For her debut YA novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, author Samantha Mabry took inspiration from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a young girl filled with poison. Lucas, a teen living in San Juan with his father for the summer, thinks that a spate of missing girls might be related to a girl named Isabel, who lives in a cursed house and is rumored to have a poisonous touch. But soon, Lucas and Isabel end up working together — amid a terrible storm — to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Sound intriguing? To get a taste of what this magical realism-tinged mystery has to offer, EW presents an exclusive excerpt below. A Fierce and Subtle Poison hits shelves April 12.
Excerpt from A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
“What is this?” I asked, holding the slips of paper between us. “How do you know my name?”
The girl tilted her head as if she’d misheard me. “Everyone knows your name.”
“Not everyone knows what room I stay in.”
“Yes, they do. It’s the haunted one.”
I focused on the girl’s eyes, which now appeared so black that they reminded me of the shiny jet stones of a brooch my mother had worn to my grandmother’s—my dad’s mother’s—funeral. She’d referred to it as her “mourning jewelry.”
The girl—Isabel, I now remembered the note had said—was examining me, too, and I could tell by the way her lips were pursed that she wasn’t completely convinced she liked what she saw.
I flicked at her last note. “Why did you call her this?”
“Call her what?”
“The disappeared girl.”
“I overheard the señora next door say that.” Isabel still hadn’t taken her eyes from mine. “She was talking to one of our neighbors about a girl named Marisol. She said she’d gone missing and that a boy named Lucas found her on the beach.”
“How do you know I know a girl named Marisol?”
“Because the other night I heard the two of you joking about trying to jump over the wall of my house.” She paused for a beat. “My cursed house.”
I choked out a laugh.
“You’re kidding, right? How about on the night before Marisol and I were joking outside your house, you pelted me in the face with rocks?”
Isabel finally broke eye contact. Her thin lips twisted into a sneer as she reached up to tug at the hood of her sweatshirt.
“You were bothering me,” she muttered.
“Bothering you? This is why you asked me to come here? To rub salt in my wounds and tell me that I’ve been bothering you?”
“It’s not like you’re the first couple to ever go down there.” Isabel threw out her hand, gesturing toward the stone wall on the far end of the courtyard. “I’m tired of being subjected to everyone’s amorous encounters. I … ”
Her mouth slammed shut as if she were trying to catch whatever words were going to fall out of it next, but it wouldn’t have mattered because she’d pretty much already landed hard onto my wrong side.
Isabel thought for a moment and changed her course. “I’m sorry. Okay? I wanted you to come so I could apologize. I was playing tricks before—with the other letters, and the stones. I realize now it was all in such poor taste, considering all that’s happened to you recently.”
“All that’s happened,” I echoed. “Marisol is dead.”
It was the first time I’d said those words out loud. In the next instant, my left temple burst with pain, and white light flooded my vision. I had to slam my eyes shut and press my fingers hard into my forehead just to keep my balance.
“You’re not well,” I heard Isabel say.
“I’m fine,” I lied. “But if you wanted to apologize, there are better ways. You could have just written I’m sorry on one of your cards. You could have knocked on my door. You didn’t have to formally request my presence and make me dive in here like an idiot.”
“It’s not that simple, actually.”
The pain in my head eased enough so that I could peer at Isabel through narrowed eyes. She’d retreated away from me, dissolving herself into the shadows cast off by a canopy of leaves.
She was clearly so strange. All this time cooped up in this house had really taken a toll on her ability to act like a normal human being.
“Why are you hiding?”
She paused and threw her shoulders back. “I’m not.”
What a terrible liar Isabel Ford was. Even with my head throbbing and thoughts turning about as smoothly as rustedover gears, I could see she was trying to give off a casual confidence through the feigned conviction in her stance and in her voice.
“This is the second time I’ve come here and made a fool of myself because of you.”
She didn’t respond, so I went on. “You knocked over that pot yesterday, right?”
Her reply was maddeningly simple: a shrug and an uptick of her chin that meant yes.
Isabel scowled; her brief façade of cool confidence fractured. She ran a hand roughly across her cheek and her chin. It may have been a trick of the light or my unreliable vision, but her nail beds appeared black, as if her fingers had been recently slammed in a car door.
“Like I said, it was a gag. Just a stupid prank. I didn’t think you’d actually come.”
Again: an obvious lie, but she didn’t leave any time for me to point it out before she went on.
“I needed to get you.” Her first finger emerged from the cuff of her sweatshirt to point at me. “To come here.” She pointed at her feet. “Leaving the house for long stretches of time is not in my best interest. I’m sick. That’s why I … hide.”
“So, you’re contagious?”
She frowned. “That’s not the way I’d describe my condition, no.”
“How would you describe your condition then?”
Isabel didn’t respond. Instead, her eyes landed on my arms, which were burning from my wrists to the creases of my elbows, and then traveled to the plants around us that pulsed as if held together by a singular heart. A wasp, possibly the same one that had been buzzing around my ear earlier, dipped and weaved in between where she and I were standing. When it flew roughly an inch from her face, Isabel turned her chin slightly in its direction. She blew out as if extinguishing a candle flame. For a split-second the wasp hovered in the air. Then it dropped dead to the ground.
From A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry, on sale April 12, 2016. Courtesy of Algonquin Young Readers.