Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 7, 2018
Genres: Young Adult, Paranormal
Black Swan meets Paranormal Activity in this compelling ghost story about a former dancer whose grip on reality slips when she begins to think a dark entity is stalking her.
Something is wrong with Marianne.
It's not just that her parents have finally split up. Or that life hasn't been the same since she quit dancing. Or even that her mother has checked herself into the hospital.
She's losing time. Doing things she would never do. And objects around her seem to break whenever she comes close. Something is after her. And the only one who seems to believe her is the daughter of a local psychic.
But their first attempt at an exorcism calls down the full force of the thing's rage. It demands Marianne give back what she stole. Whatever is haunting her, it wants everything she has--everything it's convinced she stole. Marianne must uncover the truth that lies beneath it all before the nightmare can take what it thinks it's owed, leaving Marianne trapped in the darkness of the other side.
The silence still clings to me.
If I close my eyes it’s there waiting for me, filling my mouth, heavy as water. Ready to swallow me again.
I rest my forehead against the window, willing the ordinary sounds around me to wash the memory away: the windshield wipers, the spatter of the rain, the rattle in the wheel well. In the driver’s seat beside me, Mom breathes in little hitches, trying not to sound like she’s crying.
I risk a glance at her; she’s wiping her eyes. Her hair is usually tied up in a neat sweep of gleaming black, silver threads glinting through it. Today she’s yanked it through an elastic, pieces straggling dull and stringy around her face. Before I can look away again her gaze meets mine and she attempts a half smile.
It hurts to see it. I study the flowers in my lap: lilies—big, splashy orange ones. The smell is giving me a headache. They’re for Aunt Jennifer, for taking care of me. It’s not like I haven’t been to Aunt Jen’s overnight before, not like it’s some huge favor. How long is she planning to leave me there?
Mom slams on the brakes, and I clutch the bouquet to stop it from sliding to the floor. She grates out a few choice swear words at the car ahead of us.
“I left your father a message,” she says. “I sure hope he calls you.”
I take the words in like water—like an icy lake, swallowing their impact without a splash, letting them sink. I turn back to the window, watch my reflection slide over the river and the low-slung clouds. My face is thin and pale, my eyes dark hollows. I look like a ghost.
Mom heaves a sigh, yanks a tissue from the box sitting between us. She won’t tell me where she’s going. She won’t tell me why. Not that I’ve pressed her for details. There’s a traitorous piece of me that’s relieved. Mom’s always been unpredictable, prone to wild mood swings she apologizes for later, and Hurricane Laura, as Dad puts it, has been howling full blast these past couple days. We used to joke about battening down the hatches, waiting out the storm. But this time, Dad’s the reason she’s in pieces.
And he left me to pick them up by myself.
I won’t think about it. Just like last night—whatever happened last night. It’s a stone, and it’s vanishing into the water, leaving me serene. Unmoved.
Aunt Jen’s building is long and low, brick and stucco, a little shabby at the edges. It’s a strange contrast with the palatial homes on the next street, but that’s what this whole neighborhood is like. The boat launch at the end of the road is barricaded and piled high with sandbags to keep the river from swallowing the pavement. Right beside it, half a dozen two-story row units are surrounded by a high cedar hedge. Aunt Jen’s is the last one before the water. As the car crunches to a stop in the driveway, the sun comes out, as if from behind a veil. Suddenly, over the seawall, the river is all blue glitter, the trees drooping over the end of the street glowing golden-green, the last drops of rain sparkling as they drip from the leaves.
We sit silently in the car for a long moment. Seagulls wheel overhead, crying.
“Wait here,” Mom manages eventually, taking the flowers. She slams the door without waiting for me to respond and hurries over to Jen’s gate in the hedge, where a flush of pink roses shine in the sun.
I get out more slowly once she’s disappeared behind it. Their voices drift toward me: Mom’s barely muffled wails, Jen’s reassurances. I can’t make out words from here, though. I kick at a rock, following it down to the end of the road toward the seawall.
The river shouldn’t be this high. Behind the seawall—a chest-high barrier that zigzags behind the imposing homes lining the waterfront—the water is brown, choppy, slapping at the concrete a foot below the top, an occasional wave sending spray sloshing over onto the grass. By now it’s usually fallen low enough that the boat launch stands open to the river; later in the summer it drops all the way down to a stony outcropping that makes for a great place to skip rocks. It’s hard to imagine that now.
The rain hasn’t stopped for more than a couple of hours at a time this past week; I can’t even remember the last time the sun was out for this long. It won’t last. The news has been talking endlessly about record precipitation and the threat of flooding, images of picnic tables standing in the water and empty outdoor swimming pools with their surfaces pocked with raindrops. The DJs hosting the radio morning shows, in between laughing at their own jokes, moan about how summer is never going to come. Usually I love the peace and softness of rain, its soothing murmur on the roof. But it’s starting to feel oppressive lately. Inescapable.
I turn my back on the water, breathe in its green, weedy smell, and tell myself to relax. Aunt Jen’s place has always been cozy, a haven of good memories going back to when I was little. I used to play “inflatable Auntie” with her, pretending to blow her up like a beach ball. She would puff up obligingly and then deflate again, sagging in her chair and making a loud raspberry noise for full effect. I tried that game once with my mom, but she put on a pained smile and told me she didn’t like it. I think she was worried I was implying she was fat. Aunt Jen, comfortably plump compared to Mom, doesn’t seem to care about that sort of thing; she keeps her graying hair cut short, doesn’t wear makeup, and lives in jeans and sweaters unless forced to dress up, when she just drapes herself in something long and flowy.
The gate creaks, and Mom hurries out toward me, folds me into a tight hug. She’s not even trying to hide that she’s crying now. Aunt Jen follows behind her but heads to the car, popping open the trunk, although she casts a worried look our way.
“It’s only for a little while,” Mom whispers. “Just a little while. It’s not you, sweetie, I just can’t deal with this, not on top of everything else.”
“With what?” My voice breaks too, and despite my resolve, they come bubbling up: all the questions I haven’t dared to ask. “Mom. Please tell me. Did something happen last night?” She lets me go, half turns away, wrapping her arms around herself as if I punched her, her face crumpling. “Mom, what happened?”
“Nothing,” Mom sobs. “Nothing. Nothing.”
She draws a fierce breath, then another, and grips my shoulders, fixing me with a tearful glare.
“Nothing happened, Marianne!” Her fingers dig into my arms. “Understand? It’s not you. I just need to get some help. I’m going to get some help, all right? I’ll come and get you as soon as I can, and…and we’ll figure everything out. Okay?”
I nod. There’s nothing else I can do. The sun is gone again. I’m cold from the tips of my fingers to the hollow of my back, despite my sweater.
“Okay,” Mom repeats. Her lips tremble. “I love you.”
She pulls away, takes long steps back toward the car, and yanks the door open. She folds her arms over the steering wheel and rests her head on them for a moment while her shoulders shake. With the glass between us, I can’t hear her sobbing.
“Come on, Mare-bear.” It’s Aunt Jen’s arm around me now, a band of warmth, pulling me close. “Let’s go inside.”
We step into Aunt Jen’s living room, a cool, leafy cavern. Gray light filters through plants that spill from shelves and dangle from hanging planters. The piano, a mass of dark, carven wood, is the only surface that isn’t draped with fronds or vines. The little radio on the side table next to the old maroon couch fills the room with earnest, thoughtful conversation.
“I’ve set up the spare room for you,” Aunt Jen says, pulling the patio door closed behind us. “You can get yourself settled in a bit, and then we’ll have a cup of tea.”
Hugging my pillow, my laptop case banging against my leg, I follow her up the stairs. There are empty spots on the wall where pictures of my parents used to hang. I feel for my phone in my pocket. Dad hasn’t called. I hope he will. I hope he won’t.
The room hasn’t changed: the window looking down onto the garden and the river beyond it, a twin bed with a threadbare quilt, moss-green walls, a white dresser topped with a menagerie of little china animals—a tiger, a monkey, a turkey, a horse. Mom told me they belonged to my grandmother, who died when I was still a baby. I used to play with them when I was little.
“There’s plenty of space in the dresser if you want to unpack,” Aunt Jen offers tentatively. “It’s never fun living out of a suitcase.”
I set down the laptop case and fluff my pillow a couple of times before arranging it on the bed, trying to avoid her gaze.
“Well. I’ll go put the kettle on, Mare-bear, okay? Take your time.”
“It’s Marianne, please, Aunt Jen.” But she’s already out the door.
I sink down on the bed, which creaks under me. The rest of my life is unrecognizable, but everything here is the same. It’s like I’ve stepped into some parallel universe. Like any second I’ll hear my parents laughing downstairs as Jen pours glasses of wine, and none of this will have happened.
There is one thing that’s different. Usually there’s a picture of me and my parents on the wall beside the mirror. Now a much smaller frame hangs a little crookedly in its place, holding a snapshot from some distant summer: just me, striking a ta-da pose beside a leaning sandcastle. I remember that red swimsuit.
The photo must be from the beach right down the street from here, so close that we used to go there all the time. I remember those trips in flashes: Mom’s smile as she glanced back at me from the front seat, strings of hair whipping around her face in the gale from the open window. Dad’s hand on her bare knee. My sandaled toes tipping up toward the jewel blue of the sky at the apex of a swing. Dad diving for a volleyball and sprawling in the sand, making me laugh so hard my sides ached. The sparkle of the water, its delicious chill when I waded in. Swimming out as far as I dared, diving as deep as I could, reaching for the murky bottom.
I took yoga classes with Mom after I quit dance. To help me calm down, she said. Like she thought it would fix me. The studio must have been nice during the day, with sunshine pouring in through the wall of windows at the front. At night the fluorescent lights made everyone look tired and cold. At the beginning of each class, as we lay on our thin, hard mats, the instructor asked us to picture a place where we’d found tranquility, and every time that’s what I called up: the water, cold and green. It’s second nature now, the one useful thing I learned in those six weeks. I can summon it easily, lower myself into chilly weightlessness, the absence of sound, and hang suspended between worlds for a few long breaths until I’m cool and reasonable again. Lately I’ve frosted the surface over with a layer of ice, a shield keeping me submerged.
I close my eyes. The memory of silence, an empty horizon, rises around me, but I push it aside, force it down into the depths where dark water belongs. I’m not letting a bad dream spoil this for me, the one place where I’m truly safe. Around me I summon sunlight filtering down through the waves, a translucent, icy ceiling inches thick. Perfect, thoughtless peace closes over my head.
And then a noise like a firecracker, like a gunshot, yanks me back to reality. I leap to my feet, fear splashing through my chest.
It was the mirror above the dresser. Breaking. From a smashed, spiderwebbed epicenter, it’s split side to side, slicing my reflection in two with a thread of silver, frozen lightning. The two halves of my dislocated image slide past each other as the frame trembles into stillness.
“Marianne?” Aunt Jen appears in the doorway, frowning. “Is everything—”
Her words disappear into an indrawn breath. I follow her stare back to the mirror, and then to the floor, where the wooden cat from the bedside table is lying on the linoleum next to the dresser.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she says. The words are gentle; horrified. I shrink away from them. What just happened? She thinks I threw it. I open my mouth to protest—but I didn’t!—but the words wither, half-formed.
Did I throw it?
Aunt Jen looks at me for another long moment, her lips pursed in consternation, then comes over to wrap an arm around my shoulders. She ushers me downstairs, leads me to the couch like I might break, pours me a steaming cup of some herbal tea that smells like flowers. The orange lilies stand in a vase on the dining room table, brassy and loud as trumpets.
I wrap my hands around the warmth glowing from the teacup to stop them from shaking. My heart is made of moths, fluttering against my ribs, in my throat.
“Are you going to tell Dad?” I blurt out as she sits down next to me. “About the mirror?”
“I don’t know, Mare-bear.” She eyes me over the rim of her own cup. “Do I need to?”
I shake my head, obviously. But I can’t remember picking up the figurine, much less throwing it. It’s a hairline crack in the day, a thread of blank space. Just like last night.
“Well. Listen, sweetie. I’m not mad. Honestly. I know this is hard. It’s awful, and I just want you to know you can talk to me if you need to. Okay?”
Silence descends while she waits for me to continue. Eventually she gives up and clears her throat.
“So,” Aunt Jen says in a sprightly, let’s-talk-about-something-else way. “You’ll need to take the bus to school tomorrow. Just exams left after that, eh?”
“Yeah.” Just two weeks. Just forever.
The radio chimes to announce the news. More rain in the forecast; they’re piling sandbags in the East End.
“Well, I took some vacation days to look after things, so I’ll have all the time in the world. You just let me know what you want to do. Or maybe you’d rather get together with some friends, you know… That’s fine too.”
I shake my head. Ingrid’s the only one I want to spend time with. But San Francisco might as well be the moon. I slurp my still-too-hot tea and burn my tongue.
There’s not really anywhere left for the conversation to go. Aunt Jen watches me for a while and finally sighs, perches her glasses on her nose, and picks up her crochet needle. I sip my tea a couple more times and then murmur an excuse about checking my email before escaping back to my room.
No notifications, of course, when I pull out my phone. I start a text to Ingrid for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time I sit motionless, my fingers hovering over the screen until it goes dark. The words won’t condense, somehow, from the formless worry and grief. Music drifts up from downstairs: Aunt Jen’s flying through the twinkling notes of a Chopin waltz on the piano. I think she means it to be comforting.
I used to dance to this when I visited, twirling around the tiny living room on the tips of my toes, my hair swinging out behind me, my arms swept over my head, fingers poised to pluck butterflies from the air, just like they’d taught us. Mom always applauded earnestly. I was her star. Dad would be watching us both, smiling.
Water can stop bullets if it’s deep enough. The memory can’t touch me. I just have to breathe, breathe, and let it sink. Like everything else.
Like my silent phone.
Call me, I want to type, but how many ways can you tell somebody you miss them before you end up sounding hopelessly needy? If I could talk to Ingrid about all this awfulness, it would lose its weight, disappear. If I confided in her, maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone. But maybe—probably—it would just be oversharing. And I can’t think of a way to tell her about the things that scare me most. Strange things.
Like the mirror. Its broken face keeps twinkling in the pale afternoon light, catching my eye, drawing it back. Eventually I grab the quilt folded at the end of the bed and throw it over the frame. Was it me? It must have been me. How else could that happen, glass simply breaking, out of nowhere?
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