Home > The House Beyond the Dunes

The House Beyond the Dunes
Author: Mary Burton



Friday, July 7, 2023

This diary is an account of what happened last week. I’ve written it all down because, well, life always goes sideways, and I’ve learned to hedge my bets. Trouble and I know each other well. Hell, we’re almost besties after all these years. But everything is changing. The ground under my feet is steady today, but that never lasts. Not sure how long I can hold it together, but I’ll fight the good fight while I can. No one gets out of here alive, right?



Chapter One


Friday, December 29, 2023

Norfolk, Virginia

7:00 p.m.

The fall began with a small slip on a marble step. Any other time, I’d have caught myself, adjusted, and found a way to hold steady. But not this time.

That misstep sent both of us tumbling down twenty-one stairs. Us. Kyle and I weren’t really an us. We’d known each other three and a half weeks, technically twenty-five days.

He’d first approached me in the coffee shop I manage. I was refilling the whole milk and creamer containers at the self-serve station when he slid in beside me. The soft scent of his aftershave snagged my attention. Sandalwood. He said something charming. I thought he was talking to someone else. But his gaze pinned me. I was flattered, and even blushed.

Almost immediately, the floodgates between us opened. He began showering me with enchanting texts, fragrant flowers, and mouthwatering kisses. He didn’t push sex, and I was wooed by his patience. In a few short weeks, we were on the path to something.

This weekend was supposed to be our big, romantic beach getaway. Our first sleepover. We were going to ring in the New Year alone, wrapped in each other’s arms. A big step toward figuring out if this thing between us might be real. So much anticipation. Excitement. I’ve no free time between school and managing the coffee shop, so for Kyle to have lured me away for a long weekend was saying something.

However, within an hour of arriving at his glittering North Carolina cottage overlooking the dunes of the northern Outer Banks and the Atlantic Ocean, we fell. The weight of our bodies sent us hurtling through the air so fast, adrenaline didn’t catch up until the last microsecond, when we hit the marble floor.

Now I’m in the hospital, my left hip is banged up and bruised, and my body is so stiff, it’s hard to turn my head to the right. I feel as if I’ve gone three rounds with a boxer. But my injuries aren’t critical. I’ll heal.

Kyle wasn’t so lucky.

He’s dead.

“You’re fortunate to be alive.” Dr. Jackson sounds cheerful, a little too upbeat, as he closes the curtain to my room. He’s tall, lean, and keeps his hair cut short. Dark circles smudge under his eyes. Emergency room sounds swirl around us. Gurneys. Machines beeping. Hushed conversations.

I shift, doing my best to sit up. The muscles in my gut and along my ribs scream in protest. The guy I liked is dead, and I can barely move without my body crying. I was supposed to be sipping wine while sitting in a hot tub with Kyle, making out, and taking another step toward us. “Yes, lucky.”

Dr. Jackson holds a light up to my eyes and waves it over my pupils. I stiffen. “Just look at the light.”

“How long have I been here?” I ask.

“About six hours.”

“How did I get here?”

“You were airlifted from the Outer Banks to Norfolk.”

The Outer Banks is a 170-mile barrier island chain, and Kyle’s house is in the northernmost section, tucked against the Virginia line.

As the crow flies, Kyle’s cottage is thirty minutes from Norfolk, where I live. But there’s no quick way to get from here to there. This remote stretch of land requires a trip around Norfolk’s beltway, followed by a few secondary highways in North Carolina, crossing the three-mile-long Wright Memorial Bridge, and then another twenty-mile drive north. All that travel is rewarded with an eleven-mile four-wheel drive on an untamed beach. Basically, over the river and through the woods takes two and a half hours.

Memories of the trip and the house are vague. My mind is trapped in a loop, replaying the crack of Kyle’s skull on marble, the pool of his blood oozing toward me, and the pain rocketing through my body.

I’m only vaguely aware of a man trying to rouse me and then being placed on a stretcher. I was out cold during the med flight ride to Norfolk. Most of this entire day tangles like a bad dream.

“Kyle is really dead?” I ask.

“Yes,” Dr. Jackson says. “He was pronounced dead at the scene.”

I brace for a rush of sadness. Grief, despondency, and sorrow are all natural responses for someone who’s lost the other half of a potential us.

Kyle and I weren’t married or even sleeping together, but we’d had a connection. I didn’t fully understand what tethered us so tightly, but it had been very real. Yet no emotions charge or encircle me. There’s only numbness. Must be shock.

“Are you taking any medications?” Dr. Jackson asks.

“For sleepwalking. I can’t remember the name.”

“That might explain the drugs we found in your system.”

“What drugs?”

“A sedative.”

“I don’t take anything other than the pills to hold off the sleepwalking.”

“Okay.” He regards me and then says, “The head scan tells me you suffered no damage to your brain or spine, which is excellent news. But I’d like to do an MRI of your left hip. X-rays tell me it’s not broken, but I suspect you’ve torn muscles or tendons, or maybe separated the labrum.”

My head is good. A win. “What’s a labrum?”

Dr. Jackson tucks his penlight in his front pocket and runs calloused hands up and down my neck. I brace. “It’s the cartilage cushioning the hip joint. Any pain in the neck?”

“A little stiff, but okay.” I angle my neck away from him and feel the muscles resisting. “The hip aches.”

Dr. Jackson nods. “Then we should do the MRI.”

I look around the curtained-off emergency room cubicle. How much is all this going to cost me? “MRIs are expensive.”

“Clear images give me a good look inside your body. You don’t want to risk more damage.”

As I shift, the back folds of my hospital gown open, and a cold breeze fingers up my spine. I can live with a stiff hip, which in all likelihood just needs rest. “My head is good, right?”

Dr. Jackson sighs. “Yes. But the hip correlates with long-term mobility.”

“I’ll rest it. See how it goes. If it’s an issue, I’ll call you. When can I leave the hospital? I’ll take it easy. Take aspirin. Ice, heat, ice. Chill out.” This place is suffocating, and I want to go home, where I’ll try not to think about the fall, the sound of Kyle’s head exploding, or sticky, warm blood.

Dr. Jackson shakes his head. “I’d like to admit you overnight for observation.”

“No,” I insist. “I’d rather be in my own bed. It’s paid for.”

His brow furrows. “Do you have insurance?”

“I do if you can call it that. My plan is stitched together with high copays and ridiculous deductibles. I’ll take a pass on the tests and the overnight.”

“I don’t advise this, Ms. McCord,” Dr. Jackson says carefully.

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