Home > The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door
Author: J. R. Rogue

 


PROLOGUE

 

 

She didn’t see him watching. The girls never did. And though the late summer heat was oppressively hot in the Ozark woods she roamed, Amber liked the feeling of peace that washed over her every time she escaped to the wooded area beyond her father’s church.

Junior year was starting soon, and she was dreading the first day. A ticking clock ticked and tocked and rocked her as she slept, reminding her that each sleep brought her closer to the first tardy bell, the first slam of a locker door, echoing. Specifically, the locker she shared next to her boyfriend, Eric.

Breakups were never easy, and Amber had suffered the weight of her inevitable decision to end her relationship with Eric Childress—basketball player, baseball player, and a member of the National Honor Society—the perfect boyfriend on paper.

It kept her up late all summer, the nights she slept, anyway.

Her dreams had become more akin to nightmares. They were filled with slow, dramatic darkness and comical violence.

She wasn’t sure what had brought on the sudden night terrors, but to give into them was to be asleep, and that beat the alternative—awake, eyes trained on her doorknob, willing it to remain still.

In the safety of daylight, Eric wanted more and more from her body with each passing month of their relationship, and she couldn’t give herself to him, not without angering another’s possessive eyes and hurting the one she enjoyed touching her.

She’d prayed about the impending breakup moments earlier in the church, but it didn’t feel real to her unless she prayed under the shade of green trees, where she felt utterly alone and blissfully shielded.

So she escaped when she could—changing in the church bathroom before walking out the back door into the heat, her favorite spot in mind.

A hundred yards into the woods was a felled tree, and Amber had spent hours there throughout her childhood. Though she no longer played with her siblings on the dead wood, she felt comfort when it came into view that evening. She jogged to it, hoisted herself up, and felt the rough bark on her bare legs, her denim cutoff shorts riding up.

Her father, Pastor Hughes, chastised her for showing so much skin every time she changed into her favorite shorts, but her mother reminded him they lived in a furnace and admonished him for the critique. Interactions such as these made Amber feel bolder and more capable of standing up to Eric when she ended their relationship. More capable of living the way she longed to, in the arms of the one person she wanted to dream of.

Amber was practicing her speech—playing with the necklace circling her neck—when he found her in the woods. She didn’t hear him coming, but when the Deacon walked out of the brush, Amber clutched her chest and gasped a little. The scent of her fear was potent, though the feeling was fleeting.

“Deacon Rex,” she said, pulling her hands behind her back.

Hart Hollow’s Deacon wasn’t an imposing man, wasn’t a cause for fear, and her tension fell away—just slightly.

She was still alone in the woods with a man. A godly man, but still a man. The hairs on her arms stood straight for a moment before she relaxed.

Deacon Rex was blind, handsome, soft-spoken, and a staple in the community. And though some might say the young Deacon was a rival of her father’s, Amber didn’t see it that way. We are all children of Christ, she reminded herself.

Deacon Edward Rex lived on the hill at the Steele Heart Catholic Church and Rectory, the only Catholic church in town. Attendance was slim compared to the many Baptist churches in the county, but the attendees were devout, often driving from the more remote areas of the county to listen to the Deacon speak. Steele Heart Catholic Church had been without a Priest since Father Dodson had passed away the previous winter.

Amber had often fantasized about attending another church in the community, if only to escape her father’s gaze and expectations.

And sometimes, his hands.

Pastor Hughes doled out punishment unflinching, painting it as love.

Amber twisted the useless purity ring on her finger as the Deacon stepped closer, his dark glasses glinting in the light that peaked through the trees. “My apologies. I believe I caught you in a faraway moment,” he said, his voice calming. “What are you hiding from, Amber?”

The question caught her off guard, and the tightness in her shoulders lifted just slightly. She’d been hiding from many things that summer, longing for the alone the woods offered. And she felt closer to God there in the trees—could hear him clearly. His voice was muffled when her father was around.

“Nothing,” she smiled, twisting her hands together into a knot. “What are you doing here?”

The Deacon smiled, stepping closer. He had his cane in his hands, and he seemed so fragile, so incredibly human. He reached the felled tree she sat on, placing a hand on the bark, twisting around. When he sat down, he let out a long breath, then smiled again as he stared forward. “I enjoy being in nature and often walk on Sunday evenings.”

“All the way down the hill and out of town?” Amber asked, turning toward the Deacon. The Deacon lived in the rectory on the hill. Steele Mansion had been bought by the church over a hundred years ago. It was tradition for the Priest and Deacon to live in the house connected to the small church, and she wondered how lonely it was for Deacon Rex now that Father Dodson had passed.

“Sometimes,” he said, staring ahead. He looked strange to her in his attire, and she took him in as if he had just appeared to her on the tree, as if from thin air. He wore a crisp white shirt, grey pants, and shiny black shoes. His attire was not suited for evening walks in the woods, but she didn’t point that out.

“I enjoy being in nature too,” she admitted. “God is out here, isn’t He?” she asked, feeling warm from the heat.

The Deacon turned to her, wide grin, incisors a little sharp. The briefest of thrills ran through her as her eyes tried to make sense of the unnatural, a strange cocktail of horror and want. And when he lowered his glasses, showing her his white eyes, she fell deep into the pool. He could smell it, her warring fear and desire. Every want felt like a defiance of her father. And the Deacon’s eyes were a mirror, showing her all she could not grasp under her father’s roof, under his rule.

“God is out here,” the Deacon replied, reaching out with his left hand, gripping Amber’s neck, pressing the chain of her necklace into her flesh. “What would you like to confess?”

 

 

ONE

 

 

“Here it is, Nicholas. Hart Hollow Missouri,” Valerie called quietly from the front seat of her Ford Fiesta, waking me from my shallow dream state.

With a yawn, I sat up, stretched my arms to the ceiling, and grazed my knuckles on the worn fabric. I’d spent the previous two hours of the trip from Denver to Missouri in and out of sleep, the warm summer air making it impossible to drift off properly.

Though I was old enough to drive, my Aunt Valerie was reluctant to allow me the privilege unless she was woefully tired. Plus, her passenger seat driving took all the fun out of the act. As a result, our trip had taken twice the time it needed to.

I leaned forward between the seats, running a hand over my face as Valerie stopped at a flashing light in what appeared to be the town square. I attempted to climb over the center console, but Valerie swatted me. “Stop doing that. We’re almost there. Just stay back there.”

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