Do you want to learn more about writing, including receiving marketing tips and tricks, deals on valuable workshops and retreats, and time management hacks? Join the VIP Writer’s Club! You’ll receive free VIP access to an online novel-writing course just for signing up and can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time.Become a VIP Reader!
Interested in free books, exclusive bonus content, and VIP early access to Jess’ upcoming projects? Then sign up here to become a VIP Reader.
I draw in a deep, ragged breath. “Let’s do this,” I tell my husband.
Lilydale has three funeral homes. We are parked behind the shabbiest. Only four other cars share the lot. I don’t recognize any of them.
Noah squeezes my hand. “You don’t have to go in.”
I smile at him, his sea-blue eyes, hair that's now more salt than pepper. We met in college. His parents are normal. He’s kind and as honest as a mirror. He’s also a fantastic father. He isn’t perfect, make no mistake. Sometimes he makes me so angry that I flip him off in the dark while lying in bed next to him. Still, he's a good man.
Our sons will be good men.
When Noah and I first married, he’d agreed we’d never have kids, and we stuck to that for nearly a decade. It had taken a lot of coaxing, but I’d come around. My precious babies. My two boys are teenagers now, but sometimes I still watch them sleep, smell their sweet innocence, about split in two with my love for them.
I cling to them too tightly, but now that you know my story, you understand.
“I actually do have to go in,” I tell Noah, aiming for funny. It’s still a comfortable place to hide, even after all these years. “I RSVP’d already.”
He sees right through this. “Cassie,” he says, unbuckling and turning to hold my face. “You don’t have to do this.”
Except that I do. This funeral is mandatory.
I have to verify that he's dead.
My attention is drawn to a man making his way slowly toward the funeral home with the help of a walker, bright yellow tennis balls protecting the legs. I note, as if from a great distance, that he reminds me of Sergeant Bauer. He’s the same height, except shrunk by age. Thirty-five years will do that to a person.
But maybe it isn’t Bauer. Maybe it’s someone who’d served with my dad. It could even be a friend he made in the last few decades. I couldn’t imagine Donny McDowell having a friend, a real one who didn't need fear to stay by his side, but I suppose we never truly know anyone but ourselves, and that's if we're lucky.
I toss Noah a reassuring smile. “We won’t stay for the service.”
Bauer/not Bauer has slipped inside with the help of a funeral home worker. No one else seems interested in attending my dad's funeral. Makes sense. He wasted his whole goddamned life. All those brains, all that talent, all those opportunities to be loved. He kicked it all to the ground, stole its lunch money, and looked for the next mark. If you're going to fail, go big or go home, I guess.
Reporters would certainly have followed if they knew I’d be here. Or maybe not. I published under a pseudonym. I am not impossible to track down, but it’d be a hassle. The story of the Lilydale Devil in the Dirt Basement had rocked the country, first in the news and then when my novel was published, but now it’s grown cold.
A heart attack in his sleep, Sephie’s text had said. Dad didn’t suffer. Almost a shame.
Noah’s face is pinched (I know that look; he wants to say something but is too worried about me. See? A good man.), but he nods and steps out of the car. He paces around and holds my door for me, taking my hand in his.
I suck in air like a drowning woman. I’m only here so I can see Sephie, really see her without dad’s shadow distorting her, feeding off her. She stopped returning my calls a few years ago, when my insistence that she move in with me got too much. When I see her, I’m going to bundle her up, and I’m going to remind her who she is a buck-toothed girl full of giggles and dreams and pure innocence sweet like honey and I’m going to break her out of Lilydale.
It’s almost an ache I want it so bad.
By the way, that night in the hospital? I spilled everything to Officer Kent. Mom knew I would, she must have, and that’s why she walked out without a fight and closed the door behind her.
It wasn’t lost on me that she’d left that heavy load for me to bear alone.
Bauer and dad ended up in jail for dealing. Three years each.
I even told Officer Kent what dad was doing to Sephie and was about to do to me. Dad, Mom, and Sephie denied it. I knew why Dad did, but I never understood why Mom and Sephie wouldn’t come clean. Or maybe I did and didn’t want to admit it.
In any case, Mom got custody of me and Sephie. The three of us moved to Kimball, 30 miles up the road. Mom remarried so quick you would’ve thought it was a contest. She was happy with that second life, on the surface at least. Cooked everyone great food, traveled. You'd try to get her to sink below that surface, though, talk about what happened, and she'd come at you like a wolverine. I understand her not wanting to venture into the deep dark below, I really do. It's where the monsters live. But it's also where the door to freedom is. Mom and I are down to an annual phone call. It's hard to be with someone who wants to pretend over the stuff that really gouged you.
I kept Gabriel’s necklace in my velvet-lined jewelry box along with my other childhood treasures. That box traveled with me to college, then to Noah and my first apartment. It sat next to me while I drafted my novel, the one that made me famous. Like I said, I left out the part about the necklace when I wrote the book. I wanted to keep that piece to myself. Instead, I structured the narrative so it seemed like I’d convinced Bauer to search Goblin’s house again based on the clicking noise Goblin made when he was agitated, the same noise the boys heard when they were attacked.
People bought it.
Life went on.
Even for Gary Godlin, who was sent to prison, where he still is and will be until the day he dies. Minnesota has a civil commitment program to make sure monsters like him never walk the streets, even after they serve their time. I heard someone made a documentary about him. I never watched it. How could I? And besides, there was nothing there to learn. He’d been bitten, and it turned him into a werewolf. Then, he’d tried to turn other boys into werewolves so he wouldn't be alone, just as Frank'd said.
Gabriel’s mom was the one who should have gotten a documentary. She’d created a national child abduction reporting system that connected every database in the country, making it quicker to locate lost children. Her boy was taken from her, and she’d turned that pain into something good, mothering the whole world. Thinking of what Gabriel had missed out on made me sad all over again every time I thought of him, which was still a dozen times a day. I’d considered writing Mrs. Wellstone a letter to let her know I’d named my youngest after him, and that he was fourteen now—older than her Gabriel’d ever gotten—and just as kind.
I’d never worked up the nerve.
I hadn’t seen my dad since that night at Goblin’s, never called, never emailed.
He returned the favor.
I found out through Sephie that once dad was released from prison, he spun in circles, like a turtle with two left feet. Sephie checked up on him but also kept a safe distance, almost seemed to be breaking free. But by her early thirties, she grew tired of hopping from one guy to the next, crashing and burning any friendship that required her to trust someone, taking care of everyone but herself with her nursing job. So, she moved back home with Dad. That became her life, the two of them living in that old farmhouse. It killed me, but I knew I couldn't pry her out of there, not while Donny McDowell was still alive.
Instead, I started sending her money and begged her to move in with me, Noah and the kids, kept at that until she stopped taking my calls.
I looked up Evie and Frank about a decade after mom had moved us to Kimball. Evie owned a flower shop in Lilydale. There were too many Frank Gomez’s to track down mine, but I think he landed fine. That kid had guts and heart, just like Evie. I’d heard that Connelly had stuck around, though he stopped teaching. I wished he’d gotten himself the hell out of Dodge. He deserved so much better than Lilydale could give him.
Me, I raise my boys, I love my husband and thank god for my friends, I laugh and travel and sometimes forget, and I write my books.
Sephie likes that I turned out to be a writer, though she thinks every one of my books is about her and our family. She might be right. People are weird like that. Take me. I still watch the sun rise every day in my dad's honor.
Never miss one.
I’m coming for you, Sephie.