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The Woods Are Always Watching

Stephanie Perkins


  There’s Someone Inside Your House

  Anna and the French Kiss

  Lola and the Boy Next Door

  Isla and the Happily Ever After


  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York

  First published in the United States of America by Dutton Books,

  an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2021

  Copyright © 2021 by Stephanie Perkins

  Excerpt from There’s Someone Inside Your House copyright © 2017 by Stephanie Perkins

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  Dutton is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

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  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

  ISBN 9780525426028 (HARDCOVER)


  ISBN 9781101590041 (EBOOK)

  Edited by Julie Strauss-Gabel

  Cover art © 2021 by Sean Freeman

  Cover design by Lindsey Andrews

  Design by Anna Booth, adapted for ebook by Michelle Quintero

  This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


  For Jarrod, best friend & true love



  Also by Stephanie Perkins

  Title Page




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9


  Chapter 10: Josie

  Chapter 11: Neena

  Chapter 12: Josie

  Chapter 13: Neena

  Chapter 14: Josie

  Chapter 15: Neena

  Chapter 16: Josie

  Chapter 17: Neena

  Chapter 18: Josie

  Chapter 19: Neena

  Chapter 20: Josie

  Chapter 21: Neena

  Chapter 22: Josie

  Chapter 23: Neena

  Chapter 24: Josie

  Chapter 25: Neena

  Chapter 26: Josie

  Chapter 27: Neena


  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33


  Preview of There's Someone Inside Your House

  About the Author


  NEENA CUT THE engine, and the speakers went silent. Mid-lyric. The trail was straight ahead, but her gaze could only follow it to its first bend. The overhanging forest, a drab and washed-out green that presaged the end of summer, obscured the rest of the path.

  “How many days do you think we’ll last?” she asked.

  “How many hours,” Josie said.

  “If I die out there? I’d be honored if you ate my body.”

  “I would never let a bear get to your body first.”

  “Oh my God.” Incredulity tainted Neena’s laughter. “Would you please stop it with the bears?”

  “Only if you promise not to mention their existence for the next seventy-two hours.”

  “I didn’t! You brought them up. Again.”

  Josie shuddered, darkening. “I’m serious. I don’t know if I can do this.”

  “Just think of them as big Winnie-the-Poohs.”

  “Shut your hole.”

  “Paddingtons. Baloos. Fozzies.”

  It was a joke—it was always a joke—but Josie jerked open the passenger-side door and got out. It slammed shut behind her. Neena grabbed her phone off the charger and followed her best friend into the parking lot.

  “Berenstains,” she said, digging in. Neena always dug in.

  Her hiking boots crunched against the wet gravel. The rain had just stopped. In these mountains, it rained most afternoons during the summer—violent downpours in the early season, irksome drizzles in the late—but cleared quickly. It was the third week of August. The Little South Chickadee River burbled and sang nearby. Insects hummed and clicked their wings. The lazy breeze smelled of sun-warmed pine.

  Josie pivoted with sudden interest. “Ooh, did you ever have a thing for Brother Bear? I mean, before you realized they were über-Christian hillbillies.”

  “What are you talking about?” Neena asked, confused.

  “Brother Bear. With the red shirt and blue pants.”

  “I know who Brother Bear is. The Berenstain Bears were Christian?”

  “There were numerous books with the word ‘God’ in the title.”

  “Huh,” Neena said. “I guess my parents didn’t check those out from the library.” She popped the Subaru’s hatch. Everyone in Asheville drove a Subaru, the preferred mode of transportation for modern hippies and outdoorsmen, among which the girls were neither. Neena’s parents had purchased the Impreza because it had a high safety rating. Their backpacks crowded its hatch like monstrous, bloated caterpillars. Very hungry caterpillars. Neena realized her thoughts might be stuck on picture books.

  She moaned. “I don’t wanna.”

  Josie copied Neena’s moan. “I don’t wanna, either.”

  The packs didn’t budge, refusing to help. These were not their school backpacks, retired from service and recently replaced by more stylish backpacks for college. Josie’s brother and his girlfriend had loaned them a pair of backpacking packs: a boggling assemblage of padded straps, hip belts, bungee cords, mesh pockets, and bulging compartments. Neena prickled with renewed trepidation. Not only were these packs borrowed, but so was the equipment inside them. Even her boots—an outmoded pair, heavy and ugly—were borrowed from Josie’s mom, who wore the same size.

  Unfortunately, they had no one to blame but themselves. The trip had been concocted only two days ago during their morning shift at Kmart, a pre-Amazon relic where customers often exclaimed in astonishment, “I thought you went under years ago!”

  Alas. The chain clung on for its meager life. Their particular location had a whopping 1.5-star rating on Yelp. Its shelves were largely empty and in permanent disarray. Clothing hung askew on broken racks, dented cans lingered past expiration dates, sports equipment was shellacked in off-putting colors, and the book selection was a smattering of religious overstock and failed themed-mystery series. The Thanksgiving Murders. The Body on the Badminton Court. ’Til Death Do Us Sudoku. The store looked like a former roommate had never returned to pick up the last of his boxes.

  That Saturday shift had bee
n Neena’s last. In one week, she would be moving to California for college. Josie was staying in North Carolina.

  “We should do something,” Neena had said.

  “We are doing something,” Josie had replied flatly. “We’re restocking the shampoo aisle.”

  “Something significant. Something just the two of us.”

  “It’s always just the two of us.”

  Though her gaze had remained detached, Josie’s eyelids twitched at her own slip. It wouldn’t always be just the two of them. The impending separation pressed against them like a loaded shotgun. Josie was acting glum and bitter, as she had been all summer. Neena longed for the old Josie, who was lively and game. She needed the old Josie. She’d tried again. “Something big, I mean. Maybe we could drive to Dollywood.”

  “Roller coasters give you migraines.”

  “We could go camping. Like Galen and Kyle.”

  “We hate Galen and Kyle,” Josie had said. They hated everybody; it was one of the things that had sealed their friendship. But their teenage redneck coworkers were particularly loathsome. They spat watery brown dip onto the break-room floor, ignored calls to the registers for backup, and viewed feminism as a threat to their masculinity. “And we don’t know shit about camping. Nature is for . . . other people.”

  Their classmates had all taken advantage of the mountain lifestyle. They had always been off tubing and kayaking down the French Broad River, hiking and camping along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A lot of beer, weed, and sex had been involved. It was a local rite of passage. Neena and Josie had never been interested in any of that, excepting the sex. But, regrettably, neither of them had ever had a boyfriend.

  “Yeah,” Neena had said, “but if they can do it, so can we. Didn’t you used to go camping with your family?”

  “When I was a kid. And my dad and Win did all the work.”

  Josie’s father had died when she was in the eighth grade. Win was Winston, Josie’s older brother. It was unnecessary to point out that Neena had never been camping. Everyone in her family was strictly an indoor type. Despite this, Neena unexpectedly latched onto the idea. “Okay, but Win goes all the time. We could borrow his gear.” Her reasoning crumbled into pleading. “I mean, haven’t you ever wondered if maybe we missed out on a vital high school experience?”

  Josie had snorted with disdain. But she’d stopped restocking.

  “Soon I won’t even have the option to do things like this anymore,” Neena had said. “Not in the city. This is my last chance.”

  Neena wasn’t sure why Josie had eventually come around. Maybe because Neena had continued to monologue, hyping the excursion with notions of enlightenment. Being in the woods would be freeing! A technology detox! A chance to commune with Mother Earth, Mother Nature . . . whatever her name was! But by the time Neena had clocked out for the last time from the not-so-superstore, Josie had switched enough shifts so they could do it. Of course, they still needed permission. They had wanted to leave the next morning, but it took longer than that just to convince Neena’s parents.

  I won’t see Josie again until Thanksgiving.

  You will not see us until Thanksgiving, either.

  I’m an adult.

  You are eighteen.

  I’ve never gotten into trouble.

  You have never been given the chance, because we keep you safe.

  Neena’s father had relented first. Maybe it was because he’d spent more time with Josie, driving the girls around before Neena had gotten her license. Fixing them hot dogs and jhal muri after school. Watching every season of endless sitcoms with them. As the primary witness to their friendship, perhaps he held deeper compassion for their situation.

  Our daughter is right, Baba had said, wearily rubbing his brow. Neena had been surprised to be right. She is responsible and trustworthy. She has earned this.

  The trip would last three days, and the girls had decided to go backpacking, which, best they could tell, meant “hiking with camping.” Camping-only sounded boring. Josie’s brother had helped them select a trail, and, ever the diligent students, they crammed their research—reading articles, watching videos, scouring message boards. They’d organized an itinerary and printed out copies for their families. They’d downloaded trail-map apps onto their phones and marked the waypoints.

  But Neena’s parents still wouldn’t give their final blessing until the girls proved they could use the equipment. Earlier that morning, all three parents had stood in Josie’s overgrown backyard, scrutinizing them as they pitched the tent, lit the stove, and filtered water under Win’s tutelage. The girls were unskilled and clumsy, and everyone had a good chuckle at their expense, but they’d passed the test. They excelled at passing tests.

  And now they were here. And so were their enormous backpacks.

  * * *

  • • •

  “Do you remember how we’re supposed to put them on?” Neena tried to recall Win’s backpack demonstration, but it blurred with all his other demonstrations and instructions.

  Josie frowned. “Something to do with the knees. Or a knee? There’s definitely some kind of knee-to-shoulder transfer. I think.”

  They glanced at each other. The absurdity of not even knowing the very first step broke them into nervous, hysterical giggles.

  Neena reached for her pack. “Here goes nothing.”

  Literally nothing went. The pack was leaden.

  “Well,” Neena said. “Shit.”

  They cracked up harder. Using all four hands, together the girls scooted and grunted the behemoth forward, until Neena’s pack was half on the car, half off. They were in tears from laughing.

  “Was it this heavy when we put it in here?” Josie asked.

  “I think it birthed a baby hippopotamus.” Neena unzipped the pack’s hip-belt pocket and squeezed her phone inside. Service didn’t exist out here, but they’d packed a charging device so they could still use their cameras and GPS. They had been surprised to learn that GPS would still work. Win had explained that it connected to satellites, not cell towers. The girls’ last texts had been sent from a remote highway on the outskirts of Canton, just past a guzzling old paper mill. The cell signals had vanished soon after. Their families did not expect to hear from them again until they returned.

  Josie pointed at the pack’s straps, which were dangling above the ground. “Can you get underneath, maybe? Could you try to slip those on?”

  Neena glanced around to ensure that no one else was watching. But it was a Monday, a weekday, and this wasn’t a popular trail. Another Subaru was parked at the east end of the lot, because of course it was, and two pickups were parked at the west. The rest of the lot was empty—the weekend hikers and campers had already gone home.

  Crouching below her target, Neena turtled it onto her body. Her arms threaded through the straps, her right foot took a labored step, the pack dislodged . . . and then slowly, steadily pushed her straight into the ground.

  Josie lost her mind. She buckled over again, clutching her abdomen.

  The crush was so alarming that Neena laughed, too, out of shock. Her clothes sponged up the sodden earth. “I don’t recommend this method.”

  “I’ve never seen actual slow motion in real life.”

  “Hey. Help a gal out?”

  It took a full minute for Josie to roll Neena over, and then for Neena to rock back and forth to gain some momentum. But, finally, Neena heaved upward.

  Josie grabbed Neena’s flailing hands. Their matching rings caught in the sunlight, glittering like miniature galaxies. The rings were all stone, no metal—carved ultramarine with clouds of white calcite and flecks of gold pyrite. Last winter, the girls had purchased them at a mineral shop downtown because the sign had claimed that lapis lazuli was a symbol of friendship. The rings had adorned their right index fingers ever since.

  Josie lifted Neena to
her feet and didn’t let go until Neena was steady. “You look fantastic,” she said. “Like you’re ready to summit Everest.”

  Dampness muddied Neena’s clothing. Gravel stuck to her cheek. “Ugh, this thing weighs a thousand pounds. People do this for fun?” She brushed the grit from her jeans.

  Josie was wearing jeans, too, to shield her legs from ticks, which were abundant here and carried Lyme disease. “Cotton kills,” Win had warned, a favorite refrain of the outdoor community. But he wasn’t talking about protection from bloodsucking arachnids. Cotton was dangerous because it absorbed moisture and lacked insulation. Unfortunately, their choices were either jeans or leggings—the girls didn’t own any other types of pants—and leggings weren’t warm enough. Because he’d also said it got cold out here at night, even in August, even though they were only fifty-five minutes from home.

  Neena snapped her hip belt together. “Your turn.”

  Josie wished it weren’t. She had only agreed to this trip because Neena had begged, and because their days together were at an end. The trip almost hadn’t even happened. Josie had allowed Neena to believe that Neena’s parents were the holdup, but the truth was that Josie’s mother had been equally resistant. She’d only relented after Win had intervened. Josie had overheard his muffled appeal from the other side of her bedroom wall. Her best friend is moving away. Just let her have this. It stung to hear her circumstances described so plainly.

  Everything about this summer stung because Neena was leaving, and Josie was staying.

  Neena was going to attend the University of Southern California, and Josie was going to attend the University of North Carolina Asheville.

  Neena was going to live in a dormitory, and Josie was going to keep living at home with her mother.

  Neena was going to have new friends and new experiences, and Josie was going to be surrounded by all the same people and places.

  It wasn’t that Josie didn’t love their hometown. Asheville was beautiful and open-minded and had multiple concert venues, independent cinemas, and organic farmers’ markets. It had Arts and Crafts neighborhoods and an Art Deco downtown. It had character and history and integrity. But it was also small—the kind of city that adults chose to live in after they’d explored the rest of the world. Neena was about to see the world without her. Josie was about to become a human Kmart. Abandoned and forgotten, but still here.