The following excerpt from Dead Girls by Abigail Tarttelin is reprinted here with permission from the publisher.
Dead Girls excerpt:
LATER—much later—Billie went home through the field. I wanted to go with her a little of the way, and told Sam he had to stay on the path.
“On my own?” he whined.
“Don’t be a wuss.”
“I’m not a wuss! Fine, I’ll wait. I don’t care.”
“Good,” he said, but he still looked nervous. Sam is scared of lots of things.
I’m glad I left him on the road, though, because Billie and I walked through the wheat a bit (it’s taller than us) and played with the paper predictor. It was nice to have some time alone.
“Pick a number from one to four,” said Billie. I picked three.
“One-two-three. Pick a color: red, yellow, green, or mauve.”
“M-a-u-v-e. Pick a color: sicky orange, blue, purple, or pink.”
“Yuck. Sicky orange.”
“S-i-c-k-y-o-r-a-n-g-e. Hehehe, you got ‘poophead.’”
“Does that mean I am a poophead or I’ll marry a poophead?”
Billie cackled hysterically. “Dunno. Maybe both?”
I grabbed it off her. “Let me do you. Pick a number.” She picked two.
“One-two. Pick a color: blue, purple, pink, or sicky orange.”
“S-i-c-k-y-o-r-a-n-g-e. Pick a color: green, mauve, red, or yellow.”
“Hahahaha, you’re going to marry a snot-nosed badger!”
We were laughing loudly, and it echoed around the fields. The wheat was suddenly a blinding gold as the sun got low in the sky and hit it. The sky had no clouds, and was purple-blue, like the bruises on Billie’s arms from Chinese burns. I gave Billie the predictor back, and she folded it so it didn’t get squashed. It’s origami.
“Later, alligator,” Billie said and did a salute.
I waved back. “In a while, crocodile.”
I turned back and she kept walking ahead. We both made dark paths in the gold, going away from each other, tramping down the wheat.
I retraced my steps to where Sam waited, and we got home at 9:35 p.m.
Billie didn’t come home. No one knows where she is.
The black dogs return in my dreams. The four of them move into the den, sniffing around, snapping, and slobbering everywhere. They almost catch my feet in their teeth as I slither out through the tunnel. Why didn’t they follow us? In my dream I get to see what they do when we leave. They circle the den on the inside, making sure all of us are gone, and then they stop and wait, more like guard dogs than murderous beasts. I realize they were chasing us out of the den. They are quiet for a minute, but I hear their panting, and then I feel it on my neck. It’s hot and tickly, and then it becomes cold. I shiver. I try to turn around to see them, but I’m stuck. It’s because I’m unconscious. I’m asleep, and so I can’t move my body, but I suddenly know they are in my room, my real room, and one of the dogs is on my back while I lie there. I strain to look over my shoulder, but all I can see is hair. But it’s not my own hair. It’s the hair from the girl I saw in the den. The black dog has morphed into her. She’s lying on my back, and I strain to turn around, and in my dream-that’s-not-quite-a-dream I just manage to look over my shoulder at her wild and staring eyes. Suddenly her hand grabs my shoulder, and I squeal at its coldness.
“Thera!” Mum shouts. I open my eyes. “Thera, wake up!”
“What? Why? What’s happened?”
“You’re screaming!” She sits on my bed, and she hugs me tightly.
“Ow! Mum, get off!”
“It’s okay, they’ll find her. They’ll find her, darling.”
“What? They’ll find who?”
Mum pushes the hair back from my face and looks at me as if I’m nuts. “Billie, sweetheart.”
“Oh.” I shake her palm off my head. “Yeah, I know. She probably just decided to sleep outside under the stars. You know we like to do that.” I pick sleep out of my eyes. “I wish she’d asked me to stay out with her, though.”
“You know curfew is nine thirty on Saturdays!” Mum snaps.
“That’s probably why she didn’t ask!” I counter.
“Urgh, Thera,” Mum says, and Dad calls something through the wall that neither of us catch.
“What did you say?” Mum sounds annoyed. She strides out of the room and they start arguing next door.
I scramble through my duvet and do a forward roll off my bed, so I’m sat by the wall. I retrieve what I need from its hiding place under the bookcase. Billie and I like these books called The Mystery Kids by Fiona Kelly, and they use this trick to help them hear through walls better: you put the open end of a pint glass to the wall you want to listen through, and you put the other end to your ear. It really works. We used it once to listen to Billie’s dad, but all he did was order fishing equipment. We made up a story that he was going to use it to strangle someone. We wrote it down. Hopefully the police don’t find it and think Billie is a terrible person.
I’m still, with the glass pressed to my ear. Mum and Dad’s voices sound like they are underwater.
“It could have been Thera,” Mum’s voice says. I frown. What could have been Thera?
“Don’t say that. What did she say?”
“Something something…sleeping out under the stars.”
“…might be right.”
“…told you I didn’t want to move here, near your parents.” I roll my eyes. Mum’s from the city. She doesn’t like the country.
“Something something…middle of nowhere,” she is saying.
“Can’t supervise them all the time.”
“…surprised you’re alive after your childhood.”
This almost makes me laugh. Dad used to do things like fix up old motorbikes with his friends and then drive them holding onto the handlebars while standing on the seat. That was when he was fourteen! Barely older than me. I cover my mouth so I don’t make any noise laughing and then, when I take my hand off it again, I sneeze. Silence.
“Thera, are you listening?”
I take my ear away from the glass, and shout through, “No!”
There are more arguing sounds, and then Mum opens the door again. I just manage to get back into bed in time. “Dad is going to drive you and Sam to Nanny and Granddad’s this morning so we can help look for Billie.”
“Can’t I help look for Billie?”
“But I know everywhere she goes. It makes more sense that I look for her than you do.”
“You told the police all those places last night, didn’t you?”
“I said no! I’m not having you out there in miles and miles of cornfields!” She yells this part so Dad hears it. She’s wrong, though: it’s all wheat and barley around our village. I know, because I’m a country kid. Not like Mum.
I grumble. Mum and Dad are always shouting at each other. “It’s not Dad’s fault Billie ran off.”
“Thera! Billie didn’t…” For a second Mum looks stricken. Her mouth is hanging open, like her unfinished sentence.
I frown. “What?”
“…Nothing, sweetheart,” she says. “Nothing. Just…get dressed. Dad’s taking you in ten minutes.”
Nanny and Granddad live out on the North Sea coast. Dad drives us fast, with the windows down and rock music on loud. We all sing along to T. Rex and Badfinger and Led Zeppelin. When we get close to the beach, Dad turns the cassette tape off and makes us sing “Summer Holiday.” Sam is singing loudly and off-key, on the same side of the car as the sun and the sea. He grins at me when he sees me looking at him, showing the gap where he lost a tooth last week. Sam’s a bit of a wuss, but he’s also the best little brother in the world.
Secretly I am pleased we have been banished to Nan and Granddad’s, I think to myself, as we walk around from the car to their house. It’s a Victorian house, five stories tall counting the basement and the attic, and full from top to toe with books. Granddad writes novels and is interested in everything, so he reads all the time. He says he has “intellectual curiosity,” and that I do too, like him. He is a science fiction writer, and when people ask him about it, he says he writes “oh, pulp, yarns, pocket fodder.” He has three interests that he writes about a lot: the future, technology, and spiritual stuff, like gods, dreams, souls, and ESP. He could really help me out today.
Dad unlocks the big black door and calls out, “Hello! It’s me!” Nanny and Granddad are his parents. Dad has six brothers and sisters, but none of them live here anymore. Still, Sam and I come ’round all the time, and Nanny says grandkids are better than your own kids because you get to buy them sweets and not worry about their teeth.
Dad goes down the corridor to the living room, and Sam and I follow him. Did I say every wall at Nanny and Granddad’s is covered with books? The corridor is actually really narrow, because Granddad has built bookcases on either side, and they are filled with paperbacks and several big Roman-statue-type heads whose eyes follow us as we walk by. When we squeeze our way into the living room, Nanny is standing where she always stands: in the doorway to the kitchen, holding the teapot. When she sees us she squeals, “Eeeee!” and runs over to give us big slobbery kisses and pretends to suck the juice out of our skin, so it fills up all the bits in between her wrinkles and she doesn’t get old.
After we have finished giggling and being eaten, Dad says, “Mum, could I have a word?”
Nanny looks at him and nods. “You kids,” she says in her crackly Nanny voice, “why don’t you make the tea?”
“Okay!” We run through to the kitchen. Granddad likes his tea just so, and lukewarm. Nanny likes hers weaker and hot. Sam and I like ours golden brown, like that Stranglers song Dad said is about tea. We don’t have sugar at home but here we each have two. Nan and Dad are talking quietly in the other room. I’m not listening to them because I’m telling Sam to get the milk and stir the sugar in and stuff, but I can hear them in the background.
“What time are you picking them up tomorrow?” Nan says.
“Eight. Otherwise they won’t get to school on time.”
“What did the police say?”
“Nothing much. They something something.” I concentrate harder.
“…we’re going to the station, and then I suppose we’ll split into teams…”
“Did you talk to Paul and Rebecca?”
That’s Billie’s mum and dad. I don’t hear Dad’s reply because Sam is clinking the spoon in the cups too much. “Shh!” I tell him.
He tuts. “Stop listening!” Sam minds his own business a bit too much, if you ask me. Some people don’t want to know anything. I do. I want to see and know everything about the world and my life and what’s going on. It’s intellectual curiosity, like Granddad says. I listen again, but Dad and Nanny are quiet.
“Well,” Nanny says. “Have you got time for a cup of tea?”
“I better go, Mum. Frances is waiting for me.”
“All right. I hope you find her, dear.”
“Love you,” Dad says. “Love you, darling.”
I look through. They are hugging. “Bye, Dad,” I say. He waves. “Bye, snoop.”
“Hey!” I grumble, but I’m joking. I was snooping. I better get better at it so I don’t get caught next time.
“Let’s have our tea here and then you can put your bags upstairs,” Nan tells us. We have our overnight bags with us.
“I have to take Granddad’s tea up,” I say.
“Well, off you go, love,” Nan says. “He’s in his study.”
Granddad’s study is upstairs. It’s a big room, with small writing desks in all four corners. There is a light over each desk and a different-sized chair in front of it. There is also a big table in the middle of the room, covered with the books Granddad is currently reading, all open. The windows are long and large, with a balcony outside, but the room is dark because of the books on all the walls. When I push open the door with my toes, Granddad is sat hunched over the desk in the far left corner, the one with the gold-and-green lamp.
“Aha,” he says, without looking up. I can hear the whisper-scrawl of his pencil on paper. It doesn’t stop while he talks. “Could that be one of my favorite grandchildren, bearing Indian tea?”
“It could!” I say, and pad over quietly in my socks. I put the cup down next to him, give him a kiss, and watch him working.
“Just one moment, Thera,” he says. “Just finishing my thought…There we are.” He looks up.
“How is my clever girl?”“Good.”
“I hear your friend has gone missing.”
“She’s run off.”
I chew my lip. “Without me.”
Granddad nods. “I think, in time, it will become evident that this indiscretion was not intentional on the part of your friend.”
I think for a moment and then I drag a chair over from the big table and sit on it. “Granddaaaaad?”
He smiles. “Do I detect in the tone of your voice that a favour is about to be requested?”
“Well, I had this dream.” I look at him seriously. “And I don’t know what it means.”
“I should think we can be of assistance.” Granddad puts down his pencil and beckons me to follow him to a dark corner of his study. He sits in an armchair there before another of the desks and pulls out a book on dreams. “What are we looking up?”
“Black dogs. Savage ones.”
Granddad leafs through the book.
“This tome suggests a dog is a symbol of protection. ‘The dream is warning you,’” he reads.
“‘You should attempt to protect someone or something in your life.’”
“Was there anything else in your dream?”
“Er, cold hands?”
“Hands! Hands…” he murmurs, turning the pages. “Ah. ‘Hands are rarely dreamt of, and their presence in a dream has a strong significance. They are a sign of taking control of our own fate, and of making an impact through our actions on another, or the world at large.’ Interesting. What was this dream?”
“I dreamt of a dog that changed into a girl.”
“My goodness. Not a prophetic dream, then.”
“I would imagine even modern technology would find such a feat unachievable. Maybe putting a dog’s heart in a young woman, although I believe it’s thought pig hearts are more practical for the purpose.”
“Mm, yeah. It was a ghostly girl,” I add. “And the dogs are from real life.”
“They came forth from the spirit world and barked at us when we were using the Ouija board. In the woods on Friday.”
“Oh dear. Well, perhaps those dogs were warning you off playing with Ouija. It might not be the best idea in the hands of one so imaginative.” Granddad reaches past me and picks up a box on the shelf near my head. “Still, you might enjoy looking at these, if you have taken an interest in the spirit world.”
“What are they?”
“These are a set of tarot painted by Lady Frieda Harris and designed by Aleister Crowley himself.”
“The dark-magic guy?”
“The occultist, yes.”
“They mentioned him on Eerie, Indiana.”
“I take it that’s a children’s television show?”
“Yeah. What do they do?”
“They can be read, to predict your future. Would you like me to read yours?”
I reach out and touch the pack, and suddenly I feel cold.
I shiver. “No. Not now. I better get back to my tea.”
“And I had best return to my work. Come back later if you need anything. And stop poking around in the netherworld. You never know what spirits you might disturb.”
“Got it.” I shiver again, and run out.
Abigail Tarttelin is the author of feminist crime thriller Dead Girls. Abigail’s second novel, Golden Boy, about intersex teen Max Walker, won an American Library Association ALEX Award and was shortlisted for LAMDBA’s Best LGBT Debut. She loves talking to readers and regularly speaks at schools, reading groups and book clubs. Find out more at her website, twitter, and instagram.
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