Welcome to our first ever First Chapter Friday! I’ve gotten together with a couple of other amazing authors to give you a sneak peak of the behind the scenes writing process! Each author will be sharing the first chapter of our current works in progress (get it? First Chapter Friday!) But that’s not it! You could also rare prizes: signed and personalized copies of those chapters! Who doesn’t love getting snail mail (of the non-bill kind)?! Click more and read to the end of this post to get all the juicy details.
For the last several weeks, I started my mornings in the gym. Sleep came to me with great difficulty, if at all. I usually awoke in the early hour of three o’clock. I’d stay in bed, laying there in the dark night, staring up at the ceiling while I tried to ease my racing heart. I always woke up feeling panicked, as if someone was lurking in the furthest corner of my bedroom…watching me.
I knew better to give in to my paranoia and turn the light on. I knew nobody was in my room. Instead, I waited for the seconds to trickle by, the minutes to fade away until it was a more appropriate time for me to get up.
The gym opened its doors at six o’clock sharp. I liked how peaceful and quiet it was in the early hours of the morning. Aside from one or two employees that left me alone, the gym was mostly empty.
Exercising had become my drug of choice to battle the demons in my head. It was here that I was almost able to disconnect from the fears that plagued me. But sometimes, even the ferocious exertion wasn’t enough to drive away the lingering terror.
I woke up on that particular morning from the same nightmare I always had, the terror clinging to my skin like the sheen of sweat that coated my body. I tried to fall back asleep, but it was pointless…so at five-thirty, I threw my hair up into a pony tail and made my way over to my own personal sanctuary.
An hour into my workout, I was feeling little to no respite. My fists pounded against the punching bag furiously in response to the memories of that always seemed to come at me in a strangled rush, memories that made up that reoccurring nightmare. Sweat poured into my eyes, but I didn’t pause on my enraged attack to dry my sweaty face. I blinked away the moisture, challenging all of my pent up frustration through my fists and into the burgundy punching bag.
When Andrew Cooper appeared in my bedroom holding a large hunting knife, intent on getting the revenge he felt he deserved, I hadn’t thought the outcome would be very good for me. I knew, by the twisted look of rage on his face, that he wouldn’t stop until he hurt me in all the ways he dreamed of for ruining his life…and Andrew Cooper had dreamt a lot about his moment of revenge.
At the beginning of twelfth grade, I walked in on him raping a girl at a party. I encouraged the girl, Jenna Burke, to press charges and I testified as an eyewitness. The trial brought up evidence that Carl Cooper, the Chief of the North Bay Police Department, had covered up several more sexual assault incidents to protect his son, as well as countless other dirty deeds. Andrew walked away with a slap on the wrist and a smear on his permanent record, but Carl Cooper had faced serious jail time.
Andrew blamed me for ruining his cushioned, carefree life, and vowed to make me pay for it. His intention had been to maim me in unspeakable ways with his hunting knife.
It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I attempted to run away, but Andrew caught me by my hair, pressing the cold steel of his hunting knife against my throat. He dragged me back to my room, throwing me on the bed, and started talking about all the horrifying things he was going to do to me…with and without his knife.
I put up a commendable fight when Andrew climbed on top of me. I kneed him hard in balls, hoping to stun him enough to get away. Instead of the escape I had hoped for, Andrew cracked the butt of the hunting knife down hard against my cheekbone, breaking the skin and nearly the bone.
I remember the wet, sticky sensation of my blood dripping down my cheek and into my ear as Andrew struggled to get into position. I truly thought in that moment that I would die. I had almost wanted to die. It could have been worse, so much worse, than what it was…had Jax Walker not come to the rescue when he did.
Jax had exploded into my room and thrown Andrew clean off me. His large, imposing size and his training in Mixed Martial Arts made him the stronger, faster fighter. But Jax suffered a stab wound when he turned to tell me to run.
I swung around, my foot connecting hard against the solid punching bag with a smart thump. I continued my assault, pounding my fists against it, until a tear escaped and trailed down along the same pathway of sweat droplets from my forehead. I finally stopped, my breathing labored. I hunched over with my hands on my knees, my eyes still focused on the punching bag.
I grabbed my hand towel and water bottle from the floor, drying my face as I took a deep drink of cold water, finally beginning to feel at peace. I kept my eyes on the punching bag, not wanting to make eye contact with any of the few others working out at the gym.
This was my new escape, the only way I could fight the demons that tormented me every time I closed my eyes.
I wanted to be normal; I wanted to be happy, but it was impossible to be happy with every subconscious thought drowning in that night.
My chest heaved with frantic breaths, partly due to the exertion, but also due to the panic that the memories brought on. I placed the water bottle down slowly, keeping my eyes on that blasted punching bag, as if it were to blame for all of the turmoil I felt.
I got into position again, taking a brief pause before I resumed the therapeutic thumping of my fists against the textured surface. The punching bag was anchored to the floor and the ceiling by a thick chain, it wasn’t going anywhere…but I punched it like I could free it from the chains and send it flying across the gym. I punched it like I could unload every last negative, confusing thought that gripped my mind and soul and darkened it.
* * *
Two hours later, I stood before the mirror that hung on the back of my bedroom door, dressed and ready for the day. The mirror mocked me, showing a young woman that looked strong and resilient when I felt anything but. My body was beginning to reap the benefits of my new, vigorous gym schedule; my muscles were leaner and more toned then they had ever been before. My long, wavy dark hair and emerald green eyes were the same as ever, but my face had lost some of its roundness…it’s innocence.
Each time I looked in the mirror or any other kind of reflective surface, my eyes would instantly find the only physical scar from that night.
I gingerly touching the three inch scar that cut across my left cheekbone. Three weeks ago, I was attacked. Three weeks ago, it was an angry redish purple color. Now, it was faded to a soft pink. The plastic surgeon that glued the split skin on my cheek together told me it would take time to heal, but that the scar would eventually all but fade.
It was unfathomable to me just how quickly the body healed in three weeks. My skin had meshed itself back together, while my mind and soul remained tattered and torn. I couldn’t help but feel as if the emotional scars of that trauma would never fade.
I was lucky. I knew that, I was thankful for that. I knew that it could have been a lot worse than it actually was; I could have walked away with worse than a mere cut on my cheek.
I could have been raped. I could have been killed. I could have lost Jax.
My hand trembled slightly, memories of that night resurfacing. I closed my eyes tightly, gritting my teeth. Now was not the time for a trip down memory lane, especially not that part of my life, but closing my eyes was futile. I was powerless against the onslaught.
I shook as the memory of Andrew and Jax fighting exploded in my brain. The terror that griped my heart as I watched the knife in Andrew’s hand lash out against Jax was still very real to me, even though it was just a memory…even though Jax was fine.
I still shivered at the memory of white bone and blood when Jax had raised his hand to wipe the blood from my cheek wound away. He hadn’t even realized that Andrew had caught him with the knife, at least not until I pointed it out before fainting in his arms.
If fear had a taste; it would be metallic, like blood and blades.
Like I said, things could have been a lot worse than they were. Jax walked away with minimal damage. He’d used his forearm to block the attack, and when the knife dropped down, it bounced off his rib cage.
Jax hadn’t seemed bothered by the fact that he’d been sliced open because of me. He didn’t blink before throwing himself at a knife-wielding maniac for me. If that wasn’t romance, I didn’t know what was.
I ran my brush through my long dark hair, brushing the tangles out. I was completely aware of the fact that I was procrastinating. Since the attack, I had strategically avoided almost everybody in my life. I didn’t want to see the worry on their faces; I didn’t want to hear the concern in their voices. I wanted to fade away; to become a part of the background again. I didn’t want the attention this stupid attack had brought me. I wanted the scar to hurry up and fade away, and most of all: I wanted the fear to go with it.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the attention was going to go away any time soon. The university’s newspaper and the city paper had both blown up with the “breaking news” of Andrew Cooper’s attack on me. Naturally, some intelligent reporters had gotten the inside scoop to the North Bay drama too. Thankfully, the only dirt they managed to dig up was that I was involved in putting Carl Cooper behind bars. The stories ended up going viral on Facebook, much to my absolute horror and dismay.
I just wanted to forget about it already, but it was hard to forget about it when not only was I haunted by memories, but everyone around me constantly brought it up in some way. Maybe it was a comment, an attempt at causal indifference when they ask how are you doing? But the pity and the concern underlying that statement are always there.
It absolutely horrified my family and friends to hear that Andrew Cooper had been stalking me, biding his time for a while. He knew my every move, he was always watching in the shadows…and I hadn’t even known it. That knowledge made me angry and anxious.
My cell phone started to ring, the shrill sound cutting through the silence of my bedroom and the hollow echoes of my thoughts. I picked it up and clicked answer without reading the caller ID. I instantly chided myself for my negligence when my mother’s frantic voice filled my ears. “Hello? Harlow?”
“Hi Mom,” I sighed, sinking down onto my bed. I had a feeling this conversation was going to take a while. It was the first time in a week that Mom’s attempts at getting me on the phone were successful. “How are you? How’s Larry?”
“We’re fine, honey,” Mom said. “What about you? How’s counseling going?”
I rolled my eyes, knowing that she couldn’t see me. “It’s going good, Mom. Really good, I’m great. Really, I am. And I’d totally appreciate it if everybody would stop acting like I’m glass now.”
Mom chuckled sadly. “Oh Harlow, nobody thinks you’re glass. I’d be calling you anyway to check in. I miss you.”
Guilt seeped in, covering the resentment and anger like a wool blanket. The resentment and anger still lingered beneath the surface, and the blanket of guilt just made me feel as if I was suffocating. “I miss you too Mom, I’ll get out there soon.” It was a lie, and she knew it. I hated going back to North Bay. North Bay had never felt like home to me, especially not after everything that happened there.
Andrew Cooper was well known in North Bay. He’d been the towns’ golden boy, the pride. His connections protected him from facing the laws for years, and when I walked into town and blew apart the pretty little façade that was the Coopers, everything went to shit. I immortalized the Coopers in the biggest scandal the town had ever seen; only I had tarnished their name in the process.
Rightfully so, if you asked me and every last one of Andrew’s many victims.
“Easter is around the corner!” she reminded me, cutting into my thoughts. The hope was evident in her voice. My eyes flickered over to the calendar pinned to the bulletin board that hung over my desk.
“Easter isn’t for another two months,” I pointed out. I’d forgotten to change the months, and December winked at me tauntingly. I forcefully stood up, stomping over to the stupid calendar so that I could flip it to January.
“Well, time flies and I know you’re going to be busy this semester. It’s your last one, after all! Larry and I would really love it if you could book off Easter weekend ahead of time, Jax too. We’d love to see you both,” Mom said, trying to be casual. I could hear the yearning in her voice from miles away.
“I’ll ask him,” I said, trying to pacify her even though I knew I’d likely forget all about it. “But look, I’m running late for class. I’ll call you later.”
“Okay honey, I love you,” Mom said.
“Love you too,” I muttered, ending the call.
The sound of footsteps falling against the hallway floor made me take pause. Someone was approaching. Each footfall spoke of caution and determination.
I glanced up at the door as my best friend Jenna came to a stop in the doorway of my bedroom.
Jenna’s short blond hair was arranged perfectly under her dark purple knitted toque. She was dressed in skinny jeans and the adorable knitted sweater that I bought her for Christmas; it was a dark gray color with a stooped neckline that rested against her thin shoulders. She’d matched a black belt with it, and she looked perfectly put together…like always.
I felt grungy next to her, wearing my favorite pair of jeans and a boring t-shirt. I had done the same makeup regiment I’d done for years; cover up, mascara, and liquid-eyeliner “cat eyes”. It was almost automatic to do my makeup that way, I didn’t even think about it anymore.
“Are you ready to go?” she asked, almost seeming to steal herself against my response.
“Yeah,” I responded automatically, my tone void of any emotion. I brushed past her, making my way down the narrow hallway and through our apartment to the front door. I slid into my leather jacket and pulled my black knitted toque on over my head, bending over to grab my messenger bag from the hook by the front door.
She sighed quietly from behind me, defeated by my mood. I had been in quite the foul disposition lately. Jenna understood, but I could tell that she was beginning to get sick of my scowling, perpetually angry attitude. Jenna was trying to be there for me, but I was making it very difficult. Part of it had to do with the fact that I really hadn’t been sleeping well lately. If I wasn’t waking up in a cold sweat, convinced that I felt the metal of a hunting knife against my throat, then I was unable to shut off my mind.
I didn’t really know what my deal was, but I knew if I didn’t figure it out soon…I would push more than Jenna away.
Thoughts of my boyfriend, Jax, nearly took my breath away. Thinking about Jax was like a double edged sword. Thoughts of him made me happy, but they also made me feel incredibly guilty…considering I had locked lips with my ex-boyfriend.
Iain Bentley had been my twelfth grade English teacher, and in my final year of high school…I had fallen hard for him, and he had fallen for me too. I followed my desires and ignored the risk as they led me straight into Iain’s arms. We had carried on a relationship from September until I received an envelope full of photos of the two of us.
The photos had been a warning, more or less, from Andrew Cooper’s father Carl. I was going to testify in court for Jenna. I had been the one to walk in on them that night. I heard Jenna sobbing hysterically, begging Andrew to stop. I went into the bedroom and found Jenna in tears with Andrew. It was obvious, from the tears streaming down Jenna’s face and the way Andrew had casually tucked himself back in his jeans, that he had forced himself on her.
My testimony was important to the trial, and the pictures were a warning that if I spoke out at the trial, those photos would be brought to light…and Iain would get charged for sexual exploitation of a minor.
Not testifying wasn’t an option, though, and Iain knew that. He agreed completely with me, and…I would say that he sacrificed himself so that I could do the right thing and help Jenna get justice.
I foolishly thought that Carl Cooper wouldn’t make light on his threat, and I was almost lulled into a false sense of security as the days passed after the trial without incident. I knew that I couldn’t run back into Iain’s arms, but I had started to believe that we would both escape unscathed.
Unfortunately, we weren’t that lucky. Another envelope similar to the one that I had full of photos of Iain and I ended up at the police station, and Iain was arrested and served one year in jail for sexual exploitation of a minor. After his release, he didn’t seek me out. I hadn’t seen him until a few days before Andrew attacked me, when I randomly ran into him at the mall when I was shopping with Jenna for a Christmas present for Jax.
I hadn’t meant to kiss Iain, but when he showed up on my doorstep shortly after the attack, it just sort of…happened. He saw my face, got super emotional over it, and before I could react…he was kissing me. It hadn’t lasted more than a moment, but for that brief fleeting instant, I kissed him back…and I had liked it.
I kept no secrets from Jax though, not after my last secret nearly got us both killed. The very day it happened, I tearfully told him the truth about Iain.
It shocked the hell out of me when Jax didn’t dump me, as I had expected him to. Most guys don’t handle it well when their girlfriend tells them that she kissed an old flame that she still has lingering feelings for. He was hurt, but he also understood. He gave me a pass, more or less.
The kiss with Iain had come at a confusing, conflicting time. I’d just been released from the hospital after the attack, I was still in shock over the whole thing. My mind wasn’t moving at the pace that it usually moved at.
Still, I couldn’t help but over analyze it. Did I kiss Iain back because I was in shock, or did I kiss him back because a part of me still wanted to be with him? My conflicting emotions about the whole thing were making it damn near impossible for me to get any sleep, even when Andrew wasn’t haunting my dreams.
Jenna was scrutinizing me with a concerned frown on her face. I shook my head, realizing that I had zoned out and completely missed whatever she had said.
“Coffee?” I grumbled, trying to make amends for zoning out on her. Jenna perked up, nodding. We headed out of our apartment.
“I heard you last night,” Jenna said, eyeing me carefully as she paused to lock the apartment door behind us. Jenna and I lived in the second floor apartment in a beautifully renovated Victorian house. There was no elevator, but the house was full of charm and it was within walking distance to the campus. It was the first place I’d ever really been in that had felt like home, and I loved it. My hand reached out, touching the wooden railing while I waited for Jenna to pocket her keys.
“Sorry,” I finally responded when Jenna fixed me with a penetrating stare. I guess the intense workout I had had the night before hadn’t succeeded in stomping out the nightmares.
“Don’t be sorry…have you spoken to Dr. Philips about it yet?” she questioned. She took a moment to slide her hands into the matching purple mittens. I shoved mine in my jacket pocket, my teeth clenching together with aggravation. It was bad enough that I’d had to deal with my mom hovering over me, making sure I was speaking about my feelings to the shrink. I didn’t want anyone else to add on to the pressure.
“No,” I replied, starting down the stairs. Jenna was on my heels. I could hear her boots thudding against the wooden stairs as she rushed to keep up with me, but I didn’t slow my pace or look at her. I was trying to calm myself down.
I hadn’t told Jenna – or my mother – about bailing out on my appointments with Dr. Philips. I didn’t want them to pressure me into going again. The only person who knew I’d stopped going was Jax, and he wasn’t on my back about it. He just understood…silently.
“You’ve still been going to your appointments, haven’t you?” Jenna scolded, her brow furrowing as she assessed me. She’d been a part of my life long enough to recognize when I was keeping something from her. “Harlow!”
“I’ve been busy,” I argued, my voice rising a little in defense.
“Harlow, you really need to go,” she said, her voice gentle and soft. “I think she could help you.”
“Maybe,” I sighed doubtfully, stepping out onto the stoop of our apartment. In the few appointments I had with her, I hadn’t let her get close. I’d been stubborn and closed off, tight lipped. I looked back at Jenna, who was keeping a careful distance from me, as if she thought I would lash out and attack her. My shoulders stooped slightly, and I frowned. “You know me, Jenna. I don’t open up easily…especially not when I know the person just wants to crack open my head and fix what’s broken.”
“Don’t you want that? To fix the broken?” Jenna whispered, her eyes wide.
“What if it’s not that simple?” I murmured, averting my gaze. “I’ve seen psychiatrists before; they always want to prescribe something. I’ve had antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. I don’t need sleeping pills or anything else…I just want…” I trailed off, unable to put into words what I wanted.
I wanted my life to stop being so bloody complicated and confusing. I wanted one year to go by without something traumatic happening to me. I felt dangerously close to the edge, and I hated that feeling.
I used to being tough, untouchable, and almost ruthless. I used to wear armor, I used to keep myself so locked off from everyone else. After the trauma I had endured in my first year of high school, I hadn’t wanted to give anybody the opportunity to hurt me again.
Much like Jenna, I was also sexually assaulted. It happened at a party that I had gone to with my first boyfriend, Cole. Things between us had still been at the early stages, the new stage where you were so enthralled with one another. Being with Cole felt like innocence and magic. It was exciting, dating a popular guy on the school basketball team. Cole was well known and well liked, and he chose me…the quiet girl that sat toward the back of the classroom.
I was elated to have Cole’s attention, elated to have anyone’s attention, really. My mom was constantly working and when she wasn’t working; she was dating. Making friends wasn’t exactly a talent of mine even then. I was too solemn, too dark looking. I spent most of my time alone, until Cole smiled his crooked grin at me and I felt like someone was actually noticing me.
We had only been dating for three months when we received an invitation to hang out at one of his friends’ houses after a home game. Several of his other teammates were there, but I was the only girl. One teammate, Casey, put a roofie in my drink.
The details of that night were still fuzzy, but for the longest time afterwards…I believed the rumors I heard about me, that I had slept with the entire basketball team. My classmates turned against me for hurting Cole, the girls wrote terrible things on my lockers and the guys were forever making suggestive comments to me.
I couldn’t handle it anymore; I switched schools and met Lauren. She became my first ever female friend; and the first person that I truly ever truly connected with on a deeper level. We were fast friends, kindred spirits, spending all of our time together until she died in a car accident. I was with her, and I could still recall the horrible memories of that night…of her face laying against the dark pavement, blood seeping out from a wound in her head.
I felt responsible for the accident. It had been my boyfriend, high on drugs, behind the wheel. I walked away with barely a scratch, but my best friend…the first person to truly get me…was gone. Her absence was so notable. I couldn’t escape it.
I relocated with my mom. I wasn’t able to handle the ghost of Lauren. She was everywhere I looked in Toronto, or worse…her parents were. They’d never forgiven me for the accident; I could feel their hatred rolling off their bodies in waves at the funeral.
I needed a fresh start where I could keep everyone at a distance until I graduated.
Then…I met Iain. I fell in love, and opened myself up to all the heartbreak that comes with it. Being with him was incredible…he filled the void in my heart that had been a constant companion to me since Lauren’s death. But then I lost him…and the aftermath of that relationship was not pretty. I shut myself off and walked around in a numbed state until four months ago, when Jax Walker sauntered in to my life with his smooth smile and rugged good looks.
If Jax wasn’t Jax, and if he didn’t make me so happy; I could hate myself for being with him. I never wanted to be that flighty woman that fell in love every other year with someone new; I never wanted to be my Mom; a serial dater who needed a man to feel complete. I didn’t want to need a man to feel complete; I didn’t want to need Jax to feel complete, but it was glaringly obvious that he did make me feel complete.
Jenna’s hand on my arm brought me back to the present. “I’m not saying you need to go back to Dr. Philips’ and spill your guts, but you need to talk to someone. I’m worried about you, Harlow. I know that you can take a lot of punches, and you have…but you need to know that it’s okay to ask for help. Don’t keep closing yourself off from everyone, you’ll never heal that way and you know it.”
“I know,” I sighed. I wasn’t impervious to the fact that psychiatric help was a good thing, a necessary thing. I just didn’t think that Dr. Philips could solve these particular demons. I had a dark feeling that they had more to do with my perception of love and my actual love life and less to do with the whole Andrew thing. Simply put; I needed to get over myself and deal with my shit.
Maybe Jenna was right. Maybe if I let her, Dr. Philips could help me sift through all the shit in my head and make sense of it.
“Good,” Jenna sighed with relief and we started to walk along the snowy sidewalk, our footsteps crunching patterns in the fresh snow and our breath escaping in puffs of clouds in front of our faces.
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