Lana used to know what was real. That was before, when her life was small and quiet. Her golden stepbrother, Ben was alive. She could only dream about bonfiring with the populars. Their wooded island home was idyllic, she could tell truth from lies, and Ben’s childhood stories were firmly in her imagination.
Then came after.
After has Lana boldly kissing her crush, jumping into the water from too high up, living with nerve and mischief. But after also has horrors, deaths that only make sense in fairy tales, and terrors from a past Lana thought long forgotten. Love, blood, and murder.
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The Telling – 1 –
This is what after looks like: me picking my way up the ridge in my swimsuit; the swollen water of Swisher Spring at the end of summer; girls baking under an orange sun on the boulders; boys cheering for me to jump, even though they’ve been vying for bragging rights all day. Boys. Yeah, there are those in after—one in particular.
Right on cue, Josh winks up at me from where he treads water with the others. That one thing—a silly gesture he probably passes out like smiles—has been twelve years in coming for me, because I’ve liked Josh Parker since he wore red corduroy pants the first day of preschool. And up until a month ago, I’d never heard him say my name.
After doesn’t feel as good as it looks.
I’m buzzed off one beer, breathless on the rocky ledge that might as well be a stage twenty feet above the others, with a hundred acres of wilderness preserve at my back, and fighting the urge to wrap my arms around my midsection because even after a month, I’m still not comfortable in this teeny-tiny bikini in front of the kids my classmates have called “the core” since the sixth grade. Definitely not with Carolynn Winters sunning herself below, keeping one bright fish eye on me. She’s dazzling, confident, the kind of girl who never asks twice.
Everything is the wrong color and too bright and out of proportion.
There’s space between what you see and what I feel. In my experience there’s usually a line that separates what people choose to show the world and what they keep hidden.
My small life of before was like that too. I was the quiet girl, good in the way adults want teenagers to be: raising her hand for extra credit; more worried about what people were thinking than what I thought. Nights were early; days spent studying. There were millions of flash cards and the eight-semester plan.
I was an earthworm dreaming of being a python.
The wind whips my hair, and I tighten my halter tie. In the water I was knocked around by the boys’ maelstrom. No matter how old boys get, they think it’s freaking adorable to splash you in the face. And no matter how old girls get, we’re always at the mercy of boys and their splashing.
If I said that out loud, Willa would add: and their war. She’s on the shore, likely rolling her eyes behind her aviators and hoping that I’ll jump fast so we can leave and she can watch whatever’s been recorded from the History channel. She’s already been patient with me all day (more like every day for two months) and she’s sick of doing things she despises and hanging out with people she likes even less for yours truly. I flush guilty.
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” the boys howl, pumping their fists as the water slaps their chests. Rusty, Duncan, and Josh have been inseparable since preschool. Rumors always circulate about the three of them and one of their testosterone-fueled misadventures.
“Jump where it’s deepest!” Rusty shouts, his indomitably curly, strawberry-blond hair wet and flattened to his scalp. I can see the hint of a waxy bald spot on the top of his head. A reminder that the best-case scenario is getting old and dying—not that I’m obsessed with death or anything. The opposite. My stepbrother Ben’s voice is in my head. Don’t wait until you’re dead, Lan. Exercise your nerve and mischief. I’m obsessed with living.
“Don’t land on the rocks,” Rusty shouts again. He’s a natural cheerleader, having played team sports since he could walk. I give him a thumbs-up. We’ve been at the spring for hours, lounging until the sun and booze induced comas, our skin sending up steam as we rolled into the water. No one’s made their way up the rocky face of the cliff littered with NO CLIMBING signs to make the jump before this.
Four years ago, Terrance Finnsberg, a senior at Gant High, leaped from this peninsula and snapped his spine on a rock in the water below. Died instantly. I heard he was high when it happened, told his friends he could fly. In response, Gant Island passed a town ordinance that made jumping illegal. It didn’t do a lot of good, since it’s only one of those punishable-by-community-service crimes, and everyone needs community service for college applications. Moreover, this is Gant. A fog of boredom hangs over the island during summer months as tourists descend on us and Seattleites ferry over, crowding beaches. Kids around here are used to being entertained. Dangle something in front of their faces and tell them they can’t have it, they’ll stomp until you give it to them—or just up and take it.
Ever since jumping became taboo, it’s everyone’s go-to stunt. It makes or breaks reputations. What the core doesn’t know is that Ben took me here way before this was Gant’s preferred dare. When I was eleven, I could find my way to the top of this precipice in the dark and cannonball into the water between the rocks poking up like knuckles.
“Rusty’s next,” Duncan calls.
“Bro”—Rusty wags his middle finger at Duncan—“I told you I can’t hurt my shoulder before season. The team would have my balls if I couldn’t start. You go next.”
Duncan tips his skipper hat and gives what he thinks is an irresistible smile. “I can’t risk screwing up this perfect face. I’m taking Bethany J. out tonight.” He says her name like it’s an exotic delicacy he can’t wait to gobble up. Bethany J. is a petite cheerleader with D cups. Bethany G. is a stocky flutist in the school band. To Duncan—and the majority of Gant High’s male population—it’s an important distinction.
Duncan shouts up to me, “This one time, Kara Moren jumped with her beer and gave herself a black eye.”
“You could put your beer down to jump,” Willa deadpans. No doubt she’s glaring at his white skipper hat. “It’s like he thinks he’s the captain of the whole island,” Willa groaned as we pulled up behind the others at the trailhead for the spring earlier today. “Promise you won’t blame me if I knock it off his head; it’ll be justifiable hat-homicide.”
Duncan kicks up from the water, punching the sky with his free hand. “You can take my freedom but never my beer!” He’s the only one staying afloat without relinquishing his bottle. With his drink, metallic-framed sunglasses, aforementioned cap, fitted swim trunks he brought back from Crete, and gold chain around his neck, he looks like he’s starring in a music video and the others are his entourage. Knowing Duncan, this is by design.
“No one’s jumping. She’s going to freak,” Carolynn gloats, not even deigning to say my name. She smirks only at her bestie, Becca, who’s sitting cross-legged beside Carolynn on the rocks that rim the spring.
“It’s okay, Lan,” Becca calls. “I wouldn’t even jump to save Duncan’s life.”
“Hey,” Duncan shouts, lifting his chest from the water to see her. “What did I do to you?”
Becca props her huge-framed glasses on top of her head and gives him an innocent look. “I’m over Bethany J. is all. Bethany J. is blacklisted. She’s all you talk about this summer.” Her lips pout and she gives a little huff in place.
“Kinda, man,” Josh says, laughing. Rusty grunts in agreement.
Duncan slaps the water, feigning anger. “Guys, she’s Bethany J.” A pause, and he grins. “BJ?”
Becca claps her palms over her ears dramatically. “Stop traumatizing me,” she moans. Duncan blows her a kiss. She mimes plucking it from the air and then slumps to the side in Carolynn’s lap, giggling. “Why can’t we all just marry each other?” Becca asks wistfully. “Then there’d never be reason to talk to anyone but us, and I’d never have to go on another date where the boy wants to go halvsies.” Carolynn absentmindedly rearranges the bracelets stacked on Becca’s wrist.
Despite being best friends with Carolynn Winters, Becca Atherton is not soulless. Becca pats my empty towel. “C’mon down, Lan, and we can predict hookups and couples for senior year.” She says this as though it’s the most alluring carrot she can dangle in front of me, a famished bunny rabbit. Before I would have whispered to Willa that news flash: All girls are not boy and gossip crazed. All girls are not kittens or bunny rabbits. Some are sharks. This is ironic, since although my former self would have acknowledged this, she never would have had the guts to act on her sharkish impulses.
After Lana grins at Becca and shouts, “Lemme jump and then I have a few predictions.”
The sun refracts off the diamond stud in Carolynn’s pinched nose as she tips her face up to the cerulean sky. “I’ve seen loads of guys jump,” she says. “Girls aren’t meant for stunts like that.” She drops her chin and winks at Becca. “Pussies are pussy.”
Willa sits bolt upright. She’s the only one of us not in a swimsuit, since she doesn’t swim and isn’t the tanning type. The stripe of white sunblock down the bridge of her nose has the look of a landing strip. “There’s a lot of disagreement about where that word came from. Pussy is actually a diminutive of pusillanimous, meaning cowardly. Although maybe the origin doesn’t matter, since everyone equates it with the female anatomy anyway?”
Becca rocks back, barely able to say through her giggles, “Puss-a-what-a-lis? Are you speaking Snuffleupagus?”
Willa gives a perplexed shake of her head before continuing, “And why wouldn’t girls be able to do everything guys can?” I know she’s forcing herself not to make a fist at Carolynn—she considers Becca too easy a mark.
Carolynn groans and rolls her head until she’s looking at Willa. “They’re different. I like mani-pedis, and Rusty”—she points a pink nail at him—“likes jerking off.” Willa snorts. The boys whoop. I don’t know how it started, but the core is always joking about how much Rusty Harper loves himself. What would have made other guys outcasts made Rusty a comic hero. He plays right along. He even had RUSTY PIPE printed on his baseball uniform.
The core’s like that. They defy gravity.
Carolynn eyes Willa like she’s a bumbling foreigner clueless about basic customs. “I repeat: boys and girls are different,” she states slowly, matter-of-factly. In this country we drive on the right side of the road.
Cue a din of pervy comments from the boys as Willa pops up on her knees, hands on her hips, her tone full of bravado. “What do you want to bet that not only will Lana jump, she’ll dive?”
Like it’s been choreographed, everyone’s faces snap in my direction. They don’t have a clue about the times I came here as a kid because before, Willa and I didn’t lunch in the same solar system as these kids, let alone spend half the summer setting off fireworks at Shell Shores with the radioactive core of Gant High. Why radioactive? Because these six hold the power to make others treat you as the deformed victim of nuclear fallout or a superhuman with clear skin and flawless hair.
Willa and I were sipping iced mochas at Marmalade’s Café a month ago when Josh invited us to play pool. Josh was all tumbling laughter and easy smiles, and after weeks of not being able to catch my breath, I could breathe near him. Before the first eight ball was sunk, Carolynn had called me Lena twice and shrugged once, purring, “Same difference,” when I corrected her—which was a lot nicer than when she emptied a flask on my dress at freshman homecoming. She was trying to scare me off; she didn’t bank on me sticking around for two more games or Josh driving me home afterward. I know Ben was the only reason Josh noticed us initially. Losing Ben cast a shine on me that I didn’t have as the weird little sister of “a popular.”
The corner of Carolynn’s mouth quirks up and she pets her poufy bun’s imaginary stray hairs, her gold and white bangles tinkling. She turns to Becca and says, “If she wants to jump, it’ll be her funeral.” Carolynn’s the only one of the five who likes to remind Willa and me that we’re not part of their us. We’re add-ons. As temporary as the season itself. Maybe the sun will keep shining through the autumn, or maybe Willa and I will be iced out when classes start.
Here’s a secret, though. Who cares? I never thought summers were boring before, and it’s only this year, the first without Ben, that I need a distraction. I need the core.
Becca’s green eyes turn up to me. “You sure it’s a good idea, Lan?” She points in the direction she thinks the sun is setting—south. “Can you even see to dive?”
“I can. No worries,” I call. I don’t agree with Willa when she says that Becca would miss sarcasm if it were an asteroid soaring straight at her. Becca just wants to think the best of her friends and refuses to see their scratchy edges. She lives down the street from me, and as a kid she’d come over to play while her parents fought. They were divorced by sixth grade and she stopped coming after. That’s when I learned that girls weren’t all automatically friends based on their shared girlness. Becca’s picked up with me like there’s no obvious gap in our friendship. Willa doesn’t understand how I’m not bitter over Becca ditching me back then. If Ben were here, he wouldn’t get it either. It probably should bother me, except Becca has this way of tugging you in close and delivering a compliment on your eyebrows or the freckle above your top lip that makes you feel as pretty as you know she is.
I crave the giddiness that turns my knees, elbows, and knuckles to liquid around the core. I even feel weightless at the perceived peril of this stunt.
“Dive. Dive. Dive,” the boys chant, except it sounds more like, “Die. Die. Die,” by the time I tune back in.
Willa looks down her ski-slope nose at Carolynn, her chin jutting out with the result of a finger pointing. “If Lana jumps, you have to admit that girls can do everything guys can.”
Carolynn’s hands move to tame fly-aways. “No, I’ll admit that Lana can do anything a boy can.” She grins at her cleverness and adds, “Maybe she even jerks off like one?”
Rusty whoops like a monkey and Duncan erupts in a fit of giggles, cracking, “Lana’s got lady-balls.”
Josh whips an arm across the surface, splashing Duncan. “Bro, shut the eff up.”
Duncan shields his face with the beer bottle, paddling away from Josh with the other arm. “C’mon. I’m kidding.”
Rusty shouts, “Dude, she’s gonna do it. She’s Ben’s sister.” The way he says Ben, slightly awed, isn’t new.
Duncan snorts. “Lana and Ben weren’t blood related.” The past tense burns.
Josh’s limbs churn like eggbeaters as he faces me and shouts, “Don’t listen to him. You can do it. Right in between the rocks.” His torso and head bob up and down, buoyant on the surface. The three of them have the look of those moles in the carnival game where you rush to whack their heads. There’s warmth radiating from my rib cage that you can probably see glowing through my skin, like I swallowed a bajillion glowworms. Josh Parker stuck up for me.
I step forward until my toes curl over the edge. It’s the middle of August, but the spring is deep, fed by an underground stream Ben and I spent summers searching for. The shadowy forms of three boulders run like columns from inches below the surface to the spring bed; other than them, it’s a clear twenty feet until you hit the bottom.
“On the count of three,” Rusty demands. “One!”
I let myself picture the way Ben looked jumping the last time we came: freckled broad back peeling from a sunburn; blond hair drenched brown; a tattoo on his shoulder already fading because it was cheap and done when I was fourteen and he was sixteen by a guy who operated in the back of a Chinese restaurant and didn’t check IDs. Even when it got really bloody, Ben didn’t wince. He just kept saying, “Shhh, it’s okay,” to me, like I was the one in pain. I sniffled the whole time.
“Two!” Rusty and Duncan shout in unison.
That was before. I wouldn’t cry now.
“Three,” they howl.
I spring forward. Two seconds plummeting to the looking-glass surface, my reflection a bird diving from the sky, falling like it’s not afraid of gravity, of what will come after it hits the ground. I slice into the water like a knife. A world of blue-gray envelops me as I shoot to the bottom. The water is lonely. The snakes that nest in the pockmarked walls aren’t eeling through the shallows. Ben is not on the surface with a mouthful of water ready to spray in my face.
My toes glide along the fuzzy, algae-covered rocks. I beat my arms. I exhale, sending bubbles to the strobe-light surface. There’s the outline of legs kicking, swirling bits of plant and dirt with the look of space matter in those posters of the cosmos. A featureless head bobs under the surface; whoever it is can’t see me. I hope Carolynn is so worried I’ve drowned that she’s peeing herself. It wouldn’t be her fault; I would’ve jumped if I were alone; if it were snowing; if it were the middle of the night. Jumping is what Ben and I did here. It was my only nerve and mischief.
The veins on my neck swell. I need air. I resist for ten seconds. My mouth opens to gulp . . . can’t help it . . . don’t want to surface . . . don’t want to admit that he’s not even here. I exhale. My chest flattens.
I am stone. Unfeeling. Indestructible. I can take it.
I shoot from the bottom, break surface, scrunch my eyes closed, and show the whole world my teeth. Grin, grin, grin until you feel the smile taking root in your belly, my mother used to say. Perception is nine-tenths of everything. Mom said that too.
Everyone talks in rapid fire. “That’s messed up,” one of the guys shouts.
“Such an attention whore,” Carolynn groans.
Becca chants my name in cheer.
“I knew she was fine. She’s Ben’s sister,” Rusty says.
“Screw you,” Duncan shouts, “You were pissing all over yourself.”
“Told you,” Willa gloats.
Warm hands slip over my shoulders. Josh dunks me for a split second as he tries to turn me to face him. “Sorry . . . sorry.” He’s coughing up water with the words. I laugh—can’t tell if I feel it taking hold as I drag the hair from my face.
Josh grins, white teeth pearly and straight, water dribbling from the corners of his wide mouth. He yells over his shoulder, “She totally schooled you with that dive, Car.”
“Bet I can stay under longer than you, bro,” Duncan challenges.
Rusty accepts and they start dunking under, their gasps and splashes background static. Josh’s dark-blue eyes stay on me. His hair is caramelized wet. His hands on my waist tow me to his chest. His touch is as warm as his tan skin looks. He feels like ginger tea tastes.
“What about you?” I ask. “You want to go under with me?” I can’t believe the flirty girl’s voice is mine. I feel my mouth making Mom’s coy smile.
Josh blushes. “Yeah, what’ll we do down there?” He says it like he isn’t the kind of boy who expects stuff or throws away winks. I hope. I would have kissed Josh the first night he drove me home from Marmalade’s. Becca says he’s too decent to make a move while I’m sad. Willa says a girl shouldn’t wait for a boy to ask her out.
My smile sends waves into my chest, and I do feel it taking root. Mom was right. Maybe Willa, too. The nervy words are citrus bright waiting on my tongue. I will ask him out.
Duncan explodes on the surface, sending spray into the air. The water runs from his plastered-down hair to his face and neck. Thin ribbons of blood connect his nostrils to his upper lip. His head bobs in a frenzy, eyes darting below. I look too. The water’s darkening along with the rose-and-blue tie-dyed sky.
“Dude, what happened to your face?” Josh calls to him.
“Rusty’s going nuts down there.” He thumbs one nostril, then the other, and tries to snort up the blood. “He kicked my face.” Josh releases me. I shiver as the water rises and falls, blackening with each crest as the sun sinks behind the shaggy wall of trees. I scissor-kick faster to lift up. Willa’s on her knees, really paying attention to the boys for the first time all day—maybe all summer. She senses the shift in the air.
“You’re getting blood in the water,” Carolynn whines, flicking a hand at the discord.
Becca crawls toward the edge for a better look. She snatches up Duncan’s skipper hat from where he tossed it and places it on her head. “Blood is soooo gross,” she complains.
Duncan has ahold of his nose and is egg beating in a furious circle. “I think there might be someone else down there,” he says.
My arms slash through the water as I whirl around trying to see under. Josh is asking what the eff over and over. Willa’s soprano tells me to get out of the water, “this second.” Carolynn’s shouting for Duncan and Josh to go down after Rusty.
Rusty hits the surface hacking up a lung, arms flailing, palms slapping hard to the rope ladder hanging from the rocky lip of the spring. The chorus is drowned out by his huffing, “There’s a girl. . . . She’s . . . at the bottom.”