The Great Northern Migration: Chapter One: Into the Wild

My life is in shambles.

Literally.

All of my belongings lie in boxes and crates and endless blue Rubbermaids upon the floor.

The husband swears by Rubbermaids. He loves that they stack so easily.

But then again, this week I’ve discovered that he still has an OG Discman from like…1996 so his judgement officially questionable.

Wait a second, I think I had a point here.

Ah yes, we’re moving.

For those of you who have noticed, I haven’t published a single book review in more than three weeks.

I haven’t given up, I promise.

But a lot has been happening! First of all, I got a job writing werewolf romance, which deserves it’s own blog post and will get one shortly.

While I’ve been doing that, the husband was offered a job with the Canadian federal government. It’s a dream job for him, and the reward of literally years of hard work, and perseverance.

I need to make this very clear. I never could have dealt with the amount of stress he handled seemingly with ease during this time. Worthy props to the husband.

However (there’s always a however), his new job requires us to relocate to the north.

Quite far north.

The town is called Dryden, and it’s tiny.

But I grew up in a tiny town.

And this one has riding stables.

Still, I shall be taking creative liberties and using the proper noun from now on.

We’re moving North.

In the process, we’ll be resigning nearly almost all of our furniture to the curb. Which is okay, because the curb is where we found almost all of it.

This week we finish packing everything we can into our newly purchased Subaru Outback.

I only mention the car by name because damn she’s got a big ass. Big enough to fit at least our immediate necessities.

And a crate of my books.

We were lucky enough to have secured a rental property awaiting us in Dryden.

And so we go, into the wild.

I’ll be updating shortly.

-Ashley

 

 

Book Review: Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

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Review 2.34

*this review contains spoilers*

I just finished this book about ten minutes ago, it’s 1:02 am, and I’ve had two (*cough* three) glasses of wine, but I just had to drag my tired ass over to my computer because I’m legit annoyed and I can’t quite determine why.

Except I do know why.

Kristin Hannah Stepmomed out on me.

I just invented this phrase, so allow me a moment to explain. When I was young, one of my mother’s favorite movies was Stepmom, a 1998 drama starring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. If you don’t remember it, don’t worry. It was an emotionally manipulative tearjerker.

Just like this book.

In the film, Julia Roberts is a young hot-shot somethingorother who is dating some random male who is utterly unimportant to the story except as a plot device for drama. His former wife, Susan Sarandon, is super jealous of Julia Roberts and her shark-smile and the kids are acting out and blah blah blah none of this is really important at all except at some point all hatred and jealousy and teenage rebellion grinds to a screeching halt because of one terrible word…

I’d spell it out, but you can probably guess.

Please don’t take this to mean that I am belittling cancer victims, cancer survivors, their families, or the scientific and medical community; everyone that has been battling this disease with unending hope and bravery and fervor. Or that I mean to disparage the author, who lost her own mother to cancer. I lost my own grandmother this previous summer, and am still reeling from the loss.

I just didn’t like how it was addressed in this book. It felt shoehorned in.

I spent four hundred and fifty pages with Tully and Kate. I got to know them, got to love them. I was heavily invested in their friendship, which felt real and visceral in a way that female friendships are rarely depicted.

And then in the last thirty pages…cancer.

I don’t know why, but it cheapened the entire experience for me. I get that Hannah has felt the personal grief of the disease and wanted to share that with her readers, but it came so late in the game that it felt more like a plot device than a genuine moment in the narrative arc.

Maybe that’s just a horribly cynical thought. If so, sorry? I guess? I don’t know.

I’ve read a lot of really amazing books that deal with cancer and grief and loss. This book was not one of them. It is; however, an amazing portrayal of the lasting power of female friendship and I applaud Firefly Lane for that accomplishment.

Despite the turn towards high melodramatics, the ending was genuinely affecting and well written. This can be judged by the fact that it’s now 1:25 in the morning and I’m still here writing about it. Also, I cried so much I’ll have to put cold spoons on my eyes in the morning. *helpful hint – this reduces swelling and puffiness!*

My rating: 4.5/5 (any book that forces me to face the next day on less than five hours of sleep deserves that much)

You can find Firefly Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

 

Does Peter Pan Stand the Test of Time?

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Review 2.33

I would be genuinely surprised if there was a child in North America who was not at least passingly familiar with the story of Peter Pan. The enduring quality of the children’s story has led to dozens of film and television adaptations, literary analyses, and reinterpretations over the past century.

I have read and reviewed at least two fairy-tale reimaginings for this website, Christina Henry’s Lost Boy and, more recently, Jodie Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily. I truly enjoyed that latest novel, but it made me realize that I’d never actually read J. M. Barrie’s original source material. So I downloaded the audiobook and got to work.

It is almost impossible to separate our collective understanding of the Peter Pan legend from Barrie’s novel (which was originally written as a play). I will, however; try to focus on the character’s as they are presented in the book, and not how they have been portrayed over the years.

This isn’t even so much a book review as it is a look back to see how the original source material has held up over time. Because let’s be honest, there is a magical timelessness about Peter Pan that has captivated generations of children.

And then there some things that definitely have not stood the test of time.

I would have laughed out loud at the British imperialist attitude that pervades this novel if it weren’t quite so alarming. In some ways, the constant references to “the might of Brittannia” or “King and country” were quaint and almost charming.

But then Barrie spends nearly an entire chapter detailing the ways in which the “red savages” are simply inferior to the white man. There are constant references to the Native Americans as “redskins” or “pickaninnies”. They refer to Peter as their “Great White Father”.

It’s an example of racism that is so startlingly casual it almost makes you understand how the 1953 Disney cartoon adaptation thought it would be okay to include songs such as “What Makes the Red Man Red?” *Note – the movie somehow manages to top the book in terms of blatant stereotyping*

I also have a huge problem with Wendy.

She’s such a fucking sissy.

And I get it. This book was originally published in 1911, when women were kind of expected to be sissies. Wendy’s entire personality is sweet, motherly, and ladylike. That’s all she is, and she has nothing in the way of a character arc. She idolizes and worships Peter as the ruling “father” figure, and caters to his every whim. It is such an outdated portrayal of a young girl that I had to constantly remind myself while I was reading that it is literally antique. If anyone ever suggests that the past one hundred years of feminism hasn’t accomplished very much, I’ll show them this book.

With all of this in mind, would I recommend this book to parents?

Absolutely.

I’ve always been of the mind that reading changes the world for the better far more often than it changes it for the worse. Sweeping the bigoted mindset of the past under the rug isn’t the way to go. Instead, parents could use Peter Pan as a way to start a conversation about how ideas have changed over the past century, and why some people used to think in ways that were and are highly offensive.

Also, the more troublesome aspects of Barrie’s novel are but a fraction of the book as a whole. The excitement and adventure of Neverland is still there, as are the wonderfully silly lost boys, the pirates, and of course Peter himself.

I was personally glad I finally got around to reading the book.

My rating: 3.5/5

* Note: I read an unabridged copy of Peter Pan, which I believe contains a lot more offensive language than the one that is traditionally marketed to small children*

 

Book Review: And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich

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Review 3.34

 

When Silla and Nori arrive at their aunt’s home, it’s immediately clear that the manor is cursed. The endless creaking of the house at night and the eerie stillness of the woods surrounding them would be enough of a sign, but there are secrets too—questions that Silla can’t ignore: Why does it seem that, ever since they arrived, the trees have been creeping closer? Who is the beautiful boy who’s appeared from the woods? And who is the tall man with no eyes who Nori plays with in the basement at night… a man no one else can see? [Source]

This novel was all style and no substance. I absolutely loved the visual form of this book. Words shrink and grow, they prance gleefully about the pages in a way that is wildly immersive. It creates a surreal atmosphere where the reader knows that nothing is ever quite what it seems. It was very effective at providing an appropriately spooky mood.

Except when it wasn’t. During the periods when Dawn Kurtagich’s novel is forced to play it straight and actually explain itself, it falls apart. Ultimately, this was a book of elaborate tricks hung upon the thinnest of coat-hanger plots. It’s difficult to pull of a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative for any long duration, and this is where And the Trees Crept In meets its downfall. The uncertain, dreamlike state that pervades this book makes it difficult to know what is real and what is not. This is a frequently used tool in the horror/thriller genre, but it has to be backed up by a story that is at least somewhat logical. Early chapters echo legendary short horror pieces such as The Yellow Wallpaper, but then neglect to devote the necessary time towards character development or a coherent storyline.

The central protagonist, Silla, is almost painfully static throughout the course of the novel. She begins the book in a haze of pain and hunger and anger, and that pain and hunger and anger are the only thing that motivate her through the next two hundred pages. There are occasional scenes with a oddly shoehorned love interest that feel forced, but then it’s right back to anger and obsession and constant, repetitive focus on trees.

Overall, And the Trees Crept In was very hit-and-miss. The ultimate explanation for the horrors visiting the sprawling manor home was both obvious and cliche. I enjoyed the middle third of the book the most, and again the visual style was really interesting, but ultimately that isn’t enough for me to recommend the novel.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find And the Trees Crept In here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.32

 

**contains minor spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend**

The final installment in any trilogy has a lot to live up to. Over the course of two novels, author Kevin Kwan has created a fantastic, opulent, fast-paced, and ultimately charming universe for his increasingly large cast of characters. Now he has to find a satisfying conclusion for all of them.

While RPP doesn’t have the breathless originality of the first novel, it definitely manages to rise above China Rich Girlfriend in terms of plot development. Things begin happening very quickly from the beginning of this book, and from page one I was sucked right back in to the complicated, extravagant lives of the Young/Shang/Leong family.

Rich People Problems does one thing right from the very start. It recognizes that Rachel Chu, the main protagonist from Crazy Rich Asians, has more-or-less played her role as the naive observer. She is largely absent from the bulk of the novel and, due to her complete lack of personality, is hardly missed. This allows Kwan to focus more of his time and attention on more interesting characters such as Astrid, Kitty, and Shang Su Yi, Nick’s grandmother.

The bulk of the plot is focuses on Su Yi, clan matriarch and the current owner of Tysersall Park, the family’s palatial Singapore estate, as she begins plans to draw up her last will and testament. And if the first two books gave us an insight into the behavior of wealthy people at the best of times, woah buddy just wait until a possible inheritance is thrown into the mix. There is also a very Godfather-esque feel to parts of the narrative, as the reader learns more about Su Yi’s danger-riddled youth under Japanese occupation.

Kwan seems to have learned from some of the mistakes of China Rich Girlfriend, and I was glad to see that the obnoxious label-dropping at dropped off to a reasonable amount. That’s not to say that there aren’t numerous glittering descriptions of the splendor surrounding these characters; Kwan knows his readers and continues to embrace the rampant materialism of the first two books. It’s just that this time none of this stands in the way of actual plot development.

It took me almost five years to get around to reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, and once I began it took me less than two weeks to read all three novels. Afterwards, I was consumed by that strange empty feeling that true readers occasionally experience. It’s that weird kind of bittersweet melancholy, because on one hand I had so much fun spending time in Kwan’s world, but it’s mixed with sadness because never again will I be able to enjoy these books for the first time.

I highly recommend the series.

My rating: 4.5/5  (5/5 for Crazy Rich Asians as a complete series)

You can find Rich People Problems here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.31

 

**contains mild spoilers**

Being the second novel in a trilogy is a thankless task. The freshness and originality of the first installment has worn off, and the author needs to lay groundwork and build exposition before the final chapter can answer all the open questions. This is why for so many trilogies, both in literature and film, the second chapter is the weakest of the three.

China Rich Girlfriend sadly falls into this “middle child” sinkhole; it gets bogged down trying to resolve all of the plotlines from the first novel while introducing all the people that will become more important in the finale. That isn’t to say that Kevin Kwan’s second novel isn’t fun; it definitely is. But there’s something missing.

For one thing, there are a lot of new characters to acquaint ourselves with. Having just managed to gain a general understanding of the complicated Shang/Leong/Young/ family tree, now the reader must also get to know Rachel’s newly-found extended family (this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed in the prologue) as well as an absolute entourage of new supporting characters.

Perhaps it is that the “label-dropping” reaches a saturation point in China Rich Girlfriend, though it’s possible that someone who actually knew something about fashion would heartily disagree*. The numerous descriptions of luxurious locations gets a bit ridiculous as well; at one point the male protagonist Nicholas Young notices that a yacht’s barstools were upholstered in “genuine whale foreskin” and I actually burst out laughing. Also, turns out that’s a real thing that actually exists in the world.

China Rich Girlfriend also does an incredibly efficient job of tidying up all of the unresolved plotlines from Crazy Rich Asians. The enmity between Rachel and Eleanor Young is swept away in the first fifty pages as if it never really mattered and is never again mentioned in any real capacity. Considering that I just spent four hundred pages watching Eleanor systematically destroy Rachel’s life, this easy resolution was unsatisfying.

Things aren’t all bad, and Kwan’s delight at bringing this secretive and showy world to life is both obvious and infectious. At the very least, I think we can all agree that no matter what happens to Nick and Rachel (who remain almost painfully milquetoast) it is Astrid who truly deserves her happy ending.

My rating: 4/5

You can find China Rich Girlfriend here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

*full disclosure-my annual clothing budget is somewhere in the range of seventy-five dollars

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians, #1)

Review 2.30

I’ve been putting off writing this review for ages, because I can’t think of the best way to describe Kevin Kwan’s debut bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians. There’s been a ton of hype around this book since it was released in 2013, and it’s already been adapted into a film starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding.

So what can I say that hasn’t been said by a thousand readers and reviewers before me? Not much really. But I can say it again, and in slightly different words. What fun!

Speaking of fun, Crazy Rich Asians was a runaway bestseller for a reason; it’s pure unadulterated escapist fun. Instead of trying to avoid all of the cliches associated with the “chick-lit”* genre, it revels in them. At one point, a character literally pulls out an unlimited AmEx card and utters the words, “This is a fashion emergency!” (or some paraphrase thereof).

Crazy Rich Asians is shamelessly capitalist, and I spent the entire novel in a weird swirl of awe and envy that was nonetheless highly enjoyable. The name-dropping and label-obsession went completely over my head most of the time, but it was certainly an education  For example, I had no idea that “Hermes-orange” was its own color.

The thing that really sets this book apart from the myriads of forgettable chick-lit is that it is also opened my eyes to a culture I previously didn’t know much about and will, in all likelihood, never experience. I imagine this novel will do wonders for the Singaporean tourist industry, already a huge part of their economy. Personally, the numerous descriptions of delicious Hokkien street food were enough to have me poking into flights.

The central plot of Crazy Rich Asians is breathless, exciting, silly, and self-indulgent. The central character, Rachel Wu, isn’t terribly interesting at all and serves mainly as our introduction to this world of extravagant wealth. The bustling, busying, nosying, prying members of the Young family are the highlight of the book, and rarely have I enjoyed soap-opera-esque plot developments so much.

I loved spending time in Kevin Kwan’s world of extreme opulence and backstabbing family members. I also feel like I learned a lot about a culture completely different from my own, which is always a good time.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Crazy Rich Asians here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

** Personally, I find this term odious but it is a highly-effective description of the genre.

Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 5

This is the final installment, so enjoy!

If you haven’t had the chance, make sure to read Chapters 1-4! Chapter 1 can be found here.

 

Chapter Five

Lutz couldn’t tear his eyes away from the gruesome sight.

Bud McGuire’s face was frozen in a silent shriek, wide eyes fixed unblinking at the ceiling. His chest had been torn open crudely. The glinting white of ribs poked through the carnage.

Bud’s legs were bent at an impossible angle to his torso. He had been torn almost in two at the groin.

The first scream that passed Sheriff Lutz’ lips was quickly followed by a second. He fell backwards to the ground and landed hard on on his rear, using the heels of his feet to push himself away from the mutilated corpse. His back pressed against the rusted green bathtub, and he idly noticed that the calico dress lain across the edge had a faint pattern of purple violets.

Then Clarkson’s strong brown hands were wrapped around his own, and his deputy hauled Lutz to his feet. They exited the broken bathroom and its grisly contents and went into the corridor, where Billy Hudson was already halfway down the stairs leading to the first floor.

The ancient staircase creaked threatening beneath their boots as the two officers followed the younger man downstairs, desperate to get as fair away from Bud McGuire’s mutilated corpse as possible.

Lutz burst out still-open front door and stumbled down the porch steps. The humid summer air was like a soothing balm against his skin. His lungs heaved with the effort to draw in fresh breath and he sank to his knees, digging his fists into the hard gravel of the walkway. He could hear the footsteps of Deputy Clarkson and Billy sounding down the stairs and out onto the front lawn.

They remained mercifully silent as Lutz fought against the waves of heat and chills that kept alternating their way through his veins. Distantly, as if observing someone else from far above, Lutz understood that he was having a panic attack. With shaking arms he shifted his weight until he was sitting on the lawn bordering the front path. Dry grass crackled as he brought his knees up to his forehead and sat there, breathing in the night air. Somewhere nearby a cricket chirped, breaking the stillness.

Crickets were still chirping.

Somehow, this was an encouraging thought. Lutz raised his head and looked for a moment at the night sky. The sun was still hours away from rising and the sky was pitch black, except for the thousands of glittering stars.

Lutz took a deep breath and held it for a long moment before slowly exhaling. He repeated this steady breathing twice more then wearily got to his feet, wincing as both his knees cracked in protest.  He brushed dry grass off the pants of his uniform and looked at his companions, both of whom had remained silently nearby this entire time.

Nodding once in silent gratitude, Lutz resumed his authority as sheriff. None of them would speak a word of his temporary breakdown, but they could all feel a sudden shift in the atmosphere, as if a sudden bond of kinship had just been forged. Lutz knew that the three of them would forever be bound by the events of this night.

Officer Clarkson looked to his senior officer. “Do you want to check the rest of the property? Look for the rest of the family?”

Lutz began shaking his head almost immediately. “No, we found what we were looking for. This is officially a crime scene. It’s also a forty acre farm with two barns and at least ten outbuildings. We need more men.”

“You want to call in Miller and Sanchez?” Clarkson asked.

Lutz nodded, but then shook his head, “Yeah, we’ll call them in when we get back to the station. No radio signal out here worth a damn anyway. Besides, I think we also need to get on the phone with the mayor’s office. We’re going to need the forensics people in Iowa City or Davenport or wherever the hell.”

At this, Sheriff Lutz turned and began walking back the way they had come. He glanced back once more at the darkened windows of the McGuire farmhouse, which now seemed like looming eyes in the receding light from their flashlights. His boots crunched under the rough gravel of the long driveway as the three men headed back towards the car.

The yellow, sickly looking corn blocked their view on either side, looming far taller than a man even in this unhealthy state. Lutz was struck again by the eerie silence of the place. The humid summer air was heavy and still, not a breath of wind rustled through the stalks. The near-complete absence of sound made him antsy and uncomfortable. The sooner they were back to the car the better.

Billy must have felt the same way; he trotted up alongside Lutz, his rifle loosely grasped in one hand now that they were out of the farmhouse. In a low voice he said, “What will happen now, Sheriff?”

Lutz shrugged, “First, we’re going to go back to the station. I have a bottle of Lagavulin 16 in a locked box in my office. Sheriff Bradley gave me that bottle the day I took office. Now, he told me this whisky was peaty enough and smoky enough to burn away the worst night of your life.Told me there would someday come the night when I would need it. It’s sat in it’s wooden box every night until I really started to think that day would never come. But come it did, and tonight I’m going to open that bottle and drink deep. And you’ll drink with me, if you like.”

Heartened by this prospect, the men picked up the pace and within a few minutes they emerged from the McGuire’s driveway back onto the smooth paved surface of Highway 99. Like an angel in the darkness, Lutz could see the police cruiser sitting on the edge of the road about three hundred yards down. He breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that some secret part of him had expected the black-and-white Chevy to be gone, leaving them stranded at the McGuire farm.

Lutz’ palms were sweating, and he wiped them furtively on the thighs of his trousers. He checked his watch, then checked it again in disbelief. They had barely been gone forty minutes.

When they reached the car, Lutz’ fumbled in his pocket for his keys, then unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat. His hands trembled on the steering wheel, and he wondered briefly if he was fit to drive.

Can’t exactly ask Clarkson or Billy to chauffeur me home. He thought resignedly. Lutz unlocked the passenger and back doors, and his companions slid silently into their seats. Clarkson was still holding the buck rifle, and the shotgun was in Billy’s lap, the mounted flashlight still beaming a bright circle on the car’s upholstery. As one, the men fastened their seatbelts. The familiar, everyday click of the metal sliding into place struck him as utterly absurd after the night’s events.

Lutz slid the key to the Chevy into the ignition. He had a horrible, crawling feeling in the bottom of his stomach that when he turned the key, the engine would simply refuse to start. This was ridiculous since the cruiser was barely three years old and had never done anything but purr like a kitten. But tonight, right now, the car wouldn’t start. Because it couldn’t be this easy to just drive away.

The key turned, and the motor roared to life, just as it always did. The front headlights came on, casting two wide beams of light into the darkness around them.

Reflecting back, impossibly high against the skeletal pines of the forest, were a pair of glowing red eyes.

Clarkson screamed first, throwing his hands over his face and crying out in terror.

Lutz couldn’t scream, his voice seemed to have completely locked itself away. His mouth gaped open in horror, but the only sound that came out was a strangled choke.

Billy was scrambling to get out of the police cruiser, but since he was in the back the doors only opened from the outside. He tried rolling down the window, and when that failed he began to panic and bashed at the glass with his fist again and again, but this was equally ineffective.

Billy raised the butt of the shotgun and drew back, preparing to ram it through the window of the car. “NO!” Lutz roared, never taking his eyes from the glowing red orbs watching them from the forest.

He jammed the clutch in, praying to anyone who might be listening that the car did not stall. He shifted into first, gave the engine some gas, and the car began slowly moving. This entire time he continued staring at the red eyes hovering twenty feet above them. They looked back unwaveringly, glittering with a malevolent intelligence. As the cruiser rolled past, the eyes followed their progress, but did not advance. Lutz fixed his gaze on the rearview mirror, waiting for some ravenous beast to come charging behind them.

But there was nothing. The darkness of the night took over, and the eyes receded into the trees.

Intent now on putting as much distance between himself and the McGuire farm as possible, Lutz laid one heavy boot on the gas. Only after ten miles, when he could see the lights of Harry Gibson’s fuel station, did he ease his boot off the accelerator and relax the hunched position of his shoulders. Ten minutes later they pulled up to the darkened windows of the sheriff’s station.

Lutz killed the engine of the cruiser and the three men sat in silence. After a long moment, Henry Clarkson opened his mouth, “What was that thing –” he began, but Lutz put up on hand and stopped him. Lutz shook his head, opened the door of the cruiser with a loud creak, and stepped outside.

Every muscle in his body was accusing him of gross misconduct, and Lutz knew he would feel the punishment the next day. He unlocked the door to the sheriff’s office and went in.

The comfortable surroundings of the dingy sheriff’s station almost brought him to tears. Weakly buzzing security fluorescents cast a dim, yellowish glow on the familiar disarray of desks and chairs. Without bothering to turn on the main lights, he crossed the bullpen to the corner office at the back of the station and went inside his office. On the bookcase against the far wall was a narrow wooden box, which Lutz now opened for the first time in ten years.

Nestled against dark silk was the bottle of Lagavulin 16, given to him by retiring Sheriff Bradley on his last day in office.

There will come a day when you need it.

Lutz motioned to Clarkson and Billy, who had followed him into the station and now stood silently behind him, framing the door to his office. Clarkson had fetched three glasses from the small kitchen, and he set them down carefully on the stained wood of Lutz’ desk.

Andrew Lutz sat heavily in his black office chair. He twisted the cap off the bottle of scotch and poured three fingers into each glass. The amber liquid glinted dully in the dim light. The powerful, peaty smell of the alcohol bit into his nose as he raised his glass and the two men in front of him raised theirs.

“Drink up,” he advised. In the one smooth motion all three of them drained their glasses.

The scotch blazed a fiery trail to his stomach.

To burn the nightmares away.

He reached to refill his glass.

THE END

 

***

Acknowledgements

Creative credit for this idea must be shared with my father Mark, who greatly enjoyed scaring the shit out of his children during long trips on dark country roads.

The Midnight Road: Chapter 4

Check out Chapters 1, 2, and 3!

 

Chapter Four

Deputy Clarkson had been a wonderfully good sport up until this point, but when presented with the prospect of crossing the threshold of this house, he balked. He released his death-grip on his rifle, lowering it to his side and exclaiming, “No offense, Sheriff, but fuck this. I’m not goin’ in there. Let’s go back to the car and call–

“Call who, Henry?” Lutz said flatly. “The state troopers can’t do anything except write tickets to out-of-towners. The town police call us when there is a violent death. So who exactly should we call? Animal control?”

Clarkson glowered back at him, “Then let’s go back to the car and come back in the goddamn daylight, “ he hissed between clenched teeth.

Personally, Lutz felt that Clarkson was speaking the most sense that anyone had all night. But as much as he privately agreed with his deputy’s plan to retreat far away from the McGuire house, they were there and there was a job to do. “Come on now,  Henry. Billy’s been inside. Can’t let the kid show us up now, can we?” Lutz said with a forced lightheartedness that rang false in his ears.

He sighed, ran one hand along his forehead and through his salt-and-pepper hair, and tried again. “Yeah, this sucks. Doesn’t change facts. We have to find out what, if anything, occurred here tonight. So let’s just sack up and get it done, yeah?”

It wasn’t much of a pep talk but it seemed to do the trick. Billy gave a heavy shrug, scuffing his boots against the brown grass bordering the McGuire’s front porch. Clarkson closed his eyes for a moment as if offering up a silent prayer, then reshouldered his firearm and nodded at Lutz. “I’m taking a long weekend,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Gonna take my wife up to Iowa City. Gonna go to Red Lobster. It’s Crabfest.” He continued muttering to himself about his upcoming weekend, but brushed past Lutz and climbed the creaking steps onto the porch.

You can have the whole week off. Lutz mentally promised his deputy. Then he pulled his revolver out of its holster, thumbed the safety off, and followed the two men past the entrance and into Bud McGuire’s home.

A profound silence settled around the men as they crossed the threshold of the McGuire house. The footsteps made by the officer’s heavy boots were muffled by the layer of dust that lay upon the floor. In the beam of the flashlight, the wallpaper in the foyer may have been a sunny striped yellow at some point, but had been warped with water damage and was now the color of old urine.

Ahead of the men was a long corridor with a doorway on either side. On one side, Lutz could see the ubiquitous farmhouse “mudroom”, complete with rows of rubber Wellington boots and heavy winter parkas. The Wellies were dull and cracked with disuse, and the coats were moth-eaten and smelled of damp. A closed door led deeper into the house, probably into the kitchen.

On the left side of the corridor was a room Lutz’ wife would have referred to as a “parlour” when she was alive, with delicate furniture and assorted porcelain figurines. Here was the first evidence of human activity. The dainty tables were smashed to bits, and the rose-patterned loveseat was at a defined angle to a moth-eaten rug, as if someone had forcibly shifted the couch by standing with sudden force. A broken water jug lay in pieces on the floor.

Oddly enough, even these violent scene was gentled by a thick layer of dust. So far, the only sign that a living person had been in the house were the tracks he could see in the corridor that had clearly been made by Billy’s heavy workboots.

Where were the McGuire’s?

Lutz moved on a constant pivot, shining his high-powered flashlight into every corner and crevice. His senses felt electrified as he strained each one of his senses to determine whether or not a threat still lurked in this house. According to his eyes and ears, this was just a normal house, though terribly neglected. “Billy,” he whispered under his breath. “Why the fuck did you even come in here?”

Billy responded equally quietly, “Like I said, sir, I thought maybe someone was in trouble. But when I got here — it was like I just had to keep going. I had to see for myself.”

Lutz understood. He could feel it too. The panicky urge to head back for the car was drowned out by grim determination. He needed to find out what the hell had happened here.

Past the open doorways to the mudroom and the parlour was a flight of stairs that went from the first floor all the way to the attic in a long switchback. The stairs, like everything else in the McGuire house, seemed to be standing upright by sheer force of will alone.

Running along the right edge of the staircase, in a long unbroken line from top to bottom, was a wide swath of dried blood.

The first thought that ran through Sheriff Lutz’ mind in that moment was that he wished he lived in a larger city, with more resources. If they were farther north, near Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, the three men standing in the McGuire house could be surrounded by backup within an hour.

A small fleet of detectives, forensic experts, photographers, evidence baggers and rubberneckers could gather at the homestead. The living darkness of the August summer night would be be beaten back by high-powered flashbulbs and battery-powered spotlights. Under their harsh glare, and soothed by the shop talk of the gathered officials, whatever horrors had visited the McGuire family would be revealed as just another crime scene, still tragic but acceptable to the mind. A sane sequence of events. Unfortunately, his little pocket of eastern Iowa was small and underpopulated, the mechanics needed to properly investigate a potential crime were simply not in place.

As much as Lutz dreaded the idea, it would have to be him that ventured up those stairs, and it would have to be now. He would have to venture up there, and so would Clarkson, as department regulations forbade an officer from entering a potential crime scene alone. Plus, he wanted Clarkson’s steady presence beside him with the Winchester.

That didn’t mean they all had to go. “Billy,” Lutz said to the young man without turning, “if you don’t want to go up there a second time, now is your chance. Go wait for us on the porch. Stand guard.”

“With all due respect sir, there is no way I am staying down here by myself.” Billy squared his shoulders and gave Lutz a defiant look.

“Your choice, kid.” Lutz gave him a nod and turned back to the problem of the staircase. They would have to make sure they didn’t contaminate the crime scene with their boots. The blood was thick all the down the stairs, where it abruptly stopped on the second to last riser. Here, a slightly thicker pool of blood still shone with faint wetness under his flashlight.

Whatever had happened here, had happened recently.

“Slow and steady does it, now. Don’t step in it.” Squeezing his lanky frame to the far edge of the staircase, Lutz placed a heavy boot on the first riser. A puff up dust arose, and the stair gave an wheezing groan, but it did not buckle under his weight.

Lutz began slowly advancing his way up the stairs, pressing firmly on each stair first to test its stability. The staircase creaked and moaned but continued to hold firm, and he motioned for  Clarkson to follow. Lutz could hear his usually taciturn deputy muttering various prayers and swear words under his breath.

The swath of blood continued up the stairs in an unbroken streak. Now it veered off to the right and disappeared into the darkness of a long corridor. The overwhelming odor was of dirt and mold, but the coppery smell of fresh blood was also thick in the air. A few framed photos hung at uneven intervals, their subjects almost completely obscured with dust. The dust on the floor was disturbed now, but there were no distinct tracks; it had been swept almost clean away in some places.

Resigned now to seeing this through, Lutz felt his earlier fear retreat to the back of his mind. The adrenaline pumping through his system was working for him now, sharpening his focus and steadying his pulse. The corridor opened twice to the right, and Lutz circled warily around the open entrance to the first room.

A cursory glance revealed a dingy bathroom. Or perhaps it had once been a bathroom. Now it was a heap of stained and cracked porcelain, with a rusted out pipe hanging loosely where a sink may have been. Torn linoleum covered parts of the floor, but most of it was the same weathered floorboards as the rest of the upstairs. The air was heavy with the smells of stale grime and mildew.

The path of blood, which had become thicker as they advanced along the corridor, continued down the hallway to the second room. Lutz signaled to Billy to cover the entrance of the bathroom, then he and Clarkson advanced, firearms cocked and ready. Lutz still carried the Maglite, held to the top of his service pistol, so he was the first to cautiously peer around the corner of the room at the end of the hall.

 

****

 

When Lutz first shone his flashlight into the darkened room, he actually breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected to find the strewn and dismembered bodies of April McGuire and her children in pieces about the floor.

Instead, the room appeared entirely empty on first glance. There were no severed limbs clad in footie pajamas. There was also no furniture, curtains, rugs or anything else to indicate that the space had ever been occupied by inhabitants other than mice. The bare wooden floor was littered with their droppings, but not much else. He began sweeping his flashlight from floor to ceiling. The walls had been painted a deep scarlet that looked almost wet by the light of the–

Oh.

For a span of time that felt like an eternity but was in reality probably more like thirty seconds, Lutz stood stock still in the entrance to that room, his head cocked to one side like a man trying to figure out a really good riddle. One eyebrow was raised, and his mouth hung open in bewilderment.

The room had been drenched in great splashes of blood that reached all the way to the ceiling in some places. It was swirled in sporadic circles across the floor, and spattered against all four walls. The closest thing Lutz could compare it to

Behind him, Lutz could hear Clarkson’s sharp intake of breath as he also took in the scene before them. Then it was as if all the air went out of his lungs, and Sheriff Lutz suddenly deflated. He felt his knees give way, and had to lean one hand against the outside wall of the hallway for support as his vision blurred and his head spun.

He still held the flashlight in one hand and it was pointed into the room, shining onto the dripping walls. He felt more than saw Clarkson stumble backwards into the wall behind him.

Billy stood at the doorway to the demolished bathroom, studying the mud on his boots. Lutz realized that the younger man had already seen all of this. “Billy, did you see any bodies when you were here earlier?”

Billy met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “When I saw the blood on the stairs, I figured maybe someone was still alive up here. But when I got up here there was nothing. The batteries in my flashlight were starting to die, and then I saw that room, he gestured towards the room with the bloody walls, “I got the hell out of here quick as I could. I didn’t check any of the other rooms.”

“So then where the fuck are the bodies? It looks like Bud McGuire and his family in a Salad Spinner. There’s blood on the goddamned ceiling.” Clarkson queried, stepping closer to the open door of the empty room and glancing inside once more.

“Yeah, but that’s the problem. It’s blood. Just blood. No bones. No organs.” Lutz’ mind was still spinning as it frantically tried to bring a sense of logic into what it had just witnessed. “There should be pieces of the McGuire’s everywhere. But so far, the only evidence of an actual crime is that arm out on the road.” he turned to face the other two men, continuing to speak under his breath.

Clarkson faced him, his normally placid face a mask of tension and fear, “Yeah, how did that arm even get out there? Why does it look like no one has lived here in five years? Where the hell are the McGuires!” this last sentence he said in a whispered shout.

“Are they in the barn? The basement? Did Bud chop them up and carry them into the woods? Was it even Bud? What the hell were those claw marks on the door, Sheriff?” Clarkson continued his questioning in a voice that did not conceal his rising terror.

Lutz gripped his deputy tightly by the shoulders, his own fear gone in the face of his officer’s increasingly panic, “Of course it was Bud, Henry. We’ll find him. Don’t worry.” This idea, as nightmarish as it was, offered  a kind of morbid comfort. Bud McGuire might be a deranged madman who had just killed his entire family, but he was a man.

A man bled when you shot him.

This whole time Billy Hudson had been silent, his eyes fixed on the open doorway to the dingy bathroom. Now Billy cleared his throat, and almost sheepishly said, “Sheriff? You might want to see this.”

Had there ever been less welcome word’s in human history? Lutz pinched his nose between two fingers and reluctantly asked, “What is it?”

Billy just gestured with the head of the shotgun, and in the bright glow from his Maglite Lutz could see a thin line of blood slowly making its way from behind the open bathroom door.

Immediately his heart, which had just begun to resume its regularly scheduled beat, started jackhammering wildly in his chest. Somehow, in that moment, Lutz knew.

Whatever they had come here to find was on the other side of that door.

 

****

 

On their first walkthrough of the corridor, all three men had been preoccupied by the path of blood that led to the room at the end of the hall. Now, upon closer inspection, Lutz realized that there was the faintest glimmer of light coming from the darkened bathroom.

His mouth was dry as a bone, and Lutz swallowed hard and then, pistol still at the ready, he eased around the doorway of the bathroom and put his back against the nearest wall. He checked the corner and, finding it empty, proceeded to circle slowly around the room. Clarkson covered him from behind, while Billy stood guard once more outside the room.

The light was coming from two flickering candles, the tall glass ones of the sort his grandmother used to burn on Sundays. The flames were sputtering their last breaths, and two more candles had already drowned in their own wax. How long do those candles burn? Lutz made a mental note to check and kept his eyes on a swivel, trying to observe as much as possible about the scene.

The candles had been arranged next to a chipped green bathtub. The formed a small circle, in the middle of which was a blackened circle, as someone had foolishly decided to build a fire in the middle of the floor.

On the edge of the bathtub was a draped a faded calico dress. Lutz approached the garment, which had been carefully arranged so as not to wrinkle against the sides of the tub. The tub itself was empty.

Lutz suddenly froze as he heard Clarkson swore a low oath behind him. Filled with sudden dread, he pivoted instinctively on his heel and prepared to fire.

For the first time that night, Andrew Lutz screamed at the top of his lungs.

Slumped in one corner of the trashed bathroom, in a slowly spreading pool of blood, was what remained of Bud McGuire.

***

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