When the darkness is too great, When the pain is too real, There is nothing but sharp edges, Razor slices, To remind me that I am alive.
Seven years ago, an innocent act by Rowan Slone turned her life into a nightmare. Since the age of ten she’s lived with the burden of her baby brother’s death. Now she is seventeen and all she wants to do is graduate high school, go to college, and escape the loveless family she has endured all these years—the same family that holds her responsible for his death. But no one holds her responsible more than herself, and she turns to cutting to ease the pain.
When long-time crush Mike Anderson invites her to the Prom, suddenly her future looks brighter. Rowan’s younger sister, Trina, however, is determined to ruin her new-found happiness, no matter the cost. And when Rowan discovers her mother’s long-held secret, she finds herself teetering on the edge of an abyss.
Can Rowan find the strength to move toward the future or is she doomed to dwell in the past?
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The first stroke of sunrise struggled to break through the dense fog, casting the horizon in a reddish glow. It was just after six o'clock on a Sunday morning in April and I, sixteen-year-old Marli, born Marlina Emmaline Meade, was hiking to the Church on the Mountain. Again. But my father was the preacher and I had little choice in the matter, regardless of how much I yearned for just that — a choice.
"Hurry." My grandmother, Edna, clutched my arm, her craggy voice piercing the early morning quiet.
The church rested fifty yards from our home's front door, nestled atop Ophidian Mount, this range's highest peak, like God himself had put it there. A cross jutted up from the apex of the roof with ghostly, grasping mist in constant circulation around its stoic wooden body. Wound around the base of the cross was a snake, carved out of the same wood, its body as long and thin as string. The snake's flattened head was raised, peering down at anyone who passed through the church's door, like God's serpentine gatekeeper.
Charles, my father, stood at the entrance with hands folded over a concave stomach. He wore his church suit of black polyester and white button-up, though after many years, both had faded to gray. His build was tall and lanky and stooped at the shoulder. The familiar black-eyed stare, encased in pale, pasty skin, settled on me, unblinking and sharp. "Come."
Musty air wafted up my nostrils as I passed inside.
Edna stopped beside Charles. Almost equal in height yet more severe in temperament, my grandmother was someone to be feared at the best of times. "Prepare the church for service before our guests arrive."
"Our guests?" I blurted. We never had guests. The people who attended this small church were the people who also lived on this mountain, their homes peppering the mountainside like blunt fingers pointing skyward.
"Do as she says," Charles commanded.
"Yes, sir." I tried to sidestep my grandmother but Edna grasped a strand of my hair, yanking me to a halt.
"Shameful hair. Smooth it. You don't want them getting the wrong idea about you."
"Yes, ma'am." I slid my hair out of her fist and started a braid that would fall to my waist when finished. It was hopeless, though. No matter how hard I tried to tame or hide my hair, I would never have the tresses of my father's ancestors, as black as coal and as smooth as silk.
Instead, mine was as red as blood and as wild as fire, a trait I inherited from my deceased mother. At least that was what Edna said and she didn't mean it as a compliment. In fact, any time she deigned to speak about my mother, her lips curled into a snarl, her tongue and teeth creating a hissing sound that would send shivers up and down my body until I went running from the room.
The only physical trait I inherited from the Meade side of the family was the dark, dark eyes, though mine, fortunately, were just light enough to be brown and not black like Charles's and Edna's — like most of the congregants' on this mountain.
"Light the candles. I must tend to something." With long smooth strides, Edna disappeared into a room at the back of the church.
I eyed my father, his hunched back turned to me and made more pronounced by a slender frame.
Who could they want me to meet? We were not a social family. Visitors on this mountain were uncommon and unwelcome, unless those visiting were from a sister church, one of many that, rumor had it, peppered the Appalachian region like a hidden, dormant disease.
It certainly couldn't be someone asking to join the church. Members were born into it, dating back generations. And if they weren't? Well, I couldn't imagine someone willingly coming here. First of all, the church was so secretive it was almost like an urban legend among the locals. They knew the church existed — the children on the mountain went to the public school after all — but no one ever, ever traveled up the winding dirt road to see for themselves what kind of church dwelled at the summit. And if they did? I doubted Charles would grant them permission to join. Ours was a ... tight-knit community.
I smoothed my floor-length skirt, wishing for the hundredth time since I awoke for a different wardrobe, and took out the matches. Even though it was a morning service, candles were lit, casting sinister, dancing shadows along the plain white walls. With no windows and no air circulation, the square wooden building was more like a stone tomb, and every time I entered it, I felt like I was being buried alive.
Charles went outside without a word, and when he returned he wasn't alone. Following him was a man almost as tall and nearly as thin. Then there was his wife, I assumed, because women did not go about without a male relative of some sort. She was short and more rotund than most women I knew, with thinning hair and beady black eyes that were nearly swallowed by plump cheeks. Bringing up the back end of the group were two boys who seemed about my age. The first son shuffled his feet and coughed every few steps. He had an average face that showed a slight scattering of acne. Nothing too interesting.
Then ... and then ... I felt my lips part and my jaw go slack. The other son. There was something unusual about him, and it wasn't just the tilted fedora he wore. I had trouble pulling my eyes away even though getting caught staring at a guy could land me on my knees in prayer for the entire evening.
His hair was brown and needed to be combed but managed to look good anyway as it spilled out from under the hat. Instead of wearing slacks and a button-up shirt like the other males, he wore tight-fitting black jeans and a black and gray T-shirt with some sort of unintelligible writing across the front. If I had to guess, the shirt was from a band concert, but having no experience in that arena, I wouldn't bet the money I didn't have on it.
He had sharp cheekbones with pink lips that gave him a baby-faced quality. His eyes burst with color — green, brown, and yellow — and were encased in thick, dark lashes. I could see them so clearly because he was staring straight at me.
With considerable effort, I managed to extract my gaze from his, but it was hard, like his gaze was a magnet and so was mine. I didn't want to risk the bruises that would form on my knees, though, so I dropped my eyes to the floor and kept them there.
"Mr. and Mrs. Stone, this is my daughter, Marlina Emmaline." Charles's voice rattled off the walls.
"This is our son, Josiah." Mr. Stone leaned forward and looked to his side. "The young man on the end is Nate."
Josiah didn't look up.
Nate offered what I would consider a smirk then pulled out a cell phone, an altogether foreign object in this bare-bones little building. He checked something on it before sliding it back into his pocket.
"How old is she?" Mrs. Stone demanded.
"Sixteen," Charles answered, not blinking. I never learned if it was an actual eye condition that enabled his lids to remain wide open for prolonged periods of time or if it was just a way to make people unsettled and uncertain in his presence. My bet was the latter — a way of weakening his prey before the fatal strike. I avoided eye contact with him as much as possible. I knew I was weak and didn't need his piercing glare to prove it.
"How did her mother die?" Mrs. Stone asked.
Charles cleared his throat. "In childbirth."
"Did she get that hair from her mother?" It was not a compliment.
"Yes. Her mother had kin with red in their hair."
"She was not a direct descendant?" After a brief hesitation Charles said, "No."
This church preached that its members were descended from the serpent in Adam and Eve's Garden of Eden, not from Adam and Eve themselves, and as such held within their person the black aura of Satan. It was this aura the church was constantly trying to purge from its members. But this also meant that their ancestor had been in the Garden of Eden, thus offering all descendants a righteous path toward Heaven if they could abstain from sin. One of the physical characteristics of this pure bloodline was the black hair and black eyes. For me, without those traits, I stood out like a flaming beacon — and not in a good way.
Mrs. Stone's face shriveled into a deep frown.
Just then Edna returned with a manila folder clutched to her chest, moving down the aisle in long fluid strides. "Thank you for coming." She did not extend her hand.
"Likewise," Mr. Stone said. "Preacher Meade was telling us how her mother died." Accusation hung heavy in the air like they were judging my worth based on my mother's death.
"There is no reason to think the same would happen here. She is a healthy girl." Edna's voice rose, loud and weighted.
Josiah's face flamed bright red, and he watched the floor like he was afraid it would crumble beneath his feet and swallow him alive. Maybe he was hoping for just that. Nate was back to staring at me, not in the disturbing, nonblinking way Charles did but in a way that made the energy inside me spark and crackle.
Then a lightning bolt shot through me — wholly unrelated to Nate's invigorating stare. It was a sharp, crushing comprehension I had been oblivious to but should've figured out long before this very moment.
Oh no. No ... No ... This can't be happening.
The beginnings of a scream sprang to life deep within my throat but got lodged there, threatening to sever my ability to breathe.
In days past, the church believed in the sanctity of young marriage — arranged marriage — stifling, future-ending marriage.
I did not.
My parents had married when my mother was sixteen but that was years ago. The church had changed from its old ways, hadn't it? It had started allowing the children to attend public school; permitted the men to work in the coal mines nearby; looked the other way when, on occasion, the women drove themselves to town, in groups, of course, but unchaperoned by a male relative. There were no more punishing ceremonies, no more markings with a fiery stick, or snake pits writhing with venomous serpents ready to exact judgment. Things had changed. Hadn't they?
No. No. No.
Acid burned my throat and I knew I was going to go up in flames.
A husband! I hadn't even had a boyfriend yet.
Waves of nausea rolled through my stomach.
Was it one of these two guys they wanted me to marry? Josiah wouldn't even look at me, and Nate seemed unfazed and bored. He plopped down on the nearby pew, crossing one leg over the other. He clasped his hands over his knee and fixed his gaze where it had been since he'd walked in.
There was something to that stare. It made me want to cover myself or lay myself bare. I wasn't sure which.
* * *
I heard my name, spoken loud and with chilly detachment, but couldn't lure my focus from the second son. Nate. Even at school, the only place I mixed with anyone my age who didn't live on the mountain, I had never seen a guy like him: aloof, bored, and somehow dangerous all rolled into one long, lean body. How did a guy like him come from a family like the Stones?
"Miss Meade?" Mrs. Stone repeated.
Edna took two of her long talon fingers, slightly webbed between the pointer and thumb, and pinched my arm. Hard.
"Sorry." I didn't rub my skin despite the throbbing.
"Do you have a voice?" Mrs. Stone asked, impatience shaping her words.
Charles's mood was unreadable, neither hard nor soft. Edna stared at me with an expression that relayed her thoughts perfectly: Act right or you will regret it. I had no doubt Edna would make me regret it so I straightened my back and tried to gather my thoughts.
"But do you?" the woman pressed. "Will you be a willful and difficult wife?"
A willful and difficult wife? I saw Edna's hand raise in my peripheral vision, ready for another piercing pinch. "No, ma'am," I hurried. "I would be a willing and obedient ..." I couldn't bring myself to say the word wife. I didn't even know what that word meant to them. I knew what it meant to me — doom. "I would be ... willing and obedient ..." My voice dropped off in a whisper.
This could not be happening.
When Mrs. Stone shoved Josiah forward, he stumbled over his large feet and almost barreled me over. "Meet your betrothed," she said. "Your future husband."
Josiah's breath, shallow and fast, blew across my face. He didn't speak so neither did I. What was there to say?
"I want them married within the year," Mrs. Stone said.
Married within the year? I would be the only junior at school with a husband. I clenched my teeth so hard I hoped they would crack. That pain would surely be less than what I was feeling now.
"What year is she?"
"She is educated here on the mountain?"
For the first time, Edna showed a flash of discomfort. "She attends the public school."
Mrs. Stone scowled. "Josiah has always been homeschooled. The church frowns upon mixing with heathens, does it not? What made you decide to send her to a place like that?"
Edna stiffened. "The education is outstanding."
What Edna didn't say was the town's sheriff, Wilhelm Wilton, forced the children on the mountain to attend public school. Before I was born, they were homeschooled by one of the church women, but something happened years ago to force the change. I never learned why. Lips were tightly sealed within this community.
Mrs. Stone didn't press the issue. "Within the year we will have a wedding."
"You have our word." Edna couldn't hide the smile of satisfaction creeping along her face, pulling her wrinkles into deep lines around her eyes.
Then Charles was shaking hands with Mr. Stone while Edna escorted Mrs. Stone toward the back room.
Boom. I was an engaged girl. Or woman, I guessed. I was an engaged woman because girls didn't get engaged. I was a sixteen-year-old woman engaged to be married.
And I felt sick.
The walls around me were like a coffin whose sides were closing in, suffocating and impenetrable. I would die soon, if not in body then in spirit. This coffin wouldn't let me breathe and I had to breathe to live. Tears filled my eyes and I returned my gaze to the ground where no one could see the heartache that was going to kill me long before the dismal future could.CHAPTER 2
The stones stayed for church service, listening to Charles preach about the end of the world with rapt attention.
"You must CLEANSE yourselves, brothers and sisters! You must be READY!" He slammed his hand against the wooden pulpit. "God is coming. He will offer salvation to those of us who have believed! Who have practiced his principles, abided by their message!"
"Amen," Mrs. Stone whispered to my right.
Mr. Stone's eyes were closed as his lips moved in silent prayer. Josiah stared ahead with no expression. Nate was asleep at the other end of the pew, not quite snoring, not quite not.
At the end of the service, the congregants, somber and stunned as usual, filed out of the church. They shielded their eyes against the sunlight even though the sky was blanketed with low-lying clouds, like a million cotton balls had descended from Heaven. But after leaving the darkness of the church, any natural light was painful and abrasive.
I used my hand as shade and searched for my best friend, Polly Lowe. On any given day, I would leave church and find Polly, eager to return to a world free of fire and brimstone. But today was different from any other day. I was now engaged to be married. Talk about a buzz kill. Not that I'd ever had a buzz but I had an idea what it was from the kids at school and this marriage thing? Killed it.
When I saw Polly ahead talking to her older sister, Mary, and their brother, Samuel, I let my hand drop and my feet stayed rooted. The overcast sky didn't even begin to mimic the blackness in my heart.
Polly would know what it meant to have the Stone family at the service, sitting by my side. She would understand I was now engaged. It might be modern times and no young marriages had taken place in the church since my parents', but we were still taught the older ways. Was the church changing? Reverting to its puritanical, more diabolical roots?
If so, why? And what had I done to deserve this?
Dear God, if you're truly there, help me.
"Please come to our home for coffee and cake," Edna was saying as she exited the church with Mrs. Stone hot on her heels.
"We would be much obliged," Mrs. Stone answered.
Charles started toward our house, Mr. Stone stepping in behind him. The two women folded in line and then Josiah. Nate lingered in the distance. My own feet felt like they'd been replaced with cement blocks. I was stuck and didn't know if I'd ever be free to move again.
How could a girl my age be a wife? This wasn't the Middle Ages. I was sixteen, for goodness' sake. The girls at school were shopping, going on dates, going to parties. And me? I wanted those things too. I wanted to hang out with friends, go to movies and malls, go on road trips to the beach. I definitely wanted to wear normal clothes teenage girls wore instead of worn-out, frumpy skirts and shirts. I wanted makeup and a proper haircut.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Reformation of Marli Meade"
Copyright © 2016 Tracy Hewitt Meyer.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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