In a suburb on Boston’s North Shore, a catatonic little girl is found behind a dumpster. She is a mystery. As Social Worker Debbie Gillan pieces together the puzzle of the child’s identity, she discovers the child had disappeared two years earlier along with a twin sister. She also discovers HANNAHWHERE, an alternate world that is both a haven and a prison…. Life altering trauma becomes the key to unraveling the truth about the children, about Hannahwhere…and about Debbie herself. Truths that could either save them or destroy them all.
Elm Creek, Nebraska
Anna sensed the ugly on him the instant he came in the door. It wafted from him and surrounded him like fumes from gasoline. With Travis, it always involved the senses, from the vibrations of his movements to the loudness of his voice, from the heat of his temperament to—worst of all—the stench of his addiction. The reek of the alcohol he drank and the pungent chemical smell of an even darker dependency—the one that turned him from regular mean to savage mean—made him ugly, and turned home into a house of dread. It assailed Anna’s nostrils, her eyes, her ears, and her every nerve.
Travis was no more interested in the children than he was in the cat. He treated both in much the same manner, which was with minimal contact except to occasionally kick them aside with a dirty beige work boot should one happen into his path.
Anna, with the fairness shown by most seven-year-old children, would admit to two things she did like about Travis: the bold musky scent of his cologne, which saturated the small house after he showered, and his deep and soothing singing voice. Both were completely out of character for a man who existed on a level of frenzy similar to that of an alarm clock buzzer. Even though they were twins, Hannah wasn’t quite so forgiving.
When the demons of Travis’s addiction grabbed ahold of him they multiplied, and it was safer to stay clear. Anna’s mother called the ever-increasing occasions when her boyfriend got high getting ugly. During these times, she would tell Anna and Hannah to play in the bedroom or go outside. She called this staying out of harm’s way.
Travis had never physically harmed Anna or Hannah, but neither had he ever displayed the slightest hint of affection. He wasn’t their father or stepfather, and neither of the girls desired or even considered the possibility of him being such. Physical contact did not exist between Travis and the sisters outside of him occasionally pushing them away with a long bony arm or the aforementioned boot. Anna was fine with that. She would rather he never touch them, yet she did feel that someday he might hurt them, or worse.
Thus far, Travis had only hurt their mother Elizabeth, which was primarily why Anna and Hannah did not like him and avoided him whenever possible. When he would come home, ugly and smelling bad, those were especially dreadful times, and Anna felt as if he could hurt anyone and everyone, but it was always Mom who got hurt.
After his outbursts, Travis usually took off, ranting and raving and subsequently leaving Mom with a swollen cheek, a weepy eye, or some other flavor of injury. Once Travis was gone, Mom would come into the bedroom to comfort and reassure them. Everything is fine Mom would lie through swollen lips. Afterwards they would sing. They always sang.
The heavy stomp of Travis’s work boots across the rear deck had become the warning system, but today it sounded different. It was rushed, and frenetic. His boots hammered up the deck like thunder and the door slammed open before Anna had time to react. It barely missed her, swinging hard enough to blow the hair back from her face. Anna dropped her doll and staggered back as an intense combination of bad smells washed over her. She didn’t dare look up. She retrieved her doll and ran for the safety of her bedroom.
She listened from within her bedroom as Travis stormed about the kitchen flinging open cabinet doors. She heard the sound of fluttering papers, plastic cups spilling, and containers bouncing off the countertop and onto the floor. The shattering of plates and glasses filled the house as Travis screamed incoherently. Mom ran into the kitchen and tried to settle him down, but it didn’t work. It never worked. Anna wondered why her mother even tried when they all knew he was just going to hurt her.
“Be quiet,” Elizabeth angrily hushed Travis.
Anna heard Hannah’s and her names spoken in a hushed tone, and then Travis started saying horrible and atrocious things to her Mother, threatening her and swearing at her.
“Where’s the fucking money!” he yelled.
“Watch your language!” Mom said.
“Fuck you, and fuck them!” yelled Travis.
“It’s my money! I put it where you can’t get it!” Mom yelled back. “I’m sick and tired of you expecting me to support you. You keep get worse and worse. You’ve hardly worked since I met you and you haven’t worked in nearly a year. You haven’t even tried to get a job! All you do is drink, get high, and steal my money! You’re a goddamned drug addict! ”
Travis hollered something Anna couldn’t understand.
“You’re a piece of shit!” Elizabeth yelled. “You’re worse than shit! At least shit can be useful!”
Anna seldom heard her mother say bad words, and she had never before heard her call anyone names. She did once tell Anna and Hannah that sometimes you just needed to swear or you’d explode. Mom’s anger scared Anna.
“Get out! I want you gone!”
A scuffle ensued and Anna heard the sound of numerous things skittering across the linoleum and realized that the spice rack had fallen. There was a sharp and familiar cracking sound and Mom cried out in pain. Travis had slapped Mom. It was always the ugliest sound, and it always left her mother’s face red and swollen.
Anna started crying. Even though her mother told her that staying strong helped you to stay safe, Anna couldn’t help it. How could she stay strong when her mother was being hurt?
Sitting on her bed, squeezed into the corner, Anna screamed, “Leave my mom alone!”
“Shut the fuck up!” Travis yelled back.
Anna knew he was yelling at her so she jumped up and closed the door, but not all the way. She wanted to help her mother, but she didn’t know how. He was too big and frightening. A heavy concussion rattled the whole house as her mother hit the kitchen floor.
“Ow! Let go of my hair!” Mom screamed, her voice weighted with anger, but Anna recognized the fear, too.
Anna slipped silently through her bedroom doorway and inched her way up the hall. She peeked around the corner and into the kitchen, hoping she could do something to help, yet knowing she probably couldn’t.
Travis had Mom’s hair wrapped around his hand and dragged her across the kitchen floor by it while she kicked and fought. It was all a tangled mess, not long, lovely, and golden like usual. He kept demanding the money, his voice raspy and loud, almost growling. It was the worst Anna had ever seen him. She knew she was supposed to get away from him when he was like this. She needed to go into her room, into her hiding place, and sing it away. Sing so loud you can’t hear anything but your song, Mom had told them.
Anna tried to sing, but she was too terrified. Her sister Hannah had always been there to make the singing work. They always did it together. She’d never done it without her.
Anna’s mom grabbed at a drawer handle and yanked it free from the cabinet. It crashed to the floor, scattering silverware, steak knives, and utensils, trailing behind her as Travis dragged her across the linoleum. Mom blindly patted the floor, seeking desperately for anything to protect herself. Jerking her body toward the island, she lifted a long knife from the floor. It was sharp and serrated with many teeth, but was not pointed… a bread knife.
She swiped at Travis’s hand, but he evaded her and started yanking her back and forth violently by her hair, so hard she slammed into the cabinets and chairs. He bent over the counter, never letting go of her hair, and pulled a large, French chef’s knife from a wooden block. As he did this, Mom swung her knife upward with renewed intent, but the rounded end hit Travis’s jacket sleeve and did no harm. He slashed Mom’s hand with the chef’s knife and her own weapon fell to the floor. Mom covered her right hand with her left as blood seeped from her knuckles and ran down the length of her raised arms, soaking through the sleeve of her sunny yellow shirt. Seeing her mother’s blood, Anna changed direction. Her fear for herself transformed itself into a fear of losing her mother.
Anna ran into the kitchen and screamed at Travis with every bit of her being, “Stop hurting my mom!”
All motion stopped. Travis held her gaze with dilated, savage eyes, and breathing as if he’d just run a mile at full speed. A silence descended over the house.
The wooden screen door at the back of the house slammed with a crack as Hannah came into the kitchen holding Shrek, their cat. Seeing the disarray in the kitchen and Travis standing over her bloodied mother, Hannah’s eyes widened in alarm and she shrieked. Travis lunged for her, but Mom wrapped her arms around his legs, tackling him to the kitchen floor.
“Run!” she yelled to her daughters. “Run! Hide like I showed you!”
Mom snatched the bread knife from the floor and swung at Travis, scoring a mean slash across his cheek. Anna wanted to cheer.
“Fucking bitch!” Travis bellowed. He swept the chef’s knife downward, driving it into Elizabeth’s breast. It sank to the handle, making a horrible, wet noise as it went in.
Frozen, Anna watched her mother’s face contort with pain. Elizabeth took a whistling breath and screamed her anguish and fear, a sound like Anna had never heard before. “Ruuunnn!”
Thawed by her mother’s voice and Hannah pulling at her, Anna turned and sprinted for the back door. Her mother’s shrieks turned to sobs and the sound of her agony followed them… and the sound of the knife, too loud in her ears.
Anna vaulted from the back steps and ran alongside the house, following Hannah. They passed the living room windows and Mom’s car and then Hannah dove into the crawlspace under the house where Mom had said to go if things ever got really ugly. It was their secret place.
The hinged access door, built from wooden planks, stood slightly open with its hook and eye lock unlatched. Anna could see the bottoms of Hannah’s pink and white sneakers, and her hair, so long and so impossibly white in the darkness, as she scuttled under the house on hands and knees. Wishing she had her own sneakers on, she hesitated, but then followed Hannah under the house barefoot.
She could hear Hannah whimpering in the dimness ahead of her, which made her aware that she could no longer hear her mother crying. This was a bad thing, she knew, but she also knew she had to obey her mother. She closed the wooden panel behind her, sinking them into near darkness, and crawled after Hannah, who was scrabbling over small mounds of dirt toward the barely discernible outline of the chimney at the far side of the house. Anna realized if she could see that well, it was too light, which meant the door hadn’t closed properly. A look over her shoulder verified that the panel was slightly open.
Overhead, something dragged across the floor, sounding like a mattress or a big bag of laundry, though they both knew what it was. Hannah stopped to look back at Anna and shook her head, scattering her tears. Mom said that they had to stay down here. Anna tried to stop crying so he wouldn’t hear her, but her sobs turned into hiccups. They felt like something that was trying to escape from inside her and she couldn’t fight them.
Will he notice the panel? Will he know they were here?
She heard Travis cross the length of the living room, from the far corner of the house, heading to their mother’s bedroom with swift and determined footsteps. Anna was sure he was still looking for the money, and she wondered why her mother didn’t just give it to him. Furniture moved, drawers and doors slammed, and Travis bellowed in anger. A huge crash followed, glass shattered, and Anna was positive the floor would soon collapse on top of them.
Overcome by the certainty that Travis would notice the slightly opened hatch, Anna turned, shambled forward, and pulled it closed, but it popped open again when she released it. She tried holding the panel in place by the edge of the crosshatch, but her fingers just weren’t strong enough and the panel kept resisting.
“Anna,” Hannah hissed from the far under the house. “Come on, we have to go!”
“The door won’t stay shut,” said Anna. “He’ll see it.”
Panic blossomed within Anna when she noticed the silence, and that the crashing and shattering above them had stopped. Travis was not stomping around anymore. She listened, motionless, trying to hear something, anything that would tell her where Travis was, but all was absolutely still.
“C’mon!” Hannah repeated in an urgent hush. “Let’s go!”
Anna’s fingers were now hurting and shaking with the effort to hold the defiant panel in place. She grabbed beneath the panel, her hand squeezing through the gap and above the pavement on the outside. She released her top hand and flexed it against the pain. Hannah was making furtive noises, trying to tell her something, but it interfered with the concentration she needed to hear.
A little tinkling sound floated to her ears. It was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place the jingling sound. The jangling sound of…
Anna saw a shifting of shadows beneath the panel as something moved past, and she had the sinking realization that Travis was right outside the crawlspace. The panel fought her and she prayed her fingertips didn’t fail her.
She heard a scraping on the other side of the access door, and then Travis’s foot stomped down, trapping her fingers against the pavement. Panic seized her and she tried to pull free, but Travis pressed harder. The pain was terrible. Tears flowed as she fought her need to cry out. The pressure finally disappeared, and the relief was so enormous that Anna couldn’t move. Basking in her reprieve from the pain, she unthinkingly slid her little hand from under the door, allowing it to spring open.
Travis stood just outside, towering over her and glaring at her. He had Mom’s car keys dangling from a hooked finger, pinging and dinging as he pulsed under the spell of his drug-fueled frenzy. On the largest key she could see a large red thumb print, and could see blood all over Travis, thick on his shirt, his pants, splattered on his hands and across his gaunt face. Their eyes locked. His were bugged and so dilated that they appeared completely black. Anna held her throbbing fingers to her chest and backed away.
“Where–is–the-money?” Travis whispered in an ominous staccato.
Terrified, Anna held his hypnotic gaze while still inching backwards.
“Where is the money?” he screamed.
It thawed her and she sprang backward, away from the little doorway and toward the darkness under the house. He dove through the opening, landing on his belly right in front of her.
“Where is it, you little shit? Tell me!” he growled, spittle running over his chin and blending with her mother’s blood.
Anna backpedaled, trying to increase the gap between them, but he lunged again and grabbed her ankle in steely hands. A small set of arms wrapped around her from behind, trying to pull her deeper into safety, but Travis was too strong, insanely strong, and he yanked her, shrieking, across the dirt surface and back to the opening. Reaching out, trying to clutch onto anything, Anna grabbed for the traitorous door. She embraced it and her arm jammed beneath it, lodging between the wood and the asphalt. He yanked her free with a feral growl, and the pain was brutal, blinding, and complete. He dragged her to Mom’s car, across the searing, crumbled surface of the hot driveway.
Mercifully, slipping into darkness, Anna lost consciousness.