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The other orphans say Margot is lucky.
Lucky tosurvive the horrible accident that killed her family.
Lucky to have her own room because shewakes up screaming every night.
And finally, lucky to be chosen by a prestigious family to live at their remote country estate.
But it wasn’t luck that madethe Suttonsrescue Margot from her bleak existence at the group home. Margotwas handpicked to be a companiontotheir silent, mysteriousdaughter, Agatha. At first, helping with Agatha–and getting to know her handsome younger brother–seems much better than the group home. But soon, the isolated house beginsplaying tricks on Margot’s mind, making her question everything shebelievesabout the Suttons . . . and herself.
Margot’s bad dreams may have stopped when she came to live with Agatha – butthe realnightmare has just begun.
MY SISTER DINA'S last words were "I'm telling you, that hamburger tasted like it had boogers on it."
My sister Siena's last words were "Are you saying . . . it was a hambooger?"
My mother's last words were "Tony, do you see that—"
My father's last words were "Oh God—hold on, girls. Hold on!"
Then the car plunged off the side of the road and sank darkly into a drainage canal full of icy slush. And poof! the Radegan family was finished.
Well, except for me.
Apparently I didn't get the memo.
I remember thinking, Mom, I can't breathe. And then somehow I found myself gasping in the frigid air, dog-paddling, too dazed to know which way was up, fading in and out of consciousness, and then, at last, facedown and elbow-deep in a patch of frost-crunchy mud.
I turned to look for the others. The water was horribly still and silent, except for the occasional gurgle of air escaping from the car below like the belch of a beast that had eaten its fill.
The scene remained mostly quiet until emergency vehicles arrived. There were bystanders up on the road, people milling about at the top of the steep hill, pondering the horror of what they'd seen. Snippets of their shocked reactions reached my ears, oddly clear in the damp air—all those oh nos and I can't believe its and one particularly heart-wrenching Merciful Mary, Mother of God. They didn't come looking for me because it was unthinkable that anyone could have survived.
So I lay in the dark without making a sound, waiting and wanting to die.
Three months later, I was still waiting.
MY TOOTHBRUSH WAS slime green, and the bristles, after only six weeks of use, were beginning to fray and spread outward. They also came unattached and got stuck between my teeth when I brushed, which I did, twice a day, for the full two minutes that my mother would have insisted upon had she been around to do so. The end of the toothbrush's handle tapered to a sporty point, and the gold-embossed brand name, WALLYTEETH, was chipping quietly away. It was as if someone at the Wallyteeth factory had said, We want it to look like a toothbrush, but basically it should suck.
And it did. But what really bothered me was that someone else's hair was taped to it.
The day I'd arrived at Palmer House, a woman named Ms. O'Neil, who had long, curly auburn hair (as I was later reminded twice a day for two minutes at a time), gave me a short welcome speech, followed by a tour. She had a stack of supplies waiting for me on her beat-up wooden desk, including a pair of pajamas still on their plastic hanger, a thin graying bath towel and washcloth, the green toothbrush, and a small blue stuffed bunny.
"The pajamas and the rabbit are donations," she said, almost an apology. "You don't have to keep them if you don't want them. I'm sure once your things arrive, you'll want to wear your own clothes, but that may be a few days—"
"No, I don't have anything," I said.
"Like I said, it may be a few days before it gets here," she said, with the unpleasant smile of someone who was being very patient in the face of stupidity. "But your caseworker will arrange to ship everything—"
"No," I said. "There's nothing to ship. They thought I was going to die, so they donated everything."
Blink. Blink-blink. The smile never left her face. Her silence seemed like a call for more information.
"They thought they were being nice," I said, feeling like I had to cover for them. "My dad's law firm handled the estate pro bono because there was a lot of debt from my mom setting up her dental practice. And . . . mistakes were made."
"I see," Ms. O'Neil said.
"There are a few boxes," I admitted, not wanting to seem melodramatic. "Mostly paperwork. It can stay in storage."
I turned away to inspect the pajamas, noting that the print on the polyester fabric was hot-pink lipstick kisses and that the front read #TOTESFAB. I handed them back to her and was on the verge of passing the bunny back, too, when I decided to stuff it into my backpack instead.
Ms. O'Neil tossed the pajamas onto the table in the corner and held the door open for me.
I hadn't known until a few days before my arrival that there still were places like Palmer House: technically an orphanage (which made me technically an orphan?), officially a home for kids who needed somewhere to stay but hadn't yet found their way into the foster care system, or had been slightly chewed up and then spit out by it. Palmer House certainly didn't look like the prison-style brick structures of my childhood nightmares (oh, you naive little nightmares); it was just a dated beige stucco house with a treeless yard, designed maybe twenty years ago by someone who wasn't particularly good at designing houses, with five bedrooms and a kitchen and some bathrooms and all the other things you might expect to find in a house. It had been donated to the Children's Relief Society by the Palmer family—hence the name. My caseworker, an obviously overworked woman named Frankie, told me I was supremely fortunate to get a spot here. It was "one of the nicest in the system."
And I was its newest resident.
Efforts had been made to find me an actual home, but I had no living relatives, and staying with my best friend Becca's family had ended badly—probably because of my nightmares, nosebleeds, and middle-of-the-night screaming episodes that kept the family awake and sent her younger siblings to therapy. Becca and I discovered that we hadn't been very good friends after all. In fact, that had happened with all the people I'd thought were my friends. While finishing out the school year, I realized that what had bound us to each other was just that we were all kind of . . . mean. Mean to other people and mean to each other.
I guess I didn't have the energy to be mean anymore. I didn't have the energy to be anything at all.
Palmer House's administrative offices were in a converted space that had once been the garage, so we emerged into the kitchen and went from there to the living room, where some of the other girls were lounging, watching TV, or absently scrolling on their phones.
"Hey, everyone," Ms. O'Neil said. "This is Margaret."
Actually, I go by Margot, I didn't bother to say. In my old life, no one had called me Margaret except substitute teachers, but I let it go for the moment. Margaret was an old family name, and Mom had agreed to the name only if she could shorten it.
A vague chorus of hellos answered her, and a few of the girls glanced up, but they all quickly turned away again.
Except one girl with dirty-blond hair and a scowl.
"Hey!" she snarled. "That's my toothbrush!"
Ms. O'Neil blinked, looking down at the toothbrush sitting atop the graying towels, and then sighed. "Tam, this is not yours. It's a new one from the supply closet."
Tam sat up. Her too-big T-shirt read #GIRLSQUAD. Her eyes were watery blue and her face seemed weirdly flat, like everything except her nose and eyes were on the same level. "Well, it looks like mine," she said. "And that means at some point she's going to mess up and use mine. Which is disgusting."
Ms. O'Neil turned away with an eye roll. Tam saw it, too, and her lip curled as she prepared to say more.
Then Ms. O'Neil held up her hand, warding off the attack. "Okay, okay, don't worry, I'll take care of it."
"Disgusting," Tam repeated.
"Come on, Margaret," Ms. O'Neil murmured, and we retreated to the garage. She grabbed a roll of duct tape out of her desk drawer and started to write on it with a black marker.
Since it seemed like I might be here for a while, I decided to take a chance. "You can just write Margot," I said.
"Oh, is that what people call you?" she asked. "Okay."
She wrote Margo, ripped the tape off the roll, and wrapped it—along with a wayward strand of her own long, curly hair—around the handle of the toothbrush.
"Ta-da," she said. "Now it is clearly your toothbrush."
In my old life, I would have said, Oh, excuse me, there's a t at the end of my name.
Maybe even, Oh, excuse me, you've attached a piece of your hair to this device I'm supposed to insert into my mouth.
But now? Nah.
She carried it out and held it up to Tam, like a flag waved in a parade, as we passed the TV room. Tam didn't quite seem to process what she was seeing, but she didn't get up and follow to air further grievances, so I figured it was fine.
And it was. It worked out well enough, in the sense that I never used any toothbrush but my own for the entirety of the six weeks I spent at Palmer House. Tam found several other reasons to despise me, but Tam despised everyone, so I didn't dwell on it.
ON THE MORNING of the third day of the seventh week, I was in the bathroom, brushing, when Tam came in, grabbed a random towel off the rack, and began using it to dry her hair. She glared at me in the mirror.
"Hah," I said, with the toothbrush between my teeth.
"Don't hi me," she said. "I'm exhausted, and it's your fault."
"Uh-kah," I said.
"Can I just tell you how miserable it is to have you here?"
I spat into the sink. "Sure."
Tam stepped closer. Not threateningly, but close enough to speak quietly so no one else could hear. "Everyone else here feels bad for you, but I don't. I'm the only one who'll tell you the truth, which is that we're all sick and tired of you waking us up every night, shrieking like a maniac."
I wobbled as though a pebble caught in my bloodstream had forced its way through the valves of my heart.
"You were in an accident," she said. "So what? Get over it and let the rest of us sleep."
"All right," I said. "Great advice, Tam, thanks for the words of wisdom."
She leaned against the wall. "I'm serious. Things were peaceful until you came. Now every night's a horror movie."
"Okay," I said, rinsing out my toothbrush.
"Look at me, Margot," she said.
I looked at her. Her eyes were flat and dull, but they weren't stupid. And there was a glint of self-satisfaction in them that told me she was carrying out a rather pleasant errand. Had the others nominated her to tell me all this?
"You should go," she said.
"Cool," I said, letting my attention drift away.
It was the first hit I'd scored on her. She tried again, less certain. "I mean it. You should go somewhere else."
"Tam," I said sharply, turning on her. "I'd love to. But where would I go?"
I heard something in my voice then—something dangerous and biting, like the strike of a snake.
Again, she wavered. "I don't care," she said. "Talk to Ms. O'Neil. She'll figure something out. I'm sure you'll be fine. You're the luckiest person I know."
Then she stormed away before I could reply.
I went back to my room at the far end of the hall. One thing that made them all angry was that I was the only girl with my own room. My roommate went to live with her grandmother two days after I arrived, and by then everybody knew I screamed all night, so they didn't want to share with me. In that regard, Tam was right. I was lucky. She'd lived here for going on two years, and by all rights the single should have been hers. But Ms. O'Neil refused to switch us, because no one who roomed with me would get any sleep.
I lay on the bed with Blue Bunny sitting on my chest, wondering in what other way I could possibly be considered lucky. The lawyers at Dad's firm had held a fundraiser for me, so I had a little money waiting for me when I was an adult—not a ton, because my parents had cashed in their life insurance policies to build Mom's practice. But it would be enough to get me through college, if I chose a cheapish school and lived on a strict budget, working weekends and summers to make up the difference. I was pretty sure none of the other girls could say that—but Tam couldn't have known about the money, so that wasn't it.
Did she think I was lucky because I had made it out of the water when my parents and sisters hadn't?
That was lucky? Really? Surviving to see my family home emptied and sold? Surviving so I could wake every night in a cold sweat after some horrific nightmare? Be rejected and unwanted by all the people I'd thought were my friends? Surviving to end up here?
I turned to my side, feeling exhaustion coming for me, not wanting to let my eyes slip shut but knowing that it was inevitable. Last night, I'd probably managed four hours of sleep, and that wasn't enough to get me through the day. Still, I fought the nap as long as I could. At least when I was awake I could stop myself from focusing on the accident. If I fell asleep, all my protections and distractions melted away.
I tucked Blue Bunny into my armpit and tapped his nose three times, hoping it would wake up whatever magic bunny energy he possessed and help him guard me from the shadows.
Then my eyes closed.
The shadows descended almost immediately—gray, black, and a sick mildew green, and behind them all was Tam. But not normal Tam—Tam's dead body bloated with canal water, floating out of her bedroom and down the hall into my room. I dreamed that she came hovering through the door and then slowly, like a seesaw, her feet lowered and touched the ground, and she came closer and stood over me and looked down with her cold, wet dead-fish eyes. I waited for her to speak, but she didn't say anything.
She just reached down and put her hand over my mouth, and it felt like a giant slug. A scream began to grow in my lungs like a train approaching from far down the tracks.
Then, suddenly, I was awake.
Someone had knocked on the door. When I opened my eyes, Ms. O'Neil's head was poked into the room. Her eyes were agleam with something like confusion, or maybe excitement.
I'm leaving, I thought.
Ms. O'Neil, like the rest of them, basically hated me. I don't think she wanted to, but all I did was make her job harder, and not in an interesting way like Tam did. With Tam, she could spar, and roll her eyes, and complain—but with me, what could she do? You can't roll your eyes at the sole survivor of a tragic car accident.
I mean, I guess you could roll your eyes at anything if it got aggravating enough.
I'll bet I'm aggravating enough, I thought.
The shiny-eyed moment hung in the air half a beat too long, and I had to break the silence.
"Hi," I said.
Her left eyebrow went up. "You," she said to me, "are a lucky girl."
MY ROOM LOOKED out over the driveway, which meant that as I shoved my few possessions into my backpack and a plastic grocery bag, I could look down and see the massive black SUV idling there, waiting for me. The business-suit-clad man who'd arrived in it, Mr. Albright, had told me to take my time, but I didn't have enough stuff to take my time with.
The door pushed open, and I expected to see Ms. O'Neil. But it was Tam who came in, looking around in a curious, wide-eyed way. She had a duffel with her, and she heaved it onto the bed.
"My room now," she said, as smug as a house cat.
"Good for you."
She sighed and sat down on the mattress, arms folded. Then she leaned forward to peer down at the car in the driveway.
"So you're just getting, like, adopted?"
"No," I said. "I don't want to be adopted. I'll be a ward."
"They're probably going to make you their servant or something." She didn't sound entirely disappointed by this idea. "Lock you in the cellar and all that. I'm sure you'll be miserable."
"You never know."
She sat back and shook her head. "Ridiculous."
"Yep." I finished folding my third and final T-shirt and stacked it in the bag on top of the other clothes.
"If you're rich now, will you send me stuff?"
"I'm not rich," I said.
She pointed out the window. "That's a hundred-thousand-dollar car. You're rich."
"It's not my money," I said. "I'm the servant, remember?"
She snorted. "Fingers crossed."
"Make yourself useful," I said. "Take the sheets off the bed."
She obeyed without complaint, reaching across to pull the fitted sheet out from under the mattress.
Then, driven by curiosity, I asked, "What kind of stuff would you want me to send?"
"Hmm," she said. "A pair of sunglasses. Like, really nice ones. And a crossword-puzzle book. And—"
I reached into my backpack, pulled out a crossword-puzzle book, and lobbed it at the bed. She picked it up, studied the cover, quirked her mouth into a smile, and went on.
"—a better phone?" She watched expectantly to see if I was going to give her mine.
I was not.
She shrugged. "So your whole family is dead, right? No grandparents or aunts or anybody?"
"Nope," I said. "My parents were only children and my grandparents are all dead."
"Hmm," she said. "I have aunts, but it doesn't do me any good. My mom's sisters. They won't take me because they think I'm too much like my mother. I don't care, though. I turn eighteen in seven months, and then I'll go do my own thing."
"Where will you go?"
"New York," she said. "I'm going to be a model."
I looked at her in disbelief, but even as I prepared to mentally dismiss the idea, I suddenly felt as if I was seeing her clearly for the first time—that simple, odd face. The impossibly tall, slender frame. I could totally see her slinking down a runway in some outlandish outfit. Her scowl was perfect for it, too.
"Good luck," I said. "I think you could be a model, actually."
She rolled her eyes. "I wasn't asking for your opinion."
Never change, Tam.
"Anyway, you're the lucky one." She dumped the bundle of sheets on the floor.
"You keep saying that," I said. "I don't know if you realize how much my life has sucked over the past three months."
She stretched out on the bare mattress, relishing it. "I never said your life didn't suck. Only that you're lucky. Those are two totally different things."
Huh. Were they?
"For instance," she said. "My mom is a homeless meth head who stole my grandma's life savings and her pills, which is probably why Grandma died. Be careful who you let handle your meds, by the way."
I was about to reply, but she silenced me with a finger.
"My last foster family fed me exactly one bowl of generic-brand Cheerios per day. I had a kitten there, but Palmer House made me give it away before I could come. I haven't seen my brother in seven years. My life sucks. And yet—no rich people have ever, even once, swooped in to adopt me. Hence, unlucky."
I looked down at the SUV waiting to cart me off to an enormous estate in the country, owned by millionaires who (I assumed) would not actually make me live in the cellar and carry trays of food around.
Then I looked at Tam, whose left hand was curled around a small stuffed kitten wearing an Easter hat.
Well, maybe I am lucky, I thought. But my life still sucks.
"So then—" I said, and I wouldn't have gone on except she took the trouble to open her eyes and look at me. "If things are so terrible, what's the point?"
"The point of what? Of life?" she asked.
"Yeah, I mean . . . it's so hard." I felt myself blush. "I can't believe I used to think there was anything wrong with my life. I was so ignorant."
She shrugged. "Nobody has a perfect life. My cousins are rich, but they hate themselves."
"Doesn't everybody hate themselves?" I asked.
Tam's eyes narrowed contemptuously. "No. I don't. I've never done anything bad enough to hate myself. Have you?"
I felt as if our eyes were locked together. She was waiting for an answer, but I didn't have one. Or maybe I did, but I didn't want to say it.
"You're overthinking this," she said finally. "You're alive, so you might as well go along with it. There's no big secret. You live, and then you die, and that's it."
"That's it?" I half laughed.
"That," she said, closing her eyes, "is plenty."
I carried my bags and the bundle of bedsheets to the door. "Tam, we could have been friends if you weren't such a jerk."
"I don't want to be your friend," she said, not even bothering to open her eyes. "I don't like you."
I closed the door and went downstairs.
I didn't bring the toothbrush.
I'D NEVER BEEN to a country estate before. I didn't actually know what a country estate was, but I had a vague idea that it was where a duke or an earl would live if we had dukes and earls in America. I figured Mr. Albright was being melodramatic about what would end up being a big house in a nice suburban neighborhood.
I was wrong.
I mean, it was a big house, yes. It was enormous. But it wasn't in a nice neighborhood—it wasn't in a neighborhood at all. It was (as one might have guessed) out in the country. About ten minutes before coming into view of the stone pillars at the entrance to the property, we'd passed through a minuscule town with one traffic light, a small row of stores, a used-car lot, a doctor's office, and a single-story building with a sign reading COPELAND COUNTY SCHOOL. And that was it, as far as the local society went.
I watched helplessly as the signal on my phone weakened, like blood draining from a body, and then disappeared altogether, replaced by two small words: NO SERVICE. It wasn't that I had any friends to call, but it still felt strangely and almost spookily like being cut off from the world, or going back in time.
The SUV slowed as we approached an elaborately scrolled iron gate centered in a brick wall that went on forever on both sides of us, and Mr. Albright looked over at me from his spot in the driver's seat. He was in his forties, balding, and judging by the puffiness around his eyes, could have used a good night's sleep. His gray suit jacket was draped over the seat between us, and his sleeves were rolled up.
"Are you ready?" he asked. "It's a new beginning for you."
What was I supposed to say, that I wasn't ready? I nodded and tried to smile and went back to looking out the window.
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Hachette Book Group