Bestselling author of The Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel, comes a suspenseful tale of a murdered child and a mother’s quest for answers. Publishing in March 2020, we are excited to share a sneak-peek extract of the prologue and first chapter:
Prologue: The End
They died during a freak April snowstorm, blood pooling on a patchy bed of white. Afterward, some people said the killer must have kept an eye on the gathering grey clouds. Taken the weather as a cue to strike and picked the moment when everyone else was huddled indoors, shivering in their optimistic shirtsleeves and muttering about global warming. Armchair detectives trying to make sense of something that would never be anything but senseless. They were wrong, of course. It had nothing to do with the weather. The girls could have told them that, if the girls had been capable of speaking.
Izzy died first, dark brown hair tangled over her face and one eye peeking out between the strands. A slow blink, gaze trained on Junie’s face. Another blink, focus fading. Junie waited for a third blink that never came, watched blood unspool in the space between them. She tried to reach for Izzy, meaning to shake her back into the world, but couldn’t make her own hand move. It felt weighted down even though she couldn’t remember being tied up. Couldn’t remember anything, really. Why she was here or what was happening. Only a dim, distant terror that pulsed along with her fading heartbeat. She pushed a sound out of her ruined throat, a name, a plea, a prayer. But it never made it past her lips. A bubble of blood popped and spilled over. The snow pressed cold against her cheek.
“ Shhh . . .” a voice said. “It’ll be over soon. Shhh . . .” A hand on her head, stroking her hair.
She tilted her eyes upward, the only part of her body she could seem to move. Saw the edge of the swing set, a branch coated in white, the flat, iron grey sky. Last time she’d been here was with her mother. They’d had ice cream that melted down their hands faster than they could eat it. Hot, sweaty dusk and fireflies. Swinging side by side and Junie’s mother jumping off her swing at its highest arc, blond hair whipping out behind her, throaty laugh cutting through the air. Telling Junie the secret was not to think about it. Close your eyes and fly.
Mama. The longing tore through her like a barbed hook, her body bucking once against the ground, her hand spasming into a fist. I want my mama. She smelled her mother’s perfume, a spring garden doled out a single drop at a time to make the bottle last. She heard her mother’s voice, whispering comfort into the shell of her ear. She tasted salt, tears on her lips and blood in her mouth. She knew this was the end, and couldn’t believe it was coming so close to the beginning. A sigh shuddered out of her. Watch me, Mama. I can do it. She closed her eyes and soared.
I’d had one eye on the clock all day. Had taken heaps of shit for it, too. Every time I’d leaned over the counter to pick up an order, Thomas had swatted at my hand with his grease- spattered spatula. “You got somewhere else you need to be?” he asked, tsking under his breath. “Yeah, somewhere better than this crap hole,” I shot back, laughing when he went for me with the spatula again. That was about the only good thing I could find in having worked in this dump for more than a decade: I didn’t have to mind my manners anymore.
“It’s almost five o’clock,” I called out, after watching the minute hand creep around the clock one final time.
“What’s your hurry today, anyway?” Louise asked, retying her apron around her thick waist.
“You’re like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Keep it up and you’re gonna give Thomas a heart attack. You know he hates it when we’re distracted.”
I threw a glance back through the pickup window, winked at Thomas, who couldn’t quite manage to keep his scowl in place. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Antsy, I guess.” Maybe it was the strange, unexpected weather. Yesterday had been a budding, whispery green, the air scented with wildflowers. Today snow had splattered against the diner’s plate glass windows, tiny swirls sneaking inside every time someone opened the door. But now the sun was starting to peek out from behind the cloud cover, just in time for it to set. Already rivulets of melting snow were forming on the edges of the parking lot. By morning it would be spring again. But that was Mis-souri for you. Like the old- timers always said, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.
“Coulda been those sirens,” Thomas offered. “Damn things about drove me insane earlier.”
Louise nodded, motioned for me to pass her the half-empty ketchup bottles so she could get to refilling them. “Must have been a heap of accidents. Heard there was a bunch of activity over by the old playground. Nobody around here can drive worth a good god-damn.” Thomas snorted his agreement from the kitchen, and Louise turned to glance at him. “When’s the last time we had snow in April? Seems like it’s been ages.”
“Right before Junie was born,” I said without hesitation. “Thirteen years.” I remembered how big I’d been, ankles swollen to the point I couldn’t shove my feet into snow boots and had to navigate the drifts in my worn tennis shoes.
“Oh Lord, that’s right,” Louise said. She finished filling a ketchup bottle and slid it back down my direction. “You have big Saturday night plans?” She did a sideways shimmy. “Maybe a little dancing? A little drinking? A little something-something?”
“I promised Junie I’d be home early and we’d have pizza and watch a movie. I haven’t seen her since yesterday.” I didn’t need to see Louise’s eye roll to know how pathetic she found my version of an exciting Saturday night. She’d already told me enough times that youth was wasted on me. Thirty going on fifty was one of her favourite commentaries on my non-existent social life.
“When mine were that age, I’d a been happy if someone had taken them away for a week at a time. Little smart- asses.” Louise shook her head. “Where’s she been, anyway?”
“She stayed over with Izzy Logan.” I kept my gaze on the swath of counter I was wiping. Ignored the pinch in the base of my skull.
“Those two are thick as thieves,” Louise said, and I didn’t miss the slight note of disbelief in her voice. I was used to it by now, understood that girls like Junie and girls like Izzy didn’t usually run in the same crowd. Especially not in this town, which might as well have a neon strip painted down the middle. Poor white trash on this side. Do not cross. Didn’t seem to matter that 90 percent of the town was stranded on the wrong side. The invisible line wasn’t budging based on majority rule, at least not when it came to mixing with Jenny Logan’s family. When I was in junior high, out searching the roadside ditches for cans I could recycle, I used to see Jenny tooling around in her little white convertible. She left for college when I was a sophomore in high school, and I’d assumed she was gone for good. But she’d returned two years later with half a degree she’d never used and a college boy groomed to take over her dad’s boat dealer-ship. They weren’t anything special by city standards, but around here the Logans were practically royalty. It didn’t take much. A de-cent job and a house that wasn’t moveable usually did the trick.
“Yep,” I said. I hated how everyone acted like I ought to be grateful that Izzy liked my daughter, that Izzy’s parents welcomed Junie into their home. No one ever asked me what I thought, probably would have been surprised to discover that I wasn’t grateful at all. That I would’ve put a stop to the friendship a long time ago if I could have figured out a way to do it without breaking my daughter’s heart. I resented the phone calls from Jenny arranging get-togethers, always assuming, even after constant reminders to the contrary, that my schedule was endlessly flexible. I looked away from the perfunctory waves Izzy’s father, Zach, gave from the front porch when I pulled up in my ancient Honda, the back window jury rigged out of cardboard and duct tape. I kept waiting (and wishing) for the first bloom of friendship to fade, for some stupid drama to tear the girls apart. But it had been years now, and so far, the bond they had was made of stronger stuff. And I didn’t like that, either. Hated thinking about what it might mean.
I dropped the rag on the counter and pressed my hands into my lower back. I was too young to feel like such shit at the end of the day, my legs aching and spine a dull throb. You would have thought the snow might’ve made for a quiet day at the diner, but weather was everyone’s second-favourite topic, right behind politics. The place had been hopping all day, only now emptying out as everyone made their way home for dinner. The pie rack had been cleared out, and I didn’t want to estimate how many cups of coffee I’d poured in the last eight hours. Lots of jawing and not a whole lot of tipping. My least favourite kind of day.
“Looks like your brother’s pulling in,” Louise said. “Hope he doesn’t want a piece of apple. He’s shit outta luck.”
I straightened up, watched Cal’s car slide to a stop out front. Even after all these years, the sight of my brother behind the wheel of a patrol car came as a little shock. We’d spent the majority of our childhoods evading the cops, grew up always keeping one eye out for the law. The kind of public service that might earn us an extra THE FAMILIAR DARK
dollar from the dealers using our mama’s cracked countertop as a storefront. So cop hadn’t exactly been at the top of my list of promising potential professions for my brother. But he’d surprised me, first by becoming one and then turning out to be good at the job. Word around town was he was tough but always fair. Which was more than could be said for his boss and the other lazy- ass deputies. Once, when Thomas had spent a night in jail after he’d made a drunken mess of himself, he’d told me that Cal had “a real nice way about him, even when he was putting on the cuffs.” Praise for the law didn’t come higher than that, not around here.
“He’s not usually in town on Saturdays,” I said. The cops around here were spread thin, patrolling not just Barren Springs but multiple small towns and the long stretches of almost empty highway in between.
“Maybe the man needs a cup of coffee,” Louise said. “I’m sure he’s had a long day.” She fluffed her hair with one hand. Louise was old enough to be Cal’s mom and then some, but even she turned ridiculous in his presence, wanting to baby him and flirt with him in equal measure.
“Maybe,” I said, but something heavy settled in my stomach as Cal unwound himself from the front seat of his cruiser. He shut the door and then stood there, head hanging down, dishwater- blond hair catching the light. After a moment, he straightened up, set his shoulders. Steeling himself, I thought, and the heavy knot in my stomach bottomed out through the floor. Those sirens . . . I told myself they had nothing to do with Junie, who was too young to drive and too old to be fooling around on a playground. I grabbed the rag and looked away from the window, went back to scrubbing at the cracked Formica countertop, didn’t look up even when I heard the bell jangle over the door.
“Hey, Cal,” Louise said, her voice pitched high and girlish. “You want— ”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brother hold up one hand, stopping Louise’s voice in its tracks. “Eve,” he said quietly, walking toward me. His cop shoes were loud on the ancient linoleum floor.
I didn’t look up, kept scrubbing. Whatever he was here for, what-ever had been nipping at me all day, it wouldn’t be true, it wouldn’t have happened, if I could keep him from saying it.
“Eve,” he said again. I could see his belt buckle pressed up against the edge of the counter now, and he reached over, laid his hand on mine. “ Evie . . .”
I jerked my hand away, took a step backward. “Don’t,” I said. I meant it to come out fierce and commanding enough to stop him from speaking, but my voice wobbled and broke, the single word dribbling away into nothing.
“Look at me,” Cal said, gentle but firm. His big-brother voice. I raised my eyes slowly, not wanting to see, not wanting to know. Cal’s eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. He’d been crying, I real-ized with a little electric jolt. I couldn’t remember ever seeing Caleb cry, not once in our shitty shared childhood. I stared into his bright blue eyes, and he stared back. As always, it was like looking into a mirror, but one that threw my reflection back crisper and clearer. Same hair, same eyes, same smattering of freckles, but all of it over-laid with a sheen I simply didn’t have. As if nature had blown its entire genetic wad on my brother, and when I came along eleven months later there was only enough left over for a faded, second- rate replica.
“What?” I said. Ready now, suddenly, for whatever hell was waiting for me behind his lips. When he didn’t answer, I threw the rag at him, watching it slap into his chest and leave a wet stain against his shirt. “What?” I practically screamed. Louise moved up next to me and laid one hand on my forearm. Her touch, usually the closest thing I had to a mother’s comfort, burrowed under my skin, and I jerked away, my whole body buzzing like a downed power line.
“It’s Junie, Eve,” Cal said. “It’s Junie.” His voice broke and he glanced away, his throat working. “You need to come with me.”
I felt rooted to the spot, my feet sinking into the floor, my body heavy and leaden. “Is she dead?” Next to me Louise sucked in a sharp breath. That one sound letting me know that I’d gone a step too far, made a leap that Louise never would have. But Louise hadn’t grown up the same way I had. No money, yeah. Food stamps and government cheese, yeah. But not violence. Not raised in a double-wide that stunk of random men and meth burners. Not strange faces and too much laughter, most of it jagged and mean. All of it nestled in the armpit of the Ozarks, a place only fifteen miles down the road, but so backwater, so hidden from the wider world, that it felt like its own dark pocket of time.
But Cal knew. He looked back at me, held my gaze. My brother never lied, not to me. Whatever came next would be the truth, whether I could stand it or not. “Yeah,” he said finally. “She’s gone. I’m sorry, Evie.”
“How?” I heard myself say, voice far away like a helium balloon drifting above my head.
Cal’s jaw tightened, and he sucked in a breath through his nose. “It looks like she was murdered.” It wouldn’t be until later, when I knew all the awful details, that I would remember this moment and realize how, even then, my brother was trying to spare me from something.
In my mind, I fell to the floor, mouth twisted and howling. Screamed my throat raw. Ripped out my own hair. Slammed face-first into the linoleum until my nose burst and dark blood flowed. But in reality, I simply turned and grabbed my coat and purse off the hook behind me, catching a single glimpse of Thomas’s shocked face, his mouth open and eyes wide. Walked past Louise’s out-stretched hand and around my brother’s reaching arm. Pushed out into the cold, snow-scented air, squinted against the weak sunlight tearing through the clouds. It had happened now, finally. The disaster I’d been anticipating from the second Junie was born. And I had never even seen it coming.