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You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive
There were only two good reasons a person that managed to escape Harlan County, Kentucky, ever returned.
Weddings and funerals.
Up until forty-five seconds ago, she would have attested to that fact with her last dying breath.
But one breath is apparently all it takes for the world as you know it to change. A heartbeat…a millisecond…and everything a body would have sworn it knew could be irrevocably altered.
There was one reason that she'd never considered before now that could send her running back to Harlan.
And that very reason had a name.
Swallowing hard as a surge of panic threatened to envelope her, she fought for control. There had to be a logical explanation, didn't there? Licking her dry lips as she attempted to rein in the galloping thoughts threatening to overtake her mind, she couldn't think what it might have been, however.
Closing her eyes, she silently cursed herself. She should have dragged Callie out of that damned holler a year ago when Callie had graduated high school…should have insisted the now-eighteen year old come and stay with her in DC.
But at the tender age eighteen, Cal had been of the age of legal consent and she'd had no legitimate right to uproot the younger girl from the only home she'd ever known. Callie was obstinate, to say the least…so certain she had all the answers to life's important questions, the bravado that only an eighteen year old can possess. And while kids tended to grow up fast in Harlan, the girl she remembered had maintained a certain innocence that had made her the envy of many of the small town boys.
"I'll have the pick of the litter, JJ," she could remember her sister saying with confidence after the graduation party. "I'll be married before summer's up."
And while marriage hadn't been JJ's idea of the perfect ideal, she had respected that it was her half sister's. Callie had been born and bred in Harlan, Kentucky, raised in the shadows of the mountains that had cast an almost unbreakable spell over one and all. It was all she knew. And down there, the world went at a different pace. Unlike JJ, Callie hadn't wanted to escape. She'd wanted to stay, and JJ had allowed it.
For her part, though, JJ hadn't been able to leave fast enough. After her father had died in Pennsylvania, she'd been sent to live with her mother at the ripe age of thirteen. After Pennsylvania, Harlan had seemed almost like a foreign country…different culture, different language, different people. And it had never become home in spite of her mother's best efforts.
JJ'd kept to herself that first summer. Eight years Callie's senior, she'd filled her time with babysitting the young five year old girl while her mother had worked as a hairdresser during the week and worked a part-time job at the local Save-a-Lot as a cashier on weekends. Her stepfather had done hard labor in the Eastern Kentucky coal mines, earning a meager living for a family of four. To Cole Matthews' credit, he'd been a good man, offering JJ as much encouragement as he had his own daughter until he'd died in a mining blast when JJ turned sixteen.
From then on, things became almost unbearable for JJ's mom. Depression and drink turned the already tired woman into a shadow of her former self. Never a happy woman, Anne Jareau Matthews faded quickly. It wasn't a surprise to much of anybody when she drank herself to death a couple of years later.
And then, JJ had been eighteen and free to get the hell out of Appalachia. After Cole's brother offered to take in Callie, she hadn't wasted any time making tracks. Ironically, Callie had been the same age as JJ when she'd moved to Harlan when Dev and Sarah Matthews had taken them into her home.
Evidently, thirteen wasn't a lucky number for either of them.
Until the day Callie had turned eighteen, JJ had religiously called Callie once a week, often sending money and care packages when she could. By all accounts, Dev and Sara had been good caretakers. Callie had voiced little complaint about them over the years, so it had surprised JJ when on Callie's eighteenth birthdays, she'd immediately moved out of the small four bedroom house on the outskirts of town.
But move, she had, renting a small apartment over one of the local bars in town. She'd never given JJ a good reason for the transition, instead, simply stating that she was a grown woman and wanted to be independent. She'd gotten a job as a waitress at one of the local restaurants and was paying her own bills. She'd assured JJ there was nothing to worry about.
Except, apparently, there was.
Otherwise, Callie Matthews wouldn't be missing.
Since Callie'd moved out of Dev Matthews home, JJ's conversations with her half sister had been hit and miss at best. Between the BAU's caseload and Callie's erratic hours, it had been well over a month since they'd spoken.
Blinking back tears, JJ kicked herself for not having tried harder. How many times had she heard her stepfather tell them that family always took care of family? Somewhere along the way, she'd seriously fallen down on that job.
Sara Matthews' worried voice still echoed in her ears. It had been a week since anybody at all had heard from Callie. According to Sara, in the last few months, the younger woman had drifted further and further away from them. And JJ knew without being told that Aunt Sara was more than a little concerned that Callie had gotten mixed up in the drug business currently blanketing Harlan like a plague. People from that neck of the woods had very little left in the way of hope and often lost themselves in the temporary bliss a high could afford them.
She needed to go back to Harlan. There wasn't any choice. Callie was all she had left in the way of blood relatives. She owed it to her mother to make sure the girl was safe. More importantly, she owed it to Callie.
The question was where to start looking when she arrived. She'd always been considered a bit of an outsider to the residents of the area. Harlan had been her mother's home…not hers.
But she wasn't without a few friends.
She only hoped that they'd be willing to help her now.