There was something about the dark.
The way it surrounded completely—a gentle embrace that comforted with a soft sigh and a delicate touch. The way it could intimidate and threaten, so the blackness was almost debilitating.
The dark wielded power.
But to me, the darkness was a place to hide—a place to bury my face when it was covered with tears, and a place to huddle protectively when the nightmares came lurking. And they always lurked. The darkness was a place to escape when life invariably turned to shit.
My name is J.J. Graves, and the darkness had become my friend over the past months. So it seemed fitting that I wait until that blackest time of the night to slink my way back home—to the place that had left a bitter taste in my mouth and sweat coating the palms of my hands. To sneak back into the town that had raised me and gossiped about me with equal fervor.
I jerked at the wheel of the old Suburban and pulled to the side of the road on the outskirts of Bloody Mary, Virginia. I lowered my head to the steering wheel and took a few desperate breaths that did nothing to relieve the tightness in my chest. The windows steamed slightly and the sound of harsh breathing echoed in my ears. I tried to ignore the pounding inside my skull and the way the heater couldn’t quite chase away the chills that racked my body, but it was no use.
“Come on, Jaye. You can do this.”
My voice was still hoarse and low, though the pain had been gone for several weeks. The doctors said to be patient. That things would return to normal the more I let myself heal. But I wondered how anything would ever be normal again when all I could think about was the blood coating the floors of my childhood home—violent splatters that gleamed like the black center of a Burmese ruby as death tried to claim me. I still heard the deafening sound of the gunshot and felt the blood that rained down on my skin like scalding tears in my dreams. It was easy to forget how hot fresh blood was. It was always cold by the time I had my hands in a body on my table.
Jeremy Mooney had taken something from me that day, when he’d had his hands wrapped around my throat. I couldn’t say exactly what it was he’d taken. I only knew I was different now. I’d watched him murder a man I’d been intimate with—a man I’d told myself I could love if I only allowed it. Guilt and self-loathing ate at me because I hadn’t known if I could really be in love with Brody, while feelings I couldn’t put into words were forming for Jack—the man I called my best friend. The guilt still ate at me. And I’d been avoiding Jack because of it.
I didn’t love easy, and honestly I wasn’t even sure I knew what love was. I’d thought my parents had loved me. But I’d been wrong there too.
Terror had crippled me after my brush with death. And I hated that about myself. I’d never been a coward. Had never been one to hide from a scandal or the terrible things life seemed hell-bent on throwing in my path. Lord knows I’d faced enough of them in my thirty years. But I guess everyone has a breaking point, and I’d finally met mine.
I was broken. And I had no idea how to fix myself.
I took another deep breath and slowly straightened my spine, wiping the inside of the windshield with the back of my sleeve to clear away the steam. I put the car in drive and checked my mirror for any traffic before I pulled back onto the road. It was habit. There would never be any traffic on these back roads at this time of night.
Bloody Mary, Virginia was like a throwback to another century. It was one of the four towns within King George County and it was full of just shy of 3,000 of the most contrary people I’d ever met. My mother always said it was because there was nothing to do in town except drink or procreate. My mother, come to find out, had been a consummate liar, but I was pretty sure she was right about that one thing.
It was a postcard of a town—towering trees and clapboard houses with American flags flying from the porches. The main roads were bricked and the sidewalks were cracked. It was a town that boasted family values and the American Dream. The shops closed before dark and everything was shut down on Sundays. People got up early and worked hard, and they went home to their families and home-cooked meals.