A missing father.

A mysterious lighthouse.

A girl willing to risk it all to learn the truth.

The last thing seventeen-year-old Austen Gillet expected to find on her way home from work was her dad’s car on the side of the road, empty except for the dead woman inside.

Determined to discover the truth about what happened to her father, Austen enlists the help of Ezra, a newcomer with secrets of his own, and Ian, an eccentric lighthouse keeper. Delving deeper into her town’s dark history, Austen uncovers reports of missing people, mysterious monsters, portals to other worlds, and mayhem stretching back well over a century.

While coming to terms with her new, nightmarish reality, Austen has to figure out who she can trust, who wants her father dead, and what’s really going on underneath the surface of her small town before it costs her her life.

darknessfalls cover1

Interested in learning more? Check out When Darkness Falls here or read an excerpt below.

 

Chapter 1

 

“Thanks for helping me close tonight, Austen.” My mom flashes me a grateful smile, dimly lit by the dashboard lights. She coaxes our rusted blue hatchback around a bend in the road. “When Dominic called in and quit this morning, I thought I was screwed.”

“No problem.” I gaze out the side window and watch the twinkling stars overhead. “I can always use the extra money. But if you want me to come more often, I really should get a car.”

She chuckles and flexes her hands on the steering wheel. “You know I’d help if I could. I was going to talk to your dad about it, but . . .” She sighs.

“He’s been working a lot, I know.” Even to me, the words sound hollow.

“Just keep saving your money. I’m sure it won’t be too long before you can afford one.”

“Yeah, but it’d be nice to have a car before I graduate,” I grumble. It’s the same line she’s given me since I got my license. At least when I turn eighteen in a few months, she can’t tell me what to do. She chuckles, and I sit back with a huff, blowing a lock of long red hair out of my face in the process.

At the bottom of a hill, a pair of hazard lights blinks rhythmically in the darkness. “Did someone break down?”

My mom’s brow furrows. “Looks like it. They probably got a flat tire or ran out of gas. Let’s see if they need any help.” She slows down and pulls over behind the other car.

“Is that Dad’s car?” I lean forward, our previous conversation forgotten. “It is! Look at the bumper sticker.” I jab my finger toward the “My daughter will stop the zombie apocalypse” bumper sticker I got him last Christmas.

She glances at her phone. “That’s strange. He didn’t call or text to let me know he was having car trouble.”

“Why is the passenger door open?” Unease slithers up my spine.

“I don’t know. Maybe he stepped out to look for something.” She flicks our own hazard lights on and turns off the car. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

She’s nuts if she thinks I’m going to stay inside the car if Dad’s in trouble.

Mom sighs when I hop out after her. “Why do I even bother?” she mutters.

I tap my phone’s flashlight icon. “I have no idea.”

She ignores my comment and approaches the passenger side of the car to avoid walking in the road. “Greg?” She peers into the car and then stumbles back, her high-pitched shriek echoing through the night. She spins around, eyes wild, and tries to push me away. “Get back to the car!”

I skirt around her, ignoring her command. An icy breeze snakes through the warm summer air. The narrow beam from my phone illuminates a dark puddle soaking the gravel shoulder like an oil spill.

My mom fumbles in her pocket for her cell phone.

“Maybe he got an oil leak or something.”

She doesn’t answer me.

It’s not until I’m at the door that I realize it’s blood, and it’s everywhere. Coating the door, the shattered window, the dashboard, and the woman slumped over, her face obscured by matted, blood-soaked hair gleaming in the car’s interior lights. Even then, my foggy mind, so used to video games and movies, refuses to process what I’m seeing until Mom’s hand clamps down on my shoulder and she drags me away.

“Get in the car,” she says, her voice a hoarse whisper. “I’ll call the cops from there. They’ll figure this out.”

“But . . .” The words die in my throat. There’s a woman, covered in blood, in my father’s car. “Maybe he went for help . . .” Panic sets in. He’s got to be around here somewhere. People don’t just vanish.

“That must be it.” Fear paints my mom’s face a stark white. After shoving me into the car, she climbs inside and slams the lock down.

“What happened?” My thoughts race. Dad was supposed to be working late. That’s why he didn’t pick up my brother and sister. He shouldn’t have been in his car, in the middle of the night, with a dead woman. Fear rises from the pit of my stomach.

“I don’t know.” She pulls out her phone and punches several buttons.

“Nine one one, please state your emergency.”

I can barely hear the tinny voice echoing over the line.

“My—my name is Maria Gillet, and I found my husband’s car on the side of US 23. He’s gone, but there’s a woman in the car, and I think something’s happened to her.”

The 911 operator asks for more information before telling her there’s a unit in the vicinity, and the police will be here as soon as they can.

“As soon as they can” feels like hours before red-and-blue lights flash into our rearview mirror.

My mom’s hand creeps across the seat to grip mine tightly. “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

 

 

I’m too numb to respond. Worry over my dad clouds everything else. I want to yell, scream, and shout that things aren’t okay. There’s a dead woman in Dad’s car. It isn’t a nightmare, where we can wake up and forget it ever happened.

Moments later, one of Misery Bay’s three police officers parks behind us, Mom reluctantly removes her hand from mine and gives me a stern look. “Stay here and lock the doors. I’m serious, Austen. Do not test me this time.”

I close my eyes, and an image of the dead woman flashes behind them. Dad would never have done that. No, he’s the kind of guy who takes spiders outside and live traps the mice that sneak into our house every fall. Maybe he was kidnapped; that would explain it. I lean forward, letting my hair fall like a curtain in front of my face, as if that could hide me from all the ugliness outside. A single thought courses through my brain. Where are you, Dad?

My mom slams the door and waits until I engage the locks before she follows the police officer over to my dad’s car. I can tell the moment he sees the bloody body because his back stiffens, and his hand hovers over his gun. It isn’t any wonder he’s surprised; things like this don’t happen in our small town.

Two other police officers show up, followed quickly by several Michigan state troopers. I roll the window down, and listen to them ask the same questions over and over again. I tune out, worry for my father eating at the back of my mind.

After talking to Mom, one of the state cops walks up to me and opens the door. “Hey there, Austen. I’m Officer Pete Martin. Do you mind it if I talk to you for a minute?” He flips open a little pad of paper and plucks a pen from his pocket.

“It’s okay, honey,” Mom calls out, craning her head around the other police officer’s shoulders. “They said they can talk to us here, that way we don’t have to go down to the station so late. I’ll be over in a minute.”

“Okay.” I don’t know what help I’ll be able to give, but if I know something that’ll help them find my dad, I’ll do what I can.

“Tell me about tonight, specifically what led up to finding your father’s car.”

As I stumble through the story, my mom joins us and squeezes my shoulder. Officer Martin then asks us some questions about Dad, his work schedule, and what he might have been doing out here this late at night.

“That’s all I have for tonight,” the police officer says. “We’ll touch base in the morning.”

As we pull back onto the road, Mom calls Grandma and asks her to keep Molly and Brett for the rest of the night. She glosses over the situation, saying she’ll talk more in the morning but that everything’s okay.

“I don’t want to go into it,” she snaps. “Can we please talk about it later?”

Since Grandma has the tenacity of a terrier, she’s probably demanding answers. My mom mumbles something about the crappy reception and hangs up.

“Sorry.” Mom starts the car. “You know how your grandma gets.” A tow truck crests the hill behind us, lights flashing.

A couple of coroners from Alpena wrestle a rolling stretcher off the side of the road and steer it toward the car.

“What do you think happened to Dad?”

“I have no idea. I wish I did.” Her voice is soft, and concerned.

“Why was he with that woman?”

Mom bites her lip, a trait so reminiscent of my own that I almost catch myself doing the same thing. “I . . . I don
’t know.”

As she guides our car onto the highway, a news van from our local station pulls in. It’s a good thing we’re on our way out. I don’t think I could deal with the anyone else, right now. Mom swears under her breath, but doesn’t say another word until she pulls onto the driveway leading to our four-bedroom house.

“There has to be a reasonable explanation for this. There must be.” She puts the car into park and rests her head on the steering wheel. “Oh God, Greg, where are you? What happened?”

After my mom goes to bed, I sit next to the window and watch tiny sparkling lights dance through the trees. Fireflies. Faint, airy music drifts in from somewhere outside. It’s a haunting melody, lyrical and otherworldly. My body sways with the sound, and my mind drifts away.

“Daddy, why can’t I go out to play?”

He ruffles my hair and pulls me close. I curl my six-year-old body into his warmth. “It’s not safe, my love.” He presses his lips to my forehead. “There are dangerous monsters out there in the forest. Creatures that eat beautiful little girls like you.”

“But they’re my friends. We like to sing and dance. They always want to play and have fun.”

“If you keep going out there, they’ll want to steal you away, and I won’t let you go.”

I wrap my arms around him. “It’s okay, Daddy. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good.” He smiles down at me. “Your mommy and I love you very much and don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”


 

Chapter 2

 

The morning illuminates the dark shadows under our eyes. Mom calls the police station while hot coffee percolates on the counter. I hover around her, eager for the least bit of news. The cops have to know something by now.

“Greg Gillet. Yes, I’m his wife. I wanted to check and see if you’d found anything.” She pauses, and I get up and pour her some coffee.

“No,” she murmurs, her expression crestfallen. “I haven’t heard from him, either. Yes, of course I’ll let you know if I do. Where will I be? The diner, of course. Austen and I—” She glances at me, and I hand her the white Number One Mom cup. “We’re opening up, and we’ll be there most of the day.” She listens for a couple of seconds more and takes a sip. “Thank you. I understand.” She sighs and ends the call.

“Nothing?”

She shakes her head, and my heart plummets.

Defeat hunches my mom’s shoulders and deepens the lines around her mouth. “Sorry, kiddo.” She stares at the blank screen on her phone. “I’ve called him a dozen times, texted him even more, and nothing. I have no idea what’s going on, but there has to be a logical explanation for this.” Her words are hollow; she doesn’t believe them, either.

Pain wells up within me, but I push myself to my feet anyway. “What logical explanation could there be? We found a dead woman in his car, and he’s gone. Do you think he’s dead, too?”

She winces. “No, of course not. Your dad, he . . . he wouldn’t hurt anyone. I know he wouldn’t.”

I chew on my lip. She’s right. There has to be a reason behind what happened. If Dad wasn’t responsible for that woman’s death, then why did he run? “Do you think he’s in trouble?”

She pours the rest of her coffee down the drain and rinses her cup, her movements stilted. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Tears burn my eyes. Dad’s got to be okay. He has to be.

“I wish I knew more, but I don’t.”

“What about Molly and Brett? What are we going to tell them?”

“I think we should keep it quiet for now. I don’t want them to panic.”

I nod, imagining my seven-year-old sister freaking out about the dead woman, even though my ten-year-old brother would never show anything as childish as fear. “They’ll hear it from someone, though. Small town, remember?”

She leans against the kitchen counter. “True, but it’s summer break, so we’ll just keep them either at our house or at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I’m sure the cops will figure out what happened pretty quickly.”

Fear for my father creeps into my consciousness. There’s more to the story, I know it. Dad ran away for a reason. What if he didn’t leave on his own? What if someone made him? I strangle the doubtful voice in my head. Dad will be fine. I’m sure of it. “So what exactly do you want to tell them?”

She ponders this for a moment. “I thought about telling them he went camping and leave out the rest.”

“They won’t buy that. We haven’t gone camping in years, and we’ll have to keep them away from the TV and Internet, or they’ll find out for sure.”

“If they go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house every day, I think we can pull it off. They don’t have the Internet, and Grandma only watches soap operas.”

Mom walks over to the big bay window overlooking our backyard. Her eyes lose focus as she stares at the grass that always needs mowing and the bushes growing wild. “I told Grandma what happened.”

I grimace, imagining my grandma’s tirade. At four foot nothing, she packs a Polish punch worse than someone twice her size. “What did she say?”

She waves her hands dismissively. “She agrees that your father would never hurt anyone, and she’ll do her best to keep your brother and sister from finding out what happened.” She gives me a watery smile. “I think that’s all we can hope for.”

She brushes her hands off on her jeans and gives me a determined look. “So, are you ready to go? The diner isn’t going to open itself. Besides, it’ll be good for us. I don’t know about you, but I can’t sit around the house all day waiting for the phone to ring.”

I finish getting ready to go as if on auto-pilot, unable to chase the images of the dead woman out of my head. By the time we pull into the little gravel parking lot at Rosie’s Home Run Diner, a couple of the regulars are already waiting for us.

“Good morning, Mr. Harland.” I hold the door open for him.

“Morning, Ms. Austen.” He hobbles in, brandishing a cane topped with a brass eagle’s head in one hand. “How are you this fine day?”

He must not have heard the news. I swallow past the lump in my throat. “Fine, fine.”

He winks at me and is quickly joined by his partner-in-crime, Mr. Fitzgerald, at the counter. When the newspaper boy, Tory Carpenter, a blond-haired menace to society, tosses the paper at our front door, I race out to grab it and scan the headline: “Local Woman Found Dead Under Mysterious Circumstances.”

The air whooshes out of my lungs. Crap. They must have really rushed that through to get it in the paper today.

I take off the front page, fold it without reading the article, and stuff it in my pocket before handing the rest over to our customers.

“Thank you.” Mr. Fitzgerald opens the paper and lays it flat on the crossword section.

All of the tension running through my body disappears. He didn’t notice.

“Let me know if you need anything else, okay?” After they agree, I head behind the counter and finish helping Mom get the diner ready for the day.

The busywork soothes me and takes my mind off the panic crouching in the back of my head. Chopping vegetables doesn’t leave much room for any other thoughts, unless I want to slice off a finger. Staying busy is a blessing, otherwise I keep flashing back to the blood-spattered dashboard and the reporter whose death no one except my dad and the killer can explain.

My hand hovers over the dry-erase board, frozen. Today’s special was supposed to be tuna melt with sweet potato fries. Dad’s favorite. I close my eyes as they start to burn. Stop it. After giving myself a mental shake, I force my fingers to scribble down the words before stowing the marker in my pocket. It’s a stupid tuna sandwich. It doesn’t mean anything.

“Austen,” Mom calls from the kitchen. “Can you flip the sign around?”

“Yeah, sure.” The front door chimes, and I paste a smile on my face. “Good morning, Mr. . . .” My voice drops when I notice it’s not one of the half dozen or so elderly men who drift in every day.

The guy who walks in the door is maybe a year older than me and about a foot taller, which puts him at around six feet. His golden-brown hair is longer on top and trimmed shorter on the sides. He has chocolate-brown eyes and an easy grin with dimples that make my heart beat double time. We don’t have guys like this in Misery Bay. He approaches me, one hand stuffed in his pocket, and the other clutching a piece of paper.

“Hi,” he says. “My name’s Ezra Montgomery. I was wondering if your manager was here so I could drop off my résumé.”

I fumble for the paper he hands to me. “Um, sure. I’ll go get my mom.”

“Your mom owns this place?”

“Yeah.”

As if hearing my voice, Mom hurries out of the kitchen. When she spies Ezra, her eyes light up, relief chasing a little of her worries away. “Hey, I’m so glad you came back. I’m down two people, and since I can’t clone my daughter,” she pats me on the shoulder, “I could use the help.”

“Awesome,” he says. “Because I could definitely use the job.” A self-conscious grin flits across his face.

My mom takes the résumé and scans it. “You just moved here?”

“Yes, ma’am. Almost a week ago, actually.”

Her gaze grows unfocused. “Montgomery. Why does that name sound familiar?”

Ezra’s easy smile becomes forced. “My family used to live here, but we moved away a few years ago.”

She snaps her fingers. “That must be it. Why did you move back? Misery Bay isn’t exactly a hopping place for young kids.”

He shrugs, but his eyes remain shuttered. “I guess I couldn’t stay away. I love this town.”

She nods, seemingly satisfied. “We need more young people like you. When can you start?”

The tension drains from his shoulders. “Just like that?”

My mom eyes the parking lot as three more cars pull in. “Just like that. I wasn’t kidding when I said I need all the help I can get.”

“I can start as soon as you need me,” he says.

They chat for a few more minutes about him coming in at ten thirty so he can get some training before the lunch rush starts. He agrees and leaves to go change and get ready for his first day at work.

“He’s pretty cute, isn’t he?” my mother murmurs into my ear. She must be trying to get my mind off of Dad.

“Mom!” Heat streaks up my neck, blooming across my cheeks.

She chuckles, the sound lighter and more relieved than I expect. Maybe opening the diner today is exactly the kind of brief respite she needed to escape the worry haunting her.

“It’s all right, kiddo. Hang in there. You’ll get to see him in just a little while,” she jokes.

I answer her with a scowl, even though I catch myself watching the minute hand tick by.

At about a quarter to ten, the bell above the door chimes, but it’s not Ezra. Instead, it’s a pair of Misery Bay’s finest: Officers Jonie Clark and Dennis Mildrew.

“Is your mother here?” Officer Clark takes the coffee I offer her. She blows on the cup to cool it and perches on one of the stools.

I nod. “She’s in the back.” I call out for her while Officer Mildrew takes his drink and joins his partner at the counter.

Mildrew sets down his visor and rubs his tired blue eyes. “Mind if we ask you a few more questions?”

Nerves twist in my stomach. What could they possibly ask me that I hadn’t already answered? “Sure.”

“Do you know anyone named Hilary Crum?”

It takes a few seconds for his question to sink in. “Is that who she was?”

In my head, I see the perky blue-eyed TV reporter, her brown bob always sleek and professional. She normally covered the local lifestyle section of the news, like the annual county fair or a fish fry at the senior citizen center. Covered. Past tense, like she won’t be covering anything anymore.

“We haven’t positively identified the victim, yet. So you didn’t know her?”

I shake my head. “No. I saw her on TV, like everyone else, but that’s it.”

“Would she have any reason to be with your father?”

“Maybe she was buying or selling a house.”

Mildrew jots down a few more notes. “Does your family own any guns?”

My hand flies to my mouth as the underlying meaning behind his question hits me. “Oh God. She was shot, wasn’t she?”

Officer Mildrew purses his lips and doesn’t answer my question, which is answer enough in itself.

My mom hurries up from the back, her shoes tapping on the worn linoleum. “Sorry about that. I was in the middle of slicing meat and—” She glances from me to our visitors. “Is something wrong?” She plants her palms on the counter, steadying herself. “Did you find Greg?”

“No, ma’am. We just have a few more questions.”

“Anything that’ll help you find my husband,” Mom says.

Officer Clark asks her if she knew the reporter.

A confused expression crosses her face. “I didn’t know her, sorry.”

The police officer scribbles something on her little notepad. “Did your husband ever talk about his past?”

Mom shakes her head. “No. He said it wasn’t relevant, that… that our present and our family were the only things that mattered.”

The officer looks at me as a sliver of memory takes hold.

 “I told you, Maria, I don’t want to talk about it.” Dad paces the living room in long, angry strides. I duck around the corner to the kitchen, peeking out with wide eyes at my father’s tirade. “What happened in the past doesn’t matter anymore.”

Mom holds up her hands, pleading with him. “It’s just a family tree assignment for school. It’s not like Austen’s teacher is running a background check.”

My bottom lip trembles. This is all my fault. If I hadn’t brought home that stupid assignment, Dad wouldn’t be mad at me.

“Why does she even need to know about my past?”

“She’s a kid. Teachers do these kinds of activities to teach them about themselves. I remember doing one in school, and surely you do, too.”

His shoulders stiffen, and I shrink around the corner so he can’t see me. “No, I never made one. Besides, it’s not important where you came from, only where you’re going.”

“Fine.” I imagine Mom throwing her hands up in the air, but I’m too afraid to look. “Do whatever you want. I’m going to bed.”

I scurry to my bedroom before either of them catches me, and hide under my covers until I finally fall asleep.

Clark holds out her cup for a refill, which I take automatically.

“We ran a background check on him and found nothing,” Mildrew says.

“That’s a good thing, right?” I ask, even though something in the police officer’s voice makes my stomach plummet.

“Nothing prior to thirty years ago,” Mildrew amends. He taps blunt, square-tipped fingernails on the counter. “We ran a cursory national search, too, and put feelers out internationally, but it looks like your father and his family appeared out of thin air.”

Mom’s shoulders sag. “Austen, why don’t you go check on that table in section four?”

Relieved to get away from the cops and all their probing questions, I push away from the counter. “Sure, no problem.”

Ezra walks in twenty minutes later as the police officers leave. His shoulders stiffen, and he gives them a wide berth. By the time he reaches the counter, Ezra’s smile is back. “Hi.” He smooths his hands on his jeans. “So, um, what do you want me to do first?” His dimples draw me.

Seriously, Austen. Control yourself. Stop acting like some angst-driven, hormonal teenager. You’ve worked with cute guys before.

“Okay, follow me.” I lead him through the stainless steel kitchen to a small row of lockers in the break room. “Here.” I hand him a red Rosie’s T-shirt. “I’ll grab you an apron.”

I turn around to find Ezra stretching the bright-red fabric over his torso. His broad back ripples with muscles, and my stomach tingles. He turns around, a slow grin stretching his face. “Am I putting it on wrong?”

I mentally give myself a shake. “No. I, uh, I’ll show you around and then get you started. Mom’s in her office, but she’ll come up front when it starts to pick up.”

“I’m all yours.”

I ignore the butterflies flitting around my stomach. “Come on. I’ll give you the grand tour.”

With Ezra trailing me, I show him the cramped, stainless steel kitchen, the janitor’s closet, and the coolers. “I think my mom probably wants you to start out washing dishes.” I give him a sympathetic frown. “But eventually you might be able to move up to waiting tables.”

He pumps his fist in the air. “I can’t wait. To be honest, I’m glad I was able to get a job so quickly.”

“Yeah, there aren’t that many jobs around here.”

He shrugs into an apron. “The truth is, I got in a fight with my folks and remembered my Uncle Tony had an old farmhouse here. I asked him if I could crash for a while, and he said sure. He even promised not to tell my parents.”

“Oh yeah?” I arch my eyebrows. “My mom would kill me if I did something like that.”

His gaze hits the ground, unable to meet my eyes. “My parents and I haven’t gotten along for quite a while. My uncle isn’t on the best terms with my dad, either. If they ask, and they might, he’ll tell them I’m safe, but that’s about it. I don’t want them to think I’m dead in a ditch somewhere, but I needed to get away.”

“That makes sense. At least you have the summer to get used to everything before school starts.”

The corner of his lips twitch. “If I’m here that long. I’m kind of playing it by ear. I only need a couple of credits anyway, so I might do it all online and save myself the hassle.”

That would be nice. My parents would never let me take online school. Around here, online classes are usually reserved for troublemakers and those who can’t handle the public school system. Mom and Dad would laugh if I even suggested it.

I show him the dishwasher and how to use it. “Won’t your parents figure out where you are eventually?”

His lips purse. “Maybe, but I’ll deal with that when it happens. Until then,” he says, gesturing to the messy kitchen, “I need to work.”

The front door chimes. “I’ll be back to check on you later, but if you need something ahead of time,” I say, pointing to Dante, our cook, who also just arrived for the lunch rush, “let either of us know. Dante can run this place with both hands tied behind his back.”

The Gulf War vet chuckles and stuffs his long graying hair under a hairnet. “You know it.” The two guys chat with each other as I walk away. The bell above the door chimes again. It’s going to be a long day.

By the time seven o’clock rolls around, the dinner rush has turned into a trickle. “You can head on out,” Mom tells Ezra. “Austen and I can handle it until closing.”

“Thanks,” Ezra says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” After saying good-bye, I watch him leave, but instead of walking over to his obnoxious yellow VW Beetle, he crosses the street and hurries around the corner.

Where is he going? I fish around for a reason to leave so I can follow him.

“Hey, Mom?”

She jerks her head around the corner. “Hmm?”

“I think Ezra forgot his keys.”

“Uh huh.” Mom gives me a knowing smirk.

I flush, embarrassed. “He did, I swear.”

“Then you better go give them to him. He can’t have gone very far.”

My face grows even hotter, and I barely take the time to wrench off my apron before sprinting out the door.

Once outside, I follow Ezra deeper into town, running through possible excuses should he catch me. I could say my mom wanted me to go to the market and pick up some eggs, or some mayo, or something else that we could plausibly have out of stock. But all the possible reasons sound fake.

Ezra strides quickly down Huron Street, which is the main drag running through town. Lined with cozy little shops, Huron Street is about three blocks long before it transforms into sprawling houses and farms.

He doesn’t make it that far though. After the first block, Ezra takes a sharp right and disappears through our library’s sliding glass doors.

I pause in front of the crumbling brick building. I’ve never seen anyone in the library except for elementary school kids on a field trip and old people surfing the internet or doing community stuff. With a mental shrug, I sneak in after him.

The icy library air conditioning immediately makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. I look around rubbing my arms, but the main floor is open, and I can tell he’s not here. That leaves upstairs, the reference section. With a half wave to Mrs. Torch, our librarian, I grab a children’s book, which happens to be Curious George, off the nearest cart and trot up the stairs.

I find Ezra in the local history room, poring through a big, dark blue binder. Losing my nerve, I turn to leave.

The creak of the door as I open it makes him spin around. “What are you doing here?” A cold, assessing gaze replaces his welcoming grin.

I wave the book in the air. “I wanted to pick something up for my brother to read.” God, Brett would kill me if he knew I was claiming he’d read a Curious George book. No self-respecting preteen would read those books.

“Up in the reference section?”

My cheeks burn. “I thought I saw you up here,” I blurt. “So I wanted to say hi. Never mind, it was a stupid idea.” I turn to go. “I’ll leave you alone now.”

“Wait. This might actually be a good thing.” He gestures for me to come closer. “You’ve lived here most of your life, right?”

I take a tentative step closer. “Yeah. We moved here when I was six or seven, I think.”

“Maybe you can help me research, then.”

“What are you looking for?”

He turns the book so I can look at the pages. “Stuff on shipwrecks, the lighthouse, that sort of thing.”

Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this. “The lighthouse? Why do you want to know about that?”

Embarrassment tinges his cheeks. “Haven’t you heard of all the weird things that happen around there and out in the bay? What about the huge fence that surrounds the lighthouse? That’s pretty strange.”

I arch one eyebrow. “This is a small town and small towns are known for being strange. I’ve heard the people who own the property like their privacy.”

A fevered light enters his eyes. “But what if it’s more than that? It could be a secret government base, or an underground lab. It could be the headquarters for a drug cartel for all we know.”

I laugh. “I think we’d know that by now, if that was it. But, hey, I guess it’s possible.”

“Fine.” He scowls at me. “If you’re not going to help, you can just leave.”

His brusque tone tells me I’ve struck a nerve. “Is that the real reason you moved here?”

He fidgets in his seat. “I’ve always been interested in weird stuff. We came here a lot when I was growing up, and I always wanted to come back.”

I set the Curious George book on a cart of books that need to be reshelved and take the seat across from him. “What can I do to help?”

“Don’t you need to get back to the diner?”

I pull out my phone and text my mom. Are you busy? If not, can I go to the library?  “I doubt it. We don’t usually get that busy this late.”

My phone beeps. Knock yourself out.

“There,” I say, and stuff the phone back in my pocket. “All set.”

Ezra intrigues me, and if I’m honest with myself, there are worse ways to spend an evening. At least it gets my mind off Dad.

A real grin transforms his face. “Did you know before they made this room part of the general reference section, it was set aside as a place to commemorate those who’ve died in shipwrecks in the Great Lakes?”

“No, I guess I never paid that much attention. I’ve only been up here once in middle school.” Like all the other kids, this stuff bores the hell out of me.

“Check this out.” He thumbs through the plastic-covered pages until he finds one labeled Misery Bay. It’s under the Lake Huron tab and written in old-fashioned news script. Names and dates stretch down the side of the page until 1915, after which there are only a few shipwrecks listed.

“Wow.” My fingers hover over the faded ink.

“That’s when they built the lighthouse.” Ezra taps the list. “I guess it was pretty dangerous to sail these waters before that.”

I scan the page again. There’re so many dates, it must be a mistake. “I never would have thought they had that much trouble out there.”

Ezra thumbs through the pages until he stops and carefully turns the book toward me. “Take a look. This is one of the wrecks.”

I lean over and peer at the grainy black-and-white picture. A boat of some sort juts halfway out of the water, its mast snapped in half. Pieces of wood float around the hull, and an oily coating has turned the water black. “How’d it sink?”

He shrugs. “No one knows. The bay isn’t particularly shallow. Some sailors compared it to the Bermuda Triangle. A place that defies explanation. Boats tend to sink here. It’s weird. Misery Bay isn’t on any shipping routes. Several of the survivors said that when they got close to the mouth of the bay, all their navigational equipment malfunctioned.” He flips the page to another picture. This one has a trio of bedraggled men standing before what looks like the wreckage of a ship. “One account even mentioned the sailors heard singing.”

“Crazy. They must have been out on the water for too long.” I remember the voices I used to hear out in the woods. Mom always used to say I had an overactive imagination; maybe the sailors had that, too.

“This one’s the Good Mother Mary. She was carrying food and other supplies to a trading post when she sunk. That was all they could salvage.” Ezra’s fingers graze the photograph.

“They never found out why it sunk?”

“No.” He flips the page. “It didn’t stop until Isaac Stanford commissioned the lighthouse to be built.” He taps another picture. In this one, a cluster of people stand in front of a new lighthouse. The men are all smiling and have their arms thrown around one another’s shoulders. Most of the image is grainy but clear enough to see the happy exhaustion on their faces.

“Do the Stanfords still own the property?”

A troubled look crosses Ezra’s face. “I don’t know. The records just kind of disappeared. From what I can tell, I think they do. I just don’t know for sure.” He hesitates, as if considering his next words. “Do you think your mom might know?”

I flip through a couple more pages. “I could ask her, but now isn’t the best time.” My heart lodges in my throat as what little distance, what little respite, I’d felt, collapses. Should I tell him? I’ve only known Ezra for a few hours. He doesn’t want to hear about my problems, he has enough of his own.

“My dad left, and my mom’s kind of a mess over it.” Understatement of the century, but I can’t tell the truth. If I do, he’ll ask questions. Questions I don’t have answers for.

He squeezes my hand. “I’m sorry about that. My parents split up, too.”

I wave him off. If only that were all. “No, it’s all right, really. It’s just . . . I don’t know. I don’t want to bother her, not with everything else going on.” I don’t tell him how my life feels like a nightmare I can’t wake up from, no matter how hard I blink.

“Wait.” Understanding dawns in his eyes. “Your dad was Greg Gillet? As in the guy from the newspaper?”

Crap. “Yeah. That’s us.”

“I’m sorry. If you want to talk, I’m here.”

The compassion in his eyes tells me he does understand, at least a little bit, what’s going on.

“If you want something to take your mind off things, I’d love the help.”

“Um, sure.” It’s not like I have anything better to do right now. Besides, this stuff’s pretty interesting.

“Awesome.” He flicks through the pages before handing it to me. “I found this one yesterday.”

April 17, 1861.

It was after dawn when I saw a vicious sea monster rolling in the waves. It reared its monstrous head to attack but fled when we fired our weapons.

“This one, too.”

September 7, 1865.

Just after darkness fell, a strange creature attacked our ship. It rocked our boat so badly we almost capsized. In the morning, we found four deep gouges along the hull.

“Holy crap,” I mutter. This can’t be real. Maybe the sailors hallucinated or got the location wrong. We don’t live in Scotland, so Nessie’s out.

Ezra chuckles. “Yeah, that’s what I thought the first time I saw those, too. Honestly, though, I think there’s more going on here than what you can see on the surface.”

“Yeah, right,” I scoff. “I’ve lived here all my life. If there were monsters here, I’d know about it.”

“Maybe.” Ezra gazes out the narrow window at the quiet street below. “But don’t small towns often harbor the biggest secrets?”

He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Misery Bay isn’t like that. What happened to Dad is one of those freak accidents. He probably fell and hit his head running away from whoever killed the reporter and got amnesia. He’ll wander into town, and then he’ll remember what happened, just wait. “How do you know all this?”

Ezra shrugs. “I don’t have Internet at my uncle’s house, so I come here instead.” A wry smile tugs his lips. “I never knew how much I took technology for granted until I didn’t have it anymore.”

I study him with new respect. “That’s pretty impressive. I don’t know how I’d live without my cell phone.”

He shrugs. “I’ve been planning to leave for a couple of years now, which is plenty long enough to get all the logistics figured out.”

I muse at how miserable his life must have been that he had been plotting his escape for such a long time.

He returns to his seat and gestures for me to take mine. “Okay. I told you why I was here; how about you tell me your real reason for being in the library. I don’t buy the book thing one bit.” He jerks his head at the kid’s book.

Heat rushes to my cheeks, so I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “The police said some pretty interesting things about my dad when they were questioning us this morning.”

He sits up in his chair, the look on his face telling me he wasn’t expecting that. “How so?”

I chew on my bottom lip and wonder how much I should tell him. “They said they ran a background check on him and his family, and they couldn’t find anything from before thirty years ago. I was wondering if there might be something here, like a natural disaster or something that would explain that.”

“Huh.” He smiles. “That actually makes sense. Here I thought you were following me.”

I let my hair fall in front of my face to hide my embarrassment.

“Let’s see what we can find.”

For the next couple of hours, we search Misery Bay’s archives from 1980 to 1995 but don’t find anything that might explain how Dad’s family appeared out of thin air.

“That is strange.” He closes the last book. “Did you know your grandparents on your father’s side very well?”

I rifle through my memory but only vague smiling faces greet me. “They died when I was pretty young. My sister never even got to meet them.” I shrug. “For some reason we weren’t that close to them. They moved to Alpena, which is about half an hour away, and lived in an old house outside of town.”

“I got it!” Ezra snaps his fingers, a speculative look lighting up his face. “Maybe they abducted him from another state and then moved here. How old would he have been?”

I try to do the math. “Thirty years ago? Ten, twelve, maybe a bit older. Don’t people mostly kidnap babies and little kids?”

“Yeah, but they could have been on the run the whole time and finally landed in Misery Bay. It should be easy enough to research.” He types furiously into a computer and pulls up nationwide cold cases from around the time my dad would have been born.

Ezra must be crazy. My grandparents weren’t kidnappers. People who steal kids are evil. I’m sure Dad would have somehow figured it out if they’d abducted him from somewhere.

“You can’t assume he has the right birthdate, either, so let’s check the surrounding years.” He types for a while longer but eventually stops and shakes his head. “Huh. There doesn’t seem to be anything that matches up.”

I feel a sinking sensation in my chest. This can’t be happening. There must be some logical explanation for it. Maybe things got lost when newspapers started using the internet. It was over thirty years ago, after all.

Ezra puts his hand on mine. “That’s not to say it didn’t happen; maybe it wasn’t recorded.”

I drop my gaze to the table, the loss of my father clawing at me. “I just want him home. That’s all. He has to have some explanation for what happened, and . . .” A sob catches in the back of my throat and racks my shoulders.

“Hey, hey, it’s all right.” Ezra awkwardly puts his arm around my shoulders and tugs me close for a hug. “He’ll show up. I’m sure of it.”