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TRASH COURSE
by Penny Drake

Genre: E-book, Romantic Suspense

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I found a window that wasn’t boarded up and stood on tiptoe to peep inside. I only saw a few vague shapes and no movement. What the hell was in there? I made a mental note of the spot—we could break the glass to get in, if necessary—and kept going. A few minutes later, I found a side door behind some bushes. Leaves and twigs prickled against my sides and face as I tried the knob, expecting resistance. It turned easily in my hand. The door moved about an inch, then stopped dead. I leaned hard against it, but it refused to budge. I pressed my eye to the crack and tried to peer inside. Pitch blackness. A breath of damp air wafted past my face and I smelled mold, dust, and something…rotten. Garbage? Human flesh? I couldn’t tell. I pressed my mouth to the crack and hallooed into the interior. No response.

By now my vision had adjusted a little, and I could make out boxy shapes packed around the door. Someone had deliberately blocked it up. Ooookay. I shoved the door one more time just for the hell of it, but whatever was on the other side weighed more than a stack of anvils. I pulled it shut again and continued on my way. August humidity moved in for the kill, and I felt my hair head for the frizzy zone. A few brown tendrils escaped from my scrunchie, and I could almost hear them go boing

I looked in another window, but couldn’t see anything. This whole thing was getting weirder and weirder.

I rounded the corner into the back yard. Fewer trees stood guard back here, and large patches of sunlight did their best to fry the tall grass. It smelled like drying hay. The neighboring houses weren’t visible, though I could hear traffic noises beyond the thick tree line that stretched across the rear boundary of the property. Sweat trickled between my breasts and soaked my sports bra. Great. When I got home, I’d have to peel it off. Why had I wanted to come out here again?

I shoved through more prickly bushes to check another window—no luck—then caught sight of Ms. Hawk coming around the other corner. I waved to her, started to step around the shrubbery—

—and fell. The world blurred into green leaves and hard stone. My right elbow cracked against something and I lost all feeling in that arm. Yelping and cursing, I crashed down a lumpy, slanted surface until I fetched up flat on my back. I lay there, and for a second I was married to Noel again, my head aching from one of his ringing slaps.

“Shit!” I said, then said it again just to make sure I’d gotten it right. My arm throbbed. Gingerly I reached up to feel my head. No lumps or tender spots. Well, Mom had always said I had a head like granite.

Ms. Hawk’s head poked through the leafy canopy above me. “Are you all right?”

I felt like an idiot, lying at her feet. “Still assessing the damage,” I said, then sat up and looked around. I was sitting at the bottom of a short flight of flagstone steps sunk into the ground. Bushes had grown around the top of the stairs, hiding them from view. Behind me was a wooden door that probably led into the cellar of the house. “What happened?”

“You took a step and disappeared. It looked like the bushes swallowed you up.” The greenery parted, and Ms. Hawk descended the stairs gracefully as a queen. She offered me a hand and hauled me upright with easy strength.

“Fun,” I said, brushing myself down. A few scrapes and bruises—no major damage. “But I don’t think Disney World will offer it as a ride.”

Ms. Hawk gave a thin smile, then pulled out her flashlight. It was gloomy down here, and cooler. She shined the light at the door, then at the area just in front of it. “No debris,” she said. “And that door appears to be in better repair than the others. This must be how the uncles have been getting in and out.”

I examined it with my own flashlight. The doorknob wasn’t more than a few years old. Fresh scratches marked the area around the lock. “Oopsie. Looks like someone lost his key.” 

“Did the intruder manage to open it?” Ms. Hawk asked.

I tried the door, and it opened easily on silent hinges. The basement beyond exhaled damp, musty air that smelled of old stone. I pointed my flashlight inside. The area just inside the door was clear, but beyond that was a wall of…well, a wall of junk. A whole bunch of shoeboxes jumbled up with a rusty rake, three shovels, and an ancient rototiller. A stack of old-style oil cans were piled near a mass of broken lawn chairs that looked like shattered skeletons in the bad light. Flowerpots, half bags of peat moss, more chairs. Stuff that any normal person would have tossed on the trash heap years ago, and all of it piled to the ceiling beams.

“This is something else,” I said, stepping inside. “Maybe we should—”

And then everything happened very, very fast. Something caught my ankle at the exact moment Ms. Hawk grabbed the back of my shirt and yanked me backward. My flashlight went flying. I heard an explosive crash, and a cloud of dust billowed up. I landed hard against Ms. Hawk, and we both went down. The ground vibrated, then everything went still. Dust clogged my mouth and nose. I lay there, a little dazed, until I realized I was still on top of Ms. Hawk. I rolled free, coughing, and helped her up.

“What the hell—?” I said.

Ms. Hawk, also coughing, pointed at the door. The dust cloud cleared a bit, and beneath the haze, I could see a shin-high pile of cinder blocks occupying the space I had been standing in a moment before.