Stefan Bachmann, Leigh Bardugo, Kendare Blake, A. G. Howard, Jay Kristoff, Marie Lu, Jonathan Maberry, Danielle Paige, Carrie Ryan, Megan Shepherd, Nova Ren Suma, McCormick Templeman, April Genevieve Tucholke, Cat Winters
A host of the sharpest young adult authors come together in this collection of terrifying tales and psychological thrillers. Each author draws from a mix of literature, film, television, and music to create something new and fresh and unsettling. Clever readers will love teasing out the references and can satisfy their curiosity at the end of each tale, where the inspiration is revealed. There are no superficial scares here; these are stories that will make you think even as they keep you on the edge of your seat. From blood horror, to the supernatural, to unsettling, all-too-possible realism, this collection has something for anyone looking for an absolute thrill.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
THE BIRDS OF AZALEA STREET*
When the police questioned me—same as they questioned Paisley and Katie-Marie—they didn’t want to hear about the birds. They weren’t paying attention. None of the adults around here ever did. Even when the body bag was carted out, on wheels, and the wheels got caught in a gopher hole in the lawn, and the stretcher knocked into the tree, and the sudden motion caused a whole host of birds to burst out of the branches, exploding into the blue over our subdivision, and I looked up after them, and the EMTs guiding the stretcher stopped and looked up, and all my neighbors who’d gathered to see what the commotion was about looked up, heavenward, into the sky, even then they thought it meant nothing. “So that’s where the birds have been hiding,” one of my neighbors said. Not one adult could connect it to the fact that Leonard was now dead.
I knew the birds were no longer hungry—they’d feasted and had their fill, and now they took off, every last one of them, satisfied. But the adults of Azalea Street, curious about the murder, seeing as it was the first since our subdivision was founded, gathered in knots on our landscaped sidewalk corners to talk. They were hungry for information and gory details. They should have looked out of their windows sooner. They should have been watching. We were.
Truth is, we’d been watching out for our neighbor Leonard for years. Since we hit puberty, and for some of us, that was way early. Since forever and always, it felt like. Before we saw him bring that girl home in the dead of night, all we knew was that he’d been trying to get his hands on us.
My house on Azalea Street was next door to his house, so I’d say I got the worst of it, what with my parents always feeling sorry for him and inviting him for dinner on Sundays. The three of them would sip watery pre-dinner drinks out back by the bug zapper, and somehow my parents would miss how, when he apologized for his stomach growling, the object he had his eyes hooked on wasn’t the cheese plate. It was me.
He said things to me sometimes, in the hallway while heading for the guest bathroom. Did I have a boyfriend yet? Did I ever happen to try the kind of kissing that used tongue? Then he’d shuffle away, fast, making me question what I’d heard. When I caught him looking at me later, over the pear tart he’d brought from next door, or over the sugar-dusted strudel, I saw his round black glasses go dim with sweat and fog.
Other girls had run-ins with him too. Some of our fathers and stepfathers used to work with Leonard at the plant, before he got downsized and they got to keep their jobs, so they said we had to be civil. Even kind. Our mothers and stepmothers appreciated how he’d bring something fresh-baked for potlucks and fund-raisers, like a Bundt cake or a still-warm pie. None of our parents saw what we could see, which had us decide that growing up into adulthood must mean going blind.
Teenage girls know more than we’re given credit for. We sense danger even when everyone’s telling us it’s fine, he’s a perfectly nice man, an upstanding member of our community, have you tasted his sugar-cream pie?
When Leonard’s gaudy lawn came into view, we knew it was time to cross the street. Ever since he lost his job, he liked to feed the birds, and he hung lots of birdhouses, spilled lots of seed.
It seemed innocent from the outside, maybe. But out back, from over the white picket fence that separated Leonard’s house from mine, I could swear I heard the shots. Little pops in the air. I was never sure of it, never positive. But one time there was a squawk and a feathered eruption as a bird went down.
I can’t prove he shot it, but I did see him hunching over it, kicking it with his enormous shoe. Other times I suspected he used poison in the feeders. This was slower and left them stiff, so when they fell from their perches they dropped to the ground like rocks. I found one over the fence on our side of the lawn once—red-bellied and dark-feathered, its beak open mid-bite—and I buried it in an orange shoebox, the most cheerful I could find, near where we made the cairn for Buster.
When the birds stopped coming—not just to Leonard’s house, but to my house and to the Willards’ house across the street, to Aggie’s house a few doors down, to any house I passed on the way to the bus stop and back, all our trees birdless, all our patches of sky clean—I guess he turned to other hobbies. That must have been when he bought the camera.
We’d catch him standing on his porch, fancy long-lensed camera trained outward like he was waiting for a finch or a woodpecker. But with all feathery creatures avoiding his feeders, he couldn’t have been aiming for the birds. His telephoto lens was as long as an arm and seemed suspiciously trained at the sidewalk. When Katie-Marie went past in her field hockey skirt, on the way to my house from her house so my mom could drive us to practice, she swore she could hear his camera snapping. She took off in a run.
The last time one of us was alone with him, it was Paisley. She said he cornered her in his kitchen and forced her to bake bread. Her mom had sent her on an errand, wanting one of Leonard’s recipes, and when Paisley knocked on his back door, she found him elbow-deep in flour, prepping sticky coils of corpse-pale dough.
“Why, hello there,” he said in his deep baritone. His lips were pink and plushy and we didn’t like to look at them when he shaped words.
Paisley told us she could sense the hunger coming off of him, like she was plump and roasting and he hadn’t eaten for a week.
She heard a faint titter behind her, a lone bird that had lost its way in the treetops over our subdivision and drifted to the wrong set of branches over the wrong house. Or maybe it wasn’t lost and that was a warning call. Maybe it knew what was about to be set in motion.
Paisley stepped inside his house.
“What’re you doing?” Paisley had said. I would have asked for the recipe without going in, I would have told my mom to just get Leonard to e-mail it, but Paisley pressed her whole body into his kitchen and let the door shut behind her. She leaned forward on the counter, letting her long hair fall and her split ends dance. She took a finger. With it, she traced a word in the flour dusting the counter for him to see. It said hi. She was testing him. She was testing herself.
Leonard lit up. We imagined it wasn’t often a teenage girl started a conversation with him voluntarily. He was pink in the face usually, but at that point he was bright red.
He began talking. He kind of couldn’t shut up. He was explaining his method for baking braided bread, and then it became very important, essential even, to teach Paisley how to properly knead the dough in order to do it herself. She had to put effort into it, use all her strength and not hold back. It’s just that she had such small hands.
On the windowsill, while this was going on, the bird was perched, black-eyed and unblinking. Paisley only thought it was weird later. Leonard was behind Paisley, very close, so close, she couldn’t back up and get around him. She felt the bird watching. She smelled Leonard’s yeasty breath.
We know our parents wouldn’t believe us if we told them. Leonard was only instructing her. He was only being a kind neighbor, which in these times was a dying breed. That’s what they would have said. They wanted us to have skills beyond phone-scrolling and one-finger texting, like knowing how to bake edible food in the oven and feed ourselves if they suddenly were dead.
But we believed Paisley right away. We knew he was too close. We knew how he pressed his front up against her to adjust her technique and how he breathed heavy, shaggy breaths against the nape of her neck. We knew how much he was enjoying this.
“Knead,” he told her in a low, careful voice. “Go on, yes, like that. Knead.”
He meant the slick mush in her hands, but Paisley had had enough. Out of all of us, she was the strongest, and that went far beyond her arm-wrestling skills against her brothers and the thick runner’s muscles in her legs. She told us she’d only wanted to prove he was a perv, prove it once and for all so there was no longer any question, and with this little bakery demonstration, she had won.
She elbowed him in the stomach and whipped a braid of wet dough at his rosy, stubbly face. She dodged him and was heading for the door before the dough was even on the baking sheet, before the baking sheet was even in the blazing oven, before the bread had risen, before it had browned. She was breathing fast. The bird outside the window flapped its wings in a frantic slap and took off.
Behind Paisley, there was a strange sound. A faint, high-pitched whimper. In a moment of weakness, Paisley paused and turned back.
He was talking, but his voice was different now. Smaller in his throat. Pathetic.
He only wanted to teach somebody something, he called after her. He was sorry, he said, he didn’t mean to scare her, it’s just that he led such a lonely life.
The door was open. The sky bare and blank.
Paisley held still in the entryway. She was questioning herself, having a peculiar moment of compassion. Sometimes she could be so very live-and-let-live.
“Maybe . . .” Paisley started.
Leonard pinkened—or else he was standing in direct range of the oven light.
“Maybe you should get a dog,” she said at last. “So you’re not so lonely.”
He looked down the length of his giant legs to his giant feet. No dogs, he said. Animals didn’t like him for some reason. He shrugged.
Paisley smirked. She had a dark streak. “Then you should buy a blow-up doll online and make her your wife,” she said. “I can send you a link.” At this, his mouth gaping open, his cheeks full of flames, she took off. She’d gotten what she came for: Leonard’s sugar-cream pie recipe for her mother was already secured in hand.
But so was the thought of Leonard getting himself a girl.
It was Paisley, we’ve agreed, who gave him the idea. He couldn’t have her, and he couldn’t have any of the rest of us, but his hunger was still there, eating at him.
It was days later when we heard his car pull into his driveway in the middle of the night. His house was one of the smaller designs in our subdivision and didn’t have a garage, so we could see everything from my bedroom window. There was nowhere he could hide.
Usually his car held only him and sometimes a tripod or some grocery bags. That night we noted the questionable shadow in his passenger seat. It was taller than usual. It had a distinctly human-size head.
Had he listened to Paisley and bought himself a companion? No. Our illusion was shattered when he circled the car to open the passenger-side door, and the shadow moved on its own and stepped out.
What he came home with that night couldn’t be brought to life with a tire pump. She was already alive and breathing. We would have sworn she was real.
She wore a dark hood, and around it was a haze of fur, like she’d just landed in our subdivision from the North Pole and didn’t realize that, down here, it was spring.
The problem with the hood was that it hid her face. And her puffy coat hid the rest of her, though it did stop at her hips, and her legs could be made out beneath it. Even from my bedroom window next door, with a picket fence between us and the dark having fallen and the motion sensors not responding to the motion as she walked past where we swore they were. Even with all that, I could see her legs. Her legs were in black stockings, the kind with seams. At the end of her legs were little pointed blades that took to the pavement like ice picks. When she touched grass, her heels sunk in and she stopped and the light from the car door showed us one leg bent to retrieve the shoe. I wanted a leg like that. I wanted to grow up and look like that and have two.
Paisley was sleeping over. So was Katie-Marie.
“Leonard has a new friend,” Paisley announced. “A lady friend. Did you know about this, Tasha? You knew, and didn’t tell us?”
I shook my head, unable to keep my eyes off the lady in the night. She’d retrieved her shoe, slipped it back on. She was now standing still on the lawn while he was closing the car door. The fur trim on her coat rippled in the wind like a layer of black feathers. Her legs didn’t fidget or pace or shake, showing no hint of nerves. Leonard was right there. He was right there, and she didn’t run.
“I’ve never seen her before,” I said. I would have remembered.
But there was something about the way she moved. She didn’t seem surprised by the clutter of ugly, vacant dollhouses meant to entice the nonexistent birds. She wove around the mazelike lawn as if she’d been here before.
“Is she tied up in the trunk?” Katie-Marie called out from across the room. “Is she bound and gagged?”
Katie-Marie couldn’t see the scene outside. She was lying on my bed, an arm draped over her eyes. Before we heard Leonard’s car, we’d been trying to psychically impress boys we liked into becoming our boyfriends by thinking about them with pointed intention and hoping, somehow, across the airwaves, they heard. Paisley had long given up on Georges, and I only halfheartedly tried to psychically seduce Takeshi because I was pretty sure he liked me already and I figured I didn’t have to try so hard. But Katie-Marie really wanted Mike, and her forehead was all scrunched up with effort.
The power of the mind was something we experimented with on Friday night sleepovers. Also light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board, and the Ouija, before Katie-Marie’s dad burned it in her backyard. We also tried texting boys alluring emoticons and, on one brave night, posted photos of our faceless boobs to a message board, but then took them down fast when the comments got scary and promised among us that we’d never show the photos to anyone, not even Georges or Takeshi or Mike.
After Paisley’s visit to Leonard’s house, we had wished harm on him and tried out our psychic impressions to make that happen. We realized it would be easiest if he just went away, so we wished him gone, like to Florida. Then he showed up for Sunday dinner like always, my father sharing a cigar with him in the garage, where he thought we couldn’t smell the stink, and I had to admit our magical thinking wasn’t making any magic. Leonard was still here.
All that seemed so juvenile now. Leonard had real live company, and we couldn’t see who it was.
“Leonard’s friend is walking on her own two feet,” I narrated for Katie-Marie. “Leonard’s friend’s nails are painted”—I waited for it as she reached up to touch one of his gaudy hanging birdhouses, then recoiled like it stung—“ooh, black.”
“No,” Paisley corrected me. “Purple.”
She was right. His lady friend had dark, deep-purple-painted nails, and they were long and curling, almost like claws. The hand seemed to lift up and out. It seemed to face us, to be motioning our way, like it was . . . waving. Then the sleeve dropped and hid her hand from view.
“She has very nice legs,” Paisley said.
Katie-Marie finally opened her eyes and crawled over to join us by the window. “I hope he doesn’t bake her in his oven like he tried to do with you, Pais,” she whispered.
Paisley nodded solemnly.
We lost the will to make jokes or even talk. We watched as Leonard unlocked the front door and his friend entered his house. We knew the layout because there were only five different kinds of architecturally approved homes for the subdivision, and his was the one with the front porch and the sunken living room and the two bedrooms that had windows like eyes on the second floor. She must have gone down to the living room, because we didn’t see a light come on.
Leonard came out once more and headed for the trunk. He seemed so eager. We watched him lift something out, and at first we assumed it must have been a suitcase, but then we noticed the odd, bulky shape and the way he had to circle it with his long arms. The birdcage was round and empty, as far as we could tell from this distance, and it had a latched and gated entrance that flapped in the wind. He carried it toward the house and didn’t return for more luggage.
Her legs had told us one thing. Her lack of suitcase another. But it was the quivering smile on Leonard’s face when he walked under the porch light that told us so much more.
× × ×
The first night there were no birds, as usual. The first night was dark and quiet. The first night was long.
The second night, Paisley and Katie-Marie stayed at my place again, even though Katie-Marie’s house had satellite TV and all the premium channels, and we perched at my Leonard-facing windows. We’d skipped dinner. We were worried for his lady friend and had lost our appetites. She hadn’t come outside all day, which meant we hadn’t seen her leave. We discussed ways of sending over a warning, like slipped in the mail slot, or left on the welcome mat to tell her she should not feel so welcome, but we knew he’d see it before she did. We tried looking up his number and couldn’t find it, so we couldn’t call and feign wrong number if he picked up. We were deep in discussion when she appeared at the window across the way.
The light came on, a bright spot in the darkness, and we ran to the window, huddling under the sill. One by one, we popped a head up.
Paisley said she was prettier than she thought she’d be—a high nine to Leonard’s withering two—but to me, her face was exactly how I’d pictured it, as if I’d selected her from a catalog. Or conjured her up from the Vogue-glossy pages of my imagination and sent her here. In a way it felt like I had.
She was all mystery. She had dark, low-lidded eyes and a small, subtle mouth that did not seem capable of making a smile. Her cheekbones reflected stabs of light. Her hair was purple-black, much like her nails. It was wild, ragged, coasting into her eyes. I wanted to get close enough to see her eyes.
“Do you think she goes to our school?” Katie-Marie said.
We were getting bothered by how young she looked. She wasn’t so much a lady as a girl like we were. The age difference couldn’t have been much. Chop off a couple, and she could have been us.
“No,” I said. “No way she goes to our school.” She didn’t look like she lived around here—she didn’t look like any girl we knew.
“We should go in there,” Paisley said. “Tasha, your parents made you water his plants when he was away on vacation that one time, didn’t they? We need a key to his house.”
I knew where the hide-a-key was kept—it looked like a rock under the fifth shrub. But should we break in right then, in the middle of the night? Should we barge in, guns blazing? The only weapons we had were a field hockey stick and a bottle of slick, sticky leave-in conditioner to aim at the eyes.
“We can’t go in there!” Katie-Marie said. “We have to talk to her from here.”
She was in the bathroom window, at the sink. We could tell by the way she bent down, and how when she came up, her face was dripping wet. Cleaned of makeup, she looked even younger. She didn’t see us through the curtain at first, but then our waving must have gotten her attention. She parted his ugly curtains and she put her pretty face to the screen. It pressed against her skin and waffle-ironed her cheeks.
She was watching us as we’d spent the weekend watching her.
“Tell her to run,” Katie-Marie said. “Tell her to get out of the house right now.”
“We can’t yell that,” Paisley said. “He’ll hear.”
“Tell her she can come over here,” Katie-Marie said. “You have that extra sleeping bag, Tasha. Tell her.”
“We can just yell fire?” Katie-Marie suggested. “Then she’ll know it’s an emergency and come out?”
“They both will then,” Paisley said. “And Tasha’s parents and brother will wake up too. And they’ll be like, Where’s the fire? And we’ll have to say there isn’t one.”
“Let’s write her a note,” I said.
We started off with a simple message. I used my special notepad with the lavender paper and the pink lines, so she wouldn’t be scared, and used marker to write in the biggest letters that could fit on the page so she could see from across the way.
WHO, I wrote, ARE YOU?
She cocked her head in the frame of the window, eyeing our words. She made no reply.
I held my arms as far out the window as I could, waving our sign, but still . . . nothing.
“Do you think she doesn’t speak English maybe?” Katie-Marie asked. “Do you think she’s from another country?”
“Oh, everyone speaks English,” Paisley said. “Tell her our names. She’s probably just shy.”
PAISLEY, I wrote, with an arrow, and held the sign under the face of Paisley. KATIE-MARIE, for Katie-Marie. Then I shoved my body out of my window and showed her: TASHA, I LIVE NEXT DOOR, HELLO.
No change in expression. She bent down once more and came up with a wet face again. She dried her face with a towel. She barely blinked.
We offered her my cell number. We asked if she was in danger. We said, Do you need help? Should we call 911?
There wasn’t any hint she understood.
We stopped, frustrated.
Then she made a movement. Sudden, like time skipping. There’d been a screen in the window, but she must have popped it out. Her bare arm, purple-taloned and catching the moonlight, came thrusting out into the open air. In her fist was something white and balled-up, like a hunk of tissues, but when she opened her hand, the white thing cascaded into one long, light expanse and caught the wind and fluttered down and down. I thought for a moment that she was performing a trick—a gasp of supernatural, like that time our few fingers lifted Paisley’s body a whole inch above the carpet and when we removed our fingers, she stayed aloft from our concentrated energy alone. At least it felt like she did.
But no. The girl in the window had only thrown something white-colored out through the frame and it landed in a heap over the fence and on my side of the lawn.
A bedsheet? No, not a sheet from a bed. A veil.
The kind a bride would wear on her big day. Why was she showing this to us? Was this some kind of clue?
The veil drifted languidly in the faint wind, and understanding came over me.
“That’s his wife,” I said. The word turned my stomach. “He found some girl to marry him and he brought her home.”
“No,” Paisley said in horror.
The girl in the window watched us watching her. She did not scream. She didn’t have to.
“Oh my freaking god,” Katie-Marie said, and the dread in her voice made our hearts seize and our fear spike. “Do you think he made her marry him? Do you think he stole her passport? Do you think her parents know where she is? Do you think she’s a prisoner?”
What did we know? Only that we had suspicions. We had to assume she was here on false pretenses, because who would marry Leonard by actual choice? We suspected we were the only ones alive who were aware she was here on Azalea Street, inside that house. He could have gotten her from anywhere. Maybe he found her in a parking lot. Maybe he picked her up on the side of the road and offered her a ride. Maybe he bought her off the Internet, like Paisley had innocently suggested. Maybe the girl came from nowhere we could name, and would fly off to nowhere we could pinpoint on a map, and maybe, ever after, we would remember her and think about where she could have ended up.
She replaced the screen in the window and turned off the light. We couldn’t see where she went in the darkness, but we felt her there, right next door. Our subdivision vibrated with the sense of her, this stranger among us, this caged girl.
We didn’t suspect then that she had come as if we’d called for her, as if our magical thinking on the night Paisley still smelled like yeasty-wet dough had come to fruition, rising up like the browned loaf of bread before it turned charcoal and burned.
“We have to help her,” I said.
× × ×
We tried to stay up all night, making plans that became all the more impossible, until Katie-Marie crashed on one side of my bed and Paisley crashed on the other and there was no room for me to sandwich in between, so I had to take the sleeping bag on the floor.
I curled up on the carpet, near the window. Just as I was about to drift to sleep, I sensed stirring over the fence. Something pulled on me, forced me to sit up.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I was right: She’d come outside. I spied the girl through the window. There she was, his new bride, in the backyard of his house. His lawn actually touched our lawn—the same grass grew—but the white wooden fence stood between. Still, seeing her bare feet in the dewy-green blades of grass, mashing her toes in, like she wanted to wake the ants and gather up all the mud, it felt like she was walking my patch of green grass, wandering my backyard.
Where was Leonard? Sleeping. The light in his bedroom was off.
The girl was out there alone, in her fur-lined coat. Nothing on her feet and nothing holding back her hair. Without the makeup and the stockings, she looked smaller than before. She looked skinned.
She turned her face up, and then up some more, and at first I thought she was counting the stars above our subdivision, seeing if the stars here were the same ones she remembered from there, wherever she came from.
All this I could see through the window of my bedroom.
Then I noticed the sag in her cheeks and the shift-shaping of her mouth and realized she wasn’t doing what I thought she was. She wasn’t stargazing. She was searching the tree branches. I don’t know why. Each one she came to was empty.
She reached the farthest tree. She put one hand, palm out, onto the rough bark and pressed it in, like she wanted the ridges imprinted on her skin. Then she pressed her other hand into a nearby spot. Then she pressed her face, the whole side of her face, cheek and chin and eye-bone and nose bridge and nostril, into the bark of the tree and stayed that way for some time.
The sounds of the neighborhood filtered through. I could hear them faintly: Mrs. Abernathy had her car alarm set too sensitive again and the acorns dropping kept setting it off. The Willards across the street were up way too late watching a sports game of some kind, I could tell by the cheers. A dog barked—the Ruiz dog. Another dog barked—that mini screechy one that belonged to the McCoys. A car pulled up, quiet, and a door opened, a giggle emerged, and then so silently like it was lined with cotton, the door closed. That was Aggie home from the party with her boyfriend; her mom would kill her if she knew she’d stayed out till three.
All around, the usual things were going on, and down there in Leonard’s yard was the girl we thought could be his child bride, hugging a gnarly tree instead of sleeping in bed with him. It was the saddest thing I’d seen all year, even worse than the time Miranda from school showed us her suicide notes and asked us to pick the best-written one so she could impress her dad.
The girl stood still. She looked up in her dark coat at the branches. The clouds moved to cover the stars and not even an owl hooted, but far away, down the street, Mrs. Abernathy’s car alarm sounded again like a sudden, lonely song.
I closed my eyes. I told myself to get up, get to my feet, put on some jeans, they didn’t have to be clean jeans, go outside. Go help that girl.
When I opened my eyes, the sky was filled with them. It was night, and they never came out at night, but there they were, a ferocious fog of winged creatures, covering her coat and coating her hair and seeming to beat all around her, to drone a cyclone around her body, to buzz. The birds had come back.
I couldn’t have said for how long this went on. A few minutes at least, maybe more. I really had to pee, so it seemed much longer.
Then the flock of birds lifted, and the black sky was full of static like a dream had already been long going, and I was asleep and didn’t come to again until sunrise.
× × ×
We decided to knock on Leonard’s door in the morning. We couldn’t wait. We’d considered calling the police and leaving an anonymous tip to check his house for a missing girl, but then Paisley said we should see her in person first. How many times had we said Leonard squicked us out and our parents responded by saying we were exaggerating, making fun of the poor man, being cruel? If we saw the girl in daylight—better yet, if we could speak to her, face-to-face, if we could introduce ourselves and say a proper hello—then we’d know for sure if she needed saving.
It was Paisley’s idea to bring the empty bag of sugar and ask if we could borrow some (we dumped it out in the garbage so it would look like it needed filling), and it was Katie-Marie’s idea to invent a baking project we were doing to raise money for field hockey. We’d noticed how he paid extra-careful attention to us whenever we wore the plaid skirts home from practice.
We did look for it in the grass, walking all up and down the white picket fence trying to find it, but it wasn’t there. The bridal veil. The wind must have blown it away in the night, or else the birds must have snatched it.
When we entered his yard through the fence divider, that’s when we noticed them. Birds on the branches above us. Birds all along the bushes and on every shrub. Birds clamoring at his feeders and lining the sloping arc of his roof. Birds on the gutters. Birds perched on the roof of his car. There were so many. Silent. Pointy beaks aimed down on us, following our path to the back door, beady eyes on our every move.
When he came to the door, he didn’t open it all the way. Through the crack, the Sunday sunlight showed us his pink-tinged face, and his mouth, so fat, it looked swollen.
I held up the empty sugar bag but swallowed my words too fast. Katie-Marie grabbed on to my shirt from behind, pulling the neck tight and practically strangling me.
“Hi, Leonard. Good afternoon. I mean good morning. Um. We were hoping we could borrow some sugar?” Paisley said, taking over. She talked fast. Bake-sale, she was saying. To raise money for the team. He didn’t need to know that the season was over or that not all of us were on the team.
“What are you making?” he asked, and his words jolted us, because we’d forgotten to determine what it was we were pretending to make before we walked over.
“Cookies,” Katie-Marie said from behind me while at the same time I said, “Cupcakes,” and Paisley said, “Cake pops.”
We shot glances at one another, alarmed.
“You’ll need a lot of sugar, then,” Leonard said. “It’s early, so I’m not decent yet. Wait here.”
He closed the screen and then the door behind it. Paisley had her body pressed up against the screen, and it practically scraped off the tip of her nose. She rested an ear to it, trying hard to listen. But she shook her head: nothing. We strained our ears in case the girl was crying for help, and we wondered from where she’d be calling—from the basement? From the broom closet beneath the stairs? The windows were shuttered. The walls were warm.
“We need to go in there,” Katie-Marie said.
My hand reached out and there was this brave bolt of energy in my body that made me turn the knob. The screen door came open and then there was one more door to open and in seconds we were inside.
Leonard was in a pair of boxer shorts and a stretched-out V-neck shirt that horrified us with its display of chest hair. He held a large ceramic container that said SUGAR on one side. His glasses were crooked on his nose. “I told you to stay outside,” he said. What—who—was he hiding?
“It’s cold, we were cold,” Katie-Marie started, but Paisley had had it with the lies.
“Where is she?” she said.
“Who?” Leonard said. He was holding the sugar container in front of his crotch, but believe us, we were already averting our eyes.
“The girl. The girl with the purple hair. The girl with the fur coat. The girl we saw you bring inside. Where’s the girl!”
He set the sugar down. Outside a bird shrieked. Another followed, and another. The room was very hot, and his oven wasn’t even on.
Katie-Marie was so shaken, she’d begun to cry. Paisley was on alert, hands in fists. I held the empty bag up like a weapon and a few grains of sugar rattled inside. We were not prepared.
“What girl?” Leonard said. We watched his pink lips. How carefully he said it, how slow and with a drawl, like he believed that because we were girls ourselves we could be fooled.
“We saw her, Leonard,” Paisley said. “We saw her come in.”
“There isn’t any girl,” Leonard said. “Apart from you three.”
Once he said that, it happened. The sound of rustling from another room.
His neck snapped toward the noise, knowing he was caught, then trying to hide it. But he couldn’t hide her.
“What’s that!” Paisley shrieked, pointing wildly, vindicated and foaming at the mouth practically, and we kicked open the door and converged on the next room. We expected to find her there, cowering. The girl. She’d be in her coat, pulled up to hide her face. “It’s us,” we’d tell her. “It’s us.” At first she wouldn’t know we’d come to rescue her.
But when we landed in the room, it was a room with no other doors out and only the way we’d come in. It was a room with shuttered windows, hiding the view of the neighbors’ houses and all trace of sun. It was a room meant to be the dining room, maybe, but the table was covered with papers, so no one could eat a meal on it, and up above the table, like a centerpiece, was an object hung from a hook in the ceiling, swinging ever so slightly like someone had been here to give it a push. It was a cage built for a bird, the same one he’d carried out of the trunk. The cage was empty.
The room was empty too, except for the girls. There were girls everywhere. Girls on every surface. Girls splayed out on the table and girls spilled over the chairs. Girls pinned up against the walls and girls pasted to the back of the closet door. Girls propped up against the shuttered windows. Girls on the floor, some facedown and some faceup staring blankly at the ceiling. As we stood shocked in the doorway, a few girls skittered through the air as if from the sky itself, like a burst of bad weather, and Katie-Marie startled and stepped on one.
We were the girls. These were our photographs. It had been Leonard’s hobby these past months to take pictures of us, from his porch or from his bedroom window, and he must have spent hours printing them all out to collect them—to collect us—together in this room.
There was Katie-Marie, bent over on the sidewalk picking up something she’d dropped. The camera focused on what was under her skirt. There was Paisley, in the hammock in my backyard, legs stretched out. The camera looked down her shirt and centered in on her crotch. There were girls I knew from down the street, and girls I knew from across the way, and the girl in the house behind mine, Aggie, slipping a bare leg out of a car in the dark night.
There were also photos of me, a great many—as if of all his targets, I was most wanted, I was the star. In some, I was sleeping. In others, I was on my lawn, or on my porch, or in my bedroom, getting undressed. Sometimes I was looking out my window, like he was looking into mine.
Leonard’s photography hobby was worse than we’d guessed. What would he do now that he had us all inside his house, in real life?
We backed away and got jostled in panic. Paisley bumped into me, and I knocked into Katie-Marie. When we untangled and shot out of the room, Leonard was there, blocking the way through the hallway. None of us wanted to get near enough to touch him.
“The three of you,” he said, in wonder. Like we’d fallen from the heavens into his cupped and waiting hand.
There were three of us, and one of him. We outnumbered him. We had strong legs from field hockey and track. We had sharp fingernails, painted in bright colors. We had knees and elbows and teeth.
But something held us back. It was all too real, all of a sudden. We’d suspected. We’d told tales. We’d heightened our stories into gross and grandiose lies. And even with all of that, we never really thought we were in danger.
The slithery smile on his face sent us into a tailspin. Until we looked past him. Until we saw what was there. Who was.
She was behind him. The black-eyed girl. Right there drinking at his ear, and somehow he didn’t sense her hovering.
Then he must have caught something on our faces because he turned. How innocently he turned around to look.
She was strong. She grabbed his neck and dragged him back into the kitchen, and we followed the blur.
It was hard to keep focus. She was purple-black and without hard edges, like a cloud of static, a mass of feathered fury and fright. She didn’t voice anything to us in any human language, but we heard it all the same. A high-pitched shriek. Something terrible and terribly right.
Paisley was shaking—since she’d seen the photographs, she hadn’t stopped. But Katie-Marie was animated. “Get him!” she was crying, drowning out the wails. “Get him, get him!” We were surrounding him on the linoleum, but all we had to do was watch. The sugar container was knocked over and there was white powder everywhere, covering him but also sifting into the air so it got in our eyes, our noses, our mouths, studding our tongues. How sweet it was.
She came at him, it looked like with her mouth. The sounds in the room were squishy and made of wet smacks. She was stabbing him, but she didn’t have a weapon, not that we could see. Still, something was leaving punctures. Something was bulleting him with small holes.
Then quiet through the white haze. Dead calm.
Katie-Marie lifted her head. Paisley hiccupped uncontrollably, breaking the silence. We looked down and down. He was quite tall, and his legs took up a lot of space on the floor, so I had to step over him to get a view from a better angle.
It seemed like he’d been pecked to death, like from the knife beaks of a horde of birds. None of us could look at where his face had been. None of us wanted to remember his plushy lips, or his certain kind of smile.
“I—” Katie-Marie started, and said nothing else. Paisley was hiccupping and shaking.
The girl in the black-furred coat seemed fine, though. Black hides blood, so she looked clean, she looked calm.
“She—” Katie-Marie tried to say, and said nothing.
Through hiccups, Paisley spoke for all of us. “You,” she told the girl. “Killed him.” The way she said the words, it was almost a question.
“You have to go,” I said to the girl. She stared me down and made no move. “Can you understand what I’m saying? You have to get yourself out of here. Do you get that?”
She only wrapped the coat tighter around herself. Her legs were bare underneath, and she didn’t have shoes.
I turned to Paisley, I turned to Katie-Marie. “We have to get her out of here. She has to go.”
“How?” Paisley said, and her voice was the smallest I’d heard it. “None of us can drive.”
Katie-Marie was holding her nose and trying not to retch in the sink. Then she did retch, and I turned to the girl. Her eyes were perfectly black, swallowed by pupils. She didn’t blink. “Who are you?” I said. That had been our first question.
She cocked her head to one side, like she was saying didn’t I know already? Hadn’t I known all along?
Katie-Marie was hunched over the sink, and Paisley was stunned into an un-Paisley-like silence as if she’d bitten off her own tongue. Only the hiccups shook her. I was the single coherent one left. I led a path through the red-spattered sugar. The back door was open. We’d forgotten to close it when we came in.
“Go,” I said.
The girl stared at me, black eyes unblinking. Her mouth was covered in blood.
“Run,” I said.
She must have heard me. But she didn’t run. She didn’t have to.
There was a point when she was still in the kitchen with us, the air heavy and sickly sweet with what she’d done to him, and then there was the point when her feet were lifted in the air and her legs, her beautiful legs, shrunk in and shifted. Her coat became a part of her body, or maybe it always was. Her arms—what was left of them—opened wide. A dark streak took off from the back steps and the sky caught it and it was a bird, it was always a bird, she was, and the bird soared up into the clouds, a rapid retreat of wings, until it was a speck, a small seed, a dot, a blink, a memory.
I wanted to give her a head start, so I waited a good while before calling my mother to say we’d come over to borrow some sugar and found Leonard stabbed to death on his kitchen floor. I said “stabbed” because we didn’t know what else to call it. My mother was the one who called 911.
× × ×
When the police questioned me—same as they questioned Paisley and Katie-Marie—they wanted to know only certain things. Their questions were so ordinary. Why did we knock on our neighbor’s door so early on a Sunday morning? Where exactly did we find his body? What did we do next, after Paisley froze and started hiccupping and Katie-Marie puked in the sink?
They didn’t mention the photographs, and we weren’t sure if they were protecting us because they thought we couldn’t handle it, or if they were waiting for us to say it first.
I didn’t say, and Katie-Marie didn’t say. Paisley didn’t say either. We didn’t want to give ourselves any motive, now that the girl was long gone. We’d all agreed on that ahead of time.
Besides, they couldn’t pin anything on us. No witnesses, no fingerprints that matched ours on the body. No connection, except my house was right next door and my sugar bag was covered in blood on the floor. It was all I could do not to wave my arm up at the blank blue sky and tell them to search there for answers. Except that would have given her away.
Then the police had one last question, and it was here that I sat up straight and felt the heart in the cage of my chest pounding.
Could I describe the girl who was in his house the night before?
I didn’t know who let that piece of information loose, Paisley or Katie-Marie, but to me this question had only one answer. “What girl?”
It was easy to deny her. Even as I remembered the blacks of her eyes, and the painted points on the ends of her fingers. That was only my mind making her into what I thought she should be.
“So there wasn’t ever any girl,” the police said, they made me say, they made me write in some kind of official statement and sign while my parents watched, and I had to do it. I don’t know what Paisley said, and I don’t know what Katie-Marie said. But I said we were mistaken. It’s what we owed her. We thought we saw a girl, but it was dark. It was dark outside and confusing and we were wrong.
“So you’re sure?” they said.
“I’m sure,” I told them. “I never saw any girl.”
Because, could a girl be so terrible? Could a girl tear a man’s face out and could a girl litter his body with holes from the sharpest parts of her red mouth? Could a girl do something so perfect, and then vanish into the clouds?
Could a girl come at the exact moment we needed her? Could she come only to protect other girls?
I wasn’t lying when I said that to the police. In the end, she wasn’t even anymore a girl.
For Leonard’s wake—closed-casket; no one would have been able to stomach it otherwise—my mother made me help her bake his signature sugar-cream pie. His murder would be unsolved for some weeks, and then I guess it fell off the police’s radar, because summer was coming, and the softball tournament was approaching, and we were fund-raising for the dying oak trees now, and at some point our parents said it was safe to canvass the neighborhood and knock on every door.
Before his house sold, I ducked under the crime-scene tape and went onto his lawn. I swiped one of his bird feeders and put it on our side of the picket fence, and robins and little swallows started to flock to it. I fed them seeds from my trail-mix packs and sometimes bits of sugar-coated breakfast crunch. Sometimes I’d go outside under the bright beautiful blue and all I’d hear were these little titters, like the birds were trying to tell me something in a language I couldn’t understand.
I tried to tell them I knew. I tried to say thanks. I spent a lot of time in the backyard, searching the sky.
IN THE FOREST DARK AND DEEP*
Seven Years Old
When Cassidy Evans was seven years old, she found the clearing in the forest. It was far enough past the edge of her backyard to feel dangerous, but not so far as to be technically out of bounds of where she was allowed to roam. She wasn’t the first to discover the place—there were several cut stumps of wood scattered about. But she was the first in a while, as most of them had been turned to their sides and had long since sprouted thickets of slickly pale mushrooms.
The first afternoon, she touched nothing. Instead she chose to wander and crouch and peer closely at the stumps and the ground surrounding them. The grass grew long enough that a recent footstep would have been visible. Seeing none after careful investigation, Cassidy smiled and slapped a foot on top of a loose stump. “I declare myself queen of this realm,” she announced, raising a fist high into the air the way a conquering hero might.
Hearing no objection, she set about making plans.
First, she righted all the stumps and arranged them in a circle. In the middle she laid out an old tablecloth she’d snatched from the bottom of her mother’s corner cupboard. Day by day through the summer, she smuggled things to the clearing. A cracked saucer here, a chipped mug there. The kinds of things no one would notice missing.
But then something strange happened. She arrived at the clearing one afternoon to find a table sitting in the middle. Hesitating at the edge of the forest, she scanned the underbrush, eyes sharp and stomach squelching in disappointment that she might now have to share her private kingdom.
“Hello?” she called.
No one answered. She walked slowly toward the table. It was rough-hewn, the edges raw with gaps between a few of the boards. Pushing at it, she was surprised to find it sturdy and solid. She looked again over her shoulder. The forest was empty.
Frowning, she backed from the clearing before turning and running for home. For days, nothing else changed. And then it rained for a week straight.
Once she was finally free again, she tripped her way through the forest to the clearing, only to be brought up short. This time the table had been set. The smuggled tablecloth stretched the length of it, each place set with an assortment of unmatched odds and ends. Some of it the familiar cracked china from home, but most of it unfamiliar.
She approached the table slowly, warily. The mugs were all filled with murky water, the same with the plates and saucers, and as she neared, she could smell the moldering of the damp tablecloth. It must have all been set out before the rain.
But by who?
“Hello?” She craned her neck, listening. There was only the sound of stray raindrops falling through sun-slicked leaves, the call and response of birds, the damp rustle of squirrels foraging.
Cassidy had been warned enough through her life about strangers offering candy or other treats to lure her away, but she couldn’t quite figure how this situation fit into that. There was no candy. There were no strangers.
On further exploration, Cassidy found three unexpected objects at the far end of the table. The first was an old top hat that had seen better days. Its brim was ragged, its top lopsided, and it sported a dent on one side.
Next to it sat a pillow with a pinecone on it. Two sprigs of long brown pine needles arched from each side of the narrow end, and two red berries perched above them. Trailing from the thicker end was a length of browned rope.
And third was a white apron, neatly folded. A wide blue ruffle traced the edges of it. Cassidy couldn’t help but smile and laugh. “The Mad Hatter,” she said, tapping the top of the hat. “The Dormouse.” She carefully petted its bristly back. “And Alice!” She slipped the apron over her head, admiring the way it fell, just the way Alice’s had in her favorite cartoon.
She scanned the other seats. “I guess the March Hare is running late again,” she whispered behind her hand to the Dormouse. Then she giggled. “But what would you know since you’re always asleep!”
Any trepidation or hesitation now gone, Cassidy set about enjoying her unexpected tea party. She was a girl well-known for her imagination and had no trouble carrying the conversations for all of them. It was the most fun she’d had all summer. So much so that it wasn’t until gloaming had wrapped tight around the clearing that she realized how late it had grown.
“Now I’m the one late!” she cried, jumping from her stump. She dashed from the clearing and was halfway home before she realized she still wore the apron. Stopping, she bit her lip and looked back over her shoulder.
She already knew she’d be in trouble for staying out so late, and she wasn’t sure how to explain where the apron had come from. What if her parents forbade her from returning to the clearing? She’d be stuck playing with her neighbor Jack and his little brother, Tommy, all summer. No, thank you!
She hastily drew the apron over her head and started back toward the clearing. It wasn’t until she’d burst from the cover of forest that she saw him.
The March Hare.
When trying to decide whether to tell the police about him later, Cassidy couldn’t figure out how to describe the white rabbit. He was the size of a man, that was for sure, and he had the proportions of a man as well—long legs and arms. But he wasn’t dressed as a man. He didn’t look like a man.
What stood out to Cassidy most were the ears. They were a shock of brilliant white against the gathering darkness of night. Everything else about him seemed to recede from memory until that’s all he ever was to Cassidy: ears in the shadows.
The first time she saw him, he stood just past the first row of brambles on the far side of the clearing. Had she not been so startled, she might have ducked and hidden. Watched him for a while. But it was too late, she was already too loud, each step a crash against old dead leaves and broken sticks.
He froze at the sound of her, face jerking in her direction. It was darker where he was, back under the cover of leaves. Too dark to see him clearly, except for those ears.
Cassidy opened her mouth but no sound came out. She flung her apron at him, as though that could do anything to deter him. It only fluttered, caught on the air, and drifted slowly to the ground. No matter. Cassidy ran.
The entire way home he chased after her. His breath hot on the back of her neck. She felt sure she heard the thump of his heart between the skittering beats of her own. But when she reached her backyard and allowed herself a glimpse over her shoulder, she found the forest empty.
She waited one moment and then another, eyes narrowed in fierce concentration as she scoured the dim underbrush for a hint of those ears. Chillbumps started at her toes, overtaking the rest of her body in a slow wave.
It was broken by the sound of the screen door slamming. “Cassidy Evans,” her mother called from the porch, “where have you been?”
Hands trembling, Cassidy shook her head, walking backward toward the comfort of her mother’s voice. “Nowhere, Mama,” she mumbled.
× × ×
By the time she went to bed that night, she’d convinced herself she’d just imagined the March Hare. But every time she closed her eyes, she’d see him, until eventually the thought of it boiled through her veins, and she knew beyond doubt that he was there, watching her.
She’d open her eyes to find her room empty, but that wasn’t enough. Her heart wouldn’t settle until she’d slipped from the bed and stolen to the window. Telling herself how ridiculous she was being, she’d tent back the edge of her curtain to reveal a sliver of night, and she’d scour the darkness for a dash of white that never appeared.
Seventeen Years Old
The side of the table bit into Cassidy’s hips and she pressed her palms against it, feeling the cut and swirl of wood grain as she lifted herself to sit. Jack took advantage of the new position, stepping between her legs. Lazily he slipped free the top button of her shirt and she leaned back, hands flat behind her, watching as he made his way down her abdomen, one finger trailing along her skin in his wake.
Around them the thicket of forest hummed and sang of night: crickets with their sharpened legs, cicada wings buzzing, wind through pulp-heavy branches. The sound of their breaths tangled with it, became a part of it.
When Jack pressed his lips to the base of her throat, Cassidy arched her back, watching the moon splay across her bare skin. Jack leaned over her then, hand firm between her shoulder blades as he pulled her to him. She went willingly, arms around his neck.
With her chin on Jack’s shoulder, Cassidy could see behind him. Watch the starstorm of lightning bugs. The figure seemed to materialize out of nothing, all at once. A thickened shadow, well hidden except for the ears.
She gasped, but Jack just took it as a sound of pleasure and he used the opportunity to dip his head lower. Giving her a full view of the March Hare and him a full view of her.
It was her hands she didn’t quite know what to do with. In the end she held a forearm ineffectually across her chest, the fingers of her other hand reaching for the collar of Jack’s unbuttoned shirt. “Let’s get out of here,” she murmured to him.
The March Hare circled silently just beyond the edge of the clearing. It seemed to Cassidy that his ears were duller now, the edges of them grungy and well worn. She couldn’t see his eyes, they receded too far into the darkness of the underbrush, but she felt them on her.
Her throat tightened, breathing labored as though it were ten years ago and his hands still circled her neck, claws raking against the column of her throat. Each time she closed her eyes, she remembered the sight of the other girls arranged around the table, their rotting bodies so bloated under the early fall heat that their skin threatened to split.
Jack continued to work on unbuckling her belt and she shoved her knee against his torso, knocking him off balance. “I said let’s go.”
His fingers hesitated, but he didn’t release her. “Come on, Cassidy,” he said. “It’s still early.”
She shook her head. In the periphery of her vision, she tracked the March Hare. Though she’d been back to the clearing a handful of times after she was rescued and the bodies were found a decade ago, she’d never seen the March Hare again. Not until tonight. She didn’t know what had changed—what was different—but the familiar wash of chills began its slow wave up from her toes.
Jack blew out a frustrated breath. “I thought you were cool with this,” he said, and Cassidy wasn’t sure which part of this he meant: the fact that he was three years older than her and interested in nothing more than hooking up, or the fact that he’d brought her here because it would make a great story for him to tell his friends later.
And maybe she had been cool with it all, despite what that said about her feelings of self-worth, but the addition of the March Hare changed things. “Yeah, well . . .” She grabbed the edges of her shirt, pulling them together as she pushed off from the table.
Jack’s fingers closed around her forearm. “Cassidy—”
She looked down at where he held her. The scars cutting around her wrists glowed white against the rest of her skin. In the darkness of the clearing it almost appeared as though fishing wire still bound her, causing her fingertips to burn.
From the tree line she sensed movement, and when she glanced over she saw that the March Hare had taken a step closer. Perhaps Jack would have noticed as well, but he was too busy staring at her wrist. Whether he felt the force of her pulse, flashing in a warning, or whether he simply didn’t like the visceral reminder of her past, she didn’t know. Either way, he let go of her.
Instead he danced the tips of his fingers under the edge of her shirt, up over her hip. He curled his touch, trying to bring her closer. “I’ll keep you safe,” he said, the words deep and low with a lift to the corner of his mouth.
He didn’t seem to notice the irony that, of all the dangers in the clearing, he was the one she most likely needed protection from. There was a lot that Cassidy was willing to put up with in the guys she allowed to touch her: fumbling hands, impure motives, a subtle sort of pressure that bordered on uncomfortable. But stupidity was something she didn’t tolerate well.
Rolling her eyes, she twisted away from his reach and stalked into the woods. “I’m going home.”
Jack called after her. “Come on Cassidy, don’t be such a—”
She whirled and glared at him, daring him to finish. Smartly, he swallowed whatever he was about to say next, but he did nothing to shutter his obvious irritation. He was someone not used to being turned down, especially by girls, and he remained in the middle of the clearing, obviously expecting her to return.
Behind him, the March Hare stood at the edge of the tree line, like a ghostly echo of Jack hovering in the darkest shadows. They both watched her, waiting to see what she’d do.
Though her estimation of Jack had taken a serious nose dive, he was still her neighbor and he deserved a warning. “Go home, Jack,” she told him.
Now that she was no longer willing to put out, he was apparently done with her. “Screw you.” He flung his hands at her in dismissal before reaching into the crumpled paper bag at his feet and pulling out a beer. Popping it open, he hoisted himself up on the table.
“Jack,” she warned. “It’s not safe.”
In response, he raised the can toward her, as though in a toast. It was such a mockery that it caused a tremor to roll through her. Everyone knew about the way the bodies were found—the way she was found: posed like dolls with teacups tied to their fingers, hands lifted to mimic a toast.
Hate and disgust spilled into her blood. She spun on her heel leaving Jack Marshall to whatever monsters roamed the forest.
Seven Years Old
Cassidy spent most of the next afternoon standing at the edge of her backyard, trying to find the courage to go farther. The crack of a stick snapping nearby caused her to jump and she whirled to find Tommy Marshall hopping the low fence that separated their houses. He was more than a year younger and a grade below her at school, but because they were neighbors and their parents were friends, he always seemed to be around.
That didn’t mean she liked him. The girls down the street had taken to making fun of her whenever they saw her with him. Since then, she’d made it her mission to avoid him as much as possible.
“You’ve been standing out here for ages,” he said.
Cassidy placed her hands on her hips. “So?”
He came up beside her and stared into the forest. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing.” She bit the word out.
He crouched, poking through the grass until he found a slender stick. He bent it, testing how far it could go before breaking. “You wanna ride bikes?”
Frowning, he bent the stick farther. “We could jump on the trampoline.”
Cassidy let out a snort.
“Or go down to the park and see if the ice cream truck is there.”
Rolling her eyes, she scowled down at him. “I’m not hanging out with you, Tommy, and that’s that.” Then she stomped off into the forest.
“Hey,” he called after her. “Where are you going?”
She didn’t even bother looking back. “Somewhere you’re not invited!”
But as she ventured deeper, her bluster began to fizzle until she flat-out regretted not allowing Tommy to come with her. He was a slower runner, she knew. If he were with her when they found the March Hare, he’d be taken first if they had to make a quick escape.
The thought of him still sitting there at the edge of her yard, along with the memories of the girls down the street taunting her, propelled her to the edge of the clearing. There, she hesitated.
“Hello?” It came out more a whisper than a shout. Her hands trembled and she shoved them into her pockets. But that just felt weird, so she took them out again. Swallowing, she stepped beyond the barrier of trees. Beneath her feet the grass bent without sound, dewy soft and plump from the recent rains.
When she reached the table, she found the apron neatly folded as it had been before. The hat was also there, in addition to the Dormouse. The cups and saucers appeared to have been wiped clean. She found it difficult to breathe, ears straining for any unusual noise.
She knew that if she ran then, she’d spend her whole life running. She had to prove to herself that she could control her mind. That it couldn’t throw dark thoughts at her and expect her to believe them as truth.
Carefully, she took the apron and slipped it over her head. She ignored the tears in her eyes as she sank onto the stump at the head of the table. There she sat, trying to think of something to say.
“Good day to you both,” she finally managed to squeak out. Neither the Mad Hatter nor the Dormouse responded. “Do either of you happen to have a story or a riddle perhaps?” she tried.
Nothing. “Exactly so,” she finally sighed. She dropped her eyes to her hands, noticing that she’d been gripping fistfuls of her apron. Forcing her fingers to relax, she smoothed her palms over the material, now wrinkled and damp with sweat.
Excerpted from "Slasher Girls & Monster Boys"
Copyright © 2016 April Genevieve Tucholke.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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• “This is ingeniously crafted.”—BCCB, starred review
Cat Winters's In the Shadow of Blackbirds:
• "A story of the breaking point between sanity and madness, delivered in a straightforward and welcoming teen voice."—Booklist, starred review