Delicate Monsters: A Novel

Delicate Monsters: A Novel

by Stephanie Kuehn


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When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family's California vineyard estate. Here, she's meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she's meant to do a lot of things. But it's hard. She's bored. And when Sadie's bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate's a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That's why Emerson's not happy Sadie's back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won't ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That's what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it's all of theirs.

Delicate Monsters is Stephanie Kuehn at her finest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250063847
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/09/2015
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

STEPHANIE KUEHN is the William C. Morris Award-winning author of Charm & Strange. She holds degrees in linguistics and sport psychology, and is currently working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology. She lives in Northern California with her husband, their three children, and a joyful abundance of pets. When she's not writing, she's running. Or reading. Or dreaming.

Read an Excerpt

Delicate Monsters

By Stephanie Kuehn

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Kuehn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-06384-7


A ropes course was a shitty place for self-discovery. Seventeen-year-old Sadie Su understood she was meant to think otherwise, but (1) she had no interest in introspection and (2) even if she did, what the hell was the point? This loamy godforsaken spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains was a playground for perceived risk only. Nothing here was real. Nothing was transformative.

True change required true danger.

Sadie shifted her legs and tugged to loosen the straps on the safety harness she wore. Blood was being constricted from places she thought blood needed to go.

When she felt more comfortable and no one was looking, Sadie turned away from the group. She sidled a little ways down the hillside, black sheep leaving the flock, before edging out of sight of the ropes course, the towering redwood trees, and the other girls from the wilderness camp. They were teenagers like her, the girls, all supposedly "troubled." Only unlike Sadie, they were wide-eyed and tragic, fragile, herdlike things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods about who'd touched them where or hit them or abandoned them and a million other sad sap excuses for why they did the Things They Did. Sadie couldn't be bothered to take it all in. Misery repulsed her. Self-pity even more. She especially couldn't understand the counselors and therapists who chose to work here. It made Sadie shudder to think about. If there was a special circle of hell for girls like her, and she suspected there might be, there was no doubt her eternity would be spent having to listen to other people's problems.

Sadie kept walking along the dirt path. Her steps were light and calculated. Wind blew up the mountain and through the trees. It smelled like the ocean, although she couldn't see the ocean, and Sadie reached to dig the nylon harness even further out of her crotch. Then she fished a soft pack of American Spirits and a book of matches from the front pocket of her coveralls. Crumbs of tobacco fell onto the ground. Brown curls littering the gray earth.

"You'll start a fire," a voice said.

Sadie looked up. One of the other girls from the camp — Laura? Lara? Laurel? whatever — was standing on the path. She was probably on her way back from the bathroom.

"Is that a warning or a declarative?" Sadie asked.

"It's common sense," the girl said, folding her arms in a way meant as threatening.

Sadie sighed. She found threats a curious thing because she didn't respond to them the way she was meant to. They didn't make her heart race or her pits sweat. And they didn't make her mouth fumble to come up with flush-faced apologies. No, threats made Sadie's skin grow cold and her brain grow mean. As if to prove her point, she reached up to light her cigarette, then threw the glowing match into the dry brush.

"Nothing common about it," she said.

* * *

Fourteen minutes and two American Spirits later, Sadie made her way back to the ropes course. The counselors sniffed the air like they knew what she'd been doing, but said nothing. They couldn't change her, and they weren't paid enough to try. Besides, they already had their hands full trying to coax the rest of the girl-herd up into the trees where they were meant to leap into free fall, crab walk across high-strung cables, and conquer their innermost fears. A losing battle. Some of the girls cried and trembled, refusing to move. Still others squared their jaws and pushed their shoulders back, going for brazen courage, but failing hard. They had it all wrong, of course. Bravery wasn't required to conquer fear.

Indifference was.

One of the course leaders, a middle-aged man, and a guileless one at that, strode right over to Sadie. He wore his knee socks rolled up and a full-brimmed hat. A patch of zinc oxide striped his nose.

"You ready to give it a try, sweetheart?" His smile was warm and wide enough to show his teeth.

Sadie gave her own smile right back. "Sure, I'm ready."

"What's your name?"

"Sadie," she said. "Sadie Su."

"You Chinese?"


"You don't look Chinese."

Sadie's smile grew bigger. "That's what my daddy says."

The man blinked, but didn't respond. Instead, he reached out to clip his belay rope to her loosened harness. He did it as if it were something he'd done a million times. As if an act of connection were as common as cruelty.

As if.

Sadie stood very still. At the clanking of their carabiners, she felt no rubbing of their fates, no flutter of destiny. The man droned on with his droll safety instructions, words full of caution, like the way he wore his clothes, and when he was done, she turned and scrambled up the footholds of an old-growth sequoia.

At the top of the ladder, Sadie paused and looked down. She had to be eighty feet in the air. She felt the burning eyes of the other girls, watching her from the forest floor below, like heat rising from dying coals. Maybe they wished she'd fall. She didn't doubt it. She'd wish it, too, if she were them.

The wind blew harder, fiercer. Off in the distance a hint of blue-gray was visible between the trees. Sadie squinted, and there it was at last — the Pacific Ocean, wild and abstract, like something from a dream. With a groan, she used her arms to haul herself up onto the flat wood platform above her. Then she walked to the edge and bent her legs.

When she felt like it, she jumped.

* * *

The evening after the ropes course was Sadie's last night at the wilderness camp. She'd done her time here, ten long weeks, and now she lay in her cabin in the dark with her eyes open, restless and unable to sleep. What was next for her? What did she need? Answers, conviction, eluded her, forging a loose sense of confusion she was unaccustomed to. She'd always faced uncertainty head on, only this time, she wasn't going anywhere uncertain.

Sadie was going home.

It was a hard truth that in the morning, she would return to her family's vast wine country estate, four years older than when she'd left and pretty much none the wiser. In that time she'd attended and been asked to leave three separate boarding schools, including one in Düsseldorf and one in Paris. The last had been in New York State, a crisp-aired campus ringed by apple orchards and brick homes with woodstoves, all tucked in a sun-dappled turn of the Hudson Valley. The things she'd done there not only ensured that no other private school would take her, they'd gotten her sent here as part of the legal settlement. Only here was as useless as there. Everything, everywhere, was geared toward giving her things: tools, skills, knowledge, new ways of being. All garbage. Sadie figured you couldn't take in what you weren't missing in the first place. She liked the way she was. It was other people she had a problem with.

A mile to the south, in a row of tent cabins scattered among lush ferns on the edge of a slick rock creek bed, sat the wilderness camp's male counterpart. Every night, the boys came knocking for the girls. Like Pavlov's dogs, they showed up, a steady stream of slobbering, dick-wielding fuckups and addicts and head cases. The girls in Sadie's cabin always went with them. Always did things in preparation that made her stomach sick — like plucking their eyebrows and shaving the hair between their legs and ass cheeks.

But on that last night, one of the boys came for Sadie. His name was Chad. He had a peach-fuzz mustache and a row of pimples on his neck. She went with him into the woods, onto the bare ground beneath the stars.

"I won't fuck you," she told him.

"Then I want a blow job," he said.

Sadie wouldn't do that either and whining didn't help his cause. But when she unzipped his jeans and reached her hand in to touch him, Chad shut up fast. She sat up while she did it, the touching, keeping her eyes open so she could watch him go from very bold to very still. Sadie liked watching. There was power in bearing witness. Pleasure, too. After, she hiked her own skirt up, crawled on top, and pressed herself against him. That was all it took.

That was all she needed.

"Why are you here?" Chad whispered, as they lay together in the dirt, side by side, like animals. Sadie had her cigarettes out again and gave one to Chad when he asked.

"I'm leaving tomorrow. Going home."

"That doesn't answer my question."

"I got kicked out of boarding school. Third one in four years. Only thing left is the public alternative."

"That's it?"

"I tried to kill somebody," Sadie said softly, and Chad laughed in a way that made her want to strangle him. He laughed like he didn't believe her.

"Yeah, me too." Cigarette gripped between teeth and lips, he held his bare wrists up in the moonlight so that she could see the scars there, jagged pink lines that resembled streaks of lightning flashing across the morning sky.

"That's not what I meant," Sadie said, although this was partially a lie. She did mean it that way, but she meant it another way, too, and she wanted Chad to understand that. She wanted him to know that she was both worse and different than him, different than everyone here, with their sadness and their anger and all their messy needs. It was bad enough, her rubbing against him like she had, taking what she wanted, just because she'd felt hot and aching and driven.

Hurting other people wasn't all that different, though. That was also a form of taking and she did it all the time. Sometimes she wished she didn't. Sometimes the things she took were unforgivable and she'd give anything to have better control over herself.

Then again, sometimes Sadie was bored.

And oftentimes, that was more than enough.


What did it feel like to fall in love?

This was a thought so novel and jarring that eighteen-year-old Emerson Tate nearly fell straight from his lawn chair into the soft grass of Ryan Bloom's stately Sonoma backyard. It was a slow slip, no drunken pratfall, just a teetering of Emerson's oversized frame and limbs, then an overcorrection to keep his drink from sloshing over, but in the end he caught himself. Stayed upright and off the ground. Relieved, he sank deeper into the low-slung canvas seat and let the warm haze of booze and late-summer sun weight him down. Let his wistful longing pulse through him like an anchor scraping the pebbly bottom of the deepest lake.

A roar of laughter came from the direction of the pool. Emerson's head snapped up, along with his hackles and insecurities. Were they laughing at him? He couldn't swim, a fact that embarrassed him badly, a stark reminder of the suburban normality his family had never known. But no, it was just a group of guys horsing around in the deep end of the Blooms' Olympic-sized pool with a sopping wet football. Bryan James pulled his trunks down and dove beneath the water. His bare ass bobbed around on the surface like a lost white whale. More laughter. A few shrieks and catcalls from the girls. Emerson felt himself relax again. The air hung ripe with the scent of coconut oil and pot.

That should be a candle flavor, he thought. Mass produced and marketed. The nostalgia line: Eighteen and life ...

This was summer's end for him, for them, as true as any other. Sonoma High had just finished its first official day of fall classes. The pool party was a way for the senior class to forget about the burdens of the impending year, what with its college applications and achievement exams, its disappointments and acceptance. The inevitable good-byes. It was too much to face head-on, without the lights dimmed a little.

Gulping down more of his drink — heavy vodka, light orange juice — Emerson shifted his gaze from the pool back to the long patch of manicured bluegrass where a badminton net stretched between two elm trees. The net had a tear on one side, a sag in the middle, but none of this stopped the two girls with racquets who were swatting a birdie back and forth and giggling over the word shuttlecock. The girl closest to Emerson held a gin and tonic in one hand, and she wore her feet bare. Her name was May, and she was his opposite in every possible sense. Where Emerson was pale, blond, big, and clumsy, May was dark skin, soft breasts, lean and full of grace. She was a delicate turn of the ankle. She was ice slowly melting. Her hair, a mess of wild black curls, bounced and glistened. Like the soft trampolining of his soul.

Watching her move, Emerson felt his body stir, awaken.

Every part of him.

This, he told himself, this was the beginning of love. It had to be. The way he felt, like his heart was setting down roots in a bare dirt hole he didn't know needed to be filled, it was transcendent.

It feels honest.

It feels like truth.

"How many drinks does that make, Tate? You going for a record?"

"Huh?" In a shuddering instant, Emerson went from lust to shame. He set his screwdriver down in haste. Prayed it didn't tip over and spill.

"Nah, I'm not hassling you, man. Come on. It's senior year. There's no such thing as moderation." Trey Bornstein, who was dressed in pink madras shorts and nothing else, slapped him on the back, then reached down with a bottle of Stoli and poured. He filled Emerson's glass to the brim and then some. "Whoops. Just watering the lawn. Maybe it's good for it. Think plants can get drunk?"

Emerson shook his head. He had a suspicion the vodka had come from the bar inside the house, which meant Ryan Bloom would be pissed when he found out. His mom was more territorial than most. Wealth did that, Emerson knew, made rich people care more about losing what they had than other people. Just stepping into the Bloom home meant not wearing shoes and sitting on plastic slipcovers. It meant guest orange juice and Otter Pops instead of fresh squeezed and hand-churned ice cream. Mrs. Bloom even kept a set of cheap swim trunks in the pool house so that no one would accidentally walk off with a pair of Ryan's brand-name board shorts. Emerson highly doubted the Stoli was her guest vodka.

Trey pulled up his own chair and sat across from him. The wind shifted and brought with it the sharp stench of grapes fermenting on the vine from down off the hillside. Emerson felt a wave of sudden sickness. He picked his drink up and sniffed at it, wanting to inhale wafts of chilled citrus. Not wanting to vomit in the grass.

"New girl's a bitch, man," Trey said. He leaned back and put his legs up on a padded ottoman. He had the same basketball height as Emerson — they played together — but Trey's legs were thin, wiry, like a thoroughbred, coated in red-brown hairs that matched the ones on his head.

"Mmm," Emerson said, not sure if he dared open his mouth or not. What he wanted to do was keep looking at May, the girl he'd known since sophomore year, but had never truly seen. Until now. Maybe it was something in the way she moved. Pure feminine harmony. Why hadn't he noticed it before?

"She says she knows you."

Emerson risked a sip of vodka. "Who?"

Trey had a way with restlessness; he'd mastered it. Before he answered, he pushed his hair back and scratched his balls. He picked a scab until it bled. Finally he pointed. "Her. Over there."

Emerson turned his head reluctantly. Sure enough, a girl stood in the corner by the fence, smoking. Short, thin, she had dark hair and mirrored sunglasses. Her bikini top was black and her tits were small. Smaller than he liked.

"I don't know any new girl," he said.

"She says she knows you. Name's Sadie something ... Sadie —"

"Sadie Su?" Emerson peered closer. Shit. It'd been years, but it could be her.

"So you do know her?" Trey's voice held a note of betrayal. "Like I said, she's a bitch. Must be dumb as sin, too. I mean, who changes schools when they're a senior?"

Who indeed? Emerson didn't know and didn't care, but the thing was, Sadie wasn't new. She was old. She lived here, had always lived here, only not right in town, but out in the valley with her rich parents. They owned this ridiculous vineyard, despite not being vintners. It was the kind of home you saw photographed in magazines, immaculate sprawling grounds dotted with statuaries and teeming with hired help. Years ago, when he was just a kid, Emerson had spent a lot of time out there on the Su property. Every day after school, for a good six months, he and Sadie had been thrust together for hours. Every day they'd talk and play and—

A scrabble of dread ran up Emerson's spine.

Or maybe it was guilt.

"I don't want to talk about Sadie," he said.

Trey shrugged, looked away. "Yeah, fine. Whatever."

Emerson settled back in the chair and tried to reclaim his sense of peace. Once again, he fixed his gaze on the badminton game. On gin cocktails and a summer breeze. On the sleek, sun-roasted girl he was falling in love with and who just might love him back.

If only she knew how he felt.

If only he would tell her.


Excerpted from Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn. Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Kuehn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
I. Ennui,
II. Little Lamb,
III. The Hunter,
IV. Delicate Monsters,
About the Author,
Also by Stephanie Kuehn,

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