Under the Magnolia: Daughter of Fire Prequel Novella, page 1
UNDER THE MAGNOLIA
Daughter of Fire Prequel Novella
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Copyright © 2017 by Fleur Smith
Published by Fleur Smith
Cover design by Desiree De’Orto
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
TABLE OF CONTENTS
More by Fleur Smith
“EVIE, WE’RE LEAVING.”
Dad’s tone left no doubt about what was happening, or when.
I groaned at the too early wake-up call from my father.
My ten-minute warning that we were moving.
It was becoming an all too familiar occurrence. When it first started—I couldn’t have been more than four or five—we’d move once every two to three years. Now, it was every two to three months.
I’d learned a long time ago that it wasn’t worth arguing with him or pleading to stay where we were. I’d tried it all—tears, tantrums, and even the silent treatment.
Without fail they all ended the same way; with me strapped into whatever vehicle we had as Dad drove us to our new destination. I might have been seventeen, but he wouldn’t hesitate to sling me over his shoulder like a little girl and carry me to the car. Perhaps that would change after my eighteenth birthday, but I didn’t hold onto much hope.
With another groan, I rolled out of bed before I was fully awake. The instant my feet hit the ground, my body moved of its own accord. It wasn’t my first experience of Dad waking me with similar words. No doubt it wouldn’t be the last. After so many moves, midnight and otherwise, I had everything down to an art form.
I got ready as quickly as I could, stripping off my pajamas and shoving them into the plastic bag filled with my dirty clothes. Then I dressed in the outfit I always had set aside, ready for such an occasion. It consisted entirely of clothes that would make me disappear into the darkness—deep blue jeans and a plain black t-shirt with a gray hoodie over the top to cover my hair.
The last item was one Dad insisted on—shouting bloody murder at me the first time I’d left my head exposed. Apparently, he worried that my hair would give us away as he ran from whatever trouble was a step behind. Of course, he refused to let me try to dye it—making up excuse after excuse why it wasn’t a good idea.
I didn’t understand it.
Then again, I didn’t understand half of Dad’s demands.
Sure, the color of my hair was a little unusual, but it never made sense in my mind to cover it up. After all, I was generally able to pass it off as strawberry blonde. It was only up close that its actual color became apparent.
If someone paid enough attention, they might notice the strands of my hair were more like spun gold and rubies; vibrant yellows and dark crimsons resting side by side rather than blending together the way most people’s did. In the sun, it was striking and reflective. It wasn’t like we were running in the daylight though.
Generally, so long as I kept it tied into a ponytail no one could see its real color. In an act that was as defiant as I dared to be, I cut it as short as I could, leaving it just long enough to tie it back.
After I’d tied my hair back into a semblance of a ponytail, I slipped the hood over my head to cover it. At least that way I wouldn’t have an argument with Dad about it before we left.
I tugged my suitcase out of my closet and pressed the plastic bag with my dirty clothes on top of the contents before zipping it up. All my other clothes were already packed neatly inside.
“Be ready to go at a moment’s notice.” It was another of Dad’s rules and a habit for me now. I had everything meticulously packed and ready at all times. The only things that ever hung in my closet were school uniforms when they were needed. The prep school Dad had managed to enroll me in when we’d first arrived in town a few months earlier. The school insisted on the gray and white wool outfits that were nothing more than itchy symbols of conformity.
My hand hovered over the hangers that held the monstrosities before I pulled it away again without grabbing the uniforms.
It wasn’t like I would need them where I was going. Not that I knew where that might be.
It hardly mattered.
Wherever we went, it would be another cookie-cutter school in another nondescript neighborhood. The one certainty was that it would be far away from where we were living until that moment. Far from New Jersey.
Once everything else was organized, I grabbed a photo frame that had rested on my bedside table—the one and only photo I had of my mother—and slipped it into my backpack. Then, I pulled on my sneakers and deemed myself as ready for the move as I would ever be.
I dragged my suitcase and backpack downstairs, but Dad was already in the truck, gunning the engine. He’d packed the rest of our belongings that would be making the trip and tossed them into the back of his rusted F150. I threw my suitcase haphazardly onto the pile before fastening the cover.
The passenger door stood open when I reached that side of the car, Dad waited silently, staring through the windshield at the blank wall in front of him.
I didn’t announce my arrival, just climbed onto the seat and dragged the seatbelt across my body. The soft snick it made as it clicked into place seemed to rouse Dad from his thoughts. He put the truck into reverse, and we were on our way seconds after I’d settled.
As he reversed out of the garage, Dad turned to me. “This will be the last time,” he said, before adding in an almost silent voice, “I promise.”
If only I could believe him.
They were so similar to the words he’d uttered when we’d moved previously. Only then we’d fled straight after school one day. He insisted I wear a pair of dark sunglasses as well as my trademark hoodie. He’d been unusually cagey during the drive through town in the mid-afternoon sun. At least we had the cover of darkness to help calm his paranoia for now.
With my forehead on the cold glass, I watched out the window as the miles fell away beneath the wheels. As the buildings of our now-former neighborhood raced past, I considered the people I was leaving behind. Once again, I was being dragged away before I could spend any real time with them. Another few months of stability and I might have been able to call them friends.
“Evie,” Dad murmured when he deemed we’d covered enough distance to begin talking again.
I glanced at him briefly but didn’t speak. I’d become used to his running, but that didn’t mean I was happy having to uproot my life once again. There were only a few months left of the school year—what should have been my final year. I didn’t want to have to start the year again, but I doubted any school would allow me to graduate with the disrupted schooling I’d had. Unless Dad faked my records again like he had to get me into
He cleared his throat before pointedly looking at the road ahead. “I’m sorry. I thought we’d be safe here.”
I grunted something non-committal.
The questions that burned through me whenever this happened began anew, but there was no point asking them. I’d tried everything possible over the years to find out more information, but it was all useless. Dad was a book that was not only closed but sealed, bound in leather, locked in a chest, and buried deep in the earth. It would have been easier to get the answers I needed from a rock.
During our stay in New Jersey, after I realized Dad wasn’t going to give me any answers, I’d done what I could to find out more myself. I’d used the school computers to research our past. It was almost impossible to find anything. The one thing I could find was a passing mention in a newspaper about Mom’s death as suspicious.
All of my life, I’d been told that she passed away giving birth to me. I could still recall the way my fingers shook as I found a fresh lead about her, and followed it all the way across the internet. I was glad I’d hidden in the back corner of the computer lab when I found another article talking in detail about her death. The information was still a little sketchy, but it contradicted everything I’d ever been told. It proved Dad had lied to me. The taste of his betrayal had tasted bitter in my mouth while my eyes had burned with the threat of tears.
By the time I’d managed to scribble down the details, I was unable to restrain the wet drops.
I went home blazing with anger and determined to push Dad for answers. I needed to know why he hadn’t told me the truth and what else he was hiding. When I confronted him about it, he responded calmly at first, telling me that I was wrong. He said Mom had died giving birth to me and what I’d read was the lie.
I refused to accept any more of his lies. It had quickly escalated into the loudest, longest fight we’d ever had. Dad refused to give me any further explanation, expecting me to simply be satisfied with his answers. He thought I would accept his word as law, just as I had when I was a little girl.
But I wasn’t a little girl anymore.
When I had continued to push for information, he became angry at first. We shouted at each other and said things neither of us really meant. Then he had grown silent, and that was so much worse. He’d bowed his head in defeat and begged me to trust him, whispering that all he wanted was to keep me safe. I refused to believe him until later that night, I’d heard him crying and pleading with some unknown entity to watch over me.
I resolved to never push him so far again. Even though I didn’t always like the hardened man he’d become, witnessing his vulnerability was so much worse.
I didn’t want to just let the issue go, but I couldn’t stand hurting him further.
His lies burned within me, but I couldn’t turn my back on him either. I may not have known who we were running from or why, but I was sure Dad looked out for me above anything else. Whatever he’d done or said, it had been for my protection. Or perhaps his own sanity. He might not have been the perfect man, but he was still my Dad. The man who’d raised me and loved me.
Besides, we’d had some fun time, even if they were hard to remember during the tougher moments.
I thought back to the life we’d shared before we were on the road. To the time when I’d had a normal childhood. Back when I was happy. It was a distant memory, but a fond one.
Dad had been different then; I guess we both had. He’d smiled frequently and used to tell me stories about Mom and him. Our relationship hadn’t been overrun with awkward silences and half-conversations. I missed that life. So many little things had become the catalyst for an ever-increasing distance between us. Too many secrets and lies, new houses and first days of school.
Even his appearance was different now. He’d always been tall and almost lanky, but now there was a hardness to him that came from years on the run. His rich chocolate hair had once risen from his head in an unruly mess that somehow seemed perfectly styled. Now it hung lank and dirty, tipping down over his forehead as if—like me—it was tired of the constant running.
The light that used to shine from his brown eyes had dimmed to the point where it was almost non-existent. Looking at him as he concentrated on the road ahead, it was hard to see any trace of the man I’d once admired.
I pressed my forehead to the car window at my side and resigned myself to the fact that I was once again on the road to an unknown destination. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Dad didn’t even know where he was going yet.
He’d be formulating a plan though.
“I’m just trying to keep you safe.” His voice was tight as he tried to reassure me. Even as he spoke, his hands tightened around the steering wheel. The plastic wheel was in a death grip, and Dad’s knuckles were white where the bones strained against his pale skin. “I can’t lose you like . . . I-I just can’t lose you.”
He was rarely so vocal with his emotions. It was enough to make me ignore the little voice that insisted I wouldn’t get any answers and decide to push him. I still longed for some information, and I would get it any way I could. “Maybe it would be easier if I knew who you were keeping me safe from?” I offered.
“Maybe . . .” he said with a quiet thoughtfulness before tightening his hold even further, twisting the steering wheel as if it was trying to leap from his hands.
My heart beat a little faster, praying that I might finally get the answers I’d been seeking for so long. At least he hadn’t outright refused to talk about it, and that was a vast improvement over all of our previous conversations.
I leaned forward expectantly. Hope strangled me, stealing my breath and my voice. Just as I thought he might have been about to say more, he sighed and looked away from me. It was a refusal. He wasn’t going to be spilling his secrets today.
“Just sleep,” he murmured as if confirming my thoughts. “I’ll wake you when we stop.”
I nodded before reclining the seat. My mind wouldn’t stop turning over with the thousands of possible scenarios that led to our constant upheaval. My theories ranged wildly. The strongest reason was something to do with Mom’s death. I’d even considered whether he might have killed her. As fast as the thought had appeared, it left. He wasn’t the type. Of course, that left me right back at the beginning.
Other theories abounded, especially in my darkest moments. Perhaps Dad was running from the FBI. Or maybe he was fleeing from mobsters. Maybe he’d been part of some Special Ops division and had knowledge that put us both in danger. All I knew for sure was that whatever we were running from apparently had something to do with Dad’s past.
I had even considered whether my father was some sort of criminal. If he hadn’t been at first, he was now. I didn’t ask for the details, but living life on the lam required some less than legal activities. He hadn’t had a job in years, at least not to my knowledge. Whatever he’d done to keep us fed and clothed, moving, and safe, just added to the secrets he kept hidden from me.
For my “own good.”
Eventually, I nodded off to sleep, only to be woken again shortly before dawn to get something to eat and drink. I was already getting antsy being on the road, but we had a long way ahead of us. I wondered what most ordinary people did on road trips. They certainly looked and sounded more fun in movies, and TV shows than mine had ever been. About the only interesting thing I ever did was write down the license plate numbers of cars which were acting in a way that Dad deemed suspicious.
Another four hours of driving later, we stopped again. Dad grabbed my cell phone from me and left me alone with the car. Although I knew the drill, I wasn’t excited to have to set everything up from scratch after he destroyed my cell and purchased a new one. At least it would give me something to keep me entertained for a few minutes. Dad returned almost an hour later with a fresh prepaid cell in hand.
“We’re going to keep heading north tonight,” Dad said after we’d had something to eat.
As if it
It was just his way of ensuring we hadn’t been followed. He would travel as far as he dared in one direction before doubling back; with me watching out for any cars with license plate numbers from our list.
It took us almost a week of navigating the country, stopping in cheap motels only long enough for Dad to get a few hours sleep before he was finally satisfied we’d eluded whomever he believed was chasing us.
Finding a new town was easy enough. Dad’s criteria were quite simple really. Besides the obvious one—that we’d never lived there before—the town just had to be big enough for us to blend into the masses but small enough to not have twenty-four-hour traffic jams.
Eventually, as we sat in a dingy coffee shop, lost in our own thoughts, he announced a suburb in Columbus, Ohio, as a possibility. He read out all of the things he deemed to be advantages.
“What do you think?” he asked after he finished, beaming with pride.
As if he’d actually listen to me if I said no.
I shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
He squeezed his eyes shut. “Evie, please don’t make this harder than it already is.”
I tried to smile but was positive it looked more like a grimace. “I’m not trying to be difficult.” I just don’t care. It’s another meaningless town in a list that’s too long.
Once it was resolved that we’d soon be calling Columbus home, we got back on the road. We stayed in yet another cheap motel while Dad worked whatever magic he did to create new identities and paper trails for the two of us. It would have been easier for us to stay off the grid entirely, but Dad wanted to ensure I had a proper education. I tried to argue that an education as disrupted as mine wasn’t much better than none at all, but he waved me off.
After the paperwork was in order, it was just a matter of lining up a house for us. Just like everything else he did, it needed to be nondescript. It seemed like that was one of the words that best described my life since we’d started moving so often. Another would be boring.
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