Beyond the Cut - Sarah Castille

ONE

Fear is the enemy. I will master my fear before it masters me.

SINNER’S TRIBE CREED

Dawn Delgado had to hand it to Kitty’s Wig Emporium. They made damn good wigs. Well, except for the ill-fitting tribute to 1980s hair bands perched on her head.

She shoved yet another errant blond curl under the elastic. What the hell was going on? After twelve months of trial and error, Kitty’s wigs were usually a perfect fit.

Her phone alarm went off and she yanked the wig down; it would have to do. If Shelly-Ann recognized her, she’d demand more money, but if Dawn didn’t make it out the door in the next two minutes she’d miss the three thirty P.M. bell.

Tucking the last stubborn curl behind her ear, she grabbed a pair of sunglasses from the hall closet and raced out the door of her tiny rental bungalow. Spring had come early to Conundrum this year, which in Montana didn’t mean soft April showers and lovely May flowers, but freezing rain, the occasional snowstorm, and gusting winds. More than enough incentive to cover the one-mile distance that much faster.

By the time she reached the throng of mums, prams, dogs, and nannies heading toward St. Francis Xavier’s Elementary School, she’d given up all hope of the wig staying put. With one hand on her head, she slowed to a walk and then took up her usual position under a huge chestnut tree across the road from the school entrance. Although she was late, the girls would be later, dragging their feet down the school steps, the only unsmiling faces in a sea of cherubic grins.

They hadn’t always been unhappy. One year ago, they’d had warm clothes, plenty of food, and a mother’s love—things their aunt, Shelly-Ann, couldn’t be bothered to give them, no matter how much blackmail money Dawn paid to spend a few extra hours with her girls every week.

Shelly-Ann’s blue Volvo stopped in the school pickup zone just as Maia and Tia exited the school, dressed in identical faded pink jackets, worn jeans, and white sneakers. Matching pink headbands decorated with sparkly purple heart stickers adorned their long blond hair.

Although her seven-year-old twins always dressed the same, anyone who knew them could easily tell them apart. Maia, the older by two minutes, was always in the lead, protecting her little sister while at the same time dragging her along as she indulged her insatiable curiosity about the world. By contrast, Tia preferred to stay in the background—watching and assessing before diving in. But then Tia had a good reason for her reluctance to embrace the world: She had borne the brunt of her daddy’s rage just before they left him for good. Jimmy hated his daughters, even more than he hated his wife. Dawn had celebrated the day their divorce went through, not realizing what Jimmy had planned for retribution.

The door of the Volvo swung open and Shelly-Ann barked from the front seat, her voice so loud, Dawn could hear her harsh words over the rumble of a motorcycle as the bike filtered through the SUV blockade. A kind, gentle auntie Shelly-Ann was not. But then she was from Jimmy’s side of the family, and she had supported him when he took Dawn’s daughters away.

The girls flinched as one, and Dawn took an involuntary step forward and away from the shelter of the tree. The wind gusted around her and with a delighted whoosh swept the wig off her head and carried it in a tumble down the street.

In that moment three things happened.

First, a biker pulled his motorcycle over to the curb and shouted