The fact that neither of her parents wants to deal with her is nothing new to Penny. She’s used to being discussed like a problem, a problem her mother has finally passed on to her father. What she hasn’t gotten used to is her stepmother…especially when she finds out that she’ll have to spend the summer with April in the remote woods of Washington to restore a broken-down old house.
Set deep in a dense forest, the old Carver House is filled with abandoned antique furniture, rich architectural details, and its own chilling past. The only respite Penny can find away from April’s renovations is in Miller, the young guy who runs the local general store. He’s her only chance at a normal and enjoyable summer.
But Miller has his own connection to the Carver house, and it’s one that goes beyond the mysterious tapping Penny hears at her window, the handprints she finds smudging the glass panes, and the visions of children who beckon Penny to follow them into the dark woods. Miller’s past just might threaten to become the terror of Penny’s future…
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THE INK ON THE BATHROOM stall door is a rainbow of degradation.
“Amanda and Jay 4Ever” in purple.
“Amanda Ziegler is a str8 up SLUT!” in blue.
“U don’t even know her!” in green.
“The whole basketball team knows her!” in orange.
Amanda Ziegler was before my time, so I only know her as the third stall from the left. She might have been a math genius. A prodigy. A jock. A tortured artist.
She could have been my best friend.
But her legacy is str8 up SLUT, sealed in blue ink, written into the record forever. Or until they renovate the girls’ bathroom.
The bell rings. The sound of thirty doors opening at once, the sound of a thousand pairs of rubber and cork soles squeaking and thumping against the linoleum in the hallway. I count time this way now. Mom says I’m languishing, but she has no idea how much work it takes to account for all that movement around me. Two pairs of feet approach the door to the bathroom.
Then they push inside.
“But do you think she was high when it happened?”
“Of course she was high. Major tweaker. You know how I had biology lab with her my sophomore year? She told me she’d sneak into my house and stab my eyes out with a scalpel if I looked at her. I swear to God. I wasn’t even looking at her! Well, a little, but you know, when you act like a total psycho, you really just want attention.”
“You’re so rude.”
“Whatever. I’m just telling the truth. I’m not going to be all fake now and make her out to be some misunderstood saint, like some people.”
“You know Alex’s cousin, C. J.? The smart one who goes to Truman? He was there. He told Alex all they found was one of her shoes.”
“There was, like, a coyote den nearby or something.”
“And apparently there was some major drama going down before she wandered off.”
“If Rae Fenwick was involved, there was definite drama.”
“Yeah, but I guess she totally threw down with that girl, Penny.”
“No way . . . I thought they were all besties forever.”
I can only seem to focus on one sense at a time. Watch this now. Listen to that later. Too much, and I’ll experience massive sensory overload, and wouldn’t that be horrendous? For my brain to explode? For me to be found in the very same stall where Amanda Ziegler was immortalized as the tragic slut she maybe never was, beneath an air conditioning vent that’s sputtering to its breaking point?
I watch these girls I’ve never even met as they devour each new revelation, drops of my life smeared across their lips.
I watch their mouths move through the crack in the door, how they form my name, form Rae’s name. Only after they’ve stopped moving do I hear what they say.
Air pants through the vent above me like a protective dog trying to drown out the sound of their talking. But the air conditioner coughs a dying breath before quitting, and sound reaches me eventually.
“You lying heifer, there’s no way that’s true.”
“I swear to God. Dragged off by wild dogs. It’s maybe, like, the worst way ever to die.”
I push out of Amanda Ziegler’s stall and move to the sink, washing my hands even though I don’t need to. I only came in here for a little quiet, and now this place is louder than the halls outside. I’d rather count a million steps from a million feet than listen to one more word in this tiny room.
One of the girls clears her throat, and I can feel them both staring at me in the mirror, waiting for me to give them something more to snack on.
It’s what I’m supposed to do. Girls like me feed conversations in bathrooms.
I shake the water from my hands. I focus on my own reflection. Same charcoal sweater I put on today, slouching off my shoulder, a neon yellow bra strap exposed, skinny gray jeans. Short brown hair, gray eyes, Asphalt Magic eye shadow. It’s still me.
Except that I can’t recognize the girl behind all those pieces. I blink back the memory of the last time I felt this way.
The air conditioner above Amanda Ziegler’s stall coughs back to life. And in that second—under cover of fresh sound—the girl closest to me laughs. It’s tiny, hardly detectable if not for the fact that I can see her face in the mirror, the way her mouth distorts as she tries to mask it. It’s obvious she’s nervous, that the act wasn’t entirely voluntary. But the other girl doesn’t know that, and she picks up the laugh where the first girl dropped it.
I let my hand connect with her blushed cheek as many times as I can before her friend pulls me off her and some teacher pulls her friend off me.
Deep red spots decorate the front of my gray sweater. Asphalt Magic smears from eye to temple. But I don’t care. For the first time in months, a new sense has made its way into my body’s vocabulary. I have regained the sense of touch.
And it feels amazing to smack the shit out of this girl I’ve never met.
I wonder if Amanda Ziegler ever bloodied a girl’s nose. I decide that maybe she did. I only come down from my new high when I realize how proud Rae would have been of me.
One large Rubbermaid bin with a matching blue lid is all I bring to Dad’s house. Mom kept rolling suitcases into my room, shoving clothes I didn’t need and yearbooks I didn’t care about into them.
“You’re going to want them once you’re up there,” she kept saying. And when I didn’t say anything, she just kept packing, which was maybe her way of apologizing for being so utterly wrapped up in everything except the unraveling life of her daughter. Or maybe it was her way of clearing out my room so she didn’t have to do it after I left. Ever since the capital D-Divorce, she’s been very focused on a career she never cared about before.
Not that I was really up for hearing “Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” her unique brand of comfort, or how hard this was making her life. So when she acted so surprised that I only loaded the Rubbermaid into the car, I finally did say something.
“If you want to get rid of me so badly, why not just leave me on the curb with the rest of my stuff instead of shipping me off to Seattle? It’d be a lot cheaper.”
We didn’t talk for the entire three-day drive to Dad’s. It’s not that I didn’t have more to say. It’s that I knew she wouldn’t hear anything but the sound of her own wounded feelings crying out, and nobody could be heard over that.
Besides, it’s going to be nothing but noise the minute we get to Dad’s.
“I’m not saying that, and you know it. Why do you always do that? You twist everything I say.”
“I don’t know, Dale. I’m just evil, I guess.”
“And there she is. Passive-aggressive Natalie. I was wondering how long it was going to take before she showed up.”
“Oh grow up, would you? Christ, I can’t say two words without you—”
“What about that doctor you were taking her to?”
“It didn’t work.”
“And that Pax, Zylo, whatever, what about that stuff she was taking?”
“It. Didn’t. Work. How many times do I have to say it? Nothing is working.”
I lift the lid from the Rubbermaid and pull out the pad and paper I packed last. I want to write a letter to Rae, but it’s the wrong time. I set them aside and pull Troy from the box next. Considering I won him at the Maricopa County Fair three years ago, it’s a wonder he’s still in one piece. Everyone knows how crappy those stuffed animals are, and Troy the Miraculous Pink Unicorn has defied the odds by at least a year. His horn is bent and there’s more than one bald patch exposed, but he’s otherwise in decent shape. I won him after shooting the hat off a plastic cowboy with a water gun. Rae always used to tell me she was the one who won it. Like I wasn’t there.
“It’s just that we should have talked about this more. You know how nuts my schedule is going to get this summer with that job up in Vancouver starting in a couple of months.”
“Well I’m sorry the timing isn’t convenient, Dale. Exactly how many more conversations were you hoping to have?”
“Don’t do that. You don’t have the monopoly on parental concern. You treat your custody like a trophy, lauding it over me whenever you’ve decided maybe, just maybe, moving her to Phoenix on your own was a bad idea.”
“Don’t you dare blame me for this. And keep your voice down, for God’s sake.”
I’ve heard some kids with divorced parents say they hated it when their parents would hide stuff from them, all that whispering behind closed doors before they finally put an end to it all. But I would have been fine with a little bit of secrecy. I feel like I know more about why my parents got divorced than they do.
“She just needs more time.”
“It’s been five months.”
“Which is nothing considering what she’s been through.”
“She’s getting worse, Dale. She’s adrift. Your daughter is completely untethered. I can’t be the only one anymore who thinks that matters.”
When I was little, we learned that people from Seattle were called Seattleites, which always sounded like satellites to me. But in the whole time growing up here, Seattle never felt like my city. It didn’t actually start feeling like it was until we moved to Arizona. Now that I’m back in Seattle, it’s supposed to feel like I’ve found my orbit again.
“What do you mean ‘What about school?’ I know I’ve been gone for a few years, but I wasn’t aware they’d done away with public school in Seattle.”
“You just expect her to drop into a new school? Jesus, Natalie, you think that’s going to make things better?”
“Frankly, I don’t know how it could make things worse.”
I abandon my box on the bed that isn’t mine. It’s the guest bed, the place they’ve semi-decorated for me now that I’ll be here for more than two nights over Thanksgiving or a few days over winter break.
“She barely knows Rob. It’s not exactly fair to either of them. And you know how she gets around April.”
“Right. You’re right. I completely forgot to consider how this would affect April. Let’s all think about the impact this will have on poor April.”
April bought a few black pillows covered in faux fur and a mesh laundry hamper from Target for the room. She’s plugged an air freshener that smells like juniper into an outlet I can’t find. I’m guessing she thinks this will make up for the fact that Mom is trading me in for an easier life.
My mom, who is following through on her threat, which still manages to stun me even though she has, in every living memory, followed through on every threat she has ever made. This time, she has brought me to live three states to the north in a house I have set foot in a total of five times with a family that is entirely whole without me.
I take my pad and paper, tuck it under my arm, and stop at my dad’s and April’s bedroom, and with the same hand that reminded me of my sense of touch a week ago, I smack the closed door until it rattles in its flimsy frame.
“You both make excellent points!” I shout. “Congratulations on another stellar debate!”
I slam the front door behind me, wishing I had engraved a congratulatory plaque to chuck at each of their heads.