The history of Dalloway School lives in the bones it was built on…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, a dark thriller about a boarding school haunted by its history of witchcraft—publishing August 3rd with Delacorte Press.
The history of Dalloway School lives in the bones it was built on. Five violent deaths in the first ten years of its existence. Sometimes you can still smell the blood on the air.
It wasn’t until Felicity enrolled that she fell in love with the dark. And now she’s back to finish her senior year after the tragic death of her girlfriend. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of the five Dalloway students who died there—girls some say were witches.
It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no.
Dalloway’s occult lore is everywhere, and the new girl won’t let Felicity forget it. But when the past begins to invade on the present, Felicity needs to decide where she stands. The soil under her feet is bloody with Dalloway’s history. But so is the present. Is it Dalloway—or is it her?
Dalloway School rises from the Catskill foothills like a crown upon an auburn head. Accessible only by gravel road and flanked by a mirror-glass lake to the east, its brick-faced buildings stand with their backs turned to the gate and their windows shuttered. My mother is silent in the front seat; we haven’t spoken since New Paltz, when she remarked on how flat the land could be so close to the mountains.
That was an hour ago. I should be glad, I suppose, that she came at all. But, to be honest, I prefer the mutual indifference that endured between me and the hired driver who met me at the airport every year before this one. The driver had her own problems, ones that didn’t involve me.
The same cannot be said for my mother.
We park in front of Sybil Hall and hand the keys to a valet, who will take care of the luggage. This is the downside to arriving at school four days early: we have to meet the dean of students in her office and then tramp across campus together, my mother and the dean chatting six steps ahead and me trailing behind. The lake glitters like a silver coin, visible in the gap between hills. I keep my gaze fixed on the dean’s wrist, on the bronze key that dangles from a string around that wrist: the key to Godwin House.
Godwin House is isolated from the rest of campus by a copse of balsam firs, up a sharply pitched road and perched atop a small ridge—unevenly, as the house was built three hundred years ago on the remains of an ancient avalanche. And as the ground settled, the house did too: crookedly. Inside, the floors slope noticeably along an east-west axis, cracks gaping beneath doors and the kitchen table wobbling under weight. Since I arrived at Dalloway five years ago, there have been two attempts to have the building condemned, or at the very least renovated down to the bones, but we, the inhabitants, protested vociferously enough that the school abandoned its plans both times. And why shouldn’t we protest? Godwin House belongs to us, to the literary effete of Dalloway, self-presumed natural heirs to Emily Dickinson—who had stayed here once while visiting a friend in Woodstock—and we like our house as is. Including its gnarled skeleton.
“You can take your meals at the faculty dining hall for now,” Dean Marriott informs me once she has deposited me in my room. It’s the same room I always stayed in, before. The same water stain on the ceiling, the same yellowing curtains drifting in the breeze from the open window.
I wonder if they kept it empty for me, or if my mother browbeat the school into kicking some other girl out when I rematriculated.
“Miss MacDonald should be back by now,” the dean goes on. “She’s the housemistress for Godwin again this year. You can go by her office sometime this afternoon, let her know you’ve arrived.”
The dean gives me her personal number, too. A liability thing, most likely: After all, what if I have a breakdown on campus? What if, beneath the tailored skirt and tennis sweater, I’m one lonely night away from stripping off my clothes and hurtling naked through the woods like some delirious maenad?
Better to play it safe.
I take the number and slip it into my skirt pocket. I clench it in my fist until the paper’s an inky nugget against my palm.
Once the dean is gone, my mother turns to look at the room properly, her cool gaze taking in the shabby rug and the mahogany dresser with its chipped corners. I imagine she wonders what becomes of the sixty thousand she pays in tuition each year.
“Perhaps,” she says after a long moment, “I should stay the night in town, let you settle in. ”
It’s not a real offer, and when I shake my head she looks relieved. She can fly back to Aspen this afternoon and be drinking cabernet in her study by nightfall.
“All right, then. All right. Well.” She considers me, her shell-pink fingernails pressing in against opposite arms. “You have the dean’s number.”
“Right. Yes. Hopefully you won’t need it.”
She embraces me, my face buried against the crook of her neck, where everything smells like Acqua di Parma and airplane sweat.
I watch her retreat down the path until she vanishes around the curve, past the balsams—just to make sure she’s really gone. Then I drag my suitcases up onto the bed and start unpacking.
I hang my dresses in the closet, arranged by color and fabric— gauzy white cotton, cool-water cream silk—and pretend not to remember the spot where I’d pried the baseboard loose from the wall last year and concealed my version of contraband: tarot cards, long taper candles, herbs hidden in empty mint tins. I used to arrange them atop my dresser in a neat row the way another girl might arrange her makeup.
This time I stack my dresser with jewelry instead. When I look up I catch my own gaze in the mirror: blond hair tied back with a ribbon, politely neutral lipstick smudging my lips.
I scrub it off against my wrist. After all, there’s no one around to impress.
Even with nothing to distract me from the task, unpacking still takes the better part of three hours. And when I’ve kicked the empty suitcases under my bed and turned to survey the final product, I realize I hadn’t thought past this point. It’s still early afternoon, the distant lake now glittering golden outside my window, and I don’t know what to do next.
By the middle of my first attempt at a senior year, I’d accrued such a collection of books in my room here that they were spilling off my shelves, the overflow stacked up on my floor and the corner of my dresser, littering the foot of my bed to get shoved out of the way in my sleep. They all had to be moved out when I didn’t come back for spring semester last year. The few books I was able to fit in my suitcases this year are a poor replacement: a single shelf not even completely filled, the last two books tipped forlornly against the wood siding.
I decide to go down to the common room. It’s a better reading atmosphere anyway; me and Alex used to sprawl out on the Persian carpet amid a fortress of books—teacups at our elbows and jazz playing off Alex’s Bluetooth speaker.
The memory lances through me like a thrown dart. It’s unexpected enough to steal my breath away, and for a moment I’m standing there dizzy in my own doorway as the house tilts and spins.
I’d known it would be worse, coming back here. Dr. Ortega had explained it to me before I left, her voice placid and reassuring: how grief would tie itself to the small things, that I’d be living my life as normal and then a bit of music or the cut of a girl’s smile would remind me of her and it would all flood back in.
I understand the concept of sense memory. But understanding isn’t preparation.
All at once I want nothing more than to dart out of Godwin House and run down the hill, onto the quad, where the white sunshine will blot out any ghosts.
Except that’s weakness, and I refuse to be weak.
This is why I’m here, I tell myself. I came early so I’d have time to adjust. Well, then. Let’s adjust.
I suck in a lungful of air and make myself go into the hall, down two flights of stairs to the ground floor. I find some tea in the house kitchen cabinet—probably left over from last year— boil some water, and carry the mug with me into the common room while it brews.
The common room is the largest space in the house. It claims the entire western wall, its massive windows gazing out toward the woods, and is therefore dark even at midafternoon. Shadows hang like drapes from the ceiling, until I flick on a few of the lamps and amber light brightens the deep corners.
No ghosts here.
Godwin House was built in the early eighteenth century, the first construction of Dalloway School. Within ten years of its founding, it saw five violent deaths. Sometimes I still smell blood on the air, as if Godwin’s macabre history is buried in its uneven foundations alongside Margery Lemont’s bones.
I take the armchair by the window: my favorite, soft and burgundy with a seat cushion that sinks when I sit, as if the chair wants to devour its occupant. I settle in with a Harriet Vane mystery and lock myself in Oxford of the 1930s, in a tangled mess of murderous notes and scholarly dinners and threats exchanged over cakes and cigarettes.
The house feels so different like this. A year ago, midsemester, the halls were raucous with girls’ shouting voices and the clatter of shoes on hardwood, empty teacups scattered across flat surfaces and long hairs clinging to velvet upholstery. All that has been swallowed up by the passage of time. My friends graduated last year. When classes start, Godwin will be home to a brand-new crop of students: third- and fourth-years with bright eyes and souls they sold to literature. Girls who might prefer Oates to Shelley, Alcott to Allende. Girls who know nothing of blood and smoke, of the darker kinds of magic.
And I will slide into their group, the last relic of a bygone era, old machinery everyone is anxiously waiting to replace.
My mother wanted me to transfer to Exeter for my final year. Exeter—as if I could survive that any better than being back here. Not that I expected her to understand. But all your friends are gone, she’d said.
I didn’t know how to explain to her that being friendless at Dalloway was better than being friendless anywhere else. At least here the walls know me, the floors, the soil. I am rooted at Dalloway. Dalloway is mine.
The sound startles me enough that I drop my book, gaze flicking toward the ceiling. I taste iron in my mouth.
It’s nothing. It’s an old house, settling deeper into unsteady land.
I retrieve my book and flip through the pages to find my lost place. I’ve never been afraid of being alone, and I’m not about to start now.
This time I’m half expecting it, tension having drawn my spine straight and my free hand into a fist. I put the book aside and slip out of my chair with an unsteady drum beating in my chest. Surely Dean Marriott wouldn’t have let anyone else in the house, right? Unless… It’s probably maintenance. They must have someone coming by to clean out the mothballs and change the air filters.
In fact, that makes a lot of sense. The semester will commence at the end of the weekend; now should be peak cleaning time. Probably I can expect a significant amount of traffic in and out of Godwin, staff scrubbing the floors and throwing open windows.
Only the house was already clean when I arrived.
As I creep up the stairs, I realize the air has gone frigid, a cold that curls in the marrow of my bones. A slow dread rises in my blood. And I know, without having to guess, where that sound came from.
Alex’s bedroom was the third door down on the right, second floor—directly below my room. I used to stomp on the floor when she played her music too loud. She’d rap back with the handle of a broom.
Four raps: Shut. The. Hell. Up.
This is stupid. This is… ridiculous, and irrational, but knowing that does little to quell the seasick feeling beneath my ribs.
I stand in front of the closed door, one hand braced against the wood.
Open it. I should open it.
The wood is cold, cold, cold. A white noise buzzes between my ears, and suddenly I can’t stop envisioning Alex on the other side: decayed and gray, with filmy eyes staring out from a desiccated skull.
I can’t open it.
I spin on my heel and dart back down the hall and all the way to the common room. I drag the armchair closer to the tall window and huddle there on its cushion, with Sayers clutched in both hands, staring at the doorway I came through and waiting for a slim figure to drift in from the stairs, dragging dusk like a cloak in her wake.
Nothing comes. Of course it doesn’t. I’m just—
It’s paranoia. It’s the same strain of fear that used to send me lurching awake in the middle of the night with my throat torn raw. It’s guilt reaching long fingers into the soft underbelly of my mind and letting the guts spill out.
I don’t know how long it is before I can open my book again and turn my gaze away from the door and to the words instead. No doubt reading murder books alone in an old house is half my problem. Impossible not to startle at every creak and bump when you’re half buried in a story that heavily features library crimes.
The afternoon slips toward evening; I have to turn on more lights and refill my tea in the kitchen, but I finish the book.
I’ve just turned the final page when it happens again: Thump.
And then, almost immediately after, the slow drag of something heavy across the floor above my head.
This time I don’t hesitate.
I take the stairs up to the second floor two at a time, and I’m halfway down the hall when I realize Alex’s bedroom door is open. Bile surges up my throat, and no… no—
But when I come to a stop in front of Alex’s room, there’s no ghost.
A girl sits at Alex’s desk, slim and black-haired with fountain pen in hand. She’s wearing an oversized glen check blazer and silver cuff links. I’ve never seen her before in my life.
She glances up from her writing, and our eyes meet. Hers are gray, the color of the sky at midwinter.
“Who are you?” The words tumble out of me all at once, sharp and aggressive. “What are you doing here?”
The room isn’t empty. The bed has sheets on it. There are houseplants on the windowsill. Books pile atop the dresser.
This girl isn’t Alex, but she’s in Alex’s room. She’s in Alex’s room, and looking at me like I just walked in off the street dripping with garbage.
She sets down her pen and says, “I live here.” Her voice is low, accent like molasses.
For a moment we stare at each other, static humming in my chest. The girl is as calm and motionless as lake water. It’s unnerving. I keep expecting her to ask Why are you here?—to turn the question back around on me, the intruder—but she never does.
She’s waiting for me to speak. All the niceties are close at hand: introductions, small talk, polite questions about origin and interests. But my jaw is wired shut, and I say nothing.
At last she rises from her seat, chair legs scraping against the hardwood, and shuts the door in my face.
Extract copyright © 2021 by Victoria Lee
Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.