Read an Excerpt
Ashley blinked in the sudden brightness. The bare lightbulb overhead swung from a rusty chain, casting shadows all over her new bedroom. She squinted in the harsh light, but it was the best she could do until she unpacked the little purple lamp that had sat on her bedside table for as long as she could remember.
Besides, she told herself, glancing from the boxes scattered over the pocked floor to the four-foot crack running down the wall, it’s not like this room could look any worse.
Ashley sighed, for the thousandth time, as she remembered her old bedroom back in Atlanta. It was perfect in every way, from the pale-aqua paint on the walls to the window seat that overlooked the alley, a quiet place in a bustling city. But that was all gone now; Ashley knew she’d probably never see her room again. Maybe, right this very minute, somebody else was sitting in her old room, starting to unpack a bunch of boxes.
Lucky, Ashley thought, flopping back on her bare mattress and staring at the stain-spotted ceiling. She knew she should put the sheets on her bed, but she just didn’t feel like doing anything.
There was a knock at the door. Ashley could tell from the four strong raps that it was her mother. Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll go away, Ashley thought.
The knock came again, and then the door creaked open.
“Hey, Pumpkin!” Mrs. McDowell called out in a cheerful voice. “How’s it going in here? Want some help?”
Ashley shrugged and rolled over on the bed so that she was facing the window. It was getting dark outside—a deeper darkness than she was used to. It never felt dark in Atlanta, not really dark, not with all the streetlights and headlights and towering buildings whose windows glowed all night long. But this far out in the country, light was harder to come by once the sun went down.
The bed creaked as Mrs. McDowell sat behind Ashley and started rubbing her back. Ashley inched away. She knew she was probably hurting her mom’s feelings, but it was hard to care. After all, it wasn’t like her mom and dad had cared about her feelings when they’d decided to sell their apartment and buy this rundown farm out in the middle of nowhere.
“This is going to be a really great thing, Ashley,” Mrs. McDowell said yet again. “Just try to have faith, okay? I know change is hard and stressful and scary—”
“Scary? Um, no. I’m not scared. I’m bored. I hate it here.”
“You hate it here?” Mrs. McDowell said. “Pumpkin, we’ve only been in Heaton Corners for, oh, five hours or so. All I ask is that you give it a chance. You know Dad and I wouldn’t make a decision this big if we didn’t think it was the best thing for everyone.”
“But you didn’t even ask me,” Ashley replied, blinking back tears. “I don’t want to live on a smelly farm, Mom. I miss Atlanta so much.”
Mrs. McDowell sighed. “We really regret not leaving the city before Maya went to college,” she said in a quiet voice. “We don’t want to make the same mistake with you. Maya spent her whole childhood cooped up in that apartment—”
“Yeah, and she loved it!” Ashley interrupted. “And so did I!”
“Can you try to think of it as an adventure?” Mrs. McDowell asked, and there was something so vulnerable in her voice that Ashley finally sat up and looked at her. “You know there’s something really exciting about a fresh start, going to a whole new school and meeting all kinds of new people! And we’ll have the homestead up and running before you know it—the chicks will arrive in a few days; won’t that be fun? Little fluffy baby chickens? And next spring we’ll get a cow!”
Ashley started to laugh. It was such a ridiculous thing to say—“we’ll get a cow!”—that she couldn’t help herself. And she couldn’t miss the relief that flooded her mom’s eyes.
“And maybe,” Ashley said, wishing that she wasn’t giving in so easily but saying it anyway, “we can fix that horrible crack over there? It looks like the wall got struck by lightning.”
Mrs. McDowell smiled as she patted Ashley’s knee. “Of course. I’ll have Dad come take a look—we can probably patch that crack by the end of the week. And then we’ll get the walls primed for painting. Have you thought about what color you want? Maybe a nice, sunny yellow?”
“Aqua,” Ashley said firmly. “Just like my old room.”
“All right,” Mrs. McDowell said. “Whatever you want. Listen, Dad went to get pizza; I think he’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“That long?” Ashley asked. “To grab pizza?”
“Well, it turns out there’s no pizza place in Heaton Corners,” Mrs. McDowell said, sighing. “So he had to drive all the way to Walthrop.”
Ashley sneered. “Seriously. What kind of town doesn’t have a pizza place? Heaton Corners is the worst. The worst.”
“No, no, it’s not so bad,” Mrs. McDowell said. “We’ll learn to make our own pizza! And after we get the vegetable garden going next summer, we’ll even make our own sauce! With our own tomatoes!”
Yeah. Great, Ashley thought. Or, you know, we could get a pizza from Bernini’s in, like, ten minutes. If we still lived in Atlanta.
“So, come down when you can, and help me find the plates,” Mrs. McDowell said as she stood up. On her way out, she paused by the door. “Oh, Ashley? Did I see your bike out back?”
“Go out and put it in the barn, okay?”
“Why?” Ashley argued. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, remember? Nobody’s going to steal it.”
“Probably not,” Mrs. McDowell replied. Then she pointed at the window. “But it looks like it’s going to rain tonight. You see those thunderheads gathering? So go ahead and get your bike in the barn so it doesn’t rust. Thanks, Pumpkin.”
Ashley sighed heavily as her mom left. Then she halfheartedly started rummaging through one of the boxes on the floor. She didn’t exactly feel like unpacking, but she definitely didn’t feel like rushing outside to put away her bike just because her mom said so.
Of course, there was no way for Ashley to know that that particular carton held her Memory Box, a dark-purple shoebox that was crammed with photos, cards, and funny notes from her best friends in Atlanta. Just seeing Nora’s and Lucy’s handwriting made Ashley feel homesick. By the time she’d finished rereading every single note, it was pitch-black outside.
And her mom was shouting from the kitchen.
“Ashley! Your bike! And I’m going to need your help in here!”
Ashley shoved the Memory Box under her bed and went downstairs, walking right past the kitchen without saying a word to her mom. Her flip-flops were near the back door, where she’d kicked them off after the movers had left. One look out the window told Ashley that she would need a flashlight to find the barn. Luckily, there was a flashlight hanging right next to the door. Ashley guessed that the last people who’d lived here had found themselves in the same situation.
She switched on the flashlight and stepped outside. Its bright-yellow beam pierced through the night sky, then quickly faded to a dull orange. Ashley shook the flashlight and smacked it against her palm until it glowed a little brighter.
Typical, she thought. I bet the batteries will die as soon as I get into the barn.
The thought made Ashley walk a little faster as she wheeled her bike through the overgrown goldenrod toward the barn. It hadn’t started raining yet, but the weeds were damp with evening dew, and she shivered as they slapped against her bare legs. And her toes were freezing. Ashley hated to admit it, but her mom was right: Sandal season was definitely over.
As Ashley walked, she remembered what her mom had said about Maya: “We really regret not leaving the city before Maya went to college.” It just shows how clueless my parents are, Ashley thought. Her big sister had never wanted to live in the country. That’s why she’d decided to go to college in Chicago. It had been a little more than a month since Maya had moved into her dorm, and Ashley missed her every day. Talking on the phone or chatting online just wasn’t the same. And Chicago felt so far away to Ashley. It wasn’t even in the same state. It wasn’t even in the same time zone!
Just before Ashley reached the barn, the flashlight died, but in a stroke of luck the clouds parted for a moment, letting through enough moonlight that she could lift the heavy iron latch on the barn door. The only sound Ashley could hear was the soft squeeeeeeak of the bike’s gears as she pushed it into the barn.
The air in the barn was dry and dusty; it smelled of caked dirt and hay. The moment Ashley stepped in from the barn door, it slammed shut with such a loud bang that she jumped. Without even the weak beam of the flashlight to guide her steps, Ashley was plunged into pitch-black darkness. She stretched her arm out as far as it would reach, until her fingers grazed the rough, unfinished wood of the barn wall. Then she took one careful step at a time until she found a spot to leave her bike. Ashley leaned it against the wall and turned to leave.
What, Ashley thought as her heart started to pound, did I just step on?
There was something leathery, something papery, something scaly, something she couldn’t quite place—flicking against her bare skin. Was it slithering over her feet, twining around her ankles? Or was that just her imagination?
Had it been waiting for someone to set foot inside this old, abandoned barn?
Stop it, Ashley told herself firmly. She was a city girl. She was not the kind of person who freaked out over every little thing. With a surge of confidence, she hit the flashlight against her palm again.
Thwak. Thwak. Thwak.
Suddenly a pale beam flashed across the barn. The flashlight was working again, for a minute, at least.
Ashley pointed the flashlight at her feet. It took a moment—longer, probably—for her to realize what she was standing in; some part of her brain couldn’t, wouldn’t accept it. There were so many that she couldn’t count them, especially because of the way they wriggled—
Wait. Were they moving? Or was that just the effect of her clumsy feet as she stumbled, trying to escape?
Either way, Ashley didn’t stick around to find out. She screamed—she couldn’t help it—as the weak light from the flashlight died again. Ashley rushed out of the barn, still screaming, and her screams echoed across the farm, almost as if they were ricocheting off the heavy clouds that were crowding the sky once more.
She was so preoccupied by the memory of those slithery things on her feet, and so distracted by the utter darkness, that she didn’t see the tall figure step out from the shadows . . .
Until a pair of strong hands grabbed her shoulders and held on tight!