Shattered Souls by Karen Kelley

 

Prologue

 

It only took one time for Natalie to realize it was a hell of a lot safer to slip inside the house, rather than barreling through the front door. Her new stepfather had caught her by the hair, twisting it in his beefy fist, then slapping her hard across the face.

Bruce had bloodied her lip that day. Now, she tried to stay out of his way. She’d go to school, then to her room—her safe zone. The way she figured it, every thirteen-year-old should have a place where they felt safe—right?

She would never understand why her mom hooked up with losers. Her biological father was in prison, serving twenty-five years for beating up some poor guy and putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. She'd never met her father, but her mother said Natalie took after him, with her brown hair that had natural golden highlights and her deep green eyes. Ahh, he was a looker, she always said with a dreamy expression.

Yeah, she was thrilled beyond belief that she looked like him—Not!

But Mom said all the girls would turn and stare as he strolled down the halls at school. He was the bad boy, and every girl wanted him. But he chose Natalie’s mother, Estelle. She’d only been fifteen when he got her pregnant. While Estelle was in the hospital having her little girl, Noah Collier was robbing the local convenience store. When the clerk wouldn’t give him the money from the cash register, he beat the hell out of him.

That was the kind of man her mom attracted.

Stepfather number one had made installing a deadbolt on her bedroom door a necessity. Natalie had stolen money out of his wallet to pay for the hardware, which she thought was poetic justice. He’d finally left after she threatened to slit his throat the next time he passed out drunk and fell into a stupor.

Then there was Bruce. Stepfather number two was just mean as hell. That was the reason she was waiting by the front door right now. She listened before entering farther into the house. Since he couldn’t hold down a job for more than a few weeks at a time, he might, or might not, be home.

“Please, Bruce, I said I was sorry,” her mother’s voice pleaded from the kitchen.

Natalie’s spirits sank. He was home.

“And I said sorry don’t cut it anymore,” he growled. “You was supposed to buy my whiskey today.

“But I don’t have any money.”

“I gave you fifty damn dollars,” he growled. “What’d ya do with it? Buy lipstick? You damn sure need something as ugly as you are. You’re lucky I agreed to take care of you and that brat of yours.”

Not only was Bruce home, but he was in one of his moods, as her mother called them. She knew what her mother really meant. Bruce had bought cheap whiskey from the bootlegger who lived three houses down from them.

Mostly, the booze was the least expensive whiskey anyone could buy, then watered down. He would’ve done better drinking aftershave. Maybe his breath wouldn’t smell like garlic and onion mixed with dead skunk. Either way, she was going to her room.

Until she heard flesh strike flesh, followed by her mother’s cry of pain.

Natalie's lips compressed into a thin line. No son of a bitch was going to use her mom for a punching bag! She tossed her school books to the sofa and ran to the kitchen. Bruce's arm was drawn back to slap Estelle again. Without thought, she hurled all ninety pounds of herself across the room and grabbed his arm like a pissed-off pit bull.

“Don’t you dare hit her again!” she screamed.

Momentarily startled, Bruce turned and glared at her. “I’ll do whatever I damn well please, girl. This is my house.” He flung her across the room without effort.

She bounced off the wall with a grunt, but quickly scrambled to her feet and faced him. “It isn’t your house. Mom just lets you live here.”

“It’s okay, Natalie,” Estelle told her.

Her lips pursed as the anger began to build inside her. “It’s not okay, Mom. Why do you let them do this to you? You’re better than that.”

“Your mother’s nothing but a lazy whore,” Bruce growled as he turned to Estelle again and raised his arm.

Natalie’s anger boiled as she rushed toward him again, but this time she grabbed the iron skillet off the table, and without slowing down, slammed it against the side of his head.

Bruce stumbled back, then shook his head. “You little bitch!” he roared.

Oh, hell, she’d hoped to knock his lights out. Before she could turn and run, he grabbed the butcher knife off the counter and sliced toward her with a wide swing of his arm.

The blade caught her across the abdomen once, then twice. Burning pain ripped through her. Tears welled in her eyes, blurring her vision.

“Get the hell out of here, girl,” he spat and turned away.

Something inside her rose to the surface. No more! She reared back her arm, and with both hands, brought the skillet down again. He gurgled a couple of times before he crumpled to the floor.

Estelle began to scream. She rushed over to Bruce and began to shake his shoulder. “Baby, are you okay? She didn’t mean to hurt you. She won’t do it again.”

It was funny how some things can be right in front of you. You don't see them, but then it's like a switch turns on, and a bright light sort of snaps you back to the reality of life. At least, that's what happened with Natalie. In that moment, Natalie realized Estelle cared more about the men in her life than she did about her own daughter. That sucked.

Estelle raised her gaze and looked at Natalie. “He’s still breathing. I think you only stunned him.”

“Really? I’d hoped to kill the bastard.” She dropped the skillet on the floor. It landed with a dull thud. She turned and left.

“You don’t mean that, Natalie,” Estelle called out.

The sound of sirens echoed in the distance. As loud as her mother had been screaming, and Bruce yelling, she figured one of the neighbors had called the police again, and they were on their way. Yes, having the police show up at the door was a recurring event at their house.

She grabbed a towel as she walked past the bathroom on the way to her bedroom. She wasn’t feeling so good. The room suddenly tilted. She had to put her hand on the wall to steady herself. A moment passed before everything returned to normal, she folded the towel and pressed it against her stomach.

As she went inside her bedroom, she glanced in the mirror. She was covered in blood. She looked as if she’d been in a knife fight and lost. If it didn’t hurt so much, she’d laugh at her joke. But she was hurting. A whole hell of a lot, in fact. She eased down to the side of the bed and waited for the endless round of questions, and the pitying looks that would come when everyone showed up.

She swallowed the bile that threatened to come up. He must’ve cut her pretty bad. She felt as if she was going to pass out. She laid back on the bed and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to will the dizziness to go away. Her back hurt too from when she landed against the wall.

It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Well, she’d never been knifed, but she’d had plenty of bruises and a few broken bones from being slapped around. Then she learned to fight back.

When she heard footsteps, she opened her eyes. She recognized the cop when he came into the room. He was older, and his smile was kind. The paramedics came in right behind him. The female cringed when she moved the towel away and examined the wound.

“They should lock the son of a bitch up and throw away the key,” she muttered as she put a sterile pad over the cuts, then bound it with gauze. “These will need stitches.”

“I’ll make sure the judge gives the mother an ultimatum this time,” the older cop said. “She has to choose. It’s either this guy or her daughter. This abuse has gone on long enough.”

Natalie thought about that. Her or the men in her mother's life? That would be a hard decision for Estelle. Yeah, right. Natalie knew who Estelle would choose. Maybe it would be better this way. She ran a weary hand across her forehead. She wasn't sure a foster home would make her life any better. So far, she'd avoided being sent to one. Now, she was pretty much at the end of her rope. The last strand was about to snap.

The medics put her on the cot and took her to the ambulance. She hated all the noise, all the people. The neighbors' faces, glad for a little excitement in their dull lives, but not caring about her or her mom.

Estelle came running up. "You're going to take, Bruce, right? He said his head is hurting bad."

Estelle didn't even glance her way or ask how she was doing. Natalie looked up at the sky. Please, God, don't let me end up like her, she silently prayed.

Natalie wasn’t sure if she believed in God or not. He’d never answered any of her prayers before. Why start now, right?