Where do you get your ideas? That’s a question all writers hear at one time or another. I usually answer “I buy them in bulk from Costco” â€˜cuz I’m just a smart aleck that way. But the truth is, I get my ideas from…everything. Everywhere. So I can’t really pinpoint a moment when I came up with the idea for ALL FALL DOWN, just that it was a mashup of a lot of things that turned into something else that became, at last, a book.
I’ve been fascinated by cults for a long time. What makes people join them? Why on earth would anyone drink the Koolaid, so to speak? What is it about cult leaders that make them so compelling, so charismatic, or is it that they are just so intriguing that they lead people into following them? What makes so many people believe they’re right?
What if they are?
It’s easy enough to look at some offshoot group that doesn’t live by society’s “norms” and say they’re wrong in their beliefs, especially if their faith systems and practices involve behaviors that the majority of us considers offensive or abusive. Yet still, no cult would exist without the ability to somehow convince people that it’s the right path. In my research on some of the more famous cults, it became clear to me that the strongest, most influential cults, were those built on some basis of truth, even if the message became perverted.
When writing ALL FALL DOWN, the story of one young woman raised in a cult who’s now been forced to join the outside, “normal” world, I wanted Sunshine’s background to not just horrify us, but to also make us think. Just as her stepmother Liesel begins to find some of Sunshine’s beliefs reasonable, I wanted readers to learn about how Sunshine was raised and think “hey, that sort of makes sense.”
Why would I want anyone to think life in a cult is at all attractive? Basically, because I think while it’s easier to curl a lip and say you’d never be one of those people tricked into living that way, isn’t it scarier to somehow think that you might be? It makes a more compelling story, doesn’t it, if we can see why Sunshine struggles so hard to fit into what we’d all consider a much better life.
And that’s why and how I wrote ALL FALL DOWN, to tell the story of one young woman faced with incredible challenges, who has not only herself to care for but three young children. I wanted to tell Sunshine’s story.
Blurb: In the midst of a chaotic midnight assembly, Sunshine is forced outside into the darkness. Holding a scrap of paper scrawled with a stranger’s name and address, Sunny grasps the hands of her three small children and begins her escape.
Liesel Albright has dreamed of starting a family. She never bargained on inheriting one already in progress…or one so deeply damaged. When nineteen-year-old Sunshine appears on the Albrights’ doorstep claiming Liesel’s husband, Chris, is her father, all they can think to offer is temporary shelter. The next day, they’re stunned by the news that the Family of Superior Bliss, led by a charismatic zealot, has committed mass suicide. Sunny and her children haven’t just left the compound—they’ve been left behind.
Now, instead of a baby of her own, Liesel must play mother to the four survivors, while Chris retreats into guilt and denial. For Sunny, however, a lifetime of teachings is not easily unlearned. No matter how hard she tries to forget, an ominous catechism echoes in her mind, urging her to finish what the Family started.
Sunny looked at the woman on the table. Same hair. Same face. The same mouth that had smiled at her so many times, now gone slack. It was only her mother’s vessel; the important part of her Mama went through the gates. But that wasn’t what the man was asking. She looked at the coroner. “I didn’t know that was her last name.”
“It was Albright,” Christopher said hoarsely. “We were married. Her last name was Albright.”
The coroner raised bushy white eyebrows in Christopher’s direction, but Christopher had nothing for the guy. No sympathetic shrug. No understanding smile. Christopher looked almost as blank and loose as the empty vessel on the table.
“All I know is what was in the letter she left behind,” the coroner said. “Look, Mr. Albright. I know the circumstances were a little…unusual. I just need to make sure she’s identified correctly.”
Christopher had already signed all the paperwork guaranteeing he’d take care of the burial arrangements. Sunny had been adamant the body be buried in a plain pine box with no restoration and minimal preservation. That there be no ceremony. Christopher hadn’t argued about any of that.
“Yes. That’s my mother’s vessel.” Sunny looked at it again. She felt the weight of both men staring at her. She looked at Christopher. “Is that it? Can we go now?”
The coroner shook his head as he tugged the sheet back up over her mother’s face. He cleared his throat. “Just to let you know, in cases like this, we always do an autopsy to determine the cause of death.”
“What difference does it make?” Christopher asked in a low voice. “She’s dead. They’re all dead. Right?”
“We do it anyway,” the coroner said. “There has to be an investigation.”
“I can tell you how she did it,” Sunny told him. “They dissolved the rainbow in the juice, and she drank it. They all did. That’s how she left her vessel.”
It was more important to understand why, not how. That it wasn’t death, which was involuntary, something that happened to people who weren’t ready to go through the gates. Her mother and all the others had left. There was a difference between leaving and simple death, but the coroner was blemished. He wouldn’t understand. Sunny stared at him until he looked away.
“There’s an investigation,” the coroner said again. “To make sure that it was…voluntary.”
Christopher let out another low sound, like a groan. He turned and took two shambling steps away from the gurney before stopping to put both hands on the countertop by the sink. His shoulders hunched.
“The others,” Christopher asked without turning around. “What about them?”
“We were able to get positive IDs from their family members.” The coroner cleared his throat again. Sunny wished he’d just cough already, instead of trying to talk around whatever was caught there. “It seemed they were all extremely…organized. Left notifications for their next-of-kin. Specific instructions for the burials.”
“They’ll all want the same thing,” Sunny said in a flat voice. “They’ve left their vessels, it’s important they be used to nourish the Earth as best they can.”
Christopher and the coroner exchanged a look she didn’t miss.
In the hall outside, Christopher tried to touch her, but his fingers skated along her sleeve without grabbing hold. Before he could say whatever it was his brain had convinced him was necessary, a tall man stepped in their way.
She hadn’t thought he might like to be called Chris instead of his full name. Liesel called him Christopher. He still wasn’t “Dad.”
Chris sighed. “Hi, Mr. Bomberger.”
The men stared at each other, Sunny between them. Not like a prize to be fought over, but something else. She paused and looked at Chris. Then the older man.
“This is your mom’s father,” Chris told her. “He’d be your –”
“So. It’s true?” Mr. Bomberger didn’t even look at her. Not a glance. Not a shift of his eyes. Nothing. “She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Chris said.
The other man’s gaze went dark. “It’s all right. She died for us a long time ago. I just wanted…I had to know for sure. My wife wanted to know.”
“This is Trish’s daughter,” Chris said quietly. “Mine too.”
But Mr. Bomberger kept his gaze fixed firmly on Chris’s face. “She died for us a long time ago.”
He turned on his heel and stalked away down the long, echoing corridor while Sunny and Chris stood watching without saying a word.
“I need to use the restroom.” Chris didn’t wait for her to reply, just left her standing there as he ducked into the bathroom smelling strongly of some caustic chemical.
Sunny waited for a few minutes, but the grinding, desperate sound of sobs echoing off the tiles was too much to stand. She hurried down the hall, seeking daylight. Needing fresh air.
She found her mother’s father just outside the doors to the parking lot. The smell of smoke clung to him in a cloud she could actually see as he exhaled a wreathe of it. The cigarette in his fingers made more. She stepped back until her rear hit the metal handrail, one foot going down a step but the other staying put.
“Smoking’s bad for you,” she said after a long minute had passed without him saying a word.
Mr. Bomberger looked at her with narrowed eyes and lifted the cigarette to his lips again. He drew the smoke in. Let it out. “Your mother used to say the same thing to me.”
“She was right.” Sunny looked up at the gray sky. Maybe rain. Maybe just clouds.
“You look like her.”
She looked at him. “I do?”
She’d never thought so. Her mother was pretty. Petite, blonde, graceful. Her mother was a good woman. Quiet and respectful. Good with her hands; she could make things. She could sing.
He nodded. Smoked some more, then tossed the cigarette onto the concrete step and ground it out with his toe. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry,” Sunny told him.
His shoulders bent. He was an old man, she realized. Not as old as Papa had been when he died, but he had the same kind of wrinkles in his face. He looked faded.
“For what? Did you kill her?”
Sunny looked again at the sky. “Nobody killed her. She didn’t die. She left, to go through the gates. It’s a good thing. You should be happy about it.”
“Well,” said her mother’s father, “I’m not. Are you? Really?”
“No,” Sunny whispered without looking at him.
He started down the stairs. Sunny went after him. He turned to look at her, one hand held up as though she’d tried to grab him, when she hadn’t even made a move to touch him at all all.
“You should tell your wife not to be sad,” Sunny said.
“I won’t tell her anything. All of this is bad enough, I won’t tell her any sort of crazy talk.” The old man’s lip curled. His eyes opened wide. He stabbed a finger at her. “And don’t go getting any ideas, either. About coming around. We don’t know you. You’re nothing, you hear me? You’re not anything to us! So don’t you think you can come around and stir up a lot of old feelings.”
This time when he walked away, Sunny didn’t go after him. The door opened behind her. Chris, eyes and nose red, jerked his chin toward the old man getting in his car across the parking lot.
“What did he want?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I was trying to tell him not to be sad, but he didn’t want to listen.”
“He never liked me very much,” Chris said. “I’m not surprised he wasn’t nice to you. He should’ve been, though. I’m sorry, Sunny.”
She looked at him, surprised that he could take blame for something that had nothing to do with him. “Why?”
Chris looked surprised too. “Because…he’s your grandfather. He’s your family. He should be happy you’re here.”
“Are you happy that I’m here?”
“Of course I am.” He put a hand on her shoulder, strong fingers squeezing. Sunny thought he would pull her close for a hug, but he didn’t. He released her with a sharp nod, as though they’d shared something significant.
Maybe they had.
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