Nicholas Sparks meets The Empty Man in this modern Southern Gothic horror about a palm reader swept up in a disturbing missing-child case with a twist you won’t see coming.
After striking out on her own as a teen mom, Madi Price is forced to return to her hometown of Brandywine, Virginia, with her seventeen-year-old daughter. With nothing to her name, she scrapes together a living as a palm reader at the local farmers market.
It’s there that she connects with old high school flame Henry McCabe, now a reclusive local fisherman whose infant son, Skyler, went missing five years ago. Everyone in town is sure Skyler is dead, but when Madi reads Henry’s palm, she’s haunted by strange and disturbing visions that suggest otherwise. As she follows the thread of these visions, Madi discovers a terrifying nightmare waiting at the center of the labyrinth—and it’s coming for everyone she holds dear.
Combining supernatural horror with domestic suspense into a visceral exploration of parental grief, What Kind of Mother cements Clay McLeod Chapman’s reputation as a “star” (Vulture) and “the twenty-first century’s Richard Matheson” (Richard Chizmar, Chasing the Boogeyman).
Release date: September 12, 2023
Publisher: Quirk Books
Print pages: 304
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
What Kind of Mother: A Novel
Give me your hand.
Such a simple invitation. I’ve asked it many times of many people over the last year. Folks tend to forget how intimate the act is, how vulnerable you become when you surrender your palm to another. Especially to someone like me. The tender flesh of your wrist, the meat of your palm, the peninsulas of your fingers. Their secrets hidden from you but exposed to me.
I’ll guide you there, but first you need to…
Give me your hand.
The Brandywine Farmers Market has been around since I was a little girl leapfrogging over the headstones in the cemetery behind Shiloh Baptist while my mother bought her greens. Even longer than that. Every Saturday at nine on the nose, the church’s parking lot is overtaken by elderly entrepreneurs ready to hock their homemade wares.
Each parking space hosts its own stall. Farmers pull in well before the sun even thinks about rising, just so they can snag those hallowed spots up front where the foot traffic flows freely. Truck beds become rusted cornucopias of fresh tomatoes, sweet potatoes, ears of corn sheathed in leathery green husks, cucumbers covered in a fine dust of dirt, broccoli, zucchini, pumpkins, strawberries, and baskets of blueberries. Some even offer jars of pickled okra and peach preserves.
The local fishermen bring their bounty from Chesapeake Bay: blue-shells, oysters, herring, shrimp, mussels, clams, glass-eyed shad—all packed on beds of ice that slowly melt into a briny broth as the hours slip by and the humidity thickens.
Hand-painted signs line the highway for a mile out on either side of the peninsula, luring in passersby with promises of local produce and seafood. People who call Brandywine home still live off the land and water.
I live off your hands. The lines in your skin. The folds in your flesh. A palm reading sets you back twenty bucks. There’s tarot, too. I provide a full- or half-deck reading. Aura cleansings.
This is as close to a career as I’ve got. Long as I can recall, there’s always been a palm reader at the farmers market. Used to be my gram. She’d pull out the same tattered tarot deck and let you cut it anyway you liked. I’m not entirely sure why she even did it—wasn’t like she was actually psychic—other than it got her out of the house on the weekends. I think she simply got a kick out of spinning yarns for a couple quarters, getting the kids all giddy over their destiny—You’ll live a long, happy life, hon…You’ll meet the fella of your dreams, darling…I spot good tidings heading your way, sugar…
It was simple to pick up where she left off after she passed. Runs in our family, I’ll tell any customer curious about my bona fides. I slip on the same boho tie-back dress with batwing sleeves, armoring myself with enough bracelets that my wrists jangle, ting-ting. My work attire, compliments of our local Goodwill. Got to dress the part. I rarely wear makeup nowadays, but when I can afford it, I’ll give myself a little smoky eye shadow, just to complete the effect. I’m hoping to grow my hair out, but for now it’s trimmed in a bleached crop cut, short on the sides and longer up top, just to give my high cheekbones a fighting chance of catching somebody’s eye.
By the time I roll into church, most slots are already full, so I situate my card table at the far end of the lot with the farmers market mafia.
“Morning, Millie. Morning, May. Charlene…”
Rain or shine, the biddies of Brandywine come out to sell their jams and freshly baked pies. These three hold court in their lawn chairs, watching over everyone with hawk eyes.
“Was wondering when you’d show.” Charlene always sits sweating away in her bowed lawn chair before her stall, selling jams and jarred okra. She cools herself off with her paper fan like some Madame Butterfly in a floral print muumuu hooked up to an oxygen tank on wheels. My ride, she calls it, dragging it along with her wherever she goes. The rubber tubes branch out from her nostrils, leaving her looking like she’s sprouted a pair of catfish whiskers.
“What did I miss?” I ask as I lay a silk scarf across my table, along with a handwritten sign in flowery font: PALM AND TAROT READINGS.
“We were about to give away your spot.”
“Don’t you worry over li’l ol’ me…”
“Worried, nothing. You owe me for two weeks now.” Charlene serves as the farmers market treasurer, collecting everybody’s deposit for the church. “You can’t be running a tab.”
“Mind spotting me? Just until the end of the day?” I’m not breaking the bank reading folks’ fortunes on a Saturday morning. There certainly isn’t a divination 401(k), but it takes the edge off rent. If any of these fine people wish to look further into their future, get themselves the Madi Price Special, well, I always tell them right where they can find me: Swing on by the old Henley Road Motel, just off Highway 301. I’m in room five. Just look for the neon sign…
“I ain’t running a charity,” Charlene says.
“Just let me read a few hands first…”
“If I let everybody lapse on what they owe, where would we be?”
“I’ll pay what I owe, I promise. Hand to God.”
“She ain’t going nowhere,” Mama May mutters. Ever since her stroke, she’s been partially paralyzed, only talking out of half of her mouth, slurring her words. “Let her pay later.”
Charlene adjusts herself in her lawn chair, grumbling to herself. “End of today. In full.”
“You’re a lifesaver, Charlene. Thank you.”
“Hot one for you today,” Auntie Millie says with a sigh. “My face is melting.” She’s not lying. Millie’s mascara clots her eyelashes in charcoal clumps. It looks like she’s wearing a pair of melting wax lips, all thanks to that thick shade of crimson she’s run over her mouth.
“Weatherman says it’s only gonna get hotter,” May says. “Well on into the triple digits.”
“Don’t you start in with that global warming nonsense.”
“Ain’t nobody asking for your opinion, Charlene…”
“Then stop listening!” Charlene rests her hand on top of the tank, palming the nozzle as if it were a cane, with a freshly lit Pall Mall nestled between her knuckles. “What’d you predict, Ms. Price? The End Times on their way?”
“Already here, Charlene,” I say.
Charlene waves her paper fan at me—oh hush now—before moving onto more pressing matters. “Did you hear Loraine Hapkins left her husband?”
Most vegetables are gone by noon, but folks tend to stick around and socialize. Not to mention gossip. Brandywine is small enough that everybody’s business belongs to everyone else. If there’s anything worth knowing, these three will be chattering on about it.
“I thought they were working things out,” I say. Loraine hasn’t come to see me for a consultation in over a month. Probably high time I pay a visit, see if I can be of any assistance.
“Tell that to Noah Stetler,” Mama May mumbles under her breath.
“What’re we talking about?” Auntie Millie asks, leaning in with her good ear.
“Lor-aine.” Charlene splits the name in half like a wafer.
“Oh, yes,” Millie nods. “Loraine’s been sneaking off whenever Jesse’s outta town.”
“Hush your mouth, both of you…”
“Everybody knows it’s true.”
“No thanks to you!” Charlene holds out her sweaty hand to me, palm up, between puffs off her Pall Mall. “I’m long overdue…”
“You want a reading? Really?” You’d be surprised how my personal enterprise doesn’t sit so well with the Sunday service set, always judgy about my witchy ways. But when push comes to shove, these ladies are just as eager for a peek into their future as everybody else.
“You gonna turn me down?” Charlene asks.
“Take ten dollars off my tab.”
“Deal. Let’s see what we got here…” I pore over her palm like a miner sifting for mineral deposits.
“Spot some lottery numbers in there and I’ll give you half.”
“If I see any winning numbers, you better believe I’m keeping them to myself!” I hear the rasp in her chest, water flooding a phlegmy engine. “How’s your health been lately?”
“Why’re you asking?”
I run my fingertip along the shallow crease within the left hemisphere of Charlene’s palm, as if I’m heading upstream. “Maybe you should schedule yourself an appointment.”
“Why? What do you see?”
“I’m no doctor.” I try distancing myself from a diagnosis. “Can’t x-ray you with my mind, hon, but when I see a line dry up like this, that tends to suggest something needs checking out.”
Charlene stews for a spell. “I reckon I’m overdue.”
“Good. Let’s keep you nice and healthy. Who else am I gonna buy my okra from?”
“Lord, you haven’t bought okra from me in ages.” Charlene coughs, then asks, “How’s Kendra?”
Hearing her name hits me right in the chest. I’m sure Charlene notices. “Doing just fine.”
“She still living with Donny?” Of course she knows. Everyone in town knows Kendra is living with her father after spending nearly all sixteen years of her life with me. That’s the whole reason why we moved back to Brandywine. Back to the town where my parents disowned me and my baby daddy made it clear he wanted nothing to do with me.
Charlene’s simply testing me, I can tell, digging around for a juicy morsel. Most days I can deflect, but for some reason this morning, it takes all my strength to maintain my smile. I’m not about to give Charlene the satisfaction of knowing she struck a nerve.
“Don’t change the subject on me,” I manage. “Promise you’ll schedule that checkup?”
“Lord above, as I live and breathe.” Charlene’s eyes widen. Something’s caught her attention just over my shoulder. “Look who the cat just dragged in…”
“Whose cat?” Auntie Millie leans forward in her lawn chair, straining to pull herself up.
“I don’t see—”
“Over there, you blind ol’ bat. Is that the McCabe boy?”
I turn to look. Most guys I grew up with lost their hair and gained beer guts, raising a litter of kids in the nearby trailer park. Henry’s still got a lion’s mane of sandy blond hair.
He’s grown himself a beard, which doesn’t look all that bad, to be honest. He’s wearing a fleece jacket over a flannel shirt. The stained jeans are a dead giveaway he’s living off the river. The Chesapeake raises its fair share of fishermen. He works with his hands, from what I can see.
But it’s his eyes that stop me. There’s a weight to them.
When’s the last time I laid eyes on Henry? Bound to be decades by now. Well before Kendra.
Would he even remember me?
“That poor man,” May slurs, shaking her head.
“Poor, poor man,” Millie echoes.
“What’s he doing here?” Charlene rumbles, offended she wasn’t consulted first.
“I hear he’s living on his boat,” Millie whispers. “After he lost his house, he had no—”
“We’ll have none of that talk now.” Charlene shuts her down. “You leave Henry alone.”
“Just saying what’s on everybody’s mind…”
I can’t help but ask. “What’s on everybody’s mind?”
“Where have you been, child?”
“Their son went missing five years ago,” Millie whispers. “Eight months old, vanished, just like that.”
Did I know Henry had a son? “You mean kidnapped?”
“That’s one version goin’ ’round.” These ladies couldn’t mind their own business if they were paid. “His wife had herself an absolutely awful case of baby blues. Nobody saw her for months and—” Millie leans in closer to me and whispers, “She hung herself. In their house.”
“Oh God,” I say. “That’s awful…”
“Heartbreaking is what it is,” May says.
“Absolutely heartbreaking,” Millie echoes, trying to hide a smile, practically pleased with herself for steering the conversation away from Charlene.
“Do they think she had something to do with…” I can’t finish the thought.
“Depends who you’re asking,” Millie suggests.
“Ain’t nobody asking you, Millie,” Charlene says.
“You know just as well as I do—”
“He’s one of ours,” Charlene chastises them, having heard enough. “Is that how you treat one of our own? A man’s got a right to move on. Lord knows he’s been through enough.”
“Only saying what’s been said a dozen times before.”
“You wanna cast the first stone?”
Millie sinks into her chair, pouting. “That man’s story never made a lick of sense to me.”
Charlene straightens her back to let her lungs flex in her chest, easing her wheezing for a spell. “Henry,” she belts out across the parking lot. “Get your behind over here, young man!”
Henry does as he’s told, making his way over.
Millie pulls out her compact, panicking as he approaches. “How’s my face? How is it?”
“Just fine,” Mama May says, lying her ass off.
Henry’s eyes find me first and won’t let go. He smells like a bouquet of Old Bay seasoning and steamed crabs. “Morning.”
“Lord, Henry, look how you’ve grown,” Charlene starts. “You’re a weed on two feet!”
“Not so young anymore, am I?”
“Hush now.” Charlene is all charm. “You’ll always be that little boy sitting in the back pew to me. Still got those cheeks I’d pinch every Sunday, even if you’re trying to hide them…”
“Still got ’em.” He smiles, then nods to the other ladies. “Morning, Millie. May.”
“Helllooooo,” they both coo back.
“You remember Madeleine?”
“I do,” he says, nodding at me. “Thought you hightailed it out of here?”
“I did,” I say. “For a while. Family brought me home.” There’s some truth sprinkled in there, somewhere. Nothing would get me kicked out of my own house quicker than a positive Clearblue Easy when I was still under my parents’ roof, so the second I saw that plus sign materialize, I knew my fate was sealed. Sure enough, my ass was out the door as soon as my father found out there was a bun in the oven. All seventeen years of myself. That’s not how I raised my girl. Mom put up a fight, for a while, but she’d never get Dad to change his Methodist mind.
Nobody wanted Kendra. Not my parents, not my so-called boyfriend.
The Nova was in my name, so me and my little lima bean hit the road. We’ll make our own future, I told my tummy, rubbing my stomach like it was a crystal ball and Kendra was a prophecy floating through an amniotic haze. We made a clean break from Brandywine.
For a while, at least.
Henry McCabe. Just look at him. It’s like the last sixteen years simply wash away with the tide, swept out to sea, dragging the past back with the undertow. I’m suddenly sent back in time, slipping into high school all over again, thinking about those three months our junior year.
Three months… Doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but back then, lord, it felt like a lifetime. Henry is, heaven help me for saying this, the boy that got away.
The what-ifs start stockpiling in my mind: What if we’d lasted just one more month together? What if I’d stuck with him instead of drifting off with Donny?
Where would I be now?
Who would I be?
“Wasn’t there something between you two back in school?” Charlene prods, even though she damn well knows the answer already. “There was, wasn’t there? Now I remember!”
“You selling any beeswax, Charlene?” I ask.
“Always,” she says with just a hint of pride.
“Then why don’t you mind it?”
That gets a chuckle out of Henry. “It’s good to see you.”
“You, too,” I say. “Didn’t recognize you with the beard. You can finally grow one.”
“My finest hirsute accomplishment, don’t you think?” Henry always tried to hide behind his shoulder-length hair, looking like a pockmarked Eddie Vedder. He’d strum his guitar during lunch, laying low in the school’s parking lot where nobody else was listening. But I certainly was.
I’d always sneak out to get stoned in my Nova. Henry set my soundtrack. His voice drifted through the lot, flitting along the parked cars. I went on a mission to find the source of that voice. Sounded so mesmerizing. Lured me in like the tide.
I finally caught him sitting between cars, strumming to himself. What song is that?
Henry froze. A long-haired doe.
Sorry. I backed away.
I wrote it. His voice was so small.
For who? He didn’t have an answer for that, so I said, Whoever it’s for, she’s a lucky gal…
Henry always found himself in the crosshairs of the good ol’ boys at school. Anyone who didn’t pick up a football with one hand and a can of Coors in the other was bound to be a target. Donny definitely gave him shit. But Henry always seemed destined for better things beyond Brandywine. I believed he could’ve been somebody. A rock star. He could’ve taken me with him.
“You’re looking just like I remembered,” he says, pulling me out of the past. “Haven’t changed a bit.”
“I got a daughter who’d say otherwise.” My fingers find their way to my ear, combing my close-cropped hair back, a reflex from when I wore it longer.
He remembered. “One and only.”
Henry McCabe, I swear…What would life have been like if I’d stuck with him instead of Donny Goddamn Watkins? You wouldn’t have Kendra, for one thing, I say to myself, shooting down this fleeting fantasy before it actually has a chance to take off in my mind.
“You staying out of trouble, Henry?” Charlene asks. “Haven’t seen you at services.”
“You caught me.”
“Never too late to come back…Are they still doing that support group on Tuesdays?”
That support group.
“Not enough people signed up,” he says without pause. “Closest meeting for families is at Trinity Baptist, but that’s a bit far. I’ll go every now and then when I feel like I really need it.”
“Glad to hear it. What’re you doing for work these days?”
“Leave the poor man alone, Charlene,” May mumbles out the side of her mouth.
“I don’t mind,” Henry says. “Little bit of everything, I reckon? Landscaping in the summer, whenever I can find the work. Crab most mornings, but there’s not much running.”
“Pretty slim, but I’m getting by. Used to sell directly to Haddocks, but they shut down.”
“Way of the world,” Charlene says. “What’re you selling? Those blue-shells I see?”
“No peelers today, sorry. Maybe in a month. It’s been slow this season.”
“How much you sellin’ them for?” It strikes me that Charlene hasn’t harped on Henry for his five-dollar deposit like she did with me, but I figure it’s better to let her flirt.
“Twenty a dozen,” he says.
“That all?” Charlene lets out an exasperated shout. “Lord, you’re simply giving them away! I’ll take a dozen off your hands. Been ages since I steamed myself up some blue-shells.”
“Very kind of you, ma’am.”
“Ma’am, nothing. Call me Charlene, you hear?” Her breath catches and, for a moment, I worry one of her air tubes got a kink in it. The oxygen’s not reaching her lungs anymore.
“Madi.” Her expression ignites as she turns toward me. I know where this is all heading before she even breathes a word of it. “Why don’t you give Henry here one of your readings?”
“I don’t think I should…”
“Nonsense. If there ever was anyone in need of a forecast for some good weather, ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...