Medical Thriller

Shattered Highways

By Tara N. Hathcock

This book will launch on Nov 29, 2019. Currently, only those with the link can see it.🔒
Synopsis

Quincy O’Connell blows through identities as quickly as she creates them. She has to, to stay alive. They’ve been following her for years. Watching her. Trying to get close. She doesn’t know why and she doesn’t know who, but she knows she has to stay one step ahead. So she becomes nobody. A loner with no roots, no paper trail, no friends. And no home.

It’s lonely living one life to the next but she’s safe as long as she’s invisible. After all, she’s survived this way for as long as she can remember. But what if her memory isn’t what she thinks it is? What if nothing is what she thinks it is? And what if her memory is exactly what they’re looking for?

What you don’t know can't hurt you. So if you don’t know you’re broken, are you?

“Sleep, those little slices of death - how I loathe them.” Edgar Allan Poe


The girl cannot sleep. She tries, she always tries, but she rarely succeeds. I watch. I wait. I do not sleep. I am not made to sleep. I am made to survive. And at last, the girl accepts the battle for what it is - lost.


She will continue to try, night after night, to fight the battle, knowing it’s lost before it begins. But she tries, all the same.


And still, I watch. I wait.




Quincy


Quincy’s eyes were closed more out of principle than any real hope for sleep. She had been wide awake ever since she’d shut off the lights and crawled into bed over four hours ago. She still had a couple hours until her alarm went off, but what was the point? And what was the point of setting an alarm when her brain kept her wide awake every night? It was frustrating. And it was getting old. Nighttime, or, as she’d come to think of it, the Place Where Time Goes to Die, always went one of two ways - a few hours of broken sleep, punctuated by waking way too early, which she had learned to be grateful for, or not falling asleep at all. More often than not, she was spending her entire night staring at her bedroom walls. When she did happen to fall asleep, it came and went much too quickly. There was no gradual dropping off or fading away. The phrase lulled to sleep meant nothing to her. And awareness didn’t slowly creep back in, gently prodding her with a yawn here and a stretch there before allowing her to curl back down into her quilts to savor the lazy return of thought. Her brain was a switch flipped, shutting her down and bringing her back online instantly. There was no warm up, no yawning and stretching, burrowing back under her covers for an extra few minutes. No sir. Wide awake and ready to go. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of her was on the same page. But the rest of her was in no way, shape, or form ready to go at two in the morning. Or three. Or even five.

She sighed, resigned to the fact she wasn’t getting any sleep this night and rolled onto her right side, facing the bedroom door. The paint on the wall near the lower corner of the door was peeling in the shape of Texas. Quincy had been staring at the same spot for months now so she felt qualified to judge. The rest of the walls in her beat-up, low-rent apartment were peeling too but this one spot had found its way into her heart. It was the exact spot her eyes seemed to find, night after night, as her brain refused to shut down. Insomnia kept her awake for hours every night, staring blankly at the Lone Star State as it spread slowly up the wall, her mind blurring a hundred different directions at a thousand miles per hour. Logically, Quincy knew if she would just pick up a book or turn the television on, there was a chance she might still get some rest. Those were the only things that could ever touch her frantic mind, not exactly slowing the roll that kept her constantly alert but exhausted but focusing it. Tonight, though, she just couldn’t do it. The thought of pushing back the covers, rolling out of bed, and digging through her backpack to find what she needed seemed like so much work at the moment. Instead, she continued to lie in the dark, staring at the wall and letting her thoughts race by. Thanks to her cheap apartment, she was currently blowing through all of the completely random and useless information her mind held on Texas, that great state known for both their cowboys and their salsa. It really was random, all this useless knowledge. The Dallas/Fort Worth airport had the largest parking lot in the world. Austin was home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. Both true. Both totally useless. She had made the mistake of reading a book once named “Remembering the Alamo - Historical Trivia for the Lonestar State” and had regretted it ever since. She loved reading and did so tirelessly, mostly because it was one of the few things that brought her peace. She could spend hours with a book, forgetting all the noise and confusion in her own head. Content didn’t matter much to her. She loved good fiction but she had read everything from a biography of Martin Luther to a book on explosive ordnance. She read whatever was convenient and readily available at the time. If it had words, she could use it. Whatever it took to convince her brain to be quiet for a few minutes here and there. Although admittedly, she had rather enjoyed Explosive Ordinance and Its Disposal. It had made for dry yet intense reading.

Her alarm went off three hours later, jolting her out of her thoughts. Finally. She rolled out of bed and sat for a minute, mentally reviewing her day. A minute might have been overshooting it. Since every day was about the same as the next, she didn’t have much to review. A quick glance at her phone showed a clear sky and no wind so she dug into the drawer beside her bed and pulled out the first clothes she touched. She tried to keep a t-shirt and tights on top so she didn’t waste time digging for gear. Her shoes were lined up beside the bed, ready to slip on at a moment’s notice. In less than five minutes, she was dressed, hair tied into a loose knot, ready to go. The goal each day was to be out the door in less than 10 and she had perfected the routine. Because one never knew when one might need to leave. Quickly. And she liked to be ready for anything. Plus, she audited a class at the nearby university every morning at eight, which gave her exactly one hour to get her run in and one hour to clean up and get to school.

She stepped out the door of her small apartment and glanced around, taking note of the small, cramped parking lot and the nearby vehicles. Martin’s black suburban was in its usual parking spot next to Shelly’s white sedan. Quincy had made a point of memorizing all the vehicles that frequented her building so she would be able to spot anything that didn’t belong. It was a move that had saved her life more than once. Nothing seemed out of place. She took a deep breath of the early morning air and blew it back out slowly as she started to jog, breathing even more deeply to make sure her lungs were awake and ready to go. There had been a crispness to the air over the last week or two that the locals said meant fall was coming. She had never spent a fall in the midwest and was rather looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about. The reading she had done on the area cited the changing of the leaves and praised the bright foliage the area was known for. Local magazines described bold reds, oranges, and yellows, a somewhat difficult picture to imagine in her head. Last week’s copy of the university newspaper included a schedule of activities and events for the coming season, including haunted houses, hay mazes, and something called a “Pumpkin Patch”. The paper hadn’t given a description of what exactly this pumpkin patch was or what happened there, but she intended to find out.

She slid her earphones into place and hit play, picking the lesson back up where she’d left it after yesterday’s run. Running was another one of those rare activities that soothed her frantic mind and she took advantage. She was already fluent in Spanish and was working on French and Latin - French, because it could be useful and Latin, because it never would be. The loop she typically made while running was simple enough but she had to push herself to finish in her allotted hour. Her apartment complex was older and sat on the outskirts of town, only a mile south of the university, which was why so many students used it as off-campus housing. Half a mile past the school, the road turned and wound around a historic downtown, most of which was still original buildings and masonry. The neighborhood was built around an old-fashioned square with a gazebo in the center and several small parks surrounding it. One of the parks featured a botanical garden with benches surrounded by hummingbirds, butterflies, and honey bees. Another had walkways and paths that wound around a water garden and the third featured playground equipment and sandboxes for the local children and their parents to enjoy. The entire square was beautiful and even at this early hour, Quincy could smell the honeysuckle and cherry blossoms that framed the gazebo. The square was ringed by original buildings, the beautiful architecture a throwback to simpler times, meticulously maintained throughout their lifetimes by the local families and businesses who owned them. Most of the buildings housed small, family-owned shops and eateries and were popular with the college and professional crowds alike. Quincy jogged passed Sit a Spell, a coffee shop owned and operated by a retired couple from Massachusetts. The front door was propped open and the mingled scents of fresh grind and cinnamon rushed out to greet her. She waved at Mr. Boatright, who was outside setting up a couple of small tables and chairs on the patio, and he waved back. A small bookstore named PaddyO’s shared a wall with Sit a Spell. Quincy’s favorite spot in the entire town, it was a cozy, scattered place with an eclectic feel. Classic book covers were framed and mounted on the walls and books were stacked about the rooms to serve as makeshift tables. Thick homemade quilts were laid out around the floor, in the corners and under the book stacks, in case anyone felt like getting a little more comfortable. Rarely were there more than 3 or 4 people in the store at one time, and Quincy was their most loyal patron. She liked to pick a book at random and curl up in the farthest corner with whatever drink Mrs. Boatright had decided she needed to try that day and read for hours. Mr. and Mrs. Sanders, who owned the store, did a very profitable business online, buying and trading rare and antique book volumes. They claimed PaddyO’s was necessary to the business and served as their unofficial headquarters but Quincy suspected they kept it more for sentimental purposes than practical ones. But whatever the reason, she was grateful. Surrounded by books and silence, she had found a great deal of peace on the floor of that little store.

It was too early for the old-time ice cream fountain and soda shop to be open for business but the bakery lights were on and she could already smell the fresh bread sitting on the windowsill rising. Not only did they sell breads by the loaf but they made fantastic sandwiches. A small Italian place sat on the next street and a nearby chocolate shop that invited shoppers to wander in and out created a homey, small-town feel to the area. Interspersed throughout the eateries were random businesses. An attorney had recently moved in above the Boatrights’ coffee shop and a local art studio adjoined the Italian restaurant, displaying paintings and photographs from local artists and students, creating a shared space and a cozy atmosphere for date night, or so she had heard. There was a small daycare adjacent to the bakery that had a fenced-in playground that gave the children space and freedom to roam, and a yoga studio sat on the far side of the street. All in all, downtown was the kind of idyllic setting one might expect to see in a ‘50s television show, not a moderately-sized college town on the verge of a population boom. As Quincy lapped the square and veered onto a road on the opposite side, she couldn’t help but wonder if it was for real. She had been here long enough to feel the lull of peace and pseudo-safety the hometown atmosphere provided and it would be so easy to give in completely. But she knew that kind of safety was nothing but a pipe dream, at least for her. But as she left downtown behind, she couldn’t help but hope that she could fit in some place just like this. Maybe. Some day. Just not today.

Quincy took the road that cut towards a more heavily-populated, modern section of town, leaving the quaint family atmosphere of downtown behind. This was her least favorite section to run and she would never want to run it during commuter hours but at six o’clock in the morning, traffic was still relatively light and she felt comfortable as long as she stuck to the sidewalk. Business 14 took her up and around a newer industrial park before crossing over a creek that wound its way back towards the downtown botanical garden. But instead of following the road and going back through downtown, Quincy went off-road. There was less artificial lighting out this way, which made the sunrise even more spectacular this morning. On mornings like these, when the sky was clear and the moon was full, she could see what felt like millions of stars. As she ran, she looked at the sky ahead of her and sighed. Her headphones provided steady background noise and she breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of freshly cut hay and clover. Much like downtown, this section of her run provided a backdrop that was soothing and oddly reminiscent of something she might read in a book. It seemed so safe, which was probably why it didn’t seem real. But she allowed herself to enjoy it for a few minutes each day as she passed through before forcing herself back to reality when the farm road she was currently on eventually met up with the outer road where her apartment complex sat. All together, it was a seven-mile loop and as she finished her run this morning, her breathing was calm and steady. The cool temperatures made for a much more pleasant run than she’d had earlier in August and even parts of September. With October only a few days away, she knew the heat of summer was officially behind her and she hoped the nice weather would hold for awhile before the cold set in.

After walking a quick couple laps around the building to cool down, Quincy headed back inside and grabbed a bottle of water and checked her time. 6:48. She frowned. Off-pace by three minutes. It was still fine. It only took her 15 minutes to walk to campus so she had enough time to shower, dress, and grab a granola bar on her way back out, but still. She’d do better tomorrow.

As she stood under the steady stream of hot water, she mentally played through the notes she had read over last night. She had a test today in her electrical engineering class but she wasn’t concerned. The campus library where she worked had been slow last night and she’d done a quick review before heading home for the night, though it hadn’t really been necessary. Just like it wasn’t necessary now. She had excellent retention skills and knew the material by heart. She had always been pretty good at absorbing new information the first time she read or heard it, which meant she spent very little time outside of class studying. She was also a fast reader, so she usually got through the week’s reading material the first day it was assigned, which left most of her week free to explore the random and ever-changing selection at PaddyO’s. Working at the library was really more of a hobby than actual work for her. It was on-campus, which meant it was close enough to both her home and her class to walk and it afforded her free access to as many books as she wanted. Since she didn’t have a car and no spare money to spend actually buying the books at PaddyO’s, there really wasn’t anything better likely to come along.

The shower was quick, just like it always was. There were days, Quincy thought, that she’d give almost anything to let herself relax. Just stand under the steady stream, water so hot it turned her pink, and let the heat and steam erase everything from her head. But that was a luxury she didn’t know if she could afford and she wouldn’t allow herself to chance it. Not after last time. She picked up her backpack, rifling through it to make sure she had what she needed for class and work later that afternoon, and anything essential she would need if she was forced to skip town with no notice. The check was merely perfunctory. She always carried the necessities. But she did grab the book she’d been reading before her ill-fated attempt to sleep and slid it in with her other supplies, just in case she had free time after the test. Her one and half hour class started at eight o’clock and she reported to her shift at the library at 10, which usually allowed just enough time for a pit stop at the coffee stand on the corner on her way to work, but if she finished her test early, she would be able to sit on one of the benches in the quad and read while she enjoyed her drink. She slid her sunglasses on and headed out the door, the early morning chill already giving way to a mild, sunny day. Quincy popped her earphones back in and shoved the sleeves of her plaid shirt up past her elbows. It wasn’t quite warm enough to go without sleeves but it would be soon, especially with no cloud cover.

Traffic was light on this side of campus but she waved at several other residents of her apartment complex as they drove by. When she’d first moved in, several of her neighbors had stopped to ask if she wanted a ride and always seemed confused, almost offended, when she turned them down. They couldn’t figure out why she’d want to walk, especially lugging a backpack that looked like it could be used as a weapon of mass destruction if the situation called for it. The campus shuttle made the short trip out to their apartments and a couple that were further down so even if she didn’t want to accept a ride with her neighbors, she had options. But that was okay. Why would anyone want to drive when they lived close enough to walk? Especially on nice days. Between all the running and walking she did, she knew the neighbors thought she was kind of strange. But the truth was, walking and running helped her stay calm and put the brakes on the constant whirlwind in her head. Plus, buying a car wasn’t really an option for her. For anyone looking, large purchases provided a solid link that could be traced back to the buyer and she wasn’t about to willingly leave that kind of trail. Renting an apartment was easier, especially if you could find one that accepted cash and asked no questions. Smaller, older places tended to look less closely than the big chain complexes did. But a car was a liability and if, or when, she needed to walk away, she wanted to leave as little evidence behind as possible.

Quincy slid into her seat in the back of the classroom with a little less than five minutes to spare. It was a full class and occupied a large lecture hall in the engineering building on the far side of campus. Most of the seats were usually full but there were always a couple around her left open. Since she was just auditing the class, she didn’t feel obligated to participate in class discussion and the few times her classmates had attempted to start a conversation, she had kept her answers short, seeing no reason to encourage familiarity. The less people noticed or remembered her, the safer she was. She could hear nervous whispers around the auditorium and forced herself to feel a touch of nerves, too. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so cavalier about studying. If everyone else was worried about the test, maybe it was going to be harder than she thought? But no. The professor started passing out the test at 8:00 on the dot and she glanced briefly over the pages. All the questions seemed straightforward and reflected both the reading material and the lectures - which she knew by heart. She turned back to the first page and settled in.

About the author

Tara N. Hathcock spent 16 years in the healthcare field where the first inklings of Shattered Highways was born. Having since made the jump to academics, Tara writes stories that blend elements of science fiction with everyday life. Shattered Highways is her first novel. view profile

Published on November 29, 2019

Published by Quiet+Kin Publishing

110000 words

Genre: Medical thriller

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