Chapter 1: Charlotte CHAPTER 1 Charlotte
CHARLOTTE HUGHES HAD BEEN BORN in a dying town, to parents who didn’t survive to see her second birthday. They’d perished in a car accident after their minivan had hit a patch of black ice and skidded off the road. Charlotte’s father had been pronounced dead on the scene. Her mother had died in the hospital later that night. Baby Charlotte, strapped into her car seat, had survived without a scratch, and had been sent to live with her father’s mother, her only surviving relative, who, clearly, had no interest in raising another child. Grandma managed Upland’s only bed-and-breakfast, and it was an exhausting, thankless job—but one Grandma always said she was lucky to have, given how many in town couldn’t find any work at all.
In the winter, when the skiers who weren’t able to locate lodging closer to the mountain resorts booked rooms, Grandma worked from sunrise to late at night, doing laundry, cleaning, and cooking, and as soon as Charlotte was tall enough to push a broom or carry a load of dirty towels to the basement, she had to help her. There were floors to be swept and mopped, beds to be stripped and made, trash cans to be emptied, carpets to be vacuumed, and toilets to be scrubbed. Even when they didn’t have guests, there was always cleaning. The big, old house seemed to generate its own dust and grow its own cobwebs. Little Charlotte would wake up at five in the morning to iron napkins and to bake scones and clear snow off the porch. She made beds and cleaned bathrooms. She learned to be invisible, to slip in and out of the rooms when the guests were gone, so quickly that they hardly noticed she was there. Her hands would chap and her skin would crack and she’d yawn her way through her school days.
And, all around her, Upland was dying.
When Grandma Hughes was a girl, Upland had been a thriving town, with a ski resort and two different fabric mills that stained the river with whatever dyes they were using that week: indigo, crimson, goldenrod yellow, or pine-tree green.
Then one of the mills had caught fire, and the other mill had closed, and the Great Depression and the two World Wars had come.
Young men had gone off to fight and hadn’t returned; families packed up and moved to more prosperous communities. In 1965, the interstate highway, which went nowhere near Upland, was completed. Skiers used it to travel to the mountains that were close to the highway, and Upland was not. Two years after the interstate opened, Mount Upland was closed.
For as long as Charlotte could remember, her hometown had been full of run-down houses and rusty trailers, roads with more potholes than asphalt, where the schools were ancient and the bridges were elderly and every third storefront had a faded “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” or “EVERYTHING MUST GO” sign hung over its soap-covered windows. Every year, more and more people moved away, to bigger towns with better opportunities.
Then, when Charlotte was twelve, Christopher Jarvis had come to town.
Famous Scientist to Establish New Labs in Upland, read the headline in the newspaper Charlotte saw on her grandmother’s desk. Famed scientist Christopher Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Industries, which holds patents on everything from dental tools to heartburn medications, is opening a new research and development facility in Upland. A spokesman for Dr. Jarvis said the renowned scientist and inventor has purchased the eighty acres of land that were formerly Ellenloe Farms, and plans to break ground on the labs next month, with an eye toward opening next year. “We’ll need everything from support staff, such as custodians and cooks, to researchers and security personnel,” a spokeswoman for Jarvis Industries said.
“Maybe we’ll get some more guests,” Grandma had said, not looking especially hopeful. She spooned a clump of macaroni and cheese onto Charlotte’s plate, where it landed with a dispirited plop. Charlotte tried not to sigh. She couldn’t remember her parents, not even a little bit, but somehow she thought that if her mother had survived, she’d buy name-brand mac and cheese, not the generic kind, and she’d make the sauce with milk instead of water.
The next day, the school was buzzing with the news. Courtney Miller said her mom had already applied for a job as an administrative assistant, and Lisa Farley said her mom had gotten a call about working in the cafeteria. Ross Richardson said his dad had heard there was going to be a job fair at the community center, and Mrs. McTeague, who taught English literature, said she’d heard that the lab would bring more than five hundred new jobs to Upland.
Charlotte took the long way home after school, wondering whether her grandmother would ever go to work for Jarvis Industries. Maybe they could sell the inn and move to a regular house, where they didn’t have to sleep in cramped bedrooms in the attic and worry about being quiet so the sound of their feet or their voices wouldn’t disturb their guests. Charlotte would be able to get a job babysitting, or she could be a lifeguard in the summertime, instead of making beds and scrubbing toilets for no money, not even an allowance. She could get an iPhone, instead of the crummy knockoff with limited data that was all her grandmother could afford, and a pair of the clogs that all the girls were wearing that year. She could get new clothes and concert tickets and a car when she was old enough to drive. Maybe her grandmother wouldn’t have to work so hard, and maybe she’d stop being so grumpy with Charlotte when she wasn’t so exhausted, with her back and her knees hurting her all the time. Maybe everything would change.
When Charlotte arrived at the inn that afternoon, she saw a shiny black car in the driveway, and a man in a suit and shoes as shiny and black as the car standing on the front porch. “I hope you’ll give our offer some serious thought,” he said to Grandma Hughes, who didn’t answer. The man shrugged, climbing into the car and giving Charlotte a quick, two-fingered salute before driving away.
Charlotte could tell from her grandmother’s tight-lipped expression that asking questions would only cause trouble, but she couldn’t keep quiet. “Who was that man?” Charlotte asked, taking her place in front of the kitchen sink to start on the afternoon’s dishes. “What’d he want?”
“He’s from the Jarvis company. They want to buy the place,” her grandmother said. She’d pulled a bunch of celery out of the refrigerator and was going at it with a cleaver as if she were imagining it was the Jarvis representative’s head.
“And you won’t sell?” Charlotte asked. Her heart was sinking.
“This place belonged to my parents. And my father’s parents before them,” said her grandmother. “It should have gone to my son. It’ll be yours someday, I imagine.”
I don’t want it, thought Charlotte. “Wouldn’t it be easier just to sell it? You could probably retire!”
“Easier doesn’t always mean better.” Her grandmother kept chopping, dicing the celery into tinier and tinier pieces. After a minute she muttered, “And it’s dirty money.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve learned a few things about Jarvis Industries.” Chop, chop, chop, went the heavy silver blade. “All those pharmaceutical companies are bad news. Profiting off people’s illnesses. Making their pills so expensive that regular people can’t afford them. Getting rich, while sick people suffer and go without to afford their medication. Dirty money.”
Charlotte decided she didn’t care if Jarvis Industries’ money was dirty or clean. If they’d offered it to her, she’d have taken it, and if Charlotte inherited the inn and the Jarvis people still wanted it, she would sell it to them and never look back.
Her grandmother pressed her lips together even more tightly. “I’ve heard other things too,” she said.
“What kind of things?” asked Charlotte.
Her grandmother set her cleaver down with a thump. She stomped across the kitchen, jerked open a drawer of the desk built into the wall, and pulled out a tabloid magazine printed on thin paper that felt flimsy, almost greasy. SECRETS OF JARVIS INDUSTRIES REVEALED! the headline screamed.
Charlotte’s heart sank even further. “Grandma,” she said. “That’s not a real newspaper.”
Her grandmother rattled the pages in Charlotte’s direction. “It’s paper. And it’s got news. That’s real enough for me.” She pulled her reading glasses out of her brassiere, pushed them into place, and read out loud. “?‘Hobie Beukes, sixty-seven, worked as a janitor at the Jarvis facility in Florida. One afternoon, he was lifting a dumpster, and the lid slipped off. Mr. Beukes was horrified to see dozens of dead animals, mice and rats and even rabbits, inside.’?”
Charlotte tried to keep from grimacing. “Grandma, they’ve got to test those drugs on something. Wouldn’t you rather have a lab rat suffering than a kid?”
Her grandmother glared at Charlotte, then held up one knobby finger and continued to read. “?‘?“But that wasn’t the worst,” Mr. Beukes told the National Examiner. “Some of those animals had extra legs, or extra eyes. A few of the rats had extra paws, right in the middle of their chests and their bellies. Not sewn on. Like they’d been born with them there.”?’?”
Charlotte shook her head. “If that’s really what’s going on, why hasn’t the regular media reported it? The big newspapers, or one of those TV shows that do investigations?”
Her grandmother scoffed. “Who do you think buys ads during those TV shows? And in the papers? Jarvis Industries! Of course those places won’t say a word against Christopher Jarvis!” She shook the tabloid in one of her big hands, which were permanently reddened and chapped by hot water and cleansers. “That’s why I only trust the Examiner. They can’t be bought.” With a sniff, she set down the paper, swept the celery to one side of the cutting board, and started in on an onion.
Charlotte looked at the tabloid. There was a story about vampire babies on the front cover, a headline promising a Miracle Cure for Arthritis the Doctors WON’T Tell You, and a photograph of a woman in a bikini beneath the headline Saggy Stars in Swimsuits!
“I heard that every single person who works there has to sign a contract swearing they won’t tell what goes on in the labs, and that, if they do, they’ll owe Christopher Jarvis millions and millions of dollars.” Thwack, thwack, thwack, went Grandma’s knife. “If I went to work for that man, or if I let him buy the inn, I’d be taking dirty money. And some things aren’t worth the cost.”
That night Charlotte dreamed of bloody rabbits and mice that were missing their eyes. She dreamed of iPads and diamond earrings, and a pile of money that turned into mud when she touched it, and when she woke up she knew that her grandmother wasn’t going to change her mind. Her classmates’ families would all get rich, and she, Charlotte, would be stuck sweeping and scouring, ironing and folding, smiling for guests when they could see her, whispering when they couldn’t, setting the table and scrubbing the toilets until her grandmother died and the inn was her own.
Jarvis Industries had its job fair. Charlotte’s classmates’ parents got jobs, and her classmates got new clothes, new shoes, new everything. Her best friend, Tessa, got a brand-new iPhone and a gold necklace with a pendant shaped like a heart. Logan Sinclair, who sat behind her in math class, took a trip to New York City with his family, where they saw two Broadway shows and got courtside seats for a basketball game. And Mrs. McTeague, who’d been Charlotte’s favorite teacher, left the school and went to work at the lab’s public relations department. “I’ll miss you, scholars,” she’d said on her last day, when she’d pulled into the parking lot in a new Prius, “but this was too good of an offer to pass up.”
One winter morning, Charlotte was trudging to school, thinking about one of her grandmother’s sayings: A rising tide lifts all boats. Charlotte could picture it: the tide coming in, and all kinds of boats—ferryboats and tugboats and giant cruise ships, the tiniest, crummiest rowboat with peeling paint and the biggest, sleekest yacht—rising up with the water. Jarvis Industries had been the tide, and the people of Upland were the boats, and all of them had been lifted. All of them but her grandmother and her newspaper and its stupid prejudice against pharmaceutical companies, and now Charlotte probably wouldn’t even be able to get her ears pierced for her birthday, like she’d planned, because what was the point of having pierced ears if you couldn’t afford to buy earrings?
She’d been so angry she’d given the nearest rock a good, hard kick, which only made her toes ache, and left her even angrier. She was looking for something more satisfying, or at least more yielding, to attack when a big black car glided up to the curb beside her, and the window slid down.
“Charlotte Hughes?” The man who spoke from the back seat had a blandly forgettable face and could have been anywhere from thirty to fifty. His eyes were pale, his hair was cut short, his white skin was lightly tanned. It took Charlotte a minute to realize that she’d seen him before, leaving the inn. He’d been the one with the shiny briefcase, the one who’d made the offer to buy the place.
“Yes. That’s me.”
“I represent Dr. Christopher Wayne Jarvis, of Jarvis Industries.” The man nodded in the direction of the new construction where the Jarvis Industries complex had risen above the town over the past six months. His smile showed small, even white teeth. “I’d like to offer you a job.”
“I have one already,” Charlotte muttered. Sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets, gathering the wet towels that strangers left on the bathroom floor and picking their hair out of the drains.
“I know,” said the man. “You help your grandmother at the inn.” His voice was sympathetic. “You must work very hard.”
Charlotte looked at him curiously. “You know I’m just twelve, right?”
“And perfectly situated for this task,” said the man. “Really, it’s barely a job at all. Hardly any work. Easy-peasy. I just want you to keep your eyes open.”
“What am I looking for?” she asked.
“Not what, but who,” the man said. “You’re looking for anyone unusual or out of the ordinary. People who don’t look like the normal run of visitors you get here in beautiful, bucolic Upland.” His expression didn’t change, but Charlotte thought she heard a hint of scorn when he said beautiful, bucolic Upland. Like maybe he didn’t think Upland was beautiful or bucolic at all. “For this small task, my employer is willing to pay you a hundred dollars a week.”
Charlotte stumbled and almost fell. “A hundred dollars a week? Just for watching?”
The man gave her a smile that showed his teeth and extended his hand out the window, toward Charlotte. In his palm was a box containing the newest iPhone; the same one Tessa had been showing off. “Keep it charged,” said the man. “There is one number stored in the contacts. That’s the number you’ll call if you see any unusual people.”
Charlotte’s tongue felt thick. “Unusual how?” she managed to ask.
“Oh, just folks that look different,” said the man, with a nonchalant wave of his hand. “People with too much hair, or people missing limbs. Or with extra ones. You’ll know them when you see them,” he said, and gave a tittering laugh that made Charlotte want to clap her hands over her ears.
She swallowed hard, thinking of the story from her grandmother’s newspaper, the lab rats with extra limbs and eyes. “You’re kidding, right?”
Instead of answering, the man held his hand out through the window again. When he spread his fingers, Charlotte saw five twenty-dollar bills.
Charlotte felt her own hand creep out of her pocket, reaching toward the car’s window, and the money. She drew it back and folded her fingers into a fist. “If I do what you’re asking—if I see these people, and I call the number—then what happens to them?”
The man didn’t respond. His face was an absolute blank.
Charlotte looked at the money and felt a prickle of unease work its way from the nape of her neck down her spine. Then she turned her head and looked toward the inn, and all the work that was waiting for her. Dirty money, she heard her grandmother say… but money was just money, and this money, clean or dirty, would let her buy the things she wanted. And what were the chances that she’d ever see unusual-looking people, that she’d need to call the number? It sounded like something that would happen in a movie or a comic book, not real life.
Charlotte walked to the car and took the cash and the phone.
“Don’t forget, now,” said the man. His voice was calm, with not even the hint of a threat.
“What do I tell my grandmother?” she asked.
The man smiled again. “Tell her you won the lottery,” he said. “In a way, it’s kind of true.” He gave her a wink, and the car pulled away.
That had been three years ago, and in that time, Charlotte had seen her town come back to life. There was an organic supermarket and a French café on Main Street. The elementary school’s bricks had been power-washed and repointed, and ground had been broken for the construction of a new high school that would have a natatorium and a technology lab with a pair of 3-D printers.
On the south side of town, about five miles away from the town center, Jarvis Industries occupied a sprawling campus of modern-looking buildings, all of them enclosed by a handsome brick fence topped with unlovely razor wire and guarded by men and women who wore fatigues and carried rifles. Everyone agreed that Jarvis Industries was a great place to work, even though none of them could, or would, talk in specifics about what was being done there. Research and development, they’d say when they were asked. Charlotte knew that the lab was full of scientists who’d come from other places—other cities, even other countries—and that the locals who made up the support staff had been subtly discouraged from asking too many questions. The pay was well above what they could earn anyplace else nearby, and the benefits and vacation policies were generous.
Every Fourth of July the company hosted a picnic at Lake Upland for employees and their families where there was face painting and games and carnival rides and chefs in tall white hats grilling steaks and burgers and hot dogs. Every Thanksgiving each employee was sent home with an organic turkey from a local farm; on the first day of December they each received a five-hundred-dollar gift certificate. Jarvis Industries, everyone agreed, was a wonderful place to work… and if the employees were troubled by the frequent shipments of lab rats and mice and rabbits that arrived, or the incinerator that sent ribbons of smoke into the sky all night long; if they’d heard strange noises that sounded like screams late at night, or saw barrels by the dozen labeled “MEDICAL WASTE” being loaded onto garbage trucks by men in hazmat suits, they’d learned it was best not to ask too many questions. People who asked questions were people who lost their jobs.
For three years, Charlotte had followed their example. She kept her special phone charged and at the ready. She kept her eyes open, looking for what she’d been told to watch out for. She collected the crisp twenty-dollar bills that showed up in her locker every Monday morning, in a plain white envelope, and deposited them in her savings account, dreaming of the life she would have someday, far away from Upland, Vermont. She bought herself an iPhone for her personal use, and got her ears pierced, and had almost convinced herself that she’d never have to make good on her promise; that the creatures that man in the shiny car had told her about didn’t exist outside of fairy tales.
She was wrong.