Pray for the Girl

Pray for the Girl

by Joseph Souza

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Joseph Souza, acclaimed author of The Neighbor, brings readers into the dark heart of a small town in this riveting, relentlessly twisting new novel . . .
Lucy Abbott never pictured herself coming back to Fawn Grove, Maine. Yet after serving time in Afghanistan, then years spent as a sous chef in New York, she’s realized her only hope of moving on from the past involves facing it again. But Fawn Grove, like Lucy herself, has changed.
Lucy’s sister, Wendy, is eager to help her adapt, almost stifling her with concern. At the local diner, Lucy is an exotic curiosity—much like the refugees who’ve arrived in recent years. When a fifteen-year-old Muslim girl is found murdered along the banks of the river, difficult memories of Lucy’s time overseas come flooding back and she feels an automatic connection. At first glance, the tragedy looks like an honor killing. But the more Lucy learns about her old hometown, the less certain that seems.
There is menace and hostility here, clothed in neighborly smiles and a veneer of comfort. And when another teen is found dead in a cornfield, his throat slit, Lucy—who knows something about hiding secrets—must confront a truth more brutal than she could have imagined, in the last place she expected it . . .
“Delivers one devilish twist after another, pulling you into the story and never letting go. A tightly paced suspense drawn with compellingly real characters, Souza’s newest domestic thriller is a genre-defining tour-de-force.”
Steve Konkoly

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496725530
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 02/25/2020
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 1,130,456
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Before launching his writing career, Joseph Souza worked as an intelligence analyst for the Drug Enforcement Agency (Organized Crime Unit) in Washington, D.C. His award‑winning short fiction and essays have been published in literary journals throughout the country. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and two children.

Read an Excerpt


THE GIRL'S BODY WAS FOUND AFTER A DAYLONG SEARCH, HER FRAIL corpse discovered not far from the banks of the Alamoosa River. She was nestled between two unmovable boulders rising up out of the ground. I heard my sister say that a kayaker paddling down the river saw what looked to be a body protruding from the ground and called the police. The girl, later identified as a refugee from Afghanistan, was fifteen at the time of her death. Rumor had it that she'd been buried up to her chest and then stoned. Wendy said that the trauma to her face was so devastating that she was almost unrecognizable to her family and friends.

The news of the girl's death startled me when I first heard it. Things like this didn't happen in Fawn Grove. Or at least they didn't happen when I grew up here. Then again, I left this place fifteen years ago — and I've seen a lot of bad since.

I'd roused myself from a long bout of self-imposed hibernation when I heard the news. My sister and her husband were discussing it at the dining table over lunch, although it could have been breakfast for all I knew. I was standing upstairs and holding on to the railing for support, unsteady and fighting off a stubborn case of vertigo. Time had lost all meaning to me. It seemed not to exist in the sorry state I had gotten myself into.

To say that I was in a bad frame of mind during this conversation was an understatement. My current woes included PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and they were all acting in unison to cloud my thinking. I hadn't experienced such helplessness in a long time. As much as I tried to disassociate myself from the conversation my sister was having with her husband, I ended up hearing every last word of it.

I stumbled back to my room, numb, narcoleptic, not wanting to hear any more of this. Depressing news seemed to be all I ever heard while living in New York City. Murders, rapes, greedy Wall Street types ripping off investors, stabbings, shootings, terrorist attacks, to name just a few of the heinous crimes that occurred there. The sound of police sirens became like elevator music to my ears. But now that I was back home in Fawn Grove, I just didn't care. Hope seemed like some long-lost campaign slogan from a bygone era. I'd lost track of my med schedule and started taking whatever pills lay in front of me that day. Sometimes the shape or size appealed to me. Other times a certain color reflected my ever-changing mood.

Whatever I took, it wasn't helping the situation.

On the bureau sat a vial and next to it a syringe wrapped in plastic. I was supposed to administer a shot to myself every day. I ripped the syringe package open with my teeth and gazed at the troubled woman staring back at me in the mirror. The eyes were accusator y and judgmental. In another time I would have run from this red-haired witch, but instead I drew the liquid into the syringe and stared back at her with an adversarial snarl.

It infuriated me that my mirror image couldn't or wouldn't share in the emotional pain I was feeling. But the shell she wore that day was certainly beautiful. Or had been beautiful at one time. Maybe she still had the capacity to be beautiful under the right conditions. I pulled out the bottom drawer, rested my toes on the wooden lip, lifted the robe up to my waist, and plunged the needle into my scarred thigh. The quick burst of pain never failed to thrill me, and I shivered with excitement as the juice wormed its way into my system. It was the one time each day that I felt alive, and it made me envious of the addict's ritual.

But back to the girl's murder. I'd allowed a girl to die while serving as a combat medic in Afghanistan, and I vowed never to let that happen again. Not on my watch, anyway. It still weighs on my conscience. It's part of the reason I left New York City and returned to Fawn Grove. The pain of that memory lingers long after I left the battlefield. Healing both body and mind takes time as well as effort. I thought if I could only confront my past and let it go, everything would be better. But I found that I couldn't. It was too painful. There's a toxic hostility seeping through me that I can't quite cast out.

Something has to give.

Here's the deal. That Afghani girl is a part of me now. Forgetting her death, as well as the voices that continue to cry out in my head, would destroy me far sooner than coming to grips with their existence, especially now that a girl has been killed in my hometown. I feel compelled to act, or it'll eat away at me until whoever committed this crime is caught.

They say everything happens for a reason. This must be the reason I wigged out one night in my bug-sized efficiency and returned to Fawn Grove: the veritable armpit of Maine. I feel I was brought back here for a reason.

To find out who killed this girl.


WHEN I LEFT NEW YORK CITY, I LEFT WITH A SUITCASE FILLED WITH my best clothes (admittedly, not many), some personal stuff, a canvas roll of professional knives, and my ego in splinters. Heather was not exactly a happy camper when I gave my notice, which took effect immediately after saying "I quit." She was eight months pregnant at the time but looked ten, and most of her line cooks were junkies, alkies, or whack jobs. I felt bad about leaving like that. But shit happens in this business. I tried not to stare down at her pumpkin belly as I said the dreaded phrase. I tried not to dwell on the fact that her body would soon burst with life, something mine would never do. She was already short-staffed on the line, and the restaurant was packed to the gills night after night.

Heather was a victim of her own success. If I could have stayed and helped her until she found a replacement, I would have. But in the fragile state I'd descended into, I knew I wouldn't last another minute in that place. Dropping the ball in that fashion was a terrible thing to do, and considered one of the worst offenses in our profession. But what choice did I have? When the inner demons awaken from their deep slumber, there's not much one can do but let fate run its course.

So I returned home to Fawn Grove, a town best known for two things: its paper mill and the plane crash that occurred there in 1975, which took the life of hard-partying rock star Angus Gibbons and all his band members. They were on their way to Bangor for a concert when the Convair they were flying in ran out of fuel. Sensing a financial opportunity, the town quickly erected a memorial at the sight of the crash, and just like that, a small cottage industry was created, celebrating the life of a guitar god taken too soon.

Returning to Fawn Grove was never in the cards for me. Then again, not much in my life has gone as planned. It's been a little over fifteen years since I've been back here, and every day that went by I missed this town a little bit less, until one day I forgot it ever existed.

* * *

I stare at myself in the bureau mirror, under the soft light of a faux Tiffany lamp my sister has a fondness for collecting. The skin over my face appears remarkably smooth, considering all that I've been through. I lift the brush and dust a light smattering of rouge over my cheekbones. Putting on makeup is something I've become quite adept at. I pencil in black eyeliner, apply a swathe of lavender across my lids, and then draw a thin sheen of glossy pink over my lips. A quick pucker and I'm ready to go.

But go where?

It's three-twenty in the morning when I look up. The old Victorian is deathly quiet at this hour. I swear it groans under the considerable weight of my family's history. I move gingerly through the room, the floorboards warped and weathered with wear. Being nocturnal has its advantages. It also has its downside, and considering that I've barely left my room in the last few weeks, I'd say everything's evenly matched.

I'm all skin and bones. Lying in bed for over a week tends to do that to a girl. Still, most women would kill to have my svelte figure and razor-sharp features. I know this because many women have come up to me on the street and said as much. I'm not trying to brag by saying this. In fact I've never had much in my life to boast about. But women definitely yearn for the smooth skin along my cheeks; my long, thin legs; and my perfectly shaped nails. If they only knew what I had to do each day to look this beautiful, maybe they wouldn't feel so envious. If they only knew about the capricious panic attacks that strike out of nowhere. The constant anxiety I experience over my weight. Or the fact that I eat like a hummingbird on an Atkins diet, despite being an accomplished sous-chef in New York City. But worst of all is the insomnia.

The main reason I can't sleep is because of the voices. They fill my head when I least expect it, beseeching me for help. They cry out for me to do something. Anything. They plead for me to save them from the terrible fate that awaits them. But I don't know how to help them. I'm forced to listen to their high-pitched pleas with a hopelessness bordering on resignation. I hear chains scraping and pulling from their mooring. I hear men's stern voices. And screams. It's one of the reasons I became a chef, so I could avoid them by working late into the night. Then stay up until dawn when the light rectifies the anxiety and puts the voices to bed. I'm a vampire infected by my own past.

But today I'm up and about, casually outfitted in a sleeveless white sundress imprinted with a pretty floral pattern. It's the first day since I've arrived that I feel good enough to leave the house. It's time I do something productive. Like find out more about that dead girl.

I unfurl the canvas bag and run my hand across the collection of knives I've amassed throughout the years. After caressing the black walnut handles, I slide a finger over a razor-sharp blade until a papery layer of skin splits apart like a white rose in bloom.

I traipse down the stairs, trying not to make the floorboards groan. Holding the polished rail for support, my eyes struggle to adjust to the dark. I see photographs of my family on the wall as I descend. Near the bottom, there's a portrait of Jaxon taken in his high school days. In it he looks serious and reflective, which is completely different from the Jaxon I remember. The sight of him hiding behind that long mane makes me want to cry. Despite all the years that have passed, and my conflicted feelings about him, I still miss that boy.

I make my way into the kitchen and see the keys to the '94 pickup hanging by the light switch. Before grabbing them off the hook, I slip into my sweater, checking to make sure my sunglasses are still in my pocket. Then I make my way into the darkness.

Not a week after I'd arrived in Fawn Grove, the girl was found dead. At the time, I was in no condition to reflect on this crime. I had my own problems to deal with, and it took all my energy just to care for myself. I buried my head under the covers, hiding out from the world, and stayed in that state for over a week. During this period of self-imposed isolation, time ceased to have any meaning. Two weeks could have been two days. I staggered out of bed for minutes at a time to nibble on stale toast left over from the previous day's breakfast. I ignored whatever dish happened to be brought up to my room. All I could stomach was toast, charred and tasteless, in nibbles that fooled my stomach into believing it was full. And sips of water. Or else plain tea, in order to swallow the random pill I had chosen that day.

But today I feel more like myself. Not 100 percent, but better.

I leave the house and climb inside the pickup my sister has allowed me to use during my extended stay here. It starts without hesitation, and the engine has a nice rumble to it that travels up my spine and warms me with a nostalgic glow. A chill hangs in the air this morning, my breath visible like powdered sugar flung haphazardly in the air. I let the engine idle. After a few minutes, the steady stream of defrosted air clears the fogged windshield and allows me to see the road ahead. The inside of the cab is warm and cozy as I punch the clutch and shift into first. The truck jerks forward, tossing my head back.

Now to see what's become of my old hometown.

It never occurred to me that I would in any way miss Fawn Grove, or accept the fact that it had changed during the fifteen years I'd been away. There's the paper mill on the north side of town, still hanging on by a thread. At one time, the mill employed half the town, providing good wages for the people who lived here. Not so much anymore, as their line has shrunk down to producing one specific product: catch-and-release papers. On the south side of town, up on the hill, sits Dunham College for the Deaf. The school is, without a doubt, the quietest forty acres in Fawn Grove. In the event one ever needs a bit of solitude, Dunham is the place to go. On the western part of town, by way of the grubby train terminal, is the development of townhouses where the Afghani immigrants have settled. This is where the murdered girl lived.

I drive past the mill, smoke billowing out the tall brick stack. Even with the windows up, I can still detect the sour stench of rotten eggs, a natural by-product of the papermaking process. My grandfather always said that smell was a good thing. The smell of money, he'd announce with pride. A skeletal crew works around the clock struggling to produce these catch-and-release papers, which are used to create synthetic textured finishes for certain manufactured goods. These skeletal crews keep the plant afloat one ream at a time. I try not to stare at the plant as I pass, but the smokestack has become somewhat of a landmark in these parts. Mention Fawn Grove to anyone outside of the town, and depending on who you ask, they'll either mention Angus Gibbons or the paper mill.

The mill has taken up a good chunk of real estate in my mind. Even when it's not in sight, it looms large in my consciousness. My dad worked there for over ten years, as did his dad, overseeing the lines of print news, when print news was the shits. Newspapers put a roof over our heads and food on our table. These days no one my age reads newspapers.

I turn off Mill Road and head back to the main artery that cuts through town. Past the grimy strip mall with the sad bowling alley, the Bennie's Original Steak Burger, and the town's lone movie theater. Taking a right on to Beardsley Road, I drive toward the townhouses where the new arrivals have settled. Even in the dark, I can see that they're poorly constructed. Officially, they call this neighborhood Blueberry Hill, but I heard from my sister that some people in town refer to it as Mecca. The rows of drab gray townhouses run up and down and along the back side of the hill. An aerial view might mistake it for a series of Marine barracks. At one time this area was populated with trees and brooks and places for townie kids to play. Everyone came here to pick the wild blueberries that grew naturally. We used to race bikes up and down the dirt paths, making ramps out of discarded plywood boards, and cutting trails through the woods so that we could get from here to there. We'd play Relievio, hide-and-seek, and any other adventurous game that could occupy us until dinner.

I cruise slowly through the narrow streets, mindful of the speed bumps, eying the broken-down cars and porches littered with junk, wondering which unit the missing girl had once lived in. The shabbiness of it all depresses me. It makes me wish they'd just kept it the way it was. It's a reminder that not all change is for the best.

But who am I to say what's best? To the refugees who've settled here, this town might seem like paradise. Or hell. I can't imagine escaping from some shitty war-torn parcel of dust only to be moved halfway across the world to Fawn Grove. To arrive upon our frigid Maine shores and realize that in many ways America is a more dangerous and depressing country than the one they left. A place where children die for no good reason.

Not a soul is out at this ungodly hour, and so I cut short the tour and head back to the center of town. Surprisingly, I discover that I'm famished, which is a good sign. I haven't been this hungry in weeks. Maybe such hunger pangs are a sign that I'm finally getting better and will soon be able to face my sister and her family.

I glance at the clock and notice that it's almost four A.M. I've been driving for nearly forty minutes. It's way too early to return home and start chopping potatoes, frying bacon, and scraping sweet cream butter across slightly charred squares of toast. My only hope is that The Galaxy is open at this hour.


Excerpted from "Pray For The Girl"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Joseph Souza.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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