By Laurel Hightower
Off Limits Press — August 2020
ISBN: 9780578723563 — Paperback — 110 pp.
Cover Art: Alfred Obare
When Chris’ son Trey dies in a car accident, a part of her is taken along with him by a rapacious, inescapable grief. Chris continues though her life keeping an emotional distance from other relationships, including a friend/neighbor, Dan, with whom she shares potential romantic interest. She regularly visits the roadside site of Trey’s crash, leaving trinkets in memorial and conversing with her son in her mind. Even upon returning home from that ritual, the echoes of his voice continue in her mind, a whisper of his physical reality now vanished.
Until one day the conversations become more difficult, as if Trey’s voice has gone silent in her mind, even if not memory. Panicked with further loss, she awakens in the middle of the night to see her dead son standing in the streetlight below her bedroom window, waving to her. A brief moment later and the ghost is gone. Chris comes to speculate this change might be linked to a prick on her finger that happened while visiting Trey’s memorial, and a drop of blood that fell to the earth there, beside the tree where he died.
Chris thinks about those stories of magic, blood, and sacrifice that she’s heard. And wonders. Can she keep Trey returning to her? If so, what horrific forces are behind it, and what will be the cost? And could it be worth it? Her grief and pain demand that she try, especially as she begins to find her actions may be linked to Trey’s peace and rest.
I don’t know as I’ve ever read a story that is so unflinchingly heart-wrenching and brutal as Crossroads. Hightower is not telling a new type of horror story here. But she does make a well-trod horror story of sacrifice into something that is far more uncompromising, focused, and honest than any I have ever seen before. As a reader I kept wanting her to give clear answers to the forces behind Trey’s ghostly appearances. How much is in Chris’ head? Does a demon have control of Trey, and if so why? Or is this apparition of Trey actually a demon? Hightower doesn’t go down any of those roads of ‘easy’ fulfillment and instead stays centered on the heart of this novel, how a mother handles grief and love.
Now I’m not even a parent, let alone a mother, but Hightower makes Chris’ anguish relatable and felt on a more general human level for any compassionate reader. As Chris becomes pulled more into the belief that her sacrifices will not just give her comfort, but will also provide Trey relief, she willingly ups the intensity to give more of herself. Though she questions whether her actions will even work or not, she barely hesitates to go on because the simple matter is that it doesn’t matter. If there’s even a slight chance that Trey will be helped by this, she will do it. The reader looks upon this and wonders if this is real, or delusion, and thus is thrust into this with as much uncertainty as Chris. The reader doesn’t have enough information to judge her, and is left only with the ability to read on with pained sorrow and the sense that they might be pulled down a similar role for someone they love.
Horror is a genre that is not just for entertainment and scares, but also a way of approaching trauma and mortality, of symbolizing difficult and draining emotions within a realm of the fantastic. Hightower does this while showing that sometimes people never can fully escape or recover from that trauma. It’s an ugly and difficult truth. While Chris and her love for Trey form the core of the novella, Crossroads also forms a story of how others can love and support people who live amid such devastating trauma and grief.
The father of Trey, Chris’ ex-husband also is going through grief over the loss of his son. The former couple remain on relatively good speaking terms, even after the ex’s marriage to a new woman. They avoid confronting each other with things that might overwhelm the other, yet make it clear that they are each there to support. At one point in the novella, the ex-husband visits Chris and tells her about similar dreams/voices of Trey that also haunt him, voicing concern for each of them.
A central pillar to Chris’ support network is Dan, a man who listens rather than quickly acts to try to ‘solve’ things. He loves Chris, and knows she’s equally attracted to him, but can’t handle much from a relationship at the time. Dan gives Chris everything, and only, what she needs of him. As he watches her destroy herself, for ‘only’ a glimmer of hope that it might be real/benefit Trey’s soul, he still supports her in every mood. He does his best to prevent her sacrifices from consuming or ending her life completely. But, he also realizes he lacks the power/ability to ‘save’ her. She’s an autonomous adult individual who seems perfectly clear-thinking despite the fantastic, unbelievable situation. Ultimately, the decisions are hers, and he can only do his best to be there for her in them.
How phenomenally difficult that is. Dan ends up seeming to doubt himself, questioning if maybe he should do more. But ultimately, his love for Chris is much as Chris’ for Trey. As devastating as a place that love leads, together they prevent it from dragging them into despair or fear.
No one gets to end happy here, and for that reason Crossroads concludes as a very ‘difficult’, harrowing novella. But one that therein perfectly encapsulates its themes and the emotions it dares to explore. Horror readers are typically willing to allow fiction to help them explore those darker realms, and Hightower does an exceptional job at facilitating that.