The shade of the trees made her feel better almost immediately, although the headache didn’t disappear--just receded a little bit, like a fighter taking two steps back before charging in again with a flurry of punches. Still, she thought she might be able to get to her bike and make it home without fainting, which was the key thing.
Lauren had almost reached the ghost tree and her bike when she felt it--a strange sort of shifting, although the shifting wasn’t anything external that she could tell. The trees all stood in their usual places and the wind rustled their branches like always and her feet were firmly planted in the ground and her stomach wasn’t even queasy any longer.
But still--there had been something. A feeling that made her skin prickle and her left eye twitch and cold sweat pool at the base of her spine.
She shook her head even though it made her headache feel like it was knocking from side to side inside her skull. Those were all things that happened to other people when they walked in the woods that bordered Smiths Hollow. They got spooky feelings and broke out in a sweat and talked about ghosts and devils in whispers. But Lauren never felt these things. The woods had always made her feel safe.
Even when they found her father dead under the trees with his heart torn out Lauren had never blamed the woods. How could it be the fault of nature if her father had gone out in the middle of the night for some reason that her mother would not discuss?
But she’d felt something just now, something like a. . .
But that was beyond stupid. There was no floating presence out here, only Lauren and the trees and the chipmunks scampering into the brush.
And then her head exploded, a pain like she’d never experienced before. She dropped to her knees in the dirt, both hands pressing into her head, wishing for anything that would make it stop.
Just make it stop, she thought, and she heard herself whimpering as she fell forward, grinding her face into the dead leaves and soil, trying to tunnel into the cool ground in hopes that the darkness would close around her like a grave and make it stop, just make it stop.
There was something inside her brain trying to get out, something with a chainsaw and blood in its teeth, something howling but the howling wasn’t pain - it was the kind of howling that meant laughter and the laughter wasn’t the kind that invited others to laugh but the kind that you ran from while your heart slammed against your ribs and your legs moved of their own volition.
Then she saw them--the girls. But she didn’t really see them. It was like she was watching a replay of someone else’s memory. There were two girls together in the woods, walking together and wearing backpacks. Lauren didn’t recognize them--they looked a little older than her, and they were probably not from Smiths Hollow. One of the girls had very short blonde hair cut like a boy’s, and the other had her brown hair tied up in braids that draped over her chest. Something about the girls--maybe the heaviness of their packs--made Lauren think that they were runaways.
The girls didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, just ambling along to a place where people wouldn’t ask them questions, wouldn’t wonder where they were going and what they doing. They both shared the same expression--a kind of half-worried, half-happy wrinkle in their brows, like they were glad to be doing things on their own terms but not sure yet what those terms would be, or if they would be successful.
Then Lauren was aware of another presence, something that didn’t see the girls as girls or even humans. It saw them as meat, beautiful bloody red delicious meat.
No! Lauren cried out. Run away!
But the girls didn’t hear her, because Lauren wasn’t really there and because they weren’t worried about a monster eating them up. They were worried about someone finding them and making them go home, home where they had been so unhappy and sometimes afraid and they weren’t going to be afraid anymore.
Lauren knew all of this, knew what the girls were thinking and what the thing was thinking and she knew what would happen next and she didn’t want to see, didn’t want to know anymore. Why couldn’t she just imagine that the girls had gone on happy together, that they made a new home for themselves somewhere? Why did she have to see what happened next?
It didn’t matter if she closed her eyes because the scene was under her eyelids, imprinted on the inside of her brain. It didn’t matter if she covered her ears with her hands because she heard the braid girl scream as her friend was torn in half by claws that were from no animal Lauren had ever seen.
But there was something funny about those claws, too, Lauren thought, part of her sunk in the horror of it all but another part dispassionately noting that there was something out of place. Just for a second she thought she’d seen a human hand underneath the claws.
A person? A person was doing this?
How could a person tear up two girls and then eat bits of them and then deliberately drag the remains to a place where they would be found?
Lauren watched--it felt like she was watching even though it was only a scene pressing on the inside of her brain--as the thing gathered up what was left in a canvas sack. The sack left a trail behind as blood drained from what was left of the girls, the half-happy girls who’d walked in the woods.
The vision--if that’s what it was--stopped as abruptly as it had started. Lauren sat up and peered around, half-expecting that there would be a monster there, a monster with sharp claws and bloody teeth. But there was nothing and no one--not even, Lauren realized, the remnants of the migraine that had left her feeling so crippled just a short while earlier.
The side of her face felt gritty and she swiped at it with her hand. It came away covered in dirt. She must have ground her face in the soil, trying to escape the things she saw.
The images were fading quickly now, so fast that it was almost like it hadn’t happened at all. All that was left was a hollowed-out feeling and an intense exhaustion that made her want to stay right where she was and take a nap.
“Well, no wonder,” she said to herself, forcing her feet and legs to move and stand. She’d gotten sick and had the mother of all headaches and then had what amounted to a waking nightmare where pretty girls got slaughtered by monsters. Of course she wanted to sleep.
Despite the strange thing she’d just seen--imagined?--the woods still seemed to be the same refuge they’d always been for her. The rustling of the leaves and the chirping of birds washed away the last vestiges of the nightmare. That’s what she decided it was, after all. Just a nightmare brought on by the headache and nothing to worry about at all.
She found her bike leaning against the ghost tree exactly where she’d left it and grabbed the handlebars, pulling it away from the shade of the tree’s branches. It was then that she noticed something on the seat.
The seat was dark blue, so it was hard to tell exactly what it was. She leaned her face closer, then reared back in horror.
There was a handprint on the seat, a handprint that almost looked human, with very long fingers that tapered into sharp points.
But that wasn’t what had Lauren dropping her bike and backing away. It was because the print had been stamped in blood, and the blood was still fresh.
(C) Christina Henry, Berkley, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
When people go missing in the sleepy town of Smith's Hollow, the only clue to their fate comes when a teenager starts having terrifying visions, in a chilling horror novel from national bestselling author Christina Henry.
When the bodies of two girls are found torn apart in the town of Smiths Hollow, Lauren is surprised, but she also expects that the police won't find the killer. After all, the year before her father's body was found with his heart missing, and since then everyone has moved on. Even her best friend, Miranda, has become more interested in boys than in spending time at the old ghost tree, the way they used to when they were kids.
So when Lauren has a vision of a monster dragging the remains of the girls through the woods, she knows she can't just do nothing. Not like the rest of her town. But as she draws closer to answers, she realizes that the foundation of her seemingly normal town might be rotten at the center. And that if nobody else stands for the missing, she will.
Fantasy Historical | Fantasy Dark [Berkley, On Sale: September 8, 2020, Trade Size / e-Book, ISBN: 9780451492302 / eISBN: 9780451492319]
CHRISTINA HENRY is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and enjoys running long distances, reading anything she can get her hands on, and watching movies with samurais, zombies, and/or subtitles in her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.
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