THE DEEDS THAT BIND US: Sneak Peek | Chapter One
You guys have been in this for the long haul with me, and though (of course) this first chapter is subject to (potentially drastic) change, I wanted to share it with you to thank you for putting up with me for almost an entire year as I've embarked on this journey into traditional publishing.
Please enjoy the first chapter of my brain child, THE DEEDS THAT BIND US.
Here's the pitch to get you in the mood:
When sixteen-year-old Amelia's trip to her mother's Vancouver Island hometown has her fighting for her life after a surfing accident, her fate is crossed with a lost and injured orca calf. Now, she’ll do anything to return him to the wild. But strange happenings in the small town (missing orcas and reporters found dead) present her with an ocean-destroying mystery that she cannot leave to the tides.
Alright, no more stalling. Enjoy!
THERE ARE SIX OF US, in the end. We’re sitting at a long table under the amber glow of two pendant lights. They hum like angry worker bees. The buzzing wasn’t so loud at first, but now, my eardrums are soaked in the ceaseless droning of the lights. The only thing keeping me from going mad is the simple, unassuming clock hanging above the door. I close my eyes and listen to the ticks.
They’re almost out of time.
We have exchanged countless glances over the last few hours, but it’s almost over. None of us have touched the room-temperature water cups we were given at the beginning of the interrogation. None of us have answered a single question. Not in any real way.
The detective thought he was so clever when he opened a manilla folder filled with twelve glossy photographs of a crime scene and scattered them across the table in front of us. The pictures aren’t proof, even though he would like us to believe that.
Printing the photos was a waste of paper.
None of us will crack.
We made a promise.
THREE MONTHS EARLIER: THE BEGINNING OF SUMMER
TOFINO IS A SMALL TOWN on the western coast of Vancouver Island full of promises and lies; it depends which one you’re looking for.
The promises are that the surf will always be good, the tacos are delicious, and the sunsets are perfect.
The lies are the things that hide behind all that bullshit.
Tofino used to be my favorite place in the world. It was where I formed my first memories—sandy, salty ones perched on someone’s knee; Papa’s or Gran’s or Mom’s, as we sailed the boat down the Strait of Juan De Fuca and into the Salish Sea. Tofino was a promise; sparkling waves, colorful surfboards, and summers with my papa.
For other people, Tofino was probably still all of that—but not to me.
I didn’t want to go there ever again, yet here I was, rolling my suitcase out of Long Beach Airport.
And to be clear, “airport” was a really nice way of describing it. Nothing in Tofino was deserving of its title. Pretty much every establishment was just a single-family home painted an absurdly bright color, like whatever was underneath was rotting, and they thought slapping a primary color over it would solve the problem.
“Well, this is just great,” Mom said as cell service finally brought her phone back to life.
I didn’t need to ask. Based on her face alone, she was about to have a full meltdown. It was easy to guess exactly what Mom was thinking most of the time. Traveling with someone for extended periods was a sure fire way to merge brains.
“Annalyse can’t pick us up.” She ran her fingers through her unruly curls, something I inherited from her. “She has an emergency at the clinic.”
“You could always call an Uber,” I said, but it was mostly a joke. Ubers probably didn’t operate out here; they were more common in places with actual civilization.
My unamused gaze followed a yellow puddle jumper as it rolled down a poorly marked runway and jetted off into the sky. Dark grey clouds barreled away, headed south to infect Seattle with its daily dose of depression. Hints of blue and gold and purple melded together like watercolors as the clouds broke apart over the seaside town.
We snuck by the welcome desk, ignoring the older lady manning the welcome center as she tried to wave us down with a stack of shiny pamphlets.
“There are no drivers available,” Mom sighed, shaking her head at her phone.
We were both thinking the same thing, but neither of us wanted to say it. Especially Mom. Which meant I would have to.
“Why don’t you call Gran?” Mom’s green eyes flashed at me like a cat about to pounce. “I’m just saying. Unless there’s a taxi…” I pretended to look around the tiny parking lot for a highly organized taxi system. “Hmm, looks like there are none available.”
“You’re not funny, Amelia.” Mom sighed—not her typical, habitual one, but a real sigh, dragged out by the weight of her stress. “Fine. I’m calling her.”
She hadn’t even lifted the phone all the way to her ear before Gran answered. Of course she would pick us up. Gran didn’t have anything else to do; she was sitting up at the cabin all by herself.
My feelings about Gran had soured over the years, but it made my stomach turn to think about her being alone. Papa died five years ago, and honestly, we hadn’t talked to Gran much since the funeral. And I hadn’t been back here since…well, since our family fell apart.
As Mom and I sat on the bench outside the airport, there was a crawling pressure between us—the weight of a question lingering in the air. I wanted to ask if she was okay being here again after everything.
The phone call with Gran was short—no formalities exchanged, just Gran agreeing to give us a ride to our hotel.
I decided not to ask Mom how she was feeling. She wasn’t the type that liked to reminisce. She was more of a runner. And that’s what we’d been doing since my dad left.
And we liked it.
It was easy. There was no pressure, no expectations, and most importantly, no attachments.
Gran rolled up thirty minutes later in a silver Volvo. She used to have an old blue Corvette, and I was surprised she wasn’t driving it. It was a gift from Papa. I stole a glance at Mom as Gran’s small frame appeared by the trunk. She didn’t look pleased.
“Hey, girls!” Gran called, waving at us.
Mom bumped my shoulder with hers as she stood up. “Here we go.”
I sighed, habitually, another thing I inherited from my mother.
“Thanks for picking us up,” Mom said, giving Gran an awkward, tense side-hug.
“You know I’d do anything for you, Charlotte.” Gran said it like it was something she was trying to convince Mom of, not something she already knew.
Mom smiled weakly and lifted her giant suitcase into the trunk. When Gran finally looked at me, she lifted her sunglasses, pushing her straight white hair away from her blue eyes.
“Amelia LeBlond, you beautiful thing.”
“Hi, Gran,” I said, approaching her cautiously. I didn’t know how to greet her. A hug? A handshake? A nod?
She pulled me into a hug, and I stiffened.
“God,” she said, holding me at arms’ length as she pulled away, “you grew up on me.”
“That tends to happen.” It sounded more curt than I meant. It was just, last time I saw her, I was eleven, and we were in Ontario burying Papa.
“Well, I’m happy to see you both. Why don’t you come up to the cabin and stay with me?” Gran’s gaze shifted from me to Mom.
“We already paid for the hotel,” Mom said quickly, adjusting her purse and making her way to the front seat.
Gran bit her lip before closing the trunk, and we piled into the car.
“Nice car, Gran,” I observed. The leather was smooth with no cracks or stains, and it smelled like New Car.
Gran smiled at me over her shoulder before lowering her sunglasses over her eyes again.
I couldn’t help it. I needed to ask. “What happened to the Corvette?” Mom tensed in her seat, looking at Gran expectantly.
“Well, you couldn’t very well have fit all your bags in the back of a sports car, could you?”
“You didn’t get rid of Dad’s car on the off chance that you might need to pick us up from the airport,” Mom said, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow.
“Charlotte, you’ve always been so self-centered. Not everything is about you,” Gran snapped, pushing her sunglasses onto her head again. “I gave the Corvette away.”
Mom leaned forward, her mouth gaping. “You what?”
Gran rolled her eyes, gripping the steering wheel until the tendons in her hand pressed against her skin.
“The Corvette was really special to him. Why would you do that?”
I wished Mom would shut up now. Bickering over a 40-year-old car was so typical of them. If they couldn’t find something to fight about, they’d invent something.
“I gave it to Jordan Greene,” Gran said at last, interrupting Mom’s rambling about how we shouldn’t get rid of Papa’s stuff without talking to each other.
Mom clamped her mouth shut. I hadn’t heard that name in a long time. I almost didn’t recognize it, but the memories crept back slowly—hands held on the beach, stealing sweets from the freezer at midnight, playing in the sand, glistening beads of water trapped in his black curls; the warm, orange sun pulling reddish hues out of his dark complexion; the sound of his laugh. But that was before Uncle Dan. Before Dad. Before everything bad happened.
“Jordan still lives here?” I had to fight my excitement about the prospect of seeing him again. I haven’t been here in a long time; everything was different now, and I couldn’t hold Jordan to the version of him I knew nine years ago.
“Yes, he does. He’s actually up at the cabin right now.” Gran peeked at me as if she just dangled a carrot in front of my face.
I leaned back into my seat. “That’s cool.”
“So, why did you give Jordan the car? How is Jay doing? I heard about Missy,” Mom said.
I leaned forward. “What happened to Missy?”
Mom swallowed hard. “Cancer. She passed last summer.”
I bit my lip. Shit. Missy was Jordan’s mom, and she was great. It hurt me to think of the woman I knew once, a long time ago, being gone. She was spritely; tall, athletic, absolutely hilarious. She made the best brownies ever, but she also made these mini-paintings that I remembered so vividly, even a decade later. She mostly painted the wildlife on the island—red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, grizzlies, wolves, and of course, the orcas: the single defining attribute of the coastal town, aside from surfboards. They were, in essence, the personality of Tofino, and the entire reason we were here now.
“Yes, Jordan took it hard, but he’s coming around. You know, I bet they would like to have dinner while you guys are here. He’s a handsome kid nowadays, Lia.”
I rolled my eyes. If she thought I came here to have a summer fling with the kid whose pants I used to fill with mud pies when we were six, she had another thing coming.
“That’s nice,” I said, trying to make my disinterest apparent.
“I might reach out to Jay,” Mom agreed.
“Is this it?” Gran asked apprehensively, peering up at our hotel.
I tried not to scrunch my nose at the unsightly little building. I told Mom we should’ve gotten an AirBnB. The hotel was more of a bed and breakfast. The white paint was cracked and peeling off so badly in some places that it hung off the side of the building and tugged around in the wind. The lights were all off.
“Why does it look closed?” I tugged my brows together as I tried to read the tiny sign on the weathered front door. “And haunted?”
“Dammit,” Mom breathed, opening her door and jogging up to the building. “Closed for the season? Not opening until June 30th? Are you kidding me?” She yelled from the doorstep.
“Charlotte, how did you book—and pay for—a hotel room that isn’t even available?” Gran asked boorishly as Mom slid back into her seat, slamming the door behind her.
Mom tapped at her phone violently, and Gran watched her with a strange, tense impatience.
“You know, Char, for a veterinarian, you can really be quite dense.”
“Mom,” my mother groaned, rolling her eyes and throwing her phone into her purse, “please.”
Gran shrugged, glancing at me. “I guess that means you’re coming back to the cabin, after all.”
She didn’t try for a moment to conceal her smugness as she whirled us around and sped off headed north. I pressed my forehead against the glass and let my eyes glaze over the serrated horizon line of deep green firs as they rushed by.
Tofino was beautiful to most people. Even I had to admit, it was hard not to see it that way. It was quaint. The ocean was beautiful and weirdly close; like the sea and the land weren’t separate things, but two parts of the same whole. The smell of pine was everywhere. It lingered on every surface, and by the end of this trip, my skin would be infused with the scent. Layers and layers of mountains faded gray against the skyline like distant gods, protecting Tofino from the outside world.
As the cabin rolled into view, my stomach sank. Seeing the house was like stepping into the past. I couldn’t help the urge to look at Mom, and she was frozen stiff.
“We’re going to book an AirBnB,” Mom said as soon as we started unloading our bags from the trunk. “We’ll be out of your hair by morning.”
“Charlotte, it’s no trouble. I mean, honestly, you owe me a bit of face time since we’ve barely spoken.”
Mom gave me a look then; it meant ‘I’m sorry, but we’re going to get out of here soon’. What Gran said also wasn’t exactly true. We had all of the obligatory Grandma-to-Daughter-to-Granddaughter conversations. Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays. We did what we were supposed to do as far as communication went. Mom and I were busy, and almost always in different time zones than Gran.
It wasn’t our fault.
I got out of the car, and the cabin’s magnetic pull demanded my attention. It towered over us, tall windows reaching from the floor to the vaulted, pointed ceiling.
We called it a cabin because that’s what it used to be, but Papa did well for himself, and over the years, he made a lot of improvements. It didn’t look much like a cabin anymore, but it had some nods to its former self: the red cedar logs nestled into the siding, the seastones splitting the big window in the middle of the house. Now, it was a bigger, more magnificent version of what was here before. Like Papa had plucked it right out of his imagination.
He used to keep a black and white photo of the original house on the desk in his study, and I wondered if it was sitting there right now, or if Gran had turned the room into a yoga studio or meditation room. I decided right then that if she had changed his study, I’d be so angry with her that I would leave right now and make my way to Vancouver by myself.
My breath escaped me for a half a second when we reached the stairs. I’d almost forgotten about them. I placed my palm on the elk antler rail and closed my eyes as I traced the tiny indentations in the bone with my index finger.
The antlers belonged to Uncle Dan. Papa kept them on the mantle for years, but I was happy to see them serving a purpose, like they were protecting Gran or something. It comforted me in a way; like a couple of worn bones were enough company for an old lady whose family had mostly forgotten her.
“These are Dan’s,” Mom observed, mostly to herself.
Gran and I both heard her, but neither of us dared to speak. Mom hadn’t said his name in years. We continued up the stairs, and Mom stayed at the bottom, tracing the antlers with her fingertips.
“Just leave her,” Gran whispered when I started to say something.
I sighed and followed Gran inside. Two winding staircases greeted us in the foyer and light filled the open space, as the east-facing wall was entirely made of glass. It overlooked a private cove, bordered by fir-lined cliffs with rocky bottoms.
A huge fireplace crackled on the left, crowded by a cozy white sectional and two leather wingback chairs, sitting together warmly on a large cowhide rug. I remembered it all vaguely, but it seemed like a lot of things had changed in the last nine years.
“Jordan?” Gran called upstairs. “Are you still here?”
My heart drummed, heat rushing into my ears. I tried to mentally prepare myself, but I had no time, because when I looked up at the banister, he was already standing there.
“Lia?” he asked, his eyes widening for a second before a giant, dimpled grin split his face.
I was afraid he would be so different. And he was, but his smile was exactly the same. Like he copy-pasted it off his seven-year-old self. His eyes were still a warm, melty brown, shaded by thick, curly lashes. He was so tall now, and his muscular arms pressed against the cuffed sleeves of his gray t-shirt. He jogged to the bottom of the stairs and right up to me. Blood flooded the apples of my cheeks as I looked up at Jordan, who now towered over me.
“You look the same,” I said, almost just to myself.
“I would hug you, LeBlond, but I’m all sweaty.” He opened his arms, looking down at his shirt, which was splotched with sweat stains.
“Jordan!” Mom rushed past me, wrapping him into a hug before pulling away to examine him. “You’re so tall! Turn around!” She forced him to twirl, and he laughed as she squeezed his shoulders. “Sweetheart, you look just like your mother.”
My eyes fell, my heart sinking in my ribcage.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Jordan said with a smile.
“Why don’t you ask your dad if he wants to do dinner with us tonight?” Gran asked.
I slanted my eyes at her. Before he could answer, I said, “What were you doing upstairs?”
I glanced at the belt bag around his jeans, which held an assortment of tools.
He swallowed, eyes flashing from me, to Gran, to Mom. “Um—I was fixing the sink in the guest room.”
Mom’s eyes turned into slits as she examined Jordan’s belt. “Mom, did you…orchestrate this?”
Gran couldn’t fool us. She had this innocent thing about her, but she could be downright diabolical. Mom stared her down until she crumbled.
Finally, she sighed. “Fine! My friend Joan owns The White Rose, and I took you to the old hotel. They’re across town now in the new building. I just asked her if she could fumble up the dates a little on your reservation. You two haven’t visited me in a long time, and you shouldn’t have to pay for a hotel while you’re in Tofino. This is your home.”
“Mom,” my mom groaned, “I’m here for work.”
I glanced at Jordan, whose face was twisted with discomfort. Sorry, I mouthed.
He smiled a little. “Uh, Lia, you need help with your bags?”
“We won’t be staying,” Mom hissed as Jordan and I moved toward the stairs.
“Well, The White Rose is booked now. It’s surfing season. So, good luck finding anything,” Gran said, crossing her arms. “Lia, you can take your mother’s old bedroom.”
As they bickered, Jordan helped me lift my bags up the stairs.
“Jesus, they fight like dogs,” Jordan said with a huff when he put my bag on the stop of the stairs.
“I know, it’s exhausting.”
“I don’t remember them ever being like that. They seemed close when we were kids.” He looked at me like he wanted an explanation, but he wasn’t going to get one. I didn’t fully understand it myself, but I wasn’t going to air out my family’s dirty laundry to him. It wasn’t his burden to bear.
Jordan pulled the handle on my suitcase and started rolling it down the hall. I had to catch my breath, because for a second, it felt like the hallway was growing. Like the door at the end of it was suddenly miles away.
“You okay?” Jordan asked, his voice snapping the hall back to its normal distance.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m just tired from traveling.”
“Where did you guys come in from?”
“Botswana,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear.
“Globetrotters. I can never keep up with you, girl,” Jordan winked before pulling on my suitcase.
“That’s the point.” I was teasing, but I couldn’t actually be more serious. The best thing about our transient lifestyle was that no one could keep up with us. It’s how we kept ourselves safe. It was me, Mom, and the rest of the world.
“Have you been back to your house in North Carolina?”
I shook my head. “We sold it last month. We’d been moving around too much and it wasn’t worth keeping.”
I wanted to ask about Missy, but after how he reacted when Mom mentioned her, I didn’t want to cause him any more pain.
As we passed the door to Papa’s study, I noticed it was slightly cracked. It seemed to hum, inviting me in as we approached it. I paused. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in there, but I pushed the door open anyway.
To my relief, it looked exactly the same. The walls were still crammed with books; the maple desk was pressed under the window where it belonged; a gold and black table lamp crouched over a field journal filled with drawings of birds, plants, and fish. I was almost surprised Papa wasn’t sitting at his desk. The room was frozen in time, like he’d just gotten up to grab a snack.
I crossed the room to pick up the black and white picture of the old cabin, which now sat on the bookshelf. Jordan lingered in the doorway. Like entering the room was a sin. Two kids sat on the porch stairs in the photo, holding hands and laughing. The small caption at the bottom right of the picture read: “Char and Dan. 1981.”
As I put the picture back, a small photo box labeled “Charlotte’s Things” caught my eye. I slid it off the bookshelf and tucked it under my arm.
On my way out of the room, the metal of Papa’s old rifle snagged the light streaming in from the small window over his desk, drawing my eye to the table beneath it, which was stacked with National Geographic magazines.
I placed my hand on the stack. The first, a winter edition, had a picture of a white elk on it. In the bottom corner, the photographer was credited. Dan Armstrong. I didn’t remember Uncle Dan that well. I knew he was there on the boat with us a lot in the early days, before he got too busy with photography. But more than anything, I vividly recalled the sound of his laugh.
He was Mom’s twin brother, and he died in some kind of accident. We didn’t talk about Dan directly. Not ever.
Today was the first time I’d heard her say his name since he died.
His death was probably the reason Mom struggled so hard after Dad left. Half of her was already missing. With Dad gone, she was mere scraps of her former self. I couldn’t imagine a sadness with that depth. Sure, I hadn’t felt entirely whole in a long time, but at least I never knew the feeling of having a sibling and having to say goodbye to them.
I swallowed hard, sliding the copy onto the table. The next one was a spring edition—a grey wolf and her pup. Dan Armstrong. I put the winter edition back.
When I left the study, I closed the door behind me.
“She cleans it twice a week,” Jordan said softly as we stepped back into the hallway.
I nodded and we made our way to Mom’s old bedroom. As the door swung open, memories from my early childhood rushed back. Mom used to read to me on the bed at the far end of the room. A sheer white canopy fell over it like a waterfall. Even her old desk was here, accompanied by a crammed bookshelf and a pink tufted chair, worn from the hundreds of hours she spent sitting there.
It was cold and stale the last time I stood in this room. Mom spent a week in bed. It was right after Dan died, and everyone was so sad, but especially her. She and Gran had been fighting ever since we got the call that Dan was in the hospital. We stayed here for almost a month afterwards, and it was a month that stained my happy memories of the cabin; of Tofino, pushing a dark cloud over my idealistic childhood forever.
There were no more happy boat days. No more early morning walks on the fog-drenched beach after a rainstorm. No looking at the sunsets from the dock. Even Papa stopped smiling. It would be the last time we saw Papa before he died, and it was the beginning of Gran’s and Mom’s distaste for each other.
The beginning of everything horrible that would happen to our family.
I put the box from Papa’s office on the foot of the bed, tossed my backpack on the floor, and flopped onto the mattress. “It’s weird being here again.”
Jordan pushed my shoulder, forcing me to roll to the other side of the bed before he laid next to me. “I bet it’s weird for you. But to me, it feels like everything is right again.”
I tilted my head at him, and he flashed me a smile. We stared up at the old, glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and laughed about how they were astrologically accurate because my mom was such a raging nerd. We laughed like no time had passed.
Jordan’s phone pinged. “I gotta run, I’m picking up my girlfriend from the airport.”
My stomach twisted, but I didn’t know why. He was just Jordan. He was older, I was older. Time had passed, and we grew. But looking at him now was like I was seeing something I’d known all my life for the first time.
“See you tonight,” he said, squeezing my hand before getting up and heading for the door. He paused in the doorway. “Lia?”
I sat up, cocking my head.
“I’m glad you’re back.”
After he left, I opened the box from Papa’s study. It was mostly filled with stacks of loose polaroids, but there was also a small photo album and a ratty wallet. I got off-track looking at the pictures, most of Mom and Gran. I even found a few pictures of me as a baby, and one with Papa and I sitting on the boat. I put that one off to the side. Mom wouldn’t mind if I kept it.
When I felt satisfied, I started to stack the photos neatly when one of the pictures caught my eye. It was Mom and Dad at prom. My heart thundered at the sight of him, and I took a shaky hand to the picture, inspecting it carefully. I tried to imagine him as the monster I wanted him to be, but he looked normal. Happy. He even looked nice, which pissed me off. I sniffed and quickly shoved the picture back into the box, tossing the photo album on top of it.
I wasn’t going to open the wallet since it looked deflated and empty, but I’d already snooped through everything else. There wasn’t much in it, except a splotchy insurance card and three wrinkled one-dollar bills. I clamped it shut, and as I tossed it back into the box, a polaroid slipped out facedown. My brows tugged together as I turned the picture back over. It was a baby with blond hair and big brown eyes, but it definitely wasn’t me. I squinted, flipping it to inspect the back again.
A tiny message was scrawled with a fine-tipped Sharpie in unfamiliar handwriting. It simply read: