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It’s supposed to be a quick stop at the mall, a last minute errand. To Lia Drake, it doesn’t feel right from the start. Maybe it’s the eerie silence as closing time looms. Maybe it’s the hooded stranger watching her every move. Or maybe she’s just on edge after an emotionally draining day at her job with Child Protective Services.

But within minutes, gunfire peppers the hallways, sending Lia and her husband, John, cowering in a storeroom. Hiding does little good. Footsteps near. Gunshots explode. John’s lifeless body pins Lia to the floor.

Overwhelmed with grief, Lia assumes it’s another random act of violence until police suggest that John had been the target. It doesn’t make sense. John is easy going, funny, and genuinely kind-hearted. She can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like him, yet alone someone who would want to see him dead.

But Lia has demons in her closet that could be to blame.

A quest for answers reveals more than Lia bargained for. Every new detail exposes a suspect with motive to kill. Worse, those details paint an unrecognizable picture of John, revealing a side to him she knew nothing about.

Lia’s desperation lands her in a race for time with John’s increasingly restless killer. It could be a complete stranger, or someone she trusts. If she doesn’t figure it out soon, she’ll become their next victim.

Check it out today!

Buy links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords

Read the first chapter!

Ebook Cover


 He leans against the wall beside Barnes & Noble, a three-dimensional shadow in the dimming light of the mall. His black hoodie conceals his face, yet I feel as if he’s watching us – watching me. I imagine his eyes as dark as his clothing, his glare villainous.

My heart pounds as though I have reason to fear him. It’s ridiculous, really. Probably the result of a day run long and an evening sure to run short.

The rapid click of my heels on the tile flooring seems to echo through the rarely-empty space. Most shoppers have left for the night, but a few stragglers remain, likely those in a last-minute rush. Like me. I glance at the narrow-banded watch on my wrist, gold hands ticking over a shimmering pearl face.

Eight fifty-three. Seven minutes until closing time.

John shuffles beside me, smirking as he notices my panicked glance at the watch. “I bought you that thing so you’d be on time once in a while. Clearly, it didn’t help.”

I’d have been late whether I knew what time it was or not. I couldn’t bring myself to leave work until I knew that Jailyn Adams would be safe and cared for. Six years old, so small, heartbroken. She’d have received the best of care with or without me, but I was there when her world fell apart. The least I could do was stay with her until her temporary guardian arrived.

It’s the part of my job I hate most, having to pull a child from their home. Regardless of what they’ve been through – in Jailyn’s case, a world of serious neglect blurred in a fog of drug abuse – it’s the only life they know. I wanted to be a Social Worker to do good for others, but in that moment, when pure fear and agony pours from those little bodies, it feels like the worst of wrongs.

John nudges me with his elbow, a smirk still on his face. “What? No comeback?”

Every night I’m thankful to come home to my husband, to the twinkle in his eyes and quick wit that never fails to clear my head of a difficult day. Lately, I need it more than ever. Confusion and self-doubt cloud every decision I attempt to make, encircling me in a stifling ring of anxiety. It’s a far cry from the confidence I once possessed, but also a necessary evil. Some mistakes shouldn’t be made in the first place, yet alone repeated.

Trust your gut, always.

Never again.

I grab John’s hand and pull. “Less talking, more walking. We’ve got to hurry.”

Despite the warmth of my husband’s hand and the July heat still clinging to my skin from outside, a shiver curls up my spine. The mall lighting seems to dim, eerily dark in the absence of music, chatter, and hundreds of bodies passing through. It puts even more of a rush in my step, a subconscious need to get out of here.

Or maybe it’s the creep outside the bookstore causing me to feel the need to flee. Why is he wearing a hoodie on such a hot day, anyhow? I glance over my shoulder, hoping to see that he’s gone and relax, but he still stands there, his shadowed face pointing in my direction. I can’t tell whether he has facial hair or not, a narrow or round face, or if his skin is light or dark.

Stop it, Lia. It’s nothing.

But can I be sure? I don’t know anything about him. His wife or girlfriend could’ve just left him for another man, pushing him to seek revenge. Maybe I remind him of her or John of her lover. Maybe he knows who I am, or at least, where I work. He may have recently had a child removed. He could be a mental hospital escapee, a sociopath set on stalking, if not murdering the first person he sees. Me.

The possibilities seem endless, flitting through my mind in a blurring whir.

What I don’t consider is the most likely scenario of all: He is only standing there, oblivious to my existence.

“Would’ve been silly to buy the shoes at the same time as the dress,” John says. “Can’t you just wear black or something?”

Without slowing my pace, I shoot him a glance. “The dress is pink Champaign. Black would look ridiculous. Leila will notice if the shade is off, yet alone the color. She wants her day to be perfect.” My sister is ever the perfectionist, bordering on OCD.

John keeps my pace, but rolls his eyes.

I speak before he has the chance. “Besides, it’s a wedding, not a funeral.”

“Matter of perception,” he says. “The poor sap getting stuck with Leila might beg to differ.”

I nudge his elbow, shoot him my shocked face, the wide-eyed, O-shaped mouth, I-can’t-believe-you-just-said-that look. The truth is, he’s right. We don’t refer to her as Princess Leila for nothing.

I swing in the door of Frivolous Footwear, the shop Leila insisted would have the shoes I’m looking for. Of course, that was a few months ago, when I was supposed to get them.

“I confirmed it. They have a store right in Duluth and the shoes are in stock.”

Right in Duluth. Where I work. Where John’s office is. Not where I live, though. Once we’re finished here, it will be another forty-five minutes before I can kick off my shoes and relish in the comfort of home.

At the office they ask why John and I don’t move into the city – the state, for that matter – and save the daily commute. I wouldn’t give up my small town, northern Wisconsin home on the shores of Sandy Lake for any amount of convenience. Other people visit the quaint town for a summer getaway, but for us it’s like we’re on vacation every time we return home.

John laughs. “You know I’m just kidding. I’m sure Leila’s last two husbands were the problem, not her.”

I spot a row of pumps and head down the aisle, bright and soft colors mingling into a brilliant rainbow of footwear. My head shoots right to left, my eyes searching for the right shade. I don’t let it slow my comeback, though. “They could say the same for us.”

He shrugs. “Second marriage for both of us. Not third. There’s a difference.”

The vibe in the shop is more unnerving than in the corridor, the small space abandoned of all shoppers except for us, half of the overhead lights turned off as if to emphasize that I need to hurry up and get out.

A girl with a name badge pinned to her shirt peers down the aisle and runs a hand through her dark hair. I do a double take, verify that it isn’t my own daughter looking at me. This girl’s complexion is a bit darker than Kara’s and she looks younger, but the way she holds her head – slightly high, a likeable confidence – with long hair sweeping her shoulders, she could be my daughter.

I once had hair like that, a shiny coffee mane absent of the gray that would eventually dull its appearance. Thank God for hair dye and the salon. If only the other signs of age would be as easy to cover.

The girl steps into the aisle. “Is there something I can help you with? My boss is getting ready to close up.”

I glance at my watch again. Five minutes. “I’ll be out in plenty of time.” I reach for my purse, pry it open, pull out a silky swatch, and hold it out to her. “I’m looking for something in this color.”

The girl bites her lip. “I think we have…” She glances over her shoulder, then turns and walks away from me. “Over here.”

I follow her into the next aisle and spot three potential matches lined beside each other, darkest to lightest. I take the swatch back from her and hold it against each of the shoes. Same shade, but too dark. Still too dark, but close. A shade off and too light.

“Carlee?” A voice calls from the front of the store.

The girl turns her head, then looks back at me. “We really need to close now. Can…”

“Is this all of them?” I ask before she has a chance to ask me to leave.

She nods, so I grab the closest match to my dress. Leila will have to get over it. It’s enough that I agreed to suffer the humiliation of squeezing my menopausal belly into a much-too-tight dress. Besides, as her three-time maid of honor, I matched perfectly the first two times. So I’m a little off this time.

Mom would get a kick out of it, this unspoken stand I’m taking against Leila. If she could join us. If she was in her right mind. If the doctors didn’t think she’d now have more bad days than good thanks to the dementia devouring her brain.

The thought causes my throat to constrict, the all too familiar emotion choking off my breath. Mom may be physically alive, but the presence of body cannot replace the presence of heart and mind. She doesn’t speak lately, doesn’t even seem to hear. I miss the sound of her voice, even when she wasn’t sure which of her daughters I was or if I was her daughter at all.

I swallow to open my throat and hand the shoe to Carlee. “Could you see if you have these in an eight? I’ll try them on fast and be out of your way.”

The girl bites her lip again, but nods, rushing toward the back of the store. I sit on a plush bench along the wall and slip my shoe off, readying myself for when the shoes arrive.

I look around, taking in the children’s shoes in the aisle beside me. Little girls’ shoes. Like Jailyn would wear. Her face flashes in my mind, red cheeks, puffy eyes, streaming tears that will haunt me long after they’ve dried.

It attacks me again, that churning in my stomach, increasing heart rate, and cold sweat beading on my skin. If I was wrong, if Jailyn’s circumstances weren’t what I thought them to be…

I take a deep breath, blink the images away. I wasn’t wrong. I couldn’t have been. The physical evidence removed by police proves it. This time.

John stands in front of me, hands stuffed in the pockets of his black dress pants. His royal blue button-up shirt brings out the brilliance of his eyes, the gray streaks in his dark hair complementing the distinguished appearance. He looks every part of the pharmaceutical scientist that he is, save the crooked smirk on his face.

“It’s your fault we’re here,” I bite out before he can comment. “If you hadn’t booked such an early flight, I’d be able to take care of this in the morning.”

He laughs, points to himself. “My fault? Would you rather drive to Florida?”

I press my lips into a line to suppress a smile. We have this humor in our relationship, a way that seems to make everything, even a late night shoe emergency, seem fun. It’s such a far cry from my last marriage, every moment so serious, tense.

John shakes his head, bends down, kisses me. “Fine, I’ll take the blame this time.” He kisses me again. “But only because you’re cute when you’re crazy.”

I feel the tension bleed from me, the effect of his warm lips. “You call this crazy?”

He shrugs. “Well, not as crazy as Leila.” He wrinkles his brow. “Tell me again why we’re going to this wedding?”

I play-slap his arm. For the past two weeks he’s been making up forgotten business meetings, unheard of illnesses, and a variety of appointments to get out going with me. I only waved him off. He may not admit it, but the truth is that he’d never send me off to deal with Bridezilla on my own. He too supportive for that. He’s my rock, the one person I know I can always count on for anything. “Because she’s my sister. Whether I like it or not.”

“Could be worse,” he says. “At least Mitch isn’t going with us.” His voice lowers, the pain of a father-son argument bleeding through.

I tip my head, unsure of what to say. I know how much it hurts John to have his only child angry with him. They’re usually so close, practically inseparable. There’s more to it, though, and I know this is what John worries about. Although I won’t admit it to John, I’m a little worried, too.

John sits next to me, exhaling slowly, deflating. “I’ve never seen him so mad.”

I’ve seen Mitch this mad before, even angrier. John has seen it, too. He just doesn’t want to allow himself to remember those days, the unwarranted outbursts, Mitch locking himself in his room, the constant fear over his safety and unspoken musings over ours.

But that was a long time ago. Mitch is a different person now, confident, sweet, stable. He’s just…off. Today. A one-time thing, surely.

John shakes his head. “He ran to Maggie, for Christ’s sake! He never does that.”

Maggie. The woman who gave birth to Mitch. That’s where her parenting ended.

I rest my hand on his thigh and squeeze. “He’s a smart, good boy. He’ll get over it. Everything will be…”

A loud bang echoes from within the mall.

John jumps from the bench and looks toward the front of the store, his back to me. Voices echo off the walls, angry shouts. Then another bang.

John spins back to me. “A gun.” He grabs my hand, pulls me to my feet and toward the back of the store, one shoe on, the other still resting on the floor beside the bench. I limp, lopsided without the other heel. He keeps me close to him, maneuvering through rows of shoes to the counter.

A woman around my age, her hair rolled into a neat, loose bun appears from behind the counter and I guess that she’s the boss, the one in a hurry to close. Her gaze shoots to the front of the store.

Another series of bangs, loud, echoing, one right after another.

“Back here!” The woman says as she runs behind the counter. John follows, pulling me into a storage room lined with metal shelving and boxes.

Bang. Bang, bang.

Closer this time.

John guides me to the corner of the room, behind a shelf of shoe boxes that towers over my head. He leans against the wall, pulls me close to him, wrapping his arms around me as if to shield me from the spray of bullets somewhere outside of the store.

He must feel the way my heart pounds, throbbing against the wall of my chest. “It’ll be okay,” he whispers in my ear. “Whatever is happening is out there.” He nods toward the store exit. “We’re safe.”

I nod, chew on my lip. What he says makes sense, but then why don’t I feel safe?

The answer crashes in on me, an image recreated from moments ago: The man in the hoodie.

Is he to blame for this? Were there others posted throughout the mall, all dressed in black, waiting to strike? Maybe I’d been right to fear him, a psychic voice in my head warning me.

The next bang is even closer, possibly right outside of the store. I whimper slightly, turn and bury my face in John’s chest, try to find comfort in the familiar scent of his cologne. He squeezes me tighter.

My head dizzies with my racing heart, my ears ringing, but not loudly enough to drown the sound of approaching footsteps.

“John!” I whisper, but it comes out in panicked shrill.

He holds his finger to his lips. “Shh.” He gently pulls me to the floor, both of us crouching as if reducing our height will make us invisible to the madmen out there. The cold, damp concrete seeps through the thin fabric of my dress, chilling my skin.

The steps grow closer, louder.

The next bang slices through my ears as if the bullet has pierced my head.

I pinch my eyes shut, squeeze John’s arm. The footsteps don’t stop. John rises slightly, wrapping my body with his own, shielding me.

The footsteps pause, a false moment of relief.

“Back here.” The voice is deep, like a roll of thunder.

Despite my terror, I can’t help wondering who he is looking for. Carlee? The owner? Maybe they had reason to close the store in a hurry. Or maybe it’s just another sign of a world gone bad. Another shooting, more innocent lives lost.

I hold my breath, pray that mine isn’t one of them.

The next bang I feel as much as hear, vibrations shooting through me as if I’d been the one to pull the trigger. I peer out from beneath John’s elbow, see a pair of black clad feet nearing. They stop, the toes awkwardly pointing inward, pigeon-like.

Another bang. Then two more.

John’s body slumps, pinning me beneath him. A sticky, warm liquid dribbles onto my cheek. I want to scream, but I can’t even breathe.

Coming May 18th, 2019!
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What’s Next?

Coming May 18, 2019

Ebook Cover

I’m your lover and your best friend.

We share a life, but do you know who I am?

It’s supposed to be a quick stop at the mall, a last minute errand. To Lia Drake, it doesn’t feel right from the start. Maybe it’s the eerie silence as closing time looms. Maybe it’s the hooded stranger watching her every move. Or maybe she’s just on edge after an emotionally draining day at her job with Child Protective Services.

But within minutes, gunfire peppers the hallways, sending Lia and her husband, John, cowering in a storeroom. Hiding does little good. Footsteps near. Gunshots explode. John’s lifeless body pins Lia to the floor.

Overwhelmed with grief, Lia assumes it’s another random act of violence until police suggest that John had been their target. It doesn’t make sense. John is easy going, funny, and genuinely kind-hearted. She can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like him, yet alone someone who would to see him dead.

But Lia has demons in her closet that could be to blame.

A quest for answers reveals more than Lia bargained for. Every new detail exposes a suspect with motive to kill. Worse, those details paint an unrecognizable picture of John, revealing a side to him she knew nothing about.

Lia’s desperation lands her in a race for time with John’s increasingly restless killer. It could be a complete stranger, or someone she trusts. If she doesn’t figure it out soon, she’ll become their next victim.

Check back next week for sneak peek at the first chapter!

Excerpt from THROW THE KEY

Paperback Cover

(Available October 6, 2018)

Chapter One

August 5, 7:00 p.m.

My husband didn’t even greet me when I answered the phone. “I’m coming to get you and the kids.” He sounded rushed, almost panicked, and his deep voice squeaked as if puberty had returned.

My three-year-old son sat on the kitchen floor in front of me, banging on a stainless steel pot with a wooden spoon. I pulled my cell from my mouth and cupped it with my hand. “Please be quiet, Jack. Mommy is on the phone.”

He kept beating the pot, his head jerking from side to side as he belted out a made-up song. “I want to play all da-a-ay, I want to play all day…”

Cute as could be with big chocolate eyes, smooth cherubic cheeks, and dark hair the shade of his eyes. Picture perfect, actually, the kind of child on television and in magazines. But if he had been my first, I probably wouldn’t have had Emma, so quiet and poised, the exact opposite of her brother. Thank goodness. As much as I love the little guy, I never could have kept up with two of him.

I plugged a finger in my ear, paced to the French doors, pulled them open, and stepped onto the cobblestone patio off the kitchen. “Eric? Sorry, Jack is…”

“Jenna, just listen.” Prickles stung my skin, tiny pins jabbing my flesh. “We need to go away. For a while.” His words were clipped, the steadiness in his voice forced.

“What? Why? What is wrong?”

Eric paused. “I need you to pack everything we’re going to need for the next couple weeks or so. Whatever you can fit into four suitcases. No more.”

“A couple weeks? I can’t. Lucy…” Even though I quit my job as a speech pathologist a few years ago, I continued to work with Lucy a few times a week. She needed me in so many ways. I couldn’t just leave her, especially without having a chance to talk to her about it first. She’d be heartbroken, has already suffered through more than any child should know.

“I’m sorry. We have to.” He didn’t sound sorry. If anything, he sounded like the Eric I’ve come to know lately. To the point. Distracted. Disinterested. A far cry from the man I married.

I could hear my own breath huffing over the line. “Why?”

Another pause, short this time. “Lock the doors and the windows. Turn on the security system. Stay in the house and keep the kids with you. Don’t talk to anyone. Do you understand?”

Why wouldn’t he answer my question? “Eric, you have to tell me what’s going on. You can’t just…”

“I’m sorry. Really. Lock up, turn the security system on, and pack.”


“I’m in the Lance, getting ready for take-off.”

His plane? Had we grown so far apart that I didn’t know my own husband left in an airplane that morning?

Then again, he hadn’t known where I’d gone either.

I tried to think, picture the morning, but it blurred with every other day, the goodbyes ranging from a half-hearted kiss on the cheek to the distant click of a door. I didn’t allow myself to think too far back, remember the long, warm kisses, loving embraces, and playful touches.

“I’ll be home in a couple hours. Be ready. Stay inside until I get there. Don’t even come out to the hangar.”

The hangar was so close, right across the street. “Eric…”

He hung up.

I stood on the cobblestone with the phone still pressed to my ear. My heart pulsed in my throat, constricting it, allowing only wisps of oxygen through. I stared past the patio, the potted geraniums, and the fire pit into the forest.

Lock the doors and windows…don’t talk to anyone.

A violent shudder rattled my body. I scanned the forest twice. Was someone lurking in the shelter of the trees? I didn’t know who or what to be afraid of – or why I should be afraid at all – yet I felt cold despite the sticky August air.

Eric, should’ve given me an explanation, a clue, anything.

With a silent gasp, I jerked the phone from my ear and examined it as if I expected a rabid creature to slither from beneath the screen. Maybe Eric didn’t explain because he couldn’t. Maybe he feared our phones were bugged.

The phone felt like fire in my hands, scorching my skin, driving me to toss it across the yard and get the device and whoever may have been listening as far away as possible. I didn’t do it, though, tried to calm my mind, think logically, breathe.

My cell was always with me. Except for Eric and the kids, no one could’ve done anything to it. I allowed my arm to relax at my side, the phone still in my hand. If anyone’s phone was bugged, it was Eric’s.

I checked the forest again. I didn’t see anything, just the soft shadows of evening settling over the foliage. If anyone was out there, they couldn’t be too far. The wooded land only ran so deep before butting up to the Newman’s property. It gave us enough privacy and distance, but they were close enough that I never felt alone. Until now. Miles seemed to stretch between my home and the nearest soul. I swallowed hard, looked to the ground but even the yard took on a life of its own, breathing in hushed tones.

I shot my gaze next door. Greg Callaghan, an old friend of my father’s, lived beyond a row of Arborvitaes and through a patch of mature maples. At night I could see bits of light poking through the branches, but it was still too bright out. Was he home? Could I call out if I needed him?

Don’t talk to anyone.

But why?

I stood alone on my corner lot, a row of green to my left and forested outcroppings to my right. Prime property for Chicago’s North Shore, but it suddenly felt like an island, its natives on the hunt for me.

I chewed on my lip, the deep green of the forest fading, images blurring together like a Monet.

Realization pulsed through me, an electric zing through my veins.

Eric had mentioned that he was onto a major story that would give his career a boost. He bragged that it would take him from suburban reporter to the Chicago Tribune. Had he uncovered something that put him in danger? More specifically, had he uncovered something that put the kids and me in danger?

I glanced behind me, through the French doors that led to the kitchen. I could still hear the muffled banging of wood on steel, Jack’s squeaky voice filling the void between strikes.

Jack and Emma. Why was I standing out here staring into the woods?

I strode toward the glass, catching my reflection. Just those few minutes in the humid air had managed to wilt my hair, the brown mass lifeless. I pulled the door open, stepped inside, locked the door behind me, and set my phone on the counter.

“I want to play all da-a-ay…” Jack sang at the top his lungs, accompanied by his makeshift drum. I walked over to him and squatted beside him onto the Brazilian cherry flooring, my legs weak and my hands trembling.

It didn’t matter that I knelt right in front of him, he bellowed as if he needed the volume for me to hear. The banging of the pot throbbed behind my eyes. I reached for the wooden spoon and lifted it from his chubby hand. “Okay, that’s enough for now, buddy.”

His mouth puffed into a frown, his dark hair slightly disheveled from swinging his head about. I ran my hand over it to smooth it. “But I want to play all day.” He crossed his arms.

I cleared my throat, hoping to steady my voice. “I need you to help me with something, okay?”

“Help with what, Mama?” He looked down at the pot still propped between his legs.

I slid the spoon across the floor behind me, pulled my hands together in a shaky steeple, and forced a wide smile. “We’re going to go on a trip!” I didn’t mean for my voice to slip, but it did.

Jack didn’t seem to notice. He cocked his head. “A trip?”

“Yes, a vacation. Daddy is on his way home to pick us up in his plane. We’re going to leave tonight.”

Jack smiled widely and pushed himself to his feet, kicking the pot aside. “Tonight?”

“Yep, tonight!”

He jumped up and down and clapped his hands. He tugged on my hand as if to pull me from the floor. “We tell Emma?”

My fake smile started to hurt my cheeks and the deep breaths did little to calm my heart rate. I didn’t want the kids to sense a problem. There was no point in causing them panic. “Sure.”

Jack tipped his head to the side, his deep brown eyes studying me, so warm and caring despite his young age. He inherited that compassionate gaze from Eric. I could only hope that it wouldn’t fade from my son like it had my husband.

Jack’s smile straightened. “Mama sad?”

I blinked. My eyes stung and a tear slipped onto my cheek. I hadn’t even noticed it there, had been too busy avoiding hyperventilation. I squeezed Jack. “Of course not. We’re going on a trip!”

Jack smiled and jumped. “Tell Emma!”

I got up off the floor. “Yes, let’s go tell Emma. I just have to check a few things first.” I picked up the pot and spoon, absently setting them on the counter beside a vase full of yellow roses. The kind of flowers Eric used to bring me. The flowers I now bought myself.

I allowed myself a precious second to take in the cheerful petals, relish in the peace of the sight. Yellow roses had been my favorite as far back as I could remember, symbolizing everything beautiful and right about the world. That’s how I saw them, what the brilliant petals and deep perfume aroma meant to me.

It also meant something else to me, something entirely opposite of peace. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Yellow roses had been mom’s favorite, too.

“I could really use you now, Mom,” I muttered under my breath. How I longed for her calm manner, comforting smile, and encouraging words.

But all I had was my three-year-old, his precious face staring up at me, trusting me to take care of him, keep him safe. I held my hand out to him. “Come with me.”

Jack grabbed on tightly and toddled beside me in more of a dance than a walk. “I’m going on a tri-i-ip. I’m going on a trip.” His voice boomed as loudly as before.

I moved as quickly as I could with Jack bopping beside me. I checked the window over the kitchen sink. Locked. I stepped past the cherry cabinets to the sliding patio door at the other end of the kitchen. Not locked. I flipped the lock, tested it, and made my way to the family room, past a family portrait taken just after Emma’s birth. Eric had insisted on that photo. He’d been so excited to have a family started and wanted the moment preserved.

I steadied my hands to flip the lock on the family room window, Jack’s song still bouncing between the walls, piercing my temples. I suspected a story at the root of Eric’s call, but I wasn’t sure if he told me what he’d been working on. He could’ve shared every detail and I would’ve simply nodded, my eyes not meeting his, too many other things rushing through my mind. He brought it on himself when he didn’t put his family first. He said I didn’t get it, but it was Eric who would never understand.

Jack drifted from my side, pulling my arm as we approached the living room window. His song stopped as he looked from the television to the couch. I tugged him, hoping the motion would be enough to get his focus back.

I checked the latches on the windows, and moved toward the dining room. With a jerk, Jack pulled his hand from mine, his bare feet pattering over the carpeting, carrying him back to the window. “Jack…come on.” I walked over to him, reached for his hand. “We have to pack.”

He pressed his nose against the window, his finger pointing. “I want my ball.”

I looked out the window. On the opposite side of the sidewalk, Jack’s large red ball sat beneath the branch of a bush.

“Not now. We have to hurry.”

He wiggled away from me, his feet stomping, cheeks reddening. “I want it!”

I didn’t have time for a tantrum. Lock the doors and windows. Turn on the security system. “Daddy is going to be here soon. We have to pack your things.”

“I wanna pack my ball!”

“It won’t fit in your suitcase, but if you’re good, maybe we can grab it on the way out.” I reached for Jack, but he squirmed away and ran toward the foyer. “Jack!” I called, taking off after him. My heart beat faster, harder. I didn’t know what lurked around each corner, yet alone beyond the doors.

At the front door, Jack twisted the knob with both hands. I scooped him up and propped him on my hip, despite his kicking feet and blood curdling shriek. “Do you want to go on the trip?” My words rattled as they escaped my throat.

Jack nodded back at me, his arms crossed, eyebrows knit. Another expression of Eric’s, this one much too recently familiar.

“Then you need to stay with me. Do you understand?”

He surrendered with a grumpy nod.

I bounced him slightly. “Okay, good. Let’s finish up down here so we can go tell Emma.”

I backtracked to the library and then made my way through the dining room, the television room, and back to the foyer. Still three more rooms to go, and it was only the first floor. I loved this big house. It had been a second home to my dad before he signed it over to us because of lack of use. I loved it so much that I kept it over his mansion after he died. Suddenly it seemed too big, as if there was no way I’d make it to every room in time.

But in time for what?

I moved faster, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I headed for the staircase. He started singing again, his mouth much too close to my ear. Song or no song, I was not going to set him down again. I grasped the banister and headed up the stairs. My feet moved in a labored jog, my memory attempting the same. What had Eric been working on?

The danger could be over something else, though. It didn’t have to be a story. My pace slowed, my legs heavy, rubbery. Could Eric have been involved in… What? Eric was as straight-laced as me, maybe more. But he had been gone a lot lately. I wouldn’t have known where he was. I didn’t even know he’d left in his plane this morning.

Thoughts buzzed through my mind like a swarm of bees in a shaken hive. I thought of an angered mistress’ spouse, a vengeful reader who thought Eric portrayed them in bad light, even possible involvement in a drug ring.

I continued up the stairs, Jack’s feet bouncing against my thigh, his weight burning my arms. Nothing criminal fit Eric, but I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t having an affair. The thought made me cringe, betrayal, loss, and even guilt colliding in my heart. It wasn’t the first time it crossed my mind.

I bit my lip, didn’t want to think about it. I doubted it had anything to do with the danger we faced, anyhow. That was what I needed answers to.

I paused and shifted Jack to my other hip.  It had to be a story and it angered me to even think about it. Eric didn’t need to work. We had the inheritance from my high-profile, defense attorney father to live off of. He could’ve spent his days doing the things he loved, actually living like I tried to do. Instead he insisted on working.

“I need to make my own way, Jen.”


I understood the need to do something worthwhile. I did that too, continued as a speech pathologist in a very part time, volunteer capacity. I had satisfaction and freedom, a balanced life that Eric was suddenly jerking me away from as if I had no responsibilities at all. Lucy needed me. I couldn’t just disappear.

I really needed to focus, get up the stairs.

“I’m going on a tri-i-ip.”

At the top of the stairs, I gently turned Jack’s face to mine and put my finger to my lips. “Shh, you’re going to ruin the surprise for Emma.”

Jack threw his hand over his mouth and nodded dramatically, his eyes wide.

I rounded the balcony and headed to the master bedroom. I’d finish locking the windows upstairs before I went to Emma’s room. At seven-years-old, my examination of the house would cause her to suspect something that Jack wouldn’t. The French doors in my bedroom leading to a small balcony had been left unlocked, so I flipped the lock into place.

I moved quickly through each bedroom, but in the guest room I stopped so suddenly it caused Jack to tense. The window hung all the way open. I know I hadn’t opened it. The air conditioning had been on for the past week and there was no way I’d have given the excessive humidity an inlet. Jack couldn’t have opened it. The window was over the bed. He would’ve had to have climbed onto it to reach the window and the comforter sat undisturbed. Emma couldn’t reach either.

I glanced over my shoulder, shifted my eyes fast enough to make me dizzy. Had someone slipped into the house?

Jack started singing again, sending my heart into my throat. I held my free hand to my chest. “Jack, the surprise,” I reminded him, once again raising my finger to my lips.

“Oops!” He slapped his hand over his mouth.

I stepped closer to the bed, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I examined the cream colored carpeting and nightstand near the window. Nothing seemed out of place and the carpet still looked freshly vacuumed. I squinted, inspecting the window. The screen was locked in place. I reached up, slapped the window shut and secured the latch. No one could’ve come in. If they had, I’d at least have seen a footprint. Maybe Eric had opened it before I last vacuumed and I didn’t notice.

The logic did nothing to calm me.

I stepped into the hallway and made my way to Emma’s room, wishing my hands would steady before I got to her. Surely, she’d notice.

I tapped on Emma’s bedroom door and then slowly pushed it open. She rested against a pillow on her bed, her fingers sliding over a tablet. Princess, the white Persian kitten we’d given her for her birthday, snuggled on her lap. Emma looked at me as we stepped inside.

I set Jack down and he ran over to her and jumped on the bed. “Emma, we’re going on a trip! Daddy’s coming to pick us up right now!” Startled, Princess hissed and then jumped to the floor.

Emma started to reach for the cat, but turned to me, her smile wide and eyes shining. “Really, Mom?”

I tried to act excited and hoped the red had faded from my eyes. “Yes, really!”

Emma sat up straight and held her hands together, her shoulder-length blonde hair bobbing. “Where are we going?”

Good question. Just play the game, Jenna. “I have no idea. Daddy said it was a surprise!”

Emma squealed. “Maybe Disney World?” She’d wanted to return to the happiest place on earth since we left there two years earlier. Jack would have no memory of the trip, having been just a year old and spending the week in a stroller. We’d planned to return there someday, but I doubted Eric was whisking us off to any such place now. By the way he sounded on the phone, I pictured a secret hideaway in the middle of nowhere.

I cocked my head. “Well, I don’t know about that. Wherever it is, I’m sure we’ll have fun.”

“Can Princess come?”

Another good question. If I couldn’t talk to anyone, how could I arrange for someone to take care of the cat? We couldn’t just leave her here for two weeks. I nodded to Emma. “I don’t see why not.” Eric wouldn’t be pleased, but I didn’t care.

“Yay!” Emma slipped from her bed to the floor, straightened her pink flowered t-shirt, and gingerly limped toward the kitten. “Did you hear that, Princess? We’re going on a trip and you get to come, too!” It triggered another round of song from Jack.

“Okay, Jack. Enough. We know.”

He smirked at me.

Emma ambled toward me, dragging her left leg. Her hip always bothered her most after she’d been still for a while. So many tests and Irritable Hip was the only diagnosis the doctors could come up with. Nothing seemed to be wrong with her. They said she’d outgrow it. I hoped it would happen soon. She’d been dealing with it for five years now.

“Okay,” I said, holding my hands up to get their attention. “I need both of you to listen carefully. Daddy is planning on being here in just a couple hours. We need to pack fast.”

Jack ran for the door. “Where are you going, buddy?”

“To pack my stuff.”

Keep the kids with you.

I waved my hand, motioning for him to come back. “Let’s make this fun. Why don’t we take turns helping each other pack?”

“I wanna go first!” Jack squealed.

I glanced at Emma. She rolled her eyes, more hazel than brown like mine. “Just let him, Mom.” She leaned into me, held her hand next to her mouth as she whispered, “Maybe then he’ll shut up.”

I nodded and winked at her. “Okay, Jack gets to go first.” I still needed the luggage from the basement storage room. I also had to flip on the security system from the panel in the master bedroom, but I couldn’t do that until I knew that everything was locked in the basement. I should’ve thought to check that before coming up here.

“Before we can help Jack pack, we need to go downstairs to get our suitcases. Why don’t you both come help me.” I turned to Emma and took a glimpse at her leg. She might not be ready for a trip down the stairs.

I glanced to the window and then back to my daughter. “Do you think your hip is okay or should we wait a minute?”

Emma walked back and forth across her room a few times. “I’m okay.”

“You must have been up recently?” She never moved quickly this soon. It could take up to an hour before she felt capable of taking the stairs.

Emma nodded, squeezing Princess in her arms. She followed behind me with Jack marching behind both of us. I moved slowly in case Emma had problems. She gripped the railing, taking each step slowly, favoring her hip while hugging Princess to her chest.

I paused. I could’ve left her in her room, let her walk it off for a bit while I checked the basement. Jack could have stayed with her, too. I’d be able to move faster on my own, make sure the house was as secure as I could make it. We weren’t too far down to turn back.

But, I thought of the open guest bedroom window. It was better that they stayed with me. Just in case.

I moved slowly down the stairs, allowing Emma time to recover after each step. We made our way to the main floor and then down a second flight of stairs to the finished basement. We passed through the recreation room, past the air hockey table, and to the storage room. I flipped the light and quickly retrieved our bags.

Jack took his own suitcase, and Emma reached for hers with her free hand. Princess dangled from her other arm, seemingly oblivious to her position. I closed the door to the storage room, both kids behind me. “I just need to check the locks down here. Gotta make sure everything is locked up tight before we leave.”

When I felt confident that every lock was latched, we made our way back up to Jack’s room. “Okay, Jack, pick out your favorite clothes. As many as you can fit into your bag.”

I paused, looking at my kids. The security system still had to be turned on, but I couldn’t let Emma see that. She’d know something wasn’t right. I normally only turned it on before I went to bed or when we left the house, if I remembered to turn it on at all.

There was a panel in my bedroom at the other end of the hallway. I’d be fast. I’d been through the whole house and no one was here. “I just have to check on something, okay?”

Jack didn’t answer. He scrambled to his dresser, tossing aside different shirts in search of his favorites, his song beginning again.

Emma plugged her ears. “Mom, can you tell him to stop?” She dropped onto the bed with her kitten.

“Jack,” I held a finger over my lips. “Let’s do this quietly, okay?”

“Okay,” he whispered loudly. In the same loud whisper, he resumed singing.

Emma rolled her eyes. At least it was a little less annoying. I stepped across the hall toward my bedroom. I’d move fast. I knew I had to. Despite my rush, I welcomed the break from the kids, the moment to stop my fake smile and excited words.

As I stepped into my room, the anxiety bled from me. My heart pounded as if I’d just run a marathon and my breathing returned to quick gasps. My arms hurt from my efforts to keep them from shaking in front of the kids so for the moment, I let them go, watched them tremble at my sides.

That moment was all I would have. I stepped to the wall beside my closet, searched the security panel, selected the right setting, and punched in the code. Now I just had to keep Jack and Emma away from the windows and doors. Easier said than done, especially without scaring them.

Despite the four windows in my bedroom, it began to darken in the eerie orange sunset. An amber glow highlighted the down comforter on my bed. Just that morning, I’d woken beneath it with Eric by my side, each of us in a hurry to get away from the other. At least, I assumed he couldn’t wait to get away from me. If that wasn’t the case, whoever called him at the crack of dawn must have convinced him otherwise.

It took little to separate us, so unlike when we first met in a creative writing course at Northwestern. Back then, we looked for every excuse to spend our free time together.

“Do you have some time to help me with a stanza tonight?” I’d ask him, really just wanting to be with him, but also enjoying the inspiration for my poetry.

He never declined and it wasn’t like I had to ask often. Eric usually beat me to it. “Coffee tonight? My plot is weak and it would really help to bounce it off you.”

We fell for each other fast and hard, each of us no longer needing an excuse to spend time with the other. Now, it felt as if nothing could keep us together.

I looked away from the bed. It was time to get back to the kids and play calm again.

I paused. Silence. Jack was never quiet for long.

The next sound I heard was my heart pulsing in my ears.

I sprang for the door to get to my kids, but stopped with a start.

A rumble.

And then a shrilling scream. “Mama!”


© Copyright 2018 Christine Barfknecht, All Rights Reserved

Those Coveted Reviews

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Waiting for reviews can drive an author bonkers.

Case in point: When APPLE OF MY EYE went live on NetGalley, I was a bundle of nerves. What if they don’t like my book? I’ll be ruined by one star ratings before I get my feet off the ground. What if they think it’s just okay? That’s not enough. What if they don’t want to read it at all and I’m stuck in the land of 0 reviews?

First off, I admit that I’m a bit of a worrier. I can give you the worst case scenario for pretty much anything in two seconds flat. So, take something as important to me as a book I’ve been dreaming of for years, and I’m bound to be extra maniacal.

Apple was on NetGalley for a whole two days when I started checking Goodreads obsessively. I felt I was exercising good control if I waited an hour between checks. Each time I held my breath as I waited for the screen to change, a picture of tension as if the results had the power to forever change my life.

I was really lucky in that my first review came within the first week the book was on NetGalley. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but it also wasn’t terrible. Everything the reviewer said was good, but in the end it was given 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3.

Ugh. I wanted a 5. I needed a 5. I wasn’t ruined, but I wasn’t saved either. What exactly was I? What did this mean? If I don’t get some fives soon… What if I’m just mediocre? If the next rating is lower…

Crazy, huh?

This is what happens to an author when a book is released into the world. Okay, maybe all authors don’t dangle this far over the edge of sanity, but I’d venture a guess that plenty do. Our books are our babies, created from a spark of idea and built on for months or even years. We love them and we want you to love them. For our books to succeed, we need you to love them.

To date, my obsessive worrying is unfounded. Apple is sitting at 4.33 stars on Goodreads, 4 stars on Barnes & Noble, and 4.5 stars on Amazon. Not too shabby.

Today my second novel, THROW THE KEY, hits NetGalley for it’s review term.  I’m far from confident, but I’m not a basket case either. This time, I’m taking the review process for what it really is. In reality, good or bad, reviews are a wonderful thing. They either affirm the work I’ve done or clue me in as to how I can do better for my readers next time. For readers, gone are the days when you have to depend solely on a killer description to know if a book will be worth your time. A glance at the reviews quickly lets you know if the hype is warranted. It’s a win-win for both reader and author.

I very much appreciate every review a reader takes the time give. If you’ve read and reviewed my work, thank you so much! If you read my work and haven’t left a review, I’d be grateful if you’d consider doing so.


8 Days and Counting, Plus a New Excerpt!


It’s so hard to believe that release day for this baby of mine is one week from tomorrow. It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking, it’s terrifying, but most importantly, IT’S ABOUT TIME!

To kick-off the countdown, I wanted to share an excerpt. The first chapter has already made the rounds, so I thought I’d give those of you following me on any or all platforms a look at chapter 2. Please know that I am grateful for each and every like, follow, RT, comment, review, to-read shelf add…everything. Thank you so much!

In this chapter we meet Brad, quite possibly the only ally Laurie has. I hope you enjoy it!

Chapter Two


September 18, 2018

The scream stands out from the others, cutting over the crowd like a crashing jet. I stop walking, scan the masses for the source. A series of wails follows. It sounds like a woman, her cries high-pitched, hysterical. I crane my neck and peer over festivalgoers, but don’t see anyone in distress.

Luke tugs on my arm. “Come on, daddy.” He points the caramel apple in his other hand toward the Tilt-a-Whirl. At four years old, he’s too small to ride, but he loves to stand there and watch the thing spin in the air. I don’t get the thrill, but it makes him happy.

The cries seem to have stopped so I nod to Luke and start walking again, filing in behind the rest of the crowd. His sandy hair is getting shaggy and I make a mental note to have it trimmed before I send him back to Trish. It will give her one less thing to complain about, spare me the accusations of only wanting the fun part of parenting. Then again, it could give her one more thing to complain about. Too short or not short enough, too uneven or too even. I’m convinced she’s going to take the divorce out on me until the day I die. It’s my fault, she claims. Maybe she’s right. I never should’ve married her in the first place.

But if I hadn’t married her I wouldn’t have Luke.

He squeals as we step closer to the Tilt-a-Whirl, but his attention is quickly drawn to a booth beside us adorned in stuffed animals, the back wall covered in balloons. Throw a dart and a scrap of paper inside of the popped balloon reveals the level of the prize won. It’s almost always a number one, which equates to junk; a plastic bracelet, cheap toy car. Luke points to a giant stuffed tiger. I’d need to get a ten to win that and something tells me there is just one on the whole board.

“Play, Daddy!” he says, once again tugging on my hand. A hunk of caramel sticks to the side of his mouth.

“Wouldn’t you rather watch the Tilt-a-Whirl?” I’d rather go home, but that’s beside the point. I thought the outing might help clear my head, but too many people flood the streets for that to be possible. Their voices bounce in my skull, colliding with Mark’s words from earlier. Something isn’t right. I hear it on repeat, the seriousness in his tone raising goose bumps on my flesh.

Luke shakes his head. “Please, please, please!” It’s so hard to deny him. He’s the reason I’m training with Mark, getting out of firefighting and into investigations. Safer, less risk of leaving Luke partially orphaned. He’s also the reason I followed Trish to this apple-worshiping town after our divorce, preventing a three-hour distance from my son.

I pull my phone from my pocket and check the screen. Nothing from Mark yet. I stuff the device back into my front pocket. So much for clearing my head.

As a kid with neon blue hair passes, I wonder if this place might be what I really need my head cleared of. I glance around – a morbidly overweight man wearing a t-shirt three inches too short, a pair of pierced Goth-looking teenagers, and a group that may not be familiar with the concept of soap and water – and suspect that every trailer park in a sixty-mile radius is empty right now.

If I didn’t know that all carnivals attract these crowds, I’d be in the first cab out of town, swearing off apples for the rest of my life.

I reach for my wallet in my back pocket and focus on Luke, still gazing longingly at the stuffed tiger. “All right, buddy. I’ll try it once.” It’s easier to fork out a few bucks for a dart than to say no. It’ll be worth Luke’s smile, anyhow. He squeals and then pulls his caramel apple to his mouth for another bite.

“Five bucks,” the man in serious need of a shower and shave behind the counter tells me. When I was a kid, the game was a buck.

That horrifying scream sounds again, shrilling over the voices, cheers, and even the band down the street. It’s closer this time, or maybe I’ve just moved closer to it. Luke startles, squeezing my hand. His mouth hangs open in anticipation of the apple, but his arm freezes before the treat reaches it.

I look over my shoulder and then down at Luke. Whoever it is, she can’t be far, maybe a couple booths away. I need to check it out, see if I can help. My many hours of emergency training ingrained the instinct in me. I shove my wallet back in my pocket, pick Luke up, and take off toward those miserable wails. “The tiger!” Luke cries, his voice bouncing as I jog.

“We’ll come back later. I need to help someone.”

“Who?” Luke asks.

“I don’t know,” I tell him, my breathing heavy as I run.

Outside a booth ahead, right across from the Tilt-a-Whirl, people gather. I make my way through them and spot an older woman leaning over the counter, calling to someone. “What’s wrong?” I ask her.

Her eyes are wide, her face pale. She shakes her head. “I…I don’t know.” She points inside the booth. “She said she was getting a migraine, but then she started screaming.”

In the back of the booth, I see Laurie.

“It’s the baby’s mommy,” Luke says. He loves making little Emily laugh and watching her body shake with giggles. Since I bought the house next door, we often see Laurie going for a walk with Emily in the stroller. It’s not exactly coincidence that I happen to be near the street every time she passes.

Laurie keeps her eyes on the ground. She holds her hands to her head, her chest heaves like she can barely breathe, and she paces more frantically than I’ve ever seen. I squeeze around the counter into the booth and set Luke down. “Stay right here, okay?” I point at the Tilt-a-Whirl. “See, you can watch from right here.”

Luke nods but his eyes are on Laurie. I go to her, touch her arm. “Laurie, are you okay?” Stupid question. Clearly, she’s anything but okay.

She looks at me, her wide hazel eyes darting like a caged animal. She starts to step back as if she’s afraid of me, but then recognition settles in her face, softening the creases around her glistening eyes. A jumble of sounds rolls from her mouth like she’s trying to form words but can’t do it. “Eh…eh…e…”

I put my hands on her arms. “Emily? Is Emily okay?”

Her light brown hair bobs with frantic motion, but I don’t know if she’s nodding or shaking her head. Strands cling to her tear stained face, the rest disheveled like she’s been tearing at it.

I scan the small booth, its plywood walls and nylon roof. No one is inside except me, Laurie, and Luke. I try to keep my voice calm, but my breaths are heavy. “Where is Emily?”

Laurie starts shaking her head and waving her hands, more sounds tumbling from her mouth but still no words. I fumble for my cell.

“9-1-1?” the woman on the other side of the counter asks me.

I nod.

“The sheriff is right up the block,” she says, pointing. “I’ll run get him.”

Sheriff Tilton. The last person I need to see tonight, a big part of the reason I needed to clear my head in the first place. Or maybe Mark’s bias is starting to rub off on me. That’s the more likely theory. Unfortunately for me, I represent Mark’s camp by association. No doubt Tilton will be less than thrilled to see me. But clearly Laurie needs help and he’s the best person to give it to her.

I catch sight of Luke. He leans against the counter, his head turning with the motion of the Tilt-a-Whirl. I turn back to Laurie, note the way her body trembles. I rub my hands over her arms and try to keep my voice soft, but not too quiet or she’ll never hear me over all this carnival noise. “Look at me.” She looks up and suddenly gasps before screaming. She pulls away and scoots backward, lodging herself in the corner of the booth.

“Laurie, it’s okay. It’s just me. Brad.” She crouches to the street, pulling her arms around herself. She’s breathing so hard I fear she’ll pass out. I squat to her level. “Are you hurt?” She doesn’t look hurt, just terribly shaken.

She stares at me like she’s never seen me before, but then her eyes flicker. “B…b…br…”

I nod and smile at her. “Yes, it’s just me. Brad. I want to help you. Can you take a few deep, slow breaths with me?” I make a show of sucking in a deep breath and she tries to follow suit but her chest shudders with each inhalation. I keep my voice soft. “Was Emily here with you?”

She seems to nod, shrug, and shake her head all at the same time. “Was anyone else here?”

I get the same response.

I glance back at Luke. Now he’s laughing, clapping his hands as he watches the ride spin. I need to do something with him. The flashing lights will only keep him occupied for so long and I can’t help Laurie and keep an eye on him at the same time.

The problem is, who do I call? I’m too new to town to know anyone very well. Laurie has watched Luke a few times, but that certainly isn’t an option. The logical choice is Trish but I can’t call her. I had to plead for an extra night with Luke as it was – something I never had to do when I had shared custody. But that was before she dragged me into court, before the judge made my life a living hell.

“While the court finds no reason to remove custody as Mrs. Chandler requests, Mr. Chandler’s lack of availability to the child, regardless of how warranted it may be, holds merit. It is in the best interest of stability for the child…”

I thought I was having a heart attack; the pain in my chest shot straight through me. This stranger was taking my son from me in some capacity, all because emergencies sometimes pulled me away from him.

No, not because of emergencies. Because Trish saw the opportunity to accuse me of being an absent parent. I just couldn’t believe that the judge agreed with her lunacy.

“Mr. Chandler will retain partial custody of the child, but only on weekends. The situation will be revaluated in three months.” With the bang of a gavel, he was gone and so was Luke.

That was almost three months ago, shortly after I moved to Jackson. Tomorrow I’m due in court for the follow up, no doubt to be another face off with Trish.

I definitely can’t call her with an emergency now.

Luke spins his head, mocking the motion of the carnival ride. He’ll be fine with me. I’ll make it work.

Laurie still sits in the corner of the plywood booth. She hugs her knees to her chest, but then as if realizing she’s lost touch with reality, she straightens her legs and pushes herself to her feet. She glances at the ground, then pulls her hands to her mouth, tears trickling down her cheeks. I follow her eyes to a small, pink object on the street. I step over to it and pick up a soft doll, the kind for a very young child. I turn to Laurie. “Is this Emily’s?”

She reaches for it, takes it from me, and clutches it to her chest. “Eh…em…E…”

But she pauses as if suddenly disoriented. Something flashes in her eyes and even though I can’t describe it, I know what it is; this helpless version of her vanishing, the real Laurie coming back to me.

She closes her eyes and takes a long, deep breath. Slowly, her eyes flutter open and she focuses on me. “Brad,” she says. She glances over her shoulder, carefully examining the small area around us, then leans in and rests her hand on my forearm. “I’m…so glad to see you,” she says between labored breaths, her voice a desperate whisper. Her hand trembles on my arm.

“Are you okay?” I ask, putting my hand over hers. “Is Emily…”

Laurie doesn’t let me finish, leans even closer, her breath warm on my ear. “I need help.”

I nod. “The sheriff should be on his way.”

She shakes her head wildly. “I don’t want…”

She stops speaking as a rough voice projects over the background banter. “What’s the problem?”

I turn to face the source: Sheriff Tilton.

Tilton’s bloodshot, drooping eyes make him look hung over or stoned, but it’s nothing new, his typical look. His uniform seems freshly pressed and the metal on his shirt and his gun glint beneath the flashing lights of the Tilt-a-Whirl. The woman has returned with him, her eyes wide with concern. She must know Laurie.

Though I doubt he’s waiting for permission, I motion Tilton inside the booth. Luke stares up at him before glancing back at Laurie, but the squeals across the street steal his attention again. “Chandler?” Tilton says. “What are you doing here?”

He’s as happy to see me as I guessed he would be. I brush it off, try to keep my voice level. “I was just up the street with my son when I heard her scream.” I turn away from him, try to block out any perceptions I’ve formed. I rest a hand on Laurie’s back, try to nudge her toward Tilton. “Tell the sheriff what happened.”

But she seems to be fading again. She clutches the pink doll to her chest, her eyes wide before she turns away, shaking her head, her breathing growing even faster. Her shoulders tremble and fresh tears roll down her cheeks. “Is Emily missing?” I ask.

Laurie’s gaze grows distant, but she parts her lips. “She…she’s gone.”

Tilton speaks up. “Laurie, do you know who has your daughter?”

“J…J…J…” She meets the sheriff’s eyes, but takes a step back like she doesn’t recognize him. By the way her eyes dart about and sweat beads on her forehead despite the cool night, I can tell we’ve definitely lost her again.

“Who did you see? Anyone?” Tilton asks.

Laurie doesn’t answer, starts pacing the small space again, pausing only long enough to thrust the doll at the sheriff. “Gone,” she cries. “Gone.”

He reaches for the doll, but she pulls it back like a greedy child. “Laurie,” he runs a hand over his head. “I’m going to do everything I can to find her but I need you tell me what you know. Can you do that?”

She looks at the wall of the booth and screams, but there’s nothing there. She glances at the street and jumps back as if a colony of snakes crawl at her, but again there is nothing. She shifts her gaze to the sheriff, her eyes widening as if seeing him for the first time. With a slight gasp, she takes a couple steps back.

I fight the urge to back away, too. This is nothing like the Laurie I know, the Laurie that was here just a moment ago. I wish I knew what she was thinking or seeing for that matter. They can’t be the same images I see. There is nothing here but makeshift walls and people she knows. Laurie tries to take another step back but she’s met the wall. She breathes even heavier as she points a finger at the sheriff. “Jake!” she blurts.

Tilton tips his head, his voice low. “You’re saying that Jake has Emily?”

Laurie seems to want to disappear into the wall, her back pressed firmly against it, her feet shuffling. I step closer to her, hoping she’ll catch sight of me instead of Tilton. “It’s Sheriff Tilton, Laurie.” I keep my voice soft. “But you just said Jake.”

She nods frantically.

I glance at the sheriff. By his expression, I know he’s thinking the same thing I am. Still, I play Laurie’s game, hope if she calms she’ll be able to speak to me again. “Jake has Emily?”

Those mumbled sounds tumble from her mouth again, gibberish I can’t even begin to understand. “J…J…J…”  I think she’s nodding, but it’s hard to tell.

The sheriff steps forward, putting himself in Laurie’s line of vision. He puts his hands on his narrow hips, sticks out his ever-growing belly. “That doesn’t make sense.” At least he keeps his voice friendly. “You know that.”

She meets his eyes, her own widening. Tilton squints and shakes his head. “How could Jake have Emily?”

Laurie’s head is shaking and her teeth are chattering like she’s standing in a freezer. “J…J…” She groans a little then blows out a frustrated breath.

Sheriff Tilton shakes his head. “Jake can’t have Emily, Laurie. He’s dead.”