It’s been eight years since artist and single mom, Rebecca Underhill, was abducted and left to die in an old broken down house located in the middle of the dark woods. But even if her abductor, Joseph William Whalen, has since been killed, another, more insidious evil is once more out to get her in the form of the Skinner. The son of an abusive butcher, Skinner intends on finishing the job Whalen started but failed at.
He’s going to do it through her children, by luring them into the cornfield behind the old farmhouse they live in.
Now, armed with the knowledge that the Skinner has escaped incarceration at a downstate facility for the criminally insane, Rebecca must face the most horrifying challenge of her adult life: Rescuing the children not from a house in the woods, but from the abandoned tunnels that run underneath her property.
But the Skinner is watching Rebecca’s every move.
October 2016Albany, NY
“How long have you been hearing the voices coming from the cornfield, Mike?”
The man speaking is a child psychologist by the name of Dr. Robert Cuther, an aging, semi-retired child psychiatrist who’s come highly recommended to me by my best friend, housemate, and blonde bombshell co-conspirator at the The School of Art, Robyn Painter (her real name, no pun). So the story goes, Cuther has been conducting therapy on Robyn’s eight year old daughter, Molly (named after my late twin sister), after we found her hiding in a second floor closet of the farmhouse that our two half-families share. The little blonde-haired, blue eyed clone of her mom had convinced herself the Boogeyman lived in our basement (he doesn’t, we checked) and that any day now he was going to abduct her and drag her down into his underground lair.
Truth is, I’m not sure what to expect from the man who, with his thick, curly gray hair, short stature, wrinkly pale face, and old wool suit over black turtleneck, looks more like an over-the-hill Einstein than Freud. But I’m beginning to worry more and more about Michael Jr. and the voices he claims to be hearing, and speaking to Dr. Cuther seems like the reasonable solution. He’s also agreed to see us on a quiet Sunday morning so as not to interrupt school and work schedules, which makes him not only reasonable, but convenient.
“Go ahead and answer the Doctor, Boo,” I say, sitting across from the perch he occupies on a long leather couch. “Dr. Cuther is our friend.”
Little Mike peers at me with his smooth round face, little pug nose, thick head of dark brown hair that even at eight year’s old sports a lock that hangs down over his long forehead, just like his late dad. Sometimes, when he looks directly into my eyes with his big brown pools, I feel like I’m not only seeing his father, but that I’m once more looking into my ex-husband’s soul.
“He’s not gonna give me any shots, is he, Ma?” Mike says, his short blue-jeaned legs hanging off the couch, his blue Converse sneakered feet in constant motion, like he’s jogging in place.
Cuther laughs. It’s a genuine laugh. The kind of laugh a grandfather would make after a little boy made a joke about his gray hair or about the strange way his lips don’t move much when he talks. As though at his age, it takes a grand effort to make facial expressions.
“No shots here, young man,” Cuther says. “When you come here, you do only fun stuff.”
“Oh yeah?” Mike says, folding his hands in his lap. “Like what?”
“Well, for one,” Cuther goes on, “your mom tells me you are already quite the accomplished artist. That you can even hand draw a person’s face without having to trace it. That’s quite the rare talent you have there.” Then, his eyes shifting to me. “You must take after your mom.”
“Michael Senior…that’s my dad…he’s a writer,” Mike says.
Cuther’s forehead scrunches. “And who is Michael Senior?”
“I just told you, silly. He’s my dad. He’s dead.”
The mere mention of my ex-husband, Michael, and the word dead still throws a cold jolt up and down my spine. It also makes my stomach cramp, even more so than it has been of late.
“Tell me something, young man,” Cuther goes on. “Why do you call him by his real name, and why do you refer to him in the present tense?”
My boy turns to me. “What’s peasant tents mean, mom?”
Me, giggling, but somehow feeling the effects of anxiety kicking in. Aren’t I here to relieve anxiety?
“It means, Boo, that you refer to your dad like he’s still alive…still with us.”
I sometimes refer to Mike as Boo, just to differentiate him from his father, and not to remind myself of my long gone ex every time I utter his name.
“But he is,” Mike says. “Sort of, anyway. I just saw him out by the cornfield this morning.”
My son’s admission hits me upside the head. I’m well aware of the voices he hears coming from the cornfield. Voices I can only assume he’s making up with his overactive imagination. But seeing his father out by the cornfield is a new one on me.
A few beats pass before Cuther once more raises the question: “Mike, my boy, when did you first start hearing the voices?”
“It’s not voices really,” he says.
“Well, I guess it’s voices. Or, like a voice anyway.”
“Can you explain more for me?” Cuther goes on, his deep brown eyes shifting from Mike to me and back again.
“It’s music, Dr. Cuther. It comes to me thorough the corn.”
The psychiatrist shoots me another quick glance.
“Can you tell your mom and me what this music sounds like, Mike?”
He nods. “I don’t have a very good voice. But I can try singing it.”
“You’re very brave, Mike,” Cuther says.
“Okay, here goes.” The boy sits up straight, his legs and feet suddenly very stiff and very still. “Ring around the Rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”
Yet another glance from Cuther.
He says, “Is this the first time you’ve ever heard that song before, Mike?”
The boy shakes his head, starts moving those legs again.
“Nah,” he says. “We used to sing it in kindergarten. It was a game. The teacher would make us kids make a circle. We’d sing the song about ringing around Rosie, and then as soon as we said the last word–”
“—Down!” Dr. Cuther interjects, his voice booming, despite those stiff lips.
“That’s right,” Mike says with a smile, delighted to have something in common with Dr. Cuther. “Did you play this game too, Doctor?”
The psychiatrist nods. “Of course. Believe it or not, young man, I was a boy once myself. A long, long time ago. Before cable television even.”
My son steals a moment to digest this information, like it’s impossible for him to imagine the short, gray-haired, old man has been anything other than what he is at this very moment in time.
“Well, as soon as we sing the last word, down,” Mike continues, “the last person to fall down was punished.”
Another cold jolt shoots up and down my spine. “What do you mean punished, Boo?”
He giggles. “Oh nothing bad, mom. Mrs. Carter…that was my teacher…would make us do an arithmetic problem on the board. Or maybe spell a word. We were all it after a while. It was a lot of fun. You know, for school anyway.”
“Mike,” he says, “I promised you we’d have some fun also. So how about you draw me a picture of what you see out by the cornfield. Can you do that? In the meantime, I’ll have a talk with mom.”
Mike slips off the couch. “Sure, swell.”
Dr. Cuther leads my son to smaller room located off his office that’s outfitted with art supplies and kid-sized tables. He sets Mike up with some construction paper and crayons, then closes the door, just a little. When he comes back inside, he sits back down behind his desk and sighs heavily.
“Ms. Underhill,” he says. “I think we need to have a serious conversation about your boy.”
Winner of the 2015 PWA Shamus Award and the 2015 ITW Thriller Award for Best Original Paperback Novel, Vincent Zandri is the NEW YORK TIMES, USA TODAY, and AMAZON KINDLE No.1 bestselling author of more than 25 novels including THE REMAINS, MOONLIGHT WEEPS, EVERYTHING BURNS, and ORCHARD GROVE. He is also the author of numerous Amazon bestselling digital shorts, PATHOLOGICAL, TRUE STORIES and MOONLIGHT MAFIA among them. Harlan Coben has described THE INNOCENT (formerly As Catch Can) as “…gritty, fast-paced, lyrical and haunting,” while the New York Post called it “Sensational…Masterful…Brilliant!” Zandri’s list of domestic publishers include Delacorte, Dell, Down & Out Books, Thomas & Mercer and Polis Books, while his foreign publisher is Meme Publishers of Milan and Paris. An MFA in Writing graduate of Vermont College, Zandri’s work is translated in the Dutch, Russian, French, Italian, and Japanese. Recently, Zandri was the subject of a major feature by the New York Times. He has also made appearances on Bloomberg TV and FOX news. In December 2014, Suspense Magazine named Zandri’s, THE SHROUD KEY, as one of the “Best Books of 2014.” Recently, Suspense Magazine selected WHEN SHADOWS COME as one of the “Best Books of 2016”. A freelance photo-journalist and the author of the popular “lit blog,” The Vincent Zandri Vox, Zandri has written for Living Ready Magazine, RT, New York Newsday, Hudson Valley Magazine, The Times Union (Albany), Game & Fish Magazine, and many more. He lives in New York and Florence, Italy.