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This story started out as a fun writing exercise between author AL Parks and myself on a dreary Saturday afternoon. The original started here.

Part I by Lori L. Clark

Had it really been six long years since Gracelyn had moved away from the small mining town? She minded the posted 15 MPH speed limit and rolled slowly along the main drag in her hometown of Tinker Falls. She'd flown into Johnson City late yesterday, rented a Mustang GT convertible, and spent the night near the airport. This morning, after breakfast, she drove north and west along the curvy highway into southwest Virginia.

Some things never change. Murphy's Drug was still on the corner and the guitar man still sat outside playing for change. She resisted the impatient itch at the bottom of her right foot, the one urging her to press the gas pedal a little closer to the floor, and pulled into a parking spot in front of Murphy's. She turned off the ignition and leaned her head back against the leather seat. She closed her eyes and listened to the engine tick, cooling from the long drive.

Subconsciously, she combed her fingers through her windblown mass of blonde curls. Listening to the soft melody coming from the guitar man. She sighed and imagined if the music were a color it would be a nice, peaceful blue with streaks of pink, like a mountain sunrise.

Suddenly, Gracelyn's eyes popped open and her attention snapped in the direction of the man as the achingly familiar tune caught her unaware. Amazing Grace. "Just a coincidence, Gracelyn," she murmured to herself.

Her eyes narrowed as she stared at the musician. Something about him was definitely different. His gaze drifted up from his talented fingers and he gazed her way. His piercing blue eyes bored into her, in a totally disconcerting way.

She felt like a young child, hypnotically wanting to follow the Pied Piper's magic tune, when she climbed from her car to walk toward him. She stopped in front of the guitar case, and that's when she noticed. It wasn't the old guitar man from years gone by. No, not at all.

Part II: By AL Parks

“Erik?” She asked, disbelieving it could be true. The man glanced up at her. His eyebrows knitted together and he gave her a quirky, lopsided smile.

“Uh, no, sorry,” the man stated, and continued to strum on the guitar. “My name’s Zach.”

Gracelyn just stared at the man for another minute. Everything about him screamed Erik. The stormy blue gray eyes that peeked out under the long dirty blond bangs that hung in his face. The way his lip curled up on one side when he smiled. Even the stubble that always seemed to be apparent no matter what time of day, or when he had last shaved.

And he played that song…

Of all the songs he could be playing, why did it have to be that song? The one that Erik had been so intent on learning before he…

She shook her head of the memories, and walked past the man playing his guitar, tossed a five in his open case, and headed towards the drugstore.

“Thanks, Grace,” Zach called after her as she pulled the door open. She slowed. Had she given him her name? And not just her name - the nickname only Erik was allowed to use? To everyone else she was Gracelyn. Period. No exceptions. Erik had been the only one that called her Grace. But she hadn’t been called that in years.

Gracelyn glanced back over her shoulder at the man. His head was down and he was playing a new song. His hair fell in front of his face, and she was unable to see any of his features. A chill ran through her, and she forced herself to look away from Zach and continued into the drugstore, hoping the familiar surroundings would offer some comfort…some warmth.

Part III by Lori L. Clark

The diner was one of those greasy spoon joints you see in the movies. Gracelyn grabbed a booth and waited my siblings to show up. She rubbed my arms against the chill from the a/c vent right over my head. Well, that, and honestly, she was still a little unnerved by the guitar man.

She sat in the booth waiting for her brother and sister to make their appearances, and tried to make sense of the mystery. The uncanny resemblance between Erik, who had been dead for three years, and the stranger named Zach.

The waitress brought a glass of ice water and menu. The same red leather clad menus they'd had forever. "Gracelyn? Why honey, is that really you? I haven't seen you in years!" she said.

Gracelyn's eyes narrowed while she tried to attach a name to the vaguely familiar face. "Lita Mae?"

The waitress grinned, "One and only, sugar. Real sorry to hear about your daddy."

Gracelyn nodded. "Thanks Lita Mae."

"Such a good man. Your daddy," she said reverently. Gracelyn half expected the robust woman to cross herself.

Gracelyn pulled a deep, french-fry tainted breath into her lungs and blew it out noisily. "Lita Mae? When did the town get a new guitar man?"

Lita Mae quirked an eyebrow at Gracelyn and cocked her head. "What are you talking about Gracelyn? Old Hank's been the guitar man since forever ago. Don't tell me being in the big city caused you to forget him?"

"No. Not Hank. This was someone else. Really hot guy. About my age," she said, peering out the window to the now empty sidewalk. "He had the bluest eyes I've ever seen. He looks so much like..." she trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence. So much like my dead ex-boyfriend.

Lita Mae placed the back of her hand against Gracelyn's forehead and asked, "Honey do you feel alright? Hank's got blue eyes, but he's not anywhere near your age. And I wouldn't exactly call him hot."

Gracelyn was about to try and explain to Lita Mae that she was not sick. Nor was there anything wrong with her eyesight. She know what she'd seen, and the guitar man was most definitely not old Hank. She clamped her mouth shut when she spotted her sister and brother walk through the door. Meggie and Joshua.

She swallowed the grapefruit-sized lump wedged in her throat and blinked back the burning tears stinging her eyes. God, it had been too long.

Part IV by AL Parks

Meggie's eyes filled with tears as soon as she saw Gracelyn. The young girl ran the short distance to the booth, and flung herself into Gracelyn’s arms.

"I'm so glad you came home, Gracelyn," Meggie sobbed into her sister's shoulder. "Daddy will be so excited to see you."

Joshua slid into the booth across from Gracelyn and Meggie, and his cold eyes sent ice daggers through Gracelyn. "Daddy, won't even know she's here, Meggie. He is so pumped full of morphine, the old man doesn't even know he's still alive."

"Stop it, Josh," Meggie whined. "Don’t say things like that. Daddy will know she is here – he will. Gracelyn has come a long way to see Daddy before he goes to Momma."

"Yeah, well if Gracelyn was so concerned about Daddy, maybe she should have come home to visit before he was on his death bed," Joshua spit out. Her siblings were having a conversation about her as if she wasn't even there. At that moment, Gracelyn wished she was anywhere but sitting in the diner.

Guilt ate through her gut. She hated that she had not come back when she first learned of her father’s cancer. It was worse when Joshua had called to tell her it was in an advanced stage, and they could do nothing to save him. She could have come home then. She should have…

But this town held too many memories for her. This was where she and Erik had first discovered their love of music. He was learning to play the guitar, and she was learning she had a strong voice that could carry any melody he could play. They were a match made in heaven. Although most of the townspeople, she was sure, felt it was a match made in hell. She knew they all blamed her for his death. And she wasn’t sure she could blame them.

Her fear, her cowardice, had forced her to stay away from her home, her family, her dying father. She hoped he would forgive her. One look at her brother, and she knew he would not be offering her any of that for a very long time – if ever.

“Well,” Gracelyn finally interrupted her siblings argument, “how about we just go see which one of you is correct, shall we?” She bumped up against Meggie, encouraging the girl to scoot out of the booth. Joshua stared at Gracelyn for a moment, his eyes barely slits, his mouth a tight, firm line. Gracelyn returned the stare, but with softer features, and swept her arm out in front of her. “After you,” she said to him, and watched as he slid to the edge of the seat and stood.

Joshua climbed into the cab of his pick-up truck, started it, and was halfway down the road before Meggie and Gracelyn had their seatbelts on. Gracelyn’s eyes fell on the spot were she had seen the young guitar player earlier. It was empty. Maybe her mind was playing tricks on her. Perhaps it had been a daydream she conjured up while driving, and being in Tinker Falls had made it seem real.

She backed out of the parking spot, and made her way down the road towards the home she had grown up in, where her father was holding on for her, waiting patiently to take his last breath.

She rounded the corner, and watched as a tall, lanky body with a mop of dirty blond hair, and a guitar slung across his back lumbered down the sidewalk just up the street.

Part V by Lori L. Clark

Gracelyn eased off the gas and the speedometer barely registered as she coasted along the street. Meggie narrowed her eyes at her sister and asked, "Why are we going so slow? It's not like you to obey the speed limit."

"Meggie, who is that man?" Gracelyn asked, nodding toward the guitar toting lanky figure she saw strolling up the sidewalk.

Meggie's eyes searched the empty sidewalk for whoever Gracelyn was referring to. "Um. Gracelyn, what man?"

"Right there!" Gracelyn shouted as her eyes darted from the street in front of her to the now empty sidewalk. She threw the car into park and jumped out, leaving it idling in the middle of the street. She ran to the spot where she'd just seen...an apparition, apparently.

Worried about her sister, Meggie climbed from the passenger seat and went to Gracelyn to gently coax her back inside the car. "Come on Gracelyn. You're just over-tired from traveling. I'll drive."

Gracelyn nodded. She didn't object when Meggie got behind the wheel of the Mustang. "It's this town. Tinker Falls just holds way too many memories for me, Meggie," she sighed.

Gracelyn had always been a little wild. Her parents were constantly on her for driving too fast, taking stupid chances, as though she was trying to outrun the devil himself, it seemed. She toed the line most of the time. Good grades at school. Never out past her curfew. In love with the sweetest, most promising young musician in the world.

The whole town had loved Erick Holiday. Just like Gracelyn, Erick had grown up in Tinker Falls. They were best friends forever, even after they fell in love that one summer night down by the lake when they were both fourteen.

But Erick had a dark side. A secret no one but Gracelyn knew. She'd loved him with all of her heart, but sometimes, love just isn't enough...and Erick was broken. Gracelyn was tried of trying to fix him. It wasn't that she didn't love him. She did. It was just that she wasn't sure she knew how to deal with his problems anymore. She loved him more than life itself, but she had made the decision somewhere along the way that she didn't like him very much.

It was only natural that the town's people had blamed Gracelyn for Erick's death. Yes, she had been driving the car that night. Yes, she always drove faster than she should. But some secrets were better left buried, and what really happened that night went to the grave with Erick.

"Gracelyn, we're here," Meggie said softly, pulling Gracelyn back to the present, but no less painful, circumstances.

"Okay," she said. "Let's do this."

Part VI by AL Parks

Growing up in a small town like Tinker Falls meant Friday night football games and Sunday morning church services. There were two religions in Tinker Falls; the Catholics and the others.

Gracelyn’s family had been Catholic, the same as Erik’s. They had gone through Sunday School, First Communion, Catechism, Confirmation…everything good Catholic children go through on their way to becoming, well, good Catholics. By the time Erik and Gracelyn had become a couple, Erik had started resenting the church. Gracelyn had thought it was because it took so much time away from practicing guitar, which was the center of Erik’s world. It wasn’t until much later that Gracelyn had learned the truth. And it had made her question everything in her life up to that point.

Stepping into the kitchen from the driveway, Gracelyn felt as though she had been thrown back into the past. Nothing had changed. The same wallpaper was on the walls. The same kitchen table with the plastic doily placemats sat with the same wooden chairs around it. Nothing had changed.

But everything had changed. Her mother was no longer there, yet she was everywhere. She was in the Corelle dishes with the golden flowers that circled the edge. She was in the faded valances that hung over the one kitchen window. Gracelyn wondered what they were going to do when, in the very near future, all the items that made this her childhood home would be gone?

She struggled to get her suitcase pulled through the door before the glass and metal screen door closed on it. Joshua came up behind her, grabbed it, and walked past her down the hall towards her bedroom. Her bedroom. Even after all these years – after all the time she had spent away and never returned – it was still her bedroom.

She stopped in the hall outside her father’s room, and forced her eyes into the room. The curtains were open, and sunlight flooded it. She looked at the figure that sat in a chair beside the bed. He was an older man, had some years on him since she had seen him last, but even from the back, Gracelyn knew who he was. And the hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and she felt her blood boil in her veins.

She stalked into her bedroom, where Joshua was getting ready to exit after placing her suitcase on the bed. He had a hollowness to his eyes, made even more apparent due to the dark circles the ringed them. Gracelyn had not noticed how tired her brother looked while he was chastising her at the diner. Her heart seized, and her stomach churned. It had been up to him – and most likely him alone – to deal with their father’s illness. Meggie was just too sensitive a soul. She wandered through life making sure everyone had happy thoughts surrounding them, and did not like to face the grim realities of life. So she wore blinders. It infuriated Gracelyn. And it could not have been much fun for Joshua to deal with on top of everything else.

Gracelyn had been selfish. Had thought only of herself, and how uncomfortable it would be to face the town that loved the boy that had died in what would have appeared to be her negligence.

Gracelyn narrowed her eyes at Joshua. “What is that man doing here? And sitting next to dad’s bed?”

Joshua’s eyes widened. “Who? Father Gerard? He has been here everyday – talking to Dad, praying with him…”

Gracelyn snickered. “Praying with him…he should be praying for his own soul," she murmured under her breath. Joshua just watched her for a moment before shaking his head, turning and walking out the door. Gracelyn fell onto her bed beside the suitcase and wondered if she should go to see her father or unpack first? Should she unpack at all?

Now that she was back, and she would see her father, would it all be over by the morning? She would have to stay here until the funeral, right? Gracelyn was unsure she could face the funeral. Not just because she felt so much guilt over not being here for her family while her father battled cancer and lost. Not because she knew the townspeople would be looking at her sideways, the girl that killed the beautiful boy who made their hearts sing when he played his guitar.

No, Gracelyn could not make herself enter that dwelling – that church – where so many lies had been buried. Where Erik had lost his innocence, his youth, and his hope. She would never enter that church – and she would not listen to the words from that man’s mouth. That Father who had robbed Erik of his life – had been the one who had killed him. Slowly - over the course of many years. Until it had all been too much for Erik to handle…

Part VII by Lori L. Clark

"Meggie, do you still go to St. Dominick's every Sunday?" Gracelyn asked her sister when she came into her room to check on her a few minutes later.

Meggie ran her index finger through the phantom dust on top of the tall oak dresser. "Not every Sunday. I mean, I still go. Just not every week," she said quietly, as though she was afraid someone would overhear her confession and pass judgement on the meek woman. "Why do you ask?"

Gracelyn pulled her lips into a thin line and decided against getting into a discussion about what she thought about Fr. Gerard. "Just curious. Father Gerard's not...I mean, surely, St. Dominick's has someone younger leading Sunday mass these days?"

"What an odd thing to say, Gracelyn," Meggie frowned. "Father Gerard has been so kind to this family since mama passed. Him and daddy have become quite close. But, yes, Father Patrick took Father Gerard's place when he decided to step down last year."

Gracelyn tipped her head back and stared up at the stuck-on glow-in-the-dark moons and stars on her bedroom ceiling. "I'm going to take a shower. Would you please let me know as soon as Father Gerard has left. I want to spend time alone with daddy."

"I'm sure Father Gerard won't mind, Gracelyn. I can tell him you're here, if you'd like?" Meggie said.

Gracelyn shook her head and pursed her lips. She pushed up from the bed. "No. Right now, there are already enough skeletons in the closets to deal with around this town. Trust me, I do not want to see Father Gerard," she said through clenched teeth.

"Well you better get over yourself, Miss High-and-Mighty," Joshua hissed from the open doorway. "Where do you get off coming in her after all these years acting like you own the place? What did Father Gerard ever do to you?"

Gracelyn crossed the room and stood toe-to-toe with her older brother. She poked him in the chest to accentuate her feelings on the subject. "Listen to me Joshua, if you knew half of what I know about Father Gerard, you wouldn't want him anywhere near daddy...although, on second thought, he prefers them a little bit younger."

There. She'd said it. 

Joshua's eyes bugged. "What are you talking about Gracelyn? Don't tell me you believe all those crazy rumors? I'm surprised you bothered to keep up with the so-called news around town after you moved away to the big city."

Gracelyn had walked away from her brother, but his words stopped her in her tracks and she spun around to face him. "Now it's my turn. What the hell are you talking about, Joshua? What crazy rumors?"

Joshua pulled his hand through his thick, wavy hair and sighed. "Nothing. I'm not even going to go there right now. Father Gerard is a good man. The charges were dropped. He was found innocent of any wrong doing."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that, if I were you," Gracelyn said, folding her arms across her chest.

"You sicken me. I would have thought you, of all people, would be a little more sympathetic to a person on the wrong end of the rumor mill around Tinker Falls," he grumbled before stalking from the room.

Frustrated, Gracelyn balled her hands into fists and growled. "Of all the pig-headed, stubborn..."

"I believe you, Gracelyn," Meggie said in a voice so soft Gracelyn wasn't sure she'd spoken at all.

To be continued...



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Lori L. Clark

Lori L. Clark currently resides in Hazelwood, MO with three rescue dogs. When Lori isn't listening to the voices in her head, waiting for the next creative inspiration to strike, she also loves to read, run, paint pet portraits and save dogs. Email Lori at LLClark.author@gmail.com

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