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Get a sneak peek at

six fresh spring books! An ancient prophecy. An elite secret society. A stunning conspiracy.

New from the author of If I Stay

Another genre-bending literary exploration of the absurd from the author of Grasshopper Jungle

by Maggie Hall On sale January 13, 2015

By Gayle Forman On sale January 27, 2015

By Andrew Smith On sale March 3, 2015

I am Mim Malone and I am not okay.

How three intrepid art students got to the bottom of an unexpectedly dark secret

Vow your blood and body to the empire.

By David Arnold On sale March 3, 2015

By Susan Juby On sale April 14, 2015

By Sabaa Tahir On sale April 28, 2015

Visit issuu.com/penguinteen to start reading! @PenguinTeen


flung adventures as often as possible, and has played with baby tigers in Thailand, learned to make homemade pasta in Italy, and taken thousands of miles of trains through India. She worked as a bookstore events and marketing manager before making the switch to writing. When she’s not on the other side of the world, she lives with her husband and their cats in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

CONSPIRACY

MAG G IE H AL L indulges her obsession with distant lands and far-

THE

ixteen-year-old Avery West’s newfound family can shut down Prada when they want to shop in peace, and can just as easily start a war. They are part of a secret society known as the Circle of Twelve, and they believe Avery is the key to an ancient prophecy. Some want to use her as a pawn. Some want her dead. To unravel the mystery threatening her life, Avery must follow a trail of clues from the monuments of Paris to the back alleys of Istanbul with two boys who work for the Circle: beautiful, volatile Stellan and mysterious, magnetic Jack. But both boys are hiding secrets of their own, and when the clues expose stunning new information, Avery realizes the conspiracy could destroy her life—if it doesn’t destroy the world first. Part Da Vinci Code conspiracy thriller, part Gallagher Girls caper, Maggie Hall’s debut is laced with adrenaline, glamour, and a delicious dash of romance.

M AG GI E HALL

S

OF

• Early galley distribution • #WhoArethe12 social media campaign • Major online consumer advertising • Author blog tour • Promotion at national and regional school and library conferences • 9-copy floor display

ISBN 978-0-399-16650-1 • $17.99 ($19.99 CAN) Cover photo © Michael Frost • Cover design: Theresa Evangelista

www.penguin.com/youngreaders

US

NATIONAL MARKETING CAMPAIGN

PUTNAM

JAN 2015


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale.

The Conspiracy of Us MAGGIE HALL

G. P. Putnam’s Sons An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale.

CHAP TER 1

The piece of paper could have been anything. The spotlight behind me flashed acid green, then pink, then went dark. The pink still burned into my retinas, lending a rosy glow to the folded page clenched in my fist. I stared at it for a few seconds, then reopened it. The six-inch square had just dropped out of Jack Bishop’s bag. Jack Bishop, the new guy, who had transferred to Lakehaven High at the beginning of this week. Who had shown up here at lighting tech rehearsal, even though he was the last person I’d expect to be a theater kid. He’d glanced at his phone and hurried down from the catwalk, and was now making his way across the stage below, his footsteps echoing through the theater. His white T-shirt went orange with the next floodlight, then blue, a bright spot in the dark. I made sure no one was watching, then smoothed the paper flat again. It was a photo. A photo of a girl with long dark hair and matching dark eyes focused just out of the frame. The girl was me. 1


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale.

CHAP TER 2

I watched Jack until he disappeared. On the other end of the catwalk, Lara Sanchez, the lighting director for the spring play and the person who forced me to come today, leaned over all the new theater techs to demonstrate how another light operated. It made the whole structure shudder. I clutched at the wire mesh with white-knuckled fingers and glanced at the photo again. In it, my lips were slightly parted, my head turned, like I was talking to someone. He must have gotten it online. Lara posted a ton of pictures. For Jack Bishop to go to the trouble of searching one out meant .  .  . Well, there weren’t many reasons a guy would be carrying your picture around. I suddenly realized how stagnant the air up here was. Hot. Stuffy. I was doing better than I thought I would, but I wouldn’t say no to an excuse to get down. I scrambled to my feet. “Sorry,” I whispered to Lara as I stepped over legs and backpacks. “Excuse me.” I didn’t stop until I was on solid ground. I brushed off my jeans, shoved the picture into my messenger bag, then pushed open the heavy theater door. B Hall looked especially drab after the neon stage, but Jack, 2


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. halfway to the gym and looking at his phone, might as well have had a spotlight on him. Since he’d started at Lakehaven on Monday, Jack had been invited onto the yearbook committee and half the school’s sports teams, and into EmmaBeth Porter’s pants, and those were just the offers I’d overheard. Meanwhile, I’d spent the whole week fighting the flutter in my stomach that started when he sat next to me in sociology class. And got worse when he smiled at me in calculus. And then he’d showed up at lighting, which meant I’d been staring at the tattoo on his forearm for the last half hour instead of paying attention. I wasn’t just fascinated with his forearms, though, or his deep gray eyes, or the dimple in his right cheek. He was ridiculously attractive—not pretty, but good-looking in a chiseled way, his jawline an angle rather than a curve, not a strand of espresso-colored hair out of place—and to a lot of people, that would be enough. To me, though, there was more. Jack was the new kid, like I was. Like me, he said no to all the invitations. I never saw him talking to anyone for more than a couple of minutes. But he seemed so confident about it. It was like he actually . . . didn’t care. I pretended I didn’t care. About friends. About boys. About having a life. Sometimes I thought I’d actually gotten the hang of it, but then I’d find myself sneaking out of lighting rehearsal because there was a traitorous part of me that wanted to know if this guy I’d been watching for the past week had been watching me, too. Jack made an abrupt right out the exit to the courtyard. I should have stopped following him. What was I planning to do, anyway? But when I got to where he’d turned, I heard a voice echoing back into the hall through the plink of raindrops. “Why would he be coming here?” 3


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. I stopped short, confused. Carefully, I peered through the propped-open doors. Maybe it was somebody else. It wasn’t. All I could see was his left arm, but it was Jack. His compass tattoo was facing me, north pointing to the ground. “Have you got any idea when?” he said, and I tried to make sense of it. Unless my ears weren’t working, Jack Bishop was speaking with a British accent. He glanced behind him, and I shrank flat against the lockers. “No, I haven’t seen him yet. Aren’t there more important things to worry about?” He paused. “What would the Dauphins want with her?” Her? My hand flew to the front pocket of my bag, where I’d tucked the photo. “Sir?” Jack’s voice changed from agitated to confused. “Certainly,” he said. “Level one priority. I understand.” I shook my head. Of course he wasn’t talking about me. But what was he talking about? “I’ll do it by tonight, then,” Jack said after a pause. “Yes, sir.” He must have hung up the phone, because he cursed under his breath, and his footsteps squelched away on the rain-soaked sidewalk. I sagged against the lockers. The last few words of the conversation played out in my head. Level one priority. Sir. An old teacher of his, maybe. A strict British grandfather. It was none of my business, but the uncertainty in Jack’s usually calm voice had unsettled me as much as the accent had. I tucked a strand of dark hair behind my ears and took out the picture again, studying my face in the dull fluorescent light. Wait.

4


Copyright Š 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. I looked closer. This photo was taken in the front yard at my house. I recognized the spiky pine tree. I didn’t remember Lara taking pictures there, and I never posted photos online. And if that was the case, where had Jack gotten it?

5


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale.

CHAP TER 3

Avery June West!” I jumped. I’d spent too much time thinking about the picture, and now I was about to be late for next period. I turned to find Lara bouncing down the hall toward my locker, her blue-tipped hair swinging. “Dude, thanks for running out on me. What is your problem?” For some reason, I didn’t want to tell her about Jack. “I told you I don’t really like heights,” I said instead. I spun my lock, jiggled the handle, and smacked the corner of the door with my palm. It sprang open. Being the new kid in the middle of the year means you get a lot of leftovers. Lockers are no exception. “And we agreed lighting would be good for that, remember?” Lara pulled a pack of Twizzlers from her backpack and offered it to me. I shook my head. “And then you get to hang out with me. If you did set design, you’d have to deal with Amber Leland the rest of the year, and gross.” I grabbed my Ancient Civilizations book. “I’m not going to ditch you for set design.” On the way to Ancient Civ, Lara told me about how Amie Simpson had been suspended for smoking cigarettes with the 6


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. janitor, and how her date had no one to go to prom with now, and their dinner reservation was blown. “You should just come,” she said, pointing a long red Twizzler rope at the prom committee table. “I know you said you weren’t going, but you could be Amie’s replacement.” I looked at the prom poster. The theme was A Night in Hollywood. “I don’t think so, but thanks.” I didn’t do school dances. Just like clubs—and especially like very cute, very intriguing boys—they weren’t part of The Plan. I was determined to stick to The Plan here in Lakehaven. “Your loss,” Lara said. “The Olive Garden has unlimited breadsticks.” I tuned out when Molly Mattison came running up to ask if she could borrow Lara’s favorite feather earrings. Was the whole idea of The Plan cynical of me? Sure. Kind of pathetic? Definitely. But I’d realized I needed to stop caring years ago, in a moving truck between Portland and St. Louis. The Plan worked, just like it was working this time. Lara was nice, but we’d never be all that close. I’d done lighting today to get both her and my mom off my back, but I’d specifically chosen the activity so I had an excuse to fail. Thank you, fear of heights. The thing is, being lonely is like walking in the cold without a coat. It’s uncomfortable, but eventually you go numb. Once you get used to not being lonely, though, the shock of going back is like having your down comforter yanked off at six o’clock on a Minnesota December morning. Lara stopped talking and narrowed her eyes. “What?” I started to say, but then I saw. Jack was walking toward us down the hall. There was no way he’d followed me to my house and taken a picture when I wasn’t looking. Lara must have taken it. 7


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. “He is a ridiculous human being,” Lara said. Unlike every other girl in the school, she had no interest in Jack. She thought he was a snob. “Too J.Crew,” she said, and she wasn’t entirely wrong. He strutted down the hall with his hands in his pockets, wearing a tailored button-down with rolled-up sleeves, like he’d just stepped out of a photo shoot. “Yeah,” I said. “Ridiculous.” I twisted the gold chain of my locket between my fingers and shot one last glance over my shoulder as the bell rang and we hurried into Ancient Civ. A few seconds later, Jack paused in the doorway. His eyes met mine before he took his seat, and I traced lines on my notebook. Jack was in this class, calc, and sociology with me. We’d been paired up for a project on “Families in America” the past couple of days in sociology, which meant he now knew everything there was to know about my life, from the constant moving for my mom’s job to my dad leaving us when I was little. I was still surprised I’d told him as much as I had. He wasn’t nearly as forthcoming. I thought he would have at least mentioned posh British relatives who gave him enigmatic assignments over the phone. “Miss West? Avery?” I jumped, and my pen slipped off my desk with a clatter. I hadn’t even realized that class started. “Can you answer the question for us?” Mrs. Lindley asked. “Um .  .  .” I glanced at Lara. She pointed to her notes, but I couldn’t read her pink scrawls. On my own notebook, where I should have been taking notes, was a rough sketch of Jack’s compass tattoo. I quickly covered it with my elbow. “The Diadochi, Miss West, from the reading assigned last night. Can you tell us the role they played in the life of Alexander the Great?” I’d done the reading. I always did the reading. I might not be 8


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. good at people, but I was good at school. Right now, though, I was drawing a complete blank. “Alexander the Great conquered a lot of the ancient world. Um, from Greece all the way to India,” I said, stalling as I flipped pages, hoping the words would jump out at me. Mrs. Lindley’s lips pursed like she’d bitten into something sour. “The Diadochi were Alexander’s successors,” a deep voice said, from three rows away. I turned. Jack was staring right at me. His voice was back to normal, with no trace of the British accent. Mrs. Lindley quirked an eyebrow in my direction. “Alexander didn’t have a blood heir, so he left his kingdom to his twelve generals,” Jack continued. Mrs. Lindley sighed and turned her attention to him. “Thank you, Mr. Bishop, for demonstrating what happens when we do our homework. This time, I’ll forget that you didn’t raise your hand. Can you tell us what year Alexander the Great died?” When Jack had answered all her questions, he glanced back my way. I turned quickly back to my notes. I wished he hadn’t done that. The last thing I needed was another reason to like him. I ripped out the drawing of his tattoo, crumpled it, and shoved it into my bag. After class, I waited while Lara put her books away. I made a point to not look at Jack, but when I heard footsteps heading toward us as the rest of the class filed out, I knew exactly who it was. Jack’s dark hair had gone a bit wavy from the humidity, and he had his canvas messenger bag slug casually over one shoulder. I fiddled with the lace at the hem of my tank top. “Hey! You left me high and dry at lighting, too,” Lara said, poking her index finger in the middle of Jack’s chest. “Rude. Both of you are rude.” 9


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. “I’m sorry about that.” Jack’s voice was low and rough around the edges, like it was scraping over gravel. “I had to take a call. My grandfather’s sick.” Oh. The tension I didn’t realize had been building in my chest relaxed. I resisted the urge to ask where in England his grandfather lived—then reminded myself once more that I shouldn’t care. Not about Jack’s personal life, and not about the fact that even when he was talking to Lara, he was looking at me. Lara wrinkled her nose in a way that could mean either I’m sorry or eww, old people. “That sucks,” she said. She turned back to me as I slung my bag over my shoulder. And then she turned back to Jack when he didn’t leave. And to me again. She gave me the most unsubtle eyebrow raise ever. “Oh. Okay. I just remembered I gotta go. Do . . . things. Ave, come over after school if you want, even if you aren’t coming to prom. We’re doing our nails.” I could have killed her, but I just pulled my hair out from under the strap of my bag and smiled through clenched teeth. “I think you lost this.” Jack handed me my pen as Lara walked away. “It rolled under my desk.” “Thanks.” He walked beside me out of class, slowing his long strides to match mine. He was probably just a little taller than average, but I still had to crane my neck to look up at him. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye at the same time. “And thanks for earlier,” I said quickly, “but I did do the reading. I would have remembered the answer eventually.” “Oh.” The space between his brows knitted together. Jack’s brows were heavy and dark, and were as expressive as the rest of him was stoic. “I’m sorry. I thought—”

10


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. “No, it’s okay.” I went through the motions of opening my locker again. “I’m just saying I didn’t actually need to be rescued. But I appreciate it.” He gave me a tiny smile, and it was like sun shining through armor. I busied myself putting my books in my bag. “Actually, Avery,” Jack said. “I need to talk to you.” My calculus book fell the rest of the way into my bag with a thump. “Can we go somewhere—” His phone buzzed. He let out a frustrated breath. “One second.” While he checked a text, I zipped my bag shut. I didn’t care what he had to say, I told myself. I didn’t. I didn’t. My black ankle boots squeaked on the damp tile, and the hall echoed with last-minute prom plans and the finality of lockers slamming one last time before the weekend. Maybe he was going to ask about homework. Or maybe he’d say something horribly arrogant, Lara could be proven right, and I could, truly forget about him. I hazarded a glance up, and Jack’s brows quirked down dangerously as he typed a text. It was the same look he’d had on his face when he’d left lighting earlier. “Is your grandfather okay?” I asked. “My—” His eyes narrowed for second, then he nodded. “He’ll be fine. But, I was .  .  . um. Tonight.” He shifted, running a hand through his hair. “Lara mentioned you’re not going to prom?” I clenched my fist around the strap of my bag. “I don’t really go to school dances,” I said. My voice was an octave higher than usual. “Oh.” Jack and I were mirror images of each other, both with bags

11


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. slung over a shoulder, two islands in a swirling river of people. “I get it,” he said. “You move all the time. If it’s not going to last, is it even worth the effort, right?” I looked up sharply. There was no way perfectly put-together Jack Bishop could understand The Plan. “It’s just that—I was wondering—” Jack rubbed the compass tattoo on his forearm with his opposite thumb, like a nervous habit. Then he looked up at me from under his lashes, his gray eyes unbearably hopeful, and I melted into a puddle on the dirty hallway floor. “I wanted to see if you’d like to go. With me.” The rest of the school year flew by in fast-forward. We’d go to prom. Maybe kiss good night. Sit next to each other in class, walk hand in hand down the hall. Have someone who got what it was like to be new when everyone else had known each other since they were in diapers. And eventually, as much as I tried not to, I’d let him in. I fast-forwarded more. It might be a month, it might be a year, but inevitably, we’d move, and this time I wouldn’t be the only one losing somebody. I closed my eyes. It’d be better for him to ask someone else to prom—a cheerleader, or a choir member, or anybody who wasn’t as screwed up as I was. And better for me to forget he existed. When my eyes fluttered open, I couldn’t look at him. “Thanks,” I said to his feet. “But I don’t think so.” I turned and stalked off before he could see the carefully patched-up hole in my heart tearing wide open.

12


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale.

CHAP TER 4

I was so lost in my thoughts, I almost blew through the one red light in Lakehaven on the drive home from school. I slammed on the brakes and came to a stop in front of Frannie’s Frozen Yogurt as pedestrians poured into the crosswalk. I let my head flop back against the headrest. It was fine. I’d be fine. Saying no was the right thing to do, even though nobody had ever asked me to a dance before. Even though it was Jack Bishop asking me. But it was fine. I rested my forehead against the steering wheel. I wished the light would hurry up and turn so I could get home and this day could be over. The crosswalk finally cleared, but as I sat up with a sigh and eased my foot onto the gas, one more person stepped out. I stomped on the brake again, but the guy kept walking, like he didn’t care that I’d almost hit him. He was tall, with straight dirtyblond hair a few weeks past a haircut, and so slim I would have called him skinny if not for the tightly muscled arms peeking out from under his T-shirt. He wasn’t from here—that much I was sure of. 13


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. His gray skinny jeans tucked into half-tied boots, and the bag slung across his chest—that was hard for a guy to pull off unironically unless he was a big-city hipster, and Lakehaven didn’t have any of those. And even though I might not know everyone’s names yet, I knew every face at school. I was sure I’d recognize one that looked like this. The guy’s eyes swept from side to side, unhurried. They lit on three freshmen coming out of the frozen yogurt place, on a group of cheerleaders holding dry-cleaning bags, on a girl on a bike—and then, on me. He stopped. He stood there, right in the middle of the street, a smile stretched across his face. It wasn’t a friendly smile. It was a smile like a lion about to pounce on prey, like blood, and hunger, and it tingled low in my stomach and made me push the lock button. The car behind me honked. The guy adjusted his bag and strolled the rest of the way across the street, turning to watch me drive away. When I got home, I pushed the front door closed and snapped the deadbolt shut. The sound echoed in the quiet house. I wished I had gone to Lara’s. She had three sisters, and her aunt and uncle and cousins lived next door. Between the shrieks and giggles of the little kids and the adults in the kitchen drinking wine and teasing us about school and boys and college, her house exploded with life. “Mom?” I called. The only answer was the washing machine’s irregular clunk and a low murmur of voices from the TV. I tossed my bag on the kitchen table and shrugged out of my denim jacket. The story that had broken the night before was still 14


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. on the news: a car bomb in Dubai had killed nine people, including a Saudi prince. I clicked the TV off. The news was depressing. My mom was obsessed, which seemed like a waste of time since we couldn’t do anything to change what happened. I wandered the kitchen, opening cabinets, the fridge, and finally pulling pistachio ice cream and frozen Thin Mints from the freezer. The guy in the crosswalk could have been another transfer student, but he looked older than that. Maybe he was somebody’s outof-town cousin. Or prom date. I set my ice cream on the table and flipped through the pile of mail. I dropped it all when I got to a postcard. Istanbul—a picture of a mosque with soaring turrets. That was new. I flipped it over and smiled at the familiar precise cursive. Avery, Hope this finds you and your mother well. Istanbul is beautiful. You’d love all the color in the markets, the textiles, the lights on the river. Remember the gyro stand you liked near Copley Square in Boston? There’s one on every street corner here. The whole city smells delicious. Charlie says hello. Much love, Emerson Fitzpatrick Mr. Emerson had been our next-door neighbor in Boston when I was eight. It was right after our first move, and the longest we’d stayed in one place since. Mr. Emerson was all gray hair and round glasses, with a big booming laugh and a bowl of jelly beans—the classic grandpa I never had. 15


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. I’d always thought life would be easier if we had some family. Brothers and sisters as built-in friends, or cousins to write e-mails to, or an aunt to spend summers with—somebody besides my mom and me. Mr. Emerson wasn’t actually related to us, but he was the closest thing we had. I ran a finger over the Turkish postcard stamp and read the message again. Charlie was Mr. Emerson’s grandson, and I swear, Mr. Emerson had been trying to set us up since I was a kid. I’d never seen so much as a picture of Charlie Emerson, but every time he wrote, Mr. Emerson told me about his adventures, and said he talked to Charlie about me. I flipped the postcard over and looked at the picture. The Hagia Sophia. I remembered Mr. Emerson teaching me about it when I was little. About how it was actually pronounced “Aya,” and its name meant “Holy Wisdom.” I was glad he got to travel now that he was retired from teaching. And I was glad he still cared enough to send postcards. He was the only person over twelve moves who had stayed in touch for more than a couple months. The laundry room door squeaked open and my mom poked her head out, a frown on her face. “Hi, Junebug. Have you seen my green pen? I swear, I was just holding it.” I pointed to the top of her head, where the pen stuck out of a messy bun. She felt around, sighed, and pulled it out, letting smooth blond waves fall around her shoulders. “You’d think I’d learn, wouldn’t you?” “You’d think.” I dipped a cookie in my ice cream and took a bite. My mom wasn’t actually the flighty, flustered type. It was more like keeping our lives together crowded out unimportant stuff like keeping track of writing implements. “Oh, you were out of fizzy water,” I said. “I got you a case. On the counter.” 16


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. My mom came over and kissed me on top of my head. “What would I do without you, daughter?” “Be thirsty and unable to take notes,” I replied. I hugged her hard around the waist. “Hey,” she said, a note of concern creeping into her voice when I didn’t let go immediately. “Everything okay?” “Yeah,” I said. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a hug. “Fine.” I let go, but she slid down and nudged me to the side so she could sit on half my chair. She glanced at Mr. Emerson’s postcard but didn’t pick it up, and I wondered if she thought that was what was bothering me. Not that she’d ever ask about it directly. We used to talk about the moves, about how lonely I was, but it got to where it made it worse. Now we talked about everything else, but with undertones so clear, they may as well have been subtitles. “Was play rehearsal okay?” She looped her arm through mine. I push you into these things so maybe we can both feel better, the subtitles said. I put my head on her shoulder. “It was as bad as I told you it would be. Maybe worse.” I know you didn’t actually think I’d stick it out. “Sweetie, everyone has a hard time with new things.” My mom pushed back the hair that had fallen in my face. “Is something specific bothering you?” “Um, yes. Falling.” I shivered, thinking of the swaying catwalk. “Falling to my death.” That one was actually kind of true. “Oh, Junebug.” She sat up and took my face between her hands like she used to when I was little. Everyone said we looked alike. We had the same thick hair, with just a little wave—though hers was blond—same small frame, same 17


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. little, round nose. But my eyes were wider, darker—especially with my brown contacts—and my very dark eyes in my very pale face made me look young. Her eyes belonged to someone older than the rest of her, especially with the deep worry lines between them. “I know you’re afraid of falling, but sometimes, you’ve got to let go.” And I’m not just talking about your fear of heights, the subtitle read. I know, and I don’t want to talk about it, I sighed. My mom got up. “Tea?” I nodded. She filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove. The burner clicked a few times and burst to life. She took two tea bags from the cabinet and rubbed her forehead with a sigh that echoed in the quiet room. I stopped scraping the bottom of my ice cream bowl. “Everything okay?” “Did you see the mysterious new boy again today?” she asked. “Jack, right?” I winced. She wasn’t the only one who could change the subject. “Mr. Emerson’s in Istanbul. Cool, right?” The two mugs my mom was holding clattered to the counter. “Yes,” she said, straightening them. “I saw the postcard. Sounds like a fascinating city.” “Mom. What’s going on?” There was obviously something bothering her, and it wasn’t the postcard. “Nothing.” Her fake smile was back. “It’s been a long day. And . . . well, Junebug . . .” She looked longingly at the teakettle, like it might save her, then sighed heavily and sat across from me at the table. “We need to talk.” I knew what she was going to say before she pulled the manila envelope out of her laptop bag. “A new mandate,” I said flatly. I should have known. 18


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. I remembered the first time I’d heard the word. My mom was a military contractor—not in the military, like she didn’t wear a uniform or anything—but she worked for them, doing administrative stuff in cities all over the country. Sometimes she had to scout a location for new offices and the job lasted a few months, and sometimes it would be more of a desk job she’d do from home, and we’d stay longer. That day, I was nine years old, and we lived in Arizona. I’d cut my hand. When I came inside for a Band-Aid, my mom was on the phone. “It’s not that I want to leave. I hate doing that to her,” she was saying, and I stopped to listen. “Of course because of the mandate. Why else?” When she heard the door slam behind me, she hung up the phone. “What’s a mandate?” I’d asked, and she’d reached in her purse and pulled out a large envelope, exactly like the one she was holding right now. It was her new set of orders, sending us to a new town, a new life. The word mandate had hung over our heads ever since. I should have been relieved to see the envelope now. I was coming dangerously close to liking Lakehaven. The teakettle sputtered, then whistled, and my mom poured water into two mugs. She set the one with the Eiffel Tower on it in front of me and I wrapped my hands around it, even though it was too hot. “Where?” “Maine. Our new house will be right by the water, and the summers are supposed to be beautiful!” she said, too brightly. I dunked the tea bag. “When?” My mom leaned on the counter. “I reserved the moving truck for Sunday.” 19


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. “Sunday?” I let the bag fall, and tea splashed over the side of the mug. Two days? “Mom! I’m not eight years old anymore. There are things I can’t leave that fast. Like . . . getting the records for my AP classes transferred. There’s no way a new school will let me into AP at the end of the year without paperwork. And checking the weather in Maine so I can put the right stuff in the right boxes. And—” I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture in my bag. Jack. “There are things.” “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Next time I’ll try to give you more warning, but right now it is what it is.” I pushed my mug across the table. If we were leaving in two days, maybe seeing Jack wouldn’t be violating The Plan. One night wasn’t getting involved; it was just letting myself live a tiny bit. “I think I’ll go to prom tonight, then.” “No!” I looked up sharply. The only time my mom ever raised her voice was when she burned dinner. Now she was frozen at the counter, eyes wide like I’d suggested skydiving. “I have to go out of town for a couple of days, starting tonight,” she said quickly. “I’d rather you stayed home.” She sometimes had to take care of things at the home office before the moves, but she never acted this weird about it. “A month ago you were forcing me to go dress shopping,” I said. She picked up a sponge and swiped at the counter. “And you didn’t get one, because you said you didn’t want to go, remember?” A month ago, I wasn’t about to move. A month ago, Jack didn’t live here. “I have that old lace dress. The purple one. I’ll wear that.” My mom pursed her lips. “I don’t want to worry about you while I’m gone. There’ll be drunk teenagers on the road. And what if you lock yourself out?” 20


Copyright © 2015 by Margret Hall. Not for sale. “I have literally never locked myself out in my life.” I ran both hands through my hair. “And prom’s at school. I can walk there in twenty minutes if you don’t want me to drive.” She tossed the sponge into the sink. “Avery June West, promise me you’ll stay in tonight.” I must have looked alarmed, because she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Pack. Relax. You can go to prom in Maine!” My mom only spoke in exclamation points when there wasn’t actually anything to be excited about. “You’ll be a senior then. Senior prom’s more fun anyway!” I gathered up my stuff, ignoring her pleading eyes. “Fine.” “Avery, I’m sorry—” “No, seriously, it’s fine,” I said through gritted teeth. This was why I never let myself care. It always got ruined, one way or another. I stalked to my bedroom without another word.

21


I WAS HERE BY

Gayle Forman

VIKING An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)


1 The day after Meg died, I received this letter: I regret to inform you that I have had to take my own life. This decision has been a long time coming, and was mine alone to make. I know it will cause you pain, and for that I am sorry, but please know that I needed to end my own pain. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. It’s not your fault. Meg

She emailed copies of the letter to her parents and to me, and to the Tacoma police department, along with another note informing them which motel she was at, which room she was in, what poison she had ingested, and how her body should be safely handled. On the pillow at the motel room was another note—instructing the maid to call the police and not touch her body—along with a fifty-dollar tip. She sent the emails on a time delay. So that she would be long gone by the time we received them.


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Of course, I didn’t know any of that until later. So when I first read Meg’s email on the computer at our town’s public library, I thought it had to be some kind of joke. Or a hoax. I called Meg, and when she didn’t answer, I called her parents. “Did you get Meg’s email?” I asked them. “What email?”


2 There are memorial services. And there are vigils. And then there are prayer circles. It gets hard to keep them straight. At the vigils, you hold candles, but sometimes you do that at the prayer circles. At the memorial services, people talk, though what is there to say? It was bad enough she had to die. On purpose. But for subjecting me to all of this, I could kill her. “Cody, are you ready?” Tricia calls. It is late on a Thursday afternoon, and we are going to the fifth service in the past month. This one is a candlelight vigil. I think. I emerge from my bedroom. My mother is zipping up the black cocktail dress she picked up from the Goodwill after Meg died. She’s been using it as her funeral dress, but I’m sure that once this blows over, it’ll go into rotation as a going-out dress. She looks hot in it. Like so many people in town, mourning becomes her. “Why aren’t you dressed?” she asks. “All my nice clothes are dirty.”


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“What nice clothes?” “Fine, all my vaguely funereal clothes are dirty.” “Dirty never stopped you before.” We glare at each other. When I was eight, Tricia announced I was old enough to do my own laundry. I hate doing laundry. You can see where this leads. “I don’t get why we have to go to another one,” I say. “Because the town needs to process.” “Cheese needs to process. The town needs to find another drama to distract itself with.” There are fifteen hundred and seventy-four people in our town, according to the fading sign on the highway. “Fifteen hundred and seventy-three,” Meg said when she escaped to college in Tacoma on a full scholarship last fall. “Fifteen hundred and seventy-two when you come to Seattle and we get our apartment together,” she’d added. It remains stuck at fifteen hundred and seventy-three now, and I suspect it’ll stay there until someone else is born or dies. Most people don’t leave. Even when Tammy Henthoff and Matt Parner left their respective spouses to run off together—the gossip that was the hottest news before Meg—they moved to an RV park on the edge of town. “Do I have to go?” I’m not sure why I bother to ask her this. Tricia is my mother, but she’s not an authority in that way. I know I have to go, and I know why. For Joe and Sue. They’re Meg’s parents. Or they were. I keep stumbling over the verb tenses. Do you cease being someone’s parents because they died? Because they died on purpose?


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Joe and Sue look blasted into heartbreak, the hollows under their eyes so deep, I don’t see how they’ll ever go away. And it’s for them I find my least stinky dress and put it on. I get ready to sing. Again. Amazing Grace. How Vile the Sound.


3 I’ve written a dozen mental eulogies for Meg, imagining all the things I might say about her. Like how when we met in the first week of kindergarten, she made me a picture of us, with both of our names, and some words I didn’t understand because unlike Meg, I could not yet read or write. “It says ‘best friends,’” she explained. And like all things Meg wanted or predicted, it turned out to be true. I might talk about how I still have that picture. I keep it in a metal toolbox that houses all my most important things, and it is creased from age and multiple viewings. Or I might talk about how Meg knew things about people that they might not know themselves. She knew the precise number of times in a row everyone generally sneezed; there’s a pattern to it, apparently. I was three; Scottie and Sue four, Joe was two, Meg was five. Meg could also remember what you wore for every picture day, every Halloween. She was like the archive of my history. And also the creator of it too, because almost every one of those Halloweens was spent with her, usually in some costume she dreamed up. Or I might talk about Meg and her obsession with firefly songs. It started in ninth grade, when she picked up a vinyl single


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by a band called Heavens to Betsy. She dragged me back to her room and played me the scratchy record on that old turntable she’d bought at a church jumble sale for a dollar and rewired herself, with a little help from YouTube instructional videos. And you will never know how it feels to light up the sky. You will never know how it feels to be a firefly, Corin Tucker sang in a voice so simultaneously strong and vulnerable that it seemed almost inhuman. After the Heavens to Betsy discovery, Meg went on a mission to find every good firefly song ever written. In true Meg fashion, within a few weeks she’d amassed an exhaustive list. “Have you ever even seen a firefly?” I’d asked her as she worked on her playlist. I knew she hadn’t. Like me, Meg had never been east of the Rockies. “I have time,” she’d said, opening her arms, as if to demonstrate just how much life there was out there, waiting for her. x x x Joe and Sue asked me to speak at that first service, the big one that should’ve been held in the Catholic church the Garcias had attended for years, but wasn’t, because Father Grady, though a friend of the family, was a rules man. He told the Garcias that Meg had committed a cardinal sin and therefore her soul wouldn’t be admitted to heaven, nor her body to the Catholic cemetery. The last bit was theoretical. It took a while for the police to release her body. Apparently the poison she’d used was rare, though anyone who knew Meg wouldn’t be surprised by this. She never wore clothes from chain stores, always listened to


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bands no one else had heard of. Naturally, she found some obscure poison to swallow. So the casket everyone sobbed over at that first big service was empty, and there was no burial. I overheard Meg’s uncle Xavier tell his girlfriend that maybe it would be better if there never was one. No one knew what to write on the gravestone. “Everything sounds like a reproach,” he said. I tried to write a eulogy for that service. I did. I pulled out the disc Meg had burned of firefly songs for inspiration. The third one up was the Bishop Allen track “Fireflies.” I don’t know if I had ever really listened to the words before, because when I did now, they were like a smack from her grave: It says you can still forgive her. And she will forgive you back. But I don’t know that I can. And I don’t know that she did. I told Joe and Sue that I was sorry, that I couldn’t give a eulogy because I couldn’t think of anything to say. It was the first time I ever lied to them. x x x Today’s service is being held in the Rotary Club, so it’s not one of the official religious services, though the speaker appears to be some kind of reverend. I’m not sure where they keep coming from, all these speakers who didn’t really know Meg. After it’s over, Sue invites me over for yet another reception at the house. I used to spend so much time at Meg’s house that I could tell what kind of mood Sue was in by what I smelled when I walked through the door. Butter meant baking, which meant she was melancholy and needed cheering. Spicy meant she was happy and making hot Mexican food for Joe, even though it hurt her


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stomach. Popcorn meant that she was in bed, in the dark, not cooking anything, and Meg and Scottie were left to their own devices, which meant a buffet of microwave snack foods. On those days, Joe would joke how lucky we kids were to get to pig out like this as he made his way upstairs to check on Sue. We all played along, but usually, after the second or third microwave corn dog, you kind of wanted to throw up. I know the Garcias so well that when I called that morning after getting Meg’s email, I knew even though it was eleven o’clock on a Saturday that Sue would be still in bed but not sleeping; she said she never did learn to sleep in once her kids stopped waking up early. And Joe would have the coffee brewed and the morning paper spread out over the kitchen table. Scottie would be watching cartoons. Consistency was one of the many things I loved about Meg’s house. So different from mine, where the earliest Tricia usually woke was noon, and some days you might find her pouring bowls of cereal, and some days you might not find her at all. But now there’s a different kind of constancy about the Garcia household, one that is far less inviting. Still, when Sue asks me over, much as I’d prefer to refuse the invitation, I don’t. x x x The crowd of cars outside the house is thinner than it was in the early days, when the whole town came on sympathy calls carrying Pyrex dishes. It was a little hard to take, all those casseroles and the “I’m so sorry for your loss” that accompanied them. Because elsewhere in town, the gossip was flying. “Didn’t surprise me. Girl always hung her freak flag high,” I heard people


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whispering in the Circle K. Meg and I both knew that some people said things like that about her—in our town she was like a rose blooming in the desert; it confused folks—but with her dead, this sentiment no longer felt like a badge of honor. And it wasn’t just Meg they went after. At Tricia’s bar, I overheard a couple of townies sniping about Sue. “As a mother, I would know if my daughter was suicidal.” This coming from the mother of Carrie Tarkington, who had slept with half the school. I was about to ask Mrs. Tarkington if, being all-knowing, she knew that. But then her friend replied. “Sue? Are you joking? That woman is floating in space on a good day,” and I felt sucker-punched by their cruelty. “How would you feel if you’d just lost your child, you bitches?” I sneered. Tricia had to escort me home. After today’s service, Tricia has to work, so she drops me off at the Garcias’. I let myself in. Joe and Sue hug me tight and for a moment longer than is comfortable. I know that they must take some solace in me being here, but I can hear Sue’s silent questions when she looks at me, and I know that all the questions boil down to one: Did you know? I don’t know what would be worse. If I did know and didn’t tell them. Or the truth, which is that even though Meg was my best friend and I have told her everything there is to tell about me and I’d assumed she’d done the same, I’d had no idea. Not a clue. This decision has been a long time coming, she wrote in her note. A long time coming? How long is that? Weeks? Months? Years? I have known Meg since kindergarten. We have been best friends, sisters almost, ever since. How long has this decision


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been coming without her telling me? And more to the point, why didn’t she tell me? x x x After about ten minutes of sitting in sad polite silence, Scottie, Meg’s ten-year-old brother, comes up to me with their—or now his—dog, Samson, on a leash. “Walkies?” he says, to me as much as to Samson. I nod and stand up. Scottie seems to be the only one who retains any semblance of his former self, which is maybe because he’s young, though he’s not that young, and he and Meg were close. When Sue would disappear into one of her moods and Joe would disappear to take care of her, Meg was the one to mother Scottie. It’s late April, but no one has alerted the weather. The wind kicks up fierce and cold, with a mean grit. We walk toward the big empty field that everyone lets their dogs shit in, and Scottie unleashes Samson. He bounds off, jubilant, happy in his canine ignorance. “How are you holding up, Runtmeyer?” I feel false using the old jocular nickname, and I already know how he’s doing. But with Meg no longer playing mother hen and Sue and Joe lost in their grief, someone has to at least ask. “I’m up to level six on Fiend Finder,” he says. He shrugs. “I get to play all I want now.” “A side benefit.” And then I clamp my hand over my mouth. My bitter gallows humor is not meant for public consumption. But Scottie lets out a gruff laugh, way too old for his age. “Yeah. Right.” He stops and watches Samson sniff a collie’s butt.


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On the way home, Samson straining at his leash because he knows food is next, Scottie asks me, “You know what I don’t get?” I think we’re still taking about video games, so I’m not prepared for what he says next. “I don’t get why she didn’t send me the note too.” “Do you even have an email address?” I ask. Like this was her reason. He rolls his eyes. “I’m ten, not two. I’ve had one since third grade. Meg emailed me stuff all the time.” “Oh. Well, she probably, probably wanted to spare you.” For a second, his eyes look just as hollowed out as his parents’. “Yeah, she spared me.” x x x Back at the house, the guests are leaving. I catch Sue dumping a tuna casserole into the garbage. She gives me a guilty look. When I go to hug her good-bye, she stops me. “Can you stay?” she asks in that voice of hers, so quiet, so different from Meg’s garrulous one. Meg’s voice that could make anyone do anything, anytime. “Of course.” She gestures toward the living room, where Joe is sitting on the couch, staring into space, ignoring Samson who is begging at his feet for the expected dinner. In the fading twilight, I look at Joe. Meg took after him, with his dark, Mexican looks. He seems like he’s aged a thousand years in the past month. “Cody,” he says. One word. And it’s enough to make me cry. “Hi, Joe.” “Sue wants to talk to you; we both do.”


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My heart starts to hammer, because I wonder if they’re finally going to ask me if I knew anything. I had to answer some cursory questions from the police when all this went down, but they had more to do with how Meg might have procured the poison, and I had no idea about any of that except that if Meg wanted something, she usually found a way to get it. After Meg died, I went and looked up all the suicide signs online. Meg didn’t give me any of her prized possessions. She didn’t talk about killing herself. I mean, she used to say things like, “If Ms. Dobson gives us another pop quiz, I am going to shoot myself,” but does that count? Sue sits down next to Joe on the worn couch. They look at each other for half a second, but then it’s like that hurts too much. They turn to me. Like I’m Switzerland. “Cascades’s term ends next month,” they tell me. I nod. University of the Cascades is the prestigious private college where Meg got a scholarship. The plan had been for both of us to move to Seattle after high school graduation. We’d been talking about this since eighth grade. Both of us at the University of Washington, sharing a dorm room for the first two years, then living off campus for the duration. But then Meg had gotten this amazing full ride at Cascades, a way better package that what the UW offered. As for me, I’d gotten into the UW but without scholarships of any kind. Tricia had made it pretty clear she couldn’t help me. “I finally got myself out of debt.” So in the end, I turned down the UW and decided to stay in town. My plan was to do two years at community college, then transfer to Seattle to be near Meg. Joe and Sue sit there quietly. I watch Sue pick at her nails.


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The cuticles are a complete mess. Finally, she looks up. “The school has been very kind; they’ve offered to pack up her room and ship everything to us, but I can’t bear a stranger’s hands touching her things.” “What about her roommates?” Cascades is tiny and hardly has any dorms. Meg lives—lived—off campus in a house shared with some other students. “Apparently, they’ve just locked up her room and left it like that. Her rent’s paid through the end of the term, but now we should empty it out and bring everything . . .” Her voice catches. “Home,” Joe finishes for her. It takes me a second to realize what they want, what they’re asking me. And at first I’m relieved because it means I don’t have to fess up that I didn’t know what Meg was contemplating. That the one time in her life she might’ve needed me, I failed her. But then, the weight of what they’re asking skids and crashes in my stomach. Which isn’t to say I won’t do it. I will. Of course I will. “You want me to pack up her things?” I say. They nod. I nod back. It’s the least I can do. “After your classes end, of course,” Sue says. Officially, my classes end next month. Unofficially, they did the day I got Meg’s email. I’ve got Fs now. Or incompletes. The distinction hardly seems to matter. “And if you can get the time off work.” This from Joe. He says it respectfully, as if I have an important job. I clean houses. The people I work for, like everyone in this town, know about Meg, and they’ve all been very nice, telling me to take all the time I need. But empty hours to contemplate Meg aren’t what I need.


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“I can go whenever,” I say. “Tomorrow if you want.” “She didn’t have very much. You can take the car,” Joe says. Joe and Sue have one car, and it’s like a NASA expedition how they plot out their days so Sue can drop Joe off at work and get Scottie to school and get herself to work and then scoop them all back up again at the end of the day. On weekends, it’s more of the same, doing the grocery shopping and all the errands there’s no time for during the week. I don’t have a car. Occasionally, very occasionally, Tricia lets me use hers. “Why don’t I take the bus? She doesn’t have that much. Didn’t.” Joe and Sue look relieved. “We’ll pay for your bus tickets. You can ship any extra boxes UPS,” Joe says. “And you don’t have to bring everything back.” Sue pauses. “Just the important things.” I nod. They look so grateful that I have to look away. The trip is nothing: a three-day errand. A day to get there, a day to pack, a day to get home. It’s the kind of thing Meg would’ve offered to do without having to be asked first.


prologue:

HERE IS A PINWHEEL “Here,

kitty-kitty.” The cat had a name—Alex—but General Parviz always called him in the same generic manner. General Parviz, all gilded epaulets and clinking medals, a breathing propaganda poster, repeated, cooing, “Here, kitty-kitty.” The Alex cat, a six-toed Manx, an official gift from the Hemingway estate and the people of the United States of America, swept its head from side to side, walking slow like a drowsy lion. The cat paused at the general’s slippered feet as though considering whether or not it actually wanted to jump up into General Parviz’s lap. The general patted his thigh softly, beckoning. “Kitty-kitty.” The cat leapt soundlessly. Then cat, general, palace, bodyguards, and approximately onethird the territory of the capital city blew up. Here, kitty-kitty. ---


Here is a handful of dirt. As far as its use as a medium for sustaining life—nourishing roots—it is perhaps the least capable dirt that can be found anywhere on the planet. To call it sand would be to give it some unwarranted windswept and oceanic dignity. It is simply dead dirt, and it fills my hand. I will tell you everything, Max, and we will carry these stories on our small shoulders. On my fourteenth birthday, Marden and I played outside the village in one of Mr. Antonio’s fields with Sahar, Marden’s sister. We would have been in trouble if we had been discovered. There was a funeral that day for Mr. Antonio’s cousin who had been killed fighting against the rebels, so it was expected that everyone attend. At school that morning, we performed a play. I had the role of Pierrot, Sahar my Columbine. One of the boys in our class played a joke on me: At the end of the day when we went to change out of our costumes to prepare for the funeral, somebody had taken all my clothes—everything—so I had to stay dressed as the mute white clown. I didn’t mind so much; the costume was loose and soft and made me feel disconnected, like a ghost drifting above the dead fields we played in. “This is Mr. Barbar’s ram,” Marden said. Mr. Barbar’s ram had been missing for more than a week. Sahar and I grabbed small handfuls of dirt. We poured our dirt into the eye sockets on the rotting skull. What else would kids do? Playing with dirt and horned carcasses was a good way to have fun. The thing looked like a caricature of the devil himself. When the FDJA came to the village that day—it was just after 2 | ANDREW SMITH


the mourners arrived back from the funeral—four of them took all the boys and made us go up to the third floor of the school building. I was still dressed as Pierrot; nobody would confess as to who the thief of Ariel’s clothing was. Of course, we all knew what was going to happen next, once the rebels got us into the upstairs classroom. We could already hear gunfire and cries coming from outside the school. The rebels bribed us with cigarettes and guns. What boy doesn’t want cigarettes and a gun? One of the men, his face hidden behind a red scarf, said to me, “What are you supposed to be?” “Pierrot,” I answered. He shook his head, confused. “You look like a boy-whore.” Ivan, a ten-year-old, puffed on his first cigarette and glared at me. I wanted to slap him. One of the FDJA men patted the boy’s head. We were all goners at this point. Everyone knew. It had been this way all our lives. Here, the deliberate cruelty of violence was a matter of fact, controlling, constraining, and understandable. Not so much in some of my other stories, Max. The rebels targeted the older boys, many of whom were approaching conscription age for the Republican Army. They taunted the boys with insults about patriotism and loyalty to capitalist puppet masters. One boy, Jean-Pierre, pissed himself when the man whose face was covered with the red snot-stiffened rag prodded his belly with a gun barrel. Naturally, this was very funny to the FDJA men. Who wouldn’t laugh at a sixteen-year-old boy who pissed his pants as he was about to be kidnapped by thugs with guns? I felt bad for Jean-Pierre, who, like the other chosen boys in the 3 | the alex crow


schoolroom, recited a robotic pledge of allegiance to the FDJA. He would have done the same thing on his eighteenth birthday to the Republican Army, anyway. So, who cared? We were all going to go with the FDJA now, or we would never leave this third-floor schoolroom. They promised us that we were old enough to make our way as men, even though some of the youngest boys were barely ten years old. My friend Marden was sixteen. When one of the men tried wrapping the red scarf of the FDJA around Marden’s neck, my friend swatted his hand away. Marden was always defiant like that—impulsive—and everyone knew it was a mistake. But what could we do? To make an example of him to the other boys, two of the FDJA men picked up Marden by his feet and threw him headfirst out the window as he kicked and scratched at them. But Marden didn’t scream or cry. I heard the impact of his body against the paving stones that lined the street below. I desperately wished I had my proper school clothes. I felt so isolated and noticeable in my thin white clown suit. Two of my schoolmates ran for the doorway that led to the stairs. The man with the hidden face fired at them and they tumbled down in a heap across the threshold. “Let’s go!” he said. I could only see his eyes peering out from a slit on the covering. He waved his gun to goad the remaining boys—there were five of us—over our friends’ bodies and out the door. One of the men videoed the slaughter in the schoolroom with his cell phone, sweeping it around and around until he focused directly on my face. Most of the white makeup I’d worn earlier had been wiped away, but I was still pale and painted. And I was crying. 4 | ANDREW SMITH


The video would be uploaded with the usual descriptions blaming all this on the Republican Army. People naturally believe things they see. Nobody argues with the irrefutable postings on YouTube. I was told that in America, many people believed FDJA stood for Freedom Democracy Jesus Army. They sent money. I stood by the open window, thinking about Marden and how we’d been playing in Mr. Antonio’s field just moments before. What could I do? I was frozen at the edge of the floor, with the fingers of one of my hands resting on the windowsill where my friend had left the room that smelled of sweat and gunpowder. The man with the red mask, his eyes wild and white, turned toward me. The other boys made their way out into the hallway, tramping through blood. He raised his rifle. The barrel was so slender and short. I was as familiar with these guns as anything in the world—how they smelled, the sound of their report. When he pointed the thing at the center of my chest, I thought it would be a better end than to be thrown after Marden—but when the man pulled the trigger, the thing jammed—dead—and the two remaining FDJA men stared at me as though I were dead, as though the gun had functioned properly and I was done for—I believe they could not accept anything other than this—the wide white staring eyes of them, whiter than the soft clown suit that seemed to flutter around my body. Then they left and I heard their footsteps clattering downstairs as the others ahead of them yelled at the boys and told them to form a line and get out onto the street. Happy birthday to me. Later, I thought, this was the first miracle I had seen. Perhaps my survival was nothing more than an accident. Accident, mira5 | the alex crow


cle—I suppose the storyteller retains the right to determine such things. Picture this, Max: I waited in the classroom for a while, wondering if maybe I really was dead—that this is what being dead is, just a dream that continues on and on—and now I truly was the ghost I’d imagined myself to be when Sahar and Marden and I played that afternoon. When I was certain the men and their new conscripts had gone, I went downstairs into the school’s kitchen and hid inside a walk-in refrigerator. --Here is nothing but ice. It is more than ice, more than anyone on the steamer had ever seen. It is the blue-white fist of God, curling calloused fingers to grasp the protesting wooden hull. It is an infinity field of jaws with countless rows of teeth; absolute control and the concurrent absence of control. The hungry ice creaks and moans, stretching forever to become horizon, ceiling, and cemetery; and the ship, frozen and moving, trapped in this relentless vise, is slowly dragged along, endlessly northwest into more and more ice. Tuesday, February 10, 1880—Alex Crow Today is our fifth month in the ice. The ship is held fast. The readings calculated by Mr. Piedmont, ship’s navigator, measure the distance the ice has taken us at more than one hundred miles! It is the cruel reversal of our intent. The men of the Alex Crow expedition set off with the ex6 | ANDREW SMITH


pectation that it would be us—the first voyagers here to absolute north—who might inflict our will upon the planet; instead we face the grim truth that nature’s will is uncontestable. I keep such daily accounts as no measure of optimistic entertainment. My overwhelming sense is that the end of our story will not be written by my hand. I don’t think I can endure this imprisonment much longer; I am beginning to wonder if I’ll go as insane as Murdoch. After breakfast, a party of seven men took a team of dogs and one of the sleds out onto the pack to hunt for seal and bear. I stood at the rail and watched in amazement as the men and dogs clambered over the unyielding hummocks of ice that had once been the ocean. Twenty-five of us remained behind on the Alex Crow, including the newspaperman, Mr. Warren, who had crushed his hand three days ago between the ice and forefoot of the hull and is currently under my care. Today, the majority of the men busy themselves with the drudgery of routine maintenance. Some watch and record wildlife sightings. Wildlife! In the afternoon we heard rifle fire but could not determine its direction due to the blinding whiteness that smothered everything. It was then that Murdoch, who has taken to 7 | the alex crow


following me around, said, “Doctor, Doctor, I do believe our men have found something.” --Here we see a two-quart jar of Mason-Dixon-brand sauerkraut. I believe sauerkraut, along with guns, is some type of national symbol in the Land of Nonsense. Everyone in Sunday, West Virginia, eats sauerkraut and also shoots things. So it isn’t a casual act by which I begin a story with the examination of a jar of sauerkraut— the sauerkraut has a purpose; it shapes one of my clearest initial memories since coming to America, as though when the contents of that particular two-quart jar of Mason-Dixon-brand sauerkraut spilled, something began to fill me up after all my emptying and emptying. I arrived here in Sunday little more than one week after my fifteenth birthday. A year had passed since the miracle in the schoolhouse. Happy birthday to me, once again. Mother—my American mother, Natalie Burgess—has the most confusing habit of making everything seem insignificant and small. My brother Max calls her the Incredible Shrinking Machine. Here is what happened: When the top jar tumbled from its eye-level placement, it caught the edge of the metal cage basket on the shopping cart and exploded in a fetid shower of cabbage and knife-shards of glass. Mother was dressed in salmon-colored shorts and pale yellow sandals. One of the glass shards slashed across her leg, mid-calf. She said, “Oh.” I had only been here four days, but the way she said it sounded 8 | ANDREW SMITH


like an apology to me, as though it were her fault for being in that precise spot inside the Sunday Walk-In Grocery Store at the exact moment the jar slipped from the shelf. We had dropped Max off at school earlier. I was not enrolled yet, because the officials at William E. Shuck High School insisted on testing and testing me to determine whether or not I was an idiot, or could speak English, which I could do perfectly well despite my aversion to talking. “Oh,” Mother said again. I shifted my weight from foot to foot. I didn’t have any idea what I was supposed to do. Maybe I was an idiot of some kind. But here I was in this grocery store, which may just as well have been some gleaming palace or gilded mosque, watching in confused silence while Mother bled all over the speckled linoleum floor. It was a nauseating scene; so much so that I vomited, which made everything just that much more repulsive, and Mother said “Oh” again because we were making such a mess on aisle number seven. Mother reached into her purse and gave me a handkerchief so I could wipe my face. The handkerchief smelled like perfume and mint chewing gum. Then she pressed some wadded napkins into the cut on her leg. A clerk wearing a brown apron came running up the aisle toward us. I thought he was mad because of all the mess we’d made, but he was most concerned about the injury to Mother’s leg. “We’re calling an ambulance!” he said. “Please sit down!” And he flailed his arms as though he were swimming toward us. But Mother said, “No. No. I’ll be fine! I’m so sorry for all this.” 9 | the alex crow


And while the man pleaded with her, bent forward so she could press her soaked napkins against the wound, she grabbed my clammy hand in hers and led me out to the car. “I’m sorry. This is so embarrassing, Ariel,” she said as we climbed in. We did not make it home. Mother passed out behind the wheel less than a mile from the Sunday Walk-In Grocery, due to all the blood she’d lost. She was like that. --Here is Joseph Stalin telling the melting man what he had to do. Joseph Stalin’s voice came from the air vents on the dashboard of the melting man’s recycled U-Haul moving van. Joseph Stalin also spoke to the melting man through the radio. The melting man tried to do anything he could to make Joseph Stalin shut up. He removed the radio at a rest stop near Amarillo, Texas, and left it dangling wires atop the hand dryer in the men’s toilet, but Joseph Stalin’s voice still came through the old speakers. At the same time Leonard Fountain—the melting man— crossed the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas, Joseph Stalin told him this: “They are coming to get you, Leonard. You know that. You must not let them catch you.” Leonard Fountain drove his recycled U-Haul truck all the way from Mexico City, where he’d assembled the biggest bomb he’d ever seen at a rented flat on the top floor of an apartment house across the street from one of the sixteen Holiday Inns in the city. Leonard Fountain believed he had to stop the Beaver King. 10 | ANDREW SMITH


The Beaver King was hiding somewhere near a shopping mall called Little America. He knew that, because Joseph Stalin told him all about the Beaver King. The Little America Mall had an animated Statue of Liberty in the center of its welcoming gates. The statue could spin its crowned head around in a full circle, and its torch-bearing arm could lower and flash colorful beams of lights at the dazzled shoppers. No doubt, had the French been more technologically advanced, the original Statue of Liberty would perform the exact same tricks. Leonard Fountain had a fascination with bombs. He grew up in Idaho, where kids were naturally expected to blow things up. What else would you do? When he was thirteen years old, although he spent the majority of his waking hours playing video games or masturbating, Leonard Fountain helped out his neighbors by blowing up beaver dams. On his fifteenth birthday, Leonard Fountain, who hadn’t started melting yet, made a remote-controlled bomb from three sticks of dynamite and lashed it to the neck of a dairy cow. They never found the cow’s head. Leonard Fountain loved blowing things up. “They are coming for you, Leonard,” Joseph Stalin said. “There is a drone flying directly above our truck. You can see it. When you look at it, it will disappear.” Outside Arkadelphia, the melting man pulled the truck onto the shoulder of the highway. He knew what to do. He pretended to be distracted, and then looked up into the sky behind the rear gate on the U-Haul. Leonard Fountain saw something in the sky. What he saw was a perfect rectangular prism that hovered 11 | the alex crow


soundlessly, fifty feet above his head. The thing was metallic and shiny, about four feet long, and as soon as the melting man focused on it, the thing rotated diagonally and vanished—became invisible. They were watching Leonard Fountain. Leonard Fountain knew it all along. From time to time, when he’d get out of the van to pee or sometimes vomit alongside the road, the melting man would suddenly jerk his head around and glance up into the sky, and the little floating box—it resembled a package of tinfoil—would always be there, and then it would turn slightly and disappear. And it was while the melting man drove through Arkansas, in the direction of Tennessee, that Joseph Stalin became particularly nasty. “Look at you,” Joseph Stalin scolded. “You’re disgusting. You better get this done before you dissolve into a puddle of pus and goo. Now pay attention.” Leonard Fountain did not want to pay attention. He drove with an old Hohner Special 20 harmonica in his mouth, and he’d blow the loudest noise through it every time Joseph Stalin said anything about what he wanted the melting man to do. But the harmonica didn’t work. So Leonard Fountain bought two spring-winding kitchen timers at a drugstore and he taped them over his ears with medical gauze, hoping the metallic tick-tick-ticking of them would stop the Communist dictator’s voice. He thought Joseph Stalin’s voice must have been beamed into his head from a government satellite. What other explanation could there be? Actually, there was another explanation, but Leonard Fountain never figured it out. 12 | ANDREW SMITH


Leonard Fountain was insane and melting, and he needed to blow something up. --Here we see the family pet—a crow we call Alex. The bird is named after a barkentine steamer commissioned by the U.S. Navy in the late nineteenth century. The ship became icebound—trapped—during an expedition to discover a fabled open seaway to the North Pole in 1879. Alex is a product of my American father’s research. I don’t think the research turned out very well for Alex. What my father does, I believe, is less research, and perhaps more appropriately called “aimless scientific wandering.” And he finds things you’d never know were out there. Alex is a morbid being, obsessed with his own death, and gruesomely despondent. I know that’s an odd set of qualities for a bird, but Alex should not have been saved to begin with. He is a member of a species that has been extinct for more than a century, and I think all Alex really wants to do is go back to where he’d been pulled from. My father, and the company he works for, are tireless in their obsession with saving things from nonexistence, and by doing so, controlling the course of life itself. Unfortunately, sometimes paths and directions can’t be so easily controlled, as the men on the ill-fated steamer Alex Crow found out. And sometimes things don’t want to be saved or brought back from where they’d been trapped.

13 | the alex crow


JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI (947 Miles to Go)


1

A Thing’s Not a Thing until You Say It Out Loud

I AM MARY Iris Malone, and I am not okay.


2

The Uncomfortable Nearness of Strangers

September 1—afternoon Dear Isabel, As a member of the family, you have a right to know what’s going on. Dad agrees but says I should avoid “topics of substance and despair.” When I asked how he propose I do this, seeing as our family is prone to substantial desperation, he rolled his eyes and flared his nostrils, like he does. The thing is, I’m incapable of fluff, so here goes. The straight dope, Mimstyle. Filled to the brim with “topics of substance and despair.” Just over a month ago, I moved from the greener pastures of Ashland, Ohio, to the dried-up wastelands of Jackson, Mississippi, with Dad and Kathy. During that time, it’s possible I’ve gotten into some trouble at my new school. Not trouble with a capital T, you understand, but this is a subtle distinction for adults once they’re determined to ruin a kid’s youth. My new principal is just such a man. He scheduled a conference for ten a.m. this morning, in which the malfea-


mosquitoland sance of Mim Malone would be the only point of order. Kathy switched her day shift at Denny’s so she could join Dad as a parental representative. I was in algebra II, watching Mr. Harrow carry on a romantic relationship with his polynomials, when my name echoed down the coral-painted hallways. “Mim Malone, please report to Principal Schwartz’s office. Mim Malone to the principal’s office.” (Suffice it to say, I didn’t want to go, but the Loudspeaker summoned, and the Student responded, and ’twas always thus.) The foyer leading into the principal’s office was dank, a suffocating decor of rusty maroons and browns. Inspirational posters were plastered around the room, boasting one-word encouragements and eagles soaring over purple mountains’ majesty. I threw up a little, swallowed it back down. “You can go on back,” said a secretary without looking up. “They’re expecting you.” Beyond the secretary’s desk, Principal Schwartz’s heavy oak door was cracked open an inch. Nearing it, I heard low voices on the other side. “What’s her mother’s name again?” asked Schwartz, his timbre muffled by that lustrous seventies mustache, a holdover from the glory days no doubt. “Eve,” said Dad. Schwartz: “Right, right. What a shame. Well, I hope Mim is grateful for your involvement, Kathy. Heaven knows she needs a mother figure right now.”

5


DAVID ARNOLD Kathy: “We all just want Eve to get better, you know? And she will. She’ll beat this disease. Eve’s a fighter.” Just outside the door, I stood frozen—inside and out. Disease? Schwartz: (Sigh.) “Does Mim know?” Dad: (Different kind of sigh.) “No. The time just doesn’t seem right. New school, new friends, lots of . . . new developments, as you can see.” Schwartz: (Chuckle.) “Quite. Well, hopefully things will come together for Eve in . . . where did you say she was?” Dad: “Cleveland. And thank you. We’re hoping for the best.” (Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.) Our Heroine turns from the oak door, calmly exits the office, the school, the grounds. She walks in a daze, trying to put the pieces together. Across the football field, athletic meatheads sneer, but she hears them not. Her trusty Goodwill shoes carry her down the crumbling sidewalk while she considers the three-week drought of letters and phone calls from her mother. Our Heroine takes the shortcut behind the Taco Hole, ignoring its beefy bouquet. She walks the lonely streets of her new neighborhood, rounds the skyscraping oak, and pauses for a moment in the shade of her

6


mosquitoland new residence. She checks the mailbox—empty. As always. Pulling out her phone, she dials her mother’s number for the hundredth time, hears the same robotic lady for the hundredth time, is disheartened for the hundredth time. We’re sorry, this number has been disconnected. She shuts her phone and looks up at this new house, a house bought for the low, low price of Everything She’d Ever Known to Be True. “Glass and concrete and stone,” she whispers, the chorus of one of her favorite songs. She smiles, pulls her hair back into a ponytail, and finishes the lyric. “It is just a house, not a home.” Bursting through the front door, Our Heroine takes the steps three at a time. She ignores the new-house smell—a strange combination of sanitizer, tacos, and pigheaded denial—and sprints to her bedroom. Here, she repacks her trusty JanSport backpack with overnight provisions, a bottle of water, toiletries, extra clothes, meds, war paint, makeup remover, and a bag of potato chips. She dashes into her father and stepmother’s bedroom and drops to her knees in front of the feminine dresser. Our Heroine reaches behind a neatly folded stack of Spanx in the bottom drawer and retrieves a coffee can labeled

hills bros . original blend.

Popping the cap, she removes a thick wad of bills and counts by Andrew Jacksons to eight hundred eighty dollars. (Her evil stepmother had overestimated the secrecy of this hiding spot, for Our Heroine sees all.) Adding the can of cash to her backpack, she bolts from her house-not-a-home, jogs a half mile to the bus stop, and

7


DAVID ARNOLD catches a metro line to the Jackson Greyhound terminal. She’d known the where for a while now: Cleveland, Ohio, 947 miles away. But until today, she wasn’t sure of the how or when. The how: a bus. The when: pronto, posthaste, lickety-split. And . . . scene. But you’re a true Malone, and as such, this won’t be enough. You’ll need more than just wheres, whens, and hows—you’ll need whys. You’ll think Why wouldn’t Our Heroine just (insert brilliant solution here)? The truth is, reasons are hard. I’m standing on a whole stack of them right now, with barely a notion of how I got up here. So maybe that’s what this will be, Iz: my Book of Reasons. I’ll explain the whys behind my whats, and you can see for yourself how my Reasons stack up. Consider that little clandestine convo between Dad, Kathy, and Schwartz Reason #1. It’s a long way to Cleveland, so I’ll try and space the rest out, but for now, know this: my Reasons may be hard, but my Objectives are quite simple. Get to Cleveland, get to Mom. I salute myself. I accept my mission. Signing off, Mary Iris Malone, Mother-effing Mother-Saver

8


mosquitoland RETRACING THE STICK figure on the front of this journal makes little difference. Stick figures are eternally anemic. I pull my dark hair across one shoulder, slump my forehead against the window, and marvel at the outside world. Before Mississippi had her devilish way, my marvelings were wondrously unique. Recently they’ve become I-don’t-know-what . . . middling. Tragically mediocre. To top it off, a rain of biblical proportions is absolutely punishing the earth right now, and I can’t help feeling it deserves it. Stuffing my journal in my backpack, I grab my bottle of Abilify. Tip, swallow, repeat daily: this is the habit, and habit is king, so says Dad. I swallow the pill, then shove the bottle back in my bag with attitude. Also part of the habit. So says I. “Th’hell you doing in here, missy?” I see the tuft first, a tall poke of hair towering over the front two seats. It’s dripping wet, and crooked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The man—a Greyhound employee named Carl, according to the damp patch on his button-down—is huge. Lumbering, even. Still eyeballing me, he pulls a burrito out of nowhere, unwraps it, digs in. Enchanté, Carl. “This is the bus to Cleveland, right?” I rummage around in my bag. “I have a ticket.” “Missy,” he says, his mouth full, “you could have Wonky’s golden fuckin’ ticket for all I care. We ain’t started boarding yet.” In my head, a thousand tiny Mims shoot flaming arrows at Carl, burning his hair to the ground in a glorious blaze of tuft.

9


DAVID ARNOLD Before one of these metaphysical Mims gets me into trouble, I hear my mother’s voice in my ear, echoing a toll, the chime of my childhood: Kill him with kindness, Mary. Absolutely murder him with it. I throw on a girlish smile and my mother’s British accent. “Blimey, that’s a lovely uniform, chap. Really accentuates your pectorals.” The Leaning Tower of Tuft calmly chews his burrito, turns, points to the open door. I throw on my backpack and ease down the aisle. “Seriously, old chap. Just dynamite pecs.” I’m out the door and into the squall before he can respond. I don’t suppose that’s what Mom would have meant by murdering with kindness, but honestly, just then, that was the only me I could be. Flipping my hoodie over my head, I cross the station lot toward an awning, hopping a half-dozen rising puddles. Underneath the canopy, seven or eight people stand shoulder to shoulder, glancing at watches, rereading papers, anything to avoid acknowledging the uncomfortable nearness of strangers. I squeeze in next to a middle-aged man in a poncho and watch the water pour over the edge of the awning like a paper-thin waterfall. “Is that you?” says Poncho Man, inches away. Please don’t let him be talking to me, please don’t let him be talking to me. “Excuse me,” he says, nudging my JanSport. “I think your backpack is singing.” I sling my bag around and pull out my cell. The dulcet tones

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mosquitoland of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” echo off the walls of our little canvas-and-water prison. Stevie only croons when Kathy calls, altogether negating the sentiment of the lyrics. “That’s sweet,” says Poncho Man. “Your boyfriend?” “Stepmom,” I whisper, staring at her name on the LCD screen. Kathy preloaded the song to be her “special ring.” I’ve been meaning to change it to something more appropriate, like Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” or that robotic voice that just yells “Warning! Warning!” over and over again. “You guys must be close.” Singing phone in hand, I turn to face this guy. “What?” “The song. Are you and your stepmother close?” “Oh yeah, sure,” I say, summoning every sarcastic bone in my body. Leaving the phone unanswered, I toss it in my bag. “We’re tight.” He nods, smiling from ear to ear. “That’s terrific.” I say nothing. My quota for conversations with a stranger has officially been met. For the decade. “So where’re you headed, hon?” he asks. Well, that’s that. I take a deep breath, step through the mini-waterfall and into the rain. It’s still falling in sheets, but I don’t mind. It’s the first rain of autumn, my favorite of the year. And maybe it’s this, or the adrenaline of my day’s decisions, but I’m feeling reckless—or honest, maybe. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference. Turning toward Poncho Man, I notice his eyes are wet and

11


DAVID ARNOLD shiny, but it’s not from crying or the rain. It’s something else entirely. And for a split second, I have the peculiar sensation that everyone and everything around us has dissolved. It’s just the two of us, cursed to face one another amid the ravenous elements of this bus station for all of forever. “You know,” I yell over the rain, breaking the curse. “I’m sixteen.” The other people under the awning are staring now, unable to ignore the uncomfortable nearness any longer. “Okay,” he says, nodding, still smiling with those glassy eyes. I push a clump of sopping hair out of my face and pull the drawstrings of my hoodie tight around my head. “You really shouldn’t talk to young girls. At bus stations. It’s just creepy, man.” Soaked to the bone, pondering the madness of the world, I stomp through puddles to the doors of the Jackson Greyhound station. Next to Gate C, a short man in a tweed hat hands me a flyer. LAYBOR DAY SPECIAL FOUR $DOLLER-FIFTY GENERAL TSO CHIKIN WHY U PAY MORE? DROP BY! WE FAMOUS!

The flyer is a domino, the first, tipping over a row of memories: a blank fortune knocks over Labor Day traditions, knocks over Elvis, knocks over fireworks, knocks over the way things used to be, knocks over, knocks over . . . From a thousand miles away, I feel my mother needing me.

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mosquitoland This is a thing that I know, and I know it harder, stronger, fuller than I’ve ever known any other thing. Four days until Labor Day. Ninety-six hours. I can’t be late.

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3

Northbound Greyhound

September 1—afternoon Dear Isabel, So I’m bored. On a bus. Stuck next to an old lady who keeps leaning over like she wants to start up a conversation. To maintain sanity, I shall write. Labor Day is Reason #2. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Really, Mim? Labor Day? And rightfully so. What’s so special about the first Monday of September that the government would shut down the country in its honor? Honestly, if it weren’t for school closings and extended happy hours, I’m not sure anyone would know it exists. But I would. One Labor Day, six or seven years ago, Mom stood up in the middle of dinner and asked if I’d like to go for a walk. Dad kept his head down, toying with the food on his plate. “Evie,” he whispered without looking up. I remember laugh-


mosquitoland ing because it looked like he was giving his food a name. Mom said something about the digestive benefits of exercise after eating, grabbed my hand, and together we walked out the door, down the hushed streets of our subdivision. We laughed and talked and laughed some more. I loved it when she was like that, all young and fun and eager to keep being young and fun, and it didn’t matter what happened the day before or the day after, all that mattered was the Young Fun Now. Such a rare thing. Anyway . . . That’s when we found it. Or rather, them. Our people. They lived on Utopia Court, if you can believe it—a little cul-de-sac tucked in the back of the neighborhood. When we turned the corner, it was like stepping through Alice’s looking-glass, only instead of the Jabberwock and a Red Queen, we found revolutionaries and idealists, people who damned the Man, people who refused to bow to suburban mediocrity. While the rest of the neighborhood watched TV or played video games, that little cul-de-sac set off explosions for the ages. They understood the Young Fun Now. Every Labor Day, Mom and I came back for more. We took part in their pig roasts, lemonade stands, and beer buckets, their loud stereos and rambunctious kids, their flag wavings and fireworkings and food gorgings. We did so with gumption and hunger and thirst, knowing full well it would be another 364 days before those offerings came back

15


DAVID ARNOLD around. (That first year, we went back for Memorial Day— bupkis. Nothing. Like an empty baseball stadium. Same with Fourth of July. I guess Utopia Court was more like Narnia than the Looking-Glass in that respect. It was never where— or rather, when—you thought it would be.) Bottom line: in the face of suburban mediocrity, Utopia Court provided an honest-to-God mutiny, and we loved every mutinous minute. So there’s the setup. Now for the teardown. Last year, just as the fireworks were picking up steam, Mom set down her beer and began saying thank-yous and good-nights. Something was wrong—we’d never left so early. But I didn’t argue. What mattered to her mattered to me. Reluctantly, I followed her back to the other side of the looking-glass. We admired the fireworks from a distance, holding hands as we walked (yes, I held hands with my mother, but then, nothing about our relationship has ever been traditional). Suddenly, Mom stopped dead in her tracks. This image—of my mother’s silhouette against a black sky backdrop, as majestic fires exploded all around—is a memory I have tucked in my back pocket, one I can pull out and examine at will, to remember her like that forever and ever and ever and ever and ever . . . infinite forevers. “Mary,” she whispered. She wasn’t looking at me, and I could tell her mind was somewhere I could never be. I waited for whatever it was Mom wanted to say, because that’s how it used to be with us. There was no need for prodding. For a few minutes,

16


mosquitoland we stood there on the quiet sidewalk, stuck between mutiny and mediocrity. As the distant fireworks dwindled, our sidewalk became darker, as if Utopia’s pyrotechnics had been the city’s only source of light. Just then, Mom let go of my hand, and turned. “I was lovely once,” she whispered. “But he never loved me once.” Her tone was familiar, like the lyric of some dark-eyed youth singing tragic clichés. But Mom was no youth, and this was no cliché. “Who?” I said softly. “Dad?” She never answered. Eventually, she began walking toward our house, toward mediocrity, away from the glorious mutiny. I followed her the rest of the way in silence. I remember this like it was yesterday. I remember because it was the last time we held hands. Signing off, Mary Iris Malone, Mutineer Extraordinaire

“NOW THOSE ARE some interesting shoes. Where does a person get shoes like that?” I guess I’ve held the old lady off for as long as possible. “Goodwill,” I say, stuffing my journal in my backpack. “Which one?” “I don’t . . . really remember.” “Hmm. Very strappy, aren’t they? And colorful.” 17


DAVID ARNOLD The old lady is right. Only the eighties, with its fuchsiainfused electro-pop, could have produced high-top footwear of such dazzling flamboyance. Four Velcro straps apiece, just in case. There’s a whole platoon of unworn sneakers in my closet at home, Kathy’s attempts to replace more pieces of my old life. “My stepmother hates them,” I say, leaning back in my seat. The old woman wrinkles her forehead, leans over for a better look. “Well, I’m quite taken with them. They’ve got pizzazz, don’t you know.” “Thanks,” I say, smiling. Pizzazz. What a word. I look down at her white leather walking shoes, complete with three-inch soles and a wide Velcro band. “Yours are cool, too.” What starts as a chuckle ends in a deep, hearty laugh. “Oh yes,” she says, lifting both feet off the ground. “Très chic, non?” I’ll admit, initially, I’d been wary of sitting next to an old lady: the beehive hairdos, the knit turtlenecks, the smell of onion soup and imminent death. But as the bus had been packed, I’d had very limited options when it came to a seatmate; it was either the old lady, the glassy-eyed Poncho Man, or a three-hundredpound Jabba the Hutt look-alike. So I sat. Beehive hair? Check. Knit turtleneck? Check. Nothing to rile the geriatric gestapo. But her smell . . . I’ve been trying to place it ever since I sat down. It is decidedly un-geriatric. It’s like  .  .  . potpourri, maybe. Abandoned attics, handmade quilts. Fucking fresh-baked cookies, with . . . a hint of cinnamon. That’s it exactly. God, I love cinnamon.

18


mosquitoland The old lady shifts in her seat, accidentally dropping her purse to the floor. In her lap, I see a wooden container no larger than a shoe box. It has a deep red hue and a brass lock, but what stands out most is the way her left hand is holding it: white-knuckled and for dear life. I pick up her purse and hand it to her. Blushing, she replaces it on top of the wooden box. “Thank you,” she says, offering a handshake. “I’m Arlene, by the way.” Her crooked fingers point in all directions, withering under a spiderweb of bulging veins and rusty rings. Not surprisingly, her hand is soft in mine; surprisingly, it is quite pleasant. “I’m Mim.” She raises the same hand to adjust her beehive. “What an interesting name. Mim. Almost as interesting as those shoes.” I smile politely. “It’s an acroname, actually.” “A what?” “My real name is Mary Iris Malone. Mim is just an acronym, but when I was younger, I thought it was acroname, which made total sense.” “Acroname. How clever,” says Arlene. “Mary was my grandmother’s name.” “It’s quite lovely.” I shrug. “I guess. It doesn’t really . . .” “Match the shoes?” she says, smiling, nudging me in the ribs. Arlene is turning out to be a surprise-a-minute, with her Velcro shoes and phraseology, all pizzazz and très chic, non.

19


DAVID ARNOLD I wonder if she’d be so likable if I unloaded on her—just told her everything, even the BREAKING NEWS. I could do it, too. Those bright blue, batty eyes are just begging for it. “So what’s in Cleveland?” she asks, pointing to my backpack. The corner of an envelope is sticking out of a side pocket, its return address clearly visible.

Eve Durham PO Box 449 Cleveland, OH 44103 I tuck the envelope away. “Nothing. My . . . uncle.” “Oh?” says Arlene, raising her eyebrows. “Hmm.” “What?” “I was just thinking—Eve is an interesting name for a man.” Like a priest during confession, Arlene doesn’t meet my eyes. She folds her hands across the purse in her lap, looks straight ahead, and waits for me to tell the truth. We’ve only just met, but things like time hardly matter when dealing with a familiar spirit. I turn, look out the window as the dense forest zooms by in a blur, a thousand trees becoming one. “My parents got divorced three months ago,” I say, just loud enough for her to hear over the hum of the engine. “Dad found a replacement at Denny’s.” “The restaurant?” “I know, right? Most people find breakfast.” Arlene doesn’t laugh at my joke, which makes me like her even more. Some jokes aren’t meant to be funny. “The wedding was six weeks 20


mosquitoland ago. They’re married now.” My chest tightens at the sound of my own words. It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud. “Eve is my mother. She lives in Cleveland.” I feel Arlene’s gentle touch on my back, and I’m afraid of what’s coming. The catchphrase monologue. The sermon of encouragement, imploring bravery in the face of a crumbling American family. It’s all in the manual. Adults just can’t help themselves when it comes to Words of Wisdom. “Is he a good man?” she asks. Arlene, it would seem, has not read the manual. “Who?” “Your father, dear.” Through the window, I see the ocean of trees, now in slow motion: each trunk, an anchor; each treetop, a rolling wave; a thousand coiling branches, leaves, sharp pine needles. My own reflection in the window is ghostlike, translucent. I am part of this Sea of Trees, this landscape blurred. “All my sharp edges,” I whisper. Arlene says something, but it’s muffled, as if from an adjacent room. The hum of the bus dissolves, too. Everything is quiet. I hear only my breath, my heartbeat, the internal factory of Mim Malone. I am six, reading on the floor of our living room in Ashland. Aunt Isabel, visiting from Boston, is sitting at my father’s old rolltop, writing a letter. Dad pokes his head in the room. “Iz, I need my desk back. You done?” Aunt Isabel doesn’t stop scribbling. “I look like I’m done, Bareth?” Dad rolls his eyes, flares his nostrils. “What’s a bareth?” I ask, looking over my book. Aunt Isabel 21


DAVID ARNOLD smiles, her head still bent over her letters. “That is,” she says, pointing to my dad. I look at him quizzically. “I thought your name was Barry?” Aunt Isabel shakes her head. “You thought wrong, little lamb.” I love all her nicknames, but Dad is not amused. “You writing a novel there, Iz?” She doesn’t answer. “Isabel, I’m talking to you.” “No, you’re not,” she says. “You’re making fun of me.” Dad sighs, mutters something about the futility of correspondence, leaves the room. I go back to my book for a few minutes before asking, “Who are you writing to, Aunt Isabel?” “My doctor,” she says. Then, setting her pencil down, she turns to me. “Writing sort of . . . rounds off the sharp edges of my brain, you know?” I nod, but I don’t know; with Aunt Iz, I rarely do. “Tell you what,” she says. “When I go back to Boston, you write to me. You’ll see what I mean.” I consider this for a moment. “Do I have sharp edges, too, Aunt Iz?” She smiles and laughs, and I don’t know why. “Maybe, little lamb. Either way, you should write. It’s better than succumbing to the madness of the world.” Here she pauses, glances at the door where Dad had just been standing. “And cheaper than pills.” Sound returns. The steady hum of the bus engine, and Arlene’s voice, warm and wet. “Are you all right, Mim?” I keep my good eye on the passing landscape. “We used to make waffles,” I say. A brief pause. “Waffles, dear?” “Every Saturday. Dad mixed and whisked while I sat on a wobbly stool and smiled. Then I poured the mix into the waffle maker and . . .” Another pause. 22


mosquitoland “Yes?” says Arlene. “What?” “You stopped in the middle of a sentence, dear.” Aunt Isabel’s last line echoes in my head. Cheaper than pills . . . ills . . . ills . . . ills . . . I turn, set my jaw, and look Arlene squarely in the eyes. I choose my words carefully, devoting attention to each syllable. “I think my dad is a good man who has succumbed to the madness of the world.” At first, Arlene doesn’t respond. She looks concerned, actually, though I can’t be sure if it’s due to my answer or my behavior over the last few minutes. Then . . . her eyes flash, and she nods. “So many do, my dear. So many do.” We ride in silence for a while, and I don’t know about Arlene, but it’s nice to sit that close to someone and not feel the incessant need to talk. The two of us could just be. Which is what I need right now. Because I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay.

23


THE

TRUTH COMMISSION A NOVEL

Susan Juby

VIKING An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)


AUTHOR’S NOTE AKA How the Sausage Will Be Made (Skip This Part If You’re Easily Bored)

First let me say that this will not be an easy tale to tell, so I’ll warm up with an author’s note. That’s one of the great things about creative nonfiction. You can write forewords and author’s notes, prologues and prefaces before you start the actual story. They are the writing equivalent of jumping jacks and shadow boxing. Fiction writers are supposed to get right to it. Visual artists have it even worse. Most assume no one will read their artist statements before looking at their art. Michelangelo didn’t write a preface about where he got the stone for David or an author’s note about why he decided to make David’s hands so big and his . . . well, never mind. But authors expect responsible nonfiction readers to read every word. They get to tell the reader what she’s going to read, as well as why and how it was written. So here goes: This is my Spring Special Project for the second semester of my junior year. The story that follows covers the period from September until November of last term. That would be September to November 2012. I can’t believe all this happened so recently. It feels like a thousand years have passed. Here’s how this project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent


2  Susan Juby

creative writing teacher.1 She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write it as if I do not know what will happen next—as if I’m a reporter, which is often the basis for classic works of creative nonfiction.2 When the whole manuscript is done, my teacher will share it with the project’s second reader, Mr. Wells, Prince Among English Teachers. When those two arbiters of taste, style, and content sign off on what I’ve written, I will have my mark for the Spring Special Project. Et voilà, as we’ve been taught to say in French class! What else do I need to say in order to begin? This might be the time to bring up my use of footnotes. I know not everyone loves them. When we read that heavily footnoted David Foster Wallace essay about going on a cruise,3 students were divided. Some of us loved the footnotes because they were funny and informative and demonstrated DFW’s virtuosic vocabulary. Some of us thought they distracted from the main text and were annoying. Still others of us never do the class readings and so really shouldn’t get to

1. That would be you, Ms. Fowler! 2. Such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. 3. A  Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” first published in Harper’s Magazine as “Shipping Out” (1996). Interesting fact: at first you think the essay’s going to be about how wonderful it is to go on a luxurious cruise, but it turns out to be about death. Highly recommended for depressive readers as well as those who like bitter humor, lists, and footnotes.

ART NOT FINAL


The Truth Commission   3

have an opinion.4 I don’t want to test the reader’s patience too much, so here’s what I propose. I will use footnotes to address my editor. I may also use them to include things that a) are interesting, and b) don’t really fit in the main text, but nevertheless seem important. I may decide to stop using them partway through the story. Who knows what will happen? My random approach to footnotes might help build tension, which is a very big deal in fiction and in nonfiction. I might also decide to add illustrations and doodles in or near the footnotes. (Readers who are not giving feedback and assigning marks to this project can skip the footnotes, but those readers will be missing interestingness, diversity, and art, and those are things no one should ever miss.) Finally, and even though this is an author’s note and not acknowledgments,5 I would like to take this opportunity to thank the powers that be at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design for allowing me to write a nonfiction manuscript for my Spring Special Project. I know other students here at Green Pastures are doing things like creating life-sized replicas of NASA’s Opportunity rover out of circuit boards, old washing-machine parts, and antique fish tanks, and weaving huge wall hangings featuring images of our prime minister clinging to Parliament’s Peace Tower like King Kong in a sweater vest, so a regular

4. M  s. Fowler, may I compliment you on how patient you are with the nonreaders in our class? 5. I can’t wait to write my acknowledgments for this project! It’s going to be like writing an Academy Awards speech for an award that I gave to myself!


4  Susan Juby

old written story, especially a true one, seems a little prosaic and uninspired. My best friend Dusk is doing a tabletop installation featuring a taxidermied shrew in a shrew-sized mobile home. My other best friend, Neil, is doing uncanny paintings of beautiful women. Just when you think you understand how attractiveness works, Neil’s oil paintings will make you reconsider. Their work is so physical and concrete. So art-y. It makes me doubt myself as I sit here at a computer, typing out words onto an electronic page. Sure, I do fine art or I wouldn’t have been admitted into this school, no matter who my sister is.6 I draw, I make stuff, and I’m a stitching fanatic (current obsession—embroideries that look like paintings), but I believe that writing is as much an art as any other. Some might fight me on this point, and they would probably win, because I’m not very tough—physically I could stand to work out more—still, I remain sort of convinced. This story, which my creative writing teacher tells me falls into the “much maligned category of creative nonfiction,”7 is complicated but it wants to come out. It needs to come out. Warning: Sometimes when I write, I find myself lapsing

6. More about her later. 7. Just to show I’ve been paying attention in class, creative nonfiction refers to stories that employ the techniques of fiction, such as being interesting and fun to read, as opposed to fiction that has a few true bits. Notable contemporary practitioners include Jon Krakauer, Annie Dillard, and John Vaillant. Problematic practitioners include James Frey and Greg Mortenson.


The Truth Commission   5

into what Mr. Wells calls “high turgid English.” That happens when I’m not quite warmed up enough. My hope is, the further I get into this story, the more I’ll move into “plain English” or, as Mr. W. styles it, “effective writing.” I’m extremely nervous about telling all this stuff. That’s the plain truth. Maybe I should write a preface or some other front matter next.8

8. F ront matter is things like tables of contents, author’s notes, prologues, prefaces, and copyright pages.


epigraph

9

Tell all the truth but tell it slant. —EMILY DICKINSON

All I know is what I have words for. —PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS, LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN

Tell the truth, or someone will tell it for you. —STRAIGHT UP AND DIRTY: A MEMOIR, STEPHANIE KLEIN

9. Please tick your top choice for epigraph. I can’t decide.


*** ART NOT FINAL Preface[1]

10

In the beginning, I had a mother, a father, a sister, and two real friends. My friends’ names were Neil and Dusk. (Her real name is actually Dawn, but she prefers Dusk for reasons having to do with her essential nature and temperament, which is less morning, more evening.) Together, my friends and I formed the Truth Commission. We went on a search for truth and, to our surprise and my chagrin, we found it. When all this started, the three of us had modest ambitions. We didn’t set out to change lives. You will have noticed that there is no “reconciliation” in our title, as with

10. I wasn’t sure whether this should be called a prologue or a preface. As far as I can tell, a preface is more common in nonfiction. Feel free to advise. I have to say that I’m really enjoying this creative writing project so far.


10  Susan Juby

other, more famous and important, truth commissions.11 By the time you finish this story, you will agree that adding a bit of reconciliation to truth-seeking endeavors is a smart move. Neglecting it was an oversight on our part. A bad one. As you know, there are several classes of truth. There are the truths that pour out on confessional blogs and YouTube channels. There are the supposed truths exposed in gossip magazines and on reality television, which everyone knows are just lies in truth clothing. Then there are the truths that show themselves only under ideal circumstances: like when you are talking deep into the night with a friend and you tell each other things you would never say if your defenses weren’t broken down by salty snacks, sugary beverages, darkness, and a flood of words. There are the truths found in books or films when some writer puts exactly the right words together and it’s like their pen turned sword and pierced you right through the heart. Truths like those are rare and getting rarer. But there are other truths lying around, half exposed in the street, like drunken cheerleaders trying to

11. For the gentle reader who has no knowledge of the subject, a truth commission (also known as a truth and reconciliation commission) is established to help a country’s citizens find out the truth about abuses of human rights (such as genocide and torture and false imprisonment) and make recommendations—that’s the “reconciliation”—about how to go forward. Think apartheid. Think Canadian residential schools for First Nations peoples. Dusk, Neil, and I were working on a completely different scale, obviously, but we didn’t give much thought to reconciling ourselves or anyone else to the truths we found. Why is this a problem? Consider, if you will, the Oxford Dictionary definition of reconciliation: 1. The restoration of friendly relations; 2. The action of making one view or belief compatible with another. I think we can agree that we may have screwed up by leaving that part out.


*** Preface[1]

The Truth Commission   11

speak. For some reason, hardly anyone leans down to listen to them. Well, Neil, Dusk, and I did. And it turns out those drunken cheerleaders had some shocking things to say. This is a story about easy truths, hard truths, and those things best left unsaid.

ART NOT FINAL


Tuesday, September 4

A Vest-Induced Optical Illusion

On the first day of grade eleven, Neil, Dusk, and I were sitting on the benches outside our fair institution of moderate learning, the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design12 pretending to smoke candy cigarettes and comparing our running shoes. We have this hobby where we try to see how long our shoes can hold out. In a culture that places undue emphasis on new footwear, we are passive resistors. Dusk has been wearing the hell out of her grandfather’s New Balance (size 9, extra wide) for two years. They are disgusting, and Neil and I are envious and wish our grandfathers were still alive so they could give us some old man shoes. Neil whispered, “Sweet Mother Mary.” “I know. I wore them all summer. I even swam in them. I think they actually rotted onto my feet. Practically had to have surgery to get them off,” said Dusk, proudly lifting a wretched shoe the shade and texture of a badly used oyster. Dusk is one of the few people on the planet who can get away with disgusting shoes, because she’s chronically attractive. When she has a blemish and hasn’t brushed her

12. Serving oddballs in grades ten through twelve since 2007.


14  Susan Juby

hair or teeth, she’s a fifteen out of ten. On a good day, she’s up in the twenties, looks-wise. “Shhh,” said Neil. Look.” He sounded like a bird watcher who’d just spotted a blue-gray gnatcatcher. Gorgeous women are Neil’s subjects, which makes him sound pervy. He’s not. He’s just very interested. In his drawings and paintings, he seems to be trying to get to the heart of what draws everyone’s eye to one woman and not to another. Most of his paintings show a lone beautiful female avoiding the gaze of a crowd. Sometimes she’s slipping off the edge of the canvas. Sometimes she’s staring, exasperated, into the middle distance, as everything else in the picture seems to lean in toward her. Last summer Neil started a series of paintings of Dusk. He took Polaroids of her in various situations and then created his peculiar, uncomfortable scenarios around her. Dusk is perfect for Neil’s paintings because few people can muster such sour facial expressions while remaining devastatingly attractive. Dusk is Neil’s muse. Our instructors all think Neil has an extremely mature perspective and an “uncommonly sympathetic eye.”13 Here’s something else I can tell you about Neil: he has an adorably seedy vibe, thanks to his habit of dressing like characters from some of the grittier movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and thanks to his father, who leads a life of near-total leisure. For our first day of school he’d worn a too-large, formerly white, large-collared dress shirt over a V-necked T-shirt and brown polyester dress pants. This

13. A  direct quote from Ms. Dubinsky, who teaches Women and Art: A Wild History at G. P. Academy.


The Truth Commission   15

outfit was an homage to Al Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon, which, according to Neil, is about an incompetent bank robber with a lot of secrets. Of course, no one picks up on the reference. They just think Neil is a super-bad dresser. Which is sort of great. Dusk and I followed his gaze past our candy cigarettes and spotted Aimee Danes, who’d just gotten out of her claret-colored BMW. As we watched, Aimee stretched her nose up to catch passing scents and held out her arms to draw the sun’s rays to her chest. But what a nose! And what a chest! Aimee had had some renovations done over the summer. At the close of grade ten, just three months before, Aimee Danes had an insistent nose. Long and gracefully curved, it was a nose that was sure of itself and its opinions. It was a bit Meryl Streep-ish, and I was a great admirer of its confidence. Her chest never registered with me, which means that it probably wasn’t as impressive as her nose, but neither was it nonexistent, because I probably would have noticed that because I am relatively observant. Dusk, for example, is not well endowed. Neil says Dusk has a “runway bust.” She replies that it better run on back before she reports it to the authorities. Anyway, back to Aimee and the alterations. Here it was, the first day of grade eleven, and she showed up sporting a shrunken nose and a rampart of a bosom tucked into a white leather vest. You think I kid about the vest. I do not. It appeared soft and made of the rarest hide. Baby unicorn, maybe. The vest contrasted strangely with the new nose, which appeared to be huddling on Aimee’s face, hoping not to be noticed. It was not a nose that would put up its hand and


16  Susan Juby

venture a guess. It was not a nose that belonged anywhere near a unicorn-hide vest. You have to understand that G. P. Academy is not the sort of school where one expects to see plastic surgery. Maybe some of the students who are into the new primitivism have had radical and wince-inducing body modifications like forehead studs or whatever. But no one gets cosmetic procedures. We’re about self-expression here, but not that kind of self-expression. “Last year all she got was that car,” said Dusk as we watched Aimee continue to sniff the air with her tiny nose and expose the Mariana Trench of her cleavage to the warming rays. “Is all that new?” I whispered, making a windshield wiper gesture with my hand and wondering, as always, if I was seeing the situation clearly. “Nose or chest?” asked Neil. “Both, I guess. I mean, I can tell the nose is new. That’s too bad. I loved her old nose.” “The girls,” said Neil, making a vague double-handful gesture, “are definitely new.” “Maybe they just look really big because the nose is so small,” I suggested. “And because that vest is so . . . white.” “So you’re saying it could be a vest-induced optical illusion?” asked Dusk. “Maybe. We shouldn’t assume.” “I’m pretty sure those kinds of changes are meant to be noticed,” said Neil. “They are part of Aimee’s self-presentation. My guess is that she’d be devastated if no one noticed. It’s like if you spent two days Photoshopping your Facebook profile picture and no liked it or commented on how good you look.”


The Truth Commission   17

“So we’re supposed to notice but not ask?” said Dusk. By this time Aimee had begun a series of attention-getting stretches. She looked as though she’d been gardening or bricklaying for eight hard hours and had a crick in her spine. A lot of her posturing seemed directed at us. Which made sense, because we were the only people around. We had arrived thirty minutes early because we came in my truck, which has a tendency to flood and stall, so we build extra time into every trip. “We should say something,” Dusk whispered. “Like what?” I asked. “Tell her she looks nice. She’s probably nervous. She’s made all these changes and we’re the first ones on-site for inspection.” “It’s not an inspection,” I said. “It’s school.” “Same thing,” said Dusk. “We need to be more specific,” said Neil, ignoring me. “We should tell her we think the work is excellent. Topnotch and first-rate. Madonna-caliber work.” “People don’t want their fakery exposed,” I said. “I think a lot of the time, they do,” said Neil. “We live in an age of unparalleled falseness,” said Dusk. Her voice had taken on that rebar quality it gets when she’s about to take a stand on some issue. “And I for one have had enough. I’m going to say something.” She stood, and her rotted shoes made a squelching sound. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” I said. Dusk repositioned the candy cigarette in the corner of her mouth. “Dusk, you’re the wrong person for the job,” I whispered. “You’re too perfect.” My gaze slid over to Neil.


18  Susan Juby

“Are you suggesting that I’m less than a total Adonis?” said Neil. Then he laughed softly to himself. Neil has longish hair that he slicks back with just a hint too much product. He’d unbuttoned his dress shirt, and the T-shirt was cut low so it showed just a touch too much chest. There are days when Neil wears a silk scarf. Neil kills me, but in a good way. He acts like he has Teflon self-esteem, even though he’s one of the most sensitive people I know. His father is a local developer with a shady reputation and a relaxed approach to everything, including parenting his only child. The first time Dusk and I went over to his house, right after he moved to town last September, Neil greeted us at the front door in a white terry après-swim robe. He’d laid out a tray of pickled onions and pimento-stuffed olives skewered with toothpicks. He asked if we’d like gin and tonics. We said we were driving our bikes, so he gave us cucumber water instead. Neil, Dusk, and I have been inseparable ever since. It’s only been a year, but it feels comfortingly like forever. Anyway, back to that first truth telling. “There are dynamics to consider here,” I said. That was my role in our little threesome. Dynamics considerer. Consequence worrier. Diplomat. Dusk was in charge of our moral compass, passing snap judgments and making peer pressuring and bold pronouncements. Neil dealt in unconditional acceptance and appreciation of everyone, as well as unpredictable areas of expertise and jokes, mostly aimed at himself. “Fine,” said Neil, completely unflustered. “I’ll do it.” By this point, I was no longer certain what we were doing or why, but Aimee was preening so hard that I was


The Truth Commission   19

concerned she’d damage the vest that a unicorn baby had probably died for. “Go!” whispered Dusk. And so Neil got up, adjusted the enormous collar of his dress shirt, and shoved his entire candy cigarette into his mouth. We watched him stride over to Aimee. When he spoke, he was too far away for us to hear what he said. Aimee’s head reared back. Her posture stiffened. More words from Neil, whose hands were shoved deep in the pockets of his polyester pants. His tan was terrific, because this summer, in addition to painting a series of pictures featuring Dusk, he’d decided to revive what he called the “lost art of sunbathing.” He’s also working on what he calls a “disturbing hint of a mustache.” Disturbing on anyone else. Endearing on him. As we watched, Aimee’s shoulders relaxed. She leaned toward Neil. Touched his shoulder. She laughed and started to talk. Words, indistinguishable words, poured out of her. At the end of the conversation, she put her hand on his shoulder again and she kissed him. I swear it’s true. Neil had confronted a girl about her new rhinoplasty and freshly installed breast implants and in return he received a kiss on the cheek. He sauntered back, reverentially holding a hand to the cheek Aimee had kissed. “She had the procedures done in July because it’s her dream to become a broadcast journalist on a major network. She’s always wanted a nose job, even though her mother told her that a nose job ruined someone named Jennifer Grey’s career. It took some doing for her parents to agree to the implants because there was concern her chest was still


20  Susan Juby

growing but she talked them into it and she feels terrific and is glad we live in a time when God’s mistakes can be fixed.” “You’re a one-man truth commission,” said Dusk, admiring. “The truth shall set us free,” said Neil. “Will it?” I asked. But no one was listening. “My refreshing directness startled her at first. But it also allowed her to talk about the most important news in her life right now. We’re going for coffee later and she’s going to give me more details.” Neil was immensely pleased with himself. “Aimee and I are now on a different plane, relationship-wise.” “You have no secrets between you,” I said, ignoring the twinge of jealousy I felt; Aimee would probably end up being his next muse. Not that I’m keen to be featured in anyone’s art. I’ve had more than enough of that. “I want to ask someone the truth,” said Dusk. “I think truth is what has been missing in my life. Well, it’s one of the things that has been missing, along with a sense of purpose and positive self-esteem.” Neil faced us. “I believe this could be our new spiritual practice,” he said. “Each week, each of us will ask someone else the truth.” “It is our destiny to bring some much-needed truth into this world of lies,” said Dusk. And so the Truth Commission was born.


An Imprint of Penguin Random House

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P art I :

The Raid

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I: Laia

M

y big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest. He smells of steel and coal and forge. He

smells of the enemy. He folds his scarecrow body through the window, bare feet silent on the rushes. A hot desert wind blows in after him, rustling the limp curtains. His sketchbook falls to the floor, and he nudges it under his bunk with a quick foot, as if it’s a snake. Where have you been, Darin? In my head, I have the courage to ask the question, and Darin trusts me enough to answer. Why do you keep disappearing? Why, when Pop and Nan need you? When I need you? Every night for almost two years, I’ve wanted to ask. Every night, I’ve lacked the courage. I have one sibling left. I don’t want him to shut me out like he has everyone else. But tonight’s different. I know what’s in his sketchbook. I know what it means. “You shouldn’t be awake.” Darin’s whisper jolts me from my thoughts. He has a cat’s sense for traps—he got it from our mother. I sit up on the bunk as he lights the lamp. No use pretending to be asleep. “It’s past curfew, and three patrols have gone by. I was worried.” “I can avoid the soldiers, Laia. Lots of practice.” He rests his chin on my bunk and smiles Mother’s sweet, crooked smile. A familiar look—the one he gives me if I wake from a nightmare or we run out of grain. Everything will be fine, the look says. He picks up the book on my bed. “Gather in the Night,” he reads the title. “Spooky. What’s it about?”

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“I just started it. It’s about a jinn—” I stop. Clever. Very clever. He likes hearing stories as much as I like telling them. “Forget that. Where were you? Pop had a dozen patients this morning.” And I filled in for you because he can’t do so much alone. Which left Nan to bottle the trader’s jams by herself. Except she didn’t finish. Now the trader won’t pay us, and we’ll starve this winter, and why in the skies don’t you care? I say these things in my head. The smile’s already dropped off Darin’s face. “I’m not cut out for healing,” he says. “Pop knows that.” I want to back down, but I think of Pop’s slumped shoulders this morning. I think of the sketchbook. “Pop and Nan depend on you. At least talk to them. It’s been months.” I wait for him to tell me that I don’t understand. That I should leave him be. But he just shakes his head, drops down into his bunk, and closes his eyes like he can’t be bothered to reply. “I saw your drawings.” The words tumble out in a rush, and Darin’s up in an instant, his face stony. “I wasn’t spying,” I say. “One of the pages was loose. I found it when I changed the rushes this morning.” “Did you tell Nan and Pop? Did they see?” “No, but—” “Laia, listen.” Ten hells, I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear his excuses. “What you saw is dangerous,” he says. “You can’t tell anyone about it. Not ever. It’s not just my life at risk. There are others—” “Are you working for the Empire, Darin? Are you working for the Martials?” He is silent. I think I see the answer in his eyes, and I feel ill. My brother is a traitor to his own people? My brother is siding with the Empire? If he hoarded grain, or sold books, or taught children to read, I’d understand. I’d be proud of him for doing the things I’m not brave enough to do.

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 5 The Empire raids, jails, and kills for such “crimes,” but teaching a six-yearold her letters isn’t evil—not in the minds of my people, the Scholar people. But what Darin has done is sick. It’s a betrayal. “The Empire killed our parents.” I whisper. “Our sister.” I want to shout at him, but I choke on the words. The Martials conquered Scholar lands five hundred years ago, and since then, they’ve done nothing but oppress and enslave us. Once, the Scholar Empire was home to the finest universities and libraries in the world. Now, most of our people can’t tell a school from an armory. “How could you side with the Martials? How, Darin?” “It’s not what you think, Laia. I’ll explain everything, but—” He pauses suddenly, his hand jerking up to silence me when I ask for the promised explanation. He cocks his head toward the window. Through the thin walls, I hear Pop’s snores, Nan shifting in her sleep, a mourning dove’s croon. Familiar sounds. Home sounds. Darin hears something else. The blood drains from his face, and dread flashes in his eyes. “Laia,” he says. “Raid.” “But if you work for the Empire—” Then why are the soldiers raiding us? “I’m not working for them.” He sounds calm. Calmer than I feel. “Hide the sketchbook. That’s what they want. That’s what they’re here for.” Then he’s out the door, and I’m alone. My bare legs move like cold molasses, my hands like wooden blocks. Hurry, Laia! Usually, the Empire raids in the heat of the day. The soldiers want Scholar mothers and children to watch. They want fathers and brothers to see another man’s family enslaved. As bad as those raids are, the night raids are worse. The night raids are for when the Empire doesn’t want witnesses. I wonder if this is real. If it’s a nightmare. It’s real, Laia. Move.

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I drop the sketchbook out the window into a hedge. It’s a poor hiding place, but I have no time. Nan hobbles into my room. Her hands, so steady when she stirs vats of jam or braids my hair, flutter like frantic birds, desperate for me to move faster. She pulls me into the hallway. Darin stands with Pop at the back door. My grandfather’s white hair is scattered as a haystack and his clothes are wrinkled, but there’s no sleep in the deep grooves of his face. He murmurs something to my brother, then hands him Nan’s largest kitchen knife. I don’t know why he bothers. Against the Serric steel of a Martial blade, the knife will only shatter. “You and Darin leave through the backyard,” Nan says, her eyes darting from window to window. “They haven’t surrounded the house yet.” No. No. No. “Nan,” I breathe her name, stumbling when she pushes me toward Pop. “Hide in the east end of the Quarter—” Her sentence ends in a choke, her eyes on the front window. Through the ragged curtains, I catch a flash of a liquid silver face. My stomach clenches. “A Mask,” Nan says. “They’ve brought a Mask. Go, Laia. Before he gets inside.” “What about you? What about Pop?” “We’ll hold them off.” Pop shoves me gently out the door. “Keep your secrets close, love. Listen to Darin. He’ll take care of you. Go.” Darin’s lean shadow falls over me, and he grabs my hand as the door closes behind us. He slouches to blend into the warm night, moving silently across the loose sand of the backyard with a confidence I wish I felt. Although I am seventeen and old enough to control my fear, I grip his hand like it’s the only solid thing in this world. I’m not working for them, Darin said. Then whom is he working for?

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 7 Somehow, he got close enough to the forges of Serra to draw, in detail, the creation process of the Empire’s most precious asset: the unbreakable, curved scims that can cut through three men at once. A half a millennium ago, the Scholars crumbled beneath the Martial invasion because our blades broke against their superior steel. Since then, we have learned nothing of steelcraft. The Martials hoard their secrets the way a miser hoards gold. Anyone caught near our city’s forges without good reason—Scholar or Martial—risks execution. If Darin isn’t with the Empire, how did he get near Serra’s forges? How did the Martials find out about his sketchbook? On the other side of the house, a fist pounds on the front door. Boots shuffle, steel clinks. I look around wildly, expecting to see the silver armor and red capes of Empire legionnaires, but the backyard is still. The fresh night air does nothing to stop the sweat rolling down my neck. Distantly, I hear the thud of drums from Blackcliff, the Mask training school. The sound sharpens my fear into a hard point stabbing at my center. The Empire doesn’t send those silver-faced monsters on just any raid. The pounding on the door sounds again. “In the name of the Empire,” an irritated voice says, “I demand you open this door.” As one, Darin and I freeze. “Doesn’t sound like a Mask,” Darin whispers. Masks speak softly with words that cut through you like a scim. In the time it would take a legionnaire to knock and issue an order, a Mask would already be in the house, weapons slicing through anyone in his way. Darin meets my eyes, and I know we’re both thinking the same thing. If the Mask isn’t with the rest of the soldiers at the front door, then where is he?

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“Don’t be afraid, Laia,” Darin says. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” I want to believe him, but my fear is a tide tugging at my ankles, pulling me under. I think of the couple that lived next door: raided, imprisoned, and sold into slavery three weeks ago. Book smugglers, the Martials said. Five days after that, one of Pop’s oldest patients, a ninety-three-year-old man who could barely walk, was executed in his own home, his throat slit from ear to ear. Resistance collaborator. What will the soldiers do to Nan and Pop? Jail them? Enslave them? Kill them? We reach the back gate. Darin stands on his toes to unhook the latch when a scrape in the alley beyond stops him short. A breeze sighs past, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Darin pushes me behind him. His knuckles are white around the knife handle as the gate swings open with a moan. A finger of terror draws a trail up my spine. I peer over my brother’s shoulder into the alley. There is nothing out there but the quiet shifting of sand. Nothing but the occasional gust of wind and the shuttered windows of our sleeping neighbors. I sigh in relief and step around Darin. That’s when the Mask emerges from the darkness and walks through the gate.

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II: Elias

T

he deserter will be dead before dawn. His tracks zigzag like a struck deer’s in the dust of Serra’s catacombs.

The tunnels have done him in. The hot air is too heavy down here, the smells of death and rot too close. The tracks are more than an hour old by the time I see them. The guards have his scent now, poor bastard. If he’s lucky, he’ll die in the chase. If not . . . Don’t think about it. Hide the backpack. Get out of here. Skulls crunch as I shove a pack loaded with food and water into a wall crypt. Helene would give me hell if she could see how I’m treating the dead. But then, if Helene finds out why I’m down here in the first place, desecration will be the least of her complaints. She won’t find out. Not until it’s too late. Guilt pricks at me, but I shove it away. Helene’s the strongest person I know. She’ll be fine without me. For what feels like the hundredth time, I look over my shoulder. The tunnel is quiet. The deserter led the soldiers in the opposite direction. But safety’s an illusion I know never to trust. I work quickly, piling bones back in front of the crypt to cover my trail, my senses primed for anything out of the ordinary. One more day of this. One more day of paranoia and hiding and lying. One day until graduation. Then I’ll be free. As I rearrange the crypt’s skulls, the hot air shifts like a bear waking from hibernation. The smells of grass and snow cut through the fetid breath of the tunnel. Two seconds is all I have to step away from the crypt and kneel, examining the ground as if there might be tracks here. Then she is at my back. “Elias? What are you doing down here?”

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“Didn’t you hear? There’s a deserter loose.” I keep my attention fixed on the dusty floor. Beneath the silver mask that covers me from forehead to jaw, my face should be unreadable. But Helene Aquilla and I have been together nearly every day of the fourteen years we’ve been training at Blackcliff Military Academy; she can probably hear me thinking. She comes around me silently, and I look up into her eyes, as blue and pale as the warm waters of the southern islands. My mask sits atop my face, separate and foreign, hiding my features as well as my emotions. But Hel’s mask clings to her like a silvery second skin, and I can see the slight furrow in her brow as she looks down at me. Relax, Elias, I tell myself. You’re just looking for a deserter. “He didn’t come this way,” Hel says. She runs a hand over her hair, braided, as always, into a tight, silver-blonde crown. “Dex took an auxiliary company off the north watchtower and into the East Branch tunnel. You think they’ll catch him?” Aux soldiers, though not as highly trained as legionnaires and nothing compared to Masks, are still merciless hunters. “Of course they’ll catch him.” I fail to keep the bitterness out of my voice, and Helene gives me a hard look. “The cowardly scum,” I add. “Anyway, why are you awake? You weren’t on watch this morning.” I made sure of it. “Those bleeding drums.” Helene looks around the tunnel. “Woke everyone up.” The drums. Of course. Deserter, they’d thundered in the middle of the graveyard watch. All active units to the walls. Helene must have decided to join the hunt. Dex, my lieutenant, would have told her which direction I’d gone. He’d have thought nothing of it.

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 11 “I thought the deserter might have come this way.” I turn from my hidden pack to look down another tunnel. “Guess I was wrong. I should catch up to Dex.” “Much as I hate to admit it, you’re not usually wrong.” Helene cocks her head and smiles at me. I feel that guilt again, wrenching as a fist to the gut. She’ll be furious when she learns what I’ve done. She’ll never forgive me. Doesn’t matter. You’ve decided. Can’t turn back now. Hel traces the dust on the ground with a fair, practiced hand. “I’ve never even seen this tunnel before.” A drop of sweat crawls down my neck. I ignore it. “It’s hot, and it reeks,” I say. “Like everything else down here.” Come on, I want to add. But doing so would be like tattooing “I am up to no good” on my forehead. I keep quiet and lean against the catacomb wall, arms crossed. The field of battle is my temple. I mentally chant a saying my grandfather taught me the day he met me, when I was six. He insists it sharpens the mind the way a whetstone sharpens a blade. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release. Helene peers at my blurred tracks, following them, somehow, to the crypt where I stowed my pack, to the skulls piled there. She’s suspicious, and the air between us is suddenly tense. Damn it. I need to distract her. As she looks between me and the crypt, I run my gaze lazily down her body. She stands two inches shy of six feet—a half-foot shorter than me. She’s the only female student at Blackcliff; in the black, close-fitting fatigues all students wear, her strong, slender form has always drawn admiring glances. Just not mine. We’ve been friends too long for that.

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Come on, notice. Notice me leering and get mad about it. When I meet her eyes, brazen as a sailor fresh into port, she opens her mouth, as if to rip into me. Then she looks back at the crypt. If she sees the pack and guesses what I’m up to, I’m done for. She might hate doing it, but Empire law would demand she report me, and Helene’s never broken a law in her life. “Elias—” I prepare my lie. Just wanted to get away for a couple of days, Hel. Needed some time to think. Didn’t want to worry you. BOOM-BOOM-boom-BOOM. The drums. Without thought, I translate the disparate beats into the message they are meant to convey. Deserter caught. All students report to central courtyard immediately. My stomach sinks. Some naïve part of me hoped the deserter would at least make it out of the city. “That didn’t take long,” I say. “We should go.” I make for the main tunnel. Helene follows, as I knew she would. She would stab herself in the eye before she disobeyed a direct order. Helene is a true Martial, more loyal to the Empire than to her own mother. Like any good Mask-in-training, she takes Blackcliff’s motto to heart: Duty first, unto death. I wonder what she would say if she knew what I’d really been doing in the tunnels. I wonder how she’d feel about my hatred for the Empire. I wonder what she would do if she found out her best friend is planning to desert.

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III: Laia

T

he Mask saunters through the gate, big hands loose at his sides. The strange metal of his namesake clings to him from forehead to jaw like

silver paint, revealing every feature of his face, from the thin eyebrows to the hard angles of his cheekbones. His copper-plated armor molds to his muscles, emphasizing the power in his body. A passing wind billows his black cape, and he looks around the backyard like he’s arrived at a garden party. His pale eyes find me, slide up my form, and settle on my face with a reptile’s flat regard. “Aren’t you a pretty one,” he says. I yank at the ragged hem of my shift, wishing desperately for the shapeless, ankle-length skirt I wear during the day. The Mask doesn’t even twitch. Nothing in his face tells me what he’s thinking. But I can guess. Darin steps in front of me and glances at the fence, as if gauging the time it will take to reach it. “I’m alone, boy.” The Mask addresses Darin with all the emotion of a corpse. “The rest of the men are in your house. You can run if you like.” He moves away from the gate. “But I insist you leave the girl.” Darin raises the knife. “Chivalrous of you,” the Mask says. Then he strikes, a flash of copper and silver lightning out of an empty sky. In the time it takes me to gasp, the Mask has shoved my brother’s face into the sandy ground and pinned his writhing body with a knee. Nan’s knife falls to the dirt. A scream erupts from me, lonely in the still summer night. Seconds later, a scimpoint pricks my throat. I didn’t even see the Mask draw the weapon.

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“Quiet,” he says. “Arms up. Now get inside.” The Mask uses one hand to yank Darin up by the neck and the other to prod me on with his scim. My brother limps, face bloodied, eyes dazed. When he struggles, a fish on a hook, the Mask tightens his grip. The back door of the house opens, and a red-caped legionnaire comes out. “The house is secure, Commander.” The Mask shoves Darin at the soldier. “Bind him up. He’s strong.” Then he grabs me by the hair, twisting until I cry out. “Mmm.” He bends his head to my ear, and I cringe, my terror caught in my throat. “I’ve always loved dark-haired girls.” I wonder if he has a sister, a wife, a woman. But it wouldn’t matter if he did. To him, I’m not someone’s family. I’m just a thing to be subdued, used, and discarded. The Mask drags me down the hallway to the front room as casually as a hunter drags his kill. Fight, I tell myself. Fight. But as if he senses my pathetic attempts at bravery, his hand squeezes, and pain lances through my skull. I sag and let him pull me along. Legionnaires stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the front room amid upturned furniture and broken bottles of jam. Trader won’t get anything now. So many days spent over steaming kettles, my hair and skin smelling of apricot and cinnamon. So many jars, steamed and dried, filled and sealed. Useless. All useless. The lamps are lit, and Nan and Pop kneel in the middle of the floor, their hands bound behind their backs. The soldier holding Darin shoves him to the ground beside them. “Shall I tie up the girl, sir?” Another soldier fingers the rope at his belt, but the Mask leaves me between two burly legionnaires.

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 15 “She’s not going to cause any trouble.” He stabs at me with those eyes. “Are you?” I shake my head and shrink back, hating myself for being such a coward. I reach for my mother’s tarnished armlet, wrapped around my bicep, and touch the familiar pattern for strength. I find none. Mother would have fought. She’d have died rather than face this humiliation. But I can’t make myself move. My fear has ensnared me. A legionnaire enters the room, his face more than a little nervous. “It’s not here, Commander.” The Mask looks down at my brother. “Where’s the sketchbook?” Darin stares straight ahead, silent. His breath is low and steady, and he doesn’t seem dazed anymore. In fact, he’s almost composed. The Mask gestures, a small movement. One of the legionnaires lifts Nan by her neck and slams her frail body against a wall. Nan bites her lip, her eyes sparking blue. Darin tries to rise, but another soldier forces him down. The Mask scoops up a shard of glass from one of the broken jars. His tongue flickers out like a snake’s as he tastes the jam. “Shame it’s all gone to waste.” He caresses Nan’s face with the edge of the shard. “You must have been beautiful once. Such eyes.” He turns to Darin. “Shall I carve them out of her?” “It’s outside the small bedroom window. In the hedge.” I can’t manage more than a whisper, but the soldiers hear. The Mask nods, and one of the legionnaires disappears into the hallway. Darin doesn’t look at me, but I feel his dismay. Why did you tell me to hide it, I want to cry out. Why did you bring the cursed thing home? The legionnaire returns with the book. For unending seconds, the only sound in the room is the rustling of pages as the Mask flips through the sketches. If the rest of the book is anything like the page I found, I know

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what the Mask will see: Martial knives, swords, scabbards, forges, formulas, instructions—things no Scholar should know of, let alone recreate on paper. “How did you get into the Weapons Quarter, boy?” The Mask looks up from the book. “Has the Resistance been bribing some Plebeian drudge to sneak you in?” I stifle a sob. Half of me is relieved Darin’s no traitor. The other half wants to rage at him for being such a fool. Association with the Scholar’s Resistance carries a death sentence. “I got myself in,” my brother says. “The Resistance had nothing to do with it.” “You were seen entering the catacombs last night after curfew”—the Mask almost sounds bored—“in the company of known Scholar rebels.” “Last night, he was home well before curfew,” Pop speaks up, and it is strange to hear my grandfather lie. But it makes no difference. The Mask’s eyes are for my brother alone. The man doesn’t blink as he reads Darin’s face the way I’d read a book. “Those rebels were taken into custody today,” the Mask says. “One of them gave up your name before he died. What were you doing with them?” “They followed me.” Darin sounds so calm. Like he’s done this before. Like he’s not afraid at all. “I’d never met them before.” “And yet they knew of your book here. Told me all about it. How did they learn of it? What did they want from you?” “I don’t know.” The Mask presses the shard of glass deep into the soft skin below Nan’s eye, and her nostrils flare. A trickle of blood traces a wrinkle down her face. Darin draws a sharp breath, the only sign of strain. “They asked for my sketchbook,” he says. “I said no. I swear it.”

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 17 “And their hideout?” “I didn’t see. They blindfolded me. We were in the catacombs.” “Where in the catacombs?” “I didn’t see. They blindfolded me.” The Mask eyes my brother for a long moment. I don’t know how Darin can remain unruffled beneath that gaze. “You’re prepared for this.” The smallest bit of surprise creeps into the Mask’s voice. “Straight back. Deep breathing. Same answers to different questions. Who trained you, boy?” When Darin doesn’t answer, the Mask shrugs. “A few weeks in prison will loosen your tongue.” Nan and I exchange a frightened glance. If Darin ends up in a Martial prison, we’ll never see him again. He’ll spend weeks in interrogation, and after that they’ll either sell him as a slave or kill him. “He’s just a boy,” Pop speaks slowly, as if to an angry patient. “Please—” Steel flashes, and Pop drops like a stone. The Mask moves so swiftly that I don’t understand what he has done. Not until Nan rushes forward. Not until she lets out a shrill keen, a shaft of pure pain that brings me to my knees. Pop. Skies, not Pop. A dozen vows sear themselves into my mind. I’ll never disobey again, I’ll never do anything wrong, I’ll never complain about my work, if only Pop lives. But Nan tears her hair and screams, and if Pop was alive, he’d never let her go on like that. He wouldn’t have been able to bear it. Darin’s calm is sheared away as if by a scythe, his face blanched with a horror I feel down to my bones. Nan stumbles to her feet and takes one tottering step toward the Mask. He reaches out to her, as if to put his hand on her shoulder. The last thing I see in my grandmother’s eyes is terror. Then the Mask’s gauntleted wrist flashes

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once, leaving a thin red line across Nan’s throat, a line that grows wider and redder as she falls. Her body hits the floor with a thud, her eyes still open and shining with tears as blood pours from her neck and into the rug we knotted together last winter. “Sir,” one of the legionnaires says. “An hour until dawn.” “Get the boy out of here.” The Mask doesn’t give Nan a second glance. “And burn this place down.” He turns to me then, and I wish I could fade like a shadow into the wall behind me. I wish for it harder than I’ve ever wished for anything, knowing all the while how foolish it is. The soldiers flanking me grin at each other as the Mask takes a slow step in my direction. He holds my gaze as if he can smell my fear, a cobra enthralling its prey. No, please, no. Disappear, I want to disappear. The Mask blinks, some foreign emotion flickering across his eyes—surprise or shock, I can’t tell. It doesn’t matter. Because in that moment, Darin leaps up from the floor. While I cowered, he loosened his bindings. His hands stretch out like claws as he lunges for the Mask’s throat. His rage lends him a lion’s strength, and for a second he is every inch our mother, honey hair glowing, eyes blazing, mouth twisted in a feral snarl. The Mask backs into the blood pooled near Nan’s head, and Darin is on him, knocking him to the ground, raining down blows. The legionnaires stand frozen in disbelief and then come to their senses, surging forward, shouting and swearing. Darin pulls a dagger free from the Mask’s belt before the legionnaires tackle him. “Laia!” my brother shouts. “Run—” Don’t run, Laia. Help him. Fight.

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 19 But I think of the Mask’s cold regard, of the violence in his eyes. I’ve always loved dark-haired girls. He will rape me. Then he will kill me. I shudder and back into the hallway. No one stops me. No one notices. “Laia!” Darin cries out, sounding like I’ve never heard him. Frantic. Trapped. He told me to run, but if I screamed like that, he would come. He would never leave me. I stop. Help him, Laia, a voice orders in my head. Move. And another voice, more insistent, more powerful. You can’t save him. Do what he says. Run. Flame flickers at the edge of my vision, and I smell smoke. One of the legionnaires has started torching the house. In minutes, fire will consume it. “Bind him properly this time and get him into an interrogation cell.” The Mask removes himself from the fray, rubbing his jaw. When he sees me backing down the hallway, he goes strangely still. Reluctantly, I meet his eyes, and he tilts his head. “Run, little girl,” he says. My brother is still fighting, and his screams slice right through me. I know then that I will hear them over and over again, echoing in every hour of every day until I am dead or I make it right. I know it. And still, I run. »»»

T

he cramped streets and dusty markets of the Scholar’s Quarter blur past me like the landscape of a nightmare. With each step, part of my

brain shouts at me to turn around, to go back, to help Darin. With each step, it becomes less likely, until it isn’t a possibility at all, until the only word I can think is run.

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20 \ S abaa T ahir

The soldiers come after me, but I’ve grown up among the squat, mudbrick houses of the Quarter, and I lose my pursuers quickly. Dawn breaks, and my panicked run turns to a stumble as I wander from alley to alley. Where do I go? What do I do? I need a plan, but I don’t know where to start. Who can offer me help or comfort? My neighbors will turn me away, fearing for their own lives. My family is dead or imprisoned. My best friend, Zara, disappeared in a raid last year, and my other friends have their own troubles. I’m alone. As dawn breaks, I find myself in an empty building deep in the oldest part of the Quarter. The gutted structure crouches like a wounded animal amid a labyrinth of crumbling dwellings. The stench of refuse taints the air. I huddle in the corner of the room. My hair has slipped free of its braid and lays in hopeless tangles. The red stitches along the hem of my shift are ripped, the bright yarn limp. Nan sewed those hems for my seventeenth yearfall, to brighten up my otherwise drab clothing. It was one of the few gifts she could afford. Now she’s dead. Like Pop. Like my parents and sister, long ago. And Darin. Taken. Dragged to an interrogation cell where the Martials will do who-knows-what to him. Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. The moment Darin called out—that was such a moment. It was a test of courage, of strength. And I failed it. Laia! Run! Why did I listen to him? I should have stayed. I should have done something. I moan and grasp my head. I keep hearing him. Where is he now?

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 21 Have they begun the interrogation? He’ll wonder what happened to me. He’ll wonder how his sister could have left him. A flicker of furtive movement in the shadows catches my attention, and the hair on my nape rises. A rat? A crow? The shadows shift, and within them, two malevolent eyes flash. More sets of eyes join the first, baleful and slitted. Hallucinations, I hear Pop in my head, making a diagnosis. A symptom of shock. Hallucinations or not, the shadows look real. Their eyes glow with the fire of miniature suns, and they circle me like hyenas, growing bolder with each pass. “We saw,” they hiss. “We know your weakness. He’ll die because of you.” “No,” I whisper. But they are right, these shadows. I left Darin. I abandoned him. The fact that he told me to go doesn’t matter. How could I have been so cowardly? I grasp my mother’s armlet, but touching it makes me feel worse. Mother would have outfoxed the Mask. Somehow, she’d have saved Darin and Nan and Pop. Even Nan was braver than me. Nan, with her frail body and burning eyes. Her backbone of steel. Mother inherited Nan’s fire, and after her, Darin. But not me. Run, little girl. The shadows inch closer, and I close my eyes against them, hoping they’ll disappear. I grasp at the thoughts ricocheting through my mind, trying to corral them. Distantly, I hear shouts and the thud of boots. If the soldiers are still looking for me, I’m not safe here.

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22 \ S abaa T ahir

Maybe I should let them find me and do what they will. I abandoned my blood. I deserve punishment. But the same instinct that urged me to escape the Mask in the first place drives me to my feet. I head into the streets, losing myself in the thickening morning crowds. A few of my fellow Scholars look twice at me, some with wariness, others with sympathy. But most don’t look at all. It makes me wonder how many times I walked right past someone in these streets who was running, someone who had just had their whole world ripped from them. I stop to rest in an alley slick with sewage. Thick black smoke curls up from the other side of the Quarter, paling as it rises into the hot sky. My home, burning. Nan’s jams, Pop’s medicines, Darin’s drawings, my books, gone. Everything I am. Gone. Not everything, Laia. Not Darin. A grate squats in the center of the alley, just a few feet away from me. Like all grates in the Quarter, it leads down into the Serra’s catacombs: home to skeletons, ghosts, rats, thieves . . . and possibly the Scholar’s Resistance. Had Darin been spying for them? Had the Resistance gotten him into the Weapons Quarter? Despite what my brother told the Mask, it’s the only answer that makes sense. Rumor has it that the Resistance fighters have been getting bolder, recruiting not just Scholars, but Mariners, from the free country of Marinn, to the north, and Tribesmen, whose desert territory is an Empire protectorate. Pop and Nan never spoke of the Resistance in front of me. But late at night, I would hear them murmur of how the rebels freed Scholar prisoners while striking out at the Martials. Of how fighters raided the caravans of the Martial merchant class, the Mercators, and assassinated members of their upper class, the Illustrians. Only the rebels stand up to the Martials. Elusive

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A n E mber in the A shes \ 23 as they are, they are the only weapon the Scholars have. If anyone can get near the forges, it’s them. The Resistance, I realize, might help me. My home was raided and burned to the ground, my family killed because two of the rebels gave Darin’s name to the Empire. If I can find the Resistance and explain what happened, maybe they can help me break Darin free from prison—not just because they owe me, but because they live by Izzat, a code of honor as old as the Scholar people. The rebel leaders are the best of the Scholars, the bravest. My parents taught me that before the Empire killed them. If I ask for aid, the Resistance won’t turn me away. I step toward the grate. I’ve never been in Serra’s catacombs. They snake beneath the entire city, hundreds of miles of tunnels and caverns, some packed with centuries’ worth of bones. No one uses the crypts for burial anymore, and even the Empire hasn’t mapped out the catacombs entirely. If the Empire, with all its might, can’t hunt out the rebels, then how will I find them? You won’t stop until you do. I lift the grate and stare into the black hole below. I have to go down there. I have to find the Resistance. Because if I don’t, my brother doesn’t stand a chance. If I don’t find the fighters and get them to help, I’ll never see Darin again.

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