Innocence & Ashes Sample Chapter
three years earlier
A low buzzing came from inside the break room. I knocked on the doorframe and waited. It had been my idea to give her the job, but only because my brother was supposed to be around to deal with her. Instead, I had to keep asking her to cover funeral directing.
It was just me. Picking up the pieces.
A grunt erupted from the occupant, followed by a mumbled, “Come in.” The new employee held an electric shaver in her hand, long strands of dyed-gray hair spread across the floor. The side of her head looked like a lawnmower had destroyed it. A round table was shoved against the wall, and a sleeping bag was stuffed in the corner by the window. The bag of toiletries I had put together from my uncle’s old things rested on the countertop. It wasn’t much, but it was better than sleeping in the mausoleum.
“Can you cover tomorrow too?” I asked. Her pinched face softened, realizing I wasn’t there to reprimand her. She slid the buzzer onto the countertop and waited. While she was good with the families, she was hesitant around me. Understandably so. I was her boss.
“Your brother is still gone?” she asked.
I didn’t know when he was coming back. “You’ll get your overtime,” I said. “And the bookkeeper will be in. She’ll help—”
A vibration rumbled through the ground, the bass of progressive metal music blasting through the building. The employee looked at me, raising her brow. I turned in the direction of the house.
So Justin had finally decided to show up, then.
“Excuse me,” I said. I closed the break room door behind me, then stomped through the building and the cemetery, toward the house. The melody shook the ground. Apparently, he was enjoying his time off work. I clenched my fists, then opened the front door.
The music crashed into me, but otherwise, the house was empty. I glanced in the backyard; the dogs were out back, avoiding the racket. I turned off the stereo, an eerie silence falling over the house. My boots fell heavy on the floors as I searched for him, but every room was closed off. A light came from the gap at the bottom of the bathroom door.
I wasn’t one to interrupt someone’s privacy, but for all I knew, he was passed out with his head in the toilet after a bender. We had done that a lot when we were younger.
“Where were you?” I asked. No answer. I cleared my throat. “You in there?”
Not passed out, but just as irritating. “You can hear that shit from the funeral home.”
I shook my head, then continued down the hallway. But something stopped me. This wasn’t like him; he was full of smart-ass comments and had given up too easily. I checked his room: everything was in its place. There wasn’t even a dirty shirt in the hamper. But a single piece of paper caught my eye, perfectly folded in the trash bin, as if he knew he might have to dig it out later. A pamphlet. I fished it out and opened it: What Your Prognosis Means, followed by more information. But one line stood out to me.
It was the same disease that our mother had died from.
I swung the bathroom door open. Muggy air enveloped me. Justin laid in the bathtub, the water steaming, his eyelids drooping. I lifted the sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“What does it look like?”
So it was what I thought, then. I scowled. “When were you going to tell me?”
The paper crinkled in my hands. “When did you get this?”
“About a week ago.”
“And you’re showing up now?”
He lifted his shoulders, then slumped down, sinking until his chin was in the water. A full syringe laid on the side of the tub. I backtracked, opening the closed door of the studio: the floorboard was removed. Vials and pills and more crap we used to keep away from our uncle were spread out on the floor. I hadn’t touched any of it in a long time. And Justin? He had been off of it longer than I had.
So he was self-medicating, then. Not my problem. At least, not right now. I went back to the bathroom.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
His pupils were dilated, his breathing slow. “What do you mean?”
“When do you start treatment?” I pointed in the direction of the funeral home. “We hired that new employee. And in a few weeks, we can give her a raise. Or—” I shrugged, “—increase hourly service costs to cover the medical bills.”
He leaned his head to the side and let out a long breath.
“So?” I asked.
“Don’t care, really.”
Fine. I could figure this out myself. “She needs the money. So we’ll—”
He sat up, wobbling from side to side like the energy had rushed to his head. “Have you forgotten what it was like? Watching Mom die?” He forced a laugh. “How it destroyed us? I’m not going through that. And I’m not going to make you go through that.” A sigh whined through his lips. “And you sure as fuck aren’t going to make me.”
I narrowed my eyes. He acted like he was destined for the same fate as our mother, when he hadn’t even tried to do anything to stop it.
“It’s been twenty-five years,” I said. “There have to be better treatments available—”
“How do you know?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the last week?” He grimaced, folding his arms across his chest. He pressed his lips into a thin line. “I’m not going through that.”
“You don’t know what would happen.”
He gave me a hard smile. “Are you that stubborn?”
I clenched my fists, biting my jaw so hard that my teeth crunched in my ears. “You can’t give up.”
“It’s my fucking life.”
“And mine too,” I shouted. “What you do affects me. You’re not going to do this. You can’t. You’re about to—”
“What?” Justin shook his head. “I’m about to do what? You have the new employee. Make her do the people work.” His gaze flicked upward, avoiding my eyes. “Trust me. We both know it’ll be better when I’m gone.”
I wanted to punch him in the face for suggesting that. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“You don’t need me. You haven’t in years.”
A dull pain grew in my chest. We hadn’t been close since before our mother got sick, but the reason why I didn’t need him like that was because he had always looked after me. We stood by each other, even when we were stupid idiots. Disappearing for weeks. Getting arrested. Shooting up when we should have been working.
“It’s not about needing someone, and you know it,” I said. He rolled his eyes. “Give it some time. You know that—”
He put the syringe in the crook of his elbow and pushed on the plunger.
“The fuck are you doing?” I asked.
Another syringe caught my eye, tossed behind the toilet. This was his second hit. He was going to overdose.
I smacked the syringe away, but he was already halfway there. Rage flushed my skin, throbbing in my ears. I was back in our parents’ bedroom, watching as Dad put the gun to his temple, his body slumping over Mom’s blue-green flesh. Helplessness crawled up inside of me. None of it seemed real then. And it didn’t seem real now.
Justin’s eyes were bottomless pits staring back at me. He smiled.
My heart palpitated. Spots crowded my vision, covering him. We weren’t supposed to go out like this. I was never going to let that happen.
It wasn’t up to him.
My own fucking brother.
I ran to my closet, getting the canvas bag from the top shelf, then pulled out the pistol. I brought it to the bathroom, loading the gun as I walked. My heart drummed in my chest with each step, and I opened the door.
His eyes were glazed over, cast in front of him. His chest exhaled, and he settled deeper into the water. He wouldn’t feel a thing.
He wasn’t going to leave me. Like they left us.
But not without misery. I lifted the gun. Pulled the trigger.
The bullet went through his temple. He fell back, slumping in the water, a sinking ship. But that wasn’t enough. I rushed to the medicine cabinet and found my straight razor, then reached into the water, ramming it into his arm, slicing down toward his wrist. Red swirled in the tub. I smashed my fists into his chest, holding him under, then stabbed the razor into the other arm, going as deep as I could until the muscles, veins, and tendons caught on the blade. The water sloshed over the sides of the tub, spilling on the ground.
His face was blank. Emotionless. Empty.
I held my breath. Then I brought the blade down again, and again, until his chest was battered with punctures and my whole body buzzed with heat, soaked with water and blood.
The razor dropped from my palm, clinking on the floor. The tap tap tap on the tile interrupted my thoughts. I looked down; my palm was bleeding. I must have squeezed the blade too tightly. I slid onto the floor, the bathwater soaking the bottom of my pants, my eyes burning, warm blood covering my arms and chest. The air conditioning kicked on, blasting from the vents. I shuddered, but my breaths came out even and slow. I wiped the back of my hand on my face; I was drenched.
Justin floated in the tub behind me.
Was it an overdose? The bullet? The loss of blood? Drowning?
He was going to leave anyway.
I should have felt something. Should have felt guilty. Afraid. Angry. But my mind fixated on the razor. On the gun.
I wiped them off, then I soaped the blade, ran it through the water, and wiped the edges until it was clean and smooth. Next, I used a cloth to wipe my fingerprints from the gun. Once the evidence was gone, I used a towel to bring both of them to the tub. I pressed the pistol in Justin’s hand. I put the blade in his other palm, wrapping his fingers around it. I would have to burn my clothes in the firepit soon.
I kneeled at the side of the tub, my eyes half-lidded. The steam rose from the water. I wiped my wet face on my hands again as the events kept replaying in my head: he hadn’t even moved; he had just stopped. There was no response, and there never would be again.
But it didn’t give me any closure.
I should have watched him burn.
a few days later
Steam danced above a cup waiting on the table for me. I lifted a brow; that hadn’t happened in ages, just like the outfit laid on my bed. Shea, my mother, was standing at the kitchen sink, looking out our window at the rose bushes blooming in the backyard. Her hair was twisted into a bun for the first time in ages. Before she could make a comment about my long low ponytail, I quickly copied her hairstyle.
“Morning, sweetheart!” she said, picking up where we left off. Her honeysuckle perfume filled the air; I scrunched my nose, then straightened. “You look adorable!” It was like the last six months had never happened, but I wasn’t going to complain about that. I was wearing the same black dress as her. It had a high waist and a shiny orange sash, three-quarter sleeves, with lace covering the bodice and arms. I had opted for black flats, instead of the orange heels, like she was wearing, but luckily, she hadn’t noticed yet. “I knew we’d look perfect in it.”
She loved playing up the mother/daughter image. I had learned a long time ago not to make a big deal out of it. Pick your battles wisely.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
I blinked at her, my skin tingling with discomfort.
“Yes,” I finally said. It was a lie, but I wasn’t going to risk upsetting her. I hadn’t been able to sleep in ages.
She flicked a thumb at the backyard. “Are those rose bushes new?” I nodded, though whether or not they were actually new was debatable. I had planted them two months ago. I admit I had taken advantage of her lack of interest lately; she had never allowed me to garden by myself before. “They’re beautiful.”
I smiled. “Thanks.”
“Be careful with them, you know?” she said. “They’re not as easy to take care of as you’d think.”
My stomach twisted. They had survived the last two months fine, but there was a chance she would remove them anyway.
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
Shea hummed along to the radio as we drove to work. I tapped my fingers against my legs. Despite the fact that the dismissive comments were back, I welcomed her return. And yet, I didn’t understand this sudden shift. For the last few months, we had been driving to the flower shop in silence, where I’d scrounge my breakfast to-go from the pantry, while my mother skipped her own. She saved her energy for the shop, where she kept an even smile on her face until we closed, then it was back to silence again. At night, I left her dinner on the vacant side of the bed, where it cooled, undisturbed.
It was like a switch had been flipped, and now, she was back.
Pumpkins lined the shops downtown. My cartoonish, but cute monster scowled outside of our entrance door. I turned off the electric candle.
“That’s cute, sweetheart, but it doesn’t match our image,” Shea said, bopping my nose. “I don’t want our customers to associate our flowers with something spooky.”
It was more cute than spooky, and we had already had it out for a few days. She was going to reject it on Halloween?
“You might find some new customers,” I argued. “Some people really like Halloween.”
“They like the candy.” She winked, then fluttered inside, pulling a small bowl of chocolates from under the register, putting it on display. “Get the other pumpkin and carve the rose. They always like that.”
I let it go. It was just a pumpkin. I didn’t need to hold my ground for something like that. But when it came to things that mattered, I had to stand up for myself. I was eighteen now, and I had already applied and been pre-selected for a scholarship at the University of Dixon on the West Coast. All I had to do was accept.
That evening, we met Sheriff Mike at a charity event for a photo opportunity. He was my father, but he was rarely home, and when he was, his moods fluctuated so wildly that I stayed out of his way. But I smiled at the cameras anyway, happy for the chance to be out in public for once. Afterward, we walked to Nectar Latte, grabbing a tea for me and coffee for my parents, then headed back to Poppies & Wheat. My mother talked idly at my father, who nodded along with her.
Everything seemed at peace for once. It was now, or never.
“There’s something I wanted to ask you two about,” I said, interrupting them.
“Oh?” Shea asked.
Sheriff Mike opened the door to the shop. We went inside. My mother found her place behind the counter and started rifling through the supplies. The latest assistant manager buzzed out of the way.
“What’s the weather like in California this time of year?” I asked.
Shea tilted her head at me. “Why do you ask?”
“Could I wear this over there for Halloween?”
“That’s silly,” she smiled brightly. “Why would you need to wear that dress over there?”
“I got this letter.” I ran to the storeroom and grabbed the envelope from my cubby. “I was pre-selected for a scholarship. And I got an early acceptance—”
“You applied for college,” she interrupted, her jaw dropped. “When?”
Her eyes were weary, her jaw loose, like I had betrayed her. My stomach dropped to my toes. Sheriff Mike’s posture stiffened.
“Last month,” I said.
Her chin darted away as if she couldn’t stand to look at me. Then she dashed to the storeroom, busying herself with organizing the ribbons.
“Mom,” I said. “It would only take one plane ride. It’s not that far.”
She ignored my words. Sheriff Mike sighed deeply, his shadow hovering.
“I would only need a little bit of financial aid. Maybe a thousand or two. That scholarship is—” the excitement welled up inside of me, my words coming out faster, “—really big.”
She went past me, practically knocking me out of the doorway.
“It’s not about the money,” she said. She opened one of the display coolers, then slammed it shut.
“They have a great program for floriculture and agriculture, and I really, really think it would be good for me.”
She pinched her lips together. “I’m sure you can take online classes.”
“There’s an idea,” Sheriff Mike said.
I shook my head at my father. “I told you, it’s not the same.” I turned back to my mother. “With floriculture, you need in-person learning. Labs and stuff. Greenhouses, the climate, the soil—”
“How did you even get into a college like that with a GED?” she asked. “Surely, they would have highly competitive applicants more suited than you, a homeschooled child from Punica.” My cheeks flushed with heat. Yeah, I hadn’t graduated from a high school like my peers. But it helped that my father did his best to get my application into the right hands. But if I said any of that, I would risk revealing him. His brows furrowed; he didn’t want me to say anything. “So why did they pick you?” Shea continued. “What did you do, exactly?”
I flicked my eyes back and forth across hers, my skin hot. “I don’t know,” I said. “But they chose me. And I want to go.” I clenched my jaw. “I need to go.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Kora.” My breath caught in my throat; she rarely used my name like that. “Without you, I’d have to hire another worker. And right now, that’s all I can afford; one assistant manager, plus the two of us. But how’s this? I’ll fire the current assistant manager and I’ll get someone around your age. A friend for you. How’s that?”
“Miss Shea?” the assistant manager asked.
“Not now,” my mother said, waving her hand.
But I didn’t want a friend. I wanted my own life.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I said.
“I don’t even understand how you applied,” she said. “Can you explain how you went behind my back?”
If I told her the truth, she would be devastated, and Sheriff Mike would never forgive me.
“I want to go to college,” I said.
She turned around slowly. Silence filled the space between us. Then she whispered, “I can’t deal with this right now.” She went to the back patio. I followed her, but before I reached the door, the assistant manager grabbed my arm.
“Give her a minute,” she said. “She needs time to cool off.”
Cool off? I shook my head. “She’s my mother.”
Shea sat against the wall, staring out at the trees stretching up behind the shop. The shadows made her eyes look like water-filled caves. Exhaustion riddled her face.
“You’re the most precious flower we have,” she murmured. I hated when she said that, but right then, at those words, pain prickled the back of my throat. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You have Dad,” I said.
“You know that’s not true.”
We stayed in silence like that, the trickles of laughter from store-front trick-or-treaters filling the air. Even if Sheriff Mike was technically around, it had been the two of us for so long, and we knew it might always be like that. My mother needed someone to look after her, and that was never going to be my father. But still, I had hoped for something else. A life where she could find her way, and I could find mine.
A child cackled, imitating a witch, and a twinge of anger fluttered through me. I had never been trick-or-treating before. My mother thought it was dangerous. But there were children a few yards from us, most of which were more than a decade younger than me, free to go about as they pleased.
Sheriff Mike came to the back patio and mouthed: Go inside.
So I did. I bit my fingers and waited while my father talked to my mother. I hoped—no, I begged the universe that he would be able to convince her. To show her why college was good for me. After all, he had been the one who had gotten me the applications in the first place. If anyone could help her find the reason, it would be her husband.
The back door opened. I lifted my shoulders, holding my breath. My father closed the door, sealing my mother off. He grimaced, his posture stiffer than ever.
But I couldn’t give up yet.
“How did it go?” I asked. He walked past me. “Did she say anything?”
“What do you think?”
His tone was cold. I froze in place. “Are you mad at me?” He glared, and I shifted my weight. “But you helped me apply?”
“I want you out of the house.” His chin hung low. “You know she uses you to control me? Reminds me of the family man I’m supposed to be.” He beat his fists into the countertop. “I never wanted this. But you, going to college? Then I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.” He waved a hand in front of him. “But that’s not going to happen now, is it?”
I shook my head, my heart sinking.
“Stop the fucking whining. You’re lucky to be alive, you know that?” he muttered. “I told Shea to get rid of you. But she said I needed you for the election, or she’d tell the press I refused to marry her.” Tears welled up inside of me. I was going to break. Sheriff Mike was never good at family, but this? Was he being serious? That he didn’t want me to exist? His jaw pressed into a hard line. “You act like you’ve got the worst life, but you have a home. A sheriff for a father. A mother who is obsessed with you. And you’d rather push her into another episode, make everyone else deal with the fallout. Why can’t you be grateful?”
My throat ached and the tears streamed down in angry bursts. I clutched my stomach, my guts twisting, threatening to erupt.
Was it my fault?
“You’re just saying that,” I sniffled, trying to keep my words steady, trying to convince myself that it was the truth. That he was only angry. That it was hard to know what to do with our family.
I rested a hand on the counter, balancing myself. I needed fresh air; I was going to be sick.
“Help me,” he mumbled to himself, running a hand over his face in exasperation. “Don’t vomit all over the place again. Take those sniveling emotions, bottle them up, and act like a fucking grown-up for once.”
I crossed my arms over my chest, the sobbing finally unleashing. In his eyes, tears were fine. As long as I didn’t get sick.
“You wonder why she babies you? Why she’s afraid to let you out of her sight? Because of this.” He threw a hand up and I shrank down. “You’re eighteen years old. You’re a fucking embarrassment.”
I trembled, my jaw shaking. He tossed his head to the side, then picked up a daffodil with browned edges, one we had unpacked that morning.
“Our precious little flower,” he said, mimicking my mother’s words. “Worse than this.” He crushed the petals in his hand. My heart pulsed. It was true that we couldn’t sell it, but it didn’t need to be discarded like that.
“I need air,” I managed to say. “I’m going to be sick. I need—”
“Then go,” Sheriff Mike shouted. He threw a hand at the door. “Leave! Get out!”
He bared his teeth. The tension inside of me built into a heaviness that settled on my shoulders, sinking down to my stomach. He wasn’t going to stop me. He actually wanted me to leave.
So I ran.
The door closed behind me, the jingling bell mixing with the laughter of children. The night air hit my face, cooling the tears on my cheeks. I barrelled across the street to the viewpoint looking over the stream, banging my hands into the railing. A full moon hovered over the water, judging me.
But no one followed me. I was alone.
A shadow shifted to the side. A man, taller than me, rubbed a hand across his chin, smearing the dirt on his face. He had broad shoulders, thick arms, and bulbous white scars twisting over his arms and neck, tinted purple in the night. Mud was caked in his fingernails, as if he had been crawling in the woods for days, barely surviving. I had never been this close to a strange man before. I had seen men from the cracked door of the storeroom, but I had only been this close to my father and my childhood friend, Andrew. This stranger fascinated me. He was raw and masculine. He stepped forward, locked eyes with mine, holding me still. My stomach strained, electric nerves circulating inside of me.
I swallowed, unsure of what to say. But he was waiting. Maybe I was supposed to speak first.
“Is that your costume?” I asked, motioning at the dirt on his skin. He looked too old for Halloween, but I didn’t know what else to say.
“I was working.” His voice was rough and cold, like a winter night.
“What do you do?”
“I dig graves.”
I wrapped my arms around myself. Graves? That explained the dirt on his skin. A flash of heat covered me from head to toe, then disappeared.
“I didn’t know they still dug graves by hand,” I said.
I bit my lip, trying to keep myself together. I glanced back at Poppies & Wheat; the Closed! sign was in the window now, but the lights were still on. My stomach clenched. When I turned back, the man’s eyes were still roaming me, unrelenting. My cheeks flamed, and my head pulsed with pain. I cringed. It was all of this stupid hair. I pulled out the ties and pins, letting my hair shake down my back.
“Maybe I should just cut it all off,” I muttered.
“That will show them,” he said, a hint of laughter in his voice, like he was mocking me. What was his problem?
But I realized something then: the sadness was there, but it seemed lighter than before. And I could actually move without being afraid of getting sick.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Kora.” I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. He seemed trustworthy, though I had no idea why—only pure instinct. “Kora Nova. My mother owns the flower shop. You might know my father—he’s the sheriff?” My words were so fast, I sounded desperate. I scrunched my eyes closed. He didn’t ask about your family history, stupid, I told myself. No one cares.
But he was the only person who wasn’t treating me like a child right then.