This inventive story, told in verse and in prose, paints the aftermath of tragedy as a landscape where there is good behind the bad, hope inside the despair, and springtime under the snow.
|Publisher:||Random House Children's Books|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||3 MB|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There are rumors the day Emily Beam arrives at the Amherst School for Girls--in January, halfway through her junior year. She doesn't look like the other girls, who look like girls in magazines. She doesn't sound like them, either, and she wears different shoes. As she sits on a bed she's never slept in, in the first room she's ever shared, Emily announces to the tall, curly-haired blonde standing by the window that she's come from Boston. This isn't a lie. It is where she's stayed for the past month.
K.T. nods and looks down at Emily's feet. "What size shoe do you wear?"
"Seven," Emily says.
K.T. walks over to her closet and digs out a pair of navy-blue clogs with wooden heels.
"Here," says K.T. "Wear these."
Emily takes off her rubber-soled Mary Janes.
"They'll be a size too big," K.T. says, "which will make it tough to walk on those little pebbles out there, but at least no one will talk shit about you."
As Emily slips on the clogs, K.T. takes the black Mary Janes and drops them--clunk, clunk--into the steel trash can.
"You can wear your pj's to class if you want," K.T. says. "A lot of us do."
Emily takes in her roommate's casual elegance: the untucked white button-down, the purple cashmere cardigan, the necklace of tiny turquoise beads, the brown suede boots with scuffed toes. Emily looks down at her new giant feet. "I have to go to the bathroom," she says.
"Do you remember where it is?" K.T. points. "Just at the end of the hall."
In the bathroom, Emily sweeps her long hair up into a messy ponytail, which is the style here, she's noticed. In the morning--her first day of class--she'll wear the Harvard sweatshirt she got in Boston. As far as boarding schools go, Emily has no idea how Amherst School for Girls ("ASG," K.T. calls it--like ask but with a g) compares. Boarding school? It wasn't even in the realm of possibilities; it wasn't even on the radar screen. And by the time Aunt Cindy convinced Emily's parents that it was necessary, ASG was the only school that would take her, and that was only because there was an extra bed since K.T.'s prior roommate, Hannah, had been expelled for sneaking out late at night to meet townies.
"You're a Hart Girl now," K.T. tells Emily on their way to dinner.
"A heart girl?"
"Yeah," says K.T. "As in Hart Hall, where we live."
"Oh, right," says Emily. The dorm doesn't look like dorms she's seen in pictures or movies. It's a house, a sprawling Victorian one, painted gray with purple trim, tucked behind a high row of boxwoods.
"ASG was the wrong place for Hannah to begin with. This place is about the mind, and Hannah, well, she was all about the body."
Townies. Dorms known as halls. Cafeterias called dining rooms. To survive here, Emily is going to have to learn a whole other language.
Maybe that's why the poem comes sweeping in that very first night at ASG. In the past, Emily Beam has written poems only when a teacher has required her to, but as soon as she lies down on her single bed under the slope of the old wooden roof, lines unspool like ribbons, and she can't fall asleep until she ties them into bows.
At the start, she stands: an opening
between the high, chopped-off
hedges. She can walk, one
foot, then another,
over the little pebbles.
It all looks so English,
so civilized, until
the dead end.
The dead end. The dead
end. The wind lends
the hedge its own green
voice. But what human speaks
Hedge? What antiquated
map shows a girl
No exit sign in neon
points her out.
No bread crumbs
on a path. If only
she were a pencil
with an eraser, she
could draw herself
Emily Beam, January 15, 1995
Emily looks over at K.T., who, before she fell asleep, put on earphones and listened to classical music that was so loud that Emily could hear it across the room. Emily should be sleeping, too. It is five o'clock in the morning, and in three hours, after a special assembly celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., she'll stand face to face with her first day of classes. If Emily had to tell somebody what happened in the Grenfell County High School library, where would she begin? How desperate did Paul have to be to do what he did? Emily will never understand it, never. Didn't he realize that when he pulled the trigger, the world would go on without him in it? Didn't he know that dead, he'd be nowhere?
Emily puts her head down on her desk, on top of the poem she has written, and closes her eyes. As she has done for thirty-four nights, she tries to read past the dark. Read into Paul. There was little crime in Grenfell County with its spread-out landscape. The most violent thing ever to happen in the history of Grenfell County had happened at the high school.
The high school to which she will never return. The day after she and her parents arrived in Boston, Aunt Cindy quietly suggested over chicken potpie that they find Emily a boarding school, maybe even one in Massachusetts, where she could finish out her junior year. Emily's parents agreed. It was not a good idea for Emily to have to go back home and deal with the whispers and stares and, of course, the memories.
Emily was stunned. It was straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Boarding school? Only orphans and screwups and spoiled rich girls went to boarding school. She would be despised there, made fun of. She would become the butt of every joke ever told. So Emily pitched a fit, which had no effect. She jumped around the dining room and kicked the couch in the den and slung all of the magazines on Aunt Cindy's coffee table across the room. She told her aunt and her parents that they were evil. When she told them she hated them, they stared back at her, stone-faced.
For a month Emily stayed with Aunt Cindy, who oversaw Emily's recovery by renting movies on a theme. The first trip to Blockbuster, they rented films set in Paris--Emily's choice. The next time, Aunt Cindy chose films about high school.
"You haven't lived until you've seen The Breakfast Club," Aunt Cindy said. The movie was about five high-school types who don't know each other very well and get stuck together in Saturday detention in their library.
Emily shook her head. "Is it really a good idea for me to watch something that takes place in a school library?"
"Emily," said Aunt Cindy, "you're seventeen years old. I think you're smart enough by now to separate fact from fiction."
That's the thing, though; Emily isn't so sure. A story gets told one too many times and facts melt away like pats of butter. Case in point: not even forty-eight hours after Paul died, people in Grenfell County were saying that he had tried to use Mr. Jim, the one-armed janitor, as target practice when the truth was that the two of them had simply passed each other in the hall as Paul made his way to the library.
Another case in point: a new girl shows up at the Amherst School for Girls after the holiday break, and rumor has it that this new girl got into major trouble at her old school. Why else would she materialize midway through her junior year at a place where she has no friends, no connections, no legacy? Emily and Aunt Cindy sat on the couch biding time until Christmas was past and the new year was under way, eating popcorn and watching stupid high school movies about nerds who prevail or virgins who succumb.
Before Boston, before ASG, Emily had wanted nothing more than to be loved by a boy. When she was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, she had watched girls on the cheerleading squad sprout wings with each boyfriend. They became more beautiful, the beauty of confidence. For four months, Emily had it, too.
But here at ASG, she is surrounded by girls more self-assured than she, clean-looking girls who sleep next to photographs of their boyfriends and talk to them daily on the phone in the hall. Boys are kept at a safe distance. The girl who gave Emily and her parents the campus tour was quick to point out that there are dances nearly every weekend with boys' schools in the area, but Emily wants nothing to do with boys or dances. She wants nothing to do with poems, either, but in the long shadow of death, they creep in.
When K.T.'s alarm goes off at six-thirty, Emily is already up and dressed in her Harvard sweatshirt, a pair of Levi's jeans ("unfailingly safe," K.T. told her), and her one thick pair of socks. The clogs wait by the door as she sits at her desk, doodling.
K.T. rolls over. "Hey, look at you! Let me throw on some clothes. You've inspired me not to wear my pj's."
When Emily came down the stairs wearing white on the day of Paul's funeral, her mother told her to go back upstairs and put on black wool pants. Emily told her to go to hell. In the church, she sat hunched between her parents. Enduring the funeral was like wading through a dark-gray fog, the disembodied voice of Reverend Wright cutting its way through:
"Though his time with us was short, Paul Wagoner followed in the footsteps of Christ. . . . We will never know why Paul did what he did. . . . With God's help, and each other's, we will come to accept the not knowing. . . ."
On December 12, as the sirens drew closer to the high school, the students were told over the intercom to stay in their classrooms or to get to one. Theories were generated: Mr. Dees, the band director, had a heart attack; Mrs. Ziegler, the ninth-grade geometry teacher, collapsed on top of the overhead projector after solving an especially difficult proof. No one mentioned Paul Wagoner. No one. Paul was on the football team. He didn't spend hours in front of the TV. He laughed out loud at his friends' jokes, even the corny ones. He drank milk at lunch. He didn't scowl or dress all in black. He was on the way to being handsome, a country boy who hadn't fully grown into his looks. He wasn't the most popular boy in the senior class, but he wasn't the least popular, either. He lived somewhere in the middle, like most teenagers. Practically everyone in Grenfell County went to the funeral. Paul's teachers and Mr. Burton, the principal, sat in the front pews off to the side. The Wagoners sat front and center: Paul's mother and father, some other adults Emily didn't know, probably aunts and uncles. Carey, Paul's little sister, squeezed in beside their grandmother Gigi. It was Gigi's gun that had done the job. Paul had stolen it on a Sunday morning when everyone else in his family was at church.
How weird Paul must have felt to sneak into his grandmother's bedroom and open her bedside table; how sad for him to take what was meant to be an anchor in a sea of loss after the death of Paul's grandfather. In the long parade out of church, Emily tried to smile at Gigi, but Gigi wasn't looking at anything--her eyes were closed. Standing at the back of the church was Mr. Jim, the school janitor. Emily had been thinking of him only hours before as she'd stood at her closet, wondering how he got dressed. Mr. Jim had only one arm--his right--and Emily decided she would try getting dressed without using her left one. The bra was impossible, so she flipped it back into the top drawer. The black wool pants had three buttons, but the white dress had a zipper, so on it went. The shoes Emily had wanted to wear, her Mary Janes, had straps, so the black rain boots would have to do.
Emily bent down, the fingers of her right hand stretching into the dark like tentacles. Those boots were in the back of the closet somewhere. She hummed snippets of made-up songs. (These boots were made for walkin' to where a boyfriend lies in a coffin.) Once she found the boots, she placed them on the floor at the end of her bed, the rubber holes gaping. She was going to stand on her bed and jump into them feetfirst, but what if she fell and broke her ankle? Her parents would have to drive her to the hospital, and then they'd all miss the funeral. Emily left the boots where they were and rolled herself back on the bed until it was time to go, when she would manage the boots with one hand.
Paul had told her that when he died, he wanted to be cremated. (Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all our lives gone to rust.) She wanted to forget that Paul had ever told her anything. She wanted to crawl under the bed, fall through the floor, and forget all the facts.
In the dim light of the desk lamp, while K.T. is down the hall in the bathroom, Emily opens her dictionary and looks up the word: pall.
1. a cloth, often velvet, for spreading over a coffin, bier, or tomb.
2. a coffin.
3. anything that covers, shrouds, or overspreads, especially with darkness or gloom.
Pall, then, as in pallbearers. Eight members of the football team--Paul's friends, and Emily's, too. She doesn't want friends at ASG because then she'd have to lie to them. It's bad enough lying just to K.T., but what other way is there? Mazes grow ever higher when lies beget lies.
K.T. pokes her head in the room and motions. Emily slings her book bag over her shoulder and follows her roommate to the dining room, which is bright and noisy.
"I'm going to show you how to work this system," K.T. says. "Grab a tray. Now, I like my eggs poached, but only Hilly will make them that way, and you have to ask her nicely when the boss man isn't around."
"That's okay," says Emily. "I like my eggs scrambled."
"IdonotlikegreeneggsandhamIdonotlikethemSamIAm," K.T. says. "Oh, and by the way, they put dreams in the coffee." She reaches for a cup and saucer. "That's why it's so good."
"Dreams." K.T. smiles. "Good stuff."
"They put dreams in the coffee."
"If I'm lying, I'm dying," says K.T., her brown eyes deep and smiling. "I started drinking it last November, and ever since then, I sleep like a baby, ironically enough. I snore, by the way."