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A Gripping Psychological Thriller

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At first, I’m convinced my house blew up from underneath me. The blast was so explosive that all sound has fled the room.

That is, until a pesky high-pitched sound sizzles in my ears, and I blink hard, trying to make sense of everything.

Then, I see it.


It’s everywhere—on my dining room floor, inside my trembling palms, and all over the gun.

But . . . how?

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

My legs give out from under me, and I drop to my knees. Slowly, I lose focus of my surroundings, and my kitchen cabinets warp into an abstract blur of whites and browns.

Despite the darkness closing in on me, I feel at peace . . . safe, for the first time in as long as I can remember.

Maybe this is exactly how everything was meant to end.


Chapter 1


The road ahead is long and seemingly never-ending.

One more hour.

My eyes flicker to my rearview mirror and at the only thing that has kept me alive this long—my boys.

Lucas plays on his iPad, the screen’s reflection causing his ocean-blue eyes to gleam brighter than usual. A pair of cracked pink headphones sits over his ears as he bobs his head, moving along with the music of his game that sounds like the hum of insects from here.

The headphones used to be mine, but with how much he kept asking to borrow them, I decided to give them up.

My ex-husband, James, always gave me a hard time about it. Something about how Lucas isn’t gay and shouldn’t be wearing pink headphones.

They’re headphones, for crying out loud.

I shudder at the thought of James and peer through the mucky rear window that looks as though it hasn’t been washed in years.

He isn’t following you, Alice. You did it right this time.

Lucas lets out a squeal and pumps a fist in the air, causing tingles to spread up my arms and into my white-knuckled hands around the steering wheel.

I want to tell him to keep it down, but how can I explain that to a seven-year-old?

We’re running away from Dad, and Mom has a ton of anxiety right now. So can you please not make any sound? At all? Just keep quiet and don’t move, either, because you might give me a heart attack.

I can’t do that to him.

He has no idea what’s going on. Well, maybe he does. Sometimes I don’t give him enough credit. But right now, he looks happy, and the last thing I want to do is make this whole experience scary for him.

My job is to shield him from the darkness.

From James’s darkness.

My gaze shifts to Grayson, my eldest. He sits with his head pressed against the back passenger window of my old Honda CR-V, gazing out into the cornfields as if he’s lost everything in his life.

In a sense, he has.

His friends, his home.

At fourteen years old, his face has started to mature, and a dark peach fuzz clings to his upper lip. His hair, brown locks as dark as his father’s, sits above his eyebrows as if intended to be used as a sun visor.

He’s quiet, and the scowl on his face reminds me of James. A cold look that makes you wonder what’s lingering beneath the surface.

Grayson isn’t James. He’s soft and caring.

I swallow hard.

So was James at one point.

I look away from Grayson, feeling guilty for comparing him to the monster of a man I married. I don’t mean to, but the resemblance is uncanny. How am I not supposed to be reminded of James?

No, Grayson won’t turn out like James because James isn’t in the picture anymore. He’s no longer an influence.

You can’t combat genes.

I grit my teeth, feeling awful for having such thoughts. I shoot a quick glance back up at Grayson. His eyes roll toward me, but only for a second. With tight lips and flat-lidded eyes, he looks annoyed. Either that, or depressed.

I can’t blame him.

He didn’t want to leave.

We’d finally found ourselves a home, away from James, where we managed to stay for six months and live a relatively normal life.

Well, my boys did.

I spent the bit of money I had scavenging for used security cameras at the thrift store to install outside the house.

Thankfully, my neighbor Gary offered to help, saving me a hefty installation cost that a local electrician wanted to charge.

Deep down, I think my neighbor knew about my past. There was a sadness in his eyes every time he looked at me—pity, maybe, as if he wanted to save me.

But I’d already done that—I’d saved myself, and my boys. For a while, at least. There was always a chance that James would find us again. And I couldn’t keep living like that.

Now, we’ve escaped for good.


Chapter 2



I tiptoe my way down the stairs, careful not to wake Lucas. After an hour of bedtime stories, he’s finally out.

Grayson finishes his nighttime routine by brushing his teeth and turning off his tablet. He flashes me a smile, wraps his arms around me, and says, “Goodnight, Mom.”

I bend forward to kiss the top of his head and rake my fingers through his hair. “Night, sweetheart. Sleep tight.”

He walks away in his Spider-Man pajamas and hops up the stairs two steps at a time. I click my fingers and give him a stern look, warning him to keep quiet to avoid waking his baby brother.

He grimaces apologetically at me and climbs the rest of the staircase without a sound.

The moment he’s gone, I step into the kitchen and start cleaning up supper’s cold leftovers. Meat loaf, boiled carrots, and sliced cucumber. I’ve never been much of a cook—something James is inclined to mention every time we eat—but I get us by.

I crack open plastic containers and start shoving the cold food inside, suppressing the urge to slam things.

James was supposed to be home at five.

It’s now seven thirty.

I know exactly how this will play out—he’ll come home and sense my irritation, then turn it around on me and say that I’m not understanding the fact that he’s the one who pays all the bills. That if he doesn’t give his company his all, it’ll crash, and we’ll be left with no money.

He acts like he’s the CEO of some multimillion-dollar industry.

Sure, he’s the owner of a small business that is doing exceptionally well, and I’m proud of him for that. However, being the owner gives him the ability to set his own hours and choose who he hires. Doesn’t it? Why can’t he hire someone to stay late so he doesn’t have to?

It’s probably not that simple. He oversees everything.

I gulp in a deep breath, trying to set aside my anger.

Maybe he’s right.

Maybe I should be more appreciative that he’s the sole provider for our family.

You both agreed to this. You both wanted this for Lucas, at least until he’s old enough to go to daycare.

James promised he wouldn’t be one of those dads—the kind that is never home and never makes it to events, like a child’s soccer game. Despite his promise, James has missed his fair share of events since Lucas was born six months ago.

It’s almost as though he doesn’t want to be home.

I breathe in again, trying to push these thoughts away.

The worst part is that I can’t stand stereotypical gender roles—I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, and child-raising. I wanted to run my own business, too. Be my own boss.

But James makes good money—way more than I made as a shelf stocker at a local grocery store. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten knocked up at nineteen years old, things would be different.

I rinse a plate, trying to rid my mind of these thoughts. I wouldn’t want a life without Grayson. He’s my world, and so is Lucas.

When I turn to set the leftover containers in the fridge, the front door cracks open.

I shoot a glance at the oven’s clock—7:49.

The anger returns.

Don’t let it show, Alice. He’s probably already had a long day, and you know how James has gotten when he’s tired lately. He’s become an asshole.

James has always been a bit of a grump. Back when he used to drink, alcohol exacerbated his anger tenfold. His drinking got so out of hand that it led to us breaking up. He’d gotten into a drunken rage one night and raised a fist at me before punching a hole in the wall.

But there had been a glimmer in his drunken eyes—a look that told me he wanted to hit me.

That had been the final straw.

We’d split for two years after that.

Two awful years of me raising Grayson by myself and James coming around now and then, begging for forgiveness only to lash out at me when I refused.

Then, he went quiet for six months, and when he returned, he was different.

He was sober.

And somehow, we reconnected, and things only got better from there. So much better that we got married when Grayson turned four.

But now that we have another child, it’s as though he’s regressing and going back to his old ways. To being an angry prick.

I can’t live through that again.

I won’t.

He walks in with heavy strides and tosses his overpriced Italian lambswool jacket on the sofa. I hate that thing—the price was preposterous, but James insisted it would help him land more clients. Something about looking the part.

What kinds of client is he even trying to attract?

Every time I ask him how business is going, he says it’s going great. But I don’t know anything about it. All I know is that he works from a rented space downtown with a group of five other employees and that they’re going to achieve big things.

Really big things.

I wish he’d talk to me about what these things are. Maybe I have ideas, too.

But he says it’ll go over my head. It’s all about Java and coding that my brain wouldn’t understand.

I glare at his stupid lambswool jacket, wishing he’d stop leaving it lying around like that.

I do my best to keep this place clean, and the last thing I need is for James to add to the clutter. When he catches me eyeballing the jacket, he sighs like an annoyed teenager and scoops it up.

I should say hi—hug him, even, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m mad. I wish he’d put more effort into caring for our boys and me rather than thinking a paycheck is a replacement for his love.

It isn’t.

“Hey, honey,” he says, his voice grainy.

“Hey,” I say back.

Make eye contact, for crying out loud. Put some effort into it, or he’ll get even crankier.

I attempt a feeble smile, but nothing happens.

So instead, I return to what I was doing and finish cleaning the dishes. Rather than offer to help, James walks into the kitchen with a confident gait as if he just raked in millions of dollars in sales at the office, pries the fridge door open, and sticks his perfectly gelled head inside.

His beard is immaculately trimmed, and despite spending a whole day in the office, he smells good. Typically, I’d find this attractive. But right now, everything about him irks me.

“Where’s supper?” he asks.

I clench my teeth, fighting the urge to tell him I’m not his housemaid or his mom and that supper isn’t something I have to make for him.

“Top right shelf,” I say coldly.

He reaches in, ignoring my tone of voice, and pulls out the leftover containers I placed there a few minutes ago.

He cracks them open, and his brown eyes roll up at me, a hint of a scowl threatening to darken his eyes even more. “This is all that’s left?”

I can’t hold back my anger any longer. “If it’s not enough, make yourself something else.”

He chucks the container on the counter, and I flinch. “Damn it, Alice. Why are you acting like this again? Why do you have to be so angry when I get home? For fuck’s sake, I bust my ass all day to make sure my family has everything they need.”

Here it is. His speech.

I cross my arms, consciously stopping my eyes from rolling.

“You have any idea how much money we could soon have if everything goes according to plan?” he says. “We need the money, Alice.”

“I’m not upset about you working long hours, James. I get it. I know how business works, especially in the beginning.”

I hold myself back from adding, I know how this works since you’ve started and failed three businesses since we’ve met.

Instead, I continue, “I’m pissed off that you can’t take one minute out of your day to shoot me a text to let me know you’ll be home late. I never know when you’ll be home. Grayson is constantly asking for you, wondering where you are.”

He scowls at me. “Don’t bring Grayson into this.”

“You’re a dad,” I say. “Grayson is a part of this, whether you like it or not.”

Cool air slips out of the fridge’s open door.

He scoffs and lets out a forced laugh. “Play the victim. Act like I’m a bad dad. Whatever. I’m working to keep us alive, and I come home exhausted and hungry. It’s not like you do anything during the day. You sit on your ass and watch Lucas. So I don’t get why making me a meal is so damn hard for you. And look at this place—”

He points to a pile of dirty laundry sitting on the sofa and then at some of Lucas’s toys on the floor.

I grit my teeth, holding back a slew of hateful words I want to unleash.

How could he be so callous?

“I deserve a good wife,” he says. “And my sons deserve a good mom.”

The hatred in his eyes is unmistakable.

I want to scream at him and cry at the same time. How could he say such hurtful words to me? Make me feel so little?

He must sense my hurt.

Bowing his head, he sighs. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just really tired. You know I don’t mean it.”

I swallow hard, trying to push the pain out of my throat.

“Listen,” he says, more softly this time. “We agreed you’d be staying home to take care of things around here, right? Isn’t this what we agreed to?”

He’s not wrong. We did agree to this.

“What more do you want from me, Alice? I’m trying, here. I’m really trying, but it’s like it’s not enough for you. You think I’m a horrible husband and father.”

Once again, I’m left feeling like a pile of steaming garbage as I do every time we get into a fight about this subject. By the end of it, I’m a whiny wife who does nothing but complain.

Maybe James is right.

I’m not holding up my end of the deal, and I’m making him feel bad for the way he’s managing his end.

I can’t expect him to work overtime and for him to always be there for us. We knew there would be sacrifices to make.

This isn’t forever. Once Lucas is old enough, maybe you can look at starting an online business like you’ve always wanted. That way, you can alleviate some of the financial stress off James.

James takes a step toward me. “Are we okay?”

I nod.

He wraps his arms around me, pulling me into his muscular chest, and kisses the top of my head. A bold, clean smell emanates from him as he holds me tight. I appreciate the warm embrace. He makes me feel safe and somehow has a way of dissipating my anger.

“How can I make things easier for you?” he asks.

I shrug. There’s nothing I can ask of him. Nothing realistic, at least. It’s not like he can reduce his hours and spend more time with us.

We need the money.

And his business seems to be doing well right now. Well, enough for him to buy himself an eight-hundred-dollar jacket.

Maybe if things keep going well, we can get a nanny or someone to help out so I can go back to work.

“Nothing I can think of,” I say.

When I look up at him, he cups my face with his strong hands and smiles, little crinkles forming at the corners of his eyes. That’s the James I miss—the James I want by my side. Why isn’t he around anymore? I catch little glimpses of him here and there, only to have him taken away from me seconds later.

Slowly, he leans forward, his lips pressing into mine.

I breathe out against his face, calm and assured. When he pulls back, a strange scent enters my nose. It’s the strong smell of his favorite peppermint gum. It’s so overpowering that you’d think he chewed an entire pack before stepping through the door.

But there’s another aroma concealed behind all that peppermint.

It’s faint, but I recognize it.


Chapter 3


Lucas’s eyes nearly bulge out of his head. His jaw hangs slack as he takes it all in. The look on his face makes me smile, but my smile immediately vanishes when I look up at Grayson.

If this doesn’t have him wowed, how will he ever come around?

“So are we, like, rich now, or something?” Grayson asks.

“No, not rich,” I tell him.

And it isn’t a lie.

Sure, we’re standing at the doorstep of a two-million-dollar Victorian house, but I don’t have more than a grand to my name, which I somehow have to stretch out until all the legal paperwork is done.

This is yours, Alice.

“Do you guys remember what I told you in the car on our way here?” I ask.

Grayson takes a step back, the tip of his hockey ball cap aimed up at the frighteningly large house. His gaze is fixed on the small black windows of the attic as if he’s waiting for some cryptic figure to materialize.

Isn’t that what these houses are known for?

Ghosts? Angry spirits?

It’s a beautiful house with its blue and white paneling, custom molding, slick black roof, and countless trimmed hedges surrounding the property.

But the house is very large and very old.

I stare at the iron lettering next to the door—1472.

1472 Thorn Lake Drive.

My new home.

When neither of them answers me, I repeat the question. “Well? I only explained it about five times.”

“Something about an old man dying,” Grayson says.

I shoot him a warning look. “That old man was your uncle, Victor.”

“Yeah, and I never met him,” Grayson says.

It’s not his fault. I’ve never talked about Victor. I thought he’d been dead this whole time. After he returned from a covert mission in the military, no one ever heard from him again.

He was never reported as dead or missing, either.

So where had he gone? Here, apparently.

Lucas ignores us and hops down the large front steps before venturing off into the front yard.

“Don’t go too far,” I warn him.

Head bowed, eyes on his tablet, he walks in circles and keeps playing his game.

“I don’t get why we had to come here.” A flash of resentment glints in Grayson’s eyes. “Why couldn’t we go live with Grandma and Grandpa?”

“I’ve already told you,” I say through clenched teeth. When I’m certain Lucas isn’t around to hear me, I add, “Do you really want them getting hurt?”

Grayson goes quiet. He knows exactly what I’m talking about—involving my parents puts them at risk. And Grayson knows this firsthand. James threatened his life when he thought Grayson wasn’t around to hear it.

I reach for Grayson’s shoulder and give him a tender squeeze. “Why don’t we give this place a chance?”

Without looking up at me, Grayson says, “Did Dad find us? Is that why we left again?”

When he finally looks up, our eyes lock.

He’s fourteen. Not six. Just tell him the truth.

Although I never told Grayson, James did find us. Or at least, our state. But it was only a matter of time before he found our exact location.

And then, by some miracle, I received the call about Victor’s estate.

Everything aligned so perfectly. Almost too perfectly. I’m still fighting off my paranoia—the thought that James is responsible for all of this and that it’s a whole setup.

Grayson is still staring at me, his pleading eyes waiting for me to explain to him how close we came to being found again.

“He did,” I tell him honestly. “Not our exact address, but our state.”

He averts his gaze momentarily, watching a fly swirl around the front door handle.

“Are we gonna keep living like this?” he asks. “Running all the time? Why won’t the cops do anything?”

“They’ve done what they can,” I say, even though I believe they could have done a hell of a lot more. “He was arrested, and charges were pressed that night.” I pause, trying to push aside memories of that horrific night . . . the night he almost killed me.

Grayson’s eyes flicker toward the scar above my right eyebrow.

He remembers.

And although he doesn’t talk about it, I’m sure the memory still haunts him.

How couldn’t it? James beat me to a pulp, and when Grayson ran downstairs to try to protect me, James threw a beer bottle at his head and told him if he got involved, he’d kill me.

All I could do was stare at Grayson pleadingly, begging him to call the police. I must have looked terrifying with a beet-red face and bulging bloodshot eyes as James squeezed my neck so tightly that if I didn’t die of oxygen deprivation, a crushed throat would do me in.

Thankfully, Grayson ran back upstairs and used my cell phone to call the police.

I clear my throat, suddenly feeling as if the oxygen around me is thinning.

“I can’t promise we’ll be here long-term,” I say. “But I think I did things right this time. That’s why I had our names changed.”

He nods. “Collins. Why’d you choose that?”

It’s not like it’s my maiden name. The choice was random.

I shrug. “I like the name. Emma Collins. Grayson Collins. Lucas Collins. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?”

Grayson pops a brow at me. “I mean, I guess.”

He doesn’t know why I chose the name Emma, but he doesn’t have to.

Lucas lets out a chuckle in the distance. He’s playing next to some cedar shrubs, well within view.

“Promise me you’ll keep an eye out for your brother,” I say. “I know I’ve been drilling it into the both of you for the last two days, but you can’t use my real name. Not ever. And I need you to make sure Lucas doesn’t forget.”

“Emma,” Grayson says.

I nod. “Alice is gone. Understood?”

He rolls his eyes at me. “Mom, you literally told us, like, over a hundred times now.”

“I’m not sure you realize how important this is,” I say.

He shifts his weight onto one leg and crosses his arms. “I do understand.”

“That goes for you, too. Grayson Remington is gone. You’re Grayson Collins.”

“Why didn’t you change our first names, too?” he asks.

It’s a valid question. But they’re kids. I can’t expect them to remember to go by different names. Besides, Grayson and Lucas are popular names. It’s not like it will raise any suspicions.

“Makes it easier for you both,” I say.

When I glance past Grayson again, Lucas is gone.

He was just there.

“Lucas?” I shout out, hurrying down the wooden stairs.

Grayson stands behind me, watching.

“Lucas?” My voice quivers this time.

My pace quickens as I start racing across the front lawn. Where is he? He was right here.

Grayson runs down the stairs and starts circling the house around the back. “Maybe he went this way.”

I nod, wiggling a finger toward the backyard. “Good idea. Check there. I’ll check the front.”

James found him and stole him from you, like you stole his kids from him.

I shake these thoughts away.

No way would James have found us so soon.

He followed you.

No way.

“Lucas!” I hurry to the front of the yard and to the edge of the sidewalk.

To my surprise, Lucas is sitting on a metal bench next to a lamppost. He sits with his head bowed and his eyes focused on his game full of flashing vivid colors.

“Lucas!” I hiss.

His head snaps up.

“Hi, Mom,” he says sweetly. “I made a friend.”

I scowl at him. “You know the rules. Always stay in my line of sight. Why didn’t you listen?”


“Give me the tablet,” I say.

He frowns. “Mom!”

“No,” I say sternly. “You got so involved in your game that you weren’t paying attention to your surroundings. It’s time for a break.”

Still frowning, he hands me the tablet.

As I reach for it, I spot a figure in my periphery. I snatch the tablet and turn sideways to spot a man in a long black trench coat and a yellow hat that looks too big for his head.

He’s pale—vampire pale, as if the sun hasn’t touched his skin in decades.

His gray sunken eyes focus on Lucas before slowly rolling toward me.

Why is he staring like that?

Awkward, I wave a hand to say hi, but he doesn’t wave back. He’s staring, and it’s making me more uncomfortable by the second.

“Come on,” I tell Lucas, unable to take my eyes off this man. “Let’s go inside.”

With a dramatic pout, he begrudgingly slides off the bench.

“Did you find him?” Grayson shouts, running our way.

We round the hedges, and I wave at Grayson as if to say, All good.

When he catches up to me, he winces at the man across the street. “Why is he staring like that?”

“Get inside,” I urge them, believing that any second now, this man is going to come charging full speed.

It’s an irrational thought—he’s very old and frail looking. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t overpower me.

For a moment, I feel completely helpless as I did countless times in James’s grasp. I hate this sense of vulnerability, of being a mouse in a world of cats.

“He’s still staring,” Grayson says, walking backward.

He looks like he’s about to tell the man to get lost—Grayson is a bit fearless like that—so I point ahead and tell him to keep moving.

I don’t realize my hands are shaking until we’ve reached the front door, and I fidget with my new key.

“Here,” Grayson says, grabbing it from me.

He inserts it into the keyhole and unlocks the door with a click.

The door creaks open, allowing a cool breeze to sweep out, bringing along with it the scent of something fruity. Possibly old candle wax. Or lemon cleaner.

“Come on,” I say, urging them inside.

I don’t bother going back to the car for our bags.

Instead, I slam the door behind us and lock the deadbolt.

A Gripping Psychological Thriller

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