With the eerie thrills of Dean Koontz, Dan Newman’s seething suspense brings a young man back to St. Lucia, where he grew up, and where his guilt for the part he played in a murder continues to haunt.
Now, thirty years later, Nate responds to his father’s suicide with a trip back to St. Lucia, the land where he was raised as an outsider, tolerated but not accepted. As a boy he ventured out to the plantation of Ti Fenwe with three othersweak-willed Pip, and cousins Richard and Tristan. Surrounded on all sides by dense jungle, the boys explore, their only rule to be back in the house before nightfall. Because at Ti Fenwe, something ancient stalks the jungle, its reputation more horrifying than any of the boys can comprehend.
But it’s a very real enemy who changes the boys forever, and snuffs out a life. Decades later, Nate comes back to finally gain a measure of peace over his role in the killing, and to uncover the deadly secrets of St. Lucia once and for all.
"Told in lush, hypnotic prose that perfectly mirrors its mysterious Caribbean landscape, THE CLEARING is one man's quest for the brutal truth at the heart of his deadly self-deception...An intoxicating, important debut."Laura Benedict, author of ISABELLA MOON and DEVIL’S OVEN
"THE CLEARING is a dark and atmospheric psychological thriller, full of intrigue, terror and superstition, which examines our deep fear of the unknown."GUMSHOE REVIEWS
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|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)|
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All three of the boys knew Richard was dead.
His limp form lay at their feet, his eyes wide and unblinking, and his left hand waving an eerie goodbye as the river tugged at his arm in a regular, unsettling rhythm. They stood in a loose semicircle, their wet clothes dripping on the riverbank, watching for something to happen but knowing nothing would.
"He's dead," whispered Pip, his mouth suddenly and completely dry. He looked up at the others; his eyes had none of the boyish bravado that had been there only moments before. Now he was just a frightened twelve-year-old. "I want to go home."
To his left stood Nate, eyes and face pleated, chest heaving but finding no air in the tropical humidity.
Tristan stooped beside Richard and nudged his cousin's shoulder with a tentative, outstretched foot. "Wake up, Richard." But nothing happened, save the gentle lolling of the boy's head and the vacant expression that hung there. Tristan rose slowly, never moving his eyes from the boy at the water's edge. "Shit. He's really ... dead." And because Tristan said it, it was finally true.
"What are we gonna do?" Nate began to rock slightly from side to side.
"It was an accident, right? You saw it — just an accident?" said Pip. He clutched his hands in a tangle against his chest. "We shouldn't be here. We shouldn't be this far out." And then, in a voice weakened by looming tears, "I'm scared."
Nate looked at him blankly but said nothing.
It was getting late. The sun had already gone down over the tops of the trees, and the woods had begun to take on a darker shade of green as the first hints of nightfall set in. In the rainforest, the days ended quickly, and the trees seemed to gather and hide the pathways and trails, crowding their shoulders and linking limbs in some ancient pact of secrecy.
The boys were far from the house. Current horrors aside, they knew they had to move. There were things you didn't want to come across out here in the night. Things that were better avoided. And that wasn't the only problem — they would need to get back to the plantation house or Tristan's dad would have a fit. The same thought seemed to run through them all at once, and like a single twitch, the real problem reclaimed them. At their feet lay the dead boy, and at their backs a darkening forest.
How the weekend at the old plantation had come to such a horrible and complete full stop no one knew — at least not right then.
Tristan was the first to move. His feet were bare but callused heavily from a lifetime of shoeless island living, and as he moved up the slope toward the path he dug his toes into the soft earth like hooks. Around the boys the mass of the tropical forest — the vines, broad leaves, ferns and flowers, the thick ground covering succulents and the bougainvillea — all of it crowded together to hasten the onset of night.
Tristan looked back at the others and drew his lips into a hard white line. At thirteen, he was already keenly aware of his role in the group. "Get moving!" he barked, followed by a sharp curse in patois — a French Creole language native to the island. Neither Pip nor Nate understood the words, but the message was clear.
Pip looked up the bank at Tristan, whose form was merging with the darkness. "We can't just leave him." Pip's voice was thin, hesitant.
Nate wiped at his eye as sweat crept in at the corner and knew instantly it would draw fire from Tristan. He saw the older boy's lips curl, saw locks of his dirty blonde hair move as his head shook — almost imperceptibly — in disapproval. It said cry baby without the need for any words at all.
The three stared at each other in a silent standoff. "Fine," said Tristan defiantly. "Stay if you want. But remember what we heard last night. Remember what we saw. It lives 'round here. If you want to get caught out here after dark, that's your problem."
The two boys cut sharp glances at the gathering gloom around them, then at each other, looking for courage that neither could find. Tristan's goading was enough. Richard would have to wait.
In 1976, St. Lucia was something of a pet project for international aid, with countries from around the globe pouring resources and people into the island in an orgy of philanthropic one-upmanship. Both Nate and Pip were sons of international development workers — Pip from Holland and Nate from Canada — and both had lived on the island for a little over three years. They didn't know everything about this raw island paradise, but they knew enough to take Tristan's words seriously — especially when it came to the forest. Tristan and his family had lived on the island for generations, and the deeply tanned boy with wild, dirty blonde hair looked entirely at home surrounded by the rainforest's mass of green.
The boys scrambled to the top of the bank, stopping only long enough for each to cast a single glance backward. Then they turned away, one by one, leaving a darkening scene where a small, cold boy was left alone at the edge of a river being swiftly reclaimed by the night.
"Come on," said Tristan, tugging at Pip's shirtsleeve. "We need to go. Now."
The boys pushed on silently along the path at a trot, past landmarks that only Tristan could see, racing the daylight. They covered at least a kilometer of thick jungle pathway, batting vines and forearming broad leaves as they wove their way through twists and turns of green. Ahead, Tristan slowed, then stopped, then turned to the others. He was sweating heavily, and beads of moisture had gathered on the tip of his broad nose. "Wait up," he said, heaving for breath. Tristan squatted down on his haunches, and the two others followed suit. The little group stared at one another, heaving for breath and chewing at nails and lips.
"What?" asked Nate, itching to keep moving.
Tristan only stared at him hollowly.
"What!? Let's go! I want to go home!"
"Yeah. I want to go home. Now." To Nate's left, Pip bobbed his head up and down frantically in agreement.
"Home," said Tristan, as if remembering something long since lost. "You can't just go home now," he said.CHAPTER 2
He had never fully understood what triggered these moments — but it happened the way it always did: a bright and sudden surge of panic, fresh beads of sweat prickling across his skin, and a flush of heat that threatened to smother. The sensation had been more intense lately, but it would leave as quickly as it came.
Nate braced himself and waited for it to pass. For the moment it owned him, as it always did — for as far back as he could remember. He steadied himself against a seatback, drawing in a half-dozen deep breaths, and the sensation slowly ebbed away.
He filed toward the open door of the airplane, shuffling with the other impatient passengers, and breathed in the heavy wash of tropical air, the warm, almost oppressive quality of the island's moisture-laden breath. As he passed into the daylight through the curve of the aircraft doorway he paused for a moment, just for a beat or two, long enough to slip a pair of old Wayfarers over his eyes, before descending the rickety truck-mounted stairway to the tarmac below.
As he set foot on the island, he knew that at least some part of him had come home. But then there was that other part: that low-slung and heavy stone stitched roughly into the pit of his gut. It amassed gravity now, and pulled downward with a dread so tangible he almost reached down to cradle it. His mind sprinted ahead, through the airport terminal, past the well-pressed customs officers, past the colorful tour buses, and straight on through town. It arced through streets lined with third-world commerce, past vendors ebullient with wild fruits and brightly colored parasols, across the Morne and into the real heart of the island, then plunged into a thick and wet rainforest that so easily hid whatever it wished.
And Nate understood that amid that unyielding tangle of vines, the broad leafed Tanya, the thick plantain shoots and banana trees that knotted tightly into that gush of botanical life, something was waiting for him. Out there in the lush, humid hills, at the end of that roughly hewn dirt road that winds blindly through the mass of green, it knew he was coming. It always had.
"Passport please." The voice popped him from his daydream and he complied, muttering something that never quite saw fruition.
The black man in the black uniform smiled broadly. "Fers time in St. Lucia, Mr. Mason?"
"No, no," he said. "I grew up here as a kid. But I haven't been back for ... Jeez, I guess thirty years or so."
The customs agent smiled, stamped the passport and handed it back. His Caribbean accent was a lullaby. "Then let me be the fers to say welcome 'ome."
During the taxi ride through town, he became aware of the tension in his shoulders, a tension that had been there all day, all week — Christ, all his adult life. And so he lowered his head to stretch the muscles that ran down from the back of his head and into his shoulders. In the back of the taxi, he looked much like a man in prayer.
The driver chimed in, his voice melodic with island inflection. "Why you pray, man? You dun arrive in paradise already."
Nate Mason smiled and looked up, rubbing at the back of his neck. "No prayers for me. Just a stiff neck is all."
"We can fix dat fuh you. We can fix dat fine." He laughed and flashed bright white teeth that filled the rear-view mirror.
"I'll be okay," said Nate, brushing the comment aside, until he saw that the driver was holding up a small bag of what appeared to be weed.
"Island remedy for eeeeveryting."
Nate had an instant vision of drug busts and sting operations, being bent over the hood of the taxi in handcuffs and hauled off to some airless hole. "No, really, I'm good," he said, embarrassed at some level for his complete lack of cool. The driver shrugged and didn't press the issue.
At the Breadfruit Tree Inn, he paid the taxi and was left standing on the street in the center of Castries. The inn sat squarely in front of him, and a thousand sharp memories clamoring for attention from behind. He turned slowly. Much had changed, but among the changes, hiding like frightened children, he could see all that had remained the same.
In his room, he splashed his face with water and sat on the bed, drinking in the smell of the place and letting memories wash over him. The bed smelled very slightly — almost imperceptibly — of mold, as if the odor existed only at the very edges of the human olfactory palette. The smell transported him to his first summer on the island, to those days when he traveled around the island with his father, mother, brother, and a glassy-eyed embassy official, visiting houses they might live in. He remembered the newness of the experience, the intensity of the sunlight, the lush setting, and of course the subtle smell of dampness at every house they visited.
And he remembered his mother, crying late at night, unable to fully process the magnitude of the changes before her. His heart sank at the memory, but then he thought of her in later years, in a better house, in a better part of the island, laughing and mixing drinks for a collection of expats clad in kitschy afro-shirts, loud plaid pants, and blouses in shades of orange that haven't been seen again since that part of the '70s.
From the balcony of his room at the inn, Nate watched the early evening foot traffic around Derek Walcott Square, a near perfectly preserved piece of the island that he remembered fondly as a child. From his second story perch, he could see the massive and sprawling tree that had dominated the square for decades, the lush gardens and the pavilion set at its center.
All the buildings that surrounded the square back then were made of timber. They were two- and three-story structures with balconies at each level, each adorned with intricate swirls of woodwork where the uprights met the roof. They had a Victorian feel, and as he looked at the collection of buildings that lined the square now, he saw that much had been preserved. There was a bit more concrete and glass dotted here and there, but the old square had not lost its charm.
In the park itself, couples drifted to and fro, enjoying the warm gloaming as the day's tropical heat waned. There were benches and low walls for perching on, tangles of bougainvillea that created private partitions and rooms, and at the center, the great tree. A few tourists ambled through the park, branded loudly by their cruise wear, and a vendor at a small cart flipped fish cakes on the orange glow of an open fire. Nate could feel his shoulders loosening, his big city tension getting ready to slip, and yet something there would not let him fully enjoy the moment.
Inside his room, the light on the phone beside the bed blinked. Had it been blinking when he came in? He couldn't remember, and it occurred to him that he was tired, wilting like long forgotten back-of-the-fridge lettuce. He was too tired to pick up the message waiting there, too tired to let his mind begin churning on the great wheel that the call would set in motion.
Tonight he would simply go to sleep. He would permit himself one more night of delusion, one final investment in nihilism and the decision that for the next eight hours at least, everything in his world was just fine.
In the morning, the light was still blinking. He showered slowly, dressed, and hung the few clothes he had brought with him in the closet. In his small suitcase sat a worn and well-aged brown paper bag, folded over at the opening. It had seen many years and many miles. It was creased and wrinkled, and bore the vague outline of the precious cargo it had held for so long. Nate placed a hand gently on top of it just to make sure its contents were safe. He felt the bulk there, and satisfied, closed the suitcase and placed it back in the closet.
Downstairs, he sat by the window in the small, nearly empty dining room overlooking the street, and he ordered a half grapefruit. He never liked grapefruit, even as a boy, but it was part of the fabric of being here, part of the memory. He ate the tart, pink flesh slowly, and watched as the square began to wake. It was a peaceful moment, and he felt a rare pang of joy as thoughts of Cody flashed through his mind. In that moment Cody was three — maybe four — sleepy-eyed and glowing with just-woke-up warmth, and cuddled impossibly into the crook of Nate's arm in the big chair in the den. It would have been a Sunday, dawn barely broken, perhaps in winter with the snow landing silently on the ledge outside. It was as near perfect a moment as any he could recall.
It seemed memories were coming thick and fast this morning. Nate spied the old Rain Restaurant building across the square. The restaurant was long gone now, but the building had persisted. He could almost smell the Wednesday night fish and chips special and the feel of his dad's hand on his shoulder as they all walked toward the front door, bellies growling and spirits high.
He dipped into his grapefruit again and wanted so badly to look up and see his father sitting there, across the table, eating his own grapefruit. He wanted to reach out and touch his hand, then point across the square and say something like, Can you believe it, Dad, the Rain building is still standing thirty years later ...
A man walked slowly past on the sidewalk, and thoughts of Cody and his father evaporated. As the man passed, he pitched his head slightly to the left and glanced in. Their eyes connected through the open window, and the man held Nate's gaze for what seemed a beat longer than appropriate between two complete strangers. Finally he looked away and swept past. A spark of concern flared through Nate. Was that more than a casual glance? Was the man looking at him? Was he looking for him? He shook his head gently. Get it together, man. No one knows you're here.
Nate finished his coffee and went back to his room. The light was still blinking, and he finally accepted that he could delay no more. Answering the message meant it was all beginning in earnest, but the reality was that it had begun a long, long time ago.
He took a deep breath and dialed the voicemail.
* * *
Smiley Edwin was named well. He smiled brilliantly as he walked up to Nate, arms fully extended and fingers splayed. His welcome was obvious, unabashed, and completely genuine.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Clearing"
Copyright © 2016 Dan Newman.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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