Don’t Breathe a Word
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers
Release Date: May 17, 2011
One summer night in Vermont, 12-year-old Lisa went into the woods behind her house and never came out again. Before she disappeared, she told her little brother Sam about a door that led to a magical place where she would meet the King of the Fairies and become his queen.
Fifteen years later, Phoebe is in love with Sam , a practical, sensible man who doesn’t fear the dark and doesn’t have bad dreams—who, in fact, helps Phoebe ignore her own. But suddenly they are faced with a series of eerie, unexplained occurrences that challenge Sam’s hard-headed, realistic view of the world. As they question their reality, a terrible promise Sam made years ago is revealed and could destroy them all.
“Jennifer McMahon never flinches and never fails to surprise as her stories twist down unexpected roads. Don’t Breathe a Word balances love and horror as McMahon weaves a young couple into a perverse fairyland where Rosemary’s Baby could be at home.”
—Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Murderer’s Daughters
“Jennifer McMahon’s novels are like the perfect winter truffle: dark, rich, earthy, and an absolute, decadent pleasure. Don’t Breathe a Word is a haunting page-turner that kept me up, spine shivering and enthralled, way past my bedtime.”
—Joshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints
“Beautifully written and spooky, Don’t Breathe a Word wraps around you and pulls you into a dark world of fairies and family secrets.”
—Chevy Stevens, author of Still Missing
“Readers will be pulled right along by [McMahon’s] affecting portrait of family dysfunction overlaid with the eerieness of the supernatural.”
“A rural Vermont chiller with a Rosemary’s Baby vibe.”
Don’t Breathe a Word was inspired by a dream I had. In the dream, I met a little boy on a bicycle and he told me his sister had been taken away by fairies. He took me into the dark, tangled woods behind his house and showed me a hole in the ground she’d disappeared into. It was terrifying and horribly sad.
When I woke up, I couldn’t shake the image of that dark hole or the idea of how horrific it would be to lose someone in such a way. I began thinking about the Cottingley fairies – the two young girls who claimed to see fairies in the garden and took all those famous (obviously fake) photos and had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believing them. They admitted years later to faking the pictures, but both continued to insist that they’d really seen fairies.
I began to envision a story about children telling people there were fairies in the woods behind their house. Me being me, I had to have something awful happen. So I decided that the girl who most believed would go missing; that there would be this possibility of her being stolen by fairies.
I began doing some research into the darker side of fairies – the old folklore about fairies stealing babies and children and leaving changelings in their place; taking women to nurse fairy children; making human women pregnant; fairy queens seducing young men then imprisoning them in fairy land. I was hooked.
As a mom who reads her daughter the very dark Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I’m also really interested in how the stories our parents tell us as kids, and the stories we ourselves invent and come to believe, shape our vision of the world around us – an important theme in Don’t Breathe a Word.
“Are you here to see the fairies?” a girl asks her.
“Huh?” Phoebe says, turning to see who spoke.
The girl is ten maybe, dressed from head to toe in pink. She’s got a plastic compass, small and cheap like a prize from a box of Cracker Jacks, pinned to her shirt. Her pale arms, sticking out from the ruffled short sleeve blouse, have bright red welts on them. “I thought maybe you were like the others. That you came out to see the fairies. Cause I can show you something real special that belongs to the King of the Fairies himself. Five dollars, and I can show you.”
Phoebe looks back at the window, sees the boy is gone. She reaches into her jeans, pulls out a crumpled five, hands it over.
“Follow me,” the girl says.
They walk past the crowd and the news vans, down the street to a white house. They turn into the yard, walk around back, past a swing set and vegetable garden in bad need of watering. Then, the girl enters the woods. “Stick close,” she says.
And Phoebe wants to tell her to forget it, that she doesn’t need to see. Shit, she’s not sure how long Mr. Ice Cream is gonna wait, it’s nearly five now, his wife expects him home in time for supper. The girl moves fast.
“Wait!” Phoebe calls, chasing her.
They jog through trees, over a brook, into where the woods grow dark. Phoebe wants to turn around, but it’s too late. She’ll never find her way back without help. There’s no path, no landmarks. It’s the same in all directions: trees and rocks, trees and rocks. They go down a hill where the woods open up. And then Phoebe sees that in the distance, off to her left, yellow crime scene tape is looped around the trees.
“This way,” the girl says, leading her in the other direction.
“Was that it?” Phoebe asks. “Where Lisa was taken? Was that Reliance?”
The girl smiles. “All of this is Reliance, Miss.”
Then, as she walks, the girl starts humming a song Phoebe half recognizes. As she hums, it turns into Crystal Blue Persuasion, which Phoebe knows is impossible, no one under forty listens to that music, but that’s what she hears.
“What’s that you’re humming?” she asks.
“Me? I’m not humming,” the girl in pink says. “You stay here a minute. I’ll be right back.” The girl jogs on ahead, stopping to look over her shoulder to make sure Phoebe’s staying put.
Phoebe checks her watch, anxious to get back to Main Street, to Mr. Ice Cream waiting at the General Store. She imagines him browsing through racks of tacky post cards, stale maple sugar candy, bug spray. He’d make small talk with the owner. He seems to feel like he’s in a club, he and all these small business owners: them against the world.
It’s quiet. Too quiet. Phoebe doesn’t hear a single bird or mosquito. She thinks of the Lord’s Prayer. What a crazy thing to carve in a rock. Why not, “Welcome to Harmony”? She starts to say the prayer, then stops herself. Idiot.
Where the hell are all the birds?
Twigs snap. A shadow moves through the trees. Phoebe holds her breath, then releases it as the girl in pink steps out from a group of little saplings up ahead. She’s got a paper sack in her arms. Phoebe watches her jog over, smiling, the little compass jumping around where it’s pinned to her shirt.
“Look,” she says, thrusting the open bag toward Phoebe who takes it from her and peers inside. It’s the smell that hits her first: earthy and vaguely rotten. Then she understands the lump she’s looking at isn’t a lump at all. There are fingers, swollen and curled.
Phoebe yelps, drops the bag, steps away.
The girl gives Phoebe a disappointed shake of the head, then picks up the bag, opens it up, reaches in. Phoebe wants to scream, beg her not to touch it, not to show her anymore. But when she pulls it out, Phoebe sees it’s only a glove. Tan leather, thick and holding the shape of the hand it once covered.
“It’s his,” the girl says.
“Whose?” Phoebe says, stepping closer now, wanting to touch it, but afraid. The glove is large, covered in brown stains, and all wrong somehow. There’s an extra finger sewed to the side just past the pinkie, the stitching sloppy and in black thread like sutures. Frankenstein glove.
The girl smiles, gently caresses the soft leather of the extra finger. “The King of the Fairies.”