The Returned

by Jason Mott

The Returned

Hardcover, 338 pages, Harlequin Books, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Book Summary

When their son Jacob, who died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966, arrives on their doorstep, still eight years old, Harold and Lucille Hargrave must navigate a strange new reality as chaos erupts around the world as people's loved ones are returned from beyond.

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Excerpt: The Returned

The Returned

The Returned


Harlequin Enterprises Limited

Copyright © 2013 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7783-1533-9


Harold opened the door that day to find a dark-skinned man in a well-cut suitsmiling at him. At first he thought of reaching for his shotgun, but then heremembered that Lucille had made him sell it years ago on account of an incidentinvolving a traveling preacher and an argument having to do with hunting dogs.

"Can I help you?" Harold said, squinting in the sunlight—light which only madethe dark-skinned man in the suit look darker.

"Mr. Hargrave?" the man said. "I suppose," Harold replied.

"Who is it, Harold?" Lucille called. She was in the living room being vexed bythe television. The news announcer was talking about Edmund Blithe, the first ofthe Returned, and how his life had changed now that he was alive again.

"Better the second time around?" the announcer on the television asked, speakingdirectly into the camera, laying the burden of answering squarely on theshoulders of his viewers.

The wind rustled through the oak tree in the yard near the house, but the sunwas low enough that it drove horizontally beneath the branches and into Harold'seyes. He held a hand over his eyes like a visor, but still, the dark-skinned manand the boy were little more than silhouettes plastered against a green-and-bluebackdrop of pine trees beyond the open yard and cloudless sky out past thetrees. The man was thin, but square-framed in his manicured suit. The boy wassmall for what Harold estimated to be about the age of eight or nine.

Harold blinked. His eyes adjusted more.

"Who is it, Harold?" Lucille called a second time, after realizing that no replyhad come to her first inquiry.

Harold only stood in the doorway, blinking like a hazard light, looking down atthe boy, who consumed more and more of his attention. Synapses kicked on in therecesses of his brain. They crackled to life and told him who the boy wasstanding next to the dark-skinned stranger. But Harold was sure his brain waswrong. He made his mind to do the math again, but it still came up with the sameanswer.

In the living room the television camera cut away to a cluster of waving fistsand yelling mouths, people holding signs and shouting, then soldiers with gunsstanding statuesque as only men laden with authority and ammunition can. In thecenter was the small semidetached house of Edmund Blithe, the curtains drawn.That he was somewhere inside was all that was known.

Lucille shook her head. "Can you imagine it?" she said. Then: "Who is it at thedoor, Harold?"

Harold stood in the doorway taking in the sight of the boy: short, pale,freckled, with a shaggy mop of brown hair. He wore an old-style T-shirt, a pairof jeans and a great look of relief in his eyes—eyes that were not still andfrozen, but trembling with life and rimmed with tears.

"What has four legs and goes 'Boooo'?" the boy asked in a shaky voice.

Harold cleared his throat—not certain just then of even that. "I don't know," hesaid.

"A cow with a cold!"

Then the child had the old man by the waist, sobbing, "Daddy! Daddy!" beforeHarold could confirm or deny. Harold fell against the door frame—very nearlybowled over—and patted the child's head out of some long-dormant paternalinstinct. "Shush," he whispered. "Shush."

"Harold?" Lucille called, finally looking away from the television, certain thatsome terror had darkened her door. "Harold, what's going on? Who is it?"

Harold licked his lips. "It's ... it's ..."

He wanted to say "Joseph."

"It's Jacob," he said, finally.

Thankfully for Lucille, the couch was there to catch her when she fainted.

Jacob William Hargrave died on August 15, 1966. On his eighth birthday, in fact.In the years that followed, townsfolk would talk about his death in the latehours of the night when they could not sleep. They would roll over to wake theirspouses and begin whispered conversations about the uncertainty of the world andhow blessings needed to be counted. Sometimes they would rise together from thebed to stand in the doorway of their children's bedroom to watch them sleep andto ponder silently on the nature of a God that would take a child so soon fromthis world. They were Southerners in a small town, after all: How could such atragedy not lead them to God?

After Jacob's death, his mother, Lucille, would say that she'd known somethingterrible was going to happen that day on account of what had happened just thenight before.

That night Lucille dreamed of her teeth falling out. Something her mother hadtold her long ago was an omen of death.

All throughout Jacob's birthday party Lucille had made a point to keep an eye onnot only her son and the other children, but on all the other guests, as well.She flitted about like a nervous sparrow, asking how everyone was doing and ifthey'd had enough to eat and commenting on how much they'd slimmed down sincelast time she'd seen them or on how tall their children had gotten and, now andagain, how beautiful the weather was. The sun was everywhere and everything wasgreen that day.

Her unease made her a wonderful hostess. No child went unfed. No guest foundthemselves lacking conversation. She'd even managed to talk Mary Green intosinging for them later in the evening. The woman had a voice silkier than sugar,and Jacob, if he was old enough to have a crush on someone, had a thing for her,something that Mary's husband, Fred, often ribbed the boy about. It was a goodday, that day. A good day, until Jacob disappeared.

He slipped away unnoticed the way only children and other small mysteries can.It was sometime between three and three-thirty—as Harold and Lucille would latertell the police—when, for reasons only the boy and the earth itself knew, Jacobmade his way over the south side of the yard, down past the pines, through theforest and on down to the river, where, without permission or apology, hedrowned.

Just days before the man from the Bureau showed up at their door Harold andLucille had been discussing what they might do ifJacob "turned up Returned."

"They're not people," Lucille said, wringing her hands. They were on the porch.All important happenings occurred on the porch.

"We couldn't just turn him away," Harold told his wife. He stamped his foot. Theargument had turned very loud very quickly.

"They're just not people," she repeated.

"Well, if they're not people, then what are they? Vegetable? Mineral?" Harold'slips itched for a cigarette. Smoking always helped him get the upper hand in anargument with his wife which, he suspected, was the real reason she made such afuss about the habit.

"Don't be flippant with me, Harold Nathaniel Hargrave. This is serious."

"Flippant?"

"Yes, flippant! You're always flippant! Always prone to flippancy!"

"I swear. Yesterday it was, what, 'loquacious'? So today it's 'flippant,' huh?"

"Don't mock me for trying to better myself. My mind is still as sharp as italways was, maybe even sharper. And don't you go trying to get off subject."

"Flippant." Harold smacked the word, hammering the final t at the end so hard aglistening bead of spittle cleared the porch railing. "Hmph."

Lucille let it pass. "I don't know what they are," she continued. She stood.Then sat again. "All I know is they're not like you and me. They're ... they're."She paused. She prepared the word in her mouth, putting it together carefully,brick by brick. "They're devils," she finally said. Then she recoiled, as if theword might turn and bite her. "They've just come here to kill us. Or tempt us!These are the end days. 'When the dead shall walk the earth.' It's in theBible!"

Harold snorted, still hung up on "flippant." His hand went to his pocket."Devils?" he said, his mind finding its train of thought as his hand found hiscigarette lighter. "Devils are superstitions. Products of small minds and evensmaller imaginations. There's one word that should be banned from thedictionary—devils. Ha! Now there's a flippant word. It's got nothing to do withthe way things really are, nothing to do with these 'Returned' folks—and make nomistake about it, Lucille Abigail Daniels Hargrave, they are people. They canwalk over and kiss you. I ain't never met a devil that could do that ... although,before we were married, there was this one blonde girl over in Tulsa oneSaturday night. Yeah, now she might have been the devil, or a devil at least."

"Hush up!" Lucille barked, so loudly she seemed to surprise herself. "I won'tsit here and listen to you talk that way."

"Talk what way?"

"It wouldn't be our boy," she said, her words slowing as the seriousness ofthings came drifting back to her, like the memory of a lost son, perhaps."Jacob's gone on to God," she said. Her hands had become thin, white fists inher lap.

A silence came.

Then it passed.

"Where is it?" Harold asked. "What?"

"In the Bible, where is it?"

"Where's what?"

"Where does it say 'the dead will walk the earth'?"

"Revelations!" Lucille opened her arms as she said the word, as if the questioncould not be any more addle-brained, as if she'd been asked about the flightpatterns of pine trees. "It's right there in Revelations! 'The dead shall walkthe earth'!" She was glad to see that her hands were still fists. She waved themat no one, the way people in movies sometimes did.

Harold laughed. "What part of Revelations? What chapter?

What verse?"

"You hush up," she said. "That it's in there is all that matters. Now hush!"

"Yes, ma'am," Harold said. "Wouldn't want to be flippant."

But when the devil actually showed up at the front door—their own particulardevil—small and wondrous as he had been all those years ago, his brown eyesslick with tears, joy and the sudden relief of a child who has been too longaway from his parents, too long of a time spent in the company of strangers.Well ... Lucille, after she recovered from her fainting episode, melted like candlewax right there in front of the clean-cut, well-suited man from the Bureau. Forhis part, the Bureau man took it well enough. He smiled a practiced smile, nodoubt having witnessed this exact scene more than a few times in recent weeks.

"There are support groups," the Bureau man said. "Support groups for theReturned. And support groups for the families of the Returned." He smiled.

"He was found," the man continued—he'd given them his name but both Harold andLucille were already terrible at remembering people's names and having beenreunited with their dead son didn't do much to help now, so they thought of himsimply as the Man from the Bureau "—in a small fishing village outside Beijing,China. He was kneeling at the edge of a river, trying to catch fish or some suchfrom what I've been told. The local people, none of whom spoke English wellenough for him to understand, asked him his name in Mandarin, how he'd gottenthere, where he was from, all those questions you ask when coming upon a lostchild.

"When it was clear that language was something of a barrier, a group of womenwere able to calm him. He'd started crying—and why wouldn't he?" The man smiledagain. "After all, he wasn't in Kansas anymore. But they settled him down. Thenthey found an English-speaking official and, well." He shrugged his shouldersbeneath his dark suit, indicating the insignificance of the rest of the story.Then he added, "It's happening like this all over."

He paused again. He watched with a smile that was not disingenuous as Lucillefawned over the son who was suddenly no longer dead. She clutched him to herchest and kissed the crown of his head, then cupped his face in her hands andshowered it with kisses and laughter and tears.

Jacob replied in kind, giggling and laughing, but not wiping away his mother'skisses even though he was at that particular point in youth when wiping away amother's kisses was what seemed most appropriate to him.

"It's a unique time for everyone," the man from the Bureau said.

Kamui Yamamoto

The brass bell chimed lightly as he entered the convenience store. Outsidesomeone was just pulling away from the gas pump and did not see him. Behind thecounter a plump, red-faced man halted his conversation with a tall, lanky manand the two of them stared. The only sound was the low hum of the freezers.Kamui bowed low, the brass bell chiming a second time as the door closed behindhim.

The men behind the counter still did not speak.

He bowed a second time, smiling. "Forgive me," he said, and the men jumped. "Isurrender." He held his hands in the air.

The red-faced man said something that Kamui could not understand. He looked atthe lanky man and the two of them spoke at length, glancing sideways as theydid. Then the red-faced man pointed at the door. Kamui turned, but saw only theempty street and the rising sun behind him. "I surrender," he said a secondtime.

He'd left his pistol buried next to a tree at the edge of the woods in whichhe'd found himself only a few hours ago, just as the other men had. He had evenremoved the jacket of his uniform and his hat and left them, as well, so that,now, he stood in the small gas station at the break of day in his undershirt,pants and well-shined boots. All this to avoid being killed by the Americans."Yamamoto desu," he said. Then: "I surrender."

The red-faced man spoke again, louder this time. Then the second man joined him,both of them yelling and motioning in the direction of the door. "I surrender,"Kamui said yet again, fearing the way their voices were rising. The lanky mangrabbed a soda can from the counter and threw it at him. It missed, and the manyelled again and pointed toward the door again and began searching for somethingelse to throw.

"Thank you," Kamui managed, though he knew it was not what he wanted to say. HisEnglish vocabulary was limited to very few words. He backed toward the door. Thered-faced man reached beneath the counter and found a can of something. He threwit with a grunt. The can struck Kamui above the left temple. He fell backagainst the door. The brass bell rang.

The red-faced man threw more cans while the lanky man yelled and searched forobjects of his own to throw until, stumbling, Kamui fled the gas station, hishands above him, proving that he was not armed and meant to do nothing otherthan turn himself in. His heart beat in his ears.

Outside, the sun had risen and the city was cast a soft orange. It lookedpeaceful.

With a trickle of blood running down the side of his head, he raised his handsinto the air and walked down the street. "I surrender!" he yelled, waking thetown, hoping the people he found would let him live.

CHAPTER 2

Of course, even for people returning from the dead, there was paperwork. TheInternational Bureau of the Returned was receiving funding faster than it couldspend it. And there wasn't a single country on the planet that wasn't willing todig into treasury reserves or go into debt to try and secure whatever "in" theycould with the Bureau due to the fact that it was the only organization on theplanet that was able to coordinate everything and everyone.

The irony was that no one within the Bureau knew more than anyone else. All theywere really doing were counting people and giving them directions home. That wasit.

When the emotion had died down and the hugging and all stopped in the doorway ofthe Hargraves' little house—nearly a half hour later—Jacob was moved into thekitchen where he could sit at the table and catch up on all the eating he'dmissed in his absence. The Bureau man sat in the living room with Harold andLucille, took his stacks of paperwork from a brown, leather briefcase and gotdown to business.

"When did the returning individual originally die?" asked the Bureau man,who—for a second time—revealed his name as Agent Martin Bellamy.

"Do we have to say that?" Lucille asked. She inhaled and sat straighter in herseat, suddenly looking very regal and discriminating, having finallystraightened her long, silver hair that had come undone while fawning over herson.

"Say what?" Harold replied.

"She means 'die,'" Agent Bellamy said.

Lucille nodded.

"What's wrong with saying he died?" Harold asked, his voice louder than he'dplanned. Jacob was still within eyesight, if mostly out of earshot.


(Continues...)