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Marion, Zoey, and Val. They're the girls of Sawkill Rock, an island of rolling pastures and sheer blackstone cliffs. An island where kids whisper of the monster that lives in the night, and where girls have been vanishing for decades, stolen away and forgotten. An island that's so insidious, we couldn't resist making Sawkill Girls this week's FIRST5 pick!!
Everyone knows about the island of Sawkill Rock:
The silly old legends of its healing waters, which are impossible to altogether dismiss when one considers the people of Sawkill themselves—their hard white teeth and supple limbs. The brazen, easy way they walk and shop and love. Their flagrant indifference toward life beyond the Rock, and their deft handling of even the bleakest tragedy: Oh, what a shame that was, they say, and bow their shining heads for a moment before gliding on, untroubled.
The beauty of the Rock’s rolling horse farms. Groomed flanks that gleam in the pale Atlantic sun. Grass like a glossy carpet that blows and shimmers, even at night. Especially at night. Black trees, wind-curled and water-bitten.
The houses like palaces, old but solid-hewn, gray and white and shingled. Sprawling and manicured. Careless and dignified. Old money: the taste of it sits on every tongue like a film of stale sugar.
The way the dark, rough sea bites up the shoreline. How the winds on the eastern side groan like old-time beasts turning in their sleep.
Come for a while, reads the sign at Sawkill’s ferry dock, and stay forever.
The Rock has always hated that sign.
These are the things people said to Marion Althouse after her father died:
Oh, God. You poor girl.
Marion, I’m so sorry.
What a loss.
What a terrible, terrible thing.
Your mom. Jesus, I just— I can’t imagine.
How is she doing?
What about Charlotte? They were always so close, those two.
If you need anything, you let me know. Okay?
I’m here for you.
You’re such a rock. You see that, right?
They’re depending on you.
They’re lucky to have you. Blessed.
Marion, you’re so strong. How do you do it?
How did she do it?
It was a good question.
Marion asked herself the same question that first morning: How do I do this now? There had been before October thirteenth of last year, and, now, there was after.
After David Althouse crashed his car coming home from a late night at the office, so tired he probably couldn’t see straight, ready to lay down his bones by the light of dawn.
After some drunken scum-of-the-earth asshole took the mountain turn too fast, and her father was too exhausted and distracted, Marion assumed, to react in time.
After his car crashed through the guardrail and over the cliff, careening into rocks and plowing into a tree before coming to a still, smashed stop.
After the previously mentioned asshole drove away in a panic, maybe crying and shaking, too spineless to own up to their crime, leaving her father to die in the remains of his ruined fifteen-year-old Toyota.
After all that, this is what people said more than anything else:
I’m sorry for your loss, Marion.
Her loss. As if she’d misplaced her car keys.
When people said that, a part of Marion wanted to slap them, knock the cards and casseroles out of their hands.
I’ll tell you what I’ve lost, she wanted to say, and then open up her chest so they could see the hollow pit where her heart used to live. It was stuck in a state of collapse, this pit—a tiny, organ-shaped singularity, sucking down the bleeding ravaged bits of who she used to be.
But Marion did none of this.
She accepted their bland sympathy and uncertain smiles, tucked the wrapped food into the packed fridge, sat by her mother to make sure she didn’t sneak pills, and held Charlotte when she woke up sobbing.
She was Marion Althouse: devoted daughter and trusted little sister.
She sat alone on the bench outside the restroom on the ferry, arms full of everyone’s purses, while her mother vomited in the toilet and her sister flirted with a boy who drove a Lexus.
She was a rock. A blessing. A good, steady girl.
She did not give in to rage or self-pity. Not ever.
“There it is!”
Charlotte leaned against the deck railing, the wind whipping her honey-brown hair around her face.
“Don’t lean out too far,” said Marion. She sat on the polished black bench across from the railing and held her mother’s gloved hand tightly in her own, anchoring it in place on her lap.
Charlotte, seventeen-nearly-eighteen, glanced back with a magnificent roll of her eyes.
“Marion,” she said. “Honestly.”
Marion, sixteen-nearly-seventeen, agreed. Since birth, she’d been a bit of a fusser—something she’d prided herself on, if only because it drove Charlotte batty to have Marion always chirping at her shoulder—but since their father died, her ability to nag and worry had skyrocketed to a whole new level.
Really, what did anyone expect?
There were only three Althouses left now, two and a smudge on their mother’s bad days. You couldn’t know which day would be the last one, and you couldn’t trust Charlotte not to lean out too far or run too fast or fall in love too easily, and you couldn’t trust their mother with pill bottles or sharp objects.
So Marion didn’t. She held their purses and followed doggedly behind their every flighty, stumbling step.
“It looks amazing out here.” Charlotte pulled out her phone to snap pictures. “It’s like this . . . this thing, perched out there on the water. A beetle. A monster. Some magical lost place.”
Marion would have preferred to be napping in their car’s back seat, not talking to anyone and not looking at the rocking water and, maybe, not waking up.
But her mother wanted fresh air, hoping it would settle her stomach, and Charlotte refused to sit around being boring— God, perish the thought of Charlotte Althouse ever being accused of such a thing. So Marion sat without complaint and watched Sawkill Rock approach on a sheet of gray waves.
The island really did look like a thing. Black and solid, craggy. A little bit fearsome, a little bit lonely. That part didn’t bother Marion, though. She would have lived on a barren dusty rock with no horses or people or yachts tied up at the docks, if she could have. Just her and Charlotte and their mother, a little clean white cottage, a pebbled path down to the water for sunbathing. That’s all they needed—quiet, and one another. To be left to themselves for a while. No constant doorbells and phone calls. No more sympathy cards.
The salt-specked wind surged past them. In Marion’s grip, her mother shivered.
Marion glanced at her and took stock: Pamela Althouse. Eyes fairly bright, observing the deck, the passengers, the water. Shoulders not so stooped as they could be. A small smile tugging at her lips as she watched Charlotte snap selfies at the railing.
Smiling was a good thing. Their mother, for now, was not in danger. Not of sneaking off, fog-brained, to unearth a knife. Not of rummaging through Marion’s luggage for the hidden medicine. Marion could relax.
What a joke.
Marion had never been good at relaxing, and now, after, she was even worse at it. Her mother had often teased that Marion was born with ten lives’ worth of tension knotted in her shoulders.
My little rock, her mother would say. My grave little mountain.
“Having second thoughts?” Marion gently nudged her mother’s side.
“Not at all.” Her mother breathed in, her eyes falling shut. “The sea air is invigorating, don’t you think?”
“It’s definitely cold.”
“This is just what we need. A change of scenery. New faces, new roads.”
A familiar litany. Marion nodded. “You’re right, Mom.”
“I’m excited to meet the Mortimers, aren’t you?” Her mother squeezed her hand once, gently, before releasing her. “Such lovely people, on the phone. They breed award-winning Morgans. I told you that, right?”
“Yep.” A hundred times. “They sound great. Real down-to-earth types.”
“I thought you’d like them,” her mother said with a little nudge. “A family of women who keep their mother’s surname, generation after generation? Men that come and go, and never stay in the picture? A matriarchal dynasty.” Her mother smiled a little. “Isn’t that your thing, darling? Girl power and all that?”
Marion rolled her eyes. “Mom. No one says ‘girl power’ anymore. That being said, the surname thing is kind of cool. But . . . then there’s the fact of their filthy rich–ness.”
“Oh, Marion. Don’t be a snob.” Her mother clucked her tongue, fumbled with her zipper. When her fingers began to shake, Marion took over and zipped up her mother’s jacket to the neck. “The Mortimers are good people,” said Mrs. Althouse, her voice muffled in her scarf. “I have a sunny feeling about this. Val, their daughter. She’s Charlotte’s age. Did I tell you that? I’m sure I did.”
At the mention of Val Mortimer, Marion looked away, down the ferry deck, to the rows of parked cars. Their faded blue station wagon, rust lining the wheel wells, was a plucky little weed in a garden of Range Rovers.
“Yeah, Mom,” she said quietly. “You told me about Val.”
Actually, Marion had looked up Val online, because Marion wasn’t the type to let things remain uninvestigated. That’s how she found out that Val Mortimer was just the kind of bright-smiled, gorgeous, damaged girl to whom Charlotte would easily attach herself. Last year Val had lost a friend—a girl their age whose death had gone unsolved, her body never found.
So Val and Charlotte had both suffered losses. Both had, presumably, endured the endless cloying condolences of friends and neighbors. Both were carelessly, shockingly beautiful— long limbs and perfect noses and poreless pale skin. Lips that curved just right. Their online lives a parade of endless friend lists and beaming, perfectly filtered photographs snapped at parties, bonfires, dances, football games.
Marion was holding out hope that Val Mortimer would be too much of a snob to befriend the housekeeper’s daughter. Charlotte was hard enough to keep track of on her own, without someone like Val in the picture.
“Selfie time!” Charlotte sang, flinging herself down on the bench beside them. Before Marion could protest, Charlotte had pulled them all close and touched her phone.
“Lovely,” she declared, turning the screen so Marion and Mrs. Althouse could see. “That’s us. The Althouse girls.”
Marion leaned in to take a look.
Yes, that was them all right:
Charlotte. Pink-cheeked, windblown hair falling in wisps around jewel-blue eyes. Worn parka framing her face in faded red nylon.
Mrs. Althouse. Dark, graying hair. Tiny lines of grief, new and alarming, etched around her eyes and mouth. Her zipped-tight jacket making her look small and squashed.
And Marion. Pale and serious. Dark-haired, gray-eyed. A near-copy of her mother, if not as old and tired. Awkward, though. Not quite smiling. Looking not at the phone but rather out to sea.
“It’s all right, he won’t bite. You can come say hello, if you want.”
Marion had been trying not to stare at the police officer and his gleaming horse but had failed miserably.
She glanced up from her phone. “Oh, that’s okay. I’m good.”
“His name is Nightingale. He’s fast but gentle.” The officer smiled at Marion, his dark-brown face wind-bitten and clean-shaven. “I’m Ed Harlow, by the way. Sawkill Rock’s police chief.”
Ah, yes. Marion recognized him now, from an interview about Val Mortimer’s dead friend.
“Marion Althouse.” Marion shrugged back at the station wagon, packed full of everything they owned. She did not let herself think of the house they had sold—the house of her father’s life. The house of her father’s memorial service.
New faces, new roads. A change of scenery.
“Oh, right. The Althouses.” Ah. There was the awkward, sympathetic smile. “Moving into the Mortimer cottage, right?”
“You know about that?”
“Small island. News spreads fast.”
Marion glanced behind her, at the market into which her mother and Charlotte had disappeared to buy groceries for the night. She had claimed seasickness from the ferry ride so they’d let her stay behind by the car. A rare shirking of her duties.
Really she felt fine, stomachwise. It was her head that was the problem, and, weirdly, the soles of her feet. Since leaving the ferry, they smarted awfully, like she’d been running barefoot for ages and had scraped them raw on the concrete.
Besides, she wasn’t sure she could bear the cramped lights of a grocery store at the moment, nor the curious eyes of new neighbors upon her.
Marion slipped her phone into her pocket, absently rubbed her throbbing left temple. “He’s a really pretty horse.”
“He’s one of the Mortimer Morgans.”
She placed a hand on Nightingale’s sleek neck. His coat was the rich brown of a dark roast.
Despite her headache, she had to smile. “He’s beautiful. Aren’t you, boy?”
At her touch, Nightingale flinched. He twisted his neck around to whuff at her back and then stamped his foot against the parking lot; the impact reverberated up Marion’s legs to settle like a swampy knot in her belly.
“Want to ride him?” Chief Harlow’s aviator sunglasses mostly hid his eyes. “Just around the parking lot.”
Marion touched her right temple. The headache appeared to be shifting back and forth between the lobes of her brain. “What, like a pony ride?”
Chief Harlow laughed, adjusting his tan cowboy hat. “This fellow is no pony.”
“Well.” Marion played with Nightingale’s coarse mane, trimmed short. “I guess so. I mean, I’ve never ridden a horse before.”
“Never? Well, then.” Chief Harlow laced his fingers together. “Put one foot in my hands, then push up and swing your leg over the saddle.”
“Jesus!” Marion hissed, fumbling to get her leg over Nightingale’s back. “It’s really high.”
Nightingale pawed the parking lot asphalt with one hoof, then another.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got him.” Chief Harlow gestured with the reins. “Lean forward a little, pet his neck. Talk to him.”
“Hi, Nightingale,” Marion muttered, rubbing her hand up and down his neck. “Hi, boy.”
Muscles quivered beneath her fingertips. Nightingale snorted, then shifted to the right and sharply flicked his tail.
“He seems nervous.” A spike of fresh pain behind Marion’s eyes threw her vision out of alignment for a solid two seconds. She gripped Nightingale’s mane, convinced she was about to slide to the bottom of the world. “Is that normal?”
Nightingale tossed his head, giving Marion a good view of the wild whites of his eyes.
A sick, cold feeling dripped down her arms. “He’s freaking out. Is he freaking out?”
Chief Harlow frowned. “Hey, boy, hey, what’s going on, huh?”
Nightingale backed away, lashed his head from side to side. The reins flew out of Chief Harlow’s hands.
Marion tightened her legs around Nightingale’s belly. Her headache careened from temple to temple, and then the pain zipped right out of her head and down her spine, got caught somewhere in her lower back, and exploded.
She cried out and lurched away from the pain, but it was everywhere, it was inescapable. Her fingers tingled sharply. “I want to get down, all right?”
“Hey! Hey!” Chief Harlow’s whistle pierced the quiet parking lot.
“Get me down!” Marion could barely hear herself over the panicked roar of her blood. “Do something!”
Nightingale reared up, let out a neighing scream. Chief Harlow stumbled back, fell hard on his tailbone.
A whip of something cold smacked across Marion’s shoulders, like the wind had suddenly picked up and sharpened. Marion tasted ocean echoes, the grit of wet sand, the earthy tang of close-growing trees. Her feet were on fire, and so was her head, and so were her palms against Nightingale’s trembling neck.
He reared up with a savage shudder. Marion grabbed his mane to keep from sliding off.
“Marion!” came Charlotte’s panicked shout.
But this horse would wait for no sister. It was out of its head, though Marion couldn’t imagine why. Rabies, maybe. Something had spooked it. A snake?
With each slam of his hooves against the hard ground, Marion imagined her father tumbling over the cliff, his head smashing against the car over and over until there was nothing left.