Another Jagged Journey’s Novella
WHAT IS FREEDOM WHEN YOU’RE A WANTED MAN?
Robbery, murder, extortion, threats…Neil Gatlin learns there’s nothing quiet about the small farm town of Cleavemont, Illinois.
Released from prison, but nowhere to go, Neil accepts a job offer from Leonard Black. But not everyone is happy to see Neil free. Vilified by townsfolk, under suspicion by police, tracked by prison nemesis J.R.’s gang, and hated by others, Neil soon wishes he were invisible.
Then, secret messages appear, trapping him between prison and death. While Neil struggles to hide his troubles, his seemingly bizarre behavior erodes Sunshine’s trust and raises doubt in everyone’s mind of Neil’s innocence.
As threats increase and tensions rise, Neil and Sunshine’s tenuous relationship unravels. Can Neil decipher the clues behind the messages and reveal the true culprits before he’s swallowed by their intrigue? Or will his bad luck and poor choices destroy this second chance at freedom and love with Sunshine?
Chapter One – Odd Man Out
Neil’s throat tightened and his hands trembled. He tapped his fingers on Sunshine’s knee, eyes alert as the white, four-door Lincoln Continental his brother, Ken, had rented for the occasion, rolled toward Cleavemont.
The others tried to distract him from the homemade signs townsfolk had placed along the road, “Cleavemont is no place for murderers,” and “Leave Neil Gatlin. You’re not wanted here.”
Quite the reception for the acquittal of an innocent man, Neil thought. Even with Scotty’s testimony that Charley Parsons paid Willis Turner to kill Charley’s aunt and uncle it was obvious not everyone in town considered Neil innocent.
A knot grew in his stomach as they approached the buildings at the outskirts of the small Illinois farming community. How he wished he didn’t have to return here. To the same place where the police and residents condemned him as a murderer, without ever considering his side of the story.
With every turn of the Lincoln Continental’s wheels a sense of imprisonment, like he’d experienced at the Pontiac Correctional Center swept, over him. But where could he go? Neil’s options were limited. He and Sunshine had very little money and returning to Georgia with Ken meant seeing William George Gatlin—and Neil wasn’t ready for that—not yet. He wanted to prove a few things to himself before he could prove to his father, who’d disowned him, that he wasn’t a failure.
Neil glanced at the dark store fronts, at the Mobil Station, the Five and Dime, and Laundromat—all closed for the evening. What he didn’t see, was the man standing in the shadows of an alley, out of sight, watching them drive by.
The car passed City Hall with its police station and three-celled jail. Two officers stood on the steps. He knew Ken purposely drove past them to flaunt Neil’s freedom and remind them of their muddled law and justice.
They neared the bar where Neil had met Charley, Scotty, and Willis. Where all the trouble began. Colored lights advertising Budweiser, Schlitz, Koehler, and Lone Star beer glowed in the windows.
“Should we stop in and let them know you’re back in town?” Ken offered.
“I think they already know. I’m sure all next week they’ll be coming into Leonard’s store, looking for a reason to see the pardoned killer who works there now.”
Leonard looked back at Neil from the front seat with a grimace. “I hate to say this, but you’re the most excitement this town’s had in probably fifty years.”
“To Phyllis and Leonard’s?” Ken asked.
Sunshine squeezed his arm. “I can’t wait for you to see how cute Leonard fixed up the shed and the quilts Phyllis helped me sew.”
Neil smiled. Cleavemont wouldn’t be easy, but it couldn’t be as bad as prison, not with Sunshine here. He pulled her close and she snuggled into him, her blue eyes sparkling.
Neil guessed the small shed turned cottage to be about twelve by twenty feet, much larger than he expected. Leonard had plumbed water to the building and added on a small bathroom.
“See the little kitchen Leonard built,” Sunshine said, pointing to a wood counter with a sink and cupboards, a small electric cook stove, and an icebox. “I don’t often cook in here, though; usually I eat with Phyllis and Leonard.”
Neil nodded. He warmed his hands in front of the electric heater. He wished he’d been the one who’d made this for her.
Sunshine laid Neil Jr. in a bassinet he knew they’d lent her and grabbed his hand.
Neil pushed his feelings of failure aside, focusing on Sunshine.
“See, aren’t they beautiful?” she said, pointing to the brightly colored floral curtains and quilt that matched her personality. “And see little Neil’s.” She pulled him over to see a blue quilt draped over their baby with little lambs, kittens, and puppies scattered across it.
“They’re beautiful, sweetheart.” He buried his face in her long blond hair and took in her smell. He drew her close and kissed her. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you too.”
“I was so afraid I’d lose you. That someone would come and you’d fall in love with him.”
He pulled back far enough to see her. As always, her smile lit up the room. He stroked her cheek. “I’ve been thinking a lot about us.”
He placed a finger over her lips. “Please, before I lose my nerve. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t want to live without you.”
Sunshine stared up at him, her lip trembling ever-so-slightly.
He took her hand. “I know I don’t have any money right now, but I’m going to change. I’ll work hard, I’ll be the man you need.” Neil lowered himself to one knee.
Her other hand went to her mouth.
“Sunshine Dawn, will you marry me?”
There was a moment of silence as they stared at each other.
“Neil, I…I…You’ve…you’ve changed.”
He nodded. “I’d like to believe for the better.”
Sunshine slid down and sat on the floor. “So have I. I’ve had to make so many decisions on my own. Decisions that affected me and Neil Jr.”
The enthusiasm on Neil’s face and in his heart waned.
“Phyllis and Leonard have been like the parents I never had. Their kindness and concern for me—for us—strengthened me when I felt hopeless and lost.”
Neil nodded. “I’ve felt a little of that too. Leonard has stood by me when my own father wouldn’t.”
“They have such a rich and beautiful relationship with each other. A love that’s greater than what they share between just the two of them. A love and relationship I want.”
Neil looked at her. There was a strength and confidence in her that hadn’t been there before. “So, what are you telling me? Are you saying you won’t—”
“No. Not exactly.”
Neil flopped to the floor. “Then what are you saying?”
“That I think there are some areas in our relationship we should work on.”
He squinted at her. “What areas?” He felt another door in his life slowly shutting and tapped out S.O.S. on the floor.
Copyright Ida Smith 2016
Praise for Deciphering Invisibility
“In Deciphering Invisibility, author Ida Smith quickly pulls you into the troubled lives of Neil Gatlin and his girlfriend, Sunshine. Through a series of bad choices, Neil descends deeper and deeper into a pit that threatens to destroy his most precious relationships. The plot flows naturally, and the dialog is believable. This fast-paced novella will keep you reading!”
—Pam Thorson, Author of Song in the Night and Out from the Shadows
“Ida Smith has done it again, producing another book I could not put down. I didn’t want to go to sleep without knowing what happened. Neil Gatlin is a man who is trying desperately to turn his life around and do right by others, but everything seems to fall apart. When he joins forces with FBI agent, Meryl Hathaway, who has the same goal as him, things begin looking up, literally, as he connects with God and finds true purpose in life.”
—Misty Clark, comedian
“Author Ida Smith has created an intriguing tale of love, despair, and redemption set in small town America. The second novella in the series, Deciphering Invisibility begins as Neil is released from prison after being falsely convicted of murder. As he comes home to begin life anew with the beautiful Sunshine and his infant son, forces beyond his control emerge to thwart his chance for new opportunities and threaten his and his families future. As Neil begins to accept that he needs more in his life than hard work and luck, a niggling of a faith he has long ignored begin to take root in his heart. Well written, with excellent flow, this plot driven tale will keep readers on the edge of their seats.”
—Karen, Clarkston, Washington
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