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Four high school students in present-day New Orleans are torn apart by envy, passion, and tragedy.
Meredith, Brandon, Greg, and Stephen quickly discover the fragile boundaries between friendship and betrayal as they enter high school and form new alliances. Brandon and Greg gain popularity as football jocks and Meredith joins the bulimic in-crowd, while Stephen becomes the target of homophobia in a school that viciously mocks him. Then two ...
Four high school students in present-day New Orleans are torn apart by envy, passion, and tragedy.
Meredith, Brandon, Greg, and Stephen quickly discover the fragile boundaries between friendship and betrayal as they enter high school and form new alliances. Brandon and Greg gain popularity as football jocks and Meredith joins the bulimic in-crowd, while Stephen becomes the target of homophobia in a school that viciously mocks him. Then two violent deaths disrupt the core of what they once shared.
Five years later, the friends are drawn back together as new facts about their mutual history are revealed, and what was held to be a tragic accident is discovered to be murder. As the true story emerges, other secrets begin to unravel and the casual cruelties of high school develop into acts of violence that threaten an entire city.
A Density of Souls is a stunning debut novel that lays bare the darker side of the teenage experience in modern-day America.
Cannon School occupied an entire block of New Orleans, its sprawl of manicured lawns and neocolonial brick buildings dividing the neighborhood in half. The back end of Cannon's football field had drained the blocks behind it of property value, turning the neighborhood into a welter of shotgun houses with crumbling front porches. The façade of the school's main buildings faced the wealthier Creole cottages of uptown. The school announced its name on a bronze plaque above its entrance doors, both of which bore the Cannon seal frosted onto glass panes set in polished mahogany frames. The entrance doors led into the administrative hallway where the business of the finest private school in New Orleans was conducted in gentle whispers punctuated by gracious laughs.
The commerce of the front wing of Cannon School was softened and padded by wall-to-wall carpeting in all the offices, interrupted by the occasional clicking of high heels over the hallways' hardwood floors. Beneath crown moldings, Cannon's finest alumni stared out from eight-by-ten picture frames.
There was no hallway connecting the locker room and the administrative offices. To get from one to the other, a teacher would have to leave the building completely and re-enter the campus through the side parking lot. This was a bone of contention for most of Cannon's faculty, because the faculty lounge was located at the far end of the administrative hallway. Thus, there was no easy access between Cannon's classrooms and the over-decorated faculty lounge with its worn, soft sofas and massive mahogany coffee table.
At the far end of the campus, a wrought-iron breezeway connected the three-story Athletic Complex to the smaller, squat Theatre Building; it was almost as if the athletic department were taunting its less popular cousin. The handful of theatre enthusiasts at Cannon were often forced to exit quickly through the breezeway onto the side street, for fear of meeting up with the varsity football players who always seemed to have leftover steam to vent after afternoon practice. Play rehearsals in the Theatre Building were sometimes interrupted by footballs hitting the side of the building; the actors knew the field was too far away from the pigskins to be simply misdirected passes.
The Senior Courtyard sat in the exact center of campus, separating the Administrative Building from the English Building and its ground floor locker room, and featured rusted wrought-iron furniture. Fringed with yellowing banana trees, the Senior Courtyard was so exclusively reserved for the graduating class that any underclassmen found sitting in it without an invitation would promptly be shoved into the nearest empty locker. But the only way for students to reach the classroom hallways from the locker room was through the Senior Courtyard and up a concrete set of steps which led to the second floor of the English Building. During this time, nervous underclassmen would scurry up the steps, trying to avoid the glare of seniors awaiting an opportunity to assert themselves as the top echelon of Cannon's aristocracy.
Half of Cannon's lessons were taught by its queer architecture. Its passages and connections were illogical, subjecting its students to intermittent bursts of pain and confusion. Over four years, Cannon's students were forced to find the proper mix of aggression and grace to guide them through passages that led from one ritual to another, in a seemingly endless succession of hierarchies, before finally depositing them back into the city that had given them birth — the same city that had given birth to Cannon itself.
As Meredith Ducote learned on the first day of her freshman year and the last day of her life as a child, students were forced to enter Cannon every morning through the side gate, rounding the outside of the main campus buildings before coming to a single entrance of glass doors. The locker room took up the entire ground floor of the English Building. Even with its expanse of benches and blue-painted lockers, it could barely contain Cannon's three hundred students.
The glass doors were gliding shut as Meredith turned the corner of the English Building. The doors were tinted and a green poster taped to them read WELCOME FRESHMAN! Its edge was torn where it had been caught between the opening and closing doors.
Meredith's sweaty palm slid off the door handle. She gently kicked one of the doors inward with her foot. It didn't budge. She wiped her hand across her skirt and pulled the door open, revealing what seemed like three hundred faces that all seemed to stare back at her, if only for a second, before they collapsed into laughter and conversations.
Earlier that morning, Meredith had argued with her mother about the halter top she had bought from Contempo Casuals a week before freshman orientation. The argument had culminated in a tug-of-war with the halter top during which Trish Ducote kept intoning, "Meredith, you are fourteen!" It was her mother's voice, high-pitched through clenched teeth, that came to Meredith through the locker room racket. The admonishment became an accusation.
Her breasts suddenly seemed huge. She could suddenly feel them pressing against the halter top and her exposed arms went hot and clammy with sweat.
She found herself paralyzed, paces past her locker and surrounded by laughing, bellowing classmates. At fourteen, Meredith had experienced few moments from which there seemed to be no escape, but this was one of them. She glanced behind her and saw a group of girls (all wearing shirts with sleeves) gathered around the door to what she was pretty sure was her locker. They looked back at her like conspiring thieves.
Someone brushed Meredith's shoulder with his book bag. Meredith almost let out a startled yelp before she saw Brandon.
He was sitting on a bench against the far wall. Meredith didn't recognize the guy next to him; his face was concealed under the bill of a baseball cap that read CANNON KNIGHTS and he was hunched over with his forearms on his knees, obviously whispering the punch line of a joke. Brandon erupted into laughter and rocked back on the bench.
When he saw Meredith, his laughter stopped. Meredith felt a smile tighten her face, but it died as Brandon's eyes rolled up and down her body, his face suddenly expressionless. He nudged the guy sitting next to him.
Greg Darby looked up at Meredith from beneath his cap.
For a brief moment, as Greg took her in, Meredith understood what the four weeks of pre-season football training had done to Greg and Brandon. It had made them men. Or at least look like what Meredith thought men should be.
When Greg smiled, Meredith felt her heels sink to the floor. She realized she had been walking on tiptoe since she had entered Cannon.
Stephen was waiting by Meredith's locker, trying to guard it from the posse of girls. They had giggled at his approach and whispered after his arrival, but he held his back on them. Knowing this was the only way he could wait for Meredith alone. He told himself that Meredith would hardly want to ask a bunch of strangers to move out of her way so he'd keep a clear passage open for her.
She had looked right at him. And then away.
Meredith took a seat between Greg and Brandon, and Greg curled one arm around her shoulders. She playfully batted it away. Stephen stared at them; he was perfectly within their line of vision. None of them looked his way. When the three of them finally rose from the bench, with Greg extending a hand to help Meredith to her feet, Stephen made no move to follow them out the doors into the Senior Courtyard.
Something dark uncurled inside of him.
During his first morning at Cannon, Stephen's only companion was the collective din of whispers, snickers and openly disdainful glares he received as he passed. All of which made him acutely aware of the flop of blond bangs that partially concealed his eyes, the strain of his backpack straps as they pulled at his gaunt frame, and worst of all, the reflexive cock of his wrist as he extracted a book from his backpack during class. It all culminated in the nightmare of PE, the aftermath of which propelled him to the back freight door of Cannon's Theatre Building and the smell of cigarette smoke wafting through the open door of a brightly lit office down the musty, darkened corridor of the backstage.
Stephen had deliberately gone to PE early. He had been frightened by the idea of having to take off his clothes, so he had planned to change quickly and make it to the gym floor before everyone else. Then the football players had exploded into the locker room, slugging metal doors and bellowing war cries intended to clear a path before them. Their heads had all been shaved during freshman varsity initiation. Stephen thought of Nazis. At Cannon, athletes were exempt from physical education classes, but the first week of the semester was dedicated to endurance testing, mandatory for everyone.
They had assembled on the gym floor, where it seemed all eyes inspected Stephen. He relaxed slightly when he saw that neither Brandon nor Greg were in his class. The football players had mangled their PE uniform shirts to protest a week of third-period gym classes. Daniel Weber had torn holes for his nipples on either side of the Cannon logo across the shirt's breast. Coach Stubin ordered him to put duct tape over them. Stephen looked from Daniel's nipples to the polished gym floor, where he saw his own reflection between his tennis shoes. He lifted his head to stare off into some distant corner of the gym, and found himself taking in the series of banners that hung from the banister of the jogging track circling the gym's ceiling, proclaiming the various District Title wins of the Cannon Knights.
But now, in the theatre, there was smoke and light, tattered costumes and old set pieces, the ragged edges of stage flats. Carolyn Traulain threw open the office door and a blinding rectangle of light fell across Stephen. She looked startled when Stephen didn't raise a hand to block the glare from his eyes.
"Are you here for the meeting?" Carolyn asked.
Stephen stuttered a yes, hating the sibilant s on the end. She nodded and disappeared into a thicket of curtains and darkness. The overhead lights flickered to life, illuminating the theatrical debris that surrounded him. There were so many flats he could have tripped over.
Carolyn Traulain had a white scar that scooped beneath the collar of her black T-shirt before resurfacing on the opposite side of her neck. She occasionally glanced at Stephen as she set up a small battalion of metal folding chairs, kicking each chair's legs out. "You came from Polk?" she asked.
"Yeah," Stephen said as he moved to a faded green sofa against the wall. It had obviously been a set piece in every production since the school's founding in 1905.
"We get a lot of kids from Polk," Carolyn said. She was the first person all day to speak to Stephen like an ordinary person, and he immediately loved her for it. She met his eyes with each question and he saw no laughter in them.
But the mention of Bishop Polk Elementary School, so much closer to home and now abruptly transformed into a memory, tugged at something in him. He brought his book bag onto his lap and began to tear at one of the seams with a fingernail he had not yet chewed off. He tried not to think of the old morning bike rides to school. As the battalion of students turned onto Jackson Avenue, they would pass beneath the bell tower, its portico towering high enough to catch the first rays of a rising sun that had not yet mounted the tree line.
Over, Stephen thought. That's over now.
Carolyn's voice startled him. "The first day can be rough."
A flicker of genuine emotion softened her eyes. Stephen could only manage a forced smile in response. Carolyn nodded, as if a suspicion of hers had been confirmed.
They both jumped at the sound of the freight door thrown open.
A shadow was advancing through the darkness. Stephen could make out the bulky outline of a letter jacket and his breath caught in his throat. For an instant, he thought it was Greg.
It wasn't. The shadow was shorter, thicker. It moved with an ease of strength over the discarded dresses and sequined shirts. A powerful arm pushed a curtain out of its way.
A short, dark-skinned boy turned and regarded Stephen with drowsy brown eyes. On the shoulder of his letter jacket a miniature cartoon Knight raised a sword.
"Wassup?" he asked.
Stephen tried a nod that resulted in a stiff jerk of his neck.
"Glad to see you could join us, Jeff," Carolyn announced, emerging from her office with a folding chair under one arm.
Jeff looked from the chairs to Carolyn.
"Sorry, Miss T. See, Coach called this meeting 'cause we're playing Buras on —"
Carolyn threw up one arm to steady herself, releasing the chair. It smacked onto a pile of paint-speckled plastic tarps.
"Right. No surprise," Carolyn said, plucking up the chair and kicking the legs out.
Jeff turned to face her. "Look, I'm sorry —" he began, both arms thrown open.
"You're always sorry and you never show up at meetings!"
Carolyn turned and disappeared into the prop closet. Jeff's eyes moved to the empty folding chairs all around him and then to Stephen and back again.
"And if you ask me about the musical again, I'm going to strangle you." Carolyn's voice blew in from the prop closet, followed by a metallic crash.
"You're killing me with the waiting, Miss T!" Jeff called out.
"And you'll wait even longer, if you keep calling me Miss T. Goodbye Jeff. Get your cudgel and go to the field!"
"What's a cudgel?" Jeff asked with a smile.
He pivoted and found himself facing Stephen, whose presence he had apparently forgotten. Stephen looked away from the boy whose profile was broader and thicker than his own entire frame.
"Freshman?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah," Stephen answered, dropping his voice so suddenly and ridiculously that Jeff smiled, which made the discomfort worse.
"Junior," Jeff said. "Gets better, dude."
As Stephen tried another nod, Jeff stared at him for a second before turning and leaving. When Stephen finally heard the freight door slam shut behind Jeff, the aftershock of sudden desire congealed. He finally understood the whispers that had followed him around all day. He knew what was being said. And he knew it was true.
Because Meredith had spent the morning with Brandon Charbonnet and Greg Darby, she could easily introduce herself into the posse of girls who spent lunch period on the hill next to the cafeteria with their sleeves and hems rolled back to the tanning powers of the sun. Kate Duchamp had immediately rolled over onto her stomach, pushed her Oakley sunglasses up off her face, and said a word hardly anyone said as a freshman on the first day of high school. "Hi."
"Hey," Meredith replied with forced indifference as she took her seat.
"You went to Polk, right?"
"That's why you're friends with those guys?"
"One of them is so hot ..."
"Greg," a voice finished.
"No ... Brandon is so fine! Have you ever seen his brother?" asked another female voice Meredith couldn't identify. All the girls around her were lying flat on their backs beneath the glare of the sun.
"Who's the other one?" Kate asked.
Meredith felt as if the patch of earth beneath her butt had shifted and sunk several inches beneath her. The other one!
"Omigod ..." Now Meredith recognized the voice. It was Cara Stubin, the football coach's daughter and the only other freshman girl to make varsity cheerleading along with Meredith. "He's like ..."
"Stephen. He's kind of cute ..." another voice from the grass offered.
"I heard his mom is like so fucked up," Cara continued. Meredith's first instinct was to rise up and stomp one foot into Cara's stomach.
"My mom said she came to this parents' meeting in this dress with, like, her tits hanging all over the place ..."
Other girls laughed. Meredith realized Kate had not taken her gaze off her.
"I'm sorry. But I think I'd be a little screwed up, too, if my husband blew his brains out!" another girl said defensively.
"Do you know him?" Kate asked Meredith.
She remembered a cemetery pummeled by rain. She remembered a tangle of mud-flecked legs. The memory led Meredith to commit an act that would carve itself into her memory with the building precision of regret.
"He's a fag," she said flatly.
Some flame guttered inside of her, quietly and without protest. She felt hotter, but she assumed it was the sun on her bare arms.
Kate laughed, signaling that Meredith's pronouncement was more of an accusation than a joke.
Ten minutes before the lunch bell rang, Kate Duchamp invited Meredith to go to the bathroom with her. Meredith followed silently as Kate led her through the desolate English Hallway, past classrooms where teachers savored lunchtime silence at their desks. Once inside the bathroom, Kate said, "Watch the door," gesturing toward it with one thumb before moving slowly down the four stalls, checking for feet. She opened the door to the first one. Meredith braced herself across the door.
"So how long have you been friends with them?" Kate asked, as she gathered her platinum blonde hair behind her head, holding it tight in one fist.
"Since we were kids. We all live near each other."
"Brandon's fine. You're not, like ... You guys don't ..."
"No!" Meredith responded so quickly that Kate laughed before she sank to her knees on the stall floor. Meredith listened to the sound of Kate vomiting into the toilet bowl. She rose, butt first, out of the open stall door, wiping the corner of her mouth with a triangle of shredded toilet paper.
"That crap they serve isn't even meat. It's like meat juice with, like, extra fat poured on top."
Meredith managed a laugh. Kate hadn't even had to gag herself to force her lunch out of her stomach.
"What about the other one?" Kate asked, stepping clear of the stall door.
"Greg?" Meredith asked, with a note of ambivalence in her voice that suggested even she — his childhood friend — was not sure of his name.
"Yeah," Kate said, her eyes darting back and forth between Meredith and the open stall door. Meredith guessed that if she hesitated Kate would lose interest in the conversation and ask right out why she hadn't tried to throw up her lunch.
"Well ..." Meredith said.
By Friday, Meredith Ducote and Greg Darby were declared "together" by their classmates.
Stephen overheard the news in his fourth-period history class. "Greg Darby and Meredith Ducote are going out." The whisper from the next desk over was still resonant. The teacher, Mr. Humboldt, was asking a question. Stephen knew the answer. He looked down to his open textbook at a Mesopotamian ziggurat and felt something between nausea and acute pain. Without thinking, he raised his hand.
The classroom bristled. Mr. Humboldt couldn't conceal his surprise. Stephen had not once raised his hand the entire week.
Stephen answered. The fall of ancient cultures would become more familiar than the students sitting around him.