Title: A Brush with Death
Author: N.J. Ember
Genre: Adult Paranormal/horror
Cover Designer: Najla Qamber Designs
Publisher: Fire Lotus Books
Publication Date: July 31st, 2018
A darkened road. A truck-stop diner. A chance meeting.
All Marisol Pedilla wanted was to make the drive to her aunt’s house without incident. Instead, she meets a woman named Sasha. Together, they encounter more misfortune than Marisol has ever experienced.
Danger and deception seem to be all too common in Sasha’s world, and it’s a world Marisol wants no part of. But fate has other plans. The secrets Sasha’s keeping from her could change Marisol’s life forever.
N.J. Ember is a paranormal fiction author who loves to write stories about survival and triumph over adversity. Whether her characters are dealing with the paranormal or everyday life, she seeks to show that strength is not always about being superhuman or invulnerable. She enjoys anything with mystery, suspense and horror, so when she’s not writing you can find her watching shows like Orphan Black, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock. She currently lives in Michigan with her grandpa and a forever growing collection of books and Funko Pop! figures.
I’d never been more thankful to be wearing jeans as I crawled around on the checkered floor of a truck-stop diner. It had to be here somewhere. “Mierda,” I cursed loudly as I smacked my head against the underside of the table. I climbed back into the booth, and the dark green vinyl squeaked in protest, sticking to the back of my legs. My stomach dropped as I dumped my purse out onto the table for a third time and rifled through the contents. I sighed. Yup, it was official. My wallet was missing, and I was screwed.
A waitress hurried towards me. She looked tired; dark shadows nestled under her eyes, and her mouth was turned down in a thin-lipped frown. “Have you decided yet, Honey?”
I looked up, panic fluttering hard in my stomach. The sizzle of food hitting the flat top caught my attention, its aroma flooding the tiny diner. Bacon. Possibly hash browns. My stomach growled, but spare change would only get me so far. “Uh, just coffee for now. Thanks.” I smiled politely then haphazardly shoved things back into my purse.
My hands felt grimy, and I grimaced. I threw my purse over my shoulder and pushed past incoming people towards the bathroom. I washed my hands twice. I didn’t know how it happened or where I could have lost it, but I knew what my mom was going to say when I called her. “I told you you were too young to drive to your aunt’s alone. I knew your brother should have gone with you.”
It didn’t matter that I was twenty-three. In her eyes, I wasn’t ready for so much responsibility, even though I’d been her shadow, her second in command for as long as I could remember. I knew I could handle this. While I’d never driven so far across the country before, I had the GPS on my phone and a printout of the directions in case that failed. What I didn’t factor in was bad luck, or maybe it was just my own stupidity.
Once I was sitting back in the booth, I rested my head on my arms. Exhaustion was tugging at my eyelids, making me sluggish, like I was dragging my body through water. I sat up, pushing my jet-black curls behind my ears. The lecture was coming no matter how long I put it off. I plucked my cell phone from my purse, but the screen stayed blank. I pushed the power button. Ugh, no charge. I picked up a menu instead, to avoid looking awkward, and glanced out the window.
The interior of the diner was tinged red from the glow of the neon sign hanging in it, providing some extra security against the inky darkness. It was already past midnight, and even once my phone was charged, it would still be too late to call.
I skimmed over the menu, not really taking it in. My stomach growled again, and I startled as I felt myself falling forward. I was hungry and tired, with no money and a lot of miles left to go. I wasn’t sure how, but there had to be some way I could manage to get to my aunt’s without my mom having to rescue me.
“You mind if I sit with you?”
I jumped again. I’d been so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice the woman come up to me. Her skin was a deep golden brown that reminded me of tiger’s-eye stones. Her voice was soft, but there was a hint of underlying smokiness. Tall, with a slender, athletic build, she looked imposing in a leather jacket and high-heeled boots. She had a long, angular face with full lips and high cheekbones, and her onyx hair billowed outward in an afro. I looked around. The diner was crowded but not completely full, and I failed to find a reason why a total stranger would try and sit with me.
She seemed to read my thoughts. “Hey, it’s cool. I thought it’d be nice to have some company, but I understand.”
She turned to go, and I felt a pang of remorse at my hesitation. I reached out and grabbed her wrist. “Wait!”
She turned back, and my heart flip-flopped. I ignored it. My fingers brushed against hers as I let go. “Sure, you can sit here.”
Her eyes widened, and the ghost of a smile showed on her face. It only lasted for a second, but the warmth of it seemed to make her brown eyes lighter. She slid into the seat opposite me. “Thanks. I’m Sasha.”
“So what brings you out this way, Marisol?”
Before I could answer, the waitress returned. “Would you like to order?”
Sasha glanced at me. “You haven’t ordered yet?”
I shook my head. “Just coffee.”
Sasha didn’t even bother looking at her menu. “I’ll have the western omelette, extra cheese, and she’ll have the pancakes with bacon.”
My face burned with embarrassment. “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s the least I can do. Besides, you were staring at the picture so hard when I walked up; I thought you were going to burn a hole through the menu.”
My embarrassment deepened, and I looked away, desperately trying to think of anything else to talk about. “Do you come here often?” I mentally kicked myself. “I mean, I only ask because you seemed pretty sure of what you wanted.”
“No, not that often. I’ve passed through here a couple times though.”
I looked back to find her watching me, and I quickly dropped my eyes to the tabletop and fidgeted with the edge of the menu. “So, you do a lot of traveling?”
“You could say that, yeah.”
“Most of the time.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
This time it was Sasha’s turn to be interrupted. The waitress set two mugs in front of us and filled them. I moved my menu out of the way as she slid a steaming plate of pancakes in front of me. My mouth watered. “The rest of your order will be out in just a minute, hun,” she said to Sasha as she handed her a stack of buttered toast.
I grabbed three packets of sugar, ripped them open and dumped them into my coffee, along with two creams. I stirred, watching the color of it lighten to something more acceptable. Sasha’s gravelly laugh made me look up.
“You want any coffee with that?” I noticed she had left her own cup alone.
I smiled at her. “Not if I can help it.”
She shook her head as I drizzled syrup onto my pancakes and dipped a piece of crispy bacon in it. “So you never answered; what do you do for work?”
Sasha’s face fell, and I instantly regretted asking. The waitress brought her omelette. I waited as she cut into it. “This and that. Nothing worth talking about.”
I nodded. Conversation stopped for a few minutes as we ate. The neon sign flickered, and Sasha tensed. She stared out the window. I did the same, but beyond the procession of cars and trucks, I couldn’t see a thing. “What is it?”
But it didn’t seem like nothing. I watched as she shifted and reached for something I couldn’t see. The sleeve of her leather jacket lifted up, revealing a tattoo: a long-stemmed rose intertwined with a scythe.
“That’s beautiful.” I moved my plate out of the way so I could lean forward. “Would it be okay if I took a closer look?”
Sasha pulled her sleeve up some more and stretched her arm out towards me. I traced the lines with my eyes. “Why a scythe?”
“It’s a reminder.”
I looked up. Sasha’s gaze connected with mine, and my stomach lurched. I was scared to breathe. Scared to blink. Then she turned away, looking out the window again, and disappointment sank like a stone in my stomach.
“Marisol,” Sasha said sharply. “Get down!”
Hands grabbed my legs. I fell backwards, and my butt hit the floor. The window next to us exploded in a shower of jagged glass as the diner was plunged into darkness.