The Quiet Child
by John Burley
From the award-winning author of The Absence of Mercy, comes a gripping and darkly psychological novel about family, suspicion, and the price we are willing to pay to protect those we love the most.
It’s the summer of 1954, and the residents of Cottonwood, California, are dying. At the center of it all is six-year-old Danny McCray, a strange and silent child the townspeople regard with fear and superstition, and who appears to bring illness and ruin to those around him. Even his own mother is plagued by a disease that is slowly consuming her.
Sheriff Jim Kent, increasingly aware of the whispers and rumors surrounding the boy, has watched the people of his town suffer—and he worries someone might take drastic action to protect their loved ones. Then a stranger arrives, and Danny and his ten-year-old brother, Sean, go missing. In the search that follows, everyone is a suspect, and the consequences of finding the two brothers may be worse than not finding them at all.
Instead, Michael closed the door, waited for Sean to walk around the rear of the vehicle and join him on the driver’s side. Behind them, along Gas Point Road, the traffic was light. A battered Ford pickup backfired once as it drove past, heading toward the highway, its brake lights winking as it approached the access ramp. On the opposite side of the street, a man in a tan jacket hustled across the empty pavement in its wake.
“Pick out a flavor,” Michael said as they headed inside.
“How about two?” Sean asked, hopeful.
“Two then,” he replied, “but make one of them strawberry for your mother. And get some coffee and sugar while you’re back there.” His right hand went to the breast pocket of his shirt, fingers retrieving his pack of Camels, tapping one out, placing it in the corner of his mouth. “Evening, Stan.”
“Michael,” Stan Eddleworth greeted him from behind the counter and stubbed out his own cigarette in the ashtray on the shelf to his left. The man turned, placed his thick hands on the glass in front of him. At sixty-two, Stan had hair that was more silver than gray, the metallic sheen enhanced by his styling pomade and the pale, granite blue eyes that seemed to observe the world through a light haze of smoke. The market’s proprietor leaned forward, his posture canted to the right, his good leg supporting most of his weight. He’d lost the other one during the First World War, a casualty of infection from his time in the trenches. What was left of it merged with a wood and leather prosthesis just south of the knee. If the leg bothered him, as Michael imagined it must, Stan never mentioned it. And despite the black wooden stool behind the counter, he always seemed to stand, keeping vigil, a remnant perhaps of the duties he’d been relieved of long ago.
“How’s Kate?” Stan asked, glancing toward the back of the store where Sean had gone to fetch the ice cream.
“Doing well, thanks,” Michael said, snapping his lighter closed and returning it to his pocket. He inhaled deeply, tilted his head upward slightly as he blew out a thin train of smoke. He turned to study the rack of newspapers, picked up a copy of the Chronicle—Eisenhower signs communist control act the headline read—and placed it on the counter. “Shame we need a law,” he commented, tapping the paper.
Stan nodded. “Hoover says it’ll just force subversives deeper into hiding—make the FBI’s job more difficult.”
“Right. But now Senator Watkins and his committee are taking a hard look at McCarthy. Ike must be happy about that.”
Sean emerged from the aisle with two cartons of ice cream in hand, the coffee and sugar balanced on top. He set them down on the counter and walked over to the rack of comics in the shop’s entryway. A dying glimmer of sunlight spilled through the door’s window, illuminating the back of the boy’s head, a hint of scalp visible beneath the dusky blond crew cut, the tan neck bent slightly to study the illustrated covers.
“Is he back in school yet?” Stan asked, and Michael returned his attention to the man in front of him.
“Supposed to start up again tomorrow. Me too,” he added, thinking of the roster of students he’d been assigned at Anderson Union High this year, how the first few weeks were always a struggle against the inertia that had set in over two months of summer vacation. “It’ll be fifth grade for Sean. Seems hard to believe.”
And Danny? Stan could’ve asked, but didn’t. And that was how it was with Michael’s younger son, as if the boy’s silence gave people the right to ignore him, to pretend he didn’t exist. He was a ghost, a quiet child the townspeople referred to only in whispers.
“That’ll be a dollar eighty-two,” Stan said from behind the register. Michael blinked, and looked up at the store owner. Stan smiled back at him blandly. The two cartons of ice cream, coffee, sugar, and a newspaper sat waiting in a brown paper bag. In the parking lot outside, a car ignition turned over irritably a few times before springing to life.
The cogs of the Ferris wheel turned, lifted them into the night. Kiss her before it’s too late, Michael thought to himself. Hold on to this girl in the pale blue dress and the thrum of her heartbeat against your ribs. Let her know that she’s yours.
He dug into his back pocket for his wallet, retrieved it, and pulled out two singles. “Sean, do you want a comic?” he asked, turning toward the shop’s entrance.
The last syllable of his sentence ended as a click in the back of his throat. From the parking lot outside, he could hear tires on gravel—not slowing to a stop, but speeding up, spinning slightly as the driver gunned the engine.
“Sean?” Michael called, taking a step toward the door and the abandoned rack of comics, his tongue suddenly dry and gritty.
“Think he went outside,” Stan commented, his voice sounding alien and distorted in the small confines of the store.
John Burley is the award-winning author of The Absence of Mercy, honored with the National Black Ribbon Award, and The Forgetting Place. He attended medical school in Chicago and completed his emergency medicine residency at University of Maryland Medical Center and Shock Trauma in Baltimore. He continues to serve as an emergency medicine physician in Northern California.
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/John-Burley/e/B00E5V4BSM