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The Good Girl

by Christy Barritt

Tara Lancaster can sing “Amazing Grace” in three harmonies, two languages, and interpret it for the hearing impaired. She can list the Bible canon backward, forward, and alphabetized. And the only time she ever missed church was at seventeen because she had pneumonia—and her mom made her stay home.

But when her life shatters around her and her reputation is left in ruins, Tara decides escape is the only option. She flees halfway across the country to dog-sit, but the quiet anonymity she needs isn’t waiting in her sister’s house. Instead she finds a knife with a threatening message, a fame-hungry friend, a too-hunky neighbor, and evidence of…a ghost?

Following all the rules has gotten her nowhere. And nothing she learned in Sunday School can tell her where to go from there.

Chapter 1

Forrest Gump was known for saying that life was like a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get.

Grandmother Griffin had a different saying. She said that life was like a Bible story. You didn’t always get a happy ending—at least not here on this earth.

For years, I didn’t believe Grandma Griffin. After all, she honestly thought that “cleanliness is next to godliness” was in the Bible. I mean, I was a Christian, so life was supposed to be blessed. And blessed meant that life was full of unconditional love and feel-good moments and abundance. Right?

Wrong.

Now, I have my own sayings. One is that life is like a beautiful apple. Sometimes you don’t know it’s rotten until you bite into it. Other days, I thought life was like the solid wood coffee table that my uncle fell on—revealing it was actually made of particleboard, thus my saying, “You never know what you’re made of until you’re broken.”

I’m Tara Lancaster, and I come from a family of missionaries, preachers, and Bible college professors. One could never be too righteous in this clan. I was right on track in my family tree, following a path that would have made Mother Teresa and Billy Graham proud.

That was, until two years ago.

It’s taken me a long time to figure things out. First, I had to battle a ghost, question my faith, consult a psychic, and fall in love with someone who wasn’t my husband.

It’s a long story. It’s a story about a good girl gone…well, I can’t tell you. I will say this: Life is like a movie. Just when things seem perfect, the movie ends.

And that’s where my story starts.

Chapter 2

Where does a twenty-something go when she’s lost faith not only in God, but in mankind?

She goes to a middle-class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota to dog sit, that’s where.

At least, that’s where I went.

I’d been here all of one hour so far—most of that spent in the airport—and already things weren’t going according to plan.

I walked from the curb toward my sister’s house, glancing back for long enough to see the yellow taxi cab turn at the corner of the picturesque neighborhood. The houses resting on the neat blocks had character with their nooks and arches and detailed trim work. Each property was dotted with looming, established trees that seemed to root the area in a “Leave It to Beaver” type of aura. My sister Lana lived on Elm Street, a street name that conjured up images of cozy cookouts and friendly neighbors…or men with razor-sharp knives attached to their fingers, depending on which picture your mind wanted to conjure up. I’d stick with the cozy one.

I squeezed my cell phone between my shoulder and ear, all while trying to drag my suitcases up the cement steps of my sister’s cozy bungalow. My mom’s voice, usually soft, sounded like a megaphone in my ear, and as much as I tried to tune her out, I couldn’t.

“Are you sure you’re going to be okay there? I wish you were back here in Florida. Certainly Lana’s dog would be okay in a kennel for a few weeks.”

Little did my mom know that I saw this trip to Minnesota as an escape from the nightmare surrounding my previous life. Anywhere was better than Florida, even if it did mean I was running from my problems. I decided not to tell her that, though. She worried enough without me dropping bombshells like that. I knew my mother. She’d automatically think “depression.” I didn’t want to add anything else to her already growing list of “things to pray about for Tara Lancaster.”

I leaned my suitcase against my leg and fumbled with my keys, trying to find the one Lana had mailed me. I grabbed the shiniest one and jammed it into the lock, just as a high-pitched bark began repeating on the other side of the door. That would have to be Doggie Gaga, a Maltese/Poodle mix and the sole reason for my existence for the next four weeks. I would give the dog food, water, and walks, and in return she would listen to me babble on and on for hours about how I hated my life.

“I’m going to be just fine, Mom.” I made sure my voice was even and light.

“I love you, Tara.” My mother sounded so sweet and kind. People used to say I was just like her. It was strange how life could change in the blink of an eye. A few years ago, I’d have all kinds of platitudes to tell myself at moments like these. Not long ago, I’d written all of those clichés down and ground them up, one by one, in my paper shredder. The moment was supposed to be symbolic and healing. Instead, I’d felt a bit psychotic.

Maybe the evil, maniacal laugh I’d forced out during the entire process—a laugh meant to break an otherwise tense moment—had been a little too much.

A motorcycle roared behind me. Between my mom, the dog, and the motorcycle, a headache began pulsating at the back of my head. I glanced over my shoulder at the rider, wondering why he’d stopped in front of Lana’s house.

“I have to run, Mom. I’ll check in with you later.”

“Tara?”

“Yes?”

“Everything’s going to work out just fine. I know it’s hard to see now, but it will. Just keep trusting God.”

How many times had I heard that before from well-meaning Christians? I loved my mom, but she just didn’t understand. She’d lived a flawless life. She’d been my example, and I’d planned my life to be the same.

I’d failed.

I told her good-bye before snatching the phone from my shoulder and jamming it into my purse. No sooner had I opened the door than I heard a footfall behind me. I twirled around, having visions of the paparazzi standing there camera in hand, ruining my plans.

Instead, a woman dressed in black—all the way from her fingernails and lipstick to her clothing—stood there. The only “accessory” not black was her hair, which was toilet bowl blue. A helmet rested in the crook of her arm, and a cool, aloof expression saturated her gaze.

“You Tara?”

I paused, hand on the doorknob and muscles tensed. Could I run inside and slam the door fast enough if this conversation went downhill? It might mean abandoning my luggage for a while—perhaps even having it stolen—but I could handle that.

“Depends on who’s asking.” I heard the suspicion in my voice. I was a new girl in a new town. I had to use some caution here.

“I’m Candy.”

Candy? Black licorice maybe, but the woman definitely didn’t look sweet. Or did she? Beneath her edgy exterior, soft features and a petite build peeked through. Sure, her appearance screamed, “Look at me!” but her eyes hinted at something deeper. “I was supposed to pick you up from the airport.”

I pointed to the motorcycle on the street. “On that? With luggage?” I shook my head, deciding to forgo pondering the woman’s sensibilities in favor of ending the conversation succinctly and sweetly. Besides, minding my manners was Good Girls Rule #21. “It’s okay. I called a cab. No harm done.”

The woman didn’t move. Her gaze traveled up and down as she looked me over, making me feel like a lamb being sized up by a hungry villager. “So you’re Lana’s sister?”

I nodded, drew in a deep breath, trying to gather some patience and recall what Lana said about Candy. I remembered Lana mentioning something about a Katy Perry wannabe with an aversion to animals and some crazy story about an unfortunate encounter with a chicken as a child. Why my sister had told me those random factoids and why I’d actually remembered was a mystery to me. “And you’re her new best friend? The one who’s allergic to dogs?”

“That’s me. Hair stylist by day, Internet celebrity by night.”

Lovely. My sister never failed to surprise me, although this shouldn’t come as any shock. Lana had been deemed “Party Girl” after a stint on reality TV. Most people said that Lana and I were polar opposites, and they were right. Lana was the rebel, I was the good girl.

The thought of being the good girl caused nausea to roil in my stomach. I’d been guilty of being a people-pleaser my entire life. I’d disappointed people to such a great extent recently that I didn’t know who I was anymore. Not a good girl. Not an atheist necessarily, but not a Christian either. All I had to define me right now were the facts that I loved Golden Oreos, I had a mad addiction to Dancing with the Stars, and I was insanely disappointed in myself and approximately half of the people who used to be in my life.

Candy scrutinized me. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Natalie Portman?”

“No.” I crossed the squeaky wooden floor, soaking in the walls of windows coming at me from two sides, and deposited my suitcases by the cheerful yellow sofa. Gaga turned crazy circles at my feet, that high-pitched bark filling the room until I finally scooped her up into my arms.

“Well, you do. You know, from some of her sweeter roles. Not the crazy Black Swan movie.” Her nose twitched, and I wondered if her nose ring was bothering her or maybe the dog.

I soaked in Lana’s house. Magazines cluttered the corners, a coat stand overflowed with colorful garments, a CD organizer was stuffed with plastic cases, and various brown-leafed plants littered any free space. Despite the clutter, something about the space felt warm and way too normal for Lana. Maybe my sister had left me the wrong house key?

Photos confirmed this was the right place. Pictures of my sister in a bikini, raising a beer bottle in a toast, kissing her latest boyfriend while the sun set behind them. Totally Lana, uninhibited and free.

So different from me.

Maybe we could trade lives for a while. After all, St. Paul, Minnesota was hundreds of miles from Miami. I already liked it here, most of all because no one knew me.

No one knew that I was the girl who had perfect Sunday school attendance for sixteen years, the record only broken because at seventeen I had pneumonia and my mom forced me to stay home so I didn’t infect anyone else. No one knew that in high school the church council nominated me as the Teen of the Year for the entire state of Florida, and that I won. Mothers had wanted me to marry their sons. Teachers had said I was their favorite. My outspoken stance on purity had inspired my peers. Oh, and my pious legalism had also led me to create the Good Girl Chronicles, a blog where I daily—and naïvely—told teen girls all over the country how they should live. As if I’d had a clue.

Nor did anyone here know how royally I screwed up. I had gained firsthand knowledge about the domino effect of bad decisions. One wrong move could make everything around you tumble downward.

Being in St. Paul was my new beginning. I’d had twenty-six years to grapple with my inadequacies, but despite my best attempts to accept all my flaws, I still failed and longed for that perfection.

The sound of a digital camera clicking distracted me from the strange smell mixture of stale pizza and apple-scented jarred candles. Candy’s cell phone was aimed at my feet.

I hid one foot behind my leg and balanced precariously on the other. “What are you doing?” Anxiety bubbled up in me. Who was this woman, and what was she up to?

“Taking a picture of your shoes. They’re so cute.”

I glanced down at my loafers and then back up at Candy. Her fingers moved across the phone’s screen with precision as she spoke in sync with her keyboarding. “My new pal Tara’s rad shoes. Must get a pair.”

I stepped closer, trying to peer at her touch screen. “What are you doing?”

“Putting it on Facebook.”

“That’s just…perfect.” I forced a smile, trying to conjure up ideas on how to get her out of the house, so I could get on with my total and complete introverted seclusion, pity party, and quite possibly the remaking of Tara Lancaster. I’d only decided on two of the three options for sure, but all were appealing. “Look, I appreciate you stopping by, but I’m okay. I’ll adjust to being here just fine.”

Candy put the phone down, and a grin stretched across her face. “I know you will, because I’m going to help you.”

I shook my head. “No, no. You don’t understand. I’m like…I’m like…” What was I like? With my fingers, I drew an imaginary circle around myself. “I’m like an island.” I smiled, pleased with my explanation.

Candy looked at me a moment and then snorted. “An island? Really? Lana said I needed to look out for you, show you around town. That’s what I’m going to do.” She punched my arm. “You little island, you.”

I didn’t come here to see the town—or to be made fun of, for that matter. I came here to hunker down in a cave and disappear from the world. Was that asking too much? I was divorced, humiliated, and I’d nearly caused the mega church where my father was pastor to split. And that was only the beginning. My heart still twisted at the thought of the train wreck back home.

Candy walked toward the kitchen, and I had no choice but to follow. Good Girls Rule #14: Be nice to guests, even the annoying ones who won’t leave. “I’m going to grab some water from the kitchen before I hit the road. You don’t care, do you?”

She breezed past me, and I caught the scent of cigarette smoke. I glanced at her retreating figure and frowned. The woman had a swagger, even in her platform shoes. I was pretty sure Candy was the type of person who didn’t care what anyone thought. On second thought, maybe I should hang around her. I could use a few tips in that area.

She stopped in her tracks at the kitchen door. “Whoa.” She muttered the word in a low voice, a touch of awe to it.

My muscles tightened. I didn’t like the sound of that. “Whoa?”

“I knew Lana had a wicked sense of humor, but wow.”

I pulled Gaga closer. What? A dirty kitchen? Fake dog poop? Twenty pages of instructions on how to care for Gaga? I peered over her shoulder and into the cozy, small kitchen where early afternoon sunlight poured through two windows. Gray walls. Stainless steel appliances. A butcher knife standing devilishly on end in the wood cutting board.

A butcher knife? Standing on end?

I looked closer. A piece of paper lay like a corpse underneath the knife.

I pushed past Candy and glanced at the words scribbled there.

I’m still here.

“I’m still here? Who’s still here?” Shivers shimmied down my spine.

Candy’s eyes widened, some of her cool confidence leaving for a moment. “You’re asking me?”

I looked at her, suddenly realizing she might be my only friend here in St. Paul. “Is Lana still here?”

“Nope, she’s definitely in Tuscany. Sent me a picture this morning.” Candy peered at the knife again. Her gaze changed from fearful to curious. “I’m totally getting this on video.”

She already had her phone out and aimed at the cutting board.

“Absolutely not.” My hand went to my waist—an assertive stance, if you asked me—as realizations began to click in my head. “Are you guys punking me or something? I know Lana is amused by the strangest things, but really?”

“Punking is so 2006. I, Candy Cornelius, am all about today and being on the edge of all that is cool and worthy. This would be perfect for my YouTube channel.” She held up her phone again. “And no, I had nothing to do with this. I’m fame hungry, but not when it comes to stuff this twisted.”

“Any idea who might have left this?” I kept my voice even, as if I’d played detective a million times before. I hadn’t. But I had been questioned by detectives before, so maybe some good would come out of that experience as I tried at the moment to imitate them.

Candy shrugged, shoving her phone back into the pocket of her tight black jeans. “I have no idea. There was that weird stalker guy who Lana told to get lost.”

Weird stalker guy? Why hadn’t I heard about him? Was I really that wrapped up in my own little world? I already knew the answer—yes, I was.

“Stalker? What stalker? And more importantly, was this stalker violent?”

She shrugged. “He seemed more like a pitiful little puppy dog to me. I can’t imagine him doing this, but who really knows?” She paused and straightened her head. “Are you sure I can’t get this on video?”

I had to draw on every ounce of strength and politeness inside me not to scream. You know, Good Girls Rule #5: Practice patience even when you want to throttle someone. The last thing I needed right now was some stalker sneaking into the house where I was staying and leaving notes underneath a terrifyingly sharp knife. I was no Nancy Drew. I had no desire to add a little mystery to my life. I just wanted to grasp that ever-elusive peace that dangled just out of reach.

I cleared my throat, deciding to try a different approach.  “Listen, it’s like this. I hate video cameras. All cameras, for that matter. Like, I really hate them.” They’d followed me around for months as my face had been splashed across the news. Lana promised me that she hadn’t told anyone here about what happened.

Candy stared at me a moment. Did she know about my past? My cheeks reddened at the thought. She crossed her arms. “Fine. I won’t make you an instant celebrity after all.”

 “I’m thinking I should call the cops. The note by itself may not be that threatening, but the knife definitely sends a message.” As I looked at it again, fear trickled down my spine until I shivered.

“I agree. Can I stick around long enough to see what they say?”

“Aren’t you allergic to Gaga?” I looked down at the perky little dog who sat at my feet.

She flicked a piece of lint from her shirt. “No, I just told Lana that so I wouldn’t have to dog sit. Of course.” She shrugged as if that was the most natural explanation in the world.

I sucked in a deep breath, considering my options. Finally, I settled with, “No pictures.”

She grinned. “Deal.”

This was one deal I hoped I didn’t regret.

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