This novella will be the first in dual narration for any of my works and I am pumped to hear these two titans of the audio industry narrate this story!
Check out the creepy cover! (Shameless plug - yes, I designed it).
A huge thank you to Jeff LaFerney, editor extraordinaire, and to my beta readers ~ you know who you are and I THANK YOU for all the honest feedback.
Here is the first chapter - enjoy!
JUNE 6, 1967
…A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel
weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children,
because there were not. ~ Jeremiah 31:15
Raye expelled a heavy white plume of smoke from her lungs with an angry huff toward the dark, evening sky. With a gaze blurred by alcohol, she followed the languid trail until it disappeared into the humid night air. Twisting her thin lips into a grimace, she sighed. The vanishing vapors perfectly symbolized her entire existence—poof! Gone. Nothing lingering behind except the faintest odor, soon to dissipate with just one burst of wind, wiping all traces of her presence away.
“Gone with the wind,” she slurred, doing her best impression of Scarlett O’Hara.
Gone, but forgotten?
The Quast family’s contributions to Hot Spring County spanned generations and were many and memorable. Unfortunately, the sparkles were paler now, overshadowed by Stevie’s deplorable actions.
It’s all your fault. You were a horrible mother. You never let Stevie grow up! I told you he wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans! I told you!
The judgmental voice of her mother rang inside her mind. It was so crisp and clear it made her cringe. On instinct, her gaze searched the abandoned house and surrounding countryside. If she believed in such things, she expected to see the ghost of her mother hovering nearby.
Bourbon-tinged breath hitched inside her throat. Just thinking her son’s name made her tremble despite the oppressive heat. A wave of fresh grief broke through the haze of hooch and nicotine. Up until tonight, she’d never been drunk in her entire life. She leaned against the rickety spindle for support until the sensation passed, focusing all her attention on listening to the ruckus of cicadas and other night critters singing in the woods bathed in moonlight.
A strange squawking noise to her right made her jump. Silver tendrils of light from the full moon illuminated a large bird flittering from the sky. It landed on a long branch next to the porch’s shambling eave. She scowled at it once, then looked away, clicking the flashlight on.
Taking another deep drag, she mentally apologized to the heavens for sinking into the murky pit full of the devil’s brew to soothe her damaged soul. The heartfelt prayer was followed by a wicked, drunken giggle. “Oh, the congregation of First Southern Baptist would be aghast at my current predicament! Ettie Louise Hildebrand would pass smooth out if she caught me—the woman behind the push to turn the county dry back in the day—drunker than Cooter Brown. Such a scandal! Oh, heavenly days! Like it matters. What’s one more dark spot on our family’s ruined tree?”
Shaking her head to rid the foolish, inebriated thoughts away, she stood, body swaying from a burst of alcohol-induced dizziness. Gripping the worn wood of the railing, she steadied herself before climbing the last steps. She stopped inches away from the front door, clutching the heavy purse to her chest.
Why are you here, Elizabeth Rachel? You should be home mourning the dead, not out catting around like some drunken floozy! Look at you! Dirty, sweaty, holes in your stockings…and smoking! I didn’t raise you to look like gutter trash! You’re a Dalton woman! You’re supposed to command respect!—remain pious despite any painful circumstances. Instead, you’re acting like a petulant child stomping and snorting because you didn’t get your way.
“Take five, Mother,” Raye huffed. “Go bother Daddy for a while. I’ve got things to do.”
A bitter chuckle made her shoulders bounce up and down.
She was losing the last tendrils of her sanity.
Blinking twice, she gave a final glance to the road and surrounding fields. Nothing moved. No headlights. Nothing but the lone bird watching her with black, soulless eyes from the branch.
Shining the flashlight on the porch, she took in the dilapidated structure. Most of the windows were gone, destroyed by rocks or other projectiles. Graffiti in various colors and horrible words covered the entire front of the home. Some of the words were so vile she felt violated just reading them.
Hot anger bloomed inside her chest at the lack of respect. People died here. Children were slaughtered by their own mother. This wasn’t a place to defile but rather, a place to mourn.
The anger engorged to rage, blazing through her entire body until reaching her head. She wasn’t the kind of woman prone to violence or fury in the past. She was a pragmatic note taker, planner, who had a strong head for business. No-nonsense is what Daddy always said. He’d raised her to be that way, and she’d lapped up the attention he showered on her, absorbing every nuance of his own business ethics and dealings with people until she became a pro before graduating high school.
Unfortunately, life had taken a drastic, sharp turn during the last year—and it all started inside the four walls of the house she now owned.
“What happened inside this monstrosity will define us for all eternity! Stephen James Quast, you were wooed by a seductress! Shame on you! I raised you better than to succumb to the songs of a siren! Look what she made you do! Look what she made you do!” The angry words spewed out of her mouth before she could retract them.
She slammed a dainty fist against the doorframe.
Grief at the loss of her one and only child had brought her to her knees—literally. She would never forget the all-consuming sorrow the second Sheriff Clyde Tidwell broke the news. She’d collapsed onto the porch, ears ringing from her high-pitched screams of primal pain.
The first crack in her sanity formed that terrible day.
After the sheriff popped the bubble insulating her inside the perfect world she’d created, Raye retreated into her bedroom for two days straight, locked away from everyone, including her grieving husband. She didn’t bathe, eat, sleep, change clothes, or cry. Not one tear. Instead, she curled into a tight ball on top of the bed and stared out the window, seeing nothing.
The horrible, heartbreaking day of Stevie’s funeral widened the mental crack. It turned into a deep fissure as she unleashed her pain in the form of a loud, resounding slap! across Tidwell’s cheek after Stevie’s casket was lowered into the earth. She’d berated the old sheriff in front of a gawking crowd of stunned mourners unaccustomed to seeing her normally calm and prim self lose control. She’d screeched like an old hoot owl, flinging spittle from her lips as she cast all the blame on Clyde for not watching out for her baby boy.
“He was supposed to be safe here, Clyde! You were to take him under your wing, protect him! I did everything a mother could to keep him from being shipped over to Vietnam, and yet he died anyway! By his own hand! It’s all your fault!”
Clyde’s wide, blue eyes had looked at her with pity. He didn’t say a word in response, and the silence infuriated her into what her momma would have called a hissy fit. Her fists flew just as fast as the words born from the depths of the heart of a grieving mother. She pummeled his face, scratched his arms, and, in a final act of rage before being yanked away by her husband and Pastor Riley, balled up her fist and slammed it into his ribs, knowing they were broken.
She wanted him to hurt as much as she did, but no amount of physical pain she was capable of inflicting would even scratch the surface of her mental anguish.
The next three weeks were a blur of mishmash images after Dr. Durbin gave her a shot of something. There were vague memories of Beau at her bedside, water and pills in hand, encouraging her to take them and sleep, cooing soft words. “Rest, my love. I need you. We need each other.”
As the days stretched into weeks and months, the fissure eased back to a small break, only belching and spewing disturbing thoughts and emotions at night when her husband drifted off to sleep, clutching her hand in his own.
She thought progress was on the horizon toward acceptance her son was gone. The overwhelming yearning to hold him in her arms as though still a small boy consumed her for weeks. Eventually, she resigned herself to the fact she’d never watch her son marry, become a father, or see her husband play peek-a-boo with a new generation bearing the last name of Quast.
The hope of acceptance disappeared. The fissure exploded into a gaping crater eight months later after becoming a widow. Beau’s death obliterated any semblance of the proper southern woman, wife, mother, or friend she’d been before.
She wasn’t even close to the woman she’d been for sixty-two years.
Stevie’s suicide rained down unwanted attention, painful gossiping behind her back, pitiful stares, and awkward silence from lifelong friends. Shame and humiliation, grief and loss, coated the once lily-white interior walls of her soul with a somber gray. The only thing providing any sort of tranquility or stability in the upside-down world had been the stoic, calming presence of the man she married thirty years ago. Not even the Psalms of King David brought her any relief.
Peace and comfort evaporated like droplets of a pop-up rainstorm on the hot blacktop in the middle of summer when Beau’s bum ticker thumped for the last time. Now, the walls inside her mind were coated in ebony nothingness—a dark, ugly, unfillable void. The mental black hole sucked the remainder of light from her life.
She took another long swig from the half-empty bottle, hoping the amber liquid would help ease the stabbing pangs of grief gripping her heart.
Time and many, many nights of reliving every single detail of the last twenty-nine years since she’d become a mother erased the blame she’d unfairly placed on Clyde’s shoulders. He didn’t force or encourage her boy to commit adultery with a married woman.
Or kill his co-worker.
Or pull the trigger of his own weapon directed at his temple.
“Damnit, Stevie! You ruined everything!”
Elizabeth Rachel and Beauregard Baxter Quast, III, better known throughout the community as Raye and BBQ, wouldn’t be remembered as friendly, kind-hearted folks. Nope. The couple blessed with financial success in the timber and oil field industries and keepers of the vast empire so generously passed down into BBQ’s lap from his predecessors, fell from grace.
The minimal attendance of mourners at her beloved Beau’s funeral was proof. Ever since the news broke of the horrific murders and Stevie’s confessional report hit the paper, the entire town didn’t exactly shun them, yet they certainly didn’t offer comfort or compassion either.
Her precious Stevie had ruined his reputation—the one she worked diligently to cultivate since he burst from her womb. Former Deputy Stephen Quast was famous now, his name bandied about the entire community—nay, the entire state—in whispered, hushed tones behind her back. His life story burgeoned into a legend—a tale to be spoken of by parents and pastors to remind unruly children and parishioners what happens when straying from God’s word to indulge in the lusts of the flesh.
My, so judgmental, daughter! The drunkard’s pointing fingers at other sinners. Tsk. Tsk.
Raye gritted her teeth, muttering to herself. “I said leave me alone, Mother!”
Rather than being famous as you craved, Stevie’s actions will live on in infamy. Like I always told you, be careful what you ask for because he’ll be remembered as a coward, not as the young man eager to serve his county as a respectful lawman.
“Shut up, Mother! Shut up!” Raye clamped her trembling hands over her ears.
Your one and only child—the one you said was your reason for living—is dead. I told you to have more in case one died! I told you! But no, you didn’t listen. You’ve always been such a stubborn girl. So headstrong. So insistent on your way or the highway, just like when you lobbied hard against Beau and his family to name the little twerp Stephen James Quast rather than BBQ the fourth. Stevie’s gone but certainly not forgotten. What promise the strapping boy had before you coddled him to death. Was he really worth the thirty-six hours of grueling labor so difficult you couldn’t have any other children? That boy destroyed all the contributions of past Quast and Dalton generations in one night!
Raye’s head spun. Tears raced down her cheeks. Even in death, her mother’s bitterness crossed time and space to torment her with the sharp barbs.
All because of some two-bit trollop unable to keep her legs together or know her place as a married woman. A dirty Jezebel whose sultry charms lured naïve Stevie into a wicked game, culminating into a violent volcano the night she killed her own children in cold blood. If you’d been a better mother, none of this would have happened.
A few warm tears escaped her eyes, racing down hot cheeks onto her gnarled fingers. Ignoring the imaginary conversation with her long-deceased mother, she fumbled for the key from her purse. She sniffed hard while biting her lower lip until drawing blood. The spark of pain cleansed the crazy ramblings inside her mind.
The bird squawked again. She ignored it.
Upon entering the filthy, rundown interior, she gasped. The stench of decay overwhelmed her senses. “I’m glad you accepted my offer, Clyde, and got the boy away from this evil.”
Glancing at the Omega watch on her wrist, she sighed. Long gone were the times she’d admire the sparkling pavé diamonds surrounding the edges, letting a hint of pride seep into her thoughts at the extravagant gift purchased by her beloved Beauregard for their twenty-fifth anniversary.
Material possessions were never really what drove her, though they were nice. Now, they simply seemed frivolous and a waste of good money.
“No more anniversary or birthday celebrations ever again. Ever again. Lord, how am I supposed to process that? I’d give every penny away and live in poverty dressed in rags and living down by the river in a hut to have them back. I would! Please—I’ve been faithful to you my whole life. Please, grant me this one prayer? Bring them back to me? I can’t…I just can’t…take this pain.”
Closing her eyes, she collapsed onto the dirty floor, mumbling the crazy words over and over. She willed her prayers to make it to the Lord’s throne and be granted yet knew He wouldn’t. One of her father’s favorite Bible instructions to bring up when discussing why bad things happen in the world filled her mind: Just remember, daughter, the good book says we are blessed because we are God’s children, yet while still in this world, the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and unjust.
And by God, a deluge of water had flooded her soul, washing away all traces of everything she’d ever loved in one, enormous tidal wave of pain when she read Stevie’s letter, sending her straight into madness.
I am currently working on the third novella in the series, Mayhem. Below is the cover: