Alys’s whole world was comprised of the history project that was due, her upcoming violin audition, being held tightly in the arms of her boyfriend, Ben, and laughing with her best friend, Delilah. At least it was—until she found herself on the wrong end of a shotgun in the school library. Her suburban high school had become one of those places you hear about on the news—a place where some disaffected youth decided to end it all and take as many of his teachers and classmates with him as he could. Except, in this story, that youth was Alys’s own brother, Luke. He killed fifteen others and himself, but spared her—though she’ll never know why.
Alys’s downward spiral begins instantly, and there seems to be no bottom. A heartbreaking and beautifully told story.
About the Author
Jennifer Banash lives and writes in Los Angeles, California.
Read an Excerpt
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray.”
—CHRISTINA ROSSETTI, “GOBLIN MARKET”
“Come into the candlelight. I’m not afraid
to look the dead in the face.”
—RAINER MARIA RILKE, “REQUIEM FOR A FRIEND”
Life changes in a second. In the time it takes to turn a page, to pull your hair back from your face, everything you think you know can vanish, wiped out in an avalanche, erasing everything in its path.
I was in the library, hunched over my laptop, history notes spread out on the table, the edges crimped from the pressure and heat of my own worried fingertips. Headphones streamed Schubert into the open pink shells of my ears, “Death and the Maiden,” the vibrato hammering through my body, my limbs tingling with electric shocks. I longed to play it with a quartet, four of us working together in unison, the notes so sharp and clear they could punch a hole in the ozone, make you reel back in your chair. But now I’m too advanced of a player to subject my skills to the “corrupting influence” of my peers—or so says Grace, my violin teacher.
It was still technically winter, snow melting on the ground, but in the last few days the green buds had pushed their way onto the branches of the trees, insistent, and now I could barely concentrate. There was that feeling in the air that happens only at the cusp of spring, a kind of restlessness, a quickening of the blood that made me want to put down my pen and sigh. I had a project due in three days—a project I had, as usual, put off till the last minute because I had stayed up most nights that week trying and failing to master the second movement of Brahms’s Violin Sonata in D Minor, the tricky mournful bit where the notes seemed to topple over one another like piles of smooth, slippery stones, one clicking against the next so melodiously that you could barely tell when one ended and another began. I’d been working on the piece for months—I had an audition coming up for the summer orchestra program at the University of Wisconsin, a program so competitive that only twenty students were admitted each June. I wanted it so badly, I was afraid to even speak of it aloud. I tilted my head to one side, stretching my cramped neck as I clicked through photographs of Thailand, hypnotized into stillness by images of mountaintop temples, a gold Buddha smiling benevolently before an altar, a series of copper bowls filled with colored powder in shades of vermillion, magenta, and ochre.
I bent down to scratch an itch on my calf, pulling out my earbuds in the process, the cord tangled in a mass beneath my chin. At the first crack, my head came up sharply, my gaze meeting that of the girl across from me. Miranda Stillman, blond hair waving against her pink sweater. What I remember of that moment was my own annoyance. I wasn’t doing well in history to begin with, and I had to get this paper done or I could kiss what was left of my grade sayonara. In order to get into any kind of decent university music program (I wanted Juilliard, Berklee, days spent with my neck crooked into the oiled wood of my violin, shoulders aching, fingers stiffened and sore), I needed the grades, and so far this semester, I was failing miserably. I didn’t see the point of history. What was past was past. Why not focus on the present? The future even?
“Cherry bomb,” Miranda said authoritatively, but I noticed that her eyes darted back and forth nervously. A few kids got up and drifted toward the double doors of the library, but then stopped, hovering near the circulation desk. I remember feeling nothing but annoyance. The week before, someone had tossed a smoke bomb into the toilet of the girl’s bathroom, sending clouds of gray haze billowing out the windows and door, and we had to stand on the football field in the rain until they figured out it was just a prank.
There was a sharp bang. Then another. Staccato. Allegro. A series of small popping noises, and a muffled scream coming from somewhere outside the set of large double doors that led out to the quad. I flinched, my body jerking as if I’d been hit. Reflexively, my feet felt for my violin case, stashed under the table, my pulse thudding as I made contact with the hard black plastic. Miranda and I just sat there staring at each other. I had never said more than ten words to her before that day. I was an orchestra nerd, and she was . . . who? What? I had no real idea. All I knew was that she was a senior, like my brother, Luke, and I was a junior. Close enough in age, but separated by a gulf of experience, friends, cheerleading practice—or whatever it was she did. A gap so wide that it seemed impossible to bridge on a daily basis. So no one did. We kept to ourselves, to our friends, our families, our small, tight circles of familiarity.
With the grind of metal against metal, Keith Rappaport came flying through the double doors, his face flushed tomato red, as if he’d been running a great distance. He was slightly pudgy, a freshman, glasses constantly sliding down the bridge of his nose. I remember he was wearing a soccer jersey—he must’ve had a game that afternoon. He knocked into the circulation desk, and the librarian, Ms. Parsons, looked up with no small degree of irritation. We were always running through the library to get to the other side of campus, perpetually late, always harried, and she despised the constant noise and disruption. It was only 12:30 p.m., and it was clear from the scowl on her face that her day was already ruined.
“Gunshots,” Keith said, panting. “Somebody has a gun out there. For real.”
Everything seemed to stand motionless, the room freezing into silence, the kind of numbness that creeps up just before terror. I was breathing fast, my fingers tightening around my laptop, which I closed and shoved roughly into my bag. Suddenly, it seemed important to gather my notes and put them back in my binder, to clear the decks. I reached under the table, pulling my violin case to my chest, holding it like a small pet. It was a Matsuda, made in the Cremonese style—which just basically meant that it was a very good copy of an Italian violin called a Stradivarius, which could sell for anywhere from fifty thousand to a few million dollars. Even though the Matsuda was a total bargain compared to a Stradivarius, I’d heard my parents fighting for weeks over whether or not they could swing it, clapping my hands over my ears to block out the shouts that drifted into my room every night. I’d been playing since I was six, and I’d long ago outgrown the violin my father had originally bought me at Sutter’s, our town’s only music store, the worn aisles lined with guitars, cellos, and violins hanging dejectedly against lime-green walls.
“I don’t care what Grace says,” my father had shouted. “The bottom line is that we can’t afford it.” I could almost see the cords on his neck standing out like taut strips of wire, his cheeks reddening. “Besides, Luke’s off to college next year—MIT isn’t exactly cheap.”
“I’m well aware of that fact, Paul.” My mother brushed him off with the dry, sarcastic tone I’d heard her use more and more frequently with my father over the past few years. “But I do know that if she’s going to be a serious musician, then she can’t afford not to have it.” Her voice echoed through the house with a sharp sense of finality. And with those words, my father grew quiet and, in the days that followed, folded completely, taking out a loan of thirty thousand dollars to augment the cost—cheap for a performance-level violin, but still more than we could really afford. Every time I removed the Matsuda from its case, the guilt—along with my parents’ expectations (concert violinist, Lincoln Center alight with applause as I bent forward at the waist in a graceful bow) hung on me like blocks of concrete until I had to lie down on my bed and close my eyes. It was hard, at moments like those, to separate their desire from my own.
Miranda was suddenly next to me, a glazed look plastered across her nondescript features, an almost blurriness. If you had asked me what she was thinking right then, I would have said nothing. If I was thinking at that point, I wasn’t aware of it.
The cracks got louder and closer, moving stealthily toward us. And the screams.
People began running, pushing against one another, bodies flailing. It was lunchtime, and the library was always crowded then with kids rushing to finish homework assignments due that day. I watched bodies dive beneath the round tables, binders and laptops still open on tabletops, pages spilling over in a froth of whiteness. Ms. Parsons waved kids over to the fire exit, but I didn’t move.
“What do we do?” Miranda had gone white, her lips barely moving. For the first time I noticed her fingers clutching my arm. She was wearing dark blue nail polish, her manicure precise, expert. I looked down at my own trimmed and filed nails, comparing them, the cuticles a bit ragged and fraying along the edges. A gold ring wrapped around Miranda’s index finger, a tiny ruby chip embedded in the center winking in the overhead light.
Before I could answer, the doors burst open again, and a figure dressed in black stepped through them. At that moment, an alarm went off, the same one we heard at least twice a year for fire drills, the shrillness ringing in my ears. There was a rifle in his hands, and I stared at the long barrel, the way it parted the crowd without sound, the menacing weight of it. All I could see was the gun, the way it advanced into the room, a sinuous black snake waiting to strike. Miranda’s grip on my arm tightened and she pulled me backward.
“C’mon!” she whispered forcefully. “We’ve got to move.”
I knocked into the table, banging my hip, wincing as Miranda pulled me to the ground and we crawled underneath, huddling together, her face buried in my shoulder, my violin falling to the floor. When the gun went off, it was deafening, a volley of thunder. My ears were ringing, a high-pitched whine obliterating everything. A guy named T.J., a senior who had said hello to me in the halls a few times, went down, his body hitting the floor with a thud. I watched helplessly as blood began to pool beneath his head. The muscles in his forearms were fairly developed from tennis, and as the blood seeped across the floor, the pool growing wider, my stomach turned sharply. He landed facedown, one arm flung up beside his head as if to ward off the attack. His fingers twitched spasmodically, then abruptly stopped. The air was clotted with the smell of smoke and scorched cloth, a scent I will always associate with panic and death.
Miranda sobbed next to me, her hand gripping my arm tight, her words meaningless and nonsensical in my ear, but strangely musical. She was crying so hard, it almost sounded as if she were stuttering, tripping over the insurmountable obstacle of words. The futility of them. A pair of black-booted feet walked by the table, and I held my breath. Then there was the sound of another shot and the screams began again, louder this time. Paper fell from the sky like rain. Loose leaf. An AP Chemistry test came to rest beneath the table, a large 98% scrawled at the top in red ink. Good Job, Tony was penned in the left-side margin, and a stifled sob escaped my throat. I heard a small gurgling sound nearby, and crawled to the edge of the table, sticking my head as far out from underneath as I dared without exposing myself entirely. I acted on instinct, blindly, before I could second-guess it at all.
“Don’t!” Miranda’s fingers clutched frantically at my shirt. “He’ll see you!”
Ms. Parsons lay on the floor, one hand holding her chest, her white cardigan soaked with blood. Her mouth opened and closed repeatedly, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. The sounds she made were guttural and incomprehensible, a language I couldn’t decipher. Ms. Parsons had spent hours helping me with my ninth-grade research project on The Handmaid’s Tale, shown me where my locker was on my first day of freshman year when I was too nervous to ask anyone and risk looking like a loser, put aside the endless stacks of sheet music she thought I might be interested in. Brahms. Beethoven. Ravel. Debussy. The names themselves made me feel calmer, more centered, as if nothing could really be wrong in the world. To one day be good enough to play Ravel, to master those intricate chains of notes like beads on a string . . . My head swam with the thought of it, my hands aching for the bow, the faint pine-tree scent of rosin tickling my nose. Sure, Ms. Parsons was cranky and old, but she also kept butterscotch candies in her desk, let us stay after school to work on projects as long as we were quiet, and covered the walls of her small office behind the circulation desk with handmade quilts and pictures of her grandchildren.
I crawled over to her, my palms skidding away in the slickness of blood, tears that I couldn’t feel dripping steadily onto the floor. There were pairs of sneakers running swiftly by my head and jumping over my body, the sound of cries and high-pitched screams, but it was somehow far away, in the hazy distance. I took her slight hand, freckled with age spots, and held it in mine. Her skin was cold and slightly clammy, and I could hear the air moving through her lungs, labored, heavy, and filled with a thick, viscous liquid. I tried not to look at the broken blossom in the center of her chest, the deep red hole of it, the scorched fabric blackened around the stain. Her lips moved soundlessly, and I leaned closer, bending down to her mouth.
“Run,” she whispered over and over again, the words melting together in a single entity.
Runrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrun . . .
There was a shadow suddenly above, the light dimming across her face, a sword falling between us, and I turned around and looked up. The fluorescence stung my eyes, wet with salt, and for the first time I saw him: that slightly pointed chin I knew so well, the cheekbones that protruded sharply from the planes of his face. His eyes, usually brown and warm, the color of wet sand, were flat and lifeless. His arms were the first I’d ever crawled toward, my knees wobbly against the kitchen floor, his hands now wrapped around cold metal. The fingers, long and expressive, resting on the trigger, had helped build my first sand castle. My brother, with whom I had always felt safe, falling asleep each night to the sound of music drifting from behind the closed door of his room, the soft, jangling guitars he loved creeping slowly into my dreams.
“Hey.” He nodded his chin at me, his tone casual, as if we were passing each other in the hallway late at night, the house shuddering in sleep around us.
My mouth opened, but my words had vanished and I gazed up at him, voiceless, blinking slowly into the light. I couldn’t hear my own breathing, my heart pumping away silently. He pointed the gun at me, and I fell into the darkness that stretched out inside the barrel. We stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. If he knew me, I couldn’t tell. He was unmistakably my brother and not my brother all at once, his features twisting and changing from moment to moment like a bad radio signal. Him. Not him. Him. Not him. I closed my eyes. The fact that I was his sister suddenly didn’t seem to matter. All I knew was the gun in my face, the enormity of it, the world shrinking to a black dot somewhere out on the horizon. I had never thought much about death, bones turning to dust, the body gone forever. I lived for the now, our lives portioned out into manageable segments, photos that disappeared in twenty seconds. Now death loomed above me, so close I could smell the sharp sweat emanating from his pores. The Grim Reaper, dressed not in a long black robe, but in the combat boots I’d helped him pick out at the mall last month.
Suddenly, I felt the molecules of air surrounding my body rearrange themselves in a cool rush, the shadow falling abruptly away. Even before I opened my eyes, I knew he was gone. I watched his back as he walked away, striding purposefully toward the table I’d hidden under just minutes before. I could hear Miranda’s cries intensify as he came closer, advancing. He walked briskly, almost passing her before he turned around, bending at the waist and peering under the table. Miranda began to scream helplessly then. I was aware that my hands were shaking, that I was cold, so cold it felt as if I might never be warm again.
“What’s up?” I heard him say in the seconds before the gun went off, his voice taunting and menacing, belying those innocent words. The screaming abruptly stopped, the wail of an animal cut short. If you had asked me to sit still, or even to get up and run, I couldn’t have done it. At some point soon after, he must’ve left the library, the double doors clanging noisily behind him. I stayed where I was, rocking back and forth as if to put myself to sleep, my hands clutching my head. A lullaby my mother had once sung to me before bed repeated itself over and over in my brain. Safe and sound. Safe and sound. Go to sleep, you little baby . . . There was peace in the repetition of words, the sameness of the syllables. Then there were hands on my body lifting me up, voices cooing into my deafened ears, smoothing my clothes. I pulled away with a violent jerk, the sound finally released from my throat in a long howl that rose steadily up and into the hollowness of the room. The light blue hoodie and jeans I wore that day were drenched, the blood beginning to dry, stiffening the fabric against my skin. That night when I sat down to brush my hair, I would find tiny pieces of bone matted in the long strands.
After leaving the library, my brother walked calmly through the quad, stopping in a deserted science lab, shutting the door behind him. I imagine him waiting for a long moment, the clock ticking on the wall, before resting the long barrel of the gun against his forehead and pulling the trigger. I can almost picture the explosion, the force that propelled him backward so that he fell into a desk, then hit the floor, his blood discoloring the pale yellow linoleum in a dirty smear. By the time the SWAT team busted through the doors of the school (he had secured them with bicycle locks), my brother had killed fifteen people. His face would be plastered across the front page of every newspaper in the country, that half smile I knew so well grinning out from the stark pages, my fingers smeared with ink as I sifted through the wreckage.
High school senior kills 15 in Plainewood shooting
Plainewood, Wisconsin— A student killed 15 people and injured 4 in a deadly shooting yesterday at Plainewood High School. Police have confirmed that the shooter, Lucas David Aronson, 18, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A student who witnessed the attack said he heard gunshots coming from the parking lot before seeing Aronson entering the library, where he proceeded to open fire.
FBI officials would not comment on a motive. And Plainewood Police said authorities “have much work to do yet” in their investigation of the shooting, which sent students running for their lives during their lunch hour at 1,200-student Plainewood High.
“Everybody just took off,” said 17-year-old Melanie Walker, who was studying in a classroom when she heard shots fired. “We were all running and screaming down the hallway.”
Heather Adams, 17, said she was in the library when she saw Aronson enter and begin shooting. She said she and several other students immediately ran outside, while others locked themselves in a teachers’ lounge.
Classmates and residents described Aronson as a normal boy who excelled in school and enjoyed skateboarding.
Bill Dunne, a next-door neighbor, said he was “stunned,” to hear of Aronson’s involvement in the Wednesday shooting, describing Aronson as “an average boy, pretty quiet.”
“The boy was a senior, had gotten into a good college. He had everything going for him,” Dunne said. Reportedly, some months prior to the shooting, Aronson had been accepted to MIT, where he planned to study biochemistry.
Equally stunned are Aronson’s classmates.
Eighteen-year-old Christa Conners, a senior at Plaineville High School, said that Aronson was known for his willingness to counsel others. “He always had time to listen,” Conners stated. When asked about bullying as a possible motive, Conners stated that as far as she knew, “Luke was never made fun of or bullied. He didn’t talk a lot in class, but nobody picked on him.”
“Even though he was kind of quiet, he still had friends,” said Tyler Rosen, 16.
Plainewood High School principal David Clarke, who was injured in the attack, released a statement expressing the administration’s “deep grief for the victims and survivors of this horrific event,” and vowed to “bring the community back together swiftly and securely.”
On Friday, teachers and administration will return to the school for the first time since yesterday’s fatal shooting, with grief counselors on hand. Students and parents are urged to return to the school on Monday, March 16th for counseling, with classes set to resume after the spring break holiday on April 6th.
Aronson is survived by his parents and a sister, 17.
“It’s the human’s nature to survive,
Welcome to the living.”
—ALICE ANDERSON, “HUMAN NATURE”
There’s blood under my nails.
No matter how many showers I take, how much I scrub with a coarse brush, the bristles scouring the damp pads of my fingers, I can’t get them clean. I hold my hands up to the light and scrutinize them, squinting my eyes, bringing them to my nose, my stomach recoiling at the coppery stink I imagine still permeates my chapped flesh. In spite of all of my efforts there remains a faint line embedded beneath each nail. A shadow.
I hear muffled noises from outside the house, and I walk to my window, pull the curtains back. Reporters stand there patiently, lying in wait, their hulking white news vans parked at the curb. I can feel their eyes sweeping the perimeter of the house, searching for signs of life, movement, a story. One woman lights a cigarette, and as she draws the smoke into her lungs, a look of relief falls across her face, her hair shellacked into a dark helmet. I close the curtains and look around. My room is the same: pale blue walls the washed-out hue of skim milk, a mirrored vanity table with spindly wooden legs that used to belong to my grandmother, a pair of long windows that look over the sloping front yard. My violin case propped at the foot of my bed like a discarded doll. But everything is different. I open the case, still imagining that it is streaked with blood and other bodily fluids I don’t want to think about, and pull my violin from the velvet interior, my fingers skidding over the well-oiled mahogany. I run my hands over the satiny wood, the tips of my fingers hardened and rough, before tucking it back in the case where it will be safe, where it can sleep and forget.
I should be practicing now, warming up with scales in the music room at school, light falling weakly through the dusty blinds, the bow moving effortlessly in my hands. Afterward, gulping down a carton of orange juice in the cafeteria before first track, the shreds of sweet pulp tickling the inside of my cheeks, the halls, redolent of floor wax, strong, musky perfume, and the chemical stench of Dry-Erase markers. My face staring back at me in the girls’ bathroom mirror, hurriedly brushing my hair before class—eyes the color of hot cocoa, a pointed chin, two dark slashes for eyebrows, the brush caught in my straight sandy hair.
I walk downstairs, pulling my hoodie around me in the morning chill. My feet are bare and cold on the polished wood floors. What do people do in the morning? I wonder as I descend, my legs moving mechanically. Without school, time seems slowed down, heavy and thick as a snowdrift. Just yesterday I was rummaging through the kitchen in the early morning light, grabbing a banana from a bowl on the kitchen counter, Luke waiting impatiently in the driveway, car keys jangling against his leg—but it already seems lost in the distance. Some people won’t be walking downstairs today, I think, or eating anything at all. Some people won’t ever walk again, and you know whose fault that is, don’t you? Miranda’s face flashes in front of my eyes. I stop at the bottom, my hand on the banister, the scent of freshly brewed coffee drifting through the air. Even though I’m not particularly hungry, I want the normalcy of routine, an illusion of order. Breakfast, I tell myself firmly, putting one foot in front of the other. You should eat breakfast.
My mother sits at the kitchen table, engulfed in a sea of newsprint, her eyes staring straight ahead. The phone, I notice, is placed on the countertop, off the hook. She’s wearing the blue terry-cloth robe my dad gave her for Christmas years ago, the fabric now worn into softness. Her golden hair is matted in the back, one piece sticking up crazily on top. She doesn’t hear me come in, and when I touch her, she jumps, grabbing my arm. When she tilts her face up to look at me, there are shadows beneath her eyes, deep craters. In her heart-shaped face, I see my own wide-set eyes, though Luke got her dimple, the slight indentation on her left cheek that only appears when she smiles.
“Alys! You startled me.” She looks away before noticing the newspapers cluttering the table, the mess of them. Words swim before my eyes in a tangle of black and white. Shooter. Casualties. Unstable. Tragedy. Rifle. I take a deep breath in and hold it, a sharp pain filling my lungs. She pulls the newspapers toward herself, crumpling them, and the sound it makes is like fire, my nerves standing on end. She gathers up the papers in her arms and walks over to the kitchen counter, stowing them there, out of reach.
“Let me make you something to eat.” She turns around, her eyes unnaturally bright, glittering from lack of sleep. There is a cadence to her voice I haven’t heard before, a kind of superficial cheerfulness. For the record, my mother is a lot of things, but cheerful isn’t generally one of them. She works at an art gallery and makes pots and small sculptures in her studio in the basement in her spare time, glazing them in metallic bronzes and cloudy grays. She devours thrillers with hammers and sickles on the covers and is partial to boring experimental foreign films with endless subtitles. “Cheerful” is not generally on her radar. When my parents met, they were college students at the University of Chicago, spending all their time at weird-ass pseudo-hippie gatherings where people sat around in parks doing lots of drugs and making out with each other, even though the sixties were long over. They should’ve been listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, hanging out in coffeehouses dressed in plaid, ogling pictures of Kate Moss modeling the latest in heroin chic. Instead they organized protests against major corporations until they were chased from the sidewalks like bits of paper blown by the wind. It sounds stupid now, but when I look at the old pictures of them my mother keeps tucked away in her underwear drawer, patched and faded jeans sliding down her skinny hips, my father wrapped in some kind of crazy wool poncho, his dark hair longer than my own, I almost believe that they’re going to end up on a farm somewhere, growing vegetables and baking their own bread, a merry band of weirdos sharing their ramshackle Victorian, the paint peeling in a shower of flakes like so much dead skin. Pots of vegetable chili cooking on the stove, and the sweet clucking of chickens in the yard.
But my dad gave all of that up for the dream of a white picket fence and the financial security of a corporate job—something my mother never quite forgave him for. Moving to Plainewood from Chicago was just about the worst thing that has ever happened to her, and she never gets tired of telling us so. “We live in a town where I sell paintings of kittens, for God’s sake,” she’ll grumble after a particularly bad day at work. My dad works as an insurance adjuster, the guy people call when their roofs cave in or their houses burn to white-hot cinders. Most of the time, he sits in his office, hunched over a calculator, spreadsheets and cost analysis reports littered across his desk. Rows of suits line the walls of his closet, his threadbare jeans and poncho thrown in the trash long ago. In spite of the bleakness of his job, the floods, the fires, the acts of God that can tear a house down to its very foundation, my father is unremittingly cheerful—something that irritates my mother to no end. “How can you do what you do and be happy?” she’ll mutter as she stalks around the kitchen, banging cabinets and pulling a dense block of cheese from the fridge for a makeshift dinner. “Who the hell did I marry?” is another one she’s fond of lobbing out as she exits a room, the smell of turpentine trailing her like vapor. I watch as she pulls open the cupboard now, her hand hovering over a box of cereal.
I think of the myriad possibilities waiting patiently to be consumed: the bagels on the counter, the cartons of peach and strawberry yogurt in the fridge, the cereal my mother is about to pull from its shelf, and bile rises in my throat. How can I go through the mindless act of chewing and swallowing like it’s just a normal day when everything’s been burned to ashes? I sit down, one hand over my mouth.
“Alys?” My mother hurries over and places one hand on my forehead as if to check for fever. She tries to pull me to her, but I am stone. Immovable. My mother does not fuss, as a rule, but now she is all over me. “You didn’t eat last night, did you?”
“Nobody did,” I mumble as her face falls slightly, tears welling up in her eyes. “I told you. I’m not hungry.”
“You’ll feel better if you eat something.” My mother is always happiest whenever she has a project, and she moves purposefully over to the refrigerator and pulls out a loaf of bread. The last time she made me breakfast, I was probably six. I notice her hands are trembling slightly, a low-grade tremor. You’ll feel better. As if something as small as eating could fix anything at all. I watch, hypnotized by the banality of toast as she places two slices of bread in the oven and shuts the door, pulls the butter from the fridge so it can soften on the counter. My mother doesn’t believe in toasters—she thinks they’re a waste of money.
“Can I have some coffee?” I want to feel the cup in my hand, the heat burning my palms, the solid heft of the porcelain.
“You know how I feel about you drinking coffee. It stunts your growth.”
I’m five eleven. Without coffee, I would be the Jolly Green Giant. I already tower over most of the guys in my class, which is slightly humiliating. I look out the kitchen window at the bare branches of trees, a light rain trickling down from the sky. I wish things could go back to the way they were yesterday, Luke telling me to hurry up, Mom yelling from her studio for us to have a good day, Dad talking on the phone to some agitated client before he left for work, his voice calming as a tranquilizer. Not my mother bustling around as if she knows what she’s doing when everything has so obviously fallen apart. Not this awful silence we have to fill with toast and morning conversation. Not this.
“We’ll need to get you a dress,” she says casually, as if we’re talking about shopping for the prom. “The service is tomorrow. We can go to the mall later. In Madison.”
I notice that she doesn’t say the word funeral, though she and I both know this is exactly what she means. A dress. A stupid black dress I will wear once, and then stuff in the garbage cans out back when no one is looking. A dress I would rather douse in gasoline and light on fire than ever see again. I should be shopping for bikinis for the trip to Maui we were supposed to be taking next week, staring at my body in the full-length mirrors of the dressing room with a combination of fascination and dismay, my legs long and too skinny, my chest annoyingly flat. Perusing the aisles of Ray’s Drugs in search of the one self-tanner that smelled like coconuts and somehow magically enabled my dead-white skin to develop a burnished glow that whispered of exotic locales. Bali. Antigua. Bora Bora brown.
“Is that . . . necessary?” I say slowly.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” She stops and stares at me, holding a knife in one hand like a talisman, her face impassive but her eyes flashing a warning. Danger.
Because there is a group of rabid reporters camped out on our doorstep, waiting for us to so much as stick a toe out the front door? Because Luke killed fifteen people? Because leaving the house right now to go anywhere makes me feel like I’m going to die?
“Your entire wardrobe consists of sweats and jeans with holes in them, so yes, Alys, I think it’s necessary.” She puts a yellow plate with toast cut into precise triangles down on the table in a sharp clatter—I get it: You will eat this toast—and sits down in a chair next to me. The smell turns my stomach, but I force myself to pick up a slice, to consider the tiny bubbles of air in the dough before bringing it to my mouth and taking a bite. The bread has no taste whatsoever, despite being liberally spread with butter, and I chew mechanically, then swallow, a lump sticking in my throat.
“Where’s Dad?” I ask, taking another bite.
My mother looks away, her expression distant.
“He got up early—to go down to the hospital, to see your brother’s . . .”
The hospital is for sick people. Dead.
She doesn’t finish the sentence. Can’t.
“Anyway. He’s resting upstairs now.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
She looks at me wearily, and for the first time I notice the sharp lines around her mouth and eyes. My mother has always been one of those moms who can pass for ten years younger than she really is. People are forever commenting on it, which gets kind of annoying, if you want to know the truth. Now, for the first time I can remember, she looks old, worn-out, her face crumpling in on itself.
“I stayed for you. Someone needed to be here when you woke up. The phone’s been ringing all morning.”
This may or may not be true. I cannot picture my mother kneeling down by the cold metal slab, her legs failing her, one hand buried in my brother’s thick, floppy hair. She would not survive it, her only son, his
(—his dark eyes fixed on the ceiling, seeing nothing—)
“I haven’t heard anything.” I chew slowly, reluctantly, willing myself to eat.
“Your father took the phone off the hook. And we turned off your cell after you got home.”
My iPhone is sitting on the kitchen table, where I left it last night, the screen cracked down the center. When I pick it up, I notice the dried blood streaking the display, feel the slight stickiness on my fingers, and I begin to cough, dropping the phone with a clatter on the tabletop, bending at the waist. Then there is the steady pressure of my mother’s hand on my back, the sound of her voice as she whispers, “Shush . . .” slowly, quietly. She pats me at first, then rubs in circles, which makes me want to jump out of my skin, to start screaming and never stop.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I manage to get out, coughing in between the words. I wave away her hands, and stumble over to the sink, fill a glass of water from the tap, and drink greedily, crumbs of toast still sputtering around in my windpipe like dried leaves. The feeder hanging from the oak tree in the backyard is birdless, snow dotting the ground in patches. The garden is asleep, and looking at it, brown and bare, I long for spring, the sunlight that will bring the wildflowers my mother planted last year to the surface, dotting the landscaping in a rich, colorful carpet. The tree house Luke built when he was thirteen still hangs from the upper branches of the oak, the wood weathered from the last few years of snow, rain, and sun. I remember him working on it all of that summer, cutting the wood into precise planks, a pencil tucked behind one ear. I blink back the tears and refill my glass, the rushing stream from the tap drowning my memories. But suddenly he’s there, slinking through the yard, the gold streaks in his hair shining under overcast skies. I blink once, dropping the glass in the sink with a crash, but he’s still there, walking through the backyard in a long winter coat, staring up at me.
“Alys?” My mother’s voice sounds worried, tense, but I barely hear her.
Her hands are on my shoulders as I raise my index finger and point, wordless, at the dark figure meandering around near my mother’s prize rosebushes: Lincoln. American Beauty. Damask. Following my gaze, her grip tightens, the nails digging in like claws.
“Paul!” She screams my father’s name, spinning around, hand on her hips, a wild look in her eyes. “Paul, someone’s in the yard again!”
Luke, is that you?
I mouth the words silently, afraid to speak them aloud, but when the figure moves closer to the window, holding up a large black camera, I see that it’s not him, not Luke, that his blond hair is shot with silver and there are wrinkles around his eyes. I realize that I am holding on to the kitchen counter, holding on with both hands as if I might fall down entirely if I let go.
My father enters the room, his bathrobe wrapped around him tightly. If I’ve ever seen my father in a robe after seven a.m. on a weekday, I can’t remember it. He walks to the kitchen window and peers outside, his face set and grim, then yanks open the back door so that the house shakes. I watch him stride over to the man and grab his wrist. My father, whom I have never seen touch another living soul in anger—we were never even spanked as kids—grabs him so roughly that the man’s camera falls to the ground, bouncing once before lying still, the lens pointed toward the sky. And in that one moment, my mother’s hands on my shoulders again, I know for sure that from this second on, my life will never be the same again. There will always be someone lurking behind the hedges, waiting to stun us with the glare of flashbulbs, our faces blank as paper. Our smiles utterly erased.
Before yesterday, we were a normal family. Normal. Camp in the summer and igloo forts in the winter. Icees made from the first snowfall, sugar and drops of food coloring melting on our tongues in a pink slush. Two parents, two cars. The low moan of a cello streaming from the speakers, the high-pitched burst of my violin punctuating the bustle and hum of our daily lives. Chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP on Sunday mornings. A white clapboard house with a manicured lawn, splashes of yellow roses lining the fence. Everything neat and tidy. Ask anyone. Of course, now after what Luke has done, people will say, Oh, the Aronsons. I always thought they were weird. But we weren’t. We were just like you. Except we weren’t. But we didn’t know it yet.
But you knew it, Luke, didn’t you?
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Praise for SILENT ALARM:
“A moving, insightful treatment of a difficult and timely topic.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A captivating portrait of a family torn apart by jealousy and neglect.”—School Library Journal
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