The wealthy enclaves north of San Francisco are not the paradise they appear to be, and nobody knows this better than the students of a local high school. Despite being raised with all the opportunities money can buy, these vulnerable kids are navigating a treacherous adolescence in which every action, every rumor, every feeling, is potentially postable, shareable, viral.
Lindsey Lee Johnson’s kaleidoscopic narrative exposes at every turn the real human beings beneath the high school stereotypes. Abigail Cress is ticking off the boxes toward the Ivy League when she makes the first impulsive decision of her life: entering into an inappropriate relationship with a teacher. Dave Chu, who knows himself at heart to be a typical B student, takes desperate measures to live up to his parents’ crushing expectations. Emma Fleed, a gifted dancer, balances rigorous rehearsals with wild weekends. Damon Flintov returns from a stint at rehab looking to prove that he’s not an irredeemable screwup. And Calista Broderick, once part of the popular crowd, chooses, for reasons of her own, to become a hippie outcast.
Into this complicated web, an idealistic young English teacher arrives from a poorer, scruffier part of California. Molly Nicoll strives to connect with her students—without understanding the middle school tragedy that played out online and has continued to reverberate in different ways for all of them.
Written with the rare talent capable of turning teenage drama into urgent, adult fiction, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with sorrow, passion, and humanity.
Advance praise for The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
“In sharp and assured prose, roving among characters, Lindsey Lee Johnson plumbs the terrifying depths of a half-dozen ultraprivileged California high school kids. I read The Most Dangerous Place on Earth in two chilling gulps. It’s a phenomenal first book, a compassionate Less Than Zero for the digital age.”—Anthony Doerr, #1 New York Times bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See
“The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a deftly composed mosaic of adolescence in the modern age, frightening and compelling in its honesty: a terrific debut, and one that I didn’t want to set down.”—Julia Pierpont, New York Times bestselling author of Among the Ten Thousand Things
“Johnson’s gripping debut novel leads us into the moral freefall of a group of privileged Marin County students following a dark incident in their shared past. Beautifully inhabited and written in supple, confident prose, this novel of adolescent violence and vulnerability is a knockout!”—Janet Fitch, author of Paint It Black and White Oleander
“An astonishing debut novel, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth plunges the reader into the fraught power dynamics between (and among) high school teachers and students with both nuance and fearlessness.”—Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me and Dare Me
“In her superb first novel, Lindsey Lee Johnson deftly illuminates a certain strain of privileged American adolescence and the existential minefield these kids are forced to navigate.”—Seth Greenland, author of I Regret Everything and The Angry Buddhist
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Cally Broderick lingered in the doorway of the resource office, waiting to be noticed.
She would have been easy to overlook. She was short and skinny, and her dirty-blond hair had begun that year to wave and shine with oil. Her hazel eyes were pretty, though too wide-set, her nose thin but too long. Every four weeks her face produced a constellation of pimples that loomed and gleamed when she turned her cheek to the mirror, disgusting and enthralling her. Her face was a question she considered daily, widening her eyes in the mirror on the inside of her locker, sucking the flesh of her cheeks between her teeth. Her mother said—or used to say—that Cally was “striking looking,” a description Cally rejected: it was not only vaguely violent sounding but also patently untrue.
She was a restless girl, anxious to rewind her life or jump it forward. In service of the latter goal, she’d made a list of skills to learn before adulthood—how to swallow pills without gagging, to buy tampons without blushing, to shake the hands of her father’s friends without giggling and glancing away. But as the years passed, the list only grew longer: life presented more questions as she lived it, more and more doors to unlock. These questions she didn’t share with anyone. She wrote them in a battered journal, then stuffed the journal in a pillowcase and shoved it under her mattress lest someone—her brother
Jake—find it and expose her. She would not even show it to Abigail Cress, her best friend. Prior to Abigail, Cally would have said her best friend was her mother, but that was now impossible, for a multitude of reasons too complex to explain. In fact there was little about her life that Cally Broderick could explain, to herself or to anyone else. She was a girl in middle school. She was thirteen years old.
The resource office at Mill Valley Middle School was small and dim—the resource teacher, Ms. Flax, had a moral objection to fluorescent lights, preferring to squint in the amber glow of a ceramic lamp— and stank of mold, and of the pesto pasta that steamed at the teacher’s elbow as she marked papers at her desk.
Ms. Flax, over thirty but under fifty, had an apple-shaped body that she wrapped in hippie scarves and tunics and long mud-colored skirts. She was not pretty, Cally decided, but prettyish, with featherweight hair and deep brown eyes that turned down at the corners, making her look on the verge of tears even when she laughed. Across from her sat Tristan Bloch, who flipped through a stack of shiny colored papers on the desk. He was fat and pale with blond hair buzz-cut so close she saw bits of scalp through the glistening bristle; on sunny days at recess his head would glow as if on fire.
Everyone at Mill Valley Middle School knew that Tristan spent hours in Ms. Flax’s office, during homeroom, study hall, sometimes recess and lunch. No one knew what they did in there for all that time. Probably she helped him with his work, but it seemed just as likely that he helped her with hers.
“Ms. Flax?” Cally said. “I got this note? You wanted to, like, see me?” Ms. Flax started and looked up. “Oh, yes,” she said, shifting her weight, and the chair cushion squeaked and farted beneath her. This embarrassed Cally. And it happened every time—pushing hair out of her face, Ms. Flax would pretend not to notice the noises as she begged Cally to change her ways, as if Cally’s “applying herself ” would determine the course of Ms. Flax’s own sad life. “Come in, please. Have a seat.”
“No thanks,” Cally said. She knew what Ms. Flax was like: to step inside, to sit, was to condemn oneself to an inquisition.
Seeing no way out, Cally relented, stepping into the room and taking the seat next to Tristan Bloch’s.
“Mr. Hoyt says you’ve been copying algebra homework,” Ms. Flax said. “You are an extremely bright girl, Calista Broderick. Why would you do this?”
“I don’t know,” Cally said. She looked to see if Tristan was listening, but he did not react. Hunched over the desk, he was folding a sheet of silver paper again and again. All the while he tongued the corner of his mouth. His white T-shirt was tucked into the oversized sweatpants he wore every day, in colors that seemed chosen to assault the eyes: apple red, lime green, and even, horror of horrors, yellow. He wore yellow now. Fruit punch stained his thigh, the splash darkened to a sick bluish gray. Cally’s mother would have told her it was rude, but she couldn’t stop staring at that spot. It was like one of those inkblots psychiatrists showed you to see what kind of crazy you were.
Everyone knew that Tristan didn’t have a father, only a dumpy mother with his same squinty eyes and an aura of frizzed red hair. She’d find any excuse to come panting through the halls, bringing Tristan homework assignments, sweatshirts, Slurpees. At least once a week she’d stride into the front office, hot cheeked, indignant, to yell at Principal Falk about Tristan’s special academic accommodations. Then she’d trudge down to the resource room to conspire with Ms. Flax, as if they would be able to turn Tristan into a normal human being just because they wanted to. But Cally knew what Tristan’s mother didn’t—she was only making his situation worse, she was exactly as weird as her son, what he needed most in life was to get away from her.
If Cally did end up motherless, she thought, at least she’d never have to worry about her dad trolling the halls of her school.
“This isn’t you,” Ms. Flax insisted.
Cally shrugged. Of course she could do the homework herself, but there were more interesting things in the world. There was her best friend, Abigail, and their afternoons behind closed blinds. There was Ryan Harbinger’s body as he stretched to field a ball, and the current that jagged through her in English when he palmed her bare right thigh under the desk, then squeezed it hard enough to bruise, grinning when she screamed. There was sprawling sideways on her bed with her head dangled over the edge, picturing velvety blood as it seeped to the top of her brain. Everything was more interesting than algebra, but she couldn’t say that to Ms. Flax, who had probably done all her own school assignments before her teachers even thought of them. And look at where it had gotten her—stuck in middle school for the rest of her life, with Tristan Bloch.
Tristan’s silver paper had transformed into something tiny, sharp, and shining—a spear, a crown, Cally couldn’t tell. His eyes narrowed to slits and his tongue worked its way to his top lip, sucking at it, revealing the pink gloss underneath.
“Oh, honey,” Ms. Flax said. “Talk to me. How are things at home?” “What?” Heat surged in Cally’s chest and face; she felt it making her ugly.
Ms. Flax shifted in her chair, began again. “Since your mother has been ill, I know it has been difficult. It’s all right to feel sad, even angry. I wish you would share your feelings, rather than acting out in this way.”
Cally thought, Abigail was right about Ms. Flax: she made you think she wanted to help, but underneath she was a total bitch. “Just because I don’t care about eighth-grade math doesn’t mean there’s a problem,” she said. “It’s not like it matters. None of this does.”
Ms. Flax’s eyes widened, and for a second it seemed she would cry. How awkward that would be. Unbearable. “Look,” she said, “I’m on your side here, Cally. But I can’t help if you refuse to be honest with me.”
Cally crossed her arms. Beside her, Tristan Bloch picked up his folded silver paper, pressed it to his lips, and blew. Then he set it on the desk—a tiny, perfect crane—and nudged it toward her.
This was when Cally made the mistake. She should have ignored him like most people did. But instead she reached forward and plucked the crane from the desk. She set it in her palm and raised her hand to her eyes. The bird had a sharp beak, a scissor neck and tail, two precise, glinting wings. It seemed to float in her palm. In that moment it seemed possible this tiny bird could fly—out of this stifling room, out of this school and this town and away. She smiled at Tristan then, and Tristan smiled back.
“What a lovely gift,” Ms. Flax said. “Calista, don’t you think you should say thank you?”
Mercifully, Cally’s iPhone buzzed in her pocket. Abigail always knew when she needed saving.
“Do I have detention or not?” she asked.
Ms. Flax sighed. “Three days. And you’ll make up the homework for Mr. Hoyt.”
“Fine.” Cally stood and turned to leave, the paper bird between her fingers.
That night, Cally curled on her narrow bed to text with Abigail.
Abigail never came over to Cally’s house. It was an unspoken agreement between them. It was partly because Cally’s room was small and plain, with a west-facing window that admitted scant light. Directly outside the window was her mother’s rose garden, which permeated the walls; no matter how emphatically Cally spritzed her own fruity perfumes, she could never quite cover the room’s damp soil smell. Be- yond the garden, the view swept across to Mount Tamalpais. Under the window was a small wooden desk that Cally rarely used. She preferred to do her homework on her bed, which she’d piled with pillows and pushed against the wall. The wall itself was papered in a pattern chosen for the child who had had the room before her: faded yellow balloons floating upward to the ceiling. In places, she had outlined the balloons with marker, had drawn on faces and hairstyles, torsos and hands. At the seam she’d scratched the paperback, exposing strips of ancient glue.
The walls of Cally’s house were thin, and the sounds were layered: as she lay there clutching her phone, she heard her dad shouting at the TV, her brothers fighting in the bedroom next door, the steady silence from her mom’s room on the other side. Since Cally’s mom had gotten sick, her dad had stayed home to care for her and fight with the insurance people, and now he camped out in the living room every day, his paperwork spread over the couch. He slept there too, TV blaring into the night. Cally barricaded herself with pillows but could not drown out the noise of the stupid late-night show, or her dad when he yelled at the commercials: “Oh right, sure, whose house looks like that? Ass- holes.”
Cally was hungry, but to get to the kitchen she’d have to pass her mother’s room. Her mother would be shrouded in bleached blankets, sleeping. A slight form sinking in the center of the bed. Cally’s dad would tell her, “Go on in, just sit with her, spend some time.” But whenever her mother woke, her eyes weren’t right and Cally didn’t want to see them. Her mother’s eyes were once a bright, unclouded hazel—like Cally’s own, but kinder—and this was the memory she wanted.
Her brothers didn’t go in either. Erik was a sophomore at Tamalpais High and walked to school each morning with razor blades in his pockets. Jake, nineteen, should have been out of the house but wasn’t smart enough to go away to college, and in Mill Valley there wasn’t much for him to do but bus dishes at High Tech Burrito and smoke weed under the redwoods in the park. Jake was the one who came into her room to steal the allowance and birthday money she’d stashed under her jewelry box or rolled into the lace cups of her bras. She’d begged for a lock on her door, but her dad said it was “inappropriate,” a meaningless word adults used to shut down ideas they didn’t like. He just didn’t want to pay for it.
Cally turned over in bed, pulling the sheets over her shoulders. She and Abigail were discussing Ryan Harbinger, who sat next to Cally in English so he could squeeze her thigh under the desk, and copy what she wrote about the books he never read. For the past two weeks he’d been pursuing Cally in PE class, pulling her into the willow trees to make out while they were supposed to be running the mile at Bayfront Park.
OMG you slut, Abigail texted. Tell me more!!
What do u want to know?
U know. When’s he going to make you his gf?
Come on. U know u want it!
I think he likes Elisabeth Avarine
That bitch. No way
She’s so pretty I think
Looks aren’t everything
U have to make him want u
Hmm well u don’t want to be too clingy. U don’t want to be that girl.
No, Cally agreed. Definitely not!
Cally understood that Ryan was too busy to care about things like schoolwork or novels or the volatile feelings of girls. He was captain of the baseball team, and in the hot afternoons of late spring she and Abigail and Emma Fleed would go in their skinny-strap tank tops and miniskirts to watch him play, singeing their thighs on the bleachers. When Cally’s bra strap fell down her arm, she wouldn’t bother to hitch it up. She’d already been dress-coded three times that quarter, but she didn’t care. She would train her eyes on Ryan, tracing his body against the green blare of grass, and when she closed her eyes at night she’d be able to keep seeing him, an afterimage burned onto the insides of her eyelids, her very own personal beautiful thing.
The next afternoon, PE class was at the pool. Aquatics and Safety Training. Cally stood with the other girls in their ugly one-piece bat ing suits, squinting against the silver swimming pool, shifting on their feet and rubbing toes on calves. The boys were on the bleachers across the water.
Cally hugged her chest and looked around for Ryan Harbinger. Instead her eyes alit on Tristan Bloch, who emerged blinking from the locker room in blue trunks and white T-shirt. Cally became suddenly, intensely aware of her own semi-nakedness, how the spandex swimsuit molded to her nipples and cut into her thighs. She felt a vague, unsubstantiated panic about pubic hair. As Tristan scanned the pool deck, she ducked behind Abigail and Emma. She was hiding there when she heard Ryan’s voice at her back:
“Cally Broderick! You gotta go in!”
She turned and he was there, suntanned and bare-chested and grab- bing at her, trying to throw her in the pool.
“Ryan! No!” she shrieked, but he didn’t stop. Terror could sound exactly like joy. Cally ran forward, evading Ryan’s grasp; the other girls scattered like birds. She glanced over her shoulder just as Tristan Bloch knocked Ryan into the water and crashed in behind him, splashing her. Cally stopped short at the edge of the pool and rubbed the sting of chlorine from her eyes. She felt mascara smudging on her face and tried not to let it worry her.
Both boys surfaced.
“The fuck are you doing?” Ryan yelled across the water.
Tristan struggled to stay afloat, arms chopping. His T-shirt bubbled around his face and threatened to swallow him.
Ryan streamed through the water, rose, and barreled down on Tristan’s head, plunging him under. It happened so fast. It went on forever. Cally was steps away, conceivably she could do something, but it felt like watching TV. Everyone gathered around the pool and stood there, waiting to see how far Ryan Harbinger would go.
Finally Tristan pushed out from under Ryan’s hand, gulping the air, panicked, like a lost little kid. Abigail and Emma yelled at Cally to get away from the edge, but she couldn’t move a single limb.
“Want more, faggot?” Ryan pushed Tristan under again. “Stop it!” someone, not Cally but Dave Chu, yelled.
“You like it, fag?” Ryan was grinning at Cally now. “You like it?” “Please,” she said, too quietly to matter. She backed away to huddle with Abigail like they were nothing more than spectators.
When Mr. Gifford charged out of the locker room, eyes on his clipboard, Ryan released Tristan and vaulted out of the water. He was back with the boys before the teacher looked up. Tristan broke the water’s surface, heaving for air.
“Tristan Bloch!” Mr. Gifford yelled. “What the hell are you doing in the pool?”
Everyone laughed, so Cally did too. She guessed Tristan would regret having given her the silver crane, would be disappointed at the kind of girl she had turned out to be. She’d saved herself.
Cally found the note in her locker the next day after school. A sheet of binder paper folded into impeccable quarters, her initials neatly printed on the front in pale blue ink. The handwriting was not what she’d hoped for: Ryan’s hurried scrawl.
She unfolded the note.
Dear Cally Calista Broderick,
You might not think I watch you but I do.
Every day in class, and at recess, and when you come to Ms. Flax’s room when I’m there because of my acommodations. In PE I see you when you run the mile around the marsh and you cut through the long part and go into that clump of trees with that asshole Ryan H. (I’m sorry Calista but he really is an Asshole.)
You might not think that anyone in this School sees you but I do. I mean sees you really. Did you know that you have the World’s most beautiful skin. It smells like rasberries. And you have the smallest softest blondeish hairs on your arms. I know this be- cause I touched you one time, in algebra remember? You were reaching for a fresh pencil and I reached across at the exact same second and Boom!! I touched your bare skin. You might of thought that was an accident Calista, but what if it wasn’t?
Sometimes when I’m watching you I think about I think that you are Perfect. People say Elisabeth Avarine is prettier than you just because she has a better nose but you shouldn’t beleive them, I don’t. First of all your hair is longer and wavier than Elisabeth’s. And second, when you look at you, you can tell that you aren’t Brain Dead. I mean I can tell that you think about things, like I do.
Calista, sometimes when I’m watching you I think about this day back in sixth grade. We were all stand- ing on the flats during PE and looking up at the ridge of Mount Tamalpais, The Sleeping Lady. You know the Legend: The Mountain Witch sent her daughter Tamalpa to cast an evil spell on a Miwok warrior who went up the Mountain alone. But Tamalpa stole his gold headdress and all his power. The warrior didn’t care because he was already in love with her. Tamalpa fell in love with him too. She couldn’t help it. But she knew that she would only destroy him, so she poisoned herself with Deadly black blossoms. Then three girls came and covered her with a purple blanket, and the Mountain changed itself into her shape. Like a wizard. Or a ghost.
You know how the Mountain is always Beautiful, but it’s hard to remember its Beautiful because it’s al- ways there? It’s like a poster that you hang up in your room because you like it so much, but after a while you don’t see it anymore. And when someone asks you what does it look like, you have to think. So that day in sixth grade we were trying to see it. The Mountain was deep green like jewelry. The sky behind it was bright blue. We were squinting to see The Sleeping Lady’s nose, boobs, waist and legs. You said, “Why do we call her Sleeping when everybody knows she’s Dead?” Everybody laughed but I liked it when you said that. Because no one else in Mill Valley would even think of it.
Calista, the Truth is sometimes I don’t know if I can stand to stay here in this Town. Miss Flax says I am smart and special and can be anything I want. But the thing teachers never explain when they say that is, How do you find out what you want? When the
Lawyer people become Lawyers, is it because that is what they always wanted to be? When they were in Kindergarten playing with their Legos, did they daydream about Lawyering? If they did, then I am even weirder than people say. I must be like an Alien or something. Because I never thought about being a Lawyer, or a Doctor, or a Top Executive. I mostly think about how the Universe is these forever blues and blacks and blinking stars, how it looks like the in- side of a big open umbrella but in actuality goes on forever and swallows everything, my house and my street and Mill Valley and California and America and the Earth and the Sun and all the Planets and the Galaxies—I think how the universe is this huge forever-big and at the same time small enough to fold up in my brain like an Origami box, where I can imagine it all. I think, how is it that these opposite things could both be True? I guess this is what Miss Flax is getting at when she tells me that I’m Special. I guess I know she doesn’t want to be mean to a kid and that is why she chooses to say Special, which is really just a nicer way of saying Alien. I wonder if you think about things like this too. There’s no way to explain it but I feel like you do.
Calista I want to talk to you. Every day I think about talking to you, but you’re always with Abigail Cress walking to her house after school, or else you’re stuck in the middle of that whole big group of other girls who are Nothing compared to you.
Calista I Love You do you think you could love me back? I could help you with your algebra homework sometime. If you wanted.
The blue words blurred on the page. Cally’s breaths came shallow and fast. She was dizzy, and wondered if she should stick her head in a paper bag. (She had seen this on TV.) Tristan Bloch had called her Calista, which was her real name, private, and only for her mother to use. He knew about her and Ryan. He knew that she went to Abigail’s every day after school. Had he followed them? Had he peeked in the window while she and Abigail and Emma Fleed lay head-to-foot and pumiced each other’s calluses or stuffed their faces until they puked or debated who Ryan was going to choose as his girlfriend, Cally or that bitch Elisabeth Avarine?
Cally did not know what to think about the note from Tristan Bloch; she did not know what to do. If her life weren’t what it was, she might have asked her mother.
She took the note to Abigail. While privacy was a fantasy at Cally’s house, at Abigail’s they had nothing but. Abigail’s vast bedroom had turquoise wallpaper and a queen-sized bed and a mini-fridge stocked with Cokes and her older brother’s beer that they’d steal and share outside, in the dank space beneath the deck. The beer was bitter, but she loved its buzzing at the base of her skull and the backs of her knees, and she loved scooting close to her friends in the dark and conspiring. She was grateful for Abigail, for her giant, echoing house and parents who were always at work. (“They’re on New York time,” Abigail explained, which made no sense, but Cally was happy to be in a house like Abigail’s, so she kept her mouth shut.) If the Cresses did come home, they’d say hello and click off to their master suite across the house, not caring what the girls were up to as long as they were quiet. Sometimes they all went to Emma Fleed’s house on the mountain, but Emma was often busy with ballet class and rehearsals and couldn’t truly be counted upon, as Abigail liked to say meaningfully to Cally when Emma wasn’t around. At this Cally would feel a proprietary thrill: she was Abigail’s, Abigail hers.
That afternoon, in Abigail’s bedroom, Cally sat beside Abigail on the queen-sized bed as Emma stretched on the floor. It seemed perfectly safe for Cally to pull the note from her pocket and hand it over. When Abigail read the first line, she laughed out loud. She was the only person Cally knew who actually said “ha” when she laughed, barked it. “Ha! Oh my God, dude,” she said. “This is hilarious.”
“Yeah,” Cally said. The note made her stomach turn, but if Abigail thought it was hilarious then it probably was.
Emma stood up and grabbed the note. “What’s this crossed-out part?” she said. “ ‘SometimeswhenI’mwatchingyouI...’ Nasty.”
“Don’t read it out loud. God.” Cally felt as responsible for each sentence as if she’d written it herself.
Abigail pushed on. “You know what this means. You’re what he thinks about. When he—you know—”
“In his room at night,” Emma said, “after that creepy mom of his tucks him in—”
“Okay, I get it.”
“Maybe he does it at school! Maybe you’re running the mile and he’s sitting there watching you, hand down the front of those sweats, going at it.” Abigail squeezed her eyes shut and gaped her mouth, acting out a strange kind of pleasure-pain that Cally had never felt.
Emma shrieked with laughter. Cally blushed, hid her face in her hands.
Abigail asked, “What do you want to do?” “Forget it ever existed? Is that an option?”
“It kills me how innocent you are,” Abigail said. “Do you think he’s going to forget it?” Cally shrugged.
“What if he, like, comes after you?” Emma said. “He wouldn’t.”
“He wants you. What if he won’t take no for an answer?”
“I don’t know.” Cally remembered Tristan’s gaze, his thumbs stroking origami paper to life, what he wrote about her bare skin. What if he wouldn’t?
“Well,” Abigail said. “You know what you have to do.”
Ryan Harbinger answered the door in dirt-smeared baseball pants and sweat-sheered T-shirt, and he didn’t ask them in.
“Who is it, honey?” his mother yelled from inside.
Cally and Abigail stood together on the stoop; Emma had abandoned them for a late rehearsal. Mothers had a way of hating Cally and
Abigail on the spot, but Cally believed if she were Ryan Harbinger’s official girlfriend, his parents would learn to like her. She’d spend weekends at his house—his mother would cook waffles shaped like Mickey Mouse and his father would ask pointed yet encouraging questions about her future, as though college were next week and not a million years away.
Ryan looked them over. “Nobody!” He palmed the back of his head. “ ’Sup?”
“You have to see this.” Abigail nudged Cally, who held out the note.
As he took it from her, his thumb grazed her skin, but he didn’t look at her. He never did, exactly. He looked at her earlobe or the top of her head, and when he was kissing her amid the willows by the mile loop, his eyes stayed closed, his eyebrows worried, like it hurt.
You thinkaboutthings,likeIdo, Tristan Bloch had written. “Yeah, he thinks about fucking you,” Abigail had said, and Cally had shoved her and told her to shut the fuck up, yet the picture clicked stubbornly into focus: Tristan’s face contorted in the pleasure-pain Abigail had shown her, hips thrusting against her—sweatpants didn’t have buttons or zippers or anything . . .
Ryan laughed. “Calista. What the fuck.” His eyes were merry, golden-flecked. “Moron got your name wrong.”
He read on. He was gorgeous to watch. There were little lines around his mouth, and dark gold tendrils of hair against his temples where sweat had curled it.
“No fucking way.” His laugh jumped higher, and Cally burned happily. She had given him this pleasure—it belonged to her.
“Tristan fucking Bloch,” he said. “Is he serious with this shit?”
“It was in my locker,” Cally told him. “I just, like, found it.” She did not say, Iwantedittobefromyou.
“What a fag.”
“So, what should she do?” Abigail asked. They’d discussed this in Abigail’s bedroom—they’d find out what he thought because Cosmo said guys liked when you asked for direction, it made them feel important.
“No worries. I got this.” Ryan leaned into Cally for a kind-of hug that veered sideways as his mother yelled in her anxious pitch, “Ryan! I need you! Right! Now!”
“Okay, Jesus, calm the fuck down!”
As he pulled away, Cally realized she’d been holding her breath. He had crumpled the note in his fist. She wanted to grab it back, but he had closed the door.
Cally and Abigail walked from Ryan’s to the 7-Eleven on Miller to buy Red Vines, Tostitos, Reese’s Pieces, and Big Gulps.
In Abigail’s bedroom they closed the blinds and ate until the sugar made them giddy. This was their secret. Only the Red Vines would they ever bring to the baseball field—they would loop the vines around their fingers and tongues and every boy would stop to watch.
“Let’s see if he has a Facebook,” Abigail said. “Who would friend him?”
“Just his mom.” “And Ms. Flax.”
“Oh my God, they’re probably doing it!” Abigail screamed, delighted. “She probably takes him into that little room and fucks him all through seventh period.”
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” Cally said, but she was laughing too.
Cally and Abigail sat shoulder to shoulder in front of Abigail’s computer. They found Tristan’s profile in two seconds. “What the fuck is this picture?”
“You can’t even tell it’s him, his face is all blurry.” “Oh, it’s him,” Abigail said. “Check out those pants.”
Cally laughed again, in a hard way that made her throat hurt. In the photo Tristan wore his trademark yellow sweatpants and white T-shirt. His skin gleamed with sweat, and his nipples pricked under the shirt as he stood in hero pose—leg hitched, chest puffed, arms extended— atop a boulder on Mount Tam. The day was bright, and he squinted into the camera, grinning.
Abigail turned and looked at her, so Cally said, “What a freak.”
“Let’s friend him,” Abigail said.
“You have to do it,” Cally said. “If I do, he’ll think he has a chance.
He’ll, like, show up at my house tonight or something.”
“With a wilted little condom”—Abigail was cracking herself up— “that he keeps in his pocket just waiting for the day when the hot, sexy, beautiful Calista Broderick—”
“Shut up, you’re such a bitch.”
“Ha, you love me,” Abigail said. It was true. If not for her, Cally would be alone with the note, rereading it, waiting for its curious horror to fade. She’d have to feel what Tristan’s words opened in her, the shame that became a kind of pleasure, nothing like the anxiousness she felt when Ryan kissed her, or when he flicked his thumb over her nipple like he flicked quarters during the boring parts of algebra. It was a discomfort she’d tried to will to pleasure because it was meant to feel good, she was meant to want it, she was thirteen and pretty and it was the only logical thing to want. If not for Abigail, Cally would’ve kept the note, read the words again, traced them with her fingers: NooneseesyoubutIdo.Imeanseesyou really.
The note was like Ms. Flax’s office, a stifled room where she was trapped with Tristan. It occurred to her that Ms. Flax might know about the note. Maybe she’d even told him to write it. Teachers like her were always encouraging hopeless kids like Tristan to inject them- selves into the social scene with ridiculous gestures—declarations of love, blind stabs at friendship—as if middle school were a safe haven in which to conduct these experiments, when in fact it was the most dangerous place on Earth.
“Okay. I’m gonna do it,” Abigail said, and clicked Add Friend. Seconds later, she yelped. Tristan had approved her immediately; he clearly didn’t understand the concept of waiting so as not to seem desperate.
It turned out he did have Facebook friends—not his mother or teachers but kids from their grade who would not have said one word to him at school. There was, incredibly, Emma Fleed. And Elisabeth Avarine, Dave Chu, Nick Brickston, Damon Flintov, and even Ryan Harbinger, approved just twenty minutes before. On Tristan’s Facebook page they read:
Tristan Bloch and Ryan Harbinger are now friends. Ryan Harbinger: hey yo trisstan wut the FUCK Tristan Bloch: ?
Ryan Harbinger: yu know wut im talking about Damon Flintov: ya triSTAIN u no wut hes talking about dont u
Tristan Bloch: I am sorry I don’t.
Ryan Harbinger: CALLIE fuckin BRODRIK muther- fuckr
Cally caught her breath. Her name online, more permanent than ink.
Damon Flintov: hey trisss nice pic u think callies seen it yet?
Ryan Harbinger: ha ha thats sum sexxxy shit Damon Flintov: callys fuckin wet now bro Abby Cress: omg lolz
“Abby!” Cally said. “What are you doing?”
“It is fucking funny, Cal,” Abigail said. “You have to admit.” “Don’t write anything about me, okay?”
Abby Cress: Cally says don’t talk abt her ok?
“What the fuck?” Cally slapped Abigail’s arm. “Now they know I’m here!”
“Fucking chill,” Abigail said.
Ryan Harbinger: tristans the one talking abt her rite TRISS?
Ryan Harbinger: u might not think I watch you but I do Ryan Harbinger: u have the world’s most beautiful skin
Ryan Harbinger: calista i love u do u think u could love me back?
Damon Flintov: awwwww
Tristan Bloch: Hey guys will you please not.
Ryan Harbinger: u said it trisSTAIN
Ryan Harbinger: i have ur note, callie gave me it Ryan Harbinger: callie sez tell u ur a fat fuckin loser
Ryan Harbinger: and ur notes fuckin hillarious btw Ryan Harbinger: calista i think that u r perfect Jonas Everett: LMAO
Nick Brix: wut the fuck
Emma Fleed: Cally Broderick is Hott!!
Steph Malcolm-Swann: callie brodrick is a Bitch u guys
Tristan Bloch: Where did you get that.
Tristan Bloch: I didn’t write that. Emma Fleed: and hes a liar to? lol Damon Flintov: fuck this fag
Dave Chu: guys ur being kind of mean now.
Ryan Harbinger: hey yo trisstain were just telling u the truth
Damon Flintov: trisstan block is a fat freak perv
Jonas Everett: he he
More and more new comments flashed onto the screen.
“This is getting harsh,” Abigail said cheerfully. “Ryan Harbinger must really want to fuck you.”
Once when Cally was a kid, her family had gone water-skiing at Lake Tahoe. When it was Cally’s turn, her mom had jumped in too, floating beside Cally in the cool water as she guided her feet into the skis’ slick rubber fittings and handed her the rope. Then her mom had swum to the boat, climbed aboard, and leaned over the stern to grin and wave so energetically it seemed that she would crash into the lake. Cally had clenched her teeth and waved back, believing she was ready. But when the boat took off, she was paralyzed, unable to stand, unable to release the rope. The water coursed over her body, flooding her nose and her mouth, and she knew it then: the world was going to
drag her where it wanted. When the boat stopped and the water sub- sided, she coughed and gulped the air and was surprised to find that breathing was something she was still allowed to do.
She might have set this in motion, but now it was dragging her behind. She watched the comments fill the screen.
Damon Flintov: hey triss. if i had a face like yours id shoot myself
13 people like this post
Ryan Harbinger: bwa ha ha
Cally curled up on Abigail’s bed. “Turn it off.”
“What’s your problem?” Abigail said. “They’re defending you.
Ryan Harbinger is defending you.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have shown it to him.”
“Oh, come on. That note was disgusting. It was like sexual harassment or something.”
“I think I ate too many Red Vines.” Cally got up and went into Abigail’s bathroom, which was newly remodeled in expensive white marble. Like magic, the bathroom had transformed into a shrine, but Abigail hardly seemed to notice it. To her it was just a place to pee in the middle of the night.
Cally leaned over the toilet. She saw Tristan’s crane and Ms. Flax’s sad eyes and her own name inked in delicate blue. She wanted to puke but couldn’t. She told herself that Abigail was right—the note was disgusting and she’d had every right to report it. And Tristan Bloch had brought it on himself. He’d laid it all out on paper, for anyone to read. What did he expect to happen?
She moved to the sink, rinsed her mouth and hands with water from Abigail’s brushed-chrome tap. In the mirror her eyeliner looked suddenly clumsy, a painted-on frame around little-girl eyes. Her cheeks were wan under their bursts of blush.
In a line beside the sink stood three washcloths folded into origami fans. This sight made her queasy again, so she shook one fan open and scrubbed it over her face. She picked up the other two, shook them,
and folded them in sloppy squares like the washcloths in her bathroom at home, which made her feel better and worse at once. Even if she’d wanted to, she had no idea how to refold them. There was someone who’d know how, but to talk to him would be to lock herself into that airless room forever and throw away the key.
“I thought you fell in,” Abigail said, spinning toward her in the desk chair, when Cally returned to the bedroom.
Cally grinned, remembering with sudden force that Abigail was her best friend in the world. “Let me,” she said, and went over to Abigail and leaned over the keyboard to type:
Abby Cress: Hey tristan I talked to cally and she says FUCK OFF you make her sick and fuck your gross note too NO THANK YOU!!!
When Abigail laughed, it sounded like mercy.
Then they went to YouTube to watch a cat try to scramble out of a claw-foot tub, its panic hilarious. They watched the clip five times, col- lapsing on each other in laughter, before Abigail sent Cally to the mini- fridge to find her brother’s beers.
As she popped the tabs on the cold silver cans, Cally began to feel free. Powerful. She began to believe that Tristan Bloch would fade away, that already he was folded into that square of paper, pale and insubstantial as that barely blue ink. Already, he was almost nothing.
From then on, Tristan spent his lunch periods outside, walking the edge of the schoolyard where asphalt crumbled into marshland. He kept his head bowed, and when he came back inside, his ankles were purpled with mud.
Nobody bullied him at school. Nobody minded him at all.
And every afternoon, Cally and Abigail watched from Abigail’s bedroom as the Facebook posts continued, flashing onto the computer screen at an inexorable pace, gleeful, hateful, now from people they didn’t even know. Sometimes Tristan wrote back, defending himself angrily or desperately, but each comment he posted only renewed the energy of the attacks.
Someone would stop it, Cally thought. Tristan would close his ac- count. Tristan would tell. Or some adult—his mother, Ms. Flax— would sense something wrong, venture into the Facebook world and see what was happening, pull them all back from the brink.
One foggy morning in June, five weeks after he wrote the note to Calista Broderick and one week before the end of eighth grade, Tristan Bloch woke early, at 6:00 a.m.
His bedroom lay at the end of a narrow hall. The small room was painted little-boy blue. Against one wall was pushed a twin bed with a Pokémon blanket and red metal frame. Stickers splotched the bars of the headboard, the top layer of each pried off over years by a plump, patient hand, so that only the white underlayers remained, the shapes of rockets and robots and snakes indelible, reminding the boy of his boyness every day, reminding him that he was still a child, in a child’s bed.
He pushed off the covers and set his feet on the carpet. He wiped his eyes with the belly of his T-shirt. The shirt was warm and retained the sour smell of sleep.
Yawning, he went to the trio of wooden shelves beside the window. He cracked the blinds; lasers of white light hit the objects on the shelves. The Revell Wright Flyer model airplane, carefully constructed of balsa wood and glue. A four-by-six birchwood board with Boy Scout knots of thick white rope, each neatly labeled in his fifth-grade print: Cat’s Paw, Figure Eight, Square Knot,Bowline. A tiny samurai with tiny sword, a thumb-sized bald patch worn on the crown of its black plastic head. A stack of books with brightly colored spines: Harry Potter, TheHobbit,TheLightningThief,TheBoyScoutHandbook (three years out of date), TheOfficialNASAGuidetoRockets. A cherrywood box of origami folding papers, given to him by his father before his father disappeared. A broad, beige clamshell that cradled gleaming pennies. A wallet-sized school photo from first grade, his white-blond hair shaped into a shining bowl. A Matchbox car. A calcified branch.
Tristan blew dust from the lid of the cherrywood box, thumbed the head of the tiny samurai. If he could live just in this room, he’d be okay. But he could not.
Tristan undressed quickly, threw his T-shirt and sweatpants and briefs in the hamper and selected new ones from his drawers. He dressed and stepped into the hall. For a moment he allowed himself to pause, to press his ear against the cool painted surface of his mother’s hollow door. An almost imperceptible sifting of sheets.
He crept downstairs and into the kitchen. He was hungry. There was a carton of organic orange juice in the refrigerator door. He tipped its mashed cardboard spout to his lips and was braced by its coolness, its tart, bright taste. Licking the last drops from the corners of his mouth, he set the empty carton on the counter. He found a Pop-Tart in the bread bin and ate it over the sink in four quick, crumbling bites. The one-car garage was a cool, gray cave just off the kitchen. The car sat outside, while boxes and bins cluttered the dim space, plastic toys and scooters that Tristan had never much liked. Dust tickled his throat, making him cough. When he stopped, he listened for footsteps; none came.
Tristan found his bicycle and rolled it to a strip of empty floor. Kneeling beside the red metal frame, he examined it. The chain had fallen off the gear. He looped his finger under the chain and fit it onto the circle of metal teeth, rotated the pedals and watched it whir.
He stood. Grease stained his fingers. He couldn’t risk going in the house again, so he swiped his thighs, leaving dark stripes like war paint on the yellow. Dutifully he picked up his helmet, which seemed to scream at him with its glossy neon plastic, and squeezed it over his head, taking the usual moment to tuck the tips of his ears uncomfortably inside, and snapped the nylon strap under his chin. Then he remembered. He didn’t have to wear it.
He unstrapped the helmet and tossed it aside. Leaving the automatic door closed, he wheeled his bike out the side door and along a narrow, graveled alley to the street.
He pedaled around the curves of Valley Circle, under the wide arms of sycamore and maple trees, their leaves shaggy and bright against gray fog, their broad trunks draped with moss. At Sycamore Avenue he turned and rode along the empty street to the entrance of Mill Valley Middle School. The large, modular building—its windows blackout,
its siding painted penitentiary gray—sat on an ancient landfill at the edge of the Pickleweed Inlet and Bothin Marsh.
He kept riding: beyond the school’s front entrance was Bayfront Park, where they ran the mile in PE, although Tristan himself had been spared this particular horror by virtue of weak knees and an indomitable mother. He’d spent hours on the splintered park bench, filling out worksheets on the rules of basketball or the tenets of weightlifting as he watched Calista Broderick cheat the course, disappearing into the willow trees with Ryan Harbinger. Ryan, who had made it his mission to prove that Tristan was unfit for this world. Calista, the girl with the magical name, an alien-princess name, and a distant look that some- times crossed her imperfectly pretty face; Calista, the girl who he had sensed, or hoped, was like himself—with that Ryan-Abigail group but not of them—although he now saw how absurd that hope had been.
The air grew colder and damp as Tristan drew nearer the water. With no helmet, he felt the moist breezes whip over his scalp. He liked it. He steered onto the bike path that cut through Bothin Marsh. Be- fore him stretched an expanse of green brush that turned to reddish reeds, and the water shone like mirrored glass. There were the echoing shrieks of gulls, the honks of pelicans. White egrets balanced on thin black legs among the reeds, stretched serpentine necks to watch him as he passed. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the teal rise of Mount Tamalpais, its profile the body of the mythic Sleeping Lady, its shoulders shrouded in gently shifting fog, and the valley nestled beneath it. He could appreciate the beauty of this place now, without a hint of pain or sadness, because in his mind he had already done it: he had already made the decision. This was why he’d slept so soundly the night before, why he’d woken determined and hopeful. For the first time in a long time, he’d felt power in his muscles and focus in his mind, had felt compelled to climb onto that bike and ride.
He pedaled on. The bike path circled wide and slid under the Richardson Bay Bridge, a flat, unspectacular span that stretched over the water on concrete grates. On the other side, he took the road to Sausalito. As cars paraded by, he kept to the path between the water and the road. At a stoplight a woman in a pearl Mercedes looked out
and glared at him, and for a moment he feared he would be stopped, found out—but then she tapped her head and shook her finger at him, and he remembered about his helmet. He shrugged. The light turned, and the car pulled ahead.
He biked on. This was farther than he had ridden possibly ever, and his bottom was sore on the hard, hook-nosed seat and his legs were growing tired. The sun was burning through the fog, and even with- out the oppressive squeeze of helmet, his head was hot and wet, salty sweat dripping down his temples and eye sockets and into his eyes and mouth. He squeezed the rubber handlebars for strength. Passed apartments that crouched on stilts over the water. Finally, parched and heaving, he saw the Golden Gate Market and slowed, craving the sweet ice of a cherry-cola Slurpee on his tongue. But his pockets were empty.
He rode on. The road began to wind uphill. To the left was a battered metal guardrail and to the right were houses, so many houses, crowded as teeth, fighting for a view of that water. Tristan’s lungs tightened, his heart beat a galloping rhythm in his chest as the road slanted upward, and he was forced to slide off his bike and walk, lean- ing on the handlebars, the rubber hot now and slippery with sweat, to push the weight of both himself and the bike up the terrible slope. The pavement rolled beneath his wheel, glittering with glass and drifted garbage, debris of accidents already forgotten. To keep himself going, he tried a series of distractions. He thought of all the U.S. presidents in order. The prime numbers, starting with two. The times tables. The countries of Africa. Then Europe. The wars. The wiggle of shapes on the maps in his history textbook, with dark arrows of armies moving back and forth across.
An hour had passed and he was almost there. He got back on the bike and rode into the yellow-grassed hills. At a fork in the road he veered right. A green road sign pointed him forward: san francisco. When, finally, he reached Highway 101, the cars and buses blew by him in a noisome, furious rush. It was 7:45 a.m., and the working parents of Mill Valley were on their way to offices downtown. His mother, too, must be awake by now.
Turning to his left, he saw the red-orange spires of the Golden Gate Bridge, like masts of an enormous ship, like skyscrapers of an alien nation, like ladders to the sky. His heart beat frantically in his ears. Yet for the first time in a long time, he felt like he could breathe.
He got on his bike and skimmed along the path that sloped downward to the bridge. On the left side was the pathway for pedestrians, a narrow lane guarded by rust-colored bars to the height of his shoulders. He stepped off his bike and leaned it against the rail, not bothering to lock it. It was early yet for tourists, but there were some: mothers gazing over the water with sundresses whipped around their knees; fathers hiding behind large, expensive-looking cameras; kids running back and forth between their parents’ legs, or trying to poke their small faces between the bars of the guardrail and failing.
You had to go over, that was the thing.
Tristan knew this because he had studied. He’d learned everything there was to learn about the Golden Gate. For example:
The bridge was 8,981 feet long.
Until 1965 it had boasted the longest main span of any suspension bridge in the world, at 4,200 feet.
It was made of concrete and steel and painted a color called Inter- national Orange, which enhanced its visibility in fog.
Its weight was supported by giant cables, each cable made of 27,572 strands of wire.
It was held together by approximately 1,200,000 rivets. It was 746 feet above the water.
Cally’s father read the newspaper story aloud. Tristan Bloch, age thirteen, had gone to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped.
He’d left his bike against the rail, leaning where the tourists came to pose for pictures.
Tristan’s mother came to school to gather his things. She drifted through the halls, slack, rudderless.
In the eighth-grade pod, Cally pretended to search her locker while Mrs. Bloch worked herself up to opening Tristan’s. Ms. Flax and Principal Falk and the janitor clustered around her, murmuring. What could they possibly be telling her? There was nothing they could have done. They couldn’t have made Tristan less awkward or strange, or stopped him from writing that note and sending his heart into the world for everyone to cut a piece of. Couldn’t have stopped Cally from giving the note to Abigail and Ryan Harbinger. After Tristan had jumped, Ryan and Damon Flintov had been suspended for a week, Abigail and a few others for three days each. Cally had been questioned, but she and Tristan weren’t even Facebook friends; technically speaking, she’d done nothing wrong. So now she was supposed to go back to class, copy science labs and cheat on algebra tests as though nothing had happened.
Tristan’s mother fell against the locker, pressed her forehead to the metal. Ms. Flax palmed circles over her broad back and murmured something that Cally, stepping closer, barely heard: “Gloria, we don’t have to do this now. We can wait, as much time as you need.”
Cally knew she should leave, hide, but she couldn’t. From down the row of lockers, Ms. Flax noticed her and glared. The teacher must have understood the truth: that this was Cally’s fault and no one else’s. Finally Tristan’s mother stepped back and the janitor clipped the lock with bolt cutters; the hollow clang made Cally gasp as if it were her own dark heart being cut. She stopped herself from crying out. It seemed wrong to go through someone’s locker, even if they were dead.
She expected Tristan to trudge around the corner and shout at them to get out, which, after all, would have been his right.
Tristan’s mother opened the locker, and as the adults peered in to assess its secrets, a rush of origami cranes, red and blue and green and gold and silver, paper wings rustling, tumbled forth and floated to the floor.
“It’s just a bunch of paper,” the janitor said. He and Principal Falk looked at each other and then at Tristan’s mother, as if waiting for an explanation.
“Calista Broderick,” Ms. Flax said flatly. “Shouldn’t you be in class?”
Cally had come too close. Words dried up in her throat like leaves. “Well? What are you waiting for?” said Ms. Flax.
Cally knew that she was going to be found out, Ms. Flax was going to expose her—but then again, that would be a kind of blessing. She stepped closer to Tristan’s mother. “Mrs. Bloch? I just wanted to say. I’m sorry.”
Clutching a silver crane, Tristan’s mother gazed back at her. Her eyes, small and watery blue like Tristan’s, asked, Who was this girl, what was this effusion of beautiful paper, what did any of it mean?
The newspaper said that Tristan had left no note.
“Calista,” Tristan’s mother said. “Yes. Tristan mentioned you. You were a friend to him—he never said it, exactly, but I could tell.” She smiled. The sudden light in her face was strange and hard to look at. Did she not realize that Cally was the girl Tristan had written to? Did she not care? “Thank you,” she said.
What Cally felt then was more than guilt or sadness. It was like the pleasure-pain that Abigail had shown her, a connection that cut you and thrilled you, a sharp, exquisite opening.
She smiled back at Tristan’s mother. And understood:
Excerpted from "The Most Dangerous Place on Earth"
Copyright © 2018 Lindsey Lee Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
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.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between Lindsey Lee Johnson and Janet Fitch
Janet Fitch is the author of White Oleander, a #1 bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club Selection, and Paint It Black, a bestseller that was made into a feature film. Her most recent novel is The Revolution of Marina M., the story of a young woman’s coming of age during the Russian Revolution. Fitch taught creative writing at the University of Southern California, where she first encountered Lindsey Lee Johnson in her master’s fiction-writing class. Fitch lives in Los Angeles.
JF: Why did you want to become a writer? And as a reader—because we are all readers before we become writers—what do you like in a book?
LLJ: I knew I always had to write, no matter what the outcome—even just for my own mental health, to be honest. It’s my way of processing the world. I was a sensitive little kid who turned to books as a place to hide, so I decided when I was very young that I wanted to be involved in making books. Many a writer has that experience, to fall in love with reading.
When I read, I always look for something that feels true. I care about character, so I always start with the characters and go from there. I also love books that have a bit of darkness—I think they’re trying to show us something that most people don’t want to look at. I love books that let me get close to characters, and books that give me insight into a deeper truth. And I love language itself. Now I realize a great book has to have all of those components. My favorite writers are you, Jennifer Egan, Donna Tartt, and Mary Gaitskill—there’s an edge to their work, and a penetrating gaze on the world.
JF: You handle multiple points of view in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth—why did you feel it was important to move around from character to character? Did you enjoy writing all those voices?
LLJ: I actually started writing the book by making a list of characters. The goal was to share with adult readers what the contemporary teenage experience is like for kids in a privileged community. If I had written just one point of view from one teenager, I wouldn’t have achieved that full effect of what it’s like for all these different types of kids, and the reader wouldn’t have a sense of the whole world of teenagers.
JF: Why did you decide to include the adult point of view of Molly Nicoll? And where are the other adults? Do you feel that adolescence is a hermetically sealed experience?
LLJ: I’ve been one of those eager teachers, and spent a lot of time with teenagers as a young adult. I actually added the character of Molly Nicoll last, after I had finished writing the kids’ stories. I wanted to start with the teenagers because at the beginning I was interested in teen voices. But I also understood the teacher-student relationship and the complications there, and wanted to explore that. What can adults actually do to help the teenagers in their lives? It’s an interesting question.
I was writing this book mainly from the teenagers’ point of view, and I felt these characters wouldn’t necessarily notice if their parents were even around. It’s all about who’s telling the story, and when you’re a teenager, your parents can seem secondary in your life. Then there’s the added layer of being in a community where many of the adults work intense jobs with long hours, so they’re often not present, physically or emotionally. Or sometimes the parents can be very well meaning, but they’re so blinded by their own goals for a child that they can’t see what’s actually going on in that child’s life. For example, Dave Chu’s parents love him so much and want the best for him, according to what they think “the best” is. They’re very present for him in a lot of ways, but they can’t step back and see what his true gifts are and who he really is.
JF: Teens spend so much time in virtual reality—do you feel it amplifies the hermetic feeling of their peer circle? Do you think the consequences of actions can become greater because of the Internet?
LLJ: I consider myself a defender of modern teenagers. I believe their behavior is essentially the same as that of every generation of American teens for at least the past sixty years—the difference is that the behavior is now public. Passing a note that says something mean about the boy in your class used to be a private act, but the modern teenager is likely to post a mean comment on Facebook instead. And while we might judge them as cruel and ask where this behavior comes from, I believe teenagers reflect the culture we have created, and deep down they’re just how we were.
The tragedy that ignites the book is when Tristan Bloch gives Cally Broderick a love note. It’s a private act that becomes public, and the effects are exponential. It happens so fast that this thirteen-year-old girl can’t stop it; even the adults don’t know how to stop it. That’s something we’re all grappling with in the age of the Internet. As a writer, I was so interested in how that happens: How does something so small as one kid passing a note to another kid turn into the type of tragedy that would be on the news?
JF: Tristan is a little more open than the other characters, and thus the consequences of that action are so tragic. Having been a sensitive child, what was it like to put yourself in that situation while writing the first chapter?
LLJ: For me, it was easy to see how a tragedy like that could happen, and I could relate to both Tristan and Cally. As Tristan says in his note to Cally, while other kids are thinking about becoming lawyers, he’s wondering how big the universe is. Growing up, I was always dreaming of some vague thing I couldn’t explain to anyone, and I often felt out of step with kids my age. But I kept that part of myself very private. While I was writing the first chapter, I was thinking about what would happen if a kid like that took the step of sharing his secret thoughts. What I was even more interested in, though, was who the kids who end up bullying him are, and why they do it. In media portrayals of these events, they tend to simply say that bad kids bully good kids, or that the problem would be solved if kids got off social media. While I don’t excuse their actions, I have to believe that everyone has a point of view, and I’m interested in why and how these things happen, and what happens next. If the child these characters have been taunting jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge, how do they live with that? They still have to go on and live their lives and grow up. That’s the big question I was trying to address.
I hope readers also see how children can be so wrapped up in their own worlds—most of the characters who were responsible were not even thinking about Tristan when it happened. I like delving into the points of view of characters whom we might see as dismissible, or write off as the “bad kids,” because they have layers, which is the best gift for a writer. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader sees each kid as a stereotype. For example, the character of Damon Flintov: He seems to be a typical bully, but my hope was that by the end of the chapter, the reader has unpeeled all his layers and can see the soul inside the stereotype.
JF: What are your thoughts on genre? When you were writing The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, were you thinking about that? What separates young adult from adult literature?
LLJ: From the beginning, I wanted the book to be for adult readers. Often the implication is that only teenagers want to read about teenagers, and adult readers wouldn’t be as interested in reading about high schoolers. However, I’m interested in reading about characters of any age, and I wanted to create a narrative compelling enough that readers wouldn’t ultimately care that these characters are teenagers.
I think the main difference between what we consider young adult versus adult literature has to do with tone. Young adult novels tend to have a clear moral component, but with my work I’m not trying to teach a lesson; I’m just trying to show reality as I see it. I don’t think there’s an easy divide between who is good and who is bad in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, nor is the universe the characters inhabit an easily explicable one.
JF: Is there anything that people don’t notice about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth that you wish they would?
LLJ: The title of the book is provocative, and many people at first glance will think the most dangerous place on earth is high school. However, in the epigraphs I included, I was trying to communicate different possibilities of what that dangerous place could be. One that I particularly like is the John Milton quote from Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” The mind can be the most dangerous place on earth. Another possibility is that the world of adolescence is the most dangerous place on earth. One of the reviews suggested that maybe the Internet is the most dangerous place on earth. I like all these different interpretations, and I encourage readers to think beyond the immediate answer to the question of what the title means.
JF: The experience of being any individual can be treacherous, and the loneliness of not being understood is a big part of adolescence. Do you find that it’s hard for adults to remember that teenagers are still children who need parenting and advice, even when they don’t trust the adults who can help them?
LLJ: We forget that although sometimes teenagers don’t look or act like children, they still are children, and they need guidance. Maybe one fallacy of the American Dream is that we think if we reach a place where we can provide our kids with all of the material comforts they need, our work is done and they’ll be okay. But after a certain baseline, none of that really matters to kids; what matters is attention and love and friendship and understanding. If I have a message to spread through this book, it’s to pay attention to our kids, and to seek to connect with them on a human level.
1. As the book begins, Johnson quotes Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause: “Nobody talks to children.” Throughout The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, adults appear to be trying to talk with adolescent characters, but usually with little effect. What accounts for this?
2. Even as Calista finishes high school, she feels abidingly responsible for Tristan’s death. And yet, in her Great Gatsby essay the previous year, she considered the possibility that blame can be ambiguous or shared. “The question is,” she asked, “when all of this has happened and you’re looking for someone to blame, who is it going to be?” (p. 75). Who (or what) do you think was responsible for Tristan’s death?
3. When Molly is called in for a remedial end-of-year conversation, Beth Firestein cautions her that “If you go on caring for [students] in this way, you won’t survive.” When Molly counters “But isn’t it our job to care?,” Beth smiles “pityingly” and says “Of course not. It’s our job to teach.” How do you understand the role of “caring” in teaching? Is Beth’s distinction between caring and teaching useful or misleading?
4. In preparation for reading The Great Gatsby, Molly asks her new students to reflect on their understandings of the “American dream.” Celebrating wealth and materialism, the students pay little heed to personal satisfaction and meaning—displaying the very tendency that proved the fictional Gatsby’s undoing. What do you make of this irony? Could these students be brought to an appreciation of Gatsby’s themes—and if so, how?
5. To what extent is The Most Dangerous Place on Earth place and time specific? How different would these teen characters be if they lacked access to social media? If they were less affluent? If marriage and full-time work were common by age 18?
6. At first glance, each teen character appears to fit a familiar stereotype. How would you describe each character’s apparent role? As the narrative unfolds, how are these stereotypes interrupted and complicated?
7. Why does Ryan Harbinger keep Tristan’s note, and why does he look at it again and again?
8. We learn a little about the middle school’s response to Tristan’s suicide—efforts to counsel, suspension of lead bullies, etc. What was left unaddressed here? Could the school have done more?
9. Why does Calista share her confessional narrative with Molly? Why at that moment? How might have Molly responded differently in that situation?
10. In Damon’s counselor Lance, we glimpse an adult connecting effectively with a tough-seeming adolescent. How does Lance’s approach differ from that of the other adults in the book?
11. Throughout The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, we meet particular people thinking and acting in particular situations, the action always filtered through the eyes of a given character. But Johnson also invites us to consider the wider context, to grasp that individuals’ psyches are shaped by the worlds in which they live. Take a scene or two from the book and consider: what’s going on in terms of individual psychology? How is this informed by dynamics beyond the individual?
12. What is “the most dangerous place on earth”? Does the title refer to a specific place, or does it perhaps have multiple meanings?