Walk under a ladder
Step on a crack
Innocent childhood superstitions …
But someone at the Trask Academy of Performing Arts is taking things one deadly step further when the campus is rocked with the deaths of some of its star students.
Layna Curtis, a talented, popular senior, soon realizes that the seemingly random, accidental deaths of her friends aren't random—or accidents—at all. Someone has taken the childhood games too far, using the idea of superstitions to dispose of their classmates. As Layna tries to convince people of her theory, she uncovers the terrifying notion that each escalating, gruesome murder leads closer to its final victim: her.
Will Layna's opening night also be her final bow?
Gold Medal Winner for Fiction: Horror—2019 International Book Awards
About the Author
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SILVER MOONLIGHT CAST a pall over the remains of the burnt, condemned theater that kept watch over the school campus. Even with a new, more open brick façade already complete as part of the school's very expensive renovation, the scaffolding snaking around and up its walls read like the twisted bones of a skeleton deep inside a closet. But that fabled darkness, coupled with its offer of shadowed cover from faculty, made the theater a prime location for itchy students to scratch their desires, test their mettle, and relish in stories that brought back the dead.
"Some say you can still hear her screams in the still of the night."
The voice of the storyteller belonged to Max Reynolds. He was standing in front of the building, staring up at it as he spoke. A senior with well-toned arms that stretched his tight, white T-shirt, he looked pleased with himself as he waited for a response. His structured, boyish face wasn't always smiling, but when it did, it charmed everyone. This was one of those times.
"Lame, lame, lame," said Layna Curtis. A sarcastic smile grew from her full, naturally red lips. "Let's be real, not only has that story been told before about a jillion times, it's been told way, way better." She sighed and pushed long dark hair away from her pale, pretty face and over her shoulders, feigning boredom. Inside — though she would never admit it — she wasn't sure she liked being there. That building, she thought, is staring at us. At me.
"Oh, really?" Max asked, goading her, snapping her from distracted thoughts.
"Totally," Layna replied. Clever and confident, she would play the game. She nonchalantly picked at the pills of her cream-colored sweater. Max stared at her, his eyebrows raised. Without looking up, Layna said, "Guys, am I right?"
Layna looked first to Nancy Groves, a fantastic dancer who was stretching her legs as if a loop of Olivia Newton- John's "Physical" played in her head. Holding her legs at seemingly impossible angles was par for the course for Nancy. She had a lithe body that shimmered when she performed. Layna knew it. Everybody knew it. And Nancy loved that. But Layna knew her friend's Achilles' heel was her short, bobbed hair, so naturally straight that even the strongest perm would be hard-pressed to win the battle. Not that she hadn't tried, often with a lot of help from Layna and shared fits of laughter. Layna appreciated Nancy knew what she had and how to use it.
When Nancy didn't respond, Layna's eyes went to Alice Reitman. Alice smacked her chewing gum. She was cute, but nowhere near Nancy-thin. Layna had always thought that Alice wasn't fat. At least not fat, fat. And Layna knew that Alice despised it when people referred to her as "the bubbly one." That usually meant fat.
Layna felt bad knowing most people openly said Alice was talkative and upbeat, but also worried Alice was thinking, Thanks, now hand over the ho-ho's and you won't get hurt. But what did it matter to Layna? Alice wasn't an actor, singer, or dancer. She studied communications and was going to be "the next, not-quite- as-thin, but incredibly relatable television journalist." Layna had told Alice that was a fine choice, but that she worry less about her weight and approachability — Alice already looked great and everyone liked her — and made sure she never became a personality who went down in flames for a bad interview, cover up, or scandal. They all have their flaws.
At the end of the line was Trask's "it" girl, Sydney Miller. Pretty, with blonde hair in perfectly placed waves, Sydney was popular and athletic. Layna admired her. At Trask, and in real life, Layna had to assume, guys wanted Sydney and girls wanted to be her. When she walked down the halls, the underclassmen all turned their heads to catch a glimpse of the Sydney Miller. If the singers were belting out a tune, they stopped as she strode by. Layna knew her friend Sydney was going to be famous. She had the talent to be a star, sure. But she also had a sheer force of will. Nothing was going to stop her from achieving her dreams. Nothing. And nobody. Layna admired that especially, even as she pushed down slight feelings of jealousy.
But like the others, Sydney just sat quiet.
Layna looked again at all of her girlfriends, incredulous. "Oh my God, backsies please. This is when my friends say they're with me?"
But none did. They stood stoic, staring forward, or around, or down. Looking worried. It didn't sit well with Layna.
"Layn, I mean, it is kind of a creepy story," Alice offered.
Layna's shoulders slumped. No backsies, apparently.
"Seriously, a girl died. Right in there," added Nancy.
Sydney leaned her body in closer. Layna could practically feel the girl's breath when she spoke. "It's just not something we should, you know, make light of."
Layna couldn't believe it. Her unease was giving way to annoyance. "Because some chick supposedly died in this awful, mysterious, tragic way a million years ago —"
"It's more like, only twenty years, but go on," Max said.
Layna glared at him long enough to make a point, and then continued. "I'm just saying, we see this eyesore all the time, but tonight we're supposed to all of a sudden be frightened because Max used his big boy voice to tell a campfire story we all knew? Sorry, it just isn't work —"
Layna abruptly stopped. She had heard something. They had all heard something.
It was not the wind, Layna knew. Not the creaking of scaffolding. It was a low, hurting moan. A harsh, frightening whisper.
"Whooo —?" hissed the voice, from inside the building.
Layna's brown eyes went wide. Max sidled next to her. "Okay, fine, it's working now," Layna said. Nancy, Alice, and Sydney huddled close, too.
Sydney, worried, looked directly at Layna. "Dude, what did you do?"
"Me?" Layna whispered, too loudly.
"Shhh!" Nancy harped.
The punitive voice came back. Angrier, more strident. "Who wantsss —?"
They waited, breaths held, to hear what came next, but the only sound was the flapping of a plastic tarp over a pile of bricks. Then someone jumped out from the shadowed entrance of the theater. Layna let out a high-pitched scream. Then the others screamed, too. Layna grabbed Max tightly, trying to shield herself from whatever was coming toward them.
The screams of the others went on and on. And on. Layna gathered that something wasn't right when she peeked from Max's chest and saw her friends staring at her, their formerly petrified faces now swathed in knowing smiles.
"Whooooo wantsssss ... a drink?" the stranger in the entryway asked.
Layna opened her eyes fully and unscrunched her face. She knew that voice. She'd been had.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," Nancy joked, poking Layna.
Layna pursed her lips and nodded her head. "All right, fine, go ahead. Let's hear it," she said.
After a moment of silence, they burst out laughing. Layna put her hands over her face, embarrassed that she had fallen for such a cheap trick. Max pulled her close and kissed the top of her head.
"We totally had you," he said, then grabbed her chin so he could look her in the eyes. "And I'll always have you," he added, leaning in for a kiss. Layna greedily accepted.
"Get a room already!" Nancy playfully snapped. "And, Crosby, get your ass out here."
Crosby Williams' broad, white smile, and a glint from his hazel eyes, emerged from the darkness. Layna stared at the writer and part-time less-than-stellar illusionist, also a member of the senior class. She should have known — he could never pass up the element of surprise. He may have been lacking in the prestidigitation department, but he made up for it with a bohemian style and perfectly unkempt hair.
"I'd love to, but the spirits are insistent," Crosby offered. "You must come inside and face your fears, if you are to partake of the beers." He pushed his arm forward so it was struck by moonlight, waving a bottle that glistened with condensation. Then just as fast, he pulled it back and his smile, his eyes, and the beer disappeared all within the ruins of the old theater.
"You heard the man," Max said. "Duty calls."
Nancy, Alice, and Sydney moved first, with Nancy leading the pack. The girls laughed as they, too, vanished into the shadows, one by one. Max lurched forward, but Layna caught his hand and stopped him.
"Babe, come on," he said.
Layna looked up at the building, gazing at its two, large Venetian windows that watched over everything. Watching me, I bet.
"What's wrong? Let's go," Max said. "Or are you scared? Ooooh!" He waved his fingers in front of her face in a silly manner.
It broke Layna free from her worry. The small lie, one he'd never figure out, came forth. "Of course not," she said. "Let's go."
After one last look deep into the shadows before her, she gave Max a kiss on the lips. Ready or not, she let him lead her into the darkness of the auditorium.
The building was a far cry from the grandeur of its glory days. Gone were most of the plush, red velvet-covered seats that once filled the theater, leaving only an empty, sad expanse of dirty concrete. Those seats that remained, mostly near the stage and scattered up makeshift aisles, were blackened and charred, having melted under the heat of the fire. Layna felt a chill, even though the seating wreckage could barely be seen under the cover of dusty translucent plastic. Construction materials, tools, wood boards, and sandbags were strewn about, giving credence to the rumor the schools' deep-pocketed donors weren't jonesing to bring this part of the campus back to life.
It was an open secret on campus that the coffers of Trask Academy of Performing Arts might be drier than anyone in the administration wanted to admit. There was money, of course, because Dean McKenna knew that keeping up appearances was paramount, but there was an equally strong, although silent, opinion that the building was nothing more than a part of the school's dark past and, just maybe, it should stay there. Layna certainly felt that way right now. Neither she, nor her friends and fellow students, had any idea that in at least one of the more heated board meetings — old-boys club affairs always held privately with little fanfare — more than one donor had agreed: why rebuild a nightmare when you can construct a brand-new dream?
Layna and her friends meandered through the maze of equipment toward the stage.
"All right, Crosby, come out, come out, wherever you are," Alice said, loud enough to cause an echo, but there was no answer from Crosby.
Layna and Max made their way to the front of the group. As they walked, they stared up through scaffolding and more plastic tarps, the former creaking and the latter flapping in the stiff breeze whisking through the empty structure.
Moonlight shone down on Max, who climbed up onto the stage from a set of rotting steps. "Watch the third one, it's a doozy," he said as Layna grabbed his hand for help up. Then Max, always the gentlemen, reached for the other girls, grabbing Nancy's arm a bit harder when she failed to heed his warning and her foot almost broke through the soft, pulpy wood of the stair.
Layna gasped, but Nancy just uttered an embarrassed "Whoopsie."
From the stage, the friends paused to take in their surroundings, illuminated not only by the natural evening light, but also by the lone ghost light in the center of the stage.
"Spooky. Maybe this was, you know, the light," Alice wondered aloud. The thought caused a hint of unease in Layna.
"Yes, most definitely," Sydney said with a smile. "Now let's steal the bulb and call GE so we can make a billion dollars on the light that lasts an eternity." The response put Layna at ease, but Alice rolled her eyes, blew a large, pink bubble, and sucked it back into her mouth with a loud pop!
Layna found that the light did not offer her any warmth, or security, so she just stood quietly with her hands in her pockets. Max sidled next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
"Hey, look," Layna said, moving a few feet past the light to where a picnic blanket was spread out on the stage.
Nancy went to it and stood with her back toward the darkness of the stage's left wing. "Fancy," she said. "Maybe next time we can have a picnic, I don't know, at the scene of a car accid —"
A hand suddenly reached from the shadows and whisked its way over Nancy's mouth. Unable to say anything, her eyes filled with fear and worry.
"Nan, how much longer do we wait?" Sydney asked. She turned and let out a scream when she saw Nancy.
Layna and Alice yelped as well. "Max!" Layna screamed, with the unspoken order of Do something! Max practically leapt across the stage. Then he stopped, and he and the others watched as the stranger's hand wended its way from Nancy's mouth, down over her shoulder, and to her jacket's zipper.
It started to pull down.
Nancy's wide eyes shrank to a disbelieving squint. She yanked hard on the offending arm and pulled a stumbling Crosby from the shadows onto the stage.
"Wow, way to be romantic, Cros," Nancy said. "I've always dreamed of doing it here. Literally, right here."
"Me too, babe. Me, too," Crosby joked, raising his eyebrows in quick succession before planting a kiss on her lips.
The others made their way over.
"Crosby, such a lovable jerk," Sydney offered, giving him a peck on the cheek.
"That's funny, I thought he was just being a jerk," Layna added with a little more annoyance than she had meant to.
Max crossed in front of her. "Me-ow." Now it was Layna who rolled her eyes. It hadn't been her idea to hang out in a burnt-out building, tell ghost stories, and do God only knows what. She would have been fine if they had never come here.
"Come on," Crosby said. "I couldn't let the ambiance go to waste. We're all entitled to a good scare, right? So, welcome children. And now, watch."
They all did as Crosby stood in front of them, arms outstretched. He tugged on each sleeve. Nothing there. Suddenly, with a few slick gestures and a turn, he produced beer bottle after beer bottle.
"Well kiss my ass and call me abracadabra," Max laughed, happily grabbing two bottles and offering one to Layna. She shook her head. Max ambled off, saying something under his breath like, "More for me."
Alice brushed past Layna, smacked her gum, and grabbed a beer. "The party has so officially started."
Crosby saved the last drink for Nancy, sheepishly gesturing like it was a peace offering. "Forgive me, but in all honesty, I just had to set the mood."
"Oh, it's gonna take more than janky beer," Nancy retorted with a smile.
Crosby shrugged his shoulders, opened his jacket, and showed her the flask he had been hiding. Nancy's smile grew. Layna watched, enjoying their playful back-and-forth.
"You know me so well," Nancy admitted. She put her arms inside Crosby's jacket, moving her face close to his.
"And you me, my dear," responded Crosby. Somehow, they seemed to smile even as they kissed deeply.
Layna cleared her throat and sat down on the blanket. "Tongue-wrestlers, your much-needed, very private room is now ready. Please check in, stat."
Nancy pulled back from Crosby, laughing. "Duly noted." She and the others joined Layna on the blanket.
Crosby remained standing by himself, still pretending to kiss Nancy. The others laughed, which he took as his cue to stop and take a seat. The teens kicked back, looking up at the star-studded sky through a gaping hole in the roof of the condemned theater.
"See, it's not so scary in here," Max said.
Layna thought, but would never dare say, that it was still just as creepy as she had imagined. Maybe more.
* * *
"LET'S DISCUSS BREAK. Please tell me you're staying," Sydney pleaded, breaking the silence. Secretly she had also hoped to head off talk about the building, the legend, or how frightening it was. And is.
"Oh, we're staying the week," Layna said, adding emphatically, "All of us, right?"
Nods all around. Sydney let out a Thank God sigh.
"Rumor has it only D'Arcangelo and McKenna are gonna be here," Alice said. "And there's gonna be a party tomorrow night to kick things off."
"A freshman party, ugh." Nancy groaned and took a swig from the flask.
"I'll pass, thank you very much," Sydney said.
Layna looked like she was holding in a secret she couldn't keep in. "Max wants to go!" she revealed.
The group stared at him as if he were mad.
"What?" Max asked. "It could be fun."
Layna threw a You've gotta be kidding me stare at him. "Oh, totes," she said, "if the fifteen-year-olds can plot out how to sneak anything stronger than hard lemonade into the dorms."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jinxed"
Copyright © 2018 Thommy Hutson.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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