Ringer, Page 2Lauren Oliver
Gemma got a weird prickly feeling, like a spider was walking on her spine. “When did my dad see your hula girl?”
“When he dropped the car off.” He shoved the gearstick into park as they pulled up to the house, which never failed to emerge suddenly, enormous and unexpected, from behind the long column of trees. If a house could pounce, Gemma’s would have.
Pete caught her staring at him. “What? He didn’t tell you? His friend was selling the car and he knew we were looking to cash in the Eggplant. He offered to make the trade. It was nice,” he said, frowning, and Gemma knew she must have been making a face.
“Sure,” she echoed. “Nice.”
This time, he was definitely annoyed. He rolled his eyes and got out of the car without waiting for her to unbuckle her seat belt. Already the front door was open; Rufus bounded outside, as quickly as he could given his age, and began licking Pete’s kneecaps. Gemma’s mom, Kristina, appeared in the doorway, waving overhead with a big, beaming smile, as if she were heralding him from across a crowded dock and not from twenty feet away.
It was a stupid thing. Tiny. Minuscule. So what if her dad had a friend selling some shitty old turd-colored Volvo? Her dad had friends everywhere. Friends in the police department. Friends at the Formacine Plastics Facility, where Rick Harliss was now employed, a short ten-minute bus ride from the Winston-Able Mobile Home Community and Park, where he, Lyra, and Caelum were living.
Still, she didn’t like it. She’d told her father weeks ago she would come home only if things changed. It would be her rules. Her life now. And yet weeks later she was as trapped as she’d ever been. They were trying to soothe her, appease her, distract her, make her forget. Even Pete wanted to forget.
It’s too big for us, he’d said to her, shortly after they returned home. It’s too heavy for us to carry.
Gemma knew exactly what he meant. She felt the weight too, the constant pull of something deep and black and huge. Except she wasn’t carrying it, not even a little.
It was carrying her. What would happen, she wondered, when she fell?
Turn the page to continue reading Gemma’s story. Click here to read Chapter 1 of Lyra’s story.
“NO WAY WILL WE PUT troops on the ground.” Gemma’s father talked through a mouth full of half-chewed tenderloin. Geoffrey Ives believed strongly in table manners—for other people. “No way will the American public stand for it.” He leveled a fork at Ned Engleton, an old friend of his from high school, now a detective with the Chapel Hill Police Department. “Patriotic outrage is all well and good, but once you start shipping out these poor kids from Omaha, Des Moines, wherever, it’s a different story. I’ve seen robotics stocks go up tenfold the past month. Everyone’s gambling on drones. . . .”
“May I be excused?” For the past few weeks, Gemma had seen her father for dinner more than she had in the previous ten years. Usually, Gemma and Kristina ate takeout sushi in front of the TV in their pajamas, or Gemma was left to scour the refrigerator for whatever Bernice had left her while Kristina floated between various benefits and social obligations.
But after Gemma had come back from Florida, and Lyra, Caelum, and Mr. Harliss had been packed off (protected, Kristina said; given new life, her father said, although Gemma thought it was more like out of sight, out of mind), Gemma’s parents had determined they needed more together time. As if everything Gemma had learned, everything she’d seen, was just a nutritional deficit and could be resolved by more home-cooked meals.
It turned out Geoffrey Ives’s idea of family time was simply to bring his business home. In the past week alone they’d had dinner with a professor of robotics at MIT; a General Something-or-other who’d helped Ives land a lucrative consulting contract with a biotech firm that did work for the US government; and a state senator on recess whom Gemma had surprised later on that night in her kitchen, standing in his underwear in the blue light of the refrigerator, staggering drunk.
“You may not.” Geoff forked some more steak—home-cooked by Bernice, of course—and barely missed a beat. “But I don’t think air strikes are going to get the job done, not when these psychos are so scattered. Warfare keeps evolving, but have our methods evolved with it?”
Gemma felt a sudden hatred light like a flare inside her. She turned to Kristina, who had said next to nothing. Normally she didn’t pill-pop when they had company. But Gemma thought she was getting worse. Two, three, four glasses of wine, a Valium or two, and by bedtime she could hardly speak a word, and her smile was blissed out and dopey, like a baby’s, and made Gemma sick to look at.
“I’m thinking of going to visit Lyra this weekend,” Gemma said loudly, and there was a terrible, electric pause, and then Kristina let her wineglass drop, and suddenly Geoff was on his feet and cursing and Gemma felt sorry and triumphant all at once.
“I spilled,” Kristina kept saying dumbly. Red wine pooled over her plate and made a handprint pattern on her shirt. “I spilled.”
Geoff was shouting in staccato bursts. “For God’s sake, don’t just sit there. The carpet. Gemma, get your mother something to clean up with.”
In the kitchen, Gemma wound a long ribbon of paper towel around her hand like a bandage. She was shaky. It felt as if someone was doing a detail number on her insides, vacu-sucking and carving and hacking her raw. Muffled by the door, Kristina’s words took on the bleating, repetitive cadence of an injured sheep.
Before she could return to the dining room, the door opened and Geoff appeared. She was sure he was going to yell at her for mentioning Lyra’s name in the presence of a guest—not that anyone could guess who she was.
But he just took a step forward and held out a hand for the paper towels.
Feeling bolder, she took a deep breath and repeated herself. “I want to see Lyra this weekend,” she said. “You promised I could.” For a second, their hands touched, and she was briefly shocked. They almost never touched. She didn’t think her father had hugged her more than once or twice in her life. His fingers were cold.
“This weekend is your mother’s birthday,” Geoff said. “Did you forget about the party?”
“I’ll go Sunday,” she said, unwilling to give up. She half suspected that he was filling her time with celebrations and dinners and obligations precisely so she couldn’t see Lyra.
“Sunday we’re going to church,” he said, and his voice was edged with impatience. “I’ve told you we’re going to do things differently from now on, and damn it, I meant it.”
“I’ll go after church,” Gemma said. She should have dropped it. She knew her dad was getting angry; a small cosmos of broken blood vessels darkened in his cheeks. “I’ll get Pete to drive me. It’ll only be a few hours—”
“I said no.” He slammed a fist on the counter so hard that the plastic kitchen timer—untouched by anyone but Bernice—jumped. “Sunday is a day for family, and that’s final.”
Gemma turned away from him, balling her fists tight-tight, as if she could squeeze out all her anger. “Some family.”
“What did you say?” He got in front of her, blocking her way to the stairs, and for a moment she was gutted by a sudden fear. His eyes were hollowed out by shadow. He looked almost like a stranger. She could smell the whiskey he’d had at dinner, could smell the meat on his breath and the way he was sweating beneath his expensive cashmere sweater and she remembered, then, seeing her mother once sprawled at his feet after one of their arguments.
She tripped, he’d said. She tripped. Gemma had never known whether to believe it or not.
And in that second, weirdly, she felt time around her like a long tunnel, except the tunnel collapsed, and became not a road she was traveling but a single point, a compression of ideas and memories; and she saw her father with a dead baby, his first and only born, and knew that he’d done what he’d done not from grief but because it offended him, this natural order over which he had no control, the passing of things and the tragedy of a world that whip-snapped wit
hout asking his permission. He’d done it not for love but to restore order. Nothing would break unless he was the one to crush it. People didn’t even have the right to die, not in Geoffrey Ives’s house.
“Whether you like it or not, you follow my rules,” he said, and she wanted to cry: this was her father, who should have been both a boundary and a promise, like the sun at the edge of every picture, the thing that gave it light. “You’re still my daughter.”
“I know,” she said, and turned away. But in her head she said no. In her head, and in the deepest part of who she was, she knew she wasn’t. She was born of the sister, the self, who had come before her. She was the daughter of a silent memory, except the memory wasn’t silent anymore. It had reached up out of the past and taken Gemma by the throat, and soon, she knew, it would begin to scream.
Turn the page to continue reading Gemma’s story. Click here to read Chapter 2 of Lyra’s story.
GEMMA COULDN’T REMEMBER THE LAST time her father had been home for one of Kristina’s birthdays, or for one of hers. Last year, she had been patched through to the Philippines by his secretary so that he could wish her a happy fifteenth. She dimly recalled a party when she was five or six at a petting zoo, and crying when her mother wouldn’t take her closer than ten feet from the animals, fearing Gemma would catch something.
The guests began to arrive midafternoon. For a short time, she forgot about Haven and poor Jake Witz, who had died trying to expose the truth about Haven and Spruce Island; she forgot about the feeling that she was sleepwalking through someone else’s life. Her parents often hosted parties, mostly to support one of Kristina’s dozens of causes—the Mid-Atlantic Breast Cancer Prevention Society, the North Carolina Nature Refuge, the Equestrian Society, the Garden Club—or a political dinner for some local candidate Geoffrey was supporting. Those parties were stiff-backed and yawningly boring, and usually Gemma stayed out of the way or hung out in the kitchen stealing leftover nubs of filet mignon from the caterers and anxiously tracking how often Kristina came into the kitchen to refill her glass in private.
But this was a real, true, honest-to-God party.
The theme was Hawaiian, a nod to the bar that Kristina had been working in after college, where she and Geoffrey had met; Geoff liked to tell people that he’d never seen a girl make a grass skirt look so classy. Fifty or so of her parents’ friends had been invited, including April’s moms, who both showed up wearing coconut bras over their regular clothing. April’s mother Diana was a computer programmer and software engineer who designed malware detection systems for big companies; Gemma had hardly ever seen her in the daylight hours. April’s other mother, Angela Ruiz, was now a renowned prosecutor for the state. Watching them swish around with leis and fruity cocktails gave Gemma the same dizzying upside-down feeling of trying to do a cartwheel. Meanwhile, April stomped around, looking absolutely miserable, dressed pointedly in all black.
“What happened to aging gracefully?” she muttered, gnawing a pink cocktail spear she’d been using to stake olives from the bar. But Gemma thought it was funny, all her parents’ friends in ugly Hawaiian shirts and plastic flower crowns, getting drunk on piña coladas and rum punch.
Kristina had suggested she invite Pete, and he came dressed up, as she’d known he would, in a loud-print Hawaiian shirt he proudly announced he’d purchased from the gas station during a week of random travel promotions. Gemma couldn’t understand how he pulled it off, but he did. The shirt showed off his arms, which were long and tan and just muscle-y enough, and deepened his eyes to the rich brown of really good chocolate.
There were ribs smoking in a rented barbecue, honeyed ham with grilled pineapple, coconut shrimp circulated by waiters wearing grass skirts over their jeans. The grown-ups set up a game of bocce, but Gemma and April soon took over, making up their own rules so they wouldn’t have to learn the real ones, and Pete refereed and narrated through a fake microphone, using made-up terminology like the looping cruiser and the back-switch hibbleputz that made Gemma laugh so hard she nearly peed.
Gemma had determined that at the party she would ask April whether she’d had any luck getting into Jake Witz’s computer. April was sure Diana could get past Jake’s security measures and had come up with a convenient excuse to get her mom on board: the computer, she claimed, had been left at the public library, and they needed to get into the system to find a registration and return it.
Gemma had bugged April for days after turning it over, until April threatened to karate-kick her spleen if she didn’t stop. That was ten days ago. Gemma had figured she would slip it into conversation when April was relaxed, when they were having a good time, after she had proven she wasn’t obsessing, like April said she was.
But somehow, she couldn’t. For the first time in weeks she actually felt normal—she felt happy, and she wasn’t faking it. Neither Pete nor April was staring her down like she was in danger of morphing into a feral animal. Geoff and Kristina were actually dancing—there, on the deck, in front of everyone—as the sun broke up into layers of color and the fireflies lifted out of the dark. Pete had his hands around her waist, humming into her neck to the cheesy eighties music her parents still adored. His breath was warm. The sky was big, the stars new and shimmering, and though the world was large, she was safe inside it.
Standing there, she even thought that maybe, just maybe, she could choose to forget after all. April was right—lots of people had fucked-up childhoods—and Pete was right, too, that what had happened at Haven was too big for them to make better. Lyra and Caelum had a place to live, and her father had promised he would figure out a way to get Caelum papers so he could be legal, so he could exist. It wasn’t like they’d been trying to reach her. They hadn’t called her, not even once, since they cleared off. Maybe they were doing just fine—maybe they, too, wanted to forget.
If they could, she could: forget where she’d been made, and how. Forget about Emma, her little lost shadow-self. Maybe there was nothing to being normal except the decision to do it. You had to simply step into the idea, like wriggling into a sweater.
She should have learned, by now, that nothing was ever so easy.
Pete had moved off to check out the party’s main attraction: a full-on spit-roasted pig to be wheeled out and served before the hired Hawaiian dancers shimmied and hip-jiggled their way through dinner. But he came back and found her, his hair smelling sweetly of smoke, his hand warm when he interlaced their fingers. He was wearing half a dozen leis around his neck, on his wrists, even looped around his head.
“Come with me,” he said.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
He turned briefly to bring his mouth to her ear. “Somewhere we can be alone,” he said, and his eyes were bright and alive with reflections. Her stomach dipped, not the way it usually did when they began to kiss and she felt herself seize up with panic, but like when riding a roller coaster: like good things were about to happen.
He pulled her up the stairs onto the deck and toward the sliding doors. Luckily, all her parents’ friends had the sleepy-blissful look of tipsiness and were too wrapped up in their own little dramas to do more than wave. In the kitchen, Bernice was hustling the caterers around. When she spotted Gemma, she winked.
The hall felt even cooler after the dampness and warmth of outside, and when Pete stopped her and pushed her up against the wall to kiss her, she could smell charcoal in his hair and on his fingers. For once she didn’t feel like a monster, didn’t feel ugly or badly formed, and she stepped into him. He put his hands on her waist, slid them up her stomach, fumbled at her bra. . . .
Down the hall, a bathroom door opened, and Gemma heard the sharp rise of a woman’s voice—Melanie Eckert, one of her mom’s country club friends, sounding drunk. “I told her too much filler would split her like a pumpkin. Have you seen her now?”
Gemma launched herself across the hall and yanked open the door to the basement, practically shoving Pete down the st
airs before Melanie could see them. For a second they stood together on the landing, breathless and giggly, until Melanie’s voice had faded.
“Is this where you murder me?” Pete whispered, bumping his lips against her neck in the dark.
She knew he was kidding, but a sudden vision of Jake Witz returned to her the way she’d last seen him, standing at the door, angling his body so she couldn’t get inside, trying to warn her. Trying to save her. Jake Witz is dead. She was glad she hadn’t seen the body but had read, anyway, that people sometimes choked on their tongues when they were hanging, or broke their nails off trying to loosen the noose.
She hit the lights, relieved by the bland normalcy of the carpeted stairs leading down to the basement.
“You wanted to be alone,” she said, taking his hand, eager to get back the good feeling she’d had only a minute ago.
The basement was a clutter of old furniture, dusty table tennis equipment, a pool table with stains all over its felt (Gemma’s father kept a second, nicer pool table in the library upstairs), and old toys. Metal shelves, like the kind you might find in a library, were packed with massive jugs of bottled water, Costco-sized packages of toilet paper, cartons of canned soup, enough ketchup to fill a bathtub.
“Nothing says romance like industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper,” Pete said, and she laughed. “Are you guys preparing for the apocalypse or something?”
“Prepared. Past tense. In case you haven’t noticed, my dad’s kind of a freak.” She drew him between the shelves, moving deeper and deeper into the basement. It was like a spiny city built out of boxes of shredded wheat and stacks of Dove soap. And despite the musty smell of the basement and the bright overhead lights and the cheap gray wall-to-wall carpeting her parents would never have allowed anywhere else, Gemma felt in that moment, with Pete’s hand in hers, that it was the most beautiful place she’d ever been.
They started kissing again: first they stood, and then, when Pete bumped her against one of the shelves and nearly toppled it, they lay down together. He got on top of her. Her whole body was breathless and hot, as if she were nothing but breath, nothing but the inhale-exhale of their rhythm together. He was struggling to get her shirt off and fumbling with her bra, and for once she wasn’t worried about anything or even wondering how far things would go. Her nipples touched the air and he pulled away to look at her, to look at the long Y-shaped scar on her sternum that had earned her the name Frankenstein at school.