Promise Not to Tell
Published by: William Morrow Paperbacks
Release Date: April 10, 2007
Interweaving past and present, Promise Not To Tell is a story of friendship, secrets, murder, and redemption. At its center is Kate Cypher, a reserved 41-year-old school nurse who returns to the small town of New Canaan, VT, to care for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. The night she arrives, a young girl is murdered. Slowly Kate is drawn into the investigation—and deep into the childhood she’s tried to escape—for the killing eerily echoes the death of another young girl: her childhood friend, Del. Poor, misunderstood, Del suffered the taunts of classmates who shunned her and called her “Potato Girl.” But in Del, 10-year-old Kate found a kindred spirit, until a painful falling out shattered their relationship shortly before Del’s death.
As the investigation unfolds, the facets of Kate’s life collide in a terrifying way: her mother is quickly deteriorating, her old friends are never quite what they seem, and the ghosts of her childhood have emerged to haunt her. Tautly written, deeply insightful, and beautifully evocative, Promise Not To Tell is a riveting and unforgettable debut.
“A great, dark, spooky book for the summer.”
—The Today Show
“‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ That’s the question, posed by a stranger, that 41-year-old Kate Cypher can’t get out of mind in McMahon’s impressive debut…. McMahon’s gift is the deliciously twisty way she subverts all your expectations, keeping you guessing with wry wit and feverish chills. ‘The dead can blame,’ one character says. And the truth, this whipsmart novel reminds us, can break your heart. 4 out of 4 stars”
“McMahon unfurls a whirlwind of suspense that alternates between 1971 and 2002…. Combining murder mystery and coming-of-age tale with supernatural elements, this taut novel is above all a reflection on the haunting power of memory. A-”
“This assured, ambitious debut novel offers an unusual mix of mystery novel and ghost story, with particularly well-drawn coming-of-age themes… McMahon deftly juggles a complex narrative, which smoothly interweaves the past and the present, while also credibly introducing supernatural elements by presenting them through Kate’s skeptical viewpoint. But McMahon’s real coup is her touching characterization of the brave and desperate Del. It is through that portrait that McMahon drives home the cruelty of childhood bullying.”
“Well-plotted suspenseful fun.”
“Deeply disturbing and darkly compelling, Promise Not to Tell will have you looking over your shoulder for the Potato Girl long after you’ve turned the last page.”
—Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
“I loved this book. I was entertained, terrified, and held captive until it was done. I could not put it down.”
—Sara Gran, author of Come Closer
I was living in a cabin way back in the Vermont woods with no electricity, phone or running water. I had to hike in on foot, hauling groceries, laundry, and water. Anyone who has spent a night in the woods knows the strange noises you hear, the way sounds play tricks. The trilling screech of an owl becomes a horrific clown blowing a slide-whistle; a baby bear’s cry turns into an old man screaming for help. Every snap of twigs and crunch of leaves can seem sinister.
During the daylight hours, I would walk along the old abandoned railroad bed that bordered the back of our property, and if I went far enough, I’d pass what locals called “the hippie shacks”: a small group of poorly made cabins that had been built in the late 60’s or early 70’s. The tarpaper roofs had collapsed; the wooden walls were rotted and mossy. I’d imagine the work that went into building the cabins, the hope and promise of living close to nature, going back to the land. And now here they sat, abandoned and in ruins, a dream unfulfilled.
It was in this environment that the idea for Promise Not to Tell was born. I thought I could write a ghost story, set in the woods of Vermont. A story in which the setting itself plays a role as important as the characters — a vivid, living thing.
It was early spring, and down the road from us was a small vegetable farm. One morning, I noticed a dead crow in the center of a nearly sown field, hung upside down from a post, a string tied around its foot. I’d heard farmers did this to keep other crows from eating seeds before they’d sprouted, and that it was far more effective than the traditional scarecrow. For weeks that crow hung there on its string like a broken marionette, quietly rotting, a gruesome warning for other crows to stay away.
When I sat down to write my ghost story, I began with that crow. As I was describing the bird, a hand appeared in the scene and began stroking the greasy feathers. At first, all I saw was a dirty little hand, but then, as I wrote, a young girl came into focus and I had an immediate sense of who she was — and I knew she was going to be my ghost. She told me her name: Del. “I’ve got a secret,” she whispered and I listened, writing it all down.
Late April, 1971
“Touch it,” she said.
“No way. Gross.”
“I dare you.”
“No way. God, what happened to its eyes?”
“Pecked out, I guess. Or just dried up and fell out.”
“Sick.” I shivered. Partly from the cold breeze, partly from the idea of those eyes. It was early spring. The ground below us was thick mud, still half frozen. The week before we’d had the last snowstorm of the season and there were still patches of it clinging to the ground, melting in pools and rivers across the lumpy field.
“Come on, Kate, you gotta do what I say. When you’re at my house, I make the rules. You were the one caught trespassing. I could have you arrested. Or get my daddy to come out here with his shotgun. Now touch it!”
“I will if you will.”
Del’s pale face contorted into a smile. She reached out and stroked the dead bird, starting at its head and moving her fingers with their dirty nails all the way back to its tail feathers. Her touch seemed almost loving — like the bird was her pet parakeet, a creature she’d named and fed. A bird whose song she knew by heart. Some Tweety Bird, Polly-Want-a-Cracker kind of pet.
The putrid crow swung heavy on its wire. She gave it a shove, making it fly toward me. It was as if Del and I were playing some sick game of tetherball. I jumped back. She laughed, throwing back her head with its stringy blond hair. She opened her mouth wide and I noticed that her right front tooth was chipped. Just a little corner was missing, not something you’d notice unless you were looking.
The crow swung, its left foot wrapped and tied with white plastic-covered wire — tougher than string, Del explained. It dangled about three feet from the top of a tall wooden stake driven into the center of the small field where uneven rows of green peas were just coming up. Smaller wooden stakes lined the rows, and rusty wire mesh was stapled to the stakes, forming a trellis for the peas to climb.
Del said her brother Nicky had shot the crow two weeks before. He caught it pecking the pea seeds up out of the dirt before they’d even had a chance to sprout and got it with his BB gun. Then he and his daddy hung the crow up just like they did each year, a warning to other crows to stay away.
I reached out and touched the greasy black feathers of its ragged wing. Bugs crawled there, working their way under the feathers and into the flesh. Metallic green flies buzzed in the air. Although dead, the bird pulsed with life. It stank like old hamburger left in the sun. Like the raccoon my mother once found under our porch back in Massachusetts, way back under the floorboards where no one could reach it. It just had to rot there. My mother sprinkled quicklime through the cracks in the porch floor, letting it fall down onto the bloated corpse like Christmas snow. For weeks the smell permeated the porch, worked its way into windows and open doors, hung on our clothes, skin, and hair. There’s nothing like the smell of death. There’s no mistaking it.