The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson!
Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.
The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone.
But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?
As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks.
* An Amazon Best Book of the Month * Parade's Best YA Books of the Year * Indigo Best Books of the Year * SLJ Best Books of the Year * Kirkus Best Books of the Year * A YALSA Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Book of the Year *
Release date: September 14, 2021
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Print pages: 384
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
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Tiffany D. Jackson
ALARM: TIME FOR your pills!
I miss the warmth of the sun.
I miss cloudless blue skies, rocky beaches, mountain views, palm trees, and cactus thorns. The moist plant soil in my hands, the prickle of aloe leaves . . . the memories are sharp, fresh broken pieces of glass cutting through me.
Change is good. Change is necessary. Change is needed.
For the past three days, I’ve seen nothing but endless cement highways from the back row of our minivan, the sky growing grayer with every passing state. And dude, I’d give my right tit just to lay eyes on anything other than suspect motels, greasy diners, and gas station bathrooms.
“Daddy, are we there yet?” Piper asks from the middle row, a book in her lap.
“Almost, sweetheart,” Alec says from the driver’s seat. “See that city skyline? We’re about five miles away.”
“Our new home,” Mom says with a hopeful smile, threading her golden-brown fingers through Alec’s pale ones.
Piper watches them, her jaw clenching.
“I need to go to the bathroom. Now,” she says, with an air of haughtiness that makes it impossible to breathe easy in the packed van.
“Seriously, again?” Sammy mumbles under his breath, straining not to take his frustration out on a comic book. Buddy, our German shepherd mix, nudges Sammy’s arm, demanding he continue to rub behind his ears.
“But we’re almost there, sweetie,” Mom says to her, beaming sunshine. “Do you think you can hold it a bit longer?”
“No,” she snaps. “It’s not good to hold your pee. Grandma said.”
Mom winces a smile and faces forward. She tries her damnedest to defrost her, but Piper remains a block of ice no matter what you do.
Sammy, gnawing on an organic fruit roll-up, pops out an earphone, and leans over to whisper.
“This playlist should’ve lasted us the length of the trip according to Google Maps and I’ve already been through it twice. Should’ve added an extra day for Ms. Weak Bladder.”
Piper stills, her neck straightening, pretending not to hear. But she’s listening. She’s always listening. That’s what I’ve learned about her over the past ten months. She listens, stores information, and plots. Piper’s a strawberry blond with copper freckles and pink lips that rarely form the semblance of a smile. From most angles, she is ghostly white. Enough for me to think that maybe we should’ve stayed in California, if for no other reason than so that the sun could powder her cheekbones.
“We’ll get off at the next exit and find a gas station,” Alec says to Mom. “No big deal, right?”
“Um, right,” Mom replies, releasing his hand to wrap her long dreads into a high bun. She fidgets with her hair whenever she’s uncomfortable. I wonder if Alec has picked up on that yet.
Change is good. Change is necessary. Change is needed.
I’ve repeated this mantra at least a million times as we’ve driven farther from the past toward an uncertain future. Uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just makes you feel cramped in a prison of your own making. But my guru told me whenever I start drowning in thoughts, I should hold tight to my mantra, a life preserver, and wait for the universe to send rescue, which has really worked over these last three months without my anxiety meds.
But then I see it. A black speck on my tan sundress.
“No, no no no . . . ,” I whimper, convulsing, as the memorized fact washes over me.
FACT: Female bedbugs may lay hundreds of eggs, each about the size of a speck of dust, over a lifetime.
All the cars on the freeway collide and my body bursts into flames.
Hundreds of eggs, maybe thousands, are being laid on my dress, on my skin, every passing second. Hatching, mating, hatching all over my body, can’t breathe, need air, no, need hot water, heat, sun, fire, burn the car, get it off get it off get it off!
I snatch the speck with my nails, holding it up to the light, rubbing the soft fibers.
Not a bedbug. Just lint. It’s okay. You’re okay. Okay okayokayokay okay . . .
I flick it out the window and grip the glass terrarium on my lap before my bouncing knee can knock it off. I need a blunt, a brownie, a gummy . . . hell, I’d take a contact high right about now, I’m so desperate for numbness. Jittery nerves try to claw their way out from under the heavy skin suffocating them. I can’t explode in here. Not in front of Sammy and especially not in front of Mom.
Grounding. Yeah, need to ground myself. You got this, Mari. Ready? Go. Five things I can see:
1) A blue city skyline, up ahead.
2) Burned-down church shaded by trees.
3) An old clock tower, the time wrong.
4) To the left, far in the distance, four white-gray windowless buildings that look like giant cinder blocks.
5) Closer to the freeway, some kind of abandoned factory. You can tell it hasn’t been touched in years by the thickness of the weeds growing out the cracks in the parking lot and the art deco neon sign—Motor Sport—dangling off the roof. The air whistling through all the broken windows must sound like whale chants.
Wonder what it’s like inside. Probably some spooky decrepit shell of old America, hella dirty with World War II–era posters of women in jumpsuits, holding rivet guns. I hold my phone up to frame a shot before a text buzzes in from Tamara.
T-Money: Dude, u made it yet?
Me: No. We’re driving nowhere fast. Think Alec’s kidnapping us.
T-Money: Well, put on your locator so I can find your body.
Me: And I’m out of that gift you blessed me with.
T-Money: Damn!!! Already?
Me: Didn’t even make it two states.
T-Money: On 2nd thought, tuck and roll out that bitch ASAP.
I miss Tamara. And that’s about it. Everyone else back home can die a slow death. Aggressive, right? See why I could use a blunt?
“Daddy, is there something wrong with me?”
Piper’s high-pitched voice can slice cracks in porcelain.
Alec eyes the rearview mirror at his daughter, her angelic glow blinding him to reality.
“Of course not! What made you think that?”
“Sammy says I have a weak bladder. What does that mean?”
That’s Piper. She’s all about the long game, waiting for the right moments to drop bombs. It’s chess, not checkers.
As my little brother argues with the parental unit about name-calling, Piper sits with a satisfied grin, staring out at the city she’ll undoubtedly take over.
You ever watch that first episode of The Walking Dead? You know, the one when Rick Grimes wakes up in his hospital bed, oblivious to the last forty-eight hours, then rides his horse through the apocalypse-ravaged streets, baffled to find the world has gone completely to shit? Well, that’s what it feels like driving up the desolate freeway exit into Cedarville.
Piper leans closer to the window, eyebrows pinched. “Daddy, was there a fire?”
I follow her gaze to the array of burnt homes lining the avenue.
“Um, maybe, sweetheart,” Alec says, squinting. “Or they’re just . . . really old.”
“Why don’t they fix them?”
“Well, this city has had some . . . financial problems in the past. But it’s getting better. That’s why we’re here!”
Sammy nudges me. “Mari, look.”
On his side, more abandoned buildings, stores, even schools. Signage hints they’ve been closed at least since the nineties.
“Goodness,” Mom gasps. This is a long way from the beach town she grew up in. Where I grew up. Where I can never go back.
Alec turns a corner, down Maple Street. I only notice the name due to the crooked street sign swinging in front of a three-story redbrick Victorian mansion, the steeple roof caved in, soot framing the boarded-up windows, dead vines crawling up its side.
The next house, even worse. A white one-story bungalow, the roof like a half-ripped bag of potato chips, a tree growing in its frame. The next like a creepy dollhouse . . . on and on it goes.
Mom and Alec share an uneasy look.
“Where . . . are . . . we?” Sammy mumbles, taking it all in.
“Oh!” Mom says, pointing. “There, up ahead. We’re here!”
We park in front of a bright white carriage house, with a wide unfinished porch, bay windows, emerald grass, and a cobalt-blue door. A stark contrast to the rest of the homes on the block and the only one that has sprinkles of life as construction workers buzz about.
A white woman in a gray skirt suit waves from the front steps, a leather portfolio in hand.
“That must be Irma,” Mom says, waving back. “She represents the Foundation. Be nice, everyone.”
We slap on fake smiles, pour out of the van, and stand on the curb, looking up at our new home. But I can’t help sneaking glances at the crumbling surroundings, waiting for a zombie to stumble out of the bushes.
Irma clicks down the driveway in her kitten heels, brown curls bouncing. Up close, she’s older than her forced hair color gives her credit for.
“Hello! Hello! Welcome! You must be Raquel. I’m Irma Von Hoven, we spoke on the phone.”
Mom shakes her hand. “Irma, yes, pleasure meeting you in person!”
“Congratulations again on winning the GWYP Residency. We are so happy to have you here in Cedarville!”
“Thank you! This is my husband, Alec; our son, Sam; and our daughters, Marigold and Piper.”
“Stepdaughter,” Piper corrects her.
Alec squeezes both of her shoulders with a chuckle. “Remember, sweetheart, we’re a family now, right? Can you say hello to Ms. Von Hoven?”
“I thought we already did?”
Irma’s eyes widen as she hugs her folder, then looks up at me. “My, aren’t you a tall one!”
I sigh. “So I’ve heard a few million times.”
“Uh . . . right. So how about a tour! Yes?”
“Yes, that would be great, thanks,” Mom says, slightly deflated. “Sammy, leave Bud in the car.”
“Come on in. And don’t mind the contractors, they’re just finishing up a couple of things here and there. We had a few hiccups some weeks back, but everything’s running smoothly now.”
The door creaks and we file into the foyer. Inside is massive. Three times the size of our beach shed, as my dad liked to call it.
“The house was originally constructed back in the early seventies but, of course, we’ve had it updated. Stainless steel appliances, some new plumbing, floors, the works. To the left, you have the living room, don’t mind the tools. To the right, a formal dining room, great for dinner parties. They just stained this staircase, isn’t it incredible?”
Wood. That’s all I see. Wood everywhere. Fresh places for bedbugs to burrow. . . .
FACT: Bedbugs love to make their homes in mattresses, suitcases, books, cracks in the walls, outlets, and anything made of wood.
“Back here, a gorgeous kitchen that opens up to the family room. Great place for the children to play. This little breakfast nook gets tons of natural light. Walk-in pantry, plenty of closet space . . .”
A million cherrywood cabinets, wood-trim bay windows, glossy floors . . . wood, wood, and more wood.
With trembling hands, I set my terrarium next to a welcome basket of cured meats, cheeses, walnuts, and crackers. I grab the nuts and slam-dunk them in the trash, startling Irma.
Mom jumps in. “Sorry, Sammy’s allergic.”
“Oh, I see,” Irma says, lashes fluttering. “Um, first door over here, a small library. Could make a nice little office space.”
I knock on a wall. Hollow. The place got good bones but shitty insulation. I give the floor a stomp, an echo vibrating up.
Irma shoots Mom a pointed stare.
“Um, their dad is an architect,” Mom offers sheepishly.
“Oh. I see.”
I don’t know why everyone’s looking at me like I’m the crazy one. If winters in the Midwest are anything like they are in movies, we’ll freeze to death come November! I punch a new alarm in my phone:
10:25 a.m. ALARM: Order heated blankets.
“What’s that?” Sammy asks, pointing to a door under the stairs. The dark warped wood stands out among the stained and polished interior.
“Oh. Yes, um, that’s the basement, but it’s off-limits. Mr. Watson will explain; he’s the supervisor. Shall we see about the bedrooms?”
We trek upstairs, congregating in the windowless hallway. A loud thump hits above us. Piper shrieks, grabbing hold of Alec.
“Not to worry! They’re just working on the roof. Anyhoo, there’re four bedrooms—three plus a master with bath. The master faces the front yard and has amazing light. . . .”
“What do you think?” Mom whispers to me, beaming. “Nice, right?”
“It’s . . . a lot of wood,” I mumble, scratching the inside of my arm.
“And over here, we have the upstairs bathroom. Giant, isn’t it? That’s a real working claw-foot tub.”
As they pile in to admire the checkered tile, I drift away from the tour to call Dad. It’s almost midnight in Japan, but he should still be up.
No signal. In the middle of a city? That’s . . . impossible.
The floor creaks behind me, like a heavy foot pressed against the aged wood. Enveloped in the darkness, a chill crawls up my arms. Feels colder in here than outside. I turn in time to see a shadow pass under one of the bedroom doors.
Thought she said they were on the roof.
“Hello?” I say, creeping closer, keeping my steps light.
It’s faint, but there’s the slow inhale of breath as the shadow moves away. Then, silence.
I test the knob and the lock snaps. The door slowly swings open on its own, and I half expect to see someone standing right behind it.
But there’s no one.
The room is empty. The walls white and bare. Not even curtains on the windows facing a backyard filled with tall pine trees, branches shifting in the breeze.
“Oh,” I say, laughing at myself. Breeze, sun, branches . . . of course they’d paint shadows on the floor.
See why I need to relax?
The sun-drenched room with its small closet and lopsided floorboards is cozy, peaceful. My guru once said, “Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.” Maybe this place isn’t that bad. But in an instant, I’m distracted by the giant gaping hole in the molding of the window.
Well, not gaping. It’s tight, but there’s just enough space for bedbugs to set up shop.
I grab a credit card out of my wallet, gliding it down the crack.
Can probably seal this up with some caulk. . . .
Irma clicks into the room, my family behind her.
“And in here, we have . . . uh, dear? What are you doing?”
I straighten. “Um . . . checking for bedbugs.”
Mom winces a grin. “Mari is very, um . . . proactive when it comes to house care.”
Irma gapes but returns a fake smile. “Oh. Right, okay. Shall we convene in the kitchen?”
Sammy mouths “weirdo” at me with a smirk as we head downstairs.
“Oh, Mr. Watson,” Irma sings, waving at the older gentleman standing in the foyer. “This is the Anderson-Green family. I was just giving them a tour of their new home.”
Mr. Watson blows out some air, failing at hiding his annoyance with Irma. He’s bald with a thick graying beard and chocolate skin, standing a good six foot three. He takes off his hard hat and gives us a curt nod.
“Hello,” he says. “Mind the water pressure. Don’t work her too hard, she’s new. Gotta check on the fellas.”
He gives us another nod, slaps on his helmet, and slips out the front door.
“Oooook,” Alec chuckles.
A man of few words. I like him already.
“Well,” Irma sighs. “Shall we?”
Irma lays her portfolio out on the granite kitchen island, taking out various pamphlets and papers.
“Okey dokey. Here’s the contract for you to sign. And for legal purposes, I must review the rules with you once more.”
“Yes, of course,” Mom says, Alec by her side, massaging her neck.
In an instant, Piper is behind him, tugging at his shirt. It would be comical, her endless need for his attention, if it wasn’t so annoying.
Irma adjusts her glasses, reading off a paper. “As discussed, artists participating in the Grow Where You’re Planted Residency, aka GWYP, are allowed to live in one of our restored historic homes free of charge for the length of the residency with the option to buy. Each quarter the artist, that’s you, is expected to attend fundraising dinners, networking events, and galas, which will help promote the Sterling Foundation efforts to rebuild the Cedarville community. At the end of the artist’s residency, the artist must produce at least one major project, i.e., your new book. Terminating the agreement will result in immediate eviction and the artist must pay back the mortgage with interest plus any damages in accordance with the length of their stay.”
“Daddy, what does eviction mean?”
Alec brushes Piper’s hair behind her ears. “It means we would have to leave the house right away. But don’t worry. That’s never going to happen.”
A warning laces Alec’s words together tight.
Mom takes a deep breath. “So. Where do I sign?”
As Mom and Alec finalize the paperwork, I stand in front of a glass door leading to a narrow fenced-in backyard and try to call Dad like I promised, but my one bar of service can barely send a text. Outside, a construction worker stains the deck a dark cherrywood. His brushstrokes are hella rushed and erratic as sweat pours down the back of his neck.
Dude, nervous much?
Mom joins me, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. A warm aura of peace radiating off her skin.
“Plenty of space for a new garden. We can build some raised flower beds over in that corner, fence it in so Bud won’t mess with it.”
She’s trying to show me the silver lining in all this, and I can’t see a glimmer. But she’s happy. I’ve always wanted her to be happy.
“Oh! You’re into gardening?” Irma says behind us. “Cedarville has a terrific urban gardening program run through the library. Last Sunday of the month.”
Following Irma out to the front porch, we survey the neighborhood and I half expect a tumbleweed to blow by.
“Ms. Von Hoven, no offense, but where is, um, everybody?” Sammy asks, scratching his head. “Is there like a BBQ in another state we weren’t invited to?”
As far as little brothers go, I hit the lotto when it comes to Sammy. Mentally twice his age, with a wicked sense of humor and sarcasm for days, I can always count on him to break the tension by saying what everyone’s thinking.
Irma giggles. “Well, you are our first artist in residence! But there will be many more. The Sterling Foundation owns all the property on this side of Maple Street. Come! Let me give you a quick rundown.” She links arms with Sammy, heading to the end of the driveway. Piper slips between Mom and Alec, grabbing his hand as we follow.
“Okay! You, young sir, live on Maple Street, between Division and Sweetwater Avenues, in the Maplewood area of Cedarville,” she says, pointing while she talks. “Which makes up about fifteen blocks or so. Population around two thousand. Three blocks up Maple Street is Cedarville Park. Behind the park is the cemetery. Take a left on Sweetwater, four blocks up and you’re at Kings High School. Take a right, three blocks up and you’re at Benning Elementary, right next to Pinewood Middle School. Now, take a left on Division for the local grocery and easy access to the freeways. You’re about fifteen minutes away from downtown and the Riverwalk.”
“There’s a river?” Piper asks. For some reason, this interests her.
“Oh yes. Pretty walkway too. Lots of new restaurants, casinos, and an arcade. Now, a few tips for the parents, if I may. Sweetwater Avenue is like . . . the other side of the tracks, if you catch my drift. Your neighborhood is something of an up-and-coming area.” Her voice deepens. “Lock your doors and windows every night. Never leave anything in the car or on the porch if you want to keep it, and don’t let the children wander. Especially in these old houses.”
You could hear a pin drop from a block over the way we all freeze.
Irma lets out a laugh. “But really, Cedarville is one of the friendliest cities in the country. A little dirt just adds character.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Sammy mumbles.
“All right. I think that just about covers it. Next month, Mr. Sterling would like to host a welcome dinner at his house for you. I’ll send the particulars. Contractors should be done with everything in the next week or two. You have my number, so if any issues arise, please let me know. And once again, welcome to Cedarville!”
Irma waves as she heads to her car, leaving us stunned, arms full of the information she dumped on us.
As she drives off, I beat Sammy to the punch. “So . . . we’re not really staying here, right?”
Mom scoffs. “Why not?”
“Uh, for starters, have you looked around?” Sammy asks, motioning to the desolate street.
The brick house to our right choked in vines looks like nothing more than a giant hedge, wood slabs boarding up every window and door.
“Well,” Alec says. “She did say there will be more families here. Soon.”
“Guys,” Mom pleads. “This is a great opportunity, and most importantly, it’s a FREE house!”
“Yeah,” I chuckle, crossing my arms. “And you get what you pay for.”
“Free also means being debt-free,” Alec adds, the accountant wheels spinning behind his bright blue eyes. “Think of it as an adventure. We’ll be pioneers!”
“Don’t you mean colonizers,” I snap, “since all of these were clearly already owned by somebody before?”
It’s now Alec’s turn to wince, and it feels justified after the number of times Piper has made Mom uneasy.
Piper yanks at Alec’s arm. “Daddy, can I pick out my room now?”
“Uh, sure, sweetie, sure. Let’s go check them out.”
Alec grasps Piper’s hand as they skip back inside, not bothering to check if his other kids want to pick their room as well. But who am I kidding, Piper is always going to come first.
Mom studies our faces and holds up both of her hands. “Okay. So, I know you’re both . . . apprehensive. But look on the bright side: if it doesn’t work out, we’re only required to stay here for three years.”
“Three years!” we scream.
“That’s how the residency works. This will be a fresh, debt-free start. For all of us. Which is exactly what we need.” She looks at me. “Right, Marigold?”
Ah, of course. Debt-free is needed since my stay at Strawberry Pines Rehabilitation Center wasn’t exactly cheap. Just short of tuition at an Ivy League college. ...
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