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First pages

Part I

Chapter 1:

Hollowed Heart

It happened when I was seventeen. It was the beginning of summer in 1985. That morning, I stood clutching my backpack under the service garage awning, waiting for my best friend Tina to pick me up for school. A red car with a black stripe down its hood suddenly pulled into the dusty gravel gas station lot. I knew all the cars in Ruthsford. And I hadn’t seen that one before. It looked too new, too expensive for our small town. As the strange car pulled beside me, I wondered just who was behind the wheel. But when the sun struck her teased blonde hair and bright red lipstick, there was no question.

“Killer, huh?” asked Tina as she lowered the passenger-side window, grinning in delight.

“Oh my god! It’s so great!” I shouted as I climbed inside. “What kind of car is this?”

“You’re kidding, right?” she scoffed. “Lisa! It’s a freakin’ Mustang!”

“How can you afford a Mustang?”

“Well it’s not like I paid for it myself. My parents got it for me. You know, for my birthday.”

“First of all, you are so lucky. And second of all, I am so sorry!” I cringed. “I totally forgot today was your birthday. But I’ll make it up to you. I swear.”

“No biggie. And don’t worry. You’ll never forget this birthday after the big bash I’m throwing this weekend.”

“Shit. I wish you would’ve told me sooner. I don’t think I can go,” I moaned. “I promised my dad I’d help him out with the shifts this weekend.”

“C’mon,” she scolded. “Don’t let this hell hole run your life.”

“Don’t call it that,” I warned as I saw my dad emerge from the garage.

He wore a pristine pair of coveralls, which would no doubt be covered in grease by the middle of the morning. He made his way towards the car wearing that weird grin he got whenever he was around vehicles that impressed him. “I thought I heard a set of wheels pull up that sounded a bit more Christina’s speed,” he joked.

“Yup. I’m finally free of the ‘Blue Bomb,’” she happily announced, referring to her mom’s hand-me-down robin-egg blue Buick Lesabre.

“Four or six cylinder?” he asked.

Tina shrugged. “Hell if I know.” I jabbed her with my elbow.

“May I?” he asked, gesturing to the hood. Tina fumbled for the lever before finally popping it open. “Yup. There they are. Six bangers,” he announced before gently letting the hood fall back down. “Now Christina, be sure to drive carefully. Remember. You still only have a learner’s permit. And you’re carrying precious cargo,” he said, turning to me with a wink.

“Don’t worry Mr. Jacobs. I will get Lisa to school safe. But more importantly—on time!” With that, she sped out of the lot with her foot heavy on the pedal. The tires kicked up gravel, spitting the tiny rocks high into the air. And when the car grabbed the pavement, the tires squealed, creating a small cloud of smoke from the burned rubber.

“Tina!” I shouted. “I can’t believe you just did that!”

“Relax. Your dad likes me,” she said flippantly as she pushed in the cigarette lighter and then fumbled through her purse for a cigarette...

The strangest thing was there wasn’t anything strange about that day at all. We never suspected a thing. It was an ordinary day. A day like any other... Those were the types of things victims’ families would say on all those true crime shows when asked to look back to the day of a tragedy. It always seemed like such a cliché. But that day, it truly was ordinary…

Tina dropped me off after school. I stopped by the vending machine beside the service garage for a can of orange pop. Nothing seemed out of place as I entered the house and dropped my backpack to the kitchen table. I was hungry. “Dad!” I yelled. He hadn’t started dinner, so I wanted to see if I should’ve started something myself. I listened for a moment. He did not answer. The house was silent. So I assumed he was still working in the garage.

I headed across the yard and made my way towards the service station. I knew he was home because his pickup was in the drive. I jerked the side door of the garage open. The lights were off, but I yelled inside anyway. “Dad?” I called, wondering where he could be. Perhaps he was in the backyard? I ran out to the garden. The tall sunflowers bobbed gently in the breeze, their stems barely able to hold up their heavy heads. I cupped my hands around my mouth and called again beyond the garden and into the cornfield, which lined the backyard. Perplexed, but not alarmed, I headed back to the house.

Macaroni and cheese sounded good. So I put a large pot of water on the stove. While waiting for it to boil, the stillness of the house began to frighten me more than I thought it should have. It was strange. I was used to being alone. It was just that I was also used to our afternoon routine. Even if he had a large repair job to finish, he’d always take a break for dinner when I got home from school. And if he were working late, why the heck were the garage lights off?

With that nagging thought, I jolted once more across the yard. I stormed into the service station and flipped on the lights. The overhead fluorescents flickered and popped to life. In the first bay, a red-rusted pick-up had been hoisted from the ceiling by a chain. The old truck was from another era. Its large, round, old-fashioned headlights resembled troubled eyes. It seemed sad and lonely strung up by its hind quarters in the dank garage.

“Dad?” I called again as I opened the door to his office. The small desk lamp was on. Keys and invoices were strewn about the desk. But where was he? Curiously, I noticed his chair was missing. I rounded the dangling relic of a pickup and stepped into the second bay.

And there, in the middle of the garage floor, my father sat in his office chair. I had told him a hundred times to get a more comfortable chair for his office. But the old wooden chair from his grandmother’s farmhouse was as much of a tradition with him as was the old painted sign welcoming the townsfolks to the Ruthsford Gas & Service Station.

He sat with his back to me, the chair facing the large bay door. His arms hung loose at his sides. It was peculiar, him sitting so still in the garage. “Why are you out here? And why were you sitting in the dark?” I asked, beginning to feel a tinge of trepidation. He did not answer. He did not move. “Dad?” I asked, as the seed of fear began to travel up my spine. Slowly, I approached him. “Are you okay?” I asked meekly. His stillness caused me to move forward with apprehension, wanting to delay the moment I would see his face. I struggled to hold onto my mind, which threatened to leave my body and flee to an alternate universe. As I finally rounded the chair, I brought my hand to my mouth. And then, I froze. I did not scream. I did not move. I simply recorded what I saw in a numb state of trauma.

His jaw was slack. His mouth wide open. He wore no shirt. His chest and torso, they had been split open. There was a deep vertical cut from the top of his chest all the way down to just above his stomach. And there was a horizontal cut straight across his upper chest. Flaps of skin hung where the cuts intersected.

Even in my state of paralysis, and beyond the fact that it was evident my father had not done this to himself, I realized something was not right with the scene: there was no blood. The surgical-like incisions were dry. His face and body were so white, there seemed to be no blood in him at all. That is, except for the tiny bit that trickled down his arms from the puncture wounds in the creases of each elbow. The blood dripped down his arms and off his fingertips. It created tiny puddles on the garage floor, where it then streamed into the drain just below the chair.

I don’t know how long I stood there locked in that surreal netherworld. Unable to move. To feel. To process what I was seeing. I didn’t recall moving from the spot. But somehow, I had managed to make my way back to the office. I picked up the phone and dialed the Ruthsford Police Department. The number was by the phone. Not just because it made sense to have it handy, but because the police department was our largest account. “My dad. He’s been—come to the gas station,” I said simply…

I stared at the phone in a daze until I saw flashing red and blue lights through the windows that lined the top of the bay doors. I emerged from the garage like a zombie, nearly colliding with Sheriff Sternhardt, who stood in my path. Because Ruthsford was such a small town, I had known him all my life. His intimidating presence always made me feel tense, sick to my stomach. Everyone at school agreed that his name, aptly pronounced “Stern Heart” matched his reputation, especially after his notorious locker searches put several smalltime high school drug dealers out of business.

Even though our interactions were rare, because of the police department’s account with the station, I’d see him often. He’d simply refuel without visiting the cashier’s window, expecting the unpaid transactions to be recorded and billed monthly to the department. It made it difficult to know if anyone was in fact stealing gas when no one was watching. If they were, the ironic thing was it was being paid for by the Ruthsford Police Department.

“I got a call from dispatch,” he said. “What’s this about Lisa?”

I didn’t hear his words. I could only focus on his thick beard and mustache, which had been half overtaken by patches of grey. “My dad—” was all I managed as a response.

“I already told your dad he’s chargin’ too much for his damn gas. I’ve been talkin’ to a station in Sharlaton. They’ll give us close to wholesale. Sure, it’s a further drive. But it would still sure as hell beat his prices. We’re gettin’ gouged!”

My arm felt heavy and weak as I lifted it and pointed to the garage door. “Please,” I begged. “My dad. He’s in there. He’s been—murdered,” I said at once, struggling to believe the reality of my own words. And as his jaw became slightly askew with his own measure of disbelief, I immediately turned from him and began my slow shuffle towards the house. At that moment, I didn’t realize or care whether or not my numbness could be mistaken for calmness.

By that time, the pot of water had turned into a mad boil. I had completely forgotten about the macaroni and cheese and the gas burner. The thought of food itself seemed plain odd, like it was the least important thing on the planet. I methodically turned the knob and removed the pot from the burner. Then, the silence came. It permeated the house like an invisible invader, a quiet stillness that brought with it a perplexing deafening hum. I gripped the countertop and braced it as if a strong wave were crashing into me. And then I looked to the yellow phone hanging from the wall near the kitchen table. Its long, tangled cord just about reached the floor. I leapt for it as if I were in deep water and it were a life preserver. Immediately, I dialed Tina.

Typical Tina, she answered after a half ring. Thank god. “Hey Tina,” I said attempting to sound as normal as possible. “What’re you up to?”

“Whattaya think, dipshit?” she said followed by a mock snorting laugh. “My party... Now if I make it a pool party, we can see if Mark Kheller’s chest is as hairy as everyone says. Will that be enough to get you to ditch that dump on Saturday?”

“My dad is dead,” I blurted.

“Whoa… What the hell are you talking about?”

“Murdered.”

She didn’t say anything for the longest while. The silence once again began to creep from the far corners of the house and surround me like an eerie blanket. “Tina! Say something!” I screamed.

“I’m coming over,” she said. “Stay right there.”

“No. Don’t hang up,” I pleaded. “What am I supposed to do?”

“Did you call the police?”

“Yes. Sternhardt’s here. In the garage. With my dad.”

“Okay then. Call Richard. Have you called Richard?”

“No.”

“Just call Richard. And I will be there before you know it.”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “Okay.”

Richard. How could Tina be the one to have thought of calling Richard and I hadn’t? His own sister. I clenched the receiver and dialed, not knowing how I would have the strength to tell him about Dad. He picked up on the fifth ring, but did not say a word. “Richard?”

“What is this? I just got to sleep.”

“It’s Lisa.”

“I know who it is.”

“Why are you sleeping? It’s not even five o’clock.”

“I’m tired. That’s why. What do you want?” he said, dismissing me as he often did in those days.

“It’s Dad… Will you come to the house?”

“Shit Lisa. I told him I don’t have his money yet. I’m working on it, okay? Just tell him to back off for a damn minute.”

“He’s dead, Richard,” I declared.

As soon as I had laid those words onto him, the door burst open. My body jolted in shock as Sternhardt rushed into the room, his voice booming at the top of his lungs. “Did I tell you to move from where you were standing, missy?! This is an active crime scene! Move back onto the driveway! If you deviate from that spot, I will hold you in my squad car. Do you understand?”

As instructed, I dropped the phone and rushed back to the driveway with Sternhardt close behind. We were met with two more squad cars and an ambulance. Two officers met with Sternhardt, and he directed them to the garage. A man in plainclothes emerged from another squad car and started taking pictures with a large camera every few steps. As he passed me, my limbs trembling, he took a shot of my bewildered face. The giant flash blinded me for several moments. When I regained my vision, Sternhardt’s face was inches from mine. As he began to speak, I focused again on the grey and black whiskers that peppered his upper lip.

“Now I need you to retrace your actions, specifically, from the moment you got home to the moment you called the police.”

As I began to recall my story about being hungry for macaroni and cheese, I saw Tina’s blonde hair bobbing towards the station. Immediately, I threw up my hand. “Tina!” I shouted. “Over here!”

“For Christ’s sake, Miss Jacobs!” shouted a perturbed Sheriff Sternhardt. “Is this who you were telephoning?”

“Yes,” I answered meekly as Tina gave me a hug.

“I can’t believe it… What happened to your dad?” she asked.

Sternhardt cleared his throat, annoyed. “I’m the one asking the questions here, young lady. Now go back where you came from. I’m sure Miss Jacobs will call you when it’s all over.”

Tina folded her arms and defiantly took a step forward. “Sternhardt? Really? They sent you? Finding who did this isn’t exactly going to be like finding Quaaludes in a high schooler’s locker. Are you sure you’re up to it?”

“Tina!” I begged. “Please. I need him to find out what happened.” Tina retreated by taking a few steps back, but kept her arms crossed and her glare squarely on the sheriff.

Then began the onslaught of questions: “Had your father been acting strangely the last few days? Have there been any changes in his schedule recently? Had anyone strange been hanging around the station? Do you know of anyone who may have wanted to harm him? Did anyone owe him money? Did he owe anyone money?”

But I knew my answers were of no help. I noticed no strangers lurking about. He didn’t owe anyone money as far as I knew. And the only outstanding debt owed to him, aside from what I guessed was a small amount from Richard, were a few unpaid bills by Ruthsford’s very own police department.

Just as he finished his questioning, a stretcher emerged from the garage door. I wanted to avert my eyes, but couldn’t as it rolled past, my father under the sheet. Tina spun me towards the house. “Oh Miss Jacobs?” Sternhardt asked. “One more question...” I turned back to face him, catching a glimpse of my father being loaded into the ambulance out of the corner of my eye. “What about your brother?”

“What about him?”

“Can you think of any reason he would have to cause harm to your father?” I was startled by the thought, too startled to even answer his question. “I will have to track him down, you understand,” he said, tipping the brim of his hat.

“I spoke with him,” I offered simply.

“When?”

“Tonight. In the kitchen. After I called Tina.”

“So you know his whereabouts?”

“Yes, but I’m sure after our phone call, he’ll be over here soon.”

“Excellent Miss Jacobs because I’ll want to question him, naturally.”

Naturally,” Tina blurted with sarcasm.

“And then you can ride back with him—to wherever he lives nowadays,” he continued.

“Why would I go to his place?” I asked. “I’m fine staying right here.”

“Not gonna happen young lady. This will be a crime scene for quite some time. You can’t stay here. Besides, you’re under eighteen, are you not?”

“Eighteen at the end of August.”

“Well eighteen at the end of August means you are still a minor. And that means you cannot legally live on your own. So it’s either live with your brother for now. Another relative. Or you can come down to the station and—”

“She’s staying with me!” Tina interrupted and grabbed my arm. She began pulling me down the driveway towards her Mustang parked beyond the cruisers.

“I’ll need the address and phone number for where you’ll be staying so you can be reached for further questioning. And any temporary guardians will need to fill out the proper forms!” he called after us.

“You know where I live!” Tina shot back. “Everyone knows where I live,” she muttered under her breath.

Chapter 2:

The Grant Mansion

For being best friends, Tina and I surely were different. She had moved to Ruthsford my freshman year. I was amazed how quickly—and boldly she had asserted herself into the Ruthsford high school scene. She had easily made her way into the most popular group. But she was also indifferent of their acceptance. Case-in-point, she chose me, not one of them, to be her best friend. I realized it was pathetic to think I was chosen by Tina, but she really did have a choice. She could’ve had anybody for her best friend. When I asked her why she liked hanging out with me, she quickly explained “because you’re not a fake.” She appreciated authenticity, no matter how beautiful, mundane or ugly. She gravitated towards it.

In many ways, Christina, who I exclusively called Tina, was my antithesis. She was blonde. I had shoulder-length auburn hair.

She was popular. In most situations, I tended to be the wallflower. I didn’t consider myself particularly shy, but I didn’t exactly blurt out all my inner thoughts and feelings either.

She was pretty and asserted her beauty through her clothes and make-up. I never wore make-up or styled my hair much. Perhaps it was because I had lost my mother at a young age and lived only with guys: my older brother, Richard, and my father. I didn’t know the first thing about how to apply make-up without looking like a clown. Luckily, I didn’t really have the interest. I told myself my style was natural, and that’s what I was comfortable with.

I lived in a small cottage house behind my father’s gas station, where the awful lime green paint was peeling off the siding. Her family had moved into the old Grant Mansion, which sat atop a hill behind iron gates and a long, twisting driveway.

If I had been a particularly envious person, I would’ve been envious of Tina, but not for her grand living… Aside from being the largest, most lavish property in Ruthsford, it also came with a tragic history...

The mansion was built by Frank and Loretta Grant. They had owned the only upscale restaurant in town, The Silver Dollar. Loretta managed the staff and was notorious for firing help on a whim if they did not complete tasks to her satisfaction. She was particularly obsessed with the wine glasses. The story went that she made the wait staff wash the wine glasses by hand. She would then personally inspect each by holding them to the light. Sometimes, a single glass was washed and dried hundreds of times before she was satisfied.

When Mrs. Grant finally had enough of the restaurant business, she left the day-to-day management to her more reasonable husband. The staff, and even many a patron, cheered. Yet without Loretta’s keen management style, their business began to deteriorate. Still, Mr. Grant worked day and night attempting to keep the doors open. In those years, Loretta became a recluse. And without the sums of money coming in they used to enjoy, their yard became overgrown—and overrun with cats. The neighborhood children assumed she was a witch, as they’d sometimes catch sight of the old woman on the front porch at dusk dressed in fancy frocks simply to feed the neighborhood strays. That is, until one day, Loretta Grant was seen no more... The town was shocked to learn she had hanged herself in the mansion.

Frank Grant remained in the mansion alone for the years following his wife’s suicide. And after his death, the property stayed on the market for several years—until Tina’s family moved to town. During the years when the property sat vacant, there were rumors of ghosts. Folks claimed they saw lights turning on and off in the empty mansion. And there were even sightings of old Mrs. Grant herself moving by the windows at night...

When I first told her the story of Loretta Grant’s suicide and about the rumors of a haunting, Tina was not fazed. “No biggie,” she simply replied. “My parents are totally renovating...”

As the Mustang’s headlights flashed by the iron gates, I began to wonder which was more unsettling: staying in my best friend’s haunted mansion. Or taking my chances at my own house with a killer on the loose. Only so I wouldn’t cry, I laughed to myself about those options. Just a bit.

Tina’s parents greeted us at the door with an awkward mix of shock and sorrow plastered across their faces. Her mom nervously clenched a can of Diet Coke, while her father stood with his arm stretched across her shoulders. They looked like some kind of odd day-glo clad ambassadors of the Grant Mansion, her in her graffiti top and florescent pink shorts. And he, the more conservative of the two, in his turquoise polo and khakis. “We are so sorry Lisa… Well I just don’t know what to say. Can you believe it, Christina? Me, finally speechless,” said her mother as Tina rolled her eyes.

“Whatever you need,” her father took over, “just let us know. You’re like a second daughter to us, Lisa.”

“What she needs is a place to stay. She can stay as long as she wants, right?” Tina brazenly asked.

“Of course,” her mother answered sympathetically. “Of course!” she repeated with added zeal after catching one of Tina’s do-it-or-die glares.

“As long as she needs,” her father affirmed as her mother lightly patted my back.

With their uncomfortable condolences out of the way, we made our way up the winding marble staircase to Tina’s palatial room. The marble flooring carried into her room, where sheer drapes gently swayed in the breeze in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. It made me feel as if I were in a Mediterranean castle. As if I’d just have to look out the window, and I’d see a bright sapphire sea… But my fantasy was dashed as a distant flash of lightning easily penetrated the thin drapery. The winds began to pick up and blow cool night air into the room. I peered into the infinite blackness outside. It was dark. And it was terrifying. Even with Tina there, I felt alone.

“Lisa?” Tina’s voice called my attention back into the room. She sat at the edge of the bed. She had lit a cigarette, which I was sure wasn’t allowed in the house. She motioned for me to join her while blowing smoke over her head, looking like some melodramatic movie star. “Sooo, if you don’t wanna talk right now, we don’t have to. But I need to know what you’re thinkin’… Who the hell do you think did that to your dad? I mean, I’m completely freakin’ out. So I can’t even imagine what’s goin’ on with you.”

“I honestly don’t know who might’ve done that to my dad.” Images of his face, his slacked jaw and sunken eyes flashed through my mind. I began to sob uncontrollably. “And the worst part is, it didn’t even look like him. He wasn’t even there. Wasn’t in his body. He was gone. And I never got to say goodbye.”

“I’m so sorry.” She gave me a hug. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“It’s okay,” I said through the tears. I took a deep breath. “And you’re right. I have to start figuring this out. There has to be an explanation. Someone did this to him. Someone has to pay!”

“Hell yeah they do! And listen, you don’t have to figure it out alone. I’m gonna help you find the fucker. We’ll sure as hell do a lot better than Deputy Dog Sternhardt… Speaking of ol’ Sternhardt, do ya think he got a hold of Richard?”

“Probably,” I shrugged. “Even if he didn’t show up at the house, he wouldn’t be all that hard to track down.”

“Yeah, but we are talking about Sternhardt here,” she said with a chuckle. “Where’s Richard livin’ nowadays anyhow?”

“With a couple roommates in an apartment over near Lanford.”

“Do ya think you should try calling him again? You know, to talk about what happened?”

Guilt seared into my gut in an instant. She was right. Our father had just been murdered, and I hadn’t had a proper conversation with my brother about it. He had lost his father as well. He was sure to have been feeling just as alone and frightened as I was. I loved my brother, but we were at a point where even basic communication had deteriorated. I was struck by my own feelings. By my cold attitude towards him. I was afraid what it said about me that my animosity could not even be broken by a death in our small family. “I should call him,” I finally replied. “But I can’t, Tina. Not tonight.”

“Okay now, Lisa. Don’t get mad by what I’m about to say. But…” She spoke her words so slowly, as if she knew she shouldn’t utter them, but couldn’t help them from escaping her mouth either: “Do. You. Think. Richard…”

“Tina! No!” I immediately dismissed her, knowing where the conversation was going.

“Shit! I’m sorry! I’m not sayin’ I think he did it… I don’t know. Maybe he was involved or somethin’. Or has some ideas who might’ve done it. I’m sorry! I’m just tryin’ to think how this could’ve happened.”

“Not a chance!”

“Okay. But. He’s been violent Lisa! Hasn’t he been violent? Towards you? Towards your dad?”

“That’s enough, Tina! It wasn’t Richard!”

Chapter 3:

Bright as Yellow

Richard was handsome and popular. He had thick, black hair. He was naturally athletic, trim and muscular. If he had been a year or two younger, I imagined he’d have been the type Tina would’ve gravitated towards. Like her, he did not bury his thoughts or feelings, even perhaps when he should’ve from time to time. He kept them on the surface, unhidden. He was who he was. He’d give you an honest answer. And before things started to take a dark turn for Richard, at least you knew you could trust his word. While true, I was never one to be very envious of others, I was envious of Richard for a couple reasons...

Being three years older than me, he had an actual memory of our mother. I kept a feeling of her presence with me. But I never really understood where that feeling came from. And as a feeling, it was not confined to a particular point in time noted in my mind. But rather, a particular essence. This feeling was genuine. But was it true? Did we really have some connection that transcended time and space? That transcended death?

When our cat, Jinx, was sick, I took note of all the times I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, those flashes of something whizzing through the room I swore were really there. I’d stop and tell myself that if I saw those same flashes of movement after Jinx had died, I wasn’t allowed to think it was his ghost hanging around the house.

Although the feeling of my mother never left my gut, I sometimes felt the same way about it as I did about the possibility of it really being Jinx, after death, zipping past the corner of my eye... Wishful thinking. The idea that this feeling of connectedness was merely manufactured by my brain as a way to cope with her absence tortured me as a child. It was equivalent to an internal struggle of science versus faith. And when my faith was worn down and I began to think of Jinx, to give into my brain’s logic, I would find comfort in having Richard recall his more tangible memories...

“Tell me about her again,” I’d ask on more than one occasion.

“It’s barely anything,” he protested on one particular day as we sat on the porch watching a rainstorm flood the backyard. “It’s just a vision, her with me in the yard. I don’t even think you were born yet. It’s weird. I remember colors more than anything. Green. Everything was green. Dark green grass. And I remember yellow,” he motioned over the span of the yard. “Yellow dandelions were scattered all over. And it was sunny. So sunny that everything was blurry, like covered in a yellow haze. I had to squint into the rays of sun as I looked up to her. I don’t remember her face. I can’t see it anymore. It’s fuzzy in my memory. Washed out. But I remember her hair. She had blonde hair, almost yellow. And her dress... She wore a bright yellow dress. That’s all I remember.”

“What about the necklace?”

“You already know about the damn necklace. Why do I have to repeat it?”

“Just tell me.”

He groaned mockingly. “It was a long chain. And at the end of it was a large purple gem. It sparkled in the sun. It gave off purple rays of light,” he said flicking his fingertips towards me with a grin. “That’s it Lisa.”

“Do you remember when she died?”

Richard was silent for a moment. “I just knew something wasn’t right.”

“How did you know?”

“I remember seeing the back of her head and wanting her to come to me. She seemed so far away. But when she finally turned towards me, there was blood coming out of her mouth. It was bright red and dripping over her bottom lip and down her chin. That was the last time I saw her, my last memory of her anyway.”

“Brain aneurysm.” He nodded slowly in confirmation. The knowledge that her brain had simply ruptured without notice resulting in a massive hemorrhage had terrified me my entire life. The onset of the slightest headache sent me into an easy panic, as I imagined blood filling up the spaces between my brain and skull.

“I don’t know,” Richard continued. “Maybe all that blood coming from her mouth, maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe it was just a dream. It’s hard to tell, ya know?”

“Yeah, I know the feeling.”

“Do you remember her funeral?”

“No. I try to sometimes. But nothing comes.”

“I’m going to visit her grave,” I said assuredly.

“What? In Florida?”

“One day,” I promised… After her funeral, her body was shipped to Florida to be interred in her family’s burial plot. It was something I had quietly resented my dad over for allowing to happen. It only worsened the feeling that there was nothing real to connect me to her. Not even a gravesite…

And the other reason I was envious of Richard growing up was his relationship with our dad. Richard took an early interest in cars, so naturally he spent many hours helping him with the vehicle repair side of the business. It wasn’t that I felt stuck in some subservient role. Dad and Richard would cook and clean for themselves; it was just that they were lousy at it. I wasn’t much better than them with the cooking.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

My writing typically has a dark twist to it. One of my favorite genres is dark fantasy, but I like to dabble in different genres depending on where the story takes me. My first book, a short novel titled 'Cracking Grace' was a dark fantasy that explored relationships, loss and spirituality. 'In the Graveyard Antemortem' will be my first full-length novel. It is a mystery and suspense novel with a healthy dash of horror. You can learn more about me and my books at www.stephenstromp.com.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I wrote 'In the Graveyard Antemortem' with one goal in mind: to make it the type of mystery/horror novel I would want to read. It is inspired by my love of 80s-era horror, thrillers and mysteries - both books and movies. While the main character is 17, adults will have a lot of fun reading it too.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
As much as I like delving into dark topics, I just wanted my second book to be scary and fun! I had the idea when I was 17 (yes, I'm much older now), about a girl who spends her summer at a funeral home discovering its secrets. I owed it to my 17-year old self to finish this book - so happy I did!
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
I would have to say the mystery aspect. I set out to write a fun and scary suspense/horror novel, but it soon became apparent I had to embrace the mystery element for the plot to work. Working through the mystery (what to reveal and when) gave me a lot of respect for mystery writers.

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