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Cross Ties (Swamp Heads, #5) by Esther E. Schmidt (1)

Chapter 01

***Zeke***

“Zeke...all I wanna do is cry...” Laudy’s voice is a distant whisper that flows through the phone. The pained words are clawing at my heart.

“What’s wrong? Shit...just...just go to our spot, Laudy. I’m already running out the door.” I tell her and start to pick up speed, making my way through the woods.

I don’t hear anything. I pull the phone away from my ear and see she’s hung up on me. My heart is pounding and branches are hitting me straight in the face with the same speed I’m rushing through the thick swamp forest.

“Laudy!” I bellow so hard my damn throat is raw the next instant.

I’m tasting blood already from the way I was tearing out of my house, pushing my lungs and body to their full extent. I don’t know what the hell is going on. All I know is Laudy needs me, and that’s enough to make me get to her at lightning speed. The devastation in her voice...she didn’t need to say anything else.

We’ve been friends since kindergarten. First day of school a kid bullied me and Laudy walked up and she poured her milk over the little shit’s head. She became my best friend right then and there. Now, at the age of eighteen, I’ve been meaning to tell her that I want more than just the tight friendship we have. My feelings have grown, just like our bodies and minds developed over time.

“Laudy!” My voice breaks as I reach the treehouse we built together. Somehow my gut knows she’s not here, but I climb up anyway.

Reaching the top, I swing my head around and come up empty. She’s not here. She never came like I told her to...where the hell is she? I grab my phone except...the thing starts to ring in my hand.

An explosion rattles my brain. Swinging my head to the left, I can see it’s coming from the direction of Laudy’s place.

“Laudy!” I pant, my lungs still burning from running like a lunatic to get here. “Where are you?”

“Zeke. Zeke, it’s me. Listen,” It’s not Laudy’s voice but my brother’s, Roscoe.

“Zeke. Zeke, wake the hell up, man.”

I jolt awake at the sound of Earle’s voice, the sheet sticking to my sweaty skin.

“Zeke. You awake, man? You okay?” My twin brother, Earle asks, standing next to my bed but keeping his distance.

I nod, not trusting my voice since my throat feels like someone deep throated me with a damn rasp or something.

“You sure? Didn’t sound like it when you woke me the fuck up, screaming her name.” Earle eyes me to see if I will talk about it.

Right this second, I hate having a twin brother, even more because we live in the same house. I should really get my own damn place so I don’t have to talk at all and just ignore the fact that I’ve been sleeping like shit for years. I give him another nod and slide out of bed, heading for the bathroom to pour myself a glass of water.

I stalk back into my bedroom and see Earle standing with a backpack in one hand. “I’m gonna head out, ‘kay. You know where to find me if you need me, right?”

Another nod is all I can manage before releasing a heavy breath, placing the glass on the nightstand. I might as well get dressed and head downstairs. There’s no fucking way I can sleep with that nightmare on a loop like it has been for the last few days. When they flare up like this, I know it will be weeks before they simmer down only to pop right back up again.

“This tears me up too, mon frère, seeing you like this,” Earle answers softly. “I’m going to fix Roscoe’s roof while I’m staying at his place. Take care, idiot. See you next week.”

I should say something but right now, I can only manage more nodding. I don’t even have a grunt to give. Earle knows when I need to be left alone. Hence the reason he’s going to stay for a week at our brother, Roscoe’s place. As an FBI agent, Roscoe spends a lot of time away as he’s been undercover for a while now. We all promised to look after the house he’s owned since he was about twenty and became a deputy in training. But it’s also been an escape for Earle. When I get in a mood like this, he stays out of my path, knowing I have to get through this alone.

I grab a pair of jeans along with a white tank and a flannel shirt. When I finally get downstairs, I notice my brother has already left and the house is finally quiet. Even if Earle woke me up before the dream turned even worse...I hate the fact that he now knows I still have them almost every damn night. He’s the only person who knows, though. I’ve never been able to give it a place in my heart, brain, whatever...when Laudy was ripped out of my life that day, sixteen years ago, a piece of me died.

Standing in the kitchen, I debate going to work or fixing myself something to eat. I decide to do neither of those things. Snatching up my keys, I head out and make a call in the process to see if Ken has some time for me later this afternoon. I’ve been adding more and more ink these last few months, my back piece is almost done. It’s the kind of therapy where I can deal with the pain and ink shit into my skin that’s already etched in my head anyway.

It’s late at night when I stroll back into the empty renovated church I call home and walk straight through the house and into my workspace. With a fresh haircut, slightly trimmed beard and more ink, I feel somewhat settled. Settled enough to focus on getting some work done anyway. I grab a beer from the fridge I have in my workspace, that’s located behind the church, and sit down at my desk.

I select the chisel I was using to make a pattern into the wood and pick up where I left off to finish the pattern. I’ve been working on a new wooden handbag. That’s what I do...create different products out of wood. My specialty being handbags, clutches, hell...even coasters from bamboo, and shit. Delicate things that take me hours to make so it occupies my brain. Doesn’t hurt that it also feeds my bank account since the business I started up ten years ago has been most profitable.

My clients are far more than just a few requests from around town, or the gift shop that my brother, Cyrus and his wife Bertie, own. Though I have to admit they do sell a lot of my products. I’ve also got a website where I receive orders from all around the world.

I’ve never went to school for any of it. As a kid, I would grab my pocketknife and start to carve a piece of wood. Laudy was the same way, we made lots of stuff together. Well, she used to focus on making hollow wood pencil cases. She used to go crazy with patterns, cutting out intricate pieces with such beauty and grace. I release a deep breath and curse myself internally for letting my mind slip back to her.

I don’t know why the hell she’s been on my mind so much lately. It should be an open and shut memory in my head...Her family died, the night of that phone call...she lost everything that night...as I lost her.

“Fuck,” I mutter as I throw the chisel I was using on the desk in front of me.

I clench my hand in an effort to contain where I cut myself. Standing up, I stalk over to the tiny sink in the corner and grab a towel from the shelf above it. My boot dents the trashcan as it goes flying in an effort to let go of some of my anger. From the fact that I wasn’t paying attention and from the way I still let Laudy rule my mind.

Just like Roscoe used to tell me, stop holding on to a dream while all you do is feed your nightmares; let her go. But that’s just it...I can’t...and that’s the reason Roscoe runs a check every now and then to see if she’s still out there. Roscoe transferred from the local sheriff’s office into the city quickly after it happened. Not so surprising since our hometown is fairly peaceful and there’s only room for one sheriff and he wasn’t going to retire any time soon.

Roscoe always wanted to move higher up and was driven by righteousness, the need to complete a puzzle. Ever since Roscoe started working for the FBI, he’s kept his distance from us; his family, and his hometown for that matter. He does undercover work and seems to slide in deeper every time.

I need to head on over to the locker at the train station to see if Roscoe left some news...maybe he has managed to track her down. Even now after all these years, I’m still searching for her. Yes, she might have died like the rest of her family that night; in the explosion. They never found her body but the heat and the explosion...anything is possible.

I’m the only one Roscoe keeps in touch with. Well, not really. He just drops off an envelope at a train station locker every once in a while. I do the same if I need him to know something, or hell...just to let him know how we’re all doing. How impersonal can you get, huh? But still, it’s a direct contact line to my brother so that’s how we keep it flowing between us.

No one knows where the locker is, except for me. Our family knows we keep in contact this way but with Roscoe being undercover it’s just safer not to tell and keep it how it is. He always places two envelopes in there. One with Claudette written on it, most times there’s only one paper in there letting me know he found nothing. And another envelope with a short letter to let me know everything is fine with him. It’s been weeks since I last went to check.

I pull away the cloth and see the bleeding has somewhat stopped. Enough to put a bandage on it anyway. I take care of it and decide to make the long drive to the train station. Might as well since I can’t even manage to keep my brain focused on work...and it’s not like I’m looking forward to getting some sleep. Sleep that takes me back to where my brain is stuck in a moment it wants to change so badly...it gives it an effortless try every damn night.

Screw it. I’m gonna go. I grab a sketchpad and a pen from the desk along with an envelope and head out to my truck. It’s a long-ass drive but with some music on, I’ll be back within four hours. I make a stop when I’m almost there to grab some coffee. I make sure to write a note to my brother, letting him know how everybody is doing.

Like how Bertie and Cyrus are working on another kid. Hell, everybody is working on another kid except me, Earle, and Roscoe himself don’t have a woman...yet. My sister, Hallie Mae was the last victim. There’s this family tradition that goes around, something rooted in our DNA so to speak. Well, that’s what my ma and pa always like to say; once you meet the right one, you’re hooked. It worked for them, and hell...for more than half of my siblings too.

I’d still like to believe it, except my gut told me Laudy was still my one and only. Seeing I don’t have her and these last few months feel like I’m getting to be more of a lost cause. I’ve never even glanced at or touched another woman. I fold the letter and put it into the envelope, all the while shaking my head at my own thoughts.

Roscoe is the oldest but he’s still busy with his career, and I bet he’ll be old and gray before he will allow himself to settle down. As for my twin brother...he would need to do some kind of hygiene speed course, because that man makes women run away instead of throwing themselves at him.

At least I’ve got my shit together now; new haircut, beard trimmed, new ink. I’m glad I went into town today. And now this long drive...maybe I need to pack up and leave. Just pick a town somewhere and start all over. Earle would freak out, but maybe that will get him to look after himself.

Our sister, Hallie Mae, was with us for a few days a while back. She cleaned our whole house and I felt like I could finally breathe again. Yeah, I can admit to the fact that my brother and I lived like pigs. But I’ve kept everything clean since then, much to Earle’s irritation. Come to think of it...maybe he would just disappear underneath a thick layer of filth.

Fuck. I really need to think of a way to get him to clean up his act like I did after Hallie Mae showed me the benefits of cleanliness. Yeah...I might need to set up a huge intervention to get him to clean up...not just his act, hell...everything.

Finally reaching my destination, I park my truck and walk to the locker. To my surprise, it holds a box this time. The box has been wrapped with extra tape with two sealed envelopes laying on top. One with Laudy’s full name on it, and one with just my name. I switch the contents with my letter for Roscoe, close the locker and head back to my truck.

I decide it’s best to open everything when I get home. That way I won’t have my mind wondering about anything that can distract my driving. Instead, I focus on my way back, and the design I plan on finishing later tonight. The hours seem to fly by until I park my truck in front of the house. I grab the two envelopes and the box from the front seat and stalk into the house.

Placing the items on the table, I grab myself a beer, pop the top, and down half while eyeing the things on the table. My gut tells me not to open the package, yet my mind is curious as fuck. Maybe I should open the letter first...he never left a package before.

I check the package and see it’s been sent to a weird PO Box. The stamps indicate it came from the Netherlands, the date is over a month ago. What the hell? Before I know what I’m doing, the beer bottle dances in its place on the table while I start to rip open the package. When I reach inside, and my fingers wrap around the wooden craftsmanship, I feel as if someone plunged a knife in my chest.

Dropping it back into the box, I feel like I can’t breathe. I need air. I burst through the door and start to run. The first branches of the swamp forest hitting my face is the last thing I feel because my body goes completely numb. This can’t be happening, it’s impossible. My mind shuts down as my speed picks up.

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