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Everything about Jessie Gillmansen's life changed when her mother died. Now even her hometown of Junction is changing. Mysterious dark things are happening. All Jessie wants is to avoid more change. But showing a hot new guy around Junction High, she's about to discover a whole new type of change. Pietr Rusakova is more than good looks and a fascinating accent―he's a guy with a dangerous secret. And his very existence is sure to bring big trouble to Jessie's small town. It seems change is the one thing Jessie can't avoid...
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Shannon Delany is the author of Beasts and BFFs and Secrets and Shadows. A much-abbreviated version of 13 to Life (written in just five weeks) won the grand prize in the western world's first-ever cell phone novel contest. Shannon has written stories ever since she was a child. Previously a teacher and now a farmer raising heritage livestock in upstate New York, she has always been fascinated by history, myths, legends and paranormal research.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Prologue: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Rio stiffened beneath my touch, striking a glossy hoof against the floor.
“What, girl?” I asked, still fighting the tangle that snarled her ebony mane. She snorted, nostrils turning the red of fresh blood. She shook, long neck yanking the brush out of my fingers. It bounced off the opposite stall wall with a thump. “Rio!” Keeping a hand on her, I walked around to her other side and leaned down to search for the brush. For a moment everything was eerily still — completely quiet. Then my dogs, Maggie and Hunter, leaped up from where they’d been dozing, snouts propped on a bag of feed. They rushed the barn door, exploding in a fit of barking.
The other horses whickered, voices filled with equal parts concern and frustration. Hooves stomped, crackling hay.
“What the--?” My fingers danced down Rio’s velvety nose. “Shhh. It’s okay, girl.” Slipping out of her stall, the fine hairs on my arms stood as if lightning charged the autumn air. “Everything’s okay,” I insisted as I marched over to Maggie and Hunter.
They were not convinced. Wedging myself in the middle of the two of them, I snaked my hands around their collars and peered through the narrow opening separating the barn’s huge doors. The barnyard was strangely silent, as if everything simultaneously shut its mouth to stare with fearful wonder at whatever stalked the shadows. The dogs pulled, pawing and growling.
The unnaturally white expanse where the barnyard spotlight flooded the space between the first barn and the house stretched out like a broad scar before me. Never before had it seemed so ugly and bare — or such a great distance. A cool night breeze pushed the faint noise of television to me. Dad was watching reruns of that crazy video show. Would he hear us over the blare of television if we needed help? The answer hit like a rock dropping into my stomach as Dad’s laugh punctuated the suddenly calm air and he cranked up the volume.
I glanced down at the dogs. Crap. I was on my own with only Dumb and Dumber to help.
My gaze scraped across the yard from the reassuring glow of my home’s windows to the tall spotlight. I whispered calming words to the dogs — vague promises of tasty snacks. Huh. Usually gobs of moths fluttered in the glare of the spotlight, bats darting in and out to catch dinner. Tonight there was nothing. The air had gone still, but my apprehension made it seem to buzz with electricity.
I swallowed. A shadow sliced across my field of vision, briefly blotting out the light and I stumbled back, fingers slipping free of the dogs’ collars. Maggie and Hunter’s voices blended into a single thin and wavering whine. I grabbed a pitchfork leaning against the wall and held it before me.
Something shoved at the other side of the door. Nudged the giant door so it wobbled. The creature whuffled the airlike a hound searching for a trail. Its nose, nearly broad as my palm and black as the shadow its body cast, thrust between the doors, nostrils stretching as it sucked down our scent. The dogs slinked back to me, tails tucked and bodies trembling as I brandished the pitchfork.
But far more frightening than the huge nose (at the height of my chest, I realized) was the line of teeth visible between dark rubbery lips. Long and jagged, they left no doubt they were designed to shred.
The beast snorted, a sound that rivaled Rio, and then — as suddenly as the thing had appeared — it was gone. I gasped. Trembling like my dogs, I looked at the pitchfork in my hands and laughed. Add a torch and I’d be set to join the mob in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What did I think was out there? A monster?
I winked at Maggie and Hunter. “Probably just old Monroe’s dog Harold anointing everybody’s fence posts,” I assured. They wagged their tails, but knew better than to trust my words.
I set the pitchfork back in place and busied myself tidying the barn, too aware I hesitated to switch off the lights and cross the bare and bright white expanse between here and home. Too soon there was nothing left to clean or rearrange. And tomorrow was a school day.
I steeled myself for the walk back to the house. “Come on, Hunter. That’s a good girl, Maggie.” Dread clenching my heart, I remembered the strange stories that came out of the city of Farthington last year. Flanked by my dogs, I walked swiftly to the house.
I only relaxed when the door closed and the bolt slid into place. Hunter looked up at me expectantly, sitting like the gentleman he was far from being. And very happy to remind me with a solemn look from his soulful golden eyes of the snacks I’d recently promised.
Chapter One: Summoned
I closed the door behind me, heading down the hallway and straight to Hell. The hall glowed eerily in the morning light. Outside, the wind snarled and threw a kaleidoscope of dry leaves against the large windows. I was sure whoever summoned me had very good intentions, but that only encouraged the gnawing sensation in my gut. Wasn’t the road to Hell paved with good intentions?
My feet dragged the whole way to Guidance. The call had gotten me out of Ms. Ashton’s Literature class — not gym. Nobody ever got called out of gym.
The whole thing made me suspicious. Why did Guidance need me? Had they finally figured out who wrote that scathing editorial about the double standards between the jocks and the nerds? Considering what I knew of Guidance I could be fairly certain they hadn’t, at least not without assistance.
When the call came rattling through the intercom system, I’d shot a look at a fellow editor who shrugged. I presumed I hadn’t been ratted out.
Then why was I being summoned? Sure, I was perpetually late handing library books in and there were at least three times I’d signed in tardy with the nurse and accidentally taken her pen. But seriously. If Guidance wanted to summon a troublemaker they had the wrong girl. Well — pretty much.
My sneakers scuffed along the oatmeal-colored tile floor and I sighed. God, I asked, don’t let them be holding some stupid intervention for me about Mom. The thought stopped me cold. I looked at the flimsy blue pass in my hand. How bad would it be to forge a time and signature on it and go back to class? Would Guidance remember they’d called? It was nearly the end of first quarter so wouldn’t they be scrambling to organize last minute study sessions with the kids slipping (or diving) through the cracks?
I glanced up the hallway; its cinderblock walls seemed to tighten around me. Breathe... The walls retreated. There was no witness to see me scrawl the signature Mr. Maloy joked was proof he could have been a doctor. I could make a quick u-turn and head back to class... I chewed my lower lip, considering the odds I’d get caught. Hmph.
I turned down the hall and opened the door to Guidance; scanning the waiting room I looked for a coat or hat belonging to my dad — anything to warn me to leave before someone with a Master’s degree decided it was best for me to talk about my innermost feelings — again. But there was no sign of Dad.
A poster hung on one wall, obviously an art project, raising awareness about the rash of teen suicides occurring on the train tracks between Farthington and Junction. Could things ever be so bad I’d willingly jump onto the tracks before an approaching train? The tension fell out of my shoulders. No. I wasn’t a suicide risk. I’d witnessed the worst and I was still here. I exhaled, surprised to find I’d been holding my breath.
The secretary was focused on a magazine. Its blaring red cover featured titles including “What Type of Tree Would Your Lover Be” and “When to Worry about His Psycho Ex.” I cleared my throat. She looked up, saying, “Oh. Jessica,“ and pointed a carefully manicured finger towards the conference room. “Mr. Maloy’s waiting.”
She smiled, big eyes pleasantly blank. Clueless. I figured it was best to have someone like her greeting folks as they entered Guidance. She’d never panic if bullets started flying. She probably wouldn’t even notice unless they clipped her stylish hair.
I knocked on the conference room door, goose bumps raising the fine hairs on my arms. I’d been here before, sitting on one of many hard plastic chairs pulled in a tight circle as counselors and teachers told me how much I still had to look forward to in life. How great it would all still be if I only tuned back in... How they all cared for me and were there to support me... And I’d hated it. None of what they said mattered. They were paid to say stuff like that. Probably contractually obligated.
Besides, I always hated things that made me cry. And I knew I was strong enough to cope with what happened. Without help.
As the door opened I saw a group of people I didn’t recognize, along with Junction High’s head counselor and a police officer. Weird, but a relief. No intervention, then — obviously this party wasn’t for me; I was merely a guest.
“Jessica,“ Mr. Maloy rose from his spot at the far side of the table.
The cop leaned against the wall by the window.
The others turned to face me. They were tall and well-built with high cheekbones and strong jaws — even the single girl standing with the three guys. They had thick dark hair, glinting eyes — and nametags.
“These are the Rusakovas.” Mr. Maloy motioned to the group.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched the cop pick up a brochure on the windowsill. It had to just be coincidence he was here. Just more bad timing — typical stuff at my high school.
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