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  • Writer's pictureJ. R. Erickson

Sneak Peek of Ashes Beneath Her

The release of Ashes Beneath Her – the third book in the Northern Michigan Asylum Series – is fast approaching. Read on for a short excerpt of the latest book from J.R. Erickson: 

Liz felt her unease growing by degrees. It was not as if Susie hadn’t been late before. She was nineteen, a college girl, young and beautiful with a seemingly endless list of social engagements. It was normal for one of Susie’s friend’s to see her roller skating or sun tanning in the yard, pull up and say ‘hey, so-and-so’s having a party.’ Susan would throw on sandals, grab her red purse and skip out the door. Though even that scenario niggled at Liz’s mind. Susan always left a note. She was a conscientious girl, a daughter any parent would have loved to call their own. From Michigan State University that year, she’d sent both her mother and father handmade birthday cards. She even mailed a card on October 5th, their dog Howie’s birthday. When 7:30 rolled around, and it was time for Dick Van Dyke Show, Liz found she couldn’t pull herself from the picture window in the dining room. She gazed at their front yard, at the purple dahlias in large ceramic pots that flanked the driveway. Susie had helped her plant them several weeks before. It was still daylight, would be for hours. In the street, a little girl pulled a wagon with a range of stuffed toys, and a beagle puppy, tongue lolling, eyes fixed on his owner’s bobbing blonde head. The little girl’s name was Becky. She lived three houses down in a blue cape cod with a bird fountain and a white porch swing. Liz knew her parents through neighborhood barbecues. They were a nice family. Their son, Jason was older than Becky by a few years and they had a new baby, though Liz couldn’t recall her name, Barbara or Barbie. “It’s coming on,” Jerry called from the sitting room. Liz listened to the opening music, the upbeat instruments – horns and such – as Dick grinned from the desert backdrop. She walked to the living room and put a hand on the back of Jerry’s chair, willing the sound of tires in the driveway to drift in. “Strange that Susie isn’t back,” she said. Jerry, a bowl of popcorn balanced in his lap, glanced at his wife. “Probably out with her girlfriends,” he said, shoving a handful into his mouth. Liz nodded but found her hands squeezing the chair back, her knuckles turning white. “I think I’ll give Hannah a call,” Liz murmured. Jerry nodded, watching the show. “Course, if she’s out with Hannah…” he said implying that Liz would find no one at the other end. Oddly, Liz knew an answering machine would be reassuring. Though more than likely Hannah’s parents, Michelle and Frank, would be home. Michelle would know if Susie and Hannah had gone out together. Hannah picked up on the second ring and the sound of her voice caused Liz to start. “Hello?” Hannah said a second time. “Hi, Hannah. It’s Mrs. Miner. Is Susie with you?” “Susie?” Hannah asked, and she didn’t have to say anymore for Liz to know the answer. “No, she’s not. I talked with her this morning. She said she’d call me this afternoon to plan our camping trip next weekend, but she hasn’t called. Is everything all right?” Liz clutched the phone and stared toward the front door. Walk in, Susie. Please just walk in. But the white door remained closed and outside the world continued its business as usual. “I’m not sure,” Liz admitted. “I hate to sound like an old nag, but Susie wasn’t home when Jerry and I got back from visiting his sister. She didn’t leave a note so…” “Huh, yeah that’s not like Susie. She leaves a note if she walks to the mailbox.” Hannah laughed. “Can you make some calls? Find out if anyone knows where she is?” “Oh sure, Mrs. Miner. Absolutely. A few people talking about a beach bonfire. Maybe she tagged along. I’ll track her down.” Hannah hung up the phone, and Liz listened to Jerry’s laughter ring out. “Liz, you’re missing a great one, tonight,” he called. She dropped the phone back on its base, and walked slowly to the living room, glancing at the TV, and then at the window that offered an alternative view of the front yard and the street beyond. “I think I’ll walk next door,” Liz said. Jerry looked up and frowned. He gestured at the TV. “And miss this? Plus, the Miller’s are watching this too.” “Yes, but Joyce only half watches. She’s got to keep her eye on the boys after all.” Joyce was Liz’s best friend. They’d gone to high school together, married their sweethearts who also happened to be best friends. It was no accident they lived next door. The girls had plotted everything including having children together. Unfortunately, God put a stop to their scheming right there. Liz got pregnant with Susie when she was twenty-one-years-old and was never blessed with another child. Joyce, on the other hand, tried to have a baby for years. It wasn’t until she was thirty and had given up that she finally got pregnant with twins. The ten-year-old boys were identical – matching sandy hair and green eyes, matching freckled noses, and matching wild streaks. On several occasions, Liz’s husband Jerry had shoed the boys off their roof or scolded them for playing with firecrackers. As Liz approached the back sliding door, she saw Ron in the living room, feet up on a stool, and Joyce hovering between the living room and hallway as if trying to keep an eye on Dick Van Dyke and the boys simultaneously. Liz tapped on the glass. Joyce looked toward her, eyes lighting up. “Oh, thank God,” she gushed, opening the door. “I’ve spent all day with boys and men. Come in, come in.” “I’m not interrupting?” Liz gestured to the TV. Joyce grimaced and sputtered. “Most definitely not! I’ll always take a good gossip over Dick Van Dyke. And to be frank, since they changed the show, I’m not impressed.” Joyce waved dismissively toward the blaring television set. “Iced tea?” Joyce asked. “Or something a little stiffer?” Liz glanced at the street through Joyce’s living room window. The design of their houses was nearly identical. They’d chosen paint colors and furniture together. Sometimes it unnerved her how similar their homes were. It had a twilight-zone effect on days like today when Liz was especially ungrounded, drifty. “Liz? What’s wrong?” Joyce asked, frowning. “You looked… terribly sad just now.” Liz brushed a hand through her short curly hair. It trembled. “Did you see Susie today?” Joyce shook her head and then nodded. “This morning. She was out rollerskating. I can’t tell you what time that was. The boys were complaining they were hungry which you’d think would mean lunch time, but the boys say they’re hungry twenty times a day at least. I think it was around one.” Liz nodded, took the vodka tonic Joyce had made and sipped it. “Her skates were by the door so she made it home after skating, but…” Liz shrugged and offered an exasperated smile. “I’m being paranoid, right? She’ll laugh at me when she realizes…” But Liz trailed off. The sinking feeling had returned, like a heavy dark fog descending over her, tugging her smile down. “I’ve never known you to be paranoid,” Joyce answered. She walked to the living room. “Ron, did you see Susan today?” Ron ignored his wife until she barked the question a second time. He muted the TV. “I’m sorry, what d’you say, Hon?” Joyce rolled her eyes at Liz. “I said, did you see Susan? Your best friends’s daughter. Remember her?” He craned around in his chair and grinned. “Hi, Liz.” He offered her a little wave. “No. I was in the basement this morning trying to fix that God-awful water heater. This afternoon I built the ramp for the boys in the driveway, took a nap. No, I never saw her, Liz. Everything all right?” Liz realized she’d slumped forward on the counter, laced her fingers tight together. She stood up, blew out a shaky breath. “Probably. But Susan leaves notes. We got home around four and haven’t seen her. No note, no anything….” “Did you call Hannah?” Joyce asked. Liz nodded. “She’s making some calls. I should go back. Maybe she’s called. I’m likely fretting for nothing.” “I’m coming with you,” Joyce told her, grabbing both their drinks. “Ron, make sure the boys don’t burn the house down.” They walked across the yard, the sky turning darkening as the horizon took on the fiery orange of the impending sunset. As Liz’s feet met the steps leading to her back porch, she quickened her pace and then burst through the sliding glass door into the kitchen sure she’d heard the phone ringing, but only the sounds of Dick Van Dyke met her. “Jerry, did anyone call?” she asked, not bothering to kick off her sandals as she hurried into the sitting room. His popcorn bowl sat empty on the table beside him. He looked up, noticed Joyce, and started to speak, but then his eyes returned to his wife’s face. She knew her fear warped her features. Her husband didn’t miss it. “Liz, why? Did you hear something about Susie?” He sat up straighter, lifted the remote and clicked it off. The impending silence rolled out like a tidal wave. The phone rang and Liz jumped. “Do you want me to get it?” Joyce asked pausing by the receiver. “No, let me.” Liz snatched up the receiver. “Hello? Susie?” She couldn’t help but say her name. She wanted desperately for her daughter’s voice to come on the line. “No, it’s Hannah. Sorry, Mrs. Miner.” “Did you find her?” “No, I didn’t. I called everyone I could think of. No one has seen her. Greg said he chatted with her during her run. He was driving to the lake with a few friends and asked if she wanted to join. She said no.” “Did she tell him if she had other plans?” “No, she didn’t. I don’t think he asked, but she didn’t offer anything.” Liz closed her eyes, leaned hard against the counter and felt the first tears prick the backs of her eyes. Joyce watched her, eyes wide. Jerry stepped into the kitchen. He too studied his wife, deep grooves in his forehead – his signature worried look. “Hannah, if you hear anything at all, please let me know.” “I will. I promise. And Mrs. Miner, please ask Susie to call me as soon as she gets home or if you talk to her. I’m sure she’s fine. Any minute now she’ll walk through the door.” “I’m sure you’re right, Hannah. Thank you.” Liz hung up the phone. But she didn’t. Susie would never walk through the door again.

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