The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, and her ability to trust.
And when Minnow rebelled, they took away her hands, too.
Now the Kevinian Prophet has been murdered and the camp set aflame and it's clear Minnow knows something. But she's not talking. As she adjusts to a life behind bars in juvenile detention, Minnow struggles to make sense of all she has been taught to believe, particularly as she dwells on the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of; if she is willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.
Powerful and compelling, this remarkable and brave debut novel reveals the terrible dangers of blind faith. And the importance of having faith in yourself. Ages: 14+
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||700 KB|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
• • •
I am a blood-soaked girl.
Before me, a body. Pulped. My boots drenched with his blood. I search out his eyes, but they’re gone, hidden away behind pale lids.
My breath comes hard and white in the freezing air. Inside each breath is the understanding that this is how it feels, controlling someone, bending their body to your will.
I wonder if this is how the Prophet felt the moment he ordered my hands ripped from me.
Above, a car races across the bridge with a metal shudder. Fingernail-sized flakes of snow fall through the yellow haze of streetlights, and a few cold stars blink in a dark sky. I want to hold my hand flat to catch the snowflakes like I used to when I was little. But, I remind myself, my hands are gone, and I’m not five anymore. The girl I used to be could almost be dead.
I hunker beside a snowbank, watching the red on the ground slowly ice over. I feel suddenly cold. Colder than even the outside air. Colder than I’ve ever been in my life.
When the police arrive they are blurry white shapes, like ghosts, stuffed inside tight blue uniforms. My eyes can’t follow their features. One moment, I grasp an eye, a nose, but it slips away just as quickly and all I sense are their voices, scribbling over the light of the new morning. The ruined mess of the boy’s body is shoved inside an ambulance, and it screams down the street.
The cops try handcuffing me around my stumps, but the metal slides off. I bite my lip against the cold steel grating over my newborn pink skin.
“Do we even need to cuff her?” one cop mutters.
“Look at what she did,” the other insists. “You saw the kid, looked like he’d been run over.”
“But, just look at her.”
Look at me. My arms are crossed over my stomach and, at the end of the arms, an absence of hands, of fingers, of fists, of nails. Of any way to fight back. I feel the cops’ eyes inch over the homespun trousers and the disgusting rag of a shirt Jude gave me, the fabric blazoned with blood.
In the end, they squeeze the cuffs around my elbows, the pressure nearly popping my shoulders from the sockets, but I don’t scream. I don’t say anything. I feel like I have said enough for my entire life.
My first view of the city is from a police car. I stare out the thumbprinted window as the sun peels back over buildings locked in by snowfall.
“You better hope he lives,” one of the cops says, and suddenly the boy is all I can see again—the broken face, teeth chucked in the snow. My veins are still tight from adrenaline.
• • •
At the police station, it’s wood walls and stained ceiling tiles. The smell of charred coffee.
They are discussing the best way to fingerprint me.
“It must be done,” they say. “How will we identify her without fingers?” Just like that, they’ve said something I’ve felt for months but never said aloud. One of them leafs through a police manual, searching for the proper procedure, while the other pushes each stump into a pad of ink and presses them onto paper. Two warped black ovals in a field of white.
“Looks like we only need a DNA sample,” the first one says, glancing up from the manual. He rummages in a drawer and pulls out a small square of cotton, unwraps it, and holds it before me. “Spit.”
“You want my spit?”
“Just do it.”
I gather up all the moisture I can in my mouth and let it fall to the cotton square. He closes it in a small plastic box with a sliding lid and places it on his desk.
The mug shot they take burns half circles into my vision, worse than any firelight. I clamp my arm to my eyes, and they have to lead me with their hands to a sterile examination room. When I crack my eyes open, I see they’ve faced me toward a tight-sheeted bed with stirrups, pushed against a tile wall. Beside the bed, a tray with tongs and a flat white depressor. A dark blond woman takes me by the shoulder and walks me toward the bed. I balk.
“It’s okay,” she says. “It’s procedure in abuse cases.”
She’s got her head turned to the side, and I see myself as she must see me, skinny, filthy, and handless, wearing clothes that smell of blood.
“I—I don’t need that,” I say, avoiding looking at the bed. “Nothing like that happened.”
“Are you sure?” she asks, and the feeling of her eyes skating over my body makes me itch. I want to get angry, but I just give her a sharp nod.
She needs to take pictures to document my injuries, so she leads me to a plastic bin of clothes the color of dishwater and lets me choose underwear. I lever up a beige pair of underpants and, though I can tell they’ve been laundered, somehow they hold the shape of other girls still, the ones who came through here before me.
Behind a blue paper curtain, she tugs away my trousers and shirt till there’s nothing left but skin, naked feet on tile, my body a sliver of white. I’ve never seen it like this before, so bare, blotches of blood still stuck to my skin. She doesn’t know it, but the blood isn’t mine.
They haven’t told me yet if the boy from the bridge is dead.
The woman eases the underpants up my legs, fits a bra over my chest. I roll my shoulders beneath the tight elastic as she lifts my trousers from the floor. With a soft clatter, an object falls from the pocket. We stare at it, a skeletal hand held together at the joints with golden wire.
“What’s that?” she asks.
I hold up a stump to show her.
Her mouth drops so low, the bags under her eyes go taut. After a tick, she fixes her features back to normal, just the same way I remember people in the Community doing after witnessing some everyday atrocity. We didn’t linger on those things. The cows needed milking, and the daylight was wasting, and somewhere there was always a baby wailing for one of its mothers.
The policewoman reaches in my other trouser pocket, lifts out the second hand, and places both on a silver tray.
“Will I get them back?”
Her head tilts to the side again. “That won’t be possible.”
“They’re human remains. There are laws about things like that.” She clears her throat. “They’ll be held as evidence, and when they’re no longer needed, they’ll be incinerated.”
“Burned?” I choke. Not burned. Anything but burned. “You can’t do that. They’re my hands,” I shout, trying to shove past her. “Give them back!”
She rolls her fingers into a fist and blocks me with an arm across my chest. “If you force me, I will subdue you.”
The skin around her mouth is bunched with lines deep and thin as needles. When I don’t move, she picks up the tray and leaves the room. She returns a minute later, the tray empty.
And it’s then that I realize the Prophet’s not the only one capable of taking a girl’s hands away.
When I’m marched to the police car, the two cops from earlier are already inside, eyes tight and sleepy. They’re eating from bags in the front seat, some food I don’t recognize, bright colored and crunchy between their molars. They hold the food in their meaty hands like fragile things they’re afraid to break.
When they’re done, they shrivel up the bags with a scritch sound and throw them to the floor. We drive through the snow-clotted streets to a huge white building that they tell me is a hospital.
In an exam room, the doctor waves for me to show my stumps, but I hold them behind my back, and one of the cops has to wrestle my arms into the artificial light.
The doctor’s face turns grim. My stumps are smudged black with fingerprinting ink.
They open up my stumps when I’m sleeping, with small knives and needles, and pack them with bright white cotton until they can steal a patch of skin from my leg. Days later, they cut them again, putting me to sleep with chemicals in suspended plastic bags. It’s a while before I figure out they’re not making me new hands. They can’t do that, the doctor says like I’m slow, and I turn away to glare at the wall, eyes burning.
Growing up, I believed in miracles. I guess I don’t anymore.
• • •
In the morning, a woman dressed in a mauve suit drops her briefcase on the linoleum in my hospital room and introduces herself as my public defender. She sits heavily on the side of my bed, glancing down at my stumps wrapped in layers of bandages. Beneath the blankets, I shift my feet over a few inches.
“My name’s Juanita,” she says. “And you must be the famous Minnow Bly, yes?”
I watch her out of the sides of my eyes.
“I’m here to provide you with defense counsel during your trial. I’ll also be making sure you get everything you need until you’re transitioned to the next stage.”
“What’s the next stage?” I ask. “Jail?” I’ve heard of jail. The Prophet told us it’s full of people so bad, even the Gentiles don’t want them. They’re angel murderers and God deniers, and some of them can kill with a single touch.
Juanita smiles in a way that isn’t cheerful. “We don’t need to worry about things like that right now.”
She takes me for a walk around the hospital hallways. I can barely get traction in the lambswool slippers they gave me after they stole my boots, and my chest burns when we go more than ten steps. I wonder what’s in my lungs that’s making this so hard. Blood? Smoke? Or something heavier?
Juanita asks if I want her to hold my elbow, but I shake my head. I slide my shoulder down the wall, holding the balls of bandages gingerly before me.
We pause beside a big plastic-paned window, my breath heavy and my arms shaking. Outside in the distance, ash hovers in the air like a dirty cloud. It looks like a heaven nobody’d ever want to go to.
“That’s all that’s left of the Community now,” Juanita says. “They put the fire out, but the air is so stagnant in winter, the smoke is still locked overhead. It burned everything for miles. They say it’ll take a month for the smoke to completely clear.”
“Did—did you hear if anybody died?” I ask.
She turns toward me. “They found two bodies so far, but everything’s snowed in. They’re still looking.”
“Let’s go,” I say. I shuffle away from the window, though my lungs still burn.
• • •
The nurses give me morphine and the days start to bleed together. I glimpse the shadow of a policeman standing guard outside my room. He’s almost comforting, the bulk of him, and when pictures of the Prophet enter my head, and the hatchet, and the fists of those men, all I have to do is stare at the blue shoulder of the policeman to calm down.
I know he’s meant to keep me in, but I figure he’d also keep anybody else out.
Every other day, a physical therapist visits to teach me about living without hands.
“It will be difficult at first,” she says, and I nod as if the thought hadn’t occurred to me. “You may need to rely on others until you can get routines down yourself.”
She places a pair of sweatpants on the floor and teaches me how to slowly inch the waist up my legs with my stumps. My stumps are round with Ace bandages and every movement shoots an ache through the bone, but eventually I pull the waistband over my angled hips.
She tells me once my stumps are healed, the muscle will thin and they will taper to points, smaller than wrists. They will work like large fingers. I will hardly miss my hands at all.
Juanita comes to my room just as I’m finishing breakfast, a mush of porridge and some slivered strawberries. She tells me it’s been three weeks since my arrest, and it’s time to start getting serious. I ask her what she means when she upturns a sack stuffed with formal clothes onto the bed. They are machine-made, dyed colors that shouldn’t exist. I shake my head no.
“You have to let someone wash that. You’ve been wearing the same thing since you arrived,” she says, pointing to my shirt. It’s Jude’s. He gave it to me when I stayed at his cabin, right after I lost my hands. It smells, I know, but I won’t let them take it away. It’s the only thing I have left of him.
I wrap my arms around my middle and poke a toe at the pile of clothes. “What for?”
There are a couple of well-worn suits, the seams all limp from multiple uses, and several lank dresses, some ivory, some gray, all dead-looking. She pulls out each dress and presses the hanger into my collarbone, watching the way it falls over my front.
“I don’t want to wear a dress,” I say.
“That’s what everyone says.”
All the dresses are too big. Juanita settles on a blouse opaque enough for me to wear Jude’s shirt beneath, along with a knee-length skirt. She cinches it with a belt above my belly button.
• • •
On the day of my trial, the outside air is bright and dry, and I get a nosebleed as we pull out of the parking lot. The blood tumbles over my chin before I can call out. Juanita clamps a napkin over my face. I don’t know why, but I’m crying. Warm, slow tears that get absorbed by the napkin and hardly make any noise. That’s how I always cried in the Community, never loud enough for anybody to notice.
The prosecutor uses phrases like “brutal beating” and “left for dead” and “no remorse.” He gestures wildly at the evidence tacked on a corkboard, X-rays illuminating the hairline fracture running along the boy’s mandible, the splash of navy where his spleen ripped open like a broken tangerine.
I glance over my shoulder to where Philip Lancaster sits with his father in a suit too big at the shoulders. His eyes are clear today, lacking the frenzied, shifting look they had that night near the bridge, though I can hear the squeak of his rubber shoes as he jiggles his knees and drums against his legs with flattened palms.
“Members of the jury,” Juanita says when it’s her turn to speak, “the facts of this case are undeniable. A mentally disturbed young man made threats to a girl who had, within the previous twelve hours, survived the destruction of her home. This is a girl who endured years of traumatizing fear. My client’s actions were entirely in self-defense, and the testimony and evidence you hear during this trial will prove her innocence.”
When I look behind me at the watchers gathered on the polished wooden benches, I see Philip resting his fingers inside the opening of his jacket, over the place where I kicked enough times to burst organs. His front teeth bow outward where his mouth was wired shut.
He stares down at me when he passes to take the stand, and I gaze straight into his green eyes. In the fluorescent light of the courtroom, they look unremarkable. Celery-colored and plain. There is nothing there but a boy. A human boy.
Tears pool in my eyes, and after a moment, I start crying loudly, doubled over, my nose almost touching the thickly waxed table. Juanita glances around the courtroom. “That won’t help you, Minnow,” she whispers. “This judge doesn’t have any sympathy for crying.”
I shake my head because everything has become very clear now. How wrong I was, wrong about myself, wrong about everything because there, in front of me, stands the hard evidence of my wrongness, limping in glossy shoes and bruised bones and regular eyes that shouldn’t have made me lose my mind.
After weeks of court dates and interviews and the incessant droning silences that intersperse moments of terror, the judge says it’s time for the jury to deliberate. Juanita marches me to a small room to await the ruling.
I sit on a leather-upholstered chair. Juanita gives one of her cheerless smiles. I know she doesn’t want to tell me everything will be okay because that would be a lie.
After ten minutes, she takes a phone call, and I’m alone.
My eyes scan the room, and everything becomes suddenly important. A ceiling fan thick with dust. A small, glass-topped vending machine where color-wrapped foods are lined up, trapped. A little pot of brown-edged violets. I can smell the varnish they used on the floor, the powdery cleaner in a can beside the sink, but I can’t smell the violets.
My head jerks when the door opens and a man strolls in. He’s a policeman; I can tell, I’ve been around enough of them now, though he looks different from the others: glasses, herringbone suit, and in his eyes a kind of softness, like he’s winking with both eyes open.
He nods at me and shuffles in his leather shoes to the vending machine. He surveys the contents for several long moments as though this is the most important decision he’s made in years. Slowly, he inserts three coins, turns a knob, and pulls out a yellow-wrapped rectangle. As he tears the wrapper open, I glimpse multicolored candies lined up in a row, toothlike. He unwraps one, chews it, and leans against the machine like he’s totally alone in the room.
I should look away, but I don’t. Every stranger is still a thrill, having gone so many years never knowing anyone but the same hundred wind-burned souls. I read every part of this man, the mechanical motion of his jaw, the gold wedding ring, the fan of lines across his forehead, like I imagine people read books. At least he’s a distraction from the idea of the jury in some room nearby discussing how evil I am.
He turns toward me. “Want a Starburst?” He holds a pink-wrapped square between his thumb and forefinger.
I do want it, but I shrug, holding up my stumps. “Can’t unwrap it, can I?”
And then he does something strange. He smiles. The kind of smile that pushes every feature upward by an inch. “Don’t be so sure,” he says, placing the candy on the coffee table in front of me. “You might be more capable than you think.”
He puts the remaining candies in his pocket and walks toward the door. “See you later,” he says, like a promise.
I glare at the square of pink on the brown table. I know there’s no way I can unwrap it. I’d need fingernails, a thumb.
I swallow the saliva that’s filled my mouth and lean forward. I pick up the candy in my teeth. I run my bottom teeth over the wrapper until it lifts away, and my tongue nudges the other edges. The wrapper falls to the tabletop, and I press the candy to the roof of my mouth. Instantly, my jaw aches and my eyes prickle. I haven’t tasted anything so vibrant since I was five. It is wonderful.
There’s still a sliver of candy on my tongue when Juanita leads me back to the courtroom. I see the man with the candy sitting in the back, chewing. The judge reads the verdict. Guilty. Six years with the possibility of parole on my eighteenth birthday. The judge informs me that, unless I maintain a spotless record in juvenile detention and receive a character recommendation from a staff member, my chances of earning parole are slim.
I take another ride in a cop car. This time to the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Center.
How do you handcuff a handless girl?
The answer is remarkable. There is a man. His name is Early. He’s the first person to introduce himself after I arrive at the white cinder-block building that houses every underage female criminal for five hundred miles. He enters the blank-walled processing room with a measuring tape and a mouth full of crooked smiling teeth.
Early’s job, he tells me, is to make all the custom restraints for the Missoula County Correctional Department. You wouldn’t think a man could possibly make a full-time job out of this; after all, how many handless people could possibly be imprisoned at one time? Early says he makes ends meet in all manner of ways—making fox traps for hunters, altering the stretchers where they do lethal injections for obese prisoners. He tells me that he even tinkered together a silver necklace for the warden’s daughter’s sweet sixteen.
He’s a strange-looking man, like I imagine an old gnome might look, a hooked nose and black brooms of hair coming out of his ears and a circular hole in his left front tooth. Early chatters at me the entire time, and I don’t ask how the hole got there, but I wonder.
He unsheathes the orange measuring tape and hooks it around my elbow. I flinch.
“It’s okay,” he says in the quiet way you talk to skittish animals. “No one’s gonna hurt you. No need to be afraid.”
I want to tell him that I have more reasons to be afraid than he could even count. I keep my teeth pressed together in silence.
• • •
Juvie is just a shaky, tin-walled place, a repurposed alternative high school the county purchased for juvenile delinquents. All the windows in the big gymnasium were bricked up years ago and scaffolded into three stories of light metal cells.
I can hear the girls—voices, movement, metal clanging on metal—the minute I enter the cell house. It smells of bodies in here, just like the Community.
A guard named Benny leads me to a white-tiled room. She snips the zip-tied restraints around my elbows and I shake out my arms. Benny is big and her skin is a lovely shade of brown, almost exactly like Jude’s, and I trust her, even when she tells me this strange room is for undressing.
“We’ll make two piles,” she says. “A keep pile and a trash pile. Things like jewelry and keepsakes usually go in the keep pile.”
In the corner, there is a black camera that watches Benny yank the belt efficiently through the loops of my skirt, unbutton the pearls of my blouse until I’m standing in only Jude’s shirt. It’s fraying badly, hardly even a shirt anymore.
“Trash?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Keep.”
She raises an eyebrow but puts it in the pile with the rest of my clothes.
With a flap she shakes out a stiff orange jumpsuit. She helps me into it, slips the buttons into the holes, and straightens the shoulders. She finds me a pair of Velcro shoes and watches while I fumblingly fit my feet inside.
Benny picks at the knot on the ribbon that ties the tail of my braid, and my hair slowly unwinds. “You ought to get a haircut,” she says. “Could be a liability here.”
“We hardly ever cut our hair in the Community,” I say.
“Doesn’t look like you’re in the Community anymore.”
We walk out of the room, down a hallway that ends in a heavy door, thick with coats of white paint.
“This is the last free ground you’ll walk on for quite a while,” Benny says. “Are you ready for it in there?”
“Ours is the only mixed-offender facility in the state,” she says. “All the girls are under eighteen, but some were tried as juveniles and some as adults, like you. When you turn eighteen, you’ll be paroled or transferred to an adult facility. Do you understand what that means?”
I shake my head.
“There’re girls here who’ve killed, who would kill again. Just . . .” she glances at my stumps. “Watch yourself. I don’t want to be scraping you offa any floors, you hear?”
• • •
Benny leads me down a grated pathway on the third floor. Hazy ovals of faces press against the bars of cells as I walk past, the occasional hoot or shout from an inmate following me down the skyway.
“You’ll be in what we call Angeltown,” Benny says.
Benny stops and walkie-talkies to another guard. The cell door before us buzzes loudly and swings open.
Benny looks down at me. “If I were you, I’d try to get on her good side.”
With a flat hand, she pushes me into the cell. The door swings shut behind me and the whole complex of interwoven metal shakes. I look over my shoulder. Benny’s gone.
On the top bunk reclines a girl in the same violent orange as me. She ignores me, reading a book perched on her lap, something with a view of the stars on the cover.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She looks at me with sharp, pale blue eyes. “Angel.”
Angeltown, I think. I know about angels. Sometimes they speak to Kevinians, whisper in our ears and make terrible things happen. They are hairless and androgynous and the height of small buildings.
I wrap my arms around my middle, lean against the concrete wall, and slide to the ground across from her. She picks at the edges of her book with fingernails stained yellow.
“So, let me guess,” she says, casting her eyes over the bunk. “Petty theft?”
I glance at her face. “What?”
“Stealing. Food probably, by the look of you. You got all your teeth, so I doubt it’s drugs.”
I shake my head. “Aggravated assault.”
She lets out a small chuckle. “Right,” she says.
“You don’t think I could?” I ask.
“You don’t look it. My leg weighs more than you.”
“Anyone can hurt someone.”
“What about your hands or whatever?” she says, her eyes avoiding the empty spaces below my wrists. Where the bandages and sutures were removed, my stumps look purple and thin.
“What about ’em?” I asked.
“Alls I’m saying is, you don’t look like a murderer. Sheesh, take it as a compliment.”
My father once told me that all you needed to hurt someone is a single word, said just wrong enough. Anybody is capable of enormous harm, anyone with a mouth or a hand to write with.
“So who was the guy?” Angel asks. “The one you beat up.”
“How do you know it was a guy?”
“You got that look, like you been messed around by men.”
I swallow hard. I want to tell her it was me who messed up Philip Lancaster, but that would require saying his name. “I don’t want to talk about him.”
She shrugs and turns toward her book again.
“What’d you do?” I ask.
“Same as you, I expect. Tried to kill a guy. Except, unlike you, I succeeded.”
Though her face is relaxed, it forms a natural scowl, a cord of muscle tight over her eyebrows, and though her cheeks and nose are dotted with freckles, she doesn’t look dainty or young or delicate. On her scalp, bands of pale skin are visible between tight cornrows of dirty blond hair.
“They wouldn’t stick a murderer in with another prisoner,” I reason.
“Who said it was murder?”
“Well, what was it then?”
“Self-defense,” she says. “Only, they might not’ve believed me one hundred percent. My uncle was a real upstanding citizen, and I don’t exactly look all innocence and peaches and cream. In any case, these jails are so overcrowded, they’d put a murderer in with a shoplifter just to save money.”
“How do you know that?”
“Everyone knows. It’s common knowledge on the outs. Half my class has ended up here, one time or another. Shoot, coming here’s practically a school reunion.” She squints at me. “What school do you go to?”
“No. Just . . . not schooled. I was raised out in the national forest. Past Alberton. South of Cinderella Rock.” In the hospital, one of the nurses found me a map and I figured out where we’d been living.
Angel looks at me sidelong. “Nobody lives out there. That’s, like, real wilderness. Grizzlies and shit.”
“Grizzlies didn’t bother us. They stay away from noise.”
“But the only people who live out that far are, like, religious freaks who hate the government and sell their daughters to creepy old men.”
My eyes flick to the metal floor.
“That was you? That cult?” Angel says, sitting up. “Dang, I saw that on the news. Heard you lived in holes and ran around naked.”
“You heard that?”
“Something like that. Did you really not have running water?”
“It was my parents’ decision, not mine. I was five when we moved to the Community.”
“Why’d they do it?”
“The Prophet,” I say vaguely, and find I can’t finish the sentence. It takes effort to push through the tangled memories of the past twelve years living in the forest, to when the Prophet arrived, holding prayer rallies in our run-down trailer, his big black-robed presence shoving meaning into every corner of our lives. He made us believe we were saints. That we were being lied to never crossed our minds.
“Hey, I get it,” Angel says, softening. “Your dad probably spouted some bullshit about God, probably sold out his family to follow this guy. Seen it a million times.”
“You have?” I ask.
“Sure. My whole family’s religious. I’ve been around this stuff my entire life.”
A pleasant, electronic tone pulses from the intercom. Angel jumps down. From the front of the block, I can hear the buzz of doors unlocking and feet traversing the skyway.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Our door is the last to buzz open, and for the first time, I see the whole population of criminals this place holds. Before us, spaced by five-foot gaps, are girls in orange jumpsuits walking two-by-two.
The jail has opened up its metal body and shoved out these girls, these prisoners, this pilgrimage.
In the morning, after the lights snap on and I lurch up from my bunk, after I stumble behind Angel to the cafeteria for a breakfast of mushy oatmeal in a blue plastic cup that I have to tilt into my mouth, after the other girls noisily gather their books and binders for school, I walk back to my cell alone. A guard stands down the hall monitoring my progress, but I risk a moment to tilt my head toward a small, wired window in the cinder-block wall. The glass is reflective and I only see my own face: my sunken eyes, my hair tumbling down my shoulders like a frayed brown shawl.
I arrive back to find a man sitting in my cell. I can tell by the silence on every side of me that there isn’t another soul on this level but me and the man sitting on a low stool beside my bed, like he belongs there. One hand holds a pen racing across a yellow pad of paper in his lap.
With a buzz, my door opens.
The man stands up. Immediately, the taste of artificial fruit fills my mouth, and into my head comes the memory of the trial day when I met him.
“Morning,” he says, gesturing toward the bunk. “Take a seat.”
I walk slowly forward and sit cross-legged on my mattress. He sits back down, sandwiched between the toilet and my bunk, with his knees pushed high from the lowness of the stool. I stare at the ink-covered notebook he holds on his knees. I can’t read a thing.
“I know you,” I say.
“Starburst,” he says.
“That was a hell of a day,” he says. I grimace at the word, remembering all the Prophet taught us about Hell, the hollowed-out middle of the planet where bad people are tortured in darkness forever, hearing but not seeing the droves of others shrieking in every direction.
“A hell of one,” I agree.
“My name’s Doctor Wilson.” He holds out a plastic-coated ID card. His picture makes him look stuffy, necktie cinched high, his mouth an unsmiling line. In the corner, even with my level of illiteracy, I can distinguish three letters: FBI.
I’m about to question why the FBI cares about what I did to Philip Lancaster when I recall that there’s another crime, a bigger one. Even with the Prophet lying in a frozen drawer in some state morgue or whatever it is that happened to him after the fire, he isn’t gone. Maybe he’ll never be. Maybe he’ll hover behind my ear forever, speaking his bile and clinking his chains until he’s succeeded in killing me like he wanted.
I look from the card to the man’s face. His brow is folded in an accordion of wrinkles. I can’t tell how old he is. People look so different here than in the Community, where hard winters and blasting sun made the young look old and the old look dead. “You’re, what, a detective?”
I squint. “What’s that?”
“Whatever I want it to be. Usually I talk to people.”
“Like a counselor.”
“I don’t need a counselor.”
He smiles. “Good thing I’m not here to be your counselor.”
“Because I don’t like talking about feelings.”
“God, me neither,” he says. “Anything but feelings.”
It sounds like a joke and for moment I draw in a breath and concentrate on the feeling of that. Jude used to try to make me laugh, and when I’d crack a smile he’d keep the joke going, like breath on an ember, making it grow into a fit of giggles that’d echo around the whole forest and make all the birds in the trees quiet. I’d go back to the Community at night afraid they’d somehow detect the smile hidden in the muscles of my face.
I shake Jude out of my mind. The man in my cell is looking at me. “What’s the FBI want with me?”
“The local police are no longer handling the investigation into the events at the Community. That’s been passed off to the FBI.”
“So . . . this,” I say, waving between him and me with a stump, “is about the Community? The Prophet?”
“It’s about what’s right for you. We’re most familiar with your case at the FBI. The warden and my bosses discussed it and they decided you warrant special attention. I’ve been appointed as your mental health coordinator while you’re in juvenile detention.”
“Is that really why you’re here?” I ask. “My mental health? Or are you here to collect evidence about me? I’ve been through a trial; I know what people like you do for a living. You want to figure me out.”
He laughs. “Oh, I already have. I knew everything about you the minute you walked into the courtroom with that candy in your mouth.”
• • •
My father taught me how to tell when you’re being swindled, and I think about that now, in my cell with this doctor.
My father used to gamble at the greyhound races. He said he would never set foot in a casino because the other players cheated and the dealers dealt dirty. He liked the races because it was just him and the dogs, nobody to cheat him out of his hard-earned pay. He’d take me sometimes, always at night when the smell of yellow beer could grow right inside my skull, the aluminum seat freezing my rear. Lacy flocks of white moths clustered around the gargantuan lightbulbs along the track, beating one another to get closer to the bulb.
“Why are they trying so hard to get to the light?” I asked my father once.
“They think it’s the sun,” he replied. “They can’t tell the difference.”
It was here that he taught me how to detect when a person’s lying. They got eyes too needy, like they’re desperate for you to believe the lie, and their stories are always too good to be true. Later, I remembered the signs, though I never mentioned them. They all sounded too much like the Prophet.
“So, what’s your goal in all this?” I ask Dr. Wilson.
“Helping you,” he says. “Just helping you. You don’t have to believe me, though.”
“Good,” I say. “I don’t believe you. The FBI’s goal isn’t helping me.”
“What’s our goal then?”
“Figuring out who killed the Prophet.”
His eyebrows rise. “What makes you think there was a killer?” he asks. “What makes you think the Prophet is even dead?”
I make my face go still, but even so, I can tell that he sees it within me now, the lies unwinding like smoke.
“You were nowhere near the Community when the fire started,” he continues. “That’s what you said in your statement to the police after you were booked.”
“Well, if that’s what my statement said, it must be the truth,” I say, leaning my head to the side. The muscles in my neck hurt from propping up a mouth so full of lies.
I cross my arms and wince.
He points his pen at me. “Do those hurt you? Your arms?”
“Sometimes,” I say.
“Maybe someday you’ll get a pair of those bionic hands they’re developing,” he says. “The technology for prosthetics is getting better every day.”
“Oh, yeah, that’d be great,” I say.
“Yeah, that would fix everything.”
He frowns and tucks his chin, scribbling something on his yellow paper. I try to read it, but I can’t shift the letters into words. I shut my eyes and wonder how I will ever beat people like this man, with his pen and his badge and his words. All I’ve got is a mouth and nothing to say.
When I open my eyes, he’s still writing.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Washington, DC.” The name means next to nothing to me, beyond the sense that it’s far away from here.
“You came up here just for me?”
“You must’ve been thrilled to get that call. Middle of winter, travel for miles to interrogate some criminal girl.”
“Firstly, I won’t be interrogating you. My assignment is what I said already, to get to know you. And, actually, I volunteered.”
“I believed I could help you. I wanted to try.”
“Please,” I say, holding up an arm. “Don’t say that again.”
There’s a long pause. He sighs.
“Do you know what I do every day?” he asks. “For my job? I spend most of my time sitting this close to the vilest people on the surface of this planet. I sort out whether they’re lying, what questions I can ask that’ll produce a confession, what part of their minds can be turned against them. I do puzzles all day. That’s what my job has become. Turning these reprehensible people into puzzles because I can’t stand to think of them as human.”
“Why do you keep doing it?”
“I still love it, in a way, breaking someone down to their most basic building blocks, combing through it all and finding that one shining lie that puts them away. It’s a thrill. But, I don’t know, it’s nothing a really good computer couldn’t do. I never get to talk to people anymore. I never help anyone.”
“So, what, I’m your vacation?”
He smiles. “You might say that.”
“Huh,” I say.
“Nothing. It’s just, you might be sitting across from someone a lot worse than any of those people.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“That’s all right,” I say, leaning back. “No one ever believes me.”
He surveys me for a moment, weighing something behind his eyes. “You were right earlier,” he says. “The Prophet is dead. How’s that make you feel?”
My eyebrows flatten. “I thought you said no feelings.”
“Yes, of course.” He rummages in his bag, pulls out a sheaf of paper. “The autopsy came back the other day, and it’s basically not worth the paper it’s printed on.” He reads from the paper in his hand. “‘The deceased was badly burned. Most of the trunk, neck, and face were totally compromised. Inadequate lung tissue remains to confirm smoke inhalation. As a result, it is unknown whether the deceased died before or after the fire.’ And the arson investigators haven’t done much better. They found traces of accelerant, though they say that may have been the weatherproofing on the thatch roofs, which won’t stand up in court.”
My muscles grow light listening to this. “So, you’re not even sure a crime was committed.”
“I am sure,” he insists.
He extracts a small manila envelope from his bag and starts pulling out photos.
“Part of my job is to analyze crime scenes,” he says. “I haven’t made it up to the Community yet—the snow is so deep, the investigators have had to snowshoe in—but I’ve seen the pictures they brought back.”
The photos show the Community as it must’ve looked after the fire was extinguished, empty black husks on a backdrop of snow, a gauze of smoke graying the air. I remember the smell, burnt-off grain alcohol and sagebrush, the bugs and beetles that lived inside the dung-and-mud walls squirming to escape the heat.
The doctor places the photos in a circle on my mattress.
“Twelve structures encircling a courtyard,” he says. “After the fire started, everyone escaped their houses before they collapsed. Every single person—old men, infants. Everyone,” he repeats. “Everyone, it seems, but the Prophet. There was plenty of warning, so why didn’t he?”
I try to arrange my features normally, as though I don’t know the answer to his question.