READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Koush Hollow, by Leigh Goff
“Beauty is a curse on the world for it keeps us from seeing who the real monsters are.”
In just a few days, we'll get to follow Jenna Ashby, a recently fatherless teen who has no choice but to relocate to Koush Hollow—a bayou town outside New Orleans, steeped in mysticism and deadly secrets...
Read the first two chapters today and be sure to pre-order your copy for release day, THIS TUESDAY!
Koush Hollow, by Leigh Goff CHAPTER ONE
After a savage farewell party in Atlanta two nights ago with drunk Hayley, Jessie, Jayson, and Max all dressed in cosplay and a six-hour drive yesterday to my mother’s house in Koush Hollow, I woke up in my new, old bedroom in tears. I’d seen my dad in the dream. I’d seen his ghostly gray eyes trying to convey a message to me I couldn’t understand. I peeled myself out of bed and stared at the window, white with fog that had condensed on the outside from the drenching Louisiana humidity.
You need to chill, Jenna, I reminded myself. It was August. I’d been allowed to stay in Atlanta to finish studying for the SAT chem exam and now the exam was over. So was my life in Atlanta.
I wiped my eyes and sighed. I was back in Koush Hollow where life moved as slowly as nuclear decay.
I shoved the grief-filled thought from my mind and turned around. I stared at the crumpled, purple bedspread that I had to have when I was five. It was still in good condition and the star pattern matched the curtains around the window. Ivory walls surrounded me and a plush ivory rug covered most of the hardwood floor. The antique white dresser was something Rayna had picked out, but I’d set my science “trophies on top to counter the fancy. And on the matching night table sat the kitschy mambo doll that Dad had given me years ago. I picked it up and lingered over it for a moment before setting it down and heading into the attached lavender bathroom. I showered and dressed before heading downstairs for breakfast.
The two-story, plantation-style house possessed a grand foyer, a sweeping staircase, and an elaborate front door just like something from Gone With the Wind, except with air conditioning. Outside, an old-fashioned portico supported by tall, alabaster columns stretched across the front. The museum-like, white interior was adorned with expensive paintings and intricate woodwork, although I had noticed spots of dry rot in the moldings where the paint had chipped away. There were six Beaux-Arts fireplaces on the main floor and an addi“tional two upstairs, not that they were ever lit because winter temperatures in Louisiana never dipped below sixty degrees.
In the quaint white kitchen that had everything a cook needed, the days-old smell of bacon and onions clung to the air. The wood floors were clean with only a few water damaged spots and the white marble countertop that once shimmered like glass had dulled over time.
Next to the coffeemaker, I spotted a pastry box from Beck-N-Call Café. I peeked inside at the fried dough pillows topped with mounds of delicate powdered sugar. I really was back. I heated up a mug of strong, black tea and sipped.
“Good morning, Jennifer. I had beignets delivered this morning for you.”
I spun around and coughed. A spurt of brown liquid trickled out and over my lower “lip, and I wiped it off with the back of my hand.
Rayna stood there in her work outfit, a black pencil skirt and buttoned-up, gray silk blouse. Her appearance was smooth and perfect, just the way she liked it. She always dressed professionally, even on the weekends, which worked for her since she had no idea how to chill. She stared at me patiently with pale eyes. “Napkin, please.” She had her voluminous, brown hair cut in a stylish bob and her strong shoulders were set squarely upon her frame.
I reached for the tea towel hanging by the sink and wiped.
“We don’t wipe, we dab and use a cloth napkin, not the kitchen towels.”
She was a stickler for good manners.
I leaned against the countertop. “Hey, Rayna, thanks for letting me stay with Chloe the last few months, so I could finish the prep course in Atlanta.”It was easier to finish the prep course in Atlanta.” I couldn’t believe she’d allowed that one. Chloe, my dad’s girlfriend, wasn’t at the top of any of Rayna’s good lists.
There was an icy pause. “You know I don’t like that.”
Oops. I’d gotten used to referring to her by her first name when I was living in Atlanta. She wasn’t the warm and fuzzy kind of mother so it seemed more natural to call her by her first name, even though she hated it. “Sorry, Mama.”
“Well, Atlanta’s behind you now.”
I knew it was, but I couldn’t say it out loud. “I plan to stay in touch with my friends, and I’m still dating Max. It’s just gonna be long distance.” Regrettably.
“Maybe it’s time to focus on making new friends at your new school.”
At least school would be a distraction from what she had planned for me. She’d hinted at it the last few months on the phone. “I’m not giving up my Atlanta friends because I have to live in Koush Hollow.”
“You’d be surprised what Koush Hollow has to offer a Diamonds & Pearls legacy.”
I scrunched up my face and thought about the two vodka minis from my farewell party that I’d tucked into my top dresser drawer when I unpacked. I knew I’d need them. On top of grieving, Rayna had plans for me and there’d be no getting around them. Alcohol would be my only escape. It would be temporary, but I’d take temporary over nothing. I pulled out my phone and shot off a quick text to Hayley and Jessie to thank them for the minis.
“Speaking of our club.”
"You mean your club and how could I forget?” The Diamonds & Pearls was an old, southern social club that had been headed by the women in my family for generations—a tradition, no, a tortured requirement that I wanted nothing to do with.
“The ladies are thriving. Ms. Marjorie Thibodeaux’s two daughters are both Pearls now along with Ms. Melanie Chen’s two daughters. Oh, you should have seen the gowns they wore to last year’s Royale Regatta Ball.”
Her voice was tinged with expectation. However, all I could think was, Yeah, their gowns are so much more chat worthy than me being captain of the Eco Green Team.
“What were Ms. Melanie’s girls’ names? Maisy, Daisy, something like that?” It had been a while since she’d mentioned them.
“You mean Maisy and Madeline.”
“Ah, that’s right. She named them after kiddie book characters.”
“No, she didn’t.” She paused. “Please spare me your sarcasm.”
I quietly chuckled. “I didn’t mean to be sarcastic.” I kind of did. “I seriously couldn’t remember. I have been mostly gone for eleven years and if—”
“If your father hadn’t passed away, you’d still be in that congested city you love, right? Outside of holidays and half the summers, what about me being here all these years without you?”
I thumped my forehead with the palm of my hand as I started to fall into the guilt trap, before I realized. “Wait a minute. You don’t get to make me feel bad when I already feel dreadful.”
A soft sigh escaped her lips. “It’s been six months.”
I clenched my hands into fists so hard my knuckles paled to white. “How long did you grieve for your mother when she died?”
“I understand...” Exasperation underscored her tone. She lacked empathy, but she loved me, and I knew that deep down she understood.
I inhaled a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter. I’m…” I hesitated, “I’m sure I’ll get used to being back again.” I wanted to be optimistic, but I doubted my return to Koush Hollow was a good thing.
“Good. Let’s start this conversation over.”
I nodded and her frown lifted. “Did you see the new clothes in your closet? Aunt Mary picked up some things I ordered for you.”
I was thankful Aunt Mary still lived with Rayna. She was a nurturing woman who always took care of me when I was sick and offered a listening ear and encouragement when I needed it. She also acted as the marshmallow and melted chocolate between the two graham crackers that were Rayna and me. “Where is she? I didn’t see her when I got in last night.”
“She had dinner with a friend yesterday and stayed over. She’ll be here later today.”
Aunt Mary was a family friend who had basically raised my mother because my grandmother, although devoted to my mother, had also been devoted to work—another family tradition. Aunt Mary officially moved in a few years after Mamaw and Aunt Mary’s husband Paul passed away.
“You mentioned that she’s helping you with paperwork at the power plant?”
“We’ve got quite a few important projects going on at work and she needed extra money.”
Aunt Mary wasn’t a big spender or into material things so I couldn’t imagine working any harder than she was at her age. “Is she planning a bucket list trip or something?”
“You’d have to ask her,” she said elusively.
“Huh. Maybe I will. So what kind of clothes did you pick out?” I hadn’t even checked in the closet when I’d arrived last night, but I already suspected what was in there. Changing my style was the first step in her plan to assimilate me. She’d make me Diamonds & Pearls pretty in no time, and I planned to have nothing to do with it.
“One more thing. This year’s Royale Regatta Ball is only a few weeks away, and I know you’re as excited as I am.”
The annual regatta took place on the lake, followed by a fancy ball for Koush Hollow’s socially prominent. I remembered thinking how glam it all seemed when I was a kid, but it didn’t fit with who I was. “Puh-lease. I don’t do balls, regatta or otherwise.”
The muscles in her face went taut forming an expression she reserved for when she had run out of patience with me. “In Koush Hollow you do.” Her cool tone took me aback for a moment. “I’m afraid your attendance is set in stony coral, and I’ve already enlisted two Pearls to get you ready”
She’d started out as a marine biologist before finding a career at the power plant so she’d used enough technical terms over the years for me to know that stony coral was one of nature’s hardest substances. As a science nerd, I knew it was harder than granite on the Mohs scale.
We’d see about the stony coral part. “Hey, Mama.”
A muscle in her jaw twitched. “Don’t say hey.”
She was nothing if not consistent, but the weight of her expectations was a heavy burden. My shoulders sagged under the pressure and uneasy feeling pricked at me. “I know you think all this stuff is for the best, but it might not be what’s best for me.”
“What if it is, but you can’t see past this rebellious stage to know any better?”
Rebellious stage? I exhaled a heavy sigh. This was not the first time we’d argued about her always thinking she was right, but it was the first time she’d put the blame on teen rebellion. What if I wanted to blame her attitude on a midlife crisis? “I need to go for a drive.”
“If you have time, will you do me a favor?” she asked as if we hadn’t just argued and everything between us was as sweet as box of Nickerson’s Pralines.
“Will you pick up a twelve pack of Diet Coke at the store?”
After the grammar and etiquette lessons along with the Diamonds & Pearls update, I was happy to do anything that kept me away even if it was just for a few extra minutes. “Yup.”
She narrowed her eyes as she mentally corrected my yup to a yes.
I grabbed my key from the wet bar that connected the kitchen to the garage. It was a narrow annex with an extra sink and glass-paned cabinets filled with gold-rimmed china and glassware. I marched to the oversized garage, side-stepping an orange bucket that collected a slow drip of water from the ceiling. She really needed to get some home repairs done.
I jumped in the Honda Fit and drove down the alley that was draped with a canopy of Spanish moss hanging from the towering oaks like phantom dream catchers. Out on the main road, I came to a four-way stop where jazz drifted through my open window from the corner bar. Rayna wasn’t into jazz, but I liked the soulful melodies that were bare and honest. Next to the bar was the Cajun Kitchen, a sign out front advertising fresh, hot boudin balls, cracklins, catfish, and crawfish kickers. I hadn’t eaten cracklins in forever and my mouth watered at the thought of the salty, fried snack. I turned on St. Gabriel Street and passed the above-ground cemetery. In New Orleans they were known as “cities of the dead,” but I never found them terrifying. They were too beautiful to be scary.
Rattle, rattle, rattle.
I closed the window on the tepid breeze and listened closely.
Rattle, rattle, rattle.
The car was in perfect condition when I left Atlanta. I pretended it wasn’t a bad omen and decided there was a perfectly logical problem with the timing chain. I’d have to take it in for service soon. I brushed my hand across the hard spikes of hair on my head.
Rayna had probably forgotten something, I thought as I clicked on the call. “What else do you need?”
“Vitamin C pills.”
“Vitamin C. Got it.” I looked out the side window, taking in the bayou that was thick with cypress trees stretching tall from the marshy waters. Herons and pelicans surfed the breeze while an alligator sunned itself on the murky banks.
I squirmed in my seat. For the shortest breath of a moment, the wine-colored, birthmarks on my palms began to tingle. I glanced at the inch-long, crescent moon shape on my left hand. It matched the one on my right perfectly. Dad had always said they added character. The thought of him comforted me.
“I forgot to ask you last night how you think you did on the chemistry exam?”
Was she seriously trying to have a normal conversation with me on the phone? I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had always been easier for her to talk to me long distance rather than face-to-face. “My future at MIT as a chem major and eco warrior is riding on those eighty-five multiple choice answers. Fingers crossed that I did awesome.”
“We don’t cross fingers, for goodness sake. If you want to attend MIT, you need to be intellectual and reasonable. No more of that childish nonsense.”
“I read that Isaac Newton was obsessed with astrology and he also tried to create the Philosopher’s Stone. Childish nonsense might make me a notable scientist one day.” I imagined her mouth falling open from my brilliance.
“Only graduating from MIT will make you a notable scientist. Nothing else.”” Background clatter on her end filled the speakers. “Where is my Lou-ee?” She muttered over the noise, probably in search of the designer bag she usually misplaced after a few glasses of wine.
I really just wanted to drive and not talk. I gripped the steering wheel harder with frustration. “Maybe we can catch up when I get back. Bye.” I ended the call and focused my attention on my surroundings to calm down. I wondered if anything had changed since my last visit. The idyllic southern town had sustained terrible damage from historic storms and floods, but the beautiful facade showed none of it. Fuchsia bougainvillea vines clung to the wrought iron railings of every grand white house in town, green bayou waters remained still, and young palm trees grew lush along the sidewalks in the slumbering heat.
Suddenly, a burst of bright light blinded me for half a second. Dazed, I slammed on the brakes, but I wasn’t slowing down. Something appeared from the corner of my eye, and I whipped my head to the side.
A woman stepped from the woods, onto the road, and right into my oncoming path. I jerked on the steering wheel to swerve out of the way, but it was locked. I pushed harder on the brakes, waiting for the Honda to screech to a halt—but the car didn’t slow.
What the hell! I was barreling right toward her. I laid hard on the horn and stared straight ahead, both feet pressing hard against the pedal. She didn’t see me.
“Damn it, stop!” I yelled at the car.
I honked again. The woman startled out of her stupor. The brakes suddenly kicked in. I forced my legs to add pressure to the already depressed pedal.
I closed my eyes. Please, no, please, no.
The seatbelt squeezed tight against my ribs. My head slammed hard against the headrest.
Everything came to an eerie stop.
I sat forward and wiped the sweat from my face. I fluttered my eyelids open and peered out the windshield. Nothing. “Oh my God. I hit her. She’s under my car. What do I do?” I freaked.
I threw the car in park and turned off the ignition. My head ached. I reached for the door handle with one hand and my phone with the other. I fumbled with the numbers trying to press nine-one-one as flashbacks from sophomore CPR class rushed through my mind.
The boom echoed in my ears, and my eyes jumped to my passenger side window. A pair of bloodied hands smacked against the glass before trailing smeared ribbons of crimson in a downward motion.
My heart hammered against my ribcage. I stared harder, shocked, trying to make out the woman’s face through the smudges.
In a panic and unable to remember where the hell it was, I searched for the window button.
“I’m trying, I’m trying. Hold on,” I pleaded as I fumbled with the controls on the door handle. My gaze shifted back to the passenger side window before it rolled down.
“What the…?” I shuddered in disbelief. The blood had disappeared along with the woman. I blinked over and over and looked out the windshield.
She suddenly appeared on the driver’s side of my car, perfectly undamaged. My knees knocked so hard that I couldn’t maneuver out of my seat. All I could do was stare at the painted, bronze-skinned woman.
She wore shocking white makeup all over her face except for the black paint around her eye sockets, under her cheekbones, and on the tip of her nose. She had a feather headdress over her long, white-sand colored braids, and a bone necklace pressing tight against her throat. She resembled a Voodoo mambo, a priestess known for healing and spiritual communication, which I knew from the local mythology my dad would tell me about. His stories included ones about mambos and Voodoo queens like Bloody Mary who scared her neighbors.
From the black paint, her emerald green eyes sparkled and held me fast.
My breathing escalated. Was she okay? Had I hallucinated the thud? Was I hallucinating now?
It wouldn’t surprise me if I was. Strange things had happened to me as a kid when I lived in Koush Hollow. Things I couldn’t explain; things I’d heard and dreamed about. It all stopped when I moved to Atlanta, but being back…I had an eerie feeling. I kept my gaze locked on the mysterious Voodoo woman until I blinked.
My eyes flashed wide. A curvy, gray-haired lady tapped again on my side window. I snapped out of my shock and finally remembered how to roll it down.
“You okay, hon’?” She stared at my hands. “You’re shaking like you drank ten café lattes.”
“I’m j-just a little on edge. I mean, I thought I hit that…that woman.”
She jolted upright and looked around. “What are you talking about?”
My gaze flitted all around her. “She w-was r-right there—the painted woman,” I stuttered and pointed. “Where did she go?” My knees finally stopped knocking, allowing me to slide out of the car.
“You didn’t hit anyone. Are you on something?”
I stumbled to the front and bent over searching underneath the car. Nothing. No one. I stood up and scanned the sidewalks, but I didn’t see the mysterious woman anywhere.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be driving, hon’.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be.
“Is there someone I can call?” she asked.
I wiped my sopping wet forehead with the back of my hand. It had to be stress affecting me. It had been a tough few months and maybe it was catching up with me. I turned to the kind woman. “I’m only a few minutes from my mother’s house.” I’d get the Diet Cokes and vitamins later. “I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
We both returned to our cars. She waited for me to move. With trembling fingers, I managed to shift into drive. I pumped the brakes to see if they worked. They worked fine. The rattling sound in the engine was gone, too. I could hardly think straight. Was that Voodoo woman real or a figment of my imagination? I shoved aside the bad feeling, inhaled a calming breath, and decided to apply logic, which suggested the whole thing was a brain-glitch from stress. However, no matter how logical I tried to be, the uneasy feeling remained.
Shaking, I turned around and headed back to Rayna’s. A few nerve-wracking minutes later, I parked next to her Mercedes SUV and stepped out of the car.
Rayna appeared in the doorway of the garage. “Jennifer, are you okay? You look pale and sweaty. What happened?.”
“Um, nothing happened. See the car? No dents. Everything’s good. Just got a bad headache.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep her from seeing the shaking. That wasn’t real, I reminded myself.
“You had a long drive yesterday. Don’t worry about it. I’ll text Aunt Mary to pick them up on her way back here.”
“Thanks.” I wiped the sweat from my brow. I was going to need those vodka minis sooner than expected.
The next afternoon as I woke from a late, unexpected nap, I breathed in the faint gardenia scent from the deteriorating sachets still hidden in my childhood dresser drawers. The smell conjured memories I had tucked away in the dusty corners of my mind. They rushed out like spirits fleeing a sage-burning witch. From my night table, I grabbed hold of a stuffed mambo doll Dad had given me, a gift from a local woman who crafted them. The doll resembled the Voodoo woman I’d conjured from my imagination yesterday and my fingers tre