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“I read this thriller that is Get Out meets The Vanishing Half in one night.”–BuzzFeed
“Extraordinary . . . A terrifying tale of fears and hatreds generated by racism and class inequality.”–Associated Press
EDGAR® AWARD FINALIST * BRAM STOKER® AWARD FINALIST * SHIRLEY JACKSON AWARD NOMINEE * PHENOMENAL BOOK CLUB PICK
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Esquire, Vulture, PopSugar, Paste, Publishers Weekly * ONE OF COSMOPOLITAN’S BEST HORROR NOVELS OF ALL TIME
Liz Rocher is coming home . . . reluctantly. As a Black woman, Liz doesn’t exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward, passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the night of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the newlyweds’ daughter, Caroline, disappears–and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.
As a frantic search begins, with the police combing the trees for Caroline, Liz is the only one who notices a pattern: A summer night. A missing girl. A party in the woods. She’s seen this before. Keisha Woodson, the only other Black girl in Liz’s high school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart removed. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence. As Liz starts to dig through the town’s history, she uncovers a horrifying secret about the place she once called home. Children have been going missing in these woods for years. All of them Black. All of them girls.
It’s your turn.
With the evil in the forest creeping closer, Liz knows what she must do: find Caroline, or be entirely consumed by the darkness.
Tanisha Walker loved the stars. She didn't memorize the paths of the cosmos or their patterns. She just loved the look of them. The fact that she could see them so clearly was the only part she liked about moving to a town as small as Johnstown. Her husband told her their daughter would be safe. After all, the only place safer than the suburbs was the middle of nowhere. They'd moved because he'd gotten a job at the steel mill. With the finite resource running low, he was brought in to help put the place to rest. A full transition would take years, but the town knew men like him coming meant the beginning of the end. The industry had dried up.
Upon arriving, Tanisha didn't trust the place. If pressed, she couldn't say why. The best answer she could give was: It felt too safe. Tanisha had grown up in the city and was numb to loud noises and erratic personalities; her calm demeanor belied her understanding that danger always lurked right around the corner. But they had moved to a town without corners. Danger didn't need a place to hide, it preferred to fester. First it would smile and bring you German chocolate cake. Then it would wait out in the open on your front porch until it felt good and ready.
Tanisha's daughter, Alice, was named for the writer of a book Tanisha had read in high school. The book was banned. Tanisha read it anyway because she liked the cover. Alice was Tanisha's only child. Born a full two months early, at thirty-two weeks, she was three pounds, four ounces, and fit in the palm of her father's hand.
I think Alice came early because she couldn't wait to see the world.
However, her premature arrival meant they'd kept her in the hospital for those two months while her lungs grew to their full capacity. There the nurses talked to her on their lunch breaks, the residents checked on her between rotations, and every night at 11:00, her parents came to bathe her and rock her to sleep. They were both dead tired but elated to spend time with their daughter.
From the beginning, Alice was loved.
She was always loved.
She will always be loved.
Small-town living agreed with Alice. She loved to explore the forest and play "Let's Get Lost." Her favorite meal was sauerkraut and sausage. She had no tolerance for anything remotely spicy. And she had never met a potato she didn't like. Like her mother, she loved the night sky. But unlike her mother, she was not dazzled by the stars. She loved how the darkness between them went on forever. If she stared long enough, she felt like she could fall up into the vast blackness above.
Alice wasn't a picky child, but she did have a favorite jacket. No matter the weather, she'd wear it. Tanisha hated it. Unable to say no to his daughter, her husband got it for Alice anyway. It had unfinished denim edges and its fluffy white shearling reminded Tanisha of the rich white girls who had stuck gum in her hair on her train rides to school in the city. Even so, Tanisha would have lived as that jacket, wrapped around her daughter, for the rest of her life.
When she turned ten, Alice finally felt the differences between herself and her peers. Ever the optimist, Tanisha let her daughter live in blissful ignorance for as long as she could. Of course Alice was aware of the color of her skin, but she hadn't yet mastered what it meant. At first, the differences were slight and revolved around her hair. To get it done, she went to a lady's house, not a salon. She got braids before she went on vacation. And in swim class, she had to wrap her hair in a tight swim cap or else her mother would "kill" her. She forgot the cap once and cried. She told her instructor about her mother's stance on getting her hair wet, and her mom had to have a meeting with a lady from the state that day. Alice wasn't allowed to say "Mom would kill me" ever again, unless she really, really meant it. Alice was beginning to understand how she was different. She just didn't have all the words yet.
Early summer is fickle. On Friday, June 21, 1985, the temperature dipped just enough to be chilly. Still, Alice begged to go exploring outside with her friends, a request Tanisha almost always denied if there wasn't an adult. Mostly because of the stories about the woods. Always some nonsense about shadows. Tanisha hadn't lived in Johnstown long enough to have mastered the adage "if you think you saw something…no, you didn't," but she was wise enough to glean the truth behind the lore. Shadows hid danger. Danger for Black girls was different. It didn't obey the boundaries of stories. For them, it was always real.
But so much time in this small town had made Tanisha easy. She didn't always lock her doors anymore. She had stopped interlacing her keys between her fingers when she walked alone at night. After a few years, her guard had finally come down. For the first time, she agreed and offered Alice her favorite jacket.
"Mom," Alice whined, "I don't need it. It's fine."
"If you get sick, you'll be upset," Tanisha warned. "And don't forget to wear your bandana if you happen to 'find' yourself in the woods." Tanisha looked down at her daughter knowingly. "I put it in the pocket. Please, Munchkin."
Alice looked at the jacket and the bandana and for the first time she understood that these two totems were more than Day-Glo and denim, they were her mother's care. Alice took the jacket and did her best to conceal her smile as she ran out the front door and off to play.
With her jacket around her waist, Alice and her friends streaked past houses and haphazard gardens until they reached the last house on the block before the woods began. The dirt driveway extended past the garage and dissolved into an array of Eastern hemlock trees. At the end of the driveway, there was a boy she'd never seen before.
One of Alice's friends whispered, "He said he found a deer skull last night! There're still brains inside."
Another rolled their eyes to the back of their head and let out a zombie groan, "Braaaainnns…"
Without a second thought, all her friends took off toward the tree line. Alice faltered. This new boy looked odd. Too young to be out there alone or very small for his age. He looked angry. For the first time, she felt a hint of her mother's worry. She fished around in her jacket for the bandana. In the afternoon sun, its orange hue made her eyes ache. She would look like a total loser and she knew it. Alice shoved it back into her pocket and then remembered the swimming cap incident. She had never seen her mother cry until that lady from the state talked to her. Alice didn't like seeing her mother cry. Her mother asked her to wear the bandana like a necklace, but Alice had a better idea. She flipped the stiff fabric up and wrapped it around her head, like a crown.
"Alice," someone called. The voice was soft, she couldn't be sure who it was, but it was coming from the trees. She took a step toward the woods. A chill passed through her. Her mom was right. It wasn't as warm as she thought. Freshly crowned, Alice put on her favorite jacket, turned up its fluffy collar, and ran into the woods after her friends.
The streetlights came on.
Her friends made their way home.
Before Tanisha could call them, the police knocked on her door. They sent a female officer because the department thought this needed a woman's touch. In reality, none of the men on the force was up for the task. When Tanisha answered, the officer spoke with a heavy sense of duty.
"Ma'am, do you recognize this?" she asked. The officer held up a plastic bag.
Tanisha shook her head. "No. Wait." She leaned in to get a closer look. The officer tried to pull the bag back, but it was too late. Tanisha could smell it. The plastic couldn't contain the sharp metallic tang of blood. The evidence bag slid over the fabric—whatever it was, was soaked. The bag moved in the officer's hand and a shearling collar shifted into view. Tanisha reached out and grabbed it to get a closer look. The cold slickness of the bag did not match the warmth that the liquid inside once contained. While the officer stepped back, she could not stop the realization building in Tanisha. Though the denim jacket was stained with blood and mud, the collar shone through.
Tanisha's life stopped. Time continued, but she was forever divided: There would always be before this moment and after it. With each passing second, the pain of the present robbed the past of its luster. Tanisha, like any mother would, tried to do the impossible. She saw time marching forward, and she wanted to turn it back. But like the heavy bag in her hands, time slid out of her grip. The weight of the jacket brought her to her knees.
Tanisha had wanted Alice to be seen so she wouldn't become a hunter's prey. She'd had that title long before she reached my eyes.
You can't stop a mother from seeing the good in her child, even in their most abject state. After hours of questions and paperwork. After her husband broke down and put himself back together. After they walked down the long hallway to the morgue. When they showed her Alice, all Tanisha saw was her daughter's serene face. She didn't look at the hole in her chest. She didn't ask about the innocence taken. She didn't seek out Alice's missing organ, her heart. Instead, Tanisha chose to see what little serenity Alice had left.
Walker Tragedy Ruled an Accident
March 13, 1986
JOHNSTOWN, PA—Alice Walker's tragic death has been ruled accidental after months of investigation. The medical examiner's office released this statement: "After a thorough investigation, we have concluded that Walker got lost and succumbed to the elements. Injuries previously considered to be foul play have been deemed animal activity. We take this time to remind parents to ensure their children's safety when hiking and playing in the woods. Children should be under adult supervision at all times. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Walker family tonight. We hope this answer offers them some solace." Walker's parents could not be reached for comment.
June 17, 2017
Welcome to Johnstown: Home of the World's Steepest Vehicular Inclined Plane.
All of that, every single word, is emblazoned on a massive billboard visible about a mile outside of town. Because of the angle of the train's approach, the Inclined Plane is the first and only landmark I see. It means I've reached my final destination. The journey here has been rife with spotty cell service, dotted with tiny towns and abandoned industries consumed by thick forests. Yes. After fourteen years away, I, Liz Rocher, am returning to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The rust belt.
I take another gulp of my train wine. The cheap varietal burns my palate. Varietal. Palate. Who do you think you are? There it is. Judgment. One of the many things I ran from when I left.
The train slows. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window. With my thick natural hair and dark skin, my Appalachian origins are unexpected. I buzzed all my hair off a little over three months ago. It's finally settled into its new length. Returning home with no hair means no protection. That's why this trek required a trip to Harlem to get a decent wig. Her name is Valerie. On the box, she looked like a pop star. On me, she looks like a PTA mom. Between the wig and my rumpled business casual, I look like a mockery of what I've become: a "city girl." You'll never be rid of that backwoods, small-town stink. There it is again. My therapist, a tall white woman who gives me names for my feelings, would call that voice my anxiety. The tightness in my chest is my imposter syndrome. The occasional inability to catch my breath is a perfectionist tendency. Neat little notes in her records. My next sip of wine becomes a full gulp, finishing off the split.
"This stop is Johnstown, Pennsylvania."
I gather my things. My phone lights up with a notification from the office. Sales never sleeps. I've taken the weekend off, but I have work to do. I always have work to do. If I don't, I ask for more. The first time I did, my then-boss laughed and asked, "Trouble at home?" Implying that I didn't have ambition, I had misplaced avoidance. I smiled back at him with all my teeth. In two years, I had his job and an engagement ring on my finger. I don't have the ring anymore, but the work is a constant. Sometimes I wonder how he knew. I try to open the document but it refuses to load. A single bar of service flickers in and out. Great. I cling to my technology, like the rind of this place won't get on me if I'm shiny enough.
Moving into the aisle, I have to peel my dress pants off the backs of my thighs. I chose slacks over sweats because I feel powerful in a suit. In control. Every sweaty wrinkle threatens to break that illusion.
The train comes to a stop. What should have been an eight-hour journey became ten because of delays, and my body is sore and stiff. I turn my head to stretch my neck. A ligament pulls tight all the way down the center of my back, pinching right behind my heart. My eyes land on a red sign at the top of the open train door.
My suitcase is above my head. One good pull and I can roll off this train. Or I could stay? Ride on to Pittsburgh. Take a flight back to New York.
My phone rings.
How does she always know exactly when to call? I answer it.
"You're here!" she says.
I glance across the car, half expecting her to pop out from one of the empty seats. "How do you— I've been delayed for— Are you tracking my trip?"
"Someone won't stop asking when you're going to get here." Mel is more than enough reason to come home. Her daughter, my goddaughter, Caroline, is another.
I lift my bag into the aisle, but I don't leave the train just yet. A few passengers slide by me.
"Last call for Johnstown!"
I look back at my seat. Seats. Plural. I paid for both of them back in January when Mel called me and said, "I'm getting married." No hello. No how are you. No delighted scream. No girlish cheering. Mel started the call with a statement. She ended it with a date. That's how I knew she was serious. I bought tickets. The details would come later. She'd made a New Year's resolution to live in the "present." After more than ten years of living with her boyfriend, Garrett Washington, Melissa Parker was going to take his last name. Then, I had been all too eager to attend because I was finally who I imagined myself to be: Successful. Great job. Great fiancé. I'd become a New Yorker who had plans to move to Connecticut in three years.
"How does it feel to be home?" Mel asks.
"My home is dead." The phone is warm on my ear by the time this unprompted observation spills out of me.
"Liz," she replies. "Stop being so damn dramatic. It's one weekend."
Let it be known, I buried this place. When I look at a map of the United States, my eyes drift over all 309 miles of a state that isn't quite the heartland or the coast. As I stand in this Appalachian intercostal of America, I find myself in a liminal expanse. A cruel riddle.
"Can I get a weekend for my wedding?"
I see the conductor waving at me. This is it. Last chance, Liz.
I knew Melissa Parker was a good person when she shielded me from spitballs in the cafeteria in middle school. I'd stumbled into some quintessential '90s bullying. My sin? Being the only Black kid who wasn't "Black." One of three in my entire school, I was the one who didn't fit in. I didn't sound like them or listen to rap or have any rhythm. To my white classmates, these were compulsory to the definition, leaving me at the mercy of this shameful smattering of stereotypes. Cue the spitballs. The other Black kids were no help. I don't blame them; they were swimming for their own social lives and I was tainted water. Branded an Oreo, through and through. Whiteness influenced my speech, mannerisms, and pop-culture preferences. Mel and I hadn't said more than a few words to each other before then, but when she saw my matching lunch of a soft pretzel and fries, she knew we were meant to be. That's what she says. We both know it was because she herself was a white girl who didn't fit in. She wasn't rich, her blond wasn't from a box, and she wasn't interested in power over kindness.
"You get exactly forty-eight hours," I say before yelling to the conductor, "Wait!" A quick hoist of my bag, a sprint down the aisle, and I'm off the train. It lets out directly onto the tracks. "My God, this place is remote," I say to Mel.
"That's just the station."
The train pulls away. The landscape mounts. The flat coast is a distant memory now. Eastern hemlock trees crowd in, bringing darkness with their density despite the dwindling daylight. I'm in the wild. Breathe. I name the things around me:
"Garrett just sent me a picture of the view at the venue. It's stunning," Mel says. I can hear the tinny sound of her mixing something in her kitchen. Baking. Probably her cake. Mel got the idea to get married in January. She only seriously started planning two months ago. This ceremony is the definition of haphazard, last-minute, and thrown together with a hope and a prayer.
"Glad you finally decided on a place the day before the ceremony," I tease. "Where is it?"
"We're using Nick's place?" The upward inflection is there to make sure I'm okay. I'm not the biggest fan of her brother, Nick.
"Like, his house?"
"His land," she clarifies. "It's…picturesque?"
Saliva pushes past the wine on my tongue. I don't reply. I'm not gonna say it until she does.
"It's…the woods. We're in the woods, okay?" This double insistence tells me all I need to know. "Elizabeth Rocher. Please tell me you're gonna be cool."
"Wh—what do you mean?" I almost fool myself with the validity of that question.
"I don't know—we were going to grab the ballroom at the Holiday Inn, but they're closed for the weekend because a pipe burst. We were gonna do it in the yard, but Nick offered. It's beautiful, Liz. Just beautiful—"
"I understand, but I—"
"Please don't tell me you're gonna run?" Her voice gets tight with emotion.
I choke back my laugh. Too late.
"I didn't mean that," Mel backtracks.
"Yes, you did." Mel is the only reason I survived Johnstown. I know what this wedding means to her. "You are so lucky—" I start.
"So lucky," I repeat as I walk toward the station.
Because everything here is on a hill, the station itself is a ways from the tracks, down two flights of suspiciously steep steps. I stop at the top.
Before I confess something to Mel that she already knows, I look over my shoulder, checking that I'm alone. "It's, umm…it's just me. Okay?"
"I know." Mel brightens her voice, instantly adjusting to the pain in mine. "I don't want that asshole here. I want you." After a beat she adds, "I need you here. Believe me." As much as she can read me, I can read her. Something's wrong.
A loud sound cuts through the air. It's something distinctly natural, like the breaking of a massive branch or a tree. I whirl around, nearly dropping my phone.
"Liz, you still there?"
I scan the train tracks. In the corridor between mountains, I see forest on either side. The sound doesn't return. It must have been a branch on the tracks. Or my imagination. It wouldn't be the first time my mind has birthed something out of fear. Or boredom.
"Yeah. I'm—I'm here, Mel."
"All right. I'll see you tomorrow."
I hang up. We don't need to say hello and we've never said goodbye. This conversation is an extension of the one started in middle school when we'd tie up the internet connection talking about boys and the depth of our feelings. No matter what, we can pick back up without ever missing a beat.
I descend the steps to the station. There is a kiosk at one end and bathrooms at the other. Straight ahead of me is a set of doors leading to the street. A few passengers go through them to meet their rides. The conductor climbs the stairs behind me and locks the exit to the tracks. Now there's only one way out. A bottleneck.
Sweat pools in the kitchen of my hair. I push my nails under the back of my wig and dig through my short, thick curls. My fingers find the hollow where my skull joins my spine. I massage it. The bruise that was once there is gone, but the tightness and tenderness remain. Instead of giving me any release, my muscles tense and wetness trickles down the back of my neck. I give my scalp one last good scratch and fix my wig.
I sit on the metal bench near the door of the station and call a cab. If I could stand being in an enclosed space with my mother for more than five minutes, I would have had her pick me up. Another reason I've spent so many years away. I need protection from every aspect of "home."
I'm here for Mel's wedding and to answer a question:
If I can't trust myself, then who?
One thing any breakup does is make you doubt every part of yourself. A bad breakup? A nasty one? The first few weeks I mismatched my shoes. The second month I skipped meals because I couldn't tell when I was hungry. After almost fumbling a major account, I had to do something. I was planning to cancel on Mel. But Mel, this wedding, and this town are the only certainties I have left in my life. The last person I trusted was Mel. The last right choice I made, beyond any doubt, was leaving this town. I'm here to confirm that. This weekend is going to be uncomfortable. Awkward. Painful. And it should be. I can't wait. Because once I remember how to trust myself, I will start to mend.
Waiting for the car, using the pad of my thumb, I search the underside of my left wrist. There, I find a thick, shiny melanin relic of my childhood trauma in the woods. The scar blanches under the pressure of my fingers. It was roughly made and badly healed. I search it for the uncomfortable spot where the nerves go awry. Depending on the day, it's either too sensitive or strikingly numb. I prefer numb.
I look out. On the wall across from me is a massive topographic map of Johnstown. Another bottleneck. Built in the bottom of a valley, layers of mountains jut out at the edges and everything spirals open from the Conemaugh River at its center. When I first saw this map in fourth grade, I said, Whose idea was it to build a town in a ditch? I can already hear my therapist wanting me to unpack that statement. What has this town ever done to me?
It's a wonder it didn't flood immediately. It did eventually. Three times. When we visited the Flood Museum in elementary school—because it was a disaster, of course there's a museum—I don't remember who, but someone (not me) asked: Where are all the Black people? My teacher, Mrs. Kohler, replied, Look at the pictures, sweetie. They weren't here yet. Like every small-town citizen in America, my teacher believed Black people were an alien anomaly in white suburban perfection. She never questioned where the photographer focused their lens or the history of this town. I should have. I didn't stay long enough to start.
The sun dips in the sky, sending the first traces of orange rays through the station window. For a sunset, it's bright and rich. I can't help but trail my fingers in the amber of it. If there's one thing you don't get in the city, it's this: unblemished nature. I push the door to the street open and step outside.
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Book Group