Practicing Murder

By: Erin Unger

Dedication



To my husband Mike, who believed I would become a bona fide author someday, even when I doubted.





1



No amount of hiding at the carnival was going to change what Maddie Clare faced. She clutched a bag of pink cotton candy and bit the last of the caramel apple in her other hand, not really tasting the tart and sweet combination. The apple caught and then slid down her throat as she turned away and swiped at a tear. Maddie scooted past a couple with a stroller who weaved in front of her as they eyed the different games and food vendors along the long strip of carnival booths.

The dusky sky, the music, even the smell of popcorn and funnel cakes wouldn’t send her belly into a frenzy of happiness. This was the break she needed, yet it only reminded her even more of her aunt. Her eyes stung. No, no, please don’t start crying again.

Why couldn’t God have let Aunt Lonna live? Why did her commuter plane have to have a landing gear malfunction just shy of the landing strip at the airport?

And here Maddie was once again, back at home with its claws of bad memories. If she could just get through the release of her aunt’s body and the funeral, she’d rush back to college and bury herself in finals with her favorite Cheezits in one hand and the comfort of her best wonky pen in the other. Then there’d be no time for the gnawing sadness to bury itself in her belly.

Maddie wiped the moisture off her cheek and then scanned the thoroughfare for a trashcan. The sky dropped into darkness, fighting with the glaring lights of the rides that dared to reach up and touch it. Was there a garbage can in this place? Had the carnival workers forgotten the clean parks campaign? The town of Anby had spent a decent amount of money enforcing it in the last year. A narrow alley separated a ring toss booth and a neon-painted dart game stand. She spotted a garbage can and bent to avoid the humongous purple unicorn that hung low from a wire of prizes as she walked deep into the makeshift alley. The shadows fought to hide the metal barrel overflowing with half-empty popcorn bags and plates smeared with pizza guts. Music seeped from the ring toss booth, and there was a crescendo in volume as if she’d stepped right up to the speakers that filtered the sound to the whole park.

Maddie raised her hand to gauge the distance to the trashcan and let the apple stick fly through the air. Hopefully, it wouldn’t miss and land in the sea of waste on the grass.

Before she turned away, Maddie bumped against something hard. She stiffened. What? She hadn’t thought there’d been a wall behind her. A millisecond later, all her senses enraged her fight or flight instinct, but a crushing force pulled her arm tight to the side of her body and pinned her.

The cotton candy bag fell to the ground.

Panic spun her into a daze, yet she tried to push away from the large form that held her. Maddie couldn’t think. Blood rushed in her ears and her heart pounded. Even the breath in her lungs hissed out like a pressure cooker about to blow as the force that held her squeezed.

She bit against the salty palm smashing her mouth and pulled her jaw to the side with a wrenching force.

A scream echoed in her chest but died before it had air to release.

“You tell anyone and you’ll disappear forever.” The low whisper of a man’s voice streaked across her ear to her cheek, bringing tears to her eyes with the heat of his words.

She tried to shake free. Her heart drummed against her rib cage. Todd? No, please not him. Was she to be at his mercy again? She tried to block the image of his face leering at her as he’d seized her all those years ago. But she’d escaped once. Was he back after all this time?

The man’s grip tightened around her neck and stopped all airflow. “Your aunt didn’t know what she was talking about. And you’re going to keep your mouth shut about what she told you, or I’ll make you shut up.”

Not Todd. She kicked backward, made contact, and then grabbed his pinkie. Turning her head into his elbow, Maddie tried to suck in a breath and pulled with all her strength on the tiny appendage.

He yelled and tumbled backward, almost pulling her to the ground with him.

Maddie braced her knees and fought the tiny dancing lights that zigzagged at the corners of her vision like lightning bugs flashing their iridescent tails in a stand of trees. Before Maddie could turn, the force of his body throttled her forward once again. Her outstretched hand dropped to the ground as he pushed her toward the metal trashcan.