WIP Excerpt: MOUTH FULL OF ASHES

Author’s Note: This is the first chapter of my adult vampire novella. Trigger warnings for car accidents and bodily harm. Enjoy!

If Callie had known what was going to happen, she would have paid less attention to the NPR broadcast, would have focused more on the light in Becca’s blue eyes, the curve of her mouth as she smiled. On her freckles. On the friendship bracelet on her wrist, which Callie had a piece of.

But the tragedy of life is never knowing what comes next, never realizing whether it’s more important to focus on a moment and hold tight to it forever or to simply let it pass.

“Would you rather eat only ice cream for the rest of your life, or cake?” Becca asked.

“This is the worst game I’ve ever played,” said Ramsay. “These questions are supposed to be morbid, Becs. Come on now.”

“Ice cream, for sure,” Callie answered. “But Ramsay’s right. You’re supposed to ask something dark and a little bit tricky. You know that.”

Becca sighed. “It doesn’t feel like the right vibe for that now. I’m relaxed and content from a day in the sun.”

“You’re the only one who didn’t get burned,” Callie said.

“I reapplied my sunscreen. It’s not my fault neither one of you listened to me.”

“Would you rather die in a car crash or a fire?” Ramsay asked.

“Maybe Becca’s right,” Callie said. “It’s not the right vibe for that.”

Callie and her siblings, Becca and Ramsay, stayed at the beach until the sky turned pink and purple as the sun set. All the families and other groups of friends had left, and there was no one else around for miles. Callie and Becca sat back-to-back on the beach blanket. Ramsay sat in the folding chair beside them with his legs stretched out and his feet in the sand. Ramsay and Becca had pink cheeks and noses from failing to reapply their sunscreen. Callie had sore ribs from laughing all day. Storm clouds loomed on the horizon.

“We need to head back,” Becca said.

“Let’s stay a little longer,” Ramsay said.

Becca scrunched up her nose at him. “That’s what you said an hour ago. I have class in the morning, Ram.”

He rolled his eyes. “Beauty school barely counts.”

Becca scoffed and leaned over to punch his arm. Callie laughed. Becca had been training to become a makeup artist for three months. She loved every second of it and had thrown herself headfirst into her studies with surprising tenacity. She’d struggled in high school, where she and her brother were much more concerned about socializing than studying. Ramsay, by himself and long past graduation, was still concerned with socializing. Callie did enough studying for all three of them combined. She still couldn’t fathom how their mom had let Becca drop out, but it didn’t matter now.

“Not enough schooling in the world for your face,” Becca countered.

“You’re twins,” Callie said.

Becca laughed. “Not identical.”

Ramsay leaned over to shove his sister’s shoulder. The sun had even burned his scalp—a salmon glow peeked through his red hair. “I’ll drive, okay? We’ll be back before you turn into a pumpkin, promise.”

Becca rolled her eyes. “I’d feel better if Callie drove. Safer.”

“Why, because I drive like a grandma?” Callie asked.

“Doesn’t make us love you less,” said Ramsay.

They shook the sand out of the blanket, folded up the chair, grabbed the cooler, and trekked back to Ramsay’s SUV. Callie offered to drive but Ramsay declined. Becca sat beside her brother in the passenger seat and Callie climbed into the back. Right before he started the engine, Ramsay’s phone pinged. He checked it.

“Shit, looks like rain. Guess we should’ve left sooner.”

Becca huffed but said nothing. They turned out of the parking lot and onto the main road. Ramsay fiddled with the radio. Becca pushed his hand away and tuned the signal to NPR. The host droned on about unrest in the Middle East, some report that Callie only half listened to.

One minute, the sky was overcast, and Ramsay had no trouble driving. The next, the sky opened, rain flooded the roads, and Ramsay muttered a stream of curses. He had a white-knuckled grip on the wheel, but he still smiled at Callie in the rearview mirror. She always made faces at him when he drove. He hadn’t done anything wrong yet, but she was bracing herself for the inevitable. Later, the memory of the faces she’d pulled would rack her with even more guilt.

“You’re safe with me,” he promised. “Eyes on the road. I swear.”

“Shut up and pay attention,” Becca chided.

Ramsay rolled his eyes. On the radio, NPR dissolved into broken static. Becca reached for the dial, but Ramsay swatted her hand away. “Uh-uh, you chose last time. Now it’s my—”

Ramsay!

Callie wasn’t sure the scream was hers until Ramsay’s eyes widened in the mirror, illuminated by the flash of headlights in the other lane. They’d traveled over the line into oncoming traffic, close enough to see the terrified faces of the people in the other car. Ramsay jerked the wheel to the right and overcompensated. The car screeched, tilted, Becca gasped—

And Callie’s world flipped with the car. The front airbags exploded in clouds of white. The screech of metal on pavement, blaring horns, and tinkle of shattering glass overwhelmed her hearing, and she squeezed her eyes shut against the sensory onslaught.

If only Callie had driven instead.

If only it hadn’t rained.

If only they’d left earlier, as had been the plan.

If only one of those factors had been different, Callie wouldn’t have blacked out upside-down in the backseat, slammed forward in her seatbelt so hard she cracked a rib.

She woke to the acrid stench of gasoline and motor oil, the sounds of sobbing and sirens, and the copper taste of blood, thick and heavy on her tongue.

Where…?

Callie tried to move, but the seatbelt kept her pinned in place and her ribs protested the effort. Sharp pain flared up her side and spread across her chest. The engine pinged—the car thought a door had been left open—and intermittent flashes of red light made the cabin pulse like a heartbeat. Glass tinkled as someone moved. Ramsay groaned, but that was good. He was still alive.

“Callie,” Ramsay croaked.

“Yeah, Ram, I’m here. It’s all gonna be okay.”

“Becca,” Ramsay said.

Callie froze. Something told her not to look for their sister, that she was better off not knowing, but she had to know. She had to.

“Ram, be careful,” she said. “Don’t move her too—”

Ramsay touched Becca’s shoulder. Her body was slumped out the window, making it impossible to see her head or face. Ramsay shook Becca. No response.

He looked back at Callie, eyes pleading, asking the question neither one of them wanted to answer.

“Try again.” Callie’s voice was hoarse. “A little harder.”

“Becca.” Ramsay shook her shoulder more insistently. Becca made no sound, and he tried again. “Becs, please, I need you. We need you.”

Callie’s vision tunneled. She was going to pass out again, but she had to fight it. She had to know what had happened to Becca, if she was all right, if she was—

Alive.

Ramsay surged forward in his seat. He grabbed Becca’s body with both hands and pulled her into the cabin. Her headless torso tilted to rest against the dashboard.

Callie and Ramsay screamed.

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