My third novel, The Association, comes out today, and I’d like to share with you, Dear Reader, the first chapter. Join Ivy as she tries to unravel the mysteries of Avalon Estates before they unravel her.
Look presentable. Presentable? When had Ivy Sylvan ever not looked presentable? The thought screamed through her mind, her grip tightening on the steering wheel. Where the hell did her brother get off suggesting that she would show up to his house—and that was another thing, not his basement lair at their parents’ place, not his shitty studio apartment, but his fucking house—and look anything less than exceptional? The fact that she was going to prove the necessity of his reminder by appearing to be, in no uncertain terms, a hot mess when she pulled up was purely coincidental and frankly total bullshit. She planned to tell him off for that comment—what did he know about being presentable anyway—right after she finished thanking him, of course.
But Ivy’s anger was doused as her hatchback rolled to a stop outside the gates of Avalon Estates. How she’d found the community at all was mostly dumb luck. Her GPS had gone all wonky in the historic downtown of Ogden Bluffs a few miles up the road, and she had to get guidance from a local, wandering into a cutesy holistic shop along the village’s main street. She would have chosen the bakery next door on smell alone, but it already boasted a line that ran out onto the sidewalk. A lady with feathers braided into her hair and a far-off look gave Ivy spotty directions after a long, thoughtful, or perhaps thoughtless, pause. She also offered her a protection crystal that she had personally blessed for $29.95. Ivy insisted the directions were all she needed.
An elaborate gate reached up and over where Ivy could see through her windshield, massive with detailed scrolling work in the wrought iron, a fanciful “A” worked into its center suggesting she was in the right place despite that this was not at all what she expected. The gate connected to a sturdy brick wall the height of which made her feel she’d somehow been wrong about fences her whole life. It sprawled out in either direction and disappeared beyond where she could see. Ivy took in a deep gulp of the stale air circulating in the car, her skin prickling as she peered through the bars to the community beyond.
There was a hard tap on her window, and she yelped. A man stood with his face pressed up against the glass, and Ivy sighed, eyeing the guard booth just off the winding drive. She scrambled with the wrong buttons, first unlocking then relocking the car twice and unrolling the back, passenger window. She plastered on a wide smile when her fingers finally got it right and offered him a salutation at least two octaves higher than her normal voice.
Wearing a thick mustache and mirrored aviators, he slung an arm up on the roof of her car, leaning down. “Miss? How can I help?”
“Oh, right, sorry.” Ivy grabbed her ID from the center console—her brother had warned her about the security though she hadn’t really bought it—and held it up for the guard. “I’m here to see Oakley Sylvan at 210 Ironwood Place.”
“Are you?” He took her license and examined it, his brow crooked over the sunglasses frame. “You must be Mr. Sylvan’s sister then.”
Mr. Sylvan? She wrinkled her nose. Who calls him that? “That’d be me.”
He held the ID up next to her face. “I suppose I see the resemblance.”
Ivy frowned. She actually liked her license photo. She’d woken early the day of the renewal, applied a subtle contour to straighten out her nose, the perfect her-lips-but-better nude to accentuate her Cupid’s bow, donned a lavender top that complimented the hazel of her eyes, and was first in line at the DMV with a green tea latte in hand. She wasn’t nearly as put together now, but the reflection she caught of herself in the guard’s sunglasses was a lot worse than she’d expected. God, she looked rough.
She managed another smile as she plucked her license back. “I did the big chop a little while ago.” Her photo had full-bodied curls with blonde highlights, but today she was sporting shoulder-length hair with significantly grown out roots. She’d missed wiping off some of her day-old, flaking makeup by the shoddy lights of a gas station bathroom hours ago, and the deep circles under her eyes that no concealer would deign to cover had gone a bruisey sort of purple. No, she didn’t look like her license picture, but it hadn’t been taken 24 hours after the worst series of events she’d ever endured either, so it wasn’t exactly a fair comparison.
But it was close enough, apparently. His mustache bristled in the direction of the gate. “All the way up the road, take the bend to the left, then another left, and you’ll find Ironwood Place.” He stuck his finger over the threshold of the window, pressing on Ivy’s personal space bubble. “No detours.”
He swaggered back to the brick station beside the fence, his almost-official blue polo tucked into pants a bit too tight, hitching them up a tick as he gave her one last look before flicking a switch for the gate. Huge and ornate, it swung open with a long, low creak that pierced her ear and made her shiver. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, willing it to go faster so she could finally get to her brother’s house.
Her brother’s house. There was that fact again, eating at her like mosquitoes at twilight. The same brother who, up until only a couple months earlier, had been living with their parents for his twenty fourth year straight. This was what dreaming felt like, she thought. Not the good, fuzzy-feeling kind, but the weird, something’s-not-right-but-I-can’t-figure-out-what kind. She glanced quickly down to her lap, but no, she had on pants; this wasn’t a nightmare. Yet she still felt under dressed.
Despite its name, Avalon Estates didn’t appear to have any estates. There were plenty of trees though, and if it weren’t for the paved road and the high walls, she would have thought she had gotten lost. Thick branches reached overhead, blocking out the early-morning sun, and her car wound down a shadowy road until she crested a hill and saw it all laid out on the other side.
Nestled into a hollow below, a neighborhood sprawled out along a web of streets. The homes were placed far apart, sitting indiscriminately around the loop that made up the neighborhood’s middle and then along the many legs that jutted off of that, not one particularly similar to another.
Ivy was taken aback by the incongruity, slowing a moment to take a longer look at the top of the hill. From the gate and the community name, she’d expected nearly identical McMansions with beige siding and faux stone and tiny lawns all mowed and edged every Tuesday by some guy named Cliff who definitely couldn’t afford to live there, but these were markedly unique. Her eyes pinged from a cherry log cabin to a fanciful Victorian to a set of boxes all configured atop one another like a piece of abstract art. And then they were gone as the road dipped down and curved around a bend carved into slick, black rocks.
She surfaced surrounded by more trees and finally came to the first crossroad where she slowed, but before she could veer left, a sound rumbled up the street and was upon her from the right, loud and thunderous. A pickup truck, gargantuan, bright red, and streaming smoke from its chrome stacks blew out ahead of her, taking the turn and rumbling up the way she’d come. Ivy couldn’t see the driver as it passed, the truck was too tall, but she got a good whiff of exhaust with her window down, coughing as the sound disappeared behind her.
Catching her breath and checking both ways, she proceeded on, finally breaking out of the thickest part of the forest and seeing her first house up close. It had a long, twisty drive, sat up on a manicured hill, and was bubblegum pink. “The HOA can’t possibly allow that,” she muttered, remembering the time her parents railed against their own homeowners’ association for fining them for leaving the trash bins on the curb a day longer than allowed. But then she came to the next house, set off far enough from the first that neither could see the other, a standard ranch except for the four story tower built into its center like a lighthouse in a sea of trees.
Ivy looked back to the road just in time to slam on the breaks. A creature darted in front of the car, and as it scurried away into the shadow of the trees on the other side of the street, she rubbed her eyes, sure that whatever it had been couldn’t have actually been that brilliantly green. Great, now she was hallucinating too.
Ivy blinked and pulled her eyes back onto the road staring straight ahead until she got to the next stop sign at Ginkgo Loop. Here, the road leveled out and a sidewalk began. The houses were a bit closer together, but just as distracting in their styles with sprawling lawns, set back from the main road.
A young man clad in gym shorts and a sweat-soaked shirt jogged up to the stop sign that Ivy had just reached. She waved him across, and he picked up speed. When he grinned and waved a thank you, her face went all hot, and she looked away. After a quick breath, she popped her head back up, hoping to catch a last glimpse of him as he jogged off, but he seemed to have completely disappeared. Just poof, gone, magically, the sidewalk running either way empty.
Then she heard a groan and stuck her head out the window. “Oh, my god, are you all right?”
“Fine!” he called back, hopping up onto his feet from the spot on the asphalt he’d just slammed into. He wiped at his brow and took off at double speed.
“At least I didn’t run him over,” she mumbled, turning carefully down Ironwood Lane. “The last thing I need today is a dead body to deal with.”
If you enjoyed that, there’s a whole novel more! Pick up The Association now!