Authors: E E Holmes
Lily Faire Publishing
Copyright © 2013 by E. E. Holmes
All rights reserved
Mysterious Tunnel © Mangojuicy | Dreamstime.com
Woman © Jose Antonio Sánchez Reyes | Dreamstime.com
Publisher’s note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover and book design by Norm Gautreau
E. E. Holmes
Table of Contents
The rate at which bibliophiles such as myself devour books greatly belies the amount of time, effort, and assistance it takes to actually put one out into the world.
would still be a document hidden away on a shelf if it weren’t for some very wonderful people. I must first and foremost thank my husband, Joe, for his constant encouragement and his belief in both me and this project. Every writer should be so lucky as to have a partner who is not only supportive, but who also has an eye for detail; what would I have done during the editing process without my own personal “comma police?”
Many, many thanks to author Norman Gautreau for his incredibly generous contributions to this project. He gave of his time and expertise so selflessly, from the cover design to the interior layout, to answering my endless questions, and he did so purely for the love of his craft. I would also like to thank my good friend and fellow literary junkie, Lauren Marsh, for her inspiration and encouragement on our many shop-talk dates; granted, the ones over coffee were probably more productive than the ones over martinis; one of these days, one of our cockamamie creative schemes is going to pay off. And thanks to author Paul Simpson for his help and advice, and for giving of his time and editing skills so freely.
Asking someone to read your book is not like asking someone to read your wedding toast, and it takes a true friend to say yes. Thank you to Nicole Agganis, Danielle Lueger, and Dianne Powers, for not only reading my first completed draft, but also for asking me when the sequel would be ready. It meant so much. I must also give a shout out to my own improvised YA focus group, otherwise known as the female contingent of my C Block English class of 2012. Thank you for humoring your English teacher, and for being the kind of kids who like to read purely for the pleasure of it.
And thanks to you, reader, whoever you are, for picking up this book and joining the adventure. I hope you’ll be back for more.
For Joseph, who believed in me, and for Lily, our greatest creation.
What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade
Invites my step and points to yonder glade?
(“Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady”)
Terrifying faces leered at me, weirdly distorted, as in fun-house mirrors. A hand reached out, finding my own hand and clinging to it. It felt familiar, like holding my own hand, and I grasped it for dear life. Cries and moans and pitiful shrieks echoed inside my head, forming no distinguishable words. Deathly white hands, their coldness emanating palpably toward me, were clawing at me, though they seemed unable to make contact. I felt a scream building inside me, but it was as though my lungs had forgotten how to take air, my voice to produce sound. Suddenly a single voice that contained many whispered in my ear. “The Gateway is open…”
The hand holding mine slipped away from my scrabbling fingers, and I fell through space as the cry inside of me fought its way to my lips.
I woke shrieking, my body being attacked by groping arms and legs that were only my twisted bed sheets. I sat shivering uncontrollably in my drenched t-shirt; the oppressive July heat had turned icy in the midst of my terror. As the nightmarish images faded from my eyes, I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply, and felt the breeze turn warm again. My tiny bedroom swam back into focus.
It was only a dream, Jess. Get a hold of yourself.
I squinted at the clock. It was 3 AM. A glance toward the door showed the eerie flickering glow from the television in the living room. A slightly muffled voice was promising that the Gut-Buster 2000 would transform my body or my money back. Guaranteed.
“Damn it, Mom,” I muttered as I slid out of bed. I peeled the sweat-soaked t-shirt from my body and tossed it onto a pile of dirty clothes by my door. I grabbed a clean one from my laundry basket and pulled it over my head as I shuffled out to the living room.
She always did this. I hadn’t even heard her come in, but it had to have been after 1AM, because that was when I’d finally given up calling her cell and fallen asleep. Walking toward the front of the apartment, I knew exactly where I’d find her: passed out on the couch, her shoes still on, if they’d made it home. Sometimes the shoes didn’t make it home.
My bleary eyes scanned the living room. On the television, the Gut-Buster had been replaced by a helmet-haired man hocking diet shakes; apparently insomnia and obesity were regular bedfellows. A single red pump lay abandoned on the floor in front of the threadbare sofa alongside a pair of empty wine bottles. The only detail missing from the familiar scene was my mom, who was not sprawled on the sofa, where I’d assumed she’d be.
I noted that it was the shoe that should have been in a pair, not the wine bottles, and then laughed humorlessly at my own joke. I found the remote and turned the TV off, then bent to pick up the empty bottles. I nearly slipped in a puddle of chardonnay and caught myself on the arm of the sofa.
I looked down and gasped. “Shit!”
My sketchbook lay sodden on the floor, the pages curling and stinking from sitting in stagnant wine. The sketch on the top page, a landscape of Central Park I’d been working on, was completely ruined. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, held it, and then blew it out slowly. Then I turned and flung the ruined sketchbook onto the kitchen table, where my mom would see it when she woke up. She hadn’t done it on purpose, but I didn’t care. Let her feel guilty about it.
I scooped up the wine bottles and deposited them into the sink. I’d wash them out in the morning; I didn’t want to deal with it now.
I considered heading into my mom’s bedroom to clean her up, but decided I was too pissed off to deal with that, either. I would check to make sure she was breathing, but that was all she was getting from me tonight. As I headed to the front door and thrust the deadbolt home, I became vaguely aware that something was wrong. There were sounds of sirens outside, and voices shouting, frightened voices. Sirens in New York City were a permanent part of the soundtrack, but this was not the warped sound of passing cruisers. This was close- just outside the building. I could hear them screeching to a halt, the sirens abruptly cutting out as car doors slammed. At the same time I could hear raised voices in the hallway. One of them sounded like our landlady, Mrs. Morelli.
A sudden pounding on the door sent my heart into palpitations for the second time in ten minutes. Cautiously, I pressed my eye to the peep hole.
“NYPD, is there anyone at home?” The voice was loud and businesslike, belonging to a weathered, middle-aged officer.
Oh, for God’s sake. What did she do now? I took a steadying breath.
Reluctantly, I pulled the chain and opened the door.
“What can I do for you, officer?” I kept my voice polite and neutral.
“Sorry to disturb you at this hour. Does Elizabeth Ballard live here?”
“Yes, sir, I’m her daughter.”
“Is she here in the apartment now?”
“Yes, sir, she’s asleep. Can I ask what this is about?”
The officer hesitated in answering, instead glancing down at a small spiral bound notebook in his hands. I seized the opportunity to continue.
“Look, I know she doesn’t have the cleanest record, but if she’s done something, I’m sure it was only because…” My voice died in my throat. For the first time, I noticed that Mrs. Morelli was standing just off the man’s shoulder. Something was wrong with her face; her eyes were red-ringed and glistening, her flyaway gray hair tousled into a frazzled halo around her head. Her mouth was opening and closing like a fish’s out of water as she stared at me.
Something inside my head clunked heavily into place. I’ll never understand how I knew, but the knowledge was almost instantaneous as my mind quickly synthesized the officer, the sirens outside, the vacant couch. Realization thundered down on top of me like some sort of mental avalanche. I forced my body into motion and ran for my mother’s bedroom. I could hear the officer’s footfalls behind me, his shouts for me to stop. I burst through the door and my eyes darted around, taking in the rumpled, empty bed, the open window, the curtains hanging askew from the dangling curtain rod. I heard the cries of the people outside and their cries became my cries. But as I rushed to the window, I realized that the woman who had once comforted me when I cried was not there to hold me. My mother was gone.
pressed my aching head against the cool glass
of the bus window, wishing the rain outside would stop hammering against it so I could sleep. After four hours of sitting, with only a ten minute pause to stretch my legs at a rest stop in Connecticut, my entire body felt cramped, as though everything were bent at the wrong angle. The bus was nearly silent, except for the coughing of an elderly man somewhere toward the front and the faint tinny sound of music seeping from under the headphones of the man sitting beside me. His mouth hung open in a comical caricature of sleep, his head bobbed from side to side. I felt a stab of jealousy; I hadn’t slept like that in nearly a month.
Since receiving my acceptance letter to St. Matthew;s College in the mail, I had imagined over and over again how my grand escape would play out. I’d crossed the days off my bedroom calendar with a kind of desperation, flipping forward to the month of August where I’d scrawled the word “FREEDOM!” across August twenty-first. If I had known then the preciousness of the time slipping past me, I would have grabbed hold and tugged ferociously in the other direction. Now here I was, finally on a bus to Boston, and wishing with every fiber of my being that I could go back—as far back as I could—and never reach this point again. It still felt like a nightmare, more horrible than the one I’d had the night it happened.
I shook myself away from the image to which my mind drifted whenever I wasn’t consciously fighting it: the open window, the curtain fluttering in the breeze, the white sheeted figure on the pavement below. Almost desperately, I tried to distract myself. This was becoming increasingly more difficult to do since Frank had fallen asleep.
Frank was not a friend; in fact, he was barely an acquaintance. He was just the guy who happened to sit down next to me when we boarded the bus at the Port Authority. Normally, I didn’t enjoy talking to strangers in social situations. I wasn’t antisocial or anything; awkward small talk just wasn’t my strong suit. But my need for distraction overrode my isolationist tendencies, and so when Frank turned out to be a talker, I just went along for the ride. Contributing as little to the conversation as I could, I let Frank talk my ear off from Times Square all the way to the Massachusetts border.
Frank, it transpired, was a butcher from Newark, New Jersey, who was on his way to Boston to visit his sister. He had once won $10,000 on a scratch ticket, which he spent on a used Harley Davidson, and had been married and divorced three times to the same woman, whose name he had regrettably tattooed on his forearm. I watched the offending “Lisa-baby” rise and fall on top of Frank’s impressive beer gut. He also snored. Loudly. So loudly, in fact, that it might have accounted for a couple of those divorces.
I seriously considered waking him up to regale me with more stories about the unpredictable market price of veal or the time he was
to being initiated into the Hell’s Angels. It would have kept me out of my own head for a little while. Inside my head was not a great place to be at the moment.
“Attention ladies and gentleman, we will be arriving at South Station, Boston in approximately fifteen minutes,” the driver’s heavily-accented voice crackled over the tour microphone, interrupting Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, who were feverishly sucking face on the tiny, dusty television screens in the kind of fit of passion that made housewives desperate.
I turned my head to watch the Mass Pike flash past in a wash of rain and caught sight of my own reflection in the glass. I laughed out loud. I looked like absolute hell. A great first impression I was going to make, showing up on Karen’s doorstep looking like a herald of the zombie apocalypse.
I pulled a mirror out of my bag. My own eyes stared back at me, dark brown, owlish, and much too large for my face. I’d worn my jet black hair down, the streaks of purple peaking out around my shoulders. I’d dyed them myself, at first just to piss my mother off, but then they kind of grew on me, and I’d kept them. But after hours of leaning against my seatback, it was a tangled mess. I never should have tried to wear it down anyway, not with that kind of humidity. I braided it loosely back and secured it with one of the elastics that permanently resided around my wrist. I snapped the mirror shut and tossed it back into my bag where it clanked ominously amongst the rest of the contents, an indication it may never resurface. I always had too much stuff in my bag.
It was bad enough to crash down into Karen’s life like this, but doing it in the dead of night somehow made it worse. I felt like I was sneaking in, like I was some sort of criminal. I knew it was stupid but I couldn’t help it. Who wants to be the burdensome orphaned kid in the house?
I did my best to stuff this feeling away somewhere in the back corners of my mind, but it was pretty crowded in there. Suppressing unpleasant emotions was quickly becoming a talent of mine. Karen hadn’t done or said a single thing to make me feel this way; in fact she’d done everything a person could do to make me feel the complete opposite. I’d been prepared to dislike her, to understand within moments why my mother had left her, and the rest of her family, far behind her. But Karen was being so damn sweet. It was unnerving. I felt like one of those kids from a fairy tale, about to find out that the kindly old woman was only giving me candy to fatten me up so she could shove me into her oven and roast me for dinner.
I’d asked my mother many times about her family. It was a subject I brought up with great care, weighing her mood and expressions carefully before I ventured to mention it. More often than not, my mother would just sigh and shake her head a little sadly and say, “Oh Jess, honey, let’s not dig up the past okay? There are some things that are better left buried.”
But over the years I had managed to learn a few things about my estranged family. Karen and my mother were twins and they had grown up in the Back Bay area of Boston. They had once been very close, inseparable in fact, just as you would have expected twins to be. I was never able to discover the reason for their falling out, but I knew that the rift was irreparable, at least from my mother’s point of view.
Karen and her husband Noah had no children of their own, instead devoting their lives to their careers as big-time corporate lawyers. They still lived in the Back Bay with my grandfather in a brownstone. Since my grandfather landed on the other side of the family divide, I’d never met him either, though he was apparently too senile to know who I was, even if I had been allowed to see him. I learned very quickly not to bring him up; the resulting drinking binge was always catastrophic, and my mother and I wouldn’t speak for days.
My mother was right up there with Pinocchio as one of the world’s worst liars. My mother could pretend she didn’t miss her family, but it was bullshit, pure and simple. As a child growing up in a variety of too-small apartments across the country, I often lay awake beside her in the bed we shared, inhaling the booze she breathed on me as she talked in her sleep. Hearing Karen’s name spoken in desperate tones was an almost nightly occurrence. But an outsider witnessing the chain of events immediately following my mother’s death would never have suspected that Karen was a virtual stranger to me. There she stood on my doorstep only hours after hearing the news. She’d thrown her arms around me like a daughter.
“Oh, Jessica, you poor darling, I am so sorry!” She kissed the top of my head and cradled me like it was the most natural thing in the world. In the numbness of shock and denial, I let her. I let a lot of people do all kinds of things I probably should have been actively involved in. The funeral arrangements, the renting of the apartment, the execution of the will, my college arrangements; they all happened, overseen by Karen, as I watched dimly from inside some sort of semi-transparent cocoon. That was one thing I learned about grief; the world doesn’t stop even though it feels like it should.
I only vaguely remembered agreeing to Aunt Karen’s insistence that I come to live with her. Had I been in my normal state of mind, I would have been horrified to agree to such an arrangement. After all, I was eighteen, technically a legal adult, and to be honest I’d been taking care of myself for a good long time. I should have said no. Thanks for the concern, but I’m not your problem. Trouble was, I couldn’t get myself to say much of anything coherent for a while.
The one good thing about going to stay with Karen was that I wouldn’t have to be there for long. I’d come out of my walking coma about three weeks after the funeral. As I packed up my things, aided by a sympathetic Mrs. Morelli, I came to my senses. My mother would never have wanted me unloaded onto Karen like this, not when they hadn’t so much as talked to each other in almost twenty years. It was too late to go back on the arrangement, but I promised myself that I would be out of Karen’s hair in one year. I would find myself a job near St. Matt’s, save up as much money as I could, find myself an apartment near the campus by the next summer, and that would be that. I had no intention of permanently reestablishing connections my mom had wanted to sever.
The bus splashed and spattered its way into the brightly lit portico of Boston’s South Station.
“Welcome to Boston, folks. Please remember to check under your seats and take all of your belongings with you. Have a great night and thank you for riding with Greyhound,” the exhausted driver chanted. The fluorescent interior lights flickered to life with a hum and the passengers began to stir slowly.
Frank grunted himself awake, looking disoriented. He blinked sleepily at me.
“We’re there already? That was quick, huh?” He yawned, scratched his stubble, and stood up. His joints popped like a handful of little white snappers on a summer sidewalk. “Guess I better put this Yankees hat away, or I might get my ass kicked, huh?”
I smiled weakly. It was at least the tenth Boston/New York rivalry reference he’d made.
The people began to trickle slowly toward the front of the bus. Frank helped muscle my dufflebag down from the overhead racks and I joined the shuffling queue. A nervous feeling was mounting in my stomach. It was depressing to feel anxious about arriving at a place that was now “home.”
Out in the downpour, I pulled my sweatshirt hood over my head and started squinting around for Karen’s car. I didn’t have to look for long.
“Jessica! Over here!” She flagged me down from beneath an enormous plaid umbrella.
I waved back half-heartedly and heaved my dufflebag toward her. She met me halfway and sheltered me under the umbrella.
“Is this everything? You don’t have anything to get from under the bus?” She grabbed the handles and helped pull.
“Nope, this is it. I shipped everything else to St. Matt’s yesterday.”
We jogged to the car. It was a gleaming black SUV, what my mother would call a “look-at-me car.” Ironic, considering people always stared with their mouths hanging open at our ancient green Volkswagen—probably shocked that the thing could even function. Mom had called it vintage. I’d called it a good reason to carry an organ donor card. My mom had dubbed her deathtrap “The Green Monster,” after the infamous left field wall at Fenway Park. Sometimes moving around in that car felt like a tour of the nation’s seediest auto body shops. But every time I opened my mouth to tell my mother to sell the damn thing, I just couldn’t; it was the one piece of home she’d brought with her. Even now that she was gone, I’d felt like a traitor selling it. But room and board wasn’t cheap, and there was no parking for freshman on campus anyway. Adios, Green Monster.
Karen and I slammed the doors simultaneously. She tossed the dripping umbrella into the backseat and looked over at me, grinning. The knot in my stomach loosened just a little. She actually looked genuinely glad to see me.
“So, Jessica, how—”
“—Actually, it’s just Jess, if you don’t mind. Everyone calls me Jess.”
“Oh. Right, sorry. So, Jess, how was your trip?”
“It was fine. No traffic or anything.”
“Good, good. I know the pike can be a nightmare sometimes,” she said as she started the car and pulled onto the street. “We’ll be home in just a few minutes. You must be starving. Did you eat at the rest stop?”
I shook my head. I was a junk food junkie, but fast food and long bus rides were a dangerous combination, so I’d skipped the McDonald’s.
“I had Noah order some food so that we’d have something for you when you got here. I’m not much of a cook.” She made an apologetic face.
“That’s okay, neither was my mom.” I smirked a little, my memory flooded with smells of charred, brick-like casseroles and other failed culinary experiments.
Karen laughed. “That’s true; we did have that in common. Noah just picked up some Thai food. Is that okay? We could grab a pizza or something on the way home if you don’t like Thai, there’s a great little pizza place just around the—”
“—No, no, Thai food’s fine.”
“Oh, good. We eat Thai a lot, especially because our favorite place is open so late. And they’ll deliver to my office!”
We drove by a stretch of designer stores I would never even attempt to go into; I liked to shop as much as the next girl but I didn’t want to get depressed over the price tags. Most of it wasn’t really my style anyway; I tended to haunt vintage stores. Karen, on the other hand, probably frequented them. Even at midnight in the pouring rain, her impeccably-styled pixie cut was flawless and her make-up looked airbrushed. Her clothes were simple and casual, and yet gave the distinct impression of very high quality. Her features had a familiarity that made my heart ache.
She caught my eye as I gazed at her and I swiftly looked away. I fished for a topic of conversation.
“Do you and Noah work near here?”
“Not far at all, just into the business district on the other side of the Prudential Center.” She pointed up at the towering outline of the skyscraper. “We both work for the same law firm, but you wouldn’t know it, considering how rarely we see each other during the day.” She rolled her eyes. “Our case loads very rarely converge.”