The May Queen Murders

The May Queen Murders

by Sarah Jude


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Stay on the roads. Don’t enter the woods. Never go out at night.  
Those are the rules in Rowan’s Glen, a remote farming community in the Missouri Ozarks where Ivy Templeton’s family has lived for centuries. It’s an old-fashioned way of life, full of superstition and traditions, and sixteen-year-old Ivy loves it. The other kids at school may think the Glen kids are weird, but Ivy doesn’t care—she has her cousin Heather as her best friend. The two girls share everything with each other—or so Ivy thinks. When Heather goes missing after a May Day celebration, Ivy discovers that both her best friend and her beloved hometown are as full of secrets as the woods that surround them. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544937253
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/09/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 538,882
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Sarah Jude grew up believing you had to hold your breath when passing a graveyard. Now she writes about cemeteries, murder, and folklore. The May Queen Murders is her first book for teen readers. Sarah resides in Missouri with her husband, three children, and two dogs.

Read an Excerpt



Kerosene slopped from the rusty pail and splashed against the abandoned stable. Fumes burned my eyes but didn’t blur my father’s silhouette as he faced the building, bucket in hand. It would burn and, with it, the body inside.
     “Go to hell!”
     Papa’s shoulders twisted as he wheeled back, shouting, sweeping the pail around. More kerosene rained against the wood while bile scorched my throat. I was too tired to get sick on the hay, my body wasted from screaming. I wiped my hand over my mouth and something snagged my lip. My fingernail was missing, a ragged root jutting from the bloody bed. Bitten off and swallowed by someone who wanted me dead.
     This ain’t real.
     Yet I smelled the kerosene and felt the spring air and the dust in my nose, my feet firm on the ground. No matter how my mind ached to fly away, it tethered to a stark truth. This was real.
     “Ivy, stay back,” Papa warned, and then looked to Mama, close by with an antique lantern shedding dim light. The night sky swelled with clouds like spiders’ egg sacs ready to burst, but the storm would miss Rowan’s Glen. The hay, the ground, the stable were kindling-dry, and every movement kicked up brown clouds. Mama pulled me until we were safely away. The clink of her silver bracelets racked together as she eased her arm around my shoulder.
     “Don’t worry.” Mama’s still-thick Mexican accent lilted her voice, but her expression was stoic except for a pinch around her eyes. That blankness scared me.
     “This must be done,” she whispered.
     I wadded my fingers into my long skirt. The blue patchwork was smeared with blood and dirt. Last summer, my cousin Heather and I sewed peasant skirts together. They flared when I spun, round and round, always with Heather.
     The last time I saw Heather, she was wearing a skirt with red ruffles.
     Papa trailed kerosene on the ground and retreated from the stable before tossing the pail inside. I couldn’t see into the shadows. The body lying on the stone floor might yet have a pulse. A shiver tugged at my neck, my chest rising and falling with shallow breaths. One clear thought pierced my mind’s muddle, and it sickened me.
     I wanted that body to burn.
     “Timothy.” Mama fished a book of matches from a pocket in her apron and gave them to Papa. He took the matches and stretched one hand to hold mine. He was strong. My throat ached when I swallowed, from being choked in an attempt to silence me. Now I said nothing as Papa struck the match.
     The fire didn’t whoosh to life. First, the match hit the ground and breathed. Then a blue worm of flames emerged from the earth and devoured one blot of fuel before moving to the next. Upon reaching the stable, the worm bloated into a dragon that blazed yellow and orange. The wood planks hammered by my great-great-grandfather when he was young crackled, bone-dry from drought. Fire twisted through the stable while coils of smoke erupted from the windows. The pulse of the body inside thump-thumped in my head. Frantic. Dying.
     “Mama?” I whimpered.
     “It’s only fair,” she said.
     Papa didn’t speak. Rage had made him do the unspeakable. For me, even though I’d survived. But also for those who hadn’t. Fire was cleansing. Fire was vengeance. The flames burned red, as red as the ruffles of Heather’s skirt. As red as Heather’s hair.


Now, Ivy girl, you gotta know there’s bad out in them woods, and the worst kind of bad Rowan’s Glen has ever known is Birch Markle. Things weren’t ever right with the Markle boy. There was no real reason for the things he done, but sometimes, well, evil’s like that.


Yet another LOST DOG sign marked the animal clinic’s window. This one stung. Mrs. Knightley had brought her beagle Jones in for a heartworm test only last week. I’d given him one of Aunt Rue’s dog biscuits, and Jones’s tail had wagged with glee. Now he was one more missing face. The curled papers blanketing the glass rustled against the April wind. Some had been there since January, when the dogs began disappearing. Papa wouldn’t take them down.
     “There’s gotta be hope, Ivy.”
     Glass shattered in an exam room, and I slid out from behind the counter. My sketch of Whimsy, my Morgan mare, would wait. Heather swept up remains from a broken jar and cotton balls. More glass crunched under her red Converse high-tops.
     She pushed a tendril of hair from her forehead. “Uncle Timothy needs to buy some Plexiglas jars. I’d break a lot less.”
     “Plexiglas is p-poison,” I replied.
     Heather snorted. Papa’s diatribes on warfare against pesticides and plastics were common. Most Rowan’s Glen residents long ago decided that if we couldn’t raise, craft, or repurpose it, then we wouldn’t use it. Over time, the buildings converted from no electricity to solar energy. Our clothing was handmade, came secondhand from kin or the town thrift store if splurging.
     Glen kind looked different from the rollers in the trailer park and the townies. We were hillfolk, with our boys in trousers and suspenders and girls clad in long skirts. Once a Missouri Ozarks outpost for Scottish travelers searching for permanency, Rowan’s Glen kept life simple and the outside world at bay.
     It was my home.
     The forever horizon of fields was dotted with horse pastures and goats. Comfort came in knowing your neighbors and them knowing not only you, but generations of your kin. It was a good place—even with the screams that sometimes came from the forest, the screams that had been there my whole life and longer.
     “Rook’s almost as bad as Uncle Timothy,” Heather remarked. “Last week in ecology, he claimed polluted water gives men tits.”
     The mention of Rook Meriweather fevered my cheeks. “You’re t-terrible.”
     She drew a circle with her shoe in the broken glass, her smile taunting. “Don’t say you ain’t enjoying the subject. And what a subject Rook makes! I’ve seen your sketchbook.”
     “Shouldn’t you clean up your mess?” I tried to smooth the bristle in my voice, but Heather only laughed.
     “I’m kidding with you, Ivy. You know that, right?”
     She took my hand and squeezed. Of course I knew.
     The day had wound down, which meant stocking the delivery of Mama’s homeopathic flea powder would wait. There wouldn’t be enough time to take Whimsy on a trail ride. Since the dogs began going missing, wandering the fields after dusk was frowned upon. Even before then, we had stayed away from the woods. There were stories.
     I returned to the waiting room and glanced toward the clock.
     “What’s wrong?” Heather asked.
     “The clock stopped.”
     The clock’s hands had halted at 4:44. It was a wood box with a pendulum, older than anyone in the Glen. Normally, the metal rapped the wood in a perpetual hollow note. Now it was mute.
     “Fix it tomorrow.” Heather picked a section of my hair to braid.
     “I have to fix the clock now,” I said. “Bad luck.”
     Heather tsked. “You’re too superstitious. Mamie got you good.”
     A draft plucked my neck. “You remember how when Gramps died, Mamie stopped all the clocks in the house? She stopped death from coming for more of us.”
     “Huh. So that’s why. I should’ve guessed Mamie’d tell you.”
     Heather’s fingers wove my hair. Bits of metal she’d found while wandering the fields—part of a spoon, a coil, a lost buckle, a green glass circle from the bottom of a bottle etched with her birthday of March 27—were strung on a silver necklace and jingled as she moved. She unclipped her chain, chose a nut from some long-vanished screw, and fixed it to accent my braid.
     She caught me staring at the stopped clock. “Ivy, don’t. It only needs windin’.”
     “It’s a death omen,” I said.
     “Go ahead. Try to be a little more morbid, really.”
     “It ain’t morbid. It’s how things are,” I insisted. “Mamie knows this stuff. She said—”
     “When did she say?” Heather dropped my hair and crossed her arms.
     “It was a long time ago, when I was little.”
     That was the last time Mamie spoke, before she went into the attic. To live in silence.
     Heather restrung her necklace. “I miss her stories too. Even the one about Birch Markle. But they’re bedtime stories to give little girls nightmares. That’s all.”
     Heather disregarded our grandmother’s tales, but I couldn’t. I needed their truth. They were mythic and strange and disarming, as much a part of my life as tending to fields and brushing dirt from the house. To hear the stories over a pinewood fire, the smells of clove tea and floral powder on old-woman skin, was a joy lost once Mamie quit talking. Heather couldn’t take it away again.
     I liked doing things the old way, the Glen way, and it was worth paying attention to the omens—especially the life-and-death ones.
     Suddenly, the clinic’s CB radio hissed to life.
     A voice echoed through the static. “Timothy, you there?” No private telephones existed in Rowan’s Glen—lack of phone lines—but the few businesses kept radios to make calls. The rattles and clicks of disembodied souls talking across the airwaves were common enough background noises at my family’s clinic.
     I was reaching for the radio when Papa jogged out from his office. If someone called, he usually needed to deliver a calf or diagnose a horse with colic. I often tagged along as his assistant. It was good practice, and Papa claimed I had “the touch,” cats rubbing against my legs, dog kisses slathering my cheek and neck. I could calm a Saint Bernard nervous for a nail trim by scratching behind its ears.
     Papa adjusted his glasses and clicked a button on the receiver. “I’m here.”
     “Listen, Timothy.” Sheriff Meriweather’s voice was deep, grim. “You gotta come out. Something’s down by the river.”
     “Something?” Papa and ran his hand along his hair, slicked back in the early 1900s style worn by many of the Glen’s men.
     The radio spewed another jittery clatter before Sheriff spoke. “We ain’t sure what it is. Scavengers have made off with some pieces. There’s fur.”
     My stomach lurched. Animals died all the time. I’d witnessed all means of death, from the beloved old cat that shut its eyes for a final time to the runt pup of a litter that couldn’t survive. Accidents on the highway. Predators. Living off the land instilled knowledge of life cycles and perpetuity, but I was yet to be comfortable around the dead.
     I gulped loud enough that Heather stopped picking at her red thread bracelet. My mother made the women in our family wear them—even those who didn’t share her Mexican blood. The bracelet warded off mal de ojo. The evil eye. The Scottish side of the Templetons humored her traditions, despite their own peculiar folklore.
     “What’s going on?” Heather mouthed.
     I hushed her with a finger against my lips. Papa glanced at us, hesitating before he pressed the receiver close to his mouth. “You reckon it’s one of the missing dogs?”
     Sheriff made a noise. “Too big for that. Cliff’s guessing a horse. Since you’re the animal man ’round here, you gotta take a look. But there’s something more. There’s blood, lots of it, all over the grass.”

Most Glen folk wouldn’t cross Promise Bridge. The land was rocky, and little but the occasional dandelion was brazen enough to root on the bank. Promise Bridge was where I washed the linens in the river, but it was also the place Heather and I spent hours searching the shore for old things, drawing, sometimes lying in the marsh grass. The rickety bridge crossed to Potter’s Field, a cemetery of unmarked graves sleeping outside the woods. The granny-women, older women bearing herbs and stories, tended the graves. Always returning to the village before dusk, before the forest awakened.
     Papa left the clinic with a curt “Be back soon,” but as it was near closing, Heather and I locked up and stalked a few beats behind. She wanted to see what was down by the river, and because I always did what she wanted, I came along. We lingered behind a limestone mound and waited for Papa to cross the suspension bridge of rusted chains and wood before we followed.
     The water’s depth was illusive, deep enough to allow for Denial Mill upstream. For a century, the Denial clan was its caretakers, most recently Flint and his son Jasper. While it once ground wheat, it became a hydropower mill supplementing the Glen’s solar panels. Every so often, a branch wedged in the wheel to halt the turning. Someone then had to take on the dangerous task of wading through the water to remove the obstruction and get the wheel moving again. The building’s exterior was old stone, the wood trim faded red paint, and when the sunset hit the mill, the walls looked edged with blood.
     Heather halted in the middle of the wavering bridge. My vision swam from trying to hold still. I needed to move.
     “You hear something?” She pointed back to a bush growing near the rocky bank. “Look.”
     All I saw was a belladonna shrub forming the buds of purple flowers that would eventually turn to fat, black berries. The leaves rustled. My chest tightened. Black bears wandered the woods, and if some animal was torn up . . . Human skin was no match for bear claws.
     I scooted Heather another step and whispered, “Go slow.”
     The bush rustled again, and a young man emerged to fix the eyeglasses falling down his nose.
     His hair was coffee-black and combed back. The sleeves of his button-up shirt were rolled to his elbows, and the worn threads of his suspenders were near breaking. His barn boots had seen better days, lots of scuffs marring the toes. The more I gawked, the higher my pulse rose, and then he waved.
     “He must’ve seen us and decided to follow,” Heather hummed beside me.
     The Meriweather and Templeton families were close. For as long as I could recall, Rook had been there, bringing fresh brown-shelled eggs or stopping by to walk Heather and me to school. Our families laughed over Sunday suppers, and when the harvest was good in the Meriweathers’ field, we’d find clumps of radishes or bunches of rainbow carrots in a crate on our step. Sometimes, Mama sent me to their house with a loaf of bread and retired picture books for Rook’s little sister. It was good to share with others.
     Running with Rook was expected, yet not that simple at all. Two winters ago, I was sick with the flu for a month. Instead of carousing in snow-laden fields, I lay in bed. Once I recovered, Rook was no longer a gangly kid from down the road. He was tall with broad shoulders and a good laugh. When I saw him again—really saw him—I understood how much we’d changed. He’d gone from being a neighbor boy to a boy I thought about.
     “Call him over,” I urged.
     “You.” Heather’s elbow jabbed me. “Since you want him to join us so bad.”
     My shoulders tightened, and I breathed in before beckoning him closer with a wave. The invitation eased his smile, and the sun caught him in a way I wanted to remember later when drawing. I smiled back. He jogged toward us, undaunted by the rattling bridge. His legs were fluid as he closed in, and then his palm rested on my upper arm. Maybe he didn’t notice the way I jumped when he touched me.
     “What are you doing? Trailing Ivy?” Heather asked.
     A deep dimple cut his left cheek. He cleared his throat and gave a wing-flap wave behind him. “I was checking the belladonna. There’s lots coming up. It ain’t native, but it likes the soil. We gotta clear it, or the fields’ll poison.”
     Heather once said Rook’s voice was honey, but I thought he spoke with deeper tones, hickory roots burrowing earth and bitter moonshine. His voice was made to read books aloud at sunset when we huddled around a bonfire. I’d listen to Rook’s stories and Heather’s singing. I listened and drew because that was what I knew to do. It was a good way to spend time, an easy way to forget worries.
     “Is that t-true?” I asked. “That belladonna poisons the land?”
     “Well, it’d take a hell of a lot to actually get into the soil.” Rook knew every plant rooted in the Glen’s earth, right down to the Latin names. “But my mama makes me clear it out before planting. She ain’t completely crazed. The berries are toxic, and only a few can kill. What about y’all? Where are you headed?”
     “Your daddy called Uncle Timothy to Potter’s Field. They found a carcass,” Heather explained.
     “Mind if I come?” Rook asked, to which Heather said yes, but he hadn’t asked her. His hand found mine, his skin warm, callused, and thrilling to touch. We’d grabbed hands while climbing trees many times growing up, but touching him now was like a dandelion scattering inside me, seeds full of possibility.
     From the corner of my eye, I spotted Heather crossing her arms. She wheeled around, tugging my hand away from Rook’s hold. “Come on, Ivy.”
     Helpless but to go, I looked to Rook over my shoulder. He strolled over the swaying bridge. I’d linger with the same leisured pace as him, but Heather was rushing and breathless.
     For April in the Ozarks, it was no shock the wood was slick with humidity. Yesterday’s rain saturated the settlement, and soon mildew would creep over the horse fences. We’d get out there with vinegar water to clean off the black rot. It’d come back, and we’d clean again. Seasonal rituals and predictability of chores gave purpose and balance.
     We reached the other riverbank and trundled down a dirt path. With the sun drooping low to the horizon, an uneasy hush fell over the village. Vultures circled overhead. A rancid smell, like meat that hadn’t salt-cured quite right, drifted from Potter’s Field. All three of us covered our faces. The loudest sounds were Heather’s mouth-breathing and the swish of long skirts.
     Potter’s Field lay in a valley surrounded by blackberry thickets. We hunkered down in a cove and used rocks to shield us from the graveyard of the abandoned. A half dozen men stood around, foreheads gleaming with clamminess and skin greenish like they were fighting back the sicks. Of the men, the one I knew best was Sheriff Meriweather—Rook’s father. He and Papa were descendants of the Glen’s founding families. Sheriff wasn’t as tall as Papa; he was stockier with hair the color of nutmegs flecked by silver. Despite being head of police in these parts, he was more carpenter, and during growing months, Sheriff tended fields with Rook to supply a vegetable cart his mother took to town. Rook was the spit of his mother’s side, lean and pale and dark-haired Irish.
     Along with Sheriff, several other members of the Glen’s police—hillmen wearing a star pinned to their britches—crowded around something on the ground. The grass in Potter’s Field was brown.
     Except for one wide puddle of red.
     Sheriff’s boots slopped through the puddle and revealed it deep enough to soak his soles. “Timothy, as you can see, it’s a hell of a mess.”
     Papa pushed past the barrier of farmers, and I caught only the briefest glimpse of pink meat slick with fluid. He opened his medical bag and snapped on blue exam gloves. They seemed out of place against his modest shirt and vest. Most veterinarians I’d seen in books wore white jackets, but Papa was never like them, instead looking like doctors from over a century ago.
     “Gross,” Heather whispered and craned her neck over the rocks.
     “Don’t get too close,” I said, and pulled her back.
     She brushed my hand off her shoulder. “What? There ain’t anything dangerous.”
     “You’ll blow our cover.”
     Papa took a syringe from his bag, uncapped it, and jabbed the needle into the carcass. One of the men staggered before vomiting beside a gravestone. Sheriff raised an eyebrow. “One of you’s gonna need to grab a bucket from the river and clean up that mess. Show the dead some respect.”
     Papa withdrew the plunger, and the tube filled with blackish sludge. “This isn’t normal decay. This carcass is fresh, but you see how the belly’s torn open? Decay won’t cause flesh to burst for weeks unless it’s extremely hot. Ozarks are warm but not enough to do that, not yet. Something ripped it open.”
     Rook shifted beside me, took off his glasses, and averted his eyes. What could’ve done this? Maybe it was my suspicious nature, but I couldn’t help but feel something bad seemed to have roused and come to our land.
     “What kind of animal was it?” Sheriff asked.
     Papa coughed into the crook of his elbow. “It’s Bartholomew, the Logans’ wolfhound.”
     I covered my mouth to keep from crying out. Not Bart. Despite being the size of a small pony, he was just a juvenile. When he stood on his hind legs, he put his paws on my shoulders to dance. Heather reached over and stroked the back of my head.
     “Are you sure that’s a dog?” another man asked.
     Papa bent over, and something moist popped when he poked around the fresh kill. “Those teeth are canine, and I’m sure it’s Bart. I did a dental cleaning two months back. See where those incisors are missing? He’d broken them chewing on his crate.”
     Papa sounded clinical, but that emotionless tone carried him through his notes and kept him working on the clinic’s rough days. On those nights, he came home, and Mama opened a bottle of blueberry wine, set out a glass by the fireplace, and murmured to us to keep our distance—not because he had a bad temper. He simply needed time alone.
     “What’d you say did this?” Sheriff wondered, scribbling on a notepad. “A bear? Remember when Holly Fitzpatrick got mauled by the bobcat thirty years back? My old man said the clawmarks on her—”
     “This wasn’t some bobcat!” Papa rose to his feet. “And not a bear or coyote, either.”
     “Then what did it?”
     “What predator is the worst?”
     Sheriff didn’t have to answer. I already knew. The worst predators of all were humans.

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