I’m such a big fan of Jennifer’s McMahon’s storytelling—impressively atmospheric and compulsively suspenseful, I can always count on a story that lingers long past the flip of the final page. Her latest, Burntown, is out next week on April 25th and I’m thrilled to give you an exclusive sneak peek at what awaits.
This week I’ll be sharing the first five chapters… a chapter a day to draw you deeper into this edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Ashford, Vermont, might look like your typical sleepy New England college town, but to the shadowy residents who live among the remains of its abandoned mills and factories, it’s known as “Burntown.”
Eva Sandeski, known as “Necco” on the street, has been a part of this underworld for years, ever since the night her father Miles drowned in a flood that left her and her mother Lily homeless. A respected professor, Miles was also an inventor of fantastic machines, including one so secret that the plans were said to have been stolen from Thomas Edison’s workshop. According to Lily, it’s this machine that got Miles murdered.
Necco has always written off this claim as the fevered imaginings of a woman consumed by grief. But when Lily dies under mysterious circumstances, and Necco’s boyfriend is murdered, she’s convinced her mother was telling the truth. Now, on the run from the man called “Snake Eyes,” Necco must rely on other Burntown outsiders to survive.
There are the “fire eaters,” mystical women living off the grid in a campsite on the river’s edge, practicing a kind of soothsaying inspired by powerful herbs called “the devil’s snuff”; there’s Theo, a high school senior who is scrambling to repay the money she owes a dangerous man; and then there’s Pru, the cafeteria lady with a secret life.
As the lives of these misfits intersect, and as the killer from the Sandeski family’s past draws ever closer, a story of edge-of-your-seat suspense begins to unfurl with classic Jennifer McMahon twists and surprises.
Chapter 1 – BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon
June 16, 1975
His mother glides across the flagstone patio slowly, hips and long legs working in time with the music, a kind of undulating dance that reminds Miles of the way tall grass moves just before a thunderstorm. She clutches a drink in her hand — a mint julep in a sweating glass with daisies painted on the side. Captain and Tennille sing from the tinny portable radio that rests on the table: Love, love will keep us together.
She hums as she dances her way to the aluminum-framed lounge chair. The brass elephant charm on her beaded bracelet swings, sniffing the air with its trunk. Miles loves the elephant bracelet. She won’t say where she got it, but she’s been wearing it for almost a month now.
In her white cotton dress and gold sandals, she looks like one of the goddesses from the book of Greek mythology Miles has been reading. Aphrodite maybe. Her toenails are painted a rich velvety plum, her skin is a summery bronze, and her light brown hair is highlighted with gold and feathered back from her face. She sits down in the chair, resting her glass on the little metal table beside it. She picks up the pack of Pall Malls and shakes out a cigarette.
Miles holds his breath and shifts uneasily in his hiding spot. He’s on his belly behind the rock garden, stretched out like a snake as he watches his mother across the yard.
She’d promised to quit. But she keeps cigarettes hidden on the bookcase, behind the huge, leather bound classics no one in their house ever reads: Moby Dick, David Copperfield.
Miles has told his mother about the movie they watched in health class — the images of the healthy, pink lungs and the dark, mottled smoker’s lungs. He hates to imagine that his mother’s lungs might look like the sooty inside of a chimney; worse still, he hates to think of her dying, which is what his health teacher, Mrs. Molette, says will happen if you smoke. Your lungs will become blackened. Diseased. They will not work anymore. They will not bring oxygen to your body. Without oxygen, you die.
“And I might get hit by a bus, too,” his mother had said when he repeated this. “Or struck by lightning. Or the brakes could go out on my car and I could go over a cliff.”
Miles has to admit that this last scenario seems possible, too. His mother drives an old MG convertible coupe that was a wedding present from her parents. It’s spotted with rust, and spends more time in the shop than out. Miles’s dad wants to trade it in for something more practical– a nice station wagon maybe, like all the other moms drive. Miles tries to imagine his mom behind the wheel of a station wagon, like Mrs. Brady on The Brady Bunch, but his mom is no Mrs. Brady. And his mom loves her old MG. She’s even named it. Isabella, she calls it, the name sounding musical. And sometimes, she’ll say she’s running to the store for milk and Frosted Flakes but then be gone for hours. Miles asks her where she goes and she says “Just driving. Just me and Isabella and the open road.”
It seems like every week some new, impossibly expensive imported part breaks: a valve, a pump, a drum . . . things that, to Miles, sound more like body parts than car parts. But when a car part breaks, you take the car in to Chance’s garage and they order a new part and replace it. You can’t do that with blackened, cancer-filled lungs.
He has to find a way to stop her.
That’s why, earlier today when she was out at the market, Miles had stolen his mother’s hidden pack of cigarettes. It was half empty, with only ten cigarettes remaining. He took out two, and carefully worked half the tobacco out of the paper. Then, just as carefully, he replaced it with the two paper packets he’d made, each filled with black powder from his toy gun caps along with a pinch of sulfur from his chemistry set. Once the tobacco was placed back on top, they looked just like the other cigarettes. He wanted her to get a few good drags in before a small, stinking explosion would turn her off of smoking forever.
Ten cigarettes, two of which will explode. The chances she’s chosen one just now are one in five. Miles likes numbers, understands odds. Hunkering down, he watches as she lights up.
He’s wearing his Robin Hood costume: green corduroy pants that are a little too tight, tall cowboy boots, and one of his father’s brown work shirts with a tag that makes Miles’ neck itch, but forces himself to be still, not to scratch. It’s cinched at the waist with a thick leather belt that holds his wooden sword. A quiver of arrows is on his back, and he holds his homemade bow in his hands. His father had helped him make the bow and arrows, had even made sharp metal arrowheads for them, reminding him that these were not toys and he needed to be careful. His mother wasn’t impressed: “Wonderful, Martin. And I suppose you’ll deal with it when he kills one of the neighborhood cats by accident?”
They argued, but in the end, Miles got to keep them.
His father loves the old Robin Hood movies, and he and Miles sometimes watch them together on the little TV in his dad’s workshop. But lately, his father’s been too busy. He’s an appliance repairman, and drives a white van with his name on the side: Martin Sandeski, Appliance Repair and Service. His father also uses the van for hauling equipment for the jazz quartet he plays in, Three Bags Full. His dad likes to tell the story of how he once played the trumpet on stage down in New Orleans with Count Basie. Miles’s father is full of great stories. Stories of jazz legends he’s rubbed elbows with, or a producer he met at a little club in Albany, New York who’s working on pulling some strings to get Three Bags Full a recording deal. And the best story of all; that his grandfather had worked for Thomas Edison, the guy who invented the light bulb and movies and records. “He gave me some of Edison’s original plans,” Miles’s dad claimed. “Plans for a secret invention he was working on just before he died. They’re worth a fortune. A million dollars, easy.”
“What are the plans for?” Miles asked once, when his dad had polished off a six-pack of Narragansett.
“A special sort of telephone. A telephone that does things no one would believe, impossible things.”
Miles’s mother had laughed. “Stop teasing the boy with your stories, Marty.” They were sitting in the living room with the TV on, but no one was paying attention.
His father had drained the rest of his can of Narraganset, “I’m not teasing, one day you’ll see.”
Miles’s mother told him she didn’t believe the Edison plans existed (she’d certainly never set eyes on them), and even if they did, no way were they actually from the real Thomas Edison. “Honest to God, you can’t believe half of what your father tells you,” she’d said, blowing out a stream of smoke, crushing a cigarette butt into the heavy glass ashtray on the coffee table with a little too much force.
Now, Miles peers anxiously through a clump of tiger lilies, waiting for the bang from his mother’s cigarette.
He feels an odd combination of anticipation and guilt; though he knows he’s doing this for her own good, it seems like a cruel trick to play. His mother is so easily frightened; Miles and his father tease her with rubber snakes in the bathtub, plastic spiders in the butter dish — practical jokes that always make her scream. Then, when she realizes it’s a joke, she laughs so hard she becomes breathless. His mother is beautiful when she laughs, and there is something truly stunning about catching her in the moment her fear turns to blissful, almost hysterical, relief. It almost embarrasses him to catch her in these moments, like he’s seeing something he shouldn’t; it’s almost like walking into the bathroom without knocking and seeing her just getting out of the tub.
Suddenly, a shadow moves over the grass, crossing the yard and moving stealthily toward the patio.
Could his father be home early?
He’s supposed to be repairing a washing machine for old lady Mercier all the way across town. Then he was going to stop by the shop and work on an air conditioner a guy had dropped off.
No. This is not his father, nor is it a child from the neighborhood, or anyone else he recognizes.
It’s a man.
A shorter, slighter man than his father. And this man wears yellow socks and black dress shoes that are too large for his feet, making an awkward flip-flop sound as he walks. His trousers are also too long, but have been rolled up. With each step, there is an absurdly bright flash of yellow from each ankle. But the oddest thing about this man is not his too large shoes and yellow socks, nor his quick determined walk toward Miles’ mother reclining on the patio.
Covering his face, his whole head in fact, is a rubber chicken mask. The mask is white, the beak yellow, the comb and wattles red.
Miles feels as if he’s somehow slipped into one of his Saturday morning cartoons. He watches as the chicken man approaches his mother from behind. She’s lying on the lawn chair, eyes closed, sunning herself; oblivious.
Up until now, Miles hadn’t noticed the man’s hands. He’s been keeping them tight to his sides, but now, in the right, Miles sees the bright glint of a blade.
Miles rises slightly and tucks one of his sharp arrows in the bow — his lucky arrow, the shaft painted black, the feathers red. He pulls back the string. The Chicken Man is directly behind her chair now, and he leans down to whisper something in her ear. Keeping her eyes closed, she laughs.
Then, in one swift motion, the Chicken Man draws the blade across her throat.
His mother’s eyes dart open, frantic and disbelieving. The blood pumps from her throat, soaking the chest of her white dress and dripping through the yellow nylon webbing of the chair and onto the flagstone patio. Instead of a scream, all Miles hears is one final resigned sigh.
The arrow flies from Miles’s bow, hitting the Chicken Man on the left side of his lower back, making him bellow. As Miles stands up on wobbly legs, the Chicken Man swivels his head and pulls the arrow out with a roaring cry. Then he looks right at Miles. Holding the knife in one hand, and the arrow in the other, he takes a step in Miles’s direction.
Miles is trying to get his legs to run, when there’s a bright, explosive, sulphur-scented POP-POP! from the ashtray. The Chicken Man freezes, then takes off running back across the yard, rubber mask quivering, shoes flapping, socks glowing brighter than the sun.
Times Union, June 17, 1975
Murder-Suicide Rattles the Tiny Village of Braxton
At approximately three o’clock Monday afternoon, thirty-six-year-old Elizabeth Sandeski was slain in the backyard of her family home. Her son, ten-year-old Miles Sandeski, witnessed the crime. Police were called by a neighbor, Kelly Richardson, also of Cold Hollow Lane.
“Miles came to our house covered in blood, hysterical. He said a man in a chicken mask had killed his mother,” Mrs. Richardson told reporters.
The police searched the Sandeski home and garage, where, neighborhood witnesses say, they discovered blood stained clothing, a rubber chicken mask and kitchen knife in the trunk of the family car. Chief Francis Bonnaire, of the Broom Hollow police, declined to confirm or comment, reporting only that what they found led to a warrant for Mr. Sandeski’s arrest.
Martin Sandeski, who runs Sandeski Appliance Service and Repair and plays trumpet in the local jazz band Three Bags Full, was taken into custody. Neighbors stated that the couple had been fighting a great deal lately and that Martin told several friends that he believed his wife was having an affair.
Martin Sandeski took his own life hours after his arrest. Chief Bonnaire confirmed that the Mr. Sandeski hung himself while in police custody and that attempts to revive him failed. Chief Bonnaire offered this statement: “We have never had an incident like this before. A full investigation will be completed, as well as a thorough review of our policies and procedures for handling those in our custody.”
Martin Sandeski’s sister, Holly Sandeski, of Ashford, declined to comment on her brother’s state of mental health or the rumors of his wife having an affair. “We’ll never know what really happened. All we can do is move forward and do the best we can to heal. We’ve got to do all we can for Miles, now. The poor boy has suffered a horrific loss.”
I am hoping that you never read this, because if you do, it means I am gone. I have entrusted your Aunt Holly with making sure you get this letter should anything happen to me. I’m hoping to live a long, happy life, to see you grow up and get married, to hold a grandchild in my arms. But if you’re reading this, I guess it means I ran out of luck.
This letter, and what I’m about to tell you, is not to be shared with anyone. Not your Aunt Holly. Not even your mother. No one. This is for you and you alone.
I own only one thing of true value. One thing that could change lives. And I am passing it down to you as my own father once passed it down to me.
Over the years I have told you about how my father worked for Thomas Edison at his factory in New Jersey. I have also mentioned the plans my father gave to me.
What I might not have told you is that my father was not exactly given these plans by Edison. They were stolen.
But that is another story altogether.
What matters is that (despite your mother’s very vocal opinions to the contrary) they are real. Authentic. And worth a fortune, though is isn’t the monetary value alone that makes them such a treasure — it’s far more than something anyone could put a price on.
You will find the plans in the garage. There is an old empty metal gas can up on the way up on the top back shelf. Open the can by twisting off the spout. The plans are tucked inside, rolled up in a plastic bag.
Hold tight to them. Tell no one you have them.
One day, I promise you, those papers and the machine shown on them, will change not only your life, but quite possibly the entire world.
I love you, Miles. Forever and ever. No matter what.
✦ Come back to Vilma’s Book Blog tomorrow to read the second chapter!!! ✦
I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house.
Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.
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