"A compelling family mystery that kept me turning the pages. Highly recommended."--Margaret Maron, New York Times bestselling author of Three Day Town
"Dear Tommie: Have you ever wondered about who you are?"
The letter that turns Tommie McCloud's world upside down arrives from a stranger only days after her father's death. The woman who wrote it claims that Tommie is her daughter--and that she was kidnapped as a baby thirty-one years ago.
Tommie wants to believe it's all a hoax, but suddenly a girl who grew up on a Texas ranch finds herself linked to a horrific past: the slaughter of a family in Chicago, the murder of an Oklahoma beauty queen, and the kidnapping of a little girl named Adriana. Tommie races along a twisting, nightmarish path while an unseen stalker is determined to keep old secrets locked inside the dementia-battered brain of the woman who Tommie always thought was her real mother. With everything she has ever believed in question, and no one she can trust, Tommie must discover the truth about the girl who vanished--and the very real threats that still remain.
"[Julia Heaberlin's] voice is pitch perfect, and her story of one woman's fierce struggle to reconcile her past with her present is gripping and powerful. An outstanding debut."--Carla Buckley, author of Invisible
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May 29, 2012
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Excerpt from Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin
Despite its name, Ponder, Texas, pop. 1,101, isn't a very good place to think. Four months out of the year, it's too damn hot to think.
It is a good place to get lost. That's what my mother did thirty-two years ago. The fact that she successfully hid this from almost everyone who loved her makes her a pretty good liar. I'm not sure what it says about me.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother would tell my fortune to keep me still. I vividly remember one August day when the red line on the back porch thermometer crept up to 108. Sweat dribbled down the backs of my knees, a thin cotton sundress pressed wet against my back. My legs swung back and forth under the kitchen table, too short to reach the floor. Granny snapped beans in a soothing rhythm. I stared at a tall glass pitcher of icedtea that floated with mint leaves and quarter moons of lemon, wishing I could jump in. Granny promised a storm coming from Oklahoma would cool things off by dinner. The fan kept blowing the cards off the table and I kept slapping them down, giggling.
The fortune is long forgotten, but I can still hear the anguished joy of my mother playing a Bach concerto in the background.
Two years later, on the worst day of my life, what I remember most is being cold. Granny and I stood in a darkened funeral parlor, the window air conditioner blowing up goose bumps on my arms. Cracks of September sunlight tried to push in around the shades. It was at least ninety degrees outside, but I wanted my winter coat. I wanted to lie down and never wake up. Granny gripped my hand tighter, as if she could hear my thoughts. Merle Haggard blared from a passing pickup truck and faded away. I could hear my mother crying from another room.
That's how I remember Mama--present but absent.
I'm not like that. People know when I'm around.
I've been told that I have a strange name for a girl, that I'm nosy, that I'm too delicate to carry a gun. The first two are true.
I've been told that it's weird to love both Johnny Cash and Vivaldi, that I'm way too white for a Texan and too skinny for a fast food junkie, that my hair is long and straight enough to hang a cat, that I look more like a New York City ballet dancer than a former champion roper. (In Texas, New York City is never a complimentary adjective.)
I've been told that my sister, Sadie, and I shouldn't have beaten up Jimmy Walker in fifth grade because he is still whining about it to a therapist.
I've been told that growing up in Ponder must have been an idyllic childhood, picket fence and all. I tell those people I'm more familiar with barbed wire and have the scars on my belly to prove it.
I learned early that nothing is what it seems. The nice butcher at the Piggly Wiggly who saved bones for our dogs beat his wife. The homecoming queen's little sister was really the daughter she had in seventh grade. That's the way life was.
In a place like Ponder, everyone knew your secrets. Atleast, that's what I thought before. I never pictured my mother, the legendary pianist of the First Baptist Church of Ponder, as a woman with something to hide. I never dreamed that opening a stranger's letter would be pulling a loose thread that would unravel everything. That, one day, I'd scrutinize every memory for the truth.
The letter is five days old and I have read it forty-two times. It is pink and smells like the perfume of a woman I don't know. It arrived on a Wednesday, right to Daddy's office, sandwiched between a plea from Doctors Without Borders and a brochure on a new exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum.
Daddy's secretary, Melva, a former teacher and widow on the upside of her sixties, picked the envelope out of the stack as something I needed to see. Personal, she said. Not spit out by a computer. A sympathy card, perhaps, because that was one of the few things people still felt obligated to write by hand.
When I opened it and read the careful feminine scrawl, I felt the earth shift. The tremor started low, in my toes, and worked its way up, although I can't say why the letter had such an instant effect on me.
The odds were that the woman who wrote this was a scam artist. Or simply had the wrong girl. The wrong Tommie McCloud, spelled with an ie.
Each of the forty-two times I read the letter, I wanted to hop in my pickup and go home to Mama, even though Mama isn't there and home is now an empty ranch house with faded flowered sheets covering the furniture like an indoor meadow.
But home is also endless rolling land, shimmering heat, sweet memories that thrum in the air with the cicadas. Home pulls at me like a magnet. Even when my body is hundreds of miles away, my soul stays behind, clinging to the live oak by the cement pond where I learned to dog paddle.