The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer Page 1

Author: Michelle Hodkin

Series: Mara Dyer #1

Genres: Young Adult , Fantasy

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BEFORE

Laurelton, Rhode Island

THE ORNATE SCRIPT ON THE BOARD TWISTED in the candlelight, making the letters and numbers dance in my head. They were jumbled and indistinct, like alphabet soup. When Claire pushed the heart-shaped piece into my hand, I startled. I wasn’t normally so twitchy, and hoped Rachel wouldn’t notice. The Ouija board was her favorite present that night, and Claire gave it to her. I got her a bracelet. She wasn’t wearing it.

Kneeling on the carpet, I passed the piece to Rachel. Claire shook her head, oozing disdain. Rachel put down the piece.

“It’s just a game, Mara.” She smiled, her teeth looking even whiter in the dim light. Rachel and I had been best friends since preschool, and where she was dark and wild, I was pale and cautious. But less so when we were together. She made me feel bold. Usually.

“I don’t have anything to ask dead people,” I said to her. And at sixteen, we’re too old for this, I didn’t say.

“Ask whether Jude will ever like you back.”

Claire’s voice was innocent, but I knew better. My cheeks flamed, but I stifled the urge to snap at her and laughed it off. “Can I ask it for a car? Is this like a dead Santa scenario?”

“Actually, since it’s my birthday, I’m going first.” Rachel put her fingers on the piece. Claire and I followed her.

“Oh! Rachel, ask it how you’re going to die.”

Rachel squealed her assent, and I shot a dark look at Claire. Since moving here six months ago, she’d latched onto my best friend like a starving leech. Her twin missions in life were now to make me feel like the third wheel, and to torture me for my crush on her brother, Jude. I was equally sick of both.

“Remember not to push,” Claire ordered me.

“Got it, thanks. Anything else?”

But Rachel interrupted us before we could descend into bickering. “How am I going to die?”

The three of us watched the board. My calves prickled from kneeling on Rachel’s carpet for so long, and the backs of my knees felt clammy. Nothing happened.

Then something did. We looked at each other as the piece moved under our hands. It semi-circled the board, sailing past A through K, and crept past L.

It settled on M.

“Murder?” Claire’s voice was soaked with excitement. She was so sketchy. What did Rachel see in her?

The piece glided in the wrong direction. Away from U and R.

Landing on A.

Rachel looked confused. “Matches?”

“Mauling?” Claire asked. “Maybe you start a forest fire and get eaten by Smokey the Bear?” Rachel laughed, briefly dissolving the panic that had slithered into my stomach. When we first sat down to play, I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes at Claire’s melodramatics. Now, not so much.

The piece zigzagged across the board, cutting her laughter short.

R.

We were silent. Our eyes didn’t leave the board as the piece jerked back to the beginning.

To A.

Then stopped.

We waited for the piece to point out the next letter, but it remained still. After three minutes, Rachel and Claire withdrew their hands. I felt them watching me.

“It wants you to ask something,” Rachel said softly.

“If by ‘it’ you mean Claire, I’m sure that’s true.” I stood up, shaking and nauseous. I was done.

“I didn’t push it,” Claire said, wide-eyed as she looked at Rachel, then at me.

“Pinky swear?” I asked, with sarcasm.

“Why not,” Claire answered, with malice. She stood and walked closer to me. Too close. Her green eyes were dangerous. “I didn’t push it,” she said again. “It wants you to play.”

Rachel grabbed my hand and pulled herself up off the floor. She looked straight at Claire. “I believe you,” she said, “but let’s do something else?”

“Like what?” Claire’s voice was flat, and I stared right back at her, unflinching. Here we go.

“We can watch The Blair Witch Project.” Claire’s favorite, naturally. “How about it?” Rachel’s voice was tentative, but firm.

I tore my eyes away from Claire’s and nodded, managing a smile. Claire did the same. Rachel relaxed, but I didn’t. For her sake, though, I tried to swallow my anger and unease as we settled in to watch the movie. Rachel popped in the DVD and blew out the candles.

Six months later, they were both dead.

AFTER

Rhode Island Hospital Providence, Rhode Island

I OPENED MY EYES. A PERSISTENT MACHINE BEEPED rhythmically to my left. I looked to my right. Another machine hissed beside the bedside table. My head ached and I was disoriented. My eyes struggled to interpret the positions of the hands on the clock hanging next to the bathroom door. I heard voices outside my room. I sat up in the hospital bed, the thin pillows crinkling underneath me as I shifted to try and hear. Something tickled the skin under my nose. A tube. I tried to move my hands to pull it away but when I looked at them, there were other tubes. Attached to needles. Protruding from my skin. I felt a tugging tightness as I moved my hands and my stomach slithered into my toes.

“Get them out,” I whispered to the air. I could see where the sharp steel entered my veins. My breath shortened and a scream rose in my throat.

“Get them out,” I said, louder this time.

“What?” asked a small voice, whose source I couldn’t see.

“Get them out!” I screamed.

Bodies crowded the room; I could make out my father’s face, frantic and paler than usual. “Calm down, Mara.”

And then I saw my little brother, Joseph, wide-eyed and scared. Dark spots blotted out the faces of everyone else, and then all I could see were the forest of needles and tubes, and felt that tight sensation against my dry skin. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t speak. But I could still move. I clawed at my arm with one hand and ripped out the first tube. The pain was violent. It gave me something to hold on to.

“Just breathe. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t okay. They weren’t listening to me, and they needed to get them out. I tried to tell them, but the darkness grew, swallowing the room.

“Mara?”

I blinked, but saw nothing. The beeping and hissing had stopped.

“Don’t fight it, sweetie.”

My eyelids fluttered at the sound of my mother’s voice. She leaned over me, adjusting one of the pillows, and a sheet of black hair fell over her almond skin. I tried to move, to get out of her way, but I could barely hold my head up. I glimpsed two dour-faced nurses behind her. One of them had a red welt on her cheek.

“What’s wrong with me?” I whispered hoarsely. My lips felt like paper.

My mother brushed a sweaty strand of hair from my face. “They gave you something to help you relax.”

I breathed in. The tube under my nose was gone. And the ones from my hands, too. They were replaced by gauzy white bandages wrapped around my skin. Spots of red bled through. Something released itself from my chest and a deep sigh shuddered from my lips. The room shifted into focus, now that the needles were out.

I looked at my father, sitting at the far wall, looking helpless. “What happened?” I asked hazily.

“You were in an accident, honey,” my mother answered. My father met my eyes, but he didn’t say anything. Mom was running this show.

My thoughts swam. An accident. When?

“Is the other driver—” I started, but couldn’t finish.

“Not a car accident, Mara.” My mother’s voice was calm. Steady. It was her psychologist voice, I realized. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

More than waking up in a hospital room, or seeing tubes attached to my skin—more than anything else—that question unnerved me. I stared at her closely for the first time. Her eyes were shadowed, and her nails, usually perfectly manicured, were ragged.

“What day is it?” I asked quietly.

“What day do you think it is?” My mother loved answering questions with questions.

I rubbed my hands over my face. My skin seemed to whisper on contact. “Wednesday?”

My mother looked at me carefully. “Sunday.”

Sunday. I looked away from her, my eyes roaming the hospital room instead. I hadn’t noticed the flowers before, but they were everywhere. A vase of yellow roses were right beside my bed. Rachel’s favorite. A box of my things from the house sat in a chair next to the bed; an old cloth doll my grandmother had left to me when I was a baby lounged inside, resting its limp arm around the rim.

“What do you remember, Mara?”

“I had a history test Wednesday. I drove home from school and…”

I rifled through my thoughts, my memories. Me, walking into our house. Grabbing a cereal bar from the kitchen. Walking to my bedroom on the first floor, dropping my bag and taking out Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays. Writing. Then drawing in my sketchbook. Then…nothing.

A slow, creeping fear wound its way around my belly. “That’s it,” I told her, looking up at her face.

A muscle above my mother’s eyelid twitched. “You were at The Tamerlane—” she started.

Oh, God.

“The building collapsed. Someone reported it at about three a.m. Thursday. When the police arrived, they heard you.”

My father cleared his throat. “You were screaming.”

My mother shot him a look before turning back to me. “The way the building fell, you were buried in a pocket of air, in the basement, but you were unconscious when they reached you. You might have fainted from dehydration, but it’s possible that something fell and knocked you out. You do have a few bruises,” she said, pushing aside my hair.

I looked past her, and saw her torso reflected in a mirror above the sink. I wondered what “a few bruises” looked like when a building fell on your head.

I pushed myself up. The silent nurses stiffened. They were acting more like guards.

My joints protested as I craned my head over the bed rails to see. My mother looked in the mirror with me. She was right; a bluish shadow blossomed over my right cheekbone. I pushed my dark hair back to see the extent of it, but that was it. Otherwise I looked—normal. Normal for me, and normal, period. My gaze shifted to my mother. We were so different. I had none of her exquisite Indian features; not her perfect oval face or her lacquer-black hair. Instead, my father’s patrician nose and jaw were reflected in my own. And except for the one bruise, I did not look like a building had collapsed on me at all. I narrowed my eyes at my reflection, then leaned back against the pillows and stared at the ceiling.

“The doctors said you’re going to be fine.” My mother smiled faintly. “You can come home tonight, even, if you feel well enough.”

I lowered my gaze to the nurses. “Why are they here?” I asked my mother, staring straight at them. They were creeping me out.

“They’ve been taking care of you since Wednesday,” she said. She nodded at the nurse with the welt on her cheek. “This is Carmella,” she said, then indicated the other nurse. “And this is Linda.”

Carmella, the nurse with the welt on her cheek, smiled, but it wasn’t warm. “You have some right hook.”

My forehead crumpled. I looked at my mother.

“You panicked when you woke up before, and they had to be here when you woke up just in case you were…still disoriented.”

“Happens all the time,” Carmella said. “And if you’re feeling like yourself now, we can go.”

I nodded, my throat dry. “Thank you. I’m sorry.”

“No problem, sweetie,” she said. Her words sounded fake. Linda hadn’t said a word the whole time.

“Let us know if you need anything.” They turned and walked synchronously out of the room, leaving me and my family alone.

I was glad they were gone. And then I realized that my reaction to them was probably not normal. I needed to focus on something else. My eyes swept the room, and finally landed on the bedside table, on the roses. They were fresh, unwilted. I wondered when Rachel brought them.

“Did she visit?”

My mother’s face darkened. “Who?”

“Rachel.”

My father made a strange noise and even my mother, my practiced, perfect mother, looked uncomfortable.

“No,” my mother said. “Those are from her parents.”

Something about the way she said it made me shiver. “So she didn’t visit,” I said softly.

“No.”

I was cold, so cold, but I had started to sweat. “Did she call?”

“No, Mara.”

Her answer made me want to scream. I held out my arm instead. “Give me your phone. I want to call her.”

My mother tried to smile and failed miserably. “Let’s talk about this later, okay? You need to rest.”

“I want to call her now.” My voice was close to cracking. I was close to cracking.

My father could tell. “She was with you, Mara. Claire and Jude, too,” he said.

No.

Something tightened around my chest and I could barely find the breath to speak. “Are they in the hospital?” I asked, because I had to, even though I knew the answer just looking at my parents’ faces.

“They didn’t make it,” my mother said slowly.

This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. Something slimy and horrible began to rise in my throat.

“How? How did they die?” I managed to ask.

“The building collapsed,” my mother said calmly.

“How?”

“It was an old building, Mara. You know that.”

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