Dead Spots (Excerpt)

The stillbirth of Mackenzie’s son destroyed her marriage. Grieving, Mac reluctantly heads for her childhood home to seek refuge with her mother, who constantly reminds her of life’s dangers.

Driving across Texas, Mac swerves to avoid hitting a deer…and winds up in a dead spot, a frightening place that lies between the worlds of the living and the dead. If they can control their imaginations, people can literally bring their dreams to life—but most are besieged by fears and nightmares which pursue them relentlessly.

Mackenzie’s mother and husband haunt her, driving her to the brink of madness. Then she hears a child call for help and her maternal instincts kick into overdrive. Grant, Mac’s ally in the dead spots, insists Johnny is a phantom, but the boy seems so real, so alive. As the true horrors of the dead spots are slowly revealed, Mackenzie realizes that time is running out. But exits from the dead spots are nearly impossible to find, and defended by things almost beyond imagination.

Horror novelist Rhiannon Frater returns with Dead Spots, available February 24th from Tor Books!

 

 

Chapter One

The crib was empty.

Mackenzie couldn’t tear her eyes from the spot where her child should have been playing with his toes and cooing at the Winnie-the-Pooh mobile rotating above his little head. Instead, the mobile was packed in a box along with all the clothes he would never wear, the toys he would never play with, and the soft, yellow baby blanket that he would never snuggle in. The crib and house were as vacant as her hollowed-out heart.

Feeling faint, she gripped the crib rail and clung to it for stability. This was it. The end of everything she had held dear. Today was the day she closed the door on the life she had shared with Tanner. It was time to build a new one alone.

“Mac?” Angie, her sister-in-law, called out. “Are you okay?”

Turning, Mackenzie saw Angie leaning against the doorjamb. Her pink blouse was sticking to her ample chest and full arms though the matching crop pants still looked crisp from ironing. Angie’s look was distinctly that of a mom. Mackenzie, meanwhile, was clad in tight jeans, her favorite high-heeled boots, and a pale blue silk T-shirt. Her lightweight navy blue leather jacket was set aside with her purse and keys for the cold weather that would soon be blowing into the area.

Knowing that a truthful answer was not what Angie wanted to hear, Mackenzie mutely nodded.

“The men from Goodwill are here, Mac.”

Mackenzie didn’t answer, not sure she could speak quite yet. It was so hard to remove all traces of Joshua from the house that should have been his home. Yet, the house was an empty shell now, devoid of everything that had once given it life. Her son had been born without once taking a breath or opening his eyes. Her husband and all his possessions were in another woman’s home now. All that was left was the remnants of her broken dreams.

“I know it’s hard, Mac,” Angie said sympathetically after an uncomfortable moment of silence. “But it’s time to let go.”

The ludicrousness of her sister-in-law’s comment hit her like a bad joke. Mackenzie had no other choice than to let go of her dead child, her empty house, and her soon-to-be ex-husband. There was nothing left to hold on to and keep her in Shreveport. Yet, she couldn’t verbalize these morose thoughts. Though she knew Angie sincerely cared about her and was attempting to be supportive, the truth was that Angie could never truly understand what Mackenzie was experiencing. It was a very lonely thought.

With a sigh, she made a point of releasing the rail and stepping away from the crib she’d long ago painted pale blue when the world still seemed perfect and full of hope.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Angie tilted her head, worried.

“I’m trying to be.” It wasn’t a lie. After months of surrendering to her grief, she was finally moving forward. It was a daunting endeavor, but she was determined to claw her way out of the black pit of depression she’d fallen into when the doctor had been unable to locate Joshua’s heartbeat.

Angie’s tawny hair stuck to her neck and cheeks as she shuffled into the room. Behind her were the men who had come to cart away all the objects from Joshua’s unlived life. The electricity was disconnected and though it was morning, the air was thick and humid inside the house. Sweat pooled between Mackenzie’s breasts and trickled down her back. Angie’s skin was beaded with moisture and she fanned herself with one pudgy hand. An early-autumn cold front was about to sweep into Shreveport and Mackenzie couldn’t wait for the break in the heat though she dreaded the thought of the storms. She’d never been able to shake her childhood fear of thunder.

“So everything, right?” The big black man with the silvery hair leaned over to pick up several boxes stacked against the wall.

Mackenzie found it hard to speak, so she nodded instead.

The younger of the duo, a tanned boy with lots of shaggy blond hair and freckles, snagged the high chair and a bag of baby clothes. He sauntered out of the room, his head bopping to the music pouring out of his earbuds.

Mackenzie fought the urge to follow and rip the items from his grip. Her eyes were throbbing, but thankfully tears didn’t fall. Angie rubbed her back, a consoling gesture that Mackenzie found annoying. It was the same thing Tanner always used to do to calm her. She used to love how tactile the Babin family was with each other, but now she just found it irritating.

The older man stared at the baby items, then studied Mackenzie’s expression. She could see him fitting all the pieces together and searching for words to say. At last he opted not to speak at all and picked up several boxes in his burly arms. With a slight nod, he carried his burden out the door. Mackenzie’s gaze followed, her heart breaking all over again.

“Maybe you should wait in another room,” Angie suggested.

With a sigh and a nod, Mackenzie acknowledged the wisdom of these words. She walked toward the door, hesitated, then snagged the unfinished yellow baby blanket from the top of a box before escaping to the empty kitchen. It had been foolish to believe she could give up the small thirty by forty inches of fabric that she had poured so much love and time into. That terrible day when she’d realized Joshua hadn’t moved in hours and the doctor instructed her to go into the clinic for an ultrasound, she’d left the blanket behind on the bed stand. Tanner had kept reassuring her that Joshua was just a deep sleeper like he was and not to worry. All the way to the clinic, she’d gently poked at the baby bump, willing him to wake up. The ultrasound had confirmed her worst fears and all that followed was a nightmare. She hadn’t seen the yellow blanket again until she had returned home with empty arms from the hospital a week later. A fresh rush of tears had spilled when she’d realized that Joshua had traveled to the funeral home wrapped in one of the generic baby blankets from the hospital.

Her notebook sat on the kitchen counter with the lid open. She’d been chatting on a forum for mothers of baby loss when Angie had arrived earlier. To speak with other women who’d experienced stillbirth had been a lifeline in the midst of the disintegration of her marriage, her mother’s endless lectures, the painful platitudes people spouted in the face of her grief, and the seemingly endless well of sorrow in her heart and soul. It was the encouragement and sympathy of women that Mackenzie had never met that had helped her finally crawl out of bed and put together the pieces of her shattered world. With a sigh, Mackenzie typed in a quick update, then turned off the computer. Private messages were delivered to her email, so she would be able to check them and respond from her phone. Already this morning there was a slew of messages wishing her a safe trip to Texas.

Shoving the small laptop into its sleeve, she listened to Angie’s voice drift through the house. Mackenzie wondered what Angie was saying to the men, but then shrugged it off. It didn’t matter. Soon she would be leaving behind the house, the city of Shreveport, and all her memories, both good and bad.

On the counter resting next to Angie’s purse was the divorce decree. Angie had been kind enough to bring it over for her final signature. Mackenzie couldn’t bear to see Tanner and Darla, his new girlfriend. It was a small world when it came to gossip. It hadn’t taken long for Mackenzie to hear about Darla’s pregnancy. She would never begrudge a woman the joy of motherhood, but the news had hurt. Tanner had definitely moved on with his life and it was time for her to do the same.

It was just so hard.

Picking up the pen Angie had left on top of the document, Mackenzie lightly touched the little flags marking the spots where she was supposed to sign. If only she could turn back the clock and somehow fix everything that had gone wrong. Failure weighed heavily on her shoulders as she began to scrawl her signature and initials. With each jot of the pen, she hoped that the tight knot inside her gut would vanish, but it didn’t. The enormity of the situation crushed her. All her hopes and dreams of a beautiful life with Tanner were abolished bit by bit with each swipe of the pen. When she signed the very last line and dated it, her handwriting was barely legible. Feeling overwhelmed, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. It was a trick her grief counselor had taught her. Gradually, her trembling hands stilled.

The noise of the truck pulling away from the house reached her ears. The finality of the sound brought tears to her eyes. Gruffly, she rubbed her eyelids with the heels of her hands. She was so damn sick of crying.

“Did you sign it?” Angie’s voice asked.

Wiping her damp hands on her jeans, Mackenzie nodded. “Yeah. All done. It’s over.”

“Mac, I want you to know that you’ll always be my sister in my heart.”

The comment was said sweetly, but it didn’t hold the weight of sincerity. Mackenzie could hear in Angie’s voice that she was tired and ready for Mackenzie to move on. In the last six months Mackenzie had learned a painful truth. Everyone had a limit on how long they’d allow a mother to grieve. The furniture store where she’d been a bookkeeper had the shortest limit. She’d only worked there for less than a year and hadn’t been particularly close to her coworkers, for she primarily worked alone in a back office. Physical complications from the birth had eaten her sick and vacation days since her maternity leave had been canceled due to Joshua’s death. Losing her job had only added to her feelings of worthlessness.

Tanner had been next. When she’d been unable to shake off her depression, he’d grown weary and distant. And then he was gone. With him followed the support of most of his family, friends, and coworkers, except for Angie. Mackenzie soon realized she hadn’t truly built a life with Tanner, but had merely become a part of his. Once he was gone, her world had become a very dark place indeed.

Mackenzie gestured toward the divorce decree. “I wish it hadn’t come to this.”

“Once Tanner makes up his mind, you can’t change it. I tried to talk him into giving it another shot with you, but…” Angie sighed.

“He met Darla.”

“Yeah.”

Tanner’s carefree and almost reckless way of careening through life enabled him to easily move on. As quickly as he fell in love, he also fell out of love.

“I just wish we could go back to the good times. Tanner and I were so happy together.” Mackenzie crossed her arms over her breasts, hugging herself. “Then Joshua died and Tanner just…”

“My brother doesn’t deal well with difficult emotional situations. He never has. Tanner likes to be happy and to have fun.” “I should have tried harder to not be so depressed.” Mackenzie folded the divorce decree and laid it next to Angie’s purse. “I let Tanner down.”

Tanner had wept at her side when she’d delivered their dead child and over the tiny little coffin, but after the funeral he had shut off his emotions. Tanner had immediately tried to box up everything in the nursery and sell it. Mackenzie hadn’t been able to cope with that change and had fought him. Tanner had wanted her to get pregnant immediately, but she had been too sick physically and frozen with fear to even want to try. When she lay in bed sobbing, he had gotten up and slept on the sofa. If she was honest with herself, Tanner had emotionally abandoned her almost immediately. Yet, she couldn’t help but feel it was her fault. Her grief had driven him away.

“I love you, Mackenzie, but my brother can’t be the man you need him to be. You need to wise up and see that truth, honey. I know he’s hurting in his own way, but he can’t deal with what you’re going through. That’s why he left you. I know it sounds like I’m making excuses for him, and maybe I am, but in my heart I know the divorce is better for both of you.”

It was difficult for Mackenzie to accept that Angie was right. “I just don’t know how this all happened.” Mackenzie knew she sounded like a broken record, but couldn’t stop herself. “We were so happy and everything was perfect and then Joshua just died. How can the doctors not be able to tell me why he died? All those tests and no answers.”

“Sometimes babies just die, Mac. Joshua’s little heart just stopped and we don’t know why. Like Pastor Lufkin said, maybe Jesus just wanted another angel in heaven.”

“Then I wish Jesus would have made another damn angel instead of killing my baby,” Mackenzie snapped.

Immediately Mackenzie feared she had insulted her only remaining supporter in Shreveport. Maybe she should have tried harder to hide her pain, but it was so hard to maneuver through a life that should have contained her child. Even her body had been a constant reminder of her pregnancy. She had leaked milk for quite some time and her stomach was a road map of stretch marks from her baby bump. Yet, there was no baby to feed, or to hold.

“Now that you say that, I can see how that sounds wrong,” Angie said finally. “It really, really does sound just wrong.”

“Sometimes I feel like people don’t want me to mourn. That they want me to act like everything is just peachy keen.”

“People just don’t like the idea of dead babies,” Angie replied. “They don’t like talking about it all the time.”

Mackenzie pressed her lips together to prevent saying something she’d regret. What Angie didn’t understand is that people didn’t want her to talk about her dead son at all. It was as if they just wanted to pretend he had never existed.

“Your mama will be real happy to see you, I’m sure,” Angie said, attempting to change the subject.

Everyone always wanted to change the subject.

“Mom is determined to get me back on the road to health and happiness. I’m sure by the time I get home she’ll have a schedule ready for me. A list of do’s and don’ts. And plenty of barbed comments.”

“Your mama loves you. I’m sure she just wants to help you start a new life.”

“I suppose. I don’t know. I just have nowhere else to go.” Mackenzie was out of a job, nearly out of money, and had lost the circle of friends that had really been Tanner’s and had only been hers by default.

“Who knows,” Angie said with a sly smile, “maybe you’ll meet some handsome cowboy back in Kerrville.”

Forcing a smile, Mackenzie said, “I’m sure my mother is hoping for the same.”

“Oh, before I forget.” Angie reached into her big purse and pulled out an envelope.

Mackenzie flinched.

“I’m sorry, hon, but he doesn’t want them.”

Holding out her hand, Mackenzie reclaimed the photos she’d sent Tanner. After Joshua died, labor had been induced. It took nearly twenty hours to finally deliver him. Later, a nurse brought Joshua into her hospital room so she and Tanner could spend a few precious hours saying goodbye to their son. A volunteer photographer had arrived and taken photos of them holding Joshua. Joshua was so perfect Mackenzie irrationally hoped he’d awaken. Though she had been warned decomposition would become evident because Joshua was so tiny, it had been difficult to watch his tiny lips gradually darken. It was only after his lips turned black that she fully accepted he would not miraculously awaken.

Weeks later, she received beautiful black-and-white photos in the mail. The images had been touched up to remove the unseemly aspects of stillbirth such as the tears in Joshua’s delicate skin and his blackened lips. After Tanner had filed for divorce, per her request, the photographer had been kind enough to send her a second set. Now Tanner had returned the only photos of their son, another clear indication of him moving on.

“Did you want a photo of Joshua?” Mackenzie dared to ask though she knew the answer.

“I have him in my heart,” Angie said diplomatically.

Mackenzie hesitated, then nodded. “I had better be going. I have a long drive.”

“It’ll all work out. You’ll see,” Angie said, her smile a little forced.

Mackenzie collected the yellow blanket and her laptop before striding through the archway connecting the kitchen to the dining room and over to the built-in bookcase where she always kept her purse, keys, and sunglasses. She’d bought the huge Betsey Johnson tote with the intention of using it as a diaper bag, but now she used it as a purse. It was black and white striped with a big heart with ruffles and studs. After tucking the rolled-up blanket and laptop inside, she pulled out a small leather journal. It contained the lists that now ruled her life. When she’d been in her darkest, deepest despair, it was making a short list that had helped her start to claw her way out.

It had contained five lines:

  1. Get out of bed.
  2. Take a shower.
  3. Get dressed.
  4. Eat.
  5. Don’t go back to bed.

The fifth entry had forced her to write yet another list to keep her from retreating to bed. That first list had been her first rung on a ladder back to life. Being a bookkeeper by trade, Mackenzie liked organization. The lists had brought order into the chaos that had destroyed her life.

With the pen she kept hooked to the cover, Mackenzie crossed out two lines: “Goodwill” and “sign divorce decree.”

Angie stepped into the dining room, waiting. “Do you have a list for when you get home?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s a long one.” Mackenzie flicked the bright blue tab attached to that list. She was almost finished with the journal. Each page contained a crossed-off list. It would be nice one day to not depend so heavily on it.

“Add that handsome cowboy to it.” Angie gave her the famous Babin grin.

Angie’s desperation for her to move on was both reassuring and exasperating. Mackenzie stored away the journal and collected her things for the last time. It took all her willpower not to prowl through the empty house one more time. It was fruitless to do so. This life was over. Another waited in Texas. Taking a deep breath, she strolled out of the house, Angie close on her heels. The screen door banged shut behind them.

The symbols of her broken marriage were all around her: the for lease sign on the lawn, her old car filled with her possessions, the empty house behind her.

Time to let go.

“You are such a good person, Mac. One of the nicest, sweetest people I know,” Angie said as she trailed behind her to the old Ford Taurus sitting in the carport. “Life just… Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you think they should.” Angie made a face. “Why is it that everything I say to you sounds like the wrong thing?”

With a sad smile, Mackenzie enfolded Angie in her arms. “You always try to say the right things. I appreciate it.”

“But it doesn’t really help, does it?” Angie asked sadly, patting her back.

“It does help,” Mackenzie lied. “Thank you for everything, Angie.”

She drew away and handed Angie the house keys. One more thing off her list. Tanner would be the one to turn them in to the landlord. The lease had been under his name and he had been kind enough to let her stay until it ran out. At least he had been decent in that regard.

As Mackenzie unlocked her car door, she caught sight of her reflection. Dark chestnut hair framed a face that was a little too thin from not eating. For once her blue eyes weren’t rimmed with red from crying. Her lips were dry and chapped. When nervous, she licked her lips repetitively. Pressing them together, she tried not to swipe her tongue over them again. She opened the car door, tossed the purse across to the passenger seat, and donned her sunglasses.

“Mac, you be careful on the road. That storm coming in is awful fierce. Will you go see Joshua?”

Mackenzie nodded as she slid behind the steering wheel. It was hard not to look at the house and yearn for better times. She felt as though she was trapped in a whirlwind and it was taking all her strength to not fly apart.

“I’ll take him flowers every month like I promised. I’ll always tell him they’re from you.”

“I appreciate it.” Turning on the ignition, Mackenzie forced a smile onto her lips. “I’ll call you when I reach Kerrville.”

“I love you, girl! You’ll always be my sister!” Angie leaned in to kiss her quickly on the cheek.

“And you’ll always be mine,” Mackenzie promised even though she knew they would drift apart.

She pulled the car door closed and shifted into reverse. As the Taurus rolled down the driveway, Mackenzie returned Angie’s wave. The house with its pretty blue trim and big windows already felt like a distant dream.

 

Excerpted from Dead Spots © Rhiannon Frater, 2015

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