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Publication date: August 2016 $19.95 ($25.95 CAN) Ages 14 up • Grades 9 up 464 pages ISBN: 9781101998878

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P art I

Flight


I: Laia

H

ow did they find us so fast? Behind me, the catacombs echo with angry shouts and the screech

of metal. My eyes dart to the grinning skulls lining the walls. I think I hear the voices of the dead. Be swift, be fleet, they seem to hiss. Unless you wish to join our ranks. “Faster, Laia,” my guide says. His armor flashes as he hastens ahead of me through the catacombs. “We’ll lose them if we’re quick. I know an escape tunnel that leads out of the city. Once we’re there, we’re safe.” We hear a scrape behind us, and my guide’s pale eyes flick past my shoulder. His hand is a gold-brown blur as it flies to the hilt of a scim slung across his back. A simple movement full of menace. A reminder that he is not just my guide. He is Elias Veturius, heir to one of the Empire’s finest families. He is a former Mask—an elite soldier of the Martial Empire. And he is my ally— the only person who can help me break my brother Darin out of a notorious Martial prison. In one step, Elias is beside me. In another, he is in front, moving with unnatural grace for someone so big. Together, we peer down the tunnel we have just passed through. My pulse thuds in my ears. Any elation I felt at destroying Blackcliff Academy or rescuing Elias from execution has vanished. The Empire hunts us. If it catches us, we die. Sweat soaks through my shirt, but despite the rank heat of the tunnels, a chill runs across my skin and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I think I hear a growl, like that of some sly, hungry creature.


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Hurry, my instincts scream at me. Get out of here. “Elias,” I whisper, but he brushes a finger against my lips—shh—and tugs a knife free from the half dozen strapped across his chest. I pull a dagger from my belt and try to hear beyond the clicking of tunnel tarantulas and my own breathing. The prickling sense of being watched fades—replaced by something worse: the smell of pitch and flame; the rise and fall of voices getting closer. Empire soldiers. Elias touches my shoulder and points to his feet, then mine. Step where I step. So carefully that I fear to breathe, I mimic him as he turns and heads swiftly away from the voices. We reach a fork in the tunnel and veer right. Elias nods to a deep, shoulder-high hole in the wall, hollow but for a stone coffin turned on its side. “In,” he whispers, “all the way to the back.” I slide into the crypt, suppressing a shudder at the loud crrrk of a resident tarantula. A scim Darin forged hangs across my back, and its hilt clanks loudly against the stone. Stop fidgeting, Laia—no matter what’s crawling around in here. Elias ducks into the crypt after me, his height forcing him into a half crouch. In the tight space, our arms brush, and he draws a sharp breath. But when I look up, his face is angled toward the tunnel. Even in the dim light, the gray of his eyes and the sharp lines of his jaw are striking. I feel a jolt low in my stomach—I’m not used to his face. Only an hour ago, as we escaped the destruction I wrought at Blackcliff, his features were hidden by a silver mask. He tilts his head, listening as the soldiers close in. They walk quickly,


A T orch A gainst the N ight \ 5 their voices echoing off the walls of the catacombs like the clipped calls of raptor birds. “—probably went south. If he had half a brain, anyway.” “If he had half a brain,” a second soldier says, “he’d have passed the Fourth Trial, and we wouldn’t be stuck with Plebeian scum as emperor.” The soldiers enter our tunnel, and one pokes his lantern into the crypt across from ours. “Bleeding hells,” he recoils quickly at the sight of whatever lurks within. Our crypt is next. My belly twists, my hand shakes on my dagger. Beside me, Elias releases another blade from its sheath. His shoulders are relaxed, his hands loose around the knives. But when I catch sight of his face— brows furrowed, jaw tight—my heart clenches. He meets my gaze, and for a breath, I see his anguish. He does not wish to deliver death to these men. But if they see us, they will alert the other guards down here, and we’ll be neck-deep in Empire soldiers. I squeeze Elias’s forearm. He slides his hood over his head and pulls a black kerchief up to hide his face. The soldier approaches, his footsteps heavy. I can smell him—sweat and iron and dirt. Elias’s grip on his knives tightens. His body is coiled like a wildcat waiting to strike. I clamp a hand onto my armlet—a gift from my mother. Beneath my fingers, the armlet’s familiar pattern is a balm. The light from the lantern reaches the edge of the crypt, the soldier lifts it— Suddenly, further down the tunnel, a thud echoes. The soldiers spin, draw steel, and hurry to investigate. In seconds, the light from their lantern fades, the sound of their footsteps fainter and fainter. Elias releases a pent breath. “Come on,” he says. “If that patrol was sweeping the area, there will be more. We need to get to the escape passage.”


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We emerge from the crypt, and a tremor rumbles through the tunnels, shaking dust loose and sending bones and skulls clattering to the ground. I stumble, and Elias grabs my shoulder, backing me into the wall and flattening himself beside me. The crypt remains intact, but the ceiling of the tunnel cracks ominously. “What in the skies was that?” “It felt like a land tremor,” Elias takes a step away from the wall and eyes the ceiling. “Except Serra doesn’t have land tremors.” We cut through the catacombs with new urgency. With every step I expect to hear another patrol, to see torches in the distance. When Elias stops, it is so sudden that I barrel into his broad back. We’ve entered a circular burial chamber with a low, domed ceiling. Two tunnels branch out ahead of us. Torches flicker in one, almost too far away to make out. Crypts pock the chamber walls, each guarded by a stone statue of an armored man. Beneath their helmets, skulls glare out at us. I shiver, stepping closer to Elias. But he does not look at the crypts, or the tunnels, or the distant torches. He stares at the little girl in the center of the chamber. She wears tattered clothing. Her hand is pressed to a leaking wound in her side. She has the fine features of a Scholar, but when I try to see her eyes, she drops her head, dark hair falling into her face. Poor thing. Tears mark a path down her dirt-streaked cheeks. “Ten hells, it’s getting crowded down here,” Elias mutters. He takes a step toward the girl, hands out, as if dealing with a scared animal. “You shouldn’t be here, love.” His voice is gentle. “Are you alone?” She lets out a tiny sob. “Help me,” she whispers. “Let me see that cut. I can bandage it.” Elias drops to one knee so he’s at


A T orch A gainst the N ight \ 7 her level, the way my grandfather did with his youngest patients. She shies away from him and looks toward me. I step forward, my instincts urging caution. The girl watches. “Can you tell me your name, little one?” I ask. “Help me,” she repeats. Something about the way she avoids my eyes makes my skin prickle. But then, she’s been ill-treated—likely by the Empire—and now she faces a Martial who is armed to the roots of his hair. She must be terrified. She inches back, and I glance at the torch-lit tunnel. Torches mean we’re in Empire territory. It’s only a matter of time before soldiers happen by. “Elias.” I nod at the torches. “We do not have time. The soldiers—” “We can’t just leave her.” His guilt is plain as day. The deaths of his friends days ago in the Third Trial weigh on him; he doesn’t wish to cause another. And we will, if we leave the girl here alone to die of her wounds. “Do you have family in the city?” Elias asks her. “Do you need—” “Silver,” she tilts her head. “I need silver.” Elias’s eyebrows shoot up. I cannot blame him. It is not what I expected either. “Silver?” I say. “We don’t—” “Silver,” she shuffles sideways like a crab. I think I see the too-quick flash of an eye through her limp hair. Strange. “Coins. A weapon. Jewelry.” She glances at my neck, my ears, my wrists. With that look, she gives herself away. I stare at the tar-black orbs where her eyes should be, and scrabble for my dagger. But Elias is already in front of me, scims glimmering in his hands. “Back away,” he snarls at the girl, every inch a Mask. “Help me.” The girl lets her hair fall into her face once more and puts her


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hands behind her back, a twisted caricature of a wheedling child. “Help.” At my clear disgust, her lips curl in a sneer that looks obscene on her otherwise sweet face. She growls—the guttural sound I heard earlier. This was what I sensed was watching us. This was the presence I felt in the tunnels. “I know you have silver,” a rabid hunger underlies the creature’s little-girl voice. “Give it to me. I need it.” “Get away from us,” Elias says. “Before I take off your head.” The girl—or whatever it is—ignores Elias and fixes her eyes on me. “You don’t need it, little human. I’ll give you something in return. Something wonderful.” “What are you?” I whisper. She whips her arms out, her hands glowing with strange viridescence. Elias flies toward her, but she tears past him and fastens her fingers on my wrist. I scream, and my arm glows for less than a second before she is flung backward, howling, clutching her hand as if it is on fire. Elias pulls me to my feet from the dirt where I am sprawled, pitching a dagger at the girl at the same time. She dodges it, still shrieking. “Tricky girl!” She darts away as Elias lunges for her again, her eyes only for me. “Sly one! You ask what am I, but what are you?” Elias swings at her, sliding one of his scims across her neck. He’s not fast enough. “Murderer!” she whirls on him. “Killer! Death himself! Reaper walking! If your sins were blood, you would drown in a river of your own making.” Elias reels back, shock etched into his eyes. Light flickers in the tunnel. Three torches, moving toward us swiftly. “Soldiers coming,” the creature whirls to face me. “I’ll kill them for you, honey-eyed girl. Lay their throats open. I already led away the others follow-


A T orch A gainst the N ight \ 9 ing you, back in the tunnel. I’ll do it again. If you give me your silver. He wants it. He’ll reward us if we bring it to him.” Who in the skies is he? I don’t ask, only bring up my dagger in response. “Stupid human!” the girls clenches her fists. “He’ll get it from you. He’ll find a way.” Then she turns toward the tunnel. “Elias Veturius!” I flinch. Her scream is so loud they probably heard her in Antium. “Elias Vetu—” Her words die as Elias’s scim rips through her heart. “Efrit efrit of the cave,” he says. Her body slides off the weapon and lands with a solid thump, like a boulder falling. “Likes the dark but fears the blade.” “Old rhyme.” He sheathes his blades. “Never realized how handy it was until recently.” Elias grabs my hand, and we bolt into the unlit tunnel. Maybe through some miracle, the soldiers didn’t hear the girl. Maybe they didn’t see us. Maybe, maybe— No such luck. I hear a shout and the thunder of bootsteps behind us.


II: Elias

T

hree auxes and four legionnaires, fifteen yards behind us. As I race ahead, I whip my head around to gauge their progress. Make that six

auxes, five legionnaires, and twelve yards. More of the Empire’s soldiers will pour into the catacombs with every second that passes. By now, a runner has carried the message to neighboring patrols, and the drums will spread the alert throughout Serra: Elias Veturius spotted in the tunnels. All squads respond. The soldiers don’t need to be sure of my identity; they will hunt us down regardless. I take a sharp left down a side tunnel, pulling Laia with me, my mind careening from thought to thought. Shake them off quickly, while you still can. Otherwise . . . No, the Mask within hisses. Stop and kill them. Only eleven of them. Easy. Could do it with your eyes closed. I should have killed the efrit in the burial chamber straightaway. Helene would scoff if she knew I’d tried to help the creature instead of recognizing it for what it was. Helene. I’d bet my blades she’s in an interrogation room by now. Marcus— or Emperor Marcus, as he’s now called—ordered her to execute me. She failed. Worse, she was my closest confidante for fourteen years. Neither of those sins will come without cost—not now that Marcus possesses absolute power. She will suffer at his hands. Because of me. I hear the efrit again. Reaper walking! Memories of the Third Trial jolt through my head. Tristas dying upon Dex’s sword. Demetrius falling. Leander falling.


A T orch A gainst the N ight \ 11 A shout from ahead brings me back to myself. The field of battle is my temple. My grandfather’s old mantra comes back to me when I need it most. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release. Beside me, Laia pants, her body dragging. She is slowing me down. You could leave her, an insidious voice whispers. You’d move faster on your own. I crush the voice. Besides the obvious fact that I promised to help her in exchange for my freedom, I know that she’ll do anything to get to Kauf Prison—to her brother—including trying to make her way there alone. In which case, she’d die. “Faster, Laia,” I say. “They’re too close.” She surges forward. Walls of skulls, bones, crypts, and spider webs fade away on either side of us. We’re far south of where we should be. We’ve long since passed the escape tunnel in which I hid weeks’ worth of supplies. The catacombs rumble and shake, knocking both of us down. The stench of fire and death filters through a sewer grate directly above us. Moments later, an explosion rips through the air. I don’t bother considering what it could be. All that matters is that the soldiers behind us have slowed, as wary of the unstable tunnels as we are. I use the opportunity to put another few dozen yards between us. I cut right into a side tunnel and then back into the deep shadow of a half-crumbled alcove. “Will they find us, do you think?” Laia whispers. “Hopefully no—” Light flares from the direction we were headed, and I hear the staccato clomp of boots. Two soldiers turn into the tunnel, their torches illuminating us clearly. They halt for a second, bewildered, perhaps, by the presence of Laia, by my lack of a mask. Then they spot my armor and scims, and one


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of them releases a piercing whistle that will draw in every soldier who can hear it. My body takes over. Before either of the soldiers can unsheathe their swords, I’ve impaled throwing knives into the soft flesh of their throats. They drop silently, their torches sputtering on the damp catacomb floor. Laia emerges from the alcove, her hand over her mouth. “E-Elias—” I lunge back to the alcove, pulling her with me and loosening my scims in their scabbards. “I’ll take out as many as I can,” I say. “Stay out of the way. No matter how bad it looks, don’t interfere, don’t try to help.” The last word leaves my lips as the soldiers who were following us come into view from the tunnel to our left. Five yards away. Four. In my mind, the knives have already flown, already found their marks. I burst from the alcove and let them loose. The first four legionnaires go down quietly, one after the other, as easy as scything grain. The fifth drops with a sweep of my scim. Warm blood sprays, and I feel my bile rising. Don’t think. Don’t dwell. Just clear the way. Six auxes appear behind the first five. One jumps onto my back, and I dispatch him with an elbow to his face just as another soldier dives for my legs. When he gets a boot to the teeth, he howls and claws at his broken nose and bloody mouth. Spin, kick, sidestep, strike. Behind me, Laia screams. An aux hauls her out of the alcove by her neck and holds a knife to her throat. His leer turns into a howl. Laia’s shoved a dagger into his side. She yanks it out, and he staggers away. I turn on the last three soldiers. They flee. Laia’s whole body shakes as she takes in the carnage around us: Seven dead. Two injured, moaning and trying to rise.


A T orch A gainst the N ight \ 13 When she looks at me, her eyes grow round in shock at my bloodied scims and armor. Shame floods me, so potent that I wish I could sink into the ground. She sees me now, down to the wretched truth at my core. Murderer! Reaper! “Laia—” I begin, but a low groan rolls down the tunnel, and the ground trembles. Through the sewer grates I hear screams, shouts, and the deafening reverberation of an enormous explosion. “What in the ten bleeding hells—” “It’s the Scholar Resistance,” Laia shouts over the noise. “They’re revolting!” I don’t get to ask how she happens to know this fascinating tidbit, because at that moment, telltale silver flashes from the tunnel to our left. “Skies, Elias!” Laia’s voice is choked, her eyes wide. One of the Masks approaching is enormous, older than me by a dozen years and unfamiliar. The other is a small, almost diminutive figure. The calmness of her masked face belies the chilling rage that emanates from her. My mother. The Commandant. Boots thunder from our right as whistles draw even more soldiers. Trapped. The tunnel groans again. “Get behind me,” I snap at Laia. She doesn’t hear. “Laia, damn it, get— ooof—” Laia dives straight into my stomach, a graceless, desperate leap so unexpected that I topple back into one of the wall crypts. I punch straight through the thick cobwebbing over the crypt and land on my back atop a stone coffin. Laia’s half on top of me, half wedged between the coffin and the crypt wall. The combination of cobwebs, crypt, and warm girl throws me, and I’m barely even capable of stuttering, “Are you cra—”


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BOOM. The ceiling of the tunnel we were just standing in collapses all at once, a thunderous rumble intensified by the roar of explosions from the city. I flip Laia under me, my arms on either side of her head to shield her from the blast. But it is the crypt that saves us. We cough from the wave of dust unleashed by the explosions, and I’m keenly aware that if not for Laia’s quick thinking, we’d both be dead. The rumbling stops, and sunlight cuts through the thick dust. Screams echo from the city. Carefully, I lift myself away from Laia and turn toward the crypt entrance, which is half-blocked by chunks of rock. I peer out into what’s left of the tunnel. Which isn’t much. The cave-in is complete—not a Mask to be seen. I scramble out of the crypt, half dragging, half carrying a still coughing Laia over the debris. Dust and blood—not hers, I affirm—streak her face, and she paws at her canteen. I put it to her lips. After a few swallows, she pulls herself standing. “I can—I can walk.” Rocks obstruct the tunnel to our left, but a mailed hand shoves them away. The Commandant’s gray eyes and blonde hair flash through the dust. “Come on.” We clamber out of the ruined catacombs and into the cacophonous streets of Serra. Ten bleeding hells. No one appears to have noticed the collapse of the street into the crypts— everyone is too busy staring at a column of fire rising into the hot blue sky: the governor’s mansion, lit up like a Barbarian funeral pyre. Around its blackening gates and in the immense square in front of it, dozens of Martial soldiers are locked in a pitched battle with hundreds of rebels dressed in black—Scholar Resistance fighters. “This way!” I angle away from the governor’s mansion, knocking down


A T orch A gainst the N ight \ 15 two approaching rebel fighters as I go, and aim for the next street over. But fire rages there, spreading rapidly, and bodies litter the ground. I grab Laia’s hand and race toward another side street, only to find that it is as brutalized as the first. Above the clang of weapons, the screams, and the roar of flames, Serra’s drum towers beat frenziedly, demanding backup troops in the Illustrian Quarter, the Foreign Quarter, the Weapons Quarter. Another tower delivers my location near the governor’s mansion, ordering all available troops to join the hunt. Just past the mansion, a pale blonde head emerges from the debris of the collapsed tunnel. Damn it. We stand near the middle of the square, beside an ash-coated fountain of a rearing horse. I back Laia against it and duck, desperately searching for an escape route before the Commandant or one of the Martials spots us. But it seems as if every building and every street adjoining the square is aflame. Look harder! Any second now, the Commandant will dive into the fray in the square, using her terrifying skill to tear a path through the battle so she can find us. I look back at her as she shakes the dust off her armor, unmoved by the chaos. Her serenity raises the hair on the back of my neck. Her school is destroyed, her son and foe escaped, the city an absolute disaster. And yet she is remarkably calm about it all. “There!” Laia grabs my arm and points to an alley hidden behind an overturned vendor’s cart. We crouch down and race toward it, and I thank the skies for the tumult that keeps Scholars and Martials alike from noticing us. In minutes, we reach the alley, and as we’re about to plunge into it, I chance a look back—once, just to make sure she hasn’t seen us.


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I search the chaos—through a knot of Resistance fighters descending on a pair of legionnaires, past a Mask fighting off ten rebels at once, to the rubble of the tunnel, where my mother stands. An old Scholar slave trying to escape the havoc makes the mistake of crossing her path. She plunges her scim into his heart with a casual brutality. She doesn’t look at him. Instead, she stares at me. Her gaze slices across the square as if we are connected, as if she knows my every thought. She smiles.


(or, They Lived and They Laughed and They Saw That It Was Good)

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Cast of Characters * * *

The Kids of Appetite BRUNO VICTOR BENUCCI III, sixteen (VIC): Current Chapter. Opera, Matisse, Mad. Super Racehorse. MADELINE FALCO, seventeen (MAD): New Year’s darling. Punk cut, Elliott Smith, Venn diagrams, realness. MBEMBA BAHIZIRE KABONGO, twenty-seven (BAZ): Collector of stories & tattoos. Anti-bread. Praise God. NZUZI KABONGO, twenty (ZUZ): Baz’s little brother. Jigs & Journey & snaps. Speaks in other ways. COCO BLYTHE, eleven: Songwriter. Redhead. Ice cream & Queens & faux cussing. Frak yeah.

The Hackensack Police SERGEANT S. MENDES: Coffee addict. Reluctant girlfriend. Clever & weary. More than meets the eye. DETECTIVE H. BUNDLE: Atomic cloud. Paperwork & forms. Proud member of the bountiful bourgeoisie. DETECTIVE RONALD: Weasley doppelgänger. Eager boyfriend. Sitting skills. Lost poodle.

The Family, Etc. DORIS JACOBY BENUCCI: Vic’s mother. Widow. Baking & family & moving on. Trying her best. BRUNO VICTOR BENUCCI JR.: Vic’s father. Heart-thinker. Mets fan. Wearer of sweatpants. Deceased.

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THE SELF-PORTRAIT MAN (UNCLE LESTER): Mad’s uncle. Whiskey & yelling & crying. Owner of guns. JAMMA: Mad’s grandmother. Dementia sufferer. Slippers & pj’s & double-fisted Coca-Cola. FRANK THE BOYFRIEND: Lawyer. Widower. Green-bean eater & literary novice. Wearer of suits. KLINT & KORY: Frank’s sons. Hot Topic & Batman. The Orchestra of Lost Soulz. Kids of No Appetite. FATHER RAINES: Priest, sage, good-deed doer. Married Vic’s parents. Iron Maiden superfan. RACHEL GRIMES: Baz’s current girlfriend. Daring nurse. Thunder & running & pancakes.

The Early Chapters CHRISTOPHER (TOPHER): Tattoo artist. Battlestar Galactica & sobriety & resourcefulness. Bald. MARGO BONAPARTE: Waitress, smuggler, flirt. Cheese fries. Rum. Bonjour, mes petits gourmands! NORM: Russian butcher. Misunderstood. Meat. Bloody pigs. Not KGB. Nyet. GUNTHER MAYWOOD: Hermit. Landlord. Owner of the Maywood Orchard.

The Goldfish HARRY CONNICK JR., JR.: Survivor. Swimmer. Cold-weather enthusiast. Will not quit. But hey.

* * *

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* * * “It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.” — The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

* * *

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ONE THE MOMENTOUS MULTITUDES (or, Gird Thy Silly, Futile Selves)

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Interrogation Room #3 Bruno Victor Benucci III & Sergeant S. Mendes December 19 // 3:12 p.m.

Consider this: billions of people in the world, each with billions of I ams. I am a quiet observer, a champion wallflower. I am a lover of art, the Mets, the memory of Dad. I represent approximately one seven-billionth of the population; these are my momentous multitudes, and that’s just for starters. “It begins with my friends.” “What does?” “My story,” I say. Only that’s not quite right. I have to go back further than that, before we were friends, back when it was just . . . . . . Okay, got it. “I’ve fallen in love something like a thousand times.” Mendes smiles a little, nudges the digital recorder closer. “I’m sorry—you said . . . you’ve fallen in love?” “A thousand times,” I say, running both hands through my hair. I used to think love was bound by numbers: first kisses, second dances, infinite heartbreaks. I used to think numbers outlasted the love itself, surviving in the dark corners of the demolished heart. I used to think love was heavy and hard.

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I don’t think those things anymore. “I am a Super Racehorse.” “You’re a what?” asks Mendes, her eyes at once tough and tired. “Nothing. Where’s your uniform?” She wears a tweed skirt with a fitted jacket and flowy blouse. I quietly observe her brown eyes, very intense, and—were it not for the baggy pillows, and the crow’s feet framing her features like facial parentheses—quite pretty. I quietly observe the slight creases on her hands and neck, indicative of premature aging. I quietly observe the absence of a wedding ring. I quietly observe her dark hair, shoulder-length with just a lingering shadow of shape and style. Parenthetical, slight, absence, lingering: the momentous multitudes of Mendes, it seems, are found in the hushed footnote. “Technically I’m off duty,” she says. “Plus, I’m a sergeant, so I don’t always have to wear a uniform.” “So you’re the one in charge, right?” “I report to Lieutenant Bell, but this is my case if that’s what you’re asking.” I reach under my chair, pull my Visine out of the front pocket of my backpack, and apply a quick drop in each eye. “Victor, you’ve been missing eight days. Then this morning you and”—she shuffles through papers until finding the one she’s looking for—“Madeline Falco march in here, practically holding hands with Mbemba Bahizire Kabongo, aka Baz, the primary suspect in our murder investigation.” “I wasn’t holding hands with Baz. And he’s no murderer.” “You don’t think so?” “I know so.”

4 — David Arnold

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Mendes gives me a pity-smile, the kind of smile that frowns. “He just turned himself in, Vic. That, plus his DNA is on the murder weapon. We have more than enough to put Kabongo behind bars for a very long time. What I’m hoping you might shed some light on is how you go from running out the front door of your own home eight days ago to walking in here this morning. You said you have a story to tell. So tell it.” This morning’s memory is fresh, Baz’s voice ingrained in my brain. Diversion tactics, Vic. They will need time. And we must give it to them. “Every girl who wears eyeliner,” I say. . . . . . . Sergeant Mendes squints. “What?” “Every girl who plays an instrument, except—maybe not bassoon.” “I’m sorry, I don’t unders—” “Every girl who wears old Nikes. Every girl who draws on them. Every girl who shrugs or bakes or reads.” Tell them about all the girls you thought you loved, the ones from before. I smile on the inside, the only place I can. “Every girl who rides a bike.” I pull out my handkerchief and dab the drool from the corner of my mouth. Dad called it my “leaky mug.” I used to hate that. Now I miss it. Sometimes . . . yes, I think I miss the hated things most. Mendes leans back in her chair. “Shortly after you left, your mom reported you missing. I’ve been in your room, Vic. It’s all Whitman and Salinger and Matisse. You’re smart. And kind of a nerd, if you don’t mind my saying.” “What’s your point?”

KIDS OF APPE TITE  — 5

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“My point is, you’re no hard-ass. So why are you acting like one?” Under the metal table, I pick at the fabric of my KOA wristband. “‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’” Mendes picks up: “‘I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab. Who has done his day’s work? Who will soonest be through with his supper? Who wishes to walk with me?’” . . . I try to hide my shock, but I can’t be sure my eyes didn’t just give me away. “Whitman balanced out the criminal justice classes,” says Mendes. “You know what the next line is, don’t you?” I don’t. So I say nothing at all. “‘Will you speak before I am gone?’” she says quietly. “‘Will you prove already too late?’” . . . “Due respect, Miss Mendes. You don’t know me.” She looks back at the file in front of her. “Bruno Victor Benucci III, sixteen, son of Doris Jacoby Benucci and the late Bruno Benucci Jr., deceased two years. Only child. Five foot six. Dark hair. Suffers from the rare Moebius syndrome. Obsession with abstract art—” “Do you know what that is?” “Oh, I’ve had my share of Picasso-obsessed crooks, lemme tell you, it’s no picnic.” “That’s not what I meant.” “I know what you meant.” Mendes flips the file shut. “And yeah, I did some research. Moebius is a rare neurological disorder affecting the sixth and seventh cranial nerves, present from birth, causing facial paralysis. I understand it’s been difficult for you.”

6 — David Arnold

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Mendes’s tone suggests a hint of self-satisfaction, as if she’s been sitting on this definition, just waiting for me to ask if she knew what was wrong with my face. I’ve had Moebius syndrome my whole life, and here is what I’ve learned: the only people arrogant enough to use the words I understand are the ones who can’t possibly understand. People who truly get it never say much of anything. “You did some research,” I say, barely above a whisper. “A little.” “So you know what it feels like to have sand shoved up your eyelids.” . . . “What?” “That’s what it’s like sometimes, not being able to blink,” I say. “Dry eye doesn’t begin to describe it. More like desert eye.” “Vic—” “Did your research offer insight into the night terrors that come from sleeping with your eyes half shut? Or how drinking from a cup feels about as possible as lassoing the moon? Or how the best I can hope for is that kids just leave me alone? Or how certain teachers slow down when talking to me because they assume I’m stupid?” Mendes shifts uncomfortably in her chair. “Don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I’m not complaining. Lots of people with Moebius have it worse than me. I used to wish I was someone else, but then . . .” But then Dad introduced me to Henri Matisse, an artist who believed each face had its own rhythm. Matisse looked for what he called “particular asymmetry” in his portraits. I liked that. I wondered about the rhythm of my own face, and about my particular asymmetry. I told Dad this once. He said

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there was beauty in my asymmetry. This made me feel better. Not un-alone, just less alone. Accompanied by art, at least. “But then . . . ?” says Mendes. I almost forgot I’d started a sentence. “Nothing.” “Vic, I know you’ve had it tough.” I point both index fingers at my unflinching face. “You mean my . . . ‘affliction’?” “I never used the word afflicted.” “Oh right. Suffers from. You’re a humanitarian.” Underneath my KOA wristband, I feel my tiny paths going nowhere. My fingers have always been a force to be reckoned with, scratching and clawing and pinching. The wristband is an effective reminder, but it’s no match for my fingers, with their tiny little fingerbrains, determined to test my pain threshold. I ask, “You ever hear that a person has to go through fire to become who they’re meant to be?” Mendes sips her coffee, nods. “Sure.” “I’ve always wanted to be strong, Miss Mendes. I just wish there wasn’t so much fire.” . . . “Victor.” It’s a whisper, barely even there. Mendes leans in, her entire presence shifting from defense to offense. “Vic, look at me.” I can’t. “Look at me,” she repeats. I do. “Did Baz Kabongo put you up to this?” She nods slowly. “It’s okay. He did, right?” Still, nothing. “Let me tell you what I think happened,” she says.

8 — David Arnold

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“Kabongo gets nervous, sees his face posted all over town, decides he’s done hiding. He talks you and your girlfriend into lying to us, saying you were in places you weren’t, at times you weren’t, with people you weren’t. He knows his only chance is an alibi, or an eyewitness saying someone else did it. And who better than two innocent kids? Am I warm?” I say nothing. I am an absolute ace at nonverbals, and every minute that passes is a win, a victory, no matter how small. “I’m pretty good at my job,” she continues, “and while I don’t know where you were on the night of December seventeenth, I know where you weren’t. You weren’t in that house. You didn’t see that pool of blood. You didn’t see that man’s eyes go out, Victor. You know how I know this is true? If you’d seen all that, there’s no way in hell you’d be sitting in that chair right now, dicking around with me. You’d piss your pants, is what you’d do. You’d be fucking terrified.” . . . . . . Those fingerbrains are ruthless animals, munching on my multitudes. “Kabongo is counting on you to lie, Vic. But do you know what he forgot? He forgot about Matisse. He forgot about Whitman. He forgot about art. And you know what all good art has in common, right? Honesty. It’s the part of you that knows what’s what. And that’s the part that’s gonna tell me the truth.” I count to ten in my head, where Baz’s voice plays over and over like a scratched record. Let them think what they want. But do not lie. “We’ll protect you,” says Mendes. “You don’t have to be afraid. Just tell me what happened.”

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Diversion tactics, Vic. They will need time. And we must give it to them. . . . . . . I lean in to the digital recorder and clear my throat. “Every girl who drinks tea.” Mendes calmly shuts the file. “All right, we’re done here.” “Every girl who eats raspberry scones.” She scoots her chair out from under the table, stands with an air of finality, and speaks loud and clear. “Interview between Bruno Victor Benucci III and Sergeant Sarah Mendes terminated at three twenty-eight p.m.” She pushes stop, grabs her coffee and folder off the table, and heads for the door. “Your mom should be here soon to pick you up. In the meantime, feel free to get coffee down the hall.” She shakes her head, opens the door, and mumbles, “Fucking raspberry scones.” The Hackensack Police Department, Interrogation Room Three, dissolves into the Maywood Orchard, Greenhouse Eleven. I imagine: Baz Kabongo, with his borderline paternal instincts and sleeve of tattoos; audacious Coco, loyal to the end; Zuz Kabongo, snapping, dancing in place; and I imagine Mad. I remember that moment—my moment of heartbreaking clarity when the clouds parted, and I saw everything as if I’d never seen anything at all. The truth is, I didn’t know what love was until I saw it sitting in a greenhouse, unfolding like a map before me, revealing its many uncharted territories. As Sergeant Mendes opens the door to leave, I pull my hand from under the table, raise it up until the wristband is at eye level, admire those three block letters, white against the black fabric: koa.

10 — David Arnold

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Walt Whitman was right. We do contain multitudes. Most are hard and heavy, and what a headache. But some multitudes are wondrous. Like this one . . . I am a Kid of Appetite. “I was in that house, Miss Mendes.” I focus on the snowwhite K and O and A as the blurry image of Mendes freezes in the doorframe. She does not turn around. “I was there,” I say. “I saw his eyes go out.”

(EIGHT days ago)

VIC “The Flower Duet” ended. “The Flower Duet” began again. The magic of repeat. I missed Dad. Ergo, I stood on the edge of the pier. It was the thing to do when I missed Dad like this. I stood on the edge of the pier a lot. Hands in pockets, jacket collar flipped up against the Jersey cold (which bit like an angry dragon with long icy teeth), I let my hair whip around in the wind. I didn’t care that it got messed up. Not even a bit. Hair wasn’t momentous. Two things that were momentous: 1. T his song, “The Flower Duet.” It used to be Dad’s favorite. Now it was mine.

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2. T  his dormant submarine, the USS Ling. A once great and seaworthy vessel, it had been laid to rest in the Hackensack River long before I was born. The Ling reminded me of this: a retired racehorse sent to one of those sex farms where all they do is procreate with other racehorses in hopes that all the best genetics will win out and produce one Super Racehorse. (Dad took me to one of these places for a tour once; when our guide started in on “breeding phantoms” and various methods of artificial insemination, I decided it was best I wait in the car.) Unfortunately, there were no other subs in the river with which the Ling could procreate. Ergo, there would be no sub sex. Ergo, no Super Sub. This portion of the riverside had been sectioned off as an official navy museum, with guided tours and the like. It was only open on Saturdays and Sundays, which meant I had the place to myself during the week. Most days I stopped here on my walk home from school, which made me wonder what the USS Ling looked like at nighttime. I couldn’t say exactly what drew me to it. Maybe the fact that the sub’s real life was over, yet here it was. I felt I could relate. My cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out and swiped to read Mom’s text. Hey. can u stop @ babushka’s, grab prosciutto? Pls? :) :)

12 — David Arnold

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The shorthand killed me. Mom still had this ancient flip phone where each button had to be pushed approximately one dozen times to reach the desired letter. On more than one occasion, I’d attempted to demonstrate the benefits of the miraculous QWERTY keyboard. It was beyond her. I typed back the following: T’would be an honor and a privilege, good mother, for me to fulfill your Venetian saltcured meat delivery requirements this fine evening. I shall return forthwith and posthaste. E’er your loving son, Victor. JJJ

A second later, she responded: thnx, luv

. . . Thnx, luv. I slid the phone back into my pocket, looked out at the Ling. Not so long ago, Mom would have played along, called me out on my smartass response. Things were different now. . . . . . . “The Flower Duet” came to a heartrending chorus in my ears as the wind continued thrashing my hair. I didn’t particularly like opera; I liked this particular opera. I pictured those two women, the soaring sopranos, absolutely killing it. They weren’t singing; they were flying. Dad once said the reason some people didn’t like opera was because they listened with their brains and not their hearts. He said most people’s

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brains were pretty stupid, but hearts could cut through bullshit like an absolute ace. Think with your heart, V, he used to say. It’s where the music lives. Dad used to talk that kind of shit all the time because he was a live-in-the-moment type guy, a genuine heart-thinker. There aren’t many of us left. I kicked a nearby rock, aiming for the deck gun on the far side of the submarine, missing wide right. I spoke to Dad out loud, knowing full well he couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear me either, what with my headphones blasting the soaring sopranos, but it was nice, saying things without hearing them. Nice knowing my words were out there somewhere in the ether. I kicked another rock. Bull’s-eye. It clanked off the deck gun, and plopped into the dark water of the river. I smiled inside, imagined the rock sinking to the bottom of the riverbed, where it would exist forever, without anyone ever knowing about it. Dormant. Like the Ling. Like my voice in the ether. Like me. I turned away from the pier, crossed River Street, one foot then the other, savoring the solitude of the street-hike to Babushka’s Deli. It was cold out, the kind you could see, where your breath blossomed like a floating lotus in front of your face. It was the kind of cold where you couldn’t tell if it was cloudy, or if the whole sky was just the color of clouds. The cold spoke in sentences, and here’s what it said: Snow is on the way, guys. Gird thy silly, futile selves. “The Flower Duet” ended. “The Flower Duet” began again. The magic of repeat. God, I missed Dad.

14 — David Arnold

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* * * I leaned over the glass case, trying to remember the difference between pancetta and prosciutto. Not that it mattered. The Benucci lasagna required prosciutto. It would run on nothing less. “You are small boy, yez?” I looked around, wondered if the butcher was addressing me. The only other person in the shop was a bulky teenager completely decked out in New York Jets paraphernalia: hat, scarf, gloves, coat. He sat at a small table in the corner, nursing a Coke and a sandwich, staring at me with a look of utter confusion, curiosity, and repulsion. I knew this look well. “You,” said the butcher from behind the counter, pointing a beefy finger at me. “You are small boy. Yez?” “I guess . . . um . . . I’m a little small for my age.” “What? Speak up!” Behind me, the Jets fan snickered. I tucked my hair behind my ears and tried a shorter response this time. “Yes. I am small boy.” I am small boy. The butcher, whose name tag read norm, went back to the meat on his chopping block. “Okeydokey then. Small boys need meat. Strengthen bones. Make big ’n’ strong.” He smiled, flexing a bicep. “Like me! Ha!” I never knew what to say to this guy. At least half lion, Norm was almost certainly Russian and had hair growing in ungodly places in ungodly amounts. He was fat, yes, but it wasn’t just that. It was the kind of fat—firm, bulging, meaty—that betrayed a man who had dipped too many times into his own stock. The working theory was that Norm

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was ex-KGB hiding out in North Jersey until the rise of a new Soviet regime. . . . A little bell jingled as the front door opened, and in they walked. All four of them. Always together. I’d seen these kids at least a half dozen times around town. Hackensack wasn’t exactly a burgeoning metropolis—there were only so many places a person could go before bumping into familiar strangers. Usually it was incidental, more like déjà vu than fate. “Hello, Norm,” said the oldest kid. I’d heard the others call him Baz. Probably twenty-five or so, Baz was pretty muscular and six-foot-something at least. His shirtsleeves were cut off at the shoulder, revealing a slew of tattoos running the length of his left arm, a combination that defied more than society—it defied the weather itself. He had a slight accent of indeterminate origin, and always wore a Trenton Thunder baseball cap. “Yez, Mister Baz,” said Norm, eyes brightening as he wiped his bloody paws on his apron. “I was thinking I might be seeing you today. You give me one minute. I be right back.” Norm disappeared into the back room while I stood off to the side, tucking my hair behind my ears again, feeling every bit a small boy. For reasons not entirely clear, Norm transformed into a real Super Racehorse around these kids. Even the Jets fan, who just a minute ago couldn’t stop staring at my face, had now been chewing the same bite of sandwich since the group had walked in the door. The kids had an air of reckless enthusiasm about them, like at any moment they might drop everything and run. For fun, for the hell of it, for whatever. “The frak you staring at, kid?” 16 — David Arnold

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The littlest of the bunch, a girl of no more than ten or eleven years old, had curly red hair and freckles, wore an oversized coat and mismatched mittens, and could usually be found holding Baz’s hand. “Coco,” said Baz. “Be polite.” He offered me a quick smile, then turned and whispered something to a third kid, who listened, promptly shook his head, and snapped his fingers twice. In his late teens, maybe early twenties, this kid’s arms were too long for the sleeves of his Journey sweatshirt, so you could see at least five inches above his wrists. The last kid in the group was a girl with gray eyes, a fitted turquoise coat with rainbow stripes across the front, and a yellow knit cap; her hair was long and so blond you couldn’t tell where the hat ended and the hair began. The yellow, the rainbow, the gray—she was an explosion of color, Matisse gone wild. She stood behind the others, her head in a book as if books had been created for the sole purpose of being read by her in a butcher shop. She was quite the Stoic Beauty. This was the whatevereth time I’d seen these kids, but I was no more immune to this girl’s charms now than I was the first time I’d seen her. Pancetta, prosciutto, fucking ham loaf, whatever. Being around these kids instilled a primal sense of excitement: a combination of wonder and fear. “Okay, you know what?” said the little redhead, dropping Baz’s hand and crossing her arms. “You have a serious staring problem, kid. Anyone ever tell you that? Anyway, we should be staring at you.” “Coco!” said Baz. I let my hair fall in my face, and turned back toward the glass case of various salt-cured pork. I was used to those sorts of comments, especially from younger kids. But being used to something is not the same as being immune to it. Norm returned from the back, carrying a bulky brown KIDS OF APPE TITE  — 17

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paper sack. He hoisted it over the counter and into the arms of Baz, who smiled, said thanks, then turned and led the other kids out of the store, the four departing as one. “Okeydokey,” said Norm, turning back to me. “What will you have, small boy?” Through the shop window, I watched the kids cross the street. Something about their cohesiveness made me wonder if the world wasn’t at all what I thought it was. “Pancetta,” I mumbled, too busy staring out the window to know what I was saying. “Okeydokey. How much?” I watched the kids veer off Main Street, turn down Banta, and disappear around a corner. . . . . . . “Hey, small boy. You okay?” I did not answer. Instead I tore out of Babushka’s, without pancetta or prosciutto, practically knocking the bell off the door as I went, running across the street in a frenzied daze, down Main and around the corner onto Banta. My small boy brain was still processing things, but my heart cut through the bullshit like an absolute ace.

MAD I flipped a page of The Outsiders and, once again, wished I could sink into the book. Sinking into fiction: the if-only of if-onlys. “Häagen-Dazs coffee is good,” said Coco. “Cookies and

18 — David Arnold

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cream, rocky road, Italian toffee tira .  .  . Mad, what’s this word?” I glanced up to find Coco, her nose pressed against the cold glass case, her frazzled hair like a red sun around which a thousand pints of ice cream rotated. “Tiramisu,” I said. “It’s like a soft cake. Only there’s no actual cake, I don’t think. But it has coffee and rum.” “Shut. Up,” said Coco. “Rum, like what pirates drink? What miserable rock have I been living under, I don’t know about tiramisu? Ooh, look, there’s cookie dough! That’s your favorite, right, Zuz?” Zuz stared into the case of ice cream as if looking through it, and snapped his finger with a pop! that echoed down the aisle. Foodville on Banta was just our speed, an ever-persistent brand of dull. Employees arranged, then rearranged, then rerearranged boxes of generic cereals, chilled pickles, and ramen noodles. They mopped clean floors and tagged already-priced items and tapped their toes to feeble-rhythmic Muzak; they stacked soup can pyramids and hung out by shredded cheeses in the corners where fluorescent bulbs flickered. And in the center of Foodville, we stood in our own little town, the eleventh aisle, staring at frozen dairy desserts as if waiting for the ice cream to choose us. Baz turned the corner, pushing a half-filled shopping cart, leaning over the top of it like a weary mother of four. Every family has a normal, but some normal sure seems more normal than others. “About time,” said Coco, eagerly eyeing the ice cream. “Mad says tiramisu is a soft cake with real rum in it, like what pirates drink. Is that right? Tell the truth.” “I don’t know.” Baz removed his Thunder baseball cap and

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ran his hand through his hair. I had seen this move before, knew what it meant. I prepared myself for the shit-storm of Coco’s discontent. “Okay, well, we have to try that obviously,” said Coco, pulling open the freezer door. “But we’ll need to get a second flavor, just in case soft cake ice cream sucks balls.” “Sorry, Coconut,” said Baz. “It’s not happening.” She sighed. “Well, if it’s just the one, then—” “No. I mean, no ice cream. Not this time.” Coco’s ratty red hair flung as she spun. “Repeat that please.” “I don’t get paid until tomorrow,” he said. “So this is it for today. We have to come back in the morning for Gunther’s stuff, so maybe then. Anyway . . . it’s freezing outside.” “It’s not freezing in my stomach,” said Coco, turning back to the freezer. She reached for the handle, her voice slightly higher than before, laced with a thick tone of silvery virtue. “I could fit it in my jacket, Baz. No one would even know it was gone.” I couldn’t help but admire how someone so small could swing such heavy bullshit. The thing about Coco was, she wasn’t only skin and bones; she was survival and fight and ferocious loyalty that you just couldn’t find anywhere anymore. When Coco spoke, no matter how high-pitched, you could almost hear a muted roar lining the underbelly of each word. “We would know, Coco,” said Baz. “You know my rule.” A towering crash sounded behind us. There, at the end of the aisle, a kid stood in the middle of hundreds of soup cans, once a perfect pyramid, now scattered around his feet like a demolition zone. “It’s him,” whispered Coco. “That kid from Babushka’s. The one with a staring problem.” 20 — David Arnold

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Coco was right. Before today I’d seen this kid around town maybe once or twice. He had long greasy hair and sharp blue eyes, but those weren’t his defining characteristics. He wore a backpack, blue jeans, and lace-up boots, but those weren’t his defining characteristics either. His defining characteristic was his face. For starters, it didn’t move. Not a smile, not a frown, not a single visible reaction or emotion. Except his eyes. His eyes were lively and bright, but I’m not sure I would have noticed were it not for the fact that they were currently aimed directly at me. A teenage girl in a hairnet approached the endcap where the soups had once been neatly stacked. “What the hell, dude? I just finished putting th—” She looked at him for the first time, and swallowed whatever words were next, instead letting out a feeble, “Oh.” For a second no one said anything. The employee in the hairnet bent down and started picking up the cans. “No worries, buddy. It happens, you know?” The kid gripped his backpack, gave me one last look, then turned and ran. “Told you,” said Coco, refocusing her attention on the solar system of ice cream in front of us. “Frakking weirdo, that kid.” Zuz snapped once. Baz walked over to help pick up the soup cans while I went back to my book, pretending to read, pretending the blue of those eyes wasn’t quite so sharp, pretending not to wonder what the Foodville employee was about to say to that kid, what she surely would have said had his face not looked the way it did.

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VIC I shook the snow from my boots and placed them by the front door to dry. Two black guitar cases smothered in BatSignals and The Cure patches sat in the hallway with mighty aplomb. Klint and Kory were here. Frank the Boyfriend’s kids. Since I’d knocked over a soup can pyramid in front of maybe the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen (or, if not the most beautiful girl, certainly the most striking, sweat-inducing one), the presence of Frank the Boyfriend—and his kids, who belonged in their own animated Tim Burton movie—was the last thing I needed. It aplombed me. Mightily so. Klint and Kory weren’t twins, but hardly anyone could tell them apart. They wore the same Goth-style clothes, and their teeth were far too big for their heads. I liked to imagine the roots had dug deep into their skulls, firmly planted in the space usually reserved for normal-sized brains. Like me, Klint and Kory had lost a parent to cancer. Unlike me, they used that loss as a reason to wear black makeup and start a band called the Orchestra of Lost Soulz. (I used my loss for much more sensible things, like seeing how hard one must push the edge of a credit card into one’s skin before one starts to bleed.) Mom offered them our basement as a rehearsal space, and just like that, they were regulars around the Benucci residence. As I said: mighty aplombing. I heard Mom now, in the kitchen with Frank and Klint and Kory. One happy family. With their happy family voices ringing like happy family bells from our happy family kitchen.

22 — David Arnold

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Ding-dong-how-was-your-ding-dong-day? I set my backpack next to the guitar cases, hung up my coat, and started down the hallway. Mom, intent on not wasting another holiday, had begun baking and decorating the day after Thanksgiving. Pies, tarts, breads, cakes, puddings—“in the name of Christmas,” Mom said, probably a hundred times. I wondered if maybe Christmas could go by a different name this year. But hey. I could hardly blame her. Last Christmas was a bleak affair. The one-year anniversary(ish) of Dad’s death. There were no lights. There were no pies. There was no tree. So if Mom wanted to string lights from every corner and crevice of our house this year, decking our halls like some wild-eyed holiday elf, I was fine with it. There was, however, one piece of furniture that remained untouched by my mother’s voluminous cheer: the end table in the hallway. The end table in the hallway was nothing special. But what sat on the end table in the hallway was a thing of such momentous proportions, I could scarcely pass it without my knees buckling. My socked feet inched forward, seemingly of their own volition, until I was close enough to nudge the table with my waist—close enough to reach out and touch my father’s urn. My phone buzzed. I pulled it out, glanced at a new message from Mom. Where r u?

The happy family voices rang from the kitchen. Dingdong-how-was-your-ding-dong-day? I set my phone on the end

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table, and reached toward Dad’s urn, fingers stopping only centimeters away. Not being able to close my eyes made many things difficult: sleeping and blinking, primarily. But one thing people didn’t consider was envisioning, and how frequently people closed their eyes—not for long, more like a prolonged blink—when picturing a place or thing. It was a real problem for me. Until Dad taught me to go to my Land of Nothingness. He said the reason people closed their eyes when they tried to picture something was because they needed a blank place to start from. He explained what it looked like when he closed his eyes, how it wasn’t darkness or blackness, exactly—just nothingness. And only in a place of nothingness can somethingness be found, V. Now he was Nothingness personified. Now he was in a jar. I went to my Land of Nothingness, imagined the way Dad poked his head into my room before bed. Hey, V. You need anything? No, Dad. You good? Yeah, Dad. All right then. Good night. Night, Dad. The whole thing, like he was such a nuisance. Sock-footed in the oblivion of this dark hallway, one arm outstretched, I stood stuck between somethingness and nothingness, wondering how it was possible for this plain old urn to blaze like a desert heat. Dad died two years ago. And I still couldn’t touch the thing. * * * 24 — David Arnold

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“Dynamite meal, Doris.” Frank eyed his sons. “Boys? Isn’t this meal something?” Klint cleared his throat. “Sure is, Dad.” Kory chewed, chuckled, nodded. “How do you get the little”—Frank poked at his potatoes, apparently unable to find his words—“crispy parts here . . . the sweet herbs . . . how do you get them so . . . ?” “Crispy and sweet?” asked Mom. Frank laughed, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. One arm shifted under the table in Mom’s direction. I choked and miraculously didn’t die on the spot. “I literally did nothing to the potatoes,” said Mom. “But I’d be happy to pass along your compliments to the chef down at the Ore-Ida frozen potato factory. I had been planning to make my world-famous lasagna, but someone forgot to pick up prosciutto.” Here, she aimed an eye at me. “Right,” I said, clearing my throat. “Sorry about that.” I pictured the face of the Stoic Beauty and knew I wasn’t sorry, not even a little. “I could have picked up prosciutto on my way home from court, sweetheart,” said Frank, serving himself more green beans. Frank loved to talk about court. Court this, court that. Talking about court made Frank the Boyfriend feel more like Frank the Racehorse. In reality, Frank was more of a French poodle. “In fact,” said Frank, “I called earlier to see if you needed anything, but you didn’t answer. I would have left a message, but—” “I know, I know.” “Someone, for reasons passing understanding, refuses to clear out her freaking voice mail in-box.” KIDS OF APPE TITE  — 25

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“I know,” said Mom, smiling ear to ear. “I’ll do it tonight. Okay?” Frank leaned in, whispered, “You’ll do it tonight, all right.” “Dad, gross,” said Klint. Kory chewed, gagged, shook his head. I took a sip of soda, wondering what would happen if I reached across the table right now and slapped Frank the Boyfriend across the face. Frank was everything my dad wasn’t: dainty, professionally successful, head full of hair. Subtlety completely eluded him. He was a loud-talking, green-bean-chomping lawyer who always wore suits. I’d never not seen the guy in a suit. He just really loved suits, I guess. And maybe it wasn’t momentous, but it sure felt like it, because Dad was a wear-his-sweatpants-to-the-grocery-store type guy. I was that type guy too. “So, boys,” said Mom. “How’s the band coming along?” “Oh,” said Klint, his eyes shooting toward his dad. “Um. Good, Miss B. Really, umm .  .  . good. Right, Kory?” He elbowed his brother in the ribs. Kory stopped chewing momentarily, focused instead on his chuckling and nodding. Frank scooped a third helping of green beans onto his plate. I don’t know. The man really liked his green beans. “Well, that’s just great,” said Mom. “Maybe we can hear something soon. Like a concert. Wouldn’t that be nice, Vic?” I raised my favorite thin-brimmed glass in a sarcastic toast, carefully drained the last of my soda, and stood. “Where are you going?” asked Mom. “Refill.” Klint dropped his fork onto his plate, stood, and grabbed my empty glass. “I’ll get it.” He disappeared into the kitchen,

26 — David Arnold

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leaving us all to wonder what the hell had just happened. Klint rarely did anything nice, certainly not for me. Mom beamed. “That is so sweet of him.” “He’s a sweet kid,” said Frank, mouth full of beans. I did a mental checklist of undetectable poisons that might be found in our kitchen, things Klint could use to lace my drink. A minute later he returned, set a full glass in front of me, and sat down without a word. Mom continued talking, something about how happy she was to see us all getting along. I didn’t really hear her. I was too preoccupied with the fact that Klint had traded out my original glass for Dad’s favorite beer tumbler, the one with the Mets logo printed across the front. It had a thick brim, making it almost impossible for me to use without dripping liquid down my chin. “Klint and Kory have a special relationship,” said Frank. “Especially so close in age. They even share a wardrobe.” I grabbed the bottom of the glass but didn’t lift it. “Something wrong?” asked Klint, just the hint of a smile on his lips. Kory chewed, chuckled, nodded. Klint and Kory much preferred sneaky-mean to outrightmean. They didn’t make fun of my face the way normal mean kids did. They understood that lasting pain could only be dealt at the root. “Genetically speaking,” droned Frank, “brothers are just as close in DNA to each other as they are to a parent.” He took a bite of green beans as if it were a period at the end of his sentence. “Frank, you are a wealth of knowledge,” said Mom, either not noticing Dad’s tumbler or choosing not to acknowledge it.

KIDS OF APPE TITE  — 27

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Ever since Mom got serious with Frank, ours had been a relationship of few: few words, few touches, few feelings. Much of her beauty had been spent during the Dark Days, but she still had an ample supply. Her hair, like her smile, was bright and young; the creases around her eyes had grown more severe, but what did people expect? From diagnosis to funeral, she’d waited on Dad hand and foot. The only three reasons Mom had left the house during the Dark Days: 1. Groceries. 2. Prescriptions. 3. Procedures. Post-diagnosis, Dad lived another eighteen months. The doctors said that was rare. They said he was a fighter. They said he was lucky. I said they should get their heads checked if they thought Dad was lucky. At least he had Mom to take care of him. For a year and a half, she sacrificed her life to give Dad some comfort at the end. So shouldn’t I be happy for her now? Hadn’t she earned it? Shouldn’t I welcome Frank the Boyfriend with arms open wide? The answer was yes. To all of it. But part of me thought about all those sacrifices she’d made, and compared them to what she’d gotten in exchange. “It’s in literature, too,” said Frank, right on cue. He took another bite of green beans, and it took everything in me not to ask him if he wanted a second fork, one for each hand. “Take that Russian novel with the four brothers,” he said. “Whatchacallit . . . ? Gosh, I can never remember the name.” I looked at Mom, daring her to make eye contact with me. Look at me. Just once tonight, really look at me. Just once, let’s skip the shorthand and talk like we used to.

28 — David Arnold

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“Well, this is just gonna bug me,” said Frank, who, for the moment, had stopped shoveling green beans into his mouth. “The Brothers something-or-other. It’s one of Tolstoy’s more well-known works.” “Karamazov,” I said quietly, still staring at Mom. Her smile dissolved. Slowly, finally, she met my gaze. For a few seconds the dinner table dissolved. Frank, Klint, Kory— gone. It was just the two of us, living in the saddest house of happy memories. We stared at each other until she looked away. And just then, I knew I’d lost her. I pushed my plate away, tucked my hair behind my ears, and shifted in my seat. “Frank, you’re a fucking moron.” “Victor!” shouted Mom. Frank, temporarily stunned, turned to help Klint, who had suddenly choked on the crispy part of his potato; Kory chewed, chuckled, nodded. Mom stood from the table with authority. “Kitchen. Now.” I took my time getting there, scooting my chair out from under the table with more defined force than necessary, following her through the swinging kitchen door. A strand of Christmas lights lay at the foot of the fridge, gravity having gotten the better of the three-week-old duct tape. The counter was a mess of flour and sugar and eggs, vestiges of Mom’s recent romance with the baked good. “Out with it,” she said, arms crossed. “Out with what?” “That was unbelievably rude.” “I can’t help it if your boyfriend knows everything about the fucking chromosomal similarities of siblings, yet somehow thinks Tolstoy wrote The Brothers Karamazov, which I’m fairly certain he pretended not to remember the title of so he wouldn’t have to mispronounce it out loud.”

KIDS OF APPE TITE  — 29

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“Honey,” she said. “Maybe if he’d give it a rest with the Churchill biographies, he could devote some time to—” “Victor.” “What?” “What is this really about?” . . . . . . “The literary prowess of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” Mom did not laugh. Not even a chuckle. “We don’t like the same books, Vic. You can’t base a relationship on literary preferences.” I felt myself try to smile, which happened sometimes. It was amazing—even though I’d never done it, not once in my whole life, the urge was there. Mom used to say she could tell by my eyes when I was laughing. She said they changed somehow. Said they got happy enough for my whole face. “What’s so funny?” asked Mom. Traitorous eyes. “Nothing is funny.” I crossed my arms. “What could ever be funny?” It was quiet for a moment. Mom put a hand on my shoulder. “I know it’s hard. This hasn’t been . . . Nothing has been easy. But you remember what we’ve been talking about? About moving on?” I swallowed the knot down as she pulled me closer. I remembered. How could I forget? Lately she’d been going on about the importance of healing, of allowing ourselves time to wade in the grief pool, and of recognizing when the time came to get out and dry ourselves off. Mom had been dry for a while, I guess.

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I was sinking like a rock. “Frank makes me happy, sweetheart,” she said. “Or at least, not sad. I’d like to feel more of that, you know? I’d like for you to feel it too. Maybe not toward Frank, but toward something, somebody.” I imagined the knock on my bedroom door again. Come in, I would say. Frank the Boyfriend would open the door, poke his head full of hair inside. Hey, Vic. You need anything? I would nod. Go jump off a bridge, Frank. Mom hugged me. And it felt like a last meal. It felt like thnx, luv. I tried to hug her back, but my arms hung like vines by my sides, awkward and too long for my body. “He gave me dad’s tumbler,” I said quietly. “What?” “Klint. When he came in here to get my Coke.” Suddenly the hug takes on a new sense of restraint, a hesitation that wasn’t there seconds ago. “He switched out my glass and gave me Dad’s. They’re awful, Mom. They hate me.” . . . . . . “They don’t hate you. They just don’t know you yet.” Yet. For such a tiny word, it sure could flip a sentence on its ass. “I’ll talk to Frank about it,” she said. “Speaking of which, you owe him an apology.” I nodded and Mom let go, stepping toward the door, toward the dining room, toward her new family, away from me. “It’s not true, you know,” I said, staring at the fallen strand of Christmas lights. “What’s not true?”

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Just when I decided not to say it, the words came out. “You and Dad liked the same books.” Watching her eyes water offered a strange sense of relief. He still mattered to her. What we had still mattered. Mom could flirt and smile and bake a billion pies, but in the end, her eyes were traitorous too. They told me all I needed to know. Whatever this was with Frank, even she knew it was nothing like what she had with Dad. She blinked away tears, forced a smile, and opened the door to the dining room. “After you, honey.” I stood frozen to the spot. I stood staring into the dining room. I am mighty aplombed. “Vic?” said Mom, turning to look through the door. “What’s—” In the dining room, Klint and Kory were standing in their chairs, each one with a guitar strapped around their shoulders. “Two! Three! Four!” yelled Klint, his voice even raspier than normal. The Orchestra of Lost Soulz plunged into song with that special enthusiasm reserved for people who had no idea they couldn’t sing. It was awkward and sweaty and uncomfortable for everyone. Frank sat in his chair, staring at Mom through the whole thing, his face strangely constricted. After the song came to a close, he said, “I realize this is sort of . . . well, not ideal timing.” His eyes shifted to me. “Vic, I hope you see this as proof of my love and commitment. To both you, and your mother.” Before I could ask what this meant, Frank cleared his throat and scooted out of his chair. I waited for him to stand, but it never happened. Frank the Boyfriend took a knee.

32 — David Arnold

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Attention, Reader: PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS IS NOT A FINISHED BOOK

This is an advance reading copy that has not been corrected by the author and publisher. The artwork is not final, and sketches and art placement are subject to change, as are the text, design, page length, and format. Typographical errors will be corrected during the course of production. If you quote from this galley, please indicate that your review is based on an uncorrected text. Thank you.

UNCORRECTED PROOF

aaron starmer Publication date: August 30, 2016 Price: $17.99 (Can $23.99) Young Adult Ages 14 and up • Grades 9 and up • Pages 368 Also available on audio from Listening Library CD ISBN 978-0-7352-8801-0 $45.00 US ($60.00 CAN) Audio Download ISBN 978-0-7352-8802-7 978-0-525-42974-6 Dutton Books


To the ones who feel like it could all come apart at any moment . . . and to the ones who comfort us and keep us together


Call the death by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will. It is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

charles dickens Bleak House


how it started

W

hen Katelyn Ogden blew up in third period pre-calc, the janitor probably figured he’d only have to scrub guts off one

whiteboard this year. Makes sense. In the past, kids didn’t randomly explode. Not in pre-calc, not at prom, not even in chem lab, where explosions aren’t exactly unheard of. Not one kid. Not one explosion. Ah, the good old days. Katelyn Ogden was a lot of things, but she wasn’t particularly explosive, in any sense of the word. She was wispy, with a pixie cut and a breathy voice. She was a sundress of a person—cute, airy, inoffensive. I didn’t know her well, but I knew her well enough to curse her adorable existence on more than one occasion. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Doesn’t mean I wanted her to go out the way she did, or that I wanted her to go out at all, for that matter. Our thoughts aren’t always our feelings; and when they are, they rarely last.


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On the morning that Katelyn, well, went out, I was sitting two seats behind her. It was September, the first full week of school, an absolute stunner of a day. The windows were open and the faraway drone of a John Deere mixed with the nearby drone of Mr. Mellick philosophizing on factorials. Worried I had coffee breath, I was bent over in my seat, digging through my purse for mints. My POV was therefore limited, and the only parts of Katelyn I saw explode were her legs. Actually, it’s hard to say what I saw. Her legs were there and then they weren’t. Wa-bam! The classroom quaked and my face was suddenly warm and wet. It’s a disgusting way to say it, but it’s the simplest way to say it: Katelyn was a balloon full of fleshy bits. And she popped. You can’t feel much of anything in a moment like that. You certainly can’t analyze the situation. At least not while it’s happening. Later, the image will play over and over in your head, like some demon GIF, like some creeper who slips into your bed every single night, taps you on the shoulder, and says, “Remember me, the worst fucking moment of your life up to this point?” Later, you’ll feel and do a lot of things, but when it’s actually happening, all you can feel is confusion and all you do is react. I bolted upright and my head hit my desk. Mr. Mellick dove behind his chair like a soldier into the trenches. My red-faced classmates sat there in shock for a few moments. Blood dripped down the windows and walls. Then came the screaming and the obligatory rush for the door. The next hour was insane. Hunched running, hands up, sirens blaring, kids in the parking lot hugging. News trucks, helicopters,


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SWAT teams, cars skidding out in the grass because the roads were clogged. No one even realized what had happened. “Bomb! Blood! Run for the fucking hills!” That was the extent of it. There was no literal smoke, but when the figurative stuff cleared, we could be sure of only two things. Katelyn Ogden blew up. Everyone else was fine. Except we weren’t. Not by a long shot.


let’s be clear

T

his is not about Katelyn Ogden. She was important—all of them were—but she was also a signpost, a starting point

on a path of self-discovery. I realize how corny and conceited that sounds, but the focus of this should be on me and what you ultimately think of me. Do you like me? Do you trust me? Will you still be interested in me after I say what I have to say? Yes, yes. I know, I know. “It’s not important what people think of you, it’s who you are that counts.” Well, don’t buy into that crap. Perception trumps reality. Always and forever. Simply consider what people thought of Katelyn. Mr. Mellick once told Katelyn that she “would make an excellent anchorwoman,” which was a coded way of saying that she spoke well and, though it wasn’t clear if she was part black or part Asian or part Hispanic, she was pretty in a nonthreatening, vaguely ethnic way. In reality, Katelyn Ogden was Turkish. Not part anything. Plain old Turkish. Her family’s original name was Özden, but they


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changed it somewhere along the line. Her dad was born right here in New Jersey, and so was her mom, but they both had full Turkish blood that went back to the early Ottoman Empire, which, as far as empires go, was a pretty badass one. Their armies were among the first to employ guns and cannons, so they knew a thing or two about things that go boom. Katelyn’s dad was an engineer and her mom was a lawyer and they drove a Tahoe with one of those stick-figure-family stickers on the back window. Two parents, one kid, two dogs. I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is, but I guess you keep the kid sticker on your window even . . . after. The Ogdens did, in any case. I learned all the familial details at the memorial service, which was closed casket, for obvious reasons, and which was held in State Street Theater, also for obvious reasons. Everyone in school had to attend. It wasn’t required by law, but absences would be noted. Not by the authorities necessarily, but by the kids who were quick to label their peers misogynistic assholes or heartless bitches. I know because I was one of those label-happy kids. Again, I’m not necessarily proud of that fact, but I certainly can’t deny it. The memorial service was quite a production, considering that it was put together in only a few days. Katelyn’s friend Skye Sanchez projected a slideshow whose sole purpose was to remind us how ridiculously effervescent Katelyn was. There was a loving eulogy delivered by a choked-up aunt. A choir sang Katelyn’s favorite song, which is a gorgeous song. The lyrics were a bit sexy for the occasion, but who cares, right? It was her favorite and if they can’t play your favorite song at your memorial service then when the hell can they play it? Plus, it was all about saying good-bye at the


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wrong moment, and at least that was appropriate for the occasion. There’s a line in it that goes, “your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm . . .” Katelyn’s hair was short and dark, the furthest thing from sleepy and golden, but that didn’t matter to Jed Hayes, who had a crush on her going all the way back to middle school. That hair-upon-the-pillow line made him blubber so loud that everyone in the balcony felt obligated to nod condolences at the poor guy. His empathy seemed off the charts, but if we’re being honest with ourselves—and we really should be—then we have to accept that Jed wasn’t crying because he truly loved Katelyn. It was because her storm of hair never hit his pillow. Sure, it’s a selfish thing to cry about, but we all cry about selfish things at funerals. We all cry about “if only.” • If only Katelyn had made it through to next year, then she would have gone to Brown. She was going to apply early decision and was guaranteed to get in. No question that’s partly why her SAT tutor, Mrs. Carbone, was sobbing. All those hours, all those vocab flash cards, and for what? Mrs. Carbone still couldn’t claim an Ivy Leaguer as a past student. • If only Katelyn had scammed a bit more cash off her parents, then she would have bought more weed. It was well-known among us seniors that Katelyn usually had a few joints hidden in emptied-out mascara tubes that she stashed in the glove box of her Volvo. It was also well-known that she was quickly becoming


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the drug-dealing Dalton twins’ best customer. Such a loss was surely why the Daltons were a bit weepy. Capitalism isn’t an emotionless endeavor. • If only Katelyn had the chance to accept his invitation to the prom, then she would have ended up with her hair upon Jed Hayes’s pillow. It was within the realm of possibility. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy and she was open-minded. You couldn’t begrudge the kid his tears. That’s merely the beginning of the list. The theater was jampacked with selfish people wallowing in “if only.” Meanwhile, outside the theater, other selfish people had moved on and were already wallowing in “but why?” As you might guess, when a girl blows up in pre-calc and that girl is Turkish, “but why?” is fraught with certain preconceived notions. It can’t be “just one of those things.” It has to be a “terrorist thing.” That was what the cable-news folks were harrumphing, and the long-fingernailed women working the checkout at Target were gabbing, and the potbellied picketers standing outside the theater were hollering. Never mind the fact that no one else was hurt when Katelyn exploded. We were all examined. Blood was taken. Questions were asked. Mr. Mellick’s class was considered healthy, if not in mind, then in body. We were considered innocent. Never mind the fact that there wasn’t a trace of anything remotely explosive found in the classroom. The police did a full


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sweep of it, the school, Katelyn’s house, the nearest park, and a halal restaurant two towns over. They didn’t find a thing. FBI was there too, swabbing everything with Q-tips. Collective shrugs all around. Never mind “if only.” A girl with so much potential doesn’t suicide-bomb it all away. She just doesn’t. Sure, she smoked weed, and if the rumors were true, she was slacking off in pre-calc and fighting with her mom, but that’s not because senior year was her year to blow things up. It was her year to blow things off, perhaps her last chance in life to say fuck it. It was a lot of people’s last chance to say fuck it, as it turned out.


how you feel

T

o describe how you feel after a girl explodes in your pre-calc class is a tad tricky. I imagine it’s similar to how you feel when

any tragedy comes hurtling into your life. You’re scared. You’re fragile. You flinch. All the time. You may have never even thought about what holds life together. Until, of course, it comes apart. Same with our bodies. You can imagine cancer and other horrible things wreaking havoc on our doughy shells, but you don’t ever expect our doughy shells to, quite literally, disintegrate. So when the unimaginable happens, when the cosmos tears into your very notion of what’s possible, it’s not that you become jaded; it’s that you become unsure. Unsure that you’ll ever be sure about anything ever again. You get what I’m saying, right? No? Well, you will. For now, maybe it’s easier to speak about practicalities, to describe what exactly happens after a girl explodes in your pre-calc class. You get the rest of the day off from school, and the rest of


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the week too. You talk to the cops on three separate occasions, and Sheriff Tibble looks at you weird when you don’t whimper as much as the guy they interviewed before you. You are asked to attend private therapy sessions with a velvet-voiced woman named Linda and, if you want, group therapy sessions with a leathervoiced man named Vince and some of the other kids who witnessed the spontaneous combustion. That’s what they were calling it in the first few weeks: spontaneous combustion. I had never heard of such a thing, but there was a precedent for it—for people catching fire, or exploding, with little-to-no explanation. Now, unless you’ve been living in the jungles of New Guinea for the last year, you already know all this, but if you want a refresher on the history of spontaneous combustion, head on over to Wikipedia. Skip the section on “The Covington Curse” if you want the rest of this story to be spoiler-free. From Linda, I learned that it was normal to feel completely lost when a girl spontaneously combusts in your pre-calc class. Because in those first few weeks I’d find myself crying all of sudden, and then making really inappropriate jokes the next moment, and then going about the rest of the day like it was all no big deal. “When something traumatic happens, you fire your entire emotional arsenal,” Linda told me. “A war is going on inside of you, and I’m here to help you reload and make more targeted attacks. I’m here to help the good guys win.” At the group sessions, Vince didn’t peddle battlefront metaphors. He hardly spoke at all. He simply repeated his mantra: “Talk it out, kids. Talk it out.” So that’s what we did. Half of us “kids” from third period


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pre-calc met in the media room every Tuesday and Thursday at four, and we shared our stories of insomnia and chasing away bloody visions with food and booze and all sorts of stuff that therapists can’t say shit about to your parents because they have a legal obligation to keep secrets. Nutty as she was, Linda helped. So did Vince. So did the rest of my blood-obsessed peers, even the ones who occasionally called me insensitive on account of my sense of humor. “Sorry, but my cell is blowing . . . spontaneously combusting,” I announced during a Thursday session when my phone kept vibrating with texts. It had been only six weeks since we’d all worn Katelyn on our lapels. In other words, too soon. “I realize that jokes are a form of coping,” Claire Hanlon hissed at me. “But tweet them or something. We don’t need to hear them here.” “Sorry but I don’t tweet,” I told her. That said, I did fancy myself a writer. Long form, though. I had even started a novel that summer. I titled it All the Feels. I think it was young adult fiction, what some might call paranormal romance. I didn’t care, as long as I could sell the movie rights. Which didn’t seem like an impossibility. The story was definitely relatable. It was about a teenage boy who was afraid of his own emotions. In my experience, that summed up not only teenage boys, but teenagers in general. Case in point: “This is a healing space and that makes it a joke-free zone,” Claire went on. “I don’t want to relive that moment and you’re liable to give me a flashback.” “I like Mara’s jokes,” Brian Chen responded. “They help me


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remember it’s okay to smile. I don’t know if I’d still be coming to these things if it wasn’t for Mara.” “Thank you, Bri,” I said, and at that point I began to realize that we were a bit of a cliché. Stories about troubled teenagers often feature support groups where smart-ass comments fly and feelings get hurt, where friends and enemies are forged over oneliners and tears. But here’s the thing. Even if we were a bit of a cliché, we were only a cliché for a bit. Because almost immediately after announcing his dedication to my humor, Brian Chen blew up.


sorry

I

did that on purpose. I didn’t give you much of a chance to know Brian and then I was all, like, “Oh yeah, side note, that dude ex-

ploded too.” I understand your frustrations. Because he seemed like a nice guy, right? He was. Undoubtedly. One of the nicest guys around. He didn’t deserve his fate. That’s the thing. When awful fates snatch people away, sometimes it happens to someone you know a little and sometimes it happens to someone you know a lot, and in order to shield yourself from the emotional shrapnel, it’s better to know those someones a little. So I was trying to do you a solid, by getting the gory details out of the way from the get-go. Unfortunately, you won’t always have that luxury. Because to understand my story, you’re going to have to get to know at least a few people, including a few who blow up. A bit about Brian, because he deserves a bit. He was half Korean and half Chinese. I’m not sure which half was which,


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which is racist I guess. I don’t doubt that Brian knew that Carlyle is an English name while McNulty is an Irish name, but all these months later and I still can’t be bothered to find out if Chen is Korean or Chinese in origin. I know. I’m a total dick. As I said, I’m not necessarily proud of it. Thing is, I liked Brian. I even kissed him once. On the eighth grade trip to Washington, DC, we were in the back of the bus and he rested his head on my shoulder. We weren’t good friends or anything, but it was one of those moments. Hot bus. Long drive. All of us tired and woozy. When no one was looking, I kissed him on the lips. No tongue, but I held it for a couple of seconds. It was more than a peck. I did it because I thought it would feel nice. His lips seemed so soft. And it did feel nice. And soft. But Brian pretended to be asleep, even though it was obvious he was awake. My elbow was touching his chest and I felt his heart speed up. So I also pretended to be asleep, because that’s what you do when you kiss a guy and he pretends to be asleep. You follow suit, or you end up embarrassing yourself even more. We went on with our lives after that. Went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon. Then we went home. We didn’t talk about what I did. Which was fine by me. Brian didn’t spread rumors or try to take advantage of the situation. Like I said, one of the nicest guys around. He still smiled at me in the hall, used my name when he saw me. “Good to see you, Mara.” “How’d that bio test turn out, Mara?” “Can I offer you a baby carrot, Mara?”


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Brian liked baby carrots. Loved them, actually. Ate them all the time. Raw. Unadorned. No dip or peanut butter or anything to make them taste less carroty. He kept a bag of them in his backpack and munched his way through life. I don’t know if it was an addiction or a discipline, but either way you kind of had to respect it. What you didn’t have to respect was that he wore the same pair of filthy neon-blue sneakers everywhere, even to dances and Katelyn’s memorial service. He called them his “laser loafers,” a term that didn’t catch on, as he’d obviously hoped it would. He’d gone viral once and figured he could harness that magic again. It doesn’t work that way, though. Viral, you ask? The boy went viral? In a manner of speaking, yes. Because Brian Chen was the proud creator of Covington High’s favorite catchphrase: “Wrap it up, short stuff!” It was dumb luck, really. He had first said it during a group presentation in English class when the five-foot-two-inch Will Duncan kept blabbing on and on about how sad it was that Sylvia Plath “offed herself by sticking her head in the oven because she was actually pretty hot, in addition to being crazy talented.” “Wrap it up, short stuff!” Brian blurted out to shut his pal up and everybody lost their shit. By the end of the week, “Wrap it up, short stuff!” was something we said to long-winded people. Then we started hollering it at my parents’ deli to the guys who literally wrapped up the sandwiches. Then we started using it as shorthand for “please use a condom or else you’re gonna end up with a baby or a disease, basically something that will ruin your life.” I know. Wrap it up, short stuff.


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So, yeah, Brian Chen was a nice guy. A carroty guy with soft lips, filthy sneakers, and a catchphrase. Now you know him, and I hope you understand that when I make jokes about him and the other people who were here and gone in an instant, it’s because of a billion things that are wrong with me. But it’s not because they deserve it.


what was wrong with us

H

ere’s what happens when a guy blows up during your group therapy session that’s supposed to make you feel better about

people blowing up. The group therapy session is officially canceled. You do not feel better. What also happens is all nine remaining members of the group therapy session are escorted to the police station in an armored vehicle. With Katelyn, they let us shower before the cops got involved, but no such luck with Brian. It was too much of a coincidence. Same group of people, same wa-bam. This wasn’t terrorism. Or, to be more accurate, Brian wasn’t a suicide bomber. Around here, nobody thinks an East Asian person would be a terrorist. Which is silly, really, because East Asia has plenty of terrorists. Back in the nineties, there were a bunch of Japanese terrorists who filled a subway station with poison gas and killed a shit-ton of people. No Turk has pulled off something


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that audacious, as far as I know. It’s definitely racist to think that Katelyn was a terrorist and Brian wasn’t. But that’s what people thought. Or they thought someone else in our class was behind both incidents. So the cops shuffled us precalc, group-therapy saps into a conference room where we sat, bloody and stunned, under awful fluorescent bulbs that flickered every few seconds. “Gahhh!” Becky Groves screamed as soon as the cops left us alone. They had gathered in the hall to talk to some FBI agents. To strategize, I guess. “Let ’em cool their heels a bit,” they were probably saying as they blew on their coffee. “Get their stories straight and then, blammo, we’ll work the old McKenzie Doubleback on these perps.” Yes, yes, I know, I know. There’s no such thing as the “McKenzie Doubleback,” but I’m sure they have names for their interrogation techniques. Anyway, once Becky Groves was done screaming—which was a few seconds later because she’s Becky Groves and she has the lungs of a water buffalo—Claire Hanlon said, “So who did it?” “Really?” I replied. “Really!” Claire snapped. “The police know this can’t be a coincidence . . . and I know this can’t be a coincidence . . . and I know I didn’t do it . . . and so it has to be one of you.” An aneurysm seemed imminent the way Claire was panting out the words. “How?” Malik Deely asked. “However . . . people like you . . . do these sorts of things,” Claire said. You don’t use the term “people like you” around people like


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Malik (that is, black people), but he had a cool-enough head to let logic beat out emotion. “Seriously?” he said. “Seriously? There was no bomb. The guy’s chair was completely intact. Becky was sitting right next to him and she’s fine.” “Gahhh!” Becky screamed again, this time with her eyes squeezed shut and her hands clawing at her frizzy red hair. “Physically fine, I mean,” Malik said. “We all are. Something inside these kids just . . . went off.” Greyson Hobbs, Maria Hermanez, Gabe Carlton, Yuki Dolan, and Chris Welch were all in the room too, but they weren’t saying anything. Their perplexed eyes kept darting back and forth as we spoke. It was like they were foreign tourists who’d stumbled into a courtroom. They weren’t trying to figure out who was innocent or guilty. All they wanted to know was “How the hell did we end up in this place? Which way is the way back to Disney World?” When the door opened, those perplexed eyes all darted to Special Agent Carla Rosetti of the FBI. I would learn later that she wasn’t necessarily the best and brightest, but at that moment, compared to our schlumpy local boys-in-blue, she looked like the real goddamn deal. She stood in the doorway decked out in a white shirt, dark blazer, dark pants, and dark pumps. Standard FBI attire, I assumed, though a bit baggier than what the chicks on TV rocked. The clothes were obviously chain-store bought, but from a nice chain store. Ann Taylor or something. Even without the outfit, her name was Carla Rosetti and how could she not be an ass-kicking federal agent with a name like that?


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“Your parents are here to collect you,” Special Agent Carla Rosetti said as she stepped into the room. “But first you will be surrendering your clothing. There are showers and sweat suits. You’ll wash down, dress up, and go home. You’ll be hearing from us tomorrow morning.” “No. You will be hearing from my lawyer. Tonight,” Claire said. “I have rights, you know?” “I never said you didn’t,” Special Agent Carla Rosetti remarked. “I simply asked you to give me my evidence, evidence I obtained a warrant to collect. The alternative is to walk out the door and face some serious criminal charges, which I’m sure will delight your parents, especially after you’ve covered the interiors of their Audis with bloodstains. Kids have been getting changed for gym class for time immemorial. This is no more a violation of your rights than that. I’ll blow a whistle and force you to play dodgeball if that’ll make you feel more comfortable, though I’m not constitutionally obliged to.” Special Agent Carla Fucking Rosetti.


in case you were wondering

S

howers in police stations can burn the sun off a sunbeam, and sweat suits from police stations have pit stains the size of

pancakes, but you don’t complain about those things, considering that you’ve lived through two spontaneous combustions. You simply go home washed and dressed in gray cotton and when your parents ask you what you need, you tell them you need to be alone, and they respect that, for the time being. Then you flop down on your bed with your iPad and you see the story invading every corner of the internet. another explosion rocks school more terror at covington high we rank the top ten spontaneous combustions in history So you close your laptop and turn to your phone, which is blowing . . . spontaneously combusting. There are a ton from your


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friend Tess, but the last text that comes in is from a number you don’t recognize. It says: You were there for both of them. That must have been invigorating. Not scary. Not sad. Not difficult. Invigorating. You should be creeped out, but you’re not. Because it’s the first time that someone gets it right. Both explosions were exactly that. Invigorating. A terrible thing to admit, but it’s in those moments of admitting and accepting your own terribleness that you realize other people can be terrible too. And if they can be terrible too, then maybe they can be vulnerable too, caring too, and all the things that you are and hope to be. You fall in love, which is the stupidest thing you can ever do.


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I ALWAYS THOUGHT the moment you met the great love of your life would be more like the movies. Not exactly like the movies, obviously, with the slow-mo and the hair blowing in the breeze and the swelling instrumental soundtrack. But I at least thought there would be something, you know? A skipped beat of the heart. A tug at your soul where something inside you goes, “Holy shit. There she is. Finally, after all this time, there she is.” There was none of that when Grace Town walked into Mrs. Beady’s afternoon drama class ten minutes late on the second Tuesday of senior year. Grace was the type of person who made an impression on any room she walked into, but not for the kind of reasons that generate instant and undying affection. She was of average height and average build and average attractiveness, all things that should’ve made it easy for her to assimilate into a new high school without any of the dramatic tropes that usually inhabit such storylines. 1

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But three things about Grace immediately stood out, before her ordinariness could save her: 1. Grace was dressed head to toe in guys’ clothing. Not the tomboy, skater-girl kind of look either, but legitimate dudes’ clothing that was way too big for her. Jeans that were meant to be skinny were held on her hips by a belt. Despite it being only mid-­ September, she wore a sweater and a checkered shirt and a knit cap, and a long leather necklace with an anchor on the end. 2. Grace looked unclean and unhealthy. I mean, I’d seen junkies that looked in better shape than she did that morning. (I hadn’t really seen that many junkies, but I’d seen The Wire and Breaking Bad, which totally counts.) Her blond hair wasn’t brushed and was badly cut, her skin was sallow, and I’m almost certain if I’d smelled her at any point during that day, she would’ve reeked. 3. If all this wasn’t enough to really screw over her chances of fitting in at a new high school, Grace Town walked with a cane. And that’s how it happened. That’s how I first saw her. There was no slow-mo, no breeze, no soundtrack, and definitely no skipped heartbeats. Grace hobbled in ten minutes late, silently, like she owned the place, like she’d been in our 2

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class for years, and maybe because she was new or because she was weird or because the teacher could see simply by looking at her that a small part of her soul was cracked, Mrs. Beady said nothing. Grace sat on a chair at the back of the black-walled drama room, her cane resting across her thighs, and said nothing to anybody for the entire class. I looked at her twice more, but by the end of class I’d forgotten she was there, and she slipped out without anyone noticing. So this is certainly not a story of love at first sight. But it is a love story. Well. Kind of.

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THE FIRST WEEK of senior year, before Grace Town’s sudden apparition, had passed by as uneventfully as high school possibly can. There’d been only three minor scandals thus far: a junior had been suspended for smoking in the girls’ bathroom (if you’re going to get suspended for something, at least make it something not cliché), an anonymous suspect had uploaded footage of an after-school fight in the parking lot to YouTube (the administration was freaking out over that one), and there were rumors going around that Chance Osenberg and Billy Costa had given each other an STD after having unprotected sex with the same girl (I wish I was making this up, dear readers). My life had remained, as always, entirely scandal-free. I was seventeen years old, a weird, lanky kid, the type you might cast to play a young Keanu Reeves if you’d already spent the majority of your budget on bad CGI and craft service. I’d never so much as secondhand-smoked a cigarette, and no one, thank 4

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God, had approached me about doing the no-pants dance sans a prophylactic. My dark hair skirted my shoulders, and I’d grown particularly fond of wearing my dad’s sports coat from the eighties. You could say I looked something like a male Summer Glau crossed with Severus Snape. Subtract the hook nose, add in some dimples, and hey presto: the perfect recipe for one Henry Isaac Page. I was, at the time, also uninterested in girls (or guys, in case you were wondering). My friends had been in and out of dramatic teenage relationships for close to five years now, but I had yet to even have a real crush. Sure, there’d been Abigail Turner in kindergarten (I’d kissed her on the cheek when she wasn’t expecting it; our relationship rapidly declined after that), and I’d been obsessed with the idea of marrying Sophi Zhou for at least three years of elementary school, but after I hit puberty, it was like a switch inside me flipped, and instead of becoming a testosterone-driven sex monster like most of the guys at my school, I failed to find anyone I wanted in my life in that way. I was happy to focus on school and getting the grades I needed to get into a semi-decent college, which is probably why I didn’t think about Grace Town again for at least a couple of days. Maybe I never would’ve if it wasn’t for the intervention of one Mr. Alistair Hink, English teacher. What I know about Mr. Hink is still very much confined to what most high schoolers know about their teachers. He had bad dandruff, which wouldn’t have been half as noticeable if he 5

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didn’t insist on wearing black turtlenecks every day, the color of which clearly displayed the fine white dust on his shoulders like snow falling on asphalt. From what I could gather from his naked left hand, he was unmarried, which probably had a lot to do with the dandruff and the fact that he looked remarkably like Napoleon Dynamite’s brother, Kip. Hink was also fiercely passionate about the English language, so much so that on one occasion when my math class was let out five minutes late and thus ate into our English lesson, Hink called up the math teacher, Mr. Babcock, and gave him a lecture about how the arts were no less valuable than mathematics. A lot of students laughed at him under their breaths—they were mostly destined for careers in engineering or science or customer service, I suppose—but looking back, I can pinpoint that afternoon in our sweltering English classroom as the moment I fell in love with the idea of becoming a writer. I’d always been decent at writing, at putting words together. Some people are born with an ear for music, some people are born with a talent for drawing, some people—people like me, I guess—have a built-in radar that tells them where a comma needs to go in a sentence. As far as superpowers go, grammatical intuition is fairly low on the awesomeness scale, but it did get me in with Mr. Hink, who also happened to be in charge of running and organizing the student newspaper I’d volunteered at since sophomore year in hopes of one day becoming editor. 6

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It was about midway through Mrs. Beady’s Thursday drama class in the second week of school when the phone rang and Beady answered it. “Henry, Grace. Mr. Hink would like to see you in his office after school,” she said after chatting for a few minutes. (Beady and Hink had always been friendly. Two souls born in the wrong century, when the world liked to make fun of people who still thought art was the most extraordinary thing humanity ever had or ever would produce.) I nodded and purposefully didn’t look at Grace, even though I could see in my peripheral vision that she was staring at me from the back of the room. When most teenagers get called to their teacher’s office after school, they assume the worst, but like I said, I was tragically free of scandal. I knew (or hoped I knew) why Hink wanted to see me. Grace had been an inmate at Westland High for only two days, hardly long enough to have given another student chlamydia and/or handed out any after-school beatdowns (although she did carry a cane and look angry a lot). Why Mr. Hink wanted to see Grace was—like much else about her—a mystery.

7

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GRACE WAS ALREADY waiting outside Hink’s office when I got there. She was dressed in guys’ clothing again today, different stuff this time, but she looked a lot cleaner and healthier. Her blond hair had been washed and brushed. It made a remarkable difference to her appearance, even if having clean hair made it fall in uneven chunks around her shoulders, like she’d cut it herself with a pair of rusted hedge trimmers. I sat down next to her on the bench, entirely too aware of my body, so much so that I forgot how to sit casually and had to purposefully arrange my limbs. I couldn’t get my posture right, so I kind of slumped forward into an awkward pose that made my neck ache, but I didn’t want to move again because I could see her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. Grace was sitting with her knees pressed up against her chest, her cane wedged between them. She was reading a book with tattered pages the color of coffee-stained teeth. I couldn’t 8

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see the title, but I could see that the pages were full of poems. When she caught me looking over her shoulder, I expected her to close the book or angle it away from me, but instead she turned it ever so slightly toward me so that I could read too. The poem Grace was reading, I assumed over and over again because the page was dog-eared and food-stained and in generally bad shape, was by a guy called Pablo Neruda, whom I’d never heard of before. It was called “I do not love you,” which intrigued me, so I started to read, even though Hink had not yet succeeded in making me like poetry. I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul. Hink stepped out of the office then, and Grace snapped the book shut before I could finish. “Oh, good, I see you’ve met,” said Hink when he saw us together. I stood up quickly, keen to unravel myself from the weird position I’d folded my body into. Grace shuffled to the edge of the bench and rose slowly, carefully distributing her weight between her cane and her good leg. I wondered for the first time how bad her injury was. How long had she been like this? Was she born with a bad leg or did some tragic accident befall her in childhood? “Well, come inside.” Hink’s office was at the end of a hall that might’ve been considered modern and attractive sometime in the early eighties. Pale pink walls, fluorescent lighting, painfully obvious fake 9

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plants, that weird linoleum that’s supposed to look like granite but is actually made up of hundreds of little bits of plastic filled in with clear laminate. I followed Hink, my steps slower than they normally would be, because I wanted Grace to walk next to me. Not because I wanted her to, like, walk next to me, you know, but I thought she might like it, that it might be a nice thing to do, for her to be able to keep up with someone. But even when my pace felt maddeningly slow, she still hung back, hobbling two steps behind me, until it felt like we were in a race to see who could go the slowest. Hink was ten steps in front of us by then, so I sped up and left her behind and must’ve looked like a total weirdo. When we reached Hink’s office (small, bland, greentinged; so depressing it made me think he was probably part of a fight club on the weekends), he ushered us inside, and we sat in the two chairs in front of his desk. I frowned as we sat down, wondering why Grace was here with me. “You’re both here, of course, because of your exceptional writing abilities. When it came time to pick our senior editors for the newspaper, I could think of no two better—” “No,” said Grace Town, cutting him off, and her voice was such a shock to me that I only just realized it was the first time I’d heard her speak. She had this strong, clear, deep voice, so different from the broken and timid image she portrayed. “I beg your pardon?” said Hink, clearly taken aback. “No,” Grace said again, as if this were explanation enough. “I . . . I don’t understand,” said Hink, his gaze flicking to 10

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me with this pleading look in his eyes. I could practically hear his silent scream for help, but all I could do was shrug. “I don’t want to be an editor. Thank you, really, for thinking of me. But no.” Grace collected her bag from the floor and stood. “Miss Town. Grace. Martin came to me specifically before the start of the school year and asked me to look at your work from East River. You were going to take over as editor of their newspaper this year, I believe, if you hadn’t transferred. Isn’t that right?” “I don’t write anymore.” “That’s a shame. Your work is beautiful. You have a natural gift for words.” “And you have a natural gift for clichés.” Hink was so shocked that his mouth popped open. Grace softened a little. “Sorry. But they’re just words. They don’t mean anything.” Grace looked at me with this kind of disapproving expression I wasn’t expecting and didn’t understand, then slung her backpack over her shoulders and limped out. Hink and I sat there in silence, trying to process what’d just happened. It took me a good ten seconds to realize that I was angry, but once I had, I, too, collected my bag and stood quickly and made my way toward the door. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?” I said to Hink, who must’ve guessed that I was going after her. “Yes, yes, of course. Come and see me before class.” Hink 11

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shooed me out and I jogged down the corridor, surprised to find that Grace wasn’t there. When I opened the far door and stepped out of the building, she was already at the edge of the school grounds. She could move goddamn fast when she tried. I sprinted after her, and when I was within earshot, I shouted, “Hey!” She turned briefly, looked me up and down, glared, and then kept on walking. “Hey,” I said breathlessly when I finally caught up with her and fell in step beside her. “What?” she said, still speed walking, the end of her cane clicking against the road with every step. A car behind us beeped. Grace pointed violently at her cane and then waved them around. I’d never seen a vehicle move in a way I’d describe as sheepish before. “Well . . . ,” I said, but I couldn’t find the words to say what I wanted to say. I was a decent enough writer, but talking? With sounds? From my mouth? That was a bitch. “Well what?” “Well, I hadn’t really planned this far into the conversation.” “You seem pissed.” “I am pissed.” “Why?” “Because people work their asses off for years to get editor, and you waltz in at the beginning of senior year and have it offered to you on a platter and you turn it down?” “Did you work your ass off?” “Hell yeah. I’ve been buttering Hink up, pretending I’m 12

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a tortured teen writer who really relates to Holden Caulfield since I was, like, fifteen.” “Well, congratulations. I don’t understand why you’re angry. There’s normally only one editor anyway, right? The fact that I said no doesn’t impact you at all.” “But . . . I mean . . . Why would you say no?” “Because I don’t want to do it.” “But . . .” “And without me there, you’ll get to make all the creative decisions and have the newspaper exactly how you’ve probably been envisioning it for the last two years.” “Well . . . I guess . . . But . . .” “So you see, this is really a win-win for you. You’re welcome, by the way.” We walked on in silence for a couple of minutes longer, until my anger had entirely faded and I could no longer remember exactly why I’d chased after her in the first place. “Why are you still following me, Henry Page?” she said, coming to a stop in the middle of the road, like she didn’t give a shit that a car could come hurtling toward us at any second. And I realized that, although we’d never been introduced and never spoken before today, she knew my full name. “You know who I am?” I said. “Yes. And you know who I am, so let’s not pretend we don’t. Why are you still following me?” “Because, Grace Town, I’ve walked too far from school now and my bus has probably already left and I was looking for a 13

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smooth way to exit the conversation but I didn’t find one, so I resigned myself to my fate.” “Which is?” “To walk in this general direction until my parents report me missing and the police find me on the outskirts of town and drive me home.” Grace sighed. “Where do you live?” “Right near the Highgate Cemetery.” “Fine. Come to my place. I’ll drop you.” “Oh. Awesome. Thanks.” “As long as you promise not to push the whole editor thing.” “Fine. No pushing. You want to turn down an awesome opportunity, that’s your decision.” “Good.” It was a humid afternoon in suburgatory, the clouds overhead as solid as cake frosting, the lawns and trees still that bright, golden green of late summer. We walked side by side on the hot asphalt. There were five more minutes of awkward silence where I searched and searched for a question to ask her. “Can I read the rest of that poem?” I said finally, because it seemed like the least worst of all my options. (Option one: So . . . are you, like, a cross-dresser or something? Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I’m just curious. Option two: What’s up with your leg, bro? Option three: You’re definitely some kind of junkie, right? I mean, you’re fresh out of rehab, yeah? Option four: Can I read the rest of that poem?) 14

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“What poem?” she said. “The Pablo whoever one. ‘I do not love you.’ Or whatever it was.” “Oh. Yeah.” Grace stopped and handed me her cane and swung her backpack onto her front and fished out the tattered old book and pushed it into my hands. It fell open to Pablo Neruda, so I knew then for sure that it was something she read over and over again. It was the line about loving dark things that I kept coming back to. I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul. “It’s beautiful,” I said to Grace as I closed the book and handed it back to her, because it was. “Do you think?” she said. She looked at me with this look of genuine questioning on her face, her eyes narrowed slightly. “You don’t?” “I think that’s what people say when they read poems they don’t understand. It’s sad, I think. Not beautiful.” I couldn’t see how a perfectly nice love poem was sad, but then again, my significant other was my laptop, so I didn’t say anything. “Here,” Grace said as she opened the book again and tore out the page with the poem on it. I flinched as though I were in actual pain. “You should have it, if you like it. Pretty poetry is wasted on me.” I took the paper from her and folded it and slipped it into 15

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my pocket, half of me horrified that she’d injured a book, the other half of me elated that she’d so willingly given me something that clearly meant a lot to her. I liked people like that. People who could part with material possessions with little or no hesitation. Like Tyler Durden. “The things you own end up owning you” and all that. Grace’s house was exactly the type of place I expected her to live. The garden was overgrown, gone to seed, the lawn left to grow wild for some time. The curtains on the windows were drawn and the house itself, which was two stories tall and made of gray brick, seemed to be sagging as if depressed by the weight of the world. In the driveway there was a solitary car, a small white Hyundai with a Strokes decal on the back windshield. “Stay here,” she said. “I’ve got to get my car keys.” I nodded and stood by myself on the front lawn while I waited for her. The car, like everything else about her, was strange. Why did she walk (or hobble, rather) fifteen minutes to school every day if she had a license and a readily available vehicle? Every other senior I knew was desperate for the privilege of driving to the mall or McDonald’s during lunch, escaping the confines of the school grounds. And then, in the afternoons, bypassing the bus line and rolling right on home to food and PlayStations and sweet, sweet comfortable sweatpants. “Do you have your license?” Grace said from behind me. I jumped a little, because I hadn’t even heard her come out 16

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of the house, but there she was, car keys dangling off her pinkie finger. These, too, had Strokes paraphernalia attached to them. I’d never really listened to their stuff before, but I made a mental note to look them up on Spotify when I got home. “Uh, yeah, actually. I got it a couple of months ago, but I don’t have a car yet.” “Good.” She threw me the keys and walked to the passenger side of the car and pulled out her phone. After twenty seconds or so, she looked up from her screen, her eyebrows raised. “Well? Are you going to unlock the car or not?” “You want me to drive?” “No, I thought it would be hilarious to hand you the keys and stand here until someone invents teleportation. Yes, Henry Page, I want you to drive.” “Uh, okay, I guess. I’m a bit rusty, but yeah. Okay.” I unlocked the car and opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat. The inside of the car smelled like her, the musky, masculine scent of a teenage boy. Which was very confusing for me, to say the least. I started the engine—so far, so good—and took a deep breath. “I’ll try my best not to kill us both,” I said. Grace Town did not reply, so I laughed at my own joke—a single, awkward “ha”—and then I put the car in reverse. My grandmother would’ve looked cooler driving than I did on the journey home. I hunched over the steering wheel, sweating, hyperaware that I a) was driving someone else’s car, b) hadn’t driven any car at all for months, and c) had only 17

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scraped through my driving test because my instructor was my violently hungover second cousin twice removed, and I’d had to stop three times to let him vomit on the side of the road. “Are you sure you passed your driving test?” Grace said, leaning over to check the speedometer, which revealed I was sitting five miles under the speed limit. “Hey, I only had to bribe two officials. I earned my license.” I swear I might’ve almost seen her smile. “So you came from East River, huh?” “Yeah.” “Why’d you change schools in senior year?” “I’m all about adventure,” she said dryly. “Well, we are a particularly thrilling institution. I can definitely see the appeal.” “Hink seems like a riot. I bet he gets into all sorts of shenanigans.” “Life of the party, that one.” And then, thank God, it was over. I pulled up in front of my house and relaxed my fingers from the steering wheel, aware for the first time of how tightly I’d been clenching my muscles. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone drive that tensely since . . . Do you need a minute to compose yourself?” she said. “What can I say? I’m a rebel without a cause.” I expected Grace to slide over to the driver’s side, but she told me to turn the car off. We both got out and I handed her 18

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the keys and she locked the door like she meant to come inside. I hesitated. Was I supposed to invite her in? But then she turned to me and said, “Okay. Good-bye. I’ll see you tomorrow. Or maybe not. Who knows where I’ll be,” and she started hobbling down the street in the complete opposite direction from which we’d come. “There’s not much down there but a storm-water drain and a cemetery a block away.” (The graveyard was close enough that its proximity had resulted in several counseling sessions in elementary school due to a brief yet intense period when I was convinced my great-grandfather Johannes van de Vliert’s ghost was trying to kill me.) Grace didn’t say anything, didn’t look back, just lifted the hand that wasn’t holding her cane as if to say I know and kept on walking. I watched her, entirely puzzled, until she disappeared around the next street corner. “Hola, broseph,” said my sister, Sadie, the moment I closed the front door behind me. “Jesus, Suds, you scared the crap outta me,” I said, clutching at my chest. Sadie was twelve years older than me, a celebrated neuroscientist, and was generally considered both the golden child and black sheep of the family simultaneously. We looked a lot alike: black hair, slightly buggy eyes, dimples when we smiled. Except Suds was slightly more cutting edge than me with her septum piercing, tattoo sleeve, and intricate dreadlocks, all souvenirs from her rocky teenage years. 19

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“Haven’t seen or heard from you in, like, two days, kid. I was starting to think Mom and Dad had murdered you and buried you in a shallow grave.” This was, of course, a strategic lie. Suds was going through a fairly shitty divorce from her fairly shitty doctor husband, which meant she spent about 90 percent of the time she didn’t spend at the hospital at our house. “Sadie, don’t be ridiculous,” Dad said from the kitchen, dressed in his usual getup of a Hawaiian shirt, male short shorts, and black spectacles. (His fashion sense had rapidly declined after he’d moved his carpentry workshop into the backyard three years ago. Honestly it was a miracle to find him in something other than pajamas.) Sadie and I got our hair from him. Or at least, I assumed we did. The ever-present stubble on his chin was dark, but he’d been bald for the majority of my life. “We’d make his grave at least four or five feet deep. We don’t half-ass murder in this house.” “Toby and Gloria can attest to that,” Sadie said, referring to an event six years prior to my birth that involved a pair of goldfish, insect spray, and the accidental yet untimely death of her aquatic pets. “Twenty-three years, Suds. It’s been twenty-three years since your goldfish died. Are you ever going to let it go?” “Not until I have my vengeance!” Sadie yelled dramatically. A toddler started crying from the back of the house. Sadie sighed. “You’d think after three years I’d start getting used to this whole motherhood thing, but I keep forgetting about 20

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the damn kid.” “I’ll get him,” I said, dumping my schoolbag and heading down the hallway to where Ryan usually slept in Sadie’s old room. The kid had been, much the same as me, an accident and a surprise. Mom and Dad had only ever planned to have one child: twelve years after they had Sadie, they got stuck with me. “Ryan, man, what’s up?” I said when I pushed open the door to find my two-and-a-half-year-old nephew, whom Dad babysat on weekdays. “Henwee,” he rasped, rubbing his eyes. “Where’s Mama?” “Come on, I’ll take you to her.” “Who’s the girl, by the way?” Sadie asked as I walked back down the hallway holding Ryan’s hand. “The girl?” “The one who drove you home.” As she scooped Ryan up, Sadie had this thin, lopsided grin on her face. I’d seen that look many times before, when she was a teenager. It always meant trouble. “Oh. Grace is her name. She’s new. I missed my bus, so she offered me a ride.” “She’s cute. In a weird, Janis Joplin kind of way.” I shrugged and pretended I hadn’t noticed.

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ONCE RYAN WAS settled, I went down to the basement, which Sadie had turned into her teenage den of iniquity more than a decade ago (and I’d inherited upon her departure for college). It wasn’t fancy. It kind of looked like a postapocalyptic fallout shelter. None of the furniture matched, the concrete floor was covered with a patchwork of faux-Persian carpets, the refrigerator was older than my parents, and there was a poorly taxidermied elk head on the wall. Everyone claimed not to know where it came from, but I had a sneaking suspicion Sadie had stolen it as a teenager and my parents were either too embarrassed or too impressed to return it to its rightful owner. Maybe both. My two best friends were, as always, already down there, playing GTA V on my PS4. They were, in order of appearance (i.e., seating order on the couch): • Murray Finch, 17, Australian. Tall and tan and 22

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muscular with curly blond hair to his shoulders and a seedy teenage mustache. His parents had immigrated to the States like six years ago, but Muz still (purposefully) sounded like Steve Irwin and said things like “g’day” and “drongo” and “struth” on a regular basis. He was of the strong opinion that Crocodile Dundee was the best thing to ever happen to Australians. Girls loved him. • Lola Leung, 17. Dark-skinned, dark-eyed, darkhaired (cropped short). My next-door neighbor for my entire life, and a self-described “diversity triple threat”: half Chinese on her dad’s side, half Haitian on her mom’s, and one hundred percent gay. For as long as I could remember, La had been “randomly selected” to appear front and center in all of our school’s promotional material, including but not limited to front cover of the yearbook, on the billboard outside school, on the website, and even on bookmarks that were handed out at the library. She’d also been my first kiss three years ago. Two weeks later she’d come out as a lesbian and entered into a long-term, long-distance relationship with a girl named Georgia from the next town over. People still thought my kissing skills were the reason she decided to start batting for the other team. I was still trying not to be offended. (Girls also loved her.)

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At the foot of the stairs, I leaned on the banister and watched them. “I love that even though I failed to make it onto the bus and was possibly dead and/or dying, you two still saw fit to come to my house, eat my food, and play my games without me. Did my father even notice I wasn’t with you?” “Let’s be honest,” Lola said, twisting around on the couch to grin at me. “Justin does love us more than he loves you.” “Who’s the sheila, mate?” said Murray without looking away from the screen, where he was plowing a tank over a line of police cars. “Saw you going off after her like a raw prawn.” “Roll back the slang, Kangaroo Jack,” I said, crossing the room to boot up Sadie’s old iMac computer, which was, after almost two decades of service, still wheezing along with life. “There are no unsuspecting American girls in the room for you to charm.” Murray was, for the most part, capable of speaking like a normal human being, but he’d discovered somewhere along the way that sounding like a bushman from the Outback endeared him to the womenfolk. Sometimes he forgot to turn it off. There was only one folder on the iMac’s desktop, entitled “Missing/Funeral/Manhunt Headshots,” that contained attractive pictures of everyone in the room (plus Sadie), to be used in the event that any of us disappeared/died/became wanted felons. Our parents had strict instructions to access the photos and provide them to the media before journalists went snooping on Facebook and picked random, unfortunate-­ looking pictures we’d been tagged in against our will. 24

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“Muz raises a very good point, though,” La said. “Who was the strange girl you were sprinting after? Did you think to yourself, ‘Here’s finally one that can’t get away,’ but then she proved you wrong?” “Ha ha. I can’t believe you both saw that.” I stood and grabbed a can of Coke from the refrigerator and went back to the computer, where Facebook was loading pixel by painful pixel. “Her name is Grace Town. She’s new. Hink offered her editor but she turned it down, so I got pissed and went after her.” “Her name is Grace Town? Like Gracetown?” said Murray. “Christ. Poor chick.” Lola was already on her feet. “Hink offered her editor over you? That bastard. No way am I designing that glorified newsletter if you’re not in charge!” “No. Calm down. He gave it to us both but she turned it down because—and I quote—she ‘doesn’t write anymore.’ The way she said it was so ominous.” “Oh,” Lola said. Murray yanked her back down to the couch. “Maybe bad things happen when she writes. Oh! Maybe the things she writes come true? Or maybe she has a voodoo curse on her so that every word she writes breaks a bone in her leg and that’s why she walks with a cane?” “Let’s take a shufti at old FB, shall we?” Murray said. “Nothing like a little cyberstalking to clear these things up.” “Way ahead of you.” When I typed Grace’s name in the search field and hit return, a list of all the people I knew with 25

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Grace in their name showed up. Sadie Grace Elizabeth Smith was the first, followed by Samantha Grace Lawrence (we went to elementary school together), Grace Park (some kind of distant relative) and Grace Payne (I had no idea). Underneath them was a list of exact matches—five or so genuine Grace Towns—none of whom I had mutual friends with, and only one of whom lived in my geographical area. I slouched forward. “None of them are her.” “Wait, what about that one?” Lola said, pointing. I clicked the profile picture of the closest geographical Grace Town, a girl in a red dress with red lipstick and loose curls in her honey-blond hair. She was smiling brilliantly, her eyes closed, her head tilted back in laughter so that the sharp lines of her collarbones were visible beneath her skin. It was a good handful of seconds before any of us recognized her. Because it was her. It was the same Grace Town who had driven me home. The lips were the same, the shape of her face. “Holy shit,” Murray said. “Blokes would be on her like seagulls at a tip.” “Translation: She’s an attractive female who likely gets a lot of attention from males,” Lola said. “And lesbians,” she tacked on after a moment, leaning closer to the screen. “Damn. She’s got that Edie Sedgwick thing going on. That girl is stupid hot.” And she was. On Facebook, Grace Town was tall and lean and tan, with the kind of limbs that makes you think of words like gracile and swanlike and damn, son. It must be an old picture, I thought, but no. According to the date it was uploaded, 26

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it’d only been a little over three months since Grace had changed it. I scrolled through the five other public profile pictures, but each of them told the same story. None were more than a few months old, but the person in them was very different from the one I’d met. Her hair was much longer, down to her waist, and fell in soft, clean curls. There were pictures of her at the beach, pictures of her in makeup, pictures of her smiling this incredibly wide smile, the kind that models smile in ads when they’re super jacked up about eating salad. There was no cane at her side, no black circles under her eyes, no layers upon layers of guys’ clothing. What had happened to her in the last three months that’d left her so changed and broken? Sadie called us upstairs then, to help Dad finish dinner before Mom got home from the art gallery she curated in the city. (“Thank Christ. I could chew the crutch out of a low-flying vulture,” Murray said.) All of us quickly forgot about the mystery of Grace Town for a few hours as we ate and washed up and watched Netflix together, as was our Thursday-night routine. It was only after I’d said good-bye to my friends and gone back down into the basement and noticed the screen of the poor iMac still wheezing with life that I thought of her again, but once I did, I was hooked. I didn’t brush my teeth that night. I didn’t shower or change out of my clothes from school or go to say good-bye to Sadie and Ryan when they finally left around midnight. Instead, I stayed in the basement and spent the rest of my night 27

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listening to every song the Strokes had on Spotify. You say you wanna stay by my side, crooned Julian Casablancas. Darlin’, your head’s not right. If I’d been older or wiser or if I’d paid more attention to the dramatic teenage feelings my peers had described to me the first time they’d had crushes, I might not have misdiagnosed the burning, constricting sensation in my chest as indigestion from the four over fried chicken chimichangas I’d had for dinner instead of what it actually was: an affliction far more serious and far more painful. That was the first night I dreamed of Grace Town.

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CHAPTER ONE “I hate this time of year,”Rachel says. “I’m sorry, Sierra. I’m sure I say that a lot, but it’s true.” Morning mist blurs the entrance of our school at the far end of the lawn. We stay on the cement pathway to avoid damp spots in the grass, but Rachel’s not complaining about the weather. “Please don’t do this,” I say. “You’ll make me cry again. I just want to get through this week without—” “But it’s not a week!” she says. “It’s two days. Two days until Thanksgiving break, and then you leave for a whole month again. More than a month!” I hug Rachel’s arm as we continue walking. Even though I’m the one leaving for another holiday season far from home, Rachel pretends like it’s her world that gets turned upsidedown each year. Her pouty face and slumped shoulders are 1

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entirely for my benefit, to let me know I’ll be missed, and every year I’m grateful for her melodrama. Even though I love where I’m going, it’s still hard to say goodbye. Knowing my best friends are counting the days until I return does make it easier. I point to the tear in the corner of my eye. “Do you see what you did? They’re starting.” This morning, when Mom drove us away from our Christmas tree farm, the sky was mostly clear. The workers were in the fields, their distant chainsaws buzzing like mosquitoes, cutting down this year’s crop of trees. The fog came in as we drove lower. It stretched across the small farms, over the interstate, and into town, carrying within it the traditional scent of the season. This time of year our entire little Oregon town smells like fresh-cut Christmas trees. At other times, it might smell like sweet corn or sugar beets. Rachel holds open one of the glass double doors and then follows me to my locker. There, she jiggles her glittery red watch in front of me. “We’ve got fifteen minutes,” she says. “I’m cranky and I’m cold. Let’s grab some coffee before the first bell.” The school’s theater director, Miss Livingston, not-sosubtly encourages her students to drink as much caffeine as needed to get their shows together on time. Backstage, a pot of coffee is always on. As the lead set designer, Rachel gets unrestricted access to the auditorium. Over the weekend, the theater department finished their 2

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performances of Little Shop of Horrors. The set won’t be broken down until after Thanksgiving break, so it’s still up when Rachel and I turn on the lights at the back of the theater. Sitting on the stage, between the flower shop counter and the big, green, man-eating plant, is Elizabeth. She sits up straight and waves when she sees us. Rachel walks ahead of me down the aisle. “This year, we wanted to give you something to take with you to California.” I follow her past the empty rows of red cushioned seats. They obviously don’t care if I’m a blubbering mess during my last few days of school. I climb the steps to the stage. Elizabeth pushes herself up, runs over, and hugs me. “I was right,” she tells Rachel over my shoulder. “I told you she’d cry.” “I hate you both,” I tell them. Elizabeth hands me two presents wrapped in shiny silver Christmas paper, but I already kind of know what they’re giving me. Last week, we were all in a gift shop downtown and I saw them looking at picture frames the same size as these boxes. I sit down to open them and lean against the counter under the old-fashioned metal cash register. Rachel sits cross-legged in front of me, our knees almost touching. “You’re breaking the rules,” I say. I slide a finger beneath a fold in the wrapping of the first gift. “We’re not supposed to do this until after I get back.” “We wanted you to have something that will make you think of us every day,” Elizabeth says. 3

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“We’re kind of embarrassed we didn’t do this when you first started leaving,” Rachel adds. “What, back when we were babies?” During my very first Christmas, Mom stayed home with me on the farm while Dad operated our family Christmas tree lot down in California. The next year, Mom thought we should stay home one more season, but Dad didn’t want to be without us again. He would rather skip the lot for a year, he said, and rely solely on shipping the trees to vendors across the country. Mom felt bad, though, for the families who made a holiday tradition out of coming to us to buy their trees. And while it was a business, Dad being the second generation to run it, it was also a cherished tradition for both of them. They met, in fact, because Mom and her parents were annual customers. So every year now, that’s where I spend my days from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Rachel reclines, setting her hands on the stage to prop herself up. “Are your parents still deciding about this being the last Christmas in California?” I scratch at a piece of tape that holds down another fold. “Did the store wrap this?” Rachel whispers to Elizabeth loud enough for me to hear, “She’s changing the subject.” “I’m sorry,” I say, “I just hate thinking about this being our last year. As much as I love you, I would miss going down there. Besides, all I know is what I’ve overheard—they still haven’t mentioned it to me—but they seem pretty stressed

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about finances. Until they make up their minds, I don’t want to get my heart set either way.” If we hang on to the lot for three more seasons, our family will have run that spot for thirty years. When my grandparents first bought the lot, the little town was in a growth spurt. Cities much closer to our farm in Oregon already had established lots, if not an abundance of them. Now everything from supermarkets to hardware stores sells trees, or people sell them for fund-raisers. Tree lots like ours aren’t as common anymore. If we let it go, we’d be doing all of our business selling to those supermarkets and fund-raisers, or supplying other lots with our trees. Elizabeth puts a hand on my knee. “Part of me wants you to go back next year because I know you love it, but if you do stay we’d all get to spend Christmas together for the first time.” I can’t help smiling at the thought. I love these girls, but Heather is also one of my best friends, and I only see her one month out of the year when I’m in California. “We’ve been going down there forever,” I say. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to suddenly . . . not.” “I can tell you what it would be like,” Rachel says. “It’ll be senior year. Skiing. Hot tubbing. In the snow!” But I love our snowless California town, right on the coast, just three hours south of San Francisco. I also love selling trees, seeing the same families come to us year after year. It wouldn’t feel right to spend so long growing the trees only to ship them all off for other people to sell.

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“Sounds fun, right?” Rachel asks. She leans close to me and wiggles her eyebrows. “Now, imagine it with boys.” I snort-laugh and then cover my mouth. “Or not,” Elizabeth says, pulling back Rachel’s shoulder. “It could be nice to have it just us, a time without any boys.” “That’s pretty much me every Christmas,” I say. “Remember, last year I got dumped the night before we drove to California.” “That was horrible,” Elizabeth says, though she does laugh a little. “Then he brings that homeschool girl with the big boobs to winter formal and—” Rachel presses a finger to Elizabeth’s lips. “I think she remembers.” I look down at my first present, still mostly wrapped. “Not that I blame him. Who wants to be in a long-distance relationship over the holidays? I wouldn’t.” “Although,” Rachel says, “you did say there are some good-looking guys who work on the tree lot.” “Right.” I shake my head. “Like Dad will let that happen.” “Okay, no more talking about this,” Elizabeth says. “Open your gifts.” I pull up a piece of tape, but my mind is now on California. Heather and I have been friends literally since we can remember. My grandparents on Mom’s side used to live next door to her family. When my grandparents passed away, her family took me in for a couple of hours each day to give my parents a break. In exchange, their house got a beautiful Christmas

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tree, a few wreaths, and two or three workers to hang lights on their roof. Elizabeth sighs. “Your presents. Please?” I tear open one side of the wrapping. They’re right, of course. I would love to spend at least one winter here before we all graduate and move off to wherever. I’ve had dreams of being with them for the ice-sculpting contest and all the other things they tell me about that go on around here. But my holidays in California are the only time I get to see my other best friend. I stopped referring to Heather simply as my winter friend years ago. She’s one of my best friends, period. I used to also see her a few weeks every summer when visiting my grandparents, but those visits stopped when they passed away. I worry I may not be able to enjoy this season with her, knowing it might be my last. Rachel stands up and walks away across the stage. “I need to get some coffee.” Elizabeth yells after her, “She’s opening our presents!” “She’s opening your present,” Rachel says. “Mine has the red ribbon.” The first frame I open, with the green ribbon, contains a selfie of Elizabeth. Her tongue sticks out sideways while her eyes look in the opposite direction. It’s like almost every other photo she takes of herself, which is why I love it. I press the frame against my chest. “Thank you.” Elizabeth blushes. “You’re welcome.”

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“I’m opening yours now!” I shout across the stage. Walking slowly toward us, Rachel carries three paper cups of steaming coffee. We each take one. I set mine to the side as Rachel sits back down in front of me, and then I begin to open her present. Even though it’s only one month, I am going to miss her so much. In Rachel’s photo, her beautiful face is sideways, partially blocked by her hand as if she didn’t want the picture taken. “It’s supposed to look like I’m being stalked by the papa­ razzi,” she says. “Like I’m a big-time actress coming out of a fancy restaurant. In real life, though, there would probably be a huge bodyguard behind me, but—” “But you’re not an actress,” Elizabeth says. “You want to do set design.” “That’s part of the plan,” Rachel says. “Do you know how many actresses there are in the world? Millions. And all of them are trying so hard to get noticed, which is a total turnoff. One day, while I’m designing sets for some famous producer, he’ll take one look at me and just know it’s a waste to keep me behind the camera. I should be in front of it. And he’ll take full credit for discovering me, but I actually made him discover me.” “What concerns me,” I say, “is that I know you believe it’s going to happen just like that.” Rachel takes a sip from her coffee. “Because it is.” The first bell rings. I gather the silver wrapping paper and crumple it into a ball. Rachel carries that and our empty

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coffee cups to a trash can backstage. Elizabeth puts my frames into a paper grocery bag and then rolls down the top before handing it back to me. “I assume we can’t stop by before you leave?” Elizabeth asks. “Probably not,” I say. I follow them down the steps, and we take our time walking up the aisle to the back of the theater. “I’ll be in bed early tonight so I can work a couple of hours before school tomorrow. And then we leave first thing Wednesday morning.” “What time?” Rachel asks. “Maybe we—” “Three a.m.,” I say, laughing. From our farm in Oregon to our lot in California, it’s about a seventeen-hour drive, depending on bathroom breaks and holiday traffic. “Of course, if you want to get up that early . . .” “That’s okay,” Elizabeth says. “We’ll send you good thoughts in our dreams.” “Do you have all your assignments?” Rachel asks. “I believe so.” Two winters ago, there were maybe a dozen of us migrating tree-lot kids at school. This year, we’re down to three. Thankfully, with so many farms in the area, teachers are used to accommodating different harvest times. “Monsieur Cappeau is worried about my ability to pratique mon français while I’m gone, so he’s making me call in once a week for a chat.” Rachel winks at me. “Is that the only reason he wants you to call?”

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“Don’t be gross,” I say. “Remember,” Elizabeth says, “Sierra doesn’t like older men.” I’m laughing now. “You’re talking about Paul, right? We only went out once, but then he got caught with an open can of beer in his friend’s car.” “In his defense, he wasn’t driving,” Rachel points out. Before I can respond, she holds up her hand. “But I get it. You saw that as a sign of impending alcoholism. Or bad decision making. Or . . . something.” Elizabeth shakes her head. “You are way too fussy, Sierra.” Rachel and Elizabeth always give me a hard time about my standards with guys. I’ve just watched too many girls end up with guys who bring them down. Maybe not at first, but eventually. Why waste years or months, or even days, on someone like that? Before we reach the double doors that lead back into the halls, Elizabeth takes a step ahead and spins toward us. “I’m going to be late for English, but let’s meet up for lunch, okay?” I smile because we always meet up for lunch. We push our way into the halls and Elizabeth disappears into the bustle of students. “Two more lunches,” Rachel says. She pretends to wipe tears from the corners of her eyes as we walk. “That’s all we get. It almost makes me want to—” “Stop!” I say. “Don’t say it.” “Oh, don’t worry about me.” Rachel waves her hand

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dismissively. “I’ve got plenty to keep me busy while you party it up in California. Let’s see, next Monday we’ll start tearing down the set. That should take a week or so. Then I’ll help the dance committee finish designing the winter formal. It’s not theater, but I like to use my talents where they’re needed.” “Do they have a theme for this year yet?” I ask. “Snow Globe of Love,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, I know, but I’ve got some great ideas. I want to decorate the whole gym to look like you’re dancing in the middle of a snow globe. So I’ll be plenty busy until you get back.” “See? You’ll hardly miss me,” I say. “That’s right,” Rachel says. She nudges me as we continue to walk. “But you’d better miss me.” And I will. For my entire life, missing my friends has been a Christmas tradition.

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CHAPTER TWO The sun barely peeks upfrom behind the hills when I park Dad’s truck on the side of the muddy access road. I set the emergency brake and look out on one of my favorite views. The Christmas trees begin a few feet from the driver’s side window and continue for over a hundred acres of rolling hills. On the other side of the truck, our field continues just as far. Where our land ends on either side, more farms carry on with more Christmas trees. When I turn off the heater and step outside, I know the cold air is going to bite. I pull my hair into a tight ponytail, tuck it down the back of my bulky winter jacket, bring the hood over my head, and then pull the drawstrings tight. The smell of tree resin is thick in the wet air, and the damp soil tugs at my heavy boots. Branches scratch at my sleeves as I pull my phone from my pocket. I tap Uncle Bruce’s number 12

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and then hold the phone against my ear with my shoulder while I pull on work gloves. He laughs when he answers. “It sure didn’t take you long to get up there, Sierra!” “I wasn’t driving that fast,” I say. In truth, taking those turns and sliding through mud is way too fun to resist. “Not to worry, honey. I’ve torn up that hill plenty of times in my truck.” “I’ve seen you, which is how I knew it would be fun,” I say. “Anyway, I’m almost at the first bundle.” “Be there in a minute,” he says. Before he hangs up, I can hear the helicopter motor start to turn. From my jacket pocket, I remove an orange mesh safety vest and slip my arms through the holes. The Velcro strip running down the chest holds it in place so Uncle Bruce will be able to spot me from the air. From maybe two hundred yards ahead, I can hear chainsaws buzz as workers carve through the stumps of this year’s trees. Two months ago, we began tagging the ones we wanted cut down. On a branch near the top we tied a colored plastic ribbon. Red, yellow, or blue, depending on the height, to help us sort them later while loading the trucks. Any trees that remain untagged will be left to continue growing. In the distance, I can see the red helicopter flying this way. Mom and Dad helped Uncle Bruce buy it in exchange for his help airlifting our trees during the harvest. The helicopter keeps us from wasting land with crisscrossing access roads, and the trees get shipped fresher. The rest of the year, he uses 13

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it to fly tourists along the rocky coastline. Sometimes he even gets to play hero and find a lost hiker. After the workers ahead of me cut four or five trees, they lay them side-by-side atop two long cables, like placing them across railroad tracks. They pile more trees on top until they’ve gathered about a dozen. Then they lace the cables over the bundle and cinch them together before moving on. That’s where I come in. Last year was the first year Dad let me do this. I knew he wanted to tell me the work was too dangerous for a fifteenyear-old girl, but he wouldn’t dare say that out loud. A few of the guys he hires to cut the trees are classmates of mine, and he lets them wield chainsaws. The helicopter blades grow louder—thwump-thwumpthwump-thwump—slicing through the air. The beat of my heart matches their rhythm as I get ready to attach my first bundle of the season. I stand beside the first batch, flexing my gloved fingers. The early sunlight flashes across the window of the helicopter. A long line of cable trails behind it, dragging a heavy red hook through the sky. The helicopter slows as it approaches, and I dig my boots into the soil. Hovering above me, the blades boom. Thwumpthwump-thwump-thwump. The helicopter slowly lowers until the metal hook touches the needles of the bundled trees. I raise my arm over my head and make a circular motion to ask for more slack. When it lowers a few more inches, I grab

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the hook, slip it beneath the cables, and then take two large steps back. Looking up, I can see Uncle Bruce smile down at me. I point at him, he gives me a thumbs-up, and then up he goes. The heavy bundle pulls together as it lifts from the ground, and then it sails away. A crescent moon hangs over our farmhouse. Looking out from my upstairs window, I can see the hills roll off into deep shadows. As a child, I would stand here and pretend to be a ship’s captain watching the ocean at night, the swells often darker than the starry sky above. This view remains constant each year because of how we rotate the harvest. For each tree cut, we leave five in the ground and plant a new seedling in its place. In six years, all of these individual trees will have been shipped around the country to stand in homes as the centerpiece of the holidays. Because of this, my season has different traditions. The day before Thanksgiving, Mom and I will drive south and reunite with Dad. Then we’ll eat Thanksgiving dinner with Heather and her family. The next day we’ll start selling trees from morning to night, and we won’t stop until Christmas Eve. That night, exhausted, we’ll exchange one gift each. There isn’t room for many more gifts than that in our silver Airstream trailer—our home-away-from-home. Our farmhouse was built in the 1930s. The old wooden floors and stairs make it impossible to get out of bed in the

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middle of the night without making noise, but I stick close to the least creaky side of the stairs. I’m three steps from the kitchen floor when Mom calls to me from the living room. “Sierra, you need to get at least a few hours of sleep.” Whenever Dad’s not here, Mom falls asleep on the couch with the TV on. The romantic side of me wants to believe their bedroom feels too lonely when he’s gone. My nonromantic side thinks falling asleep on the couch makes her feel rebellious. I hold my robe around me and slip my feet into tattered sneakers by the couch. Mom yawns and reaches for the remote control on the floor. She turns off the TV, which blackens the room. She clicks on a side lamp. “Where are you going?” “To the greenhouse,” I say. “I want to bring the tree in here so we don’t forget it.” Rather than loading our car the night before we leave, we place all of our bags near the front door so we can look them over one more time before the drive. Once we hit the highway, the road ahead is too long to turn back. “And then you need to go right to bed,” Mom says. She shares my curse of not being able to sleep if I’m worried about something. “Otherwise, I can’t let you drive tomorrow.” I promise her and close the front door, pulling my robe tighter to keep out the cold night air. The greenhouse will be warm, but I’ll be inside only long enough to grab the little tree, which I recently transplanted into a black plastic bucket. I’ll put that tree by our luggage and then Heather and I will 16

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plant it after dinner on Thanksgiving. This will make six trees, which started on our farm, that now grow atop Cardinals Peak in California. The plan for next year has always been to cut down the first one we planted and give it to Heather’s family. That’s one more reason this can’t be our last season.

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CHAPTER THREE From outside,the trailer may look like a silver thermos tipped on its side, but the inside has always felt cozy to me. A small dining table is attached to the wall at one end, with the edge of my bed doubling as one of the benches. The kitchen is compact with a sink, refrigerator, stove, and microwave. The bathroom feels smaller every year even though my parents upgraded for a bigger shower. With a standard shower, it would have been impossible to reach down and wash my legs without doing stretches first. At the other end of the trailer from my bed is the door to Mom and Dad’s room, which has barely enough space for their bed, a small closet, and a footstool. Their door is shut now, but I can hear Mom snoring as she recovers from our long drive. The foot of my bed touches the kitchen cabinet, and there’s a wooden cupboard above it. I press a large white 18

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thumbtack into the cupboard. On the table beside me are the picture frames from Rachel and Elizabeth. I’ve connected them with shiny green ribbon so they’ll hang one on top of the other. I tie a loop at the end of the ribbon and hook it onto the thumbtack so my friends back home can be with me every day. “Welcome to California,” I tell them. I scoot to the head of my bed and slide the curtains apart. A Christmas tree topples against the window and I scream. The needles scratch the glass as someone struggles to pull the tree upright again. Andrew peeks around the branches, probably to make sure he didn’t bust the glass. He blushes when he sees me, and I glance down to make sure I put on a shirt after showering. Over the years I have taken a few morning showers and then walked around the trailer in a towel before remembering a lot of high school guys work right outside. Last year, Andrew became the first and the last guy to ask me out down here. He did it with a note taped to the other side of my window. It was meant to look cute, I guess, but what I pictured was him tiptoeing in the dark mere inches from where I slept. Thankfully, I was able to tell him it wouldn’t be smart to date anyone who works here. That’s not an actual rule, but my parents have mentioned a few times how uncomfortable that might be for everyone involved since they work here, too. Mom and Dad met when they were my age, and he worked with his parents on this very lot. Her family lived a 19

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few blocks away, and one winter they fell so hard for each other, he returned for baseball camp that summer. After they married and took over the lot, for extra help they began hiring ballplayers from the local high school who wanted extra holiday cash. This was never a problem when I was young, but once I entered puberty, new and thicker curtains were hung up around the trailer. While I can’t hear Andrew, I see him mouth “Sorry” from the other side of the window. He finally gets the tree upright and then shimmies the stand back a few feet so the lower branches don’t touch any tree around it. There’s no reason to let our past awkwardness keep us from being cordial, so I slide the window partly open. “So you’re back for another year,” I say. Andrew takes a look around, but there’s no one else I could be talking to. He faces me, putting his hands in his pockets. “It’s nice to see you again,” he says. It’s great when workers return for subsequent seasons, but I am careful not to give this one the wrong idea again. “I heard some other guys from the team came back, too.” Andrew looks at the nearest tree and plucks a couple of needles. “Yep,” he says. He petulantly flicks the needles to the dirt and walks away. Rather than let this get to me, I slide the window open further and close my eyes. The air out there will never smell exactly like home, but it does try. The view is very different, though. Instead of Christmas trees growing on rolling hills, they’re propped up in metal stands on a dirt lot. Instead of 20

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hundreds of acres of farmland stretching to the horizon, we have one acre that stops at Oak Boulevard. On the other side of the street, an empty parking lot stretches toward a grocery store. Since it’s Thanksgiving, McGregor’s Market closed early today. McGregor’s has been in that spot since well before my family began selling trees here. It’s now the only non-chain market in town. Last year, the owner told my parents they might not be in business when we returned. When Dad called home a couple of weeks ago to say he made it, the first thing I asked was whether McGregor’s was still there. As a child I loved when Mom or Dad took a break from selling trees and walked me across the street for groceries.Years later, they would hand me a shopping list and I would go over on my own. The last few years it’s been my responsibility to make that list as well as shop. I watch a white car drive across the asphalt, probably to make sure the market really is closed for the evening. The driver slows as he passes the storefront, then speeds back across the lot to the street. From somewhere within our trees, Dad shouts, “Must’ve forgot the cranberry sauce!” Throughout the lot, I can hear the baseball players laugh. Every year on this day, Dad jokes about the frustrated drivers speeding away from McGregor’s. “But it won’t be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie!” Or, “I guess someone forgot the stuffing!” The guys always laugh along. I watch two of them carry a large tree past the trailer. 21

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One has his arms buried in the middle branches while the other follows, holding the trunk. They both stop walking so that the one in the branches can adjust his grip. The other guy, waiting, looks to the trailer and catches my eye. He smiles and then whispers something to the first guy that I can’t hear but that causes his teammate to also look my way. I desperately want to make sure my hair isn’t a tangled mess even though I have no reason to impress them (no matter how cute they are). So I politely wave and then walk away. On the other side of the trailer door, someone scrapes the bottoms of their shoes on the metal steps. Although it hasn’t rained since Dad set things up this year, the ground outside always has damp spots. A few times each day, the tree stands get filled with water and the needles are sprayed with misters. “Knock-knock!” I barely get the door unlatched before Heather yanks it open and squeals. Her dark curls bounce as she raises her arms and then hugs me. I laugh at her high-pitched excitement and follow her as she kneels at my bed for a closer look at the photos of Rachel and Elizabeth. “They gave me those before I left,” I tell her. Heather touches the top frame. “This is Rachel, right? Is she supposed to be hiding from the paparazzi?” “Oh, she would be so happy to know you figured that out,” I say. Heather scoots to the window so she can see outside. She taps on the glass with her fingertip and one of the ballplayers looks our way. He’s carrying a cardboard box marked 22

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“mistletoe” to the green-and-white tent we call the Bigtop. That’s where we ring up customers, sell other merchandise, and display the trees flocked with artificial snow. Without looking at me, Heather asks, “Did you notice how hot this year’s team is?” Of course I noticed, but it would be so much easier if I hadn’t. If Dad even thought I was flirting with one of the workers, he would make the guy thoroughly clean both outhouses in hopes that the stink would keep me away—which it would. Not that I would want to date someone down here, whether he worked for us or not. Why put my heart into something fate will only tear apart Christmas morning?

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INTENTIONAL BLANK

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The Book

O

nce there was, and one day there will be. This is the beginning of every story.

Once there was a world called Kelanna, a wonderful and

terrible world of water and ships and magic. The people of Kelanna were like you in many ways—they spoke and worked and loved and died—but they were different in one very important respect: they couldn’t read. They had never developed alphabets or rules for spelling, never set their histories down in stone. They remembered their histories with their voices and bodies, repeating them over and over until the stories became part of them, and the legends were as real as their own tongues and lungs and hearts. Some stories were picked up and passed from mouth to mouth, crossing kingdoms and oceans, while others perished quickly, repeated a few times and never again. Not all the legends were popular, and many of them lived secret lives in a single

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family or a small community of believers, who whispered among themselves so the stories would not be forgotten. One of these rare tales told of a mysterious object called a book, which held the key to the greatest magic Kelanna had ever known. Some people said it contained spells for turning salt into gold and men into rats. Others said with long hours and a little dedication, you could learn to control the weather . . . or even create an army. The accounts differed in the details, but on one thing they all agreed: only a few could access its power. Some people said there was a secret society trained precisely for that purpose, toiling away generation after generation, poring over the book and copying it down, harvesting knowledge like sheaves of wheat, as if they could survive on sentences and supple paragraphs alone. For years they hoarded the words and the magic, growing stronger on it every day. But books are curious objects. They have the power to trap, transport, and even transform you if you are lucky. But in the end, books—even magic ones—are only objects pieced together from paper and glue and thread. That was the fundamental truth the readers forgot. How vulnerable the book really was. To fire. To the damp. To the passage of time. And to theft.

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The Consequences of Thievery

T

here were redcoats on the road. The gravel path that cut through the tangled jungle was teeming with people,

and the mounted Oxscinian soldiers rode above the sea of foot traffic like lords in a parade: their fine red jackets unblemished, their black boots polished to a high shine. At their waists, their sword hilts and gun grips glinted in the gray morning light. Any law-abiding citizen would have been happy to see them. “No good.” Nin grunted, shifting the pile of furs in her arms. “No good at all. Thought this town would be small enough for us to escape notice, but that doesn’t seem likely now.” Crouched in the undergrowth beside her, Sefia surveyed the other shoppers, who carried baskets or towed rattling carts with burlap nests for their infants, the parents calling sharply after dirt-smudged children if they wandered too far. In their trailworn gear, Sefia and Nin would have blended in well enough, if not for the redcoats. 1

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“Are they here for us?” Sefia asked. “I didn’t think the news would spread so fast.” “Word travels quick when you’ve got a face as pretty as mine, girl.” Sefia forced out a chuckle. Old enough to be her grandmother, Nin was a squat woman with matted hair and a face as tough as rawhide. Being pretty wasn’t what made her memorable. No, Nin was a master criminal with hands like magic. They were nothing special to look at, but she could slip a bracelet from a woman’s wrist with a touch as soft as a breath. She could undo locks with a twitch of her fingers. You had to see Nin’s hands at work to really see her at all. Otherwise, in her bear-skin traveling cloak, she looked something like a hill of dirt: dry, brown, ready to crumble in the humidity of the rain forest. Ever since they’d fled their home in Deliene, the northernmost of Kelanna’s five island kingdoms, they’d kept a low profile as they roamed from one land to the next, surviving on what they could find in the wilderness. But in the hardest winters, when the scavenging was poor and the hunting was worse, Nin had taught Sefia to pick locks, pick pockets, and even steal huge hocks of meat without anyone noticing. And for six years, they hadn’t been caught. “Can’t stay here.” Nin sighed and hefted the pelts in her arms. “We’ll unload these in the next town.” Sefia felt a twinge of guilt in her stomach. It was her fault, afTEXT SHORT

ter all. If she hadn’t been so cocky two weeks ago, no one would have noticed them. But she’d been stupid. Overconfident. She’d

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tried to steal a new bandanna for herself—all viridian with gold paisley, much finer than her faded red one—but the clothier had noticed. At the last second, Nin had slipped the bandanna into her own pocket, taking the blame so Sefia wouldn’t have to, and they’d left town with redcoats on their heels. It had been too close. Someone might have recognized Nin. And now they had to leave Oxscini, the Forest Kingdom that had been their home for over a year. “Why don’t I do it?” Sefia asked, helping Nin to her feet. Nin scowled up at her. “Too dangerous.” Sefia plucked at the topmost pelt in Nin’s arms. Half of these were kills she’d brought down and skinned herself, enough to help them pay for passage out of Oxscini, if they ever got into town to trade them. Sefia took hold of her pack straps. Nin had kept them safe all these years. Now it was Sefia’s turn. “It might be more dangerous to wait,” she said. Nin’s face clouded. Though the old woman had never explained exactly how she’d met Sefia’s parents, Sefia knew it was because someone had been after them. They’d had something their enemies wanted. And now Sefia had it. For the past six years, she’d carried everything she owned on her back: all the tools she needed to hunt and cook and camp, and at the bottom, slowly wearing holes in the leather, the only thing she had left of her parents—a heavy reminder that they had existed, and now were gone. Her hands tightened on the Nin shifted her weight and glanced over her shoulder, into

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the thick of the jungle. “I don’t like it,” she said. “You’ve never gone in alone.” “You can’t go in.” “We can wait. There’s a village a five-day journey from here. Smaller. Safer.” “Safer for you. No one knows who I am.” Sefia lifted her chin. “I can go into town, sell off the goods, and get out of there by noon. We’ll be twice as fast if we don’t have these pelts to lug around.” Nin hesitated for a long moment, her shrewd gaze darting from the shadows in the undergrowth to the flashes of red on the road. Finally, she shook her head. “Be quick,” she said. “Don’t hold out for the best price. All we need is enough to hop a ship out of Oxscini. Doesn’t matter where.” Sefia grinned. It wasn’t every day she won an argument with Nin. She wrested the heavy stack of pelts from Nin’s sturdy arms. “Don’t worry,” she said. Frowning, Nin tugged on the red bandanna Sefia used to tie her hair back. “Worry’s what keeps us safe, girl.” “I’ll be fine.” “Oh, you’ll be fine, will you? Sixty years of this life, and I’m fine. Why is that?” Sefia rolled her eyes. “Because you’re careful.” Nin nodded once and crossed her arms. She looked so perfectly like her grouchy old self that Sefia smiled again and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks, Aunt Nin,” she said. “I won't let you down this time.” The woman grimaced, wiping her face with the back of her hand. “I know you won’t. Sell the furs and come straight back 4

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to camp. There’s a storm brewing, and I want to get going before it breaks.” “Yes, ma’am. I won’t let you down.” Turning away, Sefia glanced up, noting the moisture in the air, the speed of the clouds as they crossed the sky. Nin always knew when the rains were coming, said it was the chill in her bones. Sefia stumbled off, hefting the furs in her slender arms. She was almost at the edge of the trees when Nin’s gruff voice reached her again, quick with warning: “And don’t you forget, girl. There’s worse than redcoats out there.” She didn’t look back as she struck out from under cover to join the other people on the road, but Sefia couldn’t stop herself from shuddering at Nin’s words. They had to avoid the authorities because of Nin’s history of thievery, but that wasn’t the reason they lived like nomads. She didn’t know much, but over the years she’d gathered this: Her parents had been on the run. They’d done all they could to keep her isolated, safe from some nameless, faceless enemy. It hadn’t been enough. And now the only thing that kept her safe was her mobility, her anonymity. If no one knew where she was or what she carried, no one would find her. Sefia shrugged her pack higher on her shoulders, feeling the weight thump against the small of her back, and weaved seamlessly into the crowd. By the time she reached the edge of town, Sefia’s arms were aching with the weight of the furs. She tottered past the docks, where a few small fishing boats and merchant ships were 5This

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moored to the tipsy piers. Beyond the cove, the crimson hulks of Oxscinian Royal Navy ships lay at anchor, decks spiked with cannons. Five years ago, a small handful of patrol boats would have sufficed, but now they were at war with Everica, the recently united Stone Kingdom, and they’d tightened the restrictions on trade and travel. Sefia and Nin could no longer travel to the embattled shores of Everica, and even the stretch of Central Sea between the two kingdoms was rife with at-sea skirmishes and bloodthirsty privateers. To ordinary citizens, the sentinel ships might have been protectors, but to Sefia, who had never been ordinary, they were prison guards, barring her escape. At the entrance to the town square, she paused to study the layout of the market, searching for alleys she might use if she needed a quick exit. Around the perimeter were rows of shops easily identified by the crests over their doors: a cleaver and a pig for the butcher, an anvil for the blacksmith, crossed wooden peels for the baker. But it was the cluster of covered stalls in the center of the square that drew the crowds. On market days, traveling merchants and local farmers came from miles around, selling everything from bolts of cloth to scented soaps and balls of twine. Sefia wove among vendors hawking mangoes and passion fruit, sacks of coffee and catches of silver fish. Through the throngs of shoppers, she spied loose clasps on bracelets and jackets bulging with coin purses, but now was not the time for thievery. She passed the newsstand, where a member of the newsmen’s guild, a woman in a short-billed newsman’s cap and brown 6

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armbands, greeted her with more news of the turmoil abroad: “Another merchant ship lost to Captain Serakeen off the Liccarine coast! Queen orders additional naval escort for ambassadors traveling to Liccaro!” At her feet, the collection tin rang with the plink! plink! of copper coins. Sefia shuddered. While Everica and Oxscini warred in the south, the sweltering desert kingdom of Liccaro had problems of its own: Serakeen, the Scourge of the East, and his fleet of brutal pirates. He terrorized the seas around the poor island, pillaging coastal cities and extorting others, attacking traders and supply ships bringing aid to a kingdom that hadn’t had a king in generations. She and Nin had barely escaped one of Serakeen’s warships when they’d left Liccaro over a year ago. She still remembered the bursts of fire from distant cannons, the explosions of water on either side of the ship. As she made for the furrier’s stall, elbowing her way past people dressed in work shirts and old trousers, long cotton dresses and pointed coattails, a flash of gold caught her eye: a light no bigger than a puddle, rippling beneath the boot heels of the crowd. She smiled. If she looked too closely, it would disappear, so she contented herself with knowing it was there, on the edge of her vision. Her mother had always told her there was some hidden energy to the world, some light simmering just beneath the surface. It was always there, swirling invisibly around her, and every so often it would bubble up, as water appears from a fissure in the earth, a golden glow visible only to those who were especially attuned to it. Like her mother. Her beautiful mother, whose copper skin 7

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would tan to bronze in the summer months, who had given her the same slender build, the same unusual grace, the same special sense that there was more to the world than its physical forms. When Sefia had brought it up with Nin, her aunt had gone sullen and silent, refusing to answer any questions or even make casual conversation for a whole day. She’d never mentioned it again, though that didn’t stop her from seeing it. As the little pool of light began to ebb away, a man crossed in front of her. Stiff black hair flecked with gray, a stoop accentuated by an oversize sweater. She looked again. But it wasn’t him. The shape of his skull was wrong. The height was wrong. He didn’t share her straight brows or her teardrop eyes, dark as onyx. Everything was wrong. It was never him. Her father had been dead for six years, her mother for ten, but that didn’t stop her from seeing them in complete strangers. That didn’t stop the twinge in her heart when she remembered, again, that they were gone. She shook her head and blinked rapidly as she approached the furrier’s, where a harried-looking woman was pawing through chinchilla furs with one hand while gripping the arm of her young son with the other. The little boy was crying, her hold on him so tight her fingers puckered his pink skin. “Don’t you ever leave my sight again! The impressors will get you!” When she shook his arm, his entire body wobbled. The furrier, a plain woman with spindly arms, leaned over the counter, digging her hands into a stack of fox pelts. “I heard 8

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another boy disappeared this week, just down the coast,” she whispered, glancing sideways to see if anyone was eavesdropping. Half-hidden behind her armful of pelts, Sefia pretended to take a greater interest in the paper envelopes of spices in the next stall, each one painted with a picture of the dried herbs inside: cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric . . . “See?” The mother’s voice rose in pitch. “This is impressor country!” Sefia’s pulse quickened. Impressors. Even the word sounded sinister. She and Nin had been overhearing bits of news about them for a couple of years now. As the story went, boys were disappearing all over Kelanna’s island kingdoms, too many to be runaways. There was talk of boys being turned into killers. You’d know them if you saw them, people said, because they’d have a burn around their neck like a collar. That was the first thing impressors did—brand the boys with red-hot tongs so they’d have that exact scar. The thought of the impressors made Sefia hunch her shoulders, suddenly conscious of how exposed she was in this sea of strangers, these watchers and whisperers. Checking behind her, she caught sight of a flash of red and gold among the stalls. Redcoats. They were headed her way. As soon as the woman and her son left, Sefia dumped Nin’s pelts on the counter. While the furrier thumbed through them, Sefia fidgeted impatiently, glancing around at the swirling crowd, reaching behind her every so often to reassure herself that the mysterious angular object remained inside her pack. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. Stiffening, Sefia turned around. 9

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Behind her were the redcoats. “Have you seen this woman?” one asked. The other held out a yellowed sheet of paper, curling at the edges. A fading sketch. The features of the wanted woman were hooded and indistinct, but there was no mistaking the slope of her shoulders, the matted bear-skin cloak. Sefia felt as if she’d been dropped into dark water. “No,” she said faintly, “who is it?” The first redcoat shrugged and moved to the spices stall. “Have you seen this woman?” The other smiled sheepishly. “You’re too young to remember her, but thirty years ago she was the most notorious thief in the Five Islands. They called her the Locksmith. Someone a few towns over said they spotted her, but who knows. She’s probably long dead by now. Don’t you worry.” Swallowing, Sefia nodded. She recognized the story. The redcoats passed into the crowd again. The Locksmith. Nin’s old nickname. She agreed to the first price the furrier offered her and dumped the gold coins into her purse beside a piece of rutilated quartz and the last few rubies from a necklace she’d stolen in Liccaro. Was it enough? It had to be enough. Stowing her purse, she brushed the bottom of her pack once more and plowed into the crowd, elbowing the other shoppers aside in her haste to leave town. Once she reached the jungle, she began to run, breaking brush, catching on branches, made awkward and slow by the weight of her pack. 10

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Was that crashing in the foliage the sound of her own passage, or the sounds of a chase? She stole a glance behind her, imagining the creak of leather boots, the pounding of feet. She ran faster, the hard rectangular object beating painfully against the base of her spine. The woods grew hot and humid around her. Word travels quick. She had to get Nin. If the redcoats knew Nin was in Oxscini, there was no telling who else knew too. The campsite was only twenty yards ahead when, without warning, the forest around her went silent. The birds stopped singing. The insects stopped buzzing. Even the wind stopped whispering. Sefia froze, all her senses alert, her breath sounding loud as a lumber saw in the unmoving undergrowth. Her skin crawled. Then came the smell. Not the foul, rotting smell of sewage but a too-clean smell, like copper. A smell she could taste. A smell she could feel tingling in the tips of her fingers. A smell she knew. Through the trees, she heard Nin’s voice, low and guarded, the same voice she used when she was facing down large game, all claws and tusks, ready to charge: “So. You finally found me.”

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2

Worse Than Redcoats

S

efia ducked into the nearest patch of ferns, trembling so violently the fronds began quivering at her touch. The

stench of scorched earth and copper was so strong her insides hummed with it. There was the sound of laughter, like ground glass. “I almost didn’t believe it when we got word that some redcoats nearly caught you in the Oxscinian backwoods, but here you are.” We. Sefia dug her fingers into the earth. Her suspicions had been right. Someone—a group of someones—had been searching for them. And found them. Because of her. She began pulling herself along the ground. Spiderwebs caught in her hair. Thorns pricked her skin. She gritted her teeth and kept going, inching closer and closer to the campsite. “I’ve spent my whole apprenticeship hunting you. I wasn’t even sure you were as uncatchable as everyone said you were—” 12

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“Get on with it, will you?” Nin interrupted. A quick, muffled snap made Sefia pause, eyes wide, in the brush. But through the huge, shovel-shaped leaves she could see nothing. “. . . or if you were dead.” After a moment, Nin grunted, “Still kicking.” “For now.” No. Sefia dragged herself through the brush. Not again. Ignoring the spines of an overgrown rattan, she wedged herself up against a rotting log shrouded with moss and airplants. Branches caught at her clothing, but through the spiked leaves and dead vines, she could almost see what was happening in the clearing. Nin was on her knees, gingerly touching the side of her head. A trickle of blood ran down the heel of her hand and dropped from her wrist. A hooded woman stood over her. Clothed all in black, the woman was like a shadow come striding out of the forest, all violence and darkness. At her side, her right hand rested on the hilt of a curved sword. Past the screen of leaves, Sefia could just make out the forms of two black horses tied among the trees. Two horses. There was someone else in the clearing. “Search her,” came a man’s voice, dry and brittle as bones. Sefia shuddered at the sound of it. The woman in black knelt in front of Nin’s pack and upended its contents onto the forest floor. The pots and knives, the tent and hatchet, the collapsible brass spyglass, all of Nin’s belongings came clattering out in a burst of noise. Sefia started. 13

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Rattan spines raked her cheek, drawing blood. She barely noticed. A cold rivulet of fear ran down her spine. Sefia could see the woman’s face now. Her enemy had a face: ugly dishwater eyes and cratered skin, with a few limp locks of hair floating around her cheeks. Was this the same person who had killed her father? “It’s not here,” Nin said. It. Sefia’s hand went to her pack. Through the leather, the hard metal corners of the strange object dug into her palm. This was what they wanted. The woman went rooting among Nin’s things, tossing aside the patched shirts and hand-carved utensils with a carelessness that made Sefia’s insides burn. At last the woman in black straightened. The stink of metal grew sharper. It crackled and burned, until the air was buzzing with it. She whirled on Nin. “Where is it?” Nin glared up at her, bent forward, and spat in the dirt. The woman struck her across the face with the back of her hand. In the bushes, Sefia bit down on her tongue to keep from crying out. Nin’s lip split. Blood pooled between her teeth. Sticking out her chin, Nin leaned over and spat again. “Gonna take more than that to make me talk,” she said. The woman in black let out a bark of laughter. “You’ll talk. By the time we’re done with you, you’ll sing. You saw what we did to him, didn’t you?” Her father. Sefia fought back the memory of amputated limbs. Misshapen hands. Things no kid should see. Things no one should ever see. Nin hadn’t seen the body. She’d spirited is 14

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Sefia away into the woods as soon as she’d shown up, sobbing and bedraggled, at Nin’s door. But Sefia had seen it. She knew what they could do. Nin said nothing. Beyond Sefia’s vision, the man spoke again, his words like ice: “Let’s go. It’s not here.” “I already told you that,” Nin grumbled. “For folks who’re supposed to be so powerful, you aren’t too bright, are you? No wonder it took you so long to track me down.” “You think that matters? You think that’ll stop us?” The woman in black hit her again. “We are the wheel that drives the firmament. We’ll never stop.” And again, her fist making wet smacking sounds against Nin’s wrinkled flesh. Sefia flinched. A branch snapped beneath her. She tensed. The rhythm of the woman’s blows didn’t falter, but across the clearing Nin froze. For a second, her eyes locked with Sefia’s, warning her to stay put. To keep quiet. Nin crumpled at the next impact. Her face in the dirt, her flesh swollen and cut. Stop them, Sefia told herself. She could go out there and give up her pack. Just give them what they wanted. But fear roiled inside her. A dismembered corpse. The sick stench of metal. She’d seen what had happened to her father. There was movement to her right. Sounds of footsteps in the dead leaves. Sefia went cold. The man was coming for her, stalking the underbrush like a predator. She still couldn’t see 15

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him, but the tips of the ferns bent and tilted at his passage, sending ripples among the fiddleheads. He was getting closer. The smell of metal was so sharp it made her teeth hurt. “Wait,” Nin coughed. The man halted. The woman in black paused, her arm drawn back. Slowly, Nin pushed herself off the ground. Blood and saliva dribbled from her chin. She wiped it away, squinting up through her bruises. “If you want to do any real damage, you’ve got to get my good side,” she said, tapping her other cheek. The woman in black seized Nin’s hand and twisted. Nin buckled. Her wrist snapped. Sefia nearly lunged out from the brush to get to her, but Nin was watching her again. Stay put. Keep quiet. “Enough,” the man said. The woman in black glared in his direction, but she grabbed the collar of Nin’s cloak, hauling her to her feet. The horses were stamping and whiffling at the edge of the clearing. Now, Sefia thought. Before it’s too late. But she couldn’t move. She couldn’t. They bound Nin’s hands and mounted, Nin letting out a slight whuff of air as they forced her up. Despite the thorns that caught on her hands and arms, Sefia pushed away the spiked leaves until she could see Nin’s swollen eyes watching her from the back of the horse. Nin. The only family she had left. Then they were gone, slipping away between the branches, 16

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which closed behind them as if they’d never been. As the sound of the horses faded into the distance, the copper smell dissipated like mist, leaving that familiar metallic taste in the back of Sefia’s throat. Her breath came in ragged gasps. Hoisting herself over the log, she staggered into the clearing, where she fell forward among Nin’s belongings. The sobs came suddenly up from her stomach, wracking her entire body. Six years on the run from these people. A lifetime in hiding. And still they’d found her. Sefia began gathering up Nin’s things—an oversize shirt, the spyglass, her lock picks—as if the weight of them would be enough to hold on to, now that Nin was gone. Of course it wasn’t. Sefia unfolded the leather case that held the lock picks, her fingers catching on the metal tips of Nin’s most trusted tools. Her eyes blurred with tears. Her mother and father were dead. And now Nin had been taken from her too. To be beaten and tortured and who knew what else. No. Sefia twisted the leather in her hands. Not yet. The woman’s words came back to her like shards of glass, cutting into her: We’ll never stop. Not until they’d gutted everything she’d ever loved. Not until they’d laid waste to everyone that stood in their path. Sefia’s hands burned, as if everything she touched would burst into flame. They wouldn’t stop? Well, neither would she. 17

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Tucking the lock picks away, she jammed a bundle of Nin’s things into her pack and shouldered it. Then, narrowing her eyes, she located the hoofprints in the soft earth and marched into the jungle. They were faster than her, but Sefia was relentless. She tracked them through miles of rain forest, over fallen logs and into creeks, past gnarled thickets of thorns and stagnant pools buzzing with mosquitoes. By midafternoon, just as Nin had predicted, sheets of water began pouring over the rain forest, dripping from the canopy until everything was wet through. Grimly, Sefia pulled her rain cloak over herself and the pack, squinting into the rain. As she slogged through the downpour, it became harder and harder to track the horses. But they didn’t stop, and neither would she. She carried on, searching for crescent-shaped puddles and broken twigs in the failing light. The rain fell, but she didn’t stop. Darkness fell, but she didn’t stop. But on the edge of a roaring creek, swollen with rain, she slipped. She slid down the muddy bank, clutching at loose roots that ripped away in her hands, and landed in the turgid water, tumbling over and over in the dark and the cold. Again and again, the current thrust her under, but every time she came up gasping for air, striking at the rapids with her arms and legs, searching for shore. With nothing but her stubbornness and what remained of her failing strength, she made it to the opposite bank and hauled herself out of the water on shaking limbs. The rain pelted her face as she lay gasping in the dark. How far had she come? She 18

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must have been miles downstream now. Sefia pushed herself to her feet, gritting her teeth against a sudden pain in her ankle. She knelt, testing the swollen joint with numb fingers. It wasn’t broken. At least there was that. Gathering her pack, she ran her hand over the outside to check that its contents were safe, and limped away from the water to set up the little tent. The rain didn’t stop. It hammered on the canvas as she hauled the pack after her and placed it in the space where Nin would have lain, though she couldn’t fool herself into thinking the sodden lump was her aunt. Wincing at her scrapes and bruises, she struggled out of her wet clothes and climbed under her blanket, pulling herself into a ball with her hands clasped around her knees. Dry-eyed, she stared into the darkness. “Nin,” she whispered.

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1 I would have killed to go to princeton. Yale, Dartmouth, and Stanford were my top choices, and the universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas were my backups. They were all great schools, and I would have been happy to attend any one of them. Or at least I would have until I met Claire. Then the only schools I cared about were Princeton, Princeton, and Princeton, though not necessarily in that order. Pop Quiz: Did you know F. Scott Fitzgerald went to Princeton? And presidents Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland? Even John F. Kennedy went there, but he couldn’t hack it and transferred to some third-rate dump named Harvard. The list of influential Princeton grads is insanely impressive and includes everyone from astronauts and Supreme Court justices to CEOs and Nobel Prize winners. If college was a superhero, Princeton would be Bat-


man. (Sorry, Superman.) If prestige were a sporting event, Princeton would be the Super Bowl. I’m not kidding. And I’d taken no chances on getting in. I’d read every blog, manual, and how-to guide on the subject, crushed my SATs, and polished my personal essay until it sparkled like a priceless gem. Just as important, I’d made sure my clubs and extracurricular activities were commendable; my sport of choice not-too-obvious or not-too-obscure (lacrosse); and my financial aid form a work of art. In other words, I’d done everything humanly possible to get into Princeton. Then, when there was nothing else left to do, I checked the box for Early Decision, mailed out my application, and waited. And waited. A n d . . . W . . . A . . . I . . . T . . . E . . . D . . . But here’s the thing about applying to a major university. It doesn’t matter if you’re Prince Albert or Albert Einstein— who once taught at Princeton, by the way—nobody in the admissions office will tell you squat, no matter how much you beg, plead, or threaten. Which in the case of early decision applicants like me, meant one-and-a-half months of pure, undiluted torture. My only solace was that I was not alone. Twenty-one of my classmates at Wheaton Preparatory Academy had applied for early decision to their schools, and for the next six weeks we greeted one another with the same anxious words: “You hear anything yet?” 2


The answer was always No, and by Thanksgiving we were twenty-two sleep-deprived zombies. The following week, out of a combination of camaraderie and desperation, we began meeting up in the school mail room to watch—in slow motion and extreme close up—as Mrs. Daulton, Wheaton’s million-year-old and molasses-legged mail lady, squinted at each and every piece of mail and slowly, Slowly, SLOWLY, placed it in our slots. Finally, on December fourteenth, the letters began arriving. There were tears and cheers, hugs and high fives, wishes granted and dreams shattered. But the one thing that didn’t arrive was my acceptance letter. It was excruciating, and I spent countless hours searching for meaning in my predicament. Was my letter’s tardiness a good thing or bad? Did this improve my odds or decimate them? If a Princeton applicant ran into the woods and screamed his head off and nobody heard him, did that make him a complete idiot? I had no idea. All I knew was that by the end of the semester I was the only one left waiting, and I was losing my mind. “Cam?” I looked up, and Mrs. Daulton was holding something in her hand. It was white and thin and looked like a letter from a major university. I shot across the room and snatched it from her fingers. The return address read Prince‑ ton University, and I swallowed hard. “Are you going to open it?” she asked. “I guess I better.” 3


I tore off the side of the envelope, and the first word I saw was “Congratulations.” I was in. “I knew you could do it,” Mrs. Daulton said with a smile. “Thank you.” I jammed the letter in my backpack and floated out of the mail room on a cloud of victory. All my time, hard work, and anxiety had paid off. Poor, cafeteria-working, trust fund–deprived Cam Smith was going to Princeton, and I didn’t even have to kill anyone to do it. Yet.

4


2 I couldn’t wait to call claire and tell her the news. My shift at the cafeteria had ended early, and when I checked the time on my phone I saw there were five minutes left before her parents were due to pick her up. That was all the time I needed, and I broke into a sprint. Twenty-­ four hours earlier, I would have crashed into a dozen students wearing Wheaton blazers as I raced across campus, but finals were over, and my classmates were winging their way to Aspen, Taos, and the Caribbean for the holidays. I was spending Christmas in the comfort and splendor of my dorm room, but that hardly mattered because in a few short months I’d be going to Princeton. With Claire. Or at least I would be if Claire completed her application. She had been putting off writing her personal essay for weeks, and her lack of anxiety about it was giving me anxiety. Not that she had anything to worry about. As a


third-generation Princeton legacy with a 3.95 GPA and outstanding SATs, Claire Benson was as close to a slam dunk as there was. Still, legacy or not, all applications had to be postmarked by January first. No exceptions. I was obsessing over this when I approached the dorms and spotted Claire standing in the parking lot surrounded by suitcases. As a young girl Claire had studied ballet, and with her dancer’s poise and brown hair pulled back tight she still resembled the ballerina she’d wanted to be in grade school. God, she was beautiful. And smart. And rich. What she was doing with a scholarship student like me, I had no idea. But I wasn’t complaining. Well, except for her not finishing her essay. Otherwise, she was like one of those flawless and dazzling specters you met on the highest level of a video game. I vaulted over a hedge and was about a hundred yards away from her when the biggest Mercedes I’d ever seen glided into the parking lot, and Ken and Barbie hopped out. Okay, so maybe Claire’s parents weren’t really named Ken and Barbie, but that’s who they looked like—only older and with better skin. Claire claimed her parents wanted to meet me, but one look at their car, clothes, and diamond-crusted accessories, and I was so intimidated I hid behind an azalea bush. Yes, I know this was 110 percent pathetic, but I’d spent zero time around people like the Bensons, and something told me they would not be impressed by my floppy hair, chippedtooth smile, and JCPenney attire. Not to mention that at 6


five foot nine, Claire was an inch taller than me—three if she wore heels. Claire swore this wasn’t a big deal, but I knew it was the first thing people noticed when they saw us together. I kept hoping her parents would dash off for a quick game of tennis and give Claire and me some time alone, but this did not happen. Instead, they loaded up their Mercedes and drove off without so much as a glance in my direction. Embarrassed at myself and despondent, I climbed out from behind the azalea bush and watched as their taillights grew smaller in the distance. By the time they disappeared, my heart had turned to Jell-O, and there was nothing left to do but trudge back to my room and endure the passing hours until classes resumed in January. I counted every crack in the tiles as I moped down the hallways and every step on the stairs as I climbed to my floor. I was so caught up in my misery I failed to notice that the door to my room was open. Then I did and froze. I was certain I had locked it that morning, and there was no reason for someone from Student Services to be inside. But someone was inside, and I looked around for a weapon. My only options were a pizza box and an old brass fire extinguisher. Neither would help if the person inside had a gun, and I figured my best bet was the element of surprise. I decided to kick open the door, grab my lacrosse stick, and impale whoever was in there. It was an excellent plan, and would have worked if my 7


lacrosse stick had been where I’d left it. Unfortunately, it was not, and before I could think of a Plan B, my legs were knocked out from under me, and I landed on my back with a thud. “Hello, Skip.” I looked up, and Uncle Wonderful was standing over me with my lacrosse stick in his hands. “What’s this thing?” he asked, pressing the business end of the stick against my throat. “It’s a lacrosse stick,” I sputtered. “What’s that? Some fancy new game rich kids play?” “Lacrosse is actually the oldest team sport played in America. The Plains Indians invented it to prepare for battle.” Uncle Wonderful looked at the stick with newfound respect. “No shit?” “But enough of a history lesson,” I said. “What are you doing here?” “Taking you home.” I shook my head. “No way. This is my home now.” “Save it. Your mother wants me to bring you back, so I’m bringing you back.” “Why didn’t she come herself?” I asked. “Because she’s in Shady Oaks.” “What’s that? A retirement home for convicted felons?” “No, smart guy, it’s a mental institution. Your mother tried to kill herself last week.”

8


3 The

first time i got arrested i was four years old.

Actually, arrested is the wrong word for it. It was more like I was taken into custody. My mother was the one who got arrested, although we both wound up with our pictures in the paper. In the photograph, we’re being led out of Macy’s in handcuffs and beneath it the caption reads “The Littlest Criminal.” Except that was wrong, too. Not the little part, the criminal part. Mom and I were never criminals. Criminals rob banks. Criminals steal cars. Criminals deal drugs. Mom and me? We were weasels. We were thieves. We were slime. And so was everyone else in our family. I’d bet a million dollars there hasn’t been one minute in my entire life when at least one of my relatives wasn’t collecting welfare under an assumed name. And I’d bet another million there were at least two more cashing disability checks for jobs they never held.


Like I said, we were slime. The kid in the paper told the police his name was Michael Dillon, but that was an alias. Over the years I’ve been Bobby, Timmy, Richie, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For a long time I wanted to be called Waldo after the guy in the Where’s Waldo? books, but my mother said no to that because it would have stood out too much. And in our line of work that’s the last thing you want. My real name is Stephen O’Rourke, although I’ve never seen my birth certificate or any legal proof of my existence. My mother calls me Sonny, and everybody else calls me Skip. The best thing about a nickname is you don’t have to change it every time you change your identity, which I’ve done more times than your average seventeen-year-old has flossed. Here’s how it worked: Mom would lease an apartment under a fake name, pay first and last month’s rent, and after that we’d rob the place blind. People were always happy to talk to a jolly fat lady and her cute little boy, and by the end of the first week we’d have learned everything there was to know about everybody who lived there: the hours they worked, when they were gone, and when they were born. After that, it was simply a matter of slipping into their apartments and finding their Social Security numbers. We’d take out credit cards in their names, shopped till we dropped, and sell what was left of their identities for a few hundred dollars. Three months later, and we were on to the next place. I once asked my mother if she felt guilty for stealing from the people who lived next door. 10


“Why?” she replied. “It’s not like they’re family.” Then she’d rip off one of my uncles, and when I asked her about that she’d say, “That’s because he’s a real A-hole.” I’ll say this about my mother: she may have been a coldhearted thief, but she rarely cursed in my presence. That said, she did lie about everything. Especially to me, and especially about who my father was. Sometimes he was an Irish tenor. Other times he was a diesel mechanic. Most of the time he was just “some guy.” When I asked my Grandpa Patsy about it, he’d just sigh and say, “Talk to your mother. That’s her deal, not mine.” So, there you have it. Most kids have a father. I have a deal. I was seven years old when I started to realize just how messed up my life was. This was a challenging time for Mom and me. My value had always been my size, and as I grew I became a liability. People began to wonder why the kid wandering through the Fragrance Department at Lord & Taylor on a Tuesday afternoon wasn’t in school. In other words, they paid attention to me—which is something you really don’t want when your mother is trying to stuff bottles of Chanel No. 5 in your Buzz Lightyear backpack. We had two options: I could hang around our apartment all day, or I could go to school. We tried the former, but there are only so many hours a day a seven-year-old boy can watch television, and after I almost burned down the third floor of the Cheshire Arms Apartments, we tried the latter. 11


The night before my first day of school I was super nervous. With the exception of my cousin, Roy, I had never spent time around kids my own age and didn’t know how to act. Was school like jail, where you were supposed to punch out the toughest guy in your cell? Or was it like a convenience store, where you flirted with the lady behind the counter while your mother stole milk and Mylanta? I had no idea. What surprised me the most about school was how easy it was and how much easier it became. I could barely read when I got there, so they put me in a class with the dumb kids, and let’s just say the contrast was more than a little obvious. I had grown up fast-talking sales ladies and policemen while my fellow students could barely wipe their own noses. By the end of the first week I was the star pupil, and by the end of the second I was transferred to a class where, if nothing else, the kids knew which end of a pencil to stick up their noses. What I liked best about school was the companionship. No one had ever wanted to be my friend before, and overnight a whole new world opened up. I had been living in this alternative universe where playdates, class trips, and just about everything else a seven-year-old boy might enjoy had no value. Sure, my mother stole plenty of nice stuff for me, but even the best toys aren’t much fun when you have no one to play with. In school, however, I was just like everyone else, and it was glorious. “Don’t get too attached,” my mother said when I told 12


her about my new friends. But I didn’t listen and made pals with everyone from the strange kids who smelled like pee all the way up to the principal. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to have people I barely knew call me by my name in the halls. Even if it wasn’t my real name. Then the inevitable happened. “Get your things together,” my mother said one Saturday morning. “Why?” I asked. “I don’t have school today.” “We’re leaving.” Her words were like a punch in the stomach. “But I have a test on Monday,” I begged. “And Mrs. Fleagler said I could sing the song from Cats in music class.” “You can sing in the car. Now grab your stuff and let’s go.” That was the day I stopped trusting my mother. After that, I was always careful not to tell her too much about school or my classmates. Is that crazy or what? If I couldn’t tell my own mother about my life, then who could I tell? No one, that’s who. And here’s the thing about lying: not only is it exhausting to keep a thousand stories and fabrications in your head, it’s also incredibly lonely. And I hate being alone. Not to sound overly dramatic, but I left a major chunk of my heart in that elementary school on the day we moved away. I’ve been trying to get it back ever since. The only positive thing about my predicament was that I got to keep my textbooks, and by the time my mother got around to enrolling me in a new school I had them mem13


orized. Math, science, and spelling, I knew them backward and forward. No more classes with dumb kids for me, I told myself. This time it’s going to be different. And for a while it was. I made a point of not telling my mother about school, and on the rare occasions when she did ask, I was careful not to reveal too much. I’m sure my mother knew something was up, but she was a little fuzzy in the head from the grapefruit and tuna fish diet she had started the month before. My mother was always trying some crazy diet, and this one turned her into a complete space cadet. Unfortunately, she zoomed straight back to earth on the night my second grade teacher called. “What did she want?” I asked when my mother hung up the phone. “Get packing.” “What?” “You heard what I said. And if you ever do something like this again, I’ll break your arm.” “What did I do?” I asked as tears filled my eyes. “Your teacher said you were the best student she’s ever had and wants to put you in a class for gifted students.” “But that’s good, right?” “No, it’s not good. Gifted students stand out. People remember them. Use your head, Sonny. Two years from now this lady could see your picture in the paper, and we could all wind up in jail.” “I didn’t think about it that way.” 14


“Of course you didn’t. That’s what school does—it makes you stupid. From now on you get only Cs and Bs, and the only exceptional thing I want to hear about you is that you’re exceptionally average.” “Okay.” “Good. Now let’s get out of here before the National Honor Society tries throwing a car wash in the living room.” I was thirteen years old when I finally had enough, although it wasn’t for the obvious reasons. Yes, I was sick of the lying, and the loneliness, and the constant moving around. Yes, I was sick of my mother, and my family, and the never-ending stream of disgusting apartments. Yes, I was sick of acting stupid, and conning my classmates, and throwing tests. I was sick of it all, but I would have kept on going because it was the only life I knew. My mother always said ordinary people were stooges— chumps and goody-goodies who slaved away at crummy jobs, had no hope, and owed their souls to the credit card companies. She said we were above all that. We lived where we wanted, did what we wanted, and took what we wanted. We were free. But were we really free? Between the lies, and scams, and never-ending fear of getting busted we put in as many hours as the next guy, except we had a lot less to show for our effort. Think about it. Here I was thirteen years old, and I’d never played Little League baseball. I’d never joined Boy Scouts. I’d never had a best friend, or slept on 15


the same mattress for more than a couple of months. It was crazy. The only taste of real life I saw was in the empty apartments of the people I robbed. It was pathetic. I was pathetic, and I yearned for something better. The opportunity came, like everything else in my life, through a jimmied window. One of the most common residents in every apartment complex where Mom and I lived was the newly divorced dad. Growing up, I saw literally hundreds of them shuffling down hallways and carrying bags of Chinese takeout and convenience store beer. They rarely had anything worth stealing—alimony and child support took care of that—but I still enjoyed breaking into their apartments and pouring stale beer down the back of their TV sets. Yes, I knew this was a really mean thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself. There was something about these losers that made me so incredibly angry. It must have been because they had everything I wanted out of life—a real house, home-cooked meals, birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese—and threw it all away. It made absolutely no sense to me. All that changed on the afternoon I slipped into some ex-husband’s apartment and came across what can only be described as a shrine to Wheaton Preparatory Academy. I’m not exaggerating when I say the entire place was covered, floor to ceiling, with every type of pennant, banner, and poster imaginable, as well as dozens of photos of football, baseball, and lacrosse teams. Creepy doesn’t begin to describe it, and right in the middle of this sea of crim16


son and blue—like it was the single greatest achievement in this poor schnook’s life—was his Wheaton diploma. In eight years of breaking into apartments I’d never seen anything like it. My first impulse was to tear the place to shreds. Just yank every piece of Wheaton memorabilia off the walls and rip it into teeny-tiny pieces. Except I couldn’t. It would have been like cutting out the man’s heart. Instead, I slipped out the window (without touching the TV, I might add) and headed straight to the library to find out about this Wheaton place. It was dark outside when I was finished, and my eyes burned from having read so much, but I was sure of two things: 1. I really wanted to go to Wheaton Academy. 2. I’d have to run away from my family to do it.

17


4 We were thirty miles south of albany when the state trooper’s lights appeared in the rearview mirror. “We have a visitor,” I said, gripping the steering wheel tighter. Uncle Wonderful glanced out the back window. “So we have.” “What do you want to do?” I asked. “What do you mean?” “What’s our play? Is this car stolen?” “I can’t seem to remember.” “Stop messing around,” I said. “I’m using my good name here.” Uncle Wonderful yawned. “You’re a big boy. You figure it out.” This was why Uncle Wonderful had wanted me to drive,


I realized. It was a test. I eased the car onto the shoulder and held out my hand. “Okay,” I said. “Give me your insurance card and registration, and if you try anything funny I’m telling the trooper you abducted me. I’ll say I was getting money from a cash machine, and you put a gun to my head. There are at least ten people at Wheaton who will vouch for me, and two of them are retired judges. Who’s going to vouch for you, Uncle Wonderful? Your parole officer?” The grin dropped from his face, and he handed over the registration and insurance card without a word. The paperwork said the car belonged to a Mr. Phillip Boylan of 421 Leprechaun Lane, Sayville, New York. The print job looked real, but the address was a joke. Leprechaun Lane? Why didn’t he just put down Impossible to Believe Lane? I eyed the sideview mirror as the trooper climbed out of his cruiser. Normal mothers tell their kids they have only one chance to make a first impression; weasel moms tell theirs they only have one chance to size up a mark. The trooper put on his hat, and the first thing that struck me was his air of regimented formality. This said ex-military. More than that, his back was so straight you could have used it to draw a vector in geometry class. This said ex-­ Marine, and I knew my play. When the trooper got within a few feet of the car, I turned to Uncle Wonderful and yelled, “I don’t care what you say! When we get home I’m heading straight to the recruiting office and signing up!”

19


It took Uncle Wonderful less than a second to catch on. “The hell you are,” he yelled back. “It’s what Dad would have wanted!” “But your dad’s not here anymore, is he?” I waited until the trooper was next to my window and said, “That’s right. He gave his life for this country so bums like you can criticize the people who put their very lives on the line for it.” “License, registration, and proof of insurance, please,” the trooper growled. I whipped my head around and shouted, “What?” The trooper’s eyes doubled in size, and before he could say another word I clapped a hand to my forehead. “Oh my God! I’m sorry, Officer. My uncle and I are arguing about me joining the Marines, and I kind of lost my head. Was I speeding or something?” “License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.” I handed over the paperwork, and the trooper marched back to his cruiser to run it through the computer. I figured the odds were fifty-fifty I’d be eating dinner in a jail cell. “Why are you doing this to me?” I asked. “You broke your mother’s heart. It’s only fair.” “Fair? And it’s fair that you people won’t leave me alone?” “You people?” he replied in disgust. “We’re your family, Skip. We’re all you’ve got.” I thought about Claire and the life I’d created at Wheaton and said, “No, you’re not. You’re not even close.” 20


I glanced in the rearview mirror and tried to visualize what the trooper had seen when I handed over my license. Did he see the youngest member of a family of thieves, or just some skinny kid with a chipped front tooth and hair in need of a trim? I was hoping for the latter. “Who’s Phillip Boylan?” the trooper asked, returning to the window. “That would be me,” Uncle Wonderful replied. “Do you know you have a taillight out, Mr. Boylan?” “I’m sorry, Officer. I lent the car to my nephew here so he could drive girls around at the fancy school he goes to in Schuylerville.” “Wheaton Academy?” “That’s the one.” The trooper looked at my license. “Seventeen years old. That makes you, what? A senior?” “That’s right,” I said. “And you’d rather join the Marines than graduate?” “Yes, sir.” He looked me up and down and said, “Joining the Corps is no picnic, son. It’s a major commitment.” “I know. My father told me all about it.” “Where did he serve?” “A bunch of places: Haiti, Honduras, Djibouti. But he died in the Korangal Valley.” “Afghanistan?” I nodded. “Five years ago next month. He was a hero.” “I’m sure he was.” 21


The trooper handed back the paperwork. “Good luck with your decision, but if you want the advice of an old Marine, I’d finish school first. The Corps will still be there in June.” “Yes, sir.” He glanced at Uncle Wonderful. “And you get that taillight fixed.” “You got it, Officer.” The trooper headed back to his cruiser, and Uncle Wonderful laughed. “Djibouti? Where the hell’s Djibouti?” “Africa.” “Never heard of it. How’d you know that guy was a Marine?” “His posture. Only Marines move like that. And ballet dancers, but he didn’t look like a ballerina to me.” Uncle Wonderful nodded. “You always were fast on your feet, Skip.” “So? Did I pass the test?” “With flying colors.” “Good.” I adjusted the rearview mirror and said, “Damn, that trooper’s coming back.” Uncle Wonderful turned to look and when he was halfway there I punched him in the jaw. “Son of a bitch!” he screamed. “Don’t talk that way about my mother,” I said. “And the next time you try something when I’m using my good name you’ll get a lot worse than that.” •••

22


So, what’s a good name? A good name is an escape hatch. An emergency exit. A ticket out. In other words, it’s the cleanest, safest, most bulletproof fake identity there is. My Grandpa Patsy used to say that if a good name came in a box there’d be a sign on the front reading, “Use only in emergencies.” But good names don’t come in boxes. In fact, good names don’t come anywhere anymore. The computer-­ controlled, interwoven world we live in has taken care of that, and soon the only name you’ll ever have is the name you were born with. Law enforcement types sleep well at night knowing this is the case, but I find it sad and even a little un-American. This country was founded on the possibility of new beginnings, and guys like me have been using good names since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. My good name is Cameron Michael Smith—Cam to my friends. The real Cam Smith was born on April 26, 1995, and died nine months later from a lung infection. That would have been the end of him, but Grandpa Patsy knew a guy in the Schenectady County records office who was in charge of scanning death certificates into their fancy new computer system. For a hundred bucks and a bottle of Bushmills the guy accidentally forgot to scan Cam Smith’s death certificate, and it was like the poor kid had never died. After that, we applied for a passport and Social Security card in Cam Smith’s name, and just like that I was a whole new person. This was a very popular technique back in the day, and for years our family picnics were filled with dozens of relatives with unscanned birth certificates who 23


were making a nice living cashing checks from every state and federal agency there was. But like I said, computerized record-keeping has put an end to all that. Good luck and vigilance is the key to every good name. Or, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Smith, bad luck and vigilance. Not long after the death of their only son, the Smiths were killed in a car accident. Mrs. Smith was behind the wheel, and the police listed the cause of death as driving while intoxicated. But I think Mrs. Smith died of a broken heart. On nights at Wheaton when I couldn’t sleep, I sometimes wondered if the Smiths were looking down on me. If they were, I hoped they were proud because I was taking excellent care of their son’s legacy: I had a 3.92 GPA, averaged 1.4 points per game in lacrosse, and wrote smart and funny pieces for the Weekly Wheatonian. Plus, I’d just been accepted to Princeton University. I don’t mean to brag, but thanks to me Cam Smith had a very bright future ahead of him. Or at least he did until my family came along and messed up his life. Or should I say, messed up my life.

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Penguin Teen BEA 2016 Preview  

Get a preview of some of the books we're most excited for, coming out this summer and fall! | Includes A Torch Against the Night, What Light...

Penguin Teen BEA 2016 Preview  

Get a preview of some of the books we're most excited for, coming out this summer and fall! | Includes A Torch Against the Night, What Light...