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Middle of the Night

A Novel

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THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

In the latest jaw-dropping thriller from New York Times bestselling author Riley Sager, a man must contend with the long-ago disappearance of his childhood best friend—and the dark secrets lurking just beyond the safe confines of his picture-perfect neighborhood.


The worst thing to ever happen on Hemlock Circle occurred in Ethan Marsh’s backyard. One July night, ten-year-old Ethan and his best friend and neighbor, Billy, fell asleep in a tent set up on a manicured lawn in a quiet, quaint New Jersey cul-de-sac. In the morning, Ethan woke up alone. During the night, someone had sliced the tent open with a knife and taken Billy. He was never seen again.

Thirty years later, Ethan has reluctantly returned to his childhood home. Plagued by bad dreams and insomnia, he begins to notice strange things happening in the middle of the night. Someone seems to be roaming the cul-de-sac at odd hours, and signs of Billy’s presence keep appearing in Ethan’s backyard. Is someone playing a cruel prank? Or has Billy, long thought to be dead, somehow returned to Hemlock Circle?

The mysterious occurrences prompt Ethan to investigate what really happened that night, a quest that reunites him with former friends and neighbors and leads him into the woods that surround Hemlock Circle. Woods where Billy claimed ghosts roamed and where a mysterious institute does clandestine research on a crumbling estate.  

The closer Ethan gets to the truth, the more he realizes that no place—be it quiet forest or suburban street—is completely safe. And that the past has a way of haunting the present.
One

Scriiiiiiiitch.

I wake with a start, unnerved by the sound zipping across the dark room. It echoes off the walls and snakes back to me in multiple waves. I lie in bed, completely still, eyes wide open, until the noise fades.

Not that it was ever there to begin with.

Decades of experience have taught me that it was just in my head. Dream, memory, and hallucination all at once. My first since coming back to this house. Honestly, I'm surprised it took so long, especially with the anniversary of what happened here fast approaching.

Sitting up, I look to the clock on the nightstand, hoping it reads closer to dawn than midnight. No such luck. It's only quarter after two. I've got a long night of no sleep ahead of me. With a sigh, I reach for the notebook and pen I keep next to the clock. After much squinting in the darkness, I find a fresh page and scribble four frustrating words.

Had The Dream again.

I toss the notebook back onto the nightstand, followed by the pen. It lands with a clack against the notebook's cover before rolling onto the carpet. I tell myself to leave the pen there until morning. That nothing will happen to it overnight. But the bad thoughts arrive quickly. What if the pen leaks, its midnight-black ink staining the cream-colored carpet? What if I'm attacked in the middle of the night and the only thing I can use to defend myself is an uncapped Bic, which now sits out of reach?

That second one, as alarming as it is improbable, pulls me out of bed. I grab the pen and set it on the notebook. There. Much better.

Anxiety soothed-for now-I'm about to crawl back under the covers when something outside catches my attention.

A light.

Not unusual for Hemlock Circle. Despite the lack of streetlights, it's never completely dark here. Light spills through bay windows onto immaculate front lawns and brightens second-floor bedrooms before the sun rises and long after it sets. The sconces flanking the Chens' front door burn from dusk to dawn, warding off both trespassers and the bats that occasionally try to roost in the eaves. All summer long, the Wallaces' backyard pool glows an alien blue. At Christmas, lights twinkle at five of the six homes in the neighborhood, including the Patels', who put theirs up at Diwali and don't take them down until a new year begins.

Then there are the garage lights.

Every house has them.

A pair of motion-activated security lights centered above the garage doors that glare like headlights when triggered. In the evenings, they flick on and off around the cul-de-sac with the frequency of fireflies as residents return from work in the waning light, go out to fetch the mail, haul recycling bins to the curb.

As it gets closer to midnight, a few will continue to spring to life. When deer skulk through the neighborhood on their way to the woods. Or when Fritz Van de Veer sneaks out for a cigarette after his wife, Alice, has gone to bed.

The light that's caught my attention is the one above the Patels' garage, two houses away. It illuminates a patch of their driveway, the glow turning the asphalt ice white. Curious, I go to one of the windows in a bedroom I still don't consider my own. Not technically. The room that once was mine , and in my mind still is, sits across the hall, now vacant. This is my parents' bedroom, where I rarely ventured as a child. Now, though, through a series of recent developments I'm still grappling with, it's become my own.

The windows in this new room offer a panorama of Hemlock Circle. From where I stand, I can see at least a piece of every house on the cul-de-sac. I glimpse a sliver of the old Barringer place on the left and a corner of the Chens' house to the right. Across from me, in full view from left to right, are the Van de Veers', the Wallaces', and the Patels', where the garage light still glows.

What I don't see is anything that could have set it off. Mitesh and Deepika Patel are presumably inside and fast asleep. No animals scurry from the light. No wind blows that could have caused a nearby branch to sway hard enough to trigger the motion sensor. All I can see is an empty driveway on a quiet cul-de-sac in the dead of night.

Soon I can't even see that, for the Patels' garage light suddenly goes out.

Ten seconds later, the one at the Wallaces' house clicks on. It's next door to the Patels', separated by the single road that leads into the cul-de-sac, which is currently free of cars, free of people, free of anything.

I draw close to the window, my nose almost touching the glass, straining to see something-any small thing-that could have triggered the light above the Wallaces' garage.

There's nothing.

Nothing visible, that is.

Still, I stay pressed to the window, watching, even after the Wallaces' garage light clicks off. The only thing I can think of that could have triggered it is a bat. They thrive here, as the Chens' porch lights can attest, feeding off the many insects that live in the woods circling the cul-de-sac. They're also notoriously difficult to see in the darkness.

But then the light above the Van de Veers' garage springs to life, and I know my theory is wrong. Bats flit willy-nilly, chasing prey. They don't methodically move from house to house.

No, this is different.

This is . . . worrisome.

Unease spreads through my chest as I think about thirty years ago. I can't help it. Not after what happened here.

When the Van de Veers' light turns off, I begin to count.

Five seconds.

Then ten.

Then a full minute.

Long enough for me to think that whatever is out there has moved on, likely into the woods, which means it was an animal. Something simply too small and quick for me to spot, but not small and quick enough to evade the hair-trigger garage lights of the houses on Hemlock Circle. The tightness in my chest eases, and I allow myself a sigh of relief.

Then the light above the Barringers' garage turns on.

The light itself is just out of view, but the glow it throws onto the lawn and sidewalk makes my pulse do a stutter step.

Whatever's out there isn't gone.

In fact, it's getting closer.

Several scenarios pop into my head, starting with the worst, because that's my default mode. Always going straight to the most alarming, the most dire. In this case, that would be that someone is circling the cul-de-sac.

Someone I can't see but who is definitely out there.

Moving from house to house, searching for another child to snatch.

Second in line, and just a shade less worrisome, is the idea that whoever is outside has come to case Hemlock Circle, testing the security lights to see how easy it would be to break into one of the houses here.

The third scenario is that it's just someone going for a late-night walk. Someone from one of the other cul-de-sacs located in this two square miles of suburban sprawl. Someone who, like me, is riddled with insomnia and decided to try to walk it off.

But if this is just an innocent stroll, why doesn't whoever is out there make themselves visible?

The paranoid-but-logical answer is that it's not an innocent stroll. It's something else. Something worse. And I, as likely the only person on Hemlock Circle currently awake, owe it to everyone else to try to put a stop to it.

When the light at the Barringer house next door flicks off, I make my move. Knowing that this house is next, I hope to catch whoever it is in the act. Or at least make it known that not everyone on the cul-de-sac is asleep.

I leave my parents' bedroom and hurry down the hall to the stairs. On the first floor, my bare feet slap against hardwood as I cross the foyer to the front door. I unlock it, fling it open, step into the warm mid-July night.

There's no one else out here.

I can tell that instantly. It's just me, breathing heavily, dressed in only a pair of boxer shorts and an LCD Soundsystem concert tee. I hear and see nothing as I cross in front of the house toward the driveway. When I round the corner, my movement triggers the security light above the garage doors, which flicks on with a faint click.

For a second, I think someone else has set it off and whirl around, panicked. By the time I realize it's just me, bugs have already started to swarm the garage light. I watch their incandescent spinning, feeling simultaneously foolish and on high alert.

An annoyed voice in my head that's plagued my thoughts for years now, suddenly pipes up. Get a grip, Ethan. There's no one out here.

Just to be certain, I stand completely still, scanning the cul-de-sac for signs of someone else. I remain there so long that the garage light eventually switches off, plunging the driveway-and me-back into darkness.

That's when I sense it. A presence, faint in the night air. It lingers in that way certain smells do. Cigar smoke. Perfume. Burnt toast. It's like someone had been here mere seconds ago. Perhaps they're still here, hidden among the trees that ring Hemlock Circle, watching me.

You're being paranoid, the voice in my head tells me.

But I'm not. I can feel it. The same way you can tell someone is in the next room, even though they're not making a sound.

What's more unnerving is how familiar the presence seems. I don't know why. It's not like I know who's out here-if it's anyone at all. Yet the hairs on my arms stand on end, and a chill slithers through me, defying the balmy air.

Only then do I realize whose presence I'm sensing.

One I'd never thought I'd feel again.

"Billy?" I say.

Although a mere whisper, the name seems to fill the night, echoing through the restless dark, lingering long after it's been spoken. By the time it fades, I know I'm mistaken.

Such a scenario is impossible.

It can't be Billy.

He's been gone for thirty years.

Two

I remain outside for another minute or so, waiting in the dark, desperately hoping to sense more of Billy's presence. But it's gone. Not a hint of him-or anyone else-remains.

Rather than go back to bed when I return inside, I roam the dark and silent house that both does and does not feel like home. I can't remember the last time I slept a full eight hours. For most of my life, sleep has come in fits and starts. I fall asleep quickly. An immediate plummet into sweet slumber. The problem always comes later, when I wake after only an hour or two, suddenly alert, restless, and filled with an undefinable sense of dread. This can last for several more hours before I'm able to fall back asleep. Sometimes that falling-back-to-sleep part never happens.

Chronic insomnia, my doctor calls it. I've officially had it since my twenties, although it started long before then. Over the years, I've done the sleep studies and kept a sleep journal and tried every suggested remedy. Removing the TV from my bedroom. Reading an hour before bed. Hot showers and chamomile tea and sleep stories droning on in the darkness. Nothing works. Not even sleeping pills strong enough to sedate an elephant.

Now I just accept that I'll always be awake between one and four a.m. I've grown accustomed to those dark, quiet hours in the middle of the night, when it feels like I'm the only man in the world not asleep.

Rather than waste them, I try to put those wakeful hours to good use, keeping an eye on things while everyone else sleeps. In college, I roamed dormitory halls and circled the quad, making sure all was well. When Claudia and I shared a bed, I'd watch her sleep, unnerving her every time she woke to find me staring at her. Now that it's just me, I spend that long, lonesome stretch of night looking out the window. A one-man neighborhood watch.

Dr. Manning, the last in a long line of therapists stretching back to my teens, said it stems from a combination of guilt and anxiety.

"You can't sleep," she told me, "because you think you might miss another chance to stop something terrible from happening. And that whoever took Billy will eventually come back to take you."

She said it with the utmost sincerity, as if I hadn't already been told that a dozen times before. As if that all-too-obvious assessment would somehow allow me to sleep through the night. I pretended it was some major breakthrough, thanked her profusely, left her office, and never returned.

That was seven years ago and, contrary to what I let Dr. Manning believe, I still can't sleep.

Right now, my insomnia is manageable. I catch up on rest with midday naps, snoozing on the couch as the evening news murmurs in the background, sleeping in on Sundays until noon. That'll change when the school year starts in September. Then I'll have to be up by six, whether I've slept or not.

Tonight, though, is still mid-July, allowing me to roam from room to room. I've done nothing to the house in the week since I moved in while my parents moved out, and the place now has a disjointed, temporary feel. As if all of us-my parents, the movers, me-gave up halfway through. Most of my possessions, including half my clothes, remain in boxes stacked in corners of empty rooms, waiting to be unpacked. They're joined by everything my parents left behind-furniture that was either too big to fit into their downsized Florida condo or too unloved to make the trip.

In the dining room, chairs surround an empty space where a table should be. In the kitchen, the cabinets have been raided of most plates, utensils, and glasses, leaving only mismatched stragglers behind. In the living room, the sofa remains, but the matching armchair in which my father falls asleep every evening is gone. As is the TV. And the grandfather clock. And at least one end table, although the crystal bowl that once sat atop it now rests on the beige carpet.

Each time I notice it reminds me that I need to do something with the place. I can't let it stay like this for much longer. But I also have no desire to settle in for real, which would make this feel less like a temporary situation and more like the sad, permanent move I fear it is.
Praise for Middle of the Night

“Sager is a master of twists, and he delivers plenty of them here. The novel is also full of ’90s nostalgia, but the things stalking the backyard and the mysterious institute hidden in the nearby woods are what make this a gripping read.”
New York Times Book Review

"Full of tension, urgency, atmosphere, and feeling—this is Riley Sager at his very best."
–Lee Child, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

"Ethan Marsh has returned to his childhood home 30 years after his best friend, Billy, disappeared from their backyard, and some seriously strange things are afoot. The vibe is a classic summer coming-of-age story with a page-turning side of paranormal activity." 
–PEOPLE, "Most-Anticipated Summer Books"

“Sager’s Middle of the Night is a twisty mystery with a touch of the supernatural, but it’s also about the complexities of friendship, those fleeting but overwhelming feelings from growing up and coming to terms with profound grief.”
–USA Today

“A thriller with a touch of the supernatural, Sager’s suspenseful mystery is gripping, unsettling, and for some fans, takes a deeper dive into emotional conflict and trauma than in his previous novels.”
–Huffington Post
 
“If there's one book that will be on BookTok shelves in 2024, it's Middle of the Night.
–Refinery 29

“Riley Sager’s knack for melding fear with emotion, at tapping into the stuff of nightmares and of dreams, has run through each of his best-sellers. This especially is part of Middle of the Night, which poignantly delves into childhood fears that continue into adulthood…an illuminated look at what shapes adults, with a solid mystery.”
The South Florida Sun Sentinel

“It's summer horror reading at its finest and the perfect choice to pull you out of a reading slump!”
—1428 Elm

"Sager's thriller is packed with the author's trademark psychological suspense and one big "Oh my!" moment."
–Star Tribune

“Beyond the big, final reveal, another twist — personal for Ethan — changes our feelings about him, mine dramatically. It’s then that all the pieces fall into place to make Middle of the Night the most satisfying Sager yet.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Bestseller Sager expertly doles out chills and pathos in his mesmerizing latest…This standout work of psychological suspense confirms that Sager has few equals when it comes to merging creepiness and compassion.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)

“There are twists aplenty in Sager’s latest. His signature style will leave readers dizzyingly satisfied.”
—Library Journal

“This is what Riley Sager does so well. He sets up circumstances and characters you feel very comfortable with and then puts plenty of doubt in your mind about everyone and everything involved with his well-plotted story. The ending is both satisfying and touching.”
—Book Reporter

“[T]his thriller unfolds with a frenetic, almost feverish pace that will keep readers hooked.”
Bookpage


“Sager, author of Final Girls (2017) and Survive the Night (2021)—to name but two of many fine thrillers—has devised a genuinely frightening story and populated it with characters who feel as real as anyone you might encounter in the ‘real world.’ He is a master craftsman, and Middle of the Night is a superlative novel.”
Booklist

"I've read all of Riley Sager's novels and Middle of the Night is my new favorite. It's a sweet-and-spooky story about an unsolved mystery, childhood friendships, and things that go bump in the night—with plenty of 90s nostalgia and a twist I never saw coming.  Read it outdoors with a flashlight on a warm summer's evening—if you dare!" 
—Jason Rekulak, bestselling author of Hidden Pictures

Middle of the Night is Riley Sager at his masterful best—this story is dark, scary, and twisty, but also bittersweet. It’s the secrets that hide in a bucolic neighborhood on a summer night, lingering in the freshly cut grass and the sound of crickets. You will follow these fascinating characters through its brilliantly woven plot all the way to the unexpected, poignant end.”
Simone St. James, New York Times bestselling author of Murder Road

“Sager takes other risks in his 2024 thriller book, and they pay off, making it one of the best additions to his lineup yet.”
—Screen Rant

Praise for Riley Sager

“The latest dependable airport bookstore grab and name in summer suspense.”
The Chicago Tribune

“Sager is a master of the twist and the turn.”
Rolling Stone
 
“[Sager’s novels are] all creepily atmospheric, easy to read without being fluffy, and fun as hell.”
Vulture

"Suspense master."
USA Today
© Michael Livio
Riley Sager is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, most recently The Only One Left and The House Across the Lake. A native of Pennsylvania, he now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. View titles by Riley Sager

About

THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

In the latest jaw-dropping thriller from New York Times bestselling author Riley Sager, a man must contend with the long-ago disappearance of his childhood best friend—and the dark secrets lurking just beyond the safe confines of his picture-perfect neighborhood.


The worst thing to ever happen on Hemlock Circle occurred in Ethan Marsh’s backyard. One July night, ten-year-old Ethan and his best friend and neighbor, Billy, fell asleep in a tent set up on a manicured lawn in a quiet, quaint New Jersey cul-de-sac. In the morning, Ethan woke up alone. During the night, someone had sliced the tent open with a knife and taken Billy. He was never seen again.

Thirty years later, Ethan has reluctantly returned to his childhood home. Plagued by bad dreams and insomnia, he begins to notice strange things happening in the middle of the night. Someone seems to be roaming the cul-de-sac at odd hours, and signs of Billy’s presence keep appearing in Ethan’s backyard. Is someone playing a cruel prank? Or has Billy, long thought to be dead, somehow returned to Hemlock Circle?

The mysterious occurrences prompt Ethan to investigate what really happened that night, a quest that reunites him with former friends and neighbors and leads him into the woods that surround Hemlock Circle. Woods where Billy claimed ghosts roamed and where a mysterious institute does clandestine research on a crumbling estate.  

The closer Ethan gets to the truth, the more he realizes that no place—be it quiet forest or suburban street—is completely safe. And that the past has a way of haunting the present.

Excerpt

One

Scriiiiiiiitch.

I wake with a start, unnerved by the sound zipping across the dark room. It echoes off the walls and snakes back to me in multiple waves. I lie in bed, completely still, eyes wide open, until the noise fades.

Not that it was ever there to begin with.

Decades of experience have taught me that it was just in my head. Dream, memory, and hallucination all at once. My first since coming back to this house. Honestly, I'm surprised it took so long, especially with the anniversary of what happened here fast approaching.

Sitting up, I look to the clock on the nightstand, hoping it reads closer to dawn than midnight. No such luck. It's only quarter after two. I've got a long night of no sleep ahead of me. With a sigh, I reach for the notebook and pen I keep next to the clock. After much squinting in the darkness, I find a fresh page and scribble four frustrating words.

Had The Dream again.

I toss the notebook back onto the nightstand, followed by the pen. It lands with a clack against the notebook's cover before rolling onto the carpet. I tell myself to leave the pen there until morning. That nothing will happen to it overnight. But the bad thoughts arrive quickly. What if the pen leaks, its midnight-black ink staining the cream-colored carpet? What if I'm attacked in the middle of the night and the only thing I can use to defend myself is an uncapped Bic, which now sits out of reach?

That second one, as alarming as it is improbable, pulls me out of bed. I grab the pen and set it on the notebook. There. Much better.

Anxiety soothed-for now-I'm about to crawl back under the covers when something outside catches my attention.

A light.

Not unusual for Hemlock Circle. Despite the lack of streetlights, it's never completely dark here. Light spills through bay windows onto immaculate front lawns and brightens second-floor bedrooms before the sun rises and long after it sets. The sconces flanking the Chens' front door burn from dusk to dawn, warding off both trespassers and the bats that occasionally try to roost in the eaves. All summer long, the Wallaces' backyard pool glows an alien blue. At Christmas, lights twinkle at five of the six homes in the neighborhood, including the Patels', who put theirs up at Diwali and don't take them down until a new year begins.

Then there are the garage lights.

Every house has them.

A pair of motion-activated security lights centered above the garage doors that glare like headlights when triggered. In the evenings, they flick on and off around the cul-de-sac with the frequency of fireflies as residents return from work in the waning light, go out to fetch the mail, haul recycling bins to the curb.

As it gets closer to midnight, a few will continue to spring to life. When deer skulk through the neighborhood on their way to the woods. Or when Fritz Van de Veer sneaks out for a cigarette after his wife, Alice, has gone to bed.

The light that's caught my attention is the one above the Patels' garage, two houses away. It illuminates a patch of their driveway, the glow turning the asphalt ice white. Curious, I go to one of the windows in a bedroom I still don't consider my own. Not technically. The room that once was mine , and in my mind still is, sits across the hall, now vacant. This is my parents' bedroom, where I rarely ventured as a child. Now, though, through a series of recent developments I'm still grappling with, it's become my own.

The windows in this new room offer a panorama of Hemlock Circle. From where I stand, I can see at least a piece of every house on the cul-de-sac. I glimpse a sliver of the old Barringer place on the left and a corner of the Chens' house to the right. Across from me, in full view from left to right, are the Van de Veers', the Wallaces', and the Patels', where the garage light still glows.

What I don't see is anything that could have set it off. Mitesh and Deepika Patel are presumably inside and fast asleep. No animals scurry from the light. No wind blows that could have caused a nearby branch to sway hard enough to trigger the motion sensor. All I can see is an empty driveway on a quiet cul-de-sac in the dead of night.

Soon I can't even see that, for the Patels' garage light suddenly goes out.

Ten seconds later, the one at the Wallaces' house clicks on. It's next door to the Patels', separated by the single road that leads into the cul-de-sac, which is currently free of cars, free of people, free of anything.

I draw close to the window, my nose almost touching the glass, straining to see something-any small thing-that could have triggered the light above the Wallaces' garage.

There's nothing.

Nothing visible, that is.

Still, I stay pressed to the window, watching, even after the Wallaces' garage light clicks off. The only thing I can think of that could have triggered it is a bat. They thrive here, as the Chens' porch lights can attest, feeding off the many insects that live in the woods circling the cul-de-sac. They're also notoriously difficult to see in the darkness.

But then the light above the Van de Veers' garage springs to life, and I know my theory is wrong. Bats flit willy-nilly, chasing prey. They don't methodically move from house to house.

No, this is different.

This is . . . worrisome.

Unease spreads through my chest as I think about thirty years ago. I can't help it. Not after what happened here.

When the Van de Veers' light turns off, I begin to count.

Five seconds.

Then ten.

Then a full minute.

Long enough for me to think that whatever is out there has moved on, likely into the woods, which means it was an animal. Something simply too small and quick for me to spot, but not small and quick enough to evade the hair-trigger garage lights of the houses on Hemlock Circle. The tightness in my chest eases, and I allow myself a sigh of relief.

Then the light above the Barringers' garage turns on.

The light itself is just out of view, but the glow it throws onto the lawn and sidewalk makes my pulse do a stutter step.

Whatever's out there isn't gone.

In fact, it's getting closer.

Several scenarios pop into my head, starting with the worst, because that's my default mode. Always going straight to the most alarming, the most dire. In this case, that would be that someone is circling the cul-de-sac.

Someone I can't see but who is definitely out there.

Moving from house to house, searching for another child to snatch.

Second in line, and just a shade less worrisome, is the idea that whoever is outside has come to case Hemlock Circle, testing the security lights to see how easy it would be to break into one of the houses here.

The third scenario is that it's just someone going for a late-night walk. Someone from one of the other cul-de-sacs located in this two square miles of suburban sprawl. Someone who, like me, is riddled with insomnia and decided to try to walk it off.

But if this is just an innocent stroll, why doesn't whoever is out there make themselves visible?

The paranoid-but-logical answer is that it's not an innocent stroll. It's something else. Something worse. And I, as likely the only person on Hemlock Circle currently awake, owe it to everyone else to try to put a stop to it.

When the light at the Barringer house next door flicks off, I make my move. Knowing that this house is next, I hope to catch whoever it is in the act. Or at least make it known that not everyone on the cul-de-sac is asleep.

I leave my parents' bedroom and hurry down the hall to the stairs. On the first floor, my bare feet slap against hardwood as I cross the foyer to the front door. I unlock it, fling it open, step into the warm mid-July night.

There's no one else out here.

I can tell that instantly. It's just me, breathing heavily, dressed in only a pair of boxer shorts and an LCD Soundsystem concert tee. I hear and see nothing as I cross in front of the house toward the driveway. When I round the corner, my movement triggers the security light above the garage doors, which flicks on with a faint click.

For a second, I think someone else has set it off and whirl around, panicked. By the time I realize it's just me, bugs have already started to swarm the garage light. I watch their incandescent spinning, feeling simultaneously foolish and on high alert.

An annoyed voice in my head that's plagued my thoughts for years now, suddenly pipes up. Get a grip, Ethan. There's no one out here.

Just to be certain, I stand completely still, scanning the cul-de-sac for signs of someone else. I remain there so long that the garage light eventually switches off, plunging the driveway-and me-back into darkness.

That's when I sense it. A presence, faint in the night air. It lingers in that way certain smells do. Cigar smoke. Perfume. Burnt toast. It's like someone had been here mere seconds ago. Perhaps they're still here, hidden among the trees that ring Hemlock Circle, watching me.

You're being paranoid, the voice in my head tells me.

But I'm not. I can feel it. The same way you can tell someone is in the next room, even though they're not making a sound.

What's more unnerving is how familiar the presence seems. I don't know why. It's not like I know who's out here-if it's anyone at all. Yet the hairs on my arms stand on end, and a chill slithers through me, defying the balmy air.

Only then do I realize whose presence I'm sensing.

One I'd never thought I'd feel again.

"Billy?" I say.

Although a mere whisper, the name seems to fill the night, echoing through the restless dark, lingering long after it's been spoken. By the time it fades, I know I'm mistaken.

Such a scenario is impossible.

It can't be Billy.

He's been gone for thirty years.

Two

I remain outside for another minute or so, waiting in the dark, desperately hoping to sense more of Billy's presence. But it's gone. Not a hint of him-or anyone else-remains.

Rather than go back to bed when I return inside, I roam the dark and silent house that both does and does not feel like home. I can't remember the last time I slept a full eight hours. For most of my life, sleep has come in fits and starts. I fall asleep quickly. An immediate plummet into sweet slumber. The problem always comes later, when I wake after only an hour or two, suddenly alert, restless, and filled with an undefinable sense of dread. This can last for several more hours before I'm able to fall back asleep. Sometimes that falling-back-to-sleep part never happens.

Chronic insomnia, my doctor calls it. I've officially had it since my twenties, although it started long before then. Over the years, I've done the sleep studies and kept a sleep journal and tried every suggested remedy. Removing the TV from my bedroom. Reading an hour before bed. Hot showers and chamomile tea and sleep stories droning on in the darkness. Nothing works. Not even sleeping pills strong enough to sedate an elephant.

Now I just accept that I'll always be awake between one and four a.m. I've grown accustomed to those dark, quiet hours in the middle of the night, when it feels like I'm the only man in the world not asleep.

Rather than waste them, I try to put those wakeful hours to good use, keeping an eye on things while everyone else sleeps. In college, I roamed dormitory halls and circled the quad, making sure all was well. When Claudia and I shared a bed, I'd watch her sleep, unnerving her every time she woke to find me staring at her. Now that it's just me, I spend that long, lonesome stretch of night looking out the window. A one-man neighborhood watch.

Dr. Manning, the last in a long line of therapists stretching back to my teens, said it stems from a combination of guilt and anxiety.

"You can't sleep," she told me, "because you think you might miss another chance to stop something terrible from happening. And that whoever took Billy will eventually come back to take you."

She said it with the utmost sincerity, as if I hadn't already been told that a dozen times before. As if that all-too-obvious assessment would somehow allow me to sleep through the night. I pretended it was some major breakthrough, thanked her profusely, left her office, and never returned.

That was seven years ago and, contrary to what I let Dr. Manning believe, I still can't sleep.

Right now, my insomnia is manageable. I catch up on rest with midday naps, snoozing on the couch as the evening news murmurs in the background, sleeping in on Sundays until noon. That'll change when the school year starts in September. Then I'll have to be up by six, whether I've slept or not.

Tonight, though, is still mid-July, allowing me to roam from room to room. I've done nothing to the house in the week since I moved in while my parents moved out, and the place now has a disjointed, temporary feel. As if all of us-my parents, the movers, me-gave up halfway through. Most of my possessions, including half my clothes, remain in boxes stacked in corners of empty rooms, waiting to be unpacked. They're joined by everything my parents left behind-furniture that was either too big to fit into their downsized Florida condo or too unloved to make the trip.

In the dining room, chairs surround an empty space where a table should be. In the kitchen, the cabinets have been raided of most plates, utensils, and glasses, leaving only mismatched stragglers behind. In the living room, the sofa remains, but the matching armchair in which my father falls asleep every evening is gone. As is the TV. And the grandfather clock. And at least one end table, although the crystal bowl that once sat atop it now rests on the beige carpet.

Each time I notice it reminds me that I need to do something with the place. I can't let it stay like this for much longer. But I also have no desire to settle in for real, which would make this feel less like a temporary situation and more like the sad, permanent move I fear it is.

Reviews

Praise for Middle of the Night

“Sager is a master of twists, and he delivers plenty of them here. The novel is also full of ’90s nostalgia, but the things stalking the backyard and the mysterious institute hidden in the nearby woods are what make this a gripping read.”
New York Times Book Review

"Full of tension, urgency, atmosphere, and feeling—this is Riley Sager at his very best."
–Lee Child, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

"Ethan Marsh has returned to his childhood home 30 years after his best friend, Billy, disappeared from their backyard, and some seriously strange things are afoot. The vibe is a classic summer coming-of-age story with a page-turning side of paranormal activity." 
–PEOPLE, "Most-Anticipated Summer Books"

“Sager’s Middle of the Night is a twisty mystery with a touch of the supernatural, but it’s also about the complexities of friendship, those fleeting but overwhelming feelings from growing up and coming to terms with profound grief.”
–USA Today

“A thriller with a touch of the supernatural, Sager’s suspenseful mystery is gripping, unsettling, and for some fans, takes a deeper dive into emotional conflict and trauma than in his previous novels.”
–Huffington Post
 
“If there's one book that will be on BookTok shelves in 2024, it's Middle of the Night.
–Refinery 29

“Riley Sager’s knack for melding fear with emotion, at tapping into the stuff of nightmares and of dreams, has run through each of his best-sellers. This especially is part of Middle of the Night, which poignantly delves into childhood fears that continue into adulthood…an illuminated look at what shapes adults, with a solid mystery.”
The South Florida Sun Sentinel

“It's summer horror reading at its finest and the perfect choice to pull you out of a reading slump!”
—1428 Elm

"Sager's thriller is packed with the author's trademark psychological suspense and one big "Oh my!" moment."
–Star Tribune

“Beyond the big, final reveal, another twist — personal for Ethan — changes our feelings about him, mine dramatically. It’s then that all the pieces fall into place to make Middle of the Night the most satisfying Sager yet.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Bestseller Sager expertly doles out chills and pathos in his mesmerizing latest…This standout work of psychological suspense confirms that Sager has few equals when it comes to merging creepiness and compassion.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)

“There are twists aplenty in Sager’s latest. His signature style will leave readers dizzyingly satisfied.”
—Library Journal

“This is what Riley Sager does so well. He sets up circumstances and characters you feel very comfortable with and then puts plenty of doubt in your mind about everyone and everything involved with his well-plotted story. The ending is both satisfying and touching.”
—Book Reporter

“[T]his thriller unfolds with a frenetic, almost feverish pace that will keep readers hooked.”
Bookpage


“Sager, author of Final Girls (2017) and Survive the Night (2021)—to name but two of many fine thrillers—has devised a genuinely frightening story and populated it with characters who feel as real as anyone you might encounter in the ‘real world.’ He is a master craftsman, and Middle of the Night is a superlative novel.”
Booklist

"I've read all of Riley Sager's novels and Middle of the Night is my new favorite. It's a sweet-and-spooky story about an unsolved mystery, childhood friendships, and things that go bump in the night—with plenty of 90s nostalgia and a twist I never saw coming.  Read it outdoors with a flashlight on a warm summer's evening—if you dare!" 
—Jason Rekulak, bestselling author of Hidden Pictures

Middle of the Night is Riley Sager at his masterful best—this story is dark, scary, and twisty, but also bittersweet. It’s the secrets that hide in a bucolic neighborhood on a summer night, lingering in the freshly cut grass and the sound of crickets. You will follow these fascinating characters through its brilliantly woven plot all the way to the unexpected, poignant end.”
Simone St. James, New York Times bestselling author of Murder Road

“Sager takes other risks in his 2024 thriller book, and they pay off, making it one of the best additions to his lineup yet.”
—Screen Rant

Praise for Riley Sager

“The latest dependable airport bookstore grab and name in summer suspense.”
The Chicago Tribune

“Sager is a master of the twist and the turn.”
Rolling Stone
 
“[Sager’s novels are] all creepily atmospheric, easy to read without being fluffy, and fun as hell.”
Vulture

"Suspense master."
USA Today

Author

© Michael Livio
Riley Sager is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, most recently The Only One Left and The House Across the Lake. A native of Pennsylvania, he now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. View titles by Riley Sager