Excerpt: The Broken Girls - Vilma Iris | Lifestyle Blogger

The “clever and wonderfully chilling” (Fiona Barton) suspense novel from the award-winning author of The Haunting of Maddy Clare…

Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants—the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming—until one of them mysteriously disappears…

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past—and a voice that won’t be silenced…

Book Type:

Psychological Thriller / Ghosts

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The Broken Girls
By Simone St. James

Excerpt: The Broken Girls

There’s big buzz on THE BROKEN GIRLSa chilling, modern ghost story set in Vermont. It’s coming up on my own reading schedule and I’m so excited to jump into this book, which is out March 20th! In the meanwhile, go to USA Today and read the interview with author Simone St. James to get the scoop on what you can expect, then come back here to read the prologue and first two chapters!



Barrons, Vermont

November 1950


The sun vanished below the horizon as the girl crested the rise of Old Barrons Road. Night, and she still had three miles to go.

The air here went blue at dusk, purplish and cold, a light that blurred details as if looking through smoke. The girl cast a glance back at the road where it climbed the rise behind her, squinting, the breeze tousling her hair and creeping through the thin fabric of her collar, but no one that she could see was following.

Still: Faster, she thought.

She hurried down the slope, her thick schoolgirl’s shoes pelting stones onto the broken road, her long legs moving like a foal’s as she kept her balance. She’d outgrown the gray wool skirt she wore—it hung above her knees now—but there was nothing to be done about it. She carried her uniform skirt in the suitcase that banged against her legs, and she’d be putting it back on soon enough.

If I’m lucky.

Stop it, stupid. Stupid.


Her palms were sweaty against the suitcase handle. She’d nearly dropped the case as she’d wrestled it off the bus in haste, perspiration stinging her back and armpits as she glanced up at the bus’s windows.

Everything all right? the driver had asked, something about the panic in a teenage girl’s face penetrating his disinterest.

Yes, yes— She’d given him a ghastly smile and a wave and turned away, the case banging her knees, as if she were bustling off down a busy city street and not making slow progress across a cracked stretch of pavement known only as the North Road. The shadows had grown long, and she’d glanced back as the door closed, and again as the bus drew away.

No one else had gotten off the bus. The scrape of her shoes and the far-off call of a crow were the only sounds. She was alone.

No one had followed.

Not yet.

She reached the bottom of the slope of Old Barrons Road, panting in her haste. She made herself keep her gaze forward. To look back would be to tempt it. If she only looked forward, it would stay away.

The cold wind blew up again, freezing her sweat to ice. She bent, pushed her body faster. If she cut through the trees, she’d travel an exact diagonal that would land her in the sports field, where at least she had a chance she’d meet someone on the way to her dorm. A shorter route than this one, which circled around the woods to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. But that meant leaving the road, walking through the trees in the dark. She could lose direction. She couldn’t decide.

Her heart gave a quick stutter behind her ribcage, then returned to its pounding. Exertion always did this to her, as did fear. The toxic mix of both made her lightheaded for a minute, unable to think. Her body still wasn’t quite right. Though she was fifteen, her breasts were small and she’d only started bleeding last year. The doctor had warned her there would be a delay, perfectly normal, a biological aftereffect of malnutrition. You’re young and you’ll recover, he’d said, but it’s hell on the body. The phrase had echoed with her for a while, sifting past the jumble of her thoughts. Hell on the body. It was darkly funny, even. When her distant relatives had peered at her afterward and asked what the doctor had said, she’d found herself replying: He said it’s hell on the body. At the bemused looks that followed, she’d tried to say something comforting: At least I still have all my teeth. They’d looked away then, these Americans who didn’t understand what an achievement it was to keep all your teeth. She’d been quiet after that.

Closer, now, to the front gates of Idlewild Hall. Her memories worked in unruly ways; she’d forget the names of half of the classmates she lived with, but she could remember the illustration on the frontispiece of the old copy of Blackie’s Girls’ Annual she’d found on a shelf in the dorm: a girl in a 1920’s low-waisted dress, walking a romping dog over a hillside, shading her eyes with her hand as the wind blew her hair. She had stared at that illustration so many times she’d had dreams about it, and she could recall every line of it, even now. Part of her fascination had come from its innocence, the clean milkiness of the girl in the drawing, who could walk her dog without thinking about doctors or teeth or sores or scabs or any of the other things she had buried in her brain, things that bobbed up to the surface before vanishing into the darkness again.

She heard no sound behind her, but just like that, she knew. Even with the wind in her ears and the sound of her own feet, there was a murmur of something, a whisper she must have been attuned to, because when she turned her head this time, her neck creaking in protest, she saw the figure. Cresting the rise she’d just come over herself, it started the descent down the road toward her.

No. I was the only one to get off the bus. There was no one else.

But she’d known, hadn’t she? She had. It was why she was already in a near-run, her knuckles and her chin going numb with cold. Now she pushed into a jog, her grip nearly slipping on the suitcase handle as the case banged against her leg. She blinked hard in the descending darkness, trying to make out shapes, landmarks. How far away was she? Could she make it?

She glanced back again. Through the fog of darkness, she could see a long black skirt, the narrow waist and shoulders, the gauzy sway of a black veil over the figure’s face moving in the wind. Unseen feet moving beneath the skirt’s hem. The details were visible now because the figure was closer—only moving at a walk, but already somehow closing in, closer every time she looked. The face behind the veil wasn’t visible, but the girl knew she was being watched, the hidden gaze fixed on her.

Panicked, she made an abrupt change of direction, leaving the road and plunging into the trees. There was no path, and she made her way slowly through thick tangles of brush, the dead stalks of weeds stinging her legs through her stockings. In seconds the view of the road behind her disappeared, and she guessed at her direction, hoping she was heading in a straight line toward the sports field. The terrain slowed her down, and sweat trickled between her shoulder blades, soaking into the cheap cotton of her blouse, which stuck to her skin. The suitcase was clumsy and heavy, and soon she dropped it in order to move more quickly through the woods. There was no sound but the harsh rasp of her own breathing.

Her ankle twisted, sent sharp pain up her leg, but still she ran. Her hair came out of its pins and branches scraped her palms as she pushed them from her face, but still she ran. Ahead of her was the old fence that surrounded Idlewild, rotted and broken, easy to get through. There was no sound from behind her. And then there was.

Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under land…

Faster, faster. Don’t let her catch you.

She’ll say she wants to be your friend…

Ahead, the trees were thinning, the pearly light of the half moon illuminating the clearing of the sports field.

Do not let her in again!

The girl’s lungs burned, and a sob burst from her throat. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t. Despite everything that had happened—or perhaps because of it. Her blood still pumped, her broken body still ran for its life. And in a moment of pure, dark clarity, she understood that all of it was for nothing.

She’d always known the monsters were real.

And they were here.

The girl looked into the darkness and screamed.


Chapter 1

Barrons, Vermont

November 2014

The shrill of the cell phone jerked Fiona awake in the driver’s seat. She lurched forward, bracing her palms on the wheel, staring into the blackness of the windshield.

She blinked, focused. Had she fallen asleep? She’d parked on the gravel shoulder of Old Barrons Road, she remembered, so she could sit in the unbroken silence and think. She must have drifted off.

The phone rang again. She swiped quickly at her eyes and glanced at it, sitting on the passenger seat where she’d tossed it. The display glowed in the darkness. Jamie’s name, and the time: three o’clock in the morning. It was the day Deb would have turned forty if she’d still been alive.

She picked up the phone and answered it. “Jamie,” she said.

His voice was a low rumble, half-asleep and accusing, on the other end of the line. “I woke up and you were gone.”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“So you left? For God’s sake, Fee. Where are you?”

She opened her door and swung her legs out into the chilly air. He’d be angry, but there was nothing she could do about that. “I’m on Old Barrons Road. I’m parked on the shoulder, at the bottom of the hill.”

Jamie was quiet for a second, and she knew he was calculating the date. Deb’s birthday. “Fee.”

“I was going to just go home. I was.” She got out of the car and stood, her cramped legs protesting, the cold air slapping her awake and tousling her hair. She walked to the edge of the road and looked up and down, shoving her free hand into the pocket of her windproof jacket. Back the way she’d come, she could see the road sign indicating thirty miles to Burlington and the washed-out lights of the twenty-four-hour gas station at the top of the hill. Past the hill, out of her sight, she knew there was the intersection with the North Road, with its jumble of fast food restaurants, yet more gas stations, and a couple of hopeful big box stores. In the other direction, ahead of the car’s hood, there was only darkness, as if Old Barrons Road dropped off the face of the earth.

“You didn’t have to go home,” Jamie was saying.

“I know,” Fiona replied. “But I was restless, and I didn’t want to wake you up. So I left, and I started driving, but then I started thinking.”

He sighed. She could picture him leaning back on the pillows, wearing an old T-shirt and boxer shorts, the sleek muscles of his forearm flexing as he scrubbed a hand over his eyes. He was due on shift at six thirty; she really had been trying not to wake him. “Thinking what?”

“I started wondering how much traffic there is on Old Barrons Road in the middle of the night. You know, if someone parked their car here and left it, how long would it be before someone drove by and noticed? The cops always said it wasn’t possible that Tim Christopher could have left his car here for so long, unseen. But they never really tested that, did they?”

And there it was: the ugly thing, the demon, coming to the surface, spoken aloud. The thing she’d become so good at keeping buried. The idea had been niggling at her for days as Deb’s birthday approached. She’d tried to be quiet about it, but tonight, as she’d lain sleepless, her thoughts couldn’t be contained. “This isn’t healthy,” Jamie said. “You know it isn’t. I know you think about your sister a lot. I know you mourn her. But actually going to Idlewild—that’s different, Fee.”

“I know,” Fiona said. “I know we’ve been over this. I know what my therapist used to say. I know it’s been twenty years. I’ve tried not to obsess about this, I swear.” She tried to keep the pleading from her voice, but it came out anyway. “Just listen to me, okay?”

“Okay,” he replied. “Shoot.”

She swallowed. “I came here and I parked by the side of the road. I sat here for”—she checked her watch—“thirty minutes. Thirty minutes, Jamie. Not a single car passed by. Not one.” By her calculations, she’d been here for forty-five minutes, but she’d been asleep for fifteen, so she didn’t count those. “He could have parked here and done it. The field at Idlewild Hall is only ten minutes through the trees. He would have had plenty of time.”

On the other end of the line, she heard Jamie breathe. They’d been together for a year now—a fact that still surprised her sometimes—and he knew better than to say the usual empty words. It doesn’t matter. This won’t bring her back. He’s already in prison. It was twenty years ago, you need to move on. Instead, he said, “Old Barrons Road wasn’t the same in 1994. The old drive-in was still open on the east side of the road. It didn’t do much business by the nineties, but kids used to party there, especially around Halloween.”

Fiona bit back the protest she could feel rising in her throat. Jamie was right. She swivelled and looked into the darkness across the road, to where the old drive-in used to be, now an abandoned lot. The big screen had been taken down long ago, the greasy popcorn stand razed, and now there was only a dirt clearing behind the trees, overgrown with weeds. She remembered begging her parents to take her and Deb to the drive-in as a kid, thinking with a kid’s logic that it would be an exciting experience, a sensory wonder. She’d soon learned it was a fool’s quest. Her intellectual parents would no sooner take them to the drive-in to see Beverly Hills Cop II than they would take a walk on the moon. Deb, three years older and wiser, had just shaken her head and shrugged at Fiona’s disappointment. What did you expect? “There wouldn’t have been many kids at the drive-in on a Thursday in November,” she said.

“But there were kids there,” Jamie said with the easy logic of someone whose life hadn’t been ripped apart. “None of them remembered seeing Christopher’s car. This was all covered in the investigation.”

Fiona felt a pulse of exhaustion behind her eyes, countered by a spurt of jagged energy that wouldn’t let her stay still. She turned and paced away from the hill and the lights of the gas station, toward the darkness past the hood of her car at the other end of Old Barrons Road. “Of course you think they covered everything,” she said to Jamie, her voice coming out sharper than she intended. “You’re a cop. You have to believe it. In your world, a girl gets murdered, and Vermont’s greatest minds come together to solve the case and put the bad guys away.” Her boots scuffed the gravel on the side of the road, and the wind pierced through the legs of her jeans. She pulled up the collar of her coat as a cold shudder moved through her, an icy draft blasting through the layers of her clothes.

Jamie wasn’t rising to her bait, which was one of the things that drove her crazy about him. “Fiona, I know they covered everything because I’ve been through the file. More than once. As have you, against all the rules and regulations of my job. It’s all there in the murder file. In black and white.”

“She wasn’t your sister,” Fiona said.

He was quiet for a second, acknowledging that. “Tim Christopher was charged,” he said. “He was tried and convicted of Deb’s murder. He’s spent the past twenty years in maximum security prison. And Fee, you’re still out there on Old Barrons Road at three o’clock in the morning.”

The further she walked, the darker it got. It was colder here, a strange pocket of air that made her hunch further into her coat as her nose grew numb. “I need to know how he did it,” she said. Her sister, age twenty, had been strangled and dumped in the middle of the former sports field on the abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall in 1994, left lying on one side, her knees drawn up, her eyes open. Her shirt and bra had been ripped open, the fabric and elastic torn straight through. She’d last been seen in her college dorm thirty miles away. Her boyfriend, Tim Christopher, had spent twenty years in prison for the crime. He’d claimed he was innocent, and he still did.

Fiona had been seventeen. She didn’t much like to think about how the murder had torn her family apart, how it had affected her life. It was easier to stand on the side of the road and obsess over how Christopher had dumped her sister’s body, something that had never been fully understood, since no footprints had been found in the field or the woods, no tire tracks on the side of the road. The Idlewild property was surrounded by a fence, but it was decades old and mostly broken; he could have easily carried the body through one of the gaps. Assuming he came this way.

Jamie was right. Damn him and his cop brain, which her journalist brain was constantly at odds with. This was a detail that was rubbing her raw, keeping her wound bleeding, long after everyone else had tied their bandages and hobbled away. She should grab a crutch—alcohol or drugs were the convenient ones—and start hobbling with the rest of them. Still, she shivered and stared into the trees, thinking, How the hell did he carry her through there without leaving footprints?

The phone was still to her ear. She could hear Jamie there, waiting.

“You’re judging me,” she said to him.

“I’m not,” he protested.

“I can hear it in how you breathe.”

“Are you being serious?”

“I—” She heard the scuff of a footstep behind her, and froze.

“Fiona?” Jamie asked, as though he’d heard it through the phone.

“Ssshh,” she said, the sound coming instinctively from her lips. She stopped still and cocked her head. She was in almost complete darkness now. Idlewild Hall, the former girls’ boarding school, had been closed and abandoned since 1979, long before Deb died, the gates locked, the grounds overgrown. There were no lights here at the end of the road, at the gates of the old school. Nothing but the wind in the trees.

She stiffly turned on her heel. It had been distinct, a footstep against the gravel. If it was some creep coming from the woods, she had no weapon to defend herself. She’d have to scream through the phone at Jamie and hope for the best.

She stared into the dark silence behind her, watched the last dying leaves shimmer on the inky trees.

“What the fuck?” Jamie barked. He never swore unless he was alarmed.

“Ssshh,” she said to him again. “It’s no one. It’s nothing. I thought I heard something, that’s all.”

“Do I have to tell you,” he said, “to get off of a dark, abandoned road in the middle of the night?”

“Have you ever thought that there’s something creepy about Old Barrons Road?” she asked. “I mean, have you ever been out here? It’s sort of uncanny. It’s like there’s something…”

“I can’t take much more of this,” Jamie said. “Get back in your car and drive home, or I’m coming to get you.”

“I’ll go, I’ll go.” Her hands were tingling, even the hand that was frozen to her phone, and she still had a jittery blast of adrenaline blowing down her spine. That had been a footstep. A real one. The hill was hidden through the trees from here, and she suddenly longed for the comforting sight of the fluorescent gas station lights. She took a step, then realized something. She stopped and turned around again, heading quickly for the gates of Idlewild Hall.

“I hope that sound is you walking toward your car,” Jamie said darkly.

“There was a sign,” Fiona said. “I saw it. It’s posted on the gates. It wasn’t there before.” She got close enough to read the lettering in the dark. ANOTHER PROJECT BY MACMILLAN CONSTRUCTION, LTD. “Jamie, why is there a sign saying that Idlewild Hall is under construction?”

“Because it is,” he replied. “As of next week. The property was sold two years ago, and the new owner is taking it over. It’s going to be restored, from what I hear.”

“Restored?” Fiona blinked at the sign, trying to take it in. “Restoring it into what?”

“Into a new school,” he replied. “They’re fixing it up and making it a boarding school again.”

“They’re what?

“I didn’t want to mention it, Fee. I know what that place means to you.”

Fiona took a step back, still staring at the sign. Restored. Girls were going to be playing in the field where Deb’s body had lain. They would build new buildings, tear down old ones, add a parking lot, maybe widen the road. All of this landscape that had been here for twenty years, the landscape she knew so well—the landscape of Deb’s death—would be gone.

“Damn it,” she said to Jamie as she turned and walked back toward her car. “I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m going home.”


Chapter 2

Barrons, Vermont

October 1950


The first time Katie Winthrop saw Idlewild Hall, she nearly cried. She’d been in the back seat of her father’s Chevy, looking between Dad’s gray-suited shoulder and Mom’s crepe-bloused one, and when the big, black gates loomed at the end of Old Barrons Road, she’d suddenly felt tears sting her eyes.

The gates were open, something she soon learned was rare. Dad had driven the car through the entrance and up the long dirt drive in silence, and she had stared at the building that rose up before them: the main hall, three stories high and stretching endlessly long, lined with peaked windows that looked like rows of teeth, broken only by the portico that signaled the front door. It was August, and the air was thick and hot, heavy with oncoming rain. As they drew closer, it looked uncannily like they were traveling into the jaws of the building, and Katie had swallowed hard, keeping straight and still as the hall grew larger and larger in the windshield.

Dad stopped the car, and for a moment there was no sound but the engine ticking. Idlewild Hall was still and dark, with no sign of life. Katie looked at her mother, but Mom’s face was turned away, looking sightlessly out the passenger window, and even though Katie was so close she could see the makeup Mom had pressed on to her cheek with a little sponge, she did not speak.

I’m sorry, she’d suddenly wanted to say. Please don’t make me stay here. I can’t do it. I’m so sorry…

“I’ll get your bags,” Dad said.

That had been two years ago. Katie was used to Idlewild now—the long, worn hallways that smelled like mildew and girls’ sweat, the windows that let in icy drafts around the edges in winter, the wafts of wet, mulchy odor on the field hockey green no matter what the season, the uniforms that hadn’t been changed since the school first opened in 1919.

Katie was the kind of girl other girls tended to obey easily: dark haired, dominant, beautiful, a little aggressive, and unafraid. She wasn’t popular, exactly, but she’d only had to use her fists twice, and both times she’d won easily. A good front, she knew, was most of the battle, and she’d used hers without mercy. It wasn’t easy to survive in a boarding school full of throwaway girls, but after swallowing her tears in those first moments, Katie had mastered it.

She saw her parents twice a year, once in summer and once at Christmas, and she’d never told them she was sorry.

There were four girls per room in Clayton Hall, the dormitory. You never knew who you would get. One of Katie’s first roommates, a stringy-haired girl from New Hampshire who claimed to be descended from a real Salem witch, had the habit of humming relentlessly as she read her Latin textbook, biting the side of her thumbnail with such diligence that Katie had thought it might be grounds for murder. After the Salem witch left, she was replaced by a long-legged, springy-haired girl whose name Katie had never remembered, and who spent most of her nights curled up in her bunk, quietly sobbing into her pillow until Charlotte Kankle, who was massive and always angry, had rolled out of her bunk and told her Stop crying, for the love of Jesus Christ, or I promise you these other girls will hold you down while I give you a bloody nose. No one had contradicted her. The sobbing girl had been quiet after that, and she’d left a few weeks later.

Charlotte Kankle had since moved down the hall—after she and Katie got into a fistfight, one of Katie’s victories—and now she had a set of roommates here in 3C that, she had to admit, might not be a total failure. Idlewild was the boarding school of last resort, where parents stashed their embarrassments, their failures, and their recalcitrant girls. Hidden in the back woods of Vermont, it only had one hundred and twenty students: illegitimate daughters, first wives’ daughters, servants’ daughters, immigrant girls, girls who misbehaved or couldn’t learn. Most of them fought and mistrusted each other, but in a backwards way Katie felt these girls were the only ones who understood her. They were the only ones who just shrugged in boredom when she told them how many times she’d run away from home.

She sat up in bed after curfew one night and rooted beneath her pillow for the pack of cigarettes she’d stashed there. It was October, and cold autumn rain spattered the single high window in the dorm room. She banged on the bunk above her. “CeCe.”

“What is it?” CeCe was awake, of course. Katie had already known it from the sound of her breathing.

“I want to tell you a ghost story.”

“Really?” There was a muffled sound as CeCe slid over on her bunk and looked over the edge, down at Katie. “Is it Mary Hand?”

“Oh, no,” came a voice from the top bunk across the room. “Not another story about Mary Hand.”

“Ssh, Roberta,” CeCe said. “You’ll wake Sonia.”

“I’m awake,” Sonia said from beneath her covers on the bunk below Roberta. When she was half asleep, her French accent was more pronounced. “I cannot sleep with all of your talking.”

Katie tapped a cigarette from the pack. All four girls in the room were fifteen years old—Idlewild had long ago grouped girls of the same age, since the older girls tended to bully the younger ones when they roomed together. “Mary Hand is in my Latin textbook,” she said. “Look.”

She pulled the book—which was decades old and musty—from beneath her bed, along with a small flashlight. Flashlights were forbidden at Idlewild, a rule that every girl flaunted without exception. Holding the flashlight steady, she quickly paged through the book until she came to the page she wanted. “See?” she said.

CeCe had climbed down from her bunk. She had the biggest breasts of any of the four of them, and she self-consciously brought a blanket down with her, pulling it over her shoulders. “Oh,” she said as she stared at the page Katie had lit with the flashlight. “I have that in my grammar book. Something similar, at least.”

“What is it?” Roberta was lured from her top bunk, her sleek calves poking from the hem of her outgrown nightgown, her brownish-blond hair tied into a braid down her back. She landed on the floor without a sound and peered over CeCe’s shoulder. Katie heard her soft intake of breath.

Along the edge of the page, in the narrow band of white space, was a message in pencil. Saw Mary Hand through the window of 1G, Clayton Hall. She was walking away over the field. Wednesday, August 7, 1941. Jenny Baird.

Looking at it gave Katie a blurry, queasy feeling, a quick pulse of fear that she refused to show. Everyone knew of Mary Hand, but somehow these penciled letters made her more real. “It isn’t a joke, is it,” she said—a statement, not a question.

“No, it’s not a joke,” CeCe said. “The one in my grammar book said Toilet third floor end of west hall, I saw Mary there. That one was from 1939.”

“It’s a message.” This was Sonia, who had gotten up and was looking over Roberta’s shoulder. She shrugged and backed away again. “I’ve seen them, too. They have never changed the textbooks here, I think.”

Katie flipped through the musty pages of the Latin textbook. Its front page listed the copyright as 1919, the year Idlewild opened. She tried to picture the school as it had been then: the building brand new, the uniforms brand new, the textbooks brand new. Now, in 1950, Idlewild was a time machine, a place that had no inkling of atomic bombs or The Texaco Star Theater on television. It made sense, in a twisted way, that Idlewild girls would pass wisdom down to each other in the margins of their textbooks, alongside the lists of American Revolution battles and the chemical makeup of iodine. The teachers never looked in these books, and they were never thrown away. If you wanted to warn a future girl about Mary Hand, the books were the best place to do it.

Through the window of 1G, Clayton Hall. Katie struck a match and lit her cigarette.

“You shouldn’t,” Roberta said half-heartedly. “Susan Brady will smell it, and then you’ll catch hell.”

“Susan Brady is asleep,” Katie replied. Susan was the dorm monitor for Floor Three, and she took her job very seriously, which meant that no one liked her. Katie switched off the flashlight and the four of them sat in the dark. Roberta tossed a pillow on the floor and sat with her back against the narrow dresser. Sonia quietly moved to the window and cracked it open, letting the smoke escape.

“So,” CeCe said to Katie. “Have you seen her?”

Katie shrugged. She wished she’d never brought it up now; she knew these girls, but not well enough yet to trust them. Looking at the penciled messages in her Latin book again had unsettled her. The fact was, she wasn’t entirely sure what had happened to her, and she wished that it had been as simple as seeing Idlewild’s ghost in the bathroom. It had seemed real at the time, but to put it into words now felt impossible. She swallowed and deflected the subject. “Do you think she was really a student here?” she asked the other girls.

“I heard she was,” Roberta said. “Mary Van Woorten, on the field hockey team, says that Mary Hand died when she was locked out of the school on a winter night and lost her way.”

“It must have been years ago.” CeCe had crawled onto the bunk next to Katie and propped up the pillows against the headboard. “I heard she knocks on the windows at night, trying to get in. That she begs girls to come outside and follow her, but if you do it, you die.”

CeCe was the roommate Katie had had the longest, and the one she knew the most about, because CeCe was an open book. She was the illegitimate daughter of a rich banker, sired on one of the housemaids and packed off to one boarding school or another for most of her life. CeCe, amazingly, held no animosity toward her father, and was close to her mother, who was now a housekeeper for a family in Boston. She’d told Katie all of this on their first meeting, as she’d hung up her Idlewild crested jacket and put away her hockey stick.

“You can sometimes hear her singing in the field when the wind is in the trees,” Roberta added. “A lullaby or something.”

Katie hadn’t heard that one. “You can hear her?”

Roberta shrugged. She had been at Idlewild for only a few months, whereas the other girls had been here for at least a year, and Sonia for three. Roberta was smart, a natural athlete, though she didn’t talk much. No one knew anything about her home life. Katie couldn’t figure out what she was doing here of all places, but from the hooded look that she often saw in Roberta’s eyes—that look of retreat, as if watching the world from behind a wall, that was common to a lot of Idlewild girls—she guessed there was a reason. “I’ve never heard her myself, and I’m at practice four times a week.” Roberta turned to Sonia, as she often did. “Sonia, what do you think?”

If CeCe was the easiest to understand, Sonia was the hardest. Pale, thin, quiet, flitting in and out of the crowds and complicated social cliques, she seemed apart from everything, even for an Idlewild girl. She was an immigrant from France, and in the aftermath of the war, where so many of the girls had lost a father or a brother or had men come home ragged from POW camps, no one asked her about it. She’d been at Idlewild the longest of any of them.

Sonia seemed completely self-contained, as if whatever was happening inside her own head was sufficient for her. For some reason Roberta, who was swift and fit and graceful, had become smitten with Sonia, and could often be seen by her side. They were so easy together, it made Katie want that, too. Katie had never been easy with anyone. She’d always been the girl with admirers, not friends.

Sonia caught Katie’s eyes briefly and shrugged, the gesture cool and European even in her simple white nightgown. “I have no use for ghosts,” she said in her sweet, melodious accent, “though like everyone else I’ve heard she wears a black dress and a veil, which seems a strange outfit if you are outside in the snow.” Her gaze, resting on Katie in the darkened gloom, missed nothing. “You saw something. Did you not?”

Katie glanced at the cigarette, forgotten in her fingers. “I heard her,” she said. She tamped out the smoke against the brass back of the sophomore achievement medal someone had left behind and ground the butt with her thumb.

Heard her?” CeCe asked.

Katie took a breath. Talking about Mary Hand felt like speaking of a family secret somehow. It was one thing to tell ghost stories in the dark, and another when you opened your locker before gym class and felt something push it closed again. There were always small things, like a feeling of being watched, or a cold patch in a hallway, that you were never quite sure you’d experienced, and you felt stupid bringing up. But this had been different, and Katie had the urge to speak it out loud. “It was in the common, on the path that goes past the dining hall.”

The girls nodded. Idlewild’s main buildings were arranged in a U-shaped square around a common, dotted with unkempt trees and weedy flagstoned paths. “That section scares me,” CeCe said. “The one by the garden.”

It scared Katie, too. No one liked the garden, even though the curriculum included Weekly Gardening, when they had to reluctantly dig through its damp, rotten-smelling earth. Even the teachers gave the garden a wide berth. “I was sneaking a cigarette after dinner, and I left the path so Mrs. Peabody wouldn’t see me—you know she smokes her own cigarettes out there, even though she’s not supposed to. I was beneath the big maple tree, and I just felt something. Someone was there.”

CeCe was leaning forward, rapt. “But you didn’t see anything?”

“There was a voice,” Katie said. “It was—I didn’t imagine it. It was right there next to me, as if someone was standing there. I heard it so clearly.”

She could still recall that moment beneath the maple tree, standing on a bed of old maple keys, her cigarette dropping to the ground, the hair standing up on the back of her neck when a voice somewhere behind her right ear had spoken. Idlewild was an old place, and the fear here was old fear. Katie had thought she understood fear until that moment, but when the voice had spoken, she’d understood fear that was older and bigger than she could imagine.

“Well?” Roberta prompted. “What did she say?”

Katie cleared her throat. “‘Hold still,’” she said.

They were all quiet for a moment.

“Oh, my God,” CeCe said softly.

Strangely, it was Sonia that Katie looked at. Sonia was sitting on the floor, against the wall beneath the window, her thin legs drawn up, her knees to her chest. She was very still, bathed in shadow, and Katie couldn’t tell if Sonia’s eyes were on her or not. Far off, a door slammed, and something tapped, like dripping water, in the ceiling.

“Why?” Sonia asked her, the French lilt soft. “Why did she say that to you?”

Katie shrugged hard, the muscles wrenching in her shoulders, even though it was dark and the other girls couldn’t see it. “I don’t know,” she snapped, her voice growing sharp before she tempered it. “It was just a voice I heard. That’s all I know.”

A lie, a lie. But how could some old ghost even know?

Hold still. She couldn’t talk about that. Not to anyone. Not yet.

“What did you do?” Roberta asked.

This was an easier question. “I ran like hell.”

Only CeCe, leaning against the headboard, gave a quick tut at the language. She’d been raised prim for an illegitimate girl. “I would have run, too,” she conceded. “I saw a little boy once. At the Ellesmeres’.” The Ellesmeres were her rich father’s family, though CeCe hadn’t been given the family name. “I was playing in the back courtyard one day while Mother worked. I looked up and there was a boy in an upper window of the house, watching me. I waved, but he didn’t wave back. When I asked my mother about it, about why the boy wasn’t allowed outside to play, she got the strangest look on her face. She told me I’d been seeing things, and that I should never say anything about that boy again, especially in front of the Ellesmeres. I never did see him again. I always wondered who he was.”

“My grandmother used to tell me about the ghost in her attic,” Roberta said. “It moved all the furniture around up there and made a racket. She said there were nights she’d lie in bed, listening to trunks and dressers being dragged across the floor. Mum always said she was just an old lady looking for attention, but one summer I spent two weeks at my grandmother’s house, and I heard it. It was just like she’d said—furniture being dragged across the floor, and the sound of the old brass floor lamp being picked up and put down, over and over. The next morning I asked her if it was Granddad’s ghost doing it, and she only looked at me and said, ‘No, dear. It’s something much worse.’” She paused. “I never went back there. She died at Christmas that year, and Mum sold the house.”

“What about you, Sonia?” CeCe asked. “Did you ever see a ghost?”

Sonia unfolded her thin legs and stood, gripping the window and pulling it shut. The draft of cold air from outside ceased, but still Katie shivered.

“The dead are dead,” she said. “I have no use for ghosts.”

Katie watched her silhouette in the near-darkness. It had sounded dismissive, but Sonia hadn’t said she didn’t believe in ghosts. She hadn’t said she’d never seen one. She hadn’t said they weren’t real.

She knew, just as they all did.

The rain pelted the window again. Hold still, the voice in Katie’s head said again. Hold still. She hugged herself tightly and closed her eyes.

Reprinted with permission from THE BROKEN GIRLS by Simone St. James from Berkley Publishing Group, copyright 2018

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