Lydia is thrilled to join the working girls in the factory, where they paint luminous watch dials for the soldiers fighting in World War I. In the future, these girls will be known as the tragic Radium Girls: factory workers not only poisoned by the glowing paint, but who also had to fight against men who knew of the paint's deadly effect. One hundred years later, Julie, whose life is on hold after high school, becomes intrigued by a series of mysterious antique paintings she finds in a thrift store. When she discovers their hidden-and increasingly nightmarish-glowing images, Julie is determined to learn more about them. As Julie's obsession mounts, truths about the Radium Girls-and her own complicated relationships-are revealed. Can she uncover the secrets behind the paintings before she puts herself and everyone she loves at risk?
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I used to worry about the dark. When it's dark, you can't see what's coming. Sometimes you can't even see what's right in front of you. When it's dark, your whole life can spiral out of control. When it's very dark, your dreams can slip away — and good luck getting them back.
It seems so much safer in the light. That's probably why it took me way too long to figure out that it wasn't the dark I needed to fear, never the dark, but a certain kind of light that lurks on the other side of it. This light calls to you on false pretense; it makes promises it never intends to keep. Things that happen in the dark — forbidden kisses, broken promises, buried secrets — are supposed to stay there, but that light will always expose them. Because that light is not kind. It's not innocent.
That light is hungry.
It wants to burrow inside you, haunting your hollow parts, shining in places that no light should ever brighten. It wants to bore tunnels through your bones. Unstoppable once it's been unleashed, more powerful than any other force of nature, that light is what you should be afraid of. Terrified, even. I wish I'd known that back when summer started, when my biggest problems were juggling two jobs and obsessing about all the ways my life had unraveled when I wasn't paying attention.
I would've been more careful, that's for sure.
I wasn't supposed to be at work that day, and I definitely wasn't supposed to be working at Bed Bath & Beyond's East Hanover location. So I wasn't supposed to see my best friend, Lauren, shopping for stuff to deck out her dorm room. But there she was, biting her lip as she stared at her phone, her Kool-Aid red ponytail streaming down her back like a juice spill.
"Oh my God, Laure!" I said, grinning as I reached out and gave her ponytail a tug. "What are you doing here?"
"Julie!" she said, and even if I hadn't noticed the surprise in her voice, I couldn't miss the guilt in her eyes. So she was trying to avoid me. "I'm just ... You know ... What are you doing here?"
"Working." I pointed at my name tag. "You know I never say no to an extra shift. So what brings you to the one-stop shopping destination of Bed Bath and Beyond–East Hanover?"
"Oh, you know," she said. "Just ... shopping."
I tilted down the plastic basket looped over her arm and peeked inside at the neon-purple shower caddy and extra-long twin-size sheets. "Are you getting stuff for your room at Parsons?"
"Well, yeah," Lauren replied. "Just a couple things. I know it's only June ... probably way too early ..."
Her eyes darted to the side, and I knew I had to fix it. I had opened this can of awkward, after all.
"No, that's really smart," I said right away. "I have been to hell, and it is Triple-B on a Sunday in August. God, can you imagine? The future frat boys of America plotting to sneak a mini-keg into the cart without their parents noticing?" I shuddered with horror, and Lauren laughed, to my relief.
"Come on. Let me help you shop." I pressed on, reaching for the list in her hand, somehow managing not to flinch when I noticed it was printed on official Parsons letterhead. The school must have sent it to all incoming first-year students. I would've gotten one too, if I hadn't turned down their offer of acceptance. Only a couple months ago, I was agonizing over whether I should study art at Parsons or major in premed at New York University. But that was back when I had choices. That was before I'd spent every penny of my college savings account to keep my mom's house out of foreclosure.
"No, Jules. It's cool," she replied. "I'm not getting anything else today. I'll probably just check out now."
"Let me use my employee discount! Do you have cash?"
"I was gonna use my mom's card."
"Go get some cash," I insisted. "Then I can use my discount for you."
"Can't you just use it with the card?"
I shook my head. "I'm not supposed to let other people use it. But if we get this stuff with cash, they won't know. Come on. I'll hold it at my register while you go to the bank."
"Ehhh ... I'm here now," Lauren said. "What's your discount, anyway? Ten percent?"
She shrugged. "I'll just put it on my mom's card."
"Okay, whatever," I said, turning around quickly so Lauren wouldn't notice I was blushing. For weeks, I'd been wearing desperation like perfume, and I could tell that Lauren had just caught a whiff of it. Who cares about your 15 percent discount? I asked myself. Stop acting like everyone else is as broke as you are.
We didn't say anything as I rang her out.
"When are you off?" Lauren asked suddenly.
I glanced at the time stamp on the receipt before I handed it to her. "Hour and a half."
"I'll come back for you," she said. "We'll do something cool."
"No, you don't have to." I had to give her an out. It was bad enough that Lauren's eyes were full of pity whenever she looked at me. If we started hanging out only because she felt sorry for me, our friendship would be doomed.
"I'll be waiting out front," Lauren insisted, flashing the smile that almost always got her exactly what she wanted. "Be there."
"Okay." I gave in, pretending like I wasn't completely relieved. Besides, what else was I going to do with the long, hot afternoon stretching out ahead of me?
BB&B was not a store I wanted to work at — God, I never even wanted to shop there — but it was about a million times better than my other job at McDonald's, where I spent sweaty hours dodging grease splatters and Coke spills. No doubt I'd landed both jobs because, unlike practically everyone else my age, I wasn't looking for summer employment. No, I was there for the long haul — into autumn and beyond, as long as they'd have me.
Don't get me wrong. I was really grateful for the jobs. They were my best chance for going to college in a year or two, as soon as I'd saved up enough money for tuition, room and board, books, and everything else needed for Success in Life. No matter how you crunched the numbers, there was no denying that college was stupid expensive. But worth it, I reminded myself as I picked up a used Kleenex somebody had dropped in the aisle. So worth it.
Three o'clock came at last, and I bolted into the smothering air outside, where veils of heat shimmered off the sidewalk in a feverish haze that made me feel as slow and sticky as the tar oozing out of the blacktop. Lauren was waiting out front, just like she'd promised. Her emerald-green SUV sparkled under the relentless sun, an oasis in an asphalt desert. Her car looked as perfect as the day she'd gotten it as the world's best sweet-sixteen birthday present. I should know. I was there.
I yanked open the door and slipped into the front seat, aiming both AC vents directly at my face before I reached for my seat belt. "Hey, Claude." I sighed.
"Hey, Vince," Lauren replied. We'd been using those ridiculous nicknames since we first got into art in middle school, back when we thought Monet and Van Gogh were the standards by which all art should be measured. Though practically everything else had changed since then, I knew we'd still be calling each other Claude and Vince when we were wrinkly roomies in a nursing home.
"You're welcome," she continued, holding out a venti frappuccino.
"Awesome, Laure! You didn't have to do that. Thank you!" I exclaimed, sucking on the straw as if I were about to die of dehydration or, more accurately, caffeine withdrawal. I didn't offer to pay her back. The frappuccino was delicious, but not really worth it when I calculated the cost as equivalent to an hour of drudgery at Mickey D's. Besides, it's not like she would have taken the money anyway.
"It's my job to get you refreshed and recharged," Lauren said. "I have a big afternoon planned for us."
"The beach?" I asked as I glanced at the members-only parking decal for New Jersey's most exclusive beach in the corner of the windshield.
"This is better than the beach," Lauren said, and she actually bounced up and down a little. "Trust me!"
In about fifteen minutes, we were cruising the streets of West Orange, past the overpriced boutiques and two-story brick office buildings, until Lauren turned onto a side street that was less cookie cutter than the rest. "Surprise!" she crowed. The street was cluttered with an assortment of indie stores. I knew right away why it had appealed to her.
"Shopping!" I said, trying — and failing — to match her enthusiasm. Lauren could tell I was faking it; she was already rolling her eyes at me.
"There's not just shopping. Look. We could get new piercings. I'm going to get a tattoo!"
"You are not."
"I am!" Lauren insisted. "I'm eighteen, and I have my ID, and there's a really cool tattoo place over there —"
"Can we look at this logically, please?" I asked. "Since your eighteenth birthday, we have gone to not one, not two, but three different tattoo places. And how many tattoos have you gotten?"
"None. But —"
"Have you even finished the design?"
"Well, no, but maybe I'll just go with something in the book."
I gave her my best are-you-even-kidding look. "Really? You want to be a Parsons student with a totally generic tattoo from the book? I don't think so. Please, Laure, you're better than —"
Lauren flicked her fingers toward my face, like I was some bug she could shoo away. "Just forget it," she interrupted me. "We can skip the tattoos and get psychic readings instead!"
I saw it then, just on the other side of the tattoo place: a small store with a neon crystal ball in the window. "I don't know ..." I said slowly. "That's not really my thing."
"I'll pay," she declared, as if that was why I wanted nothing to do with a psychic reading. "Come on. It will be fun!"
I will never understand why people are into psychic readings. As if they weren't fake-fake-fake. As if what the future holds could only be wonderful — instead of totally devastating. But I didn't say any of that to Lauren. Instead, I shook my head and started grinding my teeth, a bad habit that had started as an involuntary reflex after my dad moved out seven years ago. Now, though, the repetitive force and familiar pressure in my jaw was almost comforting. Lauren cringed, clapping her hands over her ears.
"Stop! Stop!" she begged. "That's the worst sound in the world. God, you're giving me chills."
"You have chills because the AC is on high."
"No, it's that gross thing you do with your teeth."
There was a pause, and our eyes met. Then Lauren sighed and said, "Fine, no psychic today. But we can check out some of these stores, right? Jump out. I think I have to parallel park."
"Look out, world!" I cracked.
"Funny. Really hilariously funny," Lauren said, but I could tell she wasn't mad by the way she stuck out her tongue. Her forehead furrowed as she inched the SUV closer to the curb, while I guided her like an air traffic controller.
"Forward. Forward. Forward. Stop. Okay, move back. A little more. Not that much. Jesus, stop, Laure!"
"Stop freaking me out," she called through the open window. "How's that?"
"You're still three feet from the curb."
"Good enough!" Lauren said.
"So ... where to?" I asked as she joined me on the sidewalk.
Lauren shrugged. "Let's just see what looks interesting."
Halfway down the street, an oven-hot breeze kicked up. It fluttered the maple leaves but not my stick-brown hair, which was stuck to the back of my neck with sweat. Instinctively, I reached for my sketchbook to see if I could capture the light filtering through the leaves before I remembered that I didn't have it. Lauren always used to joke that my sketchbook was my security blanket, and maybe it used to be. But that was a while ago. At this point, I couldn't even remember the last time I'd seen it.
At first, all the stores seemed the same, stocked with secondhand junk that had been cast off in hope that someone else would want it ... or need it, which is not the same thing at all. For Lauren, shopping was like a competitive sport, and she was determined to medal by purchasing something at every store. I had already promised myself that I wouldn't spend a penny — every cent I earned went straight into my savings account — so I tried to coach her away from truly disastrous decisions, like the menorah made out of crayons and the oversize bumblebee-striped sunglasses. Let's just say that I was only partially successful.
Then we walked into a consignment store called Lost & Found, and everything changed. It was nestled at the end of the street beside a vacant lot, as if the building itself was an afterthought. Except for the sunlight streaming through the front window, the store was dim, lit only by small lamps with rose-colored shades. The pink light made the store seem more special than I suspected it was.
It was already too late though. We were both captivated. "Find something you love," Lauren whispered, her eyes staring beyond me with a hungry look. "I'll buy it for you."
"You don't have —" I began. But she had already wandered off toward a rack filled with gauzy dresses, leaving me alone. I started to follow her before I paused, then walked the other way. I already knew how it would go: crammed together in a fitting room, wearing unfamiliar dresses like a strange skin, fighting the same fight about whether or not she'd buy one for me. If money was like oxygen to Lauren, spending it was like breathing, an autonomous function requiring absolutely no thought. Sometimes her generosity was physically painful for me, every purchase a black hole that sucked me deeper and deeper into her debt. She might not have been keeping track, but I sure was.
I drifted toward the back of the store where there were shelves of old books and a doily-covered table with a quirky sign announcing NEW (OLD) RELEASES.
The sign was half right anyway.
All the books displayed on the table were by the same author, Charles Graham, who I'd never heard of. Lost to the Light, Ghost Generation, Fallen and Forgotten. He must've been real fun at parties.
After a couple of minutes, I abandoned the books for a bin filled with artwork. My fingers tingled as they grazed over the roughness of canvas and the grain of wooden frames. The paintings on top were ... well, they were not good: crying clowns on black velvet; spackled sunsets as generic as a greeting card; creepy portraits of children whose proportions were just a little off, making them look more cursed than adorable.
Then I found it — or it found me. When I'm feeling especially superstitious, I let myself think it was waiting for me. I knelt before the painting and stared.
A tall wheat field, each stalk somehow unique yet blending into the one next to it, bending but not breaking; the wheat stretching off the canvas and into the background until it met the purple smudge of sunset. In the sky, a solitary aviator in an open cockpit with leather cap, goggles, and all. Where is he going? I wondered. What is he flying away from? And in that moment, I longed to be the pilot, to take off on my own solo flight across golden fields, racing the sun to tomorrow and the next day and the next with no end in sight. Only escape.
The frame was simple — unfinished pine with a smattering of dark wormholes, small enough that it fit easily in my arms — and yet within it, a whole world was contained. A cascade of choices had led the pilot to that moment — decisions forged despite all the unknowns, the details lost or perhaps invented by the artist — and yet you didn't need to know them to understand a fundamental truth: there were always options.
That's when I knew beyond all doubt that this painting would be mine. I had to have it. And the little round price tag gumming up the corner told me that I could.
"Look!" Lauren said, her voice effervescent in my ear. I spun around and saw her behind me. How long had she been standing there?
"College clothes!" she continued a little louder. She held up velvet blazers and poofy skirts with ironic petticoats and even a pair of fuchsia cracked-leather ankle boots that I already knew she would never, ever wear.
"Very cool," I said. "Very art school. You will look so unique."
"Just what I wanted," she said, extremely pleased. "Ready to go?"
I trailed behind Lauren as she made her way to the register. As if she'd heard the soft thud of that enormous pile of clothes landing on the counter, a woman suddenly appeared through a curtain in the back. She was somewhere between mom age and grandma age, with wiry red ringlets exploding from her head like fireworks. "Are you ladies ready?" she asked, her eyes glinting at the size of Lauren's pile.
"Oh my God, is this your store?" Lauren cried. "I love this place. I'm definitely coming back next week. I wish I had a store like this. I totally want to have a store like this someday!"
Excerpted from "Glow"
Copyright © 2017 Megan E. Bryant.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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