Read an Excerpt
“How’s Will?” someone shouts. “And Tom.”
Tom. His name was Tom. The boy who bled on my jacket.
Devin doesn’t say anything, just puts his hand to his eyes to block the light. Someone else calls out, “What did you see past the gate, Dev?” This rouses him. He moves his hands and speaks in a voice that needs to be lubricated. There’s blood on his teeth, and someone gasps.
“Soldiers. Wearing those suits. Full mask and everything. A tank.”
Everyone gets really quiet. A couple of people discreetly back away from him.
“They’re dead.” His voice cracks.
The Well’s End
The Dark Water
WHAT’S THE FIRST THING YOU REMEMBER?
I’ve heard the Question before. Who hasn’t? But when someone asks me, the Question has a different meaning. It’s not often that the whole world knows who you are, has known you forever, has given you a nickname. Baby Mia. They still call me that. Strangers still call me that. Baby Mia, who fell down the well. Like a nursery rhyme. When someone asks about my first memory, what they really want to know is do you remember the well?
Do I remember the well? I was four years old in 1999, when I became famous. I broke my arm, two ribs and my nose—it’s still a little crooked. People tell me that they honked their horns when I was pulled free, that they hung the picture of me bundled and bandaged on their fridge for years. Baby Mia, who fell down the well.
But truthfully, there is no memory. Only darkness. Considering how deep I was, maybe darkness is the memory. Blackness, water up to my knees, lucky it was August and it didn’t rain, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lowered in a Pink Power Rangers lunchbox. My memories are the stories everyone tells, the stories about where they were, what they were doing, about the time Baby Mia fell down a well.
Reporters come and go. When my mom died (blizzard, pine tree), at least a dozen inquiries came through. As if what I most wanted to do after my mother’s funeral was talk about my stint underground. The funny thing is, underground was all I could think about. My mother was going to be cold down there, dark, with no one to save her and with no one watching and holding vigils and honking horns and crying.
I’m sure that’s what reporters wanted to hear from me.
But I admit that something about this reporter feels different. For one, he looks different. No wrinkled, collared shirt underneath a wrinkled beige sweater. No notebook and no smell of fast food. He’s clean-shaven, his cheeks looking almost crisp, like a banker. But he’s not in a suit. Instead, he’s wearing a tight fleece, hiking boots and dirty jeans, as if he’s just returned from a stroll in the woods. His brown hair recedes hesitantly back up his forehead, leaving a small tuft up front. He smiles gently enough, and he has a notepad and paper, but he hasn’t pulled out a recorder of any sort. I’m not sure I remember ever doing an interview where there wasn’t a recorder. Staring at him, I find myself uneasy and keep wiggling in my chair. He seems distracted, uninterested in me and the story, which, I’m embarrassed to say, is making me jealous. We’ve been sitting here on a cloud-covered Thursday, in the conference room of the main faculty offices at my boarding school, Westbrook, for about ten minutes now, quietly bouncing our legs. We’re waiting on my father.
The reporter—his name’s Blake Sutton—glances at his watch and sighs, then pulls himself to his feet and goes to examine the class photos strung evenly along the walls.
“Your father is in one of these photos, isn’t he?”
These are his first words since nice to meet you. At least we’re done with the staring contest. “That’s right,” I say, pointing down a few frames from where he’s standing. “Class of ’78.”
Mr. Sutton shuffles over, bends and squints at the photo. He shakes his head a little and looks back at me, then to the image. “Quite the similarities.” It’s true: we both have the same high cheekbones and small foreheads, same wavy brown hair, same camera-shy smile.
“I guess,” I say, bored already. Why do I agree to do these interviews anymore? Maybe it’s time to stop. As if reading my mind he turns back to me and claps his hands together once and then pushes his right fist toward me—the mike’s on you—and asks me what the local attractions of Fenton, Colorado, are.
I don’t roll my eyes, but it’s close. “What? Are you talking about Gracie?”
“Gracie?” he asks, returning to his seat.
“The tallest sycamore in the world.” She’s five miles up the road and a few hundred yards into the tree line, and it takes five kids holding hands to ring around her trunk.
Mr. Sutton smiles, and his teeth are überwhite and straight and thick. “I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t? It’s true. Did you know that Fenton has the only Roman aqueduct in North America? It’s handmade of over a million bricks.”
He leans back now, impressed, letting me run the show. “What else you got?”
“I’ve got annual migrations of locusts, and we’re the home of the national-chicken-thigh-eating competition.” Suddenly I’m relaxed, in my element, having answered this line of questioning dozens of times, the familiarity of this back-and-forth a comfort. He’s not taking any notes, but whatever—at least he hasn’t asked me the Question yet.
The door opens behind me, and since I’m staring at Mr. Sutton’s face, I get a good look at the moment he sees my father walk into the room. He grins, his lips parting slightly, and I see his tongue peeking out ever so slightly like a giddy dog. And then he seems to realize what kind of face he’s making, because he straightens up and stands, extending his hand. Dad hasn’t come into the room yet. He’s still in the doorway.
For some reason, I don’t move. I feel off-kilter, like I’m missing something very important. After a short while, Mr. Sutton lowers his hand, unshaken, and backs into his seat.
“Please, Mr. Kish, join us.” He nods toward the empty chair next to me. “I was waiting for you to begin. Mia’s been telling me all about Fenton.”
The boards bend under my dad’s feet, and he moves to kiss my head. “Hi, hon,” he whispers, and takes a seat. He’s clenching his jaw over and again, the bone protruding from his cheek like a twitch as he stares intently at Mr. Sutton.
“Dad?” I ask, sensing something wrong.
“Mr. Sutton,” Dad says, not acknowledging me, “when I agreed to this meeting I didn’t know it would be with you. I have to get back to work soon, so why are we here?”
Mr. Sutton nods his head knowingly, but ignores Dad’s question. “Yes, yes. Late nights at the Cave nowadays?”
My father grips the chair tight enough for the wood to creak. There is no Take Your Kid to Work Day with my dad. In fact, I’ve never met another employee of Fenton Electronics. I think about the tunnel he drives into every morning on his way to work. The one that’s behind steel doors. I’ve only ever seen the entrance of the Cave—a nickname since before my time—because all us kids do it in the summer: take our bikes to the door, dare each other to pedal up and knock. Not many people actually work up the guts to do so, but I have. Not with anyone else, though. It was in the snowstorm; it took me a couple hours to walk there. It was after Mom died, and Dad wasn’t picking up his phone. I beat on that door for fifteen minutes until it opened, and there he was, warm as can be, totally clueless. But that’s all I’ve seen. Behind him was a long driveway and then another steel door. Like an air lock; I bet the two doors are never open at once.
Dad doesn’t talk about work; I’ve just come to accept it. Everyone has. He goes into the mountain and then comes home. He makes me lunches and watches my swim meets. He only admits that his work is classified, that he programs code for the government; my dad says the mountain helps keep their electronics cold. But he also says that the code he programs is boring, basic stuff. I believe him. Why shouldn’t I?
“Why are you here?” my dad asks again, this time through gritted teeth. And suddenly I realize, just as my dad already knew, that Blake Sutton is not here to see me.
Mr. Sutton raises his hands, palms up, in a shrug. “You know why I’m here . . .” He pauses, taking in my father, then looks at me and smiles again. “To interview your beautiful daughter, of course. What a story! Falling into that well must have been incredibly terrifying.” His voice has taken on a familiar tone, one I’ve heard dozens of times, almost baby-talk. It’s the buildup to the Question. And here it comes: “I have to ask, Mia. What is the first thing you remember?”
I have it all in my head. I’ve said it enough that sometimes, for no reason at all, I find myself rehearsing the speech. In bed, walking to class, in the pool. But before I even have a chance to open my mouth, Dad blurts out, “Mr. Sutton, I think you should go.”
The reporter shakes his head sadly and points at my dad. “Testy, isn’t he?” he says to me, like it’s a joke and I’m on his side. I’ve never seen Dad like this, and I feel helpless and uncomfortable, itchy and unable to scratch. “The thing is, Mia, your father’s right. I shouldn’t be here. I should be in the Cave right now, granted a ‘tour’”—he actually uses air quotes—“of Fenton Electronics, as I have requested so many times before. I’m sorry to use you this way. Your story really is quite incredible.”
“I don’t get it,” I say—I can’t help myself. “Dad, what does he mean?”
“I mean,” Mr. Sutton says, answering for him, “that Fenton Electronics has some pretty big secrets, and it is my job as a reporter to make sure the doors of the Cave are as wide open and forthcoming to the public as they ought to be.” He gesticulates with his hands held apart in front of his face, as if he were describing a huge fish he’d caught. Then he stands and gathers his bag and the heavy jacket that he’s laid on another chair and heads for the door, but stops and turns back to us. “Did you know, Mia, that I’ve been trying to get into the facility for years now? That I’ve been stonewalled the entire time? No interviews, no responses. But there’s a time limit to how long they can keep this up. And that’s the reason I’m here. To let your father know that if he doesn’t grant me access by this weekend, I’ll have to make it happen by other means.” He opens the door and steps through, staring intensely at Dad. There’s a vein that has snaked its way onto his forehead, slithering up under his receding hairline. I swear his lips glisten, as if they were soaked in spit. “Maybe, Mr. Kish, I’ll bring young Mia with me to show her what her daddy really does.”
Dad’s out of his chair in a flash, but Mr. Sutton closes the door in his face. He moves to the doorknob, but I call out, “Dad!” and he freezes. He stands there for a moment, his hands clenching and unclenching, his body heaving. Unlike the reporter, Dad’s in slacks and a tie, his undershirt peeking through the thin white cotton of his button-down. There’s a thick line of sweat running down his back, even though it’s winter and the room is chilly.
“What’s going on? What’s he talking about?”
One thing my father has always been is quick to smile, and quick to forget—or hide—his anger. He turns to me and does just that: his forehead smooths, and his bushy eyebrows lose their furrow. He seems old, suddenly, as if his hair went from salt-and-pepper to gray instantly and the bags under his eyes became permanent and not just about his recent spate of late nights. Dad’s always seemed young for his age, looking late thirties when he’s really in his fifties, but at the moment, he projects old and a sort of helplessness I don’t like being witness to.
“Oh, Mia,” he says, his voice tired and even a little bit sad. “He’s just some crackpot conspiracy theorist. He’s been trying to get in for years, writing letters, leaving threats in our mailbox, calling the sheriff. Of course we have secrets, but you know that. We handle government contracts, which necessitate a certain level of secrecy.”
“But what makes your company so special?” I ask. “I mean, why here?”
Dad mulls this over. He has been coming home late and devoting more time to the job. I know because he’s never home when I call. He gets obsessive, and it’s tough because I live here at Westbrook, on campus, and I can’t be home to make him dinner and take care of him. When I don’t have a swim meet, I visit him on weekends, and I often find the house a mess, delivery boxes everywhere and laundry needing to get done. But now something’s worse. I have the feeling that, even though he’s staring right at me and talking directly to me, his mind is back in his lab. He’s fidgeting, ready to leave. I’ve never seen it this bad. The reporter must have really spooked him.
“Dad?” I ask again, vying for his attention. I imagine the pages I’ve seen lying on the kitchen table. The notes. The blueprints. Does he actually keep state secrets out for me to see? No idea what they’re for, of course, but I’d be an idiot if I couldn’t take a shot in the dark: “Is it about those computer chips you’re designing?”
He jolts, shocked. I definitely have his attention now.
“What are you talking about?”
“What?” I say, a little embarrassed at being so forward. “You leave your paperwork around the house. Who do you think cleans it up?”
“Well,” he finally says, not without some reluctance, “custom programming for microscopic analysis is one thing.”
I get a thrill hearing this; my dad programs top-secret computer chips? But for what, microscopes?
“But that’s not what this guy’s talking about,” he says, going on. “I don’t like that he’s here speaking to you as a way to get to me.” Dad comes close, takes me by the shoulders and looks me in the eyes. Whenever he does this, he looks first at my left eye, then my right, back and forth and back and forth, and it’s superdistracting. “Mia, listen . . . if he calls you and tries to set another interview up, don’t let him. Stall him and let me know, okay?”
“Relax, Dad. I wouldn’t anyways; he’s really strange. And I won’t even be around. I’ve got my race in Durango this weekend. Remember?” I don’t bother mentioning my birthday on Sunday. It will just give him something else to forget about.
He pauses, then smiles. “Right, right. Okay, great. Just trust me on this one, okay?”
I nod, feeling a tremor of fear flutter in my stomach. Why would this reporter stalk me to get to my dad? I think of his muddy shoes and imagine him staking out the Cave, watching my father come and go. “Are you sure you shouldn’t call the cops on him or something?”
Dad raises his eyebrows and smiles weakly. “I wish. No, he’s harmless, just annoying.” I don’t believe him, of course. I’ve seen him try to make me feel better before. “Listen, hon, I have to get moving. You’ll call me if you see him?”
“Sure . . .” I follow him into the hallway, and he kisses me on the head again, something I normally hate in public but now, even with a few faculty members coming and going, it is exactly what I need.
I head the opposite direction, toward central campus and my dorm. On the way, I pass the dean’s office, with its great mahogany doors spread wide, and I see him. Mr. Sutton. He hasn’t noticed me at all, and for a moment I’m stuck in the doorway, watching this strange man who freaks my dad out so. The thing is, he’s just standing there, shaking Mrs. Applebaum’s hand. I stop and put my back to the wall, listen for a moment. Mrs. Applebaum, the dean’s secretary—most students love her—is asking about his piece. If he got everything he needed. If he had ever been to Fenton before, or Westbrook. Mr. Sutton says, Yes, absolutely, then asks about last week’s snowfall.
I shake my head, entirely confused by the encounter, and push my way out the glass doors of the building and into the quad. The weather is sharp, the wind biting; the sidewalk is sure to be covered in ice. It’s dark, and I think I can see my dad’s car pulling out of the main gates, heading for the Cave.
I breathe the cold air and move quickly along the path from lamp to lamp, trying to stay in their light. I don’t do well in the dark. But this time, with my dad acting all weird, it’s worse than usual. I’m sucked back in, like I’m in the well, feeling the darkness around me, all through the campus and blanketing half the world. Just like my first memory. I think of my friends hanging out in the dorm, entirely unaware of this discomfort in my skin. I think of my dad in his car, the air only just now turning warm, his hands clutched tight around the steering wheel as he drives onward, through town and down the snowy roads, catching up to whoever else works at Fenton Electronics as they go one by one through the air lock and deep into the mountain.
THE WATER IS COLD, BUT YOU DON’T FEEL IT FOR MORE than an instant. It’s supposed to be cold. Anything warmer than seventy-five degrees, and you’re in a sauna, muscles floppy and useless. I’m under for almost the entire first length of the pool, then it’s all breathing and eyes, rotating my breaths to see the competition in the adjacent lanes. Look left, look right. My body knows what to do, my breath comes in even bursts, my muscles begin to slowly burn, and I watch the girls fall behind, unable to leech off my wake. Even with my drag suit, designed to slow me down and work me harder, by the time I come out of my turn at the end of the pool, they’re a full body-length back. By the time I touch the finish, I’m all alone.
No one congratulates me, not even Coach Hart, who sees me as his gift horse and picks on me more than the others because, heck, they aren’t going to make it to nationals. He’s turned swimming into a solo sport, despite the fact that I also anchor the relay. During meets, he runs up and down the edge of the pool shouting “WOOP WOOP,” telling me where he is, giving me signals like kick harder, double tempo, you’re falling behind. To push me, he had me swimming with the boys, which immediately pissed off the girls. Thirty of us spending six hours a day together on different sides of the pool, and no girl who would talk to me. And while I didn’t realize that this would happen, I didn’t really care at first. The boys were fun, crazy and cute together. I guess I never thought about how they’d react to being beaten by a girl. For about a month, I went side by side with the best in the state, winning a couple races too, watching the boys watch me, feeling sexy for the first time in my Lycra Aquablade suit. I thought they were my friends, and maybe they were. Maybe the boys didn’t mean any harm, but I’m alone now, back to beating the crap out of the girls. All because of the time when I was tapering at practice the day before a big race, doing laps just to stay loose, and I saw one of the talented boys, Eric, swimming underneath me, crosswise, faceup, and I smiled at first because I wanted to, because I was into Eric. He’s taller than me, looks good with his swim cap on or off. His blue eyes are so bright you can see them through his goggles. But then I heard laughing above my head, and Eric rolled over and his Speedo was down and he was mooning me, which was funny enough, but then there was another boy, Steve, passing by Eric and his wiener was out, flopping like a third leg, and when I came up gasping for air, they were all exposed, swimming around me like dirty dolphins, laughing to tears.
I might have been able to get them all expelled, but probably not. Their parents own the world (Eric’s from Manhattan, his father a vice president at Goldman Sachs, his uncle a congressman), while my dad works in a cave. Coach Hart saw it all and did nothing. Well, not nothing. He put me back with the girls, who no longer wanted me. So I swim faster now, just to get away from them.
At one point in my life, I swam to win. But the summer before last, I watched the London Olympics, saw Phelps after twelve years and that many medals; I thought, what’s the point? I’ll swim my way into a good college and then give it up. Or at least give all this team sport mumbo jumbo up.
I rest my arms on the pool’s edge, my nose sucking in the chlorine, and watch Jo make her dive from the platform. She twists perfectly, her tall body a ball of muscle and slick edges, and then dissolves into the pool. I smile. At least I have one friend in the pool area. I’ve known Jo forever; she’s one of six townies at Westbrook Academy, though we weren’t always this close. Her father teaches AP Calculus, which is why most people think Westbrook let her in, but watching her dive, I know that’s not entirely true. She, like everyone at Westbrook, has a legit talent. The standard entry formula is obscene wealth and power coupled with talent, but if your father teaches at the school and you get invited to the junior nationals for platform diving, that usually works just fine too.
“Mia!” shouts Coach Hart. “Get your ass back in gear.”
I look around, startled, and I see all the other girls already on the starting blocks watching me, their eyes encased in plastic, their expressions dull and robotic. They hate me. I might hate them too.
I climb out of the water and shake my limbs, loosening my muscles, stretching my neck. Back to the block, where this time Hart tells us we’re going to hold our breaths and swim under for fifty meters, then freestyle back, then under for fifty, then back. Ten times. They’re called “over-unders”—surprise, surprise. And I’m the best at them too. No wonder my teammates don’t like me.
• • •
Jo’s dressed first and leans against a locker next to mine, humming a country song I sorta recognize, looking effortlessly perfect as usual. It’s eight thirty at night, our second practice of the day and last before the meet. Normally, we’d be up at five thirty going at it again, but Coach gives us one off to rest the muscles. How thoughtful of him. I’m in my flip-flops, trying to avoid getting plantar warts, and am scrambling to change. Everyone else is gone, Coach made me do a few more laps, and Jo is kind enough to wait almost every day. For the morning sessions, that means we’re usually late to first period. Now, she’s off in her own world, her lips puckering a touch, as if she’s about to actually sing, when suddenly she bolts upright and grabs my arm.
“Shit, I meant to tell you.”
“What?” I ask, slipping my shirt over my head.
“Odessa’s throwing a party tonight.”
I groan. Of course she’d throw a party on a Thursday. Odessa’s one of the other townies, and she lives next door to Jo and me. We all live there, in what the students like to call “Scholarship Row,” though I have seen Odessa’s house, and I know for a fact she doesn’t need a scholarship to attend Westbrook. The thing about Odessa is that she’s done all she can to connect to the others, to prove that she isn’t some new-blood rich girl from a backward town that doesn’t understand the ins and outs of social convention. Usually that means she’s nowhere near our hallway. Unless she throws a party. And a party the night before we travel to a swim meet means no sleep will be had.
Jo’s not concerned. “Oh, come on, Mia. It’ll be fun.”
“What?” I ask, incredulous. “You’re actually trying to convince me to go?”
She shrugs, her eyes on her phone. “It’s not like you’d sleep through the noise anyway.”
“And it’s not like you have to be rested to jump off a board.” I sort of expect to get a rise out of her at that—despite her perfectly choreographed boredom routine, she’s fiercely competitive—but nothing. Her thumbs are moving fast, and she doesn’t look up. When I first became truly close with Jo, it was a late night just like this. I heard her splashing into the water over and over again as I swam laps. When I finally pulled my goggles from my eyes, I saw her climbing the concrete stairs. She was running, hurrying to do another dive, pumping her legs until she made it up the platform. I remember watching her compose herself and balance on her toes, bounce, fall, do it again. I’d seen her around and knew who she was, but never did I expect her to be so dedicated and hardworking. By the next year, we were roomies. She told me, later, that she thought I was cool because I could beat the boys. I thought she was cool ’cause she could get them. Which has me thinking.
“Todd’ll be there?” I ask, tying a shoe and looking up from my crouch.
She flashes a grin. Jo’s a real friend, so it’s rare that I can get genuinely annoyed with her, even if she’s trying to drag me to a party to be a wingman when she knows I need the sleep.
“Maybe we can get Rob to come,” I venture, my way of relenting.
“Already texted him,” she replies, and as if on cue, my phone buzzes. I take a look, and it’s Rob, responding to Jo and adding me in.
Jo and I share a smile. Rob, another townie and friend who lives across the hall, has a way with understatement. He’s probably at his computer, his desk lamp the only light on, plugging away at some code or other—his hobby. Sometimes I wonder if he’s in Lulz Security or Anonymous.
Absolut, Jo texts back, which, of course, pops up on my phone too.
I thought Mia’s idea of unwinding was Seinfeld reruns.
Apparently, I type, 2nite it means following Jo to Odessaville.
O fun, he replies. I’ll remember to shower. C U soon.
We pause near the big gym doors, each taking an involuntary breath against the cold. I’m not looking forward to tonight, but the alternative is lying on my bed with a pillow over my head getting more and more annoyed at Odessa’s high-pitched laugh. Maybe Rob’ll cheer me up. He always does.
• • •
Westbrook Academy is, as elite private boarding schools go, a relatively new creature. Created in the ’60s by a new breed of wealth, the creators mimicked Groton or Milton or Dalton and bettered. Westbrook’s buildings are state of the art, but look like Gothic castles, like a mini Oxford or Cambridge without the cold drafts. Each student has the option of a single, and rooms are equipped with bathroom, living room and kitchen. The professors were poached from the best universities in the country, the coaches from the big state schools, the students from the czars worldwide.
Entitlement is a way of life at Westbrook. But, I have to say, there’s nothing easy about the curriculum. Sure, kids smoke pot every night, their doors open, waving the student RA in to take a hit. But my classmates have goals or come from families that demand goals of them. No one would be caught dead with less than a 2250 on the SATs. Without a 4.0. Without an acceptance letter to higher learning, traditionally known as the four-year vacation from Westbrook. Good grades are greatly rewarded, pep rallies are for academics as well as sports, and you actually win a snowmobile if you’re the valedictorian.
Sometime in the early 1990s, kids around the country began to hear of Westbrook. And, to Westbrook’s credit, most didn’t get in. The sprawling dorms, built for the future growth, stood half full or even empty for years. My father was one of the first townies admitted to the school. His picture hangs, as that weird reporter noticed, in the school’s administrative building. And I was one of the first to be given alumni treatment. Now the cup is brimming, a cascade of royalty. If you thought you were special as a kid, rich or brilliant or perfect in all ways, here you’re nothing special at all. It’s like that drag suit I wear when swimming. Westbrook feels tough, makes it hard on you while you’re at it and then, when you’re out, everything comes more easily than you could ever hope. Dad decided to stay in town, to work at a place with a scary nickname, but I want to use Westbrook for more. I want to stop being a Fenton claim to fame and start being something else: unrecognizable and not at all a baby anymore.
• • •
The room Jo and I share is crammed right next to Odessa’s. The thin walls do nothing to muffle the sound of laughter and hip-hop. We’ve both just showered at the gym, so we go straight into prep, which for me means jeans and a T-shirt and sitting on my bed watching Jo try on a few sets, and then bend forever over her vanity.
“You want me to pluck your eyebrows for you?”
She kicks her leg vaguely in my direction, as if to shoo me away, her face remarkably still in the process of applying eyeliner. Jo likes to do color, and she moves quickly on to an eye shadow called Midnight Plum. I think I’d look like a clown with that stuff on, but I can’t help admiring the way it shimmers against her pale face.
“I still don’t get how your hair looks that good after all the chlorine,” I say, recognizing that I sound a smidge worshippy and glad she doesn’t take advantage of it.
“You’re way too down on yourself,” she replies, glancing at me in the mirror. She’s probably eyeing my wide shoulders. “You just don’t take any pride in your swimmer’s bod.”
I stare at my arms and see a ribbon of muscle. “I doubt being beaten by a girl is a big turn-on for a guy.”
“I don’t want to hear that talk tonight, okay? We’re going to Stanford, the best school in the country for swimming, where we’ll meet the best boys in the country for swimming, and you’ll find a tall and limber boy you actually respect because he can beat you in the freestyle, and you’ll get married and have dolphins for kids. Until then, relax and have some fun.”
Aside from the dolphins, I’d say Jo knows exactly how to talk to me.
There’s a knock, I shout for him to come in, and Rob enters with a bottle of Absolut Citron and two shot glasses. His hair’s wet, combed into an ironic part, so slick it looks like it’s glued to his head. The style matches perfectly with his mail-order Warby Parker glasses. His T-shirt is tight and red, with black Korean characters arranged in thin columns. I’d think that lame, except Rob’s mother is Korean and he speaks it fluently. He can be cool in two languages.
“Where’s yours?” I ask. He plops Indian-style on the floor, back to Jo’s bed, and pulls out a flask from the inside pocket of his AllSaints coat, a black semiwrinkled thing that drapes well over his bright shirt.
“All scotch all the time,” he replies, and taps his calculator watch to emphasize the point. He pulls out a bottle of Zyrtec and pops a couple pills, which he claims stops him from going red in the cheeks when he’s drunk. His words, not mine.
“Ugh, you sound like them,” I say.
“No,” he spits emphatically. “They sound like me.”
There’s a loud crash next door and then a muffled cheer. Someone screams and runs past our door, his voice a lesson in the Doppler effect.
“Sounds like we need to get moving,” I venture, partly so we can get back already. It’s not that I don’t like parties; it’s just that I have this amazing ability to get beer spilled on me. Jo seems to agree, because she pops her lips, adjusts her breasts and then cranes her neck just so in a seductive pose, her lips pursed, the lip stain glaring against her pale skin.
“All right, all right,” Rob says from the floor, where he’s been watching the whole thing. “I’ll make out with you, Jo—get over here.”
He smiles big and wide and raises his flask. We take a few shots, which I hate but readily admit get the job done more efficiently than beer in a plastic cup. There’s a moment, as we all sit together, where Rob slows his sarcasm and Jo actually snorts when she giggles, and I feel myself start to enjoy myself and look forward to the night. It happens out of nowhere, magic. Most of the time, I’m trying to find my way out of a situation, but tonight I’m going in, arms open. I wish I could figure out how to harness that magic and use it whenever. But I’ll take it for tonight if the universe is offering.
• • •
I consider it a good sign for Jo when Todd Silver opens the door; he’s clearly pleased to see her. His eyes catch ahold of me, and his brows go up, but he’s not going to complain. I’m an enigma, made fun of, but not a pariah. Baby Mia jokes aside, there’s only so much flak you can give the hot girl’s friend before the hot girl stops liking you. Jo buffers me with her sheer looks.
Todd’s wearing plaid shorts and a sports coat. He’s got an abnormally deep voice, which goes beyond sexy to just odd. But he is, undeniably, a hottie. Jo’s always had more friends than Rob and me, and at things like this, I often find myself hovering on the edge of a conversation. Do parties work for Jo just because she’s so ridiculously perfect? I always joke that I don’t know how she gets such amazing diving scores with those breasts. Sometimes I feel like I’m holding her back from some other side of herself. Another life she could be leading. But she never seems to mind or care. I think that’s what makes her such a good friend. I wonder what makes me one for her.
Todd ushers us in, keeping a keen eye on Jo. “I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight, before the meet and all,” he says, but she’s being uncharacteristically awkward around him and is smiling too much. She must be pretty drunk already. I’ve never felt the need to try to save Jo from a boy situation, but there’s a first time for everything.
“Todd,” I say, and he looks at me with reluctance. The music thrums across the room, and with one glance, I take in much of the crew team. “I hear Odessa’s trying to do body shots with every boy at Westbrook. True?”
He laughs and winks. “Just had one myself. You’re next,” he says to Jo, pinching her arm. She giggles like an idiot.
“I’ll try a shot,” Rob offers helpfully. Todd’s a tall one, six foot four, and he peers down from his chiseled face at little Rob, wondering who interrupted him. Rob just takes it, radiating indifference, his lips turned the barest centimeter upward. I grab Rob’s arm and pull him away.
“Impressive,” Rob says when we get past a few floating groups of our classmates into a spot where we can actually stand and talk. “We made it through the door before she abandoned us.”
“She’s not abandoning us, Rob. She likes him.”
“Jo likes everyone,” Rob replies. He’s not so wrong; taking in the large living room, I can already find three former boyfriends. To think of the things I know about them just from the noises that came from the other side of our room as I went to sleep. There’s Vance, with three balls. Trevor, who screams like a girl. Phillip, who gets kinky in Spanish.
“My fellow townies!” The line is filled with such self-effacing irony that I can only imagine it coming from Odessa. Rob doesn’t even bother sticking around. He mutters something about getting us beers, and I’m left to face the scourge of our hallway. She’s sitting on a couch with Rory—smarmy punk Brit—smoking a cigarette. She takes our arrival in quick stride.
Odessa grew up down the street from me. We used to be friends, maybe even best friends. When we found out that we both got into Westbrook, we snuck out after curfew to Baskin-Robbins to celebrate. When we found out our class schedules, we called each other immediately. A couple years ago, during the first days of school, we sat together at lunch. And then, in a shifting slide, her veneer began to change. She’s not an awful person. She doesn’t put me down or forswear our old friendship. But she plays it a bit like a joke. Like a relic from another age. The thing is, at Westbrook, status really does matter. When you’re dealing with families who go back generations, whose surnames sit on university gates and products in the supermarket and presidential campaigns, families that send their kids to Westbrook from their own kingdoms of politics . . . let’s just say that Westbrook is a petri dish of the national social scene. I can’t believe how seriously some of them take it all; I know a few who literally won’t speak to me because I’m a townie. Odessa has spent the past two years climbing her way slowly into the richie social stratum. It helps that she’s legitimately rich on her own, if newly minted. From the looks of his hand placement, Rory certainly doesn’t seem to mind.
“I heard you had another newspaper interview,” he tosses in, his accent making this sound more serious and, therefore, more jackassy. “Another go at extending your fifteen minutes of fame?”
I feel my stomach sink. “You know I don’t like to be interviewed, right?” I think back to the reporter and what he said about Dad. He was creepy, sure, but my dad didn’t really earn any stars on behavior either. I wonder what Dad’s doing right now at the Cave and just how classified whatever he’s doing is.
“Oh, come off it,” Odessa drawls, knocking Rory’s hand away from her pasty thigh. She’s eternally cute and childlike, and no matter how much makeup she applies or tweezing of her red eyebrows she does, her face will only ever remind people of Pippi Longstocking. “Ever since you and I were kids, you were always so smug about those interviews.” Suddenly her face lights up and she jumps from the couch and gives me a hug, her arms not going entirely around my body because of the cigarette. Typical move by her, the insult and hug. Brilliant, actually. I’m forced to awkwardly pat her back. She smells like men’s Armani cologne—a new trend for the girls on campus—and nicotine. “Oh, it’s been so long. I’ve missed you, Baby.”
“You too, Odessa—”
“Can I get you a beer, Des?” This from Jimmy, near the fridge, Odessa’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. I have no idea what their current status is, but I do know that it’s never Jimmy who ends the relationship. Jimmy’s the final townie at Westbrook, the lone Latino here too, which should be a double whammy against him from the richies and their sheltered ways. But Jimmy is just too big an alpha male (and comes from too much real estate) to be ignored by the gaggle of wealth at the school, despite his race and Fenton upbringing. Jimmy plays every sport and plays well, but he has this look about him that has people underestimating him left and right. Innocently dumb with short, buzzed hair and a wispy mustache, like a surfer bum in the wrong state.
“Definitely need a beer,” Odessa replies, not really looking at him, which leads me to think they are in off mode. Poor Jimmy. He glances my way, offering me a beer too.
“Um, sure. I love PBR.” I shrug my shoulders and grimace for the barest of instants. Did I just say I love PBR?
Jimmy pulls a blue-and-red can out of the fridge and tosses it to Odessa, but she totally misses it; the can slaps to the floor and makes an ominous fizzing noise. She inspects it for a moment before handing it off to me, a ticking time bomb. Jimmy laughs and pulls another, opening it himself and delivering it to her. Odessa takes a chug and surveys her party, leaning her weight backward onto Jimmy’s chest while she begins a nice little rant to Rory about Mr. McPherson, an English teacher I like. I see Jimmy rest his chin on her head, and I think, not for the first time, that that boy has it bad.
I go into the kitchen and pop the can slowly over the sink, but right when I think I’m in the clear, it spits a mist on my face. Awesome. At least no one saw that. I cut my losses and leave the can in the sink.
“Here.” A boy I have never seen before holds out a paper towel to me. He looks vaguely northeastern. I’ve seen the style plenty around campus: pale skin and dark hair, lips that fade into the skin and eyebrows that flare out at a point. This one has a small birthmark under his left eye. I take the towel and lean against the counter next to him, wiping my face. He must be someone’s older brother come visiting.
“Thanks,” I say, and then we stand there, side by side, taking in the scene. I curse myself for not having anything to say, but all I can think of is that I have nothing to say. He’s not really paying any attention to me anyway. I could narrate for him, tell him that over there’s my best friend, Jo, and the guy who is nibbling at her neck is Todd, whom I’m going to have to see a lot more of soon, if not tonight. There’s Rob, who’s watching Rory fiddle with the music and put on Vampire Weekend, a band Rob absolutely hates but I secretly like and feel bad about admitting, so I don’t. He makes eye contact with me, finishes off a beer and raises his hands in the air, mouthing DONE! And sure enough, he makes his way to the door and out into the hallway. Probably back to his room and his gaming. I wish he spent more time in the real world. I think I said that to him once and pissed him off.
I glance over at the stranger but can only see his profile. His palms are behind him on the counter, as if at any moment he’s going to pull himself up and sit, and I can see the veins stand in his forearm and disappear up beyond his black polo. He’s wearing a Livestrong bracelet; he must’ve got it before Lance Armstrong copped to doping. Weird he still has it on, though. Everyone I know threw theirs away.
I wish I had another beer, so that I could at least have something to do.
He glances over at me, then at the beer in the sink behind me and grins. “You okay?”
I nod and magically find something worthy of saying. “Are you visiting?”
He looks around the room, then shakes his head. “Nope. New student. Transferred in this morning.”
Midsemester transfer? His parents must be able to pull some pretty weighty strings. “Yeah? You liking it?”
He makes a face. “I don’t know,” he says seriously. “It’s weird—I have the exact same friends back home. Like, I know what to expect here, you know?”
“Totally,” I find myself agreeing, without really understanding what I’m agreeing to.
“But I should be worried. If I were the new kid back home, I’d be treated horribly. No one would give two shits about me. I certainly wouldn’t.” He takes a sip of his beer. “I’m waiting for that to start here.”
He’s got Westbrook figured out, that’s for sure. “I guess day one is a free pass,” I say, trying to be playful.
His eyes catch mine, really taking me in for the first time. He has to flick his thick hair back off his forehead to do so. A small scar whitens along his jaw. “Yeah,” he says, “could be worse.”
I can’t tell if I’m flattered or not, but I’ll admit the attention is pleasant.
“Hey,” he says suddenly, straightening up, “you’re that Baby Mia girl, aren’t you?”
I shrug, all pleasantness fading straight away. “I guess so.”
He sees my reaction and winces apologetically. “Ugh, I bet you hear that a lot. Sorry. It’s just one of the few things that came up when I Googled Fenton before I came here. There are tons of pictures of you online. Must be annoying.”
It is annoying. What teenager likes her yearbook photos splashed on the internet? Why did I wear a bow freshman year?
“If it makes you feel any better,” he goes on, eyeing me, “I think the story is legitimately impressive.” I open my mouth to respond, but then he spots Tiffany Van Stavern across the room and tosses a one sec her way. She’s wearing a short green tube dress. When she leans forward, I swear I can see her underwear. At least he seems embarrassed when he says, “She invited me. I’ll see you around?”
I look down at our feet—he’s in Sambas—and he doesn’t wait for me to reply. Of course Tiffany had already spotted and managed to get the new kid to the party; her nose job must have given her special powers. I wish I could go interrupt Jo, but she’s too far gone, smiling shyly downward and playing with a beaded necklace I made for her last year. Her favorite flirt game with Todd is to punch him in the gut. But the hand she has on his stomach now is playfully rubbing up and down, and I’m almost embarrassed to witness the scene, like I’m a Peeping Tom because I can’t find someone else to talk to. I’m stuck by the sink, watching the party go by.
The fridge opens next to me, and there’s Rory, pulling out a couple beers and leading me back to the couch he’s been perched on. There are others here, people I know, and they’re playing quarters or dancing lazily or shouting out the window. There’s the new kid, leaning in to speak with Tiffany. Rory’s pretty close, his gaze on my cleavage. Disgust rises to my lips. He pokes a hole in the can’s side with a key and hands me the beer.
“Chug it,” he commands.
I’m tired of all this and make to leave, but he tips the can and spills beer on me. I’m so annoyed, so angry at this spiky-haired douche that I actually give him what he wants. I know he’s just goading me. That he wants to get the boring townie to do something “crazy,” but I can’t stand the sneer on his face and the plaque between his teeth. I pull the beer from his hand, pop the top and shotgun it down. Because, fuck you, Rory—I can be just like anyone else when I want to.
The beer tastes like burnt ginger ale and smells worse. Rory watches with openmouthed fascination, which only infuriates me more. I finish the first beer and pull his can to my mouth too. Odessa sees me chugging and literally runs across the room chanting “Ba-by, Ba-by,” which everyone quickly takes up, and I can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline as I finish the beer and throw the can onto the floor. The crowd cheers, and Rory tries to kiss me on my cheek, his breath hot and rancid, and I have to press hard to push him away. He tosses his shoulders and smirks like, whatever—you missed your chance. For one disturbing second, I imagine my life as Rory’s girlfriend, cheering him on at rowing competitions and wearing his button-down shirts. Todd could stay at Jo’s and I at Rory’s, and we’d double-date everywhere, and that wouldn’t be so bad.
Rory makes a beeline to Tiffany and taps her on the shoulder and kisses her on the lips when she turns around. Rory’s a dick. Tiffany rolls her eyes and turns back to the new kid, who’s clearly confused by the whole thing. He tucks his hands into his jeans and flicks his hair away again as he did before. I kinda like that gesture. Rory puts his big callused hand on the new kid’s chest and gives him a gentle push. Maybe he’s wasted, or maybe he’s just so totally not expecting this, but the new kid loses his balance and falls backward, knocking over and shattering a lamp that I know for a fact is from the ’70s and is worth a couple thousand dollars. I almost scream in worry, but close my mouth before I make a fool out of myself. The music doesn’t stop, and the crowd barely notices. But I see Odessa bolt into his face and push her finger into his forehead. The newbie’s got some patience, because he just grits his teeth and pulls himself up and then slips from the room.
My head swims, and I fall back down to the couch; it’s so much more comfortable here. The lighting in the room is perfect—a hazy warmth—and the music bounces in my feet.
My phone lights up.
Miss Kish, can I trouble you for a follow-up meeting?
I’m confused. He has my cell number, sure. He called me to arrange the meeting. But why is he texting me? Why so late at night? The phone flashes again.
U still partying?
Not Sutton this time, but Rob, and I almost gasp in relief.
Rob!!!! Where r you?
In bed. All OK?
Come over! Things r weird.
Ha, course they r. But I’m saving it up for ur big day Sunday.
Bday for me! Bday weekend starting now! Come over!
Ha. K crazy. I’m going to bed. Have fun.
Boo, party pooper.
OK, Mia. Goodnight. Turning phone off.
I type, pretty proud of the expression I just made up. Jo’s gone, and Odessa’s door’s closed, which might mean nothing at all or might mean I can actually go home now. There are eight or so kids in the room, but no one’s talking to me. My phone flashes again.
Would love to connect. Let me know . . .
I try to ignore the message, the memory of my father’s seething anger at this strange reporter, and sink deeper into the couch, listening to the music and the voices merge into one.
THE MORNING ISN’T TOO WEIRD. EXCEPT FOR THE hangover.
I’ve never drunk like that before. Sure, I’ve had a couple beers, a shot of something from time to time, but I’ve never spent a full night drinking. Most of the richies have—they take tailgating very seriously, prepping for college, so they say. But not me, and when the sun hit my eyes this morning, I thought someone was poking a needle into my skull.
The rest of the night was a blur. I guess Jo kept pace, alcohol-wise, because later on, we found ourselves holding hands in the bathroom while we puked. For the first time since I remember, though, I didn’t need the bathroom light on to sleep. Seems like being blackout drunk is a good way to cope with my little nighttime phobia and unwanted texts from strange men. I’m sure the school psychologist would be pleased.
No amount of brushing cleans my teeth, and the smell of alcohol on my skin makes me gag, but we’re walking in a loose clump with other students toward the quad, the open space between all the academic buildings.
“You have to drink more water.” Jo’s holding out her Nalgene. She’s wearing sunglasses today, and her face is so sweaty she has to push them back up her nose time and again. “And eat some bread.”
“Ugh, if I put something else in my stomach I’ll vomit on Mr. Geller’s floor.”
“Thank God we didn’t have practice today.”
Even the thought of doing over-unders makes my thighs hurt. I can’t honestly imagine being in good enough shape for the race tomorrow. At least I usually don’t have to be at my best to win.
“And don’t worry,” Jo adds. “I know you don’t want a party for your birthday. We couldn’t top Odessa if we tried.”
I roll my eyes, but am pleased she has brought it up. “I don’t need anything, Jo.”
She smirks, which is less effective than normal because of her sunglasses. “I know you, Mia Kish. Don’t pretend your birthday doesn’t mean anything. It’s okay to like having one.”
“Especially big seventeen,” I respond in a singsong way.
“Almost old enough to vote.”
“Not really anywhere near old enough to drink.” I wince, feeling my headache against my skull.
We get to the doors and file in behind the other students, putting on our game faces. Jo squeezes my arm and turns to her first class. I watch her for a second as she spots Todd by his locker and approaches him, her books held to her chest like a girl from the ’50s. He steals her sunglasses and puts them on himself, and she gets an excuse to touch him while trying to retrieve the frames. I shake my head; I couldn’t imagine trying to be cute today.
First period, European History, is buzzing when I arrive. As if no one else in the entire school had anything to drink last night.
There are ten people in the class, and we all sit around a big table, no desks or anything. That’s the way it is here, a low teacher-to-student ratio, a close learning environment. I put my stuff down next to Rob and take a seat. He’s lost on his iPhone and barely looks up. The phone is sealed in an enormous OtterBox, one of those cases that are huge and designed to withstand water and dropping from, like, a hundred feet—one of many things people hassle him about. He’s sporting headphones, and the music is loud enough for me to know he’s listening to Pavement. Rob’s an indie-music freak, half hipster, half goth, and is generally half a year ahead of the rest of Westbrook when it comes to the cool bands. Whenever someone starts listening to a band that he’s been preaching for months, he rolls his eyes and takes them off his playlist. But only for a week or so; he loves the music too much to let it be sullied by a petty hatred of his classmates.
I get a text. What up, Mia? It’s from Rob, who doesn’t look up from the phone.
I laugh and text him back, adding Jo into the thread. Wish u were there longer.
Yes! Where U go? Jo comes back.
Rob pops off his earphones and glances up at me, his long hair covering tired eyes. “You okay?” he asks. “You look awful.” Compared to us, Rob didn’t drink very much. He probably had a nightcap with his tiny flask and went to bed.
“Screw you,” I say, and vaguely mean it. Rob left me there last night, and now I feel like an idiot, hungover, remembering it all. It would have been nice to have had him there when Sutton texted. “You were supposed to be my wingman.”
“You said you didn’t need one!”
“That was Jo, Rob. You shouldn’t have left me there.”
Rob’s a good friend, but if he’s one thing, it’s defensive, and calling him on anything is like inviting yourself to speak to a brick wall. He sighs dramatically, returning his attention to his monstrosity of a phone.
Then someone shouts my way. “Yo, Baby, I hear you made out with Rory last night. Truth?” This from Geoffrey, from Seattle, six foot three, lacrosse captain, Princeton bound. I know that might sound appealing, but his father, a lumber magnate, kills trees for a living, and Geoffrey looks like a billy goat.
I close my eyes for a second to replay the night, terrified that I might have forgotten something. He went for my cheek, yes, but I would rather puke my guts up than kiss him. I look across the room at Rory, who’s making out with an invisible me, his tongue going deep down my invisible throat.
I can imagine Rory spreading lies about me to his boys this morning, them hungry for stories of his night’s conquests. I’d spit at him if my mouth wasn’t so full of cotton.
Mr. Geller comes in then, so I can’t say anything, I just cross my arms and sink into my seat, hating this morning more and more. Geller’s the enthusiastic type, fairly young and always in a sports coat. He often tosses his curly hair excitedly as he lectures about the Habsburgs and the Bourbons (both families with descendants in attendance at the school). He goes to his chair but remains standing, puts down his book, begins to flip pages and without looking up, asks, “Who has something to ask me about the reading?” He always starts class like this, and we never answer. Even if we’re all legitimately smart, no one is going to fall for such a sucker question. Ask him something about the reading and then spend ten minutes answering his follow-ups. Today, though, I can barely hear him. My blood is pulsing so hard in anger that I can feel my ears go deaf.
“He’s lying, you know.” Rob’s still keeping his head down, but he’s spoken up, and Geller tilts his head in confusion.
“What’s that, Rob?”
“I said ‘he’s lying.’ But I guess what I meant was ‘Rory’s pathetic if he has to lie about something like that.’”
“You mean he’s gay!” shouts Freddy Prince—his real name.
Geller, still confused and sensing that he’s losing our attention, shouts, “I don’t accept that kind of derogatory language in my classroom, Freddy.”
At the same time, though, Rory jumps up from his seat. He’s not as tall as his roommate, Todd, but he’s a heavyweight on the rowing squad, which means he’s an angry built little guy. He’s not looking at me at all—I might as well not exist. Rob’s not only made fun of him in public, but he’s gotten other richies to laugh at him. He takes a step toward Rob, his normally pale face flushed crimson, and points an angry finger.
“Why don’t we ask Baby Mia?” he says, his voice a growl. “Or have you been wishing all along she was sucking your dick?”
This isn’t particularly funny to the rest of the class. And considering that Rory is threatening a student in front of a teacher, he’s already going to be in a ton of shit. But maybe it’s the hangover or maybe it’s the way he’s talking to Rob or maybe it’s the way Rory will push or take whatever he wants, but suddenly I’m up, the textbook full of glossy maps and mini print covering ten thousand years of history in my hand, weighing five, ten, twenty pounds, and before I can think, I smash Rory in the face, his smile disappearing into a picture of Elizabeth I. Rory topples over backward and hits the floor hard, rolls over and spits bright blood from his mouth onto the white linoleum. There’s no noise except for the thumping of my own heart. And Mr. Geller has me by the arm. He drags me outside and throws me toward Dean Griffin’s office.
“What were you thinking, Mia!?” he says, his voice sounding honestly confused. “You’re lucky I pulled you out of there. He’ll punch a girl.” Mr. Geller runs both hands through his hair to get ahold of the situation, sucks in a breath and then looks back at me, his face set. “Get to the dean’s, and if I find out you didn’t make it, I’ll have you expelled.” He pauses, moves toward the door. “I mean it, Mia.”