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Broken Things, Page 2

Lauren Oliver

  After Abby’s gone, I stand there for a minute, inhaling slowly without breathing too deeply. We’ve opened all the windows—the ones we could get access to, anyway—but still the living room stinks like unwashed upholstery and mold and worse. The curtains, ragged and slick with stains, twist in the wind. It’s dark for four o’clock and getting darker every second. But I’m hesitant to turn on one of the overhead lights.

  The Piles look bad in the dark, sure. But manageable. Formless and soft and strange. Like I could be in the middle of a weird alien landscape, a place where whole mountain ranges are built of cardboard and copper and rivers of plastic flow softly between them. In the light, there’s no way to pretend.

  My mom is crazy. She can’t get rid of anything. She cries if you try to get her to throw out a catalog, even one she doesn’t like. She holds on to matchbooks and sandwich bags, broken garden rakes and empty flowerpots.

  Maybe things would have been different if Dad had stayed. She wasn’t totally normal back then, but she wasn’t totally screwy, either. But Dad didn’t stay, and Mom fell apart.

  And it’s all my fault.

  Abby was right: there is a pizza box, and the remains of something that must once have been a pizza (Ms. Pinner would have a field day explaining that series of chemical reactions) smushed beneath an old leather ottoman. I work for another few hours and fill another ten leaf bags, dragging them out to the Dumpster one by one. The sky gets wilder by increments, deepening from a queasy green to the color of a bruise.

  I stand for a minute on the front porch, inhaling the smell of wet grass. As a little kid I used to stand just this way, watching the other kids wheel around on bikes or pummel a soccer ball across the grass, shrieking with laughter and noise. Go on and play with them, my dad would say, irritation pushing his voice into spikes. Just talk to them, for God’s sake. How hard is it to say hi? A couple of words won’t kill you.

  I couldn’t talk. I knew how, of course, but in public my throat would simply stitch itself up all the way to my mouth, so trying to speak sometimes made me gag instead. I knew even then that my dad was wrong—words could kill you, in a thousand different ways. Words are snares to trip you and ropes to hang you on and whirling storms to confuse you and lead you the wrong way. In fifth grade I even started a list of all the ways words can turn nasty, betray and confuse you.

  #1. Questions that aren’t true questions. For example, How are you? when the only right answer is fine. #2. Statements that are really questions. For example, I see you didn’t finish your homework. I got as far as #48. Words you can scream into the silence that will never be heard:

  I’m innocent.

  As a kid I found a different way to talk. At night I used to sneak outside and practice my ballet routines on the lawn, throw my arms to the sky and leap with bare feet across the grass, spinning and jumping, turning my body into one long shout. Listen, listen, listen.

  The wind has picked up and whips an old catalog down the street. Maybe we will get a tornado, after all. Maybe a storm will come ripping through the maple trees and old cedar, tossing off branches and cars and even roofs like high school students do with their graduation caps, tear straight down Old Forge Road, and mow through our house, suck up the Piles and the bad memories, turn everything to splinters.

  Back inside, I have no choice but to turn on a lamp in the front hall—one of the few standing lamps that hasn’t been buried under a mountain of stuff—and maneuver by its light, trying not to knock into anything in the living room. The wind has picked up. Newspapers whistle and plastic bags swirl, tumbleweed-style, across the living room.

  The rain comes all at once: a hard, driving rain that batters the screens and bowls them inward, pounds like angry fists against the walls and roof. Thunder rips across the sky, so loud I jump, accidentally dislodging a laundry basket filled with magazines. Two whole Piles go over—an avalanche of toasterumbrellascanvasrollspaperbackbooks—tumbling across the strip of carpet we recently cleared.

  “Great,” I say to nobody.

  My mom likes to say that she collects because she doesn’t want to forget anything. She once joked that the Piles were like a personal forest: you could read her age in the size of them. And it’s true that here, a history of our little two-person family is written: water-warped postcards, now indecipherable, dating from just after my parents’ divorce; five-year-old magazines; even one of my science textbooks from seventh grade, the last year I ever spent in public school.

  But it’s more than that. It’s not the story of a family but of a family gone wrong. It’s a book told in silences, words suppressed underneath enormous cloth-and-cardboard mountains.

  I squat down to keep sifting and discarding. Then I shift a stack of moldering printer paper and my heart stops.

  Sitting on a patchy square of carpet is a single paperback book. The cover, speckled with mold, shows the image of three girls holding hands in front of a glowing door carved into a tree. And suddenly, for no reason, my eyes are burning, and I know that this thing, this small, bound set of pages, is the heart of it all: this is the root of the forest, the seed, the reason that for years my mother has been building walls, mountains, turrets of belongings. To hem it in. To keep it down.

  As if it’s alive, and dangerous, and might someday come roaring back to life.

  The book feels simultaneously heavy and hopelessly brittle, as if it might break apart under my touch. The inside cover is still neatly marked in blue pen:

  Property of Summer Marks.

  And beneath that, in red, because Brynn insisted: and Mia and Brynn. Even though Summer never even let us read it unless she was there to read it with us. It was hers: her gift to us, her curse. I have no idea how it ended up in my house. Summer must have left it here.

  The last line of handwriting I recognize as my own.

  Best friends forever.

  For a long time I sit there, dizzy, as everything comes rushing back—the story, the three friends, the landscape of Lovelorn itself. Those days in the woods playing make-believe under a shifting star pattern of leaves and sun. How we’d come home at night, breathless, covered in bug bites and scratches. How things changed that year, began to twist and take different shapes. The things we saw and didn’t see. How afterward, no one believed us.

  How Lovelorn stopped being a story and became real.

  Slowly, carefully, as if moving too fast might release the story from the pages, I begin leafing through the book, noting the dog-eared pages, the passages starred in pink and purple, the paper warped now from moisture and age. I catch quick glimpses of familiar words and passages—the River of Justice, Gregor the Dwarf, the Red War—and am torn between the desire to plunk myself down and start reading, cover to cover, like we must have done eighty times, and to run outside and hurl the book into the Dumpster, or just set it on fire and watch it burn. Amazing how even after all this time, I still have whole passages practically memorized—how I remember what comes after Ashleigh falls down the canyon and gets captured by jealous Nobodies, and what happens after Ava tempts the Shadow by singing to it. How we used to spend hours arguing about the last line and what it might possibly mean, trolling the internet for other Lovelornians, theorizing about why Georgia Wells hadn’t finished the book and why it was published anyway.

  A sheet of paper is wedged deep into the binding. When I unfold it, a Trident wrapper—Peach + Mango Layers, Summer’s favorite gum—flutters to the ground. For a second I can even smell her, the gum and the apple shampoo her foster mother bought in jumbo containers at the ninety-nine-cent store, a shampoo that smelled awful in the bottle but somehow, on Summer, worked.

  My heart is all the way in my throat. Maybe I’m expecting an old note, a scribbled message from Summer to one of us; maybe I’m expecting her to reach out from the grave and say boo. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved when I see it’s just an old three-question Life Skills pop quiz that must date from sixth grade. It’s covered all over with the t
eacher’s red pen markings and various deductions for wrong answers and misspellings. At the bottom, the teacher has even included a summons. Come see me after class, please.—Ms. Gray.

  Ms. Gray. I haven’t thought about her in forever. She was one of the Earnest Ones and seemed to believe that her subject, Life Skills, would actually improve the quality of our lives. Like knowing how to unroll a condom on a banana and identify a uvula on an anatomical chart were going to get us through middle school.

  I’m about to replace the failed quiz and toss the book, once and for all, when I get the poky feeling that something isn’t right—a discomfort, like a rock in the shoe or a bug bite on the knee, something itchy and impossible to ignore. It doesn’t fit.

  I grab the book and the quiz and make my way out into the hall, where the light is better. The temperature has dropped by at least fifteen degrees, and I shiver when my feet hit the linoleum. Outside, the rain is still pounding away at the windows like it’s trying to get in.

  Summer was never a good student—she was more interested in Return to Lovelorn than she was in doing homework—and her foster father, Mr. Ball, was always threatening to lock her in her room if she didn’t bring her grades up. She just didn’t care about school. Her future was bigger than graduation, bigger than college, way bigger than Twin Lakes.

  But she was the writer. She was the talent. She was the one who insisted we meet up at least twice a week to work on Return to Lovelorn, the fan fic we were making up together, the sequel that would resolve the awful, baffling, unfinished ending of the original. She would sit cross-legged on Brynn’s bed, directing us to change this or that scene, to add in certain details. She would go away for a week and come back with sixty pages, with the three of us as the heroines instead of Ashleigh, Ava, and Audrey; and her chapters were brilliant, detailed, and strange and gorgeous, so good we always begged her to try to get them published.

  Here, though, Summer’s answers are all screwed up. She switches around common words and misspells stupid things like their and they’re, writes half her letters backward, mistakes words for words that sound similar but mean totally different things.

  I get a sudden rush to my head, like a fever coming on all at once. Suddenly I realize: Summer couldn’t have written those perfect pages of Return to Lovelorn.

  Which means that there was somebody else.

  The day turned brighter and the shadows darker, the trees grew incrementally taller and their leaves turned a very slightly different green, and the girls knew without speaking a word that something tremendously exciting was happening, that they had come to a new place in the woods.

  “I don’t remember a river,” said Audrey, wrinkling her nose as she often did when she was confused.

  “Or a sign,” said Ava, and she read aloud from the neatly lettered signpost tacked to a tall oak tree. “‘Welcome to Lovelorn.’”

  “Lovelorn,” Audrey said scornfully, because she was often scornful about things she didn’t understand. “What on earth is that?”

  Ashleigh shook her head. “Should we go back?” she asked doubtfully.

  “No way,” Ava said. And because Ava was the prettiest one, and also the most opinionated, and the others always did what she said, they went forward instead.

  —From The Way into Lovelorn by Georgia C. Wells



  Friday night is movie night at Four Corners, and after dinner all the girls pile into the media room, half of them already in their pajamas. The DVD collection at Four Corners is pathetic and features exactly two kinds of entertainment: “recovery dramas”—bad TV movies about hard-core addicts getting to rock bottom and then having some epiphany and moving to Costa Rica to find love and do charity work—or the handful of normal features that meet Four Corners’ rules against any cursing, depictions of sex, violence, alcohol, or drugs, aka pretty much every single thing that makes a movie worth watching unless you’re six years old. The old Tom Hanks movie Big makes the cut. So does Frozen, supposedly because it celebrates the idea of self-acceptance. But I’m pretty sure it’s just because one of our counselors, Trish, loves the music.

  Tonight everyone votes to turn on the local news. The big storm moving through the Northeast is supposed to reach us by midnight, and everyone’s freaking out about power outages and the water shutting off and being stranded with no AC for days.

  “I didn’t even know we had TV,” a girl—I think her name is Alyssa—says. She looks kind of like a Muppet. She even has weird orangey skin. Either she really likes tanning beds or she grew up next to a nuclear power plant and is now radioactive.

  “Do we have Showtime?” another girl, Monroe, asks. “Or HBO?” Monroe’s supposedly in for opiates, like me, but I’m pretty sure she might just be addicted to being the most annoying person alive. Every time she tells a story she has to include a metaphor from some dumb TV show. I felt the way that Arianna felt on season two of The Romance Doctors when she got passed over at the very last minute even though everyone thought she was going to win.

  “Local news only,” Jocelyn, one of my favorite counselors, says. She punches at the remote. Input/Output Error is blinking on the screen.

  “What about ABC?” Monroe asks, with increasing desperation, like this is a life-or-death, stranded-in-the-desert situation and she’s asking how much time is left before we have to start eating people. “Or the CW?”

  “Local news only, Monroe,” Jocelyn repeats, and Monroe slumps back against the sofa.

  Jocelyn pushes a few more buttons and the TV blinks into life, showing a reporter clutching a microphone and holding on to the hood of a rain slicker with the other hand. Behind her, trees are bent practically sideways by a hard wind; even as she’s standing there, an awning rips off from one of the stores behind her and goes tumbling down the street.

  It takes the sound a few seconds to catch up to the visuals. “ . . . standing here on Main Street in East Wellington,” the reporter is saying, raising her voice to be heard over the wind. “And as you can see from the scene behind me, Tropical Storm Samantha has also arrived. . . .”

  East Wellington is where Wade lives. That’s only two towns over from Twin Lakes. For some reason, it isn’t my mom and sister but Mia who comes to mind: Mia locked up in her big house, listening to the wind batter the shutters. Even though I haven’t spoken to her in five years, haven’t even seen her from a distance in maybe three, I suddenly wish I could call her and make sure she’s okay.

  “Tropical storm?” Alyssa reaches for the popcorn. “I thought they were saying hurricane.”

  “Shhh,” another girl hushes her.

  “What’s the difference?” someone else says.

  “Shhh.” Now several girls speak at once.

  “ . . . Meteorologists are saying that so far wind gusts have reached only forty miles per hour, and so the storm has been downgraded from original reports predicting a historic hurricane,” the reporter says. “Still, they warn that the storm is just beginning and is expected to worsen as it meets the cold front coming off the Atlantic. It is still possible that we’ll be facing hurricane conditions—record winds, flooding, power loss, and road closures. Basically, a big mess.”

  The screen cuts to another reporter, this one sitting behind a studio desk and wearing a badly fitting suit, with teeth way too square and white to be real. “Stay safe and stay home, people. . . .”

  “There goes visiting day.” Rachel makes a face. Rachel is in for depression and mood disorders, a cluster that includes everyone with serious suicidal tendencies—people who’ve done far more than, say, stick a thumbtack in their arm just to see if it would hurt. (It did.) Rachel has the sharp, sweet face of a squirrel and looks like the kind of girl you’d want to cheat off during a math test—until she rolls up her sleeves and all her old track marks are visible.

  “What do you mean?” I say.

  She jerks her chin toward the screen. “We’re marooned. See? Flood zone number one.” Now there�
��s a big map on TV showing different portions of Vermont and how much water they can expect. Addison County is highlighted in a fire-engine shade of red.

  “The weather reports always exaggerate,” I say quickly. “They’re just trying to boost ratings.”

  Rachel shrugs. “Maybe.”

  “When’s the last time we had a tornado in Vermont?”

  “Like, four years ago,” she says. “Why do you even care, anyway? No one’s coming for you.”

  Stupidly, hearing the words out loud like that, I get a weird ping in my chest, like a popcorn kernel has gone down the wrong pipe.

  “My cousin’s coming,” I say, which is mostly true. Wade Turner is actually my mom’s cousin’s son, which makes him once removed or twice baked or whatever you call it. For the past five years, he’s run a conspiracy site dedicated to the murder at Brickhouse Lane. He’s convinced, for reasons I don’t completely understand, that he can find the truth and clear my name. For twenty bucks in gas money—half of what my mom gives me for the month for incidentals, like candy bars and recovery-themed sweatshirts and postcards—he’ll drive an hour and a half from East Wellington to Four Corners to drop off bottles of dirty pee. He’d probably do it even if I didn’t pay him, just for the chance to grill me on what happened—not that I ever have anything new to say.

  Wade is weird as hell, but at least he’s someone. My mom hasn’t visited Four Corners at all, and my older sister—her face narrowed so much it has achieved the look of an exclamation point—came only once, still wearing scrubs, to drop off a stack of magazines I hadn’t asked for and tell me that I was disappointing everybody. And my dad has been out of the picture forever, a fact that has never much bothered me but has been used time and again by therapists and bloggers and the state-appointed attorney who argued against my transfer to criminal court to explain everything from my supposed juvenile delinquency to the fact that I don’t like math.

  My system with Wade is simple. Once every ten days, he makes the seventy-four-mile drive from East Wellington with a bottle of yellow Gatorade rattling around on the floor of his old truck—a bottle that just happens to contains pee he snuck out of the state-sponsored clinic for junkies and drunks where he works during the week. He gets to Four Corners and signs in at the lobby. Then, pretending he’s desperate to use the bathroom after the drive, he ducks into the visitors’ bathroom and drops the Gatorade bottle in the toilet tank, which only occasionally gets checked for bags of pills or floating vodka bottles.