In this queer YA psychological thriller from the author of Some Girls Do, perfect for fans of One of Us is Lying and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, the sole surviving counselors of a summer camp massacre search to uncover the truth of what happened that fateful night, but what they find out might just get them killed.
“Shocking, captivating, and utterly chilling. A delicious thriller that will have you tearing through pages to get to the end, where you won’t be disappointed.” —Jessica Goodman, bestselling author of They Wish They Were Us
Sloan and Cherry. Cherry and Sloan. They met only a few days before masked men with machetes attacked the summer camp where they worked, a massacre that left the rest of their fellow counselors dead. Now, months later, the two are inseparable, their traumatic experience bonding them in ways no one else can understand.
But as new evidence comes to light and Sloan learns more about the motives behind the ritual killing that brought them together, she begins to suspect that her girlfriend may be more than just a survivor—she may actually have been a part of it. Cherry tries to reassure her, but Sloan only becomes more distraught. Is this gaslighting or reality? Is Cherry a victim or a perpetrator? Is Sloan confused, or is she seeing things clearly for the very first time? Against all odds, Sloan survived that hot summer night. But will she survive what comes next?
Release date: August 15, 2023
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 320
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The Last Girls Standing
IT HAD TAKEN sixteen sutures to close the wound on the underside of Sloan’s forearm.
Sixteen threads, woven in and out of her skin by careful hands wrapped in latex, while whispered words had promised, “It’s okay. You’re safe now.” As if anyone could really know that.
Sloan remembered the way the pain had dulled down to a useless ache as the doctors worked, a pressure and tug that she knew should hurt, would hurt, had hurt before everything faded to a blur of sirens and lights and hospital antiseptic.
Sixteen stitches holding her together when she could not do so herself.
“Sloan,” a voice said, sounding far away and underwater. Sloan ignored it, instead staring down at the puckered pink line running down her arm. She traced the scar with her finger, paying special attention to where it bit into the peculiar patch of raised skin above her wrist. Her mother called it a birthmark, but Sloan had never seen a birthmark like that before.
Not that either of them really knew. When the Thomas family adopted her at the age of four, the mark, whatever it was, was already there. Her social workers were no help, and her biological parents were long gone—a single Polaroid picture and an urgent, whispered “remember who you are” were all they left in their wake. There would be no asking and no answers for anyone.
“Sloan,” the voice said again.
This time Sloan snapped her attention to the woman sitting across from her. “Beth,” she said, matching her therapist’s tone. If you could really call her that. Beth was some new-age hypnotherapist-slash-psychic her mother had dug up when Sloan refused to talk to the doctors the hospital social worker had sent them to. She wasn’t even sure if Beth was accredited. She wasn’t even sure if hypnotists could be accredited.
“Where were you just now?” Beth asked, trying very hard to keep her face neutral. Beth was always trying to keep her face neutral, and it rarely worked. Sloan had never met a therapist with so many tells, and she had met a lot of them in those first few weeks after the “incident.”
Sloan flashed her patented smart-ass smile. “Here, in this chair, wondering how much more of this beautiful day I have to spend stuck inside your office.”
Beth frowned. “Is that all?”
“Does there always need to be more?”
Beth leaned back in her chair. “It would be helpful to your recovery if there was, at least occasionally, more.”
Her recovery. That was hilarious. What recovery? It felt more like a countdown from where she sat. They had been waiting and watching her for a while now. Waiting for her to snap. To break down. To tell anyone other than that first police officer what she remembered. What it was like. What she saw. To put the few memories of that night she could manage to scrape up on display for them to dissect like a science experiment.
Her parents, Beth, and all the therapists and gurus and life coaches before her all claimed to want to “help” her process what she’d been through. They wanted to understand. But nobody could, not unless they’d been there too. Sloan glanced out the window to where Cherry’s truck sat glinting in the September sun. As if she could sense Sloan looking, Cherry opened the door and slid out, her long brown hair flipping up in the breeze.
Sloan drank in the sight of the other girl, her entire body relaxing as the person she loved most leaned against the truck with crossed arms. Cherry was safety, warmth. She didn’t pry because she didn’t have to. She was there when it happened, when everyone died except for the two of them: the last girls standing.
Sloan’s loss was her loss. Sloan’s wounds were her wounds. They didn’t need therapists or police or parents wandering around inside their heads—they had each other for that.
“You need to talk about what happened. Let me help you.”
Sloan sighed. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Beth—she did. Or that she didn’t think Beth meant well—she did. Sloan just didn’t see the point. “Help with what?” she asked softly.
“Your mother says your nightmares are getting worse. We could start there—do a longer session and try to reprocess whichever memories are affecting you most. We might be able to take some of the bite out of them. Many of my clients have had a lot of luck with this approach in the past, but you have to work with me. I can’t do it for you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Sloan said, and then they lapsed back into silence.
She was relieved when Beth’s phone alarm chimed, signaling the end of the visit. The truth was that Sloan wasn’t sure she wanted to “take the bite out” of her memories. To reprocess them or share them with anyone else. Because what she remembered most from that day wasn’t fear. It wasn’t the sticky scent of warm blood, although that remained thick and cloying even in her dreams. And it wasn’t even the pain of the cut in her skin.
What she remembered most was love.
CHERRY PULLED OPEN the driver’s side door before Sloan was even down the concrete steps of the Smith Medical Building. It was home to an urgent care, a massage therapist, four empty suites, and, of course, Beth McGuinness, holistic hypnotherapist specializing in traumatic response therapy.
“How was the headshrinker?” Cherry teased as Sloan slid across the long bench seat of her old F-150. Sloan didn’t know anything about trucks, and she gathered Cherry didn’t either, given that the passenger’s side door had been stuck shut for as long as Sloan had known her. The truck had originally belonged to Cherry’s dad, and her mom had passed it on to her when he died a few years back. Sloan didn’t know if it was a sentimental thing or a money thing that kept them in that truck. Maybe a little of both.
“Shrinky,” Sloan answered.
“I don’t know why your mom keeps making you go.” Cherry shifted the truck into drive and slowly pulled out of the parking lot.
Sloan threaded her fingers between Cherry’s and let all the tension bleed from her body. “Probably because if I had to write an essay about what I did on my summer vacation, it would say ‘survived a mass murder,’ ” Sloan said, attempting to make air quotes with her free hand. “You know it freaks her out.”
“Then maybe she should see someone and leave us alone for once.”
Sloan liked the way Cherry said “us.” The way she always combined them into one now. Nothing happened to Cherry or to Sloan; it only happened to both of them, as if what happened that day at camp had fused them somehow.
“Oh, she does,” Sloan said, twisting in her seat. “I’m pretty sure me going was actually her therapist’s idea. Or maybe her guru’s. I can’t keep them all straight anymore. You’d think she was the one who had to get sewn back together.”
Cherry made a little tsking sound. “Sounds like a conspiracy to me.”
“Yeah, a real conspiracy: protecting my mental health.”
“You know I’m always here for all your protection needs.” She puffed out her chest, and Sloan smiled back at her.
“Yeah, I noticed that with the whole hiding-me-from-masked-men-with-machetes thing.”
“Oh yeah, that clued you in? Good,” Cherry said with a laugh.
It didn’t use to be like this.
The lightness, the teasing, it was new. Just since Cherry moved to town with her mother a few days ago. Now it was like Sloan could breathe again. Like there was a reason to want to smile.
It was a fluke they had both ended up at Camp Money Springs—two girls on opposite sides of the state just looking for a fun summer job and a way to earn some cash that didn’t involve fast food or retail. They were both fresh high school graduates, and while Cherry was planning on taking a gap year to “find herself”—aka use up her friends’ goodwill to couch surf her way across the country—Sloan was just trying to earn some spending money for her first semester at NYU starting that fall.
They had almost nothing in common. Cherry loved punk and grunge bands from the ’90s; Sloan would die for Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat. Cherry was sure that they didn’t need to worry about global warming because nature would heal itself, getting rid of people the way it had gotten rid of dinosaurs. Sloan thought they should all use metal straws anyway, just in case.
They shouldn’t have worked, but from the second they met, painting old boats and then clearing weeds at the archery range to prepare the camp for summer, Sloan knew they were meant to be. And to her delight, so did the other girl.
Fate, Cherry had called it, eating slushies made from ground-down ice and cheap syrup by the fire. She had tasted like sugar the first time they kissed.
She had tasted like blood the next.
“Your mom home?” Cherry asked, pulling Sloan from her head.
She had a knack for doing that, and it was especially useful after a session with Beth—even if Sloan barely talked, it was still somehow exhausting. Like it knocked things around in her mind, leaving everything slightly off-kilter. Beth kept poking into the things Sloan couldn’t remember—like that gap of time between Cherry finding her and the police arriving. It was just missing. Like her brain had deleted it. Like it was a detail as unimportant as the color of the socks she had worn on the first day of school. There was fear, and then nothing, and then blood in her hair. It felt very matter-of-fact without the middle bits.
Without the important bits.
Cherry had filled her in, of course; they’d gone over it dozens of times. That was good enough for Sloan. She wished it were good enough for Beth. Sloan knew she would likely have another nightmare that night. She always did after Beth poked around in the missing places.
“Sloan,” Cherry said again. “Is your mom home?”
“Yeah.” Sloan frowned. “She wants me to go to Simon’s baseball game later. She thinks we need ‘family time.’ ”
“Right.” Cherry sighed. “It would be nice if Allison could at least set the mandatory emotional manipulation aside after your therapy sessions. Let me guess, she turned your little brother loose on you?”
Sloan liked that Cherry called her mother Allison. Sometimes she did too, secretly in her head or when it was just her and Cherry.
“Yep,” Sloan said. “It’s hard to call her out on it when Simon’s standing there with his big, round eyes all ‘Sloany, please come.’ ”
“I love that ‘family time’ is just code for ‘Cherry’s not invited.’ ”
And it was. It was. Both girls knew it. It was Allison’s latest invention to keep them separated.
Before, when they were still living hours apart, Sloan’s mom had imposed a curfew even on weekends. She claimed it was because she needed Sloan in her sight after what happened; it was just a coincidence it was early enough for Sloan to visit Connor and Rachel, her former best friends, but there was never, ever enough time for her to make it to Cherry’s house and back.
“You’d get over this sooner without a constant codependent reminder of what you went through,” Allison had shouted at Sloan, while clutching her latest homeopathic calming tea.
Clearly, Beth needed to work on the recipe.
Thank god Cherry had a truck and a mom who was quick to look the other way, and more often than not she’d climb through Sloan’s window at night like a stray cat that had been fed once and formed a habit.
Eventually, Allison gave up and asked Cherry to “at least use the door instead.”
It was better now that Cherry lived nearby, streets away instead of counties, an entire year for themselves stretched out in front of them ever since Sloan had sent in her deferral letter to NYU. It would be good year, a reset, a fresh start. Even the boxes yet to be unloaded from the bed of Cherry’s truck, battered and sliding around with every turn, seemed somehow hopeful.
If only the rest of the world would leave them alone.
Other people were the worst, even the ones Sloan used to be close to—especially them, maybe. They talked about Sloan and Cherry, and around them—worse yet, they wanted them to share the gory details over lunch or in an interview. They didn’t understand that Sloan and Cherry’s experience—and it was theirs because sometimes it was hard to tell where Sloan ended and Cherry began—was not carrion for scavengers to pick through. It was their life.
Even Connor, Sloan’s best friend since third grade, had tried to get the scoop under the guise of “being there” for Sloan. But Rachel, his girlfriend, was the worst, demanding Sloan “get over it already” because she was “freaking everyone out.” Sloan had stopped replying to her texts after that. She had stopped replying to all their texts after that.
How was she supposed to explain that she’d hidden while someone else’s blood pooled hot and sticky around her hair? How she couldn’t get the smell out for days even though her mother swore the only thing she could smell was the lavender shampoo.
(That was one memory she wished her brain had deleted.)
“Almost there,” Cherry said, as if it hurt her to be away from Sloan as much as it hurt Sloan to be away from her.
But that was impossible.
Sloan cursed the ride home for being so short—just a blink-and-you-miss-it burst of freedom between Beth’s office and mandatory family time.
Cherry parked in the driveway but kept the truck running. She was quickly learning to
choose her battles with Sloan’s mom. Respecting their family time would mean less chance of a fight when she slipped into Sloan’s room that night, curling tightly around her like a snake.
“I’ll see you later?” Cherry asked.
“You better.” Sloan leaned forward for a kiss—strawberry lip gloss, her favorite—and her belly twitched and ached. Goodbye kisses were stressful—being away from Cherry at all was stressful—but she didn’t have a choice. She slid over Cherry’s lap, knocking their teeth together with one last kiss, before hopping out the door.
Sloan walked to the house with a little wave, disappearing through the door with a frown. She tried to ignore the cold sinking feeling in her stomach that took up residence whenever the girls were apart. It was okay. She could do this. She just had to get through the next little while.
Cherry’s truck would be at the ball field, just out of her mother’s sight, waiting, watching, keeping her safe from afar.
“Sloan?” her mother called from the kitchen. “Come eat!”
“Coming, Mom,” she chirped brightly, pasting the perfect smile on her face.
She was fine.
She was fine.
THE TOOTHBRUSH WAS hard and heavy in her hand. Her fingers curled around it so tightly that it might snap, would have snapped, should have snapped, if she had been anywhere except in a dream.
And Sloan knew it was a dream. A nightmare, really, although Sloan knew the real nightmare wouldn’t begin until she opened the door to her cabin. Until she saw the blood running in rivulets, following the same divots in the wood and grass that the rain had the day before. But she could never get that far. Not anymore. It was as if her mind was working backward, clearing out the memories from the end to the beginning, leaving her with confusing flashes of half memories—all without order or context.
But the dreams still came like clockwork. Every night, pinned to her bed, she relived the final moments before it all went to shit, before she opened the door. Beth had suggested that if they could break the pattern, if Sloan could get the door open before the dream ended, maybe they could make some real progress. Whatever that meant.
Still, Sloan hoped this night, this dream, this nightmare, would be the one.
If she had to open that door, she would rather do it on her own terms, in her own bed, instead of sitting on an oversize armchair in front of Beth.
She looked at the toothbrush in her hand, looked at the wide-eyed reflection of herself in the cabin mirror, and tried to sink all the way inside herself. Deep, deep, until she was drowning in the sensation. Until she felt fused with the body looking in the mirror, until her past and present melted together into one word, one thought: now.
Sloan had been in the bathroom when she’d heard the first scream, and so the bathroom was where she always started, caught in a time loop in her head every night like a rabbit in a snare.
She had just changed into her pink-striped pajamas. Because she knew Cherry liked them best and had been expecting, hoping, waiting for her to visit for one of their late-night talks. Cherry had made it a habit to show up out of the blue, and Sloan wanted to be ready.
Thus, the cute pajamas, the toothbrush heavy in her hand. They had kissed earlier, and she hoped they would again, and she’d be damned if their second kiss was going to start with stale garlic crouton breath.
Five, four, three, two, and—
The scream ripped through the dream exactly as it had that night.
Sloan had thought nothing of it at first until others joined in. Until the screaming turned to crying, to begging. Until a heavy thunk—followed by the sticky wet sound of what she had at first thought was a watermelon being split, but later turned out to be the sternum of one of the other counselors—had made her bones rattle and her teeth ache.
Something was wrong.
Very, very wrong.
Sloan set the toothbrush down and crept over to the tiny, frosted bathroom window, just as she had that night. The rough, unfinished pine logs that made up the cabin walls scratched her cheek as she tried to pry the window back. She couldn’t see anything through the cloudy glass, but maybe if she could get it open, she could make something out through the screen, even though it was pitch-black
The solar-powered motion lights on the other cabins began to flick on, and then off, as if someone—or something—was moving from place to place. A shiver ran down her spine as the light two cabins down clicked on. Whatever it was, it was heading in her direction, getting closer.
And she supposed that made sense.
Most of the other cabins were empty, after all.
Next week the summer camp would be bustling full of little kids, mostly middle schoolers—but also the occasional elementary kid whose parents needed them out of the way, or high schooler working as a “junior counselor.”
But that was next week.
This week, the week Sloan learned that chopping watermelons doesn’t sound all that different from chopping bodies, there was only a small group of counselors and workers. Ten, to be exact. Spread out all over the camp.
And somehow, even then, still trying to unjam the bathroom window and get a better look, Sloan knew that number wouldn’t last the night.
She gave up on the window, blurry and stuck shut, even though it had worked every time before that. ...
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