“I tied you up because I need you to listen,” Derek says. “Focus.”
“Please… W-what do you want from me?”
“The truth,” he says. “About what happened the night my brother died.” He reaches for my left hand. “If I think you’re lying…” With his other hand, he flourishes a pair of flower cutters. Curved. Sharp.
And he smiles.
When Chris wakes up in a dark basement tied to a chair, he knows that he’s trapped—and why. Eight nights ago a burglar broke into Chris’ home. Eight nights ago Chris did what he had to do to protect his family. And eight nights ago a 13-year-old runaway bled to death on his kitchen floor.
Now Derek wants the truth about what happened that night. He wants proof his little brother didn’t deserve to die. For every lie Chris tells, he will lose a finger. But telling the truth is far more dangerous…
A riveting, edge-of-your-seat thriller from Edgar Award-nominated author Jeffry W. Johnston that explores the gray area between what is right and what we’ll do to protect the people we love.
Excerpt from The Truth
I wake up to find I can’t move, my arms and legs duct-taped tight to a wooden chair. Duct tape is also wrapped around my chest and the chair’s hard, unyielding back.
The only thing not bound is my head, but I can only turn it left and right. I can’t look behind me because of the chair’s high back.
Christ, what is this!
My head hurts. I feel nauseous, dizzy. Can’t focus. What happened? How did I get here? My memory’s a blur.
“Hey!” I shout. “Hey! Anybody here?”
I wait a few seconds. Nothing.
I see unfinished walls, but I could be in a room anywhere. The only furniture I can see is a metal folding chair leaning against the wall opposite.
Wait a minute! What about Devon! The last thing I remember was calling on my cell phone to make sure he got to the field OK. What time is it? Is he in the middle of his game, wondering where I am? Is Mom there, wondering the same thing?
I can tell my cell is not in my pocket, not that I’d be able to reach it anyway. Where is it? How long have I been out? A couple hours? A whole day? Is it still … what, Saturday? Are people looking for me? The police?
“Hey!” I shout again. “Heeeyyyy!” I try harder to break free. “Is somebody here? Can somebody help me? Please! Please…!”
Who could have done this to me? Why?
“Help! Help me! Heeelllp…”
This isn’t working. I need to calm down and try to think. Come on; breathe. That’s it. Again. OK, now another breath. My heart is starting to slow a bit. That’s good. Maybe closing my eyes will help.
Two more deep breaths. Okay. Now, think.
I remember dialing my cell. But before that. I had knocked on Rita’s front door. We were going to go to Devon’s game together. I was waiting for her to open the door. Wait, the door did start to open. Then … nothing. Or … something. Something made me pass out. Something with a sweet smell. Held against my face. Making me gag. Feel sick. I couldn’t push it away. Something very strong was holding it in place.
Not some thing. Some one.
I hear movement. Behind me. A door opening. I try to look back; can’t.
The door closes. A quiet click.
Then footsteps. Steady, determined.
I recognize the guy who appears in front of me. Derek Brannick. Only a year older than me, which makes him seventeen, but with the broken front teeth and scar on his throat he looks much older.
He’s holding something in his hand, which he slips into his pants pocket before I can see it. Then he picks up the metal chair from against the wall and opens it before straddling it and leaning over the back, facing me. He lowers his head. Does nothing for a couple minutes. My heart slams against my chest. I wait. So scared I can’t think straight.
Finally, he raises his head and looks at me. His eyes… It’s as if there’s no light in them. Nothing. Dead eyes.
“You want some water?” His voice is raspy. He stands and moves out of my field of vision. I hear a faucet turning on and off. Then he’s back with a paper cup. “Tilt your head back,” he says. I do the best I can. Some of the water runs down my chin but enough makes it into my mouth. The water’s lukewarm, but I welcome it.
“Feel better? Can you talk? ’Cause you’re gonna need to be able to talk. ” He crumples the cup and throws it on the floor.
“Yes,” I croak. “Th … thank you.” My voice is trembling. I can’t help it.
Derek nods, lets out another long breath as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and sit back down in his chair, pulling it closer to me.
“I’m … I’m sorry,” I try. “I’m really—”
“Shh,” he says sharply, pointing a finger at me. “I told you before, Chris… I’m not looking for that.”
“I should have showed up at the—”
He begins to cough. It sounds painful. He starts to talk again, then stops. Maybe it’s painful to talk too. The way his voice is all rough and raspy, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Derek tries again. “I tied you up because I need you to listen,” he says. “Focus. Think you can do that?”
“Please… Wh … what do you want from me?”
“The truth,” he says. “That’s all.”
He reaches for my left hand. Tied the way I am, I can’t resist. “I don’t want to hurt you if I don’t have to,” Derek says. “But you need to know that I’m serious. If I think you’re lying…” With his other hand, he pulls out what he had shoved into his pants pocket and shows it to me.
A pair of flower cutters. Curved. Sharp.
Slowly, even gently, he opens them and slides the little finger of my left hand in between the razor edges.
“One finger for each lie,” he says again, “Do you understand?”
Oh God! Oh Jesus! All at once, I’m sweating, my eyes stinging.
“Do you understand?” he asks again, voice unchanging, low key.
“Yes,” I croak. My eyes remain riveted to the cutters, expecting them to move, to squeeze.
“Chris. Look at me.”
I look up into those dead eyes.
“I meant what I said.” He stops to cough again; continues. “I need to understand everything. This,” he says, indicating the cutters lightly caressing my finger, “will help you to tell the truth. That’s all I want. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. There’s no right or wrong answer. There’s only the truth. Do you understand?”
But I can’t tell him the truth. Not the whole truth.
My eyes dart back to the cutters.
Abruptly, he squeezes them. “Do you understand?”
Jeffry W. Johnston has published about thirty-five short stories and more than two hundred articles. His first young adult novel, Fragments, was an Edgar Award nominee for Best Young Adult Mystery and a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers selection by YALSA. He lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife and their teenage son. Visit him at jeffrywjohnston.com.
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