MERCY ROAD is the coming of age tale of Harper Leigh Whitaker. Set in 1997, it follows Harper in the months after her mother’s death. This leaves her in the care of her father George, a police officer; and Charlotte, her therapist at the Mercy Road health clinic. It is in sessions with Charlotte that Harper recounts her moral struggles after she and her peers discover one of their neighbours has been harbouring a sex slave in his cellar indefinitely.
Episode 1 will release March 15th on Kindle, with all subsequent episodes releasing on a weekly basis. The full book will be available in June 2019.
Charlotte Huxley starts each session with the most uncomfortable of questions. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses sit on her nose, which point downward and away from her massive bee bonnet.
Technically, her first question is always, “how are you?” or, “what book are you reading today, Harper?”
It is the second, as she escorts me to twin blue armchairs, which unnerves me. Mine is stained with the outlines of Charlotte’s other victims. She hunts for answers in body language and can hear a defense mechanism in every desperate metaphor, but will never admit it.
It is once I take my seat, she tends to make the inquiry that feels like bamboo chutes under my trimmed nails.
“Shall we talk about your mother today, Harper?”
Today, she does not start with The Question. She barely says hello. Crossing her office, I know she has spoken with Dad. We sit, and Charlotte eases into the chair across from me.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened yesterday?” she asks.
“What do you mean?” I ask, brushing long red locks behind my ears.
“Your father mentioned you had quite the adventure.”
“Yes,” I say, slowly.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
The walls are painted a horrid yellow, as if someone tried to imitate a sun and ended up blinding all of us with their dullness.
“Not really,” I reply.
Charlotte is unfazed. She knows I don’t like being here, but for once, I would like to see her exasperated.
“What have you been reading lately, Harper? Anything good?”
“The Green Mile by King.”
“Didn’t that just come out this year?”
“Last. I hear they’re making a movie, maybe.”
“And you don’t think you’re a bit young to be reading something like that?”
Shrug. “Dad bought it for me. You know I’ll read anything once.”
“Yes, I remember. Last we spoke, you were reading Lord of the Flies.”
“So,” Charlotte remarks, “What were your thoughts?”
She’s trying to provoke me into talking about the house. I don’t want to. I just want to forget the naked, half-conscious woman, handcuffed to a metal cot, head rolling side to side.
This is how she tries to get me to talk about Mom.
“I like how the kids on the island lost sight of the rules of society. Makes me think how people would be without rules.”
“Do you really think that would happen?” Charlotte asks. “People wouldn’t regulate themselves in some way? Or do you agree with Golding?”
“Oh yes,” I reply, “it would be anarchy.”
“And people like your neighbour, say, would not be held accountable, right?”
“I told you, I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Alright,” she says, “What do you want to talk about?”
“Did you always want to be a shrink?”
Charlotte chuckles. “No, actually. I wanted to be a singer once. But, I do not sing as well as I think I do. What do you want to be?”
I think on it a second, but don’t really need to.
“Think I want to be a writer.”
“That’s a very noble path, Harper. Given how much you read. Your vocabulary is very advanced for a thirteen year old.”
“Fourteen in March,” I remind her.
“That may be,” she says, “but it’s only September. The school year has only just started.”
“Still need something to look forward to, don’t I?”
We sit in awkward silence for a second, and I miss my mother’s warmth when I told her about my problems. When I cried to her. When she held me and kissed the top of my head. Charlotte is an emotionally malfunctioning consolation prize in comparison.
I don’t dare cry here.
“Okay,” I relent, “I’m ready to talk about what happened now.” Anything to avoid her stare and puckered lips.
“When you’re ready,” Charlotte says.
It all started on Tuesday, because of course it would happen on a weeknight.
Dad was on night shifts so he was sleeping all day and patrolling the highways all night. I don’t know, he’s been different since Mom died. Almost like he’s not there, you know?
And we kids, we just did what we always do. Charlie and his best friend Sally- his real name is Salvatore- rode their bikes in circles around Teddy Woodworth, a younger boy with a shrill voice who shares backyards with Sally. Not a fence divides the Hammond and Woodworth properties, much to Sally’s great dismay when Teddy appears on the daily.
I sat on the lawn, reading my copy of The Green Mile. Sally made some comment about going to the construction site nearby and stealing a bunch of building materials.
My nose stayed firmly in my book.
“You want to come with, Harper?”
Teddy scrunched his nose.
“No thanks,” I groaned, “Still not over the sewer tunnel. The thought of going anywhere with you, ever again, is enough to give me nightmares.”
I shrugged. “If the shoe fits.”
“Dude,” Charlie told him, “Stop trying to get with my sis and let’s go steal some shit.”
“She’s thirteen. Barely even has tits, yet!”
“I’m right here, Sally,” I said, “although I’m sure your Grandma would slap you silly with her newspaper if she heard you talking about me like that.”
Sally winced at the mention of his very traditional, imposing caretaker. Dad told me his parents were both drug addicts, so I’m sure being publicly spanked with news headlines was the better option for him growing up. It was still enough to make him fall quiet as he and Charlie continued circling on their bicycles.
“Sal,” Charlie said as he straightened his wheels; “If I catch you talking about her tits again, I’m gonna whack you. Forget your grandma. Right to the nuts.”
Teddy finally spoke. “I can come to the construction site too, right?” He is tiny for his age, his voice a nasal whine even I can’t ignore.
“Yes Teddy,” Charlie grinned, “You can be our fall guy.”
“What’s a fall guy? Do I get to do something cool?”
Sally snickered. “Break your neck, maybe?”
“That’s mean,” I scolded him from my cross legged vantage, “Leave him alone, you two.”
They were ready to open their mouths and aim their taunts at me- the goody-two-shoes little sister- when the door opened behind the patch of lawn I had taken refuge upon, and my father emerged.
He descended the sloped driveway where his Volkswagen always sits and cast a look of annoyance at my brother. In his pressed uniform and creased pants, service revolver around his waist, a duffel bag dragged his arm down. A small, reflective rectangle above his breast pocket glared in the low sunlight.
“Hey Dad,” I said, but Dad did not reply. “Got an A on my English test.”
Dad inserted the duffel in the backseat and closed the door as I squinted to look up at him.
“That’s great, honey. How’s the book?”
“Exciting,” I squealed.
He didn’t offer to match my enthusiasm.
“That’s good, sweetheart. Make sure your brother behaves.”
In front of us, Charlie stopped circling on his bike, as Sally continued carving a path around him.
“Hey! I’m older.”
“Also, less responsible,” Dad said, “At least I can count on Harper not to blowtorch grasshoppers on a wooden deck, kid. Can I say the same for you?”
Charlie had no retort, and as he often did when without response, bowed his head, looking at his feet. Things have been strained enough, I didn’t feel the need to add to it.
“Dinner is in the fridge. And Sally,” he commanded, and the boy from two doors down snapped to attention. “I don’t want to get a call from your grandmother. Home by dark.”
Sally nodded. “Yes, Mr. Whitaker.”
“Make sure of it, Harper?” he said, not waiting for my response to climb into his Volkswagen and reverse down the driveway.
Charlie sneered at me as Dad’s car turned the corner of our crescent road.
“Way to play the favourite,” he said.
“I didn’t take a side, Charlie. Not my fault you always make him worry.”
“He doesn’t worry about me. Just gets pissed.”
“We could have it worse, you know,” I told him, “Could be like Anna from my class, and come to school with bruises.”
Sally resumed biking in a circle.
“Anna Bond?” he asked, despite knowing the answer. “Steve’s sister?”
“That’s only because Mrs. Bond is drunk all the time,” Charlie offered, “I almost wish Dad would hit me. Better than all this fucking disappointment.”
“You expect too much,” I said.
Charlie brushed me off and Sally reminded him about the house down the street being built. The lawn was a mess of wood planks and sawdust kicked up as almost every kid on our street ran over it that day and every other.
“Right,” Charlie smirked, forgetting about Dad’s perpetual disapproval of him. “Let’s go see what we can lift from this bitch.” He looked to me.
I closed my book, placing it on the grass in front of me, admiring the evergreen cover and its shadows.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “Might go to Rosie’s. Crawling around in an unfinished building seems more like a boy’s day.”
“As opposed to what?” Sally asked from his bike seat as he popped a wheelie. “Playing Barbies?”
“As opposed to coming home smelling like a sewer?”
“Never gonna let that go, are you?”
Charlie snickered. “Get a room already, you two.” When we fell quiet from gagging on the thought, he told us all to follow him.
I reiterated my desire to stay back.
“Don’t be a girl!”
“I am a girl, Charlie.”
“Well,” my brother said, swinging his leg over the bike to meet the other, and lowering its frame to the curb in front of me, “I guess you won’t be needing this, then.”
Without warning, he snatched my book, holding it above his head. He’s taller, and there was no way I could reach the open pages he held by the spine.
“Charlie! Give it back!”
“Sally, run!” Charlie called, abandoning the bike and sprinting down the street toward the looming husk of metal and plywood sheets. Sally pedaled fast enough to pass me. Charlie cackled as I took off after them. Teddy, finally having realized what was happening, told us to wait for him.
The skeleton of a house peered down on the four of us, wood bones and naked studs visible from the edge of the driveway as we all struggled for breath. My hair was damp on my shoulders and Charlie’s face was drenched. Teddy finally caught up as I recovered enough momentum to punch Charlie in the arm and snatch my book back.
“You’re a jerk,” I told him.
“Hey,” he panted, “it got you to come with us, didn’t it?”
“For now,” I admitted. “Why do you need me here, anyway?”
“Because when Teddy falls through the floorboard, someone neutral can tell Dad what happened, and I might survive until college.”
“Hey!” Teddy gasped. None of us heeded him.
“Great,” I said, “So I’m your stooge?”
“C’mon,” Sally replied, dropping his bike in front of the house. “Think of it as: we’re being responsible by bringing the most responsible of us along.”
“Still sounds like a stooge to me.”
“Maybe Teddy could hang back this time,” Sally said.
“No!” Teddy whined, but he offered no further defence of himself.
“Why don’t you go ask your mom, Teddy?” I asked. Charlie studied me a moment, mouth soon stretching across his face in a grin, likely kicking himself for having not thought of it himself.
“Yeah, Teddy,” he said, “and then meet us back here.”
Too young to understand the implications, he enthusiastically agreed and continued on in the direction we had come, disappearing along the side of Sally’s house.
He wouldn’t be back that night. Probably because his parents are uptight and would balk at the suggestion of wandering around an unfinished house.
“Nice work!” Charlie told me. “Trick the kid into a voluntary lockdown. You are ruthless, sis.”
I shrugged. “Little finesse goes a long way.”
“Admit it. You don’t care for him, either.”
“No,” I said, “but he doesn’t worship me like he does you. Or Sally, for that matter.”
Sally snickered. “Hear that, Charlie? We’re gods.”
“You enjoy that,” I retorted, looking back to my brother. “Can I go home now? I got rid of Teddy for you. Mission accomplished.”
Arms crossed, he frowned at my lack of enthusiasm.
“C’mon Harper. Live a little. Don’t be Dad. He’s just been….weird since Mom died, hasn’t he? Don’t be Dad, okay?”
I rolled my eyes, not really wanting to get into it with Charlie about our mother. It’s not like he was the one to find her body. It’s not like he was the one in therapy.
Just going along with it seemed easier.
The inside smelled like mouldy pine.
Our neighbourhood is one of the oldest in this area. Inside the original cocoon of properties, new ones are rare, while cheaper, quickly built sections rise up a couple streets over.
Dad calls this construction site “the invasion’s beginning”. He knew the field we used to run and play and return from, caked in dirt, would end up with those cheap houses sitting on them.
The unfinished floors creaked as we traversed them. Not all were in place, some leaning against the joists, reaching into darkness below. Wall frames were a blank canvas some family would eventually hang smiling pictures and kids’ artwork. Dying sunlight pouring through the open roof made them look like windows into another life.
“Why are we here again?” I asked.
My brother, shrinking his shoulders as he attempted to muffle the weight of his body on the weak floors, said nothing.
“If we can find some copper wiring,” Sally said, “we’ll sell it to Benton Read’s old man at the scrapyard. Shit should net us some change.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Let’s check out the upstairs,” Charlie said, “We’re losing light.”
Sally and I filed up the unrailed stairs behind them, as they groaned under our sneakers. Before the ground floor passed from my line of sight, I looked out at it, and I could see the safety of our little street through unfinished walls.
“Hey,” Sally said as we reached the top, even more incomplete than the level below, “y’all heard of this thing called the Internet? Apparently, you can connect with other people’s computers from your own. Crazy stuff, I tell you. Grandma won’t even let me have a computer, let alone mess with this Internet thing, but Benton was telling me about it. His mom has this thing called AOL.”
“Probably a fad,” Charlie remarked, “Who on earth needs something like that?”
“Dude, I’m telling you. Went to his house and saw this thing. Fucking amazing is what it is.”
“I’ll live in the real world, thanks.”
I broke off from them, lightly stepping to the phobia of falling through the floors. Through every door frame was an incomplete vision. Through every window with only sheets of plastic to keep the rain out, I felt like we were in a ghost story. Copy of The Green Mile under my arm, I felt a bit like a Paul Edgecombe, wandering the solitary hallway of Death Row.
Mom always said I live in my stories too much.
“Hey guys, check it out!”
Sally’s voice rang across the empty upper floor and I heard Charlie shush him. Nonetheless, we both converged on the top left corner of the house- what I could only assume would become the master bedroom. There, Sally stood by the window frame, head pressed into the adjacent wall panel.
“Check out what Mr. Locke is up to.”
Craning my neck so I could see past both of my taller accomplices, I only caught a glimpse of our neighbour, who was famously never seen.
“About time he came out,” Charlie remarked.
“How long since we’ve last seen him? Couple months?”
“Dad says he has walking problems,” I offered.
“Looks fine to me,” Sally replied, “Loading bags in the trunk of his car.”
“Wonder what’s in them,” Charlie said.
“Body parts, maybe?”
“That’s ridiculous,” I countered, “Mr. Locke is not a murderer. He’s just an old man who doesn’t get out much.”
“Harper,” Charlie said, “the dude looks like Edgar Allen Poe. No wonder you love him.”
“He does not. And I don’t. Ew.”
“Long hair, never brushed. Sunken eyes. Wears black clothes all the time. We see his black cat more than we see him. Wouldn’t be surprised if he owned a raven.”
“Does that thing even have a name?” Sally asked. “The cat?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie replied, “I just call him Creepy Neighbour’s Cat. Had to be black, too.”
“Aw,” I teased, “Superstitious, Charlie?”
“He’s totally superstitious,” I told Sally, “Won’t even walk under a ladder.”
“Stop it, Harper.”
“Hey, you wanted me to come here. At least let me have some fun with it.”
“Shut up, the both of you,” Sally said, “He’s going somewhere.”
Over their shoulders, I could see the black sedan backing down the driveway and slowly veering to the left. We watched him casually drive away from sight and then focused our collective gaze on the house.
Of all the homes on our street, Mr. Locke’s is always tended the least. The grass is various degrees of brown and there are no shrubs or flowers, just holes dug in the lawn by neighbourhood dogs to compensate. It’s the kind of house parents tell their children to avoid at the same time as telling us to be home by dark.
“He has to be hiding something,” Sally said.
“You’re both being ridiculous,” I assured them, but the seed was in my head, too. Dad said he could barely walk and that’s why we never saw him, but he didn’t seem to have any problems.
“Next time he goes out, we sneak into his house,” Charlie declared, looking to me. “You too, Harper.”
I shook my head. “No, thanks. Don’t feel like Dad arresting us for trespassing.”
“You really don’t want to know if our neighbour is a fucking serial killer?”
Sally chuckled. “Yeah, for all we know, he could have the bones of a thousand children buried under his lawn.”
“I’m good,” I said. But as we strolled home and went separate ways with Sally, I couldn’t help thinking something was off about Arthur Locke. Just as I couldn’t get the sawdust out from my sense of smell, neither could I help agreeing with my brother and Sally.
Maybe I would take them up on the expedition yet.