The House by the Cypress Trees start the blog and Instagram tour on 8/26/19. For the full schedule, please see Suzy Approved Book Tours
The story pulls you in, keeps you trapped and on the edge of your seat (on in my case–in my bed, up all night). The setting is an elevator inside an empty luxury tower, the characters are investment bankers who are forced to solve clues and look into their pasts. What could go wrong?
Highly entertaining, well-written, and full of twists and turns and excellently-drawn characters.
Please enjoy an excerpt from THE ESCAPE ROOM BELOW. Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for this excerpt.
It was Miguel who called 911 at 4:07 a.m. on an icy Sunday morning. The young security guard spoke in an unsteady voice, fear disguised by cocky nonchalance.
Miguel had been an aspiring bodybuilder until he injured his back lifting boxes in a warehouse job and had to take night- shift work guarding a luxury office tower in the final stages of construction. He had a muscular physique, dark hair, and a cleft in his chin.
He was conducting a cursory inspection when a scream rang out. At first, he didn’t hear a thing. Hip- hop music blasted through the oversize headphones he wore as he swept his flashlight across the dark recesses of the lobby.
The beam flicked across the classical faces of reproduction Greek busts cast in metal and inset into niches in the walls. They evoked an eerie otherworldliness, which gave the place the aura of a mausoleum.
Miguel paused his music to search for a fresh play list of songs. It was then that he heard the tail end of a muffled scream.
The sound was so unexpected that he instinctively froze. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard strange noises at night, whether it was the screech of tomcats brawling or the whine of construction cranes buffeted by wind. Silence followed. Miguel chided himself for his childish reaction.
He pressed PLAY to listen to a new song and was immediately assaulted by the explosive beat of a tune doing the rounds at the dance clubs where he hung out with friends.
Still, something in the screech he’d heard a moment before rattled him enough for him to be extra diligent.
He bent down to check the lock of the revolving lobby door. It was bolted shut. He swept the flashlight across a pair of still escalators and then, above his head, across the glass- walled mezzanine floor that overlooked the lobby.
He checked behind the long reception desk of blond oak slats and noticed that a black chair was at an odd angle, as if someone had left in a hurry.
A stepladder was propped against a wall where the lobby café was being set up alongside a water fountain that was not yet functional. Plastic- wrapped café tables and chairs were piled up alongside it.
In the far corner, he shone his flashlight in the direction of an elaborate model of the building complex shown to prospective tenants by Realtors rushing to achieve occupancy targets in time for the building’s opening the following month.
The model detailed an ambitious master plan to turn an abandoned ware house district that had been a magnet for homeless people and addicts into a high- end financial and shopping precinct. The first tower was almost finished. A second was halfway through construction.
When Miguel turned around to face the elevator lobby, he was struck by something so incongruent that he pushed his headphones off his head and onto his shoulders.
The backlit green fluorescent light of an elevator switch flickered in the dark. It suggested that an elevator was in use. That was impossible, because he was the only person there.
In the sobriety of the silent echo that followed, he
convinced himself once again that his vague sense of unease was the
hallucination of a fatigued mind. There was nobody in the elevator for the
simple reason that the only people on- site on weekends were the security
guards. Two per shift. Except to night, Miguel was the only one on duty.
When Stu had been a no- show for his shift, Miguel figured he’d manage alone. The construction site was fenced off with towering barbed- wire fences and a heavy- duty electric gate. Nobody came in or out until the shift ended.
In the four months he’d worked there, the only intruders he’d encountered were feral cats and rats scampering across construction equipment in the middle of the night. Nothing ever happened during the night shift.
That was what he liked about the job. He was able to study
and sleep and still get paid. Sometimes he’d sleep for a couple of hours on the
soft leather lobby sofa, which he found preferable to the lumpy stretcher in
the portable office where the guards took turns resting
between patrols. The CCTV cameras hadn’t been hooked up yet, so he could still get away with it.
From the main access road, the complex looked completed. It had a driveway entry lined with young maples in planter boxes. The lobby had been fitted out and furnished to impress prospective tenants who came to view office space.
The second tower, facing the East River, looked unmistakably like a construction site. It was wrapped with scaffolding. Shipping containers storing building materials were arranged like colorful Lego blocks in a muddy field alongside idle bulldozers and a crane.
Miguel removed keys from his belt to open the side entrance to let himself out, when he heard a loud crack. It whipped through the lobby with an intensity that made his ears ring.
Two more cracks followed. They were unmistakably the sound of gunshots. He hit the ground and called 911. He was terrified the shooter was making his way to the lobby but cocky enough to cover his fear with bravado when he spoke.
“Something bad’s going down here.” He gave the 911 dispatcher the address. “You should get cops over here.”
Miguel figured from the skepticism in the dispatcher’s cool voice that his call was being given priority right below the doughnut run.
His heart thumped like a drum as he waited for the cops to arrive. You chicken shit, he berated himself as he took cover behind a sofa. He exhaled into his shirt to muffle the sound of his rapid breathing. He was afraid he would give away his position to the shooter.
A wave of relief washed over him when the lobby finally lit up with a hazy blue strobe as a police car pulled in at the taxi stand. Miguel went outside to meet the cops.
“What’s going on?” An older cop with a thick gut hanging over his belted pants emerged from the front passenger seat.
“Beats me,” said Miguel. “I heard a scream. Inside the building. Then I heard what I’m pretty sure were gunshots.”
“How many shots?” A younger cop came around the car to meet him, snapping a wad of gum in his mouth.
“Two, maybe three shots. Then nothing.”
“Is anyone else around?” The older cop’s expression was hidden under a thick gray mustache.
“They clear out the site on Friday night. No construction workers. No nobody. Except me. I’m the night guard.”
“Then what makes you think there’s a shooter?”
“I heard a loud crack. Sure sounded like a gunshot. Then two more. Came from somewhere up in the tower.”
“Maybe construction equipment fell? That possible?”
A faint thread of red suffused Miguel’s face as he
contemplated the possibility that he’d panicked over nothing. They moved into
the lobby to check things out, but he was feeling less confident than when he’d
called 911. “I’m pretty sure they—” He stopped speaking as they
all heard the unmistakable sound of a descending elevator.
“I thought you said there was nobody here,” said the older cop.
“Could have fooled me,” said the second cop. They moved through to the elevator lobby. A light above the elevator doors was flashing to indicate an elevator’s imminent arrival. “Someone’s here.”
“The building opens for business in a few weeks,” said Miguel. “Nobody’s supposed to be here.”
The cops drew their guns from their holsters and stood in
front of the elevator doors in a shooting stance— slightly crouched, legs
apart. One of the cops gestured furiously for Miguel to move out of the way.
Miguel stepped back. He hovered near an abstract metal sculpture
set into the wall at the dead end of the elevator lobby.
A bell chimed. The elevator heaved as it arrived.
The doors parted with a slow hiss. Miguel swallowed hard as the gap widened. He strained to see what was going on. The cops were blocking his line of sight and he was at too sharp an angle to see much.
“Police,” shouted both cops in unison. “Put your weapon down.”
Miguel instinctively pressed himself against the wall. He flinched as the first round of bullets was fired. There were too many shots to count. His ears rang so badly, it took him a moment to realize the police had stopped firing. They’d lowered their weapons and were shouting something. He didn’t know what. He couldn’t hear a thing over the ringing in his ears.
Miguel saw the younger cop talk into his radio. The cop’s mouth opened and closed. Miguel couldn’t make out the words. Gradually, his hearing returned and he heard the tail end of a stream of NYPD jargon.
He couldn’t understand most of what was said. Something about “nonresponsive” and needing “a bus,” which he assumed meant an ambulance. Miguel watched a trickle of blood run along the marble floor until it formed a puddle. He edged closer. He glimpsed blood splatter on the wall of the elevator. He took one more step. Finally, he could see inside the elevator. He immediately regretted it. He’d never seen so much blood in all his life.
Thirty-four Hours Earlier
Vincent was the last to arrive. His dark overcoat flared behind him as he strode through the lobby. The other three were standing in an informal huddle by a leather sofa. They didn’t notice Vincent come in. They were on their phones, with their backs to the entrance, preoccupied with emails and silent contemplation as to why they had been called to a last-minute meeting on a Friday night at an out-of-the-way office building in the South Bronx.
Vincent observed them from a distance as he walked across the lobby toward them. Over the years, the four of them had spent more time together than apart. Vincent knew them almost better than he knew himself. He knew their secrets, and their lies. There were times when he could honestly say that he’d never despised anyone more than these three people. He suspected they all shared the sentiment. Yet they needed one another. Their fates had been joined together long before.
Sylvie’s face bore its usual expression, a few degrees short of a resting-bitch face. With her cover-girl looks and dark blond hair pinned in a topknot that drew attention to her green eyes, Sylvie looked like the catwalk model that she’d been when she was a teenager. She was irritated by being called to an unscheduled meeting when she had to pack for Paris, but she didn’t let it show on her face. She studiously kept a faint upward tilt to her lips. It was a practice drummed into her over many years working in a male-dominated profession. Men could snarl or look angry with impunity; women had to smile serenely regardless of the provocation.
To her right stood Sam, wearing a charcoal suit with a white shirt and a black tie. His stubble matched the dark blond of his closely cropped hair. His jaw twitched from the knot of anxiety in his guts. He’d felt stabbing pains ever since his wife, Kim, telephoned during the drive over. She was furious that he wouldn’t make the flight to Antigua because he was attending an unscheduled meeting. She hated the fact that his work always took precedence over her and the girls.
Jules stood slightly away from the other two, sucking on a peppermint candy to disguise the alcohol on his breath. He wore a suave burgundy-and-navy silk tie that made his Gypsy eyes burn with intensity. His dark hair was brushed back in the style of a fifties movie star. He usually drank vodka because it was odorless and didn’t make his face flush, but now his cheeks were ruddy in a tell-tale sign he’d been drinking. The minibar in his chauffeured car was out of vodka, so he’d had to make do with whiskey on the ride over. The empty bottles were still rattling around in his briefcase.
As they waited for their meeting, they all had the same paranoid notion that they’d been brought to a satellite office to be retrenched. Their careers would be assassinated silently, away from the watercooler gossips at the head office.
It was how they would have done it if the positions were reversed. A Friday-evening meeting at an out-of-the-way office, concluding with a retrenchment package and a nondisclosure agreement signed and sealed.
The firm was considering unprecedented layoffs, and they were acutely aware they had red targets on their backs. They said none of this to one another. They kept their eyes downcast as they worked on their phones, unaware they were the only ones in the lobby. Just as they hadn’t paid much mind to the cranes and construction fencing on their way in.
Sam checked his bank account while he waited. The negative balance made him queasy. He’d wiped out all the cash in his account that morning paying Kim’s credit-card bill. If he lost his job, then the floodgates would open. He could survive two to three months without work; after that, he’d have to sell assets. That alone would destroy him financially. He was leveraged to the hilt. Some of his assets were worth less now than when he’d bought them.
The last time Sam had received a credit-card bill that huge, he’d immediately lowered Kim’s credit limit. Kim found out when her payment for an eleven-thousand-dollar Hermès handbag was rejected at the Madison Avenue store in front of her friends. She was mortified. They had a huge blowup that night, and he reluctantly restored her credit limit. Now he paid all her bills without a word of complaint. Even if it meant taking out bridging loans. Even if it meant constantly feeling on the verge of a heart attack.
Sam knew that Kim spent money as much for attention as out of boredom. She complained that Sam was never around to help with the twins. He’d had to point out that they’d hired a maid to give her all the help she needed. Three maids, to be truthful. Three within the space of two years. The third had walked out in tears a week ago due to Kim’s erratic temper.
Kim was never satisfied with anything. If Sam gave Kim a platinum necklace, she wanted it in gold. If he took her to London, she wanted Paris. If he bought her a BMW, she wanted a Porsche.
Satisfying her unceasing demands was doable when his job prospects were good, but the firm had lost a major account, and since Christmas word had spread of an impending restructure. Everyone knew that was a euphemism for layoffs.
Sam never doubted that Kim would leave him if he couldn’t support her lifestyle anymore. She’d demand full custody of the girls and she’d raise them to hate him. Kim forgave most of his transgressions, she could even live with his infidelities, but she never forgave failure.
It was Sam who first heard the footsteps sounding through the vast lobby. The long, hurried strides of a man running late to a meeting. Sam swung around as their boss arrived. Vincent’s square jaw was tight and his broad shoulders were tense as he joined them without saying a word.
“You almost didn’t make it,” observed Sylvie.
“The traffic was terrible.” Vincent ran his hand over his overcoat pocket in the habit of a man who had recently stopped smoking. Instead of cigarettes, he took out a pair of glasses, which he put on to examine the message on his phone. “Are you all aware of the purpose of this meeting?”
“The email invite from HR wasn’t exactly brimming with information,” said Sam. “You said in your text message it was compulsory for us to attend. That it took precedence over everything else. Well, we’re all here. So maybe now you can enlighten us, Vincent. What’s so important that I had to delay my trip to Antigua?”
“Who here has done an escape-room challenge before?” Vincent asked.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Sam said. “I abandoned my wife on her dream vacation to participate in a team-building activity! This is bullshit, Vincent. It’s goddamn bullshit and you know it.”
“It will take an hour,” said Vincent calmly. “Next Friday is bonus day. I’m sure that we all agree that it’s smart to be on our best behavior before bonus day, especially in the current climate.”
“Let’s do it,” said Sylvie, sighing. Her flight to Paris was at midnight. She still had plenty of time to get home and pack. Vincent led them to a brightly lit elevator with its doors wide open. Inside were mirrored walls and an alabaster marble floor.
They stepped inside. The steel doors shut behind them before they could turn around.
It’s remarkable what a Windsor knot divulges about a man. Richie’s Italian silk tie was a brash shade of red, with thin gold stripes running on a diagonal. It was the tie of a man whose arrogance was dwarfed only by his ego.
In truth, I didn’t need to look at his tie to know that Richie was a douche. The dead giveaway was that when I entered the interview room, a nervous smile on my pink matte painted lips, he didn’t bother to greet me. Or even to stand up from the leather chair where he sat and surveyed me as I entered the room.
While I categorized Richie as a first-class creep the moment I set eyes on him, I was acutely aware that I needed to impress him if I was to have any chance of getting the job. I introduced myself and reached out confidently to shake his hand. He shook my hand with a grip that was tighter than necessary—a reminder, perhaps, that he could crush my career aspirations as easily as he could break the bones in my delicate hand.
He introduced himself as Richard Worthington. The third, if you don’t mind. He had a two-hundred-dollar haircut, a custom shave, and hands that were softer than butter. He was in his late twenties, around five years older than I was.
When we were done shaking hands, Richie leaned back in his chair and surveyed me with a touch of amusement as I settled into my seat across the table.
“You can take off your jacket and relax,” he said. “We try to keep interviews informal here.”
I took off my jacket and left it folded over the back of the chair next to me as I wondered what he saw when he looked at me. Did he see a struggling business-school graduate with a newly minted MBA that didn’t appear to be worth the paper it was written on? Or was he perceptive enough to see an intelligent, accomplished young woman? Glossy brown hair cut to a professional shoulder length, serious gray eyes, wearing a brand-new designer suit she couldn’t afford and borrowed Louboutin shoes that were a half size too small and pinched her toes.
I took a deep breath and tried to project the poise and confidence necessary to show him that I was the best candidate. Finally I had a chance at getting my dream job on Wall Street. I would do everything that I could humanly do not to screw it up.
Richie wore a dark gray suit with a fitted white shirt. His cuff links were Hermès, arranged so that the H insignia was clearly visible. On his wrist was an Audemars Piguet watch, a thirty-grand piece that told everyone who cared that he was the very model of a Wall Street player.
Richie left me on the edge of my seat, waiting awkwardly, as he read over my résumé. Paper rustled as he scanned the neatly formatted sheets that summed up my life in two pages. I had the impression that he was looking at it for the first time. When he was done, he examined me over the top of the pages with the lascivious expression of a john sizing up girls at a Nevada whorehouse.
All the lights in the elevator turned off at once. It happened the moment the doors shut. One moment they were in a brightly lit elevator; the next they were in pitch- darkness. They were as good as blind, save for the weak fluorescent glow from a small display above the steel doors showing the floor number.
Jules stumbled toward the elevator control panel. He pressed the button to open the doors. The darkness was suffocating him. He had to get out. The elevator shot up before anything happened. The jolt was unexpected. Jules lost his footing and fell against the wall with a thud.
As the elevator accelerated upward, they assumed the lights would be restored at any moment. In every other respect, the elevator was working fine. It was ascending smoothly. The green display above the door was showing the changing floor numbers. There was no reason why it should be dark.
Without realizing it, they shifted toward one another, drawn
together by a primordial fear of the dark and the unknown dangers that lurked
within it. Jules fumbled for his phone and turned on the flashlight setting so
that he could see what he was doing. He frantically pressed the buttons for
upcoming floors. They didn’t appear to respond to the insistent pressure of his
“It’s probably an express,” explained Sylvie. “I saw a sign in the lobby that said something about the elevator running express until the seventieth floor.”
Jules pressed the button for the seventieth floor. And the
seventy-first. And, for good measure, the seventy- second, as well. The buttons
immediately lit up one after the other, each button backlit in green. Jules
silently counted the remaining floors. All he could think about
was getting out.
He loosened his tie to alleviate the tightness in his chest. He’d never considered himself claustrophobic, but he’d had an issue with confined spaces ever since he was a child. He once left summer camp early, in hysterics after being accidentally locked in a toilet stall for a few minutes. His mother told the camp leader that his overreaction was due to a childhood trauma that left him somewhat claustrophobic and nervous in the dark.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ll be taking the stairs on the way down,” Sam joked with fake nonchalance. “I’m not getting back into this hunk of junk again.”
“Maybe the firm is locking us up in here until we resign voluntarily,” Jules said drily. “It’ll save Stanhope a shitload of money.” He swallowed hard. The elevator was approaching the fortieth floor. They were halfway there. He had to hold it together for another thirty floors.
“It would be a mistake if the firm retrenched any of us,”
said Vincent. “I told the executive team as much when we met earlier this
week.” What Vincent didn’t mention was that several of the
leadership team had avoided looking at him during that meeting. That was when he knew the writing was on the wall.
“Why get rid of us? We’ve always made the firm plenty of money,” Sylvie said.
“Until lately,” Vincent said pointedly.
They’d failed to secure two major deals in a row. Those
deals had both gone to a key competitor, who had inexplicably undercut them
each time. It made them wonder whether their competitor had inside knowledge of
their bids. The team’s revenue was lower than it had
been in years. For the first time ever, their jobs were vulnerable.
“Are we getting fired, Vincent?” Jules asked as the elevator continued rising. “Is that why we were summoned here? They must have told you something.”
“I got the same generic meeting invite that you all received,” Vincent responded. “It was only as I arrived that I received a text with instructions to bring you all up to the eightieth floor for an escape room challenge. The results of which, it said, would be used for ‘internal consultations about future staff planning.’ Make of that what you will.”
“Sounds like they want to see how we perform tonight before deciding what to do with us,” said Sylvie. “I’ve never done an escape room. What exactly are we supposed to do?”
“It’s straightforward,” said Sam. “You’re locked in a room and have to solve a series of clues to get out.”
“And on that basis they’re going to decide which of us to fire?” Jules asked Vincent in the dark.
“I doubt it,” Vincent said. “The firm doesn’t work that way.”
“Vincent’s right,” said Jules cynically. “Let’s take a more optimistic tack. Maybe they’re using our escape room performance to determine who to promote to Eric Miles’s job.” Eric had resigned before Christmas under something of a cloud. They’d heard rumors the firm was going to promote someone to the job internally. Such promotions were highly sought after. At a time when their jobs were in jeopardy, it offered one of them a potential career lifeline.
The green display above the door flashed the number 67. They had three more floors to go until the elevator finished the express part of the ride. The elevator slowed down and came to a stop on the seventieth floor. Jules exhaled in relief. He stepped forward in anticipation of the doors opening. They remained shut.
He pressed the open button on the control panel. Nothing happened. He pressed it again, holding it down for several seconds. The doors still didn’t budge. He pressed the button three times in quick succession. Nothing. Finally, in desperation, he pressed the red emergency button. There was no response.
“It’s not working,” he said.
They looked up at the panel above the door that displayed the floor numbers. It had an E on its screen. Error.
A small television monitor above the control panel turned on. At first, they didn’t think much of it. They expected to see cable news or a stock market update, the type of thing usually broadcast on elevator monitors.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the brightness of the white television screen. After another moment, a message appeared in large black letters.
TO THE ESCAPE
ROOM. YOUR GOAL IS SIMPLE.
GET OUT ALIVE.
From The Escape Room. Copyright © 2019 by Megan Goldin and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.
THE EAST END
Author: Jason Allen
Publication Date: 5/7/19
Publisher: Park Row Books
Author Bio: Jason Allen grew up in a working-class home in the Hamptons, where he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs for wealthy estate owners. He writes fiction, poetry, and memoir, and is the author of the poetry collection A MEDITATION ON FIRE. He has an MFA from Pacific University and a PhD in literature and creative writing from Binghamton University, and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches writing. THE EAST END is his first novel.
THE EAST END opens with Corey Halpern, a Hamptons local from a broken home who breaks into mansions at night for kicks. He likes the rush and admittedly, the escapism. One night just before Memorial Day weekend, he breaks into the wrong home at the wrong time: the Sheffield estate where he and his mother work. Under the cover of darkness, their boss Leo Sheffield — billionaire CEO, patriarch, and owner of the vast lakeside manor — arrives unexpectedly with his lover, Henry. After a shocking poolside accident leaves Henry dead, everything depends on Leo burying the truth. But unfortunately for him, Corey saw what happened and there are other eyes in the shadows.
Hordes of family and guests are coming to the estate the next morning, including Leo’s surly wife, all expecting a lavish vacation weekend of poolside drinks, evening parties, and fireworks filling the sky. No one can know there’s a dead man in the woods, and there is no one Leo can turn to. With his very life on the line, everything will come down to a split-second decision. For all of the main players—Leo, Gina, and Corey alike—time is ticking down, and the world they’ve known is set to explode.
Told through multiple points of view, THE EAST END highlights the socio-economic divide in the Hamptons, but also how the basic human need for connection and trust can transcend class differences. Secrecy, obsession, and desperation dictate each character’s path. In a race against time, each critical moment holds life in the balance as Corey, Gina, and Leo approach a common breaking point. THE EAST END is a propulsive read, rich with character and atmosphere, and marks the emergence of a talented new voice in fiction.
5 stars. Eloquent exploration into the world of the Hamptons, full of contrasts and secrets. We follow two main storylines: the family who is struggling with poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence, and the family who is struggling from the excess of wealth. The two families deal with moral dilemmas, love affairs, substance abuse, and some very difficult choices until the very end. The author explores each character masterfully and dramatically, making this an irresistible read. While this novel has strong thriller elements, I would place it firmly into a literary category.
THE EAST END
Blog Tour Excerpt
After sunset, Corey Halpern sat parked at a dead end in Southampton with his headlights off and the dome light on, killing time before the break-in. As far as he knew, about a quarter mile up the beach the owners of the summerhouse he’d been casing for the past two weeks were busy playing host, buzzed from cocktails and jabbering beside the pool on their oceanfront deck, oblivious that a townie kid was about to invite himself into their mansion while they and their guests partied into the night.
Smoke trailed up from the joint pinched between Corey’s thumb and forefinger as he leaned forward and picked up a wrinkled sheet of paper from the truck floor. He smoothed out his final high school essay, squinting through the smoke-filled haze to read his opening lines:
In the Hamptons, we’re invaded every summer. The mansions belong to the invaders, and aren’t actual homes—not as far as the locals are concerned. For one thing, they’re empty most of the year.
The dome light flicked off and he exhaled in semidarkness, thinking about what he’d written. If he didn’t leave this place soon, he might never get out. Now that he’d graduated he could make his escape by taking a stab at college in the fall, but that would mean leaving his mother and brother behind, which for many reasons felt impossible, too abstract, the world outside this cluster of towns on the East End so unimaginably far away….
If only he could write as he saw things, maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad, though each time he’d put pen to paper and tried to describe these solo hours at the ocean, or anything else, the words remained trapped behind locked doors deep inside his head. Sitting on his heels, he reached up and pressed the faint bruise below his right eye, recalling the fight last weekend with that kid from North Sea and how each of them had been so quick to throw punches…
A few miles later, with Iggy Pop and The Stooges blaring from his door panel, it made perfect sense to take the night to a whole new level and rob his mother’s bosses before they came out from the city; before Gina came home crying after one of the longer, more grueling workdays; before he joined her for the summer as the Sheffields’ servant boy. Iggy reinforced the necessity of the much higher risk mission—the need to do it now—as he belted out one of his early-seventies punk anthems, the lyrics to “Search and Destroy” entering Corey’s brain and seeping much deeper inside his chest as a truth he’d never been able to articulate for himself. His fingers tapped steadily on the wheel when he turned off Main.
He drove slowly for another block or two, his pulse beating in his neck as he turned left at the pyramid of cannonballs and the antique cannon on the edge of town. A couple blocks later, he downshifted around the bend, rolled to a stop and parked beside a wooded section of Gin Lane. From there he didn’t hesitate at all. He hustled along the grass bordering the roadside, past hedgerows and closed gates and dark driveways, until the Sheffields’ driveway came into view. A life-size pair of stone lions sat atop wide stone bases and bookended the entrance, two males with full manes and the house number chiseled onto their chests. Corey knew the lions held a double meaning. His mom’s boss put these statues out here partly because they looked imposing, the type of decorations kings used to choose, but also because they stood as symbols of August birthdays, the same astrological sign as Mr. Sheffield’s first name—Leo.
He stood still for a moment, looking between the bars of the tall iron gates crowned with spikes. Beginning tomorrow morning, and then all throughout Memorial Day weekend— just as he had the past few summers—he’d spend long days working there. Gina would be so pissed if she could see him now. She’d at least threaten to disown him if she ever found out he’d broken in, but that would be a hollow threat anyway, and he’d already convinced himself that she’d never know. The Sheffields should have paid her more to begin with, even if she didn’t have a deadbeat husband like Ray pissing her meager savings away on his court fees and gambling debts. But the memory that sealed Corey’s decision tonight had been replaying in his mind for almost a year—the dinner party last summer, when Sheila Sheffield yelled at his mom right in front of him and about ten guests, berating her for accidentally dropping a crystal chalice that she said cost more than Gina’s yearly salary. While Leo and the grown Sheffield kids looked on dumbly and didn’t bother to make a peep, Corey had followed Gina into the kitchen and stood a few feet away from her, unable to think of what to say to console her while she cried. Ever since then, he’d wanted to get back at them all.
Fuck these people, he thought.
He would rob them, and smash some windows on his way out so they wouldn’t suspect anyone who worked there. All he had to do was make sure not to leave any evidence behind, definitely no fingerprints, and he’d take the extra precaution of scaling the gates rather than punching in the code.
He wriggled his fingers into his gloves. Crickets chirped away in the shadows, his only witnesses as he looked over each shoulder and back through the bars. He let out a long breath. Then he gripped the wrought iron and started to climb.
Moonlight splintered between the old oak branches and cut across his body like blades. It took only a few seconds to grapple up the bars, though a bit longer to ease over the spear-like tips while he tried to shut out a nightmare image of one of them skewering his crotch. Relieved when his legs reached the other side unharmed, he shimmied down the bars like a monkey and dropped, suddenly hidden from the outside world by the thick hedge wall. Poised on one knee, he turned to his left and scanned the distant mansion’s dark windows, the eaves and gables. The perfectly manicured lawn stretched for acres in all directions, a few giant oaks with thick limbs and gnarled trunks the only natural features between the faraway pines along the property line and a constellation of sculptures. A scattered squad of bronze chess pieces stood as tall as real-life soldiers, with two much larger pieces towering behind them—a three-ton slab of quartz sitting atop a steel column and a bright yellow Keith Haring dog in mid stomp on its hind legs, each the size of an upended school bus or the wing of a 747, all the sculptures throwing sharp shadows across the lawn when Corey rose to his feet, leapt forward and ran toward the Sheffields’ sprawling vacation home.
His sneakers crunched along the pebble driveway, his steps way too loud against the quiet until he made it across the deeper bed of beach stones in the wide parking area and passed through an ivy-covered archway, still at top speed while he followed the curved path of slate down a gentle slope, and then pulled up at the corner of the porch. Breathing heavily, he grappled up the post and high-stepped onto the railing, wiping sweat from his forehead when he turned to face Agawam Lake. The moon’s light came ladling down onto the water like milk and trailed into the darkness of the far shore, while in the reeds beside the nearest willow tree a pair of swans sat still as porcelain, sleeping with their bills tucked at their breasts.
No one will know, he thought. The crickets kept making a soft racket in the shadows. The swans seemed like another good omen. But then a light went on inside one of the mansions directly across the water, and Corey pulled his body up from the railing, thinking he should get inside before someone saw him. He quickly scaled the corner porch beam and trellis while trying to avoid the roses’ thorns, even as they snagged his sleeves and pant legs. Then, like a practiced rock climber, in one fluid motion he hoisted himself from the second-story roof up to the third-floor gable. He crouched there, looking, listening. The house across the water with the light on was too far away to know for sure, but he didn’t see any obvious signs of anyone watching from the picture windows. Probably just some insomniac millionaire sipping whiskey and checking the numbers of a stock exchange on the other side of the world.
Confident that he should press on, Corey half stood from his crouch and took the putty knife from his back pocket to pry open the third-story bathroom window, the one he’d left unlatched the previous day when he’d come there with his mother. The old window sash fought him with a friction of wood on wood, but after straining for a few seconds he managed to shove the bottom section flush with the top, and was struck immediately by the smells of Gina’s recent cleaning— ammonia, lemon and jasmine, the chemical blend of a freshly scoured hospital room. Balanced at the angle of the roof, he stared down at the neighboring properties once more. Still no sounds, no lights, no signs that anyone had called the cops, so he turned and stretched his arms through the window and shimmied down until he felt the toilet lid with both gloved hands and his sneakers left the shingles, all his weight sliding against the sill as he wriggled in.
Although he hadn’t been sure whether he’d ever go through with it, he’d plotted this burglary for weeks, the original iteration coming to him during Labor Day weekend last year. The first step had been to ask Gina if he could clean the Sheffield house with her for a few extra bucks before the summer season began. She’d raised an eyebrow but agreed, approving at least of her teenager’s out-of-character desire to work, and throughout the past week, whenever she’d left him to dust and vacuum the third floor, he’d had his chance to run recon and plan the point of entry. He knew she wouldn’t bother to check the latch on a closed window three stories off the ground, not after she’d scrubbed and ironed and Pledged all day. And more important, by then he knew those upper-floor windows had no seal-break sensors. He knew this because a few days earlier he’d left this very same window open before Gina armed the alarm, and afterward nothing happened—no blaring sounds before they pulled away, no call or drive-by from a security officer. So tonight, again, the security company wouldn’t see any flashing red lights on their computer screens. Not yet anyway, not until he smashed a window downstairs and staged a sloppy burglary scene on his way out.
Despite knowing that nobody would be out till Friday, his footsteps were all toe as he crept from the dark bathroom and into the hazy bluish hall, and yet, even with all this effort to tread lightly, the old floorboards still strained and creaked each time his sneakers pressed down. Trailing away from him, a black-and-white series of Ansel Adams photos hung in perfect rows, one on either side of the hall, hundreds of birch trees encased in glass coverings that Corey had just recently Windexed and wiped. Every table surface and light fixture and the entire length of the floor gleamed, immaculate, too clean to imagine the Sheffields had ever even set foot in here, let alone lived here for part of the year. He’d always felt the house had a certain coldness to it, and thought so again now, even though it had to be damn near eighty degrees inside with all the windows closed.
After slowly stepping down one set of stairs, Corey skulked along the second-floor hall, past the doorway to Mr. and Mrs. Sheffields’ master bedroom and then past Andy’s and Clay’s rooms, deciding to browse Tiffany’s bedroom first, his favorite room in the house. The Sheffields’ only daughter had a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of hardcover novels, stage plays and poetry collections, a Super 8 projector, stacked film reels and three antique cameras. He’d spent as much time as possible in this room during his previous workdays, mainly staring at the paintings mounted on three of the walls, and now lingered once more looking at each textured image, surprised all over again that a rich girl had painted these shades of pain, these somber expressions on the faces of dirty figures in shabby clothes, compositions of suffering he’d have expected from a city artist teetering between a rat-hole apartment and a cardboard box in an alley. They all had something, that’s for sure, but one portrait had always spoken to him much more than any of the others. He stood before it and freed it from its hook.
At the window he noticed the light had gone off at the mansion across the lake and figured the insomniac must have drunk enough for sleep. Although he knew he shouldn’t, he flicked on Tiffany’s bedside table light to get a better look at the girl in the painting, her brown eyes, full lips, caramel skin, her black hair flowing down to divots between her collarbone and chest. He knew Tiffany had painted it, but also that it wasn’t a self-portrait. She looked nothing like the girl she’d painted. Anorexically skinny, Tiffany had dyed-blond hair and usually wore too much makeup. In one photo with her parents and two older brothers, while the rest of the family had dressed in country club attire, she had on a tank top and frayed jean shorts, dark sunglasses, the only one of them with any tattoos, the only one barefoot on the grass.
Corey searched her shelves until he found the photo of Tiffany’s best friend, the girl from the painting, Angelique. He’d seen her at the estate plenty during the previous summers, and last Labor Day weekend they’d talked many times, their conversations lasting longer and seeming to have more depth until finally he summoned the courage to ask her out. Her long pause had made him wish he could disappear, and then those four awful words, I have a boyfriend, had knocked the wind out of him just before he nodded with his eyes to the ground and walked away. Reliving the disappointment, he killed the lamplight and lay on the bed with her photo on his chest, and then, stupidly, closed his eyes…
Excerpted from The East End by Jason Allen, Copyright © 2019 by Jason Allen. Published by Park Row Books.
I have just finished this fantastic book and I strongly recommend it not only as a great work of fiction but also for people who are looking for books about mental illness. This book impressed me on many levels. The language is witty, intelligent, and emotionally-charged. The charming, and adorable main characters are brought to life on every page. The plot was surprising with every chapter. And I absolutely couldn’t put it down.
Plot Summary from Amazon:
No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.
Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.
But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.
Soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .
The only way to survive is to open your heart.
What I love about this story:
Eleanor struggles with mental illness (PTSD and alcoholism) and her symptoms are portrayed accurately and without judgment. The traumatic experience which caused her PTSD is portrayed appropriately and without traumatizing the reader. Eleanor’s friends are supportive and kind.
Eleanor’s darkest moments are portrayed only to show there is hope and kindness of strangers. Is that overly optimistic? Perhaps. But this is better than the alternative or fiction being too dark and traumatizing someone with a mental illness.
The mental health professional in this novel is accurately described. Her office doesn’t have a stereotypical couch, candles, and strange decor I always caution authors against. The truth is–psychologists keep their offices boring. Therapy sessions are described accurately, the book has clearly had an expert advisor. Therapy is helpful, not hurtful, and I commend the author for portraying therapy in such a manner.
I recently reviewed this incredible novel for The Washington Independent Review of Books. You can read the review here.