She wants to kill you.
Martha’s fingers tightened onto the Pentel No. 2 pencil, clutched in her lap like a secret talisman. Dr. Ellijay picked up the stack of test booklets, squared them on her desk with soft raps, and began handing them out. She walked slowly down the aisle, her heels popping on the linoleum.
Not today, Martha thought. Please, Lenny, not today.
Outside the casement windows, the campus was awash in gray, a silent movie, as it had been for days, suspended between fog and drizzle, the dull light suppressing shadows, flattening the neo-Gothic buildings of Ponce de Leon College like a plywood set. Only two o’clock, but outside looked more like dusk.
The quad was empty, except for a lone figure seated on a bench, a man in a tweed blazer taking notes in a composition book. He looked up in Martha’s direction, then down at the notebook, then toward her again. To escape his gaze, she looked elsewhere, beyond the campus buildings, above the crenellated rooflines.
It was there again. She had seen it before, on bad days, and now it stretched across the buildings, high above the spires and turrets, gelatinous and nearly invisible except for a network of threadlike capillaries. It pulsed and it heaved, breathing, alive.
Don’t look at it, Lovie. Lenny murmured in her ear, his voice moist and intimate. You know they don’t want you to see that, right? Just pretend you don’t see it.
Today Lenny was only a voice, but on some days she could see him. He was tall and gaunt, his skin white and mottled, like the belly of a toad. Spiked hair. Blue jeans shiny with stains. Canvas sneakers, gray and frayed.
Martha felt a touch on her shoulder, jerked around.
“Relax, Martha.” Wade leaned forward in the desk behind her. “You look as tight as a piano wire. You’ll do great.”
You won’t do great. You’ll die, Lenny hissed. S’truth. You’ll die if you even touch the paper.
This was the first time Wade had spoken to her in months. In the early weeks of the semester, he had flirted with her, singled her out for special attention. For a while, the attraction had been mutual. She liked his pug nose, his subversive sense of humor. But that was before.
Dr. Ellijay walked to the end of the next aisle, Martha’s aisle.
Have a look out, Lovie. ’Ere it comes.
Martha tried to concentrate, to review her mental notes. This was the final. Her grades had been floundering--that’s all part of the plan, innit?—but Martha had decided she would overcome the plan. She wouldn’t let them win.
Don’t touch the paper, Lenny rasped. It’s printed with poison ink. It’s like them colorful frogs in Ecuador. We learned about that in Biology 101, remember? Beautiful, but lethal. If you touch the ink, you’ll die.
Dr. Ellijay returned to her desk at the front of the room and glanced at her wristwatch. “All right, you have forty-five minutes,” she told the class. “You may begin now. Good luck.”
Look at ’er. She’s watchin’ you. She wants to see you fail. Touch the frog poison and you’ll die. Look out the window. The man on the bench, he’s watchin’, too. They’re all watchin’. They’ve all been waitin’ for this moment, doncha see?
Martha stared at the page, paralyzed. She felt a drop of perspiration release from her armpit and crawl down her side. Around her, she heard the frantic scratching of her fellow students’ pens, which mingled with the sounds of the rats in the walls, the ones that chewed at the masonry with sharp teeth like yellow rice grains. The other students acted as if the rats weren’t there.
She glanced at the clock. Six minutes gone already. She looked down at the paper and tried to focus, to form the answers in her mind.
If you fall for it—don’t say I din’t warn you, Lovie.
She wanted to cry, or to scream, but she was motionless except for the pounding of her heart.
Don’t react. Don’t let ’em know. Don’t let ’em on to you, right? That’s the worst thing.
She heard Dr. Ellijay’s footsteps approach and stop next to her desk. She didn’t look up.
“Martha? It’s been ten minutes, and you haven’t even started. Are you all right?”
A swarm of ghostly amoeba shapes floated in front of Martha’s eyes, and she felt as if her head would explode.
“Martha?” Dr. Ellijay placed a hand on her shoulder.
Martha screamed and lunged out of her seat, pushing the desk over, causing books to tumble out.
Run. It’s yer only chance—run like hellfire.
She bounded up the aisle, reached the door, and flung it open with a bang.
In the hallway, Martha collided with a student on his cellphone, texting. She turned the corner onto another hallway and spotted the door to the custodial closet. She tried the knob. It opened. She slipped inside, squeezed next to a plastic mop bucket with rubber wheels, pulled the door closed, and slid to the floor.
In the darkness, she could smell ammonia. She heard the rats scurry around her. One brushed against her ankle, another along the back of her neck. Out in the hallway, footsteps approaching. Voices calling her name. But Martha remained silent, invisible.
This is one thing we’re good at, hey, Lovie? Lenny said. We know how to vanish.
Title: The Girl in the Maze
Author: R.K. Jackson
Perfect for fans of Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and Tana French, R. K. Jackson’s lyrical, twisty psychological thriller debut follows an aspiring journalist as she uncovers dark truths in a seaswept Southern town—aided by a mysterious outcast and pursued by a ruthless killer.
When Martha Covington moves to Amberleen, Georgia, after her release from a psychiatric ward, she thinks her breakdown is behind her. A small town with a rich history, Amberleen feels like a fresh start. Taking a summer internship with the local historical society, Martha is tasked with gathering the stories of the Geechee residents of nearby Shell Heap Island, the descendants of slaves who have lived by their own traditions for the last three hundred years.
As Martha delves into her work, the voices she thought she left behind start whispering again, and she begins to doubt her recovery. When a grisly murder occurs, Martha finds herself at the center of a perfect storm—and she’s the perfect suspect. Without a soul to vouch for her innocence or her sanity, Martha disappears into the wilderness, battling the pull of madness and struggling to piece together a supernatural puzzle of age-old resentments, broken promises, and cold-blooded murder. She finds an unexpected ally in a handsome young man fighting his own battles. With his help, Martha journeys through a terrifying labyrinth—to find the truth and clear her name, if she can survive to tell the tale.
R.K. Jackson is an award-winning science writer and editor at NASA, and previously worked as a senior editor at CNN, where he helped launch the network’s Internet presence. He has attended the Advanced Novel Writing Workshop at UCLA as well as the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop.
Jackson’s debut novel, THE GIRL IN THE MAZE (available 9/8 from Random House Alibi), has been praised as “A twisty Southern gothic thriller with echoes of Tana French” (L.A. Times bestselling author Dianne Emley), “A terrific mystery” (The Book Lover’s Friend), and “A fast-paced psychological thriller that keeps you engaged from beginning to end” (Reading Femme).
Two of his plays have been staged professionally, and his short story, “All the Devils,” was featured in the Alfred Hitchcock-themed issue of Penumbra Magazine. He is currently consulting with Disney’s Imagineers on the forthcoming “Spaceship of the Imagination” attraction at EPCOT.
A Georgia native with roots in the state’s coastal low country, he now lives with his family in California’s Los Padres National Forest and is at work on a second Martha Covington thriller, THE KISS OF THE SUN.
Books a Million
Penguin Random House