Read an Excerpt From My Dearest Darkest

Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Kayla Cottingham’s YA Sapphic horror debut My Dearest Darkest, out from Sourcebooks Fire on March 29th.

Finch Chamberlin is the newest transfer student to the ultra-competitive Ulalume Academy… but she’s also not what she seems. Months before school started, Finch and her parents got into an accident that should have left her dead at the bottom of the river. But something monstrous, and ancient, and terrifying, wouldn’t let her drown. Finch doesn’t know why she woke up after her heart stopped, but since dying she’s felt a constant pull from the school and the surrounding town of Rainwater, like something on the island is calling to her.

Selena St. Clair sees right through Finch, and she knows something is seriously wrong with her. But despite Selena’s suspicion, she feels drawn to Finch and has a sinking feeling that from now on the two will be inexplicably linked to one another.

One night Finch, Selena, and her friends accidentally summon a carnivorous creature of immense power in the depths of the school. It promises to grant every desire the girls have kept locked away in their insecure hearts—beauty, power, adoration—in exchange for a price: human body parts. But as the cost of their wanting becomes more deadly, Finch and Selena must learn to work together to stop the horror they unleashed, before it consumes the entire island.


 

 

one

While all towns have their ghosts, Rainwater’s were special. They sank through its submerged sea caves and slithered up its cliffs. They bounced around its caverns and tunnels like electrical pulses in a brain, echoing memories of footsteps and laughter and screams through the ground and into the towering evergreen trees. The peninsula had a habit of keeping things long after they were gone.

And on May 16, when Finch Chamberlin crossed the town line into Rainwater, Maine, it decided to keep her.

“Terrible-­looking campus, huh?” her father said, meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror. He nodded up at the soaring spires of Ulalume Academy as they came into view beyond the trees.

“Oh! I… I think it’s pretty,” Finch defended, looking down at her shoes.

“He’s joking, sweetie.” Finch’s mother shot him a sharp look. “It’s lovely.”

Ulalume’s towering, Gothic campus rose out of the fog-shrouded trees. The peninsula Rainwater rested on was just under forty square miles, vaguely crescent-shaped, with a rocky coastline and the occasional pebble beach. A single causeway led in and out.

The Chamberlins left their car in the guest parking lot. Finch’s mother pulled her into a sideways hug, squeezing her upper arm while her father led the way, more interested in getting to the student services office on time for Finch’s final audition for Ulalume’s renowned music program than the fact that his daughter looked ready to crawl out of her skin.

“You okay?” her mother asked.

Finch chewed her lower lip. “Nervous.”

“About?”

“Everything,” Finch whispered, barely audible. She might as well tattoo it on her forehead. Or sew it on her jackets as a warning. Do not look at or approach or think about, please. Thank you.

Her mom kissed the crown of her head. “You’ll do fine, little bird. I’m here.”

Finch closed her eyes, took a breath, and nodded. “You’re here.”

She was trying not to think about the fact that she wouldn’t be for long, though. Assuming this audition scored her a spot in the music program, she’d be living here for the foreseeable future. Ulalume was a boarding school that housed three hundred of the most talented prodigies—and trust fund babies—that the administration had handpicked to join their illustrious institution. After two years of rejections, she was hoping this would finally be the year she got in—and procured the scholarship she so desperately needed.

Finch and her family stepped into the student services office a minute later. It was uncomfortably warm, and the persistent humidity from outside seemed to permeate the building’s ivy-covered stone walls. Finch dabbed at her forehead with the back of her hand. She was glad she could play off her excessive sweating as weather-related.

“Oh—­hey there! You must be Finch,” the woman at the front desk said in a faint Maine accent, looking up from a glossy issue of Cosmo.

Finch’s father confirmed, and an even bigger smile broke across the woman’s face.

“Congratulations on the audition.” She came around the desk and gestured for them to follow her. “I’ll show you to the auditorium.”

***

A twisted smile cut across Kyra Astor’s face. “So, you gonna share some of that tequila or do you need the bottle for a couple hundred more selfies?”

Selena St. Clair, phone in hand, paused long enough to pull off a red Louis Vuitton pump and throw it at her. The shoe missed her by centimeters and hit the wall with a loud thump.

Kyra broke into hysterical laughter.

The two of them had snuck off to their favorite drinking spot on campus: the orchestra pit beneath the auditorium. The musty space was full of discarded music stands and broken instrument parts, but with most of the year’s musical events wrapped up, it was quiet and private.

In fact, the school only had one major event left before summer: the Founder’s Ball, Ulalume’s end-of-semester celebration, and Selena had a head start on pregaming. In one hand was a bottle of expensive tequila, and in the other, her phone.

She took a swig from the bottle, then slid her phone back in her purse. “Did you invite the others yet?”

“Amber’s still with her tutor working on some paper,” Kyra said with an eye roll, “and Risa’s pregaming elsewhere.”

She held out a hand for the tequila. Selena passed it to her.

Their fingers touched for a beat, a flutter of warmth passing between them. Selena’s cheeks flared pink while Kyra swung the bottle up and took a sip. Tequila dribbled down her chin and into the neckline of her silver dress.

Selena tore her eyes away, busying herself with examining her fingernails. She’d had them done yesterday, painted the same shade of ballet slipper-pink that most of the girls in her year would have on for the ball. It was prim, proper—expected. Which made it all the more jarring when Selena remembered how her preened fingers had looked woven through Kyra’s red tresses the night before.

Her blush worsened. She was lucky the pit was covered and dark.

“So I’m stuck with you,” Selena said, successfully faking an airy, disappointed tone. She steadied her breathing. The mask went back on. “Text them. Risa will cancel if she knows I want her here.”

Kyra coughed out a small laugh to cover up her wince. Selena knew exactly where to press her fingers to hit bruises—to hit every girl at Ulalume’s bruises.

“Selena, you don’t—­”

The doors to the auditorium flew open. A tangle of voices flooded the echoing space, instantly drowning out whatever Kyra had been meaning to say.

Selena’s heart thundered. Ulalume had strict rules about alcohol—students could get in serious trouble just for having it in their rooms, much less actively drinking on school grounds.

Kyra’s eyes bugged and she whispered, “What do we do?”

Selena threw out her hands and furiously mouthed back, “How should I know?”

“Is it okay if we stay and watch?” a woman asked, getting closer to the pit.

“Of course,” a voice replied. Selena recognized it—Mr. Rizzio, the head of the music department. “Finch, if you want to head onto the stage, I’ll set up the camera so I can record your audition for the admissions committee to review. Then we can get started.”

Selena cursed, then reached for the bottle. “Give it to me!”

Kyra shoved the bottle into her hands.

Soft footsteps creaked above them as someone crossed to the grand piano at the edge of the stage. The house lights went down, and Selena lost sight of Kyra in the darkness.

“It’s just an audition,” Selena whispered. “We can hide until they’re done.”

“I’m ready when you are,” a quiet voice said onstage.

Something about it made Selena pause. Even with the blood pounding in her ears and sweat slicking her hands. The voice was small, barely more than a chirp, but there was a sweetness to it she couldn’t describe.

“She’s a prodigy, you know,” a man in the front row said. “You’re going to be amazed at what she can do. All the other girls her age are out there chasing boys, but our Finch—­she’s got her keys and that’s all she needs. Nothing can distract her.”

Selena closed her eyes. Finch.

“Thank you, Mr. Chamberlin,” Mr. Rizzio said. He called to the girl onstage, “We’re all set down here. You can get started whenever you’re ready, Finch.”

Selena pressed her back against the wall of the pit, trying to keep her breathing even. Auditions didn’t usually take more than fifteen minutes—­they’d be out of there in no time.

Up above, Finch hit the first few notes. They were gentle, like wind chimes in quick succession. But as her fingers glided across the keys, the melody began to swell, growing louder and more intense. It wasn’t the sort of song Selena would have expected from such a timid-voiced girl—the energy of it was huge, imposing, growing with a torrent of sound that echoed through the auditorium with a resounding punch that made Selena’s heart quicken.

“She’s really good,” Selena whispered.

Selena could barely make out Kyra throwing her hands in the air. “Literally who cares?”

Selena rolled her eyes, then settled in, letting the sound of Finch’s song wash over her.

It wasn’t particularly long—maybe four minutes—before Finch slammed down on the final notes, a reverberating echo rippling across the auditorium.

“Wonderful,” Mr. Rizzio said. “Next, we’ll move onto the improvisational part of the aud—­”

Without warning, a resonant bang burst through the silence as Kyra nudged a music stand at the wrong angle, knocking it into the others and creating a disastrous domino effect. Kyra let out a choked yelp while Selena cursed colorfully under her breath.

The lights flickered on a few moments later and the entrance to the pit opened to reveal Mr. Rizzio standing with his arms crossed, eyebrows up. Selena, out of options, slid the tequila bottle into her dress sleeve and held it behind her back.

“You two,” Mr. Rizzio said. “Come up here, please.”

Kyra and Selena exchanged a look, Kyra’s already pale skin now ghost-white. As they stood from the pile of collapsed music stands, Selena did her best to conceal the bottle-shaped bulge in her sleeve.

The upper part of the auditorium, with its art deco-style, gaudy light fixtures, carved wood accents, and cushy velvet seats, greeted them along with the horrified faces of two people Selena assumed were Finch’s parents. Selena glanced over her shoulder—Finch sat at the piano a few feet away, mouth agape.

She was white, small, and waifish with the biggest set of luminous eyes Selena had ever seen, like two searchlights singling her out from across the room. Her hair was elbow-length and chestnut brown, an uncanny contrast to her pale skin.

For a brief second, Selena forgot how far up shit creek she was.

“Do you have a good reason as to why you’re in the orchestra pit? During an audition?” Mr. Rizzio asked, sounding exhausted.

Selena and Kyra exchanged another look. Selena lied, “Um. We were looking for our friend’s violin that she left down there. We didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“We’re super sorry,” Kyra agreed, nodding vigorously. “Like, beyond sorry, can’t even put into words how sor-­”

Selena elbowed her, cutting her off.

“Right.” Mr. Rizzio pinched the skin between his eyebrows. “Okay. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume this is a simple misunderstanding—­”

As Mr. Rizzio spoke, Selena gently shifted the tequila bottle in her sleeve, trying to hide it behind her arm so the shape was less visible. As she did, however, it slipped into her hand. She was barely able to catch it before it slid onto the floor, and her breath hitched.

Mr. Rizzio didn’t notice.

Selena withheld a sigh of relief. Thank goodn-

“Is that…” a voice muttered behind her. “Alcohol?

***

The second she said it, Finch clapped a hand over her mouth.

She hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

The blond girl tensed. She was tall, with a slim, athletic build and natural waves in her golden hair. She was white, but had a natural warm tan to her skin that spoke to days spent lounging in the sun.

As Finch’s words met her ear, the girl whipped around and shot her the most poisonous glare she’d ever seen. Even in that moment, though, Finch couldn’t help but notice the sharp angle of her cheekbones and the straight slope of her nose—and the way her pretty red lips curled into a scowl.

Finch turned vibrantly red from her throat to her ears.

She stammered, “I—um—sorry—­”

Mr. Rizzio let out a pained, world-­weary sigh. “All right. Selena, show me your hands please.”

Selena winced. After a beat, her tensed shoulders fell and, averting her gaze to the floor, she let the bottle of tequila slide into her hand. She held it out to Mr. Rizzio.

He took the bottle softly from her hand, reading the label over the rim of his glasses before nodding to himself and letting out a breath.

“Okay. Selena, Kyra, I’m going to have you head to the headmistress’s office. I’ll meet you there once I finish up Finch’s audition so we have a chance to discuss this and call your parents.” He turned, meeting Finch and her parents’ eyes. “Finch, Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlin—I cannot apologize enough for Miss St. Clair and Miss Astor’s behavior. I promise you we don’t tolerate this sort of thing at Ulalume.”

Selena hung her head while the other girl—a white redhead with a long, sleek ponytail hanging down her back—looked to be on the verge of tears. She, too, turned and glared at Finch, only stopping when Selena waved her hand and summoned her to follow.

Just before they made it to the doors, Selena stopped and turned.

“I’m sorry for interrupting your audition,” she told Finch, meeting her gaze with snake-green, kohl-­rimmed eyes. “Good luck. Maybe I’ll see you around next year.”

She turned, heading out the door with her friend.

It swung closed behind her with a bang.

Finch tried to swallow, throat dry. Why did that sound like a threat?

“Well,” Finch’s mother said after a pregnant pause. “She seems… spirited.”

“That’s one word for it,” her father said, narrowing his eyes.

But Finch didn’t say anything. She was too caught up in the sensation that radiated from her heart and into her limbs. It was like her skin had been stripped away, leaving her a ball of lightning and exposed nerves.

Selena St. Clair.

***

That night, the drive home from Rainwater took the Chamberlin family through the forest. Massive pine trees soared toward the sky, casting their needled branches out like girls twirling their skirts. Raindrops dripped from those needles as the downpour worsened, obscuring the already dark road. Night had fallen and swallowed up what was left of the visibility. Finch’s father swore it wouldn’t be a big deal.

Her mother turned around in the passenger seat, leaning her head against the headrest as she gave Finch a leisurely smile. “So? What do you think? And be honest—­if Ulalume wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, there’s no pressure for you to go, even if you get in.”

Finch was already half asleep. She blinked awake, yawning through her smile. “It was amazing—­the brochures don’t do it justice. And I think I did pretty good at the audition even with…”

She trailed off, the oily ball of guilt from earlier twisting in her gut. She really hadn’t meant to snitch on that girl—she was just so surprised to see someone her age drinking that she’d been taken off guard. After being homeschooled her whole life and only interacting with people her age through music, she’d never known anyone who did that.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” her mom said, waving her hand. “Plenty of kids at my high school got caught doing way worse and they were fine. I’m sure it’s no big deal.”

Finch bit her lip. It felt like a big deal—­she certainly hadn’t intended to make an enemy at Ulalume before she was even accepted.

“Those girls would be lucky to have a friend like you,” her father reassured. “You could teach them a thing or two about focus and goals. Be a good influence.”

Finch’s mom shook her head at him, then corrected, “He’s trying to say we’re proud of you. And we’ll support you no matter what happens with the admissions process.”

Finch nodded to herself, thoughts far away. “I just… I’ve never wanted something so bad before. I feel like I’d give anything to get in.”

“Anything?”

Finch blinked. It was strange—when she heard the word, her mother’s mouth hadn’t been moving. And her voice sounded a bit… off.

The car lurched as they sped onto a bridge over a pitch-black river Finch didn’t know the name of.

Finch shrugged it off, nodding softly. “Yeah. Anything.”

Her mother’s face pinched, eyebrows pressed together. “What was that, Fi-­?”

The words never fully made it out of her mouth, though. Because just then her father let out a strangled cry. He jerked the wheel to the side. In the flashing second before impact, Finch caught sight of a massive stag standing on the bridge.

It met her gaze with eight gleaming eyes.

The next moment, the scene turned toward the edge of the bridge, through the barrier, and into the river.

Finch shrieked.

A sickening crack rang out as metal hit water. Finch’s head slammed against glass, dark spots spattering across her vision. Black water rushed through the jammed windows. The violent hiss of it merged with the Chamberlins’ screams.

Finch wavered in and out of consciousness. Water poured into her lap, frigid, licking at her skin with a million pinprick tongues. She reached up, dabbing at the wetness in her hair. Red shone on her fingers for a second before the water pouring in through the roof washed it away.

This is a nightmare.

Her head was full of cotton and echoes.

Nightmares aren’t supposed to hurt.

Finch’s father banged his fist into the driver’s-side window over and over until his knuckles bled. Each punch left a new red smear on the glass. Her mother screamed and bawled out nonsense commands. She shook her door handle violently. It was stuck.

Their crying was verging on hysterical. The water rose up to their necks.

It was so, so cold. Even through her fog, Finch felt it. The frigid water snapped her into focus.

Too cold. Death-cold.

Get out.

Get out.

Finch removed one of her heels, slamming it full-force into her window. Small cracks appeared in the glass while she struck it over and over and over. Her pulse went double-time, echoing in her head wound and her ears.

Get out.

The water tickled her chin. Her heart seemed to vibrate, not beat. Her desperation lacked words.

The car hit the bottom of the river with a jolt. Finch gasped in one last breath before she hit the window with all her might. The cracks spread out. There was a sound like ice separating.

The window shattered inward, and the river swallowed the rest of their air.

Water surged against Finch’s eardrums, constricting them so they throbbed. She struggled at her seat belt, trying to pry the buckle free. She didn’t have long—her panicked breathing had stolen most of the air in her system. She felt the crawling agony of organs starved.

Finally, her seat belt tore free. The current instantly threw her into the opposite window, knocking what little air she had left out of her mouth in a cascade of bubbles. Her lungs burned and spasmed.

Finch fought the current, clawing at the seat backs. Finally, she wrapped her hands around the sides of the window to push herself free. Remaining pieces of glass sliced her palms, sending curls of blood into the water. She’d gone too numb to feel it.

Get out. Or else—

In the front seat, her parents’ movements slowed. Their seat belts were stuck. Her mother let out a cry that dwindled to bubbles. The next breath she took let the river flow into her throat.

Finch kicked desperately.

Or else.

Cold. Dark.

Alone.

She was going to die.

The water was thick with debris and silt. Even as she wriggled from the car, she found herself in darkness. Up and down were foreign concepts. Her chest burned like nothing she’d ever felt before. When she finally breathed, it was like a punch to the chest. Her brain short-circuited.

She would be trapped down here in the dark for the rest of eternity.

Help me, she begged no one in particular. Please don’t let me die.

Sixty seconds passed before she drowned.

***

Those final heartbeats, frantic like a hummingbird’s wings, created an echo. They rippled, a subtle hum for a waiting ear to pick up.

And something did. Something that had been waiting for quite some time.

Its thousand eyes were already turned to the body in the river, with her bluing cheeks and crown of mud and twigs that tangled in her hair. Tiny bubbles still rose from her mouth, the last wriggling symptoms of life peeling away.

It remembered this moment, an echo of an echo, and it smiled.

Miles away from the river, the ground beneath the residents of Rainwater trembled. It was subtle enough that most didn’t notice. Some of the girls at Ulalume paused, exchanging looks.

Selena St. Clair asked, “What the hell was that?”

And in the depths of the river, cold, dark and alone, Finch Chamberlin opened her eyes.

 

Excerpted from My Dearest Darkest, copyright © 2022 by Kayla Cottingham.

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