Twelve years ago Stella and Jeanie vanished while picking strawberries. Stella returned minutes later, with no memory of what happened. Jeanie was never seen or heard from again.
Now Stella is seventeen, and she’s over it. She’s the lucky one who survived, and sure, the case is still cloaked in mystery—and it’s her small town’s ugly legacy—but Stella is focused on the coming summer. She’s got a great best friend, a hookup with an irresistibly crooked smile, and two months of beach days stretching out before her.
Then along comes a corpse, a little girl who washes up in an ancient cemetery after a mudslide, and who has red hair just like Jeanie did. Suddenly memories of that haunting day begin to return, and when Stella discovers that other red-headed girls have gone missing as well, she begins to suspect that something sinister is at work.
And before the summer ends, Stella will learn the hard way that if you hunt for monsters, you will find them.
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I’m the lucky one; or at least that’s what they say. I’m here to squint up at Independence Day fireworks under an orange-hued moon; to fidget in the violet organza of my junior prom dress; to toast under the midwestern sun while sipping peach fizzies lakeside. But sometimes the luck is harder to see.
I was relieved when Jeanie’s parents moved to the opposite side of town; when they stopped going out in public. Finally, their sideways glances, forever sizing me up, would stop. Naturally, they wondered why I’d been spared and Jeanie hadn’t. Was I growing up to be something special? Was I worth it? By the way their faces always pinched together—mouths pursed, brows touching, eyes narrowed into slits—it was obvious they found me lacking. But who wouldn’t be?
Remember that when you judge me too quickly. Remember that I’m a product of something scary and mysterious. People who didn’t even know Jeanie won’t stop talking about it. I lived it. How else could I have turned out? There’s a burden to being the one left behind, even though I don’t remember a pinch of it. A weight always pressing down on me, like Jeanie’s lifeless body is forever hitching a piggyback, steering me with her sticky hands coiled in my hair. I can’t escape her, and I resent it.
Because if I’m being honest, Jeanie probably would have grown up to be nothing more than average. She was chunky at six, her fleshy cheeks nearly swallowing up her pinprick eyes. While all the other kindergarteners were learning to read, she couldn’t write her own name. She was the alto with a lisp in a pack of singsongy chirping little girls. I know you shouldn’t say nasty things about the dead, but since she never had the chance to become something, it’s unfair that everyone assumes that if she had, it would have been bright and shiny. At six Jeanie was one of those dull pennies forgotten on the sidewalk that everyone steps over but no one stoops to pick up; she wouldn’t have been a diamond at seventeen.
Even still, if I could remember her at all, I’m sure I would miss her. I’m told I loved her.
But since I don’t remember her, and everything I know about her is because of what others say, the best I can do is gratitude. Jeanie’s a ghost I owe my life to. After all, if I’d been alone that day, it could have been me who was taken. Jeanie is why I’m here, resting on the banks of Prior Lake, watching my three best friends propel their bikini-clad bodies from a rope swing, practically buzzing with giddiness over the promise of a whole two months with no school.
“So let me get this straight,” Cole squeals with delight over the scent of gossip. “You don’t remember one single freaking thing about that day? Zip. Zero. Nada. Nothing?” She tilts her head and gawks at me incredulously from where she stands toeing the water. Michaela and Zoey continue hiking up the rocky bank. They’ve spent the afternoon scrambling to the top of a large boulder to swing through the air shrieking as they drop into the crystalline lake from a fraying rope. Besides, they’ve heard this story a million times. Every parent in Savage has whispered it as a warning to their kids, voices hushed and foreboding. Every kid rolls their eyes like it could never happen to them.
“Seriously. I don’t remember a thing,” I repeat for the third time, forcing a smile. Cole’s only been in Savage for four weeks, and she’s a breath of fresh air with her diamond nose stud, ex-hippie parents who smoke pot on the weekends, and the breathy enthusiasm she says everything with—like the world’s a dazzling present laid at her feet. I’ve been chipping my coral-colored nail polish off during Cole’s third degree, and I brush the shards from my lap. I look dejectedly at the frumpy lavender swimsuit I’m wearing. I couldn’t find my new white halter, and I hope Taylor and his boys don’t pick today to surprise us.
Taylor Martinson and I have been flirting for months, and I’ve been playing it distant and disinterested. Zoey says playing hard to get is the only way to sink your talons in a boy. And she would know. Zoey’s gone out with as many guys as me, Cole, and Michaela combined. But I am interested. Interested in his lazily crooked smile; his stormy blue eyes; his velvety laugh that leaves my stomach flip-flopping; the way he pours himself into chairs, reclining, stretching long, tan limbs out to take up every inch of space, head cocked back, half laughing like nothing is ever for real.
The only iffy thing about him is the couple of lacrosse boys—the “scum brigade”—he hangs out with. They’re basically like dogs: Any girl’s leg will do. And while that alone wouldn’t eek me out, how dishonest they are about it does. They prey on underclass girls with promises of prom and happily ever after. Once the girls give it up, the boys give them the ax. I don’t hold that against Taylor, though. He probably bonded with those boys over tetherball and roly-polies on the playground in kindergarten. If you consider that, he’s loyal to stay friends with them.
It’s doubtful that Taylor and his “bros” could find us here. This is Zoey’s and my special hideaway. We’re at least a mile away from the nearest cabin, way off the beaten path, and across town from the beaches of Blackdog Lake, where our classmates go for bonfires and swimming. We spend every summer in this spot, dallying away the afternoons, sunbathing topless to get rid of tan lines, and sneaking hard lemonades.
When we were younger, Zoey’s brother Caleb used to bait fishing lines for us in this exact spot. It’s where I had my first kiss in the summer after the fourth grade with Sam Worth. His palms were sweating so profusely he kept wiping them on his jeans. His eyes were scrunched closed, and his lips hovered an inch from mine until I grabbed his shirt collar and pulled until our mouths met. It’s where I had my second kiss, which I lied and said was my first, with Scott Townsend three years later. It’s where Zoey went to third base for the first time and was covered in poison oak blisters for two weeks. It’s a special spot, sheltered from prying eyes and anyone’s expectations but our own.
Cole plops down on her beach towel next to mine and dips her head back, basking in the sun. Thousands of miles from the ocean and she manages to have beach-wavy hair, as if her enthusiasm is generating static electricity. “I mean, oh my gosh. How do you not remember anything?” The cadence of her voice makes her California accent exaggerated. I think she does it on purpose, but it’s cute rather than annoying.
“No idea. For the first few years they sent me to shrinks, therapists, psychotherapists. Eventually, the cops talked my mom into bringing me to a hypnotist who was a total wacko and made me lie on a purple velvet couch as she burned incense and pretended to delve into my mind.” For some reason I lower my voice as I continue. “But no dice. I never remembered a thing. Just like it happened to someone else.” And in some ways it did. I was six years old then, and now I’m just past my seventeenth birthday. I don’t remember anything from that entire day or anything specific from any day before. It’s like someone reached inside my head and scrambled my memory from that afternoon, leaving me with only my name and my parents’ faces.
My earliest memory is of Zoey, stealing a chocolate marshmallow egg out of my Easter basket, the year after it happened. That’s more fitting than you know, since Zoey is a total savage. But she’s my savage, and I love her more than I love anyone and anything.
“But doesn’t it frighten you to be out here?” Cole gestures encompassingly at the wilderness around us.
I want to answer: not usually. “Not at all,” I say instead. “The trees didn’t spring to life and eat Jeanie. Whoever took her didn’t have anything to do with the woods. If I wanted to avoid the forest in Savage, I’d have to be a hermit.”
Zoey swings on the rope and screams, “Boring conversation!” as she plunges into the water.
Fat droplets of lake rain down on us, and Cole sniffs indignantly. “Well, excuse me if this is the most fascinating thing I’ve ever heard. I mean, two little girls are playing in the front yard, they vanish, and then only one comes back. Creepy.” A chill runs from the nape of my neck down my spine. I glance over my shoulder and squint into the woods. I’m usually an unshakable pro at recounting this story—even as a precocious third grader narrating the tale for show-and-tell—but there’s something about today that makes me want to whisper its details, hushed and mumbled so the trees can’t hear.
“Don’t forget the bit about Stella’s hair being braided. Her mom swore it was in piggies when she dropped her off, but she came back with a French braid.” Zoey smacks her lips salaciously as she wades through the shallows and out of the lake. Her blond pixie-length hair hangs in her eyes, and she adjusts her too-tiny bikini top. Zoey has huge boobs; her favorite hobby is making them look even bigger by wearing the scantest triangles to cover up little more than nipple. Zoey is my oldest friend. She was supposed to be there that day, picking juicy red strawberries from the tangle of vines that lined the dirt lane in front of Jeanie’s house, the day Jeanie disappeared. Caleb came down with chicken pox the night before, and their mom put Zoey on lockdown. Funny that an infectious virus likely saved Zoey’s life. I can’t help but wonder what saved mine. The vines of berries were all hacked down soon after Jeanie went missing, like their fruit was poisonous or somehow to blame.
These are the things I focus on: Zoey home that day; Jeanie being taken; rotten strawberries smashed into the ground. I don’t like to focus on my part in the story. Not because I’m traumatized; I’m not. It gives me the creeps, though, that ultimately, somewhere in the never-never land of my brain is what happened to Jeanie. No matter how much I want to, I can’t help her.
There are already too many things in the world that are out of the control of a seventeen-year-old girl. I don’t need another.
Zoey winces, tiptoeing over the pebbled shore. “You know, now that I think about it, you look a lot like Jeanie did.” She props her hands on her hips, examining Cole. “Maybe whatever skeeze grabbed her will come out of hiding and try to snatch your slutty ass. Maybe you’d like it.” Zoey runs her tongue over her lips suggestively before combusting into giggles. Cole manages a laugh, but her eyes cut to the tree line.
I nail Zoey on the forehead with a green gummy bear. “You look nothing like her,” I tell Cole. “Jeanie had bright-red hair and freckles. And anyway, the police think it was a crime of opportunity or something. Nothing like that has happened since, and they couldn’t find any suspects, so they don’t think whoever did it was local. They’re long gone, and Savage is safe and boring again.”
“You’ve got the boring right.” Zoey rolls her eyes and bites the head off the recovered gummy. “And the cops are total jerk-offs, since I can think of at least two handfuls of creepies in this town that I’d consider suspects solely based on how pervy they look.” Michaela cannonballs into the lake and Zoey screams, “You slutarella!” I shield my soda from the splash.
“Change of subject now, please, because this scary drivel is all anyone is going to talk about tonight,” Michaela groans as she wades to shore. She’s wearing a conservative black one-piece; her long, dark-brown hair is plastered to her head, making her large, cat-shaped eyes look like giant mutant almonds. Michaela’s gone to school with Zoey and me since her family moved from Michigan in the eighth grade. She’s on the honor roll, is an insanely talented web designer, and is the founding member of the Female Leaders of Tomorrow club at school.
Michaela is the polar opposite of Zoey in just about every way. She’s reserved and chaste and believes in getting ahead by following the rules better than everybody else. She’s also ridiculously pretty in that blazer-and-jeans-wearing sort of way. Zoey either goes braless or wears a push-up; she thinks all first dates should end with making out and doesn’t think a skirt can ever be too short. Zoey doesn’t follow the rules; she breaks them right in authority’s face, with so much gut that teachers end up stifling smiles. Zoey lives for now, now, now; Michaela lives for tomorrow. I ping-pong between these two poles.
“It’ll be all séance BS and horndog jocks telling scary stories so they can get close and dry-hump you,” Michaela adds, wringing the water from her hair. It sounds morally bankrupt, and maybe it is, but every year for as long as I can remember, the upperclassmen at Wildwood High have called today the Day of Bones. At about this time eleven years ago, I was wandering back into Jeanie’s front yard, where her hysterical mother was screaming our names. At least our predecessors didn’t immediately deem the anniversary of this tragedy the highlight of their social calendars. Day of Bones started out with a bunch of drunk seniors searching for Jeanie’s bones in a demented scavenger hunt—they actually thought they were helping the investigation. I suppose they would have if they’d ever found anything. But I guess it was too much work and not enough drinking. Next it morphed into a memorial and now it’s just a twisted excuse for a keg and ghost stories. A very different kind of “boning” on everyone’s mind. Every year Wildwood students go to Blackdog Lake for a bonfire. Whatever the debauchery, I am basically the guest of honor.
“One more question, please, S,” Cole begs. She didn’t ask if the nickname was okay the first time Zoey brought her to lunch with us. But there was a hopeful quality to the breathy way she said it, and I kind of like it. It’s new, like her. I smile and nod. “So um . . . I don’t know how to say this, but nothing weird happened to you? Like . . .” The apples of her cheeks burn crimson. I know exactly what she’s getting at.
“No, I wasn’t molested or anything. The doctors and shrinks said I was totally fine in that department.” And it’s the truth. There wasn’t one caramel-colored hair hurt on my head, although Zoey is right about it being braided. As far as anyone could tell, that’s all that happened to me.
Michaela kneels at the foot of my towel and digs through her tote. “I’m staaaarving. Are we doing dinner? My mom is sooo not going to let me take her car after last time.”
Her gaze cuts pointedly to Zoey, who rolls her eyes. “Last time” was last weekend, when Zoey thought it was hysterical to tie her push-up bra to the antenna of Michaela’s mom’s sedan before we drove around downtown. It was pretty epic—C cups like a banner in the wind announcing our arrival—right up until we passed the fire chief, who lives next door to Michaela and recognized her mother’s car. Michaela’s parents aren’t as hands-off as the rest of ours. They’re ancient and already have grandkids from Michaela’s older sisters. They’re retired and constantly breathing down her neck.
Michaela stops rifling through her bag. She braces her hands on her knees and waits for an apology overdue by six days. Zoey makes a point to color code the gummies at the heart of her palm just so it’s obvious how much she isn’t sorry. “I’ll drive,” I offer. I don’t want the standoff to continue. Most of why Zoey and Michaela work is that they’re polar opposites, but occasionally opposites combust. More accurately: Zoey combusts. “I have to eat dinner with the parent, so be at my house by eight,” I add.
“But you’re never gonna make it with Taylor if you’re all stiff and sober,” Zoey whines. Cole devolves into giggles as Zoey emphasizes “stiff.”
“Maybe we should have him pick us up from Stella’s and we can watch him ogle her snowballs?” Zoey says, pressing her boobs—or snowballs as she calls them—together. She peeks up at me through thick lashes and bats them flirtatiously. Cole makes kissing noises.
“Not gonna happen,” I shout above their sound effects. Turning tonight into a flirt fest seems disrespectful. And I can’t blow my whole disinterested thing now by calling and bumming a ride.
Even Michaela, who I can usually count on as an antidote for Zoey’s antics, has this giddy grin on her face. Michaela’s sworn off boys until she finishes her early admission apps for college. In the meantime, she’s taking living vicariously through us to heart. “I’ll be DD with Stella’s car,” she says slyly.
Cole cheers and Zoey flashes a conspirator’s grin at Michaela before turning a pout on me. I take aim and lob a gummy bear at Zoey’s cleavage. I lean back on my towel. I can feel Zoey staring, but I ignore her. I’ve been off all day. Ever since she arrived at my house this morning and I answered the door with dark bulges under my aching eyes. Thinking of today made it hard to sleep last night. I’d hash it out with Zoey—the only one I ever talk to about it, since she’s the only one who lived all the aftermath with me—but lately she has zero tolerance for anything that isn’t hooking up or going out.
My eyes close, and I let the warmth of the sun wash over me. The breeze rattles the oak leaves, making them chime like thousands of miniature bells. I inhale the air, fragrant with damp soil and pine needles. Everything is still wet and gleaming from springtime showers. Soon the trees will be brittle and dry, nothing more than kindling for campfires.
The others talk about Zoey’s end-of-the-summer rager, the Fourth of July, and Michaela’s trip back east for college visits. Zoey makes a bad joke about Michaela sizing up the student body at Brown. Cole jabbers on about hosting her first house party next week. I can almost see their vivid expectations for break, brightly colored and shimmering like the fireworks they’re looking forward to, against the backdrop of my eyelids. I let their voices melt away and concentrate on the beat of wings. Overhead a large bird, maybe a hawk or raven, circles. I feel its shadow slide over my torso as it flies above us. The faint babble of a stream slices through the rustle of the woods a few hundred feet from where we sit. It’s full of skinny silver-scaled fish darting around, sparkling in the sun.
“. . . I said I’d totally go, but only if it was a group thing . . . .” I listen in to Zoey. Michaela responds with something agreeable, Cole giggles, and I tune out again.
The bird circles for another loop. The momentary lapse of the sun’s warmth on my skin as the bird eclipses it sends shivers through me. I peek through my lashes and try to decipher the featureless silhouette in the sky. Long, straggly black feathers that twitch in the wind and a white hooked beak protruding from a head covered in what looks like orange melted wax.
“Ewww,” Michaela says. “A vulture means there’s something rotting nearby.”
Zoey glares at the trespasser. “Nothing dead better stink up our cove.”
“Sooo gross,” Cole whines.
Michaela lets her sunglasses dip down the bridge of her nose and studies the feathered creature. “It’s circling over us, though,” she says matter-of-factly. I shiver again. The bird hovers twenty or thirty feet above. There’s a rustling in the brush behind us and the resounding snap of a branch. I whip around and stare into the gloom.
“Jumpy much?” Zoey teases, but her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. She’d never admit it, but today always spooks her, too. I sense the bird continuing to loop overhead. The shadows are thick in the woods, and it’s impossible to see more than a few feet deep. I keep my eyes trained on the spot where I heard the stick snap. It wasn’t the light crackle of chipmunks scurrying over decaying leaves and acorns, but the heavy footstep of a person.
“Who is that?” Michaela whispers. I reluctantly turn from guarding against the woods. On the opposite shore, a hundred yards away, a figure stands between two tree trunks along the edge of the forest. His face is masked in shadows, but by his jeans and short-cropped hair, he’s obviously a guy. “Is he spying on us?”
Zoey jumps to her feet and yells, “Hey, jerkwad. Stare much? Eff off or we’ll call the cops.” Cole grabs for her hoodie and pulls it over her head. I wiggle on my jean shorts and stand with Zoey. Teeny-tiny Zoey, weighing in at not a feather over a hundred pounds, fists balled, ready to keep us all safe in her string bikini. Dread coils in my stomach. It’s like I swallowed a viper. The stranger takes a step forward.
“What the . . . ?” Michaela mutters. He’s maybe a couple of years older than us and he’s vaguely familiar. The kind of familiar that suffocates you with déjà vu, like recalling a nightmare in gruesome flashes. He isn’t looking at us. Instead his eyes are glued to the vulture circling above our heads. His lips move furiously, repeating something over and over, but the words are only mouthed, not meant to reach us.