As she nervously awaits the birth of her daughter, journalist Charlie Cates has better things to do than pine for the woman who abandoned her decades earlier. Yet when her estranged mother turns up dead in Arizona with a sister Charlie never knew she had, Charlie must confront her own painful family history...and face the child left behind. A child who speaks to Charlie in her dreams. A child who was present on the night of the murders. A child with no one else to turn to.
Led by her mysterious gift--a supernatural ability to connect to both the future and the past through dreams and visions--Charlie travels to Tucson and soon unearths new clues about the unsolved double homicide. The search for answers will take her on a hair-raising journey across the Mexican border, from the resort town of Rocky Point to the impoverished border town of Nogales. But time is running out. Haunted by dreams of her unborn child's death, Charlie is forced to grapple with the most frightening question of all: Does seeing the future give you any power to change it?
A gripping, nightmarish thriller set in the heat of the Sonoran Desert, The Shimmering Road takes on racial politics, corruption, and the complexities of motherhood, while delivering plenty of chills.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
The dream begins with water, always water.
I'm awash in indistinct shapes and hues, anchored only by the feel of it: a warm and steady spray against my back, soothing in its measured patter. Then the colors sharpen, take form, like the lens of a camera adjusting its focus.
Walls of concrete block, painted white, peeling. A metal rod from which a flimsy cloth curtain hangs. Exposed piping. A shower head.
I'm standing on blue and yellow tile, naked, drenched. The floor dips beneath me towards a drain, but the gathering water can't escape quickly enough. It pools around my ankles, soothing my tired feet.
I close my eyes. Roll my head gently from side to side, release the tension in my shoulders. Thoughts of the outside world buzz at the edge of my mind in an angry swarm, but I push them away. Allow myself to occupy only this moment, to be wholly present in my body, which is no longer mine alone. I run a hand over the swelling curve of my abdomen and smile at the answering kick.
I'm going to be a mother, I think. Going to put the ugly past behind me, and build a future with this child.
Despite my worn surroundings, I feel clean. My body is full of life and hope and promise. I stretch my arms luxuriously above my head, enjoying the weight of my growing baby, the sensation of running water against my face and heavy breasts.
It never occurs to me that we’re not alone.
The sound cuts through everything, the falling water, my sense of calm, my belly. A loud pop, like a firework going off behind me. And I can feelit.
I stumble backwards, clutching my stomach, suddenly struggling to breathe. I don’t fully grasp what’s happening until I see the blood swelling from beneath my hands.
I’ve been hit. She’s been hit.
Two more pops. A pressure in my chest, a burning. Now I’m drowning in the dark, trying to break through, swimming, swimming, until the water becomes blankets and my lungs at last find air.
When I awake, find myself in the safety of my own bedroom once more, there's a wave of relief, intense and fleeting. That dream again, I think. Still, I reach down and touch my belly, waiting for some movement, some sign that my baby's okay. Only after I've felt her lazy swish within me do I relax.
She's fine, I reassure myself, and so are you. The dream hasn't come true.
But another, darker part of me knows I can't rest easy. Not yet, it tells me. Not yet.
I know, long before Noah parks in the newly paved, double car driveway, that this is not a house I want to own. The upscale brick exterior and sharp white trim, the springy green lawn, the sprawling garage—it’s so cookie-cutter cute, so ready for its spot on HGTV. So beautiful, if I were being fair, but I’m not.
As they say in real estate, location, location, location.
After watching me shoot down a dozen other properties that looked exactly like this one, Noah can’t have high hopes, but he puts on a good face nevertheless. “This is one of Sidalie’s best neighborhoods,” he says, and then, noting my wrinkled nose, adds, “Would you at least keep an open mind?”
Our realtor, who has been waiting in her gleaming Grand Cherokee, now rushes over to meet us. “Hey there, honey!” Brandi exclaims, her eyes barely meeting mine before they settle on my pregnant belly. “Look at you! Must be getting close now, Charlotte!”
“She’s thirty-two weeks,” Noah beams, with that can-you-believe-it expression that older women so adore in an expectant father.
Brandi is no exception. “Aw, now, isn’t he precious? You’ve got a proud daddy-to-be right here. I love it!”
Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside. In the past few months of house-hunting, I’ve grown rather fond of her. When not raving about architectural features, she’s dishing about the details of her daughter’s upcoming wedding, and if these extravagant nuptials aren’t my style, I admire how much she cares. I can only imagine what it would be like to have a mother so invested in my life.
“I just can’t wait to show you this property,” Brandi gushes. “Light, airy, great yard, practically brand new. And plenty of room to expand the family!” She gives me a little wink, as if multiplying is the secret desire of every woman.
I grin. She must be seriously underestimating my age. At thirty-nine, I have no intention of “expanding the family.” In point of fact, Noah and I were blindsided by this pregnancy, and if our nascent relationship has thus far absorbed the shock and left us eager for our daughter’s arrival, it’s more a function of luck than careful planning.
Brandi’s tour goes over about as well as the last twelve. Noah likes the place, and I don't. At 3,500 square feet, the house is absurdly large—“Texas-sized!” as Brandi said with a laugh. It also possesses the same characteristics as every other property we’ve seen, which I can by now recite along with her: crown molding, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, master bath with his-and-her sinks, a pool, a two-car garage. I feel a twinge of homesickness. Flawless, voluminous real estate at ridiculously affordable prices? This is not my world. .
“And there’s an underground sprinkler system,” Brandi tells me, as if this is the item that I’ve been missing, the one that will close the deal.
I move through the house, nodding politely at the right intervals, but when she warns us that the bathroom attached to the garage “needs some work,” my body kicks into high alert. Could it be? The shower from my dream with the blue and yellow tile? Surely not in a house this nice.
Noah glances at me, one eyebrow raised. He knows exactly where my mind has gone, and he’s right there with me. Since my nightmare began a month ago, we’ve both kept an eye out for sketchy-looking showers, approached every unfamiliar restroom with caution.
My dreams are not like other people’s. They show me things.
“What kind of work does the bathroom need, exactly?” I ask Brandi.
“The sink is stained,” she admits. “I think the previous owner washed out some paintbrushes there. It’s just a half-bath, and I’m sure you’d never use it, but I know how particular you are.”
Half-bath. That means no shower. Noah gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Well?” Brandi asks me, when we’ve completed the walkthrough. “What did you think?”
“It’s just so…big.”
“These New York City girls.” Noah shakes his head. “You finally give ‘em room to breathe, and they don’t know what to do with it.”
Brandi laughs. “I can see that!” She puts a hand on my shoulder, preparing to dispense helpful advice. “It seems big now, Charlotte, but you’ll want all this space once your baby comes. Children have a way of shrinking a home, you’ll see.”
Her all-knowing smile gets to me. I can feel my hormones flaring up—it doesn’t take much these days. “Thanks for the tip, Brandi, but this isn’t my first house. Or my first child.”
“Oh no? I thought—”
“I had a son. He died last summer.”
I regret mentioning Keegan the moment the words pass my lips. Though pregnancy regularly brings his loss to the forefront of my mind, I recognize that he’s a delicate subject as far as others are concerned. People never know what to say about the death of a child. Even the perennially perky Brandi looks thrown off guard.
“I—had no idea,” she stammers. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Noah puts a hand on my waist and nudges me toward the door. He knows this house is a lost cause. “Thank you so much, Brandi, for showin’ us the place,” he says. “We’ll give it some thought.”
“Of course,” she agrees, ready to get me out of here. “Y’all just call if you’d like another showing.”
Back in the car, Noah makes no mention of the house or Brandi Babcock, but I can feel his disappointment. I stare out the window at all the shiny new houses of Sidalie, knowing how desperate Noah is to own one, wishing I could share in his enthusiasm.
“Maybe we should put house-hunting on the back burner for a while,” Noah suggests. “The baby’s coming soon. We don’t need the extra stress right now.”
I grab my water bottle from the center console and take a long drink. “That’s probably a good idea. To table the search for a bit.”
He doesn’t address the thing we both know. That I don’t ever want to buy a house in Sidalie. That I’ll use every possible excuse to avoid putting down roots here.
Our living situation will remain in a holding pattern for now, the month-by-month lease on our apartment a tenuous compromise that can’t last forever. I see his plan, of course, as clearly as he sees mine. He’s hoping that, with patience, he can wear me down, that Sidalie will grow on me like a slow fungus, consuming my resistance bit by bit until I capitulate.
It’s a battle he may very well win. I know what having a baby does to a person. Odds are good I’ll be too tired to fight him once our daughter’s here. Sooner or later, I’ll stop struggling and submit. Resign myself to living someone else’s life, a life I had no hand in choosing.
On our way home, we stop at a Walgreens to pick up more pre-natal vitamins. What should be a three-minute errand quickly blows up when Noah is accosted in the parking lot by a plump brunette.
“Noah?!” She has platform sandals and a rock that could probably feed an African village for a year. “Oh my gosh, how are you?”
I know the drill by now. She’s either one of his landscaping clients, which would be fine, or someone he knows through his ex-wife, which would be awkward.
It’s Option B.
“I can’t believe I ran into you,” the brunette says. “I was just thinking of you guys the other day. I told Tim, we should invite Carmen and her husband over. It’s been way too long.”
One would think, given the number of times he’s been in this exact scenario, that Noah would have developed a more suave approach. That he’d learn to tell the truth straight off, mention his divorce directly instead of pussy-footing.
True to form, he gets that deer-in-the-headlights look and begins rubbing the back of his neck.
“Wow,” he says. “Yeah. You and Tim—it’s been a while.”
“Right? But our son is finally sleeping through the night now, so we’re, like, trying to have a social life again. Where are you guys living now?” Somehow the brunette remains totally oblivious to the immensely pregnant woman at Noah’s side. She probably thinks I’m a relative. They always do. “You moved, right? I drove by your old house a few months ago, and the lawn was a mess. I knew that couldn’t be your place, haha.”
“Yeah, Carmen and I, uh, sold the house,” he says, still failing to introduce me. I feel like a giant piece of furniture, a poorly positioned piano or clumsy table that Noah’s always trying to get around. “I’m in an apartment right now. Not sure where I’ll go next.”
She misses his meaning entirely. “Knowing Carmen, you’ll probably end up in Houston living, like, a block from her office. What’s the big plan? Partner at the firm by thirty-five?”
Noah scratches his head. “That’s her plan,” he says. “And you’re right, actually. She did get a place in Houston. I think she’s…doin’ okay. From what I hear.”
At last, it dawns on the brunette. Her mouth drops open. Her eyes bug. Suddenly she sees me, really sees me, and I know she’s jumping to a number of unfavorable conclusions. “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed. Did you and Carmen split up?”
“Yeah.” Noah looks apologetic, as if her bad manners and general cluelessness are somehow his fault. “We just reached a point…where it made sense.”
The woman stares at me, awaiting further explanation. She’s already decided that he was cheating, that I was his dirty little secret, that I probably leveraged my pregnancy to break up his marriage. All untrue, but how can one defend herself against unspoken accusations?
“This is Charlie, by the way.” Noah makes no other attempt at introduction, and after some stilted conversation, the brunette drifts away, her smile pinched with tacit disapproval.
I try not to take it personally. The woman was Carmen’s friend, after all. Whatever story Noah tells, her loyalties will always lie with his ex-wife. I don’t begrudge her that, don’t even blame Noah for his ineptitude, although just once, I’d love for him to brag on me instead of freezing up like a kid caught day-dreaming in class. This is my girlfriend, Charlotte Cates, he could say. She’s a journalist from New York. Did you know she has a book coming out next month?
But that might read as insensitive. There’s no winning here—unless you’re Carmen.
Though I’ve never met the hot shot lawyer who once shared Noah’s bed, I feel like I know her, quite intimately, in fact. Because it’s not just her ex-husband I’ve taken on. Somehow, unwittingly, I’ve inherited her life.
Sidalie isn’t a large town, and I can’t help but move in her shadow, fall into all of her and Noah’s old routines. I shop at her grocery store, dine at her favorite restaurants, receive her mail. Mrs. Noah Palmer, the envelopes say, and they’re not for me.
Carmen may have left Sidalie, but her family members remain tethered to Noah’s landscaping company. Two of her cousins work for Noah, and his lead landscape designer just happens to be Carmen’s little sister. Our uncomfortable encounter with the brunette is nothing compared to the stink-eye Cristina gives me on the rare occasion I stop by his office.
It’s not the life that I imagined when we left Louisiana together just a few months ago, ready to see where our relationship would take us. Things were easy then. I loved our time on the road: stopping to explore tiny towns, sleeping at whatever funky motel we might encounter, photographing every tacky roadside attraction. When we returned to Noah’s native Texas, I hoped that Sidalie would be another pit stop for us, a dot on the map where he tied up the loose ends of his business and then moved on, went somewhere new, built a life from nothing with me and our daughter.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
I don’t regret my choice to come here, exactly. After my son’s death, I needed a change of scene, and our day-to-day existence is, for the most part, a happy one. I only wish we had found a place for us, instead of trying to fit me into a place that is so clearly his. So clearly hers.
“Sorry about that, hon,” Noah mutters as we head into the store. “I don’t even remember that woman’s name. I think Carmen and I went bowlin’ with her once.”
I say nothing, just breeze through the aisles to the shelf of vitamins. Inside, though, I’m vindicated. That, I think, is why we’re not buying a house here. Ever.
Living in Sidalie means living with the ghost of Carmen, and if ghosts are not exactly an unfamiliar presence in my life, this is one phantom I can do without.
That night, as Noah refills my water, I hear a faint metallic clink against my glass.
I look up from my carton of lo mein. Half-eaten containers of Chinese food, crumpled napkins, and a pair of stained chopsticks litter the table. The only thing out of place in this gluttonous scene is the glinting object at the bottom of my water glass.
Beside me, Noah awaits my reaction with a goofy, hopeful grin. I love this man deeply, but he should know better. I exhale. Massage my temples.
“Oh, hon. I thought you finally stopped with the marriage stuff.”
“Come on, Charlie,” he urges me, his twang sweet and coaxing. “Just try it on.”
I peer down at the ring. Twirl a strand of lo mein with my chopstick.
“You really gonna be like that?” He sits back, his thick, sun-browned arms folded across his undershirt.
“I appreciate the gesture, I really do. But you know how I feel about marriage.”
“I know, I know.” His voice rises as he does his best impression of Charlie Being Unreasonable. “Real commitment is about more than a piece of paper,” he mimics. “I get it, already.” He sighs. “Would you just wear the ring? We don't have to go through a whole ceremony.”
“If it’s just for show, then what’s the point?”
“It’s not for show. It’s for our family. Our baby girl deserves a daddy who’s committed to her mama.”
I give him an affectionate pat. “She already has one.”
“Not accordin' to the rest of the world.” He rises from the table, thumbs hooked in the loops of his jeans. “People look at us, Charlie, they do. They look at you, they see we're not married, and then they look at me. And they wonder what kinda asshole I am.”
“That's what this is about?” I pick up a dumpling and dip it in soy sauce, not bothering to finish chewing before I speak. “You want to get married so people will stop looking at you? Noah, my wearing a wedding ring is not going to make that woman in the parking lot judge us any less.”
“Yeah.” He balls up a dirty napkin and tosses it into an empty container, defeated. “People have a long memory in this town.”
I reach into my glass with a chopstick and carefully fish out the ring. It's a simple solitaire diamond on a silvery band, probably platinum. Once upon a time, before my divorce, I would have loved this ring. But Eric cheated, and the divorce happened. My first marriage couldn't even make it to the four year mark. If I'm going to make mistakes in life, I'd at least like to make new ones.
I set the ring on the table. “I could put it on a chain,” I offer, trying to placate him. “Wear it as a necklace.”
“Doesn’t have quite the same meanin’ then, does it?”
“What do you want it to mean? We’re together, aren’t we? I’m here.”
“You’re here,” he says. “But sometimes I wonder how long.”
I give a rueful laugh. “I wonder the same thing about you. ‘How long is this man in Sidalie? When can we leave?’ I wonder that all the time.”
He comes up behind my chair and places his hands on my shoulders, his chin resting on top of my head. “I don’t have any family left, Charlie, none that counts. Don’t even have my dog—he’s Carmen’s now. A person’s gotta have somethin’ to anchor ’em. For me, it’s this town.”
How can one be mad at a guy who just wants to belong somewhere? As if sensing that he’s gaining ground, Noah sinks his thumbs into the tender muscles of my shoulders, slowly working out knots of tension. The man doesn’t play fair.
I wish I could provide him with the clan he feels he lacks, but the fact is I’ve never had much in the way of family myself. A drug-addicted mother who left when I was too young to remember, an alcoholic father who died when I was fourteen, an aunt and cousins I never see. And while Noah loves my grandmother, the formidable woman who stepped in to raise me, Grandma’s eighty-eight years old. She doesn’t have a lot of time left.
Just one more way that Carmen outshines me. She had a tribe with Sunday dinners, nieces and nephews, an abuela who harassed them every weekend about their baby-making plans. I have no one.
I wipe my mouth and push away the rest of the food. “I know you’re attached to Sidalie,” I tell him. “I get it. Sometimes I miss New York like crazy. At the end of the day, though, there’s nothing really keeping us here.”
“My company’s in Sidalie,” he reminds me. “I have forty guys dependin’ me for a salary. After all the years they’ve given me, you really think I can just walk away?”
“Yes, I do! You have millions of dollars lying around in a bank account you’ve never touched. You could pay those guys a lifetime of wages, and just go.”
His face clouds over at the mention of his inheritance. “I don’t want that money,” he says flatly. “I’d just as soon burn it. It won’t bring my father back.” These days, we don’t talk much about what happened in Louisiana, but in the battle for Most Dysfunctional Family History, I’d have to say he’s winning. “If it’s the money you’re after, woman, you better take off right now.”
The accusation of gold-digging is a joke, of course. I just sold my house in Connecticut; I’m sitting on plenty of cash. In truth, you couldn’t pay me enough to stay in Sidalie. Only the heart would stick this one out.
I follow him down the hall into the bedroom, watch him strip off his jeans and undershirt He deposits his clothing into the hamper (the man can be taught) before flopping onto our bed. His body, taut and tan from all the hours spent at work outdoors, both entices and discourages me. How can I keep up with that? He’ll never have to worry about stretchmarks, baby fat, or C-section scars.
“You comin'?” He holds his arms out as if I might tumble into them. “It’s gettin’ late.”
“I don't want to sleep yet.” I linger in the doorway, not quite meeting his eye. Noah lifts his head, and I don't have to say a word. He understands.
“You can't stay awake forever, baby,” he says. “I know you're scared you'll have that dream again, but sooner or later, you gotta get your Zs.”
“It's just a dream, no matter how many times you have it.”
I stare down at my protruding navel and bite my lip. Neither one of us believes that, not completely. I’ve been seeing myself die in a shower since the end of June, and if experience means anything, that’s no accident. “Anytime I see something, it either happened or it's going to happen,” I murmur. “You know that.”
“This is different,” Noah insists, settling himself beneath the sheets. “Those were dreams about children. This one's about you, about our baby. I read that What to Expect book. They said lots of pregnant women have weird dreams, that it’s just hormones.”
“Maybe,” I say, because beneath his calm exterior, I know he's scared. Losing me, losing his baby daughter—this sudden, unexpected blessing we've both upended our lives to accommodate—is an idea too terrible for him to contemplate.
“I'll go to bed in a minute,” I tell him lightly. “Just let me clean up the kitchen a little.”
He gives a grunt of assent. Rolls onto his stomach, face squished against the pillow in his signature sleep pose.
Now the only one awake, I'm lonesome. There's a lump in my throat as I clear the table of my remaining Chinese takeout. I repackage the leftover dumplings, slip packets of soy sauce and spicy mustard into a kitchen drawer of items I will never use but can't seem to throw away. The ring remains on the table, a shiny and expensive reminder of our disparate goals for the future.
Suddenly I want to cry. Whether it's the dream, my life in Sidalie, or simply a wave of aftershock from the changes I've experienced in the last year, I don't know. I sit down at the table and crack open a fortune cookie, taking a few bites of the tasteless, hard shell before I read the message inside: Love takes practice.
That's it. I burst into nonsensical tears. I am officially a giant, pregnant disaster.
What am I doing here, anyway? Living month to month in this impersonal little apartment, refusing to purchase a more permanent home or solidify our future together in any meaningful way—why did I come to Sidalie at all if I wasn't in it to win it?
Noah's a good guy. He doesn't deserve all my moods and personality flaws, the sudden bursts of grief for my lost son worsened by baby hormones. Noah didn't ask for an accidental pregnancy to rock his life, didn't ask for his fling with some Yankee woman to permanently alter his existence just months after his divorce.
Except, I realize as my eyes fall again on the ring, he is asking for it.
I set the ring down in the palm of my right hand. Touch the diamond with my index finger. It's both solid and delicate, beautiful yet hard, a lump of coal shaped by the earth's pressure into something strong and dazzling. I can't wear it, of course, won't let myself get sucked into all that, but I don't want Noah to return the ring, either. I open the drawer of items I can't quite throw away and tuck it in amongst the old phone chargers, hotel soap, and rubber bands.
He’s right. I’ve got to get some sleep.
I head back to our room and climb into bed with him. Begin the elaborate arrangement of pillows that must occur each night before I can sleep on this belly.
From his side of the bed, Noah lets out one sudden, single snore, a noise that sounds remarkably like the low setting of our blender. I feel a rush of tenderness towards him and, almost immediately after, guilt.
“I'm trying to be happy here,” I whisper into the dark. “I’m really trying.”
I turn on my side. Close my eyes. Stroke my belly and whisper, “Good night, baby girl.”
I awaken a little after 1 AM, the need to pee as insistent as an alarm. It will be nice, I think, when I no longer have a small person pressing against my bladder 24/7. I roll heavily out of bed and pad down the hallway to the bathroom.
The apartment is quiet except for the low groan of the air conditioner. You'd never know we have a lot of neighbors; Sunview Apartments are inhabited by polite and sensible people who wouldn't dream of making a peep after 9 PM on a weeknight. For a moment I miss New York, the feeling that somewhere there's a diner, a bar, an all-night pharmacy still open and populated by a community of fellow insomniacs. But who am I kidding? I'm not in my twenties. I'm pushing forty, and I'd resigned myself to a quiet suburban existence in Connecticut years before I met Noah. My reservations about Sidalie have nothing to do with the town itself and everything to do with Noah’s history here.
Moments later, I stumble out of the bathroom, still half asleep. The moon is high and full as it floods through the skylight, and for a second, I think it's playing tricks on me, casting eerie shadows on the carpet that weren't there when I entered the bathroom two minutes ago.
But they aren't shadows, I realize, as I peer down at the trail of dark and blotchy spots. Suddenly I'm awake, far more awake than I want to be. I take a few steps closer, the back of my neck tingling as I realize what I'm looking at.
Footprints. Very small footprints, and they're heading for our living room.
I sink down to the floor in an awkward, pregnant squat and gingerly reach out to touch one of the prints. It's thick and wet on my fingers, the smell metallic yet sweet. Blood.
It's not real, I think, but it doesn't matter. I'm already disappearing. Losing myself, giving in to that sweet, dark pull. Around me, the ceiling drops and the walls shift noiselessly, forming a new space. The carpet dissolves beneath my feet, turns to cheap vinyl tile.
The footprints are still there, glistening in the dark. I'm in someone else's apartment, a place that smells of stale smoke and some kind of floral air freshener. A pile of Barbies clutters the floor, bodies contorted into odd shapes, one doll missing a head. I navigate past crayons, an adult-sized pair of flip flops, an empty water bottle. On the wall, I see a mirror with a shiny metal frame shaped like a sun. I note my own reflection as I walk past, silvery and ghost-like, lips parted, my eyes unnaturally bright.
The footprints continue through a living area to a partially open sliding glass door. I step outside, barely able to make out a small patio. Beyond, the land drops off into an indigo void. All that blue seems to ripple and blur around me, and I think that I’m underwater at first, weedy plant life swaying in the current. Then the air stills. I see the jagged lines of distant mountains, realize it’s not ocean flora that I’m looking at, but cactus, their plump limbs reaching upward, grasping at the low-hanging sliver of moon.
I hear panting. A whimper. Someone's out there.
I scan the desert landscape until I spot something moving: a shadowy, huddled mass by an immense cactus. The figure seems to sense me, pausing before rising.
A little girl. Chubby, with a mess of tangled black hair, her body quivering like a rabbit. She stares straight at me, half-frightened, half-hopeful, and I have no idea if she's alive or dead.
Mama? she calls, and when I don't respond, she tries again. Mama?
I'm not your mama, I tell her.
The night is hot with no wind, yet I find myself shivering. In the blackness of the night sky, the moon seems to shudder.
I want my mama, the girl says, her voice wavering. Please. I want my mom.
I think of my own son, just four years old when he died of a sudden brain aneurysm. Did he utter these same words as I raced to join him at the hospital?
Tell me who you are, I say. Tell me what you need me to do.
She tilts her face to the sky and lets out a low, animal-like keening, to me or God or maybe just the desert moon, I don't know. I feel her cry, an almost physical thing squeezing at my chest, my heart.Then she's silent, just a small slip of girl against the vast, empty desert.
Above us, the slice of moon swells to fullness. A single crimson flower spreads across its surface in a disturbing, bloody bloom.
I need to go to her. Need to do something. I leave the patio, take a few quick strides in her direction, but she’s gone now. The desert, too, has vanished.
A mound of blankets, that’s all that remains. White blankets with long, dark strands of hair spilling from its folds. She’s in there, I know she’s in there. I must unwrap her. Must see what I don’t want to see.
The moment I extend my hand, I feel a jolt. My body hits a wall.
I stumble back, aware that the desert and the child wrapped in blankets have been replaced by my own moonlit living room and the very solid wall that I've just tried to walk through.
I rub my head. The room is spinning, my head and shoulder shooting pain. I feel a series of sharp, irritated kicks from within as my daughter protests this rude awakening.
The carpet is clean. No sign of bloody footprints.
Am I sleepwalking through my visions now? Wandering through my apartment in some altered state and crashing into walls? Not an encouraging development, Charlie.
But at least I'm not dreaming an ugly future for my baby again. She's alive. I'm alive. That has to count for something.
I find my way back to the bedroom, lumber into bed and begin arranging pillows the best I can, though my hands are unsteady. Sooner or later, that little girl will surface in my waking life, possibly dead. That seems to be how it works.
Noah's still out, absorbed in the kind of deep, untroubled sleep I always envy. For once, I follow his example. Perhaps I've finally grown accustomed to these dreams or perhaps my physical exhaustion is greater than my anxiety. It doesn't take long to fall asleep again, and when I do, I'm out until the morning.
Noah is already up and showering for work when I awake. Inside the kitchen, I find a pot of decaf coffee waiting for me like a love note. I pour myself a mug, mentally organizing my day. Book promo stuff, mostly, and a magazine article I need to finish.
Over on the counter, my phone begins to vibrate. Not a New York number and not local, either. I answer anyway, bracing myself for a telemarketer.
“Charlie?” The familiar Boston accent doesn't bother with the r in my name. “It's your Aunt Suzie.”
“Suzie! Hi…” A phone call from my aunt is a rare occurrence, and generally not a harbinger of anything good. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really.” She launches unceremoniously into the reason for contacting me. “I got a call this morning from the Tucson Police Department. Donna's dead.”
“Donna,” she says. “Your mother.”
I grip the handle of my mug, curiously numb. I haven't heard a thing about my mother in decades, haven't known where she was or what she might be doing, and I'm not sure I want to know these things. For all intents and purposes, I’ve excised her from my family tree. More accurately: she excised herself.
“My mother's dead? In Arizona?” Given what I've heard about her propensity for addiction, I'm amazed the woman survived this long. I'd always sort of assumed that she'd overdosed years ago.
“The cops found her at her daughter's place.” From her blasé delivery, you’d think my aunt was discussing an electric bill. “Somebody shot 'em both.”
“I didn't even know Donna had a daughter. Besides me, I mean.” Without thinking, I take a mouthful of steaming coffee and burn my mouth. “That's so…you’re saying somebody just came in and shot them?”
“The police think it's drug-related,” Suzie informs me. “No surprise there. A real shame Donna took her own kid down with her, though. I always said you were better off without her.”
“The daughter,” I begin, “did she—”
“They're both dead. Pretty ugly business from what the officer told me.”
“Jesus. That's crazy.” I'm not sure what to do with any of this information, how I'm supposed to feel about losing family members I never really had. In truth, I don’t feel much of anything, just detached recognition that in the contest for Most Dysfunctional Family History, Noah and I may now be running even. “So…are you going to fly out there? To Tucson?”
Suzie snorts. “I haven't had a relationship with Donna in almost forty years. Too late now.”
“Yeah.” I'm relieved to hear this is just a courtesy call, not an appeal to explore a portion of my gene pool that I’d rather ignore. “Well...thanks for letting me know.”
“There's one thing,” she says. “I probably shouldn't even bring it up, not with you expecting, but...” She sighs. “There's a kid. Donna's granddaughter. She was in the house the night it happened.”
I have a sudden flash of the girl in the desert, the bloody footprints, the cries for mama. And the blankets, dark hair spilling from white folds. My body goes cold.
“What happened to her? The little girl, is she alive?”
“She's all right,” Suzie confirms. “Child Protective Services have got her in a foster home for now. But they always go chasing after the family in these situations, looking for someone to take the kid. And I guess there's no dad in the picture, so.”
The image of that little girl, her bloody footprints, hangs over me, more awful now that I understand. She must have found her mother dead in that apartment. Found Donna, too. But why appear to me? What good could I possibly do, unless—
“You don't think Child Protective Services will come to me, do you?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” my aunt says. “They’re gonna be all over you. Just don't let them guilt you into anything. You and me both know Donna was a piece of shit. You don't owe her jack. But I figured, you know, better warn you what's coming.”
“Thanks,” I mumble, and find some quick excuse to get off the phone.
I'm not your mama, I told the girl, and it's true. But by some strange accident of blood, I'm her aunt. Does that matter?
Usually, when strange children whisper to me in dreams, I have no qualms about helping. That’s how I met Noah, in fact—rushing to the aid of some mystery boy. But this child is different. An echo of a life I never lived. Tangible proof of a woman I’d rather forget.
The urge to walk away is overwhelming.
Still processing it all, I drift down the hall in search of Noah. I find him in the bathroom, toweling off after his shower. His close-cropped dark hair sprays me with a few errant drops as I enter. I can smell the sandalwood soap he uses, a familiar, masculine odor, and suddenly I want to bury my face in his neck and promise him that house in Sidalie.
“What's goin' on?” Noah correctly deduces something's amiss from my knit eyebrows.
“I don't know,” I murmur. “I think...” I stare at the bathroom floor, trying to mentally work my way around this one, but there's only one conclusion I can draw, no matter how I attack it. “I think we need to go to Tucson.”
Excerpted from "The Shimmering Road"
Copyright © 2018 Hester Young.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does Charlie evolve over the course of the novel? What new information and experiences shape her? If you have read the first Charlie Cates book, The Gates of Evangeline, how has Charlie changed since then?
2. What is the significance of the book’s title and why do you think it was chosen? What exactly is the “shimmering road”?
3. Compare Charlie and her mother, Donna. As the plot unfolds and more of Donna’s character is illuminated, what similarities between the two come to light? How does your perception of Donna change throughout the book, and why?
4. Discuss the roles of race and class in this novel. Much of this novel takes place along the Mexican border, replete with the messy politics of that territory. How might this novel be different if it took place in another region of the country?
5. Charlie goes to great, even dangerous, lengths to save a child she barely knows. How does this book challenge norms of the conventional nuclear family? How does Charlie’s role as the mother of her own child differ from her role as the mother of her adopted child? What does The Shimmering Road tell us about human connection in the face of adversity?
6. What can you take away from The Shimmering Road about the many hurdles associated with adoption and immigration?
7. Donna, Jasmine, Pam, Teresa, and Marilena each demonstrate some form of personal strength. What kinds of challenges in life has each character faced, and how have they responded? Did you admire any of these characters? Why or why not?
8. Charlie is deeply unsettled by the poverty she sees in Mexico, but wonders about her ability as an individual to help. Do you think one person can have a positive impact on the world? How? What are actions that a single individual can take against problems like poverty or corruption?
9. Charlie’s dreams and visions lead her on a high-stakes journey to justice. Think about your dreams and how you react to them the following day. Have you ever been influenced by a dream, even subliminally? How do your dreams influence your actions?
10. In this spooky thriller, everyone is a suspect. Were you surprised by the ending? What mechanisms and clues does the story employ to create suspense and surprise?