The Ghost Tree

The Ghost Tree

by Christina Henry

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Overview

When people go missing in the sleepy town of Smith’s Hollow, the only clue to their fate comes when a teenager starts having terrifying visions, in a chilling horror novel from national bestselling author Christina Henry.
 
When the bodies of two girls are found torn apart in the town of Smiths Hollow, Lauren is surprised, but she also expects that the police won't find the killer. After all, the year before her father's body was found with his heart missing, and since then everyone has moved on. Even her best friend, Miranda, has become more interested in boys than in spending time at the old ghost tree, the way they used to when they were kids.

So when Lauren has a vision of a monster dragging the remains of the girls through the woods, she knows she can't just do nothing. Not like the rest of her town. But as she draws closer to answers, she realizes that the foundation of her seemingly normal town might be rotten at the center. And that if nobody else stands for the missing, she will.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451492302
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/08/2020
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 70,322
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Christina Henry is a horror and dark fantasy author whose works include The Ghost TreeLooking GlassThe Girl in RedThe MermaidLost BoyAliceRed Queen, and the seven book urban fantasy Black Wings series.
 
She enjoys running long distances, reading anything she can get her hands on and watching movies with samurai, zombies and/or subtitles in her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son. 
 

Read an Excerpt

1

 

June 1985

 

Wednesday

 

Lauren glanced down at her feet as she pedaled her bike toward the woods. She wore brand-new turquoise high-tops; they looked sort of like the Chuck Taylors she'd wanted, but they were off-brand from Kmart. They didn't have the Chuck label in the back but they were still pretty cool. She thought so, anyway.

 

They would have to be cool because her mom had told her repeatedly they couldn't afford the name-brand ones. At least no one else at school had turquoise. They were so bright they practically glowed in the summer sun, but by the time she went back to school in the fall they would be properly beaten up and she wouldn't look like a dork.

 

By the time she went back to school she would be almost fifteen (the end of November-five months away still), which meant she would be one of the older kids in the freshman class but still younger than Miranda, whose birthday had been the week before. Miranda never failed to remind her that this meant she would get her driver's license before Lauren did, but Lauren didn't care as long as she was riding to school in a car (even if it was not her own) instead of on her bike.

 

Lauren knew Mom didn't want her and Miranda meeting in the woods. Especially after last year. Especially after Lauren's dad was found near that old cabin. Mom thought Lauren was macabre for going anywhere near the place where her father was murdered.

 

But Lauren was about as interested in her mother's opinion as her mother was in Lauren's-that is to say, not at all. Mom never loved Dad as much as Lauren did. Her mom didn't understand that when Lauren was in the woods it meant she was in the place he was last alive.

 

She and Miranda always met under the ghost tree. They'd done so since they were very small, for so long that Lauren couldn't remember who'd thought of the idea first. One of them would call the other on the telephone and say, "Meet me by the old ghost tree," and they would both go.

 

In the secret shadows of the woods, they could have adventures. They built forts and ran through streams and climbed trees and made rope swings. They made a secret base near the cabin that was tucked away in the woods. This was long before Lauren's dad was found there, and it had been some time since they used it as a base.

 

In the last year or so things had changed. Miranda didn't like to get dirty anymore, so she didn't want to swing over the trickling little creek that ran through the forest or roll in the dead leaves. Mostly she wanted to do things Lauren was not interested in, like paint their nails or braid each other's hair or talk about boys that Miranda thought were cute-older boys, always, boys that would not be the least bit interested in little freshman girls.

 

Despite this they still preferred to meet by the ghost tree. It was their special place.

 

Lauren raced past the Imperial drive-in on the outskirts of town. They were showing a double feature-The Goonies and Cocoon. The wide lot was littered with rubbish from the night before-empty popcorn cups, candy wrappers, cigarette butts. Sometimes Lauren helped Mr. Harper, the owner, clean up the lot in exchange for $10 and a free ticket for her and Miranda to that night's show, but she'd already seen The Goonies twice and Miranda said Cocoon was about old people so they never stayed for the second feature.

 

The back of the movie screen pressed against the woods that brushed against the town. Smiths Hollow was the name of her town, and Lauren had always liked the name because it reminded her of Sleepy Hollow.

 

She and her dad used to watch that cartoon every year on Halloween, Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Even though Ichabod's name came first in the title, the Sleepy Hollow story was actually second in the film and Lauren liked that better. She liked anticipating the moment when the Headless Horseman would appear on screen, laughing his insane laugh and swinging a giant sword.

 

When she was little she used to snuggle close into her dad's arm when that part came on and her heart would beat so fast, but there was nothing to worry about really because she was with her daddy. Of course it had been years since it scared her, but every year she snuggled up next to him. He always smelled a little bit of grease and oil, even after a shower, and also of the Old Spice Soap-on-a-Rope that she gave him every year for Father's Day.

 

Lauren wondered if, when Halloween came, she would be able to turn on the cartoon again and watch it with her little brother, David. He'd been too small to watch it the year before.

 

Miranda had wanted Lauren to sleep over last Halloween, so they could watch "real" scary movies on her VCR. Lauren's family didn't have a VCR, and Miranda definitely viewed this as a drawback to sleeping over at Lauren's house.

 

They always trick-or-treated together every year, but after their candy bags were full they went their separate ways. Last year Miranda didn't want to trick-or-treat at all, but Lauren persuaded her to go out so Miranda had thrown together a costume of old clothes at the last second and went as a hobo. She'd complained about how lame and babyish collecting candy was the whole time and then got annoyed when Lauren told her that she had to go home after.

 

"I thought you were going to watch Halloween with me," Miranda said. "It's the perfect night for it!"

 

Lauren shook her head. "We can do it another night. I have something I have to do with my dad."

 

"It won't be the same on another night," Miranda said. "I can't believe you dragged me all over town to get a bunch of stupid little candy bars and we're not even going to watch a scary movie now."

 

"I'll take your candy if you don't want it," Lauren said, holding her bag open.

 

Miranda's mouth twisted up. "No way. I walked for it, so I'm eating it."

 

She'd gone home in a huff, but the next time Lauren slept over they did watch Halloween. Or rather, Miranda watched it, laughing hysterically every time someone was slaughtered by the killer, and Lauren peered through her fingers and hoped she would be able to sleep without nightmares. She didn't like scary movies. Miranda seemed inured to them.

 

Anyway, Lauren was glad she'd gone home that night, because it was the last time she'd watch Ichabod and Mr. Toad with her dad. Less than a month later he was dead.

 

He was dead and nobody would talk about it. Nobody would talk about why it happened or how. The police chief told Lauren's mom it must have been some drifter, some sicko who went from town to town. But that didn't make a bit of sense to Lauren. Why would some sicko come to Smiths Hollow just to kill her dad?

 

And nobody ever told her what her dad was doing out that late at night in the woods, either. Every time Lauren mentioned it her mother's lips would go flat and pull tight at the edges and she would say, "We are not discussing this, Lauren."

 

Lauren reached the scrubby edge of the woods and pulled the brakes on her bike. It was a ten-speed, a grown-up gift for her last birthday even though she wasn't very tall yet and probably never would be. Miranda told her that girls stopped growing like a year after they got their periods, and Lauren hadn't gotten hers yet so she hoped she wouldn't top out at five foot three.

 

Miranda had gotten her period almost a year before, but both her parents were tall so Miranda towered over Lauren by about half a foot. She also had long, long legs that always looked good in whatever she wore, and Lauren had to squelch the flare of jealousy that bubbled up whenever she saw Miranda looking so cool and beautiful and grown-up.

 

Lauren hopped off her bike and wheeled it into the forest, following a path worn by her own feet and Miranda's. The bike bumped over the tree roots and kicked up tiny rocks that bit into Lauren's shins.

 

Some people didn't like the woods near Smiths Hollow. Well, if Lauren was honest, almost everyone didn't like the woods. She'd heard more than one person say they were "spooky" and "uncanny" and "scary," but Lauren didn't think so.

 

She liked the trees and their secretive natures, and all the little creatures that scurried into the brush when they heard her approach. And there were lots of places to sit and think and be alone and listen to the wind in the leaves. There were many days when Miranda went home and Lauren stayed in the forest by herself, curled into the notch of a tree while she read a book.

 

Even Lauren's dad had said that the woods made him uncomfortable.

 

"I always feel like I'm being spied on whenever I walk near there," he confessed to her one day. They were both at the kitchen sink scrubbing their hands-Lauren's were covered in mud, and her father's had the usual contingent of grease from his work at the garage.

 

"'I always feel like somebody's watching me,'" Lauren sang as she walked, although she didn't really. If anyone was watching she felt that it was a benign somebody.

 

She liked that song a lot, although Miranda didn't think much of it. Miranda had listened to Def Leppard's Pyromania album nonstop since she discovered it the previous year, and whenever Lauren came over she would put it on. Lauren was pretty sure she could live the rest of her life without ever hearing "Rock of Ages" again.

 

The ghost tree was about a ten-minute walk from the place where Lauren dismounted her bike. Miranda was already there, arms crossed and leaning against the tree with her eyes closed. Lauren wondered what Miranda was thinking about.

 

She wore a white sleeveless shirt that buttoned down the front, and Lauren could see her training bra through it. Lauren had started wearing a training bra too even though she really didn't need it yet. By the time she actually needed the trainer Miranda would be wearing women's bras, probably.

 

The shirt was tucked into her jeans-Jordache, naturally, and their ankles brushed against her white Adidas shoes with the black stripes on the side. Miranda always had name-brand everything, because her parents were both managers at the canned chili factory and they would take her to the next town over to go to the mall for her clothes.

 

She was also an only child, which meant her parents didn't have to worry about having money for the next kid's stuff. Lauren had heard her mother sighing many times that the trouble with having a girl and then a boy was that you couldn't reuse anything. Not that there had been so much stuff around for reusing by the time David was born-he was ten years younger than Lauren, a "surprise package," as Lauren's dad called him. Lauren's parents had thought their late nights with a colicky baby were long gone.

 

"What took you so long?" Miranda said, straightening when she heard the rattle of Lauren's bike chain. "And what are you wearing?"

 

What are you wearing was what Lauren wanted to ask, but instead she looked down at her Cubs shirt and cutoff jeans and said, "Clothes for playing in the woods."

 

Miranda shook her hair, an elaborately teased and sprayed mass that had been wrestled into a high ponytail. "We're not playing in the woods. What are we, nine? We're going to the Dream Machine."

 

"Why didn't you just say we were going to the Dream Machine?" Lauren asked.

 

Lauren didn't really care about arcade games except maybe pinball, and she especially didn't like going to the Dream Machine because lately it meant that she and Miranda would stand around watching boys that Miranda thought were cute.

 

"Tad asked me to meet him there," Miranda said excitedly, ignoring Lauren's question. "He actually called me today."

 

So why do I have to go? Lauren thought. If she'd known what Miranda had planned she would have brought a book to read. There was nothing more boring than watching some guy playing Pac-Man. Also, what kind of stupid name was Tad? Lauren wasn't sure she remembered who exactly Tad was, either. It was hard to keep track of which boy was at the top of Miranda's scrolling list of interests.

 

"And he said he's going to bring some of his friends, so there will be someone for you, too," Miranda finished. She said this last bit like she had gotten a really amazing present for Lauren and couldn't wait to hear how much she loved it.

 

"Oh," Lauren said.

 

"Let's go," Miranda said. "Leave your bike here. We can cut through the woods and come out behind Frank's."

 

Frank's Deli was directly across the street from the Dream Machine. Lauren didn't like coming out of the woods there because there were always rats running around behind Frank's. She always told her mother not to buy lunch meat there because of that.

 

"Don't be silly, Lauren," Mom would say. "Of course there are rats outside. They're attracted to garbage. That doesn't mean there are rats inside."

 

"It doesn't mean there aren't, either," Lauren said darkly, and refused to eat so much as a slice of roast beef from Frank's. It meant a lot of peanut butter sandwiches because her mom would almost always go to Frank's unless she went shopping at the big super grocery store in the next town and got deli meat while she was there.

 

"Which one is Tad again?" Lauren asked as she leaned her bike against the tree. There was no worry that anything would happen to it. No one ever stole anything that belonged to the ghost tree.

 

Miranda hit Lauren's shoulder with the back of her hand. "He works at Wagon Wheel, remember? We just went there to see him last week."

 

Lauren dredged up the memory of a greasy-haired guy throwing two slices of pizza in front of them as they'd sat on the tall chairs at the counter, feet dangling. He'd barely acknowledged Miranda's existence.

 

"That guy?" Lauren asked.

 

"He looks just like Matt Dillon in The Outsiders," Miranda said with a little sigh.

 

"No, he doesn't," Lauren said.

 

Usually she let Miranda's statements pass by without an argument, but she couldn't let that one go. Lauren had the poster with the cast of The Outsiders on it hanging on the back of her bedroom door, and she got a good look at Matt Dillon every morning. Tad did not look a thing like him.

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