directly at Lyla.

Lyla shrugged and exited the house. Jimmy quickly followed her out.

"Lyla, wait." He put his hand on her shoulder when he caught up with her.

Lyla faced him and shook her head.

"I know, she's a royal bitch. I'm sorry. But there's something you should know." Jimmy squeezed her shoulder. "Russ was working for Bobby Wagner Jr."

Lyla felt a sickness rise up in her gut.

#

Chapter Six

Lyla wandered the banks of Pepper Creek, heading north. It was the obvious way Walsh's body would have traveled based on the southern flowing current of the stream.

She walked alone, even though Jimmy Collins had accompanied her to scour the area for clues as to what happened to Walsh. Tyler was back at the station, waiting on Kathy to identify the body. He was also working on getting a list of the people who were at Red's Foxtail Bar the night Walsh was last seen and the cell phone records for Walsh's phone.

Kathy's question, why did you even bother coming back, had made Lyla ask herself the very same question for probably the fiftieth time since she'd landed in Pleasant Prairie. And now, she had agreed to stay to help Tyler, your ex, to figure out who killed a man, who married your nemesis, and the man who might be a suspect was the son of the man that killed her friends a decade ago.

Lyla knew little about Bobby Wagner Jr., other than he was in his early forties. When Bobby Sr. plowed into Joanie's minivan, he survived only long enough to make it to the hospital, then died from internal bleeding. Although the funeral was a blur, Lyla remembered Bobby Jr. escorting his distraught mother through the service and then hearing afterward that the Bobby's had been at odds for years, thanks to Senior's drinking problem. Had Senior been sober and conscious, there's no doubt he would have been in extreme pain but he might have gotten the chance to allow Bobby Jr. to see him one last time and perhaps they could have mended a broken relationship.

That was the problem with small towns. Too much potential for six degrees of separation and everybody knowing everybody's business.

Lyla walked among the leaves and twigs that lines the shore of the creek and wondered what Bobby Jr. was up to these days. Admittedly, outside of what her mom told her over the phone, she had not kept up with local gossip. She wondered if he struggled dealing with the guilt that followed the accident. Lyla imagined Bobby and his mother had to feel some culpability for the families left in the wake of the tragedy.

When Lyla finally broke down to the therapist she'd found in Virginia, not long after she moved there to live with her aunt Ginny, she confessed the inner shame she felt over her friends dying. The fact that she could have died, but didn't, was like a curse. Like her mom had said: "It could have been you." Sometimes, she almost thought it would have been easier if she had been in that minivan. Lyla would have never known the anguish she felt missing her friends, and then the pain when she found out Joanie and Tyler had betrayed her. She wouldn't feel like such a freak when people from Pleasant Prairie looked upon her with judging eyes.

Lyla approached the Lake Street bridge that ran across the creek. The concrete bridge was about ten feet high and had stairwells on either side that led up to a sidewalk at the top of the bridge. Jimmy Collins stood at the base of the stairs leaning into the walkie-talkie mic clipped to the shoulder strap on his jacket. He turned when he heard Lyla approaching.

"There's blood on the stairs. I called it in. The evidence technician can give us a hand with tagging and collecting." Jimmy took a step back so Lyla could take a closer look.

Some dried blood splatter on the fourth stair was sizable enough to conclude someone hit his or her head there. Lyla looked up toward the top of the bridge then started up the steep landscape next to the stairs that led up to the street level.

"Lyla, wait--" Jimmy followed her, struggling as the incline was almost fifty degrees. He met Lyla at the top. She was already scouring the sidewalk for more evidence.

"Jimmy, here, look." She pointed on the ground near the railing. "If he were hit hard enough with something up here to send him over the edge, then smack his head on the stairs, I'd say that would've knocked him out." She began to step into the street but Jimmy grabbed her arm and pulled her into an embrace.

Cars whizzed by, surprising Lyla.

"Jeez LP, you need to be more careful." Jimmy laughed, holding onto her.

"Thanks, JC."

A squad pulled up just as Jimmy released her. Lyla assumed it was the evidence technician but when she looked through the front windshield of the car, she saw Tyler behind the steering wheel with a scowl on his face. Another squad pulled up behind him. Lyla didn't know why but she felt a little embarrassed being caught in Jimmy's arms.

Tyler activated the lights on top of the squad and exited his vehicle. The other officer met up with Jimmy and started marking the blood stains.

"I thought you were waiting on Kathy." Lyla said as Tyler approached.

"She came and went. Said she didn't have any information to share and left. I don't think she cares much what happened." Tyler shrugged. "Who knows, maybe it was a relief for her. Russ had been getting in quite a bit of trouble lately."

"Well, and she's got the new boyfriend." Lyla raised her eyebrows.

"What are you talking about?" Tyler frowned.

"You didn't notice the picture on the table with the kids? And here I thought everybody knew everybody's business." She shrugged.

"Well, after she left I got a list of the phone records and a few names of people that may have seen him at the bar."

"What about Wagner?"

"I don't want to go after him just yet. Let's look at the list while we're at the bar. Maybe a few of the regulars will be there." Tyler started for the car.

"Wait, what about the evidence?"

"They got it." Tyler glanced over at the tech and Jimmy. He got back in the car.

Lyla felt obligated to say something and walked over to Jimmy. "Tyler and I are going to Red's to question a few people and look at the list."

"No worries, LP. We got this. I'll have everything waiting for you at the lab when you're done." Jimmy winked at her.

Lyla turned to get in the car and saw Tyler roll his eyes.

 

***

 

Burned out neon beer signs filled every available window in Red's Foxtail Bar, or Red's to the regulars.

Red and Mae Norton had owned and run the bar for forty years and Red had seen his share of good years and bad. The worst were when the bar almost burned to the ground just after it opened and not long after when Mae died suddenly from cancer.

The bar resembled a swiss chalet on the outside and it was his group of regulars that kept him in business because the inside left something to be desired. Dark and rustic, the interior hadn't changed since Red rebuilt after the fire. With a limited menu to match the small kitchen in the back, and only one person on staff to fill food orders, Red's was given the endearing description of being an "old man bar." Small stuffed foxes were mounted along the wood paneled walls of the one-room bar. In the corner a small jukebox played music of the seventies; the last time it was probably updated. Heavy wooden chairs and tables filled the space in front of the long bar where Red himself still poured drinks for his customers.

It was almost dinnertime, so the place was pretty empty. Red was washing down the bar for the evening patrons.

"Hey, Red." Tyler waved as they entered.

"Hey, Ty." The old man's voice was rough from years of smoking. "Who's that pretty lady you got with you?"

"You probably don't remember me--" Lyla crossed the room with Tyler.

"Well, I'll be. Is that little Miss Lyla?" Red smiled, tossing his rag down on the bar.

Lyla laughed. When she was younger, Maureen and Jack would bring her to the bar for dinner and Red always made her a Shirley Temple in a fancy glass. It made her feel grown up the way he'd set the drink down in front of her.

"Well, aren't you a sight. I guess I forgot with the memorial, you might be in town." Red brought two glasses up from under the bar's counter. "What can I get you kids?"

"Just a soda, Red. We're on the clock." Tyler answered. "And if Lou's around, I'd love a burger."

Red looked at Lyla. "How about you, beautiful? I don't suppose you'd want your usual like the old days?"

"Sure, sounds great."

"I'll be right back." Red winked and headed back to the kitchen.

"The men sure like to wink at you today, don't they?" Tyler mumbled as he pulled out a stool at the bar.

"Excuse me?" Lyla smirked.

"Nothing." Tyler put a folder on the bar and pulled out the cell phone record of calls along with a list of phone numbers. "Red initially said people offered Walsh rides home but he turned them down. Maybe he changed his mind. This is every phone number for every person in Pleasant Prairie. I think we start there."

"He didn't drive here?"

"No, his car was repossessed weeks ago." Tyler turned when the bell over the front door jingled. "There's two of the guys I need to talk to, do you mind scanning the list?"

Lyla nodded and sifted through the pages.

She turned to the last page of calls that started with the night Walsh went missing. Lyla figured if the blood on the bridge matched his and his time of death was close to midnight. The log showed he'd made four calls. She browsed the directory Tyler had given her. The first number didn't match a single person on the list, but the last three calls belonged to two familiar individuals who were side by side on the back page. The first call was outgoing to Bobby Wagner Jr. The second to calls were to the home of Kathy King Walsh; the first was an outgoing call and then an incoming from Kathy an hour later. All three were close to midnight.

Red came back to the bar and started making her drink.

"Hey, Red, Tyler said people were offering Russell Walsh a ride home the night he disappeared. Was he pretty wasted?"

"Oh, he sure was, Lyla. I mean, he'd been hanging out here almost every night for the last month. With the divorce and losing his job about a year ago, I don't think he had hope or a place to go. I always made sure to stop serving him when he'd had enough. I even watered down some of his drinks. I think he knew it, but never said anything. I was sliding free meals to him because I knew he was hurting, financially and emotionally. I think that's why he was doing odd jobs for Bobby Jr., I guess." Red shook his head and slid the drink over to her. Two cherries nestled in the ice as the grenadine slowing descended through the soda.

What Lyla really wanted was a shot and then maybe three more.

"What was different about that night?" She asked, sipping the drink, instantly feeling ten years old.

"He was hammered before he walked in my door that night. And it was late, so I figured he'd been somewhere else that night or maybe drinking at his place. You know, he was living in those run-down apartments at the other end of town."

Lyla knew exactly what apartments Red meant. The King Marcus Apartments were anything but royal. Cheap rent equaled volatile renters and King Marcus had its share of troublemakers living in its studio and one-bedroom domains. When Lyla worked at the police station in high school, she was aware of calls to the apartments at least once a week; the police usually splitting up a domestic dispute or busting someone for drugs.

Red continued. "I only gave him a beer and told him he needed to go home. Like I told Ty, a lot of the regulars who'd gotten to know him, offered rides but he refused. Almost got into a fight with one of them. Said he didn't need their charity." Red leaned in and rested his elbows on the bar. "Part of me wondered if he'd, you know, offed himself. Wouldn't surprise me."

"Well, we don't know about that just yet but we found him." Lyla grimaced.

Red stared at her for a moment before his shoulders dropped. "Those poor baby girls." He shook his head and went back to wiping the bar.

Tyler rejoined her and glanced over at the phone logs.

"Four calls relatively close to the time of death." Lyla slid the papers over to him. "One I can't find on the list. One outgoing to Wagner, then one outgoing to Kathy and an hour later an incoming call from Kathy. Those were the last calls recorded until the next afternoon, when I imagine people started to notice he was missing."

"Okay, I'll see if I can get someone to run this other number back at the station. Kathy didn't stay long enough to mention if she talked to Russ that night." Tyler hit the button on his shoulder mic calling into the police department.

A small ding from the kitchen summoned Red to pick up their food. When he came back with the two baskets, Lyla inhaled the smell of one of her favorite sandwiches that Red's served. Just like the bar, the patty melt with bacon hadn't changed one bit. She bit into the dark rye bread and memories of nights with her parents, back when they were married, when she assumed they loved each other--

Lyla frowned and Tyler nudged her.

"Is it okay?" He asked.

She nodded and set the sandwich in the basket to wipe her mouth with a thick napkin. "Just, I don't know, memories."

"Yeah." Tyler picked up his burger.

Some of the memories here also involved Tyler. They'd come to the bar after football games when they were in high school, back when Red had two waitresses and he'd allowed the team and their friends to order pizzas in his bar since he didn't have the manpower to make that much food. Some of those nights, Tyler's dad would stop in and pretend to shake down the team for booze but Chief Becker knew Red would never allow underage drinking in his bar.

"Hey, I meant to say earlier," Lyla took a deep breath, "I'm really sorry about your dad, Ty."

Tyler was chewing and hesitated for a moment. "Thanks." He said with a mouth full of burger.

"Your mom seems to be doing good." Lyla said, hopefully.

"I guess." He shrugged. "She likes working at that bookstore, that's all I know."

"Yeah, I guess I'll have to stop by there again. Say hi and maybe buy a book or two."

"The smut in on the right when you walk in." Tyler said it so seriously, Lyla sat with her mouth hanging open. The corners of his mouth turned upward slightly.

"You're fun of me, aren't you?" She elbowed his arm.

Tyler let out a laugh that Lyla had almost forgotten existed.

"I don't read smut, Becker." She insisted.

"Oh, that's right, what do they call it these days? Erotica." Tyler's smile was contagious.

"I--did you--seriously, I do not read erotica!" Lyla shouted, hearing her own voice echo across the bar. She laughed and lowered her voice. "Those books were romance novels."

"Mmm-hmm." Tyler took a bite and swallowed. "Those were how-to manuals." He laughed.

"Yeah, well, maybe I needed them back then." Lyla laughed at her admission, but her smile slowly diminished as she remembered why she wanted the how-to manual. To help her with her first time with Tyler. The night that never happened.

Lyla felt as if Tyler had caught on to what she was saying, because he got quiet too.

"Awkward." Lyla mumbled, then laughed uncomfortably.

The door to Red's opened and Tyler turned in his seat. Wordlessly, he wiped his hands, got off the barstool and walked over to the three men that had entered.

"You two always made such a cute couple." Red stated, pouring whiskey into three shot glasses.

"That was a long time ago, Red." Lyla eyed the shots for a moment. "Might you wanna sneak me one of those?"

"Are you of age?" Red joked, winking at her. He looked across the room at Tyler and slid a one over to her. "I won't tell."

"Thanks, Red."

Lyla knocked the shot back, glad to feel the liquid sting her throat, hoping it would wipe out the last words Red said to her before taking the tray of shots to a table of customers.

"You two still make a cute couple."