Ellerie Downing is waiting for something to happen…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Erin A. Craig’s Small Favors, a chilling tale about what lurks in the shadows of the people you think you know—publishing July 27th with Delacorte Press.
Ellerie Downing is waiting for something to happen. Life in isolated Amity Falls, surrounded by an impenetrable forest, has a predictable sameness. Her days are filled with tending to her family’s beehives, chasing after her sisters, and dreaming of bigger things while her twin, Samuel, is free to roam as he wishes.
Early town settlers fought off monstrous creatures in the woods, and whispers that the creatures still exist keep the Downings and their neighbors from venturing too far. When some townsfolk go missing on a trip to fetch supplies, a heavy unease settles over the Falls.
Strange activities begin to plague the town, and as the seasons change, it’s clear that something is terribly wrong. The creatures are real, and they’re offering to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand, for just a small favor. These seemingly trifling demands, however, hide sinister intentions. Soon Ellerie finds herself in a race against time to stop Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves from going up in flames.
The smoke smelled of burning pine needles, dark and sweet. It seeped from the hive box in front of me and danced across the fields, caught on a balmy breeze. Papa pressed down on the bellows to release another cloud, training it carefully toward the tall wooden structure’s entrance. His head bobbed as he silently counted the passing seconds. Finally he nodded.
Even though my hands were completely covered, they shook as I approached the hive. I’d never been allowed to help remove frames before, and I wanted to make sure I did everything exactly as Papa said. With a muffled groan, I strained to hoist the heavy lid before setting it aside in the grass, careful to avoid three drowsy bees crawling across its top.
After puffing more of the smoke deep into the box, Papa stepped back, allowing me full access to the hive. “Take out one of the super frames and we’ll inspect it.”
Though I could only see the limned highlight of his profile, he looked pleased. Proud, even. I prayed I wouldn’t let him down. Usually I was in the kitchen with Mama, Merry, and Sadie during harvests. Samuel helped Papa, bringing in the heavy, honey-laden frames for us to process. I’d hold them upright while Mama ran a wide knife down the combs, slicing off waxy caps with practiced ease.
“Ellerie,” Papa prompted, drawing me back. “The first frame can be the trickiest. You might need to chisel it free.”
“Won’t that upset the bees?”
“Not if you do it right,” he teased unhelpfully. I sensed his smile behind the netting. “The first time my father let me take the frames out, I was stung six times. It’s a rite of passage.”
Growing up with beekeepers for parents, I’d certainly been stung before, but it wasn’t an experience I cared to repeat. I’d kept the entire household up with my first sting, sobbing through the night—not for my swollen hand but for the poor bee who had died in the process.
“Let’s see, then.” Papa leaned forward, studying the bees’ work.
Lacy patterns of honeycomb sheeted over the frame, some filled and capped but most empty.
He clucked his tongue, considering. “Not yet. Could be a late harvest this year. Put it back.”
With the utmost care, I eased the wooden frame back into its slot, then breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now the next.”
“We check every one?”
His head bobbed. “If you go through the trouble of smoking the bees, you need to make sure to thoroughly inspect the hive. Honey isn’t the only thing we’re concerned with. We’re stewards for the hives, protectors of these bees.”
He removed another, showing me the grubs, fat white blobs that looked nothing like the buzzing honeybees soaring about our yard. Another frame contained the pupas, cocooned away in caps of honey, growing and dreaming.
“Those will break free in only a few days’ time,” Papa said approvingly. “Our hive is thriving, Ellerie. Let’s put everything back together and let them wake up. We’ll check on the honey next month.”
“And they’ll all be okay?”
I hated the note of worry in my voice. I knew they would be. Papa had never lost a colony before. But seeing how everything fit together, up close and right in my hands, reinforced what a fragile existence these bees had.
“They’ll be just fine. You’ve done well today.”
My face flushed with pleasure. I’d wanted to impress him, to show him I was every bit as capable as Samuel was. Samuel should have been here, should have been wearing this veiled hat, not me. But he’d slipped off after breakfast this morning, and Papa’s face had grown as dark as a summer rainstorm sweeping across the mountain peaks.
Samuel had changed over the summer, racing off the farm with his best friend, Winthrop Mullins, as soon as chores were finished, sometimes even leaving the last of them to be divided up among us girls. He often quarreled with Papa, bickering over little annoyances until the two stood hot-faced, their noses curled into sneers. Mama said he must be sneaking off to see a girl, but I was at a loss to guess who it could be. We never kept anything from each other, my twin and I, and it seemed absurd to imagine him storing secrets now.
Once the box lid was securely tightened, I swooped down to pick up the metal smoker before Papa could, offering to carry it back to the supply shed for him. When we were a good distance away from the hives, he pulled off his hat, then balled up the netting and his pair of gloves into its center.
“I think this will be a good winter.”
Papa was a man of few words unless you got him talking about his bees, and then he’d prattle on for hours.
I envied Sam, born just minutes ahead of me—and a boy. He’d stroll after Papa to the shed without a backward glance, confident and certain of his place in the world.
Not like me, stuck in the house, forever poised and waiting for the next step in my life.
Waiting. Until today.
Inside the shed, I held on to the veiled hat for just a moment longer, fingers sunk deep in the netting. I was scared to let go and release the magic of the afternoon. But an angry vibration buzzed against my thumb. A stray bee was entangled in the mesh. I struggled to gently sort through the layers, trying to free the honeybee as her legs squirmed in rage.
“Don’t sting, don’t sting,” I whispered to her. “I’m only trying to help. You’re nearly free.”
The stinger sank into the side of my finger as the air split in two with a howl of anguish.
It hadn’t come from me.
Papa rushed outside as more cries and shouts rose. This wasn’t the sound of a children’s game turned too rowdy. It echoed across the valley, becoming a confusing cacophony of desperate heartache.
“Ellerie, get your mother. We’re going into town.” Papa was already halfway to the path leading into Amity Falls.
Another scream rang out, sharp and shrill, and a cold sweat trickled down my neck despite the warm afternoon.
“Ellerie!” Papa urged, sensing I wasn’t behind him.
I tossed aside the hat, my finger swelling uncomfortably. The body of the honeybee spilled free from the netting and fell into the dirt, already dead.
Small Favors excerpt text copyright © 2021 by Erin A. Craig. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.