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The Secrets of Lost Stones by Melissa Payne

The Secrets of Lost Stones by Melissa Payne
ISBN: 1542006287
ISBN13: 9781542006286
Page Count: 336
Published: 9/1/2019

A gas station. That’s all she needed, and then Jess Abbot could get out of this backwoods mountain
town and return to the highway. If she had known the actual town was fifteen miles from the exit, she
would have kept driving. But the sign for Pine Lake had appeared just when she noticed the needle
hovering over empty, and she’d taken the exit, assuming any place this far from Denver would have to
have gas. The engine gave a weak cough, and her hands gripped the wheel. She’d bought the car for intown
errands, had never intended to test it on steep mountain passes. Her back muscles twitched, and
she shifted in her seat, the pleather slippery and uncomfortable. This was almost her worst decision of
the day. She gritted her teeth. Second only to driving a hunk of rusted metal into the mountains with no
plan other than to get as far as she could from home.
The double yellow line she used to keep from losing sight of the road faded under a thick fog. It
rolled through the air in meaty patches, enveloping her car in a grayish white that slowed her speed to a
crawl while she navigated the switchback curves. An ache developed in her upper back from sitting
hunched and tense behind the wheel. Where was the damn town? She was considering giving up and
turning around when shapes with substance and edges began to form within the gloom. She squinted.
Log buildings, squat with red metal roofs. She breathed out. Pine Lake. The gas station couldn’t be far
now.
The fog broke apart enough to allow her to see a large concrete dam where the town appeared to
end—no gas station in sight. She groaned and considered pulling over to ask for help, but Pine Lake
was nothing more than a road lined on either side with raised wooden sidewalks and storefronts that
stared back at her with empty and darkened windows. It couldn’t be much past three in the afternoon,
yet it was deserted, empty of people and cars, the sky matching the air, gray and heavy. Hopefully, she’d
have enough bars and minutes left to use the map function on her phone. But it lay just out of reach,
nestled between the bonsai trees in a small cardboard tray on the passenger seat. She grasped it with the
tips of her fingers, and it slipped and tumbled to the floor.
“Damn it!”
Her decision to leave that morning had been impulsive. For God’s sake, it wasn’t the first time
she’d found an eviction notice taped to her door. Her thirty-two years were a patchwork of bad
decisions compounded by jobs that paid shit and managers who sometimes fired at will. It also hadn’t
helped that today marked eight years since the night she’d lost everything that mattered, leaving her
edgy and tense and maybe looking for a reason to run from the only home she’d ever known.
Holding the wheel steady with her left hand, she stretched her arm long and reached for the
phone. She’d taken her eyes off the road for only a second when a small figure in a bright-red sweatshirt
darted in front of her bumper, the headlights flashing yellow against his dark jeans.
Jess lurched upright, gripped the steering wheel, and slammed on the brakes. Her heart pounded,
vibrating almost painfully against the bones in her chest.
A boy? Had it been a little boy?
The muscles in her throat constricted until she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She’d almost killed
him. Sweat trickled from her armpits as she scanned the street, the wooden sidewalk to her right. Empty.
The boy was gone.
She tried to relax her grip on the wheel. He was fine and, most important, alive. Probably ran
straight home, terrified himself. She wanted to feel relieved, except she couldn’t move, frozen with her
foot pressed so hard on the brake her toe touched the floorboard.
She closed her eyes, waiting for her racing pulse to slow, but thoughts of Chance pricked at her
like the shards of glass that littered the floor of her apartment. That morning she had crumpled the
eviction notice into a tiny ball and had opened her apartment door, intending to move on like always—
find another job, get a crappier apartment, whatever it took. But then her eyes had landed on a school
picture of Chance taken when he was in second grade. Her son looked at her with his bright eyes and
impish smile, and something came unhinged inside her. He’d given her life meaning, and when he had
needed her the most, she’d failed him. Her hands shaking with a familiar rage that sprang from her
heart, flooding her body with a horrible impotence, she’d thrown the frame against the wall, and the
glass shattered, spraying the carpet in small pieces. The slivers pricked her skin when she rescued
Chance’s picture from the mess, but she knew what she had to do: leave and never look back. It had
taken only a few minutes to pack a duffel bag and load the old car with the few items she cared about.
The landlord could figure out what to do with the rest.
The flashing dash light brought her back to the present, a blinking reminder that she was alone in
this quiet town with eighty bucks to her name. She ran the car to empty enough to know that once the
orange low-fuel light started blinking, the tank was on nothing but fumes. She eased her foot off the
brake, the car inched forward, and Jess scanned the road ahead. There had to be a gas station here; this
town was too far off the highway to be without one. A full tank would buy her a few more hours. Maybe
enough to get her to Grand Junction? Not that she knew anyone there, but it was a place that she and
Chance had planned to visit one day so he could see the Native American petroglyphs he’d learned
about at school. They’d had so many plans. Like visiting the Four Corners Monument, where Chance
wanted to straddle Arizona and Colorado while Jess did the same with New Mexico and Utah. Their
own version of Twister. Her eyes stung, and she swiped at them with the back of one hand. Thoughts of
all the adventures that had been stolen from Chance coiled around her body and squeezed until she
thought her pent-up grief and sorrow and anger would melt out of her pores, leaving her as empty and
scarred as she felt. She pressed her lips together and kept driving. There was no turning back time—or
her car. All she could do now, all she could ever do, was move forward. Today that meant finding a gas
station and getting the hell back to the highway.
The car had moved only a few feet when her headlights dimmed and a metallic shriek sounded
from under the hood. A heavy odor of burnt oil wafted from the vents and stung her nose. She groaned.
The car had needed an oil change months ago, but she’d ignored it because she hadn’t had the money to
spare. Without a high school diploma, Jess worked to pay her rent and eat, which usually left her no
more than a couple of months ahead of broke.
Smoke drifted from under the hood, disappearing into the gray air. Could nothing go right today?
She pulled into a parking spot on the street, but before she could turn the car off, the engine sputtered
and died.
“Damn, damn, damn.” The flesh across her wrist burned with a sudden itching that made her
scratch the skin until it turned a bright pink. Alone and stranded in a cowboy ghost town. She slumped
forward under the weight of everything she had lost this year alone: her job, her apartment, Mr. Kim—
the first friend she’d bothered to make in eight years. Her forehead dropped to the steering wheel, and
the plastic felt cool against her skin. She hit the dashboard with a balled-up fist. “Damn!” she said
again.
A heavy bang, like a door being slammed shut, sounded from a store immediately to the right of
the car. She lifted her head to look around. A café, a coffee shop, and what looked like a secondhand
store lined the still-empty sidewalk, all with black-and-white CLOSED signs turned outward. Very weird.
She looked through the passenger window and up toward a glass door with the words MOUNTAIN
MARKET spelled out in white lettering. The same CLOSED sign hung on the door, tapping the window as
though it had just been turned. A small face appeared from inside the darkened market, and she jumped,
startled. Was that the boy she’d almost hit? Today had been a crap day, but at least she could do
something right; she could talk to the boy about darting out in front of cars. She swallowed hard. Might
save his life one day.
She stepped out of the car, walked up the wooden steps to the market, and paused a moment to
look around. The sidewalk was empty, not a soul in sight. She shook her head. Instead of spending time
lecturing a kid about road safety, she should focus on finding someone who could fix her car.
The bell rang softly above the door, which she noticed stood open a crack. The market must not
be closed after all.
“Hello?” she called. Where had the boy disappeared to? She reached for the door handle, but her
leg muscles twitched, and she fought an overwhelming urge to return to her car. The boy was probably
playing with her. She gave a soft grunt. Chance had been a bit of a prankster too. This kid needed to
understand the dangers of running in front of a car. She pushed the door open a bit more, poked her
head inside. “Hello?” she called again.
Dim light filtered from the back of the store, and a woman’s voice, strained thin, like it took
effort to call out, said, “Be right there.”
Jess stepped inside and rubbed her arms at the goose bumps that spread up to her shoulders. She
wished she hadn’t left her coat in the car. It wasn’t spring at this altitude; here the air was still crisp with
winter cold.
The interior of the market was about what Jess expected based on what she’d seen of the rest of
the town during her short drive down its main street. Small, with four dimly lit and narrow aisles, the air
tasting of dust and vinegar, giving the entire space the feel of a neglected storage room rather than a
place to buy milk and toilet paper.
Late-afternoon sunlight broke through the low-hanging clouds outside and shot through the
window, brightening the front of the store but creating dark pockets in the far corners. The glare
highlighted a thick layer of dust that coated a shelf with cereal boxes and stale-looking bread. Her nose
tickled, and she sneezed three times in a row, muffling it into the crook of her elbow. When she looked
up, she noticed a slight figure standing at the end of one of the darkened aisles.
The boy from the street. She softened. He looked even smaller than she’d thought.
“Hey there, bud,” she said. “You should really be more careful when you cross the street. I
almost hit you.”
He stood so still she almost wondered if the light had played tricks on her. She squinted. No, that
was him: red sweatshirt, dark jeans. From his size he looked to be about seven or eight. She blinked
rapidly, pressed a palm to her chest.
“I’ll be right there,” the same voice she’d heard before said from somewhere in the back of the
store.
The boy hadn’t moved, and Jess felt a prickle of annoyance at how effortlessly he ignored her.
And with his head angled toward the shelves of food and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up, she
couldn’t see his face. She tried to soften. Just a local kid trying to be funny.
She took a step toward him. “Just look both ways next time, okay?” Her mouth had turned dry,
papery. She cleared her throat.
He turned and came toward her, carefully placing one foot in front of the other like he was
walking a tightrope. His head hung down, eyes trained on the floor. Jess took an involuntary step back
and tried to ignore the sweat that had gathered in her armpits despite the cool air. There was something
off about his behavior.
“Hey, bud,” she tried again, and this time the boy stopped dead in his tracks.
A rustling came from the back of the store and then the woman’s voice again. “You’re here!”
The boy sprinted past Jess, trailing his finger along one of the shelves as he ran. Cans of food
and packages of noodles tumbled to the floor with a crash.
“Hey!” Jess yelled, hurrying after him, but the little vandal had already disappeared outside. The
bell above the door gave a shrill ring when it slammed shut.
A hoarse feminine chuckle sounded from behind Jess. “Guess he didn’t want to stay for the
blueberry muffins.”
Jess turned and tried not to let her mouth hang open at the sight of the woman wearing an outfit
better suited for Halloween than a Wednesday afternoon in May. Her black dress looked like it belonged
in a museum, with a skirt billowing around her ankles and a high neck edged in lace that brushed along
her jawline. The color was severe against the old woman’s pale, wrinkled skin, which stood in stark
contrast to her tight bun of flaming-red hair.
“Excuse me?” Jess said.
“It’s Wednesday,” the woman answered, as though that were explanation enough.
Jess pointed down the aisle. “He knocked those things off your shelves.”
The old lady smiled, and the effort deepened the wrinkles around her cheeks and eyes. She had
to be at least eighty, and that might be too generous. “Never mind about the boy,” she said. “Some of
them like to have a bit of fun with me.” She stared at Jess with eyes so blue they seemed almost
transparent and tapped her chin. “I thought you’d be younger,” she said.
“O-kay.” Jess had heard jokes about backwoods mountain towns and the people who lived in
them, but she’d only ever lived in the city and had thought the jokes were mostly from city snobs. She
studied the woman in her black dress with the full skirt and high neck, thought about the empty streets
and closed businesses outside. Maybe the jokes weren’t too far off the mark.
“I was expecting a girl.”
Jess was at a loss for words. The woman reminded her of Mr. Kim. With his effortless smile and
sharp wit, Mr. Kim made it easy to grow fond of him at the nursing home where she’d worked. Mr. Kim
was one of the few residents who had retained the majority of his faculties, except for the occasional
slip from reality, which made him all the more endearing to Jess. The elderly were like that for her:
interesting, nonthreatening, and good companions during her long shifts. She felt a pang. She’d loved
that job. But this was not a nursing home, and this woman either worked here or was as lost as Jess, so
Jess smiled and held out her hand. “I’m Jess. I was looking for a gas station, but my car broke down.”
Instead of shaking her hand, the woman covered it between her small, soft palms. “I’m Lucy,”
she said, winking, “and I know things.”
Jess laughed. Lucy definitely reminded her of Mr. Kim. “Well then, Lucy, do you know anyone
who can fix my car for less than sixty bucks?” Leaving her twenty dollars to do what? Buy a quarter
tank of gas and a pack of gum? She groaned inwardly. Stupid was too kind a word for the predicament
she had gotten herself into.
Lucy’s face brightened. “That’s the right question.” Then she turned from Jess to the counter by
the door and began to riffle through a stack of newspapers beside the register. “Where is it?” she
mumbled.
Jess’s chest tightened with a swell of pity. Lucy looked suddenly lost and unsure of herself. “Can
I help?” she asked, and joined the woman at the counter. The papers were all crossword puzzles—
folded in half, most of them blank, a few filled in with one or two words. “You like crossword puzzles,
Lucy?” she said with a soft smile, then shifted her gaze outside. Why was the older woman all alone in
this store? Or, for that matter, the entire town? “I noticed all the stores are closed. Is there somebody I
can call for you?”
Lucy halted what she was doing to stare at Jess. “Nothing’s open today, dear. Everyone thinks
the ice on the lake is finally thin enough.”
“Thin enough?”
“For the ice-melt barrel to fall through, of course.” She winked. “It’s been a long winter, so
there’s a fair amount of money riding on when it falls through the ice. Quite the to-do up here every
spring.”
Jess rubbed the back of her neck. In her experience, there were no days off, no holidays, no sick
leave, and definitely no celebrating a barrel falling through the ice when she could be working. She
gestured around the store. “Yours is the only store open in town. Why aren’t you watching the ice melt
too?”
Lucy’s smile stretched the folds of skin around her mouth. “Because it’s Wednesday, dear. I only
open the store on Wednesdays.” She turned back to the pile of papers, pulling one page loose from the
stack. “Here it is!” She lifted a pair of reading glasses from a chain around her neck and settled them on
the bridge of her nose. Her finger ran down the page, paused; she read, “It’s good when a batter does it
on the field, but not on the road.” Her eyes met Jess’s, huge and shockingly blue behind her blackrimmed
glasses. “Well?”