The Pinecrest Estate may be the site of Lexi’s worst experiences, but it’s always beckoned to her teenage daughter, Quinn. Once the set of Breathless, the horror movie that catapulted Lexi’s future father-in-law into fame, Quinn is certain that her own future lies inside its doors. Lexi, however, is hellbent on never returning.
Quinn’s questions about the disappearance of her father drive her straight into the arms of grandfather and Breathless director Rick’s arms… and a Category 4 hurricane hitting the Florida Keys. Now, Lexi must face her past—one that seems to be coming back to life.
Is the Pinecrest truly cursed? Can Lexi and Quinn uncover the truth of what happened on the Breathless set before it claims more lives? R.J. Jacobs’ thrilling novel, Always the First to Die, is a must-read for horror fans, and we’re thrilled to be including it in the June/July Creepy Crate.
Read on for an excerpt, then subscribe to Creepy Crate for your chance at a copy of Always the First to Die!
I toss my suitcase in the backseat of my Volvo and drive. The tires splash through puddles while the radio blares the music I listened to yesterday, late Beatles, a song meant to cheer everyone up. The knob clicks as I quickly switch it off. I glance at the fuel gauge—I have just enough to get me halfway into the Keys and back to Miami, where there may still be a radio station functioning.
But I don’t want to stop for gas. Stopping will only let worry in. Even more worry and fear than I already have coursing through me.
I squint at the sun rising in the direction of my seventeen-year-old daughter, Quinn, who I need to get to as quickly as possible.
What Quinn did is what teenagers do. She fibbed, I tell myself. It doesn’t make her a terrible person. It makes her human.
Except this time, it’s more than a simple fib, more than a neglected homework assignment or having “forgotten” to mention that a friend’s parents wouldn’t be home to supervise during a party.
What Quinn did was lie.
Boldly and cunningly, and with chilling ease, if I’m being honest with myself, which I’m not sure I’m ready to do. Honesty would mean recalibrating how I think of her (still somewhat innocent, too close to me to do something so hurtful). I need to make sure she’s safe first, and then I can question how she’s capable of creating such a deceptive story about where she went.
I play our last conversation over and over in my head as I drive. I hadn’t heard from her at all yesterday, nor had I seen anything of hers on social media. Quinn had told me she would be on a school trip for dates that were slightly too specific—the exact dates of the visit with her grandfather I’d forbidden her to take. How could I have been so utterly, stupidly naive? I tried her phone two times yesterday afternoon, and the call went to voicemail.
Then, she called me, and the second she answered, I knew what had happened. The nagging intuition I’d been ignoring evaporated, and the vagueness of her cover story sharpened. Is that how a lie is recognized? Gradually, then all at once? I heard the ripping wind in the background, and my gut told me exactly where she was. Suddenly, all I needed was confirmation.
Her voice, hoarse and afraid. “Mom?”
“Quinn, tell me where you are.”
But inside, I already knew. In the background, there was a crashing sound, like a vase hitting a floor. She screamed, and my stomach knotted. “You’re with your grandfather right now, right? In the Keys?”
“Mom, I’m sorry.” She didn’t have to say “yes.”
I realized the screen of my phone hadn’t turned blurry. It just looked that way because of how my hand shook. I pictured Quinn tucked into the enormous living room, probably beneath his shadow-box-framed dive knife from his movie Red Sky, and could hear the thump of the wind batting against the wooden sides of the estate.
My mind had been a sluggish detective, but it became a whirlwind, assessing Quinn’s safety and the sequence of events that put her in the Keys with google-like speed. All the facts were clicking.
She started to deliver some explanation, but I cut her off abruptly. “Put your grandfather on the phone,” I said.
A second later, Rick came on the line, out of breath. “I’m sorry, Lexi. We got caught off guard by this.”
I could have screamed a million questions at Rick about how Quinn got down there in the first place, but I forced them all aside for the time being. The exasperated words that did escape my mouth were, “How did you not see the news?”
Rick explained they’d been deep in the mangroves when the sky began to turn.
Of course, I thought, they had no idea. The weather had probably been perfect, the way it is just before and after a major storm. I know how time melts away on the water, just like I remember the sinking, emptying feeling of a plummeting barometer. Rick’s excuse was believable, reasonable, and extremely unlucky. He mumbled something like, “…your permission to come.” The line cut in and out. At least he sounded sober, I thought, which was a relief. “I’m not sure we can leave now,” Rick continued, eventually.
“Can’t leave?” I asked.
But I knew he was right. Evacuations have windows. Once one closes, it’s better to stay where you are than risk driving to the mainland. Rick was getting his news from the same meteorologists I’d been watching for three hours, except now it was too late.
“The eye is going to pass over us in a few hours,” Rick said.
There was another crashing sound in the background, louder than the first. I scurried around collecting my things into a bag, even as I heard the TV announcer say that no one would be going in or out of the Keys until morning.
I could hear the same broadcast echo distantly in the call’s background.
I knew boats and channels and weather as well as anyone. Even now. And I knew this storm was going to be dangerous.
I pictured the darkening horizon and imagined the delicate sound of thunder in the distance. Unrealistically, I thought I would have known when to evacuate. I would have triple-checked the storm track, or would not have gone far from shore, or would have returned a faster way. I wouldn’t have allowed Quinn to come to the Keys in the first place—the last place on earth I wanted her to be.
If I’d been there, I would have gotten her out.
“Here’s Quinn,” Rick said before passing the phone off to her.
“Everything’s going to be okay, Mom.” Her optimism terrified me. Of course, she thought the storm would turn out okay. She was seventeen and felt invincible. To her, a hurricane seemed like an adventure, something she could tell stories about later to her friends or maybe post about on Instagram. I wanted to scream that she had no idea how not okay Hurricane Stephen was about to make everything. She’d never lived through a Category 4 storm. But I had, and Rick had, too. That’s why he sounded scared. She’d never seen a building blown to bits or seen someone die at the Pinecrest Estate like I had.
The sun was going down.
I asked Quinn, “Are you in the main house?”
“Yeah, on the first floor.”
Despite everything I’d seen happen there, I felt a tiny flutter of relief. The Pinecrest was more than a century old and had withstood hurricanes that had blown away more modern buildings. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the estate’s layout, estimating the safest space within the interior. The estate spread over fifteen acres, with the main building facing westward toward the Gulf. It was three stories tall, the top two consisting of mainly guest rooms with multiple windows. Rick had always maintained what looked like a lobby on the first floor, including the original front desk. A large, ornate staircase with a carved wooden banister led upward. Beneath it was the center of the house and the most protected place. “Quinn, listen, I want you to find the door below the staircase, the storage area. That’s where I want you to ride out the storm. Do you hear me?”
“I want you to find some empty containers and start filling them up with water.”
“Granddad’s already doing that. There’s more water than we’ll…”
“Then go to the pantry and find some food—things you may need to eat for the next twelve hours. Then candles and matches. Are there oil lamps?”
“Oil lamps?” She asked as if I’d just asked the dumbest question in history. I heard the echo of Rick’s voice in the background. Behind her came the shrieking howl of one of the estate’s shutters being blown off by the increasing winds. That caught Quinn’s attention. She paused before saying, “Yes, Granddad is holding up a lamp right now. He says we’re going to the interior storage room like you said. No windows.”
“Good. Stay on the phone with me.”
“Mom, we’ll be fine, I promise.”
I wanted to believe her.
“But there’s something else, Mom. I need to tell you something…”
The broadcaster talking on my TV said, “It’s going to be a long night for residents. Let’s just hope and pray for whoever didn’t make it out.”
I heard another violent gust of wind, then something heavy slamming down. Terror squeezed my insides as I glimpsed the possibility of losing her, a feeling almost as strong as love itself. The world, I saw just then, would be unrecoverable if she was gone.
The call was breaking up, but I heard her voice say, “Mom, I found something here. Something strange.”
The wind gusted again. “What? Quinn?”
“…Dad’s. I found…something is happening here.”
Then came a sound like a car crash.
Quinn screamed, and then the line went dead.
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