Living up to his family name is hard for young Prosper Redding — and it’s about to get a lot harder.
Not only did one of his ancestors make a deal with a 4,000-year-old demon named Alastor, but as the titular star of Alexandra Bracken’s new middle grade fantasy The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding also learns, they then proceeded to break said contract. And unfortunately for Prosper, the malefactor (who also happens to be possessing the young boy) isn’t one to forgive and forget.
So with only days to purge himself of the newly awakened demon and banish him to the depths of hell, Prosper must team up with his uncle Barnabus and cousin Nell, a soon-to-be witch, to fight Alastor’s growing control over his body and ensure that his afterlife is demon-free. But as he’ll eventually discover, there’s a lot Alastor isn’t telling him…
Bracken’s The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding hits bookstores Sept. 5. You can preorder it here.
Excerpt from ‘The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding’ by Alexandra Bracken
A Word from the Malefactor
Light a candle and step close to the looking glass. Time is short, and we cannot delay.
In another time, in another world, you would not have been worth the slightest flicker of my gaze. However, even I cannot break the terms of our contract. So if you find yourself still foolish enough to follow, there are three things—three things—you must know. Three lessons that must be heard, obeyed, remembered. These may one day prove crucial to your survival, human. Whether you choose to pay attention is entirely up to you. I’ve never had time to suffer fools.
The first is that you can never trust a Redding. The family will whistle lies between their teeth and beg for mercy until their wagging tongues tire. Do not give in. Cover your ears, your eyes, and block out their cowardly stench. These are the humans that broke a contract written in blood the moment they feared for their fortune. Their tradition is one of foolishness. They are no family of yours.
Listen. Mind me well, for the light grows dim and our hour approaches. The Reddings will tell you they were wronged, misunderstood. They will tell you I am a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel. But do not forget that even as I slept, they feared me. As should you.
For the second thing you must understand is that my tradition is one of revenge.
And the third: anything I give you, I can—and will—delight in taking back.
Which, in the case of the Reddings, is everything.
See, here’s the thing.
In the big scheme of life and planet Earth, the town of Redhood is a tiny speck. An itty-bitty speck of a speck. Don’t even bother pulling out a map, because the town isn’t on most of them. It never held a witch trial, wasn’t responsible for starting any kind of revolution, and the Pilgrims landed on a rock about two hundred miles away. To most people, the only interesting thing about Redhood is the family that founded it.
Well, you might be interested to know that there is nothing interesting about us Reddings. I mean, okay, my great-great-great-great-great-whatever came this close to signing the Declaration of Independence but got held up by a sore throat that killed him two days later. A sore throat. Which, sorry, is just about the lamest way a guy could go. I don’t think he should get points for almost signing. That’s like me telling my parents I almost got a perfect score on my math test—a D is only four grades away from an A, right?
Anyway, the point is, my family has been around forever and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The walls of the Cottage are stuffed with portraits of frowning ancestors in black coats and bonnets. Every day is like a bad -Thanksgiving play over there.
Just below those are pictures of a few dozen four-star generals, important congressmen, and some CEOs. -Grandmother likes to say that if any one of us decided to run for president (aka her), the country would be so in love (with her), they’d get rid of “this pesky democracy” and name President Redding (her) a monarch (queen).
The faces of my family changed with each generation, but you couldn’t say the same about Redhood. It never changes, not really. Probably because it takes years of town meetings and vote after vote to get anything done. I mean, it became front-page news when my grandmother, the mayor, finally allowed them to bring high-speed Internet to the town. Before that day, I don’t think Grandmother had ever touched a computer in her life.
Redhood was like a page that had fallen from an old history book and was stuck, forgotten, under a desk. It was still around collecting dust, but if you weren’t looking for it, you’d never find it. Families came and went, but they always seemed to return eventually. And the worst was that everyone was constantly all up in each other’s business—especially my family’s. The place felt smaller every year.
Which was why it was so weird that no one else noticed when a stranger came to town.
On Founder’s Day, the only place to be was on Main Street, under the ropes of warm, twinkling lights draped between Peregrine S. Redding Academy and the courthouse.
The steps of the two redbrick buildings were littered with straw-stuffed cushions and folding chairs, every last available spot claimed by the town’s residents for the -evening’s Candlelight Parade. The tourists who wandered into Redhood to see its famous festival were too entranced by everything to know they needed to reserve their own seats long before sundown.
Most of the time, I would do just about anything to get out of this place. Founder’s Day is the exception. It’s when the town wakes up from summer’s sweaty sleep and exhales some strange magic stirring inside it. You feel it shift, transforming a place as stiff as a book’s spine into a maze of haystacks, wreaths, and garlands. The air crisps and sweetens, and breathing it in is like taking the first bite of a freshly picked apple.
In the dark midnight hours of October, the trees of Main Street set themselves ablaze with color. They lean over the streets and create a canopy of dazzling gold when the sunlight hits them just right. I still haven’t found the right blend of paint to capture it, and maybe I never will. Most of the fallen leaves are then rescued and stuffed into scarecrows that guests can take home with them from the celebration.
The best part of it, though, is the morning mist that creeps along the streets, glowing just enough to mask everything secretly ugly and rotten about this place.
A chilly breeze suddenly slipped up beneath my school uniform blazer, ruffling the edges of my notebook. I slammed my fist down to keep it from flying away with the fluttering leaves.
I should have sharpened my pencil before I left school. When I tried to sketch the nearby kids tossing rings over pumpkin stems, everyone came out looking like one of those troll dolls. Their parents watched from a short distance away, gathered in front of the white-and-orange-striped tent that the local café, Pilgrim’s Plate, had set up to sell pie, cobbler, and apple-cider doughnuts.
I think that’s why I noticed him then. He wasn’t standing in one of the parental unit clusters, sipping hot cider. Instead, the stranger stood on the opposite side of the street, by the cart selling sugar-sweet-smelling roasted chestnuts. He was broomstick thin, and if I had to draw his face, I would have started first with his long nose. He sneered as someone tried to pass him a piece of paper to use for the growing bonfire at the center of the square.
He was dressed like a Pilgrim, but sad as it was, that wasn’t actually weird. A lot of people in Redhood got dressed up for Founder’s Day, especially the old people. Old people love those big black buckle hats and billowy white shirts, I guess.
I glanced at the wide-brim straw hat he wore, then down at his shoes. Unpolished and missing buckles. He was lucky Grandmother wasn’t around. She would have tossed him into the bonfire, instead of a slip of paper that listed her regrets she was hoping to burn away.
The bonfire was the whole point of the Founder’s Day festival—the time we could let the fire eat up every bad feeling, thought, or secret we had and be free from it. That’s what Grandmother says. I think most people just came to make their s’mores.
The guy, whoever he was, waited until the man running the cart turned to help another customer before snatching some chestnuts for himself. He must have felt me staring, because he turned with a crooked grin and a wink.
Okay, then, I thought, and turned back to my -drawing—only to immediately jump up to my feet. “Aw, crap!”
A glob of maple syrup had dripped from my Silence Cake onto the notebook page, and slowly made its way down onto my pants, where it pooled in the worst place imaginable. Awesome.
With a small sigh, I popped the rest of the treat into my mouth and tore out the ruined sheet of paper. A whole hour’s work, reduced to use as a napkin to wipe away sticky pumpkin leaf crumbs.
That’s right. Some towns get caramel apples. Others get a special chocolate treat as their claim to fame. We got fried pumpkin leaves.
Some backstory: way back, and I mean way back, before Redhood was even named Redhood, the small group of settlers that arrived with their terrible hats and frowns experienced an endless string of crop failures. During one particularly bad season, the wife of our town’s founder, Honor Redding, was left with nothing but the leaves of their sad, dying pumpkin field. Her name was Silence, which probably tells you everything you need to know about what was expected of her in life. Anyway, legend has it that she saved our fledgling town from starvation by sharing their pumpkin leaves and finding different ways to prepare them to survive the winter.
Since no one wants to eat a plain pumpkin leaf if they aren’t starving, we now fry them and dunk them in honey, maple syrup, or chocolate and slide a line of them through a stick to munch on. And we call them Silence Cakes in her honor because her husband, actually named Honor, gets credit for just about everything else.
The bong, bong, bong of the bell in the clock tower tolled. I looked up, frantic, checking the time—how was it already five o’clock?
Climbing onto the bench, I searched the heads and hats of the milling crowds, the volunteers who were beginning to light the thousands of candles that would eventually be added to floats or carried by the school choir as they sang during the parade. Prue had been pulled away by her group of friends, each dressed in the Academy’s navy blazer and plaid skirt, and my heart started hammering in my chest, just a little, when I realized I’d been so focused on my own stupid sketch I’d lost track of her completely.
But—there they were, by the haystack maze. I leaped down, charging through the line of tourists waiting for their chance to paint pumpkins.
There was a quartet of string musicians playing some dead composer’s song in the white gazebo, under a banner that read celebrating 325 years of redhood -history. Just as they finished and people began to applaud, the black iron streetlamps flickered on. I tripped over one of the jack-o’-lanterns lining the sidewalk.
Crap. We’d have to run.
I shoved my way through the crowd around the gazebo, fighting through the sea of elbows and baby strollers.
I ignored them. That is, until a hand gripped the back of my neck and yanked me so hard I dropped my backpack. One whiff was all I needed to know who the hand belonged to. Mr. Wickworth smelled like lemons and dry-erase markers. My stomach turned into a knot of wriggling worms.
“Mr. Redding. Would you care to explain this excessively rude behavior?”
Did you know that human beings can, in fact, cluck? I didn’t, not until Mr. Henry Wickworth found me dozing off in class on the first day of seventh-grade English at the Academy. His face turned a shade of purple not normally found in nature, and me and the rest of the class had to sit through a ten-minute rant about respectful behavior and rudeness, and how he’d be expecting an essay outlining the difference by the end of detention that same afternoon.
Yeah, detention on the first day of school. Detention every day for the entire first week of school, actually. So far, I’d written papers on disrespect, inconsiderateness, and honor. I thought he was actually going to take his ruler and break it over my head when he asked for one defining wiseacre, and I only wrote one sentence: I prefer smart aleck, sir.
The truth was, Mr. Wickworth spent more time watching those survival reality-TV shows on his school computer than he did teaching us. The walls of his classroom were decorated with quotes from famous authors I’m pretty sure he made up (“School is important. Pay attention in class.”—Ernest Hemingway). Trust me, if I had the choice between listening to an hour of TV static or sitting through one of his lessons, the static would be about a hundred thousand times more interesting.
“Well?” he said, fingers pinching my shoulders. “What do you have to say for yourself, Prosperity?”
Sometimes I wished I could be reprogrammed to think before I opened my mouth. “Since when do I have to say anything to you outside of class?”
You know when you try to cook an egg in the microwave, how the yolk starts to wiggle, then puff, then explodes all over the walls? I was pretty sure Mom would have had to take my uniform to the dry cleaners to get Mr. Wickworth’s brains out of the fabric if Prue hadn’t suddenly appeared.
“There you are, Prosper!” she said, brightly. Her friends trailed behind her, glaring at me over her shoulder. “Oh, hi, Mr. Wickworth! Are you enjoying the festival? -Grandmother asked me to pass along a hello and to thank you for all your hard work.”
Mr. Wickworth’s hand lifted off me. I turned just in time to see the amazing change come over his face. His lips parted, and the face that had been as red as Prue’s fire-bright hair took on a delighted, rosy kind of pink. “Oh. Miss -Redding. Forgive me, I didn’t see you there.”
He, along with everyone else standing nearby, created a path for her. When she reached me, she put a hand on top of my head and gave it a little pat—a stupid habit she’d developed since she shot up three inches taller than me over the summer. Clearly we weren’t identical. With my black hair and dark eyes, and her red hair and blue eyes, we didn’t even look like we shared the same parents.
But I remembered how it used to be. I remembered all the hospital rooms. I remembered having to go to school without her, and then coming home and showing her all the pictures I’d drawn of it since we weren’t allowed to turn on our phones to take photos. I remembered the way my blood turned cold each time she looked pale, or her breathing became labored.
I remembered, when we were really little, getting out of bed in the middle of the night to check on her. To make sure her heart was still beating.