From debut author Sarah Goodman comes Eventide, an eerie YA historical fantasy perfect for fans of Shirley Jackson, Charlotte Brontë, and Neil Gaiman.
About the book:
Wheeler, Arkansas, 1907
When her father descends into madness, Verity Pruitt and her little sister Lilah find themselves uprooted from New York, on an orphan train to rural Arkansas.
In Wheeler, Lilah is quickly adopted by the town’s beloved schoolteacher—but Verity is not. Willing to do anything to stay close, she pawns herself off as a farmhand, but even charming farm boy Abel Atchley can’t completely distract her from the sense that something is not quite right in this little town. Strange local superstitions abound, especially about the eerie old well at the center of the forest. The woods play tricks, unleashing heavy fog and bone-chilling cold…and sometimes visions of things that aren’t there.
But for Verity, perhaps most unsettling of all is the revelation that her own parents have a scandalous history in this very town. And as she tries to unearth the past, sinister secrets come with it—secrets that someone will go to violent lengths to protect.
Here’s an exclusive FIRST LOOK at the cover for Eventide! Keep scrolling down to read a special sneak peek.
[dropcap type=”circle”]F[/dropcap]rigid wind howled across the empty fields, driving snow before it like frightened prey, rushing over sprawling farms and
huddled little towns. The storm swept past a quaint parsonage nestled beside a country church. It had no concern for the girl kneeling by the winter-seared rosebushes.
Likewise, the girl paid no heed to the storm. She carried on digging at the frozen ground until a shallow hole lay before her. Carefully, she placed a hatbox in the cold earth and stared at it as the snow frosted her lashes.
She pulled a thin necklace from under her nightgown. With shaking fingers, she undid the clasp, sliding a gold ring off the chain and into her grimy palm.
She’d kept it concealed for months. Now it would be hidden forever.
The girl lifted the lid from the box. A scrap of fabric torn from an old quilt covered what lay inside. She didn’t attempt to peek under its carefully tucked-in edges. She’d already kissed the perfect, tiny lips, memorized the shape of the closed eyes and the rose-gold of the baby’s downy hair. The ring tumbled from her hand, coming to rest on the quilt. She replaced the lid, watching the snow begin to cover the small grave.
She stood on deadened feet. Then, without a backward glance, she walked away into the storm.
Our passenger car felt cramped as a brand-new boot and roughly the temperature of Hell’s sixth circle.
The orphanage had given us each a set of clothes as a parting gift and because I was the eldest by several years, mine included an extra item: a fine hat in the latest wide-brimmed, beflowered style. I pulled it off, using it to fan my sweaty face. I doubted I’d need to look fashionable where we were headed.
Humid wind rushed through the train’s open windows. I hadn’t realized I was listening with half an ear to the scritch-scratch of a fountain pen on paper until the sound cut off and Lilah looked up from her work, a daub of ink on the end of her upturned nose. “I’ve just had the most wonderful idea for a story. I’m going to need more paper.” She gestured with her pen to the small trunk at my feet.
“Again?” With a sigh, I shifted my boots so she could fling open the lid for the dozenth time. Papers shifted and slid off her lap as she scrounged for blank pages.
“I have to write it down this instant, before I forget,” my little sister explained with an intensity only a girl of eleven could muster.
“Be careful. I don’t want Papa’s books all bent up. And get that ink off your nose.”
Scrubbing at her face with her sleeve, Lilah shoved aside the battered copies of Beckman’s Treatment in General Practice and On the Prevention of Tuberculosis before coming up with a folded ivory paper. “Can I use this?”
My acceptance letter to St. Lawrence College poked out from between her fingers. I swallowed hard, taking it from her. “Why don’t you see if there’s anything else to write on?”
While she rummaged, I looked at the stately letterhead, remembering the triumph I’d felt when I first read it. I was sure angelic choruses sang the opening line: “We are pleased to accept your application for admittance…” followed by details of the stipend I’d receive for academic merit.
All the late nights studying until my eyes burned and the candle guttered out, all the dreams of regaining our place in society—all for nothing.
Smoothing the pages, I carefully tucked the letter inside a faded book of fairy tales Mama and Papa used to read to me each evening. Nestled in bed between them, I would trace the words as they read, pretending my small fingers called the clever maidens and daring princes into being. Those days felt as distant and unreal as the magical tales that filled them.
I turned back to Lilah, who was scribbling away once again. “What’s your new story about?”
Lilah tapped her pen againstthe fresh paper resting on her knees. “A girl who goes on a voyage across an unknown sea. She ends up in a land where everything is enchanted…even the sky. And the clouds are made of cotton candy.”
I glanced around the crowded, dingy train car as we jarred along the tracks. “Why don’t you ever write about things that could actually happen in real life?”
Lilah regarded me with lively hazel eyes. “It must be awfully dull inside your head, Verity. You’ve got no imagination to speak of.”
“A vivid imagination can cause a world of trouble,” I shot back.
I couldn’t help thinking of our Papa, as he used to be. Before the line between the real and the imaginary blurred in his mind, and horrors only he could see crawled out of every nook and cranny.
I retied the ribbon at the end of Lilah’s strawberry-blonde braid. Keeping us fed and clothed while dealing with Papa’s deepening madness meant having no time for whimsy. “Don’t bite your nails. Goodness only knows how many germs are on this train. It’s a rolling petri dish.”
Lilah sighed. “You’re the bossiest sister in the world.”
“Probably,” I admitted, resting my head against the window. “But someone has to make sure we keep body and soul together.”
Through the smudged glass, fields of sun-brittled grass spread as far as I could see. Without the towering buildings of home, the sky felt too near, like a giant lid trapping the heat of the day and us with it. Sweat slipped down my temple, stinging at the corner of my eye. The racket of the other children and the insistent click-clack-thrum of the train’s wheels conspired to fray my nerves.
Wiping a damp strand of hair from my cheek, I scanned the train for Miss Pimsler. The agent from the Children’s Benevolence Society sat near the front of the car, knitting a woolen scarf, of all things.
I stood, edging up the aisle toward her, skirts swaying against my calves. The train lurched around a bend and I banged my hip against a seat. A grunt escaped before I could capture it.
Miss Pimsler looked up, her round face shining with either earnest goodwill or perspiration. She wore the self-satisfied little smile of a person who is doing good and wouldn’t mind if you noticed. “Do you need something, Verity?”
I did, in fact. But two tickets back to New York weren’t an option. “Could you tell me how long until we arrive?”
Miss Pimsler fished an enamel pendant watch from her shirtwaist. “We’ll be in Wheeler in just a few minutes.” She closed the watch with a snick. “Did you know your parents spent some time in this part of Arkansas many years ago? That’s why I decided to put you and Lilah on this train instead of one going elsewhere.”
I tilted my head in surprise. “They did?”
Miss Pimsler nodded. “I believe your mother lived here as a girl, at least for part of her childhood. Your father visited briefly, too, and spoke fondly of the place.” Curiosity fluttered through me, followed by an old familiar heartache. “Our mother died nine years ago, and Papa…” I trailed off. It went without saying he’d been in no condition to pass down family history, even before his recent commitment to the asylum.
Miss Pimsler tutted softly. “You’re an intelligent, resourceful girl, Verity. You’ll make a fine life for yourself with your new family, whoever they may be. Providence has a way of working these things out.”
I smothered a scowl. “That’s almost exactly what our Aunt Susan wrote in her letter.”
We’d never met Aunt Susan, our only known living relative, but her damning reply to my query said it was “absolutely impossible” for Lilah and me to come live with her family. The courts deemed it untenable for a girl of seventeen and her sister to be left to their own devices, so Aunt Susan’s rejection had been the last shoe dropping, booting us into the Children’s Benevolence Society Home three months ago.
“Your aunt sounds like a wise woman.” Miss Pimsler patted my arm. “We must trust things will happen as they are meant to.”
I bit my lip on a cynical retort, and moved back down the aisle. Miss Pimsler and Aunt Susan could trust in fate or destiny or starlight wishes all they wanted. I’d rely on myself.
My dreams of college had disintegrated, but in seven months I would turn eighteen. And I’d find a way to get us back to New York. There was work available for those willing to do it, as I well knew. Washing and mending had given us grocery money over the last year while I finished high school. I could take that up again, and hire on as a shop-girl in one of the downtown stores, or join the typing pool at an office.
I slipped back into the grubby seat, considering my options. Lilah had returned her papers to the trunk and sat peering out at the open fields whipping by, her expression one of hopeful anticipation. “I think it will be wonderful to have a new mother,” she said.
“Don’t say that.” My heart pinched at her casual tone. I pictured my mother, her cheeks bright with cold, laughing as the two of us skated together on the frozen pond in Central Park. “No one can replace Mama.”
Lilah’s voice dropped with an earnest ache that stole my breath. “Maybe not for you,” she whispered.
My annoyance drained, leaving only dregs of sadness. She didn’t know the Mama I’d adored. Lilah’s one and only memory of our mother was of her white face in a satin-lined casket, with our baby brother who’d outlived her by only a few hours cradled in her arms.
With a shriek of brakes, the train lurched and slowed. Ash and cinders drifted in through the window. “Children,” Miss Pimsler announced, “we’ll arrive in Wheeler soon.” The other young passengers, a couple dozen in number, turned toward the squat woman. She stood at the front of the car dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief. “Gather your luggage. Let’s all do our best to make excellent first impressions.”
I glanced down at my trunk and the two worn carpetbags that held all our worldly goods. We’d lost our home when Papa’s medical practice failed, and I’d sold everything else to pay rent on a series of wretched tenement apartments.
The other orphans—I still couldn’t believe we were counted among them— collected their scant belongings, smoothing travel-mussed hair and straightening wrinkled clothes.
I shouldered my carpetbag, handed Lilah’s to her, and tucked the trunk under my arm. We stepped into the station, where a porter materialized from the dispersing cloud of steam. “Take your trunk for you, Miss?” he asked, each vowel stretching like a lazy cat.
“No, thank you. I’ll manage.” I moved through the haze of coal smoke toward Miss Pimsler, my nerves swarming with countless worries. Everything was out of my hands now.
It was completely unacceptable.
Shuffling into a haphazard line, we set off on the short walk down a dusty trail into town. I felt my cheeks redden as I pictured how I must look, a nearly-grown girl who should’ve been allowed to manage her own affairs, forced to go begging among strangers for a place to stay.
Shaking off the dour thoughts, I surveyed the town of Wheeler as it sat baking in the fierce sun. A handful of weathered buildings bordered a central square. In its center, an imposing redbrick courthouse rose over a spreading lawn, a concrete jailhouse squatting by its side. Across the dusty street stood a white clapboard church with a steeple that pierced the clear sky.
And at the edge of the grassy court square loomed a wooden platform.
“Wonderful!” Miss Pimsler exclaimed, directing us to leave our trunks beside the church. “It’s much easier for families to choose their new children when they have a good view.”
My blood tingled with humiliation, then flashed to hot anger as we plodded up the rickety platform steps like horses at auction. We stared out over the crowd. Solemn quiet descended over the square, and those who did speak cloaked their words in whispers. Each of us on the platform was being scrutinized, our merits and flaws silently parsed. Lilah’s purposeful stride slowed. She tucked her hand in the crook of my arm.
Once we lined up along the stage, the milling townspeople ventured up the steps. A well-dressed man and woman neared. My heart thudded too hard and fast, then stuttered when they passed us by, stopping in front of a tiny redheaded girl of no more than four or five. Back at the orphanage, I’d overheard Miss Pimsler say older children were harder to place. Regardless, none of us had a say in where we ended up. If no one here wanted us, we’d be shipped off on another train to another state.
Sweat trailed between my shoulder blades, as much from nerves as the heat. I stared out across the square at a dark stand of trees in the distance, their silhouettes jagged against the painfully bright sky. A savage longing for New York—anywhere in New York, even the orphanage—throbbed in my chest. But there was no going back. Not yet, anyway.
I exhaled slowly, willing the tension out of my shoulders. My mother had lived in the area, or so Miss Pimsler said. The thought comforted me, somehow. Lilah and I would find a place for ourselves here, too, until we could go back north. “We’re going to make the best of this,” I said. Lilah nodded, her furrowed brow relaxing. “We’re together. We’ll be fine.”
My attention snagged on the shrewd stare of an older man looking up at us with narrowed eyes. Perhaps it was the bald head, or the slight underbite that gave his jaw a bulldog quality, but for whatever reason, I felt sure he was not a person to be trifled with. I swallowed against the unease climbing up my throat.
The man crossed liver-spotted hands on the brass head of his cane and shifted his scrutiny to Lilah. She slid her hand into mine.
He mounted the steps, still watching us, his cane thumping with a hollow sound. Piercing gray eyes darted from me to Lilah with an unsettling air of expectation. “I’m Mr. Reuben Lybrand. What’s your name?” He flung the question at her like a grenade.
“Lilah Pruitt.” She squared her narrow shoulders in a show of confidence, but her hand in mine trembled.
I felt an instinct to step back, tugged by an instant distrust of Mr. Lybrand. If he took a fancy to us, we’d be packed up and taken to his home like auctioned furniture from an estate sale. We had no voice in our own futures. The indignity of it burned behind my ribs.
Mr. Lybrand rapped the end of his cane against the platform and called over his shoulder into the milling crowd. “She’s over here.”
A woman lifted her head in response to his gravelly voice. My attention glided over her magnolia-trimmed hat and ivory dress, coming to rest on an elegant face and eyes the color of a midwinter sky. Despite the heat, her skin remained fair and unflushed. She drew near, wisteria perfume wafting around her slim figure. The hair peeking from under her hat—even her long lashes and finely arched brows—were of the fairest silvery blond.
“Lilah?” she asked in a lilting voice. Lilah nodded, seeming a little dazzled. The woman’s face lit with a relieved smile. She handed a sheaf of papers to the grim Mr. Lybrand. “Uncle Reuben, would you fetch Miss Pimsler, let her know we’ve found Lilah? Then you can start the car, if you don’t mind.” She returned her focus to Lilah. “Uncle and I prefer to be home before dark.”
As Mr. Lybrand left, I noticed a gentleman avert his eyes when the man went by, and I would’ve sworn a farmer in a tattered hat spit a plug of tobacco in his direction. Still, I felt much better about our prospects knowing he lived with this genteel, kind lady.
The woman continued with a delicate Southern drawl, still speaking only to Lilah. “I’m Miss Maeve Donovan. I wrote to Miss Pimsler when we heard the train was coming to Wheeler, to ask for a girl of about your age. She said a smart young lady with strawberry blonde hair named Lilah would be coming. From the way she described you, I knew you’d be just right.” Miss Maeve’s nearly colorless eyes never wavered from my sister as she spoke. “Everything is arranged. I’m here to take you home.”
A slight dizziness came over me. For a hectic moment, I feared Miss Maeve intended to take Lilah and leave me behind. But no, Miss Pimsler knew our situation. She’d never allow such a thing. I was tired and overly anxious, sensing trouble where there was none.
Lifting my chin, I reached for a serenity I didn’t feel. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Maeve. I’m Verity, Lilah’s sister.”
The woman truly looked at me for the first time. I heard her sharp intake of breath as I adjusted my hat, wiping the back of my hand over my damp forehead. I must have looked a sight.
Embarrassment darkened my cheeks. “I hope you’ll forgive the state we’re in. Once we’re settled, we’ll both perk up.” I repositioned the carpetbag on my shoulder. “Is it far to your house?”
Miss Maeve pressed her rosebud lips together and motioned to someone. Following her line of sight, I spied Miss Pimsler bustling onto the platform, smiling with horrible cheerfulness. “I’m sorry to keep you all waiting. I’ve been helping another family. There’s always so much to do…Verity, would you join me please? I’d like a word.”
Unease slithered over my skin. We moved a few paces away, but I kept an eye on Lilah, who carried on a bashful conversation with Miss Maeve.
Miss Pimsler placed a hand on my shoulder. “I would’ve liked to prepare you both, but the board of directors asks us to wait until a family is ready to take custody of the child before we explain.” She took a bracing breath. “Please understand, this is the policy of the Children’s Benevolence Society, and we stand by our rules. Like all new parents, Miss Maeve is approved to adopt one child.”
I felt myself sliding toward a precipice, clutching for anything to stop the descent. Miss Pimsler fixed me with a determined stare. At her next words, I plummeted over the edge. “She’s taking Lilah. And you won’t be going with them.”