What happens when E. Lockhart and Marieke Nijkamp combine? You get The Missing Season, a new tense, atmospheric thriller from the author of The Lies They Tell, about friendship, truth, and creeping fears that can’t be outrun.
Whenever a kid goes missing, the kids of Pender know what is really behind it: a monster out in the marshes.
That’s what Clara’s new crew tells her when she moves to town. She doesn’t actually believe in this monster they call the Mumbler. But as Halloween gets closer and tensions build in the town, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there really is something dark and dangerous in Pender, lurking in the shadows.
HOODIES COME OUT of the rain, four of them, coasting down the Birchwood Terraces slope on stunt bikes. Green hood leads, followed by blue, yellow, and white, their knees up around their ears, steering with one hand, letting the other dangle.
My jacket’s zipped to my chin, but if I could, I’d pull my whole head inside, tortoise-style, and wait out this ritual. Got to wear the old stone face, though. Prove I’m hard.
They hang a left, straying across both lanes toward the school-bus-stop shelter where I stand. Some of the other kids shift, tensing here beneath the corrugated plastic roof, where the sound of raindrops is amplified to a snare drum backbeat.
Green Hood circles the shelter, gone, back, gone, back, the other hoodies trailing behind. Scoping the new-kid situation. I focus on the sign across the street, peeling and faded, welcoming people to the Birchwood Terraces development—Affordable Family Housing—ready to eat my ration of shit so they can forget about me.
“Who’s that?” Green Hood says.
“Dunno.” Blue Hood reappears.
“Hey. Who are you?” Green Hood flashes by. “Helloo-o? You speak-ay Engleesh?” Something bounces off my chest, and my gaze follows it to the mud. A balled-up gum wrapper. Back to the sign. Affordablefamilyhousing. Affordablefamilyhousing. I’m going to make it here. I am.
“What’s up with her hair?” Blue.
“Looks like Christmas barfed on her head.” Green.
Laughter, from the hoodies and the other kids. Take it. Take it. My jaw clenches so tightly that the tendons jump in my neck.
A girl speaks in a low monotone: “Aidan?”
Green Hood puts his foot down to brake when he sees who’s talking.
She stands to my right, tallish, rangy, wearing a charcoal- colored fleece, her blond hair in a brief ponytail. A middleof-the-classroom type, average, nothing to see here. Only her gaze—shrewd, eyes a barely-there shade of gray—makes her something more. She twitches her head once. “No.”
She could be telling a cat not to play with her shoelaces. I expect f-bombs, but Green Hood just sniffs, wipes his nose on his hand, and shoves off down the street, letting the rest of them play catch-up.
She turns to me. “Goddamn hoodies make everybody look bad.” Her expression’s deadpan, a real stone face, not like the mask I wear. “We aren’t all assholes, I swear.”
I don’t thank her—I can tell she wouldn’t like that—and I don’t ruin everything by saying that she should’ve let the ritual play out, that now they’ll only wait until they can get me alone. I search for chitchat. “They left fast. You must be scary.”
A slight nod, no softening in her expression. “So, I’m Bree.” She points to the girl beside her. “That’s Sage.”
Sage. A gymnast’s build, tortoiseshell glasses, her hair a lob ombré’d from deep brown to platinum. She wears trendy hot-girl clothes—skinny jeans, a lace-trim cami—and a flannel boyfriend shirt over it all. Boyfriend because it’s huge on her, maybe XL, in shades of brown and green, washed and worn to a soft patina.
When Sage grins, it’s forthright, devilish. “How’re you liking the Terraces so far?”
“It’s”—I scan the identical cube houses lining the culde-sac, shabby little three-family units, each with a shared parking area and a strip of backyard facing the woods—“very beige.”
They laugh, a relief, but Bree’s gaze is still sharp. “Why’d you come here?”
Typical accusatory question. One thing I’ve learned, moving from one dying town to the next: everybody in a place like this thinks they’re being held hostage. “My dad’s working the mill demolition.” Their dads are probably on unemployment, now that Pender isn’t making paper anymore.
“Oh. The wicked-built guy with all the tats?” Bree bumps shoulders with Sage, says to me, “We were watching out the window when you moved in.”
“No shit. You get to call him daddy?” Sage cackles. “Luck-y. He could tuck me into bed anytime.” She sees me flinch, glances at Bree. “Too far?”
Bree measures a half inch between thumb and forefinger as the school bus stops at the curb, all shrieking brakes and groaning hydraulics. We clomp on board into a funk of stale air, old vinyl, and spectral puke from bus rides past. I swing into the first empty seat. The girls choose the seat across the aisle. Bree raises her voice over the din: “What’s your name?”
She considers. “How about Clarabelle?” She glances at Sage, who shrugs approval.
I can’t tell if they’re joking. I look at the floor, Sage’s block-heel mules and Bree’s canvas sneakers together, my leopard-print skimmers keeping their distance.
Pender District High is a cinder-block bunker with low, grimy windows that open on cranks, and rows of battered purple lockers. A mural of the sweater-wearing, steam-snorting mascot consumes the wall by the office, gift of the class of ’18. Go-o-o, Raging Elks.
Bree and Sage are sucked away into the major artery of the place, and then there’s just me, Clara Morrison, Human Conversation Piece, the girl who’s starting school on a Friday, over a month late, with her hair a dye-kit disaster, a mess of reddish-green streaks in hair faded yellow with lightener. I pretend I can’t feel the eyes on me as I circulate through the usual manic pre-homeroom buzz, searching for room six so I can be marked present. In body, never in spirit.
First-day highlight reel:
Mr. Spille, second-period American history, is PDHS’s resident drunk teacher. Never straying far from his desk, he delivers his lecture to us on gusts of minty breath spray with base notes of bourbon. We learn about Harpers Ferry for fifteen minutes until an earnest-faced boy diverts him into a period-long conversation about the Patriots’ draft picks. I doodle in my notebook until the bell rings. It’s restful.
Hot lunch is slices of anemic turkey, a scoop of instant potatoes with gravy, and green beans drowning in their own bodily fluids. Thank God I brown-bag it. I peel back the tinfoil on my sandwich, the crust an inch from my mouth when I notice the white specks. Bread’s gone bad.
Someone put a sticker on my back. Elmo, holding a gold star, smiling gapingly, with the words Good Job! underneath. I have no idea how long it’s been there.
My study hall is in Mrs. Klatts’s room, which has a western exposure, facing an overgrown field bleeding into woods.
I’m about to open A Clockwork Orange—the rest of my junior English class has already read through page one hundred— when instinct flicks my ear, making me look up at the exact second Bree and Sage sprint across the field, legs pumping, heading for the cover of a single stand of yew trees.
I glance at Klatts, buried in her planner, the bowed heads of the other kids. I’m the only one seeing this, at least in room twelve.
Bree and Sage crouch out of sight, then pelt toward the woods. A moment later, they’re gone. I wait for teachers to give chase, for sirens and searchlights. Nothing. The clock over the whiteboard ticks on.
I spend the rest of study hall with my chin resting on my folded arms, staring after them.
Shocker: Bree and Sage don’t get on the bus at the end of the day.
I slouch in my seat. Decompression. Or maybe decomposition? Gazing out the rain-speckled window, I register a transition from light to shadow as we drive beneath an overpass. That’s when I notice the writing.
Four feet tall, somehow spray-painted across the underside of the pass; the tagger must’ve hung upside down from the girders like a bat. The message makes me turn even though it’s too late, we’re through, back in the gray light.
The words said Fear Him.
I’M OUTSIDE AND Ma’s in. From where I sit on the back stoop with A Clockwork Orange, I hear canned TV laughter, then silence; a song and a half from the radio before she shuts it off, too keyed up about her first day on the job to settle. Probably ironing her uniform shirt, one pink curler rolled into her bangs, reaching for a cup of coffee on the end table each time she checks out the window for Dad’s old Suburban pulling into the lot. He’s late, and she won’t leave until he’s here. She worries about me being alone in a new place.
Ma’s ringtone sounds. A minute later, the screen door creaks open on its metal arm. “He’s on his way.” Another creak as she shifts her weight, gauging me. “Think you can handle taking the meat loaf out when the timer goes off?”
“I’ll give it my all.”
Her foot meets the top of my butt, bump. “Miserable brat.” She wedges in beside me, smelling like that vanilla perfume she asks me to get her for her birthday every year because it’s cheap and easy to find. “School so bad you can’t talk about it?”
I glance over; she hasn’t asked all afternoon, not even when we ate microwave popcorn and watched the end of a cooking show together. On the other side of the Terraces, a kid screams in play. I swear I’ve been here before. Not Birchwood Terraces, exactly, but other developments like it, named after the trees cut down to build the place: Oakfield, Elm Park, Spruce Way. We’ve moved three times in four years, and twice when I was in elementary school, following Dad’s construction work, but somehow, we always end up right here.
“Figured I’d let you bring it up.” She waits. “Let me guess.
Waterboarding. The rack.”
I shrug. “Your words, not mine.”
She studies me, then A Clockwork Orange, and exhales. “Try, Clara. That’s all a smart girl like you has to do. If I’d brought home grades like yours, think I’d be hanging around here? Hell no. I’d be in Paris or someplace, getting waited on.” Paris is the dream, so far away and impossible that she can imagine anything there, any kind of life. She gives my hair the side-eye, maybe waiting for it to leap like a tarantula. It was supposed to be a pastel rainbow: the picture on the dye kit showed a sexy, up-for-anything girl with a sleek bob of teal, pink, and baby blue. I wanted to be that girl. Selfreinvention in six easy steps. I bought it on the sly with the birthday money my grandma mailed me, lightened and dyed on the second-to-last day before we left our old apartment. If Ma’s hurt that I did it while she was at work, fumbling with instructions and bottles and alligator clips, she hasn’t let on. “How’d your new look go over?”
“Does Christmas Barf mean anything to you?” She snorts, ducks her head to her knees, and laughs down at her toes. I can’t help laughing, too, even though it won’t be funny the next time I run into the hoodies. “Right. Mock me. Maybe tomorrow you can come to school and pants me in the cafeteria.”
Dad’s coming up the walk from the parking lot to the back stoop now, carrying his lunch cooler. His boots are heavy, steel-toed, his jeans coated in pale dust, the powdered remains of walls and foundations. Maybe asbestos. You never know what’s lurking inside these paper mills that have been standing for fifty, sixty years. It’s a long day, driving a forklift, shifting scrap. He shoots a finger-gun at me, and I flop against the railing, hand to my shoulder, a game so old I could play my part in my sleep. He blows invisible smoke from his fingertip. “Deadeye.”
“Just a flesh wound.”
Ma smiles as he kisses her head. Then he flips the curler, saying, “This is nice.”
“Oh God.” She pulls it out, hurriedly fluffing her bangs. Ma’s got great hair, thick, black, and shiny, her Italian heritage showing through; if I took after her, I’d never even look at a box of dye. Pre−Christmas Barf, mine was a dead-mouse shade of brown, same as Dad’s, which is probably why he keeps it buzzed short. So, this is me—pale-ish, medium-ish, a face that never launched any ships. But I’m good at bullshitting an English theme. And I make a bitchin’ ham and cheese on moldy rye.
Ma runs inside, comes out heaving her big purse over her shoulder, every zipper jangling with rings and pulls. “Wish me luck.”
“Luck,” Dad and I say in a monotone. Ma’s new job is cashiering at a truck stop out by the interstate in Brewer. She’ll hate it in a week. Who wouldn’t?
Dad showers, dresses in his around-the-house sweats and Dropkick Murphys tee, joins me at the table. We eat the meat loaf; smothered in ketchup, it’s not too bad. “Should probably keep unpacking,” he says around a sip of Shipyard.
“Probably.” We glance at the stacks of beat-up cardboard boxes in the living room—the U-Haul box guarantee says they’ll survive four moves, and it looks like only just—then we each go for another slice of loaf.
Packing sucks, but unpacking is the worst. It’s basically life’s way of saying, hey, in case you were hoping for a fresh start, here are your scratchy bath towels and the lamp nobody likes, to remind you how impossible that is. Unless you’ve got a million dollars. And a Milton Bradley Facial Reconstruction Kit for Beginners.
After clearing the table, I return to the stoop with my book. I’m a big reader, total escape artist, but this time, it’s a prop; I haven’t cracked the cover yet. I’m waiting for somebody, testing a theory. If Bree and Sage watched us unload the Penske truck, one of them must live close, with a view of the paved walkway and parking lot. From what I’ve seen, nobody uses their street entrances here. The real living’s done out back, where the woods wait beyond the neighbors’ charcoal grills and plastic playhouses. Dense woods, mostly pitch pines, those trees that don’t seem to be able to sustain their own limbs, multiple amputees with black, scabrous bark.
Ten minutes later, Bree proves me right, walking between our house and the one next door. From this angle, she looks spare, straight up and down, a raw frame bulked with loose clothing. She senses me and stops dead, glancing over. I’d been mentally rehearsing what I would say, but now I just stare back at her, gripping my book.
She comes over to the edge of our unit’s walkway. “Hey.”
“Hey.” I haven’t been able to get the sight of her and Sage escaping into the woods out of my head. That was almost five hours ago. Wonder what that’s like, having a partner in crime. Mine’s been mostly a solo act so far. Not by choice. It’s just tough to commit while wondering if you’ll even be around long enough for these people to sign your yearbook. I never quite fit in our last town, Astley, over in Western Maine; I tried the no-friends thing there, and I’m here to tell you, it sucks. The label of Desperate Loner Chick holds zero mystique. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Matter-of-factly. A pause. “What’d you think of school?”
I copy her deadpan expression. “Nonstop thrill ride.” She laughs; it’s a good laugh, unexpected, a little harsh. “I didn’t see you.” Such a liar.
“Then it’s working. I strive for invisibility.” She glances at our door. “Are you locked out?”
“No. My dad’s in there.”
Bree steps back. Silence. “Well. Come over, if you want. My mom isn’t home.”
She says it like, we have cookies. This is what I wanted—I think. To know more. To make it here. My stomach knots up anyway as I rap on our door, calling, “Be right back,” to Dad, who’s probably already dozing off on the futon—we do that, buy a Walmart futon when we move in, dumpster it when we move out—his feet propped on a box, TV whispering like the ocean in a conch shell.
Bree lives right next door, 8A, which has a window facing the side of our building, a perfect clone of hers—single-story, a back stoop for each of the three apartments it contains. She pulls a key from the little hip pocket of her jeans and lets us in.
Every light is on. Techno’s pumping. Somebody’s left their hot-pink Asics on the welcome mat and Bree sideswipes them without even looking. The kitchen’s identical to ours—bottom-of-the-line appliances, patterned linoleum, frosted ceiling fixture—but the surfaces are stacked with catalogs and unopened bills, the fridge collaged with alphabet magnets and school photos. Lots of life accumulated here. In the living room, a girl in yoga pants does the stanky leg, her back to us, following some dance routine on TV, so deafened by the music that she doesn’t hear us come in. As we head down the hallway, she pops, locks, drops it, and says, “Ow.”
Bree’s bedroom is the same one I chose, end of the hall, left of the master; her window is the one that looks out on our stoop. I’m caught off guard by her slate-blue walls. Dad says you’re not supposed to paint a rental. Compared to the rest of the place, her room is a tidy, muted oasis: ecru curtains and bedspread, blue throw pillows, a shag rug tossed down over the ugly high-traffic carpeting, stack of novels on the nightstand. She perches on the bed, shows a flicker of impatience when I don’t sit right away, and pats the spot beside her. I sit, feeling stupid. “Saw you reading the book for Hyde’s class,” she says. “What’s it about?”
“You’re in that class?”
“Occasionally.” Bree reaches into her bedside table drawer, pulls out a gallon ziplock bag of candy, and drops it between us. “Hope you’re not diabetic.”
“Whoa.” It’s Halloween candy: mini boxes of Nerds, Mary Janes, those little fruit-flavored Tootsies. I choose a chocolate tombstone. “When the zombie apocalypse comes, I know where I’m holing up.”
She cuts her eyes at me, checking my expression, and a thin smile crosses her lips, which look kind of chapped, like she bites them. “What do you know about Halloween here?”
She says it the way she says everything, making it impossible to read her meaning.
“Um . . . nothing. Why?”
She completes her smile, untwisting a Jolly Rancher wrap- per. “You better be ready. We got over two hundred trick-ortreaters last year. And everyone called it a bust Halloween.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“Nope.” The Rancher clicks in her teeth. “It’s a Pender thing. Everybody decorates, the businesses get into it. People bring their kids from hick towns like Derby to take them door-to-door, because we have, like, sidewalks. You’ll see.” She lifts a shoulder. “But I don’t know, maybe not so much this year. With the mill closed and everything, lots of people have moved away.”
I take another piece of candy and concentrate on gluing my jaws together. My dad worked the paper mill demolition in Astley, too, and it felt just like this: like we were scavengers, coming to clean up after a town died. Bree’s watching, and it’s like she’s in my head with me, because she says, “How come you started school so late?”
“It took us a while to find a place to live here. Everything was either way too expensive or too long a commute for my dad. Then this place opened up.”
“Will you move again when they’re finished tearing the mill down?”
I shrug. “Depends. My dad works for Cuso Construction— they won the bid for the demolition and everything. They’ve got jobs going all over New England. I mean, he’ll try to get something close to here so we don’t have to leave so soon, but sometimes”—just talking about moving brings discomfort back, the thought of packing up, cleaning up, that last swift walk out the front door with the keys left behind for the landlord—“there just isn’t anything.” I stuff the wrapper into my pocket. “Anyway. Nobody ever trick-or-treated at our old apartments. Guess they were too sketchy-looking. Everybody’s mom probably thought we’d give their precious pumpkin a razor blade in a Mr. Goodbar or something.”
I earn another rough laugh. Feels like such a win—you can tell she doesn’t give them out much. Bree checks the time on her phone. Maybe hinting for me to go. But then she says, without lifting her gaze, “Can I ask you something?” I say yes. “Do you want your hair like that?”
I brace up, like maybe she lured me here just to give me shit. “Obviously.”
Footsteps stop outside the doorway, and the girl from the living room peeks in. Bree’s little sister: same eyes and hair, except mini-Bree wears hers longer, and her style is totally girly. A glitter appliqué on her tank top, pink polish on her toenails. She’s maybe twelve.
“Yes?” Bree bites off the s.
“Heard you talking.” Mini-Bree looks at me curiously. “I thought it was Sage.”
“Well, it’s not. It’s Clara. Bye.” I wave. She keeps looking.
Bree sighs. “God, Hazel, it’s customary to say hello. Is there a reason you came down here?”
“Mom’s going to be late. They’re slammed tonight, and then she’s going out for drinks after.” She traces her toe over the carpet. “Thought you’d want to know.” Bree glances at me, nods.
Hazel tugs the drawstrings of her pants, taking a few steps into the room, her attention on me again. Upon closer inspection, her eyes are nothing like Bree’s; they’re dove gray, not a hint of steel about them. “Have you ever heard of FreshStepz?” I don’t have a chance to say no. “It’s this dance troupe I’m in.”
Bree looks at her from beneath her brows. “It’s a class at the rec department.”
“So? Same thing.” Hazel stops at the foot of the bed, blows her bangs off her forehead. “We have a show next month. I’m practicing really hard.” “Cool,” I say.
She drops onto the mattress beside me, pulling one knee up. “Your mom lets you wear fishnets? You are so lucky. Where’d you get your shoes? I had some like that once, only they had silver sequins on them and they—” Bree clears her throat, makes walking legs with her fingers. Hazel rolls her eyes. “Fine. Forget it. See ya.”
Once I hear her bedroom door bang shut across the hall, I stand to go, but Bree catches me with “The reason I asked about your hair?” I half turn, gaze trained on a framed poster print of swirling blues and yellows, some surreal starry night, ready to take it on the chin. “I think it’s cool. I mean . . . that you weren’t afraid to show up at school like that.”
Fearless. That sounds way better than too broke to buy another box of dye, and too stubborn to ask Mom to bail me out. “Um. Thanks, I guess.”
A pause. “Look, if you’re ever bored or whatever . . . sometimes Sage and I hang out at the skate park.” She fidgets with her phone. “Boys go there.”
Full turn. Her face is guarded, like I’m the one who could do the hurting. “Boys are good.”
I THINK I surprise them, Bree and Sage.
It’s Monday, Columbus Day, around six p.m. They get points for waiting for me at the streetlight in front of Unit Eight like Bree said they would, but I doubt they would’ve hung out long. Nervous energy crackles around them in electric halos, mixing with smells of Tommy Girl, fruity lip gloss, and fresh deodorant. Whoever these boys are, they’re getting the full treatment, and the butterflies in my stomach turn to ravens, talons dragging down my insides. Despite all my “boys are good” talk, I’ve never actually done this, met up with some like an almost-date, and what the hell made me think I’d be able to fake it?
Sage is already moving, bouncing on the balls of her feet, walking backward to face me. “Your mom’s cool with this?”
“She’s at work now. I’m good until nine-ish.” Ma’s probably still in shock; I waited until she was almost out the door to ask if I could go to the park with the girls, leaving her speechless for a full three seconds, looking at Dad, who’d stopped at the stove, a stolen forkful of spaghetti halfway to his mouth. Shocked I’ve already met kids in the neighborhood, I guess. Complex coded messages shot between those two, making me wonder what they say about me behind their bedroom door at night, especially since the hair- dyeing incident. I’ve overheard enough when they think I’m sleeping—feel so bad, putting Clara through it again—to know that they worry about it, our three-person caravan in perpetual motion.
Now, I tug my long cardigan around me. The temperature’s dropped—it’s the third week of October and feels every bit of it.
Bree leads the way down the hill to the development’s coin-op laundry building, where fluorescent light glows through steamed windows. Beyond, in the woods, a trailhead waits for us, the ground carpeted in dried pine needles. Those pitch pines are everywhere, splintered limbs, trunks jeweled with streams of hardened sap.
Bree sees me hesitate at the sight of that shadowy opening. “It’s okay. We take the trails all the time. This cuts right over to Maple.”
We walk the trail three abreast, hands in our pockets, footsteps crunching. It’s dark here, patches of fading daylight showing through branches like cutouts in a black valentine doily. Nobody speaks until Sage says, “Wait till you see
“Please.” Bree hip-checks her. “It’s all about Kincaid.”
Sage giggle-snorts, and we all laugh. Their giddiness is catching, like riding whiffs of nitrous oxide down the trail, and I don’t pay much attention as they choose a fork here or there, because it all looks so much the same: walls of brambles grown spindly with the colder evenings, tiers of black evergreen branches stirring in the slight breeze.
And then we’re there, stepping out onto the fringes of a public park.
The grass is mostly dead, mowed bald in patches. We pass a covered picnic area shedding brown paint, a playground with jungle gyms and swings tossed up over the frame, and, beside that, a skate park.
It’s all concrete, like a drained swimming pool with rails and half-pipes. That’s where everybody is, a small crowd beneath the streetlights, perched or sharing benches or ollieing boards off ramps. Reminds me of when we lived in Berlin, New Hampshire, where I spent most afternoons with my best friend at the time, Nica Pleck, eating Popsicles and watching her brother practice stunts on his board in their driveway. When I had to move the summer before eighth grade, Nica and I made the usual promise to visit each other over school breaks. Tough to keep when you’re thirteen and your life is ruled by your parents’ schedules and whether they’re willing to drive across state lines just to ensure that your BFF doesn’t find somebody else to eat blue Icee Freezes and share Raina Telgemeier books with. We drifted. Four years later, Nica’s a vaguely familiar profile pic on my social media feed, shrunken, without detail.
Now, Bree’s fingers work the hem of her shirt, itching to tug it down. “Shitshitshitshit. Why didn’t I change—”
“You look hot, okay? Quit messing with—” Sage’s last word hiccups off as he collides with her, this boy-shaped bullet who seems to come from nowhere, catching her around the waist and tossing her up in the air, nearly knocking me on my ass in the process.
No time to shriek—she’s over his shoulder, laughing crazily, carried off as if by a pillaging Celt, which he sort of looks like: six and a half feet tall, his hair a ragged carrotyred Mohawk, the flannel around his waist streaming back like a clan tartan.
I shoot a WTF look at Bree, but it bounces off her back. She doesn’t even slow down, totally focused on finding a strategic position along the edge of the park, only a few feet from where the concrete dips down into the flat bottom, where the skaters do their thing. I run to catch up.
Bree seems to want distance from the cluster of girls who chat on the benches nearby, so we stake our own territory close enough to catch the wind off the passing skaters. There’s a carnival vibe here, the smell of cigarette smoke and overfilled trash barrels, and music, somebody blasting vintage Beastie Boys from iPhone speakers.
After charging her in mad circles around the parking lot, the Celt brings Sage back clamped upside down under his big arm, letting go every few seconds like he’s going to drop her on her head, and saying, “OhmyGod—ohJesusChrist—” while she screams like she needs saving. People only laugh and catcall, so I guess this is normal.
“That’s Trace,” Bree says. “Don’t ask.”
A girl on the nearest bench appraises me with coolerthan-thou stoner eyes, and I force a laugh, turning my back on her. Act like you’re having the best time, brazen through it—my own good advice, hard to take. “Where’s yours?”
She inclines her head slightly to the left. “Black coat.
Lots of boys and a few girls on boards out there, hitting the ramps, grinding over the rail, swirling together like leaves in an updraft; I track pairs of sneakers just to sort them out. Vans, DCs; my eyes finally land on a pair of black Converse high-tops with dirty skull laces coasting on a battle- scarred Polar board, somehow hardly having to push off to keep momentum. His jeans won’t survive another wash cycle—both knees are out—and his black wool topcoat falls at mid-thigh, a bottle of Jolt sticking out of the pocket. He slaps and scoops the tail of his board, catches a moment of air to pop shove-it, then slams down, rolling away like business as usual.
“Right?” Bree waits.
Heat rises from some magma chamber inside me, and I forget about wanting my coat, may never want for anything again, because I’ve just seen the most incredible face.
Not a perfect face. It looks like his nose might’ve been broken once, and he has some acne at his jawline, aggravated by shaving, and scattered at his temples, where I get it, too. His hair is long, the color of straw, with a few thin braids that snake around whenever he lifts off on his board. He wears a wallet chain. I can’t stop looking.
And I need to, because Bree is waiting for my answer, starting to take offense, one eyebrow raised. “Wow. Nice.” I sound vague and half-assed, too stunned to say the right thing, and I think I’ve pissed her off.
Now, Trace finally flips Sage and sets her on her feet. She whirls, pounding his bicep, swearing at him as he laughs, drawing all eyes their way except mine. I watch Kincaid, following his motion to the top of a plywood ramp, where he decides to sit on the edge, hanging his board off the side and drinking his Jolt, wearing a thousand-yard stare as the other skaters bomb past him. From here, his eyes look dark, but not brown; maybe a muddy green. Beneath his dangling feet, half buried by swirls of spray-painted initials and X-rated cartoons, are those words again: Fear Him.
“I’ve seen that.” I was mostly thinking out loud, but I’ve got Bree’s attention. “That message, ‘Fear Him.’ It’s under the overpass by school.”
“It’s everywhere. All over town.” She watches me, gaze intent. “What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know. Like, God, maybe?”
She gives one of those laughs, 90 percent cacao, bitter and rich. “No. Not God.”
Sage comes over to us, struggling to walk with Trace draped over her like a bearskin rug, his chin resting on her head, arms slung around her neck. “Hey, psycho, you’re pulling my hair—” He kisses down the side of her throat, nibbling, making her laugh and wrinkle her nose. “You’re so gross.”
“Clarabelle wants to know about the Mumbler,” Bree says.
Trace keeps nuzzling. “No, she doesn’t.”
He hasn’t even looked at me yet. “Yeah, I do.” My voice carries like Bree’s, getting the attention of some of the skaters.
Trace lifts his head. Pale eyes, cinnamon freckles, earlobes pierced with half-inch stainless-steel tunnels, wide enough to fit your thumb through. I brace up, half-afraid he’ll bull-rush me. “You’ll be sorry.” Sage lets him pull her back with him in staggering steps. “What is known cannot be unknown.”
“Wow. So wise.” One of the bench girls turns to face us. “Is that like a quote?”
“Book of Trace. Mumbler Three, Verse Sixteen.” Trace presses his nose into Sage’s hair, watching me with eyes that remind me of a coyote’s, something feral. He holds up a finger. “Whoever believes in him shall perish, and never find eternal life.”
Bree folds her arms. “Scared yet?”
“Nah. She doesn’t get it. She’s not feeling it here.” He thumps his fist to Sage’s heart like it was his own. “You know who needs to tell it?” He glances back, says, “Kincaid! Get over here, ya skinny bastid.” Trace looks at me and raises his eyebrows. “Trust me. This dude will scare you.”
I thought I had time to observe, to take in every detail of him, but he’s coming, and there’s no chance for me to hide myself and how much I do/don’t want him to look at me. Kincaid stops maybe four feet from us, giving Trace a dimly amused yeah, what? look, and I can’t remember how to act casual.
Trace jerks his chin toward me. “Chick wants to know about the Man with the Sweet Tooth.”
“Chick’s name is Clarabelle.” Bree avoids Kincaid’s eyes, like there could be something better to look at, and now I’m not sure who they are to each other. Kincaid’s gaze keeps right on traveling, and Bree scuffs her sneaker over the dirt, pendulum-style. For some reason, she’s put her crush in a killing jar. It must be slamming from one side to the other, iridescent wings pummeling the glass.
Kincaid looks at me; my lips part, but nothing comes out. He’ll scare you, Trace said. But Kincaid smiles, his eyes creasing into these cute half-moons. “Where’d you come from?” His voice is teasing, and a little hoarse, like he might be getting over a cold.
Say something witty, anything. My words come out tinny and distant, like I’m reading cue cards over an old-timey radio: “Astley. Outside of Skowhegan.” Nice.
“New blood,” says Trace.
“Fresh meat,” says one of the bench girls, and somebody wolf-howls.
“It’s sad, you coming here.” Kincaid takes me in, his smile fading. “Now you’ve got no chance.”
No chance. Like he read it in my tea leaves or the lines of my palm. “Why?”
“Because he only takes Pender kids. Likes our taste, I guess.” Kincaid drops his board, glides backward on one foot, never breaking eye contact. “Like . . . hopelessness.”
“And Steak-umms from the caf,” somebody says, making people snicker.
“Liver.” Trace shows his teeth. “God, I love that shit.”
“What about Gavin Cotswold?” Sage says. “Have they figured out how he died yet?”
“Mumbler got him.” Trace.
“He OD’d.” Bree gives Trace a withering look. “He went out in the woods, got fucked up, and died. His own mom thinks so.”
“I heard the animals didn’t leave enough of him behind to be sure,” Trace says. Then, to Kincaid, “Tell her about the first boy. Ricky Whoever.”
“Sartain. Ricky Sartain.” Behind Kincaid, most of the activity has stopped, everybody pulling up some concrete to listen. He’s holding court, a storyteller who knows his audience. “It all started, like, twenty years ago. Kid went missing two days before they found him on the banks of the marsh, way out by the railroad bridge.” Kincaid nods slowly, easing into it. “Somebody put their hands all over him.”
More covert laughter, Trace’s whisper: “Loved to death.”
Kincaid entwines his fingers, working his palms together in sinuous rhythm. “Squeezed him, crushed him. Mashed his spine, smashed his belly.”
A voice speaks up: “My mom said that kid got hit by the train.”
“Of course she did.” Kincaid doesn’t turn. “She also told you that Santa Claus is real and honesty is the best policy and if you’re good, you’ll get into heaven, right?”
Snorts. Somebody mimics, “But my mommy said,” whacking the boy who interrupted with a baseball cap.
“He was folded in half.” Sage grips Trace’s forearm.
“That’s what I heard.”
“No.” Kincaid’s hands are tai chi slow. “Lengthwise.”
“Stop.” Bree says it under her breath; I’m the only one who hears.
“Ricky disappeared right around Halloween. That’s the pattern.” Kincaid skates a circuit around us, dismounts, and slaps the tail of the board so it pops into his hand again, all one smooth movement that I wish I could watch again frame by frame. “Truth. After, Ricky’s friends told everybody how they’d all gone out to the railroad bridge to smash pumpkins one night, and there was somebody hiding under there. Too dark to see, but they heard him, mumbling and yammering away.”
Yip, yip, yip! I look up to see audience participation, lumbering shapes aping around the others, sounding like a zoo after hours—Ahhh-ah-ah-ah! Mwaaa-hoohoo!
“Next time anybody saw Ricky, he was red guacamole.” Kincaid pauses, smiling faintly, but he’s not really seeing me now. “Ever since, Mumbler’s been around. Takes a bad kid every few years, always in October. Grown-ups have some bullshit excuse for what happened to them, but we know.”
Nods pass around the circle. I watch for inside looks— they’ll drop the act when they see I’m not taken in—but the quiet drags on. “What’s the Mumbler look like?” I hold Kincaid’s gaze, willing him to let me in on this, let me prove I don’t scare easy. “So I’ll know him if I see him.”
Kincaid looks to Trace, again with the smile that creases his eyes into merry slits, a kid showing his little sister where Mom hides the Christmas presents. “We can take you to him.”