Below is the first chapter of my next novel, titled HELL IS EMPTY. The title is from a line from Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, "Hell is empty and all the devils are here." This definitely would not be classified as literary fiction, as FLOATING TWIGS is. This is a thriller, which should be obvious by the end of the first paragraph. However, in this book I explore the damage done to an entire family when tragedy like this strikes, as well as trying to convey some of the terror being subjected to such torture creates in the victim, Maureen. I have begun working on chapter six, but I will post only the first chapter of this one for now. Be advised that this is NOT meant for children! Comments are urged! Just comment as a "Guest," but I would appreciate if you would "sign" your post so I know who is commenting. Keep in mind this is a work in progress. The final version may look nothing like this.

Maureen awoke to the sound of water dripping from a faucet somewhere. She lay there, aware only of the hollow tick of drops hitting metal like a bizarre metronome and the headache that wanted to rip her head apart. She could feel her nudity as her eyelids fluttered. The darkness surrounding her was so complete she had to blink to make sure her eyes were open as she wondered where she was. She tried to move, but taut ropes secured her wrists and ankles to something solid. Then memory began slinking back.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she grasped her last memory and moved forward from it.

She had decided to walk the two miles home from school instead of taking the bus so she could stop at a local rec center to watch Bobby Pepperdine play basketball. She would still arrive home in plenty of time to avoid being grounded again.

She took a shortcut through a neighborhood development. When she saw the van, she wondered if the driver had gotten lost. The same van with the rusty dent on the rear bumper had passed her just a few minutes before. Otherwise, the street was empty. The van turned onto the next street and stopped there. How does it feel to be clueless, dumb-ass? she thought.

As she crossed the empty street behind the van, the rear door burst open and muscular arms dragged her inside. A strong hand holding a rag reeking of chemicals clamped her mouth shut as she struggled, and within seconds of being grabbed the van’s rear door slammed. Her abductor’s face, hidden by a grotesque Halloween mask, swam into view before she blacked out. The next thing she remembered was waking up in this darkness.

Panic seized her as the full impact of what had happened punched her chest, and she screamed. Only the man standing near the end of the bed wearing night-vision goggles heard her.


Lori Dobson swung the Audi into the driveway, braking suddenly to avoid demolishing her teenage son’s bicycle. She couldn’t count the times she had told Craig to make sure he kept the driveway clear of his things, and for a moment, she considered the harsh object lesson of running over the expensive Schwinn, but she knew that would only be punishing herself and their bank account. Stephen would insist on buying Craig a new bike, especially if he knew she had destroyed this one on purpose.

She honked the horn, hoping Craig would hear and come move his bike, but the honking only served to scatter a few birds from the elm in their front yard. Finally, she pulled herself out of the car and wheeled the bicycle onto the grass where she dumped it. Climbing back into the Audi, she pushed the garage door opener on her visor and pulled in, finally getting out and gathering the few groceries and a file from work before entering the house.

Her older daughter Callie was at the kitchen table, hovering over her phone with all the concentration of a scientist mixing volatile chemicals. Lori placed the grocery bags on a counter.

“Callie, could you stop texting for a minute and help put these groceries away?”

Callie grunted what could have been a yes, but Lori wasn’t sure.

“Now, please?” Lori said, putting the milk in the refrigerator.

Callie rose from her chair with a huff and started unloading a bag.

“Where’s Craig?” Lori asked.

“In his room.”

“What’s he doing?”

“How would I know?” Callie answered, shoving a box of cereal into a cabinet before closing the door a bit harder than necessary.

Ignoring Callie’s petulance, Lori went down the hall to Craig’s room, gathering all her patience as she went. He was Callie’s twin, but other than the mid-teen angst, they were as different as their genders.

Knocking on the door, she waited for him to open it. When he didn’t, she pushed the door open a crack and called, “Craig?” Nothing. She opened the door farther and saw him lying on his bed, reading a book with his ear buds firmly planted so he could listen to music, which was so loud she could hear it herself from the open doorway.

Annoyed, Craig looked at his mother and yanked an ear bud free. “Yeah?”

“First, you’re going to damage your hearing if you don’t turn that down. And second, you left your bike in the driveway again. I didn’t stop in time, so now it’s ruined.”

“What?!” He jumped from his bed, tossing the book onto the mussed covers.

“Okay, I did manage to stop this time, but next time you might not be so lucky. For the millionth time, put your bike away when you’re done with it. I left it in the grass. Go put it away.”

Craig heaved a sigh and stomped out of his room.

 “Where’s Maureen?” she called after him.

Craig shrugged as he walked away. “I don’t know. Haven’t seen her since lunch.”

“She wasn’t on the bus?”


Frustrated, Lori returned to the kitchen, where Callie was back on her phone, her thumbs a blur on the keypad.

“Have you seen Maureen?”

“No,” Callie said without looking up.

“Why didn’t you tell me she wasn’t on the bus?”

“I don’t know, maybe because you didn’t ask?” Callie answered without looking up. “Besides, I figured you must have known.”

Lori felt a pang of disquiet. She always made sure her children were safe when she got home. It was her routine. Maureen could be headstrong, but she would always make sure at least somebody knew where she was. Checking the house phone’s last message, she found it was two days old.

Pulling her phone from her purse, she noted she’d not received any calls from Maureen and pressed a few buttons to call her. When the call went immediately to voice mail, Lori’s pang of disquiet became a twinge of unease tinged with anger. Her children were on strict orders to make sure their phones were charged overnight and not used during the school day unless absolutely necessary. Letting someone know about being home late qualified as necessary. Not only that, turning their phones off if they weren’t home was totally forbidden. Lori glanced at the time on her phone: 5:42.

Where the hell was she? And why did her call go to voice mail? Had Maureen traveled so far from home that she was in some rural area with no signal? Lori considered it but discarded the idea as far-fetched. There was no way any of her children would do such a thing without letting someone know, not even Maureen.

She phoned Emma’s mother, but there was no answer, the call eventually going to voicemail.

Doing her best to calm down, she decided to call Stephen. The kids sometimes called him instead of her, though that was so rare she couldn’t remember the last time it had happened. Still, it seemed to be the only explanation left.

As Stephen’s phone rang, she managed to convince herself that he would know where their daughter was. Maybe Emma, Maureen’s best friend since they were babies practically, had asked her to go somewhere with her family or something, perhaps to go out to the country to get some pumpkins from a local farm for Halloween.

“Hey, Hon,” Stephen said when he answered. “What’s up?”

“Did Maureen call you and tell you she wouldn’t be home ‘til later?”

“No. Why? She’s not home?”

“No, and Callie and Craig haven’t seen or heard from her either.”

“Well, she’s probably with Emma or something and forgot to call. Why not call her?”

“Oh, wow. Why didn’t I think of that?

“You called?”

“Yes, Stephen. It went straight to voice mail.”

He could hear the panic beginning to take root in her. “Maybe she’s having so much fun she decided to turn her phone off.”

“Only if she wants her mom to kill her,” Lori said. “She knows the rules.”

“Have you tried Anita?” Anita was Emma’s mother.

“Yes, but she didn’t answer.”

“Maybe she dropped her phone and something broke,” Stephen offered.

For a moment Lori tried to stifle her anger that Stephen wasn’t as upset as she was. What he’d said was possible, but if that had happened, she would have simply borrowed someone else’s phone. She told Stephen this, speaking in a tone that suggested he was a small child himself.

Stephen sighed. “She’ll be home. Then we can ground her. I’m sure there will be a rational explanation for everything.”

“Stephen! She’s not home, she hasn’t called on her phone or anyone else’s, and she knows the rules!”

“Calm down, Lori. I’m coming home now. We can figure out what to do if she hasn’t called or come home by then.”

After disconnecting, Lori called Maureen again, praying she would answer. When the voice mail answered again she hissed, “Maureen Dobson! We don’t know where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing, or when you’ll be home! Call me the second you get this message!”

By nine o’clock that evening, Stephen’s panic was matching Lori’s. Without saying Maureen was technically missing, Lori had finally gotten ahold of Emma's mother and was told Maureen wasn't there and that Emma was with another friend and had mentioned nothing about Maureen joining them. They called the police and tried to report her missing, but the police believed she had run away because she had done that twice already, though only as far as Emma's house. They refused to do anything for twenty-four hours, explaining that Maureen qualified for the waiting period because of her past instances. Lori reluctantly admitted they might be right. She had always called her “my harebrained child.” It was possible she might think running away somewhere other than Emma's would be a good idea.

Lori prayed Maureen had run away. Any other explanation made her heart seize. She was only fourteen. She would discover the world was a mean place and come home with her tail between her legs, apologetic and frightened.

She tried not to think of the possibility that Maureen had been kidnapped or was lying in a ditch somewhere, but the ideas would intrude on her hope like a phone call in the middle of the night. If she were hurt, she would eventually come to and call home. But she knew that if Maureen had been abducted, their chances of seeing her alive again were probably near zero.