BY: ROB SILVERMAN
Nick Garrison had two goals in life. He longed to survive high school and then quickly flee the dead end town in western Pennsylvania to pursue his dreams across the country. Never looking back, he says farewell to friends, family—and his high school sweetheart, Brandi Conrad.
Decades later, Nick returns home a failure. But with a secret to share. As he catches up with old pals and confronts decades-old animosity within his family, he realizes something is amiss in Avalon Hills. Everything appears untouched by the passage of time. But Nick quickly discovers looks are often deceiving. When he begins inquiring as to the whereabouts of Brandi, he inadvertently sets in motion a deadly chain of events. While shadowed by a mysterious figure, he realizes a countdown has begun.
Because Nick is not the only one with a secret.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Plain God by Rob Silverman, Nick Garrison is a failed baseball player wannabe who fled his home town after high school graduation, looking for a better life, which meant leaving the love of his life, Brandi, behind. Nick has never gotten over her, and when his life takes an unexpected turn, he goes back home to tell his parents a secret and set things right with them. But as he starts asking about his long lost love, strange things begin to happen and Nick uncovers a web of dark secrets, murder, and lies.
Although Silverman uses a few too many adverbs like a lot of debut authors, his plot is strong, his characters interesting and realistic, and the story full of surprises.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Plain God by Rob Silverman is a paranormal thriller about Nazi experiments gone awry, power and greed, and sibling rivalry on steroids. When Arizona gravestone polisher, Nick Garrison, discovers a dark secret about his life, he reluctantly goes home to Pennsylvania and his small home town of Avalon Hills to make amends with his family and everyone he once left behind, including his life-long love Brandi Conrad. But things are not as they seem in Avalon Hills, and Nick discovers that many of his friends and family are also hiding dark secrets.
I love the way the story sucks you in and then turns on its ear. It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking tale about what happens when ordinary men are given extraordinary powers and they don’t measure up.
Nick Garrison’s first seventeen years were predictable and uneventful. Then he witnessed a murder. Hours after the sun was absorbed into the blackness of night, Nick’s path in life would be forever altered.
From the outset he knew this evening would be memorable, a turning point in his existence. He just had no idea of the severity.
A week after graduating high school, he was chomping at the bit to get his ass out of this hellhole. Avalon Hills offered two paths in life: factory work and more factory work. Neither befitted Nick. He’d be the one to break free, to live his dream, and not turn into his father. His sentence in northwestern Pennsylvania would end.
Summer was blooming and the high temperature spiked with unrelenting humidity was enhancing Nick’s miserable state. It added to his hunger to get as far away as fast as humanly possible.
From up in the charcoaled hills the town resembled a modern day Netherworld. A scimitar moon hung low, the refraction shone on the layer of iron smog that perpetually blanketed the hamlet. The nearby factory belched gray toxins into the air. People were working and generally happy. The strong economy brought with it extra shifts. But extra shifts meant extra pollution. Unlike Nick, the townspeople had grown oblivious to the stench that choked the city.
Sitting in a clearing Nick glanced north. Atop Aliquippa Mountain, out where the streets had no name, he scrutinized the alternating red blinking lights of the TV towers. Right. Left. Right. Left. He’d been watching these damn lights since childhood. As a young boy, peering at them through his bedroom window, they lulled him to sleep. Now, they taunted him, his entire existence passing by one blink at a time. He smirked at the towers. Just like that he’d been trapped another minute.
The land sloped downward and, in the valley beyond the thicket, he detected the gentle rustling of the Acheron River. The blue-black waters flowed peacefully, the moonlight shimmering off the surface.
River my ass, Nick told himself. It was a piss-filled stream. He and his buddies hadn’t fished there since second grade.
The shallow waterway snaked around the factories, meandered in the foothills, and streamed through the center of town. Nick once heard that the Acheron fed into the Allegheny on the far side of the Appalachian Mountains and ultimately to Washington DC, Chesapeake Bay, and out into the Atlantic. It made sense. Even bodies of water got the hell away from Avalon Hills.
Nothing and no one would keep Nick imprisoned. Not even Brandi Conrad.
But the way she sparkled angelically this night Nick knew it would be tough not to surrender.
Their biology professor made them lab partners during junior year. Thanks to dissecting frogs, Nick was teamed with one of the hottest girls at Avalon High.
Brandi radiated confidence beyond her years. And sexuality. She was a living breathing conundrum. A tomboy wrapped in the body of pure femaleness, a girl with a brain and a body. She was perceived as unapproachable but her personality was welcoming.
She preferred hanging out with the guys and, as such, had been labeled easy. At first, Nick believed he would also get laid by Brandi. Why not? Everyone else had.
But as their friendship grew and graduation neared, that didn’t happen. Sure, there was some intense petting and making out. But Nick never made it past second base. He wondered what was wrong with him. Brandi supposedly gave herself to every other guy so why not him?
She’d been involved in an on-again off-again relationship with a much older guy. Nineteen. Gino was the town badass. He’d been arrested for burglary and carrying a concealed weapon. Rumor was he even once killed a guy over the border in Ohio.
Gino was now out of the picture, serving time in Somerset Correctional Facility after a grab-and-dash turned ugly. That particular evening Brandi was waiting outside the convenience store with the engine running. Pot-bellied Gino marched in. He’d grab a couple six packs and haul-ass. They had been successful numerous other times. What they hadn’t counted on was a hero making minimum wage.
The overzealous clerk retrieved a baseball bat from behind the counter. When Gino refused to halt the middle-aged clerk turned into Pirates slugger Willie Stargell, leaving the kid with three broken ribs, two broken arms, and one trip to the hospital. Gino was sentenced to six to eight. Brandi drove away and never looked back.
Tonight, she wore tighter-than-usual acid-washed jeans that were tucked into her pristine white boots. Her red V-neck top exposed slightly more cleavage than she typically displayed. Her jet black hair fell just below her shoulders framing a perfectly rounded face with flawless features and high cheekbones. Her sienna complexion fed rumors in school that Brandi’s heritage could be traced back to the Lenape Indians. Her deep-set chestnut eyes were mesmerizing and mysterious while laced with a hint of vulnerability.
Brandi had said farewell to Gino. She wouldn’t say farewell to Nick.
Legs stretched out and ankles crossed, she rifled through the backpack she’d brought into the highlands. She tilted the pack, using the moonlight to illuminate its contents. She smiled sheepishly at the condom and then started to lift the small bag of pot she got from a friend. She hesitated for a beat, choosing instead to remove two bottles of Bud. Tonight she and Nick would at long last consummate their relationship. She wanted to remember it and not be stoned. A beer or two would settle the nerves and take the edge off as their friendship would be taken to the next level.
Wearing Levi 501’s and a Whitesnake T-shirt, Nick slanted back. With his palms pressed into the pink blanket he couldn’t help but smile. Brandi twisted off the cap and handed him a bottle. Not ladylike, but sexy as hell.
She raised the bottle. “To our future.”
They clinked, they sipped. Some foam nearly trickled over the lip onto her jeans but she gulped it down. Dabbing her thin lips with the back of her hand, she winked. Leaning closer, she planted a few tender kisses on Nick’s mouth. Her lips were soft, engaging, and tasted of Budweiser.
Brandi gently parted Nick’s lips with the tip of her probing tongue. The passion intensified. Her right hand cupped the back of his neck, pulling him deeper into her mouth. She placed her left elbow on his shoulder so that her hand could gently tousle his hair as they smooched. Nick loved when she did that. A major turn on. He shifted himself, his hand now cupping her hip.
He was unsure how long they continued. As always, time stood still in Brandi’s presence. When she unexpectedly pulled away, Nick wailed “Hey!”
She retrieved a second blanket from the backpack and draped it over them like a tarp. It was a warm night. Nick realized it would make things more intimate. Seconds later, the two seventeen year olds picked up where they left off. More passion, more thirst.
Like all boys his age in Avalon Hills, Nick went through middle school with a crush on Brandi and senior year of high school wanting her. Now they were adults. High school graduates. This was no longer a childish infatuation. Tonight would be the night. Their night.
It’d better be tonight. Nick was going insane.
When she abruptly stopped again, Nick frowned. “What?”
Brandi replied with only a smile.
The moonbeam shone from behind. Nick did a double take as the moonlight created a halo-like effect behind her head. His male insecurity kicked in. “Did I do something wrong?”
Brandi tenderly tapped his face as she spoke, one gentle poke for each word. “You. Don’t. Have. To. Go.”
Nick swallowed hard. Repositioning himself slightly and readjusting his suddenly restrictive jeans, he would have agreed to anything at this point: Sabotaging the Space Shuttle the previous year, blowing up the Marines barracks in Beirut four years ago. He didn’t care. He needed Brandi. He craved her. He’d do anything to at long last be with her. But he could never lie to her. “I can’t stay.”
“Sure you can.”
He drew his eyes away, staring off toward the valley. “No, I really can’t.” He paused, added, “I’ve got nothing here.”
“Thanks a lot,” she said, playfully smacking his chest and realizing it was true: Girls did mature quicker.
“I don’t mean it like that,” he stammered and stalled by swigging his beer.
“This place isn’t that bad.” Her tone lacked enthusiasm.
Nick opened his mouth, started to speak, stopped. His eyes broke contact and he spoke to the pollution that veiled Avalon Hills. “I’ve got a scholarship, Brand. Am I supposed to throw that all away? It’s my ticket outta this dump.”
“San Diego State?” she bellowed. “Could you have possibly gone any farther?”
“It’s a good school, a great opportunity.”
Brandi’s smile faded for an instant. Hopelessness crept into her voice. “Baseball, Nicky? It’s almost impossible to make the majors.”
“It’s my dream,” he stated philosophically. “My purpose.”
“It’s such a long shot.”
Nick blew out through his lips. “Thanks for your optimism. Some encouragement would be nice.”
“I am optimistic. If anyone can make it, I know you can. You’re great. You’ve got the talent. But–” Her words trailed off.
She moved her head in a yes-no fashion. “But there are plenty of talented kids out there.” She waved her arm like Vanna White. “Why not…I don’t know, stay around here? I mean, this way, if things don’t work out–even though I’m sure they will–but if things don’t work out, you’ll at least be home.”
Home? This place? He cupped her face, her head falling into the warm touch. “Baby, this is football country ’round here. Baseball is like, I don’t know, soccer. And what’s wrong with going after my dream?”
“California is so…far.”
Brandi recognized her appearance made her popular with boys and hated by their girlfriends. Her provocativeness garnered backstage passes when Van Halen and Bon Jovi played down in Pittsburgh. Her World History professor let it be known he’d be willing to give her an A if it was mutually beneficial. One of her father’s co-workers, some old married geezer who was pushing forty, offered a weekend getaway to the Catskills. But when Brandi looked in the mirror she didn’t see it.
She was sexier than some, less sexy than others. Her eyebrows were too thick, too dark. She saw breasts that were a bit too small and hips a bit too wide. Numerous times, be it high on cocaine or drunk on Jack Daniels, Gino had advised she was fat.
Brandi saw those videos on MTV. She knew what girls out there were like–lean, tall, blonde, blue-eyed model types with implants. Bitches. And now her Nicky would be among them. She finally responded. “There’s nothing wrong with going after your dream. But you have to be realistic.”
“Mike and Wolfsie are going after theirs. You think their girlfriends are giving them a guilt trip?”
She cupped his knee. “I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I just want you to realize what you’re up against.” She paused for effect then flashed her most seductive smile. “And think of what you’re giving up.”
Nick’s anger subsided as he lost himself in those brown eyes. Brandi truly was faultless, impeccable. They had trekked half a mile into the woods and her pristine boots remained white as snow. Who else could manage that?
She was an angel in the hell known as Avalon Hills. There was no doubt Brandi was blessed with good looks. Nick adored the way her dark features contrasted with her olive complexion. But below the stunning perfection was a girl, a simple girl, insecure in her own skin. And he found that more addicting than her physical appearance. As radiant as she was on the outside, she was faultless on the inside.
He considered her statement. His future and his dreams awaited him on the opposite end of the continent. California might as well be Pluto. He’d be alone, far removed from everything he knew. He heard himself say, “Come with me.”
Nick took her hands in his. “Yea, come with me. You said you wanted to take a year off before starting college anyway. Come. Maybe you’ll like it out there. And we’ll be together.”
Brandi furrowed her brow, an unsure expression crossing her face.
Nick was excited. “We can ride off into the sunset together.”
Brandi snickered. “Oh really?”
“Sure, why not?”
Brandi cocked her head. “You watch too many movies.”
Nick was so enthusiastic about his idea he didn’t hear the sound.
“What was that?” Brandi asked, looking nervously through the brush.
Nick followed her gaze. “What was what?”
A brief silence. Then Nick heard it, too. The tranquil waters were being disturbed.
“That,” she murmured. Brandi sprang to her feet and moved stealthily away.
Nick took a gander at her butt in those jeans before following.
Cat-like quiet, the pair proceeded out of the clearing and entered the foreboding forest. The desiccated ground and deadened branches cracked under their feet. The sound seemed to rattle the hills. Brandi led the way, stooping under low hanging branches that reached out like skeletal arms. After twenty or so yards she stopped, stuck out her hand. Nick sashayed alongside, draped his arm over her shoulder. “What–”
“Shhh.” Gingerly easing aside some limbs, she squinted. The sound came louder. Closer. “There.” She pointed.
Nick angled closer, resting his chin on her shoulder, and examined the reedy banks of the Acheron River.
The valley was dimmed by the night. If it wasn’t for the shimmering reflection in the moonlight, one would be hard pressed to differentiate between land and water.
They watched a figure stagger forth from the shadows. He collapsed to his knees in the shallow water. Splashing. The sound they heard. The man was well-dressed in a suit but his shirt was partially torn, his tie hanging crookedly. Nick and Brandi could detect labored breathing.
Brandi flashed a curious glance to Nick, mouthed, “Drunk?”
Nick cocked his head, studied the scene. He wondered if it was Haggerty, the town bum, who supposedly got messed up in Viet Nam. But Nick never recalled seeing the vet in a suit.
“We should help,” Brandi claimed. “He seems hurt.”
She began to stand but felt Nick grasp her shoulder and hold her in place.
A second figure appeared from the obscurity. This man seemed taller, leaner. The moon’s glow failed to illuminate the silhouetted shape. His clothes were dark black. The only thing that stood out in his appearance was his footwear. His boots were olive colored snakeskin with thick heels, heels that sank a few inches into the marshlands. He walked with purpose, a confident gait, approaching his injured prey.
The terrified man placed his hands together as if in prayer. “No, please.” His voice was tinged with dread and weakness.
Nick and Brandi watched as the booted individual wrenched the man to his feet. He pulled him closer, their noses almost touching. He appeared to speak in a threatening manner.
Like a caged animal, the injured man threw his arms about in all directions. His spasmodic motions enabled him to break free. He turned, staggered, and again fell to his knees in the river. Water splashed everywhere.
The man with the peculiar boots advanced on his victim. He contorted his body in a strange way, almost as if trying to avoid ruining his odd footwear. He towered over the man for a moment, jeering him. Two quick flashes of light.
The man collapsed face down in the Acheron.
Brandi instinctively screamed before Nick could cup her mouth and silence her. The killer scrutinized the hillside, scanning where he thought he detected a sound.
Nick moved his mouth to Brandi’s ear. “Be quiet and don’t move,” he breathed.
They peered down to the riverbank and watched the movement of the killer.
Half a block from home, Nick killed the lights on his eleven-year-old Chevy Nova. He eased onto the driveway, pleased the house was dark and his parents were asleep. As Bruce Springsteen’s latest single, “Brilliant Disguise” emanated from the tape deck, Nick replayed the events of the night. After the song finished, he started to exit the car. Then, remembering his mom would be going to church tomorrow and not wanting to block her in the garage, he reversed and parked curbside.
Upon entering the noiseless home, Nick was relieved everyone was asleep. He was an adult. He’d be in college in a couple months. He didn’t see why he had to be home by a certain time. But, as his father repeatedly admonished him, “My house, my rules.”
Nick was a few feet inside when he heard a familiar jangling. “Hey, Scrappy,” he whispered and took a knee.
The West Highland Terrier scampered cheerily down the hallway to welcome him home. Scrappy placed his front paws on Nick’s knee and slobbered his face. Nick feverishly scratched behind the dog’s ear, effectively turning Scrappy’s tail into a propeller. Nick made his way to the kitchen, the Westie at his heels. A pair of excited little yips caused Nick to turn and glance nervously toward upstairs. No lights. Whew.
Opening a pantry, he removed a Milk Bone. Scrappy then performed the one and only trick he knew, something taught to him by Nick’s father. As Nick held the treat in a closed palm, the animated canine rose onto his hind legs and spun in a clockwise circle exactly three times, front paws dangling.
He rewarded the Westie. “Good boy.”
Nick went upstairs and skulked to his room. His parents’ bedroom door was open. He noticed strange flashes dancing on the wall, indicating they’d fallen asleep with the TV playing. Going past his younger brother’s closed bedroom, Nick overheard the familiar voice of an MTV Vee-Jay.
Closing himself in his room, he stripped down to his boxers. He slipped into a faded and tattered black shirt with gold lettering that proclaimed, We Are Fam-a-lee. The shirt commemorated the Pirates World Championship eight long years ago.
Once in bed, Nick stared at the ceiling. His mind was clicking on all cylinders and sleep did not come.
The bizarre scene that played out on the banks of the Acheron River could not be shaken. He tried to convince himself that maybe it wasn’t a murder after all. He must’ve been mistaken. Avalon Hills was a lot of things but crime, especially homicide, was not commonplace.
Then again, if it was, in fact, a murder, it only solidified his desire to get out of this town.
He and Brandi had remained stone-like in their secreted location for a good ten minutes. As the booted killer–if he really was a killer–focused his attention on hauling the man away, the Nick and Brandi fled. During the drive home, conversation was sparse. They were too wrapped up in their own thoughts.
Something about what they witnessed seemed…familiar. He couldn’t quite place it. He decided to go to the police tomorrow morning and file a report on…whatever it was.
He’d hoped his girl would accompany him to corroborate his story. But Brandi was not warm to the idea. Her refusal to back him up was perplexing.
Mike was going to New York with his band. Wolfsie was going to Penn State to become a lawyer. Nick wondered if their girlfriends were giving them as much grief for following their dreams.
What was with her anyway? They’d been together more than a year. They made out a lot but, even though she had slept with guys prior to Nick, she had not slept with him. Why? Then, finally tonight she seemed ready? It irritated him. She was using her body to convince him to stay.
He liked her–a lot. She turned him on plenty. But he wondered what caused him to blurt out come with me. Like going to the police tomorrow, she was not receptive to that idea either.
Part of him hoped she’d up and leave town with him. The two of them would discover San Diego together. At least he wouldn’t be alone. On the other hand, the way she’d been acting, perhaps it was best they went their separate ways.
Nick would be in Cali-friggin’-fornia. Sun, sand, and surfing. Beaches, blondes, and boobs.
As his eyes grew weighty, Nick accepted that Brandi was his past, a high school crush. His future was in southern California. He’d leave behind this town, he’d leave behind his family. And he’d leave behind Brandi.
There would be other girls.
There would definitely be others.
Nick was seventeen.
© 2015 by Rob Silverman