The following is from Robin Wasserman's novel, Girls On Fire, and is also one of the 40 pre-publication excerpts presented in Buzz Books 2016: Spring/Summer. Wasserman is a graduate of Harvard and the author of several successful novels for young adults. Her writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Tin House, the New York Times, on TheAtlantic.com, and elsewhere. A recent recipient of a MacDowell fellowship, she lives in Brooklyn. Girls on Fire is her first novel for adults.
November 1991 – March 1992
They finally found the body on a Sunday night, sometime between 60 Minutes and Married with Children. Probably closer to Andy Rooney than Al Bundy, because it would have taken some time for the news, even news like this, to travel. There would have been business to attend to in the woods, staking out the scene with yellow caution tape, photographing the pools of blood, sliding the body into a useless ambulance and bagging the gun—there was a universal logic to such things, if TV had it right, a script to follow that would get even our sorry Keystone Kops past the hurdle of touching a corpse, seeing and smelling whatever happened to a body after three days and nights in the woods. From there, who knew how it worked, officially: where they took the body, who was tasked with calling the parents, how they extracted the bullet, what they did with the gun, the note. Unofficially, it did what bad news did best: spread. My father always liked to say you couldn’t shit your own bed in Battle Creek without your neighbor showing up to wipe your ass, and though he said it largely to get a rise out of my mother, it had the whiff of truth.
It was always my mother who answered the phone. “They found him, that boy from your school,” she said, once the show had gone to commercial. We were all facing carefully away from one another, toward the giant Coke bottles dancing across the screen.
She said they’d found him in the woods, found him dead. That he’d done it to himself. She asked if he’d been my friend, and my father said that I’d answered that already when the boy went missing, and that I barely knew him, and that I was fine, and my mother said, Let her speak for herself, and my father said, Who’s stopping her, and my mother said, Do you want to talk about it, and my father said, Does she look like she wants to talk about it.
I did not want to talk about it. I told them I might later, which was a lie, and that I wanted to be alone, which was the truth, and that they shouldn’t worry about me, because I was fine. Which was less true or false than it was necessary.
“We’re sorry about this, kid,” my father said as I made my escape, and these were the last words spoken in my house on the subject of Craig Ellison and the thing he did to himself in the woods.
He wasn’t my friend. He was nothing to me, or less than. Alive, Craig was Big Johnson shirts and stupidly baggy jeans that showed off boxers and a hint of crack. He was basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring and a dumb blond with a cruel streak all year round, technically a classmate of mine since kindergarten but, in every way that counted, the occupant of some alternate dimension where people cheered at high school sporting events and spent their Saturday nights drinking and jerking off to Color Me Badd instead of sitting at home, watching The Golden Girls. Alive, Craig was arguably just a little less than the sum of his meathead parts, and on the few times our paths crossed and he deigned to notice my existence, he could usually be counted on to drop a polite witticism along the lines of Move it, bee-yotch as he muscled past.
Dead, though, he was transformed: martyr, wonder, victim, cautionary tale. By Monday morning, his locker was a clutter of paper hearts, teddy bears, and basketball pennants, at least until the janitorial staff were instructed to clear it all away amid fears that making too much of a fuss might inspire the trend chasers among us to follow. A school-wide memorial was scheduled; then, under the same paranoid logic, canceled; then scheduled again, until compromise finally took the form of an hour of weepy testaments and a slideshow scored to Bette Midler instrumentals and the clutter of informational pamphlets from a national suicide hotline.
I didn’t cry; it didn’t seem like my place.
All of us in the junior class were required to meet at least once with the school counselor. My appointment came a few weeks after his death, in one of the slots reserved for nonentities, and was perfunctory: Was I having nightmares. Was I unable to stop crying. Was I in need of intervention. Was I happy.
No, no, no, I said, and because there was no upshot to being honest, yes.
The counselor sponged off his pits and asked what disturbed me most about Craig Ellison’s death. No one used the word suicide that year unless absolutely necessary.
“He was out there in the woods for three days,” I said, “ just waiting for someone to find him.” I imagined it like a time-lapse video of blooming flowers, the body wheezing out its final gaseous waste, fresh rotting, deer pawing, ants marching. The tree line was only a couple blocks from my house, and I wondered, if the wind had been right, what it might have carried.
The thought of the corpse wasn’t what disturbed me most, not even close. What disturbed me most was the revelation that someone like Craig Ellison had secrets—that he had actual, human emotions not altogether dissimilar from mine. Deeper, apparently, because when I had a bad day, I watched cartoons and hoovered up a bag of Doritos, whereas Craig took his father’s gun into the woods and blew a hole through the back of his head. I’d had a guinea pig once that did nothing but eat and sleep and poop, and if I’d found out the guinea pig’s inner turmoil was stormier than mine, that would have disturbed me, too.
Weirdly, then, the counselor shifted gears and asked whether I knew anything about the three churches that had been vandalized on Halloween, blood-red upside-down crosses painted across their wooden doors. “Of course not,” I said, though what I knew was what everybody knew, which was that a trio of stoners had taken to wearing black nail polish and five-pointed stars, and had spent the week before Halloween bragging how they would put the devil back into the devil’s night.
“Do you think Craig knew anything about it?” he asked. “Wasn’t that the same night he . . . you know?”
The counselor nodded.
“Then I’m guessing, not so much.”
He looked less disappointed than personally affronted, like I’d just ruined his Murder, She Wrote moment: Insightful bystander unveils dark truth behind hideous crime.
Even to people who gave Craig more credit than I did—maybe especially to them—the suicide was a puzzle to be solved. He’d been a good boy, and everyone knew good boys didn’t do bad things like that. He’d been a high school point guard with a winning record and a blow-job-amenable girlfriend: Logic dictated joy. There must have been extenuating circumstances, people said. Drugs, maybe, the kind that made you run for a plate glass window, imagining you could fly. A game of Russian roulette gone wrong; a romantic suicide pact reneged; the summons of darkness, some blood magic that seduced its victims on the devil’s night. Even the ones who accepted it as a straightforward suicide acted like it was less personal decision than communicative disease, something Craig had accidentally caught and might now pass on to the rest of us, like chlamydia.
All my life, Battle Creek had reliably been a place where nothing happened. The strange thing that year wasn’t that something finally did. It was that, as if the town shared some primordial lizard brain capable of divining the future, we all held our breath waiting for something to happen next.
Thanks to some ambiguous causal link the school administration drew between depression and godlessness, a new postmortem policy dictated that we spend three minutes of every homeroom in silent prayer. Craig had been in my homeroom, seated diagonally to my right, at a desk we all now knew better than to look at directly. Years before, during a solar eclipse, we’d all made little cardboard viewing boxes to stare up into the dark, having been warned that an unobscured view would burn our retinas. The physics of it never made sense to me, but the poetry did, the need to trick yourself into looking at something without really seeing it. That’s what I did now, letting myself look at the desk only during those three minutes of silent prayer, when the rest of the class had their eyes closed and their heads bowed, as if secret looking somehow didn’t count.
This had been going on for a couple months when something—nothing so bold as a noise, more like an invisible tap on the shoulder, an unspoken whisper promising this way lies fate—pulled my eyes away from the lacquered surface scuffed by Craig’s many etchings of cocks and balls, and toward the girl in the very opposite corner of the room, the girl I still thought of as new even though she’d been with us since September. Her eyes were wide open and fixed on Craig’s desk, until they weren’t anymore. They were on me. She watched me like she was waiting for a performance to begin, and it wasn’t until she rolled her eyes skyward and opportunity slipped away that I realized it was opportunity I’d been waiting for. Then her middle finger ratcheted up, pointing to the ceiling, to the clouds—unmistakably, to the Lord Our God in Heaven—and when her eyes dropped to meet mine again, my finger rose of its own accord in identical salute. She smiled. By the time our teacher called, Time’s up, her hands were folded politely together on the desk again . . . until she raised one to propose that school prayer, even the silent kind, was illegal.
Lacey Champlain had a stripper’s name and a trucker’s wardrobe, all flannel shirts and clomping boots that—stranded as we were in what Lacey later called the butt crack of western Pennsylvania—we didn’t yet recognize as a pledge of allegiance to grunge. The new kid in a school that hadn’t had a new kid in four years, she defied categorization. There was a fierceness about her that also defied attack, and so she’d become the two-legged version of Craig’s desk, best glimpsed only from the corner of your eye. I looked at her head-on now, curious how she managed to weather Mr. Callahan’s infamously fearsome glare.
“You have some problem with God?” he said. Callahan was also our history teacher, and had been known to skip over entire decades and wars in favor of explaining how carbon dating was nonsense and all the coincidental mutations in history couldn’t account for the evolution of the human eye.
“I have a problem with you asking me that question in a building funded by public taxes.” Lacey Champlain had dark hair, almost true black, that curled over her face and bobbed at her chin flapper-style. Pale skin and blood-red lips, like she didn’t have to bother dressing goth because she came by it naturally, vampire by birthright. Her nails were the same color as her lips, as were her boots, which laced up her calves and looked made for stomping. Where I had a misshapen assemblage of lumps and craters, she had what could reasonably be called a figure, peaks and valleys all of appropriate size and direction.
“Any other objections from the peanut gallery?” Callahan said, fixing us all with his look one by one, defying us to raise a hand. Callahan’s glare wasn’t as intimidating as it had been before the morning he officially informed us Craig wasn’t coming back, when his face crumbled in on itself and never quite came back together, but it was still grim enough to shut everyone up. Smiling like he’d won a round, he told Lacey that if praying made her uncomfortable, she was welcome to leave.
She did. And, rumor had it, stopped in the library, then headed straight for the principal’s office, constitutional law book in one hand, the ACLU’s phone number in the other. So ended Battle Creek High’s brief flirtation with silent prayer.
I thought something might come of it, that silent second we’d shared. For days afterward, I kept a stalker’s eye on her, waiting for some acknowledgment of whatever had passed between us. If she noticed, she showed no sign of it, and when I turned to look, she was never looking back. Eventually I felt stupid about the whole thing, and rather than be the feeble friendless loser who fuses a few bread crumbs of chance encounter into an elaborate fantasy of intimacy, I officially forgot that Lacey Champlain existed.
Not that I was feeble or friendless, certainly not by the Hollywood standards that pegged us all as either busty cheerleaders or lonely geeks. I was always able to find a spot at one table or another at lunch, could rely on a handful of interchangeable girls to swap homework or partner on the occasional group project. Still, I’d filed the dream of a best friend away with my Barbies and the rest of my childish things, and given up expecting Battle Creek to supply me with anything resembling a soul mate. Which is to say, I’d been lonely for so long, I’d forgotten that I was.
That feeling of disconnection, of grief for something I’d never had, of screaming into a void and knowing no one would hear me—I’d forgotten that was anything other than the basic condition of life.
From GIRLS ON FIRE. Used with permission of Harper. Copyright © 2016 by Robin Wasserman.