The Stranger was the first novella I published on the Amazon Kindle store. It’s currently for sale at a whopping $.99. I’ve decided to post it here, on my blog, in it’s entirety, for free. I am passionate about writing posts that demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus and what He’s doing in my life, but I also love writing fiction.
Here’s the plan. For the next ten weeks, I will post a chapter each Friday. Let’s call it Fiction Friday. Feel free to hashtag the crap out of that. I hope you enjoy the story. If you like this one, I have a couple more on Amazon. You can find them here: Author Page
“Mel?” I rushed over as he collapsed to one knee. “Mel! Are you okay?” I grabbed his arm and tried lifting him to his feet.
He held up an index finger as a sign for me to wait. I watched him labor for breath and initially thought he might have had a heart attack. Mel was only fifty-six, but, with the kind of food he served at the cafe, he wasn’t exactly on the path leading to healthy. “I’m…I’m alright. Just give me a minute.”
For the first time since leaving my shop with Jimmy, I noticed the weather had drastically changed. With the stealth of a ninja, foreboding clouds overtook the sky and choked out the marvelous, and rarely seen, glow of sunshine. The wind blew in from the sea, wailing like a grieving mother over a dying child.
The air was warm, but I shivered in its grip.
Jimmy and Dena hovered behind me as I tried to help Mel. “Is he okay?” Dena’s voice cracked, and I knew she was fighting off tears. “Mel?” He was the closest thing either of them had to a father figure. Their biological parent left when they were both young. Speculations about his departure had come and gone, but no one truly knew for sure the reason for his sudden abandonment.
At least that’s one thing I didn’t have to deal with. When Leah and I parted ways, there were no children involved to complicate things even further. Would that have changed anything? Probably not. Once a certain line has been crossed, there’s no going back. Twenty years down the road, if someone steps forward claiming to be my offspring, well, then I might have a problem.
Mel reached up and gripped my hand for support. There was a bench out in front of the restaurant, and I helped him sit down. “You okay? Do I need to get help?”
Color began returning to his face, but both hands still trembled. He tried to offer a smile, but it looked more like a grimace. “I’m okay, thanks.”
I joined him on the bench. “What happened?”
“I came out of the kitchen and saw…him, just sitting there. How is that possible? He can’t be here, can he?”
“If you’re talking about Lance, then no, he’s not. It’s someone that looks a lot like him, that’s all.”
Dena sat down and took Mel’s hand in her own. He smiled and patted her knee. “I’m fine, Sweetheart. That took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to see him in there.”
Jimmy moved in closer so he could talk to Mel. “Contrary to what Dillon thinks, I believe it is Lance. Somehow he either escaped or was released from prison, and now he’s back.”
“Jimmy, don’t.” I shot him a glare that had death written all over it. It was a look I learned from the before mentioned ex-wife. By the time our honeymoon ended, she had it mastered.
“What? We can’t ignore the obvious, man. You haven’t even seen him yet so-”
I cut him off. “Look, I’m telling you, there’s no-”
“Boys!” Mel interrupted and we both stopped talking. “Will you two be quiet for a minute? I can’t even think straight right now.” Dena rested her head on his shoulder as a tear slowly trailed down her face. He squeezed her hand in a comforting gesture.
I knew I had to march inside and see for myself if Lance Puckett had indeed returned to Seal Bay. I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I couldn’t ignore the fluttering in my stomach or the sinister darkness that had blanketed the entire town. Dean would call them omens. I wasn’t sure I wanted to call them anything.
I was, in no sense of the word, a hero. I worked on computers for a living, a poster child for geeks everywhere. Growing up, I never got involved in fights, vandalism, or anything that would suggest I was a punk in any way. I read a lot when I was a child. I stayed indoors while my friends went swimming or camping.
My imagination was the tool I used to block out the things of which I wasn’t a sizable fan. Other kids didn’t pick on me when I was on a journey to the center of the earth with Jules Verne. I was the one giving orders when I commandeered the USS Enterprise. I helped solve a multitude of mysteries as the third Hardy boy.
In the Marines, I learned how to shoot a gun and defend myself, but focused mainly on jobs that involved using, fixing, or teaching electronics. In the land of fiction, I would have no trouble sweeping in on a white horse to save the day.
In the real world, I was nothing more than a computer nerd with a bookshelf full of novels.
I took a deep breath as I stood up and walked toward the door. The first thing I saw was a picture of a young girl, smiling as if the person behind the camera just told a funny joke. Her name was Charity Stanton, and she was fifteen the night Lance Puckett took her life. She was an exceptional student, captain of the volleyball team, and beloved daughter of Mel and Lori Stanton.
She was also a devoted friend to the ones of us who had lived in Seal Bay all our lives. I swallowed my emotion and entered the restaurant.
I could tell Mel’s sudden departure had generated some commotion inside the cafe. Several of the regulars were on their feet, heading toward the exact door I walked through. Upon my entrance, they stopped, looked at me in surprise, and started speaking at the same time.
I held up both hands in an attempt to halt the barrage of questions they were about to hurl in my direction. “Mel’s fine. He just needed some air. He’ll be back inside before you know it.” Okay, so that wasn’t exactly the entire truth, but it seemed to me the best way to avoid a riot.
My announcement seemed to satisfy the curious crowd for the moment, and they returned to their plates of eggs, bacon, and biscuits with gravy. I breathed a sigh of relief and walked over to the cash register. The relentless growling in my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.
Summer Washington stared at me with a look that clearly implied she wasn’t buying my bogus story about Mel. She had been a waitress at the diner for as long as I could remember, one of the best. In high school, we got along exceptionally, but after graduation, we drifted apart without thoroughly knowing why.
Soon after, I left for basic training and Summer went off to college. Two years later, she decided a higher education wasn’t for her and returned to Seal Bay. She became best friends with Charity Stanton and started working for Mel.
“Dillon? What’s going on?”
The soft manner, in which she says my name, often buckles my knees, but it wasn’t a typical morning as I had so many mixed emotions swirling around inside. “He’s fine, Summer, I swear. Just a little shocked at seeing the Puckett look-alike. I’m going to go talk to this guy and see who he actually is.”
A look of concern flashed across her delicate features. “You don’t think it’s Lance?” she whispered. “It sure looks like him.”
“No, I don’t. It can’t be. When you’re on death row, you’re there until the execution. Maybe he has a twin that no one knew about.”
Summer shook her head and frowned. Her glossy, dark hair was tied up in a neat bun underneath her hat. One rouge strand defiantly stuck out the side. “Nah, we all know he was an only child. It is weird though.”
“Did you talk to him at all?” I asked. “You would know for sure then.”
“No, he didn’t say anything. Just came in and sat down. Everyone was too shocked to go over and talk to him.” Summer dropped her head and then looked up, directly into my eyes. “When he came in, it was almost like he brought darkness with him. I know that sounds weird, but it was creepy.”
I shook my head and swallowed the lump that had formed in the back of my throat. “That doesn’t sound weird at all. Have you looked outside? It’s like day has turned into night.”
“I hope he leaves soon. I have a feeling there might be trouble.”
I could literally feel tension hanging in the air. It was heavy, like a cloud saturated with moisture, hovering just above the ground. Despite that, I could easily get lost inside her emerald green eyes. Since my divorce, she had been the only person I knew that made me want to date again.
I forced myself to break eye contact and said, “Look, call Sam and let him know what’s going on. See if he can come over and check this guy out. I’ll be back in a minute.”
As I started to walk away from the counter, Summer touched my arm. “Be careful.”
I nodded and walked around the corner to a seating area along the back. An expectant hush draped the normal murmur of people chatting and laughing. Silence clamped down so hard that even the mere thought of speaking out loud seemed highly inappropriate.
I struggled to contain the pounding inside my chest that was my heart attempting to leap from its cage. I kept telling myself that the person I was about to see was not Lance Puckett. Logic screamed that it wasn’t possible the killer had escaped prison and found his way home. If that had, in fact, been the case, surely the local authorities in Seal Bay would have been notified. A common courtesy would be to call up the Sheriff and give him a heads up. Oh, by the way, the most hated man in your town escaped our custody and is now heading in your direction even as we speak. Good luck.
It wasn’t like he was arrested for being over the alcohol limit and remanded into federal custody as an afterthought. The killings were thought out, well-planned, and almost flawlessly executed. The unified fabric of a community was ripped to shreds in a matter of hours.
George’s hardware store ran out of deadbolts the following next week. People continued to work on trust issues.
I approached the stranger as he sat facing in the opposite direction. I had no idea what to expect. With each step that took me closer to the table, my pulse quickened even more. I blotted both clammy palms against my jeans. My throat had become dry and ragged as if I had spent the last month wandering around in the Mojave.
Even though I hated confrontation, I knew it had to be done. I was tempted to wait on Sam’s arrival so I could step back and follow his lead. Fear clung to my thoughts as sweat beaded my forehead.
Having quite an active imagination, I envisioned the guy jumping up from the booth, pulling out an enormous shotgun and blowing me away with a quick pull of the trigger. Pushing the ridiculous thoughts from my head, I walked past the table and turned around to face the visitor.
My not so thought-out plan was to question his identity and extract the truth by whatever means necessary. I had read enough mysteries and courtroom dramas to know what questions to ask. I would fire off my look of death, and he would have no choice other than to cooperate. I would dig deep and find the strength and nerve to execute my plan.
My gaze fell upon the man, and I remembered that I was, after all, not a hero, but a self-taught computer tech who had found himself in waters that were far over his head. That thought crippled what small portion of confidence I had managed to discover in myself.
I stared into the sullen eyes of Lance Puckett.