When Martha Covington moves to Amberleen, Georgia, after her release from a psychiatric ward, she thinks her breakdown is behind her. A small town with a rich history, Amberleen feels like a fresh start. Taking a summer internship with the local historical society, Martha is tasked with gathering the stories of the Geechee residents of nearby Shell Heap Island, the descendants of slaves who have lived by their own traditions for the last three hundred years.
As Martha delves into her work, the voices she thought she left behind start whispering again, and she begins to doubt her recovery. When a grisly murder occurs, Martha finds herself at the center of a perfect storm—and she’s the perfect suspect. Without a soul to vouch for her innocence or her sanity, Martha disappears into the wilderness, battling the pull of madness and struggling to piece together a supernatural puzzle of age-old resentments, broken promises, and cold-blooded murder. She finds an unexpected ally in a handsome young man fighting his own battles. With his help, Martha journeys through a terrifying labyrinth—to find the truth and clear her name, if she can survive to tell the tale.
Praise for The Girl in the Maze
“A Southern Gothic thriller with a twisty plot and echoes of Tana French.”—Dianne Emley, bestselling author of Killing Secrets
“The Girl in the Maze has suspense, action, memorable characters and even a perfect storm.”—Savannah Morning News
“One of the best books I’ve read [this year] . . . The Girl in the Maze is a genre-crushing story that’s part mystery, part thriller, with elements of horror. The result is a terribly entertaining novel.”—Cemetery Dance
“I’m very familiar with coastal Georgia, including Savannah and the islands. Somehow, Jackson has captured the mysterious beauty and sense of impending danger one always feels there. The setting itself becomes both a mirror and a character in this intriguing and suspenseful story.”—Barbara Lebow, Guggenheim Fellow, author of A Shayna Maidel
“The Girl in the Maze is as mysterious and suspenseful as it is intriguing—much like Georgia’s coastal marshland, where the tale is set.”—Santa Barbara News-Press
“This scared the hell out of me.”—Laura Otis, MacArthur Fellow, author of Müller’s Lab
“A suspenseful book, well written, and with a beautiful setting rich in history. I thoroughly enjoyed this supernatural thriller, and recommend it to all fans of the genre.”—I Heart Reading
“A fast-paced psychological thriller that keeps you engaged from beginning to end.”—Reading Femme
“Enthralling . . . a psycho-thriller of dark secrets in a small historic Georgian coastal town.”—Judith D. Collins Must Read Books
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
She wants to kill you.
Martha’s fingers tightened onto the Pentel No. 2 pencil, clutched in her lap like a secret talisman. Dr. Ellijay picked up the stack of test booklets, squared them on her desk with soft raps, and began handing them out. She walked slowly down the aisle, her heels popping on the linoleum.
Not today, Martha thought. Please, Lenny, not today.
Outside the casement windows, the campus was awash in gray, a silent movie, as it had been for days, suspended between fog and drizzle, the dull light suppressing shadows, flattening the neo-Gothic buildings of Ponce de Leon College like a plywood set. Only two o’clock, but outside looked more like dusk.
The quad was empty, except for a lone figure seated on a bench, a man in a tweed blazer taking notes in a composition book. He looked up in Martha’s direction, then down at the notebook, then toward her again. To escape his gaze, she looked elsewhere, beyond the campus buildings, above the crenellated rooflines.
It was there again. She had seen it before, on bad days, and now it stretched across the buildings, high above the spires and turrets, gelatinous and nearly invisible except for a network of threadlike capillaries. It pulsed and it heaved, breathing, alive.
Don’t look at it, Lovie. Lenny murmured in her ear, his voice moist and intimate. You know they don’t want you to see that, right? Just pretend you don’t see it.
Today Lenny was only a voice, but on some days she could see him. He was tall and gaunt, his skin white and mottled, like the belly of a toad. Spiked hair. Blue jeans shiny with stains. Canvas sneakers, gray and frayed.
Martha felt a touch on her shoulder, jerked around.
“Relax, Martha.” Wade leaned forward in the desk behind her. “You look as tight as a piano wire. You’ll do great.”
You won’t do great. You’ll die, Lenny hissed. S’truth. You’ll die if you even touch the paper.
This was the first time Wade had spoken to her in months. In the early weeks of the semester, he had flirted with her, singled her out for special attention. For a while, the attraction had been mutual. She liked his pug nose, his subversive sense of humor. But that was before.
Dr. Ellijay walked to the end of the next aisle, Martha’s aisle.
Have a look out, Lovie. ’Ere it comes.
Martha tried to concentrate, to review her mental notes. This was the final. Her grades had been floundering—that’s all part of the plan, innit?—but Martha had decided she would overcome the plan. She wouldn’t let them win.
Don’t touch the paper, Lenny rasped. It’s printed with poison ink. It’s like them colorful frogs in Ecuador. We learned about that in Biology 101, remember? Beautiful, but lethal. If you touch the ink, you’ll die.
Dr. Ellijay returned to her desk at the front of the room and glanced at her wristwatch. “All right, you have forty-five minutes,” she told the class. “You may begin now. Good luck.”
Look at ’er. She’s watchin’ you. She wants to see you fail. Touch the frog poison and you’ll die. Look out the window. The man on the bench, he’s watchin’, too. They’re all watchin’. They’ve all been waitin’ for this moment, doncha see?
Martha stared at the page, paralyzed. She felt a drop of perspiration release from her armpit and crawl down her side. Around her, she heard the frantic scratching of her fellow students’ pens, which mingled with the sounds of the rats in the walls, the ones that chewed at the masonry with sharp teeth like yellow rice grains. The other students acted as if the rats weren’t there.
She glanced at the clock. Six minutes gone already. She looked down at the paper and tried to focus, to form the answers in her mind.
If you fall for it—don’t say I din’t warn you, Lovie.
She wanted to cry, or to scream, but she was motionless except for the pounding of her heart.
Don’t react. Don’t let ’em know. Don’t let ’em on to you, right? That’s the worst thing.
She heard Dr. Ellijay’s footsteps approach and stop next to her desk. She didn’t look up.
“Martha? It’s been ten minutes, and you haven’t even started. Are you all right?”
A swarm of ghostly amoeba shapes floated in front of Martha’s eyes, and she felt as if her head would explode.
“Martha?” Dr. Ellijay placed a hand on her shoulder.
Martha screamed and lunged out of her seat, pushing the desk over, causing books to tumble out.
Run. It’s yer only chance—run like hellfire.
She bounded up the aisle, reached the door, and flung it open with a bang.
In the hallway, Martha collided with a student on his cellphone, texting. She turned the corner onto another hallway and spotted the door to the custodial closet. She tried the knob. It opened. She slipped inside, squeezed next to a plastic mop bucket with rubber wheels, pulled the door closed, and slid to the floor.
In the darkness, she could smell ammonia. She heard the rats scurry around her. One brushed against her ankle, another along the back of her neck. Out in the hallway, footsteps approaching. Voices calling her name. But Martha remained silent, invisible.
This is one thing we’re good at, hey, Lovie? Lenny said. We know how to vanish.
Ten months later
Martha sat on an iron bench in front of the Wash-and-Fold and watched a column of ants as they marched away carrying crumbs from the smashed corner of a ham sandwich.
She had made the walk from the Pritchett House to Tobias Avenue in only fifteen minutes, strolling past dew-damp lawns and sprinklers, reaching the business district early. Nothing to do now but wait and watch the town slowly wake up. The morning was hazy, already humid. The rising sun painted sharp, expanding triangles of yellow on the buildings and storefronts.
Martha opened her leather satchel and unfolded the advertisement, the one Vince found on the bulletin board at the Gateway Center. She reread it for the hundredth time.
The Historical Society of Amberleen, Georgia, seeks a full-time intern to assist with book project. Must be bright, organized, and detail-oriented, able to hit the ground running. Will transcribe/edit interviews, write introductions, assist with research. Three-month term with stipend.
She felt restless, considered moving to the local diner for a cup of coffee, then scrapped the idea. Like so many things, caffeine was no longer admissible.
She wished she’d brought a book to read, or maybe a newspaper. Anything to take her mind off the fluttery feeling in her gut, a sensation that took hold yesterday when the Trailways bus crossed the Intracoastal Waterway and rolled past that sign in the grass median: welcome to amberleen. spacious oaks, friendly folks.
Martha held the leather satchel close to her face and sniffed. The smell calmed her. It reminded her of her father, who kept it bulging with papers as he shuttled between their house and the university. She tilted the satchel and heard a faint rattle from within, a secret sound. The part of herself she would keep hidden.
A Lincoln Continental pulled up in front of the brick building across the street and parked. A tall woman with white hair and an old-fashioned collared dress got out, unlocked the glass door to the building, and entered. Martha checked her watch—eight-fifteen. She took out a mirror, freshened her lip gloss, and brushed a few strands of loose hair from her face. It was time.
Gold letters stenciled on the door announced the names of the tenants inside: mulkey & dunlap, attorneys at law, and below that, amberleen historical society, suite 200. She entered and ascended a narrow stairway, her flats echoing off the cement walls. Wearing her new cream-colored wool suit, she felt sharp, almost normal. It was like floating on a calm lake.
Remember to speak normally. Don’t slur your words. And if you hear Lenny—
She paused on a landing, gripped the tarnished handrail. Lenny, now exiled to the fringes of her consciousness. If he speaks, ignore him.
She ascended the last steps and entered the vacant reception area and took in its furnishings—vinyl sofa and chair, coffee table with a scattering of magazines, dusty venetian blinds, cast-iron radiator. The door opened behind her and a slender young woman with frizzy blond hair entered carrying a Krispy Kreme donut box, a carton of coffee cups balanced on top.
“Here, let me help you.” Martha put her satchel down and reached for the cups.
“Thanks, you can set those right on the desk. Are you Martha?” The woman flashed a glossy smile. Martha wondered if she was sincere.
“Yes, Martha Covington. I’m starting today—”
“Yes, I know. I know all about you.” Martha tightened inside. How much does she know? “My name’s Stacey.” The woman extended a hand with bright orange fingernails. “I’m the receptionist and bookkeeper. Welcome. We’ve been looking forward to having you come and help us out.”
“Well, let me run back and let Lydia know that you’re here. Make yourself comfortable. Would you like a cruller?”
Stacey disappeared through a swinging door. Martha looked up at a big, black-and-white aerial picture on the wall behind the desk. Waterfront buildings, like gray Legos, fronted a wide ribbon of river. Beyond that, a tangle of creeks, marshland, and barrier islands stretched for miles, then finally gave way to a dark crescent of ocean.
Martha thought back to her last session with Vince, his final words to her: You can do this.
“I’m always just a phone call away, Martha. And I’ll see you again in three months.” And then Vince stood—his customary signal that they’d reached the end of their session.
Martha focused on the wood sculpture on the shelf across the room—a short log, resting on its end. From the middle of the log, a whimsical face peered out, as if checking to make sure it was safe to emerge.
Vince’s office was a safe, woodsy place. With its warm walnut paneling and furniture and folk-art decor, it had become a womb to her. Like his furnishings, Vince’s eyes were comforting. He had round, dark features and a close-cropped beard that covered much of his face—too much for Martha. But his eyes always spoke to her, always told her how much he cared.
Her relationship with Vince was the most intimate bond she had ever shared with another human being aside from her parents. Now that it had to end, Martha struggled to put on a brave face. She didn’t want to disappoint him. She nodded and got up to leave.
“Wait, Martha. I have something to give you.”
She paused, not turning yet, and something like a cold tide rose up in her body. She wasn’t sure if it was fear or joy.