The following is an excerpt from The Return by Rachel Harrison, out on March 24, 2020 and available now for pre-order. In this sinister story, a group of three friends — Elise, Molly, and Mae — book a weekend stay at a remote inn for a very special occasion: The fourth member of their girl gang, Julie, has finally returned after a mysterious two-year disappearance. But when Julie arrives, it's immediately obviously to Elise that something is... off. For one thing, she has no memory of what happened to her. Plus, she looks different... and she smells. As the weekend progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that the Julie who returned isn't the Julie who left. But who — or what — is she?
"I’m getting nervous Julie isn’t here yet," Mae says, tapping a superbly manicured nail on her bottom lip. "I hope she’s all right."
"You’re only worried because of what happened. This is Julie. Julie is always late. It’s not unusual, Maebs," I say, taking off her hat and trying it on. I check the mirror. It looks stupid on me.
"I know," I say with a wink. She does her tongue clicking thing.
"What’s on the agenda, Maebs?" Molly asks. "What do you have planned for us?"
"Happy hour and dinner tonight. Tomorrow I thought we could explore the grounds, maybe go for a walk if anyone’s interested. If not there’s a trip to a local distillery I signed us up for. Come back, watch a movie downstairs in the theater. Saturday there’s a crafts class in the afternoon. Or it’s wine and painting I forget. I reserved us spots for that, too. We don’t have to go if you guys don’t want to."
"No that all sounds good," I say. I put her hat back on like it’s her coronation. She plays along. "Your hair is so soft."
There’s a knock at the door. A single, loud knock.
"I started using this coconut oil and aloe shampoo from Renée Alexi. He’s a hairstylist who strictly does runway and print but he’s developing his own product line for release."
I steal a look at Molly, who flicks her hair back and sticks her nose up in the air.
"Don’t make fun! She asked!"
There’s a knock at the door. A single, loud knock. The three of us freeze. Did we imagine it?
Another knock, too long after the first.
I take a step towards the door. I wait.
A third knock.
A chill nips at the back of my neck.
It’s probably Patsy. Back to check in, ask how we’re doing. Offer us complimentary honey roasted chickpeas or a bottle of cheap rosé. It is that kind of place. They want to keep the guests happy. They want the experience to be personal.
My imagination trolls me. It’s a clown, it says. A clown holding a single red balloon. No, it’s an ordinary suburban dad, with a dark secret and a soundproof shed. It’s the guy in the room next door, he just wants to say hello – I can see you through the little hole I drilled, or the camera I installed just before you got here.
I attempt to swat the fear away, not knowing where it’s coming from or why it’s here, but it circles back. It won’t leave. It insists.
Another knock comes when I’m about a foot from the door. It’s loud, more of a pounding than a knock. Who knocks like that? Taking so long in between?
I get up on my tip-toes to look through the peep hole.
Of course. I’m dumb.
I pull back the door.
I lean in to hug her but am stopped by her appearance.
She’s emaciated. She smiles and her skin pools like melted wax. Her teeth are chipped and discolored. Her eyes are bloodshot, and the green of her irises skew yellow. Her hair is stringy, simultaneously greasy and dry.
I’m horrified, but I don’t want her to see my shock. I hide it by bringing her in close, holding her.
Her breath is awful. So awful I gag.
This is why she didn’t want to go on TV. Why she was hesitant to see us. Makes sense.
Doesn’t matter. It’s Julie. Here she is. Breathing inside my arms, against my chest. She’s alive. She’s back.
"I love you," I tell her, surprising myself by crying.
"I love you, too," she says. Her breath is awful. So awful I gag. I play it off like a sob but have to turn my head away.
"Come in, come in," I say.
Molly and Mae rush forward. I watch them hug her. I can’t get over how small she is. Skeletal. She wears black leggings that hang loose and an oversized gray sweater. Her shoulders jut out underneath the sweater, and the way the fabric moves over her bones is upsetting.
Julie has never been this thin before. Her weight always fluctuated, but never to this extreme. She was a Marilyn. She had the biggest boobs out of the four of us, and we weren’t shy about expressing our envy. She would say, "It’s because I’m the fattest." We would say, "You’re beautiful, you’re a total smokeshow." Or I would say, "I’m the ugliest. I’m ugly." Then Molly would threaten to beat us with her prosthetic leg, as Mae would purse her lips, shake her head.
"Together again," Julie says, waving me in for a group hug.
Mae is full on weeping. Silently, of course. Tastefully. Julie wipes away Mae’s tears with her bony fingers.
Molly, the tallest, looks over the top of Mae and Julie’s heads over to me, and in her eyes I read shock and concern. I nod slightly, so only she can see, and join in the hug.
It doesn’t feel right. It’s an awkward assembly of bodies. There’s a reluctance in the way our torsos angle out, in our rigid arms and suspended hands. No one wants to touch each other. Or, no one wants to touch Julie.
"Okay, okay," Julie says, breaking out. "I don’t want it to be weird. Let’s pretend nothing happened, okay?"
"You mean pretend you weren’t missing for two years and we didn’t think you were dead and have a funeral for you?" Molly asks.
Mae gasps and smacks Molly’s arm.
"I think we’ve had enough surprises from you," Molly says.
"Exactly," Julie says.
"Cool, no prob," Molly says.
"Did you check in yet? You were supposed to call us. I was worried," Mae says.
"I wanted to surprise you. I got your room number from the lady downstairs.”
"I think we’ve had enough surprises from you," Molly says. "And that’s the last I’ll talk about it."
Julie rolls her eyes, "It’s going to be the hardest for you and I like it."
"Fine, fine." Molly puts her hands up, surrendering.
"Do you want to see my room?" Julie asks. "This place is really cool, Mae. A good escape from the world."
She looks back at Molly, who mimes zipping her lips.
“You like it?” Mae asks. “You like your room?”
“This was supposed to be your room,” I tell Julie. “I took it by mistake.”
“It’s okay. I like my room. It’s different. You want to see?”
“Yes! Give us the tour!”
I grab my key off the mantle. I leave everything else in the room. My wallet, my phone. I realize as I’m locking up. I could go back for them but don’t bother.
When I turn around Julie is there.
"You okay?" she asks me.
“Yeah,” I say, my voice too high.
“Are you sure? You can tell me.”
“I’m trying not to get emotional,” I say. Mostly true.
“We should get drunk later,” she says. She turns to Molly and Mae, “Drunk later? Like absolutely hammered?”
“Freshman year drunk?” I ask.
“I don’t think I can get that drunk anymore,” Molly says.
“Sure you can,” I say.
“I believe in you!” Julie says. “It’s this way. First floor.”
I let her walk ahead. She links arms with Mae. Molly slows her pace to get in line with me. She takes out her phone and types, I wasn’t expecting that.
I nod and mouth, “Me either.”
She puts her phone back in her pocket.
“Are we there yet?” she asks.
I realize my toes are numb. Cold. My fingers, too.
Mae points out her room and we make a pit stop to show Julie. I sit on the bed and cuddle a pillow. Squeeze it as a form of stress relief. My thoughts are slow and sticky, like they stepped in gum. Everything is so surreal. Julie. This place. Seeing all my friends together after so long.
I realize my toes are numb. Cold. My fingers, too. I blow into my hands.
“Are you cold?” I ask Molly.
“Not anymore. Your room is cold, though.”
“We’ll talk to Patsy,” Mae says, the hint of a break in her voice. Anything we say against the hotel she’ll take personally because she suggested it. It’s hers.
“My turn!” Julie says, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. “Ready? It’s intense.”
We step out into the hall. I notice the carpet for the first time. Gold fleur-de-lis over dark green. I trace the pattern, but it dizzies me. I’m hit with a sudden, splitting headache. I rub my temples.
“What’s up?” Molly asks.
“Headache,” I tell her. “I think I’m dehydrated.”
“I have water in my room,” Julie says. “There’s a little fridge.”
We walk downstairs, past the hall with Molly’s room, to a longer, narrower hallway.
Julie takes the key out of her small, beat-up leather bag. She bought it in Florence, along with matching wallets for the four of us. The guy who sold them to her took her out on a date. They drank limoncello and ate gelato and made out on Ponte Vecchio. He was a terrible kisser.
It’s good to know someone’s stories. I’m glad to be here with them, the ones who know mine, and I’m grateful to know theirs.
But I guess I don’t know all of them. There are gaps in our knowledge. I used to feel like I kept the biggest secrets. Now Julie takes the cake.
The Return by Rachel Harrison is being published on March 24, 2020 by Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.