Seven months after killing her parents in a car accident, 16-year-old Willow Randall has moved in with her married older brother's family in New York City, where she grapples with her overwhelming emotions, as well as her brother's silent anguish, by cutting herself with razors. When Guy, a fellow student, learns Willow's secret, they develop a tentative intimacy. The stark clarity of the present tense, third-person narration echoes the numbing effect that Willow achieves through cutting-"Of course any sharp edge could do in a pinch, and Willow has used them all: nail scissors, a steak knife, a man's razor.... But Willow is a purist." Despite explicit descriptions of Willow's wounds, the narrative steers clear of moralization-cutting is characterized as part of Willow's fractured sense of self, rather than part of a larger epidemic. Though Guy mainly serves as a means for Willow to rediscover human connection, and is never as fully realized as she is, his need to understand the girl whose favorite book is Tristes Tropiques but who carries razors in her backpack, is authentically tender. A credible depiction of a grieving girl's struggle toward self-forgiveness. Ages 14-up. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Willowby Julia Hoban
Seven months ago, on a rainy March night, sixteen-year- old WillowÆs parents drank too much wine and asked her to drive them home. They never made itùWillow lost control of the car and her parents died in the accident. Now she has left behind her old home, friends, and school, and blocks the pain by secretly cutting herself. But when Willow meets Guy, a… See more details below
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Seven months ago, on a rainy March night, sixteen-year- old WillowÆs parents drank too much wine and asked her to drive them home. They never made itùWillow lost control of the car and her parents died in the accident. Now she has left behind her old home, friends, and school, and blocks the pain by secretly cutting herself. But when Willow meets Guy, a boy as sensitive and complicated as she is, she begins an intense, life-changing relationship that turns her world upside down.
Told in an arresting, fresh voice, Willow is an unforgettable novel about one girlÆs struggle to cope with tragedy, and one boyÆs refusal to give up on her.
Gr 8 Up
Willow Randall, 17, hides a dark secret from the only family member she has left, her older brother. The survivor of a terrible car accident that killed their parents, she is now in the care of David and his wife. Trapped by the guilt she feels because she was behind the wheel, she doesn't want her brother to find out that she is a cutter. Willow depends on her blades to release the anguish and isolation she feels both at home and at school. David doesn't seem to want to talk about what happened, and, wherever she goes, she feels as if students are whispering about Willow the parent killer. Living a shadowy existence, she is astonished at the turn her world takes when a boy she meets at the library takes the time to understand her agony. In this novel that is in part a love story, Hoban takes readers on an intense journey that allows them to see a cutter's painful reality.-Caryl Soriano, New York Public Library
- Penguin Young Readers Group
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- 14 Years
Read an Excerpt
THE ONLY WAY TO COPE
If she let herself, she’d drown in a world of pain. But she can’t let that happen, she simply wouldn’t be able to handle it, not that kind of pain. Thankfully she knows how to prevent such a thing.
Willow reaches into the pocket of her robe, feeling for what she knows is there.
She never takes her eyes off of them as she slices into her flesh. The blade bites so deeply that she almost swoons, but still, she never stops looking at David and Cathy.
Her blood spouts as voluptuously as David’s tears. It drips unchecked, down her arm and onto the floor as Willow watches Cathy dry David’s eyes with her long, long hair.
Willow knows that she should leave. At any moment they could look up. But she can’t leave, she can’t move. She can only slice deeper and deeper.
The razor doesn’t hurt her. Not really.
Not like some things could, anyway. Willow savagely swipes at her wrist.
Not like some things could.
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Table of Contents
Maybe it’s just a scratch.
Willow Randall stares at the girl seated opposite her. Some might notice the girl because she is pretty. Others because of her flaming red hair. If the guys in the class were looking, they would see that the outline of her bra is clearly visible beneath her shirt. But Willow’s eyes are riveted by something else: an angry red welt, about three inches long, that runs from the girl’s elbow to her wrist. If Willow squints hard enough, she can just about make out a few flecks of dried blood.
How did she get it? She doesn’t look the type.
Maybe she has a cat. A whole bunch of kittens.
Yeah, that’s it. Playing with her kitty. That’s probably how it happened.
Willow slumps down in her seat. But her scrutiny hasn’t gone unnoticed and the girl turns to one of her friends and starts whispering.
Sshshhsh . . .
What are they saying?
Willow looks at the other girls uncertainly. She has a bad feeling that they’re talking about her, and she’s pretty sure that she knows what they’re saying, too.
She’s the one without parents.
No. She’s the one who killed her parents.
Their whispers remind her of the rustling of dried leaves. Willow has always hated the sound. She fights the urge to clap her hands over her ears, reluctant to call any more attention to herself. But she can’t stop the river of noise that flows out of their mouths. Shhhhsshhhsh . . .
The sound engulfs her. Threatens to overwhelm her.
Only one thing can make it go away.
Willow stands up abruptly, but her shoelace gets tangled with the chair leg and she pitches forward. Her books fall to the floor with a crash. She grabs the desk with both hands, barely managing to stay upright.
Dead silence. Everyone is staring at her.
She can feel her face burning and glares at the two girls who were whispering.
“Willow?” Ms. Benson sounds alarmed. She’s clearly concerned, and not just pretending. She’s a good teacher.
She’s nice to the fat kids, the pimply kids, so why not the orphan kids? Why not the killer kids?
“I just . . .” Willow straightens up slowly. “Just—the bathroom.” Her blush deepens painfully. She’s ashamed of her clumsiness. Ashamed at the way she looked at those girls . . . And couldn’t she have come up with a different excuse?
Ms. Benson nods, but she looks doubtful, as if she might suspect.
Willow couldn’t care less at this point. All she’s thinking about is making a quick getaway and leaving those smirking faces behind. She picks up her books, grabs her bag, and as soon as she’s out the door she starts running down the hall. Wait. No running in the halls. She slows down to a walk. That’s the last thing she needs, to get busted for something as stupid as running in the halls.
The bathroom smells like smoke. There’s no one around. Good. The door to one of the stalls swings free. Willow kicks it shut behind her and lowers the toilet seat before sitting down.
She rummages through her bag. Getting frantic because she can’t find what she so desperately needs. Did she forget to get more supplies? Finally, just when she’s given up hope, when she’s about to start howling like a dog, her hand closes on smooth metal. Her fingers test the sharpness of the edge. Perfect. It’s a fresh blade.
The girls’ voices rustle in her head. Their clamoring pushes out all rational thought. She rolls up her sleeve.
The bite of the blade kills the noise. It wipes out the memory of those staring faces. Willow looks at her arm, at the life springing from her. Tiny pinpricks of red that blossom into giant peonies.
Peonies like the ones my mother used to plant.
Willow shuts her eyes, drinking in the quiet. Her breath deepens with each dip of the razor. Silence reigns, not like when she tripped, but perfect and pure.
You couldn’t really say that something that hurts so badly feels good exactly. It’s more that it just feels right. And something that feels so right just couldn’t be bad. It has to be good.
It is good. Better than good.
Better than anything with any guy ever.
Better than mother’s milk.
“No, that’s out till the twenty-sixth,” Miss Hamilton says with a brisk professional smile. Willow stands next to her behind the circulation desk, stifling a yawn. She’s tired. Thank God her shift at the library is almost over. She steals a glance at her watch. Well, not quite over; another forty-five minutes.
Willow knows she should be grateful for the job. After all, her brother had to pull enough strings to get it for her. Three afternoons a week she helps out in the university library. It brings in some cash. Not enough, but still, more than she would have made back home working in the local Häagen-Dazs scooping ice cream.
Of course, back home any money she made would have gone straight into her own pocket. Things are a little different now. Now she works to help her brother out with expenses. Now she has to worry about things like the electric bill. But that’s not really so bad, at least not compared to the rest of her life.
“I think we can get that for you on interlibrary loan,” Miss Hamilton continues. “Willow, will you set that up?”
Miss Hamilton looks at her sharply, ready to pounce if she makes a mistake. She’s not a bad soul, not really. She’s nice enough to everyone else, she just doesn’t like Willow invading her library. Most of the other people who work there are graduate students, and those who aren’t have chosen the library as their career. Suffice it to say, Willow is the only high school student there.
It’s just like everything else these days. She simply does not belong.
Willow takes the card that the guy’s filled out in his shaky, spidery handwriting. He’s looking for some obscure work on twelfth-century philosophers. She glances up at him. An older man. Way older. Probably in his seventies. It’s always interesting to see the different types that wander in.
“That should get here in a couple days,” she says as she keys the call number into the computer. “You wrote your phone number down?” She looks at the card again. “Perfect, we’ll let you know when it comes in.”
“Wonderful,” he says with real enthusiasm. Willow notices what a friendly smile he has. She bets that he’s a retired professor who still likes to read. His eyes positively gleam at the prospect of getting his hands on the book. Her father would have been like that in another twenty years or so. Just the thought of some monograph about a little-known tribe in New Guinea would have been enough to make him drool.
Would have been.
She’s blindsided by a wave of despair, it’s hard to even stand. She grips the edge of the circulation desk so hard that her knuckles turn white. She simply cannot afford to lose it in here. Is there any way, any way at all, that she can excuse herself, go and do what she has to, without Miss Hamilton getting angry at her?
Willow can see her bag with all her supplies underneath one of the chairs. Just the sight of it calms her a little. She moves her hands away from the desk and rubs her arms, relishing the way the cotton irritates her fresh wounds. That will have to do for now.
“Willow!” Miss Hamilton’s voice is sharp; clearly this isn’t the first time that she’s said her name.
“I’m sorry!” Willow is so startled that she practically jumps. She forces herself to look away from her bag and focus on Miss Hamilton’s scowling face.
“I need you to go up to the stacks.”
“Okay.” She nods, even though she hates the stacks. They’re filthy, positively caked in dust. They’re scary too. Willow’s heard rumors about ghosts. Not that she believes in ghosts, but still. . . .
“This young man forgot his ID, you need to go up with him.”
Willow switches her attention to the guy leaning against the circulation desk behind Miss Hamilton. Now, this guy isn’t any seventy years old. He’s probably only a few years older than she is, if that. He flips the hair out of his eyes and flashes her a lazy smile.
Willow knows that she should smile back, but it’s no good, she’s lost the knack.
“I’ll take him up in a second.” She turns back to Miss Hamilton. “I just have to finish . . . ” Willow makes a vague gesture toward the computer.
Miss Hamilton nods and turns away, but the guy doesn’t. He keeps on looking. She can feel his eyes following her as she finishes taking care of the interlibrary loan.
Willow is sure that she’s just being paranoid, but his scrutiny is terrifying. It reminds her of the girls back at school. She doesn’t like the thought of going up to the stacks with him at all. Just to delay things, she takes more time than is strictly necessary to fill in all the information fields.
“So how about it?” he says after a minute or two. He’s starting to get impatient. His fingers drum along the counter and his voice has a distinct edge. He doesn’t seem so interested in her anymore.
Willow sighs in relief. This she can handle.
“Yeah, okay. Just a second.” Her voice matches his.
“Why don’t you let me do this for you?” Carlos says, taking the twelfth-century man’s card from her. Carlos is one of the graduate students, he’s almost as old as her brother. Willow likes him—well, as much as she can like anyone these days. He’s nice to her, he’s covered for her more than once.
“Thanks,” she says under her breath. She wishes he would let her finish at the computer and take this guy up to the stacks instead.
“Well, c’mon then.” Willow marches ahead of him toward the elevator.
“Do you know where this is?” she asks, looking at the card he’s filled out. “Never mind, I got it.” She steps into the elevator and punches the button for the eleventh-floor stacks. The doors close and they’re alone. Willow stares straight ahead at the illuminated numbers.
“I’m Guy,” he says after a moment. “What’s your name?”
“Willow . . .” He trails off, obviously expecting her to respond. “Willow?” he prompts, after a second. “What’s your last name?”
Willow can’t think of any way, short of being downright rude, to avoid answering him. “Randall,” she says.
“Are you related to David Randall?” He eyes her curiously. “I thought you looked kinda familiar. I took anthropology with him last year. He’s great.”
“He’s my brother,” Willow answers in a tone meant to discourage further conversation. His chatter is starting to make her nervous.
“You’re not a student here, are you?” He frowns. “You look a little young. How did you get this job?”
Willow doesn’t respond right away. The questions he’s asking are making her a little uncomfortable. She starts counting the floors under her breath. She can’t wait for the ride to be over.
“They usually only hire students,” he continues. “Otherwise I’d try and get a job. I’d love to work in the library.” His expression is pleasant and his voice is good-natured. If he notices that she’s being slightly standoffish, it doesn’t seem to bother him.
“If you’re not a student, what are you doing here?” Willow is confused.
“My high school has this program where you can take college courses for credit,” he says. “So what about you, how did you get the job?”
“I’m living with my brother right now,” Willow says after a moment. “He worked it out.” The elevator stops and they get off.
The stacks are dark; the lights are on a timer, which Willow quickly presses. She blinks rapidly as her eyes adjust to the dim lighting. Their gazes catch and for a moment she feels herself respond the way any normal girl would if she were standing next to a cute guy. She’s a little flustered, a little embarrassed, and a little attracted too.
Willow steps away from him, as far as she possibly can. She can’t deal with anything like this right now.
“Hey, watch it.” Guy reaches out with his hand to steady her as she bangs against the metal stacks.
Willow jerks her arm away, stunned by how much his touch affects her. In a way his hand is as searing as the razor . . . only the effect is something quite different. The razor numbs her, makes her forget, but this . . . well . . . She shivers and rubs her arms convulsively.
“You cold?” He raises an eyebrow.
“I’m fine, thanks. I . . . C’mon, let’s get your book, okay?” Willow checks the call number again, then turns and heads over to the shelves.
She finds the volume easily and is about to hand it to him, when she glances at the title and stops, transfixed.
“Everything okay?” Guy frowns as he watches her.
“Oh, sure, I just . . .” Willow trails off. She can’t stop staring at the book. Well, she shouldn’t be so surprised. He did say something about anthropology, and it is a classic.
“Do you know this book? I mean, have you read Tristes Tropiques before?” he asks as he takes it from her hands.
“Yes, a couple of times, actually,” Willow says after a few seconds. She closes her eyes for a moment and pictures her parents’ study with its wall of books. Tristes Tropiques, third shelf, second in from the left.
“I’ve never met anyone else who’s read it!” Guy looks impressed. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he says as he flips through the pages. “I guess your brother must have told you about it, right? If it wasn’t for this book I wouldn’t have even taken his class.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, last year, right before I started classes here, I was wandering around downtown, trying to decide what I should take. I figured I’d end up doing something like chemistry or math, since those would look pretty good on my transcript and maybe help me get into a fancy school or something. Anyway, it started to rain and I ducked into this used bookstore. This literally fell off the shelf while I was looking for something else. I opened it up and four hours later I was still there reading. That’s when I decided that I had to take anthropology.”
“Really?” In spite of herself, Willow can’t help being interested. She too has never met anyone else—anyone her own age, that is—who’s read the book, let alone been so captivated by it.
“Really.” Guy nods. “It’s like an adventure story, isn’t it?”
“That’s it exactly!” Willow’s face lights up. Just for a second she forgets that Tristes Tropiques was her father’s favorite book. She forgets about sitting on the window seat in the living room on rainy Saturday afternoons working her way through all his favorite books. She forgets that she doesn’t have a father anymore, and she even forgets to be unhappy. “It is like an adventure story,” she says. “But you know what’s funny? Remember how on the first page he goes on and on about how he doesn’t even like adventure stories?”
“Right.” Guy laughs. “And then he pretty much goes ahead and writes one.”
The lights click off suddenly and they stand in the darkness for a moment before Guy reaches out and presses the timer. Then he sits down on the floor as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if the only thing that he could possibly want to do with his time is talk to her.
Willow is a little unsure of what to do. She feels comfortable talking to him, but the way she felt when he touched her, that wasn’t comfortable at all. She searches his face. He doesn’t look as if there’s anything on his mind besides books.
After a second Willow sits down next to him.
“Why do you need this?” She gestures toward Tristes Tropiques. “What happened to the copy that you bought at that used bookstore?” Of course she doesn’t really care about what happened to his copy, and it’s kind of a stupid question, stupid and boring, but she doesn’t know what else to say, and she doesn’t feel relaxed enough to sit there with him in silence.
“Lost it on the subway.” Guy shrugs. “I should buy another, but I’m kind of low on cash right now. Do you know the place I’m talking about?” He puts the book down and turns to look at her. “I figure your brother’s had to have dragged you down there about a thousand times. It’s always packed with professors whenever I go.”
Willow thinks for a minute. “Is it way downtown?” she asks. “And even though it’s huge, it’s really cramped, right?”
“Right.” Guy nods. “There’s hardly room to move. It’s like the books have taken over. They’ve spilled off the shelves and there’s so many piled all over the floor that it’s almost impossible to walk.”
“And it kind of smells,” Willow says. “But not in a good, old, bookish sort of way, but in a kind of . . .” She pauses for a second.
“A kind of unwashed and dirty way,” Guy finishes.
“That’s right.” Willow laughs. “And the staff are really rude.”
“If you ask them something, they act like you’re bothering them.”
“And it’s almost impossible to find anything on your own, because they don’t arrange things in any logical order.”
“And the whole place is so far out of the way to begin with, you wonder why anyone even bothers to go there. But still, it’s actually really . . .”
“Fabulous,” Willow chimes in.
“So you do know it.” Guy smiles. He stops talking and studies her face carefully. Willow shifts uncomfortably. She’s suddenly acutely aware of how quiet the stacks are, how quiet and how empty.
“You don’t really look that much like your brother,” Guy continues after a few moments. “I mean, I don’t think that’s why I recognized you.”
Willow isn’t sure where this is leading, but she does know that she feels distinctly less relaxed than she did a few minutes ago.
“I’m such an idiot!” Guy exclaims. “I can’t believe this. You go to my school, don’t you? That’s why I know you. I’ve seen you around the halls. You just transferred there this year, right?”
Willow is much too startled to answer this. They go to the same school? He knows her? Does he know about her?
She scrambles to her feet. “I have to go,” she says in alarm. “I shouldn’t have been up here this long anyway.”
“Well, sure.” Guy stands up and starts to follow her as she practically runs to the elevator.
Willow can’t bring herself to look at him. She stares at the elevator floor, the ceiling, anything but his face. It’s as if their pleasant little interlude had never even occurred. She feels used. Used and stupid. Had he known all along? Had that entire conversation been some act so he could report back to his friends at school that he’d actually managed to talk to the new girl? The strange girl, the girl who killed her parents?
The desire to cut is palpable, even stronger than it was back at the circulation desk. She has to get away from him. She has to be alone.
“So listen, do you think . . .”
“I have to go,” Willow says. She bolts out of the elevator, leaving Guy behind, and rushes toward Miss Hamilton. For once her scowl is welcome.
“You certainly took a long time.” Miss Hamilton seems suspicious.
“I . . . I had a hard time finding what he was looking for.” Willow joins her behind the desk.
“You need to be more familiar with the call numbers,” Miss Hamilton says. Excuses carry no weight with her.
“Hey, c’mon, it took me forever to figure out the stacks.” Carlos flashes Willow a sympathetic smile.
“I suppose.” Miss Hamilton looks back and forth between the two of them. “All right then, you’re done, Willow. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Willow glances at the clock in surprise. She had no idea that her shift was over. Miss Hamilton was right, she had been gone for a while. She didn’t realize that their conversation had lasted that long.
Well, that’s one more day I don’t have to live through again, she thinks as she grabs her bag and dashes out the door.
Willow pushes past the students clustered around the library entrance, filthying the air with cigarettes, and heads toward the rack where everybody stows their bikes. It takes her a second to remember that she doesn’t have a bike anymore, that it’s still back in her parents’ house, leaning against the garage wall. Too bad, really—it would make the trip back and forth from work much easier.
But why should her life be any easier anyway?
She heads off campus and onto the street. Just two blocks and she’ll be in the park. Somehow the trees make her feel better.
But not good enough, she thinks as she pats her bag. Never good enough.
Without a bike it takes about twenty minutes to walk to her brother’s apartment. Her brother, his wife, Cathy, and their baby daughter’s apartment. It’s not such a bad place. David, Cathy, and Isabelle live downstairs and she has David’s old office, the maid’s room at the top. It’s much better than it sounds, actually. Her room is very small, but kind of special, like something out of a fairy tale, or a movie about Paris. It’s got a great view of the park, and Cathy made it pretty just for her, hanging lace curtains and painting the walls a pale apple green, not that Willow really cares about things like that anymore.
“Which way are you going?”
Willow whips around in alarm. She had no idea that Guy was behind her. Has he been following her? Hoping to hear more, maybe get her to tell him some juicy details?
“Are you headed toward the park?” he asks, his steps falling into place beside hers. “I always walk that way.”
Willow wants to ask him what he knows about her, but she’s not quite sure how. She wants to ask him if he was deliberately stringing her along before, or if he truly didn’t recognize her at first. She supposes that it’s possible—after all, she didn’t recognize him. But she’s been lost in her own world. Nothing makes any kind of impression on her these days. As the new girl in school, she’s bound to be noticed, even if she didn’t come with a scarlet letter K embroidered on her chest.
“Hey, Guy, hold up!” a tall dark-haired student calls to Guy from across the street. He hurries over, a pile of books under his arm.
“Adrian, what are you doing up here?” Guy stops for a second.
“Looking into some AP stuff.” Adrian glances back and forth between Willow and Guy.
“Oh, sorry, Adrian this is Willow. She goes to our school.”
“Oh yeah?” Adrian smiles at her. “Are you new? I haven’t seen you around before.”
“Yes. I’m new,” Willow says. She looks at him carefully. He seems like he’s being straight with her, and she feels a little better. Maybe she doesn’t stand out quite as much as she thought she did.
“We should definitely talk if you’re thinking of taking classes here. I’ve already picked out a couple of possibilities.” Guy hands Adrian a piece of paper scribbled all over with course numbers and descriptions.
“Yeah, you know, I probably should take one of these.” Adrian glances at the paper. “But on the other hand, the idea of a really easy senior year is pretty appealing.”
The spotlight’s off of her. Willow breathes a sigh of relief. She should go now, while the going’s good.
“Listen, I have to get out of here.” She offers a glimpse of a smile.
“Oh, sure. Adrian, I’ll call you later.” To Willow’s surprise, Guy says good-bye to his friend and continues walking with her. “So, where are you off to now?”
“I’m going home.” Even as she says the words, Willow is struck by how misleading they are. Her brother’s apartment may be her home now, but it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel like it at all.
“Want to stop on the way and get some coffee?” Guy asks.
She does not want any coffee. She wants to be alone. Still, Willow can’t help thinking that any of her friends from back home would be thrilled to have someone like Guy ask them out. She wonders how she would have felt if he made the offer, say a year ago. Would she have been flattered? Would she have liked the idea? Would she have liked him? Willow squints trying to see herself as she’d been the fall before. Of course she would have liked him. Why not? Cute and reads books too. Too bad last year’s girl is dead.
“So how about it?” He shifts his backpack to his left shoulder and flashes her a smile. “There’s a great place a few blocks from here. Best cappuccino you’ve ever had, and the pastries aren’t bad either.”
First coffee, then a movie. Then a few more walks in the park. Willow knows how this kind of thing works. Then feelings. Just the thought of it makes her flesh crawl. She’s done with feelings. She doesn’t ever want to feel anything again.
“No thank you.” Even to her own ears her voice sounds cold and unfriendly. Perfect.
Guy shrugs. He looks a little disappointed.
Life’s full of disappointments, Guy. Willow kicks a stone out of her path.
“Okay, sure, maybe another time.” But he doesn’t say good-bye, he just keeps walking alongside her.
Why doesn’t he go away? Willow thinks fretfully. Maybe he likes what he’s been hearing. Maybe he just likes a challenge.
She wonders briefly what he would think if he saw the blade marks on her arm. Would that be enough of a challenge for him? She’s never shown anyone, and he certainly won’t be the first. Still, how can she get rid of him?
“So how come you’re living with your brother?” Guy asks. “Are your parents on sabbatical? Because I remember your brother saying that they were in the field too.” He smiles again, completely unaware of the effect he’s having on her.
Is he like Adrian? He really knows nothing about her? Or is it that he wants to hear her say the words?
In any case, he’s given her an out. She knows how to get rid of him now.
“They’re not on sabbatical.” Willow’s voice is hard. She stops walking and turns to face Guy head-on. She looks him straight in the eye. So closely, she can see the brown flecks in among the hazel. His eyes are beautiful, but that hardly matters to her. He returns her gaze. He’s not smiling now, but looking at her just as deeply. Anyone passing by would take them for a romantic young couple. They must make a pretty picture as they stand facing each other under the leafy bower of trees.
“But your parents are profs, right?” He breaks the silence. “Your father’s in anthro and your mother’s an archaeologist? Because I once went—”
“They’re dead.” Willow says the words coolly, dispassionately. She enjoys seeing Guy’s face turn pale. “They’re dead,” she repeats just to make sure he gets it. “And I’m the one who killed them.”
How come you’re living with your brother?
But your parents are profs, right? Because I once went . . .
Guy’s questions ring in her ears. His pleasant voice is distorted by memory into something querulous and insistent.
But your parents are profs, right? Because I once went . . .
All right, all right, set it to music already!
Willow rolls onto her stomach, the book she’s been trying to read for the past half hour tumbles to the floor as she buries her face in the pillow in a vain attempt to shut out the chattering in her head.
But it’s useless. His questions keep repeating themselves and far, far worse than any question he could think to ask, is her own response:
I’m the one who killed them.
How many times throughout the coming years will she be called upon to say those words?
She can barely even remember it. It was raining, that’s all she knows. They’d been out to dinner and her parents had wanted to have a second bottle of wine, so they decided that Willow should be the one to drive. She remembers her father tossing her the keys, the slickness of the road, and the sound of the windshield wipers.
Sometimes in her dreams she hears the sound of the rain.
Willow turns her head listlessly to look out the window. There’s a faint breeze stirring the lace curtains. The dying rays of the sun filter through them and make beautiful patterns on the floor.
The view outside her window is particularly nice, and if she could bring herself to be interested in anything, it would be that. In the morning and evening the park is filled with joggers. In the afternoon young mothers take over and there are always plenty of lovers winding their way down the leaf-strewn paths. It’s like a living painting. Back before the accident, when she used to care about things, Willow used to spend a lot of time doing watercolors. Back then she would have liked nothing more than to sit by this window for hours and try to capture the changing scene outside.
Willow glances over at her desk, at the box of watercolors and assortment of brushes that Cathy bought for her. Like her bike, like most of her things, she’d left her painting supplies at home. It was incredibly thoughtful of Cathy to replace them for her, and she should repay that thoughtfulness, by at least attempting to use them, but somehow she can’t summon the energy.
Of course Cathy has been kind in so many ways. She’d worked hard to make this room nice for Willow, and with its soft colors and pretty furniture, it is especially lovely. Far nicer than anything she had at home. At home she’d moved into David’s old room because it was the biggest. The walls were black, a leftover from his heavy metal days, and Willow and her mother had always promised each other that they’d get around to changing them.
Who knew that four black walls could feel so safe?
Willow sits up abruptly, opens the window, and sticks her head out. The air is soft with just the slightest breeze that ruffles the hair around her face. This is her favorite time of day, just before the evening becomes the night.
If she were back home now, she’d probably be talking on the phone with one of her friends. That’s the way things usually went: She used to hang out with her friends after school, come home and get her work done, gossip on the phone before dinner, or maybe, if she didn’t have a lot of homework, go for a bike ride on the trails behind her house.
Now the pattern of her days is different. She sleepwalks through school, has no friends to speak of, goes to the library, tries and fails to do her homework, and eats whatever Cathy orders in—all to the accompaniment of the razor.
She’s left her old friends behind as surely as she’s left her old life. They all belong to another world, one she has no intention of visiting again. She never takes their calls, deletes their e-mails, and one by one they’ve all stopped trying to get in touch with her. The only person who still makes an effort to contact her is Markie, her best friend, and Willow knows that it will only take a few more unanswered messages before she too stops trying.
She shuts the window with a sigh. If she does nothing else, she should at least make an effort with her homework.
Willow picks up the book she’d been reading. Bulfinch’s Mythology. She’s supposed to get through fifty pages for tomorrow. After that she has to get started on a paper for the same class. It should be easy too. The book is one she’s read a thousand times before. She flutters the pages of the cheap paperback as she recalls the first edition that used to rest on her father’s desk, the flyleaf inscribed by him in his favorite deep blue ink.
Of course it’s probably still there. The house stands just as it did, it hasn’t even gone on the market yet.
At first Willow had thought that she would be staying there, that David, Cathy, and Isabelle would join her. In some ways it would make the most sense. After all, this cozy apartment, while just the right size for two adults and an infant, feels somewhat cramped now that she’s moved in. But David had vetoed the idea from the start, claiming the commute would be too difficult. Willow’s parents took the train in for over twenty years, but that was only twice a week, and while David’s teaching schedule is similar, Cathy’s job would require her to make the trip every day.
Still, as uncomfortable as things sometimes get, Willow has to agree with her brother. Although their house may be large and roomy, living there would be far from easy, and not because of the traveling involved. The house is simply too crowded with memories and reminders. It is too crowded with ghosts.
She’s only been there a handful of times since the accident. The first occasion had been when David wanted to pack up their parents’ books and move them to the apartment. That had proved to be a disastrous idea, which they abandoned before they even got halfway through. In fact, that excursion had affected David so badly that he refused to enter the house again. So the next time they went, he and Cathy waited outside in the car, while Willow, feeling like a refugee, a displaced person, fleeing her country for unknown territory, had run around grabbing whatever clothes would fit into her backpack. Now she wishes that she had taken the time to think about what she was packing. Her bag hadn’t held much, and she’s constantly borrowing things from Cathy anyway. Wouldn’t she have been better off taking some of the books that she cared about instead of three pairs of jeans, a couple of shirts, and a skirt? She would love to be reading her father’s copy of Bulfinch instead of this flimsy paperback that she bought at one of the chain bookstores around the city.
Willow doesn’t know why her throat hurts. She can’t understand the way her eyes are prickling all of a sudden.
It’s just a book!
She throws the paperback across the room, where it hits the wall before landing on the floor with its pages all askew.
“Mouka touka hashatouka . . .”
Willow is stunned. Her face turns white and she grips the corner of the candlewick bedspread as her mother’s voice floats up the stairs. It takes her a moment, then she realizes that it’s Cathy singing to Isabelle. David must have taught her the song, an old Russian lullaby that their mother used to sing to them.
She gets up from the bed and walks into the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face. She stares in the mirror for a few seconds, looking at herself as if she were a stranger.
Who is this?
She supposes that to anyone else she looks exactly the same as she always did, except for her hair, that is. She doesn’t have the energy or inclination to fuss with it like she once did, so she just wears it in a braid that hangs halfway down her back.
But she doesn’t recognize herself. Maybe her face isn’t any different, but the look in her eyes is. Worse than dead, their expression is simply blank. She reaches out a hand to cover them in the mirror. She remembers the reflection that used to stare back at her. Those eyes weren’t dead.
Willow had never known that she used to be happy. It had simply never occurred to her that her life had all that she would ever need or want.
The one thing that can make Willow laugh these days is how much she used to take things for granted. In the past, little hurts, like doing badly in school, or getting dumped by a guy, really used to throw her. How was she to know what was lying in store for her? She shakes her head at how foolish she used to be, getting upset because her favorite dress got lost at the cleaners, or something equally stupid.
She has an urge suddenly to smash her head against the mirror. Wipe that silly expression off her face. She knows she can’t, though. Not here, not now. Not with Cathy downstairs, and David just coming in the door.
Instead, she regards herself calmly, then screws up her mouth and spits at her reflection with as much venom as she can muster.
Willow knows she’s being melodramatic, but so what? The spit trails down the mirror and she’s confronted, once again, by a pair of dead eyes.
Who are you?
This isn’t the Willow that she’s lived inside for the past seventeen years. This is someone else.
Willow turns away from the mirror. Spitting at herself. That’s juvenile, straight out of a B movie, and really, accomplishes nothing. But cutting, that’s something else again.
She stares down at her arms for a moment. If someone were to look carefully, the angry red marks underneath the fine cotton of her blouse would be clearly visible. But nobody ever does look carefully.
She rolls up her sleeves and examines the most accessible cuts, then opens the medicine cabinet and takes out a tube of disinfectant. She’s scrupulously careful not to let her wounds get infected. She doesn’t need the complications. Already Cathy’s been giving her strange looks. She keeps asking why Willow wants to borrow long-sleeved shirts when it’s such a beautiful, mild Indian summer. She doesn’t understand that Willow, who used to be so concerned with what she wore, now selects her outfits with one criterion only: Will her clothes cover her scars?
Taking care of her stuff isn’t the easy task it once was either. She can’t just toss her dirty things into the communal laundry hamper. The other day she had to bury one of her own bloodstained blouses in the park. She simply can’t risk leaving things like that around. Losing the shirt didn’t bother her, but she hated digging around in the dirt. Later on, when she was walking home, she was sure that she saw a Rottweiler playing with it.
Willow hears the phone ring. It’s just about Markie’s favorite time to call. Quickly, without thinking, she reaches behind her and turns on the shower.
“Willow?” Cathy calls. “Phone for you! Markie.”
She leans out the bathroom door. “Yeah, sorry, I’m in the shower!”
That should take care of that. She leaves the shower running, takes off her jeans and shirt, and sitting down on the floor of the bathroom, she spreads some of the antiseptic cream on a particularly nasty-looking cut.
It takes a while, at least ten minutes, but finally she is done ministering to her wounds.
“Willow?” David calls. “Dinner!”
“Coming,” Willow calls back as she turns off the shower. She puts her clothes on, wincing a little as her jeans stick to the cream. Of course it would make much more sense to bandage all of them, but the gauze would look too bulky under her clothes.
“Hey.” She tries to look lively as she enters the kitchen.
“God, your hair dries fast.” Cathy smiles at her.
“Oh, yeah, uhh . . . Shower cap, didn’t even bother to unbraid it.” Willow smiles in return. It’s something of an effort. Just the thought of sitting down and eating dinner is more than enough to wear her out completely, because it’s the one time of day that she can be sure of coming face-to-face with the only other surviving member of her family.
It shouldn’t be like this. Seeing her brother should be the lone bright spot in the otherwise bleak landscape that is her life, and yet it simply isn’t so. Because somehow, that rainy night last March didn’t just end her parents’ lives. Somehow—as surely as if he had been in the car with them—she lost her brother that night too.
This feeling is with her always. Their relationship has been so fractured that for all intents and purposes she could be living with a stranger. In a way it is almost more difficult to bear than the loss of her parents, they are dead and gone forever. But to be in constant contact with her brother, to the person that she was once closest with, to the single person spared her—to see him, talk to him, and yet have no connection with him whatsoever is more painful than she could possibly have imagined.
Sometimes Willow tries to convince herself that things will return to normal between them. After all, there have been times in the past when they didn’t get along. He is ten years older than she is, and that age difference hasn’t always made for an easy relationship.
Willow thinks back to when she was five and he was fifteen. Back then David didn’t like having a little sister. He wanted to be out doing his own thing instead of babysitting, and Willow hadn’t liked him much either. But things had changed as they got older. Sometime around when she turned ten or eleven, things had evened out somehow, he’d become her confidant, her friend, her protector. Suddenly it had been fun to have a brother who was so much her senior.
If Willow tries hard enough, she can pretend, for moments at a time, that she isn’t living with David, that she is merely visiting the way she might have last year, say whenever her parents’ attention threatened to become suffocating, when their involvement in her life felt oppressive rather than comforting. At times like that she would stay with David and Cathy for the weekend, much to the envy of all her friends.
Willow spends a lot of time thinking about those weekends, about what things had been like then. David had just been finishing graduate school. He and Cathy had been about to become parents. Everything had seemed perfect.
But Willow has smashed her brother’s picture-perfect life as surely as she smashed her parents’ car. Cathy didn’t want to go back to work. She had to go back instead of staying at home with Isabelle like she had planned to. Instead of preparing for his classes, David has to worry about money all the time. He has to worry about how he’s going to make ends meet. He has to worry about Willow.
In many ways this is a burden that he appears to accept easily. He is so strong, so considerate, so capable, his treatment of her is so unfailingly correct that to the outside observer it must seem as if nothing is amiss. He is absurdly polite to her, it as if she is a stranger whose welfare has been entrusted to him, and he handles that responsibility with the utmost seriousness. But there is a wall of glass between them.
David never, never talks about the accident. His conversations with her are limited to the minutiae of her daily life. Even when they are forced to discuss logistical things, like how much of her library salary has to go toward household expenses, or when they should put their parents’ house on the market, he manages to avoid any suggestion of how it is that they’ve found themselves in such an extraordinary situation.
At first Willow was sure that it was just a matter of time. That David would eventually confront her. She kept waiting for him to yell at her, scream, shake her, do anything but treat her with such aloof courtesy. But as the months wore on, it became increasingly clear to her that he had no intention of ever talking about what had happened.
She doesn’t feel like she can broach the subject on her own either. If David doesn’t want to talk about it, it can only be because of how painful the topic is, and Willow refuses, absolutely refuses, to hurt him more than she already has.
Still, his coldness toward her upsets her terribly; it is the worst condemnation that she could endure. And yet she is fully in accord with his assessment of her: She is no longer his little sister, she is their parents’ murderer. Why should she expect any other treatment? Why should she even expect him to be as kind as he is?
“How was school today?” David asks as she sits down. Cathy passes her a cardboard container of cold sesame noodles. Obviously tonight is Chinese.
“Fine,” Willow says. She dumps some of the noodles onto her plate with a sigh. She knows that that answer isn’t good enough, that David expects a complete and full accounting of everything that she did, but she’s so tired of lying to him, she just doesn’t have the strength anymore. She stares down at her plate. The noodles look like worms.
“Uh-huh. Well, I don’t really know what fine means. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on in your classes? Didn’t you just have a quiz in French? How did that go?”
A quiz? The only thing Willow can remember about French class is seeing that other girl with the scratches on her arm—that, and the fact that she’d run out of class so that she could indulge in her extracurricular activities.
But she can hardly tell David about that.
Oh right, the quiz. . . . They did have one the other day, Willow realizes. She must have mentioned it to David at one of their nightly grilling sessions.
“We . . . I didn’t get it back yet. I answered everything, at least.” This happens to be true, but it was the merest stroke of good luck that she’d been able to finish the quiz, given that she’d barely even opened the textbook.
“All right.” He nods thoughtfully. “What about your other classes? Is there anything special I should know about?”
Willow wishes that Cathy would interrupt him, change the subject somehow, but she’s busy feeding the baby some noxious-looking concoction, so Willow has no choice but to answer.
“No—well, I do have this paper to do for that class I’m taking with the Bulfinch. . . . You know, the one about myths and heroes. . . .”
“Well, that should be easy enough for you,” David says. “Do you have a topic picked out already? When is it due?”
“Uh . . . no. No topic, not yet. . . .” Willow avoids his eyes. She has a topic, all right, and not one of her own choosing. How can she tell her brother that the teacher has asked her to write about the themes of loss and redemption as shown in the relationship between Demeter and Persephone? She can’t, she just can’t look him in the eyes and talk to him about another motherless child. “It’s not due for three weeks anyway, so I have some time to come up with one. . . .”
“What about the library? How was that today? Any better? Is Miss Hamilton being nicer to you? Do you want me to talk to her?”
“No! I mean, thank you, but no. She’s fine, really. . . .”
An idea occurs to Willow. David wants to know how things went at the library? Maybe she should tell him about that guy she met, well, Guy, in fact. She wonders if possibly, just possibly, his reaction to this piece of news will be different from the way he responds to her daily recitations regarding school and homework. The responsibility of being in charge of her education may be new to him, but this kind of thing, well . . .
Willow remembers a time last year when she went to meet David at one of his classes. A fellow graduate student, not realizing that she was a sophomore in high school, had asked her out. Their father had not been at all amused, but David had thought it was hilarious.
“I . . . I met someone in the library who was in one of your classes last year.” Willow says this tentatively. She’s floating the idea out there, kind of like a test balloon. She wants to see how he’ll take it. She wants to believe that somehow, some way, he’s capable of unbending toward her, and that perhaps, talking about the kind of thing he used to tease her about might just be the key.
“Really?” Cathy says. She sounds interested and she glances at Willow as she continues unsuccessfully to try to get Isabelle to eat. “What was their name?”
“Male or female?” David says at the same time. He looks at her over the rim of his glass. His tone is anything but lighthearted.
Oh boy. . . .
“It’s a guy. . . . Well, actually, his name is Guy. I thought that was kind of funny.”
And nice too. It’s a nice name.
“Guy?” David is thoughtful. “I think I remember Guy—he’s still in high school, isn’t he? I guess that’s all right. . . .”
Oh for God’s sake!
“He was taking my class to get some college credit,” David continues. “He’s very smart, and a lot more hardworking than most of the regular students I get. Believe me, I wish I had more like him. So what did he have to say for himself?”
Now that sounds a little bit like the brother she used to know. Maybe this was a good idea after all, except even as she thinks this, Willow realizes that she herself is no longer capable of lighthearted conversation. How can she even answer such an innocuous question? What can she possibly say?
He asked why I was living with you and I told him that I killed Mom and Dad.
Of course they did talk about other things, but those topics are also off limits. Maybe last year Willow would have felt free to tell David that Guy likes that bookstore downtown, but now she can’t. She can’t because any mention of that place—which David loves—would trigger too many memories of their father. He was the one who had first taken them there.
“Umm, I think he said that we looked alike. . . .” Willow looks at her brother in despair. It’s impossible not to notice how tired he is, how worn, how empty his own eyes are.
She wishes so much that she could take that emptiness away.
But then she remembers something else Guy said. Some-thing that it won’t hurt her brother to hear, and she grasps at it like a lifeline.
“Oh, you know what, I almost forgot.” She tries to sound enthusiastic. “He thought that you were a great professor, I mean, he kind of went on about that.” It’s not much, it won’t bring their parents back, it won’t make his life easier in any appreciable way, but it’s the best she has to offer.
“Really?” David says slowly. Maybe he’s not bowled over by the news, but he does seem a little interested, his eyes look a little less dead.
“Really.” Willow is emphatic. She tries to think of something else to say. Some way that she can elaborate, expand the compliment. “I think he said that he was seriously thinking of going into anthropology, I mean, major in it when he gets to college. He said that your class had convinced him that’s what he should be doing.”
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