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Chapter One

I wrapped my hand around the brass handle of my brother’s casket and tightened my grip. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck, soaking the collar of my new dress shirt.

It wasn’t really new, of course. The shirt was a hand-me-down from Dean. Mom insisted I wear it for the funeral. I didn’t want to, but it wasn’t the day to argue.

Being subjected to secondhand clothes as a little kid was bad enough, but how many eighteen-year-olds wore cast-off clothing from their brother? Their dead brother? Their twin brother?

We weren’t identical, of course.

Dean was broad shouldered, muscular, and athletic. Just like the other five pallbearers surrounding the coffin, his high school football teammates. Or baseball. Probably both. I didn’t know. I paid little attention to the dumb jocks that were my brother’s friends. They noticed me even less.

The worst part about the shirt? It hadn’t even been new to Dean. Mom had bought it for him to wear to church from the Goodwill store—when he was thirteen. Five years later, it was still too big for me.

Everyone at school had called him Big Mac. When he was ten and playing baseball in the park, Dean had hammered a home run. As the biggest kid on the team, he’d done that dozens of times.

But that particular hit was legendary—a resounding crack as the bat connected with the ball. It’d sailed over the fence, high enough to be picked up on the radar down at the Asheville airport. Or so the story went. In small towns, there wasn’t much to do but tell tales. The facts didn’t matter much. The one true part, for sure, was that it’d come down in the parking lot and smashed the windshield of a passing police car.

The tires squealed as the car screeched to a halt. The cop threw open the door and hopped out like he was being attacked, his hand on his holster. Instead of some terrorist threat, all he saw was a bunch of kids hooting and hollering.

He must have thought they were laughing at him, and that made him mad. He marched toward them, spitting and sputtering, and demanded to know who’d thrown the baseball at his car. That sent them into another fit of hysterical laughing.

The harder they tried to explain that it was an accident, the funnier it became to them. All they could do was point at Dean, who towered over the rest of them, with the bat draped over his shoulder.

The cop shook his head as he looked at the home plate then at his car. He pointed a finger at Dean and said, “You might be big, mac, but there ain’t no way you hit it that far.”

A nickname was born. The cop didn’t know Dean’s last name was McDougal, which made it funnier. Every kid was calling him Big Mac before they left the ball field. The tale grew as the kids shared it with their friends. People who hadn’t even been at the park pretended they had, just to tell the tale. The association with a fast-food burger made it epic.

When the title floated through the halls of school, I naturally became Little Mac. I pleaded with them not to call me that, but the harder I begged, the more they did it. Dean didn’t stop them. He reveled in his new brand too much.

Being Freddie McDougal was bad enough, but Little Mac was worse. Forever, I would be the little brother to the legendary Dean McDougal. I was little by forty-two whole minutes and a bunch of muscle.

“Ready, Little Mac?” Russ Caldwell turned his head so he could look over his shoulder and check on me. A decent guy, he was the nicest of the pallbearers. He’d grown up on the farm next door, so we had known him our whole lives. He was Dean’s best friend and tolerated me because of it.

“Don’t worry, Russ. I got it if he don’t.” Blake Torrence’s loud whisper came from behind me.

My jaw clenched. Blake was a bully who loved picking on other kids at school and making their lives miserable. He left me alone—mostly—but only because I was Dean’s little brother. Now that Dean was gone, who knew how long that would last?

When the preacher gathered us before the funeral, he’d sized me up against those five guys towering over me. The sleeves of the shirt billowed over my skinny arms. He’d suggested I serve as an honorary pallbearer and walk with my parents instead, and they would find another of Dean’s friends to take my place.

He’d tried to make it sound special, but I knew what he meant. I couldn’t handle it.

I’d argued. That was my brother in that box, damn it. Honorary wasn’t good enough. I was determined to do my share. I needed to. All I had to do was carry the coffin through the church, down the front steps, and across the grounds to the far side of the cemetery.

How hard could it be?

Russ had stepped into the debate and suggested I walk between him and Blake on one side, holding the center of the casket, so they could handle the weight for me.

That steamed me. He thought I couldn’t do it, but the preacher had reluctantly agreed, and there wasn’t any point in arguing any more. I would show them.

As I stood in front of all those people at the end of the service, my hand on that cold rail, doubt blossomed. The distance was long. The ground was uneven.

And the weight? Big ol’ Dean McDougal and that monstrous box weighed more than I’d guessed. I had to carry it, though. I couldn’t fail.

I took a deep breath and nodded. Russ shot a doubtful look over my head at Blake then faced forward.

We lifted. They grunted. I groaned. Even with their help, the weight was staggering.

The preacher led the horrible parade through the open double doors of the church. The wooden boards of the broad porch creaked under our feet as we exited the vestibule. A gentle summer breeze swirled and cooled my face, a welcome respite after sitting inside that stuffy building on those hard pews for the last two hours.

Teary-eyed classmates had extolled Dean’s friendship. Coaches had celebrated his sporting prowess. Teachers had praised his presence in their classrooms. The principal had hailed his leadership as the senior class president. The preacher had capped it all off, exalting his sainthood of regular church attendance.

I’d declined to make my own speech. Not from a fear of public speaking. I wasn’t a big fan of talking, but I could play my guitar and sing in front of strangers all night. Nothing rewarded me more than hearing an audience clap and sing with my songs or seeing them sway to the music and throw money in my open guitar case on a street corner in Asheville. I was good at busking. It had bought my piece-of-crap car.

But this was different. The church was filled with Dean’s friends, not strangers. And they didn’t want to hear the things I would have said.

The teachers never mentioned his dismal grades or the classes he’d skipped so he could go skinny-dipping in the river on warm spring days. The girls wailing about his demise didn’t admit how many of them he’d bedded then ignored when he moved on to his next conquest. His buddies didn’t discuss the pranks he had instigated or all the fistfights he’d been in. All the hell he’d raised around town never came up.

In all the talk about “the good die young” and “gone too soon” and “his whole life ahead of him,” not a soul breathed a word how hours after our high school graduation party, Dean had driven his precious Chevy Silverado off a road and into a tree.

At least they didn’t say it in the church. Not in front of my parents.

But I knew how small-town gossip worked. The same people singing his praises during the service had, no doubt, gathered in the days between the accident and the funeral in their little groups and expressed their misgivings and asked their questions. Questions that would get asked again tomorrow. People would talk about it until the next scandal distracted them.

“Hadn’t Dean driven that stretch of road hundreds of times?”

“How did he lose control when it was perfectly straight?”

“How fast was he driving?

“How drunk was he?”

And I knew what they whispered when they looked at me. “Did you hear he got into a fight with Freddie earlier that night?”

Sweat dribbled into my eyes and blurred my vision, so I didn’t see Russ descend the first step. The coffin tilted forward, shifting the weight of its awful cargo. My burning muscles buckled. I stumbled.

Russ and Blake moaned under the strain but held on to prevent a disaster. Blake’s warning hiss came from behind me. “Keep it steady, Little Mac.”

I never wanted to hear that nickname again. Every utterance reminded me of the gap between me and my brother. Not just size. Or that he could hit a baseball and I couldn’t. We didn’t have anything in common.

We didn’t even share a birthday. Or birth month. He’d arrived just before midnight on April thirtieth. I’d come just after the flip of the calendar.

We lived way out in the country, my parents would patiently explain as we were growing up, so people didn’t want to travel to our house twice for birthday parties. Besides, we couldn’t afford to skip two whole days working the farm. They thought it easier to just pick a day and share the event. Since Dean’s birthday came first, Little Freddie wouldn’t mind celebrating a day early. After all, they’d ask, what difference did it make what day we picked to celebrate?

What they didn’t say, but I knew, was that people would come for Dean’s birthday but not mine. He rode ATVs, hunted, fished, played in the creek, did all the fun things that kids liked to do. Especially kids in Millerton.

Not me. My allergies would flare up. Or I would be recovering from some bug. Or maybe it was because I just preferred to stay inside with my books and guitars. No one wanted to hang out with boring Freddie.

I regained my footing, locked my eyes on the center of Russ’s back, and followed him down the steps. Once we reached flat ground, I focused on the far side of the cemetery and the waiting catafalque beside the freshly dug hole.

We marched. Step after struggling step. One foot in front of the other. My muscles screamed for relief. As we neared our goal, the stench of dirt invaded my nostrils, reminding me of the recently tilled fields surrounding our house each spring. Dean loved driving the tractor and being out in the fields, working shoulder to shoulder with Dad. After a long day of sweat and toil, they would sit at the supper table, smelling like soil and chattering endlessly about insects, disease, yield, rain, and sun. I tried not to sneeze from the earthly assault.

My stomach flopped at a horrid thought—Dean would appreciate being one with the dirt for eternity. He had worked and played in it every day of his life.

We reached the bier and settled the coffin with a muffled thud. With a tilt of his head, the preacher motioned for us to line up beside him, just beyond the grave. We stood shoulder to shoulder in a rigid row—me a foot shorter than the rest—and watched the migrating congregation pick their way through the headstones.

Our parents led the mob. Skeeter and Libby were the current generation of a long line of McDougals who had farmed this valley. Fixtures at church and the farmers’ co-op. Members of the PTA and booster club at the high school. Dad volunteered at the fire department. Mom organized the church bazaar. Pillars of the community. They always carried themselves with a quiet confidence, comfortable in the respect they commanded from the community.

Now, frail and broken, my parents leaned on each other, stumbling across the uneven ground. Ever since a sheriff’s deputy knocked on our door Sunday morning with his grim news, they’d moved like lost souls through the rituals of a family death.

Mom had greeted each visitor—and there were many. She thanked them for the casserole or pie they’d brought, carefully labeling each bowl with a sticker so she could return it.

Dad had sat out in the barn, tinkering with the tractor and pretending to work while his buddies hung out with him. They talked little, communing in their silence.

When he and Mom reached their waiting seats under the tent, Dad hesitated and stared at the casket. He quivered and choked back a sob. Hesitantly, he stepped toward the box holding his precious son until his outstretched hand touched the polished wood. His chin dropped to his chest, his shoulders shook, and tears streamed down his face.

Mom slipped an arm around his waist and held him until he regained his composure. She guided him gently back to the chairs. They collapsed into the seats.

Dean’s girlfriend of the moment came next, dressed in black and wailing like a widow. Her name eluded me. She settled into the vacant chair beside my parents. My chair. There if I wanted it. I resented her for it, even though I stood with the pallbearers.

The enormous crowd of mourners encircled the grave. Most of the high school students—at least, the popular kids—had turned out despite it being the start of summer vacation. Teachers and coaches comforted each other. Stoic farmers—some in suits, some in overalls, and all friends of my dad—stood with their families.

Sarah caught my eye. She and Xander, whom I couldn’t find in the horde, were my bandmates and my best friends. My only friends, really.

I looked away from her. I wasn’t being fair. We hadn’t spoken since the night before the accident. I had returned none of her calls. Seeing her hurt too much after what she had done. She and Dean.

My last conversation with my brother had been a shouting match, a fight in front of everyone in the parking lot of the VFW after the graduation party. The last time I saw him, I was lying in the parking lot, nursing my wounds as he drove away angrily. Our fists had flown because of her.

The murmuring hushed as the minister stepped in front of the casket and spread his arms. “Let us pray.”

Heads dropped. Eyes closed. The preacher’s booming voice covered the sound of chirping birds as he intoned his prayer. It would be long, his usual style.

I had waited for this moment. Planned it.

Time to act.

For my entire life, I’d been the invisible man, always hidden in the shadow of the great Dean McDougal. No one noticed me at school, at parties, around town, or when a group hung out with Dean at the house. They wouldn’t notice me now.

I shuffled backward. The crowd parted to clear a path for me then closed ranks again, hiding me from my parents’ view in case they bothered to look, though I knew they wouldn’t.

As soon as I reached the periphery of the mob, I turned and ambled across the cemetery, running my fingers along the cold granite of tombstones. As little kids, Dean and I had explored them all after church on Sundays while waiting for our parents. Some dated back to the 1700s. Many of them were McDougals.

Dean had loved the family’s century-old ties to Miller County. To him, the names carved in granite were testaments to all that the family had accomplished. To me, each grave marked someone who had failed to escape.

Just another way we were opposites. Dean wanted nothing more than to live his whole life in Miller County. I had been waiting for the freedom of high school graduation so I could flee.

Dean had gotten his wish, though not in the way he had thought. His whole short life had been spent in this place. Then he was buried in this cemetery. Trapped forever.

Not me. I needed to claim my destiny. I had known for years I wouldn’t find it in Miller County. It was out there. Somewhere.

The preacher’s voice carried across the cemetery. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”

As I pushed open the iron gate exit, the hinges squeaked, but no one looked up. I stepped into the overflowing gravel parking lot. My rusty old Honda Civic—the foreign car Dad hated so much—waited among the minivans, pickup trucks, and Jeeps.

When I reached the car, the preacher’s voice fell silent. The whir of gears lowering Dean’s coffin assaulted my ears. I slipped inside and shut the door, mercifully blocking out that awful noise.

With trembling hands, I ripped off my tie and threw it into the back seat, on top of the duffel bag stuffed with my clothes. My two guitars rested safely in their cases. My amp was nestled in the corner. Everything I needed was in that car. I cranked the engine and backed through the cloud of blue smoke.

When I reached the road, tears welled up and spilled down my cheeks. I gently pulled off the sunglasses that I had worn throughout the service. I leaned toward the rearview mirror and touched the purple bruise around my eye. The last thing Dean had ever given me.

Nothing was left for me here. I turned my car toward the highway and my freedom.


Coming June 20th!

Seventeen years later, Freddie returns to Millerton. Preorder the book today to learn what he discovers.

Days after graduating high school, Freddie McDougal escapes his small North Carolina mountain hometown to pursue a dream of rock and roll stardom. Seventeen years later, his mother pleads for him to come home. His father has only days to live.

Returning forces Freddie onto a path of self-discovery as he unravels the truth behind the tragic car crash that claimed the life of his popular and athletic brother, Dean. Everything he thought he knew about that awful night turns out to be false.

Caught in a whirlwind of emotions, Freddie must come to terms with his failures as a musician and decide how to navigate the murky waters of old friends, enemies, and family. With newfound clarity and understanding of his past, he faces the difficult choices that lie ahead.

Will Freddie let the ghosts of the past continue to haunt him, or will he find the strength to forge a new path, guided by the lessons learned from his long overdue homecoming? In this poignant tale, Sour Notes takes readers on a journey of self-discovery, reminding us that the power to shape our future lies in understanding and embracing our past.

  Delivering notes of tenderness, bewilderment, love, and loss, Sour Notes is a chronicle of raw emotion and self-discovery that is anything but sour.

  Sour Notes is as much about accepting the past as making the most of the future.

  This beautifully clever work of fiction reads something like a memoir, featuring in-depth flashbacks that smoothly marry moments present and past. 

  If you're looking for your next emotional rollercoaster novel... this is it!

  I couldn’t stop reading Sour Notes.