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Chapter 1

Clara’s Dilemma

 

If I’d have died there and then in the bitter cold of my bedroom, no one would have shed tears for me. Only maybe Pa, but I wouldn’t have missed him, and that’s the God’s honest truth. He would likely have mourned that there’d be no one to cook and clean for him to his command, and little else. I wondered if death could be the freedom I needed. But then as I thought about it, freedom to live a life of my own choosing would have been preferable to anything death could ever have provided me with, unless it was his death.

A deep-felt craving to venture out ate away in my chest with every breath I took. That’s what hurt me the most. Maybe if the world outside wasn’t my enemy as Pa had taught me, I could have tested fate out there. He told me that it was a world full of sinners who would do their best to harm me now that I was a woman. I shivered at that thought and rolled my shoulders. It was as if a spirit had walked through me.

Even in the sunlight, I sensed darkness through my bedroom window. I fought with the not knowing what was out there every day. Pa said it was dangerous on the outside. I was only to go out with him by my side to protect me. I had my doubts about his preaching, and yearned for the independence to find out for myself before my mind would implode.

The glass misted with the steam from my coffee. I drew HELP with my finger on the windowpane. None was coming. It was a cry to myself. No one would be out there waiting to rescue me. There was no white knight ready to whisk me away, and that’s the truth. Maybe it’s because only I could read the word that faced me. Especially when there weren’t any neighbors as far as my eyes could see. With a flourish, I wiped my sleeve across the letters at the futility.

A fresh blanket of snow covered the landscape. It taunted me, for it would have left witness, lest I had dared to sneak out and leave tracks for him to find. The flakes were heavier now. I had an urge to dance in the snow. To scoop up a handful and throw it in the air. To make a snowman like I did when I was a child.

Pa was asleep, snoring. He sometimes slept light. A creak on the stairs would surely have wakened him. Strange how he ignored his own honking, yet he had a second sense when I attempted freedom to be alone, even if it was only to the porch out front. I yearned to overcome my internal fear. If only I had the courage to defy him. To be able to make my own way outside with no one watching my every move. To feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, or the cold of a winter breeze, bathing me without his shadow following my every move.

The few times I had dared to venture out alone, I had been torn inside out with guilt. Tightness in my chest would consume me as our house disappeared from view. Short breaths. Leaden legs. Then the tremors for if Pa caught sight of me.

He guessed all my excuses to venture out alone. Kept my shoes under his chair, or he took them to his bedroom. I thought it would be different in our new home. He promised. It was a lie. I didn’t know why we had to move around so much. Every move always seemed to be in such a hurry. I didn’t even know why he always had to choose isolated locations, except, he said it was better to live off the grid. All I did know is that I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do if he were not there.

Movement outside distracted my train of thought. A blackbird took flight from a pine tree. It swooped and landed on the ground. Ruffled its feathers. Dug its beak in the snow. Moved on, hopping, then stopping and digging some more. It took flight, landing back in the cover of the pine tree. Its claws had left arrow tracks in the snow, but only for a short while. They were soon covered by the flakes as if it had never been there.

Maybe, I thought, that’s what would happen to me if I defied him and tried to escape. I could have died in the freezing air. No one would have known if a fresh blanket had covered my tracks. Only the blackbird would have borne witness, but then who would he have told? Birds can’t speak. But then neither could I. Even if I had had the nerve and the strength to carry life’s breath beyond the confines of our house, I wouldn’t have dared to speak. Not that I knew anyone. I knew no one, only Pa.

I wished Pa dead. It’s not that he hadn’t treated me well as long as I had obeyed him. He provided sustenance and I wanted for nothing in the material sense. Except I did want. There were people out there my own age. Experiences I had never had. All I knew was from the books he had provided over the years for home schooling. Then there was his Bible, The Old Testament. He used passages to prove he had the rights over me that God gave him. I had a deep urge to taste a different life that I would never have while ever he lived. That was another truth I couldn’t deny. There was no doubt in my mind that the sooner he breathed his last breath, the better.

Chapter 2

The following morning Pa was outside, fixing the chains to his pickup tires. He glanced my way. I shuddered at the rattle of the links clinking as I washed the breakfast dishes. I reckoned that he gave them an extra rattle to remind me. My ankles itched at the memories.

It would be our first journey into town for provisions. He bent over to secure the last of the chains. Elbows on the worktop, I held a carving knife with both hands and closed my eyes. A vision of Pa instructing me to slice his hunting knife across a goat’s neck crossed my mind. “Empty your head,” he’d said. “It’s God’s will.” I couldn’t help but wonder if God was putting the images of me grasping Pa’s hair and slicing the knife across his neck when he stooped at the tire. He rose to his full height and held his back as if pained.

Pa hollered, “Clara, get out here now.”

As I reached the front door at the porch, he stamped his boots, then he shook his coat, powdery flakes cascading to the wooden flooring.

“I’ll get my coat and boots,” I said.

“No need.”

“But it’s cold and snowing.”

“The engine’s running. It’ll be warm in the pickup soon. Forget your boots. I don’t want you wandering off.”

There was no point protesting. He picked me up and carried me to the open pickup door. Launched me onto the seat. My teeth chattered as he opened his door and slid onto his seat. The tires spun, and with a lurch, together with a crunch on the crisp snow covering, we set off. My entire body trembled at the cold air blasting through the ducts. Even with the short distance to the pickup, the flakes that had settled on me now melted into my cotton dress and hair. Spider webs of cracked ice covered the side windows. Staring ahead, I flinched as clumps of snow dislodged from the hood and peppered the windshield, swiped away by the squeaking windshield wiper. At last, warm air began to circulate. The wind picked up, swirling and blowing drifts across our path.

“It’s a blizzard out there. Are you sure we’ll make it back?”

“It’s now or never. We have to eat, child.”

Child! I hated Pa calling me a child. It was his way of being condescending. His way of wishful thinking that I would have remained so. He’d stopped putting candles on the cakes this past seven years since I had my eleventh birthday. That was around the time he lost interest in me after my first bleed. His attitude changed. Pa gave up the right that he preached The Old Testament bestowed on him, but still demanded complete obedience.

It stopped snowing. The clouds gave way to sunlight. Ice on the side window turned to pearls of water droplets, streaming across the glass as we picked up speed on the main road into town. The streams of melted ice reminded me of the tears I’d shed the night before when I’d cried myself to sleep.

Pa turned off the wiper. The sign for the town flashed by. Hunter’s End, it had read. Under that it had, ‘Population 786’ but that was struck through with a line and changed to ‘491.’ That in turn was struck through with another line, and under that someone had scrawled ‘299.’

The town looked picturesque. Like a Christmas card image. A wooden church spire dominated the far end of Main Street. Wisps of smoke plumed into the sky from the chimneys. The smoke mocked me with images of families warm in front of their fires. I knew about families, and their begetting, but I had none, except for Pa. That’s not exactly true. I had cousins when I was younger. At least I knew that much. Quite a few really, but I hadn’t seen any of them for many years. They’d only come for the day and sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of them before being sent to my room. Pa said they weren’t cleansed enough for me to meet them. We pulled over and stopped outside the grocery store.

“Wait here.”

“Can’t I come with you?”

“No, I won’t be long.”

He reached over me and removed the handle for my side window. His breath reeked of chewing tobacco. I retched at the repulsive smell. He was wheezing. I’d noticed him being short of breath lately and talking with a rasp. Maybe it wouldn’t take a knife to see the back of him, I thought.

He labored up the wooden steps to the porch outside the store. There were three young men around my age, sitting on a bench to the left of the entrance that I’d noticed when Pa opened his door. They’d been laughing and passing a cigarette between them. I drew my knees up to my chest. Wrapped my arms around my legs. Rocked back and forth. Closed my eyes and dreamt of a better place. A rap on my side window and I near jumped out of my skin. My chest tightened. I opened my eyes. A dark patch danced outside the side window. Praying to God, I hoped it wasn’t one of the demons paying a visit that Pa talked of.

“Roll the window down.”

It wasn’t Pa’s voice. The windows were fogged up again. All I could see was a shadow.

“C’mon, don’t be shy. Only we don’t get many gals around these parts. We only want to jaw.”

“Go away,” I wrote with my finger on the misted window, then tugged at my ear. I pulled the sleeve of my dress over my hand and wiped the words away at realizing they’d need a mirror to read the message. It was one of the youths from outside the shop. A mop of black hair and white teeth loomed large as he bent over. It was the white teeth that held my gaze. I was used to seeing Pa’s toothless grin, surrounded by his long white facial hair. Well, not exactly toothless, just his top two teeth were missing. The rest were twisted and stained with the tobacco he chewed.

“I’m Jordan, what’s your name?” he said, and smiled. “You moved in around here, or just visiting?” he said, not waiting for a reply to his first question.

Pulses of shivers ran through my body. I noticed my hands shaking, unable to stop the tremors.

“I… I’m Clara. Listen, I can’t open the window, please go away.”

His features distorted as the moisture on the window fogged again. Maybe Pa’s preaching was right and it was the demon in him I could now see.

“Hey, watcha doing hanging around my pickup?” Pa called out.

“Just being neighborly.”

“Well, just skedaddle.”

“Screw you, old man. Just trying to be friendly.”

“Screw you! I’ll show you who’s gonna screw who.”

“Whoa there, put the gun away.”

Chapter 3

Pa grunted when he climbed into his pickup. He put the provisions behind his seat, then spat tobacco-stained saliva on the snow.

“What the hell ya think ya doing talking to those punks?”

“I wasn’t. They did the talking. I ignored them like you’d taught me.”

He broke wind as he fired up the engine. He didn’t even say excuse me, but then he hardly ever did. “Whether in church or chapel, let the damned thing rattle,” was his usual wisecrack, followed by a belly laugh. All that followed this time was the smell of rotten eggs.

“Can I have the handle to open the window?”

He turned the fan on full blast to clear the mist.

“It’ll pass. Don’t want you catching your death of cold.”

Pa’s nose was dripping. His cheeks flushed. He coughed, then wiped his coat sleeve across his nose. I wasn’t sure if a cold could kill. I’d survived all my sniffles. If colds could kill, he was starting with one. Maybe that could be my salvation. The mist cleared from the windows.

“Sheriff. Keep your hands where I can see them. Step out of the car.”

I turned to see a woman crouching and pointing a gun at Pa.

“Damn,” Pa said.

She pulled the door open. Pa shuffled off of his seat. She was middle aged, with a red bulbous nose, and a stout figure. A dour expression rolled over her face.

“Turn real slow to face away from me, and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Pa obliged. I saw her hands frisking him, then pulling his gun from its holster.

“I have a carry permit. Clara, pass it here. It’s behind the sun visor.”

“No, you stay where you are and put your hands on the dash,” she said.

She reached inside and retrieved the permit.

“What’s all this about?” said Pa.

“Jordan over there said you pulled a gun on him.”

“Oh, that. Sorry, I thought they were trying to break-in and I had my daughter in the pickup. The windows were fogged and I thought they might not have seen she was in there. Just wanted them to back off. No harm done as it turns out. Misunderstanding. If you don’t believe me, look at the footprints.”

The sheriff dropped the clip from Pa’s gun, then walked around the hood. I wiped the side window. Even I could see Jordan’s footsteps in the snow and them leading off across the road to where he was standing. She stroked her chin, then ambled back, took out her notebook and wrote down Pa’s details.

“Holster your pistol and put the clip in your pocket until you’re out of town. Just be careful not to be so jumpy next time. We don’t want no shooting accidents,” she said, then called across to Jordan and his friends, “Misunderstanding that’s all. It won’t happen again, but you need to stop hanging around the vehicles.” She turned and walked into the store shaking her head.

Pa climbed back onto his seat, then did a U-turn. He rolled down his window as he approached Jordan and his friends.

“There’ll be no misunderstanding next time if I catches you talking to my daughter again,” he called out, then rolled up his window. Just as well he did as they pounded his side window and the windshield with snowballs. Pa jammed on the brakes. They must have scooped up dog dirt in one of them and I watched it slide down the glass.

“Damned jerks,” he said. They ran down an alley at the side of a house. “See what I told you about the outsiders. No good sons of bitches. Good thing I was with you or they’d be up your skirt by now, taking turns.”

The Sheriff appeared at the front of the hood. Pa wound down his window again.

“Did you see that?” he said.

“Yeah, I saw them. They’re at that rebellious age. Don’t pay them no mind in future. I have enough problems with them dicking around town as it is without a feud developing.”

“Yeah, well just tell them to stay away from me and my daughter, or else.”

She walked from the hood to his window, then leaned over.

“Or else! What does that mean? Don’t go making threats. I think it’s you who needs to stay away from them. Listen, seeing as how you’ve just moved into the farmstead over at Hunter’s Lodge, I’ll drop by and we can chat about security. We’ve had a few break-ins lately at some of the outlying properties.”

“No need. We don’t need no visitors and I know how to keep things secure. Now step back. We need to get home before it starts to snow again.”

She looked directly at me.

“You okay, hon?”

“She’s fine,” he said, and rolled up his window, then stamped on the gas pedal.

“What the hell does she mean, ‘you okay, hon’? You’d better not have been giving off vibes.”

“I was shook-up. Worried she was going to lock you up that’s all,” I lied.

“That’s my, girl. We gots stick together. They’re all tainted with the Devil out here.”

As we drove on, Jordan appeared, peeking from behind a bush at my side of the road. He waved and smiled, baring those white teeth of his. I sensed a hot flush in my cheeks, not daring to look at Pa, but raised a smile back at Jordan. There was no doubting Jordan had the Devil in him. But then didn’t I with the thoughts that ran through my mind. If only Pa had his window down instead of the crap hitting it when closed. Emotion flooded through me. My eyes moistened. I couldn’t be sure why I felt tearful really. Perhaps the fact that Jordan and his friends were running around as free as a pack of feral dogs, while I was tethered. It could have been that I had a desire to run free with them. Maybe it was that he had the courage and defiance that I didn’t possess. I know that I’d felt admiration at Jordan’s sass when he had bad-mouthed Pa.

I sighed and pushed back in the seat. Closed my eyes and prayed to God that he would deliver me to freedom. Asked forgiveness for my bad thoughts. Especially for lying when I'd said that I didn't want the sheriff to lock him up. He never answered me. I hoped that one day He would before I had to do something drastic without His help. A tear escaped and ran down to my cheek.

Chapter 4

Driving along the road from town there was a sudden clunk, followed by a second jolt. The pickup skidded sideways, then stalled.

“Damnation,” Pa said.

He fired up the engine again. The front had plowed into a drift. The more he tried to reverse, the further it slewed sideways, making matters worse. He gave up trying and elbowed his door open, then climbed outside. Pa walked back a ways. He stooped and picked up a broken tire chain. He carried on walking and picked up a second chain. I heard the chains land in the back of the pickup. The next thing I saw was Pa digging at the snow with his shovel. A snicker escaped my lips at the sight of him having to labor. He stopped, took off his Stetson and wiped his arm across his brow, then started to wave his hat. Throwing my arm over the seat, I turned to see what he was waving at behind us.

An SUV pulled over back a ways and stopped. A young man climbed out of the cab and walked over.

“Looks like you’re having problems, sir,” he said.

“Yeah, thrown two tire chains.”

“Morning, ma’am” he said, as he passed my window and smiled at me. His hair was fair, and he sported a neatly trimmed beard. “Nathaniel, sir,” he said, by way of introduction. “But Nat will do. Looks as though you need a tow. I have a cable winch. Give me five minutes.”

For a young man, his hands showed the signs of hard work. Pa followed him to his SUV, not giving him the civility of returning introductions. He glared at me, running his fingers across his lips as though fastening a zipper as he passed by. Nat had seemed pleasant enough and polite. Not the sort to be cussed at as having the Devil in him. Pa stood back and left Nat to it.

“We’re all hooked up,” Nat said. “Let’s give it a try.”

The door opened and Pa climbed inside.

“Nat seems like the good Samaritan,” I said.

“Yeah, well looks can be deceptive.”

With the transmission in neutral, Pa released the handbrake. I felt the cable tugging, followed by a violent jolt, then we slowly backed out of the drift and stopped.

I sneaked a look over my shoulder. Nat climbed out of his SUV and ambled over. He had something of a swagger about him that oozed confidence.

“You’ll not get far with the tire chains on one side. Best thing is to take the one from the front and put it on the rear. More grip that way with the drive at the back,” Nat said.

“Thanks, I’ll do that,” said Pa, and struggled to climb out of the cab. He straightened up and held his back.

“Problems with your back, sir?”

I hoped Pa’s back pain was caused by him carrying me to the pickup. It would serve him right as retribution for not allowing me to wear my boots. The more excruciating pain he suffered, the better.

“Yeah. Old age setting in,” he said, and started to cough into his hand.

“Best leave it to me. I need to unhook the cable first.”

“Don’t wanna put you out.”

“It’s no problem, really, sir.”

I half expected Pa to argue and to stand his ground out of pride and his usual stubborn obnoxious attitude. I was surprised when he left Nat to it. Nat unhooked the cable then walked over to his vehicle and wound it up with the winch. The next time I glanced over my shoulder, Nat had bent over to chain up the rear tire.

“Does it usually snow in the fall around these parts?” Pa said.

“Not often, and not this bad. We usually expect this in January. Still, climate’s gone to hell. Saw it on the news this morning. Torrential rain’s caused floods and mudslides in California and broken the drought. I’m guessing it’s thrown up a weather front that’s drifted over the Rocky Mountains. Usually we just get snow dumped on the high elevations on the mountains close by, but it’s missed its mark this time and hit the town and the surrounding area. Not seen you before. You live around here?”

“Just moved in,” Pa said.

“I hear Jed O’Leary has just rented his Hunter’s Lodge homestead. Is that the one?”

Pa was backed into a corner. He didn’t like to give out where he lived, but Nat had guessed right.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Listen, I work as a handyman. If you need any help fixing things, especially with you having a bad back, give me a phone call,” Nat said, then rose and handed Pa a card. “My telephone number is on there.”

Pa grunted a reluctant thank you, then climbed alongside of me. Nat took off his trapper hat and leaned inside as Pa was about to close his door. He looked right at me. I’d not seen eyes like that close up. They were an amazing pale blue, almost mesmerizing.

“We have a get together in the church community hall on Friday nights. We’re having a Halloween dance night this week. You’re welcome to come along. I could pick you up if you phone me.”

Pa almost choked, and said, “We’re away on Friday. Right now we have to get going.” Nat took a step back. Pa closed his door a little on the heavy side.

Our pickup juddered as he set off along the road. I pulled down the sun visor. In the vanity mirror I noticed Nat take off his hat and scratch his head as he watched us drive away. Pa reached over and pushed the visor back.

“Good Samaritan, bah. More like the Devil in disguise.”

“But he was nice to us,” I said, then sighed.

He reached into his pocket. Rolled down his window, then tossed Nat’s card outside.

“They’re all nice until they gets what they want. Don’t you dare doubt my word, child. Halloween is the night when the demons show themselves.”

More than ever, I wanted him to die. Not in his sleep, but a horrible death for him to feel the pain that I felt inside.

Chapter 5

Staring out of the kitchen window, I craved to know more about Halloween. I tried to imagine what the meeting at the community hall would be like. All I could grasp at were images of being encircled by a crowd of demons, and them tying me to a chair for some ritual, with Jordan and Nat fighting over the right to cover my body with theirs.

We’d had children calling at our door dressed in all types of costumes in the past at Halloween, many of them with pointed hats and their faces painted. That was way back in the day when we had neighbors on a trailer park. Pa had said not to open the door and told me about witches casting spells.

A wish circled that I had the knowledge to cast my own spells as I stirred some crushed garlic into the pan of boiling water on the stove. I added the glycerin oil, then sprinkled in some bay leaves. Pa stamped his boots out on the porch. Using a cloth, I picked up the pan and poured some of the liquid through a strainer I’d set over a cup. Setting the pan back on the stove, I ground out some phlegm, then removed the strainer and spat into the cup, then dropped in some lemon slices.

“Is it ready?” Pa said, and took a seat at the table.

A tingling sensation ran through me as if my soul had leapt from my body. I prayed that he might not have seen what I’d done, avoiding looking in his direction.

“Y… Yeah. It’s ready. Just need the water to cool in the cup before you take a drink,” I said, and carried the pan over to the table with my hands shaking, half-expecting a slap for spitting in his cup.

My prayer was answered. It felt as though a great weight lifted from my shoulders. He pulled a cloth over his head and bent over to take in the vapors. Hands held out in front of me, palms down and hovering over his head, my fingers trembled. A part of me wanted to push his face into the scalding hot liquid and I had to fight the urge. I curled my hands into fists and shuffled back to the stove. A sideways glance at the cup and I was horrified that my phlegm had settled on the top as a green slime. Taking a spoon, I sprinkled in some sugar and stirred it, then stirred it some more, but the slime wasn’t for dissolving. Just about to spoon it out and an arm reached past me. Stepping out of his way, I raised a hand in front of me, just in case he had seen it floating, and he’d pour it over me. Pa picked up the cup, and not looking, he swallowed the contents in gulps. He set the cup down, then walked over to the cabinet. He took out a bottle of whisky and poured some into a glass.

“Why are you blushing?” he said.

“Didn’t know I was. How do you feel?”

Pa belched, then said, “Tired and my back aches. I’ll take a nap in my den.”

“You do that. I’ll go to my room.”

I took the cloth from my shoulder as he walked into his office, stuffing the whisky bottle into his pocket. His key scraped in the lock. Pressing the cloth to my face, I stifled a snicker.

Chances were that he’d drink himself to sleep. At least I hoped he would. I took a seat at the table, deciding to give him twenty minutes to be sure. There was an attic room I’d not explored yet and I didn’t want him looking over my shoulder while I discovered what could be up there.

Chapter 6

Gazing out through my bedroom window, I was blind to all outside. The thought of being invited to join Nat at the Halloween dance still consumed me. Goodness knows why I couldn't let go of that thought and move on. What had me confused was that Pa said that the church was probably a front for the Devil seeing as how it was hosting a Halloween party. I had no recollection of Nat saying it was a church hall. Maybe he had, I couldn’t remember exactly all he'd said. Understandable really, considering the warmth of his eyes had mesmerized me at the time. Anyway, one thing I could remember was when Pa had said, “No God fearing religion would pay homage to the work of Satan by holding a pagan dance event.” Satan or not, I had a desire to find out for myself.

My vision turned inwards as I closed my eyes. Scenarios ran through my mind of different ways to ask Pa help me gain a little freedom. Sure, he’d taught me to drive, but only after he’d sprained his ankle when we were in the forest picking mushrooms. That was a case of necessity. It was how we had earned a living before we moved. We picked mushrooms in season and sold them to restaurants, then trapped game in the winter. Ate the meat and sold the pelts.

The occasion he went over on his ankle was the only week he let me out of his sight. Well, that’s not strictly correct. He’d sometimes lock me in the cabin when he went out hunting and trapping back in Alaska, but that was hardly freedom to roam. Even then, when I was in the woods during spring, he sat in the SUV we had at the time, constantly calling me on a two-way radio. He wouldn’t let me talk to the owners when he sold the baskets full of mushrooms I’d collected. But then he never did allow me to meet them. I recalled wishing I had the pluck to kick away his crutches back then.

I opened my eyes and tiptoed over to the open door. All was quiet as I craned my neck and listened. I struck a match, lifted the glass on the oil lamp and lit the wick, then dropped the glass. My entire being trembled as I crept along the hallway toward the attic doorway. A sudden loud creak as I stepped onto a floorboard and I stopped, glued to the spot. My heart pounded. It was so loud, I was sure he would hear it thumping. Part of me wanted to dart back to my bedroom, but something else spurred me on as if I had a demon on my shoulder whispering in my ear. Fingers shaking, I reached out, turned the handle and slowly pushed the door open, then scurried up the stairway.

With the lamp out front of me, guiding my way, there didn’t appear to be anything interesting at first. Then I saw it. A large chest off to my right the previous occupants must have left behind. In my eagerness to get to it, my face caught a spider’s web. Then another snagged me. I shuddered and wiped them away, brushing them from my face with my fingers. The top of the chest was covered in dust. Luckily, it wasn’t locked. There were just two clasps. I took a deep breath, then set the lamp on a hook screwed into to a truss.

Can’t say that I knew what to expect as I unfastened the clasps and lifted the lid. At the top there was some clothing. I rummaged through the items. The top one was a red dress. I held it up against me, surprised that it was my size. It had no sleeves, and it was low cut at the chest, with the hem above my knees. Pa would never have let me wear anything like that. It was understandable really. I couldn't imagine doing the house chores wearing it, especially chopping logs for the fire. There were other dresses, but they were smaller and ranged in sizes down to a child’s size.

I set the clothes to one side, then worked my way through a pile of paintings. One of them was obviously of the homestead and painted with the hand of a child. It displayed a stick man, a woman, and a young girl, all holding hands. At the bottom corner was scrawled, Kate, Mom, and Dad. I placed them on top of the clothes, then picked up a stack of photographs.

As I shuffled through the photos, tears welled in my eyes. They depicted the life of a child with her family that I assumed was Kate, from the cradle through to womanhood. Kate seemed to have a permanent smile etched on her face on the images as she transformed over the years, from her riding a pony as a child, to skiing with the mountains as a backdrop, and to pictures of her around my age at a rodeo.

My thoughts turned to my own life without a mom. I had no recollection of her. Pa said she died in a car wreck. We had no photographs. Pa insisted they were the work of Satan collecting souls to take to hell. With the smile on Kate's face, it didn’t look as though having her picture taken had troubled her in the slightest. I wiped my sleeve across my eyes, then putting the photos to one side; I delved further into the chest.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Declan Conner has been writing and publishing crime thrillers for some time, with 6 full-length stories published exclusive to Amazon Kindle to date, together with a compilation of short thriller stories.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
The seed of this story came from an article I read citing above average numbers of children indigenous to Canada and Alaska from where they are kidnapped and trafficked to the US.
Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Though crafted as a murder mystery, the depth to this story explores the feelings of young adults and arranged marriages by religious zealots and how religion can be twisted and used to strengthen the notion that it is God's will. The story depth explores real issues of young girls kidnapped.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I like the grittier side of characters in stories rather than cozy mysteries. Writing psychological thrillers allows me to explore the criminal psyche in all its forms.

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