The Smaller Evil

The Smaller Evil

by Stephanie Kuehn

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Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.
17-year-old Arman Dukoff can't remember life without anxiety and chronic illness when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to "evolve," as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman's not sure, but more than anyone he's ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he's failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can't believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he's always trusted the least: himself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101994719
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 593 KB
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

Stephanie Kuehn is the critically acclaimed author of four young adult novels, including Charm & Strange, which won the ALA’s William C. Morris Award for best debut novel. Booklist has praised her work as “Intelligent, compulsively readable literary fiction with a dark twist.” She lives in Northern California and is a post-doctoral fellow in clinical psychology.

Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from The Smaller Evil

“You have to stop hurting yourself,” Beau said softly.

“I know.”

“I mean it. You’ve been taught to turn your pain inward. But that’s wrong. It’s sick. Do you understand me?”

Arman nodded. “I . . . I think so.”

“No!” Beau hissed. “That’s your whole damn problem, thinking. Ever since the day we met, you’ve told me what you think about things. But you don’t feel and you don’t do. Not in any meaningful way. Feeling and doing, they’re more important than the thoughts inside your head. They’re our primary channels to health. To immunity.”

“Huh?” Arman shivered. He couldn’t even pretend to comprehend what was going on.

Beau sighed. “Do you take care of yourself by thinking about exercising? Or by actually exercising?”

“Actually exercising.”

“And does thinking about, say, sex keep you from wanting it? Or do you find you’re driven to satisfy your desires in more physical ways?”

At this, a great roar of laughter rose up behind him, and Arman longed to melt. Or evaporate. Did everyone know about him and the cook? That’s what it felt like. But he managed to answer, “I . . . satisfy my desires.”

“I would hope so,” Beau said smoothly. “So when I say that you need to express your pain externally, what is it that you need to do?”

“I need to do it.”

“That’s right.” A look of approval crossed Beau’s face, and seeing this calmed Arman. It reassured him that he was saying the right things and doing what was expected of him. It also gave him hope this ordeal would soon be over. He watched eagerly as Beau rolled his own shirtsleeves up, exposing the smooth skin of his forearms. Then Beau pulled something from the side pocket of his pants. He worked hard to pry whatever it was open before dropping it right in the center of Arman’s palm.

Gasps came from the surrounding circle, and Arman stared, disbelieving. It was a knife. Beau had given him a pocketknife. A strange-looking one, with a rosewood handle and an ornate type of blade Arman had never seen before. Rather than a solid steel color, this blade was a dramatic mix of light and dark, of everything in between. Streaks of grays and blacks covered the entire surface—a gleaming feat of metallurgy that worked to form a distinctive pattern of whorls and loops. Like a fingerprint.

“My grandfather made it,” Beau said. “It’s a Damascus. Truly one of a kind.”

Arman said nothing. He just kept staring at the blade.

Then he looked at Beau’s outstretched, unscarred arms. Like an offering.

A sacrifice.

For him.

“Wait a minute,” Arman said slowly, shaking his head. “No. No, I won’t do that. Of course not. I won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, you will. You’ll do it now. Go on.”

Arman swallowed hard. His trembling hand closed around the knife’s hilt. It was heavier than he’d realized, and it was nothing for him to let the weight of the decorative blade tip down to rest against Beau’s soft wrist. He glanced up.

“I can’t do this,” he said.

“You can. You will.”

Arman nodded. Held his breath. Then he began pressing down on the blade. Slowly. Very slowly. Until pop! The skin gave. A dot of red appeared. The smallest mark. He quickly looked at Beau again. He wanted approval. He wanted to be told to stop.

“Deeper.” Beau fixed his calm river-pebble gaze on him. “As deep as you can go. To the bone.

“What?” Arman yanked his hand back. “No!”

“You said you wanted to heal.”

“Yeah, but not like this. This isn’t healing. It’s gross.”

“Are you sure, Arman? Or is that just what you think?”

Was this really happening? “I’m sure I think it’s true.”

Beau bent forward then, lowering his voice to a whisper, making it a moment just between them. “Maybe the truth is that you don’t know what healing looks like. Maybe nothing you know is as it seems.”

“And why would that be?”

“Because you’re here. Because you can’t see the truth from where you’re standing. Because you’re like a dog chasing a squirrel as it runs around a tree. You don’t realize you could catch the damn thing if you just stood still.”

Thick and heavy, Arman’s nausea had returned to roost. “So what? I’m just supposed to do something I don’t want to do because you think I should?”

“Alia tentanda via est. That’s our motto here.”

“I don’t even know what that means!”

“It means ‘another way must be tried.’”

Of course it did. And of course Arman understood. This was the moment he was meant to crack. This was the moment that he was meant to see the error of his ways and demonstrate that his disgust and self-loathing were far better off directed at the people in his life who’d actually caused him pain.

The thing was Arman didn’t see it that way. The truth of who he was and why was so much more complicated than that. The swipe of a sword at a self-appointed father figure couldn’t begin to bear that burden.

Besides, what Beau was asking him to do, well, it was wrong.

It wasn’t right.

So Arman gripped the knife, as tight as he could, and with a snarl, he flung the weapon out of the circle. It arced high in the night air, spinning end over end, before tumbling over the edge of the ravine to vanish into the blackness.

“No,” he told Beau again. “I won’t do that.”

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