Excerpts from the Published Works of J.E. Neville

The Perfect Mother

 

They’re coming.

 

My hands shake as I lift the unlit cigarette to my lips for the third time in the last two minutes. I grab the lighter but then Sharon sighs and rolls over. I glance at her lying next to her brother Jimmy on the other bed, both of them asleep and fully clothed. I didn’t even tuck them under the thin, plaid bedspread.

 

I may be an inept mother sitting on the edge of a saggy bed in the cheapest motel in Dayton, Ohio, but I love my kids. 

The California Blues

Jimmy Madison didn’t look like a killer.

 

When mothers saw him jogging along the beach, they’d think, now there’s a nice boy. Why can’t my daughter meet a guy like that? He was tall and lanky, with a cheerful countenance and the kind of wide-eyed innocence you’d associate with a child, although he had a bullet-hole scar in his back. Barely nineteen, he looked like a surfer with long blond hair and deeply tanned face, but he had an air of purpose about him that attracted people even before they discovered he went to the community college at night and worked full-time to help support his family.

 

Those admiring sidewalk mothers—unaware his father was serving a life term back in Connecticut for murdering a young girl—would figure, correctly, that Jimmy already had a girlfriend. In fact, he was happily engaged to his high school sweetheart, the wedding six months away. He was working hard, saving money.

 

Killing was just part of his job.

 

Once you were in the mood, it was easy and fun. Not to mention exciting.


The Mistake

 

Against the advice of my mentor, I keep a gun in my drawer.

 

Harveysays a lawyer with a gun will eventually use it either on a client or on himself.Harveyis sixty-two and thinks he knows everything, but sometimes he’s clueless, living in the past. What lawyer nowadays doesn’t keep a gun in her desk?

 

I stare at the Ruger—a Super Blackhawk.

 

Ten minutes.

 

That’s how long Brandi, my assistant, thinks she can stall the FBI Special Agent who showed up unannounced. Then he’ll step through my door for our first face-to-face since I switched sides. He thinks I’ll cooperate with him, but things are complicated.

 

The gun beckons. I reach in, hesitate, and then pick it up. I aim it at my father’s face in our lovely family portrait, a source of deeply mixed emotions. Next, my attention shifts to the photo of James, my husband, in the golden frame on my desk. His office is down the hall, yet I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. I hope so.

 

Yet I gaze into the barrel and caress the trigger.

 

Nine minutes.

Goop Calder and the Haunted Cowboy Robots

 

I could have been dissecting iguanas with my friends in biology class, but my Dad made me skip school to go prospecting with him. He swore he dreamed his grandfather told him this was the day he’d find the treasure.

 

Like he was doing any of the finding.

 

“Buck up, Goop,” Dad shouted, his hands cupped around his mouth. Like all grown-ups, he was better at giving advice than heeding it. I love my father and all that, but he was sitting on our cooler in the shade a hundred feet below me, quote-unquote keeping lookout because he supposedly had a sore leg, or he was tired, or he had to think. I don’t remember which excuse he was using then. 

 

I kept thinking about the iguanas. There was a freeze inFloridaand they were dropping out of trees because they’re cold blooded and non-native. Park rangers were picking them up and feeding them to buzzards. My biology teacher heard about it and called a friend who shipped a big box of frozen iguanas to my school inTaos,New Mexico. My class opened the boxes that morning.

 

But I wasn’t there.

Instead, I had spent the entire day on the mountain, busting up more rock than an Arizona chain gang with nothing but rubble to show for it. I leaned on my sledgehammer to catch my breath and washed the rusty taste of blood out of my mouth with the last drops from my canteen.

Caught Away

 

 


Chapter 1 – Two Years and One Month Later

 

 

 

It was one of those days around which the universe steps lightly. I knew it the moment I woke up, and the feeling lingered like unresolved guilt. Except it wasn’t guilt, exactly; more a mixture of anxiety and hope, like when you’re hungry enough to track prey in the forest but you’re not sure whether it will get you first.

I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. I was still tired from giving blood the day before. I didn’t mind—my own brother was a Bleeder who relied on donors where he lived—but since they raised the quota to twice a month, recovery was getting more difficult.

Above me, the corner of my red notebook stuck out from the gap between the wooden planks of my ceiling where I had hidden it two years and one month earlier. A few weeks ago a mouse nesting in the attic nudged it out, but I waited until today—this special, awful day—to remove it.

I stood on my tiptoes and reached it. Back when I first hid it, I had needed boxes to reach that high.

The notebook contained a long message I had written to a girl named Lark who I thought would be sympathetic to me. I had taken it to school, only to discover that, the night before, she had been sent to Joycamp.

I never saw her again.

Sitting on my bed, I flicked off the dust and opened the cover.

Dear Lark:

No one believes me when I say the Nats hire kids to spy on us. You know the girl who sits behind you, the one the teacher favors?

A spy.

Maybe a killer.

How do you know your best friend isn’t really an agent trying to infiltrate your family?

I’d make a much better friend for you than she would. I’d never work for the Nats. I mean, look at her. It’s easy to be smug and comfortable when you like what the Nationals are doing, with all their equal this and equal that.

But I know you’re different.

Aren’t you?

I closed the notebook.

God, I was a paranoid freak back then.

And yet, I still don’t trust anyone.

I climbed out of bed and dressed without washing. We heated water only once a week and I hated cold showers.

As I brushed my hair, I pondered how strange it was that from the time I wrote to Lark until now, hardly anything in my life had changed. True, I was almost sixteen. I had more curves, as my mother puts it, but being half-Chinese, and without implants, I was not what you’d call voluptuous. My black hair now reached past my waist. But we still lived in the forest near Waldport, Oregon, a stupid little town along the coast. I still liked Lucas Clemons, his twin brother Logan still liked me, and our strange dance hadn’t come any closer to resolution.

Well, some things had changed. I’d become fatherless; my older brother had been shipped to Joycamp; and soon I’d be receiving my very own ‘Smoother, which I dreaded.

On a whim, I stuffed the notebook in my pocket, thinking I’d show it to Lucas after school. I was feeling unusually carefree, as if this were my final day on Earth.