Exclusive: Read an excerpt from Katie Alender’s The Companion

The Companion by Katie Alender. Image Courtesy Penguin Random House
The Companion by Katie Alender. Image Courtesy Penguin Random House /

Katie Alender’s latest YA thriller, The Companion, hits shelves later this month, but we’ve got an exclusive early look at this creepy new novel right now.

With everything going on around us right now, the ability to escape into a good book feels more necessary than ever. Luckily, there are tons of great new YA releases headed our way to close our this summer and even more coming this fall. (Your TBR pile is about to get real big, is what I’m saying.)

One of the more interesting offerings headed our way in August is Katie Alender’s The CompanionA rare contemporary YA Gothic novel, it’s an action-packed story set in a world where nothing is as it seems, no one can be trusted, and fighting for your life anything but simple.

The other orphans say Margot is lucky. Lucky to have survived the car wreck that killed her family. Lucky to get a single room because she wakes up screaming every night. And finally, lucky to be chosen to join a foster family at their remote country manor.

But soon, Margot realizes that it wasn’t generosity that moved Mr. and Mrs. Sutton to bring her home. Margo was handpicked to be a companion for their daughter, Agatha— a formerly typical teenager who suddenly went catatonic.

Staying with the Suttons is better than the alternatives, but strange things start happening at the estate. At first, helping with Agatha—and getting to know her handsome older brother—seems much better than the group home. But soon, the isolated, gothic house begins playing tricks on Margot’s mind, making her question everything she believes about the Suttons… and herself. Margot’s bad dreams may have stopped when she came to live with Agatha—but the real nightmare has just begun.

The Companion will hit shelves on August 25, but those looking forward to the story can check out an exclusive excerpt, thanks to Penguin Young Readers.

Read an excerpt from The Companion below. 

"I FOLLOWED JOHN and Laura down the long, wallpapered corridor and into the grand main hall, with its two-story ceiling of ornamental plaster.  I  was vaguely aware of faces staring at me from paintings, of glass-doored cabinets packed with figurines—a  flock of delicate birds, a squadron of tiny ballerinas, collections of vases and teacups and tiny bowls—but they passed into my head and then out, like snapshots of things I’d seen long ago.Why couldn’t Agatha just come downstairs to say hi? I tried not to dwell on the question, just as I tried not to dwell on the fact that I was pretty sure I’d asked Mr. Albright if the Suttons had children and he hadn’t said yes.I don’t know . . . maybe he hadn’t said no, either. But he definitely hadn’t said yes.Two separate sets of stairs wound dramatically up opposite walls and met on a shared landing. Laura paused at the base of one set of the stairs. “To the right, here, is our bedroom. Our offices, as well—and straight ahead you can see the library. The door behind the stairs leads to the service hall, which you won’t be needing to visit.”Shows what you know, Tam, I thought.She looked over her shoulder. “And obviously, back the way we came, you saw the kitchens, the dining room, and the breakfast room. Plus, the drawing room, the music room, and the sitting room.”Did I see those things? It was all a blur.When the four of us reached the top of the stairs, I could see that the landing branched off into three halls: left, right, and center.“This way,” Laura said, staring straight ahead. “You won’t need to use the green wing or the west wing. I keep the doors closed, to save energy. As you can imagine, it’s quite a feat to heat or cool a house this size.”I nodded, as if I had spent time imagining such a thing. “Are they all bedrooms?”“Oh no,” she said. “There are anterooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms, the old sauna, a gymnasium, linen storage . . . And several guest rooms, as well.”My head felt like it was spinning. Was this supposed to make sense to me?“Actually, Margaret, I think I’ll go see about your belongings,” Mr. Albright said suddenly, reversing course and heading back downstairs.Coward. I helplessly watched him go.I tried to ignore the prickling sensation on my skin as we walked farther down the hall, stopping outside the second-to-last door on the left.John put his hand on the knob, but Laura lightly touched his shoulder. “I like to knock,” she said softly. “Even if—well, we should get into the habit anyway.”So he knocked. Then he opened the door.Laura paused in the doorway and turned to me. “She hasn’t always lived in here. We just felt it was . . . simpler.”And then, leaving me to cope with that extremely mysterious pronouncement, she went inside.I had nowhere to go but after her.It took me a moment to figure out where I was, but after taking everything in, it hit me: This was a nursery, a room for small children. The wallpaper was an old-fashioned pattern of fruits and flowers arranged in rings around little scenes of woodland creatures hanging out together—bunnies, squirrels, birds, and turtles, all with the creepy wild-eyed expressions people somehow used to think were normal and cute.There were no cribs or bassinets, but there was a white wooden toy chest carved with stars and moons against one wall, and a few feet away, a  small desk  had the same pattern carved in its legs.I looked around the room. Two beds, decorated with the same celestial motif, were pushed up into the corners against the far wall.“Agatha,” Laura said softly, “there’s someone we’d like you to meet.”And then I saw her—sitting in a high-backed wooden chair by the window, her body angled so she could look outside.My throat went dry. A very bad feeling began to tap-dance in my mind.She didn’t turn to look at us, but Laura went on walking toward her, talking as she went. “Her name is Margaret,” she said, in a voice as thin and clear as a rod of glass. “She’d like to say hello to you.”My heart and stomach felt like they were in a wrestling match. I told myself, Calm down, you’re making assumptions, you’re being ungrateful . . .Laura waved me forward, and I followed a few steps in her wake, because what else was I  going to do? Run hyperventilating out of the room?I was only there to meet Agatha, who was apparently not a very social person.“Margaret has come to live with us,” Laura said.She put a hand on Agatha’s shoulder.Up close, I could see that she was as beautiful in person as in the photo—maybe even more so. Wavy hair, pulled back with a white ribbon, reached almost to her waist, and her face, though clear of makeup, was lovely because of her luminous skin and those killer cheekbones. Her eyebrows were slightly furled, coral lips gently pursed.I saw all this in profile. She never so much as turned to look at me.Her clothes were like younger interpretations of her mother’s style: a cornflower-blue sweater and a knee-length plaid skirt. Her ears were pierced and she wore small silver hoops. Her shoes were simple penny loafers of smooth gray leather.Laura gave me a questioning smile, perhaps checking to see if I was planning to run hyperventilating out of the room, and I had no choice but to give her a small smile in return. This was a  delicate moment and I needed to play it cool. There would be plenty of time later for freaking out.“This is our sweet Agatha,” she said to me, letting her fingers trail slowly down a lock of the wavy hair. Then she reached over to a side table for a brush, and smoothed the hair back into place.Agatha didn’t react. She might as well have been in another dimension.“Nice to meet you,” I said to Agatha, fighting the urge to back away.This delighted Laura. “How lovely, Margaret,” she said. “You know, that’s a very empathetic instinct, to speak directly to her. You’d be shocked by how many people treat her like she’s not even here.”“Yes, very good,” John said, startling me. I’d forgotten he was in the room with us. “Perhaps it’s time for us to have a little talk.”***WE DIDN’T RETURN to the west parlor. Instead, Laura stopped short at the base of the stairs and said, “Oh, let’s talk in the library; the view of the grounds is so nice this time of day.”So we went into the library, which was a large room almost entirely walled in by overflowing bookshelves. In the center, four olive-green leather chairs faced one another, each with its own little wooden table and an antique reading lamp dipping its nose over the chair’s shoulder. On the far wall of the room, an expanse of windows looked out over a breathtaking vista of velvety green hills backed by silver-pink late-afternoon clouds.I had the distinct feeling they were trying to distract me with how lovely the property was.“Please, Margaret, sit,” John said, and I sat in one of the chairs and then tried to make myself appear fascinated by the walls of books. Whatever they were about to say loomed over us like smog, and I didn’t want to look up into their eyes and see that they knew it, too.Laura began to speak, then stopped herself and coughed a little, as if the words had choked her. There was a long silence. It was so painful that I was compelled to speak.“So . . . Agatha,” I said. “How old is she?”They both answered at once. “Sixteen,” John said, while Laura said, “Seventeen.”They exchanged a tense look, and then Laura sat down in the chair across from mine. “Seventeen,” she said again.“And what’s . . . wrong with her?” I cringed inwardly when I heard myself ask the question, but neither Laura nor John seemed bothered.“Agatha is sick,” Laura said. “Up until eight and a half months ago, she was your typical happy teenager. She went out with her friends, went to parties, loved shopping . . . you know.”I nodded as if I could relate. I had no memories of being a happy teenager. Everything in my life before the accident had been wiped into a smeary haze. Maybe I’d been happy. I guess so. But I didn’t remember much about it.“And then, one day . . . everything changed. She changed. It was as if she became a different person. Angry. Disturbed, almost. We were baffled and helpless—we had no idea what could have caused it. And then just as we were getting help, she . . .” Laura’s voice trailed off.I looked at John.He swallowed hard. “She . . . shut down. Like someone had flipped a switch. And she became what she is now. She’s very cooperative and doesn’t cause any trouble. She can feed herself, dress herself . . . shower with a bit of help. She can walk. And we think she can read, though we’re not entirely sure.”“She’s not interested in reading,” Laura said. “What is she interested in?” I asked.They glanced at each other.“Nothing, as far as we can tell,” Laura said, her voice straining to sound casual. “Whatever you feed her, she’ll eat. Wherever you take her, she’ll go. Doctors’ appointments, needles, examinations—nothing bothers her. The doctors think it may have been some kind of aggressive bacterial infection that affected her frontal cortex . . . Do you know much about the brain?”I shook my head and sat back in the chair. Well, no big deal, I told myself. So they have a catatonic daughter. Agatha’s a person with a medical condition. You can live with a person who has a medical condition.I had nothing against sick people. When you thought about it, it really had nothing to do with me. “You’re probably wondering,” Laura said slowly,“what this has to do with you.”Oh.“I’m afraid,” John said, looking down at his hands, “that our motives for bringing you here weren’t entirely as Mr. Albright explained. The fact remains, obviously, that we want to provide you with a comfortable home, with people who care about you. We are committed to giving you the same life we are giving our own children—spending money, clothes, even paying for your college education. The debt of gratitude I owe your father is in no way diminished by  the fact that  this situation is slightly more  complex than it  seems  at first glance.”There had been a little tower of feelings inside me. Something small and fragile, a house of cards made of hope. I’d thought I might be okay for a while—“But—” he said.—but.“But we are going to ask you for something in return,” he said.The tower imploded. I stopped pretending not to look at them and faced Laura head-on. I could see, suddenly, every flaw in her impeccable facade: wispy hairs rebelling against her sleek mane, fine lines at the corners of her lips and eyes. The way she held her shoulders so primly square, so purposefully rigid.“We’d like for you to be Agatha’s . . . companion,” Laura said. She bit her lip. “The doctors have said that, while she can’t be out in public,  it’s not good for her to live in total isolation. She needs people around, and not just her parents, or even a nurse. She needs . . . a friend.”“A friend?” I asked. “How can we be friends? She didn’t even notice I was in the room.”Laura leaned forward. “Of course she noticed. I could tell how happy she was to meet you. She was thrilled to have a visitor her own age.”“We don’t mean you have to spend all of your time with her,” John said. “We have other help, and Laura manages most of it on her own. But a fair amount of time, every day—when you’re studying, perhaps. Just for her to have the sense of not being without friends. That’s all we want.” His voice tightened, like there was a fist around it. “If you had known her before—if you had met her before she got sick, you’d understand. She could light up a room. She was so vivacious and charismatic.”“She was very popular,” Laura added, sounding proud. “She had so many friends. Unfortunately, when she fell ill, her friends abandoned her. It only took a few weeks for them to stop calling, stop offering to visit.”“To be fair,” John said slowly, “the calls and visits may not mean anything to her.”“They tell us she’s still in there,” Laura said. “Trapped in her own mind. But for whatever reason, she can’t get out. And we can’t let her think we’ve given up on her.”But this was all wrong. Couldn’t they see? Agatha, when she was awake, charming, full of zest and fun and sprinkled with popularity like some magical teenage cupcake, wouldn’t have wanted me as her friend. I had nothing to offer. Maybe once upon a time we would have gotten along. But now? I was a hollowed-out shell. In some ways I was basically a version of Agatha who could talk.Laura dug her manicured fingernails into her palm. “They told us to send her away. To a—a facility. They call it a home, but how can a place like that be a home?”John reached over and patted her knee, and she dialed back her emotion.“This is her home,” she said. “And we’d like for it to be yours, as well. It’s not perfect, but life never is.”Now wasn’t that the truth.John leaned forward. He was trying to look relaxed, but I could see his forehead twitch. “What do you think, Margaret? Do you want to try?”The Suttons didn’t come right out and say that if I refused to be Agatha’s companion, they’d ship me back to Palmer House. In fact, I was pretty sure they didn’t think they would. But I knew it would come to that, in time. If I said no, the mere sight of me would be an ever-present reminder of my selfish choice to neglect their darling Agatha, and what was I  doing with my time otherwise? Reading? Surfing the internet? Couldn’t I do those things with her in the room?  It wouldn’t take long for them to see me as a greedy person who was taking advantage of their kindness.It wasn’t a yes or no question. It was a stay or go question.I didn’t really want to stay.But I really didn’t want to go back to Palmer House. So I reached up, scratched the back of my neck, and said, “Okay.”And their expressions, like banners advertising joy and relief, actually warmed my heart and made me glad I’d said yes. Maybe I couldn’t help them, but it was nice that they thought I could.There was silence for a little while, during which Laura made a show of looking out the window and smiling.“It’s a beautiful evening,” she said. “Should we have dinner on the terrace?”John jumped slightly, as if he’d forgotten we were there. “No, I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry. I have a call at seven. I’ll eat in my study.”“Very well,” Laura said. “Then Margaret, Agatha, and I will eat in the breakfast room.”“Actually,” I said, “people call me Margot.” “Margot,” Laura repeated carefully. “Spelled with a t?”I nodded.“How sweet,” she said. “Agatha will love it.”I was saved from having to reply by  a  soft knock on the door signifying Mr. Albright’s return. He was carrying my backpack and the plastic bag.“I can take these upstairs,” he said. “Which room?”“Oh, the nursery, Tom, of course,” Laura said. “She’ll be staying with Agatha.”"

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The Companion arrives on August 25, 2020. Check back on Culturess for a review of the novel once it’s out!