Mon
Feb 29 2016 3:30pm

The Singing Bone: New Excerpt

Beth Hahn

The Singing Bone by Beth Hahn is a spellbinding examination of guilt, innocence, and the fallibility of memory, a richly imagined novel that heralds the arrival of a remarkable new voice in literary suspense (Available March 1, 2016).

1979: Seventeen-year-old Alice Pearson can’t wait to graduate from high school so she can escape the small town in upstate New York where she grew up. In the meantime, she and her friends avoid their dysfunctional families while getting high in the woods. There they meet the enigmatic Jack Wyck, who lives in the rambling old farmhouse across the reservoir. Enticed by his quasi-mystical philosophy and the promise of a constant party, Alice and her friends join Mr. Wyck’s small group of devoted followers. But their heady, freewheeling idyll takes an increasingly sinister turn, as Alice finds herself crossing moral and emotional boundaries that erode her hold on reality. When Mr. Wyck’s grand scheme goes wrong, culminating in a night of horrific violence, Alice is barely able to find her way back to sanity.

Twenty years later, Alice Wood has created a quiet life for herself as a professor of folklore, but an acclaimed filmmaker threatens to expose her past with a documentary about Jack Wyck’s crimes and the cult-like following he continues to attract from his prison cell. Wyck has never forgiven Alice for testifying against him, and as he plots to overturn his conviction and regain his freedom, she is forced to confront the truth about what happened to her in the farmhouse—and her complicity in the evil around her.

April 1979

A shadow fell across Alice, who had fallen asleep in the field. Stover ran a blade of grass beneath her nose. “Wake up,” he said, but his voice was different, gruffer. No, it wasn’t Stover. It took her a moment to open her eyes. Where am I? she wondered. A man looked down at her, smiling. He held the blade of grass between two fingers. Alice shielded her eyes and squinted up at him. He brought the blade of grass close and touched her mouth with it.

“Hello, beautiful,” he said. “I like an afternoon nap, too.” He held the blade there, gazing down. Her limbs were still soft and heavy from sleep. The sun had changed direction in the sky. She heard her friends’ voices, but she did not turn to them. It was enough to know they were there. He brought the blade of grass to his own lips and smiled at her.

Alice sat, turning once to look at the man. She reached for Stover, who was next to her. “Alice,” Stover said when she touched his arm, “don’t.” He shrugged her away. Alice looked where Stover looked.

Was that the boy that Molly had told her about? It must be, Alice thought. His dark curls held an under sheen of red, like an animal’s fur, when he leaned over Trina and whispered something into her ear— Cute, oh my god, so cute—Molly had said, running the words together, sighing them out. When Trina rested her hand on the back of his head and pulled him into her, Alice put her hand on top of Stover’s.

“Lovebirds,” the stranger said. He squatted on the ground next to Alice, turning to look at her. “That handsome young man is Lee.” Alice felt the man watching her. “I’m Jack Wyck,” he said, when she turned to him. He extended his hand. She took it in her own. He held her hand until she met his gaze. His eyes were light blue, the same color as the blue glass jars her mother kept in the kitchen window, their sharp lucidity so lovely it was difficult to look away, but Alice did. “Everyone just calls me Mr. Wyck, though.”

“Why does everyone call you ‘Mr. Wyck’?” She turned her head in his direction as she spoke, but she watched Trina.

“Well, I don’t know why. They just do.” He stood and held his hands out to her.

“Everyone calls me Alice.” She felt hot. The sun was in her eyes. She pretended not to see the proffered help and stood on her own instead. She straightened her clothes. Shielding her eyes from the sun, Alice looked at her friends. Molly was watching a woman Alice had never seen before. The woman was stretching, folding towards the ground and rising again. The woman balanced on one leg, folded a foot into her thigh, and gradu- ally reached her arms to the sky.

“That’s Allegra,” Jack Wyck said. “She’s doing her hatha yoga. She has a guru in California.”

“Oh.” Alice was curious. “I’ve read about that.”

“Are you a reader?” Mr. Wyck asked.

“Sometimes. When I need to be.” She looked back at Mr. Wyck and then towards Molly, who had gotten up and was wandering away towards Allegra.

“And who’s that?” Mr. Wyck asked, lifting the blade of grass in Molly’s direction.

“That’s Molly.” Alice watched as Molly tried to tuck her foot up as Allegra had. She swayed in the air, as if caught in the wind, and then dropped her foot. Alice scanned the edge of the field to see if she could still see Stuart. She squinted, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand, but she couldn’t find him. Stuart followed them everywhere. They all knew it, but Stuart was harmless, so they let him, and he only had a couple of friends in the neighborhood because he had to take a bus to school. “Just pretend he’s not there,” Molly told Alice, but sometimes she got mad and yelled at Stuart. “Go home, you little freak,” she’d call out. “I know you’re there.”

Mr. Wyck followed Alice’s gaze. “What are you looking for?” he asked.

“Nothing.” Alice dropped her hand to her side and went back to watching Molly and Allegra.

Alice looked back at Stover, who was still watching Trina and Lee. They rolled on the grass together and laughed.

“Ex-boyfriend?” Mr. Wyck lifted his chin at Stover. Alice nodded. “Yeah.”

“Lee Frank!” yelled Mr. Wyck. “Be a gentleman. Say hello to everyone.”

Lee scrambled to his feet and bowed theatrically to Alice. “My lady,” he said. He had a small gap between his front teeth. His lips were full. His hair was a mass of shining black curls. She looked from Trina’s face to Lee’s and then back again, thinking they could almost be brother and sister.

“Hey, Alice,” Trina sang out, brushing the grass from her jeans. “This is Lee.” She held her arms towards him and made two fists with her hands, then opened them. She pointed. “Lee.”

“I love it when she does that thing with her arms,” Lee said.

Sometimes they called Trina the cheerleader behind her back. Insult of insults. She had a way of gesturing that reminded Alice of the way the cheerleaders jerked their arms back and forth in front of them, moving in that clipped way, like little robots pulling something in and then pushing it away.

Alice smiled. She tucked her hair behind her ears. She folded her arms in front of her. Mr. Wyck stood just behind her. She thought she could feel his eyes on her neck. She turned, and he smiled at her.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.

Alice considered. The official answer was no. She had kissed Dan Crew at a field party. They were drinking shots of Stoli—and he kept coming over to her, saying Alice in that way, and he said it until she met his gaze. Dan, she said back. Dan. And he took her hand and pulled her into the woods. There was nothing like it. He kissed her neck, her mouth. And she did the same, like she was hungry, or angry, like there was some- thing else in her body with her. Dan.

When she didn’t answer, Mr. Wyck smiled. “Dinner?” he said.

They followed him across the field. Lee and Trina held hands. Some- times, Lee and Trina separated and moved to either side of Mr. Wyck, who walked with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. They linked arms with him, singing and skipping along. Alice looked back at Molly, who seemed happy to be walking beside Allegra. Allegra was thin like a dancer and had long legs. She wore a gray skirt and a camisole. A sweater slipped off of her shoulders. Her feet were clad in the kind of heavy, earthy sandals that Alice associated with college kids. She wondered how old Allegra was—older than Alice, surely, but she couldn’t tell.

Alice took Stover’s hand and looked into his face, wondering if he was all right. Mr. Wyck looked back at them, glancing down at their hands. He winked at Alice. “Who are these people?” Alice whispered to Stover.

“Trina’s new friends,” he said.

“They’re like circus people or something.”

Stover shrugged.

Without thinking, she hummed “Three Blind Mice.”

“Al.” Stover turned and looked at her. “Again? You’re starting to drive me crazy.”

“I can’t help it. It’s that stupid play.”

They’d just finished doing The Mousetrap in senior theater, and Alice had played Mrs. Maureen Lyon—which is to say that Alice played no part at all, because Mrs. Maureen Lyon was already dead by the time the play began, but Alice sang “Three Blind Mice” and then screamed—so in the program Alice’s name appeared with Mrs. Maureen Lyon’s. Alice usually helped direct, but it wasn’t her turn this time, so she opted for the song and the role of murdered woman instead.

“Sing something else,” Stover said.

“Gladly. What?”

“Anything. Just please no more ‘Three Blind Mice.’”

In the fading afternoon light, Alice slowed her pace. She let Stover get ahead of her. She didn’t want to drive him crazy. Then Molly and Allegra came up behind her, and she let them pass, too. Molly laughed at something Allegra said, calling out, “I can’t believe that!” and Alice stood still for a moment and watched as they descended a hill—Lee, Mr. Wyck, and Trina leading the way; then Stover, alone, intent on Trina, and behind him, Allegra and Molly—and, by some trick of light, Alice watched as their shadows fell together into a seamless, distorted darkness, with no distinct edge, as if it were cast by some enormous beast lumbering at its leisure across the sunny field. Alice watched for a moment, trying to work out the way the shadow fell, and when she saw a sunlit gap emerge at its center, she ran as quickly as she could to catch Stover’s hand.

September 1999 

At home, Alice turns the heat up. She puts the kettle on. Even though she’s not hungry, she eats a piece of toast while absently staring out of her window at the traffic below. They keep trying to turn this town into something more than it ought to be, and Alice’s building is evidence of this. It’s brand new and only half inhabited. The other apartments are empty. Downstairs, there’s a gourmet grocery store and a wine shop that looks like it should be on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—not on Newburgh’s Hudson waterfront property. But Alice is happy with it. No one else’s memories cloud the space.

As she makes her tea, she listens to the message on the answering machine again. Hans Loomis’s voice is soft. “I’m making a film and would like to interview you. It’s about folklore,” he says, “and the stories we tell.” Alice sits down in front of the computer and types his name into the search bar. She’s been meaning to rent Death Christ. Alice is holding her breath. Hans Loomis, she reads, the Swiss filmmaker, is working on a documentary about “Bogey” Jack Wyck. The computer is maddeningly slow. She keeps clicking the screen.

“No,” she says.

Her heart is beating too fast. She rubs her face with the tips of her fingers and waits for the images to load. There’s something new about DNA. Jack Wyck will finally tell his story. “When has he ever told anything else?” Alice says to the screen. She closes her eyes and sees Mr. Wyck. Innocent, he says. He whispers the words: Wrongly convicted. Hans is leaning forward, listening. The walls of Jack Wyck’s cell are white. His hair, his skin, the sky beyond the barred window—everything is white. He knows Alice is watching. He raises his hand; his index finger extends, curls. Come here, he mouths. Closer.

It’s easy work to steal a girl. Find one without a father. Tell her she’s special. Tell her she’s beautiful. Tell her she’s perfect. We’ll be a family, all of us.

Alice rises quickly, knocking the chair out from under her. She goes to the balcony’s sliding glass door, presses her forehead to the cool glass. Surely no one believes he’s innocent. It was so long ago—twenty years. His story? His story had been madness, and everyone had seen it, hadn’t they? Were there people, after everything, who still believed him? Alice goes back to the computer, searches Jack Wyck. It’s something she’s never done before. She gets hits—a lot of hits. Hits, she muses.

Alice clicks on a link: The Wyckian Society. Four hundred and twenty-three members; ten are online. “Welcome, Guest,” the screen says. “You must create an account to chat. Join us.” Join us. Alice’s heart quickens. Join the hybristophiliacs, she thinks. Crime groupies. Aroused by violence. Alice thinks of the famed Sweet Pea girl—the reportedly lovely young woman who sat in on the trial of the murderer Theodore Durrant. Every day, the Sweet Pea girl carried a bouquet of sweet peas with her, and then had them sent to Durrant—who one day showed up with a sweet pea in his buttonhole. How dapper. How sweet. Alice closes her eyes. Her mouth is dry. Wyck has fans. Fans. She clicks randomly: Crimes; Places; People; Chat; News.

News. She reads about the movie. Someone who calls herself TruBeauty25 has written: LOL I can’t wait for this movie. Finally. A sweet pea is such an unlikely flower to give to a killer. One imagines the bloodred poppy with the black-seeded center or the secret folded lids of a closed rose—a black rose—a dead rose. That might be appropriate, but a sweet pea is sentimental, dainty, easily wounded. Maybe that’s just it. That’s what a killer wants. A fairy-tale girl. A girl made of wishes, a sweet pea. With its thin stem and small light petals, it’s easily crushed. Its death can be hidden away—stashed beneath a rock or pressed into the dirt. Yes. A sweet pea.

Under People, she finds her name, the old picture, and beneath: Alice Pearson: Where is she now? There are arrest photos, crime scene photos. Here are the pictures of Molly, Stover, Trina, and Alice. Here are the grainy black-and-white crime scene photos blown up to four times their original size: an open palm, the pale fingers slightly curled. A foot extends from behind a couch. She has trouble looking, but she does. She feels like she’s taking a test, preparing herself for something. She sees Trina’s beau- tiful face looking at her.

More photos: an arsenal of guns, pieces of bloodied clothing. Alice was surprised when the police laid the photos of guns in front of her. She stared at them and shook her head. “I didn’t know we had guns,” she said. There is a photo of the reservoir and of Mr. Wyck’s clapboard house—the porch sunken in on one side, the door standing open. There are photos of Alice, Trina, Molly, and Stover at the beach together, of the four of them lined up in their Halloween costumes. Molly always had the best costume. Her mother sewed them—she was Cinderella in a shining white and blue dress, a tiara perched atop her blond coif, or a cheerleader with a fat felt letter carefully stitched onto her sweater, her hair in pigtails. Trina’s costumes were cobbled together from things in her closet. She was a hobo, a ghost. Stover had something from the store: Spiderman, Batman. The costumes were always too short for his long legs. Alice was the designer of her own costumes—though her mother’s increasing trips to secondhand shops made it easy. She was a fortune-teller, her hair beneath a kerchief, mismatched beads strung around her neck, a long skirt.

There are photos from the summer before they were arrested—pictures taken at a party by a guest of Mr. Wyck’s. Alice hardly knows which party it is. There were always people in the house, strangers. A face is blurred. She wonders who it is. It could be her. There are pictures of captures and cars at odd angles. There is a picture of Molly’s mother with her arms around Stuart. Lee. Only a few of the photos are in color. These were for magazine articles. There was something in Vanity Fair—part of a longer article about cults—Alice recalls, and something else in Time: “Where Are Your Children?” The same place they’ve always been, Alice thinks.

She doesn’t remember Molly ever wearing her hair in two braids— especially for a class picture. She would have thought it made her look too young. It must have been Mrs. Malloy’s idea. And Stover—already six feet tall—you can see how thin and tall he is, like a small tree that shoots up, the trunk still narrow. Is Trina smiling? One side of her mouth is turned up. The curled lip still saying, Fuck you, Alice.

Alice gazes at the photo of herself. She hasn’t seen it for years. She’d just been arrested and she’s looking back over her shoulder, her hands cuffed behind her back. Alice remembers the photographer, who got closer than the police would have liked as they transferred her from the hotel into the patrol car. She’s wearing a ripped white shirt and baggy blue jeans. Her hair is long and unkempt. She’s clearly unhappy, frightened, her eyes round, her mouth a small downward arch, her face pale. A Wyckian has captioned the photo: Alice Pearson, Traitor.

Traitor? She sits back in her chair.

She clicks the window shut and stares at the screen saver, a scene of a spring forest—too verdant, too radiant to be real—but she would like to be there right now, in that overly ripe forest, in a cabin with a woodstove and something warm to eat, far from the grasp of the Wyckian Society’s lies.

When she lifts her teacup, it rattles against the saucer. She puts it down again. She folds her hands in her lap and closes her eyes. Alice Pearson. Indeed. Where is she now? Right here. She opens the web browser again, returning to the Wyckian Society page. Alice clicks “Chat.” A box pops up: You must create a username and password to join chat. Beside “User Name,” Alice types “SweetPea.”

<SweetPea> has joined the conversation.

DougRamsey: New user alert. Hey SP. Welcome.

SqueakyGirl: Curiosity killed cat

Jay24: The cat gets the mouse.

SweetPea: Hi DougRamsey. Thnx.

DougRamsey: Haven’t seen you b4

SweetPea: Just joined.

SqueakyGirl: The cheese stands alone

SweetPea: What are they talking about?

Jay24: Cheeeezzze. yum. ;-)

SqueakyGirl: LOL. Me love cheese. ‘n crackaws.

Jay24: The gathering. <:o)

SweetPea: Gathering?

DougRamsey: Yearly.

DougRamsey: Jay24 wants to meet SqueakyGirl in RT

SqueakyGirl: The pressure.

SqueakyGirl hands Jay24 a camera

SqueakyGirl: pics

DougRamsey: SweetPea u r quiet. Will u b there?

SweetPea: Where?

Jay24: SqueakyGirl I bet ur hot.

DougRamsey: Meet at the graves.

Alice stares at the word “graves” for a moment. Changing her name from Pearson to Wood was like creating a war shield out of tissue paper. Big Anniversary. Twenty years. She is standing on ice, and the ice is cracking beneath her feet.

 

Copyright © 2016 Beth Hahn.

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Beth Hahn studied art and writing at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and earned an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She attended the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference and has been the recipient of a Ragdale Foundation residency. Beth’s short stories have appeared in Necessary FictionThe Hawai'i ReviewThe South Carolina Review, and The Emrys Journal. She lives in New Castle, New York, with her husband, where she teaches yoga.

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