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Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Howe.

K ATH ER I N E HOW E

G . P. P U T NA M ’ S S O N S An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)

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PRELUDE SALEM VILL AGE, MASSACHUSE T TS MAY 30, 1706

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ow long must I wait? His tongue creeps out the corner of his mouth while he writes, the tip of it black with ink, the blacking in his gums staining his teeth. He looks like he’s got a mouthful of tar. I’ve been waiting for some time, but Reverend Green’s still writing. His quill runs across the paper, scratching like mouse paws. Scratch scratch, dip, scratch, lick, scratch. My feet ache, and shifting my weight just makes the one hurt worse than the other. I’m leaning in the door frame, and in my mind my mother prods me in my back to make me straight. It’s so sharp, the prodding, I could almost swear she was really there. “Ann?” he says. I’d gotten so used to the waiting that I don’t hear him at first. “Ann!” He’s tossed his quill down. “Yes,” I whisper. He turns a chill eye on me, an arm over the back of his chair. His elbow’s worn the turkey-work well away, ’til it’s so threadbare, it

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shines. Reverend Green’s the kind of man who’s always being interrupted. A harassed look about him, as if he can never get time to concentrate on one thing altogether. Spends his whole life turning around in his chair. I take a step back, thinking better of my errand. He gives me a long look. He’s none too eager to hear what I’ve got to say either. “Well, you’d best come in,” he says at length, returning to his paper. He hunches over his desk, free hand clutching bunches of his hair like he’s anxious to finish whatever he’s writing. Scratch scratch scratch. I should’ve gone when I had the chance; he’d never’ve known I was here. I glance over my shoulder, through the parsonage hall. Goody Green, his wife, has got the fire going all right, but the door’s open to the yard, as it’s a warm day. The patch of sunlight on the floor is so bright, I have to squint. A long stretch of shadow, and a cat wraps around the doorjamb and flattens himself out in the sunshine with a yawn. He rolls on his back, batting at ghosts. Goody Green’s at the table wringing out cheesecloth. She looks harried, and no wonder, with the baby hiccoughing so. She was bouncing him up and down the hall when I arrived, beating him over her shoulder. I said she should hold him upside down and give him a little shake, but she glared and said, “If you’ll just wait for Reverend Green over there.” I not being a mother, I suppose she’d ignore my advice, though it’s common knowledge how many Putnams I raised myself. Now I see she’s given up. The baby’s stashed in a long wooden cradle near enough that she can rock it with a foot, but she’s just letting him cough, all red in the face like a baked apple. And to be sure she can’t call on anyone for so much as a poultice. No one can, in the village, anymore. “Go on, then,” she says to me, giving the cloth a final twist. She’s got some arms, has Goody Reverend Green. “Don’t you keep him waiting.” If she weren’t there, I could sneak away. I feel my heart pressing

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against my ribs, and the top of my head opening, as if my soul were being ripped from my body by the hair. A girl in a dirty coif wanders in from the yard, finger in her mouth, her apron splotched with mud. She looks over at me all shy, because she doesn’t know me, or perhaps because she’s been warned to keep away. She’s like a sweet piglet walking on two legs, with those pink cheeks all in mud like that, and I smile at her. She squeaks in terror and runs to hide behind her mother. “Come now, Ann,” the Reverend coaxes me from within his study. It’s cooler in there. It’s away from the kitchen fire, with its window over the side yard, facing away from the sun. I’d like to sit. My feet are so tired. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But there is. There is everything to be afraid of. I swallow the lead ball in my throat that no amount of swallowing can be rid of, and move into the shadows of the Reverend’s study. There’s a bench between his desk and the fireplace. It’s as hard as a church pew. I could swear the back isn’t so much straight as curved, to force my head to bow. But it’s not the bench that’s making me hang my head. The Reverend gingerly sands his paper, blows it clean, and blots, holding the paper to the light to approve of his work. Satisfied, he turns at last to me. But when his eyes fall on my face, he recoils, as if I’d moved to strike him. I’ve come to Reverend Green to make my confession.

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Part 1

Ja n ua ry YULETIDE

And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. JOHN 1 0: 2 2

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Ch a pter 1 DA N V E R S , M A S S A C H U S ET T S W E D N E S D A Y, J A N U A R Y 11, 2 01 2

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he truth is, I’m not sure when it started. I don’t actually think anybody really knows. For a while figuring out the very first instance of it seemed really important. They were interviewing all of us because they wanted to find the locus of it, or whatever, I don’t really know. They marched us into the office one at a time, and there was this big map of the school up on a wall. It was covered in pins with little flags, each one with a date. It was super complicated. I think they thought that with enough pins and flags and yarn and everything, they’d figure it out, or at least it would look really impressive for the news cameras. And don’t get me wrong, it was impressive. All those arrows and everything looked wicked complicated. It didn’t help them figure anything out, though. I think it just made them feel better. But I’m getting ahead of myself. If I was really forced to pick a date, like at gunpoint, I’d have to go with January 11. I’m saying that only because it was just a completely basic Wednesday with nothing much to recommend it.

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Exactly the kind of day I shouldn’t remember. We’d been back from winter break only a couple of days, but we’d already gotten into the routine. Senior year. Last semester. We were pretty keyed up. I mean, everybody’s always on edge when the semester starts, kind of, except spring semester senior year is like that normal nervousness times a million. Senior year is when it all comes together, all the years of studying and work and projects and sports and campaigns and whatever we’re into that we’ve been working really hard for—it’s either about to pay off or everything is about to completely fall apart. And don’t even get me started about waiting for college acceptance letters. But even though senior year is massive, is basically the moment that sets up the rest of our entire lives and whether we’re going to be successful and get everything we want or whether we’re going to die alone in a ditch in the snow, we still have to get up and make it through every day. I still get up and brush my teeth, right? This Wednesday should have been the most generic Wednesday imaginable, even if it was a Wednesday of the spring semester of our last year at St. Joan’s. “Sit,” my mother said. I was standing by the kitchen sink shoving a cranberry muffin into my mouth. “What?” I said, plucking at my shirt to shake the crumbs out the bottom. “Colleen, for God’s sake. You won’t be able to digest anything. Would you sit down for five minutes?” Mom used the toe of her slipper to brush the crumbs under the edge of the dishwasher. “Can’t. I’ve got to go,” I insisted as Dad came up behind us, rattling the car keys. “Did you get the problem set done?” Mom asked. She licked her thumb to rub crumbs from the corner of my mouth, and I squirmed away from her.

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“Mom! Get over it! Yes, I got the problem set done.” “You want me to look it over real quick?” “Linda,” my dad warned from the front door. He jingled the keys again, and I slung up my backpack and kissed Mom on the cheek. “It’s fine,” I said. “I promise.” Could there be a more normal Wednesday morning? It’s so normal, I almost want to embellish it, and add something kind of exciting or dramatic or interesting. But I just can’t, because nothing like that happened. Dad dropped me off at school, and the upper school hallway was awash like it always was in an ocean of girls in plaid skirts and cardigans and wool tights and Coach handbags from the outlet store. I knew most of them, at least well enough to say hello, though every class adds a lot of new girls freshman year and so the older we got, the more strangers started peppering the hallways. “Hey, Colleen,” said someone in passing, I didn’t see who, but I said “Hey” back and nodded to be nice. I stopped by my locker to swap out some books and scroll through a few texts that didn’t seem very important. I was just replying to something, I don’t remember what, when I heard it. “Colleeeen, I saw you standing alooooooone, without a dream in my heart . . . without a love of your own. Colleeeeeeeeeeen,” a voice hummed from inside my advisory classroom. I looked up and grinned at the spines of my textbooks. Deena was stuck on “Blue Moon.” Again. Deena’s the first one who’s important to know about. She came to St. Joan’s in sixth grade, and when she got here, she was the tallest one in the class, even taller than me, this string bean girl from Charleston with a shock of baby dreadlocks falling in layers to her shoulders. She had such a thick Southern accent that at first I kind of couldn’t tell what she was saying. But she lost the y’alls after only a couple of weeks, and then she started dropping her R’s. That girl is a total language sponge. The craziest is when she speaks Japanese. I

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think she gets a special kick out of shocking people with it, especially when she was on her exchange program in Tokyo last summer—a six-foot-tall African American girl speaking near-fluent Japanese after just three months. “Hey,” I said, sliding into my seat. Deena grinned at me, spread her arms wide, and went for the big finish. “Collleeeeeeeen! You knew just what I was there for, you heard me saying a prayer for, someone I really could care for!” “She’s already been at this for, like, ten minutes,” Emma whispered to me, loudly enough that Deena could hear her. Emma. Nominally, Emma is my best friend. I don’t even remember when I first met her, but we were tiny. Before preschool. She’s from Danvers, her parents are from Danvers, her grandparents were all from Danvers, her whole family lives in Danvers. Her brother, Mark, went to Endicott in Beverly because he didn’t want to be too far from Danvers. They all look alike, too, all the Blackburns. And they’re really clannish. Emma’s mom is one of those delicate blondes who is usually shuttered away with a headache, and when that happens, we can’t go over to the Blackburns’ house. They’re all very protective of each other. If somebody mentions, as I made the mistake of doing once, that maybe Emma’s mom would feel better if she just went outside once in a while, Emma will cut them dead with a look and say, “She can’t.” Emma has always had a quietness to her, which is one of the reasons I like her so much. But it can also make her hard to read. Her reserve is a complete inversion of the chaos of my house. Emma was the last one of us to play with dolls—she was thirteen, which is kind of crazy, and we’d all already gotten our periods and were starting to text boys, but she’d still ask shyly if I wanted to bring my American Girl doll when I came over. They’re still out in her room, and I sometimes imagine her whispering to them when the lights go out. She has buttery-blond hair, which in the summers turns almost white in 4

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the sun. Her eyebrows are so light and pale, they almost don’t exist, and she refuses to wear makeup at all, which gives Emma a naked, otherworldly look. Once it was clear that I liked Deena, Emma decided she was okay, too. It was Emma who taught Deena to stop saying “milk shake” when she meant “frappe.” Deena’s elbow was taking up so much room that Fabiana had to squeeze herself around the desk to sit down next to her. Fabiana, I don’t know as well. She came to St. Joan’s as a freshman, part of that influx of new people when we got to upper school. She’s okay. Kind of annoying. I didn’t like to give much of myself away to Fabiana. It’s not that I didn’t like her, it’s just that we were applying a lot of the same places, and we were sort of in competition for grades, even though it was spring semester. I don’t know why I just said “sort of ” when I don’t mean that at all. Fabiana and I were competing for valedictorian. I know it’s not cool to seem like I care that much, and I wasn’t really supposed to make it look like I was trying hard to get the grades I was getting, but the truth is, I was having a hard time with it. For all of high school I’d been able to hold everyone else off without any trouble, and keep up the fiction that I didn’t have to work hard at it, and I didn’t really care. But the truth is, I cared. I cared a lot. And so did Fabiana. She watched me as coolly as I watched her. Fabiana sat near us, but she wasn’t part of our group. We’re not supposed to have cliques at St. Joan’s, but honestly, good luck with keeping teenage girls from forming cliques. It’s not like we all had matching satin bomber jackets with our cutesy nicknames on the back. But Deena, Emma, and I were a clique, and the fourth member was Anjali. So Anjali was there already, too, and she’d been talking the whole time, pausing just long enough to give me a wave hello. I could tell we were all alive and breathing because Anjali was talking about Yale. It was the surest way to start a morning off right. “Like in that movie, where he’s, like, a crew guy?” 5

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“The Skulls?” someone asked. “They are totally not like that at all, though I’ve heard that the inside is actually really that nice. It’s all crazy old, with portraits and everything. I heard that George Bush’s family gave them like a million dollars to redo the parlor after he trashed it at some party back in the sixties.” I wasn’t sure whom Anjali was talking to. Emma? I glanced at her. Maybe, on a technicality, but Emma was only half listening. Deena was too involved to care, and anyway this was all old territory. “Secret societies, you know,” Emma explained in a whisper. So she had been listening. Emma misses nothing. “I mean, they don’t, like, give everybody cars like that. That’s totally not true,” Anjali continued, not seeming to care if anyone was listening or not. Sometimes I felt a little sorry for Anjali. She had come to St. Joan’s the previous year because her mom got a job at Mass General. They lived a bunch of places before that—Houston, Chicago, I forget where else. Her mom is a big deal medical researcher, and her dad’s a lawyer, the kind who wears a gigantic watch and leaves papers all over the dining table so no one can ever eat there. They are really, really intense. Anjali fell in with us right away, because she’s completely fun and hilarious and smart, but I’ve seen her in tears over an A-minus— on a physics problem set, thanks very much, not even a final. “They give you cars?” Fabiana butted in. “God,” Anjali said, rolling her eyes. “No. I just said they didn’t.” I shared a look with Emma, and Emma smiled out of the side of her mouth. “It’s just for networking, you know? That’s basically the whole point. Did you know that if you get into Skull and Bones, you’re basically automatically in the CIA?” “Since when do you want to be in the CIA?” I asked her. “I thought you were going pre-med.”

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“I am,” Anjali said. “I’m just saying.” “She could be a doctor for the CIA,” Emma reasoned, and Deena laughed. “She could reprogram enemy agents,” Deena said, grinning. “Then send them back behind the lines where they’ll be like a sleeper cell ready to activate when they hear the secret password.” “And the secret word would be?” Emma asked. “Jason,” I said, sending Emma and Deena into fits of giggles. “You guys, shut up!” Anjali said, turning around and hitting my arm. “You are so gross.” She was pretending to be upset, but she was smiling. Being the only one of us with a boyfriend came with the assumption that it was her privilege to let us tease her. “Jason is so gross,” I clarified as Deena said, “Mmm-hmm,” and shot Anjali her We keep telling you look. That look is deadly. The bell rang just as Father Molloy strode in, clapping his hands and saying, “All right, girls, let’s take it down a notch.” Father Molloy is the kind of priest that my mother likes to call “Father Oh Well.” That’s such a Rowley family Irish name joke. Pathetic. Anyway, she says that because she thinks he’s cute, and I guess he sort of is except for he’s really old, like, forty. He perched with one knee up on the edge of the desk and frowned at the roll sheet. I don’t even know why he was bothering, since I don’t think we had any new girls this late in the year. We’d already had him for eighth-grade catechism anyway, most of us. While he was distracted, Anjali pulled her phone out of her sweater pocket and slid it under the lid of her desk. There’s a pretty intense “no cell phones in class” policy at St. Joan’s, and Anjali is a prime offender. She can text without looking, which she swears is easy, though I’ve never been able to do it. They had taken at least two phones away from her in the previous semester that I know of, and when they take your phone away, they actually keep it. What I

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couldn’t believe was that Anjali’s parents kept buying her new ones. My mother told me that if they ever took my phone away, I’d be buying the next one myself. Which is fine, except I don’t have three hundred dollars just kicking around. I now texted during class only in the event of a dire emergency. Anjali, though, she’s ridiculous. I peered over her shoulder to see what she was writing. “You shouldn’t text him back right away like that,” I whispered. “What?” Anjali whispered back. Father Molloy had started down the roll sheet for attendance, and girls were responding when he called their names. “Emma Blackburn?” “Here,” Emma said. “Jennifer Crawford?” “Here,” said the girl with pink-streaked hair and heavy eyeliner sitting in the back of the room. I leaned in closer so Anjali could hear me. “You should at least wait five minutes. Or, heck, wait ’til fifth period. Then he’ll appreciate it.” Deena had her eyes fixed straight ahead, but I could tell she was listening. “What for? I like him. If I text back quickly, I hear from him sooner,” Anjali said out of the side of her mouth. “But, Anj,” I said, leaning forward on my elbows hard enough to tip the desk. “You’ve got to—” “Critical commentary, Miss Rowley?” Crap. “No, Father Molloy.” He dropped the roll sheet on the desk and folded his arms. I’d seen him give other girls that look before, but I didn’t think he’d ever given it to me. “I’m sorry, but I think only half the room caught what you were saying,” he said. “Would you mind repeating it?” “I’m sorry? I wasn’t saying anything.”

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“Fair enough. Perhaps Miss Seaver in speech and debate didn’t cover projection. Stand up, if you will.” Double crap. “Chop chop,” said Father Molloy. I stood up, a whole roomful of girls whispering a decibel above silence, rows of wide-blinking eyes staring at me with pity and, in a few faces, delight. So far this year I was perfect: attendance, lateness, everything going seamlessly. I had two early decision deferrals to think about, and another dozen applications had gone out last week. Plus the thing with Fabiana. I needed to get out of this without it going down in writing. I tried to smile around the room, but the effort made my cheeks hurt. The priest cast an appraising eye up and down me, with a flicker of mirth in his eyes that let me know we were both in on the joke. “Perv,” I thought I heard Deena mutter. “Miss Rowley. As this is your senior year, and you’ve been a student at St. Joan’s since the Bush administration, I feel certain you are aware of the dress code?” I cleared my throat. “The dress code?” I echoed. “Next year you’ll be at whatever university will be fortunate enough to have you, and you will be free to wear as few scraps of handkerchief as you see fit. But at St. Joan’s, we still stubbornly insist that our students wear actual clothing. That skirt is—six inches, I believe? Seven?—above the knee. Roll it down, please.” Eight, actually. Okay, maybe more like nine. I reached to my waistband and tugged to bring it back down to regulation length. All around me, girls with rolled waistbands shifted in their seats, some pulling down the ends of their cardigans to cover the evidence. I didn’t see why he’d want to call me out on some BS skirt-rolling. Everybody does it. They start doing it in middle school. “Thank you. Now then,” he said. “Would you mind repeating your comment to Miss Gupta just now? The suspense is killing us.”

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Anjali squeaked and pressed her lips together, since I’m sure she was afraid I’d rat her out about the phone. I opened my mouth to speak, not really clear about what was going to come out, when the door to advisory clicked open and I was momentarily spared while we all dropped everything to watch Clara Rutherford come into class. The first thing to know about Clara is that I like her. I really do. And she likes me too. We’re not not friends or anything like that. That was the crazy thing about Clara—pretty much everybody liked her. She was so nice that I kind of wished I could hate her, if for no other reason than that she was definitely nicer than me. But as much as I may have wanted to, I couldn’t quite hate her. I don’t think I’d ever seen her get mad or lose her temper at anyone. She wasn’t friendly, exactly. There were plenty of girls at St. Joan’s who thought that being friendly to everyone, even people they hated, would make them popular. Instead they just came off as insincere, and fewer people wound up liking them than if they’d just acted normal. That wasn’t Clara’s style. Instead she had this air about her, as though there was always a red velvet carpet rolling out under her feet. She did okay in classes, but not so well that anyone would resent her, or feel like she was so much smarter than them that it was annoying. She played field hockey well enough that everyone wanted to have her on their team, but not so well that anyone would find a reason to high-stick her in the face. She even managed to look cute in the field hockey skirts, which really killed me, because I had a serious complex about my knees. Her hair was just the right length, with just the right amount of wave, and with a reddish-nut hue that glowed. Clara didn’t even have to straighten her hair, which I could admit envying about her. Mine springs straight out in dark corkscrews all over my head, so that half my childhood was spent with my mother ripping a hairbrush through thick snarls, saying I looked like the teenage bride of Frankenstein. It wasn’t until last year that I finally figured out the stuff to use to get them to fall in spirals.

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It was like Clara Rutherford belonged to some other species, one that didn’t sweat or smell or have anything go seriously wrong in its life. Her family, as far as I knew, was wealthy, and happy, and healthy, with a chocolate-haired mother who manned booths at school fund-raisers and a squash-playing father who actually came to some of her field hockey games. She had a brother who was in Emma’s brother’s class, as unblemished and likeable as she was, who played lacrosse and did student council and threw one memorable party after graduation where there may have been some drinking, but no one got in any serious trouble, and everyone just had a good time. Clara had it all figured out. Of course, not everybody liked Clara. When a girl’s on a pedestal, there’s nothing some people would like better than to shove her off it, just to know what kind of noise she’d make when she shattered. Emma’s face didn’t change when Clara came in. Instead her gray eyes seemed to glimmer, like light on the inside of an oyster shell. But I saw Deena’s smile slip. I thought she was a little jealous of Clara, which I didn’t understand, because Deena was so funny and talented and it’s not like she wasn’t popular too. But she had heard that Clara was also applying to Tufts, and now Deena was paranoid that Clara would take her spot. Most of the colleges we were all looking at had quotas for the kids they’d take from the top private schools. It was going to be a tense three months in advisory if both of them were waiting to hear from Tufts. And then there was Jennifer Crawford, with the pink hair. When Clara walked in, Jennifer’s lip curled like she was looking at a roadkill fox. Disgust and loathing. Jennifer had issues. So Clara walked in, and it was like we all paused for a moment of silence to appreciate that she’d decided to join us. Our eyes tracked Clara as she moved to her seat, followed closely by her two Clara-clones. All three of them were wearing low ponytails

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tied with thin black ribbon. I could feel us all register this information, could almost hear the click of the data being recorded in every girl’s head, and wondered how many low-ribboned ponytails we’d see at assembly after lunch. A lot, I was guessing. “Miss Rowley?” I jumped, shaken out of staring at Clara Rutherford, who had settled in the seat at the front of the room nearest the window. “Your comments to Miss Gupta. We’re on the edge of our seats.” I glanced down at Anjali, who was sliding her phone up the inside sleeve of her sweater where it would be safe. “I’m sorry, Father Molloy,” I said, looking straight ahead. “But I wasn’t saying anything. I just dropped my pen, and leaned over to pick it up. It probably looked like I was talking.” The priest rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed. We both knew I was full of it. I almost respected him more for knowing how full of it I was. “Have it your way,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. I dropped into my seat, hunching my shoulders to make myself smaller behind Anjali. I just needed a break from being looked at for one second. “Okay. I’m afraid we’ve got some stuff to discuss today, so listen up,” Father Molloy said. Groans of annoyance rumbled through the classroom, and Deena and I shared an irritated look. Her hand twitched on her physics textbook, and my own hands were itching to double-check my calc problem set. Usually advisory was the prime time for cramming for tests or finishing up work from the previous night. I was pretty sure of my work, but I couldn’t recheck it too many times. Anyway, there was never any actual advising that took place in advisory. “I’m sure a lot of you have questions and concerns,” he began. “And we’re going to do everything that we can to address them. But the important thing at this juncture is for me to emphasize that the

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school cares about you all. At this time there is no reason for any of you to be worried. No reason whatsoever.” “What is he talking about?” Deena whispered in my ear. “Hell if I know,” I said. I brought a pencil up and held it between my upper lip and my nose, and spaced out a little. Deena inspected her fingernails. Anjali had edged her phone into her palm and was texting again while pretending to absorb every word Father Molloy was saying. “St. Joan’s prides itself on being a place where the students come first,” he droned on. “We know it’s unnerving, and so I want to encourage anyone who wants to speak to a teacher in private not to hesitate. You can come talk to me, or if you’d feel more comfortable, maybe with a woman, for instance, we can connect you with someone.” The class was starting to get fidgety, but he wasn’t ready to let us off the hook yet. “Are there any questions?” Father Molloy said, folding his arms over his chest and looking at us. I inclined my head over to Emma, about to ask if she had any idea what he meant, but she didn’t seem to be listening. She was staring at the front corner of the room, her cheeks flushed a splotchy pink, and gripping her pen so hard, her knuckles were turning white. My gaze swiveled, following Emma’s stare over the heads of my classmates to the hallowed corner where Clara Rutherford sat, her desk practically bearing a little reserved card written in calligraphy. And that was the first time that I saw Clara Rutherford twitch.

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witch is not the right word. It’s the word the media would start to use when things really got going, when they needed a word that wasn’t too sensational, because everyone was afraid that sensationalizing what was happening would just make it worse. But twitch does not even begin to describe what happened to Clara Rutherford that morning. Her face seized up, as though an invisible person standing next to her had hooked his fingers in her mouth, trying to peel the skin from her skull. Her hands clenched closed, flew up to her chest, and vibrated under her chin. By the time Father Molloy got to her, her legs had started shaking so violently that she rattled off her chair and fell to the floor, flopping and gasping like a fish. “Colleen, get the nurse,” Father Molloy commanded, sounding surprisingly calm. Half the classroom was standing up, staring down at Clara. We couldn’t believe it was happening. We wouldn’t have been able to believe it anyway, but it was somehow even more wrong that it was

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happening to Clara. Her feet kicked like someone getting electroshock. Seeing her perfection split apart like that made us panicky. “Now, Colleen!” the priest said, raising his voice. He knelt beside her, cradling her head, with his thumb in her mouth to keep her tongue depressed. The last thing I saw before I fled for the door was Clara’s front teeth biting down on Father Molloy’s thumb. She was making horrible gagging, gurgling sounds, as though she were drowning. I sprinted down the upper school hallway, my footfalls echoing on the flagstones, running past the vacant student center, skidding on the rug outside the upper school dean’s office, ignoring the administrative assistant who stood up and hollered, “Walk, Colleen!” I rounded the corner from the upper school hallway to the old wing, my shadow stretching long down the hall, so distorted I felt like I was falling into it. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat as I ran down the corridor that used to house the convent bedrooms, all of them so long locked that the doors were rusted shut. At the very end of the hallway one door stood open, with warm light spilling out. I landed at the nurse’s office, panting for breath on the doorjamb. Inside, half behind a white partition, the nurse was pulling a thermometer out of the mouth of a green-faced eighth grader. The school nurse would be famous within the week, but on this Wednesday I have to confess that I didn’t remember her name. She was new, and young—so young, I found it weird to address her with a title. She looked like she could be in my class. When she saw me, she stood up immediately and said, “What’s the matter?” “You’ve got to come! Room 709. Hurry!” By the time we burst back into the classroom, Clara was sitting up, her hair disheveled, breathing heavily and looking around with wide, baffled eyes. Father Molloy stood up when he saw us and pulled the nurse aside. They conferred for an urgent minute by the door while I

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crouched next to Clara. She looked up at me, her eyes shining with confusion. She moved her mouth, but nothing came out. “Don’t worry,” I said, touching her arm. “I brought the nurse. You’re going to be okay.” She nodded, wrapping her arms around herself. “Colleen,” the nurse said, placing her hand on my back. “Will you return to your desk, please?” I hesitated. “Girls, I know you’re all worried, but we need to give her some air. Back to your desks, please,” the nurse insisted. I felt someone helping me to my feet and back to my desk. Slowly I lowered into my seat, still watching Clara. She was looking around on the floor, as if she were afraid she’d dropped something but didn’t know what. “That was crazy!” Anjali whispered. “Oh my God, do you think she’s going to be okay?” Deena said. None of us could even pretend we weren’t staring. The nurse leaned over Clara, shining a penlight into each of her eyes, taking her pulse, listening to her heart. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” Emma said with a wave of her hand. “Does she have epilepsy or something?” I asked. “Does this, like, happen all the time, do you think?” I couldn’t imagine Clara having something seriously wrong with her. We’d all have known about it if she did. St. Joan’s was a small school. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. We knew who was diabetic, and whose mom drank too much. We knew who had a gluten allergy, and who just said she did to hide her eating disorder. We knew who cut. We knew about everyone’s tattoos, and we thought they should probably have gone into Boston to get them instead, ’cause the lines were already blurry. We knew within the week when one of us lost her virginity. Sometimes we knew within the hour. “I don’t think so,” Anjali said.

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“Maybe epilepsy doesn’t come on until you’re finished growing,” Deena theorized. “What if it’s like schizophrenia or something, like one of those things that happen for the first time when you’re an adult?” “You think she has schizophrenia?” I asked. I tried not to sound horrified, but I failed. “No,” Anjali said slowly. “That’s not what schizophrenia looks like.” “Whatever,” Emma said. Her nails drummed once, twice, three times on the top of her desk. Father Molloy hovered at the front of the classroom, with an expression on his face that I couldn’t read. When the nurse beckoned to him, he seemed to be shaking a thought off before he could concentrate on what she was saying. Laurel Hocking, that was the nurse’s name. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten, especially considering what happened later. Clara’s two minions, Elizabeth and the Other Jennifer, which is what everyone called her to distinguish her from Jennifer Crawford, were huddled together at their desks behind Clara. They obviously had no idea what was going on. If Clara had seizures, they’d have known about it. Then again, maybe Clara was kind of aloof from her best friends, too. Elizabeth was pretty cool, she did field hockey and debate, but the Other Jennifer didn’t have much going on. She was not especially bright, and most people assumed she had gotten into St. Joan’s only because both her mother and her grandmother went there. I mean, she was nice and everything, and she was pretty, but she was just kind of blah. Maybe Clara just hung out with them because she could dictate the terms. Nurse Hocking was stroking Clara’s hair, and I heard her say, “We’ll just make you an appointment, to be sure.” “It’s definitely not schizophrenia,” Anjali said, looking at her phone, which was still expertly concealed between her hand and the end of her sweater sleeve. “That’s a mental disorder, and has to do with how she perceives reality. It doesn’t cause seizures, just weird behavior.”

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“Huh,” Deena said. “I hope she’s going to be okay.” The bell rang, drowning out what Emma said, which I think was something like “Faker.” “What?” I said, looking at Emma. “Huh?” Emma answered. “What did you say just now?” “I didn’t say anything,” Emma said, gathering her books. She wasn’t looking at me. “Okay, girls,” Father Molloy interrupted, addressing the whole room of migrating students. “I want you all to remember what we talked about. And if any of you need to speak with me privately, I’ll be in office hours after lunch. You’re always welcome to drop by. Mary, Queen of Knowledge, be with you all.” “But we didn’t talk about anything,” Deena muttered. I hesitated when we reached the door, looking over my shoulder. Clara was still sitting on the floor, her legs splayed out like a kid. The nurse bent over her, offering a sip of water. Elizabeth and the Other Jennifer huddled nearby, as if they hadn’t even heard the bell. Father Molloy stood with his arms folded over his chest, frowning. “Come on,” Emma said, plucking at my sleeve. “Or we’ll be late.” “Yeah,” I said, allowing Emma to pull me away. As the door to advisory closed, I caught Clara’s eye. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone look so afraid.

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Una LaMarche

An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)

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A division of Penguin Young Readers Group Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) LLC 345 Hudson Street New York, New York 10014

USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia / New Zealand / India / South Africa / China Penguin.com A Penguin Random House Company Copyright Š 2014 Penguin Group (USA), LLC Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. ISBN: 978-1-59514-674-8 Printed in the United States of America 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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For Jeff.

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Chapter 1 Devorah August 28, 5 pm

T

here’s a story my mother tells about the night my grandmother got lifted up by the wind. After the first time I heard it, when

I was about four, I would demand it constantly, sometimes every night. And so my mother would crouch beside my bed and tell it over and over: How the sky darkened over the beach house where she was honeymooning with her new husband, my zeidy. How the winds blew so hard that their clothes flew off the line, the freshly laundered shirts swirling in the air like a flight of doves. How my grandmother, Deborah, ran down the wooden steps to the beach to collect them, and how, moments later, my zeidy saw her rise up, her skirt billowing under her like a parachute, and float ten feet before falling into a heap in the dunes. According to the story she ran back up to the house laughing and told him that she had finally learned how to fly.

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Una LaMarche Storms like this always make me think of her. From my white-knuckled perch on this sticky gray hospital wait-

ing room seat, I can see rain hitting the window in violent sheets, as if someone has turned on a fire hose and then left it to whip and twist on the sidewalk like an angry snake. It’s another hurricane, and a bad one—the kind that sends people to the supermarket in a frenzy to buy up all the batteries and bottled water, or out of the city completely, piling into cars to escape in bumper-to-bumper traffic to the musty futons of their luckier, inland relatives. Just this morning my oldest brother, Isaac the Know-it-all (not his given name, but might as well be), informed us that the mayor had begun to issue evacuation orders in the zones closest to the rivers, that the bridges and tunnels are already shutting down, and that the subways will stop running tonight. In fact, there’s a television about ten feet from me, bolted into the wall above the sparse rack of coffee-stained magazines, that’s proving Isaac right. It’s tuned to a barely audible static, but I can still hear news anchors rattling off updates and lists of precautions in their calming, accentless voices. I desperately want to know what’s happening, to see it for myself from some other angle than this suffocating, antiseptic room I’m trapped in, but I can’t—I won’t—bring myself to look up at the screen. To break the rules now would surely bring bad luck, which I can’t afford on a day that has already brought so much. About an hour ago they turned off the air conditioning in the waiting rooms, to preserve power for the patients, and without the drone of the fans I can hear every tiny sound as if it’s coming through a loudspeaker. Across from me, on an identical bank of scratched plastic chairs, two preteen girls in tank tops and jean shorts are tapping furiously on phones despite the sign hanging above their heads

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that expressly forbids it. Their bare legs squeak sweatily against the seats as they shift, pulling their brown knees up to their chests and revealing rows of bright toenails in flip-flops worn down so much they look as thin as film in some places. They have a short, muscular maybe-much-older-brother-maybe-very-young-father who has been intermittently wandering back to check on them, wiping sweat from his furrowed brow and assuring them that someone named Crystal is “killing it,” but otherwise their eyes stay trained on their tiny screens, and I wonder idly if they even notice I’m there. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, I think—Zeidy’s favorite admonishment when he catches one of us daydreaming, delivered with a wink and a tug on the earlobe—and feel an uncontrollable giggle rising in my throat. I curl my fingers more tightly around my chair and look past the girls, back to my window, which is now being reinforced with fat Xs of thick red duct tape by a janitor in a mud-colored jumpsuit. He finishes just as a tremendous gust of wind claps against the side of the building, sending the lights flickering and the nurses rushing every which way to check on the medical equipment, and for a minute I can’t breathe. Finally, my lungs release and the sharp, hot air comes rushing in and I squeeze my eyes shut and start reciting chapter 20 of Psalms, the prayer for times of trouble, as fast as I can. From the sudden break in button-pushing I can tell that the cell phone girls are looking at me, but for now I don’t care. Only one thing matters tonight, and that is to keep Rose and the baby safe. My sister wasn’t due until October, but her water broke this morning—seven weeks early on the last Thursday of a recordbreakingly hot August—as I was helping her inventory plastic utensils at our family’s paper goods store, which is my penance from June through September for not having anywhere better to be, like

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school or camp or a Birthright Israel tour. Maybe the baby was just trying to cure the mind-numbing boredom of counting variety packs of forks, but he-or-she gave us a terrible scare. Rose screamed and turned white, I fell and knocked over two cases of bar mitzvah– themed cake plates, and my hands were shaking so badly I had to get Daniel, who works at the bakery next door, to call first a taxi and then Rose’s husband, Jacob. And as if it wasn’t dramatic enough that Rose went into spontaneous labor two months too soon, this mis­ fortune also happened to fall on the one day that both of our parents were upstate in Monsey visiting my aunt Varda, who recently had a bunionectomy but doesn’t have anyone to take care of her since her husband died last year (they don’t have any kids, but we don’t talk about that; my mother, who bore seven children by the age of thirty-two and would have happily had more if she hadn’t suffered a prolapse after my youngest sister, Miri, refers to infertility as her sister’s “curse”). My mother is understandably beside herself with worry, but there’s no getting into the city tonight since the bridges and tunnels are shutting down, and so, as the next eldest daughter, I am the one who has to hold court at the hospital, making sure my sister is well taken care of. Well, me and Jacob. But he’s not much help, unsurprisingly. As if on cue, my brother-in-law comes stomping around the corner, returning from the cafeteria clutching a paper cup of coffee. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s too flustered to remember that I asked him to get me a ginger ale. His pale skin is flushed and damp, sweat is literally dripping from the borderline where his fedora meets his forehead, and his reddish-brown beard, which perfectly matches his dark, thickly lashed doe eyes, is curling from the heat. Jacob is sort of cute—when they were first introduced, Rose

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breathlessly announced to me and our sisters that he looked just like someone named Josh Groban—but right now he looks small and tired, shriveled inside his heavy suit. I want to tell him to take off his hat and jacket, to go splash some water on his face, but I know better. Jacob was raised in an extremely strict Hasidic family and prides himself on his piety. Compared to him, even I can’t measure up. And I get straight As, always dress properly, never break curfew, and am so unfailingly obedient that my best friend, Shoshana, likes to joke that I should change my initials from DFB—Devorah Frayda Blum—to FFB, short for “frum from birth,” which is basically the Yiddish equivalent of “hopeless goody two-shoes.” My parents, of course, are thrilled with the virtuous daughter they’ve raised, but as their expectations rise, mine lower. Because the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. And as it rages outside I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the eye of the storm. “Devorah!” Jacob groans, in the sour tone he always uses when he says my name. “What are you still doing out here? Why aren’t you in the room with her?” Then he flops into a chair two seats away from mine. “Stay inside,” the news crackles. “Watch for signs of disturbance.” I’ve been disturbed by Jacob ever since I met him. And I don’t mean that he’s evil or sick or anything, because he’s not—he’s not interesting enough to be either of those things. It’s just that he’s so . . . morally superior. He’s a member of the Shomrim, which is only a volunteer neighborhood-watch group that’ll pretty much take anyone, but to hear Jacob talk about it you would think he was a police lieutenant. He talks down to everyone except my father, and even though they’re married he treats Rose with only marginally

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less disgust than he reserves for me. Ever since they were matched up by the shadchan last year, my sister has been a different person. Growing up, she had a wild side. She was the one who stored fashion magazines in her school notebooks and used Scotch Tape to imperceptibly raise her hemline when our neighbors’ cute son came over for Shabbos dinner. She’s always been the family peacemaker—and in a family of ten, counting Zeidy, voices are raised, oh, about every five seconds—but she was never meek until she met Jacob. Now sometimes I sit and watch them, him with his stern looks, her with her head bowed reverently, and wish I could speak up for her. Tonight I guess I am her voice, in a way, but the awful circumstances rob the role of any satisfaction. “She’s sleeping,” I say finally, trying to keep my voice even. “She needs to rest. When she wakes up they’re going to give her Pitocin if she hasn’t dilated.” Jacob bristles; I know he is against the use of any drugs, but since Rose’s delivery is premature it’s out of his hands. So far he has been nothing but cold to the doctor, a tall redheaded woman with kind, crinkly brown eyes behind bright turquoise-framed glasses (which Jacob says brands her “a hippie idiot” but which I think are pretty) and the incredibly goyim last name of MacManus. In keeping with the luck of the day, Rose’s midwife, not expecting any complications like this, is on vacation in Seattle until next week. “The baby is stable so far,” I assure him. “But the doctor says they need to get him out by midnight.” Part of me can’t help but feel angry at Jacob for not knowing this already—if it were my husband, I would want him by my side the whole time, holding my hand. Of course I know it’s not allowed; since Rose started bleeding after her water broke, she’s now subject to the laws of yoledet,

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which means that Jacob can’t be with her for the birth. But still, he could act like he cares at least a little. “Him? It’s a boy?” Jacob breaks into a wide grin, looking for a split second like the nineteen-year-old rabbinical student he is, and not the cranky old man he seems hell-bent on becoming. “Oh, no . . .” I stare down at my shoes, studying the flares of fluorescent light reflected in the shiny black leather. “I’m sorry. I just chose a pronoun at random. We don’t know yet.” Jacob’s smile disappears, and he takes a gulp of coffee. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he snaps. I hope for the baby’s sake that he is a boy. I can’t imagine having to grow up with Jacob for a father. He’d probably make me wear skirts down to my ankles, or maybe a bag over my head. This time I can’t suppress the giggle, and he glares at me. “I’m sorry,” I say again once I’ve recovered. “But I’m scared, too.” For a second Jacob’s eyes soften, and I allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, this could turn into some kind of bonding moment for us (something that, despite my dislike of him, I’ve prayed for many times). I know that the laws of yichud mean that we wouldn’t even be allowed to sit together talking if the cell phone girls and the janitor and the doctors and nurses weren’t around to keep watch. But being the only witnesses to Rose’s premature labor, on the night of a crazy storm, might just be the kind of seismic event that could bring two very different people together . . . right? I look up at my brother-in-law hopefully, practicing my very best compassionate smile, when his face darkens and he makes a short, sharp clucking sound with his tongue.

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Una LaMarche “I’m not scared, I’m tired,” he mutters, and pulls his hat down

over his eyes. So much for that. Jacob is snoring softly by the time the night nurse comes over to tell me that Rose is awake and asking for me. I get up and feel the sweat pooling under my tights, running down the backs of my knees. Just a few minutes ago the cell phone girls left, their bare thighs unsticking from the plastic seats with a series of satisfying thwacking noises. What I wouldn’t give to feel the air against my bare skin right now. What I wouldn’t give to make those thwacks. But for me, that’s as silly a fantasy as planning a vacation to the moon, so I banish the thought from my head as I peek into Rose’s room, stomping my feet a little to get the blood moving in my legs again. My skirt—a lightweight summer wool that actually seemed pretty stylish when we bought it at Macy’s in May, before my mother made the tailor on Troy Avenue let it out by three inches until it billowed around me like a Hefty bag—feels like it weighs ten pounds, and even though I know it’s horrible, I feel a little bit jealous when I see Rose reclining in her paper hospital gown, the long, thick hair of her dark brunette wig arranged prettily on the pillow, chewing on an ice cube. I wonder if she would let me have one to stick in my blouse. “How are you?” I ask, squeezing her free hand. It’s cool and bloodless, although the monitor assures me that her pulse is seventyone beats per minute. Rose smiles weakly and rubs her belly, which rises like a boulder under the thin white sheet. It’s not at all uncommon for Lubavitch girls to be married and have babies at eighteen, but now that it’s my own sister it feels much too soon. That will be me in two years, and I know there’s no way I’ll be ready for any of that, no matter how many times my mother likes to tell me that I’d be surprised how quickly the heart can change. Rose and Jacob

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met just twice before they got engaged. Their wedding was eleven months ago. First comes marriage, then comes love goes the schoolyard nursery rhyme in my neighborhood. “I’m okay,” Rose says. “But hungry.” She leans forward conspiratorially. “Want to sneak me some M&M’s from the vending machine?” I know she’s kidding; she’s not allowed to eat, and even if she were, our father doesn’t consider M&M’s acceptably kosher. I’m glad that my sister is letting a bit of her old self shine through— I’m sure she never lets her husband see her eyebrows raised like this, or the flash of delighted mischief winking in her cheeks like dimples—but she knows that when it comes to contraband, I am the wrong person to ask for help. My allergy to rule-breaking is a running joke, so much so that my younger brother Amos likes to pester me with hypothetical questions every Saturday: “Devorah, what if you won a billion dollars and you had to claim it today, but you could only get it if you used the blender?” “Shhh,” I say. “Don’t let Jacob hear you!” I wanted to make her laugh, but instead Rose’s face tenses, and her chin quivers. “He already thinks it’s my fault,” she says. “What?!” I shut the door, just in case, and crouch beside her. “Why? That’s crazy.” “Last week I was shopping for elastic to sew to the waists of my skirts,” she explains, her clear gray eyes narrowing with worry. “And I saw the most beautiful pale pink cashmere yarn. I thought maybe, if the baby was a girl, I could make her a sweater, so I bought a skein. It was expensive, but I just had to have it. I don’t know what came over me, Dev, it was like a spell.” “Or hormones,” I say gently, trying to lighten the mood. Rose just looks away.

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Una LaMarche “I couldn’t wait to show Jacob,” she continues, “even though I

knew he would call it extravagant. But as soon as he saw it he told me I was tempting the evil eye buying anything for the baby.” Her hands flutter to her face, and she bursts into tears. On the monitor, her pulse ticks up to eighty-five beats per minute. “No,” I say softly, trying to quiet the pious, nagging voice inside my head that shares Jacob’s superstition. I take my sister’s face in my hands and force her to meet my eyes, trying to mimic our mother’s go-to gesture when she wants to both soothe us and snap us out of whatever we’re complaining about. “You didn’t actually knit the sweater, did you?” Rose shakes her head, biting her lip like a child. “See?” I wipe her tears away with my thumbs. “That yarn could be for anything. A scarf, a bath towel. A new prayer shawl for Jacob.” Now she is smiling through the tears. “Besides, the Talmud says the evil eye can affect you only if you worry about it. It’s like an animal. It can smell fear.” I say this breezily, as if I never worry about the evil eye, when both of us know better. There’s an awkward silence, punctuated by the blips and beeps of the fetal monitor. “What’s it like outside?” Rose finally asks, rubbing the gooseflesh on her arms. I can tell she feels embarrassed having so much skin exposed, but at the hospital, regardless of their beliefs, people are just bodies—bodies that the doctors need quick and easy access to. I want to ask her what it feels like to be seen like that, but I know now’s not the time. After all, asking about the weather is pretty much the universal code for “Let’s please change the subject.” “It’s kind of . . . biblical,” I say with a laugh. Rose smirks, her lips straddling the line between amusement and admonition. “Don’t be silly, it’s not Sodom and Gomorrah,” she chides,

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adopting her big-sister voice again. “It’s just science. Two air masses converging over water.” Did I say Isaac was the know-it-all? Rose is, too. In fact, no Blum can resist correcting someone when they’re wrong. It’s like our family sport. “Well, I wish you could see it,” I say. “It looks like the world is about to end.” Just then, the lights flicker again, and Rose gasps, clutching her belly in pain and looking at me with wide eyes. “I can’t do this. I’m not ready!” she cries, breathing quickly through clenched teeth. I wish I could say something to convince her otherwise, but the truth is, I’m not ready for any of this either. I want my mom. I don’t want to be in this hospital in the middle of this hurricane; I just want to be home in my bed reading a book and eating crackers spread thickly with salted butter. I want Rose to still be glowing and pregnant and waiting for her due date, not sweaty and scared and about to deliver a baby destined for the incubator. I will the right words to come, but they don’t, so I just let my sister crush my hand as I watch the yellow lines of the monitor spike higher and higher, finally ebbing after thirty seconds. A minute later, they leap again, and Rose lets loose a guttural wail. I frantically slam the call button with my free palm. “I’m so sorry,” Dr. MacManus says with a sigh as she pushes through the door just as Rose relaxes, spent and shaking, onto the pillow. “The ER is understaffed, and it’s a madhouse. This weather makes people do crazy things. I just relocated the shoulder of a kid who tried to jump his skateboard across a fallen tree.” She pulls on a pair of plastic gloves and slides a chair to the foot of the bed. “Now, how are we doing? I see contractions have started.” I nod. “A minute apart, thirty seconds each so far.” “And they’re getting longer,” Rose moans.

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your body’s doing what it’s meant to do, and you won’t need to be induced.” She ducks under Rose’s gown for a few uncomfortable seconds and emerges with a beaming smile. “You’re eight centimeters dilated, my dear. The good news is, this baby is coming fast. The bad news is, you may have to name it Hurricane.” This joke is lost on Rose. What color there was left drains from her face as I press my lips together, my eyes tearing equally from joy, terror, and the hysterical possibility of being the aunt of someone named Hurricane Kleinman. “Can you call Mom and Dad?” Rose asks. I look to Dr. MacManus for permission, halfway hoping she won’t let me. When I called them from the nurses’ station a few hours ago, the woman manning the desk, who had highlighter-color hair and eyebrows plucked so thin they were almost invisible, seemed to take an instant dislike to me. “What are you, Amish?” she asked when it took me a minute to figure out how to dial without accidentally paging the whole Labor and Delivery floor. Then she crossed her arms and stood there listening to the entire conversation, signaling me to wrap it up after only ten seconds. Unfortunately, the doctor nods and sends me packing, although not without a prescription for my problem. “If Anne-Marie gives you any trouble, just bring her an Entenmann’s donut from the vending machine,” she calls over her shoulder as I reach the door. I walk carefully back to the waiting room, where I am relieved to find that the cell phone girls are back and are amusing themselves by taking surreptitious photos of Jacob, who’s splayed out like a starfish across two chairs with his jaw hanging open. I consider flashing them a thumbs-up but think better of it. I was raised

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to believe that G-d is always watching. . . . I just hope he can’t hear my thoughts, too. I round the corner to the vending machines, fishing in my pocket for the two crumpled dollar bills I know I have left over from the cab fare. I get the Entenmann’s donut, and then, on a whim, shove in another bill and push D7 for a package of M&M’s. My pulse races, and I glance both ways to make sure no one is looking as I scoop my forbidden treif from the shallow dispenser and hide them in my pocket, concealing the telltale bulge with one hand. I’ll try to sneak them to Rose later, after the baby comes. And if she balks, I can always say it was just an inside joke. The phone call with my parents goes surprisingly well, and not just because Anne-Marie did, indeed, accept my donut bribe in exchange for five uninterrupted minutes. I call my mother’s cell phone, and as we talk she repeats everything I say back to my father and, I guess, to my aunt Varda, who is a captive audience without the use of that one foot. This is the first Blum grandchild, and a preemie at that, so there are heightened anxieties and literally dozens of questions: Is Rose warm enough? Too warm? Why did they turn off the air conditioning in such a heat wave? What are the chances that the power will go out, and if I don’t know, why don’t I ask someone? Does the doctor know what she’s doing? What’s the baby’s heart rate? Is she saying the right psalms? Did we remember to bring the mezuzah? I answer as quickly and calmly as possible. “She’s having regular contractions, and she’s almost fully dilated, so there’s no time for drugs,” I report. “She’s having regular contractions, and she’s almost fully

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dilated, so no drugs,” my mother parrots. “That’s good.” I hear my father mutter something. “Tell Rose that mindfulness during birth is a gift from Hashem,” she tells me. “What else should I tell her? To . . . you know, get her through it?” There’s silence on the other end of the phone, and then the clinking of ice cubes. My mother, a teetotaler except for the odd sip of wine at religious ceremonies, must be on her fifth or sixth iced coffee (on a normal day, when the sky is not falling, she averages three). “Tell her she can do it,” she finally says, kindly but commandingly. Maybe because she’s raised seven kids, Mom is unflappable, the very antithesis of the nervous Jewish mother. “Tell her to pray. If she can’t pray, whisper them into her ear.” There are sounds of shifting and footsteps, and my mother lowers her voice to the dulcet whisper she used to use for lullabies. “Tell her I know that it hurts, but that she’s going to get her girl, and that every second of labor will be worth it.” Only after she hangs up do I realize that my mother had to leave the room to deliver this message. My father would never agree. In our culture, boys are the exalted ones, who become scholars and get to learn the secrets of the Torah. Boys are the unspoken preference. On my way back from the nurses’ station, I decide to wake Jacob so that he can daven—recite the liturgical prayers—during delivery. I like him better unconscious, but Rose and the baby need him awake. Two hours later, my sister is still pushing, amazingly with her wig still in place, although I’ve been surreptitiously lifting it at the seams to let some air in. Now there is a small, quiet army of other doctors

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and nurses waiting at the foot of the bed to examine the baby once it’s born. Dr. MacManus has assured us that Rose will be able to see and hopefully touch the baby, but then he or she will have to be taken to the neonatal intensive care unit right away. I can’t decide which of the new doctors I like less: the ones peering between Rose’s legs or the ones looking off into the middle distance like they would rather be doing Sudoku. “I can see your baby’s head, Rose,” Dr. MacManus says. Rose looks up at me, groggy from the pain and exertion. “It has a head,” she whispers, and I try not to laugh. “I think we can get this baby out in the next three pushes,” the doctor continues, “but I need your help. I need you to give me everything you’ve got. I need you to commit to this with everything that you are, okay?” Rose nods weakly. Everything that you are. I wonder if my sister knows everything that she is. I don’t think I do. About me, I mean. That seems like a huge secret to unlock, the type of thing that’s only revealed when you’re passing through to the afterlife. Or maybe when life is passing through you, like it is for Rose, right now. I wish Mom was here. She’s been through this. She would know exactly what to do. “ONE,” Dr. MacManus says as a powerful contraction climbs on the monitor and Rose screams, gritting her teeth and shutting her eyes and squeezing my fingers so hard I have to stifle my own yell. And I know that this is not the best moment for me to have a philosophical crisis, but I can’t get the doctor’s words out of my head. Everything that this child is starts right now. The country, the city, the neighborhood, the block, the house—every detail of where babies are born begins to set their path in life, begins to shape them into who they’ll be. A newborn doesn’t choose its family, its race, its

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religion, its gender, or even its name. So much is already decided. So much is already written. “TWO!” the doctor chants. The NICU team is putting their gloves on, ready to transfer my niece-or-nephew into what looks like a glass lasagna pan, where he-or-she will have suctioning and eyedrops and a breathing tube inserted and heart monitors applied to his-or-her perfect, brand-new tissue-paper skin. I know that these things are medically necessary given the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel sad that this is how our baby will enter the world: prodded by strangers, poked with instruments. Stay inside, baby, I think. Watch for signs of disturbance. Wait for this storm to pass. Of course, it’s too late for that. “THREE!” Dr. MacManus says, and before I know it there’s a rush of carnation pink and Rose lets out a noise like she’s been sucker punched, and a thin, reedy baby wail cuts through the robotic thrum of the machines. My eyes fill with tears; I am suddenly overcome—verklempt, Zeidy would say, although that’s an ugly word for what this is, this beautiful, open, grateful, terrified feeling, like every nerve ending has come to the surface of my skin and been lit like Fourth of July sparklers. I want to stand up and burst into applause—people do it for all kinds of lesser miracles: when a pilot lands a plane, when a preschooler bangs tunelessly on a piano; when sweaty men manage to throw a ball into a metal hoop, so why not now? Why not for this miracle? There is life in this room. A new life. And I saw it happen. “It’s a girl.” Dr. MacManus smiles, holding up the tiny, squalling thing, and just before she’s taken away I see that her miniature fists are balled at the sides of her face like a boxer. She’s a fighter, my niece. At least, I hope so. She’ll have to be.

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Chapter 2 Jaxon

August 28, 6:50 pm

I

’ve never been in an ER before, unless I count the ones on TV. It’s kind of crazy, me growing up sixteen years in Crown Heights

and never seeing the inside of a hospital. And not because of guns or gangs or anything, either—the neighborhood has become so gentrified that I’m more likely to get hit by an artisanal gluten-free scone than a bullet, let’s be real—but because the drivers speed down Bedford like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto, and the bikers are even worse. People have to jump out of the way if they want to live. There’s this one delivery dude from Good Taste Chinese (don’t believe the hype; the name’s a ploy) who I swear needs to be in one of those countless Fast & Furious movies, he’s that badass. But I haven’t been run over by the Good Taste driver—not yet, anyway. Tonight I’m strictly on Good Samaritan duty. My best

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friend, Ryan, almost broke his neck hopping a tree on his skateboard. It was to impress a girl, as most stupid stunts are. Her name is Polly. She and Ryan and me met in homeroom freshman year, in the H-I-Js (I’m Hunte, he’s Hendrick, she’s Jadhav). But then Polly—I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a perv, but she, um, grew. Sophomore year she got curvy and popular and started doing things like joining the step team and chairing dance committees, and we just kind of stopped seeing her. But it was over for me; I was smitten. I mean, a girl who can recite the periodic table of elements in order from memory and bhangra dance like her hips are spring-loaded? It’s the hot nerd jackpot. I just couldn’t manage to talk to her or do anything remotely cool in her presence. It doesn’t help that my only real hobby is kickboxing, which I do alone in my basement with a red punching bag and can’t show off unless I want to start a fistfight. Ryan, to his credit, is my boy and has tried to help me get Polly’s attention. But he’s the kind of guy who has a natural confidence even though he’s about the same height as my thirteen-year-old twin sisters. And I just . . . don’t. When it comes to girls, I choke. And when it comes to Polly? I completely crash and burn. Like today. School doesn’t start until next week, but today the rising juniors were supposed to go in to get their schedules and new ID photos taken. A lot of kids didn’t go because of the hurricane, but my mom’s hard line with anything school-related is that unless the building is literally locked or she’s in a coma, I’m going (and if the threatened coma ever happened, you can bet my dad would send me anyway). The Asian kids at Brooklyn Tech are under a lot of pressure from their families to do well, and it’s taken as a given, like “Oh yeah, Korean parents are crazy.” Well, West Indian parents don’t get

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stereotyped as much, but they’re just as intense. Maybe back on the island everyone’s dancing to Bobby McFerrin and smoking jays and getting shells braided into their hair like in some cruise brochure, but a first-generation kid in the U.S. cannot catch a break. Especially the oldest and only son. So I took an empty, dripping subway car to Nevins Street only to find that the photographer had canceled. I was one of about a hundred students who showed up. Ryan was there, too—his parents are hippies and probably wouldn’t care except he lives two blocks from school, which takes him thirty seconds on his skateboard—and lo and behold so was Polly, whose dad drove her all the way from Jackson Heights. (Mr. Jadhav seems scary like my mom when it comes to academics, but my grades are even better than Polly’s. I wonder how Indian parents feel about Caribbean boys asking their daughters out. . . .) Getting my schedule took about two seconds, and then Ryan and I went to claim new lockers on the third floor, the junior hallway. I chose 915, the farthest locker on the left in the annex by the computer lab, since I’m left-handed and I don’t need another incident like the time I accidentally gave Jenny Ye a black eye with my elbow, and Ryan took 913. He was so excited that his skateboard fit perfectly in his locker that he almost didn’t take it home, but then stupidly I reminded him that we wouldn’t be back until Tuesday, so he stuck it under his arm and we went downstairs, taking the north staircase to the DeKalb Avenue exit, which is where we ran into Polly, which is why we stopped, which is how we saw the tree. It’s crazy how one tiny decision can spin out and change the course of your whole day. Like right now, instead of setting the table and making sure that Edna and Ameerah aren’t copying off each other’s homework

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and Tricia’s not in some neighbor’s yard getting into trouble, and Joy hasn’t gotten into Dad’s cutlass collection to play pirates again, I’m sitting between a biker-looking dude with a bloody bandage that makes his entire right hand look like a red Q-tip, and a little boy with neon-green snot crusting his nose so bad that he has to breathe through his mouth. On second thought, maybe this is an improvement. “Okay,” yells a flustered-looking doctor with bright blue glasses, ducking out from under a curtained-off room and checking her clipboard. “Who’s here with Tony Hawkins?” I still can’t believe Ryan was stupid enough to give them his fake ID so there’d be no way the hospital could call his parents. It’s a good idea in theory (if you’re into risk-taking, which I’m not), but I know for a fact that Ryan has never once used that ID successfully, probably because in the photo he looks like he’s ten. Luckily the ER was so crowded when we got here that the nurses barely glanced at us. I stand up, not sure what to say. I finally settle on “Uh, me?” Yeah, I’m about as smooth as chunky peanut butter. “We relocated your friend’s shoulder,” the doctor tells me hurriedly after I wade through the crowd, trying not to step on anyone’s open wounds. “Good news is the joint was subluxed, so we were able to pop it back into place fairly easily. There isn’t any cartilage or nerve damage as far as I can tell, so he won’t need surgery.” She leads me over to the curtain and pulls it back to reveal Ryan with one arm in a sling, texting with his left hand. “What did I say, Evil Knievel?” she says, sighing. “No cell phones!” Ryan smiles sheepishly and drops it in his lap. “The bad news,” the doctor continues, “is that he cannot use his arm for at least seventy-two hours, and then he needs to see an orthopedist to get a rehabilitation assessment.”

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She looks at me pointedly. “I’m holding you responsible for that, because I don’t trust him as far as he can jump over a tree stump.” I wait until she leaves and then burst out laughing. “She burned you, man!” Ryan shrugs. “I could’ve made it if it wasn’t raining.” “Bullshit,” I say. “You’re lucky it was only this bad. And how are you planning to explain that sling to your parents, Tony?” “Easy,” he says with a smile. “I’m staying at your house tonight, which is what I already told them anyway.” I feel my jaw tense. I told my parents I was staying for dinner at Ryan’s house. I hate lying to them anyway, and now I’m going to have to do it again, make some excuse as to why we decided to travel two and a half miles through a dangerous hurricane to get home when they think I’m safe and sound in Fort Greene, eating Mrs. Hendrick’s quinoa salad and playing video games. The fluorescent lights above Ryan’s bed flicker, sending chills down my spine. “You’ll still have the sling on tomorrow,” I point out, hoping I can get him to change his mind. But Ryan shakes his head, beaming. He’s already got everything figured out, like always. “I’ll ditch the sling, say I fell off my board coming home on Eastern Parkway and felt something pop, and then I’ll go to the orthopedist next week per Dr. Ginger’s orders.” He grins and raises his good hand for a high five, while I fight the powerful urge to slap him in the face. “Whatever, man,” I grumble, turning away. In the next room, I can hear someone getting stitches, making little ah sounds every time the needle goes in. “What, you’re mad at me?” Ryan asks incredulously. “This was your idea.”

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everything literally?” If we were on Judge Judy or something, Ryan could probably get me on a technicality. I did say, “Why don’t you go jump that tree?” but only because he kept egging me to do it. In front of Polly. I try to mimic the way my dad stares me down when he’s disappointed in me, eyes half-lidded, nostrils flared. It scares me straight each and every time. “Don’t you remember me running after you, trying to stop you?” I ask. Ryan shrugs again. “I thought you were showing off.” “Yeah, running into traffic is my signature move when there’s a cute girl nearby,” I joke. “Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t mean to ruin your game.” “No game to ruin, my friend.” “But on the plus side, Mr. Jadhav hates you now, so you’ve got bad-boy cred.” I have to laugh; this is true. Polly’s dad happened to arrive at the curb to pick her up just as Ryan was making his swanlike descent onto the sidewalk, which was convenient as far as rides to the hospital go, but not so convenient in terms of my chances with his daughter. “Do you know these boys?” he kept asking Polly angrily on the drive over, as if we were two homeless crackheads she found on the street. I don’t think she looked up from her lap the whole time. It was brutal. “You’re right,” I say to Ryan. “I should be thanking you.” I reach out and bat his stupid cowlick off his forehead, the closest I can bring myself to a show of affection right now. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go call my mom and lie for you—again. Meet me outside in five minutes.” I push through the curtain, reaching into the pocket of my jeans

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for my cell, and am almost at the exit when I feel my stomach slosh and realize I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a bank of elevators and decide to hop down to the cafeteria for a muffin or something before facing my mother’s third degree. Like I said, it’s crazy how one tiny decision can spin out and change everything.

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Part 1: Ealing

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I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to

record history. We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future. But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit. This is my history. There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty. Just like it’s always been.

Kimber Drive Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.

Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back-and-forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper

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Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid. Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, and history does prove to us that wherever boys ride bicycles, paved roadways ribbon along afterward like intestinal tapeworms. So the mall went up—built like a row of happy lower teeth— grinned for a while, and then about a year ago some of the shops there began shutting down, blackening out like cavities when people left our town for other, better places. BMX riding was for middle-school kids. We still had our bikes, and I believe that there were times Robby and I thought about digging them out from the cobwebbed corners of our families’ garages. But now that we were in high school—or at least in high school classes, because we’d attended Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy since kindergarten—we rode skateboards, and also managed to sneak away in Robby’s old car. We were in tenth grade, and Robby could drive, which was very convenient for me and my girlfriend, Shann Collins. We could always depend on Robby. And I counted on the hope—the erotic plan I fantasized over—that one night he’d drive us out along the needle-straight roads cutting through the seas of cornfields surrounding Ealing, and Robby wouldn’t say anything at all as I climbed on top of Shann and had sex with her right there on the piles of Robby’s laundry that always seemed to lie scattered and unwashed in the dirty old Ford Explorer his dad left behind. ______

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Fixing Feet On the Friday that ended our painfully slow first week after spring

break, Robby and I took our boards and skated through the filthy back alley of Grasshopper Jungle. Nobody cared about skaters anymore. Well, at least nobody cared among the four remaining businesses that managed to stay open in the Ealing Mall after the McKeon plant closed down: The laundromat Robby never quite made it to, The Pancake House, and the liquor and thrift stores owned by Shann’s stepdad. So we could skate there, and did pretty much whatever we wanted to do. Judging from the empty beer cans, the mysterious floral sleeper sofa we were certain was infested with pubic lice, and the pungent smell of piss in the alley, it was clear everyone else in Ealing was similarly okay with the no-limits code of conduct in Grasshopper Jungle, too. And that proved to be an unfortunate fact for me and Robby on that Friday. We had built ramps from sagging flaps of plywood that we laid across a flight of concrete steps behind a vacant unit that used to be a foot doctor’s office. “Bad business plan,” Robby said. “What?” “Fixing people’s feet in a town everyone’s dying to run away from.” Robby was so smart it hurt my head to think about how sad he could be sometimes. “We should go into business,” I said. “Want to have a fag?”

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Robby liked calling cigarettes fags. “Okay.” There was no way we’d ever sit down on that couch. We upended blue plastic milk crates and sat with forearms resting across our knees while we propped our feet on our boards and rocked them back and forth like we floated over invisible and soothing waves. Robby was a better smoker. He could inhale thick, deep clouds of cigarette smoke and blow life-sized ghost models of both of us when he’d casually lean back and exhale. I liked cigarettes, but I’d never smoke if Robby didn’t. “What kind of business?” Robby said. “I don’t know. I could write stuff. Maybe comic books.” “And you could draw me.” Robby took a big drag from his cigarette. “I’d be like your spokesmodel or something.” I have to explain. I have that obsession with history, too. In one corner of my closet, stacked from the floor to the middle of my thigh, sits a pile of notebooks and composition binders filled with all the dumb shit I’ve ever done. My hope was that, one day, my dumb history would serve as the source for countless fictional accounts of, well, shit. And I drew, too. There were thousands of sketches of me, of Shann and Robby, in those books. I consider it my job to tell the truth. “What, exactly, does a spokesmodel do?” “We speak. And look good at the same time. It’s a tough job, so I’d expect to make decent money.” “Multitasking.” “The shit out of it, Porcupine.” Robby called me Porcupine because of how I wore my hair. I didn’t mind. Everyone else called me Austin.

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Austin Szerba. It is Polish. Sometimes, in wonder, I can marvel at the connections that spiderweb through time and place; how a dying bull in Tsarist Russia may have been responsible for the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa. It is the truth. When he was a young man, Andrzej Szczerba, who was my greatgreat-great-grandfather, was exiled from his home in a small farming village called Kowale. Andrzej Szczerba had been involved in a radical movement to resist the imposition of Russian language and culture on Poles. Andrzej, like many Polish boys, hoped that one day his country, which had been treated like a sausage between the dog jaws of selfish neighboring empires, would be able to stand on its own. It was a good idea, but it was not going to happen in Andrzej’s lifetime. So Andrzej was forced to leave Kowale—and travel to Siberia. He did not get very far. The train carrying the exiled Andrzej derailed when it struck a dying bull that had collapsed on the tracks. It was a terrible accident. Andrzej was left, presumed dead, abandoned in the middle of a snowy field. Andrzej Szczerba wore a silver medallion with an image of Saint Casimir, who was the patron saint of Poland, on a chain around his neck. He believed Saint Casimir had saved his life in the train wreck, and every day for the rest of his life, Andrzej would kiss the medal and say a prayer, thanking Saint Casimir. It was a fortunate thing for me that Andrzej Szczerba did not die in that snowy field. Wounded, he walked for two days until he came to the town of Hrodna, where he hid from the Russians and ultimately married a Polish girl named Aniela Masulka, who was my great-great-great-grandmother.

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Andrzej’s healthy Polish semen made four Catholic children with Aniela—two boys and two girls. Only one of them, his youngest son, Krzys, would ever end up near Ealing, Iowa. This is my history.

LOUIS ASKS A RHETORICAL QUESTION WE LEANED OUR backs against the cinder-block wall, smoking in the

cut of shade from a green rolling dumpster, and at just about the same time I talked Robby into taking his car to drive us over to Shann Collins’s new old house, I looked up and noticed the population of Grasshopper Jungle had increased uncomfortably. Four boys from Herbert Hoover High, the public school, had been watching us while they leaned against the galvanized steel railing along the edge of the stairway we had been using for a ramp. “Candy Cane faggots, getting ready to make out with each other in Piss Alley.” The Candy Cane thing—that was what Hoover Boys enjoyed calling boys from Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. Not just because it kind of rhymed. We had to wear ties to school. Whoever invented the uniform could have planned better to avoid the striped red-and-white design of them. Because when we’d wear our ties, white shirts, and blue sweaters with the little embroidered crosses inside bloodred hearts, you couldn’t help but think we looked like, well, patriotic, Christian-boy candy canes. But Robby and I weren’t big enough losers to still be wearing our uniforms while skating. Well, we weren’t so much skating as smoking cigarettes, actually.

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Robby wore a Hormel Spam T-shirt and baggy jeans with holes in them he sagged so low you could see half his citrus-motif boxers. They had oranges and lemons on them. Citrus does not grow in Iowa. I wore yellow-and-green basketball shorts and a black Orwells tee. So we didn’t look like candy cane boys. The Orwells are a punk band from Illinois. The other part—the faggot part—well, let’s just say Robby got picked on. A lot. I only knew one of the boys: Grant Wallace. It’s hard not to know pretty much every kid in a town the size of Ealing, even if you didn’t pay too much attention to people as a rule. However, I did know this: Grant and his friends were there for no other reason than to start crap. It was bound to be historic, too. And two 140-pound Candy Cane faggot sophomores with cigarettes and skateboards were not likely to stop anything four bored and corn-fed twelfth-graders from Hoover had in mind. Robby just sat back casually against the wall, puffing away on his cigarette. I couldn’t help but think he looked like a guy in one of those old black-and-white movies about firing squads and blindfolds and the Foreign Legion and shit like that. One of Grant’s friends, a pudgy guy with a face full of whiteheads and only one eyebrow, took his cell phone out from his pocket and began recording video of us. Consult history: Nothing good ever happens when cell phones are used to record video. And I guess that was as good as Grant’s directorial cue to begin.

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“Let me and Tyler borrow you guys’ skateboards for a few minutes. We’ll bring them back.” Tyler must have been the mule-faced kid on Grant’s right, because he nodded, all excited, an encouragement for us to be cooperative Candy Cane faggots. But Robby said no before the question was entirely out of Grant’s mouth. The truth is—and history will back me up on this, too—that when kids like Grant ask kids like me and Robby if they can borrow stuff like skateboards, the boards are either going to get stolen, or the kids like me and Robby are going to be beaten up and then the boards are going to get stolen. The way kids like me and Robby get beaten up first is when one of them says no. History class is over for today. We got beaten up by Grant Wallace, Tyler, and some other kid who smelled like he had barf on his sleeves, while the fourth kid filmed it with his cell phone. Oh, and extra credit in history: You should never wear loose mesh basketball shorts and boxer underwear if you’re going to get kneed in the balls. Just so you know for the future. I don’t even think either one of us made it all the way to his feet before the kicks and punches started. Robby got a bloody nose. Grant took our boards and chucked them up onto the roof of The Pancake House. Then the four Hoover Boys took our shoes off and threw them on the roof, too. And if the boards didn’t make such a racket when they landed, Grant and his friends would have taken Robby’s and my pants and sent them up to shoe-and-skateboard heaven, too. But the Chinese guy named Louis

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who worked in the kitchen of The Pancake House stuck his face out the back door, and asked, politely, what we thought we were doing. I do not know what I thought I was doing. But that question, in itself, when asked by a Chinese pancake chef named Louis, was enough to make Grant and his friends call an end to their diversion. I was curled up on my side, cupping my nuts, while the sleeve of my black Orwells T-shirt adhered to some gooey piss stain on Grasshopper Jungle’s asphalt. Grant and the Hoover Boys left, and Louis, apparently satisfied with the lack of an answer to his rhetorical question about what we boys thought we were doing, shut the door. For a moment, I found myself wondering, too, why guys like Grant Wallace, who called guys like me and Robby Brees faggots, always seemed to take pleasure in removing the trousers of littler guys. That would be a good question for the books, I thought.

There’s Blood on Your Spam “Are you hurt?”

“Balls. Knee. Boxers.” “Oh. Um.” “There’s blood on your Spam.” “Shit.” ______

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Grant Wallace Murdered Me Robby felt bad, not because of his bloody nose. Because he blamed

himself when things like this happened. He cried a little, and that made me sad. We recovered. History shows, after things like that, you either get up and have a cigarette, in your socks, with your bloody friend, or you don’t. Since it wasn’t time for Robby and me to die, we decided to have a smoke. I believe Andrzej Szczerba would have wanted a smoke when he pulled himself, bloodied, up from the wreckage in that snowy field in Poland. There are as many theories on how to deal with a bloody nose as there are ears of corn in all the combined silos of Iowa. Robby’s approach was artistic. Propping himself dog-like on his hands and knees, he hung his head down, depositing thick crimson coins of blood from his nostrils and simultaneously puffing a cigarette, while he drip-drip-dripped a pointillist message on the blacktop: GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME I watched and smoked and wondered how our shoes and skateboards were getting along, up there on the roof. Unfortunately, as funny as it was to both of us, Robby stopped bleeding after forming the second A, so he only got as far as GRANT WA “Nobody’s going to know what that means,” I said. “I should have used lowercase.” “Lowercase does use less blood. And a smaller font. Everyone knows that.”

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“Maybe you should punch me again.” I realized I’d never punched anyone in my life. “I don’t think so, Robby. You got any quarters on you?” “Why?” “Let’s go throw our shirts in the laundry place. You need to learn how to use those things anyway.” So Robby and I limped around to the front of the mall and went inside Ealing Coin Wash Launderette, where, maximizing the return on our investment, we not only washed our T-shirts, but the socks we had on as well. “This is boring,” Robby observed while we waited for the fifth dime we slotted into the dryer to magically warm the dampness and detergent from our clothes. “No wonder I never come here.” “Doesn’t your apartment building have a laundry room?” “It’s nasty.” “Worse than this?” “This? This is like Hawaii, Porcupine. Sitting here with you, barefoot, with no shirts on, watching socks and shit go around.” Robby lived alone with his mom in a tiny two-bedroom at a place called the Del Vista Arms, a cheap stucco apartment building only three blocks from Grasshopper Jungle. We walked there, in our damp laundered socks and T-shirts. Two of the apartments on Robby’s floor had Pay or Quit notices taped to their doors. “Wait here,” he said, and he quietly snuck inside. It meant his mother was home. Robby usually didn’t like people to come over when his mom was there. I knew that. He was just going to get the keys to the Ford and take me for a ride, anyway. So I waited. “The blood didn’t come out of your Spam shirt,” I said. We drove west, down Mercantile Street toward my house, and I

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noticed the diffused brown splotches of post-laundered blood that dotted Robby’s chest. And he was still in his socks, too. “I’ll loan you a pair of shoes when we get to my house,” I offered. “Then let’s go get Shann and do something.” I glanced over my shoulder and checked out the backseat. I wondered if I would ever not be horny, or confused about my horniness, or confused about why I got horny at stuff I wasn’t supposed to get horny at. As history is my judge, probably not. “I think we should go up on the roof and get our shit back. Tonight, when no one will see us. Those were my best shoes.” Actually, those were Robby’s only non-Lutheran-boy school shoes. I was willing. “I bet there’s some cool shit up on that roof,” I said. “Oh yeah. No doubt everyone in Ealing hides their cool shit up on the roof of The Pancake House.” “Or maybe not.”

WHAT MADE THIS COUNTRY GREAT ROBBY HAD AN older sister named Sheila.

Sheila was married and lived with her husband and Robby’s sixyear-old nephew in Cedar Falls. I had a brother named Eric. Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that. As bad as Cedar Falls is, even the Del Vista Arms for that matter, Eric could have gone somewhere better than Afghanistan. Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom

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needed pills because when we were in seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that. Hy-Vee sells groceries and shit. My parents were predictable and ominous. They also weren’t home yet when Robby and I got there in our still-wet socks and T-shirts. “Watch out for dog shit,” I said as we walked across the yard. “Austin, you should mow your lawn.” “Then it would make the dog shit too easy to see and my dad would tell me to pick it up. So I’d have to mow the lawn and pick up dog shit.” “It’s thinking like that that made this country great,” Robby said. “You know, if they ever gave a Nobel Prize for avoiding work, every year some white guy in Iowa would get a million bucks and a trip to Sweden.” Thinking about me and Robby going to Sweden made me horny.

Shann’s New Old House First thing, naturally: We got food from the kitchen.

We also made dirt tracks on the floor because socks are notoriously effective when it comes to redistributing filth from sidewalks, lawns, the Del Vista Arms, and Robby’s untidy old Ford Explorer. I boiled water, and we took Cups-O-Noodles and Doritos into my room. Robby sat on my bed and ate, waiting patiently while I recorded the last little bit of the day’s history in my notebook.

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“Here.” I tossed my cell phone over to the bed. “Call Shann.” “Have you ever smelled a Dorito?” “Mmmm . . .” I had to think about it. I wrote. “Probably not.” “Just checking,” he said, “’Cause they smell like my nephew’s feet.” “Why did you smell a six-year-old kid’s feet?” “Good question.” As usual, Shann got mad because I had Robby call her using my phone, and when she answered, she thought it was me. This, quite naturally, made me horny. But Robby explained to her I was writing, and he told her that something terrible had happened to us. He asked if it would be okay that we came over to her new old house as soon as we finished eating. Robby was such a suave communicator when it came to relaying messages to Shann. In fact, I believed it was the biggest component of why she was so much in love with me. Sometimes, I wished I could cut off Robby’s head and attach it to my body, but there were more than a couple things wrong with that idea: First, uncomfortably enough, it kind of made me horny to think about a hybridized Robby/Austin having sex with Shann; and, second, decapitation was a sensitive topic in Ealing. Well, anywhere, really. But, in Ealing during the late 1960s there was this weird string of serial murders that went unsolved. And they all involved headlessness. History is full of decapitations, and Iowa is no exception. So, after we finished eating, I outfitted Robby with some clean socks, a Titus Andronicus T-shirt (I changed into an Animal Collective shirt—all my tees are bands), and gave him my nicest pair of Adidas. And both of us tried to pretend we didn’t notice my dad’s truck pulling up the drive just as we took off for Shann’s. “Perfect timing,” I said.

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Robby answered by pushing in the dashboard cigarette lighter. Besides all the head-cutting-off shit that went on fifty years ago, Ealing was also known for Dr. Grady McKeon, founder of McKeon Industries, which, up until about six months ago, employed over half the town’s labor force. Grady McKeon was some kind of scientist, and he made a fortune from defense programs during the Cold War. When the fight against Communism went south on McKeon, the factory retooled and started manufacturing sonic-pulse showerheads and toothbrushes, which ultimately became far more profitable when made in Malaysia or somewhere like that. So the factory shut down, and that’s also why most of the Ealing strip mall was deserted, and why every time I visited Robby at the Del Vista Arms, there were more and more Pay or Quit notices hanging on doors. And that’s a half century of an Iowa town’s history in four sentences. Grady McKeon was gone, but his much younger brother still lived and ran businesses in Ealing. Johnny McKeon owned Tipsy Cricket Liquors and the From Attic to Seller thrift store, both of which were big crowd-pleasers at the strip mall. Johnny, who was responsible for thinking up the names of those two establishments entirely on his own, was also Shann’s stepfather. And Shannon Collins, whom Robby and I called Shann, her mother (the relatively brand-new Mrs. McKeon), and Johnny had just taken ownership of the McKeon House, a decrepit old wooden monstrosity that was on the registry of historic homes in Ealing. Well, actually, it was the only historic home in Ealing. It took Robby and me two cigarettes to get to Shann’s new old house. It had already been a rough day. We were going to need another pack. ______

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Part 1 THE VASTNESS


Chapter One Five texts are waiting for me when I get out of my English final. One is from Charlotte saying she finished early and decided to meet up with our boss, so she’ll see me at Toby’s house later. One is from Toby, saying, 7 p.m.: Don’t forget! And three are from Morgan. I don’t read those yet. I head off campus and a few blocks over to where I parked my car in an attempt to avoid the daily after-school gridlock. But of course the driver’s side lock won’t unlock when I turn the key, so I have to go around the passenger side and open the door and climb across the seat to pull up the other lock and shut the passenger door and go around to the driver’s side again—and by the time I’m through with that twenty-second process, the cars are already backed up at the light. So I inch into the road and pull out my phone and read what Morgan wrote. You okay? R u coming to set later? I miss you. I don’t write back. I am going straight to set, but not to see her. I need to measure the space between a piano and a bookshelf to see if the music stand I found on Abbot Kinney Boulevard yesterday will make things look too crowded. The music stand is beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that if it doesn’t fit I will find a new bookshelf, or rearrange the furniture entirely, because this is exactly what I would have in my practice room if I knew how to play an instrument. And if I


4

Everything Leads to You could afford a nine-hundred-dollar music stand. As the light turns and I roll my car through the intersection, I’m trying to ignore Morgan’s texts and think only of the music stand. This music stand is a miracle. It’s exactly what I didn’t even know I was looking for. The part that holds the sheet music is this perfect oxidized green. When I texted my boss a picture of the stand she wrote back, Fucking amazing!!!! An expletive and four exclamation marks. And when I texted Morgan to tell her that this was the last time I would allow myself to get dumped by her, that breaking up and getting back together six times was already insane, and there was absolutely no way I would take her back a seventh, she replied with, I don’t know what to do! Indecisive and only mildly emphatic. So typical. But the music stand, the music stand. Turning right onto La Cienega, my phone rings and it’s Charlotte. “You need to come here,” she says. “Where?” “Ginger took me to an estate sale.” “A good one?” “You just have to come.” “Someone famous?” “Yes,” she says. “Sounds fun but I need to measure for that music stand.” “Emi,” she says. “Trust me. You need to come here now.” So I scribble down the address, make a U-turn, and head toward the Hollywood Hills. I drive up Sunset and roll down all the windows, partly because the air-conditioning doesn’t


Nina LaCour work and it’s ninety degrees, but mostly because I’m driving past palm trees and hundreds of beauty parlors and taco trucks and doughnut shops and clothing stores and nightclubs, and I like to take it all in and think about how Los Angeles is the best place in the world. I turn when my phone tells me to turn and start ascending the hills, where the roads become narrower and the houses more expensive. I keep going, higher than I’ve ever gone, until the houses are not only way bigger and nicer than the already big, nice houses below them, but also farther apart. And, finally, I turn into a driveway that I’m pretty sure has never before encountered a beat-up hatchback with locks that don’t work. I park under the branches of old, gorgeous trees that are full and green in spite of the arrival of summer, step out of my car, lean against the bumper, and take a look at this house. My job has taken me to a lot of ridiculously nice houses, but this one stands out. It’s older and grander, but there’s more to it than that. It just feels different. More significant. I’m not thinking about Morgan and thinking instead about who might have owned this house. It was probably someone old, which is good, because an estate sale means someone has died, and it’s sad to dig through thirty-year-old people’s stuff and think about the futures they could have had. The double front doors swing open and Charlotte steps into the sun. Her jeans are rolled up at the ankles and her blond hair is in pigtails, and her face is part serious, part elated. “Guess,” she says. I try to think of who has died in the last couple of weeks. My first thought is our physics teacher’s grandmother, but I

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Everything Leads to You seriously doubt she would have lived in a house like this one. Then I think of someone else, but I don’t say anything because the thought is crazy. This death is huge. Front-page huge. Every-time-I-turn-on-the-radio huge. But then—there’s this house, which is clearly an important house, and old, beautiful trees, and Charlotte’s mouth, which is twitching under the tremendous effort of not smiling. Plus it isn’t swarming with people, which means this is some kind of preview that Ginger got invited to because she’s a famous production designer and she always gets called to these things first. “Holy shit,” I say. And Charlotte starts nodding. “You’re not serious.” Her hands fly to her face because she’s giddy with the delirious laughter of someone who has spent the last hour in the house of a man who was arguably the most emblematic actor in American cinema. Clyde Jones. Icon of the American Western. She leans against the house, doubles over, slides onto the marble landing. I let her have one of her rare hysterical fits of laughter as I take it all in. I can’t think of enough expletives to perfectly capture this moment. I would need a year’s worth of exclamation points. So I just stare, openmouthed, thinking of the man who used to live here. Charlotte’s hysterics die down, and soon she is standing, composed again, back to her super-brilliant, future museum-studies-major self.


Nina LaCour “Come in,” she says. I pause in the colossal doorway. Outside is bright and hot, a beautiful Los Angeles day. Inside it’s darker. I can feel the air-conditioning escaping. Even though this is an amazing opportunity that will never come again, I don’t know if I should go any farther. The thing is this: My brother, Toby, and I talk all the time about what movies do. They speak to our desires, which are never small. They allow us to escape and to dream and to gaze into eyes that are impossibly beautiful and huge. When you live in LA and work in the movies, you experience the collapse of some of that fantasy. You know that the eyes glow like that because of lights placed at a specific angle, and you see the actresses up close and, yes, they are beautiful, but they are human size and imperfect like the rest of us. This, though, is different. Because even if you know a little bit too much about how movies are made, there are always things you don’t know. You can hold on to the myth surrounding the actors; you can get swept up in the story. Clyde Jones belongs in the Old West. He belongs under the stars, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to the wind. In A Long Time Till Tomorrow he lived in a log cabin. In Lowlands he lived out of a green pickup truck, sleeping by the side of the road a couple hours at a time, searching for a woman from his past. Clyde Jones is the savior. The good, uncomplicated man. The perfect cowboy. But as soon as I walk through this doorway he will be an actor who spent his life in a Los Angeles mansion. The ultimate collapse of the fantasy.

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Everything Leads to You “Em?” Charlotte says. She steps to the left, gesturing that I should follow, and I can’t help myself. A moment later I’m in Clyde Jones’s foyer, the doors shut behind me, gazing at one of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever beheld: a low-hanging chandelier, geometric and silver and shining. Clyde Jones was no cowboy, but his aesthetic sensibilities were amazing. I’m still dying over Clyde’s house when Ginger strides past me. “Oh, good, Emi, you made it.” Charlotte and I follow her into the living room. “Yeah,” I say, standing under the high white-beamed ceiling, next to what I can only assume is a pair of original Swan chairs positioned under a huge pastoral landscape with a clear sky as endless as the skies in his films. “It’s probably better that I don’t go to the studio today.” “These glasses,” Ginger says, pointing, and Charlotte walks over to a shiny minibar and takes a tray of highball glasses. “Why should you avoid the studio? Oh, let me guess: Morgan.” “She broke up with me.” “Again?” “Something about not being tied down. Life’s vast possibilities.” “‘Life’s vast possibilities.’ Such bullshit,” Charlotte says, setting the glasses next to a group of other beautiful objects that Ginger must have already chosen. I say, “Yeah,” but only because that’s what Charlotte needs me to say. Charlotte is the kind of friend who automatically hates everyone who has ever done me wrong. The first time


Nina LaCour Morgan broke up with me and we got back together, Charlotte tried her best to get over it and be nice to Morgan. But somewhere around the third time, Charlotte got rude. Stopped saying hi. Stopped smiling around her. By now, Charlotte can’t even hear Morgan’s name without clenching her jaw. Ginger shoots me a sympathetic look. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “I’m done with movie people.” And then we all laugh, because really. What a ridiculous thing to say.

~ When Ginger is finished choosing what she wants, she lets Charlotte and me explore for a while and see if there’s anything we want to buy. We find ourselves in Clyde’s study, which has to be the size of my brother’s entire apartment. It has high ceilings supported by thick wooden beams and an entire wall of windows with doors that slide open to the land in back. Of all the rooms, this one feels the most Western. There’s an enormous rustic table that he must have used as a desk and a collection of leather chairs arranged in a semicircle facing a cavernous fireplace. Shelves line the entirety of one of the side walls, and covering the shelves are hundreds of awards including four Oscars, along with objects from his films: cowboy hats and guns and silver belt buckles. Most people our age don’t know or care very much about Clyde. His career is long over. His roles were rarely sophisticated or smart; there isn’t much to recommend him to my generation. But my brother has eclectic tastes, and when he loves something, it becomes nearly impossible not to

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love it along with him. So over the years I became infatuated with the moment that Clyde appears on the horizon or in the saloon or riding through tall grass toward the woman he loves. Standing in his study now feels both unexpected and inevitable. And, more than those things, it feels meaningful. Like all of Clyde’s arrivals. Like, without knowing it, everything I’ve done has been building toward this moment. ”Are you all right?” Charlotte asks me. I just nod, because how could I describe this feeling in a way that would make sense? There is no logic behind it. I pick up one of the belt buckles. It’s heavier than I thought it would be, and more beautiful up close: the smooth silhouette of a bucking horse with a rough mountain and waning moon in the background. “I’m going to see how much they’re asking for this,” I say. Charlotte cocks her head. “You’re choosing a belt buckle?” “It’s for Toby,” I say, and Charlotte blushes because she’s been in love with my brother forever. Reminded, I check my phone and see that we’re supposed to meet up with him in just under two hours. Charlotte’s flipping through records. She pulls out a Patsy Cline album. “I can’t get over this,” she says. “Clyde Jones used to sit on these chairs and listen to this record.” We find Ginger signing a credit card slip for over twenty thousand dollars, which might explain why, when we show the estate sale man the belt buckle and Patsy Cline record, he beams at us and says, “My gift to you.”


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“Charlotte, will you get Harrison on the phone?” Charlotte does, and hands the phone to the man to arrange a pickup, and then we are back in Clyde’s hot driveway, out of his house forever.

~ Toby lives in a classic LA courtyard apartment, like the one in David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive, which chooses to focus on the darker side of the movie business, and also the one in Melrose Place, which was a nineties TV show set in West Hollywood that my dad lectures about in his Pop Culture of Los Angeles course at UCLA. Toby’s courtyard has a tidy green lawn and a pretty fountain, and from the side of his cottage you can see a tiny strip of the ocean. We walk in, and there is his stuff, packed, waiting by the door. A set of matching suitcases that look so grown up. He hugs us both. Me first and long, Charlotte next and quicker. Then he stands and faces us, my tan brother with his crooked smile and black hair that’s always in his eyes. I feel sad, and then I push the sadness away because of what we have to tell him. “Toby,” I say. “We spent the afternoon in Clyde Jones’s house.” “You’re shitting me,” he says, his eyes wide. “No,” Charlotte says. “Not at all.” “His house was full of the most amazing—” I start, but Toby puts his hands over his ears. “Dont’tellmedon’ttellmedon’ttellme,” he says. “Okay,” I say.


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“The collapse of the fantasy,” he says. I know, I mouth, all exaggerated so he can read my lips. “I love Clyde Jones,” he says, dropping his hands. I nod. “Not another word on the subject,” I say. “But I do have something for you. Close your eyes.” My brother does as told and holds out his hands. I pretend I don’t notice Charlotte staring at him, and place the belt buckle in his cupped palms. He opens his eyes. Doesn’t say anything. I wonder whether I chose the wrong object, and then I realize that tears are starting. “Oh, please,” I say. “Holy. Shit.” He blinks rapidly to compose himself. Then he rushes to his bookshelf of DVDs and pulls one out. He’s mumbling to himself as he turns on his TV and waits for the chapter selection to appear on the screen. “Saloon door . . . I’m a man of the law but that don’t make me honest . . . Round these parts . . . Yes!” He’s found the scene, and we all squeeze onto my parents’ old sofa, me in the middle acting as a buffer for the sexual tension between my brother and my best friend. Toby presses play and turns up the volume. I recognize it as The Strangers, but I’ve only seen it a couple times so I’ve forgotten a lot of what’s happening. The scene begins with a shot of a saloon door. We hear the voices of the people inside but the camera doesn’t turn to them. When one person matters so much, all you can do is wait for his arrival. And then boots appear at the bottom of the door, a hat above it. The doors burst open and there stands Clyde Jones. The screen fills with a close-up of his young, knowing


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face, shaded by a cowboy hat. He scans the saloon until he sees the sheriff, drinking at a table with one of the bad guys. The camera shifts to his cowboy boots as they stomp across the worn wooden floor toward the sheriff and his buddy, who both spring up from the table and draw their guns as soon as they see Clyde. Unfazed, Clyde deadpans, “I thought you were a man of the law.” Sheriff: “I’m a man of the law but that don’t make me honest.” The bad cowboy doesn’t say anything, but looks borderline maniacal as he points the gun at Clyde. Then Clyde says, “Round these parts, lawlessness is a disease. I have a funny suspicion I know how to cure it.” The camera moves down to his holster, and Toby shouts, “Look!” and presses pause. There’s the belt buckle: the horse, that hill, the moon. Charlotte says, “That’s amazing!” I say, “Toby. I am seriously worried about you. Of all the Clyde Jones movies and all the belt buckles, how did you know that this buckle was in this scene of this movie?” But Toby is doing a dance around his living room, ignoring me, reveling in the glory of his new possession. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he chants. After a while Toby calms down enough that we can watch the rest of the movie, which goes by quickly. Clyde kills all the bad guys. Gets the girl. The end. “Okay,” Toby says. “I asked you both here for a reason. Come to the table.”


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I’m trying to hold on to the good feeling of the last hour, but the truth is I’m getting sad again. Toby is about to leave for two months to scout around Europe for this film that starts shooting soon. It’s stupid of me—it’s only two months, and it’s a huge promotion for him—but Toby and I spend a lot of time together so it feels like a big deal. Plus he’s going to miss my graduation, which I shouldn’t care about because I’ve been over high school for a long time. But I do care just a little bit. Toby opens the door to the patio off the kitchen and the night air floods in. He pours us some iced tea he gets from an Ethiopian place around the corner. The people there know him and sell it to him in a plastic pitcher that he takes back and gets refilled every couple days. They don’t do it for anyone else, only Toby. When we’re seated at the round kitchen table, he says, “So, you know how I put up that ad to sublet my place? Well, I got all these responses. People were willing to spend mad cash to live here for two months.” “Sure,” I say. Because it’s obvious. His place is small but super adorable. It’s this happy mix of Mom and Dad’s old worn-in furniture and castoffs from sets I’ve worked on and things we picked up from Beverly Hills yard sales, where rich people sell their expensive stuff for cheap. It’s just a few blocks from Abbot Kinney, and a few blocks more from the beach. “Yeah,” he says. “So it was seeming like it was gonna work. But then I had a better idea.” He takes a sip of his tea. Ice clinks. Charlotte leans forward in her chair. But me, I sit back. I know my brother, the master of good ideas, is waiting for the right moment to reveal his latest plan.


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Finally, he says, “I’m letting you guys have it.” “Whaaaat?” I say. Charlotte and I turn to each other, as if to confirm that we both just heard the same thing. We shake our heads in wonder. And then I can’t help it, I think of the third time Morgan broke up with me, when her reason was that I was younger (only three years!) and lived with my parents. Would it make a difference to her whether I lived here instead? Or is this time really about the vastness or whatever? Charlotte says, “Are you serious?” And Toby grins and says, “Completely. It’s my graduation present to both of you. But there’s a condition.” “Of course,” I say, but he ignores me. “I want you to do something with the place. Something epic. And I don’t mean throw a party. I mean, something great has to take place here while I’m gone.” “Like what?” I ask. I’m a little worried, but excited, too. Toby’s the kind of person whose greatness makes other people want to rise to any occasion. Everything he does is somehow larger than life, which is how he worked his way from a summer job as one of the parking staff to a full-time job as the location manager’s assistant. And then, last month, at the age of twenty-two, he became the youngest location scout in the studio’s recent history. “That’s all I’m gonna say on the subject,” he says. “The rest is up to you.” We try asking more questions but when we do he just sits back and smiles. So the conversation shifts to The Agency, the film he’s scouting for. I get to design a room for it, too, which will be my biggest job yet. It’s a huge-budget movie with a young ensemble cast—Charlie Hayden and Emma Perez and


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Justin Stark—all the really big young actors. It’s a spy adventure, but the room I’m designing is for one of the girls when she’s still supposed to be in high school, before they all become spies and start traveling around the world. It’s probably going to be a stupid movie, but I’m thrilled about it anyway. A few weeks ago, Toby and I got to go to a party with the director and the whole cast and crew. I hung out with these stars whose faces are on posters all across the world. That’s just one example of the kinds of things I get to do because of Toby. Too soon, a knock comes on Toby’s door—what is now for two months my door—and the film studio driver sweeps his suitcases into the trunk and then sweeps up my brother, too. Toby dangles the keys out the window, then looks out at me and says, “Epic.” The car pulls away and we wave and then it turns a corner and is gone. And Charlotte and I are left on the curb outside the apartment. I sit down on the still-warm concrete. “Epic,” I say. “We’ll think of something,” Charlotte says, sitting next to me. We sit in silence for a while, listening to the neighbors. They talk and laugh, and soon some music starts. I’m trying to push away the heavy feeling that’s descending now, that has been so often lately, but I’m having trouble. A few months ago it seemed like high school was going to last forever, like our college planning was for a distant and indistinct future. I could hang out with Charlotte without feeling a good-bye looming, take for granted every spur-of-the-moment plan with


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my brother, sneak out at night to drive up to Laurel Canyon with Morgan and lie under blankets in the back of her truck without worrying that it would be the last time. But now the University of Michigan is taking my best friend from me in just over two months, and my brother is off to Europe tonight and who knows where else after that. Morgan is free to kiss any girl she wants. I expected graduation to feel like freedom, but instead I’m finding myself a little bit lost. My phone buzzes. Why didn’t you come to work? I hide Morgan’s name on the screen and ignore Charlotte’s questioning look. “Hey, we should listen to that record you got,” I say, and Charlotte says, “Nice way to avoid the question,” and I say, “Patsy Cline sounds like a perfect way to end the evening,” which is a total lie. I don’t know why Charlotte likes that kind of music. But I fake enthusiasm as she takes the record out of its sleeve and places it on Toby’s record player and lowers the needle. We lie on Toby’s fluffy white rug (I got it from a pristine Beverly Hills yard sale for Toby’s twenty-first birthday, along with some etched cocktail glasses) and listen to Patsy sing her heart out. Each song lasts approximately one minute so we just listen as song after song plays. Truthfully? I actually like it. I mean, the heartbreak! Patsy knew what she was singing about, that’s for sure. It’s like she knows I have a phone in my pocket with texts from a girl who I wish more than anything really loved me. Patsy is telling me that she understands how hard it is not to text Morgan back. She might even be saying Dignity is overrated. You know what trumps dignity? Kissing.


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And I might be sending silent promises to Patsy that go something like Next time Charlotte gets up to go to the bathroom I’ll just send a quick text. Just a short one. “That was such a good song,” Charlotte says. “Oh,” I say. “Yeah.” But I kind of missed it because Patsy and I were otherwise engaged and I swear that song only lasted six seconds. “I wonder who wrote it,” she says, standing and stretching and making her way to the album cover resting against a speaker. This is probably my moment. She’ll look at the song list and get her answer and then she’ll head to the bathroom and I will write something really short like Let’s talk tomorrow or I still love you. “Hank Cochran and Jimmy Key,” she says. “I love those lines ‘If still loving you means I’m weak, then I’m weak.’” “Wow,” I say. It’s like Patsy is giving me permission to give in to how I feel. “Are the lyrics printed?” I ask, sitting up. “Yeah, here.” Charlotte steps over and hands me the record sleeve, and as I take it something flutters out. I pick it up off the rug. “An envelope.” I check to see if it’s sealed. It is. I turn it over and read the front. “‘In the event of my death, hand-deliver to Caroline Maddox of 726 Ruby Avenue, Apartment F. Long Beach, California.’” “What? ” Charlotte says. “Oh my God,” I say. “Do you think Clyde wrote that?” We study the handwriting for a long time. It’s that old-guy handwriting, cursive and kind of shaky, but neat. Considering that 1) Clyde lived alone, and 2) this record belonged to


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Clyde, and 3) Clyde was an old man who probably had oldman handwriting, we decide that the answer to my question is Definitively Yes. The feeling I had in Clyde’s study comes back. The envelope in my hand is important. This moment is important. I don’t know why, but I know that it’s true. “We should go there now,” I say. “To Long Beach? We should probably let the estate sale manager know, don’t you think? Should we really be the ones to do this?” I shake my head. “I don’t want to give it to someone else,” I say. “This might sound crazy but remember when you asked me if I was doing okay earlier?” “Yeah.” “I just had this feeling that, I don’t know, that there was something important about me being there, in Clyde Jones’s house. Beyond the fact that it was just amazing luck.” “Like fate?” she asks. “Maybe,” I say. “I don’t know. Maybe fate. It felt like it.” Charlotte studies my face. “Let’s just try,” I say. “Well, it’s after ten. It would be almost eleven by the time we got there,” Charlotte says. “We can’t go tonight.” I know as well as Charlotte that we can’t just show up on someone’s doorstep at eleven with an envelope from a dead man. “My physics final is at twelve thirty,” I say. “Yours?” “Twelve thirty,” she says. “I can’t go after because I have to get that music stand and


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then get to set. I guess we’ll have to go in the morning.” Charlotte nods, and we get out our phones to see how long it will take us to get to Long Beach. Without traffic, it would take forty minutes, but there is always traffic, especially on a weekday morning, which means it could take well over an hour, and we need to leave time for Caroline Maddox to tell us her life story, and we have to make sure we get back before our finals start, which means we have to leave . . . “Before seven?” I say. “Yeah,” Charlotte says. We are less than thrilled, but whatever. We are going to hand-deliver a letter from a late iconic actor to a mysterious woman named Caroline.


Chapter Two We get on the road at 6:55, glasses full of Toby’s iced tea because it was either that or some homemade kombucha that neither of us was brave enough to try. Toby does yoga, eats lots of raw foods. It’s one of the areas in life where we diverge, which is probably good since we’re alike in almost every other way: a love for the movies, a love for girls, an energy level other people sometimes find difficult to tolerate for extended periods of time. Charlotte and I spend a while in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405. I allow Charlotte twenty minutes of public radio, and then when I am thoroughly newsed-out I turn on The Knife, because I am a firm believer that important moments in life are best with a sound track, and this will undoubtedly be one of those moments. “Who do you think she is?” I ask, switching into the right lane. Charlotte’s holding Clyde’s envelope, studying Caroline’s carefully written name. “Maybe an ex-girlfriend?” she says. “She’ll probably be old.” I try to think of other possibilities, but Clyde Jones is famous for being a bit of a recluse. He had some high-profile affairs when he was young, but that’s ancient history, and it’s common knowledge that he died without a single family member. With relatives out of the question, I can’t think of many good answers. We exit the freeway onto Ruby Avenue. “I’m getting nervous,” I say. Charlotte nods.


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“What if it’s traumatic for her? Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to do this before our finals. What if Caroline needs us or she passes out from shock or something?” “I doubt that will happen,” Charlotte says. Neither of us has been on Ruby Avenue, so we don’t know what to expect. But we do know that as we get closer to the address it becomes clear that whoever Caroline Maddox is, she doesn’t live the same kind of life Clyde did. Number 726 is one of those sad apartment buildings that look like motels, two stories with the doors lined up in rows. We park on the street and look at the apartment through the rolled-up window of my car. “Maybe she’ll be someone he didn’t know that well. Like a waitress from a restaurant he went to a lot. Or maybe he had a daughter no one knew about. From an affair or something.” “Yeah, maybe,” Charlotte says. We get out of the car. After climbing the black metal stairs to the second story and knocking on the door of apartment F, I whisper, “Is it okay for us to ask what’s inside? Like, to have her open it in front of us?” Charlotte shakes her head no. “Then how will we ever know? Will we follow up with her?” “Shhh,” she says, and the door opens to a shirtless man, holding a baby on his hip. “Hello,” Charlotte says, professional but friendly. “Is Caroline home by any chance?”


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The guy looks from Charlotte to me, shifts his baby to the other hip. He has longish hair, a shell necklace. A surfer who ended up miles from the beach. “Sorry,” he says. “No Caroline here.” Charlotte looks at the address on the envelope. “This is 726, right?” “Yeah. Apartment F. Just three of us, though. Little June, myself, my wife, Amy.” “Do you mind my asking how long you’ve lived here?” Charlotte asks. “About three years.” “Do you know if a Caroline lived here before you?” He shakes his head. “I think a dude named Raymond did. We get his mail sometimes.” I turn to Charlotte. “Maybe she left a forwarding address with the landlord.” She turns to the surfer. “Does the manager live in the building?” He nods. “Hold on,” he says, disappears for a moment, and returns without the baby. He slides on flip-flops and joins us outside. “It’s hard to describe. I’ll lead you there.” We follow him down the stairs. “Awesome weather,” he says. I say, “Well, yeah. It is LA.” “True,” he says. We walk along a path on the side of the building until we reach a detached cottage. He knocks on the door. We wait. Nothing. “Hmm,” he says. “Frank and Edie. They’re old. Almost always home. Must be grocery day.”


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He pulls a phone out of his pocket. “I can give you their number,” he says, scrolling through names, and Charlotte enters it into her phone.

~ Walking back to the car, I say, “If we can’t find Caroline, are we allowed to open the envelope?” “We should really try to find her.” “I know. But if we don’t.” “Maybe,” she says. “Probably.” I hand Charlotte my keys and she unlocks her side, gets in, leans over and unlocks mine. I start the car and look at the time. “We could have slept an extra hour,” Charlotte says. “Let’s call the managers now,” I say. “Maybe they were sleeping.” But she calls and gets their machine. “Good morning,” she says. “My name is Charlotte Young. I’m trying to get in touch with a former tenant of yours. I’m hoping you might have some forwarding information. If you could call me back, I would appreciate it.” She leaves her number and hangs up. Sometimes she sounds so professional that I can’t believe the girl talking is also my best friend. At work, as long as I do my job well I don’t have to talk like an adult because I’m one of the creatives. But Charlotte helps with logistics and phone calls and scheduling and making sure people show up when they are supposed to. “I hope they call back,” I say, noticing a brief ebb in the traffic and making a U-turn in the middle of the block.


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“I’ll follow up if they don’t,” Charlotte says. “But if we can’t reach them, and we can’t find Caroline, then we’ll open the letter,” I say. “Right?” “Maybe,” she says. “But we’re really going to try to find Caroline.”

~ After my physics final and my Abbot Kinney stop, I drive to the studio, a little nauseous. Heartbreak is awful. Really awful. I wish I could listen to sad songs alone in my car until I felt over her. But I can’t even talk about it with Charlotte, and I have to finish designing the room I’m working on now, even though I know Morgan will be on set with her sleeves pushed up and her tight jeans on and her short hair all messy and perfect. I pull into the studio entrance and the guard waves me through, and I roll past Morgan’s vintage blue truck and into an open spot a few cars away, trying not to think of the first time I sat in the soft, upholstered passenger’s seat and all the times that followed that one. Morgan is off in a far corner of the set, but I see her first and then she’s all I see. Filling everything. I’m carrying the music stand and I set it down in the room, but even though I’m looking at it and running my hand along its smooth wooden base, I can barely register that it’s here. Ginger says something and I say something back. She laughs and I fake-laugh and then I move a picture frame over a couple inches and immediately move it back. And then Morgan is next to me asking if I got her texts, touching me on the waist in the way that makes my stomach feel like a rag someone is squeezing.


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I nod. Yes. I got them. “I miss you,” she says. I don’t say anything back because we’ve done this so many times before and I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it again. She can’t break up with me and then act like she’s the one who’s hurt. All I want is to flirt with her on set, to ride around in her cute truck talking all day, and dance with her at parties and lay poolside at her apartment and kiss. All the things we used to do. All the things we could be doing now if she weren’t busy wondering if the world holds better things for her than me. “Your shirt’s cute,” she says, but I don’t say anything, just lean over to smooth down the edge of the colorful, patterned rug we’re standing on. This morning I tried on seven outfits before deciding on these cute green shorts and this kind of revealing, strappy white tank top. I thought it looked summery and fun and, I’ll admit, really good on me. But now I think I should have worn something I always wear so that Morgan wouldn’t notice it was different and thus I wouldn’t appear to be trying to look different. I bend down to adjust the rug again, and it really does look good, the way the green in the music stand brings out the colors in the pattern, and I’m finding myself actually able to think of something other than her until she says, “Emi, are you not talking to me?” And I stand up and say, “No, no, that’s not it.” Because it isn’t. I’m not trying to be childish or standoffish. I’m not trying to be mean. But I can’t tell her that I’m not talking because I’m afraid that I’ll cry if I do. The humiliation


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of being broken up with six times is brutal. And really, there might not be much worse than being at work with all of the people whose respect you want to earn while your first real love tells you you look pretty because she wants you to feel a little less crushed by the fact that she doesn’t love you back. I force a smile and say, “Check out this stand. Isn’t it perfect?” knowing that she’ll like it almost as much as I do. “Yeah,” she says. “The whole room looks really, really good.” I take a step back and look at it. Morgan’s right. The room is supposed to be the basement practice space for a teenage-band geek named Kira. She doesn’t have a big part in the movie, but there’s an important scene that takes place in this room, and it’s the first set I’ve designed on my own. I started with actual kid stuff. Trophies from thrift stores that I polished to make seem only a couple years old. Concert posters of a couple popular bands whose members play trumpets, which this character plays. So much sheet music that it’s spilling off shelves, piled on every available surface. All of these normal things, but then a few extravagances, because this is the movies. A white bubble chandelier that lets out this beautiful soft light; a really shiny, really expensive trumpet; a handwoven rug. And now, the music stand. I feel overwhelmingly proud of myself for pulling this off, and completely in love with the movie business. “So now you’re just waiting on the sofa?” I turn to the last empty wall where the sofa will go, and nod. “Any leads?”


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I shake my head. No. “It needs to be perfect,” I say. Early in the movie, Kira loses her virginity. She loses it to a guy who doesn’t love her, but she doesn’t know that in the moment. They have sex, not in her bedroom, but on a sofa in this practice room, the room that I am dressing, and I know that the scene will be disturbing because the secret is out to everyone except Kira that the guy isn’t worth losing anything to. I’ve been trying to track down the sofa since I got the assignment. I know what I want. I know that it’s going to be a vivid green, a soft material. The scene will be painful but the sofa will comfort her. It needs to be worn-in and look a little dated because it’s the basement practice room; it’s where the cast-off furniture goes after it’s been replaced by newer and better things. But it also needs to be special enough to have been saved. From across the studio, a guy calls to Morgan, asking her a question about plaster. Morgan is a scenic, which means that she builds the decorative elements of the sets before people like me come along and fill them. She can turn clean, white walls into the crumbling sides of a castle. She can turn an indoor space into a garden. She’s an artist. It hurts to be this close to her. “I have to go help him,” she tells me. “But maybe we can grab dinner later. Talk. I’ll check back in before I’m off?” I nod. She walks away. Then I text Charlotte: Intervention needed.


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Luckily, Charlotte’s on the lot, working a couple buildings over. She tells me to meet her in the parking lot at exactly six o’clock.

~ After a couple hours of tinkering with my room and helping some of the set dressers, I say good-bye to Ginger (who tells me for the twentieth time how great everything looks) and find Morgan outside with her hands covered in plaster. I tell her, “Charlotte needs my help, so I’m not going to be able to have dinner. We’re in the middle of this really crazy mystery.” I wait for her to ask what it is. I get ready to say, We’re trying to fulfill Clyde Jones’s dying wish, for the awe to register on her face. But she just says, “No problem. Another time.” Another time. A period, not a question mark. As if it’s such a sure thing that I will say yes. I back my car up alongside Charlotte’s so that, with our driver’s side windows open, we can talk to each other without getting out. “Thanks,” I say. “Anytime I can save you from making yet another terrible mistake with that girl please let me know,” she says. Which is a little harsh, but something I probably deserve. “Did the old people call you?” I ask. “No. I wanted to wait for you before trying again.” I hop out of my car and cross around to hers. She puts her phone on speaker and dials. It rings. We wait. And wait. And then an old man’s loud voice says hello.


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“Hi,” Charlotte says. “I’m sorry to bother you. I left you a message this morning. My name is—” “Hey, Edie!” the man yells. “It’s that girl from this morning! Calling us back!” Charlotte and I widen our eyes in amusement. “Now,” Frank says. “I couldn’t quite make out your phone number in the message. Yes! The girl from this morning! Let me see if I can find what I wrote down. Tell me the number again?” Charlotte tells him. “Oh,” he says. “Two-four-three. I thought you said, ‘Twooh-three.’” “Actually, it is two-oh-three.” “Two-four-three, yes.” “Actually—” “And your name one more time, my dear?” “Charlotte Young. I was wondering if you had any information—” “Yes, dear! We had the number wrong! And her name is Charlotte!” I’m trying my hardest not to laugh but I can see Charlotte becoming serious. She switches off the speakerphone and holds it to her ear. “Frank? Sir?” she asks. “Will you be home for a little while? I have some questions that might be better to ask in person.” I wait. “Okay. Yes. Hello, Edie. My name is Charlotte. Charlotte. Yes, it’s nice to talk to you, too.”

~


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Frank and Edie are waiting for us on their porch when we arrive in Charlotte’s car. It took us a little over an hour to get there and I wonder whether they’ve been waiting this whole time, frozen in positions of expectancy. “Now, which one of you is Charlotte?” Frank says. “Don’t answer!” Edie says. “Don’t say a word, girls. I am an excellent judge of people. Let me guess.” She peers at us. Her hair is a purple poof, like cotton candy. I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be brown or if she’s getting wild in her old age. “You,” she says to me. “Are Charlotte.” I shake my head. “Emi,” I say, and hold out my hand. She scoffs, says, “You look like a Charlotte,” but her eyes have this fun glimmer. Frank towers over her, surveying us through thick glasses. “Come on in, girls,” he says. “Come on in.” Inside, we sit on a plastic-covered maroon sofa with People magazines stacked up beside us, cookies and lemonade arranged on the coffee table. This elderly couple having us into their living room, serving us snacks with the fan blasting and the screen door flapping open and shut—it’s so sweet, almost enough to take my mind off Morgan. “I hope you like gingersnaps,” Edie says. She thrusts a finger toward Frank. “He got ginger cookies. I said I wanted plain.” “They didn’t have plain.” “How could they not have plain?” “You were with me, dear,” he says. “Lemon. Oreo. Maple. Ginger. No plain.”


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She shakes her head. “Crap,” she says. She lifts a cookie and eats it. “Crap,” she says again. And then she takes another. “Do you live in the neighborhood?” Frank asks us. “I live in Westwood,” Charlotte says. “Santa Monica,” I say. “Santa Monica!” Edie says. “Our son, Tommy, lives in Santa Monica. You may know him. Tommy Drury?” I shake my head. “No,” I say. “He doesn’t sound familiar.” “He’s a lovely boy,” Edie says. “He just turned sixty!” Frank says. “He’s not a boy!” “He’s my boy. Do you shop at the Vons on Wilshire?” “Um,” I say. “I guess. I mean, my parents do.” “It’s a good Vons,” Frank says. “A nice deli section,” Edie agrees. “But too crowded.” Charlotte compliments them on the lemonade (“Straight out of the box!” Edie confides) and then says, “We’re looking for a former tenant of yours. Caroline Maddox.” “Who?” Frank turns to Edie, and it’s only then that I notice his hearing aids. “Caroline Maddox,” Edie shouts. “Oh yes, Caroline.” Frank nods. “You remember her?” Charlotte asks. “Yes, of course!” Edie says. “She was a very nice girl. Very nice. But she had troubles. The drugs and the men and that baby.” She shakes her head. “What a shame.” Frank says, “Yes, yes. You girls must have noticed that the hedges around the path are all overgrown.” He says it so apologetically. “Caroline, she used to take care of those for us. It


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was years ago and I worked during the days and dealt with apartment business at night. Caroline, she helped us with some of the chores.” “For reduced rent,” Edie adds. “Do you know where she is?” Charlotte asks. “Or where she moved to after she left the apartment?” “Oh, dear,” Edie says. “Oh, dear,” Frank echoes. “I hate to say it, but Caroline died.” “When?” Charlotte asks. Frank shakes his head. “I’m terrible with dates,” he says. “I know,” Edie says. “It was October of 1995. I remember because the Dodgers lost in the playoffs. Those Braves beat them Three to nothing. Three to zip. Terrible! I remember thinking, What could be worse than this? And then, just a few days later, we found Caroline in the apartment.” Frank looks off to the side, eyes glassy, and Edie picks up a cookie but doesn’t eat it. We sit quietly for a little while, and then Edie begins gossiping about celebrities. I tell her about our jobs in the movies and she is impressed, especially with The Agency, which she’s already been reading about even though shooting doesn’t begin for a few months. But Charlotte stays quiet, and I can understand why. Here we were expecting to find Caroline, a living person, who would take this envelope from us and hopefully tell us about what was inside and who she was to Clyde. But instead we discover that Caroline is a dead woman. And it’s unsettling, somehow, that whatever Clyde wanted to give to her was never, and never will be, received.


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~ It’s dark by the time we get back in the car. Charlotte sighs. “I guess we did all we could.” “So we’re going to open it?” She nods, but doesn’t reach for her bag. I find it on the backseat and fish out the envelope. It’s so thin. And I realize something that I hadn’t really registered before: It’s old, yellowing. I wonder how old. Old enough, I guess, for Caroline to die and someone named Raymond to move in and move out, and then for the surfer’s family to follow. Maybe even older than that. Charlotte takes the keys from her lap and very carefully rips open the envelope. Dear Caroline, I confess it was optimistic of me to think our lunch might transform a lifetime of estrangement into some kind of relationship. I don’t think, however, that it was optimistic to think it could have been some kind of beginning, even if it was the beginning of something meager. A casual hello now and then. An acquaintanceship. But I’ve been trying to reach you for several months. My letters have been returned. What few phone numbers I can find for you are all outdated. I’m not disregarding the possibility of a change of heart, but, for now at least, I’m giving up. There were things I wanted to tell you that afternoon that I couldn’t bring myself to say. I told myself it was because I expected it to be Me and You, and instead it


Nina LaCour was Me and You and Lenny. So I found myself in the company of two strangers instead of only one. However, that might have only been an excuse. You are my only child and I was never a father to you. I don’t know how a father is supposed to say heartfelt things or express regret or give a compliment. So, here it goes, on paper, which feels far less daunting. I was unaware of your existence when you were born. After I learned about you, I had intentions of being a good father. To put it plainly, your mother made that impossible. She would not accept my money. She would not consider a friendship. I spent a decade trying to make amends with her but the truth is that I had very little to say. We both had our reasons for what happened that night and in the few weeks that followed. I won’t presume to know hers, but in my defense, I did not make any promises or intentionally lead her on. She had what many people crave, a few minutes in the spotlight on the arm of someone famous. She did not ever know me and I did not ever know her. I would like to think that we each received something we needed in a specific period of time in our lives, but I fear that your mother’s reaction to my repeated gestures spoke otherwise. It may seem unfair of me to speak this way of a woman who is no longer in this world to defend herself. I don’t wish to be cruel. Another thing I wanted to do (but didn’t) was offer you my condolences. And I wanted

35


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Everything Leads to You to say that I know what it’s like to be an orphan. It’s possible that you feel alone in the world. I know a little bit about that, too. I suppose I thought we might bond over our specific tragedies, but instead I told you about my dogs and the weather, and you stared at your eggs and never touched them. You are my only child. I wanted you to know a few things about me. It is true that I always wear a cowboy hat, but I am not the stoic, humorless man that I so often played. I try my best to enjoy life. I enjoy hiking through the hills behind my home. I have loved deeply, but had hopes of a different kind of love. There is a bank account in your name at the Northern West Credit Union. Please visit them and ask for Terrence Webber. He will give you access to the account. If you do not want the money, please give it to Ava. It may seem crass to give you so much. Please don’t think of it as an attempt to buy your love or forgiveness. Despite the idealistic notion that money is of little importance, money can open doors. I hope, my daughter (if you’ll allow me to call you that this once), that doors will open for you all your life. My regards, Clyde

“So you were right,” Charlotte says. “Caroline Maddox was his daughter.”


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“What tragedy,” I say. “So bitter,” Charlotte says. “So regretful.” Charlotte nods. “It’s like he wants to tell her everything but it hardly adds up to anything.” “I know. I wear cowboy hats? I enjoy hiking?” I pick up the letter again. His handwriting is careful and shaky and everything is neat, like he wrote multiple drafts. “Who’s Lenny? Who’s Ava?” Charlotte shakes her head. “I don’t know.” At the end of the block, a couple men step out of a liquor store, shouting into the night. They laugh, slide into their car, pull away. “He didn’t even know that she died,” I say. We head back to the studio to pick up my car, and then we caravan to Toby’s apartment, where our parents told us we could stay again tonight, and where we intend to stay for as long as Toby’s away. Driving alone, I can’t but help thinking of how today is just so sad. Toby’s gone, Morgan doesn’t love me, Clyde Jones had a daughter named Caroline who tended Frank and Edie’s garden and had problems with men and drugs and never got her father’s letter or all that money that might have helped her. And I was sure that all of this would mean something for me, too. That something had to come of wandering through Clyde’s house, of our accidental discovery. But now it’s just something else that has come to an end.


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And it’s only later, after watching Lowlands, with the warm breeze coming through the kitchen door and our glasses half full of Toby’s Ethiopian tea, that Charlotte says, “What was it Edie said? The drugs and the men and that baby? Could Ava be Clyde’s granddaughter?”


as simple as snow


good-bye to everyone Anna Cayne had moved here in August, just before our sophomore year in high school, but by February she had, one by one, killed everyone in town. She didn’t do it all by herself—I helped with a few, including my best friend— but still, it was no small accomplishment, even if it was a small town. She captured all of these lives and deaths in fourteen black-jacketed composition notebooks. By the time she had finished, there were more than 1,500 obituaries, on just un­ der 2,800 handwritten pages. The lives she wrote about were real, all true, but the deaths were fictions she in­ vented, an average of around eight a day. “I’m not predict­


2

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ing the future,” she said, “but it’s only a matter of time be­ fore everyone catches up to me.” She had known things about people, or had discovered them—the secrets and private information that showed up in her notebooks were things that people who had spent their entire lives in our town didn’t know. The funny thing is, during the months when the bodies were piling up in the imagination of Anna Cayne, I don’t think a single per­ son actually died in town; it was the longest drought for the funeral home that anyone could remember. The obituaries were private; her friends and a few other people knew that Anna was working on them, but besides me, I don’t believe anyone else was allowed to read them. She must have started the project on her very first day in town, the day I saw her sitting on the front lawn of her new home, writing in one of her notebooks as the rest of us stood with her parents, watching their belongings parade from the long yellow truck into the house. And after she had written the last page almost seven months later, she was gone. Maybe.

She left behind little more than suggestions, hints, and suspicions. But there were enough of them to make you go crazy trying to figure out what it all meant. But you have to try. . . .


a s

s i m p l e

a s

s n o w

3

I have to change some things—some names, some events—and then there are things that happened that I didn’t see, didn’t experience, and that I’ll never know. There’s stuff I’ve tried to piece together and stuff I’ve tried to leave alone—I had to rely mostly on what I remember and what I could find. There are a few newspaper accounts of some of the events, some TV coverage, and there’s the police report (which I wasn’t allowed to see), but none of those is really helpful. They all focus on the superficial details, and miss the real story of what happened. They’ve got their own version of the world to sell. Besides, they only tell what they’ve been told anyway, and very few of them talked to the person who knows the most about it—me. This is what I know happened, or think happened. I fell in love with a girl, and then she left, and later she tried to come back, or I thought she did, and I went after her. It should have been simple but in the end it could not have been more complicated, and maybe that was the whole point to begin with, but if love is true and still leaves you lonely, what good does it do? I started going over everything again, thinking I might find a way to her, wherever she was, or at least figure out what to do with all the things she left behind. “You have your whole life ahead of you,” my mother told me, “don’t spend all your time in the past.” It’s good advice, I know it is, but the past has its own ideas. It can follow you around with a life of its own, casting a long shadow.


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spooky girlfriend She was born in a thunderstorm. I don’t know if that’s true, but somebody once wrote that about her and it seems to fit. She swirled into and out of my life, quickly changing every­ thing, a dark question mark disappearing into a darker hole. Her name was Anna Cayne. “It’s supposed to be ‘Coyne,’” she told me in maybe the second conversation I had with her, “and there’s a couple of theories of how it got to be spelled with an a. One is that some of the family was involved in some sort of criminal activity a long time ago, hundreds of years—murder, kidnapping, that sort of thing— and that the more respectable relatives changed the spelling of their name to distance themselves from the bad ones. Another version has it that it was the criminals who changed their name to Cayne, so it would be harder to find them once they left their old lives behind.” I told her that I’d heard the same thing about my family, since my last name was also available in an o and an a version. “You’d think that if they really wanted to distance them­ selves from each other, they’d change more than just one letter,” I said. “Well, it’s a bit mysterious,” she said, maybe a little putoff by the fact that her story wasn’t as unique as she thought. She and her parents had moved into town, which in itself was an odd occurrence, since not too many people moved into town; they almost all moved out. But there


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were the Caynes, watching the movers unload the truck and put their boxed belongings in the white two-story three-bedroom house on Twixt Road, just before it inter­ sected with Town Street, which ran down by the river. The neighbors watched too, slowly pulled out of their houses and down the street, attracted to the yellow moving truck as if it were a huge magnet. They came by and introduced themselves and stood with the Caynes like spectators at a parade, a ball game, or some great historical event worthy of a rapt, attentive crowd. My friend Carl Hathorne and I rode our bikes over and stood with the large group that had formed. We didn’t really care about the truck or what came out of it; we didn’t really care about the parents and what they looked like. We’d already heard that the Caynes had an only child, a girl our age. We wanted to see the girl. We were disappointed; she was not what we had ex­ pected, and far from what we had hoped for. She came out of the house wearing a pair of headphones over her short, straight blond hair, the cord snaked into the pocket of a short black jacket. It was the kind of jacket someone would pump gas in, worn on a hot, humid day when it was, with complete certainty, the only jacket being worn in town. Under the jacket she had a black shirt, which, I found out later, was long-sleeved. She never wore short sleeves. She was also wearing a pair of jeans and heavy boots—black. She wore thick black eyeliner and a black expression. She sat down in the grass and started writing in a black notebook. I didn’t give her much thought that day,


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but once I got to know her I often wondered whether she had been completely different the day before we first saw her, whether she had dressed in normal clothes, with a more inviting appearance and expression. Except for two notable exceptions, I never witnessed any other incarna­ tion; she was always in her Goth gear, black and blonde and brooding. “It’s a freak show,” Carl said. “Let’s go back to your house.” I lived about a mile and a half north of the Caynes, in a house that was very similar to theirs. We lived on Valley View Road, but you couldn’t see a valley from it. We were actually at the bottom of a hill, where we saw only hills, in all directions. It was a long walk to the Caynes’, if you stayed on the streets, but you could save some time if you cut through Mrs. Owens’s yard and then across the vacant lot where the Boothe house had burned down two years before. Then, when you got to Talus Road, you cut through the Bordens’. You could get there in about fifteen minutes. I would do it lots of times. All of this would become important.

Her given name was Anna, but she insisted on being called Anastasia. We had that in common. I wanted every­ one to use my full first name. It wasn’t out of vanity; I was named after my mother’s brother, who had died young— just thirteen—and I had always been called by the full


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name because he had been. I never liked my name much, it never really seemed mine, a sort of hand-me-down from someone who never got enough use out of it, but what can you do? Only famous people have had their names changed, or else somebody has to give you a nickname, and no one was going to do that for me. Or you have to be someone like Anna, and just take the name for yourself. “I love your name,” Anna said. “It’s almost a perfect double dactyl.” “A what?” “Higgledy-piggledy. That’s a perfect double dactyl. Two three-syllable words with the stresses on the first syllables. Your first name and your last name have the same number of syllables and almost the same sounds—they mirror each other, or are parallel or parallax or something.” “Okay.” I was ready to be done with it. If she hadn’t said “higgledy-piggledy,” I might have told her about my dead uncle and how he had died under strange circumstances and maybe she was on to something, maybe there was a connec­ tion between the two of us. Maybe he was the parallel, al­ though we shared only the same first name. We could have gone into all of that, but I didn’t really want to continue with any conversation where “higgledy-piggledy” was used, and especially when I was being compared with it. “You should pay attention to things like that. It’s your name—you’ll always have that. It means something. The mirror thing is worth thinking about. Or is it repetition? It’s a double nature, anyway. The first and then the next being similar. Maybe you had a twin you don’t know about. Maybe


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there’s a ghost following you around. Or maybe it has some­ thing to do with parallel lines. You know, they meet at in­ finity. That’s interesting. But maybe it has nothing to do with you. I don’t know you well enough to figure it out yet.” “Okay. How about your name? What does it mean?” “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”

She was always spooky. Her friends were worse. They strolled silently through the school in their funeral clothes and black lipstick and eyeliner and gun-black hair. There were seven Marilyn Manson types in school (“One for every day of the week,” Carl had said, “as if one wasn’t enough”), three of them in our sophomore class. There were two seniors and two juniors and no freshmen. We hoped they were a species headed for extinction. They stuck out like badly bruised thumbs and we thought they were pretentious and full of shit. They were rarely alone, a traveling convention of mourners, except for her. I would see her sitting off by herself in class, eating alone in the cafeteria, or just standing on her own in the hallway be­ tween classes. It’s what I disliked most about her at first, I thought she was even more pretentious and bolder than her friends, and then it became one of the things I liked most about her. Sometimes it works out that way, I guess, and sometimes the other way. Our school, good old Hamilton High, was three stories tall, a long rectangle situated east-west on top of a low hill, with an entrance on each of the shorter sides. There is


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some debate about whom the school was named after. Al­ most everyone assumed it was after the adulterous Alexan­ der Hamilton (as Anna liked to call him), who was shot dead by Aaron Burr in a duel on the banks of the Hudson River, for spreading lies and rumors about Burr. There had been Hamiltons around town years ago, but no one had ever found anything they had done to be noteworthy or ex­ ceptional enough to name a building after any of them, but there were people who still believed the school was named after some of these other Hamiltons. My mother was one of those people, she contended that the town would never name a building, especially a school, after such an immoral man. “He’s on the ten-dollar bill, Mom,” I said. “What the federal government decides is suitable has nothing to do with us,” she said. It was the most political statement I ever heard my mother make. Everybody stood around in the hallways before class, and every group had its own spot. The bandoids were always in the basement, the arty types hung around Mr. Devon’s classroom, the jocks were on the first floor by the west en­ trance, down the hall from the 4-H’ers, the geeks hung out at the eastern end of the second floor, the speech and de­ bate team was on the western end (“I don’t do a lot of busi­ ness on the second floor,” Carl always said). Carl traveled from floor to floor, and it never mattered where I was. Anna and the rest of the ghouls were always on the third floor, a dark cloud hanging there. Sometimes walking to school I would look up and see them, crow-black and still, perched high in the morning sky. And after school they walked to­


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gether into the nearby woods. They were said to do all sorts of things there: They took drugs and had sex and per­ formed rituals involving animal sacrifices. They cast spells there, placing curses on people in town, and plotted whom to torment and inflict pain and suffering on. Some people in school avoided the woods, but I never had a problem. Carl and I had come across trees with strange markings cut into them, and a circle of upside-down crosses, but we never knew whether these things had been left by the Goths themselves or by somebody else trying to add to their reputation. It all seemed so silly—but what was more idi­ otic, a group of high schoolers standing around chanting a bunch of mumbo jumbo, or the rest of the school thinking this type of stuff actually happened, and that it might really work? There were tons of rumors about them. They were burn­ outs and vegans. They had pierced their bodies in strange places and had tattoos of runes and symbols and foreign languages all over. They were Satan worshippers, witches. They performed strange occult rituals involving decapitat­ ing animals and drinking blood. There were rumors that the guys in the group had taken the girls as their wives, and that they all shared them with one another. They engaged in bondage and torture and self-mutilation. They had sex with corpses. They were all gay. If you believed everything, they were tattooed Satan-worshipping Goth Mormon homosexual S&M piercing necrophiliac drug-using vege­ tarians. It was a small school, and they must have known what was being said about them all the time behind their


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black backs, but they never responded. They were mysteri­ ous and odd and no one liked them.

I would have gone on ignoring Anna Cayne forever, ex­ cept for the fact that she spoke to me first. If I had known that she was coming my way, I would have done everything in my power to avoid her. She wasn’t the person you wanted to be seen with. She wasn’t someone you thought would talk to you first either. She sneaked up on me. It was the end of September and I was in the library stacks, wasting the rest of my lunch hour, trying out a new theory, a sug­ gestion one of my teachers had given me. I had taken On the Road by Jack Kerouac from the shelf and turned around, and there she was, standing quietly a few feet away, calmly staring at me. “Burroughs is better,” she said. “I don’t know about that.” I looked at the book in my hand and then looked past her. It should have indicated to her that I wanted to get by to check out the Kerouac. She didn’t pay any attention. She stood her ground and gave me a slight smile. She had more to tell me. “He shot his wife, you know.” “I know,” I said. I didn’t know. I didn’t even know whether she was talking about Burroughs or Kerouac. I was just hoping that she would stop talking and let me get away from her as quickly as possible. “They were playing William Tell. They were drinking at a friend’s apartment, and Burroughs pulls out a gun


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and turns to his wife and says, ‘It’s time for the old William Tell act,’ and she puts a glass on her head, and then he shoots her.” “Really?” I said. Then she told me the whole story about William Burroughs and how he was the grandson of the in­ ventor of the adding machine and how he was friends with Kerouac and is in On the Road as “Old Bull Lee” and his wife is “Jane” and how even killing his wife didn’t do any­ thing to curb his fascination with guns and that he used to make paintings with cans of paint and a shotgun. The words streamed out of her; she could have been making it all up, for all I knew, but I actually wanted to hear more. “Did he go to prison?” “It happened in Mexico,” she said, as if that was all the explanation I needed. There was an awkward pause; I wanted her to continue, but she had finished. I panicked and said, “I suppose you’re looking for Stephen King,” and moved to let her go around me and deeper into the stacks. She looked at me as if I were an idiot. I could feel an embarrassed blush fill my face and I was afraid that she might turn and leave. A couple of minutes before, I had wanted desperately to get away from her, and now I was hoping that she would stay and pay more attention to me. She stayed. “He’s only written two books worth read­ ing,” she said. There wasn’t a pause, but a full stop, and I stood waiting for her to speak. If I hadn’t asked her to name the books, she never would have divulged her opinion. She had an in­


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triguing way of speaking. Her sentences were icebergs, with just the tip of her thought coming out of her mouth, and the rest kept up in her head, which I was starting to think was more and more beautiful the longer I looked at her. “Carrie and The Shining,” she finally said. “I’ve read The Shining,” I said, happy to have something in common. “One to go,” she said. “And then you can be done with Mr. King.” She was looking for H. P. Lovecraft, whom I had never heard of. He wrote horror stories, she said, in the early 1900s. She read anything, but she especially liked books (fiction and nonfiction) about the supernatural. She contin­ ued to move through the stacks, and I followed her. She was done talking, so I watched her scan the rows and rows of books, selecting authors and titles I would probably have never heard of, like Yukio Mishima, James Baldwin, and All the Little Live Things, until she had an armful. I went to the front desk and checked out both the King and the Kerouac while she simply walked out with hers and waited for me by the door. “I’ll return them when I’m finished,” she said. I had the feeling that she did that sort of thing all the time. The rules didn’t apply. I had to get to class, but I wanted to keep following her, I wanted her to talk to me more. By the time I had thought of saying something else to her she was disappearing down the hall.


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i don’t want to bore you, but . . . This is what you should know about me: I’m bland. I’m milk. Worse, I’m water. Worse yet, I’m a water glass—at least water can change shape or become some other form, like ice or vapor. Instead, I’m bland and rigid and everyone can look right through me and see that there’s nothing. I’ve got nothing. I’m walking wallpaper. I almost wish I had a broken nose, or a cauliflower ear, or a scar across my face, something that you would remember. If there were some­ thing on the outside to grab some girl’s attention, she might see that I was a good person, a quality person. Most girls just look once and don’t see me, and move on. When I was a freshman I tried imitating the cool guys in class. I went out and bought the same clothes that they wore and tried to wear them the way they did, but I ended up looking like an idiot. Something was missing. The clothes were cool, but I wasn’t. There was nothing to be done; I was stuck with who I was. Everyone seemed to have something on me. The geeks had their own look, same with the Goths, the jocks. They all had some way that connected them with someone else. Even the retarded kids had better style than I did. “Wear what makes you feel comfortable,” Carl told me. “If you’re comfortable, people will be comfortable around you.” It was easy for him; he knew what he was doing. But


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I took his advice and started wearing jeans or khakis and a plain shirt and sweater. Anna called it the “harmboy” look, somewhere between hip and farmboy, she said. I liked Abercrombie & Fitch clothes, but I hated the fact that their name was on everything. They put it on the pockets and sleeves and tails of their shirts, and the backs of the pants. I didn’t want to go around advertising some company, so I took off the labels on the shirts and pants and sweaters my mother bought for me. Most of them came off all right, you just took a small pair of scissors and cut the thread in the back, and the thing unraveled and the label pulled right off (if my mom bought me anything with the name printed on it, I would either wear it underneath something or not wear it all), but removing some labels left holes in the sleeves or at the bottom of the shirt. That was my only defining characteristic: a few holes here and there. I wore some Carhartts once in a while, which no one else wore ex­ cept the shit-kicking farm kids. “Bussers,” we called them. Bryce Druitt had been a bus rider, and he was also a Goth. He was the only Goth on the bus, which might explain why he was such an ass. He had a chip on his shoulder about something, although he shouldn’t have. He wasn’t really a farm kid, though; he lived over near Hydesville, about fif­ teen minutes away. That was the only other town where they rode the bus to our school. The rest of them were farm kids. Bryce was a senior, which meant that he no longer rode the bus. He drove. Bryce Druitt had started as a jock. He played football and ran cross-country, and was one of the best basketball


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players in the school. He started on the varsity team when he was a freshman (that was the only team the school had; we didn’t have enough players for another squad), and helped lead them to the second round of the state cham­ pionship. The funny thing about that was that the old court in the high school, built in the 1940s, no longer met the minimum state requirements and so our team had to play every game of the season on the road. A new gymnasium was built at the end of the season. It was a big ugly metal building plopped down between the school and the football field. It had a cramped, dingy weight room, and a small balcony that was never used for anything. But it had a great basketball court, and bleachers that folded up into the walls so you could fit almost the whole town in the metal box for meetings and dances and whatever else people could think of, but they never thought of anything, so the place was al­ ways empty, except for games. Everyone was looking for­ ward to the next season. Everyone was looking forward to seeing Bryce, a year older, a year better. He was a strong, tall blond athlete who had secured himself in the school’s elite and who had everyone’s admiration. When football practice started at the end of summer, Bryce didn’t show up, and when school started he had a shaved head and was dressed all in black. He wasn’t the first, but he was the one they cared about. Bryce Druitt was a world away from me—he lived in an­ other town, he drove, he was a Goth, and he was a senior. We never should have had anything to do with each other, and I wish he wasn’t in this story at all.


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locker To be honest, I wasn’t much of a reader before I met Anna. I was in the library only to see if I could meet someone. This was advice that was given to me by our coach and art teacher, Mr. Devon. “It’s a good way to meet girls,” he told me as I handed in my helmet and uniform and pads. “It gives you something to talk about with them, you know, breaks the ice a little. You have to think about it, though. Don’t just grab the first book you see, or the books every­ body else is reading. You want to stand out from the crowd.” Mr. Devon always seemed to be hanging out with some girl in the hallway between classes, or after school, so I figured he knew what he was talking about. Besides, I didn’t really have anything to lose. I thought about where to go in the li­ brary and what books to try out. I didn’t want to get stuck with any nonfiction—that seemed like too much work— and I wasn’t going near poetry or any of that romantic stuff. That left fiction (or encyclopedias and other reference books, if I wanted to attract a very particular, peculiar girl, the kind you didn’t need a book to attract in the first place). I finally decided to go after books that I would actually want to read and that would attract a certain type of girl, somebody interesting and smart, or who at least thought I was smart. I ended up picking Jack Kerouac because I knew that few other people in my class would even know who he was and I guess because he was kind of like someone I


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hoped to be. He was a cool guy for a while in the 1950s, a James Dean type, and maybe I thought that some of that would rub off on me if girls saw me with his book. If I could be more like Jack Kerouac, then maybe I wouldn’t need to hang out in the library to meet girls. For me, it worked the first time out. I guess Mr. Devon didn’t think that football was going to do the trick for me. I was too light, for one thing, but I was fast and had good hands, so he put me in at wide receiver. I didn’t start or any­ thing like that, but I saw some action and wasn’t entirely horrible. We lost every game anyway, so you had to be com­ pletely worthless not to play. I had maybe a dozen or so passes thrown to me, even caught one for a touchdown, but it was called back on a penalty. Then in practice after the fifth game of the season I broke the index finger on my left hand. Even my injury lacked any sort of glamour or inter­ est. I had caught a pass in the flat, maybe ten yards from the line of scrimmage, and was tackled by three or four guys, and somebody stepped on my hand as they were get­ ting up from the pile and my finger snapped like a twig. It didn’t hurt, but it swelled up immediately and turned blue and purple. The assistant coach, Mr. Ham (he was an enor­ mous guy, so no one ever made fun of his name, not even behind his back), walked me back to the locker room like I had a broken skull or something. He even offered to call my parents for me. I told him that I used the phone with my right hand, which got a laugh out of him at least. My mom picked me up and drove me to the hospital. They took X rays and a day or two later told us what we al­


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ready knew. The season was going to be over before the broken finger could heal, and my parents wanted me to quit, and I didn’t try to talk them out of it, and Mr. Devon didn’t try to talk me out of it, and that was that. It might have been different if I had been a starter. I imagined my­ self pulling down a game-winning pass with one good hand and the other heavily taped. Of course that didn’t happen. “Put some weight on and study the playbook and we’ll see about next season,” Mr. Devon told me after I had cleared out my locker.

The morning after she had talked to me in the library, Anna was waiting by my locker. At least I like to think that she was waiting there—she might have just been standing near it with some of her friends. They were grouped to­ gether as they always were, only this time in a different spot. I saw her as I started to open the lock, and gave her a quick nod when she saw me. She left her friends and came over. “Did you finish Kerouac yet?” she said. I laughed. “No.” “You’d better get a move on, we’ve got a lot to accomplish.” “Like what?” “You’ll see,” she said. “Maybe.” I opened my locker and found a note she had left for me. “Dear HP—There’s a whole world all around more inter­ esting, wonderful, terrifying, mysterious, amazing than any novel ever written. Pay attention. Take a chance. Dare life. Love, craft.”


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Over the following months, she would always call me different names in her notes and letters, and never sign anything with her own name. Sometimes the references were obvious, and sometimes I didn’t know what the hell she was trying to tell me. This one seemed obvious. She had been looking for H. P. Lovecraft in the library, but then I started thinking about it more, thinking too much perhaps. Could both the HP and the pun at the end refer to the same thing? It would mean that the postcard was addressed to and written by the same person, so I began to think that the HP didn’t refer to Lovecraft at all, but was short for “higgledy­ piggledy.” I didn’t like that so much. Maybe she was mak­ ing fun of me, or trying to humiliate me. That moment made all the difference; two paths were clearly marked: Turn my back on Anna’s difficult attention and continue with my life, or respond to her, follow her, and watch the world I thought I knew reveal things I had never imagined. Of course, at the time I was unaware of any of this. I just followed whatever instinct I had. I wasn’t sure if I liked Anna. Although I thought she was beautiful and sexy and all that, she was scary, mysterious. I knew there could be trouble. I think I knew it even then. I threw the note away, but by the time I reached home I regretted it.


THE END

• or something like that •

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• 1 •

One day my best friend named Kim died.

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• 2 •

Before she died, Kim made me promise to contact her.

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• 3 •

I didn’t want to.

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• 4 •

But she made me promise.

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• 5 •

So then I tried. And tried. And tried. And tried. And tried.

Turns out I suck at talking to dead people.

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• 6 •

Another person who died was my earth science teacher named Ms. Homeyer. She didn’t know my best friend Kim. I did not like Ms. Homeyer very much. She died almost a year after Kim died. Her funeral was one day before the anniversary of my dead best friend’s death. I rode the bus to Ms. Homeyer’s funeral.

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• 7 •

I wore my mom’s fancy turquoise dress with the sequins because the black dress I got for Kim’s funeral didn’t fit anymore, and I didn’t have anything else. When Skeeter got on the bus, I could see in his face that I’d made the wrong decision. I could see it right when he looked at me. “Crap,” I said. “What?” He sat next to me. “Nothing.” “No, what?” “I look dumb,” I said.

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He was trying to keep his face normal even though he knew what I was talking about. “You look good,” he said. “Shut up,” I said. “No. Really. You look pretty.” This made it worse because I did not look pretty. I never look pretty. Skeeter was in his Little Caesars uniform with his huge headphones around his neck, and I was in a cocktail dress with my huarache sandals. “Do you really want to do this?” he asked. “We don’t have to.” Ms. Homeyer had died on Tuesday, and Skeeter didn’t get why I wanted to go to her funeral so bad. I didn’t get why I wanted to go so bad either. “I told you, you didn’t have to come,” I said. “I’m here, aren’t I?” We were crammed on the seat because the bus was full: probably a matinee just got out at one of the casinos. I gripped my bag. This was my first time being down on the strip since Kim died, and I still hated it. So much. Skeeter and I sat there and people were sweating and I felt sticky and as we drove, Skeeter kept trying to talk to me, but I kept saying, Skeeter. Stop talking. 20

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And he’d say, But did you see the blah blah? And I’d say, Skeeter, don’t you want to listen to your stupid music? When we turned on Flamingo I watched the people outside and tried to tune out Skeeter’s voice. I heard a lady telling her toddler to pull her panties up. A guy hacking something out of his throat. A kid talking loud in Spanish. Outside there were things. Usual things. Drunks on benches, skanky ladies on cell phones, and tourists taking pictures. Skeeter’s voice came back in. His dog and fishing and Stone Temple Pilots, and blah blah and we turned the corner onto Paradise, and there was a man holding a sign and dancing. The sign said, DR. TED FARNSWORTH IS WATCHING YOU! COME TO HIS SEMINAR TALKING BEYOND. TO FIND OUT MORE! SATURDAY, MAY 26th AT CIRCUS CIRCUS RESORT! GO TO TALKTODEADLOVEDONES.COM FOR MORE INFO.

My heart thumped. 21

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DR. TED FARNSWORTH IS WATCHING YOU!

Thumped. I had been e-mailing Dr. Ted Farnsworth every day for months. E-mailing. Tweeting. Messaging. I even sent him a postcard. All I ever got back were form responses.

THANKS FOR YOUR E-MAIL! REMEMBER THE VEIL IS THIN! YOUR LOVED ONES ARE WAITING! His website said all his shows were postponed until further notice.

But now

He was here. In town. The day before Kim’s death anniversary, THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY IN YOUR MORTAL AND YOUR BELOVED’S IMMORTAL LIVES, and he was here. 22

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We drove away from the sign. We drove and drove and drove and drove and drove away from the sign, and I tried to calm down. I tried to calm down. Then. At the corner of Paradise and Sands, I saw her. At 5:23 on Friday, May 25th, in the middle of Skeeter’s sentence I saw the wrong dead person. I saw Ms. Dead Homeyer.

23

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• 8 •

According to Dr. Ted Farnsworth, if your best friend dies, you can talk to her afterward. She can call you. You can call her. On special occasions she can come down and hang out with you. And if you’re really in tune, she can move into your closet. Kim circled all the dates she was going to appear after she died. “I’ll do your birthday and my birthday,” she said, the pen in her teeth. “Both at Red Rock?” Kim’s favorite place in the whole world was Red Rock Canyon. Mine sort of was too. I wasn’t sure. We’d gone hiking there with her mom, Trish, and my

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dad had taken us a couple times, and sometimes Kim would talk about if she got old enough, she’d move out there. “You’d want to live there?” “Wouldn’t you want to? Like camp every night under the stars?” I thought about it for a second. “I guess?” I wasn’t much of a camper. I hated bugs. “We’ll both move out there,” she said. “Okay.” So for both our birthdays after she died, we were going to meet in the canyon. There were some other dates. Her mom’s birthday, my mom’s birthday. And she kept reminding me, “Don’t forget the most important one, don’t forget the most important date is the anniversary of the day I die.” “You’re not going to die.” “I’m going to die, Emmy.” “You’re not.”

Then she died.

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So on my birthday, fifty-three days after Kim, after her heart stopped, the first important date, I got everything Kim and I had agreed on. I got the cupcakes. I got the Fresca. I got Ladyhawke loaded up on my laptop. I got three boxes of candy: Snickers, Skittles, and M&M’s. I got her favorite book, The House on Mango Street. And I put on my white cargo pants and a white T-shirt. Dr. Ted Farnsworth advocated light colors for dead-people talking. Mom said, “Don’t you want to do something special for your birthday?” She stood in the kitchen, watching me as I packed the soda in my backpack. She’d made Joe go get me doughnuts for breakfast, but now he was at basketball practice and Dad was out golfing. But Mom. Mom was waiting for me. “I have somewhere to go,” I told her. “All day?” “All day,” I said. 26

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She gripped the counter. “Where? Where do you have to go all day long?” She was trying to be patient with me. Her therapist told her to be patient with me. I heard her tell Dad that, and Dad said, “I think that’d be a good idea, Linda.” And it was a good idea. I tucked my hair behind my ear and tried to look normal. Like I was her normal daughter on a normal day that was my birthday. “I’m going to the mall with Gabby,” I said. “Gabby,” she said. “Gabby,” I said. She stared at me. Then she said it again, “You’re going to the mall with Gabby.” It was a bad lie. Mom knew and I knew, that except for the week after Kim died, I hadn’t spoken to Gabby for over a month. She also knew that I’d been sitting in my closet every Friday night, and one time I made a doll out of an old sweater. She thought this was disturbing and discussed it at length with my father who told her she was being irrational. I heard them talking through the vent in my closet. It’s actually a really good place to hear things. 27

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Mom was quiet. “Yeah. She wants to buy me some earrings,” I said, which was stupid because I don’t wear earrings. I grabbed a box of crackers. I didn’t know how long this was going to take and I liked to be prepared. “Why do you need all that food?” she asked. I swallowed. “Uh, because we’re going to have a picnic afterward.” “A picnic?” “Yep.” And I smiled. “Well,” she finally said, “okay.” “Okay?” “Okay.” I opened the fridge and got out some apples. “You could invite her to go to dinner with us.” “Who?” “Gabby,” she said. “To the Cheesecake Factory.” Dinner. Invite Gabby to dinner. “I’ll see,” I said. “But I think she wants to take me out for pizza later.” It sounded so dumb as it came out of my mouth. I was the worst at this. Then she said, “You don’t want to go to dinner?” 28

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Every year we went to the Cheesecake Factory on my birthday. Every single year. This would be the first time we’d be there without Kim. “No,” I said. “It’s okay.” Mom stared at me. “Are you sure, Emmy?” I smiled big and this is what happens when someone knows the other person is lying her face off, and the person lying her face off knows the person knows she’s lying her face off, but she keeps lying as hard and as fast as she can because she also knows that the person won’t stop her. Mom wasn’t going to stop me. This was her being patient. She was going to let me do whatever I wanted on my birthday, and she knew it had nothing to do with my old friends. For the first time since Kim died, I felt love for my mother in her jeggings. “We might go anyway when you get back,” she said, “just for dessert.” I said, “Okay.” And she said, “Okay,” and she handed me forty dollars. “Have fun.” “I will,” I said. I walked out the door and got on the bus that stopped near Red Rock Canyon Road. 29

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aaa The sun was out bright already. As the bus got closer to the stop, I started to feel nervous. We’d talked about it so much. “Do you think I’ll be wearing white?” Kim had said. “I don’t know.” She pulled out some grass and started sucking on it. “What if I’m naked?” “Sick.” “What? It’s only natural. That’s how we were born.” “Yeah, but you aren’t going to appear naked.” She stacked the grass into a pile. “What if all dead people are naked walking around heaven?” “Ew,” I said because I don’t like naked people. I once saw my brother in the bathroom and I can’t talk about it. Kim said, “Let’s close our eyes and think about it.” I hit her. “No, really,” she said. “Think about my uncle Sid.” Kim’s uncle Sid died when we were eight, and I did not want to imagine him like that.

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aaa Now it was my birthday and she was dead and maybe she would show up naked. I got off the bus and walked up the highway. It was a long, long walk, and sometimes Kim and I would bring our bikes on the bus and ride to the canyon. But it was hard to ride a bike with all the stuff in my backpack. So I walked. A falcon flew overhead. Maybe that was Kim, I thought for a second, but then the falcon disappeared behind a hill. And it was really just a magpie. After an hour, I got to the trailhead and stopped. Tried to breathe. I was out of shape. I took a water out of my pack and drank the whole thing. Then I hiked to the rock we’d picked. A flat rock with ruts beat down by the rain. One Saturday we’d come out to choose the place. “This will be where I appear again,” Kim had said, her arms outstretched, her black hair blowing in the wind. I’d held my breath as she stood there, and then she looked at me and started laughing.

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aaa Now I was here alone. Waiting for her. I took a breath. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I pulled out the quilt with the blue buffalo on it. I set out all the food. Then I sat down. The sun was hot and I should have brought a hat. People walked by. A guy with a beard asked me what time it was. I ate a Snickers bar. Two Snickers bars. Then ten. Some crackers. Two apples. I sat there from nine in the morning until eight at night. Alone.

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ONE

Every morning I wake up and I tell myself this: It’s just one day, one twenty-four-hour period to get yourself through. I don’t know when exactly I started giving myself this daily pep talk—or why. It sounds like a twelve-step mantra and I’m not in Anything Anonymous, though to read some of the crap they write about me, you’d think I should be. I have the kind of life a lot of people would probably sell a kidney to just experience a bit of. But still, I find the need to remind myself of the temporariness of a day, to reassure myself that I got through yesterday, I’ll get through today.


This morning, after my daily prodding, I glance at the minimalist digital clock on the hotel nightstand. It reads 11:47, positively crack-of-dawn for me. But the front desk has already rang with two wake-up calls, followed by a polite-but-firm buzz from our manager, Aldous. Today might be just one day, but it’s packed. I’m due at the studio to lay down a few final guitar tracks for some Internet-only version of the first single of our just-released album. Such a gimmick. Same song, new guitar track, some vocal effects, pay an extra buck for it. “These days, you’ve gotta milk a dollar out of every dime,” the suits at the label are so fond of reminding us. After the studio, I have a lunch interview with some reporter from Shuffle. Those two events are kinda like the bookends of what my life has become: making the music, which I like, and talking about making the music, which I loathe. But they’re flip sides of the same coin. When Aldous calls a second time I finally kick off the duvet and grab the prescription bottle from the side table. It’s some anti-anxiety thing I’m supposed to take when I’m feeling jittery. Jittery is how I normally feel. Jittery I’ve gotten used to. But ever since we kicked off our tour with three shows at Madison Square Garden, I’ve been feeling something else. Like I’m about to be sucked into something powerful and painful. Vortexy. 4


Is that even a word? I ask myself. You’re talking to yourself, so who the hell cares? I reply, popping a couple of pills. I pull on some boxers, and go to the door of my room, where a pot of coffee is already waiting. It’s been left there by a hotel employee, undoubtedly under strict instructions to stay out of my way. I finish my coffee, get dressed, and make my way down the service elevator and out the side entrance— the guest-relations manager has kindly provided me with special access keys so I can avoid the scenester parade in the lobby. Out on the sidewalk, I’m greeted by a blast of steaming New York air. It’s kind of oppressive, but I like that the air is wet. It reminds me of Oregon, where the rain falls endlessly, and even on the hottest of summer days, blooming white cumulus clouds float above, their shadows reminding you that summer’s heat is fleeting, and the rain’s never far off. In Los Angeles, where I live now, it hardly ever rains. And the heat, it’s never-ending. But it’s a dry heat. People there use this aridness as a blanket excuse for all of the hot, smoggy city’s excesses. “It may be a hundred and seven degrees today,” they’ll brag, “but at least it’s a dry heat.” But New York is a wet heat; by the time I reach the studio ten blocks away on a desolate stretch in the West 5


Fifties, my hair, which I keep hidden under a cap, is damp. I pull a cigarette from my pocket and my hand shakes as I light up. I’ve had a slight tremor for the last year or so. After extensive medical checks, the doctors declared it nothing more than nerves and advised me to try yoga. When I get to the studio, Aldous is waiting outside under the awning. He looks at me, at my cigarette, back at my face. I can tell by the way that he’s eyeballing me, he’s trying to decide whether he needs to be Good Cop or Bad Cop. I must look like shit because he opts for Good Cop. “Good morning, Sunshine,” he says jovially. “Yeah? What’s ever good about morning?” I try to make it sound like a joke. “Technically, it’s afternoon now. We’re running late.” I stub out my cigarette. Aldous puts a giant paw on my shoulder, incongruously gentle. “We just want one guitar track on ‘Sugar,’ just to give it that little something extra so fans buy it all over again.” He laughs, shakes his head at what the business has become. “Then you have lunch with Shuffle, and we have a photo shoot for that Fashion Rocks thing for the Times with the rest of the band around five, and then a quick drinks thing with some money guys at the label, and then I’m off to the airport. Tomorrow, you have a quick little meeting 6


with publicity and merchandising. Just smile and don’t say a lot. After that you’re on your lonesome until London.” On my lonesome? As opposed to being in the warm bosom of family when we’re all together? I say. Only I say it to myself. More and more lately it seems as though the majority of my conversations are with myself. Given half the stuff I think, that’s probably a good thing. But this time I really will be by myself. Aldous and the rest of the band are flying to England tonight. I was supposed to be on the same flight as them until I realized that today was Friday the thirteenth, and I was like no fucking way! I’m dreading this tour enough as is, so I’m not jinxing it further by leaving on the official day of bad luck. So I’d had Aldous book me a day later. We’re shooting a video in London and then doing a bunch of press before we start the European leg of our tour, so it’s not like I’m missing a show, just a preliminary meeting with our video director. I don’t need to hear about his artistic vision. When we start shooting, I’ll do what he tells me. I follow Aldous into the studio and enter a soundproof booth where it’s just me and a row of guitars. On the other side of the glass sit our producer, Stim, and the sound engineers. Aldous joins them. “Okay, Adam,” says Stim, “one more track on the bridge and the cho7


rus. Just to make that hook that much more sticky. We’ll play with the vocals in the mixing.” “Hooky. Sticky. Got it.” I put on my headphones and pick up my guitar to tune up and warm up. I try not to notice that in spite of what Aldous said a few minutes ago, it feels like I’m already all on my lonesome. Me alone in a soundproof booth. Don’t overthink it, I tell myself. This is how you record in a technologically advanced studio. The only problem is, I felt the same way a few nights ago at the Garden. Up onstage, in front of eighteen thousand fans, alongside the people who, once upon a time, were part of my family, I felt as alone as I do in this booth. Still, it could be worse. I start to play and my fingers nimble up and I get off the stool and bang and crank against my guitar, pummel it until it screeches and screams just the way I want it to. Or almost the way I want it to. There’s probably a hundred grand’s worth of guitars in this room, but none of them sound as good as my old Les Paul Junior—the guitar I’d had for ages, the one I’d recorded our first albums on, the one that, in a fit of stupidity or hubris or whatever, I’d allowed to be auctioned off for charity. The shiny, expensive replacements have never sounded or felt quite right. Still, when I crank it up loud, I do manage to lose myself for a second or two. 8


But it’s over all too soon, and then Stim and the engineers are shaking my hand and wishing me luck on tour, and Aldous is shepherding me out the door and into a town car and we’re whizzing down Ninth Avenue to SoHo, to a hotel whose restaurant the publicists from our record label have decided is a good spot for our interview. What, do they think I’m less likely to rant or say something alienating if I’m in an expensive public place? I remember back in the very early days, when the interviewers wrote ’zines or blogs and were fans and mostly wanted to rock-talk—to discuss the music—and they wanted to speak to all of us together. More often than not, it just turned into a normal conversation with everyone shouting their opinions over one another. Back then I never worried about guarding my words. But now the reporters interrogate me and the band separately, as though they’re cops and they have me and my accomplices in adjacent cells and are trying to get us to implicate one another. I need a cigarette before we go in, so Aldous and I stand outside the hotel in the blinding midday sun as a crowd of people gathers and checks me out while pretending not to. That’s the difference between New York and the rest of the world. People are just as celebritycrazed as anywhere, but New Yorkers—or at least the ones who consider themselves sophisticates and loiter 9


along the kind of SoHo block I’m standing on now— put on this pretense that they don’t care, even as they stare out from their three-hundred-dollar shades. Then they act all disdainful when out-of-towners break the code by rushing up and asking for an autograph as a pair of girls in U Michigan sweatshirts have just done, much to the annoyance of the nearby trio of snobs, who watch the girls and roll their eyes and give me a look of sympathy. As if the girls are the problem. “We need to get you a better disguise, Wilde Man,” Aldous says, after the girls, giggling with excitement, flutter away. He’s the only one who’s allowed to call me that anymore. Before it used to be a general nickname, a takeoff on my last name, Wilde. But once I sort of trashed a hotel room and after that “Wilde Man” became an unshakable tabloid moniker. Then, as if on cue, a photographer shows up. You can’t stand in front of a high-end hotel for more than three minutes before that happens. “Adam! Bryn inside?” A photo of me and Bryn is worth about quadruple one of me alone. But after the first flash goes off, Aldous shoves one hand in front of the guy’s lens, and another in front of my face. As he ushers me inside, he preps me. “The reporter is named Vanessa LeGrande. She’s not one of those grizzled types you hate. She’s young. Not younger than you, 10


but early twenties, I think. Used to write for a blog before she got tapped by Shuffle.” “Which blog?” I interrupt. Aldous rarely gives me detailed rundowns on reporters unless there’s a reason. “Not sure. Maybe Gabber.” “Oh, Al, that’s a piece-of-crap gossip site.” “Shuffle isn’t a gossip site. And this is the cover exclusive.” “Fine. Whatever,” I say, pushing through the restaurant doors. Inside it’s all low steel-and-glass tables and leather banquettes, like a million other places I’ve been to. These restaurants think so highly of themselves, but really they’re just overpriced, overstylized versions of McDonald’s. “There she is, corner table, the blonde with the streaks,” Aldous says. “She’s a sweet little number. Not that you have a shortage of sweet little numbers. Shit, don’t tell Bryn I said that. Okay, forget it. I’ll be up here at the bar.” Aldous staying for the interview? That’s a publicist’s job, except that I refused to be chaperoned by publicists. I must really seem off-kilter. “You babysitting?” I ask. “Nope. Just thought you could use some backup.” Vanessa LeGrande is cute. Or maybe hot is a more accurate term. It doesn’t matter. I can tell by the way she licks her lips and tosses her hair back that she knows it, and that pretty much ruins the effect. A tattoo of a 11


snake runs up her wrist, and I’d bet our platinum album that she has a tramp stamp. Sure enough, when she reaches into her bag for her digital recorder, peeping up from the top of her low-slung jeans is a small inked arrow pointing south. Classy. “Hey, Adam,” Vanessa says, looking at me conspiratorially, like we’re old buddies. “Can I just say I’m a huge fan? Collateral Damage got me through a devastating breakup senior year of college. So, thank you.” She smiles at me. “Uh, you’re welcome.” “And now I’d like to return the favor by writing the best damn profile of Shooting Star ever to hit the page. So how about we get down to brass tacks and blow this thing right out of the water?” Get down to brass tacks? Do people even understand half the crap that comes spilling out of their mouths? Vanessa may be attempting to be brassy or sassy or trying to win me over with candor or show me how real she is, but whatever it is she’s selling, I’m not buying. “Sure,” is all I say. A waiter comes to take our order. Vanessa orders a salad; I order a beer. Vanessa flips through a Moleskine notebook. “I know we’re supposed to be talking about BloodSuckerSunshine . . .” she begins. Immediately, I frown. That’s exactly what we’re supposed to be talking about. That’s why I’m here. Not to 12


be friends. Not to swap secrets, but because it’s part of my job to promote Shooting Star’s albums. Vanessa turns on her siren. “I’ve been listening to it for weeks, and I’m a fickle, hard-to-please girl.” She laughs. In the distance, I hear Aldous clear his throat. I look at him. He’s wearing a giant fake smile and giving me a thumbs-up. He looks ludicrous. I turn to Vanessa and force myself to smile back. “But now that your second major-label album is out and your harder sound is, I think we can all agree, established, I’m wanting to write a definitive survey. To chart your evolution from emocore band to the scions of agita-rock.” Scions of agita-rock? This self-important wankjob deconstructionist crap was something that really threw me in the beginning. As far as I was concerned, I wrote songs: chords and beats and lyrics, verses and bridges and hooks. But then, as we got bigger, people began to dissect the songs, like a frog from biology class until there was nothing left but guts—tiny parts, so much less than the sum. I roll my eyes slightly, but Vanessa’s focused on her notes. “I was listening to some bootlegs of your really early stuff. It’s so poppy, almost sweet comparatively. And I’ve been reading everything ever written about you guys, every blog post, every ’zine article. And almost everyone refers to this so-called Shooting Star 13


“black hole,” but no one really ever penetrates it. You have your little indie release; it does well; you were poised for the big leagues, but then this lag. Rumors were that you’d broken up. And then comes Collateral Damage. And pow.” Vanessa mimes an explosion coming out of her closed fists. It’s a dramatic gesture, but not entirely off base. Collateral Damage came out two years ago, and within a month of its release, the single “Animate” had broken onto the national charts and gone viral. We used to joke you couldn’t listen to the radio for longer than an hour without hearing it. Then “Bridge” catapulted onto the charts, and soon after the entire album was climbing to the number-one album slot on iTunes, which in turn made every Walmart in the country stock it, and soon it was bumping Lady Gaga off the number-one spot on the Billboard charts. For a while it seemed like the album was loaded onto the iPod of every person between the ages of twelve and twenty-four. Within a matter of months, our half-forgotten Oregon band was on the cover of Time magazine being touted as “The Millennials’ Nirvana.” But none of this is news. It had all been documented, over and over again, ad nauseam, including in Shuffle. I’m not sure where Vanessa is going with it.

14


“You know, everyone seems to attribute the harder sound to the fact that Gus Allen produced Collateral Damage.” “Right,” I say. “Gus likes to rock.” Vanessa takes a sip of water. I can hear her tongue ring click. “But Gus didn’t write those lyrics, which are the foundation for all that oomph. You did. All that raw power and emotion. It’s like Collateral Damage is the angriest album of the decade.” “And to think, we were going for the happiest.” Vanessa looks up at me, narrows her eyes. “I meant it as a compliment. It was very cathartic for a lot of people, myself included. And that’s my point. Everyone knows something went down during your ‘black hole.’ It’s going to come out eventually, so why not control the message? Who does the ‘collateral damage’ refer to?” she asks, making air quotes. “What happened with you guys? With you?” Our waiter delivers Vanessa’s salad. I order a second beer and don’t answer her question. I don’t say anything, just keep my eyes cast downward. Because Vanessa’s right about one thing. We do control the message. In the early days, we got asked this question all the time, but we just kept the answers vague: took a while to find our sound, to write our songs. But now the band’s

15


big enough that our publicists issue a list of no-go topics to reporters: Liz and Sarah’s relationship, mine and Bryn’s, Mike’s former drug problems—and the Shooting Star’s “black hole.” But Vanessa apparently didn’t get the memo. I glance over at Aldous for some help, but he’s in deep conversation with the bartender. So much for backup. “The title refers to war,” I say. “We’ve explained that before.” “Right,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Because your lyrics are so political.” Vanessa stares at me with those big baby blues. This is a reporter’s technique: create an awkward silence and wait for your subject to fill it in with babble. It won’t work with me, though. I can outstare anyone. Vanessa’s eyes suddenly go cold and hard. She abruptly puts her breezy, flirty personality on the back burner and stares at me with hard ambition. She looks hungry, but it’s an improvement because at least she’s being herself. “What happened, Adam? I know there’s a story there, the story of Shooting Star, and I’m going to be the one to tell it. What turned this indie-pop band into a primal rock phenomenon?” I feel a cold hard fist in my stomach. “Life happened. And it took us a while to write the new stuff—”

16


“Took you a while,” Vanessa interrupts. “You wrote both the recent albums.” I just shrug. “Come on, Adam! Collateral Damage is your record. It’s a masterpiece. You should be proud of it. And I just know the story behind it, behind your band, is your story, too. A huge shift like this, from collaborative indie quartet to star-driven emotional punk powerhouse—it’s all on you. I mean you alone were the one up at the Grammys accepting the award for Best Song. What did that feel like?” Like shit. “In case you forgot, the whole band won Best New Artist. And that was more than a year ago.” She nods. “Look, I’m not trying to diss anybody or reopen wounds. I’m just trying to understand the shift. In sound. In lyrics. In band dynamics.” She gives me a knowing look. “All signs point to you being the catalyst.” “There’s no catalyst. We just tinkered with our sound. Happens all the time. Like Dylan going electric. Like Liz Phair going commercial. But people tend to freak out when something diverges from their expectations.” “I just know there’s something more to it,” Vanessa continues, pushing forward against the table so hard that it shoves into my gut and I have to physically push it back.

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“Well, you’ve obviously got your theory, so don’t let the truth get in the way.” Her eyes flash for a quick second and I think I’ve pissed her off, but then she puts her hands up. Her nails are bitten down. “Actually, you want to know my theory?” she drawls. Not particularly. “Lay it on me.” “I talked to some people you went to high school with.” I feel my entire body freeze up, soft matter hardening into lead. It takes extreme concentration to lift the glass to my lips and pretend to take a sip. “I didn’t realize that you went to the same high school as Mia Hall,” she says lightly. “You know her? The cellist? She’s starting to get a lot of buzz in that world. Or whatever the equivalent of buzz is in classical music. Perhaps hum.” The glass shakes in my hand. I have to use my other hand to help lower it to the table to keep from spilling all over myself. All the people who really know what actually had happened back then aren’t talking, I remind myself. Rumors, even true ones, are like flames: Stifle the oxygen and they sputter and die. “Our high school had a good arts program. It was kind of a breeding ground for musicians,” I explain. “That makes sense,” Vanessa says, nodding. “There’s a vague rumor that you and Mia were a couple in high 18


school. Which was funny because I’d never read about it anywhere and it certainly seems noteworthy.” An image of Mia flashes before my eyes. Seventeen years old, those dark eyes full of love, intensity, fear, music, sex, magic, grief. Her freezing hands. My own freezing hands, now still grasping the glass of ice water. “It would be noteworthy if it were true,” I say, forcing my voice into an even tone. I take another gulp of water and signal the waiter for another beer. It’s my third, the dessert course of my liquid lunch. “So it’s not?” She sounds skeptical. “Wishful thinking,” I reply. “We knew each other casually from school.” “Yeah, I couldn’t get anyone who really knew either of you to corroborate it. But then I got a hold of an old yearbook and there’s a sweet shot of the two of you. You look pretty coupley. The thing is, there’s no name with the photo, just a caption. So unless you know what Mia looks like, you might miss it.” Thank you, Kim Schein: Mia’s best friend, yearbook queen, paparazzo. We hadn’t wanted that picture used, but Kim had snuck it in by not listing our names with it, just that stupid nickname. “Groovy and the Geek?” Vanessa asks. “You guys even had a handle.” 19


“You’re using high school yearbooks as your source? What next? Wikipedia?” “You’re hardly a reliable source. You said you knew each other ‘casually.’” “Look, the truth is we maybe hooked up for a few weeks, right when those pictures got taken. But, hey, I dated a lot of girls in high school.” I give her my best playboy smirk. “So you haven’t seen her since school then?” “Not since she left for college,” I say. That part, at least, is true. “So how come when I interviewed the rest of your bandmates, they went all no comment when I asked about her?” she asks, eyeing me hard. Because whatever else has gone wrong with us, we’re still loyal. About that. I force myself to speak out loud: “Because there’s nothing to tell. I think people like you like the sitcom aspect of, you know, two well-known musicians from the same high school being a couple.” “People like me?” Vanessa asks. Vultures. Bloodsuckers. Soul-stealers. “Reporters,” I say. “You’re fond of fairy tales.” “Well, who isn’t?” Vanessa says. “Although that woman’s life has been anything but a fairy tale. She lost her whole family in a car crash.”

20


Vanessa mock shudders the way you do when you talk about someone’s misfortunes that have nothing to do with you, that don’t touch you, and never will. I’ve never hit a woman in my life, but for one minute I want to punch her in the face, give her a taste of the pain she’s so casually describing. But I hold it together and she carries on, clueless. “Speaking of fairy tales, are you and Bryn Shraeder having a baby? I keep seeing her in all the tabloids’ bump watches.” “No,” I reply. “Not that I know of.” I’m damn sure Vanessa knows that Bryn is off-limits, but if talking about Bryn’s supposed pregnancy will distract her, then I’ll do it. “Not that you know of ? You’re still together, right?” God, the hunger in her eyes. For all her talk of writing definitive surveys, for all her investigative skills, she’s no different from all the other hack journalists and stalker photographers, dying to be the first to deliver a big scoop, either on a birth: Is It Twins for Adam and Bryn? Or a death: Bryn Tells Her Wilde Man: “It’s Quits!” Neither story is true, but some weeks I see both of them on the covers of different gossip rags at the same time. I think of the house in L.A. that Bryn and I share. Or coinhabit. I can’t remember the last time the two of

21


us were there together at the same time for more than a week. She makes two, three films a year, and she just started her own production company. So between shooting and promoting her films and chasing down properties to produce, and me being in the studio and on tour, we seem to be on opposing schedules. “Yep, Bryn and I are still together,” I tell Vanessa. “And she’s not pregnant. She’s just into those peasant tops these days, so everyone always assumes it’s to hide a belly. It’s not.” Truth be told, I sometimes wonder if Bryn wears those tops on purpose, to court the bump watch as a way to tempt fate. She seriously wants a kid. Even though publicly, Bryn is twenty-four, in reality, she’s twenty-eight and she claims her clock is ticking and all that. But I’m twenty-one, and Bryn and I have only been together a year. And I don’t care if Bryn says that I have an old soul and have been through a lifetime already. Even if I were forty-one, and Bryn and I had just celebrated twenty years together, I wouldn’t want a kid with her. “Will she be joining you on the tour?” At the mere mention of the tour, I feel my throat start to close up. The tour is sixty-seven nights long. Sixtyseven. I mentally pat for my pill bottle, grow calmer

22


knowing it’s there, but am smarter than to sneak one in front of Vanessa. “Huh?” I ask. “Is Bryn going to come meet you on the tour at all?” I imagine Bryn on tour, with her stylists, her Pilates instructors, her latest raw-foods diet. “Maybe.” “How do you like living in Los Angeles?” Vanessa asks. “You don’t seem like the SoCal type.” “It’s a dry heat,” I reply. “What?” “Nothing. A joke.” “Oh. Right.” Vanessa eyes me skeptically. I no longer read interviews about myself, but when I used to, words like inscrutable were often used. And arrogant. Is that really how people see me? Thankfully, our allotted hour is up. She closes her notebook and calls for the check. I catch Aldous’s relievedlooking eyes to let him know we’re wrapping up. “It was nice meeting you, Adam,” she says. “Yeah, you too,” I lie. “I gotta say, you’re a puzzle.” She smiles and her teeth gleam an unnatural white. “But I like puzzles. Like your lyrics, all those grisly images on Collateral Damage. And the lyrics on the new record, also very cryptic. You know some critics question whether Blood-

23


SuckerSunshine can match the intensity of Collateral Damage. . . .” I know what’s coming. I’ve heard this before. It’s this thing that reporters do. Reference other critics’ opinions as a backhanded way to espouse their own. And I know what she’s really asking, even if she doesn’t: How does it feel that the only worthy thing you ever created came from the worst kind of loss? Suddenly, it’s all too much. Bryn and the bump watch. Vanessa with my high school yearbook. The idea that nothing’s sacred. Everything’s fodder. That my life belongs to anyone but me. Sixty-seven nights. Sixtyseven, sixty-seven. I push the table hard so that glasses of water and beer go clattering into her lap. “What the—?” “This interview’s over,” I growl. “I know that. Why are you freaking out on me?” “Because you’re nothing but a vulture! This has fuck all to do with music. It’s about picking everything apart.” Vanessa’s eyes dance as she fumbles for her recorder. Before she has a chance to turn it back on, I pick it up and slam it against the table, shattering it, and then dump it into a glass of water for good measure. My hand is shaking and my heart is pounding and I feel the be-

24


ginnings of a panic attack, the kind that makes me sure I’m about to die. “What did you just do?” Vanessa screams. “I don’t have a backup.” “Good.” “How am I supposed to write my article now?” “You call that an article?” “Yeah. Some of us have to work for a living, you prissy, temperamental ass—” “Adam!” Aldous is at my side, laying a trio of hundreddollar bills on the table. “For a new one,” he says to Vanessa, before ushering me out of the restaurant and into a taxi. He throws another hundred-dollar bill at the driver after he balks at my lighting up. Aldous reaches into my pocket and grabs my prescription bottle, shakes a tablet into his hand, and says, “Open up,” like some bearish mother. He waits until we’re a few blocks from my hotel, until I’ve sucked down two cigarettes in one continuous inhale and popped another anxiety pill. “What happened back there?” I tell him. Her questions about the “black hole.” Bryn. Mia. “Don’t worry. We can call Shuffle. Threaten to pull their exclusive if they don’t put a different reporter on

25


the piece. And maybe this gets into the tabloids or Gabber for a few days, but it’s not much of a story. It’ll blow over.” Aldous is saying all this stuff calmly, like, hey, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, but I can read the worry in his eyes. “I can’t, Aldous.” “Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to. It’s just an article. It’ll be handled.” “Not just that. I can’t do it. Any of it.” Aldous, who I don’t think has slept a full night since he toured with Aerosmith, allows himself to look exhausted for a few seconds. Then he goes back to manager mode. “You’ve just got pretour burnout. Happens to the best of ’em,” he assures me. “Once you get on the road, in front of the crowds, start to feel the love, the adrenaline, the music, you’ll be energized. I mean, hell, you’ll be fried for sure, but happy-fried. And come November, when this is over, you can go veg out on an island somewhere where nobody knows who you are, where nobody gives a shit about Shooting Star. Or wild Adam Wilde.” November? It’s August now. That’s three months. And the tour is sixty-seven nights. Sixty-seven. I repeat it in my head like a mantra, except it does the opposite of what a mantra’s supposed to do. It makes me want to grab fistfuls of my hair and yank. 26


And how do I tell Aldous, how do I tell any of them, that the music, the adrenaline, the love, all the things that mitigate how hard this has become, all of that’s gone? All that’s left is this vortex. And I’m right on the edge of it. My entire body is shaking. I’m losing it. A day might be just twenty-four hours but sometimes getting through just one seems as impossible as scaling Everest.

27


{ } one

we plunged toward the future without a clue. Tonight, we were four sweaty guys heading home from a day spent shooting hoops. Tomorrow, I couldn’t even guess what would happen. All I knew for sure was that our lives were about to change. “Any idea what it’ll be like?” I asked. My mind kept flashing images of cattle. They shuffled up a ramp, unaware that their path led to a slaughterhouse. “A Tomb Raider movie,” Patrick said. “Or Indiana Jones.” “It’ll be the same as always,” Kyle said. “Boring and stupid.” Patrick shook his head. “Nope. Tomb Raider, for sure. We’ll get eaten alive if we aren’t careful, but we’ll be surrounded by amazing stuff.” “Right. Amazing stuff,” Mitch said. He rubbed his hands together as if he were about to dive into a juicy burger. “High school girls. Hundreds of ’em.” “Like we have a chance with them,” Patrick said. “I heard the seniors snag all the hot girls.” “Not when I’m around.” Kyle slicked his hair back with his right hand, then made a fist and flexed his biceps. “Girls melt when I get near them.”

{} 3


“Mostly from the fumes,” Patrick said. “What about the classes?” I asked as Kyle shoved Patrick toward the curb. “Think they’ll be hard?” “Who cares?” Mitch said. “You just have to show up and you’ll pass.” We reached my house. Second from the corner on Willow Street. The guys lived on the other side of the neighborhood. I realized that the next time we saw one another, we’d be freshmen at J. P. Zenger High. Freshmen. Unbelievable. Fresh? Definitely. Men? Not a clue. I turned toward my friends. “Bye,” Patrick said. Mitch grunted a farewell. Kyle’s hand twitched in a lazy wave. I wanted to say something more meaningful than See ya later. There they were, right in front of me—Kyle, who I’d known since kindergarten, Patrick, who I’d met in second grade, and Mitch, who’d moved here in sixth grade. We’d done everything together, all through middle school. The perfect words were so obvious, I couldn’t help smiling as I spoke. “One for all and all for one.” The phrase was greeted with silence. Around us, I could hear the last crickets of summer chirping faintly. The crickets, too, seemed puzzled. “One for all . . .” I said again. Mitch frowned. “One for all what?” “Is that like a Marines slogan?” Kyle asked. “No, I think it’s on coins. It’s that Latin stuff, right?” Patrick said. “It’s E Pluto Pup something or other.”

{} 4


“It’s from The Three Musketeers,” I told them. “It’s a famous book.” Three pairs of eyes stared at me without a glimmer. “There’s a movie, too,” I said. “These guys stuck together no matter what.” Kyle looked around, tapped his thumb against the tip of each of his fingers, then said, “But there are four of us.” “Absolutely. That’s what’s so perfect. There were four Musketeers, too.” “That’s stupid,” Mitch said. “Somebody couldn’t count.” “Well, anyhow, let’s stick together tomorrow,” I said. “You bet,” Patrick said. “For sure,” Mitch said. “One for all and all for me,” Kyle said. He turned to go. “See ya later,” I called as they walked off. Mom and Dad were side by side on the living-room couch. The TV was on, but it didn’t look like they were watching it. They stopped talking when I walked in. “What’s up?” I asked. “Hi, Scott,” Dad said. “You have fun with your friends?” “Yeah.” I noticed his eyes kept shifting from me to Mom. “Is something going on?” “Tomorrow’s the big day,” Mom said. “You must be excited.” Now I got it. They were stressed out from worrying whether they were headed for another disaster, which was one of the milder ways to describe my brother Bobby’s high school experience.

{} 5


“I’m sure I’ll do fine.” I could almost guarantee I wouldn’t skip history seventeen straight days in a row, get nabbed nine times for public displays of affection—with nine different girls—or pull off any of the other stunts that helped end Bobby’s high school experience half a year earlier than planned. “I’m really excited about school.” “Good.” Mom smiled with way more joy than the situation seemed to call for. “Do you want me to make you a lunch? I bought your favorite rolls.” “No.” I tried to hide my shudder as I imagined carrying a paper bag into the cafeteria. “Thanks.” “I think he’d rather buy lunch,” Dad said. I nodded, shot Dad a grateful look, and headed upstairs. I wanted to get my stuff ready, and they probably wanted to talk more about how there was nothing to worry about because I was different from Bobby. Man, was that ever true. Bobby was almost as tall as Dad, good with tools, and strong enough to carry two sacks of concrete at once. Eighty pounds on one shoulder. That sort of load would snap my spine. Girls chased him like he was some kind of movie star. He’d gotten all the good genes. I was a runt who had to think hard to remember which way to turn a wrench. I put my stuff in my backpack. Then I grabbed the books I’d bought last Saturday. Dad and I had gone to the flea market up near Stroudsburg. We go there at least once a month when it’s open. He looks for tools. I look for books. I’d snagged a whole stack of Robert Heinlein novels for two

{} 6


bucks, and a Field Guide to North American Game Fish for fifty cents. Dad had gotten some huge clamps for five bucks. That’s the weird thing about flea markets—books and tools seem to cost about the same amount per pound. I crammed the novels into one of my bookcases, then sat on my bed and leafed through the field guide, looking at the color photos of smallmouth bass and imagining landing a four pounder while wading in the Delaware. Before I went to sleep, I called Bobby at his apartment to see if I could get any advice from him about school. Which I guess was like asking General Custer for combat tips. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t in. That night, I dreamed I was field-testing flamethrowers for the army. In a supermarket. I awoke to the smell of bacon. First day of high school. I couldn’t believe it was finally here. Dad had already left for work. Mom was sitting on a stool by the kitchen counter, reading a magazine. But as my nose had told me, she’d been hard at work creating breakfast. “Good morning,” she said. She slipped the magazine under the newspaper. “Hungry?” “Starved.” Mom always made blueberry pancakes and bacon on the first day of school. As she loaded up my plate with enough protein and carbs to fuel a Mars mission, I glanced at the corner of the magazine where it stuck out from under the paper. Mom didn’t usually hide stuff. It was probably one of those supermarket things, with stories about aliens who

{} 7


looked like Elvis and kids who’d been raised in the desert by giant toads. Mom got herself a plate and joined me as I tried to make a dent in my stack. We didn’t talk much while we ate. She seemed to be a million miles away. “You okay?” I asked. The too-big smile reappeared. “I can still make you a lunch. There’s plenty of time.” “Maybe tomorrow.” I glanced at the clock. “Gotta go.” I grabbed my backpack and headed for the bus stop. I was the first one there. I should have brought a book to help kill the time. But that would immediately mark me as a real geek. Eventually, I heard a noise in the distance. “Hey, Scottie,” Mouth Kandeski shouted when he was still half a block away. “Whatcha think? High school. It’s the big time. We’re in high school. Man, that’s cool. That’s sooooo cool.” He dribbled a trail of words like a leaking milk carton as he closed the distance between us. My best guess is that he can only breathe when he’s talking. “Hi, Mouth,” I said when he reached me. His name’s Louden. Bad move on his parents’ part. He got called Loudmouth the moment he started school. It was shortened to Mouth soon after that. We didn’t hang out or anything, but I guess since I was one of the few kids on the planet who’d never screamed, “Shut up!” at him, he figured I was interested in what he had to say. I was more interested in wondering what would happen to him if I clamped a hand over his mouth. Maybe he’d swell up and explode. Maybe the top of his head

{} 8


would pop off, sending his dorky orange ball cap into orbit where it belonged. Maybe the words would shoot out of his butt with so much force his pants would rip. Left unclamped, Mouth had plenty more to discuss. “I’ll tell you, I can’t wait. This is awesome. I’m kinda nervous. Are you nervous? I mean, I’m not scared, or nothing, but just kinda nervous. You know, nervous isn’t the same as scared. It’s sort of like the buzz you get from lots of coffee. I drank eight cups, once. I started drinking coffee this summer. You drink coffee? It’s not bad if you put in enough sugar.” Past Mouth, I spotted more freshmen. Familiar faces from Tom Paine Middle School, looking like Easter eggs in their new clothes. Then one unfamiliar face. A goddess. An honestto-goodness goddess. At the first sight of her, even from a distance, I felt like I’d been stabbed in the gut with an icicle. I wanted to gather branches and build a shrine, or slay a mastodon and offer her the finest pieces, fresh from the hunt. “Whoa, it’s Julia,” Mouth said, breaking the spell. “Hey, Julia, you look different.” Wow. Mouth was right. It was Julia Baskins. I’d known her most of my life, and I hadn’t recognized her. She was one of those kids who blend into the background. Like me, I guess. Well, the background had lost a blender. She was gorgeous. She’d always kept her dark brown hair in a braid. Now it was cut short and shaggy, with a couple of highlights. She was wearing makeup that did amazing things to her eyes, and a sweater and khakis that did amazing things to the rest of her. She looked taller, too. “You’re wearing contacts, right?” Mouth called to her. “I

{} 9


wanted contacts, but Mom said I had to wait until I got more responsible. Just because I let my braces get gunked up and had all those cavities. And lost my retainer three times. Well, really just twice. The other time, my dog ate it, so that doesn’t count. You have a dog?” Julia shook her head and managed to squeeze in the word “Cat.” “I don’t have a cat. I have an Airedale,” Mouth said. “He’s not purebred, but that’s what we think he mostly is.” He jammed his hand into his jacket pocket, fished around, and pulled out a broken Oreo. “Want a cookie?” “No, thanks.” Julia slipped away from Mouth and joined her friend Kelly Holbrook near the curb. I worked my way closer and tried to think of some excuse to talk to her. I never got the chance.

{ } 1 0


{ } two

a hush fell over our cluster of freshmen, cloaking us with that same sense of dread that ancient civilizations must have felt during a solar eclipse. But we weren’t awestruck by a dragon eating the sun. We were facing a much less mythical danger. Older kids. An army of giants. I’d just spent a year in eighth grade, towering over the sixth and seventh graders. Okay— that was an exaggeration. I only towered over the short ones. But I wasn’t used to being at the bottom of the food chain. Or the wrong end of a growth spurt. I felt like the towel boy for the Sixers. As the loud, joking, shoving mob reached us, I slipped toward the back of the group and pretended to adjust my watch. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a kid kneel to tie his shoe. That earned him a kick in the rear from a member of the mob as it passed by. Mouth kept talking. Big mistake. The giants closed in on him, dumped the contents of his backpack onto the sidewalk, and threw his hat down a storm drain. “Hey, come on, guys,” Mouth said as his possessions spilled

{ } 1 1


across the concrete. “Come on. Hey. Stop it. Come on, that’s not funny. We’re all classmates, right? We all go to the same school. Let’s be friends.” The scary thing was that the big kids didn’t seem angry. I’m pretty sure they trashed his stuff by reflex, like they were scratching an itch or squashing a bug. Some people step on ants. Some people step on freshmen. I guess it was better to be a freshman than an ant. At least the seniors didn’t have giant magnifying glasses. Mouth was spared from further damage by the arrival of transportation. With an ear-killing squeal of brakes, the bus skidded to the curb, bathing us in the thick aroma of diesel fuel, motor oil, and a faint whiff of cooked antifreeze. The driver opened the door and glared at Mouth as the mob pushed their way aboard. “Pick up that mess, kid!” he shouted. When I walked past Mouth, I thought about giving him a hand. “You’re holding us up!” the driver shouted. He kept his glare aimed in my direction while he took a gulp of coffee from a grimy thermos cup. Great—of all the types of bus drivers in the world, I had to get a shouter. I hurried on board, hoping to grab a seat near Julia. No such luck. As dangerous as the bus stop is, at least there are places to run. There’s no escape from the bus. It’s like a traveling version of a war game. All that’s missing is paintball guns and maybe a couple foxholes. I could swear one of the kids in the back was in his twenties. I think he was shaving.

{ } 1 2


I sat up front. That wasn’t much better, since every big kid who got on at the rest of the stops had a chance to smack my head. I should have grabbed a seat behind Sheldon Murmbower. There was something about his head that attracted swats. Everyone within two or three rows of him was pretty safe. For the moment, all I could do was try to learn invisibility. I opened my backpack and searched for something to keep me busy. Now I really wished I’d brought that field guide, or anything else to read. All I had was blank notebooks, pens, and pencils. I grabbed a notebook. The driver was shouting at a new batch of kids as they got on. Then he shouted at Mouth, who was sitting in the front seat. “Shut up, kid! You’re distracting me.” Last year was so much better. I had the greatest driver. Louie. He used to drive a city bus. That gave me an idea. I started writing. It didn’t cut down on the smacks as much as I’d hoped, but it kept my mind off them. Scott Hudson’s Field Guide to School-Bus Drivers Retired City-Bus Driver: Unbelievably skilled. Can fit the bus through the narrowest opening. Never hits anything by accident but might bump a slow-moving car on purpose. Spits out the window a lot. Never looks in the mirror to check on us. Knows all the best swear words. Ex-hippie (or Child of Hippies): Has a ponytail, smiles too much, uses words like groovy. Likes to weave back and forth between the lanes in time to Grateful Dead music.

{ } 1 3


Wears loose, colorful clothing. Smells like incense. Refuses to believe it’s the twenty-first century. College Student: Similar to the hippie, but no ponytail. Hits stuff once in a while. Studies for exams while driving. Sometimes takes naps at red lights or does homework while steering with knees. Beginner: Very nervous. Goes slowly. Can’t get out of first gear, but still manages to hit stuff pretty often. Makes all kinds of cool sounds when frightened. Occasionally shuts eyes. Shouter: Very loud. Goes fast. Slams the door. Likes country music, NASCAR, and black coffee. Hands tend to shake when they’re not clutching the wheel. Often has broken blood vessels in eyes. Usually needs a shave. Always needs a shower.

Twenty minutes and one full page later, we reached J. P. Zenger High. “No pushing,” the driver shouted as we scrambled out. “High school,” Mouth said, staggering to the side as someone pushed him out of the way. “Here we come. This is going to be great. We’re going to rule this place.” Wrong, Mouth. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. There were so many buses, the parking lot smelled like a truck stop. On top of that, the lot was jammed with a long line of parents dropping off kids and a wave of seniors driving their own cars with varying degrees of skill.

{ } 1 4


I stood on the curb for a moment, my eyes wide and my head tilted back. I’d seen it a thousand times before, but I’d never really looked at it. Zenger High was huge. It sprawled out like a hotel that had a desperate desire to become an octopus. Every couple years, the town built another addition. The school mascot should have been a bulldozer. My homeroom was located as far as possible from the bus area. I got lost twice. The first time, I asked some older kid for directions, and he sent me off to what turned out to be the furnace room. I assumed this was an example of upperclassman humor. The janitor, who I’d wakened from a nap, yelled at me. I reached my desk just before the late bell rang. I didn’t see a single familiar face in homeroom. The teacher passed out blank assignment books. Then he gave us our schedules. I scanned mine, hoping to get at least a clue about what lay ahead.

Period

Class

Teacher

1st

H. English

Mr. Franka

2nd

Gym/Study Hall

Mr. Cravutto/Staff

3rd

Art

Ms. Savitch

4th

Lunch

5th

C.P. History

Mr. Ferragamo

6th

C.P. Algebra

Ms. Flutemeyer

7th

Life Skills

Ms. Pell

8th

C.P. Spanish

Ms. de Gaulle

9th

C.P. Chemistry

Ms. Balmer

{ } 1 5


I had no idea what the H or the C.P. stood for. Since there was no teacher listed for lunch, I grabbed a pen and wrote Mr. E. Meat. My first class turned out to be as far as possible from homeroom, and nearly impossible to find. But at least I knew enough not to ask for directions. Ten minutes into my freshman year, I’d already learned an important lesson. When I reached the room, I finally saw a face I recognized. The same face I hadn’t recognized earlier. Julia was in my English class, along with Kelly, and a couple other kids I knew. Still no sign of Kyle, Patrick, or Mitch. I grabbed a seat two rows away from Julia. Things were looking up. “Welcome to Honors English,” Mr. Franka said. He was a short guy with a beard and sideburns and the sort of rugged face you see on the cable hunting shows. Instead of a camouflage outfit, he was wearing a light blue button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, but no tie or jacket. “I hope you all love to read.” He grabbed a stack of paperbacks from his desk and started tossing them out like literary Frisbees. I noticed a Marine tattoo on his left forearm. He also passed out a textbook, which weighed about nine pounds. Fortunately, he didn’t toss it. Otherwise, there’d probably have been a death or two in the back row. Instead of reading in class, we started discussing how to define a short story. It was actually fun. I didn’t say too much. I didn’t want anyone to think I was some kind of brain—which I’m not. I wasn’t even sure how I’d ended up in the honors

{ } 1 6


class. Maybe it was because of the tests we’d taken at the end of last year. Mr. Franka kept asking us all sorts of questions to keep the discussion going. At one point, he said, “What do you think is easier to write, a short story or a novel?” I almost raised my hand. I’d read so many of both, I figured I had a good answer. A story was harder because you couldn’t wander around. You had to stick to the subject. At least in a good story. It was a matter of focus. Most of the kids said that a novel would be harder because it was longer. I wasn’t sure whether to speak up or just keep quiet. Then Julia raised her hand. “I think stories are harder,” she said. “In a novel, the writer can wander. In a story, the writer has to stay focused.” “Right!” Oh great. I hadn’t meant to shout. But it was so amazing to find we felt the same way. Everyone was looking at me. “I agree,” I said in a quieter voice as I slunk down in my seat. Wonderful. Now she’d think I was some kind of suck-up. At the end of the period, Mr. Franka wrote our homework on the board and passed out a vocabulary book. One class— three books. This was not a good sign. There was a dash for the door when the bell rang. The hall was jammed with freshmen walking in circles, ellipses, zigzags, and other patterns that marked us as clueless members of the lost generation. Or lost members of the clueless generation. I saw Patrick in study hall, but the teacher wouldn’t let us talk. For some reason, he thought we should be studying.

{ } 1 7


We made color charts in art class, which was pretty interesting. On the way out, Ms. Savitch gave us a photocopy of an article about Van Gogh. I was beginning to calculate my reading load by the pound instead of the page. But that was okay. I could handle it.

{ } 1 8


{ } three

i met up with the guys at lunch. I got there late because the cafeteria is not only really far from my art class, but also amazingly well hidden. I probably never would have found it if I hadn’t detected the unique aroma of burned hair, rotting peaches, and cinnamon drifting out the door. Oh—and a subtle hint of butterscotch pudding. “How’s it going?” I asked. At least this part felt familiar. We’d sat together through middle school. Even the round tables were the same. And the wobbly plastic chairs. “It’s going fine,” Kyle said. Patrick nodded. “Yup. As long as you stay out of the way of the seniors, it’s okay. Except for getting lost.” “Yeah, this place is like a tesseract,” I said. Three pairs of eyes stared at me. “You know. A tesseract. From A Wrinkle in Time.” The stares were joined by head shakes. “A cube twisted into another dimension,” I said. Head shakes gave way to sighs. Eyes rolled toward the ceiling. Shrugging shoulders twisted into other dimensions. “Never mind.”

{ } 1 9


“You’re such a mutant,” Kyle said. “Yeah, but he’s our very own mutant,” Patrick said. “All the other kids are jealous.” I reached across the table and flipped open Patrick’s assignment book. There was nothing on the page except some doodles. “No homework?” I asked. “Are you kidding?” Patrick said. “It’s the first day.” I glanced down and noticed Mitch’s schedule. Most of the classes had T.P. next to them. “What’s T.P.?” I asked. “Toilet paper,” Kyle said. “If you don’t know that, you’d better run home and change your underwear.” “Tech prep,” Patrick said. “Isn’t that what you have?” “Nope.” So that explained why they weren’t in my classes. I was dying to ask if they’d noticed Julia, but I didn’t want them to think I was obsessed with her or anything. So I sat and listened while they made fun of their teachers. Patrick was definitely right about avoiding seniors. On the way out of the cafeteria, this big guy knocked my books from under my arm. He grinned and said, “Oops. Must suck to be a freshman.” Then he strutted away. As I was grabbing my stuff, and earning a couple kicks in the rear from passing kids, Kyle sprinted ahead and knocked the guy’s books out from under his arm. “Oops to you, too,” Kyle said when the guy spun around. “Must suck to lose teeth.” The guy stared at him for a moment. Kyle stared back. Then the guy snatched his books from the floor and walked off.

{ } 2 0


“Hey, thanks, but you didn’t have to do that,” I said. “No one messes with my friends,” Kyle said. He’d broken his nose way back in first grade. It had healed kind of crooked, which made him look tough. Everyone figured he liked to fight. The truth is, he broke it falling off a rocking horse. But that didn’t matter. Once you had a reputation, good or bad, it stayed with you. On the way to my next class, I got relieved of my “spare change” by a guy who could work as a debt collector for the Mob. I was glad Kyle wasn’t around to try to help me. He would have gotten killed. Though I’d bet Bobby could have taken the guy. My little miscommunication with tesseract was nothing compared to the language barrier that greeted me in my next class. I’d picked Spanish for my foreign language because I figured it would be easier than French or German. It seemed like a great idea until the period started. The teacher, Ms. de Gaulle, opened her mouth and made some sounds that sort of resembled a sentence, though none of it contained any meaning. We all looked at one another and shrugged. That didn’t seem to bother her. She smiled and repeated the sentence. Everyone stared at her. She spoke again. And again. Eventually, we figured out that we were supposed to repeat what she said. That seemed to make her happy. It reminded me of when I was little and I used to dream up magic spells. Abra-ca-dumbo. Hocus mucus. Presto squisho.

{ } 2 1


During the rest of the day, I got lost three more times, yelled at twice, and nearly trampled when I headed up a flight of stairs while everyone else on the planet was racing down. My last class was really far from my locker, which was really far from the parking lot. I almost missed the bus. By the time I left Zenger High, my head was stuffed with a jumble of facts and figures, and my backpack weighed eighty-five pounds. Between my homework and a couple comments I couldn’t resist adding, I’d already filled a page in my assignment book. At least it would be a short week, since school had started on a Wednesday. If this had been a Monday, I think I would have just quit right then and joined the army. “Man, high school is awesome,” Mouth said when we got on the bus. He looked like he’d been forced through a meat grinder at least twice. His clothes were rumpled, his backpack had footprints on it, and one of his shoelaces was missing. But he seemed happy. I tuned him out as he launched into more details about his awesome day. Scott Hudson’s Assignment Book English—Read “The Lottery.” Read chapter one in the textbook and answer the questions on page 19. Learn the first twenty vocabulary words. Art—Read the article on Van Gogh. Sketch something interesting you find in your room. There’s that piece of pizza that fell behind my dresser last month. Algebra—Read pages 7–14. Do the odd-numbered problems. From what I’ve seen, they’re all pretty odd.

{ } 2 2


Spanish—I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to do. The teacher wrote the assignment on the board in Spanish. What the heck’s a cuaderno? History—Read the first three chapters. Answer the questions at the end. Try to stay awake. Chemistry—Read pages 3–14. Answer the questions on page 15. Count the atoms in your house. For extra credit, count the atoms in your neighborhood.

{ } 2 3

9 Books You May Have Missed Because Your Nose Was Stuck In Another Book  

We’re human, which means we make mistakes. But sometimes those mistakes affect our bookshelves, which, let’s be real, is unacceptable. That’...

9 Books You May Have Missed Because Your Nose Was Stuck In Another Book  

We’re human, which means we make mistakes. But sometimes those mistakes affect our bookshelves, which, let’s be real, is unacceptable. That’...