February 23, 2024

HTP Winter Reads Blog Tour Promo Post: A Step Past Darkness by Vera Kurian

at 2/23/2024 03:37:00 PM

I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER meets Stephen King in this character-driven thriller about a study group of six teenagers who witness something tragic in an abandoned mine, which comes back to haunt them 20 years later.




There’s more to Wesley Falls than meets the eye, but for six high school students, it’s home.

Kelly, the new girl and rule-follower.

Maddy, the beauty and the church favorite.

Padma, the brains and all-A student.

Casey, the jock and football star.

James, the burnout and just trying to make it to graduation.

And Jia, the psychic, who can see the future.

When these six are assigned to work on a summer group project, their lives are forever changed. At an end of the year party in the abandoned mine, they witness a preventable tragedy, but no one will take them seriously. As things escalate, they realize the church, the police, and the town’s founders are all conspiring to cover up what happened. When James is targeted as the scapegoat, to avoid suspicion, they vow their silence and to never contact each other again. Their plan works – almost.

Twenty years later, Maddy is found murdered is Wesley Falls, and the remaining five are forced to confront their past and work together to finally put right what happened all those years ago. If they can survive…

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August 17, 2015

The mountain had existed long before there had been anyone around to name it, pushed up by the inevitable forces that made the Appalachian Range millions of years ago. Hulking, it stood with a peculiar formation at its apex, two peaks like a pair of horns, giving the mountain its eventual name of Devil’s Peak. The coal mine inside was abandoned long ago.

On the southern side of Devil’s Peak was the town of Wesley Falls, where there were no remnants of the mine except for the overgrown paths crisscrossing up to two entrances, ineffectually boarded up, partially hidden but available to anyone looking hard enough. Down the western side were the steeper paths, far more overgrown with vegetation, leading down to the abandoned town of Evansville. That side of the mountain and beyond grew strange because of the coal fire that had been burning underground for almost a century. The Bureau of Mines had managed to contain the fire to the western side of the mountain so that only Evansville suffered. Only Evansville had bouts of noxious gases, open cracks of brimstone in the roads, residents complaining of hot basements and well water. Over time they left town, leaving behind a ghost.

Unlike its unfortunate neighbor, Wesley Falls had avoided the mine fire and transitioned from a coal-mining town to something not unlike Pennsylvania suburbia. It was the sort of town where one of the billboards outside the Golden Praise megachurch proclaimed, “Wesley Falls: the BEST place to raise a family!” and most adults agreed with that assessment. The sort of place where the city council had voted against a bid to allow a McDonalds to open, arguing that it would “lead to the deterioration of the character of Wesley Falls.” This had less to do with concerns about childhood obesity or dense traffic than it did a desire to keep the town trapped in amber. The sort of town where the sheriff was the son of the previous sheriff.

Jia Kwon, stepping off a train at the station some miles away from Wesley Falls, looked around the crowded station for that son—the sheriff—now in his thirties, though she had trouble picturing this. Sheriff Zachary Springsteen had an air of formality that she couldn’t match up with the image of the boy she knew from high school, whom everyone called Blub. He was an inoffensive, nondescript kid who delivered papers via his clackety bike, who then grew to be the generic teen who stood in the back row of yearbook pictures. She had always been friendly with him, but never quite friends, starting from when she had transferred from St. Francis to the Wesley Falls public school system and Blub sat next to her in homeroom.

Was the fact that she had chosen to keep in contact with this not-quite-friend after she moved away from Wesley Falls an accident? No—she knew that now. Blub had been the perfect person to report back town news over the years because he never suspected her interest was anything more than curiosity. Their exchanges over the years had been just enough for him to feel comfortable, or compelled enough, to make the phone call that had brought her here.

Jia paused to put her phone in her purse, pretending she did not notice any stares. No one looked twice at her in Philly, but here she stood out as the only Asian, drawing even more attention to herself because she had dyed her hair a shade of silvery gray with hints of lavender in it. It would only be worse when she got into town, but even as a kid she had been so used to being stared at that she just exaggerated her strangeness, opting for bright clothes rather than trying to blend in.

“Jia?” said an uncertain voice.

She turned her head and instantly recognized Blub, who stood with the gawky awkwardness of someone uncomfortable with his own height. “Blub!” she exclaimed, coming closer. She embraced him, her head only coming up to his midchest. “You’ve grown two feet!”

He shoved his hands into his pockets, smiling. “Want to ask me if I play basketball?” Their smiles felt hollow, she realized, because of the strangeness of the situation and everything they weren’t saying. “I appreciate you taking the time to come out here. I know you’re probably busy but…” He led her to his patrol car. “Sorry, you’ll have to ride in the back.”

“It’s no problem,” she murmured, surprised to see that he had brought someone along for the ride.

“This is Deputy Sheriff Henry,” Blub said, turning the car on. A smaller man whom she did not recognize half turned and nodded at her curtly, though Jia could see him looking at her in the rearview mirror as they pulled away from the station. What on earth had Blub told him?

That once, in one of their email exchanges, when he complained about having to repair his roof, she made a joke about which team to bet on for the Super Bowl, and he did, and she had been right? That she had one too many stock tips that turned out to be good? That she inexplicably sent him a “You okay?” email at 8:16 a.m. on September eleventh, thirty minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center? There had been enough incidents as strange as these that when he called her last year asking for help, it felt like something clicking into place. Something that was supposed to happen. Over the years, she had started to feel comfortable with that clicking feeling, rather than being afraid of it. Last winter he had called her saying that Jane Merrick was missing from the old-folks home—she was prone to running— and she was outside in the freezing weather in only a nightgown, and they were worried about her. He did not say why he was asking her, a person who hadn’t lived in Wesley Falls for two decades, a person who neither knew nor liked Jane Merrick. She told him to look in the barn on the Dandriges’ property without providing an explanation of how she knew. She knew because she saw it. She knew because sometimes she could call up things when she wanted to, though not all the time, but this was still significantly better than when she was a kid and she couldn’t control when the visions hit her, or stop them, or even understand them.

And now, in the peak of summer heat, he had called again, saying that there was a missing person, could she help, friends were worried. She did not ask who because she felt something like the deepest note on a double bass vibrating, reverberating through her body. She saw herself walking, her white maxi dress—the one she was wearing right now—catching on brambles as she maneuvered her way down the overgrown path to the ghost town.

She had to go back to Wesley Falls. It was time.

“You all went to school together?” Deputy Sheriff Henry said when they pulled onto the highway.

“Yeah,” she said. “We didn’t overlap with you, did we?” Henry shook his head. “Blub and I go way back,” she said, meeting Blub’s eyes in the rearview mirror.

“I’ll never get over the fact that people call you Blub,” Henry remarked. “How’d you get that name anyway? Were you chubby or something?”

“I don’t think there’s an origin story,” Blub said, looking like he wanted the subject to change.

“I remember!” Jia exclaimed. “It’s when you threw up in fourth grade.” She leaned forward, pressing against the grate that divided the car, addressing Henry directly. “It was during homeroom. He threw up on his pile of books. I remember because it was clear and ran down the sides like pancake syrup.”

Henry laughed and Blub flushed. “Jia, you can’t remember that because you weren’t there. You were at St. Francis in grade school!”

She stopped laughing abruptly. “I could have sworn I remember that happening!”

“Sometimes when enough people tell you a story, you start to remember it like you were there,” Henry mused.

Sometimes, Jia thought. But there were other people who could see things that had happened or would happen, even if they weren’t there.

As they drove down the highway and drew closer to Wesley Falls, the mood shifted to an anxious silence. Jia checked her phone for anything work related. She ran a small solar panel company called Green Solutions with her two best friends, both hyper-competent, both probably picking up on Jia’s strange tone when she said she had to go back home for a short trip. They probably thought that it had to do with the settling of her mother’s estate, and Jia, even though she was uncomfortable with lying, allowed them to believe this. When her mother had died, Jia had come to Wesley Falls to liquidate everything in The Gem Shop and sell the store itself to the least annoying bidder: a fifty-something-year-old former teacher who wanted to open a bakery. A significant part of the decision had been not that her baked items were good—they were—but something about her aggressive combinations of spices had seemed witchy, and, most importantly, she did not attend Golden Praise. Jia’s mother, Su-Jin, would have approved.

And now, with Blub turning off the highway, her heart felt torn in different directions. Wesley Falls wasn’t home, but it was, because it was where most of her memories of Su-Jin lived. As the car moved it felt as if they traveled through an invisible veil, something that felt uncomfortable in a way she could not put into words anyone else would understand, but was familiar and, she knew, strange. Strange like how she was strange.

But then it came: the feeling that arose every time she had gone home to visit her mother—the feeling that she shouldn’t be here. Except this time, it was worse. They had just arrived in Wesley Falls, passing Wiley’s Bar, which was on the outskirts of town. It was frequented by truckers stopping for a cheap burger and beer.

“That place is still here?” she murmured.

“They got karaoke now,” Blub offered.

“Please kill me,” Jia responded, trying to sound light. Blub laughed, then turned onto Throckmartin Lane. The street hadn’t changed in twenty years: it still housed Greenbriar Park, which everyone called “The Good Park,” and the larger homes where the wealthier families lived. Built before McMansions had hit this part of Pennsylvania, the houses differed in their architecture—some colonial, some farmhouse—but were all similar with their immaculate lawns, American flags, and WESLEY FALLS FOOTBALL signs.

Blub slowed to a stop, making eye contact with her in the rearview mirror. He was waiting for directions.

She gestured for him to turn onto Main Street, that old, curved road with the bottom half of the C drawn out like a jaw that had dropped wide open—it was impossible to drive anywhere in Wesley Falls without driving on Main Street at some point. They passed the police station, then the row of shops. Some of the mom-and-pop stores that lined Main Street had changed, but Wesley Falls still didn’t have a Target, a chain grocery store, or a reasonable place to buy clothes. Indeed, the best place to raise a family was apparently a place where you had to drive ten miles to the mall to get many of the things people wanted. She gazed at the bakery that used to be The Gem Shop. Spade’s Hardware was still there—her mother had had a grudging friendship with the owners. The candy shop had changed ownership but it was still a candy shop. They drove along the north side of town, by the lake and the Neskaseet River—called Chicken River by locals because of its proximity to and usage by the chicken processing plant at the north edge of town.

Wesley Falls and Evansville had both popped up in the 1800s, their economies at first built entirely around the Wesley coal mine, which resided inside Devil’s Peak. No matter how many times well-meaning adults attempted to close off the entrance of the mine, which had been abandoned in the 1930s when the coal ran out, high school kids always found their way in. Drawn to the allure of ghost stories, rumors that if you found the right path you could find the mine fire in Evansville, and the inevitable urban legends about the Heart.

Jia pointed and Blub turned onto the unpaved road that crossed the Neskaseet and wound up the side of Devil’s Peak to Evansville. From this elevation, she could see the entire tiny, abandoned town. The simple, squared-off eight shape of the town’s few roads, the dilapidated strip of larger buildings at the center, then the rectangles of homes, all identical because they had been provided by the mining company.

The road came to an end, trees and shrubbery blocking their passage. Blub put the car in Park, turning to face Jia. “Can’t drive farther.”

“Then we walk,” she said. She led the way, ignoring the looks from both men as she freed herself from prickly branches that caught onto her dress. Blub used his nightstick to whack away a tangle of vegetation, then Jia found a path that led down to the town.

It smelled like sulfur with a hint of cigar. Jia picked her way gingerly down the main road, which was buckled and cracked in places, then turned a corner behind the old church and stopped. There was someone in the road wearing a bright fuchsia shirt. She could only see the top half of the figure’s body. The lower part, from the stomach down, was trapped inside the road in what looked like a fresh sinkhole.

Jia knew without looking. Some part of her had known from the moment Blub called her. He needed help finding a missing person, but he hadn’t said who. This was the thing that had pulled her back, made her feel an insistent anxiety for the past few months.

Blub and Henry were running to the body, the latter yelling. When Jia finally approached, Blub was trying to get a pulse. She watched the two men huddle over the body, Henry almost making an attempt to pull her from the chasm before Blub stopped him. This could be a crime scene.

Blub sat back on his haunches. The fuchsia T-shirt was soaked with last night’s rain. Her blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, tendrils stuck to the sides of her face. That face. Familiar but different. She’s still so pretty, Jia thought. Her mouth was open and a scratch stood out livid on her pale cheek. Her eyes were closed.

“It’s her,” Blub stated.

“Maddy Wesley,” Henry said, disturbed and awed.

“You knew that Maddy was the missing person? You didn’t tell me,” Jia said, trying to keep her voice stable.

Blub remained crouched, his elbows on his knees with his hands dangling down. “Didn’t think I needed to,” he stated, his voice devoid of the warmth it had had while in the car. He didn’t look at her as he examined the scene, and it occurred to Jia that he was actually the sheriff. Not Blub, the kid who threw up on his pile of books, but an actual agent of the law.

Jia edged backward, fearful that the road could break under her.

“You know her?” Henry asked.

His gaze made her self-conscious. Jia had never been a good liar. Much of the lying she had done that summer so many years ago had been by omission. She was working on a project. She was hanging out with Padma. These things had been true, but misleading.

“She was in our year,” Jia managed. “We all went to high school together.”

Blub’s eyes went from the body to Jia. “You weren’t friends, though, were you?” Maddy ran with the popular crowd, the Golden Praise crowd. Jia had been the opposite of that.

“No,” she said finally. “We weren’t friends.”

Excerpted from A Step Past Darkness by Vera Kurian, Copyright © 2024 by Albi Literary Inc. Published by Park Row Books.


Photo Credit: Fredo Vasquez Photography

Vera Kurian is a writer and scientist based in Washington DC. Her debut novel, NEVER SAW ME COMING (Park Row Books, 2021 was an Edgar Award nominee and was named one of the New York Times’ Best Thrillers of 2021. Her short fiction has been published in magazines such as Glimmer Train, Day One, and The Pinch. She has a PhD in Social Psychology, where she studied intergroup relations, ideology, and quantitative methods. She blogs irregularly about writing, horror movies and pop culture/terrible TV.

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