Only two days to go until the release of Portrait of a Sunset! Do you know what that means? It means it is the perfect time to give my readers a sneak peek at the book!
Below is the first chapter of Portrait of a Sunset. Feel free to leave comments – I’d love to know what you think of it! If you enjoy the first chapter, the full novel will be available for purchase on Amazon.com on October 28, 2016. Stay tuned for more updates, and enjoy the excerpt!
PORTRAIT OF A SUNSET
By Jessica A. Scott
When I met Casey Linderman, I was a shell of the person I used to be—or worse: a shell of the person that I thought I should have been. A disastrous summer had ripped me out of my comfortably mediocre life as an artist in training and had thrust me into a world where I no longer belonged, a world in which I was completely, utterly, terrifyingly alone.
The worst part was, I was beginning to like it that way.
That was why, when I took a seat next to Casey in the first of many, many hospital-mandated group therapy sessions in the basement of the local YMCA, I didn’t say a word. To my satisfaction, he didn’t say one either.
I studied my worn-out tennis shoes as the other group members trickled into the oddly bright, strangely sanitary-smelling room. With weary eyes, I traced my dusty, fraying shoelaces as they looped around each other and formed a haphazard, off-white bow before coming to rest atop the graying canvas of the once-white sneaker.
I shifted to a less-slouchy position in my cold metal chair and checked my watch.
Five to seven. Therapy would be starting any minute. My stomach bubbled with nerves as I closed my eyes, trying to figure out how a girl like me had ended up in a place like that.
I took a deep breath and let it out. I could hear muttering around me as other people filled in the remaining empty seats. I tuned them out as I continued to try to calm down.
Just breathe, Clara, I told myself, you can do this.
I took another breath, focusing on the glow of the fluorescent lights coming through my heavy eyelids. I hadn’t slept for three days. Subsequently, I began to drift off, my head drooping down onto my chest.
That’s when the waves began to wash over me, softly at first, but steadily growing in power and succession until all at once they were crashing into me, stealing my breath as I fought the urge to scream. I could just see the sun, that false idol of hope and happiness, impossibly bright as it stared down at me dispassionately and I sank deeper and deeper into the depths of the darkening water.
I awoke with a jerk, stomping my foot and startling Casey, but no one else.
“Sorry,” I muttered, wiping my eyes. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find them wet with the beginnings of what was sure to have been a veritable torrent of tears, as per usual.
Casey grunted wordlessly in reply.
I decided to study his shoes for a while. Being a person who carefully avoided eye contact on most occasions, I learned a lot about people from their shoes. Take nurses, for example. On average, nurses wear sensible but stylish tennis shoes that give them the mobility to get where they are needed fast, but also afford them the opportunity to express their own individuality in terms of color and style. The nurses that work in pediatrics and love babies and puppies and all other cute, precious things usually wear pink-accented shoes, as well as their hearts on their sleeves. The serious, no-nonsense nurses in the Intensive Care Unit wear black tennis shoes to show that, whatever they’re doing, they give it their all, and there will be no fooling around. Priests also wear black sneakers to display their commitment to their vows of poverty and modesty, and perhaps as a reference to the darker side of humanity that even a man of God must possess. Funeral directors wear shiny, impersonal, black loafers to signify that they do not want to share in your pain or be given any information about your plight because they have already heard it all before.
By that point in my life, I was an expert at shoe psychology. I could learn everything I needed to know about a person before I ever looked up at their face. Just by glancing at their footwear, I could tell who they were and where they were going—and how that would affect me.
Casey’s shoes, though, were a complete enigma. They were huge, muddy, black, combat-style boots with thick soles and a good arch—great for walking and motorcycling and other general bad-assery. However, looped tight around one of the flat, black shoelaces on his boat-sized right boot was a single plastic purple flower on a string that looked as if it had come off a little girl’s hair barrette.
“Welcome, everyone,” called a gratingly cheerful voice from the front of the room. Reluctantly, I put my shoe-study on hold and looked up to see the grief counselor enter the room, closing the door behind him as he trapped us all in that brightly lit, white-walled lobby of hell.
He looked just as I thought he would: annoying.
Everything about him screamed “LOVE ME!”; from his green and black checkered sweater vest and matching chartreuse bowtie to his lime-colored dress shirt and fabulous, neon-green converse sneakers. His brown hair was parted on the left with a severe crease, and flecks of grey were just beginning to crop up around his temples, where I half-expected to see the remnants of some white clown make-up. He practically danced over to sit across from me in the circle of chairs, and picked up a clipboard from the floor under his seat, crossing his legs daintily.
“I’m so glad that you’re all here,” he said, nearly bursting the faux buttons on his sweater vest in his enthusiasm. “Welcome to the first official meeting of the Siblings of Homicide Victims Therapy Group!”
I winced. Not only had the ridiculously-perky therapist just reminded me of all that I had lost, but he had said those words so flippantly, so carelessly, as if they were just words and meant nothing.
But of course they didn’t, really. Not to him, anyway.
Casey shifted uncomfortably in the chair to my left and I knew that I wasn’t the only one who had been stung.
“Well, as you know,” the counselor continued, “I am Doctor Jay Hartman, but you can just call me Doctor Jay. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves, what do you say?”
No one said anything.
I took a look around the room at the twelve other zombie-like figures and was mildly surprised to find that I was not the only one with dark circles under my red, watery eyes, and I was not the only one who thought that “Dr. Jay” was turning out to be a colossal douche.
“Who wants to go first?” the “doctor” asked, beaming expectantly at each of us in turn. One by one, the group members’ weary, bloodshot eyes dropped to the floor, hiding their pale, haggard faces from the counselor’s view.
“Aww, a little shy, are we?” Jay asked, a subtle note of impatience coloring his effeminate voice. When no one replied, he continued, “Okay then, how about this: you all break into groups of two—”
My stomach sank. I hated groups of any size.
“—and interview each other? No topic is off limits. Remember, we’re here to share our feelings!”
I felt like I might vomit. I barely acknowledged my feelings myself; I sure as hell wasn’t ready to share them with anyone else. I closed my eyes again and took a deep breath. Like clockwork, the waves began to ebb and flow anew, and I wrenched my eyes back open.
“Do you want to be my partner?” I asked Casey’s shoes, my voice rough as my panic slowly subsided.
He grunted again.
Not sure if that grunt meant yes or no, I glanced up and finally got my first real look at the man-mountain that was Casey Linderman. His broad, muscular shoulders were slumped in his blue flannel shirt, a posture that should have made him seem less like a giant, but somehow made him look even more gargantuan, making me wonder how the spindly metal chair beneath him could possibly be supporting his weight.
He had to have been at least six foot five, standing, and easily weighed 300 pounds or more, every pound of which appeared to be solid muscle. He looked too big to be allowed, as if he were some sort of mythical giant that, for whatever reason, had condescended to take a break from his normal routine of skull-crushing and monster-stomping to climb down his beanstalk and fraternize with us mere, grief-stricken mortals here on Earth.
I realized that my mouth was hanging open as I gazed up at his dark-complected face. His black, shaggy hair and five o’clock shadow made him seem all the more dangerous, but neither of those things could compare to his eyes. His fierce, haunted, blazing brown eyes glared down at me, as if they were trying to bore into my brain, as if he were challenging me to comment on his size like I am sure so many others had before.
I politely declined that challenge.
“I…I’m Clara Halpert,” I stuttered, looking back down at my own weathered shoes.
“Casey Linderman,” he rumbled in reply. His voice was so deep that I could feel my chair vibrate beneath me when he spoke.
“Come on, guys!” Jay cawed over the muted din, “You have to talk! Why else would you be here? Now turn your chairs to face each other and let’s get started!”
Suppressing a heavy sigh, I stood up and turned my chair to face Casey, who did the same.
“Um…I don’t know what to say,” I admitted quietly, my face flushing as I looked down at my hands. Eye contact had been difficult for me all of my life, but never more so than after the events of that summer.
“Me neither,” Casey replied, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
After a brief inner-struggle with shyness, I looked up to meet his eyes again and was surprised to see that the giant looked just as nervous as I felt.
“Well, I guess I could ask you how old you are,” I muttered, trying to sound off-handed.
“Twenty-three,” he said shortly, “You?”
“Twenty. Do you go to school?”
“Not anymore. You?”
“Not really,” I replied vaguely.
My palms were beginning to sweat. Already we were getting too close to the heart of the issue.
“Do you have a job?” I asked, my voice much too loud.
It was his turn to get uncomfortable. For some reason I couldn’t discern, he began to fidget with the cuffs of his sleeves. “Um…not really, anymore.”
I nodded, ignoring the fact that his answer was just as vague as the one I had given.
“Okay, guys,” Jay said, barely having to raise his voice to be louder than the group, “now that you’re all warmed up, I want you to tell your partner what brings you here to this group meeting tonight. I know it’s hard, but the first step to overcoming your grief is to share it with someone else.”
I glared at him.
Why was it that the most logical, poignant thing he’d said all night was exactly the thing that I least wanted to hear?
Casey cleared his throat again, and the people around us quietly began to share their deeply repressed pain with their partners. I looked up at Casey, panicking. The room began to spin as I was overcome with nausea.
“Do…you wanna go first?” Casey asked, looking a bit alarmed by my trembling and sweating as I hurtled toward a full-blown anxiety attack.
I shook my head. “I think I—”
“Hey, guys!” Jay crowed right in my ear. Casey and I both jumped. “I don’t hear any sharing yet!”
“We’re getting to it,” Casey said, a bit brusquely.
“Well, how about you go first, little lady?” Jay suggested, picking up a strand of my long, curly hair and tossing it playfully back over my shoulder.
I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t speak. My throat was tight and my stomach was squirming as if I’d just eaten a bucket full of worms. The room was spinning and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t talk about this, not yet. Not here. Not with Jay’s strangely moist breath in my face.
“Go on,” said Jay’s muffled voice in my ear, “look your partner in the eye and tell him what you’re feeling inside.”
After trying and failing to catch my breath, I did as that douchebag counselor instructed. I stared right up into Casey’s wide, fearful eyes and said, “I feel like I’m gonna be sick.”
With that, I slumped over and vomited spectacularly, setting Dr. Jay’s lovely lime-green sneakers adrift in a sea of sick.
“Oh! My! GOD!!” he shrieked, in the voice of an eight-year-old girl.
He finally leapt out of the way, but I could not stop painting the floor with what little I had eaten over the past twenty-four hours—and then some. My face grew hot and sweaty as I retched, my hair swinging dangerously close to the fountain of vomit.
Then, suddenly, I felt a rush of cool air as someone swept my long, loose curls out of the danger zone and gathered them up, holding them together at the nape of my neck as they rested their other hand on the small of my back. No one had touched me so tenderly in months, and no stranger had ever been that thoughtful toward me.
The surprise I felt must have overridden my brain’s panicked instructions to my heaving stomach for, after what had felt like ten minutes, I was finally able to stop puking and come up for air. Too exhausted to feel embarrassed, I wiped my stinging lips on my jacket sleeve and sat up to face the rest of the group.
I had expected to see thirteen pairs of wide eyes staring at me in disgust, but instead saw only a haphazard half circle of empty chairs. I wiped my streaming eyes and turned, with some trepidation, to see who, if anyone, was still holding my hair.
It was Casey.
Giant, awkward, scary Casey was holding my hair and not looking disgusted at all. If I had been capable of feeling love at that moment, I would surely have fallen in love with him on the spot.
“Thanks,” I said thickly, pulling a ponytail holder from my skinny wrist and gingerly taking my hair back from him.
“Where did everyone else go?” I asked, forgetting to stare at his feet instead of his face.
“Dr. Jay ran out as soon as your puke hit his shoes,” Casey said in a baritone monotone, “and everyone else took that to mean that Group was over.”
I nodded, resting my aching forehead on my hand as I tried not to look at the mess I had made on the white linoleum floor. Then a thought swam into my foggy brain, and I turned back to Casey.
“Why didn’t you leave, too?” I asked, suspicious.
He shrugged again, still fighting to pull the cuffs of his stubborn sleeves down over his own wrists. “I didn’t have anywhere else to be just then.”