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Authors: Laura McNeill

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Center of Gravity

ACCLAIM FOR
CENTER OF GRAVITY

“McNeill's debut is a heartstopping, nail-biting suspense novel that held me captive until I read the last page. Evocative writing and a compelling voice add to the mesmerizing effect of this excellent debut. I'll be looking for her next book!”

— Colleen Coble,
USA Today
Bestselling author of The Inn at Ocean's Edge and the Hope Beach novels

“A breathless, gut-wrenching, satisfying page turner about the real superheroes of the world who stand up to evil and won't back down.”

— Erin Healy, author of
Motherless and The Baker's Wife

“A bold and poignant look into an imploding marriage, told in a chorus of assured voices. I found myself so invested in Ava, a woman finally ready to examine the dysfunctional family dynamics that have shaped her and rise to courage. The story took me by the hand, bold and tender, and didn't let me go until it's extremely satisfying conclusion.
Center of Gravity
is a compelling, fierce, and ultimately hopeful tale, and McNeill is a writer to watch.”

— Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of
Someone Else's Love Story

Copyright © 2015 by Laura McNeill

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other—except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Published in Nashville, Tennessee, by Thomas Nelson. Thomas Nelson is a registered trademark of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc.

Thomas Nelson titles may be purchased in bulk for educational, business, fund-raising, or sales promotional use. For information, please e-mail [email protected]

Publisher's Note: This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. All characters are fictional, and any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental.

ISBN 978-0-7180-3091-9 (eBook)

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

McNeill, Laura.

Center of gravity / Laura McNeill.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-7180-3090-2 (paperback)

I. Title.

PS3613.C58623E68 2015

813'.6—dc23

2015003950

15 16 17 18 19 20 RRD 6 5 4 3 2 1

For John David

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE: AVA

CHAPTER 1: JACK

CHAPTER 2: AVA

CHAPTER 3: JACK

CHAPTER 4: AVA

CHAPTER 5: AVA

CHAPTER 6: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 7: JACK

CHAPTER 8: JACK

CHAPTER 9: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 10: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 11: AVA

CHAPTER 12: AVA

CHAPTER 13: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 14: JACK

CHAPTER 15: AVA

CHAPTER 16: JACK

CHAPTER 17: AVA

CHAPTER 18: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 19: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 20: JACK

CHAPTER 21: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 22: LUCY

CHAPTER 23: AVA

CHAPTER 24: LUCY

CHAPTER 25: AVA

CHAPTER 26: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 27: JACK

CHAPTER 28: AVA

CHAPTER 29: JACK

CHAPTER 30: JACK

CHAPTER 31: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 32: JACK

CHAPTER 33: AVA

CHAPTER 34: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 35: JACK

CHAPTER 36: LUCY

CHAPTER 37: AVA

CHAPTER 38: JACK

CHAPTER 39: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 40: JACK

CHAPTER 41: AVA

CHAPTER 42: AVA

CHAPTER 43: JACK

CHAPTER 44: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 45: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 46: JACK

CHAPTER 47: AVA

CHAPTER 48: JACK

CHAPTER 49: JACK

CHAPTER 50: AVA

CHAPTER 51: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 52: JACK

CHAPTER 53: AVA

CHAPTER 54: JACK

CHAPTER 55: JACK

CHAPTER 56: MITCHELL

CHAPTER 57: AVA

CHAPTER 58: JACK

CHAPTER 59: LUCY

CHAPTER 60: AVA

CHAPTER 61: LUCY

CHAPTER 62: JACK

CHAPTER 63: GRAHAM

CHAPTER 64: AVA

CHAPTER 65: JACK

CHAPTER 66: AVA

CHAPTER 67: AVA

CHAPTER 68: AVA

CHAPTER 69: JACK

EPILOGUE: JACK

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PROLOGUE

AVA

When your children are stolen, the pain swallows you whole. Logic fades, reason retreats. Desperation permeates the tiniest crevices of your mind. Nothing soothes the ache in your wounded soul.

Right in front of me, my sweet, charmed life fell to pieces. Everything destroyed—a hailstorm's wrath on a field of wildflowers. All I'd known . . . gone. Foolish me, I'd believed in magic, clung tight to false promises. The lies, spoken from tender lips, haunt me now, follow me, and whisper into my ear like a scorned lover.

What's left is emptiness.

Give up
, a voice urges.
Let go.

No! I argue back. My children aren't gone. Not yet. Precious and delicate, tiny fossils, they exist in glass-boxed isolation. Hidden. Protected.

And so tonight, I run. Blood pulses through my legs, my muscles protest; my lungs scream for more oxygen. Thick storm clouds brew in the distance. The rain falls in blinding sheets. The force of it pricks my skin like needles, but the pain only makes me push harder.

I will rescue them.

Lightning flashes across the wet driveway. I skid to a stop and catch my breath, pressing a hand to my heaving chest.

They're here. My children are here.

Thunder booms and crashes, nearer now, and the wind whips my
hair. A gust tosses tree branches to the ground. Birds cry and flutter to safety. An escaped sand bucket spins, clattering on the blacktop.

I grasp the railing and pull myself up the steps. At the top, the door is shiny-slick with water and humidity. Mother Nature howls and drowns out my knocking.

“Hello! Can you hear me?” With my palm open wide, I slap at the barrier, willing it to open. I will rescue my children. I will rescue them . . . or I will die trying.

CHAPTER 1

JACK

ONE MONTH EARLIER
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 24

Every day, somebody somewhere needs a hero.

Think about it. The mom lifting a two-ton truck to save her son after a car crash. The dad—who can't swim—who jumps in the water anyway to pull out his drowning daughter. The guy who kicks down the door of a burning building because his friend's kid is trapped inside.

All of a sudden, getting hurt doesn't matter. There's no thinking twice. Just a gut-pumping, jump-off-the-cliff, no turning back.

For these regular people, thrown into crazy life-or-death situations, there's that one big moment. Then they go back to work, their jobs, or school.

And it's someone else's turn.

I'm only in the third grade, but I've been waiting for my whole life.

Waiting for my chance—my moment to be a hero.

An ear-piercing shriek yanks me back to the school playground.

My best friend Mo runs up, breathless. “Emma Dunlop's stuck up in the oak tree.” He bends over, chest heaving in the humidity, and puts both hands on his knees. “She's freaking out.”

Shielding my eyes, I grit my teeth. The tree's as big as a monster,
with twisted brown branches that extend like arms, thick emerald leaves at the fingertips. Spanish moss hangs from the lowest limbs, the ends curling like a snake's tail.

Though I can't see her through the tangle of limbs, I picture Emma hanging on tight to the rough bark. Shaking. Really scared. Trying not to look down at the brick-red clay.

I run a hand through my hair.

She's in trouble. And I know why.

Legend says a man's head—a genie—is hidden in the leaves and branches. Weird, rough pieces of wood make up his face. He has knots for eyes. A bump for his chin. It's for real. I've seen it.

All the kids know the story. If you touch the genie's nose, your wish will come true. Of course my dad doesn't believe in stuff like that and says I shouldn't either. He's a PhD and does an important job at the college. So I guess he knows what he's talking about.

But that's not going to save Emma now. I start to jog, then full-out sprint. At the base of the tree, I push through a crowd of my classmates. Third and fourth graders, gaping, heads tilted, mouths open like baby birds. When I reach the trunk, I squint up and find Emma's brand-new saddle shoes dangling high above me. I see pale, thin legs and the crisp edges of her plaid jumper. And despite everyone talking and whispering, I hear Emma crying. It's a whimpering wail, like a hurt animal.

“Y'all go on back inside now. Go back to class,” my teacher says, pushing the group back an inch or two. I end up jostled next to the school librarian, who's holding her hands like she's praying.

Our eyes meet. Mine flicker away.

“Don't even think about it, Jack,” she warns.

But I kick off my shoes anyway and grab hold of the trunk. Deep down in my belly, I make myself act like I'm not scared. I don't like heights or even hanging upside down from monkey bars. But Emma needs me. And no one else is doing a thing.

Ms. Martin gasps, but she knows she's too late. I'm out of her reach before she can react. I think hard about one of my favorite superheroes, Daredevil. He's like an Olympic athlete and a master of martial arts. He's blind but uses his other senses to fight crime, beat up bad guys, and save the girl. If he can do it . . .

When I look back down at the ground, my stomach churns like I've eaten too many Snickers bars and guzzled a two-liter of Coke. I push the feeling away.
Climb, Jack
, I say to myself.
Just climb.
When I start to move my legs again, the first few feet are easy. Soon I'm above everyone's heads.

“They're going to get a ladder,” the librarian calls out. “Come on down here, Jack Carson, right this instant. Lord have mercy!”

At the sound of her screech, Emma wobbles. Her saddle shoes kick and knock some bark from a branch.
I can't come down now. She's slipping.

“They've called the fire department,” my teacher adds. “Truck's on the way.”

I pretend I don't hear her and move closer. My head starts to hurt. My ears are ringing. But I take a deep breath and hold on tight to the tree, concentrating on Emma. She's tiny, a first grader, with brown corkscrew curls and a yellow bow pinned to the side of her head. Her pink cheeks are streaked with dirt.

“Hey, Emma,” I say, making my voice calm. “Whatcha doing up here?”

She flushes pink. “I wanted to make a w-wish. For my birthday.”

A breeze ruffles the leaves, cooling the sweat on my forehead. My hands, gritty with dirt and bark, inch closer. I can almost reach her. “Well, let's make sure you get to your party.”

“But I haven't found the genie.” She begins to cry, which makes her body wobble. The branch moves up and down, and she starts sobbing harder.

“Emma,” I say. “It's okay. I'll help you.”

She snuffles and blinks a few times. “I'm scared.”

“I know. Me too,” I tell her. “But I won't let you fall. Give me your hand.”

Her palm is slippery wet. I grip it and try to smile so that she's not so nervous. “Slide your foot toward me. Then the other one.”

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