By C. L. Herman
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Six years ago, three Long Island teenagers were murdered—their drowned bodies discovered with sand dollars placed over their eyes. The mystery of the drowning summer was never solved, but as far as the town’s concerned, Evelyn Mackenzie’s father did it. His charges were dropped only because Evelyn summoned a ghost to clear his name. She swore never to call a spirit again.
For generations, Mina Zanetti’s family has used the ocean’s power to guide the dead to their final resting place. But as sea levels rise, the ghosts grow more dangerous, and Mina has been shut out of the family business. When her former friend Evelyn performs another summoning that goes horribly wrong, the two girls must uncover who was really behind the drowning summer murders—and navigate their growing attraction—before the line between life and death dissolves for good.
Beautifully written and enticingly witchy, The Drowning Summer is an eerie story perfect for reading under a full moon.
This time, the dead came calling in the middle of the night.
Mina Zanetti had been waiting for them to reach out to her mother for hours, working on her latest dress design so she wouldn’t fall asleep.
The candles burning low on Mina’s windowsill cast a dim, flickering light over the discarded clothes and fabric strewn across her bedroom floor. Mina sat in the corner, staring at Regina—her mannequin—who was draped in her current tailoring project.
She hadn’t expected her mother to take so long. But if she wasn’t going to sleep, she might as well work.
“Almost,” Mina muttered, picking out a series of basting stitches with her seam ripper. She had spent the past few days attempting to execute a pattern for a midi dress with a high neckline, but it wasn’t cooperating. And it was easier to focus on her flawed design attempt than it was to consider what she was waiting for.
Because it wasn’t her work that worried her right now. It was her mother’s. Mina had been asking to be included in Stella’s career for as long as she could remember. Not the Italian American catering business her mother ran out of their cozy bungalow in Cliffside Bay—her other job. Her real job.
Most of the Zanettis had a little something extra, a connection to the spirits they could either nurture or ignore. The dead called to her family, and her family answered them, guiding ghosts from this world to whatever came next. Mina had seen firsthand how this work helped both the living and the deceased, kept Mina’s little corner of Long Island balanced. She wanted nothing more than to follow in her family’s footsteps.
But Stella seemed to have other ideas.
Mina shifted the dress’s waistline up a quarter inch, thinking about how her favorite lipstick and platform sandals would pair with the cream-colored fabric. Visualizing the finished piece soothed her as she readied herself for the negotiations she would have to go through to be included tonight.
She was determined. She was ready. She had waited long enough.
It had taken years of pleading and several artfully constructed PowerPoint presentations for Stella to even consider letting Mina join the family business. But over the last six months, she’d slowly started to relent. Mina had sat patiently through lectures about the ebb and flow of the dead alongside the tides and the moon, and the ethics of being a medium, even though she’d absorbed all of this via osmosis years ago. She’d been a model student. Her patience was rewarded in early May when Stella finally promised to take Mina along the next time she went out in the field.
But as May rolled into June, Mina had realized it was a promise her mother had no intention of keeping. Which was why she’d taken matters into her own hands.
At 1:57 AM, soft, careful footsteps sounded in front of her bedroom, paused, then continued down the hallway. Mina flung open her door and called after her mother, who froze before reluctantly turning around.
“Oh, my seashell,” Stella Zanetti stage-whispered, flipping on the hall light.
She’d had Mina when she was a college senior. Sixteen years later, the two looked more like siblings than a mother and daughter: two white women with the same pointed chin, a slight gap between their front teeth, and a mole beneath each of their left eyes. But where Mina’s hair was bleached blond and brittle, her mother’s was dark, wavy, and improbably long, falling almost to her waist. Mina noted with grim satisfaction that her mother’s familiar face, so often guarded, was twisted with guilt.
“You waited up for me, didn’t you?”
“You promised to take me with you,” Mina said. “But you weren’t going to wake me up at all.”
“Well, no, I wasn’t,” Stella said hesitantly. “I thought…”
She thought Mina wasn’t ready. Mina’s wrist twinged, an old injury, an old mistake, but she refused to flinch. That was ancient history now.
“You thought I’d forgotten the dead are impossible to ignore tonight? I learned the moon phases before I learned the alphabet.”
“That’s a slight exaggeration.” Mina had been trying to make a joke. But her mother’s response sounded careful, almost wary.
Mina had spent her whole life studying Stella’s moods and habits. She was the only person in the world who understood Stella’s organization system for her spice rack. Who’d held her hand while she talked to a lawyer on the phone about starting her own company. Who knew exactly how Stella’s workday had been by how she’d arranged her shoes at the front door. The only thing she didn’t understand about her mother was Stella’s resistance to include her in this part of her life, when she’d always been included in everything else.
“Please,” Mina said weakly.
When Mina had asked years ago how her mother had discovered her talents, Stella said, “A ghost called to me when I was young, and I answered. And once you start speaking to the dead, you cannot stop. It’s not something you can turn on and off whenever you feel like it—it’s forever.”
“What if I want them to talk to me?” Mina had asked, and Stella had made a low, frightened noise and shaken her head. The look she’d had on her face then was the same one she wore now.
Mina braced herself for another rejection… but to her surprise, Stella’s expression shifted, like a cloud floating away from the moon.
“You can come along,” her mother said at last. “But we need to hurry up. The dead are louder than usual tonight.”
A rickety flight of stairs behind their house led from the cliff to the beach below. Mina followed her mother down, her steps cautious on the flimsy wooden planks. By the time her shoes touched the shoreline, her mother had already waded into the surf. Unlike Mina, who’d opted for leggings and waterproof boots, Stella had worn a highly impractical outfit to talk to the dead—a flowing maxi dress and her favorite opal headband twined through her dark hair.
They stood in Sand Dollar Cove, a crescent moon–shaped slice of sand on Long Island’s North Shore. The tide was high enough to swallow most of the coastline, leaving nothing but a thin stretch littered with rocks and broken seashells between the cliff and the open sea. The full moon shone in the sky, a large, glimmering orb that cast a thin light across the beach. It was a peaceful, idyllic sight, yet Mina couldn’t suppress a shudder as she glanced behind her, where a cave opened in the rocks like an unhinged jaw. Three high school juniors had been found dead in that cave six years ago.
It had stopped most of the town from going there. But it hadn’t stopped Stella Zanetti from using Sand Dollar Cove to communicate with spirits.
“There you are.” Stella looked like the medium she was, standing tall and regal in the surf, as ethereal and unknowable as the spirits she guided from the earth to their final resting place. “Remember to stay on the beach. I don’t want you exposed to the ocean until you’re ready.”
Mina choked down disappointment. Saltwater was her family’s primary channel of communication with spirits—the ocean currents tended to pull ghosts to the shore the same way they washed up tangles of seaweed on the sand. If she wasn’t in the sea, they wouldn’t notice her.
“But I am ready,” she said, trying to keep the desperation out of her voice.
“I need you to trust me,” Stella said. “Can you do that?”
Mina’s wrist ached again. She stared at the smooth, unblemished skin there, remembering the only time she’d ever let Stella down. But maybe once was enough. Maybe that was the real reason behind her mother’s resistance to teach Mina how to be a medium.
So Mina backed away from the surf, swallowed her disappointment, and forced herself to smile. Because she was lucky to be on this beach at all. “Yes, I can. What now?”
Stella gestured to the beach behind her in response. “Candles—will you set them up?”
There were several different kinds of spirit summonings. Stella had been tight-lipped about the implications of the way each of them varied, but Mina knew that when using the ocean to communicate with ghosts, it was important to create a symbolic barrier between the world of the dead and the living. A small row of candles on the upper shoreline would work nicely. When Mina was done, she stood behind the flickering barrier and waited.
Stella thanked her gently, then reached for the scrying focus around her neck. In someone else’s hands, it was just a cheap glass pendant shaped like a lavender diamond. But in hers, it was much more. The spirits had a whole ocean to communicate through. Yet all that water, all that energy, was overwhelming. Mediums needed an anchor to ground themselves, to keep their powers channeled and focused. “Now I work and you watch, all right?”
Mina nodded reluctantly. “All right.”
She observed carefully from the beach as her mother pulled the pendant over her head, her fingers clasped tightly around the purple glass, and turned to face the water. When Stella opened her hand a few seconds later, the scrying focus glowed blue in her palm. She knelt and dunked the pendant in the sea. Its deep, cobalt light spread from Stella’s hand and into the water, glowing like bioluminescence beneath the waves. A small path shot across the surface, and at the edge of the horizon, coming closer to them, Mina saw an answering glow. It was translucent and faint, a small, concentrated ball of blue light.
“I see it,” Mina whispered, her voice soft with awe. “That’s a spirit, right?”
“Yes.” The unease in Stella’s voice had deepened. Her mother rose to her feet, the pendant still glowing in her hand. Saltwater dripped from the ends of her hair and soaked through her dress, but she didn’t seem to mind. “They’re coming closer now.”
Water rippled beneath the light as it moved toward them, guided by a gentle wave. The ball expanded as it drew nearer, twisting into a humanoid form that hovered over the sea. Mina felt something rising in her, humming beneath her skin. It tugged her toward the spirit’s warm, calming glow.
That pull, that connection, was what Mina had come here to find. She wanted to communicate with a spirit, and since they were strongest during the full and new moons, she’d known this would be her best chance. Mina understood that some would consider talking to the dead more of a curse than a gift. But she was a Zanetti, and although this job would not be easy, it was still one she wanted.
Stella was waist-deep in the ocean now, lost in concentration. Another surge of light bled from her scrying focus and circled through the water, coursing gently toward the spirit.
There was nobody watching Mina except the waves and the cloudy sky above them.
Nobody to tell her no.
So she stepped over the line of candles and into the surf, that pull still surging through her, and knelt.
The moment her skin made contact with the ocean, the humming in her chest intensified. She heard a soft, rustling noise, like the sound a shell made when she held it up to her ear. The water lapped gently against her hand, and a familiar blue-green glow began to spread from Mina’s fingertips.
“Whoa.” Mina gazed at the light as it spread away from her hand, tendrils spiraling into the water like elongated fingers. She felt awe and pride and a deep, wonderful relief.
“Mina!” Her mother’s voice was sharp. “What are you doing?”
Mina jerked her head up. The spirit hovered perhaps thirty feet away now. Their glow fully illuminated the panic on Stella’s face.
“I…” But Mina had no explanation, no excuse except that she’d wanted this so desperately. Surely Stella could understand that.
“Get out of the ocean.” Stella started toward her, gripping her scrying focus like she wanted to shatter it. Her face was slack with fear. “Don’t make me say it again.”
And it was exactly at that moment that Mina felt something else. The humming grew louder, crackling beneath her skin like an electrical current. Mina smelled salt and brine with an edge of rot, so powerful she nearly gagged. The ocean surged against her knees, and the sound surged with it.
The humming unspooled into a tangle of distinct, panicked voices, like water sloshing inside her skull. There was more than one spirit in Sand Dollar Cove, far more than one, and all of them were screaming. It was an agonizing assault of noise that left Mina gasping and immobile in the surf.
She’d been wrong. She wasn’t ready. But that no longer mattered. The voices roared as that pull through her entire body intensified, a calling, a yearning. She groaned and forced her eyes open, searching for the spirits, searching for her mother. Mina looked up just in time to see the wave crashing toward her, far higher than her kneeling body. It sent her tumbling through the surf like an errant seashell.
The wave knocked her on her back and filled her mouth with saltwater. Mina flipped over, coughing, and clawed at the rocky sand. It was harder than it should’ve been to crawl back to the beach, as if the ocean itself was grasping at her with a thousand tiny fingers, refusing to release her to the shore. But then Stella was in front of her, extending a hand. Mina grasped it and scrambled away from the waves. Mother and daughter wound up crouched beside the staircase that led back up to the bungalow, on that precious slice of beach that remained safe from high tide.
The wave had completely destroyed Mina’s candle barrier. A dozen waterlogged tea lights scattered across the rocks, their tiny flames snuffed out.
“Oh, Mina,” Stella whispered.
Their hands were still clasped together. Mina’s eyes scanned the water for any trace of the spirit, but they were gone.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” Mina gasped, blinking away salt. The taste of the ocean still lingered in her mouth, and her clothes were caked with sand and seaweed. Although it was nearly summer, she was shivering—the water had been cold, and the echoes of those voices were still ringing in her head. She knew the memory would stay with her for a long time. “I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s all right.” Stella squeezed her hand. “I’m just glad you’re safe. This is why I didn’t want you to come out here. The spirits have been growing stronger and stronger lately—even with a scrying focus, I can’t always manage them. But I had no idea they’d be so dangerous tonight.”
Mina turned toward the ocean, where the waves now lapped calmly against the beach. There was no evidence of the dread and horror she had felt just moments ago, and yet it still lingered inside of her, pressing against her ribcage.
“Why was it so bad tonight?”
Her mother’s voice was grim. “Because someone else called a spirit.”
Mina knew people who weren’t mediums tried to talk to the dead sometimes. Most of them reached out to relatives or friends they couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing again. But Stella seemed nervous about this in a way that didn’t quite match up with an amateur summoning attempt.
“Another medium?” she asked.
Stella shook her head. “I’d never call that the work of a medium. Someone summoned this spirit with the express purpose of bending them to their will.”
Memories stirred in Mina’s mind. A ring of salt. Candles snuffing out. A sharp scream.
There were other reasons people wanted to contact the dead. Awful reasons. Mina had spent the last six years trying to forget them.
“And you think that’s what we just dealt with?”
“Absolutely.” Stella pulled Mina up from the sand. “But you shouldn’t worry. This work is clumsy, inexperienced. Your uncle and I will deal with it.”
She started toward the stairs. Mina turned to follow her… and gasped with pain.
Her left wrist was on fire. Voices surged in her head, stronger this time, and the taste of salt rose in her throat once more. Mina gagged and doubled over on the beach, her watery eyes fixed on the mark that had appeared on her wrist. It was a bluish-green sand dollar the size of a quarter, and it hurt in a way she had only felt once before: the first time it had appeared on her arm.
Something stirred at the very bottom of her memory, like a long-dormant creature waking on the ocean floor. And suddenly she was ten again, staring at Evelyn Mackenzie over a flickering candle flame as Mina felt something course through that cave in the side of the cliff, a whispering that felt strong enough to shatter her skull. Her wrist had blazed with pain until all that remained was that same sand dollar, etched into her skin.
A mark of the spirit she and Evelyn had summoned—and what they had asked the ghost to do.
“Mina?” Her mother’s voice pierced through Mina’s haze of alarm. “Are you coming?”
Mina stuffed her hand in the pocket of her sweatshirt and swiveled around, struggling to keep her voice calm. “Just thought I saw something in the water.”
It had been a long time since that day. Mina had assumed that Evelyn had forgotten about what they’d done, blocked their summoning out the same way she’d blocked out their entire friendship. Heat pulsed in Mina’s wrist in time with the waves crashing behind her as she made herself a silent promise.
One way or another, she would ensure that Evelyn Mackenzie kept their secret.
SEVEN HOURS EARLIER
Evelyn Mackenzie didn’t appreciate being called difficult.
Not by her father, who used the word every time Evelyn brought home a lackluster report card or wound up in detention for sleeping in class after a morning shift. Not by her sister, who always answered her phone calls with a twinge of dread in her voice.
And certainly not by Nick Slater, her boyfriend, who mumbled the word accusatorially when Evelyn showed up at his house after her disciplinary hearing with Cliffside High’s academic honesty council.
“C’mon, Evie,” he whined as they stood in the foyer, beneath an oil painting of Nick, his brother, and his parents—four white people with matching ice-blue eyes who looked like they’d rather be anywhere else. The portrait had probably cost more money than Evelyn’s future college tuition. “Why do you have to be so difficult? It’s not like they’re expelling you or anything.”
Evelyn hated when he whined. “It’s going on my permanent academic record. Which means colleges will see it. And Cliffside High is notifying every summer internship I applied to that I cheated. I can’t believe you didn’t tell them the truth.”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything. They would’ve just punished both of us.”
“But it was your idea.” Sophomore biology was Evelyn’s highest grade and her favorite subject. But Nick was pulling a C, and his dad had threatened to ground him for the entire summer if he didn’t get at least a B minus in every class.
So he’d asked his girlfriend for help on the final exam.
Evelyn wasn’t sure what made her more furious: that she’d been caught, that Nick had let her take the fall, or that she’d agreed to steal an answer key in the first place.
“It’s done, okay?” Nick said, lowering his voice. “Let’s just forget about it.”
“No, this isn’t finished,” Evelyn said. “But we are.”
And it was only later, after they were done breaking up and she’d slammed the Slaters’ front door behind her with all the force of her pent-up rage, that she wondered what it even meant. Being difficult.
Maybe, she thought, choking back tears as she slid her longboard onto the pavement and clipped her helmet beneath her chin, difficult was just a word people used for anyone too smart, too angry, too inconvenient.
Cliffside Bay was the kind of Long Island suburb where the homes looked like an architect had practiced on each of them, growing more skilled as they went on. Nick lived in one of the imposing modern mansions at the top of the cliff that had given the town its name. So Evelyn let momentum take her down the entire slope until she reached the streets at the very edge of town, lined with shabby clapboard houses and brown yards. Going there straight from Nick’s made her house look even shittier than usual, made the knot in her stomach double in size.
Evelyn coasted to a stop once the paved street gave way to her gravel driveway. She scooped up her longboard and stomped up the front steps, halting only to kick open the unlocked door.
Her father was busy becoming one with his recliner in the living room, staring intently at the glow of the TV screen. The blinds behind him hadn’t been opened or dusted in the three years since Meredith had left for college.
“Veggie burgers for dinner?” she asked, instead of saying hello.
Greg Mackenzie blinked at her as if she were an alien. Her father was a middle-aged white guy with the prematurely sun-damaged skin of a man who’d spent most of his life outdoors. Now, the closest he got to nature was the Discovery Channel.
“Sure,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “Use less charcoal this time, though—don’t want the neighbors up our asses again.”
“The Kowalskis throw a rager every weekend, Dad. They can handle a few scorch marks.”
“You set their fence on fire, kid. You’re lucky they didn’t sue us.”
“Fine,” Evelyn muttered. “Microwave pizza it is.”
She headed up the stairs, relieved. His tone was too warm for him to have found out about the disciplinary hearing yet. He’d been invited, of course, but she’d figured out his email password and his phone passcode years ago—he could barely work either without her help. And it wasn’t like Cliffside High was going to reach out to her mom. But deleting the school’s messages was only buying her time before the inevitable disappointment, because there was no way she could hide this from her dad forever.
Evelyn’s room was small and cozy, with a collection of plants crowded on the windowsill, dark blue walls she’d painted herself, and a flannel-patterned bedspread. A neon sign shaped like a cloud—a birthday gift from Meredith—hung above the rumpled covers.
She dropped her helmet and backpack on the floor, then went to the cage beside her closet, where her corn snake Clara was curled up in her favorite hide.
Nick had always hated Clara. He thought the whole reptiles-as-pets thing was creepy, couldn’t understand why Evelyn worked extra shifts at the Scales & Tails Pet Shop for an entire sweaty summer just to adopt her and give her the perfect enclosure.
“Should’ve known he was an asshole,” Evelyn told her snake.
She chose to believe that Clara was lifting her yellow-and-white snout in solidarity, even though Evelyn knew her pet was probably just hungry. She was due for a feeding tomorrow.
As far as the breakup went, Evelyn knew she would be fine. Yes, Nick had been her boyfriend for the past four months, but it wasn’t like she loved him. This was nothing a few cute reptile videos wouldn’t solve.
The bigger problem here was her tarnished academic record.
Bile rose in Evelyn’s throat as she thought of how the news of her cheating would spread around the school. She wasn’t exactly popular, but she wasn’t a nobody, either. Her dad’s involvement in the drowning summer had given her a sort of double-edged notoriety that got her invited to parties. And dating Nick, for better or for worse, had made people remember her for something other than her last name. But she had no real friends, no support system that would stop the rumors about what had happened on the biology final… or the fact that it would have to go on her college applications.
Evelyn excavated her laptop from her unmade bed and pulled up the website for the Coastal Wildlife Conservation and Research Society of Long Island. She had applied to a bunch of summer stuff across Long Island, but this one was perfect for her: two months spent shadowing real scientists as they monitored the populations of local species in protected beachfront habitats. She’d already aced her interview and was waiting to hear back about their final decision.
But once they found out that she’d cheated on her exam, they would never hire her. And that was just the beginning.
College was her way out of Cliffside Bay for good. But after Meredith left and Evelyn took on a second job, her grades had started slipping. Pair that with a messy disciplinary record and a lack of prestigious extracurriculars, and the goals Evelyn had painstakingly worked toward for years would crumble.
She couldn’t let Nick Slater take her future away.
Evelyn pushed the laptop aside and swung off the bed, rummaging through the bins shoved beneath the mattress until she found the one she was looking for. It was filled with evidence of a friendship she couldn’t bear to forget—a crumbling seashell strung on a necklace, notes written back and forth on yellowed loose-leaf paper. She paused on a faded picture of two tiny white girls posing behind a sand castle. Evelyn was the one on the left, mid-yell, blurry from her decision to jump around when her father said Hold still. Mina Zanetti sat on the right. She dyed her hair now, but the face beneath her dark brown bangs was still unmistakably hers. Solemn. Careful.
- "The descriptions of the magic and hauntings are sensory delights.... Immersed in multilayered personal relationships and engrossing mysteries.—Kirkus
- “Haunting and atmospheric, The Drowning Summer is a gorgeous exploration of what it means to forge our own path. With complex characters and a setting so vivid I could smell the salt air, readers will eagerly wade into this timely, eerie tale.”—Rachel Griffin, New York Times bestselling author of The Nature of Witches
- “Herman expertly pairs real world issues with the supernatural in this spooky mystery complete with a swoon worthy queer romance. Readers will be haunted by this beautiful and eerie book long after they finish the final page."—Jennifer Dugan, author of Some Girls Do and Hot Dog Girl
- “A story of two lost girls trying to find their way back to each other after a broken friendship. With unforgettable characters, vivid imagery and lush atmosphere, this story will keep you guessing about what really happened to the tragic Cliffside Trio while you root for Mina and Evelyn to let down their guard and embrace their connection. If you love magic, true crime, and complicated friendships this book is for you!”—Kat Cho, internationally bestselling author of Vicious Spirits
- "Herman’s deft hand weaves a tale that's equal parts spooky and romantic. A ghost story for any season."—Mara Fitzgerald, author of Beyond the Ruby Veil and Into the Midnight Void
- "[An] atmospherically told tale of the supernatural.... The author ticks a wide range of age-bracket and genre standbys—troubles with parents, a past mystery, and false accusations—but wider-world problems, including pollution, add layers and originality to the plot."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 19, 2022
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers