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Chapter One ~ Girl By Any Other Name ~ MK Schiller

I fell in love with her. Then she died. But that’s not the end of our story.

I met Sylvie Cranston when I was ten years old. Back then, she was the annoying, weird girl who had moved next door and got me in trouble. But by twelve, we became friends when I taught her how to bait a fishing line and she showed me the value of a selfless act. At fourteen, she owned my heart.

At seventeen, she died.

Or so I was told. But I don’t believe it. Sylvie is part of my soul. I would know if she was no more. I searched and prayed for her to come back to me. Finally, I just waited for her.

Ten years later, she strolled into the English lit course I taught. Only this girl claimed her name was Sophie Becker and she had no idea who I was. But I’m not giving up. I’m going to get the girl I love back and protect her from the danger that took her away all those years ago.

Chapter 1 

Excerpt from Raven Girl

Age 10

It was gonna be a bad day. I just knew it.

My mother’s hurried voice echoed down the hall to my room. “Caleb, I need you to carry the casserole.”

Momma didn’t understand the term “lazy Sunday.” Meeting the new neighbors, let alone bringing them a casserole, didn’t make the cut on my list of priorities. Sundays were meant for fishing. Oh, and church. That too, I supposed.

“Why can’t Mandy carry it?” I said. My little sister and Momma were a package deal. Wherever Amelia Tanner went, Amanda Tanner followed.

“The pan is way too heavy for her, and I’m not risking it. I worked too darn hard on this dish. Now get your butt in gear.”

I shuffled out of my room into the foyer where the two females in my life waited for me. Pointing to my Sunday suit, I asked, “Can I at least change first?”

My mother sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “They’re going to see you looking like a bum every day this summer. At least make a decent first impression. I hear they’re from up north, and we want them to think of you as a perfect Southern gentleman, not the wild ruffian you are.”

But you always say I should be myself, I wanted to reply, but kept that thought safely locked up in my head. You didn’t argue with Amelia Tanner.

Momma yanked at my blue pinstripe tie with one hand while holding the casserole dish in the other. “Why can’t your tie ever stay put?” Somehow, she managed to wrestle it back in place. “Son, always remember, there is no hospitality like the Southern kind, so let’s go show these folks how lucky they are to be living in Prairie.”

I struggled not to roll my eyes.

She smiled at me, ruffling my hair. “They might have a boy your age.”

“Geez, Momma, you act like I’m five. I’m not a little boy and I don’t need a playmate.”

“You sure are throwing a temper tantrum like a little boy,” Amanda chimed in, who actually was five.

Before I could deliver the perfect comeback, Momma cleared her throat. “You will always be my little boy. Now, shake a leg.”

I led the procession of Tanners, carrying the cheesy casserole dish that had to weigh a metric ton. We marched down the steps of our brick ranch and walked all the way down to the sidewalk. We crossed over all ten slabs of perfectly laid cement to the driveway of another almost identical brick ranch. Cutting across the lawn was a shorter route, but Momma would have a few choice words for me if I trespassed the patch of grass between the houses. It was not proper. It was not neighborly. And we had manners. This philosophy still applied even though the other house had been vacant so long, the landscape was more weedy thistle than a real lawn. Still, Dad mowed the wild growth down at least once a week when he tended to our yard. “Can’t let the neighborhood go downhill,” he’d say. With his promotion to sheriff he would be working longer hours, and the chore would soon be mine. At least I’d only have to mow our lawn.

Momma knocked on the door. Several men unloaded a moving van in the driveway. The whole thing seemed a little weird. No one ever moved to Prairie. We were an island off the coast of Texas, but not a touristy one like Galveston or Padre. Prairie functioned more like a small town, which felt even smaller since we were so isolated.

A tall dark-haired man in black trousers and a white dress shirt answered the door. People around here either wore Sunday clothes or regular clothes. This man dressed in semi-Sunday clothes. If you were doing heavy lifting, you wore jeans. I doubted he would ever fit in.

“Well, hello, we’re the Tanners, your neighbors next door. I’m Amelia.” She placed her hand on my shoulder. “This is my son, Caleb, but you can call him Cal. And this little princess is Amanda, but she goes by Mandy.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Harry Cranston.” He shook my mother’s hand and smiled widely at Amanda. I one-armed the casserole dish to shake his hand, happy he didn’t ignore me like most adults. “Strong grip, son.” He gestured inside the house. “Please come in.”

We walked into the three-bedroom replica of our house, formerly the Miller’s place. When Mrs. Miller died last year, her son sold it, but that had been months ago. We’d begun to think the new owners had changed their mind until my mother spotted the moving van this morning. The old house looked young again. The oak floors were so shiny they looked wet, and the furniture still had the store tags on. The whole place smelled of fresh paint and lemon juice. That would please my mother. She liked a clean house.

Harry Cranston went on about the weather or something. I heard the unmistakable cadence of an East Coast accent on television and in the movies, but not in real life. His voice was sharp and clipped, almost gruff. I held up the casserole and, thankfully, Mr. Cranston took it from me before I dropped it. I had no idea how my mother made that pan feel heavier than my dad’s dumbbells. Dad always said the heavier the casserole, the better it tasted. If that was true, then Momma made the best casserole in the county.

“I hope you like this,” my mother said, pointing to the pan. “It’s a family recipe.”

“It smells divine.”

Did he just say divine?

Momma beamed at his compliment. “My husband, John, would be here, too, but he’s on duty today. He’s the sheriff.”

“I’ve heard. I’ll feel very safe living next to the sheriff.”

“We don’t want to intrude. Y’all must be busy today.”

“It’s no interruption. The workers are still bringing in boxes.” Mr. Cranston went to the kitchen and set the pan down on the blue Formica countertop. “Thank you for this. It’s been so long since we’ve had anything homemade.”

“Oh, your wife doesn’t cook?”

Mandy started snooping, picking up random items and turning them over in her chubby hands.

“Quit it,” I warned.

I grabbed her arm before she could touch one of the walls and smudge grimy fingerprints all over the fresh paint. The “princess” had a problem keeping her hands to herself. I stood guard over her, hoping Momma wouldn’t ask for a complete breakdown of the man’s dietary history.

“My wife passed away six months ago. It’s just Sylvie and me.”

“I’m so sorry,” Momma said. “We’re here if you need anything.” I knew what that meant. I’d be bringing a casserole to this man every week.

“It’s been difficult on my daughter, but we’re adjusting,” he said.

“I can’t imagine. A girl needs her mother,” Momma said.

“May I offer you some coffee?” Mr. Cranston asked, gesturing to the round oak table by the kitchen.

“Maybe one cup if you’re sure.” My mother took a seat at the table.

I shifted uncomfortably, wondering if I could ask to leave.

Unfortunately, Amelia Tanner had other plans for me. “How old is Sylvie?”

“She’s ten.”

Momma clapped her hands together, forming a huge grin. “Cal’s ten. How wonderful. They’ll be in the same grade.”

Mr. Cranston smiled, but it looked more like a grimace, as if the muscles in his face didn’t work right. “Yes, that is good news. She has trouble making friends.”

The last thing I wanted was to hang around some girl. If she couldn’t make friends, there had to be a reason. Even at ten, I knew that much. Sylvie Cranston was going to be as irritating as a pound of blood-hungry mosquitoes trapped inside a camping tent.

Momma adjusted a loose red curl from the heavy bun on the nape of her neck. My father said she looked like Reba McEntire, and my mother always disagreed, but she still wore her hair the same way Reba did in The Gambler. “Where is your daughter?”

Mr. Cranston searched the room. He scratched his head like my father did when he lost something. Did he not realize his daughter wasn’t here? “I’m not sure. She has a way of disappearing. She’s probably in the backyard.”

“Cal, why don’t you take your sister and go introduce yourself to Sylvie.”

It wasn’t a question. I opened my mouth to argue, but caught myself when my mother turned her sharp green eyes on me. Momma always received compliments on her eyes, the same eyes Mandy had, but I always thought they looked mean, especially now. I had my father’s gray eyes and sandy-blond hair. Momma referred to it as “shampoo commercial” hair, but I didn’t care for the expression.

“Yes, ma’am.” I tightened my grip on Mandy’s hand as we walked through the house to the back door. Expensive items shattered around her. It would end up being my fault, too. For some reason, I was assigned the role of my sister’s keeper.

The former Miller, now Cranston, backyard resembled ours except for the noticeable shift between the lush green of our yard and the canary-yellow color of theirs.

It didn’t take long to spot Sylvie Cranston. She walked along the back of the property where wild daisies blended into the back field that led to the woods. If you followed the path into the woods a short distance, it would lead to a long, windy patch of beach surrounded by the best water this side of the Gulf of Mexico. On the beach, there was a narrow dock my father built. Off that dock was the best fishing spot in the entire world…or at least, my world. I wanted to be there so bad. But instead, here I was, forced to hang out with the new neighbor.

The girl was so skinny a strong gust of wind could knock her over. She was tall, though, taller than me, with long brown hair that curled in a hundred different directions as if the strands couldn’t figure out where to go. The loose red bow in her hair dangled dangerously with every step she took, as if it might fall any minute. She wore a blue flowery dress that stopped short of her calves, an outfit my grandma wouldn’t wear. The dress ate her up so all you could see was her head, hands, and the pink and black striped converse on her feet.


That was the word to describe Sylvie Cranston. I wanted nothing to do with her. My gut told me she was going to be trouble with a capital T. I wondered if the Cranston’s belonged to one of those nutty religions that made girls wear dresses all the time. Just what I needed——next-door neighbors who belonged to some freaky cult.

I thought the girl didn’t hear us because she didn’t look up. It didn’t stop Mandy, though. She bounded down the steps and ran straight up to the girl.

“Hi, I’m Mandy, and this here’s my brother, Caleb, but you can call him Cal. You’re in the same grade. We live next door. I like Barbies. My favorite color is pink just like your shoes. If my momma says it’s okay, you can babysit me when you get older. My daddy’s the sheriff.” Mandy’s face reddened until it matched her hair color, as it always did when she babbled without taking a breath.

Sylvie smiled and bent down so they were eye level. It was then she took off the ear buds, and the music floated in the air between us. I couldn’t place the song. The few lyrics I heard would stick with me until dinner when I would slap my forehead and holler out, “’Crazy Love,’ by Van Morrison.” My father sang it to my mother on occasion. Not the type of song you hear on a Sunday in Prairie.

Sylvie didn’t say anything to Mandy. She sat on the ground. Mandy went on and on…and on like a toy with an endless battery supply. She talked up the merits of Prairie like it was an urban metropolis of sophistication. She extolled our many attractions such as the beach parties, annual volleyball contest, the Fourth of July fireworks, and the fact we were due to get a Walmart next year. For her part, Sylvie listened and nodded after crossing her legs, tenting her hands and resting her chin on them, like she was actually interested. I wondered if she could speak.

Mandy ran off toward the field after a few minutes. “Mandy, don’t go into the woods,” I yelled.

“I’m picking Sylvie some roses,” she declared, shooting me a warning glance as if I’d shoot down the idea.

“Stay where I can see you. By the way, those are not roses, dummy.”

She ignored me, prancing through the fields of wild daisies that grew at the edge of both our properties. Mandy was under the impression all flowers were roses.

Our new neighbor turned in my direction, glaring at me with the darkest brown eyes I’d ever seen. Her expression, acid and vinegar, punched me in the gut.

“A rose by any other name still smells as sweet,” she said, waving her finger at me. “That’s Shakespeare, for your information.”

“I know,” I spat out. No, I didn’t. I had no clue about Shakespeare, but this girl would not out-smart me. No, sir. I sat on the back steps, counting down the minutes until I could leave.

Mandy hummed to herself as she picked the stupid daisies.

Sylvie sat next to me. “Why are you so mean to her?”

I tried not to grimace. “I’m not, and it’s none of your business.”

Mandy came bounding up to us. “Look,” she exclaimed, dropping a dozen or so daisies in Sylvie’s lap.

“Do you want me to twine some in your hair?” Sylvie sniffed a flower even though they had no scent.

Mandy squealed in her high-pitched girl voice that gave me a headache. She sat on Sylvie’s lap. While Sylvie threaded the daisy heads through Mandy’s hair, I was bored. This was boring. But I still watched, surprised how my sister responded to this stranger. Mandy was an outgoing kid, but her instant like for this odd girl seemed out of character.

It was interesting how girls could twist and knot things together with their hands. How did she loop all those flowers together? I suppose it would be one of the many things I didn’t get about girls. Like why Momma had two sets of towels in the bathroom. One set for drying your hands and the other just for looking at. God help you if you used the “looking” towels to dry your hands.

“Can I do you?” Mandy asked, pulling Sylvie’s long hair toward her and revealing two clear deep indentations, almost purpling her tan skin.

Sylvie pulled Mandy’s chubby little hand away and readjusted her hair back in place. Mandy’s eyes went wide. Not over the mark. I doubt my sister had seen it, and if she had, she wouldn’t understand. Hell, I didn’t understand. Not for sure anyway. No, my sister was upset because she thought Sylvie was mad at her.

Sylvie must have sensed it, too, because she patted Mandy’s hand. “I’m sorry. I’m picky about my hair. It’s not as beautiful as yours.”

Mandy picked up a strand of Sylvie’s thick hair. “I think it’s pretty, like Barbie’s hair but brown and curly.”

So, nothing like Barbie’s hair.

“Can you get some more of these?” Sylvie pointed to the few daisy heads left on her lap. “The bigger ones? I’ll make you a crown out of them.”

Mandy bobbed her head so hard I thought it might fall off. Promise the princess a crown, and she forgot everything else. She darted back toward the field, looking determined in her new mission.

“Is that ringworm or a bite mark?” I asked.

“None of your business.”

“If it’s ringworm, it’s everyone’s business.” I shifted away from her. “No one wants to catch that.”

She plucked a few petals from one of the flowers. She threw them into the air where they floated in the warm breeze. “It’s not ringworm.” Her voice came out quiet and shaky. I almost didn’t hear her.

“Who bit you?”

“A vampire. I’ll probably change into one now.” She narrowed her eyes. “I promise not to turn you if you won’t tell.”

I almost laughed at her lame attempt to intimidate me, but I was too focused on what she’d said. I was no snitch, but the fact she’d told me not to tell made me want to tell even more.

She added in a hushed, sad whisper, “It won’t happen again.”

“Is that what y’all do for fun up north? Bite each other?”

She laughed, except it didn’t sound quite right. Kids our age laughed because something was funny. There was nothing carefree or happy about her laugh. It was the first time I recognized what people referred to as a “cynical laugh.”

“Yeah, it’s what we do. So, you should stay away from me if you don’t want to become a vampire.”

“You don’t scare me. I got a twelve-gauge that’ll blow the fangs off anything.”

“Bullets don’t stop vampires.”

“I beg to differ,” I said, using one of my dad’s catchphrases. Sylvie sounded very adult, and I wanted to match her.

“Do you really have a gun?”

I shrugged, considering the ramifications of another lie, but decided against it. “Yeah, but I’m not allowed to use it yet. My daddy says I have to be older.”

“Yeah, you might blow your big toe off on accident.”

“Ha, not in this life.”

“Will you keep my secret?”

My dad told me about this kind of stuff. He said if any of my friends said things that didn’t seem right, I needed to tell him. But Sylvie Cranston was not my friend. Besides, she’d said it wouldn’t happen again.

She shook her head, appearing disappointed by my silence. “I knew you were a tattletale.”

“I’m not a snitch.”

“Then promise. You have to swear on it.” She held out her pinky to me.

I didn’t take it. “Who did it? Was it your daddy?” There was no way I would swear to this secret if it was her daddy.

“No. Not him. Now swear.”

I waited for her to tell me more. But she didn’t provide any explanation. She stared at me with her stupid pinky between us.

“I swear I won’t tell about this bite mark.” I hooked my pinky finger around hers, figuring if I ever saw another bite mark, I could go back on my word since I was so specific in the promise. Yeah, real smart on my part.

She exhaled a long breath. “Thank you.”

I nodded, not sure if I was doing the right thing by keeping her secret, but I didn’t think too much of it because Mandy returned, flinging a dozen more daisies in Sylvie’s lap.

Sylvie picked several of them up, removed the leaves, and began weaving them together in tiny knots, forming a perfect chain. It must have impressed my sister because she watched in awed silence, which was rare. I wondered if Sylvie could tie other knots, like the grinner knot, that might just hook me a big bass.

“Will you teach me how to fish?” Sylvie asked. Most girls wanted nothing to do with grubby worms or bloody fish. Even if she could tie the best grinner knot in the world, I wanted nothing to do with her.

“How do you know I fish?” I tried to sound like the detective my dad was.

“Cal, you dummy, I just told her. Weren’t you paying attention?” Mandy said.

I usually tuned out my little sister after the first two sentences.

“You wouldn’t like fishing. You’re a girl,” I said as if Sylvie didn’t realize.

She pressed her lips together and stared me down. I tried hard not to laugh. She was tall, but as thin as a stick. She tried so hard to act tough. “Don’t tell me what I like. I want to learn how to fish, but if you can’t teach me, then I’ll find someone who will.”

“Not someone as good as me. Trust me I’m the best.”

“I don’t trust anyone. If you’re so good, prove it.”

“I don’t fish with girls.”

“Then pretend I’m a boy.”

I never met a girl who didn’t want to be treated like a girl. What planet had Sylvie Cranston come from? Would her species come back for her?

“I ain’t going fishing with you or any other girl…ever.”

“I thought you’d talk different. You don’t sound Southern except for some words. By the way, it’s ‘I’m not’, not ‘ain’t.’ ‘Ain’t’ is not a word.”

“Are you making fun of my accent? You can get your butt kicked around here for that.”

She laughed. “Oh, yeah, and who will do the kicking?”

“Cal, I’m gonna tell Momma you said ‘butt,’” Mandy chimed in. I almost had forgotten about her.

“Tell her he said ‘ass,’ then he’ll really get in trouble,” Sylvie said, placing the crown of daisies on Mandy’s hair.

“I will,” Mandy said, an evil gleam in her eyes.

“Don’t swear in front of my sister and do not tell her to fib.”

“Fib?’ You mean ‘lie.’ Do you have a colloquialism for everything, Cal?”

I had no idea what the word meant, let alone if I could pronounce it, but I did know she was insulting me. I narrowed my eyes and gave her my threatening look, the one I reserved for the older boys when they tried to take over our baseball diamond. Squaring my shoulders, I stared her straight down. She smirked at me, fluttering those long lashes over her earth-colored eyes. It pissed me off even more.

“You think I’m a dumb hick? You’re no better than us. Y’all are livin’ here, too, so you best lower that nose of yours a few inches. It’s going to be hard enough for you to fit in and make friends.”

She turned her attention back to the crown, adjusting it until it sat straight on Mandy’s big head. “I’m not going to make friends.”

I had no idea what to say. Who the hell didn’t want to make friends?

“Good. You won’t, especially not with me.”

“Why would I want to be friends with a wuss like you?”

“What did you call me?” My blood boiled as it coursed through my veins.

“It’s not a swear word. I don’t want to offend y’all’s virtuous ears,” she replied sarcastically, putting on a fake country accent of her own.

“You think I can’t swear?”

“Prove me wrong.”

“Bitch, fuck, shit, ass, piss—”

“Caleb James Tanner, what on God’s green earth are you saying?” Momma’s stern voice halted my flow of expletives as if she’d electrocuted me. My behind involuntarily twitched from the sting of the beating it was sure to receive. “I’m so sorry, Harry. I have no idea what’s gotten into him.”

“Don’t worry about it. He’s a boy,” Mr. Cranston said.

“I can’t believe you swore, and in front of your sister.” My mother clasped her hand on her mouth as she stared at Sylvie. “Oh, Sylvie, dear, please forgive my son. I promise we’ve raised him with manners.”

Sylvie turned around and smiled sweetly at my mother. “I’ve never heard any of those words.”

“Apologize this instant, Cal,” my mother demanded.

I swallowed, wishing Sylvie Cranston had kept her annoying self up north instead of setting roots in my town. “I’m sorry.”


’Kay? Sounded like Sylvie had a problem pronouncing, too, but I knew better than to say anything with Momma throwing invisible daggers in my direction.

“I know you didn’t mean to do it,” Sylvie said, smiling at the grown-ups while patting me on the shoulder.

“When his daddy gets home, he’ll know the meaning of sorry.”

Yes, yes, I would. This was the South. In other places, like where Sylvie came from, the solution to a mouthy kid might be a talk about feelings and emotions. Here we had more direct methods. My punishment would involve Tabasco sauce on the tongue, a switch on the ass, followed by a stern sermon where my “feelings” never came into the conversation.

That night I slept on my stomach because my butt throbbed too much from the welt marks in the shape of my father’s leather belt. I grumbled every swear word I knew at my new next-door neighbor. At least in my head I did.


I planned to stay as far away from Sylvie Cranston as possible. It would prove difficult, though, since part of my punishment was to mow the Cranston’s yard for the rest of the summer along with ours.

Trying to forget about my weird neighbor and ruined summer, I focused on fishing and camping with my friends while I tried to fall asleep. It almost worked too, except, I could still taste tabasco on my tongue, even though I’d swallowed enough water to fill the Grand Canyon. Momma’s perfect remedy to cure potty-mouth was hot sauce on the tongue.

I hated her.

My spine went ramrod straight at the sound of rustling leaves under my window.

“Who’s that?”

A whispering, singsong voice floated around the mild Texas air. “Should’ve taken me fishing, asshole.”

“When hell freezes over,” I whispered and threw my head back into the pillow. I was pissed at her, seething mad. But for some reason, I started laughing.

It was a cynical laugh.

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About MK Schiller 

Stories about love and other four-letter words

Not knowing a word of English, MK Schiller came to America at the age of four from India. Since then, all she’s done is collect words. After receiving the best gift ever from her parents—her very own library card—she began reading everything she could get her greedy hands on. At sixteen, a
friend asked her to make up a story featuring the popular bad boy at school. This wasn’t fan fiction…it was friend fiction. From that day on, she’s known she wanted to be a writer. With the goal of making her readers both laugh and cry, MK Schiller has penned more than a dozen books, each one filled with misfit characters overcoming obstacles and finding true love. Want more news on MK’s exclusive giveaways, sales, and new releases?

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