Very First Draft/Discovery Draft, Chapter One


I accelerated drowsily on the open freeway heading into New Hampshire. It was late, and the view through my windshield was black. Five years had passed since the fateful night I’d found out about my parents’ deaths.

A lot had happened in that time. My life had changed, started over like I’d been reborn a new person. Young, carefree Melanie had died along with her parents. I reflected on that now – on how much I’d truly changed that night, and on how I’d ended up here, all the way across the country, starting over again.

I hadn’t gotten any kind of inheritance from my parents. It’d been strange, since we’d been at least an upper middle class family, but the bank accounts had been mostly empty, the house had been repossessed. College was no longer an option, with no money to my name and my mental state twisted with grief. I’d been all alone.

Alone except for my very best friend, Cait – she and her parents had been amazing. They’d taken me in while I struggled to finish up my senior year of high school, and then I’d lived with Cait in an apartment near her campus while she went to university. I’d worked in a call center. I didn’t make much there, but I was able to support myself and to pay Cait’s parents a meager amount toward our rent. They hadn’t wanted to take my money, but I’d refused to take advantage of them if I could help it. I would be eternally grateful for their kindness.

I hadn’t really moved on from my grief in the years I spent with Cait. She’d tried to include me in her new friend group at campus, but weighed down with stress and continued sorrow I’d isolated myself. The social damage from this was such that I remained distant from the others as time went on. I hadn’t minded the exclusion much. My daily life and worries were very different from theirs.

Eventually, Cait graduated with honors. She’d lined up an excellent job in Colorado, and she needed to move. I’d been welcome to move with her, but I felt a strong desire to make it on my own instead. I’d depended on my dearest friend for too long, and I needed to shake up my life. It was time for a change.

So, I’d searched online for apartments way out on the East Coast. I wanted the biggest change possible, and to get far away from the place I’d grown up. Originally, I checked out Boston and New York, but the more I thought about it, the more I’d known I wanted to try rural life. I’d always lived in the suburbs of a big city. So, I switched my focus to the area north of Boston, with its beautiful mountains, beaches, and four distinct seasons – I was awed by photos I’d seen of New England autumns. With this picture in mind, I successfully applied for a job at a call center in New Hampshire. I’d had to find an apartment quickly and virtually, hoping very much it turned out to be as described when I arrived. I packed my belongings, loaded up my old Honda Civic, and made the long solo drive out here to start my new life.

I’d made it just in time. I was due to start my job the day after tomorrow. I didn’t have long to rest and unpack after the lengthy journey, but then again, I didn’t need long. It wasn’t as though I had lots of stuff, and I needed to start making some cash to support my life here.

The exits flashed past as I drove further north. Thankfully, I didn’t have long left to go – my GPS showed me I only had about 10 minutes until I arrived.

Hard to believe I was finally, actually here! I revived a little bit as excitement grew in the pit of my stomach. I was about to start my new life. What would it look like?

I pulled off the correct exit and drove slowly through a small, rural New Hampshire town. The road I was on now was bigger, looking like it was designed to hold faster traffic. But, it seemed to be the only “big” road in this place. There were trees everywhere. As someone who loved nature, I couldn’t wait to get out and explore the beautiful, lonely haunts my new home had to offer.

I turned onto a smaller, winding road and drove a few miles. My new apartment building came into view suddenly, surrounded by trees like everything else. Three large, brick buildings, each three stories tall, situated in a rectangle. The front building, facing me and the parking lot, was the shortest in length. The two other buildings reached back toward the woods like arms, just their sides visible to me. There were small, gated paths in the gaps between the large buildings. These would lead to the shared pool, which fit in the rectangle of space that would be left between the buildings. I couldn’t see that from where I parked.

I left all my belongings in my car and ventured into the front-facing building. There was a main door in the center of the building I could have used, but I’d been told my apartment was the one all the way to the right hand side of the first floor, so I went in an access door around the right corner. The locks were all guarded with key pads, so I punched in the code I’d been given. Once inside, a short hallway faced me. A stairway led up on the left hand side, and there was a door a few feet down the hall on my right. This was the corner unit – mine – and as I came to the door, I could see the long hallway dotted with doors running away on the right. I entered the code, and pushed the door open.

I was in the petite kitchen. To my left, the fridge, stove, dishwasher, sink, and microwave were all crammed together into the tiniest space possible. It was hard to believe they all fit! A bathroom, two little bedrooms. I ranged through the apartment, checking out the details. It was small, but comfortable. Furnished as promised. It even had a fire place!

The back wall of the living room was mainly glass, looking out onto a tiny, bare balcony with a black fence. I could see this detail because the blue light from the pool behind it illuminated the twisted metal. The master also had a wall of glass leading onto the balcony. Here there was a bed frame, a dresser, a nightstand, an empty closet.

A wide smile spread slowly across my face as I spun around in my new bedroom. It wasn’t much, but it was mine. I instantly loved it.

Too tired to move everything in from my car right now, I decided the mattress and my shower bag would be enough for tonight. I untied the mattress from the top of my car and struggled to drag it through the halls and rooms. It wasn’t easy, even though I was pretty strong.

Once the mattress was in place, I went back to the car to grab my suitcase of clothing and shower bag. The shower felt amazing. Its heat soothed my stiff muscles and washed the long days in the car from my skin.

Exhausted, I dragged myself from the bathroom and flopped down on the bare mattress in my towel, hair wet and tangled. I was asleep almost instantly.

I was woken by early morning light streaming in through the wall of glass. Ugh. I’d been hoping to sleep in today – something I’d rarely been able to do back in California.

Groaning, I rolled over and tried to sink back into the warm drowsiness, but I was uncomfortable now that I was awake. How had I fallen asleep like this? I didn’t even have a pillow! I tossed to my other side again, then gave up. Might as well get a run in nice and early. I had a lot to do today.

Distance running was my passion. I hadn’t ever entered a real race, but I ran almost every day before work. I’d gone as far as forty five miles, but on week days I usually kept my runs somewhere between ten and twenty miles. Weekends, I went long.

Today was a Sunday, and I felt compelled to explore the hiking trails located behind my new apartment complex. But, I recognized that I was stiff and tired from the three days of driving basically non stop. I had a full work week at my new job coming up. I couldn’t afford to push myself too much.

Even though I’d decided I wasn’t going to run far, I was excited to explore my new running trails. I jumped up, wide awake now, and rushed through dressing. I gazed at my reflection in the mirror – my long black hair, normally smooth and shiny, was standing up in a cloud around my ivory-skinned face. My light, ice blue eyes were wide with anticipation.

I worked to tame the wild snarls. When my hair was finally..well, not exactly tamed, but not crazy anymore, I forced it into a messy bun on top of my head, laced up my running shoes, and was out the door before six.

The July morning was not yet warm. The air was crisp and cool, something that would not have been the case in my former home. I sucked in a deep breath, savoring the feel of it. The air had that fresh, early morning quality. It was invigorating.

I knew from maps I’d seen of these trails that there was an access point located behind the complex. I walked around the buildings to the back, behind where the fence behind the pool was, and hunted for the trail at the thick edge of the forest. I found it snaking its way back through the trees. It wasn’t very wide, maybe wide enough for two people to walk comfortably side by side, and it wasn’t paved. Roots twisted their way across here and there, and rocks were scattered around. I started at a slow jog, testing the trail, warming up my stiff muscles. The sight of the complex was soon lost as the forest closed around me. It was perfectly quiet, except for the sound of my breath rhythmically whooshing in and out. It was like I was all alone in the wilderness. I smiled widely. Running here would be restful and beautiful.

After a couple minutes of jogging, I lengthened my stride, stretching my legs out and settling into a quicker pace. Yes, it had been worth it to wake up early for this. The silence and solitude washed through me, soothing me, and I smiled again, just for the joy of it. The miles slipped by easily.

Now and then, I spotted new trails twisting off of the one I’d started on, and my trail merged at times with others coming from different directions. I began to marvel at how extensive this network of trails really was. I’d probably gone ten miles already, and I hadn’t had to turn around or even deviate from my original path. I wondered vaguely whether I should worry about finding my way back, but I didn’t pay much mind to the slight concern. I’d never had issues with getting lost back home. As long as I stayed straight on this path, I would be fine.

After a while more, I decided it would be wise to start back now. I was feeling amazing out here and I didn’t really want to, but I knew I needed some rest after the week I’d had. Reluctantly, I pivoted and headed back the way I’d come.

At first, the run home was just as peaceful as the run out here had been. But it wasn’t long before I started being faced with choices I hadn’t expected to have to make.

I had expected it to be easy to follow the same path back the way I’d come. It had looked very clear while I’d been running out this way. Now, though, I continued to come across forks in the road. I had to guess which path was my path. I wasn’t at all sure I was choosing right. They all looked the same!

I realized I’d underestimated my ability to navigate in an unfamiliar forest landscape. Most of my running back home had been done on city streets, on beaches, or on wide, clearly defined paths. It was much more open and flat. I’d always had a good sense of which way was which. Here, the thick trees and winding paths created a camouflaged maze.

I kept going, trying my best to find the right way. After a while, I started to panic. I should have been home by now. Why hadn’t I brought my phone with me? How egotistical I had been to come out here alone and without any means of navigation or communication.

The light was shining through the branches above me from an angle much higher in the sky now. Looked like mid morning, maybe getting closer to late morning.

I walked for a few minutes to slow my heart rate, then slumped to the ground, leaning against a large tree trunk. How far out was I now? One wrong choice of path could take me miles out of the way – who knew how many miles – twisting and turning in the wrong direction without me even knowing it. I could be going the opposite direction from home now for all I knew. How often did hikers pass this way? I hoped I’d be lucky enough to run across someone.

I sipped my water, trying to decide what to do. I didn’t really want to move further into the woods, being so unsure of which direction I was heading. But, I couldn’t sit here forever. I waited, torn, for what felt like hours, while the sun moved up the sky toward noon.

That was where I was, sitting against the huge tree with my head in my hands, when I saw him for the first time.

I was too lost in despair to hear him coming. He crouched down right in front of me without me even noticing.

“Hey, are you okay?”

I jumped like I’d been tasered, catching myself with my hands against the ground beside me when I slipped sideways off the big trunk. I froze there, gazing up into the most perfect face I’d ever seen.

His hair was a warm, light brown, with golden tones shining in the sunlight that caught it through the branches. It was a couple inches long and didn’t lie flat, instead flowing in a disarray that managed not to look messy. It suited him. His skin was golden tan, his angular jaw covered in light brown stubble. His eyes were a gorgeous shade of green, with gold-toned tendrils shooting out from the pupils. They stood out against his golden skin tone and the frame of his dark lashes. His eyes were kind – I could see his concern for me, a stranger, in them – and warm. His smile was just a little bit lopsided and his teeth were very white and straight.

I blinked, shocked and dazed for a moment by his beauty. His kindly smile slowly faded as he waited for my answer. I shook myself mentally, realizing he’d spoken to me. I was acting like an idiot.

“Um, what?” I squeaked.

“I was just wondering whether you’re okay. You’re pretty far out here, and.. you kind of look upset.”

Oh, thank God. Someone had found me, I realized belatedly.

“Actually, I’m lost. I’m new here and didn’t know how easy it is to get turned around in these woods.”

He nodded. “It’s best to make sure you always have a way to navigate out here, at least until you know your way. But even then, I’d say you should play it safe. Stay with someone who knows the area or bring your phone or something.”

I felt stupid, again, for not worrying about it. “I was cocky I guess. I’ve never been lost on a run before.”

“Well, I can help you get out of here. Then, if you want, I can drive you where ever you need to go.”

I wondered whether accepting a ride with a stranger was a good idea. This man seemed nice enough, but who knew? Despite this thought, it wasn’t like I had lots of choice. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t thousands of miles away. Were there ubers way out here? Guess I’d find out.

“Thank you, but I’ll be okay once I get out of here.”

He stood, holding his hand out for me. I grabbed it and pulled myself off the ground. As I did, I noticed the lines of the well-toned muscles running up his arm. I gasped quietly, then fervently hoped he hadn’t heard. I fixed my eyes on his face to keep them from straying. Could the rest of him possibly look as good?

“It’s going to take a while to get out of here, so we’d better get going,” he said, dropping my hand and leading the way onward. Looked like I’d been headed in a direction that would have gotten me out – provided I took all the right turns the rest of the way.

I let him pull ahead of me by a few paces before following. If I was being honest with myself, I wanted the chance to check him out without being caught. He wore a gray tank top and black athletic shorts with running shoes. He was lean but definitely well toned – not bulky, but the lines of the muscles in his back, shoulders, and arms stood out under his golden skin. Oof, talk about the total package.

After I’d gotten my quick eyeful, I hurried my pace and fell into step beside him. I’d noticed he’d been sweating in the tank top. Coupled with the running shoes, I assumed he was a runner as well.

“So, do you run?” I asked, skipping right to the point.

“Yup. Almost every day,” he answered easily, smiling quickly at me.

“You know, I run, too. That’s how I got so far out.”

“I guessed. But, we’re really far out here. I figured you might be too tired to make it all the way back, especially after running so far out. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt trying to run the whole way back.”

I grinned. Excellent, a chance to do a little showing off.

“I bet I can make it back – easily.”

The beautiful stranger chuckled. “I like your confidence. But I don’t want to end up carrying you.”

“I bet I can make it back more easily than you can. Wanna race?” Okay, so he looked like someone in peak shape. Even so, most people couldn’t run as far as I could. Most marathoners couldn’t even run as far as I could.

He laughed lightly again. “You don’t want to challenge me, trust me.”

“Sounds like an excuse to say no,” I teased. “Worried you’ll be beat by a girl?”

He flashed me a real smile then, his eyes full of humor. It was so beautiful it stole my breath – literally. I had to mentally shake myself again. Keep breathing, Mel.

“Okay, then. Let’s do this,” he enthused. Looked like he wasn’t one to back away from a challenge.

He took off down the trail, and I missed a beat as I marveled at his running form. Most runners didn’t have perfect form like that – he looked weightless and graceful as he flew over the ground. I launched myself after him, lengthening my stride. My running form was pretty good, too. I’d worked for years to perfect it.

I had long legs, and they helped me catch him up pretty quickly. He was moving at quite a fast pace for someone hoping to run a long distance. He had to lead me, so I ran half a step behind him, settling into my rhythm. I tried to keep my eyes on the trail, but every now and then they drifted down his incredible body. When I caught myself looking, I snapped them back up to the forest ahead. I didn’t want to be creepy.

We ran together at a steady speed for quite some time. The beautiful stranger never faltered in his pace, but I didn’t lose an inch on him, either. He was very confident in his choice of paths each time a new route presented itself. After a while more, I started to be impressed by his stamina. We must have run the better part of a half marathon by now, and he’d run all the way out to where I was before this. If my estimation was right, he’d run most of a marathon today, and he wasn’t slowing down. He was in his rhythm, too.

Finally, after just fifteen minutes more, we broke out of the treeline. I was shocked to see that we were back at my apartment complex.

The beautiful stranger slowed to a walk, taking a deep breath and a long swig from his water bottle. I copied him.

“Wow, you weren’t lying,” he told me, looking impressed.

I grinned at him. “That was nothing,” I said. Showing off. His eyes lit up in interest, making me catch my breath again.

“How far do you usually run, then?” he asked.

“It depends on the day. On weekends, I like to run at least thirty miles, sometimes up to forty, forty five. Week days, usually more like ten, fifteen.” I shrugged while he looked amazed.

“Wow. I’ve never met someone who likes to run as far as I do.”

I’d been impressed by his evenly paced marathon today. He’d made it look easy. I guess this was why – he must be a distance runner, too.

“Neither have I. How far do you usually run?”

“Well, my week day distances are similar to yours. Weekends, it depends on how much time I have available, but anywhere from twenty to fifty miles.”

Fifty. Shoot, he had me beat. Even so, I was thrilled. I’d never known anyone else who shared my passion for running long distances.

He lead the way around the complex toward the parking lot with me keeping pace beside him. I realized he didn’t know this was where I needed to be, too. I wondered whether this beautiful, distance running stranger was my neighbor.

“So, it turns out I won’t need that ride,” I said. “I actually live here.”

He stared down at me, amazed again. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. Just moved in last night.”

“Huh. That’s cool. Maybe we can run together again sometime. It’s kind of nice to have company out there, not to mention a challenge to push me.” He flashed his lopsided smile, and I felt my breath catch yet again.

Amazing. A gorgeous, distance running neighbor. I wondered whether he was single, then thought there was no way. Someone like him would’ve been snapped up long ago.

“Definitely,” I agreed. “I’ll probably hit the trails tomorrow morning before work. What time do you normally run?”

“Before work, too. Mornings are easiest for me. Is 6 too early for you?”

“Definitely not.”

We’d arrived at the same side door I’d used last night. The man who seemed too good to be true keyed in the code and pushed open the door. I followed him through.

He headed toward the stairs on the left, so I said, “I’m this way,” and gestured toward the right. “I’m Mel, by the way,” I added. I held my hand out.

The beautiful stranger stepped back toward me with a smile, grasping my hand. Electricity zapped up my arm and ran through my chest at the contact. It shocked me, and I dropped his hand quickly.

“I’m Tommy,” he said as I pulled my hand back. “It’s nice to meet you, Mel.”

He waved and jumped lightly up the stairs, taking them two at a time. I watched him go, my mind a little jumbled and my hand tingling where he’d held it.