Category/genre: Adult Paranormal Thriller
Author: Lora Couch
Editor: Kisa Whipkey
Original version here.
Student loans suck, and Emma Lytle is in neck deep. Sick of struggling to pay the ever-ballooning payments and ready for financial freedom, Emma commits to a two-year student loan forgiveness plan in backwoods Bundance, KY. She leaves fast-paced Chicago; the only life she’s ever known, with nothing to lose.
However, honoring her recently deceased mother’s request to return to her roots comes with an unexpected twist: horrid nightmares seen through the eyes of someone else. More than just simple dreams, these memories belong to a young girl, memories that point to the realization that Emma’s family tree is steeped in rotten soil.
The strange happenings aren’t the only distractions Bundance has to offer. Dr. Grayson Smith is humble, hot, and everything Emma shouldn’t be falling for, especially when she plans to flee Bundance as soon as she’s served what she refers to as her two-year sentence.
Now, amidst a budding romance and escalating nightmares turned hauntings, she’ll have to unravel the mystery behind Bundance’s dark urban legend before she loses more than just her mind. A missing girl from decades past is crying out from the grave, and only Emma can find her.
“See,” I say, wearing the festive sombrero along with the red, green and gold leis around my neck, “this is why I like the nightshift.” Honest to God, there are just some things on nights that staff could never dream of getting away with during the day. Alice nods and then holds out her urinal for a toast. It’s so cliché in the medical world, sending a fellow co-worker off from her last shift drinking from a urinal, but what the hell. When in Rome. I smile, knocking mine against hers, completing the toast.
“To financial freedom.” Alice says and then chugs her Cherry Coke.
“God, I hope so.” I reply and then pray silently before I finish off my Sprite. I need this. I really need this. Student Loans suck ass- easy to get, damn-near impossible to get rid of. I would have never dreamed, back when I was a clueless eighteen-year-old, that my thirty-year-old self would be in debt up to my eyeballs. Years of partying and changing majors two or four times over my six-year tour at Ohio State just finishing my BSN, added up fast. Looking back, I blame the government. Why they continued to loan me money year after year, clearly when I was clueless, makes me almost want to defect to Canada or maybe England. Sadly, just like death and taxes, I’m pretty sure my debt would follow. Come to think of it, US Government Student Loans I’m sure, can still catch up with you- even in the afterlife.
My repayment, legit- is more than some people pay per month on a mortgage and almost as long of a commitment. My mother was the one who told me about the Loan Forgiveness Program, months ago before the cancer took over her brain. A chance to find my roots and make new ones, she’d said, along with something else about atonement for past sins. Damn, if she wasn’t delusional and talking all kinds of shit by the end too.
“I still can’t believe you’re leaving,” Alice sighs and turns away. Jesus. She’s crying. Alice is actually crying.
“It’s only a two-year commitment,” I remind her for the five-hundredth time since I’d made the decision a week after my mom passed. Nothing had been set in stone until after the funeral and the slew of mourners with the best of intentions. It was a daily thing for almost a solid week; my mom’s friends from her book club, her church and of course her job at the library- all dropping by with a ton of food but little to say in the way of comfort. Then again, there are no words period, when you’re grieving.
My leaving was hitting Alice hard. We’ve been best friends since junior high school. We attended Ohio State together, both in the nursing program. She’d managed to complete her BSN in four years, unlike me. She helped to get me on here in the ED at St. Gabriel’s after I graduated. The thought had crossed my mind- to ask her to go with me, deep into backwoods Kentucky, where I’ll be serving my sentence. Although she’d want to, I know she’d never leave St. Gabe’s. One, her parents had paid for her college, so she wasn’t up to her eyeballs in debt and two, her fiancée was a second-year fellow, here in the ICU. She’ll go wherever he finds a position after his fellowship’s up.
“Hey, no tears allowed, remember?” I remind her of the deal we made not long ago. “Listen, by the time my two years are up, Alex will be finished with his fellowship and who knows, maybe I’ll tag along for the ride too?” I was only partially serious of course. It’s true, with my mom gone, there really was nothing to bring me back here. Honestly though, I’m just not sure that I could tolerate Dr. Alex on a regular basis, again. The way I see it though, the world is my oyster- after I do my time.
“I know Emma, I know.” Alice says, just as lover boy enters the break room. Instantly, her mood changes and her eyes light up. “Babe!” She squeals as he plants a kiss on the top of her head.
“What?” He smiles and then shifts his gaze to me, underneath the sombrero, “You think I wouldn’t stop by to wish you luck Em?” I smile and that’s about it. I’d been the one to introduce them, in a roundabout way. As a matter of fact, Alex Sprague had spent the entire third year of his residency chasing me around here in this very ED, trying his best to get into my panties. Not that I’m a prude or anything, or saving myself for Mr. Right- he just isn’t my type. He’s handsome enough, but I never could stomach his uber-confidence. He always thought and still thinks that he’s the most important person in the room. Regardless, after so many rejections Alex fixed his sights on Alice.
Yeah, I think he loves her, at least as much as Alex can love someone besides himself, but I often wonder if he didn’t do it on purpose- choosing to pursue her. Every once in a while, I still look up and catch him looking at me that way. If Alice sees this or senses some left over feelings for me, she’s never mentioned it. Anyway, I hope things change in my absence. I hope that he wakes his ass up and sees Alice for the beautiful and kind woman she is and then, thanks his lucky stars that she said yes. “Thanks guys,” I say, looking up at the clock, surprised to see that there are only a few minutes until shift change, “Wow, I guess this is it, my last shift at St. Gabe’s.”
“Time flies,” Alice whispers and then throws herself into my arms, knocking the sombrero right off my head. “Be careful Emma, please and call me every day.” Alex catches my eye and shakes his head.
“Yeah, Em, be careful.” He says, “remember The Hills Have Eyes?” Alice gasps and then turns toward Alex, giving his arm a hard swat.
“Alex Sprague!” She says, “Why would you even say something like that? Jesus!” Alice then turns right back to me. “Just ignore him Emma, he’s an asshole.” This, I already know. Alice catches me off guard, knocking me sideways and almost out of my seat, when she throws her arms around me and hugs me again.
“I’ll be fine, Alice.” I say, hoping to reassure her, “I promise I’ll call you every week at least, okay?” When I look up and see Mike Ford poking his head into the break room, I smile. My shift is officially over.
“Hey Alice,” He says, ready for report on his patients, “Hey Emma, best of luck to you- I wish I could do that myself, but you know.” Of course I did. Everyone in the ED knew Mike’s business. He had a wife and five kids at home. There was no way in hell that he could fall off the grid for two years, even if it would absolve him of his student loan debt. He had too many mouths to feed.
“Thanks Mike,” I say, “You take care of yourself and your team.” Mike smiles and walks over for a goodbye hug.
“Be careful girl,” He whispers and then looks over at Alice, “Ready?” Alice shakes her head and follows him out to the desk to give him report. Left alone in the break room with Alex, I start to gather my things to go. Awkward. I can feel his eyes on me. Awkward as fuck.
“I’m sorry about that Em,” He says, moving closer, “what I said about The Hills. That was stupid, you know I was kidding, right?” Damn…I roll my eyes when he puts his hands on my shoulders. So much for a quick getaway.
“Sure Alex,” I look up, smile and shift slightly to my right, effectively displacing his right hand from my shoulder, “By the way, that movie took place in a desert, not Kentucky.” Alex smiles.
“Yeah, but there are freaks everywhere,” He says, “Maybe I should have referenced to Deliverance instead?” You’re the freak… Is what I want to tell him, but then bite my tongue instead.
“No worries- just take care of Alice for me, please?” Alex sighs and shakes his head. Good. I turn to make my escape and a clean break, leaving Alex, his amorous eyes and his wandering hands behind me. No more touchy-feely from my bestie’s fiancée. Almost to the door, Alex catches my arm and pulls me back hard, into his chest.
“What, Em?” He says, “No hug for me?” Shit. I’d hoped to avoid this kind of thing altogether. I never wanted to give him the chance to act on what I know he still feels.
“Alex,” I wince, his grip tight on my arm, “let me go. Let me go and open your fucking eyes.” Alex’s face softens- saddens as he places one hand against my neck.
“My eyes are open,” He whispers, “they always have been Em, don’t you see that?” I brush his hand away meaning to go, but he won’t let me. Hell. My eyes meet his and I already know what’s going on in his messed-up head. I know what’s coming next.