Silver Dollar (sneak peek)

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Books » Sneak Peek Excerpt

2

By the skin of her teeth


1915. Denver, Colorado. The higher I climbed Lakeside Tower, a gilded ladder piercing the clouds, the lake grew into a gaping maw, skulking shadows where the sun had been. My palms slicked with sweat, gripping the splintered rungs like a scared kitten. Cowardice crept in to talk me down, but my ambition roared back, fueled by the promise I made to myself to paint my name in stardust across the sky… or sink into oblivion. I vowed to meet the challenge.

I wished Mama could see the marquee out front with SILVER DOLLAR TABOR plastered over it like I was a big star already. She'd be so proud to watch me soar over Lake Rhoda like a bird wearing nothing but pinned on orange feathers and fishnet tights, my hair flowing behind me like a magnificent plume. She'd always been my biggest fan, and I miss her cheering me on.

The ladder swayed like a willow in a hurricane. I grabbed the tower beam, teeth gritted. "Doris, for Pete's sake, hold this thing steady." Wind whipped my hair into a tangle.

Doris grinned from fifty feet below. "Break a leg, Silv —" she hollered, her voice blown off by a gale.

My foot skidded and my stomach lurched. "Cut the jokes, Doris. This ladder's shaky enough without you helping!"

She cupped her hand to her mouth. "Just sayin', if you take a tumble, I'm first in line for the spotlight."

Typical Doris. Always cracking everyone up at Pikes Peak Photoplay. Short red hair like fire, freckles sprayed across her face, she wasn't your typical silent film beauty. But they loved her for the laughs, her grin brighter than any klieg light.

I stepped onto the rickety platform and looked down at the crowd's faces straining up like sunflowers following the sun. My stomach lurched; would I disappoint them? Averting my gaze to the snow-kissed Rockies, the wind yowled like a coyote: "Someone dies today." Most likely, me. I giggled hysterically.

Tiny orange feathers from my costume whirled down like a sparkler's embers. I wanted to cross myself but couldn't let go. "Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary," I prayed, "Carry me across the lake or I'm a dead woman."

In an instant, the wind vanished, replaced by the barker's blaring voice over his megaphone, "Witness Silver Dollar Tabor's death-defying 'Slide for Life.'"

According to the carneys who hired me, several years ago a Japanese trapeze artist attempted this skin-of-his-teeth slide across the highwire, but his fate was mysteriously unreported. But for a hundred bucks, I had to chance it. Mama's mine mortgage choked her, and my uncles had cut me off from their generous support. Pikes Peak Photoplay, where I worked as an extra, paid peanuts unless you were the star. I was counting on this stunt to impress them to give me a bigger role. Otherwise, I'd have to take a waitress job to make ends meet, wasting perfect gams under an apron.

The lake seemed bottomless with its inky depths. Seems kinda idiotic that I never considered that I couldn't swim before now. Turning back was tempting, but... a hundred bucks could stretch until my next acting gig started. The audition was in a couple weeks. My eyes traced the highwire to the opposite shore, where the sideshow, Goliath and the Gnome, waited to rescue me. Could they catch a falling star?

Pikes Peak's script boy, Eric Carlson, waved from the throng, his blond hair shining like a cherub. Hadn't he left for his new job in Chicago already? I blew him a kiss.

He caught it, pressed it to his lips. The boy was clearly smitten, the way he practiced my scenes with me and brought me java with extra cream, mooning around me with those admiring baby blues. If only he wasn't seven years younger and six inches shorter, I would have taken him seriously.

With a surge of determination, I forced myself to the platform's edge. I'd rehearsed this stunt just last week—well not actually rehearsed, exactly, but tried out the mouthpiece like a horse's bit. But now, it was for real. Chomping down on the mouthpiece, the cold metal tasted…well metallic. The dizzying drop sent shudders down my spine, but too bad, there was no turning back now. My heart beat like bass drum in my chest, against a timpani of cheers from below.

The crowd's faces contorted with a bloodthirsty desire like the jeering throngs at the rodeo, taking bets on whether the bull or the cowboy would perish. Their primal hunger should disgust me, but instead, adrenaline surged through my limbs. Wasn't this what I craved? To fascinate, to leave them breathless? Holding their attention for a death-defying moment? I squeezed my eyes shut and jumped into the void.

*

The mouthpiece nearly jerked the teeth out of my head, but I clenched down even tighter. My stomach swooped up into my lungs, and for one ecstatic moment I soared above the cotton woods of Lakeside Park. Thin air whistled over my fishnet hose as I posed in a dramatic arabesque, a tail of orange feathers flying behind
.
The crowd roared as I sailed over their heads, but all I could see was turbulent clouds and a few black vultures waiting for me to fall. Soon, I left the shore behind. The wind had died down and it was so quiet up there, sailing across on the wire. Not a single worry flitted through my mind, so carefree, except the cramp in my jaw which supported my body floating over the lake.

But suddenly the pulley stopped and swung my feathered body forward with terrific force, then backward, jerking my side teeth. I swayed like a huge pendulum above the middle of the lake. The pulley must have caught on the highwire. Scenes of my life flashed before me as I swung a hundred feet above the lake. I should have listened to my mother's warnings about my foolish feats. Should have listened to Mama.

The audience yelled from the shore in a garbled cacophony I couldn't understand.

The momentum slowed, and I dangled, my jaw throbbing, blood pulsing in my ears. I prayed to the Virgin Mary I wouldn't lose my teeth. Would they still pay me if I didn't make it across the lake?

Everyone on shore hooted and whistled as if it was all part of the act. Slanting my eyes toward the opposite shore I tried to see if Goliath and the Gnome were coming to rescue me, but it was too far away to tell. Slowly, but surely, my jaw was losing strength. I clamped down harder and something cracked. My jawbone spasmed and locked into a rigid position, shooting fireballs of terror through my limbs.

A voice, edged in mock-pity and a familiar twang, snaked through my terror. A voice I hadn't heard in ages yet recognized like a childhood lullaby. "Well, Silver, ain't you a sight! Seems those carnival rats outsmarted you after all. Crimped the highwire, just like I thought they would. Now, you'll plummet like an anchor thrown overboard, and won't see a dime for your trouble. Those varmints!"

The sound of her familiar voice jolted me like a lightning strike. Needles seared my skin, and my eyes darted back and forth to see where the voice came from, but deep down I knew where she was, where she'd always been.

My jaw suddenly unhinged; the iron mouthpiece ripped free from my clenched teeth with a sickening scrape of metal on enamel. Grabbing for the highwire, my hands were slick with sweat and slipped off. Plummeting towards the inky lake, a scream clawed its way out of my throat, arms pinwheeling.

"I can't swim!" I yelled across the vast emptiness, unanswered. Mother Mary, full of grace, where was my rosary when I needed it?

The soles of my feet struck the frigid surface with a resounding smack, plunging me into the icy depths. The cold ripped through my body seizing my muscles into agonizing knots. A torrent of red-spotted leeches erupted from the weeds, sinking their razor teeth into my legs. I thrashed and kicked, but for every one I dislodged, two more took its place, their mouths tearing into my flesh.

My flailing limbs felt stiff and useless, clumsy against the unforgiving water. My lungs, screaming for air, took in only bitter liquid, drowning me from within. The black lake itself called for my surrender.

Then, in that suffocating darkness, her voice. "Don't give up, Silver! We're waterbirds, remember? Flapping wings, soaring high!' The shock of her voice jolted me. The whisper was Echo, my secret friend who came to me filling an aching, desperate void when my sister left us. She was a part of me I kept hidden, her name taken from my own: Rosemary Echo Silver Dollar Tabor. Echo hiked mountain trails with me, sang silly songs, wrote scary stories, made me laugh, and kept me warm at night. But when I left home, I left her behind too, knowing there'd be no room for her in the future I craved for myself. Now, with the return of Echo's ethereal breath in my ear, my body felt lighter, my movements more fluid. Echo was a voice of hope in the dying remnant of my will.

But the depths fought back. Long, slimy tendrils of pondweed wrapped around my limbs, dragging me down towards the shadowed depths. The surface, once an arm's reach away, became a mirage receding with each frantic gulp. Despair, icy and heavy, threatened to take me under.
Echo whispered in the suffocating water. "Unravel the weeds like silk ropes."

My fingers obeyed, but my muscles were leaden weights. My lungs burned, begging for air, collapsing my chest with each futile heave. The suffocating shadows of the pondweed leaves closed in, their darkness engulfing my vision. With a final, defeated sigh, I let go, sinking deeper into the velvety embrace of the silent water.

We will drown together, Echo. Me and you, forever.

The world above became a distant murmur, replaced by the chilling silence of the deep. I never even got to kiss that cute script boy, Eric. A bitter, ironic thought in the face of oblivion.

Suddenly, a kick, primal and fierce, jolted me awake. Echo's feet hammered against the leafy prison, propelling us upward with an unexpected surge of power. My hand broke through the surface, a gasp tearing its way through throat. Cool air flooded my lungs, limbs tingling with life, the sun's warmth a golden embrace. Laughter filled my ears, triumphant as church bells on Sunday morning, erasing the chilling silence of the depths.

"Echo," I choked, a word of gratitude.

Then, from the shore, a splash. Eric, boots cast aside, dove headlong into the water, cutting through the waves just as my strength gave way. The depths welcomed me back, cold and silent, as the world above blurred once more.