Book ‘The Damage: A Novel’ by Caitlin Wahrer

Read excerpt from 'The Damage: A Novel' by Caitlin Wahrer
When a small-town family is pushed to the brink, how far will they go to protect one of their own? An edgy,  propulsive read about what we will do in the name of love and blood. Tony has always looked out for his younger brother, Nick. So when he's called to a hospital bed where Nick is lying battered and bruised after a violent sexual assault, his protective instincts flare, and a white-hot rage begins to build. As a small-town New England lawyer, Tony's wife, Julia, has cases involving kids all the time. When Detective Rice gets assigned to this one, Julia feels they're in good hands. Especially because she senses that Rice, too, understands how things can quickly get complicated. Very complicated...
Publisher: ‎Pamela Dorman Books (June 15, 2021)  Language: ‎English  Hardcover: ‎400 pages  ISBN-10: ‎0593296133  ISBN-13: ‎978-0593296134  Dimensions: ‎6.25 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches

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Book excerpt


I have known monsters and I have known men.
I have stood in their long shadows, propped them up with my own two hands, reached for their inscrutable faces in the dark. They are harder to set apart than you know.
Than you will ever know.
Claire C. Holland, I Am Not Your Final Girl


Julia Hall, 2019

The dying detective’s house was a tall, dark blue thing with chipping trim and shutters. It loomed against the bright sky, set back from the snowbank lining the street. The house was dusted with last night’s powder, but the black 23 tacked above the front door was brushed clean. There was room in the narrow driveway, but she parked on the street.

Julia Hall shifted in her seat to expose the pocket of her heavy winter coat. She crammed her hand deep inside until her fingers scraped the edges of the folded paper. As she pulled the note free, she willed it to say anything but the address she’d located—anything that would let her drive on, maybe never to find the house. There, on the crumpled sheet, she’d written 23 Maple Drive, Cape Elizabeth, and here it was.

“Just go,” she said aloud, then looked sideways at the house. Windows abutted the front door, and each appeared empty with the blinds drawn. At least he hadn’t seen her talking to herself, then.

The wind blew the door from Julia’s hand as she climbed out of her SUV. This winter had been bitterly cold. As she aged she found the winter a little less pleasant to weather each year. She pulled her hat tighter over her ears, then turned back to the car. Without thinking, she slammed the door hard. She winced as the sound rocked down the neighborhood street. She hadn’t done that in years—she was thinking of her old Subaru, the one that demanded a rougher touch. The one she’d had three years ago, back when she had occasion to talk to the man waiting for her inside that house.

In spite of last night’s flurry, the front walk was freshly shoveled. Had he done that for her? The path and steps to the porch were layered in salt, and she focused on the sound as she crunched her way up to his door. She shook out her hands and rang the bell. Before the chime had subsided inside, the door swung open.

“Julia,” said the figure in the doorway. “How are you, dear?”

She was certainly better than he was, wasn’t she? Because the man standing before her was Detective Rice, or at least the husk of him. His once towering frame seemed to have caved in on itself like a rotting flower stem. His face was sallow, and he had deep bags under his eyes. A Red Sox cap pushed down on his ears, obscuring what appeared to be a completely bald skull.

“I’m good, Detective Rice. I’m good.”

They shook hands awkwardly, as he had leaned in as though to hug her.

“Well, would you like to come in?”

Every day since you called me, I’ve thrown up my breakfast was what she wanted to say. Instead, she smiled and lied. “Yes, of course.”

“And please, you can just call me John,” he said as he wobbled backward to make room for her to step inside. He seemed to have aged ten years in the last three, maybe from the cancer. Not that she was doing much better. For most of her life, Julia had looked young for her age. Somewhere in the past few years, that stopped. She looked thirty-nine now.

As Julia pulled off her boots, she surveyed Detective Rice’s mudroom, a little voice in her head pointing out how strange it was to be in Detective Rice’s mudroom. The bench she sat on was sturdy, practical. A few pairs each of work boots and dress shoes butted up against the base. The bench was flanked by a bucket of salt on her right, and a wet shovel leaned against the wall. To her left was the only curious feature: a petite shelf crammed with gardening books. She never would have guessed him to be a gardener when she met him all that time ago. It suggested an earthiness that she had missed.

“I don’t know if I can,” she said as she stood. “I think you’ll always be ‘Detective Rice’ to me.”

He grinned at her and shrugged.

She followed him down a narrow hallway lined with family photos and religious artifacts: there were various portraits of a younger Detective Rice and his deceased wife, Julia assumed, and three children; a crucifix and a dried palm; a picture of a grandchild, probably, next to a picture of Jesus.

Detective Rice said something muffled as he led her down the hallway.


He turned and faced her over his shoulder. “Was just saying you got a new car.”

“Oh, yeah.” She pointed her thumb behind her. “Guess I’ve upgraded since I last saw you.”

She studied the change in his height. He was still a tall man, she thought as she followed him, but his illness had stolen several inches.

“I was thinking we’d sit in here.”

He motioned to the first room they came upon. It was decidedly a sitting room: something that Julia only ever saw in the homes of older people. Like others she had seen, Detective Rice’s had a buttoned-up air to it, despite its obvious purpose for hosting company. The room was staged around two big recliners with a small table between them.

Detective Rice motioned for Julia to sit in the chair on the right as he continued down the hallway.

She waited a few seconds, then poked her head out into the hall. Another doorway on the right. Kitchen at the end.

She listened but heard nothing. She turned back into the sitting room. Deep breath, she thought, and inhaled.

She moved toward the picture window across the room. It looked out on Maple Drive and a big house across the street. A steady chill radiated from the pane, and Julia touched a trembling finger to the glass. There were few things as bleak as Maine in February.

The cold months were hard; always had been. Every year, Julia was faced with the reality of Maine’s autumn and winter, neither of which ever matched the nostalgia-tinged versions that lived in her head. The snow usually started in December, lasted through April. And after that winter—after the winter she last laid eyes on Detective Rice—winters carried some kind of existential melancholy that had to be shoveled away with the snow.

“Endless, isn’t it?”

She started when she heard his voice behind her.

He was in the doorway again, smiling at her. In his hands he held two mugs.

He was just getting coffee. She breathed out, probably with obvious relief.

He motioned to the chair again, and this time she sat. She accepted a mug and watched him settle into his own seat. The scent that met her nostrils was not coffee, in fact, but tea. She tasted it and found it heavily sweetened. That was a surprise.

“How are your children?” Detective Rice asked as he sipped at his drink.

“They’re good, thanks.”

“How old are they now?”

“Uh, ten and eight.”

“You’ll never be ready for them to grow up.”

There was something about him that made it easy to forget he had children of his own. Grown children; grandchildren, judging by the pictures in the hallway. It wasn’t his personality that made her forget—it was his profession. There was something about him being a detective that made her forget that he existed outside of that.

Julia nodded and waited for him to ask her how Tony was.

“I suppose you were surprised to hear from me last week.”

That answers that, she thought. Something about his passing over her husband felt like a personal slight, especially given everything that had happened, and she felt herself suppressing a frown.

She had been surprised on Thursday, when she picked up her cell at the end of a long morning in court to find a single voice mail waiting for her. It was the mark of an easy day if she only had one missed call by noon. She shouted goodbye to the marshal at the door and pressed Play as she strode from the courthouse. The voice that had croaked out of her phone halted her midstep; it was slow but unmistakable. A voice she had come to dread. Years ago she had worked herself into a state of near panic any time the phone rang or her voice mail blinked, for fear that his voice would be on the other end.

“I was surprised to hear from you,” Julia said. “And very sorry to hear that you were sick, too.” She leaned toward him slightly, realizing she hadn’t mentioned it since they spoke on the phone last week and he asked her to come to his home.

“What’s your . . . prognosis?” There was no comfortable word, not that she could think of.

“Well, it’s not too hot,” he said in a voice like he was discussing the chance of another flurry. “My doc thinks my ‘quality of life’ is going to get pretty bad over the next couple months, and it might all go pretty quick after that.”

Julia could hear the quotes around “quality of life,” and she pictured Detective Rice sitting in his doctor’s office in a dressing gown, saying, “‘Quality of life’? What the fuck does that mean? Just tell me when I’m gonna die.”

She smiled at him warmly. “I’m glad to see that you’re still able to be at home.”

“Oh, well, we’ll see.”

They each took a sip.

“Well,” he said, and laughed lightly. He shrugged.

Was he nervous?

“I appreciate you coming up,” he said. “Like I said, I wanted to talk to you before, well . . .” He shrugged at himself.

“While you still have that ‘quality of life.’”

Detective Rice laughed, let out a wheezing cough, and reached behind his chair. There was the squeaking sound of an ungreased wheel, and he pulled a portable oxygen tank around to his side. He held the mask up to his face and breathed, holding up a One minute finger to her.

Jesus Christ, I better not make him laugh again.

He began to put the mask away.

“Why don’t you keep that on,” Julia said. “I really don’t—”“No,” Detective Rice said firmly. “Thank you, but no.”

The mask in its place on the tank, Detective Rice sat himself back up. The wind whistled at the window. “I wasn’t sure you’d come, after everything. But I needed to talk to you. Well, to say some things to you. And I think you have some things to say to me, too.”

Julia had to push herself to hold his gaze. His eyes were watery pink, and hers wanted nothing to do with them.

“I really wasn’t sure you’d come,” he said again. “But you always were too nice to say no to anyone.”

The sick ache in her stomach intensified. What was she supposed to say to that?

He didn’t expect a response, it seemed, because he spoke again. “So. Back to the beginning?”

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