The Family Tree Read Excerpt In a small Virginia town, secrets were hard to keep. Prologue August 7, 2020 The letter in my hand was addressed to me, Jolene Parker, and postmarked from my hometown of Lighthouse Beach, Virginia. As with the others, the sender had used the same block-style handwriting and bogus return address. I slit the envelope. Through the folded waxed paper, I saw the distinctive oblong shape of a red oak leaf. Chills rattled across my shoulders as dread pressed against my chest. Darkness fell around me. I would never be free. Chapter One August 8, 2003 The cicadas in the forest screeched like banshees on the night my life changed forever. I parked my Camry in the driveway of the wood-sided farmhouse. This wasn’t my place, but it was where I’d grown up. The home belonged to my best friend, Annette, and her mother Patsy—the closest thing I had to family. The only place where I got the love I craved. But Annette had been avoiding me for the past two weeks. I’d meant to drive over and ask her what the hell was going on, but then she’d texted earlier today. Said her mom was down in the Outer Banks this weekend, and could I come over to chill tonight? Now, I’d find out what had been on her mind. Bottle of Chardonnay in hand, I stepped into the humid night. Fireflies twinkled in the darkness over the fresh-cut lawn. A warm glow came through the screened front door, lighting the steps up to the verandah. The soothing voice of Nora Jones rolled outside. I walked into the living room where the comforting undertone of baking bread lingered in the air. My muscles relaxed. Patsy’s home did that to me. Immediately put me at ease. The soft sofa and armchairs in seafoam green were so fresh and airy compared to the cramped home I shared with my alcoholic father and his dimwitted girlfriend. “Hello? Anyone home?” I set the bottle of wine onto the pine coffee table and turned down the CD player. Annette pranced down the stairs in her fave hip-hugging running shorts and sports bra, her long brown hair pulled into a high ponytail. Her tanned skin glistened like she’d just finished a workout. “Damn, girl. It’s about time you got here.” I pointed to the wine. “I brought something to celebrate our last week of Summer.” “I have something better.” She unfolded a piece of aluminum foil and revealed two small squares of paper, each with a purple dot. LSD. I’d seen the stuff floating around our college campus. I crossed my arms. “What’s this? Back-to-the-sixties night? When did you start doing acid?” A rascal-grin spread on her face. “I’ve already tried some. Last week with Nancy.” She held out the squares. “Come on. Let’s have an adventure before we head back to college next week.” Adventure. I’d worked my ass off all Summer and deserved some excitement. Blood surged through my veins, then slowed. I licked my lips. I wanted to live life to the fullest. Experience new things. Was I game? No. Caution took over. “I don’t know. I had enough drugs when I was in the psych ward.” I nudged past her and headed toward the bar cabinet on the other side of the room for two wine glasses. “Don’t be a baby.” She huffed and followed me close. “This isn’t that zone-you-out stuff they gave you in the hospital. I got this from Jackson. He’s careful.” I rolled my eyes, then set the glasses on the coffee table. “Of course, we should trust the local drug dealer.” “I’m telling you—this batch is clean. Totally safe.” She waved the foil in front of my face. “Come on. We’ll see rainbows and butterflies! You’ll never laugh harder in your life.” I looked closer at the tiny pieces of paper. So miniscule—just a tiny drop of ink. How much harm could it do? “I dunno. You’re talking about the cool psychedelic trips. What about the bad ones? The kind that fuck people up for life? I’m not screwing up my mind.” “Too late for that, you wacko.” She elbowed me. “Trust me. We’ll have the best night ever.” I couldn’t help but smile. Annette was the only person who believed I wasn’t looney. And she had a serious knack for making risky situations sound harmless. She’d encouraged me to jump back on the horse that bucked me off. Challenged me to surf big waves. Dared me to fuck the cute surfer dude in high school. Like an extroverted big sister, she’d pushed me out of my shell and given me the best times of my life. Taking acid wasn’t any different. “I’ll make a deal with you.” Annette’s eyes twinkled with her familiar infectious charm. “If you take this with me tonight, I’ll go to one of those pretentious sorority parties with you this year.” I sighed. An incentive. I’d tried all last year to get her to join me for one of the themed parties, but she’d detested the Greek life. And this was my chance to get her away from the slackers she’d been hanging out with at school. I straightened my shoulders. “And you’ll stay for more than an hour?” “I’ll stay as long as you want.” One hand went up in an oath. “I promise.” She picked a blotter off the foil and popped it into her mouth, coaxing me with her devilish grin. I shrugged, then put the other piece on my tongue and swallowed. A granule of bitterness trickled down my throat. Flutters of anticipation rippled through me. I’d done it again—impulsively followed Annette for the promise of excitement. Now I could add tripping on acid to my list of been-there-done-that experiences. I rubbed my hands together. “How long until it kicks in?” Annette sat on the couch and poured the wine. “It took about forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, before Nancy and I started hallucinating. It’s all laughs from there.” I plopped down next to her and held up my glass. “A toast to our last week of Summer.” We clinked glasses and I took a long sip of the cool, crisp wine. Creeeeak. My heart slammed into my chest. The sound had come from the kitchen at the back of the house. “What the fuck was that?” Annette jumped up and tip-toed toward the kitchen. “Hello?” An eerie second of silence sliced through the room. My throat went dry. Willow Road was a dark and isolated rural backroad. Two miles long, it dead-ended at a loblolly pine-forest reserve. The nearest neighbor was at least a quarter-mile down the road. Slam. The back door. Fear shot up my spine and I leaped from the couch. Annette grabbed my arm, yanking me toward the front door. We were almost there when a powerful pull on my hair jerked me backwards so hard, I had to twist my body around to stay on my feet. I locked eyes with Mike Morton, the alcoholic beach rat who slummed around town. My blood turned icy cold. I grabbed his wrist and tried to wrench free from his grasp. “Let go, you asshole!” Annette shouted. “Stop, Mike! Let go of her. What do you want?” He tightened his grip on my hair and twisted and pulled so hard that I felt my scalp pull away from skull. My eyes watered as my mind scrambled for a defense. He aimed a long, serrated knife an inch from my cheek then glared at Annette with bloodshot eyes that nearly popped out of his face. “Give me all your money.” His hot breath drifted past my nose—whisky and sewage. In my peripheral, Annette rummaged through my purse. The cold steel tip of the knife touched my cheek, but I didn’t flinch. For a moment, I thought I might reason with Mike, yet my slightest twitch might trigger him to push the blade into my throat. My heartbeat pounded in my ears. “Here, Mike.” Annette extended her arm with my wallet in her hand. “Take this. You could’ve just asked.” Her voice was close to a whisper. “We would have—” Mike was as slight as Gumby. Still, he tossed me aside with the strength of a quarterback. I slammed into the ground, my elbow smashing onto the hardwood floor. Sharp pain rammed deep into my bone. “Gimme that.” Mike snatched the wallet from Annette and scowled at the three twenties I’d just withdrawn from the ATM. “This all you have, you stupid slut?” He threw the wallet on the floor. Tears had filled my eyes, each breath burning my lungs. I had to get us out of this. Annette held out her hands. “Yes. It’s—” “Fuck you.” Mike slapped her hard. She stumbled backwards and grabbed the rail on the staircase. He huddled over her, the knife raised and pointed to her neck. “I know you rich-ass bitches have money. Where is it?” Annette whimpered and cowered against the handrail, shielding her head with her arms. I pushed myself up from the floor, my knees shaking. A prism of light beamed into my vision. On my right—lead crystal candlesticks on top of the fireplace mantel. An easy reach. Grab one. Hit him. Adrenaline fired through my blood, igniting every impulse to act. My hands clenched then unclenched. Hit him. Hit him. I had only one chance. Mike circled the knifepoint around Annette’s ashen face. “I’m going to slice you up if you don’t tell me where the money is.” My eyes stayed fixed on Mike’s back as I lifted the heavy candlestick from the mantel. I held it tight, took three wide and calculated steps and then whacked the heavy square base into the center of his head. His skull cracked—the smashing-pumpkin sound so clear that it turned my stomach. Bitter bile surged up my throat. Mike dropped the knife and turned to me. His eyes crossed, glazed in confusion. Blood dripped from his nose. He opened his mouth to speak. “Ggggh, gggh.” Fuck. What had I done? I backed up to the middle of the living room as Annette rushed to my side. Mike reached for me and I held up the candlestick, ready to defend myself with another blow. Then his legs swayed…and he collapsed to his knees like a broken string-puppet. I held Annette close, trembling and looking down at Mike. His arms twitched, and he rolled to his side, eyes fluttering. I cupped my hand over my mouth to contain my scream. I’d never hurt anyone. Not even in a schoolyard fight or a mean-girls brawl. The only time I’d had the need to protect myself was when I’d been hospitalized and molested by my trusted therapist. But back then I’d been a defenseless, over-medicated minor, so that didn’t count. Annette dropped to her knees and brushed the scraggly hair from his eyes. “Poor Mike.” Her tone was soft and deliberate. She smoothed her hand over his bloody face like she was soothing his injury. I tossed the candlestick onto the couch and closed my eyes. What had I done? The darkness behind my eyelids dripped with blood and I covered my face with my hands, trying to block out the image. My breaths came shallow and fast. I heard Annette’s voice. A whimper, a pleading. I didn’t want to look. Then, a scuffing of scratchy feet came from the verandah. I opened my eyes, and the room spun. The rustling of shrubs. I pulled back the sheer curtain at the front living-room window and looked outside. Pitch black. Most likely a raccoon. The sickening sound of gurgling and gasping brought me back to the moment. Mike was alive. He could be saved. Get help. I dug my hand into my purse, searching for my phone. “I’ll call an ambulance.” Annette jumped from the floor and grabbed my arm. “It’s too late.” Her skin whitened, and I saw my own fear reflected in her face. “He’s dead.” Her tone was as heavy and flat as a slab of marble. Every hair on my body stiffened. Mike’s lifeless body lay sideways on the floor, a trickle of blood seeped from his ear, and his plastic-looking doll eyes stared at nothing. Nausea rolled through me. I splayed my hands over my face, trying to register what I’d done. I’d just killed a man. A man I knew only from his loser reputation. But it had been an accident. He’d threatened my life. Annette’s life. This was self-defense. “We have to call the police.” Though I wasn’t sure what I would say to the operator. Hello, I’d like to report an accidental death. “No.” She wiped her hands on her shorts and stared me down. Her voice turned deep and steady. “No police. We can’t get the cops involved.” I’d never seen this side of Annette; even the angles on her face looked sharper. Neither of us were thinking clearly. “But we’ve done nothing wrong! He invaded your home—this was self-defense.” Annette’s nostrils flared, and her blue eyes darkened. “The asshole deserved to die.” My skin tightened, pushing tiny hairs to the surface. Her guttural voice sounded like it had come from someone else. “What? Why—how can you say that?” She puffed out a breath of air. “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.” She paced the floor in front of Mike’s body. “Remember the party at Bulldog’s beach house? The one you couldn’t make?” Bulldog’s parties were legendary, and I’d been annoyed I couldn’t get off work early that night. “That was three weeks ago.” “Right. Well, I got wasted. Drank way too many shots. The house was packed. Somehow, I got separated from Denise and Nancy. I wound up having a few laughs with Mike.” She sighed. “He was being nice, you know?” Her voice cracked, and she hung her head. I recognized the tortured look of shame, but this wasn’t the time for her to sort out feelings. “What happened, Annette?” “The house got really hot and crowded, so Mike asked me if I wanted to go walk on the beach…get some fresh air.” She moved to the staircase and sat on the bottom step, like telling the story was draining all her strength. I slid into the space next to her on the step. “Make this quick.” She cupped her hands over her bent knees and looked to the ground. “As soon as Mike and I were on the trail to the beach, he surprised me with a punch to my face.” My hand went to my mouth, catching a gasp. “The bruise on your cheek...” Her fingers traced the spot on her face where the cut had just healed. The same side he’d hit and made red again tonight. “That wasn’t a door I ran into, but his fist. I tried to run away, but he was too strong. He dragged me to the dunes and…and he raped me.” She put her face in her hands, hunched over, and rocked. I patted her back, trying to stay calm instead of hurt that she hadn’t told me sooner. I could have helped her somehow. But we had a bigger problem to deal with now. I needed to stay calm for Annette’s sake. She lifted her head, redness spreading across her face. “I tried to fight him off, but…” “Okay. It’s okay. I know his small frame is deceiving.” My hand moved to my sore elbow. Nothing compared to the violence he’d inflicted on Annette. With slumped shoulders, she looked straight ahead. “After he raped me, he just zipped up his pants and walked away. Not a word. I was dizzy and disoriented. Totally lost. It took a long time to find my way out of the dunes.” “This is why you’ve been acting so weird for the past couple of weeks.” I swallowed my hurt. She knew about the molestation I’d experienced in the hospital and how no one had believed me. We’d always shared our deepest secrets. “Why didn’t you tell me when it happened?” “How could I tell anyone? Everyone at the party saw how drunk I was. People would’ve seen me happily go down to the beach with Mike. My lip was cut. I was a mess. I couldn’t go back and face anyone, so I crawled into Nancy’s car and slept. When Nancy and Denise got back to the car later, I told them I wasn’t feeling well. Didn’t say a word the whole ride home.” Annette took a long breath. “Did you tell your mom?” Color drained from her face. “No. And you can’t tell her. I don’t want her to know. Especially now. After this. She couldn’t handle this…I can’t hurt her this way.” Sweat dripped down the side of her face. She looked around the staircase rail at Mike’s lifeless body. “Ever since that night, I wanted to kill him.” I needed to throw water on her fire, so I worked to keep a cool tone. “He’s dead. He can’t hurt anyone. Not anymore.” “We’re not calling the cops, Jolene.” Her tone was as serious as the expression on her face. “Do you really want to deal with glaring lights and police while we’re tripping?” Fuck. I’d forgotten we’d taken acid. Besides a bit of weed, the only drug I’d ever had in my body had been the mind-numbing injections at the hospital. Never had a hallucinogenic and had no idea what to expect. Heaviness pressed on her shoulders. It just didn’t feel right to not report what happened. “It was self-defense. It’s not hard to see what happened here.” Annette groaned. “Try explaining that to the police when they show up and you’re busy talking to John Lennon in a Tibetan temple. ‘Cause that’s what’s about to happen. And when they see you acting crazy, we’ll both face a murder rap. Pre-meditated murder. You’ll get sent to back to the psych ward and I’ll be shipped off to prison.” Murder. Psych ward. Prison. We didn’t need more trouble. “Okay. Calling the police while we’re high on acid isn’t the best option. But we’ll have to call in the morning.” “Don’t be so naïve. Even if we report this tomorrow, do you think they’ll believe anything we say?” “We’ll tell them it was self-defense. We…we were scared.” Annette glared at me. “And you really think they’ll believe us?” “There’s a good chance they will.” “A better one they won’t.” “Better to tell the truth.” “The truth could get us into trouble.” My throat constricted so tight that my words came out in a whisper. “So, what the hell are we supposed to do?” She turned toward me. Our knees touching, she squeezed my hands. “We need to stick together. Like a family.” Her voice was soft, but desperation undercut her every word. “You know the hole we have in the backyard… the one where Mom was going to put a koi pond?” I remembered. Annette and I had helped dig the damn thing two Summers ago. Patsy had wanted it exactly five feet deep so the fish could stay low and live during the cold winters. The pile of dirt we’d unearthed was still next to the hole. Another one of Patsy’s many unfinished projects around the property. “What are you thinking…?” “We bury him in the pit.” I dropped her hands. “You want to what?” I almost laughed, but she kept a straight face. “We don’t have time to think about this.” She glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantel. “It’s 9:35. Only twenty minutes since we took the blotter. We can get this over with, and then everything will be back to normal.” “There is nothing normal about burying Mike in your backyard. You need to calm down…think—” “I am calm. I know exactly what I’m doing.” Her words were stone hard, calculated. “We’ll bury him right now. It’ll be done in no time. Then, tomorrow morning, we’ll go to the nursery and buy a small tree. We’ll plant it on top of him. Mom’s been talking about putting an oak tree there for the past six months. It’s perfect.” I blinked several times and tried to make sense of what Annette was saying. She’d always had a risky and wild streak but never a violent or morbid one. She acted like there were no consequences to be considered. I glared at her. “What’s happened to you? I’ve never seen you like this.” “I want to protect us. I don’t trust the police in this small-minded town to believe two college girls high on acid.” The authorities at the hospital hadn’t believed me, either. And it’d taken years to get over the teasing I’d endured at our middle school after word had gotten out that I’d been in a psychiatric hospital. Psycho Girl, they’d called me. Now, at nineteen, I’d overcome that derisive label, and I’d do anything to keep from getting locked up again. I gritted my teeth. What an idiot I was for taking that acid. I couldn’t change it now, but this—burying a body—it wasn’t right. There had to be another way. “Maybe we should tell your mom what happened. She can help.” Annette’s eyes widened, and she pressed her hands together in a beggar’s prayer. “No. Please. I want to keep my mom out of this. She’d tell the police. For certain.” She grabbed my hands and squeezed and pulled like she was climbing a rope on a sheer wall, afraid of plunging to her death. “I’m protecting us. All of us. If Mom finds out what happened, she’ll want to sell the house. We’ll move out of state. I’m sure of it. Do you want to do that to her? To us?” I breathed deeply. The strain in Annette’s voice reminded me how desperate I’d been to get out of the psych hospital. How Patsy had come to my rescue. How Annette hadn’t been embarrassed to be my best friend, even though the other kids had teased me. I owed her and her mother so much. Being part of this family had always been important. Patsy, Annette, and me. The Three Musketeers. We’d been together for the past twelve years. My formative years. I was close to them—closer than to my own father, who preferred beer and football over anything to do with me. If I betrayed Annette, our bond would be forever broken. And there was vengeance. Annette deserved vengeance. I deserved vengeance. I couldn’t blame her for not wanting to report the rape. Life had taught me to avoid situations where I might be shamed or humiliated. If I could help Annette avoid the pain as well, all the better. It was more important for me to support the closest person to me in the world than to take the moral high ground for the sake of someone like Mike. Burying Mike was the simplest, most logical thing to do. The hole was there. Open and ready like the hand of a hungry child. Above all, I couldn’t risk being locked up, and neither could Annette. This was about saving our skins. “Please,” Annette said. “Do this for me. I don’t want anyone else to know. Just you and me.” My moral compass had lost direction, but I had to make a choice. Be loyal to my dearest friend or loyal to the law. I felt no obligation to authority, but Annette was different. We were like sisters. My only family. And if I helped her bury Mike, we’d be forever bound by our secret. “How are you going to live in this house knowing he’s buried in the backyard?” Annette jumped to her feet, her face beaming like she’d discovered a cancer vaccine. “I’m going to forget he ever existed. You can do the same.” I turned to Mike’s lifeless body crumpled on the floor. Struggling to take catch a breath, I wanted to cry out but had no voice. My heart raced. Could I make this happen without ever looking back? This isn’t real. Annette stood over his body. “Please, Jolene. We need to do this. Now.” Urgency threaded her words. She plucked the knife off the floor, then shoved it down the front of Mike’s board shorts. She clutched onto one of his wrists. “Grab an arm. We’ll drag him to the back.” A twist in my gut made me hesitate. Could I bear holding a dead body? I’d managed to block out unpleasantness before. I’d make sure I did it better this time. I took a deep breath. “I’m ready.” A tingling sensation rose from my core to my scalp, and my mind switched into a fixed gear. I mentally disconnected from what I was doing. Pretended this wasn’t happening. Bury the memory of this night along with the body. I blocked any emotion which tried to invade my thoughts. Swallowing what felt like my last drop of saliva, I stayed focused on what needed doing. I grabbed Mike’s other wrist. The warmth of his skin shocked me, and I almost let go. But I’d made my decision, so I tightened my grip. We dragged his deadweight through the kitchen, out the back door, and across the redwood deck. His sneaker-covered feet thumped down the two back stairs. “One, two, three, four, five…” I counted each step under my breath as we dragged his body across the freshly cut lawn, deep into the darkness of the backyard. Counting had always been my way of coping with stress. After my mother had died, I’d used counting to soothe my fears. It was imperative to keep a precise beat and sequence in order to keep out the dark thoughts. Thirty steps, I’d counted from the bottom of the deck to the edge of the pit. Twenty-nine, actually, but round numbers fit my mindset. I dropped his arm. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck. I lifted my long hair to cool off in the breeze. It took a moment to catch my breath and adjust my eyes to the dark. Only a sliver of the moon and a sprinkle of starts gave us light. “Let’s roll him in.” Annette dropped to her knees and pressed her hands into his back. “Come on! Help me!” I kneeled next to her, hating what we were doing. Hating even more the risk of getting arrested for murder and going back to the looney bin. Not becoming a teacher. Not getting the hell out of this godforsaken provincial town. Block it out. I put my hand on his waist then heaved him into the hole. Gravelly soil rolled over him, and his body hit the earth in a heap, like a crumpled bag of bones. Feel nothing. Annette hopped up and wiped her hands on her shorts. “I’m going to the shed for a couple of shovels.” I stood, lifted the hem of my cotton tank top and wiped the sweat from my face. Silhouettes of the hundred-year-old pines surrounding the property swayed against the charcoal sky. My breath kept rhythm with the gentle movement of the forest, slow and steady. I floated outside my body. “Here you go.” Annette handed me a shovel. My skin tingled as I took myself out of the moment. It was important to feel nothing, to see nothing. I jabbed the shovel downward and loosened a chunk of soil, sending an avalanche of dirt into the pit. Void of emotion, I went into robot mode, tossing shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the pit. The breeze picked up, rustling the leaves in the overgrown forest surrounding the sides and back of the property. A symphony of sounds—wind and leaves, creaking old trees, the song of crickets and cicadas, each its own ensemble. Then something else. I stopped shoveling. Squish, squish, squish. A sound that wouldn’t stop. Squish, squish, squish. Running feet on the lawn. I swallowed and peered deep into the darkness. Was someone there with us? Random flickers of light came from the last of the evening’s fireflies. In my side vision, a black figure ran from the forest behind us, across the lawn and toward the front of the house. My heart jumped, and the reality of what we were doing jerked me back into myself. “I just saw someone.” Annette jabbed her shovel in the soil and looked around. “No one’s here.” Her voice was low and raspy. “Come on. We’re almost finished.” I shook my head hard, thinking the acid must have kicked in—that I must be hallucinating. Annette had said it would take forty-five minutes to an hour. Had that much time passed? Didn’t matter. I moved back into auto-mode, my head down, counting shovelful in sets of five. The numbers were all that mattered. Not the sweat dripping down my back. The noise again. The squishing footsteps. Something. Someone. I looked up. My equilibrium was off, my vision skewed. A black shadow along the forest’s edge. Or was it a black mist? Air sucked out of my lungs. No. This figure was human- shaped, solid and swift. Nothing seemed normal. A strange weightiness came over me. My feet were like concrete blocks and my body grew heavy. The pile of dirt was almost gone now, but the earth became soft as a pillow. I sank down down down into the soft ground, the power of the drug being so unexpected that I lost focus. Red-and-white tail lights of a passing car filtered through the trees. I marveled at the beauty of the streaming ribbons of lights, then remembered what we were doing. “Shit, look.” “Don’t worry,” Annette said, her tone full of assurance. “That’s the Nichols. They go out every Saturday night. I recognize their old-fashioned tail lights.” She’d know, having lived in this house her entire life. And we’d both known since childhood that this part of the backyard wasn’t visible from the street. Especially at night. “This is good.” Annette dropped her shovel. “Let’s get cleaned up, and we’ll deal with the final stage tomorrow.” I slapped my hands together. Final stage. She made it sound like we were building a clubhouse. I walked across the lawn behind Annette who was headed for the hose at the deck. The breeze and the buzzing…the buzzing. I rubbed both my ears. What was that? Cicadas singing so loudly, I floated on the notes. I stood next to Annette on the deck steps and reached for the spigot. She took my hand and squeezed. “Wait a minute, Joley.” Joley. A tingly rush of euphoria spread from my toes to my scalp, warming my body. My mom had called me Joley. Once in a while, Patsy called me Joley. But hearing Annette use my endearing name deepened my sense of our belonging and connection. She looked me straight in the face. “What you did for me tonight….” She sighed deeply. “You’re like the sister I’ve always wanted. We’re bonded forever. You know that, right?” A warm rush burst in my heart then spread out to my limbs. My bond with her was more than sisterly, because never had our connection been on a higher, more spiritual level than at this moment. “I’ve always felt that way.” She nodded an understanding and then turned on the spigot. “Time to get back to where we started an hour ago.” An hour ago? What had we been doing an hour ago? I used the hose to rinse off the dirt, the whoosh of warm water tickling my hands and feet. I found myself back in the living room, holding a beach towel. I looked at myself, dry and clean except for some specks of dirt under my fingernails. What had I done to get so dirty in the first place? Had anything really happened? “Now,” Annette said in a chirpy tone, “time to get back to business.” She picked up our wine glasses and handed me one. I tossed the towel on an armchair and gleefully took my wine. My vision sharpened. Was it possible we’d never left the house? Everything looked as it had before. Almost. The walls and furniture were distorted and out of proportion. Had time even passed? I looked at the clock on the mantel, melting like an image in a Salvador Dali painting. Annette stacked CDs in the player and hummed a bebop tune. Betty Boop. Ha! Annette was Betty Boop in a red flapper dress and short black hair with pin curls. I burst out laughing. Annette laughed too, like she was in on the joke. Utter joy flowed through me, and I turned in a circle, enchanted by the dollhouse room with pink curtains and a leopard-print chair. Annette’s living room—I knew that—but everything had changed into an animation. And the colors! A kaleidoscope of vibrant magenta, orange, and sunshine yellow. The space around me luminated, my body becoming light as cotton candy. I swigged a mouthful of wine, and sweet bubble gum burst on my tongue. Music. The Red Hot Chili Peppers sang “The Zepher Song.” I floated a few feet in the air while Annette, now dressed in a white robe, danced a whirling dervish around the room. Was this a dream? A breeze brushed over me, and tiny hairs rose on my skin. I tasted the scent of sweet gardenias, and then suddenly, I wore a long, white, flowy dress, like the angels in storybooks my mother had once read to me. I was so light that I could fly, and I leaped forward, away on the scented breeze, carried by a chorus of cicadas. Grab your copy of this page-turning thriller today! ORDER HERE Pre-order of ebook is available on Amazon NOW! ORDER HERE. 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