384pp, Trade Paperback, £12.99
Mass market paperback available March 2014 £7.99
Holly Goddard Jones and her debut have drawn excellent critical praise: ‘So rich in character... An immensely satisfying and skillful debut novel,’ said Kate Atkinson; ‘Uniquely talented,’ said George Pelecanos. bookoxygen has 10 copies of this intriguing new crime novel to give away to the first readers to contact us.
Meanwhile, read on for a sample of Holly Goddard Jones’s gripping storytelling.
Emily Houchens watched as Christopher Shelton, who sat in a desk two rows up and one over from her own, leaned back and smoothly slid his notebook over his shoulder, so that the boy sitting behind him could read what was written there. This second boy, Monty, began to quake with suppressed laughter. The notebook retracted; an open hand took its place, waiting expectantly, and Monty softly gave him five: Good one. Mrs. Mitchell, who was pacing in her predictable way up and down the aisles while the students worked, had missed the whole exchange, and Emily tucked her chin into her chest to hide the smile on her face. Christopher had the easy luck of an action hero in a movie. Things always worked out for him.
“Five more minutes,” Mrs. Mitchell announced, and Emily dragged her attention back to the sheet of paper on her desktop and the meager lines she had written in response to the prompt. It was a Friday, the day their English class focused on test-taking strategies, which everyone hated—even Mrs. Mitchell, Emily suspected. The prompt read:
Painters, like writers, use images, tone, and even characters to convey a theme or emotion in their work.
a. Select an important emotion or image communicated in the novel A separate Peace.
b. Imagine how a painter might render this same emotion or image on a canvas. Describe this imagined painting, detailing how and why this emotion or symbol is conveyed by choices related to space, color, texture, and shape.
“It’s all bullshit,” she had heard Christopher tell his friends at lunch one day. She had taken her usual seat—not at the popular table but at one nearby, where she could eat with her back to the group and listen, unbothered and unnoticed, to its conversation. Lunch immediately followed English, and so the subject of Christopher’s diatribes was often Mrs. Mitchell, perhaps the only teacher in the seventh- and eighth-grade wings who seemed unimpressed by the charming, hand- some boy who’d moved toRoma,Kentucky, last year fromMichigan. “I never got a b inAnn Arbor. And that was Ann Arbor. How can some English teacher from the boonies give me a b? You don’t even speak English here.”
The kids at the table had laughed agreeably.
Now, as Mrs. Mitchell resumed her place at the front of the class- room, Emily brought her paragraph to a hasty conclusion and set her pencil down. Her underarms prickled with heat, and a lump of anxiety formed in her throat. Stupid, stupid to let herself get distracted again by Christopher. The open-response questions were for a grade.
“Cross your t’s and dot your i’s,” Mrs. Mitchell said. The chairs squeaked as students shifted, and there was a chorus of sighs. “Let’s read some of these aloud today and discuss them. Can I get a volunteer?”
Emily let her hair hang over her face. Not me, not me, not me, she willed.
She heard snickering and peeked through her bangs. Monty was poking Christopher between the shoulder blades with the eraser end of his pencil, and Christopher jerked in his seat. His hand shot up. Mrs. Mitchell looked at him warily. “Yes, Christopher?”
“I’ll read mine,” he said, shooting a satisfied glance back at Monty, who put his head down on the desktop as if a game of seven-up had started. Emily could hear him wheezing with laughter.
“Go ahead,” said Mrs. Mitchell.
Christopher stood and held his notebook in front of him like an orator. “In A Separate Peace, Finny decides to wear a pink shirt. Some say this is an expression of individuality but I see it as a sign that he is gay. Pink shirt equals gay. Also the name Finny: very gay. So my painter would paint a picture of a gay man in a pink shirt symbolizing one hundred percent gay.”
There was a stunned silence. The students exchanged glances, delighted and disbelieving, then shifted their attention back to Mrs. Mitchell, primed for the inevitable explosion. Her face had gotten very red, as it always did when she was flustered, and her hands were shaking. Emily ached with secondhand embarrassment.
“Go to the back of the room and take a seat,” Mrs. Mitchell said in a quavering voice. “Stay there. Don’t leave when the bell rings.”
Christopher’s neck glowed suddenly with its own bright heat, and he moved as if to hunch down and grab his books from beneath his desk.
“Go on,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “Leave your books.”
“Ok. God,” he said. He made a jaunty about-face, mouth set in a smirk, and stuck his fingers into the front pockets of his jeans, so that his thumbs rested easily on his narrow hipbones. He sauntered down the aisle between his row and Emily’s, and she couldn’t help but watch him. His skin, which hadn’t yet lost its summer color, was golden against the white cuffs of his oxford shirt, and a lock of his thick, dark brown hair hung over his eye, so that he had to cock his head to shake it out of his vision. He had always been kind to her— that is, unlike others in their grade, he had never been cruel to her. They’d shared a table for a semester in seventh-grade science class, both of them smart enough and serious enough to complete Mr. Wieland’s assignments successfully, with time left over for catching up on homework due in the next period. He’d even helped her with her science project, “The effects of ultraviolet light on Tadpoles,” staying after class with her a few times to look at the tadpoles getting exposed to the UV lamp, cracking jokes about tadpole fricassee and tadpoles with suntans, helping her sprinkle fish food into the water and take notes in her logbook. She ended up winning second place at the regional science fair.
His eyes were bright blue. She had never seen such blue eyes.
He stopped by her desk, the little smile still playing on his lips, and leaned toward her. Her heart skittered, and her mouth got very dry. She tried to wet her lips, but her tongue had gone numb and stupid, and she prayed that she would be able to speak back if he spoke to her, that she would say the right thing.
“Stop staring at me, creep,” he whispered, but not so low that the students close by them failed to hear it. There was more muted laughter.
“What was that?” Mrs. Mitchell called from the front of the room.
“Nothing,” Christopher said innocently.
The tears started to spill before she could stop them. She put her head down as Monty had before, wiping her eyes on her forearms. Not real. This isn’t happening.
He plopped down in the desk behind her and shoved his feet roughly into the storage cubby under her seat.
“You can all use the rest of the class as a study hall,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “Anyone who makes a peep will be joining Christopher after class on a trip to Mr. Burton’s office. Got it?”
A few heads nodded.
Mrs. Mitchell put a hand unconsciously to her cheek, which was still blotchy with color. “Pass in your papers.”
Emily ripped the sheet with her response on it out of her notebook and held it out tentatively, so that it just grazed Missy Hildabrand’s shoulder in front of her. Missy grabbed it, huffing as if Emily were always passing her papers, so many papers that she couldn’t get a thing done.
Christopher murmured in the rustling, so softly that only Emily heard him this time: “crybaby. Go home and cry some more, crybaby.”
That day—the day she would find the body—was October 28, 1993. It had long been Emily’s habit to go on solitary walks in an undeveloped area near her family’s subdivision; she thought of this area as the woods, but it was little more than a tangle of trees and construction runoff stretching like a cocked thumb between neighborhoods, a place where gravel roads started and mysteriously stopped and concrete slab foundations had lain dormant for coming up on a decade. A ghost town, but for a place that had never even come to exist. Emily couldn’t remember it any other way, and she had rarely seen another soul on her walks, though the paths she followed were old and well worn.
After getting off the school bus, she went home only long enough to stow her backpack in her bedroom and greet her older brother, Billy, who rode the short bus and always arrived sooner than her. “Off to Tasha’s,” she called to her mother, the necessary lie, and managed to slip out the back door unseen. Otherwise, her mother would want to know why her eyes were so red and swollen. You’re not coming down sick, are you?
On Washington lane, Mr. Powell was changing the oil on his car. He had straddled the wheels across the ditch in his front yard so that he’d have more room to slide under, and he pulled himself to a stand as Emily passed, mopping his face with a dirty shop cloth and adjusting his ball cap. He worked at the electric motor factory with Emily’s father.
“Hidey,” he said. He waved.
Emily lifted her hand and hurried past.
Her journey always took her to the end of Washington lane, which her mother called “the dead-end street” with such formality that Emily had thought this was its name until she’d learned to read. Where the road stopped she had to navigate a small runner of space between two chain-link fences, the one to her right penning in the Calahans’ mutt, a big, bad-tempered dog that looked like some kind of pit bull mix and always charged her as soon as he caught her scent. Today as always, the dog followed the length of the fence, snarling until his mouth foamed, docked tail pulled down tightly and whipping back and forth with a deceptive cheeriness. Emily hated the animal. But the dead-end street was her closest path to the woods, and circumventing the dog struck her as an important part of the ritual, as though she were required to prove her worth each time she passed from the world she knew into the world she’d created for herself.
And the reward, always, was the immediate transition from frenzy to quiet. The dog was only interested in Emily as long as he could see her, so when she reached the trail opening and disappeared behind a row of trees, the barking stopped almost at once, leaving in its stead a silence so near perfect that Emily’s eardrums hummed. Here she paused and closed her eyes, marveling at the unnatural warmth of the October day. She was searching for words, for an image so bright and true that she could build a story upon it. This was how her private games of make-believe began.
The subject of much of her make-believe was Christopher Shelton. In the woods, it was he she imagined by her side, holding her hand, steadying her when she walked across logs or rocks; Christopher who listened to her talk about her day and told her not to worry about Leanna Burke or Maggie Stevenson, those popular girls who knew only how to tease and shun; Christopher who leaned in some- times to kiss her, the touch so real that she could feel the texture of his lips (they had looked a bit chapped at school that day) and the cool burn of his peppermint gum. The Christopher she brought with her down Washington lane and past the Calahans’ dog was more real to her than the boy who had teased her today in Mrs. Mitchell’s English class, and it never once occurred to her to amend her make- believe, to find another object for her interest.
Despite the unseasonable heat, it was late enough in the year that the air didn’t hum with cicadas and birdsong, and the trees were in their last stages of shedding the summer’s leaves, a few bright stragglers fluttering in the breeze like pennants. Emily followed her familiar path, the one she had spent years rutting, feeling freer and more herself with every step. In the summer, when the temperature sometimes broke 100 degrees and the humidity settled like a damp, napping beast in the valley of town, Emily found her gaze drawn close and downward, to the strange little universes tucked under rocks or in puddles of rainwater. She had started a rock collection, though the pickings here were limited: shale, limestone, sandstone, the occasional chunk of flint. Once she had found a jagged piece of drywall, puzzled over it, then dropped it back into the creek bed. She was more likely to happen across a rusty nail in these woods than an arrowhead.
But autumn was a good time for exploring, the poison ivy and sumac and the clouds of midges dead and disappeared, the way ahead clearer, the sun bright and reassuring overhead, confirming for Emily that she was headed consistently eastward. She knew that the woods were narrowest to the east and west, and she could keep moving in a straight line and eventually resurface on Grant road, where they were finishing work on the new rich-person development. Bankers and doctors and lawyers, oh my, her dad would chant, tediously, every time they drove past it. She had walked to the construction site a few times to pick through the detritus and gotten hollered at during her last visit, when someone saw her using a cast-off two-by-four as a tightrope between cinder blocks. She wasn’t used to being noticed by adults, much less chastised, and so she had run off and not been back since.