Read the First Chapter of Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth Follow-Up Dear Hanna

Books Features Zoje Stage
Read the First Chapter of Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth Follow-Up Dear Hanna

Author Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth was a breakout hit when it was published in 2018. A USA Today and international bestseller, it explored everything from childhood mental illness and sociopathy to intergenerational trauma and the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. Stage is now set to return to the world of her controversial debut with Dear Hanna, a novel that revisits one of Baby Teeth’s central characters and tells a disturbing tale all its own.

While Dear Hanna may focus on characters initially introduced in Stage’s previous novel, the book can also function as a standalone thriller on its own merits. It follows the eponymous Hanna, a twentysomething who’s doing her best to live her best life. And mostly, she’s succeeding. She’s married, has a beautiful home, a flourishing career, and a teenage stepdaughter. But as anyone who has ever parented (or, heck, been) a teenager knows, it’s an often difficult, unpredictable period of life. And as Hanna feels her life begin to slip out of her control she begins to revert to…let’s just call them less than healthy coping mechanisms.

After all, as the great Taylor Swift once said, old habits die screaming. 

Here’s how the publisher describes the story.

Hanna is no stranger to dark thoughts: as a young child, she tried to murder her own mother. But that was more than sixteen years ago. And extensive therapy—and writing letters to her younger brother—has since curbed those nasty tendencies.

Now twenty-four, Hanna is living an outwardly normal life of domestic content. Married to real estate agent Jacob, she’s also stepmother to his teenage daughter Joelle. They live in a beautiful home, and Hanna loves her career as a phlebotomist—a job perfectly suited to her occasional need to hurt people.

But when Joelle begins to change in ways that don’t suit Hanna’s purposes, her carefully planned existence threatens to come apart. With life slipping out of her control, Hanna reverts to old habits, determined to manipulate the events and people around her. And the only thing worse than a baby sociopath is a fully grown one.

Dear Hanna will be released on August 13, but we’ve got an exclusive look at the story’s first chapter for you right now. 

Four Years Ago

Hanna had a feeling about them as soon as she saw them in the waiting room. The man, around forty, was well put together—fit, dressed in business casual, his hair starting to gray in that way that made men look dignified. It was the girl he was with who was here to have her blood drawn—Joelle Altman, age twelve. The normal panel, plus iron and B12 levels.

“Joelle?” Hanna called, summoning them.

The girl gripped the man’s hand, and Hanna was certain now that he was her father. A quick glance at his left hand confirmed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. And he looked like a man who wouldn’t object to wearing a gold band if he had a reason to wear one.

“Hi there,” Hanna said cheerfully to the slightly stricken-looking girl.

“Hi,” she mumbled in reply.

Hanna led them into her cubicle. “You can sit here, in the big chair. And your dad can pull over the stool—you’re her dad?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Jo’s a little nervous, she hasn’t had her blood drawn before.”

“Well my name’s Hanna, and you’re in luck, Jo.” Being so chipper wasn’t Hanna’s normal demeanor—unless it had to be: she was trying to make the right impression, while learning what she could about Joelle Altman and her father. “I happen to have a reputation as being very gentle. And I’ll talk you through every step. First, I’m going to tie this purple rubbery thing around your upper arm—it’ll feel tight.”

Joelle squeezed her eyes shut as she clutched her father’s hand. Hanna flashed a sympathetic smile at him as she tied the tourniquet around the girl’s upper arm.

“Can you make this hand into a fist? Okay so far?” she asked, and Joelle nodded. “Good. Next you’ll feel me tap your vein with my fingers . . . And this is an alcohol swab—feels cool but doesn’t hurt.”

Hanna’s attention alternated between her work and the people in her cubicle, noticing as many details as her brief glimpses would allow. The girl’s delicate gold earrings and necklace, her trendy tween outfit. The man’s expensive leather shoes and well-tailored clothes. When Joelle’s eyes were open, they were blue like her father’s, but her hair was lighter than his. There were no signs of illness about her, and no hints that Hanna could draw on from the requisition form to determine why Jo was here. The man’s watch looked expensive. He was thin but not scrawny, and she wondered if he worked out. His aftershave smelled nice. He was clearly a man who still made an effort with how he presented himself to the world. Definitely single.

“Do you like school?” Hanna asked, a distraction technique for what came next.

“More or less,” said Joelle.

“Which is the more part?”

“I like my classes. But I don’t really have that many friends.”

“You don’t need a lot of friends, just one or two good ones.” Hanna and the dad exchanged looks of commiseration. She knew a thing or two about not having many friends, but fortunately, through thick and thin, she had her younger brother, Goose. “I’m going to count to three and you’ll feel a little pinch. One, two, three . . .”

Hanna really concentrated now. There were reasons why she’d chosen to become a phlebotomist—reasons that sometimes had nothing to do with how gentle she could be. Yet, she was capable of doing her job extremely well, and used that competence to earn herself a good reputation. That way, no one suspected that sometimes she used her needle as a tiny weapon, hurting people—just a little—to vent her own frustrations. But she had a different agenda today.

“You can unclench your fist,” she said, watching the vial fill with blood. “You did great, we’re almost done.”

Joelle’s eyes popped open. “You did it already?”

“Filling the last vial now.” Hanna grinned at the dad. “She did great.”

You did great.” Was that a flirtatious gleam in his eye? “My name’s Jacob, by the way. Guess I should’ve said that sooner, but . . .” He held up and massaged the hand that Joelle had been squeezing.

“Oops, sorry Daddy,” Jo said to him. To Hanna she said, with glee: “It didn’t hurt at all!”

“That’s what I pride myself on.” Sometimes.

She extracted the needle and pressed a wad of gauze on the puncture. “Just hold this here for a second.”

Hanna spun on her stool to retrieve a roll of nonadhesive medical tape, aware of Jacob’s eyes on her. She shot him a quick coquettish grin, confident that he liked what he was seeing. The long mahogany hair and dark eyes. She hated how plain her regulation black scrubs were, though it amused her that coworkers liked to joke about her being a sophisticated Wednesday Addams. It had bothered her when she was little that she looked so much like her mother, though a growth spurt at ten had given Hanna some of her father’s height. Unlike her mother, who tried way too hard to have a perfect facade, Hanna never wore makeup—and knew she didn’t need to. People trusted a naturally pretty face, an easy smile, and being perceived as approachable helped her move through life.

And people would do things for a pretty person who knew just how to ask.

“Do you live around here?” Hanna asked Jacob, making conversation as she wrapped the medical tape around Joelle’s arm.

“Yes, right up on Beacon.”

“Oh, that is close.” And she knew there were some big houses on Beacon.

“What about you?” he asked.

“I live in Shadyside.”

“Oh, nice.”

Yes, it was nice. Because, at twenty, she still lived in her parents’ spiffy, if spartan, house. Hanna could’ve gotten her own apartment, but she really didn’t want to live in less comfort than she was used to. Her plan had long been to meet a man who could care for her to the standard her father had established.

Joelle hopped out of the chair, ready to go.

“Are you a runner?” Jacob asked, lingering, pointing to Hanna’s running shoes.

“Yes, it’s one of my main hobbies. I run almost every day.”

“Me too. I run in Schenley Park a lot, usually in the mornings. Maybe I’ll run into you, pun intended.”

Joelle rolled her eyes, itching to leave. Jacob took the hint and started following her out—but not before the neon words came into focus above his head. Sometimes such words appeared to Hanna, helping her to understand other people’s emotions and attitudes. As a child she’d been forced to study people, to learn to connect the dots between external signifiers and common human behavior. This was meant as an exercise in learning empathy, and Hanna had discovered she had a knack for reading people. It became a skill that helped her move through the world.

Now, she saw horny pulsing the brightest, accompanied by intrigued and lonely.

“Maybe so, I run there too sometimes.” Which was true, though rarely, and she usually ran in the afternoons after work.

As they waved goodbye, Hanna was reminded of her teenage years, and how awkward all the rites of passage had been for her. Until she’d learned to play the game. Flirting had come easily once she’d put her mind to it; so had seduction.

She was cleaning up and double-checking the vial labels when Jacob ducked back in.

“Maybe it doesn’t have to be random good luck,” he said, holding out a business card.

“Maybe not,” she agreed, plucking the card from his fingers.

Gotcha. Hanna grinned as he left.

She had a very good feeling Jacob was the man she’d been looking for.

Excerpt from DEAR HANNA by Zoje Stage. Text copyright © 2024 by Zoje Stage, Published by Thomas & Mercer

Dear Hanna will be released on August 13, but you can pre-order it right now. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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