A girl returns home to her strange, wild family after years of estrangement…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from What Big Teeth, a gothic YA fantasy from debut author Rose Szabo—publishing February 2nd with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Eleanor Zarrin has been estranged from her wild family for years. When she flees boarding school after a horrifying incident, she goes to the only place she thinks is safe: the home she left behind. But when she gets there, she struggles to fit in with her monstrous relatives, who prowl the woods around the family estate and read fortunes in the guts of birds.
Eleanor finds herself desperately trying to hold the family together—in order to save them all, Eleanor must learn to embrace her family of monsters and tame the darkness inside her.
I opened my eyes, and I was on the train.
I was the only passenger left. How long had I been asleep? I looked down to make sure I still had my things: my straw hat, my suitcase stamped with the letter Z. I’d hung on to them this whole way, through sleeping on a bench in Penn Station and sprinting to catch a train in Boston, ever since I’d left Saint Brigid’s School for Young Ladies this time yesterday. Thinking about it, I ran my tongue over my teeth again. No matter how many times I did it, I could still taste copper.
The door at the far end of the car clattered open, and I jumped. Just the conductor, coming down the aisle to check on me. He looked nervously down at me, and I felt guilty, wondering if he could tell I was on the run.
“You the stop in Winterport?” he said. I nodded. His eyes had wandered down to my suitcase.
“You got people there?” he asked. “I’m kin of the Hannafins, myself.”
People up here were like this, I remembered suddenly. Always wanting to know about your family. “The Zarrins,” I offered.
He twitched like a rabbit before settling himself back down. “I thought you might be,” he said. “They don’t leave Winterport much, do they?”
“I did,” I said. “I haven’t been back in eight years.”
Once I said it I froze, terrified he’d ask me why I was coming back now. I rummaged frantically in my mind for a convincing lie. But he just smiled at me tightly and touched his hat.
“We’ll just be slowing down, not a full stop,” he said. “Don’t worry, people do it all the time. When the whistle blows the first time, get ready.”
He disappeared, and I stared out the window and watched the landscape for a while. It had been almost summer in Maryland, but as we rumbled across the bridge that divides New Hampshire from Maine, I saw a few stubborn patches of snow clinging on beneath the pine trees. I’d been angry when I’d gotten on the train, and that had kept me in motion. But the weather chilled my anger and crystallized it into fear. Maybe there were good reasons I wasn’t supposed to be at home. I had a vague, half-remembered feeling that it wasn’t exactly safe. It all felt faded and vaguely ridiculous. None of it seemed plausible when I held it up to the light. But if it was true, if I was right, then I needed to be home again.
After all, there was no other place for me in the world. Not after what I’d done.
Lucy Spencer flashed in my mind for a moment then. Her red hair coming out of its braid, her face twisted in that expression people make right before they start screaming—
And then the whistle was blowing. Get ready, he’d said. I hefted my suitcase, clapped my hat on my head. Time to go visit my family.
The conductor came back to open the door for me as the train slowed. He couldn’t even look me in the eye. He mumbled something that sounded like “Be careful,” and then we were rumbling slowly past a platform, and I was stepping out into the air.
I felt a jarring, sickening sensation of the world rising up to meet me. I staggered, let go of the suitcase, and hit one knee on the wood of the platform, the train still trundling behind me. I crawled away from it, feeling like I’d been in an accident. It was moving faster than I’d thought, when I was on it.
I told myself not to be weak. I made sure I hadn’t scraped my knee; I didn’t want anyone around here to see my blood. I got to my feet, checked to make sure my suitcase hadn’t popped open in the fall, and took a moment to get my bearings.
The platform was deserted. Beyond it the single cobbled street of the town bent like an elbow out into the ocean, with houses lining the crook. Along the water were docks where fishing boats bobbed up and down at their moorings. The sun was going down behind the tree-covered hills, bathing the town in alternating stripes of red light and shadow. Three young boys knelt in the street, their hand-me-down coats straining threadbare over their backs.
I found myself watching them closely, my eyes locked on them. They were using a stick to try to loosen one of the cobblestones. One of them looked up and saw me, and froze. I watched him reach down as though he thought if he moved slowly enough I wouldn’t see him. His dirty fingers scrabbled at the edges of the stone until he held it in his hand. I saw his fingers clamp shut around it, and I saw the muscles in his shoulder begin to tense. I tensed, too, sinking down lower, ready to duck or run forward. It was like he knew me. Like he knew what I’d done.
An old man hobbled out of a store, waving a walking stick.
The boys scattered, tearing off across the cobbles.
I shuddered like someone being woken up from a dream. The man brandished the stick halfheartedly after the boys, but it seemed like he’d already forgotten them as he turned to look at me up on the platform, shielding his eyes to see me more clearly. I clambered down to meet him. He was bent at the shoulder, his blue eyes cloudy with age, and he wore a clerical collar.
“Ah, young Eleanor,” he said.
“I… I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t think I know you.”
“Father Thomas,” he said. “Your grandmother didn’t want to introduce you to me until you were older.” He had the same sharp, staccato accent as the man on the train. “But I know about all of you.” He winked. I blushed, not quite knowing why, wondering what it was exactly that he knew.
“Well, thank you for… chasing them off.”
“My job. Pastor of Saint Anthony in Winterport. Here to help the lost.” He chuckled a little to himself. “Do you need directions up to the house?”
“I think I remember. Who were they?”
“Oh, them? Kids from town,” he said. “They don’t understand that you’re safe enough. I suspect there’s something instinctual that makes ’em want to throw rocks at Zarrins.”
His matter-of-factness chilled me. But I’d known my family was dangerous, so why was I surprised that other people knew it, too?
“I don’t think they’re expecting me,” I said. “Will that be a problem?”
“The Zarrins have never much liked unexpected company,” he said. “But they are expecting you. Your grandma sent Margaret down this morning with a note, asked me to greet you.”
I hadn’t seen that coming.
“I’ll walk you as far as the church,” he said.
He offered to take my suitcase, but I said I’d manage. He hitched along beside me, leaning on his cane. The whole way I thought I spotted people watching us—a twitch of lace curtains at a window, a rustle as though someone had just ducked behind a hedge. It was almost funny. But then when we got to the weathered clapboard church, and he went away up the path and in through the door, nothing about it seemed funny anymore. I was alone.
At the edge of town, the road went nearly straight up a steep incline into a copse of silver birch. The climb was hard; my suitcase banged against my already bruised leg, and I started carrying it in my arms. The wind curled through the trees, blowing through my uniform until I couldn’t stop shivering.
A car crawled along behind me for a while, and then passed me at a crest when the road widened. At school, cars would honk at us as we walked in groups; boys would lean out and ask us if we wanted a ride and the nuns would yell at them to leave us alone. Not here. I wondered if the driver recognized me, or just the direction I was walking.
I came to the place where the road forked. To the right, it became a bridge that spanned a narrow sound and traveled onward up the coast. To the left, a dirt road that darted directly up the steep slope into the deep woods. Trees made a tunnel overhead. It was beautiful up there, in the darkening forest, but I sensed that it was not a place to be caught alone at night. I bent my knees and adjusted my gait to move silently, then crept forward.
Birds sang here, and wild creatures rustled in the bushes. My ears pricked at the small sounds. The geography settled into place around me. To my right down the tree-lined slope: a streambed that carried a torrent of meltwater every spring, eventually pouring off a cliff into the sea. A little to one side of that, there was a line in the woods where it transitioned from birch to aspen. And a little farther up the path, visible in glimpses as I climbed steadily, was the front lawn. I rounded a bend, and the trees fell away, and all that remained was the house.
It loomed over the landscape. Towers and porches and balconies and bay windows. Story after story of decorative gingerbreading, crown molding, sunburst emblems, recessed niches, and high gables, and all of it covered in gray scalloped shingles, like scales, and at the very top of the highest tower, the creaking weathervane in the shape of a running rabbit. It was hard to look at: not all of it fit in my view at once, even after I took a few steps back. I realized that now, it scared me. It was too much. It felt oppressive, a giant squatting at the top of the world.
I stared the house down, willing it to blink its windows first. And then I took a few quick steps across the narrow band of lawn, planted my foot deliberately on the first step, and launched myself up to the door.
It was black. Not painted: black wood, with twisted carvings and a brass horsehead with a ring clenched in its teeth. I lifted the ring and let it fall.
No answer for a long moment. Behind me the wind ran up my spine and made me shiver. I reached for the knob and threw the door open.
A moan filled the air, a window open somewhere that pulled the air from the door through the house, turning the front hall into a throat. As soon as I stepped forward into the house, suction yanked the door shut behind me and the sound of the ocean sloughing against the cliffs on the far side of the house faded to a whisper. Other than that, there was no sound, except for somewhere down the hall, a heavy clock ticking.
I looked around with heart pumping, my hands locked around my suitcase. The entry hall soared two and a half stories, the ceiling lost in darkness somewhere overhead, the rails of the second floor lined with unlit post lamps. The central staircase snaked down in two streams from the upper floors, joining in the middle and unfurling into the front hall, covered in carpet the faded red of a tongue. The walnut wainscoting gleamed, but the baseboards were scratched and scarred, and the wallpaper, printed with scenes of men hunting stags, lay tattered in places. An age-spotted mirror stood propped on a narrow hall table that also held a cut glass dish of desiccated peppermints. The walls were lined with portraits of dim figures, paintings of sprawling landscapes, lovingly rendered still lifes of animal haunches and goblets overflowing with wine. Things I remembered but didn’t recognize, as though I’d seen them in a movie, or a dream.
I felt suddenly dizzy. I wanted to sit down, but what should I sit on—the chair carved in the shape of a grinning devil? A long bench lined with a dozen briefcases with deep gouges in the leather? A pile of twine-tied packages all stamped with fragile and a picture of a skull? Maybe I should just keep moving forward. There were the stairs. Somewhere, two stories up, was my childhood bedroom, and maybe if I could make it in there, shut the door, I would be transformed back into someone who belonged here. But that seemed like a long way to go on legs that were longing to carry me down—to the floor, or ideally back to town, to the train, to safety. But there was no train.
I couldn’t leave now, I told myself. Where would I even go? The front hall was lined with portraits. I got close to them and studied them in turn, trying to see who I could remember. The largest was an oil painting of a squat, grinning young man with impressive sideburns, holding a team of white horses by their reins while they reared and foamed and rolled their eyes. My grandfather, I thought, but not the doting, laughing man I remembered—he looked fiendish. Next to him, an array of men who looked like him but with varying expressions: a skittish man in a red sweater who must have been my father. A sleek boy with a jagged smile in the same sweater as my father’s picture, but faded and frayed. And there were women here, too, all with sharp cheekbones, olive skin, dark eyes, nothing like my flat, wide-mouthed face. I scanned the whole room and could not find a single photograph of me.
I closed my eyes and steadied myself on the newel post at the base of the stairs. And then from farther back into the house, I heard a voice call out, “Eleanor! Is that you?”
I’d know that voice anywhere: it was clear and gentle, like the bell on a buoy. It cut through my fear and touched me. Mother. She used to sing to me, when I was little. And she was here.
“Where are you?” I called.
“The back garden, dear.” She sounded happy. “Come through the kitchen, it’s fastest!”
Mother. She had soft hands and she’d let me braid her long hair when I was a child. Suddenly my reservations left me, and all I wanted to do was see her again.
I quickly followed the hallway to the door that led to the kitchen. I was about to be back with my mother, and then everything would be alright. I opened the door, and as it swung open, I realized someone was standing there, waiting for me to open it.
I’d forgotten about Aunt Margaret.
She stared straight at me from under her ragged tangle of hair. She looked like the women in the portraits, but wilder: sallow skin, bags under her eyes, her clothes covered in grease stains. She frowned at me and muttered something I couldn’t make out. She didn’t like to be stared at, I remembered, and she didn’t like to be spoken to. I could work around this. I averted my eyes and held very still. Slowly, she shuffled back a few paces from the door. “Mother?” I called out again, more tentatively.
“Just follow my voice, dear!”
I edged around Margaret. In my childhood memories she was somehow lovable, always humming a tune. She muttered to herself as I skirted around her through the dark kitchen, across its brick floor and past the big stone oven blackened with years of soot, to the old farmhouse-style back door. The top half was already propped open. I slipped out through the bottom half and shut it behind me, penning Margaret in the kitchen.
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the house, so I was blinded at first when I stepped out into the sun. Mother gasped, then said, “My little girl!”
As my eyes adjusted, I saw the shapes in the back garden more clearly. A tall, narrow old woman in a faded black dress, a man in a suit, a woman sitting in what looked like a large iron washtub. And behind them, a table set with plates and glassware and trimmed with faded bunting. A party?
“Hullo, Eleanor,” said the man. He was older than in his portrait, but I knew he must be my father. I stepped closer, but he didn’t reach out to hug me, just looked at me curiously for a long while. Finally, I put out a hand, and he shook it dazedly. “Eleanor,” Grandma Persephone said. I was already looking past her, looking for the voice that had called to me earlier. But when I really saw my mother, I gasped.
She was wearing a thin robe, drenched with water. Half of her face was just like mine. I recognized my high forehead, my profile. But as she turned to look at me I saw her other side: an eyeless, earless mass of red polyps that ran all the way down her body until they disappeared into the water of the tub. All of them were straining toward me, as though they could see me, as though they wanted to reach out and grasp me and suck me into the mass. I stumbled back and caught myself on the porch railing. Her one eyebrow shot up, her half of a mouth opening in dismay. I forced myself to smile, but she reached out her good hand and took a damp towel from the edge of the tub and smoothed it protectively over the inhuman side of her face.
I knew I should go and hug her. I knew that I used to. That when I was little, I’d loved her. But now all I could think about was the feeling of those things squirming across my face.
“Hello, Mother,” I said, trying to sound breezy, like the girls at school. But they always said mummy, or mama. I couldn’t imagine what that would sound like in my mouth.
“I told them we should throw you a little party,” Mother said. “It’s been so long.”
“How did you know I was coming?”
“I saw you,” said Grandma Persephone. And when she spoke, I realized that my eye had been avoiding her in the way that it was still avoiding Mother. I forced myself to turn and take in the woman who had sent me away from home all those years ago.
Her hair was milk-white, like mine, and had been since she was young—a family trait. She towered over me, taller than a woman ought to be by her age. Hers was the original face that had spawned all the women in the portraits: her features bonier, crueler, her nose more hooked, her eyes more sunken. I swallowed hard.
“Grandmother,” I said. In my mind it sounded dignified.
But it came out softer than I’d expected. Like a question. “You made it here, I see.”
I wondered if she was angry at me. She’d told me, in letter after letter over the years, to stay put, and I hadn’t. Well, I’d better get this over with. I cleared my throat.
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “Something happened.”
Her eyebrows shot up, and she looked angry for a moment. “Not now.” She glanced out across the fields. “The others are coming. They want to say hello to you.”
As if in answer, from the woods came a long howl. “That will be your grandfather,” she said.
But it wasn’t just him—it was three voices, mingling on the breeze. I was surprised to realize I recognized them. The long vowels of Grandpa Miklos, the sharp yips of Luma, Rhys’s guttural bark. But a part of them felt different now. I used to hear that sound and run to the door. Now I stood frozen in place like a rabbit, my eyes scanning the tree line, dreading what might come out.
“Quite alright?” Grandma Persephone asked. My throat was too dry to speak.
It was spring dusk. They were nothing more than smears of light and shadow among the trees. If they came for my throat there would be no way I could stop them. The sound of their voices made my chest ache with longing, but my legs wanted to run. A dangerous combination, to want something so badly and also be so afraid. I felt that hunger open up inside me again, the same one I’d felt gripping Lucy Spencer by the hair—
I realized I’d shut my eyes, and when I forced them open again, three shapes had broken free of the tree line, ambling along upright, laughing and joking and straightening clothing. One of the shapes, a young man tugging on a red sweater, saw me and started into a run across the lawn. He vaulted the low stone wall, rushed me, grabbed me, and heaved me high into the air. Against my will my body went limp, preparing for death.
He caught me up and held me out to look at me. My feet dangled in empty air. I still couldn’t draw breath.
“Rhys, put her down.” Grandma Persephone’s lips were pursed, but I could see the smile twitching around the edges. She thought this was funny. I couldn’t believe it.
“She likes it,” Rhys said. “Don’t you?” “Please put me down.”
He looked wounded, but he lowered me to the ground. As soon as my feet touched down I backed away. My ribs ached where he’d held me.
“Eleanor,” Grandma Persephone said, “this is your cousin Rhys. A college man, when he bothers to show up to his classes. Popular with the ladies, or so I’ve heard.” Rhys’s chest puffed up. “And clearly, as you can see, a brute with no manners.” She said it affectionately, but I didn’t think it was funny at all.
“She knows me.” He grinned at me. “Don’t you, Ellie?” “Of course.” I tried to infuse my voice with warmth. He felt dangerous.
“I knew it!” He moved forward as though he wanted to scoop me up again, but stopped himself short. “Every time I’m home I ask Where’s Ellie, and Grandma says—”
“She’s been at boarding school,” Grandma Persephone said. “I know that, Grandma. Where’s she been at Christmas?” “Rhys, who’s got the meat?” she asked.
“Why don’t you go help him with that?”
Rhys nodded, then sprinted back toward the other two figures making their way across the lawn. One was an old man who tottered slowly, the other a blond girl who kept pace.
“If he’s my cousin,” I said, “who’s his mother?”
“Margaret. And that’s your sister there, and your Grandpa Miklos,” Grandma Persephone said, behind me. She said it quietly, like a stage manager feeding me my lines.
“I know that,” I said. I watched Rhys catch up to them. He took the sack from the old man, leaped back over the wall, and opened the gate for him. The sack dropped to the ground with a leaden thud. As she stepped through the gate, the girl glanced up, and although I knew it was her, I recognized my sister for the first time. And she was the first thing I saw that didn’t frighten me. She’d grown up, but she still looked like a movie actress, with her wide, bright eyes, cherubic face, and soft hair the color of a star. She ran toward me and wrapped her arms around me, and from her clothes came the familiar smell of pine forest and mail-ordered perfume. Luma. My sister, my best friend. I’d written her probably a hundred letters and she’d never written me back, but now I was here, and she had me.
“Eleanor!” she said into my cheek. I let her hug me, and for a moment, things felt normal. Then she pulled back and grinned cheerily at me with her mouthful of sharp teeth. Strands of bloody flesh still clung between them, and her breath smelled gamey. I kept my smile fixed as she stroked my cheek with a fingernail caked in blood.
“Luma,” I said. “I’ve missed you.” “And you!”
“I have so much to tell you,” I said. “I—”
“Mother,” Luma said, “what’s in your bath? It smells incredible.”
“Heaven.” Luma sat down on the edge of Mother’s tub with a sigh, stroked the water, and splashed some of it across her face. I couldn’t quite believe that after eight years away, she hadn’t even let me finish my sentence.
All around me were little domestic scenes: Luma sitting on the edge of the garden tub, Father listening sheepishly while Rhys talked about the hunting they’d done, Grandma Persephone tapping Grandpa Miklos on the chest with one bony finger. “You forgot your cane,” she said.
“I don’t need it on four legs.” “You need it coming back.”
“Ehhhh…” He waved a hand. “I don’t like it. It makes me feel old.”
“You are old.”
He slung an arm around her shoulders, and she bent her knees to take his weight. As she moved to his side I got a look at his face. It was the face I remembered most vividly from childhood: those kind, dark eyes, those soft lines in his skin, his bushy eyebrows, his broad nose. But I didn’t feel the way I used to when I looked at him. I was afraid.
“Miklos,” Grandma Persephone said. “Don’t you want to say hello to Eleanor? She’s home.”
He grinned as he turned toward me. But then he sniffed the air, his grin faded, and his head snapped up to lock onto his target. His eyes focused on mine, and as they did, his shoulders dropped down, relaxing but also… preparing.
I felt suddenly cold. Grandpa wasn’t like Rhys or Luma or Father. He was older and came from somewhere less civilized. He wasn’t seeing Eleanor, his granddaughter. He was seeing a young woman named Eleanor who had suddenly found herself at an isolated manor house. Someone no one would miss if she disappeared on a spring evening.
He took a step toward me. I took half a step back, praying my foot wouldn’t catch on a stone, praying I wouldn’t falter or fall.
Grandma Persephone saw it, too. She snapped her fingers under his nose. “Miklos. Miklos!”
He shook his head and looked a little dreamy.
“It is good to see you, my… darling,” he said. “It has been too long.”
I nodded, waiting for my heart to stop racing.
Grandma Persephone had him by one arm. I could see her fingernails digging into his jacket. “Let’s toast,” she said.
They all turned toward the table and took up flutes of champagne. Someone put one into my hand.
“To our Eleanor,” Grandma Persephone said, and they clinked glasses and drank. I sipped.
I’d pictured a time like this every night for years, until the image got threadbare and worn. My family, welcoming me back, thrilled to see me, as though I had never left. And now that I had it, it was wrong. Or I was wrong.
The rest of them quickly fell to chatting, and I let myself sidle out of the way. At school, the easiest way to get out of things was just to stop existing. I watched them for a while, and then Grandma Persephone detached herself and drifted back to stand near me.
“You’ll want to apologize to your mother once you’ve settled in,” she said. “You were a little rude, but I’m sure she’ll understand that you’re just nervous. Which, by the way, is not something you should show your grandfather, either. If something runs, he has to chase.”
“I wouldn’t have been afraid if you hadn’t sent me away.”
It was out of my mouth before I could stop it, and after I said it, I glowed hot with indignation. She studied me, and I studied her back, looking all over her face for any trace of remorse for what she’d done to me, for sending me away, for letting me be afraid. Nothing. I realized she was curious about me, that she might have known I’d come back, but now that I was here, she didn’t know exactly what I’d do next.
“I felt like that, once,” she said at last. “I’m sorry?”
“After my son died,” she said. “The first Rhys. I looked at your grandfather, and I forgot everything that made him my family. I just saw a monster.”
I looked around at the gathering. How could she see anything else?
“Give yourself time,” she said, “to let your eyes adjust.”
I glanced around at my family. They’d clumped together, laughing, drinking champagne. Aside from a few glances at me, they looked like they’d already forgotten I was here, that I was the reason for the party. Evening fell across the lawn as my sister still perched on the edge of the tub. Her long, sharp teeth, the ones that couldn’t retract like everyone else’s, glinted in the light of the rising moon. Father and Grandpa Miklos were looking conspiratorially at the bag on the ground.
“What’s for dinner?” Father asked Rhys. “Show me what you caught.”
Rhys grabbed the sack and pulled out a brace of young rabbits by the ears. Their bodies swung limply from their broken necks. Their white throats were pink with blood.
Maybe my eyes were adjusting, I thought, since everything seemed to be getting darker around me. And then I fainted.
Excerpted from What Big Teeth, copyright © 2020 by Rose Szabo.