by Nishita Parekh (@NishitaParekh22)

Editor: Miranda Darrow (@Miranda_Darrow)
Adult Domestic Suspense
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Please consider my #ownvoices adult domestic suspense novel, THE HOUSE ON THE CUL-DE-SAC, that combines the locked room mystery element of The Guest List with deadly family secrets of Knives Out. The full manuscript is complete at 65,000 words.

Jia is a single mother living in Texas. When a deadly hurricane is forecast to hit Houston, her sister, Seema, insists that she ride out the storm at her house. Jia would rather face rising flood waters than Seema’s sleazy husband, Vipul, who had harassed her with lewd text messages. But after her apartment is listed under mandatory evacuation, Jia grabs her son and rushes over to Seema’s large two-story house.

Vipul’s extended family is also taking refuge at Seema’s house. While the hurricane rages through the city, Jia must contend with Vipul’s covert advances and messages from her ex-husband threatening to take her son away. A creepy neighbor of Seema and Vipul’s shows up at the house, causing friction with Vipul. He refuses to eat dinner with the family, citing allergies, and drinks a smoothie instead. He drops dead of an allergic reaction, and no-one can locate his EpiPen until later when Jia discovers it buried in the trash. Someone in the house is a murderer.

Tensions rise as quickly as the flood waters. The family hunkers down for the night and Jia finds Vipul in his study, a fatal wound on his forehead. All eyes turn to Jia and the racy text messages Vipul had sent her. For the other family members, Jia has gone from main witness to prime suspect. Marooned in the house with a murderer, no help available until the waters recede in the morning, Jia has one night to find the real murderer before she goes down for a crime she didn’t commit.

I'm an Indian woman living in Houston. I immigrated to the States in my teens and currently work as a software developer. My experiences as a female and an immigrant seep in every story I write. I’m also a member of Crime Writers of Color. THE HOUSE ON THE CUL-DE-SAC is a 2021 #RevPit annual contest winner. One of my short stories was chosen for publication in ‘Mysterical-E’ magazine.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

First Five Pages

Chapter One

Sunday 4:00 p.m.

The world was coming to an end. The instant meteorologists upgraded Harvey to a Category 4 hurricane, Houston residents promptly dialed their fears up to apocalyptic levels. Rows of barren shelves gaped in grocery store aisles, muddy footprints streaked the floor, and cash registers beeped like heart rate monitors.

“Honestly ma’am,” the young cashier said. “You won’t find drinking water anywhere in the city today.”

Jia Shah chewed her bottom lip. “Can you please check again?” Her damp hands were clamped around the handle of a steel cart, empty but for a soaked umbrella. While the clerk clacked away on his keyboard, Jia held her breath, waiting for the tap-tap of his fingers to conjure an aisle number with the last case of bottled water.

When he shook his head without looking up, she sighed. “Do you know when you’ll get restocked?”

His shoulders performed an approximation of a shrug and he looked past her, exhaustion etched on his boyish face. She followed his gaze and did a double take. Within minutes, the growing queue had extended into the cereal aisle. The couple behind her had a bountiful cart: soup cans crammed next to granola bars stacked on top of canned beans. No water. Yet they exchanged relaxed smiles while debating a last-minute purchase of mints, two people on a “just in case we missed something” excursion.

The woman gave her a sympathetic smile bordering on pity. Jia did not blame her; she must cut a pathetic figure—an overweight Indian woman, dressed in a sweat-stained flannel shirt and mom jeans, frizzy hair tied in a frayed scrunchy.

She was in her early thirties, although her premature gray strands suggested otherwise, and even on her best days she had the air of a woman barely keeping it together.

The man draped his arm around the woman’s shoulder as she caressed his fingers. Jia stared wistfully at the happy couple before turning away. Envy was more a byproduct of idle time than a personality flaw, but every free moment was a precious commodity for a single mother.

“Lady, if you ain’t buying, move!” someone yelled from the rear of the line.

“Ma’am please,” the cashier implored.

“Yes, yes, I’m moving,” Jia said, cheeks warming.

Her phone buzzed. Seema flashed on the cracked screen. Jia’s chest constricted. She swiped left, shoving her sister’s call to voicemail.

Seema, a Houstonian for over a decade, likely had crates of water stowed away in her kitchen pantry. Normally, in a situation like this she would be camped in her sister’s well-lit, well-stocked house, lounging on a handcrafted teak wood swing, royal red cushions soft on her back, warm hands cupped around a steaming mug of chai. Instead, she was canvassing every grocery store within a ten-mile radius and ignoring her sister’s calls.

After the last text message from her brother-in-law, Jia was not ready to face her sister. She certainly was not ready to face him. In fact, given the choice, she would prefer to squat on Galveston beach staring into the eye of the storm rather than spend a night under Vipul’s roof.

She jostled her way to the back of the store, pushing past a crowd of people, the cart’s wheels squeaking like a faulty air conditioner.

An elderly woman jabbed an elbow into Jia’s arm.

Jia winced and leaned on the cart, which rolled forward under her weight. Struggling to regain her balance, her feet slipped on the wet floor, and she fell sideways, breaking her fall with her right hand. “Ouch.” A sharp pain spread through her muscles. She rubbed her throbbing elbow, and when the woman lowered her hand, she outstretched hers.

But instead of helping her stand, the woman wagged a finger. “Watch where you’re going.” She reached out for a roll of bathroom tissue on the middle shelf.

Getting to her feet, Jia grabbed the roll and tossed it in the woman’s cart. “Since you’ve bought what looks like fifty canned beans, you’re going to need a whole lot of bathroom rolls.”

The woman’s face turned scarlet, and Jia scuffled away chuckling. She shook her head. She must have missed the secret memo, a city’s collective promise—we might die, but damn if we’d be caught dead with a half-empty pantry.

She was crossing the dairy aisle, nose scrunched at the funk of sulphury stress sweat mixed with rainwater, when her phone vibrated again with Seema’s call. A few seconds ago, she had been at her lowest point that day, in more ways than one. Picking up the call could hardly make things worse. On the fourth ring, she answered.

“You must come stay with us tonight, okay?” Seema’s orders often masqueraded as questions.

“I don’t know if that’s necessary.” Jia fidgeted with the sleeve of her rumpled shirt.

Seema had a head start of five years on Earth before Jia arrived. Mom said that whenever any aunts tried to hold Jia’s swaddled form, Seema glared at them like they were committing daylight robbery, declaring, “That’s my sister.”

For the better part of her childhood, Jia trailed her elder sister, dressed in frocks Seema had outgrown, clutching Seema’s one-eyed doll like it was the most precious toy in the world, grateful for the chance to watch from the sidelines while Seema played house with her older friends.

Pleasing Seema was Jia’s North Star, and after years of playing the role of a dutiful sergeant, it made saying no to her elder sister difficult as adults.

“You’re all aloooone.” Seema’s inflection turned ghoulish on the last word.

For Seema, married for over a decade, the lives of single mothers were filled with unfathomable horrors. Like first world residents horrified at the plight of refugees, she dispensed sympathy from the safe perch of knowing she would never have to walk in their shoes.

“I’m not alone, I have Ishaan.”

“Okay fine, I mean you and your kid are both alone.”

Wasn’t everyone alone by that logic? Jia pursed her lips. She stepped aside as a child zoomed past her, knocking down boxes of Froot Loops.

Seema continued, “Vipul says it’s the storm of the century. He suggested I call you immediately.”

Of course, he did. Disgust curdled in Jia’s stomach. “Thanks for the offer, but we’ll be okay.”

“Fine,” Seema said gruffly.

Acquiescing to Seema was a dynamic easy to fall back on, like slipping into a pair of old, well-worn yet comfortable jeans. But this time Jia had good reasons to stand her ground.

“Do you have water?” Seema asked.

Jia’s gaze travelled over the scant haul in the cart—a packet of balloons, clear plastic plates, and a birthday banner. She grabbed a bottle of red wine from the top shelf.

“Sort of.”

“Did you fill your bathtub?”

“What? Why?”

“You’ll need water to flush the toilet if you’re stranded in your apartment.”

“Please tell me you’re joking.” Jia pinched her nose.

Six months ago, after trading the biting wind chills of Chicago for the sauna-like humidity of Houston, she had tried her best to keep an open mind about the city’s quirks. In her first week, Jia had nearly had a heart attack when a disheveled man jumped out of nowhere at a traffic signal and started wiping her windshield with a squeegee. Too stunned to react, she had gripped the steering wheel and sped off the instant the signal turned green. A glance in the rearview mirror showed the man throwing up his hands in exasperation before flipping her off. But nowadays, she rolled down her car window with a smile and kept dollar bills handy for the squeegee guy.

Still, the exigencies of a hurricane baffled her. The clamor for stocking up on water with the entire city under the threat of submersion seemed counterintuitive.

“You’re not taking this seriously enough. Things will turn dangerous. You will be safe in our house.”

“Umm, yeah, I’ll definitely think about it.”

“So basically, you’ll come up with a last-minute excuse.” A loud exhale on the other end. “Look, don’t wait too long before you decide.” Seema’s voice faded in and out. Beeps followed by a whirr of machinery kicking in. Jia closed her eyes and pictured her sister tucking the phone in the crook of her neck, loading a washing machine.

“Listen, if you’re coming, have dinner with us. There’s a WhatsApp group of Indians in Houston tracking the hurricane. I’ll add you to it.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” Jia hung up, eyes drawn to the floor, a glimmer of plastic peeking out from the bottom shelf, obscured by a hanging bathroom mat. A mirage. Had to be. A fluttery feeling passed through her as she dropped to her knees. She pumped a fist in the air. The holy grail.

A pack of pristine mini-water bottles, the beverage of choice for both stingy and environmentally conscious party hosts.

She was dragging the case out from under the shelf when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Another woman stared at the bottles with a longing gaze. Jia’s grip tightened instinctively.

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