George Brookes is a brilliant but reclusive plant biologist living on a remote Canadian island. After his mysterious death, the heirs to his estate arrive on the island, including his daughter Isabelle, her teenage children, and Jules Beecher, a friend and pioneer in plant neurobiology. They will be isolated on the frigid island for two weeks, until the next supply boat arrives.

As Jules begins investigating the laboratory and scientific papers left by George, he comes to realize that his mentor may have achieved a monumental scientific breakthrough: communication between plants and humans. Within days, the island begins to have strange and violent effects on the group, especially Jules who becomes obsessed with George’s journal, the strange fungus growing on every plant and tree, and horrible secrets that lay buried in the woods. It doesn’t take long for Isabelle to realize that her father may have unleashed something sinister on the island, a malignant force that’s far more deadly than any human. As a fierce storm hits and the power goes out, she knows they’ll be lucky to make it out alive.

A.J. Colucci masterfully weaves real science with horror to create a truly terrifying thriller, drawing from astonishing new discoveries about plants and exploring their eerie implications. is a feast of horror and suspense.

A. J. Colucci


To Al, Rachel, and Julia.

Again. Always.

It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organized beings.


It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value.


Map of Sparrow Island


SPARROW ISLAND LIES FIFTY MILES off the coast of Nova Scotia, where icy winters and frequent storms make it a brutal spot for life to survive. On one side, soaring cliffs act as a natural barrier against the Atlantic, protecting the rest of the island from invading winds and pounding surf. Along these scabrous cliffs, only the hardiest plants take root. Winter creepers, juniper, and heather cling stubbornly low to the ground, pugnacious against the elements. The other side of the island is flat with dense woods, sixty acres of knobby pines and twisted deciduous trees that huddle together like souls on a life raft.

Seventy-two-year-old George Brookes, the only resident of the island, seemed remarkably fit for such a harsh place. He ran fiercely through the frigid woods, dodging fallen branches as his bare feet pounded the brittle path. Despite the arctic temperature, his bronze body was soaked in sweat. George clung tight to an old rifle, shifting his wild eyes and jerking the barrel between the trees, as if something sinister were hunting him down. In cutoff shorts and long, gray hair, he looked like a castaway gone mad.

It was the last place he wanted to be, the woods, but it was the only way to the beach, and he had to get there quick. The drone of a boat engine spurred him on, making his legs pump faster and focusing his mind on one thought: Keep them away.

The engine grew loud as a chainsaw as George broke through the trees and scrambled down the beach like a savage, brandishing the rifle and charging across the black sand toward a fishing boat headed for the dock. The Acadia was an old vessel, but moved at a good clip. On board were three men, including the captain and steward. The third was George’s lawyer, Nicholas Bonacelli, a small man whose rigid stance and business attire were both distinct and out of place on the sea.

Bonacelli could hardly believe his eyes. He stepped back with a deeply troubled face and whispered, “He’s done it—he’s finally gone mad.”

George raised the gun and stopped at the edge of the surf.

“What is he doing?” the lawyer said from the bridge and waved his hands, Don’t shoot.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” the captain muttered in something like an Irish brogue.

George aimed the barrel.

The captain cut the motor and the boat drifted silently on the wave. “’E won’t do it.”

George fired a shot.

The men hit the deck.

It missed.

Through the crosshairs, George set his bloodshot eyes on the bobbing target. He fired another round that shattered the window of the bridge. The captain staggered to his knees on bits of glass and gunned the engine, turning the vessel in a hasty retreat back to sea.

George nodded and watched the boat for a while, until it was a speck of black on the calm blue sea. The afternoon sky was silvery white and the only sound was the hiss of foamy waves lapping at the beach. George scratched his cheek and the black, threadlike protrusions that covered his face like tiny worms. They had appeared on his forehead months ago, growing larger and spreading, becoming puckered and itchy and a constant source of irritation.

The wind was bitterly cold on the beach and for a while he stood motionless, fighting the feeling of dread. He looked at the sky and shut his eyes, letting the sun warm his face. His mind settled clear and sharp, but it wouldn’t be for long. If only he’d made the discovery before things had gone so far. Now, it was too late. At least for George.

He turned his head and gazed at the canopy of branches behind him.

“They’ve got you surrounded,” he whispered and turned back to the sea. No doubt the men would return in the evening or first light of day. There would be police, and a shootout, and then it would all be over.

But it will never be over.

George started back through the woods, barely able to fight them anymore. He could feel their probes creeping back into his brain and he searched the treetops for bits of sunlight. It was the longest mile he ever ran, and somewhere along the way, George dropped the rifle.

The woods ended and he staggered up the path toward his house. He was soon engulfed by smoke from a roaring bonfire. Wooden pallets burned in billowy clouds that stung his eyes as he drew closer to the patio. Plants smoldered and withered in their pouches of dirt and he could hear the seeds popping from the heat.

Coughing and sputtering, he entered the kitchen and collapsed in a chair. His head fell back and his eyes closed, mouth gaping as though he were asleep. Along with smoke and ash, there was a stream of purple dust blowing through an open window, making the lace curtains sway. George could see bits of blue sky through the slits of his eyes. He shut them again and the world stopped moving. He took deep breaths into his lungs and his mind fell freely.

It was a long while before he was aware of time again. The kitchen was aglow with bright orange rays of a sunset over Sparrow Island, and the only sound was George screaming in guttural agony. He lay on the kitchen floor, his body pale as snow and dripping with blood. Knives, forks, scissors, and other sharp things protruded from his arms and legs. The word traitor was carved upside down on his chest. His trembling hand picked up the last instrument of torture, a letter opener, and held the rounded tip inches from his abdomen.

“Help me, God,” he whispered, with the last bit of voice he had left.

There was only silence. He pressed the blade to his skin and bore down heavily, raising his body off the floor. The point was dull and he had to tighten his muscles to get it to pierce the flesh. There was a loud pop and the metal slid into him with a crunching sound. Blood dribbled like a fountain from the tattered hole. The pain was unbearable. George opened his mouth to scream but released only a gush of air. He laid his head back gently and stared up at the ceiling with a terrifying realization that it would take hours to die; if they let him die at all.

George was broken. His lips silently begged for mercy.

Let go, George.

And he did.

They were back now, in control. George slowly sat up holding a hand against the rush of blood. He staggered to his feet, lifting himself off the sticky red floor and walking a few paces on wobbly legs. He gripped the wall for support and his fingers painted a crimson trail to a photograph taped to the wall: a faded Polaroid of a little girl in a red dress and straggly braids, next to a cardboard blue ribbon with Father of the Year scrawled in a child’s handwriting. George was only semiconscious of tugging the photo loose. It was held tightly in his fist.

Outside, the first evening stars poked through a dark blue canvas. Sounds of crashing waves were carried by a northerly wind that drifted over the island. George stumbled across the patio, past a cooling skeleton of ash remains, where flames had devoured layers of the plant specimens he’d collected over a year, along with all his personal files and notes.

George headed uphill against the gale, toward the cliffs known as High Peak. Some of the sharp things sticking out of his flesh became loose and fell to the ground, but the letter opener held firm in his gut, its handle whipping back and forth. The photo of the little girl curled inside his grip.

As he reached the summit, the wind became fierce, but the frigid cold did not register. Standing unsteadily, he looked down at the waves beating ferociously against the rocks. George knew at that moment, seven billion people were going to die, but he no longer cared. In fact, it all made sense now; everything was as it should be.

He opened his fist and the photo of the girl blew into the sea. George smiled peacefully. Arms spread-eagled, he leaned over the edge and dropped silently off the cliff. His head slammed against the jagged boulders, splitting his skull. His broken body tumbled in the waves.


ISABELLE MAGUIRE LOOKED UP from a potted begonia with a tiny gasp. The muscles in her body stiffened and her skin turned cold and clammy. It was the feeling a mother might get when a child goes missing at the mall. Across the room, twelve-year-old Sean was on the couch with his face in a book. His older brother, Luke, was in his bedroom with the door closed, radio blasting.

She clicked her tongue, shook off the feeling, and continued watering the plants; twenty-two species that covered every surface of her Brooklyn apartment. It was the third time this month Isabelle had one of these premonitions and the feeling lingered. She forced it from her mind and maneuvered around the stuffy living room, an obstacle course of potted ferns and rubber trees.

Isabelle returned to the kitchen, stifling hot from a roast in the oven, and blotted a towel across her forehead. She threw open the window and felt a cool breeze on her cheeks. It was dark outside and the lights of Montague Street were as bright and cheery as the sounds of laughter; couples strolling, families headed out for dinner, young people hitting the bars.

Isabelle tried not to look, listen, or even think about the streets below. Instead she drew her attention to the window box, where tiny green leaves were beginning to sprout, newly planted dill, basil, and parsley. She sprinkled the last drops of water on the dirt, closed the window, and locked it tight.

A bird trapped in a cage.

Dark, somber eyes stared back from the glass. Lack of sunshine had given her a milk-white complexion, but her dress was pressed, her makeup perfectly applied, and her long, black hair neatly coiffed. Not a strand out of place.

Hazy-eyed, she unconsciously wiped off the lipstick with the back of her hand.

The kitchen timer buzzed and Isabelle startled, checking her watch. It was nearly six o’clock and Colin liked dinner as soon as he came home. She removed the roast from the oven and filled the pitcher, rinsing the lipstick from her skin.

“Sean, come water your plants,” she called out gently.

Although only twelve, Sean was nearly as tall as his mother with the same dark hair and alabaster skin. He shuffled through the kitchen and took the pitcher without a word. Sean had not spoken since he was eight, the day he fell out of a tree. He had been such a terrific kid, smart and funny, incessantly talking. He knew Latin and played the violin in preschool, and at the age of six he could recite Shakespeare and pi to the thousandth digit. Like Isabelle, he had a passion for botany. He would spend hours a day collecting plants in the park, squishing them under newspaper and drying them between blotting paper. By the age of seven his collection contained half the native plant species found in New York City.

Then one day Sean was climbing a tree in Central Park, while Isabelle watched him, lost in thought. It was hard enough keeping an eye on Sean. The kid was so energetic, running from swings to monkey bars to treetops. But that particular morning, Isabelle had had a fight with her husband and didn’t hear her son’s cry for help. It was a mistake she would regret the rest of her life. Sean fell twenty feet to the ground. He awoke from a coma a completely different person. For the past three years, he went to special schools, grunted out frustrations, and used his own form of sign language. He sat in waiting rooms with vacant eyes and half-closed lids that gave him a sleepy, dim-witted expression, as he was paraded before an endless list of specialists.

Still, no one could tell Isabelle why her son was mute or why his IQ had sunk forty points. Tests showed he had made a complete recovery with no damage to the brain. Physically, there was no explanation for his condition.

Sean plodded around the living room, watering all the floor plants and his favorite, a holly bush. It had stayed colorful all winter, but now it was spring and the red berries had fallen off. Isabelle watched her son with both affection and remorse as she remembered the laughing, inquisitive boy who had been so small and agile. Now he was tall and plump, silent and somber. It seemed as if Sean had to concentrate on even small tasks like walking and breathing.

Soft. That’s how Colin described him. Isabelle’s husband didn’t like anything out of the ordinary and that included his children. A key fiddled in the door and she looked at the clock and frowned.

Colin strolled into the apartment, threw his jacket over a coat hook, and carefully unbuckled his holster. He slipped a Glock pistol and his police badge into a bureau drawer, locked it with a key, and went to the living room. He took off his shoes and sat down in an armchair, folding the evening paper and brushing his fingers down his tie to remove any sign of lint. It was an obsessive habit, a mark of fastidiousness.

As he opened the paper and flicked away invisible crumbs from his shoulder, his eyes lingered on Sean reading a book on wildflowers.

Isabelle thought she saw a look of disgust.

“So when’s his next appointment?” Colin asked her.

“I’m done with doctors. He’s been to dozens and there’s no consensus. I think he’s fine. He just needs—”

“Fine? He’s not fine.”

She leaned out of the kitchen doorway, clutching a spoon. “Could we not talk about this right now?”

Colin snapped open the newspaper and it swallowed him from view. “Did you get a box of cigars for the captain?”



She didn’t answer.

“Come on, Isabelle, get some freaking air.”

“I’m just busy.”

“You’re not busy. Tomorrow I want you to go to the cigar store on Bedford and pick out the expensive kind. The online stuff is crap. Do you hear me?”


He put down the paper with a crunch, gazing around the room. “Jesus, why don’t we just grow our own tobacco? We’ve got every other plant. It’s like a jungle in here. Are you listening?”


“I want you to start thinking about getting rid of half of these pots. You hear me?”


“Especially these monsters on the floor.”

She poked her head from the doorway. “Those belong to Sean.”

Colin looked at his son and started to speak, but reconsidered.

Isabelle returned to the kitchen and scooped the string beans into a bowl and wondered, as always, how she had missed all the warning signs.

Colin was a rookie police officer when they met. To Isabelle he was the knight in shining armor she’d been waiting for, a ticket out of her mother’s house and away from a future going nowhere. The job became his life, and Colin steadily rose in rank to become the youngest detective on the force. Isabelle knew she would always come second to his career, but she never imagined he would bring the job home with him. Colin approached the marriage as though it were a homicide investigation. He scrutinized every problem, overexamined details, and spoke to his wife as if interrogating a witness. He instructed her on how to clean the house, raise the children, answer the phone, and even how to dress—in stylish skirts and high-heeled shoes.

While Isabelle could cope with his dictatorship, she couldn’t stand his suspicion and jealousy, the endless middle-of-the-day phone calls. Lately, she stopped going out altogether.

“What did you do today?” he asked.

Food shopping.”



“Remember you told me you wanted to travel the world?” He chuckled.

“Things change.” She sharpened a knife over the roast.

Colin listened to the quiet. “Where’s Monica?”

“Luke’s room.”

He craned his neck toward the hallway. The door to his fifteen-year-old son’s room was closed and he chuckled again. “Maybe he finally nailed her.”

Isabelle bristled at the comment. Colin had brought Monica home two months ago, after her mother was thrown in jail for prostitution. Not that he was such a caring man, to take pity on a troubled teen, but Monica was the latest in a series of charitable projects to make him look good to the department. Isabelle didn’t really mind. The girl was all right, not too difficult so far, but quite distracting for her older son, Luke. Like Colin, Isabelle knew that it was unlikely anything was going on inside the bedroom. Monica showed zero interest in the boy. But she was hardly a good influence with her street smarts, provocative clothing, tattoos, and black makeup.

Colin was already at the table when she carried the sliced roast and vegetables into the dining room.

“I’ve got big news,” he said. “I’ve been promoted to lieutenant.”

She set the platter on the table with a thud. “That’s wonderful.”

“They put me in charge of the Park Slope murders.”

“The serial killer?”

“The case will be my life until we nail the fucker. This is probably my last family dinner for months.”

Isabelle feigned a look of disappointment and watched her husband line up a uniform row of string beans on his plate. She was about to call the children to dinner when the doorbell rang, and she turned with a gasp. The same cold premonition swept over her again and she looked at the door without moving.

Colin speared a piece of meat. “You gonna get it or what?”

Isabelle swallowed hard, went to the door, and slid the lock. Standing in the hallway was a short but elegant man in a European suit. His large, dark eyes were set against a tan face. He had a thin mustache and his black hair was combed back neatly. He looked Italian, but his accent was British.

“Isabelle Brookes?” he said.

She nodded hesitantly.

“Daughter of Professor George Brookes?”

For a moment she couldn’t breathe. “Who are you?”

“I’m your father’s lawyer. Nicholas Bonacelli. May I come in?”

She stepped aside.

Colin scrutinized the man walking into his dining room. He asked, “What’s this about?”

Bonacelli spoke only to Isabelle. “I’m sorry to bring such troubling news. Your father died two months ago.”

She was stunned.

“You’re the heir to his estate.”

“Estate?” She was still piecing his words together. “You mean the island?”

“That’s right. The reading of the will is to take place tomorrow. It was your father’s request that you be present.”

“Oh… I don’t know.”

“I’ve made travel arrangements for you and your family.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Colin said with an angry grin. “Tomorrow? There’s no way.”

“It was his last request.”

“Excuse me,” Isabelle said. “I think something is burning.”

She fled to the kitchen and stood motionless by the stove with her body doubled over as though she’d been kicked. Her palm pressed firmly against her lips as she tried to suppress a cry. She attempted to recall George’s face, voice, or expression, but couldn’t focus on a single image. They were all blurry snapshots; a barefoot man in a white jacket twirling a yellow flower, instructing her on species identification, reading her books, and challenging her with riddles. They were faded memories, but exceptionally happy ones, and every moment took place on Sparrow Island, the only place that had ever felt like home.

So why had she never returned? Disappearing from her father’s life had been so difficult at ten years old, but she had had no problem staying away for thirty more. Now it seemed strange and wrong. She cringed, knowing it was fear that kept her from returning, the shame of her father’s legacy and the ugly rumors that surrounded him. She could feel tears forming, but then squared her shoulders. No, she wasn’t going to cry. The past was gone and there would be no reconciliation. Yet, this was a chance to return to the island she loved, put her feelings in order and try to forgive. The pain began to subside.

The thought of leaving her husband was strangely pleasant.

In the dining room, Colin was asking Bonacelli how much the island was worth.

“It’s irrelevant, since it cannot be sold. Sparrow Island was leased to Professor Brookes by the Canadian government. It’s paid up for the next seventy-five years.”

“Then there’s no need to fly out there. I know my rights. She doesn’t have to go to any reading.”

Isabelle marched into the room. “Mr. Bonacelli, I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Splendid.” He opened his briefcase on the table next to the roast.

“Hold on a minute,” Colin said hotly.

“It will just be a couple of weeks,” she told him. “Summer break just started and we have no plans.” She turned to the lawyer. “Is the house still livable?”

“Certainly, but it’s in bad disrepair.”

“It has running water? Electricity?”

“Oh, yes.”


“A supply boat comes twice a month. There’s no phone, but a two-way radio works most of the time.” He picked up a large envelope. “There is a private plane leaving for Halifax in the morning. You can bring up to four people. A boat will take you to the island as soon as you land, and we can go over the details of the will.”

“You can do that right now,” Colin said, his face mottled red.

“That was not her father’s wishes. I don’t even have the documents with me.”

“Isabelle!” Colin held up a hand and spoke loudly. “This is much too short… We need time… I’ve got a big case now.”

“That’s exactly why it’s a good time to go. You’re busy hunting down a serial killer. Really, you don’t have to come, Colin.”

“Of course I do. You can’t possibly handle this yourself. Besides, who will take care of the kids?”

“They’re coming with me.”

“No way.” Colin shook his head and pointed his finger at the lawyer. “We have a right to see that will and there’s nothing that says we have to go to any island. I’m in law enforcement and I know property rights pretty damn well.”

“You can take it up with the Canadian consulate,” Bonacelli said, thrusting the envelope toward Isabelle. “Now, I have a taxi waiting and I’m late for an appointment. Here are all the papers instructing you where to go. Reservation numbers, directions, and my personal cell phone number. I’m terribly sorry to meet under such an unfortunate circumstance. I knew your father for some years and he spoke of you with great affection.”

Isabelle found comfort in his words, but couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt. “You didn’t tell me how he died.”

“It was an accident.” No one spoke and he did not elaborate. Then Bonacelli started for the door. “Well, good-bye, Mrs. Maguire… Mr. Maguire.”


The lawyer gave an odd smile and left.

When the door shut, Colin glowered at Isabelle. “So what was he worth? Your father—did he have any money?” He went back to the living room, jittery and grim.

“Just the island. He lost the family fortune years ago, trying to finance his research.”

“Maybe he had money you didn’t know about. Stocks. Jewelry.”

She squinted. “There was a very expensive diamond, but I’m sure he’d have sold it by now.”

“Well, I’m making some calls tomorrow. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Don’t bother. I’m going.”

He took a threatening step toward her. “You’re not going. End of discussion.”

“I’m going.”

“Isabelle, I said no!”


MONICA LOUNGED IN A CHAIR by the window, delicately stroking her fingers down her flat tummy and lingering over her silver belly-button ring. She was wearing a pair of skintight black leather pants and a matching halter top. Luke was at his desk, sneaking glances at her slight, well-defined body. Feline-shaped green eyes lined in heavy black makeup. Pink pouty lips.

Cat Woman, he thought. She’s Cat Woman.

To Luke, the only thing more beguiling than her beauty was her attitude.

“What the fuck are you doing, anyway?” she said and flipped off the radio.

“Rebuilding a computer.” He pretended to unscrew something behind the monitor.

Monica took a long drag from her cigarette and blew smoke through the window screen. She flicked the ashes onto the ledge, since the ashtray was a couple inches out of reach, and took a swig from a bottle of brandy she had stolen from a cabinet in the living room. She chased it down with a Starburst Fruit Chew.

Luke could hardly believe she was in his bedroom, just inches from his bed. He wanted to grab his iPhone and snap a picture for the Robotics Club, but it was buried inside a knapsack. Instead, he strained for something witty to say.

“So, uh… how was your last day of school?” It sounded so lame, his eyes shut tight.

Monica blew out a sarcastic breath. “Your school sucks. The girls are phony twats and the guys are pretentious dicks.”

Luke was surprised she knew the word pretentious, but Monica was a walking bundle of contradictions. She was feminine, in a butch kind of way. She could speak fluent French, yet she didn’t know Brooklyn was part of New York City. Her dyed black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, which revealed platinum-blond roots that matched her nearly invisible eyebrows. She had a butterfly tattoo on her left ankle and a severed hand giving the finger on her right.

She pulled up the window screen and flicked the burning cigarette into the street.

Luke cleared his throat. “So… how’s your mom?”

“Don’t talk about my mom.”


“She’s such a bitch.”


“You wouldn’t get it.” She heaved a long sigh. “Damn, I miss my friends.”

Luke wondered if Monica had any friends. There were no calls in or out of the apartment since she arrived. She didn’t even own a cell phone, which was astounding since every girl Luke knew spent most of the day texting each other. At school, Monica walked around staring at the floor and never sat with anyone at lunch. Trinity was filled with mostly bright, wealthy students who regarded her as street trash. Even Luke never acknowledged her in the hallways when they passed. Not that he was wildly popular either. Sure, he’d made a couple of friends in the Robotics Club, but they never did anything outside of school.

He looked sideways at Monica, cleaning dirt from her fingernails, and wondered if she was a prostitute like her mother. The thought made him feel sad and excited at the same time. Maybe he should have offered to pay for sex weeks ago, instead of trying to win her over with charm. The proposition seemed dangerous. Someone with her kind of experience might laugh at his shortcomings. On the other hand, a knowledgeable partner could give him some pointers. Sort of like a sex tutor.

“Do tutors make good money?” she said.

Luke froze.

“You tutor math and science, right?” She was standing by the dresser, holding his Tutor of the Year award.

He recovered with a sigh. “Yeah. I guess. Like twenty an hour.”

She choked down a laugh. “That sucks.”

“How much do you make?”

Her lips clamped tight and she set the trophy down hard. “I’m not presently employed, but if I was, it would be more than twenty an hour.” She turned the trophy so it faced the wall. “My mom’s taking me to Paris when she gets out. I’m gonna be a famous artist.”

Luke had seen several of her childlike drawings of fruit bowls and couldn’t imagine the French art world welcoming her talent.

She spun all his other trophies around so they faced the wall, then turned all the knobs on his stereo and leafed through his CD collection. “Beatles… Rolling Stones… Elvis?” She rolled her eyes, and pulled out a CD. “Who the hell is Beth Oven?”

“It’s Beethoven.”

“I knew that, Einstein.”

There wasn’t much left on the dresser to mishandle so she stopped in front of a model skyscraper, an intricate, near-perfect replica of the Freedom Tower. Luke had made it in school and entered in a contest for a chance to win a $25,000 scholarship. She flipped a switch that turned the lights in the windows on and off.

“Hey, don’t touch that!”

Okay. Jeez.” She backed away, arms raised like a criminal. “Ne te mets pas en rogne.

He watched her flop onto the cot that was Sean’s bed, bouncing on the squeaky springs.

“How do you like sharing a room with your weird brother?”

“He’s not weird.”

“Bet you’d love it if I left. You can’t wait, huh?”

He shrugged. “It’s kind of nice having a girl around.”

Monica studied his expression. “You’re lying.”

“No I’m not.”

“You hate that I’m here.”

“I think you’re nice.” He took a breath and went for it. “You’re pretty too. You don’t need all that makeup.”

She squinted through thick black lashes, trying to decide if that was a compliment or an insult. Then she stood up with a grin and strolled back to the Freedom Tower, turning on the colored spotlights that spun on the ceiling. She pinched the pointed needle.

“Come on, really. It’s a group project.”

“Right. The geek squad.”

“Yeah, I didn’t know I’m a geek. Thanks for pointing it out.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

They were both silent for a moment, then her face softened and she looked at him with an appraising nod. She sauntered to his chair, sliding onto the desk with her tight rump covering his mouse pad. She leaned in close, smelling like cherry Starburst. They were close enough to kiss, and she flicked a stray lock of black hair from his brow, staring into his slightly freckled face that was still boyish but with a strong jawline of approaching manhood.

His heart was pounding so loud he worried she might hear it.

“You’re not so bad.” She nodded. “You’re actually kind of cute. I’ve seen you in your gym clothes and you have pretty good muscles in those shoulders… and those thighs,” she said, glancing down for an instant. “Yeah, I could make out with someone like you.”

Luke’s heart clutched and his cheeks streaked red. After two months of insults Monica was talking about making out. She even mentioned his thighs, which he knew were in fact getting muscular. His palms were beginning to sweat and he felt himself moving closer to the fantasies that kept him awake at night. He imagined the amazed faces of the Robotics Club.

She’s your girlfriend?

There would be a long, steady dating period, and then—

Yeah, we finally did it. She couldn’t stand it anymore. Making out all the time, but not going all the way. It was too stressful for both of us, really.

“Of course it’s your personality that’s the problem. Zero confidence.” She slid off the desk, fell onto the bed, and watched him deflate. “Oh, it’s not your fault. That kind of thing is genetic. Although, I can’t even believe Colin is your dad, he’s like your opposite.”

Luke suddenly wanted her out of the room. He started taking apart the computer with the screwdriver, banging the plastic and making a lot of noise, hoping she’d leave.

Monica stretched on the bed like a cat. “Colin’s a good guy.”

“Not always.” He snuck a glance in her direction. She was doing it again, stroking her flat stomach and gazing at the ceiling. Why did he keep trying? She was obviously a tease and there was no hope of winning her over. He had been trying every day and now he was angry. He threw the screwdriver on the desk and stared at the wall. “Don’t you think it’s weird that my dad invited you to stay with us? Just asked some stranger off the street to live with him?”

“Colin isn’t a stranger. I’ve known him for years. When my mom got busted he didn’t dump me on CPS. He’s like a father figure.”

Luke’s face burned hot, and he muttered, “What, are you screwing him or something?”

There was a flutter of movement, and then a slap hit his face like a wet towel.

Oww,” he said and held his cheek.

Monica stood over him. Her eyes were moist, but there was only rage in her expression. “I told you, he’s like my dad, you idiot! I don’t screw anyone, you piece of shit. I have a boyfriend for your information.”

She fell back on the bed, turning to the wall and wiping her eyes.

“Sorry.” Luke tossed a box of tissues.

“Forget it.” She kicked the box with her foot.

They didn’t speak for a long moment, and then calmness came over her body. She sniffed. “You really think I’m pretty?”

Muffled shouts of anger came from the living room and Luke bolted for the door.

* * *

Colin stood over Isabelle with a dark expression and threw out his arms. “Sure, look at you! Can’t walk a few blocks for cigars, but you want to fly off to some island for a month.”

“Two weeks,” she shouted back.

Luke stepped between his parents, with Monica several paces behind. “What’s going on?”

Isabelle wiped her eyes and Colin backed off. The sight of Luke had a neutralizing effect on both of them.

Isabelle sniffed. “My father passed away.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“He lived on an island, remember?”


“Well, he left it to me in his will. And I’ve decided we’re going there for a vacation.”

You decided,” Colin said.

“It will do us all good. You can come too, Monica.”


“You coming, Dad?”

“No, I’m not. But, hey—go ahead, all of you. Take the kids, since I won’t be around. I’ll be doing my job, paying the bills. No need to include me in the discussion.”

“It’s only a couple of weeks.”

“That’s not the point! You didn’t ask me. You just told that lawyer what you want to do, without an ounce of respect to me. He thought I was some jerk.” He paced the floor and stopped in front of Isabelle. “Don’t ever talk to me like that!”

“I can think for myself.”

Colin grabbed her shoulders.

Sean had been silently watching from the couch, but now he sprang forward and ran headfirst into his father’s chest.

Colin stumbled over a potted fern. Anger seized him as he recovered his balance and grabbed the boy by a fistful of shirt. “Cut it out, you freak!”

Sean struggled to get loose.

His father backhanded him across the face.

“Stop it!” Isabelle shouted.

Colin looked shocked. He’d never hit any of his children before, never had to.

“Hey, leave him alone, Dad,” Luke said.

Colin let go and Sean fell to the floor. He crawled backward and scurried like a crab to a chair. He climbed up on the cushion.

“Yeah. Okay,” Colin said. His dazed expression vanished and he went tight-lipped to the dining room table. “Go ahead and take your vacation. All of you. I don’t care.” He slumped in a chair. “Stay as long as you want.”

There was a red welt across Sean’s face, but he seemed to be okay. He was reading the book again. Isabelle knew that any criticism now would only make things worse, so she joined Colin in the dining room.

“Let’s not make a fuss,” she said in a small voice, to no one in particular. “We’ll just enjoy our dinner.” She sat at the table and picked up the bowl of string beans.

Luke said, “I’m not really hungry.”

“Me neither,” Monica echoed.

“Great.” Colin stabbed his beans. “Well, I’m eating.”

The teens walked down the hall and parted at their bedrooms.

Isabelle held her breath and spoke softly without looking at her husband. “I was thinking, you could join us on the island for a couple days, maybe on the weekend before we leave.”

Colin didn’t answer, but took a bite of meat. He looked up from his dinner plate. “I’m sorry, Sean, okay? Come eat dinner.”

The boy kept reading.

Now, Sean.”

Sean looked up from the book and Isabelle gave a small nod. He joined them at the table and they began the meal in silence.

Isabelle swept her foot over to Sean, tugged at his sock.

He smiled and toed her back.


DR. JULES BEECHER GAZED AROUND the Garden Terrace Room of the New York Botanical Garden, nervously drumming his fingers on the crisp white tablecloth. The Institute of Plant Neurobiology was counting on him to raise some serious money. They had arranged the dinner at an expensive venue, inviting two hundred reporters and prominent scientists in the hopes of elevating their status and generating more funds.

The principles of plant neurobiology had long been considered on the fringes of acceptable science and largely ignored by the press. However, the last ten years had revealed some astonishing facts about plant signaling abilities. Most recent was a groundbreaking experiment undertaken by Jules and his team that produced such remarkable data it caught the attention of the public, and therefore the media.

Quite simply, Jules had discovered that plants could—in their own way—talk.

Still, he felt ill at ease with the eleven men and women sitting around the spacious table eating salad from expensive china. They weren’t the usual crowd he knew from scientific journals. This was the mainstream press, reporters from National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, Wired, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine. Most were nicely dressed and courteous, except for the scruffy-looking man from National Enquirer sporting a Mets T-shirt, beard stubble, and a serious attitude. Already he’d complained about the air-conditioning, lighting, and music. Jules didn’t know how a gossip columnist had wormed his way into the mix, but he didn’t care. There was no doubt this group on the whole could garner the coverage needed by the institute. They had all come to see a forty-five-minute documentary that accompanied his paper titled “The Underground Communication System of Environmental Stress Cues in Plants.”

Edward Schroeder, director of the institute, had seated Jules with the national press because he was fairly good at making technical jargon sound understandable and interesting. Also, Jules was British, an Oxford scholar, and he felt that might give the event an international flair and convey a sort of credibility.

Nonetheless, Jules felt awkward among his guests, like a somber giant at a table of lively school kids. He was abnormally tall, six foot eight in loafers, and his shoulders stooped from years of bending down to converse with colleagues. But he had a striking face: sharply chiseled features of his Anglo-Saxon ancestors and haunting amber-colored eyes that blinked a mixture of melancholy and intellect. His straight black hair was long and unruly, giving him a laid-back appearance and he had a warm smile that made people like him.

The press, however, seemed to be largely ignoring him, content to talk and laugh among themselves. Schroeder, who was seated at the next table with a handful of notable scientists, gave Jules an impatient nod, beckoning him to get on with it.

Jules cleared his throat and addressed the reporters. “I’m so very pleased you could all be here,” he said in a smooth London accent, but his stark expression hinted he was anything but comfortable. “I believe you’ll find the documentary to be quite extraordinary.”

The reporters looked up from their plates with muted smiles, as if they could sense his unease. The man from The Times said, “I’m looking forward to the film. It was an interesting study, although I’m not exactly sure of the implications. Are you suggesting that plants have the same kind of intelligence as humans? I mean—should I be eating this salad?”

Jules politely laughed at the joke with the rest of his guests. “No, I wouldn’t go so far.”

“Dr. Beecher, I notice you haven’t touched your salad,” said an attractive reporter from Wired, the only woman at the table.

Jules speared a forkful of lettuce and made a show of chewing it with gusto. The guests seemed amused. He swallowed hard, wiping balsamic dressing from the corner of his mouth. “I wouldn’t say plant intelligence is equal to that of humans. Plants are complex beings with their own form of consciousness, but people tend to think of them almost like machines, with communication abilities more analogous to a light switch than a living organism. My experiments prove that plants can learn, remember, and respond as well as any creatures with a nervous system.”

Dr. Beecher’s research had in fact shown that plants communicate in ways similar to social beings. His first experiment involved five hundred specimens—tomatoes, string beans, and corn—set in rows according to species, with some intermingling. The test group, made up of ten tomato plants, was subjected to a mixture of sugar and alcohol, which is known to elicit the same response as if the plants were exposed to drought conditions—specifically closure of the stomata, to prohibit water loss.

Jules found that within a few minutes of the test group responding, the closest neighboring tomato also began to close its stomata, even though they were not exposed to the treatment. Somehow, the message traveled quickly across the species, as though they were all shouting to each other in a common language, Prepare for drought! Prepare for drought! Within an hour, all two hundred tomato plants had responded to the call.

Remarkably, two hours later the other species of plants, the string beans and corn, began closing up the stomata in their leaf cells as well. Jules reasoned they had taken extra time to translate the message, as though it were in a foreign language.

Even more astounding was a follow-up experiment in which Jules attempted to find the anatomical source of the plant signals. Using sensitive acoustical equipment placed underground, he discovered that the roots of the plant were making a clicking noise, a kind of chatter that registered at 220 hertz. It seemed there was a pattern to the clicks among the tomato plants, while the corn and string beans had their own unique pattern. When Jules recorded the clicks and played them back underground, he found that the roots of the plants all grew toward the sounds, and not just any clicks but only those specific to their species. Jules had opened the possibility that plants use a form of language to communicate with each other.

“You must have been surprised at your findings,” Wired said.

“More excited than surprised,” Jules replied. “We’ve known for centuries that plants communicate with each other. Take the poplar tree, for instance. When attacked by hungry caterpillars, not only will it produce a chemical repulsive to the insect, it will cue the surrounding trees to do the same. Although, in the case of poplars it’s by chemicals released through the leaves. We see the same thing with most plants. That lovely smell of fresh-cut grass is actually your lawn screaming.”

“That’s interesting, and a bit disturbing,” Wired said, jotting notes on a tablet. “So plants have several ways of signaling alarm.”

Jules noticed Schroeder watching from the next table. He gave a wink and a small thumbs-up, and Jules began to relax. “Right now my belief is that plants communicate through a combination of chemicals and sound, but there could be other means we’ve not yet explored.”

“Like telepathy?” The shabbily dressed man from the Enquirer brought the conversation to a halt. He was leaning back in his seat, rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers.

“Sorry?” Jules said softly.

“Didn’t you work on some nutty experiment in the seventies, and then publish results that were never proven?”

Jules felt his heart skip a beat. He couldn’t tell if the reporter was kidding, but he had apparently done some research. “Are you referring to my years at Oxford?” He grinned and turned to the woman from Wired, who somehow seemed an ally. “I’m sure we’re all guilty of a few dreadful research papers.”

“I read your latest book.” Enquirer reached into a tattered cloth bag and pulled out a hardcover copy of The Human Delusion: Man’s Hierarchy of Life on Earth by Julian Beecher. “It was very amusing, by the way.”

Jules doubted the remark was meant as a compliment, but said, “Thank you.”

“I especially like the introduction.” The reporter began reading from a page bookmarked with a yellow sticky note. “‘Humans have long been under the delusion that we are somehow autonomous from the rest of nature, elevated above all of earth’s creatures. So terrified are we of losing our exalted status, we cling to the anthropocentric notion that we are the only intelligent life on earth.’”

Jules felt all the blood in his body suddenly rush to his cheeks, burning hot and tingly. It had been decades since he was faced with a contentious reporter. He threw a gaze to Schroeder, who was frowning deeply.

“I think that’s a very insightful introduction,” said Wired. “I couldn’t agree more with that statement.”

Enquirer dropped the book on the table with a thud. “So let me get this straight: You’re saying humans are on the same level as a petunia?”

Jules stared at the man. This kind of hostility always came from the same sort. Insecure hacks who got their kicks tearing down ideas too advanced for their small minds. No doubt he came for the free dinner as well. Nonetheless, Jules was resigned to keep his dignity and humor, and so he smiled jovially. “I was merely pointing out the fact that nonhumans, even plants, are more similar to us than we realize. Did you know that humans and chimpanzees share ninety-six percent of the same genes? Humans and cats share almost ninety percent. And nearly sixty percent of genes are shared between humans and asparagus.”

There were bits of laughter around the table.

“Well, blimey, ol’ chap,” Enquirer said, in mockery of Jules’s accent. “Obviously you have a different definition of intelligence than the rest of the planet.”

Jules tried to control his anger as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He didn’t like being made a fool, yet he couldn’t remember the protocol. Should he ignore the man or confront him with facts? His tone became more firm than friendly. “Darwin believed that intelligence is based on how efficient a species becomes at doing the things they need to survive. If you were to think in those terms, plants are actually more intelligent than humans. For seven hundred million years, they’ve graced the earth with nourishment, oxygen, and beauty. And for two hundred thousand years, mankind has scorched and raped our planet, seeming almost driven to destroy the environment—and, might I add, ourselves.”

Enquirer scoffed, “It’s really simple, Beecher. You can’t have intelligence without a brain.”

The other reporters at the table fidgeted uneasily.

Jules felt his heart pounding. It was obvious the man was an idiot. “Science has already proven that plants can breathe without lungs, digest without a stomach, move without muscles, and transmit electrical signals without a nervous system. So is it unreasonable to assume they can think without a brain?”

“I can’t believe you’re sitting here comparing plants to humans. They’re vegetation, as similar to humans as my shoe.”

Jules had stopped listening. He thought about how sheltered he’d been, surrounded by equal minds who thought as he did. He’d become widely regarded as a cerebral scientist known for a reserved manner and friendly charm. Yet two minutes with this reporter and Jules wanted to beat the man to death. He could picture his hands wrapped around that skinny neck.

“Bunch of crap,” Enquirer muttered.

Jules blinked and forced his voice steady. “We’ve known for a hundred years, since the work of Jagadish Chandra Bose, that plants can feel fatigue, empathy, irritability, and even pain. That’s not even debatable at this point.”

Schroeder was shaking his head.

Jules turned to the woman from Wired, beaming in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Did you know that a plant treated with chloroform will become anesthetized, just like animals? They can become intoxicated from a shot of whiskey, swaying like a drunk, even passing out and becoming revived with signs of a hangover. Why, simply cutting one leaf of a plant will produce signs of acute shock to the entire organism, and the other leaves can remain depressed and hyper-responsive for hours.”

“I had no idea plants were so sentient,” Wired said. “It really makes an intelligent person think.”

“You know what I think?” Enquirer said. “It’s all a bunch of crap. This whole field of study is what you call pseudoscience. Be good to plants because they have feelings too. It’s been going on since the sixties, and frankly it’s getting a little old. So now you fudge a few experiments to back up your claims, and I’m saying, it’s still the same old crap.” He shoved a forkful of lettuce in his mouth and looked around the table with an expression of triumph, as though he’d revealed something important, pointing out the naked emperor.

The woman from Wired excused herself and abruptly headed to the buffet table, which had just opened.

She passed Schroeder, who was looking rather nauseous.

Jules felt his eye twitch and scanned the room full of journalists. What was he doing here? None of these people understood what he meant, not really. He stared at Enquirer, with his cynical, doubting face, and threw him a murderous glance. “I realize there will always be people who question our work at the institute. However, if you bother to actually read the papers that have been written on this subject over the last decade, you will find that plant intelligence is an indisputable fact. We can no longer deny it, any more than we can deny that dogs, dolphins, and rats display their own cognitive abilities. If a crow has intelligence, why not an amoeba, which can navigate a maze as well as a mouse? And then why not snakes, bacteria, or even lima bean plants? Where exactly does intelligence begin? I would argue that the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. So while you may think the study of plant intelligence is crap, any true scientist will tell you that survival is the single greatest determinant of a species’ success on earth, and on that basis, plant intelligence far surpasses that of humans.” Then he added, “Some humans more than others.”

Enquirer chuckled. “Hey, check this out, Beecher.” He reached across the table to the centerpiece, a spray of flowers, and grasped a carnation between his fingers. He snapped off the top of the stem and waved the red flower at Jules. “I think we’re safe from their tyranny.”

Jules had had enough. Reasoning was pointless. His heart rate slowed, as hatred replaced anger. “You’re perfectly correct. Until man came along with his penchant for destroying that which keeps us alive, there had never been an enemy plants couldn’t conquer or a geological condition they could not overcome. For seven hundred million years they’ve withstood ice ages, erupting volcanoes, meteor showers, and events brutal enough to kill off ninety-nine percent of species on the planet. So you raise a good point. If plants had the means to destroy humans, would they? Like the cowpea that releases peptides against the armyworm, or the tannins of a hemlock that kill attacking bacteria; would that Dianthus caryophyllus you just decapitated want to chop off your head?”

“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Edward Schroeder stood behind Jules with his arms wide in a welcoming gesture. “It’s so good to see you all here. We have a wonderful buffet set up and I’ll bet you’re all starving.” He glared at Jules. “I trust Dr. Beecher has given you an excellent overview of his groundbreaking study. So before we begin our film, I suggest you enjoy our delicious dinner.”

“Yes, of course.” Jules stood up, towering over the table and spoke softly to Enquirer. “Thank you for the discussion.” In a parting glance, he muttered, “Arsehole.”

* * *

The guests lined up for a seafood buffet while an orchestra played a lively version of “Ramblin’ Rose.” Jules sat alone at the table, with a small plate of linguine in clam sauce. He didn’t feel so well and decided to get some fresh air before the documentary began. He threw down his napkin and had started for the patio doors when he was approached by a distinguished-looking man who barely reached his shoulders.

The man extended a hand. “Dr. Beecher, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Jules shook it quickly, anxious to get outside.

“I read your latest book. It was quite good.”

“Thank you. Will you excuse me, please?”

“It reminded me so much of George Brookes.”

Jules paused, peering down at the man. “Who are you?”

“Nicholas Bonacelli. I’m Professor Brookes’s lawyer.”

“Oh. I see. How is George?”

“Dead, I’m afraid.”

Jules looked shocked.

“I am sorry,” the lawyer said. “He spoke very highly of you.”

“He was my mentor years ago. This is terribly sad. I feel awfully guilty not having visited him. Was it sudden?”


Jules didn’t press for details.

“You must come to Sparrow Island right away. He’s named you in his will.”

“Sparrow Island? I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

“There’s a cab waiting outside. I’ve made all the arrangements for your travel this evening.”


The Garden Terrace Room was bustling all around him, as Jules considered his obligation to the institute. He was, after all, the main reason for the dinner. On the other hand, the reporters at his table had no grasp of botany or the implications of his experiments. It wasn’t viewed as news of a scientific breakthrough, but as entertainment. They would probably write two-inch articles with snappy headlines like “Smarty Plants” and “Getting to the Root of Gossiping Tomatoes.”

Jules felt uncomfortably torn. He spotted Edward Schroeder, pointing him back to his table where the reporters had taken their seats and the Enquirer madman was holding court, displaying Jules’s book in a comical manner.

He nodded to the lawyer. “Give me half an hour to pack.”


THE SEA AIR WAS FOGGY with silver mist as the Acadia bounced along the waves.

The old fishing boat looked ready for scrap. The deck was splintered and warped by thirty years of lobster traps thrown about. Its boxy shape was antiquated, the hull chipped and bleached to seagull gray. But her engine was in top shape and she maneuvered deftly over choppy waters, cruising toward Sparrow Island at eighty knots, faster than most sailing ships.

Luke and Monica stood on deck, laughing at their own failed attempts to walk a straight line. They fell over each other, squealing like children whenever a spray of water blew across the bow. It was late afternoon and much colder than the marina in Halifax. Luke put on a ski jacket and Monica wrapped herself up in black leather against an ocean breeze that brought the temperature to a brisk forty-five.

Isabelle watched them from the window of the bridge, fighting nausea but glad to see Monica finally loosened up and cheerful. Sean stood beside his mother, holding tight to a holly bush. He wanted to replant it on the island for George, who had been a real botanist. Isabelle was touched and thought her father would appreciate the gesture.

The boat captain was a jovial man named Flannigan. He was a Canadian from Halifax, round and rosy, with a scruffy red beard and eyes as blue as the sea. He had known George for years, brought him supplies once a month, and he navigated the waters like the local cod. Sebastian, his steward, was a small, wiry man with a rugged face who seemed far too muscular for his age, which Isabelle guessed to be close to seventy. He raucously hosed down lobster traps and stacked them in the stern.

As the captain steered the boat, Sean watched in earnest, gripping his fists in the air and mimicking the captain turning the wheel. Flannigan laughed heartily and allowed the boy to take the helm. Sean spun the wheel, looping in a circle as everyone shuffled starboard.

“Please, Sean,” Isabelle complained, her stomach heaving.

Flannigan laughed. “Ye look a wee shit-picky, miss,” he said with an accent that seemed a mix of Irish, Canadian, and pirate.

“Is it always so choppy?” Isabelle asked.

“Been weatherin’ lately. She’s got some lops now, but by tomarra mornin’ she’ll be flat-ass calm.”

Sean pointed to all the instruments and Flannigan nodded, giving names to the tachometer, voltmeter, fuel gauge, and barometer. He tapped a black box above his head. “And dars yer radio.”

It was a two-hour ride, fifty miles up the Nova Scotia coast to Liscomb Island, and then straight out to sea. Luke and Monica watched Sebastian clean lobster traps. With the wicked smile of a salty dog, he handed them an old deck of cards adorned with topless women from the 1950s. They laughed, riffling through the deck. Then they got cold and went inside the cabin to play poker.

Flannigan spent the time giving Sean lessons on how to drive a boat. “’Ave a son m’self,” he told Isabelle. “Quiet boy, loike dis fella.”

She asked how often he’d visited George, and he said once a month he’d bring food and a drum of diesel. George would give him a list of books to order and deliver, along with various magazines on botany and scientific equipment.

“Yer fodder ’ad a fondness fer nature, ’e did.”

Isabelle nodded and asked the captain if he delivered supplies to other islands.

Flannigan smiled, pointing to the eastern horizon. He told her of Sable Island, three hundred kilometers out to sea, and how he was the only boater willing to make the trip. The island was home to five people, eight hundred feral horses, fifty thousand seals, and the great white sharks that ate them. But it was famous for its high number of shipwrecks. Over three hundred vessels had fallen victim to the island’s sandbars, thick fogs, and treacherous currents.

Flannigan talked for an hour about storms and shipwrecks. As Isabelle listened, the fog suddenly brightened. Through a veil of white, she squinted at a silhouette in the distance, a dark clamshell that could only be an island. The boat seemed to pick up speed and the engine strained. They were fighting a strong current and the captain shouted over the motor.

“She’s a brutal tide, means we’re gettin’ close. Yer fodder ’ad no one but me to come oyt ’ere. Ye won’t see a single vessel come by fer months.”

Isabelle shifted uneasily.

“Don’t ye worry, miss. Oi ain’t been wrecked once.”

Then the fog lifted and the air became warmer. Seagulls shrieked overhead and the water looked almost black. Sparrow Island lay dark and desolate before them, every detail quickly taking form. The boat glided faster, pulling sideways with the current.

“Thar she is,” Flannigan said with a smile of meeting an old friend.

The island was no more than three miles wide. Isabelle didn’t remember seeing the land from afar and its grim appearance took her by surprise. The woods seemed ominous and ugly, cast in shadows of dark gray. Spikes of conifers and of spindly white trees twisted like skeletons. Tendrils of fog wrapped around their trunks and there was an eerie stillness to the place. She felt a chill on her neck that wasn’t the wind.

The Acadia made a wide loop around the western shore and closed in on a lagoon. The inlet was partly fenced in by a natural jetty, and getting inside wasn’t easy. The current pulled the boat east, where the shoreline rose sharply into thirty-meter cliffs. Waves crashed violently against the rocks below.

The boat shimmied and bounced as the engine sputtered and the captain swore under his breath, struggling to stay on course. As they reached the inlet, the current fought hard and Isabelle stared anxiously at the ominous rocks of the jetty nearly upon them. The waves were picking up speed, growing wild as they headed toward the cliffs.

“’Ang on,” Flannigan warned. Isabelle clutched Sean with one hand, the seat cushion with the other.

At last they broke through the riptide. The engine quieted and the boat scuttled into the lagoon, still rocking. The captain called his steward to take the wheel. Sean and Isabelle followed him to the lower deck. They grasped the railing for support, while the captain seemed balanced and cheery.

“Land ’o!” he shouted, and prepared for docking.

The engine hummed pleasantly and Isabelle felt her heart begin to calm. There were seagulls overhead, tiny sparrows tweeting, and the boat chugged along on tepid waves.

Monica followed Luke out of the cabin and they stood at the rail.

She turned up a lip. “That’s it? Where’s the palm trees? Those look like Christmas trees.”

Luke chuckled. “We’re in the north Atlantic. It’s not tropical. Did you think this was a tropical island?”

No,” she said quickly. “But I thought it would at least be warm. Not so hideous. Jeez, this is gonna suck.”

Up close it was all wilderness and jagged rocks, and along the shore was a thin strip of black beach.

“That’s not even sand,” Monica said. “It’s like… dirt.”

“Tar Beach,” Isabelle said. “That’s what my mother called it.”

Luke shook his head. “It’s not tar or dirt. Probably volcanic rock. Fragments of lava, just like Hawaii.”

“This is so not Hawaii.”

“It does seem a bit creepy,” Isabelle said to Flannigan. “Especially those woods.”

“’Eard some bad stories aboyt dem woods.”

“Yes,” she replied. “My father told me many.”

“Yer fodder was a tough old bird. Just loike dis oiland.” Then his grin slipped away. “Ye be sure to stay indoors at noight. Gets cold enough to skin ye.”

The boat pulled up to the dock, where Nicholas Bonacelli was standing in a suit and overcoat. He waved as they pulled into the mooring.

“Eh-yuh, mister lawyer, sir,” Flannigan shouted. “’Oweya gettin’ on?” He jumped ashore with the dock lines and quickly wound them around the cleats.

Everyone grabbed suitcases and backpacks and lined up to depart. Luke was first to hop off the boat.

“Careful, fella, dock is greasy,” Flannigan said, tying up the stern.

They were all finally standing on land and no one was more pleased than Isabelle. The air was cold and damp like she remembered. A constant breeze blew over the island, carrying droplets of salt that coated everything in a layer of white.

She was struck with a feeling of being home as she gazed over the beach, and a flood of memories assaulted her senses: the smell of fish, the ripping sound of wind, the taste of salty air in her mouth. She used to paddle around the shallows, squealing with delight, until a wave hit the back of her head and her body would roll over itself, white foam and sand churning before her eyes, stinging her throat. She’d laugh as the tide dumped her onshore, coughing, sputtering, and running back to the sea for more. When it was warm, she’d lie on a towel and read stacks of books, or catch minnows in the tide pools with her hand, scooping up their slippery bodies as they flailed, and dropping them in a bucket.

Isabelle turned her gaze to the jetty, where she would sit on the cool wet stones and look out to sea, watching for boats that never came, feeling the rush of wind on her cheeks and hearing the roar of the waves that smashed against the cliffs. And all around, towering trees hemmed the beach, sentinels of the island.

Bonacelli reached for Isabelle’s suitcase and started down the gangway. Normally, she would have insisted on carrying her own bag, but the lawyer seemed like the type of gentleman who might be insulted.

Luke watched him, impressed by his chivalry, and picked up Monica’s duffel bag, rocking as he walked with two heavy loads. Instead of being grateful, Monica punched him in the arm and told him not to drag it. The island was a bit warmer and less windy than the boat, but everyone kept their jackets snug as they started down the gangway. Bonacelli told the captain he would be returning, and asked him to wait a couple of hours until his business was complete.

Flannigan smiled at Isabelle. “’Eard yer ’usband’s comin’ to join ye later on. Shall oi pick ’im up den?”

Her cheeks flushed. “It seems he’ll be getting a lift from the Coast Guard.”

Flannigan looked impressed. “Military man, eh?”

“Policeman,” Isabelle said. She gave Flannigan a few dollars for his kindness.

“Aye, God bless yer cotton socks, miss.”

Sean waved to the boat.

Flannigan waved back. “Fair weather to ye, son.”

* * *

The path through the woods was marked with red tags nailed to trees that led straight to the house. It was a twenty-minute hike and Isabelle let Luke and Monica walk ahead. Sean trailed behind his mother, gathering pinecones.

“Stay close,” she told him with an uneasy gaze.

Isabelle and Bonacelli stepped carefully over the littered ground. Neglect had narrowed the path with rotting logs and fallen branches, hanging vines and pricker bushes desperate to scratch. At times the path seemed to disappear completely.

Isabelle couldn’t see the older kids anymore, but heard a bout of laughter and then all was quiet. She hoped they didn’t accidentally veer off course; it was easy to get lost in these woods if you didn’t know the way. Countless times she had walked this trail, but now it seemed unfamiliar. The woods were murkier, gloomier than she remembered. Overhead, a few trees had begun to sprout leaves, but mostly the canopy was a web of naked limbs. White-skinned birch, mangled oaks, and towering pines with paltry needles.

Isabelle felt a twinge of fear, which made her feel foolish. As a child she’d never been afraid of the woods—never afraid of anything—and it was troubling to think how such a brave little girl could have grown so meek. She thought of the stories George had told, silly attempts to scare her. She could almost see their tiny heads hanging from trees, antique faces with knowing expressions, dead eyes rolling back in their sockets.

“Doll Head Woods,” she whispered.

“Pardon?” Bonacelli said.

“The man who lived on the island before my father collected dolls. He would slice off their heads and hang them from tree limbs. George said that when he arrived, he had to cut down hundreds of dangling heads.”

“Grizzly story to tell a child.”

“I wasn’t afraid. The poor man had lost all his money in the stock market and came to the island with his daughter. She was young, maybe five, and she died in some horrible accident right in these woods. Anyway, the man was convinced he was cursed and started hanging doll heads everywhere. People thought he went crazy, but my father said he believed the dolls kept out evil spirits. He hung the heads facing every direction, keeping an eye on the demons. I thought it made perfect sense at the time.”

A second trail cut across their path and they stopped.

“We keep straight, take the one in the middle,” she said.

“Where do the other two lead?” the lawyer asked as they continued walking.

Isabelle recalled that the path to the left was mostly thick woods and difficult to navigate, but the path going right had a lot of steep rocks to climb and a small pond as well.

“My mother called it Ice Pond because it was too cold to swim, and we skated there every winter.”

“There must be lots of places for a child to explore.”

“Not really. It took some imagination to have any fun by myself.” She glanced around at Sean, who was busy examining something on the ground. “George must have been lonely.”

Bonacelli nodded. “For a while he took in students. Poor kids from farms or working the boatyards, strays backpacking through Nova Scotia. He gave them work and a place to live. Some were grateful but most took advantage of his kindness. He finally gave up on civilization.”

They walked in silence, until he said, “Do you want to know what happened?”

She knew he was referring to George’s death and stopped abruptly. “Yes. I do.”

He paused beside her. “Your father jumped off the cliffs at High Peak.”

For a moment, she didn’t say anything. Then she nodded and continued their walk. “Were drugs involved?”

He shrugged. “I’m afraid the body was too decomposed. It was caught among the rocks and in rough water for days until we found him.”

She fell silent again.

“Your father was tormented. Some people are just made that way through no fault of their own. He was a good man, Isabelle.”

“Please don’t make excuses.” She glanced around the woods where George had spent half his life and wondered what kind of demons could have tormented him into such a tragic ending. She stared at the trees, silent witnesses, and whispered, “Perhaps he should have left the heads hanging.”


THE TRAIL ENDED, and the woods opened to a vast clearing of unbroken sky. In the distance, the house stood under yellow sunlight, surrounded by tall fields of ryegrass that blew like waves in the wind.

Right away, Sean ran up the path. Isabelle didn’t try to stop him.

From where she stood, the house was lovely. It was a grand two-story farmhouse, made of rustic fieldstone and white clapboard, with pillars and porches, a lot of glass doors and windows, all under a blue slate roof. There was a path of gravel that stretched toward the house, intersecting at the halfway point with another trail, a sweeping uphill climb to the cliffs at High Peak.

Isabelle wasn’t going to think about the cliffs. She stared at the house and felt a flicker of joy that eased the painful news of her father. It was an extremely personal moment coming back to her childhood home and she resisted the urge to run up the path, straining to slow her pace. Bonacelli could sense her eagerness and told her it would be fine if she walked ahead. She did, and was soon well past him.

As she got closer, the house wasn’t quite what she remembered. It was large by anyone’s standards, but Isabelle had thought of her home as a castle. There were significant signs of decay—missing tiles, collapsing roof, splintered window frames, crumbling chimneys—but none of that mattered. It felt good to be home.

Luke and Monica were on the fieldstone patio, squatting by a pit of ash the size of a child’s swimming pool, poking a heap of charred remains with a stick. Isabelle called out to Luke, but he didn’t notice, or at least didn’t respond.

The front of the house had tall, floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the fields of rye and the distant woods beyond. There were three sets of glass doors with entrances to the laboratory, kitchen, and library, and in between were small rock gardens where her mother had grown wildflowers and strawberries. Nothing remained but some twisted stems that lay brown and withered in the dirt, but there were a few blossoming weeds, tiny buds of white and yellow.

Isabelle slid open the door to the library and a musty odor struck her senses. She stepped into the dimly lit room. It was enormous with a twenty-foot ceiling, the walls covered in dark cherrywood. In the shadows of the sitting area were overstuffed sofas and chairs upholstered in a worn floral print of burgundy and olive.

She pushed open the drapes, letting in sunlight and illuminating years of dust that swirled and hovered over the furniture. Memories flooded back, yet at the same time the house was a stranger. She didn’t remember the dreary bleakness of the place. The Persian rugs were thick with grime and the furniture smelled moldy from salt and dampness. She recalled her father, always practical, had suggested white wicker but her mother insisted on comfort and luxury.

Sean was sitting on the parquet floor at the foot of a bookcase that covered an entire wall. He was surrounded by piles of old clothbound books pulled from the shelves, some of George’s favorite authors: Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Dickens. He’d loved poetry and there were collections by Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and beatnik poets who were part of the British revival in the sixties: Roy Fisher and Allen Ginsberg.

Isabelle sat down beside Sean and rested her chin on his shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him and angled her head to read the title of the book in his hands, Captain Courageous. “Oh, that’s a good one.”

He curled up his legs and rested against Isabelle’s chest like a baby, never taking his eyes off the page. His hand reached back and stroked her cheek. It was how they spent many evenings after the accident when there were so many sleepless nights. She kissed the top of his shaggy hair and made a mental note to give him a trim as soon as they got home.

Isabelle knew the books would occupy Sean for hours, so she got back on her feet and continued the house tour, moving under the ornately sculpted archway into the great hall near the bottom of a curved staircase. Upstairs were six bedrooms that would have to be explored later. For now, she carried on with the inspection of the ground floor, peeking behind doors. A laundry and maids’ quarters were both empty except for piles of rubbish on the floor. A storage room was stacked high with old furniture, books, and cardboard boxes covered in thick dust. She warily opened the door to her beloved music room, where her father had played his cello and her mother accompanied him on piano, with young Isabelle doing her best to keep up on a small violin. The piano was gone and the empty cello case lay open and grieving. There was nothing else in the room but a broken music stand.

It was clear from inspection: The house had not been cared for. Everything was coated in water stains and mildew. There were cracks in all the walls and peeling paint on the ceilings. It would take weeks to clean and months to restore, a project she decided would not be attempted on this trip.

At last Isabelle found herself in front of her father’s laboratory. To Isabelle, this room was George. She took a deep breath, pushed open the doors, and the collapse of her initial excitement was complete. Gone was the sparkling white, high-tech room she remembered. The walls of the lab were sloppily painted in mustard yellow and the counters were bare of any scientific equipment. The metal cabinets were rusted and dull, and an old-fashioned sink hung lopsided and dripping. Pots of wilted plants were stuffed in boxes that filled the room with a warm, fetid smell.

Beside the back door, an old terrarium contained dirt, but nothing more. Isabelle squinted, imagining a little girl with a thin ponytail peering into the tank, cradling a tiny box with one hand and scooping away dirt with the other, burying her beloved toad behind a Venus flytrap. “It’s also a cemetery,” she said, and a slender man in a white jacket stepped behind her, placing a hand gently on her shoulder. His soothing voice whispered in her ear, “I think that’s lovely. Every terrarium ought to have a graveyard. Are you sure you’d rather not feed him to your carnivorous friend in there?” The girl replied, “Oh no, he needs a proper burial.”

Isabelle blinked away the memory and found herself standing once again in the bleak laboratory. The voice of her father sounded all too real, and at the same time completely wrong. There was something dreadfully wrong about the whole place, something unsettling about the house and the entire island. Growing up it had seemed crisp and clean, flourishing with life, excitement, and adventure. Now there was an eerie gloominess everywhere, an almost malignant force.

“This is much better than we found it.”

Isabelle startled as Bonacelli eased up behind her.

“I paid a service to clean up the mess. Not the best job, but you should have seen it before.”

“I can imagine.” She gazed over the rest of the room and her eyes fell on an empty gun rack on the wall. “What happened to the rifle?”

“It’s in the hall closet. I put it there myself. Of course you’ll want to keep it away from the children and out of Coast Guard view as well. Firearms are illegal if you don’t have a license.”

She didn’t remember her father ever touching that gun.

“We should get started,” he said, and led her toward the study. Halfway down the hall was the sound of an unfamiliar voice.

“Is there someone else here?” Isabelle asked.

“I’m sorry, I should have told you. Your father named two others in his will.”

* * *

Isabelle stopped at the open doorway. Both guests were having tea in the study: an elderly woman rummaging through a desk and an extremely tall, middle-aged man standing by the fireplace. She recognized Jules Beecher right away and was overwhelmed by the sight of him.

His long arm stretched across the mantel as he leaned down, stoking the flames with an iron poker. Jet-black hair fell slightly over his face and the firelight flickered across a handsome profile. Jules turned to Isabelle as if he sensed her coming through the door, and they stared at one another, surprised and breathless.

Bonacelli introduced Isabelle as George’s daughter. “This is Professor Jules Beecher, whom you already know, and Miss Ginny Shufflebottom, a friend of your father’s from England.”

Ginny offered a reluctant smile and went back to ransacking the desk.

Jules opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. He hastily turned back to the fire, tapping the log with the poker, sending sparks up the flue.

“Have some tea and a bite to eat,” Bonacelli suggested to Isabelle. “We’ll start as soon as I get my papers in order.”

She walked to a silver tray and poured a steaming cup of tea. There were so many memories of her father in the study; a giant globe he used to teach her geography, a calabash pipe that had belonged to his father, a ladybug paperweight that Isabelle made from a rock when she was five. There was a framed map of Sparrow Island on the wall, which her father had sketched. He was a good artist and the drawing was the first time she’d seen the island in its entirety. It was the first time she realized her world was very small.

Isabelle looked across the room at Jules, a man who’d spent two years on the island with her family. She had been merely a child and he’d been twenty-two, but she thought he was brilliant and handsome, and she’d had a heart-wrenching crush on him at the time. Standing by the fire, he looked as though he hadn’t changed much. Still tall and attractive in an ill-fitting dark suit, although now he was much broader in stature and seemed more solemn than she remembered. A little gray at the temples. Isabelle couldn’t help feeling a twinge of attraction.

The elderly woman slammed a drawer, giving Isabelle a start. A friend of her father’s whom she’d met only once, Ginny looked to be in her late sixties, but quite fit and feisty. She was a diminutive woman with a pasty complexion, but her blue eyes sparkled and her even features implied that she was once quite pretty.

Her frilly lavender dress seemed more suitable for a party.

Isabelle watched Ginny approach Bonacelli as he opened his briefcase on the desk. She whispered something in his ear with a girlish expression and thrust her lip in a pout. The lawyer shook his head and walked to a cabinet, returning with a bottle of whiskey and discreetly pouring a shot in her teacup. She swayed into him, spilling a drop.

Isabelle put a hand to her mouth and smiled.

Luke and Monica came into the study and went straight for the fruit cake as Ginny watched with a scornful eye, gaping at Monica, who was dressed in the usual skimpy leather and black makeup.

It seemed as though the elderly woman was about to reproach the girl but instead she teetered toward Isabelle, scrutinizing her from head to toe. “My dear Isabelle, didn’t you turn out to be a pretty little thing? You look nothing like your mother.”

Isabelle swallowed hard. “It’s nice to see you again.”

“I’m surprised you even remember me, although I have aged quite well, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for an answer but raised a gesturing hand. “Is that your son and… daughter?”

“That’s my son, Luke. Monica is just a friend.”

“Well. How lucky for your gene pool.”

Isabelle took a moment to respond. “I didn’t realize you and my father were close.”

Close? Why, we were lovers for thirteen years. George should have told you. Heavens, I hope there won’t be any feuding over the will. You should know George wanted to marry me.”

Isabelle wished she had the courage to walk away.

Then Ginny looked terribly sad and pulled a tissue from the sleeve of her dress, dabbing her dry eyes. “You probably don’t know this, but I gave that man everything I had. I financed his work and paid to keep this entire island running.” The expression of sorrow turned into an angry grin. “Bloody fool, I was. Now I’m practically destitute and my only hope is to recoup my losses from this estate.”

“It was nice of you to be there for him.”

“Well, his entire family left him. What else could I do?”

Isabelle watched Ginny teeter off, baffled by how George could have loved such a woman. Then she remembered her own mother, a far cry from courteous.

“Don’t mind her,” a voice spoke from behind.

“Oh, Dr. Beecher.”

“Jules. It’s nice to see you again, Isabelle.” He realized the circumstances and cleared his throat. “I mean…”

“Yes, I know. Do you have any idea…?”

Jules shook his head and gazed out the window. Isabelle was struck by the beauty of his face in the light, his soothing voice.

“It’s an awfully lonely island for one person,” he said.

“Did you visit at all?”

“No. You?”

She shook her head.

His chin gestured to Ginny. “She’s a pip, that one. Going on about her finances, how she funded George. I can tell you she pursued him like a starving cat after a defenseless mouse.” His teeth clenched in anger. “George was very good to her, far better than she deserved.”

Isabelle was puzzled by his ire and wondered if it was part jealousy. After her divorce, Isabelle’s mother made some scathing allegations about George and Dr. Beecher, although such rumors were hard to believe.

“Would you like some more tea?” Jules said, raising his empty cup.

“No, thank you.”

He excused himself and Isabelle watched him walk to the tea cart, thinking about the flurry of rumors that surrounded George and how they conflicted with the man she’d known and loved. To her best recollection, her father had radiated integrity and warmth. He had never been without a smile and almost everything he said was funny. Still, she couldn’t deny the frightening moments she witnessed in later years, his tendency to sink into bouts of depression and fits of rage. A drug habit that made him see things that weren’t there—dangerous, scary things that caused him to scream out at night. How could a ten-year-old possibly understand such behavior? It occurred to Isabelle that perhaps she’d never really known her father at all.

* * *

“This is gross.” Monica picked out tiny cubes of bright-colored fruit from her cake.

Luke sat beside her, sipping tea and playing Tetris on his smartphone.

“Hey, can you call Canada for takeout?” she asked him. “I’d kill for an egg roll.”

“There’s no connection from here.”

“What games you got?” She grabbed the phone, pressing all the buttons. “Probably a lot of brainy crap. Yep. I was right.”

Luke took the phone back, eavesdropping on a conversation between Jules and Bonacelli. He shook his head slowly. “I should have been British. They sound so—civilized.”

“You mean wimpy. Sure, you’d fit in.”

Ginny flounced by, swirling the hem of her dress and falling into a chair beside the couch. She smiled at Luke through sleepy lids. Then her gaze found Monica and she scowled.

“I think Mary Poppins just gave me the evil eye,” Monica whispered.

“Don’t start,” Luke replied.

Ginny turned up a penciled brow. “In my day, a girl was more appealing when she showed less, not more.”

Monica’s lips curled slightly. “You know, I bet I could learn a lot from you. My friend here was just saying, you’re a total fox in that dress.”

Luke closed his eyes, trying to disappear.

Ginny nodded and a grin stretched across her face. “I used to attract the local boys like horseflies. All it takes is the tiniest gesture; a slight lift of the skirt, a glimpse of the knee.”

“Think I’m gonna hurl,” Monica muttered.

Luke shushed her.

“You’re George’s grandson?” Ginny asked him with an alluring smile.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I see the resemblance. You have his lovely blue eyes and a quiet intelligence about you.”

“Thank you.”

Monica muttered softly, “She’s totally into you.”

“Have you started college?”

“No, ma’am. Not for three more years.”

“You have some aptitude for science?”

“Yes, ma’am. I enjoy science a lot.”

She looked pleased. “Good. There’s nothing that attracts a woman more than an intelligent brain.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Monica sputtered.

“Quality women,” Ginny clarified. She narrowed her eyes at the girl. “Does your mother know you dress like that?”

Monica reddened. “My mom spent, like, twenty years as a designer in Paris. This happens to be the latest in French fashion.”

Ginny’s eyes grew wide and she smiled. “So you’re of French lineage?” She nodded knowingly. “Now I understand. It’s that French-American mix that’s so… tawdry.”

Monica looked puzzled.

Ginny spoke to Luke. “You really should think about continuing your education at a proper university in England, like your grandfather.”

“Yeah, that would be super expensive.”

“You can’t put a price on knowledge. George spent every penny he had on scientific discovery. Most women would be appalled, but I find that kind of dedication and curiosity to be very attractive in a man.” She looked at him sideways and pursed her lips.

“Yeah, she wants you,” Monica whispered. “I say you hit that thing.”

Luke lowered his forehead to his fist.

Bonacelli asked everyone to be seated for the reading of the will.


THE LAWYER PEERED DOWN at the desk through small reading glasses on the bridge of his nose, and then looked up at the faces before him. “George’s will is dated the third of March, six years ago. I can assure you he was of sound mind at the time. Since he had renounced his British citizenship, the document has been prepared according to Canadian law.”

“Oh, get to it,” Ginny said, scowling.

Bonacelli gave her a sharp look. He cleared his throat and began reading in a formal manner. “‘This is the last will and testament of me, George Elliot Brookes, a resident of Halifax, in the Province of Nova Scotia, Canada. I hereby revoke all former wills, codicils, and other testamentary dispositions made by me. I nominate, constitute, and appoint my daughter, Isabelle Lydia Maguire, to be the Estate Trustee of this, my will.’”

The lawyer’s tone softened. “‘Before bequeathing my property, I wish to thank everyone for coming to Sparrow Island when I’m sure you would have rather not. However, I know that in retrospect you’ll all agree that the island holds a special place in your hearts and sharing the experience together one last time can only be a good thing. I want you each to remember me, especially Isabelle, during fonder days when all we had was this island, and each other.’”

Ginny gave an impatient sigh, loud enough to make the lawyer take pause. He found his place and continued. “‘To my daughter, Isabelle Brookes Maguire, I give, devise, and bequeath all of my possessions of every nature and kind, including the property known as Sparrow Island, but excluding any and all properties listed hereafter.’

“‘To my friend and associate, Jules Beecher, I leave all of my research, textbooks, and equipment that comprise my laboratory, in hopes he will continue the work to which I’ve devoted most of my life.’

“‘To my dear friend, Ginny Shufflebottom, for all her financial support, I leave my undying gratitude—’”

Gratitude?” Ginny squealed. “Bloody hell.”

“If you please, I’m not finished. ‘For her uncompromising faith in my work, I leave to Ginny my most valuable possession, a red diamond known as the Crimson Star.’”

Right away, Ginny perked up and pulled back her shoulders. “Well… that’s more like it.” She sniffed into a tissue. “Poor, dear George. Please go on, Mr. Bonacelli.”

“That’s it. The entire will.”

Ginny seemed to sober up quite suddenly, her eyes focused and alert. “Well, then, I’d like to see the diamond immediately.”

Bonacelli leaned back in his chair with a deep breath and slow blink of his eyes, as if there were bad news coming. “There’s a slight problem,” he said.

“What do you mean problem?”

He took off his glasses and folded them neatly. “For the past five years, George had been going on about an important discovery he made; one which he claimed would change the world.”

Jules was instantly alert. “Did he say what kind of discovery?”

“I have no idea what it was.”

“He must have mentioned something.”

“You might find some of his research in the laboratory. I do know he was very excited and said he’d found what he’d been searching for his whole life. However, two years ago, when I came for a visit, he was showing signs of mental illness; rage and confusion. He refused to leave the island.

Then, two months ago, a letter arrived at my office. George wanted to return to the mainland. He wrote something unintelligible about sowing the earth.”

“Sowing the earth?” Jules repeated.

“Yes, starting the world over or some nonsense. I came to pick him up a week later, but as our boat approached the island, George began shooting at us with a rifle. We had to turn back. By the time we returned with police—” Bonacelli stopped and his breath caught. “George had jumped off High Peak to his death.”

Jules looked horrified. Isabelle met his gaze.

“We found him along the rocks, had him buried in the family plot outside of London.”

“What the devil are you going on about?” Ginny shouted. “What’s all that got to do with the diamond?”

Bonacelli sighed. “I’m getting to that. George never mentioned where he kept the diamond, but we found a jewelry case in his laboratory. Inside was a piece of paper torn from a notebook and dated on the morning of his death.” Bonacelli took a slip of paper from the desk and held it out to Ginny. “This appears to be some kind of riddle. It could either be the ramblings of his madness, or a clue to the whereabouts of the Crimson Star.”

Ginny took the paper and read each line aloud.

“A brilliant Star is what you seek
West of the woods
East of High Peak
Open The Book to find a link
The goddess Hanus,
Protector of all who think.”

No one said anything for a long moment.

“The man was daft!” Ginny gasped, breaking the silence.

“I must admit,” Jules said, “the prose seems rather trite. Not like George at all.”

Bonacelli reminded the group that George was not of sound mind when he wrote it. Still, he believed the riddle might be the only clue to finding the diamond.

“My father was very fond of riddles,” Isabelle said. “Perhaps it isn’t about the Crimson Star at all.”

“Well, of course it is,” Ginny spat, holding the paper up to Isabelle. “What other star do we seek?”

“I have to agree,” Bonacelli said. “It was found in a box that could have held the diamond.” He opened the spring lid to show an empty case. It was covered in blue velvet, lined in silk, and obviously made for jewelry.

Isabelle stared at the riddle. “I suppose The Book could be a reference to the Bible.”

Jules snickered. “George certainly believed in God, but he despised religion. He thought that all living things—plants, insects, animals—came from a single consciousness. I’m fairly certain he didn’t own a Bible.”

“You’d be wrong,” Ginny replied. “George spoke about getting married in church. He even picked out a burial site in the woods for the two of us, and engraved a headstone with a cross.”

“Of course, you can’t dismiss the possibility that it’s gibberish,” Bonacelli said. “George was in a terrible state that day, I can attest to that. Regardless, I’ll need your signatures.” He handed the will to Isabelle first and when all three heirs had signed, he made duplicates at a copy machine.

“May I see the riddle?” Luke asked.

Ginny hesitated, but gave it to the boy.

Luke repeated the words, and then pondered them aloud, “For one thing, there’s no proper punctuation and goddess should be capitalized… There’s no Hanus in any mythology I’ve studied—Greek, Roman, Indian, Persian—”

Isabelle asked, “How many goddesses are there?”

“If you go back to the first writings of the Sumerians all the way to the present, historians have recorded about forty-six hundred supernatural beings, of which there are about twenty-nine hundred true deities. From those, about fourteen hundred fall into the category of ‘goddess,’ but that’s not including Hindus, who believe there’s a god for every Hindu, so that’s like half a billion right there.”

“Oh, never mind all that,” Ginny said with a scowl.

“Luke, you’re such a dweeb,” Monica said.

He frowned at her. “I don’t see you helping.”

She snatched the paper from his hand. “You people are so lame. This is obviously a treasure map, and like any treasure map you just have to follow the instructions. It says right here, walk west of the woods and east of High Peak.”

Luke squinted at the map of Sparrow Island on the wall behind Mr. Bonacelli. “West of the woods, huh? That’s Canada. And east of High Peak would be France.”

“He’s right,” Isabelle said. “Those are opposite ends of the island. Either way, you’d fall into the ocean.”

Jules shook his head. “All these ideas are too rudimentary. George’s riddles were very clever. The answer wouldn’t lie in a sentence or two, but the entire passage as a whole.”

“Give it back to me.” Ginny swiped the paper from Monica and read silently this time, mouthing each word. “Oh, bloody hell! What if I can’t figure out this riddle?”

“I think it best you try.” Bonacelli put the original will in his briefcase and distributed the copies.

“So what’s the diamond worth?” Monica asked.

Bonacelli told her it was appraised at $350,000. “It’s quite rare. One of the few red diamonds in the world. Nearly one carat.”

“It must have been insured,” Isabelle said.

“No. Nothing George owned is insured. Too costly. Plus, he had trouble getting insurance with his… legal difficulties.”

Ginny eyed the lawyer suspiciously. “How do I know you didn’t take the diamond yourself? After you found George dead in the water?”

Jules gasped.

Monica laughed.

Bonacelli released a sigh while packing up his belongings. “I suppose you don’t. However, if you check my impeccable résumé, you’ll find I’m an extremely well-paid attorney for some very influential clients. The act of searching over a deceased man’s island for his only valuable possession is far below my character and completely illegal to boot. My business is entirely based on my reputation and integrity, which cannot be bought.” He picked up his trench coat from a hook and threw it over his arm. “What’s more, I’ve known George for twenty years and considered him a friend. Not only have I been on retainer free of charge for the last decade, it was I who paid for your passages here.”

“Well, fine, then,” Ginny muttered. “I wasn’t implying that you—”

“Certainly you were.”

She turned away with a huff.

“I might add,” Bonacelli said, “that if anyone is not returning on the charter today, it will be at your own expense, or until the next supply boat arrives in two weeks. Mrs. Maguire, you’re planning to stay with the children, correct?”

“Yes. We’ll wait for the next supply boat.”

“Miss Shufflebottom?”

“I’m certainly not leaving without my diamond.”

“What about you, Professor?”

“I’d like to look over the research George left me. However, two weeks is impossible. I have some business in London, and then a trip…” He glanced at Isabelle, who was looking out the window. “Actually, I’ll wait for the next boat as well.”

“All right. It seems everyone is staying, so I’ll show you around. We should start with the kitchen.”

* * *

It was a large country kitchen with oak cabinets and terra-cotta floors. It had recently been vigorously scrubbed clean and still smelled of bleach. Two stainless-steel freezers, a commercial-grade range, and a refrigerator took up half a wall. The other side held a large fireplace with a wood-burning stove and a rustic dining room table that could easily seat twenty guests.

“Don’t worry about water,” Bonacelli said, turning the faucet. “It’s pumped from an artesian well and quite safe.”

The pantry was stocked with canned vegetables, soups, and jars of spaghetti sauce. There were boxes of pasta and packages of instant everything. Isabelle wasn’t pleased with the selection, and chided herself for not bringing food to a remote island. However, the freezer turned out to be a pleasant surprise, filled with fine cuts of steak, chops, fish, and organic poultry. She browsed around the bright, fresh-looking vegetables and herbs that had been artfully sealed and frozen. The fridge as well offered an assortment of beverages, marinades, and condiments that hadn’t yet expired. There was even an impressive selection of wines in a climate-controlled cabinet.

“This is most important,” Bonacelli said, as they gathered around a two-way radio.

It was a fixed mount like the one on the boat, fastened beneath a cabinet. Bonacelli explained that it was programmed with twenty-two channels that monitored two Coast Guard stations for distress calls, and a marine channel that would alert them of any serious weather conditions. There was an antenna attached to the roof, in order to boost the range of the frequencies. “This is your only lifeline to civilization, should an emergency arise—and I do mean emergency. A visit from the Canadian Coast Guard to treat a jellyfish sting or investigate a shark sighting will cost you a fortune. But if anyone is seriously injured, or the power goes out, you should call at once.”

Bonacelli demonstrated how the radio worked, and just to make sure, he had Jules attempt a practice call to Captain Flannigan, waiting at the dock. He located the correct channel, called to the boat, and after a few seconds of static, the captain answered.

“Eh-yah, Acadia. Over.”

“This is just a demonstration,” Bonacelli spoke into the mic.

“Yer ready to shove off?”

“I’ll be at the dock in twenty minutes.” Bonacelli checked his watch impatiently. “One more stop and we’re through.”

He led them outside to the back of the house, toward an old wooden shed. They were close to the northern edge of the island and they could see the flat rocks of a seawall, where the wind blew fierce and the ocean waves roiled against a golden sky. On a clear day, a thin outline of Nova Scotia could be seen on the horizon, but presently there was too much haze.

The battered shed looked to be quite large, roomy enough to house a small family. As they approached the building, the muffled sound of an engine hummed and there was a whiff of diesel in the air. Bonacelli explained that the generator was housed in a separate, ventilated room behind the shed.

The old wooden door slid sideways, rumbling under its weight and squealing from rust. The sun was low and filled the dark interior with a golden glow. The light hit a wall and sparkled on metal objects hanging from hooks. There were farming tools: scythe, hatchet, shovel, and ax, all looking quite rusty. There were a couple of large knives, fishing poles, and a spear, as well as a crossbow and leather case filled with arrows.

Sean picked up an arrow.

“That’s strange. My father never hunted,” Isabelle said. “There’s no game on the island.”

“Target practice, I suppose,” Bonacelli replied.

Luke reached into a barrel full of cobwebs and pulled out a wet suit that looked as though it hadn’t been used in ages. “Two suits with snorkels,” he said, excited at the find.

“I wouldn’t advise swimming in these frigid waters,” Bonacelli said. “The riptides can be deadly.”

“I think it’s all right in the shallows of the cove,” Isabelle said. “I swam at the beach every summer.”

Bonacelli led them to an adjoining room, twenty paces in length that contained the monstrous generator. It was an old military model with rusted metal and flaking paint, but it was a solid workhorse and the rickety exhaust fan removed most of the diesel fumes from the room.

It clanged loudly, so the lawyer had to shout. “There used to be a battery system but it went down years ago, so George kept the generator running all the time. To save petrol, he used very little electric and the thermostat is set to about fourteen degrees Celsius at night. Not to worry; there’s a fireplace in every room to keep warm. But if anything happens, if the generator goes down, use the radio to call for help. You don’t want to be here with no heat or power.”

They were glad to leave the noisy shed and head back to the house.

Bonacelli stopped at the patio. “I have business on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow. I’ll be in touch with you, Isabelle; more papers to sign.” He bid them farewell and headed for the woods and the boat back to Halifax.

The rest of the guests returned to the kitchen. The children explored the house as Isabelle prepared a light supper of pasta and broccoli in white wine sauce.

Ginny insisted they look for the diamond right away.

“It’s nearly dark and we’re all exhausted,” Isabelle said. “We’ll look in the morning.”

“We should at least try to figure out the riddle,” Ginny said curtly.

Isabelle sighed. “I think the best strategy is to forget the riddle and have a thorough search tomorrow.”

The house was large enough for everyone to have their own bedroom, so after supper they dragged their luggage upstairs, washed up for bed, and retired for the night.

They didn’t know it was to be their last uneventful evening.


THE MORNING SKY WAS GRAY and an ocean breeze shook the windowpanes. Isabelle awoke in a frigid room, wrapped in blankets and surrounded by memories. She had chosen her old bedroom for the sake of nostalgia. The white-painted furniture, stuffed animals, dollhouse, and flowery bookshelf seemed to have been waiting for her return. It was the cleanest room in the house and she was touched that George had kept it dusted.

The radiator had just come on, hissing madly. Right away she got out of bed and her feet hit the cold wooden floor. She rummaged through her suitcase, put on jeans and a thick red wool sweater that made her feel cozy, and then added wool socks and hiking boots. She had purposely left every dress behind along with her hats, heels, and husband. A navy blue peacoat lay across a chair, and she considered adding another layer, but threw on a scarf instead and headed downstairs.

Everyone was gathered in the kitchen getting warm. Ginny had started a fire in the wood stove and coffee was brewing, giving the kitchen a rich aroma. Jules and Luke were snacking on biscuits.

“Good morning,” Jules said.

Isabelle felt her cheeks blush under his gaze. His long black hair was combed back and wet from the shower and he looked especially handsome in a black cotton shirt that stretched across his shoulders and fit snugly around his arms and chest. For the first time she noticed he had a rather muscular physique, although his posture could have been improved.

Luke handed a biscuit to his mother. “These are good, and I found about a hundred in the freezer.”

Ginny and Monica found them tasteless and said so. Isabelle agreed.

“Well, I like them,” Luke said, “and Sean does too.”

Sean stuffed his mouth, putting three more on his plate.

“George always liked to experiment with food,” Ginny said. “He probably baked them himself.”

Isabelle poured a mug of coffee and wrapped her cold hands around its heat. “Anyone want to go for a stroll?

Sean raised his hand quickly.

“All right. Get the holly bush and find a big spoon.”

Sean put a biscuit in his coat pocket and rummaged through the utensil drawer, clanging forks and knives.

“Do you mind if I tag along?” Jules asked.

Isabelle flushed. “Not a bit. We’d like your company.”

Outside the rain had stopped, but the wind was relentless. Ryegrass blew in waves, flashing shades of green and yellow. The forest stood clear in the distance, tall dark pines and bare branches, their tops bending from the gale.

Jules and Isabelle walked side by side down the path, enjoying the salty breeze on their faces. She had forgotten how unusually tall he was. The top of her head reached just below his shoulders.

Sean trailed several paces behind them, kicking up pebbles and stopping to examine blades of grass. Isabelle was reminded of all the times she followed Jules around like a puppy as he gathered plant specimens along the cliffs or in the woods. How he would travel to London for a visit and she’d pine for his return, usually with a gift for her like a magnifying glass or a wooden puzzle. Sometimes he’d indulge her in checkers or chess, but Isabelle was content to stare at his handsome face while he read books in the library or wrote out notes in the lab.

“Hard to believe it’s been so many years,” she said. “I remember you were quite serious about your work.”

Jules nodded. “I recall you were a precocious little thing who knew every plant and tree by its proper name. Always running about exploring, bringing home your latest find. Not silly and bothersome like some children. No, you showed great maturity and intelligence.”

Isabelle smirked. “That’s quite a compliment coming from you.”

He put a finger to his head, squinting. “I remember one drizzly morning I was digging up toadstools in the woods. You gave me a haughty look from under your rain cap and said, ‘Mushrooms only grow where it’s damp, and that’s why they look like umbrellas.’”

She gave a reluctant smile.

He chuckled. “Another time you told me that a flower’s pistil must be its best protection against insects.”

“I’m glad you found me amusing.”

“Oh, you were clever. I figured you’d become a scientist like your father, travel the world looking for new discoveries.”

“Not even close.”

“Too bad. You showed such promise.”

The comment was unexpectedly hurtful. Jules had no idea how badly she had wanted to make something of her life. He was unaware of the burden she had carried through childhood. What had been worse—caring for her mother, moving her from chair to bath to bed, spoon-feeding her, massaging her limbs that couldn’t bend without cries of pain, or finding out there was never anything wrong with the woman? It was all a brilliant act. A never-ending theatrical performance that sprang from an obsessive need for attention. There was never any mention of a life for Isabelle, never any talk of college or travel. Running away to marry Colin had been her first chance to escape.

Isabelle quickened her stride, feeling defensive and ashamed. She scooped up a handful of ryegrass with a ripping motion, held the blades up to the sun, and exclaimed, “Lolium perenne.”


Lolium perenne. And over there, crawling along that rock is Euonymus fortunei, but it’s being overtaken by Hedera helix.

“Oh yes,” said Jules, catching on to the game. “Tell me—what is the genus-species of that squat evergreen over there?”

She tilted her head, thinking. “Thuja occidentalis, commonly known as arborvitae, or ‘tree of life.’”

“Incorrect. Thujopsis dolabrata, but you were very close.”

“Ah, well. I was only ten when I left.”

“But still kept up with botany.”

“A bit.”

“I see your son has the same affinity. Does he always carry around pots of shrubbery?”

“No, Sean wants to replant the holly in my father’s memory.”

“Oh, I see.”

She slowed while Sean caught up, examining a leaf as he walked past them.

“He’s the quiet sort.”

“Yes. He had an accident years ago.”

Jules said nothing, but the expression in his eyes was comforting.

They stopped at a fork in the path. To the right was the woods and to the left, the cliffs.

Isabelle looked at the trees and shivered. “Doll Head Woods.”

“Ridiculous name,” Jules replied. They stood for a moment, staring.

“To High Peak,” she said.

Together with Sean they trudged uphill, where the grass became sparse, the soil turned to rock, and the smell of heather filled the air. It was a steep climb to the top of the bluff. The wind howled loudly, as if trying to drown out the roar of the ocean.

They walked to the edge of the cliff, where a piece of yellow police tape was still tied to a thorny bush, flapping in the breeze.

Isabelle stared at the marker and spoke above the wind. “I guess this must be it.”

Jules nodded.

“Sean, you can plant the holly right here. But be careful, it’s steep.”

The boy knelt at the cliff’s edge, took his spoon from his pocket, and began stabbing the earth. The wind gusted and Jules pulled up the collar of his jacket, which had been warm enough for New York City but not a Canadian island.

Isabelle shivered too and bundled the scarf around her neck, rubbed her woolen sleeves. “It’s much colder up here.”

He unzipped his jacket. “I should have offered you my coat.”

“No, thank you. My sweater is quite warm.”

They watched Sean pull the plant from its pot and lay it on the ground with tender care. The wind died down, awakening the sound of crashing waves.

“Is this hard for you?” Jules asked. “Coming to the island.”

“No, not at all. I loved it here.”

“But all these memories.”

She shrugged. “Mine are mostly good. I spent quite a bit of time with my father in the laboratory, watching him work and fussing over my terrarium. He filled it with motion plants, do you remember? Venus flytraps, bladderwort, telegraph. Every day I’d stroke my Mimosa pudica like a beloved pet and watch the leaves close up like fingers.” She looked out to sea. “Back then, I thought plants had feelings. George had a way of making you believe that.”

Jules smiled.

“Here I am going on about my childhood. I’m sure you miss him too.”

“Oh yes. We spent many years together.”

She looked at him, searching for the right words. “Why did you… leave him?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know, really.”

“Was it the age difference?”

He smiled, quizzically. “Age? What do you mean?”

“Well, my father was twice your age when you met. Not that it matters.”

“I don’t follow.” Suddenly his cheeks flushed and he stammered, “Oh, you mean… we were never… he was my mentor, for heaven sakes.”

Isabelle touched a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry. My mother told me you two—”

“I’m not gay,” he practically shouted.

“Well, all right. No need to get upset.”

“I’m not upset. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being homosexual. If you are. But I’m not.”

“All right,” she said, looking tense. “I don’t know why my mother—”

“Your mother detested me. She loathed anyone who took away your father’s attention.” He got very quiet. “Now I sound like an idiot.”

“Not at all.”

“It’s just that seeing you all grown up.” His stare was intense. “… And so very lovely.” He blushed and averted his eyes. “Do you remember the bonfires behind the house on cold nights?”

“My father would make us sing ‘Kumbaya.’”

“And you would curl up next to me. Only back then, you were just a funny little girl.”

When she looked at his face, she knew he felt something too. The pangs of infatuation came rushing back to her and more than anything, she wanted to kiss him. No, she thought. This was ridiculous. She was a married woman with children, and here she was swooning over a man she hadn’t seen for thirty years.

She looked out to sea and said, “I had a silly crush on you, but it was a long time ago.”

He managed a smile, but couldn’t hide his disappointment.

They stood together watching Sean pack soil around the roots of the holly. Then the boy reached out a finger and stroked a vine of English ivy creeping along the cliff. He plucked off a leaf, examining its underbelly.

“If you want to know,” Jules said, “it was his habit.”

She didn’t respond.

“You asked why I left George. He was—”

“Yes, I know what you meant.”

Sean stood, his pants covered in dirt. He walked to Jules with the ivy pinched in his fingers and showed him the underside of the leaf.

Jules took it in his hand. The leaf was coated with dark velvety bumps that left a stain of purple on his thumb. “That’s odd,” he said. “Such a strange texture. Not sure, but I’d say it’s a fungus of some kind.”

Sean was already walking down the path to the house.

Jules stuck the leaf in his pocket.


MONICA LAY ON THE BEACH in tight jeans and a leather jacket, waiting for the sun to get warm. The temperature had reached a springlike sixty-five, but the ocean breeze made it feel much cooler. The wind abruptly died and she sat up, looking at an almost invisible horizon where both sea and sky were the same hazy color of blue.

Luke was gathering rocks along the shore, dropping the flattest stones into a pile and skimming them across the water.

“Did you see that?” he shouted. “Seven jumps. Seven. That’s like, my record.”

Monica rolled her eyes and got to her feet, smacking black sand off her clothes. “Tar Beach,” she said. “Perfect.” With that, she declared the trip officially sucked and she was going back to the house. “I can use that radio to call the police and tell them I’d like to spend the rest of my vacation in jail.”

“Why do you hate everything?” he asked.

“I don’t, but this is boring. You’re boring.”

“Least I’m trying to make the best of it.”

“I need a cigarette,” she said quickly. “It’s so cold and dead around here.”

He scowled and said, “What would you be doing if your boyfriend was here?”

“That’s a dumb question. And you’ll never know.”

He looked at her sideways. “So what’s his name?”

She turned away for a moment, thinking, and then stared into his eyes. “Snake. He’s twenty and drives a Harley. He’s taking me to Paris.”

“So why didn’t you go live with him?”

Her brow furrowed. “You ask a lot of questions.”

Ginny was jogging down the sand, wrapped in a flowery bathrobe and waving a piece of paper over her head.

“Yoo-hoo. Come here, both of you.”

“Oh, look,” Monica said. “We’re being summoned by the queen.”

Ginny reached them, out of breath and clutching her chest. “You all disappeared without a word. We have to figure out the riddle, don’t you see? This is extremely important.”

Monica snorted. “I’m on vacation.”

Ginny scrutinized their faces one at a time. Her chest rose and fell heavily beneath the robe. “I’ll give you five thousand American dollars,” she said. “Each.”

It took a moment to register, and then Monica sputtered, “Are you shittin’ me?”

Ginny winced. “No, I am not shitting you.”

“Well, then, at your goddamn service, your majesty.”

Ginny held up the riddle. “I think this beach is west of the woods, so it must be here.” She turned to one side of the black sand and then the other, from the weathered dock to a scattering of driftwood along the foamy shore.

“You’re wrong,” Luke said. “This beach faces southeast. West is on the other side of the island, facing Canada.”

She struck the paper with the back of her hand. “This is absolute bollocks. I can’t be bothered with it now.” She thrust the riddle at Monica. “You two figure it out. I’m going to have a short nap.”

Ginny dropped her robe. She wore a skimpy turquoise bathing suit, full of bright sequins and hanging teardrop beads. It showed far more skin than either teen wanted to see.

“Damn,” Monica said, wincing at her long cleavage.

Luke shifted his gaze to the ocean, as if it were fascinating.

The elderly woman squatted, spreading her robe in the sand. Her body was toned for her age, but heavily wrinkled and a few parts sagged. She didn’t seem to mind the cool air.

“I thought you said more is less.”

“Not on an island. Now you’re blocking my sun, kindly move.”

“What about the five thousand dollars?”

Ginny wiggled her bottom into the sand and faced the sunlight. “It’s yours if you can find the Crimson Star. That boyfriend of yours seems pretty clever. My money is on him.”

Monica grabbed Luke by the wrist and led him to the old wooden dock.

The warmth of her hand made his legs wobbly and he nearly fell onto the rotting platform next to her.

She smoothed the paper flat on her knee against the breeze. “We’re going to find that diamond.”

Luke looked at the riddle. “My grandfather had to be crazy when he wrote that. He jumped off those cliffs to his death.”


“I don’t think these words mean squat. He was just a madman writing a bunch of nonsense. We’re not going to find it.”

“And I’m not passing up five thousand dollars.” Monica squinted hard at the words. “The goddess Hanus… han… ham… ham-ass.”

“What are you doing?”

I don’t know. What does Hanus mean?”

He shrugged. “If I had a computer, we could Google it.”

“Let’s look for one in the house.”

“There’s no Internet connection. We’ll have to wait until we get home and do a proper investigation.”

“By then the old lady could hire a team of geniuses to crack the code.”

He nodded, staring at his wrist and trying to remember the feel of her warm fingers.

Monica sprang to her feet. “So we’re stuck on this crappy island for two weeks and we don’t get the money.”

“We should go back to the house,” Luke said. “My mom was right; let’s forget about the riddle and check all the rooms. I’ll bet George just hid it somewhere and forgot.”

* * *

Jules spent the morning in the lab, searching through file cabinets. George kept meticulous notes on his research dating back to the 1960s. But Jules was looking for only one thing. George had told the lawyer he’d made a discovery that would change the world. It was something he’d worked on for the last few years, and he was very excited about it.

George never got excited about anything that wasn’t truly remarkable, and as far as Jules knew there was only one discovery that could change the world. It was the most taboo subject in the field of plant biology, but to open-minded scientists like himself, it was the Holy Grail of botany: the detection of a central information system in plants that was akin to the human nervous system. But Jules believed such a finding was decades away. There were too many questions. Where would such a system be found? Which tissues would it involve? What would be the cell-to-cell connections? What would be the firing system? Would there be a network with specialized cells and tissues to direct processing?

Perhaps in the last few years of his life, George had found the Holy Grail.

Unfortunately, there were no files dated after 2004. It was possible George had burned his most recent data in a bonfire on the patio. Jules had picked through the immense pile of ash and found remnants of spiral notebooks and binders, stacks of paper burnt into thick blocks of charcoal, along with the charred remains of plants. But why George would destroy the last ten years of his work, the most significant finding of his life, was as mysterious as his death.

He looked around the room. There was nothing left to search but a set of bookshelves over the desk. Some of the books were old and worn with dull fabric covers and titles concerning plant physiology and phytohormonal regulations, early subjects George had studied. Others had more contemporary titles on plant genomics, molecular neurophysiology, and electrophysiology. Jules felt a certain pride to see his own books on the shelf, all three he’d written in the last decade. He scanned the bottom shelf and spotted a bright yellow book with blue letters down the spine: Binaural Beats: Principles and Explorations.

He pulled it from the shelf and flipped it open.

Sean walked into the lab, quietly and unseen. He perched himself on a stool and watched the scientist read, smiling at the way Jules rubbed the side of his face with large bony fingers, slender and big-knuckled like tree branches. Finally, he let out a grunt.

“Oh. Hullo.” Jules peered up from his reading. “Wouldn’t you like to help your mother look for the diamond?”

Sean shook his head.

Jules continued reading about binaural beats, along with notes scribbled along the margins.

“Ung,” Sean grunted again.

Jules tried to ignore him, but his protests continued.

“I’m trying to concentrate, Sean.”

“Ung!” The boy stabbed a finger at the bookshelf.

“You want a book? Well, fine, then, take one.”

Sean poked the air harder.

“All right, all right. Which one?” Jules ran his hand over the row of titles until Sean grunted with enthusiasm.

It was the largest book on the shelf, a fat almanac simply titled Botany. Jules wiggled it out of its long-standing spot on the shelf and felt its substantial weight. The engraved leather seemed more fitting for a collection of Shakespeare than a catalog of plants. The paper looked old and slightly yellowed, but other than that it was in pristine condition. Jules handed it to Sean, who was anxiously snapping his fingers like crab claws.

Once the almanac was removed, Jules spotted a notebook pushed to the back of the shelf, green as a grasshopper. He pulled it out and laid it on the desk. It was a simple composition notebook like students use in secondary school.

Across the cover The Eden Project was prominently written in black marker. Jules fanned through the pages. Some were dated within the last five years and that instantly brightened his mood. Yet the entries were fragmented and sketchy: daily logs of plant growth; a list of 128 species of vegetation found on the island with their geographic locations; long descriptions of molecular genetic mutations performed on plants and fungi through a process called protoplast fusion; a series of detailed maps indicating cities and countries all over the world.

None of it held the slightest interest to Jules. It would take hours to read through George’s miniscule handwriting, so he skimmed the pages, stopping randomly and growing more frustrated. Then suddenly Jules stared, and kept staring, as if something on the page was astounding. He felt his heart thump against his chest and wiped the sweat from his lip, reading the words quickly.

George was claiming that he’d found a way to entangle the thought waves of plants and humans. He described the plants actually speaking to him, communicating through images and even words. It seemed ridiculous, but the data was laid out carefully, scientifically. It went on to describe something called V-waves, oscillations made by trees to communicate with each other. There were several pages of data on experiments George conducted in the woods. Jules found the information quite remarkable and took notes by speaking into his cell phone recorder. There were strip charts from an oscilloscope pasted onto the pages. Jules snapped photos of the charts with his phone.

The next two pages were filled with the hand-drawn diagram of some kind of device. It was labeled “Isochronic Tone Generator” and showed various switches and printed circuit boards, along with filters, amplifiers, and modulators. Jules guessed it was engineering plans for a type of synthesizer.

He turned the pages and found that the text became increasingly difficult to understand; less scientific and more philosophical. The word Seeders sprang out at him in bold red marker. He flipped around the middle pages and found Seeders several more times, sometimes in block letters or scribbled like a child.

The last few pages of the journal were shocking and Jules nearly dropped the book. They were filled with meticulous drawings of people dying. The bodies lay sprawled and mangled as if they’d been tortured, stabbed, or gutted. George’s talent as an artist was frightfully good, as he showed every gruesome detail. Jules cringed at the pleading eyes staring up at him, mouths in a scream, hands reaching out of the pictures for salvation. He held his breath, turning the pages in disgust. Among the carnage was a lot of scribbling, sentences that didn’t make sense or were illegible, along with rambling comments about life and death.

Jules closed the book. He looked at Sean, still reading the almanac, and then lifted his gaze to the window.

It seemed George had gone insane, convinced he was talking to plants. Still, Jules thought, much of the experiment had been conducted methodically with intelligible charts and descriptions. How could he be certain it was all fantasy? Wasn’t he an open-minded scientist who believed that one should never reject a theory that hadn’t been completely disproven? He was stuck on Sparrow Island for two weeks. Why not further study the book and figure out if there was anything to it? That’s why he came, after all. George’s last request was for Jules to continue his work, and if there was any chance of discovering something that would change the world, no matter how remote, didn’t he owe that much to his friend?

He opened the book again and continued reading.

* * *

It was half past noon and Isabelle came into the lab with a cup of hot coffee and a biscuit. She smiled at Sean reading a book on botany, and put the mug and biscuit in front of Jules. “I thought you might be hungry.”

“Hm? Oh yes, that’s fine,” he said, not looking up from the book.

She saw the stacks of files on the desk. “It looks like you found a lot of interesting material.”

“What? Oh yes.”

She could see he was distracted. “I’ll just take Sean so you can work.”

Jules was suddenly aware of Isabelle in the room. “Uh, sorry. Thank you for the coffee.” He took a sip and put the book down. A wisp of dark hair fell over his eye and Isabelle had a terrible urge to push it back with her fingers. As if reading her mind, he pushed it back himself and smiled warmly. “I thought you were looking for the diamond.”

“I believe that’s a hopeless case.” She looked at Sean, who was enamored with the almanac, stroking the black ink drawings of holly leaves as though petting a cat. “Be careful with that book,” Isabelle told him. “My father made me wash my hands just to look at it.”

She picked up the green notebook. “The Eden Project. What is this?”

“Nothing you’d want to read. There are drawings…”

“Was this my father’s journal?”

He took it back with more force than intended.

“I’m not allowed to see it?”

“Some of it’s rather disturbing. Besides, your father left all his research to me and this is the only record of his most recent work. I’m afraid he might have burned the rest on the patio.”

“Yes, I saw the ashes.” She gazed down at the book. “Eden. That’s an odd word for George. Perhaps he found religion.”

“Doubt it. I think the title is a metaphor.”

“So, did he uncover something that would change the world?”

“He claims that plants were communicating with him, in English, no less. That’s a bit far-fetched for even my imagination.”

She shook her head sadly. “You’re right. That’s crazy.”

“Well, not entirely,” he said defensively. “I’ve been doing my own studies lately that show certain plants communicate with each other using acoustical signals, a series of clicks generated by their roots, which travel underground. The clicks seem to represent a particular message, warnings about things like drought or insect invasions in a language specific to each species, such as corn or peas.”

“A language, really?”

“The data is rather preliminary. More testing needs to be done.”

“Even so, communication between plants is very different from broccoli talking to my father.”

“That’s true. George was going down a strange path,” Jules said. “He believed that plant waves and human brain waves are naturally detected by each other, but only slightly because they’re on different frequencies. According to his notes, he found a way to synchronize the frequencies, entangling the thought waves of plants and humans.”

“That sounds insane.”

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” Jules frowned.

“What a waste of a brilliant mind.”

“It’s not all rubbish.” He opened the book to the pages on V-waves. “These notes reveal a detectable form of communication among trees. There’s no doubt that he discovered a type of electromagnetic wave produced by plants, which seems very similar to the waves given off by a thinking brain. He called them V-waves.”

“What’s the V?”

Viridiplantae. Latin for ‘green plant.’”

“And he believed these waves are similar to human thoughts?”

Jules shrugged and opened the green notebook, displaying the strip charts.

“What am I looking at?”

“V-waves given off by trees,” he replied. “In this study, George hooked up a red cedar with probes to a voltmeter and spectrum analyzer. Then he chopped the tree with an ax. At the moment of impact, the V-waves changed dramatically in frequency. See, this is a recording of the plant’s reaction, which shows it suffered quite a jolt. But then…” Jules turned the pages of the book. “We have these timed recordings of six neighboring pines. There was a burst of energy among all of them the instant the blade struck the cedar, almost as if they could feel its pain.”

“Interesting. But those are physiological reactions. It doesn’t prove trees have conscious thought. It certainly doesn’t prove they could talk to George.”

“No, but combined with the rest of his data, it gets rather curious.” His fingers turned a few more pages. “These are the readings of your father’s brain waves, taken five years ago. Notice what happens over time, the similarities between the two waves. The V-waves show slight changes in frequency, until they’re completely synchronized with the readings of his own brain.”


“Meaning, in theory, he might have actually entangled the thought waves of plants and people.”

Thought waves,” she said derisively. “Surely you don’t believe all this nonsense.”

“I’m not sure what to believe. George was scrupulous. Not one to make things up, especially test results. I mean, why would he lie?”

“Drugs. Mental disease.” She rubbed her arms. “He did kill himself, after all.”

“That’s another thing. I want to know why, don’t you? Why does a man claim to have made a miraculous discovery and then end his own life?”

She gave a hopeless shrug.

“There’s no harm in looking a bit closer, poking around and finding some answers.”

“Of course. I’d be grateful if you found anything.” She picked up an ivy leaf off the counter and twirled it in her fingers. It was the one Sean found on the cliffs that morning. “Did you save this for a reason?”

Jules nodded. “I’ve never seen a fungus like this and I’m intrigued. From the texture and color, I’d say it’s a rare species, and yet it reminds me of something.”

She examined the leaf closer and noticed a purple smear on her fingertip.

“Unfortunately, all the microscopes are locked in that cabinet and there doesn’t seem to be a key.” He pointed to a six-foot display case made of mahogany and etched glass that didn’t match the blandness of the laboratory. Microscopes and other scientific equipment were visible behind glass doors.

Isabelle dropped the leaf on the counter and raised a brow. “You mean you’d rather look at fungus than figure out why George was talking to trees?”

He smiled back. “You’re right. It’s just a fungus.”


ISABELLE WAS ABOUT TO SUGGEST to Jules they make some lunch when Luke and Monica came into the laboratory with gloomy expressions.

“This place sucks,” Monica declared. “I’m leaving.”

“You’re not leaving,” Isabelle replied. “We’re here for two weeks until the boat arrives, so make the best of it.”

Luke told his mother about Ginny’s reward and explained how they searched for the diamond all over the office and living room with no luck. “Can we look in the lab?”

“No, Dr. Beecher is working here,” Isabelle said. “Besides, you’ve done enough searching for today. Go do something fun.”

Fun?” Monica barked out a laugh. She complained that the island was cold and windy, with a creepy forest, an ugly beach, and absolutely nothing to do. “I’m going to die from boredom.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Isabelle said.

“But there’s no television.”

Jules squinted at the girl as if she were a diseased plant.

“Read a book, like Sean,” Isabelle suggested, opening the lower cabinets, one after another. “My father kept an enormous library.”

Luke shrugged. “If you like botany.”

“There’s plenty of fiction. And if we’re lucky…” She swung open the last door. “Here we go. Zenith circa 1980.” She revealed a small television set and put it on the counter.

“It’s an old one, all right,” Luke said. “Even if it still works, there’s no reception.”

Isabelle pointed to a stack of videotapes and a VCR inside the cabinet.

Luke slid a couple of tapes off the shelf and showed them to Monica. “These must have been my grandfather’s.”

“Oh yeah? What movies he got?”

What movies he got?” Jules repeated. “Did you hear that sentence?”

Luke read from the labels. “Time-Lapse Study of Plant Signaling. Behavior in the Northeastern Poplar. Signaling Response Nexus of a Root.” He dropped them on the counter. “More botany crap.”

“Watch your language, please,” Isabelle said.

“We should see if these old machines even work.” Luke pushed the television and VCR closer to an outlet, plugged them in, and fiddled with their dials.

“What’s this?” Monica held up a tape. “Plant Telepathy.

“May I see that?” Jules took the cassette and turned it over. “Cleve Backster.”

“Ah, yes,” Isabelle said. “Cleve Backster started a movement back in the sixties, remember, Jules? His experiments were supposed to show that plants have feelings, that they could think and read people’s minds. He had everyone talking to their plants.”

“That’s stupid,” Monica huffed.

“Surprisingly, I agree with you,” Jules said. “His experiments were hokum.”

“What kind of experiments?”

Isabelle explained that Backster was originally an interrogation agent with the CIA, specializing in lie detection. “One day, on a whim, he decided to attach his polygraph to the leaf of a Dracaena plant and see how long it took for water to reach the leaf.”

Monica faked a yawn. “Gee, that’s exciting.”

“Actually his polygraph test showed that plants react to external stimulation just like humans. When exposed to pain or pleasure, they exhibited the same excitement reaction. Then something really strange happened. He decided to burn a plant and went into another room to get matches. When he returned, the polygraph readings were off the charts. Just the thought of burning a leaf was enough to send the plant into full-blown panic.”

“Yeah, right,” Monica said. “It’s some kind of trick.”

“That’s what the skeptics thought, but his results caused quite a sensation at the time. Everyone was talking about it. He was on television and radio shows.”

Jules shook his head. “Backster reduced the science of plant biology to the level of spoon bending. For scientists, it was an embarrassment. But George was keen to discover the truth. He brought all the research into a real laboratory and set up experiments with proper equipment, control groups, and careful analysis.”

“And he proved Backster was a fraud?” Luke asked.

“Well, not exactly.” Jules exchanged a look with Isabelle. “Some of his trials with the polygraph revealed similar results. But George came up with an entirely different theory. He believed that plants had memory and could learn. His studies were based on pure science, not telepathy or magic.”

Isabelle nodded. “My father’s results caused a sensation of their own. The entire scientific world was amazed.”

“So he was famous?” Luke asked.

“For a while. He went on a transatlantic media tour, and was featured in a lot of American newspapers and magazines. Life magazine did an article on him.”

“That is so cool,” Luke said.

Jules read the back label on another tape. “This appears to be an early recording of George conducting a polygraph experiment.”

“Can we watch it?” Luke asked Isabelle as he turned on the TV and a snowy screen came to life.

“Might be fun,” she replied. “Sean, do you want to watch TV?”

Across the room, the boy scowled and turned the page of the botany book.

Luke blew dust off the tape and slipped it into the machine. He pressed the play button and an image emerged on the television.

Isabelle was struck by her father in living color, smiling and animated just as she remembered. He was talking to five young men in a classroom, most likely his students. There was no sound, but he seemed to be instructing them.

“I can’t get the volume to work,” Luke said. He pointed to one of the men. “Is that you, Dr. Beecher?”

Jules nodded. “Yes, the tall skinny lad. It was my first year at Oxford when I met George. We did quite a few of these experiments.”

“You weren’t bad looking,” Monica said. “Like a million years ago.”

Luke tried the volume again. “Forget it. There’s no sound.”

“I can tell you what’s happening.” Jules explained that George had gathered five of his botany students together for an experiment. They were all young men with longish hair and sideburns. They wore turtlenecks and plaid trousers.

“You were going for groovy, huh?” Monica said.

They watched the five students take turns pulling slips of paper from a gray fedora.

“We chose from the hat which of us would play the role of murderer. You see, we’re about to enter a room with two plants. The first is to be the victim and the second, a witness.”

The room on-screen was featureless except for a long table that held two identical dwarf palms, about four feet tall, in heavy pots. Attached to one of the trees was a polygraph. The first student entered the room, staring at the plants. Then he started speaking to them. Awkwardly at first, and then more casually, as if they were old friends.

“We were supposed to be kind to the plants, except for the killer, of course.”

The next three students took turns chatting with the palms, watering them, blowing softly on their leaves, and the whole thing began to seem a bit silly.

Finally, Jules entered the room alone.

Bum bum bummm,” Monica said ominously. “I knew it would be you.”

“Oh my,” Isabelle said, smiling. “Are you really going to hurt that plant, Jules?”

“It’s an experiment, for goodness sakes.”

Isabelle smiled behind her fingers. The young man on-screen seemed so shy, with an innocent expression and timid manner. She wondered if he’d pluck off a leaf or two.

They all watched as Jules reached out to the plant, tracing his finger gently down a broad leaf. His eyes closed and he breathed deeply through his nose. Isabelle stopped smiling as the expression on young Jules’s face changed dramatically. It twisted into a gruesome snarl and his eyes sprang open and alert. With lightning speed he ambushed his prey, seizing the plant and straining to rip it from the pot.

Isabelle stepped back in alarm.

The roots clung on tightly, but it was no even match. Jules shook the trunk and the tree broke loose. The ceramic bowl smashed onto the floor. He threw the tree over his head like a javelin and it shot against the wall, sending dirt flying in every direction. Jules pounced on the injured tree, ripping the leaves to shreds and pulling apart the roots with powerful claws that came down again and again.

It was all happening so fast and Isabelle stared with wide eyes. As much as she tried, she couldn’t look away.

Dirt sprayed everywhere—across Jules’s shirt, his face and arms as if it were a bloody massacre. There was barely a leaf left on the tree, but Jules wasn’t finished. A silent scream came from his mouth, a deplorable rage on his face as he stomped the trunk with all his might, using hands and feet to pry its lifeless body apart.

Her heart pounded in her ears and Isabelle thought Jules must be possessed. She watched in horror as he struck the tattered remains of the plant against the floor, blow after blow—

The tape stopped.

Jules stood by the VCR with his finger on a button, helplessly looking at the shocked faces around him. Then the dreadful moment was broken by Monica.

“What an actor! Jesus, you deserve a freaking Emmy for that!”

The others were silent as Jules struggled to explain. “Well, yes, you have to be… convincing… or, well, the experiment won’t work.”

Luke slipped from a dazed expression. “So, that was just an act?”

“Let’s see the rest of it,” Monica said, excited.

“No,” Jules said quickly. “It’s a bit disturbing to watch all these years later.”

“Well, how’s it end?” Monica whined.

Jules looked at her, pale and silent. There was sweat on his brow but he tried to act calm. He swallowed hard. “Um… let’s see. We left the plants alone for a while. There was the dead one on the floor.” He tried to sound scholarly, as if casually explaining the findings, but he was shaken by the video. He winced, as if trying to remember and forget at the same time. “We all had to go back into the room. You see, there was the other plant.”

“The witness,” Luke said.

“Yes, the one hooked up to the polygraph. We had to measure its reaction.”

“And? What happened when you went into the room?”

Jules spoke low, almost to himself. “The recorder was in a frenzy. A state of distress like I’ve never seen.”

Isabelle realized her hand was covering her mouth and lowered it.

“Excuse me,” he whispered, and stood up to leave. The others watched him walk to the door.

“Jules.” Isabelle went to him. “Are you all right?”

He nodded, but seemed drained. “Seeing George and all that.”

“I understand,” she said, and turned so she didn’t have to watch him walk out.

Monica and Luke were charged up from the video. They chatted noisily about the experiment, and their relationship seemed to take a turn.

Isabelle put the TV and VCR away, noting that Monica laughed at Luke’s jokes and hung on his words, as if George had somehow elevated his grandson’s status.

“I don’t get it,” Luke said to his mother. “If Backster was wrong about plants recognizing people, how come the polygraph reacted to Jules?”

“My father came up with his own theory about how plants identify people, why they react the way they do. It was much more scientific and easier to believe.”

“What was his theory?”

“It’s complicated. I’ll tell you about it another time.”

“So these experiments made him famous, right?” Luke asked.

“For a botanist, I suppose.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. This is huge.”

“I guess it was, at the time.”

Luke looked annoyed. “I think this is really cool and you act like it’s nothing. I can’t believe all these years I had this famous scientist in my family and you didn’t say anything. I mean, he’s your father.

“It’s not that simple,” she said tersely. “If you want to know about your grandfather, I’ll tell you. But I think you should know the whole story.”

Isabelle explained that George had been a well-respected scientist for many years, until he began experimenting with illegal drugs, mind-altering substances that eventually affected his work and reputation. He was fired from his job at Oxford, but the low point came when he was arrested for drug trafficking and spent two years in a Canadian prison. His wife left him, taking Isabelle. The scientific community labeled him a fraud and turned their backs on him. George, in turn, became a recluse on the island.

Luke looked at his mother. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. In my eyes, George was a sweet and generous man who loved every facet of nature. He was intelligent and curious about everything. Just like you.”

“I wish I’d known him.”

Isabelle smiled weakly. “I wish you had too.”

“Someone get a violin,” Monica said.

“All right. It’s nearly two o’ clock.” Isabelle chuckled. “How about lunch?”

“How about finding my diamond!” Ginny was standing in the doorway, on the verge of tears, her skin bright pink from the sun. “You’re all standing around chatting away when time is running out.” Then she raised the reward to $10,000.


JULES WAS IN THE STUDY pouring a glass of sherry. He paced the room and drank it down in one shot. He was still upset by the video and poured another drink.

Seeing himself attack a plant made him feel physically ill, but he resisted the implications. After all, he wasn’t a violent man. There might have been a couple of tiny incidents during his first weeks at Oxford. Karen Astor, which he didn’t want to think about. The barbaric rugby fellow who bullied him in a tavern. That officious little wanker who towed his car. Those were anomalies. It wasn’t like he did any serious damage, nothing permanent. Every man has a few moments of losing control. Being pushed too far. Cornered.

“Dr. Beecher?” Luke knocked on the doorframe.

“Oh, hullo,” Jules said wearily.

“Could we talk a minute?”

“I’m rather busy.”

Luke looked at Jules standing alone in the room with a glass of sherry in hand. Jules stared back in silence and finally gestured defeat.

“Fine. Come in.” He carried his glass to the chair behind the desk, used a blank envelope as a coaster.

Luke sat across from him. “I’m wondering if you could tell me about my grandfather.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything, I guess.”

Jules leaned back in his chair and exhaled, pinched the bridge of his nose. Did he really want to get into this now? No, but the boy had a right to know what a distinguished scientist his grandfather had been. It was doubtful that Isabelle had done the job.

“Well, let’s see. I don’t know much about his early years, except that he was a bright boy who had an affinity for nature, specifically mushrooms. He was a student at Cambridge, headed for a career in mycology, and by the time he was eighteen he’d discovered a dozen new species of fungi all over England. It seems he wrote a breakthrough scientific paper on mycorrhiza, the relationship between plants and fungi.”


“That’s not important. What is notable is that it garnered a lot of attention in the plant biology department and he was asked to join an experimental team to study how the roots of plants grow toward nutrients. During these studies he made the observation that the root network of a plant has similarities to the neural network of the brain.” Jules poured another glass of sherry and held it up brightly. “George focused all his research on the parallels between the signaling systems of plant and animal cells. How plants process information is remarkably similar to the electrical impulses of an animal’s nervous system.” He took a sip and put the glass down. “He went on to become a distinguished professor of plant biology at Oxford, and the work he did on long-distance signaling became the foundation for how plant biology is studied today.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Wow. So he was an important man.”

“Yes, and never given his proper due.”

“You mean like with the polygraph experiment? Mom said he figured out why the plant reacted to you as the killer.”

“The discovery George made was one of the most significant in plant science.”

Luke leaned in.

“He believed the plant reacted to me for two reasons. Number one, plants have memory. Number two, they can distinguish between the scents of individual people. Of course, he had to prove this through an experiment, so what he did was introduce a rhododendron to the purified scent of his own body, while at the same time tearing off one of its leaves. In response to the wound, the plant immediately sent alarm signals from leaf to root, accelerating its production of ethylene and protease inhibitors against herbivores. After weeks of trials, George introduced only the scent, without hurting the leaves. Yet the plant still reacted as if it were injured. Therefore, George concluded, the plant was able to smell the scent and remember that it was accompanied by the tearing of a leaf.”

“Whoa.” Luke blinked hard.

“This was big news in the plant world, and would have given George prominence if it hadn’t been for that blasted publicity tour. We all warned him against it, but I guess the idea of fame got the better of him. There was a media sensation in the American press and for a single summer it was big news. But back in England, the scientific community was rather appalled. You see, some of the reporters interviewing George twisted his words around, trying to sensationalize his data. One man asked George if he had proven plants have a consciousness, and your grandfather said, ‘Of course. It proves they have a soul.’ I guess he got caught up in all the hype. And it didn’t help that George’s experiments were repeated by others with very mixed results. You see, in the world of science, ‘sometimes’ doesn’t count and reputations can sink quickly. Things were very bad when he returned to Oxford.”

“They fired him.”

“Yes, they did.”

“He started taking drugs.”

“That’s a long story.”

“It’s why his wife left him, and my mom.”

“Your grandmother was hardly…,” Jules grumbled, but stopped himself.


“She was all right in the beginning, although terribly needy of attention. Grace was an American music student at Oxford and I think George was enchanted by her beauty and charm. She was a hippie sort, with lots of friends. Musicians and artists. George liked that, but there were always drugs around. Back then things were different, and George had a weakness for that kind of thing. Anyway, it doesn’t take away from the fact that your grandfather was a great scientist. While his groundbreaking results were eventually rejected and forgotten, I can tell you that recent experiments exposing plants to various colored lights have proven George was right—plants do have memory, and we’ve also learned that they can distinguish between odors.”

Luke nodded and the two were silent for a while. Jules sipped his drink.

“Dr. Beecher, do you think it’s possible that plants can think?”

“Most people would say no.”

“But you wrote a book on plant intelligence. I saw it in the lab.”

“An important measurement of intelligence is the ability to adapt to one’s environment, which implies thought. It’s all semantics.”

“I don’t know,” Luke said. “Intelligence requires a complex nervous system that’s only found in animals. I mean, without neurons, axons, and neurotransmitters for signaling and a brain to process everything, plants can’t think.”

Jules raised a brow. “You’ve a good understanding of the subject for your age.”

“Usually only seniors take neurobiology but I’m taking it next year.”

“You’re making the same mistake as most scientists, measuring intelligence as it relates to our own abilities. It’s a kind of meat chauvinism against any creature without a brain.”

“Yeah, but a nervous system is what separates intelligent animals from plants.”

“Are you sure? Both organisms have the same functions—eating, drinking, and reproducing—and both go about the task in similar ways. Plants and humans are nothing more than living machines and our actions are merely electrical signals going off at specific times and places in our bodies.”

“You make us sound like robots.”

“In a way, we are. Did you know in the last decade science has proven beyond a doubt that every aspect of consciousness is connected to the physical brain?” Jules leaned forward. “Why, I can actually hook you up to an fMRI that reads your mind by tracking blood flow to various parts of your brain. By matching the neural correlates, I can tell if you’re thinking about a car or a banana, if you are looking at a picture of a house or a photograph of your mother. You see, the brain works just like a supercomputer.”

Luke didn’t look convinced.

Jules put down his drink and picked up a pencil. He drew a crude brain across the back of an envelope. “Brain waves can be seen as loops and jags between the cortex and thalamus, which bind together various regions. Say you’re looking at a girl in a red dress; it binds the color red with girl and dress and thousands of other areas of the brain into a coherent conscious experience. Sort of like a radio transmitter and receiver tuned to the same frequency. There are over a billion neural connections in a square millimeter of brain matter, which allows trillions and trillions of possible combinations. Understand?”

Luke nodded thoughtfully. “So we’re nothing more than electrical signals going off in response to external stimuli.”

“Correct. No different than a plant.”

Luke grimaced. “Physically the two aren’t comparable.”

“But as I said, functionally they are. A plant is made up of living tissue with a messaging system of electrical signals that allow it to communicate with itself and other creatures in the environment.”

“Like when a Venus flytrap closes on an insect?”

“That’s a good example. You see, the Venus flytrap has four sensor hairs that an insect must trip twice, within twenty seconds, in order for the trap to close. This shows the plant has memory, and logic, really. What’s more, plants can make decisions. For example, a dodder has no leaves to make its own food, so it has to get nutrients by attacking other plants, using its sense of smell to find its victims. There could be ten different species nearby and it will always smell out the most succulent. Then it reaches across the soil and wraps itself around the plant several times, attaching suckers that penetrate its prey to extract the nutrients.”

“Creepy. But smart creepy.”

“You see, plants have a system of tracking and signaling that’s just as effective as our own. They can use all five senses without the almighty nervous system.”

Luke nodded. “I see what you’re saying. I think it’s really cool.”

“I think so too.”

It seemed the boy was satisfied with the conversation and Jules was relieved. But after a long moment Luke scrunched up his face, hard in thought.

“There’s still one problem with your theory,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“I get what you mean about similar electrical signals in plants and animals, but I don’t think a bunch of neural correlates can explain Beethoven. I mean, when a person listens to music, you can track signals to specific areas in the brain to create sound, but what about the feeling you get listening to a song? How do you explain the excitement of a roller coaster or being awed by fireworks?”

“That’s very perceptive of you, Luke. You’ve struck on the one question that we’ve not been able to solve. These are sentient experiences called qualia: the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, the redness of the color red, all of our emotions. Neurobiologists call it the hard problem, and so far it’s been unanswerable.”

“Because it’s part of something greater than we can imagine.”

“Exactly. Our brains haven’t evolved enough to comprehend an answer. Just as we can’t understand gravity or imagine a ninth dimension or know what comes after infinity. It’s the same with plants. We haven’t evolved enough to truly understand our own consciousness, so how can we claim to understand theirs?”

“Or maybe it can only be explained by God.”

Jules chuckled. “Now you sound like your grandfather.” He took another drink from his glass, emptied it, and placed it on the envelope.

“You think we’ll ever figure out how to communicate with plants?”

“We might not have to. Plants have a seven hundred million year advantage over humans. Perhaps they’ll find a way to reach us first.”

“Maybe.” Luke stood up to leave. “Hey, thanks, Dr. Beecher.”

“You are most welcome, Luke. You’re a bright boy. Everyone should be as open to new ideas as you are.”


ISABELLE AGREED TO DEVOTE the entire afternoon to finding the diamond. She and Ginny rummaged through dozens of boxes in the attic, and then Isabelle headed downstairs to search.

There were six rooms on the ground floor. Isabelle stood at the bottom of the staircase, hands on hips, wondering where to start. She decided on the storage room and got on with it right away, opening boxes of items her mother brought from England, most of which had no business on the island: skis and tennis equipment, formal dresses and gowns, dozens of high-heeled shoes. There were pieces of artwork scattered around the room, a naked mannequin and a few paintings leaning against the walls.

Isabelle picked up one of the paintings and held it to the light with a frown. It was a portrait of her mother, Grace, as a stunning young woman in her early twenties who could have passed for Audrey Hepburn. She was a petite brunette with a heart-shaped face and large brown eyes under perfectly shaped eyebrows. But it was her expression that gave Isabelle a chill. It was stiff, as though she were sitting on something sharp. Perhaps, Isabelle thought, she was already feeling the nonexistent pain of so many false illnesses.

Isabelle stared at the portrait in contemplation. Living on Sparrow Island they had never been close, she and Grace, but when they arrived in New York City everything changed. Isabelle became her confidante, her best friend, and eventually her nurse. Grace seemed to be deathly ill all the time, but never once was admitted to a hospital. Doctors would throw out their hands and tell her to hire a nurse. She never did, insisting Isabelle could easily care for her.

By sixteen, Isabelle had barely seen the light of day, spending long hours cooking and cleaning, researching homeopathic remedies, providing physical therapy. She’d drag her mother’s heavy body from one room to another and back again. Young Isabelle would stare out the bars of her window, dreaming about the jungles of Africa, the pyramids of Egypt, the islands of the Pacific. She wanted to see the whole world. But Grace was constantly bedridden with migraines, E. coli, lupus, toxic shock syndrome. She had three types of cancer and a bout with meningitis. How ironic that she died from choking on a cough drop.

Isabelle didn’t realize she was holding her breath until her lungs started to ache. She laid the portrait aside and went to the kitchen. She made a pot of tea, placed it with the matching tea set, and brought it into the library.

The room was full of tall bookshelves stocked with hundreds of books. Almost immediately, and to her surprise, she spotted a Bible. Perhaps it was The Book mentioned in the riddle. It looked old and worn as she pulled it from the shelf. She practically tore it apart, looking for secret pockets, scribbled notes, or circled words.

Isabelle paused. Someone had underlined a passage from the first page of Genesis:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Isabelle’s heart kicked up when she read the word Eden, thinking of her father’s green journal. Perhaps The Eden Project held a clue to the diamond’s location. She read the passage again. Could there be a tree of knowledge on the island? She tried to remember if there was a specific species associated with the tree.

“Oh damn,” she whispered, and closed the book. It was a Bible, for heaven’s sake. The whole idea of the riddle was starting to seem calculated and melodramatic. What was she doing wasting so much time, instead of enjoying her vacation? She wondered if the children were having any fun. Sean was in the library too, gazing out the window with unfocused eyes, body rigid as a statue. No, he didn’t look any happier here than at home.

Without warning, he banged his palms against the glass, grunting at something in the distance.

Isabelle followed his gaze to the woods, but saw nothing.

“Ung!” Sean pointed a finger to himself, and then the window.

“You can’t go out right now. We’ll go for a walk later.”

He banged his chest.

“No, you can’t go alone.”

His brow furrowed and he hissed.

“What’s gotten into you? Why are you so upset?”

Sean pressed his open palms high on the windowpane and bumped his forehead against the glass, whimpering.

“Why don’t you check out the garden in back of the house? There are wildflowers just starting to blossom. You can pick them for the dinner table.”

He left with a scowl, and Isabelle listened until the kitchen door slammed and the house was quiet once again.

The silence was broken by sounds of heavy lifting down the staircase. Ginny carried a large box into the library and dropped it on the sofa, creating a frenzy of dust. “This is everything I could find upstairs that might have the slightest value.” She removed a gaudy necklace of bright wooden beads, a chrome-plated picture frame, an ancient calculator, and a fur hat.

Isabelle blinked.

“I know what you’re thinking, dear. The estate belongs to you. Therefore, all these trinkets are yours.”

“No, it’s just—”

“That’s exactly why I brought them downstairs, instead of pocketing them like a common thief. You can decide what you want, and I’ll take the rest. We can appraise their value together. I believe I saw some china and silver items in the pantry. Of course some of these books in the library are first editions and will bring in a pretty penny. Now, don’t look at me like that, dear. Your father would want us to put these things to use and sell the rest. He was quite practical.”

“You can take whatever you want, Ginny.”

“Truly? You don’t mind?”

With a heavy sigh, Isabelle picked up the Bible.

“You found the book!”

“I’m not sure,” she said and opened the cover. “There is a section that’s been underlined.”

Ginny rushed to her side and read the passage, squinting. “No mention of the diamond at all. Perhaps it has to do with a garden. There were quite a few gardens around the house years ago. We should have a search.”

“There’s a notebook in my father’s lab, marked ‘Eden something-or-other.’”

Ginny brightened. “What’s in it?”

“I don’t know. Scientific research, but I’ll have a look.”

They both stared at the passage in the Bible again.

“This is far too complicated,” Ginny said.

Isabelle blew a stray hair from her face. “Why don’t you hire a detective or something? There are people who find things. They can do a computer search of my father’s past activities. If he held any bank accounts or maybe sold it on eBay. The diamond could be in a safe-deposit box at some bank in London.”

“No, it’s here. I’m sure of it. I can’t leave this island knowing it’s unprotected.” She was getting upset. “That boat is coming in two weeks, and what if we haven’t found it? I’ll be stuck here myself, searching all alone.”

“I do think it likely George sold it long ago.”

“Nonsense. He wouldn’t leave me something precious in the will, and then sell it. He knew how low my savings had dwindled. I don’t expect you to understand, married to a policeman, with a family and all. You have no idea what it’s like being alone. Not knowing one day to the next, if you’ll be put on the street or shut up in a home.”

Isabelle felt bad for the woman. She poured herself a cup of black tea and filled one for Ginny. “How about we sit for a moment? Put our heads together.”

Ginny brightened at the sight of the Royal Albert tea set. She took the cup and saucer, sniffing the steamy aroma, and said, “It’s good to know we can salvage a bit of civility on this barbaric island.”

Isabelle watched her inspect the bottom of the plate, and then run a finger across the matching tray. “You can have the tea set too.”

“Well, thank you, dear.”

“You know, rather than search all over the house perhaps we could try talking it out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, where did George put his valuables? I mean, did he have a safe? Did he ever mention where the diamond was kept? Did you ever see it?”

“No, no, and no. The only time I saw it was around your grandmother’s neck, in a photograph taken years ago. Of course, I asked where he kept it, but he’d only say, ‘In a safe place, my love. I’ll let you know when I’m dead.’”

“That’s an odd thing to say.”

“He was odd. But then, you see why I assumed it would be left to me in the will.” Her eyes shifted suspiciously. “Strange, don’t you think? Mr. Bonacelli is the only person with access to the will all these years. George mysteriously dies just when the lawyer comes to the island, and suddenly the diamond is gone.”

“Seems a stretch of your imagination.”

“Is it? Why was George shooting at the lawyer’s boat? Obviously he was trying to chase him away. He might have known the man was after my diamond.”

“Oh really, Ginny. You think a man like Mr. Bonacelli would do such a thing? I can tell he liked my father very much.”

“Money makes people do evil things. Take that Irish boat captain. I’m sure he lives on a pittance, and he saw George on a regular basis. Perhaps one day he came with a delivery and George, so desperate for company, showed him the priceless gem and unwittingly put the idea in his head. How hard would it be to push an elderly man off a cliff? He’s such a big Irish rogue and no one’s around to witness the act.”

“I see you’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“If I don’t, who will? The police don’t care. Oh, if only we had something to go on besides this blasted riddle.” She took the worn paper from her sweater pocket and flattened it with her hand.

Isabelle glanced at the riddle too. “Does anything in the prose remind you of something George might have said? A special place you two shared?”

She waved a dramatic hand. “There’s nothing. I’ve stared at this bloody piece of paper for hours. It’s all rubbish.”

Isabelle felt a pang of guilt. “So let’s keep looking.”

As Isabelle opened the drawers of the coffee table, Ginny picked up the Bible, stuck the riddle inside, and left the room clutching both to her chest.

* * *

Sean walked briskly through the woods, dragging a long knobby stick, looking back to make sure no one followed him.

He didn’t like when his mother told him what to do and what not to do. For some reason, he felt more independent on the island than at home. Here, he was different, smarter and older. Like the way he could navigate the woods by himself, watching for red markers and staying to the path.

It was dead quiet and he scanned the trail, noticing trees and plants he only read about in books. There were conifers, of course; pine, spruce, and hemlock just like in New York. But there were some broad-leaf varieties that weren’t in his collection, basswood, chokecherry, and speckled alder. It was odd how those trees didn’t have any leaves and it was already June. Their naked branches reached up to the sky like skeletons begging for spring buds. They seemed ominous, the way they loomed over him like giants trying to make him feel small.

Sean took a biscuit from his pocket and took small bites, thinking about how things were now and the way they were before. He was aware of his handicap and loathed it more than anything. He knew his thoughts were babyish. His mind worked like a five-year-old’s, when he was already twelve and should be thinking, speaking, more like Luke.

For years after the accident, Sean desperately tried to talk, but every attempt felt as if someone had snipped a wire connecting brain to voice. After a while, he stopped trying. He gave up and tried to forget the old Sean, laughing and talking a mile a minute. The new Sean felt like an old man. Transgression, the doctor called it. Sean wasn’t an old man; he was turning back into a baby. He worried that someday he’d need diapers. It was frustrating because no one could explain his lack of speech. One specialist called it conversion disorder. Another called it hysteria. His mother called it temporary. His father called it crazy.

Sean looked up and realized he was lost. Somehow he’d wandered off the trail. There were no markers in sight and right away he started to worry. The wooded landscape was a continuous pallet of earthy browns and greens, a repetitive backdrop of trees, rocks, and vines. Sean didn’t know what to do—go back and find the path, or keep walking. Of course he should go back, but he’d spun around so many times he wasn’t sure which way was back. It never occurred to Sean that he might follow the lines made by the walking stick, so he just stood still. After a long moment, he thought that maybe his mother was right. He couldn’t be trusted on his own. The thought made him angry, and he punched himself.

Several minutes passed and Sean got tired of standing, so he sat down to rest on a fallen tree. The sun had moved west, peeking through the tops of leafless branches. He lay back on the log, staring up at the blue sky with sleepy eyes. The mighty wind was playing a game with the trees, blowing them back and forth. The wind picked up and it became a furious battle, but the trees held strong, their branches sharp like cutting knives. Long bony fingers drumming the clouds. Sean smiled, knowing that the wind always lost that game.

The mightier the wind, the deeper the roots, Isabelle had told him.

Then the trees were spinning around in a circle, a different game, ring-around-the-rosy, and it made Sean dizzy. His arm jerked to one side and he fell off the log. Then his head began to hurt. He tried to kneel, but sitting was all he could manage and even then he felt loopy. Instinctively, he shut his eyes and took deep breaths and gradually the earth came to rest and his headache subsided.

Slowly, he rose to his feet, still scared and worried about being lost. What if he never found his way back? He could die out here, starve or freeze to death, couldn’t he?

Then a small sound blew by his ear, riding on a thin current of air—


He spun around, his heart pounding fast.

Leggo, Sean.

He heard it again, but there was no one around. A small laugh drifted past him and then he heard it calling again—


He started to panic, turning in circles and looking for a small person, but there were only trees. He wondered if the voice was inside or outside his head, or perhaps it had something to do with the accident. It was a new, terrible thing to think about.


This time the voice was behind him, chillingly close, and Sean spun on his heels.

All he saw was a hemlock.

For a moment, he stood silently staring at the small tree, and he had the feeling it was looking right back at him. He stepped closer. The tree was so comforting and familiar, Sean wasn’t afraid anymore. He reached out to pinch a branch and slid it between his fingers, watching the needles spring back into shape. For some reason, it bothered him to see the underside of the pine needles speckled with the same black spots as the ivy on the cliff. It left purple dust on his fingertips. Dr. Beecher had called it a fungus.

Moving closer, he saw there was more fungus on the tree trunk, blotchy like a rash. It traveled along the bark to the ground, where it was growing like moss, and across a fat root sticking out of the dirt. It crept over a straggly berry bush and some pinecones. It climbed up the trunks of cedars and covered the leafy vines that hugged their trunks. The fungus seemed to be everywhere.

Why hadn’t he noticed it before? He squinted at the woods. The black spots weren’t visible if you weren’t looking for them. Blotches fell into patterns of bark and inside crevices as if it were camouflaging itself. Even against the white birch it seemed like nothing more than cracks and shadows. Sean continued his examination and found there wasn’t a single plant not infected. He wondered if it was contagious, like when Luke got the flu and passed it to everyone in the family.

He moved through the woods, snapping off leaves and branches, stuffing them into his pockets. Before long, he reached the path, without realizing he was ever lost. Sean headed back to the house. He forgot all about the voice in the wind.


JULES WAS IN THE LAB, engrossed in research, and didn’t hear the glass doors slide open or the squeak of muddy sneakers behind him.

He’d already pieced together that V-waves were a force of nature constantly present in plants but never before detected, standing waves that could travel at the speed of up to 64 centimeters per second through live plants and up to 1.24 meters per second through air; too slow to be electromagnetic waves. The jagged lines on the strip chart showed that the force of impact on the tree was immediate, severe, and semipermanent.

But Jules was baffled by George’s claim that the plants were able to change their frequency and communicate with humans on a cognitive level. He looked at the books piled up in front of him. He picked up Achieving Brain Entrainment Through Isochronic Tones and flipped through the text, much of it highlighted in yellow marker.

He knew that brain entrainment, also called brain synchronization, was supposed to be a way to achieve various states of consciousness. The idea was to create a “frequency following” response, changing the oscillations of the brain by playing various sounds. This was possible because the human brain has a tendency to follow the frequency of the most dominant external stimulus. It had become popular in the sixties as a form of meditation and there were even claims that it enhanced the power of ESP or telepathy.

Christ,” Jules muttered, shaking his head.

He sat back and raked his fingers through his hair. None of this mattered to him. It was like picking though a garbage heap trying to find a small diamond that might have been dropped. It was all ridiculous science, but not surprising. When George wasn’t working on a serious project, he was getting high on drugs, meditating, or involved in things like channeling spirits. So for Jules it was frustrating, but not particularly odd to learn of George’s attempts to entangle the thoughts of plants and humans.

Damn fool.

He couldn’t stand the idea of his mentor ending his brilliant career as a bad joke, a charlatan, a drug addict. He pictured his friend in a hazy stupor walking through the woods, yelling at the trees and firing his rifle at passing boats. The thought made him nauseous. This was a man he had worshipped, and he had hoped to someday fill his shoes. If only there was some truth to the claims George made, even the smallest contribution to science would give him a semblance of legacy.

“Ung!” Sean tugged on his sleeve.

Jules snapped the textbook closed. “Sean, you startled me.”

The boy handed him a pine needle branch.

Jules held it in his fingers, noticing the fungus. “Where did you get this?”

Sean sunk his hands in his pockets.

“Where did you get this?” Jules repeated, more insistent.

Sean lifted his fists over his head and made a shower of grass, leaves, and pinecones.

Jules was quick to capture whatever he could. He looked down at the specimens, all speckled with the black growth, and he turned to Sean with dark eyes.

“Show me,” he said.

They walked briskly from the house to the yard, and Sean pointed everywhere.

Jules swept through the ryegrass that reached his waist and grabbed a fistful of stalks, examining them close. Specks of black covered the grain. He trudged quickly across the field with Sean, backhanding the grass and finding every blade infected. He stopped for a closer look. Most of the fungus was soft and fluid, but there were tiny shoots of a purplish growth protruding from the floral structure like minigrains of rice.

Some of the fruiting bodies beneath his fingertip dropped to the ground, where he saw other tiny pods. He looked at his fingers, brushed with purple spores, and it reminded him of something. The rye… the rye…

Ergot, he thought and pressed the grass to his chest. This is ergot.

For a moment he was speechless and unable to move, but then suddenly he took off toward the woods with Sean trying to keep up. As he reached the path, Jules stepped up to a large maple. He ran his hand over the fungus-covered bark and his palm streaked purple.

“It can’t be,” he whispered.

He walked farther down the path, his eyes shifting over the endless infestation of the trees. It was on ferns and bushes, vines and weeds. He looked back at the house with widened eyes and said, “Impossible.”

* * *

It was late afternoon and Luke followed Monica down the beach, trying to keep up with her manic pace. She did a cartwheel that barely broke her stride as she ran toward the ocean, kicking up black sand. She was in high spirits for a change.

Luke felt tired and irritable, like a dog that chased its tail too long before realizing its efforts had all been futile.

“Shouldn’t we look for the diamond?” he asked with little enthusiasm.

“Fuck off,” she yelled back and threw off her jacket. She sat on the sand, pulling off her suede boots and socks and rolling her stretch pants to her knees. She got up and ran into the water and stopped as a wave hit her calves. She squealed and ran back to the shore.

Luke smirked. “Cold, huh?”

“No it’s not.”

He turned his head to a soft breeze. The wind was blowing from the west, mostly blocked by trees, making the beach the warmest place on the island. It was probably close to seventy degrees, which was at least something to smile about. The bright sun hit his face and felt good.

Monica’s hands wrapped around her waist and she pulled off her shirt, revealing a stringy black bra.

Luke froze.

When she pulled down her leggings he spun around, checking for anyone watching.

Monica faced the water in a black bra and panties, and before he could take in the length of her body she ran into the ocean and dove headfirst into a wave. She came up with an enormous gasp, laughing and shouting in French. “Cette eau est gelée! Je ne sens plus mes doigts de pieds.

“What?” he yelled.

“Come in! The water’s warm.”

Luke sat down and took off his socks and sneakers, rolled up his cuffs.

“Hurry up,” she said, jumping on her toes to keep warm.

He walked sluggishly to the shoreline and dipped in his foot. The water was ice cold and he sucked air through his teeth. “Forget it. I’m not going.”

“Fine. You’ll miss all the fun.” She sank to her neck and took off her bra and panties, twirling them in the air like a wet towel. She pressed them into a tight ball and threw a wild pitch.

They landed by Luke’s feet with a splat.

He tried to act cool but adrenaline was surging through his veins at an incredible speed. He was sweating and taking irregular breaths. “Okay… I’m coming.” He went in up to his knees, shaking the jitters from his hands and dodging small waves.

“You have to take off your clothes!”

He stared helplessly.

“Come on,” Monica said, riding up and down on the swells. “Someone has to keep me warm.”

Luke went back to the shore and took off his heavy sweatshirt. He started to loosen his belt, and then turned his back to the sea. He let his pants drop, and headed to the water.

“No, all of it,” she yelled, her teeth chattering.

He worried she might get out of the water. Her lips were turning blue.

“Okay, I’ll be right there.” He turned his back again, pulled down his briefs. He was standing at full attention, so he covered both hands over his groin and started back.

Monica ducked her head underwater and came up, spitting like a fountain. “Come on already. It’s wonderful.”

Luke took a deep breath and ran fast into the water, diving sideways with a giant splash. He swam toward Monica, thrashing his arms and then diving down low, twisting his body toward the surface. His feet hit the rocky bottom and he sprang from the water, threw back his hair and coughed.

“Oh man, that’s cold!” He wiped the salty ocean from his face and looked around.

Monica was gone.

Au revoir, mon amour!” she called, heading quickly ashore.

Luke watched her naked body ascend from the water. His teeth were chattering and his arms were covered in goose bumps but he smiled at her bare behind. Then he realized she was running straight for their clothes. She picked up both piles in a single swoop and waved, speeding toward the woods.

“Hey! Get back here.”

Au revoir!

Then she disappeared.

Luke was shivering. He didn’t think for a minute she would leave and not come back. But seconds passed, and he couldn’t take the icy water anymore so he rushed to the shore. Dripping and naked, he scanned the beach, but all he saw were a bra and panties at his feet.

“Don’t even think about it,” he whispered.

The wind blew his nude body dry in seconds. He put on his socks and sneakers, but now he looked even more ridiculous. Too angry to care, he stomped off into the woods.

“Monica!” he shouted, and then muttered, “Stupid ass.” The path to the woods was narrow and fraught with angry branches that stuck out like claws. They scratched his body and he kept a protective hand over the sensitive areas. “Monica! This isn’t funny.”

Luke was growing fitfully angry. His teeth clenched from cold and fury. This time Monica had gone too far. He wanted nothing more to do with her. All that mattered now was telling her off like he should have long ago. He thought about losing his temper, maybe even slapping her.

Then he saw his jeans. They were far off the path, several yards into the woods and he had to duck and weave through branches and vines to reach them. They were damp and dirty, but wearable, and he was relieved to put them on.

He looked back at the trail and saw that it narrowed in a tangle of trees. Monica must have stumbled off course and gotten lost. He stopped to listen, trying to make out the sound of running feet or snapping twigs. The woods were silent. For nearly a minute he stood there.

Then someone screamed, a bone-chilling shriek that he knew had to be Monica.

Luke raced toward the sound, flying over fallen trees and rocks. There was another cry of terror and he tore off faster, sliding in wet leaves and coming up without missing a beat. His heart pounded in his ears as the woods grew closer together and blended into a maze of bushes, vines, and tall rocks that joined forces to become almost impenetrable.

Luke was desperate to find her. He ducked under branches that scratched his arms and shoulders. There was a small clearing ahead and he could see Monica backing away with her arms to her chest.

She turned to him with a look of horror, stumbling to the ground as he grabbed her shoulder. She was shaking and half dressed. Her hair was wet and matted, tears and makeup smeared across her face.

“What?” Luke cried, his eyes shifting between the trees, searching for the unspoken monster that had done who knows what to her. He saw nothing.

He shook her and shouted, “Why did you run off the path?”

She could barely get the words out. “I got… lost and… that thing.”

She pointed and Luke turned.

Then he saw it.

A body lay in a pit of leaves, staring at him. The man had no eyes, just sunken black pools of mush in the sockets. A thick red mustache hung between white bone that protruded from his cheeks and his pointy chin. His mouth was a gaping hole.

Luke rose to his feet, leaving Monica reaching for him. He walked closer to the pit where the decomposed corpse had sunk in the mud. As Luke approached, a warm stench hit him hard and he drew back with an arm over his mouth. He took a few more steps and squatted close to the body, while breathing into his hand.

The man wore the remains of a gray jumpsuit, stiff and faded from the elements. He was beginning to collapse at the center. Flies buzzed over the abdomen that had turned into a puddle of dark soup, and they hovered over the rotting face, landing on perches of bone.

“Luke,” Monica’s voice was small and shaky. “Please, let’s go back.”

There was a hole in his forehead, about an inch in diameter. Luke thought for a moment. “It looks as though he’s been shot in the head. I think he was murdered.”

“Oh God.”

He got on his knees and leaned over the body. “There’s something in his hand, or what’s left of it.” He reached down to the nearly skeletonized fingers, clasped around an object the size of a baseball.

“Don’t touch it,” Monica pleaded.

Luke took hold of some fuzzy strands and tugged at the thing until it was free of the bones. It spun around and the winking eye of a baby stared up at him. “It’s a doll head.”

“Throw it away,” Monica said painfully.

The porcelain face was full of fissures, like veins that had surfaced to its skin. A deep crack ran a crooked line from the left temple to the chin, dividing the face in half.

Luke shivered and tossed the head under a tree stump. He returned his attention to the body, feeling more comfortable in its presence. He drew certain conclusions about the death, based on the amount of decomposition, the collapsed abdomen, and the number of maggots feasting.

“He hasn’t been dead long…”

“Can we just go?”

“Maybe a few weeks, hard to tell.”

“Does it matter?” she asked.

Luke pulled himself away from the corpse, kicking up dirt and leaves. He grabbed Monica’s arm and they walked briskly back toward the path. “Yeah, it matters. The killer could still be on the island.”


AN HOUR LATER, Jules stood over the body while everyone else stayed an ample distance from the smell. He flicked off a penlight and wiped his brow, shooed the flies that were still buzzing about.

“The boy’s right,” he said. “This man was murdered. Either a bullet or sharp object to the head.”

“Bloody hell,” Ginny said and took a long drink from her thermos.

Jules shined the penlight on the man’s face again and locked eyes with Ginny. “Do you recognize him?”

At first she squinted, and then both her eyebrows went up. “Hodges? Is that Paul Hodges?”

“I’m afraid so.” He turned to Isabelle. “Drifter from Halifax who worked on occasion for your father.”

Isabelle stepped closer, seemingly to have a look, but it was actually to block Sean, who was craning his neck for a better view of the body.

Monica whimpered and buried her face in Luke’s neck.

“Take her back to the house,” Isabelle told him. “She shouldn’t be out here.”

“None of us should be out here,” Ginny said. “Better we look for the diamond inside until we know it’s safe to venture out.”

“What about the killer?” Monica demanded, her eyes shifting to the trees. “He might be out there.”

“Nonsense,” Jules said. “Why would a murderer stay here? He’s probably a thousand miles away by now.”

“Well, I can’t stay!” She was becoming hysterical and Luke backed up a step. “I won’t stay on an island with a dead body.”

“It’s all right,” Isabelle said, giving Monica a small, reassuring hug. “You need to calm down.”

“I w-want to go home.”

“Let’s go back to the house. There’s a radio, remember? We can call the police or the Coast Guard and they’ll come right away.”

“At this hour? It’s nearly dark,” Ginny scoffed. “You’ll be lucky if they come by morning.”

“This is a murder. Of course they’ll come.”

“What if they don’t?” Monica said. “That body—”

“Jules, maybe you could put it somewhere.”

“Oh, certainly,” he quipped. “How about the freezer?”

“I just mean… she’s so upset.”

“Well, I can’t move physical evidence.” He sniffed and looked around. “Perhaps I can cover it with a plastic sheet or something, throw some leaves on it. It’s not an ideal burial, but at least that will keep the poor chap from the elements, preserve what little evidence is left.”

“That would be good of you, Jules.”

Sean walked past his mother and squatted by the body.

“Get away from there, Sean,” Isabelle said sternly.

The boy grunted, pointing to the feet.

One foot appeared to be missing. The right leg emerged from the pants as a stump of bone and tattered flesh.

Monica let out a cry.

“His foot is gone,” Ginny observed. “Oh, dear.”

“Could it have decomposed that quickly?” Isabelle asked.

“No,” Jules said, inspecting the bone joint. “It appears the foot was cut off.”

Ginny clicked her tongue. “Poor Hodges.”

“Back to the house, all of you,” Isabelle said.

It was a silent walk home, Monica clutching Luke’s hand so tightly he could feel the sharp muscles and small bones in her fingers. He could hardly believe this was the same girl he’d known for weeks. Obviously she wasn’t as tough as she let on. For once, he had the upper hand.

* * *

They assembled in the kitchen around the radio. Jules flipped the on switch and a loud crackle of static filled the room. He lowered the volume and tried channel sixteen, but there was nothing. He scrolled the dial.

“Hullo? Hullo, anyone there?”

Isabelle tried, but she had no better luck than Jules.

“Oh pooh,” Ginny said.

“There must be some kind of interference,” Jules said. “Bad weather at sea perhaps.”

Isabelle gazed at the children one at a time. Sean was sitting on the floor, lightly tapping his head against the wall. Luke was having a go at the radio. Monica was twisting a tissue with nervous fingers. Isabelle said to the group, “I know this trip isn’t what you expected. I’m sure we’ll get the radio to work soon and then if you want to leave early, that’s okay.”

“What if we can’t pick up a signal?” Luke asked, tapping the microphone.

“Then we’ll go back with your father. His boat should be arriving a week from Wednesday.”

“That’s too long,” Monica whined.

“It’s only ten days. Besides, we’ll have a signal shortly. It worked fine for Mr. Bonacelli.”

Monica sniffed. “We’re still stuck here tonight, with that body.”

“All right,” Jules said, wearily. “We’ll cover him up, then.”

* * *

Jules found a tarp in the shed and dragged it over the corpse. Hodges stared at him with black eye sockets through the clear plastic sheet.

Jules shoveled heaps of dirt and leaves on the grave until the body was no longer visible. Then he speared the shovel into the ground so it stood up straight, and he sat down on a large fallen tree to rest. He wiped dust from his face, satisfied with a job well done. So well, in fact, that it was difficult to tell a corpse was buried there.

The police would need a marker to find it.

Jules looked around for something bright and conspicuous, but nothing stood out from the earth tones of the forest. Everything in his pockets was too small. He was about to strip down to his white undershirt to make a flag when he noticed something gleaming beneath the log under his feet.

He reached down and picked up a doll head.

Its skin was pink, but made of antique porcelain with quite a lot of cracks, and its parted red lips revealed broken, pointed teeth. The doll winked at him. Jules smiled. Standing over the body, he attached the blond stringy hair to a tree limb. He stepped back and looked at the face, confident it would be visible.

“You’ll do,” he told it.

The sun was setting and rays of bright orange light broke through the trees, casting a copper glow on the doll head and the wet leaves on the grave. The air was getting colder and the woods were quickly darkening. Jules wanted to get back to the house right away. He picked up the shovel and started toward the path.

All was quiet as he walked back to the path, nothing but leaves crunching beneath his feet. Then a sound broke his stride, blowing past him like a thin breeze.


He spun around, kicking up dirt, but seeing no one.

There was a burst of childish laughter, as if coming from a speeding car, and he spun again. He stood motionless, listening while the hair on the back of his neck bristled.


Pain shot through his temples, and he threw a hand to his head.

“What is this?” he gasped in alarm.

A wave of nausea and dizziness buckled him over. Reaching back, he grasped on to a log and sat down. He felt exhausted and shut his eyes, trying to figure out what was happening to him. Perhaps low blood sugar, he thought, and reached into his pocket for a biscuit he’d taken that morning. He found it and took a bite, let it dissolve in his mouth, and then he ate the whole thing. The headache began to subside and so did the nausea.

That’s it, all I needed, he thought.

As soon as he stood, the vertigo returned and he had the sensation of not being able to breathe. He tried to draw in oxygen but only wheezed as the woods swirled around him. Jules staggered, twisting and falling hard on his rump. He slid onto his elbow and then flat on his back, squinting at the sky tumbling over the trees. His skin tingled and he felt his body floating away from him. The woods were fading, turning black, and when he closed his eyes he had the oddest sensation of something touching his brain, stick-thin fingers delicately picking through his thoughts.

His eyes sprang open like a doll’s, and he was sitting on the ground of a sprawling rose garden, under an enormous blue sky. He was digging a hole in the dirt, his child-size hands scooping the cool earth. Then he looked up and saw his mother laughing, and he was laughing too because he was a little boy and that’s what they do. He was gardening with his mother, because she loved to garden, and she was young and beautiful in a bright-colored dress and a red lipstick smile. They were planting seeds and getting dirty. He could feel the cool shade of her big straw hat as she leaned over him and their hands dug together.

Jules was happy, reaching into the cold pit, but a shadow moved over him as if clouds were covering the whole world. He felt cold, grainy hands on his neck. The hands squeezed tighter and he was terrified. With great force they pushed his head down, mashing his face in the pile of dirt, and all the while there was laughter.

He was drowning in soil that filled his nostrils and his mouth until he couldn’t take a single breath. He tried to get loose but his arms wouldn’t move, and he tried to scream but his mouth was stuffed. A shrill voice echoed in his head.

Repeat! Repeat! Repeat!

Jules awoke in the woods with his face in the dirt, snorting soil from his nose. His body was trembling, his heart pounding, and some terrible thing still lurked in his mind. But he barely remembered the dream.

The golden sunlight between the trees had turned dark red. He had no idea how long he was passed out. Jules tried his best to stand on weak legs and finally got his ground. He started toward the path. A bird cawed in the distance and he wasn’t so frightened anymore.

Then he remembered the body and turned around. The doll head was dangling in the last bit of light. One white eye twinkled over red smiling lips.

Jules hurried back to the house.


ISABELLE WAS ANXIOUSLY WAITING in the laboratory, drinking a third cup of coffee, when Jules entered the house looking pale and disheveled. He slid closed the glass doors behind him, and Isabelle forgot all the questions stored up in her head.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said.

“What do you expect? I just buried a body.”

“Of course,” she said, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

“The radio—has it cleared?”

“No. Luke is trying to fix it.”

He took hurried steps. “I’m going to my room.”

“Wait,” she begged. “I must speak to you.”

Jules stopped and looked at Isabelle. He already knew what she was going to ask him. “You’re wondering if George killed Hodges.”

She didn’t answer, but he knew from her expression he guessed right.

“I think it’s possible.” He nodded. “Are you familiar with ergot?”

“It’s some kind of plant fungus. Why?”

He reminded Isabelle that the Canadian police had arrested George for growing ergot on the island. “The fungus is used to make LSD. George had grown it in the field of ryegrass in front of the house, in order to create his own more potent versions of the drug.” He took a breath. “We cannot rule out the possibility that George killed Hodges in a drug-induced state. According to Mr. Bonacelli, he had access to a rifle and wasn’t afraid to use it.”

“No, I won’t believe it.”

The idea that she might be the daughter of a drug addict, a dealer, and now a murderer to boot was more than Isabelle could bear.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice.

She picked up the ivy leaf Sean found. “You’re saying this fungus could produce a psychedelic drug.”

“It’s not just the ivy.” Jules rushed to the basket of specimens he’d collected. “I found the same fungus all over the woods. Trees. Grass. Ferns. Pine needles.”

He was getting excited and Isabelle sensed a thread of anger in his voice.

“It seems to have infected every plant on this island.”

“Is that possible?”

“No. Ergot only grows on grasses. This could be something… worse.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know!” he shouted, and his expression changed dramatically.

Isabelle flinched.

“I had a feeling something like this could happen.” He wrung his fists. “Don’t ask me how I knew, but all those years on the island, I could feel it.”

“What are you talking about? Why are you getting so angry?”

He stepped to the window and peered into the night sky filled with stars and a bright full moon. “There’s something in those woods. That fungus.”

“What can it be?”

He shook his head. “I need to study it.”

“There are microscopes in the cabinet. We’ll have to find the key.”

The key,” he hissed and fury returned to his face. “Why in God’s name would he lock a cabinet when he’s all alone on an island?”

In one sweeping motion, Jules picked up a heavy metal stool and smashed it through the door of the mahogany display cabinet, sending shards of glass flying across the room. Two microscopes crashed to the floor. The stool dropped with a loud clang.

Isabelle stared in astonishment.

The room fell silent, except for Jules’s heavy breaths. He wiped a sleeve across his damp face and said, “I need to know what we’re dealing with.”

* * *

It was nearly midnight and Luke lay on his bed, staring at the flickering light on the ceiling that came from the fireplace across the room. The fire had a pleasant smoky aroma and cast dancing shadows over the hunter-green walls and heavy tapestry curtains.

Luke was thinking about the dead body, the swim at the beach—and Monica.

He should have been shaken after the day’s events and finding a rotting corpse, but nothing could penetrate the memory of her warm slender hand in his own, the smell of her damp hair against his shoulder, or the look in her eyes when she turned to him for protection. It was the best feeling in the world. A smile caught his lips when he recalled the smooth white curve of her buttocks, how they jiggled as she ran toward the woods. He closed his eyes in a fantasy of that same fleshy backside squirming in his lap as they made passionate love. He moaned and threw a pillow over his thighs, sliding it back and forth.

There was a knock on the door and Luke bolted up in bed, holding the pillow down firmly and trying to remember if he locked the door. “Wait—I’ll be right there!” he said and stood up slowly, focusing his mind on calming his erection.

Ginny… think of Ginny… blue veins… wrinkled mouth… baggy stockings.

“Luke?” It was Monica.

He took a deep breath and opened the door, one hand bracing the pillow.

She was standing alone in the hall, wearing pink shorts and an oversized Yankees sweatshirt. Without makeup her face was hardly recognizable. Gone were the black liner, white powder, and dark lipstick. She was more beautiful with peachy flawless skin and blond lashes over the lightest green eyes.

“I can’t sleep.” Her arms folded defensively.

“Me neither,” he told her. “You want to come in?”

Monica slid past him into the room and Luke caught a whiff of alcohol. He closed the door and sat with her on the edge of the bed, no longer needing the pillow.

She pulled out a vodka bottle hidden under her sweatshirt and unscrewed the cap.

Luke realized why her suitcase was so heavy. He noticed the bottle was nearly empty and wondered how long she’d been drinking.

“You want some?” she asked.

“Sure.” He took the bottle and chugged a mouthful. It burned down his throat and set off a hacking cough. Monica didn’t seem to notice, her eyes fixed blankly on the wall.

“I can’t stop thinking about that body.”

Luke cleared his throat and took a smaller sip, speaking in a deep voice. “It wasn’t so bad.”

Monica crawled backward on the bed and eased against the pillows, and Luke crept up beside her. They sat on the flowery bedspread like an old married couple, staring at their feet and passing the bottle back and forth, not speaking for a long moment.

“Damn thing has me freaked,” she uttered.

Luke thought this was his chance. Maybe if she felt really helpless, she’d need the comfort of a man. “Yeah, he was pretty creepy. And who knows if the killer is still out there.”

She stared at him, wide-eyed. “You think so?”

Luke sensed her fear. “No.”

She seemed relieved.

“But if he were out there, you can bet I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him.” He saw an expression of doubt on her face. “I would. I mean, if he tried to hurt you.”

Monica put the bottle on the nightstand and slid closer to him, so their hips were touching. She rolled onto her side and lightly touched his shoulders, staring at him drunkenly, while her fingers traced a line down his arm.

Luke felt his face pulse with heat. Chaos swirled in his brain, trying to process the sudden flood of information while struggling to ignore the sensations in his body so he could focus on what to do next. It wasn’t necessary because instinct took over. He rolled forward and pressed his mouth against her full lips. Instead of pushing him away, she kissed him back.

Oh God, he thought. After so much waiting and nearly giving up, suddenly it was happening. Bam!

Every part of his body was electrified. The urge was maddening and he grabbed a fistful of her hair and thrust his body against her. He thought he might explode.

Then Monica pulled away, leaving him weightless and tingling all over.

He stared at her lips and his cheeks flushed with desire. Her hair was disheveled and a glimpse of her tummy was exposed.

She reached for the bottle of vodka and took a long drink, passed it back to him.

Without moving his gaze from her face, he took only a sip. He didn’t want to numb the feeling of kissing her again.

But Monica looked like she was going to cry. “I don’t…”

“What?” Luke wondered if he was doing it wrong.

“I don’t have a boyfriend.”


“Also, my mom’s a prostitute.”


I’m not. You know that, right?”

Luke nodded. More than anything, he wanted to get back to kissing. “Of course you’re not. You’re like… a goddess.”

She took another chug. “Goddess. Right.”

Luke moved in closer but she turned away. “No one at your school likes me. No one talks to me.” Her expression hardened and she sniffed back tears. “I don’t care really, I’m used to it. Every school I’ve ever been to sucks.”

“I like you.”

“’Cause you’re a dork.”

It was like a dagger to his heart, but then she smiled warmly.

“Chill. You’re not really a dork. You’re just trying to impress your parents so you pretend to be this perfect son, all studious and sweet. Inside, you’re actually this very cool”—her face moved inches from him—“hot… brave kind of guy. Smart, but sexy smart.”

Luke tried to kiss her again, but she turned her head with an audible sigh. It seemed she still wanted to talk.

“I hate sponging off other people like I can’t take care of myself. I can, you know. As soon as we get back to Brooklyn I’m getting a job and an apartment. Save enough money to go to Paris.”

“Maybe I’ll come with you. I’ve got a couple thousand in the bank.”

“Really? You’d come with me?”

“Of course.”

She looked like she might start bawling again, but instead started chugging vodka like water. She wiped her mouth. “My shrink was right. Being tough is just a stupid act, keeping me from a normal life. Rick, that’s my shrink—at least he was before I keyed his car and stole his stupid ashtray. He said it was silver. Yeah, right. Anyway, he said I could turn my whole life around in a second. All it takes is a different way of thinking. Pretty much the opposite of how I think now. What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good. God, I want that kind of life. Like you have.”

Luke’s heart quickened. Seeing her so vulnerable was exciting and unbearable at the same time. He could feel it, they had a connection. She was an outcast and wanted to change her life, be more like him. He was an outcast who wanted to toughen up, like her. He couldn’t stand it any longer. He kissed her hard on the lips. His tongue found the inside of her mouth, causing a pang of pleasure that shot a lightning bolt from the back of his throat to his stomach and kept on going south. She didn’t resist when Luke reached inside the back of her sweatshirt. Her body felt so slight and smooth, and she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Please don’t stop me.

He opened his hand wide, sliding it around the block, and gently cupped her breast. It felt larger than expected, a handful, but soft as a cloud and he felt himself losing control. When his thumb rubbed across her nipple the dam burst open, an almost painful shot of pleasure. A tiny moan came from his mouth and he reached for his lap. He could already feel the dampness on his thigh against his pajama pants.

He sat up, flushed with embarrassment.

“Did you just…?”

His eyes closed.

“It’s okay.” She had a sly smile and climbed over him, slipping off the bed and adjusting her clothing. “I better go.”

Luke’s head fell back against the wall.

Monica turned from the door. “Hey, you’re a good kisser.”

His mouth wouldn’t work so he just gave a quick nod.

“Good night, Luke.”

She closed the door behind her and Luke decided right then, he was in love with Monica. No doubt about it, he would have to tell her.

Tomorrow for sure.


IT WAS A DREARY MORNING and cold drizzle pelted the windows. Isabelle awoke in the damp bedroom feeling shaken from a bad dream she couldn’t remember. She gazed over her childhood possessions, realizing the happy memories had vanished from this place. The death of her father overshadowed the house and every inch of the island.

With a sigh, she left the warmth of the bed and dressed in a white cable-knit sweater and wool trousers. She went downstairs to find the kitchen deserted, so she tried the radio for a while with no success. Then she made a pot of oatmeal and a pitcher of orange juice for the kids, and poured a steaming mug of coffee. She carried it to the laboratory, hoping to find Jules at work.

He was standing in front of a large bay window, staring toward the woods in a trancelike state. Isabelle approached him, and he seemed oblivious to her presence. She cleared her throat, placing the coffee mug on the desk beside him, and he turned around.

“Isabelle, I didn’t hear you.” His eyes were dark and bloodshot.

She glanced down at the desk full of scribbled papers, microscopes, and various tools of science. Plastic cups held a dozen plant species, all infected with the fungus. Their leaves were pinched with metal clips and wires that led to an oscilloscope.

“What’s all this?” she asked.

“Nothing.” Jules cleared his throat. “Just an experiment.”

“You certainly found a lot of equipment in that cabinet.” She pushed back the fronds of a fern hooked up to electrodes.

“Don’t touch that, please,” he nearly shouted.

Startled, she was about to ask him why in heavens not, when she noticed the front of his shirt was covered with bits of brown leaves and pine needles. Burrs stuck to his arm and continued down the side of his trousers to his muddy boots. There was a mushroom in his hair.

Isabelle touched his wet sleeve. “Where did you sleep, outside?”

“Of course not,” he snapped. “I was looking for specimens in the woods this morning. Must I now get your permission?”

“No, I—”

“You think I slept on the ground?”

She was put off by his rudeness. Why was he so angry? She did nothing wrong, just brought him some coffee. Certainly no reason to snap at her.

His face showed impatience. “Shouldn’t you be looking for the diamond?”

“I wanted to ask you about that. I found a Bible in the library with a passage underlined. It mentioned the word Eden, just like in my father’s journal. May I see it?”

“I’m afraid you can’t at the moment,” he said coldly.

“Fine, then, maybe later,” she snipped back.

He picked up the steaming mug and stared out the window, saying nothing as though she weren’t in the room. She squared her shoulders and snatched up one of the ferns covered with a fungus.

“So is it ergot or not?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What kind of fungus could it be?”

“What makes you think it’s a fungus?”

“You said it was.”

“Well, I… don’t know.”

Isabelle pursed her lips. She was overly tired and anxious to know what had happened to her father, if the fungus had anything to do with his death. “What do you mean you don’t know? It’s either a fungus or not.”

“It’s not that simple. There’s no fungus in the world that can grow on bark and leaves and grass, and every bloody thing in the forest. I’ve been studying them all night. Truthfully, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Then you’re suggesting it’s some new kind of life-form?” she said sarcastically.

“It could be anything, really. Slime mold or a gall, perhaps. A new type of neoplasm that we’ve never seen before.”

With a smirk of defiance, she leaned over the microscope to have a look.

“Please don’t touch that.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not a mycologist, or even a botanist.”

“And you can’t tell the difference between fungus and a gall.”

He pointed with his chin. “Go ahead, then. Have a look.”

She hesitated, but then peered into the lens.

“What do you see?” He sounded curious.

After a moment she said, “The cellular structure of the leaf looks normal, except for these rather hideous microbes shooting out from the leaf. They look like blackish purple tubes. I’d say it’s a fungus.”

“Yes, the dark mass could be sclerotium, and those threadlike stalks most certainly resemble some kind of endophyte, but none I’ve ever seen. Its reproduction and life cycle are completely different from ergot or any other kind of Claviceps, and the fact that it grows on everything; well, it could be some kind of Neurospora mold mutation.” He stared pensively out the window again. “It’s not really the fungus that worries me, but the plants themselves.” He motioned to the desk. “That Eden book. Your father wrote about giving the plants an ability to hear our thoughts, communicate on a cognitive level with humans. Suppose he was right? What if they could read our minds?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s ridiculous,” she said. “Plants can’t think. They don’t have a brain.”

Of course, the almighty brain. You think because there’s no organ to study and we can’t see how the information is organized, then plants can’t process thought. It’s all right here.” Jules walked swiftly to the green journal and picked it up, pointing to the text. “The action-potential propagation in all of these plants is comparable to the speed of action potentials in mammalians, specifically one hundred and five meters per second, which is the same velocity as a neuron. The amplitude, duration, relative and absolute refractory periods, depolarization peaks are the same as you’d find in the cognitive regions of the human nervous system.”

Isabelle didn’t understand his pedantic jibber-jabber. Her education in botany stopped at common species identification. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but what proof do you have besides that silly book?”

For a moment he stared at her. Then he turned to the window, gazing at the trees in the distance. She could barely hear his voice. “I had a strange experience in the woods this morning. I can’t explain it, but it felt as though I wasn’t alone out there. I may have passed out, but I could hear some kind of chatter. Then I felt them, touching my mind.”

“Jules?” Isabelle whispered. “You’ve been up all night. You should go upstairs and rest.”

“They touched my memories.”


His eyes narrowed and she suspected he was only semi-aware of her presence.

“It has something to do with the fungus. Its relationship with the plants that makes it all possible. How they hear our thoughts. Communicate. Understand. Everything is starting to add up.” A smile crossed his lips and he whispered, “Imagine the possibilities.”


All at once his demeanor changed. He was grinning with excitement, his voice bursting with cheer. “Do you realize the significance of this finding? Isabelle, I’ve been up all night thinking how this could change the entire world. Change my future. Our future.” He walked quickly over beside her and grasped her shoulders, a towering giant looking down into her face. “I want you to be part of this. We can study your father’s research. Figure out how he did it, you and I together.”

Isabelle was stunned and reflexively pushed her hands against his chest, but the feel of his warm body, the hardness of his muscles, stopped her cold. She felt small and helpless under his gaze.

Jules leaned down and kissed her on the mouth, squeezing her arms tight. At first she struggled, but the sensation of his soft lips left her weak.

He jolted back, his expression aghast. “Isabelle, please forgive me. I never—”

She wiped her mouth. “It’s all right, really.”

“No, it’s not. You’re a married woman, and here I am…” His voice trailed off.

“My marriage has been over for years.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

She was hesitant to go on. After all, Jules was acting crazy just seconds ago. But now he seemed normal again and looked at her with sympathy. She wished the kiss had happened somewhere else, another time, perhaps twenty years ago. She wanted to pour her heart out to him. “I knew it from the beginning, really. After the kids came it only got worse. I felt stuck, too dead inside to leave. Colin is awful for me, even worse for the kids.”

“I hate to pry, but why did you marry him?”

She shrugged and told him that leaving the island was difficult. She missed her father terribly, but love soon turned to anger. Her mother was a tyrant who never let her out of the house. Isabelle had hoped George would come rescue her.

“He never came to visit, never called?”

Isabelle shook her head, and explained that as she grew older, she was told of her father’s indiscretions, that Dr. George Brookes was a well-known fraud and a drug addict. It was a relief to finally get married and change her surname, leave the solitude of her mother’s house. “I rushed into marriage, thinking it was a way out of a bad situation, but I really wasn’t thinking at all.”

“I am truly sorry. You deserve better.”

She smiled at him, still feeling the kiss on her lips. “You never married?”

Jules released a long sigh. “My work has always been my life, to the point of ignoring everything else. Of course I’ve never been good with intimate relationships, terrible with commitment.” He hesitated. “I had a difficult childhood too. My mother suffered from schizophrenia. When I was six years old, she tried to kill me.”

“How awful.”

“I’ve never told anyone.”

Isabelle couldn’t think of anything to say and turned toward the window. She gasped a small breath. Sean was walking down the trail toward the woods, dragging a walking stick.

“I should call him back inside.” She took a step toward the door.

“No, don’t,” Jules said. “It’s good for a boy to explore on his own.”

“He’s not safe wandering around by himself.”

“How do you know? You don’t give him much freedom, do you?”

It was true; she was barely a child of five or six when she started running around the island, and she never got hurt. Just a few cuts and scrapes. But Sean was different, and a man had just been murdered. “What if—someone’s out there?”

He raised a brow. “I can assure you we’re quite alone.”

She bit her lip, nodding. “So you believe my father killed Hodges.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s the most logical conclusion.”

Her shoulders dropped. It was only morning and already Isabelle was exhausted. Her mind spun in so many directions. Her suicidal father might have been a murderer. She was having romantic feelings for another man. Jules’s mother tried to kill him. Sean was walking around the woods alone. She didn’t even want to think about telepathic plants.

“Excuse me. I’ve got to see about breakfast.” She turned to the window, where Sean had already disappeared into the woods, and she rubbed her hands nervously. Jules was once again absorbed in his work, peering into the microscope.

She left without another word.

* * *

Sean trudged through the woods, dragging his stick in the dirt and taking small bites from a biscuit. He vaguely remembered getting lost on the trail yesterday, and the horrible smell of the body Luke found, but he wasn’t scared. There was something comforting and familiar about the woods and he felt an urge to be surrounded by nature.

The air was cold and quiet, except for the soft crunch of dried leaves underfoot. His breath came out in little puffs of vapor that he stabbed with his finger. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve, stopping to look back at the trail. For some reason, he felt he wasn’t alone. The idea that his mother might be following was irritating and he scrutinized the gaps between the trees.

Sean froze. He dropped the walking stick.

There was a doll head hanging from a branch not far from where he stood, suspended by a length of frizzy blond hair. A child’s face, but old looking, and her half-closed eyes were more sinister than sleepy.

Sean was scared to move. He tried to turn away, and that’s when he saw another head, hanging from a thin, white rope. The paint on the right side of the face had peeled off in patches, exposing shapes of brown clay beneath, so it looked like a puzzle with missing pieces. On the other side, half of the doll’s skull was gone. She hung lopsided; one glass eye staring up, the other fixed on the ground.

Sean blinked hard, hoping there were no more heads, but there were several more on other trees, dangling like fruit. The painted face of a clown with his mouth open in a maniacal laugh, staring from the corners of his eyes in an expression of utter madness. Another had no eyes at all and hung like a black ball of soot, its features hardly distinguishable, as if it had been thrown into a campfire. Staring down at Sean, and close enough to touch, was a face that looked remarkably lifelike. So realistic that for a moment he thought she was breathing through her nostrils, her pink mouth caught in a sudden smile.

Then her lips seemed to part ever so slightly.

Sean fell back hard and got tangled in a bush. He struggled to recover and scanned the trees, spotting dozens of doll faces, maybe hundreds. His heart began beating like a piston.

A breeze picked up, making the heads sway. Gently at first, and then the wind gusted and some of the heads clanked together, filling the air with a soft clattering sound. Sean turned to run, but quickly stopped in terror. Thousands of doll heads hung from every tree like macabre Christmas ornaments. They swung in the wind, knocking together, staring with dead expressions, missing eyes and fissured cheeks.

Sean scrambled for the path, but it was gone. The woods became darker and there was nothing but bushes and doll-infested trees all around him. As he took off, twigs and branches caught on his jacket and he hacked his way free, then he slipped on wet leaves down an embankment, scraping his palms.

He sat in the dirt, out of breath and inspecting his stinging hands.

The clattering sound was gone and the wind had died. He looked up at the trees.

No doll heads. That was good.

Sean shifted his attention back to his hands. There were thin lines of blood that he licked with the tip of his tongue.

A voice echoed, like a child falling down a well.


He whipped his head around, but he was alone. A chill ran down his neck as he suddenly remembered being lost in the woods the day before, and the voices in his head.


Sean hastily got to his feet, but wooziness pulled him back on his knees like a burst of gravity and the world around him began to spin. It felt as though weights were tied to his back and he got on all fours until the feeling passed. He sat up on his knees and noticed right in front of him a thick vine wrapped around the trunk of an old maple tree.

The vine moved. Slightly at first, and then it slowly twisted. Sean moaned in fright as it tightened around the tree’s girth and slithered across the bark, coiling like a serpent. He could hear a sound like cracking bones as it uncoiled, touched the ground, and crept straight toward him. That’s when Sean noticed that all the trees were looped with heavy vines spiraling down their trunks. He crawled backward.

All at once, the ground burst like a grenade underfoot, and he turned around to see the roots of a tree blasting out of the soil. Above his ankle, a long root swayed back and forth, like a cobra ready to strike.

Sean rolled sideways and leapt to his feet, wanting to move quicker and cursing his sluggish muscles. He awkwardly sprinted in jags over roots and rolled over a clump of thorn bushes, where he landed in a clearing and faced a sea of crackling, undulating vines in every direction. Roots exploded to the surface in a spray of soil and leaves.

He headed toward the only tree not plagued with slithering creepers—a knobby old cedar, petrified to a dull gray. Without thinking, Sean heaved himself onto the lowest branch. It felt dry and brittle, but he kept climbing the thick limbs. They were mostly broken and ragged on the ends, hardened from the elements, but he found enough footing to climb ten feet.


He looked down at the snake pit below where sidewinders clambered toward him and locked around the base of the tree, staring up at him.


The branch beneath his body twisted like an arm, trying to shake him loose. He heard the cracking of wood and tensed, straining to hang on.

Then there was a loud snap and the limb shattered like glass.

Sean toppled headfirst through the air and his skull hit the ground with a thud.


THE BEACH WAS WARM, the sky pale blue.

Monica ripped off her leather jacket and impatiently tied it around her waist. She had kept up a steady pace and dour mood since she and Luke left the house. A pebble slipped into her boot and she stopped to take it out, pulling the boot off her foot and banging it furiously upside down until the stone fell out.

Luke kept a good distance, wary of her temper. He had come down to breakfast that morning, love-struck and dreamy-eyed after their evening encounter, but Monica didn’t look up from her oatmeal.

He had sat across the table sneaking glances from the corner of his eye.

Her head snapped up. “What are you staring at?”


Ginny had brought a cup of tea to the table, along with a map of the house crudely drawn in eyebrow pencil. “I’ve decided we need more order to our search. I’ve assigned rooms and we’ll take it one step at a time. You two will look upstairs, checking all the bedrooms, especially the closets that are stuffed with boxes and under any rugs. Look for loose floorboards and secret compartments. Isabelle and I will search downstairs again, beginning with the study. When we finish indoors we’ll start outside.”

That’s when Monica slid off the chair and grabbed her jacket, announced she was going for a walk.

Before Ginny could object, Luke was headed after her.

Neither had spoken on the way to the beach. Monica walked briskly down the path, kicking stones and swatting low-hanging branches. Luke couldn’t think of a conversation starter, not after their night together. He was afraid her response would ruin the magic.

It was a pitiful start to the romance Luke imagined, and now he watched Monica struggle to put her boot back on and then walk to the water, gazing mournfully at the sea as if she wanted to swim away.

He sidled up next to her.

She crinkled her nose. “Why are you following me?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I thought we could hang out.”

“I’m not in the mood, Luke.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

She didn’t answer. They both looked at the inlet and its small lapping waves.

“Hey, what’s that?” Luke pointed to a pole protruding from the surface, about ten yards from the jetty. It was bent on an angle, with a metal cap that glistened in the light.

Monica didn’t answer.

“It could be the mast of a sunken boat. It has to be something big ’cause that’s deep water. You can tell from the change in color that there’s a sudden drop.”

She squinted at the pole and started walking, following the curve of shoreline. Luke trailed behind. The beach became narrow and the path underfoot was rocky. They stepped carefully to the far end of the inlet where the stone slabs were wet and slippery. Tall waves washed over the jetty, becoming larger as the fierce tide swept them toward the cliffs, where they curled into breakers that hammered the shore.

The sunken pole seemed much larger. It vanished under a wave for a moment and then reappeared.

“That’s definitely the mast of a boat,” Luke said, and a cold breeze showered them with a mist of salty sea.

Monica raised her chin and muttered, “Guess it belonged to George.”

“Or Hodges.”

She scowled.

“We could go for a swim, check it out.”

“The water’s freezing.”

“There are two wet suits in the shed to keep us warm.”

“I don’t know. Looks kind of rough out there.”

“You can hang on to me. I was on the Y swim team for six years.”

She clicked her tongue. “I just want to go home. I can’t wait to get my old life back.”

Suddenly, Luke was enraged, his face beet red. Something in her voice, or perhaps the finality of her statement, triggered the fatal switch. He was fed up, furious, and shouted, “Why the hell do you want your old life back? Your life sucked, just like mine! You don’t have to put on this act, like you’re going to Paris with some pretend boyfriend.”

“Shut up!”

“You told me you wanted to start over. Hey, I don’t know what happened last night but I know you like me. You said so.” His fists clenched but he tried to stay calm. “What happened to Rick, and not being phony, and turning your life around?” He closed his eyes, taking a long breath and holding his palms up, like something important needed to be said.

“This isn’t how I wanted to say it.” He exhaled the words softly. “I love you.”

Monica stared at him. Then she shook her head at the sky, letting out an angry laugh. “God, Luke, you’re such a dweeb. I was kidding, okay? I told you, I’m getting a job and going to Paris, and I don’t need some baby sophomore tagging along like a lapdog. Get it?”

She walked several paces and then stopped, not turning around.

Luke felt the blood drain from his body. It burned hot and cold at the same time. Never had he wanted to be away from a place so badly and he scrambled off the jetty, slipping twice on the rocks. He gained his footing and veered off the beach, into a patch of woods. It was far off the trail, but he didn’t care as he tore through a maze of tightly packed trees. His eyes blurred as he ran and he realized he was crying.

* * *

It was almost noon and Jules was having trouble concentrating. He’d been reading the green notebook for hours, staring at microscopic images of leaves and twigs and pinecones, while a dozen ideas swirled in his head.

On a piece of scrap paper, he jotted down three questions in pencil:

How did George entangle the thought waves of plants and humans?

How are plants able to understand human thoughts?

What role does the fungus play?

For now, Jules had to grudgingly accept the idea that George had used some kind of brain entrainment to unify the thought waves of plants and humans. It had something to do with V-waves and isochronic tones. Perhaps the last two questions were connected. The fungus had something to do with the way plants synthesized human thoughts.

Jules looked at the results of the EEG, the enormous amount of electrical activity flowing from plant to fungus every time he approached them. Could a plant and fungus form a symbiotic relationship that allowed them to communicate with humans? The idea was ludicrous with not a shred of scientific plausibility.

And how was it possible that so many species were involved? The notion that all the plants on the island could be working together was also impossible. Plants didn’t cooperate with each other. It was all about advancing the genes of their own kind. Just like humans, a plant wouldn’t think twice about overtaking another species, even killing vegetation that got in the way of their survival. But also like humans, plants had been shown to be altruistic in nature, even sacrificing themselves for the good of their families. There had to be something vital at stake for every species of plant to work for the common good.

Jules slumped in the chair, resting his head back and shutting his eyes, thinking how this was all so impossible. Yet, how else could he explain his own experience in the woods? Something supernatural had occurred. There was no doubt in his mind. Jules had felt their cold fingers probing his brain, spider-walking over his frontal cortex and touching certain memories. He could still feel their presence now as if they never left, and it gave him a chill.

It occurred to him that if George Brookes really had made such a discovery, his name would become the most famous in modern science. Of course, Jules Beecher would be right behind him, if he were able to reproduce the results and bring the research to light. He felt a rush of adrenaline and his gaze darted over the room, stopping on a row of plant specimens.

Imagine, actually hearing the thoughts of a tree, the sound of their language. It was practically inconceivable. He wondered what kind of reception there would be; this was more than clicking tomatoes. Perhaps even too big for the Institute of Plant Neurobiology. Undoubtedly, the publishing rights of his paper would be fought over by every major scientific journal. There would be a surge of media attention and money rolling in for more research. The demand for interviews would be a nuisance, but every biologist on the planet would want to speak to him. The British Science Foundation, the International Consortium of Botanists, the prime minister of England, the president of the United States. The Ministry of Defense would probably pounce on his research.

Of course, a Nobel prize was a given.

Jules blinked and his thoughts hit a wall. What was he thinking? It sounded so absurd; there had to be a rational explanation. Besides, what proof did he have but his own personal experience, a notebook full of sketchy observations, pieces of a puzzle that didn’t quite fit?

He picked up the ivy and twirled it in his fingers. But keeping his mind from wandering was nearly impossible and he found himself imagining the troll-like reporter from the Enquirer. How he’d love to see the wanker’s face when the announcement was made to the world. Jules rolled the idea over in his mind. Why couldn’t George have discovered a way to communicate with plants? Wasn’t that the basis of his own work, everything he hoped to prove? Yet, here he was, sounding like all the other doubters and critics.

Of course it was possible. By God, it was his duty to prove it, for the sake of the planet. Because, all things considered, none of the accolades even compared to the scientific contribution his work would have on the future of earth.

Imagine what they could tell us.

It was almost as if the decision created a chemical shift in his body. He was giddy with excitement and a kind of youthful wonder he hadn’t felt in decades. It was exhilarating, and he rubbed his palms together, eager to continue.

Isabelle came into the lab, her nervous fingers wringing a handkerchief.

“Isabelle, I’m glad you’re here,” Jules said, oblivious to her despair. “I’ve come up with some new ideas about these plants based—”

“Sean hasn’t returned,” she interrupted. “He’s been gone for hours. Maybe lost in the woods.”

Jules stared, as though she were speaking in a foreign tongue. Then he said dismissively, “I’m sure he’s all right. A boy his age certainly wouldn’t miss lunch. Now I’d like you to have a look at these electrical signals.”

“Jules, I’m not interested in plants right now. My son is missing and he could be lost.”

“He’s probably at the beach.”

“Well, you should help me look. After all, it was your idea to let him go.”

His shoulders sagged and he dropped the ivy on the table. “Fine. I’ll help you search.”


LUKE BROKE THROUGH A TANGLE of brush that hindered his path through the woods. Hot tears streaked his face, his nose was runny, and he could still hear Monica laughing. It plagued him with the kind of angst and humiliation that only a strenuous workout could quell, and he climbed a steep incline, quick as a squirrel. He made it to the top, slid down on his bottom, and kept on running.

Then he stopped suddenly. His head hurt and floaters clouded his vision. When the woods began to sway, Luke staggered sideways and dropped to his knees. He grabbed his gut, as nausea struck like a cannonball. Luke vomited into the mud. He hacked out burning saliva and the pungent smell made him heave again.

What the hell is happening? He rolled onto his back, wiping his mouth and hoping it would pass. Slivers of sunlight peeked through the branches overhead and his ears buzzed with chatter, incoherent whispers that came from the foliage.

“Who’s there?” he muttered, slowly turning his head.

He was alone.

Friggin’ Monica.

She had stressed him out until he hurled. The bitch teased him, seduced him, and made him feel like a fool. But he knew from the body chills and muscle aches, this wasn’t just stress. It was some kind of infection, viral or bacterial, possibly a strain of some island flu.

Good. Maybe I’ll die.

Luke lay in the dark shadow of towering pines, listening to silence. When he sat up, it felt like a skillet hit his head, so he sank back down and rested a few more agonizing minutes.

You’re fine, bro. Just keep it together.

He took deep breaths and rested. With his face so close to the ground he came nose to nose with a pinecone. The woody scales were covered in black specks. Not far away there were sprouts of grass, also speckled black, as well as the bark of trees. Luke sat up slowly without any discomfort, and noticed all the fallen leaves and creeping vines were infested too. Curious, he crawled along the ground, following the growth. Must be a fungus, he thought, but didn’t contemplate the idea any further than that.

Slowly he rose to his feet, trying not to sway.

There was a pond in a clearing about twenty yards from where he stood. Tall reeds poked through the surface, dried and bent. The water shimmered with blue and white reflections of the sky. He walked to the edge and saw his face among the floating twigs. The surface was a sheet of glass and he spit the bad taste from his mouth, watched the water ripple. Then he bent down and splashed his face. The water was ice cold and he remembered the name on the map, Ice Pond.

He was startled by a thumping sound. Across the water, a woman was stooped on her knees. Why hadn’t he noticed her before? She seemed to be digging in the dirt.

With some trepidation, he walked in her direction, his leg muscles tightening with growing alarm. When he was halfway around the pond, his shoulders dropped in relief.

It was Ginny. She was mumbling to herself and raking the earth with filthy hands. It was an amusing sight and he smirked, forgetting all about Monica.

“Miss Shufflebottom?” he said, and had to bite his tongue not to laugh at the sound of her name. She was digging a hole in front of a smooth boulder, engraved with a cross as though it were some kind of headstone.

“It’s here,” she muttered, digging deeper. “I know it. Right here in this grave.” She was panting and excited. Dirt was flying everywhere.

Luke stopped a few yards away, wary of getting close. “Do you need some help?”

The old woman jerked her head around and shouted, “What in bloody hell is wrong with you, boy?”

An ax stuck out of Ginny’s forehead. Blood ran down her pasty-white face, between her eyes that were drawn down in anger, and around her gaping mouth. A lavender dress clung to her body, soaked red on one side.

Luke fell back, staring in horror and tripping on his feet. He scurried across the ground like a frightened crab and backed right into the shallow pond. Splashing and rolling, he struggled to get up and sprang for the woods, through a tangle of branches, and kept on going. It was a small miracle that he found the path to the house, and sped over the flat terrain with Ginny’s voice still ringing in his head.

What in bloody hell is wrong with you, boy?

Her bloody face stuck in his mind. The hatchet lodged in her temple, brain matter protruding over one eye.

God, how can she be alive? How is she speaking?

Luke felt his stomach start to heave again. He focused on his breathing, the sound of his wet sneakers slamming the ground. The woods ended and the house came into view. The fields of rye seemed to stretch on forever and he thought he would never reach the front door. His calves burned and his lungs made quick rasping sounds.

As he reached the patio, the kitchen door flew open.

“Luke!” Monica ran to him, teary-eyed.

He stopped and fell over himself, hands braced on his knees and panting in short, broken gasps.

“I’m sorry, Luke.”

He grabbed her around the waist, clutching her body.

She hugged him back. It seemed like he might never let go, but she gently pulled away.

He averted his eyes, wiping away tears.

“I shouldn’t have…” She paused, trying to find the right words. “Don’t hate me, okay?”

For the first time, she noticed the hectic flush in his cheeks. He was trembling with fright.

“What’s wrong? What is it?”

“I think,” he motioned to the woods, “Ginny’s out there. She had an accident.”

Monica’s brow pinched. “I just saw her in the kitchen. She’s fine.”

“You sure?”

She nodded and his eyes closed in relief.

“Oh shit, Luke. I didn’t mean to say those things.” She kissed his lips. “I was scared, you know?” She could feel his body shaking. “I’ll never hurt you like that.”

They walked together toward the kitchen.

Luke glanced back at the woods.

* * *

The lines in the dirt made by Sean’s walking stick were easy to follow. As they headed down the trail, Isabelle asked Jules what he had discovered about the plants, but he shrugged and told her it was nothing. The jubilance that gripped him so copiously moments ago had passed.

“You’re right. I can see the fungus on everything,” she said, scrutinizing the trees.

Jules didn’t answer. He was deep in thought.

Ten minutes into their walk, the lines in the soil disappeared and they found Sean’s stick discarded on the ground. Farther into the woods, a half-eaten biscuit lay in a bed of moss.

“Sean must have dropped it,” Isabelle said, trying not to show how worried she’d become. “Should we continue to the beach, or cut through here?”

“Looks like he’s gone off the trail. It’s best to follow his tracks,” Jules replied and stepped into the brush. He examined the biscuit and pointed out traces of footprints that led deeper into the woods. As they headed west, Jules proved to be quite a sleuth, following churned-up leaf beds, tread marks on fallen trees, rocks pressed into the earth, freshly snapped twigs, and broken pine needles. He explained to Isabelle how grass bruises and moss bends underfoot.

Several minutes later, there was no sign of Sean at all, but they decided to press on a bit longer. The brush was thick and rough going, especially for Jules, who had trouble ducking under low branches. His size made him seem clumsier than he was and sweat speckled his brow. The sun was high in the sky, making the woods warm and damp. Jules unzipped his jacket and narrowed his eyes at the pine trees. He saw something large, gleaming white between the branches, like the canvas of a sailboat, although the sea had to be a hundred yards off.

“Over here.” He motioned to Isabelle and she followed him around the tall evergreens, weaving among heavy limbs toward flashes of white. Jules pulled back the last drooping branches and the two stood perfectly still, gaping at an enormous clearing.

It was circular in shape, as though the trees had been chopped down on purpose for some kind of ritual. The sky above was a hole where sunlight spilled over what seemed to be a campsite. In the center was a room-size tent of heavy white canvas streaked with dirt. Off to the side were rusted folding tables and a dozen wooden pallets starting to decay.

But Jules could only stare at the ground. It was covered with the same black growth that infected all the plants on the island. It stretched in a circle a hundred feet wide as though someone had laid down velvet carpeting. It draped over tree stumps, rocks, and logs, showing only the curves and lines of invisible objects beneath.

“Goodness,” Isabelle gasped. “It’s everywhere.”

Jules knelt on one knee and held his palms over the ground. His voice was a wisp. “You can almost feel its energy.”

Isabelle looked dubious. “It’s thriving here for a reason.” She peered up at the sky. “Maybe it’s all this sunlight.”

“Fungi hate sunlight,” he replied, pulling a tissue and tweezers from his jacket.

Isabelle looked down at her feet and noticed that the growth spread into the woods. It ran up tree trunks and over vegetation.

Jules put a sample in his pocket and walked softly across the mossy ground toward the tent. Isabelle followed, stepping warily on the fungus as if it might bite her.

The tent was held up by rusty poles. Inside were mud-caked sleeping bags, eroded field equipment, and the fungus that saturated the ground. But what caught Jules’s eye was a huge pile of scrap metal.

Isabelle stepped behind him. “What is that?”

They moved inside and Jules picked through the debris. He recognized dissected parts of computers, genetic testing equipment, a Faraday cage, a plant press. There were hundreds of wires, screws, and loose circuits.

Off to the side was some kind of homemade contraption, a wooden board about a meter long. The board was covered in wires connected to various electrical circuits, filters, amplifiers, modulators, and an oscillator, all powered by four gel-cell batteries taped together.

Right away Jules recognized it from a drawing in the green notebook, a crude replica of a synthesizer. “I believe this is the device George was working on to communicate with plants. I saw a diagram in his journal.”

“Nonsense,” Isabelle said. “It looks like something a fifth-grader would make for a science fair.”

“Yes, it’s very disappointing.” And Jules looked disappointed, even annoyed. “I’m surprised he didn’t power it with a potato.”

Isabelle impatiently watched him scrutinizing the wiring, trying to figure it out. “Are you coming?” she asked. “We came out here to look for my son.”

He didn’t really want to leave and blew out a frustrated breath. “Fine, if we must.” He got to his feet and left the campsite with a grim expression.

Jules took the lead, heading south. The terrain was rocky with vast outcroppings, steep inclines, and tall, spindly trees that grew close together. It was getting hot and Jules took off his jacket, wiped it over his brow. They were both feeling tired and edgy, and Isabelle worried they were going the wrong way.

“We’re definitely going south, toward the beach,” Jules assured her. “Can’t you hear the ocean?”

“It’s an island. There’s ocean everywhere.”

“I can tell from the sun’s position. I’d think you’d be able to figure out something as simple as north and south, Isabelle.”

She pursed her lips to keep from saying something rude. Then she stopped and tilted her head to one side. “Do you hear that?”


Isabelle blinked. “It sounds like a child.”

Around the next bend of rock and bushes, they found Sean sitting on the ground with his knees pulled to his chest, hands fisted under his chin. There were bloodstains down the back of his neck to his white shirt. Isabelle rushed to inspect his head. She blotted a wound with a handkerchief from her pocket.

“The cut isn’t too bad, but that’s quite a bump. We’ll have to watch—” Her thoughts evaporated as she realized Sean was humming. Her heart raced, listening to him drone. It was just a few notes he kept repeating, but it was humming nonetheless.

“Jules, do you hear him?” She was smiling, thinking it sounded like a nursery rhyme but none she could remember.

“Splendid,” he said. “Can he walk?”

Isabelle couldn’t hear anything but the humming.

Jules stepped between some bushes. “Why, there’s the path to the house. I can see the red tags.”

Isabelle asked Sean, “What are you singing, love?”

He fell quiet, and turned to his mother with narrowed eyes. Without warning, he pushed her to the ground with both hands. Then he hissed and punched her in the arm.

Jules rushed forward with his palms blocking Sean, and stood between them. He took Isabelle’s hand and helped her up. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I… think so.” She looked at Sean, bewildered.

Sean got to his feet and walked toward the path, leaving her feeling as though she’d been stabbed in the heart.


MONICA POURED LUKE a cold glass of water and put his wet sneakers on top of the wood-burning stove. He was drumming his fingers on the kitchen table, unable to take his eyes off Ginny.

“What the devil are you staring at?”

“You’ve been here all morning? You’re sure?”

“Yes, for the third time.”

“You never went outside?”

Ginny clicked her tongue derisively. “Well, let’s see, I was in the library for an hour and thirteen minutes. Then I went to my room to read sixty-one pages of a book, stopping twice for the toilet to pee.” She pointed a finger. “I believe the real question is, why aren’t you looking for the Crimson Star, checking your appointed rooms like we agreed? Here’s your copy of the map.” She slapped it on the table.

“I’m not feeling well,” Luke said. He took a gulp of water and raked his fingers through his hair. “I need to sit down.”

“You are sitting down,” Monica said.

“Not here.” He slammed the glass down and left the kitchen.

Monica followed him, as Ginny shouted, “Don’t forget your map.”

Luke collapsed in the library, holding his head in his hands. His damp jeans were uncomfortable and he shifted in the seat. When Monica sat in the chair beside him, Luke sighed deeply.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “It’s like, you’re acting weird. Trying to make me feel guilty or something, when I told you I was sorry.”

“It’s not about you.”

“Then what?”

He took a breath and blurted out, “Well, for one thing, I saw Ginny in the woods a few minutes ago with an ax in her head. I mean an actual lumberjack, steel-blade ax lodged in her brain. There was blood everywhere and she was yelling at me.”

Monica froze for a moment. She licked her bottom lip. “You just thought you saw her. It must have been an animal, like a deer mauled by a bear.”

“I was standing five feet away. It was Ginny.”

“You’re trying to scare me again. Just like when you told me that Hodges’s killer could still be on the island.”

“That’s not true.”

“I think you want me to be scared. What, you like your women all weak and terrified, so you can look like this big macho guy? God, I hate that.”

Luke bolted from the chair. “I’m telling you she had an ax split down the side of her head. I ran out of there like crazy, shaking in my boots.”

She watched him pace. “You did look terrified, I’ll give you that. If you’re telling the truth it can only be one thing.” She walked to him, speaking low. “This island is cursed. Your grandfather went nuts, right? Same thing’s happening to you.”

“It’s not the same thing. I’m perfectly sane and I know what I saw.”

She sniffed him.

“What are you doing?”

“Were you drinking?”

“No, I’m not drunk.”

Ginny breezed into the library, fanning the map in the air. “Nine days. We only have nine days until that boat comes. I will not stay alone on this dreary island and I refuse to leave this place without my legal property.”

Monica rolled her eyes.

“I’m raising the reward to fifty thousand dollars.”

No one spoke.

Then Luke said to Ginny, “I saw you in the woods. Sitting on the ground. Digging up a grave or something by that pond.”

“Fifty thousand American dollars?” Monica gasped.

“That’s right.” Ginny turned to Luke, curious. “A grave. You said it was near a pond? Did it have a tombstone with a cross?”

“So you were there.”

“Not for years. George called it our final resting place, but of course he’s already buried in London and I have no intention of spending eternity on this blasted lump of rock. So both of you, get busy.” She clapped her hands. “Come, come.”

She left them and went back to the kitchen.

“So there is a grave.” Monica nodded. “Maybe she was there and lied.”

“About an ax in her head?”

“She’d better not be lying about the fifty thousand dollars. I’m going to find that damn diamond and you’re going to help me. That should take your mind off things.” She leaned forward and gently kissed his lips, but he didn’t kiss her back.

“I’m not going in those woods again.”

* * *

Jules studied the campsite. One of the first things he discovered was that the fungi spread much farther than their host plants. While the growth originated on leaves, stalks, or roots, it quickly spread over the ground, rocks, and other inorganic matter, spanning several yards and then merging with neighboring fungi to form a single network.

This wasn’t unusual. Ninety percent of plants on earth form mycorrhizas, symbiotic relationships with fungi. Usually the fungi enter the plant tissue and cells at the roots and create a web of hyphae that branch out for miles, providing the plants with better absorption of water and nutrients, protection from predators and pathogens, as well as information about the environment. Jules had once visited the largest known organism in the world, a fungus called Armillaria solidipes in Oregon, that extended over eight square kilometers, or roughly fifteen hundred football fields.

He pondered the idea that the island had become a single living organism. Perhaps it was like an expansive neural network with a single consciousness that gathered information about the entire island and sent it back to the campsite as a central location to be processed.

He could be standing at the brain.

Jules winced and shook the notion from his mind. Lately he had noticed changes in his reasoning. One minute he would be excited about an idea to the point of mania, sweating and having heart palpitations, only to realize later it was ridiculous and the excitement unwarranted. He suspected that sometimes he was ignoring observations and easy explanations, even skewing results to prove his own hypothesis. It wasn’t entirely his fault. Jules was working under stressful conditions. He was still having dizzy spells, unable to fully concentrate. No doubt it was nerves; fear that he would be assaulted by those terrible memories again if he stayed in the woods. But he knew if the plants were going to communicate with him, this is where it would happen.

Jules strolled into the tent and stared at the synthesizer George had built, with its poorly fastened wires and circuits. Perhaps it wasn’t as elementary as it looked.

The green book was spread on the ground below. He brushed dirt off the page and studied the diagram, which was labeled Isochronic Tone Generator. Jules figured the device was supposed to produce sounds to alter the brain’s electrical oscillations. He wanted to try it, see if it worked.

“All right. Let’s have a go,” he said, and flipped the switch. Nothing happened.

He figured the batteries were dead, or perhaps the thing had been standing too long under the tent. He tried it again.

This time the contraption started up with a quiet pulsating sound, and Jules was delighted. Then the noise became loud and undulating, like a quivering saw, and the pitch rose higher until it was quite uncomfortable. Jules winced and swatted his ear as if shooing a fly. Then the tone changed again and the needle slowly descended as the sound faded to nothing.

Jules listened a while longer and then shrugged. He flipped off the switch, disappointed that it was so uneventful.

The sun was beginning to set. There wasn’t much he could do until morning, so he closed the notebook and stuck it in his backpack. He felt tired and sat down on a rock, shutting his eyes for a moment. When he looked up he noticed the pine trees looked more vibrant than before, vivid green like traffic lights, while the woods were bathed in golden sunlight, the sky an unnatural violet.

From the ground, a sapling peered up at him. Its newly sprung leaves seemed especially green. He thought he’d never seen something so perfect, so alive. Jules had an overwhelming urge to touch it. He reached out and gently pinched the stem, sliding his fingers along the stalk, smooth as spaghetti and spotted black. It was a pine sapling, only six inches tall.

Jules gave a small tug. The top of the tree snapped off.

At that instant, an agonizing pain hit his throat, as if it were struck with an ax. He fell hard on the ground, curling up with his hands wrapped around his neck and expecting to feel a surge of blood through his fingers. Bright explosions flashed behind his eyes and his neck hurt so bad he thought his brain might explode from the pain.

Oh God, what’s happening? Make it stop!

The pain did stop. It vanished completely. But the feeling of shock and horror stayed with him and, for a long moment, he kept very still. Jules held the broken sapling in his trembling hand and looked at the wound, where a green drop of liquid streaked his palm. He turned his head around to see that he was completely alone.

I did not just feel a plant’s pain.

Jules sat on the ground and thought for a moment. He could hardly remember the sensation at all and began to wonder if it had really happened. Rotating his neck back and forth, there was no remaining ache or strain. It was just a coincidence, he assured himself. He’d had some kind of seizure or muscle spasm at the same moment he picked the sapling.

You imagined it, Jules.

He had to be sure.

There were other saplings at his feet, one that stood much taller than the rest. It had a hardy sheath of bark already formed. Jules wrapped his fist firmly around the stem, but hesitated. His hand was trembling.

Don’t do it.

He knew it was crazy, but how else could he be sure? With a tug, he ripped the plant from the earth.

Jules felt his legs rip from his body. He hit the ground with an excruciating crack of bone and the icy burn of exposed flesh. The agony was so crippling, it made his ears ring.

Jesus. Make it stop!

In seconds, the pain ceased. Jules lay on the ground shaking, as saliva dripped from his open mouth. He stared at the naked roots beside him. He didn’t dare move his legs for fear they would fall off his torso. A wave of nausea and dizziness threatened to make him vomit, but having the pain gone was all that mattered.

God, it’s over, he thought with relief. I’ll never do it again.

But the dizziness got worse and the trees were spinning like before. He was gripped with panic, knowing what might be coming. With a whimper he slid onto his back, terrified he would pass out. He didn’t want to go there, not again, but soon he was falling down a black hole.

Jules heard the sound of splashing, and it made him sick with fear.

He opened his eyes and was sitting in a bathtub, a six-year-old covered in dirt. His mother was shampooing his hair, long dagger fingernails cutting into his scalp. His feet kicked up water and she tugged his arm so he fell sideways in pain.

Shut up! Stop whining!

Her nails scrubbed harder as shampoo ran down his face, stinging his eyes.

Lather! She dunked his head underwater. Rinse!

Violently pulled to the surface, Jules gasped for air, sputtering water from his aching lungs.

Repeat! She dunked him again and held him under until Jules could feel himself start to lose consciousness. Then his body jerked upward and he gasped for air, but only coughed up more water.

Repeat! Down he went again, his spine slamming the tub. From underwater, Jules saw his small hands waving frantically, his terrified father trying to lift him out, fighting off his mother’s grip. Then there was only silence and bubbles floating upward. Jules could feel the water enter his nose and then lungs, stinging, suffocating. The world went black.

Jules opened his eyes and sucked in a loud wheezing breath. He lay in the woods, clutching his heart. In his fist was the sapling with its naked, broken roots exposed.


ISABELLE WAS IN THE KITCHEN mincing vegetables for shepherd’s pie. Sean was at the stove poking a pot of boiling potatoes, a bandage behind his ear. He was his old playful self again and Isabelle pushed the incident from her mind.

“I’m famished,” Ginny said. She was sitting at the table, studying the map of the island that George had drawn.

“Another half hour,” Isabelle said and threw the minced vegetables in a hot skillet full of chopped meat. She added broth, tomatoes, and a bottle of Guinness to the meat and threw on some spices: parsley, paprika, rosemary, and thyme.

Sean picked up each bottle of spice and shook a few grains into his palm. He sniffed them and licked each flavor with his tongue. He picked up a magnifying glass and inspected them closer. Isabelle looked at her son with pride, unconsciously rubbing the bruise on her arm where he punched her. She smiled when Sean sprinkled the herbs into his glass of water and watched them float. He still displayed the same curiosity he’d shown as a small boy and for that she was glad.

Sean picked up the masher and pounded the meat in the pan.

“That’s for the potatoes,” Isabelle told him. “You can mash them when they’re done cooking. First we strain them.”

She showed him the strainer and he began counting the holes.

Ginny finished with the map. “By tomorrow we’ll be done searching this house. Then we need to look outdoors.” She unfolded the riddle and muttered, “I’ve divided the island into five separate areas so we won’t miss any spots or duplicate our efforts.”

“I wouldn’t even know where to look out there. But the kids are bored. You might send them around to search.”

“Your son refuses to go outside. He’s quite a nancy, that one.”


“Seems he saw an apparition.”

“Finding a body would make anyone squeamish.”

“Oh posh. He thought he saw me in the woods, lying on the ground. That boy is having sexual fantasies about me to the point of delusions.”

A loud clang sounded as the lid of a pot hit the floor. Sean grunted in frustration, waving a potato masher in the air and looking at his mother with an expression of utter distress.

Isabelle went to the stove to see the potatoes had been mashed up in the water. It was the consistency of creamy soup.

“Ahhh-ah-ah,” Sean said and stuck the masher in the ooze. He looked at her sadly.

She smiled at him. “Why, that looks wonderful. I see we have a change in menu. We’re having mincemeat and potato soup. Good job, Sean.” She tried a spoonful. “A bit of salt and pepper.”

“Pity.” Ginny sighed. “I was so in the mood for shepherd’s pie.”

“Any idea where Luke is now?”

“Probably in my room, going through my undergarments.”

Isabelle looked to the dark window. “I hope they aren’t wandering around.”

“I told you that boy refuses to venture out of the house. One would think fifty thousand dollars would toughen him up. His little girlfriend was sure chomping at the bit.”

“Fifty thousand dollars for finding the diamond?”

“It simply must be found by Wednesday.”

“Why, Ginny, that’s silly. You could hire a detective for far less.”

“There’s no time to arrange it. Besides, you can’t trust strangers to find something so valuable. What’s to stop a person from saying they didn’t find the diamond when they really did?”

“I don’t know—honesty?”

“Oh, you poor girl. Living in a fairy tale. Not surprising. That’s what comes from marrying a policeman.”

Isabelle noticed a flutter of movement on the patio and flipped on the outside light. She was annoyed to see Sean standing alone in the wind. She hadn’t even noticed that he’d left the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” she said and walked quickly to the vestibule. She grabbed a sweater from a hook, threw it over her shoulders and stepped outside.

Cold air blew against her clothing. Sean was staring at the woods, humming the same monotonous tune.

“Come in the house,” she said loudly above the wind.

He seemed to be in some kind of trance.

Isabelle wanted to take him by the arm and lead him inside, but she was afraid he might get angry again.

At that moment, Jules walked up the path and Sean was instantly alert. The two eyed each other. Then the boy turned back toward the house and went into the kitchen without a word.

Jules blew hot air into his hands, looking abashed at Isabelle. “Can I speak to you?”

“Let’s go inside.”

“Alone,” he said, and led her to the door of the laboratory where they could talk in private.

As soon as they were inside, Isabelle could feel the cold on him. He looked pale and distracted and he began right away.

“Something’s happened. I don’t know how to describe it.” He walked across the floor, shaking his head and searching the cabinets.

“Try, Jules.”

“I’m convinced your father was communicating with the plants out there. I connected with them myself, Isabelle.” He stopped pacing and rubbed the side of his cheek. “It’s as though I could feel their pain, and they could feel mine. It was tapping into my memories, reading my thoughts.”

“You’re not making any sense, Jules. You’re just tired from not sleeping. Take your jacket off and have some dinner. It’s almost ready.”

“No, I’ve got to go back.” He picked up his cell phone that was charging on the desk, held it up to her. “You see, it all needs to be documented. It finally occurred to me that I can record it on my phone.”

“You’re going to make a video?”

“I’ll need some kind of proof. You can’t just make claims like this without evidence.”

“It’s completely dark—and freezing outside. You can’t walk around now.”

“I have a flashlight. This can’t wait, Isabelle. I might be on the verge of an enormous breakthrough, your father’s discovery.” He put the phone in his pocket. “This is what he raved about for so many years and I believe he finally accomplished his lifelong dream.”

“If that’s true, then why did he kill himself?”

He was silent for a moment. “Perhaps he was driven mad.”

“By drugs?”

More silence. “By his own memories.”

She looked at him, puzzled.

Jules seemed to deflate right in front of her, his mind drifting with his gaze. “They probe deep within the subconscious. When it happened I could see everything, hear everything, as if I were going through it all over again. It wasn’t pleasant.”

“You’re scaring me, Jules.”

“I’m sorry.” He studied her face and chuckled self-consciously. “It does sound crazy. That’s why I need proof.” He rubbed his chin. “It’s getting blustery out there. I’d better go.” She didn’t have time to stop him. He moved swiftly across the room and out the door.

* * *

Jules stood in front of the shed feeling a strong wind at his back. As he slid open the heavy door, a gust blew him inside and he slammed the door shut.

It was quiet and smelled damp from rain.

He turned on the flashlight and the beam hit upon the wall of old farming tools: scythes, hatchets, rakes, and hoes. For a moment he stared at each object, and then he took an ax off the wall and felt its considerable weight in his hands. The wooden handle was old, marred with deep nicks and scratches, but the blade was sharp and clean. He left the shed, pulling the door shut, and headed down the path.

The beam of the flashlight crossed the path, side to side, illuminating the fields of ryegrass rolling in golden waves with each gust of wind. The ax was clenched tightly in his grip and his body trembled, partly from the cold but mostly from exhilaration. Jules was determined to prove his theory, and at the same time was frightened of what he might find. The wind was like razors across his cheeks and the tip of his nose was turning numb as he reached the entrance to the woods.

As he stepped inside the cavern of trees, it was so unexpectedly dark he feared the narrow beam of the flashlight would be insufficient to find the campsite. Indeed, it took over an hour, several wrong turns and doubling back in frustration. When he finally reached the clearing, he pivoted the flashlight across the fungus-covered ground and then up to the hedges of trees that circled him, finally stopping the beam on his target.

It was an old maple, sixty feet high and wide in girth.

He rested the flashlight on a folding table so it shined brightly on the tree and then propped the phone against it, making sure the camera lens was focused in the right spot. He pressed the video button and began recording. Soon he would have documentation of the experience. Something—anything—to show he wasn’t crazy.

Jules approached the tree with the ax firmly in his fist. Ignoring the tremble in his arms, he touched the bark lightly and stepped two paces back. He told himself to concentrate, just do the job and get on with it. He pulled the ax over his shoulder, and swung.


A massive pain ripped through his abdomen. Jules shrieked and fell to his knees, letting go of the ax and clutching his gut in agony. It was that same sensation of torn muscles and cracked bones. Billions of nerve endings burned like fire. He could almost feel blood flowing out of an enormous slit under his rib cage beneath his fingers, yards of loose intestines pouring onto the ground.

As quickly as it came, the pain disappeared.

Jules stayed frozen in place, panting and horrified. Then he curled up until he was able to move. He crawled to his knees, staring at the ax stuck in the tree, the seven-inch wound he had made to the trunk.

Jules was shattered by the pain and fear he had felt, but something even worse. Betrayal.

He gazed shamefully at the crowd of trees surrounding him.

My God, the implications!

Violent images swirled through his head. Fields of ryegrass blowing in the wind, thousands of fields, with plows running day and night. Blades slicing through stalks, millions crying out at once. A buzzing chainsaw cutting through forest, sawdust splattering the dirt like blood. A magnificent maple hitting the ground like a heavy corpse.

Jules raised his sweaty face. The mauled tree was more than he could bear and he grasped the ax handle and tugged the blade free. He threw it to the ground. He grabbed his phone and flashlight off the table, hugging them to his chest.

Then he was running. The flashlight shook in his hands and he crashed into one tree and then another, vines slapping his arms, rocks tripping his feet. The thick scent of pine smelled like blood in a butcher shop, assaulting his senses.

How they must feel, all these years. My God!

As he ran, frightening scenarios flashed in his mind. His own body buried in cement up to his knees, unable to move, while a demented figure, who looked remarkably like himself, swung an ax into his arms and legs, laughing and heedlessly slicing off pieces here and there. The thought shook his bones.

By the time Jules reached the house he was in a frenzy, and unable to go inside for fear of running into anyone. He stood on the patio trying to recall the feeling. Shock, fear, anger, and betrayal. He had made his first real connection. He knew what they felt.

So this is what it’s like to be tormented and betrayed by the very guardians sworn to protect you!


The lies and deception, and oh! The loss of innocence with that first blow!


A sudden realization that humans are not here to protect, but only to kill! Over and over and over!

(Repeat! Repeat! Repeat!)

Jules pulled himself together. At least he had the proof he needed. His shaking hands fumbled with the phone, tapping the screen until the video started to play. There was a loud whistle of wind from the mic. The image was dark but clearly showed Jules stepping into the spotlight. He turned to look at the camera once and then back to the tree. He swung the ax. Then Jules was screaming and writhing on the ground, all alone by himself in the woods.

From watching the video, anyone would think he was insane.

Jules exhaled deeply. Only he understood just how sane he really was. It was the rest of the world that was crazy.


LUKE HAD SHOWERED and changed into pajamas, although it was only a few minutes past eight. Getting out of his clothes was a small but comforting gesture that meant he wasn’t going outside. The shower would hopefully revive his senses and put an end to the hallucinations.

Luke didn’t tell Isabelle what had happened in the woods. Lately he found his mother annoying and intrusive, yet at the same time she was still timid and weak, unable to stick up for herself. Besides, she already had one son who was damaged, as his father so often reminded them. But mostly he didn’t mention the incident to his mother because he wanted to forget about the woods and Ginny.

He quietly hoped Monica would knock on his door. Perhaps they could search the house again. Maybe they could start with his room. He checked under the bed for the bottle of wine he stole from the kitchen. He hoped she liked merlot, whatever that was. The mirror caught his eye and he stared at his reflection trying to decide—T-shirt on or off? He pulled off the shirt and flexed his pecs.

There was a knock on the door and his heart fluttered like a bird.

“Coming,” he said, and vaulted from the bed to the door.

Isabelle held out a bowl of potato soup. “You didn’t come down.”

“I’m not hungry.”

She looked at the room and noticed a couple of biscuits on his nightstand with a glass of water.

“May I come in for a minute? I want to talk to you.”

Luke opened the door wider, but frowned as she passed. Then he took a quick check of the hallway.

His mother sat on the edge of the bed and patted a spot beside her.

Luke rolled his eyes and sat in an overstuffed armchair. He put his shirt back on.

“Have you seen Monica?”

“No,” he said curtly.

“I went in her room and there was an empty bottle of vodka on the dresser.”

“Why are you snooping around in her stuff?”

“I wasn’t snooping. She left the door open and the bottle right out in the open.” She lifted her chin. “I’m responsible for her while she’s with us.”

“And you’re doing a great job with all the fun activities and dead bodies lying around.”

“That’s not fair, Luke. She’s sixteen years old.”

“So? It’s not like teenagers don’t drink sometimes. She was pretty shook up over that dead guy.” His voice dropped with his gaze. “Of course you’d never think of that. You’re too concerned with your kids being perfect. Perfect at school, perfect at home. Now you want to make her into one of your perfect robots too.”

“Luke, where is this coming from? I hope you aren’t picking up her disrespectful manner, and I certainly hope you aren’t drinking alcohol with this girl.”

Luke glared at her.

“Look, we can discuss my turning you into a robot later, as well as the drinking, but for now I’d like to know what you saw in the woods.”

His expression melted. “I… didn’t…”

“Ginny said you thought you saw her in the woods.”

“I don’t know what I saw. I mean, she was sitting on the ground right in front of me as sure as you’re sitting on that bed right now.”

“What was she doing on the ground?”

“She was digging. Her head was bleeding.”

“Bleeding? You mean like she fell?”

He hesitated, staring at the biscuit on the plate. “No, it was more like there was an ax in her head. A giant ax, sticking right out of her skull.”

Isabelle opened her mouth but couldn’t speak. She cleared her throat and finally said, “We’re getting out of here. I don’t know how, but Wednesday is too far off.”

He looked at her. “It’s those woods. They give me the creeps.”

“Dr. Beecher told me the same thing. He thinks something strange is going on.”

“Like what?”

“He’s not sure.”

“Maybe I should talk to him.”

“Please don’t, Luke. He doesn’t sound rational. He thinks the plants in the woods are, I don’t know, controlling his mind.”

“Did he say that?”

She swiped the air in frustration. “He believes George did something to the plants.”

“Did he?”

“Of course not. There’s an explanation to what you saw, but certainly not telepathic plants. I shouldn’t have even told you about it.”

“I’m glad you did. I don’t feel so weird.”

“I don’t want you near him. He’s acting odd, almost as if he’s on some drug.” She turned slightly pale and glanced at the biscuits on the plate. “Have you been eating those every day?”

“I think so.”

“So has Dr. Beecher, and Sean too. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. Who knows what’s in those biscuits if my father made them.”

He nodded, looking somewhat relieved. “That makes sense. I won’t eat any more.”

“We’ll throw them all out.”

“You still want to leave?”

She exhaled deeply. “I’m sure everyone is anxious to get out of here.”

“Not Monica, now that the diamond is worth fifty grand.”

“Ginny told me. It’s ridiculous. No amount of money is worth risking your sanity.”

“Monica’s had it hard. Fifty grand could change her life.”

She gave him a dubious look. “Money doesn’t change people.”

“Why do you do that?” he blurted out. “Make that face, like you don’t approve of her? She just needs a chance to straighten out.” He shook his head, disgusted. “She’s the nicest person I ever met. She really cares about me and listens to me and we have everything in common. She’s my girlfriend.”

For a moment, Isabelle was speechless. “I’d rather you keep your distance.”

“How can you be so judgmental?” he hollered. “You always said your mom was so horrible and mean, and we’re all supposed to feel sorry for you. Well, her mom is a prostitute. Give her a break.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Isabelle stood to leave, but paused at the door. Without turning around, she spoke quietly over her shoulder. “Are you two having sex?”

Jesus,” he cried. “No!”

“Good night, Luke.”

Isabelle walked out and closed the door, hearing a glass hit the wall.

* * *

Isabelle sat rigid in bed. The tears were coming and she choked down sobs so no one would hear. The sound of Luke breaking a glass played in her head and she slid down the mattress, curling her body around the pillow.

What was happening? All she wanted was to relive a few happy moments from her childhood and share a special place with her children. This was a nightmare that kept getting worse. Her father might have murdered a man and the corpse lay buried on the island. Luke practically hated her. Sean was angry too. There were too many problems to tackle at once, and for now she just wanted to sleep.

Never felt so tired in my life, she thought, and it was true. Isabelle let her mind settle from the day’s events.

She started to doze, but got a sudden chill that made her shiver under the covers. It felt like a band was tightening around her head, and she shut her eyes because it seemed to help. Then things became strange. She had the sensation of something cold and delicate, like fingers, creeping across the front of her brain, actually touching her brain. The featherlight strokes made her relax and the weight of her worries melted away. She could feel it quickly probing several different areas, searching in quiet desperation.

Isabelle didn’t remember opening her eyes, but suddenly she was standing in a park on a warm sunny day. Vaguely, she remembered something bad had happened. That morning Colin had slapped her, and she touched the bruise on her cheek. Sean was climbing a tree, a small boy of six, and she tried to focus her mind only on him, but Colin’s angry face kept peeking through the cracks.

She should have been worried about Sean, but instead she felt a sense of hope. We all take chances and learn from our mistakes. As he reached for each branch, she was rooting for him. You can do it, go as high as you want, my baby boy. You’ll be stronger than me and I’ll never have to worry about you.

Then she realized that she was stuck, and it was because of Sean and Luke that she could never leave her husband. She looked down at her hands and they were tied at the wrists with thorny vines, growing out of the park bench. Then her father appeared in front of her, wearing a white lab coat and holding a pair of hedge clippers.

“Shall I cut them?” he said, holding up the shears. He blocked Isabelle’s view of the tree. She tried to look around him, but her father snapped the blades of the clippers. “Hold out your hands.” The vines were tight around her wrists and she held them up to George.

Then there was a thud and the piercing cry of a child that stopped Isabelle’s heart.

Sean was sprawled on the ground, blood pooling at his head. She wanted to run to her son but the vines held fast.

George stood over Sean, shaking his head. He looked at Isabelle and smiled. “All better.”

Sean slowly rose to his feet, blood dripping down his face. “You wanted me to die.” His voice was small and childlike. “You were hoping I’d fall!”

Isabelle couldn’t speak. She stared in mute horror.

Sean was gone but somewhere he was singing. “Went to bed, cracked my head, couldn’t get up in the morning…”

George was still smiling, waving. “There you go. Bye-bye.”

Isabelle awoke with a start, soaked in sweat and barely able to catch her breath. She held a hand to her heart and inhaled slowly, trying to calm herself. In the quiet, a door clicked open in the hallway and footsteps padded down the stairs. Isabelle kicked off the covers.

She gazed over the railing at the first floor. All was still and she checked both ends of the hall. Sean’s door was open. Jules had the next room and his door was open too. She started down the stairs, gaining strength in her legs, and proceeded to the kitchen. From the window she could see the bobbing flashlight being carried down the path. Isabelle threw on her coat.

Outside, the air was blustery cold. It sharpened her senses but the wind burned her cheeks. There was just enough moonlight to make out the path and she stepped hastily across the pebbly ground, hoping she wouldn’t fall.

“Sean, wait!” The wind howled over her cries, and she had no idea if the figure was even her son. But the flashlight moved slowly and in no time she caught up to him. It was Sean and she heaved a sigh of relief. She reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Sean, come back to the house.”

He pulled free from her grip. Isabelle leapt quickly to block his path.

His eyes were vacant, a masked expression. He didn’t look at her, but straight ahead, over her shoulder, as if he couldn’t see her at all.

“Come back to the house,” she insisted louder. When she tugged his arm, Sean fell into a fit, fighting and squirming until they both fell on the ground. He bit her shoulder, but her coat was thick. Still, it hurt when his teeth clamped down.

“Ow! Stop it, Sean. Wake up!” she cried and shook him hard.

At once, Sean snapped to attention. He stared at his mother and then looked around, dazed. He started to whimper and Isabelle helped him to his feet. She rushed him back to the house, into the kitchen where it was warm.

She sat him down, still feeling the effects of the dream, her son’s tantrum, and the teeth marks on her skin.

“I’ve had enough of this island.” She flipped on the radio.

There was only static.


ISABELLE STOOD BY THE KITCHEN window sipping a steaming cup of coffee and watching the night sky turn into an orange sunrise. She’d barely slept all night. There were dark circles under her eyes and she looked unkempt, pale with no makeup and her hair pulled back in a loose bun, wearing a navy sweater too large for her small frame.

At dawn, she’d gone to Jules’s empty bedroom and found his suitcase missing and his belongings gone. Her first thought was that a boat had arrived and it buoyed her spirits. She had hurried downstairs, but her heart fell when she saw Jules from the window, pushing a wheelbarrow full of lab equipment, blankets, and his suitcase down the path to the woods. He was moving out, but where? Perhaps he was making the campsite his new home.

It’s for the best, she thought, but felt a pang of loss. The house felt a little emptier.

She remembered the biscuits and went to the freezer, but they were gone. She sighed and walked back to the window, taking small sips of coffee. Jules was coming back up the path and she put the mug down. He was unshaven, disheveled, and seemed just plain dirty. Isabelle smoothed back a wisp of hair and felt an overwhelming urge to take a shower.

When he came through the door, he looked genuinely panicked, bug-eyed and rubbing a nervous hand over his mouth.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I made contact again. The trees in the woods.”

Isabelle exhaled, disgusted. At the same time she felt a twinge of fear. She considered telling him about the biscuits, that they were probably drugged, but reconsidered. Maybe it was better to humor him, until whatever drug was in his system wore off. “You had a bad dream. I’ve been having nightmares myself.”

“It wasn’t a dream.” His eye twitched. “They’re trying to send us a warning.”

She feigned an expression of interest. “I see. Warning about what?”

“Do you know what’s happening to trees all over the world? They’re dying.” Jules spewed on about climate change and deforestation, conversion and subsistence farming, logging and urbanization. His eyelids blinked rapidly, as though trying to keep up with his streaming thoughts.

“The trees told you all this?” Isabelle asked warily.

“No, they…” He bit his fingernail, his voice a whisper. “Words are useless things. I’ve seen the future, Isabelle. Brown and white with lots of blue. But no green. No life.”

“Jules, did you sleep last night?”

“We screwed up!” he shouted, frightening her. “The contract has been violated!”

Isabelle had a flashback of her father, when he came down with something. That’s what her mother would say. Strung out and hallucinating. This time she couldn’t hide in her room with a pillow over her head. It was best to play along.

“They’ve been reduced to nothing more than food for consumption, kindling for fires, lumber for houses. They’ve been cultivated and enslaved on millions of acres for the sole purpose of slaughter.” He spun around, pointing a menacing finger. “What if it were your children? Imagine a place where human bones are used to build shelter, flesh and blood to nourish offspring.”

Isabelle thought his behavior was becoming ridiculous; at the same time, deadly serious. She couldn’t run out the door. Her gaze shifted to a knife resting on the sink behind him.

“Jules, sit down.”

He didn’t move.

She forced eye contact. “Listen to me. I think you’re being drugged.”


“Those biscuits you’ve been eating. I think they’re laced with some kind of drug.”

“That’s preposterous. I know what I heard. It’s a war.”

“Jules, please calm down.”

His voice softened. “The harmony is gone. Mutualism. Gone.”


“Now we are the hunted.”

Isabelle looked at the knife again. If she could just get past him. As she eased by the stove, Jules stepped in her way. She panicked and grabbed the kettle, trying to sound casual. “I can make you some tea. You must be hungry.”

He leaned in to whisper. “I’ve discovered things about them. Sometimes they don’t know our thoughts from reality.” His eyes scanned the room, as if someone were watching, and he focused on her face again, keeping his voice low. “This morning I was looking at a wilted leaf under a microscope and I thought about watering it. At that precise moment, the leaf opened its stomata as though the image in my mind was real. So then I thought about harming the plant, to see how it would react.” He gestured surprise. “It cut me.”

The mood in the room grew dark.

Jules lifted his sleeve to show a bandage around his wrist. “It made me use a scissor.”

Isabelle gasped. “You cut yourself.”

“See what I’m trying to tell you?”

She carried the kettle toward the sink, but his hand reached out and clutched her arm. “Aren’t you interested in knowing what they want?”

“No. All I want is to get off this island.” She looked at the knife.

Jules followed her gaze. He went to the sink and picked up the knife. “Is this what you want?” he yelled and threw it across the floor.

Isabelle didn’t move until he stormed out of the room. She put her hand over her mouth and shut her eyes tight.


JULES ANGRILY PACED THE LABORATORY, hands clasped behind his back. He lurched forward and swept the papers off the desk. The chatter had started again, but Jules was tired of all the noise.

“Leave me alone!” he shouted.

The sound stopped and Jules stood perfectly still for a few moments, thinking about Isabelle and her claims that he was drugged. It was true, his personality was changing. Some of the things he said sounded like nonsense one minute and the next, perfectly rational. On the other hand, there was no denying the facts. The plants on the island were sending him messages. Yet, only he could hear them.

Why was I chosen?

It occurred to Jules that perhaps it was no coincidence that both he and George received the message. The true believers were always the first to know. He started to relax and once again felt strong and vibrant. He dropped to one knee and began picking up the papers.

“Dr. Beecher?”

He looked up to see Luke in the doorway. “Yes, what is it?”

“Well, um…”

“I’m quite busy.”

“Could I talk to you about something?”

He hesitated, but then waved the boy over. It seemed they were going to have another little chat. Jules sat down and dropped the papers on the desk, pulled up a chair beside him. He was calm, like his old self.

Luke slumped down in the seat. “I was wondering if you noticed the plants on the island doing anything… strange.”

“What do you mean strange?”

“My mom said you’re studying them. That you think the plants are, um, different… I mean…”

“Get to the point, please.”

“Do the plants in the woods make you see things?”

“You mean like the body you found?”

“No. That was real.”

Jules looked more interested. “Did something in the woods frighten you?”

He nodded.

Jules leaned in. “Yes, Luke. I think they can make you see things. But I don’t believe they want to scare you, or hurt you. They’re simply trying to communicate.”

“That’s scientifically impossible.”

“I would have agreed with you last week. But it seems your grandfather has found a way to merge the thoughts of plants and humans, synchronizing the two frequencies. It has something to do with a fungus.”

Luke narrowed his eyes. “You mean that black fungus in the woods?”

“Yes. I think it helps them read our thoughts. Get into our heads.”

Luke looked skeptical.

“I’ve experienced it myself.”

“You have?

He nodded.

“Is it dangerous?”

“I don’t think so, unless you freak out and do something stupid.”

“Like jump off a cliff?”

Jules didn’t say anything.

“What do they want?”

“I believe they’ve been trying to connect with us, trying to send us a message.”

“What kind of message?”

“I don’t know, but I hope it’s something useful. Perhaps they want to warn us that we’re destroying the planet.”

Luke chuckled. “What I saw in the woods was not a message about climate change.”

“What was it?”

He shrugged, not keen to answer. “Can they see the future?”

“Possibly. There have been studies that show plants are prophetic, anticipating both negative and positive events.”

“So maybe they were trying to warn me about something that’s going to happen. So I can stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“I don’t know. Someone getting murdered.”

“Who’s getting murdered?”

“I don’t know.”

He snorted impatience. “Plants don’t care about anything but survival. Instinct is driving them the same way it drives animals.”

“Driving them to do what? Plants are supposed to like people. We grow them in fields and give them fertilizer and water.”

“Hogwash.” Jules snorted. “Our selfish endeavors have thrust plants into a massive artificial environment designed to satisfy our own needs. Humans grow what they want, where they want, when they want it. If we aren’t cutting plants into pieces, trampling them underfoot, we’re completely ignoring them without an ounce of respect. Why, you might be sitting on the carcass of a two-hundred-year-old elder.”

Luke shifted in his chair.

“Do you know what is happening to trees all over the world, how they’re disappearing?”

“You mean like sequoias?”

“I’m talking about half the pines in the Rockies disappearing. Ninety percent of West African forests have been wiped out, ninety-eight in Ethiopia. Rainforests are being flattened to grow palm oil for products, while the Amazon and ancient woods are being turned into grass for grazing animals, thanks to America’s obsession with hamburgers. In a hundred years, there won’t be a virgin forest on earth.” He slumped in his chair. “How could you understand? We’re causing climate change on a massive scale that will kill every living thing within the next two centuries. I know. I’ve seen it.”

Luke blinked helplessly. “So… what can we do?”

Jules rested his head back on the chair and looked down his nose at the boy, considering his potential. He was intelligent, no doubt, but could he be trusted with privileged information and was he worthy of inclusion? It appeared he had connected with the plants, after all, and he seemed open to progressive ideas. After a moment he thought, Why not? He might be useful.

“Do you really want to help?”


“Then perhaps you’d like to work on your grandfather’s project with me.”

“Luke.” Isabelle stood in the doorway, sounding stiff and looking directly at her son. “I fixed you some breakfast in the kitchen. You need to—”

“Why are you so anxious to leave?” Jules interrupted. “The boat will be here Wednesday. Surely you can wait until then.”

“Might I remind you there’s a dead man in the woods?”

“Ah, well. He’s waited this long.”

“Luke, go wash up for breakfast.”

“I’m talking to Dr. Beecher.”

“You can do that later. I said wash up.”

Wash up. What am I, five years old?”

“How about, go put soap and water on your hands, rinse them off, and eat your oatmeal.”

“Fine.” He shrugged.

Isabelle stepped into the lab as Luke left.

Jules stood, with an awkward bow. “I’m sorry for that scene in the kitchen, Isabelle. Truly I am. Have you thought about what I said—continuing your father’s research?”

She straightened. “Have you thought about what I said? Whatever’s in those biscuits is making you hallucinate.”

He grinned, stepping toward her as he spoke. “I would have expected more from you, Isabelle. Even your son has an open mind about it.”

“I’d rather you not discuss it with him.” Her expression hardened. “The boat won’t be here for eight days,” she said in a clear voice. “That’s a nice campsite in the woods. Maybe you should stay there until it arrives.”

His pupils grew large and dark. “What are you saying?”

“I’m simply looking out for the children.”

“You think I’m dangerous?” He closed in on her space. “You want me out of the house?”

She backed away, but he reached out and grabbed her arms.

“What happened? We started out so well, I could tell you were falling in love with me. Go ahead, say it!”

“Let go of me.” She stared at him, horrified. Across his forehead was a rash of small bumps that followed his hairline down the left side of his temple. Her hand came up and stopped. “What is that—on your face?”

He pushed her away, smoothed down his hair.

She watched him walk to his jacket, slung over a chair.

“Mom?” Luke stood in the doorway. “Could you come with me for a minute?”

Isabelle glanced at Jules, zipping his coat. He was tight-lipped, eyes fixed on the window, and then he started for the back door.

“Yes, I’m coming.”

Isabelle walked with Luke toward the kitchen. “I want you to stop talking to Dr. Beecher.”

“Maybe he’s right, about the plants.”

“Get that idea out of your head. It’s ridiculous.”

They reached the kitchen and Luke stood at the end of the cabinets. “Take a look at this.”

“I don’t see anything.”


Then she realized the radio was gone. “Someone took it.”

“No. It’s still here.” He went to the garbage can and pressed the foot pedal.

Isabelle looked inside to see it was smashed to pieces. Her heart was pounding.

“Sean?” he asked.

She shook her head. “My guess is Dr. Beecher.”

“Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But it looks like we’re stranded for another eight days.”


OVER THE NEXT THREE DAYS, Jules remained at the campsite.

At night when the sun went down, his world was shrouded in darkness. His eyes strained to catch tiny bits of moonlight that fell like brushstrokes on leaves and branches.

Jules lay inside the tent on a pile of scratchy blankets listening to the chatter. Sometimes it was so loud he would move to the beach, sitting with his knees curled up to his chest while his muscles shivered uncontrollably. He’d watch the waves break white, hugging a blanket that was damp from the spray of the sea.

Although the beach was quieter than the woods, he could still hear their cries and he’d plug his ears, pull the blanket over his head. He never bathed, rarely ate, and his appearance became frightening. The rumpled clothes he wore were filthy and his hair a tangled mess. Black rings circled his eyes from sleepless nights, merging with his grizzled beard and dark bumps that speckled his cheeks. If he actually had a mirror, it would show an unrecognizable face.

Jules dreaded going to sleep. Nights were terrifying. As he dozed, they would enter his mind, a physical force connecting to his frontal lobe. He could feel data streaming into his brain, sounds and flashes of colored lights on a ticker tape that twisted through gray matter and gave him chills, as if they were downloading a long, complicated program. At the same time, thoughts and memories were leaving his head. Jules could see the images being emptied out: trees being cut down, logs floating like corpses down a river, forests ablaze, a ground full of stumps, concrete cities being erected, acres of trays filled with mutated seed. It was exhausting to download so much information and in the morning Jules felt physically ill.

Sometimes the messages became too enormous to hear. Their pain and suffering was unbearable and Jules wandered the woods, holding his ears or rolling on the ground, just wanting it to stop. Other times it came as a thwack! that would shake the earth and he would feel a piece of his body slice off, an arm or a leg, and then the warm sting of blood pouring out, his heart beating frantically, life creeping toward its bitter end.

“What do you want!” he screamed one night, but there was no answer. The sun was setting and it was almost dark. Jules knew they wanted him to do something, but what?

He studied the green notebook for a while and decided that he was supposed to spread the plants all over the world. Finish the job George had started and failed. But there was more, and the sounds became unbearable. He fell into a depression and violent images swirled through his mind. Visions of his childhood and vegetal slaughter.

There was finally a moment of silence, and it came with a message that was crystal clear.

Kill them.

At first he didn’t want to believe it. After all, they had never shown any sign of wanting revenge. What if he was misinterpreting their meaning?

You’re a scientist, he told himself. Get ahold of yourself. That’s when he started to doubt everything. How could plants possibly understand a concept like murder, let alone how the human brain works? Even if they had the ability of cognition, it would be nothing like human thought. Why, it was preposterous. Entangling the thought waves of humans and plants would be like entangling the notes of a song with a Swiss cheese sandwich. They were two completely different things.

The campsite was nearly dark and thrown into a chaotic mess, but he searched until he found a pile of handwritten notes, specifically a list of three questions. He read the last two.

How are plants able to understand human thoughts?

What role does the fungus play?

Jules spent the rest of the night perched on a tree stump with a flashlight in his hand, reading the green book and trying to figure out the last two questions. He bit his nails, scratched his beard, and picked at the bumps on his forehead. He studied the drawing of the machine and read the entire book until the sun came up.

On that drizzly morning, the answer came to him.

He was squatting on a damp sleeping bag outside the tent, when the clouds above him cast an eerie shadow over the campsite. He looked at the ground as if he’d never seen it before. The way the fungus was draped over one particular area. The curves and spikes created a collage of shapes that were coming together.

Jules stared at it for several minutes, as light rain fell on his face.

His heart started pounding. He crawled to the spot and began peeling away layers of fungi. His fingernails scraped away the thick pile, exposing pieces of what lay beneath: hard edges, points and grooves, bits of color, until a recognized object was revealed.

Jules jolted back, realizing what he uncovered. His filthy hands were shaking so hard he had to hold them still. He kept digging, exposing much more and then stopped.

This is how George did it.

One word came to mind. Seeders.

The two questions were answered together as one. It took several minutes to calm down. Jules quickly walked back to the tent and picked up the green journal that didn’t make sense for so long. He gazed at the things he unearthed, then back to the journal. Now when he read it, the words formed perfect sentences as if he’d cracked the code. He understood everything; indeed he might have written the book himself.

* * *

Isabelle became increasingly worried about Jules after he moved out of the house. Rarely did she ever see him, and when she did it was at a distance, either pushing a wheelbarrow of supplies into the woods or digging up ryegrass.

Only once she found him in the house, raiding the fridge, stuffing frozen chicken in his mouth, ripping the raw meat with his teeth like an animal. He didn’t see Isabelle watching from the doorway, as he stood there in his filthy coat, pants, and muddy boots.

When he left, she dragged a bench in front of the door.

“No one leaves the house,” she told the others.

Not that Luke wanted to leave. After his experience in the woods, he was glad to have an excuse to stay indoors. He and Monica did their best to occupy themselves with board games and they were constantly sneaking off to make out, although none of the encounters lasted long. As soon as things heated up, Isabelle would appear as if on cue.

She had to keep an eye on Sean too, which was nearly impossible. He wanted to leave the house so badly he threw fits and Isabelle needed Luke to help restrain him. A few times, Sean escaped unnoticed but always returned a few hours later, muddy but calm, and always humming the same tune that was quickly growing on Isabelle’s nerves. Frustration consumed her and twice she attempted to lock him in his room, but somehow he always got out.

Ginny was glad to have everyone trapped in the house, devoting at least some part of the day to looking for her treasure. She insisted that Isabelle search the laboratory, so when they were quite sure Jules was gone for good, she started investigating the lab, checking cabinets and closets for any kind of note or jewelry box. Ginny kept her company, all the while doing a jigsaw puzzle of kittens in a basket.

“Shouldn’t you help me look?” Isabelle asked.

“I’ve done enough searching. It hardly seems right to have a woman my age doing all the heavy lifting.”

Isabelle noticed the trash can was overflowing with balls of crumpled paper, bits of fresh bread. She flattened a few wrinkled pages on the desk and found they were filled with rambling sentences that made no sense. She wondered if Jules had been coming back to the house when they were asleep. The thought gave her a chill.

That night she was filled with worry and stayed awake after everyone had gone to bed. She kept her door open, listening for sounds in the hallway. It was getting late and she was never going to get to sleep, so she went downstairs, straight to the lab. With an ear pressed against the door, she heard footsteps on the other side. The urge to flee the hallway to her room fought hard against the curiosity of knowing what he was up to. She listened again, heard the swoosh of pages flipping back and forth and the soft scribble of a pen. There was heavy breathing and then something tipped over and the sound of pencils dropping.

Isabelle cracked the door open an inch.

Jules was squatting on the floor in the dark room, positioned beneath the window in a direct beam of moonlight. His face was just a shadow, but in his disheveled appearance he looked every bit the homeless man he’d become. He was writing in a notebook, making squeaking sounds with his throat and clicks with his tongue. Every so often he snorted or chuckled. Isabelle shut her eyes, knowing he was getting worse with each passing day.

She silently crept back to the front hallway, to the closet where Bonacelli had put her father’s rifle. It was on the bottom shelf with a box of ammunition. She loaded the magazine with two bullets and then tiptoed upstairs. There was a chair at the top of the landing with a good view of the staircase. She sat down and got comfortable, rifle over her knee, knowing that anyone who looked threatening wouldn’t make it to the second step without being shot in the head.

She blinked hard, hoping to stay wake, and silently thanked Colin for teaching her how to shoot. If only Wednesday would hurry.

* * *

Early the next morning, Isabelle walked sleepily into the lab and found Jules tied to a chair. She almost cried out when she saw his face, the metamorphosis was so dramatic. He looked as though he’d been marooned on the island for years, in tattered foul-smelling clothes and his shaggy hair in knots. His face was a mosaic of dirt, beard, and purple bumps.

He was half asleep, looking up at her with heavy lids. Plastic zip ties secured his ankles and left wrist to the chair. His right hand was tied with a rope that stretched down to his feet and around the desk leg where it lay on the floor. He must have pulled it taut with his mouth.

Isabelle was stunned.

His eyes followed her across the room.

“Jules, did you do this?”

He nodded.

“What’s happened to you?”

His voice was low and raspy. “… Hurts.”

She went around to the back of the chair to see that the hand wrapped with rope was blue and she tried to figure out the best way to loosen the knot without actually setting him free.

Please,” he whispered and licked his dry lips.

She had never seen someone look so helpless and weak. She stooped down to untie his hand, but then paused, wondering if she was doing the right thing. Just one hand wouldn’t hurt, she thought and quickly unraveled the rope.

“Thank you,” he wheezed and pressed his pained hand to his chest.

She couldn’t stand to see him in agony. It would be inhuman to keep him restrained like this for days. She found a pair of scissors to cut the zip ties.

Jules slumped in the chair, holding his head in his hands.

“What can I do? Tell me how to help you.”

“They want…” He struggled to speak but the words didn’t come. He reached for a pencil but his hands were shaking, so Isabelle pushed it toward him with writing paper. He scribbled fast, before he could stop himself.

Isabelle looked down at a shaky drawing of the earth with arrows pointing down and some illegible writing above, but before she could take in the drawing and its meaning, Jules scribbled over it, as if he’d changed his mind, or perhaps his hand had a mind of its own.

“I don’t understand. What do you want me to do?”

He wrote the words, Go home.

“We can’t leave the island without a boat.”

His pencil scribbled, Kumbaya.

“The song?”

It seemed like writing was getting harder and the pencil shook as if he were fighting against his own fingers. He strained to scribble the words, Try it.

“Try what?”

Jules smacked his head and bolted from the chair, half stumbling around the room shouting, “Try it, you’ll like it! Try it, you’ll like it!”

Isabelle stepped back in fright.

He was gaining his strength back, but was still disoriented and dropped to one knee, grasping a table for support.

“Jules, listen to me. You’re sick, something is making you sick.”

Slowly he rose with a scowl, pointing a finger. “That’s what they told Mother. You want to put me away?” He started swaying back and forth like a gorilla.

“No, I want you to feel better.”

“I have work to do,” he shouted, looking drunk. “Important work! You can’t stop me. They said you’d try to stop me.”

“You’re not thinking straight,” she pleaded. “You said so yourself, Jules. They’re controlling your mind. Something is happening with these plants. That growth, that fungus, it’s like some awful drug.”

“There are no drugs!” he bellowed.

Before she could back away, he grabbed her shoulders and shook her like before.

“Stop it, please. You’re hurting me.”

Jules realized what he was doing and let go. He staggered across the room and left quickly out the door and across the patio.

Isabelle ran to the door and fell against it. Several minutes passed before she had the courage to move. She wrung her hands together but it barely kept them from shaking. There had to be another way to get off the island, and she gazed over the room.

The green notebook was lying on the desk. The Eden Project. She greedily flipped through the pages. There were numbered columns with long lists of plant species. Instructions on filling plastic bags with the proper mixture of soil, nutrients, and water.

Fill pallets with species that require similar care.

Label pallets with place of destination.

She flipped through the pages and found a crudely drawn world map. Red lines showed the route to be taken for a journey by land and sea. It was an ambitious voyage, encompassing all seven continents. It seemed as if George was planning a trip, and he wanted to take the plants with him. There were more planting instructions on the next pages.

SEEDERS must be planted a good distance from human habitation.

SEEDERS may be planted individually or in clusters three feet apart. For best results, only healthy specimens should be used.

SEEDERS are not to be moved or transported under any circumstances while rooting is in progress. Rooting may take one to three years.

Seeders, she thought, of course. Then she realized how deep her father had fallen. George believed the plants on the island were controlling his mind, forcing him to transport them across the globe so the fungus would infect the world’s food supply. George was going to seed the world with plants that would make people crazy.


“I’M GOING CRAZY in this house!”

Monica threw a pillow at the bedroom window. Luke stepped back just in time, and then continued monitoring the coast. Monica’s bedroom had the best view of the mainland. He looked over the treetops to the flat sea: not a single boat.

“I’m so bored,” she said.

For three days there had been little to do and cabin fever had set in. Even kissing had lost some excitement, especially for Luke, who was aching to go farther. But his mother seemed to always show up. It was like she had make-out radar. Then she would order them to read books or search through boxes in the attic. Luke had become quite adept at kissing, and he practiced self-control of his body with utmost seriousness. He wanted to be alone with Monica as much as she wanted to get out of the house.

“So let’s leave,” he told her. “Go to the beach or something.”

“Really? You’re not scared to go out there?”

He squinted in thought. “Whatever I saw out there wasn’t real. You can’t be scared of something that’s not real. I’m pretty sure my mom is right about the biscuits and I haven’t eaten any in days so I’m probably okay now.”

“Finally you’re making sense. Where should we go?”

“The beach. We can bring the wet suits and snorkels. Check out that sunken boat.”

She grabbed her coat and declared, “Foutons le camp.


“Let’s freakin’ go already.”

There was a collection of flashlights in a kitchen drawer, none of them waterproof. So Luke sealed one in a Ziplock bag. The next stop was the shed, to pick up the snorkel gear.

Luke rolled open the door and they both stared wide-eyed at an empty wall. All the tools were gone, missing from their hooks, leaving a faded outline where they had been suspended to a peg board.

The only items still left were a small knife, a pair of cutting shears, and a crossbow.

“Maybe my mom took the rest. She’s so paranoid about Dr. Beecher.”

“What if she didn’t take them? What if he did?”

“Whoa,” he said and picked up the crossbow. “Sweet.”

“You know how to use that thing?”

“I’ll figure it out.” He inspected the weapon. “Bolt goes here. Pull this doohickey back. Trigger goes like this and bam.”

“We came for the snorkel stuff, right?”

He put down the bow and started putting all the snorkel gear in a trash bag. They stepped outside into the sun and started down the path to the woods.

“Maybe I should go back and get that crossbow,” he said.

“I’ll kick his ass if he tries to attack us,” she said smugly. They reached the entrance to the woods. “He’s British, for God sake. They don’t even have wrestling or football. Hell, even you could take him down if you tried.”

“Thanks.” He took her hand and they walked in silence most of the way. Luke wished he could think of something to say to take his mind off the creepiness of the woods. When they reached the fork, he took a quick glance down the trail where Ginny got the ax. He started whistling to break the silence.

There was the sound of someone coughing to their right, and they paused.

“Don’t stop,” Monica said, looking frightened.

“Hold on.” He squinted between the trees and saw Jules squatting on a rock, blending in with a pallet of earth tones. Luke almost didn’t recognize him at first. Jules wore only gray underwear, his face was hairy, and his body was caked with mud.

“What should we do?” Monica whispered.

“Just keep walking. He isn’t doing anything.”

They moved on.

“Your mom’s right. He’s insane.”

“Too bad. He seemed like a real smart guy.”

They reached the beach and broke into a run across the sand like children discovering their freedom for the first time. The sheer openness of both sky and sea gave the illusion of a safe harbor. While the house and woods were claustrophobic, the ocean was infinite.

After a moment, they sat down on the sand and looked at the horizon.

Monica squinted at the mast sticking out of the water. “You still want to do this?”

Luke laid the equipment on the sand. “We could hang out on the beach and make out.”

She ignored the comment, rising to her feet and brushing off the sand. “Let’s go.”

They followed the inlet until the coast became rocky. The jetty stretched twenty meters into the sea. Luke helped Monica over the gaps where plumes of water spouted between the flat stones. At last, they reached the sunken boat and could see the mast clearly. It was low tide and a large section of pole stuck out of the surface.

They took off layers of clothing down to their underwear. They shivered and rushed to get into the wet suits. Luke had trouble squeezing into the tight rubber material and became acutely aware that his body had grown tall and muscular.

He could see Monica watching him, and he flexed his muscles getting into the suit.

She smiled at him. “You sure this is gonna keep us warm?”

He nodded and checked her seal. Then he crouched down on the rock and slid off the jetty, wading up to his knees and holding tight to the flashlight. The water had a greenish glow and it was clear enough to see his flippers on the sandy bottom. Luke helped Monica into the water and explained how to use the snorkel. She tried the mask, getting used to the feel of it. The flippers were more difficult but she slowly caught on.

Luke kept one eye on the woods that bordered the inlet, looking for moving shadows. He half expected Jules to come charging out of the trees and down the sand with a spear in hand, but after a while he got caught up in teaching Monica how to breathe through the snorkel.

A few feet out, the sea floor took a sudden drop into the abyss. They started swimming toward the pole. The waves were mercifully small and they couldn’t feel the cold, except on their hands and feet. There was a riptide and Luke showed Monica how to swim sideways. He could feel the pull of the current, beckoning toward the cliffs where waves crashed violently against the rocks. It was easy to see how a boat leaving the inlet might get swept up in the current and smash into pieces.

They reached the metal pole and grabbed on with both hands. Luke slid his mask over his face. Monica was shivering, from both nerves and cold. It seemed like they were miles from the beach.

“You ready?” Luke asked. When she nodded, he stuck his face into the water and looked around. It was murky, but the sun was so bright it made the water iridescent blue. He could see the boat clearly at the bottom, lying slightly on its side. The hull was longer than expected, maybe eighteen meters. It seemed to be suspended in time.

The mast was bent in the middle and sticking straight up.

Luke took his face out of the water as Monica did a dolphin roll and tumbled into the depths. He took a long breath and dove under too, following the mast down eight meters to the boat. There was a gash in the hull the size of a football and Luke figured she hit a rock and sank. He swam along the stern until it disappeared into a bed of kelp, long yellow streamers that swayed with the current and tickled his ankles. He grasped the rail of the boat and used it to pull himself to the open cabin, looking around for Monica, but she wasn’t in sight. He raised his head and saw her swimming to the surface, so he pumped his flippers after her.

They emerged together, Monica gasping and holding on to the mast.

Luke took her arm, sounding worried. “You okay? What happened?”

She laughed and coughed at the same time. “That was awesome. I just needed air. Let’s go back down.”

Before he could speak, she popped the snorkel back in her mouth and was diving again. He followed her, swimming quickly. She was already sticking her head inside the cabin, her black ponytail floating straight up. Luke didn’t think she should go first so he tugged her arm and turned on the flashlight. She nodded and let him pass.

He swam inside. There were only dim shadows and the beam of the light, swaying side to side. He grasped a countertop covered in algae that felt mushy and cold. The cabin was not unusual, and there were plenty of things to explore. It occurred to him there could be an eel or a shark making the boat its home and he pivoted the flashlight around, reminding himself that most deadly things prefer warm water.

The light fell on an accordion-style closet. When he tried to slide it open, the door stuck. He pushed hard, stirring up silt and algae. It opened a few inches and empty plastic sandwich bags floated around like jellyfish.

Luke realized his lungs were starting to ache. He’d been under about three minutes and he knew he could hold his breath for four, so he headed for the exit. Monica was gone. He could see her legs kicking gracefully toward the surface. He headed up, feeling dizzy and letting the rest of his breath blow out in tiny bubbles. He reached the surface and drew in a big breath of air. He coughed and spit in the water.

“I found something cool. Come back down.”

Monica was still panting. She was a strong swimmer but not used to ocean depths. “I’m gonna stay here a minute.”

Luke nodded and dove once more straight for the cabin. He swam to the closet, holding the light to the opening, tugging as hard as he could. There was something on the floor of the closet blocking the door. He reached inside and felt a slimy object, pulled it out. The beam of light fell on a box made of wood, hand-carved in exquisite detail. The wood was splintering and turning black along the edges and there was algae on the lid. Luke wiped it with his hand, revealing a geometric pattern of roses and vines. In the center was a large star, stained brighter than the rest of the box and tinted pink.

His heart kicked up as he thought of the Crimson Star. The box was locked and there was a place for a key. Luke stuck it under his arm and swam quickly out of the cabin.

The wood was slick and the box slid from his grasp. He tried to retrieve it with one hand as it fell, and a splinter pierced his finger. He reflexively pulled back, watching the box float down into the reeds. Luke felt his lungs begging for air and the pressure of thirty feet made them ache. Still, he didn’t want to risk losing the box. It floated into a bed of kelp but he soon discovered the reeds were as tall as him, a swaying jungle that swallowed his treasure. His lungs were giving out, so he somersaulted and kicked upward toward the surface.

Something grabbed his ankle. It was wet and cold and right away he thought it was an eel. A gasp of bubbles blew out of his mouth. He dropped the flashlight and clawed at the thing wrapped around his leg. It was the green frond of kelp. He tugged his foot hard and the flipper came off, floating into the kelp bed. Then it grabbed his other foot.

Luke panicked, slashing his arms at the fronds. Some of them ripped, but there were so many winding up his calves, tightening their hold. His lungs were going to burst. He could see sparks of white and knew he would soon pass out. Taking one last tug with his hands, he felt the reeds wrap around his arms and pull him to the bottom. Water flooded his lungs and there was a loud buzzing in his ears. Something hit him hard and he lost consciousness.

* * *

“God, no, please… Luke!”

He could faintly hear her cries as Monica coughed into the blue sky, dragging him against the current toward the jetty. There was an unbearable pressure in his chest and Luke coughed up water. His ears were ringing and the pain stung from his lungs to his sinuses. Foamy water bled out of his nose.

Monica heard him moan and shouted her thanks to God between breaths. Finally she reached the jetty and was able to stand on the muddy bottom. It took the rest of her remaining strength to pull herself up and drag Luke’s body over the slimy outcropping of rocks.

He was only semiconscious and nearly slipped under again, but she caught his arm. He rolled on his back, letting more water drip out of his mouth.

“What happened?” she yelled in his face. “Why didn’t you come up?”

His voice was faint. “I was… trapped.”

“Trapped? You were just lying there. Don’t you remember?”

“I remember… goddamn fronds… all over me.” He barked like a seal. “They wrapped… whole body… couldn’t get out.”

“What’s a frond?”

“Kelp,” he said, starting to catch his breath. He snorted out water into his hand. “You must have seen them… huge… all over the place.”

“I didn’t see any kelp. You were just lying there on the sand.”

He shook his head. “That’s impossible.”

“As impossible as Ginny with an ax in her head?”

Color started returning to his cheeks. It took another moment for his heart to beat steady. “Did you see the box?”

“What box?”

“I found a wooden box, in the boat. Had a big star on top. A crimson star.”

“You think the diamond is in there?”

He sat up and coughed like a seal again. “It looked like a jewelry box. It could be in there.”

“I don’t know. If you’re imagining kelp attacking you, maybe the box isn’t real either.”

“No way. It was real.” He held up his pointer finger and showed her the splinter. “This came off the wood. I’ll probably get tetanus.”

“So we should go down there and get it.” Her eyes were bright.

Hell no. I’m not going down there again. I’m going home.”

She watched him strain to his feet and then walk a crooked path down the strip of rocks. She turned back to the sea with a longing expression, biting her lip and staring at the steel mast.

Luke didn’t look back. He kept on going, holding his chest and breathing heavy. Monica got up and followed him back to the beach.


“DIDN’T I TELL YOU not to go outside?” Isabelle was fuming.

“See, I told you we shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Is that your answer, really?” she said to Monica, jerking her head like a pecking hen. “Look, all you have to do is survive for four more days. Do you think you can manage to stay alive until Wednesday?”

Ginny looked up from her jigsaw puzzle and huffed. “Lot of nonsense, plants trying to drown you. It’s hormones, I’m sure. A boy at his age will fantasize about anything. Dogs, sheep, kelp.”

“What’s going on, Mom?”

“I told you, I don’t know, but we have to stick together until the boat arrives.”

“Oh my,” Ginny said. “That day is coming up quickly and we still haven’t found the Star.”

Luke and Monica shared a glance.

“Ginny, we’ve searched the entire house. It’s not here.”

“Well, then, we must search outside. It’s on this island, I’m sure.”

“We’re staying inside.”

“All right, you leave me no choice.” Then she raised the reward to $100,000 and left the room in complete silence.

Finally, Isabelle took a breath and cleared her throat. “You can look all over the house, but don’t even think about going past the patio.” She glanced at the window and said, “Do you believe it? Your brother is outside again.” She headed to the hallway for her jacket.

“Your mom is getting so bossy,” Monica said.

“Yeah, I think it’s great.”

“I don’t. She can’t tell me what to do.”

“She’s trying to keep us from getting killed, without losing her mind like everyone else.”

Monica stuck out her lip. “You didn’t tell her about the box.”

“So what? A diamond isn’t the most important thing right now.”

“You gonna tell Ginny?”

He shrugged. “I just want to go lie down. I’m tired and I almost died.” He got up and walked to the stairs, glancing back. “Oh yeah, and thanks for saving my life.”

She smiled faintly, not really listening. She was thinking about the box.

* * *

Only Sean came to dinner that night. Isabelle made pancakes because it was his favorite. The house was deathly quiet, except for Sean humming the same tedious notes, which now sounded to Isabelle more frightening than hopeful.

She looked at him sideways; everything about her son seemed different. His skin was pale with dark circles under his eyes and he’d lost some weight so that his cheekbones were more prominent on his face. Then there was his expression: angry and accusing.

He stared at Isabelle and stopped humming.

“You want something?” she said cheerfully, even though the horrible truth was lurking in her mind. She was becoming afraid of her son.

Sean didn’t answer. He licked his lips, still focused on her face. The plate in front of him was full. He had barely eaten anything.

“Do you want to go to bed?”

No answer.

Isabelle took slow bites from her fork. At least he wasn’t humming anymore. She heard the tinkling of cutlery hitting his plate and out of her peripheral vision she saw he was holding a knife. Not in the way someone would cut a pancake, but holding it in his fist with the blade pointed down, like how someone might stab a person.

Without looking up, she said quietly, “You know, Sean. I thought we could go to the beach tomorrow. You haven’t been to the beach. We could maybe catch fish with the fishing poles. Would you like that?”

He started tapping the blade of the knife on the table. Still, Isabelle didn’t look up. She was afraid of what he might do.

Tap… tap… tap.

“Sean. Would you like to go for a walk in the woods?”

He put the knife down. She exhaled slowly.

“We’ll go tomorrow morning.” Then she looked at him and saw there was nothing frightening. Just the same sweet face as always.

He looked down and began to eat, long dark bangs falling into his eyes.

Reflexively, Isabelle reached out and brushed them away.

As she touched him, Sean hissed and scratched her arm.

She pulled back and stared with surprise, rubbing the puffy red lines that marred her skin.

Sean rose with a scowl, knocking his plate to the floor with a crash and then marching across the room. His footsteps pounded the stairs.

Isabelle sat rigid in her seat, one hand over her mouth.

She had felt something on his forehead. Smooth bumps, soft as moss but cold as stone. It was the same growth that she’d seen on Jules.

* * *

Monica chugged the bottle of vodka until it was gone. She lay on the bed looking pale and lazy.

“You drank all of it?” Luke said, in between sips from the bottle of merlot.

“S’okay. I can switch to that crappy stuff you’re drinking.”

He leaned over and kissed her lips. It felt good, but even better was how comfortable it was to kiss her. A serious girlfriend was something other guys had, not guys like Luke, and yet here he was kissing this gorgeous girl and it felt as natural as breathing. Getting physical with Monica was all he thought about since their first night in his room, and even though they hadn’t gone all the way, it was incredible. He decided that sex was this amazing secret that no one really understood until it happened. It gave him a new sense of confidence and maturity; even he could see the difference. If the guys back home asked how far he got with Monica—and they would—Luke would tell them to fuck off. That’s how it was when you loved someone.

His tongue found the inside of her mouth, cold from the vodka, but she pulled away, wanting to snuggle instead. He played with her hair that fell softly around her face and over her shoulders. He traced the contours of her cheekbones, her jaw. “I like that you don’t wear all that makeup anymore. You’re prettier like this.”

She pressed a hand to her gut and burped, looking slightly bilious. “Yeah, well, once we get home everthin’ goes back to normal.”

As she started to doze, he started to panic.

“What do you mean? No way you’re going back to that life, or breaking up with me. No freakin’ way.”

“Luke.” She looked at him with sleepy lids. “Wass really changed? I mean… really?”

“I’ll tell you what’s changed. I’m gonna get that diamond and give you that money so we can go to France.”

“You’re drunk.” She sighed. “Like me.”

“Maybe a little. But I mean it… I love you.”

“I’m gonna puke.” She rolled off the bed and ran to the bathroom. He listened to her gag.

There was a knock on the door and Luke stuck the bottles under the bed. It had to be his mother, right on cue. He popped a handful of mints and chewed them while he let her in.

Isabelle scanned the room. “You should be in your own bed with the doors locked. Remember?”

“Monica was scared to be alone. I thought I’d stay till she fell asleep.”

There were disturbing sounds in the bathroom.

“Is she throwing up in there?”

He shrugged.

“Luke, I won’t tell you again.” She looked furious. “No drinking. I want it to stop. You have to keep your wits about you.”

He nodded in agreement, and leaned his head against the doorframe. “I have to tell you something. A lot of things in the shed are gone. Knives and spears and stuff.”

She drew back her shoulders. “When did you notice this?”

“Today. He left a crossbow and couple other things.”

“We don’t know for sure it was Jules.”

“Who else would it be?”

“As soon as she comes out, I want you both to go to sleep. Your own rooms, locked tight. I’ll be right out here in the hall tonight.”

“You’re going to sleep in the hall?”

She lifted the rifle that was leaning by the doorway. “Don’t worry. It’s under control.”

Luke stared at the gun. “Why don’t you give it to me? I should be the one protecting you.”

“Thank you, but I’m perfectly capable of handling a weapon.” Her mouth was a slit as she checked the chamber and pulled the safety so it clacked. “It’s the one useful thing your father taught me. Now go to sleep. And don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”

He watched her walking away. “Mom?”

She turned around.

“I don’t like being here. But, I like how you are here. I mean…” He waited to see if more words were needed, but Isabelle smiled. She knew exactly what he meant.

* * *

Jules couldn’t sleep. He lay for hours, facedown on top of a sleeping bag, but couldn’t drift off. Finally, he got up and paced the campsite, pondering his insomnia.

It couldn’t be hunger. Jules barely needed to eat more than a few bites of fish a day, although his thirst was ravenous and he drank gallons of water from the pond. His body was never in better shape. He had the strength to move a five-foot oak tree, root ball and all. It wasn’t the frigid temperatures either. Jules couldn’t feel the sensation of cold on his skin. For that matter, he could barely feel pain. The other day he sprained an ankle carrying heavy pallets down an embankment, yet the pain never registered, even when the ankle swelled an ugly green and purple.

Jules realized that it had to be Isabelle keeping him awake. Why did he keep going back to the house when all she did was complain? He had been drawn to Isabelle, the idea of them working together, being together, yet now all she brought him was misery. Her callous, offensive words made him furious.

They’re controlling your mind, Jules.

“That’s ridiculous,” he seethed, rubbing the bumps on his forehead. He was agitated and so damn nervous. He squatted in front of the fire. It was nearly out and he threw a piece of driftwood on the embers, watching the flames burst to life. The firelight illuminated his mud-covered arms. It was the first time he noticed his lack of hygiene and it troubled him. He twirled a long lock of his hair tangled with fertilizer, remembering that he’d always had an aversion to dirt, almost a phobia.

What’s happening?

He gazed at a tall spindly birch tree directly in front of him, its newly sprouted leaves flittering wildly in the breeze, waving at him like little hands. Hello. Hello. All around him, an army of gigantic trees stood in a circle, thousands upon thousands of crooked branches, all reaching out to him. Desperate arms… reaching… wanting… something.

“Stop it,” he whispered.

Dry gray vines covered the bark on one particular tree, forming faces, wild eyes and gaping mouths. Others had their eyes drawn down in anger, round mouths hollering.

“Stop it!” he seethed again.

Jules found himself wondering if Isabelle could be right—perhaps he was under some kind of spell. He scowled inwardly.

Ridiculous! Are these thoughts not my own? I’m no different. Look how I go about my normal day, deciding what to eat, when to sleep. Look how I wake up and relieve myself in the bushes. I build a fire and begin my work. These are normal routines, not the control of another mind. Certainly not.

Scenes from a Saturday matinee flickered before him. He was five years old in a London theater and Mother took him to see an old black-and-white film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was about aliens taking over a small town, and it terrified him. As their victims fell asleep, the aliens would place a pod beside their bed. Overnight, it would replicate their DNA and by morning a perfect clone would emerge from the pod, kill the victim, and take his place in the world.

Quite suddenly, Jules started to chuckle, and before long he was roaring with laughter. But the cackling soon trailed off to a low snicker. His eye twitched and he winced. The idea was not so preposterous after all. He looked at the curves of the landscape, the way the black shroud was draped over those “things.” The specimens he unearthed. He didn’t like going near them, tried not to think about them too much. Except now he wanted to have a look, see what they were up to.


Already, he had detached the fungus from each of the specimens, peeled them clean, but he had quickly covered them back up so he didn’t have to look at them. Jules squatted down beside the amorphous mounds and curled back a few square yards, like he was rolling up a carpet.

He exposed all nine of them and stepped back.

This is how they know what I’m thinking. They learned, and now they know.

He stared at the nine human bodies he unearthed. They lay chest-down in the dirt, heads turned to the side, the back of their skulls partly removed. Most were still in various stages of the rooting process, their flesh preserved but hardened like clay. The cadavers were gaunt and deflated in the center, as if their organs had collapsed. The fungus was heavily rooted throughout the bodies, concentrated at the heads where it enveloped their brains. It covered the frontal lobes and needled its way into gray matter.

Probing. Learning. Planning.

Jules found himself wondering who the people were, seven young men and two women. Perhaps students of George’s. At one time useless, all-consuming humans. Now they were vital to the earth. The first Seeders.


MORNING FOG BLANKETED THE ISLAND and settled heavily over the beach. In the woods, white wisps of steam curled around trees like ghosts.

Monica opened her bloodshot eyes to a bright glow outside the window that made her squint and added pain to her already throbbing head. The moist air reminded her of being underwater, the terror of dragging Luke to the surface.

She threw open the window by the bed, breathing in the cool air that smelled like salt and clams. It was refreshing and nauseating at the same time. She collapsed in the covers, and right away thought about the reward money.

A hundred thousand dollars could change her life.

From the open window she heard the kitchen door slam. She peered outside and saw someone, probably Luke, step into the fog. Where on earth was he going? Her mind raced to recall their conversation the night before. All she remembered was that he didn’t want to tell anyone about the box. Maybe he was going to the beach to retrieve it himself. No, he would never go back in the water.

She squinted at the fog. The figure emerged from the haze momentarily and was swallowed up again. He was headed to the woods, but why? She recalled his promise the night before, how he was going to get the money and give it to her so they could go to France.

Monica threw a jacket over her sweats and stepped into her boots. She ran through the hall and down the staircase. Before realizing what a precarious thing she was doing, the moist air was upon her face, making her cheeks wet as she jogged down the foggy path, trying to catch up to Luke. She reached the entrance of the woods and called out his name, but all was silent.

Shit, what am I doing? She stepped along the path. The woods were colorless, shrouded in white fog that closed behind her like a gate.

“Luke,” she called out, keeping her voice low. Dr. Beecher could be hiding anywhere. The thought made her want to go back, but she couldn’t bear the idea of Luke out in the ocean alone. Besides, who did this Beecher guy think he was, freaking everyone out so they were stuck in the damn house for days? Luke’s life was at stake, a hundred grand was in her grasp, and no lunatic was going to scare her out of it.

She heard a noise and stopped. Deep in the woods, a shadowy figure stood in the mist. He waved his arm. The air was too thick to tell for sure, but it had to be Luke. Then he turned around and went deeper into the clouds.

“Where are you going?” Monica said and veered off the path, following the sound of breaking twigs. “Hey, get back here.”

She tried to keep up with the silhouette in the distance, but the terrain was steep as he led her over rocks and fallen trees. Eventually the ground became level, but she had lost sight of the figure. She was alone in the fog.

“I’m going back!” she shouted.

She turned around. The air grew suddenly colder, thicker. She reached out her arms and both hands disappeared in the clouds. She panicked and felt around for a tree, grasping the bark and moving to another, trying to feel her way back to the path. Hanging vines and branches seemed to come out of nowhere and she stumbled on bulging roots.

“This isn’t funny, Luke.”

In the back of her mind lurked a terrible thought: Luke would never play such a trick. Perhaps he wasn’t the waving figure after all. It was too short to be Beecher. It didn’t look like Sean, but it could have been. Of course, she thought with an angry grin. Sean was trying to scare her. The little mutant was one brain cell shy of the walking dead.

The fog began to dissipate and she found herself in front of an enormous outcropping of rocks. She felt along the cold stones with her hands, moving around its girth, but the ground became steep and she had trouble keeping her footing. Then she slipped and fell down a hill of wet leaves, slamming into a tree stump. She stood up rubbing her leg. There were more boulders at the bottom of the hill, steeples of bedrock as tall as a house. The fog had turned to light mist and bits of blue sky peeked between the canopy of branches.

From behind the rocks, Monica heard the crunch of leaves and she froze.

“Hey, who’s there?” She took a few steps back. “I know it’s you, Sean.”

There was no reply, but more crunching leaves.

“Hey, cut it out.” Monica moved slowly between two pillars of granite. There was a small cavern of space between them where a circular rush of air blew dried leaves in a tiny cyclone. She stepped closer inside the shadow of the rocks. A soft wind blew across her face and Monica thought she heard a thin voice in the breeze.


“What?” she yelled and stepped back from the rocks. “Don’t mess with me, Sean. I’ll kick your ass.”

Truthfully, she wasn’t sure if she could kick his ass. Sometimes the quiet ones were feisty. He probably fought like a monkey, arms swinging, teeth snapping. She turned her head to the hill where she fell. It was a steep, muddy climb back to the top.

From behind the rocks came the sound of something heavy being dragged across the ground.

She peered around the granite, and screamed.

The dead body of Hodges reached out to her. The smell hit her like a wall, as she stood face-to-face with the corpse. Its droopy skin hung from sharp cheekbones and his expression was set in a snarl. There were only black holes for eyes, but he was looking at her all the same. A hissing sound came from inside his open jawbone.

Monica screamed again. She pivoted and stumbled halfway up the incline, slipping on mud. She gained more ground and stole a quick glance back.

Hodges was trying to crawl up the hill, dragging the plastic body bag around his ankle.

Her boots dug into the mud but she slipped almost to the bottom.

Hodges leapt forward and grabbed on to her boot with his bony hands.

She kicked hard and two of his fingers snapped off, setting her free to climb harder.

The corpse let out a howl.

Monica struggled near the top of the hill where the incline became too steep to climb. She grabbed a rock with one hand and dug her fingers into the mud with the other. Her muscles were trembling violently and she turned her head around.

Hodges fell clumsily to the ground. He tried swimming uphill in the dirt, desperate to reach her. Thrashing his arms like a windmill, he drew some traction and lifted his ragged body with a moan.

Monica lost her grip and slid down the hill.

* * *

Isabelle awoke to the grim reality that she was still in her childhood home, caught in a nightmare. The air in the room was frigid. The window was raised a few inches but she didn’t recall opening it.

Wrapped in a blanket, she shuffled across the cold wood floor and slammed the old rickety frame shut. Through the glass she saw the remnants of a fog clearing, blowing across the fields like wisps of smoke. Above, blue sky was breaking through.

Then she saw Monica step out of the woods, leaning over to grab her knees, breathing hard as though she’d been out for a strenuous morning run.

Isabelle stared in jaw-dropped silence. Unbelievable.

She threw on jeans and a red flannel shirt and hurried across the hall. First she checked on Sean, who wasn’t in his room. She knocked on Luke’s door.

“It’s open.”

She peered inside. Luke was lying in bed reading The Human Delusion by Dr. Julian Beecher.

“Have you seen your brother?”

“No.” He didn’t look up.

Halfway down the staircase, she met up with Monica, who was taking the steps two at a time, her face paper white.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Monica replied, averting her eyes and trying to sound normal. “I saw something in the woods.”

“Didn’t I tell you not to go out there?”

“Sorry,” she barely managed.

“Was it Sean you saw in the woods?”

“No. I mean, I don’t know. I thought it was Luke.”

“Luke’s in his room.”

“I have to go.” She rushed past her up the stairs.

Isabelle blew out a disgruntled breath. She watched Monica reach the landing and listened to the knock on Luke’s door. It opened and she heard a whimper before it shut.

Isabelle paced the kitchen, getting worked up. It was beyond reason why the stupid girl would go into the woods alone. And what had she seen? Most likely it was Jules trying to frighten her. First he went batshit crazy on Isabelle and now he was terrorizing the children.

She thought about the missing weapons in the shed, wondering what he had in mind. What she should do about it. A rational person would lock up the house, stay inside, and wait until help arrived. But she didn’t feel rational. She didn’t feel scared. What she wanted more than anything was to confront Jules. Put an end to his absurd talk about thinking plants. She wanted him to be the same man she admired so many years ago.

Isabelle checked each room, looking for Sean. He was not in the house and she worried he might be at the campsite. She put on a jacket, eager to get outside before she changed her mind. She considered taking the rifle, but decided that seemed too threatening, and Jules was already paranoid. Instead, she slipped a steak knife in her coat pocket and headed out the door.

The fog had evaporated from the woods, leaving the fresh scent of the sea and pine. Isabelle walked the trail and felt the heavy weight of anger begin to lift. She was calmer now, but light-headed. Floaters danced in her vision and her throat felt parched. She hadn’t eaten breakfast and decided to sit on a rock until the feeling passed. She closed her eyes and swallowed.

After a moment, she felt better. She got up and followed the red tags to the place she and Jules had tracked Sean. Once off the trail, she continued from memory toward the campsite for ten minutes, until the pines became thick and the white canvas of the tent peeked through the branches. She heard the sounds of someone working hard—grunts, heavy breathing, and lifting.

When she stepped into the campsite, Jules had his back to her. He groaned and lifted a heavy pallet over his head, then dropped it on a stack as tall as his nearly seven-foot frame. He was shirtless and the span of his shoulders seemed enormous. Isabelle took a step back and snapped a twig.

Jules spun around, edgy and guarded, but then his back straightened and he was beaming with an almost insane grin. “I’m so glad you came, Isabelle!” His teeth looked white against the blackness of his beard and the filth that covered the rest of him. He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. “Truthfully, I knew you’d come around.”

“Of course.” She forced a thin smile.

The campsite was part homeless shelter, part makeshift laboratory. There was a stockpile of food that hadn’t been touched, some of it beginning to rot. Books, blankets, clothes, and scientific equipment were scattered about and a campfire was smoldering.

Potted plants were everywhere.

As casually as possible, she asked, “Have you seen Sean?”

It took him a moment to answer. “He should be coming shortly. I gave him some errands to run.”

She let out a tiny breath.

“Come, see what we’ve done.” He sounded like a child.

Isabelle followed him warily across the soft, fungus-covered ground.

Jules picked up an ax and swung it over his shoulder, breathing deeply so his chest expanded, along with his grin. “Oh, Isabelle, isn’t life wonderful? I never felt so at peace, so alive.”

“I can see that,” she said, trying not to stare at the ax. “It’s very serene here.”

On the table were piles of dirt and heaps of pungent fertilizer, along with a large collection of plants, some in plastic bags and some waiting their turn.

“What are you doing with these?” she asked.

Jules picked up a spiky shrub that hadn’t yet been wrapped, handling it gently. “We’re taking them on the boat. Two by two.” He chuckled and held it out to Isabelle.

She reached out to the spotted leaves, thinking about her father’s plans to spread them across the globe. She jerked her hand back, frowning.

His smile fell away. “You shouldn’t think bad thoughts about them, Isabelle.”

“No, I wouldn’t. They’re quite lovely.”

“Stay with me tonight,” he said, delighted. He put a hand on her shoulder, moving close. He smelled earthy, like mushrooms, and the growth covered his entire forehead, surrounded his eye, and continued down the side of his cheek into his stubbly beard. The ax was digging into Isabelle’s leg and she eased back from his grip.

His eyes gleamed. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I should go back to the house, get my things.”

When he heard those words, Jules lost all reserve. He dropped the ax and took Isabelle in his arms and kissed her hard. His warm tongue snaked into her mouth, tasting bitter.

She pushed desperately on his chest but her resistance was met with the strength of an ox. The muscles in his fingers barely flexed. It took no effort to keep her still and Isabelle realized that struggling was useless.

She bit his lip, clenching her teeth down hard.

They broke apart and Jules staggered back, holding his bloody mouth.

“I’m leaving,” she rasped. “Don’t follow me.”

He looked wounded, but not from the bite. “You said you were going to stay.”

“I can’t. Just leave me alone.”

“Isabelle, I swear. Spend just one night in the woods. One night and you’ll understand, I promise. It will all be clear in the morning.” He moved closer.

Isabelle pulled out the knife. “Don’t touch me.”

Jules stepped back, reaching down to pick up the ax, just as Sean came out of the woods carrying a large fern. The roots dangled from his hands.

“Sean, come here,” Isabelle said.

Instead he walked to Jules, standing behind him and suspiciously eyeing his mother.

“I said come here.”

Sean blinked and sniffed, wiped his nose with his sleeve.

“Leave the boy alone, Isabelle. He has a job to do.” Jules gave Sean a hearty shove back toward the woods and told him, “Get back to work.”

She felt rage and fear at the same time, wanting to pounce on the man, but paralyzed to move. “Don’t hurt him.”

Sean turned with a final scowl at his mother and headed back into the woods.

“Come back, Sean,” she cried, but his quick steps were fading, and she tried to follow.

Jules blocked her path. He held the ax over his shoulder. “Go home, little girl. Before someone loses their head.”

Terror burned in her cheeks and Isabelle had a feeling of helplessness so overwhelming she could barely stand.

With a hand to her mouth, she backed away, and then started to run, stumbling through the woods and blinded by tears. She rounded a bend and headed in the same direction as Sean, the sound of Jules’s laughter pushing her on.


MONICA CHUGGED THE LAST BOTTLE of wine while Luke kept a comforting hand on her back. His mind was working, trying to deduce how she could have seen a dead man walking. She hadn’t eaten any of the biscuits.

“My hands are shaking so bad,” she said. “I can’t stop shaking.”

“Shhh, it’s over,” he said and kissed the bruise on her arm. “You’re okay.”

“I’m not okay! I’m fucking scared out of my wits. God, he was so gross!”

Luke took a slow breath and rose from the bed, pacing in a small circle. “I don’t get it.” He stared at her. “You never ate a biscuit.”

“Duh, Sherlock. Obviously you were wrong about the drugs.”

“Maybe it was Beecher trying to scare you. He was probably holding up the body and chasing you around.”

“Don’t be an idiot. That thing was two inches from my face. I could smell him.” She drank from the bottle so fast she coughed it all onto the mattress. “Shit.”

Luke started pacing again. It helped him think. “Maybe Beecher was right. The plants make you see things that aren’t there.”

“What are you talking about?”

His shoulders dropped as he exhaled. “I didn’t want to say anything because I thought it might freak you out. Plus, I didn’t quite believe it myself.”


“Dr. Beecher thinks my grandfather did something to the plants on the island. I’m not positive, but they might be messing with our heads.”

“What plants?” she asked.

“The ones on the island.” He could see her next question arising and headed it off. “According to Beecher, plants are conscious beings, like people. Their thoughts travel the same way as our own brain waves, but at different frequencies. So if George was able to synchronize the thought frequencies of plants and humans, they might be able to communicate with us.”

“In English, please.”

“The plants are putting thoughts in our heads. I mean, taking our own thoughts and using them to scare us. Although Beecher insists they’re just trying to send us messages. He thinks it has something to do with a fungus. This black stuff that’s growing all over the woods.”

Monica expelled a burst of air. “And you believe him. That’s crazy.”

“I’ve been reading his book. He’s really a brilliant guy.”

“He might be smart but he’s also nuts. Maybe even dangerous.”

Luke nodded. “He has all those… sharp things.”

“Which means we have to protect ourselves too.”

“My mom has a rifle.”

“Good for your mom. We don’t have shit.” She slid off the bed, dizzy from the booze, and walked a crooked line to the window. She could see the shed in the back of the house, and beyond was the flat, empty sea. “Let’s get that crossbow.”

Luke nodded and they headed downstairs.

They walked across the patio, lost in their own thoughts. “We shouldn’t be afraid of something that isn’t real,” Luke said. “It’s just illusions. We have to remember that.”

“Right,” Monica said pointedly. “Sort of like being in a fun house, where things pop out at you and it’s scary but they can’t really hurt you. It’s like George Washington said, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”

“That was Roosevelt, but it’s a good analogy.”

They reached the shed and Luke slid open the door. The crossbow was missing. He snorted. “I told you we should have taken it.”

They went inside and took what was left. Monica put a small pair of cutting shears in her leather jacket. Luke grabbed the last knife.

* * *

Isabelle turned back before she found Sean because the dizziness had returned full force. She barely made it out of the woods and collapsed to her knees, shaking and bracing her arms for support.

“God, please don’t let him hurt my son,” she whispered and managed to stand on weak legs. She started up the path, but the house seemed to be moving farther away, instead of closer.

She fell back on one knee, out of breath and surrounded by ryegrass whipping in the breeze. She turned her head toward High Peak, where the sky was vivid blue and the hillside rocky, dotted with tufts of grass and springtime weeds starting to bloom.

Someone was walking up the path to the cliffs. The man was tall and dressed in white and when he stopped to turn around, Isabelle felt an icy chill to her marrow.

George was smiling at her, his white lab coat flapping in the wind.

“No, you’re not real,” she whispered.

He waved, motioning her to follow. On bare feet, he took long strides up the steep path.

“Wait,” she called out. She was able to rise slowly and, against her good senses, she followed him up the path. She practically floated up the rocky incline with ease. There was strength in her legs, when a minute ago they were jelly. Her body was fit once again, but her mind remained foggy.

When she reached the precipice, George was peering down at the rocks below. Isabelle heard the roar of the wind and the sound of the sea in her ears. His feet moved to the edge.

No, don’t.

George turned and waved to her and the air became still. Then, there was nothing but silence and the white light of the sun behind him. He leaned back and dropped noiselessly over the edge. For a moment, time stood still and she heard not a sound, saw nothing but sky.

A blast of sea and wind returned and Isabelle muffled a cry with her fist. She ran to the edge and looked down at the roaring waves and rocks below. Cold spray hit her cheeks. Her father was nowhere in sight. Slowly she sank to the ground. Drunk with terror and fatigue, she lay across the rocky soil and shut her eyes.

What’s happening?

She wanted to think about her father and the hallucinations. Make a connection to the drugs and the biscuits, but her mind was exhausted, her body drained. If she could just sleep for a few minutes, there might be some semblance of logic.

A gentle sea breeze drifted over the cliffs and her stringent muscles relaxed.

Isabelle was vaguely aware of something scratching her palm. It closed around her wrist and her eyes sprang open. Vines of English ivy were taking hold of her hands and feet, tight as handcuffs and curling across her limbs like rope. A rush of nausea kept her from screaming and her body was too weak to fight against their grip.

Gradually, she was pulled to the ledge, and struggled to break free. She could see the roiling ocean below. Green cords snapped their leaves against her back, wrapping her in a straightjacket. Isabelle shut her eyes tight, telling herself over and over that it was an illusion, but she felt her body being dragged against the sharp rocks.

Not real. This is not real.

Then there was nothing. The strangulation of the ropes evaporated. When she opened her eyes she was still on the ground, the ivy clinging innocently to the rocks, flickering in the breeze.

She let out a breath.

“You tried to kill me.” Sean was standing on the path. He looked so young, not more than six, his scorching eyes on his mother.

Isabelle couldn’t speak.

“You wanted me to die.”

Isabelle tried to find her voice, but couldn’t. It didn’t matter. She had no words.

Sean turned from her with an expression of disgust and walked down the path, vanishing beneath the precipice, and leaving Isabelle shattered. She sluggishly looked back to the sea. Against the blue sky was the holly bush Sean planted, its leaves marked with specks of black velvet.

* * *

Luke was in the kitchen watching Monica eat a chicken sandwich. She wiped her mouth with a napkin and sniffed, dabbing her eyes. She was still shook up from seeing Hodges.

“How you feeling?”

“Like we’re never getting out of here.”

“Yeah we are. It’s only three more days.” He wanted to change the subject. “I really meant it, about the makeup. I like you this way.”

“This isn’t who I am, Luke. The real me is back in Brooklyn. When we go home, everything will be the way it was before. You’ll be with the brainiacs and I’ll be alone like always.”

“I told you, I’m not going to let you break up with me.”

She looked at him. “So, then… we’re going out?”

“What do you think?” He reached a hand across the table and she took it. With the other hand, he grasped firmly around the back of her wooden chair and dragged it close, so her head leaned against his chest. Then his arm fell across her shoulders and he felt her body relax. The two said nothing for some minutes.

Then she nodded. “You’re right. I’m different here. Better.”

“So is my mom. At home she lets my dad get away with so much crap. He’s such a jerk, and she just takes it. I hate that about her. Except here, it’s like she’s got guts.”

“Least she’s not a hooker. My mom acts like she’s so smart and tough and says that men are stupid bastards and you can play them for every penny like she’s totally duping them. Except, she’s not. She’s the one paying the biggest price, giving up her self-respect. I know because I can hear them in the next room.”

Luke stroked her cheek.

“I guess it’s not her fault. She came here from a crummy little farming town in France when she was just a teenager and didn’t speak English, you know? Didn’t have a job, just some crappy navy boyfriend who dumped her with a baby.” Her finger picked at the sandwich crust. “But you know what? She would never be scared of this place. Or that friggin’ Beecher.”

Luke nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe I should talk to him. Find out what’s really going on. He can be an all right guy. I’ve spoken with him before and he was really quite reasonable.”

“Yeah, he seemed like a super conversationalist, half naked on a rock out there.”

* * *

It’s not the biscuits.

Isabelle carried planks of wood from room to room, feeling hope ebb and scowling with disappointment. Drug-laced biscuits would have explained so much, from George’s suicide and Hodges’s murder, to Luke’s hallucinations and Jules’s psychotic behavior. Yet she hadn’t eaten a single one and here she was, seeing her dead father.

For a brief moment she missed Colin. What would he think of her now? He would say she was in over her head. She wasn’t strong or brave enough to save her children. She couldn’t even keep a child from falling out of a tree, let alone protect him from a psychopath.

Something was happening to everyone on the island. They were all suffering from delusions. There was no way she had seen her father and Sean on the cliffs. There had to be a logical explanation. It was something about that fungus—if it was a fungus—or maybe Jules was right about the plants reading their thoughts. Either way, she was going to find an answer. Somewhere in the lab among George’s work, there had to be an explanation, and maybe her education in botany was enough to figure out what was happening. There was no time to waste. By Wednesday, they might all be under this spell of the island.

She dropped the planks of wood and a box of nails on the floor. There was enough lumber behind the shed to barricade most of the doors and windows. As for Sean, what could she do? Perhaps with Luke and Monica, she could attack the campsite, but would anyone be hurt or killed? Maybe she should go alone, sneak up on Jules and shoot him. Would Sean even agree to go with her? Just thinking about it made her tremble. Her only hope was that Jules was more interested in putting Sean to work than hurting him. Her son would return to the house at nightfall, like always. For now, she had to figure out the plants or find a way off the island.

Isabelle hurried to the lab. There was no sign of the green notebook. Her eyes darted from counters of plants and microscopes, shelves of books, file cabinets, and piles of paper on the desk. Where to start? She inhaled deeply and hurried to the desk, opening folders that were filled with pages of scientific babble and strip charts.

Her gaze fell on the note Jules had scrawled the previous morning.


She focused intently on the word, biting her lip. What could it mean? Was it just nonsense like George’s riddle? She tried to recall their conversation. Jules was scared and warned her to go home, but how could she leave the island? He wrote Kumbaya and Try it.

A thin smile formed across her mouth.

Jules was telling her to make a bonfire. Of course; she should have thought of it days ago. She went to the window and stared at the rocky coastline where her family built fires on cold nights and sang songs. It was directly across from Nova Scotia. Too far to see any blaze, but maybe not for passing boats headed for Halifax. Certainly, it was worth a try. Then it occurred to her: If Jules had wanted her to build a bonfire, why didn’t he just tell her to do it? Perhaps he was so convinced the plants were controlling his mind that he had to write in code in order to fool them. The idea was so outlandish she wondered if maybe her own mind was slipping.

Absurd or not, building a bonfire was worth a shot. There was lumber in back of the shed, but she needed all of it to secure the house. The lab was filled with books and papers that would burn, but not enough to make a roaring blaze. Gathering timber from the woods was out of the question, but there were plenty of fallen sticks behind the house. That would be a good start. She felt heartened already, and took it as a positive sign when she spotted a cigarette lighter on the desk.

The back of the house faced the sea. Isabelle dashed across the lawn to the edge of the island where there was a scattering of trees and a seawall that abruptly dropped ten feet to the full wrath of the ocean. The waves and breakers formed a tempest where boats didn’t dare approach. It was fifty miles to land and on a clear day, the faint outline of Nova Scotia was visible. By sunset, the shining beam from the Liscomb Island lighthouse would blink on and off like a cat’s eye, and on rare nights the city lights of Halifax could be seen. But it would have to be a raging bonfire indeed for anyone to notice flames on Sparrow Island.

Isabelle gathered an armful of dry twigs and driftwood, dropping them in a pile by the sea wall. She slid the lighter from her back pocket and lit the whole pile in a blaze. For a moment she was mesmerized by the smell of smoke and crackle of flames and the memory of fires long ago, when she’d curl up between her father and Jules with the heat on her face and a cold wind at her back.

The fire was already shriveling. There were not enough branches on the ground, so she went back inside the house to fetch other things to burn. In the library, she grabbed whatever looked bulky and flammable: two fat throw pillows and a wooden end table. She dragged them outside and set them on the cinders. The pillows exploded into flames, igniting the edges of the table.

By the time Isabelle lugged a small Oriental rug and a silk wall hanging outside, there was a decent blaze going. The wind was changing direction and dragging the smoke over the island toward the house. She threw the rug on the fire, which seemed to smother the flames for a moment, but then suddenly it was all ablaze and black smoke poured over the house and fields of ryegrass. Isabelle coughed as it engulfed her. She threw the silk art onto the heap and then ran to the sea wall, eyes burning from the toxic cloud.

There was not much fire, but a terrifying amount of smoke and the black plume could probably be seen quite far. Unfortunately there wasn’t a boat in sight, and as the wind changed direction, the smoke fell east over the island instead of west toward Canada. It occurred to Isabelle that Jules might see the smoke rising and return to the house. The rifle was resting on the ground and she picked it up.

She watched the sea for a long time, imagining a boat, willing it to appear. Finally, a speck flickered on the horizon. It was tiny, and too far out to tell for certain, but what else could it be? The smoke died down and the wind pushed it to sea. Isabelle rushed to the house, grabbing more cushions and a few fat books. The fire was a smoldering pile of chemicals but no flame, and she threw the items into the ashes. She coughed deep from her lungs and looked out to sea. The speck was getting smaller.

“Come back,” she whispered.

Help me, George.

Standing at the island’s edge, engulfed in the smoke, she felt trapped and realized it was a feeling that was far too familiar. Trapped on an island. Trapped in her mother’s house. Trapped in a marriage. It was a pattern that had cost her dearly and one she was determined never to repeat. As soon as she got off this damn island there would be changes, big changes, and she was never going to walk helplessly into a trap again.

Isabelle squared her shoulders. Getting her children to safety was all that mattered and she would succeed or die trying.

She looked out to sea. The speck was gone.


JULES DUG UP BEACH GRASS, carefully loosening the soil with a boning knife and tugging gently on the roots so they wouldn’t break. The wind kicked up and the spray of the sea was cold on his naked back. There was not much time and many species to collect, more than half of the 128 mentioned in the green notebook. He might have to make do with what he and Sean had already gathered.

The chatter had been loud all day, irritating, so Jules didn’t notice the sound of the boat until it had breached the inlet. He rose from his squatting position, roots dangling from his hands. He grumbled angrily, expecting to see the Coast Guard boat three days too early. Instead, it was the Acadia scuttling up to the dock. Jules dropped the plants into a bag and pulled up the leg of his trousers. He stuck the knife back into its sheath that was tied to his ankle and picked up a spear from the sand.

Captain Flannigan was alone on the vessel. He climbed down from the bridge to throw out a couple of docking lines as the boat drifted into the berth, rocking on small swells. He smiled through his russet beard as Jules approached, but then his sparkling blue eyes narrowed and his grin turned upside down. This was not the clean-cut gentleman he’d dropped off a week ago, but a poor rendition of prehistoric man. He was shirtless and filthy, with a stoic expression on a bearded face.

“Dr. Beecher?” the captain asked as Jules grabbed the rope. “’Ardly recognized ye. ’Oweya gettin’ on?”

“Just fine,” he said without looking up. He pulled in the stern line until the boat stopped rocking, and then tied it to a docking cleat.

The captain was no longer his jovial self, and he looked at Jules with suspicion. “’Eard a call on de radio aboyt a fire up by de ’ouse.”

Jules turned his head toward the treetops and saw the smoke for the first time. There was a strong acrid smell and he wondered why he didn’t notice it before. “Oh yes. The children wanted to cook breakfast outside.”

“Aye,” he said, and hesitantly pointed to the spear. “Yer fishin’ wid dat?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Rather sick of the meat in the freezer.” He tied up the bowline.

“Suppose ye can catch some ’addock oyt by de jetty. Crabs if yer fast.” He looked at Jules and his eyes narrowed. “Tried to call. Yer radio ain’t workin’.”

“Yes, the batteries died.”

“Storm comin’ dis way. Big one. Taught ye might loike to come back for de noight. Thar’s a ’otel in town.”

“No thank you.”

“Maybe de lady and ’er young ’uns.”

“We’re all fine. Thank you, Captain.” His brow furrowed. “You didn’t have to come all the way out here.”

“Was on m’ way back from Sable Oiland.” He gestured east.

“Well, you can keep on going.”

Flannigan stared at him for some time. He cleared his throat in uncomfortable silence. “Yer gonna need a radio. Oi got some batt’ries back ’ere.”

“That would be very helpful.”

“I’ll just grab dem.” The captain turned away with a frown.

Jules watched the man climb the ladder to the bridge and then stepped over the swing door, following after him. Soundlessly, Jules climbed the ladder hand over hand, holding the spear tightly in his teeth, and then peered onto the bridge, watching the captain fumble with the radio.

Flannigan spoke into the mic with a low voice. “Acadia to Coast Guard. Come in, Coast Guard.”

There was only static.

Acadia to—”

Flannigan turned just in time to see a spear coming at him. He dove to the side and the point flew into the wooden helm, where it stuck.

Jules rushed forward and took hold of the shaft, pulling it free just as Flannigan blindsided him and they both fell on the floor. Jules pounced quickly and straddled Flannigan across the chest, pressing the wooden pole of the spear against the man’s neck with all his might.

“Oi knew ye couldn’t be trusted!” Flannigan rasped through gritted teeth as the muscles in his arms quivered and he pushed back on the pole. Twenty years of hauling fishing nets and lobster traps had given him considerable strength, but he was no match for Jules, who let go of the spear and grabbed Flannigan by the neck, squeezing his massive fingers in a chokehold.

The radio came to life, a voice crackling, “Acadia, come in. This is Coast Guard.”

The distraction was enough to loosen Jules’s grip so Flannigan could free his windpipe and take a breath. He punched his fist straight into Jules’s nose and watched him fall away. The boat rocked from the commotion as the captain flailed desperately to his feet and clambered for the ladder. Jules was already standing and taking his time picking up the spear. Flannigan grasped the railing and hit the first rung, but slipped and dropped six feet through the air, crashing onto his back.

Jules got to the edge of the bridge and leapt onto the deck beside Flannigan with the deftness of a spider. He grunted and raised the spear over his head. He could have plunged it into Flannigan’s body right then, but instead he lowered it as far as the man’s rib cage, pressing the point into his chest until he heard a cry of pain. And then he stopped, looking down at his prey.

Flannigan held the spear tight with both hands, as Jules continued to press harder into his chest.

“Ye coward ain’t beatin’ me yet,” the captain said, red-faced and cocky.

Jules had barely applied himself to the task, but now his forearms showed a bit of strain and he grinned, neck muscles tightening.

“Oi ain’t givin’ in, ye snake.”

Jules thrust the spear down hard. The puncture went deep as the pointed blade slid between ribs and into the heart, breaking through muscle and tissue with stalwart force. The pain was quick and severe and Flannigan’s eyes bulged with terror and the shock of defeat. His mouth opened wide in a soundless scream.

After a moment, Jules pulled out the spearhead, jerking the body off the floor. He stared at the wound for a moment as blood rushed over the deck and down the shaft of his weapon. He put his boot on the stomach of the dead man, and slipped the knife from his ankle strap.

* * *

Ginny had a headache and went to the bedroom to lie down. The room was drafty and smelled of smoke and she looked outside to see a small fire in the back of the house. She remembered that George liked to make bonfires.

Ridiculous time to be roasting marshmallows.

She sat on the bed. It was the largest room in the house, the one she’d shared with George when she visited him during their courtship, on and off for ten years. It was quite grand, full of Victorian antique furniture, fine silk wallpaper, and expensive trinkets from his travels all over the world, most of which Ginny had placed in her suitcase.

On the nightstand were photos of Isabelle as a child and photos of Isabelle with George, some with Ginny and George, and a few of Ginny alone. She took a mental count and noted with satisfaction that there were more pictures of her than Isabelle.

She sat back in bed and heaved a sigh, weary of looking for the diamond. “Oh, George, I could just kill you,” she muttered, “if you weren’t already dead.”

She reached for a book on the bed beside her and opened the nightstand drawer where she kept her reading glasses. As she reached inside, her finger touched a fold of paper. She pulled the drawer out farther to reveal a small envelope with her name on it.

Ginny was written in George’s unmistakable script.

She could barely breathe. Her heart thumped loudly in her ears as she grasped the paper tremulously. Could I have been so blind? What a stupid old woman I am!

Gingerly, her small fingers touched the seal of the envelope, before jerking back. She didn’t dare open it quickly. No, this might be her last chance for success, and she savored the moment. When she couldn’t stand another second, she tore open the envelope and ripped out a notecard. It contained a single sentence.

When you place my body to rest, you will find the Crimson Star.

Then he signed his name, George.

* * *

Luke was amazed how much kissing Monica calmed his fears and distracted his thoughts; the more intense their passions became, the better he felt about the whole situation. As they groped each other, he began to imagine all his troubles were part of an exciting adventure. As if he were on a dangerous mission, James Bond and his hot leading lady. His hands became more daring.

The door swung open with a bang.

Monica and Luke jumped onto either side of the bed, adjusting their clothes.

“Don’t you knock?” Monica sputtered hotly.

“I’ve no time for formalities,” Ginny said, holding her chest and panting. She looked at Luke. “Boy, where did you see that gravesite with the cross?”

“You mean the one by the pond?”

“Yes, that’s the place. Take me there now. And bring a shovel.”

He grimaced. “I’m not going out there.”

“You must. That’s where the diamond is buried.”

“How do you know?” asked Monica.

“I found a note from George.” She waved it in her hand. “It’s buried right by the stone with the cross.”

Monica sprang from the bed. “So you’ll give us the hundred grand if we come with you?”

“Of course not. I’m the one who figured it out.”

“Then forget it.”

“All right. I’ll give you each fifty pounds, but you have to do all the digging.”

“I wouldn’t go out there for a million dollars,” Luke scoffed.

“Well, fine, I’ll dig it up myself and you won’t get a dime.”

They watched her walk out of the room, slamming the door with vigor.

“Do you believe that!” Monica stared at Luke, reddened with rage. She thought for a moment. “You know where that grave is, right?”

He tilted his head and tried to recall the direction he ran home that day. “I think so. You take a left at the fork. But forget it. I’m not helping her.”

“You don’t have to. We can get to the grave first and dig it up ourselves.”

“You’re nuts. I’m not going in those woods again.”

“Luke, you said so yourself, the hallucinations aren’t real. If we stick together, nothing can happen.”

“You don’t know that. Why would you want to take the diamond anyway? It’s not even yours.”

“Because she’s a bitch who’s gonna die soon. What good is half a million dollars to her?”

He stared at her wide-eyed. “I can’t believe you.”

“Oh, chill. I’m not gonna keep the whole thing. I’ll just sell it on eBay, take my share, and send the rest back to the old sleazebag.”

“You don’t have a share.”

“I spent a million hours looking for that diamond, wasting my time, while she promised us a hundred grand.”

“Only if we found it. Which we didn’t.”

She went to the window, looking pained. “I need that money. You said you were going to make sure I get to Paris.”

“Not by robbing an old lady.”

She stared at the sea. The whitecaps were larger, coming in fast. Above the horizon, dark clouds were rolling in. Monica licked her lips, not thinking about the weather. She wanted that diamond more than anything.


ISABELLE HAD SPENT over an hour gathering flammable items from the attic, hauling them down to the library and dragging them to the back of the house. She went to the bluff to check for boats and spotted a band of treacherous clouds in the distance. A storm was coming. There would be no rescue that day.

She walked back to the house.

It seemed the only thing left to do was to study the plants herself, try to figure out what was happening to Jules. The door to the lab was open and she stopped before going inside. She peeked in the doorway.

The room was trashed; cabinets and tables were thrown over, books destroyed, files strewn about as if a burglar had struck. Isabelle barely took a step inside and froze.

SEEDERS was scrawled across the wall in red paint. The large capital letters were still wet and dripping, drying to a rusty brown. There was a tangy smell of copper in the room.


She closed her eyes, fighting nausea. A low rumble of thunder shook the window and Isabelle could see clouds coming faster, gloomy and foreboding.

A large hand gripped her shoulder.

Isabelle spun around to see Jules staring down at her with narrowed eyes. She was struck speechless.

“What are you doing?” he asked flatly.

“Cleaning up,” she whispered. Thunder echoed outside and Isabelle stooped down and retrieved a pile of loose papers and then rose to her feet. “The place is a mess.”

She tried not to look at the paint—blood?—on the wall.

It seemed like his temper might flare again, but instead Jules smiled timidly and spoke in a gentle tone. “I want to apologize, Isabelle. I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately.”

She saw a glimpse of the old Jules and was too stunned to answer.

“You were right. I should stay out of the woods, come back to the house.”

He was wearing dark clothes with dark-colored stains, but there was no mistaking the red stains on his wrists, under his nails, and in between his fingers. Isabelle spoke without thinking. “You have blood on your hands.”

At first he looked surprised. He folded his arms defensively. “I cut myself.”

“With what?”

“I was spearfishing, actually. Caught a rather large one.”

She felt her lip tremble. “How’s Sean?”

“He is something, that boy. You should be proud of him.”

“I was hoping he’d come back to the house. You know how mothers can be, always worrying.”

He was looking out the window and didn’t respond.


His expression flipped like a switch, from placid to crazed. With a quick hand he grabbed the back of her neck and Isabelle gasped. He leaned down close to her ear, his voice thick. “I want you to stop lighting fires. If you do it again, I’ll be very angry.”

“I won’t. I promise.”

“Good girl.” He inhaled the scent of her. “Now you smell like smoke.” He stroked her hair, smoothed back the loose strands. She flinched and he let her go, smiling and good-natured again. “There’s a storm coming. I’m going to bring some of my things back here. You’re not to touch them, understand?”

She nodded.

He started for the door.

“Jules?” Isabelle nodded to the writing on the wall. “What is that?”

He stared at the red lines dripping from the word and smiled. “I told you. The day of reckoning has come.”

She watched him walk outside, just as Ginny’s voice rang out down the hall. She stepped into the lab, excited and out of breath.

“Isabelle,” she said.

Jules turned to wave from the patio, and headed toward the woods.

“I have the most wonderful news. George has come to me from the grave with a message, bless his heart. Just when I’d started to think we’d never find that bloody Crimson Star.”

“Ginny, would you stop talking about the damn diamond!”

Well,” she huffed. “Someone’s got her knickers in a knot.”

“You have no idea what’s going on,” she cried, holding out her hands to the ghoulish word on the wall.

“Oh, who cares?” Ginny said, barely taking a look. “I know where the diamond is hidden.”

Isabelle blinked.

“This note is from George.” She showed the card to Isabelle. “It was in my room all the time.”

Isabelle read quietly to herself. “It’s another riddle.”

“Not at all. He’s most definitely referring to a spot on the island where he wanted us to be buried together. Now if I can just find it.”

Isabelle wrinkled her brow. “But the first riddle, the one Mr. Bonacelli gave you.”

Ginny reached into the pocket of her sweater and pulled out the well-worn paper that was beginning to rip. She shoved it at Isabelle. “Perfectly useless. You keep it.”

Isabelle looked at it, puzzled. “If a brilliant star isn’t the diamond, then what did he mean?”

“I couldn’t care less.” Ginny sniffed. “Now I’ll need you to take me to that blasted pond. Your son is too much of a crybaby to take me there.”

“It will have to wait until the boat arrives Wednesday.”

“It most certainly will not.”

The room was growing dark from the billowing clouds outside. “There’s a storm coming. Besides, Dr. Beecher is out there.”

“I’m sure he’s harmless. He might be rude, but he is a Brit, after all.”

“Wednesday,” she repeated. “And not before.”

“There won’t be time to look, with everyone so anxious to leave,” she said, flustered. “I’ll have to find it myself.”

“I can’t let you go out there.”

“Just try to stop me,” she snapped, and then put a hand over her mouth, looking shocked. “Oh, I see. You want the diamond for yourself, don’t you? Now that I’ve told you where it is, I guess you’ll send that boy of yours to go dig it up. Well, I won’t hear of it.” She stiffened her lip. “I insist you tell me how to get to the pond.”

Isabelle reached the end of her tolerance and snapped, “Why don’t you check the map in the study?”

Thunder rumbled from the windows, giving Ginny pause for a moment. “Of course,” she said, and hurried out the door.

Isabelle raised the scrap of paper in her hand and stared at her father’s last words, wondering what they could mean.

* * *

Monica did her best to convince Luke they should look for the diamond, but it was useless. He sat on the bed peeling the label off a wine bottle, unwavering in his decision.

“Beecher’s a geek,” she said. “Besides, there’s two of us and one of him.”

“He’s like seven feet tall. He’s got knives and a crossbow.”

“Has he hurt you? Has he hurt anyone? You can’t just assume a person’s dangerous.” She crossed her arms and her eyes narrowed. “You said you wanted to go to Paris with me.”

“Not on stolen money.”

“It’s not stolen. We spent every day looking for that damn rock. You almost drowned.” She took the bottle from his hands and set it down hard. “We deserve our share.”

“It’s not ours. My grandfather wanted Ginny to have it.”

“Fine, I’ll go myself.”

He shot her a glance. “You will not.”

“Watch me.” For a moment she hesitated, and then Monica walked out of the room.

Luke heard her stomping down the staircase, making a big showy exit. He rolled over to the window, waiting for her to emerge into the yard, but hoping she wouldn’t.

Within a minute the kitchen door sprang open and Monica trudged down the path. Luke felt his heart kick up as she drew closer to the entrance of the woods. She slowed for a moment, and then the trees swallowed her up.

Another door opened at the opposite side of the house and Luke watched Jules emerge onto the patio, turn toward the lab and wave, smiling.

“No,” Luke whispered. “Go back in the house.”

But Jules began walking down the path toward the woods, and Monica.

Luke felt his blood turn cold, and when Jules reached the trees, Luke took off down the stairs and ran straight into Isabelle. She was rushing from the library with a stack of lumber in her arms, a hammer sticking out of her coat. She dropped the wood at his feet.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she said.

“To the kitchen,” he answered.

“Where’s Monica?”

He swallowed hard. “Upstairs.”

“Grab a bunch of wood. We’re going to board up some of these doors and windows. I’ll do the front rooms and you start in the back.”

“Mom, there’s like a million windows in this house. Some of them are huge.”

“Mostly in the library, and I can keep an eye on those. The large ones are strong, but the smaller ones could use some reinforcement.”

Luke shook his head at the planks. “This isn’t going to stop someone who really wants to get in.”

She knew he was talking about Jules. “It might slow him down. Until I can shoot him.”

His face drained of color. “You really think he’s dangerous?”

“Yes. I do.”

He could tell she meant it.

“I’ll have to look for Sean if he isn’t back soon. He’s out there with that maniac. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you and Monica not to leave this house again. Now take this wood and get started.”

He looked out the window. “Can I get something to eat first?”

“No, come with me.”

He had no choice but to follow her instructions.

Not my problem, he thought but felt sick to his stomach.


BLACK CLOUDS ROLLED across the sky from the north. The woods grew dark, the temperature had dropped, and the island was becoming bitterly cold, eerily silent. Monica turned up the collar of her leather jacket and moved swiftly down the trail, trying to squelch the ghastly images of Hodges that kept popping into her mind.

Instead, she kept her pace steady by focusing on objects along the path—smooth, round stones and perfectly formed leaves, roots and saplings protruding from the ground. It was the first time she noticed that everything was covered in the black fungus, just like Luke said. But she wasn’t going to think about that now.

The important thing was to follow the red tags and never look up. Even if you heard voices. There would be a fork up ahead and then she would take the left path, or did Luke say right? Shit. No, it was left, definitely. She pictured herself digging up the diamond. Shit. No shovel. She’d have to dig with her hands, which would take forever. Shit. Shit. Shit. She could have at least brought a spoon. There was no turning back now, not if she wanted to get the jump on Ginny. Plus she’d have to face Luke again, listen to him whine about the diamond.

As she rounded the bend, someone was standing in the middle of the fork. It was Sean and he was smiling, shoulders hunched and arms hanging loose at his side. He was wearing a light jacket that wasn’t even zipped. Monica thought he must be too dumb to know it was cold.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

He didn’t answer.

Then she asked, “You know where the pond is?” She mouthed the words, slow and loud. “Pond. You know”—her arms made a wide circle—“big puddle.”

Sean didn’t move.

“Get out of my way.” She stepped to the left and so did Sean. Then she went right, but Sean copied her moves, blocking her each time she tried to slip by.

“Cut it out, weirdo.” She smacked his shoulder.

Sean pushed back with both hands, so she fell against a tree. He wasn’t going to let her pass and she lifted her chin, ready to fight.

Behind Monica came a cheery voice. “Ah, le dahlia noir!

Jules was coming down the trail behind her. She drew in a breath, startled by his appearance. The combination of soiled clothes, muddied hair, and gaunt face covered in black rot and stubble resembled a man buried and raised from the dead.

Ravi de te voir,” he greeted her. “I was hoping for visitors.”

She raised a lip. Jules seemed more clownish than dangerous. “I’m not visiting. Unless you have a shovel.”

He squinted. “Shovel, shovel. Yes, I do. If you come this way, mon petit chou.

Monica knew she didn’t want to go anywhere with him. Sean followed Jules, but she didn’t move.

Jules turned with a puzzled expression. “Coming?”

“Actually, I was going to find the pond.”

“The pond? Yes. It’s right down this path, just past our camp. Shall we?”

“Never mind. I have to go back, I forgot something.”

He smiled wryly. “Are you afraid of me?”

“Yeah, right,” she said with a snort.

“The pond’s not far. You want my shovel?”

She didn’t reply.

“Well, then, come along.”

Although Jules’s appearance implied insanity, his grin and jauntiness made him seem fairly harmless. Besides, he was far less scary than getting lost and confronting Hodges again. So Monica followed along. Pretty soon the trail narrowed to nothing. She was stepping over trees and tangled vines that scratched her pants, holding her arms out for balance. She swallowed hard, keeping a close eye on Jules as he took long strides and passed through the woody terrain with the dexterity of a native.

The pines were getting so thick she couldn’t see around them. It was unnerving to be off the trail. What the hell was she doing following this guy? She wanted to turn back but Sean was right on her heels, clicking his tongue, making some kind of weird noise. Perhaps he was talking to the trees. The thought made her chuckle. Suddenly her two companions seemed comical.

She spoke loudly to Jules. “So, I hear you talk to the trees.”

His eyes shifted, but he didn’t answer.

“I don’t hear anything,” she said.

“They speak to the enlightened. I see little hope for you.”

“Hey, I’ve seen weird things too. So how do they do it? Is it every plant or just the ones on the island?”

Jules walked faster.

“What did George do to them? Is it the black stuff that makes you see things? This fungus or whatever? Did George grow this shit all over them? Is that how they can hear you?”

“Stop. Talking. Please,” Jules said.

They came to a clearing and stepped into the campsite where the ground was dark and supple, covered in fungi that had taken over the whole place. The tent leaned at a sharp angle. On the ground were pallets filled with every variety of plant. A wheelbarrow, farming tools, test tubes, and microscopes lay forgotten and half buried in soil that had been dumped into six-foot dunes.

Monica stared, jaw gaping. “What is this place?”

“You like it?”

She sneered and put a foot on the soft pile. She took a few steps, bouncing lightly. There was a table covered with dirt and more plants in clear, labeled bags.

“What are these things?”

“Let’s see,” Jules said and picked up a couple of specimens. “Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, commonly known as bearberry, and this is Populus tremuloides, or aspen poplar.”

“Yeah, whatever. Why you baggin’ ’em up?”

Jules wasn’t listening. He looked under the table. “Now where is that shovel?”

Thunder rumbled and Monica hugged her arms, rubbing the sleeves for both warmth and comfort. Leaden clouds expanded overhead and the dank woods filled with the heady smell of rain. It was getting dark and Monica wanted to get back to the house before it started to pour. Even more, she wanted to get away from Jules and the presentiment of danger he evoked.

“Now that I think about it,” she said, moving to the edge of the camp. “I really got to get back to the house.”

“Shovel, shovel, who’s got the shovel?” Jules picked up an ax. “This will do.” He held it lengthwise, smacking the blunt side of the steel against his palm like a baseball bat.

He stared at Monica. She stared at the blade.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“What do you think?” He took a leisurely step closer. “Are you frightened?”

Monica felt the heat of terror rush to her face. This couldn’t be happening. He stepped closer and she doubled back. “Don’t touch me. I’ll scream.”

“And who will hear you?”

She wasn’t expecting the speed at which he moved. In a blink, Jules lunged for her. As she turned to run, he pressed the ax to her chest and pinned her arms back.

“Get off me, creep!” She tried to reach for the cutting shears, but moving her hands was futile.

Jules traced the tip of the ax along her neck. He reeked of mold.

Monica’s panicked eyes fell on Sean. “Get him off me.”

Sean giggled.

Jules spoke to him in a firm tone. “Sean, you need to go finish your work.”

The boy frowned and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, before turning and vanishing into the pines.

Jules ran the blade over Monica’s cheek. “I wonder how many of our little friends you’ve plucked from the ground. If I were to cut off your pretty little fingers one by one with this blade, would you feel remorse for those you’ve killed, or would you only think of yourself?”

Tears welled in her eyes. She was trembling and turned her face from the blade. Thunder cracked directly overhead and a raindrop fell on her cheek.

Jules licked it away with his tongue. “Maybe I’ll deflower you myself.”

“Let her go!” Luke walked out from the trees with a knife pointed at Jules.

He smiled wide at the boy, letting Monica fall to the ground, and she scrambled back. He stepped toward Luke and swung the ax over his shoulder. “It seems the knight in shining armor has arrived. I thought there might be hope for you, Luke, but now I’m not so sure.”

Lightning flashed and a light wind brought showers that pelted the trees.

“Back off!” Monica sputtered, once again on her feet. The metal shears shook in her hands, pointed at Jules. Her face was wet with tears and rain.

Jules held in laughter. “Did you tell him yet, mademoiselle? Does he know you’re nothing but a filthy little tease? A lying, frigid, semiliterate virgin who’s petrified to fuck? Go ahead and tell him he’s wasting his time.”

Luke dove at Jules, sending them both to the ground as it was splattered with fat raindrops. The two wrestled frantically with equal force; Jules with sheer strength and Luke driven by panic and fury. He held on to the knife but Jules gripped his wrist and the weapon sliced only air. As Jules reached for the ax, he let go of the boy and Luke plunged the knife into his leg.

“Run!” he shouted to Monica, and she took off into the trees.

Furious, Jules yanked the bloody knife out of his leg, pulled back his massive foot, and kicked Luke in the head.

Luke rolled onto his side, knocked out cold.

Jules got to his feet and checked the body.

Shallow breathing, a slight moan, but no movement.

His head sprang up like a hunting dog. The girl was no doubt running toward the beach, to the boat. Jules grabbed the ax and took off after her.


A SUDDEN DOWNPOUR struck the island. Horizontal rain came down in sheets that pelted the beach and a spear of lightning flashed over the inlet. The wind howled and the sea had become a rolling, churning brew of foam and waves.

Monica ran down the black sand, squinting through the veil of water. She turned for an instant to see Jules spring from the trees, swinging the ax. There was nowhere else to run but into the sea and she headed for the water’s edge.

Without hesitating, she plunged into the waves. They were becoming fierce, and her clothing and boots slowed her down. She sank into the muddy bottom and was struck by a wave. She coughed out a mouthful of salty water, wiping her eyes, and realized she was trapped. What a stupid decision she had made. There was a boat tied up at the dock and a sliver of hope brought her strength. Arms flailing, she took long strides and paddled out toward the boat, rising with the breakers.

Acadia was emblazoned across the bow. She started to scream for help, but a wave smacked her again. Then the water calmed into a lull and she kicked off her heavy boots. Jules was right behind her in the surf, wiping rain from his face, ax in hand. He swung the blade high with both hands.

Monica ducked under the surface as deep as she could and saw millions of bubbles where the blade came down by her head. She blasted to the surface and switched directions, swimming frantically toward the shore.

A hard tug on her ponytail threw her back. Jules pulled her hair until her neck was exposed to the sky.

“Don’t hurt me,” she pleaded, but her words were garbled.

He raised the ax high, ready to strike. But before the blade came down, he was hit with a rogue wave and thrown into Monica. His body rolled with hers, but he never let go of her hair.

They were pushed closer to shore and came up together, sputtering and trying to stand. Grasping her hair, Jules pulled Monica off her feet. Another wave struck and he hit the bottom, losing his grip. He managed to stand, slicing the ax up and down in the water, chopping the swells. As he leapt for the girl, she dove backward into the sea, with a solid kick against his arm. The ax dropped from his hands.

Jules scrambled to find the weapon. He reached for a shimmer of metal below the surf, but an enormous wave took him by surprise and he tumbled along the seafloor.

Monica surfaced and looked around hysterically. The waves had settled into a lull. The monster was gone and the only sound was the crackle of rain pounding the surface. Her body trembled as if caught in a seizure and she could barely hug her arms. Then Jules came up with a roar of anger. His hands grasped her birdlike neck and shook it hard, snapping her head back and forth

“Lather!” he cried. Then he thrust her under. “Rinse!”

She came up coughing a mouthful of water, only to be dunked under again.


Up she came, and back down.


Again, he lifted and plunged her in the surf.

Then Jules let out a cry of fury, releasing Monica, throwing his head back and spinning his body. An arrow was lodged in his back.

He turned in circles and reached over his shoulder, trying to rip the arrow from his flesh. The pouring rain drenched his face as he looked skyward with a hideous cry of rage.

Luke dropped the crossbow on the sand and raced for the shallows toward Monica, as she crawled out of the water.

* * *

Ginny got caught in the downpour. Rain pummeled the trees and drenched the ground. She slid under a thatch of bushes to wait out the storm, but it provided about as much protection as a fishing net. She opened the map she had pried from its frame in the office. It was damp, hard to read, and some of the sketchy lines were washed away.

“Bloody hell,” she muttered, wiping the water from her eyes. Not that she could see the map too well anyway. The storm clouds made the woods terribly dark and she’d forgotten her reading glasses. She was pleased with herself for bringing a flashlight, a small shovel, and proper rain gear. Although an umbrella would have been nice, and if the woods turned completely black, the flashlight wouldn’t be enough to find her way back.

She hated to think that Isabelle was right about waiting until morning, but it was hard to disagree as a river of water turned the ground beneath her into mud.

Still, she thought, if the British could stand anything, it was a bit of rain.

Ginny looked at the map. She had followed it carefully off the trail to the east before the weather turned. But it wasn’t clear which direction was which.

“Oh, crumb,” she said and wiped the dampness from her face.

She decided to have one more go at finding the pond. As long as she got back to the house by nightfall, in another hour, she’d be fine.

* * *

Luke and Monica ran through the woods, out of breath and soaking wet, covered in scrapes and bruises. Thunder cracked above them and they stopped to take a rest under a canopy of trees. Monica dropped to the ground with her face in her hands, crying and wiping the back of her head, where she found blood.

“He fucking scalped me!” she screamed with clenched teeth, eyes black with rage.

Luke squatted over her, trying to catch his breath. “We have to keep going. He’s got a stockpile of weapons in that tent.”

“You should have grabbed them. Why did you drop the crossbow?”

He wasn’t listening, just panting hard. “Let’s get back to the house. Tell my mom about that boat.”

Monica got to her feet, shouting expletives over the storm. She turned to a pine tree and ripped off a large switch, holding the branch out to Luke. “You know what I think? It is these damn trees. What else could it be, making everyone crazy? They’re trying to scare us. Make us want to kill each other off.”

“Stop saying that.”

“You know I’m right!” Thunder echoed her anger. The clippers were still in her jacket, and she held them like a spear, smashing the point into the tree trunk.

Luke put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s just go.”

She shrugged him off, stabbing the shears into the bark again and again.

“No!” a voice yelled loudly over the storm, and it jolted them both.

For a moment, they stared at Sean.

He pointed a finger at Monica and repeated, “No!”

Luke gawked at his brother. He hadn’t heard a distinguishable word from Sean in five years. His brother was shivering from the cold and Luke yelled over a rumble of thunder, “Sean. We have to get back to the house now.”

Monica blew out a burst of laughter. “Don’t be stupid, Luke. He’s one of them.” She glared at Sean. “You’ve gone insane like Beecher!” She snapped off another branch and held it in front of Sean. “Is this your little girlfriend? Snip, snip, snip, Sean,” Monica said, cutting each twig off with the shears.

With a swoop of his fist, Sean grabbed the clippers from her hand, and Monica stepped back in alarm.

“Freak,” she muttered, and thunder cracked over their heads.

Luke grabbed Monica’s hand and they ran back toward the house, leaving Sean standing alone on the path. He put the shears in his back pocket and hugged himself, shivering.

Jules appeared, looking pale and slightly bent over. He stared at the boy while the rain drenched them both. “We have a boat now. It’s time.”


BY NIGHTFALL THE STORM was in full force. Across the island, mudslides swept away less hardy trees, rivers poured into the sea, and waves pounded the rocky shores. The rising tide devoured the beach until it was part of the ocean floor.

The library was quiet except for the muffled sound of thunder. It was dimly lit by a single lamp and the fireplace, where wet shoes and clothing were laid to dry. An occasional flash of lightning illuminated the windows with reflections of rain pouring down the glass.

Isabelle finished bandaging the wounds on Luke’s head. “Let me know if you start to feel dizzy or nauseous. You might have a concussion,” she told Luke in quiet seriousness. She had barely spoken to her son or Monica since they returned from the beach with injuries and stories of being attacked. She had warned them several times and Isabelle felt certain if she kept talking, she’d start shouting. She handed Luke a sweatshirt and applied more ice to the red welt around Monica’s neck that was beginning to bruise.

Luke slid the towel off his bare shoulders and pulled the sweatshirt over his head, shivering. The house was freezing, but the coldness from his mother was more than he could bear. “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have gone out there.” He glanced at Monica sitting on the couch wrapped in blankets, silently staring into an empty cup of soup. “We’re both sorry.”

Isabelle didn’t answer right away. She put the empty dishes on the tray. “I want you both to go up to your rooms and lock your doors. Don’t come out until morning, no matter what you hear.”

Monica rose quickly. With a quiet good night, she nearly tripped on the blanket as she scuttled to the hallway and up the stairs.

“We’ll keep all the lights on,” Isabelle said.

Luke looked at the rifle propped by her side. Whenever she moved more than a few feet, she’d reflexively pick it up and drop it in easy reach.

“Mom, Sean is with Dr. Beecher,” Luke said.

Isabelle swayed into the bookshelf to hold steady. Her fingers found her lips and held in a sigh of relief. She had not asked about Sean, afraid of the answer, but now at least she knew he was alive.

“Where?” she asked. “Where is he?”

“In the woods. He won’t come back on his own.”

“Sean,” she whispered.

“He spoke to us.”


“Sean—he said no. He said it twice.”

Her lips formed a slight smile, although there was no reason to be cheerful. Life couldn’t have been more daunting than at that very moment, but Sean speaking was like a tiny light at the end of a very dark tunnel. She turned her head to a flash of lightning and wiped the smile away with the back of her hand. “Your brother’s out there, in the storm.”

“He’ll be okay. I shot Beecher pretty good with that arrow. He might be dead.”

Isabelle felt an equal mix of horror and relief.

“Either way, Sean won’t stay out in the rain for long.”

She nodded.

“There’s something else too. We saw a boat at the dock. The Acadia.”

Her face brightened. “Did you see Captain Flannigan?”

Luke looked at his feet and shook his head.

“We’ll take the boat, first thing in the morning. After the storm passes,” she said with resolve. “Tell Monica to be ready at dawn and only bring what you absolutely need.”

“You can drive a boat?”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.” She picked up the rifle by the chair. “At the very least we can use the radio. Now go to bed.”

Luke stood up to leave, but hesitated. “I said some things before.”

“It’s okay.”

“I didn’t mean them.”

“I know.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Now go to bed.”

“Are you coming up?”

“No. I’m sleeping down here.” She sat down in the chair with the gun in her lap.

“Mom, you haven’t slept in two days. Let me stand guard.”

“No, Luke.”

“We can sleep in shifts. Dad took me shooting too. I can do it.”

“All right. I’ll take the first four hours and then come get you.”

He nodded, on his way to the stairs.

Then all at once, the lamp in the library made a small click and died, the hallway went black, and there was a phantom sound of power draining from the house. They were left with only a dim flicker of the fireplace.

“Mom?” Luke was near the steps and couldn’t see her.

“It’s okay, Luke.” In an instant there was a spark and flame. Isabelle’s face lit up from the silver cigarette lighter. “There are candles in the drawer.” She held the lighter in front of her and walked to a mahogany table. She rummaged through the drawer, finding a box of six tapered candles and a couple of short pillars. “We can put one in each room.”

She gave Luke four candles that fit in his sweatshirt pocket.

They both walked to the foyer closet, Isabelle carrying the rifle. She felt along the bottom shelf and took out a flashlight for her son.

He looked at her, worried. “Why do you suppose the lights went out?”

“The storm, I guess.”

He shook his head. “It’s not like a power line could be down. The wires to the shed are underground. I think someone turned off the generator.”

“Maybe it ran out of fuel.”

“Doubt it.”

“I could turn it back on.”

“No way. You can’t go out there now.”

“No. Of course not. Go put a candle in each room upstairs.”

“Luke!” a voice shrieked from the upstairs landing, where Monica peered out from the railing. “The lights went out.”

“It’s all right,” he told her. “I’ll be right up.”

“Take these.” Isabelle gave him matches for the candles. “Remember we’re leaving at dawn.”

He turned on the flashlight. “You’re waking me up in four hours, right?”

She nodded.

“What if the storm doesn’t pass? It might rain for days.”

“Let’s think positive.”

Luke reached down and hugged his mother. “Be careful, okay?”

She watched him climb the stairs looking like the man he was becoming, brave and confident. He had a sturdy gait, lithe and graceful. No doubt he would be tall and muscular like his father, but kind. In the shadows Isabelle saw the girl wrap her arms around his neck, and Luke reached down to hold her. For once, she was glad for Monica.

* * *

All the candles had been lit so that the downstairs of the house glowed orange, barely visible from the outside. Isabelle carried leftover sandwiches into the kitchen.

The flashlight made a blinding burst on the steel refrigerator, just as the back door handle jiggled loudly.

Isabelle dropped the plate with a crash.

A hand banged on the door.

She swung the flashlight beam to the glass panes. There was only a circle of reflected light so she moved closer, angling the beam.

It lit up a face, pressed against the glass.


Isabelle opened the door and pulled her son out of the storm. He shivered from the cold, his blue lips trembling. His hair was plastered like black paint to his head and he seemed bloated with rain. It was a challenge taking off his wet jacket and shirt, which had merged with his body like glue. She checked him for injuries, pausing at his forehead. The black bumps had spread down his temple. It wasn’t something she was ready to face at the moment.

“You have to get into a hot shower,” she told him. “Okay?”

He glared at her.

“Luke told me you spoke today. I’m glad, Sean.” She hugged him, but he was as cuddly as a plastic doll. In the candlelight, his stare was angry and accusing.

Sean pushed past her, and she noticed the cutting shears in his back pocket.

“What’s this?” she asked, lifting them out.

He snatched them back.

“Give them to me.”

“No,” he said firmly.

She backed away in surprise. It should have been a moment of bliss, tears of joy and prayers of thanks, but there was something so cold in his voice, something hateful in his eyes that terrified Isabelle.

“Give them to me, Sean,” she said.

He grabbed his wet jacket off the counter and turned for the door, but Isabelle was quick. She took hold of the jacket and wouldn’t release it, until Sean backhanded her in the face.

With a cry, she held her cheek. Before the room finished spinning, Sean was gone. Half dressed, he ran into the rain. Isabelle didn’t move for a long time. She felt her stomach lurch.

She was thinking, This boy is not my son.


THUNDER AND LIGHTNING STRUCK together in a brilliant burst. Ginny cowered under the brush that barely protected her from the freezing rain. She hadn’t found the pond, or the way home, and now evening had arrived and she was under cover again, quickly sinking into cold mud. First her boots and then her legs, which were folded to her chest, and finally her rear. It had grown dark and indeed the weather was worsening.

She tried to extract her knees but that made her sink deeper, and when she braced her arms using the shovel for leverage, the mud devoured them up to her elbows and she couldn’t free the shovel. Water flowed over her body like a river and she let out a yelp of fright. It felt like the island was sinking into the ocean and she would be buried under the muddy bottom.

Then she was hit with a crash of water, a flowing channel that loosened the earth’s grip on her body. Soon she was swimming in the dark, floating down a torrential river. For the first time in her life, she was terrified. The flashlight shoved down her bra banged painfully against her breastbone. Twigs and branches scraped her hands and tore her knees as she cascaded down an incline along the rocky ground.

The current dumped her into a body of water that was ice cold and thrust her deep into its depths. She screamed out bubbles, panicked at one horrid thought.

I’ve been swept into the sea.

Her foot touched the bottom and she pushed to the surface. She felt herself going under again and grasped a vine floating on the water. She pulled it with all her might, but the water was freezing and her body was turning numb. She could barely kick or keep her grip any longer. Her heart beat painfully against her chest.

I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to die in the dark, lonely sea.

“Damn you, George,” she barely managed to sputter, but she wanted those to be her last words. This was all his fault, after all. She clutched the vine and gradually pulled herself to shore. Rain poured down, but not so hard anymore and her body pressed firmly against the ground. The ocean must have receded, replaced by wet grass and leaves. Her strength was returning, while anger and adrenaline warmed her blood. She pulled herself to higher ground and felt the hard roll of a flashlight under her hip. With a smirk, she reached inside her raincoat, took it in hand, and flipped it on quick, almost daring it not to work.

Light burst upon a chaos of broken branches and dripping leaves, and she realized she had not fallen into the sea, but a small pond of water. Indeed, her mouth tasted dirt, not salt. Ginny paused and a smile crept over her face. She spun the flashlight once more, so the beam fell in front of her. She was barely three meters from a rock inscribed with a cross. It was more than a miracle; she was lying by her own empty grave.

“Bless you, George,” she whispered.

* * *

Without heat, the house became cold enough to see her breath as Isabelle sat upright in the most uncomfortable straight-back chair.

Soon her eyes began to close. She shook herself awake and adjusted the rifle in her lap. Keep moving, she told herself and picked up a candle, carried it to the window, and listened to the rain. She tried not to think about Sean and Ginny out in the storm. At least it seemed to be letting up. She shivered and wondered how long they could all last with no heat or lights, certainly not until Wednesday, and she played with the idea of running out to the shed. If Jules had switched off the generator, it would be easy to turn it back on.

The candles were burning down and morning was still another six hours away. She imagined Jules storming the front door, ambushing the house in total darkness. She turned on the flashlight and swept it over the room. Chairs and tables cast long shadows that seemed to move with life. Would she be able to shoot Jules if he broke into the house? Surely an ax could shatter a window and then she’d be fighting him in the dark.

Ridiculous, she told herself. Luke had shot Jules in the back with an arrow. He was probably floating dead in the ocean. Still, she couldn’t know for sure. Jules might have turned off the lights and was planning an attack. In that case, she was a sitting duck. Was she going to stand there in the dark and wait to die, let him kill her children? No, she had promised herself that she’d never be trapped again. Even if they were still alive by morning, walking to the boat could be a suicide mission, and there were still three more days until Colin arrived.

That’s when Isabelle decided to go out to the shed and turn the lights back on. If Jules happened to be in the shed, so be it. She would have to shoot him. Get it over with. Hell, it’s what Colin would have done, probably days ago. It was the right thing to do.

Without thinking too long about it, Isabelle found herself putting on her father’s yellow slicker and matching hat and boots before she could muster the good sense to change her mind. She grabbed the rifle and a flashlight and headed out.

The front door opened to a steady blast of rain. Isabelle stepped onto the patio and felt an icy wind on her face. She hurried across the patio to the back of the house, and then up a wide trail of gravel. The beam from her flashlight picked up rain and little else, as she followed the blurry path to the shed.

The stone building seemed waterlogged. Leaves of ivy on the roof trembled from assaulting raindrops. With the rifle pointed steady, she slid the door open. It glided easily across the wet track.

Isabelle stared at the empty peg board. She checked each corner of the room and stepped inside, smelling damp wood and motor oil. It was quiet except for rain on the roof, and it took some time before she felt confident that she was alone in the shed and slid the door closed, leaving a twelve-inch gap to escape.

She walked forward, sweeping the flashlight from one side and then the other, making sure no one was hiding in the corners. Noticeably absent was the loud clang of the generator as she stopped in front of the door. She put her ear against the wood. It smelled of diesel and there was no sound on the other side. Conjuring up her nerve, she grasped the doorknob and turned until it clicked, then went quickly into the room, flashlight raised and rifle ready.

The generator was a sleeping giant in the back of the room. Isabelle circled the beam of light in every direction and walked to the machine, touched the cold metal surface. The switch had been flipped to off.

She squatted down, turned the switch back on, and pumped the starter until the engine coughed. She pumped it again, but nothing happened. Her knee brushed something sharp, and a swipe of the flashlight revealed three broken wires on the ground. That’s when she noticed the concrete floor was damp with a trail of rust-colored stains. Her hand reached out and touched the splatters. They smeared red on her fingertips. Isabelle’s heart stuck in her throat.

Someone was breathing behind her.

She swung the light back toward the corner of the room, revealing a black formless shape. Then suddenly—a pair of white eyes. Jules leapt forward with a spear over his head, body covered in mud, dark mouth gaping.

Isabelle instinctively ducked to the ground. Jules fell over her body and they struggled as the flashlight and spear rolled in opposite directions. Isabelle felt Jules’s naked chest on top of her. He was covered in mud so completely that only his eyes could be seen. He pinned her shoulders and lay across the length of her body. The smell of his sweat and hot breath was like an animal’s. She didn’t recognize his scratchy voice.

“I knew you would come find me. This is our moment, Isabelle. This is how it ends. You and I together.”

His hands wrapped around her neck and squeezed tight. She tried to scream but nothing came out of her slackened jaw. Sparks burst behind her eyelids and her body felt weak. Then Jules loosened his grip and she could sense the blood pouring back to her brain. He forced his mouth over hers.

Isabelle struggled to get free, charged with adrenaline and desperation. She managed to release one hand and made a deep scratch with her fingernails, four bloody lines that ran from his shoulders to the base of his spine. That’s where she found a stick protruding from his back, just above his hip. It was Luke’s arrow, snapped in half. The upper half dangled, still attached.

She grabbed the hanging piece of aluminum and tugged it sideways.

Jules let out a cry and rolled off Isabelle, as the piece of arrow broke off in her hand.

He snorted like a bull and was on his feet, arching his back.

She scrambled for the rifle, grasping the stock and getting a finger on the trigger. The barrel pointed straight at Jules as he leapt over her body. The gun went off with an ear-splitting blast that propelled her backward and sent a bullet through the wall.

The door rumbled open and she knew Jules was gone.

She leaned back against the generator, knees hugged to her chest, sobbing. With the back of her hand, she wiped the taste of him from her lips.

* * *

Luke lay on his bed with Monica’s body wrapped around him. There were candles around the bed and the fireplace was lit, warming the room with heat and soft lighting.

Monica sat up and reached for a quarter bottle of gin.

“Stop drinking already,” he complained, agitated.

She had nearly finished the bottle and her brain was swimming in alcohol, slurring her speech. “If um goin’ out, um goin’ out sloshed, not scared t’death.”

“You have to stay sharp. In case you need to defend yourself.”

“You can ’fend me. B’sides, he’s dead, you killed him.”

“We don’t know that. It was an arrow, not a bullet.”

“He’s dead. I’m sure.” She yawned, clinging to the gin. “So was it weird, to shoo’ someone?”

Luke remembered the moment. Hearing Monica scream, seeing Jules push her head underwater. He had loaded the bow, his heart pounding like a hammer, and he wanted to hit that target more than anything. He thought of his dad.

“Not really.”

Monica rolled on her back. “Wonder how he knew?”

He rolled with her. “Knew what?”

She looked at him through sleepy lids. “He was right. I never did it.”

“You mean… it?”

“S’not true that I’m scared. I would do it. With the right person. Can’t be jus’ anyone.”

“You’re pretty drunk. Maybe you should go to sleep. In a few hours, we’ll be on a boat to Canada.”

“’Less Beecher kills us first.”

“You just said he was dead.”

“Mm, maybe.” She seemed suddenly panicked by a thought. “Wha’f your mom can’t find Canada and we end up los’ at sea? Or the storm goes for days and we get stuck. Goin’ nuts from the trees—”

“Shhh, you’re getting yourself worked up.”

She took another drink.

This time, Luke grabbed the bottle. “Hey, cut it out. You’ve had enough.”

“I was jus’ thinkin’, we really could die. I’d hate to die without ever… you know.”

Luke blinked, and his cheeks flushed. He drank from the bottle of gin until his throat burned. This time he didn’t cough. He wiped his mouth and put the gin on the nightstand.

She asked, “You haven’t either, right?”

He shook his head, staring at the candle and thinking. “Are you sure?”

She unsnapped his jeans.


RAIN DRIPPED OVER THE HEADSTONE. Ginny ran her fingertips over the rough exterior, touching the cross, and a smile curled at the corners of her lips.

With the flashlight propped on a rock, she wasted no time digging for the diamond. But the ground was runny as silt and each scoop only filled the hole with more mud. As she dug in deep, it occurred to her that the diamond might have washed away years ago. Even worse, maybe it was never buried here at all and she’d been sent on a wild-goose chase.

“Damn you, George, to bloody hell.”

Rain pelted her head but she looked at the cross with renewed confidence. “It’s here, I know it. Right here in this grave.”

After she’d removed about a foot of soil, she plunged her hands deep into the muck, working her fingers like backhoes until she was up to her shoulders in mud. Suddenly, she felt the neck of a bottle. She grasped it and tugged, pulling her arms free. Her pulse kicked up a notch as the bottle finally emerged with a sucking sound. In her muddy grip was a dome-shaped liquor bottle. Ginny wiped it clean and chuckled.

George was daft but elegant, burying a rare diamond in a bottle of expensive cognac. She was ready for another battle with the cork, but it loosened and popped with no effort.

The flashlight revealed a gold chain attached to the cork, and she held it up to view. At the end of the chain was the jewel. The diamond spun in the brightness of the flashlight, casting bits of pink sparkle in her muddy hand. It was bigger than she expected—the size of a large pearl.

Ginny grasped it tight and pressed it to her chest.

“Thank you, George darling.” With a heavy sigh she tried to get to her feet, but they were stuck in mud. She squirmed side to side, not wanting to lose either the diamond or the flashlight, but the pain of arthritis caught up to her.

“Oh, blast these old bones.”

Darkness completely enveloped the woods, and the water was still rising. It would be a rough journey back. A loud crack of thunder made Ginny flinch. Lightning illuminated the treetops blowing fierce in the wind.

“Damned weather,” she muttered.

The next burst of light revealed a dark silhouette standing over her. She jolted again, but breathed out relief when she raised the flashlight. He was wearing pants but no shirt, and had stooped shoulders, a round white belly, and black hair that clung like seaweed to his head. He was smiling.

“Sean,” she cried out. “Help me up!”

A hatchet rose over his head.

Ginny shot up a hand and her face contorted into a scream as the blade came down hard. It sliced cleanly into her skull, where it stuck, making the wood handle seem like a protruding horn. Ginny’s head slumped back under its weight, her eyes rolled into her head, mouth opening and closing like a fish; an involuntary movement, as her brain was now cut in half. Blood poured down her face with rain as she hit the muddy ground, fist still clinging tightly around the diamond.

* * *

The storm continued in waves of torrent and languor. Monica awoke naked and shivering, caught somewhere between a drunken stupor and a hangover. The candle by the bed flickered from a draft and the house was bitterly cold. It took a long moment to figure out she was in Luke’s room.

Footsteps in the hallway stopped in front of the door and she panicked, stumbling to her feet. She waited until she heard the shoes walking away. It took several tries to step into her underwear and she found it impossible to put on her sweatsuit, so she rolled it into a ball, pressed to her bare chest.

At the edge of the bed she looked down at Luke, and stared at his face that seemed more boyish in sleep. She vaguely remembered having sex with him. He had confident hands, artfully slow, and so in control of their lovemaking that she thought he must have read a book or something.

“Ness time I won’t be so wasted.” She wanted to kiss his cheek, but bending down upset her balance and her stomach. She picked up a candle on the nightstand. “G’night… I’m glad it was you.”

The hallway swayed. Monica took careful steps so as not to fall over, while trying to remember which door was her bedroom. It was definitely by the stairs, just past the landing. The candle led the way as she patted the peeling wallpaper for support.

She could see the flicker of another candle in the stairwell. Her steps slowed as she approached, squinting in the dark.

“Iss-belle?” She craned her neck.

Sean was sitting on the stairs, a candle by his side. His hair was soaking wet and he looked like a corpse with snow-white skin, blue lips, and pupils full and black. He was bare-chested, with dark stains down one arm.

Monica snorted her disgust. He was staring at her legs, smirking, and she stumbled quickly to the door across from him.

“Freak,” she muttered and shut the door behind her.

It was even colder in the room but Monica was too drunk to care. She dropped the candle and the flame blew out as it struck the floor. She fell into bed and was asleep before her face hit the mattress.

Rain splashed against the windowpane. The door opened with a sharp creak and candlelight danced into the room. A pair of feet padded across the wood floor and, as lightning struck, a shadow passed by the window.

Monica rolled onto her back to take a breath. She smiled drunkenly, feeling Luke’s hands on her breasts again, straddling her like before. She opened her eyes into tiny slits to see a figure leaning over her.

Cutting shears came down into her throat.

Her head snapped back with a gasping breath. Eyes wide with terror, she tried to scream but her voice was no more than a gurgle. Her hands yearned to grasp her neck, stop the pain and rush of blood from her throat, but she was paralyzed.

Sean squirmed onto her naked chest, holding her wrists above her head. He looked down, smiling, and the other hand pulled the shears out of her neck with a sloshing sound that sprayed them both with blood.

He snorted with pride. He’d been smart this time. Monica could feel pain, but couldn’t move or make a sound. He could take his time with her and not worry about interruptions. He watched her struggle, while his hands wrapped around the bloody handle of the cutting shears so the blades opened and closed like tiny crab claws in front of her eyes. Sean leaned close to her ear so she could feel each hot breath pass his lips.

“Snip, snip, snip, Monica.”

* * *

Isabelle had barely been able to turn the kitchen door handle. After running back from the shed, she had collapsed on the cold kitchen tiles, soaked in mud and the memories of Jules’s squirming body, and then curled up in the shadows and cried.

That was hours ago and now she was asleep, slouched in the library chair with the rifle loosely in her lap. The downpour had become the soothing hypnotic sound of light rain.

A crack of thunder startled her awake and she jolted upright, fumbling for the gun. A burst of lightning lit up the patio, blurry from raindrops that dripped down the windows. Isabelle froze in the chair, getting her bearings. She was still alone in the library. The house was quiet and morning was not far off. She could see the darkest blue in the sky where it had been black hours ago.

Still, it was freezing cold and dark in the room. The fire in the hearth had died and she zipped her coat to her chin, thinking about Jules in the shed. How he sprang from the dark corner like a leopard. She needed more light, more heat. She picked up the last log and threw it onto the embers and the flames sprang to life, warming her hands.

Lightning flashed and she turned to the windows.

A loud bang hit the glass, and Isabelle gasped. For a split second, she saw the silhouette of a giant, his face glowing white and dark eyes staring at her.

Isabelle pointed the rifle, but the figure was gone. She stood fixed as a statue, eyes wide, ice running through her veins. Thunder rumbled and the barrel shook in her grip.


Jules crashed through the window with a heavy fuel tank over his head like a battering ram. The sky lit up brilliant white as shattered glass sprayed across the room, sparkling like confetti. Wind swept a frosty rain into the house.

Jules lay on the floor, a table length away from Isabelle’s feet, but she couldn’t move.

Please be dead.

In the firelight, she could see the broken arrow in his back. He lifted his head and stared with black eyes, face tilted and smiling. With a broken nose and shards of glass in his mottled cheeks, he looked like a monster. Isabelle kept the shaking rifle pointed at his chest as he staggered to his feet and lurched sideways. She thought he might fall over, but then she saw the fuel tank in his hands, rising over his head.

The gun went off as the tank flew toward her with mammoth force. Isabelle sidestepped but it caught her elbow, knocking the gun from her hands and crashing into the wall.

Jules was thrown back as the bullet hit his shoulder, and he tripped on the broken window frame, stumbling backward onto the patio.

Isabelle dropped to her hands and knees, patting the floor for the rifle. She could hear the sound of footsteps in the upstairs hall and someone shouting for her.

By the time Luke reached the library, Jules was gone.


A DUSKY TINT OF MORNING light crept over the library furniture and walls. There was a gaping hole where a window had been and wind blew rain across the rug. Luke stared dumbstruck at his mother, standing in front of the broken glass, rifle ready and pointed at the patio.

“What the hell happened?” Luke asked.

Isabelle turned to him slowly, with no expression as though walking in her sleep. Mist blew through her hair.

“Mom,” he shouted and her eyes became alert.

She looked around the room, rubbing her bruised elbow, and said, “We should go. Now.”

Luke went to the window that had shattered from floor to ceiling, where remnants of glass hung like icicles. He squinted at the patio.

Isabelle hurried to the hallway and up the stairs, calling for Sean. She reached his room and found it empty, and then doubled back and opened the door to Monica’s room.

Her fist muffled a hideous cry.

Monica lay on the bed in her panties, eyes wide and mouth gaped in an expression of agony. Blood had formed a dark clot from the deep puncture in her throat, where tiny pink bubbles gathered and popped. A trace of light from the window showed her body, white as snow, the bed soaked in red, and everywhere, from her forehead to the tips of her toes, were hundreds of ragged cuts, bloody slices an inch in width as though she were pelted with an absurd kind of shrapnel.

The horror hit Isabelle like a grenade. She turned on feeble knees and took a step before doubling over. Nothing came up but dry, painful heaves.

Luke was nearly at the door, calling for Monica. Isabelle gathered all her strength to push him into the hall, wiping her mouth and slamming the door behind her. She confronted him with a loud but shaky voice.

“Go downstairs. There’s no one in their rooms.”

He could see the truth in her expression.

She tried to hold Luke back, grasping his shirt, but he was frantic.

“Please, please,” she beseeched him, but her small frame was no match for his size and he shook her off, storming the room.

Isabelle held her ears over the cries of her son. When she stepped into the room, he was pacing the floor, pulling his hair and yelling to the ceiling. He stopped long enough to heave out a thin stream of soup and alcohol in the corner of the room.

Luke allowed Isabelle to lead him into the hallway, where she held his convulsing body and let him cry until there was nothing left but dazed shock, and they walked down the stairs together.

Luke broke away in a full rage. “Beecher did this! He smashed the window, didn’t he?”

“Yes, I mean…”

“Why didn’t you stop him?”

“I tried. I shot him. He might be dead.”

“Well, you were too late.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Luke.”

* * *

A few minutes later they were in the office. Luke sat on a chair close to the fire. His burst of anger had been fleeting and now he looked dazed, staring at the flames in dead silence. His body shook so feverishly Isabelle could barely keep the blanket wrapped around him.

She was worried. As long as Luke was in shock, he couldn’t help search for Sean and Ginny. He would have to stay in the house until they could all leave together. The fire was dying and she tossed in loose paper and wooden bookends from the shelf. Enough to keep him warm for a while.

“I’m going to find your brother. Don’t leave this room, do you hear? You’re not to leave. I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay?”

Luke fell into quiet sobs and she put her arms around his neck. The urge to stay and comfort her son was strong, but the instinct to save both her children was stronger.

“If I’m not back in half an hour, get yourself to that boat. Try the radio, channel sixteen. Keep trying it.”

He stared blankly at the fire until he heard his mother reloading the rifle. His voice was raspy. “What if he finds you?”

“I’ll blow his head off.” Isabelle slipped a handful of bullets into her coat pocket.

When Luke turned from the roaring blaze, she could sense his body was returning to normal. His expression of fear and shock had faded. Instead, she saw only anger.

“I want to be there.” He stood and the blanket fell to the floor. “I’m coming with you.”

* * *

It was dawn and silver mist floated over the woods. Isabelle and Luke walked in silence. Cold drizzle was still coming down, but the muddy ground had begun to harden.

Luke was agitated, and it wasn’t just the image of Monica. There was something on his mind that wouldn’t let go. He asked Isabelle, “When did you shoot Beecher?”

“When he came through the window. I shot him in the shoulder.”

“So how did he get upstairs? When did he have a chance—”

“We’re almost there,” she said, stopping his thought. “Right through these pines.”

The campsite was empty, destroyed by the storm. Jules’s chaotic mess of belongings was scattered on the ground covered in mud, along with branches taken down by the wind. Isabelle noticed the pallets of plants were missing.

Luke walked across the wet ground, awed by the amount of fungus. “This stuff is everywhere.” He wandered over to the collapsed tent, sidestepping pieces of scrap metal and bits of broken glass. He turned back to the woods and stared between the trees. “Where do you think they’ve gone?”

“Maybe they’re loading the boat.” Isabelle noticed the heavy drag marks of pallets and lines of a wheelbarrow leading to the woods.

“Oh shit!” Luke shouted, staring at something behind the tent.

Isabelle approached the area and saw a line of corpses lying chest-down in the dirt. Their bodies were flat and deflated in the center and their flesh was well preserved, mottled blue and hard as pottery. The heads were turned sideways and Isabelle could see their taut skin pulled back in a smile over protruding yellow teeth. She threw a hand to her mouth and unconsciously did a quick scan to make sure Sean was not among them. He wasn’t, and she stepped closer.

Luke whispered, “Jesus. Where did they come from?”

She shook her head.

“You think George did this?”

“No. He could never…” She moved closer. “They look so young.”

Each of the skulls had been partially removed, so the brain was exposed. The frontal lobes were black and each body had a thick black stripe running down the spine. The lines branched out into patterns that ran down the arms and legs like spiderwebs.

“What are those markings?” Luke asked, bending closer.

Isabelle shook her head. Then she scrutinized one of the bodies and stepped back. “It’s the fungus.” She pondered the webbing across the back and extremities and realized there was a familiar pattern. It was as if the fungus were following the circulatory system. “Do you see the branching? It looks to be following their veins and arteries.”

“No,” Luke said. “It’s concentrated at the brain and spine, but scarce at the heart and lungs. I’d say it’s following the nervous system.” He squatted on his heels and scanned the row of corpses. “There’s nine of them.”

“Maybe more under the tent. Help me pull it back.” Together they lifted the canvas, heavy with rain and mud, and dragged it away from the bodies.

Isabelle let out a cry of shock.

Ginny lay on the ground, dead. She was resting on her side in the fetal position. She looked small and featherlight as a child in a wet blouse and pants, her chin raised too far back as if her neck were broken. Her skull had been split. Her left hand was slightly raised, and tangled in her bloody, clenched fist was a gold chain. At the end of the chain, a diamond lay in the dirt.

Luke turned away and felt the last bit of acid rise to his throat. He’d already seen an image of the old woman dying, but reality was far worse. “Let’s go. Please.”

Isabelle looked at the trees with a scornful expression.

“Silent witnesses,” she whispered. “I wonder.”

“Can we go?”

“Yes.” She unconsciously rubbed her hands on her jacket, wiping away the foulness of the place. “We have to get off this island now. Let’s check the house once more for Sean and grab a few supplies.”

“What if Jules already took the boat?”

“That would be a good thing. But I’m pretty sure he hasn’t left the island.”

“How do you know?”

“Because we’re still alive.”

* * *

Sean was in the library when Isabelle and Luke returned to the house. He stood conspicuously in the middle of the room, whimpering, with a guilty expression on his face. Dark blood splattered his face and naked chest. It soaked his shorts and tennis shoes.

Isabelle was speechless.

Luke flew into a rage, shoving his brother against the wall of books. Sean caught his balance but didn’t fight back, even as Luke shoved him again and again, and an avalanche of books fell on top of them.

“Stop it,” Isabelle shouted and pulled Luke by the arm.

Sean sniffed and wiped his nose.

Luke punched him in the jaw and he fell on the floor.

“You killed her,” Luke yelled, pointing a hard finger. “You hated her and you killed her. That’s her blood on you.” He was crying. “That’s her blood!”

Sean fled from the room, his legs flailing spastically, and Isabelle ran to Luke.

He pushed her away. “I’m going to kill him.”

“No, no, he didn’t do it.”

“Then who did!”

Isabelle reached the breaking point. “I don’t know! Oh God, I don’t know what’s happening, Luke. I don’t know what kind of evil’s taken hold of your brother or Jules or this island, but I do know Sean’s not a killer. Something’s controlling their minds. You saw Ginny dead before it happened. I saw my father jump off the cliffs yesterday. It’s not just Sean.”

He shook his head.

“We’ve got to keep it together, okay?”

“How can we?” he replied. “Nothing makes sense anymore. It’s like Beecher was right. Maybe those plants are messing with our heads.”

“Yes, that’s it,” she said. “Perhaps it’s the plants.”

“You believe that? They want to kill us?” His eyes closed for a moment. “Monica said the same thing.”

“It sounds crazy, I know, but what other explanation could there be? Plants have been evolving defenses against animals for millions of years. Maybe it has something to do with that fungus; somehow they can reach into our minds. I think it’s possible that they could have turned my father’s work, his lifelong dream, into a way of destroying us.”

“He had no right to do that! I hate him.”

“I know how you feel. But I don’t think he meant for this to happen. He paid for that mistake with his life.”

“Good.” Luke wiped his face and stared at her, helpless. “So what do they want? Dr. Beecher said they had a message.”

She shrugged. “I’m not sure, but my father left a notebook, some kind of journal. Jules said it explained the whole experiment. There were maps showing a long trip George was planning to take. I think he was going to spread the fungus all over the world. Then at some point he realized they were controlling his mind, making him do unspeakable things, so he jumped off the cliffs to stop them.”

“Idiot. That didn’t stop them at all. He should have called the police, or told that lawyer what was going on. I mean, he must have known other people would come here. You’d think he’d leave some kind of warning.”

Isabelle’s eyes widened. She pressed a hand to her forehead and pulled the riddle from her back pocket. It was crumpled and damp. “Maybe he was trying to warn us. Give us some way to protect ourselves from the plants on the island.” She read from the paper. “‘Open The Book to find a link. The goddess Hanus, protector of all who think.’”

Luke scoffed, looking at the books that fell on the floor and hundreds of others on the shelves. “There’s like two thousand books in this house.”

Isabelle didn’t answer for a moment. Her gaze was cloudy and she was nodding. “No. There was only one book to him.”

* * *

Isabelle picked through the ruins in the lab until she found a thick book covered in brown leather. She carried the almanac on botany to the desk and spread it open. “To my father, this really was The Book.”

It was an alphabetic listing of species and she flipped to H. Her finger slid down the pages of old-fashioned type and ink sketches.

“Is there a species called Hanus?” Luke asked.

She scanned the names with her finger and paused on Helianthus annuus. She whispered, “Hanus.”

He watched a smile creep over his mother’s face, and said, “What?”

She tapped the page hard. “The abbreviated genus is H. annuus, otherwise known as sunflower.”

Luke nodded slowly. “West of the woods and east of High Peak.” He brightened. “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”

“Of course. The answer to the riddle is the sun.”

They both stared at the next line. Isabelle rolled it around in her head. “How is the sun protector of all who think?”

“Maybe they can only get in your head at night.”

“I don’t know. We’ve had plenty of trouble in daylight.”

They thought in silence for a moment.

Luke shrugged. “Why did George bother to write a riddle? Why didn’t he just explain what he meant?”

“Because he couldn’t. George had lost control of his mind, so he told us in the only way possible. The same way Jules told me to make a bonfire.”


“Jules wanted me to signal for help, but he was too far gone to say the words. He told me about the bonfire in a sort of code, like a riddle.” She listened to the sound of silence. “The rain is letting up. We should leave now.”

“I’m not going with Sean.”

“You don’t have to.” Isabelle was looking desperately out the window, and her voice cracked. “We’ve lost him.”


THE BEACH WAS LITTERED with seaweed and driftwood that had washed up during the storm. Luke squinted at a gray sky, where the sun was trying to seep through the haze. He carried a small bag of supplies, while Isabelle shouldered the rifle.

They walked down the gangway to the Acadia, rocking in the swells. They approached the boat cautiously and stopped, listening for movement on board. Isabelle opened the latch to the swing door. She let out a gasp of horror.

Captain Flannigan’s body was pushed under a bench, his shirt pulled over his white belly. He’d been filleted down the middle by a knife, with two horizontal cuts that exposed a pink pile of loosely packed intestines that spilled from the cavity onto the deck in an enormous puddle of blood.

Isabelle pushed Luke back a few paces and turned her head from the ghastly sight. A sound came from her throat, and Luke held her steady for a moment.

“I’m okay,” she said. “We need to move him.”

Isabelle and Luke each took a leg and dragged the body onto the dock, the entrails starting to unravel. They boarded the boat, stepping over the blood pool. On deck they found stacks of wooden pallets and lobster traps that contained hundreds of plant specimens.

Isabelle turned around and scanned the line of trees down the beach. “We have to hurry. They’ll probably be back soon.” She gave the rifle to Luke and told him to untie the dock lines and stand guard while she started the engine. Then she climbed the ladder and peeked over the bridge, relieved to see it was empty. The boat rolled slightly on a wave as she moved forward to the captain’s chair.

The key was in the ignition. It hadn’t even occurred to Isabelle that she’d need a key but now she gave a silent prayer of thanks. A slight turn started the motor. It sputtered loudly for a moment, and then purred while the gauge needles spun around. She flipped on the radio, surfing the channels. There was only static, but she tuned in channel sixteen.

“Hello? This is the Acadia. Can anyone hear me?”

* * *

Luke put the rifle down and squatted on the dock next to the captain’s body, hastily unwinding the first line from its cleat. A flash of movement shifted his eyes to the woods.

Jules emerged from the trees holding a heavy pallet. He took one look at the boat and stopped short on the sand, dropped the plants, and raced down the beach.

Luke saw him and jumped on board, shouting to the bridge, “Mom, go!”

Isabelle hit full throttle and the boat lurched, but it was still tied up at the bow.

“Hold on!” Luke vaulted over the rail and struggled with the second rope. The sound of heavy boots pounding down the gangway made him fumble, but he finally freed the line. As the boat drifted from its berth, he jumped aboard again, holding tight to the rail for balance. He turned to see Jules storming toward the rifle.

“Damn,” he whispered, looking for cover, but Jules didn’t stop to pick up the gun. He was going full speed and Luke scurried backward as the engine revved and the boat pulled out of the mooring.

Jules leapt eight feet over the water and landed on deck, into the captain’s blood. He slid across the floor and smashed against the pallets.

Luke heard the crack of bones and wood.

Jules moaned and rolled on his side. There was still half an arrow sticking out of his back. He rose to his feet, standing up straight and expanding his huge bare chest. A strip of cloth was wrapped around the gunshot wound in his shoulder and another where Luke had stabbed him in the leg. His nose had doubled in size and his eyes were badly bruised. Cuts and patches of black had invaded most of his face and a shard of glass stuck out of his neck.

How can he be alive? Luke thought, gaping.

Jules charged at the boy, tackling him to the floor. They slammed into the pallets, sending the plants overboard. Jules kicked Luke in the gut and watched him curl in pain. He pulled his leg back again, but the boat lurched and Luke grabbed his foot before the next blow hit. He tugged and twisted, sending Jules backward into the stack of pallets.

Another tray of plants went sailing overboard, plunging the specimens into the depths. Jules rushed to the side, watching the green leaves vanish. He turned, growling like an animal and running after the boy.

Luke fumbled down the starboard side of the boat, knocking stacks of lobster traps onto the floor behind him, trying to slow Jules down. He had nearly reached the stern when his feet caught on something and he fell onto a soft mound. It was a knee-high pile of fishing net and he kicked his feet out of the holes and got back up. Jules was scrambling over obstacles with fury in his face, and there was nowhere for Luke to run. He looked around for something else to throw, but there was nothing. He grabbed the fishing net with both hands and tried to pick it up but it was a tangled mess. The ropes were brittle, covered in algae and hooks. He managed to haul a clump of it over his head. But it was too late.

Jules lunged at him, and they both fell backward on the deck, the heavy net covering Luke’s body. The boy squirmed to get free but his hands and knees got more tangled in the holes. Jules had all his weight on the boy, straddling his legs and pinning his arms down. Luke tried to kick but he could barely move; he was caught like a fish.

Jules tore the bandage off his own shoulder and pressed the bloody cloth over the boy’s mouth and nose. Luke tried to scream but the thick cloth cut off his air. The enormous hand covered half his face. Luke looked up and saw the face of Jules leaning closer to him, just inches from his cheek. His voice was raspy but calm.

“It’s okay, son. Just let it happen.”

There was something in the man’s eyes and his voice that frightened Luke even more than not being able to breathe.

“You can’t fight it. Better you let it happen.”

Over Jules’s shoulder, Luke saw the boat was spinning like crazy—or was he just dizzy? He needed air badly, just one breath. He was in full-blown panic and began to struggle wildly. It was worse than drowning.

Jules sounded pleased. “Come on now. We’re almost there.”

There was a whirring in Luke’s ears as he was plunging into blackness. He struggled to kick and Jules pressed harder on the bandage.

“Almost there… here we go.”

Luke felt himself slipping away.

“Just a little longer… there you go, Luke… good boy… that’s it.”

* * *

Isabelle got to her feet, shaken and pained. The boat was being swept along in the riptide, headed full speed to the jetty. She grabbed the wheel but it was futile. They were caught in the churning waters. She broke for the ladder.

On deck, Jules was at the bow, leaning over something and pressing down hard. Isabelle felt her blood pressure surge as she made her way aft, and saw he was hunched over a fishing net, with Luke’s unmoving legs under Jules’s weight.

Isabelle jumped on Jules’s back and her leg felt the stab of a broken arrow through her pants. Jules threw back his shoulders and stood up, spinning around, but Isabelle hung on. He flipped her over and she slammed backward onto a bench, knocking the wind out of her lungs with a cry of pain.

Jules stood over her, steaming with rage. He lifted a fist ready to pound her when the boat lurched, hitting the full wrath of the ocean and casting the boat nearly on its side. Jules lost his balance and grabbed the rail.

Isabelle hung on too, afraid of being pitched into the roiling sea.

There was a loud gasp of air knocked from Jules’s lungs and then she saw Luke tackle him, pushing him overboard.

Jules clung to the rail, feet dangling in the water.

Luke was still woozy, coughing and tripping over his feet side to side. The boat was closing in fast on the jetty and Jules was struggling to get on deck, one foot already secure, when Isabelle grabbed Luke from behind.

“Jump!” she yelled over the roar of waves, and they both went overboard with a splash.

With a sudden turn of current, the Acadia drifted away from the jetty. It looped around the rocks and got caught up in the surge of breakers headed toward the cliffs.

Isabelle and Luke exploded to the surface, coughing and treading water, trying to stay afloat. It was frigidly cold and Isabelle swam to her son, feeling her arm muscles growing stiff and weak.

Luke pulled off his jacket, hooked an arm around his mother, and swam hard. They went under and then over the waves, making slow progress toward the jetty. His mind flashed to Monica saving his life and for a moment he thought of giving up.

Isabelle was able to swim the last few feet on her own. Panting and exhausted, they clung to a slippery black rock, half in, half out of the water as the surf tried to pull them back. At last they lifted themselves on shaky legs. Luke took loud breaths, coughing and wheezing. They could see the Acadia approach the rocky shoreline beneath the cliffs. They watched the boat crash into pieces.


TWO DAYS LATER, Isabelle sat in the library drunk with fatigue, rifle in hand, staring out the shattered window to the patio. Tentacles of white mist floated into the room, remnants of a thick fog that blanketed the island.

Her mind drifted in and out, between moments of haze and clarity. Sometimes the world was a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes as if she’d never seen it clearly before, and Isabelle would experience inner peace of great magnitude, followed by severe headaches that felt as if something were suctioning out her brain, and she would wake up on the floor of the laboratory covered in sweat and pine needles. There were times when she was lucid, acutely aware of what had happened over the last week, the waxen faces of Monica and Ginny etched in her mind, and those were the worst times of all, although they came less often.

Luke ambled across the floor in a semi-stupor. He announced in a hollow voice that it was time to gather the plants. “The boat is coming today.”

Isabelle sat up straight in the chair. The boat. Was it already Wednesday? She had lost track of time. Colin would be arriving with the Coast Guard, and that was good, wasn’t it?

She felt a sudden urge to look for Sean, to find out if Jules was dead, finish him off with her last bit of strength and wait for the boat back to Halifax. But, as always, her thoughts turned to vapor. Each time she tried to formulate a plan of escape, the ideas slipped out of reach like a passing breeze. After the Acadia crashed, she and Luke had searched the woods for Sean, but gradually, the longing for her son eased.

She leaned back in the chair and wiped moisture from her forehead. The fog had arrived with a warm front, and for once she wasn’t cold. Isabelle still wore the same mud-drenched clothes she fell asleep in two nights ago and now they crackled with hardened clay. It looked like she’d been marooned for months, instead of days. She could feel the tug of muddy knots in her hair and smell the fetid odor of her body.

Luke blinked with vacant eyes. “Mom, if you let go, it feels better.”

Don’t let go, Luke, she wanted to tell him, never stop fighting. But the words wouldn’t come.

“I think we should gather the plants now,” he repeated, because it felt good. “The boat will be coming soon. We’ll need the boat.”

You’ve got to keep your wits about you, she tried to say, but instead she uttered the only words that felt right. “Let’s find your brother and help with the reaping.”

They walked through the woods to the campsite in silence. From behind a cloak of evergreens they could see Sean and Jules placing specimens onto a tarp. For some reason, Isabelle wasn’t surprised to see Jules or her son, and their actions made perfect sense. After the boat sank, they’d had to start the harvest all over. Fungus-infected saplings, ferns, flowering plants, and creeping vines had been carefully dug from their roots, wrapped in plastic, and placed on the canvas ready for transport, along with bags of seed.

Isabelle quietly watched Jules work. She raised the rifle and wondered why she didn’t just shoot him. It would be so easy. She lowered the gun; the thought was already gone.

Jules was no longer covered in filth. He looked more presentable in a clean pair of jeans and his skin scrubbed raw. He had put on a new shirt so the bullet wound was hidden, and the arrow was missing from his back. Perhaps because he had no mirror, Jules did nothing about his ghastly face. The black bumps covered its entirety, as well as most of his neck. They were elongated and had a glossy sheen.

Jules walked with a limp, but seemed fit and lively.

Sean too had cleaned up, but like Jules the velutinous bumps had spread quickly down his left cheek. It gave Isabelle a chill, but she didn’t react.

Luke tugged his mother’s sleeve and whispered, “Shall we help them?”

A motor sounded in the distance, turning everyone’s attention toward the beach.

Jules and Sean put down their tools and set off for the inlet.

“We should follow them,” Luke said.

Isabelle nodded, fighting the urge to pick up a tray of plants.

* * *

The swells from the storm had passed, and the water was smooth as glass. The fog was blowing out to sea and a vivid blue sky stretched over the inlet.

A small Coast Guard boat headed toward the beach, flying the flag of Canada. Even from a distance Isabelle could tell it was Colin at the bow. He was tall and wide-shouldered, standing firm against a gust of wind.

She watched Jules, crouched in position from his hiding place in the woods, spying on the boat and signaling Sean to move out. Sean stepped out of the tree cover and walked up the beach as the boat pulled into the slip.

Colin waved to his son and jumped onto the dock. The Coast Guard officer handed him a rope to tie up the boat. The sun was shining warm on the beach, so Colin secured the boat and then took off his jacket. Isabelle noticed he was wearing a holstered gun and felt a twinge of calm. He spoke to the Coast Guard, who pointed to a path in the woods, seeming to offer directions to the house. Then he handed Colin a travel bag, which he threw over his shoulder.

Isabelle and Luke both moved in closer, staying low behind the cover of brush. Both of them stared at Colin in anticipation of something about to happen.

Luke whispered, “Who’s gonna kill him?”

Isabelle looked at him shocked, and lowered the rifle.

“We need the boat.” He crawled closer to the edge of the woods.

Isabelle followed and nearly tripped over a leg. Captain Flannigan was lying on his side in the dirt. He was half covered with dried leaves and flies buzzed over the gaping black hole under his rib cage.

Luke took hold of the spear and tugged, letting out a small grunt. The barbed end came out with a squishing sound.

Isabelle looked wide-eyed at her son.

“I may need it,” he said matter-of-factly.

She turned her attention to Colin on the dock. He was investigating the pallets of plants stacked up to his waist when Sean approached the boat. His father greeted him with an awkward hug and pointed to the pallets, but Sean shrugged as if he’d never seen them before.

Isabelle felt her heart quicken when Colin grabbed Sean by the sleeve and inspected the side of his face. He must have been complaining about the fungus, thinking it was dirt. Then he noticed a knife in Sean’s belt and tried to take it away.

Sean dodged his grip and jumped onto the beach, casually sat down and threw sand in the water. Colin shook his head and set off down the trail toward the house.

Isabelle saw Jules slip from his hiding place and follow her husband. “You wait here,” she told Luke and set off to trail both men.

Colin trudged through the woods, disgusted with the snarled path, dodging fallen logs and swiping at low-hanging branches as though they were mosquitoes. The cumbersome shoulder bag kept snagging on vines and he had to continually switch sides. When he reached the fork he stopped, looking right and left, and then continuing along the red trail.

That’s when Jules broke away, heading into a thicket of brush and leaving Isabelle wondering what he was up to.

She stayed far enough behind Colin so he couldn’t hear her footfalls. It was strange; the emotions she expected upon seeing her husband never came. She trailed him with indifference and a driving curiosity as to what would happen to him, and the nauseating feeling that she would somehow be involved.

The woods ended and Colin faced a blue unbroken sky, fields of golden grass, and a house much grander than expected. He settled his hands firmly on his hips, smiling and nodding his head in astonishment, seeming pleased with the estate. Then he started up the path with a livelier spring in his step.

Isabelle could feel her mind wandering toward someplace dark and she fought to stay in control as her husband reached the patio. Something was prodding her to relax, and she gave in to the pressure for just a moment, shocked at a sudden urge to kill her husband.

Just shoot him with the rifle. She raised the crosshair to one eye. Then swiftly threw the weapon to the ground. Colin reached the house and stood in front of the gaping hole where the window to the library had shattered, scratching the back of his head. He turned around, looking suspiciously in every direction.

Isabelle ducked behind a tree and peeked out, as he stepped over the broken window into the house. She imagined Colin walking through the living room, calling her name. He would cross the main hallway and stop in front of the open door to the lab, where he’d find a chaotic mess of papers and a large word on the wall written in blood. Then he would run to the kitchen, yelling her name, and then back to the stairs, taking two or three steps at a time. She took a deep breath and waited. He should have found Monica’s body by now.

As if on cue, Colin stumbled from the house with an expression of terror, his gun drawn in the air. He crossed the patio and headed back down the path to the woods.

Isabelle felt a whack to the head and her knees hit the ground in a shock of pain. She saw a burst of stars and then nothing, black shadows flickering against bright white. Then she saw sky, and tried to blink away the blurriness.

Jules was standing over her, pointing the butt of the rifle at her head.

* * *

Luke watched the Coast Guardsman standing at the side of the boat, looking through a pair of binoculars. He was a tall man wearing a pressed white shirt and slacks, and a cap marked with the seal of a navigation officer. The officer was looking at the jetty where floating remains of a boat wreck had washed up on the rocks. A long bench cushion, a bright orange life vest, and a piece of the stern with the name Acadia.

The officer lowered his binoculars, squinting at the wreck, and then went back inside the bridge. Only his head was visible but it looked to Luke like he might be talking on the radio.

Then Sean jumped on deck, making the boat rock back and forth. The officer came around and spoke to him, moving quickly off the boat, onto the beach. Sean followed him around the inlet toward the jetty.

Then the boy stopped. He let out a grunt so loud Luke heard it clearly. So did the officer, who turned around, watching the boy stomp his foot in the sand and point a hard finger toward the path in the woods.

The officer continued down the beach.

Sean reached for his belt and pulled out the knife. He ran at the officer, who started to turn but was hit with a blow from behind. The knife went into his back with full force, both of Sean’s hands gripping the handle. The man hit the sand, writhing, and turned on his back. He struggled against the slash of the knife, Sean’s arms coming down again and again, but gradually lost the fight. His white uniform quickly took on shades of red.

Sean stood up, panting hard. He dropped the knife and stared for a while, looking scared. Then he whimpered and hit himself in the head.

Luke didn’t move. He felt paralyzed, and even more frightening was his pleasure that the man was dead. He moaned and curled up on a bed of pine needles. There were sounds all around him, a strange chattering he hadn’t noticed before, yet somehow he knew it was there all the time.

Let go, Luke.

He stared at the bright sky between the treetops and thought of George.


ISABELLE HELPLESSLY WATCHED Jules walk out of the woods toward Colin, who stopped in midsprint when he saw the crazed man with a rifle. He held up his pistol.

The rifle went off with a blast.

There was an enormous spray of blood and Colin screamed in agony from the bullet that cut through his arm. The gun dropped from his hand and he looked at his forearm dangling from the bone at an impossible angle. He screamed again and staggered off in a frantic run, darting left and right.

Jules casually took aim and shot Colin like a sprinting deer. He went down like a rag doll. Jules strolled over to the body to put another bullet in Colin’s head.

The gun clicked. The chamber was empty.

Jules turned and walked slowly back toward Isabelle. She was groggy from the blow to her head, but she wasn’t afraid. She could physically sense her feelings about Jules shifting, an animal attraction to him. She waited for him, feeling light and fearless.

An image of Luke entered her mind, as if he were reaching out to her. Soon she would be consumed; it was the only thing she knew for sure.

If only I could save my sons.

Visions of George flickered through her mind. Did he think about her before his death? Did he know she would come to the island? Was he trying to warn her?

The sun. If only she understood his message.

Jules’s words repeated in her ear.

Plants don’t know the difference between thoughts and reality.

She peered up at the sun, bright white and all-consuming. She captured the image in her mind and held it there—burning gas and explosions, red and yellow streaming flares. Nature’s source of life and energy; she sensed its power.

Instantly, her mind began to clear as though the brilliant sun created a kind of barrier to her brain. A wall they could not penetrate. A father’s message he couldn’t write.

Her hand found her coat pocket and pressed against six bullets.

Jules stopped in front of Isabelle, looking puzzled. “There’s work to do.”

She nodded with a faint smile that made him look twice. He grinned back and led her toward the beach.

As soon as he turned, Isabelle plowed into him sideways, driving the point of her shoulder into his back and grabbing at the rifle. Again, she underestimated his strength. Jules never lost grip on the weapon as they fell over each other, but Isabelle got her footing and ran. She headed up the path to High Peak, swerving widely as she passed Colin’s body, which lay twisted in an unnatural way on the edge of the path.

Jules trudged after her, swinging the rifle and angry at the constant delays.

Isabelle clambered up the bluff, slipping on loose gravel, scraping the flesh of her palms. She could barely feel her legs by the time she reached the top of High Peak, and collapsed at the cliff’s edge. A strong wind howled in her ears and she peered down at the waves crashing over the rocks. Her father’s last stand.

Tilting her head toward the sun, something caught her eye and she gasped. Two large Coast Guard boats were arriving, Canadian flags flapping in the wind. The crew looked like tiny white specks but she could count at least a dozen. Her arms waved frantically and she rose to her knees.

Jules reached the summit. Isabelle turned to see the giant above her, blocking out the sky. His expression was a keg of dynamite ready to explode. He stepped toward her and she held in a scream. Up close, the fleshy tubes that covered his face seemed to wiggle and squirm on their own. His eyes were crazed, his smile wicked.

“It’s your decision, Isabelle. You can join us, or jump like your father.”

Isabelle paused, staring at his outstretched hand. It looked so inviting.

His expression softened. “Take it.”

Isabelle reached out and clasped his fingers. He helped her up.

“Look at the sun, Jules.”

They both peered skyward.

Isabelle’s mind grabbed the sunlight. She looked at Jules, swaying with a hazy far-off gaze, as if hypnotized by its rays.

She charged at him with a grunt. This time his body was lax and unguarded, and he fell to the edge of the cliff. She scrambled to get away but he reached for her ankle and yanked her off her feet. She hit the dirt chin-first, the air knocked from her lungs.

Jules grabbed the rifle. He swung it high and hammered it into her leg. The bone snapped loudly and she cried out in agony.

Jules raised the rifle again, aiming at her head.

There was no fight left in her. Isabelle closed her eyes, bracing for pain and darkness. But there was nothing, and her eyes fluttered open.

Jules was doubled over and let out a cry from a spear that had pierced through his gut. He grasped both hands around the pole, trying to pull it out. He teetered from side to side, letting go of the spear and staring straight ahead.

Luke stood a few feet away in a fighting stance, tight-fisted and easing the shoulder of his throwing arm, ready to attack if necessary.

Instead, Jules turned around slowly to the sea. He looked up at the sun, swaying on his feet. Luke took a few bold steps forward, but Isabelle stopped him with an outreached hand. She nodded to the cliff.

Then they both watched Jules hang his head over the angry ocean, lean forward, and drop off the edge. There was no sound of his body hitting the rocks but they both felt it. The air was quiet for a long moment.

Luke knelt down to his mother as she winced from the pain in her thigh. The swelling ballooned inside her trouser leg.

She looked at Luke in utter disbelief. “How did you…?”

“The sun,” he said, and she knew what he meant.

“He killed Dad.” His voice cracked and he strained to keep steady.

She nodded and said, “We’re going to be okay,” but wished it sounded more convincing. “I saw two boats. They’ll be here soon.”

“Can you walk?”

She shook her head, and then touched his arm. “Sean?”

Luke turned from her gaze. “He’s okay… but he killed the man from the Coast Guard.” He quickly added, “He felt bad about it, I could tell. He’s not completely gone.”

“Of course not.” She hissed in pain, trying to move.

“Stay here, I’ll get help.”

She lay back down on the ground and fought against the agony in her leg, hoping she wouldn’t pass out. “We have to protect your brother, no matter what. We’ll tell them Dr. Beecher went crazy from something, maybe drugs. Like my father.”

“What about the plants? How they control—”

“They won’t believe us, Luke.”

“We have to tell them. It’s too important. You can’t do that to your father and Dr. Beecher, let their memories—”

The crack of a bullet exploded. Luke’s eyes bulged and his head jerked sideways. He fell to the ground, blood pooling fast around his head.

Behind him, Sean stood holding his father’s pistol.

From the expression on Luke’s face, Isabelle could tell her son was dead.

She felt the cold swoosh of emotion leaving her body, slipping through a dark tunnel, as soothing numbness took over. She watched Luke bleed out and all she could think was, Why? What had it all been for? They had fought so hard and in the end, all was lost. Not even a tiny revelation. Sean whimpered a sound that could have been regret, but it didn’t matter. Everything was gone.

The rifle was within reach, there were bullets in her pocket, but Isabelle didn’t move. She didn’t even look at Sean as he stepped over his brother’s body. She turned her head to the sea, and waited to die.


THE ROYAL CANADIAN MOUNTED POLICE boat hydroplaned across the sea, on a deep blue surface with waves that were round and gentle. A flag proclaiming H Division flapped at the bow as it sped toward Sparrow Island.

Isabelle stood at the helm, wondering if she would finally feel some twinge of emotion. A policeman was watching from the corner of his eye. It had been almost a year, but she was sure he was waiting for her to break down in tears. She turned her face toward the sea, holding tight to the railing, the strap of an overnight bag slung across her shoulder.

The island grew larger but Isabelle still felt nothing. She rarely did anymore.

A year ago, the ocean had been a tempest full of wrath and fury. But now it was calm, like a fierce tiger that had eaten enough meat and lolled quietly under the sun. The boat entered the inlet and Isabelle gazed over the island. It was spring again. The trees were still mostly bare, the beach was black, and the waves washed over the jetty toward the cliff, where they smashed steadily, ferociously against the rocks. Nothing had changed. Yet everything had.

The boat headed for the dock, where Isabelle imagined the color red; a pool of blood from Captain Flannigan’s body.

Instead there was a woman on the dock, waving.

The boat scuttled into the mooring. The policeman helped Isabelle off the boat. She turned to thank him, and he tipped his cap, jumped back on deck.

Isabelle faced the woman, who smiled with gleaming white teeth. She was young, in her early twenties, with strawberry-blond hair that fell to her shoulders and a fresh farm-girl look about her. She introduced herself as Laurie Spelling. Her specialty was mycology.

“The study of fungi,” Isabelle said.

“That’s right.” Laurie was beaming. “Gosh, you picked a beautiful day to come out.”

Her buoyancy was off-putting and Isabelle wondered if the woman knew how many bodies had been lying dead on the island just a year ago. They walked up the gangway. Although her femur bone had healed quite well, Isabelle still had a slight limp.

Laurie bobbed along with a spring in her step. “It’s just the two of us working here, Dr. Jacobs and myself. I’m more of an assistant.”

“Only two of you?” Isabelle asked with an edge in her voice. “Shouldn’t there be more? Police, FBI, or something?”

“There were dozens of people at first, detectives and scientists. But the investigation was over months ago,” Laurie said. “Oh, I forgot. There’s Oscar, who helps out with the heavy work since the police finished up. They sort of left a mess.” She turned up a lip. “Jeez, they left soda cans and garbage in the woods as if the place were condemned. Like, hello? There’s still people working here.”

For a moment, she reminded Isabelle of Monica.

They came to the entrance of the woods and Isabelle slowed. It was a stark reminder of that last ghastly day on the island, but there didn’t seem to be any fungus on the trees, so she took a quick breath and followed Laurie into the shadows of canopies.

The path was wide and clear. Much of the foliage had been taken down or trampled by vehicles with heavy wheels. They stepped quietly past signs of an abandoned police investigation. Faded yellow tape was draped across bushes and muddy puddles on the ground.

Overhead, branches were starting to bud. Isabelle nervously shifted the bag to her other shoulder. “Is it safe to breathe the air?” she asked.

Laurie nodded heartily. “Oh yeah. For weeks there was a crop duster saturating everything with antifungal agents. Dr. Jacobs finally made them leave. He was worried it was toxic to us.”

“As long as it’s toxic to fungi.”

“They tested the air twice a day for weeks. They put these giant solar-powered gas chromatographers everywhere. Really high-tech stuff from the NSA, like this was some kind of terrorist attack or something. Dr. Jacobs made them leave too. There was no sign of airborne contamination.”

“So it really was a fungus making us sick.”

“There were high levels of ergotamine in the spores.”

“Ergot,” Isabelle whispered.

“You’ve studied it?”

“Not really.”

Laurie beamed with a broad smile. “Oh, let me tell you, ergot is fascinating.”

Isabelle stared with a deeply furrowed brow. What was wrong with this woman? Was she stupid or insensitive?

“Usually ergot grows on grasses and has to be ingested for a long time to cause ergotism. But this species could grow on any plant. It produced this highly potent alkaloid that works real quickly on the nervous system. Oh yeah, and it was airborne, which is really unusual.”

Isabelle felt her stomach lurch, but continued down the path.

“The symptoms are pretty diverse. Nervous dysfunction, dizziness, headaches, hallucinations.” She was counting on her fingers. “Twisting, contorting, massive pain, crawling sensations, psychosis, delirium. It can even cause gangrene. Patients can lose arms and legs.”

Isabelle wished there was a way to make Laurie stop talking.

“Sometimes victims cut off their own extremities. The handyman—what was his name? Hedges?”


“That’s right. He had a severed foot.”

As Laurie continued babbling about ergotism, Isabelle tuned her out and walked faster. She was feeling claustrophobic in the woods, scrutinizing trees and bushes, flinching at the sight of dark grooves in the bark.

Laurie had no trouble keeping pace. “Ergot’s been linked to plagues all over Europe since the Middle Ages. Killed millions of people. Victims would be screaming of visions, dancing in the streets, speaking in tongues. It took hundreds of years to trace the problem back to infected rye bread.”

The woods opened to wide fields and sky, acres of blackened ryegrass burned to the ground and a mansion in the distance. They both paused to look at the house and then continued up the path. Laurie was suddenly quiet and Isabelle felt grateful. But it didn’t last long.

“Did you know that ergotism was the cause of the Salem witch trials?”

Isabelle answered, staring straight ahead, “I read something about that.”

“There was a late spring and a wet harvest that year, and the rye was contaminated.” She sounded a bit winded as they reached the top of the path. “That’s what they like, cold and wet. This island is the perfect climate for an outbreak.”

They reached the patio and Isabelle noted the grounds were spotless. The smashed window had been replaced. Everything looked fresh and clean. Even the house seemed to be in better shape, repaired and newly painted.

The sliding glass doors were already open and Isabelle peeked inside.

Memories flashed in her mind and she didn’t want to enter the house, but Laurie was already walking into the library. She followed her across the shampooed rug and the air smelled fresh. The books were all gone, the shelves bare and dusted. In the hallway, they passed the staircase and Isabelle strained to keep from looking up to the room where Monica was killed. She felt another wave of nausea as they approached the laboratory.

Laurie turned, looking directly at Isabelle, and for the first time her smile was gone, replaced with a stern expression. “To be honest, we weren’t exactly sure why you came back.”

Isabelle was struck by the bluntness of her statement, the feeling of not being welcome. And what did she mean, we? She pictured the other scientists and the detectives on the case, sitting around scratching their heads, asking why the crazy woman would come back to an island where her husband and son were murdered.

Laurie didn’t wait for a response. She opened the door to the lab.

It was clean and painted white with shiny high-tech equipment everywhere. Equipment her father probably never dreamed of owning. One of the walls had not been painted and it was splattered with large brown letters.


The two stared at it for a moment. Isabelle asked, “Is it blood?”

Laurie nodded. “The boat captain.”

Isabelle was disturbed that they hadn’t painted over the word. Did the police want it left for further analysis or had it become some kind of joke to the scientists? Laurie was staring at Isabelle and she started to feel uncomfortable.

“So where is Dr. Jacobs?” she asked and put her bag down.

“He’ll be here soon. Can I get you water or coffee or something?”

“No. I’m fine, thank you.”

The young woman picked up a folder on the desk. “He thought you might want to read some of the reports.”

Isabelle didn’t. “Thank you, not right now.”

Laurie put on a pair of glasses and seemed older, not the impetuous girl who met her at the boat. Her tone had changed. She flipped through the folder and shook her head slowly in disbelief, clicking her tongue. “Eight innocent lives. I think your son’s death bothers me most. Luke showed such promise.”

Isabelle let out an audible breath. She was about to ask the woman for a glass of water just to make her go away.

“What about your younger son, Sean?”

The mention of his name made Isabelle flinch.

Laurie scanned the page. “The police think he jumped off the cliffs like his grandfather.”

Isabelle pursed her lips. The story was a lie. If it were true, they would have found Sean’s body, just like they found George. The FBI had combed the island for days with police dogs and trained rescue teams. They insisted the boy was gone, but Isabelle didn’t believe them. Even when Sean’s tennis shoe washed up on the beach two weeks later, she thought there was another explanation. It was all Isabelle thought about in the last few months. That, and the fact that Sean had let her live. As she lay helpless on the cliff that day, her son had cried out in anguish. He couldn’t kill her. A piece of Sean was still inside, a scared boy wanting his mother, tormented by the act of killing his brother. Was he distraught enough to jump off a cliff?

No. She looked through the window of the back door, willing him to appear. For a second she saw a figure and her breath caught. But it was a stout, muscular man loading pallets onto a tractor. It wasn’t Dr. Jacobs. Laurie had mentioned another man. Oscar.

Laurie gazed over the reports. “It must have been awful for you, but like I said, the alkaloids in the fungus are very powerful. They would have to be, to make a boy shoot his own brother in the head. Cut up that poor girl.”

Isabelle’s face drained of color. “What did you say?”

Laurie looked up quick, but didn’t answer. She blinked hard.

“I never said Sean hurt anyone.”

“It was in the police report.”

“No. I said Dr. Beecher acted alone.”

“Guess I misspoke.” It wasn’t even a good lie. Laurie got up to leave. “I’ll see what’s taking Dr. Jacobs so long.”

Isabelle was becoming hot all over. Her body was trembling. “Do you know where my son is? Have you spoken to Sean?”

“Don’t get hysterical, Mrs. Maguire.” She moved slowly toward the front door.

“What do you mean? I’m perfectly calm.” But she was shouting. Isabelle ran to the back door and looked out through the glass. The man in the tractor was headed toward the shed. Isabelle threw open the door and ran outside, trying to catch up to him. She was feeling out of control, didn’t know what she was doing, but kept on going as fast as she could, even when her leg began to ache.

The man had just pushed open the heavy wooden door. When she approached him out of breath, he slid the door shut with a bang.

“What are you doing?” she asked, but he didn’t answer.

There were pallets stacked outside the shed, full of plants. All of them were infected with the fungus. Isabelle lightly touched the leaves and smeared purple on her fingertips.

Laurie came up behind her. “Mrs. Maguire, you need to come back to the house.”

“What is he doing? You said the fungus was dead. It’s not dead. He’s growing the damn things.”

“You really need to calm down, Mrs. Maguire.”

“No! No, I won’t.”

“We can’t have you getting hysterical. We’ll have to call someone. The police told me you have no family or friends. Is that right?”

“I want to know what’s going on! I want my son.”

Laurie’s face muscles hardened. “Come inside and stop making a scene.”

Isabelle didn’t move.

“I can arrange for you to have a sedative. Would you like that?”

Isabelle felt as though she’d been slapped. Something was wrong and she had to watch herself. Her heart raced as she followed the woman back to the house.

* * *

Dr. Jacobs was waiting in the lab, sitting on a counter with his legs crossed, reading the open files. He was a tall, thin man with youthful brown eyes and a gray beard. He wore pressed khakis and a white shirt with a Greenpeace logo, but his boots and pant legs were covered in mud.

“Dr. Jacobs, this is Isabelle,” Laurie said. Her lips were tight, and her demeanor had changed dramatically.

“Well, of course,” he replied.

“She was trying to get in the shed.”

“That’s fine,” he said in a gentle voice and smiled at Isabelle. “You came here to find answers, isn’t that right?”

Isabelle nodded.

“If you’re willing to stay calm, I can explain a few things.”

Isabelle hugged her arms to keep from shaking.

“Can I trust you?”

She nodded.

“It seems thirty years ago your father began engineering the DNA of fungi to create a more potent form of ergotamine for LSD synthesis. He used a process called protoplast fusion to create a new genetic hybrid with powerful psychoactive alkaloids. He then transferred in genes of certain Aspergillus, so it could grow on virtually any plant. Eventually, the fungi and all the plants on the island formed a symbiotic relationship against a common enemy.”

Isabelle swallowed hard. “You don’t mean people?”

“The fungi release their spores at night, with one exception. When any person approaches, they release a mass of nearly invisible spores. We repeated the experiment fifty times with several individuals, always with the same result. Other animals elicited no response, only humans.”

Isabelle let the words sink in. “You’re saying the fungi and plants are working together to infect people with ergotism?”

Dr. Jacobs chuckled. “I don’t think it’s contemplated, the way humans premeditate murder. It’s an automatic response. The same way plant species have been using chemicals and fungi to ward off herbivores for millions of years.”

“That kind of evolution takes centuries. How could it happen so quickly?”

“Your father came up with just the right genetic components. I suppose plants have been waiting all these years for such a chance.”

“A chance to do what?”

“Get us to act the way they want. Protectors of the environment. Not destroyers.”

Isabelle shook her head in disbelief. “I’m sorry, but human mind control seems too great a task for a fungus.”

“It’s not so unusual,” the doctor replied. “Fungi can be shrewd, calculating, and manipulative.”

“You make them sound human.”

“They do have motives and they’re highly intelligent.” He raised his chin. “Have you ever heard of the fungus species Ophiocordyceps unilateralis?”

Isabelle hadn’t.

“It’s a fungus that grows out of the heads of ants. Sometimes they’re referred to as zombie ants because the fungus actually takes over their brains. Once the ant is infected, it’s given very specific instructions. First, it commands the insect to abandon its colony, fall off the tree to the ground ten inches from the forest floor, and seek the exact temperature and humidity needed for the fungus to grow. At precisely noon, when the sun is highest in the sky, it commands the ant to bite into the vascular vein of a leaf. Scientists call it the death grip because the ant locks on to the leaf while the fungus grows safely inside its body. Then the ant dies and the fungus bursts out of its skull, releasing spores and repeating the cycle.”

Isabelle blinked slowly and leaned against the counter, feeling weary.

Dr. Jacobs crossed his arms. “There are literally hundreds of Cordyceps fungi that are able to change the behavior of their hosts, before consuming them.”

“So you’re saying the fungus was using my father and Jules as a means of transporting their spores across the earth?”

“It’s not just about spreading their spores. It’s about spreading the message.”

Isabelle flinched, recalling how Jules spoke those same words.

“You see, the plants on the island are sending genetic instructions to their fungal partners, which are able to send very specific instructions to the human brain. What you saw as Dr. Beecher’s own behavior was actually a fungal genome expressing the plant’s instructions through the body of its host.”

“You mean telling humans to kill each other?”

Dr. Jacobs took a deep breath. “The message is not about violence.”

“What about the bodies at the campsite?”

Laurie raised a gentle hand to Isabelle. “You’re jumping to conclusions, Mrs. Maguire, like everyone else.” Her voice was lilting. “Plants don’t want to kill us. On the contrary, plants are peaceful creatures. Their message is one of peace.”

Isabelle felt a chill.

Laurie’s gaze became hazy, her smile broad. “You can feel it the second you walk into a forest. It’s a calmness that comes over you. I felt it since I was a little girl. My family used to go up to the woods in Maine and I knew then nature was trying to tell me something. It’s a message of harmony, telling us how to live.”

“My father and Dr. Beecher became killers.”

Dr. Jacobs shook his head. “They interpreted the message wrong. It’s something to do with mixed-up connections in the brain. They get the message all boggled.” His jaw clenched ever so slightly. “Although I can’t really blame them. Killing off mankind is a logical solution to the problem.”

Isabelle swallowed hard, and whispered, “Excuse me?”

He stared into her eyes. “Who do you see as the victims on earth? Do you know what’s happening to trees all over the world?”

Isabelle tried to look composed as the color drained from her face. She asked in a low voice, “How long have you been working on this island?”

“Long enough to know we can still save this planet. People like me, Laurie, and Sean. We can be earth’s salvation.”

Sean. The sound of his name drew both panic and hope. She gaped at the doctor. “Do you know where my son is? Where is Sean?”

He cleared his throat. “He’s here, on the island.”

“Here? Is he… dead?”


A blaze of emotions swept through Isabelle’s body like a brushfire. She wrestled with joy and fear in equal measure. She tried to speak but her voice caught.

“I can take you to him.”

She managed a nod.

“All right,” he said. “Come with me.”

Isabelle followed Dr. Jacobs and Laurie outside, barely able to keep up on legs that felt like rubber. It seemed as if she were walking through a dream. This can’t be happening.

The tractor filled with plants rumbled across the lawn. A pallet fell off the top of the heap, hitting the ground and spilling bags of saplings, seed, and soil. The man stopped and got out of the driver’s seat as the three passed.

“Watch what you’re doing, Oscar,” Jacobs said firmly.

The man repositioned all the plants. Isabelle could see that each of the pallets was marked with cities and states: San Francisco, California; Bangor, Maine; Tallahassee, Florida

Laurie was already at the shed, arms folded. As Isabelle reached the open door, Dr. Jacobs put a hand on her shoulder and she felt her knees giving out. She grasped the splintered doorframe. It was mostly dark inside, illuminated by dim blue lights that hung from the ceiling over crowds of plants that filled the room. Isabelle peered inside and was hit with the smell of mildew and a cool spray of mist.

She turned to Dr. Jacobs, apprehensive. He could sense her unease.

“You said you wanted to see Sean.”

For a moment, Isabelle had an urge to run, but her desire to see her son was overwhelming. She took a breath and stepped deeper into the shed. It was cold and hazy with particles of dust flying around. Plants were everywhere, covered in fungus. A labyrinth of plastic tubes kept them damp with mist. She heard the humming fan of a humidifier.

“Sean? Are you here?” she called out softly.

The door slammed shut.

Isabelle turned her head sharply. She ran to the door and pounded on the wood with open hands.

Dr. Jacobs spoke with a muffled voice. “Isabelle. I’m afraid you have to stay with us a while.” His mouth was close to the crack in the door. “You can sleep in the shed. I promise you’ll understand everything better in the morning. By tomorrow it will all be crystal clear.”

She clawed at the door in panic, scratching for a way out. The wood splintered beneath her fingers.

“Stop it, Isabelle. Do as you’re told, and you’ll see your son.”

Isabelle pressed her head to the wood, crying softly. She wiped the dampness from her cheeks. Sean. She would do anything to see him again. If there was just a chance, however small. After a few more moments she walked placidly toward the doorway of the generator room and stepped inside. It was dark, but pinholes of light bled through the cracks of the boarded-up window and she could see that the generator was gone. The entire room was covered in plants and fungus so thick it hung from the ceiling and dripped down the walls.

She walked to the end. There was a small table and a plate of biscuits. Just below the table, caught in a crack of light, there appeared to be a person. Isabelle felt her heart kick up. She stooped down and her eyes adjusted to see it was a child sitting on the floor. The fungus completely enveloped the body as though it were mummified in soft brown bandages.

Isabelle felt a scream in her throat that wouldn’t dislodge.

It was Sean. His face was emaciated, but every feature was distinguishable from his nose to the shape of his chin. His neck and shoulders were rail-thin but there was no doubt in her mind it was her son. She stepped back and hit a wall, staring in mute horror.

The body was relaxed. Sean sat with his arms wrapped around his shins and profile turned slightly to one side. Fungus mushroomed from his ear and somehow Isabelle knew they were deep inside his brain.

Learning from him, even in death.

Then Isabelle felt her eyes widen and her face tingle with scorching heat. There was a feeding tube in his arms connected to a plastic bag hanging on the wall. Oxygen tubes were inserted in both nostrils. She listened to the soft sound of his shallow breathing, watched his chest rising ever so slightly.

Isabelle raced from the room to the door, pounding with both fists. She cried, “What have you done to him!”

There was silence on the other side, then a whispering debate.

Dr. Jacobs spoke. “I’m sorry, Isabelle. Sean was the last, but the most necessary.” He came very close to the door; she could hear the whistle of his breath through the crack. “The others wouldn’t cooperate during the rooting process. It takes months of lying very still. After only a week George would have to kill them. But Sean was willing, eager really, to be the living specimen they needed. They know how our brains work now, so there won’t be any more deaths. Do you understand?”

No.” She was crying and shaking her head, not wanting to understand.

“They’ve studied us through your son. They know how to communicate, make people do what needs to be done, without killing each other. We can return to the way it was before. A world in harmony, don’t you see that?”

There was only a muffled cry.

Dr. Jacobs’s voice was upbeat. “Well, of course you don’t. But you will. Laurie and I—you’ll be just like us. And in a few years, so will the rest of the world.”

Isabelle clenched her fist white-knuckled against the wall. Her mouth was wide open, pulled back in a scream, but nothing came out. They were both walking away. She heard the tractor start up and drive off.

Then a horrible cry broke through from her throat and she began to wail hysterically. Tears streamed down her face, as her legs gave out and she slid to her knees, choking on a walnut-size lump in her throat that wouldn’t dislodge. Her body wrenched with pain and grief that had been stored up too long.

It was a while before Isabelle could stand. The purge of emotion left her light-headed and numb. With teary vision, she made her way back to the generator room.

A fly buzzed over the plate of biscuits. Below, Sean was fixed in frozen contemplation.

Isabelle stared unblinking, and then sat down on the cool, fungus-covered ground across from her son, purple dust staining her skin and clothing. She wiped her nose and listened to the whirling of a humidifier fan that blew dampness into the air, stirring up clouds of spores. There was a distinct sound of chatter and she could feel their fingers scratching at the back of her head, making their way inside.

Think of the sun.

She held the image in her mind and felt them loosen their grip. Time stopped moving. Isabelle took deep breaths into her lungs and leaned back against the damp fungus that crept over the wall. Her mind fell freely as she continued to breathe, thinking of nothing at all.

It was awhile before she was aware of time again. Through the wooden slats of the window came bright orange streaks of a sunset. Hours had passed. She focused on Sean, how he used to be. High up in a tree, waving at her. Then the image of the tree morphed into earth, spinning in space.

Brown and white with lots of blue. But no green. No life.

She thought about Luke and Sean, Jules and George. They were with her too, poking around her brain. Dr. Jacobs was right. There was no violent message, no urge to murder. She could sense their peace. The messages came fast and easily now and she understood everything from the beginning of time. We were part of it all, every creature on earth, no one species greater than any other. It was so simple, and all this time the answers were right in front of us and we didn’t even know it.

Think of the sun.

Then Isabelle smiled and shuddered, realizing why she’d returned to the island. Everything was as it should be. The sun’s light gradually faded from her mind. She rested her head back, closed her eyes, and let go.


Writing is a solitary occupation, but publishing a book involves a cast of many. A huge thanks to my agent, Adrienne Rosado; my editor, Toni Kirkpatrick; and all the folks at St. Martin’s Press who do the hard part so I can keep writing.

For their generous time, knowledge, and enthusiastic support, I’m grateful to plant biologist Dr. Eric Brenner of New York University, mycologist Dr. Roy Halling of the New York Botanical Gardens, survival expert Skip Thomsen, and Chris Gall for his weapons expertise and editorial input.

All the science in this book is based on fact. There are many individuals whose work I reference throughout these pages in mycology, neurobiology, and the emerging field of plant signaling and intelligence; most notably Dr. Stefano Mancuso of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology. It is through their discoveries that I’ve been able to keep the story as realistic as possible. Of course, any errors in the text are solely mine.

I’d feel remiss not to acknowledge the late Roald Dahl, whose short story “The Sound Machine” not only scared me to death when I was eight years old, but forever changed the way I think about nature.

I’ve been fortunate to have friends and family members read and comment on manuscripts over the years. For this book, I have to thank Erika Ducati, Lorell Ducati, Joanne Dufresne, Diana Schmelzer, Michael Colucci, Theresa and Rick Merino, and, most of all, Joann Shepitka, who was there since the beginning. To my in-laws, Danielle, Irma, and Mario Colucci, your warm encouragement keeps me going.

Special thanks to my father, Anthony Ducati, for giving my overly imaginative mind some focus and a waterfront hideaway to finish this novel. And my mother, Marilyn Ducati, who taught me from birth that books fall somewhere between food, water, and oxygen.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to Al, Rachel, and Julia for putting up with a writer in the house. You remind me every day that humanity is a beautiful thing.


The Colony


A. J. Colucci lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. Visit her Web site at

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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.

SEEDERS. Copyright © 2014 by A. J. Colucci. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Cover design by Ervin Serrano

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Map by Tara O’Brien and Rachel Colucci

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The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

Colucci, A. J.

Seeders: a novel / A. J. Colucci.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-250-04289-7 (hardcover)

ISBN 978-1-4668-4057-7 (e-book)

1. Plants—Psychic aspects—Fiction. 2. Science—Experiments—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3603.U4676S44 2014



e-ISBN 9781466840577

First Edition: July 2014