Nothing good comes from living in the Devil's swamp.
Willow Bell thinks moving to the Okefenokee area isn't half bad, but nothing prepares her for what awaits in the shadows of the bog.
Girls are showing up dead in the swamp. And she could be next.
Everyone warns Willow to stay away from Beau Cadwell—the bad boy at the top of their suspect list as the serial killer tormenting the small town.
But beneath his wicked, depthless eyes, there's something else that draws Willow to him.
When yet another girl he knew dies, though, Willow questions whether she can trust her instincts…or if they're leading to her own death.
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|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||3 MB|
|Age Range:||12 Years|
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THE SWAMP BEATS AND THROBS and hums with life. Sickly hot air meets a limitless blue sky, and below, a forest of teeth and limbs reaches toward a jagged scar of land that separates two properties.
One belongs to my family.
Gran lives on the edge of the Okefenokee wetlands in a damned city named Waycross, Georgia, in a damned county called Ware, as she would say. A place where nothing exciting ever happens, life trudges on, resisting change, and the people like it that way. It's a world built on legends and secrets that run like a vein through the heart of history.
Most claim only the craziest live this far out. And they're partially right.
"The brightest light casts the darkest shadow," Gran says.
I eye our property through the kitchen window. I happen to like the shadows, the seclusion of the trees, the whispers of the forest. Especially at night, when everything takes a less defined form, when the swamp comes to life.
"I'm telling you, this world would be better off if they remembered that. 'Specially that neighbor of mine, never mindin' his own business. Telling me I need to stop feeding the gators. I can feed the gators any damn time I want. It's my land. I wish he'd just move on already, bless his heart." I'm a replica of Gran. Except Gran is much older, wrinkled like a rippled reflection in water. My hair is hers, dark and thick, though hers has now faded to gray. And our eyes are identical, a solid brown — so brown that my pupils bleed into them. I am younger and more beautiful, she would say. But Gran says all kinds of things.
"By 'move on'" — I pause to turn off the stove and shuffle eggs onto Gran's plate — "do you mean 'die'?"
"Hell right I do," she says, grabbing a biscuit, a scoop of sausage gravy, and four pieces of bacon. "Maybe then I'll have some peace around this godforsaken swamp." "Gran, it's not nice to wish people dead."
Gran despises the next-door neighbor, Mr. Cadwell, making sure to ignore his greetings and glances. He's nice enough, I suppose. But I don't know him like she does. Word has it they even dated once, long before she decided that he was evil.
"You're new here, Willow," she says. "Just you wait and see. Twisted, that's what that family is, the whole lot of them."
It's true that I'm new. I've been here five days, though I've visited plenty of times over the years. Never long enough to know the old man next door for anything more than a passing hello lost on the wind. I glance outside again. Marsh is everywhere, pushing the smell of earth and fungus through the open window. Patches of water are blanketed in green algae, alligator eyes popping up like floating marbles. Cypress trees protrude from the murky water, reminding me of notches of bone, little leaves growing from them. Lifeless branches float along for the ride. The swamp is the kind of place a girl can get lost in and never find her way out.
Though Gran's land is mostly wet, there's solidness, too. My eyes trace the long path that cuts the property between Gran and Mr. Cadwell in half. I'm expecting to see nature — the kinds of birds Dad and Mom study, snakes, grass, and forever sky — the same things I've seen every morning since moving here with Dad and Mom to help Gran, who's ailing but doesn't like to admit it.
I get halfway down the path with my stare before my eyes snag on something. A serving spoon falls from my hand with a clatter into the sink.
"Who," I whisper, "is that?"
Across the way stands a boy. He's staring at me, wearing a twisted grin like he knows me. The wind ruffles his depths-of-the-ocean black hair. He's wearing a dark shirt and dark jeans, and I cannot tear my eyes from his.
Gran hobbles over and looks out the window. "What is he doing so close to our side?"
"You know him?" I ask.
I can't stop staring out the old, weathered screen.
"Hell right, I do. Grandson of the evil next door. Trouble in living form. Someone oughta hand that boy a Bible. Change his life forever and ever, amen." Gran curses a lot. "Hell" is her favorite word.
"Hell, you'd better look away first," Gran says. "B'fore he snares you for good."
I wonder if she's right. I want to look away first. Okay, that's a lie. I don't want to look away at all.
"Mother!" Dad's voice enters the room a moment before he does. "Did I just hear you cursing around Willow again?"
I rip my eyes away — though it's hard — to see Dad clad in shorts and a T-shirt, ready for another day of observation. He and Mom are ornithologists, scientists who study birds. Mom follows Dad into the kitchen and takes a seat at the table; her strawberry-blond hair is braided and slipped through the adjustable hole in her hat. Dad's hair is like Gran's and mine, his eyes, too. Mom's eyes are blue, and I'm secretly glad mine are not. I enjoy being like Gran.
"It's not good to curse around her; she's only seventeen," Dad continues.
In Florida, Dad and Mom studied birds so much that I hardly ever saw them. Here's no different, but at least now I have Gran to keep me company.
"Doesn't matter, and you know it," Gran says. "A heart is a heart is a heart. A few words here and there won't change that."
My stare goes to the window again. The boy is gone.
"Quit looking for that boy, you hear?" Gran says, knowing.
"I'm not looking for him," I reply. But I'm a lying liar.
"What boy?" Dad asks.
I join him and Mom at the table.
"No one," my lying self answers.
Maybe I should take him a Bible and say it's from Gran, and then I'd have a reason to meet him.
"Stop thinking about him," Gran says.
"I'm not!" I say, frustrated. But only because she knows me so well that I can't hide myself from her.
"Are too, girl. I'm no damn idiot."
Dad shakes his head and sighs. "Mom, the cursing. And what boy?"
"There's a new neighbor," I say. "Or maybe he's an old neighbor. Who knows? I've never seen him before today. But he was there on the path and now he's not. That's all."
Mom smiles. "Well, how old is he? Maybe you can make a friend."
We all look to Gran for the answer.
"Don't need to know nothin' about him. He's rotten like the mushrooms 'round here. Soul black as the night," she grumbles.
Clearly Gran isn't a fan. We drop it and eat our breakfast, Dad and Mom jabbering about some new species of bird they think they've discovered. Gran watching me like a hawk. And me wondering about the gorgeous black-souled, trouble-in-living-form grandson of the evil next door.
I KNOW THE MINUTE SHE ENTERS the classroom because all eyes swivel to her, though she's only a devil's minute late.
"Hi," she says, smiling at the dull-as-death teacher who's droning on about the history of blah blah blah.
"Hello," Mr. Dull says. "Are you Willow?"
It's odd of her to show up for her first day on a Friday.
There's only one high school in our county. Each new student is sent here. That's not why she's interesting, though. It's because she's the girl I saw next door, the one who looks like the old lady, if the old lady had tripped over time and fallen backward.
"Great," he says. "I've been looking forward to meeting you ever since they notified me of your arrival. Please find a seat. We've only just started. And here, take this."
He hands her a textbook like he's giving her a baby, something precious. No one but him cares about the required reading, but she's polite enough about it.
"Thank you," she says, and turns to find a seat.
That's when her eyes loop with mine. I see that she remembers me, too.
"Hi," I say boldly.
There are whispers. My friend Grant, sitting in front of me with a head of curls, turns around with a smile that says, This should be interesting.
Mr. Dull says something about everyone being quiet in order for him to continue to bore us to absolute death. Or maybe that's how I heard it. Willow moves to take a seat a few down from mine in the back.
"Mind moving over a couple of seats for the new student?" I whisper to the girl next to me. Rachel or Raquel or something similar.
Rachel-Raquel begins to laugh, thinking I'm joking, but stops when she sees the serious look in my eyes. Quickly, she swipes up her book and moves to the other chair, forcing Willow to sit in the only available seat — next to me.
"Hello," I say again, flashing a grin.
Mr. Dull is talking too loudly to hear me.
With a small laugh, Grant whispers, "Here we go."
"Hi," she says, opening her book.
"Willow." I say her name, testing it in my mouth.
Her dark hair brushes her desk and hides part of her face. But I already know she's beautiful.
"What's your last name, Willow? Is it Bell? Are you related to Old Lady Bell?"
She is, and I know it. And she knows it. I just want to show her that I realize who she is, I suppose.
"That's none of your damn business," she says with a small smile.
They're definitely related.
"Didn't your mom teach you it's impolite to curse?" I tease.
"Didn't your mom teach you to read a Bible?" she fires back. "From what I hear, you need that and more with your black soul."
I can't help it. I laugh.
"Is that what Old Lady Bell is saying these days?" The woman never has liked my family much. Hasn't had any reason to.
"What's your name?" Willow asks.
People are staring, but I don't care.
"Beau Cadwell. Grandson of Parker Cadwell next door. The evilest family in all the swamp."
Or so people say.
Willow bites down on her pencil eraser, and I find my eyes drawn to her lips.
"Well, Beau," she says in a sweet tone. "I don't think we're supposed to be friends."
"I suppose not."
Her eyes are darker than anything I've ever seen. They're the type of dark that takes over the swamp after the sun falls from the sky.
"You might be trouble for me," I say, joking. "And I am not nice," I add, not joking.
"Everyone is part good, part bad," she replies.
I don't think she realizes just how offset those parts of me are.
"Even so, you should probably not associate with me," she says. "My gran would hate it."
"Would you hate it?" I ask.
Willow twists the metal-clothed eraser between her teeth for a moment before speaking. She holds my stare like she holds her breath. "I'm still trying to decide, Beau Cadwell."
I like my name on her lips. I like her tongue on her lips. I'd probably like my tongue on her lips, too.
"You are trouble, after all, I hear." But she doesn't say it like she's scared of trouble.
"Then we definitely shouldn't be friends." I don't mean a word of it.
"Okay." Her eyes leave mine. She looks around the dingy classroom, like she's just now taking it in, walls buried behind history posters and a chalkboard covered in something that is supposed to pass as legible handwriting.
Half the class is staring at her. Some of the guys look like they want to order her up for dinner. Some of the girls look like they want to burn her alive for talking to me. Just because things ended badly between most of the girls and me doesn't mean they need to hold a grudge. What does it take to get girls to move on around here?
"Do you want to be friends anyway?" I ask.
She lets her eyes find their way back to me. "Okay."
And just like that I have an in with the new girl, Willow Bell.
Grant fist-bumps me when Willow isn't looking.
From across the room, near the front of the class, my twin sister is watching. She sends a razor-sharp smile my way, knowing that I'll probably do to Willow what I do to all the girls here, which is break her perfect little heart into so many pieces that nothing can fix it.
"HI, I'M JORIE," says the girl who plops down next to me on the concrete bench.
Around us, people talk, most rehashing the details of the day as they wait for the bus home. I catch bits and pieces of conversations — a football pep rally, a bake sale, an opening on the school debate team.
"I'm Willow," I say. "How do you get your hair to do that?"
Jorie's hair is like a zebra, black with white stripes, or maybe it's the other way around. I never could tell that about zebras — black and white or white and black? And her hair is the same.
"It's a weave. My momma's a stylist." She pops her gum loud-like. "She does all kinds of hair but specializes in African American techniques, learned from her momma. They're as black as the night sky all the way back as far as time goes until me. I got a bit of my daddy in me. His skin is light like yours."
I like her skin. It's not quite light or dark. I like her accent, too, though I can't place it.
"Where are you from, Jorie?" I ask.
"The bayous of Louisiana originally, but I don't remember it. Was just a baby when we moved here. You?" "I'm from Georgia originally, a county two hours north of here. Moved to Florida for a bit before coming back. My parents study birds, and that's a good place to do it." It's a lame thing to say, but it's the truth.
"Wanna sit with me on the bus?" Jorie offers. "Then you won't have to worry about people bugging you about Beau."
"Why would they do that?" I have no idea how she knows that I've met him.
"Because he's Beau," she says.
Like that explains it.
Jorie's all elbows and knees and sharp angles. I wonder how she stays in shape. I'm curvy and always carrying around what Gran calls biscuit weight. Not that I'm overweight — I'm not — I'm just soft. I once asked Gran over the phone what I could do to lose ten pounds after I saw this quiz in a magazine that said I could look my best with a little weight shed. She said I'd have to quit eating biscuits. But that's crazy talk. Who has ever heard of giving up biscuits? No, thanks.
The bus pulls up, and we pile on. It's not completely full, so I don't think I need to sit with Jorie to avoid sitting by someone else, after all. But I'm happy to, all the same.
"What did you mean about Beau?" I ask, once we're settled in, bags down between our legs to make room. The bus jerks away from the curb.
Jorie pops her gum three times before she answers. Her kohl-rimmed eyes remind me of almonds dipped in chocolate.
"You really don't know, do you?" she asks.
"'Course not," I reply. "Just moved here a week ago, and today's the first time I met him. He seems nice."
Jorie laughs. It's a boisterous sound that turns heads. She smacks a hand on her thigh and says, "Girl, stop playing. Beau is not nice. Never is that boy nice unless he needs something. Hot? Yes. Taken? Yes. Smooth as a pearl shined? Yes. But nice? Never. Not once."
I hear all of Jorie's words. Each one after the other, but the only one that sticks is this: taken.
"He has a girlfriend?" I ask.
"I knew it." Her eyes slide my way. "You like him. Every girl who likes boys does. It's not just you. But you have to learn to fight it, or he'll devour you."
I'm not so sure I consider that a bad thing.
"And yes, he's taken. Every day of the week. The girls don't last more than a couple of weeks, but they are always there. One after the other," she says.
The thought irks me. Don't ask me why, because I don't know.
"Well, he and I aren't anything to each other, so I'm sure there's nothing for me to worry about," I say. "I don't even think he's hot."
Yes I do.
"Atta girl," Jorie says. "Keep lying to yourself and eventually you might actually believe it. It's a start."
"I'm not lying," I say.
"You're lying now," she says.
"Maybe," I admit.
"Like I said," Jorie continues. "Almost all girls fall for him. But be careful. He's an inch shy of as wicked as they get."
Maybe I like wicked. Maybe I top my pies with wicked, and maybe I order wicked every day; she doesn't know. I can handle it, I tell myself. But that might be the lying liar in me.
"Him and that sister of his, both," Jorie says. "You'll mostly find him with those two goons, Grant and Pax. I'm sure you've seen them. One looks like a bird and the other like a gorilla. You might get a chance to see him alone more than most people, though, because he's your neighbor, right?"
"Hard to tell," I say. "I've never seen him before, and I used to visit often."
A memory hits me. A stringy young boy — same age as me at the time, eight — running around the yard, chasing squirrels as though he means to catch one.
"If you're looking to eat it, you have to set a trap, you know," I say. "And try being quiet when you approach them — it helps. Plus, who are you and why are you on my gran's property?"
"I'm not. I'm on my grandpa's side. See?" he replies. "That's the dividing line back behind you."
He was right. He was technically on his side.
Excerpted from "Wicked Charm"
Copyright © 2018 Amber Hart.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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