When Darkness Falls by Chanda Stafford
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A missing father.
A mysterious lighthouse.
A girl willing to risk it all to learn the truth.
The last thing seventeen-year-old Austen Gillet expected to find on her way home from work was her dad’s car on the side of the road, empty except for the dead woman inside.
Determined to discover the truth about what happened to her father, Austen enlists the help of Ezra, a newcomer with secrets of his own, and Ian, an eccentric lighthouse keeper. Delving deeper into her town’s dark history, Austen uncovers reports of missing people, mysterious monsters, portals to other worlds, and mayhem stretching back well over a century.
While coming to terms with her new, nightmarish reality, Austen has to figure out who she can trust, who wants her father dead, and what’s really going on underneath the surface of her small town before it costs her her life.
“Thanks for helping me close tonight, Austen.” My mom flashes me a grateful smile, dimly lit by the dashboard lights. She coaxes our rusted blue hatchback around a bend in the road. “When Dominic called in and quit this morning, I thought I was screwed.”
“No problem.” My gaze flickers out the side window, watching the twinkling stars overhead. “I can always use the extra money. But if you want me to come more often, I really should get a car.”
She chuckles and flexes her hands on the steering wheel. “You know I’d help, if I could. I was going to talk to your dad about it, but…” She sighs.
“He’s been working a lot; I know.” Even to me, the words sound hollow.
“Just keep saving your money. I’m sure it won’t be too long before you can afford one.”
“Yeah, but it’d be nice to have a car before I graduate,” I mutter. It’s the same line she’s given me since I got my license. At least when I turn eighteen, she can’t tell me what to do.
At the bottom of a hill, a pair of red hazard lights blink rhythmically in the darkness. “Did someone break down?”
My mom’s brow furrows. “Looks like it. They probably got a flat tire or ran out of gas. Let’s see if they need any help.” She slows down and pulls over behind the other car.
“Is that Dad’s car?” I lean forward, our previous conversation forgotten. “It is! Look at the bumper sticker.” I jab my finger toward the “My daughter will stop the zombie apocalypse” bumper sticker I got him last Christmas.
She glances at her phone. “That’s strange. He didn’t call or text to let me know he was having car trouble.”
“Why is the passenger door open?” Unease slithers up my spine.
“I don’t know, but I guess it’s a good thing your dad never replaced the interior light or the battery would be dead.” She flicks our own hazard lights on and turns the car off. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
She’s nuts if she thinks I’m going to stay inside the car if Dad’s in trouble. Mom sighs when I hop out after her. “Why do I even bother?” she mutters.
I tap my phone’s flashlight icon. “I have no idea.”
She ignores my comment and approaches the passenger’s side of the car to avoid walking in the road. “Greg?” She peers into the door and then stumbles back, her high-pitched shriek piercing the night air. She spins around, eyes wild, and tries to push me away. “Get back to the car!”
I skirt around her, ignoring her command. An icy breeze snakes through the warm summer air. The narrow beam from my phone illuminates a dark puddle soaking the gravel shoulder, like an oil spill.
My mom fumbles in her pocket for her cell phone.
“Maybe he got an oil leak or something.”
She doesn’t answer me. It’s not until I’m at the door that I realize it’s blood and it’s everywhere. Coating the door, the shattered window, the dashboard, and the woman slumped over, her face obscured by matted, blood-soaked hair, gleaming in the car’s interior lights. Even then my foggy mind, so used to video games and movies, refuses to process what I’m seeing until my mom’s hand clamps down on my shoulder, and she drags me away.
“Get in the car,” she says, her voice a hoarse whisper. “I’ll call the cops from there. They’ll figure this out.”
“But…” The words die in my throat. There’s a woman, covered in blood, in my father’s car.
“Maybe he went for help….” Panic sets in. He’s got to be around here somewhere. People don’t just vanish.
“That must be it.” Fear paints her face a stark white. After shoving me inside the car, she climbs inside and slams the lock down.
“What happened?” My thoughts race, but I can’t form the words. Dad was supposed to be working late. That’s why he didn’t pick up my brother and sister. He shouldn’t have been in his car, in the middle of the night, with a dead woman. Fear rises up from the pit of my stomach.
“I don’t know.” She pulls out her phone and punches several buttons.
“9-1-1, please state your emergency.”
I can barely hear the tinny voice echoing over the line.
“My-my name is Maria Gillet and I found my husband’s car on the side of US Twenty-three. He’s gone, but there’s a woman in the car, and I think something’s happened to her.”
The 911 operator asks for more information before telling her there’s a unit in the vicinity and they’ll be here as soon as they can.
“As soon as they can” feels like hours before red and blue lights flash into our rearview mirror.
My mom’s hand creeps across the seat to grip mine tightly. “It’ll be okay. I promise.”
I’m too numb to respond. Worry over my dad clouds everything else. I want to yell, scream, and shout that things aren’t okay. There’s a dead woman in Dad’s car. It isn’t a nightmare where we can wake up and forget it ever happened.
As one of Misery Bay’s three police officers park behind us, Mom reluctantly removes her hand from mine and gives me a stern look. “Stay here and lock the doors. I’m serious, Austen. Do not test me this time.”
I close my eyes and an image of the dead woman flashes behind them. Dad would never have done that. No, he’s the kind of guy who lets spiders outside and live traps the mice that sneak into our house every fall. Maybe he was kidnapped, that would explain it. I lean forward, letting my hair fall like a curtain in front of my face, as if that could hide me from all the ugliness outside. A single thought courses through my brain. Where are you, Dad?
My mom slams the door and waits until I engage the locks before following the police officer over to the other vehicle. I can tell the moment he sees the bloody body because his back stiffens and his hand hovers over his gun. It isn’t any wonder he’s surprised; things like this don’t happen in our small town.
Two other police officers show up, and then several Michigan state troopers. They all ask the same questions over and over again. I tune out, worry for my father eating at the back of my mind.
“Did you know Hilary Crum?” Officer Martin, one of the state cops, asks me. The young cop’s cheeks are pale, and he glances nervously at his partner.
It takes a few seconds for his question to sink in. “Is that who she is?”
In my head, I see the perky blue-eyed TV reporter, her brown bob always sleek and professional. She normally covered the local lifestyle section of the news, like the annual county fair or a fish fry at the senior citizen center. Covered. Past tense, like she won’t be covering anything anymore.
Bile rises in my throat as I try to reconcile the vivacious young woman with the bloodied corpse in the car. I can’t. She’s dead. What happened to her? Who could have done this? “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Officer Martin barely has enough time to step backward before my dinner makes a sudden reappearance.
After I finish heaving, he hands me a tissue to dab my mouth before continuing. “Do you have any idea what she was doing with your father?”
“No.” I groan and lean against the headrest. “I didn’t know he even knew her.”
“Does your family own any guns?”
That’s a weird question. Then it sinks in. “Oh God. She was shot, wasn’t she?”
The older cop purses his lips, and doesn’t answer my question, which is answer enough in itself. Someone shot Hilary Crum, and now my dad’s missing.
The cops finish their questioning, and finally they allow us to go home. Mom calls my grandmother and asks her to keep Molly and Brett for the rest of the night. She glosses over the situation, saying she’ll talk more in the morning, but that everything’s okay.
“I don’t want to go into it,” she snaps. “Can we please talk about it later?”
Since Grandma has the tenacity of a terrier, she’s probably demanding answers. My mom mumbles something about the crappy reception and hangs up.
“Sorry.” Mom starts the car. “You know how your grandma gets.” A tow truck crests the hill behind us, lights flashing.
A couple coroners from Alpena zip up a body bag and lift it onto a rolling stretcher. They wrangle it off the side of the road and steer it into their van.
“I can’t believe they think Dad was having an affair. He’d never do that.” I wait for her to agree, to say no, of course not. But she doesn’t. I think I’m going to be sick, again.
“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for what happened.”
I gesture at the van, my movements angry and jerky. “Why else would Dad be with another woman?”
Mom bites her lip, a trait so reminiscent of my own that I almost catch myself doing the same thing. “I…I don’t know.” She guides our car onto the highway and doesn’t say another word for twenty minutes until she pulls onto the driveway leading to our four-bedroom house.
A dull laugh escapes her lips. “She was there in the car, but she shouldn’t have been. There was no reason for her to be in the car. No reason. I didn’t even know he knew her.” She puts the car into park and rests her head on the steering wheel. “Oh God, Greg, where are you? What happened?”
After my mom goes to bed, I sit next to the window and watch the lights dance through the trees. Fireflies. Faint, airy music drifts in from somewhere outside. It’s a haunting melody, lyrical and otherworldly. My body sways with the sound and my mind drifts away.
“Daddy, why can’t I go out to play?”
He ruffles my hair and pulls me close. I curl my six-year-old body into his warmth. “It’s not safe, my love.” He presses his lips to my forehead. “There are dangerous monsters out there in the forest. Creatures that eat beautiful little girls like you.”
“But they’re my friends. We like to sing and dance. They always want to play and have fun.”
“If you keep going out there, they’ll want to steal you away, and I won’t let you go.”
I wrap my arms around him. “It’s okay, Daddy. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Good.” He smiles down at me. “Your mommy and I love you very much and don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
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