My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.
I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In
newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most
looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before
kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons
or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed
things like that didn't happen.
In my junior high yearbook I had a quote from a Spanish poet
my sister had turned me on to, Juan Ram?n Jim?nez. It went like
this: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." I chose it
both because it expressed my contempt for my structured surroundings
? la the classroom and because, not being some dopey
quote from a rock group, I thought it marked me as literary. I was
a member of the Chess Club and Chem Club and burned everything
I tried to make in Mrs. Delminico's home ec class. My favorite
teacher was Mr. Botte, who taught biology and liked to
animate the frogs and crawfish we had to dissect by making them
dance in their waxed pans.
I wasn't killed by Mr. Botte, by the way. Don't think every person
you're going to meet in here is suspect. That's the problem.
You never know. Mr. Botte came to my memorial (as, may I add,
did almost the entire junior high school-I was never so popular)
and cried quite a bit. He had a sick kid. We all knew this, so
when he laughed at his own jokes, which were rusty way before I
had him, we laughed too, forcing it sometimes just to make him
happy. His daughter died a year and a half after I did. She had
leukemia, but I never saw her in my heaven.
My murderer was a man from our neighborhood. My mother
liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about
fertilizer. My murderer believed in old-fashioned things like
eggshells and coffee grounds, which he said his own mother had
used. My father came home smiling, making jokes about how the
man's garden might be beautiful but it would stink to high heaven
once a heat wave hit.
But on December 6, 1973, it was snowing, and I took a shortcut
through the cornfield back from the junior high. It was dark
out because the days were shorter in winter, and I remember how
the broken cornstalks made my walk more difficult. The snow
was falling lightly, like a flurry of small hands, and I was breathing
through my nose until it was running so much that I had to
open my mouth. Six feet from where Mr. Harvey stood, I stuck
my tongue out to taste a snowflake.
"Don't let me startle you," Mr. Harvey said.
Of course, in a cornfield, in the dark, I was startled. After I was
dead I thought about how there had been the light scent of
cologne in the air but that I had not been paying attention, or
thought it was coming from one of the houses up ahead.
"Mr. Harvey," I said.
"You're the older Salmon girl, right?"
"How are your folks?"
Although the eldest in my family and good at acing a science
quiz, I had never felt comfortable with adults.
"Fine," I said. I was cold, but the natural authority of his age,
and the added fact that he was a neighbor and had talked to my
father about fertilizer, rooted me to the spot.
"I've built something back here," he said. "Would you like to
"I'm sort of cold, Mr. Harvey," I said, "and my mom likes me
home before dark."
"It's after dark, Susie," he said.
I wish now that I had known this was weird. I had never told
him my name. I guess I thought my father had told him one of the
embarrassing anecdotes he saw merely as loving testaments to his
children. My father was the kind of dad who kept a nude photo
of you when you were three in the downstairs bathroom, the one
that guests would use. He did this to my little sister, Lindsey,
thank God. At least I was spared that indignity. But he liked to
tell a story about how, once Lindsey was born, I was so jealous
that one day while he was on the phone in the other room, I
moved down the couchhe could see me from where he
stoodand tried to pee on top of Lindsey in her carrier. This
story humiliated me every time he told it, to the pastor of our
church, to our neighbor Mrs. Stead, who was a therapist and
whose take on it he wanted to hear, and to everyone who ever said
"Susie has a lot of spunk!"
"Spunk!" my father would say. "Let me tell you about spunk,"
and he would launch immediately into his Susie-peed-on-Lindsey
But as it turned out, my father had not mentioned us to Mr.
Harvey or told him the Susie-peed-on-Lindsey story.
Mr. Harvey would later say these words to my mother when he
ran into her on the street: "I heard about the horrible, horrible
tragedy. What was your daughter's name, again?"
"Susie," my mother said, bracing up under the weight of it, a
weight that she naively hoped might lighten someday, not knowing
that it would only go on to hurt in new and varied ways for
the rest of her life.
Mr. Harvey told her the usual: "I hope they get the bastard. I'm
sorry for your loss."
I was in my heaven by that time, fitting my limbs together, and
couldn't believe his audacity. "The man has no shame," I said to
Franny, my intake counselor. "Exactly," she said, and made her
point as simply as that. There wasn't a lot of bullshit in my heaven.
Mr. Harvey said it would only take a minute, so I followed him
a little farther into the cornfield, where fewer stalks were broken
off because no one used it as a shortcut to the junior high. My
mom had told my baby brother, Buckley, that the corn in the field
was inedible when he asked why no one from the neighborhood
ate it. "The corn is for horses, not humans," she said. "Not dogs?"
Buckley asked. "No," my mother answered. "Not dinosaurs?"
Buckley asked. And it went like that.
"I've made a little hiding place," said Mr. Harvey.
He stopped and turned to me.
"I don't see anything," I said. I was aware that Mr. Harvey was
looking at me strangely. I'd had older men look at me that way
since I'd lost my baby fat, but they usually didn't lose their marbles
over me when I was wearing my royal blue parka and yellow
elephant bell-bottoms. His glasses were small and round with
gold frames, and his eyes looked out over them and at me.
"You should be more observant, Susie," he said.
I felt like observing my way out of there, but I didn't. Why
didn't I? Franny said these questions were fruitless: "You didn't
and that's that. Don't mull it over. It does no good. You're dead
and you have to accept it."
"Try again," Mr. Harvey said, and he squatted down and
knocked against the ground.
"What's that?" I asked.
My ears were freezing. I wouldn't wear the multicolored cap
with the pompom and jingle bells that my mother had made me
one Christmas. I had shoved it in the pocket of my parka instead.
I remember that I went over and stomped on the ground near
him. It felt harder even than frozen earth, which was pretty hard.
"It's wood," Mr. Harvey said. "It keeps the entrance from collapsing.
Other than that it's all made out of earth."
"What is it?" I asked. I was no longer cold or weirded out by
the look he had given me. I was like I was in science class: I was
"Come and see."
It was awkward to get into, that much he admitted once we
were both inside the hole. But I was so amazed by how he had
made a chimney that would draw smoke out if he ever chose to
build a fire that the awkwardness of getting in and out of the hole
wasn't even on my mind. You could add to that that escape wasn't
a concept I had any real experience with. The worst I'd had to escape
was Artie, a strange-looking kid at school whose father was
a mortician. He liked to pretend he was carrying a needle full of
embalming fluid around with him. On his notebooks he would
draw needles spilling dark drips.
"This is neato!" I said to Mr. Harvey. He could have been the
hunchback of Notre Dame, whom we had read about in French
class. I didn't care. I completely reverted. I was my brother
Buckley on our day-trip to the Museum of Natural History in
New York, where he'd fallen in love with the huge skeletons on
display. I hadn't used the word neato in public since elementary
"Like taking candy from a baby," Franny said.
I can still see the hole like it was yesterday, and it was. Life is a
perpetual yesterday for us. It was the size of a small room, the
mud room in our house, say, where we kept our boots and slickers
and where Mom had managed to fit a washer and dryer, one
on top of the other. I could almost stand up in it, but Mr. Harvey
had to stoop. He'd created a bench along the sides of it by the
way he'd dug it out. He immediately sat down.
"Look around," he said.
I stared at it in amazement, the dug-out shelf above him where
he had placed matches, a row of batteries, and a battery-powered
fluorescent lamp that cast the only light in the room-an eerie
light that would make his features hard to see when he was on top
There was a mirror on the shelf, and a razor and shaving cream.
I thought that was odd. Wouldn't he do that at home? But I guess
I figured that a man who had a perfectly good split-level and then
built an underground room only half a mile away had to be kind
of loo-loo. My father had a nice way of describing people like
him: "The man's a character, that's all."
So I guess I was thinking that Mr. Harvey was a character, and
I liked the room, and it was warm, and I wanted to know how he
had built it, what the mechanics of the thing were and where he'd
learned to do something like that.
But by the time the Gilberts' dog found my elbow three days
later and brought it home with a telling corn husk attached to it,
Mr. Harvey had closed it up. I was in transit during this. I didn't
get to see him sweat it out, remove the wood reinforcement, bag
any evidence along with my body parts, except that elbow. By the
time I popped up with enough wherewithal to look down at the
goings-on on Earth, I was more concerned with my family than
My mother sat on a hard chair by the front door with her
mouth open. Her pale face paler than I had ever seen it. Her blue
eyes staring. My father was driven into motion. He wanted to
know details and to comb the cornfield along with the cops. I still
thank God for a small detective named Len Fenerman. He assigned
two uniforms to take my dad into town and have him point
out all the places I'd hung out with my friends. The uniforms kept
my dad busy in one mall for the whole first day. No one had told
Lindsey, who was thirteen and would have been old enough, or
Buckley, who was four and would, to be honest, never fully understand.
Mr. Harvey asked me if I would like a refreshment. That was
how he put it. I said I had to go home.
"Be polite and have a Coke," he said. "I'm sure the other kids
"What other kids?"
"I built this for the kids in the neighborhood. I thought it could
be some sort of clubhouse."
I don't think I believed this even then. I thought he was lying,
but I thought it was a pitiful lie. I imagined he was lonely. We had
read about men like him in health class. Men who never married
and ate frozen meals every night and were so afraid of rejection
that they didn't even own pets. I felt sorry for him.
"Okay," I said, "I'll have a Coke."
In a little while he said, "Aren't you warm, Susie? Why don't
you take off your parka."
After this he said, "You're very pretty, Susie."
"Thanks," I said, even though he gave me what my friend
Clarissa and I had dubbed the skeevies.
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No, Mr. Harvey," I said. I swallowed the rest of my Coke,
which was a lot, and said, "I got to go, Mr. Harvey. This is a cool
place, but I have to go."
He stood up and did his hunchback number by the six dug-in
steps that led to the world. "I don't know why you think you're
I talked so that I would not have to take in this knowledge: Mr.
Harvey was no character. He made me feel skeevy and icky now
that he was blocking the door.
"Mr. Harvey, I really have to get home."
"Take off your clothes."
"Take your clothes off," Mr. Harvey said. "I want to check that
you're still a virgin."
"I am, Mr. Harvey," I said.
"I want to make sure. Your parents will thank me."
"They only want good girls," he said.
"Mr. Harvey," I said, "please let me leave."
"You aren't leaving, Susie. You're mine now."
Fitness was not a big thing back then; aerobics was barely a
word. Girls were supposed to be soft, and only the girls we suspected
were butch could climb the ropes at school.
I fought hard. I fought as hard as I could not to let Mr. Harvey
hurt me, but my hard-as-I-could was not hard enough, not even
close, and I was soon lying down on the ground, in the ground,
with him on top of me panting and sweating, having lost his
glasses in the struggle.
I was so alive then. I thought it was the worst thing in the world
to be lying flat on my back with a sweating man on top of me. To
be trapped inside the earth and have no one know where I was.
I thought of my mother.
My mother would be checking the dial of the clock on her
oven. It was a new oven and she loved that it had a clock on it. "I
can time things to the minute," she told her own mother, a
mother who couldn't care less about ovens.
She would be worried, but more angry than worried, at my
lateness. As my father pulled into the garage, she would rush
about, fixing him a cocktail, a dry sherry, and put on an exasperated
face: "You know junior high," she would say. "Maybe it's
Spring Fling." "Abigail," my father would say, "how can it be
Spring Fling when it's snowing?" Having failed with this, my
mother might rush Buckley into the room and say, "Play with
your father," while she ducked into the kitchen and took a nip of
sherry for herself.
Mr. Harvey started to press his lips against mine. They were blubbery
and wet and I wanted to scream but I was too afraid and too
exhausted from the fight. I had been kissed once by someone I
liked. His name was Ray and he was Indian. He had an accent and
was dark. I wasn't supposed to like him. Clarissa called his large
eyes, with their half-closed lids, "freak-a-delic," but he was nice and
smart and helped me cheat on my algebra exam while pretending he
hadn't. He kissed me by my locker the day before we turned in our
photos for the yearbook. When the yearbook came out at the end of
the summer, I saw that under his picture he had answered the standard
"My heart belongs to" with "Susie Salmon." I guess he had
had plans. I remember that his lips were chapped.
"Don't, Mr. Harvey," I managed, and I kept saying that one
word a lot. Don't. And I said please a lot too. Franny told me that almost everyone begged "please" before dying.
"I want you, Susie," he said.
"Please," I said. "Don't," I said. Sometimes I combined them.
"Please don't" or "Don't please." It was like insisting that a key
works when it doesn't or yelling "I've got it, I've got it, I've got it"
as a softball goes sailing over you into the stands.
But he grew tired of hearing me plead. He reached into the
pocket of my parka and balled up the hat my mother had made
me, smashing it into my mouth. The only sound I made after that
was the weak tinkling of bells.
As he kissed his wet lips down my face and neck and then
began to shove his hands up under my shirt, I wept. I began to
leave my body; I began to inhabit the air and the silence. I wept
and struggled so I would not feel. He ripped open my pants, not
having found the invisible zipper my mother had artfully sewn
into their side.
"Big white panties," he said.
I felt huge and bloated. I felt like a sea in which he stood and
pissed and shat. I felt the corners of my body were turning in on
themselves and out, like in cat's cradle, which I played with
Lindsey just to make her happy. He started working himself over
"Susie! Susie!" I heard my mother calling. "Dinner is ready."
He was inside me. He was grunting.
"We're having string beans and lamb."
I was the mortar, he was the pestle.
"Your brother has a new finger painting, and I made apple
Mr. Harvey made me lie still underneath him and listen to the
beating of his heart and the beating of mine. How mine skipped
like a rabbit, and how his thudded, a hammer against cloth. We
lay there with our bodies touching, and, as I shook, a powerful
knowledge took hold. He had done this thing to me and I had
lived. That was all. I was still breathing. I heard his heart. I
smelled his breath. The dark earth surrounding us smelled like
what it was, moist dirt where worms and animals lived their daily
lives. I could have yelled for hours.
I knew he was going to kill me. I did not realize then that I was
an animal already dying.
"Why don't you get up?" Mr. Harvey said as he rolled to the
side and then crouched over me.
His voice was gentle, encouraging, a lover's voice on a late
morning. A suggestion, not a command.
I could not move. I could not get up.
When I would notwas it only that, only that I would not follow
his suggestion?he leaned to the side and felt, over his
head, across the ledge where his razor and shaving cream sat. He
brought back a knife. Unsheathed, it smiled at me, curving up in
He took the hat from my mouth.
"Tell me you love me," he said.
Gently, I did.
The end came anyway.
Copyright © 2002 by Alice Sebold