Steve Farris was nine years old in 1959, the youngest child in a family that was about to be snuffed out. Around four o’clock on an ordinary November afternoon, Steve’s father loaded his shotgun. With calm precision he killed his teenaged son and daughter, and then turned the weapon on his wife. For two hours he waited for his youngest son to come home from school. When Steve did not appear, his father drove away, disappearing for good. Now a successful architect, Farris has spent his life avoiding the memories of that dark day. But questions from an author writing a book about the crime bring back impressions from the days leading up to the killing. For the first time he must confront his awful past, and the terrifying possibility that his father had a reason for what he did.
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About the Author
THOMAS H. COOK was born in Fort Payne, Alabama. He has been nominated for Edgar Awards seven times in five different categories. He received the Best Novel Edgar, the Barry for Best Novel, and has been nominated for numerous other awards.
Read an Excerpt
By Thomas H. Cook
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Thomas H. Cook
All rights reserved.
This much I remembered from the beginning: the floral curtains in their second-floor bedroom pulled tightly together; Jamie's new basketball at the edge of the yard, glistening in the rain; Laura's plain white bra lying haphazardly in the grass behind the house, the rest of our clothes, drenched and motionless as they hung from the line above it.
And I remembered this: two men in a car, both in the front seat; the one behind the wheel younger, smaller, bareheaded; the other wearing a gray hat, breathing hard, smoking. It was the older one who first spoke, drawing his wire-rimmed glasses from his eyes, then wiping them with a white handkerchief as he shifted around to face me. Before Rebecca, I'd never been able to remember what he'd said to me, although, over the years, I'd imagined many different things, lines no doubt picked up from television or movies, but which had never struck me as exactly right.
Before Rebecca, I hadn't even been able to recall how long I'd actually stayed in the back seat of the car, although I'd always sensed that the light had altered during the time I'd remained there, a change which could have only come about slowly, as evening fell. I remembered a thickening gray as it gathered around the bare, autumnal trees. I even remembered shadows lengthening and growing darker as the hours passed, but given the thick cloud cover of that late afternoon, it couldn't have been real. Still, this false impression of shadows lengthening and growing dark lingered through the years, stubbornly remaining while other, vastly more important things, began to blur and fade.
More than anything, I remembered the rain. It had fallen steadily all that day, puddles growing larger and larger, streams tumbling like tiny mountain rapids along the slanting gutters of the suburban streets. It was a fall rain, cold and heavy, the sort that sinks into the bones, making them feel thick and soggy. All day, while I'd sat at my desk in school, I'd listened as it spattered against my classroom windows. Outside, it fell in great gray veils across the playground and the schoolyard, finally gathering in dark pools beneath the swings, the seesaws, the dripping monkey bars. It kept me in when I wanted to be let out, and I remember glancing longingly at the sodden softball field, the thick clouds that hung above it, the slender, wiry rain. Now, when I think of it, it strikes me that almost every impression I retained of that day had something to do with confinement.
That day: November 19, 1959.
The car I sat in as evening fell was dark blue and had a faintly sweet, yet dusty smell, probably caused by the cigarette and cigar smoke the upholstery had collected over the years. There was a chrome ornament on the hood, a bird with its wings spread, a common design in those days. I remember the bird because I focused on it from time to time, watching it rather than the men who sat silently in the front seat. It was very beautiful, or at least it seemed so at the time, a point of gleaming silver in the gloomy air, a vision of release, a creature taking flight. It seemed odd that it should be attached to anything, least of all to the flat metal hood of the car in which I sat while the rain thudded down upon it, throwing large drops of water onto the bird's uplifted, but unmoving wings.
The car itself rested in the driveway of my house. I don't know what kind of car it was, but I've always imagined it as a Ford or a Chevy. It had blackwall tires, and its interior was dark blue. Instead of the usual radio with small chrome dials, it had a strange metal box with a black microphone that dangled above the floorboard. I could sometimes hear static coming from the box, but I don't remember hearing a voice. As far as I recall, neither of the men in the front seat ever picked up the microphone. Instead, they seemed to sit rigidly in place, silent, heavy, like carved figures.
I sat mutely behind them, my short legs drawn up beneath me in the back seat of the car. Through the space between the garage and the eastern corner of the house, I could glimpse a small patch of the backyard. I could see the wooden fence my father had erected before I was born, and a portion of the metal swing set, which my brother and sister had outgrown, but which I still used at certain idle moments to entertain myself. Beyond it was the clothesline, sagging heavily with its burden of soggy clothes, and beneath them the white tangle of my sister's bra.
The house was made of plain red brick. It had a faintly Tudor design, two-storied, with a gabled roof and dark-green exterior shutters that were purely ornamental. A straight cement walkway led to the front door. Two front doors, actually. One of glass with an aluminum frame, the other of wood, painted white with a brass knocker shaped in the figure of a hand holding a small metal sphere. I remember how gently the long fingers appeared to hold on to the ball, as if about to release it.
There were other ornate touches. Flowers, for example, which my mother had planted not only all around the house, but in two circular gardens on either side of the cement walkway. She grew roses, tulips, and azaleas of various colors, and I remember her stooped over them awkwardly, almost in a squat, dressed in a loose-fitting red housedress, poking at the ground with a small spade. She was thirty-seven, but in pictures she appeared considerably older. She was thin and blonde, and her face had many sharp angles. I remember her as being tall, but she was actually five foot four. Before Rebecca, I didn't remember the sound of her voice, except that it was rather high, or the touch of her hand, except that it seemed vague and hesitant, or anything at all of the heart that had beaten beneath the red housedress, not even the fact that, according to the coroner's report, it had weighed nearly fifteen hundred grams.
And so, through all the years that followed her death, my mother remained an insubstantial presence, a figure carved from beach sand, tentative and impermanent.
Her sister Edna was another story, and it was she who finally came to retrieve me from the car, the two men handing me over to her casually, without ever asking her to produce a single article of identification.
She would have had the proper identification, of course. She was a cautious, correct woman, and knowing what would be expected of her that day, she would have brought a driver's license or a library card along with her. But neither of the two men who sat in the front seat of the car bothered to ask her who she was. The young one simply said, "You must be the sister," then nodded toward me and added, "Okay, you can take him then."
And so it was my aunt who came to me that day. My father had always called her "the maiden aunt" or "the spinster," though I doubt that he meant anything cruel in using such phrases. She was forty-two years old and unmarried. It was as simple as that. Others might have felt differently, using the same words to point out that my aunt had failed in her central mission to attract and keep a man. But my father admired her solitude, I think, along with her capacity to endure a certain subtle scorn.
She was dressed in a thick cloth coat that day, her dark hair pulled back in a bun which seemed to hang like a swollen berry from beneath the curve of her broad-brimmed black rain hat.
The back door of the car swung open and I slid out of the seat and into her care. She didn't pull me into her arms, but took my hand instead, and then strode swiftly across the rain-soaked yard to her waiting car, jerking me along hastily, so that I nearly stumbled as I trotted along beside her.
Her car was an old green Packard, and as she hustled me into its front seat, I glanced toward my house, Jamie's basketball suddenly floating into my view like a tiny orange planet. As the car pulled away, I got up on my knees in the seat and turned to look out the rain-streaked window toward the house in which I'd lived all my life. There it stood, in all its forlorn and broken gloom. I suppose by then I knew more or less everything that had happened within its various rooms during the last few hours. But all that had gone before it, the long march we had all made to that day in November, remained beyond my scope.
"Face forward, Stevie," Aunt Edna commanded sternly. "Don't look back."
Before Rebecca, I never had.
But now, I think that memory is the consolation prize we get for each day's death, the place we go to edit and rewrite our lives, to give ourselves another chance. Perhaps, in the end, that was all any of us ever wanted, just another chance. My father, my mother, Laura, Jamie, all of us locked up together in that house on McDonald Drive. From the street, it didn't look like a prison, but I know now that it was one, and that although I didn't hear them at the time, the sounds of my childhood were sliding bars and clanging doors.
Perhaps Aunt Edna had already sensed all that, and fearing the worst, warned me never to look back.
She was a middle-aged woman the day she rushed me across the yard to her waiting car, but she seemed ancient to me. Once at her house, she fed me a light dinner of chicken and white rice. I sat at the table, nibbling at the food, stunned into silence by what I already knew. I remember that she looked at me for a long time, as if trying to find the right words. Then she gave up, and simply muttered, "I'll figure something out."
But she never did, and I think part of the reason for her failure ever to "figure something out" with regard to me was that in some way I scared her. Without doubt, there were occasions during the short two months that I lived with her when she would gaze at me distantly, with an unmistakable apprehension, and I think that at those moments she was searching for the dark seed she thought must one day bloom in me, the ember that hadn't been entirely consumed in the burning ruin of my family, but which still floated in the smoky atmosphere, dense, acrid, waiting to ignite.
Once, late at night, I wandered downstairs and into the kitchen, took the long carving knife from its drawer and headed across the room to the bowl of apples that sat beside the old tin sink. I had only moved a few steps when I saw Aunt Edna step out of the darkness of the adjoining room. Her eyes were on the knife, rather than my face, and I could tell she was fighting a terrible impulse to snatch it from my hand.
"Put that back," she commanded.
"I was going to have an apple," I told her.
"It's too late to eat something," she said evenly. "It's bad for your stomach."
For a tense, trembling instant, we stared at each other, the long knife still held tightly in my fist, her eyes now shifting from its blade to my face.
"Put it back, Stevie," she repeated.
I obeyed immediately, of course, but I never forgot the look in Aunt Edna's eyes, the way she seemed to sniff some poisonous vapor in the air around me.
Years later, when I told my wife the story, she said only, "How macabre," and went back to her work. I know now that instead of such a light dismissal, she should have stopped me dead, stared at me and asked, "Was she right, Steven? Is it in you, too? What can we do to root it out?"
For years I believed that my mother should have demanded the same answers from my father, as if that one frank exchange might have saved us all.
My mother, Dorothy Coleman Farris, age thirty-seven.
During the brief time that I lived with Aunt Edna, she rarely mentioned my mother. When she did, she always referred to her as "poor Dottie," as if "poor" and "Dottie" were melded together in her mind, impossible to separate. There were even times when I suspected that Aunt Edna finally blamed my mother for everything that happened that day in 1959.
That was something my Uncle Quentin, the tall man in work clothes who picked me up at Aunt Edna's only two months after I arrived there, never did. Instead, he spoke fondly, and even a little comically, of my mother. And so, over the years, as his memories of her surfaced in one story or another, my mother began to emerge as a gentle and somewhat gullible person who, as a child, had always fallen for Quentin's tricks, believed his outrageous lies, and generally served as the butt of his harmless jokes. "Dottie always looked on the bright side," he told me once. Then added with a helpless shrug: "That was her downfall, you might say."
What did he mean by that?
He never said, and so I was left with only the vision of my mother as a person so ordinary she seemed featureless, bland, a bubble in a sea of bubbles.
Her school reports, which Aunt Edna had, and which were passed on to me when she died, revealed a similar figure to the one Quentin painted. There was a pattern of C's dotted from time to time with a B or a B –, but nothing higher. Her fifth-grade teacher summed her up: "Dorothy is a very nice child, always kind and friendly. Her work is adequate, and she is always punctual. It is pleasant to teach her."
Nice. Pleasant. Punctual. Even at their best, these are not the towering virtues. They leave out courage and adventurousness. But more than anything, they leave out passion. There is nothing to suggest that anything ever moved my mother with great force. Perhaps, in the end, that's what Aunt Edna always meant by calling her "poor Dottie," that she was poor in spirit, that she had no inner will, that perhaps even on that November day, she'd gone to her death like a slave to her quarters, head bowed, arms hung, eyes scarcely noting the black tail of the lash.
But could any life have really been so spiritless and void? After all, at one point, this same "poor Dottie" met a boy named Billy Farris, tall with jet-black hair, and when he asked her on a date, she accepted. Perhaps, on those evenings during the bright Indian summer of 1940, when they'd walked down to the old movie house on Timmons Street, or along the edges of the little stream that ran through the town's carefully tended park, perhaps on those quiet, humid nights, she'd found herself momentarily aglow with something strong, new, irresistible. Isn't it possible that there were moments early on, in the first blush of infatuation, when she had loved my father with the kind of love depicted in those little books they found beside her bed, tales of high romance in exotic places, Fiji, Paris, Istanbul? When his hand first brushed her breast, or drew slowly up her thigh, isn't it possible that even "poor Dottie" lost her breath?
Without Rebecca, I never would have known.
Even so, however, I would have known a little. I would have known that she married Billy Farris and later bore three children. And yet, despite such knowledge, I find that I still can't imagine her on those nights of conception, when Jamie and Laura and I were, in effect, born. I can't imagine her naked beneath a man, or over him, or beside him, as they move together on the bed.
She was on a bed that day, too, lying where he put her, her arms folded neatly over her chest, eyes closed, feet side by side, her stack of romance novels arranged neatly beside the bed, as if at any moment, she might roll over, pluck one from the floor, and immediately lose herself in the soap opera glamour of a beach romance.
It was Aunt Edna who identified her. From the back seat of the detective's plain, unmarked car, I saw two men in black rain slicks lead her down the walkway and into the house. A few minutes later I heard a hollow, wrenching sound come from inside the house. It wasn't so much a scream as a low, painful wail. It was then that the older detective turned and spoke to me, although, until recently, I could not remember what he said.
Aunt Edna was at the blue car a few minutes later, her jaw set, her lips so tightly closed that when the young detective asked if she was "the sister," she could only nod silently in response.
It would be many years before I saw what Aunt Edna saw that afternoon, my eyes lingering hypnotically on the body of my mother, how it was so carefully and respectfully laid out with perfect formality.
Other pictures showed that the same care had not been taken with my brother.
Jamie Edward Farris, age seventeen.
He was tall and lanky, with glistening black hair. In pictures, he appears rather thin, with a pale face and large, dark, nearly clownish lips. His eyes were a milky brown, like his mother's, with thin eyebrows, and short dark lashes. Like hers, Jamie's face gave the sense of having been composed of various parts selected from other faces, the eyes too dull and faded to go with the glossy black hair, the nose too flat to fit in with the high cheekbones and narrow forehead.
Excerpted from Mortal Memory by Thomas H. Cook. Copyright © 1993 Thomas H. Cook. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book read it in 2 nites and everyone I loaned it to did also! I keep it so that when I'm in between books, I re-read it! I've read it 4 times so far.
BOTTOM-LINE: Not everything happened the way you remember . PLOT OR PREMISE: A young boy loses his mother, sister and brother to an apparent killing spree of his father. Years later, an author tracks down the boy, now a man with a wife and son, and asks him to remember the details of their last few months together. . WHAT I LIKED: The basic plot is somewhat interesting in that it deals with the young boy's impressions of life, now recolored and filtered through the eyes of an adult, and the sudden realizations of what he actually saw and heard of adult conversations which made no sense at the time, but are all too clear now. A reinterpretation of history, in a sense, that allows the context to show more clearly than a simple linear telling might have done. . WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Two aspects stand out as negative factors. First, there is the telling of the story. At the beginning, it seems far too disjointed, and the continuous references to the future to build suspense actually fall flat. Secondly, there is a sense of detachment throughout the story, almost a clinical feel that keeps you removed from the main character and limits the novel to simply "telling" the story rather than having the reader "live" it through the eyes and actions of the characters. The fact that the ending is all too predictable is not necessarily a negative factor in this story, as it doesn't detract from an interesting read into the psyche of a slowly disintegrating family, and there are twists at the end that show the dangers of reinterpreting history from a cracked lens. Not everything happens the way the little grey cells remember, nor the way reality would tend to dictate. . DISCLOSURE: I received no compensation, not even a free copy, in exchange for this review. I am not personal friends with the author, nor do I follow him on social media.
Second time reading this author and he did not disappoint another book I couldn't put down fantastic ending yiu will not be dissappointed!
I liked this book. I read it in about 3-4 days. It kept me going...anxious to find out 'what really happend' to the family. The last 50 pages were super...really kept you going. The shock factor I suppose. I think this is a good choice!
This is a great book for a lover of mystery, suspense and suprise endings. If you love Alfred Hitchcock you will love this book! But be warned, once you pick it up you won't be able to put it down. Well worth taking the time to read and re-read.
This is a great book that keeps you guessing until the end! I highly recommend it to anyone who loves suspense and great narrative!
I was riveted the entire length of the book.
Riveting mystery/psychological study of good/evil. Sometimes, its very hard to see where the evil really is. I couldn't put this down and at the end I was very surprised.