Exclusive Excerpt: Alison Gaylin’s What Remains Of Me

WHAT REMAINS OF ME by Alison GaylinWe love a good mystery and Alison Gaylin’s new title, What’s Remains of Me is getting tons of buzz! The RT Top Pick!, out tomorrow, wowed our reviewer, who said, “This exploration of human failings and the effect of secrets will have you thinking of these characters long after the last page.” We are totally hooked!

When seventeen year-old Kelly Michelle Lund shot and killed the Oscar-nominated director James McFadden, she became an overnight media sensation. Her twisted smile was said to have inspired nightmares across the country. But did she do it? After 30 years in prison Kelly finally appears to have her life back on track, until her father-in-law is found dead from a bullet to the head …

After Shane left, Kelly stared at the closed door for a while before walking back into the kitchen. She made a pot of coffee, toasted some bread—no sense in cooking a big breakfast if Shane wasn’t going to be around. The whole time, she didn’t think about Sterling Marshall. She didn’t think about anything. She just listened for the birds.

The desert was so quiet, especially compared to Carpentia where there had been so much noise. All that shouting and clanging all night long, everything echoing—footsteps and singing and screams. Somebody would weep, it didn’t matter how late at night it was or how far away the weeper was from Kelly’s cell, the sound of it would travel. It would weave its way into her thoughts and wake her up if she’d been lucky enough to get to sleep at all. She used to wad up toilet paper, shove it in her ears, but that did no good. The sounds vibrated. She could feel them.

Here, though, in Joshua Tree, you had to strain to hear birds. Kelly leaned against the kitchen window. She put her ear to the glass as the coffee bubbled, listening for the wow, wow of the Gambel’s Quail, the cry of the golden eagle, the death-rattle clacking of the roadrunner’s beak.

When she’d first gotten out of Carpentia and she and Shane had moved here, Kelly had bought a guide and memorized all the desert species—their names, their field marks, their calls and nesting patterns. She’d put a few feeders outside to draw the braver ones closer, and now she wanted to hear more of them, the flap of their wings, the chirping and rustling as they landed and ate, and most of all, those subtle sounds she couldn’t hear from indoors—the sounds they made leaving, knowing they’d come back.

It wasn’t until Kelly had taken her coffee and her toast back to her workspace in the bedroom that she thought about her father-in-law again—and only then when she saw the news story on her home page.

Kelly’s brain had a way of doing that. Avoidance, the shrink at Carpentia had called it, but she thought of it more as organizing her emotions. It was as though Kelly had a big file cabinet in her head and she could take her feelings and slide them into drawers and lock them up, deal with them later.

Problem was, lately, the drawers kept flying open.

Kelly stared at the picture: a dashing young Sterling Marshall, as he appeared in his Oscar-winning role in the 1950s war movie Guns of Victory. She clicked on the link and skimmed the article:

Movie legend Sterling Marshall is dead at the age of 79 of an apparent suicide . . .

Marshall had recently been diagnosed with cancer . . .

 . . . though sources say he may have left behind a note, the contents of the alleged suicide note have not been revealed . . .

Suicide? A note?

Kelly’s cell phone was on her bedside table—resting next to its charger, because she hadn’t plugged it in last night. Kelly was always forgetting to charge her phone, forgetting so consistently that it almost felt intentional, almost as though she had a need to see the phone die. Shane had once said that to Kelly after failing to reach her one night. He’d apologized immediately—so obviously mortified over his own choice of words that it made Kelly’s cheeks flush. “I’m just not used to modern technology,” she had said.

The phone still had a few gasps in it. She plugged it into the charger, tapped in Shane’s cell number. It rang a few times, then went to voice mail. “The news reports are saying suicide,” she said into the phone. “They say your father had cancer. Did you know, Shane? Had he told you about it before? I wish I could help or . . . I don’t know what I wish. I’m sorry. I hate to see you hurt.” Kelly’s voice sounded strange to her. Tinny and insincere. It didn’t matter. She was speaking to no one, having ended the call before saying any of it. Kelly turned back to the computer.

The actor’s daughter, Bellamy Marshall, 48, a multimedia artist who came to fame in the mid-’90s with a series of controversial painted photographs, accompanied by tape-recorded interviews . . .

Kelly stopped reading. Her gaze drifted back to the picture—the wavy dark hair and the cleft chin, the black eyes that were Shane’s eyes and Bellamy’s eyes—velvet- soft and fathomless . . .

Kelly shut her eyes, an old afternoon flooding her mind. A sunshiny, spring afternoon in 1980, when Sterling Marshall was only Bellamy’s dad and his house was only Bellamy’s house and Shane was nothing more than Bellamy’s annoying little brother.

On this particular afternoon, Kelly had been curled up with Bellamy on her zebra print rug as they so often were back then, watching British music videos on Bellamy’s enormous TV—first VCR Kelly had ever seen—a bag of Doritos nestled between them. They’d been stoned out of their minds, piling chips into their mouths and crunching away, their fingers stained that salty orange. Kelly could remember Mr. Marshall cracking the door and poking his handsome head into the room. “Please turn the music down, girls.

Without even thinking about it, Kelly had said, “Okay, Dad.

Did you just call him Dad?” Bellamy had said. “Oh my God that’s so cute!

Funny how close the past can feel—close enough to grab onto and let it pull you along. But once you reach out. Once you reach to touch it . . . She had loved him once. She’d envied Bellamy for having Sterling Marshall in her life, because compared to her own father he had seemed so strong. “Okay, Dad,” she had said. And maybe a part of her had said it on purpose. Wishful thinking, back then, back when she still thought wishfully . . .

Kelly exhaled in a rush, sweeping the memory away. For a few seconds, she allowed herself to recall the closer past, the previous night. And then came thoughts of other things that needed to be swept away, needed to be cleaned.

Inside Kelly’s closet, on the floor behind the two neat rows of shoes, lurked her clothes from last night—the jeans, the new Adidas sneakers, the soft, pale gray hoodie she’d bought at Target last fall. She thought about throwing them all out. Of burning them in the yard, maybe tossing them in the trunk of her car and driving ’til she could find an open gas station Dumpster.

But these were all favorite clothes, more noticeable in their absence—especially to Shane, observant photographer that he was. “What happened to those jeans I love on you?” he might say. Or, “Didn’t you just buy a new pair of running shoes?

Besides, the stains weren’t that bad.

Kelly scooped the clothes up in her arms without looking at them, without seeing the rust-brown splotches on the sneaker soles, the hem of a pant leg, the edge of a pale gray sleeve. She brought them into the kitchen and dropped them in the washing machine—sneakers first, then hoodie, T-shirt, jeans, socks, followed by a cup of detergent, two cups of bleach. It almost felt like a ceremony. She worked the knobs on the machine, selecting Heavy Duty, selecting Hot Water, turning away as she did it. Avoidance.

It was a two-year-old stainless steel washing machine, sleek and efficient. And before Kelly returned to her workspace, she listened to it for a while. There was comfort in the whoosh of the water, the grind of the motor, the sounds the machine made, erasing Sterling Marshall’s blood.

“It’s over with,” Kelly whispered. Then she went to work.

Kelly’s job enabled her to use the part of her mind she liked using most. It was the same part she used when she drove—the part that could escape her body, her life.

She flipped open her laptop and called up her latest photo, her work in progress, a wholesome brunette she’d decided to call Danielle G. “What’s your story, Danielle G.?” Kelly whispered, the way she always did when she called up her photos.

For four years and counting, Kelly had worked for SaraBelle.com—an online “no-strings-attached” dating service for married men and women (mostly men) who were looking to cheat on their spouses. It was her job to write what her bosses called “grabbers”—alluring female profiles to accompany the models’ photographs displayed prominently on SaraBelle’s home page. All of the grabbers were fake. Paying the membership fee allowed you to click on them, which in turn would unlock the actual site, where you could explore the real, more prosaic, profiles and pictures.

Kelly’s job may or may not have been legal. She hadn’t asked. She hadn’t investigated. She didn’t care.

A Hollywood Photo Archives client who happened to be a silent partner in SaraBelle.com had recommended her at Shane’s request. After a brief phone conversation, the site’s administrator had offered Kelly what he called a “creative writing position.” And she had said yes immediately, no questions asked. Sitting at home, face hidden behind a laptop screen, dreaming up “ideal women” all day long . . . There was no job more suited to Kelly’s needs or skill-set. The idea that Shane had known that about her—that he’d been certain enough of her ability to make things up to put her in contact with the powers that be—troubled Kelly for reasons she couldn’t quite put her finger on. But that didn’t make her any less grateful.

Kelly had decided Danielle G should be thirty-two, the mother of a six-year-old son and married to a banker. Her hobbies: Pilates, cooking, yoga, staying in shape. (Redundant yes, but on this site, with these men for customers, you never could talk about your body too much.)

She opened up the field called My Story, started typing: I always thought Bill was enough for me, but once our son Jack went off to preschool and I started spending long days at home alone, I was able to see everything that was missing from my life. More and more, marriage has seemed like a crutch—a convenience. There is such yearning within me—he doesn’t see it but there is. Making love to Bill can’t fill it. My fantasies and my romance books and even my vibrator can’t fill it. It is a desire that overpowers. An endless, aching need.

Kelly’s hands jumped off of the keyboard. She blinked at the screen. Where did that come from? A line that had no place in a grabber. Too poetic. Too pretentious. But it was familiar. That sad kind of familiar that she couldn’t get a handle on at first but once she did, once she knew . . . It was . . . Oh, it was . . .

An endless aching need.

A line from “The Rose.” Bette Midler.

The doorbell rang. Kelly stood up, her heart still pounding, the song still in her head, that drawer flying open . . .

She headed out of her bedroom with her hands over her ears, as though the song were playing out loud and not in her head. “Stop,” she whispered. “Stop it, stop it, stop it . . .”

It only subsided once she neared the front door. The bell rang again. Shane. It had to be. Probably forgot something. Or maybe . . . Maybe he wants me to go to the house with him after all . . .

She put her hand on the door but stopped when she saw the looming figure in the fogged glass beside it. Bigger and taller than her husband.

“Ms. Lund?” The voice at the door was deep and serious and not at all familiar.

“Yes?” She had to reply. He could see her through the fogged glass just as easily as she could see him.

“Would it be all right if I come in?” He pressed his badge up against the glass as the washing machine twisted into a new cycle. “I’m with the LAPD. Homicide.”

What Remains Of Me will be available in digital and print on February 23, that’s tomorrow! Preorder a copy: Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks | IndieBound. And on the off chance you’re killing time at work, check out some more excerpts right here.

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