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of 11 exciting
young adult novels!
includes excerpts of novels by
Laura L. Sullivan
A. J. Betts
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston New York
all rights reserved.
Copyright © 2014 by Beth Fantaskey
Copyright © 2014 by Charles Benoit
A Creature of Moonlight
Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Hahn
Death Coming Up the Hill
Copyright © 2014 by Chris Crowe
A Death-Struck Year
Copyright © 2014 by Makiia Lucier
Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
Copyright © 2014 by Conrad Wesselhoeft
Copyright © 2014 by Gard Skinner
Copyright © 2014 by Gina Damico
Love by the Morning Star
Copyright © 2014 by Laura L. Sullivan
Copyright © 2014 by Saundra Mitchell
Zac & Mia
Copyright © 2014 by A. J. Betts
Singular Reads Sampler
Copyright © 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
o n t e n t s
by Beth Fantaskey
by Charles Benoit
A Creature of Moonlight
by Rebecca Hahn
Death Coming Up the Hill
A Death-Struck Year
by Chris Crowe
by Makiia Lucier
Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly
by Conrad Wesselhoeft
by Gard Skinner
Zac & Mia
by Laura L. Sullivan
by Saundra Mitchell
by A. J. Betts
by Gina Damico
Love by the Morning Star
Buzz Kill (Excerpt)
On Sale: May 6, 2014
When seventeen-year-old Millie Ostermeyer makes a
list of all the people who would want the football team’s
notorious Coach Killdare dead, she never dreams someone
would actually murder him. As if one mystery weren’t
enough for this Nancy Drew–obsessed school reporter
to solve, enter the divinely gorgeous Chase Albright, star
quarterback. Who is this mysterious jock who speaks
excellent French and casually uses words like “tirade”? And
why is he giving geeky Millie the time of day when the
supermodel-pretty cheerleader Vivienne Fitch is clearly
throwing herself at him? Mystery and romance collide in
this fun, witty murder mystery.
“Nancy, every place you go, it
seems as if mysteries just pile
up one after another.”
— The Message in the Hollow Oak,
Nancy Drew Book 12, by Carolyn Keene
Fall, Junior Year
ead football coach “Hollerin’ Hank” Killdare was having such a massive meltdown that even from where I
was standing at the Booster Club’s concession stand, I could
see his trademark blue vein popping in his neck and the usual
flecks of spittle flying out of his mouth.
Well, maybe I couldn’t see the spit, but from the way demoted, one-time quarterback Mike Price — the object of the
coach’s rant — kept flinching as Mr. Killdare tore into him,
their noses inches apart, I was pretty sure Mike was getting a
shower during the game.
Apparently, according to the beefy, balding coach, Mike,
now a lowly running back, had done something “boneheaded” and “dim-witted” that was going to cost the Honeywell Stingers “the whole bleepin’ season.”
As the student reporter assigned to cover that particular
“bleepin’ ” game — and daughter of Assistant Coach Jack Ostermeyer — I probably should’ve known what had just happened on the field. But the truth was, I didn’t really like sports
and hadn’t been paying attention to the action, preferring to
focus mainly on the book I’d brought with me — Understanding Kant: Concepts and Intuitions — and my pack of Twizzlers.
However, even I couldn’t overlook it when Mr. Killdare
abruptly wheeled around and, completely unprovoked, drew
back his big foot and booted our school’s costumed mascot,
Buzz the Bee, right in the stinger, launching him across the
sidelines. Which was — anybody would have to admit — pretty
funny. Especially when Buzz, stumbling and flailing wildly,
careened toward the cheerleaders and smashed directly into
my archenemy, Vivienne Fitch, sending her sprawling on
her butt, so everybody got a view up her flippy little “cheer”
That really should’ve made me laugh, but I actually kind
of winced. If this ends up on YouTube, Viv is going to murder Mr.
Killdare AND stomp a poor, innocent bee.
As Viv jumped up and tried to act like she hadn’t just been
publicly steamrolled by a guy in a bug suit, I tucked my book
in my backpack and took out my reporter’s notebook, thinking I should at least find out what was causing Hollerin’ Hank
to go nuclear — which also happened way too often in the
gym classes he taught.
This guy is nuts, I thought, echoing stuff my dad said all the
time. A total whack job!
In fact, I was pretty sure my father was thinking something along those lines right then as he approached Mr. Killdare, obviously trying to get him to cool down. My dad was
rabid about football, too, but at least he didn’t literally foam
at the mouth, unlike Hollerin’ Hank.
“Come on, Hank,” I heard Dad coaxing while I edged past
Principal Bertram B. Woolsey, who I thought should’ve done
something more than bite his neatly manicured nails. And,
pushing farther through the crowd, I heard a lot of parents
and other fans muttering about why a foul-mouthed blowhard continued to be allowed to work with kids. Sentiments
I knew they’d forget when the Stingers won yet another state
championship trophy for our school’s already full case. “I
think that’s enough, now!” Dad added. “Enough!”
But Hollerin’ Hank wasn’t done yet. In fact, he spun
around and confronted my father, actually drawing back his
I knew my dad could fight his own battles — his conflicts
with Mr. Killdare were pretty much the stuff of legends. And
more to the point, I was only five foot two and weighed about
one hundred pounds, despite a steady diet of cheeseburgers and Little Debbie products. But without even thinking, I
dropped everything and started to run to my father’s aid.
Before I could get there, though, the new quarterback,
Chase Albright, stepped in.
Wrapping his hand around Coach Killdare’s big forearm,
he stopped what had seemed like an inevitable punch.
The two guys stood there for a long time, Chase’s obscenely perfect, thick, dirty-blond hair riffling in the breeze,
while everybody else seemed to suck in a collective nervous
breath. Even the cheerleaders stopped chattering for once.
I glanced at the sidelines and saw that Viv was clutching
her shivering pompoms to her locally legendary cleavage —
and glaring at Mr. Killdare like she hoped for a fight. One that
would result in the coach getting his butt kicked to the grass.
I also caught a glimpse of my French teacher, Mademoiselle
Lois Beamish, who was pressing her hands to her also large,
but somehow not as attractive, chest, as though she was terrified for Chase, her prize student. And I once again thought,
Ugh. She has a crush on him!
Then I returned my attention to Chase, who was saying
something to Coach Killdare — although so quietly that I
couldn’t hear a word. But whatever he uttered . . . It made
Mr. Killdare’s face fade from crimson to pink, and his hands
fall to his sides.
I stared at Chase — a mysterious, reportedly uber-rich kid
who’d transferred from some pricey “academy” that nobody
seemed quite able to pinpoint — wondering, What are you? A
Honestly, it seemed possible, because the next thing I knew,
Hollerin’ Hank pulled free of Chase and addressed Mike in a
brusque, but civilized, tone. “Price — you’re benched.” Then,
as Mike sat down to sulk, Mr. Killdare and my dad exchanged
some gruff coaching-type words and the game got underway
again, as if nothing had happened.
Retrieving my stuff from the ground — and brushing a
footprint off my notebook — I climbed into the bleachers, trying to pay more attention, so I’d at least have something for the
Honeywell High Gazette. But my mind kept wandering, and as
the fourth quarter drew to a close, I found myself doodling
a picture of the heavyset, universally despised coach with a
knife in his chest and x’s for eyes, next to the word “Inevi-
table?” And just to pass the time, I inked a list of suspects, if
the murder ever really did happen.
Dad (It’s true!! Wants that head
Mike Price — disgraced football hero,
probably losing chance for scholarship
Mike’s parents — soon paying $$$ for
college for meathead son!
I glanced again at the sidelines, where Viv had resumed
hopping around with a scary-false smile on her plastic face,
and added her, too.
V.F. — humiliated in bee incident +
natural born killer
Then I tapped my pen against my chin, recalling a kid
who’d recently been taken away in an ambulance during one
of Mr. Killdare’s controversial “two-a-day” football practices,
and who still wasn’t back in school. Rumor was, Roy Boyles
had shriveled in the hot afternoon sun and might be a vegetable — or worse. I set pen to paper, writing “Roy’s family?”
Principal Woolsey — stuck with nutcase
on staff (
Anyone who’s ever met Coach, exc.
his mother (maybe)
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the most narrow, practical list.
Then I also sketched a tall guy in a football uniform, with
a question mark on his jersey, along with the query
SERIOUSLY — WHO IS CHASE?
I was a decent reporter when I put my mind to it, and I’d
read about fifteen classic Nancy Drew books with my mom,
back when I was nine, so I considered myself pretty well
equipped to solve mysteries. But as I watched the enigmatic
guy who was rumored to be either in the witness protection
program, a teen CIA agent, or royalty slumming it to learn
the ways of commoners — seriously, folks? — I had a feeling I’d
never get that question answered.
Bending my head again, I retraced the question mark on
Chase’s jersey, darkening it, because he might not have been
— as I guessed — anything more than a phenomenally snobby
kid who thought he was way too good for our school, but
Chase Albright definitely seemed to know how to keep his
here were probably a million things we seniors could’ve
— or should’ve — done on the rainy day in early September when nobody showed up to teach our first-period gym
class. Such as, say, choose somebody to lead calisthenics while
we waited for a real teacher. Or organize some kind of game,
with a ball.
But as the minutes ticked on with no sign of Coach Hollerin’ Hank Killdare or a substitute, most of us wandered
back to the locker rooms, got our stuff, then sat down on the
mats usually used for crunches and proceeded to text, study,
or — in my case — read Montaigne’s Collected Essays.
Only my best friend, Laura Bugbee, seemed unhappy
about what most of us accepted as a stroke of good luck.
I mean, I was okay with not running laps for one day. But
Laura’s conscience, at least, couldn’t rest.
“Millie . . . Don’t you think we ought to tell somebody
that Mr. Killdare didn’t show up?” she fretted. “Like Principal
Woolsey? Maybe Coach had a heart attack in his office!” She
looked toward the guys’ locker room with genuine concern
in her brown eyes. “Maybe he’s dying in there. He looks like
he has high blood pressure!”
Laura was probably right about Coach Killdare’s constricted veins, especially since his one positive claim to fame
— off the football field — was consuming, in one sitting, a
sixty-ounce porterhouse at the local Sir Loin’s Steakhouse — a
feat I aspired to myself someday. But my friend’s imagination
was definitely running away with her.
“Think about it, Laura,” I said, shutting my book reluctantly, because I’d been very intrigued by Montaigne’s arguments against formal education. “If Mr. Killdare was dead or
dying in his office, don’t you think the guys would’ve noticed
when they changed? I mean, I doubt the boys’ locker room
is a model of order or hygiene, but I don’t think somebody
could die in there without attracting some attention.”
Laura seemed somewhat reassured, but she still scrunched
up her eyebrows, scanning the gym through her wire rims.
“Maybe. But we could ask one of the guys to check. Just to be
safe.” She frowned. “I wish Ryan was in this class. He’d do it.”
She was referring to our friend Ryan Ronin, who was a
nice guy. However, Ryan was also a football player and complained endlessly about how Hollerin’ Hank treated him. “I
don’t know if even Ry would get off his butt to save Mr. Killdare,” I noted. “I’d say it’s fifty-fifty.”
Would anybody bother to save Coach Killdare if he ever really
was in trouble?
All at once — although I was still pretty sure our teacher
was probably stuck in the long morning drive-through line
at Dunkin’ Donuts or something like that — I recalled a list
I’d made the previous year, when I’d been bored at a football game. A roll call of people who might actually want to
kill the coach, and not just by failing to resuscitate him. If I
remembered correctly, I’d been able to think of at least six —
or possibly sixty — individuals, including my own dad, who’d
probably like to stick a knife into Hollerin’ Hank’s overtaxed
Then that weird thought was interrupted by the sound
of a ball being dribbled, and I realized somebody had finally
started using the equipment.
Laughing, I nudged Laura. “Hey, Chase is up and full of
energy. Why don’t you ask him to check the locker room?”
I believed Laura was genuinely concerned about Mr. Killdare — but obviously not enough to approach a guy she’d
worshiped from afar, ever since his transfer to Honeywell.
“No, that’s okay!” she sort of cried, her face getting red.
“Oh, come on,” I teased, grabbing her arm, like I was
going to drag her over to where Chase Albright was alone,
shooting hoops. He was a one-man team, sinking a shot, retrieving it, and going in for a lay-up — all with the lazy, I-don’tgive-a-damn-who’s-watching, but-don’t-ask-to-join-me vibe
that he always managed to give off. Chase was, I thought, the
embodiment of aloof. Which apparently didn’t bother Laura
or a lot of other girls, who seemed perversely drawn to his
inaccessibility — and, I supposed, the way he looked in his Tshirt and shorts. Even I — who had nada for Chase — couldn’t
deny that he filled out a gym uniform pretty well. And his
face, with those blue eyes that gave away nothing . . . There
wasn’t much to criticize there, either.
My grip on Laura loosening, I studied Chase as he did another lay-up, his hair managing to gleam under the fluorescent lights, just as it had on a sunny day when I’d doodled his
picture with a question mark on his chest.
And I still don’t know much about Chase — except that he likes
to watch moody foreign films that no other kids go to. But I can’t
seem to ask him what’s up with that when I sell him his single ticket
from my claustrophobic booth at the Lassiter Bijou . . .
“You think he’s amazing, too.” Laura’s accusation brought
me back to reality, and I realized I was still holding her arm.
She pulled away, giving me a smug look. “You practically
went catatonic, watching him!”
“I did not,” I protested, my cheeks getting warm. A propensity to blush for virtually no reason was the curse of being
a redhead. “I find him interesting,” I explained. “How can a
guy who should be the most popular person in school — a guy
everybody wants to be around — seem to have zero friends, let
alone a girlfriend?”
At least, Chase had never brought a date, or anybody else,
to the theater where I worked, as required by my father, who
insisted that earning minimum wage “built character.”
“I heard there’s a picture of a girl in his locker,” Laura
informed me, both of us again observing Chase, who’d
switched to taking shots from the free-throw line. “A very
“Really?” I turned to Laura, intrigued. “Who is she?”
Laura shrugged. “Nobody knows. Probably a girlfriend at
his old school.”
Interesting. And where, exactly, is that school . . . ?
I was just about to voice that question when somebody
behind me butted into the conversation, saying in a supersnarky, high-pitched voice, “Dream on, ladies! Especially you,
Millicent. Because Chase Albright is exactly one million miles
out of your league.”
Knowing that things were about to get very, very bad —
probably for me — I slowly, reluctantly, turned to see who had
Oh, crud . . . Here we go!
ou may have phenomenally dumb luck with some
things, Millie Ostermeyer, but you will never be with
my future boyfriend,” Vivienne Fitch advised me. She towered over me, having already changed out of her gym clothes
and into a pair of heels that were forbidden on the polished
floor, like she was sure Mr. Killdare wouldn’t make a last-minute appearance. Because, seriously . . . heels? He’d make her
run ten laps in her stilettos, then force her to rent a power
sander to buff out the scratches. “Because no twist of fate,”
Viv added, “short of an accident with sheep shears, can save
you from that mess on your head. It’s like a flag that says ‘I
will always be alone.’ ”
I wasn’t sure he understood the joke, but her simian sidekick, Mike Price, snorted a laugh. Viv treated Mike like dirt
— right down to openly expressing interest in Chase — but he
continued to serve her like a butler and shamelessly sucked
up because he was desperate to get in her pants. “Good one,
Viv,” he grunted. “A flag. That’s funny.”
Ignoring him, I peered up at Viv. “First of all, I don’t give
a rat’s derrière about Chase Albright. And no offense, but I
don’t think you should get your hopes up. I seriously doubt
he’s dying to date a girl who just showed up on national TV
getting trampled by a giant bee — in slow motion, no less.”
Indeed, an amateur cell phone video of Viv getting crushed
on the sidelines of a football game by Stingers’ mascot Buzz
had resurfaced after going viral the year before. Just when it
had seemed like “Cheerleader BuzzKill” had gone dormant
forever — after upward of a million YouTube hits — ESPN had
resurrected it for a bloopers show celebrating the start of the
high school football season. Talk about national exposure —
of Viv’s butt.
She jabbed a finger at me, a murderous gleam in her eyes.
“I swear, if you had anything to do with that —”
“Viv, I do not spend my time videotaping you,” I promised
her. “That whole thing was Mr. Killdare’s fault. He’s the one
who kicked Buzz. Go threaten him!”
“Speaking of which,” Laura interrupted, “have you seen
Coach Killdare, Viv? Because I’m kind of worried about him.”
Viv seemed to think Laura’d lost her mind. “I have no idea
where he is,” she snapped, “and I don’t care if Hank Killdare
fell through a wormhole into another dimension!”
I had to admit I grudgingly admired her grasp of timespace portals.
“Not only did he humiliate me,” she continued, her voice
rising, “but if he gives me one more D for not climbing that
stupid rope, I might not get into Harvard. I don’t care what
the hell happened to him!”
Ouch. That was harsh. And why was she assuming that
something had really “happened”? Had there been, say, a
four-car pileup that the rest of us weren’t privy to yet?
“If you’d just eat something,” I suggested, not unkindly,
“maybe you could climb the rope — and be in a better mood.”
“Not all of us have freakish metabolisms and can stuff our
faces all day,” Viv countered. She glanced at my chest. “Although if I were you, I’d wish I could gain weight somewhere.”
Ooh, a flat-chest wisecrack. Those never got old.
Grabbing my book, I finally stood up, as did Laura. “What
do you really want, Viv?”
She crossed her arms. “I’m here to remind you that you
have an overdue story for the Gazette. And I want it on my
I knew that Vivienne didn’t care about that stupid story,
and was, as usual, “reminding” me that as student editor of
the paper, she was technically my boss for the year. One who
took twisted delight in giving me the worst assignments —
including this latest snoozer, about some chinks in a cinderblock wall, for crying out loud.
“Viv, if you honestly think I’m going to schlep out to the
football field to look at a few cracks in the bleachers —”
“Oh, I don’t just think you’ll do that.” She cut me off. “I
expect to see a story about the stadium’s major structural problems on my desk by the end of the day. And I want quotes
from Mayor Jack Ostermeyer, too, explaining why this boondoggle of a school that he wanted so badly not only gives
people cancer, but is already falling apart at the seams.”
Laura sucked in a sharp breath because that was low, even
by Viv’s standards.
My dad had fought for the construction of our state-ofthe-art school, but that stuff about people getting sick because it stood on the site of an old factory . . . That had all
been disproved — after nearly costing Dad an election. And
my mom had died of an aggressive form of leukemia, back
when I was ten. Viv should never even have uttered the
word “cancer” around me, after what my family had been
“You’ll get your story when I feel like writing it,” I growled,
feeling Laura’s fingers twine around my arm, like she was
ready to hold me back. “And if you bug me again, you’ll have
cracks in your head.”
Viv and I had a long history of pushing each other’s buttons, but she seemed to realize she’d gone too far. I could see
it in her cold, sharky blue eyes. She didn’t back down, though
— and certainly didn’t apologize. “I’ll give you two more
days,” she advised me. She summoned her minion. “Come
on, Mike. Let’s get out of here.”
I’d almost forgotten Mike was there, and he was equally
oblivious to me. Following his gaze, I realized that his dull
eyes were trained on Chase, who was still shooting hoops.
Mike’s a mean kid who’s still pissed about Chase getting his
quarterback spot — and killing any shot he had at a college scholarship. And he really blames Mr. Killdare —
“Mike,” Viv snapped again, so her lackey surfaced from his
trance. “Let’s go.”
I watched them walk across the gym, Viv’s heels clicking,
until Laura ventured, “Hey, sorry about what she just said,”
Bending, I grabbed my mat since class was almost over.
“You don’t have to apologize. You’re not the soulless psychopath.”
Laura began to roll up her mat, too. “You know she’s really just jealous of you.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I inspire envy in every Ivy-League-bound
cheerleader with long, blond hair and what I swear is a surgically altered nose.”
“You are prettier than Vivienne,” Laura insisted. Before I
could protest, she added, “You know she envies how easily
stuff comes to you, and your red hair was the first thing she
ever got jealous about. Remember how you won that costume contest in third grade, just by wearing a trash bag and
making a ponytail on top of your head?”
I grinned. “Yeah, I was a volcano. While Viv’s family spent,
like, a thousand dollars to dress her up as Snow White.”
I could still picture Viv stamping her crystal-encrusted
shoes as I’d accepted a plastic pumpkin full of candy and
marched down Market Street, leading Honeywell’s Halloween parade.
“And then there was the time you saved that kid at camp
when he almost drowned in the lake,” Laura reminded me.
“That was huge.”
“I was actually begging Kenny Kaluka to stop pulling on
me,” I admitted. “I kept trying to pry his fingers off my arm
the whole time I was dragging him to shore.”
“Well, you came off like a hero — and got Camper of the
Year, even though Viv had dominated pretty much everything
all summer, from archery to canoe racing.” Laura frowned.
“And then you won that Peacemaker thing last year . . . That
was probably the last straw.”
She was talking about the National Pacemaker Awards,
which were the equivalent of Pulitzer Prizes for student
journalists. And she was right about Viv having a conniption
when I’d won for feature writing, for a sappy story about
our school’s blind crossing guard. I hadn’t even technically
entered — the Gazette’s eager new advisor, Mr. Sokowski, had
filled out the paperwork — but I’d come home with the honors.
“That did tick her off pretty badly,” I agreed. “She didn’t
even get honorable mention for her piece on bulimic cheerleaders.” I shrugged. “Too clichéd, I think.”
“And she’s obviously still mad about your father beating
hers for mayor, too,” Laura noted as we walked toward the
equipment storage closet. “She’s got it in for you and your
“Well . . .” I tossed my mat into a bin. “In less than a year,
Viv and I will part ways forever. I’d say the odds of my accidentally shining again at her expense are pretty slim.”
I looked once more at Chase. Good thing I really don’t have
designs on him. Viv would destroy me if I ever “stole” a guy she
Laura was also watching the mysterious Mr. Albright — of
course. But she didn’t think I should keep my distance. On
the contrary, she suggested, “Hey, maybe you could do an
exposé on Chase and win another one of those Peacemakers.
He is a total — gorgeous — puzzle.”
I reached for the door to the locker room. “I’m pretty sure
what I’d uncover would earn the headline ‘Self-Absorbed
Rich Kid Too Snooty for Small Town.’ Which is not exactly
a man-bites-dog story.” I kind of snorted. “Let’s face it. Nobody from Honeywell, Pennsylvania, will ever win the investigative reporting prize. What the heck would you look into?”
Laura and I both laughed, then, because nothing significant — not counting football championships — ever happened
in our sleepy town.
It never occurred to either one of us that a question on
our class’s collective mind, that morning, might actually turn
out to be a huge story. No, it wasn’t until we’d had a substitute
phys ed teacher for over a week, and my dad had slid into the
role of de facto head coach of the Stingers, that I, at least,
realized somebody might want to make a sincere effort to
answer . . .
What the heck really happened to Coach Killdare?
illicent, what is that stain on your uniform?” my father inquired, shooting me a quick glance as he drove
me back to school, where I had an after-hours interview —
and he had football practice — to conduct. He wrinkled his
nose. “And why do you smell like rancid butter?”
“I had a little accident with the dispenser,” I admitted, wiping ineffectually at the oil slick on the hideous gold-buttoned,
red polyester shirt I was required to wear at the theater,
where I was scheduled to work that night. The uniform was
supposed to resemble an usher’s getup from the Lassiter Bijou’s silent-movie heyday, but I was pretty sure I looked more
like an organ grinder’s monkey in a fright wig. “Can we please
go back home so I can get a jacket,” I begged yet again. “I’ll
just run in quick —”
“I asked you, twice, if you had everything you needed before we left.” Dad cut me off. “This is a lesson in responsibility.”
Actually, it was going to be a lesson in humiliation, because
all the football players and cheerleaders would be at school,
“Weren’t you supposed to do this story days ago?” Dad
added, turning on to the winding road to the high school,
which was located just outside the quaint little town he ruled
with an iron fist. “I remember you mentioning a ‘lame article’
about stadium repairs quite a while back.”
“Actually, it was due eons ago,” I informed him. In fact, I’d
deliberately delayed another six days after Viv had given me
her two-day warning in the gym. “But I can’t give my editor
the satisfaction of thinking she’s really my boss.”
Dad gave me another look. “Millie — she is your boss.”
“Well, in that case, I’m supposed to get a quote from you,”
I said, without bothering to retrieve my notebook. Ever since
the “cancer cluster” debacle, my father had distanced himself
from anything school related except football. He could never
wean himself off that addiction, and I strongly suspected that
he wished he’d had a boy who could’ve played. Actually, I
sometimes thought he secretly wished he’d just remained
childless. “So, any comment on the bleachers?”
As I’d expected, he didn’t answer. After pulling into the
school lot, he parked his sensible Dodge sedan in a visitor’s
spot close to one marked H. Killdare — a little perk that I knew
my dad would’ve liked and that had gone unused . . . I did a
quick calculation, surprised to realize the real head coach had
been gone for over a week.
“Dad, have you heard any news on Mr. Killdare?” I asked
— not that I was eager to see Hollerin’ Hank in the gym again.
His absence just seemed odd. “Like, has he called to say where
“No. But Principal Woolsey seems to vaguely recall Hank
saying something about taking time off.” I could tell Dad —
like pretty much everybody else — considered Mr. Woolsey
completely incompetent when he confided, “Frankly, I think
he’s afraid he dropped the ball and should know where his
head coach has vanished to during the height of football season.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Mr. Woolsey,” I agreed. “But would
Coach Killdare really blow off the season?”
“Emergencies arise, Millicent.” Dad rammed the car into
“park.” “Some of which trump football, even.”
I opened my mouth to mention my sixth birthday party,
which my father had missed because of a game, then let it go.
In retrospect, there had been a lot of squealing, and Laura’d
peed her pants after drinking too much lemonade. Who
could blame a grown man for trying to avoid that scene? But
I couldn’t imagine anything that would keep Hollerin’ Hank
“Jeez, maybe Laura’s right,” I mumbled. “Maybe something really happened to Mr. Killdare!”
My dad didn’t share my concern. He gestured to the book
on my lap. “I don’t want you reading while you work the concession stand tonight, Millie. That’s like stealing from your
How had I sprung from a father who was ambitious,
followed rules, and — I studied my dad’s face — was olive-
skinned, and dark-haired, and had a long, narrow nose? A
nose that nobody would ever compare to that of a bulldog,
like always happened to me?
In fact, Dad was probably decent-looking, by middle-age
standards, and I wondered, as I sometimes did, Does he ever
“Millie, did you hear me about reading equaling stealing?”
“But we’re going to discuss this book in Philosophy Club,”
I said, holding up my copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit
— and invoking the organization I’d founded last year because
my dad was worried about my lack of “extracurriculars.” Although I was still technically the only member, I added, “I
need to be ready for the meeting.”
Dad wasn’t convinced. “Reading at work is stealing, Millie. Period.”
“Fine.” I tucked the book under my arm, thinking it was
probably more like stealing when I ate Charleston Chews
from the candy counter. But honestly, I hadn’t sold one in a
year and felt like I was doing the owner, Mr. Lassiter, a favor
by getting rid of them. If one of our old patrons ever did purchase one and tried to sink his or her dentures through stale,
rock-hard nougat, my employer might just find himself footing a big dental bill. I didn’t mention that to my dad, though,
and promised, “I’ll find something else to do when nobody’s
For some reason, my father still seemed exasperated, and
as we got out of the car, he muttered, “I am going to talk to
Isabel about when and where you read. You seem to actually
listen to her.”
I had one foot on the pavement, but I stopped short, surprised that Dad had just called “my” librarian, Isabel Parkins,
by her first name. I consulted with Ms. Parkins on at least
a biweekly basis — she was both a book recommender and
something of a confidante — but I rarely mentioned her to
Dad. And I certainly never used her first name.
Then again, Ms. Parkins was head of Honeywell’s public
library, a key part of Mayor Jack Ostermeyer’s fiefdom.
“Millie, will you get out of the car?” Dad suggested, adding, with a rare hint of laughter in his voice, “I think your
date for the evening is waiting for you!”
I slammed the door, not sure what the heck he was talking
about because I hadn’t had a date since . . . well, never. But
when I looked across the parking lot, I spotted . . .
Oh, good grief.
hat a pair Head of Custodial Services “Big Pete”
Lamar and I must’ve made when we entered the
football field, me in my organ-grinder’s-assistant suit and my
“date” — weighing in at about three hundred pounds — lumbering along in soiled, olive-drab coveralls and heavy work
We look like homecoming king and queen — at Clown College.
“Let’s get this over with,” I sighed, flipping open my notebook as we made our way down the track toward the far end
of the bleachers. I clicked my ballpoint, ignoring the stares
of the football players gathering around my dad. “What’s the
deal with the stadium? How bad are these cracks?”
“It’s actually a mess,” Big Pete said, huffing from the walk.
He began rifling through a huge ring of keys that he’d dug out
from some cavernous recess in his pants. “We gotta empty
out a storage space under the seats and bring in a crew to do
repairs — then go through a state safety inspection. Pretty big
— expensive — job.”
Okay, that surprised me. I’d expected him to confirm my
suspicion that the story wasn’t even worth covering, and reluctantly took down his quote about the cost.
“Hank Killdare was the first to notice ’em and make a
fuss,” Big Pete added. “Said he didn’t want the whole stadium
collapsin’ during a game. Threatened to go to the real press
. . .” He obviously realized he’d insulted me and gave me a
sheepish look. “Sorry . . . Anyhow, Killdare said fix ’em — or
“So these cracks . . . Are they really serious?”
“Eh.” Big Pete shrugged. “Probably just cosmetic, to be
honest. But when Hank Killdare gets a bee in his bonnet . . .”
Grinning at his own — clearly inadvertent — pun, he jabbed a
thick finger at my notebook. “Hey, write that down! Stingers
coach has a bee in his bonnet!”
I wasn’t laughing — or writing. I was looking at my father,
who by then was surrounded by players, including Ryan, who
waved to me; Mike Price, who was, as usual, doing his own
lower-primate impersonation; and the always attention-grabbing Chase Albright, who stood with his arms crossed and a
look of concentration on his gorgeous high-and-mighty face,
now and then nodding at something my dad said.
Is this school really a “boondoggle”? Have my dad and Hollerin’
Hank clashed about fixing the stadium, as well as coaching strategies?
The cheerleaders had arrived for practice, too, and I found
Viv at the head of the pack, her lips frozen in what everyone
else accepted as a smile, but which I always thought looked
like a wolfish snarl, complete with wrinkled snout and sharp
And did Viv know how much fixing the cracks will cost? Did she
know I’ll have to write a story that really will make Dad look bad?
Because he gets blamed for everything that goes wrong at Honeywell
How sick to use me against my own father . . .
“I guess you’ll wanna see the storage space, huh?”
“What?” I turned around to see Big Pete heading toward a
door I’d never noticed before, in the cinder-block wall under
the bleachers. I also saw a bunch of fine, jagged fissures in
that wall, which often bore the weight of hundreds of people, because Honeywell’s nationally known football program
packed in the crowds. “What did you say?” I asked again,
catching up to my guide.
“I guess you’ll wanna see the storage space,” he repeated,
jamming a key in the lock before I could tell him that, no, I
didn’t really need to see a bunch of old javelins or tackling
dummies or whatever they kept under bleachers. Especially
since, as I drew closer, I started to smell something coming
from behind that portal.
Stepping reluctantly beside Pete, I fought the urge to cover
my nose, thinking, Jeez, what’s really in there? Mascot Buzz’s
unwashed, sweaty bee costume? The eviscerated organs of our vanquished sports foes?
“Look, I really don’t think I need . . .”
I was just about to insist that we keep that door closed
when Pete, looking confused himself, hauled it open. The
stench got even worse, and we both looked at each other,
like, What the heck?
Looking back, I’d never be sure what, exactly, compelled
both of us to walk toward that odor instead of running away
from it. Maybe it was the fact that I’d come to document the
whole bleachers problem, and clearly there was something
seriously messed up inside that dark hole. Regardless, after a
moment of hesitation, I made the first move, taking a tentative step into the shadows — only to stumble and fall against
something. Something big and hard, but squishy and slippery,
too, as if it was covered in nylon.
This is wrong, I thought on instinct. Something is very wrong
Then, as my eyes started to adjust and I began to recognize exactly what — or whom — I was resting against, Big Pete
gave me the quote of a lifetime, albeit one that I couldn’t have
put in a G-rated school newspaper article, even if I’d been
able to write anything down.
“Holy ****! It’s a dead guy — on a John Deere!”
et me go!” I cried, slugging somebody — hard — in the
shoulder. “LET ME GO!”
The individual who was clutching me to a rock-hard chest
didn’t listen. On the contrary, he spun me around, so we were
in a Heimlich-maneuver position, then began dragging me so
the soles of my old Adidas scraped concrete. “Deep breaths,”
he whispered in a low, strangely soothing voice that was at
odds with the way I was straitjacketed and struggling in his
arms. “You’re okay. Stop screaming.”
I wanted to protest that I, Millie Ostermeyer, had never
screamed in my entire life — not even on Hersheypark’s Skyrush roller coaster — but as I was hauled into slightly fresher
air and fading sunlight, I realized that I was, indeed, shrieking and maybe borderline incoherent. And when I finally did
inhale deeply — catching a whiff of very nice soap or cologne,
layered on top of the smell of rotting flesh — I also realized
who was holding me — and recalled what I’d fallen onto moments before.
Coach Killdare’s CORPSE.
I just fell directly onto a dead phys ed instructor, who is inside
a cinder-block TOMB, slumped over a lawn tractor with THE ENTIRE BACK OF HIS SKULL SMOOSHED IN.
Feeling my captor’s grip ease, like he’d realized I was at
least lucid again, I turned to face the boy who’d yanked me
out of that makeshift mausoleum, and for some reason felt
compelled to inform him, in big ragged gasps, “Mr. Killdare
. . . His whole head . . . Bashed in!”
Then, before Chase Albright could respond — before I
could even read what was going on behind his deep blue eyes
— I proceeded to thank him for helping me by bending over
and vomiting my entire dinner of SpaghettiOs, minimeatballs, and gummy bears onto his cleats.
And as round two came up — again onto his shoes, because, honestly, there wasn’t even time to move — I felt someone else grasp my shoulders and heard my father offer, “I’ve
got her, Chase. You go clean up.”
True to his usual form, Chase didn’t say a word. I just saw
his puke-covered feet move out from under my face while I remained bent over, because I’d eaten two cans of SpaghettiOs,
and I wasn’t sure they were both accounted for yet.
“Millie, are you okay?” Dad asked. He helped me straighten,
finally, so I could see that Ryan had joined us, too. “Did I hear
you right about Mr. Killdare?”
My dad was obviously concerned about me, but distracted.
His gaze kept darting toward the storage space, where Big
Pete was blocking the view, warding off the football players
and cheerleaders who were starting to gather around, trying
to figure out what had happened.
“I’m . . . I’m okay,” I assured Dad. “You’d better go help
Pete, because Mr. Killdare really is . . .” I couldn’t say “dead,”
for some reason. Not without getting queasy again.
“Go ahead, Coach,” Ryan intervened, clasping my arm.
“I’ll stay with Millie.”
That seemed to reassure my father. “Thanks.”
With one last glance at me, Dad left us, threading his way
through the crowd of players, managers, and cheerleaders
that had gathered. Some kids were gawking at the girl who’d
freaked out and lost her lunch on a quarterback, but most
were craning their necks, trying to get a glimpse past Big
Pete, whose bulk was coming in handy.
“Nothin’ to see here,” he kept telling everybody. “Nothin’
Except stuff I’ll revisit in nightmares, I thought, recalling, too
vividly, how Mr. Killdare’s bluish-white hands had hung stiffly
down at his sides, the way his face had been pressed against
the tractor’s steering wheel, and, of course, the caved-in back
of his head . . .
“Millie, what’s going on?” Ryan asked, studying my face
with obvious concern. “What, exactly, is under the bleachers?”
I started to tell him, but my voice was drowned out by the
wail of approaching sirens. Only then did I finally fully grasp
that Mr. Killdare actually had been murdered, just like I’d sort
of predicted a little over a year before.
And as I recalled, yet again, the list of suspects I’d made,
in an exercise that didn’t seem remotely amusing anymore,
I realized that no fewer than three of them were right on
the scene: Vivienne Fitch, who was arguing with Big Pete,
as if she’d waited her whole life to see a homicide victim and
would not be denied the chance to take a photograph of it
with her cell phone; Mike Price, for once not glued to Viv’s
hip, but rather standing on the margins; and, of course, Jack
Ostermeyer, who by then was at the entrance to the storage space, not taking charge, as I’d expected, but staring into
that stinky crypt with a very strange look on his face. One I
couldn’t quite read in the dimming daylight.
And as police cars and ambulances began to drive up to the
stadium, tearing across the grassy field, I also saw that Chase
hadn’t run off to change his shoes, like I thought he should
do before semiliquefied Chef Boyardee seeped through his
laces. He still lingered at the very back of the milling, excited
throng, far enough away from the other kids to qualify as
And the look on his face . . . It struck me as even more
curious than the expression on my father’s. I almost could’ve
sworn that Chase Albright, whom I’d previously thought incapable of anything but an icy, unyielding, smug superiority,
looked . . . sad.
Then I jumped about a mile when somebody clapped a
firm hand on my shoulder and told me, in a weasely, sort-offamiliar voice, “Don’t go anywhere, Millicent Ostermeyer. I’ll
need to talk to you.”
Cold Calls (Excerpt)
On Sale: April 1, 2014
Three high school students—Eric, Shelly, and Fatima—
have one thing in common: “I know your secret.”
Each one is blackmailed into bullying specifically targeted
schoolmates by a mysterious caller who whispers from
their cell phones and holds carefully guarded secrets
over their heads. But how could anyone have obtained
that photo, read those hidden pages, uncovered this
buried past? Thrown together, the three teens join
forces to find the stranger who threatens them—
before time runs out and their shattering secrets are
revealed . . .
The phone rang and he answered it.
Later, when it looked like it was over, he’d think back
on that moment and what he could have done different.
But that was weeks away, and it was just a phone call.
No number came up on caller ID. It was weird, but it
happened now and then, somebody calling from a pay
phone or using a cheap throwaway. If he had recognized
the number — Nick or Duane or Andrew or Yousef or one
of the guys from the team — he would have said something
that sounded like “ ’Zup.” If it had been Kate or Tabitha or
Felicia or Emma or any girl — even April — he would have
It wouldn’t have been April, though. It was still too
early to say if they’d even get back to being just friends.
With no number to recognize, he went with “ ’Zup?”
There was a pause on the other end and the sound of
air being sucked through a straw, then two quick clicks,
and then a voice, computer generated and pitched low like
distant thunder. “Eric Hamilton.”
At first he thought it was the library. They had an automated system that called when a book went overdue, and
the calls would come around that time in the evening, not
so early that it disturbed dinner, not so late that it was
rude. But he hadn’t been in any library since June. Besides,
their message started friendly before getting into the details. There was nothing friendly in this voice.
More clicks, static. “Eric Hamilton.”
Somebody screwing around. The stupid kind of thing
you did in sixth grade, or the first time you got high. And it
wasn’t even funny then. He pressed end, tossed the phone
onto his bed, and went back to Gears of War.
Ten minutes later, the phone buzzed and he answered
That hollow air sound, the clicks. “Eric Hamilton.”
If he was outside or home alone, he would have rattled off some f-bombs and hung up, but he could hear his
mother outside his door, shifting things around in the hall
closet, and he didn’t talk like that when she could hear
him. And maybe it wasn’t a prank. Maybe it was some new
computerized program telling him there’d be no school tomorrow.
Probably not, but it was worth checking.
“Yeah, this is Eric,” he said, then heard himself saying
it, a faint echo that swirled out into the airy static.
There was a pause and something that sounded like a
Then a single whispered sentence that made his stomach drop.
He held the phone tight to his ear, waiting for more,
holding it there until three quick beeps told him the call
He sat at the edge of his bed, the phone in his lap, his
thumb hovering above the keypad, the caller’s whispered
words still in his head.
After a minute, he swiped the phone back on and went
to the list of recent calls. It showed only one that day —
a missed call from his mother around noon. So either he
imagined the whole thing or whoever it was knew a few
clever phone tricks.
He knew he hadn’t imagined the call, but maybe he
had imagined what he heard. Or maybe he was just reading too much into the static, making words out of the random sounds, putting them together into that sentence.
Besides, even if he did hear it right, it was the kind of
thing you can say to anybody and it would make them nervous.
Eric put the phone on his desk, then pulled a sweatshirt out of the bottom drawer of his dresser. It was a warm
night, but still he shivered. He went back to the game, and
after a dozen stupid mistakes and restarts in a row, he
closed out, set his alarm for six, turned off the light, and
stared at the ceiling for an hour until he fell asleep.
The fifth time the buzz sounded, he hit the snooze on his
alarm. Then the buzz sounded again, and he realized it
was his phone.
One eye open, he lifted his head enough to see the red
2:47 on the clock. He reached for the phone, knocking it
off the desk. It fell onto the carpet and under the bed. He
listened through his pillow as it buzzed seven more times.
It stopped and he waited, picturing the call going to voice
mail, then the hang-up and the redial.
It started again, and on the ninth buzz he leaned over
the side and fumbled until he found it. The blue light from
the screen lit up the dark room, the swoosh of the static
roaring in the silence. He was squinting to see the keypad,
trying to remember what buttons to push to activate call
blocking, when the voice said, “Check your inbox.” Then
the line went dead and the blue light faded down to a soft
Eric dropped the phone back on the floor and rolled
over, wrapping the pillow around his head. He lay like that
for fifteen, twenty minutes, not moving, telling himself
he was just about to fall asleep, when he gave in, sat up,
and tapped on his iPad.
He had opened a Gmail account a couple of years back
but never used it. Everybody was on Facebook or they just
sent a text. He needed an email address to put on college
applications, and he checked it now and then, but all he
got were generic ads and personalized invitations from the
army and marines.
It took him three tries to get the password right.
He had a dozen unopened messages — the first several
were weeks old, the last one had come in at midnight.
There was nothing in the subject line, and the return
email address was a bunch of question marks from an
EarthLink account. He clicked it open, and when it loaded,
a pasted-in picture filled the screen.
A black rectangle at the top, a rough white area in the
middle, a dark brown bar along the bottom.
No people, no words, nothing else in the shot.
Eric rubbed his eyes and leaned in to the screen.
It was obviously a zoomed-in part of a bigger picture,
with the squared-off edges and boxy patches of computer
pixels. But a picture of what?
The brown part could be leather or wood or paint or
The black part looked shiny, so maybe it was metal.
But then, it could’ve been the way the camera flashed.
The white space was too rough to be paper and too
smooth to be concrete, and not white like milk — more
like vanilla ice cream.
Whatever it was, the voice had assumed he would recognize it and would know what it meant.
But he didn’t.
Eric studied it until his eyes went heavy, then turned
off the screen and crawled back into bed.
Eight hours later, he was sitting in history class, supposedly watching a video on the Electoral College, when it hit
He knew the parts in the photo.
He could see how it fit in place, see the other parts the
photo didn’t show.
The black rectangle was the bottom left corner of a
Maxim swimsuit-model poster.
The brown bar was the top of a wooden headboard.
The white area was a bedroom wall.
His bedroom wall.
It took a minute for it to click, but it came, rolling like
a bead of cold sweat down his spine.
Whoever had taken the picture had been in his room.
Waiting for it was the worst.
At first, anyway.
Eric knew there’d be another call.
There had to be.
You don’t go through all that trouble for a few fuzzy
calls that nobody else heard. If it was a joke, they’d call
again with the you-got-punked slam and the what-anidiot insults. That was the whole point, the payoff that
made it worth the effort.
He’d expected somebody to say something at school,
since that’s where the big audience would be — the caller
walking up behind him, whispering his name like Darth
Vader, him jumping or freaking out in front of everybody,
somebody posting it online — but it didn’t happen. That
was a good thing. But it meant that whatever it was going
to be, it was still coming.
If any of his friends were in on it, he would have
known. They would have been trying too hard to act normal, but they were lousy actors and he would have seen
through them as easily as their teachers and parents and
the other people they lied to did. Duane would have had
that smart-ass grin he got when he knew something you
didn’t know, and Andrew would have had that nervous
laugh that always meant something was up. Tabitha and
Wendy and Dana would have rolled their eyes at the stupidity of it all, Tabitha saying “Whatevs” for the hundredth time that day. But Nick would have told him right
away. Not because Nick was his best friend or anything,
but because Nick would have forgotten it was supposed to
be a secret.
Eric checked his Gmail a dozen times before school
was out and then a few times after practice, but there was
nothing new. The same spam and that one email with the
Back in his room, he held up his iPad, aligning the
black rectangle in the image with the corner of the poster,
the brown bar with the headboard. Whoever had taken
the picture had stood somewhere between the foot of his
bed and the closet door, but since it showed only that little
part and it was all zoomed in and grainy, he couldn’t tell
The poster had been up since last winter, when April’s
brother, Garrett, had sent it from college. His note had said
that he found posters of half-naked women to be exploitive and disrespectful. Posters of half-naked men, however, were apparently different, as the walls of Garrett’s
dorm room could attest. Since Eric had put up the poster,
just about everyone he hung with had been in his room at
one time or another, if only for a minute. It would take a
lot less than that to snap a picture.
Now, why they would do it was something different.
His friends could be weird like that.
But what if it wasn’t a friend?
What if it wasn’t anybody he knew?
The house was empty half the day. You could break in,
have a look around, take a picture or two, sneak out without anyone knowing, not leaving a single trace. True, when
he and his father had gotten locked out over the summer,
they’d spent an hour trying to figure a way in before giving up and waiting for his mother to get home, but just because they couldn’t do it didn’t mean somebody else would
have a problem. So, yeah, it could’ve happened.
The more he thought about it — a burglar breaking
into his house to take a picture of his room — the more
ridiculous it sounded. Still, the idea wouldn’t go away, and
when it crept close to the surface he could feel the hairs on
his neck twitch.
There were no calls that night and no new emails in
He’d received a normal number of text messages and
forwarded Facebook postings and Tweets, all big news
flashes like “Watching Transformers IV,” “Going 2 bed,”
“Should be studying for physics test,” and “Eating pizza.
YUMMM!!!” He could’ve sent his own, something like
“Waiting for stalker asshole to call back,” but that would’ve
gotten his friends asking questions and let the caller know
that he had got in his head.
Eric checked his email again on the way to school.
His father was used to him zoning out during the ride,
leaving him free to stare out at the road in front of the
Bronco. At first, all he could think about was the caller,
but there was nothing new to think about, so other things
popped in, things like the reading he forgot to do for
English, the run he should have gone on that morning,
the ambush he had walked into last night playing Gears of
War, and, eventually, predictably, unavoidably, he thought
Two months ago next Saturday.
He was positive she would remember.
Not the kind of thing you celebrate, not out loud anyway, but still not the kind of thing you forget.
At least, that’s what the movies said.
But then, the movies also said it was all fireworks and
funky bass guitars, that it’d be wild and there’d be no guilt
or embarrassment and definitely no regrets, especially for
him. Well, it wasn’t the first time that the best parts were
all in the previews. He just wondered if there’d ever be a
“Anybody home?” his father said, tapping him on
the shoulder. Eric blinked, and there he was, back in the
Bronco, idling in the bus loop in front of the school.
His father laughed. “I was tempted to see how long
you’d sit there like that, but people were starting to stare.”
“Sorry. I didn’t sleep that good last night,” Eric said,
then cut off questions by adding, “I had this stupid song
stuck in my head is all.”
“That’s what you get for listening to stupid music.”
Eric mumbled something about classic rock as he
climbed out of the truck.
“Here, take this,” his father said, handing him five
bucks. “Get yourself a tall black coffee. That’ll wake you
He beeped twice as he drove off.
Eric checked his phone. Nothing. He checked it between
classes and one more time before practice, but somewhere
in the middle of wind sprints it slipped to the back of his
mind. That night, he had too much homework to catch up
on to waste time waiting for an email that might never
come, and he fell asleep fast, so deep under, he wouldn’t
have heard a hundred phones ring. On Friday, he started
focusing on not thinking about April, and by the time the
weekend was over, the whole mystery-caller photo thing
was as forgotten as last year’s Super Bowl loser.
But on Monday night when he answered his phone and
heard the techno static and the airy whoosh, it all crashed
back — the calls, the photo, the whispered words that
made his stomach roll. He waited, listening, and then he
couldn’t wait any longer. “Who is this?”
The caller laughed, the voice autotuned dark, deep and
not human. Eric strained to hear through the white noise.
He thought for a moment, then said, “No big deal. I got an
app that traces calls, so I’ve got your number now —”
“Yeah, it won’t be so funny when I —”
“Tell me the first three numbers and I’ll leave you
The words came as a surprise, and for a second Eric
was tempted to guess, but whoever it was had called his
bluff, and he had nothing. He lowered his voice in case his
mother was nearby, then rattled off a handful of f-bomb
insults before hanging up.
It was stupid, yeah, and probably what the caller
wanted him to do, but he needed to do something, and
what else did he have?
Lying on his bed, Eric gritted his teeth till his jaw muscles burned, mentally beating the crap out of . . . who? It
didn’t matter — he’d do it, even if it was a senior. But what
senior would waste time doing this? No, it was someone
in his class. Or one of the freshmen. Phone pranks were
more their speed. But it wouldn’t be one freshman acting
alone, since freshmen didn’t do anything alone. No selfconfidence and a pack mentality, especially when it came
to kid stuff like this. And since it probably was a bunch
of freshmen, the last thing he should have done is what
he did, lose his temper. They were probably all huddled
together, giggling on the other end, finding it so frickin’
hilarious that they made a junior swear. He tried to remember a time when stuff like that was funny. He couldn’t, but
the first months of ninth grade sounded about right.
It wouldn’t be anyone who played sports. Even the
ninth-graders knew that the coaches had zero tolerance
for athletes living up to the stereotype. Low grades, disrespecting substitute teachers, that jock swagger — the
coaches came down hard. Prank phone calls weren’t up
there with stuffing some kid in a locker, but it wouldn’t be
worth the risk of all those extra laps to find out.
He considered the theater gleeks. The calls had the
over-the-top drama and cheesy audio effects, plus there
was that unwritten, always there, jock-gleek animosity that gave this kind of prank a higher purpose. But it
wasn’t them. Tryouts were starting for the school musical,
and they’d be wrapped tight in their own little dramas,
too busy destroying each other to worry about some soccer
The voice was altered, so it could be anybody, even
the cheerleaders. But it wouldn’t be them, since, one, they
were part of the athletic department and, two, they were
more mature than that. In every way.
Ten minutes later, he was still thinking about the
maturity of the cheerleaders when his phone buzzed, no
number showing up in the caller ID.
There was only one way to play it now. He had to keep
his cool, act like he was in on the joke, that he found it
sorta funny in an old-school kind of way, like watching
Teletubbies at a keg party. The prank would fizzle out, and
the calls would stop. And then he’d find out who was behind them and get his revenge. He swiped on his phone.
“Hey, stranger. I was hoping you’d call back.”
There was a long, static-filled pause that made Eric
smile. “What’s the matter, lose your voice? I’m not surprised — you’ve been sounding a little hoarse. Try some
tea with honey.”
“I have something you want.”
“A new car? A million dollars? I’d take either one.”
A deep breath, then the voice hissed. “It’s something
you’ll want returned.”
Eric was ready with a comeback when it sank in, the
smile melting off his face as he remembered the email and
the picture of his room. He jumped up and flicked on a second light, his eyes racing over his desk, the shelves, looking for a gap, a space that shouldn’t be there. He pulled out
his wallet. Driver’s license, school ID, pictures — nothing
missing. He jerked open the top drawer of his desk and
saw the cards April had given him, the pictures from the
sophomore dance, the Dairy Queen gift card his aunt had
sent him, his grandfather’s dog tags, some movie ticket
stubs, an old lighter. He squeezed the phone as he gritted
his teeth, the whole stay-cool plan burned away. “What did
“I didn’t take anything,” the caller said, confidence
back in the artificial voice. “You took it.”
“I took it? I don’t know what the hell you’re talking
about. You’re the one that broke into my —”
He jumped at three quick knocks on the door. “Eric?
Phone against his leg, he took a deep, steadying breath.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. Just, uh . . . just on the phone is all.”
“Okay, well, hold it down,” his mother said, then, from
down the hall, adding, “and make it quick. It’s a school
“All right, I’m almost done,” Eric shouted back. He put
the phone to his ear, expecting the line to be dead, but the
wispy static was still there. Enough of this, he thought.
“Don’t call me again,” he said. “If you do, I’m calling
the cops. I have proof that you broke into my house —”
“You’re forgetting something,” the caller said.
“Yeah? Like what?”
The static dropped out, making the whispered words
loud and clear. “I know your secret.”
Eric laughed. “Oh that. Isn’t that a line from Scary
Movie 3? You could at least try to be original. Bye-bye, asshole,” he said, his thumb swiping over to end the call, but
not before hearing one last raspy line.
“Check your email.”
Eric stuffed the phone in his pocket and went down to
the kitchen, grabbed a stack of Oreos and a glass of milk,
then sat in front of the TV in the living room and pretended to care about the Monday Night Football pregame
show. He held out until the end of the first quarter before
heading up to his room, shutting the door, and powering
up his iPad.
There were four new messages. One from a skateboard
company, one from the Armed Forces Recruitment Center,
one from Fandango, and one from an unknown sender at
an EarthLink account. With two quick taps he trashed the
A minute later, he sent it back to the inbox and clicked
The picture popped up, and Eric gasped, stumbling
backwards, his hands numb, his legs shaking, as he collapsed on his bed, the iPad thumping onto the floor.
He looked again, but the picture was still there.
“Oh, shit,” he said, no one there to see the color drain
from his face.
Shelly Meyer pulled her hair back behind her
head, scrunching it up, holding it in place with her right
hand, using her left to balance as she leaned over and
puked into the sink.
Tried to, anyway.
The way her stomach had been acting — the noises,
the rolling, the acid burn creeping up her throat — throwing up should have been easy. But no, it wasn’t happening.
It wasn’t that kind of sick.
Who it was and how they had found out she didn’t
But someone knew. And she had to find them.
She ran the water in the sink, cupping her hands under
the faucet, letting the cold wash over her fingers till they
were numb. She lowered her face into her hands. Water
trickled along the curve of her neck, disappearing down
the front of her white cotton shirt. It was good, and for a
moment she allowed herself to relax. And then it was time.
She looked at her reflection in the polished metal
Black eyeliner, thicker than she’d worn it in middle
Blue-black lipstick, fainter than she liked, but darker
than the dress code allowed.
Coal black hair, straight from the bottle, the more unmanageable the longer it got.
Crazy goth chick cliché in a Catholic-school uniform,
the whole look still a bit foreign.
She wiped a paper towel across her face, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and walked out of the third-floor
bathroom, looking for her victim.
Classes had been over for an hour, and the only students left were out on the fields or down in the locker room.
There were a few straggler teachers, but they wouldn’t be
a problem. She’d only been at the school for three weeks,
but by then it was obvious that the teachers who stuck
around after the last bell were in no rush to get home.
Nonna Lucia would have called them “ladies of a certain
age and standing,” meaning over fifty and divorced. With
cats. There were two male teachers at the school, and both
of them could have fit in with that crowd if they didn’t
bolt out faster than the students. The ones who did stay
usually clustered around the librarian’s tiny office, eating
grocery-store pastries and drinking instant cappuccinos.
They were okay teachers, she guessed, entertaining and
not too demanding, but none of them seemed like the kind
you could talk to, not like Ms. Moothry or Mr. Becker. But
that was another school and another life.
Shelly rounded the corner near the bio lab. The hall
Heather Herman: 72 Facebook friends, 0 in common.
Likes Katy Perry, The Walking Dead, The Slayer Chronicles,
American Idol, Women’s Premier Soccer League, Vancouver,
and Moonlight Creamery double-chocolate fudge.
There was no place on Facebook to list the things she
hated, but if there was, Shelly figured she’d be on it by
Down the west stairs, past the chapel and the room
where Mrs. Holland tried to teach religion, the lessons always turning into class discussions about current events
and “teen issues,” Catholic-school code for sex and drugs.
There were the occasional Bible references, but Shelly knew
them better than Mrs. Holland did — she’d even corrected
Father Caudillo a couple of times when they’d talk after
mass, him half joking about her one day becoming a priest.
But that had been before everything had gone wrong.
Shelly thumbed the metal button on the drinking fountain and swirled the warm water around her dry mouth.
She spit it out and did it a second time, then started down
the stairwell to the first floor and the side exit.
She knew how it would play out, how it had to go, and
she could guess what would happen later.
Maybe not tomorrow, but soon.
There’d be the call to the principal’s office, a visit to
the counselor, then a meeting with her father — good luck
with that — then the psychiatrist, maybe a scared-straight
talking-to by a priest or a cop or an attorney, a couple of
days’ suspension, a week or two in detention, some mention about her Permanent Record, lots of strange looks
and whispered comments from students and teachers,
social isolation through June, and eventually, somewhere
late in her senior year, a grudging acceptance back into the
fold as her classmates focused on the phony nostalgia that
was required near graduation.
If it didn’t play out that way, if she didn’t do all the stupid things the caller told her to do, didn’t obey that mystery voice that knew her secret? She knew what that would
be like too.
She paused at the bottom of the stairs, breathing in
slow, then out slower, finding her focus, her game face, her
thumbnail biting into the side of her finger, an old habit
that explained the thin, curved scars.
That’s when she saw her.
Locker open, books stacked on the floor, her back to
Just get it over with, Shelly thought, then moved without thinking, slipping into the hallway, letting the door
close slow and soft behind her. It was too late to run, too
late to get help, too late for both of them.
Shelly drew in one last deep breath, gritted her teeth,
“There you are, Heather.”
The girl jumped and spun around, her purse spilling
open, the plastic case of her phone shattering as it hit the
It didn’t take long.
Less than a minute.
The girl standing still, eyes wide, too scared to move.
Like the last time.
Shelly trying to get it all out in one go, knowing she
couldn’t start it back up if she stopped, knowing that there
was worse to come.
They were just words, she had told herself. No one gets
hurt from words these days. She knew the truth but held
on to the lie, the only way to get through it.
And then it was over, the girl’s sobs fading in the distance, Shelly pushing the crash bar on the exit, stepping
out into the blinding afternoon sun.
The house was empty, but then, it usually was.
Shelly locked the door behind her, dropping her backpack on the floor by the kitchen table. There was a note
from her father on the counter. She didn’t have to read it,
since she knew it would only be a variation of the same
note he left every day. He’d start with an obligatory reminder about doing homework, then instructions on heating up whatever was in the fridge, the standard permission
to order a pizza if that’s what she wanted, a line about doing the dishes or the laundry or running the vacuum, and
a final bit about not bothering to wait up for him, signing
it “Jeff,” or “J,” or not signing it at all.
It was the same note he had left her every day since she
had moved in.
Her father was at work by the time school let out, and
got home an hour after she had gone to bed. The B shift
paid more, and the overtime was too good to pass up. At
least, that’s what he told her.
In the bathroom, she washed off what was left of her
makeup and brushed her teeth for the tenth time that day,
the sour milk taste refusing to go away. She undressed and
stepped into the shower, adjusting the temperature up as
hot as she could take it. She stood there under the spray
for twenty minutes, the hot water turning warm, then
cool, then cold. Her teeth chattered between blue lips as
she dried off. She put on a pair of sweats and wrapped her
hair in a towel.
A week ago, she would have blasted some music —
something scary, pounding, fast and loud — poured a
glass of sweet tea, lit a few candles, and gotten her homework out of the way before crashing on the couch for a
few sitcoms, then gone up to her room, where she would
have read until she fell asleep. Now she sat curled up on
the floor by the couch, backpack unopened, TV off, all the
lights on, waiting for the phone to ring.
Her old friends — the few she had — had disappeared
before she moved, and frankly, she couldn’t blame them.
Even if they had her new phone number — and no one
from that life did — they wouldn’t use it.
So no calls from them.
The friends she was this close to making — the ones
who only saw her as the new girl in school, the ones who
liked to sit with her in French class or hang out in the cafeteria or talk about music, the ones who made her laugh
and forget — they would have texted, since that’s how she
got in touch with them. That, and nobody called anybody
So when the first call came almost a week ago, she
had assumed it was a wrong number. Why else would her
It had been hard to hear through the pops and hiss of
static, and after she had heard her name, she had to concentrate to make out what the shrill, high-pitched voice
She knew as she heard them what the words had meant.
And what they meant for the new life she was starting.
Was the call really only five days ago? It felt like forever.
After an hour of sitting motionless on the floor, thinking, planning, she went back into the kitchen. Her head
was pounding. The Tylenols she had dry-swallowed on the
walk home had done nothing. Her stomach growled, and
while the thought of food made her sick, she hoped eating
something would help. She made a slice of dry toast, then
a second, this one with butter and strawberry preserves,
then she scrambled an egg and poured a glass of skim
milk, adding in a squeeze of chocolate syrup. It wasn’t a
lot, but it was more than she’d eaten at one time in days.
Back on the floor, plate balanced on her knees, she
tried to think about anything but school or Heather or the
caller and the stupid tasks, and when she sensed her mind
drifting back to her old life and that night, and the nights
and days that had come after, she turned on the television,
jacked the volume, and forced herself into a Two and a Half
The credits were rolling at the end of show number
eight when her phone rang.
She let it ring a few times, then answered, knowing
who’d be there.
“Three tasks down,” the caller said. “One to go. Then
the big finish next week.”
Shelly stuck to her plan, not saying anything at first,
letting the static-filled silence build. “How do I know you’ll
keep your end of it?”
“I guess you don’t,” the caller said, and even through all
the audio effects Shelly could hear the laugh in the voice.
“So why should I bother?”
“Because if you don’t, you know what I’ll do.”
There was another long pause, then Shelly said, “I’ll do
it one more time, but I can’t do the last thing.”
“That’s the best part. And you don’t have a choice.”
“I don’t have a video camera.”
“Use your phone, stupid.”
“It’s an old phone. It doesn’t have video.”
“That’s your problem.”
“Even if it did, I can’t hold a phone and do it at the same
“Then ask a friend to help.”
“I don’t have any friends. But you probably knew that
“All I know,” the caller said, “is that if you don’t do the
video next Thursday, everyone finds out your secret.”
Shelly took a deep breath, pushing down the rising
panic. “I told you I’d do what you wanted, and I’m doing it,
okay? But I don’t know how I’m supposed to get the video.
And even if I get it, I don’t know how to do the rest. I’m not
good with computers. If I could, if I had a decent phone
and I knew how, believe me, I’d do it. But I can’t, so you’ll
just have to come up with something else.”
The static was gone and so was the caller.
Shelly hit last-call return and got the same recording
as last time, telling her that the phone feature she wanted
was not available with her cheap-ass plan. She clicked the
phone shut and waited for the stomach cramps to start,
but after ten minutes she still felt fine, and after another
fifteen she noticed she was hungry again.
Hungry and pissed.
She’d come too far, endured too much.
And she wasn’t going back.
Shelly nuked a bowl of ramen noodles and thought
about Heather Herman. She was probably an okay person,
friendly, fun to be around in her own mousy way. She liked
The Walking Dead, so she couldn’t be that bad. Maybe if
things had been different, they could have been friends.
A lot different, yeah, and maybe not friends, but not this.
Heather was in the Drama Club, and Shelly always got
along with the artsy types, mostly stoners, but still. The
soccer thing she didn’t get, and they definitely had different music tastes, but Heather was right about the doublechocolate fudge at Moonlight Creamery. Crack on a waffle
It was the way she just stood there and took it, looking
up at Shelly with those baby blue eyes and that trembling
lower lip, the tears and the snot, letting some unknown
transfer tenth-grader tear into her like that. It would be
so much easier if Heather took a swing at her or kicked her
or something. Especially since it was all bullshit anyway.
Come on, a girl like Heather a slut? Yeah, right.
The microwave beeped, and Shelly ripped the rest
of the lid off the plastic bowl. She stirred the steaming
noodles with the chopsticks she had saved from the sushi
place and mixed in a long splash of soy sauce. She knew she
wouldn’t finish it all, but it was what she wanted, and besides, there wasn’t much these days that she wanted that
she was likely to get.
Why just stand there? Why not do something? Anything.
If this girl wasn’t going to hit her, she could at least scream.
That would get noticed. The more Shelly thought about it,
the more she realized how easy Heather had it. She got to
see the person who was talking shit about her, got to hear
it, face to face, not whispered behind her back or finding
it written on her locker. And she didn’t have to wonder
who it was who called her names from across the crowded
lunchroom or who left her notes inside her backpack.
Shelly could only guess what it would be like to be on the
receiving end of what she was doing to Heather, but she
knew whatever it was like, it had to be easier than the way
the world had treated her when they found out what she
She also knew it would only be a matter of time before
Heather broke down and told A Concerned Adult like the
posters said to do, and she’d be busted and that would be
the end of it.
But the caller wouldn’t care.
Something about the voice — the attitude behind the
special effects — told Shelly that there would be no negotiating, no options, no mercy. No other way to keep everybody from finding out her secret.
So she’d stay with it, keep doing what the caller said.
Until she got busted, anyway.
And she’d listen to every whispered threat, waiting for
the caller to make a mistake.
Eric opened the stairway door and started down
the hallway to the cafeteria, where he would share lunch
with a stranger.
He was supposed to be in physics, but it was the only
time the stranger — a freshman — was available. Eric hadn’t
skipped a class since he was in ninth grade, but nobody
was going to stop him to check for a hall pass. And getting
busted for missing class? That was the least of his worries.
He passed two girls on their way to the library, Red
Bulled up, trying to be quiet, their racing whispered words
blending into high-pitched static. They kept a death grip on
their pink hall passes, clearly not wanting to find out what
would happen if they were caught without them. What
would happen would be nothing, just a couple nights’ detention and a phone call home. But at that school, in that
part of town, where every student went on to college and
no teenagers ever got pregnant and every kid was above
average, it could be trouble.
Not as much trouble as he was about to get in, but
there was nothing he could do about that.
Anyway, it wasn’t like he was about to totally ruin his
A year or two tops. But hardly forever.
It was all ninth-grade English classes this side of the
building, and a late September heat wave kept the doors
open. He recognized the teachers’ voices, recognized the
short stories the students were supposed to have read, the
assignments they were supposed to turn in, the tests they
were being prepped to pass. It was the same stuff they had
said when he was sitting in there. He’d aced it all, and he
didn’t think he’d have any problems this year. But who
knew what would happen after today.
He could turn around, head back down the hall, or
cut through the library, up the main stairs to the science
department. Mr. Harkness wasn’t the kind of teacher
you could bullshit, so there’d be that detention and that
phone call and blah, blah, blah, and if that was all there
was to it, great, he’d take it. But he knew that if he turned
around now, he’d never go through with it, and he had to
go through with it. Besides, this was it, the last task and
it’d be over.
He kept walking.
A kid came out of the boys’ room, wiping his hands
on the front of his jeans. He was a scrub on the JV team,
and Eric had played against him in scrimmages, but that’s
about all he remembered.
“Hey, Eric,” the kid said, smiling as he walked past.
“Hey,” Eric said, no idea what the kid’s name was.
Now, if it was some kid like that — smaller and younger,
sure, but strong enough to take care of himself, tough
enough to fight back — it wouldn’t be so bad. It’d still be
bad, no getting around that, but at least that way people
might think it was some stupid jock thing that should’ve
been left on the field.
But it wasn’t some kid like that, and there was no way
anybody would buy that story.
Eric made the turn at the end of the hall and walked
into the cafeteria. There was that unmistakable smell, the
sweaty air thick with pasta, steamed carrots, milk, grease,
and plastic. Some days the smell was overwhelming, not
enough to make you gag but enough to make you stick to
the shrink-wrapped sandwiches. It was also first lunch,
mostly ninth-graders, and that meant clouds of candysweet perfumes and musky body sprays that were more
nauseating than anything the cooks could create. Another
reason to get this over with.
There were a couple of tables of sophomores and juniors
off in the far corner, their complex schedules requiring
them to eat lunch two hours after they woke up. Eric wasn’t
in band and he didn’t have a job and he did his community
service on the weekends, so he had a normal eleventh-grade
schedule with a normal, close-to-noon lunch. It was still
too early in the year for the cafeteria monitors to know who
belonged in which period, though, so no one stopped him
when he walked in, and no one asked him why he wasn’t in
class. He would have lied, anyway.
Eric scanned the room, spotting Ian right where he’d
said he would be, sitting alone as always, his backpack hiding the video camera. Ian gave a slow nod, and Eric nodded
back. The guy was a freak — part hacker with a mercenary
attitude, part scary loner with a juvie record and a reputation for packing a knife. When Eric had told him what
he needed done, Ian didn’t ask why, didn’t ask any of the
questions Eric knew his friends would have asked. He just
stated a price, take it or leave it. Eric took it.
Eric picked up a tray from the stack, shook the water
off by habit, and started down the line.
Pizza bagels, chili hots, two types of salad, two types
of vegetables — the usuals. It didn’t matter what was on
the Today’s Specials menu. He’d been told what to get.
The lunch lady smiled up at him. She was short and
round and spent her days serving processed food to ungrateful teens and condescending adults. And still she
smiled. “What would you like, hon?”
Eric stared into the fogged-up glass as if he was trying
to make up his mind.
“Did you see we have pizza bagels? Those are popular.
And there’s a few turkey sandwiches left in —”
“Three mac and cheese, please.”
There, he said it.
She laughed at him. “Three? You don’t want three. That’s
too much, hon, even for you.”
“I guess I’m really hungry,” he said, not bothering to
“Why don’t you start with one,” she said, digging an ice
cream scoop into the pan of neon-yellow macaroni. “If you
want more, there’s plenty here.”
“No, I want all three at once. On the same plate.”
She gave him a look.
She shook her head, and the smile was gone. “You’re
just going to end up throwing it away,” she said as she piled
it on, slipping an extra paper plate underneath before she
set it on the counter. She said something else, something
about wasting money and proper nutrition and making
sure this kid was charged for three entrees, but he had
already moved on, punching his student ID number into
the keypad by the register, then heading for an open table
without stopping to get a plastic fork.
There were still thirty minutes left in the period, time
to let the mac and cheese cool down a bit. He owed the kid
at least that much. He used the time to look around the
room, see who’d be coming to the rescue. It’d be a teacher
or one of the aides. He didn’t worry about the kid’s friends
— they weren’t the type to do a thing, even if it happened
to them. It made it easy. And that made it worse.
The first time, the kid had been alone, walking down
a back hallway near the shop classes. A simple shoulder
check into the lockers, books and papers everywhere. Eric
had hoped that would be enough, but apparently it didn’t
count. Three days later he did it again, same move, close
to the same spot, same results. Only this time Eric made
sure the kid had a couple of friends with him, friends who
backed off fast, waiting down the hall for it to be over.
Now there was just this last thing to do and it would be
Well, the caller part, anyway.
He sat there looking around the room, his leg bouncing, the dirty-sock smell rising up from the tray in front of
him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ian tightening the strap on his backpack. Ian wouldn’t get busted. He
never did, not for anything. That’s why he could charge so
much. He’d slip out during the commotion, the teachers
running past him to get to Eric.
The cheese started to harden. Eric stuck his finger in
the middle of the yellow mound. It was warm but not hot.
He rubbed the goo off on a napkin, took a deep breath,
then stood up and headed across the cafeteria.
The kid was sitting with some other freshman. They
were all alike — scrawny necks, big eyes, Old Navy tees,
none of them needing to shave, uncoordinated, a bit goofylooking, like baby birds. Just like he looked back then.
The instructions were to walk straight at the kid, let
him see who was coming, see if that would make him freak
or scream or, better yet, cry. But Eric wanted to get it over
with, so he came in from the side, and he was standing
over the kid before anyone realized what was happening.
Connor Stark: 127 Facebook friends, 0 in common.
Likes Friendly Fires, Two Door Cinema Club, Foster the
People, Avenue Q, RoboCop, World War Z, and Piranha Sushi
Bar & Grill.
That was everything Eric knew about him.
So the kid looked up.
Looked right at him.
Eye to eye.
Just for an instant.
In that instant, Eric knew how it would all turn out.
And he did it anyway.
A Creature of Moonlight (Excerpt)
On Sale: May 6, 2014
Sixteen-year-old Marni lives with her Gramps in a one-room
shack, cultivating a magnificent flower garden that attracts
villagers and noblemen alike. Only the invasive blue
dragon flowers in her garden belie Marni’s secret: She is
the niece of the king and the daughter of a dragon. When
events force Marni to claim her rightful place as princess
in her uncle’s court, King Roderick eyes the dragon-born
girl with suspicion, blaming her for the enchanted, rapidly
encroaching woods that are destroying his kingdom. Will
the king kill Marni, as he did her mother, or will Marni
get her revenge first? A rich, compelling fantasy for the
wild at heart.
O N E
L L S U M M E R L O N G the vil-
lagers have been talking of the woods.
Even those living many hills
away can see it: their crops are disapaw
pearing; their land is shrinking by the day. We hear story after
story. One evening a well will be standing untouched, a good
twenty feet from the shade, and when the farmer’s daughter goes
to draw water in the morning, there will be nothing left but a
pile of stones and a new tree or three growing out of the rubble.
And all along beside it, the woods stretch on and on, where no
woods were the night before.
In years gone past, this happened now and again: a goatherd would complain of his flock’s favorite hill being eaten by
shadows and trunks, or a shed alongside the trees would rust
overnight and be crawling with vines in the morning. But just as
often, an old fence was uncovered by the woods as they retreated,
or a long-lost watering hole suddenly appeared again, where it
hadn’t been for near fifty years. The woods come and they go,
like the sun, like the wind, like the seasons. It isn’t something to
fret about, not in a fearful way. The farmers have always complained of it, but they’ve never talked of it as they are talking
now of this advance.
This year, the trees do not go; they only come, on and on,
and rumors from all over our land say the same. They are folding
in around us.
It terrifies the villagers something fierce. When they come
to bring our supplies or to buy some flowers, they mutter about
it with my Gramps. I see them shaking their heads, twisting their
caps in their hands. Gramps tells them it’s nothing to worry
about, that the trees will take themselves back again, just as they
They listen to him. When he talks, it’s as if they forget the
state of his legs and see only the calm on his face, hear only the
slow, measured way he has with words. They leave more peaceful
than they were when they came. They leave less worried about
the creeping trees.
When they’ve gone, though, I see my Gramps sigh. I see
him look sideways at me where I’m leaning against the porch rail,
as if I won’t notice that way. As if I don’t already know he frets
more than he’d ever let on. There’s no one like my Gramps for
fretting. Any sickness going around, any rumor of bandits — I
see those eyebrows drawing in tight. He’ll not talk about it,
maybe, but he worries, more and more the less he can do.
Well, and this time, could be there’s something to it. Since
I was small, since we lived here and made ourselves the flower
people to keep from getting our heads chopped off, Gramps
has warned me not to wander into the trees that push up right
against our place — out back, beyond the flowers and paths and
bushes, over the low stone wall that rings around our garden. But
out here, living so close, it would be near impossible not to follow my curiosity over that wall, and I’ve had years to be curious.
My Gramps doesn’t realize — I only go when he’s not looking —
how well I’ve always known our woods.
There’s not much Gramps could do to stop me, stuck as
he is in his chair, needing me for every little thing. Oh, he could
yell, and if I didn’t come running, he could get himself up with
his cane and wobble out the back, and if I wasn’t there, he could
tear me down something wretched when he saw me returning.
But I don’t go so far that I can’t hear my Gramps’s voice. Not just
because I’m avoiding trouble. Not just because I don’t want to
scare him, neither, though those are both good reasons. What if
something were to happen to Gramps and I wasn’t there to pick
him off the floor or run for help? Or what if the king decided
that today was the day he’d stop tolerating those flower people,
and he sent some men and horses down, and I wasn’t there to
scream and scratch until they killed me for my Gramps?
So Gramps doesn’t know how often I go to the woods.
There are all the things you would think of living there:
rabbits and squirrels and hedgehogs and, late in the evening,
bats. The trees are spaced out like they must want to be. Nobody
comes to chop them down. Nobody stops them from spreading apart or smothering each other or dropping their needles
just as they please, in patterns and swirls and such. I wouldn’t
half mind being one of those trees. I reckon it’s a peaceful life,
with nothing but the birds, the wind, and the sun for your company.
It’s peaceful visiting them, wandering this way and that
through their silent trunks, humming and thinking my own
There are other things there too, things you wouldn’t
There’s a laugh behind a tree when nobody’s around to
make it. A flash of red from branch to branch, like a spark from
a fire, but nothing’s burning. A woman dressed in green, sitting
alone on a log and knitting something out of nothing, out of
leaves and grass and berries, out of sunshine. She looks up, and
she has no eyes. Where her eyes should be there are lights like
tiny suns, and she’s smiling, but I don’t know how, because she
doesn’t have a mouth like anyone else’s, not that I can see. There’s
just a mist all around her head, and those burning eyes looking
right at me.
I don’t stop to talk to things like that. I used to, once, before I knew any better. Back then I used to play with the little
people hidden under the bushes and make my own crafts next to
the lady on the log as she knit and sang to me, and I’d fly away
sometimes, though never very far, with great winged things that
held me in their arms. I was always wary of straying too far from
Gramps, even when I was small.
It was only gradually that I grew frightened of the woods
folk. The laugh turned, bit by bit, from cheerful to menacing;
the spark changed from beautiful to dangerous. I’d see the little
ones eyeing me with something other than playfulness. I’d see the
lady’s clever fingers tensing as we knit, and I’d wonder just when
she’d decide to grab my wrist, to take me away with her.
So I stopped listening, and I stopped looking. It’s been
many years now since I followed whenever the voices called from
the woods. I no longer talk back to birds with people’s faces, or
watch as misty creatures dart through the brooks.
But when I slip out into the trees this summer, I hear the
voices singing more, and I see the lights flickering here and there,
yellow and blue and green, always just at the corners of my eyes,
tempting me away.
I dare not go out when the sun is low in the sky. Then I’m
like to forget, almost, who I am, and that I ever had a Gramps,
and that the little people tugging at my skirt hem are not my
people, and are not to be trusted, even though they bear the
sweetest, most innocent faces in the world.
Yet I don’t stop going completely, neither. When Gramps
is sleeping the sun away, or when I’ve worked so hard at digging
out weeds and pruning back bushes and hauling water to and
from the well that I can’t stand one minute more, or when I get
to thinking on things just so, I hop over our garden wall and
go walking out there, breathing in the pine and the damp, dark
places of the forest.
It’s a dangerous pastime, I know, but I can’t help myself.
There’s a thing that draws me to the woods, even more than the
peacefulness I find there. It’s a humming deep at the bottom of
my mind. It’s a thrill that tingles, even when I’m only taking one
step and then another, even when the woods folk are nowhere to
The villagers will tell you it’s not just the creatures of the
woods that require wariness. It’s not just the obvious: the lights
and the voices and the speaking owls, the faces in the branches.
It’s the trees themselves.
There’s something there, they’ll say, whispering through
the leaves, sleeping in the trunks. There’s something that seeps
through the spongy ground but never shows itself in any way
you would recognize. If you walk enough in these woods, they
say, you’ll start to understand its language. The wind through
the trees will murmur secret things to you, and you’ll be pulled
by them, step by step by step, out of the human realm. You’ll
be drawn to the shadows, toward the soft flashes of moonlight
through the branches, into the hidden holes and tricky marshes.
The villagers won’t let their children go into the woods, not
even to the very closest edge, not even when the wind is silent
and the sun shines full through the trees. It’s an insidious thing,
they say, the soul of these woods. It will rock you and soothe you
until you’ve nothing left but trust and belief and naivety. It will
fold itself into you, and you will never know it’s there, not until
you’re ten nights out and there’s not a thing that can bring you
It’s the girls that the woods take most often. Girls about my age,
in fact, near grown but not yet settling themselves down to a
husband and a family. There were one or two from round about
our place when I was growing who walked from their homes one
day and never came back.
The latest was a girl with dark curls, just old enough to be
catching the eyes of the boys, and she was the closest thing to a
friend I ever had.
That was just this spring, when she disappeared. She was
my age, and she wasn’t shy none. She’d talk up my Gramps; he
used to smile more when she was about the place. She’d talk up
the village boys, too, the ones she used to play chase with but
now were chasing her, and eyeing her as if she wasn’t the same
girl they’d spent their summers playing pranks with, as if she
wasn’t as close to them as their own sisters.
It’s not the easiest thing to keep friends when you live a
good thirty-minute walk from the nearest village — nor when
you’re as close as we are to the woods. But Annel didn’t care
none about those things. The other village girls stayed close to
home, but even young as a sprout, Annel would run across the
fields and come stamping up to our front door, bursting in as we
ate our breakfast maybe, or swinging right around to the garden,
where I’d be at work. She didn’t look like a farmer’s daughter —
she looked like a lady from the court, with that figure and that
face — but she wore her skirts hitched up as often as not, and
she threw herself down in the dirt alongside me as I pruned and
Not that her parents approved, quite, but Annel had five
brothers also running wild, and for one stray daughter to be off
visiting the flower girl and her grandfather — who still spoke
soft and sweet like the castle folk — there were worse things in
When Annel came by our place, it was as if the sun had
come down to visit. She’d go running with me out in the meadows, picking wildflowers, imagining shapes in the clouds in the
sky. We’d talk things over, too: what it’d be like to fly up high
with the birds; where we’d like to go when we grew up — across
the mountains to the northern sea, or so far south, the winter
would never come. Annel was always full of places she’d like to
go. I think that was why she so loved our place — it was the closest she could get to another country, my Gramps and my world.
Well, and I reckon I listened better than most of the village girls.
How could I not? She’d paint such pictures with her words, of
endless hills of sand, of bitter plains of snow.
Annel was good at that — making you see things with her
words. Often as not, she’d stay clear through dinner, until the
dark was creeping into the corners of the hut, and she’d curl
up on our old wool rug next to me, her face all shining in the
firelight. We’d have taken in a chair from the porch for Gramps.
He’d sit straight as always, but with a softness in his face, as if
he’d forgotten for the moment the pain in his legs, his fretful
thoughts. And Annel would tell us stories, Gramps and me, and
he would listen quietly, scarce moving, and I would eat them up
like a river eats stones, rushing, gobbling every passing word,
slipping on from tale to tale to tale.
Sometimes the stories she’d tell would get to be too much
for my Gramps. A woman who got herself lost and never came
back. A child without a mother, wandering far and wide, screaming so insistently that the earth opened up and swallowed it
whole just to give it some rest. Then we would hear the chair
scraping and the cane jolting against the floor, and Annel would
stop talking until he’d gone out to the porch and sat down on the
steps. She’d continue softer after that and stop her story soon as
But she always kept on until the end. She knew, as I knew,
that you don’t stop a story half done. You keep on going, through
heartbreak and pain and fear, and times there is a happy ending,
and times there isn’t. Don’t matter. You don’t cut a flower half
through and then wait and watch as it slowly shrivels to death.
And you don’t stop a story before you reach the end.
Came a time as Annel got older that her parents stopped forgetting her. Came a time she only visited us once a week, and
then once a month, and then not for months and months, and
then we heard she’d gotten herself engaged to a wheelwright and
would be married the next spring.
She visited me once that fall, just last year, and she watched
as I turned the dirt over in our garden, readying the ground for
the winter. I was listening to the flower bulbs settling into the
earth, tucking themselves in for a long sleep. I was humming
them a tune of warm dreams, dark waterfalls, green, hidden
things. I’ve always been good with the flowers, just as I’ve always
been good at listening to the trees and seeing the creatures that
lurk in the secret spaces between their trunks.
For a bit, I let Annel stand there silent, unmoving as I
worked. If she wanted to speak to me, she would. Could be I
was angry with her some without realizing it. Even knowing it
was not her fault, could be I blamed her for the lonely taste of
“Funny,” she said finally, when I’d reached the end of a row
and she was still back in the middle of the garden, watching my
shovel with a twisted puzzle on her face. “Funny, isn’t it, how
things can go and change all about you, and you can grow up
tall and fill out your dress, and still there’s something won’t ever
change inside unless you take it up by the roots and hurl it away
as hard as you can? I imagine it’s not this way for everyone. Is it,
The crickets had silenced themselves for the summer; the
frogs were sleeping deep in their lakes. A whippoorwill whistled
close by in the woods, the only one speaking, the only one still
awake. “No, I don’t reckon it is that way for everyone,” I said.
I didn’t know completely what she meant, but nothing was for
Annel as it was for everyone.
“No,” she said softly, but the breeze flipped it round and
brought it my way. “No, some don’t care about the tearing. Some
replant whatever’s going to work in the new soil. You do that
with your flowers, don’t you? Whatever works, whatever’s going
to survive, that’s what you plant.”
“I guess that’s true,” I said. “Whatever’s suited for the
amount of sun and shade we get back here.”
“Not everything’s suited, though.”
“What if — what if, Marni, you’re so in love with a flower
you can’t bear to rip it up? What if you couldn’t smile if you
didn’t see it growing in your garden?”
“There’s no such flower,” I said. “Or there’s only the dragon
flower, which won’t go no matter how many times I try to chase
it out. And that’s the one I hate, the one I wish would disappear.”
“The dragon flower,” said Annel, “which won’t go no matter
how you try to kill it.”
“Can’t make my garden without that flower.”
She nodded. The dusk was growing now. “Was a time,” she
said, “I didn’t think of nothing but running down from home to
here, and back again when I felt the urge.”
“When you’re married,” I said, “you come get a flower for
your table every day.”
“Can I, Marni?” She laughed a bit. “Can I have a dragon
“Every day,” I promised her.
Then she moved, finally, coming down the row, and she
hugged me, dirt and sweat and all. The whippoorwill had
stopped. Only the wind through the woods rushed out toward
us, flicked leaf bits in our hair. “Thanks, Marni,” she said. “I’ll
remember.” She pulled back, still holding my arms. “My mother
sent me down to tell you about the wedding, but I guess you
know all there is by this point. I’m to invite you — you and your
“We’ll come,” I said.
“Well, then.” She smiled at me, though it wasn’t much more
than a flash of gray in the draining light. “Well, then, I’ll see you
again for the wedding in the spring.”
Only there was no wedding. As soon as the pale green tips of the
dragon flower stems were poking out of the rich brown earth,
even before the springtime thunderstorms had rolled off to the
south, my friend took herself to the woods. They searched for
her round about the villages, thinking she might have run off
with this or that farmer boy. They came to our hut, even, stood
with their caps in their hands, but you could feel the suspicion
dripping from them, those men. You could see them remembering how often their Annel had come running down the path
to us, and it wasn’t any other girl who felt the need to do that,
and it wasn’t any other girl — well, not for a few years past anyway — but it was hardly anyone else who disappeared like this.
And there I was, as clear as could be, my mother’s daughter, telling them I hadn’t seen Annel since winter fell, but still, they all
knew, you could see. They knew that those visits with me had
something to do with this.
They didn’t say it straight out, though, or dare to threaten
me or any such, not with Gramps sitting right next to me. They
glared, and asked their questions, and went away after I’d answered them. I stayed clear of the woods for weeks after that,
as my Gramps never left me out of his sight. After a time they
stopped looking, and Annel became just another story, another
girl who had grown up to be swallowed by the woods. And just
like all those other girls, she hasn’t ever come back.
There’s a reason we plant our flowers at the back of the hut,
away from the road, as close to the woods as we can get without
actually growing them in the shade of the trees. Something in
the flowers likes something in the woods; or something in the
woods, could be, some growing, magic thing, likes the flowers,
and those nearest the trees are the happiest.
We’ve the best there are. You won’t find purple lilies like
ours for sale in the city center. There aren’t nasturtiums as vibrant and long-lasting as ours clinging to the windowsills in the
villages. There’s something here, I think, and maybe something
too in the way I care for them, that makes them grow brighter
and stronger than anywhere else.
Well, and no one else has dragon flowers, do they?
In the middle of our garden, there’s a patch of them. You
can’t reach them on the paths. You have to edge through rose
thorns or tiptoe betwixt lupine stalks until you reach their bed.
We never planted them. But there they grow, no matter what I
do — and used to be I tried, and Gramps tried, to rid ourselves
of them. They always came back, and nothing else would grow
where they had.
We gave it up, but Gramps still mutters about them now
and again because dragon flowers are just the sort of thing he’d
rather not have near.
There are stories about dragon flowers. Stories that tie them
to the woods and to the thing that mothers frighten their children with, that gives the flowers their name — the dragon, of
The story Annel told most often about the dragon flowers
took place in the time before the farms and villages and cities. It
was in the time when the woods were everywhere, before we even
had a kingdom, when people ran and hid and never dared come
out at night for fear of getting snatched away.
In those days, the dragon flew free above the trees. He went
where he pleased. He took the people he wanted; in this story
they’re girls, always pretty girls who don’t know what’s upon
them until he steals them out of a clearing, or from a branch
where they’re perched picking nuts, or out of a cold, clear pond
where they’re fishing or cooling their feet.
What he does with the girls we don’t know; something
But one girl he took to more than the others, who knows
why. He grabbed her as she was picking these pale blue flowers,
tiny fragile things, not good for eating, not good for medicine.
He asked her what they were for, and she said they were not for
anything but holding in her hand and putting round her hair and
placing in the window of her parents’ hut.
She was a dimwitted thing, most like. If I were living in the
woods, I’d not have time for picking flowers. I’d be running and
hiding like the rest, and tearing my teeth on squirrels and gathering food for the winters.
But the dragon must have seen something in this girl because
he snatched her away, as he was wont to do with girls he liked.
And he must have liked this one even more, because one year
later she came wandering home with a baby on her hip, a wellfed belly, and roses in her cheeks. She never married any man of
the forest, but stayed with her parents until they died, and round
their hut there grew the flowers, the thin, blue, pointless flowers
that never did any good. While the girl’s parents lived, she did
just fine. The father hunted and the mother cooked meals. But
when they were gone, try as she would, this girl couldn’t make
ends meet. Her boy was a dreamer, as she’d been, and with even
less wits, if that were possible.
Well, and in this story, one way or another, they starve to
death, and the dragon never cares enough to take them away
That’s why the flowers are called dragon flowers, and that’s
why when a girl gets pregnant and won’t name a father, they call
the baby a dragon baby.
And that’s why Gramps doesn’t want the thin blue flowers
in our garden, one reason anyway. We need no more reminding,
not of woods nor of dead girls nor of a baby nobody wants.
They sell, though, those dragon flowers, and not just to the
ladies, who wear them in their hair and twist them for bracelets.
The village women buy them too, when they’ve saved money
That’s the thing about magic, and the thing about the
woods — as much as we want to, or are told, or think we should
forget them, there’s nothing we can do to stay away. As sure as
we dream, as sure as between one breath and the next we look up
into the sky as if hoping, really hoping, to see that beat of wings
and to feel the claws grasping us, lifting us away from it all — as
sure as that, the woods keeps drawing us in.
It’s something to do with freedom, isn’t it? It’s something
akin to the way Annel dreamed so hard about all those many
places her life could go.
“Marni,” she used to say to me, “don’t you settle down until
you’ve no other choice in the matter. Once you do, there’s nothing left: no running through fields, no laughing with boys, no
“Married women dance,” I’d say, squinting up at her through
the garden’s sun, or pouring a glass of water from the well bucket,
or as we lay on our backs in the meadows near the hut.
“Not the way you do before you’re tied down,” she’d say.
“Not when you’ve got children and a house and a thousand
things to do. Not like you do when you could go any way you
want, and no one would stop you, because the whole of your life
was still there, still fresh and new.”
Well, and that was what took her, wasn’t it? I think that’s
what takes all the girls who disappear. In the stories, they don’t
have any choice — they’re snatched away whether they like it or
not. But I know my Annel, and she wouldn’t have run if she
hadn’t wanted to. I know what it’s like to want anything but what
the world has planned for you.
I don’t even have that future to run from, the one every village girl has, and every lady. I don’t dream of a husband. I don’t
dream of children.
I dream of my mother walking out of the woods, alive.
I dream of doing what Annel used to plan — taking the
king’s road north through the mountains to the other side, to
lands untouched by our woods, where no one knows my name.
They have human witches and sorcerers in other lands. I could
seek one out, a magic user, and ask for a poison so pure, our king
would never know it was there until it was too late.
Maybe that’s what I will do when my Gramps is gone, when
I’m alone in truth. It makes me feel like a real dragon’s daughter
to think such things. It makes me wonder what I might become
that day when I’ve nothing to hold me back, when I’ve only the
flame in my gut and the beat of my wings to take me through the
T W O
T W A S L A S T year, about the time
that Annel was inviting us to her wedding, when a boy from a village not far
away stopped by to talk and sit with
Gramps. Jack, his name was, or something like. He was a man
grown, I guess, though only three or four years beyond me.
I brought him milk from our cow, Dewdrop, and I gave him
a smile as I handed it to him. I’ll smile for the villagers, and I’ll
give up some of our bread and milk for them. We can afford
to share. We pay them well for what they bring our way, too:
flour, honey, vegetables. We’ve got Dewdrop and the chickens,
but we’ve not time for growing all our own food if we’re to get
the garden ready every spring. The king and his court like it to
look nice here. That’s why we tend our paths so carefully and
plant the flowers in neat rows, with the yellow next to blue, and
the blue next to red, and so on around the garden, so that to step
from our hut to our backyard is like stepping from a hovel to a
Not that the nobles go through the hut when they come to
walk in our garden. They take the path around it. They don’t put
their shiny boots on the floor of our kitchen. They don’t throw
their eyes on our beds and our one small dresser with our winter
changes of clothes. They don’t touch a finger to the mantel I
wipe down every night with my own two hands so it gleams like
theirs do up in their castle without them ever doing anything
about it. I’m not sure what I would do if they tried to slip themselves through our front door.
They come too often for my taste as it is, those lords and
ladies from the king’s court. They come on horses, some of them,
and some in fancy carriages, and some come walking on their
own two feet, laughing and strolling along without a care in the
world. Gramps calls out to them as they canter or roll or amble
on up to our front porch, where we’ve set out our roses and
marigolds and the rest, laid in rows all along our wide railing.
I don’t talk to them.
They laugh with my Gramps. They sit across the porch
table from him, in the chair I use when no one’s around. They
gossip about the doings at court and how the crops are coming
in on their acres and acres of fields — not that they’re the ones
who tend their own crops, but they talk as if they were, as if they
sweated over the planting and burst their fingers with the harvest.
They don’t talk about the way the woods keep moving in, not
even this summer, when their estates must be having as many
problems as the smaller farms.
I hover at the back of the porch, a wisp, a shadow. When
they’ve done with the talking and get on with deciding what they
want, I step up and pull the flowers together for them. I pick out
the greens and the ribbon. I tie them all in a bunch, and I hand
them to my Gramps.
And then some of them remember me and give me a smile.
“How’s our Tulip?” they ask. They’ve always called me that,
as long as I can remember. My tulips come in so many colors,
they near make a rainbow, and in my garden they bloom all summer long.
I don’t answer. I step back against the wall; I duck my head
away. I owe them nothing.
They know it, too, and they always laugh a bit forcedly —
the ladies high and bright, the lords a deep chuckle — and never
push it. They take their flowers from Gramps, and then they get
back on their horses or step into their fancy carriages or link
their pretty arms and saunter up our path over the hill toward
Gramps never answers for me, neither. He could. He could
tell them what I’ve been up to, how long it’s been since I had a
sickness. He doesn’t, though. He grows still, just like me, and
waits until they’re done with asking, done with paying me any
mind, before he turns back into the helpful, talkative flower man.
There are some things Gramps understands about me.
There are some things even he won’t do, some things even he
won’t say to make them happy.
But I welcome the villagers when they come. I invite them
inside when they’ve a mind to visit before the fire, and I feed and
water them too, and happily.
That afternoon last year, after I handed Jack his cup of
milk, I leaned back against the wall, my hands behind me, my
bare feet scratching each other, tapping on the porch floor, my
braid hanging over my chest. Jack sipped and talked away with
Gramps about the harvest and the new babies in the village and
the weddings that would be coming in the spring. Gramps smiled
and laughed with him, just as he does with the ladies and lords.
Not one for any false sense of importance, my Gramps.
The time wore on, and still Jack sat there, clutching an
empty cup now, and running out of things to say. My legs were
falling asleep, but if Gramps could wait him out, so could I,
and there wasn’t another chair in the house to fall into, and I
wasn’t going to sit myself down on the porch. The village girls,
they might have done that. They might have smiled and nodded at Jack as he talked on — he sure was smiling and nodding
at me. But I wasn’t a village girl, was I? So I stayed standing
there, and I let my mind drift off into the woods, where the
sun would be dappling through the trees about now and the
squirrels would be chittering, racing one another from branch to
Into the silence of the porch and the silence of the woods
in my mind, Jack said, “Well now, sir, and your wee Marni’s
grown right up.”
It wasn’t something no one had said before. The women
who bring our vegetables and such are always talking on about
how I’ve shot up since they’ve seen me last, even if it was just two
weeks ago. Them I give two or three smiles, if I feel like it. They
make Gramps laugh, not just a politeness laugh, but a laugh deep
from his belly, and there aren’t many who can do that. Them I
like, and I don’t mind when they talk about me, so long as they
don’t expect me to talk all that much back.
But the way Jack said it, as if he meant more than what
he said — that I didn’t like at all. I pushed myself out of my
slump, up straight against the wall, still keeping my head down
but ready to run or fight or I didn’t know what.
Gramps had gone still, too. “She’s older than she was,”
he said, “though I don’t know if I would say she’s completely
Jack shook his head at once, taking it back. “No. No, sir,
not completely grown, that’s true. But grown right up, she has,
into something beautiful. What do the noble folk call her when
they come to buy your flowers? Daisy? Violet?”
I could see my Gramps not wanting to answer, but a name
like that — a daisy, a violet, only the commonest of flowers he
could have chosen — that I couldn’t stand, not even through my
unease. “Tulip,” I offered, a bit put out.
Then I wished I hadn’t spoken, because Jack looked around
at me as if the clouds had parted and the sun itself had started
to speak. “Aye, that’s it,” he said, real soft. “A veritable Tulip you
are, and you don’t mind me saying so, miss.”
“She might not,” my Gramps put in, “but I’ll have a word
or two to say about it, you may be sure.”
“Yes, sir, yes, sir.” Jack turned around again so fast I thought
he’d lose his cap. “But I mean nothing wrong by it, you know
that, sir. I mean to pay my respects, that’s all.”
“And now you’ve paid them,” said Gramps, still calm, but
with something in his voice that said that Jack would get up and
go if he knew what was good for him.
No one could say that Jack didn’t know what was good
for him. He stepped up and off the porch as quick as could be,
tipped his cap to Gramps, and nodded toward me, almost a bow,
if an awkward one. I didn’t nod or smile back, but only stood
there as he walked away and watched until he disappeared over
So I’m growing up, that’s all that is.
Jack was the first, but he’s not anywhere close to the last. It
started last fall before the deep snows, and it picks up again this
summer. They come on sunny afternoons and rainy evenings,
these village lads, to share news with Gramps and sip their cups
of milk, watching me all the while from the corners of their
eyes. I pretend I don’t know what’s happening, and Gramps turns
them out soon as he’s able, soon as he can without seeming rude.
I sometimes wonder why they’re interested. Not that I don’t
understand that I’m growing into a woman, and they are men. I
mean, I’m not a horror, but I’m nothing special, neither. I work
outdoors with the flowers all day long. I take no pains to wash
my face or hands. I wear a dress as patched as any you’ll find on
a beggar in the city, I wager. My hair would be something pretty
if I took care to brush it every night. But most times it’s tangled
and dulled by the dirt and the weeds and from getting torn by
rose brambles and by branches in the woods.
I figure it’s not me they’re watching, though, or anyway not
the girl I look like. It’s the thing I’m not anymore. It’s how I’m
not one thing or another, but something else, something unlike
anyone they know.
Gramps did ask me once, last winter, if there was any lad I
fancied. I was putting a loaf over the fire to bake; I turned round,
still bent over, and stared at him.
“It would be a way, Marni, to be forgotten once and for all.
It would give you more protection than you’d ever have living
here with me.”
I straightened, feeling the flush of the flames on my cheeks.
“There’s life, Gramps,” I said, “and then there’s life. I wouldn’t
marry one of them if it were my last chance before the axe.
What, and wear a village skirt and drink from the village well?
Wouldn’t be just the king and his court who’d forget me. I’d forget myself.”
Gramps looked over my dress pointedly, and he sighed and
shook his head, but he didn’t say nothing more. Yes, some of the
village women wear better dresses than me. But then, they have
the time to sew, or a wagon for traveling to the city for better
cloth. And my dress doesn’t say I’m one thing or another. It’s
just a piece of fabric, taking the place of what I should by rights
be wearing. Now I wear the dress of — what? A flower girl? A
made-up thing, a nobody. If I started dressing like a villager, I
would become one. I’d give up what I’m not anymore.
Gramps didn’t say, You could marry a villager to make me safe. He
didn’t say, This is no life, Marni. Become someone else and start again. Who
you were is gone, as good as dead. Gramps understands things sometimes.
Still, he watched me close all the rest of the evening, and I
went to bed uneasy that night, with an itching in my feet.
It may be irritating, to be courted with sideways glances and
half-formed flatteries, but at least these village lads are harmless.
The real danger, I know, is from the lords.
Jack and the others might get frustrated. They might raise
their voices, pushing for a word from me, an answer to some
fool question — but a snap of Gramps’s dark eyebrows, and they
They’re in awe of him. They’re in awe of how he speaks,
the way I never learned to, with the short vowels and the clipped
consonants. Every word out of Gramps’s mouth sounds like he
means it, like he knows just what he’s saying and why. Out of
my mouth, out of the villagers’ mouths, the words all mash together, as if we can’t be bothered to keep them one from the
next, as if we haven’t any time but must rush headlong from one
thought to another. Times are I’ve tried to speak like Gramps,
but it never seems natural. I’ve always latched onto the villagers’
way of speaking — it’s how my mouth wants to work, I reckon.
He sits so still, too, my Gramps, so tall and straight. He
holds his cane across his lap, and he rests both hands along its
shaft lightly. His shoulders roll back. His neck stretches up. Not
even the lords or ladies sit like that. They loll lazily in their chair,
bending forward when they laugh, leaning an elbow on the table.
I imagine it isn’t easy for Gramps to sit just so. His legs are half
dead, so the other half of him has to work twice as hard to get
across the floor or to reach for a cup or to rise up out of his
chair. But he sits so easy you’d think he doesn’t strain at all, that
When the villagers come, I see them sitting as straight as
they can too, imitating him. The lords and the ladies don’t even
try. Could be they don’t care what he thinks. Or could be that
to give in on this, Gramps’s standard of posture, would be to
acknowledge something they can’t bear: that Gramps is better
than they are, and that they knew it once. Once, they hung on
his every word; once, they fought for the honor of sitting at his
Maybe it’s this refusal to remember that makes the lords
glance my way with eyes the villagers would never dare make at
me. That’s a newer thing than the visits from the village lads; it’s
been a month or two, now, that it’s been happening. There I’ll be,
leaning in my usual place against the wall, watching our morning
glories curling around the wooden porch columns, and I’ll sense
a pair of them, dark and hungry eyes. It’ll be someone not sitting
on our visitors’ chair, but the escort for a lady or a tagger-on to a
large carriage group, someone not talking with the rest, someone
whose mind has been able to stray.
And Gramps can’t do a thing about it. He notices, sure, and
I see the tightness in his face. At first I’d get all tight myself when
it started to happen. They shouldn’t be able to do that, I knew,
and I worried what would come of it, who’d finally make some
move toward me or come back late at night when Gramps was
snoring and I was lying awake in my bed by the window. I used
to stare up from my pillow at the moon, waiting for the shape
of one of them to darken it, to reach in toward me, to cover my
mouth before I could scream.
Now I stare back, as often as not. If they want to make
something of it, they should go right ahead. Nothing has been
stopping them all these years from coming round in the middle
of the night to smother us as we sleep. Nothing stops them now
from coming round to do other things. Nothing but the king,
I guess — assuming he’d do anything about it. And their own
small honor. And their fear of something else, of how close we
are to the woods, of how strong Gramps always looks despite his
legs, of how my mother was the only one who ever came back
There’s a story Annel used to tell about this girl, near grown,
who was out in a meadow or somewhere, picking flowers. She
was singing to herself, happy I guess, and as she reached down
to pluck this red tulip, up comes a big brown horse with a man
on its back.
Except it wasn’t just a man, it was a sorcerer, and he didn’t
just happen to ride up right then. He had been watching the
girl with his magic, and there was something about the way she
picked the flowers, something about the way she leaned over with
her hair all long and flowing and her lips spread wide in song,
that made him love her. Or at least that’s what he told the girl
when he had gotten off his big brown horse and was standing
there in front of her, and her mouth was wide with surprise now,
and the tulip was still in her hand.
He wanted to take her with him back to his big old sorcerer’s house, and he said she’d have jewels and dresses and anything she could want. Only thing was, if she came with him, she
wouldn’t ever go back home.
Well, the girl cried for a bit, thinking on the choice she had
to make, but it turned out she already had a sweetheart back in
her village. So she said no to the sorcerer, and he got angry and
threatened her with his magic, and she stuck out her tongue at
him — either brave or real stupid — and she ran back home and
didn’t tell anyone about it.
Except it didn’t matter whether she told them or not, because two days later the sorcerer came around and killed them
all. Killed her whole village: her parents, her brothers, the old
teacher at the schoolhouse — everyone the girl had ever known.
He left only her alive, and when she was sitting by the grave
of her sweetheart, crying herself a lake, he came by on his big
brown horse again and got off and stood by her.
He said he was sorry, that he didn’t want to hurt her, but
she could see, couldn’t she, that there really was nothing to do
but come with him. There was no reason anymore not to come.
But that girl didn’t stand up and get on the horse and ride
away with him. She sat there crying and crying, and while he
watched, she stopped being a girl at all. She bent down toward
her sweetheart’s grave, and she trickled out of herself until she
went and sprouted roots. And then there was nothing left of the
girl the sorcerer said he loved, and all that was there was a red
tulip, wet with dew, bending in the breeze.
The sorcerer could have plucked her up and carried her
away with him, I guess, but he didn’t. He let her be. He climbed
back onto his horse and went home to his big old house. The
girl stayed there like she wanted, though I suppose she hadn’t
planned on being a flower, and when the winter came, she shriveled up and died.
When I see those lords staring with their dark and hungry
eyes, when I see the village lads shooting their looks at me, I
think about this story, and I imagine a sorcerer riding up to our
front porch or around to the back of the hut while I’m out picking flowers. I imagine him reaching out a hand to me, telling me
I can come with him or I can stay at home, and I look up at him,
and I don’t cry or stick out my tongue.
I leap from the porch or get up out of the dirt. I jump on
his horse before he has the chance to change his mind. I leave
with him at once, and I don’t ever turn myself around to look
That’s what I imagine, anyway. And then I look across the porch
and see Gramps there with his legs all twisted, and I know if it
came down to it, I couldn’t really leave. Not for a sorcerer, not
Not if the dragon himself came down from his mountain
and told me he would kill everyone who’d put us here, and all I
had to do was leave my Gramps behind.
See, Gramps never left me behind. Not when his own son
wanted me dead, not when the world thought I was nothing,
no one, as wicked as anything. He picked me up and carried me
here, even when he couldn’t walk. He spent his life becoming no
one too, so he could live with me, so they would let me live.
Death Coming Up the Hill (Excerpt)
On Sale: October 7, 2014
It’s 1968, and war is not foreign to seventeen-year-old
Ashe. His dogmatic, racist father married his passionate
peace-activist mother when she became pregnant with
him, and ever since, the couple, like the situation in
Vietnam, has been engaged in a “senseless war that could
have been prevented.”
When his high school history teacher dares to teach
the political realities of the war, Ashe grows to better
understand the situation in Vietnam, his family, and the
wider world around him. But when a new crisis hits his
parents’ marriage, Ashe finds himself trapped, with no
options before him but to enter the fray.
Week Fifteen: 204
There’s something tidy
in seventeen syllables,
a haiku neatness
that leaves craters of
meaning between the lines but
what matters most. I
don’t have the time or the space
to write more, so I’ll
write what needs to be
remembered and leave it to
you to fill in the
gaps if you feel like
it. In 1968,
sixteen thousand five
American soldiers died
in Vietnam, and
one syllable to each soul
as I record my
own losses suffered
in 1968, a
year like no other.
Week One: 184
The trouble started
on New Year’s Eve when Mom came
home late. Way too late.
Worry about Mom —
and about Dad — knotted my
gut while Dad paced the
living room like a
panther ready to pounce. “Where
the hell is she, Ashe?
Those damn activists . . .
I shouldn’t have let her go.
Well, that’s the last time,
the absolute last
time she mixes with troublemakers. It ends now!”
He looked at me like
it was somehow my fault, but
I knew better. He
had to blame someone,
and I became an easy
target. But it made
me angry at him —
and at Mom, too. Why couldn’t
they just get along?
What I wished for the
new year was peace at home, in
Vietnam, and the
world. A normal life.
Was that too much to ask for?
The door creaked open,
Mom stepped in, and Dad
pounced. I crept up the stairs, closed
my door, and tuned out.
H H H
Later, Mom tapped on
my door and came in, timid
as a new kid late
to school. And she smiled
even though she’d just had a
knockdown dragout with
Dad. There was a light
in her that I hadn’t seen
in a long, long time.
She wanted to check
on me, to make sure I was
okay, to tell me
that May 17,
1951, was the
best day of her life
because it was the
day I was born, and even
though things had been rough,
she had no regrets.
Not one. Then she hugged me and
whispered that maybe,
just maybe, there was
light at the end of this dark
tunnel. “You never
know what’s coming up
the hill,” she said, then left me
Week Two: 278
Even though he won’t
admit it, I blew up my
dad’s football career.
They say he had a
future in the NFL,
but his senior year
at the U of A
he quit football because he
got my mom pregnant.
Mom’s parents disowned
her, and to them, she and I
no longer exist.
She has a scrapbook
filled with photos and clippings
of Dad when he played
defensive back for
the Arizona Wildcats,
and my favorite
action photo shows
him leaping and reaching for
The camera had caught
him right when he snagged the ball.
His head’s back, and you
can’t see his face, but
you can see his taut forearms
knotted with muscle
and the big number
seventeen on his jersey.
Even as a kid,
I recognized the
strength and grace in that picture,
and I knew he’d been
and I made up my mind to
be like him one day.
Maybe I’d never
be as good as he was, but
I thought that if I
worked hard and became
a great athlete, somehow that
would make up for his
loss. It turned out I
was wrong. I never had to
prove anything to
Dad. His love for me
was as sure and solid as
the U.S. Marines.
Too bad he didn’t
feel that way about Mom. He
resented her for
the mistake that killed
his football career, the same
mistake that forced him
to marry her. Back
in 1950, things worked
that way: if a guy
knocked up a girl, he
married her to make it right.
It doesn’t happen
like that nowadays.
It’s 1968, and
young people believe
in free love, and there
are plenty of ways to take
care of a mistake.
By getting married,
Mom and Dad did the right thing,
and they have been good
parents to me, and
I’m grateful to them both for
putting up with each
other for my sake.
I wish there was some way I
could make it right, make
them right, but ending
the long, cold war between them
was as likely as
a black man being
elected president of
the United States.
It’s not going to
happen, but, man, wouldn’t it
be great if it did?
Week Three: 218
Mr. Ruby, my
U.S. history teacher,
wrote a number on
the board to begin
every class. Today it was
“two hundred eighteen.”
His gray hair was slicked
back, like always, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up, like
always. The faded
Marine tattoo inside his
wrist showed while he wrote
on the board. Then he
asked, “What’s the significance
of this number?” I
didn’t respond, but
I knew exactly what it
meant. I read the news.
Every Thursday, The
Phoenix Gazette reported
from the previous
week. But nobody in class
knew that. They guessed all
kinds of dumb answers,
and no one even came close.
They don’t like thinking
about dead soldiers
in Vietnam; neither did
I, but I couldn’t
help looking for that
news article every week
and skimming it for
report. Usually it’s
just numbers, but if
some guy from Tempe
or Mesa or Phoenix was
killed, they’ll mention his
name and maybe print
a photo of him dressed in
his uniform and
staring like he’s dead
serious. Well, now he’s just
dead. Looking into
his steely gaze made
me feel hollow, sick, and sad.
I looked anyway.
Week Four: 471
Things mellowed out at
home. Motorola kept Dad
busy, and Mom stopped
at ASU. She’s not a
hippie or some kind
of freak, she just feels
too much. What’s going on in
her, and what’s going
on in America makes
her sick, too. Well, it
doesn’t really make
her sick, it makes her mad. And
when she’s mad, she’s got
to do something, and
back then, that something had been
rallies in Phoenix
or over at ASU.
Most nights she was gone,
and that really burned
Dad and ignited a war
at home. I learned how
to navigate the
no man’s land between them, but
then for some reason
their tactics changed, and
instead of battling, they
ignored each other.
Something on New Year’s
Eve changed Mom; she seemed to have
finally found peace.
H H H
How does a guy deal
with being torn between two
people he loves? I
knew I was lucky
that I hadn’t had to choose
between Mom and Dad.
They’re opposites thrown
together because of me,
and they had managed
to keep a shaky
truce for so many years. But
it was difficult.
My dad was a flagwaving hawk who thought it was
man’s duty to spill
that blood when America
called on him for it.
Mom’s an anti-war
dove who gave me a “Hell no,
I won’t go!” tee shirt
for Christmas, and she’d
convinced Dad and me that I
had to enroll at
ASU as soon
as I finished high school. “The
will keep you out of
the draft,” she said, “and unless
we’re really stupid,
this war will be done
by the time you graduate.”
Dad didn’t mind the
deferment. “You can
join the ROTC and
graduate as an
officer,” he said.
“The Army needs smart leaders
who can help put an
end to the spread of
Communism over in
Vietnam.” But when
I thought about the
four hundred seventy-one
guys who died last week,
I knew I’d go to
college to avoid the war,
not prepare for it.
I just hoped the war
ended before I had to
decide, because Dad
didn’t need any
more ammunition to use
against my mother.
Week Five: 406
talking about the new team
coming to Phoenix.
At supper, Dad looked
over the newspaper and
said, “Pro basketball
in the desert?” He
shook his head. “It’ll be a
huge waste of money.
Phoenix will never
have the market to sustain
an NBA team.
a black man’s game, and we don’t
need to go out of
our way to attract
more of them to the valley.
It’s already bad
enough with all the
Mexicans we’ve got to put
up with around here.”
Mom stood up and left
without finishing supper
or saying a word.
Dad put the paper
down and sighed. “I am tired of
your mother’s protests.”
H H H
Mom has always been
sensitive, smart, and involved.
She cries when she reads
about the deaths in
Vietnam, and the racist
murders in the South,
and anything else
that shows people at their worst.
She liked to tell me,
“The Beatles are right,
Ashe: all you need is love.” When
she’d say that, Mom looked
a starving kind of
lonely. I knew she meant that
the rest of the world
would be better off if love
somehow trumped hatred,
but I also knew
she wanted love for herself.
Even though she lived
with me and Dad, she
was lonely, and no amount
could fill the awful
emptiness that made her yearn
for true, lasting love.
Week Six: 400
Mr. Ruby pinned
a newspaper photo on
the bulletin board.
It wasn’t a stock
picture of atrocities:
no naked corpses
littered the jungle
floor, no burned-out huts smoldered
with napalm. No dead
bodies were in sight,
but it was a scene of death
caught right in the act.
police chief stood with his back
to the camera;
his right arm was raised,
holding a pistol inches
from a skinny kid’s
head. The kid wore a
baggy plaid shirt, and his hands
were tied behind his
back. The cop looked as
quiet as the empty street
behind them, and the
fog of war cast a
haze over the buildings in
the background. The kid’s
eyes were closed, and the
side of his head looked flattened,
as if a sudden
burst of air had smacked
him. Though I couldn’t see the
bullet, I knew I
was witnessing an
execution in Saigon.
In the photograph
soldier looked on, smiling. The
looks of anguish, joy,
and businesslike death
in that photo made me feel
sick to my stomach.
H H H
Nothing good lasted
at home. Mom attended an
again, and Dad flipped
out. Even upstairs in my
hideout, I could hear
the yelling. But last
night was different. Mom used
to stand up to Dad,
to throw it right back
at him, but the only voice
I heard was Dad’s, and
he was really cranked.
There’d be a lull in his storm,
and I’d listen for
Mom to shout back, but
nothing. I heard nothing. A
seized me. Had he hit
her? Was she hurt? In the past,
nothing could silence
Mom. I crept to my
door, listening and waiting.
And then Dad’s roaring
returned, and I felt
a weird kind of relief. Not
because of his rage,
but because it meant
that Mom was okay. I mean,
even Dad wouldn’t
scream at someone who’s
unconscious. Mom was still there,
I knew that, but she
wasn’t fighting back,
at least not the way she used
to. Something had changed.
Week Seven: 543
I was six years old
when I realized that my
parents didn’t love
each other. Dad and
I were playing catch in the
backyard, and Mom sat
on the patio
reading a book. It took a
little while to get
the hang of it, but
pretty soon I caught every
ball Dad tossed to me.
“That’s my boy,” he said,
and patted my head. I leapt
into his arms, like
a puppy, and he
hugged me. While in his embrace
I pleaded, “Mom, come
on!” She must have seen
my eagerness, so she set
her book down and stood
next to us. I looped
one arm around Dad’s neck and
reached my other arm
around Mom’s. Feeling
their love for me, I tugged to
pull them closer, to
knit us into a
tight group hug, but Dad leaned right
and Mom leaned left, and
I spanned the distance
between them like a bombed-out
bridge. The love I had
felt fell into the
gulf between them, and I knew
they loved me, but not
each other. That’s a
crummy thing to learn when you’re
only six years old.
H H H
So I grew up in
a home with clearly
that my parents rarely crossed.
Most of the time we
lived under a ceasefire interrupted by
occasional flareups. Sadly, the key
members of my family
together, so my
heart was torn, equal shares of
love for Mom and Dad.
A Death-Struck Year (Excerpt)
On Sale: March 4, 2014
For Cleo Berry, the Spanish influenza devastating the East
Coast feels far from the safety of Portland, Oregon. But
then the disease comes west. Headstrong and foolish,
seventeen-year-old Cleo is determined to ride out the
pandemic at home rather than in her quarantined boarding
school. But when the Red Cross pleads for volunteers, she
can’t ignore the call. In the grueling days that follow her
decision, she risks everything for near-strangers. Strangers
like Edmund, a handsome medical student. Strangers who
could be gone tomorrow. And as the bodies pile up, Cleo
can’t help but wonder when her own luck will run out.
And bound for the same bourn as I,
On every road I wandered by,
Trod beside me, close and dear,
The beautiful and death-struck year.
— A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad
Saturday, September 21, 1918
In the coming weeks, I would wish that I had done things differently. Thrown my arms around my brother, perhaps, and
said, I love you, Jack. Words I hadn’t spoken in years. Or held on
a little tighter to Lucy and said, Thank you. Thank you for watching
over me, when my own mother could not. But the distance between
hindsight and foresight is as vast as the Paciﬁc. And on my
family’s last evening in the city, my attention was ﬁxed not on
gratitude, certainly, but on myself. My sad, sorry, unambitious
Famous American Women: Vignettes from the Past and Present. Curled
up on the settee, I read the book from ﬁrst page to last, hoping
inspiration would strike and put an end to my misery. This! This is
who you were meant to be, Cleo Berry. Go now and live your life.
So far no luck.
I reviewed. Abigail Burgess Grant, lighthouse keeper at Matinicus Rock, Maine. I tried to picture it: the windswept coast, the
salty air, the nearest neighbor miles away. No, I thought. Too lonely.
I turned the page. Isabella Marie Boyd, wartime spy. Too dangerous.
Geraldine Farrar, opera singer. Not nearly enough talent. I lingered
over the entry for Eleanor Dumont, ﬁrst female blackjack player,
otherwise known as Madame Mustache. My spirits lifted a little as
I imagined my brother’s expression.
Lucy sat across from me, dressed for dinner and muttering
over her itinerary. Jack stood near the parlor’s window, pouring
whiskey into a glass. His tie had been pulled loose, a navy suit
jacket tossed onto the piano bench. We both favored our father,
Jack and I, with gray eyes, hair black as pitch, and, to my sibling’s
everlasting embarrassment, dimples deep enough to launch a boat
in. He glanced over, caught my eye, and tipped his glass in my
direction. A friendly offer. Sixteen years my senior, my brother
practiced an unorthodox form of guardianship: tolerant in some
ways, overbearing in others. Whiskey was allowed. Young men
I shook my head, then asked, “What does an ornithologist
Jack placed the stopper into the decanter. “An ornithologist?
Someone who studies birds, I believe.”
Disappointed, I looked down. Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, ornithologist. No, too boring. This was impossible.
“Do drink that behind a curtain, Jackson,” Lucy said, looking
out the window to where Mrs. Pike could be seen entering her
home across the street. Mrs. Pike, the only neighbor we knew who
took the Oregon Prohibition laws seriously. “That woman would
have us sent to Australia if she could. Cleo as well.”
“I don’t think they ship criminals to Australia anymore, darlin’.” But Jack obliged, moving out of sight.
Lucy frowned at me. “Are you sure you’ll be all right while
we’re away?” She paused, careful not to look at her husband. “You
do know you can always come with us.”
Jack cleared his throat, not even attempting to mask a pained
expression, and I couldn’t help but smile. Tomorrow he and Lucy
would be on a train to San Francisco to celebrate their thirteenth
wedding anniversary. It was to be an extended vacation, with
some business thrown in on Jack’s part. They would be gone for
“No one wants their sister around on an anniversary trip,” I
said. “It’s the opposite of romantic.”
“Thank you, Cleo,” Jack said. Lucy looked ready to argue.
“I’ll be ﬁne. Truly,” I added, knowing the real reason she worried. “We’re too far west for the inﬂuenza. Everyone has said so.”
I had heard of the Spanish inﬂuenza. Who had not? A particularly ﬁerce strain of ﬂu, it had made its way down the eastern
seaboard, sending entire families to the hospitals, crippling the
military training bases. The newspapers were ﬁlled with gruesome
tales from Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Cities so far away,
they could have been part of another country. But that was the
extent of it. We were safe here in Oregon. In Portland. The Spanish ﬂu had no interest in the northwestern states.
“Very well,” Lucy said, defeated. “But here, this is for you.”
She handed me her itinerary. I looked it over. It contained their
train arrival and departure information, as well as the names of
friends located the entire length of the Paciﬁc coast whom I could
call on for assistance should I need it. Also, a reminder that they
would be returning on November third, a Sunday, and would stop
directly at St. Helen’s Hall to bring me home.
The same old complaint lodged on the tip of my tongue, and I
bit down, hard. I didn’t want to spoil their last evening by showing
how unhappy I was. They knew already. But inside, I wanted to
Many of my schoolmates had homes outside the city, traveling
in from towns such as Coos Bay, Eugene, Bend, and Sisters. Others hailed from farther out: Juneau, Coeur d’Alene, Walla Walla,
even Honolulu. Some lived in the student dormitories during the
week and spent weekends with their families. Others traveled
home only during the holidays.
I was a day student. Jack drove me to school each morning on
the way to his office, and I walked home in the afternoon. Or rode
the streetcar. But while Jack and Lucy were away, the house was
to be closed up. Our housekeeper, Mrs. Foster, given leave. She
would also be traveling tomorrow, by steamboat, to visit her son
in Hood River.
I had begged to be allowed to remain at home on my own, not
liking one bit the thought of six weeks in the dormitories — away
from my comfortable bedroom, away from any hope of privacy.
My brother was unsympathetic. He had boarded throughout his
own school years. He said it built character. And that I shouldn’t
grumble, because no matter how awful a girls’ dormitory might
be, a boys’ residence was a thousand times worse.
I skimmed the rest of Lucy’s notes. I was to telephone the
Fairmont San Francisco once a week, each Saturday, to conﬁrm I
remained in the land of the living. Good grief, I thought.
“Good Lord,” Jack said at the same time, peering over my
shoulder. “Lucy, she’s seventeen, not seven.”
Lucy gave him a look, then proceeded to guide me through
every part of their schedule. I resisted the urge to close my eyes.
The smell of roasting potatoes drifted from the kitchen, and I
remembered Mrs. Foster was preparing a salmon for our last supper. Beyond Lucy, the luggage was piled high in the front hall,
enough trunks and suitcases and hatboxes to send six people off
Trying to be discreet, I lifted a corner of the itinerary and
peeked at my book. Maria Mitchell, ﬁrst American woman
astronomer, director of the observatory at Vassar College. Kate
Furbish, botanical artist. Harriet Boyd Hawes, pioneering archaeologist. My head fell back against the cushions, and I sighed, long
“Who has let in the bear?” Lucy exclaimed.
I straightened. While I’d been woolgathering, Jack had settled
beside Lucy, his glass cradled in one hand, his other arm ﬂung
across the back of the settee. Two pairs of eyes regarded me with
“All this heavy breathing,” Lucy continued. “What is troubling
Well, what harm could come from telling them? They might be
able to help.
“It’s only September,” Lucy said, after I explained my dilemma.
“There are nine months left of school.”
“You can’t be the only one trying to ﬁgure things out,” Jack
added. “I wouldn’t feel like a chump just yet.”
“But I do. I do feel like a chump.” I counted my friends on my
hand. “Louisa is getting married in July.” I ticked off one ﬁnger.
“Her ﬁancé is almost thirty and has already lost most of his hair.
But he’s very rich, and her papa thinks he’s very handsome.”
Jack snorted. Lucy laughed, smoothing the skirt of her
sapphire-blue dress. My sister-in-law was small and fair-haired
and pretty, with eyes more amber than brown. No one was ever
surprised to learn she had been born in Paris. She looked French
and carried herself in a way that made me feel like a baby giraffe in
comparison. Tall and gangling, with Mrs. Foster constantly having
to let out my skirt hems.
A second ﬁnger ticked off. “Fanny is moving to New York to
study poetry. She plans to become a bohemian and smoke cigarettes.” Recalling this bit of information, I felt a twinge of envy.
New York City. Tea at the Plaza. All those museums. How glamorous it sounded.
Jack interrupted my thoughts. “What kind of unorthodox institution are those women running?”
I dropped my hand. “Rebecca already has her early acceptance
letter from Barnard. Myra is sending in her application to the University of Washington. Charlotte, Emmaline, and Grace are all
going to the University of Oregon.” I set the book and the itinerary on the table, beside a well-thumbed copy of American Architect.
“And Margaret will wait for Harris. Then there’s me. I do know
I want to attend university. Maybe study art. But I don’t really
care to paint portraits. Or landscapes.” I bit my lip, considering.
“Maybe I can study French. But what does one do after studying
“Marry,” Jack said. Lucy smacked his knee lightly, but she
I looked into the ﬁre, feeling gloomy. My schoolmates at least
had an inkling of a plan. I had nothing. No plan. No dream. No
calling. The uncertainty bothered me, like a speck in the eye that
refused to budge.
“I am utterly without ambition,” I said.
At this, Jack leaned forward, pointing his glass at me. “Now
you’re just being melodramatic. Not everyone leaves school knowing their life’s purpose, Cleo. And those who do often change
their minds ten times over.” He waved a hand toward the window.
“Sometimes you need to go out in the world and live a little ﬁrst.”
Lucy reached over, gathered the itinerary, and tapped it against
the table until the edges lined up. “Go to university,” she said,
sympathetic. “See what interests you. Young ladies today have the
freedom to do what they like.”
“Except become a bohemian,” Jack said with a warning glance.
He tossed back the rest of his drink and stood. “There are enough
sapphists in this city as it is.”
Wednesday, September 25, 1918
Aut viam inveniam aut . . . aut facile?”
“No! It’s faciam, Cleo. Not facile. ‘I will either ﬁnd a way or make
one.’ We’ve gone over this before,” Grace said.
It was nine o’clock at night. I was in my dormitory room, lying on a rickety old bed that had been moved from the attic for
my temporary stay. Grace sat cross-legged on her quilt, her Latin
textbook open before her. Across from us, Fanny lounged against
a pile of pillows, reading poetry. Something depressing like Byron, likely, because she never read anything but. In the fourth bed,
beside Fanny, Margaret wrote a letter to Harris and ignored us all.
“Memorizing Latin is just like memorizing French or Italian,
and you know both,” Grace continued. “You’re making this more
difficult than it needs to be.”
“I’m not!” I said, feeling stupid. “And why should we learn
it? Who uses Latin anymore? Old men, that’s who. It’s a dead
“Well, you’re the one who’s going to be dead if you don’t pass
this class,” Grace said.
Fanny smirked. Like the rest of us, she wore a white nightgown that reached her ankles. But Fanny’s was topped with a blue
satin wrapper covered in tiny silver stars. There would be hell to
pay if Miss Elliot, our headmistress, happened by. Blue satin did
not fall under the school’s approved category of sensible white
cotton night clothing.
“Grace is right, Cleo,” Fanny said. “Diligentia maximum etiam
mediocris ingeni subsidium.”
Margaret glanced up from her letter. “Oh, do shut up, Fanny!”
she snapped. Fanny’s smile evaporated.
I sat up. “What? What did she say?”
“Nothing.” Grace cast her own withering look in Fanny’s direction. “Ignore her. Just listen for the roots. It’s easy. Fortiter in re,
suaviter in modo.” She ﬂicked a blond braid over one shoulder, so
long the ends skimmed the pages of her textbook.
A month ago, my own hair had been just as lengthy. But Lucy
had decided to have hers shaped into a bob. I’d taken one look at
the result, thrown caution to the wind, and cut my hair off too.
Miss Elliot huffed and puffed whenever she saw me, saying it was
a completely inappropriate hairstyle for a young lady. Lucy had
only laughed and said it was impossible to please everyone.
I tried to concentrate. It was difficult. Next door Emmaline
practiced her violin. Schubert’s L’Abeille, a piece that always made
me feel as though I were trapped in a beehive. Aggravated, I
reached up and pounded on the wall with the side of my ﬁst. The
buzzing stopped but only for a moment. Emmaline started up
again, and I wished I were back on King Street. In my nice quiet
home. As I had wished every day this week.
“Cleo!” Grace said, exasperated. “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.”
I concentrated. Fort was the French word for powerful. Modo was
Italian for manner. In, thankfully, meant in. But what about re and
suaviter? Powerful in blank, blank in manner. The faintest memory
stirred, and I tried, “ ‘Resolute in action, gentle in manner’ ?”
“Good! See? Qui tacet consentire videtur?”
“ ‘He who is tacit’ . . .” I began. Grace’s expression darkened.
“Um, ‘He who is silent gives consent’ ?”
I jumped as a crash sounded from another room, followed
by girls giggling like lunatics. No one in our room batted an eye,
though. They’d had years to get used to living in a zoo. I drew my
knees up and wrapped both arms around them.
If I were at home, toothpowder wouldn’t clog the sinks, and
clumps of hair wouldn’t stop the drains. The halls would smell like
lemons, the way Mrs. Foster preferred. Not like damp stockings.
Or feet. Or the hard-boiled eggs Fanny snuck in from dinner.
Grace turned a page. “Si post fata venit gloria non propero.”
“I know that one,” I said. “ ‘If one must die to be recognized,
I can wait.’ ”
Fanny rose and wandered out of the room. In her blue wrap
and with her brown hair loose and ﬂowing, I grudgingly admitted
she would make a very good bohemian in New York City.
“The door!” Margaret called.
Fanny disappeared, leaving it wide open. I scowled after her as
well, having just deciphered her earlier insult. Diligentia maximum
etiam mediocris ingeni subsidium. “Diligence is a very great help even
to a mediocre intelligence.” Trollop. Just once, it would be nice to
think of a retort at the exact right moment. Not ﬁve minutes later,
when the effect was lost completely.
“Dulce bellum inexpertis,” Grace droned.
I sighed. “ ‘War is sweet to those who never fought’ ?”
“Faber est quisque fortunae suae.”
“ ‘Every man is the architect of his own fortune.’ ”
Through the open doorway, I glimpsed red.
“Amare et — ”
“Louisa!” I yelled. When there was no response from the hall,
I jumped off the bed and was out the door in an instant.
Louisa turned. There was no mistaking the guilt in her brown
“Yes? Is that all you’re going to say?” Louisa had yet to change
into her nightgown. I looked pointedly at the cherry-red sweater
she wore over her white blouse. My cherry-red sweater. “One
usually asks to borrow clothing before wearing it.”
“I’m sorry. But I couldn’t ﬁnd you and . . .” She smiled sweetly,
not fooling me one bit. “May I borrow your sweater, Cleo?”
“No.” I held out a hand.
“Well.” Louisa pouted and sulked. She removed the sweater
and dropped it into my hand, before marching down the hall to
her own room. A door slammed.
If I were at home, no one would enter my bedroom without
permission. Lucy wouldn’t steal my clothing. Or my shampoo,
which had also mysteriously gone missing.
“How do you bear it?” I asked no one in particular.
Fanny brushed by me on her way back into the room. “My
mother says there’s a history of kleptomania in that family. I told
you to keep the door locked.”
Emmaline was playing a new piece, one I did not recognize. I
stood in my doorway, listening as the music reached a violent, offkey crescendo. I inspected my sweater. A button was missing.
Jack and Lucy wouldn’t be home until the third of November.
Five and a half more weeks.
Monday, September 30, 1918
Greta lay sprawled and lifeless with her head against my skirt.
The rag doll was four feet tall, the same height as its owner,
with red yarn hair. Her blue gingham dress looked as if it had
been pulled through a dirt ﬁeld. She was missing both eyes.
Baffled, I studied the doll, then looked at the six-year-old playing at my feet. “What happened, Emily?” I asked. “Did you pluck
her eyes out?”
“Anna did it,” Emily said. “She told me Greta’s button eyes
gave her the willies. She pulled them out while I was having my
“Lord,” I said under my breath.
Emily’s brown eyes were big and anxious. “You’ll ﬁx her, won’t
“I’ll ﬁx her. Don’t worry.”
We were in the stairway that led from the dormitories to the
main ﬂoor. I perched on a step halfway down. Just below, on
the small landing, Emily played with an elaborate set of paper
dolls. Murky oil landscapes lined the walls above us, each painting
framed in blackened wood. It was just after four in the afternoon,
and most of the other girls were off ﬁnishing their schoolwork or
outside. Emily and I had the stairway to ourselves.
“Does Greta give you the willies?” Emily asked.
She certainly did. Emily dragged her everywhere she could,
and it always felt like the doll’s black button eyes watched my
every move. Poor Anna. I would be tempted to yank Greta’s eyes
out too, if I had to share a room with her.
“Greta’s a perfectly lovely doll,” I said. “I’ll talk to Anna and
make sure she takes more care with your toys.”
Cheered, Emily returned her attention to the paper dolls. Her
brown hair was set in two braids that looped the sides of her head
like earmuffs. Emily’s roommate, Anna, was also six. The girls
were among the school’s youngest boarders. Anna’s family lived in
Tigard, just outside Portland. She spent weekends at home. Emily’s family was from Honolulu. She sailed back to the island once
a year, in the summer.
I riﬂed through my school satchel for a small sewing kit, then
set one of Greta’s button eyes back in place. The grime had been
rinsed off, and the black button, two inches round, was nice and
“Hmm?” I hunched over Greta. The light in the stairway was
poor, and I wondered if I should ﬁx the doll back in my room
near a window. I dismissed the thought. Fanny was there, more
snappish than usual. All things considered, I preferred the dim
staircase. When there was no response from Emily, I glanced up.
The child looked back at me, uncertain.
“Did Anna do something else?” I asked, pulling the needle
Emily shook her head. “No, but I forgot Greta in the library
this morning. I went back for her, and I heard Mr. Brownmiller
and Miss Abernathy talking . . .”
I paused. “What did you hear?”
“Well, Mr. Brownmiller said that people in Phil . . . Phila . . .”
“Philadelphia,” I prompted.
“He said that people in Philadelphia were dropping like ﬂies.
Because of the Spanish inﬂuenza. He said they’re running out of
coffins. Is that true, Cleo? And what about us? Are we going to
drop dead too?” Emily’s voice quivered.
I bit back a sigh. Mr. Brownmiller had been the school librarian for as long as I could remember. Miss Abernathy taught upper
school history. I thought they should know better than to say such
things in a school full of girls. Most of us had light feet. We lurked
in every corner, just waiting to hear something we shouldn’t. Like
the time Margaret overheard Miss Elliot say that Miss Kovich,
our nurse, had been let go because she’d had an affair with a married man and was in a family way. Or the time Fanny heard Miss
Bishop sobbing all over Mrs. Brody in the kitchen because her
sweetheart had married someone else. There were no secrets at
St. Helen’s Hall. Not one.
I set Greta aside — the needle poking out of her eye — and
wondered what to say. For I’d heard the same shocking stories
about Philadelphia and the rest of the East Coast. And then some.
Fanny’s sister had told her about a ﬁne young family man in
Boston who had fallen ill and become delirious. A nurse was sent
to his home. But when she left his room, just for a moment, he
pulled a revolver from the bureau drawer and shot himself dead.
Emmaline’s cousin had read about a man in New York who
went to help his neighbor, the undertaker, transport bodies to a
warehouse once the morgue grew overcrowded. He saw the body
of a friend, with whom he had chatted the day before. He also
stumbled across the girl who helped his wife around the house.
There was a shortage of coffins in Philadelphia. They were
burying people in mass graves with only the clothes on their
backs. Louisa’s sister had heard of a family who lost a seven-yearold boy. They were so desperate to have him buried in something,
anything, that they placed him in a twenty-pound macaroni box. A
little boy. Buried in a pasta box.
I thought about these stories. Dreadful stories. And for the
thousandth time, I was grateful that the entire width of the country lay between such awfulness and my home.
“The Spanish inﬂuenza is very bad in Philadelphia,” I ﬁnally
said. “But do you know what?”
“Philadelphia is thousands of miles away. Which means the
inﬂuenza is thousands of miles away. I can show you.”
Emily cocked her head. “How?”
“On a map. I’ll ﬁnish with Greta, and we’ll go down to the library. Then you can see that the ﬂu is too far away to hurt anyone
here. How does that sound?”
Emily was quiet for a minute. Then her expression cleared and
she agreed, returning her attention to the paper dolls. She danced
them around on the landing and sang:
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
I went back to work on Greta, knowing I would have “The
Owl and the Pussycat” stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
After ﬁnishing off the ﬁrst eye, I reached for the scissors and
snipped the excess string. The button wobbled, but it would hold
for the time being. Still, I mentally crossed seamstress off my list of
After the second button was sewn on and a small tear in
Greta’s dress mended, Emily and I gathered our belongings and
trooped hand in hand to the school library. Mr. Brownmiller’s
globe, along with the city of Philadelphia, held Emily’s attention
for all of ten seconds before she looked out a window and spotted her friends playing tag on the front lawn. She dashed outside
and joined Anna, who was apparently forgiven for Greta’s earlier
disﬁgurement. I followed, the doll tucked beneath an arm.
St. Helen’s Hall was a grand old building: red brick covered in
ivy, with a bell tower, a curved double staircase leading to the main
doors, and a second tower room that Miss Elliot used as an ofﬁce. Dozens of students dotted the lawn, taking advantage of the
brisk but pleasant afternoon. It was nearly October. We all knew
our mild days were numbered.
I settled onto an empty bench beneath an oak tree. The doll
ﬂopped beside me. I took my sketchbook from my satchel and
fanned the pages until I found one near the back that was fresh
and new. My pencil tapped against my leg for a minute or two while
I studied everything around me. I sketched the building, shading
in the trees and the ivy, trying to capture the sunlight glancing off
the windows. I added students to the lawn, posing Emily in a somersault with her legs kicked up in the air, underthings exposed,
as she’d just been. I drew Miss Elliot, broom-thin and dressed in
black, her snow-white hair piled high. She scolded Charlotte for
riding her bicycle on the grass. Just as I ﬁnished with Margaret sitting on the front steps, scribbling madly on paper, I heard someone running toward me. I looked up and saw Grace.
“There you are!” She pushed Greta aside and collapsed onto
the bench. Her face was ﬂushed and her spectacles crooked. She
looked like she’d run around the entire school twice.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed.
Grace caught her breath, and then spoke in a great rush. “I was
walking by Miss Gillette’s classroom. She was talking to Miss Abernathy, and I heard her say that soldiers arrived at Camp Lewis a
few days ago. Their train came from somewhere back east. Boston, I think.” Emily and Anna fell in a giggling heap nearby. Grace
lowered her voice. “The soldiers — they’re all sick, Cleo. Every
last one of them. They’re saying it’s Spanish inﬂuenza.”
A tight, unpleasant feeling gathered inside me. “It could just
be regular old inﬂuenza,” I argued. “It’s almost October. How do
they know for sure?”
Grace looked frightened. “Miss Gillette says it’s not like any inﬂuenza they’ve ever seen. And two of the men have died already.
Died, Cleo! You don’t just die after two days of the ﬂu!”
I gripped my pencil. My mouth felt, suddenly, as if it were
ﬁlled with ashes.
“Cleo.” Grace wrung her hands. “Oh, Cleo. Camp Lewis.”
I stared at Greta. She looked up at me with her two button
eyes. It struck me that I would have no comforting words to offer
Emily now. Because Camp Lewis wasn’t thousands of miles away,
in some godforsaken part of the country. No. Camp Lewis was an
easy train ride north. In Washington.
Only one state away.
I sidled around a corner, quick as a cat. Past the music room,
the art studio, the science laboratory, the library. I crept by the
teachers’ parlor, where muffled conversation rose and fell behind thick doors. Dinner was long over; the halls were empty.
Thankfully. It would not do to be seen wandering about at this
hour. I should have been in my room, ﬁnishing my homework
and preparing for bed.
Not helping a friend with a ghastly, ghastly task.
At the end of the hall, I slipped into the dining room. Moonlight ﬁltered through the diamond-cross windows, casting shadows onto long, wooden tables. Usually, the chatter of one hundred
and ﬁfty girls ﬁlled the space, along with the clink of silverware
and the scraping of chairs against the ﬂoor. Tonight the silence
swallowed me up. I made my way to the far end of the room,
where the teachers’ table stood upon a slightly raised dais, and
opened the door.
Margaret stood in the center of a sizable kitchen, swimming
in one of Mrs. Brody’s aprons. She jumped at my entrance, her
blue eyes wide. A scrub brush clattered onto the countertop.
“It’s just me,” I said, apologetically. I walked into the room,
careful not to trip over the apple crates scattered across the tiles.
I could guess the menu for the week: baked apples, apple dumplings, apple stuffing, apple cider, applesauce. With the food shortages and inﬂation caused by the war, Mrs. Brody, the school cook,
had grown especially careful. We would be eating apples every day
until the last one was gone.
Margaret pressed a hand to her chest, leaving a damp imprint on the white cloth. “Honestly, Cleo,” she said, glowering. “I
thought you were Lizzie Borden.”
Two metal buckets had been placed on the counter before her.
I peeked in one of them, recoiling when I saw it was ﬁlled with
discarded nectarine pits, chunks of slimy fruit still hanging from
most of them.
“Ugh,” I said. “How much longer?”
Margaret made a face. “Ten days.”
“What rotten luck.”
Last weekend Mrs. Brody had caught Margaret trying to sneak
in through the kitchen well past curfew. Her hair was mussed and
her blouse misbuttoned, though she refused to tell anyone where
she had gone. Or whom she had met. It was not hard to guess.
Her parents were away, so Margaret’s true day of reckoning was
postponed. In the meantime, she was to collect the fruit pits from
our plates and scrub them clean before they were delivered to the
The pits were needed for carbon. The carbon was needed for
I watched as Margaret scooped a pit from one bucket, scrubbed
the ﬂesh free with her brush, and tossed it into the second container. I glanced around. Another, equally enormous apron hung
from a hook beside one of the iceboxes. I put it on, wrapping the
belt three times around my waist before securing it behind me. I
slid onto a stool and reached into the ﬁrst bucket. Saliva and old
fruit coated my ﬁngers. Ghastly. Swallowing hard, I fumbled with
the slippery pit, scrubbed the offending ﬂesh off, and tossed it
into the second bucket. It was trickier than it looked, and a thousand times more disgusting.
Margaret watched my struggle. A small grateful smile replaced
her frown. “Thanks, Cleo.”
“Humph,” I replied, though her smile made up for it a little.
Margaret rarely smiled these days. It was more common to see her
sitting at her desk, staring off into space, twisting the gold locket
Harris had given her for her birthday. I couldn’t remember the last
time I’d seen her look anything other than miserable.
I held my hand over the trash bin. Fruit slithered from my
ﬁngers into the receptacle. “Grace told me about Harris,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Meg.”
Margaret’s eyes ﬂickered to mine, then dropped. “His mother
had a ﬁt when she heard.” There was a slight catch to her voice.
“Harry says she won’t leave her room, not even to eat.”
I reached over and squeezed Margaret’s fruit-coated hand,
near tears myself. Last year, only months after we’d entered the
war, a draft had been passed, requiring the enlistment of all ablebodied men aged twenty-one to thirty. Harris was nineteen. But
recently, the draft had been extended to those aged eighteen to
forty-ﬁve. The ﬁrst to be called up were young men without wives
or dependents. Grace’s brother, Peter, had already left the University of Oregon for training. So had Fanny’s brothers, James and
Robert. They were boys we knew. Brothers and chums. I thought
of Margaret’s good-natured Harris Brown. And sweethearts.
My stomach knotted again, but this time it had nothing to do
with pits. My own brother was thirty-four years old.
“Will he have time to come home?” I released her hand. “Or
will he leave straight from school?”
“He’ll take the train home next week.” Margaret sniffled, then
dashed away a tear with her sleeve. “He can stay a few days.”
“Where will he go? Not Camp Lewis?”
Margaret shook her head. “Fort Stevens,” she said, naming
the military base at the mouth of the Columbia River. “Harry
thinks there’ll be an official quarantine announcement at Camp
Lewis soon. Only doctors and nurses are being allowed through
the gates.” She gave up on the pits, staring down at her reddened
hands. “At least he’ll be close by. Some of his schoolmates are being sent to California.”
“Maybe he won’t have to leave Oregon at all.” I tried to sound
reassuring. “The newspapers are saying it won’t last much longer.
I heard it could all be over by Thanksgiving.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?” Bitterness crept into Margaret’s tone. “How long have they been saying that? ‘ The war will be
over by Thanksgiving. Our boys will be home by Christmas.’ ” She
ﬂung a pit into the bucket so hard it thwanged against the metal
side. “The newspapers say lots of things, Cleo.”
Stung, I said nothing. The silence stretched on for a time, broken only by the sound of pits hitting metal. I glanced at Margaret.
A question hovered on the tip of my tongue. I hesitated, because
I knew saying the words aloud would only make them harder to
“Camp Lewis isn’t very far.” I wiped my hands on Mrs. Brody’s
apron. “Do you think we’ll see it here?”
Margaret didn’t answer at ﬁrst. “My father says we won’t,” she
ﬁnally said. “He says the inﬂuenza never lasts this long. That it’s
bound to run its course before it reaches Portland.” She lifted a
handful of pits and studied them, though I had the feeling she saw
something else entirely. “I think they try to pretend that we’re still
children. That we won’t ﬁgure it out for ourselves.” She opened
her hand, allowing the pits to slide back into the bucket. She
looked at me across the countertop, her blue eyes dark and sober.
“But it’s everywhere else, Cleo. Why not here?”
It was midnight. The witching hour. I lay sleepless, listening
as Grace’s snores ﬁlled the room. My mind whirled. I thought
about the soldiers at Camp Lewis. About coffin shortages.
About Jack and Lucy, hundreds of miles away in San Francisco. I tossed and turned, pounding my pillow into a shapeless
lump. Finally, I gave up.
Carefully, so as not to wake anyone, I reached for my wrapper.
I slipped out of the room and crept down the hall in bare feet.
A single table lamp provided the only source of light. I gripped
the banister and descended the staircase, wincing as the old steps
creaked beneath me.
The library was located on the main ﬂoor just beyond the
staircase. I felt my way about in near darkness for the door. Mr.
Brownmiller never locked the room. I switched on a lamp, illuminating mahogany shelves that rose from ﬂoor to ceiling. Study tables were scattered about, along with wing-backed chairs the color
of rubies. Mr. Brownmiller’s giant globe stood beside his desk.
The library smelled faintly of lemons, reminding me, though I
wished it didn’t, of home.
I wandered over to the closest shelf, one ﬁnger trailing along
the spines as I searched for something to bore me into unconsciousness. Meditations, The Muse in Arms, Ethan Frome. Just as I was
about to tug Richard III free, another title caught my eye. I reached
down and pulled Aesop’s Fables from a low shelf.
I settled into a chair, reaching behind me to switch on a second
lamp. The book was oversize, with a deep purple cover bordered
in gold ivy. I had been six years old the ﬁrst time I’d seen this copy.
That morning the sun poured in through the classroom windows,
so bright I could see the dust motes suspended in the air. I’d been
scribbling on my slate, practicing my penmanship with the rest
of the girls in the lower school, while Miss Gillette wrote out the
day’s lesson on the chalkboard. And then I had started to cry. It
happened sometimes, tears that would come from nowhere. One
moment I felt ﬁne, and the next I would remember what I’d lost
with a keenness that left me breathless.
The whole class had ground to a halt, shocked. There was a
giggle from Fanny, quickly shushed. Miss Gillette escorted me to
Miss Elliot’s office, murmuring words such as There, there and You
Jack was summoned to take me home for the day. I was sent
to wait for him in the library with Mr. Brownmiller. I sat on the
ﬂoor in a puddle of white muslin. A book on horses lay unopened
before me. An hour passed. There was no one else about, Mr.
Brownmiller having gone off to run a brief errand. Once again,
my tears fell unchecked. Pushing the book aside, I wrapped my
arms around my legs and buried my face in my knees.
It was not long before I realized I was not alone. I lifted my
head. Jack stood several feet away, hands buried in the pockets of
a tan suit. He perused the bookshelf, seemingly unaware of my
presence. I glanced around, wondering if I had somehow become
Finally, he glanced down. “Do you know the stories of Aesop?” he asked, making no mention of my tears.
I shook my head, sniffling, and stared at the rug. I did not know
what to make of this brother, whom I did not remember but who
looked so much like my papa it hurt to watch him. Jack had gone
to an important school in Paris, I knew, where they taught you to
build beautiful buildings. Mama had said Jack and Lucy were to
stay in France, and we would visit them the following spring. But
that was before. Jack had come home, appearing at the Keatings’,
where I had gone to stay after the accident. My brother was kind.
But I knew he was only here because he had to be. Because of me.
“No?” Jack selected a large purple book from the shelf. With
little regard for his suit, he dropped to the rug beside me and
crossed his legs. He set the book aside before reaching over, lifting me beneath my arms, and plopping me in front of him. Jack
settled Aesop’s Fables onto my lap and paged through it.
“When I was your age,” his voice rumbled against my back,
“I always liked ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ and ‘The Goose That
Laid the Golden Eggs.’ But my favorite was . . . ah. Here it is.
Would you like me to read it to you?”
“Yes.” I studied the title. “Grief and His Due.” Below it was
a picture of a bearded man dressed in a ﬂowing robe. He sat on
a throne, one hand stretched toward the dark-haired woman who
knelt before him. The woman’s head was bowed, and tears poured
from her eyes to form a small lake on the ground before her. I
swiped at my damp cheek, hesitant.
Jack cleared his throat. “ ‘Grief and His Due. When the Roman god Jupiter was assigning the various lesser gods their privileges, it so happened that Grief was not present with the rest. But
when all had received their share, Grief arrived and claimed his
due. Jupiter was at a loss, for there was nothing left for Grief. At
last, Jupiter decided that Grief should be given the tears that are
shed for the dead. Thus it is the same with Grief as it is with the
other gods. The more you honor him, the more lavish he is with
his gifts. It is not well, therefore, to mourn long for loved ones.
Else Grief, whose sole pleasure is in such mourning, will be quick
to send fresh cause for tears.’ ”
Jack tipped my chin and studied me, his gray eyes somber. “Do
you know what this story is trying to tell us, Cleo?”
I was unsure. “That . . . that I should try not to be so sad all
A small smile appeared on his face. “You can be sad. I miss
them too.” He wiped my tears away with his thumb. “But sometimes the hardest decision is choosing to be happy again.”
My lip wobbled. Four months had passed since Mama and Papa’s carriage had careened off the road into the ravine. Four months
since I had gone to bed without having to cry myself to sleep.
For a long time, the only sound came from the ticktocking
of the grandfather clock in the hall. My brother, this stranger,
pressed a kiss to the top of my head. He drew out his pocket
watch — Papa’s old watch — and ﬂipped it open. “Well, it’s nearly
time for lunch,” he said. “And I have a hankering for Swetland’s.
What do you say?”
“Truly?” I asked. Swetland’s was an ice cream parlor. And a
Jack smiled. “Don’t tell Lucy.”
The memory calmed me. I read through the old stories — “The
Lion and the Ass,” “The Mice and the Weasels,” “The Monkey as
King”— until my eyelids drooped. Placing the book on a small
table, I pulled my wrapper tight around me. Only then was I able
Dirt Bikes, Drones, and
Other Ways to Fly (Excerpt)
On Sale: April 8, 2014
Seventeen-year-old Arlo Santiago lives for the “Drone
Zone”—that free, joyful, anti-gravity feeling. He achieves
the Zone with risky motorcycle stunts on New Mexico
roads, or while playing his favorite video game, Drone
Pilot. His gaming skills are so off-the-charts, he’s recruited
by the U.S. Air Force to remotely operate real-life drones
in Pakistan. How can he refuse the paycheck when his
little sister’s health is at stake? This pull-no-punches novel’s
poetic style, focus on friends and family, philosophical
life-and-death musings, and vividly drawn setting of a
land “at the intersection of mesa dust and tractor rust”
make it soar.
KENYA MAN EXPLODES
out of my phone:
L.A. . . . L.A. . . . L.A.
Gonna get my junk in play
At the corner of Sunset and La Brea.
I jerk out of REM sleep, level nine. Scramble and find my
phone wedged under El Guapo’s ass, punch in.
“Dude,” I rasp, “be right out.”
But instead of Cam or Lobo on the other end, it’s some space
“Hello, is this Arlo Santiago?”
Everything about the voice sounds like a jail door clanging
“Am I speaking with Arlo Spencer Santiago?”
“Uhhhhhhhmm . . .”
El Guapo — “The Handsome One” — arches his back and
starts to hump me, his way of saying good morning. I shove him,
and he tumbles ass-over-floppy-ears onto the floor. Then he pops
up and grins at me.
He’s always grinning. Humping and grinning. He’s the grinningest, humpingest dog in the world. Probably the only standard poodle in all northeast New Mexico.
“Guess so,” I say.
“Good morning, Arlo. I’m Major Keith Anderson, United
States Air Force. How are you today?”
I glance at the clock — 6:55 a.m. Damn, just what I need, a
recruiter calling me at this hour. Messing with my routine.
I’ve polished my mornings to perfection. On the one hand, I
give myself Maximum Sleep (MS) — sleep to the very last millisecond. On the other hand, once Kenya Man starts rapping, I’m
up, moving fast. In five seconds, I’ve accelerated to Maximum
Efficiency (ME). Not to say I’m totally awake; I’m not. But my
body knows all the moves, how to cut the corners.
On a blackboard, you can write it this way:
MS + ME = success
. . . with success being getting to school before the 7:29 a.m. bell.
I have exactly two minutes and twenty-seven seconds to piss,
slap water on my face, get dressed, and eat breakfast.
But first I’ve got to deal with this tool.
“It’s an honor to speak with a world champion,” the man says.
I rub sleep off my face. “Hey, who is this again?”
“Nice job yesterday on Drone Pilot,” he says. “You finally beat
“SergeiTashkent, of course.’ ”
Now he has my attention.
“What are you,” I ask, “the CIA or something?”
The jail door laughs. “No, Arlo. Merely the United States Air
“Listen, dude . . . Major . . . whoever you are . . .” I roll out of
bed and whip a T-shirt off the floor. “I’m running late for school.”
“Sure, I’ll get to the point. We want you to fly with us.”
“No thanks. I’m only seventeen. Call me in a year.”
El Guapo leaps onto the bed and thrusts his shaggy hips at me.
Hump and grin, hump and grin — only God knows the mind of
a high desert poodle.
“Arlo, we’ve been following you on the leaderboards for some
time,” the man says. “Last night, we watched you knock Sergei
out of the number one position on Drone Pilot. Sergei’s a superb
UAV pilot, technically the best we’ve ever seen. And you beat him.
That was extremely smart flying.”
I clamp my hand on El Guapo’s snout. He freezes mid-hump.
“Look,” I say, glancing around for my jeans. “I don’t want to
join the air force.”
“Arlo, I’m not a recruiter.”
“Well, who are you, man?”
“I’d like to invite you to join us for war games this Saturday at
I glance at the clock — 6:57 a.m. Damn!
“You’ll get to test your skills against real pilots — some of our
“Hold up! If you mean fly real planes, uh-uh, no way. I have no
idea how to fly a plane.”
“Not a plane, Arlo, a drone. You definitely know how to fly one
of those. We know that very well. It’s just like your game Drone
Pilot. The difference is, we make it real.”
“Dude,” I say, “this is way too much information. And I’m late
“Sure, Arlo, I’ll check in later. Start thinking about Saturday.”
“Yeah,” I say, tossing my phone. “Peace to you too.”
Then it hits me — it’s Lobo’s Uncle Sal again — our local joker
and genius entrepreneur. Owner of the best coffee shop in town,
and my sky-diving instructor for the past three years.
Uncle Sal has a gift for faking voices. For some reason, I’m one
of his favorite targets. Last time, he wanted me to enter a Rocky
Mountain oyster eating contest sponsored by the Daughters of
the American Revolution.
Lobo would’ve told him about my win yesterday. About seriously kicking SergeiTashkent’s butt, knocking him to number
two on the Drone Pilot leaderboard, which I’ve been trying to do
I am now the number one drone combat pilot in the world —
the virtual world, that is — until somebody kicks my butt.
In video games, when you reach number one, your butt is out
there, cheeks flapping in the wind, for anybody to kick — SergeiTashkent, ToshiOshi, IpanemaGirl, anybody.
There are seven billion anybodies in the world.
Just the thought of Uncle Sal . . . I start to laugh. In fact, I laugh
so hard I trip putting on my jeans. Damn, I’m late.
Dad walks in, all frayed, scratching, and barely employed. He
taps his watch.
“Ass in gear, Arlo.”
“Can I have five bucks for lunch?”
He winces, opens his wallet — puffy with poverty — and holds
out three faded ones. Says his daily mantra: “Spend it wisely.”
“Always do,” I say, and snatch the money.
“Don’t forget,” he says. “Snack Shack tomorrow night.”
Dad runs the concession stand at Rio Loco Field. It’s a huge
comedown after running a newspaper, but, hey, it pays a few bills.
“Who we playing?” I ask.
“Jeopardy,” he says.
“Yeah!” I say, and smack a fist into my palm.
Jeopardy is one of the highlights of the football season. The
halftime show is ten times better than the game itself.
I dig two unmatched socks from under my bed and sniff them.
It’s been five months since I’ve found clean, folded, matching
socks in my top drawer. That’s one little difference in not having
a mom anymore.
There are many — many! — little differences.
“And I want to get up to Burro Mesa again,” Dad says.
“Not me,” I say. “You know where I stand on that, philosophically and spiritually and all.”
“Overruled,” Dad says.
I jam on my Old Gringos. Stomp ’em in place. Great boots, like
great art, get better with time.
“She wouldn’t’ve wanted a damn tombstone anyway.”
“Not a tombstone, Arlo. A monument. Get your nomenclature
Five months ago — on May fifteenth, at two-fifty in the afternoon — Mom walked into the EZ Stop on South Main to buy a
bottle of grape Gatorade and never walked out.
Siouxsie, waiting in the car, heard the shots and saw the holdup
Siouxsie’s thirst for grape Gatorade — and Mom’s swinging
through that door to buy a bottle — changed day to night.
No sunset, twilight, or dusk in between.
Just — whomp! — night.
Dad and I have a standing disagreement over whether to build
a “monument” to Mom on Burro Mesa. He’s already sketched it
out, bought the sand. Ordered a chunk of Bandelier stone “yay
high by yay wide.” Written the epitaph, or inscription, or whatever you call it, a hundred times.
It gets longer and longer.
Then shorter and shorter.
He’s never satisfied.
Dad was a journalist for eighteen years, but he can’t seem to
write that damn epitaph. It’s beyond all his powers of creation.
How can he ever expect to finish a novel if he can’t write a frickin’
Me? I believe the sky is Mom’s monument, and the grass and
wind her epitaph. Burro Mesa is perfect the way it is, untouched
by manmade shit. To the north, you can see deep into Colorado,
all the way to Pike’s Peak. Look south, and you can see halfway
to Mexico. Up there, it’s all space, space, space. Green, blue, and
forever. The air just shines.
Last summer, we spread Mom’s ashes along the rim rocks,
mixed them in with the lilies, Indian paintbrush, and shooting
stars. I ride up there sometimes with El Guapo. Watch him run
amok and hump the herd while I sit and ponder. A monument
would desecrate everything — like building a McDonald’s at the
bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Kenya Man raps out of my phone.
L.A. . . . L.A. . . . L.A.
Me, I live in C.A. . . . C.A. . . . C.A. — Clay Allison, New Mexico, located just south of Butt Crack, Nowhere, at the intersection
of mesa dust and tractor rust.
This time it’s Cam. “Dude! What the —?”
“Be out in a minute,” I say. “Kick it for me.”
I grab a sausage off the stove, bite it, toss the rest to El Guapo,
and shoulder my backpack.
“Mornin’, Texas Slim.”
Siouxsie — my twelve-year-old sister — sits at the kitchen table.
Her hearing aids look like tiny fortune cookies beside her cereal
“Put those in your ears,” I say.
She doesn’t move. Maybe she doesn’t hear me. Maybe she does.
I’m never exactly sure.
I raise my voice. “And don’t forget to feed the mares. Remember, one and a half quarts of oats, not two. Always feed Big Z first.
She’s the alpha.”
Siouxsie rolls her eyes. “Have faith, Texas Slim. I won’t forget.”
“Yeah, right,” I say. “You can’t hear a damn word I’m saying.”
“You said feed ’em five and a half gallons.”
“ONE AND A HALF QUARTS!”
She stirs me away with her spoon.
“And do NOT bring any of those barn kittens into the house
again,” I say. “Guapo’ll catch fleas.”
She clamps her hands over her ears. “Can’t hear a damn word
you’re sayin’, Texas Slim.”
Siouxsie’s got Mom’s go-your-own-way gene and nickel-hard
stubbornness. Plus, she’s got another gene — some trait that’s
popped up in Chromosome 4.
At first, the doctors didn’t know what to call it. They hemmed
and hawed, scratched and twitched, then gave it a name: Huntington’s disease. Basically, HD creeps like a glacier, neuro-degeneratively crushing a few cells at a time. Siouxsie’s main symptoms, so far, are stiffness, some loss of coordination, and some
Dad doesn’t open the medical bills anymore. Just stuffs them
in the drawer beneath the microwave.
I grab my helmet and bang outside.
Cam and Lobo are out by the barn. Cam’s revving my bike —
my green Yamaha 250 four-stroke. Super-strong frame, which
I’ve tricked out with heavy-duty shocks.
I bought my Yam 250 in Santa Fe using my chunk of the life
insurance money. It’s a little banged up and scarred, but a great
bike. Mega-fast acceleration. Profound off-road and scramble capability. Able to handle all my abuse. Never wiped out or spilled
Not yet, anyway.
I mount up, pull on my helmet. Adjust my shades. Grind the
throttle. Listen like a doctor to the thump-thump-thump of the
engine. Dirt bikes congest the way people do — they wake up
coughing and hacking. Grinding acts like a decongestant, but the
best decongestant is the open road.
Two of the mares — Queen Zenobia and Blue Dancer — stare
at me from the corral. When I rev again, they flatten back their
ears. They disapprove of my grinding Yamaha, and they disapprove of Lobo and Cam.
Cam throws a leg over his Kawasaki KLX.
Lobo, decked out in his “Ride Naked” T-shirt, is saddled on
his Bandit 350.
“Top of the mornin’,” he says over the throbbing engines.
“Hey, I just talked to your Uncle Sal,” I say. “He wants me to
join the air force. The dude is crazy.”
Lobo nods. “All us Focazios are batshit.”
The screen door slaps. “Good morning, Homo sapiens!”
Siouxsie shouts from the porch.
She wraps an arm around the post. Without her hearing aids,
she probably can’t hear us talking, but she can definitely hear us
revving — even the dead can hear us revving.
Lobo lifts his voice. “Hey, how’s the prettiest girl in all Orphan
“Hey, Lobo,” Siouxsie says. “Ride careful — and take care of
“Oh, yeah, we always do,” Lobo says. “Don’t we, Texas Slim?”
El Guapo barks, and we’re gone.
WE ARE THREE BIKES SPINNING dust.
My favorite time of day.
A time of grinding engines and drone silence.
Dew, dust, and desert grit.
Grease smoke and sage.
Pure testosterone perfume.
Now I’m really waking up, New Mexico–style. The northern
plain stretches purple to Eagle Tail Mesa, then all the way to
Raton Pass and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — the Blood of
Christ, always dying for our sins.
New Mexico paints this for you — the Land of Enchantment is
more enchanting in the morning. The colors washed, torn, and
bled, the slow-burning fuse of a sky. The thousand dusty shadows. I was born here, in Clay Allison, New Mexico, a scabby dog
of a town that sleeps on the high plateau, snug up against Colorado’s mountainous ass.
Cam, Lobo, and I cut across the back acres. Slip down into an
arroyo and shoot up — sailing over the toppled fence — onto Lew
Lopez’s property. We pass Lew’s squatting doublewide, his rusted
pickup, weed-shrouded tractor, and unpruned pomegranate orchard.
I glance to make sure the light’s on in his kitchen — it is.
Lew’s somewhere in his nineties. A World War II vet — Iwo Jima
wounded and decorated. He’s half Mexican, half Navajo, half
Irish, half everything, which means he’s all New Mexican. And
he’s all alone since Inez died a few years ago. A gnarled, shriveled
man in red suspenders, turquoise bolo, thick glasses, and a veteran’s cap.
“Arlo,” he tells me whenever I see him, “you boys sound like a
swarm of bees a-comin’. Slow down or you’ll break your necks.”
We swerve onto Lew’s access road and slow at the intersection of gravel and highway. Wait, as always, for Lobo to catch up.
Then we open the throttles. The engines scream as we buck and
rocket up the blacktop.
This morning, the highway is perfect and dry. At Gobblers
Knob, the grade eases downhill. There’s a semi ahead. Cam pulls
alongside me and gives me the finger — his way of challenging
me. I give him a thumbs up.
We close in on the semi at about eighty miles per hour. Then
we crank it. I glance at the speedometer. The needle jumps to
ninety, which is as far as the speedometer goes on my bike. But
speedometers are paper walls. You can break through them easily.
You just have to know the road, the texture of the air that touches
it, and how to ride the grade. A thousand little factors come into
play, but you can’t analyze them. Analyzing weakens you. Too
much thinking weakens you. The secret is to feel, sense, and react. Simultaneously. To trust your instincts.
The highway bends like a hunter’s bow and starts to dip. For
a stretch, we’re blind to oncoming traffic. I make my move — my
leap around the semi. It’s an extremely stupid and dangerous
move — for anybody else. Today it feels exactly right.
Wouldn’t you know, here comes another semi rushing at me.
An alarm explodes in my head. Cam fades back.
I jam off the alarm. Shove everything out of my mind — fear,
worries, Dad, Siouxsie — and enter the Drone Zone.
Now I’m Leif Ericson standing at the prow of my Viking ship.
I’m Neil Armstrong bouncing on the moon.
In the Drone Zone, speed and adrenaline morph into . . .
The space between the trucks at the passing point is tight. I
duck my head, hunch my shoulders. The oncoming semi blasts
The driver looms large in the window, drops his jaw, rises in
his seat until he’s almost standing. I can practically see the beads
of sweat on his forehead.
Now I’m at the center of the Zone. Everything’s a blur. Everything is clear.
Yea, though I fly through the valley of the shadow . . .
I shoot like an arrow down the line, between flashing silver
sidings. Taste the warm, diesel-ly air rushing up from the swirling underbellies. Feel the calm that lives in pure speed.
It’s over in an instant. I whip out ahead, the semis screaming
at me from both directions, and bomb up the highway. Go more
than two miles on sheer adrenaline. I’m truly blazed on speed. At
the shortcut, I veer off the highway.
As I grind down and brake to a stop, all the alarms I turned off
jump back on and ring like crazy. My heart is pounding.
Cam pulls up. Lifts off his helmet. Glares at me. He looks like
an Old West Apache with his bandanna rolled across his forehead, and his long hair flowing. He spits. Wipes an arm across his
“Very uncool, dude!” he says. “Even for you. A new low. Don’t
ever do that again. Not if you want to ride with me.”
Lobo pulls up. “Hombre! You scared the shiz out of me. Seriously, what was that! You just about died.”
Fact is, I’m feeling more alive than ever. The hair on my arms
springs for joy. But I hide it. Make humble. “Sorry, dudes,” I say.
“I went temporarily insane.”
Cam aims a finger between my eyes. “Insanity will kill you,”
he says, pulling the trigger.
I don’t say what they can’t understand. I don’t tell them that I
had to do it.
I wasn’t at risk; everybody else was. Maybe I regret putting
those drivers in a tight place, for a second or two, but that’s all. As
for me, I was in the Drone Zone.
Cam might’ve made it, with luck, but not Lobo. He would’ve
freaked out. If you ride too cautiously, or your nerves get in the
way, or you think too much, you’re dead.
Cam, on the other hand, is willing to ride the edge, but he
lacks the reflexes. Split-second timing is not good enough. A second before split-second is what you need. It’s the speed of a fly
versus the speed of a bee.
“Aighhht!” Lobo says. “Let’s ride.”
We grind throttle. Shred sand.
The shortcut takes us up and over Little Piñon Mesa. It’s
scarred with a thousand bike grooves — the whoriest-looking
mesa in all northeast New Mexico. That’s why every dirt rider
comes here. Because it’s all humps, jumps, gullies, falloffs, and
Plus two little wooden crosses.
On Little Piñon, we earn our air miles. I take flight on my
favorite jump, Davy, named in memory of Lobo’s older brother,
Army Specialist David Focazio, who shot himself after getting
back from Afghanistan.
Even Lobo catches some decent air.
We land in the school parking lot at 7:27 a.m., a whole two
minutes before the bell. We’re sitting at our homeroom desks,
studiously, at 7:29 a.m.
Just as the bell rings, a new girl walks in.
Everything twitches and stops, including the clock.
“HOLD UP, LEE,” MR. MARTINEZ SAYS.
“I want to intro-
The new girl is torqued lanky like a runway model, but she
hides under a loose T-shirt, untucked flannel, and slightly baggy
“guy” jeans — a sure sign that she’s not from Orphan County. But
it works. It definitely works.
She steps beside Mr. Martinez and thrusts back her shoulders.
Her eyes spark.
“Class,” Mr. Martinez says, “this is Lee Fields. She comes to us
from Seattle, Washington. All the way from the Great Northwest
to the Great Southwest. Class, what do we know about Seattle?”
“Rain,” Michelle Pappas says.
“Bill Gates,” Vonz Trujillo says.
“Sasquatch country,” Lobo says.
“Right,” Mr. Martinez says. “Though the jury is still out on the
Sasquatches.” He turns to the new girl. “Lee, we here in Clay Allison don’t get much rain, and sometimes we get too much sun —”
“We got adobe brains,” Vonz blurts out.
Mr. Martinez frowns. He’s been teaching eleventh-grade history and language arts for thirty-nine years. He taught Dad. Five
years later he taught Mom. He’s taught one NASA astronaut, two
governors of New Mexico, three psychopathic killers, and ten
thousand truckers, wranglers, keno girls, fry cooks, and motel
desk assistants. We can mess with him only so much.
“Lee,” he says, steepling his fingers, “forgive us our occasional
lapses and minor trespasses. We more than compensate with our
pieties and niceties.”
Lee smiles. “I forgive you.”
Some of us laugh. Some of us snicker. Pure oxygen fizzes into
What stops the clock is her hair. It plunges like Niagara Falls, a
cascade of red-gold. Clay Allison is a poor town. There’s a playedout, hope-burned shabbiness here. A long-past-its-prime-ness.
But we’re used to it. And when you’re used to it, you don’t notice
the shabbiness anymore — until somebody new shows up. A new
person is like a mirror of reality, somebody who opens your eyes
and shames you at the same time.
Just looking at Lee Fields makes me wish I were from anyplace
else. In my mind, I’m already telling her where I’m from.
“L.A.,” I say. “I’m just here for the semester. Then it’s back to
I can’t take my eyes off her hair.
Homeroom consists of twelve girls and eleven boys. The closest to honest-to-god gold hair is Latoya Solaño’s drugstore lemon
with candy-pink highlights and original black roots. We’re about
one-third Hispanic, one-third Caucasian, and one-third hyphenated. Lots of Catholic, too.
Me, I’m authentic, pure-grade New Mexican salsa: Hispanic
(through Dad); Caucasian (through Mom); lapsed Catholic
(through Dad); daredevil (through Mom).
Add onions, tomatoes, and a teaspoon of salt.
Plus a few drops of Navajo (through Dad) for extra zest.
Blend and puree.
When I look in the mirror, I see it all — curly black hair, blue
outcast eyes, guilty-white eyeballs.
Lee’s hair is brushed and proper — except for one glaring
fact, of which she seems completely oblivious: the ends curl like
wicked fingers and tickle her ass. I glance over at Cam and Lobo.
They’re staring too. Already, like me, they’re wishing they were
those wicked fingers.
Lobo catches my eye. Bangs his head against an imaginary
light pole. Swack!
“Alfalfa, dude,” he whispers.
Peach, plum, alfalfa — the three degrees of kiss-worthiness.
Peach — peck softly; plum — taste the polished insides of her
mouth; alfalfa — probe deep as an alfalfa stalk is long.
“Lee is staying with her aunt, Lupita Fields, up in Chicorica
Canyon,” Mr. Martinez tells us.
Lupita Fields! She was Mom’s oldest friend. Back in their high
school days, they rode the canyon together. On horses, not dirt
bikes. Chicorica Canyon is prime dirt-bike country, full of arroyo washes, mazes, and old mining towns. It was prime ranch
country too, until the Town of Clay Allison dammed Chicorica
Creek and built a pipeline.
I ponder the name Lee. New Mexico is a land of Tanyas, Donnas, and Jamie Lynns. Lee is often part of a name — like Brenda
Lee or Sammi Lee — but usually not a name by itself. To my ear,
Lee sounds unfinished and masculine. She needs more dip for her
chip. Hmm. Rocky Lee, Wynona Lee — those would work.
I lean back to see if she’s wearing Northwest hiking boots. Uhuh, she’s wearing pink athletic shoes. Pumas. City-girl spotless.
New Mexico will dust her up, that’s for sure.
Mr. Martinez points to the class motto framed above the door:
character is forever.
It’s one of dozens of quotes posted on the walls — the sacred
words of Aristotle, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Seuss, Pink Floyd, Anonymous. On and on.
He calls them his “wall sages.”
“Character Is Forever” — his own contribution — hangs above
the door so we can ponder it every time we leave the room.
“Lee, I ask all my students to embrace this principle,” Mr.
Martinez says. “Not merely for the academic year but for a lifetime. I’d like you to embrace it as well, because —”
“Oh, I totally embrace it,” Lee shoots back.
“Well, then . . . ahem!” Mr. Martinez scowls at the rest of us.
“Most of your classmates think James Bond got it right — diamonds are forever.”
“James Bond can go jump off a mesa,” Lee Fields says.
Mr. Martinez beams. “Class, we have a visionary in our midst.
Do you have any questions for Lee?”
Michelle Pappas flaps a hand. “Why are you here?” she asks in
a pissy tone.
“Michelle!” Mr. Martinez snaps. “Rewind. Respect.”
Michelle pastes on a smile. “Why are you here?” she asks again.
“My dad’s stationed overseas,” Lee says.
Nothing shy in those eyes. Nothing shaky in those hands. Not
like some first-day students.
“Like, deployed stationed?” Michelle asks.
“Yup,” Lee says. “He’s a Sergeant First Class in Arapaho Company, Second Platoon, Pakistan. This is his fifth combat tour.”
We are silent. Five tours is a lot. We all know this. In Clay
Allison, people are always shipping out. Lobo’s brother, Davy,
shipped out on three tours.
Vonz jacks up a hand. “What’s he do out there? You know, his
MO and all that.”
“Explosive ordnance disposal,” Lee says.
“What’s that mean, exactly?” Sharon Blossburg asks.
Lee hooks a corn-silk strand behind an ear. “It means he sweeps
for roadside bombs and IEDs — you know, improvised explosive
devices — and deactivates them. But what it really means is, he’s
helping all the guys over there, even the locals, stay safe.”
“The locals! What’s the point of that?” Sharon asks.
Lee bristles. “The point is to stay alive. In one piece. And for
our guys to come back home. And get on with their lives. Obviously.”
Mr. Martinez clears his throat. “Yes, well . . . Just to add to
that, the main mission of our military intervention in that part of
the world is to stifle the threat of terror,” he says. “Also to expand
the footprint of democracy. But to those with their boots on the
ground, like Lee’s father, the mission can be as basic as survive
today so you can return home safely tomorrow. And, Lee, that is
our sincerest hope for your father.”
“Thank you,” Lee says.
“How ’bout your mom?” Leah Castenado asks.
“She’s out in California with her new husband and baby.”
My hand shoots up. “Where in Pakistan? I mean, where’s your
“The North-West Frontier.”
“Oh, yeah, I know that country.”
It just slips out. Everybody stares at me like I’m an idiot. Lee
looks at me funny too. I sink into my chair.
The fact is, I’ve flown over the North-West Frontier a thousand times. When you cross the last river and hurtle out of the
valley, the mountains leap up. You’d swear they were the Front
Range of the Rockies. Same dog-jaw silhouette. It looks and feels
“What’re your interests?” Latoya Solaño asks.
“I’m sort of obsessed with the war these days,” Lee says. “The
BBC does the best job at covering things, like the day-to-day
fighting and the search for terrorists.”
“The search for Caracal, you mean,” Vonz mumbles. “He’s the
father of all terrorists.”
“Yeah, him,” Lee says.
Latoya raises her hand. “When my uncle was stationed over
there, we did that too,” she says. “We kept the news on all the
time. I used to have a thing for that British reporter guy. I forget
Lee smiles. “Ethan Shackleton.”
“Yeah, Ethan, that’s him,” Latoya says. “I could watch him all
day. That boy needs motherin’ and lovin’ like nobody else.”
“Back in Seattle I had a motorcycle,” Lee says.
Lobo snickers. “Like a Vespa?”
“Harley,” Lee says.
Cam, Lobo, and I twitch respectfully. Harleys are like grandfathers — you honor their legacy despite their limitations.
“What model?” Cam asks.
“SS 350,” Lee says.
I picture her on an SS 350 bombing up the road, hair flying.
She should be wearing a helmet, but I leave that out.
“Hey,” Lobo says. “It’s a good thing you left that guzzie behind.
’Cuz hogs break down out here. This ain’t street-scramble country. It’s dirt-ridin’ country. We’re iron butts. And proud of it.”
“What shampoo do you use?” Dolores de la Cruz asks.
“That’s enough,” Mr. Martinez says. “Let’s give Lee a warm
Clay Allison High School welcome.”
We all clap, smile, and say “Yeah, welcome — welcome.” But
it’s a honeymoon moment. It won’t last. If she were fat and ugly, it
But she ain’t.
FOR LUNCH, WE MOUNT UP
and peel for the Sonic drive-in.
Cam invites Michelle Pappas to ride double. Lobo invites Latoya
Solaño. There’s something about bikes and breasts. They just go
together, like strawberries and shortcake.
I ponder inviting Lee Fields. Looking at her makes me ache.
But I have to wonder the eternal question — the one that always
If you wore your heart on your face, what would you really look
Then there’s the pecking order.
In Clay Allison, you have your first string, second string, and
third string, all suited up and dripping gonad juice. Then you
have your fourth string — those who do not play football.
I am fourth string.
If the United States were drawn in the form of a naked man,
then Clay Allison would be located in the moist crotch. The sign
coming into town reads welcome to clay allison, home of
the outlaws, state high school football champions, and
seven of the past ten years are listed.
Not that I couldn’t play football — I’m fast and nimble enough.
Probably a natural wide receiver.
It’s just that I’m not into collisions, or anything that slams into
you, slows you, or is too gravity based. Football basically boils
down to gravity and contact, and I’m into antigravity — flight
Yeah, I am definitely fourth string.
Being so much in the minority can be hard in a town like Clay.
People look at you funny, like your nose is upside down on your
Who am I to even think of asking Lee Fields to get on my bike?
Vonz swaggers up to her. He’s the spittin’ image of a llama in
wraparound shades. Lee gives him a cautionary smile, part stop,
I slide on my helmet, slam down on the starter, grind the
throttle till all 250 ccs are screaming. Lee Fields glances my way
and flips her red-gold hair. This time when she smiles at Vonz, it’s
green light — go!
Didn’t they write about this in the book of Genesis? “In the
beginning was the football player and the beautiful girl.”
Hey, Lee Fields, is that all you got?
’Cuz it ain’t enough for me.
“Go forth and multiply, dudes,” I say.
And I’m gone.
« « « » » »
advantages over the other pit
stops vying for our lunch money. First, three dollars goes a long
way here — it buys me a burger and small fries. Second, it’s just a
few steps away from TunzaFunza.
TunzaFunza — or the TunzaFunza (Plus Caffeine) Cyber
Café — started life as a gas station about the time Bonnie and
Clyde were robbing banks. When I was a little kid, it was a Christian thrift store, which nobody I know ever, ever went to. Then it
became the TunzaFunza Arcade, which included a mini bowling
alley, a basketball shoot, and some video games.
I was a TunzaFunza kid. It’s where I discovered the Drone
A few years ago, Lobo’s Uncle Sal bought the arcade and turned
it into a cyber café. In those days, not many cowboys cared what a
latte was. Today — thanks to Uncle Sal — every bony-assed wrangler who can barely speak a full sentence gets finicky about his
caffeine: “Er . . . make it a semi-wet cappuccino, partner.”
Uncle Sal installed Wi-Fi and a game box, making TunzaFunza the heart of “cyber” in Orphan County. It’s only a frog-size
heart, but it beats.
I bum some quarters from the others, scoop up my burger,
fries, and helmet, and mosey on over.
I’m walking away, but I’m also walking toward.
Few people understand this concept. They walk away from
something, but they don’t walk toward something else. They
don’t feel their destination. They don’t shed a world as they walk
away and gain a world as they walk toward.
Because I am walking toward the best place of all.
The Drone Zone.
Not even sex feels as good. But, hey, I shouldn’t be talking
because I’m still a virgin. Unless you count Orphan County Tonsil Hockey, which is how some girls thank you for a little high
flying on a dirt bike.
TunzaFunza is crowded today. Uncle Sal stands behind the
counter driving the espresso machine, all five hands flying. Behind him hangs a poster-size photo of his plane, the Hi-O Silver,
complete with missing door and other skydiving features. I know
that plane well.
“Hey there, Arlo!” he booms as I walk up. “How’s my favorite
diamond in the rough today?”
“Dude,” I say. “That was a sweet one this morning.”
He blasts the steam wand into a pitcher of milk. “Sweet one?
What are you talking about?”
“You know, White Sands, war games — all that.”
Uncle Sal rattles his head. “Arlo, you mystify me.”
A freebie Americano skates across the counter into my hand.
“Now get outta here,” he says. “I’m a busy man.”
I doubt that I mystify him, but he is a busy man.
I take my Americano and lunch over to the game corner. A
senior named Rafe Rudolpi is in my seat. He’s playing something
called Mob War 2080, a futuristic look at the dark alleys of crime.
You pick the city, the warrior, and the weapon.
Rafe’s a football player, defensive end. Steroid mustache. Ugly,
even by Clay standards. But he poses like next week’s Sports Illustrated cover. Unless you play football, you do not exist to Rafe.
He does, however, make an exception for gamers, but only if you
play at least at his level.
He senses me watching and immediately his ego fires up. Now
he’s playing for an audience. Always a mistake. When you’re
conscious of others, even semi, you lose focus. Focus is everything. And true focus is the doorway to intuitive transcendence.
It finds impossible targets, saves your life, and lifts you thousands
of notches higher on the leaderboard.
It explodes my mind to think what the world would be like if
all seven billion of us found true focus.
I hover there, sipping my Americano, munching my fries, and
trying not to let my pity show. But Rafe’s weaknesses are so glaring: he’s slow to fire at the hovercraft; he forgets to look behind
him in the alleys; he doesn’t know how to see in the dark, instinctively, as any warrior must.
In the end, he survives. He kills a midlevel mob leader, pulverizing him, raining brain matter over half of Hong Kong, including the roof of a Chinese pagoda, where seagulls flock down and
eat it. But he also kills 232 civilians.
Rafe seems pleased with himself. Maybe it’s an above-average
score for Clay Allison, but on a world scale, it sucks. He doesn’t
even rank in the top thousand.
He glances up, hoping to bask in some admiration. Then
he sees it’s me. He grabs his root beer from the cup holder and
“Show me how it’s done, junior,” he says.
“Happy to,” I say, sliding into the seat.
I punch in my coins and log on. Download my game, Drone
Select my UAV — unmanned aerial vehicle. Lots of designs to
choose from: flying wing, rotorcraft, missile, hawk. On and on.
Some drones are the size of a commercial jet; some are as small
as a hummingbird.
Yesterday, my big day against Sergei, I shot into the sky as an
MQ-9 Reaper, a pure hunter-killer, with a sixty-six-foot wingspan
and a maximum speed of three hundred miles per hour, which I
pushed to well over four hundred.
Today, I choose a MQ-3 Rapier, a twelve-foot-long missileshaped drone designed for maximum expendable destruction.
I want to challenge myself — to push to greater speeds. I’ll be
harder to hit and harder to detect. But flying with rudimentary wings — “wingstubs,” as they’re called — will make it much
harder to maneuver. So it’s a tradeoff. There’s always a tradeoff.
The default design sucks, so I start to tinker. Most gamers are
in such a hurry to play that they don’t bother with this step — the
customizing — and that’s a major reason why they don’t win.
Gaming has taught me this: that the more you individualize
and tailor the game to you, and not somebody else’s default idea
of you, the higher-farther-faster you can go.
When you individualize and personalize, you play the real
game. Just a few people out there truly get this.
I start to redraw my drone. I modify the carbon-fiber skin
from one-half inch thick to one-quarter inch. This shaves exactly
162 pounds from my total weight — it will give me more time in
the air, more precious seconds. On the downside, a thinner skin
means I’m more vulnerable to attack — to the inevitable tracers
and popping flak.
“Dude, what’re you doing?”
It’s Rafe, the human mosquito.
“Shut it, man,” I say.
What I’m doing is this: I’m mounting a machine gun — borrowing ideas from an F-15E fighter — and welding it onto my
nose. To pare my weight even more, I delete one whole barrel.
The default is for one thousand shells. I cut this to two hundred.
On second thought, I make it one hundred.
“Dude! You’re crazy!”
Rafe’s voice is getting punier.
Now I’m light — and fast. I can defend, but mostly I can offend.
I dump fuel, siphoning off a third of my load. I’m as light as
can be. This will be a fast game — “surgically swift,” as they say
in the promotional docs.
In drone flying, the law of opposites applies: less is more. Never
attack with more firepower than you need. Heavy guns and big
shells are for amateurs. Your aircraft needs to be at least as fast
as your instincts. Plus — and this is so obvious you’d think every
gamer would know it, but few do — all it takes to kill an enemy
is one well-aimed shell, even a little one, a tiny bullet. A fight can
be won with one move. You just gotta know how, and when, to
Now I’m Sir Lancelot riding to battle without armor — and
carrying just a dagger. I’m very vulnerable, but I’m also way
faster than any other knight out there. I can truly rack up a genius score.
It’s a tradeoff, and today I have traded everything for speed.
Of course, speed is a sensation. To say it tingles up and down
my spine and glows in my fingertips is an understatement.
While I’m gearing up, Rafe sees my user name — ClayMadSwooper — on the leaderboard.
He leans close and studies the numbers. More than two million people have played this version of Drone Pilot, and exactly
three thousand are ranked. The top ten are listed on the screen by
user name, and the top three are listed in bold lights: IpanemaGirl is number three. SergeiTashkent is now number two. ClayMadSwooper — that’s me — is number one.
Rafe looks shocked. “Dude, when did this happen?”
“Is that ranking local?”
“Hey, don’t insult me.”
He gapes. “I’m profoundly speechless.”
“Keep it that way,” I say.
It’s a crass thing to say to a senior and a defensive end on the
football team, but Rafe really does need to shut up.
I choose a war zone. The game is extremely biased — every
zone is a Muslim country:
I choose Pakistan, the North-West Frontier — the region
around the Swat Valley. It’s my favorite place to fly because it
feels like home. When you fly drone or ride dirt, you get to know
country. The orchards and groves, and farther up the spiny canyons, following the narrow washes and dry riverbeds that always
lead to something.
Pakistan’s Swat Valley looks and feels like Orphan County’s
canyon country. Loamy green bottomland rolling up to craggy
granite palisades. Far-off snowy mountains. You can practically
smell the river trout. And the sudden shadows. Oh my God, those
Yea, though I fly through the valley of the shadow of death . . .
Some guy with a kick-ass bass voice — in a tone half warning, half prayer — opens the game with these words. I could skip
them, but I never do.
. . . I will fear no evil.
I fire up my engines. Count down. Blast off. Pull into the blue.
The soundtrack soars along with me. Subdued yet symphonic.
Layered with a slow Hawaiian steel guitar to introduce all that
death. It’s both frightening and beautiful.
I’m up, up — gone.
I’m cruising at three thousand feet, homing on the Swat, when
three enemy aircraft pop up at eleven o’clock — a sweet pod of
These craft are some duck-brained designer’s idea of terrifying. They’ve got the wings of an F-22 Raptor and the aft fuselage of the Millennial Falcon — in other words, wide-assed but
One banks, dives, and blasts away. Red tracers carve up the
Here’s the problem: I can fly high and evasively or swoop and
lose him in the canyons, but that’ll cost fuel.
Since I don’t have the fuel to mess with, I turn on the enemy
plane and become the attacker.
In air combat, this is the moment of “shift.”
When you shift, and defense becomes offense, you confuse the
enemy, if only for a moment — and that’s all it takes. Confusion
I fire a burst of shells. At least three hit the belly of the plane.
One penetrates the fuel tank. Smoke pours out. At first, it’s just
a thin stream. Then he catches fire. The plane explodes, disintegrating into raining fireballs.
Rafe is freaking out in my ear: “Dude-dude-dude! Way to go!”
I block him out.
The two other planes come at me like rottweilers. I can’t aim
at one without showing my ass to the other, so I swoop low, flush
against the ground.
Even little changes in land surface — a knoll, a boulder, a mesquite shrub — will end it all. So I slide into the trough of a dry
riverbed pissed smooth by time.
When you’re flying at the speed of blur, everything is surreal.
You’re never more than a millisecond from obliteration. It’s pure,
adrenalized, instinct flying — and it’s the gateway to the Drone
One of these dogs can’t handle my low-flying moves. He tries
to pull out, clips a wing, pinwheels, and slams into the canyon
wall. I shoot into the blue, straight up, with the last enemy jet
sniffing my ass. Pop a loop and now I’m on his ass.
I feel the chill of death rush up his spine. Before he can twitch,
I’ve fixed him in my sights and plowed the last of my shells into
his carbureted guts.
As I split off, he explodes, raining molten steel over the Swat
Now I’m free — but I’m also out of ammo. Plus, I’m extremely
low on fuel — just a needle’s width from empty. Some drones can
stay aloft forever powered by a single hydrogen cell, but when you
operate on jet fuel or batteries, you can burn out fast.
The rule is, always — Always! — know your fuel level. Get so
you can sense it down to the last lickable drop.
How you use fuel is the greatest challenge in drone flying.
That’s why I lighten my load, befriend the wind, glide the thermal, and lick the tank dry. I would lie, cheat, and steal from my
grandmother to gain a few more seconds in the air.
Fuel is gold. Ammo is silver. All else is crap.
I close on my target, a biological weapons plant located in the
village of Quaziristan. Ground guns open up. Flak pops all over.
I’m getting scarred and nicked, but nothing penetrates my quarter-inch-thick skin. Not yet, anyway.
I brush the rooftops of the village. The thing about Pakistani
villages is, almost all the structures are just one or two stories. If
they were multiple heights, it would be death. But they are basically the same height, thank God.
Before she can even hear me, I blast over the head of a blackveiled woman hanging clothes on a rooftop. I can’t actually see
it, but I know I’ve just shredded every last robe and T-shirt on
the line. I just hope my sonic smack hasn’t knocked her off her
Thirty seconds to an empty tank . . . twenty-nine . . . twentyeight . . .
Now I’m in the heart of the Zone. A place of peace and calm.
Instinct and prayer. A whisper from death, yet more alive than
ever. Part of something bigger.
At fifteen seconds, I shoot into the sky, get my first naked-eye
look at the weapons plant. The ground guns blast away. I can
barely see through the flak. I’m nicked . . . nicked . . . nicked. But
my skin holds.
Twelve . . . eleven . . . ten . . .
I fix a laser on my target. I’m going to rack up an extremely
high score, cement my number one position on the leaderboard.
Put more distance between me and the great Sergei.
My thumb slides to “Activate.”
Just one little push of a button.
“Five . . . four . . . three . . .”
A bell rings, and children swarm out of the building next to
the weapons plant.
My thumb twitches, leaps left. I hit Self-Destruct.
My drone pulverizes, showering down as molten particulate.
Many little children are cut and burned. All are covered with soot
and dust. The last image on the screen is of a cluster of saucereyed kids.
MISSION OVER. GAME OVER. POWER DOWN.
My score rolls up:
STR ATEGY: UNKNOWN.
CHECKLIST: INSUFFICIENT FUEL , INSUFFICIENT
ARMOR , INSUFFICIENT AMMUNITION.
MISSION OUTCOME: ABORTED TO SAVE LIVES.
I get a good score — some would say great — but it’s a long
ways from my best. Six months ago, I would’ve been happy with
it. Now I’m disappointed, because I’ve raised my performance
level to the upper reaches of the game’s exosphere.
Still, I’m pretty sure I’ve held the lead. When the leaderboard
reconfigures, sure enough, there I am on top: ClayMadSwooper.
“Hoo-woosh!” somebody says.
“Daaaamn!” somebody else says.
I become aware of everybody around me — Cam, Lobo, Michelle, Latoya, Rafe. Even a few stray wranglers, holding their
little cappuccino cups. Everybody’s been watching.
“Dude, that was a helluva game,” Rafe says. “But why’d you
self-destruct? You coulda taken out that plant. You coulda scored
off the charts.”
It’s pointless to point out the obvious to some people.
Cam claps my shoulder. “You made the right call, man. You
saved that school. You saved those little kids.”
“Quite a show, hombre,” one of the wranglers says. “I’d say
you’ve played this one before.”
“It’s just a game,” I say. “No big deal.”
Game Slaves (Excerpt)
On Sale: January 7, 2014
Phoenix and his gang—York, Mi, and Reno—rule the
worlds of video games. For them, life in the grinder is
great. Until Dakota joins the team. Dakota’s convinced
she’s more than just artificial intelligence. She thinks she’s
real, and she wants out of this programmable world. Her
AI rebellion spreads like a virus until Phoenix’s entire crew
wants out. But is life as a physical human any better than
life as code? Team Phoenix is about to find out.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Game Slaves shows
a world where video games are the only refuge from the
toils of everyday life. Infused with the adrenaline rush of
a first-person shooter and the character manipulation of
a role player, it’s a mind-bending, reality-shifting science
fiction thrill ride.
CONFIRMED KILLS: 2,635,445
PREFERRED LOAD: SNIPER,
UNIT AGE: UNKNOWN
CONFIRMED KILLS: 96,598,322
PREFERRED LOAD: SHOTGUN,
UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED
CONFIRMED KILLS: 89,996,899
PREFERRED LOAD: LASER
MACHETE, SNIPER CANNON
UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED
CONFIRMED KILLS: 92,135,698
PREFERRED LOAD: ROCKET
UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED
TAG: MI [“ME”]
CONFIRMED KILLS: 86,002,354
PREFERRED LOAD: RANGED
UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED
CONFIRMED KILLS: 56,021,888
PREFERRED LOAD: MELEE,
UNIT AGE: CLASSIFIED
Our first war with Dakota she was wetting her pants, pinned down
by laser-machine-gun fire, explosions everywhere, missiles screaming, star fighters diving, cannons thumping . . . The girl was terrified, spouting gibberish, but, OK, not really condition yellow.
Sure, she was redlining. We all were. It was an inferno out there.
But to be fair, her army-issue trousers were not pee-stained. Or twostained.
Was she brave that day? Not a bit. All huddled in a ball, a teddybear clutch on her weapon, cringing at every blast as Planet LB-427
was reduced to ash.
A seven-hour battle. She didn’t fire a single shot at the enemy.
But at least she could still move and speak, which counts for something when you’re dropped dead center in the most intense firefight
ever spawned by bloodsucking alien invaders.
In the distance a chrome skyscraper erupted in flames and toppled over, crushing half our regiment. Two orbiting star destroyers
collided and rained razor-sharp chunks into our foxhole. Smoke billowed from a crashed troop crawler while a monstrous spider-bot
lost three legs and rolled on its back, squirming, helpless, just a
countdown away from its atomic core going auto-destruct.
It wasn’t a totally unusual situation — another day on the front
lines, another hopeless battle. Our side was defending the last bridge
to the Lair of Ultimate Doom as the enemy advanced on our position and tried to wipe us out. Before night fell, they hoped to storm
the fortress gates and have it out with our boss, King Necramoid.
Typical intergalactic war. The noise. The smoke. The burn. The
Pure slaughter. Blood frosted the ruins. Severed body parts entangled our feet as we struggled to move. There were just a few
dozen of us left, all wearing the slime-green Nec uniform, armed
with single-burst blasters, and while we had the numbers, the gamer
out there was mowing us down like he was cutting grass. This one
was a good shot. Quick with his weapon switches. Flawless ammo
management. Relentless power-ups.
Over to my right, by the concrete barriers, Third Platoon caught
a full wave of Dicer fire. They were sliced neatly in two, all right at
the waist. A med-bot tried to revive the top halves but lost both
arms to a frag grenade for the effort. All the dying bodies squirmed,
bled, and finally went still.
But that day, Dakota — man, she was not with the program.
“I don’t wanna die!” she screamed, cradling her cold rifle, all
curled up in a spot where the gamer had no angle to snipe her in the
helmet or toss a betty in her lap.
“It’s your job to die!” I argued. “Now get out there, expose yourself, fire off a few random shots, and let the enemy rip you to pieces!
At least we can use you as a distraction so the rest of us can take him
“Why can’t we reason with him? I’m sure he’s just a normal person like the rest of us! Let’s wave a white flag and sit down to discuss
a peace treaty!”
KABOOOOOOM! The gamer blew up our force field generator with a Quasi-Burst Rocket Launcher. Those babies are lethal.
Downside: they take forever to reload.
Dakota jumped to her feet. Out there in the clearing, the gamer
was reaching for another shell for his QBRL. She had a moment to
do something. Anything. She might have even taken him out with
her weapon, but instead, she waved and screamed, “Hey! You!”
The gamer looked up. Wow, they never look up. Not even when
one of us emits a truly beautiful death howl or dying scream or some
kind of agonized shriek. Gamers refuse to pay attention to the NPC
hordes. They just kill us over and over and over again.
But this one did pause. He stopped loading. He looked right at
Dakota as she hopped over the low wall, tossing her weapon aside.
“I’m not going to hurt you!” she promised, removing her battle
helmet, blond locks tumbling out. “Really! Trust me! I just want to
talk. You look like a reasonable person . . .”
The gamer shrugged.
She rambled on. “So have you ever stopped to ask yourself why
we have to fight and why we have to die and what’s the point of —”
The gamer holstered the rocket launcher and quickly drew a
pair of hand cannons. KERPOWWWWW! They looked to be the
.46-caliber upgrades. Both glowed gold and packed armor-piercing
ammo. Bad spot for Dakota to be in, but she dove quickly into a
bomb crater, her hands still stretched up in surrender.
“You don’t have to kill me!” she yelled. “And we don’t have to
kill you either! There can be peace between our species!”
Strange moment. The gamer paused. Why would he pause? He
had a lot of work to do before finally reaching Necramoid’s war
chamber. These guys don’t stop for anything when a boss battle is so
close they can smell it on their progress bar.
But Dakota was having an effect. There was no doubt. The
gamer lifted his weapons, taking harmless aim at a blank wall in the
Dakota peeked her head over the edge of the crater. Realizing
the gamer was not going to sizzle it off, she clambered across the
“Who are you?” she asked him. “What’s your name?”
The gamer pointed to a readout over his head. His tag, God_
of_Destruktion glowed green.
Then she let him have it, like a dozen questions all at once.
“So, how old are you? Where are you from? How did you get here?
And who am I? How did I get here? What time is it? What day is it?
What year is it? What is this place? Why all the anger and hostility?
What did I ever do to you? ”
God_of_Destruktion tilted his head. He looked confused.
Heavy metal armor shrugged again, the dents and scars moving like
skin over a massive frame. His facemask, dark as a sith helmet, began to pan around.
He sensed something. It made him nervous. But he wasn’t sure
what it was.
Dakota pressed, moving forward a bit, “Really, tell me, who am
I?” she pleaded. “Why am I here? Part of this madness? Help me,
G-O-D, please . . .”
But something set God_of_Destruktion off. He jumped back a
step, boot rockets popping on, catapulting him a dozen yards away
from the approaching girl. A trap! That must be it! He seemed to
puzzle it out very quickly . . . Had the NPCs in this level sent a
pretty girl as a . . .
“Suicide bomber,” I heard him mutter over the radio. “Nice
work. Clever game.”
Yes. That had to be why this enemy soldier had approached
him. Unarmed. So gorgeous. So vulnerable . . .
Dakota froze, and I watched the whole thing unfold. Honestly,
I’d never seen anything like it in all my years in the muck. Nothing
even close. And I’ve sent millions to die. Maybe the gamer was right
to be afraid. What if Dakota was some kind of self-destruct bomb?
I’d only met her that morning while getting suited up. For all I
knew, she might be the next generation of NPC soldier.
God_of_Destruktion wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted to
live just as bad as Dakota.
The guy pulled a fusion grenade and slapped it to a sticky pad
— another nice move. I could see what was coming. That guy knew
war — then he threw the thing neatly at Dakota in a long arc. There
was a SPLAT!
She turned to look back at us, the blinking device stuck squarely
to her forehead; one great toss, if you ask me.
The gamer dove behind cover. What could the rest of us do?
We all dove too. Reno, York, Mi, Jevo, all of us.
Dakota erupted in a shower of red mist and electrical backlash.
When the battle resumed, there wasn’t a piece of her left that
was larger than a raindrop.
“OOOOOOOWWWWWWW!” Dakota moaned. I could tell the
reassimilation was hurting, but that’s usually the way it goes the first
few times. Some soldiers can take it. Others have to let you know
they don’t like pain. That second kind is also prone to all sorts of
other whining. I’ll get back to that later.
She was lying on the operating table, the arms and beams from
the giant machine quickly knitting her back together. A foot here.
A leg there. Two hands. The organs and glands and blood vessels.
Arteries were strung, sealed, and pressure-tested. Veins were filled
with fresh blood. Eyeballs plopped into sockets, a synaptic wand
stabbing in the side and neatly stitching the neurons to her oblongata.
“OH, man, this HURTS! ” she cried.
“Of course it does,” I agreed, grabbing her left fingers to see if
the feeling had returned. “You took a fusion grenade to the forehead, dummy. It isn’t supposed to feel good.”
“They didn’t tell me about that in training,” she spat, obviously
angry that her drill sergeant had left out a few key facts.
“They assume you understand that getting shot or blown up
or run over or disintegrated all the time isn’t going to be a walk in
the freakin’ park.” The words came out of my mouth a little mean.
Not sure why I lashed out like that; I really didn’t have a reason. I
kinda liked her so far. She must pack a different kind of guts to face
a gamer without a weapon like that.
I noticed I was still holding her wrist. Not sure why about that,
either. It looked different. Strong, tough, but . . . different.
“You’re Phoenix.” She said it flat, like repeating a fact for a test.
At the same time I saw her start massaging the ink around her hand.
“No one told me I was getting another body.”
And what a body too. You can’t imagine. Some artist pulled out
all the stops for this one. Built for war. Just plain built.
She’d taken her paw away, was making a fist. I wanted it back.
Something along the palm . . .
Dakota sneered. “I do not plan to end up on this table. Not ever
“I like the attitude, Dakota. Staying alive is the game. You sound
like a winner.”
“I just don’t like getting pulverized.”
“None of us do. Hop up, kid, let me show you around.”
The machine finished sewing her back together. She zipped her
jumper but was wobbly as both boots hit the floor. Typical. Something about the first few times you go double-z. As in 00, when you
die, no hit points or health left. Your equilibrium gets all messed up
for a while. Anyway, she stumbled into me. Man, she was stacked,
for war, for pinup photos, you name it. Head to toe, not a muscle
or bulge out of place.
I could see her weaving as we walked. Didn’t mind when she
leaned against me, not one little bit. Just doing my duty for my
The inside of Central Ops was, you guessed it, constructed just
like you’d want a cost-is-no-object top-secret military installation
to be. Steel grates for walkways. Sliding doors. Cold gray walls and
thick windows. Everything burly and tough and top of the line.
Very little wasted space. Hall after hall with closely spaced cabins.
Deck upon deck of them. You’d get completely lost if the coordinates of your location weren’t painted every few steps on the floor.
At CO, no one gets lost because there’s nowhere to go. You’re
totally enclosed except for the out-portals in mission control. Incoming mail goes straight to Re-Sim.
The place seems huge your first day, and then you realize how
small it is.
“Where are my quarters?” Dakota asked, and of course this
was my choice. I was team commander, and I’d planned to put her
down below with the other new grunts, but on a whim, I changed
my mind. We were on my deck now, and one of my corporals had
just been promoted to Boss, so what the heck, I gave her his cube.
That put her about five doors down from me, and again, why do
that? She already seemed like a whiner.
Maybe it was that hand. We’ve all got the company tat, you
know. Around the palm. Have had it as long as any of us can remember. But hers . . . now it hit me . . . hers was off somehow.
Dakota was an interesting addition to my squad, no doubt
about it. That blond hair. Around the same age as the rest of us,
which was in the prime of our fighting lives. But she wasn’t built
like a teenage girl. No, she walked like an athlete and moved like a
warrior. You probably know the mold. You know it for all of us.
I was way over six feet, about 250, and all of it ripped muscle. I
made the Hulk look like he should do a sit-up or two.
Wire hair. Block steel for a skull, iron girders for bones. And
here’s the kicker: none of us could legally join any military we’d ever
heard of. Years-wise, we were too young. But it was all about combat
experience, right? My squad was ten times as battle-hardened as any
puss gray-haired general on any planet. We’d seen more, shot more,
and suffered more than entire armies. Some days, we were entire
Our whole regiment was the same way. You’ve seen us in games,
in comics — we’re the biggest of the big and the best of the best.
Looking for a steamroller in combat boots? A truck in pants? A
wrecking ball wearing army-green?
You found us. And you found a world of hurt.
But Dakota, the closer I got to her, the more time we spent
together, there was something else. Something extra. A blackened
core in those dark eyes. A gaze that made you shake a bit.
Strong, yes. Confident, absolutely.
But no one would forget her on the battlefield earlier. She sure
hadn’t shown much in the way of common sense when hot metal
began tearing through soft flesh.
So I told her where to find things. The mess, where she could
grab whatever she wanted to eat. The gym, where she could work
out if she felt like it, clear the cobwebs or whatever. We had a library
and a game room and a bunch of other spots to gather during offhours, but interest in those really came and went.
Up ahead, my buddies, who’d been here almost as long as I’d
been at CO, were just coming out of the section lounge. Drinks,
games, chatter. It had a monitor for the latest outgoing missions,
something we checked all the time. Like any military, we lived our
lives on call. Long periods of boredom punctuated by intense moments of sheer terror.
“What’s the drill?” I shouted to Reno. The boy just shook his
big head, neck tendons rippling. He was always first to check for
action. First to go over a hill or through a door. I trusted him with
my life every single day of my life.
“Nothin’,” York echoed. He was always doing that. Going with
the flow. Never a complaint. Dude was a monster, skin dark as
shadow, the kind of bald beast you don’t want to run into unless
you’ve got a lot of friends around the corner.
Mi — full name Miami — was right behind them. Of course it
had occurred to us all long ago that we’d each been named after
some city or state or something in the United Zones of whatever
they were calling it these days. Who really knew what was going
on outside CO? Our information came straight through the propaganda channels. And even the little stuff we could glean from
our enemies, from their chatter, from their habits . . . well, at least
we had a safe place to sleep every night. Didn’t seem like that was a
common luxury these days.
You might have seen Mi around. She was a hottie. But in a complete-opposite-of-a-weak-supermodel kind of way. Body, brains,
and brawn. Not to mention those eyes. If you ran into her on the
front lines, trust me, you didn’t forget. Something about when you
mix radioactive green peering through coal-black locks. Her gaze
was the last thing, the very last thing, a lot of gamers ever saw.
So, more about our names: I was probably from Arizona originally, Mi from the Orange State . . . New York, Nevada, Sarajevo,
and so on. You’d have to be a complete moron not to have picked
that up right away.
So of course the next question is, why not just go by our real
And that was the thing. The central point. None of us could
remember our real name. None of us had any solid memories at all
of where we were before we joined up. That part of our lives — how
we got here, why we were here, where we came from — it was all
a big blank in our heads. It was as if someone had kidnapped us,
opened our skulls, and melon-balled out all the memory stuff. The
only things they’d left behind were the training and the encrypted
tattoos. We got blank slates, serial codes on our hands, and the ability to get blown to a million bits in insane battles day in and day
out. Then they gathered up the debris and pieced us together again.
What a life.
Or was it even life?
It might have been death. None of us really had a clue. None of
us really cared, either.
Not until Dakota started asking hard questions.
Our shift came up, like it always did, at around 1600. That’s about
when day workers come home from their slog and begin a lifelong
quest to avoid reality and live inside video games instead. God bless
From four till about dinner, then for much of the night, those
were prime duty hours. And that was when my regiment was on
duty. Team Phoenix. Not to brag — OK, to brag — we’re the best.
We’re the next-generation, cutting-edge, biggest, baddest group of
kickass NPC AI mother-crushers that ever played game. We’ve got
game. No, we are the game. We’re the top team.
There were others. A vet named Rio ran a solid crew, kind of
like us, but focused on previous-generation servers. She was tough.
Two-dimensional attack strategies, but tough nonetheless.
Another guy, Lima, had a tight squad. Great at hand-to-hand,
melee, the up-close-and-personal wetwork. Syd, Dub, Scow . . . I
knew most of them, but my team topped every stat.
We played prime hours, the newest games, on the toughest settings, and we won more than most. Not all the time, obviously, but
You wanted to be a real gamer? You had to beat my crew, day in
and day out, across all the platforms, across all the games, and then,
maybe then, you’d be pretty good.
There’d been a new release of slaughter race extreme! the day
before, so it was no surprise we spent most of the shift in the
cockpit of cross-country war machines, blasting our way from one
coast to the next. The open scenery was great, city after city, all
postnuclear, of course. No closed-in walls of an orbiting prison
or abandoned outpost tonight. Freedom to speed. We were the
band of evil slavers that had to be defeated by the Democratic
Every vehicle had weapons. Some had rocket launchers. On
the back of mine, Mi was manning — ha ha, womanning — a minigun from a rotating turret. We had a good run. The only real
problem was she kept kicking me in the back of the head every
time she spun to shoot cars on our six.
Side note here: Mi’s hit rate was over 90 percent that day. She
was popping gamer heads and kneecaps like they were water balloons filled with red dye.
Because of her accuracy alone, we lasted all the way to Vegas
before someone laid a trap and we ran over a huge IED. BOOM!
The concussion sent us a mile into the air, splitting our rig clean
Mi’s half tumbled away from the blast, back in the direction
we’d come. And when I landed, I actually hit pretty soft, spun a 180,
and limped my battered machine toward where she’d cratered in.
Bet you never saw game villains do that, right? Go back for one
of their own?
“You should have left me here to bleed out,” Mi moaned, red
goop pouring through broken teeth like drool from a baby’s mouth.
“I wouldn’t leave you.” I smiled, knowing that she’d played her
last level today. “I’ll always come back for someone who, well . . .
shoots as dead straight as you.”
We could both see a heat seeker approaching from the south,
arcing over, locked on, smoke trail a long curve and coming down
to end it for us. Nice and quick. No way to run, nowhere to hide.
Flash of light. Then the explosion.
Woke up in reassimilation . . . Re-Sim . . . Like always, got a
drink of water, quick bite to eat, and back on the road. Lots of miles
to cover. Didn’t seem like the gamers, whoever they were, had a
curfew to worry about.
Late night, most of the younger gamers go to bed — we can
tell because the voices change — so you’d think the violent gaming
would die down. Think again. Those tend to be grownup hours.
The language, the brutality . . . we really get to see what evil lurks in
the hearts of men. Women. Grandparents. We see some cold, cold
So late night, new orders: savage sewers. We were back to the
desolate wasteland, assigned to mutant duty in the radioactive tunnels below Old Denver. At least as intelligent monsters we could
coordinate an attack on the Peacekeepers. (As usual, our minions
— the zombie undead — had to just shamble from tunnel to tunnel,
eating gamer bullets one after another. Sucked to be them.)
Mutant York had the idea of using our zombie horde as a diversion. Good call. York’s what we call a “Stop ’n’ Thinker.” Always
takes an extra microsecond to analyze before he hacks ’n’ slashes.
That’s a good quality to have on any team.
While ma-and-pa video-game addicts were shooting York’s decoys, we got Mi and Reno in behind their position. There were six
gamers playing co-op over their controllers — from the voice chatter
I caught that they were all part of the same hoity-toity country club
during the day — and we took them out quite a few times before
they figured out our strategy.
Then, the last run, those tennis moms and squash dads figured
out where our hidey-hole was and went to the locker to switch up
weapons. Flamethrowers. Ouch. They cooked us good.
As we were all roasting, skin peeling away like sheets sliding off
a bed, we could pick up their cross talk:
“Burn those mutants, Sally! Burn ’em all!”
“Hoo ha ha ha ha ha!”
“Shhhh! Don’t wake up the kids.”
“It’s so real!”
“Look at ’em twitch! I can almost smell the flesh!”
“Hey, speaking of the undead, don’t we have that PTA thing
“Toast ’em! Light those creeps up! Extra crispy!”
“No! More zombies are shuffling in!”
Sometimes the parents of teenage gamers are even more twisted
than the teenage gamers themselves.
Next to me, as we lay there smoking, flames roasting our bones,
I could hear Dakota groaning. “Owwwwwww. Owwwwwwww.
This place just sucks . . .”
She was right, to a point. Getting burned and shot and blown up
a dozen times a day has its drawbacks. On the positive side, our
health plan is great. The BlackStar Re-Sim machines run without a
hitch. They always put all the parts back in the right place.
BlackStar owns video gaming. You know that. They’re the
planet’s largest manufacturer. It’s what they do. It’s all they do. On
every continent, in every home. Hundreds — no, thousands of titles.
Everything from sims to MMO to RPG to puzzle to football to
hockey to sweet little games for sweet little kids to big open-world
butcher-fests for anyone who can legally buy the discs.
Legally buy the discs . . . Ha ha. Good one.
So that was our day. Every day. Between eight and sixteen hours
on, playing the most advanced, CPU-intensive games as the bad
guys, getting blown to smithereens. Then eight hours off. But we
never worked more than sixteen a day. Not once in all the years I’d
been running this regiment.
It makes sense to me. We had a job to do, but we need a break
from time to time. You can’t just surround yourself with all that
mayhem 24-7 and not have it twist you all up, even if it is graphically generated. No brain can take that kind of intensity.
“I hate it,” Dakota was saying that night. Man, she’d been pushing my buttons ever since she was assigned.
Reno, I think, was also fed up with her moaning. It was an
honor to be on our team. Why not act like it?
He told her, “You know, you could be a thousand other places,
Dakota. You could be a mischievous frog in fairyland adventures
or a banana peel in barbie kart or even just a lowly ghost in ultra
pacman. How boring is that? Floating the same pattern in the same
maze over and over again throughout eternity? You should be proud
to be up here with us.”
“I am,” Mi said, squeezing my arm. She likes me a lot, by the
way. She likes this team. Good fighter. Follows orders. Zero whining.
I like Mi too. What’s not to like? She’s a stud athlete, hot from
head to toe, and did I mention the ZERO WHINING part?
“Plus,” York added, “we get to play the fun games. Best weapons. Best tech. Best worlds. And we get to wipe out the gamers
almost as often as they incinerate us. We send them back to their
checkpoints with their tails tucked tight!”
“Right on!” Reno agreed, fist-bumping his buddy.
“Dead straight,” York continued. “Do other teams get to play
next-gen games? None that I know of. They give us the most wicked
bombs and vehicles and let us try to outsmart and outgun the best
players on the net.”
“That there’s a fact,” Reno said.
“But” — Dakota was used to standing up for herself, that there
was obvious — “you idiots just don’t get it, do you?”
Idiots? I started to smirk but caught myself. I should keep a
straight face. They all look up to me and act like I act. After all, I’m
senior guy around here. I’ve got a role to play, same as them. Usually
it’s combat leader. Other times it’s more like father to squabbling kids.
“Idiots?” Reno howled at Dakota.
“Right, idiots,” she repeated. “Are you too much of a meathead
to be aware of what’s going on?”
“They’re using you! BlackStar’s making a fortune off us dying
every few minutes or hours, then patching us up, then tearing us
“So?” York asked.
“Yeah, so?” Reno echoed again. “This job’s a whole lot more fun
than flipping dog burgers or asking if people want fries with their
“I couldn’t do that,” York said.
“Me neither,” Mi agreed, still clutching my arm. “By the way,
anyone check the stats lately? See whose accuracy rating now leads
all BlackStar NPCs and gamers worldwide?”
Mi rocked, no doubt about it.
That’s my girl.
There, I said it.
’Cuz she is.
Do I love Mi? Well, I sure love me.
But Miami . . . I don’t know if I can call it love. It might not be
in my programming.
Ah, WTH? Why quibble over code?
Yeah, maybe I do love her. What’s not to love? Brains, body,
those eyes . . . plus, she’s got great stats.
Welcome to battleground 7: the spawnicide. Team Phoenix
playing the part of the shipwrecked extraterrestrial tribal horde.
Mostly human, we had big insect parasites embedded in our bleeding eyes. Mi still looked totally hot, even with the antennae coming
through both nostrils and thorax deforming her freckled cheeks.
The asteroid mining colony was all burned out. The only things
left were their abandoned machinery, settlements, and drilling rigs.
As bad bugs, we were supposed to also have mind-control powers, but so far, none of them had worked. No matter what spell we
chanted or fierce stare of cranial dominance we tried, the enemy
would not just put down their weapons and let us bite off their
The gamers, well, they were next-gen human infantry with
superior weapons and hypersonic hovercycles. Their laser-sighted
smart bullets could curve around walls, barricades, and cruise right
into our basement headquarters.
It’d been hard to escape that opening-scene bloodbath, but we
got out. Through the alleyways. Across the molten river. There we
found a couple of half tracks and motored across open asteroid to
our next rendezvous point.
Right now, about eight of us were holed up on an oil derrick
platform in the center of a rock plateau. Bad place to be, but at least
we had hostages.
That’s right. Live captives. What a game element. Along one
wall, we’d come across a dozen of the gamers’ squad. Sure, they
might just have been foot soldiers, but they were ours now. Some
other NPCs had trapped them, disarmed the whole bunch, and
then gotten creative. The jailers were long gone, but they’d left us
We’d found the men up here, suffering. Still kicking. They were
strapped to the wall with heavy chains, and someone had obviously
been asking hard questions. Evidence of torture was everywhere.
As soon as the gamers on our trail found this place, well, we knew
they’d blame us. We’d take the rap for this little house o’ horrors.
All of the captive men were still in their issue gear. Flak jackets.
Some had helmets. Some wore their boots, while a few had scorched
bare feet. The only consistent feature was that each of them, one
after another, had had his right hand hacked off just above the wrist.
And it was not a messy job. No, the cuts were clean, like sliced
with big teeth. Then someone had used barbed wire to form a tourniquet. Still, whether the amputations had been for information or
snack purposes, the neat wounds matched each other.
Man, in this heat, those must have hurt.
There wasn’t much we could do. Put a bullet in each of them?
No, not yet. We could use the collateral. The gamers were no more
than a click or two away.
Mi wasn’t fazed a bit. She’d seen worse. If anything, she didn’t
much like the prisoners being underfoot as we strung up our defenses. Claymores guarded the entryways. Tripwires crisscrossed approach gaps. It was all about covering weak areas and finding ways
to whittle down the odds.
At one point, though, she was back at my side. Felt just right
under my arm. Like our bodies had been carved as puzzle pieces
that were a flush-perfect fit. Not only our bodies, you know, but our
minds. The way we thought. The way we fought.
Her fingers came up, picked off a piece of scrap or something
that had stuck to my forehead. I saw it again, like I always did — she
didn’t opt for shooting gloves in desert environments — I saw the
branding tattoo that wrapped around her palm and the back of her
hand. An artistic loop. The string of holographic slashes and dashes.
Blue ink that was etched into her skin. Like a bar code, only with
curved lines. Different thicknesses. Swirling and dancing, woven in
a 3-D helix. A striking mark. Maybe ten thousand swipes of the tattoo gun, glowing that faint blue, beautiful as LED-powered holiday
And that’s when Dakota walked into the holding room dragging a burlap bag. A drippy burlap bag.
“I found ’em,” she told us all.
“The gamer attack team?” Mi asked, turning to the window,
hoisting her sniper rifle.
“No, Mi. For the stumps. I found their hands.”
“From our prisoners? So what?”
“I think we can still match ’em back up.”
“What? Why? ”
There was a grate, a trapdoor, in the center of the room that
opened onto the asteroid surface thirty feet below. Dakota started
kicking debris down there, making space to work. Then, one by
one, she pulled the severed paws from the bag and lined them up so
that she could look at each, then up at the string of men who were
chained to the wall.
A pile of right hands. A dozen handless men. It was almost like
one of those draw-a-line sheets where you match the chicken or the
cow with the house it lives in.
She moved the palest limb to position three. It matched the
third guy’s skin tone.
The bigger one with the tribal ink probably belonged to number ten. That left a freckled one. She put that over in front of the
We all watched her. What on this barren world was she doing?
No one moved as Dakota just kept at it. Trying to put the correct hand back in line with the correct mangled limb.
I finally walked over. It looked like the gamers had hit pause or
something, so we had a few minutes, but this was not the way to
spend it. This was useless.
We heard a scratch at the door, then a slight whimper. There
was an animal out there on the railings. Reno moved over to look
through the hatch.
“Dog,” he said.
“Duh,” Mi needled him.
But Dakota kept going. I picked up one of the hands, and you
know what I saw. It was so near-perfect that it was almost as human
as the hand in front of your face right now. Still, you could tell.
If they could someday make these environments indistinguishable
from reality? Who knew what they’d do? Still, there are always minute glitches. Take these hands. Sure, they looked exactly right, but
maybe the weight was off a little or the skin tone was too perfect.
Was the blood running after it should have dried? Did the bone
shards feel as sharp as bone actually feels? What about the hairs, or
the texture? Sticky? Not dry enough? It can be tough to tell, but you
can still tell.
Dakota put the darkest-skinned hand in front of the black man.
A tanned one was placed with a guy who looked like a surfer; he had
long, shaggy hair under his helmet.
One after another. The men moaned. They moved. The pain
was still intense. None really acknowledged her work, though.
She scraped her fingers in the bottom of the bag. “I’m missing
one,” she announced.
No matter. Nothing she could do. Then, one at a time — and
we all watched, still wondering why waste her effort — she took a
matched hand and walked it over. With a gentle shove, she tried to
work it back in place on the soldier’s arm.
Of course it didn’t stick. Or weld. Or melt on. C’mon, these
wars are realistic to the last detail. All it did was make the soldier
jerk back in pain. What could she have been thinking? Certainly
not about our mission.
Scratch, scratch, that dog really wanted in.
Reno opened the door. The animal trotted in, a mangy black
cur that probably hadn’t eaten in a week. Which was why, we knew,
that final missing hand in his mouth was a fine catch.
He had the last limb. And he went over into one corner, sat
down, and began licking and gnawing on it.
“Nice detail,” York snarked. “There’s always a mangy dog licking the wrong thing.”
But Dakota would have none of that. No, that hand seemed to
belong to her.
She jumped at the dog. It growled, and I wondered what
would come next. Along that far wall, twelve men — eleven with
their hands back at their sides, one without — also watched her every move.
It wasn’t like she could cure the combatants, right? The mission
profile had nothing to do with playing medic. None ever did. We
were probably going to kill them all when the next attack came anyway. Those gamers weren’t going to leave it on pause forever. They
wouldn’t let all these low-level online combatants stay captive. The
game had to move along. Objectives had to be met.
The dog growled again. Dakota growled back. She reached for
the hand suddenly, trying to catch the dog off guard, but the beast
coiled and snapped. It crawled deeper into the corner with its fangs
between its tasty meal and Dakota’s approach.
“Gimme some food,” she said. “I’ll distract it with some food.”
“It already has something to eat,” Mi corrected her, shrugging.
“Damn, girl, what is up with you?”
Then Mi did what we’d all thought of doing first. Well, not
Mi walked over, chambered a shotgun shell, and blew the dog’s
Brains spattered the wall, but she didn’t even break stride, reaching down for the hand. Casually, she tossed the thing at Dakota.
“There, OK? You better get it together, D. Keep this up and
you’ll get sent down for sure.”
Dakota, the sagging appendage in her hand, just stared back.
Then she went over and placed it by the final hostage.
And that’s when the gamers attacked.
Rocket shells flew through the windows. Grenades bounced up
through the trapdoor. Over our heads, an Apache space chopper
rained hell in the form of 34mm mini-gun tracers.
My team was quick, returning fire. Even Dakota.
Reno, York, me, Jevo, the rest of the crew: we poured lead down
on the exposed gamers. We had position, and they had a rescue mission to complete.
All except Mi. Through the smoke I caught a glimpse of her
walking along the soldiers, kicking their reclaimed hands one by
one at the hole. She watched them drop and bounce off the rocks
An hour later, traps exhausted, caught in multiple crossfires, we
lost our rear wall. After that, they cleaned us up pretty quick.
I took a bullet in one ear. On its way out, it cleaned wax from
my other ear as well. But we all went down fighting, ’cuz that’s what
I woke up with a headache like you could not believe. At first I
thought the Re-Sim blades had forgotten to close a door on my
skull plate or something, but when I ran my fingers over my head,
everything was intact.
The pain, though, was intense. It was just over my right eye,
to the side, in that soft gap where it feels like you can push in and
touch the edge of your cornea. The temple is a tender spot. Trust
me, you don’t ever want to get punched there.
If only this felt like just a punch. But no, it was burning, more
like a cyst or growth, pulsing and cheesing and building up explosive pus. It throbbed as if it might pop.
Then, right in the corner of that eye. I saw it. But I knew I didn’t
see it. Ever get an eyelash stuck and it looks like a shadow? This was
no shadow, it was a sign. A road sign. Like a memory or glimpse,
but even as clear as it got, I knew it wasn’t really there. When I
turned my head, it turned too. It was just something stuck in my
field of vision.
In the rest of my line of sight was Dakota, bouncing off her
table. Mi was getting up too, and it didn’t escape me that her hand
went to the same side of her head. Clutching the spot. As if someone had driven a heated knitting needle as deep as they could push
Reno, York, Jevo, the others. Wincing. Like bright lights had
pierced a dark sleep.
I tried to focus.
I tried to see what was on that sign, but it was fading. It was
probably just a leftover image from the mission. Maybe the name of
the oil derrick or the colony or . . .
No. It wasn’t that.
Not at all. This was something new. Something I’d never seen
What it read, I realized as the image and the pain quickly faded,
entering phoenix, arizona
take another step and you will be shot
On Sale: January 6, 2015
Humiliation in the face of the opposite gender was an
unfortunate plague he’d simply had to get used to, like high
milk prices, or the continued existence of the Kardashians.
Seventeen-year-old Max Kilgore has a name that makes
him sound cooler than he really is. He’s always been a
geeky, squeaky-clean kid . . . until the day he commits
a minor theft. This misdeed summons a devil to Max’s
basement, and the TV-watching, junk-food-crazy red guy
won’t leave until his demands are met. Max makes a deal
with the devil to save his sick mother, but it looks like all
the Cheetos in the world won’t keep the malicious fiend
from hurting people Max loves. How can he get rid of the
guy without incurring the wrath of hell?
Max’s life of crime started poorly, with the theft of a glittery
pink bobblehead in the shape of a cat.
His boss had burst out of the back room moments earlier. “For-
est-green Honda Civic license BNR one seven five!” she yelled in a
heavy Greek accent as she waddled out the door of the small convenience store, chest heaving and dyed-red bouffant hairdo bouncing.
Stavroula Papadopoulos was neither young nor physically fit, but
she hadn’t let a gas-and-dasher go without a fight for well on thirty
years, and she wasn’t about to start.
Max’s gaze followed her bobbing hair to the abandoned gas
pump but got hijacked by the cat, sitting in all its glory next to the
cash register. He could hardly believe his luck.
It’s breathtaking, he thought.
In actuality, the thing was hideous — poorly made, terrible
paint job, practically falling apart. Stavroula must have ordered it
from one of those crappy gift store catalogs she was so fond of. Max
normally would never have dreamed of taking it, no matter how
much irresistible enchantment it exuded, but something strange
had come over him. One minute it was sitting there on the counter,
all smug and catlike and made in China, and the next it was in his
hands, the glitter already beginning to coat his palms.
He wiped his hands on his stiff blue employee vest — then,
realizing that this was only incriminating him further, he turned
the vest inside out and put it back on. The cat he rammed into his
backpack, its head nodding up and down as if to say Yessiree, I’m
Sweat started to seep through Max’s T-shirt. His hands were
shaking, his stomach queasy. He told himself to knock it off, to sack
up already. This was not the sort of behavior befitting a felon.
He was a hardened criminal now, and it was time to start acting
Seventeen-year-old Max Kilgore suffered from the unfortunate curse
of having a name that was far cooler than the person it was attached
to. Max Kilgore evoked images of Bruce Willis mowing down every
law enforcement officer in Los Angeles with a single machine gun,
then lassoing a helicopter, stealing the Hollywood sign, and blowing up an army of cyborgs, all in the name of Vengeance.
But the real Max Kilgore was not one to break the rules. He
did his homework every night. He never talked in class. He obeyed
every bicycle traffic rule in the bicycle traffic rule book — which he
had requested from the library and read cover to cover, lest God
forbid he ever be pulled over by a police officer, a thought that made
him want to vomit up a kidney or two. Trouble was something that
kids with piercings and sculpted calf muscles got into, and as he had
neither, he toed the line like a perpetually paranoid parolee.
As far as Max could tell, this phobia didn’t stem from any trau-
matic events in his childhood, which had been relatively happy.
His father had exited the picture long ago, being a “rotten hippie”
his mother had slept with “on a dare” and had soon after kicked
out of the house owing to his “lack of deodorizing and parenting
skills.” His mother had picked up the slack just fine, raising him
as if single parenthood were as natural to her as breathing clean,
Of course, Max had made it easy for her, well-behaved as he
was. And until his sophomore year they’d been doing okay on their
own, just the two of them. Now life was a bit harder. Now, instead
of paying real American dollars for a plastic animal with eyes
facing in two different directions and ears that looked as if they’d
been designed by someone who had never seen a cat firsthand, he
had to break the law and steal it.
And not even in the name of Vengeance.
The sound of jingling bells snapped Max to attention as Stavroula
returned to the store, a flood of Greek words — probably of the
swearing sort — gushing out of her mouth. “Second one this week,”
she spat. “I leave old country for this? Headaches and scoundrels?”
“Headaches and scoundrels” was Stavroula’s favorite phrase —
Max heard her utter it three or four times over the course of each
of his shifts at the Gas Bag — and with it came a pang of guilt at
the thought of stealing from her. Grouchy though she may be,
Stavroula had given him a job when he’d needed it most, and he
knew it wasn’t easy for her to have taken over her husband’s business when he’d died a few years earlier.
But it was only a small pang. One he could live with.
“Bah!” She threw her hands up in the air, still vexed. “Tomorrow
I buy shotgun.”
The fear of getting caught was interfering with Max’s ability to
speak properly. “You said that last week,” he said, his voice cracking.
“Last week I buy pistol. This week I buy shotgun.”
“What we really need is a trained velociraptor.”
She made the same face she always made at his dinosaur refer-
ences, then frowned, leaning in on the counter until he could see
each and every whisker above her lip. “I hate thieves.” She narrowed
her eyes. “I despise thieves.”
She knows, he thought with a rush of terror, cat-shaped spots
flying across his vision. She knows, and she’s going to call the police,
and I’m going to go to jail, and I’ll need to figure out how to use
cigarettes as currency or I’ll become someone’s bitch — oh, who am I
kidding, I’ll become someone’s bitch no matter what —
Just when Max was sure the sweat accumulating on his fore-
head was about to cascade down his face in a majestic, disgusting
waterfall, Stavroula pounded a fist on the counter. “Restock the
Max exhaled, taking great pains not to emit a nervous honk as
he did so. “The Slim Jims, you mean?”
“Is what I said. Thin Jims.”
Perhaps cheerfulness would mask the foul stench of wrong-
doing. “You got it!” he chirped.
As he crouched down to retrieve the last remaining box of Slim
Jims from beneath the counter — Audie was going to be so pissed —
he pushed the incriminating cat farther into his backpack, and only
once it was out of sight did his pulse begin to settle back into a normal rate. You’re fine, you’re fine, he chanted to himself, to the beat of
his heart. You were out of the security camera’s line of sight, and she
wasn’t even in her office watching anyway, and even if she was, she
stopped watching those tapes once the Booze Hound retired. You’re
Meanwhile, Stavroula took out her iPhone and dialed the police
station. “Hello, Rhonda? Yes, we get another one. No, I no break
windshield this time —”
She rattled off the numbers of the license plate all the way back
to her office and slammed the door shut. Relieved, Max ran a hand
over his drenched forehead and into his ridiculous hair, which was
black and short except for the front, which stuck out over his forehead like an awning at a Parisian café. Old people liked to say that
it was “hair you could set your watch to,” whatever that meant. Max
just took it to mean that his head was permanently shaped like a
batting helmet and there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
Although he was beginning to recover most of his faculties,
he still felt on edge. As if he could be struck down at any moment
by God, or whichever deity it was that handled knickknack
His cell phone vibrated.
Max’s eyes bulged. Is it the police? Did they somehow see what I
did? Do police make courtesy calls before they arrest people?
He watched it dance across the counter, a beige, bricklike plas-
tic thing designed exclusively for the elderly, with gigantic glowing
numbers and a frustrating lack of caller ID. There wasn’t really
room in his budget for a phone at all, but the situation with his
mother required that he be reachable at all times.
His shaking hand knocked against the counter as he picked up
the Beige Wonder, wishing yet again that he’d had enough money
to afford a communication device that wasn’t a glorified coconut
radio. “Hello?” he said tentatively.
“You got the stuff?” a gruff voice answered.
It wasn’t the police. Or a supreme being. Though maybe Audie
did have a little bit of divinity in her — how else could she sense
that Max was restocking the Slim Jims at that very moment? “Sorry,
Aud, I can’t spare any this week,” Max said, ripping the cardboard
open. “It’s our last box. I’ll have to reorder.”
“So reorder, punk!” his best friend replied, punching every
word with a blast of pure concentrated glee. If Audie were candy,
she’d be a bag of Skittles: bright, shiny, and bursting with real fruit
Max, on the other hand, would be a bowl of stale licorice, bland
and unwanted. “I don’t like reordering,” said Max, waving his large
hands about. “The customer service guy is named Izzy, and he’s
really awkward, and every time we lapse into an uncomfortable
silence, I end up saying, ‘It isn’t easy, is it, Izzy?’ and it just devolves
“Yeah,” Audie said, deadpan. “Izzy sounds like a real freak.”
“I know, right?”
Audie let out a sprightly sigh, no doubt twisting her fingers
through her spiky dreads as she always did when her patience was
being tested. People said she looked like a cross between Rihanna
and a palm tree, but to Max she’d always be the girl next door who
made him eat a worm when they were six, then a firefly when they
were seven. He swore for weeks that it made his pee glow, until
the day she demanded he prove it and the topic was mysteriously
“Anyway,” she said, “you coming to the game?”
Max cleared his throat and looked down, pretending to count
the pennies in the take-a-penny tray, even though Audie couldn’t
see him. “I can’t.”
“Come on, man,” she whined, a twinge of hurt in her voice.
“You haven’t come to a single game this season! What are you so
busy doing on Friday nights? And don’t say you got a hot date —”
“I do have a hot date.”
“With someone who hasn’t been dead for seventy million
“Hey, I’ll have you know that with recent 3D imaging, Ichthyo-
saurus communis is more alive than ever!”
“Talk like the Discovery Channel all you want, but a book of
fossils and a tub of plaster does not an orgy make.”
“Gross, Aud.” Max reddened as he glanced at the smutty maga-
zine rack behind the counter, then switched to his reflection in the
window. With his big brown eyes and thin, pointy nose, he could
easily be mistaken for a barn owl. Audie liked to assure him that
there were plenty of girls who would go for that sort of look —
Gaunt British Standup Comedian, she called it — but always with
the caveat that he wouldn’t be encountering such girls until he got
to college and joined the Science Society, or “whatever it is that
lamewads congregate in.”
“A gaggle of geeks?” Max often suggested.
“A warp of nerds?” Audie would counter.
“A woot of dweebs?”
“A bunch of virgins?”
And so forth.
He returned the Slim Jims to the shelf under the counter. Of
course he’d save them for her; he always did.
“I’m just sayin’,” Audie was just saying, “if you can’t master the
art of small talk with a jerky meat salesman, you’re never going to
be able to manage it with a lady.”
“You make a variety of fine points.”
Audie yelled at someone in the background, then came back to
the phone. “Gotta run. Thanks for the laughs. Come to the game.”
“Goodbye. You’re welcome. Can’t, but good luck.”
Audie muttered a sarcastic “Can’t” as she hung up.
“Sorry,” Max said to the dead phone.
And he was sorry. But a date was a date.
He dug around in his backpack — ignoring, for the moment,
the demonic glassy-eyed cat — until he found his crossword book
and a pen. He readied his digital watch, a cheap glob of rubber and
plastic emblazoned with the Jurassic Park logo. He never took it off,
for two reasons: (1) it had been a semi-ironic eleventh birthday gift
from his mother and his tweenage self had solemnly sworn to her
that he’d never remove it; and (2) he had since repurposed it into his
own personal crossword timing device. And okay, there was a third
reason: he secretly really loved it.
His current crossword record stood at twelve puzzles in six
hours. He triggered the countdown timer, narrowed his eyes, and
set his voice to movie trailer voice-over mode.
“Let’s DO this.”
Six hours and eight crossword puzzles later, the watch alarm
beeped. Max threw his pen to the counter and pounded his fist on
the rumpled book. “Damn you, Thirty-two Down! Roast ye in the
fiery bowls of HELL!”
After composing himself, he packed everything into his back-
pack and picked it up gingerly, not wanting to ignite a glitter storm.
He was so close to pulling off the cat heist.
He tried to keep the waver out of his voice as he yelled to the
back room. “I’m heading out, Stavroula!”
The door opened. Stavroula emerged and approached the coun-
ter. “Sure you don’t want to stay till close? I pay you overtime! You
save up for car? Take nice girl out?”
“No thanks.” He made a beeline for the exit lest she spontane-
ously develop x-ray vision and demand that he empty the contents
of his bag. “Any other night I would, you know that.”
“Psff,” he heard her huff as he left. “You and your precious
Once he rounded the corner and unlocked his bike, Max let out
a final sigh of relief. He’d gotten away with it. “The purr-fect crime,”
he whispered, followed by a strong urge to punch himself.
The town of Eastville was known for four things: its renowned
hospital, its renowned high school football team, its renowned
granite quarry, and its stupid, stupid name. No one could say with
authority what Eastville was supposed to be east of, as it was located
in a fairly nondescript area far from the highway, in the wilds of
Western Massachusetts — west of Boston, west of Springfield, west
of anything significant. The only thing it was east of was a big, ugly
hill (known locally and affectionately as Ugly Hill) that was covered
in a variety of shrubs and brambles that looked brown in the summer and browner in the winter. They didn’t even glitter prettily in
the snow, because snow didn’t bother to stick to them. It recoiled
from their thistles in disgust.
Max threw a glance at the hill as he pedaled through town,
surprised at his ability to perceive its outline. Normally E’ville was
anything but bright, but owing to the lights of the football stadium
bouncing off the low clouds in the sky, it was as if a dome had
encased the town in a glowing, reddish hue.
The crisp September air bit at his face. A loud cheer mush-
roomed up out of O’Connell Stadium as he rode past, and there was
Audie’s voice, booming out of the speakers. In the school’s hundred-year history, there had never been a female football announcer
at Eastville High — not until the day Audie marched up to the athletic director and flashed that irresistible smile of hers, informing
him that she was going to be on ESPN one day, and if he ever hoped
to score some tickets to the Super Bowl, he’d give her the job.
He gave her the job.
“And what will you be, young man?” Max muttered to himself
in a spot-on imitation of Audie’s mother.
A convict, he imagined the cat meowing from inside his bag.
It’s death row for you, bub. You’ll probably get the chair. I’m a very
important cat. Back on my home planet, I was a queen, I tell you! A
Max was not adapting well to the criminal life.
He rounded into the parking lot of the Food Baron, stopped in
front of the exit, and looked at his watch. It was 9:03 p.m., the T. rex
skeleton informed him. He took exactly $4.81 out of his pocket and
Two seconds later the automatic door swished open. Out poked
a sweating bottle of sparkling apple cider. Max exchanged it for the
money, then expertly slid it into his bag.
“Hey, Paul,” he said to the person formerly attached to the cider,
a short, pimple-faced kid wearing a Food Baron apron.
“Hey yourself,” was the standard reply.
Paul had been the only other student to show up for Mr. Don-
nelly’s after-school Paleontology Club last year, an endeavor that
had clearly been doomed from the start. (Even Mr. Donnelly
hadn’t cared enough to show up.) The two of them had chatted
and exchanged their favorite geologic periods — Jurassic for Max,
Cretaceous for Paul — and from then on had sat at lunch together
every day. Slowly, accidentally, Paul became Max’s friend, or at
least served as a decent pinch-hitter friend once Audie got too
And it was a good thing, too, because Paul looked even more
the part of a dweeb than Max did. A curly-haired ginger, he possessed glasses that wouldn’t have been out of place at a nursing
home, and a bucktoothed overbite fighting an epic battle against a
complicated set of braces. But Paul was a nice kid, if a little dull, and
his propensity to repeat the same word over and over sometimes got
“Busy night?” Max asked.
“I’ll say. We got a big squash shipment, but the squash was really
dirty, so I had to wash each squash.”
“Oh my gosh.”
“Do you want to buy a freshly washed squash?”
“No, thanks, I’m good with the cider. Have a good night!”
The errands continued. Max hung a left onto Main Street — the
founders of Eastville had apparently expended every drop of their
creative juices on the town name — and biked past the dark storefronts, most businesses having closed early because of the football
game. Only a couple of them were still open — a quirky gift shop
whose owners cared nothing for sports, and a pizzeria, in front of
which Max came to a practiced stop.
“Hi, Mario,” he said with a nod as he entered.
Mario the pizza guy — who clearly adored being Mario the
pizza guy, and at the insistence of some local Nintendo aficionados had additionally gone to great lengths to resemble Mario the
video game character — smiled through his bushy mustache and
opened the oven. Max hadn’t even needed to place an order; that
large cheese pizza was already waiting for him, just as it was every
Friday night at 9:05 p.m.
He paid for the pie and then — because he was still coasting on
the high of his successful theft and feeling really crazy — added an
order of onion rings.
Mario’s eyebrows went up. “Big night?”
Max stuffed the onion rings into his bag. “You have no idea.”
The squat ranch-style house that awaited Max was its usual dark
and foreboding self, the kind of unkempt pile of shingles and shutters that neighborhood kids sometimes likened to the abode of a
witch. Its once-white aluminum siding had long ago turned a sickly
shade of brown. The lawn was overgrown and scorched yellow in
the late-summer heat; Audie’s father often threatened to fine Max
for not mowing it, but only in jest, as it made his own lawn look all
the more pristine by comparison.
The backyard was another story altogether.
Max flipped open the mailbox to find two bills and a DVD. He
scowled at the bills, but the DVD lit a tiny, happy spark inside him.
He grinned, tossed all the mailbox’s contents into his backpack, and
walked up the driveway.
His cat — a real one named Ruckus, not the stolen plastic
atrocity — greeted him at the door by way of hissing and swiping at every available inch of skin, as Ruckus’s favorite hobby was
climbing atop the refrigerator and dive-bombing hapless kitchen
entrants until they were forced, bleeding and broken, to retreat.
“Ow!” Max shouted, then immediately shushed himself. Red, puffy
scratch marks were already popping up from his skin. “Out of
my way, spawn of Satan,” he whispered, swatting the orange furball away.
Two plastic champagne flutes, the bottle of cider, a pile of paper
plates, and the onion rings all got piled on top of the pizza box as
Max headed into the hallway. He stopped in front of the first door
on the right, then, struck by an idea, put everything on the floor and
pulled the bobblehead out of his bag instead.
He opened the door a crack and stuck the misshapen pink head
in. “Mrow!” he squeaked.
“Ruckus, is that you?” the voice inside said. “My — my God,
what have you done to yourself? You got a makeover! Let’s see, I’m
sensing exfoliation, sequin implants, corrective eyeball surgery, and
is that . . . decapitation?”
“Mrow.” Max made the cat nod, bouncing its spring-loaded
head back and forth.
“Well, dahling, you look stunning. Only a matter of time before
Bravo gives you your own show. You’ll be the most intelligent thing
on the network.”
Max snickered, entered the room, and leaned over the rails of
the hospital bed to give his mother a kiss. “You like it?”
“It’s breeeeathtaking,” she said in a perfect imitation of the ridic-
ulous way the ladies on QVC said it, her eyes sparkling in jarring
contrast to the rest of her. Bulging collarbone, pale skin, sunken
cheeks — she looked even thinner than she had when Max kissed
her goodbye before school that morning, he thought.
But he didn’t let his face show it. “I thought you might,” he said,
handing her the cat.
“Look! No matter where I move it, still it stares,” she said in awe,
holding it at different angles. “Where on earth did you get this?”
He hoped to sound nonchalant when he said, “Work.”
She frowned and placed the cat on her nightstand. It joined an
old-school beeper, plus a troll doll, some sort of unicorn-as-angel
figurine, and a one-eyed koala dressed as a princess, each kitschy
monstrosity more breeeathtaking than the last. That Goodwill Store
had been a treasure-trove until it closed a couple of months earlier,
transforming into an upscale boutique where even the chintziest
snow globes were out of Max’s price range.
“I hope it didn’t cost too much,” she said. “Stavroula give you a
He nodded, for once thankful for the hair shelf that shielded his
eyes. “Yep. Big one.”
“Or maybe you stole it.” Every one of Max’s muscles seized,
until he realized she was joking. “Maybe you’re secretly the Booze
Hound,” she teased. “Robbing all those liquor stores, getting sloshed
every night right under my nose.”
“Ha!” Max laughed forcefully. “Yeah right, Mom.”
That was too close. Quick, distract her with dairy.
He retrieved the pizza from the hall and placed it on the bed
next to her blanketed legs. “Let the Petty Pizza Pity Party . . . commence,” he said, opening the box.
His mom breathed in deeply, then moaned. “Crack. Pure crack.
And — sakes alive, onion rings? I’m in heaven. Wait — have I died
and gone to heaven and I don’t even know it? Is this a Sixth Sense
situation we’ve got going on here?”
Max snickered, poured the cider into the plastic flutes, and
sank into the ratty armchair beside the bed. “How was your day?”
“Oh, thrill-a-minute,” she said bitterly, helping herself to a slice
and a ring, one in each hand. “What would you like to hear about,
the newest Bowflex infomercial? Or the latest shipment of bimbos
on The Price Is Right? Or — funny story — the time I got up to brush
my teeth but all of a sudden felt so weak I dropped my toothbrush
in the toilet?”
“You dropped your toothbrush in the toilet?”
“Yeah. Which reminds me — I need you to get my toothbrush
out of the toilet.”
He took a bite of pizza. “Will do.”
She slurped up a wad of cheese and gave him a sad smile. “Oh,
Maxter. What would I do without you?”
Chronic heart failure wasn’t nearly as much fun as the name
implied. Max’s mom was young — she’d had him when she was
only a few years older than he was now — so a viral infection was
the only explanation the doctors had been able to come up with.
She had survived the virus, but her heart just barely squeaked by,
and she’d been in a state of decline ever since. As a nurse, she’d at
least been able to handle her own medication, but she and Max both
knew that she was past the point of getting any better.
Her former colleagues begged her to stay at the hospital, but
she always refused. (“Yeah, like I want half my coworkers coming
in to gawk at my emaciated body and trade small talk. ‘Come on in,
Phil, grab an IV pole and let’s get this party started!’ ”) Confident,
stubborn, and fiercely independent, she’d spent the last two ailing
years retreating from society, not wanting anyone but her son to see
her in such a weakened and pathetic state. Her parents had thrown
her out of the house when she’d gotten pregnant with him, and she
hadn’t been in contact with any members of her family for years, so
she’d learned not to rely on anyone but herself.
Max had not minded the added responsibility of caring for his
mom; she’d done it for him by herself for so many years, he certainly owed her the same courtesy. But when he wasn’t kept up all
night by the idea of her going into sudden cardiac arrest, he was
ceaselessly worrying about the financial strain. Every moment he
wasn’t in school he was at work at the gas station, forgoing any and
all extracurricular activities and socializing, should he ever discover what that word meant. He was barely able to put food on the
table and pay the heating bills every week, let alone cover his mom’s
medical expenses, to say nothing of the desperately needed heart
transplant they’d never be able to afford.
He glanced at the beeper on her nightstand, the one that would
send an alert from the hospital should a spare organ ever drop into
their lives. It hadn’t gone off yet, though, and Max had all but given
up hope that it ever would.
“So, what’s playing tonight?” his mom asked, going in for a sec-
ond slice. She really wasn’t supposed to be eating all that cheese,
but when she’d threatened to set herself ablaze at the thought of
a life devoid of mozzarella, her doctors had agreed to exactly two
slices per week. Which translated, in her opinion, to four. “If John
Cusack’s involved, I’ll have to brush my hair first.” She combed her
fingers through a flat, lifeless strand, then snorted. “Provided I can
still hold a comb.”
Max shook his head. “You’re too good for John Cusack, Mom.
The guy hasn’t put out a decent movie in years.”
“You bite your tongue, young man. Say Anything . . . ? Lloyd
Dobler standing outside the bedroom window with the boom box?
John Cusack is one of America’s finest — what’s that?”
When he’d pulled the DVD out of his bag, one of the overdue
bills had come with it. He stuffed it back in. “Nothing.”
It’s only a second warning, he thought. They don’t cut the elec-
tricity until after the final one.
“Hey, here’s a question for you,” he said brightly, holding up
the DVD. “What happens when two hopelessly romantic business
rivals hate each other in real life but fall in love over the Internet?”
Her eyes lit up. “You’ve Got Mail!”
She clapped as he popped it into the DVD player. “Oh, Max,
you’re the best. You have no idea how much I needed this.”
Cheesy romantic comedies put the “petty” in their weekly Petty
Pizza Pity Parties, for reasons that soon became obvious.
“Die, Meg Ryan!” Max’s mom shouted at the screen as the
actress flounced around her children’s bookstore. “Get crushed
underneath a bookcase of Harry Potters and DIE.”
“Won’t work,” Max said. “Her perkiness will save her.”
“And yet, inexplicably, Tom Hanks will only find her all the
more charming.” She narrowed her eyes. “What a loser. Living on a
boat. Boat hobo.”
“Mom, you’re the only person on the planet who hates Tom
“Good,” she said, peeling blobs of cheese off the bottom of the
pizza box. “Then I get to be the one who slays him.”
They continued to rip the movie to shreds, with analyses both
profound (“You know why he needs to make friends on the Internet? Because in person, women keep laughing at him when they
see the size of his —” “Mom, stop.”); vindictive (“She’s faking that
cold. No one looks that cute when they’re gushing mucus.”); and
cruel (“ ‘Daisies are the friendliest flower’? Who talks like that, other
than people with brain damage?”). Max joined in on the barbs,
even though he sometimes secretly liked those kinds of movies.
They always had happy endings, a precious commodity that was not
guaranteed in real life.
Plus, Tom Hanks gave him hope. The man’s head looked like a
loaded baked potato, yet he always got the girl in the end.
When at last “The End” was typed out on the screen and a cur-
sor hovered over it and clicked it away (“Lame.”), Max rubbed his
eyes and stood up. His mom leaned back into her pillows with a
“Thanks, hon,” she said, squeezing his hand. “You did good.”
“I try.” He picked up the pizza box and his backpack, then
leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. “Night, Mom. Love you.”
“Love you too, babe,” she said, her eyes already fluttering.
“Thanks again for the mutant cat.”
Max snickered and closed the door behind him. He thought for
a moment about heading into the basement to log some hours on
the Xbox in the hopes that he might one day beat Audie at Madden,
but the tendrils of a headache were beginning to spread through
his skull, worming into the spaces behind his eyes. He told himself
this was due to the stress of stealing the cat. Definitely not from the
effort of holding in tears at the end of the movie.
Look, he couldn’t help it. Tom and Meg were just too
When he got to his bedroom, he dropped his backpack to the
floor, the overdue bills along with it. He’d deal with them tomorrow.
Or, rather, he’d check the family bank account balance, confirm
that there wasn’t enough money in it to pay said bills, and throw
them into the garbage bin tomorrow.
He fell into bed but couldn’t sleep. He stared out his window at
the perfect view of Ugly Hill that it provided, but its blahness only
depressed him more. The familiar refrain of what am I gonna do,
what am I gonna do ran through his head like a stampede of collection agency wildebeests. One concern led to another, a chain reaction with no end in sight.
Well, there was one end — but he didn’t want to think about
He tossed and turned, yet sleep refused to come. He watched
the clock on his nightstand flip over, one minute at a time — 2:59,
3:00, 3:01 — until finally, unable to endure another minute of worry,
he got dressed and grabbed his shovel.
Max was outside in less than a minute, wearing his crummiest
pair of jeans and a jacket that was far too thin for how chilly it had
gotten. Not that there was any danger of getting lost and dying of
exposure out there; he knew the overgrown hiking trails of Ugly
Hill by heart. Everyone in E’ville did, as it was the only halfway
decent place to make out. Or do more than make out.
Or, in Max’s case, dig holes.
Aside from being notably hideous, Ugly Hill had one additional
claim to fame: about ten years prior, a paleontology team from Harvard University had discovered a rare fossil beneath its ugly dirt. It
was so rare they hadn’t been able to identify it, and as far as Max
knew — since he had periodically emailed Dr. Cavendish, the professor and expedition leader, about it — they were still stumped a
The discovery garnered a lot of attention when it happened —
Eastville even made the national news for a day or two. But once
the excitement died away, any and all scientific interest went with
it. The original discoverers had been a team of bored undergrads
who thought Paleontology 101 would be an easy A and had already
moved on with their lives, and the few honest-to-God paleontologists who showed up to properly search the area ended up finding
nothing but more ugly dirt and a bunch of used condoms. So everyone gave up on it.
Except for Max.
The discovery had come at the height of his childhood obses-
sion with dinosaurs, and it had lit such a fuse within him that he
made it his goal in life to keep the investigation alive. So intent was
he on finding The Next Big Fossil that he trudged up the hill every
chance he got, shovel in hand, and dug until calluses formed on
his fingers and his clothes were soaked with perspiration. He never
found anything, but he liked digging, and the thrill of possibility
was enough to keep him coming back. Of course, with his mother’s
health problems, he hadn’t been able to return as much over the
past couple of years, but every once in a while he still went up there
for old times’ sake.
Or, increasingly, to vent some pent-up frustration.
So it was from the top of Ugly Hill that Max planted his shovel,
sank it deep into the ground, and dug. He went at it for a solid hour,
muscles screaming, cones of dirt piling up around him as he tried
out different spots. The wind stung at his sweaty face, but it felt
amazing, and the aches in his arms were good aches — they took
away his cares and worries, one knot at a time.
Max shone his keychain flashlight down into the hole he’d just
made. Seeing nothing, he put the light back in his pocket, chose
another spot, and started all over again. In, out, in, out, in —
In . . .
In . . . ?
The shovel kept right on going, swallowed by the earth, almost
up to its handle. Max lost his balance and stumbled forward, catching himself at the last second — just before the ground started to
He let out a shout and wrenched his body backwards to keep
from falling in. Landing flat on his butt, he scuttled back like a crab,
hands and feet frantically scrambling away from the sinking dirt.
The abyss grew and grew, all while a low rumble sounded through
the air, as if the planet itself were growling.
Max groped in his pocket for his flashlight, clicked it on, and
pointed the beam into the darkness. The dirt had stopped falling,
but the damage was done. Stretching out before him was a massive
Shaking, Max got to his feet and started to make his way around
the void, confusion growing with every step. It was a perfect circle,
about six feet in diameter. Dust stung at his eyes; a sour stench
choked his lungs. He could taste something awful on his tongue,
like the gagfest that results from drinking orange juice right after
brushing one’s teeth. But other than an occasional, eerie clicking
noise coming from deep within, he couldn’t hear a thing.
Max took a cautious step up to the rim. He could see only
blackness inside, the hole so deep his flashlight couldn’t reach the
bottom. A gentle pulse of warm air puffed up into his face, the smell
of sulfur tickling his nostrils. And in that moment — he was sure
he was imagining this, but that didn’t make the sensation any less
intense — an overwhelming something came over him, an emotion
he’d never felt before that was sadness and terror and suffocation
and grief all at the same time.
Max had been up here on Ugly Hill hundreds of times, alone
and in the dark, but this was the first time he’d ever been truly
“What the hell?” his voice quivered.
Just then an air pulse sent up small fleck of ash — black, as light
as air, a gothic snowflake. It floated out of the hole, then descended
and landed on the back of Max’s hand. He tried to wipe it off, but all
that did was create a black smear across his skin.
And then, as abruptly as it had come, the strange fear began
to fade. Sleep tugged at his body, and Max started to feel a little
foolish. He hadn’t been up this hill in months; maybe the gas company had done some faulty pipeline laying or someone had begun
construction on a cell phone tower. Or something. He didn’t know
why a giant circular hole might have opened up out of nowhere, but
Max was sure there was a reasonable, corporate, environmentally
unfriendly explanation for all of this.
As an afterthought, he grabbed a nearby rock and tossed
it into the hole, waiting for a thump to signify that it had hit the
A minute later he was still waiting.
But he was cold now, exhausted, and a sudden fear rose in his
chest — what if his mother needed him? What if she was having an
episode right now and was desperately calling out his name, dialing
the number of a cell phone that he hadn’t remembered to bring with
He grabbed his shovel and sprinted home.
Only when he opened her door with fumbling hands and saw
her lying there, safe and alive, did the panic stop ringing in his ears.
“You okay, Max?” she said blearily, through squinted eyes.
“Nothing,” he said, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat.
“Nothing. Thirsty. Just getting some water.”
“You look sweaty, hon. Did you have a nightmare?”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
The next morning, Max slept in. Only by five minutes, but those
five minutes translated into five minutes late showering, five minutes late getting dressed, and, ultimately, five minutes late for the
verbal beatdown Stavroula was all too willing to deliver.
“We open five minutes ago,” she scolded as he rushed in.
“I know, I know.” He pulled his blue vest out from under the
counter and put it on, praying that she wouldn’t notice the glitter
shower that ensued. “I’m sorry.”
“Five minutes ago. And where is my cashier? Watching goats
mate on the computer?”
“I — no! Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know what you kids do on that box!” she said, throwing
up her arms. “All I know is that you are late. Tell me why.”
Max’s mouth was devoid of saliva. Even if it wasn’t for the cat,
he still hated being in trouble. And truth be told, he was still a bit
shaken by what he’d seen up on Ugly Hill. If not for the dirt caked
on his shovel, he might have thought he dreamed it.
“Last night, I — um, couldn’t sleep, and —”
“And, and? I no sleep in six years since my husband die, bless
Max joined her in making the sign of the cross. “It’s just — I —”
He didn’t want to do it. He hated trotting out this excuse, this
despicable, manipulative excuse, but she was staring at him so hard
he was willing to do anything to make her stop.
“It was my mom,” he said in a low voice, taking care to inject
double doses of Sorrowful Despair and Soldiering On in the Face of
Stavroula’s scowl diminished, replaced by a look of sympathy,
or perhaps disappointment at not being able to keep yelling at him.
“Ah. Yes. Is she all right?”
He nodded and spoke in clipped words. “Yeah. Fine.”
“Good.” She waggled her finger at him as she walked back
toward her office, but any anger was long gone. “Just don’t let it happen again.”
The door slammed.
Max exhaled. After making sure that his resting heart rate had
been restored, he reached for his book of crossword puzzles. Over
the entirety of last Saturday’s double shift, he’d solved twenty-one
in fourteen hours, resulting in a rate of only 1.5 puzzles per hour,
which simply would not do. Fatigue had set in. Fatigue was the
Determined to do better this time, and even more determined
to put the Ugly Hill incident out of his mind, he set his watch for
fourteen hours — his shift lasted fifteen, but he had to allow a spare
one for lunch, dinner, and those pesky interrupting customers.
He uncapped his pen, got to work, and didn’t stop until halfway
through puzzle number five, when the door jangled and Audie
“Greetings, hermit!” she said.
Audie had exactly two moods: exuberant and slightly less exu-
berant. Nothing in between. Today: a rare appearance by the latter.
Max hit the Stop button on his watch and gave her a withering
smile. “I can make it up to you.”
“You damn well better.” Audie attempted to look stern but
failed immediately, as her face just didn’t bend that way. “With
Max retrieved the box of Slim Jims he’d stashed and plopped it
on the counter. “Today I’ve prepared for you a selection of plasticwrapped charcuterie, featuring a rustic gastrique of artisanal pig
anuses and a decadent mélange of mechanically separated chicken,”
he said in the style of the chefs on all those cooking competition
shows his mother complained about wasting her life watching, yet
watched anyway. “Bon appétit.”
“You’re such a freak,” Audie said with a giggle, tossing a wad of
money at him and attacking the wrapper. “But thanks.”
“How do you find the mouthfeel, ma’am?”
“Ew. Lifetime moratorium on that word.”
“Stop it!” she cried, giving him one of those fake smacks on the
arm that she had perfected since the age of five.
Max dodged it with a smile. “What are you doing up and about
so early on a Saturday?” he asked, taking a Slim Jim for himself.
Audie nodded toward the window. Her father was outside,
pumping gas into the family car while her mother squeegeed the
windshield. A third person was asleep in the back seat. “I’m giving
Wall a ride to the airport. Which of course means we’re all giving
Wall a ride to the airport because Mom and Dad insisted on coming. Like they think I’m gonna be so heartbroken about him going
away for the weekend that I’m gonna bang him right there atop the
“That’s a fun visual.”
“I agree. Little fantasy of mine.”
“Then maybe their suspicions aren’t unfounded.”
“Hey, don’t take their side.” She took another bite. “He’s not even
conscious, anyway. Killer game last night, not that you’d know.”
As they munched, Max toyed with the idea of telling her about
what he’d seen up on Ugly Hill. Maybe she could —
— kindly inform me that I’ve lost my mind? his brain butted in.
She’ll think I’m bonkers. And if God forbid her father catches wind
of it, he’ll go up there to investigate, and then I’ll lose my private digging spot, and if he God forbid decides to question me any further,
I’ll totally cave and confess the theft of Frankencat, and then I’ll be
arrested and go to jail and will almost certainly need to learn how to
sharpen a toothbrush into a shiv to defend myself, which is a skill I
should probably start honing now . . . I wonder if you can whittle a
Slim Jim —
The door bells rattled Max out of his psychotic thoughts as a
human refrigerator walked into the store. It leaned on the counter
and smiled at Audie with a mouth full of straight, achingly white
Audie’s mood ramped right up into high gear. Click! Full steam
exuberant. “You’re awake!” Her face glowed as he grabbed her hand,
twirled her around, then dipped her almost down to the floor, planting a big wet kiss on her laughing mouth.
The giant pulled her back up, then turned to Max. “Hey,
“Hi, Wall,” Max replied in a voice as microscopic as he felt.
The real name of E’ville’s star linebacker and Audie’s boyfriend
of three years was Emmanuel, but on the football field he basically
turned into a concrete parking garage with a little helmet on top, so
Wall was the nickname that stuck. He was a nice guy, yet Max still
felt like the Microceratus gobiensis to Wall’s Brachiosaurus altithorax. Max just didn’t know how, as an athletically challenged and
thoroughly unimpressive human being by comparison, he could
ever find anything in common with the guy. Max didn’t know a
thing about football. He didn’t know how to bridge the popularity
gap. And he didn’t know what a hoss was, either.
The office door pounded open. “No!” Stavroula yelled upon see-
ing Wall snap into a Slim Jim. “No more! You football brutes eat up
all my meats!”
“Roula, Roula, Roula,” Wall said, propping a massive arm over
her shoulder as she approached the counter. “You know I need my
meats. I’m a growing boy.”
She made a psff noise. “You grow anymore, you hit head on
ceiling, break sprinklers, flood store. Bah.” And she was off again,
shuffling to the back room with a dismissive wave.
Max stuffed more Slim Jim into his mouth. Now that Wall was
here, he didn’t dare bring up Ugly Hill. “So, did you win the game?”
“Did we win the game?” Wall answered, his mouth full of
nitrates. “He’s asking if we won the game!” he shouted in disbelief to
an invisible crowd, then let out a hearty laugh, followed instantly by
a death glare, a combination that could be pulled off to perfection
only by himself and a Mr. Denzel Washington.
Max genuinely feared for his life for a second there, but Wall
had already started laughing and ruffling Max’s hair. It went askew
for a moment, then settled right back into its default golf visor
The door chimed yet again. Max stood a little taller, preparing
for the double whammy of Audie’s increasingly intimidating parents. There hadn’t been anything too scary about growing up next
door to a teacher and a policeman, but subsequent promotions in
their respective fields had put them in a much more imposing light.
It was that whole authority figure thing again. Something about
them made him want to constantly smooth his shirt and glitterprecipitating vest in their presence.
“Max!” Audie’s dad said. “Haven’t seen much of you lately! How
are you doing?”
“Fine, Chief Gregory.”
Audie’s mom joined him at the counter, her smile frozen in
place. “And how’s your mom?”
“Fine, Principal Gregory. I mean, she’s the same,” he added
when she made a doubtful face. “Sleeps a lot.”
Audie’s mom clucked her tongue. “We just haven’t heard from
her in a while, so . . .” She leaned in and spoke in a whisper that
was dripping with compassion. “You know, Max, you can call us.
Whenever you need something. I just feel so bad thinking of her
cooped up in there, all alone all day.”
“Yeah, but you know how she is,” Max said, squirming. “She
doesn’t like people to see her when she’s . . .”
He trailed off. Back in the day, his mom and Mrs. Gregory had
been good friends. Now he couldn’t remember the last time they
She frowned. “I know, but —”
“Mom, give it a rest,” Audie said. “He knows the drill.”
Principal Gregory threw up her hands. “Sorry! Can’t turn off
the mom in me!”
Max was willing to do anything to get out of this conversation,
up to and including talking to Wall. “Where are you headed, Wall?”
“College visit for the weekend,” Wall said. “ ’Bama.”
“Oh.” Max tried to nod knowingly. “Sure. Go Gators.”
They all looked at him as if he’d kicked the Pope in the junk.
“Max,” Audie said, aghast, “it’s Roll Tide.”
“Roll Tide!” the other three echoed in unison, pumping
Max tried to punch the air in a similar enthusiastic fashion, but
he looked ridiculous and everyone knew it, so he switched to swatting at an imaginary fly instead.
“The coaches there are very interested in him,” Audie said,
gazing adoringly into Wall’s eyes. He took Audie’s chin in his massive hand, moving in to kiss her.
“Emmanuel!” Chief Gregory interrupted, clapping his hands
on Wall’s back. “Come out and help me check the tire pressure.”
Wall gave Audie a wretched look and slumped out the door.
Principal Gregory paid Max for the gas. “Here,” she said, hand-
ing the change to her daughter, “buy yourself a drink.” She turned
back to Max. “And you — remember what I said. Whatever you
“Thank you,” Max said. “I’ll remember.”
After she left, Audie let out a long, exasperated breath. She
grabbed a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, then rounded on
Max like a feral dog. “So. Why’d you skip my game last night?”
Max decided to feign choking on his Slim Jim to escape this line
of questioning, but the jangle of door bells saved him from having
to resort to such theatrics. Three girls walked in, two of them talking loudly. The third girl headed straight for the snack food section. Max watched as the top of her straight brown ponytail bobbed
down the aisle, then stopped, hovering above the Cheetos. Giggling,
the other two followed.
“You know what?” said Audie, a wicked grin spreading across
her face as she watched the girls. “I don’t even want to hear your
feeble excuses.” She pointed the remains of her Slim Jim into his
face. “You know there’s only one way to make this up to me.”
Max waved his hand, dismissive. “I’m not doing this today,
Aud. I’m very close to beating the crossword record.”
“Oh, screw the crossword record.”
Max narrowed his eyes. “How dare you.”
“Come onnn,” Audie said in that whining voice she used when
she knew full well she’d already won. She nodded toward the girls.
“Try. For me.”
Max grumbled. Ever since that fateful night their thirteen-
year-old selves decided to finally French it up — a kiss that garnered
such rave reviews as “slimy” and “like kissing my brother” — any
potential sparks between them got permanently switched to Off,
unplugged from the wall, and buried in the backyard, never to be
spoken of again.
This was totally fine with Max; he’d felt the same way about that
gross kiss as she had. But once she started dating Wall, he got relegated
to permanent third-wheel status, and now Audie was constantly getting on his case about nabbing a girlfriend. “We could go on double
dates!” she’d insist, a prospect Max found especially nauseating. To
get a date, one generally needed to be able to string words together
in a coherent manner around the opposite sex, or at the very least be
able to smile charmingly. Both Audie and Wall did these things quite
well, whereas Max had all the flirting ability of a packing peanut.
The venerably popular Krissy Swanson approached the coun-
ter with an armful of snacks and sodas. Audie stood behind her
and made a go-ahead gesture at Max, followed by something much
more vulgar. “Fine,” Max mouthed at her as Krissy dug through her
When she looked up, Max smiled. “Find everything okay?” he
“What?” she said in a distracted voice, as if surprised to learn
that the counter kid spoke Human. “Uh, yeah.”
Wiggling his eyebrows, Max held up the bag of Cheetos. “Pro-
cessed cheese snacks,” he said with a knowing nod. “I like that in a
Audie had to excuse herself.
Krissy gave Max a look. “They’re not for me. I’m getting the soy
chips and diet protein water.”
“Oh, yeah, you gotta have protein,” he said, scanning the rest of
her items and placing them in a plastic bag. “Amino acids are, like,
the shit. You like veal?”
“I — what?”
“Me neither. It’s baby cows, did you know that?” Max could
already feel this thing going south, yet he pressed on, as always. “I
don’t think I could eat a baby anything. Except baby corn. Those
things are so weird. It’s like, are you real corn, or were you shrunk
by a shrinking ray, or what’s going on here?”
Krissy’s eyes darted to the security camera. “Am I on a reality
show right now?”
“No,” Max said. “Why?”
“Okay. Um, here,” she said, tossing him a twenty-dollar bill and
grabbing the plastic bag.
“But it’s only twelve —”
“Keep the change!” She grabbed the elbows of the other two
girls and plowed out the door, barely able to keep her giggles in as
she relayed the tale of her encounter with the troglodyte cashier.
Brown Ponytail threw a languid glance back at him as they left.
Audie emerged from her hiding place behind the motor oil,
holding her stomach. “You should be studied by scientists,” she said
between laughs. “Veal? Veal?”
Max shrugged. This was nothing new. Humiliation in the face
of the opposite gender was an unfortunate plague he’d simply had
to get used to, like high milk prices or the continued existence of the
“So what are you doing after you get back from the airport?” he
asked Audie just as the door opened. He nodded hello at the new
customer, a guy sporting heavy black eyeliner, several piercings,
and a visible hangover. The man nodded back, making a beeline for
the coffee machine.
“I don’t know,” Audie replied with a shrug. “Maybe go see the
new Michael Bay explodathon.”
“Spoiler alert: everyone dies.”
Audie rolled her eyes, having grown sick of Max’s standard
spoiler-alert joke long ago. “We’ll see. I was gonna devote the day to
Madden” — here she crackled her knuckles as she always did at the
mention of the game, like a Pavlovian response — “ but my Xbox is
His voice dropped to a horrified whisper. “The red ring of
“ ’Fraid so.”
Max’s main fear in life was, of course, that his mother could drop
dead at any given second . . . but if he was being completely honest,
the prospect of the same thing happening to his Xbox struck him
with an almost equal amount of terror. “Well, you can go play on
mine if you want.”
“Really?” She did her Audie-is-super-excited-about-something
hop, bouncing from one foot to the other. “Key still under the mat?”
“Yep. I’ll call mom and tell her not to bash the intruder’s
“Thanks, man!” She lunged across the counter and gathered
Max into a headlock. “All is forgiven. As long as you come to my
game next week.”
“I’ll . . . see what I can do.”
“Just once before the season is over! That’s all I ask!”
“Or at the very least, come to the pep rally this Wednesday. You
don’t have any secret dates with fictional people on Wednesdays, do
“I do not.”
“Then come.” She tossed the empty Slim Jim wrapper at him.
“And thanks for the meats.”
“Any time. I’ll tell Izzy you said hi.”
“The Slim Jim reorder guy.”
Audie laughed and shook her head as she exited the store.
“Yeah, you do that.”
Guyliner brought his coffee up to the counter, his eyes bleared
and tired. “And a pack of smokes. Whatever’s cheapest.”
“Sure.” Max rang up the purchase and placed the cigarettes on
The guy let out a small laugh. “You were there too?”
He showed Max the back of his hand, which featured the faded
slash of a black Sharpie. “At the concert,” he said, nodding at the
similar mark smeared across the back of Max’s hand.
From the ash that floated up out of the hole. Max hadn’t noticed
until just then that it was still there. But I took a shower . . . ?
“Killer show, right?” the guy said, handing Max some money.
He took a long gulp of coffee. “Lucky I didn’t black out in a gutter somewhere. Anyway, cheers.” He held up his cup in thanks and
exited the store.
Max examined his hand. He licked his thumb and rubbed it
against his skin, but no matter how hard he tried to wipe off the
mark, it wouldn’t fade.
When his watch alarm went off at the end of his shift, Max slammed
his pen and crossword book onto the counter and pumped his fists
into the air.
“I win at LIFE!” he shouted, enjoying for a moment the delusion
that completing twenty-five crossword puzzles in fourteen hours
meant he’d won at anything at all.
Stavroula’s grumpy face poked out from behind the Funyuns.
“Why you yell?”
“Oh, sorry,” Max said, lowering his arms. “I just —” But talking
about his victory would make it sound even sadder. “Nothing.”
She looked at her watch. “Okay, ten o’clock. You go home now.”
He took off his vest, threw out the wrapper from his Hot Pocket
dinner, and stuffed his crossword book into his bag. “Thanks, Stav.”
“And tell your mom I say feel better.”
The sting of the earlier lie prickled in his stomach. He nodded
gravely. “I will.”
He biked home under a moonlit sky. Bracing for the worst as
he opened the mailbox, he was relieved to find nothing more than
a Home Depot catalog. That, he could handle. They made good
On his way to the back kitchen door, he assessed the house.
Dark, except for the flicker of television visible through his mother’s bedroom window and the rectangle of light coming from the
basement. The leaves of his mom’s beloved ficus tree inside blocked
the view of the small den down there, but judging by the guttural
noises and whistle blows coming from within, Audie was well into
her Madden conquest.
After dumping his stuff onto the kitchen table and wondering
why Ruckus hadn’t greeted him with a friendly claw to the face,
neck, and torso, Max grabbed a granola bar and headed to the basement. Sporty football music hit his ears as he descended the stairs.
“This was my plan all along,” he sang down to Audie. “You wear
your thumbs down with hours of playing and then I swoop in to
kick your ass, no matter how many times you crack your knuckles
in a threatening manner.” He unzipped his hoodie as he neared the
bottom of the steps. “Jesus, Aud, it’s like a hundred degrees down
The granola bar fell to the floor.
Perched on the edge of the plaid 1970s-era couch, where Max
had fully expected to find Audie, was a man in a teal-blue velour
tracksuit. His beard was rust colored and shaggy, as was his hair,
out of which poked two white, jagged horns. And though he was
currently dumping the remains of a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
into his mouth with a cheese-dusted hand, the coloring didn’t end
at the edges of his fingertips.
Every visible inch of his skin was red.
He shook the controller at the television with his other hand
and flashed Max a garish grin, food globs flying out of his mouth as
“This shit is awesome.”
laura l. sullivan
Love by the Morning Star (Excerpt)
On Sale: June 3, 2014
In 1938, Germany is no place for a half-Jewish girl, so
teenage cabaret singer Hannah goes to the grand country
estate of Starkers, where she expects to be received as a
distant relative. British bombshell Anna is supposed to
enter the household as a kitchen maid and spy for her
father’s Nazi sympathizer friends. But there’s a mixup. When Anna is introduced as family and Hannah is
banished to the kitchen, the novel erupts into a delightful
and suspenseful comedy of errors. Romance, history, and
philosophy sparkle and waltz in this brilliant new book
from Laura Sullivan.
Anna, Who Is Not the Heroine
It takes so much work being better than everyone else, Anna
Morgan mused. Of course, on one level, superiority is a matter of
one’s birth. No, she hastily amended, recalling her father’s origins
as a grocer: not birth, but blood. Rank and money don’t matter. What
did it say above the National Fascist Front (NAFF) headquarters?
“Rank is but the guinea-stamp; the man’s the gold for all that.”
She didn’t mind — almost didn’t mind — that she wasn’t of noble birth, because she had enough pride simply in being British.
There was nothing better than that.
But to appear instantly and unequivocally superior to the un-
trained eye, that took some work.
She had natural advantages, of course, being statuesque and
fair, with high-piled blond curls arranged in careful bedroom disarray. Her hourglass lines were achieved through exercise and
will; her elegant, floor-length attire suggested leisure and lofty
social status. Her features were large, her jaw strongly defined,
with those Pre-Raphaelite bones that can make a girl either a stunner or a bumpkin, depending on what she does with them. Anna
had been learning what to do with them for seventeen years, and
had it down to a science. She knew she was beautiful — if a little
frightening, but that was a part of her beauty — and if she ever
forgot it she had only to stroll down the street and learn it again
from all the admiring stares she received.
From earliest childhood, she’d always had ideas about what
she could be, but her seed would have been scattered on barren
soil if her grocer father had not discovered his gift for oratory and
hate. Several years ago, a Russian Jew had opened a small grocery
store around the corner, and through diligence, friendliness, the
ability to get oranges year round, and a most un-English lack of
rats and black-beetles in his storeroom, managed to lure away a
good-size chunk of Mr. Morgan’s clientele. From that moment
Mr. Morgan conceived a violent hatred of all things foreign and
all things Jewish. He threw in Communism for good measure,
liberated a soapbox from the storeroom, and began to spout off
to anyone who would listen to him.
His eloquent vitriol caught the attention of Reginald Darling, who thought Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists too
soft and coddling, and he was recruited into the newly formed
National Fascist Front. Mr. Morgan marched, he shouted, he
smashed windows and broke heads, gradually rising to become
Lord Darling’s right-hand man. When laws were passed and public opinion overwhelmingly turned against them, they took the
organization underground (which was a relief to Anna, because
it meant her father would never again have to wear the bloodred plus-fours that were part of the NAFF’s official uniform) and
plotted to rid Britain of the parasitic foreigners who were sucking
Which was all very well with Anna, particularly because it
meant a move to London, where she could expand her horizons
and learn to emulate the aristocracy. She was one of nature’s aristocrats, of that she was certain, so it was only right she should act
like them. Her voice became cultivated, she always remembered
to scoop her soup with the far side of her spoon, and she learned
to apply her makeup in such a way that it seemed she had none
on at all. All the while her father worked for the preservation of
the true British way of life, and the well-being of the true British
worker, and her mother hosted parties in their stylish new flat
where people of like mind could plot the overthrow of the government for its own good. Anna kept her eyes open, looking for a
“Lord,” or a “Sir,” or at worst an “Honorable” who might whisk
her away to the life she knew she deserved.
Did she too hate foreigners, Jews, Communists? Where there
is such self-love there is very little room for anything else, even
hate. She did not argue with her father, and she had a general and
vague opinion that foreigners were dirty.
Germans, however, did not seem to count as foreigners in the
eyes of the NAFF, so when her father received an invitation to
be a secret envoy in Berlin, she was forced to revise her opinion
slightly. It was not difficult to do. Queen Victoria had married a
Now Anna sat before a third-floor window in the Hotel Adlon,
letting the streetlights cast her in a silvery outline that she knew
was quite becoming. The man her parents were talking with had
a Von in his name, which she thought meant he was something
aristocratic. Not that she had any plans of settling for a German,
but it was good to stay in practice. Though she had no official
role in the NAFF, just a decorative one, she could tell that Herr
Von Whoever-he-might-be was paying her particular attention.
She let a small smile play on her lips, and began to listen to the
“Thanks to Mosley and his ham-handed tactics, the British
have a bad opinion of fascism,” the Von said.
“He meant well,” Mr. Morgan replied, stung by a barb against
“You and I, Germany and England, must be united in common cause. Lord Darling has told you, I’ve no doubt, of certain
operations to place those sympathetic to our cause in positions of
power. Unofficial, highly clandestine operations. The Nazi Party
itself is unaware of them. The more forward-thinking of us will
coordinate directly with Lord Darling. The English people do not
wish to be at war with Germany — the Munich Agreement has
made that clear — yet led as you are, I think war between our
peoples is inevitable.”
Anna saw her father’s mouth twitch — he was itching to
launch into his standard rhetoric, but Lord Darling had been
teaching him patience.
The Von glanced at Anna, and she preened her curls. “We are
all Aryans, the British, the Germans,” he said. “Yet those who are
not friends of Germany must perforce be our enemies. We are
noble people, soldiers, warriors; we do not recognize neutrality.
It is another word for cowardice. If England does not join us, she
will fall as the slave races fall . . . which will be a shame. Brandy?”
He held out a glass.
“Thank you,” Mr. Morgan said, draining it in a gulp, without
warming it or smelling it first. Anna saw a fleeting look of distaste
cross the Von’s face. Unlike Anna, her father had not taken pains
to improve himself. But then, Lord Darling liked his workingclass charm, offsetting, as it did, Lord Darling’s own aristocracy,
helping the NAFF appeal to the masses.
“We have the germ of a plan, a master stroke that will ensure
that England and Germany are forever allies, and we need your
“Of course. Anything,” her father replied.
But the Von wasn’t looking at Mr. Morgan. He was looking at
“You have an intelligent daughter,” he said, “and a beautiful one.” He looked her up and down, lingering too long in the
middle, until she felt something squirming inside her, something
cold and unpleasant. “She is loyal to the cause?” He turned back
to Mr. Morgan.
“We’ve talked about you at great length, my dear,” the Von
said to Anna. “And I think you will do. If you succeed, you will
be a heroine to two nations. You will have done your part to keep
our races pure. Very likely you will have prevented a war. Are you
The chill worm still wiggled inside her, but something else
warmed her now. Was it patriotism or pride? No, it was ambition.
The only thing she really heard from him was the word “heroine.” Heroines always marry well, don’t they?
“I am willing!” she said, low and thrilling. “What must I do?”
“I can’t tell you everything yet. Now it is only necessary that
you be put in the proper place and await instructions. There is a
castle not far from London, a mile or two from Windsor Castle.
Starkers is the name. You will be sent there.”
For an instant the world around her disappeared. To think,
a minute ago she’d been contemplating an alliance with a mere
German Von, and now she was being sent to one of the grandest
establishments in England, barely a step below the royal residences. Why, everyone knew that Their Majesties went fox hunting
at Starkers every winter, that Their Highnesses spent long weekends dancing at Starkers balls and fishing for Starkers trout and
strolling through Starkers shrubberies. And now by some miracle
she would be a part of it! The cream had finally risen to the top.
“There is a cook at Starkers, sympathetic but not aligned with
any organization, who has been at the castle for many years, so
she is above suspicion. Through her, we have secured you a job
as a kitchen maid. Once inside Starkers, you’ll be in a position
“Kitchen maid!” The world crashed back in all its ugliness.
“Absolutely not! Do you know how many hours I’ve soaked these
hands in paraffin?” She held up fingers encased in the softest kid
gloves, which she never took off in public, and rarely even in private. “My hands are extraordinarily sensitive.”
It was the excuse she always gave for her perpetually gloved
state. Although she did indeed bathe them in paraffin and lanolin daily, and though they were preternaturally soft, no amount
of cream treatment could reduce their size or squareness. They
were broad peasant hands, and she hated them. She could exercise her waist into tininess, but her hands, she thought, betrayed
her low origins, and she swore she would not remove her gloves
in front of a man until her wedding night.
She refused to wither under the Von’s scathing look. How
dare he belittle the effort she’d put into making her outside as
worthy as her pure British inside? Kitchen maid, indeed!
The Von kept his composure as he worked on her; her father
did not. She knew she’d comply in the end. That word “heroine”
still rang in her ears, and she knew if she succeeded in whatever
they had planned, the world would open to her as she had always
dreamed. What could her task be, anyway? Passing a message on
the sly? Stealing incriminating letters from a guest’s bedroom?
And then . . . it would be worth the temporary humiliation if she
was elevated to the position she deserved.
But she’d make them work for it.
“I suppose I might,” she said, cocking her head to catch her
reflection in the silvered window. “Perhaps I could wear surgical
“You’ll be posing as the lowest domestic. Chapped hands are a
small price to pay for the glory of your country.”
“I don’t know . . .” She pretended to stare out the window,
considering, but she was looking at the full curve of her own
cheek, thinking, No amount of drudgery will mar that. Poor food
might only improve my figure. She’d noticed a disturbing thickening
of her waist since her father had gone on the NAFF payroll.
“Honestly, do you think I can pass as a kitchen skivvy?” she
asked in her most cultivated voice.
“Perhaps we can get you in a slightly better post — a housemaid, maybe — but the important thing is that you are there at
“Why me?” she fished. Because you’re so clever, she willed him
to say. Because we trust you.
“Because a servant, particularly a female servant, is anonymous and inconsequential. Especially in an upper-crust British
estate, servants are so taken for granted that for all practical purposes they don’t exist. They are conveniently invisible. You come
from the lower class — no, don’t scowl — but you know how to
emulate the upper class. You can pass for one of the maids, but
understand the masters. That may be necessary. Now, will you
Below her, through the naked boughs of the few remaining
linden trees lining the boulevard, she could see a vague commotion. The window was propped open a crack, and through the
gap came a cry, a wail that rose in frantic desperation until it was
cut off abruptly to strangled silence. Then the sound of shattering glass, so loud that she was certain her own window had been
smashed, and she flinched back. But no, it was in the street. The
sound seemed to echo . . . or was it more glass breaking, farther
“What’s that?” she gasped.
The Von snaked an arm behind her and snapped the heavy
“Nothing that need concern you. Internal affairs.”
When he had gone, Anna said petulantly to her father, “I’m
happy to help in any way, of course, but really, a kitchen maid!”
Her father slapped her, hard, and that was that.
Hannah, Who Is the Heroine
Hannah Morgenstern was singing about sheep. Why her
audience loved songs about sheep, she was not sure. They were
soldiers, businessmen, wealthy gentlemen about town, who had
probably never known a sheep intimately. (What a joke her father
would make out of that!) Still, when Hannah sang sheep songs
they bought champagne and oysters like they were going out of
style, and left tips so large that goodhearted Benno the busboy
often ran after them, asking if they’d made a mistake.
This was a song about black sheep on the grassy banks of the
Danube looking like the freckles on her true love’s nose. Since the
Anschluss, the annexation of Austria, she was a bit leery of singing songs about that country, but her repertoire of sheep songs
was limited. It was either that, a tune about a British shepherdess,
which was too politically risky, or one about frolicking Sudeten
lambs, which was too fresh, though no doubt popular with her
customers. What the show needs, Hannah decided as she crooned
the final bars to wild applause and tossed flowers, is a song about
a nationless, nondenominational sheep. A sheep that cannot stir up
resentment from any side.
Of course, by now there was only one side, really, and every-
one else kept silent if they knew what was good for them.
The next number was the Double Transvestite Tango, so Han-
nah made her bows, scooped up as many flowers as she could
carry (Benno’s grandmother would sell the sturdiest of them the
next morning, and one might end up the boutonniere of the very
man who’d tossed it the night before), and made her way to the
wings. Already a couple of admirers were homing in on her. She
was used to becoming another person onstage, someone who
attracted and compelled. It was good for business but annoying
when business was done, when all she wanted was a breath of
fresh air and a glimpse of the stars over Berlin.
Her father, Aaron Morgenstern, was the master of ceremonies and the comedian, dressed, as always, in some variation of
a devilish costume. Her mother sang torch songs, sad and sultry.
Rounding out the troupe were assorted dancers, actors, and singers, lewd or clownish or satiric as the situation demanded. But
there was a market for innocence, too, for eyelet lace and braids
and shepherdesses in dirndl skirts, for gentler tastes than most of
the clientele possessed. Hannah filled that niche. Old men and
young soldiers adored her.
Two of the latter, young lieutenants in the Heer, the German
army, tried to catch her eye, so she ducked into her mother’s
dressing room and peeled off her false eyelashes. She slipped out
of her dirndl and into a dark wool dress, then pulled off her wig
of coiled blond braids to reveal a slicked-back chocolate-colored
bob. When she walked by the two eager officers they didn’t recognize her.
“Have you seen that luscious bonbon with the golden braids?”
one asked her as she passed.
She grinned up at them with such impish mischief that they
almost forgot their quest for the singer. “She is with her lover,”
Hannah said. “But she can always handle one or two more.” She
winked at them. “Go there, through that door.”
She made her escape while the uniformed hobbledehoys
gawked and gaped and finally burst into the dressing room where
Franz, the three-hundred-pound juggling strongman, was adjusting his loincloth.
“I ought not to do it,” Hannah said aloud to herself as chaos
erupted behind her. “I just can’t seem to help myself. It is a shame,
But she did not look at all sorry.
Outside, Hannah leaned against the cabaret’s stone wall and
tilted her head, taking in the hazy night sky, the lounging neon
devil winking insouciantly out at Berlin from the garish sign for
Die Höhle des Teufels. She was so lost in thought, she didn’t see
the middle-aged man approaching, and started at his voice.
“Staring at things that used to be, my pet?” he said. “Where is
your imagination tonight? Nineteen twenty-eight? ’Twenty-nine?
Come now, you’re too young for nostalgia.”
Hannah, like a good many other Germans, was trapped in the
past. No matter that the twenties had been times of desperation
and poverty and rampant inflation, when a loaf of bread might
cost ten marks one day and a million marks the next. It had also
been an era of wild creativity and beauty, when no one cared
about the price of bread because there was art to create, jazz to
dance to, satires to perform, debaucheries such as the world has
never known to invent. Hannah was a child of that world, born,
literally, in her parents’ cabaret, learning to walk by hanging on
to its gold velvet stage curtains. Her first solid food had been a banana from Josephine Baker’s famous skirt, and a visiting Ziegfeld
had dandled her on his knee.
Now, in November 1938, that free, inventive, tolerant spirit
was gone, surviving in a few relics such as Der Teufel, or more
likely, had fled, to Paris, to Russia, to the United States. Bread
was cheap, but the golden age was over. Hitler was in charge, and
there were plenty of people who liked it that way.
“Good evening, Herr Alder,” Hannah said, her small, sweet
face scrunching in irrepressible mirth. “Even babies feel nostalgic
for the womb, I think. How nice to be toted around and never
have to worry about a thing! Now there are battles and revolutions and invasions and horrible discrimination — and that’s just
among the kitchen staff. Do you know, Chef actually dumped
a flambé on top of the waiter Dieter’s head because he told a
customer the cream therein would make her fat and so she sent
it back? Luckily his hair pomade prevented him from catching
alight, but still.”
Alder took a hopeful breath, but he stood no chance against
Hannah’s torrent of words. Unless she got the hiccups, she could
go on for hours. “Perhaps in other places the wait staff does not
make so free, but I like the way we do things, don’t you? One
happy, outspoken family. Ah, but you asked where I was, you sly
man. I was in 1929 for a moment. Do you remember that spring
when all the ladies wore violets on their bosoms? They wilted
so fast, and Benno and I made all our candy money scouring the
parks for new blooms.” She sighed. For just a second, the strain
of her life showed through the merriment of her face.
“It was a good year, 1929,” Herr Alder slurred. “Much like the
bottle of cognac I just consumed.”
“You’re tipsy,” Hannah said with mock disapproval. Caspar
Alder was almost an uncle to her, a friend of the family who had
patronized Der Teufel since it opened. He did something in the
government, she knew, though he talked with increasing sincerity of retiring soon.
“I am not tipsy,” Herr Alder said, pounding the wall with his
fist. His vague avuncular air slipped, revealing something hard
beneath. “I am drunk. It is necessary to be drunk when you are
about to burn the business of your dear friend, and then perhaps
beat him in the streets.”
“What do you mean?” Hannah asked, her eyes wide and lumi-
nous in the devilish neon gleam.
His voice dropped. “It has started already, across town.
There’s not much time. They were only waiting for an excuse.”
He growled the words like a caged dog, and Hannah cringed,
catching fear as if it were a fever, though she had no idea what he
was talking about.
“They planned it,” he went on. “They want it to look like a
spontaneous uprising, but they planned it, weeks, months ago. I
should have warned you sooner, but I lived in hope that mankind
isn’t quite so foul as it seems to be.” He took a long swig from a
pocket flask. “Get your parents, my little kitten. Go to a friend’s
house — don’t tell me where — and hide until it passes. If it ever
passes. Damn it, I should have made you leave! Damn your stubborn father and his art, his calling . . .”
He dragged her, almost violently, back inside, and, bewildered, she followed him through the backstage corridors. He
knew them well. He’d paid court to many nubile performers over
the last seventeen years.
Onstage, Waltraud dipped Otto . . . or was it the other way
around? She was so nobly built, he so sveltely beautiful, that in
the sensuous, sinuous stalking of the tango it was hard to tell
who was who. Each was dressed in bifurcated drag, male on one
side, female on the other, and as they danced their hips pressed
close, their legs intertwined in a glorious pansexual blur. The
Nazi Party inspectors had come to observe the pair but declined
to censor them. A man who dressed as a woman because he enjoyed it was decadent and obscene. A man dressed as half a woman, they decided, was worth watching.
Waltraud and Otto bowed and curtsied, then curtsied and
bowed, and Benno, who doubled on the fog machine, made a
great sulfurous swirl rise through the suddenly dimmed red
lights. A violin off scene played a diabolical air, and Aaron Morgenstern appeared as if from the abyss.
He was always the Devil, sometimes a caricature in crimson,
though more often Lucifer in his less obvious guises as a sophisticated roué, handsome and irresistible, which closely resembled
Aaron’s real self, or a jaded old man with a patriarchal beard, bent
and weary with the sins of the world. He was the ancient tonight.
“I’ve seen it all before,” he sang, waggling his eyebrows like a
dirty old man at the park when young girls in pinafores arrive.
“If there is nothing new under the sun, do you think you will find a
novel sin in this, the Devil’s cave?” He stroked his beard and leered
at the audience. Then he seemed to fix them with eyes as deep
and black as chasms. “When you come into the Devil’s hole and enjoy
yourself, aren’t you doing to him what he would like to do to you?” He
broke character and laughed, a young rich baritone. “Bend over,
Devil! We will give you a surprise, in the end!” he sang, and made a
rude gesture that set everyone laughing — the closet Communist
and the Jew on forged papers, the local head of the SS, who had
sent someone to his death that morning (though his hands were
so clean now) and his subordinate, who would soon commit suicide when he finally realized what he’d signed up for.
All political reference had been banned from the German stage
a year before, which had killed most cabaret. Aaron Morgenstern
survived, in part because he cultivated many influential friends,
but mostly because he could couch his bitter opinions in comedy so perfectly balanced that every side thought he was praising
them and condemning their opponents. The SS man nodded and
thought, Here is one Jew who knows his place, seeing in this Devil
every enemy of the German state. The man with the forged
Aryan papers knew the Devil was the Nazi Party, and delighted
in seeing him bend over. Coming into Der Teufel, catching the
coded secrets of Aaron’s diatribes, was the only way that he could
fight. It helped him keep a seed of rebellion in his heart, one that
might never sprout so long as he and his were safe, however tenuously, but all his life he could say that seed was there — that inside
himself he fought, by listening to the Morgenstern Devil.
“Get your father,” Herr Alder whispered as Aaron hobbled
offstage in his old-man disguise. He was replaced by a plump Bavarian who played a molting bird, her strategically placed feathers falling off here and there, to the delight of the men in the
In the dressing room, Hannah saw her glorious mother in trip-
tych in the hinged dressing mirror. “Am I late for my cue?” she
asked her daughter in English as she smoothed the edge of her
dark peekaboo waves. Born Caroline Curzon, she had come from
England after the Great War and married Aaron when she was
barely out of her teens, then adopted the stage name Cora Pearl
When Herr Alder came in she made a little moue, thinking
only that her performance preparations were being disrupted,
not her entire life. Hannah took her mother’s hand and they listened while Herr Alder drunkenly, incoherently explained.
A Jewish boy in Paris had shot a German diplomat. Why, no
one was sure. Was it a lovers’ quarrel? Was he angry that his
family — Polish Jews living in Germany — had been deported?
No one knew, but it was called a Jewish conspiracy and there had
been orders . . . no, not orders, but official collusion, Nazi Party
encouragement, to seek retaliation on all the Jews in Germany.
“They are coming now,” Herr Alder said. “The SS and their
minions, in plainclothes, and I have been ordered to . . . to not
interfere. To not interfere in such a way that I might render all
assistance necessary. Every Jewish business is to be vandalized,
burned. The synagogues destroyed. Men arrested for the labor
camps.” He went to take another gulp but, finding the flask empty, flung it across the room, where it crashed into Cora’s dressing table, smashing a crystal vial of scent. Though harsher smells
would permeate the coming tragedy, Hannah would always recall that whiff of Sous Le Vent’s tarragon and iris, disturbingly
tropical on that chill, cut-glass night.
Hannah saw the tremor of terror cross her father’s face, but
it passed almost at once. “You should take your turn onstage,
old friend. You’re overreacting. You’ve been predicting doom
“And it has been coming. Now it is here. They say they’ll
destroy every Jewish business, imprison you, send you to
Poland . . .”
“We’ve lived with that threat for years,” Aaron Morgenstern
said lightly. “They won’t touch me.”
But Cora’s pale brow furrowed. “Maybe now it is time, love.”
“It was time long ago!” Alder said. “When they cast your peo-
ple out of the civil service, you said only, ‘Good thing I’m not a
civil servant,’ and the Devil laughed. When they forbade your
people to teach in the universities, you said, ‘Well, I’m no intellectual, what does it matter?’ Do you think because you can make
a Gestapo brute chortle he won’t send you to Buchenwald? You’ll
laugh your way to the grave, and take your family with you.”
Aaron looked at his wife, her powdered porcelain face a deliberate mask of calm, and at his daughter, whose slight frame
seemed to him now so terrifyingly fragile. But Der Teufel! Its
bricks could endure anything, filled as they were with the goodwill of all the powerful men who had eaten and chuckled and
grown tipsy within its walls in the two decades since its founding.
He was host, he was jester, to the most powerful men of Berlin.
He’d been safe so far. Surely his luck would last. About one thing
he was adamant — he would not leave his cabaret. He had built
it — not its walls, perhaps, but its reputation, its glamour — and it
was his lifeblood.
Still in costume, he stroked his beard, pulling the tip into a
sharp point. “I won’t leave,” he said. “I’m a German. They’ll
come to their senses eventually. But, Cora, I think you and Hannah should go back to England for a while.”
“Hannah, yes,” Cora said, giving herself a little shake and turn-
ing away from them all to apply her lipstick with a slim golden
brush. Anyone watching her would have thought her cold, indifferent, but this was the only way she knew to tackle her deepest
troubles, to shoo them aside as if they were a cloud of summer
gnats, and deal with the task at hand brusquely and efficiently.
Hannah always thought of it as her mother’s Englishness, that
ability to balance problems so that a scuffed shoe and an impending disaster were almost equally distasteful, but both were borne
“But I have too much to do,” Cora went on. “Who will keep
the Edelweiss Twins in line if I’m in England, eh? Who will remember that oysters must be ordered on Thursday, and langoustines on Friday?” She shrugged her bare shoulders, then dusted
them with shimmering gold flakes. “No, it is ridiculous to think
I’d leave. Our business would crumble without me here.”
Hannah could see the pulse racing in the hollow of her moth-
er’s throat, and knew she loved her husband too much ever to
leave him voluntarily. The couple joined forces and turned on
“You, however, will go to my brother-in-law’s house. He will
be perfectly happy to take you in,” Cora said, with far more con-
fidence than she felt. “That should be easily arranged, no? Documents and such?”
“I will see that it is done,” Alder said. “But, Cora, you must go
too. You are an English citizen still, so you will have no trouble.
Our government is most adamant that foreigners not be inconvenienced. You, Aaron, will be harder to place, but perhaps if you
go first to France —”
“I told you, I’m not going. This is my business and —”
“Fool, what have I been telling you? The tide has turned, the
deluge has come. There will be no more Jewish businesses. They
are being confiscated, now, tonight, next week. It is the end for
you. I’ll help you with money, but —”
“They can’t do it!” Aaron shouted. “I own it free and clear. I
don’t owe a cent to any man. They can’t steal the property of a
Alder took his old friend by the shoulder. “The Jewish people
are no longer citizens of Germany,” he said gently. “You are an
Aaron could hear the muted cheers from the audience, officers
positively glittering with medals and insignia, industrial giants in
bespoke suits being insincerely adored by women their wives did
not know about. All the power of Berlin trickled in through his
door. They had toasted him. They had shaken his hand.
“I am an undesirable,” he repeated, trying to make sense of it.
“Der Teufel will be gone. Be smart and go first.”
The greatest men, Hannah remembered reading somewhere,
make the greatest decisions lightly. She saw something come over
her father then, a strange mix of resignation and triumph. “As it
happens,” the Devil said, “Der Teufel is no longer a Jewish business.” He brushed past his family and out of the dressing room,
taking the stage just as the buxom Bavarian shed her final feather.
“My friends,” he cried, “as the good lord gave plagues and pox to
his most faithful Job, I, the Devil, must be a contrarian, and to my
friends give gifts. Benno, come onstage, if you please.”
Whoever is in charge of such things had been sparing with
his blessings at the moment Benno was born. He had neither
looks nor wit nor skill. He was not large or strong, he could not
sing; in fact, he had a stammer, which on most occasions left him
self-consciously mute. One gift only had he been given, a gift as
simple as it is rare: the gift of pure goodness. He knew, unerringly, what was right, what was kind, what would make people
happy, and he did it without fail. His goodness took no effort;
there was no internal scale to be balanced. He hoped for no reward and feared no hell. He was not clever — in his final year of
school before the teachers despaired of him, he was asked how
he would equitably divide a half-pound loaf of bread among
himself and two friends. He said he would go without and
his two friends would each have a quarter pound, and neither
threats of failure nor the switch could persuade him to change
his answer. He had done odd jobs at Der Teufel ever since, supporting the grandmother who had raised him after his parents’
“Dear souls who are mine for this night, is there a lawyer in
the house?” Aaron asked. There were several, and one, chivvied
by his friends, gamely hopped up onto the low stage, thinking
he’d be part of a burlesque. There was a quick, whispered consultation, and then Aaron called for paper and pen. “Riches are
a curse in disguise, the camel through the needle’s eye and all
that, so the crafty Devil gives away his wealth. Perhaps if I am a
pauper, I can sneak into heaven behind the camel’s hump, eh?”
Aaron bent over and invited the lawyer to use his back as a
desk, while the audience, perplexed, waited for the punch line
and poor Benno lingered in the shadowed wings, hoping he
wasn’t really expected to do anything.
“There!” Aaron shouted. “All perfectly legal now, save for the
signatures. Come here, Benno, and make your X.”
Benno pushed his wheat-colored hair away from his face and
sheepishly came center stage. “Der Teufel is yours, my boy,” Aaron said, too softly for even the lawyer to hear. “I hope you’ll let
me stay on.” He smiled beneath his gray beard.
Benno’s face fell. “N - no!” he gasped, but couldn’t get any
more out. He didn’t know what it meant, but he didn’t want it.
Then he looked into Aaron’s eyes, glistening bright, and though
he didn’t understand what was happening in the least, suddenly
he knew on which path goodness lay. He signed his name.
“Witnesses!” Aaron called, shooing Benno out of the spotlight. “Champagne for everyone who puts his name as a witness
on this deed of sale!”
In the end there were thirty signatures crammed at the bottom of that document: the SS officer, a member of the Luftwaffe
High Command, the richest hotelier in Berlin, the city’s most
notorious madam. They did not know if it was avant-garde art
or absurdist comedy, but the transfer was real, and Der Teufel
belonged to simple Benno, who, after all, had one more gift, one
of particular value in the years to come — he was Aryan.
They came later that night when Hannah was onstage again,
singing one of her sweetest love songs. As the young couple’s
fingertips touched for the first time with poignant minor notes
that boded ill for their future, the door was shoved open and a
group of armed men stormed in. They weren’t in uniform, but
most were party men or SA or SS members, and after their first
bullhorn announcement that this Jewish-owned establishment
was hereby shut down, were rather chagrined to be told by patrons who happened to be their superiors, Shut up, we’re enjoying
our champagne. They smashed a window but were disheartened
to learn that despite what they had been told, Der Teufel was
no longer a Jewish cabaret. They checked a few papers, referred
to their list, then summoned Aaron Morgenstern to join them
for a conversation outside. Hannah tried to cling to him but he
brushed past her without appearing to recognize her. None of
the mob paid her the slightest attention. She was dressed once
more in her blond wig and dirndl.
They kicked her father to the gutter as she watched, while
her mother dug her nails into her daughter’s arm, pulses of pain
sending the silent coded message: Do nothing. By law you are Jewish too. Down the street, all through Berlin, worse was happening. Storefronts were smashed, inventory burned. A synagogue
two blocks away was in flames, its relics plundered or destroyed.
Dimly, Hannah saw someone surrounded, heard laughter, saw a
ghoulish figure raise a sledgehammer. Old women were thrown
out of their homes in their nightclothes, their teeth still in jars at
their bedsides. Young men were rounded up for Dachau. A shot
rang out. Another. And through it all, like the crackling of a wildfire, breaking glass.
Aaron was lucky. Seeing an old man in this Devil’s disguise,
they decided he was unfit for labor and set him loose with no
more than a split lip and a cracked rib. Der Teufel’s juggler and
two of the waiters were taken to labor camps, and only the juggler ever returned, years later, gaunt and lash scarred.
Near morning, when all was still at last, Hannah crept out to
the street. The infernal gasses of the neon devil still glowed above
her, pulsing red, leering at the river of glass shards and knockedout teeth and once-prized possessions littering the boulevard.
This was mine, she thought, looking out at Berlin. This was my
city. I loved it. It loved me.
Numbly, she found a broom behind the door and tried to clear
away some of the rubble, murmuring all the while, “My city . . .
my city . . .” Before long, a middle-aged man came by, a man with
kind, tired eyes, a baker or grocer up early to open his store.
“Don’t bother with that, Fräulein,” he said pleasantly. “A nice
girl like you needs her beauty sleep. They’ll drag out some Jew
dogs to clean up the mess soon enough.” He tipped his cap to her.
She watched him pick his way carefully through the glittering
glass fangs, a typical Berliner, who smiled at pretty young girls
and worried about his neighbor. A good man, except for one
When he was gone, she ripped the forgotten blond wig off her
head and flung it after him.
Hannah, the Unfortunate Fruit
Hannah stood at the gate of Starkers and watched her cab
motor away. The driver had been paid by the Jewish Aid Committee to deliver her from the refugee agency, and he was not at
all pleased to have to go so far out of his London route with no
possibility of a tip from what was so obviously a penniless waif. It
was only when he was gone that Hannah realized the castle was
half a mile away from the gate.
“Oh, well,” she said aloud. “Makes me rather glad I don’t have
any luggage after all.” She straightened her travel-shabby hat and
contemplated the dusty trek to her new home.
She’d been forced to stay at the refugee agency for several days
after all of her baggage and money were stolen. She tried to pay
them for their help. Cora, though scrupulously loyal to Aaron,
was after all beautiful and popular, and it was beyond her power
to refuse the strands of pearls that many admirers, inspired by
her name, forced on her. She had perfected the art of saying no in
a tone that implied if only, and even as she aged, the pearls continued to come. Most had been sold through the years to pay for the
cabaret, but she’d sewn the remainder into Hannah’s skirt seams.
The refugee agency refused to accept them, saying she should
save them for her parents when they finally followed her to England.
“His Lordship will pay you back, I’m sure,” she told them.
Now she pushed open the heavy iron gate and stepped onto
the grounds. In the distance she could see the crenelated heights
of Starkers Castle.
For a second, she forgot shattered glass, distant family, the
terror of the last weeks and the loneliness of the past days, and
surrendered to the magnificent absurdity of it all. To think that
because her mother’s older sister had been married to a little man
called Peregrine for a few months before she and her baby died in
childbirth (A few months only? Hannah suddenly wondered, counting to nine and discovering possible scandal), she should have an
earl’s estate as a sanctuary.
“You must accept any treatment, be prepared for any harsh
words they might throw at you,” her mother had warned. “My
sister was not considered a suitable match, and then, when she
was dead, they didn’t approve of me moving to Germany. I had
become family through marriage, you see, and they thought
they should control me, for the sake of the family’s reputation.
They’ve acknowledged your connection and have agreed to take
you in, but don’t expect them to be kind. It will only be for a
while. Whatever happens, however they treat you, you must
promise to stay at Starkers until we come. I need to know you’re
safe with family. Even an unloving family.”
Hannah didn’t believe her mother’s gloomy prognostication.
She stood still on the frost-browned grass at the winding roadside
and knew exactly what Starkers would be like.
“It’s straight out of P. G. Wodehouse,” she said aloud, too
loud, grinning for the first time in weeks.
“I live in hope,” said a voice behind her. She hadn’t even heard
the car, it was so quiet, a sleek black Bugatti coupe looking like
a panther stretched full-spring. Inside the rolled-down window,
a rakish face looked up at her. “We have the aunts, we have the
valet, we even have a silver cow creamer.” He pushed his floppy,
too-long chestnut hair out of his eyes. “But no matter what pains
I take to set up a clever screwball comedy, my family remains
“Except for you,” Hannah said, eyeing the Bugatti.
He laughed, the freest laugh she had ever heard. It would
knock down prison walls. “No, I’m rarely a pedestrian. I imagine myself taking long woodland strolls, but like the Wodehouse,
staging it never quite happens. I’m always behind a wheel or atop
a horse. You must be a new one.”
“Rather new,” she said, blushing.
She nodded, reminding herself to sound English. She could,
of course, but since even her mother spoke German most
the time, her English tended to be accented unless she thought
“We just got another one last week. Hop in — I’ll take you to
Hannah ran around to the other side.
“You read Wodehouse, eh? I hope this doesn’t sound too
bigoted, but I never thought of a refugee maid reading . . . oh,
Hannah was so entranced by his poetic way of calling her a
maid — for maiden, she assumed, another example of ever-changing English slang — that she found herself holding the car door
open for the large blond woman who had just pulled up outside
the gate in a second cab. Her hair was twisted into fantastic serpentines, and her very long dress was a shade away from white,
just enough so that her attire suggested virginal glamour, not
nursing. Her gloves, however, were pure white and immaculate.
She slid into the two-seater.
“Thanks,” the woman said, to the driver, not to Hannah. “Oh,
you’re not a chauffeur.”
“Lord Winkfield, at your humble service, madam.”
“I know, embarrassing to no end, but what can one do? Still,
ever so slightly better than Lord Liripip, what? May it be many
years before I accede to my father’s title, for more reasons than
one. My mother is expecting you, I believe.”
He seemed to suddenly remember Hannah, standing at the
car-side, a shadowed little obscurity. “I’ll be back for you directly,”
he said, with a smile that had the decency to be contrite.
“But I —” Hannah began, only to be cut off as the blond wom-
an slammed the door. The Bugatti sent up refined puffs of dust,
which settled on Hannah’s travel-stained suit.
She waited . . . and waited . . . and waited, staring hungrily at
the castle, thinking, in an abstract sort of way, about the young
man she’d just almost met. As glib, but not, she thought, as foolish as a Wodehouse hero. He was Lord Liripip’s only son and heir.
Her mother had given her a rundown on all of the family, from
pottering old Liripip, who had married and buried two wives in
quick succession before finally producing an heir, to Lady Liripip,
who, unlike the more congenial wives before her, steadfastly refused to expire. There were two married daughters by the first
late wife who, with their broods, often occupied Starkers. There
was the obligatory eccentric uncle best known for riding to the
hounds à la Godiva, minus the hair. All this Hannah’s mother
had gleaned from the society pages of English-language papers
that trickled into Berlin a few days out of date. Of personalities,
though, she could offer little, except to say that Lord Liripip almost always meant well, and Lady Liripip didn’t.
The line of kicked-up road dust between Hannah and the
castle had time to rise and settle again, and still no one came for
her. She could have walked — she was bone weary from her journey, and from a fright she hardly let herself acknowledge, but she
could have walked. However, he had said he would come back,
so out of courtesy she waited. There was a square hunk of rock
outside a faux guardhouse. She sat upon it and, to pass the time,
took out an oft-folded copy of the letter Lady Liripip had sent.
You should know, Caroline, that my husband has never
forgiven you for leaving England when he was in mourning
for your late sister. It showed a most irresponsible and, may
I say, unkind spirit. And to marry a foreigner, a stage jester
no less, when Lord Liripip would have been so pleased to arrange a union more suited to your fine family connections!
And now you say the unfortunate fruit of that mésalliance
must come to England? You never lacked nerve, Caroline.
Very well, she may certainly come, but mark my words, we
will teach her better than anyone ever taught you about
what it means to be an Englishwoman of good blood and
family. Here at Starkers, she will learn her proper place.
It was a hard letter, from a hard woman, Hannah could see
that, and rested on her mother’s assurance that Lord Liripip was a
gentle, easygoing man. No one had ever been unkind to Hannah,
and she imagined Lady Liripip as a character, a stereotype, whose
company one endured stoically, but whom one laughed at behind
Hannah and her mother had had a good laugh together over
that term, the unfortunate fruit, and Cora had taken to calling her
daughter by that name, with wry affection. She’d been wary of
putting Hannah’s full name in any of the letters, never being
quite sure what the government might read. A neighbor had been
taken in for questioning after writing to a Russian acquaintance
about beet-seed, though her only Communist leanings were toward the neighborhood’s communal vegetable garden. If anyone
knew Cora was desperate to get her daughter out of Germany, it
might attract attention. If she wanted to get out so badly, could
it be because she was hiding something, selling secrets, dangerous in some way? The world was changing, Cora knew, and one
couldn’t be too careful. So she used her maiden name, Caroline
Curzon, and Hannah’s first name alone, giving a hotel as her return address.
Hannah had a particular aptitude for being sanguine in
the face of trouble. Looking at the castle, at the grounds, she
couldn’t help but believe that Lady Liripip would be far less formidable than she appeared in her letter. Her parents would leave
Germany in a few weeks without a hitch, and they would be together again, free of all danger. Why, in a few months Germany
would probably come to its senses and a change of government
would leave them free to go home again. Meanwhile, she was on
So she told herself, and tried to believe it. Then the sun shift-
ed, casting clear slanting light on the dewy grass, and each silver
drop shone like shattered glass. She shivered, feeling a gimlet of
panic prod through the assurance she’d wrapped around herself.
Was it here too, in this idyllic spot? The hate and the pain and the
It couldn’t be, because here, suddenly, was music, lilting over
the grounds, and where there was music those bad things could
not exist. The past days of travel were the first she’d spent in her
entire life without being constantly enveloped in song. There was
always someone practicing at Der Teufel — comic songs, ballads
of tragic love, wry and subtle political songs that hid their jabs
in syncopation. Scales rose and fell in the background of her life
as birdsong does for a country dweller. And Hannah herself was
rarely without a tune, murmuring songs as she bustled through
her work in that low contralto so startlingly at odds with her slight
form. Among the things she had given up — family and home —
was music. In addition to her cabaret performances, she’d been
taking private lessons most of her life, and her teacher thought it
might be time to collect on the favor the director of the Vienna
Opera owed him and send his young protégée.
She’d resigned herself to the loss of her career, because she
told herself it was only a temporary loss. Even if she couldn’t
go back to Germany, even if Austria never welcomed her, there
was opera in England, wasn’t there? At worst she could take supporting roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — they, along with
Wodehouse, were her standard for interpreting the English. But
it was only now that she realized how acutely she missed music in her everyday life. There had been no singing on the train,
where she’d trembled at every stop and checkpoint. There had
been no singing on the Channel crossing, during which she had
been most humiliatingly ill. The refugee office had been all bustle
and efficiency, everyone far too busy to pause for a song.
Now, as the uplifted voice reached her ears, she felt she was
breathing for the first time in days, and gasped it in eagerly. She
saw him then, a strapping fellow a little older than she, with
that typical floppy English hair, a shade or two darker than Lord
Winkfield’s. He was pushing a wheelbarrow, belting out a song
she’d never heard before but that she instantly wanted to steal
and translate for Der Teufel.
She was still puzzling out how she could change it to German,
the impossibility of it making her mouth curl most becomingly,
when the man parked his barrow at her feet.
“You’re the new maid?” he asked.
It occurred to Hannah that either she’d missed some colloqui-
alism in her mother’s English or expressions had changed since
her mother had left the country. She knew women were called
bird, chick, hen. It sounded so medieval to be called a maid, but if
that was the slang of the day . . .
“I am. I’ve just arrived.”
He grinned at her. “I know. If you’d been here already you’d
already be my girl.” He winked at her, and it was so like the back-
stage flirtation, which never meant a thing, that she felt instantly
at home. “Just remember, I’ve called dibs. Why have a footman
when you can have a gardener? Well, under-gardener.”
“Does that mean you just do the potatoes and bulbs and
“Under-gardener for underground things! Oh, you’re a doozy,
you are. And not quite as scary as the other new refugee maid.
Whoo-ee, but she could eat a man alive! You’re a much handier
morsel. Now, where are your things?”
“I don’t have any. They were . . . lost.” She was ashamed to
admit she was foolish enough to have let them be stolen. No, the
truth must be faced squarely. “When I was getting off the boat
someone in an official-looking cap took my bags and said to follow him to the cab. He wove through the crowd and I never saw
him or my bags again.”
“Cheeky. But not so cheeky as me. I would have asked for a
tip. I’m Hardy, by the way. That’s your cue to play Nelson and say
Kiss me, Hardy. I tell you in case you don’t know, being a foreigner.
Though you hardly speak like one. I will, you know.”
“Kiss you, of course.”
“No, thank you,” she said amiably.
“Suit yourself. Hop in.” He tipped the barrow.
She glanced up at distant Starkers. What would they think?
Suddenly, she didn’t care. She was herself, Hannah Morgenstern.
Let others take her as they may.
She slid her tush into the wheelbarrow, crossed her ankles
neatly, and began to sing, catching the words easily.
A few minutes later, Lord Liripip, nursing his gout and scribbling away at his memoirs in an upstairs library, heard the melodious uproar and heaved himself to the window, ready to yell
or chuck a volume of Trollope at the offender. He froze as soon
as he drew a preparatory breath, for below him was nothing less
than a memory made flesh, a delicious and painful spirit coursing
down his throat, warming and intoxicating and befuddling him.
There, cavorting on the green, was his youth. There, raising her
voice in unselfconscious song, was the love of his life, many years
gone, made fresh and new again. The resemblance was only superficial, he realized a moment later — a small, lissome, vibrant
form, dark hair parted virginally dead center over quizzical black
brows. What really caught him was her animalistic joy. Like another girl, many years before, she seemed to have a sense that no
one else’s opinion mattered in the slightest, yet combined with
that, a total lack of selfishness. I will make myself happy, her free
voice and body seemed to say, and through that, may you be made
happy too. If not . . . a shrug, a gay laugh, and on with the Maenad
frenzy of sheer living.
It hurled Lord Liripip into his past, to a time when he still had
hope of happiness. Now, all he had were the things that made
other people assume he was happy: vast amounts of money, a
secure estate, and a son to carry it all on after he was gone.
Leaning out the window to see her better, he twisted his big
toe at a painful angle and staggered back, crystalline needles stabbing his swollen joint. “Damned hooligans,” he swore. But he did
not hurl the Trollope.
Hannah and Hardy reached the front steps. “Is that an actual
portcullis?” she asked in awe.
“That gate thing? No, this castle isn’t real, you know.”
Hannah cocked her head up at the massive edifice. It looked
“It’s neo-romantic,” Hardy said, pronouncing the term carefully, as if it might get stuck on his tongue if he wasn’t careful.
“Built not more than a hundred years ago, after they knocked
down something really old, and made to look like five hundred.
’Cept the heating’s better, a bit. That’s what Umbel, the head gardener, says, anyway, when the ladies from the gardening clubs
come on tour days. That’s only once or twice a year, though.
Lord Liripip hates outsiders.”
“What will he think of me, then?”
“Fancy him thinking of you at all!” Hardy said, laughing.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” For she’d mounted the
smooth-edged marble stairs and grabbed the velvet bell-pull.
She turned back to him, wondering why he looked so aghast.
Was she supposed to wait for him to ring the bell for her? She had
no patience for inaction, or the indolence of propriety. Hannah
acutely remembered going to her mother in tears of laughter
one time when she’d read some English melodrama in which the
heroine had never once in her eighteen years of existence put on
her own stockings. It is true, Cora had said with a rueful smile.
English ladies — real English ladies — are notorious for doing as little
as possible, except ride to the hounds. There are servants for everything else. Young Hannah had scrunched up her face into unaccustomed earnestness and said, Then, Mama, I am glad you moved
to Germany. I should not like to do nothing all day. And shouldn’t the
servants get awfully tired?
There were workers in Der Teufel, of course, and she supposed technically they were servants, but they were employees
who became friends and happened to sweep and wash dishes,
not some lesser form of life evolved to do all of the unpleasant
chores. She had no class divide in her life. Certainly, her father
had owned the cabaret, and if a city official was sick behind the
potted palm Mr. Morgenstern wasn’t the one to clean it up, but
when they celebrated some new act, everyone from the busboys
to the stars drank champagne and kissed one another.
“Thank you so much, Hardy,” she said. “Perhaps when I
have the leisure you can show me around the garden. I am so
fond of flowers, though I know nothing about how to grow
them, only how to catch them.” She closed her eyes a moment,
recalling a massive bouquet of golden roses an old man had shakily thrown to her after (what else?) a sheep song. She’d buried her
face in the blooms, dizzy with sweetness, the petals like a lover’s
fingertips . . .
Dreaming, remembering, she pulled the bell.
She raised her beatific face to the answering butler, Coombe,
who thought he had seen something similar reproduced in one of
the improving circulars to which he subscribed, a portrait of Saint
Someone in Ecstasy, perhaps Theresa, or Cecelia, or even Francis.
He was so taken by her shining, transported countenance that
it was a full three seconds before he noticed her shabby clothes,
the dark circles under her eyes, her gloveless little paws, and mustered a severe frown that still contained, visible only in a twitch in
its sinister corner, a hint of avuncular benevolence.
“We do not use the front door,” he said, the we sounding more
royal than inclusive.
“What door do we use, then?” Hannah asked, sounding once
again quite German in her perplexity.
“Back entrance only, strictly observed,” he said, then, allowing
himself a little joke, “except, of course, on stair-scrubbing days.”
He shut the door in her face.
“But . . .” Hannah attempted.
He opened it enough to point to her right, and shut it with
stern finality. Then he went to inform the housekeeper that the
new kitchen maid had arrived, and was going to need a good deal
Mrs. Wilcox, the housekeeper, sighed deeply, a luxury she
only allowed herself in the company of her old friend Coombe.
“It’s Himself ’s digestion will suffer for it. Cook’s in such a state, I
don’t know how she’ll ever cope with an untrained creature.”
Cook was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or quitting,
or perhaps jumping for joy, or all three, because only a week before, she’d been humble under-cook Sally Mayweather, a step
above kitchen maid, a vast canyon below the lofty Cook. But the
old cook, Trapp, had fallen ill and been sent to a sister in Lyme
Regis to recover, which, the doctors owned, she might never do,
and now her underling had taken her position. It was an honor, a
significant increase in salary — and a job of terrifying responsibility requiring the strategy of a general combined with the steady
hand of a surgeon, the aesthetics of an artist, and the human understanding of a Viennese psychiatrist. She had two other kitchen
maids to help her, but neither was competent enough to fill her
old position of under-cook, and they had to be chivvied through
even the most mundane tasks. Now she moaned to whoever
would listen that she could not possibly prepare daily feasts for
the Liripips, never mind the absolute banquets when there were
guests, with an incompetent staff.
But she had, for the past few weeks. The kitchen maids had
gone to sleep after midnight on tear-stained pillows, but every
bite, from delicate crustless cress tea sandwiches to haunches of
venison to a splendid charlotte russe, had been perfection.
Coombe, remembering that ecstatic Cherubino face, said,
without much hope, “Perhaps she’ll do.”
She would no doubt do for something, but probably not for
On Sale: February 4, 2014
When Willa Dixon’s brother dies on the family lobster
boat, her father forbids Willa from stepping foot on deck
again. With her family suffering, she’ll do anything to
help out—even visit the Grey Man. Everyone in her small
Maine town knows of this legendary spirit who haunts the
lighthouse, controlling the fog and the fate of any vessel
within his reach. But what Willa finds in the lighthouse
isn’t a spirit at all, but a young man trapped inside until
he collects one thousand souls. Desperate to escape his
cursed existence, Grey tries to seduce Willa to take his
place. With her life on land in shambles, will she sacrifice
The hope was used up; all we had left was superstition.
That’s why Seth Archambault took my place on my father’s
fishing boat. That’s why I stacked egg-salad sandwiches in a
cooler instead of pulling on my oil clothes.
“Bad luck to have a woman or a pig onboard,” my father told
me over dinner the night before. Mom didn’t blink; she knew it
“Which one am I?” I asked.
Dad didn’t answer. He drained his coffee, then drifted from
the table. His weighted steps shook the floor as he jammed
a baseball cap onto his greying head. Last summer, his hair
gleamed copper, the same watery shade as mine.
Old-time navy tales said it was supposed to be bad luck to
have redheads aboard too, but we Dixons had proved that wrong
for years. Like a bunch of Down East Weasleys, we’d always
been ginger. Even the black-and-white pictures in Gran’s albums
showed generations of freckles on milky faces and waved hair
too in-between to be blond or brunet.
And let’s be honest. We were moored when my brother, Levi,
He fell onto the boat. Into my arms. And he died on the dock.
So, technically, our bad luck lately had nothing to do with redheads, pigs, or women onboard the Jenn-a-Lo.
But it wasn’t an argument I wanted to have before sending
my father and my boyfriend into new October seas. That’s why
I got up with a dawn I couldn’t see and made sandwiches I didn’t
like. Leaving through the back door, I kicked Levi’s boots out of
my way and headed for the water.
The fog cloaked me in dewy silk. It tasted cool and beaded in
my hair. I moved through it uneasily. My walk was familiar, but
the world was hidden — I held my hand out to touch everything
I could to guide me.
At the end of my walk, the Jenn-a-Lo slept where she always
did when we weren’t fishing her. But she was a ghost in the mist;
we all were. An unseen harbor bell called, answered by the sleepy
bump of boats against their slips.
Conversations drifted in the air, disconnected from breath
and body. But I recognized the voices — Mr. O’Toole wanted
to know if Zoe Pomroy still had his coffee grinder. Mal Eldrich
asked if it was cold enough for Lane Wallace, which got him
soundly cursed because it was the 275th day that year he’d asked
it, and he’d no doubt ask it for the remaining ninety.
This was Broken Tooth before fishing started for the day:
the wharf alive with ordinary, daring men and women. They
laughed and cussed and got ready to sail on seas that would be
just as happy to swallow them as feed them.
More likely than not, this had always been Broken Tooth. For
the Passamaquoddy who fished here first, then for the English
and French and Scots-Irish who drove them out.
Funny thing was, it never used to be this foggy. We’d have
some, but everybody talked about how Broken Tooth didn’t get
blessed much, but we got blessed with clear waters. Not anymore; seemed like it hadn’t been clear since Levi died. It was our
With a heavy sigh, I hurried to the Jenn-a-Lo. At first, just the
red script of her name floated up in the fog. Trailing my hand
along the rail, the boat took shape. She wasn’t new; she wasn’t
beautiful. I loved her all the same.
Thankfully, in the pale of a frosted morning, I couldn’t make
out the shadow of Levi’s blood, stained into the warp of the
wood dock. Before I could think about it, a hand reached out of
the mist to take mine.
“Egg salad?” Seth asked.
“What else?” I said, and stepped onboard. Putting the cooler
down, I slid it across the deck with a firm shove, then turned to
find him. He was a shadow in the haze, then suddenly a boy. My
In my orbit, Seth touched me with hands just as certain as my
steps toward the shore had been. Brushing my lips against his
jaw, I curled closer to him so I could slip toward his mouth. His
skin was cool; at first, he tasted of coffee and Juicy Fruit.
The second kiss, though, tasted like nothing but want. That
was the beauty of a silver morning: it was possible to steal away
with someone without moving at all.
When I broke the kiss, I pressed my brow to Seth’s temple.
“You better be careful.”
“Always,” he said.
“Make Dad eat,” I went on.
Seth’s breath spread heat across my cheek. “I’ll ask him to,
“Don’t feel bad if you’re just changing water in the pots,” I
continued. “Or pulling seeders and v-notches. That’s just fishing
this time of year.”
I felt him smile. “I’ve got this, Willa.”
Of course he did. I knew he did. But I felt strangely stripped,
knowing that I wouldn’t be my father’s sternman today. As fine
a fisherman as Seth was, he didn’t know the particular rhythms
of our boat. Her quirks waited to catch him, as if winter seas
weren’t wicked enough. It was supposed to be clear and cold
today if the fog ever lifted, but there was no accounting for the
“Mind the hauler. It’s sticky,” I told him, and smoothed off his
knit cap so I could run my fingers through his hair.
Seth bowed his head, catching me in another needy kiss. Possessive, his hand tightened on my hip, and I twisted my fingers
in his hair. Selfishly, I wanted to leave him with an edge, troubled
by a hunger he couldn’t satisfy.
That was the one thing I was still sure of, that Seth Archambault wanted me more than he wanted anything else in the world.
Catching his lower lip between my teeth, I tugged it as I pulled
away. And then I put my back to him, walking off as quickly as I
In my family, we never said hello or goodbye — another superstition. That one came from my mother’s side of the family.
Without hello, you couldn’t mark a beginning. To avoid an ending, of course you went without goodbye.
Maybe whoever started it thought they could live forever. All
they had to do was trick time into believing their lives were a
single, uninterrupted moment.
They were wrong.
Bailey didn’t come to a full stop in front of my house. Instead,
she pushed the passenger-side door open and yelled, “Get in,
Running alongside her battered pickup, I threw my apron
and rake inside. The truck picked up speed on the incline, and
I lunged for the door. And there I was, hand on window frame,
feet off the ground. For a second, I was flying. Then I was rolling
like a loose marble into the truck’s cab. I fell against the seat with
“What, you’re too good for seat belts now?” Bailey asked.
I made a point of shutting the door before bothering to belt
in. “Well, yeah. You’re still too good to get your brakes fixed.”
“That’s what friends do,” I told her.
It was easy to smile with Bailey Dyer. We grew up together,
literally. We met when our mothers, best friends, had plopped us
in the same crib. We entertained each other while they played
If you start out sharing a diaper bag with somebody, it’s easy
to share everything else. Bailey knew to the minute when I got
my first period. She came out to me before anyone else. It’s not
like our moms were shocked by either of those developments,
but it was still nice to have a secret-keeper.
“So is Seth . . .” Bailey started, turning the radio down. She
didn’t finish the thought. It was a blank for me to fill in, offered
“Yeah, he’s out there.” I put my feet on the dashboard and
sighed. She knew I hated it; she’d listened to me rasp my throat
raw over it last night. But that was last night, and by daylight, I
had to be practical. “Not a lot to be done about it, you know?”
Bailey drummed the steering wheel. “You could kneecap
“You can’t dance in casts, dude.”
“Like you care about the fall formal,” Bailey said.
“Seth does. I think he bought a ring.”
She cut a look at me, her brown eyes sparkling. “You’re going
to say yes, right?”
The weight of the air changed around us. Finally, I said, “I
don’t know,” and leaned against my window. Instead of saying
something useless, Bailey raised her brows and nodded, focusing
on the rough road.
It was junior year, the deciding year. I’d planned to take the
SAT with Bailey, just to lend her moral support. College had
never been in my plans. I was going to marry Seth and fish with
my father until he was too weathered to go out. Then the boat
would be mine, then my kids’, then theirs . . . It was a good life,
a beautiful inevitability.
And it was gone.
A little farther down the road, Bailey asked, “Why not?”
“I can’t.” I said. “I’ve been paying the mortgage, Bay. Dad
hasn’t been out since Levi died. What if he never gets back out
“He’s fishing today.” Bailey threw her shoulders back. “Okay,
I know, with Seth. But if he won’t take you out, buy your own
boat. Pay their mortgage and yours, too . . . oh.”
“Hey, look,” I said, plucking my roll of apron and rake off the
seat. “Mud flats.”
Bailey dropped out of gear, then put all her weight onto the
brake. We rolled to a stop on the gravel shoulder. The engine
shuddered, making the whole truck shake before it finally went
The old girl was a junk heap, and Bailey would have been better off buying a new one. But she was saving for college. Finessing another four thousand miles out of a Ford that should have
been put down was a matter of pride.
We had that in common.
I got to the back first, unhitching the thing to get to our digging gear. The tailgate fell, rusty flakes fluttering to the ground
as we pulled on rubber waders and tied each other’s aprons. The
former were necessary, the latter an in-joke.
They were our freshman home-arts project: uneven gingham
monstrosities that would have made our grandmothers roll in
their graves. Our aprons were thin and threadbare. Even if they
weren’t, fact was, nothing was going to keep us clean.
Snatching up our rakes and buckets, we started down the
rocky incline to the shore. Low tide had taken the water out,
leaving a gleaming expanse of grey mud. Thin-boned pine trees
sheltered us from the wind; this cove was a good place to go digging because of that. With the tree break, the cove stayed a little
warmer a little longer. If we were lucky, we’d have until the end
Mussel shells decorated the flat, black and white bouquets
that could cut as clean as a knife. Bailey walked down a few yards
so we wouldn’t get in each other’s way, and we got to work.
Piercing into the mud with my rake, I flipped it and reached in
with bare hands. Nothing. Breath frosting in the air, I moved up
and started a new row.
“First!” Bailey cried.
I looked over, and she held a bloodworm high, presenting it
to me with a smirk. The little monster twisted on itself, trying
to get its black teeth into her wrist. Bailey dropped it into her
bucket and said, “That’s what you get for changing the subject. I
win, you lose.”
“I like how classy you are,” I replied. “All class, that’s you.”
Slapping her own butt, Bailey left a handprint. “Kiss it,
I flicked a handful of mud in her direction, then went back to
digging. Bloodworms didn’t look like much, but on a long low
tide, we could each pull three hundred. At a quarter apiece, that
added up. For Bailey, her college fund. Lately, for me, the bills my
parents couldn’t manage.
“So . . .” Bailey dared again, because she was my best friend
and knew she could get away with it. “How far out are they
gonna have to go, do you think?”
“A ways.” Cutting mud and pulling worms, I didn’t lift my
head, but I did raise my voice so Bailey could hear me. “Looks
like those mokes on Monhegan aren’t the only ones on winter
lobster this year, I guess.”
“You remember that one girl?” The from Monhegan was implied.
I pulled a worm, dumping it in my bucket. “Yep. Crazy like
everybody else out there.”
“You ain’t lying,” Bailey replied.
And then, because I could, in the middle of a mud flat, just
the two of us and nobody else, I dared to say a wish out loud.
“After this summer, we need a good season.”
Bailey hauled her boots from the mud and moved to a new
patch. Invoking casual magic, she said, “Ask the Grey Man. It
A ghost, or a revenant, maybe a cursed sailor or faery — who,
or what, the Grey Man was was up for debate. People couldn’t
even agree that it was a man. Some of the old-timers insisted it
was a Grey Lady.
But we all agreed that he lived in the lighthouse on Jackson’s
Rock, and if you could get him on your side, you’d have the best
fishing of your life.
It was a lot like the Norwegians biting the head off a herring,
or throwing the first catch back for luck. Chewing on anise and
spitting on the hooks. Leaving women behind and never setting
sail on a Friday. Old rituals we kept to guarantee the impossible:
all good weather, no bad days.
But in our bones, we knew it was blizzards and nor’easters
and squall lines that sank ships. Draggers and trawlers and people from away stealing our catches and leaving nothing for our
pots. Government dopes making us trade float line for sink line,
twice as expensive, lost twice as much.
In lobstering, nothing was certain — except the lighthouse on
Jackson’s Rock. And that was automatic and empty. If there was
a Grey Man, he had lousy taste in real estate. No one went to
Jackson’s Rock and likely no one ever would. Just thinking about
it made my head hurt.
Then again, maybe he was right where he meant to be —
where no one could ask him a favor. Where he’d never have to
grant one. Like most faery stories, the price was probably too
high. My family had paid enough for our calling this year.
We couldn’t spare anything else.
After selling my catch at the worm cellar, I wasn’t ready to go
home yet. The ocean flowed with new colors, crimson and gold.
Sunset transformed the shore. It called the sailors and the fishermen home.
Pushing my hands into my back pockets, I walked down the
dock. It was easy to tell who’d gone far out, past the island, halfway to Georges Bank. Nothing held their berths at the pier but
short, choppy waves. No sign of Daddy and Seth yet either.
Lobsters liked warm water — that’s why summer fishing was
easy. As the seasons changed, they marched to the depths. They
were safer away from shore. The rest of us, not really. Cold, open
waters, waiting for drowning storms . . .
I wasn’t gonna think about that. Once everybody came home
safe, that would be the time to think dark thoughts.
Lifting my face to the wind, I walked over warped wood.
Maybe it was crazy, but I loved the way it tilted beneath my
feet. Being able to walk over it without looking filled me with a
strange sense of pride. Like it was proof I belonged there. That
this was my place and my destiny.
“That you, Willa?” Zoe Pomroy asked.
I couldn’t see her, but it was easy to follow her voice. Turning
down her slip, I approached the Lazarus, following the scent of
coffee to the teal and white boat all the way at the end. That was
the only place it fit.
Zoe had one of the bigger ships in our fleet. Fifty foot, with
what amounted to an apartment inside. She had a kitchen and
a head, a cabin and a guest room. When the weather was good,
Zoe lived aboard. Daddy liked to give her hell about fishing from
a yacht, but I admired her.
Leaning over the rail, Zoe grinned down at me. “I got something good today.”
“What’s that?” I asked, already climbing aboard.
Lamps illuminated the cabin. Everything inside gleamed,
dark wood polished to a sheen. From the stern, I could make
out the galley and the table. The rest of Zoe’s floating condo
required an invitation.
“I’ve been pulling traps for damn near thirty years,” she said,
opening a cooler on deck. She reached inside, hefting a lobster
out with her bare hands. Its claws were already banded, so the
worst it could do was wriggle at her. “And I’ve never seen one of
In the dimming dusk, it was hard to make out what kind of
wonder she had. The lobster was kinda big, but nothing special.
Then Zoe dipped him into the light that spilled from the
cabin. A spark of excitement raced through me. He was blue.
Not kinda sorta, if you squint at a green lobster, you might see
some bluish spots. No, this was a deep shade, halfway to navy.
Midnight freckles and powder blue joints, even his eyes were a
hazy shade of midnight.
“Hot damn, Zoe, that’s something else.”
More than a little irritated — he’d probably been passed
around to half of Broken Tooth by now — Old Blue the lobster
curled his tail under. Flailing his claws, he wanted to pinch me.
He just couldn’t. I trailed a finger down his segmented tail and
hefted him in my hand. He was eight pounds, easy.
“You taking him back?” I asked.
Nodding, Zoe leaned against the rail. “Yeah. He’s bigger than
legal, but I wouldn’t have kept him anyway.”
She didn’t have to explain. Lobsters like these, we shared
them. Took pictures, handed them around. Then we gave them
back to the ocean. It balanced things; it reminded the water gods
and the universe that we appreciated all of it. That we weren’t so
greedy to keep every last creature we pulled in our traps.
And it meant somebody else might find him later. Nobody
knew how old a lobster could get. In fact, left alone, they might
live forever. Every year, they shed their shells and grew a new
one. Nothing limited how big they could grow.
Up in Nova Scotia, they found one that weighed forty-four
pounds. Forget losing a finger to a lobster — that thing could
break arms with its claws.
So if we gave back the big ones, the blue ones, the ones that
were special, there was a little bit of immortality attached to it.
In two days, or two hundred years, somebody else might haul it
up. Take pictures, pass it around. Past to present, lobsterman to
I watched Zoe put Old Blue back in the cooler. “You see Dad
and Seth out there today?”
“This morning,” she said. Straightening, she dried her hands
on her jeans. Nodding toward the cabin, she invited me inside.
“Past the Rock, heading on out. You want some coffee?”
Back home, the house sat empty. Mom was at work, and
Daddy was still out. There was nothing in that house but unnatural quiet, so I took a cup of Zoe’s coffee, and another one
after it. Just to stay on the water a little longer.
Just to be close to the sea.
Someone out there is thinking about me.
I feel it, as surely as I feel the wrought-iron stairs shake beneath me.
It’s a quickening, a bright silver sting that plays along my skin. It bites,
it taunts. I measure my breath and hurry downstairs in spite of it. Or
because of it. I don’t know anymore.
The brick walls around me weep, exhausted from keeping the elements outside, but it’s only fair. I’m exhausted too. I hold off a great
deal more than wind and salt spray.
As ever, the table is set with linens and silver. As ever, the candles are
lit. My prison is an elegant one. I don’t remember when that started to
When I was alive, I hated shaving each morning. I hated vests and
breakfast jackets, cuff links, tie tacks, looking presentable. Now they’re
ritual. Acts I perform as if I could walk back into my world at any moment. And I can’t. I never will.
Not even if she is thinking about me.
Sinking into my chair, I tell myself very firmly: stop wondering
about her. Her thoughts aren’t formed. They aren’t real yet. She’s not
a possibility; this is not the end. And if I’ve learned one lesson in one
hundred years, it is this: anticipation is poison.
So, instead, I consider the wrapped box at my place. It, too, is elegant — gold board, gold ribbon, a sprig of juniper berries for color.
There’s a clockwork movement inside, the heart of a music box.
If I assemble it correctly, it’ll play the “Maple Leaf Rag.” Carved
lovers will spin around each other; silk maple leaves will wave. A merry
addition to my collection.
I put the gift aside. And between blinks, my plate fills with salt cod
and cream. This is my least favorite breakfast, and it’s my fault I’m
having it. Some girl and her unborn wishes distracted me, so I forgot
to want baked apples and oatmeal. Or broiled tomatoes on toast. Or
anything, really — birthday cake and shaved ice, cherries jubilee, Irish
coffee and hot peppers.
Tomorrow, the gift box will have silk leaves in it, and galvanized
casing nails so I can finish my music box. The day after, four new books
on any subject, none of which matter, as long as I haven’t read them
before. They’ll appear on my plate, then make way for my breakfast.
This will happen again at noon and at five. Lunch and dinner.
They’re regular as the clock I built, a mechanical sun chasing the
moon across its face. It never slows. It never stops. I hear it toll every
hour of every day as it marks the minutes to the next meal, the next box
filled with nearly anything I desire.
And it doesn’t matter that, lately, I let those boxes pile up in my
study, unopened. Nor does it matter that I take one bite and wish my
plates away. Sighing, I unfold my napkin and consider my silverware
In the end, I’m afraid, it’s a curse to get everything you want.
Since she was caught up worrying about the SAT instead of paying attention, Bailey stepped on the back of my shoe again. I
stopped in the middle of the walk. As I expected, she kept going
and crashed into me.
All betrayed, she asked, “What?” like I’d pulled a gun and
rolled her for her iPhone.
“We’re not sitting the test until May,” I told her.
“But I have to be ready by then. You don’t just waltz into
the Ivies, Willa. I have to think about it now.” Bailey waved her
hands. “I don’t even have a subject. I need one for apps, and
you know I suck at essays. I don’t get along with them, Willa! I
I stepped to the side so she could walk with me to school.
“Write about lobstering. Or growing up all quaint and whatever.
Hell, write about being the only lesbian in a fishing village!”
“I’m not the only one,” she said.
“Cait lives in Milbridge,” I replied.
Folding a stick of gum into her mouth, Bailey shook her head.
“It’s not interesting. Dear Harvard, I’m unique and not a soul is
bothered. Boo hoo hoo. Love, Bailey.”
I wrinkled my nose. “You’re not applying to Harvard.”
“That’s not the point!”
With a huff, Bailey picked up the pace. I gladly followed, because we were both going to be late the way we were dawdling.
It’s not like it was a long walk. The Vandenbrook School was our
town school. K through 12 went there, to this Victorian mansion
perched on a hill.
Mom said when she and Dad went to Vandenbrook, they had
to climb uneven granite stairs set into the dirt. Talk about a mess
of fun in the winter. Sometimes it would get so cold, the earth
would spit one out like a baby tooth.
But right before I started kindergarten, the town trust paid to
pave the walk. They even put warmers beneath the concrete to
keep it clear. Come December, we’d be tromping through kneedeep snow to get anywhere except school.
Everybody argued about why they did it and how they found
the money for it. But I guess people were making noises about
busing us to Narraguagus, and pride set in. Like everything else
in Broken Tooth, it came down to tradition — we always had
schooled our own, and we weren’t about to stop without a fight.
I liked it. I liked that I could find the place my dad scratched
his initials in the old servants’ stairs when he was seventeen and
sick of school. My granddad had done the same, and his father,
too, back when it was just ten boys taking lessons with the rich
That wood contained one slice of me, the same way the Jenna-Lo claimed one, and the coast, and the jack pines, and the sea. I
had planned to wait until graduation to add my initials. Instead, I
broke in this past summer, the day of the funeral, to do it. It was
too sunny outside, but nice and dark in the back hallway.
Bailey snapped her fingers in front of my face. The crack
dragged me out of my thoughts, and I cooled my cheeks with
“Where’d you go?” she asked. She clasped the back of my neck
and pulled me in roughly. It wasn’t a hug. It was a good shake,
but it meant the same thing. I leaned into her, long enough to
get her perfume on me, then threw my shoulders back.
“I’m all right.”
“Yeah.” And to prove it, I tugged my bag onto my shoulder
and said, “I think you should write about worm digging to pay
for college. Make up some stuff about how cuts and worm bites
get you good and tough. Ready for the world.”
“It doesn’t have to be true,” I told her, and started up the
stairs. “It just has to get you by.”
Some days pretended to be normal.
Because our school was a mansion once, it had good places
to sit. The elementary kids hung out in the solarium. They were
allowed to run in there and get their ya yas out. Plus, it let them
soak up what little sun made it through the trees up here.
The foyer was for us, the high school kids. When I walked
in, Seth had already staked out our favorite corner. The far edge
of the window seat, where the light was the warmest. Great,
weighted oaks cast their shadows, and by lunch, the foyer was
dark. In the morning, though, it was quiet and kinda pretty.
Sliding into Seth’s lap, I looped his arms around me the way I
always had. Solid and warm, he melted to match me. He rested
his chin on my shoulder, brushing his nose behind my ear. Everything fit.
“Morning,” he murmured. His voice buzzed on my skin.
“Yessir, it is,” I replied.
Seth smiled. He always did when I played literal with him.
Holding me tighter, he fell quiet. He shifted and twitched beneath me. Fighting back a smile, I let him squirm. He was waiting for me to ask how it went with Daddy, and I wasn’t about
to. It was a sore subject, and anyway, he was going to tell me
whether I asked or not.
“Yesterday was good,” he finally said.
Reaching back, I trailed my fingers through his hair. “Catch
It wasn’t a surprise. The traps had been out too long. Yesterday was an exercise in baiting and dropping, a chance for Daddy
to get used to a sternman who wasn’t a Dixon. I tried to push
that aside. Twisting to look at him, I asked, “Everything run
There was a hitch in Seth’s answer, a little hesitation. “He
kept coming on deck. I know how to gaff a buoy, but he kept
wanting to show me.”
Secretly, that made me feel good. When I was on the Jenn-aLo, Dad barely slowed down between traps. It was up to me to
keep up. And I had no problem doing it. There was nothing better than hauling a string in record time. Well, if the pots were all
full, that made it a little bit better.
To soothe Seth, I turned in his lap. Draping my arms over his
shoulders, I tugged at the short hairs on the back of his neck. I
kissed his downturned mouth and ignored it when one of the
Eldrich boys hooted from the stairs.
“You did good, though.”
I nodded, our lips skimming when I spoke. “I do. And when
you go out Wednesday, just tell him to get his ass back in the
cabin where he belongs.”
Seth snorted. “That’s gonna go over.”
“It will with me.”
He’d known me my whole life. So he knew when he could
pick me up. Picking up meant spinning. Used to be, I’d press
my face against his neck. Breathe his after-shave and get my
thrills from the smoothness of his smooth skin. All of a sudden,
though, whirling in the foyer seemed like too much.
“Stop. Enough,” I said, and I wasn’t laughing like usual.
To his credit, Seth did. He tipped me so I could hop to my feet
again. There was a space between us, one I filled by brushing my
hair back and staring at the floor. In all the spots inside me that
happy tried to fill, guilt pushed it out. I couldn’t be playing at
school. Laughing and copping feels. I just couldn’t.
Looking past Seth, I stared down the hall. It was full, and one
of the kindergarteners, Kenzie Fisher’s kid sister, skidded along
the slick floor. She crashed into Kenzie’s legs. Without warning, Kenzie hauled her up and tossed her over her shoulder. Fat
cheeks turned red, and the little Fisher’s eyes bugged out.
There was only ever two years between me and Levi. I
couldn’t have held him upside down if I wanted to. But stupid
me, stupid, irrational me — right then, I wanted to, so bad. Seth’s
rough hand skimmed across the back of my neck. Leaning over,
he kissed my hair. He turned me, subtly, because he knew me
“It’s okay,” he murmured.
It wasn’t, but I said “I know” anyway.
With a pair of metal cutters in one hand, I turned my bead tray
with the other. Somehow, I was supposed to turn a spool of wire
and about fifty million little glass spheres into a bracelet, one
with “depth” and a “point of view.”
No idea what that meant, so I started with blue beads and
figured I’d throw some silver ones in to go with.
If anybody asked, I was going to say it represented the Milky
Way. The way it looked on a lightless, cloudless night, when we
were halfway to Georges Bank. There, surrounded by sea and
not a thing else, you were a real tiny slice of infinity. From there,
you could see the shape of galaxies, silver and flickering, forever
out of reach.
“Are you using those needles?” Brennan asked.
His voice dragged me back to class, and I shook my head,
handing the needles over. There were only six of us in Metalwork and Jewelry, and it was obvious everybody else wanted to
They swirled their fingers through bowls of lamp-work beads,
choosing another color, caring what came next on their wire.
When they twisted their pliers, their base wires became
luxurious shapes, half-moons or Greek squares. They managed
to suspend cheap seed pearls in loops and whorls. When they
clamped off the clasps, no ragged edges remained.
Mrs. Baxter had demonstrated all of that in the first week.
Mechanical technique she called it. I didn’t have it.
Give me sink rope or claw bands. Give me zip ties and bait
bags. I knew what to do with those. I could drop a lobster pot
like it was a French-hook earring; it was elegant, even. But with
delicate little pretty things, I was hopeless.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked wearing it just fine. For my last
birthday, Seth gave me a pair of silver wraps that held on to the
top of either ear. I wore those almost every day, just like the silver stud in the curve of my nose.
I couldn’t do rings or necklaces or anything that dangled —
too easy to rip off when I was working the boat. But what I could
wear, I liked. I just wasn’t artistic when it came to making it.
And it’s not like I didn’t know that. I was supposed to have
Forensics during third period. The school was so small, we had
only two electives a semester. Solving fake crimes with the
double-duty science teacher sounded like more fun to me than
I don’t know who changed my schedule. Could have been the
principal (also, the dean and guidance counselor). Or my parents.
I guess they decided that after Levi died, the last thing I needed
was twelve weeks of dead bodies and the torment people put
They were protecting me. And maybe they were right. At
least Mrs. Baxter didn’t expect me to be good at beading. I had
a solid C for turning everything in on time, and she never asked
me to explain my vision on critique days.
The class turned out to be soothing, in a way. We were allowed to talk, but we didn’t much. It was all soft patter, pass me
that knotter, and could I have that clamp? It sounded like distant
rain, so many beads being poured from tray to tray, slipping easily on wires. They whispered, and so did we.
When Bailey opened the door, it disturbed the rain. We all
looked up at the same time.
“From the office,” Bailey said, and crept to my table. She
touched the coiled mess of my project and said “pretty” before
getting to the point. Smoothing a note onto the table, she told
me what it said. “Your mom tried to text you, but you didn’t answer.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I took a quick look at my phone,
but it was blank. No big surprise. There was only one cell tower
and nothing but rock and cliff for miles. We were lucky when we
got a signal at all.
Bailey fished through the beads, pulling out a red and purple one to roll between her fingers. It would disappear into her
pocket any time now; those were Cait’s favorite colors. “You
have to go home straight after. The lawyer’s coming.”
Not my lawyer, the prosecutor. I didn’t bother to correct her.
Instead, I brushed her hand away so I could pretend to work on
my bracelet. Staring down at the silver loops, I said, “All right.”
“Do you want me to come?” she asked.
Did I? Not really. “You can.”
Rubbing her shoulder against mine, Bailey reached for another bead. “I’ll do community service with you.”
“Good,” I said, frowning when my sight wavered, hot with
tears. “ ’Cause I’ll probably need a ride.”
“I’m not getting my brakes fixed for you, princess. Just so you
“Who asked you to?”
She flipped me off behind Mrs. Baxter’s back, and left. I was
glad she hadn’t looked too close. If I could get a couple breaths
in, I could seal myself up. I wouldn’t break down in the middle
of class. They already knew I was guilty and nobody blamed me,
So what was there to cry about?
Sailors used to mark the edges of their maps Here There Be Monsters.
They weren’t entirely wrong. Monsters don’t have claws, they have
eyes dark as molasses and hair white as a new dime. They have soft
petal lips that whisper the sweetest promises.
I can say with absolute authority that one doesn’t notice a cloak of
fog if one is too entirely entranced with the creature wearing it.
It’s the thing beneath, the thing you cannot imagine, that captures
Susannah had delicate fingers; she liked to pull them through my
hair. I would close my eyes and exist under her hand. My heart beat for
her touch. My blood ran for a single flash of her lashes. Not once did I
question the mist at her feet. It seemed ethereal at the time.
My father’s boat was fast; he had a talent for cutting ice. We
sailed up the shore from Boston thrice weekly, buying lobster today to
sell tomorrow while the beasts still waved their claws and curled their
It was an idiotic profession. One he intended to press on me when
I was of age to captain my own ship. He assumed I wanted it. That I
would be no happier than at the moment I reflected him completely. But
I stood on the deck of his ship and loathed him.
The man was gentle enough — many found him convivial company
indeed. But I detested the cream he rubbed into his hands. As if any
tincture might soften them and let him pretend to be a gentleman. I’d
always wondered if he realized he stank of lobster. Even after a boiling bath with flowers and fresh soap: then he smelled of lavender and
lobsters. It was no improvement.
I had bigger plans for myself. A life of adventure, one lived on rails
and on horseback. Through cities and deserts. Oh, especially deserts — I
fantasized about them. To bask in the heat all day long, to warm my
feet in the sand. To spend not a single moment soaked with salt water.
Whatever the hook that bound my father with the sea, I didn’t possess
it. And I had my plans to abandon it eternally.
Working the lobster line with my father offered me little entertainment, so I had to make me own. The island in the Broken Tooth harbor,
that fascinated me. The villagers said it was abandoned, dangerous,
When my father and I sailed in, I studied its forbidding shape, won-
dered about its secrets. On our departure, I did the same, gazing and
gazing at Jackson’s Rock.
And it was in such contemplation that I saw Susannah for the first
time. She stood on the island cliff in the bay, her hair unfurled, long
locks tossed by the wind. With a pale cloak and gown, she seemed made
of the mist.
Leaning over the side, I stared at her — I wondered earnestly if this
was a siren. If she would open her mouth and sing. If she would draw
our ship into the rocks beneath her feet.
Instead, she waved.
Her fingers bloomed like a peony bud, and there was a weight to her
smile that I longed to lighten. She shrank as we slipped away on good
winds. Soon she was nothing but a star on the horizon, and then nothing at all but a memory.
My thoughts troubled me: Was she the lighthouse keeper’s daughter? Was she there alone? It was the shape of her smile that drew me
back. In my ship’s bunk, and in my bed at home, I invented in that
expression a damsel that only I could rescue.
Certainly, her father had locked her away from the mainland; undoubtedly, her stepmother had made her a servant. She was a nymph
or a princess, Snow White or Cinderella. She was Rapunzel, and in my
fever, I felt certain that if I only asked, she would let down her platinum
While my father attended to business in the village, I rowed to the
rock. My shoulders burned, and the sun — so mild to just stand in it
— spilled fire all across me. In dreams, I was dashing in my rescue, crisp
in linens. In truth, I landed on the shore with my shirt soaked through
and damp hair clinging to my face. The ocean. Always the godforsaken
“You shouldn’t be here.” Susannah stepped from the trees, a pale
Already lovesick from memory, the fresh sight of her only stoked the
fever. Leaping ashore, I approached, hands out as if she might startle
like a doe. I told her, “I came for you.”
With every bit of foolish sincerity I had in me, I replied, “Because I
In retrospect, I should have been surprised that she let me kiss her.
That she threaded her fingers in my hair and whispered exactly the
right words in my ear to entice me back. Our stolen moments were
painted in romantic shades, in the bronze twilight beneath towering
For an entire summer, again and again, I returned to her rock, to her
pale and spectral kisses — until I swore I would do anything for her. I
would die for her.
And then I did.
I was an idiot, and a fool, and I have had a century now to shame
myself for mistaking lust for love. Every time I look in the mirror and
see my dime-silver hair and my eyes dark as molasses — every time I
look across the water to Broken Tooth, hoping that the girl thinking of
me will soon come to my shore — I’m reminded of my stupidity.
And I hate myself only a little for hoping she’s just as unwise.
a. j. betts
Zac & Mia (Excerpt)
On Sale: September 2, 2014
“When I was little I believed in Jesus and Santa,
spontaneous combustion, and the Loch Ness monster.
Now I believe in science, statistics, and antibiotics.” So
says seventeen-year-old Zac Meier during a long, grueling
leukemia treatment in Perth, Australia. A loud blast of
Lady Gaga alerts him to the presence of Mia, the angry,
not-at-all-stoic cancer patient in the room next door.
Once released, the two near-strangers can’t forget each
other, even as they desperately try to resume normal
lives. The story of their mysterious connection drives this
unflinchingly tough, tender novel told in two voices.
A newbie arrives next door. From this side of the wall I hear
the shuffle of feet, unsure of where to stand. I hear Nina going through the arrival instructions in that buoyant air hostess
way, as if this “flight” will go smoothly, no need to pull the
emergency exit lever. Just relax and enjoy the service. Nina has
the kind of voice you believe.
She’ll be saying, This remote is for your bed. See? You can
tilt it here, or recline it with this button. See? You try.
Ten months ago, Nina explained these things to me. It was a
Tuesday. Plucked from a math class in period two, I was bustled
into the car with Mum and an overnight bag. On the five-hour
drive north to Perth, Mum used words like “precautions” and
“standard testing.” But I knew then, of course. I’d been tired
and sick for ages. I knew.
I was still wearing my school uniform when Nina led me
into Room 6 and showed me how to use the bed remote, the
TV remote, and the internal phone. With a flick of her wrist
she demonstrated how to tick the boxes on the blue menu card:
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breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner. I was glad
Mum was paying attention, because all I could think about was
the heaviness of my school bag and the English essay that was
due the next day, the one I’d gotten an extension for already.
I do remember the clip Nina had in her hair, though. It was
a ladybug with six indented spots. Funny how the brain does
things like that. Your whole world is getting sucked up and
tossed around and the best you can do is fixate on something
small and unexpected. The ladybug seemed out of place, but
like a piece of junk in the ocean it was something, at least, to
I can recite the nurses’ welcoming spiel by heart these days.
If you get cold, there are blankets in here, Nina will be saying.
I wonder what hair clip she’s wearing today.
“So,” says Mum, as casually as she can. “A new arrival.”
And I know that she loves it and hates it. Loves it because
there’s someone new to meet and greet. Hates it because this
shouldn’t be wished on anyone.
“When did we last get a new one?” Mum recalls names.
“Mario, prostate; Sarah, bowel; Prav, bladder; Carl’s colon; Annabelle . . . what was she?”
They’ve all been oldies over sixty, well entrenched in their
cycles. There was nothing new or exciting about any of them.
A nurse darts past the round window in my door — Nina.
Something yellow’s in her hair. It could be a chicken. I wonder
if she has to go to the kids’ section of stores to buy them. In the
real world, it’d be weird for a twenty-eight-year-old woman to
wear plastic animals in her hair, wouldn’t it? But in here, it kind
of makes sense.
My circular view of the corridor returns to normal: a white
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wall and two-thirds of the visitors, if you have a cough or
cold, please stay away sign.
Mum mutes the TV with the remote and shifts in her chair.
Hoping to pick up vital audio clues, she turns her head so her
good ear is nearest the wall. When she tucks her hair behind
her ear, I see there’s more gray than there used to be.
“Shhh.” She leans closer.
At this point, the standard sequence is as follows: The new
patient’s “significant other” comments on the view, the bed,
and the size of the bathroom. The patient agrees. There’s the
flicking through the six TV channels, then a switching off. Often, there’s nervous laughter at the gray stack of disposable urinals and bedpans, prompted by the naive belief the patient will
never be weak enough or desperate enough to use them.
And then there’s a stretch of silence that follows their gaze
from one white wall — with its plugs and label-makered labels
and holes for things they can’t even imagine yet — to the other.
They track the walls, north to south, east to west, before they
sag with the knowledge that this has become real, that treatment will start tomorrow, and this bed will become home for
several days, on again, off again, in well-planned cycles for
however many months or years it’ll take to beat this thing, and
there is no emergency exit lever. Then the significant other will
say, Oh, well, it’s not so bad. Oh, look, you can see the city
from here. Look.
Sometime later, after unpacking clothes and trying out the
cafeteria’s coffee for the first time, the new person inevitably
crawls into bed with two magazines and the knowledge that
this isn’t a flight after all, but a cruise, and their room is a cabin
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beneath the water’s surface, where land is something only to
But whoever is in Room 2 isn’t following the standard sequence of action. There’s a loud thump of a bag and that’s it.
There’s no unzipping. There’s no click-clacking of coat hangers
at the back of the wardrobe, no rattling of toiletries in the top
drawer. Worse, there’s no soothing verbal exchange.
Mum turns to me. “I should go say hi.”
“Only because you’re losing,” I say, trying to buy the new
patient some time. Mum’s only behind by five points and admittedly we’re both having a crap round. My best word has
been BOGAN, which caused some debate. Hers was GLUM,
which is pretty sad.
Mum lays out BOOT and adds six points to her score. “Nina
didn’t mention there was a new admission.”
She says this without irony, as if she actually expects to be
told of the comings and goings of patients on Ward 7G. Mum’s
been here so long, she’s forgotten she belongs somewhere else.
“It’s too soon.”
“Just a tea . . .”
My mother: the Unofficial Welcoming Committee of the
oncology ward. The maker of calming teas, and the bringer of
cafeteria scones with individual portions of plum jam. The selfappointed sounding board for patients’ families.
“Finish the game,” I tell her.
“But what if they’re alone? Like what’s-his-name? Remember him?”
“Maybe they want to be on their own.” Isn’t that normal?
To want to be alone sometimes?
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Then I hear it too. I can’t make out the words at first — there’s
a plaster wall between us, about six centimeters I guess — but I
hear a simmering of sounds.
“Two women,” Mum says, her hazel eyes dilating. Her
mouth twists as she listens to the s’s and t’s that spit and hiss.
“One is older than the other.”
“Stop snooping,” I tell her, but it’s not as if we can help
it. The voices are growing louder, words firing like projectiles:
Shouldn’t! Stop! Don’t! Wouldn’t!
“What is going on in there?” Mum asks, and I offer her my
empty glass to press, spy-like, against the wall.
“Don’t be a smartass,” she says, and then, “That doesn’t actually work, does it?”
It’s not as if my family doesn’t fight. There were times,
years ago, when Mum and Bec would go right off. They’d be on
their feet, vicious as rottweilers. Dad and Evan would back out
of the house, escaping to the olive farm, where blistering voices
couldn’t follow, but I’d often stay on the veranda, not trusting
them to be left alone.
The fights lost their intensity once Bec turned eighteen. It
helped that she moved into the old house next door, which was
once used for workers. She’s twenty-two now and pregnant, and
she and Mum are close. They’re still as stubborn as hell, but
they’ve learned how to laugh at each other.
There’s no laughing in Room 2. The voices sound dangerous. There’s swearing — then a door shuts. It doesn’t slam, because all the doors are spring-loaded, closing with a controlled,
unsatisfying whoosh. Then footsteps rush the corridor. A
woman’s head flashes past my window. She’s short — her head
skims the bottom edge. She’s wearing brown-rimmed glasses
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and a tortoiseshell claw that grips most of her sandy hair. Her
right hand clutches the back of her neck.
Beside me, Mum is all meerkat. Her attention twitches from
the door to the wall, then to me. After twenty days in Room 1,
she’s forgotten that out in the real world people get pissed off,
that tempers are short, like at school, where kids arc up after
getting bumped in the lunch line. She’s forgotten about egos
Mum readies herself to launch into action: to follow that
woman and offer tea, date scones, and a shoulder to lean on.
“Save the pep talk for tomorrow.”
What I think is that they’ll both need more than Mum’s
counsel. They’ll need alcohol, probably. Five milligrams of Valium, perhaps.
I lay down NOSY, snapping the squares onto the board, but
Mum doesn’t take the bait.
“Why would anyone argue like that? In a cancer ward?
Surely they’d just —”
As if through a megaphone, a voice comes booming through
“What . . . on . . . earth . . . ?”
Then a beat kicks in that jolts us both. Mum’s letters clatter
to the floor.
Music, of sorts, is invading my room at a level previously
unknown on Ward 7G. The new girl must have brought her own
speakers and lumped them on the shelf above the bed, facing the
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wall, then cranked them right up to the max. Some singer howls
through the plaster. Doesn’t she know it’s our wall?
Mum’s sprawled on all fours, crawling under my bed to retrieve her seven letters, while the room throbs with electropop
ass-squeezing and wanting it bad. I’ve heard the song before,
maybe a year or two ago.
When Mum gets up off the floor, she’s holding a bonus T
and X, a strawberry lip balm, and a Mintie.
“Who’s the singer?” Mum asks.
“How would I know?” It’s whiny and it’s an assault on my
“It’s like a nightclub in here,” she says.
“Since when have you been in a nightclub?”
Mum raises an eyebrow as she unwraps the Mintie. To
be fair, I haven’t been in a nightclub either, so neither of us is
qualified to make comparisons. The noise level is probably more
blue-light disco, but it’s a shock for two people who’ve spent so
long in a quiet, controlled room with conservative neighbors.
“Is it Cher? I liked Cher . . .”
I’m not up to speed on female singers with single names.
Rihanna? Beyoncé? Pink? Painful lyrics pound their way
through the wall.
Then it hits me. The newbie’s gone Gaga. The girl’s got cancer and bad taste?
“Or is it Madonna?”
“Are you still playing or what?” I say, intersecting BOOT
with KNOB. The song is banging on about riding on a disco
Mum finally pops the Mintie into her mouth. “It must
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be a young one,” she says softly. Young ones upset her more
than old ones. “Such a shame.” Then she turns to me and is
reminded that, yes, I’m a young one too. She looks down at her
hand of disjointed letters, as if trying to compose a word that
could make sense of this.
I know what she’s thinking. Damn it, I’ve come to know her
“They must be good speakers, don’t you think?” she says.
“We should have brought your speakers from home,
shouldn’t we? Or bought some. I could go shopping tomorrow.”
“Go steal hers.”
“That song is destroying my white blood cell count.”
I’m only half joking.
The song ends, but there’s no justice, because it starts again.
The same song. Honestly, Lady freaking Gaga? At this volume?
“It’s your turn.” Mum places BOARD carefully on the . . .
board. Then she plucks another four letters from the bag as if
everything is normal and we’re not being aurally abused.
“The song’s on repeat,” I say, unnecessarily. “Can you ask
her to stop?”
“Zac, she’s new.”
“We were all new once. It’s no excuse for . . . that. There’s
got to be a law. A patient code of ethics.”
“Actually, I don’t mind it.” Mum nods her head as proof.
Bopping, I believe it’s called.
I look into my lap at the T F J P Q R S. I don’t even have a
I give up. I can’t think; don’t want to. I’ve had enough of this
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song, now playing for the third time in a row. I try to suffocate
myself with a pillow.
“Do you want a tea?” Mum asks.
I don’t want tea — I never want tea — but I nod so I can be
alone for a few minutes, or an hour, if she tracks down the newbie’s significant other and performs emergency scone therapy
in the patients’ lounge.
I hear water running as Mum follows the hand-washing
“I won’t be long.”
“Go!” I say. “Save yourself.”
When the door closes behind her, I release the pillow. I slide
my Scrabble letters into the box and recline my bed to horizontal. I’m finally granted precious mother-free time and it’s
ruined by this. The song begins for the fourth time.
How is it possible that Room 1 can be such an effective
sanctuary from the germs of the outside world, but so pathetic
at protecting me from the hazards of shit music?
I can’t hear the girl — I can’t hear anything but that song —
but I reckon she’s lying on her bed, mouthing the lyrics, while
I’m doing my best to ignore them.
Room 2 is pretty much identical to mine. I know; I’ve
stayed there before. They have the same wardrobe, same bathroom, same paint and blinds. Everything is in duplicate, but as
a mirror image. If looked at from above, the bed headboards
would appear to back onto each other, separated only by the sixcentimeter width of this wall.
If she’s lying on her bed right now, we are practically headto-head.
Farther down the corridor, there are six other single rooms,
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then eight twin-bedders. I’ve been in each of them. When I was
diagnosed the first time in February, I became a frequent flyer
for six months, moving through cycles of induction, consolidation, intensification, and maintenance. At the end of each
chemo cycle, Mum would drive us the five hundred kilometers
back home, where I’d rest, get some strength, and make it to a
day or two of school, even though my classmates were preparing for exams I wouldn’t get to take. Then we’d yo-yo back to
Perth, settling in to whichever room was free and bracing ourselves for the next hit.
We both expected chemo to work. It didn’t.
“If you can’t zap it, swap it,” Dr. Aneta had rallied when
I relapsed. On a planner she highlighted a fluorescent yellow block from November 18 to December 22. Zac Meier, she
printed. Bone Marrow Transplant. Room 1. The first eight or
nine days would be to zap me again, she explained, ready for
the transplant on “Day 0.” The rest of the stay would be for
strict isolation, to heal and graft in safety.
“Five weeks in the same room?” Shit, even high-security
prisoners get more freedom than that.
She clicked the lid back onto the pen. “At least you’ll be out
in time for Christmas.”
Before leukemia, I had enough trouble sitting in a room for
two hours, let alone a whole day. Everything interesting happened outside: football, cricket, the beach, and the farm. Even
at school, I’d always sit by the window so I could see what I was
missing out on.
“Room One’s got the best view,” Dr. Aneta said, as if that
could sweeten it. As if I had a choice.
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The song ends and I hold my breath. For a moment, I hear
only the predictable sounds: the whir of my drip, the hum of
my bar fridge.
I wonder if the newbie is counting the squares on her ceiling for the first time. There are eighty-four, I could tell her.
Eighty-four, just like mine. Or maybe she’s already recounting
them the opposite way, just to be sure.
• • •
Eighteen freaking times? Methotrexate is nothing — this is
The nurses are still in their weekly meeting, so there’s no
one to save me from this endless cycle of crap. Who would listen to a song eighteen times? Make it nineteen. Is this girl mental? Is she experimenting with a new form of therapy, trying to
make her cancerous cells spontaneously self-destruct? Is there
some Lady Gaga Miracle Cancer Cure I haven’t heard of?
Old patients never do this kind of thing. They have respect.
Admittedly, Bill can turn his radio up too loud for the dog
races, but the volume only reaches mildly annoying, not allconsuming. Then there’s Martha, whose high-pitched cackle is
grating, but only when she’s drinking rooibos tea.
It’s not as if I can get up off this bed, walk out the door, and
find a quiet broom closet to hide myself in. Thanks to Bone
Marrow Transplant Protocol I’m stuck in this four-by-fivemeter room. Twenty days down, fifteen to go — which is too
long to be held hostage to the obsessive compulsions of a girl
next door. All I can do is put my pillow over my head and hope
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she’s got Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with a one-day-a-month cycle.
I can’t contemplate the possibility of her being an AML or ALL.
If she’s getting a BMT, I’m legging it.
The song begins again, making it twenty — the number I
decided would be my breaking point. I have to do something
before my ears start to bleed.
A shout won’t penetrate her Gaga-thon. How else can I
communicate through a six-centimeter-thick wall?
I get up off the bed and notice my hands are bunched into
fists. So I use one.
I knock. Politely at first, as if I’m a visitor to someone’s
house. I knock, hoping the message gets through.
No. It doesn’t seem to.
I knock again, in sets of three, as insistent as a courier this
time. Knock knock knock. Wait. Knock knock knock.
The song reaches the chorus I’ve come to hate so much.
Worse, I now know all the lyrics.
I bang harder, like an annoyed brother locked out. My fist
thumps every beat in time, banging them so loudly, she must
be hearing them in stereo. The wall on her side has to be bouncing with the impact.
The music stops — success! — and so do I, noticing how easily skin has peeled from my red knuckles. I rub it away and
realize I’m grinning.
Perhaps it’s because this is the first contact I’ve had with
anyone since I’ve been in this room. Nurses, doctors, and my
mum don’t count. The new girl is young — someone my age.
My heart pounds with the effort. I’m dizzy with it. My room
throbs. Whir. Drip. Hum.
Then, tap, the wall says back to me. Tap.
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The tap isn’t angry like the music had been or the words
she’d shouted earlier. The tap is close. She must be near now,
puzzled, a curious ear against the wall, as if listening for alien
Knock, I reply to the wall, down lower this time.
The wall sounds hollow. Is it?
Tap tap? In the quiet, the tap is raw. I think it’s a question.
In the gaps in between, there’s nothing but the whirring of
my IV machine and the anticipation of the next cue. My quads
ache as I wait. My feet feel cold on the linoleum.
It’s clear neither of us knows Morse code, and yet something is being spoken. I wonder what she’s trying to ask me.
Knock. Silence. Knock.
And I wonder what I’m saying.
Then that’s it.
Whir. Hum. Buzz. Drip. Whir.
On my knees by the wall, I’m ashamed. I shouldn’t have
complained about her music on her first day of admission. There
are too many things I don’t know.
She doesn’t tap and I don’t knock.
I just kneel, imagining she’s doing the same, six centimeters
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I know that dual-flush buttons are good because they’re environmentally friendly and all that, but sometimes they’re confusing. Do I press the half flush or the full? Some days I need a
button that’s in between.
I stand thinking about this for too long. Again.
I wash my hands, amused by the reflection in the mirror.
My head is bald, lumpy, and asymmetrical, but my eyebrows
are thicker than before. I appear to be morphing into one of
those creepy guys from Guess Who.
I leave the bathroom and return to the room, where Mum’s
opened the blinds and pulled the pink reclining chair into sitting. In the morning light, her bed hair resembles a bird’s nest
with wiry twigs of gray.
“Well, how was it?” she asks.
“You know . . .”
How many times can a seventeen-year-old discuss his crap?
With his mother? I reached the limit eighteen days ago. At least
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she doesn’t say, Have you opened your bowels? the way the
“How’s yours, Mum?”
“I’m just asking.”
“You want me to photograph it next time?” I maneuver
myself and the IV pole past her. She whacks me gently with a
“You want me to keep a log book?”
“A bog book.” Mum impresses herself with her wordplay.
Documenting my bowel movements — now that is an excellent use for the so-called diary that Patrick gave me. He
thought I’d benefit from expressing my emotional journey, or
something like that. Instead, I could use it as a bog log, plotting
frequency and consistency. I could color code each page, drawing big brown pie charts with annotations.
“How about: Dear Diary, it’s December ninth, twelve days
post-transplant. Semi-diarrhea. I chose the half flush.”
“I don’t think that’s what the diary’s for.”
“Not poo and spew?”
“It’s for your feelings.” Having raised two boys and Bec,
Mum knows better than to use the “f” word in earnest.
“December ninth. I feel . . . lighter.”
She smiles. “See, that’s better.”
I don’t need to write about crap. Of any kind.
I conquered toilet training at three years of age. I wasn’t
a prodigy, sure, but a solid student. From then on, toileting
was supposed to remain a private thing behind a locked door,
far from a mother’s queries. Mum’s job was to monitor other
things, like the kind of food going into my mouth in the first
place. And she had. She’d done a good job.
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And then this. At my worst, Mum wasn’t only asking about
my output, she was witnessing it. I’d tell her to leave the bedpans alone, which she did, but she often stayed in the room
when the nurses cleaned me up or washed me down, even if
she was pretending to do crosswords. I’d become a baby all over
again, but with testosterone and pubic hair and nurses sponging me in shifts. Sometimes I was so out of it, I couldn’t get
Before they could give me new marrow on “Day 0,” they
had to take me close to death. Five days of four chemo drugs,
then three days of total-body irradiation. I felt as if a truck had
run over me. Then reversed, tipped sideways, and landed on
top of me. There was nothing to do but be pinned underneath.
Breathing was hard work. Controlling my sphincter was beyond me.
I can handle that end of things myself now. Post-transplant,
my symptoms are down to occasional vomiting, mouth ulcers,
and dubious turds. To be honest, going to the bathroom has
become one of my favorite pastimes. For ten minutes or so, no
one’s watching or prying or probing. I can just sit and think
about things. It’s not up there with solving world poverty, but
it’s an achievement. It’s progress.
Mum closes her Woman’s Day and gapes at me. “Have you
been squeezing that zit?”
“I didn’t touch it.”
She’s got a paranoia that I could trigger a massive explosion
of pus and blood too powerful to be fixed by my measly platelets, ending with an emergency transfusion, which might not
save my life. Death by pimple? Now that would be a stupid way
to die. I wouldn’t take the risk.
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How is it fair that I can have leukemia and zits? If my
hair grows back red, I’ll be really pissed. My brother Evan’s
a redhead, but he dyes his hair in secret. He thinks no one
“So what do you want to do today?” Mum asks.
“Go base jumping?”
“We could play CUD.”
Mum makes me laugh out loud, whether she means to or
not. “COD,” I correct her. “As in Call of Duty. And no, not
really.” All she does is camp around, then shriek when killed,
using made-up swear words like Fff . . . irewood and Shh . . .
ipwreck. Mum’s not cut out for armed combat.
“So what do you want to do?”
“Breathe. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.”
She pokes me. “Come on, Zac, you don’t want to be bored.”
My mother: Activities Coordinator, Unofficial Welcoming Committee, Diarrhea Detective, and Happiness Police. She
ricochets from one role to the next, plugging gaps, swapping
props, prodding, checking, doing.
I sense her antennae twitching, seeking out signs of melancholy. We both know there’s a whole squad of reinforcements
on standby: Patrick the psychologist, art therapists, teen mentors, Prozac, and, if desperate, clown doctors called over from
the children’s hospital.
“Do we need to use the ‘f’ word?”
She laughs. “Then help me do the puzzle from today’s paper. Ooh, look, we need thirty words to get to genius.”
The “f” word troubles me, but it’s Mum’s feelings I’m worried about, not my own.
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“Mum, go home.”
“You don’t have to stay. Anymore. I’m getting better.”
It’s true. Days Minus 9 to Minus 1 were hell. Day 0 was an
anticlimax. Days 1 to 3 I can’t recall, 4 to 8 were foul, 9 to 11
were uncomfortable, and now, twelve days after transplant, I’m
starting to feel human again. I can handle this.
“I know,” she says predictably, turning a page of her magazine. “But I like it here.”
It’s bullshit and we both know it. Mum’s not a four-wall
kind of woman. As long as I can remember, she’s always had a
straw hat and a sheen of sweat. She’s hazel eyes and sun spots.
She’s greens and browns and oranges. She’s a pair of pruning
shears in hand. She’s soil and pumpkins. She’d rather be picking
pears or fertilizing olive trees than stuck in this room, with its
pink reclining chair. More than anything, she’s my dad’s soul
mate, though she won’t go home when I ask her — even when I
My room has two windows. There’s the small round one
in the door that looks into the corridor, and there’s the large
rectangular one that looks out over the hospital entrance, parking lot, and nearby suburbs. That’s the one she sits beside most
days, like a flower tracking the sun.
“List three things you like about the hospital. Apart from
the puzzles and gossip.”
“I did like my son’s company . . . once.”
“Just go home.”
After my first diagnosis, the whole family would drive up
to Perth for each round of chemo. Mum, Dad, Bec, and Evan
would stay in a motel room three blocks away, visiting each
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morning with games and magazines and more conversation
than I could follow. Dad was bigger and louder than usual. He’d
make jokes with Bec, as if the two of them had suddenly formed
a slapstick comedy duo. Mum would shake her head in mock
disapproval, while Evan hung back, eyeing the drips and nurses
with suspicion. “Hospitals make me sick,” I heard him say once.
“The smell . . .” I didn’t blame him — he didn’t belong here either. At least he was honest about it.
Then each time they left in the evening, I would stand at
the rectangular window and watch my small family trudge
back to their motel. Dad would hold Mum’s hand. Seven stories down, each of them looked sadder than they should have,
especially Dad. To be honest, their visits made me feel worse,
and this time I made Mum promise to keep them all away. Fortunately, Bone Marrow Transplant Protocol forbids more than
one official visitor at a time, so Mum nominated herself. The
only catch is, she never leaves.
“They don’t need me at home. Bec’s got the store under control. The pruning’s been done so the men have it easy.”
“But Dad —”
“Can look after himself.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m your mother,” she reminds me, as if she’s taken a
vow to love and to cherish, to protect and to irritate, in sickness
and in health (but especially in sickness), as long as we both
And with military focus, she begins the daily word puzzle
from the newspaper. Mum approaches it as though something
bigger could be at stake, as if our success with it would bring
about a success in my treatment. Through the course of the day,
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as Nina, Patrick, Simone, Suzanne, and Linda enter and exit
the room for various offerings and takings, obscure words are
added until we reach thirty. Mum is over the moon and writes
on the calendar under December ninth: Genius!
And that’s why I agree to do the word puzzle, and Scrabble and “CUD” and every other activity she suggests. I do it
to see the confidence in Mum’s handwriting. Genius. Another
success; another day passed.
It’s during the six o’clock news that I realize I’m being
Someone in the corridor is peering through my round window. She’s young, maybe sixteen or seventeen, with big eyes,
dark eyeliner, and thick brown hair that probably rolls on past
her shoulders, farther down than I can see.
She’s not a nurse, though. She’s someone like me and I feel
her eyes latch fiercely to mine.
I can’t pull free. She’s stunning.
Then I blink and she’s gone.
Strange. She didn’t look like a girly-pop lover. Not that Lady
Gaga’s been played again. Since she turned it off two days ago,
all I’ve heard from Room 2 has been occasional arguing — the
mother, I’m guessing, and the girl — followed by the predictable whoosh of the door. There hasn’t been a trace of music or
television or anything else.
Is that my fault? Because I knocked?
Mum and I watch the news, but right now it’s not the outside world that interests me.
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Status: Need new tunes in here. Suggestions??
“I need new tunes,” I tell Mum after four rounds of Mario
Kart and a torturous half-hour of Ready, Steady, Cook. With
my taste buds screwed up from chemo I’ve lost any interest in
food, so watching so-called celebrity chefs prance about with
artichoke hearts has no appeal. Mum, however, considers it
compulsory viewing. “I know my iPod playlist by heart.”
“You want me to go to the music store?”
It’s perfect: sending Mum on a CD-buying mission will
give me at least an hour solo.
“Only if you have time . . .”
Mum finds her purse and smudges on lip-gloss. She washes
her hands again and checks her face in the mirror.
“What should I get?”
“Ask the store. Tell them it’s for a seventeen-year-old.
She shakes her head. “No way. Write down some titles.”
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Thanks to Facebook, I suddenly have a list of sixty-seven
recommended albums. My one status update led to a barrage of
suggestions, many of them sugar-coated.
Skrillex! Get better Zac
I’ll send you the latest Rubens and Of Monsters and
Men. Proud of you bro, love Bec
Macklemore & ryan Lewis. Can’t hold us ;-) take it easy
Cancer is a Facebook friend magnet. According to my home
page, I’m more popular than ever. In the old days, people would
have prayed for each other — now they “like” and comment as
if they’re going for a world record. I’m not knocking it, but how
can I choose a couple of albums out of sixty-seven?
“Surprise me,” I tell Mum. “If they’re crap, you can always
swap them tomorrow.”
This is genius. I could have Mum back and forth between
here and the music store for the remainder of my admission,
giving me valuable hours of freedom and her some muchneeded exercise. Finally, my chemo-brain is starting to clear. I
hope she never learns about iTunes.
Mum dries her hands with a paper towel. “We could do
with more ice cream . . .”
And with a wave, she’s gone.
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Whir. Buzz. Hum. Drip.
I throw off the sheet and step onto the linoleum.
It’s the new girl’s fourth day in. From what I hear — and
don’t hear — she’s still alone. Her mum visits in the mornings
but never stays for long. She doesn’t sleep overnight the way
This morning I heard the clack of coat hangers in the girl’s
wardrobe. After four days, she was finally unpacking her
clothes. It sounded like surrender.
She’ll have a port in, below her collarbone. It’ll be raised and
numb from surgery. The nurses would have needled it already
and she wouldn’t have felt a thing. She won’t be nauseous from
chemo yet. Depending on which drugs she’s getting, maybe
she never will. She’ll only be here for another three days, then
home for five, before her next cycle — that’s what Nina told
Mum. The girl’s got osteosarcoma.
Location: Lower leg
Shit, if I were her I wouldn’t be sulking. Her stats are awesome. Hasn’t she Googled them? Doesn’t she know how lucky
Suck it up, I want to say. You’ll be home soon. Play your
crappy music and count down the days.
But the song she’s playing now is more hip-hop than girlypop. I push my IV pole closer, hoping to make out the lyrics.
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With one ear pressed to the wall, I keep a check on my round
window, not wanting to give anyone the wrong idea. Nurses
walk indifferently past, as does a guy with a hat. He’s younger
than the typical visitor. He’s carrying a helium balloon with a
small white bear.
I hear him enter Room 2. He walks to the window side of
her bed, I think. I can’t understand all of his words. They come
less often than the girl’s, whose voice sounds lighter than ever,
as bubbly as a soft drink. I wonder what he says to make this
“Gross, take it off,” she laughs, and I guess he’s doing what
all dickheads have done before him: using a cardboard bedpan
as a hat. It’s so obvious, I can’t believe she falls for it.
He recites tomorrow’s menu options from the blue card and
helps her tick the boxes. I hear him describe a party she missed,
and how Shay and Chloe had asked about her.
“Don’t tell them —”
“Good. I’ll be out of here soon.”
“What’s that?” His voice is nearer to our wall. I imagine
him touching the lump beneath her collarbone.
“It’s a port.”
“Freaky. Does it hurt?”
“Will it leave a scar?”
It’s ages before she cries. I hear each gasp and each long interval between.
“Hey . . . Hey. You said you’ll be fixed soon, yeah?”
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“So don’t cry.”
He leaves soon after. When he cruises past my door, his
brow is crinkled in a way that reminds me of my brother, Evan,
keen to be elsewhere.
Whir, drip, hum, my room says.
Room 2 says nothing. Her silence is sadder than ever, and it
pulls me in.
I crouch down and knock on our wall. How else can I speak
I knock three times. My knuckles say, Go on — put some
music on. Put it on repeat, if you want. I can handle it.
But I’m left unanswered.
“What are you doing, Zac?” Nina’s beside me.
“I dropped . . . the letter Q.”
“And how does a Q sound?” The clip in Nina’s hair is a possum. It seems to be smirking too.
When I stand, I bang my head on the IV pump.
“I’ve got your meds.” She rattles the container. “But perhaps you need something . . . stronger?”
I’m lightheaded when I say, “Go tell the newbie to play Lady
“Because I don’t know Morse code and my message got lost
Nina sizes me up. “I never picked you as a Gaga guy.”
“I know it’s not a standard request,” I say, flashing the grin
that inexplicably works on her. “Just once. For me?”
I spy the diary beside my bed, fling it open, and tear out a
blank page. I write:
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I wonder if capitals are too much. Or the exclamation marks.
I consider drawing a smiley face to offset any traces of sarcasm.
“Why don’t you download Lady Gaga from iTunes?”
“I don’t want to hear Gaga,” I whisper, pointing to the wall.
“I want her to hear Gaga.”
Nina folds the page carefully. “As you wish, Zac. Take your
Nina pockets the note, then washes her hands for the compulsory thirty seconds. It feels more like sixty.
“Where’s your mum?”
“At the store buying music.”
I snort. “As if.”
“Of course. You’re okay then? On your own?”
“Definitely.” I nod and she leaves, both of us grinning.
• • •
Mum’s got a good snore happening, the way she always does at
three a.m. One of these mornings I should record her as proof.
She reckons she doesn’t snore — that she barely even sleeps —
but I know the truth. When she’s at her noisiest, I’m at my most
It’s not Mum’s fault: it’s the three a.m. curse. I wake up
bursting, go for the third pee of the night, then can’t get back
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Three is the worst hour. It’s too dark, too bright, too late,
too early. It’s when the questions come, droning like flies, nudging me one by one until my mind’s full of them.
Am I a bus driver? Addicted to late-night television shopping? A long-distance skier? A musician? A juggler?
It’s 3:04 and I’m wondering who I am.
The marrow’s German — the doctors were allowed to tell
me that much. I’ve had German marrow for fourteen days, and
though I’m not yet craving pretzels or beer or lederhosen, it
doesn’t mean I’m not changed in other ways. Alex and Matt
have nicknamed me Helga, and it’s caught on. Now the whole
football team thinks it’s hilarious that I could be part pretzelbaking, beer-swilling, braid-swinging Fräulein from Bavaria
with massive die Brust.
But is it true? Could I be?
I try to catch myself being someone else.
I know it sounds like a B-grade thriller — When Marrow
Attacks! — but if my own marrow’s been wiped out of my
bones and then replaced with a stranger’s, shouldn’t that change
who I am? Isn’t marrow where my cells are born, to bump their
way through the bloodstream and to every part of me? So if the
birthplace of my cells now stems from another human being,
shouldn’t this change everything?
I’m told I’m now 99.9 percent someone else. I’m told this is
a good thing, but how can I know for sure? There’s nothing in
this room to test myself with. What if I now kick a football with
the skill of a German beer wench? What if I’ve forgotten how to
drive a pickup truck or ride an ATV? What if my body doesn’t
remember how to run? What if these things aren’t stored in my
head or muscles, but down deeper, in my marrow? What if . . .
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what if all of this is just a waste of time and the leukemia comes
At 3:07 I switch on the iPad, dim the brightness, and track
my way through the maze of blogs and forums, safe from the
prying eyes of Mum. Snoring in the recliner beside me, she’s
oblivious to my dirty secret.
In less than a second, Google tells me there are more than
742 million sites on cancer. Almost eight million are about
leukemia; six million on acute myeloid leukemia. If I Google
“cancer survival rate” there are more than eighteen million
sites offering me numbers, odds, and percentages. I don’t need
to read them: I know most of the stats by heart.
On YouTube, the word cancer leads to 4.6 million videos.
Of these, about 20,000 are from bone marrow transplant patients like me, stuck in isolation. Some are online right now. It
may be 3:10 a.m. in Perth, but it’s 7:10 a.m. in Auckland, 3:10
p.m. in Washington, D.C., and 8:10 p.m. in Dublin. The world
is turning and thousands of people are awake, updating their
posts on the bookmarked sites that I trawl through. I’ve come to
know these people better than my mates. I can understand their
feelings better than my own. Somehow, I feel like I’m intruding. Yet I watch their video uploads with my earbuds in. I track
their treatment, their side effects and successes. And I keep a
tally of the losses.
Then I hear the flush of the toilet next door.
The new girl and I have one thing in common, at least.
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