Project Dream

Eerily similar to Stephen King’s The Institute, Project Dream is a coming-of-age story of teens caught in the most unusual circumstances—a secret “dream” program.

It was inspired by readers of Dream Wide Awake who asked, “What happened to the kids in the desert?”

Author: CJ Zahner
Series: The Dream Series
Genre: Psychic Prequel/Young Adult
Publication Year: 2019
PRINT ISBN: 978-7332391-0-3

The prequel to the riveting Thriller Dream Wide Awake

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Project Dream

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Chapter 1 Izzy

Red glints danced through the dark chapel. Izzy loved how the candles’ scarlet flickers throbbed against the brown brick walls. She liked everything about the little sanctuary: the red-touched statues staring toward heaven, the sturdy mahogany pews, the marble communion table flaunting hand-polished candelabras that sent a soft glow into the room.

Stay away, white people. 

That light from the wicks’ flames rose, ebbed, and fell foggily over the tabernacle. The mist expanded and hovered around the altar before lazily rising toward the ceiling mural.

She stared at the haze despite what Mama had warned. The smoke swelled and brightened until it reached the Blessed Mother and Baby Jesus painting on the ceiling. Slowly, the white vapor transformed into the figure of a woman, her long, wavy hair flowing gently.

Oh, no.

Izzy glanced at her mother.

If Mama caught her talking to angels again, she’d make her spend next Saturday afternoon in church praying. She dropped her gaze to the ground.

The little sanctuary, nestled in the back corner of an old building behind St. Paul’s big church, was open seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Volunteers manned the perpetual prayer space even in the middle of the night because St. Paul’s pastor insisted the room remain accessible to anyone who needed to pray, anytime, and Izzy’s mother needed to pray often. For Izzy’s papa and her brother, Enrique.

Maybe a smidge for Izzy.

She remained chin to chest but dared to glance upward again. The mist had travelled toward the back wall.

She lifted her chin. Stared straight ahead at the windows embedded in the wall across from her. She purposefully ignored the mist, which lingered beside and behind her now. She concentrated on the windows. Their tinted glass sent vibrant hues in every direction.

Izzy sat in her pew and counted the colors, breathed in the sweet candle scents. She sang songs in her head, swung her legs, and focused on the various shapes formed by the little black frames that separated the pretty stained glass, preoccupying herself with anything to keep her mind from the mist.

Her mother, kneeling beside her, reached a hand back to stop her jittery legs, and Izzy wiggled into a straight position. She glanced around the dark room to see if anyone had noticed her mother’s silent chastising.

Four other people knelt in prayer. Two she recognized, Fred and Jean. They volunteered on Sunday evenings when Izzy’s mother typically frequented the tiny side chapel.

The woman, Jean, raised her eyebrows, smiled, and winked at Izzy. Her lips never stopped moving, and her fingers continued to work the rosary beads in her hands. Izzy smiled back. She liked the lady named Jean, who never talked but often smiled and made funny faces when Mama wasn’t looking. The woman’s husband, Fred, knelt somberly beside her, his head bobbing every few seconds as he tried not to doze off.

Izzy smiled back and then dared to glance toward the others in the room. She kept her vision low, away from the air above them where the mist often hung. One tall gentleman knelt with his hands clasped, head down, and another woman, someone Izzy hadn’t seen before, clutched rosary beads in the back row.

Curiously, Izzy squinted toward the lady. She wore a black mantilla that fell to her shoulders. Her face was somber. Her cheeks, tear-stained. She looked almost as sad as Mama had been when Bula Jimenez died.

Suddenly, the white mist swooped downward, swirled around the woman, and drifted over her like a window sheer blowing in a gentle wind. The woman’s sorrowful mien beelined across the room and stung Izzy.

Izzy nudged her chin against her chest again.

Don’t look at the angel. She’ll ask you to do something.

She busied her mind with upcoming events. Concentrated on her brother’s basketball game, her swim meet, and Christmas. Christmas was the only time of year Mama bought toys or clothes other than school uniforms, and it was less than four months away now. What did she want?

Mama was “broke.” But Papa sent an envelope from Mexico last week, and Mama’s face lit up like the statue of St. Theresa when she had her vision of the Blessed Mother, so Izzy hoped to get her bicycle this year.

She opened one eye. The filmy white mist had grown taller. Quickly she snapped her eye shut, but her shoulders sagged in defeat.

Mama had been scolding Izzy not to stare at the cloudy haze all her life. But Izzy’s mind could never erase the white people—that’s what she called them because Mama simply wouldn’t tolerate her calling them angels or ghosts. Mama said never talk about them. Look away when they appeared. But Izzy found it impossible to ignore the white people, who desperately longed to give her messages.

Reluctantly and defeatedly, she lowered her chin, turned her head sideways, and opened her eyes.


The white lady looked directly at her.

What do you want? Quick.

Izzy waited.

Ghosts were funny. They appeared and then you had to figure out what they tried to tell you. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t whip up a voice and talk. If they spoke to her, communicated clearly—that’s what Mama said Papa didn’t do before he went away—the messages would be so much easier to understand.

The white lady floated forward and gradually transformed into the clear form of a thin, older woman with short hair. She held a cigarette in one hand and made the motion of coughing violently. Izzy’s chest tightened.

Okay, I got that. You were sick. So what do you want?

The woman swirled her hands and drew three letters in the air. NYC. She slashed the letters with a harsh swipe, violently crossing them out several times

Izzy closed her eyes. Concentrated. What was the woman saying?

Suddenly, the room swayed. Had an earthquake struck? She placed her palms flat on the pew. What was happening? In her mind, she no longer sat in the chapel. She stood in a building, an office. Big gray floor boulders buckled beneath her. The building was collapsing.

Her eyes shot open, and she shook her head free of the frightening vision. She glanced toward the mist.

The white lady’s form whirled and danced. She spread her hands wide apart, and roses fell from her arms. She nodded toward Izzy, her eyes pleading.

Izzy sighed.

Okay, I’ll tell her.

She sprung onto the kneeler, stretching her lips toward Mama’s ear.

“Mama, does NYC mean New York City?”

“Sh, yes, sit back and say your prayers.”

Izzy slid back onto the pew, wondering how she would approach the sad woman.

Revealing the messages the white people relayed always perplexed her. How did she tell someone a ghost followed them around? And more importantly, how did she do that without alarming Mama? She wished her Belo Jimenez had given his gift—curse—of seeing angels to Enrique, not her.

“The gift skipped a generation and fell to you, Izzy,” he once said.

“But Belo, I don’t want your darn-blasted gift.”

Her grandfather had set one long finger against her lips to quiet her. “Listen to the angels, but be careful who you tell. They’ll come for you.”

“Who will come for me?”

Belo had scared the daylights out of her.

“Who?” she asked over and over, but Belo would never respond, which made her worry until hives forced their way out of her skin. Every time she asked, he set a finger against his lips, closed his eyes, and shook his head. So Izzy was darn careful who she told.

She gazed toward the sad woman wearing the simple clothes. The lady had no jewelry and wore no makeup. She looked harmless. Was it safe to tell her?

The woman made the sign of the cross, kissed her rosary beads, and slid back onto the pew to gather her things. The spirit above her clasped her hands and begged.

Izzy sprung onto the kneeler again.

“Mama, may I get a drink of water?”

Her mother leaned toward her, whispering, “Yes, but quickly.”

Izzy darted toward the door; the woman was coming. She stepped into the hall and rushed to the drinking fountain. She sipped water, listening for footsteps.

When the woman neared, Izzy turned. “Hello.”

“Hello.” The woman nodded and walked by.

Izzy closed her eyes and scratched her forehead. If only she had been born with a flowing tongue like Bulo said of Enrique.

“Ma’am.” She couldn’t open her eyes when she heard the lady turn. “Did your mother die?’

Oh, that sounded horrible. Why had she asked such a thing? She wasn’t even sure the white spirit was her mother.

“Of lung cancer?” Izzy opened her eyes. “She smoked, right?”

The lady stared but didn’t say a word.

“She says you shouldn’t go to New York City.”

The lady’s face wrinkled. “What?” She sounded cross.

“I’m sorry. It’s—well.” Izzy scratched her nose. She might be breaking into hives. “I saw this lady by you and she kept slashing the letters NYC like you shouldn’t go there and she wouldn’t stop, so I thought I better tell you. She kept doing it over and over and, well, I know she doesn’t want you to go to New York City.”

The woman took a step toward Izzy. The wrinkles melted from her face. “I do have a trip scheduled to New York. Next week. For a conference.”

Goosebumps crawled over Izzy’s skin. Whenever people, real human beings, confirmed what the white people told her, chills spread through her.

The lady stood waiting for Izzy to say more.

Izzy scratched and the lady stared.

“What was her name?”


“My mother. What was my mother’s name?”

The woman appeared hopeful. She held her breath, waiting. But Izzy didn’t know the woman’s name. She had difficulty hearing the white people. Usually, they simply gave signs.

Yes, signs.

“Oh.” Izzy held a finger up. She remembered the sign. “Rose? Is your mother’s name Rose?”

The chapel door opened behind Izzy, and she heard her mother’s voice. “Izzy, what are you doing?”

“Nothing, Mama.” Izzy sidled down the hall toward her mother.

“I hope she wasn’t bothering you.”

The woman said nothing. She stared at the two of them, a perplexed expression tainting her face. After a time, she left the building without saying more.

“Izzy,” Mama barked. “What were you talking to that woman about?”

“I only said hello to her, Mama.”

Her mother gazed at her skeptically. “Remember what Belo said. Don’t talk to anyone.”

“I didn’t, Mama. I promise.”

“Go collect your things. Your brother called. It’s time to pick him up.”

Izzy hurried back into the chapel and grabbed her coat, missal, and satchel. She smiled and waved goodbye to Jean as she exited.

Eight days later, the World Trade Centers collapsed. Izzy prayed the woman from the chapel had not been inside. She watched for her in church on Sunday and at the chapel during the week when she and Mama went to pray for the people who had died, but Izzy didn’t see the woman.

Three weeks after September 11th, Izzy and her mother visited the chapel on a Sunday evening once again. The lady was sitting in the pew next to the woman named Jean. When Izzy walked in, she heard the lady say, “That’s her. That’s the girl.”

“That’s Isabelle Jimenez,” Jean said.

The woman stood and rushed toward Izzy. Jean followed.

“Mrs. Jimenez?” The lady glanced at Izzy’s mother.


“Mrs. Jimenez, your daughter saved my life.”

Izzy’s mother made her spend the next two Saturday afternoons praying in church. But it was too late. Saving that woman’s life would prove Belo right.

They would come for her.

Chapter 2 Lenny

Lenny had no friends. At his sixth birthday party, his mother invited all the boys in his kindergarten class, and not one of them showed. That single incident represented the most traumatic day in his mother’s life. Even worse than the day Lenny’s father was struck and killed by the drunk driver.

So when Lenny begged his mother to have another party for his eleventh birthday, Mary Alice made an appointment to see a counselor. Not for Lenny, for herself.

“I’m afraid no one will come. I can’t bear it.”

“You must have some family in town who will come.”

“No, we have no one.” Her heart wrenched.

“Friends? Coworkers that might have children his age?”

Well, there was Sherry at work, Mary Alice thought. She had a son about the same age. And Karen, an older lady whom she walked with, had two granddaughters in fifth grade. Maybe they could come. She sighed. This fear of no one showing had uprooted her psoriasis. She itched an elbow. Then a shin.

“Maybe one child. Possibly two. But Lenny won’t know them.”

“How about talking to the teacher? Surely, there has to be someone who will come. A child in a similar situation. Sometimes you don’t realize other children are going through the same cruel ordeal until you speak up. Talk to the teacher.”

Mary Alice did. She contacted Lenny’s teacher, Mrs. Hill, and discussed the dilemma at length with her. Mrs. Hill said since Lenny had grown taller this year, some of the boys were picking him for dodge ball. A few of those boys might come.

So Mary Alice gave her invitations enough for the entire class, and Mrs. Hill sent her own personal note home with the students.

Mary Alice also gave invites to neighbors. In total, she handed out twenty-eight invitations. Then she walked two streets over to the little plaza on the busy street with the mailbox on its corner, and she held her breath, staring at the twenty-ninth one. The envelope was addressed to the Callahan home. The Callahan girls lived around the corner, but she didn’t dare deliver theirs herself. She closed her eyes and slipped that last invitation into the mailbox, praying they accepted.

She was elated when an Adam’s mother called to say Adam would come and three other mothers called to say their sons, who went to school with Lenny, would also attend. Karen’s granddaughters were coming. Sherry promised to bring her son, and finally, the call she was waiting for came. The Callahan girls, Lisa and Rachel, would be there.

She prayed no one reneged.

On the day of the party, Mary Alice generously set out fourteen places. Lenny counted them and smiled from ear to ear.

“Are that m-m-many k-kids coming, Mom?”

“I’m not sure Lenny. But we have to have a few extra plates, you know.”

“Ok-k-kay, Mom.”

“Remember Lenny. Try to look your friends in the eye. When you look down it’s disrespectful.”

“I will, M-mom.”

The party started at 2 p.m. and at 2:01 Mary Alice’s eyes welled with tears, but she forced herself to remain calm. She watched Lenny hitting balloons in the air all by himself. Then, mercifully, the doorbell rang. There at the door was her friend Karen and her twin granddaughters, Mila and Mallory. The twins ran in. Karen set a hand gingerly on Mary Alice’s arm.

“Did anyone else come?”

“No, not so far.” Mary Alice could barely get the words out. Karen leaned in and hugged her.

Then the miracle happened. The doorbell rang a second time.

Mary Alice hurried to the front door. When she opened it, the Callahan sisters stood staring at her. Behind them were three little boys. The sisters had brought three neighborhood boys along with them.

Seven children.

The doorbell rang three more times after that. Mary Alice broke down and cried. The children didn’t notice. Karen ushered them in.

“Go on,” Karen waved Mary Alice away. “Compose yourself. I’ll line them up for some games.”

Mary Alice ambled to the kitchen and leaned over the sink. She could not contain herself. Tears of relief streamed down her cheeks, blurring her vision. She grabbed a clean dishtowel from a drawer, wiping her eyes. When she tossed the towel onto the counter and dropped her arms to her side, five wee fingers slipped their way into the palm of her hand.

She hadn’t noticed the child had entered the room.

Mary Alice glanced down and stared smack into the eyes of LeeLee Callahan. The Caribbean blue of them pierced her.

“It’s okay, Ms. Emling,” the child said. “Lenny is going to be fine. You’ll see.”

Mary Alice Emling would think back on this moment of her life for many years to come.

Chapter 3 The Nevada Desert

Jerry McDaniel hated his bosses. He spent day and night imagining ways to frame both his supervisor, Bart Conrad, and his director, Randall Scott.

Scott was a narcissist too high up to touch. He insisted people refer to him as the commander. Probably because his name conjured so many skeletons in the closet their bones clanged if the door blew open. Scott spent most of his military career nailing that door shut. When his superiors promoted him to Washington, that closet entrance magically disappeared into the woodwork. Funny how a transfer to Washington could turn man to magician.

Conrad was no angel, either. Give that guy a dime, and he’d slit Scott’s throat.

What a pair.

And now the CIA was cutting them loose. White House personnel had decided to create a stand-alone department for the secret program Scott and Conrad headed. Without question, Scott would abuse his new-found autonomy. Sovereignty could corrupt an honest man. Give a deceitful man supremacy? Disastrous.

Then, as if those two devious idiots didn’t yank Jerry’s chain enough, there was this slippery kid coming up the ranks. The nephew of some bigwig. Someone Swarthy. Between Scott, Conrad, and this Swarthy kid, Jerry was juggling fruit—not balls, because in his opinion none of them had the balls to oversee this program. And despite seeming a fruitless, lost cause in the past, Jerry believed in this project.

They just needed to find the right kids.

While scads of White House officials scoffed at the idea—training children to remote view? preposterous—Jerry had done ample research. He studied the Stargate files. Researched clairvoyants. Talked to scientists, not quacks but hard-core, fact-driven experts, who believed this specific proposed training technique would work.

Today, sitting in front of the CIA director’s right-hand man, Jerry perspired underneath his suitcoat. So much sweat accumulated in his pits, he could have wrung his shirt out and filled a swimming pool.

Outwardly, he remained calm.

He shifted slightly in his seat. Waited. In the past few months, the head of the CIA had been preoccupied with a search for weapons of mass destruction. The top men didn’t give a damn about anything else; hence, officials welcomed Scott’s request to disassociate the CIA from the remote-viewing program.

But while the men at the top kept their noses buried in Iraq maps, Scott began pilfering dollars from other defense budgets to the tune of fifteen million dollars. That greed set off a slew of cabinet-member complaints. Scott was sequestered to a meeting in Washington.

Scott brought along Bart Conrad and Jerry for that D.C. day of reckoning.

“Every indication from the 1995 close out of the project said flop. What makes you so sure this will work, Randall?” Steve Larson, the right-hand man assigned to investigate, tossed a repot onto the table.

“The University of Arizon—”

“No more bullshit about Arizona and that afterlife experiment. Talk to me about remote viewing.”

“Past programs were inconclusive.” Conrad spoke up. “However, last year a college professor worked with an Indian reservation school, and the kids identified objects in a building across the road.”

Larson looked from Scott to Conrad and back to Scott.

“This is what you developed an entire department for? Because some half-assed teacher said his kids could see through walls?”

“Steve, Conrad has been researching remote viewing for ten years.”

“You did the study?” Larson cut Scott off and turned toward Bart Conrad.

“No, sir.” Conrad wiggled inside his collar. “Central Intelligence did the study. With impressive results.”

“Central intelligence?”

“Yes, sir. Under my authority, they brought in—” Conrad’s Adam’s apple rose and fell. His determined demeanor slumped. He looked like a grade-school kid in a Principal’s office. “Five people to investigate psychics, sir.”

Larson glanced back at Scott. “This has got to be a joke.”

Jerry watched Scott squirm and, in his head, Jerry howled. He’d been waiting six months for this moment. He began counting down.


“Absolutely not,” Scott replied indignantly. “We recruited the best researchers in the country. Explain, Bart.”

Bart fumbled with the papers in front of him. Jerry had never seen him so nervous.

“The men who participated—” Bart hesitated. “And one woman.”


Scott looked like a leopard ready to pounce. Conrad’s hands shook. The report he fingered had wet spots from his sweat.

“Sir, these men are—men and woman—are esteemed. Five highly-respected military officials.”

Silence reigned. The tension in the room was worse than a stretched rubber band.  Clearly, Bart Larson was screwing it up for Scott. Steve Larson slammed a fist on the table.

“I don’t care if John McCain is on that list. All you’ve done is test the same theories everyone else has tested in the CIA for the last thirty years. You simply shuffled the results.”


“You took ten million dollars from other budgets for the implementation of a defunct project.”

“But, sir—”

 “Not one ounce of evidence exits that remote viewing works. We never intended fifteen million dollars to be transferred to this program. Unless you give me some hard-core proof that this project will succeed, we’re pulling it.”


Scott and Conrad tried interjecting, but Larson overrode them.

“I’ve had all I can take of your bullshit, Randall. Tell me. Who the hell of these five superstars can stand up in front of the head of the CIA and Congress and say they’ve proven remote viewing can be taught to kids still wetting their pants?”


“Major Bern Selig and—Annie Sherman,” Jerry blurted out.

Lift off.

Here’s the thing. The idea of training hadn’t been Scott’s or Bart Conrad’s. It had been Jerry’s. And he’d done his homework.

He knew cabinet members would complain when Scott skimmed money off the top of their budgets, and top CIA officials wouldn’t have time for budgetary trivialness with their heads so far up Middle Eastern asses they couldn’t see light. So they’d send their hatchet man, Steve Larson. Larson had lopped off the heads of so many CIA officials that the hair from their scalps could cover every bald head in D.C.

Jerry had no intention of stepping up to the guillotine.

Steve Larson respected the American hero Major Bern Selig. As eighteen-year-olds, the two had spent time cleaning bathroom floors with toothbrushes in a military academy. West Point to be exact. Later, they dodged bullets in Middle Eastern trench holes together before Selig transferred out of Larson’s division and single handedly saved the lives of fifty-six men. Larson often bragged about his war-hero friend.

Jerry had acclaimed friends, too. One golfed in Selig’s foursome. Jerry need only pull a few strings and rack up a few favors to secure a spot in a tourney with the American legend. Jerry studied Selig’s golf swing on the first round, let him win a few holes on the second round, and clobbered him on the third—the guy didn’t know what hit him.

Next Jerry taught Selig how to straighten his shot and pick his clubs. He gave him three private golf lessons. With that, Selig lowered his handicap and sent a case of Kentucky’s best bourbon to Jerry’s home.

They began playing together occasionally. To garner Steve Larson’s approval, all Jerry need do was convince Selig, Larson’s idol, that they could train kids in remote viewing. Three professors from the University of Arizona and one from Cornell did that.

Why had Jerry selected tenured profs from those two universities? Because Selig was a University of Arizona graduate, and his only daughter, his princess, had received an acceptance letter and committed to attend Cornell next fall.

Selig loved the professor’s report and with his stamp of approval, Jerry simply sealed the deal by introducing one last piece of the puzzle to Steve Larson. A very nice-looking piece.

“Sherman?” Larson’s voice suddenly strained.

“Yes, sir. Sherman and Selig oversaw the project. Sherman actually requested to work at the facility once up and running.”

For the first time during the meeting, Steve Larson looked Jerry McDaniel in the eye. The stare felt penetrating, electrifying, wonderful.

“What’s your name, son?’

Larson was older than Jerry. A decade older. Some might consider him at that perfect age. Old enough to have amassed a fortune and made a respected name for himself, but still young enough to be considered a looker.

“Jerry McDaniel, Sir.”

Jerry could feel Scott’s and Conrad’s eyes on him, the lousy bastards. They had treated him like some backseat lay, a roll in the hay. Ordered him around like he was an intern. Never had they asked for his opinion. So while they wasted time cajoling government officials at fancy dinners and private meetings, Jerry had researched hatchet-man Steve Larson.

“Who signed off on the research?” Larson picked his glasses off the conference table and placed them on his nose, shuffling through the reports.

“Both of them, sir. Peruse the Anomalous Cognition report.” Jerry waited for Larson to find the report he himself had slipped in the file on the way to the meeting—carry the files, Commander? Sure, I’ll carry your files.

When Larson found it, Jerry said, “Page 387, sir.”

Steve Larson didn’t move a muscle. His eyes, however, snapped upward, and he peeked over his glasses at Jerry, his stare so hot Jerry thought the hairs on his face might singe.

He did everything in his power not to smile.

Larson shuffled to page 387. His lips moved silently as he read the findings of Major Bern Selig and Ms. Annie Sherman. A minute or two lapsed. He tossed the report down, removed his glasses, and tucked them in his shirt pocket. He leaned his elbows on the table and stared directly into Jerry’s eyes. Jerry stared joyously back.

“And what do Mr. Selig and Ms. Sherman want to see happen?”

“Well, sir, they weren’t entirely sure but they estimated a six-to-nine-month study would do it. An entire year would be grand.”

Jerry struggled not to break into a laugh during the long, silent seconds that passed. He forced himself not to glance toward Scott and Conrad though he desperately wanted to witness their dumbfounded expressions.

Finally, Steve Larson spoke.

“You—they—want one year?”

“That would be more than enough to complete this—” Here Jerry hesitated briefly and continued, “secret…project.”

Silence befell the room again. Jerry was one hundred percent confident no one understood what was going on except him and Steve Larson.

Larson stood. Picked up his briefcase. One by one he transferred the reports from the table to the bag.

“One year.”

“Thank you, sir.” Jerry stood.

“Yes, thank you, sir.” Bart Conrad tried interjecting. He held out a hand, but Steve Larson reached for Jerry’s instead. Shaking Larson’s outstretched hand was the single best moment in his career up until that point.

“You have a name for this project, son?”

And before Bart could tell him his cockamamie Operation Crux name, Jerry blurted out, “Project Dream, sir.”

Steve Larson turned toward Randall Scott and said, “Let’s go sign the papers, Scott.”

When the door shut and they were gone, Bart Conrad inched into Jerry’s space.

“What was that all about?”

Jerry took a step into Bart’s space, paused there a minute, and exited the room laughing. He drove seventeen miles away to his mistress’s house, stopping only once to pick up a bottle of Virginia’s most expensive Champagne.

Six days later, Project Dream was born. Jerry McDaniel was named the director, and the compromising pictures of Steve Larson and Annie Sherman remained locked away in Jerry’s safety deposit box.

Other Books

To find out what happened to the teenagers after Project Dream, read the riveting thriller Dream Wide Awake. Or for another thrill ride, read  CJ’ Zahner’s stand-alone psychological thriller, The Suicide Gene.