The white Lexus was doing exactly one mile over the speed limit
when it crossed the Louisiana state line.
It had started to rain just outside of Jackson, Mississippi ---
a steady downpour the wipers simply couldn’t keep up with.
Visibility was impaired enough to force Sue to slow down to a crawl
as she passed through the city.
Sue’s shoulders tensed as she watched the red taillights
of the Jeep Cherokee in front of her. She had been driving almost
nonstop for nearly two days now. The other girls on campus had been
thinking about their exams, about what they’d do on their
upcoming holiday breaks. But Sue’s mind had been on one thing
and one thing only. Getting away. There had been no other
She snapped on the radio, trying to relieve the tedium of the
drive and the steady, pounding rain. “Have yourself a merry
little Christmas,” a voice sang from the radio. “Let
your heart be light…”
Christmas. It was almost Christmas. It didn’t feel that
way to Sue, with the warm, muggy rain.
“From now on, our troubles will be out of
She was crying. She switched off the radio. She preferred the
Sue glanced back in her rear view mirror. She wasn’t
really sure who --- or what --- she was looking for. In the rain
she couldn’t see anything but headlights anyway. But somehow
it made her feel better to look back every now and then. Her
nerves, already shot, began to fray a little as she kept taking her
foot off the gas pedal to avoid slamming into the car in front of
“Come on, come on,” Sue muttered under her breath,
drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. The wind and rain
whipped against the side of the car with a long, screeching
It seemed to take hours to get through Jackson, but once she
did, the thick traffic began to disperse. Finally she was able to
start getting her speed back up. As soon as she clocked
seventy-one, she clicked on the cruise control and removed her foot
from the gas pedal with a sigh of relief. Her right hip was getting
sore, and she shifted a little in her seat. Cars and trucks flew
past her in the left lane, throwing up streams of water onto her
windshield. No matter how tempting it was to speed up, she resisted
the urge and kept relying on the cruise control. She couldn’t
risk being pulled over.
It was just paranoia, she knew. Surely there was no rural
Southern sheriff watching for her. In all likelihood, there
wasn’t anyone at all on the road looking for her. But better
safe than sorry.
I just don’t know, Sue reminded herself, and
until I do know, it’s better not to take any risks --- and
not to trust anyone. If I try to tell anyone --- they’ll just
think I’m crazy, and they’ll turn me over to Gran and
Granpa. I can’t risk that.
A sob rose in her throat, but Sue fought it down.
Don’t cry again, that’s a waste of energy. I have
to focus. I have to keep my mind clear and not give in to
emotion. I’m almost there. It’s only a few
more hours at most, and then I can take a break, get some rest, and
maybe find some hope…
But for how long could she afford to rest? Sooner or later she
knew they’d come for her. They wouldn’t just let her
She still had over five hundred dollars in cash in her purse,
but there was no telling how long that would last. She was afraid
to use her credit cards and her debit card. She paid cash at that
horrible cheap motel just outside of Richmond, Virginia, where
she’d grabbed a few hours of desperately needed sleep before
hitting the road again. She couldn’t leave any electronic
traces behind --- that would make it too easy for them to find her.
She’d left her cell phone back at her dorm room in upstate
New York, buying a cheap disposable pay-as-you-go one at a Wal-Mart
somewhere in northern Pennsylvania as she headed south. She’d
worried about her license plates, wondering if there was a bulletin
sent out with a description of her and her car --- but if it came
down to it, there was the gun in the compartment between the seats.
She wasn’t sure if she would actually have the nerve to use
it, but it was there in case she needed it.
I hope I don’t have to use it, she thought,
glancing down at the armrest where it was hidden. But she would if
she had to.
The highway was wet and the rhythmic sound of the water being
thrown up by the wheels against the car made her even sleepier. She
was exhausted. It had been almost sixteen hours since she checked
out of that miserable motel and hit the road. Outside of stopping
for gas and a quick run to the bathroom, she’d been driving
--- and her legs and back were stiff. She could feel knots of
tension in her back, and her left elbow was sore from resting on
the car door. Her eyes burned with fatigue, her throat was dry, her
lips chapped. She’d kept the window cracked, hoping the rush
of cold air from outside would keep her awake. She glanced at her
watch. It was almost two.
It can’t be much further, she reasoned. On
the map Hammond looks like it’s almost in Mississippi.
She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror and grimaced. Worse
than how she looked, she could smell herself and it wasn’t
pleasant --- she smelled like sour socks. Her feet were sweating in
her shoes. And now her stomach was growling. She hadn’t eaten
since seven in the morning, when she’d stopped at a
Hardee’s somewhere in north Alabama. She’d managed to
choke down some sort of fried egg on a dry biscuit, washing it down
with numerous cups of coffee. All she’d wanted to do was just
put her head down on the table and go to sleep right there. But she
forced herself to get a refill to go, and kept driving.
Got to keep going, Sue told herself, repeating the
litany like a catechism. Don’t know when they might come
after me, don’t know how much time I have, got to get there
before they figure out where I’ve gone, got to get there
while it’s still safe --- if it ever was safe there in the
She allowed herself to smile when she saw the big sign with the
fleur-de-lis in the center, reading Welcome to Louisiana
and Bienvenue en Louisiane underneath. She thought about
stopping at the welcome area, but there were too many cars and
trucks parked all around, and a quick glance down at her gas gauge,
inching ever closer to the red, convinced her to keep going. She
decided to take the next exit with a gas station, fill up the tank,
use the restroom and get something to snack on, maybe another cup
of coffee. Her stomach rebelled at the thought of more coffee ---
especially gas station coffee. Maybe a soda, she thought.
I’m almost there, it can’t be more than another
hour, maybe I can make myself stay awake till I get there without
After crossing the state line she took the next exit, pulling
into a deserted Texaco station. It was a typical roadside gas
station, two islands with numbered pumps, a little food store for
snacks, and restrooms. Through the rain she could discern Christmas
lights strung along the outside of the building, blinking red and
green and yellow. Signs all over the glass front announced sales on
beer, soda and the availability of Louisiana lottery tickets. The
jackpot for the next drawing was fifty-three million dollars.
A lot of good that would do me, Sue thought.
She noticed off to the side of the station a battered looking
Toyota was parked, with bumper stickers plastered all over the
trunk and rear bumper: Your Mother was pro-life; God created
Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve; Jesus died for your sins; Support
the troops. A metal fish symbol was affixed to the lower trunk
close to the bumper and next to the license plate, just below a
huge yellow ribbon.
She felt an inexplicable surge of panic.
Get out of here, get back on the highway, stop at the next
station, there’s got to be a better place than this
raced through her head before she got a hold of herself again.
I need gas, and I have to go to the bathroom.
Just be goddamned careful, that’s all.
Sue pulled to a stop at the pump closest to the store entrance
and stepped out of the car, shivering against the chill in the air.
The rain was letting up. She stretched --- she hadn’t been
out of the car in over four hours since stopping at a rest area ---
and her knees and back popped in places. It felt good to stand up.
She bent over to stretch her back a little more, and twisted at the
waist a bit.
She walked over to the door and pushed it open, greeted by the
high-pitched wail of a Christmas carol --- Rockin’ around
the Christmas tree, have a hap-pee holiday --- and a blast of
hot air. Sue smiled at the girl behind the counter and headed for
the bathroom. Once inside she locked the door. The bathroom smelled
vaguely like pine. It was relatively clean --- she’d used
worse on this trip --- but she wiped down the seat anyway before
dropping her jeans. She let her head rest on her hands. Almost
there, she reminded herself as her eyes began to droop.
Washing her hands, she ran the sink water until it was hot, then
splashed it into her face. She grabbed her brush out of her purse
and ran it through her blond hair. What a mess, she
thought, grimacing at her reflection. Whatever happened to that
pretty college freshman?
She never really existed, Sue thought with a terrible
sensation in her chest.
When her hair was in some sort of order, she dropped the brush
back into her purse and looked again at herself in the mirror.
That’s better. Not pretty, but at least presentable.
Her hair needed to be washed --- a shower would be heaven --- but
she dried her face and walked out of the bathroom.
At the counter, a fresh pot of coffee was almost finished
brewing. The ones in the other pots looked like mud, scorched by
hours on their burners. Her stomach growled again. A glass case
full of donuts next to the coffee stand enticed her. She opened the
case and picked up two glazed donuts, slipping one into a bag and
taking a bite out of the other as she waited for the pot to stop
brewing. She finished the rest of the donut, dropping a third into
the bag, and poured herself a large cup of the fresh coffee. After
adding creamer and sweetener, she took a sip. Not bad for gas
station coffee, she thought.
The girl working behind the counter was about Sue’s age.
She was short and carrying an extra thirty pounds, give or take. A
home perm had frizzed her mousy brown hair around her head. She
looked as if she’d received an intense electrical shock. Her
cheeks were thick, narrowing her brown eyes until they were almost
invisible. Acne scars pitted both cheeks. Her lips were thin and
painted orange. Her plump arms were freckled where they extended
out from her blue smock, and on the upper left arm in blue script
the name Jason was tattooed. The smock was open, revealing
a black T-shirt with A Touch of Class silk-screened in
gold over her breasts. A charm bracelet jangled as she punched
numbers into the register. On her heavy left breast a nametag read
“New York plates,” Myrna Lee said, gesturing with
her head out the window. “You’re a long way from
home.” Her voice was high pitched and her accent thick.
“Don’t see many of those around here.”
Sue offered the clerk a small smile. “I want to get twenty
in gas, too.” Act normal, like anyone else. That’s
the most important thing. Don’t act funny in any
The register beeped as Myrna Lee typed that in. “Twenty
three forty seven.” The clerk grimaced, her lips pulling back
to expose crooked yellow teeth. “Where ya heading, so far
away from home?”
She’s just making conversation to be polite. Or ---
she could be one of them…
A chill went down her spine. “Los Angeles,” she
lied, handing over a twenty and a ten, trying to keep her hand from
shaking. “Going to go live with my boyfriend.”
Myrna Lee took her money but kept her beady eyes fixed on her
“How far is the next town, or where I can get
something to eat?” she asked the clerk, who finally averted
her eyes. She felt could feel her heart pounding.
“We-ell, let me think.” Myrna Lee put her change
down on the counter and tapped her chin. “There’s
Amite, Shiloh, Independence, then Tickfaw and then Hammond. I
reckon it depends on how hungry you are. There are more choices in
Hammond, I’d imagine. College town.”
“And how far is that?” Don’t act too
interested in Hammond. Even if she isn’t one of them, they
could always ask her, and you don’t want to give too much
“Twenty, thirty minutes maybe. It ain’t
“And New Orleans?”
“New Orleans? ‘Bout another hour past
Hammond.” Myrna Lee grimaced again. “It ain’t the
same since the hurricane, though. You just keep taking 55 past
Hammond, and then you go east on I-10. You pick it up out in the
swamp. I-10’ll take you right to New Orleans.”
“Don’t mention it. You have a happy Christmas,
Sue wished her the same, then picked up the donuts and coffee
and walked back out to the car. Hooking the nozzle into the tank
and setting the latch so she didn’t have to hold it, she
wolfed down the donuts. Then she took another long sip of the
coffee. When the gas tank clicked that she was full, she replaced
the nozzle back onto the pump and climbed back into the car.
She sat there for a few moments after starting the ignition. It
was still raining, and an eighteen-wheeler flew past on I-55,
throwing up a huge spray of water.
“Almost there,” she said out loud, and then felt
panic starting to creep into her brain.
What if this was all for nothing? What if there’s
nothing she can do to help me? What if she’s not even there?
What if there’s nothing anyone can do to help me? I
don’t even know why I’m going to see Dr. Marshall ---
but she was an expert, and the girl had told her she could help
her. But this could still all just be a fool’s errand, the
delusions of a crazy girl, a crazy girl who claims she ---
“Stop it,” Sue said, pounding the steering wheel
with both hands. “This isn’t going to help.”
Her eyes filled with tears. Sue sat there for a full minute and
let the panic sweep over her. Her body began to tremble and she put
her head down on the steering wheel and let the tears come. After a
few moments she took a deep breath and regained control of herself.
“Okay, that’s enough of that,” she said
She glanced out the window. Myrna Lee had come outside and was
staring at her, smoking a cigarette. She wiped at her face, smiled,
and gave Myrna Lee a friendly wave, even though fear was starting
to inch its insidious way back into her mind. So much for
acting normal, she thought grimly as she slipped the car into
gear and rolled out of the parking lot. I need to put some
distance between me and this place.
There was no traffic coming so she sped up as she headed back
onto the highway. The eighteen-wheeler was just taillights in the
mist far ahead of her. She got the car back up to seventy-one miles
an hour and turned the cruise control back on, then allowed herself
to relax a little bit. But within a few miles, she was back to
glancing in the rearview mirror every minute or so to make sure no
one was behind her.
I’m being stupid, Sue reminded herself again.
Even if they are coming after me, how would I know it was them
behind me? I wouldn’t know until it was too late, until they
had me ---
“Stop it,” she said, and turned the radio up
Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the
She wished so much she had managed to grab her iPod, or at least
a handful of CDs.
Every muscle, every bone, every joint in her body ached with
fatigue. Sue’s eyelids began drooping again. The coffee
hadn’t helped at all, other than to churn up more acid in her
stomach. She grabbed the pack of Rolaids she’d bought a
hundred years ago it seemed in North Carolina and chewed on two.
Rolling the window all the way down in spite of the rain, she took
a long deep breath of cold air. Her hair blew back into a mass of
tangles and her teeth began to chatter, but it was better than
falling asleep again.
She flew past the exits for Amite, Tickfaw and Independence,
glancing down at the directions she’d printed off the
Internet just before taking off on this nightmare drive. The first
Hammond exit wasn’t the right one, so she kept going. The
traffic was getting heavier, but it was the second turn-off she
wanted. She slowed down at the bottom of the off-ramp and turned
left, heading into Hammond. She passed a Lowe’s, a Wal-Mart
and the numerous fast food places that always gathered in small
towns near the highway exit. Her stomach growled again and she
thought about going through a drive-through, but dismissed the
thought as quickly as it came. I’m almost there, I can
worry about getting something to eat after I’ve gotten out of
this goddamned car, and talked to Dr. Marshall.
The wet streets were packed with cars, even though it was early
afternoon, crawling along as she passed parking lot after parking
lot. Christmas shoppers, she thought. Once she had loved
Christmas. Once it had been a festive time for her, but now it
She dreaded what might come on Christmas Eve.
She passed a Raising Cane, a Sonic, a Wendy’s, and the
smell almost made her cry again. No, no, you’re almost
there, keep going. The road swerved to the right and she
followed the curve, and started passing into a residential area.
The street she wanted was two blocks past the railroad tracks, and
she turned right, watching the house numbers. She struggled to keep
her eyes open and focused. She’d gone two blocks when she
found the one she wanted, and turned into the driveway, parking
behind a black Chevrolet SUV.
The house was a three-story clapboard Victorian, complete with a
cupola. Dormer windows peered out from what was probably a
half-attic. A porch ran the distance of the house and curved around
it, disappearing behind in the back. The windows were large, and
the whole place needed painting. The lawn was also in disrepair,
with exposed areas of dirt. Towering pines shot upward with lower
branches sparse and brown.
Yet the windows were lit up with blue Christmas lights, and a
huge Christmas tree, unlit, stood in a window at the corner of the
house. Gray smoke rose from a chimney. She smiled. Someone must
Still, she sat in the car for a couple of moments, and felt the
fear start to snake through her body again.
What if this was all for nothing? What if she has no answers
for you? What if she thinks you’re crazy, and calls them to
tell them you’re here? What if there’s nothing she can
do to help you?
“No,” she whispered, gripping the steering wheel
with both hands until her knuckles whitened. “Stop it.
She steeled herself, and got out of the car. It was raining hard
again, so she grabbed her backpack and ran up to the front door.
Without any hesitation she rang the bell. Footsteps sounded within
the house, and she sagged against the doorframe with relief.
The door opened. The woman who stood in front of her was in her
early fifties, wearing a red and black checked flannel shirt over
jeans and fuzzy blue house slippers. Her short dark hair was shot
through with gray, and reading glasses were perched on the end of
her nose. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“Sue?” Her eyes grew wide. “What on earth are
you doing here?”
She pulled the younger woman into a hug.
“But thank God you’re all right! I’ve been
worried sick about you.”
Sue couldn’t say anything. All of her weariness suddenly
seemed to overcome her. She just clung onto Dr. Marshall.
The older woman stepped back and looked at her. “Are you
okay, Sue? You look terrible! What’s wrong? Why are you
“Just really tired, Dr. Marshall.” Sue gave her a
weak smile. Her legs felt like they might buckle at any moment.
“I had to come. I had to see you.”
Dr. Marshall stepped aside and Sue brushed by her into the
house. “Ever since I got that email from you, I half expected
this,” the older woman said. “Sue, are you sure
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay
again.” Once inside Dr. Marshall’s house, Sue began to
tremble. “I need your help. And I’m so tired --- so
“Well, yes, of course I’ll do whatever I can. Come
on in.” Dr. Marshall gestured into the living room.
“Have a seat here. Can I get you anything? You must be
hungry.” She followed the younger woman into the room,
standing over Sue as she nearly collapsed on the sofa. “I
haven’t been to the grocery store --- but I’m sure I
can make you a sandwich or something.” She stared down at
Sue, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Sue, you look
terrible. Are you sure you’re all right?”
Sue laughed bitterly. “I’m alive, aren’t
The room was warm, comfortable. The furniture didn’t
match, and there was a thin layer of dust on the tables. A fire
blazed in the fireplace. Books were piled everywhere, and
overflowed from bookshelves on the walls. A frayed Oriental rug
covered the hard wood floor in the sitting area.
“Has anyone---” Sue’s words stuttered as she
looked up at Dr. Marshall. “Has anyone been looking for
“The college called here last night, wondering if
I’d heard from you.” Dr. Marshall looked at her
intently. “Would you like some tea? Coffee? A
Sue sat upright. “What did you tell them?”
“Well, you told me in your email not to say anything to
anyone.” Dr. Marshall shrugged. “Sue, what’s
going on? What kind of trouble are you in? Apparently your
grandparents are frantic.” She leaned forward.
“Don’t you want to call them?”
“No.” Sue replied definitively.
I didn’t tell anyone I was coming here --- but they
suspected I might come here. How could they have known? I got rid
of the cell phone, and the phone I bought was
Then it hit her.
They must have hacked into my email account.
She fought back a sob. I’m not safe here, I’m
not safe anywhere, they’ll find me wherever I run
“Let me get you that tea and sandwich, then we’ll
talk.” Dr. Marshall headed out of the room, and Sue’s
body slumped with fatigue and defeat against the back of the
Maybe Dr. Marshall won’t be able to help me,
but at least I’m here. They might be able to trace me
here, but I won’t be here that long. If they know I’m
coming here, they’re probably already on their way. I could
be putting her in danger. But if I tell her before I go, I might be
safer. And once someone else knows, if anything happens to
She didn’t finish the thought. She didn’t want to
think about that.
She reached down, opened her backpack, and pulled a manila
envelope out of it. The envelope was full of printouts, two
separate groups rubber-banded together, which she placed on the
coffee table. She could hear Dr. Marshall in the kitchen. She had
everything in that envelope memorized, but she started reading the
one on top again.
VIRGIN SIGHTING IN MONTERREY
(from the Mexico City Sentinel)
LOS ZAPATOS --- Thousands of the faithful have come to this
tiny town in the desert of Monterrey to watch and pray for the
Virgin Mary’s intercessions.
Three young girls, all aged thirteen, went to their village
priest just over a week ago to tell him of their miraculous vision.
They were looking for a lost goat when, on a hilltop, the three
girls heard a voice and looked up. According to the priest, Father
Ramon Gutierrez, the girls claimed that the “sun turned into
a silver disk and moved across the sky until it was directly over
their heads, where it began to spin, growing smaller and smaller
until it winked out, and darkness fell over the hills. Then a small
light appeared, and grew until it took the form of the Holy Mother,
who then spoke to the girls. The Holy Mother asked them to pray for
the repentance of mankind, and also spoke to them of other things,
about which she swore them to secrecy.”
While the girls have steadily refused to tell anyone what
the Virgin Mary told them, they have returned to the hillside every
day, where they claim she reappears to them and gives them other
messages, also sworn to secrecy.
The news of the visions spread throughout the province, and
now every day when the girls return to the hillside, they are
joined by thousands of faithful Catholics, who maintain a distance
from them while watching their visions of the Virgin Mary.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico refused to
comment on the sightings, saying only that the Church is taking
these visions very seriously and is planning on conducting their
own investigation into the sightings.
Sue paged through the clippings for the thousandth time. They
were culled from newspapers and press services all over the world,
and each one of them told a similar story --- all within days of
A young Catholic girl in a small rural village in Vietnam,
visited with stigmata. Another vision of the Virgin Mary in a
remote village in the Philippines. In each case, the children were
given a message and sworn to secrecy by the Holy Mother. In Poland,
in Canada, in sub-Saharan Africa, in India. Stigmata, visions of
the Virgin Mary --- or if she appeared to non-Christian children,
she was described in terms of their own religion. “A holy
lady.” “The goddess of the sky.” One Chinese girl
claimed a visit from Qu’an Yin, the female manifestation of
the Buddha. The tabloids were having a field day. Are these the end
times? one headline screamed.
Sue’s hands shook as she paged through the clippings. All
of the articles and stories in the first grouping were from twenty
years ago. The second pile was from the last two months. They all
consisted of the same type of thing: occurrences of stigmata and
sightings of the Virgin.
Sue ran her hands through her unwashed hair. Maybe I have
lost my mind. None of this will make any sense to anyone. All I
have to go on is the word of two women, and both of them could be
But if they’re insane, that doesn’t explain
She choked back another sob.
Dr. Marshall came back into the living room, carrying a tray
with a tea kettle and two cups. There was also a sandwich on brown
bread. Placing the tray down on top of several magazines on the
coffee table, she poured a cup of tea for Sue and passed it over to
her. She smiled apologetically.
“I’m sorry, dear, all I had was peanut butter, I
hope that’s okay. Maybe we could order a pizza or
Sue picked up the sandwich. “No, this is fine for
now.” She wanted to add but didn’t: I don’t
have a lot of time.
Dr. Marshall poured herself a cup of the tea, then picked up the
pile of papers. She frowned as she paged through them all.
“Sue --- what are you doing with all of this?”
Sue let the tea warm her as she leaned back into the sofa.
“Sometimes I think I’m going insane, Dr. Marshall. I
think I’ve completely and utterly lost my mind. But if
I’m not --- if I’m right --- if everything I’ve
been through, been told, and found out is true, I would
rather be insane.” She laughed. “I don’t
even know what to think anymore.”
“But I don’t understand.” Dr. Marshall riffled
through the pile of papers again. “Why did you come here? Why
did you bring this with you?”
“Because you’re the only person who would
understand.” Because a woman in a psych ward told me to
come here, that you could help me, that you were meant to help me,
crazy as that might sound.
Dr. Marshall set the papers down and picked up her teacup.
“This is all very interesting. Obviously, I’m very
familiar with all of this, since I’m writing a book about
sightings of the Virgin Mary.” She smiled. “I’ve
even been to Los Zapatos, when those young girls were having their
“And what did you think?”
“Sue, dear, I fail to see how this --- I mean, you came
all this way to talk about sightings?”
“Please, just tell me what you think about the visions in
Los Zapatos. And everywhere else.”
Dr. Marshall sighed. “The Church has never recognized any
of these visitations as miracles, you know.” She took another
sip of her tea. “Of course, if it had been just fifty years
earlier, the Church would have been all over these incidents. Back
then, they seemed to like to publicize them, to whip the devout
into a bit of religious frenzy. But things have changed, and now
the Church isn’t so sure…”
Sue closed her eyes.
Dr. Marshall studied her with concern. “But what does any
of this have to do with you, Sue? Why have you run away, made your
grandparents worry? This is not like you. Are you sure you
don’t want me to call your grandparents, let them know
“After I tell you---” Sue bit her lip. “Just
let me tell you, okay? Then we can talk about my grandparents, if
you want to.”
But I am not calling them, Sue told herself, and if
you call them, I’m out of here.
“All right.” Dr. Marshall removed her glasses and
rubbed her eyes. “I won’t call your grandparents just
yet. But talk to me, Sue. Tell me what’s going on,
what’s got you acting so differently. Explain it to
So Sue told her everything.
Excerpted from ALL THE PRETTY DEAD GIRLS © Copyright 2010
by John Manning. Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights