Read The Shadow Girl Online

Authors: Jennifer Archer

The Shadow Girl

Dedication

To Marcy McCay, Linda Castillo, Anita Howard, and April Redmon.

For all you do, this one’s for you.

Prologue

Ty Collier shivered as he paused in front of the Daily Grind coffee shop to wipe his boots on the mat beside the door. Cold weather was nothing new to him; he had grown up freezing his butt off every winter in Baltimore. But this morning something besides the frigid air raised goose bumps on his skin. It was the task ahead of him. And the silence. Noise had always been a constant in his life, so common he didn’t notice it until it was gone. City traffic, a raucous family. Ty felt lost without it.

He glanced over his shoulder at the sleepy Colorado town. Even in May, Silver Lake lay tucked under a thin blanket of snow like a dozing cat. But silence has a sound all of its own—something hummed beneath the town’s stillness that set his nerves on edge.

Not many cars were out at six thirty a.m. on this Monday morning. Only two were parked in front of the Daily Grind—a black El Camino and a blue delivery van with lettering on the side that read
WINSTON CARPENTRY
. Excitement shuddered through Ty. He recognized the van as the one he’d seen in the photograph. The man was definitely here. After a month and a half of searching, he’d finally found him.

Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Ty opened the door. A bell jingled to announce his entrance, and warmth rushed forward to welcome him in. “Good morning!” called a woman behind the counter on the far side of the shop.

“Morning,” Ty replied, scanning the room. A girl about his age sat on a sofa against the back wall, her feet tucked under her as she typed on a laptop. At a corner table near the front window, three old men chuckled over their coffee. They glanced up when Ty entered, then quickly returned to their conversation.

Ty studied the men discreetly. Two of them had gray beards, but without openly staring he couldn’t tell which one was Adam.

As he crossed to the counter, Ty recalled that the lady behind it was named Paula. He’d talked to her over a muffin and hot chocolate yesterday, his first day in town. She’d seemed worried when he told her that he was taking a temporary break from college and was traveling the country, working odd jobs to make money.

“You’re too young!” Paula had exclaimed. “What are you? Nineteen?”

“Eighteen,” Ty said. He’d waited awhile before asking in an offhand manner if she knew Adam Winston and if she could give him directions to his shop. Ty was afraid to call the number on the website and ask Adam himself. He didn’t want to take any risks. Who knew if Gail Withers had set off an alarm? He couldn’t be too careful.

Paula told Ty that Adam’s shop was behind his house and gave him directions. She also gave him an unexpected bonus, telling him that Adam came into the Daily Grind on Monday mornings to have coffee with his friends. Which was why Ty woke up before the sun this morning and was out the door of his room two hours before he normally stepped foot into the day. He’d rather talk to Adam without his family around.

Ty slid onto a swiveling stool in front of the counter and ordered a coffee.

“You enjoying your stay in Silver Lake so far?” Paula asked as she filled his mug and handed it to him.

“Yeah, it’s nice. I went hiking yesterday after I left here.”

“Oh yeah? Whereabouts?”

“Some trail at the top of the pass. Still quite a bit of snow up there,” Ty said, sipping his coffee. “I’m thinking of climbing the west peak soon. Make it my first fourteener.” That part wasn’t a lie. Colorado was home to more mountain summits with elevations of at least fourteen thousand feet than any other state, and it was his goal to make it to the top of all of them for his brother, just in case Kyle never got the chance himself. It was something Kyle had always wanted to do.

“Not sure the west peak qualifies as a true fourteener, but it’s close,” Paula said. “Start early in the morning. The weather’s dicey this time of year. We might have snow one day and thunderstorms the next. You don’t want to get caught up there when there’s lightning.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks.” Ty propped his elbows on the counter and leaned in closer as Paula filled a jug with tea. When she glanced up, he indicated the three men by the window and asked, “Is one of them Mr. Winston?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. The gentleman with his back to us. He can tell you more about hiking the west peak. Adam lives right at its base.” Before Ty could say another word, she called out, “Adam! This young man’s looking for you.”

The man turned, and Ty’s heart skipped across his chest like a pebble skimming a pond. Winston looked exactly like the image in the silver frame on Gail Withers’s desk—the photograph she’d tried to hide from him. Curiosity and intelligence blazed in his eyes. Ty had stared at those same dark eyes in half a dozen other photographs of Adam when he was younger; there was no mistaking them.

Taking his coffee with him, Ty started across the room toward the men. “Good morning,” he said as he paused beside them. Addressing Adam directly, he asked, “Are you Mr. Winston?”

“That’s me.” Adam smiled. “Something I can do for you?”

Ty nodded to a table across the room. “Can we talk?”

Adam shrugged. “Sure.” He followed Ty to the empty table and they sat across from each other. Squinting, Adam scrubbed a hand across his beard and asked, “Have we met?”

Ty placed his coffee on the table and took a breath. “No, but you knew my mom a long time ago. My name is Ty Collier. My mother is Jillian Collier. When you knew her, her last name was Steadman.”

All the color drained from Adam Winston’s face. “What’s this about?”

“I need your help with something. I know about your work.”

“I’m a carpenter—”

“Your
former
work,” Ty interrupted. Winston looked defensive. Nervous.
Afraid
. “My mother always wondered what happened to you. She loved your daughter very much. When I was growing up, Mom talked about her all the time.” Smiling, Ty added, “I was always a little jealous.”

“Leave my daughter out of this,” Adam hissed, pushing away from the table so abruptly the chair legs scraped against the hardwood floor. “Why would Jillian want to find me after all these years?”

Ty hadn’t expected such an angry reaction. Determined not to lose Adam now that he’d found him, he said, “My mother doesn’t know I’ve been looking for you. She never talked to me about your work until recently when I read several articles you wrote and mentioned them to her.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“My brother needs your help. He’s only thirteen and—” Ty broke off as a wave of emotion swept over him. After taking a moment to compose himself, he said quietly, “I made a promise to my brother, and you’re the only person I know that might be able to help me keep it.” Bracing his forearms on the table, he leaned in, adding, “I had to find you, Mr.
Winston.
” Adam flinched at the emphasis of his surname, but Ty refused to let him off the hook. “I’ve read everything about you I could get my hands on, and I know what you’re capable of doing.”

“You don’t know anything,” Adam said between clenched teeth.

The man’s stubborn refusal to admit the truth stirred anger in Ty. Struggling to maintain a calm tone, he said, “Let me tell you what I know.”

“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” said Adam.

“Hear me out or convince me I’m wrong. I found Ian Beckett and—”

“You’ve talked to Beckett?” Adam shot up from his chair. Across the room, his friends stopped talking and glanced over. Ty was glad Winston’s back was to them so they couldn’t see his agitated face.

Hoping to appease the men, Ty smiled at Adam and murmured, “Calm down. Listen, I—”

“You and Beckett stay away from my family,” Adam growled, panic simmering in his dark brown eyes. “Do you hear me? Leave us alone.” He turned and walked back to his table of friends. The men exchanged a few words that Ty couldn’t hear, then Winston left the coffee shop.

“Everything okay?” Paula called out from the counter.

“Yeah,” Ty lied. He drained his coffee, then made his way to the door.

“Adam said you’re looking for work,” one of Winston’s friends said as Ty passed their table. “You might try Sal over at the lumberyard north of town.”

“Thanks,” Ty said, then opening the door, he stepped out again into Silver Lake’s startling silence.

1

Lily

I started keeping secrets when I was four years old. Back then, I only had two.

Secret number one was that I sucked my thumb before bedtime while watching the sun melt into the earth outside my window. My parents had warned me that I’d get funny teeth if I didn’t stop. They told me in no uncertain terms to keep my fingers out of my mouth.

The girl came while I stood at the window. That’s what I called Iris before I knew her name—just
the girl
. She became secret number two. I didn’t have to see her to know she was there; I
felt
her.

Sometimes I thought I did see her, though. I’d turn around and we’d be standing toe-to-toe. The girl sucked her thumb like me and mimicked my movements.

Of course, now I know I was only seeing my shadow, not Iris. I can only
sense
Iris. I hear her thoughts in my head. I hear her music, too; the haunting melodies she hums. And I feel her restlessness.


Happy birthday, Lily,
” she whispers to me now, her words sweeping through my mind just before my dog Cookie’s cold nose nudges my arm. I rub my eyes and pull my iPod earbuds out, silencing Paramore, which was playing on low.

My parents and I live in a cabin my dad built in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado. My bedroom is in the upstairs loft. As I roll to face the window beside my bed, the first things I see are the two peaks in the distance, their frosty heads twinkling beneath a hazy wash of moonlight. My parents and I call them the twin peaks, and they’re so close together that I used to imagine that they held hands. The west peak changes colors with each season, but the east peak remains black and gray, somber and dark. It’s slightly taller than the west peak and stands a step behind, as if to watch over the smaller one. “Good morning,” I whisper to them both. And to Iris, whose presence fills me.

At the sound of my voice, Cookie snuggles closer. He turned fourteen a couple of months ago and his joints ache when it’s cold outside. He doesn’t want me to get up, because that means he’ll have to get up, too. The stairs are tricky for him these days, so I don’t leave him up here alone.

I hear Mom downstairs in the kitchen making coffee and Dad adding logs to the fire. I’m not ready to go down yet. I’m homeschooled, and I’ve been getting up before the sun every weekday morning since I was six to do my chores and lessons so I could keep my afternoons free for hiking, or for skating in the winter. But I have today off since it’s my seventeenth birthday, and I want to savor the extra time in bed.

I can’t be lazy for too long, though. On the day I turned twelve, Dad and I rode four-wheelers up the mountain to watch the sun rise, and we’ve done it on my birthday every year since. This morning when we’re up there, I plan to tell him about my college plans. I’m nervous, but if I can convince him that it’s a good idea for me to go to the University of Oklahoma in the fall, maybe he can help me persuade Mom.

I lie very still, listening to the comforting sounds of my parents below, wondering if Iris will go into hiding if I move. That’s become her way over the past few years. Dad always jokes that when I became a teenager, I started needing my “space,” and I guess Iris does, too. She hovers at the edge of my mind in the quiet hours—early in the morning and before I fall asleep at night. But as my day gets started, Iris dives deeper, goes farther inward. Sometimes I forget that she’s with me. Sometimes I convince myself that she’s only a dream. Or that I’m crazy. But then for no reason, I become aware of her company again, or I hear her murmuring in my head, and her voice is as real as my mother’s or my father’s or mine. That’s when I remember that she’s been there all along, as constant as my heartbeat.

Pulling the quilts snugly around me, I burrow deeper into the bed. If I have something to say to Iris, all I have to do is think it. She can hear my thoughts, just as I hear hers.

Stay close when we ride up to the lookout,
I say to her now.
I’m going to talk to Dad about college and I need your support.

Her sigh tickles my eardrum as Iris says,
I’m always close
.
I can’t leave you.

It’s the same thing she’s said all my life: She can’t leave me. She’s watching over me, like the east peak watches over the west one. She’s waiting for someone, but she doesn’t know who. She needs to tell me something, but she doesn’t know what.

The way I see it? If anyone’s crazy, it’s Iris, not me. At least in the last few years she’s stopped bringing these things up so much. But sometimes I sense such sorrow in her, like she’s lost or lonely, and that makes me sad because I don’t know how to help. Like now, for instance, when a shift occurs inside of me, and I feel her retreat to a place I can’t reach.

The scent of coffee swirls in to fill the void Iris leaves. I reach for my phone on the nightstand to text my best friend, Wyatt, who lives two miles up the road with his grandmother, Addie. Maybe he’ll come with us this morning to give me moral support. This college thing is too important to mess up. If Dad says no, I’m screwed—doomed to spend the next two years at Silver Lake Community College.

I text:
Sunrise @ lookout w/me & Dad. U In
?
Back b4 u have 2 go 2 school.

I wait, and a few seconds later my phone vibrates with his response:
thx 4 scaring me shitless @ freakin qtr to dawn.

I laugh and text:
Lazy ass. Will u go?

Happy b.day, but no. Must get beauty rest. 50% of big-rig truck wrecks caused by driver sleep deprivation
.

I roll my eyes:
Dork. Get up
.
Going 2 tell dad abt OU. Need backup.

Another few seconds pass. Another vibration.
Whoa. Wish I cld. Have 2 go in early 4 make-up test.

I groan.
4 real?

Yep,
Wyatt answers
. Sorry
.
You’ll do fine
.
B strong.

I wish I was as confident.
Thx. Go back to sleep
.

Plan to
.
Sleep-starved teens twice as likely to smoke crack. Bring U cupcake after school. w/sprinkles.

Sighing, I punch in:
Dbl sprinkles
.

So much for moral support. I guess I’m on my own.

Cookie’s tail thumps the mattress as I put aside my phone. I laugh. “Thanks, boy. I appreciate the offer. I didn’t mean to leave you out. You can ride with Dad, okay?”

Mom’s voice drifts from downstairs as I’m getting up. “I dread today, Adam,” she says. “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but I can’t help it.”

“Shhh,” Dad says. “Lily will hear you.”

“She’s asleep. Besides, she listens to music all night.”

Cookie pants and stirs. I pat his muzzle to quiet him. Slipping from the bed, I walk to the head of the stairs where I can hear my parents more clearly.

“Don’t cry, Myla,” Dad says wearily when Mom makes a sobbing sound.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t stop remembering.”

My muscles tense. Remembering what? Why would my birthday make her cry? Mom is always so emotional. She can obsess over the weirdest things. Once, she burst into tears when I told her I don’t like strawberry ice cream—that I’d rather have vanilla. For a long time after that, I wouldn’t eat ice cream at all because I didn’t want to upset her. Sometimes Mom can be as fragile as glass.

“It’s Lily’s birthday, honey,” Dad says. “Can’t you just relax and enjoy it?”

“She’s seventeen,” says Mom. “How did it happen so fast?”

Dad sighs. “This should be a happy day.”

“Happiness doesn’t last, you know that.” Mom makes a huffing sound. “Everything can change in an instant.”

After a long silence, Dad says, “I’ve been thinking, and I want to tell her.”

“No! Adam, you can’t.”

“Lily is almost an adult,” Dad says. “We can’t keep her here for the rest of her life. We’re in our sixties—”

“That isn’t old.”

“Maybe not, but we won’t be around forever. Besides, she’ll want to strike out on her own soon, and I’m starting to think that might not be a bad idea.”

“You think she should leave?” Mom asks, radiating alarm. “But she’s so vulnerable.”

“The truth will protect Lily more than we can,” says Dad. “We have to think of what’s best for her.”

“We have. Since the day she was born. We gave up
everything
.”

Nervous energy bursts inside of me; Iris is suddenly as alert as I am.
What are they talking about?
I ask her. Iris doesn’t answer, and her silence causes my skin to prickle. I hold my breath and strain harder to hear over the sudden loud beating of my heart.

“Nothing we gave up was important,” Dad says, frustration coloring his tone. “I don’t miss any of it.”

“So this life we’re living is really enough for you?”


Lily’s
enough,” he answers, bringing tears to my eyes.

“Of course she is,” Mom says more softly. “I’d leave it all again in a second. You know I would.”

Questions collide in my mind. What truth could Dad want to tell me? Why do they think I need protection? What did my parents give up for me?

I start to go down the stairs to ask, but Iris’s urgent whisper stops me.
Wait. Listen
. I hold back.

“When do you want to tell her?” Mom asks.

“After we get back from our ride this morning. You and I should do it together.”

“Something’s happened, hasn’t it? You’ve been tied up in knots ever since you came home from the coffee shop on Monday.”

“Nothing’s happened. Everything’s fine.” Despite his assurance, Dad’s voice stretches tight. “It’s just time. We have a responsibility to prepare Lily. Just in case.”

“But what if she hates us?”

“Myla . . . don’t you know your own daughter? Lily could never hate us.”

Cookie whines, then barks once, short and sharp, calling me back to bed. Mom and Dad must hear him because they stop talking. Dishes start clinking. The television comes on, the volume low. A weatherman predicts more snow later today.

Iris stirs beneath the surface of my skin.
Do you understand any of this?
I ask.

There’s something
, she says.
Like mist . . . too faint to grasp.

Confused by her vague comment, I calm Cookie, then head for the bathroom, still trying to sort out my parents’ conversation. A few minutes later, I emerge again with my face washed and my hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. Cookie inches to the edge of the mattress as I throw on some jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and a pair of wool socks. I help him hop down onto the rug, and he walks stiffly to the head of the stairs and sits, waiting while I lace my boots. “Come on, boy,” I say, and together we take the steps down to the cabin’s first floor.

Our living area and kitchen are one big room, connected to my parents’ bedroom, the guest room, and the downstairs bath by a short hallway. Dad sits at the kitchen table and he glances up when he hears me, his brown eyes twinkling beneath his bushy gray brows. “Good morning, Doodlebug. Happy birthday.”

I smile, but I’m too nervous to hold his gaze. His face shows no sign of the strain I sensed when he and Mom were talking. He’s shoving his feet into his boots, yesterday’s newspaper folded beside the placemat in front of him.

“Happy birthday, darling,” says Mom.

“Thanks.” I let Cookie outside, then look across at her. She moves slowly from the table to the sink and back again, her arms crossed tightly. She has on a baggy wool sweater, black sweat pants, and sheepskin slippers. Deep lines I’ve never really noticed etch the skin around her mouth. Mom looks tired and old this morning.

“Are you feeling okay?” I ask her, wondering if her lupus has flared up again. That led to her rheumatoid arthritis, and now the knuckles on her fingers bulge like knots on a branch. During a flare-up the symptoms are worse.

“I’m fine,” she says. “Just a little tired.” Her weak smile suddenly widens into a real one. “And excited,” she says playfully.

“Excited about what?” I follow her gaze to the floor beneath the coffee table, where I see a box wrapped in white paper and topped with a big yellow bow. “What’s that?” I ask, stooping to reach for it.

“Hands off!” says Dad in a teasing tone. “You’ll find out later.”

Grinning, I stand and walk toward them. I kiss the top of Dad’s head, then wrap my arms around Mom. She hugs me a little too tightly as I stare over her shoulder at the framed sketch of a violin that hangs on the wall above the table. Mom did it before her arthritis made sketching and painting too painful. That was her violin in the sketch. She used to play when she was young, but she stopped before I was born to concentrate on her artwork.

“What’s for breakfast?” I ask, stepping out of her embrace.

Mom tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “Blueberry muffins. They’ll be ready when you and Dad get back from your ride. I’ll fry bacon, too, and scramble some eggs.” Turning, she straightens the tablecloth, then rearranges the silverware already laid out for three. Without looking at me she adds, “Take it slow, okay? It’s dark out there, and the higher roads might still be snow packed.”

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