(unedited prerelease, copyright Skye Knizley 2015, may not be shared without prior permission.)
Imagine, if you will, two eight year old girls playing in a sunny Florida back yard.
One of the girls is chubby, with blonde hair in long pigtails. She is wearing a hand-me-down sun dress that once belonged to her older sister and a pair of white sneakers. Her face is very serious, except when the other girl laughs. Then she laughs too.
The other child is taller than the blonde and very thin. She has so much dark hair it hangs around her like a curtain, almost hiding her tank top, worn jeans and Converse sneakers.
The girls met an hour ago and though they haven’t said a word, they’ve been playing like friends of old.
Until a few moments ago when the blonde girl cut the head off a Diamondback Rattlesnake with her mother’s garden trowel. The head, mouth open, now lies just a few inches from the dark girl’s bare ankle. She hadn’t heard the big snake’s hiss or threatening rattle. She couldn’t hear anything. She’d been deaf from birth.
Now imagine this bright afternoon as the catalyst for a friendship that will last decades and become a legend in its own right.
Two girls, light and dark. Serious and silly. Smoak and Ash.
Prologue: Several Years Ago…
She could hear a rhythmic beeping, getting louder as consciousness found her and she grew stronger. The beeping was joined by the sound of her ragged breathing, the squeak of shoes on waxed linoleum and a whiff of pepperoni pizza.
Pizza? Why do I smell pizza? The girl wondered.
“Open your eyes, SK. I know you’re awake,” a familiar voice said cheerfully.
Smoak opened her eyes. A foggy white ceiling hung somewhere above her. After a few seconds it cleared and she could see the dots in the tiles and the sickly green frames holding everything in place. She could also see sunlight streaming across the ceiling. It was late in the day.
When she had her bearings she turned to the left. A thin young woman of perhaps seventeen sat on the windowsill, a pizza box next to her. The girl had long brown hair pulled back in a bandana and she was wearing a Seabreeze High School tee shirt over skinny jeans and Converse sneakers. The girl smiled at Smoak and opened the pizza box.
“I knew Corleone’s would wake you up. Feel like a slice?” She asked.
Smoak tried to speak and her mouth exploded in pain. She groaned and reached up to feel the wire and pins holding the left side of her face together.
The other girl was immediately up and moving to Smoak’s side.
“Shit, you can’t open your mouth at all? Oh honey I’m so sorry. I thought…”
Smoak lowered her hand and took the girl’s in hers. She squeezed and let go, speaking with American Sign Language.
It’s okay, Ash. You didn’t know and I couldn’t have. I can have pizza later. Are you okay?
“Am I okay? Aside from my best friend being almost beaten to death and a cop waiting at the end of the hall to talk to you, yeah I’m peachy,” Ashley replied. “I should be asking you if you’re okay. What happened? The cops found two dead men at work.”
Smoak held up five fingers.
There were five, she signed. Five of them. They hit me when I was closing up the shop. They knocked me out and dumped me in the pit.
Ashley sat on the bed. “SK, they found you outside with a bloody half-inch drive in your hand. You were nowhere near the mechanic’s bay.”
Smoak nodded, wincing at the pain it caused.
Dumping me in the pit was a mistake. When I woke up they were still trying to open the safe. I grabbed the drive and climbed back out. I got two. All I remember after that was being hit, over and over. And then here.
“Then the other three are out still out there somewhere,” Ashley said. “At least the cops were smart enough to figure out it was a robbery gone wrong. Dad says they still want you for questioning and you could be brought up on manslaughter charges. If you are he will defend you, no charge.”
Smoak closed her eyes.
The two I hit are dead?
Ashley laughed. “Not just dead, girl. You beat the crap out of them. I’ve never seen you that pissed. You really beat them to death over some of Paulie’s money?”
Smoak shook her head.
No. Because of what they did to me.
Ashley paled. “What did they do? Smoakie what happened?”
Smoak felt tears building behind her eyes and she tried to build up the courage to tell her friend. She raised a hand to answer when the door to her room opened and a man entered. He had blonde hair and a dark tan he’d matched with a linen suit and pink tee. Smoak thought he looked like a Miami Vice extra.
“Good afternoon, Miss Higgins. How is Miss MacKenna?” He asked.
“Hi Detective Murphy,” Ashley replied. “She’s awake.”
The detective smiled and moved to join Ashley next to the bed. Ashley watched his face closely.
“Good afternoon, Miss Mackenna. How are you feeling?” Murphy asked.
Ashley snorted. “She can’t talk. Her jaw is wired shut.”
The detective frowned. “When you brought her a pizza I assumed she could move her mouth.”
Ashley shrugged and held Smoak’s hand. “We were both wrong. She can’t say a peep.”
“I see. Can she sign? Your father said you two have been friends your whole lives.”
Ashley frowned and muttered “thanks, dad,” before answering in a louder voice. “Yeah, she can sign. I can interpret for you and I read lips pretty well.”
“Tell her I’m Detective Murphy of the Ormond Beach Police.” Murphy said.
Ashley rolled her eyes. “She’s not the one who is deaf, detective. I am.”
The detective flushed and looked away for a moment. “Right. My apologies. Miss MacKenna, can you tell me what happened at the Lube and Go last Friday night?”
Smoak made a quick sign of affirmation but said nothing else.
“What did she say?” Murphy asked.
“She said yes,” Ashley said with a grin. “That’s all.”
“I can see this won’t be easy. Miss MacKenna, I meant, will you tell me what happened that night, right here, right now. It needs to go in my report.”
Smoak shook her head.
Not a chance. Not without Mr. Higgins.
“She says she wants her lawyer, my dad.” Ashley interpreted.
“Miss MacKenna, you aren’t currently being charged with anything,” Murphy pressed.
Currently not charged, with the possibility of manslaughter. I’m not saying anything until Mr. Higgins is here. And my mom, if she will come.
“As you wish, Miss MacKenna. I’ll come back after arrangements have been made,” Murphy said after hearing Ashley’s translation. “In the meantime, get well.”
Smoak watched the detective leave. When he was gone she turned back to Ashley.
“Are you sure about this, Smoakie?” Ashley asked.
Yeah. I’m not taking any chances. I already did a week in Juvenile for breaking that quarterback’s nose and collarbone
Ashley shrugged. “He shouldn’t have patted a dyke’s ass.”
Smoak glared at Ashley, who giggled.
“Yeah, I know you’ll get me back for that one. But for now you can’t even stick out your tongue,” she said.
Smoak raised her perfectly good middle finger and rotated it for Ashley’s viewing pleasure.
Ashley smiled, then her face fell and she collapsed on the bed, hugging her friend tight.
“I missed you, SK. I thought you were gonna die. You look like hell.”
They can’t kill me, Ash. I’m too stubborn.
“You’re not a superhero, blondie.”
Smoak hugged her friend with her good arm and said nothing. She knew she wasn’t a hero.