Carter Wilson is a master of the paranoid thriller. The USA Today-bestselling author is the scribe behind a number of gripping tales, from the award-winning The Comfort of Black to 2018's Mister Tender's Girl. Now, Wilson returns with another intricately crafted narrative of psychological suspense in his latest release: The Dead Girl in 2A.
The book centers on two people who cross paths while on a flight to Colorado. At first, their encounter seems innocent enough—but it's about to set off a chain of events that will leave readers reeling.
Jake Buchanan is doing his best to quiet his nerves before his business flight to Denver, when he notices the woman sitting next to him in seat 2A: Clara Stowe. Despite being strangers on a plane, Jake can’t shake the feeling that he knows the woman. Strangely, Clara feels the same way. As the flight progresses, the pair begin to talk and tease out just how they know one another. Then Clara makes a shocking revelation: She intends to end her life in the mountains of Colorado.
Jake is stunned. Yet before he can react to what this “stranger” has told him, the flight is over and Clara slips away into the crowded airport terminal. Jake struggles to process everything he's just learned, and eerie questions spin through his head. Was someone behind the not-so-chance-encounter on the plane—and are they still pulling the strings? As Jake unravels this mystery, he opens up a Pandora’s box of manipulation and trauma that will affect not only himself, but Clara as well.
Hailed by award-winning author Barbara Nickless as a high wire act that's "exquisitely balanced between shattering suspense and the sudden opening of our hearts", The Dead Girl in 2A will leave you reading long into the night this summer. Wilson employs an engaging dual-voiced structure with his narrative, jumping between Jake's point of view and Clara's own diary entries. The following excerpt offers us a glimpse into Jake's troubled past and fragile inner state as prepares for his fateful flight to Denver—where he soon meets the mysterious woman in seat 2A.
Read on for an excerpt from The Dead Girl in 2A below, and then download the book!
Jake - The Day Of
Jake Buchannan placed his palm on his eight-year-old daughter’s cheek, hooked a strand of chestnut hair behind her ear, and wished again that he could change the past. Em lay on top of her bed in her room, beneath a ceiling light needing two of its three bulbs replaced, and Jake thought her scar seemed a deeper shade of purple than usual. Thirty-seven stitches. That was how many it had taken to sew his little girl up again.
The scar wound from just above her right eye across her temple, then up over her ear, looking like a millipede forever crawling on her face. I’m sorry, Jake thought. His therapist had told him to stop apologizing out loud, because it wasn’t helping his own healing process. Apparently, he had to learn to forgive himself first, and though Jake said he understood this, he didn’t really. Or didn’t want to. He wasn’t ready for forgiveness. Not from himself, or anyone else.
“I gotta go now, honey,” he said.
“For how long?”
“Just a few days.”
“I wish you didn’t have to.”
Em’s words were better, but not perfect. The word didn’t came out slurred, as if she were just coming out of anesthesia.
“I know, me too. But this is a good job. Good money.”
More than it should be, Jake thought. “A lot,” he said.
“Enough?” she asked.
That one word caught Jake off guard. There was only one way his young daughter could have an understanding of how much money was “enough,” and that was because she’d overheard the arguments. Arguments about the accident, arguments about the medical costs, and…god…arguments over whether their little girl had permanent cognitive damage.
Em had certainly overheard things neither Jake nor his wife wanted her to hear. They had argued less since Jake moved out a month ago.
“Let me worry about money, and you take care of your homework,” he said.
He reached down and kissed her forehead, and his lips could feel the tight, rippled skin along her scar.
“I love you to the moon,” he said.
“I love you to Mars.”
“I love you to Jupiter,” he said.
Jake knew what was coming next.
“I love you to Ur-anus.”
Em burst out giggling, which always ended in the most wonderful snort. He leaned in, smiling, and she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Come home soon.”
“I will, love. I’ll call you from Denver. Now finish your homework.”
One last kiss, then Jake stood and left her bedroom, stealing a final glance of Em as he passed into the hallway. He instinctively began to head to the master bedroom to finish packing—until he remembered he was already packed and his clothes no longer existed in that bedroom anyway. His bag was in his car, outside.
Another memory fog. Perhaps this one was excusable… He and Abby hadn’t been separated long. But his memories were slipping, and whenever it happened, it filled his stomach with ice. He’d always been unable to recall his early childhood, but now his mind fuzzed over recent things. Conversations he had only days before, or appointments he was supposed to attend and simply forgot. At thirty-five, Jake knew he was too young for these memory slips to be occurring as frequently as they were, so whenever this happened, he’d stop himself and force a memory to the surface, as if to retrain the muscle inside his skull.
Yesterday’s outfit? he asked himself. A few seconds passed, then it came to the surface. Jeans, Ecco loafers, blue oxford shirt.
His therapist had suggested the memory loss could be stress related, or due to his poor sleep habits, adding he should see a specialist if he was truly concerned. Jake never did. He knew he could only get answers if he told the specialist everything that was happening in his life. This would mean Jake would have to admit it wasn’t just the memory loss that was different.
There were other things. Mood swings. Heightened emotions. Even…moments of enlightenment. He wasn’t ready to tell anyone those things. Jake had secrets.
He continued into the kitchen. Abby was there, her back to him, intentionally or not. She wasn’t quite his wife at the moment, and she wasn’t his ex-wife. She was, he supposed, just Abby.
“I’m taking off,” he said.
She turned to face him. That helped.
“Okay. Have a safe trip.”
He tried to read her and struggled.
Ironic, he thought. Suddenly I can read the emotions of strangers, but Abby is a brick wall.
They locked gazes, and a thousand words died unspoken between them. Jake walked over and gave her a hug. She squeezed back, but not as hard as he wanted. He let go, left the house, and drove to the airport as the first few drops of rain spittled from the Massachusetts sky. Jake had to accept he was a different man now. Different for so many reasons, and still changing every day. He might not be able to forgive himself, but he was starting to learn to accept.
I’m going to make things better, baby. I promise.
Inside the airport terminal, a sea of people swirled around him, and for a moment, Jake fought against breaking down and crying. He managed to keep it together. Still, one tear escaped.
Jake - Wednesday, October 10 Boston, Massachusetts
Goddamn if it isn't happening again.
Right here in the airport terminal, a sudden burst of emotion, coming from nowhere. I have no idea what triggers it, if anything at all, but here it is, spidering up my chest and flushing my face. A wave of heat, and a moment, always just a moment, where I have to force back tears. A single tear snakes down my cheek, and I wipe it away.
I rarely used to cry. Maybe once a year? And now…I’m a mess. The thing is, it’s not even sadness. Not exactly. It’s more like a sudden, profound understanding of something, a sense the universe just contracted a fraction smaller around me, and in the process, I become larger within it and have more of a sense of place. Of purpose.
I remember taking a Psych 101 class in college and learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We learned the ultimate goal, the greatest need, was self-actualization. Its definition always resonated with me: The realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities.
I remember thinking for so long, how is it possible to completely fulfill all of your potential? How would you even know?
But now, in the moments where sudden emotion threatens to buckle my legs, it’s exactly how I feel. As if I’m reaching my potential, even when I can’t point to anything that’s changed about me. Like I’m standing at the podium, having a gold medal hung around my neck as the anthem plays, but I haven’t even gotten up off the couch.
Steady yourself, Jake.
I board the 757, giving the outside of the plane a light tap as I pass through the doorway. Superstition of mine. Touch the plane gently, pay a little respect, and she’ll get me to my destination in one piece.
Today, that destination is Denver.
The flight attendant at the front of the plane nods and smiles, but there’s exhaustion behind her well-worn smile, desperation just behind her blazing, sea-blue eyes. She’s in some kind of struggle. I don’t know what it is, of course. But I know it as certain as I’m breathing.
Last year, I wouldn’t have noticed anything about the woman beyond the half second she smiled at me. A lot has changed in the last year.
First class, seat 2B. I haven’t flown first class in years, but my client insisted. I didn’t argue. I place my leather bag in the overhead bin, slide it to the left, then reach for my noise-canceling Bose headphones. After slipping them on, I take my seat.
I thumb on the headphones, and the ambient sound around me is sucked away, as if I’ve just been dropped inside a snow globe. Then I navigate my phone to a playlist containing only the recordings of thunderstorms. I know each track and can almost predict the violent thunderclaps as easily as the hook from a song. My go-to is a tropical storm, where nestled within the hiss of a rain-forest downpour are the metronomic calls of some exotic, lonely bird. In my mind, the bird is telling his mate to find shelter because the rain is exceptionally fierce and unrelenting.
The pang of emotion has subsided, but I know it sits close to the surface. I wait for it as I would a hiccup, in anxious anticipation. Nothing comes. Breathe in, hold, breathe out, then glance around me. Passengers file in, and each who passes leaves a trace of energy behind, like a dust mote of dried skin, clinging to me. Collecting. This woman is pleased with something. That man is frustrated. A child is scared.
All this emotional noise. I can’t escape it. Last year, I wouldn’t have noticed a thing. A sudden flash of Em’s face in my mind. Strange, in my mind, I don’t see the scar.
Thunder rumbles deep in my ears. The sound of a steady, digital downpour. I look out the window at the tarmac, where actual lighter rain falls. Cold, steady drizzle. Not common for Boston in October.
I give myself another memory test.
What was the weather yesterday?
I close my eyes and think about it, feeling the tendrils of panic swipe at me as my brain freezes. Then it comes.
Cloudy. Maybe sixty degrees.
The accident with Em isn’t the main reason Abby and I separated, though the stress of her continuing recovery finally broke us. No, the real issue is I’m losing my goddamn mind, yet a part of me embraces the process. Abby’s been trying to help, but I keep her at a distance. She’s worried about my memory loss and my mood swings. I’m too young for a midlife crisis, she says, and too old for puberty. She Googles my symptoms, reporting back to me dismal potential diagnoses like early-onset Alzheimer’s, or even borderline personality disorder.
Abby thinks the accident caused my behavior change, but the accident was in January. She knows this all started happening a good month before that. Besides, the accident barely hurt me, just a bloody nose from the impact of the airbag. It was my little girl who took the brunt of the damage.
She shouldn’t have been in the front seat, Jake.
I know. I know.
What were you thinking? What’s wrong with you?
I don’t know.
She could be dead, Jake. Dead.
Goddamn it, don’t you think I know that?
No, the accident isn’t the cause of the things happening to me. I look down, aware that I’m doing it again, sliding my wedding band back and forth along my finger. What’ll happen if there’s no longer a ring there? Maybe it will be like a phantom limb, something I’ve lost but can still feel. An itch of regret.
A woman standing in the aisle is talking to me. I lift the left cup of my headphones.
“Hi, that’s me,” she says.
My seatmate. 2A. She smiles and points to the open seat. She seems nervous.
I stand and let her in, and as she passes within inches of me, I catch her scent, thin traces of flowers layered within something I cannot at first identify. It’s distinct, and it takes me a moment to place the other smell, and while I’m not positive, I think it smells like mosquito repellent. But it’s not the actual smell that jolts me. It’s the memory of the smell, fleeting but visceral, a déjà vu so powerful, I could be in a waking dream. I try to hold on to it, explore it until I can pinpoint the memory, but it washes away within seconds.
Isn’t that something they say? Smell triggers memory more than any other sense?
As she sits, I try to look at her without staring. About my age, I’m guessing, mid-thirties. Perhaps younger. Kinked red-brown hair, which falls well past her shoulders. Slim and rather pale. She seems out of time, as if her looks would be better suited for a character in Les Misérables.
I return to my seat, buckle in, then edge up the volume on my headphones. The rumbling thunderstorms drown out the safety demonstration and the roar of the engines as we take off, but my attention is focused on 2A the entire time. I don’t talk to her; she doesn’t talk to me. I order whiskey; she gets water.
I reach for my drink as I remove my headphones, no longer wanting to hear the rain or anything else. The cabin lights are dimmed. My seatmate and I both have our reading lights on.
She’s writing in a journal. Left-handed. I steal sideways glances from two feet away. She seems unaware of her audience.
The sense of memory slams into me a second time, more powerfully than before. This is especially jolting because memories have been sliding away rather than appearing lately.
I look at my arm, which is suddenly washed in goose bumps.
Jesus, what is happening?
There’s something else I never would have done a year ago, and that’s start a conversation with the person on the plane next to me. But the familiarity of this woman is so intense that I’m barely aware I’m speaking before I actually hear the words coming out my mouth.
“Excuse me, do I know you?”
The Book of Clara - 10/10/2018
Dear Reader, Page One. The Book of Clara.
You have found this book, so I like to think you have a responsibility to read it. It’s all I ask. I want someone to know me.
I’ll be working backward, starting from the present moment and moving into my past, year after year, until I get to my very first memories, which don’t really begin until very late, maybe around when I was eight. Moreover, lately, I’ve been forgetting swaths of my adulthood, so forgive me if my writing is scattered.
When I hold the journal to my face, the blank pages have the faintest scent of chemicals, but the black leather cover smells of raw, beautiful flesh. A worn saddle from two hundred years ago, hung to dry in a dusty barn. I close my eyes and imagine a life back then, but the moment doesn’t last. That’s been happening. My mind fizzles. I think my brain is a battery that has reached the end of its useful life, no longer able to hold a charge.
Which is one reason for this journey, and this journal entry. I want you to know some of what I’ve seen, of what I’ve experienced. The sum of the parts that add up to the existence of Clara Stowe. You will likely judge me for what I’ve done in the past year. Say to yourself, Why would she make those decisions? And you will likely be right in asking. Strange things have been happening. Strange and beautiful, leading me to make a decision I surely won’t be able to explain here through words. But I’m at least going to try.
What kind of strange things? I don’t even have to reach back in time for an example. There’s one right next to me.
This is the longest I’ve been surrounded by people in some time, yet I’m much calmer than expected. Perhaps my sense of purpose is more powerful than my unease with the world at large. Still, I cannot escape the craving to be back in my apartment, surrounded by books and blankets, cozy, cocooned, and removed from society.
The airplane smells strangely of sawdust and sweat, broken-down people and, I think, fear. Maybe it’s a fear I’ve never noticed before, a collective worry we’ll crash, sending our bits and pieces scattering somewhere over a tiny stamp of America. I don’t have this fear, or at least it’s far down on my list, because just being in the outside world is horrifying enough. A plane crash would be a terrible way to die, surely, but the real shame is no one would ever read these words. They’d incinerate along with luggage and bones and hair.
We’ve been flying for about twenty minutes, and I’ve been able to sneak enough glances at the man sitting next to me to form the distinct sense I know him. But that’s not possible, is it? First class on a 757, seats 2A and 2B, departing from Boston Logan, bound for Denver. I’m not even supposed to be in first class, but when I checked in, my seat had been upgraded. But yet there it is. That energy of familiarity about this man, crackling and popping. Perhaps even his scent is familiar. His cologne, maybe.
He could be my age, give or take a couple years in either direction. His face has a thin layer of stubble that looks less stylish and more a concession. Close-cropped hair, brown. Blue oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up over forearms that are grooved by muscles, telling me he’s no stranger to the gym. Jeans. Black sneakers, clean.
Related: 9 Classic Detective Fiction Novels Every Mystery Fan Needs to Read
On his left ring finger is a simple gold wedding band, which this man slides up and down over the knuckle with his right hand. Back and forth, as if it might burn through his skin if it settled too long in one spot.
I can’t discern anything concrete about why he’s so familiar, and whenever I dare glance over, I have only his profile to observe and his energy to feel. There’s a toughened sadness to him, like a cop pushing past his emotions to continue working a brutal crime scene.
There’s nothing specific that tells me why I should know this man, other than the primal sense that I do, but I no longer trust my hunches. Reality has become a river for me, part of it deep and permanent, other areas dangerously shallow and in high risk of drying out.
We share a drink rest between us, his side occupied by a whiskey, mine by water. He turns on his light, and I risk another glance. As I do, I meet his gaze.
I know these eyes. No. Not quite the eyes, but the way he looks at me. Unique as a fingerprint. I think I might—
Shit. I've startled her, I can see it. I scramble.
“Sorry, I’m not trying to be weird, I promise. But…it’s just that I have this strange sense I know you.”
The tip of her pen hovers over a journal page half-filled with perfect, flowing script, and when she looks at me, I see her eyes for the first time. Coffee-brown, flecks of cinnamon. The familiarity deepens even more.
I’m now certain I’ve fucked this all up. I don’t know this person. I just had another misfired synapse, and now I’ve freaked this poor woman out at the start of a long flight.
“I’m sorry,” I manage to stammer. “I just—”
“That is strange,” she says.
Her voice is soft, almost meek.
“I was thinking the same thing. You look familiar.”
She just threw me a lifeline. Maybe I’m not crazy. Yet. She squints and shakes her head.
“No, no, that’s not quite right. You seem familiar, but I can’t say you look familiar.”
“I’m Jake Buchannan."
I pivot in my seat to face her more directly, then reach out my right hand. She gives it a light shake. Her fingers are cold.
“I don’t recognize your name.”
“Me either. Do you live in Boston?”
“No,” I say. “Just outside. Arlington.”
“I don’t ever get out there,” she says, adding cryptically, “or anywhere, really. I live in the city. North End.”
“Maybe we know each other professionally?” It’s worth a shot. “What do you do?”
“I used to be a teacher. But I’m not working anymore. You?”
“I’m a writer. Mostly freelance. Men’s magazines, an article here or there with the Globe. Ghostwriting work pays the bills. I also have an incomplete novel sitting on my hard drive.”
“A novel,” she says, her eyes widening. “What’s it about?”
I used to be uncertain. The book, started years ago, was about a man who struggled to find how he fit in the world, but the plot— if there was one—was vague at best. I would think about it from time to time, occasionally write a thousand words, then delete half of them and move on to a writing project with a deadline and a check attached. And though I haven’t touched the manuscript in some time, the entire plot revealed itself to me recently, in a moment as powerful and uncontrollable as my waves of emotion. The entire plot, start to finish, chapter by chapter, all in my head, as clear as if it were a work by another writer that I’d studied for years. This moment occurred six months ago, and it was as close to an epiphany as I’ve ever had.
I haven’t written it out yet, and am almost afraid to, as if it might not be the book I think it is. And though I’m losing more of my short-term memories, the details of the book root deeper in my brain, every detail, not one element lost in the fog of my mind.
Related: 7 Thriller Books About Mysterious Disappearances
“It’s about nostalgia,” I answer. I vow to myself in this moment to finish writing it as soon as my current assignment is finished. It’s time.
“Nostalgia.” Clara softly shakes her head, seemingly sucked in by that word.
I break the ensuing silence.
“So we don’t know each other professionally. What else could it be?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s probably something simple.”
“Maybe,” she says. “Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.”
I’m getting the sense she doesn’t want to talk anymore, and my impulse is to leave her alone. God knows, I don’t want to come off as a creep, but she did say I was familiar to her. I give it one last effort.
“But…aren’t you curious?”
Clara now turns more fully toward me, loosening her seat belt in the process. She takes a deep, meditative breath, slowly lets it out, then locks her gaze directly on me. She’s about to say something, then holds back.
She softly shakes her head at me, as if wishing me away, and then goes back to writing in her journal.
Excerpted from The Dead Girl in 2A by Carter Wilson. ©2019 by Carter Wilson. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.
Want to keep reading? Download The Dead Girl in 2A today!
Is Clara hiding more than she’s leading on? Or is Jake perhaps repressing something involving Clara from a long time ago? Jake was also supposed to fly in cheaper seat, but his client insisted he get upgraded to business class. Is this mysterious figure orchestrating this encounter? There’s a lot to unravel in this mystery novel, so definitely give The Dead Girl in 2A today!
This post is sponsored by Sourcebooks. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for Murder & Mayhem to continue publishing the mystery stories you love.
Featured Photo: Mario Azzi / Unsplash