For many children, the summer of 1988 was filled with sunshine and laughter. But for ten-year-old Kris Barlow, it was her chance to say goodbye to her dying mother.
Three decades later, loss returnsher husband killed in a car accident. And so, Kris goes home to the place where she first knew painto that summer house overlooking the crystal waters of Lost Lake. It’s there that Kris and her eight-year-old daughter will make a stand against grief.
But a shadow has fallen over the quiet lake town of Pacington, Kansas. Beneath its surface, an evil has grownand inside that home where Kris Barlow last saw her mother, an old friend awaits her return.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
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THE ROAD SLICED a gray line through the black night. Beyond the beams of her headlights, the land was at the mercy of the moonlight. She imagined the road ending without warning, driving over the edge, plummeting into an infinite nothingness, until her screams became a song for the darkness.
It was silly to think such things, but the threads of her life, the loose pieces she had tried for so long to keep in place, had finally unraveled. And so she drove, her eyes on the farthest edge of the headlights' reach, staring at that line where vision failed and the world became shadow.
Kris Barlow glanced at herself in the rearview mirror and saw a stranger staring back at her. The soft glow of the dashboard deepened the hint of crow's feet that stretched from the corners of her eyes. Her porcelain skin attempted to peek through large clusters of freckles. She wished her mother had forced her to wear sunscreen when she was little, as Kris did religiously with her own daughter. But that was a different time, before words like "SPF" and "reapply" were drilled into the vocabulary of children. She recalled the odd satisfaction of slowly peeling away thin layers of dead, translucent skin, trying to keep a large section intact. Once, she managed to remove a patch as large as the palm of her hand. She placed it carefully over her right cheek and admired herself in the bathroom mirror, feeling like a lizard as the edges of the old pulled back to reveal the new.
Kris stared at her face in the rearview mirror. When had she become this person? If the measure of her lifespan were her father, who passed away at eighty-two, then she had officially reached the midpoint. If it were her mother, Kris was knock-knock-knockin' on heaven's door.
In the backseat, something shifted.
Kris adjusted the rearview mirror until she could see the pale form of Sadie leaning against the side window. The seatbelt held her upright, her head hanging limply, chin against her chest. Spirals of red hair twisted down around her sleeping eyes. An iPad and a notebook lay on the seat next to her, both untouched since they hit the road.
That was me, a thousand years ago. Kris could still picture her father driving, his hands obediently at ten and two, and her mother reading by the soft glow of a penlight.
Back then, they'd always waited until her father was done with work before hitting the road. It was less than a two-hour drive, so leaving their home in Blantonville at seven or eight in the evening did not seem like such a big deal. They would hear his key in the lock, and Krissy would leap up from the beanbag in front of the living room television and race to throw her arms around his waist. Daddy, still in his work clothes, the perfect pleats of his slacks, the smooth brown leather of his belt, the stiff, starched shirt and wide, striped tie. As a child, Kris grappled to understand exactly what her father did for a living.
"I sell insurance," he had told her on more than one occasion. "It's like the promise that someone will be there if things go wrong."
Now she knew the truth. Insurance meant hours of phone calls and stacks of paperwork. It meant dealing with a company that searched for any conceivable loophole to get out of paying what they had promised. It meant waiting months, sometimes even years, before the check arrived, if it ever did.
Kris knew the people who were there in an instant when things went wrong, and the insurance company was not one of them.
Not that she had wanted anyone there. Not the neighbors who arrived on her doorstep with still-warm casserole dishes in their hands, as if potatoes covered in cheese and corn flakes could resurrect a loved one. Not the parents from Sadie's school, who secretly hoped for the destruction of others' happiness to prove that their own miserable existences were not as bad as they feared. Not the relatives who'd never thought she was good enough in the first place, the ones who'd placed him on that pedestal and convinced her that she had to rise up to his level.
They had not seen what she had seen. None of them were there when the police called in the middle of the night. They did not know the ice-cold panic of realizing your entire life had just been shattered into a million jagged pieces by the ring of a cell phone.
She knew. She knew the uncanny artificiality as she arrived at the Lake County Coroner's Office in downtown Black Ridge, Colorado. The reception area could have been the front desk of any small-town motel. A fake plastic plant, its warped green leaves covered in dust, stood in the corner beside an oddly placed wooden chair, white stuffing peeking out at the seat cushion's edge. A random collection of fashion and outdoor magazines lay spread across a glass coffee table, as if anyone there to identify a body would want to first flip through a six-month-old issue of Guns & Ammo. The beige walls of the room did not appear to have been painted that color; rather, the original white had curdled over the years, aged by the medicinal stench of embalming chemicals and the dread of those who walked through the front door.
This is a waiting room, she thought. This is purgatory.
No one had been there to greet her. Not the officer who had woken her at three in the morning, when Jonah should have been home, snoring beside her. Not whoever had left the front door unlocked in anticipation of her arrival. She was welcomed only by the soft rattle of a loose air conditioning vent and the noxious aroma of chemicals and raw meat seeping in from another room.
Kris blinked, and the highway was once again before her.
She could hear the steady hum of tires skimming across asphalt, hundreds of miles of rough, uneven surface peeling tiny bits of rubber away like sunburned skin.
She knew there was no use searching the radio for music. On the open prairie, closer to dawn than dusk, she would find only static and the rabid shouts of a fire-and-brimstone preacher.
Reaching to the center console, she felt for the charging cord leading to her cell phone. For a moment, her thumb traced the edges of the Home button as she considered opening Spotify or Audible, anything to fill the silence.
Behind her, Sadie whimpered softly.
Kris took her eyes off the road just long enough to glance over her shoulder. Sadie had shifted, but her eyes were still closed, head slumped, her curly red hair draped over her face.
Kris let the phone slip from her hand.
Don't wake her. Let her sleep. We'll be there in a few hours.
Far off in the distance, she could barely see the headlights of an approaching car, two pinpricks hovering like the eyes of an animal stalking through the night.
Or a fox.
That had been his name.
She had seen the name before she saw the man. It was printed in a large, sweeping script at the center of a very official-looking certificate adorned with a gold-leaf stamp and thick, shimmery blue border:
THE COLORADO CORONER-MEDICAL EXAMINER ASSOCIATION HEREBY CERTIFIES THAT HOWARD FOX HAS COMPLETED THE REQUIRED CURRICULUM FOR DEATH INVESTIGATION
The term had plucked a sour chord from her already frayed nerves.
The sudden opening of a door had startled her, and she had felt her entire body stiffen.
Like the bodies that were growing ever more rigid in the back room.
Like Jonah's body.
A plain, slightly doughy man wearing round, wire-rimmed glasses was standing in the doorway. His mouth was frozen in the habitual hint of a compassionate smile, the exact same expression he offered every confused, distraught visitor who stumbled through the front entrance.
"I'm so sorry," Howard Fox said. His voice had a strange, thin quality to it, as if he were constantly fighting a sneeze. "I didn't expect you so quickly. I thought you were coming from farther away or I would have been here to greet you."
"I live —" Kris's words caught in her throat. She swallowed and tried again. "I live in town. I've seen this place before, but I've never been inside ..."
"No reason for you to," Howard replied, his brow furrowing in a robotic attempt to convey sympathy. "Please, follow me. If you're ready."
He did not wait for confirmation before turning and disappearing through the open doorway. Perhaps he knew that if he left the decision to Kris, she would freeze in place, her muscles refusing every command to keep her from entering that room.
From seeing Jonah.
No, not Jonah. The thing that had been Jonah. The mangled shell he had left behind.
Instead, she took a step without realizing it. And then another. And another.
A waft of frigid air greeted her, and she shivered, her entire body prickling with gooseflesh.
Howard waited off to her left until Kris was well into the room, then he swung the door shut behind her. The door latched into place with a dull thud that echoed softly off the surfaces of the hard, cold room. This place was not for the living. It was a place of dissection, of splitting rib cages and weighing organs like lettuce at the supermarket.
Metal shelves were crowded with plastic bottles full of instruments soaking in neon blue and yellow liquids. Several cabinets made from sleek stainless steel lined the other walls. A massive LED spotlight stretched down from the ceiling on a hinged arm like the staring, cyclopean eye of an alien creature, projecting a cone of bright, pristine light onto the black plastic sheet that rose into a vaguely human shape.
"I know this is a very difficult thing to do," Howard said from just over her shoulder.
Kris flinched. She had forgotten he was in the room with her.
"Take all the time you need —"
"I want to see him," Kris said, cutting him off.
"Are you sure?"
"I don't want to think about it. I just want to do it."
Howard nodded. "Right. Of course."
The rubber soles of Howard's bright white Nike sneakers squeaked on the equally pristine tile floor as he crossed to the gurney. He grasped the top of the plastic sheet with both hands. Kris could see the hairs on his knuckles blowing like cattails in an invisible breeze from the overhead AC vent. Nearby, an exhaust van whirred as it sucked the air from the room and into what must have been the brightening purple sky of approaching dawn.
But Kris had no way of knowing anything about the outside world, about anything outside of that cold, sterile room.
Howard pulled back the sheet. He took a wide step to the side and clasped his hands in front of him.
"Whenever you're ready," he said.
Kris's mind tried to stop her. Wait —
But she was already moving, her legs propelling her forward before her brain could override them. Her hip bumped the edge of the gurney. She was there.
At first her mind could not make sense of the shape before her. There were no familiar landmarks to convince her that what she was seeing was a face. Where the cheekbones normally would have protruded, there was a deep valley that ran horizontally over the tip of what should have been his nose. Something had smashed it all in.
The steering wheel.
"The airbag never deployed," Howard said, as if reading her mind. "Could probably sue the automobile company, you know, if you ..." He let his words drift off, perhaps realizing that it was not the time to speak of litigation.
Below the mashed, indented thing that had once been his nose, Jonah's lips were closed, and yet Kris could see the top row of his teeth. Her brain stuttered, bare wires crossing, the contradictory images causing a split-second glitch in the system.
And then she realized what she was seeing: the impact had folded Jonah's top teeth up so that they pointed straight out from his face, and the edges of his incisors had been forced through the skin above his upper lip. He looked as though he were eating his own mouth.
Dark, thick blood traced a line between the side of his face and the surface of the metal gurney. Kris followed this like the red line of a river on a state map — up past a chewed piece of flesh that could be pieced together, with some imagination, to resemble an ear — to the source of the blood: a wet, matted clump of long, brown hair just above his temple.
There were diamonds in his hair, nestled like stones in seaweed. They glistened in the fluorescent light.
No, not diamonds, she knew. Glass.
Shattered pebbles of tempered glass, embedded in his scalp.
The entire right side of his head was completely flat, like a cartoon character hit with a frying pan. The once-sturdy skull was nothing but a patch of bloody sludge. She could press her fingers into that red mud if she wanted to, digging her fingertips all the way into the spongy gray center of his brain.
Jonah had been starting to show his age — his toned body beginning to sag in places, his face puffy from drinking, silver peppering his brown stubble whenever he put off shaving for a week — but she had always been able to look at him and see the man she had fallen in love with all those years ago.
Had loved, Kris thought.
Still loved, another voice insisted. This was hopeful Kris. Naïve Kris.
Hated, a third Kris chimed in. The voice echoed up from the blackest depths of her mind.
She looked down at the swollen, battered face of her dead husband, one eye bashed to a deep purple, sealed shut like a heavyweight boxer in the twelfth round, the other open, staring upward at some profound knowledge revealed only to the dying. Was it love that kept her from instantly glancing away in disgust, or had her heart flipped a switch to survival mode, the same sensation one feels when slowing down to gawk at a terrible accident on the highway, that sense of morbid relief that washes over as one realizes, Not my time. Not yet. Not yet.
With clenched teeth, Kris leaned closer to Jonah's tortured corpse. Her right hand began to tremble, and she quickly clamped her left hand around her wrist to steady it, but the sensation was loose, working its way up her arm and across her shoulders. Her entire body shook, each breath a series of sharp, staccato thumps, like a car driving over a bad stretch of road. She forced her lips within inches of that torn, dangling flap of shredded flesh that had been Jonah's ear.
"You asshole," she whispered as fresh tears slipped down her cheeks. "You dumb, selfish son of a bitch. I'll never forgive you for this. Never."
The sound of an explosion, like a shotgun blast, thrust Kris brutally back into the present.
The Jeep was veering sharply to the left, into the other lane.
Sadie was instantly awake, crying out in desperate confusion, not with words — she hadn't spoken more than a handful since her daddy died — but with an animalistic howl. The fear in that sound sent a sheet of ice grazing across Kris's skin.
Instinctively, Kris clamped both hands down on the steering wheel, the toe of her right boot mashing the brake pedal.
The back of the Jeep began to skid.
Sadie's high-pitched screams mixed with another shriek that, for a second, Kris could not place.
Tires. The shriek of rubber tires trying to grip the asphalt.
She jerked the wheel to the right. The Jeep reentered her lane, but Kris realized immediately that she had overcorrected. The car careened across the lane at a dangerously sharp angle. Beyond the dirt shoulder was a barbed-wire fence marking the border of someone's farmland.
She was instantly aware of two things — the pale orb of the moon reflected in the glass of the windshield, and the sensation that the Jeep was leaning to the left, that half of the vehicle was struggling to keep up, an animal with a lame leg.
"Hold on!" she heard herself yell back to her daughter. Kris turned the wheel to the left, just enough to keep the car from leaving the shoulder and entering the shallow ravine that cut through the weeds beside the fence. At the same time, she let off of the brake, waiting until the Jeep was under control before returning her foot to the pedal.
Brake. Release. Brake. Release. Brake.
They were slowing.
Now there was a new sound, the unmistakable thwump-thwump-thwump of a flat tire trudging over the dry ground.
Kris pressed her boot down hard onto the pedal and the Jeep skidded to a stop. Dust billowed around them. She watched as it wafted into the headlight beams, twin souls escaping into the night.
She glanced over her shoulder at her daughter. Sadie's eyes were wide in frozen panic. But she was quiet. She did not cry.
She's trying to be strong. For you.
"It's just a flat tire. Everything's okay," Kris assured her "There's a spare in the back. I'll change the tire. It's fine, Sadie. We're fine. I promise."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Violet"
Copyright © 2019 Scott Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of Inkshares, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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