Five years ago, when I had just turned thirteen, I killed my best friend. I chased her down and cracked her over the head with a rock. Then I dragged her body out of the woods and into a field and arranged it in the center of a circle of stones I’d placed there with my other friend, Mia. Then we knifed her twice in the throat and five times in the chest. Mia was planning to douse her body with gasoline and light her on fire, but something went wrong and we bolted instead. Here’s how everyone knew we were guilty: we had described the crime, more or less, in a fan-fic sequel to the book we were all obsessed with, The Way into Lovelorn. Afterward, Mia and I split up. She went home and spent the evening conked out in front of the TV, without even bothering to clean up the gasoline that had soaked her jean shorts. I was more careful. I did a load of laundry—hauling ass to the local Bubble ’N’ Spin, since we didn’t have a machine at my house. The police were still able to extract samples of blood from my T-shirt, not Summer’s but a bit of animal blood, since we’d previously practiced the knifing ritual on a cat, also found in the field. Owen Waldmann, Summer’s kind-of-maybe boyfriend, disappeared after the murder and didn’t return for twenty-four hours, at which point he claimed he didn’t know anything about it. He never said where he had gone. He was lying, obviously. He was the one who orchestrated the whole thing.
He was jealous because Summer had been hanging out with older boys, like Jake Ginsky, who was on the high school football team. That was the year Summer started growing up, leaving the rest of us behind, changing the rules. Maybe we were all a little jealous of her. I tackled Summer when she tried to run, hit her over the head with a rock, and dragged her back to Mia so that Mia and I could take turns stabbing her. Owen was the one who brought the can of gasoline and the one too stupid to dump the can after we mostly emptied it. It was found, later, just outside his garage, behind his dad’s lawn mower. Owen, Mia, and me, Brynn. The Monsters of Brickhouse Lane. The child killers. That’s the story the way everyone tells it, at least, a story repeated so many times, accepted by so many people, it has become fact.
Never mind that the case against Mia and me never even made it out of family court. Try as hard as they could, the cops couldn’t make the facts fit. And half the information we told them was illegally obtained, since we’d never even been cautioned. Never mind that Owen was acquitted in criminal court, not guilty, free to pass go. Never mind, either, that we didn’t do it. In books, secret worlds are accessible by doors or keys or other physical objects. But Lovelorn was not such a world, and appeared at whim and only when it felt like it, with a subtle change like the slow shifting of afternoon to evening. So it was that one day, three best friends—Audrey, Ashleigh, and Ava—were bored and hot and decided to explore the woods in the back of Ava’s house, though in truth there was little to explore that they hadn’t already seen. That day, however, a curious thing happened when they set of into the woods. —From The Way into Lovelorn by Georgia C.
Wells, 1963 Brynn Now “Your physicals look fine.” Paulie bends over my file, scrubbing her nose with a finger. A big pimple is growing just above her right nostril. “Blood pressure’s great, liver looks good. Normal heart rate. I’d say you’re in good shape.” “Thanks,” I say. “But the most important thing is how you feel.” When she leans back, her blouse strains around the buttons. Poor Paulie.
The residential director at Four Corners, she always has the dazed look of someone who just got into a fender bender. And she can’t dress for hell. It’s like she buys clothes for someone else’s body—too-tight Lycra blouses or too-big skirts and man shoes. Maybe she Dumpsterdives her whole wardrobe. Summer used to do that: she got her clothes in bulk from the Salvation Army or just stole them. But she could make anything look good. She’d take an old band T-shirt, extra-large, and turn it into a dress, belting it with a bike chain and pairing it with old Chucks. Garbage fashion, she called it. She was going to move to New York City and be a model when she turned sixteen, and afterward have her own fashion line. She was going to be a famous actress and write her memoir.
She was going to do so many things. “I feel good,” I say. “Strong.” Paulie adjusts her glasses, a nervous habit. “Six rehabs since eighth grade,” she says. “I want to believe you’re ready for a change.” “Four Corners is different,” I say, dodging the question I know she wants to ask. Of all the rehabs I’ve been to, plus hospital detoxes, sober-living facilities, and halfway houses, Four Corners is the nicest. I have my own room, bigger even than my room at home. There’s a pool and a sauna.
There’s a volleyball court on a bit of scrubby lawn and a flat-screen TV in the media room. Even the food is good—there’s a salad bar and smoothies and a cappuccino machine (decaf only; Four Corners doesn’t allow caffeine). If it weren’t for all the therapy sessions, it would be like staying at a nice hotel. At least, I think it would be. I’ve never stayed at a hotel. “I’m glad to hear it,” Paulie says. Her eyes are fish-big, wide and sincere behind her glasses. “I don’t want to see you back here in six months.” “You won’t,” I say, which is kind of true. I’m not going to come back to Four Corners.
I’m not leaving at all. I like rehab. I like the whole routine of it, the clean rooms and the staff with their identical polo shirts and identically helpful expressions, like well-trained dogs. I like the mottos posted everywhere on construction paper: let go or be dragged; live and let live; have an attitude of gratitude. Life in bite-size portions. Miniature Snickers–sized wisdom. It turns out that after a first trip to rehab, it’s easy to hopscotch. All you have to do is make sure to flunk a pee test right before you’re supposed to get out. Then counselors get called in; insurance companies, social workers, and relatives are contacted; and pretty soon you’ve got yourself an extended stay. Even now that I’m eighteen and can technically leave on my own recognizance, it won’t be hard: you’d be amazed at how quickly people rally together when they suspect their patient might have killed someone before she was even menstruating.
I don’t like lying, especially to people like Paulie. But I keep the story simple and pretty basic— pills and booze, Oxy I used to steal from my mom—and apart from the actual I’m an addict part, I don’t have to fake it too much. My mom was on Oxy the last time I was home, since some idiot in an SUV rear-ended her when she was coming home from a late shift at the hospital and fractured her spine in two places. I get nightmares, panic attacks. I wake up in the night and still, all these years later, think I see the bright burst of a flash outside my window. Sometimes I hear the hiss of an insult, a voice whispering psycho, devil, killer. Sometimes it’s Summer I see, beautiful Summer with her long blond hair, lying on the ground in the middle of a circle of stones, her face a mass of terror—or maybe peaceful, smiling, because the story she had been writing for so long had at last come true. That’s one thing I don’t talk about here, no matter how many times Trish or Paulie or any of the other counselors push. I don’t talk about Mia, or Summer, or Owen, or Lovelorn and what happened there, how we believed in it, how it became real. In rehab, I can be whoever I want.
And that means, finally, I don’t have to be a monster. Lovelorn had its own weather, just as it had its own time. Sometimes the girls passed through into Lovelorn at high noon and found that within the quiet hush of the Taralin Woods it was all rose and purple, long shadows and crickets, and that the sun was already kissing the horizon. Just as often, when it was cold and rainy in their world, it was brilliantly sunny in Lovelorn, full of summertime bees and fat mosquitoes. One or another of the girls was always abandoning sweatshirts, scarves, or hats on the other side and being lectured for it later. —From The Way into Lovelorn by Georgia C. Wells Mia Now “Holy mother of funk.” Abby, my best friend, holds up a moldering piece of fabric between two white-gloved fingers. “What is this?” Whatever it used to be—a jacket? a blanket? an area rug?—is now black, stiff with years of stains accumulating and drying, and full of holes where it’s been chewed up by a procession of insects. And it smells.
Even though I’m halfway across the room and separated fromAbby by mounds of books and newspapers, lamps and old AC units, and cardboard boxes containing a hundred different never-used, never-unpacked purchases, the kind you order off TV at midnight—blenders and multipurpose knives and Snuggies and even a rotisserie oven—the smell still makes my eyes water. “Don’t ask,” I say. “Just bag it.” She shakes her head. “Did your mom stash a dead body in here or something?” she says, and then, realizing what she’s said, quickly stuffs the cloth into a lawn-and-leaf bag. “Sorry.” “That’s okay,” I say. That’s one of the things I love about Abby: she forgets. She legitimately fails to remember that when I was twelve, I was accused of murdering my best friend. That the first Google result that pops up when you type in Mia Ferguson is an article on a popular parenting blog called “How Do Kids Become Monsters? Who’s to Blame?” Partly, that’s because Abby moved here only two years ago.
She’d heard about the murder, sure —everyone’s heard about it—but secondhand is different. To people outside our town, Summer’s death was a tragedy, and the fact that three kids were the primary (okay, only) suspects, a horror, unimaginable. But in Twin Lakes it was personal. Five years later, I still can’t walk around town without everyone glaring at me or whispering awful things. Once, a few years ago, a woman approached me outside the Knit Kit—I’d been looking at the baskets piled with fleecy, multicolored wool, and the sign in the window, Make Socks, Not War—lips puckered as if she were about to kiss me, and spat in my face. Even my mom is abused whenever she has to go shopping or drop off laundry or go to the post office. I guess everyone blames her for raising a monster. At a certain point, it just became easier to stay inside. Luckily—or maybe unluckily—she has her own online marketing business. Since she can order everything from toilet paper to socks to milk on the internet, she can go six months without ever stepping out the door.
When she announced a few days ago that she was going to visit her sister, I nearly had a heart attack. It’s the first time she’s left the house for more than an hour since the murder. But then again, she didn’t exactly have a choice. After my mom’s “collections” started spreading, first onto our back porch, and then onto our front porch, and then into our yard, our neighbors started a campaign to get Mom and me thrown out. Apparently, our very presence was contaminating the neighborhood and single-handedly destroying the chance that our neighbors could ever sell their houses. While the town stopped short of taking legal action against us, they did give us two weeks to clean up or face fines for all sorts of environmental hazards. My mom went to stay with my aunt so she wouldn’t be in the way, sobbing every time I tried to throw out a used dinner napkin, and I got stuck sorting through five years’ worth of accumulated trash. “Check this out, Mia.” Abby extracts a stack of ragged newspapers from beneath a broken standing lamp. “Now we know what was major news in”—she squints—“2014.
” I hoist a box from the floor, feeling a small rush of satisfaction when a bit of the carpet is revealed. I read off the side of the box: “‘With the amazing Slice and Dice, kitchen prep is a breeze!’” “Maybe you should sell that. It’s still in the box, right?” Abby climbs to her feet with difficulty, using a TV stand for leverage. Abby is fat and very beautiful. She has light eyes and dark hair, the kind of lips that make people think of kissing, a perfectly straight nose, just slightly upturned. When she was ten, she started a YouTube channel all about fashion and beauty. By fifteen, she had two million subscribers, sponsorships from major brands, and a flow of bank that meant her family could get out of Garrison, Iowa, and move back to Vermont, where her grandparents lived. Abby travels to so many Beautycons, vidcons, and fashion weeks, she has to homeschool, which is how she and I ended up together—when she’s not traveling—five times a week, four hours a day, listening to Ms. Pinner drone on about everything from narrative techniques in The Sun Also Rises to the covalent bond. We meet at Abby’s house, three blocks away, for the obvious reason that there is nowhere to sit in my house.
There’s hardly room to breathe. The Piles have seen to that. They are ruthless. They breed. They multiply overnight. “Sure,” I say. “If you like your veggies with a side of black mold.” I tuck the box beneath my arm and make my way to the front door, sticking to the path carved carefully between the Piles, an endless canyon of belongings—flattened cardboard boxes tied with twine, rolls and rolls of expired grocery store coupons, packing tape and rusted scissors, old sneakers and deflated inner tubes and no-longerfunctional lamps—all stuff that my mom, for some reason, thinks it necessary to keep. Outside, the sky is a weird color. The clouds are a seasick green.
We’re supposed to have a few bad days of storms—maybe even a tornado—although nobody really believes that. We don’t get tornadoes in Vermont, at least not often, and half the time the news predicts one it’s just to boost ratings. I heave the box into the Dumpster parked in our driveway. The Dumpster is the big, industrial kind used for home renovations and construction projects, and already, after only two days, it’s halffull. Back inside, Abby is red-faced, coughing, cupping a hand to her mouth. “What?” I say. “What is it?” “I don’t know.” She chokes out the words, eyes watering. “I think it’s an old pizza or something.” “Leave it,” I say quickly, trying to ignore the twin rotor blades that start going at the bottom of my stomach.
“Seriously. The sky looks like it’s about to throw up.” “Are you sure?” Abby obviously feels embarrassed that I’m embarrassed. Which just makes me feel worse, especially since Abby’s not the kind of person who is easily made uncomfortable. She is the kind of person who, instead of wearing big sweatshirts or sweatpants and trying to disappear, wears feathered skirts and multicolored tights and dyes her hair a variety of colors, then spends four hours staging a photo shoot with her pet Maltese, Cookie Monster. “We barely made a dent.” This is not entirely true. I can see several bare spots in the carpet. The TV and TV console have been revealed in the living room. I wonder whether we still have cable.
“So?” I force a smile. “More for us to do tomorrow. Maybe we’ll even find a buried treasure.” “Or the lost city of Atlantis,” Abby says, peeling off her gloves and depositing them in one of the open trash bags. Before she leaves, she grips my shoulders. “You’re sure-sure-sure? I won’t find you tomorrow suffocated under a pile of dirty laundry and old newspapers?” I force a smile. That awful shredding feeling is still there, churning up my insides. But Abby wants to get out. And I don’t blame her. I’ve been wanting out for as long as I can remember.
“Go,” I say, sidestepping her. “Seriously. Before a tornado sucks you somewhere over the rainbow.” She rolls her eyes and gives her stomach a slap. “I’d like to see a tornado try.” “You’re beautiful,” I call after her as she heads for the door. “I know,” she calls back. 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 i s 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 teacher’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 dif erent 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