Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Oceanview Publishing (January 3, 2017)
“A nurturing and protective elementary school teacher is thrust into a web of unspeakable evil. Riveting, suspenseful and diabolical, Child's Play keeps the reader anxiously and eagerly turning the pages.” ―Mary Jane Clark, New York Times best-selling author
"Surprising, dark, and even disturbing. A fragile and vulnerable young teacher faces a terrifying first day of school--andthat is just the riveting beginning. Timely, provocative and sinister, this twisty story of family and friendship is not for the faint of heart." ―Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark award winning author
“What’s behind these horrors culminates in helter-skelter chaos. Elle’s home becomes the center of a tragic universe, since she “attracted tragedy and death.” That combination is magnified many fold as bodies pile up. And readers are left enchanted by another “Elle-oquent” thriller.” ―BookReporter
"The murder of the principal and a teacher on opening day at an elementary school a terrifying scenario. In "Child s Play" Merry Jones showcases her unique skill in delivering this dark, very dark, thriller with a modicum of humor. The end, well, you won t see it coming amid the tortuous twists and turns. Merry Jones at her best!" ―Patricia Gussin, New York Times Best-selling Author of After the Fall
“In Jones’s fast-paced third Elle Harrison novel (after 2014’s Elective Procedures), the Philadelphia second-grade teacher believes that she failed Ty Evans, a former student who later confessed to killing his abusive father, but she hopes to redeem herself with his younger brother, Seth, now enrolled in her class. With Ty newly released from juvenile detention and clashing with their alcoholic mother, Seth’s home life is unstable. When the draconian school principal and a humorless teacher―both of whom treated Ty cruelly―are murdered, Elle is torn between belief in his innocence and her desire to protect Seth. Meanwhile, the realtor charged with selling her house becomes increasingly aggressive, and when someone drugs and rapes Elle, she doesn’t know whether to suspect the realtor or the killer. The identities of the rapist and murderer are obvious well before Elle or other characters identify them. Still, Elle’s complex feelings toward her late husband―who was murdered while they were separated―add nuance and depth.” ―Publishers Weekly
"What a wild ride! Merry Jones' Child s Play starts on the first day of school and gets ever more terrifying from there.The novel is a terrific mystery, with the sins of the past rising to swallow an entire town, but it triumphs as an examination of female friendship, how it nurtures and how it destroys. Not to be missed. " ―New York Times best-selling author William Lashner
That’s what writing is for me. It always has been.
As a child, I began writing stories as soon as I learned to hold a pencil. When I was seven or eight, my school teachers had me read my stories to the class. I remember one about a house filled with spiders. And one about a strange man who could make it snow in the summertime just by raising his hand. There was one, told in the voice of his great grandchild, about a skinny old man who scampered outside every day to sit atop a fence and watch the road, and who accidently froze to death one winter, sitting on that fence.
One was about bullies who threw a boy’s school books out of the school bus window. It ends with the boy retracing the bus route, alone, to fetch his books.
The stories were all fairly bleak. Even then I was drawn to dark fiction.
But stories weren’t all I wrote when I was young. For years starting as a teenager, I kept journals. Volumes and volumes of them. I recently threw out a stack, not wanting my children or anyone else ever to find let alone read them. But the point is, I was driven to write, even if all I had to write about was a detailed—oh trust me, way too detailed account of what happened on a disastrous date or how scared I was that I’d never find Mr. Right.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call my writing a compulsion, even a need. But, despite its vital part in my life, there were about five years in which, married unhappily and estranged from myself, I didn’t write a word. Oddly, during those five or so years, I had five—or was it six?—surgeries. Minor ones, but surgeries nonetheless. In hindsight, I’m convinced that the surgeries were no coincidence, that my physical health was linked to my blocked writing. I was holding in energy or creativity--or whatever you want to name it--that needed to be released, and holding it in was actually harming my health.
Whether or not that’s true, my health improved when I began writing again. But after a long hiatus, getting started writing my own stories again wasn’t easy. I lacked confidence. Writing seemed to be a distant, unfulfillable dream. I imagined what it would be like to have a book published, just one. To actually have people read it. I listened to the song “Paperback Writer” and ached.
Years passed while, instead of daring to write my “own” stories, I focused my writing on scripts and articles for business clients. Then a guy I was dating (now my sweet husband) asked what, if I could do anything, I’d want to do.
I listed having children and writing a book. So, we had children. And he kept pushing me to write. Finally, after our second baby was born, I scraped up the nerve to begin again.
It wasn’t easy. I doubted myself. I had an idealized view of “authors.” I asked myself, “Who do you think you are? What makes you think you can be an actual author?” I ripped myself, tore at my confidence. But I kept writing. And within two years, amazingly, the book—non-fiction about stepmothers, was published.
So, you’d think I’d have been satisfied, right? My dream had come true.
But no. The compulsion to write remained as strong as ever. Rather than begin satisfied, my need to tell stories mushroomed.
Since that first book, I’ve had nineteen more published. And I’m still as compelled to write as I was as a seven-year-old. I can’t stop. Writing is just what I do, what I’ve always done. If I resist—if I stop writing and releasing that creative energy--I’m certain that, like the last time, it will be at my own peril.
So I don’t fight it, don’t question it. I write.
Just before the first day of school, Elle learns that a former student, Ty Evans, has been released from juvenile detention where he served time for killing his abusive father. Within days of his release, Elle’s school principal, who’d tormented Ty as a child, is brutally murdered. So is a teacher at the school. And Ty’s former girlfriend. All the victims have links to Ty.
Ty’s younger brother, Seth, is in Elle’s class. When Seth shows up at school beaten and bruised, Elle reports the abuse, and authorities remove Seth and his older sister, Katie, from their home. Is Ty the abuser?
Ty seeks Elle out, confiding that she’s the only adult he’s ever trusted. She tries to be open-minded, even wonders if he’s been wrongly condemned. But when she’s assaulted in the night, she suspects that Ty is her attacker. Is he a serial killer? Is she his next intended victim?
Before Elle discovers the truth, she’s caught in a deadly trap that challenges her deepest convictions about guilt and innocence, childhood and family. Pushed to her limits, she’s forced to face her fears and apply new skills in a deadly fight to survive.
The parking lot was empty, except for Stan’s pickup truck. Stan was the custodian, tall, hair thinning, face pock-marked from long ago acne. He moved silently, popped out of closets and appeared in corners, prowled the halls armed with a mop or a broom. In fourteen years, I couldn’t remember a single time when he’d looked me in the eye.
Wait—fourteen years? I’d been there that long? Faces of kids I’d taught swirled through my head. The oldest of them would now be, what? Twenty-one? Oh man. Soon I’d be one of those old school marms teaching the kids of my former students, a permanent fixture of the school like the faded picture of George Washington mounted outside the principal’s office. Hell, in a few months, I’d be forty. A middle-aged childless widow who taught second grade over and over again, year after year, repeating the cycle like a hamster on its wheel. Which reminded me: I had to pick up new hamsters. Tragically, last year’s hadn’t made it through the summer.
I told myself to stop dawdling. I had a classroom to organize, cubbies to decorate. On Monday, just three days from now, twenty-three glowing faces would show up for the first day of school, and I had to be ready. I climbed out of the car, pulled a box of supplies from the trunk, started for the building. And stopped.
My heart did triple time, as if responding to danger. But there was no danger. What alarmed me, what sent my heart racing was the school itself. But why? Did it look different? Had the windows been replaced, or the doors? Nothing looked new, but something seemed altered. Off balance. The place didn’t look like an elementary school. It looked like a giant factory. A prison.
God, no. It didn’t look like any of those things. The school was the same as it had always been, just a big brick building. It seemed cold and stark simply because it was unadorned by throngs of children. Except for wifi, Logan Elementary hadn’t changed in fifty years, unless you counted several new layers of soot on the bricks.
I stood in the parking lot, observing the school, seeing it fresh. I’d never paid much attention to it before. When it was filled with students, the building itself became all but invisible, just a structure, a backdrop. But now, empty, it was unable to hide behind the children, the smells of sunshine and peanut butter sandwiches, the sounds of chatter and small shoes pounding Stanley’s waxed tiles. The building stood exposed. I watched it, felt it watching me back. Threatening.
Seriously, what was wrong with me? The school was neither watching nor threatening me. It was a benign pile of bricks and steel. I was wasting time, needed to go in and get to work. But I didn’t take a single step. Go on, I told myself. What was I afraid of? Empty halls, vacant rooms? Blank walls? For a long moment, I stood motionless, eyes fixed on the façade. The carved letters: Logan School. The heavy double doors. The dark windows. Maybe I’d wait a while before going inside. Becky would arrive soon, after she picked up her classroom aquarium.
Other teachers would show up, too. I could go in with them, blend safely into their commotion. I hefted the box, turned back to the car. But no, what was I doing? I didn’t want to wait. I’d come early so I could get work done without interruption or distraction before the others arrived. The school wasn’t daring me, nor was I sensing some impending tragedy. I was just jittery about starting a new year.
I turned around again, faced its faded brown bricks. I steeled my shoulders, took a breath and started across the parking lot. With a reverberating metallic clank, the main doors flew open. Reflexively, I stepped back, half expecting a burst of flames or gunfire. Instead, Stan emerged. For the first time in fourteen years, I was glad to see him. Stan surveyed the parking lot, hitched up his pants. Looked in my direction. He didn’t wave or nod a greeting, didn’t follow social conventions. Even so, his presence grounded me, felt familiar.
I took a breath, reminded myself that the school was just a school. That I was prone to mental wandering and embellishing. And that children would stream into my classroom in just three days, whether I was ready or not.