The Quiet Child
by John Burley
August 8, 2017
From the award-winning author of The Absence of Mercy, comes a gripping and darkly psychological novel about family, suspicion, and the price we are willing to pay to protect those we love the most.
It’s the summer of 1954, and the residents of Cottonwood, California, are dying. At the center of it all is six-year-old Danny McCray, a strange and silent child the townspeople regard with fear and superstition, and who appears to bring illness and ruin to those around him. Even his own mother is plagued by a disease that is slowly consuming her.
Sheriff Jim Kent, increasingly aware of the whispers and rumors surrounding the boy, has watched the people of his town suffer—and he worries someone might take drastic action to protect their loved ones. Then a stranger arrives, and Danny and his ten-year-old brother, Sean, go missing. In the search that follows, everyone is a suspect, and the consequences of finding the two brothers may be worse than not finding them at all.
Tiny beads of sweat erupted from Michael’s upper back and forearms as the pieces came together in his mind. The man in the tan jacket crossing the street, heading in the direction of the parking lot. Danny in the backseat of the car, gazing out the open window as he waited for them to return. The engine starting. The spin of tires on gravel. And Sean, standing here less than a minute ago. But now . . .
“Sean!” Michael said again, this time more urgent as he strode toward the exit and shoved the door open.
It swung outward and Michael stepped into the nearly empty lot, looked left and then right. His car was nowhere in sight. The world had taken on the soft golden shimmer of dusk. He could hear light traffic on Interstate 5, folks heading north to Redding or into the mountains upstate, south to Red Bluff or even Sacramento. One of those cars is mine, he thought, the shock worming its way through his system like something rancid he’d inadvertently swallowed. One of those cars is a liberty blue Mercury with a cigarette burn in the front passenger seat and at least one of my boys in the back.
He hadn’t heard Stan’s lurching footsteps behind him, the shoe on the prosthetic limb always sounding different—more hollow—from the other. A hand touched his shoulder and Michael jumped, turning quickly.
“Where’s your boy?” Stan asked, more as a statement than a question. The owner and sole custodian of Century Grocery had put things together almost as quickly as Michael.
“Give me the keys to your car,” Michael said, “and then call Jim Kent. Tell him to close the highway if he can—a roadblock, something. Tell him my car’s been stolen and that Sean and Danny have been taken along with it. It’s a blue 1950 Mercury Eight. Got that?”
“Yeah,” Stan responded, reaching into his right front pocket for his keys. He slapped them into Michael’s hand, turned, and hobbled back inside as fast as his awkward gait would carry him.
Michael sprinted for the Bel Air and yanked open the driver’s door. He threw himself behind the wheel, cranked the ignition, backed away from the building, and then dropped the car into gear and stomped on the accelerator. The rear tires spun on the gravel as he turned the wheel hard to the right, crossed the parking lot, and shot out onto Gas Point Road. He was going too fast for the southbound entrance to the interstate, but he took it anyway, the car sliding dangerously across the lane.
The Bel Air merged with the interstate and hurtled toward the town of Red Bluff fifteen miles to the south. Michael gripped the wheel and pushed the six-cylinder engine as hard as it would go. His blanched knuckles were miniature apparitions in the gathering darkness of the car, hovering along the edge of his line of sight as he stared through the windshield at the road ahead. The steering wheel shuddered in his hands as he topped ninety miles per hour, and his lips—pinched tightly together—began to loosen and then move in a silent prayer, the desperate murmurings of a terrified parent, insanity itself closing in around him.
It was 8:06 p.m. And both of his boys . . . were gone.