TEASER CHAPTER

Keri pushed open the back door, again stepping into a swirl of white. She bounded through the snow beneath the arbor to the barn. It was too numbingly cold to stop and knock; instead, she gently pushed open the door and stepped inside.

It was dim and frosty cold, but her eyes immediately found the lone figure of Jeremy Quinn standing in the center of the emptied room. If he’d seen or heard her enter, he made no sign of it. He stood as if in a trance. Keri recognized his grandfather’s bandana wrapped around his head, keeping the hair out of his face as he gazed, hands cradled in pockets, at—nothing.

Something sank in Keri’s chest.

“Jeremy?” she said.

Slowly, he turned toward her, and Keri caught a gleam of wetness below his eyes as subdued light from the window fell across his face. She stepped toward him on rubbery legs, and then she saw it: the heart-broken look behind those sad, damp eyes. For the first time she was glad that her drooping face was unable to totally portray what she felt within.

Jeremy was leaving.

Her steps became more sluggish. It was nearly impossible to lift her feet, just as it’d been when she’d gotten her foot stuck in the swamp the day she’d met Jeremy and Scalawag here at the house. The memory made her heart sink even further. Any more, and she’d become nothing but a pile of sludge creeping across the floor.

“You’ve come,” said Jeremy.

“Of course,” she said.

Keri came to within a few feet of him, then froze, suddenly too emotional to move, or to speak. Instead, she glanced about the old barn, taking in the smell of old wood and sawdust and emptied-out dreams.

“I think I’m ready to go,” Jeremy finally said.

“This all happened so fast,” Keri managed to say through a choke-tightened throat. Then, realizing how emotional she sounded, she took a deep breath and pulled her mind elsewhere, allowing her sagging mouth to speak for her as though it was being used by the disembodied spirit of her once ultra-professional self.

Her voice became remote. “But I think things worked out for the best,” she heard herself say.

Jeremy turned full-face to her. “I think you’re right,” he said.

“I see you’re wearing your grandfather’s bandana,” Keri said, smiling thinly. “That’s sweet.”

“It was a sweet and sentimental night that I showed it to you in your sister’s barn,” Jeremy said.

Keri gulped, and nodded, her eyes drifting to the floor.

“We had a lot of good times, Keri. Great times. I’ll never forget them.”

Keri looked up. “Never forget them?” she asked. “That sounds so final.”

“It is,” said Jeremy.

Keri’s voice began to tremble. “What do you mean by that? We can still call one another, write…”

“Stop,” Jeremy said softly, raising his hand. “Keri, look at me. Really, really look at me.”

It took every ounce of Keri’s remaining strength to pull her eyes straight to Jeremy’s.

“Maybe you’ve known, maybe you haven’t,” he said, then paused, as if searching for words. But he never took his gaze from her face. “But I have known, Keri,” his next words were almost unbearable, “I could never be just friends with you.”

Keri’s lips wobbled, but no words would come out.

“This is it,” Jeremy said, then something broke in his voice and he had to turn away.

Keri’s mechanical, disembodied-spirit voice finally broke through.

“I guess that’s for the best, then.”

Numbly, Jeremy nodded, still looking away. Keri watched a tear slip down his cheek. She stiffened inside, reminding herself to be calm, reminding herself she should probably still be mad at him, forcing herself to take herself out of the moment. It was the only way she’d survive this.

Jeremy turned back toward her. “It’s time for me to go.”

“I’ll lock up—if it’s okay with you,” Keri was mortified to hear her other-self say.

“That will be fine,” Jeremy replied.

Then, suddenly, he was close to her, immense, really, and he wrapped his arms about her. She remained stiff in his embrace, his wonderful, curly hair tickling her cheek, his scent filling her nostrils.

He turned slightly; his breath warm in her ear. “I’ll miss you.”

Then he pulled away, and Keri screamed inside as her mind tumbled over a precipice.

He smiled limply at her, then turned, and without a backward glance walked across the workshop and out the door. The door blew open, then shut, in the wind. Open, and shut. Darkness—then Jeremy’s receding figure became a blur in the blizzard. Darkness—then his figure a smaller blur. Darkness, and he was just a dot.

Moments later, she was still frozen as the sound of his truck’s engine came to her, sounding so near yet so light-years away.

It dawned on Keri that she could run to him. That she should run to him. That she might still, still change the outcome of this.

But nothing in her body worked.

She couldn’t remember how to move her mouth to shout, let alone will her feet to move. It was someone else’s body. That zombie. That robot that some called Scary Keri or Keri Ferrita, the ‘Man-Eata’ that controlled her now.

A shriek of wind buffeted the nearest window of the barn and startled her to her senses. Suddenly, she moved. She raced out the barn and kicked her way through the snow toward where Jeremy’s truck had been, but where now there was only an rectangle of shallow snow. Tire tracks led toward the street.

“Jeremy!” she screamed, glancing wildly down the road for a sign of the retreating vehicle. “Don’t leave me!” She caught a blur of color in the snow, the retreating color of green. Then the breath caught in her throat as the shape of a shaggy, misshapen head revealed itself in the front seat. The head turned, and a canine eye stared at her for a moment; a sad, yet somehow accusing eye. Then that eye was extinguished by a blast of snow so thick she could see nothing else. The same freezing whiteout burned against her face and neck and took the remaining breath from her lungs.

“Jeremy!” she finally gasped, “please don’t leave me!”