CHAPTER SEVEN

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"Good heavens ― Kristina Harmon, is that you? Is that imbecile truck driver someone you know?"

The aged voice of Mrs. Morris cut through my train of thought; without her permission, I bolted past her through the open door and into her tidy living room.

"Child! What's got into you? Is something wrong?"

I stood in the center of the room, unsure what to do next. The smell of mothballs and peppermint was overpowering, almost enough to make me gag.

When I didn't respond to Mrs. Morris's inquiry, she touched my arm; the contact sent a jolt of electricity through me. I sprang away from her hand as though it were a viper, making her gasp in surprise. I was across the room in an instant, my mind no longer in control of my body's reactions. An animal instinct to flee was coursing through me unchecked, and I found myself cowering in the corner between two potted plants, like a puppy that had been beaten, without ever having given the action a conscious thought.

Something changed in Mrs. Morris's expression. She slowly crossed the room after me. The only sound was the soft swish of her legs moving in her flannel jammies. A few feet from where I huddled, shaking uncontrollably, she bent her knees with difficulty to the outdated burnt-orange carpet.

"What on Earth has happened to you, you poor, dear girl?"

As I opened my mouth to speak, the tightened coil of emotion behind my rib cage finally snapped. The dam I'd been working so hard to hold back ripped open, all restraints gone. Tears flowed freely, strangling me with their urgency. Time fell away as I sat there, crying into my hands.

Mrs. Morris waited, watching with concern nearly palpable in her crystalline blue eyes.

When at last my tear ducts had poured out all they had to give, I wiped my eyes with a dirty sleeve that smelled disturbingly of hay and cigarette smoke. The aroma assaulted my nostrils and bullied my mind.

Stop it. Focus on something else.

I breathed deeply, fixating on the scent of peppermint that had grown more apparent with Mrs. Morris's closeness.

That's it. You got this. Don't let them in.

Don't let them in.

God, help me.

A wall I'd never seen slid into place in my mind's eye. I wondered how long it would last, but my heart swelled with thankfulness to see it there.

Several minutes more. Waiting, breathing, humming all over like a motor.

Peppermint. Peppermint. Peppermint.

The shaking finally dialed down to a minimum, and my companion asked gently, "Better?"

Peppermint.

I nodded.

Peppermint.

"Now, my dear. . .I don't mean to push you, but do you think you could tell me what all the fuss is about? It's not every day that a bedraggled neighbor child beats down the door during my evening crossword."

"I'm sorry. But I. . .I need to think." Was it rude to be so blunt, to sidestep her question? My head was fuzzy with too many thoughts fighting for dominance.

"Why don't you come to the table?" Mrs. Morris heaved herself up with a grunt and the loud popping of joints, then held her hand down to me. "I'll fix you a nice cup of hot tea, if you want it."

I didn't drink tea, but my head bobbed automatically. "Thank you."

Certain this time that it was rude of me, but recognizing now my need to not be touched, I avoided her outstretched hand as I stood carefully, my ankle smarting. She retracted the hand without comment, and waved me forward to follow her into the small, humble kitchen past the back of the living room.

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