Thursday, February 8, 2018

Twist of Faith by Ellen J. Green ~ Excerpt

When family secrets are unearthed, a woman’s past can become a dangerous place to hide…

After the death of her adoptive mother, Ava Saunders comes upon a peculiar photograph, sealed and hidden away in a crawl space. The photo shows a shuttered, ramshackle house on top of a steep hill. On the back, a puzzling inscription: Destiny calls us.

Ava is certain that it’s a clue to her elusive past. Twenty-three years ago, she’d been found wrapped in a yellow blanket in the narthex of the Holy Saviour Catholic Church—and rescued—or so she’d been told. Her mother claimed there was no more to the story, so the questions of her abandonment were left unanswered. For Ava, now is the time to find the roots of her mother’s lies. It begins with the house itself—once the scene of a brutal double murder.

When Ava enlists the help of the two people closest to her, a police detective and her best friend, she fears that investigating her past could be a fatal mistake. Someone is following them there. And what’s been buried in Ava’s nightmares isn’t just a crime. It’s a holy conspiracy.

The house was a mottled gray color that reminded me of dead fish. Scaly paint peeled from the weathered clapboards. Shutters that looked like they might have been black at one time were now streaked and speckled, hanging at odd angles on rusted hinges. A tall, narrow, ugly house built on top of a steep hill. The wind was blowing hard, and for a moment I imagined the concrete foundation splitting, the house lifting from its resting place and landing on top of me as if it were my due.
My feet were planted on the first of eighteen stone steps leading to the front door. I glanced down, scanning the photograph again. The black-and-white Polaroid was grainy, but the house hadn’t changed much. I wanted to go to the door and knock, but hesitated. What would I say if someone appeared? It would be easier if someone opened the front door, noticed me lingering—but the windows were dark, though the sun was just a splash of color in the western horizon.
I gulped the last of the cold coffee in the cardboard cup and climbed the steps. Curtains in a ground-floor window were parted, so I cupped my hands and peered inside; the glass was spotted with grime and offered only a shadowed view of an empty living room.
A voice startled me. “Can I help you?”
A woman stood at the bottom of the steps, her swaddled gray hair peeking out above a scarf, her hands stuffed deep in her coat pockets.
“Oh. I was looking for the owner, but it doesn’t look like anyone is home. Do you live here, in this neighborhood?” I walked down the stone steps to meet her.
“I do, yes. And if you’re going to wait for the owners, you bet­ter bring provisions. No one’s living there now.” Her thin lips moved upward to a hesitant smile. “What did you need?”
“Has it been empty long?”
“Six months with no tenants. I live next to the eyesore, so I know. Oughta just knock it down, I say. Why? Are you interested in renting it?”
“No. I was doing research . . .”
“What? Is it the anniversary already?” She pulled her scarf down a bit and cocked her head to the side. “That can’t be for another couple of months yet.”
“The murders. Isn’t that what you’re researching?”
“No, I—”
“House is owned by a development company now.” She shrugged. “I thought they’d tear it down, but they’ve been holding on to it. Five years I’ve been dealing with this.”
I’d been backing up little by little as she spoke, unaware that the side­walk dipped behind me. I lost my balance and the Polaroid slipped from my fingers. I leaned down and grabbed it, but not before she got a glimpse.
“Is that the house?” She took the black-and-white image from me and studied it.
I thought about Claire, the woman who’d adopted me, who’d raised me for twenty-two years. She’d always claimed to have no information about how I’d been found wrapped in a yellow blanket in the narthex of the Holy Saviour Catholic Church. Barely six weeks old, she said. Though I’d begged for more details, clues, information, she’d insisted there weren’t any.
I suspected this wasn’t the truth, because I had memories— unformed fragments punctuated by vivid recollections that didn’t jibe with her version. It was the ongoing mystery of my life. A project never finished. I’d stumbled and fallen through my teenage years and young adulthood trying to sort it all out. Who had abandoned me, why, and when? When asking questions didn’t help, I resorted to anger, manipu­lation, and, lately, alcohol to try and forget.
Digging through a crawl space after her death, I’d stumbled upon the photograph tucked away with other mementos from my childhood: school pictures, report cards, my high-school diploma, a yellow baby blanket. The photograph had been inside a blank white envelope, sealed shut.
Since the day I’d disturbed that seal and seen the image, I’d felt a growing sense of urgency—unfinished business, a chapter not complete. In the two weeks and three days since—while signing papers, helping Anais arrange for Claire’s body to be flown to France, comforting Aunt Marie—I’d returned to the photograph daily: What had it meant to Claire and why had she kept it? The little lies and secrets she’d clung to during life were about to be wrested from her now that she was dead.
I stared into the woman’s watery gray eyes. “Who was killed?” I asked.
She took so long to answer I wasn’t sure she’d heard me. “Husband and wife. Both of them in there.”
“Did you know them well?” Strands of hair came loose from my ponytail and I tucked them behind my ear. I was listening to her words, but my eyes wandered to the street behind her, waiting for something, though I wasn’t sure what.
“Well enough to say good morning, or take in their mail when they were away, I guess. Let me see that picture again?” She held out her hand.
I gave it to her just as a car slowed near where we stood. An older man leaned out the window. “Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to Flourtown?” He was talking to her, but his eyes were glued to mine. I held his gaze while she pointed him in the right direction, then I watched him pull away.
She turned back from the car, shaking her head. “Now what were you saying?” She held the picture out, studying the words—almost entirely faded—that were printed after the date.
“This date is the same as the date of the murders.” Her finger ran along the back of the picture, and then she turned it over. “And it looks like it was taken from the lower part of the stone steps, about there.” She pointed a few feet away. “Crappy Polaroid shot, but it’s definitely that damned house.” When she shoved it into my hand, it was clear she was afraid.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“The door was left open. After they were murdered. The door was left open, that’s how they found the bodies.” She pointed. The front door of the house in the photograph was opened so wide a hint of the darkened foyer inside was visible. “Was that taken after those people were killed?”
Before I could answer, she demanded, “Is this some sort of prank? Because it isn’t funny. It was horrible. They were beaten with a hammer. The mailman found them the next day . . . The man was lying on the floor in the living room. Where did you get that picture?”
“Like I said, doing research. Tell me about them, please, and what happened after they were killed.”
I thought she was going to walk away from me, because her expres­sion turned rancid, but she didn’t. “The family name was Owens. Middle-aged man and woman. Destiny and Loyal Owens. He was a big guy. Might have caught a prowler in the house when they came home—”
“So they think it was robbery?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t hear if anything was taken. People around here were scared, though, I can tell you that. To kill people like that. Police never found out who did it.”
I glanced up at the house; I’d been here long enough. The eyes of the man in the dark car were dancing behind my eyelids, distracting me.
“All this is giving me the creeps. I should probably go now.” I turned away and then back to her. “Thanks.”
She gave a slight nod. “If you want the place, I’m sure you could get it for a song.”
I smiled. “Sorry, I don’t sing.”
u u u
I leaned against my car and studied the house. The sun was gone and the streetlamp blinked on; the stone steps were illuminated. I felt the warmth of my breath collect in front of my face. “What the hell, Claire?” I kicked my heel into the dirt.
I opened the car door and got in, clicking the locks securely into place. 2/15/10. Destiny calls us, bound by Loyalty. I knew the words printed on the photograph by heart. All things that spring eternal can never be crushed. I rubbed at my eyes, blurry from fatigue. Destiny and Loyalty— Destiny and Loyal. All things that spring eternal can never be crushed.
“And what springs eternal? Hope,” I muttered.
Had Claire known this photograph pointed to me, Ava Hope Saunders? How could she not? She must have known about these mur­ders—that’s why the picture had been shoved away, out of sight. Claire’s face was there in front of me, angry, tired, the crow’s-feet winning the battle at the corners of her eyes, her thin lips twisting with the nasty words flowing from her mouth. Distance and time hadn’t improved our relationship. It all seemed to just sit and fester, and had picked up with the same intensity and bitterness the day I returned from college.
Though to be honest, she hadn’t exactly been herself these past six months. I could see she was tired, distracted, anxious. Usually meticu­lous in her grooming, she’d let her salon appointments lapse, allowing gray to peek through along her hairline; her nails were short and unpol­ished. Days of endless sleeping, or not sleeping enough, had taken a toll. Every second of her forty-six years showed on her face.
In the last few weeks of her life, we’d barely spoken on the rides to her doctor’s appointments. He had no answers for her lethargy, sore muscles, lack of appetite, so he’d inject her with vitamins and send her home. After ruling out Epstein-Barr, HIV, allergies, his only suggestion was weekly vitamin B shots and plenty of rest. This would surely pass. But it didn’t.
I’d walked into her room to see her in bed again, the white duvet pulled up to her chest. Coffee and a book on her bedside table. I’d reacted with apathy tinged with frustration.
“You wanted me home, Claire, and all you’ve done is lie in bed. I’m getting a ticket back to Montreal.”
When she looked up I saw the deep-purple patches underneath her eyes, the soft, pretty face that had become skeletal. For a moment I thought she was dead, but she wasn’t. That took two more days.
“College is over, Ava. It was time to come home.” Her voice was stronger than I’d anticipated. I took a step back. “We have things to deal with, you and I. Let the past go.”
I slapped my hand against the bedpost. “Let go of the past? Why didn’t I think of that? If only it were that easy.”
“What’s happened to you?” Her eyes were glassy and seemed to have shrunk into her head.
I stared at her, contemplating my next words. What did happen to me? How did I end up with this family? “You want to talk, Claire? Have a heart-to-heart? How about answering some questions? Huh?” She reached her hand toward me but I pushed it away. “I didn’t think so. I’m late for work, but we’ll finish this later.”
We never had the chance. Two days later she had a heart attack in the hallway on her way to my room.
I started the engine and scanned the street again. Nothing. The man was gone. I took one last glance at the house before pulling away. It sat, its facade barely illuminated by the streetlamp, on top of the steep little hill, desolate, isolated, alone.

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