Prologue: Deepwater Hollow
It’s a year today since I watched you die. If one more person tells me not to feel guilty, I might actually lose it. As long as we were still the Ellory twins, somehow it didn’t seem so bad that it was just us and Connor. But me alone is different.
Alone, I am an orphan.
I never felt like one before, though technically I guess we both were after Mom died.
Connor misses you. He doesn’t say much, but I can tell. He’s my legal guardian now, which is actually just weird, since he’s barely twenty-one. Someone had to do the job, I guess. We changed his name to Ellory before we moved. We both know his dad is never coming back. And although he never said anything, I know he hated having to explain who he was to teachers or doctors, every time there was a legal form to sign.
There’ve been way too many forms, lately.
I’m starting a new school today. I couldn’t face going back to the old one after you died. I did homeschooling for the rest of the school year, and we moved over the summer. Connor made me go to that camp you and I applied to for two weeks, I think just to get me out of the house while he packed up your things. I sure couldn’t face doing it. I didn’t tell anyone at camp you were dead, just that you changed your mind about coming. It seemed easier. I actually talked about you the whole time as if you were still alive, which is pretty messed up, I know, but a whole lot easier than telling people your twin sister died. Nobody knows what to say to that, including me.
I know I should have written all this earlier. But today is the first day I’ve felt like I can talk to you directly. Or write, at least. I can’t stand the idea of “journaling,” as the grief therapist called it. It feels self-indulgent and pretentious. But writing to you is easy. You always knew what I thought before I ever said it anyway.
My new school is in Deepwater Hollow, Mississippi. It’s a little town an hour or so upriver from Baton Rouge, no more than a dot on the map. I’m glad to be leaving the city. To be leaving Louisiana. Everything about our old place reminded me of you.
I want Connor to feel good about this. There are more old plantation ruins here than anywhere else in the continental US, and plenty of grants to restore them, apparently. We used Mom’s insurance money to buy a huge, decaying antebellum house on the Mississippi after Connor designed a winning proposal for it. If he makes good on his plans, and I know he will, he’ll be able to bid for more. He says it’s a new beginning for us. I want to believe that, even if the ruins of the past are a strange place to look for a new beginning.
This place is insane, truly. You would love it. Big, old oaks hung with Spanish moss hide the house from the road, and down back a little wood dock juts out onto the river. The red magnolia trees you loved so much grow by the porch and run the length of the back lawn. Their scent reminds me of you.
Plaster is crumbling from the ceiling, and we’re using kerosene lanterns and an icebox until Connor fixes the wiring. It feels as if Miss Haversham might live in the attic, though so far, it’s just been the bugs and us.
I’m writing this from the school parking lot on the first day of senior year. I’m still driving the old pink Mustang convertible you and I bought together. When the crystal you put on the rearview mirror catches the light, the turquoise in it reminds me of your eyes. Which is weird when you think about it, because actually, I see your eyes every time I look into a mirror. But that’s the thing about being an identical twin. Almost everything about us looks the same, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t make my eyes look like yours. Some days I stare into the mirror at them until I ache, just hoping I catch a glimpse of you inside them.
Because I miss you, Tessa. And the truth is, missing you is the reason I haven’t written. Because if I let myself think about how much I miss you, everything in me starts to crumble, and I think that if I let even one piece fall, the whole of me will come tumbling down in a way even Connor’s DIY cannot fix.
A new school might not be able to bring you back. But maybe, if I try hard enough, it might bring me back.
The bell is ringing. I have to go.
Wish me luck.
Chapter 1: Cursed
Deepwater High has fewer faces in the entire student body than the senior-year class at my old school, but I’m pretty sure every single one of them is staring at me in the corridor. I was expecting the usual first day once-over, but this feels next-level, and by the time I clear the registrar and find my new English class, I’m starting to miss Baton Rouge. Everyone else is seated already.
“Ah,” says Mr. Corbin, making a mock bow. “Miss Ellory. The new tenant of Deepwater’s favorite Gothic mansion graces us with her presence.” I have to do the awkward, newbie walk of shame through another barrage of curious eyes, to a desk crammed between a tall, pale boy with floppy brown hair falling over his face, and a dark-haired girl who has her head down writing notes. I slide into my seat, face burning.
“Mr. Marigny,” Mr. Corbin addresses the pale boy, who looks up warily. “Perhaps you could show your new neighbor where we are in the textbook.” He turns back to the board. The boy leans across the aisle and flips my book open.
“There,” he says, pointing to the page. He doesn’t look at me when he speaks. When he turns back to his book, I see the flush rising on his neck, and I realize he’s not rude, just shy. I know how he feels. I glance at his paper and see his name at the top: Jeremiah Marigny.
I can almost hear Tessa beside me, giggling at the name. Our mom loved old rock songs, and when we were kids she’d play one song on loop whenever we were driving around. There’s a line in it that goes around in my head: Jeremiah was a bullfrog. I write it on the side of my page, making swirling patterns out of the letters, getting lost in the finer points so Mr. Corbin’s voice fades away. The words become a vine down the margin of my book. The vine becomes the frame for a window. I sketch the wood dock at the back of our new home as if I were sitting inside the window looking out and then add a full moon blazing down. I’m so lost in my drawing that I’m startled when the clatter of chairs signals the end of class. I scramble for my bag and realize, too late, that Jeremiah has seen the words in the margin. Even made into a vine, they are unmistakable. His eyes meet mine, wide and dark and deep somehow, as if he already knows how much the world is going to hurt him.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter. It’s all I can think of. He tilts his head and shrugs, almost smiling, then slings his bag over his shoulder and is gone. For a lanky boy, he moves fast. He’s out of the room before I’ve even stood up.
“Don’t worry about Jeremiah,” says the girl who was sitting on the other side of me. “He’s shy, is all.” Her skin is tawny in the morning sun, eyes dark over slanted cheekbones. She’s so beautiful it’s like standing in a gallery just looking at her. My fingers itch to sketch her face. “I’m Avery.”
“Hey, Avery.” I gesture at the offending words on the page before me. “I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just the name, you know? I couldn’t help but think of the song.”
“Like I said, don’t worry.” She gives me a friendly smile that I could literally hug her for about now. “We’ve been ragging on Jeremiah about that name since grade school. He won’t mind.” She glances at my class schedule and map. “I can walk you to the art hall if you like. My class isn’t far away.”
“Thank you,” I say gratefully. Map reading has never been my strong point. We head out along the breezeway, and I try to ignore all the curious stares. “So Mr. Corbin mentioned that Jeremiah is our neighbor,” I say, more to make conversation than anything else. “I hadn’t noticed anyone living nearby.”
“He’s not your neighbor anymore. I’m not sure that he ever really was.” There’s something in the way she says it that makes me look sideways at her. “The house you bought is the Marigny mansion. It belonged to his family.”
It takes me a moment to digest that. Connor handled the documents for the house. I never looked hard at the names involved. Besides, the mansion is so decayed it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could have tried to actually live in it in recent years. Connor worked all summer while I was away at camp just to make it safe to step inside.
“You mean he used to live there?” I imagine a lifetime amid the crumbling plaster, lack of electricity, and rusted bathtub, and think it’s no wonder Jeremiah looks so sad.
“Not exactly. He and his parents lived in a trailer. They parked on the grounds there, sometimes.” Avery chews her lip, clearly holding back.
Normally I’d be far too shy to ask further. But my natural introversion is overpowered by the memory of Jeremiah’s hurt eyes and the fear that I’ll inadvertently do or say something else hurtful.
“Um, Avery?” We’re nearly across the sloping lawn to the art hall. “If there’s some kind of story about our house, it would really help to know about it so I don’t do anything else stupid that might upset someone.”
Avery shrugs. “It’s nothing, really. All the old places around here have a story, you know?” Her eyes slide away.
“So, what’s the story with mine?”
She gives me a look like she’d rather not say but knows I won’t let it go. “Your house has been in the Marigny family for as long as anyone can remember, but it’s been a ruin for decades now, and even longer since anyone actually lived in it.” She looks around as if to make sure nobody is in earshot, then leans in and lowers her voice. “Thing is, a few months ago Jeremiah’s parents both died in a car crash. It was awful. My aunt is a nurse at the hospital, and she said the bodies were so messed up you could barely recognize them. Jeremiah doesn’t have any brothers or sisters, and his parents never had a lot of money. The sale of the Marigny mansion is all the money he was left with.”
I feel humiliation crawl up my spine like a roly-poly bug. “So I just made fun of the boy with dead parents whose house I stole.”
She stares at me a moment and then bursts out laughing. “Well,” she says, “when you put it like that, I guess.”
“At least that explains why everyone is looking at me. Thanks for telling me, Avery.” I give her a smile and turn toward the art hall.
“Harper, wait.” When I turn back, she’s shifting her feet, like she’s trying to decide whether to speak or not. “You should know. It’s not just the car crash or dead parents that’s the story with the Marigny mansion.”
“Then what is?”
She tilts her head awkwardly and does her feet-shifting thing again. “You know that Deepwater is real old country, right? Like, that mansion you bought—it’s so old, nobody around here even knows the truth about it anymore.”
“Sure.” I look at her, waiting.
“So, the story is just something everyone hears, you know, growing up. They say that something bad happened there, a long time ago. People died. And that afterwards, there was a curse put on the house, like an old voodoo thing.”
My eyes bug a little. “An old voodoo thing? Seriously?”
She nods. “The story went that so long as the Marigny mansion stayed in the family, the curse would be contained, and nobody else would die. But if it was sold . . .” her voice trails off and she gives me an apologetic shrug.
“Oh, great.” I try to keep a flippant tone, but I’d be lying if I said my heart didn’t stop a little at that. I’ve had about enough of death to last me forever. “Well, I guess every old place around here has a story, like you said.”
I don’t really want to hear any more stories, but we’ve come this far, and there’s something in her voice that says she isn’t quite done. “Go on, then. Give me the rest.” Avery meets my eyes, and now there is no hint of laughter in her face.
“It wasn’t Jeremiah who chose to sell the house. It was his parents. They were real happy about it, too. The night they signed the papers, they went to the local roadhouse. Bought a round for the whole bar. They told everyone they were putting a down payment on a place down in Biloxi. Time to leave the past behind, they said, and move on.”
I feel a cold sensation in my spine.
“They never even made it home.” Avery’s words drop into the day like the first cold touch of winter. “They left the roadhouse and crashed the car, not a mile up the road. It happened the very same day they signed the Marigny mansion over to your family. That’s it, Harper. That’s the story. That’s why everyone is looking at you. They think you’re living in a cursed house, and they’re all wondering what happens next.”