What if the Big Bad Wolf was family? Could you choose to save Little Red Riding Hood if it meant turning your back on blood?
My latest novel, SEEING RED, is available now on Amazon. Read the first chapter below.
“Come on, guys,” Hunter yelled toward the ceiling.
She was doing three different things at once, trying to shove her feet into a pair of worn nursing shoes, stirring a pot of lentil sausage soup, and preparing her nephew’s insulin shot, which she knew would be a battle to administer if he ever actually came downstairs.
She was also keeping an eye on the little clock above the back door.
It was thirty minutes to six and on a good night, it took her twenty minutes to walk to the nursing home where she worked. Hunter’s sister, Piper, was supposed to be home at five to relieve her from babysitting duties, but shift changes in this house were always chaotic. They never had any time to spare.
“Guys!” Hunter shouted again. “Dinner time – I’m serious!”
The boys were no doubt absorbed in a game of Madden. Aaron was eleven years old and completely obsessed with football. Josh was seven and didn’t care one way or the other about it, but he never passed up an opportunity to bask in his older brother’s attention.
In a perfect world, they’d both be doing their homework before dinner instead of playing video games, but that game console was one of the few luxuries they had – never mind the fact that Hunter was certain her degenerate brother-in-law Jed had stolen it for them. The boys didn’t know that and Hunter could never bring herself to be the hard-ass who took away their toys and made them do their homework instead.
Their mother could play that role when she got home.
Any minute now would be great, Hunter thought, glancing again at the clock as she stomped her foot to finish jamming her heel into her nursing shoe. She’d gotten them from a second-hand shop and they were ugly as hell but comfortable – that had to count for something.
Finally, the boys came downstairs in a racket of heavy steps and Hunter had to laugh – they sounded like a herd of cattle stampeding through the house, making more noise than she would have guessed two young boys were capable of. Aaron had his first growth spurt over the summer and he moved in a lanky, awkward way that showed he hadn’t quite adjusted to his new height yet. Josh followed in his shadow as they came into the kitchen and went over to the old dining table in the corner, plopping into a pair of creaky wooden chairs.
“Mom isn’t home yet?” Aaron asked.
“No,” Hunter said, “and if she doesn’t get here soon, you’re going to get your first babysitting gig.”
“Paid?” he asked, to which Hunter simply laughed.
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Josh objected. “I can look after myself.”
“You want to give yourself this shot, then?” Hunter asked, nodding to the needle she had prepared. He kept his eyes off it – he still didn’t like needles even after two years of them – but he came obediently over to Hunter. She gave the soup one more stir and then asked, “Pick your poison – arm, leg or belly?”
“Leg,” Josh said.
Hunter hardly needed to ask – the shots made the muscle around the injection site sore and Josh’s doctor had instructed Hunter and Piper to alternate sites, but Josh had settled quickly into a pattern. Non-dominant arm in the mornings before school, leg in the evenings to keep his arm in tip-top shape for Madden, a game of catch, or whatever else Aaron had in store for him, and stomach never. It was the most painful option and Hunter didn’t blame him.
Josh put his foot up on the lowest rung of a kitchen stool and rolled his shorts up to his thigh, then Hunter cleaned the skin with an alcohol pad. She administered the injection and Josh surprised her by being tough. He hardly even winced – probably because Aaron was watching.
Hunter set the needle down and tousled Josh’s sandy blond hair, then said as he rolled his pant leg back down, “Good job, buddy. I told you it would get easier with time.”
He’d been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes right after Jed had gone to prison for a half-assed counterfeiting scam. Hunter had been in nursing school at the time and she’d dropped out to move in here and help Piper with the boys as well as the bills. Hunter got the only job she was qualified for – working overnight shifts as a nurse’s aide in a long-term care facility for dementia patients – and even though the pay wasn’t great, it seemed like after two years, she and Piper were finally beginning to hit their stride.
That is, if they could ever get their work schedules coordinated.
The boys weren’t quite old enough to be on their own yet, particularly with the complicating factor of Josh’s medical needs, so that left Hunter and Piper passing like ships in the night most of the time. At least one of them was perpetually running late for a shift. Piper worked at a café that served overpriced coffee to college kids at the nearby university and the tips were decent but the hours were irregular – what they really needed was for at least one of them to land a day job with reasonable wages so there would be someone at home to watch the boys every evening.
But that was a pipe dream and instead, Hunter was stuck tapping her foot impatiently as she glanced at the clock again and then took the pot of soup off the stove. It was twenty minutes to six and she would definitely be late again tonight.
The boys were slurping down the last of their soup when the back door finally opened and Piper walked in. Hunter was sitting at the table with Aaron and Josh and she crossed her arms over her chest as she frowned at her sister.
“It’s five minutes to six, Pipes,” she said. “I’m going to be really late.”
“I’m sorry,” Piper said. “I couldn’t help it.”
She sounded out of breath and as she took off her jacket and threw it over the back of a dining chair, Hunter noticed that her cheeks were splotchy red.
“What’s wrong?” Hunter asked.
She really did need to leave. She was fortunate to work for someone who was understanding when it came to her home situation, balancing two kids and a somewhat erratic sister. But over the last two years, Hunter had leaned on her boss’s good nature a lot and there would come a day when her kindness ran out. There were a lot of nurse’s aides in the city and it wouldn’t be hard to replace Hunter.
Piper and the boys had to come first, though. That was the whole reason Hunter was here, and that
meant not leaving her sister panting and flushed while Hunter went to work.
“Nothing,” Piper said. She tucked a tendril of her bleach-fried hair behind her ear, revealing sweat on her temples. “I had to go to the bank after my shift and I had a hard time getting there before they closed. I ran all the way from the bus stop back to the house so you could get to work.”
“Is everything okay at the bank?” Hunter asked, glancing at the boys.
In her life, things were very rarely okay when it came to money, but she and Piper did their best not to talk about that stuff in front of Aaron and Josh – especially Josh, who was the worrying type. Aaron was a bit older, used to seeing the adults in his life struggle, and he took for granted the fact that they always figured things out. The bills always got paid and he always had a roof over his head – which was more than Piper and Hunter could say for their own childhoods. That’s why it was all the more important that the boys should never need to worry about the state of their finances.
“It’s just that scumbag in the mortgage department,” Piper grumbled, trying to sound unfazed. “You know how he loves to make our lives difficult.”
“Are you still going to be able to buy my football equipment?” Aaron asked.
Piper and Hunter had been scrimping and saving for months to get him the jersey, shoes and endless other pieces of equipment he would need to join the middle school team. Aaron had mowed a lot of yards this summer to contribute to the cause and his coach had allowed him to borrow some equipment during practices, but the team’s first real game was fast approaching and he’d need his own stuff in order to play.
Hunter hated the idea of disappointing him – they’d all had to make so many sacrifices in the name of Josh’s health and she was really looking forward to being able to do something nice for Aaron just this once.
“We’ll figure it out,” Piper promised. “We always do.”
“Walk me to the door?” Hunter asked her. She gave Josh a kiss on the top of his head and then squeezed Aaron’s shoulder. Then she passed through the living room to the front door, Piper following behind her. They stepped into the tiny foyer, which was mostly just a three-foot-square coat storage space, and Piper pulled the door shut. Then Hunter asked, “Are we short on the mortgage?”
“Yes,” Piper admitted and Hunter felt the news sink heavily into her gut. She and her sister had never been more than a paycheck or two away from broke but it had been a while since they were in crisis mode. It was nice while it lasted, she thought. Then Piper added, “I asked for an extension but our favorite scumbag said he can’t do it anymore – the bank won’t give us any more time.”
“What happened?” Hunter asked.
“I don’t know,” Piper said with a sigh. “The usual, I guess – emptying bed pans and making coffee are not lucrative careers. Insulin prices go up every time we fill a prescription. Football helmets cost way more money than hard plastic and Styrofoam glued together ought to.”
“How much are we short?” Hunter asked. “I’ll ask Brenda if there are any extra hours I can pick up. Maybe I can work a couple of day shifts while the boys are in school.”
“How many hours a day are they going to let you work, Hunter?” Piper asked. “You already do twelve-hour shifts.”
“I don’t know,” Hunter said, grabbing her jacket from the coat rack. It was a thick flannel one that had been a good find at the thrift store, a men’s cut that was plenty warm to get her through the winter months since she walked most places in Grimm Falls. “We have to get Aaron his equipment, though – I refuse to let him miss the first game of the season.”
Piper nodded and Hunter thought that since she was already late, she might as well stop by the café on her way to work and pick up something sweet and caffeinated for Brenda – as both a peace offering for her tardiness and a bribe to pick up more hours.
“Maybe…” Piper started to say, then trailed off.
“Maybe I can find a way to get some money on the side,” she said. “I was thinking it’s time to visit Jed anyway.”
“No,” Hunter snarled. It had been almost six months since she last heard her sister utter that name and even though they were still legally married, Hunter had enjoyed the fantasy that Piper had finally – finally – broken the spell that he held over her. Hunter looked sternly at her big sister, staring pointedly into her eyes, and said, “Absolutely not. We’ll find a legitimate way to fix this.”