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A Perfectly Pleasant Town
At the road's end, a weathered ACCESS PROHIBITED sign stands sentinel at a narrow opening to the dark, Maine wilderness. Beyond the sign is an ancient beech tree, its thick branches reaching to the sky. White ash and red oaks flourish behind the tree; flora grows densely around the trunks but never seems to cross the invisible boundary beyond the signpost. The valley farther on is an almost circular basin enclosed within a mountainous range and a radius fifteen miles wide.
The sound of a faint, unnerving scream echoes through the labyrinth of trees. Fear prickles the back of Rachel Cleary's neck. She listens, certain she saw movement even if nothing ever moves in the forest. The wind itself seems wary of the place. No critters or birds make the forest their home. There are only trees, flowers, and shrubs. And now, a scream ...
An out-of-tune honk startles Rachel back to reality. She pivots. The Honda Ballade is waiting in Mrs. Crenshaw's driveway. Black plumes of exhaust rise as the vehicle idles. In the driver's seat sits the elderly woman, her shock of white hair pulled into a neat bun — it's God's natural facelift, my dear. Apart from rouge dabbed onto her cheekbones, Mrs. Crenshaw has made no attempt to hide her age.
"See something interesting in there, Rachel?" Mrs. Crenshaw asks by way of greeting.
"Maybe," Rachel says. "It's probably just my imagination, though."
Mrs. Crenshaw fixes her gaze on Rachel, crow's feet emphasizing the narrowing of her eyes. "Sometimes there are things in there ... interesting things." She lets the vague words hang between them before reversing out of the driveway and shifting into first gear. She calls out a deceptively upbeat, "Hop in." Her expression makes it clear that Rachel has no choice but to go along.
Rachel reaches out to find the passenger door already unlocked, climbs inside, and pulls the safety belt over her body. The Honda sputters forward.
"Where are we going, Mrs. Crenshaw?" Rachel asks when it becomes clear her neighbor isn't going to elaborate.
"Shopping," Mrs. Crenshaw says. "My grandson is coming for an extended visit sometime tonight and I haven't the foggiest what teenage boys eat these days."
Rachel's eyes widen. "You have a grandson?" "I have four grandsons, two granddaughters, and three great-grandchildren." Mrs. Crenshaw glances in Rachel's direction. "Surely I've told you?"
"No." Seventeen years of living across the road from Mrs. Crenshaw — the same woman who'd babysat her, who'd taught her how to tie her shoes, who'd gifted her a ten dollar bill every birthday and Christmas for as long as she can remember — and Rachel never suspected Mrs. Crenshaw had children at some point in her life. "You don't have any photos in your house of them."
"Well, they aren't anything to brag about," Mrs. Crenshaw says, the beginnings of a deep crease forming on her forehead. "Where do you think I go during the holiday season?"
"I don't know. Florida?"
Mrs. Crenshaw shakes her head. "Can't blame you, I suppose. God knows the only time I ever see my children is when I visit them."
"You're curious about all the wrong things today." Mrs. Crenshaw keeps her eyes on Griswold Road. Desolate, as it often is, the road twists and winds through Shadow Grove's undeveloped lands. "Neither Matthew nor Sophie will set foot in this place. They ran off as soon as they turned eighteen, claiming they didn't want to get stuck in a small town like their daddy had. It's my own fault, of course, but it's such an inconvenience."
The conversation halts as they approach Eerie Creek Bridge, its barrier created from slats of wood haphazardly nailed together and painted over in a neutral white. Mrs. Crenshaw leans forward, squinting hard at something beside the road. Rachel follows her gaze to where Maggie Dawson and Eddie Roberts run up the creek bank, giggling all the way, their clothes soaked through. Rachel doesn't look for long, although she has half a mind to shout at them to get a room.
Mrs. Crenshaw turns onto the bridge and inhales deeply, relaxing against her seat as soon as the car crosses into the suburbs of the small town, where boxy, symmetrical homes line the street. Here and there a wrought-iron fence surrounds a property. A decorative balustrade becomes a feature point, setting the fraternal houses on Eerie Street apart. Every garden is maintained — green, lush, and overrun with a variety of flowers — in accordance with the strict homeowners' association guidelines.
The suburbs are pretty, no doubt, but a tad too utilitarian for Rachel's tastes.
Mrs. Crenshaw slows and turns her car onto Main Road, where colonial buildings have been repurposed to house Shadow Grove's thriving small businesses. Alice's Vintage Emporium, which sells upmarket fashion from yesteryear, is neighbor to a quaint sit-down coffee shop called Café Grove — where the who's who of Ridge Crest High usually hang out.
"Did you notice there isn't a single missing person flyer posted anywhere in town?" Rachel asks, remembering the scream she'd heard — or imagined she'd heard.
"Yes, I have."
A shudder runs down her back. "It's weird, right? I mean, if this was any other town, people would've immediately formed search parties to look for the missing kids. Not to mention, their parents would've approached every newspaper and news station in the state by now. At the very least, we'd have gotten word of there being a Facebook group, or seen posts on other social media sites. Hashtag where are they?"
Mrs. Crenshaw grimaces. "I s'pose."
Rachel places her hands in her lap when Mrs. Crenshaw's response doesn't meet her expectations. Where is the outrage? Little kids are going missing and nobody over the age of eighteen seems in the least bit concerned. In fact, the Sheriff's Department is making it sound like there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the disappearances. Take, for example, eight-year-old Dana Crosby, who went missing on her way home right after Christmas break. She'd stayed after school later than usual, according to her teacher, because she'd received detention for speaking out of turn. A day later, when folks were becoming antsy about Dana's safety, Sheriff Carter released a press statement implying the girl was prone to throwing temper tantrums and running away when she didn't get her way. She was, presumably, a troubled young girl, and she would, most likely, make her way home when she was good and ready.
Two weeks after Dana Crosby supposedly threw a tantrum and ran away, four-year-old Eric Smith was snatched out of his mother's backyard around dusk. His mother said he'd been playing in his sandbox, driving his cars across the snow-capped sandy hills he'd created.
"I only looked away for a second, I swear!" Mrs. Smith's public breakdown in Café Grove hadn't changed the town's indifferent outlook on the situation.
Somehow, Sheriff Carter convinced the poor woman that her son had been taken by her estranged husband. He'd even gone so far as to tell her Eric's father was well within his rights to take their son because there weren't any explicit custody terms in place. The logic behind his proclamation was flawed, but Eric's mother didn't officially pursue the matter any further.
Two months later, as winter began to thaw and the world renewed itself in spectacular fashion, twelve-year-old Becky Goldstein, an avid birdwatcher and budding artist, vanished near Eerie Creek. Her sketchbook was found on the creek bank a few days later, a drawing of an evening grosbeak still unfinished, along with her binoculars and pencils.
"There is no evidence of foul play in Becky Goldstein's disappearance. We have reason to believe she ran away from home after we found and read her diary, which explicitly states: 'I wish I could live in New York forever. One day, if I'm ever brave enough, I'll run away and live beneath the lights with an artist.'"
Becky Goldstein, contrary to Sheriff Carter's statement, was not the runaway type. Rachel should know because she'd babysat her on occasion. The girl came from a good home — her grades were outstanding, and she didn't hang around with the wrong crowd as everyone was led to believe. The girl was an introvert, happiest whenever she had those binoculars against her face, sure. But Becky wasn't socially inept either. She had plenty of age-appropriate friends who didn't get into any trouble. Furthermore, those diary entries Sheriff Carter loved to quote were the shared fantasies and dreams of every prepubescent girl in today's society. No names were mentioned, no plans were made, no way had she left everything she knew and loved behind.
Then nine-year-old Toby Merkel was gone, followed by six-year-old Michael O'Conner.
One after the other, kids vanish into thin air, and every single time Sheriff Carter finds a reason not to investigate their disappearances.
There were other incidents, of course, and other cover-ups unrelated to the mysterious disappearances, but the issue of the missing children is the most disconcerting matter now.
"You'd be out there looking for me if I went missing, right?"
"You know I would, dear." Mrs. Crenshaw's tone doesn't leave room for doubt.
Rachel gulps down her emotions, grateful that someone, anyone, would remember she existed if she's ever taken against her will.
An awkward silence stretches between them as Mrs. Crenshaw maneuvers her vehicle around the park, heading for the Other Side of town, which is no more than a euphemism for the so-called less-desirable residents and businesses in Shadow Grove. Hidden away from the tourists' eyes, trailers and smaller houses stand alongside steelworks and other closed down factories, just beyond the now-defunct train station. Ashfall Heights — a neglected, solitary apartment building, built just before the Great Depression when a mediocre population boom made the town council worry about a future housing problem — stands nine stories high, and is mostly surrounded by undeveloped wilderness.
The Other Side is also where the more popular chainstores find themselves.
Rachel says, "You know what Sheriff Carter said when I asked him about what he's doing to find the missing kids? He said if anything's amiss, it doesn't fall into his jurisdiction anyway." She picks at her thumb's cuticle with her index finger, a nervous habit, and barely feels the sharp pain as she digs too deep and draws blood. "What does that even mean? What's the deal with Bulltwang Bill al —"
She cuts herself off, realizing her mistake.
Rachel's face warms. "Sheriff Carter."
Mrs. Crenshaw's lips tug into one of her secretive smiles, then vanishes. "Have you spoken to your mother about any of this?" There's both sympathy and regret in her voice.
Rachel barks a humorless laugh. "Every time I bring it up, she changes the subject."
Mrs. Crenshaw exhales loudly, shaking her head as she turns onto 7Avenue and drives into the chain supermarket's parking lot. She parks in one of the empty spaces nearest to the automatic sliding door. The Honda's engine wheezes from the six-mile drive, rumbling with gratitude when she turns the key in the ignition. Mrs. Crenshaw's knuckles are white from gripping the steering wheel, liver spots paling quickly and wrinkles smoothing.
Maybe this issue is affecting her more than she lets on?
"I don't get it," Rachel says. "There's likely a kiddie-fiddler on the loose, possibly one with a tendency to kill his victims, but people aren't freaking out. What's wrong with this town?"
"It's not my place to tell you why this town is the way it is." Mrs. Crenshaw sounds older than her seventy-two years; her icy blue eyes hold too much wisdom for one person to have collected in a single lifetime. "What I can tell you is that when I struggle to understand the present, I tend to study the past. I try to piece things together by sifting through the chaos.
"The usual avenues hold no answers, though; libraries, archives, even digital sources have been manipulated to help with Shadow Grove's long-term rebranding plan. If you want answers, you're going to have to get creative and dig real deep. You'll need to find unaltered history.
"If I were you," she continues in a conspirator's whisper. "I'd find my clues where the really old stuff is kept —"
"I'm not breaking into the museum," Rachel interrupts.
The old woman cackles like a witch, her frail shoulders shaking underneath her silk blouse. She releases her grip on the steering wheel, visibly relaxing. "I should hope not," she says between her fits of laughter. "No, sweetheart, I don't mean the museum — it's under town council control anyway. Listen to me: when I struggle to understand the present, I tend to study the past. I try to piece things together by sifting through the chaos."
Mom always hides the Christmas presents in the cluttered attic, near the trunk with the box of old kitchen utensils in it. Does she mean Dad's old stuff?
"The attic?" she asks, unsure.
Mrs. Crenshaw raises her hand and touches her index finger to her nose, eyes gleaming with mischief, before she reaches between the seats to find her purse.
Relieved, Rachel releases her seatbelt. "Was that so hard?"
Mrs. Crenshaw opens the driver's door. "Instead of sassing me, run ahead and get us a shopping cart."
"Whatever happened to bribing me with ice-cream to do your bidding, huh?" Rachel tuts and shakes her head, hiding her smile with a forced frown.
"I think there are laws against that type of thing now," Mrs. Crenshaw responds under her breath, making Rachel laugh as she walks off to find a shopping cart.CHAPTER 2
Small Town, Big Problems
After spending the better half of an hour listing the disappearances in chronological order, Rachel comes to the conclusion that her detective skills aren't nearly as good as she'd hoped, and her natural talent for research only goes as far as the available information. Nevertheless, she's certain there's more to the story. Call it instinct or wishful thinking, but an inexplicable gut feeling tells her those children were taken for a reason.
The reason is important.
"But why?" she asks herself, frustration threatening to overpower her determination. Any answer would do at this point. She's been putting off a trip into the attic since the previous evening, not completely in the mood to rummage through generations of accumulated junk.
Her attention moves toward her bedroom window and the gleaming forest beyond, where emerald leaves glitter in the mid-morning sunlight. The world outside is as quiet as the house itself — motionless, devoid of life. The forest always reminds her of a graveyard, unsettling in its solemnity. These days, it also feels different, like something is watching ... waiting.
Waiting for what?
Rachel shudders, uneasy at the thought. She pushes herself out of the chair and crosses the room. With a last, quick assessment of the area outside, she shuts the curtains and stands there, fabric clutched in her hands.
What if something is watching me? What if it's the same something that took the children? What if I'm next?
Rachel talks herself out of peeking through the crack between the drops of thick fabric.
Be reasonable. The kids who've been taken were between four and twelve years old. You're seventeen, Rachel. You're too old.
The creepy feeling is replaced with a frisson of intense fear.
Still, what if I'm wrong?
"Nope. Nope. Nope."
Rachel turns on her heels and heads for the door, repeating the word under her breath until it becomes an irritating mantra she can't stop uttering. She makes her way through the hallway, toward the staircase, and descends two steps at a time to put as much distance between herself and the window. By the time she reaches the first floor, she's ready to sprint across Griswold Road, toward the safety of Mrs. Crenshaw's house.
She uses too much strength to pull the front door open and the momentum drags her off balance. Before she can begin to understand what's happening outside her own mind, a shriek tears out of her as she locks eyes with an unexpected, auburn-haired stranger, his fist still raised to knock against the now-open door. Rachel clamps a hand over her mouth to stifle her cry of surprise. The guy lowers his fist.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Night Weaver"
Copyright © 2019 Monique Snyman.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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