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Maureen Johnson shares excerpt from Truly Devious

The first book in Johnson’s new series is due out in January

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Heather Weston

In March of 2016, EW announced Maureen Johnson’s next series, Truly Devious, a saga about an elite (and probably haunted) boarding school called Ellingham Academy and the bright students who try to solve the murder of a classmate (an internet celebrity, no less). But that’s not the only mystery afoot in the trilogy: Edward J. Ellingham, the school’s founder, spent the final years of his life searching for the person who murdered his wife and child in the 1930s and was never successful, even though the killer taunted police for years.

“The genre is straight-up mystery, which I haven’t done yet,” Johnson, who also wrote the Shades of London and Suite Scarlett YA series, told EW last year. “It features crimes past and present. I’ve touched on infamous crimes of the past and the nature of media, but this one gets to internet fame and crime and justice in a new way. I’m also pretty excited about the murders, which sounded more normal in my head a second ago but I’m going to go with it.”

Now, EW can finally share an exclusive first look at the cover and the book’s riveting opening scenes before Truly Devious hits shelves January 16, 2018.

Katherine Tegen Books

Except from Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

Photographic image of letter received at the Ellingham residence on April 8, 1936.

Look! A riddle! Time for fun!
Should we use a rope or gun?
Knives are sharp and gleam so pretty
Poison’s slow, which is a pity
Fire is festive, drowning’s slow
Hanging’s a ropy way to go
A broken head, a nasty fall
A car colliding with a wall
Bombs make a very jolly noise
Such ways to punish naughty boys!
What shall we use? We can’t decide.
Just like you cannot run or hide.
Ha ha.
Truly,
Devious

 

April 13, 1936, 6:00 p.m.

You know I can’t let you leave. . . .

 

Fate came for Dottie Epstein a year before, in the form of a call to the principal’s office.

It was not her first time there.

Dolores Epstein wasn’t sent for any of the normal reasons—fighting, cheating, failing, absence. Dottie would get called down for more complicated matters: designing her own chemistry experiments, questioning her teacher’s understanding of non-euclidian geometry, or reading books in class because there was nothing new to be learned, so the time might as well be spent doing something useful.

“Dolores,” the principal would say. “You can’t go around acting like you’re smarter than everyone else.”

“But I am,” she would reply. Not out of arrogance, but because it was true.

This time, Dottie wasn’t sure what she had done. She had broken into the library to look for a book, but she was pretty sure no one knew about that. Dottie had been in every corner of this school, had worked out every lock and peered in every corner. There was no malicious intent. It was usually to find something or just to see if it could be done.

When she reached the office, Mr. Phillips, the principal, was sitting at his massive desk. There was someone else there as well—a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a marvelous gray suit. He sat off to the side, bathed in a striped beam of sunlight from the window blinds. He was just like someone from the movies. He actually was someone from the movies, in a way.

“Dolores,” Mr. Phillips said. “This is Mr. Albert Ellingham. Do you know who Mr. Ellingham is?”

Of course she did. Everyone did. Albert Ellingham owned American Steel, the New York Evening Star, and Fantastic Pictures. He was rich beyond measure. He was the kind of person you might imagine would actually be on money.

“Mr. Ellingham has something wonderful to tell you. You are a very lucky girl.”

“Come sit down, Dolores,” Mr. Ellingham said, using an open hand to indicate the empty chair in front of Mr. Phillips’s desk.

Dottie sat, and the famous Mr. Ellingham leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and bringing his large, suntanned hands together in a knot. Dottie had never seen anyone with a suntan in March before. This, more than anything, was the most powerful sign of Mr. Ellingham’s wealth. He could have the sun itself.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Dolores,” he said. “Mr. Phillips has told me how very bright you are. Fourteen years old and in eleventh grade. You’ve taught yourself Latin and Greek? I understand you do translations?”

Dottie nodded shyly.

“Do you sometimes get bored here in school?” he asked.

Dottie looked at the principal nervously, but he smiled and nodded encouragement.

“Sometimes,” Dottie said. “But it’s not the school’s fault.”

Both men chuckled at this, and Dottie relaxed a little. Not much, but a little.

“I’ve started a school, Dolores,” Mr. Ellingham went on. “A new school where special people like you can learn at their own pace, in their own way, in whatever manner suits them. I believe learning is a game, a wonderful game.”

Mr. Phillips looked down at his desk blotter for a moment. Most principals probably didn’t think of learning as a game, but no one would contradict the great Albert Ellingham. If he said learning was a game, it was a game. If he’d said learning was a roller-skating elephant in a green dress, they would go along with that too. When you have enough power and money, you can dictate the meanings of words.

“I’ve chosen thirty students from a variety of backgrounds to join the school, and I’d like you to be one of them,” Mr. Ellingham went on. “You’ll have no restrictions to your learning and access to whatever you need. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Dottie liked that idea very much. But she saw an immediate and inescapable problem.

“My parents don’t have any money,” she said plainly.

“Money should never stand in the way of learning,” Mr. Ellingham said kindly. “My school is free. You are there as my guest, if you’ll accept.”

It sounded too good to be real—but it was true. Albert Ellingham sent her a train ticket and fifty dollars in pocket money. A few months later, Dottie Epstein, who had never been out of New York her entire life, was on her way to the mountains of Vermont and surrounded by more trees than she had ever seen.

The school had a grand fountain that reminded her of the one in Central Park. The brick and stone buildings were like something from a story. Her room in Minerva House was large but cozy, with a fireplace (it was cold up here). There were books, so many fine books, and you could take out as many as you liked and read whatever you wanted, with no library fines. The teachers were kind. They had a proper science lab. They learned botany in the greenhouse. They learned dance from a woman named Madame Scottie, who ran around in a leotard and scarves and had giant bangles up and down her arms.

Mr. Ellingham lived on the campus with his wife, Iris, and his little daughter, Alice. Sometimes, fancy cars came up the drive on weekends and people in marvelous clothes stepped out. Dottie recognized at least two movie stars, a politician, and a famous singer. On those weekends, bands came in from Burlington and New York and music came out of the Great House until all hours of the night. Sometimes Mr. Ellingham’s guests would walk the grounds, the beads on their dresses winking in the moonlight. Even in New York, Dottie had never been so close to celebrity. The staff was careful to tidy up, but the grounds were vast and full of hiding places, so they left traces everywhere. A champagne glass here, a satin shoe there. Endless crushed cigarettes, feathers, beads, and other detritus of the rich and wonderful. Dottie liked to collect these strange things she found and keep them in what she called her museum. The best thing Dottie found was a silver lighter. She flicked it on and off and was pleased by its smooth motion. She was definitely going to turn the lighter in—she just wanted to hold on to it for a while.

Since Ellingham gave its students freedom to work and study and wander, Dottie spent a lot of her time on her own. Vermont was a different sort of place—this wasn’t like climbing down fire escapes or up water pipes. Dottie acclimated herself to the woods, to poking around the edges of the campus. That’s how she found the tunnel on one of her first outings. She was walking through the bare trees at the far edge of the campus when the ground under her feet made a strange noise. Instead of the thick, solid sound of earth, she stepped on something thin and metal. She knew the drumlike sound immediately—it was the same sound as a sidewalk hatch opening.

Dottie opened the hatch and found a set of clean concrete steps leading down into the ground. She found herself in a dark brick tunnel, one that was dry and well maintained. Her curiosity was piqued. She used the silver lighter to guide her down to a thick door with a sliding panel at eye level. She knew this sort of thing at once—they were all over the city. It was a speakeasy door.

The door was unlocked. Nothing about this tunnel seemed very secure; it was just there to be explored. So she explored. The door opened to a room about eight foot square, with a high ceiling. The walls were covered in shelving and those shelves were full of bottles of wine and liquor of every description. Dottie examined the ornate labels on the colored glass, labels in French, German, Russian, Spanish, Greek . . . an entire library of alcohol.

There was a ladder built into one wall. Dottie climbed it and opened the hatch at the top. She found herself inside a small domed structure with a glass roof. The floor was covered in fur rugs and cushions, several ashtrays, and a few errant champagne glasses. She stood on the bench seating that ran around the rim of the room and realized she was on a small island in the middle of the ornamental lake behind the Ellingham Great House.

A secret nook! The most perfect secret nook in all the world. This would be her reading spot, she decided. Dottie Epstein spent a lot of her time there, curled up in a fur rug, a pile of books by her side. No one had ever caught her there, and she felt sure that even if Mr. Ellingham did, he wouldn’t mind. He was such a kind man and so full of fun.

Nothing could be safer.

 

That particular April day was strange and foggy, blurring spaces between the trees and blanketing all of Ellingham in a milky mist. Dottie decided that the weather lent itself to a mystery. Sherlock Holmes would be perfect. She’d read every Sherlock Holmes story, but rereading was one of her greatest pleasures, and this fog was just like the London fog in the stories.

She had learned which times were best to go to the little dome. It was a Monday afternoon—no one from the big house would be there. Mr. Ellingham had driven off that morning, and Mrs. Ellingham in the afternoon. Dottie took the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories from the school library and set out for her secret place.

The view from inside the little glass dome that day was like being inside of a cloud. Dottie stretched out on the floor, pulled the fur rug over her, and opened the book. Soon she was lost on the streets of London—the game was afoot! Dottie got so lost in her reading that she was taken unawares by a noise directly below her. Someone was in the liquor room below and was climbing up the stairs. Someone was right there. With no time to get away, Dottie pulled the heavy fur rug over herself and pressed herself as far against the wall as possible and tried to mix in with a pile of cushions. Just stay on the floor. Be a lump.

She heard the groan of the hatch being lifted, the thunk as it fell back against the stone. The person hoisted themselves into the dome and stood just a foot or so away from Dottie’s face. She prayed they didn’t step on her. She pulled herself in tighter.

The person moved away from her and set something down on the floor. Dottie took a chance and lifted the edge of the rug by just an inch and saw a gloved hand pulling items from a sack and setting them on the floor. She chanced another inch to get a better look. There was a flashlight, binoculars, a length of rope, and something that glinted.

The glinting thing was handcuffs, sort of like the ones her uncle the police officer had.

A flashlight, binoculars, rope, and handcuffs?

A flush of adrenaline ran through her body, skyrocketing her heart rate. Something was wrong here. She let the rug drop over her face and hunkered down tight, her face pressed into the floor, flattening the bridge of her nose. The person shuffled around the space for several minutes. Then, there was a sudden quiet. Had they gone? She would have heard someone leave down the hatch by her head.

Her breath came back hot against her face. She had no idea what was happening, but it made her head light. She began to count in her head. When she reached five hundred and there was still no noise, she made the decision to slowly lift the edge of the rug again. Just a finger width. Just a touch more.

No one was there in her line of sight. She inched it up a bit more. Nothing. She was about to lift it when . . .

“Hello,” said a voice.

Dottie felt her heart pressing into the floor.

“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. “You can come out.”

There was no point in hiding now. Dottie crawled out from under the blanket, clutching her book. She looked at the visitor, and then to the objects on the floor.

“Those are for the game,” the person said.

Game? Of course. The Ellinghams loved games. They were always playing them with guests—elaborate treasure hunts and puzzles. Mr. Ellingham had filled the student houses with board games like Monopoly and sometimes even came down to play. Flashlight. Rope. Binoculars. Handcuffs. It could be a game. Monopoly had strange pieces too.

“What kind of game?” Dottie said.

“It’s very complicated,” the person said. “But it’s going to be a lot of fun. I have to hide. You were hiding in here too?”

“To read,” Dottie said. She held up the book and tried to keep her hands from shaking.

“Sherlock Holmes?” said the person. “I love Sherlock Holmes. Which story are you reading?”

A Study in Scarlet.”

“That’s a good one. Go ahead. Read. Don’t let me stop you.”

The visitor got out a cigarette and lit it, then smoked it while watching her.

Dottie had seen this person before. This was someone who might very well have been playing one of the Ellinghams’ elaborate games. But Dottie was also a New York girl who had seen enough to know when something was off. The look in the eye. The tone in the voice. Her uncle the cop always said to her, “Trust your instincts, Dottie. If you have a bad feeling about something or someone, you get out of there. You go and you get me.”

Dottie’s instincts told her to get out. But carefully. Act normal. She opened her book and tried to focus on the words in front of her. She always kept a bit of pencil up her sleeve for taking notes. When the visitor looked away and out the glass, she pushed the pencil down and into her palm, a move she had perfected over time, and roughly drew a line under a sentence on the page. It wasn’t much, but it was a way of making a note that maybe someone would understand if . . .

No one would understand, and if was too terrifying to think of.

She shoved the pencil back into her sleeve. She couldn’t pretend to read anymore. Her eyes couldn’t track the words. Everything in her shook.

“I need to get this back to the library,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone you’re here. I hate it when people tell on me.”

The person smiled at her, but it was a strange smile. Not sincere. Pulled too far at the corners of the mouth.

Dottie became acutely aware that she was in a structure in the middle of a lake, halfway up a mountain. She ran all possible scenarios in her head and could see how the next few seconds were going to play out. Her heart slowed and thudded in her head, and she felt like time was going very slowly. She had read many stories in which death was present as a character—a palpable force in the room. There was such a force in the room now, a silent visitor in the space.

“I have to go,” she said, her voice thick. She started to move toward the hatch, and the person moved that way as well. They were like players on a chessboard, working things out to an inevitable end.

“You know I can’t let you leave,” the person said. “I wish I could.”

“You can,” Dottie said. “I’m good at keeping secrets.” She clutched her Sherlock Holmes. Nothing bad could happen when she was holding Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock would save her.

“Please,” she said.

“I’m so sorry,” the visitor said with what sounded like genuine sadness.

There was exactly one move left in the game, and Dottie knew it was a bad one. But when you have no spaces left on the board you do what you have to do. She lunged for the hatch opening. There was no time to try to get onto the ladder—she dropped the book and leaped into the dark hole. She reached out blindly. Her fingers slipped along the rungs of the ladder but she couldn’t get purchase. She was falling. The floor met her with a terrible finality.

She had a pulsing moment of consciousness when she landed. There was an ache that was almost sweet and something warm pooled around her. The person was coming down the ladder. She tried to move, to slide along the floor, but there was no use.

“I wish you hadn’t come here,” the visitor said. “I really do.”

When the darkness came for Dottie, it was quick and it was total.

 

Excerpt from Murders on the Mountain: The Ellingham Affair

Ellingham Academy was located halfway up a mountain officially named Mount Morgan. No one called it Mount Morgan, though. It was always known locally as Mount Hatchet or “the Big Ax” because of the protuberance at the peak, which resembled the tools of the same names.

Unlike the mountains around it, which attracted skiers and vacationers, Mount Hatchet was largely undeveloped and wooded. Hikers liked it, and so did loners and bird-watchers and people who liked mountain streams and getting lost in the woods. In 1928, when Albert Ellingham came upon it, people avoided the Big Ax. No roads, no matter how rough, went that way. The woods were too thick, the river too deep. There were too many falling rocks. It was too wild and strange.

According to the legend, Albert Ellingham had come to the place purely by mistake while trying to get to Burlington to the yacht club. How you accidentally found yourself up the side of an uninhabited mountain in 1928 is unclear, but he had done it, and proclaimed the spot perfect. He had long had a dream of establishing a school that employed his own principles and ideals—learning as a game, a blend of rich and poor students, everyone learning together at their own pace. The air here was clean, the birdsong pure. There was nothing to distract students from their purpose.

Ellingham purchased a massive plot at three times the asking price. It took a few years to dynamite enough flat space to build the school. Rough roads were cut. The telephone company ran wires and put in a few pay phones along the way. Slowly but surely, Mount Hatchet was connected to the world by a dirt track and a few wires and a stream of people and supplies.

Ellingham Academy, as it would be known, was not just going to be a school—the Ellinghams also built a home there, smack in the heart of the campus. And it wasn’t just any home either. It was the grandest home in all of Vermont, as large as the largest buildings in Burlington or Montpelier.

Albert Ellingham wanted to live in his experiment, in his seat of learning. The grounds were full of statuary. The property was crisscrossed with pathways that made no real sense. The rumor was that Ellingham followed one of his cats and had a stone path made along any route it preferred to take because he felt “cats know best.” The rumor wasn’t true, but Ellingham enjoyed it so much that there was another rumor that he started the first rumor himself.

Then there were the tunnels, the fake windows, the doors to nowhere . . . all the little architectural jokes that amused Albert Ellingham to no end and made his parties infamously entertaining. It was said that even he didn’t know the location of every tunnel or space, and that he had allowed the various architects to put a few in as pleasant surprises. It was, in short, idyllic and fantastical, and may have remained as such had it not been for that foggy night in April 1936 when Truly Devious struck.

Schools may be famous for many things: academics, graduates, sports teams.

They are not supposed to be famous for murders.

 

1

“The moose is a lie,” Stevie Bell said.

Her mother turned to her, looking like she often looked—a bit tired, forced to engage in whatever Stevie was about to say out of parental obligation.

“What?” she said.

Stevie pointed out the window of the coach.

“See that?” Stevie indicated a sign that simply read MOOSE. “We’ve passed five of those. That’s a lot of promises. Not one moose.”

“Stevie . . .”

“They also promised falling rocks. Where are my falling rocks?”

“Stevie . . .”

“I’m a strong believer in truth in advertising,” Stevie said.

This resulted in a long pause. Stevie and her parents had had many conversations about the nature of truth and fact, and this might, on another day, have erupted into an argument. Not today. They seemed to decide, through some mutual and unspoken agreement, that they would let the matter slide along.

It wasn’t every day you moved away from home to go to boarding school, after all.

“I don’t like that we’re not allowed to drive up to the campus,” her father said, for what was probably the eighth time that morning. Ellingham’s information packet had been very clear on this point: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE STUDENTS TO THE SCHOOL. YOU WILL BE FORCED TO LEAVE THEM AT THE ROADSIDE GATE. NO EXCEPTIONS WILL BE MADE.

There was nothing nefarious in this—the reason was well explained. The campus had not been designed for lots of cars. There was only a single road in, and there was no place to park. To get in or out, you rode in the Ellingham coach. Her parents had viewed this dimly, as if a place hard to reach by car was somehow inherently suspicious and impinged on their God-given American freedom to drive anywhere they wanted to.

Rules were rules, though, so the Bells were seated in this coach—a quality one with a dozen seats, tinted windows, and a video screen that did nothing but faintly mirror the window reflection back again. An older, silver-haired man was at the wheel. He had not spoken since he had picked them up at the rest stop fifteen minutes before, and even then all he said was, “Stephanie Bell?” and “Sit where you want. No one else in there.” Stevie had heard about this famous Vermont reticence, and that they called outsiders flatlanders, but there was something spooky about his silence.

“Look,” her mom said quietly, “if you change your mind . . .”

Stevie gripped the side of her seat. “I’m not going to change my mind. We’re here. Almost.”

“I’m just saying . . .” her mother said, and then she stopped saying it. This was another well-trod conversation. The morning was full of greatest hits and little new material.

Stevie looked back out as the view of the mystically blue Vermont skyline disappeared, eaten by the trees and the walls of sheer rock where the road cut through the mountains. Her ears popped from the slow increase in altitude as they drove along I-89, away from Burlington, Vermont, and deeper into the wild. Sensing that the conversation had come to its natural end, she put in her earbuds. Her mom touched her as she went to hit play on her podcast.

“Maybe this isn’t the time to be listening to those creepy murder stories,” she said.

“True crime,” Stevie replied before she could stop herself. Making the correction made her sound pedantic. Also, no fighting. No fighting.

Stevie pulled out the earbud jack and coiled the cord.

“Have you heard from your friend?” her mom said. “Jazelle?”

“Janelle,” Stevie corrected her. “She texted and said she was on her way to the airport.”

“That’s good,” her mom said. “It will be good for you to have some friends.”

Be nice, Stevie. Don’t say you already have friends. You have lots of friends. It doesn’t matter that a lot of them are people you know online from murder-mystery boards. Her parents had no idea that you could meet people outside of school and it wasn’t freaky and the internet was the way of finding your people. And, of course, she had friends at school too, but never in the way she was supposed to, which apparently involved pajama parties and makeup and going to the mall.

That didn’t matter now. The future was here, up in the misty mountains.

“So Janelle is interested in what again?” her mother asked.

“Engineering,” Stevie said. “She makes things. Machines, devices.”

A skeptical silence followed.

“And that Nate boy is a writer?” her mother said.

“The Nate boy is a writer,” Stevie confirmed.

These were the two other first years known to live in Stevie’s new dorm. They didn’t tell you about the second years. Again, this was information that had circulated around the Bell kitchen table for weeks—Janelle Franklin was from Chicago. She was a National Student Spokesperson for GROWING STEMS, a program that encouraged young girls of color to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Stevie had gotten a lot of background: how Janelle had been caught (successfully) repairing the toaster oven when she was six years old. Stevie knew all of Janelle’s likes: making machines and gadgets, soldering and welding, organizing her Pinterest boards of organizational techniques, girls with glasses, YA novels, coffee, cats, and pretty much any television show.

Stevie and Janelle were already in regular text communication. So that was good. Friend one.

The other first year in Minerva was Nate Fisher. Nate said less and never replied to texts, but there was more to know about him. Nate published a book called The Moonbright Cycles when he was fourteen—seven hundred pages of epic fantasy written over the course of a few months, first published online and then in book form. Moonbright book two was supposedly in the works.

They were the kind of people Ellingham Academy accepted.

“They sound like very impressive people,” her dad said. “And you are too. We’re proud. You know that.”

Stevie read the code in this sentence. Much as we love you, we have no idea why you have been accepted into this school, strange child of ours.

The entire summer had been like this, this weird mix of voiced pride and unvoiced doubt, underpinned by confusion about how this series of events had happened at all. When she had first done it, Stevie’s parents didn’t know she had applied to Ellingham at all. Ellingham Academy wasn’t the kind of place people like the Bells went to. For almost a century, the school had been home to creative geniuses, radical thinkers, and innovators. Ellingham had no application, no list of requirements, no instructions other than, “If you would like to be considered for Ellingham Academy, please get in touch.”

That was it.

One simple sentence that drove every high-flying student frantic. What did they want? What were they looking for? This was like a riddle from a fantasy story or fairy tale—something the wizard makes you do before you are allowed into the Cave of Secrets. Applications were supposed to be rigid lists of requirements and test scores and essays and recommendations and maybe a blood sample and a few bars from a popular musical. Not Ellingham. Just knock on the door. Just knock on the door in the special, correct way they would not describe. You just had to get in touch with something. They looked for a spark. If they saw such a spark in you, you could be one of the fifty students they took each year. The program was only two years long, just the junior and senior years of high school. There were no tuition fees. If you got in, it was free. You just had to get in.

The coach veered into the exit lane and pulled into another rest stop, where one other family stood in wait. A girl and her parents studied their phones. The girl was extremely petite, with dark, long hair.

“She has nice hair,” Stevie’s mom said.

This was a reference to Stevie’s hair, which Stevie had cut off herself in the bathroom in the early spring in a burst of self-renewal. Her mother had cried when she saw Stevie’s blond hair in the sink and had taken her to a hairdresser to get it trimmed and shaped. The hair had been a major point of contention, so much so that at one point her parents said she would not be allowed to go to Ellingham as a punishment—but this was backed down from. The threat had been made in high emotion. Her mother had been very attached to Stevie’s hair, which on some level was why it had to go. Mostly, though, Stevie just thought that it would look better short.

It did. The pixie cut suited her, and it was easy to care for. There were problems when she dyed it pink, and blue, and pink and blue. But now it was back to normal, dusty blond and short.

The girl’s bags were loaded into the bottom of the coach, and she and her family got in. The three of them were all dark haired and studious-looking, with large eyes framed by glasses. They looked like a family of owls. Polite, mumbled hellos were exchanged, and the girl and her family took their seats behind the Bells. Stevie recognized the girl from the first-year guide, but didn’t remember her name.

Her mom gave her a nudge, which Stevie tried to ignore. The girl was again looking at her phone.

“Stevie.”

Stevie took a long breath through her nose. This was going to require leaning over her mom and calling out to the girl, who was a row behind on the opposite side. Awkward. But she was going to have to do it.

“Hey,” Stevie said.

The girl looked up.

“Hey?” she said.

“I’m Stevie Bell.”

The girl blinked slowly, logging this information.

“Germaine Batt,” she said.

Nothing else was offered. Stevie started to lean back, feeling like this had been a good effort all around, but her mom nudged her.

“Make friends,” she whispered.

Few words are more chilling when put together than make friends. The command to pair bond sent ice water through Stevie’s veins. She wanted falling rocks. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t do the talking—her parents would. And if her parents started, anything could happen.

“Did you come far?” Stevie asked.

“No,” Germaine said, looking up from her phone.

“We came from Pittsburgh.”

“Oh,” Germaine said.

Stevie leaned back, looked at her mom, and shrugged. She couldn’t make Germaine talk. Her mom gave her a well, you tried look. Points for effort.

The coach juddered as it turned off the highway, onto a rockier, smaller road dotted with stores and farms and signs for skiing, glassblowing, and maple syrup candy. Then there were fewer buildings and more stretches of farmland with nothing but old red trucks and the occasional horse.

Up and up into the woods.

Out of nowhere, the coach made a sharp turn into an opening in the trees, jerking Stevie to the side and almost tipping her out of her seat. Close to the ground, there was a small maroon sign with gold letters: the Ellingham Academy entrance. It was so inconspicuous that it seemed like the school was deliberately hiding.

The road they were now on was barely a road. It would be charitable to call it a path. What it was, in reality, was an artificial tear in the landscape—a meandering scar in the forest. At first, it went down, very fast, pitching toward one of the streams that bounded the property. At the base, there was a construction that you could laughingly refer to as a bridge that appeared to be made of wood, rope, and dreams. The sides were about a foot high and it looked like it would collapse if anything heavier than a steak dinner crossed it.

The coach barreled over it. The bridge shook violently, rumbling Stevie’s seat.

Then they went up again, at a gradient usually reserved for ski lifts and airplane takeoffs. Nothing would stop the coach.

The shade from the trees darkened the path completely. The branches scratched at the sides of the vehicle like dozens of fingernails. The coach made grinding noises and seemed to be fighting its way up the ever-narrowing path. Stevie knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but the coach seemed to be working against the forces of the universe itself to make its way up this driveway. It was unlikely that this would be the trip, this one with her and her parents, that the coach gave way and barreled backward the way it had come, running loose and wild, crashing blindly toward the river and sweet, cold, watery oblivion . . . but you never knew.

The ground started to level and trees gave way to a smoother path and an opening view of green lawns. The coach approached a gate guarded by two statues on pedestals, winged creatures with smiling faces and empty eyes, four paws, and tails.

“Those are strange angels,” her mother said, craning to look.

“They’re not angels,” Stevie said. “They’re sphinxes. They’re mythical creatures that ask you riddles before you’re allowed to enter a place. If you get it wrong, they eat you. Like from Oedipus. The Riddle of the Sphinx. That’s a sphinx. Not to be confused with Spanx, which is a sidearm in the holster of the diet-industrial complex.”

Her mother gave her that look again. We kind of wanted the going-out, shopping, prom-going type, and we got this weird, creepy one, and we love it but what is it talking about, ever?

Sometimes Stevie felt bad for her parents. Their idea of what constituted interesting was so limited. They were never going to have as much fun as she did.

Germaine peered over at Stevie with large, luminous eyes. Her expression was as unreadable as the sphinxes’.

In that moment, a blanket of doubt dropped over everything in Stevie’s mind. She should not have been admitted. The letter came to the wrong house, the wrong Stevie. It was a trick, a joke, a cosmic mistake. None of this could be real.

But it was too late, even if all of those things were true, because they had arrived at Ellingham Academy.

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