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The Smell of Other Peoples Houses . . . . . . . . . . 1

The Serpent King . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26

Tell Me Three Things . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58

We Were Liars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83

All the Bright Places . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105


Keep r eAdiN g for A sN eAK pee K. . . .

Keep r eAdiN g for A sN eAK pee K. . . .

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright 2016 by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Jacket art copyright 2016 by Getty Images
Interior illustrations copyright 2016 by Rebecca Poulson
Map copyright 2016 by Kayley Lefaiver
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint
previously published material:
Chandonnet, Ann: Lines from In the Cranberry Gardens from Ptarmigan Valley:
Poems of Alaska by Ann Chandonnet. Reprinted by permission of Ann Chandonnet.
Straley, John: Haikus by John Straley. Reprinted by permission of John Straley.
White Carlstrom, Nancy: Lines from Sun at the Top of the World from Midnight
Dance of the Snowshoe Hare by Nancy White Carlstrom. Reprinted by permission of
Nancy White Carlstrom.
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Wendy Lamb Books,
an imprint of Random House Childrens Books,
a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Wendy Lamb Books and the colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
A previous version of the title chapter was published as Fast Fiction in the
Los Angeles Review, Volume 18, Fall 2012.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hitchcock, Bonnie-Sue
The smell of other peoples houses / Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. First edition.
pages cm
Summary: Growing up in Alaska in the 1970s isnt like growing up anywhere else:
Dont think life is going to be easy. Know your place. And never talk about yourself.
Four vivid voices tell intertwining stories of hardship, tragedy, wild luck, and
salvationProvided by publisher.
ISBN 978-0-553-49778-6 (trade) ISBN 978-0-553-49779-3 (lib. bdg.)
ISBN 978-0-553-49781-6 (pbk.) ISBN 978-0-553-49780-9 (ebook) 1. Alaska
History20th centuryJuvenile fiction. [1. AlaskaHistory20th centuryFiction.
2. FriendshipFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.1.H58Sm 2016
The text of this book is set in 12-point Apollo.
Jacket design by Ray Shappell
Interior design by Trish Parcell
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition
Random House Childrens Books
supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.



Cast of Key Characters

(roughly in order of introduction; narrators in boldface)


Lily: Ruths younger sister
Bunny: Lilys best friend,
Dumplings younger sister
Selma: Ruths best friend
Alyce: Selmas cousin
Dora: Dumplings best friend
Bumpo: Doras dad
Mr. Moses: Dumplings dad

Aunt Abigail: Selmas mother
Uncle Gorky
Sam: Hanks younger brother
Jack: Hanks youngest brother
Nathan: Moms boyfriend
Phil: night watchman on the
Isabelle: social worker

Crazy Dancing Guy
Dumplings mother
Paula and Annette: Moms
George: cashier at the Salvation

Sister Agnes
Sister Bernadette
Sister Josephine


The Way Things Were

Back Then
RUTH, 195863

cant stop remembering the way things were back then.

How my father hunted for our food. How hed hang the deer
in the garage to cure and how the deers legs would splay
out when its belly was sliced open, its hooves pointy like a
ballerinas toes. I watched him dozens of times as he cut the
meat off the animals backside. I can still hear how the knife
sounded when metal scraped bone. Backstrap was the best
cut, my favorite, and Daddy sliced it off the deers spine as
beautifully as Mama curled ribbons on presents. He carried
the fresh meat to the house in his bare hands, blood dripping all the way from the garage and across Mamas shiny
linoleum to the kitchen sink.
Sometimes Daddy would bring me a still-warm deer heart

in a bowl and let me touch it with my fingers. I would put

my lips to it and kiss its smooth, pink flesh, hoping to feel it
beating, but it was all beat out. Mama would call him Daniel
Boone as she laughed into his bare neck and he twirled his
bloody fingers through her hair and they danced around the
kitchen. Mama was the kind of person who put wildflowers
in whiskey bottles. Lupine and foxglove in the kitchen, lilacs
in the bathroom. She smelled like marshy muskeg after a
hard rain, and even with blood in her hair, she was beautiful.
My easel was set up on the counter, so I could watch
Mama cook the meat while I painted in the tutu Daddy had
brought me from one of his many trips Outside. It had matching pink ballet slippers that I wore constantly, even to bed.
Mama buttoned one of Daddys big flannel shirts over me so
I wouldnt ruin my special tutu. It hung all the way down
to my toes; the long sleeves were rolled up so many times, it
was like having big, bulging cinnamon rolls for arms. I tried
to make red that was the same color as the red in Mamas
hair, but mostly I mixed everything together and got brown.
Daddy often said things I didnt understand, like if statehood passed we would probably lose all of our hunting
rights and the Feds would run everything into the ground.
My five-year-old brain thought statehood was a new car, one
with a really big front end. I didnt know who the Feds were,
but Daddy seemed to think they were going to tell people
how much venison and salmon they would be allowed to eat.
Mamas belly had grown big and round, which even I knew

meant another mouth to feed. Daddy would pull up her shirt

and kiss her ballooned stomach the same way I had kissed
the deer heart.
Is it all beat out? I asked him. Her belly was as white as
the underside of a doe.
This ones definitely still beating, he said. No worries
Statehood turned out to be not a new car but something
much, much bigger, and Daddy had to fly to Washington,
DC, to try and stop ita place where he had to show his
passport just to get off the plane, and nobody hunted or
fished, and he had to buy new shoes to go to a meeting to
talk about why Alaskans didnt want statehood. Except for
the ones who did, and they were not my daddys friends.
He told me that most people didnt pay that much attention to stuff that happened in Washington, DC, but Alaskans
would be sorry when Outside people started making decisions for us. I didnt know who these Outside people were,
but I hoped I would never, ever meet them.
When the letter arrived in an envelope stamped with a
flag Id never seen before, Mama read it with shaking hands.
I watched her lips moving without any sound, but I knew
whatever it said was bad because she fell over clutching her
belly, making sounds that Id only heard from wild animals,
deep in the woods.
Lily was born the day after the letter arrived, and I
dont think Mama ever really saw her at all, because when
I looked at Mamas eyes after the birth, they were blank.

The nurse asked what the babys name would be, and when
Mama said Lily I thought she was staring at the flowers
next to her bed, not the pink lump wrapped in a hospital
blanket, screaming as if she didnt want to be here, either.
Gran had come to the hospital for the birth, but afterward
Mama stayed behind while Lily and I were put in a moldy
brown car with cigarette burns on the seats. I didnt think a
brand-new baby should breathe in all the smells in that car,
but Lily just lay there like the lump she was, and I held my
scarf over my nose all the way to Grans house in Birch Park.
Your mama needs more time, Gran said, and she told
me what was in the letter. My fathers plane had crashed in
the Canadian Arctic, right next door to Alaska. Gran said the
men were on their way home from the meeting when the
plane went down. Something about the way Gran talked told
me she did not think Daddy was a brave man, with big
ideas for Alaska, which was what the letter had said. When
Gran read it, she snorted, then wiped her nose with a tissue.
Afterward she said, You can cry if you want, but it wont
bring him back.

Birch Park smelled like an old persons house, something Id

never noticed when we only visited, which hadnt been very
often. There were no flowers in whiskey bottles, no fresh
deer carcasses curing from the rafters. The only meat in the
refrigerator was pale and pink, sitting limp on a foam tray
and wrapped in plastic. The blood was completely drained
out of it, which made me homesick and suspicious.

The very next day there was a headline on the front page
of the newspaper in thick, four-inch letters that said Were
In and Alaska became the forty-ninth state in the United
States. Gran clipped it out and told me I should save it forever so I would always remember this day, as if she didnt
understand that this was a bad thing. I didnt want to remember anything except the way it used to be, before all
this statehood nonsense.
When Mama did not show up that day, or the one after
that or the one after that, I figured statehood must have done
something to her, too. Maybe she didnt have the right passport or she had the wrong shoes? Or maybe she had gone to
Canada, where she would be swallowed up in the same vast
emptiness that had swallowed up Daddy.
I waited and waited for Mama, worried that Lily would
never know how the world was really supposed to be. But
the years ticked by until just before my tenth birthday,
when the water started to rise and I knew this must be it
the river was fighting back. It flooded its banks and rose
higher and higher, grabbing everything in sight with its big,
wet tongue. Daddy had been right when hed said the rivers
could never be tamed.
Rusty metal oil drums, blue plastic coolers, and whole cans
of peaches and fruit cocktail from peoples pantries bobbed
down Second Avenue. Someones red frilly slip got hung up
in Mr. Petersons climbing peas and made Lily laugh out loud
until Gran shushed her. Grans face was as red as an overripe
raspberry. Even in a flood, underwear was no joking matter.
Lily was now five and out of her mind with excitement

about riding in the skiff that snatched us off the doorstep as

the water kept rising. I just prayed that it would never stop,
that the river would somehow take us back to our old life.
But the skiffs dropped us off at the high school just a mile
beyond our doorstep, where the ground was higher and still
dry. Lily acted like we were on a whirlwind vacation, laughing and playing with her friend Bunny.
A girl named Selma held my hand when we had to get
shots, and I acted like I was only clutching her hand to make
her feel better, but really Im terrified of needles. She was my
age, but so much braver than me. Selma was the only good
thing to come out of the flood.
After a few days we went home to the wet, moldy house
in Birch Park. There was no furniture, just donated goods
that had been trucked up from Anchorage. Under our used
sneakers the carpet squelched and burped muddy water for
weeks. Gran worked as a volunteer to get the new state government to replace what everyone had lost in the flood. Some
of the neighbors reported a lot of missing items. Dora Peterss
mom said shed lost a washer and dryer, a kitchen table, and
some fancy bedside lamps. Grans lips were pursed, but she
wrote it all down anyway in a big black book with Property of the United States Government printed on the front.
Nobody in Birch Park had a washer or dryer, I said to
Gran that night at dinner.
Gran said nothing.
Can we get a washer and dryer? asked Lily.
Dont be silly, Gran snapped.

But they lied, I said. Nobody had all that nice stuff.
Its not our job to make people accountable.
But youre volunteering for the government. It is your job.
Grans eyes narrowed.
You do not tell me what is and isnt my job, young lady.
I looked down at the paper plate in my lap. The canned
beets had bled into the Spam, which wasnt even real meat.
I wanted a dripping piece of fresh backstrap or nothing. I
folded my plate in two, smashing all the food together. No
one said a word as I crossed the room, even as a trail of
bloody beet juice spilled from the corner of the plate, down
my leg, and onto the floor. I pushed the whole thing deep
into the garbage can, as if it were my own heart, all beat out.


So many spring stars
I could navigate my skiff
All the way back home.
John Straley




The Smell of
Other Peoples Houses

t some point I stopped waiting for Mama to come back.

Its hard to hold on to a five-year-old dream, and even harder
to remember people after ten years. But I never stopped believing there had to be something better than Birch Park,
something better than living with Gran.
When I was sixteen I thought maybe it was a boy named
Ray Stevens. His father was a private detective and a hunting
guide in the bush. His family had just built a new house on a
lake where they parked their floatplane, and in winter they
could snow-machine all the way down Moose Creek from
their back door.
The Stevenses whole house was made of fresh-cut cedar.
All of Rays clothes smelled like cedar, and it made me sneeze
when I got close to him, but I got close anyway.


Cedar is the smell of swim team parties at their house and

the big eight-by-ten-inch Richard Nixon photograph that
hung in the living room. Cedar is the smell of Republicans.
Its the smell of sneaking from Rays older sisters room (Anna
also swam on my relay team; I befriended her out of necessity) and into Rays room, where I crawled into his queensized bed facing the sliding glass doors that looked out on
the lake. How many sixteen-year-old boys had a queen-sized
bed? Im guessing one, and it had sheets that smelled like
cedar and Tide, and they held a boy with curly blond hair,
bleached from the swimming pool. He was the best diver in
the state and I was only on a dumb relay team, but he sought
me out anyway. We could have drowned in our combined
smells of chlorine and ignoranceguess which part I was?
He knew how to French-kiss, which tasted like a forest of
promises once I got used to it. Because I was Catholic, and
smelled stiff instead of wild, he promised not to do anything
but touch me lightly and only in certain places, where the
smell wouldnt give me away when I went back to my own
house, which held nothing but the faint scent of mold in
secondhand furniturealso known as guilt and sin.
At the Stevenses, everything was fresh, like it had just
been flown in from Outside, and there were no rules. Their
shag carpet was so thick that in the morning I followed my
deep orange footprints back to Rays sisters room and pretended Id been there all night.



I only joined the swim team because ballet hadnt worked

out. Gran was sure that any kind of dancing was just a slippery slope that butted right up to the gates of vanity. In
her opinion, there was nothing worse than being vain. Lily
and I paid for our vanity little by little. We paid by hiding
good report cards, deflecting compliments, and staying out
of sight. We paid in the confessional on Sundays. Forgive
me, Father, for I have sinned. I smiled at myself in the mirror
I did that. Once. Felt so good about myself that I smiled
into a mirror and twirled and danced as if I held the world in
my six-year-old hands. I was going to my first dance class in
my fancy pink tutu and my long blond hair was all the way
down to my butt. It really was so thick and long that it made
this cool scritchy-scratchy noise across the mesh fabric of my
tutu when I swung my head from side to side. It was the tutu
Daddy had bought me Outside. You couldnt get a tutu like
this in Fairbanks, and I dont think Gran knew that it was
special, or she never would have let me have something the
other girls didnt. I was so excited, and as I came up to the
studio, I remember another girl and her mom going inside,
too. Alyce was wearing a black leotard and plain pink tights.
I could tell she was jealous, eyeing my tutu as she held open
the door to let me in, and her mother said, You have the
prettiest long hair Ive ever seen.
I know. Im pretty all over, I said to her without a second thought.
Alyces mother smiled at me, but then her face changed


quickly as Grans fingers gripped me by the arm and yanked

me inside. I didnt even have time to wonder what Id said
that was wrong. Gran marched me into the bathroom, and
said through gritted teeth, Oh, you think youre something
special, do you?
She pulled a huge pair of orange-handled scissors out of
her bag, as if she carried them around waiting for moments
just like this. They looked like a bird with a silver metal
beak. And they were loud. I can still hear the sound of my
hair being chopped off with just a few mad snaps of the
birds jaws. Then Gran made me walk out of the bathroom
and go take my place on the piece of tape that Miss Judy put
on the floor marking my spot. Nobody looked right at me,
but there were mirrors on every wall, so I could see their
sideways glances. I could also see my hair sticking out in all
directions, as if it had been caught in a lawn mower. No more
swishing for me. I never went back to that class. And Gran
never mentioned it again.
Even after all these years, I know that a stroke of good
luck, like a rich, popular boyfriend whose family likes you,
means you just have to hold your breath and hope it lasts
and never, ever brag or feel too good about yourself.

Thats why I stole one of Rays white T-shirts and took it

home to sleep with under my pillow so I could pretend my
world smelled of cedar, too. No one ever suspected anything,
because at Birch Park, where the sound of cockroaches chew14


ing saltines is deafening, I just kept my head down and let

Lily make all the mistakes.

Bunny says were poor, Lily announces as she and her best
friend, Bunny, clatter through the door, letting in a gust of
cold air. They drop their mittens and snowsuits into a big
pile and trip out of their boots, knocking each other over
trying not to be late for dinner.
Gran is reheating food left over after another Catholic Social Services luncheon. She works part-time typing for the
archbishop, so we get first dibs on whatever food is left from
their functions. Tonights meal was delivered to the door by
Father Mike himself, with his little white collar choking him.
Selma is over and were setting the table. I can see Gran
looking at the food, wondering if it will be enough to feed
two extra mouths. She reaches for a can of Spam to stretch
it out.
I didnt say you were poor. I said you were poorer than
me and Dumpling, Bunny says. Dumpling is her older sister.
I watch Gran sigh, which is a sign that were aging her.
Were always aging her, but especially Lily, and now Bunny
is helping. Gran says if she didnt have to take care of us,
shed still be a young woman. I look at her sagging boobs,
then down at the tuna casserole. Too bad for Lily, there are
peas in it again.
What makes you so rich? she asks Bunny as they jostle
each other at the sink, fighting over the Joy soap.


Fish camp, says Bunny, We get tons and tons of salmon

at fish camp.
My cousin goes fishing every summer, Selma chimes in.
She doesnt think salmon are so special. In fact, Lily, Im
sure Alyce would trade places with youshe would love not
to have fish this summer.
Selmas cousin Alyce is the same Alyce from that fateful ballet class. It was her mother who told me my hair was
I dont want to go commercial fishing and have to live on
a smelly old boat, Lily says, as if shes just been insulted.
I want to go to fish camp like Bunny and Dumpling, near
their village.
Yeah, Bunny says, our camp is way up above the Arctic Circle. We have drumming circles and dances that go on
all night, and then we lay our sleeping bags out on spruce
boughs and we dont have to get up until the afternoon if we
dont want to. Me and Dumpling get to shoot mice with BB
guns and roast salmon hearts over the fire, too. Better than
marshmallows! She rubs her belly and licks her lips just
thinking about it.
Ill pass on the roasted salmon hearts. But Bunny sounds
braggy to me, and I glance over at Gran to see if shes ruffled
by it. Shes spooning food onto plates as if it takes so much
concentration. I guess other peoples kids can be vain if they
want. Lily better watch out it doesnt rub off on her.
Is there mayonnaise in this? Lily asks.
She is the pickiest eater on the planet.


Lily, Gran says in a voice that lets Lily know mayonnaise should be the least of her worries. Say grace.
fromthybountythroughchristourlordamenwhy- cant-wehave-a-fish-camp? Lily asks, without taking a breath.
Selma looks at me and we roll our eyes. Lily spends her
life griping that almost everyone else in Birch Park has a fish
camp. But saying it in front of Bunny puts Gran on the spot.
It also shows how clueless both Lily and Bunny are if they
havent figured this one out yet. Theyre both eleven, which
is plenty old enough know to where the lines are drawn.
We dont have a fish camp because we arent native,
Gran says, to her plate.
Im not native, Im Athabascan, Bunny says.
Selma and I laugh.
Whats so funny? She is Athabascan, says Lily. Natives
are the people like Doras mom, the ones who hang out all
day at the bartheyre too drunk to even bother fishing.
Thats enough, Gran says, slapping Lily so hard on the
hand that her fork flies up and then falls with a clatter.
No more talking while we eat this meal that Father Mike
has so generously provided for us.
Lily pushes her peas around on her plate. Her cheeks are
bright pink.
Fish camps are pretty much handed down from family to
family, but maybe Gran shouldnt have lumped all Alaska
Natives together. It didnt seem to make Bunny very happy.
Especially because Bunny and Dumpling actually have the


nicest parents in Birch Park. Doras family never goes to fish

camp. Lily knows better than to gossip about Dora at the
table, though.
Its not as if we all didnt see what happened the night
Dora came running out of her house wearing only a nightgown. Her father, Bumpo, was chasing after her, calling her
a whore. I think he got the name Bumpo because hes always
drunk and bumping into things. Bunnys dad, Mr. Moses,
was the only person brave enough to go outside and face
him. Mr. Moses had a big wool blanket and he scooped Dora
up in it like she was just a sack of feathers; then he set her inside the door of his own house. No matter how much Bumpo
yelled in his face or threatened him with a beer bottle, Mr.
Moses didnt budge; he just stood there blocking the door
that hid Dora.
It went on and on until Bumpo just sort of slumped over,
all deflated. Bunnys father led Bumpo back to his house.
And the rest of us went back to pretending we didnt see
If youre wondering why nobody called the cops, that
would show how little you know about us. Whatever you
happen to beblack, white, native, or purple, it doesnt
matterits a sin to snitch. Its the one universal rule that
being poor will buy you, for better or worse.

When Gran gets up from the table and is out of earshot,

good old Selma leans in to Lily and says, I thought the Lord


provided the meal, not Father Mike. All she gets is a halfhearted smile from my sister, who is busy piling her peas
onto Bunnys plate now that Gran isnt looking.
Bunny eats them all in one bite, because thats what best
friends do. Then they both hop up saying theyre going to
Bunnys for Eskimo ice cream and are out the door before
Gran can argue.
Lily has Bunny and I have Selma. And thats why we
havent gone totally batshit crazy yet, living with Gran.

Selma is the complete opposite of me. She came into the world
in the most unconventional way and must have decided before she was even three days old that she was going to fall in
love with her life, no matter what. (It helps that she doesnt
live with someone who might chop off her hair.) Selma has
these enormous brown eyes like a seal, and for whatever reason, she doesnt feel bound by the same rules as the rest of
us, which makes her a great friend. But she doesnt live in
Birch Park, and Im reminded of that when I hear a timid
knock at the door, so light that Gran doesnt hear it in the
Selmas wide eyes are laughing around the edges as she
mouths silently, Alyce.
Alyce will sometimes drop by and pick Selma up on her
way home from ballet. They both live on the other side of
the river, where the houses get nicer in a hurry and the rent
is much higher.


Alyce is long and lean with high cheekbones. Her hair

is pinned perfectly into a bun. Shes wearing leg warmers,
too, which might be fine at ballet, but in Birch Park Im sure
anyone who sees her just thinks she cut the sleeves off her
sweater and is wearing them on her legs. She always looks
terrified when she comes to pick up Selma. Im not sure what
she thinks will happen to her here; all shes doing is standing on our doorstep.
Ready to go? she says to Selma, barely acknowledging me.
The only reason she steps inside is because its twenty
below on the porch.
Hi, Alyce, I say.
Hi, she mumbles, looking down at the puddles of melting snow from her boots. Too bad you missed Lily, Selma
says, as if Alyce cares. Shed love to talk to you about fishing. Maybe you could convince your dad to take her on as a
deckhand and you could get a summer off?
Selma Alyce looks embarrassed.
Theres a recruiter coming from one of the top dance colleges this summer, Selma says to me, but Alyce cant get
out of fishing with her dad, so she doesnt get to audition.
Selma, Alyce says, your moms going to be worried.
You know how she is; we should go.
Selma is pulling on her snow pants, completely unfazed
and unaware that Alyce is so uncomfortable. I run my fingers through my hair and then stop when Alyce glances my
way. She has tiny startled eyes like a baby bird, and when


she looks at me I know exactly what she is thinking. Neither

of us will ever forget Gran chopping off my hair.
Boo-hoo, no college scout for Alyce, I think as she looks
quickly back down at the floor. At least Alyce has the decency to be embarrassed. But not Selma.
I dont see why you dont just ask your dad, she says,
struggling into her parka. Or get your mom to tell him.
How hard can that be?
Alyces bun is starting to come undone from its bobby
pins, as if Selmas talking about her is making it unravel
bit by bit. Im tempted to reach out and spin her like a top.
Would she unspool all the way down to her bright-pink leg
Her parents dont really get along, Selma says, now rummaging through the milk crate where we keep hats and old
woolen socks that we wear in layers on our hands. Cheaper
than buying mittens.
Yours are on top, I tell her, pointing to the pair that
Selma knit herself, as if anyone could miss them. The thumbs
are twice the size they should be and they are fluorescent
As much as I like Selma, in certain situations she can be
kind of oblivious. Suddenly Im as anxious to get Alyce out
of our doorway as Alyce is to leave.
Thanks for dinner, Selma yells at Gran as they open the
door; Alyce practically leaps into the snowbank trying to
get away. Even in a panicked rush, she is the most graceful
person Ive ever seen, and I cannot picture her working on


a stinky boat gutting fish, no matter how hard I try. Selma

smiles and waves good-bye, then links her arm with Alyces
and I watch their shadows bob away under the yellow streetlights. How does Selma manage to break all the rules and
still stay on everyones good side?

But maybe its my turn to break some rules, too, because

dont forget, I have a rich boyfriend who flicked me on the
butt one day with his wet towel at swim practice and said,
Want to come to a party at my house after the meet?
After I stayed over that first time, all I wanted was to stay
over again. But Gran only lets us go to a friends house once a
month. Until next month, I have to settle for calling Ray late
at night, from the phone in the hallway.
The long red cord stretches into my room, where I put his
shirt over my head and listen to his voice telling me about
the northern lights outside his window, streaking across the
sky and then bouncing off the frozen lake in big, fat, wavy
swaths of green and red and yellow.
We talk about swim practice and I lick chlorine off my
arm, pretending its his. He tells me where I should touch
myself and promises all kinds of things for the next time I
sleep over. I ask him why his family likes Richard Nixon so
much and he says he doesnt know, but that his dad sometimes calls him Tricky Dicky. He says he wants to come to
Birch Park sometime, but I hope hes just saying that to be
nice. I would die if he saw where I live.


Your house smells so much better than mine, I tell him.

Ive realized over time that houses with moms in them
do tend to smell better. If I close my eyes, I can just barely
remember my mothers wildflowers in their whiskey bottles.
The very distant scent of my parents lingers in my brain, as
they laugh and twirl around the kitchen. Deer blood on my
fathers hands tinges all my memories of themtheir skin,
their hair, their clothes. The smell of too much love.
I dont say any of this to Ray, who still has two parents
and a house that smells like store-bought everything. I dont
want to scare him away.

Finally I get to stay over again, and this time Ray has a little
foil packet the size of a tea bag that he says we should use,
just to be safe. But every Catholic knows thats the worst
sin of all. After asking me about six times if Im sure I dont
want to use it, he gives up and we get drunk on each other,
practically drowning in a blur of skin and hair and tangled
sheets. I dont even think about how this part is probably a
sin, too. Ray keeps calling me beautiful over and over and
over, until I even start believing him. Its as if someone is
seeing me for the first time in my life.
I fall asleep right there next to him, totally naked, and forget to go back to Annas room. Suddenly Mrs. Stevens walks
in with a pile of freshly folded shirts. Its morning; the sun is
streaming in through the big glass windows and I have never
been more embarrassed.


Oh, sorry, she says when she sees us, didnt mean to
barge in. As she backs out the door, her cloudy blue eyes
look sad and weirdly guilty, as if shes the one whos been
Oh my God. Isnt she mad? I ask Ray, pulling the sheet
over my head. If that had been Gran, theyd be ordering my
But Ray just laughs and tries to roll on top of me.
What can she say? Its not like Anna isnt here because
my mom did the same thing back in high school. Why do
you think she had to get married so young?
He reaches out to touch my breast but I push his hand
away, struggling to get back into my nightgown. I feel queasy
and cant stop seeing his mothers blue, blue eyes, as if they
are the sea and I have just swum way too far from shore.






Jeff ZentnerWriter

Zent_9780553524024_2p_all_r1.indd 3
Zent_9780553524024_2p_all_r1.indd 3



5/28/15 11:08 AM
5/28/15 11:08 AM

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events,
or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright 2016 by Jeff Zentner
Jacket photographs: (bridge/figures) rolfo/Rolf Brenner/Getty Images;
(clouds) Shutterstock
Jacket design by Alison Impey
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown Books
for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Childrens Books,
a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Crown and the colophon are registered trademarks
of Penguin Random House LLC.
Visit us on the Web!
Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools,
visit us at
Library of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data
Zentner, Jeff.
The serpent king / Jeff Zentner. First edition.
pages cm.
Summary: The son of a Pentecostal preacher faces his personal demons as he
and his two outcast friends try to make it through their senior year of high
school in rural Forrestville, Tennessee, without letting the small- town culture
destroy their creative spirits and sense of self.
ISBN 978- 0- 553- 52402- 4 (trade) ISBN 978- 0- 553- 52403-1 (lib. bdg.)
ISBN 978- 0- 553- 52404- 8 (ebook)
[1. Self- actualization (Psychology) Fiction. 2. Friendship Fiction.
3. Country life Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.1.Z46Se 2016 [Fic] dc23 2014044883
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition
Random House Childrens Books supports the First Amendment and
celebrates the right to read.


Zent_9780553524024_4p_all_r1.indd 4


7/17/15 10:39 AM


There were things Dillard Wayne Early Jr. dreaded more

than the start of school at Forrestville High. Not many, but
a few. Thinking about the future was one of them. Dill
didnt enjoy doing that. He didnt much care for talking
about religion with his mother. That never left him feeling
happy or saved. He loathed the flash of recognition that
usually passed across peoples faces when they learned his
name. That rarely resulted in a conversation he enjoyed.
And he really didnt enjoy visiting his father, Pastor Dillard Early Sr., at Riverbend Prison. His trip to Nashville
that day wasnt to visit his father, but he still had a nagging
sense of unformed dread and he didnt know why. It might
have been because school was starting the next day, but
this felt different somehow than in years past.


It would have been worse except for the excitement of

seeing Lydia. The worst days spent with her were better
than the best days spent without her.
Dill stopped strumming his guitar, leaned forward, and
wrote in the dollar- store composition book open on the
floor in front of him. The decrepit window air conditioner
wheezed, losing the battle against the mugginess of his living room.
The thudding of a wasp at the window caught his attention over the laboring of the air conditioner. He rose from
the ripped sofa and walked to the window, which he jimmied until it screeched open.
Dill swatted the wasp toward the crack. You dont want
to stay in here, he murmured. This house is no place to
die. Go on. Get.
It alighted on the sill, considered the house one more
time, and flew free. Dill shut the window, almost having to
hang from it to close it all the way.
His mother walked in wearing her motel maids uniform. She looked tired. She always did, which made her
seem much older than her thirty-five years. What were you
doing with the window open and the AC on? Electricitys
not free.
Dill turned. Wasp.
Why you all dressed to leave? You going somewhere?
Nashville. Please dont ask the question I know youre going
to ask.
Visiting your father? She sounded both hopeful
and accusatory.


No. Dill looked away.

His mother stepped toward him and sought his eyes.
Why not?
Dill avoided her glare. Because. Thats not why were
Whos we?
Me. Lydia. Travis. Same as always.
She put a hand on her hip. Why you going, then?
School clothes.
Your clothes are fine.
No theyre not. Theyre getting too small. Dill lifted his
skinny arms, his T- shirt exposing his lean stomach.
With what money? His mothers browalready more
lined than most womens her agefurrowed.
Just my tips from helping people to their cars with their
Free trip to Nashville. You should visit your father.
You better go visit your father or else, you mean. Dill set his
jaw and looked at her. I dont want to. I hate it there.
She folded her arms. Its not meant to be fun. Thats
why its prison. Think he enjoys it?
Probably more than I enjoy it. Dill shrugged and gazed back
out the window. Doubt it.
I dont ask for much, Dillard. It would make me happy.
And it would make him happy.
Dill sighed and said nothing. You ask for plenty without ever
actually asking for it.
You owe him. Youre the only one with enough
free time.

She would hang it over his head. If he didnt visit, she

would make it hurt worse for longer than if he gave in.
The dread in Dills stomach intensified. Maybe. If we have
As his mother was about to try to drag a firmer commitment from him, a bestickered Toyota Prius zoomed up his
road and screeched to a stop in front of his house with a
honk. Thank you, God.
I gotta go, Dill said. Have a good day at work. He
hugged his mother goodbye.
But he was out the door before she had the chance.
He felt burdened as he stepped into the bright summer
morning, shielding his eyes against the sun. The humidity mounted an assault even at nine- twenty in the
morning like a hot, wet towel wrapped around his face.
He glanced at the peeling white Calvary Baptist Church
up the street from his house. He squinted to read the
sign out of habit. no jesus, no peace. know jesus, know
What if you know Jesus but have no peace? Does that mean the
sign is wrong, or does that mean you dont know Jesus quite as
well as you think? Dill hadnt been raised to consider either
a particularly good outcome.
He opened the car door and got in. The frigid air conditioning made his pores shrink.
Hey, Lydia.
She grabbed a worn copy of The Secret History off the pas6


senger seat before Dill sat on it, and tossed it in the backseat. Sorry Im late.
Youre not sorry.
Of course Im not. But I have to pretend. Social contractual obligations and whatnot.
You could set your clock by Lydias being twenty minutes
late. And it was no use trying to trick her by telling her to
meet you at a time twenty minutes before you really wanted
to meet. That only made her forty minutes late. She had a
sixth sense.
Lydia leaned over and hugged Dill. Youre already
sweaty and its still morning. Boys are so gross.
The black frames of her glasses creaked against his cheekbone. Her tousled smoky-blue hairthe color of a faded
November sky streaked with clouds smelled like honey,
fig, and vetiver. He breathed it in. It made his head swim
in a pleasant way. She had dressed for Nashville in a vintage sleeveless red gingham blouse with black high-waisted
denim shorts and vintage cowboy boots. He loved the way
she dressed every twist and turn, and there were many.
Dill buckled his seat belt the instant before her acceleration pressed him into his seat. Sorry. I dont have access to
AC that makes August feel like December. He sometimes
went days without feeling air as cool as in Lydias car except
for when he opened the refrigerator.
She reached out and turned the air conditioning down a
couple of clicks. I think my car should fight global warming in every possible way.


Dill angled one of the vents toward his face. You ever
think about how weird it is that Earth is hurtling through
the black vacuum of space, where its like a thousand below
zero, and meanwhile were down here sweating?
I often think about how weird it is that Earth is hurtling
through the black vacuum of space and meanwhile youre
down here being a total weirdo.
So, where are we going in Nashville? Opry Mills Mall or
Lydia glared at him and looked back at the road. She
extended her hand toward him, still looking forward.
Excuse me, I thought wed been best friends since ninth
grade, but apparently weve never even met. Lydia Blankenship. You are?
Dill took advantage of the opportunity to take her hand.
Dillard Early. Maybe youve heard of my father by the
same name.
It had thoroughly scandalized Forrestville, Tennessee,
when Pastor Early of the Church of Christs Disciples with
Signs of Belief went to the state penitentiaryand not for
the reasons anyone expected. Everyone assumed hed get
in trouble someday for the twenty- seven or so rattlesnakes
and copperheads his congregants passed around each Sunday. No one knew with certainty what law they were breaking, but it seemed unlawful somehow. And the Tennessee
Department of Wildlife did take custody of the snakes after
his arrest. Or people thought perhaps hed run afoul of
the law by inducing his flock to drink diluted battery acid


and strychnine, another favored worship activity. But no,

he went to Riverbend Prison for a different sort of poison:
possession of more than one hundred images depicting a
minor engaged in sexual activity.
Lydia tilted her head and squinted. Dillard Early, huh?
The name rings a bell. Anyway, yes, were driving an hour
and a half to Nashville to go to Opry Mills Mall and buy
you the same sweatshop garbage that Tyson Reed, Logan
Walker, Hunter Henry, their intolerable girlfriends, and all
of their horrible friends will also be wearing on the first
day of senior year.
I ask a simple question
She raised a finger. A stupid question.
A stupid question.
Thank you.
Dills eyes fell on Lydias hands at the steering wheel.
They were slender, with long, graceful fingers; vermilioncolored nails; and lots of rings. The rest of her wasnt ungraceful but her fingers were affirmatively and aggressively
graceful. He relished watching her drive. And type. And
do everything she did with her hands.
Did you call Travis to tell him you were running late?
Did I call you to tell you I was running late? She took a
turn fast, squealing her tires.
Think itll come as a surprise to him that Im running


The August air was a steamy haze. Dill could already hear
the bugs, whatever they were called. The ones that made a
pulsing, rattling drone on a sweltering morning, signaling
that the day would only grow hotter. Not cicadas, he didnt
think. Rattlebugs. That seemed as good a name as any.
What am I working with today? Lydia asked. Dill gave
her a blank stare. She held up her hand and rubbed her
fingers together. Come on, buddy, keep up here.
Oh. Fifty bucks. Can you work with that?
She snorted. Of course I can work with that.
Okay, but no dressing me weird.
Lydia extended her hand to him againmore forcefully, as though karate chopping a board. No, but seriously.
Have we met? What was your name again?
Dill grasped her hand again. Any excuse. Youre in a
mood today.
Im in the mood to receive a little credit. Not much.
Dont spoil me.
Wouldnt dream of it.
In the last two years of school shopping, have I ever
made you look ridiculous?
No. I mean, I still caught hell for stuff, but Im sure that
wouldve happened no matter what I wore.
It would. Because we go to school with people who
wouldnt recognize great style if it bit them right on their
ass. I have a vision for you, planted in rustic Americana.
Western shirts with pearl snaps. Denim. Classic, masculine,
iconic lines. While everyone else at Forrestville High tries


desperately to appear as though they dont live in Forrestville, well embrace and own your rural Southernness,
continuing in the vein of 1970s Townes Van Zandt meets
Whiskeytown- era Ryan Adams.
Youve planned this. Dill savored the idea of Lydia
thinking about him. Even if only as a glorified mannequin.
Would you expect less?
Dill breathed in the fragrance of her car. Vanilla car
freshener mixed with french fries, jasmine- orange- ginger
lotion, and heated makeup. They were almost to Traviss
house. He lived close to Dill. They stopped at an intersection, and Lydia took a selfie with her cell phone and
handed it to Dill.
Get me from your angle.
You sure? Your fans might start thinking you have
Hardy har. Do it and let me worry about that.
A couple of blocks later, they pulled up to the Bohannon house. It was white and rundown with a weathered tin
roof and wood stacked on the front porch. Traviss father
perspired in the gravel driveway, changing out the spark
plugs on his pickup that had the name of the family business, Bohannon Lumber, stenciled on the side. He cast Dill
and Lydia a briny glare, cupped his hand to his mouth, and
yelled, Travis, you got company, saving Lydia the trouble
of honking.
Pappy Bohannon looks to be in a bit of a mood himself, Lydia said.



To hear Travis tell it, Pappy Bohannon is in a permanent mood. Its called being a giant asshole, and its incurable.
A moment or two passed before Travis came loping outside. Ambling, perhaps. Whatever bears do. All six feet, six
inches, and 250 pounds of him. His shaggy, curly red hair
and patchy red teenager beard were wet from the shower.
He wore his signature black work boots, black Wranglers, and baggy black dress shirt buttoned all the way up.
Around his neck, he wore a necklace with a chintzy pewter
dragon gripping a purple crystal balla memento from
some Renaissance festival. He always wore it. He carried a
dog- eared paperback from the Bloodfall series, something
else he was seldom without.
Halfway to the car, he stopped, raised a finger, and spun
and ran back to the house, almost tripping over his feet.
Lydia hunched over, her hands on the wheel, watching
Oh no. The staff, she murmured. He forgot the staff.
Dill groaned and did a facepalm. Yep. The staff.
The oaken staff, Lydia said in a grandiose, medieval
The magic staff of kings and lords and wizards and . . .
elves or whatever.
Travis returned, clutching his staff, symbols and faces
carved on it with clumsy hands. His father glanced up with
a pained expression, shook his head, and resumed work.
Travis opened the car door.



Hey, guys.
The staff? Really? Lydia said.
I bring it on journeys. Sides, what if we need it to protect ourselves? Nashville is dangerous.
Yeah, Lydia said, but its not dangerous because of
all the staff-wielding brigands. They have guns now. Gun
beats staff in gun- staff- scissors.
I highly doubt well get in a staff fight in Nashville, Dill
I like it. It makes me feel good to have it.
Lydia rolled her eyes and put the car into gear. Bless
your heart. Okay, boys. Lets do this. The last time we ever
go school shopping together, thank the sweet Lord.
And with that pronouncement, Dill realized that the
dread in his stomach wouldnt be going away any time
soon. Maybe never. The final indignity? He doubted hed
even get a good song out of it.





The Nashville skyline loomed in the distance. Lydia liked

Nashville. Vanderbilt was on her college list. Not high on
the list, but there. Thinking about colleges put her in a
good mood, as did being in a big city. All in all, she felt
a lot happier than she had the day before the start of any
school year in her life. She could only imagine what shed
be feeling the day before next school yearfreshman year
of college.
As they entered the outskirts of Nashville, Dill stared out
the window. Lydia had given him her camera and assigned
him to be expedition photographer, but he forgot to take
pictures. He had his normal faraway affect and distinct air
of melancholy. Today seemed different somehow, though.
Lydia knew that visits to Nashville were a bittersweet affair



for him because of his father, and shed consciously tried

to pick a route that would differ from the one he took to
visit the prison. She spent a fair amount of time on Google
Maps plotting, but to no avail. There were only so many
routes from Forrestville to Nashville.
Maybe Dill was looking at the homes they passed. Houses
as cramped and dilapidated as his didnt seem to exist even
in the parts of Nashville with cramped and dilapidated
houses, at least along the path they took. Maybe he was
thinking about the music that flowed in the citys veins.
Or maybe something else entirely occupied his mind. That
was always a possibility with him.
Hey, she said gently.
He started and turned. Hey what?
Nothing. Just hey. Youre being so quiet.
Dont have much to say today. Thinking.
They crossed over the river into East Nashville and drove
past coffee shops and restaurants until they pulled up to
a restored Craftsman- style bungalow. A hand-painted sign
out front said attic. Lydia parked. Travis reached for his
Lydia raised a finger in warning. Do not.
They walked in, but not before she had Dill take a picture of her standing next to the sign, and another of her
leaning on the wide porch.
The shop smelled of old leather, wool, and denim. An air
conditioner purred, pumping out cool air with a whiff of
clean mildew. Fleetwood Mac played over hidden speakers.




The wood floor creaked under them. A pretty, bohemianlooking strawberry blonde in her twenties sat behind a glass
counter display full of handmade jewelry, staring intently
at her laptop screen. She looked up as they approached.
Okay, I love your look. How hot are you, seriously? she
said to Lydia.
Lydia curtsied. Why thank you, madam shopkeeper.
How hot are you, seriously?
Lydia gave Dill a look that said Try to get this kind of treatment at stupid Opry Mills Mall.
Are you guys looking for anything in particular today?
Lydia grabbed Dill by the arm and pushed him in front
of her.
Clothes. Duds. Britches. That will fit this guy and make
women swoon across Tennessees Cumberland Plateau region.
Dill averted his eyes. Lets maybe focus on the fitting
part for now, Lydia, he said through clenched teeth.
The woman gasped. My parents almost named me
Lydia. They went with April.
Lead the way, Miss April, Lydia said. I see you have an
excellent and well- curated selection.
Dill went in and out of the dressing room while Travis
sat on a creaky wooden chair and read, lost to the world.
Lydia was in her element, seldom happier than when playing dress-up with Dill, her own little fashion charity project.
Lydia handed Dill another shirt. We need some clothestrying- on-montage musicLets Hear It for the Boy or
something. And at one point you come out of the dressing



room wearing a gorilla costume or something, and I shake

my head immediately.
Dill pulled on the shirt, buttoned it up, and studied himself in the mirror. You watch way too many movies from
the eighties.
Eventually they had a stack of shirts, jeans, a denim
jacket lined with sheepskin, and a pair of boots.
I love vintage shopping with you, Dill. You have the
body of a seventies rock star. Everything looks good on
you. Mental note: in college, any boyfriends should have Dills
body. Its a fun body to dress. Actually, it would also probably be a
fun body to well . . . anyway, its a fun body to dress.
I cant afford all this, Dill said under his breath.
Lydia patted his cheek. Calm down.
April rang them up. Thirty dollars for three shirts.
Thirty dollars for the jacket. Forty dollars for the boots.
Twenty dollars for two pairs of jeans. One hundred twenty
dollars total.
Lydia leaned on the counter. Okay, April. Heres the
deal. Id love it if youd sell us all this for fifty bucks, and
Im prepared to make it worth your while.
April gave Lydia a sympathetic head tilt. Aw, sweetie. I
wish I could. Tell you what. Ill do one hundred, the friend
price, because I wish we were best friends.
Lydia leaned over the counter and motioned at the laptop. May I?
Lydia typed Dollywould into the browser and waited for it
to load. She turned the computer toward April.



Ever been here?

April squinted at the screen. Yeah . . . looks familiar.
Im pretty sure I have. Was there an article on here about
the best vintage stores in Tennessee?
April scrolled through. Okay, yeah, Ive been here before. That was a great article.
Thank you.
Wait, you wrote that?
That and every other article on Dollywould. I run it.
Aprils jaw dropped slightly. No way. Are you serious?
What are youmaybe eighteen?
Where were you when I was in high school?
Forrestville, Tennessee, wishing I were you. How do you
Word of mouth, mostly. I dont have much of a marketing budget. Ill run the occasional ad in the Nashville Scene
when Ive had a good month.
How about I prominently feature your store on Dollywould in exchange for you cutting us a break on this?
April drummed her fingers on the countertop and
thought for a second. I dont know.
Lydia whipped out her phone and typed while April
mulled. She set her phone on the counter, stepped back,
and folded her arms with a broad grin. Her phone buzzed
and beeped.



Whats that? Whatd you do? April asked.

Thought Id give you a taste. Are you on Twitter?
I have an account for the store.
I tweeted to tell my 102,678 followers that Im currently
standing in the best vintage store in the state of Tennessee
and that they should come check it out.
Wow. Thanks, I
Lydia raised a finger and picked up her phone. Hang
on. Lets see what were getting. Okay, weve got seventy-five
favorites, fifty-three retweets. Thanks for the tip, will def check
it out . . . Always trust your taste . . . Need to make a trip to Nashville, maybe we can meet up and do some shopping . . .
What if
Lydia raised her finger again. Oooh, heres a good one.
This is from Sandra Chen-Liebowitz. That name probably
doesnt ring a bell, but shes an associate features editor at
Cosmo. Lets see what she has to say: Great tip, actually working on Nashville feature as we speak. Thanks! So you maybe
made the pages of Cosmo. Convinced?
April regarded Lydia for a second and threw up her
hands with a little laugh. Okay. Okay. You win.
We win.
So, youre basically the coolest girl in school, I guess?
Lydia laughed. Dill and Travis joined her. Oh my. Yes,
Im the coolest. Now, most popular? Lets just say that being
Internet famous carries little cachet among my classmates.
It kind of carries negative cachet, Dill said.
What he said. Not much high school cachet to be had




in being a female who has, you know, vocal opinions about

Well, Im impressed, April said.
Fantastic. Now, while youre ringing up my friend, Ill
be figuring out how best to spend three hundred dollars
How about you? April said to Travis. Im not sure we
have much that fits someone as tall as you, but we might.
Travis blushed and looked up with a crooked smile. Oh,
no thanks, maam. I mostly wear the same thing every day
so I can think about other stuff.
April and Lydia shared a look. Lydia shook her head.
Aprils face registered understanding.

Lydia had no trouble whatsoever spending her clothing

allowance. Before they left, she had Dill take about fifty
pictures of her wearing her new outfits in various combinations. And she had him take about twenty more of her
and April. She and April exchanged phone numbers and
promised to stay in touch.
They began sweating immediately upon walking outside. It was at least ninety-five degrees. The late-afternoon
sun blazed. The cicadas hum throbbed like a heartbeat on
an ultrasound.
Lydia motioned for everyone to huddle up. Lets get
some pictures of all of us together. Last school shopping
trip to Nashville.



Dill forced a smile. Come on, dude, you can do better

than that, Lydia said. He tried again. No better.
Hey, Lydia, could you take a couple of pictures of me
with my staff?
Lydia was exuberant over the coup shed scored for Dill,
her own clothing finds, and her stylish older new friend.
Still, she feigned great annoyance, for consistencys sake.
Oh all right. Go on. Fetch thy staff.
Travis bounded to the car and grabbed it. He returned
and assumed a grim, contemplative stance. Okay.
Lydia took several pictures. Travis changed poses: leaning on his staff, holding the staff at the ready to strike.
Make sure you can see my dragon necklace in them.
Dude. Im not a beginner at making sure cute accessories feature prominently in photos.
When she finished, Travis came up beside her to look
at her work, a wide, childlike grin lighting up his face. He
smelled of sweat and the musty odor of clothes that had
been left too long in the washing machine before going
into the dryer.
I look good in these, he murmured. Like Raynar
Northbrook from Bloodfall.
Dill craned to take a peek. Oh, those have Raynar
Northbrook written all over them. His teasing went over
Traviss head.
Lydia clapped. Gentlemen. Im hungry. Lets go to
Paneras too fancy. I want to go to Krystals, Travis said.




(A), its Krystal, singular and nonpossessive. And

(b), no.
Come on, you got to pick the music on the way.
Theres a Krystal in Forrestville. Theres no Panera. We
didnt drive all this way to eat at dumb Krystal and get the
same diarrhea we could get in Forrestville.
Lets let Dill decide. He can be the tiebreaker.
Dill had been staring into the distance. Im . . . not hungry. Ill eat at home.
Doesnt matter, Travis said. You can still vote.
A vote for Krystal is a vote for walking home, Lydia
I vote for Panera then, Dill said, with a more genuine
They ended up getting Krystal for Travis.





Dill had hoped that when he asked if they could make

a stop at the prison on the way out of town, after eating,
Lydia would say that she had to get home for some reason
and couldnt possibly wait for him to visit his father. But no.
Riverbend Prison was in a deceptively beautiful, pastoral
part of Nashville. Rolling hills and a lush carpet of trees
surrounded blocky beige buildings with slit windows.
I wont be too long, yall. You know I hate it here, Dill
said, getting out of the car.
Lydia tapped away at her phone. No worries, dude. I
can work on my back-to- school blog post.
Travis held up his book.
You guys are supposed to tell me how important it is for
you to get home, Dill said.




Oh, right, Lydia said, not looking up. Okay, Dill, hurry
it up in there or, like, Ill be grounded or get spanked or
Yeah, hurry it up, Dill, Travis said. I really want to get
home and hang out with my cool dad instead of reading
my favorite book.
Dill gave them an uneasy smile and flipped them the
bird. He took a deep breath and walked toward the main
building. He went through security and signed in. Guards
took him to the visiting area. It didnt look like the visiting
areas on TV. There werent clear dividers and telephone
handsets. There was a big room full of round tables, each
with two or three chairs, and some vending machines. It
resembled his school cafeteria, and he was as excited to be
there as he would be at his school cafeteria. It was stuffy
and just cool enough to remind you that the building had
air conditioning, but some budget or moral constraint kept
it from being used to make things very comfortable. Several guards kept vigil around the room.
Dill was the only visitor there. He sat at the table and
drummed his fingers. He couldnt stop bouncing his legs.
Just get through this.
He turned and stood as a door opened and a guard led
in Dillard Early Sr.
Dills father was tall and gaunt, rawboned. He had deepset dark eyes; a handlebar mustache; and long, greasy black
hair streaked with gray and tied in a ponytail. Every time
Dill saw him, he appeared harder. More cunning. More
feral and serpentine. Prison was whittling him down, carv24



ing away what little softness and gentleness he had. He was

almost exactly ten years older than Dills mother, but he
looked twenty years older.
He wore dark-blue denim pants and a light-blue scrub
shirt with a number stenciled on the breast and tdoc stenciled on the back.
His father sauntered up. He had a predatory, wary walk.
Hello, Junior. Dill hated being called Junior. They stood
and faced each other for a second. They werent allowed
to hug or touch in any way. Dill could smell him across
the table. He didnt smell bad, exactly, but unmistakably
human. Primal. Like skin and hair that werent washed as
often as free peoples.
They sat down. Dills father set his hands on the table.
He had mark tattooed across one set of knuckles and 1618
tattooed across the other. The tattoos were a new development. And not a good one. Not a promising sign to see him moving in the direction of more weirdness.
Dill tried to sound casual. Hi, Dad. You got some tattoos, looks like.
His father glanced at his hands, as though learning a
new piece of information. Yes, I did. They wont let me
practice my signs ministry in here, so I wear my faith on my
skin. They cant take that from me.
Looks like youre doing fine in here. When his father had
gone to prison, everyone supposed hed have a hard time,
considering what his conviction was for. But they underestimated his fathers charisma. Apparently if you can convince people to pick up rattlesnakes and copperheads and



drink poison, you can convince people to protect you from

what his father called the Sodomites.
They sat and regarded each other for several awkward
So . . . how are you doing? Dill asked.
Im living one day at a time, praise Jesus.
Are you . . . getting enough to eat? Prison small talk
was hard. Not even the weather was a topic of mutual
My needs are met. How are you and your mother?
Surviving. Working hard.
His intense eyes glittered with a strange light that made
Dill feel dark inside. Im glad to hear that. Work hard.
Pay off our debts, so I can rebuild my ministry when my
time here is done. Perhaps you can join me if youve grown
mighty in faith by then.
Dill squirmed. Yeah, maybe. Anyway, school starts tomorrow.
His father rested his elbows on the table and interlaced
his fingers as if he were praying. Its about that time of
year, isnt it? And how will you spend this year in school?
Will you be a soldier for Christ and spread the good news
of salvation and its signs to your peers? Will you do the
work I cannot?
Dill shifted again in his seat and looked away. He didnt
like making eye contact with his father. His father had the
kind of eyes that made people do things they knew could
hurt them. II mean, I dont think my classmates really



care that much what I have to say. Perfect. A reminder of how

unpopular I am combined with a reminder of how much I disappoint my dad, all rolled into one package. Visiting prison sure
is fun.
His father scooted in, his eyes boring into Dill, a conspiratorial hush to his voice. Then dont say. Sing. Lift that
voice Gods given you. Use those hands that God blessed
with music. Spread the gospel through song. Young people
love music.
Dill stifled a bitter laugh. Yeah . . . but not music about
picking up snakes and stuff. That kind of music isnt that
The Spirit will move in them the way it moved in our
congregation when you sang and played. And when I get
out, our congregation will have grown tenfold.
How about I just try to survive the school year? How about I
dont do anything to add to the ridicule? Look, Dad, your
our . . . situation . . . makes it hard for me to talk to my
classmates about stuff like this. They dont really want to
hear it, you know?
His father snorted. So we surrender to Lucifers device
to ruin our signs ministry? We hand him victory without
No, II dont The surrealness of being made to feel
unworthy by a prison inmate set in, preventing Dill from finishing his thought.
Remember how you would write psalms and sing them
with the praise band? Remember that?




Yeah. I guess. Yeah.

Dills father sat back in his seat, looking off, shaking his
head slightly. Those songs were beautiful. He stared back
at Dill. Sing one for me.
You meanlike right here? Now? Dill looked for any
sign that his father was joking. That would be an exceedingly rare occurrence, but still.
Yes. The one you wrote. And Christ Will Make Us
I dont have my guitar or anything. Plus, wouldnt it
be . . . weird? Dill nodded at the bored-looking guards
talking among themselves.
His father turned and glanced at the guards. He turned
back with a gleam in his eye. Do you think they think
were not weird?
Thats a fair point. Dill blushed. Might as well rip off
the Band-Aid. He quickly and quietly sang the requested
number a capella. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the
guards stop conversing to listen.
More, his father said, applauding. A new one.
I . . . havent really written any new ones for a while.
Youve given up music?
Not exactly. I just write . . . different stuff now.
His fathers face darkened. Different stuff. God did not
pour out music on your tongue so that you could sing the
praises of men and whoredom.
I dont write songs about whoredom. I dont have even
one song about whoredom.
His father pointed at him. Remember this. Christ is the



way. The only way. Your path to salvation. And your music
is your path to Christ. My path to Christ was the manifestation of faith signs. We lose our path to Christ; we lose our
path to salvation. We lose our eternal reward. Got it?
Yeah. I got it. Talking to his father made Dill feel like
he was talking to a sentient brick wall that somehow knew
about Jesus. Okay, well, I have to go.
His fathers face darkened further. You just got here.
Surely you didnt come all this way just to spend a few minutes and go back home.
No. I hitched a ride with some friends who had to do
some school shopping. Theyre waiting out in the parking
lot and its really hot. They were nice to let me come here
for a few minutes.
Dills father exhaled through his nose and stood. Well,
I guess youd better go to them, then. Goodbye, Junior.
Give your mother my love and tell her Ill write soon.
Dill stood. I will.
Tell her Ive been getting her letters.
When will I see you again?
I dont know exactly.
Then Ill see you when God wills it. Go with Jesus, son.
Dills father raised his two fists and put them together side
by side. Mark 16:18. Then he turned and walked away.

Dill released a long exhale as he left the building, as though

hed held his breath for the entire time he was inside to



keep from inhaling whatever virulence the men imprisoned there harbored. He felt only slightly better without
the dread of visiting his father. Now he just carried the
original dread from that morning.
He reached the car. Lydia was saying something to Travis about how many calories a dragon would have to eat per
day to be able to breathe fire. Her argument did not seem
to be persuading him.
She looked up as Dill approached. Oh thank God. She
started the car. So, hows your dad?
Weird, Dill said. Hes really weird.
Is Travis started to ask.
I dont really feel like talking about it.
Okay, jeez.
Im sorry, Im not trying to be rude, Dill said. Just . . .
lets go home.
They were mostly silent on the return trip. Travis read his
book. Lydia switched to a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds/Gun
Club mix and tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm,
still radiating good cheer. And why shouldnt she. Shes had a
great day.
Dill gazed out the window at the trees that lined both
sides of the highway, the occasional handmade roadside
cross, marking where someone had met their end, punctuating the unbroken wall of green. Three vultures circled
something in the distance, soaring on updrafts. He tried
to savor the remaining moments of the drive.
Last time school shopping together. The death of a little piece of



my life. And I didnt even get to enjoy it completely because of my

crazy dad. Who keeps slowly getting crazier.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Lydia drive.
The edges of her mouth. The way they turned up in a nearperpetual smirk. How her lips moved almost imperceptibly
as she unconsciously sang along with the music.
Remember this. Write it on a handmade cross and plant it in
your heart to mark this ending.
When they pulled into Forrestville, the shadows were
long and the light looked like it was streaming through a
pitcher of sweet tea. They dropped Travis off first.
Travis hopped out and bent down to look in the car, his
hand on the roof. Another year, yall. See you tomorrow?
Unfortunately, Dill said.
Travis ambled up the front walk. He turned and waved
again when he reached his porch, staff held high.
Lydia sped off.
Im in no hurry to get home, Dill said.
Want to go to Bertram Park and watch trains until it
gets dark?
Id love to hang, but I really need to start putting some
time into the blog for the next few months. Ill be leading
with it in my college apps, so there needs to be good content.
Come on.
Look, thatd be fun in its usual somewhat boring way,
but no.




They pulled up to Dills house. He sat for a moment,

not reaching for the door handle, before turning to Lydia.
You gonna be too busy for us this year?
Lydias face took a defiant cast. Her eyes hardened,
her exuberant air evaporating. Sorry, I wasnt paying
attentionwhat were we doing for the last several hours?
Oh, right.
Thats not what I mean. Not today. I mean in general. Is
that how this years going to be?
Um, no dude. Same question. Is this how this year will
go? You not understanding and being weird when I need to
do the stuff I need to do?
Well, were not off to a great start.
I get it. Youll be busy. Whatever.
But youll just be really silent and taciturn about it and
maybe somewhat of a dick.
I have a lot on my mind.
Im serious, Dill. Please dont be gross when Im busy.
Im not being gross.
Yeah, you are a little.
They regarded each other for a moment as though giving the opportunity for airing additional demands or grievances. Lydias face softened. On a different topic, half of
my salad from Panera isnt much of a dinner.
Im fine.
You sure?




Juli e
e B
B uxb
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Buxb_9780553535648_5p_all_r1.indd 3

9/3/15 10:57 AM
9/3/15 10:57 AM

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Sneak Peek.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright 2016 by Julie R. Buxbaum, Inc.
Jacket art copyright 2016 by Getty Images
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of
Random House Childrens Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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Penguin Random House LLC.
Visit us on the Web!
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Buxbaum, Julie.
Tell me three things / by Julie Buxbaum.
pages cm
ISBN 978-0-553-53564-8 (trade hc) ISBN 978-0-553-53565-5 (library binding)
ISBN 978-0-553-53566-2 (ebook) ISBN 978-0-399-55293-9 (intl. tr. pbk.)
[1. High schoolsFiction. 2. SchoolsFiction. 3. Moving, HouseholdFiction.
4. StepfamiliesFiction. 5. GriefFiction. 6. Los Angeles (Calif.)Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.1.B897Tel 2016
The text of this book is set in 11.5-point Dante.
Jacket design by Ray Shappell
Interior design by Trish Parcell
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition
Random House Childrens Books
supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

Buxb_9780553535648_5p_all_r1.indd 4

9/3/15 10:57 AM



Seven hundred and thirty-three days after my mom died,

forty-five days after my dad eloped with a stranger he met
on the Internet, thirty days after we then up and moved to
California, and only seven days after starting as a junior at
a brand-new school where I know approximately no one, an
email arrives. Which would be weird, an anonymous letter
just popping up like that in my in-box, signed with the bizarre
alias Somebody Nobody, no less, except my life has become so
unrecognizable lately that nothing feels shocking anymore. It
took until nowseven hundred and thirty-three whole days
in which Ive felt the opposite of normalfor me to discover
this one important life lesson: turns out you can grow immune to weird.


To: Jessie A. Holmes (

From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: your Wood Valley H.S. spirit guide

hey there, Ms. Holmes. we havent met irl, and Im not

sure we ever will. I mean, we probably will at some point
maybe Ill ask you the time or something equally mundane
and beneath both of us but well never actually get to
know each other, at least not in any sort of real way that
matters . . . which is why I figured Id email you under the
cloak of anonymity.
and yes, I realize Im a sixteen-year- old guy who just
used the words cloak of anonymity. and so there it is
already: reason #1 why youll never get to know my real
name. I could never live the shame of that pretentiousness down.
cloak of anonymity? seriously?
and yes, I also realize that most people would have just
texted, but couldnt figure out how to do that without telling you who I am.
I have been watching you at school. not in a creepy
way. though I wonder if even using the word creepy
by definition makes me creepy? anyhow, its just . . .
you intrigue me. you must have noticed already that
our school is a wasteland of mostly blond, vacant- eyed
Barbies and Kens, and something about you not just
your newness, because sure, the rest of us have all been


going to school together since the age of five but

something about the way you move and talk and actually
dont talk but watch all of us like we are part of some bizarre National Geographic documentary makes me think
that you might be different from all the other idiots at
you make me want to know what goes on in that head
of yours. Ill be honest: Im not usually interested in the
contents of other peoples heads. my own is work enough.
the whole point of this email is to offer my expertise. sorry
to be the bearer of bad news: navigating the wilds of
Wood Valley High School aint easy. this place may look all
warm and welcoming, with our yoga and meditation and
reading corners and coffee cart (excuse me: Koffee Kart),
but like every other high school in America (or maybe
even worse), this place is a freaking war zone.
and so I hereby offer up myself as your virtual spirit
guide. feel free to ask any question (except of course
my identity), and Ill do my best to answer: who to befriend (short list), who to stay away from (longer list),
why you shouldnt eat the veggie burgers from the cafeteria (long story that you dont want to know involving jock jizz), how to get an A in Mrs. Stewarts class,
and why you should never sit near Ken Abernathy (flatulence issue). Oh, and be careful in gym. Mr. Shackleman
makes all the pretty girls run extra laps so he can look at
their asses.


that feels like enough information for now.

and fwiw, welcome to the jungle.
yours truly, Somebody Nobody
To: Somebody Nobody (
From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: Elaborate hoax?

SN: Is this for real? Or is this some sort of initiation prank, la

a dumb rom-com? Youre going to coax me into sharing my
deepest, darkest thoughts/fears, and then, BAM, when I least
expect it, youll post them on Tumblr and Ill be the laughingstock of WVHS? If so, youre messing with the wrong girl. I
have a black belt in karate. I can take care of myself.
If not a joke, thanks for your offer, but no thanks. I want
to be an embedded journalist one day. Might as well get
used to war zones now. And anyhow, Im from Chicago. I
think I can handle the Valley.
To: Jessie A. Holmes (
From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: not a hoax, elaborate or otherwise

promise this isnt a prank. and I dont think Ive ever even
seen a rom-com. shocking, I know. hope this doesnt reveal some great deficiency in my character.
you do know journalism is a dying field, right? maybe you
should aspire to be a war blogger.


To: Somebody Nobody (

From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: Specifically targeted spam?

Very funny. Wait, is there really sperm in the veggie burgers?

To: Jessie A. Holmes (
From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: you, Jessie Holmes, have won $100,000,000 from a Nigerian prince.

not just sperm but sweaty lacrosse sperm.

Id avoid the meat loaf too, just to be on the safe side. in
fact, stay out of the cafeteria altogether. that shit will give
you salmonella.
To: Somebody Nobody (
From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: Will send my bank account details ASAP.

who are you?

To: Jessie A. Holmes (
From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: and copy of birth certificate & drivers license, please.

nope. not going to happen.

To: Somebody Nobody (
From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: And, of course, you need my social security number too, right?

Fine. But tell me this at least: whats up with the lack of

capital letters? Your shift key broken?


To: Jessie A. Holmes (

From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: and height and weight, please

terminally lazy.
To: Somebody Nobody (
From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: NOW youre getting personal.

Lazy and verbose. Interesting combo. And yet you do take

the time to capitalize proper nouns?
To: Jessie A. Holmes (
From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: and mothers maiden name

Im not a complete philistine.

To: Somebody Nobody (
From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: Lazy, verbose, AND nosy

Philistine is a big word for a teenage guy.

To: Jessie A. Holmes (
From: Somebody Nobody (
Subject: lazy, verbose, nosy, and . . . handsome

thats not the only thing thats . . . whew. caught myself

from making the obvious joke just in time. you totally set
me up, and I almost blew it.


To: Somebody Nobody (

From: Jessie A. Holmes (
Subject: Lazy, verbose, nosy, handsome, and . . . modest

Thats what she said.

See, thats the thing with email. Id never say something like
that in person. Crude. Suggestive. Like I am the kind of girl who
could pull off that kind of joke. Who, face to face with an actual
member of the male species, would know how to flirt, and flip
my hair, and, if it came to it, know how to do much more than
kiss. (For the record, I do know how to kiss. Im not saying Id
ace an AP exam on the subject or, you know, win Olympic gold,
but Im pretty sure Im not awful. I know this purely by way of
comparison. Adam Kravitz. Ninth grade. Him: all slobber and
angry, rhythmic tongue, like a zombie trying to eat my head.
Me: all-too-willing participant, with three days of face chafing.)
Email is much like an ADD diagnosis. Guaranteed extra
time on the test. In real life, I constantly rework conversations
after the fact in my head, edit them until Ive perfected my
witty, lighthearted, effortless banterall the stuff that seems
to come naturally to other girls. A waste of time, of course, because by then Im way too late. In the Venn diagram of my life,
my imagined personality and my real personality have never
converged. Over email and text, though, I am given those few
additional beats I need to be the better, edited version of myself. To be that girl in the glorious intersection.
I should be more careful. I realize that now. Thats what
she said. Really? Cant decide if I sound like a frat boy or a slut;
either way, I dont sound like me. More importantly, I have
no idea who I am writing to. Unlikely that SN truly is some


do-gooder who feels sorry for the new girl. Or better yet, a secret admirer. Because of course thats straight where my brain
went, the result of a lifetime of devouring too many romantic
comedies and reading too many improbable books. Why do
you think I kissed Adam Kravitz? He was my neighbor back in
Chicago. What better story is there than the girl who discovers
that true love has been waiting right next door all along? Of
course, my neighbor turned out to be a zombie with carbonated saliva, but no matter. Live and learn.
Surely SN is a cruel joke. Hes probably not even a he. Just
a mean girl preying on the weak. Because lets face it: I am
weak. Possibly even pathetic. I lied. I dont have a black belt
in karate. I am not tough. Until last month, I thought I was.
I really did. Life threw its punches, I got shat on, but I took it
in the mouth, to mix my metaphors. Or not. Sometimes it felt
just like getting shat on in the mouth. My only point of pride:
no one saw me cry. And then I became the new girl at WVHS,
in this weird area called the Valley, which is in Los Angeles but
not in Los Angeles or something like that, and I ended up here
because my dad married this rich lady who smells like fancy
almonds, and juice costs twelve dollars here, and I dont know.
I dont know anything anymore.
I am as lost and confused and alone as I have ever been.
No, high school will never be a time I look back on fondly. My
mom once told me that the world is divided into two kinds
of people: the ones who love their high school years and the
ones who spend the next decade recovering from them. What
doesnt kill you makes you stronger, she said.
But something did kill her, and Im not stronger. So go figure; maybe theres a third kind of person: the ones who never
recover from high school at all.



I have somehow stumbled upon the Only Thing That Cannot

Be Googled: Who is SN? One week after receiving the mysterious emails, I still have no idea. The problem is that I like to
know things. Preferably in advance, with sufficient lead time
to prepare.
Clearly, the only viable option is to Sherlock the shit out
of this.
Lets start at Day 1, that awful first day of school, which
sucked, but to be fair probably sucked no more than every
other day has sucked since my mom died. Because the truth is
that every day since my mom died, shes still been dead. Over
and out. Theyve all sucked. Time does not heal all wounds, no
matter how many drugstore sympathy cards hastily scrawled
by distant relatives promise this to be true. But I figure on that


first day there must have been some moment when I gave off
enough pitiful help me vibes that SN actually took notice of me.
Some moment when the whole my life sucks thing was worn
visibly on the outside.
But figuring that out is not so simple, because that day
turned out to be chock-full of embarrassment, a plethora of
moments to choose from. First of all, I was late, which was
Theos fault. Theo is my new stepbrothermy dads new wifes
son, who, yippee, is also a junior here, and has approached this
whole blended-family dynamic by pretending I dont exist.
For some reason, I was stupid enough to assume that because
we lived in the same house and we were going to the same
school, we would drive in together. Nope. Turns out, Theos
go green T-shirt is purely for show, and of course, he doesnt
have to worry his pretty little head about such petty things as,
you know, gas money. His mom runs some big film marketing
business, and their house (I may live there now, but it is in no
way my house) has its own library. Except, of course, its filled
with movies, not books, because: LA. And so I ended up taking
my own car to school and getting stuck in crazy traffic.
When I finally got to Wood Valley High School drove
through its intimidating front gates and found a parking
spot in its vast luxury carfilled lot and hiked up the long
drivewaythe secretary in the front office directed me to a
group of kids who were sitting cross-legged in a circle in the
grass, with a couple of guitar cases spread around. Like this
was church camp or something. All kumbaya, my Lord. Apparently, that can happen in LA: class outside on an impossibly
green lawn in September, backs leaned up against blooming
trees. Already I was uncomfortable and sweating in my dark



jeans, trying to shake off both my nerves and my road rage. All
of the other girls had gotten the first-day-of-school memo; they
were wearing light-colored, wispy summer dresses that hung
off their tiny shoulders from even tinier straps.
So far, thats the number one difference between LA and
Chicago: all the girls here are thin and half naked.
Class was already in full swing, and I felt awkward standing there, trying to figure out how to enter the circle. Apparently, they were going around clockwise and telling the group
what they did with their summer vacation. I finally plopped
down behind two tall guys with the hopes they had already
spoken and that I might be able to take cover.
Of course, I picked wrong.
Hey, all. Caleb, the guy right in front of me said, in an
authoritative way that made it sound like he assumed everyone already knew that. I liked his voice: confident, as sure of
his place as I was unsure of mine. I went to Tanzania this
summer, which was totally cool. First my family and I climbed
Kilimanjaro, and my quads were sore for like weeks. And then
I volunteered with a group building a school in a rural village.
So, you know, I gave back a little. All in all, a great summer,
but Im happy to be home. I really missed Mexican food. I
started to clap after he was donehe climbed Kilimanjaro and
built a school, for Gods sake, of course we were supposed to
clapbut stopped as soon as I realized I was the only one.
Caleb was wearing a plain gray T-shirt and designer jeans
and was good-looking in a not-intimidating sort of way, his
features just bland enough that he could be the kind of guy
who I could possibly, one day, maybe, okay, probably not, date.
Not really attainable, no, not at all, too hot for me, but the



fantasy wasnt so outrageous that I couldnt revel in it for just a

The shaggy guy sitting right in front of me was up next,
and he too was cute, almost an equal to his friend.
Hmm. Maybe Id surprise myself and end up liking it here
after all. Id have a great fantasy life, if not a real one.
As you guys know, Im Liam. I spent the first month interning at Google up in the Bay Area, which was great. Their
cafeteria alone was worth the trip. And then I backpacked in
India for most of August. A good voice too. Melodic.
Backpacked, my ass, CalebKilimanjaro-gray-T-shirtguysaid, and the rest of the class laughed, including the
teacher. I didnt, because as usual I was a moment too late. I
was too busy wondering how a high school kid gets an internship at Google and realizing that if this is my competition, Im
never getting into college. And okay, I was also checking out
those two guys, wondering what their deal was. Caleb, his
climb up Kilimanjaro notwithstanding, had a clean-cut fratboy vibe, while Liam was more hipster cool. An interesting
yin and yang.
Whatever. Fine, I didnt backpack. My parents wouldnt
let me go unless I promised to stay in nice hotels, because, you
know, Delhi belly and all. But still, I feel like I got a real sense
of the culture and a great application essay out of the deal,
which was the point, Liam said, and of course by then, I had
caught on and knew not to clap.
And you? Whats your name? said the teacher, who
I later found out was Mr. Shackleman, the gym teacher SN
warned me likes to stare at girls asses. I dont recognize you
from last year. Not sure why he had to point so the whole



class looked at me, but no big deal, I told myself. This was a
first graders assignment: what did I do with my summer vacation? No reason for my hands to be shaking and my pulse to
be racing; no reason for me to feel like I was in the early stages
of congestive heart failure. I knew the signs. I had seen the
commercials. All eyes were on me, including those of Caleb
and Liam, both of whom were looking with amusement and
suspicion. Or maybe it was curiosity. I couldnt tell.
Um, hi, Im Jessie. Im new here. I didnt do anything exciting this summer. I mean, I . . . I moved here from Chicago,
but until then, I worked, um, at, you know, the Smoothie King
at the mall. No one was rude enough to laugh outright, but
this time I could easily read their looks. Straight-up pity. They
had built schools and traveled to foreign locales, interned at
billion-dollar corporations.
I had spent my two months off blending high-fructose
corn syrup.
In retrospect, I realize I should have lied and said I helped
paraplegic orphans in Madagascar. No one would have batted
an eye.
Or clapped, for that matter.
Wait. I dont have you on my list, Mr. Shackleman said.
Are you a senior?
Um, no, I said, feeling a bead of sweat release and streak
the side of my face. Quick calculation: would wiping it bring
more or less attention to the fact that I was excreting a massive
quantity of water from my pores? I wiped.
Wrong class, he said. I dont look like Mrs. Murray, do
I? There were outright laughs now at a joke that was marginally funny, at best. And twenty-five faces turned toward



me again, sizing me up. I mean that literally: some of them

seemed to be evaluating my size. Youre inside.
Mr. Shackleman pointed to the main building, so I had
to get up and walk away while the entire class, including the
teacher, including fantasy-worthy Caleb and Liam, watched
me and my behind go. And only later, when I got to my actual homeroom and had to stand up and do the whole summer
vacation thing all over again in front of another twenty-five
kidsand utter the words Smoothie King for the second
time to an equally appalled audience did I realize I had a
large clump of grass stuck to my ass.
On reflection, the number of people who may have sensed
my desperation? At least fifty, and Im estimating on the low
side just to make myself feel better.
The truth is SN could be anyone.
Now, a whole fourteen days later, I stand here in the cafeteria with my stupid brown sandwich bag and look around at
this new terrainwhere everything is all shiny and expensive
(the kids here drive actual BMWs, not old Ford Focuses with
eBay-purchased BMW symbols glued on)and I still dont
know where to go. Im facing the problem encountered by
every new kid ever: I have no one to sit with.
No chance of my joining Theo, my new stepbrother, who,
the one time I said hey in the hall, blanked me with such
intensity that Ive given up even looking in his direction. He
always seems to hang around with a girl named Ashby (yep,
thats really her name), who looks like a supermodel midrunwayall dramatic gothy makeup, uncomfortable-looking
designer clothes, blank wide features, pink spiked hair. Im
getting the sense that Theo is one of the more popular kids at



this schoolhe fist-bumps his way down the hallwhich is

weird, because hes the type of guy people would have teased
in Chicago. Not because hes gaymy classmates at FDR were
not homophobic, at least not overtlybut because hes flamboyant. A little much about muchness. Everything Theo does
is theatrical, except when it comes to me, of course.
Last night, I ran into him before bed and he was actually
wearing a silk smoking jacket, like a model in a cologne ad.
True, my cheeks were smeared with zit cream and I reeked of
tea tree oil, looking like my own ridiculous parody of a pimply teenager. Still, I had the decency to pretend that it wasnt
strange that our lives had suddenly, and without our consent,
become commingled. I said my friendliest goodnight, since I
cant see the point of being rude. Its not like thats going to
unmarry our parents. But Theo just gave me an elaborate and
elegant grunt, one with remarkable subtext: You and your golddigger dad should get the hell out of my house.
Hes not wrong. I mean, my dads not interested in his
moms money. But we should leave. We should get on a plane
this afternoon and move back to Chicago, even though thats
an impossibility. Our house is sold. The bedroom I slept in for
the entirety of my life now cradles a seven-year-old and her
extensive American Girl doll collection. Its lost, along with
everything else I recognize.

As for todays lunch, I considered taking my sad PB&J to the

library, a plan that was foiled by a very stern no eating sign.
Too bad, because the library here is amazing, so far the only
thing I would admit is an improvement over FDR. (At FDR,



we didnt really have a library. We had a book closet, which

was mostly used as a place to make out. Then again, FDR was,
you know, public school. This place costs a bajillion dollars
a year, a bill footed for me by Dads new wife.) The school
brochure said the library was donated by some studio bigwig
with a recognizable last nameand the chairs are all fancy,
the sort of thing youd see in one of those high-end design
magazines Dads new wife keeps strategically placed around
the house. Design porn, she calls them, with that nervous
laugh that makes it clear that she only talks to me because she
has to.
I refuse to eat in the restroom, because thats what pathetic kids do in books and movies, and also because its gross.
The burnouts have colonized the back lawn, and anyway, I
dont want to sacrifice my lungs at the altar of fake friendship.
Theres that weird Koffee Kart thing, which would normally
be right up my alley, despite its stupid name: Why Ks? Why?
But no matter how fast I get there after calculus, the two big
comfy chairs are always taken. In one is the weird guy who
wears the same vintage Batman T-shirt and black skinny jeans
every day and reads books even fatter than the ones I tend to
like. (Is he actually reading? Or are the books props? Come on,
who reads Sartre for fun?) The other is taken by a revolving
group of too-loud giggling girls who flirt with the Batman,
whose real name is Ethan, which I know only because we have
homeroom and English together. (On that first day, I learned
he spent the summer volunteering at a music camp for autistic
kids. He did not, in any way, operate a blender. Plus side: he did
not give me one of those pitying looks I got from the rest of
the class when I told them about my super-cool smoothie gig,



but then again, thats because he couldnt be bothered to look

at me at all.)
Despite the girls best efforts, the Batman doesnt seem
interested in them. He does the bare minimuma half-hug,
no-eye-contact brush-offand he seems to shrink after each
one, the effort costing him in some invisible way. (Apparently,
theres a lot of hugging and double kisses at this school, one
on each cheek, as if we are Parisian and twenty-two and not
American and sixteen and still awkward in every way that
matters.) Cant figure out why they keep coming back to him,
each time in that bubble of hilarity, as if being in high school is
so much fun! Seriously, does it need to be repeated? For the vast
majority of us, high school is not fun; high school is the opposite
of fun.
I wonder what its like to talk in superlatives like these girls
do: Ethan, you are just the funniest! For reals. Like, the funniest!
You need some fresh air. Come walk with us, Eth, a
blond girl says, and ruffles his hair, like he is a small, disobedient child. Sixteen-year-old flirting looks the same in Los Angeles and Chicago, though I would argue that the girls here
are even louder, as if they think theres a direct correlation between volume and male attention.
Nah, not today, the Batman says, polite but cold. He has
dark hair and blue eyes. Cute if youre into that I dont give a crap
look. I get why that girl ruffled his hair. Its thick and tempting.
But he seems mean. Or sad. Or both. Like he too is counting the days until he graduates from this place and in the
meantime cant be bothered to fake it.
For what its worth: 639 days, including weekends. Even I
manage to fake it. Most of the time.



I havent had a chance to really look without getting

caught, but Im pretty sure the Batman has a cleft in his
chin, and theres a distinct possibility that he wears eyeliner,
which, meh. Or maybe its just the dark circles that make his
eyes pop, because he looks chronically exhausted, like sleep is
just not a luxury afforded to him.
No worries, the girl says, and pretends not to be stung
by his rejection, though its clear she is. In response, she sits
on another girls lap in the opposite chair, another blond, who
looks so much like her that I think they might be twins, and
faux-cuddles her. I know how this show goes.
I walk by, eager to get to the bench just outside the door. A
lonely place to eat lunch, maybe, but also an anxiety-free zone.
No way to screw it up.
What are you staring at? the first blonde barks at me.
And there they are, the first words another student has voluntarily said to me since I started at Wood Valley two weeks
ago: What are you staring at?
Welcome to the jungle, I think. Welcome. To. The. Jungle.




Its not so bad here, I tell myself, now that Im sitting on a

bench with my back to the Batman and those bitchy girls, the
cafeteria and the rest of my class safely behind him. So people
here are mean. No big deal. People are mean everywhere.
I remind myself of the blissful weather. Its sunny, because
apparently its always sunny in LA. Ive noticed that all the
kids have designer sunglasses, and Id get all snarky about people trying to look cool, but it turns out they need them. I spend
my days all squinty, with one hand cupped over my eyes like a
saluting Boy Scout.
My biggest problem is that I miss my best friend, Scarlett. Shes my five-foot-tall half-Jewish, half-Korean bouncer,
and she would have had the perfect comeback for that girl,



something with bite and edge. Instead, Ive only got me: me
and my delayed response time and my burning retinas. Ive
been trying to convince myself that I can go it alone for the
next two years. That if I need a boost, I can just text Scarlett
and it will feel like shes nearby, not halfway across the country. Shes fast on the trigger. I just wish I felt a little less stupid
about how this place works. Actually, SN is right: I have lots of
practical questions. I could totally use a Wood Valley app that
would tell me how to use the lunch credit cards, what the hell
Wood Valley Giving Day is, and why Im supposed to wear
closed-toed shoes that day. Maybe most importantly, who is
off-limits for accidental eye contact. What are you staring at?
The flirting blondes now walk by my benchguess their
attempt to get Batman to walk was fruitlessand giggle as
they pass.
Are they laughing at me?
Is she for real? the blonder girl mock-whispers to
her only slightly less blond friend, and then glances back at
me. They are both pretty in that lucky, conventional way.
Shiny, freshly blown yellow hair, blue eyes, clear skin, skinny.
Oddly big boobs. Short skirts that Im pretty sure violate
the schools dress code, and four coats of makeup that
was probably applied with the help of a YouTube tutorial.
Ill be honest: I wouldnt mind being lucky in precisely that
way, being that rare teenager who has never stared down
the head of a pimple. My face, even on its clearest days, has
what my grandmother has always not-so-charitably called
character. It takes a second, maybe a third look for someone to notice my potential. That is, if I have any. Did you
see that scrunchie?



Oh crap. I was right. They are talking about me. Not only
will I spend the next two years without a single friend, but
all those 20/20 specials on school bullying will finally make
sense. Somebody Nobody may be a prank, but he/she is right:
this place is a war zone. Im going to need my own personal It
Gets Better video.
My face burns. I touch my finger to my head, a sign of
weakness, yes, but also a reflex. Theres nothing wrong with
my scrunchie. I read on Rookie that theyre back. Scarlett
wears one too sometimes, and she won Best Dressed last year.
I fight the tears filling my eyes. No, they will not see me cry.
Scratch that. They will not make me cry.
Screw them.
Shhh, she can hear you, the other one says, and then
looks back at me, at once apologetic and gleeful. Shes high
with a vicarious bitch thrill. Then they walk onsashay, really,
as if they think theres an audience watching and whistling. I
glance behind me, just to make sure, but no, Im the only one
here. They are swaying their perfect asses for my benefit.
I pull out my phone. Text Scarlett. Its lunchtime for me,
but shes just getting out of school. I hate that we are far apart
in both space and time.

Me: I dont fit in here. Everyone is a size 0. Or 00.

Scarlett: Oh no, dont tell me we have to do the whole U R
NOT FAT thing. The entire basis of our friendship is
that we are not the kind of girls who have to do that for
each other.



We have never been the types who are all, I hate my left
pinky finger! Its just so . . . bendy. Scarlett is right. I have better things to do than compare myself with the unattainable
ideals established by magazine art directors who shave off
thighs with a finger swipe. But Id be lying if I didnt admit to
noticing that Im on the bigger side of things here. How is that
possible? Do they put laxatives in the water?

Me: And blond. Everyone is. Just. So. California. Blond.

THOSE GIRLS. You promised not to go LA on me.
Me: Dont worry. Id have to actually talk to people to
go LA.
Scarlett: Crap. Really? That bad?
Me: Worse.

I quickly snap a selfie of me alone on a bench with my halfeaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I smile instead of pout,
though, and label with the hashtag #Day14. Those blondes
would pout, turn it into an Im so sexy picture, and then Instagram it. Look how hot I am not eating my sandwich!

Scarlett: Lose the scrunchie. A little too farm girl with that shirt.



I pull my hair loose. This is why I need Scarlett here. Maybe

shes the reason Ive never been teased before. If we hadnt met
at the age of four, Id likely be an even bigger dork.

Me: Thanks. Scrunchie officially lost. Consider it burned.

Scarlett: Whos the hot guy photobombing you?
Me: What?

I squint at my phone. The Batman was looking out the

window just as I took my shot. Not photobombing exactly, but
captured for posterity. So it turns out Blond and Blonder did
have an audience after all. Of course they did. Girls like that
always have an audience.
My face flushes red again. Not only am I a big fat loser who
eats lunch alone with an unironic scrunchie in her hair, but Im
stupid enough to get caught taking a selfie of this wonderful
moment in my life. By a cute guy, no less.
I check the little box next to the picture. Hit delete. Wish it
were that easy to erase everything else.



e. lockhart

Please lie:
Lock_9780385741262_2p_all_r1.indd 4

K E E P R E A D I N G F O R83A S N E A K P E E K . . . .

10/30/13 9:16 AM

This is a work of ction. Names, characters, places,

and incidents either are the product of the authors imagination
or are used ctitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright 2014 by E. Lockhart
Jacket photograph 2014 Getty Images/kang-gg
Map and family tree art copyright 2014 by Abigail Daker
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by
Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Childrens Books,
a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and
the colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.
Visit us on the Web!
Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools,
visit us at
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
We were liars / E. Lockhart. First edition.
pages cm
Summary: Spending the summers on her familys private island off the coast of
Massachusetts with her cousins and a special boy named Gat, teenaged Cadence
struggles to remember what happened during her fteenth summer.
ISBN 978-0-385-74126-2 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-375-98994-0 (library binding)
ISBN 978-0-375-98440-2 (ebook) ISBN 978-0-385-39009-5 (intl. tr. pbk.)
[1.FriendshipFiction. 2. LoveFiction. 3. FamiliesFiction. 4. AmnesiaFiction.
5. WealthFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.L79757We 2014
The text of this book is set in 12-point Joanna MT.
Book design by Heather Kelly
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition
Random House Childrens Books supports the
First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.



Lock_9780385741262_5p_all_r4.indd vi


6/18/14 12:31 PM

WELCOME TO THE beautiful Sinclair family.

No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.
The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are oldmoney Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and
our tennis serves aggressive.
It doesnt matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts
so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesnt matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go
unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesnt matter if theres a
cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.
It doesnt matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in
So much
in love
that equally desperate measures
must be taken.
We are Sinclairs.
No one is needy.
No one is wrong.
We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off
the coast of Massachusetts.
Perhaps that is all you need to know.


is Cadence Sinclair Eastman.
I live in Burlington, Vermont, with Mummy and three dogs.
I am nearly eighteen.
I own a well-used library card and not much else, though it
is true I live in a grand house full of expensive, useless objects.
I used to be blond, but now my hair is black.
I used to be strong, but now I am weak.
I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.
It is true I suffer migraines since my accident.
It is true I do not suffer fools.
I like a twist of meaning. You see? Suffer migraines. Do not
suffer fools. The word means almost the same as it did in the
previous sentence, but not quite.
You could say it means endure, but thats not exactly right.

MY STORY STARTS before the accident. June of the summer I

was fifteen, my father ran off with some woman he loved more
than us.
Dad was a middling-successful professor of military history.
Back then I adored him. He wore tweed jackets. He was gaunt.
He drank milky tea. He was fond of board games and let me
win, fond of boats and taught me to kayak, fond of bicycles,
books, and art museums.


He was never fond of dogs, and it was a sign of how much

he loved my mother that he let our golden retrievers sleep on
the sofas and walked them three miles every morning. He was
never fond of my grandparents, either, and it was a sign of
how much he loved both me and Mummy that he spent every
summer in Windemere House on Beechwood Island, writing
articles on wars fought long ago and putting on a smile for the
relatives at every meal.
That June, summer fifteen, Dad announced he was leaving and departed two days later. He told my mother he wasnt
a Sinclair, and couldnt try to be one, any longer. He couldnt
smile, couldnt lie, couldnt be part of that beautiful family in
those beautiful houses.
Couldnt. Couldnt. Wouldnt.
He had hired moving vans already. Hed rented a house,
too. My father put a last suitcase into the backseat of the Mercedes (he was leaving Mummy with only the Saab), and started
the engine.
Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest.
I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened
wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a
flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,
then from my eyes,
my ears,
my mouth.
It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being
unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of
the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the
peonies like a trout.
Mummy snapped. She said to get hold of myself.
Be normal, now, she said. Right now, she said.

Because you are. Because you can be.

Dont cause a scene, she told me. Breathe and sit up.
I did what she asked.
She was all I had left.
Mummy and I tilted our square chins high as Dad drove
down the hill. Then we went indoors and trashed the gifts hed
given us: jewelry, clothes, books, anything. In the days that
followed, we got rid of the couch and armchairs my parents
had bought together. Tossed the wedding china, the silver, the
We purchased new furniture. Hired a decorator. Placed an
order for Tiffany silverware. Spent a day walking through art
galleries and bought paintings to cover the empty spaces on
our walls.
We asked Granddads lawyers to secure Mummys assets.
Then we packed our bags and went to Beechwood Island.

Bess are the daughters of Tipper and
Harris Sinclair. Harris came into his money at twenty-one after
Harvard and grew the fortune doing business I never bothered
to understand. He inherited houses and land. He made intelligent decisions about the stock market. He married Tipper and
kept her in the kitchen and the garden. He put her on display
in pearls and on sailboats. She seemed to enjoy it.
Granddads only failure was that he never had a son, but no
matter. The Sinclair daughters were sunburnt and blessed. Tall,


merry, and rich, those girls were like princesses in a fairy tale.
They were known throughout Boston, Harvard Yard, and Marthas Vineyard for their cashmere cardigans and grand parties.
They were made for legends. Made for princes and Ivy League
schools, ivory statues and majestic houses.
Granddad and Tipper loved the girls so, they couldnt say
whom they loved best. First Carrie, then Penny, then Bess, then
Carrie again. There were splashy weddings with salmon and
harpists, then bright blond grandchildren and funny blond
dogs. No one could ever have been prouder of their beautiful
American girls than Tipper and Harris were, back then.
They built three new houses on their craggy private island
and gave them each a name: Windemere for Penny, Red Gate
for Carrie, and Cuddledown for Bess.
I am the eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the
fortune, and the expectations.
Well, probably.

ME, JOHNNY, MIRREN, and Gat. Gat, Mirren, Johnny, and

The family calls us four the Liars, and probably we deserve
it. We are all nearly the same age, and we all have birthdays in
the fall. Most years on the island, weve been trouble.
Gat started coming to Beechwood the year we were eight.
Summer eight, we called it.
Before that, Mirren, Johnny, and I werent Liars. We were

nothing but cousins, and Johnny was a pain because he didnt

like playing with girls.
Johnny, he is bounce, effort, and snark. Back then he would
hang our Barbies by the necks or shoot us with guns made of
Mirren, she is sugar, curiosity, and rain. Back then she spent
long afternoons with Taft and the twins, splashing at the big
beach, while I drew pictures on graph paper and read in the
hammock on the Clairmont house porch.
Then Gat came to spend the summers with us.
Aunt Carries husband left her when she was pregnant with
Johnnys brother, Will. I dont know what happened. The family never speaks of it. By summer eight, Will was a baby and
Carrie had taken up with Ed already.
This Ed, he was an art dealer and he adored the kids. That
was all wed heard about him when Carrie announced she was
bringing him to Beechwood, along with Johnny and the baby.
They were the last to arrive that summer, and most of us
were on the dock waiting for the boat to pull in. Granddad
lifted me up so I could wave at Johnny, who was wearing an
orange life vest and shouting over the prow.
Granny Tipper stood next to us. She turned away from the
boat for a moment, reached in her pocket, and brought out a
white peppermint. Unwrapped it and tucked it into my mouth.
As she looked back at the boat, Grans face changed. I
squinted to see what she saw.
Carrie stepped off with Will on her hip. He was in a babys yellow life vest, and was really no more than a shock of white-blond
hair sticking up over it. A cheer went up at the sight of him. That
vest, which we had all worn as babies. The hair. How wonderful
that this little boy we didnt know yet was so obviously a Sinclair.


Johnny leapt off the boat and threw his own vest on the
dock. First thing, he ran up to Mirren and kicked her. Then he
kicked me. Kicked the twins. Walked over to our grandparents
and stood up straight. Good to see you, Granny and Granddad.
I look forward to a happy summer.
Tipper hugged him. Your mother told you to say that,
didnt she?
Yes, said Johnny. And Im to say, nice to see you again.
Good boy.
Can I go now?
Tipper kissed his freckled cheek. Go on, then.
Ed followed Johnny, having stopped to help the staff unload
the luggage from the motorboat. He was tall and slim. His skin
was very dark: Indian heritage, wed later learn. He wore blackframed glasses and was dressed in dapper city clothes: a linen
suit and striped shirt. The pants were wrinkled from traveling.
Granddad set me down.
Granny Tippers mouth made a straight line. Then she
showed all her teeth and went forward.
You must be Ed. What a lovely surprise.
He shook hands. Didnt Carrie tell you we were coming?
Of course she did.
Ed looked around at our white, white family. Turned to Carrie. Wheres Gat?
They called for him, and he climbed from the inside of the
boat, taking off his life vest, looking down to undo the buckles.
Mother, Dad, said Carrie, we brought Eds nephew to
play with Johnny. This is Gat Patil.
Granddad reached out and patted Gats head. Hello, young

His father passed on, just this year, explained Carrie. He

and Johnny are the best of friends. Its a big help to Eds sister
if we take him for a few weeks. And, Gat? Youll get to have
cookouts and go swimming like we talked about. Okay?
But Gat didnt answer. He was looking at me.
His nose was dramatic, his mouth sweet. Skin deep brown,
hair black and waving. Body wired with energy. Gat seemed
spring-loaded. Like he was searching for something. He was
contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. I
could have looked at him forever.
Our eyes locked.
I turned and ran away.
Gat followed. I could hear his feet behind me on the wooden
walkways that cross the island.
I kept running. He kept following.
Johnny chased Gat. And Mirren chased Johnny.
The adults remained talking on the dock, circling politely
around Ed, cooing over baby Will. The littles did whatever littles do.
We four stopped running at the tiny beach down by Cuddledown House. Its a small stretch of sand with high rocks on either side. No one used it much, back then. The big beach had
softer sand and less seaweed.
Mirren took off her shoes and the rest of us followed. We
tossed stones into the water. We just existed.
I wrote our names in the sand.
Cadence, Mirren, Johnny, and Gat.
Gat, Johnny, Mirren, and Cadence.
That was the beginning of us.


JOHNNY BEGGED TO have Gat stay longer.

He got what he wanted.

The next year he begged to have him come for the entire
Gat came.
Johnny was the first grandson. My grandparents almost
never said no to Johnny.

SUM MER FOURTEEN, GAT and I took out the small motor-

boat alone. It was just after breakfast. Bess made Mirren play
tennis with the twins and Taft. Johnny had started running
that year and was doing loops around the perimeter path. Gat
found me in the Clairmont kitchen and asked, did I want to
take the boat out?
Not really. I wanted to go back to bed with a book.
Please? Gat almost never said please.
Take it out yourself.
I cant borrow it, he said. I dont feel right.
Of course you can borrow it.
Not without one of you.
He was being ridiculous. Where do you want to go? I
I just want to get off-island. Sometimes I cant stand it
I couldnt imagine, then, what it was he couldnt stand, but
I said all right. We motored out to sea in wind jackets and


bathing suits. After a bit, Gat cut the engine. We sat eating pistachios and breathing salt air. The sunlight shone on the water.
Lets go in, I said.
Gat jumped and I followed, but the water was so much
colder than off the beach, it snatched our breath. The sun went
behind a cloud. We laughed panicky laughs and shouted that it
was the stupidest idea to get in the water. What had we been
thinking? There were sharks off the coast, everybody knew
Dont talk about sharks, God! We scrambled and pushed
each other, struggling to be the first one up the ladder at the
back of the boat.
After a minute, Gat leaned back and let me go first. Not because youre a girl but because Im a good person, he told me.
Thanks. I stuck out my tongue.
But when a shark bites my legs off, promise to write a
speech about how awesome I was.
Done, I said. Gatwick Matthew Patil made a delicious
It seemed hysterically funny to be so cold. We didnt have
towels. We huddled together under a fleece blanket we found
under the seats, our bare shoulders touching each other. Cold
feet, on top of one another.
This is only so we dont get hypothermia, said Gat. Dont
think I find you pretty or anything.
I know you dont.
Youre hogging the blanket.
A pause.
Gat said, I do find you pretty, Cady. I didnt mean that the



way it came out. In fact, when did you get so pretty? Its distracting.
I look the same as always.
You changed over the school year. Its putting me off my
You have a game?
He nodded solemnly.
That is the dumbest thing I ever heard. What is your
Nothing penetrates my armor. Hadnt you noticed?
That made me laugh. No.
Damn. I thought it was working.
We changed the subject. Talked about bringing the littles to
Edgartown to see a movie in the afternoon, about sharks and
whether they really ate people, about Plants Versus Zombies.
Then we drove back to the island.
Not long after that, Gat started lending me his books and
finding me at the tiny beach in the early evenings. Hed search
me out when I was lying on the Windemere lawn with the
We started walking together on the path that circles the
island, Gat in front and me behind. Wed talk about books
or invent imaginary worlds. Sometimes wed end up walking
several times around the edge before we got hungry or bored.
Beach roses lined the path, deep pink. Their smell was faint
and sweet.
One day I looked at Gat, lying in the Clairmont hammock
with a book, and he seemed, well, like he was mine. Like he
was my particular person.
I got in the hammock next to him, silently. I took the pen



out of his handhe always read with a penand wrote Gat on

the back of his left, and Cadence on the back of his right.
He took the pen from me. Wrote Gat on the back of my left,
and Cadence on the back of my right.
I am not talking about fate. I dont believe in destiny or
soul mates or the supernatural. I just mean we understood each
other. All the way.
But we were only fourteen. I had never kissed a boy, though
I would kiss a few the next school year, and somehow we didnt
label it love.

arrived a week later than the others. Dad
had left us, and Mummy and I had all that shopping to do,
consulting the decorator and everything.
Johnny and Mirren met us at the dock, pink in the cheeks
and full of summer plans. They were staging a family tennis
tournament and had bookmarked ice cream recipes. We would
go sailing, build bonfires.
The littles swarmed and yelled like always. The aunts
smiled chilly smiles. After the bustle of arrival, everyone went
to Clairmont for cocktail hour.
I went to Red Gate, looking for Gat. Red Gate is a much
smaller house than Clairmont, but it still has four bedrooms up
top. Its where Johnny, Gat, and Will lived with Aunt Carrie
plus Ed, when he was there, which wasnt often.
I walked to the kitchen door and looked through the screen.




Gat didnt see me at first. He was standing at the counter wearing a worn gray T-shirt and jeans. His shoulders were broader
than I remembered.
He untied a dried flower from where it hung upside down
on a ribbon in the window over the sink. The flower was a
beach rose, pink and loosely constructed, the kind that grows
along the Beechwood perimeter.
Gat, my Gat. He had picked me a rose from our favorite
walking place. He had hung it to dry and waited for me to arrive on the island so he could give it to me.
I had kissed an unimportant boy or three by now.
I had lost my dad.
I had come here to this island from a house of tears and
and I saw Gat,
and I saw that rose in his hand,
and in that one moment, with the sunlight from the window shining in on him,
the apples on the kitchen counter,
the smell of wood and ocean in the air,
I did call it love.
It was love, and it hit me so hard I leaned against the screen
door that still stood between us, just to stay vertical. I wanted to
touch him like he was a bunny, a kitten, something so special
and soft your fingertips cant leave it alone. The universe was
good because he was in it. I loved the hole in his jeans and the
dirt on his bare feet and the scab on his elbow and the scar that
laced through one eyebrow. Gat, my Gat.
As I stood there, staring, he put the rose in an envelope. He
searched for a pen, banging drawers open and shut, found one
in his own pocket, and wrote.


I didnt realize he was writing an address until he pulled a

roll of stamps from a kitchen drawer.
Gat stamped the envelope. Wrote a return address.
It wasnt for me.
I left the Red Gate door before he saw me and ran down to
the perimeter. I watched the darkening sky, alone.
I tore all the roses off a single sad bush and threw them, one
after the other, into the angry sea.

about the New York girlfriend that evening. Her name was Raquel. Johnny had even met her. He lives
in New York, like Gat does, but downtown with Carrie and Ed,
while Gat lives uptown with his mom. Johnny said Raquel was
a modern dancer and wore black clothes.
Mirrens brother, Taft, told me Raquel had sent Gat a package of homemade brownies. Liberty and Bonnie told me Gat
had pictures of her on his phone.
Gat didnt mention her at all, but he had trouble meeting
my eyes.
That first night, I cried and bit my fingers and drank wine I
snuck from the Clairmont pantry. I spun violently into the sky,
raging and banging stars from their moorings, swirling and
I hit my fist into the wall of the shower. I washed off the shame
and anger in cold, cold water. Then I shivered in my bed like the
abandoned dog that I was, my skin shaking over my bones.



The next morning, and every day thereafter, I acted normal.

I tilted my square chin high.
We sailed and made bonfires. I won the tennis tournament.
We made vats of ice cream and lay in thesun.
One night, the four of us ate a picnic down on the tiny
beach. Steamed clams, potatoes, and sweet corn. The staff
made it. I didnt know their names.
Johnny and Mirren carried the food down in metal roasting
pans. We ate around the flames of our bonfire, dripping butter
onto the sand. Then Gat made triple-decker smores for all of
us. I looked at his hands in the firelight, sliding marshmallows
onto a long stick. Where once hed had our names written,
now he had taken to writing the titles of books he wanted to
That night, on the left: Being and. On the right: Nothingness.
I had writing on my hands, too. A quotation I liked. On the
left: Live in. On the right: today.
Want to know what Im thinking about? Gat asked.
Yes, I said.
No, said Johnny.
Im wondering how we can say your granddad owns this
island. Not legally but actually.
Please dont get started on the evils of the Pilgrims,
moaned Johnny.
No. Im asking, how can we say land belongs to anyone?
Gat waved at the sand, the ocean, the sky.
Mirren shrugged. People buy and sell land all the time.
Cant we talk about sex or murder? asked Johnny.
Gat ignored him. Maybe land shouldnt belong to people at
all. Or maybe there should be limits on what they can own.
He leaned forward. When I went to India this winter, on that


volunteer trip, we were building toilets. Building them because

people there, in this one village, didnt have them.
We all know you went to India, said Johnny. You told us
like forty-seven times.
Here is something I love about Gat: he is so enthusiastic, so
relentlessly interested in the world, that he has trouble imagining the possibility that other people will be bored by what hes
saying. Even when they tell him outright. But also, he doesnt
like to let us off easy. He wants to make us thinkeven when
we dont feel like thinking.
He poked a stick into the embers. Im saying we should
talk about it. Not everyone has private islands. Some people
work on them. Some work in factories. Some dont have work.
Some dont have food.
Stop talking, now, said Mirren.
Stop talking, forever, said Johnny.
We have a warped view of humanity on Beechwood, Gat
said. I dont think you see that.
Shut up, I said. Ill give you more chocolate if you shutup.
And Gat did shut up, but his face contorted. He stood
abruptly, picked up a rock from the sand, and threw it with all
his force. He pulled off his sweatshirt and kicked off his shoes.
Then he walked into the sea in his jeans.
I watched the muscles of his shoulders in the moonlight,
the spray kicking up as he splashed in. He dove and I thought:
If I dont follow him now, that girl Raquels got him. If I dont
follow him now, hell go away. From the Liars, from the island,
from our family, from me.
I threw off my sweater and followed Gat into the sea in my
dress. I crashed into the water, swimming out to where he lay


on his back. His wet hair was slicked off his face, showing the
thin scar through one eyebrow.
I reached for his arm. Gat.
He startled. Stood in the waist-high sea.
Sorry, I whispered.
I dont tell you to shut up, Cady, he said. I dont ever say
that to you.
I know.
He was silent.
Please dont shut up, I said.
I felt his eyes go over my body in my wet dress. I talk too
much, he said. I politicize everything.
I like it when you talk, I said, because it was true. When I
stopped to listen, I did like it.
Its that everything makes me. . . He paused. Things are
messed up in the world, thats all.
Maybe I shouldGat took my hands, turned them over
to look at the words written on the backsI should live for today
and not be agitating all the time.
My hand was in his wet hand.
I shivered. His arms were bare and wet. We used to hold
hands all the time, but he hadnt touched me all summer.
Its good that you look at the world the way you do, I
Gat let go of me and leaned back into the water. Johnny
wants me to shut up. Im boring you and Mirren.
I looked at his profile. He wasnt just Gat. He was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. All that
was there, in the lids of his brown eyes, his smooth skin, his
lower lip pushed out. There was coiled energy inside.


Ill tell you a secret, I whispered.

I reached out and touched his arm again. He didnt pull
away. When we say Shut up, Gat, that isnt what we mean at all.
What we mean is, we love you. You remind us that were
selfish bastards. Youre not one of us, that way.
He dropped his eyes. Smiled. Is that what you mean, Cady?
Yes, I told him. I let my fingers trail down his floating,
outstretched arm.
I cant believe you are in that water! Johnny was standing
ankle-deep in the ocean, his jeans rolled up. Its the Arctic. My
toes are freezing off.
Its nice once you get in, Gat called back.
Dont be weak! yelled Gat. Be manly and get in the stupid water.
Johnny laughed and charged in. Mirren followed.
And it wasexquisite.
The night looming above us. The hum of the ocean. The
bark of gulls.

had trouble sleeping.
After midnight, he called my name.
I looked out my window. Gat was lying on his back on the
wooden walkway that leads to Windemere. The golden retriev-




ers were lying near him, all five: Bosh, Grendel, Poppy, Prince
Philip, and Fatima. Their tails thumped gently.
The moonlight made them all look blue.
Come down, he called.
I did.
Mummys light was out. The rest of the island was dark. We
were alone, except for all the dogs.
Scoot, I told him. The walkway wasnt wide. When I lay
down next to him, our arms touched, mine bare and his in an
olive-green hunting jacket.
We looked at the sky. So many stars, it seemed like a celebration, a grand, illicit party the galaxy was holding after the
humans had been put to bed.
I was glad Gat didnt try to sound knowledgeable about constellations or say stupid stuff about wishing on stars. But I didnt
know what to make of his silence, either.
Can I hold your hand? he asked.
I put mine in his.
The universe is seeming really huge right now, he told
me. I need something to hold on to.
Im here.
His thumb rubbed the center of my palm. All my nerves
concentrated there, alive to every movement of his skin on
mine. I am not sure Im a good person, he said after a while.
Im not sure I am, either, I said. Im winging it.
Yeah. Gat was silent for a moment. Do you believe in
Halfway. I tried to think about it seriously. I knew Gat
wouldnt settle for a flippant answer. When things are bad,
Ill pray or imagine someone watching over me, listening. Like
the first few days after my dad left, I thought about God. For


protection. But the rest of the time, Im trudging along in my

everyday life. Its not even slightly spiritual.
I dont believe anymore, Gat said. That trip to India, the
poverty. No God I can imagine would let that happen. Then I
came home and started noticing it on the streets of New York.
People sick and starving in one of the richest nations in the
world. I justI cant think that anyones watching over those
people. Which means no one is watching over me, either.
That doesnt make you a bad person.
My mother believes. She was raised Buddhist but goes to
Methodist church now. Shes not very happy with me. Gat
hardly ever talked about his mother.
You cant believe just because she tells you to, I said.
No. The question is: how to be a good person if I dont
believe anymore.
We stared at the sky. The dogs went into Windemere via
the dog flap.
Youre cold, Gat said. Let me give you my jacket.
I wasnt cold but I sat up. He sat up, too. Unbuttoned his
olive hunting jacket and shrugged it off. Handed it to me.
It was warm from his body. Much too wide across the
shoulders. His arms were bare now.
I wanted to kiss him there while I was wearing his hunting
jacket. But I didnt.
Maybe he loved Raquel. Those photos on his phone. That
dried beach rose in an envelope.



Discover More Bright Places At:

More Bright Places At:
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Keep Reading for105a Sneak Peek. . . .

Keep Reading for a Sneak Peek. . . .

this is a borzoi book published by alfred a . knopf

This is a work of fiction. All incidents and dialogue, and all characters (with
the exception of the creators of the Worlds Largest Ball of Paint and the Blue
Flash and Blue Too roller coasters), are products of the authors imagination.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright 2015 by Jennifer Niven
Jacket photographs (flowers) copyright 2015 by Neil Fletcher and Matthew
Ward/Getty Images
Hand-lettering and illustrations copyright 2015 by Sarah Watts
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an
imprint of Random House Childrens Books, a division of Random House
LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of
Random House LLC.
Excerpt from Oh, the Places Youll Go! by Dr. Seuss, TM and copyright
by Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P. 1990. Used by permission of Random House
Childrens Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random
House Company, New York. All rights reserved.
Visit us on the Web!
Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Niven, Jennifer.
All the bright places / Jennifer Niven.1st ed.
p. cm.
Summary: Told in alternating voices, when Theodore Finch and Violet
Markey meet on the ledge of the bell tower at schoolboth teetering on the
edgeits the beginning of an unlikely relationship, a journey to discover the
natural wonders of the state of Indiana, and two teens desperate desire to
heal and save one another.Provided by publisher
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-0-385-75588-7 (trade) ISBN 978-0-385-75589-4 (lib. bdg.)
ISBN 978-0-385-75590-0 (ebook) ISBN 978-0-553-53358-3 (intl. tr. pbk.)
[1. FriendshipFiction. 2. SuicideFiction. 3. Emotional problems
Fiction. 4. IndianaFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.N6434Al 2015
The text of this book is set in 11-point Simoncini Garamond.
Printed in the United States of America
January 2015
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition
Random House Childrens Books supports the First Amendment and
celebrates the right to read.



Nive_9780385755887_5p_all_r1.indd 4


9/18/14 12:47 PM

I am awake again. Day 6.

Is today a good day to die?

This is something I ask myself in the morning when I wake
up. In third period when Im trying to keep my eyes open while
Mr. Schroeder drones on and on. At the supper table as Im
passing the green beans. At night when Im lying awake because
my brain wont shut off due to all there is to think about.
Is today the day?
And if not todaywhen?
I am asking myself this now as I stand on a narrow ledge six
stories above the ground. Im so high up, Im practically part of
the sky. I look down at the pavement below, and the world tilts.
I close my eyes, enjoying the way everything spins. Maybe this
time Ill do itlet the air carry me away. It will be like floating
in a pool, drifting off until theres nothing.

J ennifer N iven

I dont remember climbing up here. In fact, I dont remember much of anything before Sunday, at least not anything so
far this winter. This happens every timethe blanking out,
the waking up. Im like that old man with the beard, Rip Van
Winkle. Now you see me, now you dont. Youd think Id have
gotten used to it, but this last time was the worst yet because I
wasnt asleep for a couple days or a week or twoI was asleep
for the holidays, meaning Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New
Years. I cant tell you what was different this time around, only
that when I woke up, I felt deader than usual. Awake, yeah, but
completely empty, like someone had been feasting on my blood.
This is day six of being awake again, and my first week back at
school since November 14.
I open my eyes, and the ground is still there, hard and permanent. I am in the bell tower of the high school, standing on
a ledge about four inches wide. The tower is pretty small, with
only a few feet of concrete floor space on all sides of the bell
itself, and then this low stone railing, which Ive climbed over
to get here. Every now and then I knock one of my legs against
it to remind myself its there.
My arms are outstretched as if Im conducting a sermon
and this entire not-very-big, dull, dull town is my congregation.
Ladies and gentlemen, I shout, I would like to welcome you
to my death! You might expect me to say life, having just
woken up and all, but its only when Im awake that I think
about dying.
I am shouting in an old-school-preacher way, all jerking
head and words that twitch at the ends, and I almost lose my



balance. I hold on behind me, happy no one seems to have noticed, because, lets face it, its hard to look fearless when youre
clutching the railing like a chicken.
I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind, do hereby bequeath all my earthly possessions to Charlie Donahue, Brenda
Shank-Kravitz, and my sisters. Everyone else can go f--- themselves. In my house, my mom taught us early to spell that word
(if we must use it) or, better yet, not spell it, and, sadly, this has
Even though the bell has rung, some of my classmates are
still milling around on the ground. Its the first week of the
second semester of senior year, and already theyre acting as if
theyre almost done and out of here. One of them looks up in
my direction, as if he heard me, but the others dont, either because they havent spotted me or because they know Im there
and Oh well, its just Theodore Freak.
Then his head turns away from me and he points at the sky.
At first I think hes pointing at me, but its at that moment I
see her, the girl. She stands a few feet away on the other side
of the tower, also out on the ledge, dark-blond hair waving in
the breeze, the hem of her skirt blowing up like a parachute.
Even though its January in Indiana, she is shoeless in tights, a
pair of boots in her hand, and staring either at her feet or at the
groundits hard to tell. She seems frozen in place.
In my regular, nonpreacher voice I say, as calmly as possible,
Take it from me, the worst thing you can do is look down.
Very slowly, she turns her head toward me, and I know
this girl, or at least Ive seen her in the hallways. I cant resist:

J ennifer Niven

Come here often? Because this is kind of my spot and I dont

remember seeing you here before.
She doesnt laugh or blink, just gazes out at me from behind
these clunky glasses that almost cover her face. She tries to take
a step back and her foot bumps the railing. She teeters a little,
and before she can panic, I say, I dont know what brings you
up here, but to me the town looks prettier and the people look
nicer and even the worst of them look almost kind. Except for
Gabe Romero and Amanda Monk and that whole crowd you
hang out with.
Her name is Violet Something. She is cheerleader popular
one of those girls you would never think of running into on
a ledge six stories above the ground. Behind the ugly glasses
shes pretty, almost like a china doll. Large eyes, sweet face
shaped like a heart, a mouth that wants to curve into a perfect
little smile. Shes a girl who dates guys like Ryan Cross, baseball
star, and sits with Amanda Monk and the other queen bees at
But lets face it, we didnt come up here for the view. Youre
Violet, right?
She blinks once, and I take this as a yes.
Theodore Finch. I think we had pre-cal together last year.
She blinks again.
I hate math, but thats not why Im up here. No offense if
thats why you are. Youre probably better at math than I am,
because pretty much everyones better at math than I am, but
its okay, Im fine with it. See, I excel at other, more important
thingsguitar, sex, and consistently disappointing my dad, to



name a few. By the way, its apparently true that youll never use
it in the real world. Math, I mean.
I keep talking, but I can tell Im running out of steam. I need
to take a piss, for one thing, and so my words arent the only
thing twitching. (Note to self: Before attempting to take own life,
remember to take a leak.) And, two, its starting to rain, which,
in this temperature, will probably turn to sleet before it hits the
Its starting to rain, I say, as if she doesnt know this. I
guess theres an argument to be made that the rain will wash
away the blood, leaving us a neater mess to clean up than
otherwise. But its the mess part thats got me thinking. Im not
a vain person, but I am human, and I dont know about you,
but I dont want to look like Ive been run through the wood
chipper at my funeral.
Shes shivering or shaking, I cant tell which, and so I slowly
inch my way toward her, hoping I dont fall off before I get
there, because the last thing I want to do is make a jackass out
of myself in front of this girl. Ive made it clear I want cremation, but my mom doesnt believe in it. And my dad will do
whatever she says so he wont upset her any more than he already has, and besides, Youre far too young to think about this,
you know your Grandma Finch lived to be ninety-eight, we dont
need to talk about that now, Theodore, dont upset your mother.
So itll be an open coffin for me, which means if I jump, it
aint gonna be pretty. Besides, I kind of like my face intact like
this, two eyes, one nose, one mouth, a full set of teeth, which,
if Im being honest, is one of my better features. I smile so she

J ennifer N iven

can see what I mean. Everything where it should be, on the

outside at least.
When she doesnt say anything, I go on inching and talking.
Most of all, I feel bad for the undertaker. What a shitty job
that must be anyway, but then to have to deal with an asshole
like me?
From down below, someone yells, Violet? Is that Violet up
Oh God, she says, so low I barely hear it. OhGodohGodohGod. The wind blows her skirt and hair, and it
looks like shes going to fly away.
There is general buzzing from the ground, and I shout,
Dont try to save me! Youll only kill yourself! Then I say,
very low, just to her, Heres what I think we should do. Im
about a foot away from her now. I want you to throw your
shoes toward the bell and then hold on to the rail, just grab
right onto it, and once youve got it, lean against it and then lift
your right foot up and over. Got that?
She nods and almost loses her balance.
Dont nod. And whatever you do, dont go the wrong way
and step forward instead of back. Ill count you off. On three.
She throws her boots in the direction of the bell, and they
fall with a thud, thud onto the concrete.
One. Two. Three.
She grips the stone and kind of props herself against it and
then lifts her leg up and over so that shes sitting on the railing.
She stares down at the ground and I can see that shes frozen
again, and so I say, Good. Great. Just stop looking down.



She slowly looks at me and then reaches for the floor of the
bell tower with her right foot, and once shes found it, I say,
Now get that left leg back over however you can. Dont let go
of the wall. By now shes shaking so hard I can hear her teeth
chatter, but I watch as her left foot joins her right, and she is
So now its just me out here. I gaze down at the ground one
last time, past my size-thirteen feet that wont stop growing
today Im wearing sneakers with fluorescent lacespast the
open windows of the fourth floor, the third, the second, past
Amanda Monk, who is cackling from the front steps and swishing her blond hair like a pony, books over her head, trying to
flirt and protect herself from the rain at the same time.
I gaze past all of this at the ground itself, which is now slick
and damp, and imagine myself lying there.
I could just step off. It would be over in seconds. No more
Theodore Freak. No more hurt. No more anything.
I try to get past the unexpected interruption of saving a life
and return to the business at hand. For a minute, I can feel it:
the sense of peace as my mind goes quiet, like Im already dead.
I am weightless and free. Nothing and no one to fear, not even
Then a voice from behind me says, I want you to hold on to
the rail, and once youve got it, lean against it and lift your right
foot up and over.
Like that, I can feel the moment passing, maybe already
passed, and now it seems like a stupid idea, except for picturing
the look on Amandas face as I go sailing by her. I laugh at the


J ennifer Niven

thought. I laugh so hard I almost fall off, and this scares me

like, really scares meand I catch myself and Violet catches
me as Amanda looks up. Weirdo! someone shouts. Amandas
little group snickers. She cups her big mouth and aims it skyward. You okay, V?
Violet leans over the rail, still holding on to my legs. Im
The door at the top of the tower stairs cracks open and my
best friend, Charlie Donahue, appears. Charlie is black. Not
CW black, but black-black. He also gets laid more than anyone
else I know.
He says, Theyre serving pizza today, as if I wasnt standing
on a ledge six stories above the ground, my arms outstretched, a
girl wrapped around my knees.
Why dont you go ahead and get it over with, freak? Gabe
Romero, better known as Roamer, better known as Dumbass,
yells from below. More laughter.
Because Ive got a date with your mother later, I think but
dont say because, lets face it, its lame, and also he will come up
here and beat my face in and then throw me off, and this defeats
the point of just doing it myself.
Instead I shout, Thanks for saving me, Violet. I dont know
what I wouldve done if you hadnt come along. I guess Id be
dead right now.
The last face I see below belongs to my school counselor,
Mr. Embry. As he glares up at me, I think, Great. Just great.
I let Violet help me over the wall and onto the concrete.
From down below, theres a smattering of applause, not for me,



but for Violet, the hero. Up close like this, I can see that her
skin is smooth and clear except for two freckles on her right
cheek, and her eyes are a gray-green that makes me think of fall.
Its the eyes that get me. They are large and arresting, as if she
sees everything. As warm as they are, they are busy, no-bullshit
eyes, the kind that can look right into you, which I can tell even
through the glasses. Shes pretty and tall, but not too tall, with
long, restless legs and curvy hips, which I like on a girl. Too
many high school girls are built like boys.
I was just sitting there, she says. On the railing. I didnt
come up here to
Let me ask you something. Do you think theres such a
thing as a perfect day?
A perfect day. Start to finish. When nothing terrible or sad
or ordinary happens. Do you think its possible?
I dont know.
Have you ever had one?
Ive never had one either, but Im looking for it.
She whispers, Thank you, Theodore Finch. She reaches
up and kisses me on the cheek, and I can smell her shampoo,
which reminds me of flowers. She says into my ear, If you
ever tell anyone about this, Ill kill you. Carrying her boots,
she hurries away and out of the rain, back through the door
that leads to the flight of dark and rickety stairs that takes you
down to one of the many too-bright and too-crowded school


J ennifer Niven


Charlie watches her go and, as the door swings closed behind her, he turns back to me. Man, why do you do that?
Because we all have to die someday. I just want to be
prepared. This isnt the reason, of course, but it will be
enough for him. The truth is, there are a lot of reasons, most
of which change daily, like the thirteen fourth graders killed
earlier this week when some SOB opened fire in their school
gym, or the girl two years behind me who just died of cancer,
or the man I saw outside the Mall Cinema kicking his dog, or
my father.
Charlie may think it, but at least he doesnt say Weirdo,
which is why hes my best friend. Other than the fact that I appreciate this about him, we dont have much in common.

Technically, Im on probation this year. This is due to a small

matter involving a desk and a chalkboard. (For the record, replacing a chalkboard is more expensive than you might think.)
Its also due to a guitar-smashing incident during assembly, an
illegal use of fireworks, and maybe a fight or two. As a result,
Ive agreed involuntarily to the following: weekly counseling;
maintaining a high B average; and participation in at least one
extracurricular. I chose macram because Im the only guy with
twenty semihot girls, which I thought was pretty good odds
for me. I also have to behave myself, play well with others, refrain from throwing desks, as well as refrain from any violent
physical altercations. And I must always, always, whatever I
do, hold my tongue, because not doing so, apparently, is how



trouble starts. If I f--- anything up from here on out, its expulsion for me.
Inside the counseling office, I check in with the secretary and
take a seat in one of the hard wooden chairs until Mr. Embry is
ready for me. If I know Embryoas I call him to myselflike I
know Embryo, hell want to know just what the hell I was doing
in the bell tower. If Im lucky, we wont have time to cover much
more than that.
In a few minutes he waves me in, a short, thick man built
like a bull. As he shuts the door, he drops the smile. He sits
down, hunches over his desk, and fixes his eyes on me like Im
a suspect he needs to crack. What in the hell were you doing
in the bell tower?
The thing I like about Embryo is that not only is he predictable, he gets to the point. Ive known him since sophomore year.
I wanted to see the view.
Were you planning to jump off?
Not on pizza day. Never on pizza day, which is one of the
better days of the week. I should mention that I am a brilliant
deflector. So brilliant that I could get a full scholarship to college and major in it, except why bother? Ive already mastered
the art.
I wait for him to ask about Violet, but instead he says, I
need to know if you were or are planning to harm yourself. I am
goddamn serious. If Principal Wertz hears about this, youre
gone before you can say suspended, or worse. Not to mention
if I dont pay attention and you decide to go back up there and
jump off, Im looking at a lawsuit, and on the salary they pay


J ennifer Niven


me, believe me when I say I do not have the money to be sued.

This holds true whether you jump off the bell tower or the Purina Tower, whether its school property or not.
I stroke my chin like Im deep in thought. The Purina
Tower. Now theres an idea.
He doesnt budge except to squint at me. Like most people
in the Midwest, Embryo doesnt believe in humor, especially
when it pertains to sensitive subjects. Not funny, Mr. Finch.
This is not a joking matter.
No, sir. Sorry.
The thing suicides dont focus on is their wake. Not just
your parents and siblings, but your friends, your girlfriends,
your classmates, your teachers. I like the way he seems to think
I have many, many people depending on me, including not just
one but multiple girlfriends.
I was just messing around. I agree it was probably not the
best way to spend first period.
He picks up a file and thumps it down in front of him and
starts flipping through it. I wait as he reads, and then he looks at
me again. I wonder if hes counting the days till summer.
He stands, just like a cop on TV, and walks around his desk
until hes looming over me. He leans against it, arms folded, and
I look past him, searching for the hidden two-way mirror.
Do I need to call your mother?
No. And again no. And again: no no no. Look, it was
a stupid thing to do. I just wanted to see what it felt like to
stand there and look down. I would never jump from the bell



If it happens again, if you so much as think about it again,

I call her. And youre going to do a drug test.
I appreciate your concern, sir. I try to sound my most
sincere, because the last thing I want is a bigger, brighter spotlight directed at me, following me throughout the halls of
school, throughout the other parts of my life, such as they are.
And the thing is, I actually like Embryo. As for the whole drug
thing, theres no need to waste precious time. Really. Unless
cigarettes count. Drugs and me? Not a good mix. Believe me,
Ive tried. I fold my hands like a good boy. As for the whole
bell tower thing, even though it wasnt at all what you think, I
can still promise that it wont happen again.
Thats rightit wont. I want you here twice a week instead
of once. You come in Monday and Friday and talk to me, just so
I can see how youre doing.
Im happy to, sirI mean, I, like, really enjoy these conversations of oursbut Im good.
Its nonnegotiable. Now lets discuss the end of last semester. You missed four, almost five, weeks of school. Your mother
says you were sick with the flu.
Hes actually talking about my sister Kate, but he doesnt
know that. She was the one who called the school while I was
out, because Mom has enough to worry about.
If thats what she says, who are we to argue?
The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explained flu kind
of way. Its my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic
if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my
life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable


J ennifer Niven


disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went
blank. One minute I was spinning, and the next minute my mind
was dragging itself around in a circle, like an old, arthritic dog
trying to lie down. And then I just turned off and went to sleep,
but not sleep in the way you do every night. Think a long, dark
sleep where you dont dream at all.
Embryo once again narrows his eyes to a squint and stares at
me hard, trying to induce a sweat. And can we expect you to
show up and stay out of trouble this semester?
And keep up with your classwork?
Yes, sir.
Ill arrange the drug test with the nurse. He jabs the air
with his finger, pointing at me. Probation means period of
testing somebodys suitability; period when student must improve. Look it up if you dont believe me, and for Christs sake,
stay alive.
The thing I dont say is: I want to stay alive. The reason I
dont say it is because, given that fat folder in front of him, hed
never believe it. And heres something else hed never believe
Im fighting to be here in this shitty, messed-up world. Standing
on the ledge of the bell tower isnt about dying. Its about having control. Its about never going to sleep again.
Embryo stalks around his desk and gathers a stack of Teens
in Trouble pamphlets. Then he tells me Im not alone and I
can always talk to him, his door is open, hes here, and hell see
me on Monday. I want to say no offense, but thats not much



of a comfort. Instead, I thank him because of the dark circles

under his eyes and the smokers lines etched around his mouth.
Hell probably light up a cigarette as soon as I go. I take a heaping pile of pamphlets and leave him to it. He never once mentioned Violet, and Im relieved.



154 days till graduation

Friday morning. Office of Mrs. Marion Kresney, school counselor, who has small, kind eyes and a smile too big for her
face. According to the certificate on the wall above her head,
shes been at Bartlett High for fifteen years. This is our twelfth
My heart is still racing and my hands are still shaking from
being up on that ledge. I have gone cold all over, and what I
want is to lie down. I wait for Mrs. Kresney to say: I know what
you were doing first period, Violet Markey. Your parents are on
their way. Doctors are standing by, ready to escort you to the nearest mental health facility.
But we start as we always do.
How are you, Violet?
Im fine, and you? I sit on my hands.



Im fine. Lets talk about you. I want to know how youre

Im good. Just because she hasnt brought it up does not
mean she doesnt know. She almost never asks anything directly.
How are you sleeping?
The nightmares started a month after the accident. She asks
about them every time I see her, because I made the mistake of
mentioning them to my mom, who mentioned them to her. This
is one of the main reasons why Im here and why Ive stopped
telling my mom anything.
Im sleeping fine.
The thing about Mrs. Kresney is that she always, always
smiles, no matter what. I like this about her.
Any bad dreams?
I used to write them down, but I dont anymore. I can remember every detail. Like this one I had four weeks ago where
I was literally melting away. In the dream, my dad said, Youve
come to the end, Violet. Youve reached your limit. We all have
them, and yours is now. But I dont want it to be. I watched
as my feet turned into puddles and disappeared. Next were
my hands. It didnt hurt, and I remember thinking: I shouldnt
mind this because there isnt any pain. Its just a slipping away.
But I did mind as, limb by limb, the rest of me went invisible
before I woke up.
Mrs. Kresney shifts in her chair, her smile fixed on her face.
I wonder if she smiles in her sleep.
Lets talk about college.



J ennifer Niven

This time last year, I would have loved to talk about college.
Eleanor and I used to do this sometimes after Mom and Dad
had gone to bed. Wed sit outside if it was warm enough, inside
if it was too cold. We imagined the places we would go and the
people we would meet, far away from Bartlett, Indiana, population 14,983, where we felt like aliens from some distant planet.
Youve applied to UCLA, Stanford, Berkeley, the University of Florida, the University of Buenos Aires, Northern Caribbean University, and the National University of Singapore. This
is a very diverse list, but what happened to NYU?
Since the summer before seventh grade, NYUs creative
writing program has been my dream. This is thanks to visiting New York with my mother, who is a college professor and
writer. She did her graduate work at NYU, and for three weeks
the four of us stayed in the city and socialized with her former
teachers and classmatesnovelists, playwrights, screenwriters,
poets. My plan was to apply for early admission in October. But
then the accident happened and I changed my mind.
I missed the application deadline. The deadline for regular admission was one week ago today. I filled everything out,
even wrote my essay, but didnt send it in.
Lets talk about the writing. Lets talk about the website.
She means Eleanor and I started it
after we moved to Indiana. We wanted to create an online magazine that offered two (very) different perspectives on fashion,
beauty, boys, books, life. Last year, Eleanors friend Gemma
Sterling (star of the hit Web series Rant) mentioned us in an
interview, and our following tripled. But I havent touched the



site since Eleanor died, because what would be the point? It

was a site about sisters. Besides, in that instant we went plowing
through the guardrail, my words died too.
I dont want to talk about the website.
I believe your mother is an author. She must be very helpful
in giving advice.
Jessamyn West said, Writing is so difficult that writers,
having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.
She lights up at this. Do you feel youre being punished?
She is talking about the accident. Or maybe she is referring to
being here in this office, this school, this town.
No. Do I feel I should be punished? Yes. Why else would
I have given myself bangs?
Do you believe youre responsible for what happened?
I tug on the bangs now. They are lopsided. No.
She sits back. Her smile slips a fraction of an inch. We both
know Im lying. I wonder what she would say if I told her that
an hour ago I was being talked off the ledge of the bell tower.
By now, Im pretty sure she doesnt know.
Have you driven yet?
Have you allowed yourself to ride in the car with your parents?
But they want you to. This isnt a question. She says this
like shes talked to one or both of them, which she probably



J ennifer Niven

Im not ready. These are the three magic words. Ive discovered they can get you out of almost anything.
She leans forward. Have you thought about returning to
Student council?
You still play flute in the orchestra?
Im last chair. Thats something that hasnt changed since
the accident. I was always last chair because Im not very good
at flute.
She sits back again. For a moment I think shes given up.
Then she says, Im concerned about your progress, Violet.
Frankly, you should be further along than you are right
now. You cant avoid cars forever, especially now that were in
winter. You cant keep standing still. You need to remember
that youre a survivor, and that means . . .
I will never know what that means because as soon as I hear
the word survivor, I get up and walk out.

On my way to fourth period. School hallway.

At least fifteen peoplesome I know, some I dont, some
who havent talked to me in monthsstop me on my way to
class to tell me how courageous I was to save Theodore Finch
from killing himself. One of the girls from the school paper
wants to do an interview.
Of all the people I could have saved, Theodore Finch is