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Under the Light

Under the Light

4.5 4
by Laura Whitcomb

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“Life proves as haunting as death in this well-crafted ghost story.”—Kirkus Reviews

Helen needed a body to be with her beloved. Jenny had to escape from hers before her spirit was broken. It was wicked, borrowing it, but love drives even the gentlest soul to desperate acts.

And Helen, who has returned to help Jenny, finds herself


“Life proves as haunting as death in this well-crafted ghost story.”—Kirkus Reviews

Helen needed a body to be with her beloved. Jenny had to escape from hers before her spirit was broken. It was wicked, borrowing it, but love drives even the gentlest soul to desperate acts.

And Helen, who has returned to help Jenny, finds herself trapped, haunting the girl she wished to save. Jenny and Billy's love story begins out-of-body and continues into the tumultuous realm of the living, where they are torn apart just as they begin to remember falling in love.

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From the Publisher

"Life proves as haunting as death in this well-crafted ghost story."
Children's Literature - Lena Shaban
This story takes place in the world of spirits where the author's own brush with haunted houses may very well lay its basis, as well as that of her praiseworthy previous work, A Certain Slant of Light. Jenny tries to will her spirit into existence after she gets into trouble with her parents, which is easy to do in her pious household. Jenny does the unthinkable, wanting to be out of her own skin. Jenny, during her out-of-body experience, revisits, almost haphazardly, all kinds of places she had been previously in her life; almost as if it was supposed to come together for her. She levitates to where a boy spirit is and their pull is so strong they can feel each other's touch. They banter about the extent of what they can do now and then join forces. At lightning speed, their romance begins. The boy spirit has his own reasons for leaving his body to go free-wheeling in this ulterior realm with Jenny. Next enters Helen, who finds her escape by occupying Jenny's otherwise spiritless body. The concept of heaven and earth shift with the perspective of Helen and Jenny, depending on the chapter title. This story gave me the goosebumps. I cannot help but think of the resounding theme—how love that traverses the bounds of space and time. Reviewer: Lena Shaban
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—During an excruciatingly miserable scene in the family "Prayer Corner," Jenny exercises her ability to mentally leave her body-but this time she stays away for days. In this state, her spirit meets a boy in a field, Billy, who left his body during a substance-abuse-induced coma. Their innocent, but exalted, friendship ends abruptly when they are called back to their physical bodies. They have no memory of their former relationship but there is concrete evidence of a steamy romance between them left by the two ghosts who occupied their bodies in their absence in A Certain Slant of Light (Houghton Harcourt, 2005). In fact, the collateral damage done by these ghosts is so severe that one of them, Helen, is compelled to return from heaven to try to help Jenny. Jenny and Billy manage to figure out what has been going on and staunchly deal with the new complications in their lives on top of coping with the old stresses that caused them to leave their bodies in the first place. Helen's return is sometimes a hindrance but ultimately helps Jenny as together they face the worst moments in her life. Coping with her pain and purging her resentment leave Jenny ready to grow and move on-and she refuses to leave Billy behind. An unusual first love tale, Under the Lightwill appeal to a wider audience than A Certain Slant of Light but reading that book first would definitely make it easier to follow.—Kathy Cherniavsky, Ridgefield Library, CT
Kirkus Reviews
Teens overcome troubled lives through metaphysical and spiritual opportunities in this poetic sequel. After being humiliated by her zealot father and unsupportive mother, Jenny drifts away, leaving her body open for Helen, a 130-year-old ghost still mourning her untimely death. A ghostly companion to creative people, Helen seizes the opportunity to become corporeal and connect with kindred spirit James, who occupies the body of drug-abusing juvenile delinquent Billy. Helen only uses Jenny for six days, but even the gentlest spirits can cause destruction, and Jenny unwillingly returns from an astral-projection adventure to a shattered life and ruined reputation. She seeks comfort in Billy's company, and together they try to come to terms with their trauma and to remember their out-of-body experiences. To chilling effect, Whitcomb skillfully incorporates the unsettling and grotesque aspects of the living teens' family lives--Billy's abusive childhood, Jenny's fanatical parents (like characters from a Stephen King novel)--and Helen's disastrous death and separation from her daughter. Jenny's and Helen's voices are distinct and passionate, though the shifts between narrators and planes of existence can be disorienting. Jenny's reconstruction of events revisits the same characters and setting as A Certain Slant of Light (2005) but offers further literary and elegiac contemplation of life, love and the afterlife. Life proves as haunting as death in this well-crafted ghost story. (Paranormal romance. 14 & up)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.73(d)
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I used to practice leaving my body. Closing my eyes in the shower, letting the spray beat on my forehead, forcing my pulse to drop. Id breathe in the steam as slowly as possible. Id pretend to drift out of my flesh and over the top of the shower curtain, slip out the open window.
   The first day that it actually worked, it lasted only a few seconds. I was in bed, in the dark, too restless to sleep. I imagined I was a shooting star falling backwards away from earth, and the next moment I wasnt under the covers anymore. I opened my eyes to find myself cocooned between silver foil and cotton-candy-pink insulation, planted halfway in my bedroom wall. I could lean down and look out through the wallpaper. At first it felt normal. My body lay below like a crash dummy, pale and too stupid to save itself. Is that what a dead body looks like? Then the idea of being dead made my spirit zip into my flesh again so fast, the mattress shook.
   But the second time, when it really worked, I wasnt thinking about leaving my body at all. I didnt even realize what was happening until it was too late. Some part of me decided to escape without needing permission from my brain.
   For the first fifteen years of my life, I had survived lots of bad days and never once ran away from home. Like the afternoon my parents discovered the photos Id taken of myselfI never saw that camera again. I should have stashed the pictures in a better place. I thought Id been more clever about hiding my diary. Still, on the day I left my body, I came home from school and found my father was holding it in his hands.
   For such a small book it held an enormous weightthe most disturbing things my father could imagine, I guess: my true thoughts and feelings, things about me he had no control over.
   My parents had been giving me a hard time that week because I didnt get straight-As on my midterms. They couldnt understand that I wasnt slacking offI was sick. I couldnt sleep for more than ten minutes at a time. Light bothered my eyes. Sudden sounds made me jump and want to cry.
   According to my father, the problem was that I was failing to live up to my potential. He reminded me that the devil tempts us with idle distractions.
   I was in trouble so often, Id gotten in the habit of pretending not to understand that my faults were sins, then acting grateful when my parents taught me the right way to behave. That worked for the little stuff: failing to excuse myself from a sex education lecture at school, talking to a strange man in the grocery store parking lot who wanted directions, walking to the park without asking permission. But this was serious, worse than the photos of myself that my father fed into the shredder.
   Now, with my secret writing in his hands, my father looked victorious. I knew you were wicked, his eyes told me. And youve proven me right with your own words.
   The Prayer Corner, at one end of our family room, was just three chairs used for family Bible study, prayer, and punishment. My mother and I sat down in our usual seats, but my father wouldnt sit.
   Is this a true reflection of your soul? he asked me.
   Why hadnt I kept it in my school locker?
   You may answer, he said, as if I was waiting for permission to speak.
   I dont know. In my mind I ran through what Id recorded on those pages. What was the worst thing?
   Your mother and I live our lives before you as daily examples of walking with Christ, he said, but it seems weve been giving you too many freedoms.
   He set the diary on his chair and slipped a shiny black square from his pocket. As he unfolded it, I saw that it was an extra-large garbage bag. I felt like a kitten about to be sacked and drowned.
   He didnt command us to come, but when he walked out into the hall, my mother followed, so I did too. She glanced back at me, and I thought her face would be stiff and angry, but she looked afraid. Maybe I wasnt the only one who had a secret diary tucked away.
   When we got to my bedroom, my father was already sliding around hangers in the closet, examining my clothes. He studied my skirts and sweaters, dresses front and back, leaving some items on their padded hangers and slipping others off, letting those drop into the sucking black hole of the garbage bag.
   I knew why he took away my blue tank top and the cotton camisole; the necks were a little low, the straps narrow. But I could only imagine why other items were unacceptable. My black jersey jacket. Was the cut too rock-and-roll for him? And my brown knit skirt. It was expensive, from Nordstroms, one my mother picked out. She gasped as he unclipped it from the hanger, but when my father paused, not even looking at her, she put a finger to her lips and said nothing. Was it because that skirt came more than an inch above my knees?
   He opened my dresser drawers and began to rifle through my underwear. I felt dizzy. Not because my father was touching my panties and bras, but because I was afraid that when he got to the lowest drawer hed discover the false bottom and the secret compartment below. I stepped back and sat on my bed, breathing slowly, in through my nose, out through my mouth, trying not to throw up. That bottom drawer might seem too shallow to him. He might rap on the bottom, knock the cardboard loose, and find those few black-and-white photographs that hed missed before. And the Polaroid camera I could use without getting the pictures developed at the store or downloading them on the computer. I felt my knees shaking and clamped my hands over them.
   Both my demi-cup bras and the black cotton one went in the garbage bag. I could feel my mother longing to object, seeing as how neither of my parents would want a white bra showing through under a black dress. But Mom held her tongue and the black bra, perhaps a sign of goth tendencies, disappeared into the plastic bag.
   My father hesitated in earnest about the pantyhose. My mom stiffened, folded her arms, afraid he would make a mistake and I would be caught in Sunday School with naked legs like some pantheist. But he left the stockings and moved on to the pajamas. He passed over the long-sleeved flannel nightie, but banished the thin white cotton one. He felt the jersey pajamas between his fingers perhaps to test how flimsy they might be. Did he imagine I would answer the door in them some Saturday morning and seduce a Mormon missionary?
   He left the pajamas, an innocent color of pale yellow, and moved to the bottom drawer. I held my breath. But all he did, when we saw the mass of mittens, gloves, knit hats and mufflers, was to pull out a black lace shawl. He slid the bottom drawer closed without disturbing the secret chamber.
   I was sure it was over, but he stepped to my dressing table and started picking things up. He stole my violet perfume and lifted the lid of my jewelry box. I didnt have pierced ears, so there wasnt a lot to choose from. Still, he took a silver bracelet formed from a row of running figures holding hands, a cheap mood ring, a plain gold anklet chain, a pendant of a pewter feather. He left the crosses and the birthstone hair clip from when I was ten.
   I already missed my tank tops, my soft black jacket, but more heartbreaking, he went to my bedside table and unplugged my CD player. I had already learned to check out books I wanted to read from the school library and to leave them in my locker until I returned them. My parents were not novel readers and seemed suspicious of literature. But my music, it was so safe. Words of protest stuck in my throat like clay.
   You can listen to appropriate music in the front room or the family room, he said as he dropped my player in the trash bag, the wires of my earplugs flipping over the rim like spaghetti. Not alone in your room.
   Where I dance naked? I wanted to ask, but I was weak and silent.
   He looked at my tiny collection of CDs. Our house was a couple decades behind, when it came to electronics. My father said they were Satans playthings. The smaller, the more suspicious. So here was my only store of music. And he took everythingthe ballet that helped me fall asleep, the Celtic dance music that got me going in the morning, the soundtrack that cheered me up when I closed my eyes and lay under my covers. The beautiful cases clattered into the swelling bag in my fathers hand. All my favorite things were being swallowed up.
   In my bathroom, he opened the cabinet and started to pick up my mascara.
   She needs to be presentable. My mother finally spoke up.
   Shes fifteen. She should not be trying to attract men.
   She cant wear coveralls and wash her hair with a bar of soap, she said, and he must have believed her because he left my toiletries alone.
   Again, he did not invite us to follow, but we did. He walked out of the bathroom, down the hall, through the kitchen, into the garage, and up to the garbage can. He lifted the lid, paused to tie a knot in the top of the bag, and gently lowered it into the can, letting the lid fall closed.
   The product of my self-expression was not good enough for the Salvation Army. I was already scheming how to get my music back and hide it at school, but the game wasnt over yet.
   Follow me. He was ordering a dog to come. My mother and I sat down obediently in the Prayer Corner.
   The spine of the diary crackled as he ripped out a handful of pages and thrust them in front of my face. Read. When I just stared at the papers he shook them under my nose. Take them and read.
   The pages looked wounded, jagged paper teeth dangling from the left side. The writing at the top of the page started in midsentence so I began with the next paragraph. I dont know, but I dont think God did that. Not the God I believe in. Could we really worship different Gods?
   My father reached down and tore the page from my grip, jabbed his finger at the next page down. I read out loud from the first line: . dreamed I was walking down a staircase at school and a guy who looked like the brother from that Shakespeare movie walked right up to me and put his hand under my blouse ... I hesitated. I remembered the dream, but I couldnt remember how many details Id written down.
   Go on. My father took his seat now, ready to be entertained. My mother sat with arms folded, legs folded, the foot that wasnt on the floor vibrating as if she were wired to a socket. My vision blurred for a momentmy ears were ringing. I couldnt look at my mother. Something bothered me about the way her foot suddenly stopped shaking.
   That was the last thing I remember before I found myself far away: my mothers shoe freezing in midair.
   The world disappeared.

I wasnt in the Prayer Corner anymore. I was sitting on something slantedbirds were chattering away. The shadow of a tree crossed over me ... no, through me. Sunshine and little shadows moved in the breeze. I was sitting on the roof of a house, but not mine. Our roof was flat and covered with white painted gravelId been up there to save a kite once. This roof was covered with brown shingles, the wood all dried out and warped. I recognized our street below. Id landed two doors down from my house.
   Stupidly, the first thing I did when I was free of my life was to fly back to it. When I left the neighbors roof, I didnt climb down like a human. I floated down like a bird.
   Im dead! I thought. I was as light as smoke. I was sure I must be a ghost. The idea that I might have had a brain aneurism right in the middle of Prayer Corner panicked meI rushed home expecting to hear my mothers screams ring out or sirens to fill the streets, but it was so quiet, you could hear the leaves in the trees fluttering.
   I expected to find my body lying on the floor in the family room, though when I flew around the side of our house and stopped at the glass doors, I saw I was wrong.
   My parents werent trying to revive my corpse, because there didnt seem to be anything wrong with me. My body was sitting up straight, my head bowed over my diary. There was a pen in my right hand.
   The sliding door was closed, but I could still hear my mothers voice.
   Exodus twenty, she read from the Bible in her lap. Then God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord your God.
   The Jenny I used to be took dictation, slowly writing in the journal as my parents watched. Now I noticed there was something wrong with me, but nothing my parents could detect.
   My flesh was empty. More graceful than a robot from a horror movie, but still horrible.

Meet the Author

Laura Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California, where she lived in a mildly haunted house for twelve years. She is the winner of three Kay Snow Writing Awards and currently lives in Portland, Oregon . Visit her website at  www.laurawhitcomb.com.

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