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First Look: Reef Road

Monday, December 12, 2022

This excerpt is part of our First Look column, where you’ll find exclusive sneak peeks of new and forthcoming books across all genres!

Deborah Goodrich Royce is the author of two previous novels, Finding Mrs. Ford and Ruby Falls. Ruby Falls won the Zibby Award for Best Plot Twist in 2021! Royce began her career as an actress and now serves on the boards of many foundations.

Her latest novel Reef Road, excerpted below, will be published on January 10th! Pre-order Reef Road here!

The Wife

May 9, 2020


Two teenage boys burst onto the beach, skirting the do not enter tape through the sea grape bushes, surfboards tight under their arms. The sun beat straight down on them, casting no shadows, as if they weren’t even there. Despite the closure of the beaches, despite their mother’s reminders to do their schoolwork while she went to the store, they could not help themselves.

They were pretty sure the cops who patrolled occasionally would not see them either, because they never did. The police were only looking for cars illegally parked at the side of North Ocean Boulevard. This stretch of beach was grassy and hilly and the water was impossible to see from the road. The fact that the boys were breaking all rules—their parents’ and the town’s—made their outing all the more irresistible.

The wind was high, the waves were breaking perfectly, and this was Reef Road, famous to surfers around the world. At least, that’s what the boys had been told. They had been surfing here for years now, practically since they could walk. Once, they’d gone up to Montauk where the waves, admittedly, were great. But this was their beach and they felt protective of it.

They lifted their boards and walked as fast as they could over the frying pan of sand. In their hurry, they did not notice at first the shrieking circle of seagulls down near the edge of the surf. As they got closer, they became aware of dozens of gulls hopping and skittering to and from something that had captured their attention.

Rand, the younger boy—the one whose Palm Beach Day Academy friends called California for his blond curls and speech pattern, peppered with rads and bitchins—saw it first.

“Bro.” He stopped moving, ignoring the burning sand on the soft tissue of his arches. “What the fuck is that?”

“What?” asked Colson—his actual brother and not a metaphorical bro—continuing his beeline for the water.

“Dude,” Rand said. “Stop!”

“Man, you’re such a wuss.” Colson paused briefly. “Never seen a dead rat before?”

“That’s not a rat, you douchebag!”

Colson ignored him and kept walking.

Please look?”

When his brother sounded like the little kid he used to be, Colson stopped. There was a plaintive note that made him drop his board and approach the seagulls, waving his hands to disperse them.

The seagulls did not like it one bit. Whatever they had gotten hold of, they wanted to keep.

“Beat it!” Colson yelled, kicking sand at them. He watched as one gull almost took off, nearly lifting into the air with the object secured in his beak. But it proved to be too heavy for him and he dropped it.

Both Rand and Colson lunged forward. It was hard to tell who identified it first. Rand’s tanned face paled and he turned his head to vomit, avoiding the item on the sand. Colson did not throw up, although he confessed to his brother that he could have.

“Fuck,” Colson said, “it’s a hand.”

“Yeah,” Rand agreed, wiping his mouth. “Look,” he said, squinting at the body part—the human body part—resting in the sand on their beach. “It’s got a ring.”

Colson leaned over to peer as closely as he could without touching it. “What the fuck are we supposed to do with this?”

“I dunno, Cole. Call the police?”

“Dude, what do we say? We’re not supposed to be here, but we are and we found a hand? A fucking hand?”

Rand was silent. Both boys stood motionless and stared at it. It was a man’s hand, judging from the general shape of it, the short nails, the hair on the knuckles, which looked abnormally black against the blanched quality of the bloated flesh. The end of it, the part that should have been attached to somebody’s arm, was roughly severed, like it had been torn off. The ring was a plain gold band.

The seagulls took the boys’ stillness for permission and began their recapture maneuvers.

“Arrrggh!” screamed Colson, waving his arms and running a few short steps in all directions to ward off the scavengers.

“You think it’s fake?” Rand asked. “I mean, like Halloween?”

“That’s really dumb, bro.”

Rand paused to pull his hair out of his mouth from the gusting wind. “You think it’s real?”

“The seagulls do,” said Colson.


“We can’t just leave it. I mean, it’s probably evidence.”

“Well, we can’t bring it home,” said Rand. “What’re we gonna say to Mom?”

This question lightened the mood. Colson started one of his routines that always made his brother laugh: “Yo, Mama,” he began, “what’s for dinner? We’ve been out hunting and gathering.”

“Can we give you a hand with dinner?” Rand chimed in, one-upping his brother.

The boys cracked up with a forced gaiety neither felt.

“Anyway,” Rand said, “I’m not touching it.”

“Little One,” Colson called him by this diminutive more often than Rand cared for. “You’re younger, you’ve gotta do it.”

“Do not. It probably has coronavirus and fell off someone.”

“It was a shark, dummkopf. He took a taste of this guy and hurled him up.”

“You’re probably right,” Rand said.

“Go find an old plastic bag. They haven’t cleaned the beach lately. There has to be one blowing around here somewhere.”

“You do it.”

“Someone needs to stay and watch the hand,” Colson said and started to laugh again. “Just go.”

Rand glared at his older brother then headed off to follow his orders. What else could he do? What else could they do? They couldn’t very well leave a human hand on Reef Road beach for the seagulls to eat. It wasn’t right. Anyway, it didn’t take long for him to find one of those long, blue plastic bags that newspapers came in. He picked it up and checked it for holes. He didn’t want hand guts dripping all over him.

“Here,” he said to Colson when he got back. “I got the bag so you put the hand in it.”

“Fine,” Colson said. “Baby.”

Colson slipped his own hand into the bag and prepared to pick up the appendage in the same way he would pick up poop from their golden retriever. He grabbed the hand through the thin layer of plastic and shuddered at the rubbery-ness of its texture. It gave him the weird sensation that he was actually shaking another human being’s hand. Something they hadn’t done since COVID.

The good news was it didn’t really smell too bad, just kind of fishy.

“C’mon,” he said to Rand. “Let’s go.”

Each boy tucked his board under his arm, cast a wistful glance at the sea, and turned to walk back across the sandy expanse, one of them carrying the day’s discovery.

They passed by a woman sitting on the sand, a woman they had not seen before. A woman they did not see, even now. A nondescript woman, dressed in khakis, an oversized shirt, one of those sunblock hats for old people. The kind of woman no man ever sees, especially younger ones.

When questioned later, each boy stated with absolute certainty that no one else was on the beach that day.

Excerpted from Reef Road by Deborah Goodrich Royce. To be published on January 10 by Post Hill Press. Copyright © 2023 by Deborah Goodrich Royce. Reprinted by permission.


Deborah Goodrich Royce’s thrillers examine puzzles of identity. Ruby Falls won the Zibby Award for Best Plot Twist in 2021 and Finding Mrs. Ford was hailed by Forbes, BookRiot, and Good Morning America’s “best of” lists in 2019. Her newest, Reef Road, will be published on January 10, 2023. She began as an actress on All My Children and in multiple films before transitioning to the role of story editor at Miramax Films, developing Emma and early versions of Chicago and A Wrinkle in Time. With her husband, Chuck, Deborah restored the Avon Theatre, Ocean House Hotel, Deer Mountain Inn, United Theatre, Savoy Bookstore, and numerous Main Street revitalization projects in Rhode Island and the Catskills. She serves on the governing and advisory boards of the American Film Institute, Greenwich International Film Festival, New York Botanical Garden, Greenwich Historical Society, the Preservation Society of Newport, the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, and the PRASAD Project. Deborah holds a bachelor’s degree in modern foreign languages and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Lake Erie College.