Caren Hahn
This pre-publication excerpt may differ in minor ways from the final published version.

This Side of Dark: Chapter 1

December 14


1 day after disappearance


The gravel pile looms in the dark like a living thing.



Grace’s hands tighten on the wheel as she pulls her car into the parking lot of the First Hope Church, her headlights swiping over the pile. Evan said the gravel had been dumped over the summer and was waiting to be spread until Deacon Thomas’s cousin could borrow a bobcat from work. But it’s December now and still the gravel crowds out the back end of the parking lot where dirt encroaches on grass and grass gives way to the pine needles and ferns of the thick rainforest understory.

Grace parks near the entrance to the church and shuts off her headlights. She tells herself she’s waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but the truth is, she doesn't like the dark.

Leaving the safety of her car gives her the same stomach-squeezing feeling she felt as a teenager when swimming with friends in a local lake in Northern California. The deep water was so dark that sunlight broke into separate rays and disappeared a few yards beneath the surface. The feeling of her legs dangling above all that darkness made her heart race and she sought the safety of the boat, refusing to join her friends splashing in the water.

Looking toward the woods bordering the church property gives her that same feeling now, like something unknown lurks just out of reach, something that can see her even though she can’t see it.

Grace doesn’t like to be alone at the church, yet here she is again, not even eight hours since she left. The building itself is relatively uninspiring. It sits as a squat rectangle of Seventies-era brick that gives way to thin windows in amber-colored glass on either side of a large white cross. The structure’s one ambition is a steeply-pitched roof over the sanctuary creating a high vaulted ceiling in the worship space.

Grace reaches for her purse and steps out of the car, pulling her coat tighter against the chilly mist drifting in from the ocean. She resists looking back at the gravel pile as she hurries to the front door. A breeze lifts the ends of her hair and works its way under her soft scarf to the bare skin of her neck.

The scarf was a gift from River. She recently took up knitting, and Grace was the lucky recipient of the first project River deemed worth sharing.

“I know how you like the blue-greys,” she said hesitantly, but with a gleam in her brown eyes that told Grace giving the gift meant as much to River as it did for Grace to receive it.

Grace didn’t know what to say. The tissue paper rasped like dry leaves under her fingers as she pulled it out of the gift bag, revealing the bundle of soft knitting that offered itself to her touch like a cat seeking affection.

“Don’t think this touch of domesticity gets you off the hook. I’m still counting the days until you come back to Jiu-Jitsu class.”

River smirked. “You know I’ll kick your butt as soon as I lose this baby weight.”

“I’m counting on it.”

Now, Grace burrows her chin deeper in the scarf as she unlocks the door. The key Evan gave her is always a bit tetchy, and it takes two tries to turn. When it gives way at last, Grace pulls the door open and is greeted with the cool, dry air of worship. It still smells faintly of new industrial carpet and decades of potluck dinners, funeral luncheons, and holiday pie socials.

Grace bypasses the light switch. Being alone with the lights on makes her feel like she’s in a fishbowl. Anyone could be watching, and she would never know.

She doesn’t attend First Hope Church as a congregant, but she’s seen it radiating light and joy and warmth when full of a community worshiping together. Now, in the early hours of the morning with dawn still more than an hour away, it’s far too empty and restless.

She slips through the heavy double doors into the sanctuary. Only then, safely away from windows, does she turn on the lights.

Immediately, the tension in her stomach eases. Though the church doesn’t look like much from the outside, the sanctuary is where the people of Ellis Cove really show their devotion. New benches were installed with the recent remodel, featuring padded seats set against wood in a dark mahogany stain. The rostrum wall—though dating back to original construction and too geometric for Grace’s taste—is hand-carved and matches the altar and pulpit as a complete set. Faux evergreen garland hangs in perfect symmetry along the low wall, softening its geometric lines.

Grace’s eyes seek out the artificial tree she set up the previous night. In the drafty room, it looks small and insignificant, but she knows lights will brighten the space with holiday cheer. The PTO moms will be coming later today with another tree to place in the foyer, but Grace feels compelled to finish decorating this one herself.

The bin she left last night is still sitting where she left it, so commonplace it takes her aback. It almost begs her to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary happened last night. But as she opens the lid and begins taking out the red balls—shatterproof, a clever word for plastic—she can almost feel the crunch of the gravel beneath her feet. Hear the sound of footsteps that aren’t her own.

This won’t do.

Grace reaches for her earbuds and selects some calming music on her phone. Not Christmas music. Not when every working day is filled with teaching festive tunes to elementary school children. For now, she turns on a collection of soft new age hits. Classic mood music to relax her and get her mind off thoughts of last night.

The decorations go quickly. Red balls sprinkled with glitter. White angels with feathers as soft as baby’s breath. Crosses tipped with gold sequins. It’s all a bit garish up close, but when Grace steps back and surveys her work, the effect is lovely.

When her fingers brush something sharp, she yanks her hand back as if she’s been bitten. The star tree topper is made of metal painted white and gold. She pulls it out and thoughtfully examines the detailed grooves and stamped design that won’t even be visible once it tops the tree.

Something makes her turn; she isn’t sure what. Did she hear a noise under the strains of “Book of Days?” When the door cracks open at the end of the hall, for a brief second all she sees is darkness. Someone is waiting in the shadows, watching her.

Her pulse calms as Evan steps into the room, his smile brilliant against his rich brown skin.

“I thought I saw lights on,” he says. “Should have guessed it was you. Anything I can do to help?”

Grace drops the star back into the bin. She hasn’t yet used her voice that morning and it comes out scratchy and weak. She clears her throat and starts again.

“I’m about finished up, but thanks. I wanted to wrap up a few things before school this morning.”

“It’s looking real nice,” he says, his eyes following the lines of the garland.

“Thanks. The PTO will be in today to work on the foyer. I told them no Santas,” Grace says before he can ask.

“I appreciate it.” When Evan smiles, a single dimple on his chin is just visible under his short beard. His puffy jacket is unzipped over a simple button shirt and jeans. He’s taller than Grace and seems taller still with his hair abounding in tight coils. Cut close on the sides, the style is an appealing mixture of both the restrained and the unruly that Grace finds irresistible.

Grace remembers the pastor from the church she attended as a little girl dressing the part even on weekdays. But Evan prefers a casual style that Grace likes. It fits his temperament and makes him seem ready to pick up a game of football on the church lawn as quickly as he’d hold someone’s hand through a faith crisis.

Her cheeks warm thinking about last night. What might have happened if he hadn’t answered his phone?

“How did things go last night? After you left,” she amends, in case he’s thinking of the moments before the phone call.

He shifts his insulated tumbler to his other hand. “All right. Crisis averted. Hearts healed. World saved.”


“Well, I don’t want to brag…” His dark eyes are bright with humor. “Sorry I had to abandon you. I hope you weren’t here too late. I looked for your car when I came back, but you’d already gone.”

Grace feels a twist in her chest. He came back to check on her? What if… “I left a little after you did.” She stifles a yawn.

“Hey, do you know where Diana went after decorating yesterday?”

Grace looks at him sharply. “No, why?”

“Nora called early this morning. She said Diana didn’t come home last night and wondered if I knew where she was. She sounded pretty worried.”

Grace’s morning coffee churns unpleasantly in her stomach. “If she were really worried about Diana, she would have kicked Leo out years ago.”

“He’s…probably not the best father figure those kids could have. But I’m not sure Nora was doing that much better on her own. And he even comes to church with them sometimes.”

“Have they checked with Diana’s friends?”

“I don’t know. Nora said she wasn’t home by the time she got home from work last night. You don’t know if Diana had plans to go anywhere else?”

“Not that she mentioned. But I wouldn’t expect her to tell me if she did.”

“Hopefully it’s nothing and she just spent the night at a friend’s house.”

“Hopefully.” But the change in conversation casts a pall over the room, and Grace reaches for her bag. “Well, I’d better head in to work.”

“We’re still on for tonight, right?”

Right. Grace forces a smile. “Of course. I’m looking forward to it.”

She senses Evan’s eyes on her and wonders what he sees. She hasn’t slept, not really. But she tended to her appearance as best she could, trying to disguise the fact that her eyes burn with grit and she feels like she’s moving through molasses.

It doesn’t matter how she feels. Today is Friday and she’s facing hour after hour of elementary students ramped up with excitement for the weekend.

It’s going to be a long day.

Delve into the contrasts between light and dark as Grace wrestles with an ugly truth about herself: How far will she go to protect someone she loves?

Hatched: Dragon Speaker (Chapter 1)
What Comes After: Chapter 1