The tree looked like it had lost a fight. A bad one—the kicking, squealing, bloody kind from the movies that played after dark. It didn’t seem like it should still be standing, but it was, clinging to the dirt with scraggly roots like fingers snapped at every joint.
A pinkish scar ran down the thickest part of the trunk, and an entire limb was missing, with just a jagged stump left over. The rest of its branches stretched out at crooked, uncomfortable angles, though together they still reached taller than the very top of our new two-story house. Its sharp shadow covered me and half the lawn and ran up the walls to the gray shingle roof.
“That’s the ugliest tree I’ve ever seen,” Finn said, flopping onto his back in the grass beside me.
A breeze rushed by and we both sighed as it cooled the sweat on our skin. It was a cloudless, angrily hot day, and we’d maybe gotten three good breezes in the entire afternoon we spent carrying all the boxes in from the moving truck. I’d been out of breath for hours.
From underneath, the tree looked unbalanced, and staring at it made me feel like I was on the edge of falling over too. “Something’s wrong with it,” I said. A little wall of stones circled the trunk: a barricade to keep something out, or maybe in.
Finn snickered. “Dare you to touch it.”
Green splotches speckled most of the bark. My ears burned, already hearing how Finn would laugh if I chickened out. I wiped my clammy palms on my shorts and reached for the tree.
Just before my hand could touch the trunk, Finn kicked the back of my leg. I folded over forward, arms pinwheeling. My cheek scraped the knobbly bark as I hugged the trunk for balance. When my breath caught up to me, I yelped and peeled myself away. The green spots stuck to my skin. I choked back a gag.
Eventually Finn stood and brushed his palm over the same spot. “Weird,” he scoffed, grimacing, then wiped his hand down the back of my shirt.
“Finneas, Rory, come inside,” Mom yelled from the doorway, her dark brown arms glistening and folded tight against her chest. She was too late to notice anything, like always. “First one in picks their room!”
Finn made it up the drooping porch steps in a blur, while I couldn’t move an inch. My skin felt wrong, dry and slick at the same time. I double- and triple-checked, but even though there weren’t any bugs, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of something crawling on me.
Stiff at the joints like one of my dolls waiting to be unpacked, I walked silently inside, and didn’t look back.
I shivered all through my first shower in the new house. The water that puddled under my feet ran a pale, sickly green.
Finn picked the bigger room, so I got the one at the front of the house, with a wide window looking right out at the yard. As I stuffed my drawers full of clothes, the tree’s branches swayed at the edges of my vision. I didn’t have curtains to close yet.
It was terrible, the same kind of terrible as when Finn put on that Blair Witch movie when Mom and Dad were out one night. I couldn’t stop watching.
But this time was different. Worse. I felt it watching me back.
That night the tree came for me.
I woke up to its shadow stretched across my bed like a giant hand. I screamed, scrambling out of my blankets and up against the wall. But there was nowhere to go. The branches snatched at my feet.
Mom slammed open my door, and by the time I’d blinked the shadows had let go. In the dim light, the bags under her eyes looked like deep holes. She must’ve been awake already to have come running so quick. The silk scarf around her hair shimmered with moonlight as she sat beside me and took my face in her hands. Fear kept me pinned flat to the wall.
“I knew it, I knew it was bad.” My mouth was dry, like I’d been talking in my sleep again.
“Oh, honey,” Mom whispered, trying to wrap me in a hug. She smoothed her cold fingers over the hand-me-down scarf around my own hair. “It was just a nightmare. You’re not used to the house yet.”
Maybe she was right. But it wasn’t the house that tried to take me.
After I quieted down, Mom kissed me on both cheeks and slipped out of the room.
I moved my bed that night, slowly, quietly, and with nobody’s help. I pushed until my arms ached and the side pressed flat against the opposite wall, farthest from the window. But I didn’t sleep.
Every night since then, I’d woken up to see that crooked shadow creeping across the floor toward me. I felt it watching, waiting for something too awful to name. Something cold like Dad’s eyes and dark like Mom’s, awful like the glares they shared from across the dinner table or in the front seats of the car when they thought Finn and I couldn’t see. But we always saw. And now, it saw too.
We moved in on the last day of June. By the middle of July I knew the tree was haunted. Knew it deep down in the dark place in my belly where every ugly feeling lived.
But knowing wasn’t going to be enough.
After a month, we stopped at the library to get our cards. At the front desk, a wrinkled white woman in too-bright lipstick took down our information, asking enough questions to make my head spin. When Mom mentioned the house and Dad’s job that made us move, the lady’s eyes lit up. She nodded like she knew all about it, like building and tearing things down was a big deal.
Eventually I stopped listening and walked up and down the aisles of books, trailing my fingers over the different lumpy spines. The old ones were the best, always so soft.
I circled around one shelf and almost bumped into a tall goth girl with box braids and rings on every finger. Her name tag said Mallory.
“Are those heavy?” I asked. She must have had strong hands.
She narrowed her eyes, ringed with smudged black pencil. Maybe she was training for some kind of hand weight-lifting contest. Maybe that was what people did for fun in big empty towns with no sidewalks, where random librarians knew who your dad was because there’s only one construction company for miles.
I took a deep breath. “Do you have books about trees?”
She cocked her hip, smacking the cart of books beside her. It rattled like it was a hundred years old. “Um, yeah,” she said. “They’re right over—”
“What about haunted trees?” The words came out like a scream even though I tried to whisper them. No matter what you did in libraries, it always sounded too loud.
Mallory stared, and my ears got so hot I thought they would melt down the sides of my head like candle wax. But she didn’t make a face, or call me weird—she smiled, and said, “Yeah. We have some books like that. Follow me.”
Mallory looked like people asked her weird things a lot.
When I came back, Mom was still talking to the woman at the front desk, her lips twitching to stay stretched in their friendly smile. Finn looked bored enough to fall asleep right on the vomit-colored carpet.
“Well now, you’ve been busy,” the woman said when I handed over the stack of books. Her eyes flicked over them, then up at Mom.
Mom stared too, but I could tell she didn’t want to seem embarrassed in front of this librarian who apparently knew all about us, because she nodded and said, “Oh, yes. Rory has a very mature taste in books. She loves to read.”
The woman smiled back. She had lipstick on her teeth. “Of course,” she said, and scanned all the books, passing each one to me afterward.
I grinned the whole way back to the car, my arms shaking under the books’ weight. On the ride home, Finn read the titles out over my shoulder. The Willows. The Ritual. The Pines. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The Hazel Wood.
With each one, his voice got more and more of that nasally tone he always used whenever he called me weird, though I knew he wouldn’t say it in front of Mom. He’d do it once we were home, when Mom and Dad argued or worked or went out on one of their “dates.” But I didn’t care.
For the first time in weeks, I felt something like safe.
I looked up from The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and out over the porch when I saw it. A spot, not quite white, standing out against the dirt under the tree. I blinked. The tree creaked.
Five minutes later it was still there. I kept reading the same sentence again and again, but none of the words sunk in. Every time I glanced up at the tree, that odd little speck stared back.
It’s for me.
As soon as I thought it, the dark place in my belly roared and a surge of nausea bowled me over. I closed the book.
It took me five more minutes to shuffle off the porch and slink through the dry grass of the yard. The yellowing blades tickled my ankles.
A tiny figurine sat nestled between the knobs of the tree’s trunk. Without breathing I reached over the stone wall and snatched it up.
It just barely fit in the palm of my hand. The longer I traced its slight curves with my fingertips, the more familiar it felt: handmade, like my dolls. Not totally smooth but not sloppy either. I couldn’t tell if it had been painted at some point, or if it was just dirty.
Something creaked again. I looked up. A big black crow perched on one of the branches. Another joined it, and another, until there were no empty branches left. They cawed to each other in secret, sharp voices. The kind Mom and Dad used when they fought after Finneas and I were supposed to be in bed.
All at once, the crows flapped into the air and dove at me.
I screamed, dropping to the ground and covering my head until the noise stopped. When I opened my eyes, it was just me and the tree again.
I glared, itchy all over, but not from the grass. Dad liked to say that if you didn’t stand up to bullies, you let them win. Of course, when you were the smaller one, it wasn’t that easy. But I doubt Dad had ever been the smaller one in a fight.
“Leave me alone,” I said, pushing myself up and brushing off my legs. “I’m not afraid of you.” Could haunted things tell if you lied to them, like parents could? I hoped not.
The tree swayed. A crow squawked in the sky.
I wrapped both hands around the little statue and ran inside.
“Maybe it’s a charm. Or one of those Catholic saint statues?” Mom said at the other end of the dinner table, holding the figurine between two fingers.
“Hmm. Looks like a chess piece to me. Where did you find it?” Dad asked.
“Under the tree. It wasn’t there yesterday.”
“Maybe the previous owners buried it. It could be an antique,” said Mom.
I stabbed a pea with my fork and it broke open with a wet pop. “Can we cut it down?”
“Cut it down? Of course not! It’s a beautiful tree,” Dad’s furry blond eyebrows lowered over his eyes. “Trees are good things, Rory. They help us breathe, you know.”
“I know. What about all the trees you cut down for work?”
Dad’s fork wavered on the way to his mouth. “What about them?”
“Aren’t they beautiful too?”
Mom’s knife screeched across her plate.
“It would crash right into my room if it fell. It’s big enough,” I said. “Trees fall all the time.”
“And since when did you become an arborist?” asked Dad. Redness had started to bloom on his freckled cheeks, and I knew better than to keep pressing.
I took a sip of water. My hand shook around the glass. “I’ve been reading a lot.”
Mom passed the carved figure back over to me. “You and that tree are just going to have to learn to get along, Rory.” Her voice was sludgy like the gravy oozing over her plate.
She’d said the exact same thing about me and Finn. And he’d been kicking me under the table since I was big enough to sit in a chair.
Out of the dining room window, though the sun had set, I could still make out the black shape of the trunk. It always looked angrier in the dark.
That night, I put the figurine on the shelf with all my dolls, right in the center. I kept my curtains open.
I dreamt of axes.
I woke up standing under the tree in almost pitch darkness. The wind rushed like tidal waves in my ears. The statue was back in the circle of stones. I tried to yell, but my voice sounded washed away. My teeth chattered so hard they ached. The tree’s bony limbs rocked heavily back and forth.
I’m not afraid of you. I’m not afraid of you, I thought. Maybe, if I told myself enough, it would start to be true.
I reached for the statue, but strong arms wrapped around my shoulders.
“Rory—what the hell—what are you doing out here? It’s the middle of the night! There’s a storm coming!” It was Dad’s voice, but I didn’t see him, I just kept reaching. He threw me up over his shoulder and stomped across the lawn. I kicked and squirmed all the way back to the house.
The door slammed shut, but I didn’t feel safe. Not anymore.
Dad let me down; I landed funny on one ankle and yelped. For a minute he didn’t say anything, just huffed in the skewed half-light of the hall. The shadows warped his face into a frowning mask, his white skin turned so pasty he looked dead.
“You get back to bed, Rory.”
Now I couldn’t keep the words down. “But—the tree—it took—”
I shut up, and hobbled upstairs.
I sat awake for the rest of the night. The tree waved as the rain came down, the lightning making it glow like a hand with all the skin shredded off.
I returned the books. In the library, Mallory was reading a story to some kids in a corner painted too bright to look at for long. She stood out against the walls, her black lipstick almost the same shade as her skin. I sat down and watched through squinted eyes.
She waved around her ringed hands and did voices for every character. All the words sounded bright and true when she read them.
I almost dozed off in my chair, but sat up when I heard the clacking of the buckles on Mallory’s boots come closer. Her braids, too many to count, fell in shimmering sweeps across her shoulders as she passed.
“Hey,” she said, waving.
“Those books didn’t work.”
Mallory stopped, and turned back to me. I kept my eyes on her shiny boots, worried I’d start tearing up. “What do you mean they didn’t work?”
“I read them and they didn’t do anything. They didn’t help at all.” I fought back a yawn. I hadn’t slept through the night in weeks. “It’s only getting worse.”
She walked over slowly; I could hear the deep frown in her voice. “What’s getting worse?”
I shrugged. “Everything.”
Around us, the library seemed even quieter than usual. Eerie and empty and a little too cold.
“Hey,” Mallory said in a low murmur, “follow me.”
“Just—come on.” She glanced around, then marched off through the shelves and toward the back of the library. My head spun as I stood, but I caught up with her.
Somehow, Mallory walked the same way she read stories. Not like a contest to prove she was good at it, but like it mattered.
When we reached the wall, she opened a tall gray door and waved me in. Inside was a little room with plush leather chairs, a table, and the tiniest refrigerator I’d ever seen. She opened it and took out a plastic baggie.
“You like carrots?”
“Sweet.” She sat down on one of the chairs and opened the bag. “Go ahead.” She pointed to the chair next to her. I sat. She handed me a tiny carrot stick. It was cold and damp.
“Thanks.” I popped the whole thing into my mouth and chewed.
“So why do you need books on haunted trees?”
The carrot got stuck in my throat on the way down. Mallory noticed, because in the next second she reached back into the refrigerator and pulled out a water bottle, also tiny. I took a few sips. The water slithered down into my belly with all the other cold things. “Promise you won’t laugh? Or—call me weird?”
“Promise. Plus, I like weird.” She wiggled her fingers. “Weird is cool.”
Weird is cool.
So I told her about the tree, and my dreams, and the figurine, and everything.
When I was done, Mallory balled up the plastic baggie and threw it into a garbage can across the room. I forced down the last carrot. At least Mom couldn’t be mad that I spoiled my dinner if it was with vegetables.
“Why do you think it’s the tree?” she asked finally. She’d been quiet, fiddling with her rings for so long I couldn’t tell if she planned to say anything at all. “I’ve never heard of a haunted tree before, but I’ve heard of a lot of haunted houses.”
I took another long drink of water, remembering the shadows, and the itchiness on my skin, and that awful, teetering feeling. “I have a brother. I know what it feels like when someone’s trying to torment me.” That’s what Mom called it sometimes, when Finn did his worst. But Finn always got bored eventually.
I didn’t even want to think about where this might end, what would happen when I was finally too tired to fight it. “It won’t leave me alone. It even made me sleepwalk after I took that doll.”
“Why show you the doll at all, then? Maybe it wanted you to have it.”
“It made me give it back.”
“Or something else did.” She looked up, eyes bright but far away. “What’s your new house like?”
“I don’t know—old. What does it matter? It’s the tree that’s bad, not the house. You’re not listening.”
Mallory hunched over her knees and squinted. “Wait—hold on. Let me think. It just doesn’t add up.”
My whole face burned. I stood. “I have to go.”
I pushed the door open and ran, past all the books and out the front of the library. I sat on a bench and waited for Mom to come back from her errands. By the time she pulled up to the curb, I had finished crying, and Mallory hadn’t come looking for me.
That night I listened to Mom and Dad shouting through the floor, my ear pressed flat against the wood. They weren’t even trying to be quiet this time.
When I crossed the hall to go to the bathroom, Finn stood on the landing, his hands shaking around the bars of the railing. The angry lines of his face stood out even in the dark. He had a funny look in his eyes, almost like the one he usually gave me before doing something he knew he wasn’t allowed to, just to see what would happen.
The muscles in his arms clenched and unclenched; white spots bloomed and faded on his knuckles. I watched for a while, and then I figured it out. He was thinking about jumping off.
I shivered all over, and one of the old floorboards creaked under me. Finn whipped around, then bolted back into his room and slammed the door. The frame rattled like an earthquake had rolled through.
The voices downstairs finally stopped.
A letter came from Mallory a few days later.
“Hey. I’m sorry about the other day.
Linda at the front desk told me you’re the ones that moved into the Lark house. I had no idea. I’ve been trying to get the mayor to tear that place down for a year, but he calls it historic.
The Larks built that house back around the Civil War. They were slave owners, as bad as it gets. And that tree has been around since before anyone ever built on the land. It’s probably older than the whole town.
Listen. It’s not that tree you need to worry about. I don’t think nature can be bad like that. I think those bad feelings you have are from the house. It shouldn’t even be on the map, let alone have that family’s name still attached to it.
I’m sorry for not listening before. I don’t know if you have a phone but I wrote down my number just in case. Come by the library anytime if you want to talk. I can show you some more books you might like.
My stomach twisted in knots.
Dad must have known about the Larks when he bought the house. He was the boss of his company, which meant he was important, and important people had to know important things like that. But Mom—who looked like she was getting even less sleep than me—would never have agreed to let us move here if she knew the whole story. Dread and anger buzzed through my spine, and I wanted to crush the paper in my hands.
An old picture was folded into the envelope along with the letter. It was of the house, with the tree a familiar sharp jumble in the foreground. A white family stood in front of it: a husband and wife, and three kids sitting lined up on one of the low branches.
I peeked out the window. That branch was missing now.
The next day I found one of my dolls in pieces on my bedroom floor.
I cut my fingers trying to pick up the shards of its body, too stunned to cry. It was the one Mom had gotten made to look just like me for my thirteenth birthday. She’d said it would be my last one, since I wasn’t a little girl anymore.
I held its bristly mop of hair to my chest, glaring out the window, and finally cried harder than I had in weeks.
Finn got the worst scolding of his life that night. He said again and again that he didn’t do it, and I did too, when I could talk again.
Dad ignored us both. Mom hugged me in my room after sweeping up the pieces and said I shouldn’t try to keep Finn out of trouble just because I felt bad.
“But it’s not his fault,” I croaked.
“I know,” Mom said. She held me tighter, and we both tried not to hear the yelling from downstairs.
The next time I dreamed, I dreamed of my room.
Everything moved like wet paint, all sloppy and blue. I nudged the window open. The breeze brushed over me, cool and quiet, too calm to be real while I was still so twisted up inside.
Deep breaths. In, out.
If I could just breathe more of it in, maybe it would help. I stuck out my head, but it still wasn’t enough, so I climbed out onto the windowsill. I balanced my feet on it and leaned my whole body out, clutching the inside of the glass.
I stretched one of my arms out, and the wind whistled between my fingers and over my skin like a ghost’s breath. My T-shirt whipped against my stomach. I breathed in as deep as I could, but only felt emptier.
The tree watched me from the middle of the yard, brighter than the big half-moon up in the sky. It rocked in the wind like it was trying to climb out of the ground.
Cold fingers wriggled under my own and loosened my grip. I slipped in slow motion, turning back to the window, expecting to find Finn’s sneering face behind the glass before I cried myself awake.
There was no one there but my own screaming reflection.
I blinked at the grass, the scream still raw in my throat. My arms dangled below me, reaching, but not touching the ground. All I heard was my thrashing heart.
My head felt like a balloon about to pop. The longer I stared at the blurry grass, the more nauseous I felt, so I pressed my chin down against my collarbone, and saw the sky.
Crooked branches had my ankles in a vice grip. I followed them with my eyes, and even though everything was topsy-turvy and my vision was fuzzy from all the blood pooling down, I saw the tree.
A web of roots had burst partly out of the dirt. The rest of it was in a tangled slant, reaching across the yard to my open bedroom window.
If I was right-side-up, I would have screamed some more, I thought. Or thrown up. But then the tree lurched, its limbs groaning low, and I watched our shadows fly together across the lawn. There was nothing to hold on to.
I whimpered in a paper-thin voice, “Don’t let go, don’t let go, please—”
More creaks, and the ground closed in, until my palms pressed flat against dirt. The branches unhooked, leaving me in a handstand, before I fell in a heap in the circle of stones. All the blood rushed back through me.
Instead of getting sick, I flopped on my side against the tree’s gnarled trunk and fainted.
“What did you do?”
I woke up to Finn kneeling over me, his face like a crumpled piece of paper.
“What did you do?” he repeated. The sun was just barely rising over his shoulder, outlining his hair in a fiery halo. I blinked and sat up.
The dull figurine fell out of my hands.
I ignored Finn, and twisted around to look at the tree. The ground by its trunk was lumpy; some of its roots still peeked out of the dirt.
When I turned back, Finn wiped at his eyes with the side of one tight fist. “Get back inside, Rory. Before Mom and Dad find you.”
I swallowed down a hard lump. “Something’s wrong.”
“I know.” He grabbed handfuls of my shirt and started to heave me up, but I put my hands over his and planted my feet down hard. He’d have to drag me or listen.
“No.” I shook my head. “I mean here. It’s worse now. It’s not just us.”
“Rory, come on.”
My toes dug into the dirt, fighting his weight. “I know you know it too. It’s—weird, right?”
“Making up stories won’t make it go away.”
“Neither will hurting yourself. Or thinking about it.”
Finn grimaced like I’d slapped him. He shoved me back. I stumbled into the tree, and a section of its bark flaked off with a soft crunch. “What’s wrong with you? I’m not the one who just jumped out of my window!”
“It wasn’t me!” I answered in a whisper-shout. “It wasn’t my idea. Just like it wasn’t you who broke my doll.”
He didn’t say anything for a minute, but stood far away from me, his eyes fixed on the dirt.
“Why can’t you just deal with things in the real world, like everybody else?”
My throat burned. “I am. It’s not my fault no one will listen.” Tears bubbled up in me, and my lower lip trembled. “I bet even if nothing caught me when I jumped you still wouldn’t believe me. You just want to be angry. But we have to do something.”
Finn kept looking down, blinking again and again. “We can’t, Rory,” he mumbled. “It’s already over.”
I pressed my hand to the trunk, fingers grazing the green puzzle-piece shapes on its bark. In the sunrise, we had the same warm brown skin. “No—we can’t. But it can. It has been, for a long time, I think.”
His brows came down over his eyes. He shook his head. “That’s just a tree. It can’t help us! It can’t change anything!”
He didn’t know that it had just saved my life.
“Nothing here is just anything. It’s not just a tree. And that’s not just a house. And we’re not just a normal, happy family.” I sucked in a thin breath. “Don’t bother trying to lie to me about that.”
Finn shook his head again, slower this time, and in the light his eyes were wet and shiny too. “Mom and Dad are getting a divorce.”
I breathed but the air didn’t come. It stopped somewhere in my throat and dug in all its claws.
“I saw the papers in their room.” He reached for me, but I shook him off. “It’s already done, Rory.”
“Shut up. Stop lying.” The tears dribbled down and wouldn’t stop.
He reached again, and this time grabbed me by the shoulders. I tried to move out of the way but stumbled on a root and tripped into his chest. I wrapped my arms around his middle for balance and hung on. His heartbeat boomed like a thunderstorm.
“Let’s go inside,” Finn said. I barely heard him. I nodded against his shirt.
But we didn’t go. We just held on.
I slept cradling the little statue, with not a single nightmare. By the time I woke up again it was past noon and Mom and Dad were gone. I pawed through every drawer I could find but there were no divorce papers anywhere. Finn wouldn’t come out of his room.
In the kitchen, I pulled out Mallory’s letter and dialed the number. Thunder rumbled outside, shaking the window frames.
A staticky voice answered, “Hello?”
There was a long pause. “Rory?”
“Hey.” I heard shuffling in the background. “How are you? Is everything okay?”
I tangled my fingers in the curly phone wire and paced, following the loops of the wood boards in the floor. I wondered how many trees had died to make them. “I think you were right. Something happened. With the tree—and the house.”
Rain pelted the windows.
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I sleepwalked again. Or…sleep-jumped. Out of my window.”
The garbled static swallowed most of Mallory’s swear.
“Rory, listen to me,” she said. “It’s not safe in that house.”
“I’m okay now, really,” I tried to talk louder over the noise. “The tree saved me.”
I pressed the phone harder against my ear. Thunder boomed again, and the lights flickered. “Mallory? Are you there?”
A short burst of broken syllables came through the receiver, then the line went dead.
I dropped the phone back into its cradle on the wall. Above my head, the floor shook.
“Finn?” No answer.
I plodded up the stairs. Down the hall, framed in the window of my room, Finn stood in shadow. I ran in, my heart ricocheting around in my chest.
As soon as I stepped inside, the shape of him melted into the floor. The door slammed shut behind me before I’d finished gasping.
I screamed. First for nothing, then for Finn. The doorknob wouldn’t budge.
“Rory?” his muffled voice answered after a few seconds. Then again, closer, “Rory, what’s going on?”
I banged my fists on the painted wood. “It won’t open!” He didn’t reply, but the door rattled some more. I tried the window next, but it stayed down like it’d been glued shut. Outside, the tree’s branches bent wildly in the wind. Its roots inched further out of the ground with every gust.
All the lights flickered out. Finn’s footsteps moved away into silence, then came back after what felt like hours.
“Rory, all the doors and windows are locked. I can’t open them. The phone doesn’t work,” he cried, beating harder on the door.
I flattened myself against the wall just as my shelf tipped over. It hit the ground with a hundred tiny crashes.
I couldn’t scream anymore, could barely breathe. I watched the tree outside the window, my eyes burning and watering from trying not to blink. The world blurred into nothing but a gray soup, the clouds so dark it could’ve been dusk.
Glass shattered downstairs.
I gasped, and blinked stinging tears down my cheeks. Then I could make out the silvery car-shape parked diagonally in our driveway, its door flung open and headlights cutting yellow streaks across the lawn.
Mallory’s voice broke through the storm’s ruckus. She shouted my name, clear and blaring. It was her storytelling voice.
For a second I thought it was just another trick. Then she hollered from right outside, with Finn an echo behind her, “Rory, get away from the door.”
I slid my feet along the floor, pushing aside pieces of my dolls’ porcelain faces. The figurine was lost in the puzzle of their splintered parts. “Okay,” I called back.
Lightning painted the whole world white.
Thunder rattled again and again, so loud I thought the house was exploding, but then my door cracked off its hinges, and Mallory’s tall dark shape rushed in.
She crushed me in a hug, and I finally breathed again. She smelled like coffee and books, the old, soft kind. The best kind. Finn grabbed my arm like he meant to break it, though his hands trembled.
“Everybody out, now.” Mallory grabbed my other arm, and we all bolted across the landing. Halfway down the stairs I stumbled and my ankle screamed with pain. Before I missed a beat, Finn threw my arm over his shoulder and helped me the rest of the way down, though his face was twisted up in pain. When we reached the bottom, he limped too.
The big window in the dining room was broken open.
Mallory kicked aside shards of glass, and smoothed her leather jacket over the window sill. Blood dripped down one leg of her torn jeans. She half-shoved, half-lifted me out onto the porch. Finn tumbled out next. Mallory climbed through and crouched beside us when lightning struck the tree.
The ground really did shake then, and the bottom of the trunk crackled, splintered, and exploded into bright slivers.
We all watched and felt the rumble fade. But the splintering sound didn’t stop. The tree teetered for a second, then tipped.
Mallory grabbed Finn and me by our closest limbs and scrambled off the porch. Gravel slashed my feet as we hit the driveway. I whined with each step, still watching as the tree lurched parallel to us, and crashed through the middle of the roof. Right into my bedroom.
“Holy shit,” Mallory coughed, still clutching us both. A wave of relief cooled her voice.
Rain soaked me through, cold, like the summer was finally gone. I swiped the sopping hair from my eyes.
The bottom of the trunk sputtered and smoked, a gaping hole in its side.
With its beams jutting out like broken and crushed bones, our house groaned around its wound—a long, final sigh.