Retitled: The 27th Letter Of The Alphabet
A young adult novel by
Represented by … stay tuned!
These first pages are no longer the first pages of this novel, something I found interesting as a writer. In the future, I’ll post the new pages. In the meantime, as these are the pages that secured multiple offers of representation, I’ll leave them up for reference’s sake.)
First ten pages:
Part One: Dead Girl Talking
The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.
Let me tell you some of my secrets, first:
I’m not supposed to know this, but I do. I overheard Holly’s mother in our messy living room, chatting over a cup of orange pekoe tea my mom had forced upon her.
That afternoon, the house reeked of Pledge, because I’d been dusting, earlier. Maroon 5′s, She Will Be Loved, serenaded me from my iPod because I’m the girl with the broken smile. I also remember it as a time when my dad was still with my mom, although they’d been fighting a lot, and my mom wasn’t hooked on pills; at least, not the way she is, now.
Rap-rap-rap! I plucked out my ear buds. Fumbled the book in my hand, and then bent to pick it up. Holly’s mom stood on our front porch, waiting for my mother to open the door. Our eyes locked through the sheer, white curtains, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get my feet to budge.
Before, Mrs. R would’ve turned the knob and snaked her head through the opening, singing out, “Holly, I’m here to pick you up,” at which point Holly and I, studying in my room, would’ve grinned at each other and slammed our books shut with a whoosh. However, it had been a month since Holly’s death, and seeing her mom on our stoop, alone, hit too close to home.
Especially after what I’d done. Still, I wanted to hear.
I hid in the hallway like a burglar, my shoulder blades bruising the wallpaper, scared (as I’d be for a long time) that Mrs. Rusken had found out about me. I could tell by the quiver at the end of her sentences that she was talking about her daughter.
“Those first three days were the worst, when we didn’t know where she was. The Sheriff said it could’ve played out that we didn’t find them for a long time. Brian’s truck was completely hidden in the desert brush.”
Padding closer in my stocking feet, I peeked through the living room archway. The evening light soaking through the stained glass window tinged their faces purple and yellow like a bruise in the final stages of healing.
I watched my mom curl her toes and release them, long and pale in her strappy sandals, shifting her weight on the couch and making a big show of blowing on her tea. Holly’s mom then said the words I’d never forget, not until my own dying day, I’m sure.
“He said it was the vultures circling. That’s what alerted the rancher whose land the truck was on.”
I watched Mrs. Rusken’s body shudder, the tremor like an aftershock to the original groan. It was one of those images you could never un-see once you saw it.
Anyone who lives in the desert knows that vultures are harbingers of death. And, anyone who knows vultures knows they start with the eyes and the bowels when they feast. Landing on her back, her eyes reflecting the sky, Holly hadn’t stood a chance.
The sheriff wrote in the police report that “Miss Rusken” ejected from the vehicle when it rolled. I wasn’t supposed to read it, but I did. The kids at school had gotten a hold of the report and shoved a few of the pages through the slats of my locker.
Girls who were jealous of Holly. There were a lot of them.
Whenever I think about Holly lying there like a banquet for the wildlife, I have to stop and think of something else – anything else – because it feels like my scalp’s peeling back and my sanity could tumble out like a ball of yolk. I almost failed sophomore year because of the vultures. The images twisted my mind in ways a fifteen-year-old girl should know nothing about.
That’s why I go to Dr. Macy. They all think I’m going crazy and the unspoken truth is, they couldn’t blame me if I, Mickey Whitby, did go insane. There are times in life when insanity is inevitable. No one wants those times, but they do exist, and it doesn’t help that I can’t reassure them otherwise.
Dr. Macy had been Mrs. Rusken’s idea. She was the first one to see that I wasn’t the Mickey I used to be.
“Maybe it would be better if she were in therapy, under the guidance of a professional grief counselor?”
Kathy Rusken squeezed her husband’s hand as she spoke, her words meddling but well-meaning. Even so, I imagined the arms of the loveseat the Ruskens perched upon coiling around them like a boa constrictor. My dad kept clearing his throat and adjusting his glasses as my mom pressed rows of oily fingerprints into the dust on the side table, her shoulders squared against the truth: it was easier to have a daughter that was a bad duster, than crazy.
“How about I hang up the old punching bag in the garage? You could use it to get the feelings out,” my corny dad offered after the Ruskens left.
My limbs flopped around like overcooked noodles when I took a few jabs in front of my father, just to make him happy. The boxing gloves felt like little ovens that made my hands sweat.
It made me feel worse, not better.
Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.
“I don’t blame Holly for leaving me. I seriously don’t.”
How many times were we going to go over this?
Only, I concentrate on the green leaf pattern of the rug in Dr. Macy’s office when I say it, scuffing the worn fibers with my sneaker, spacing out to the sound. When I finally sneak a peek at her face, I know she doesn’t believe me. I can tell because one of her penciled-in eyebrows climbs skyward, and she’s wearing the face that likes to push.
“It’s okay to blame her for leaving, for dying …”
Her voice is soft and coaxing, but what am I, a puppy?
“Why would I? It’s not her fault.”
My voice grows cold and crunchy as ice chips. She ignores it with a smile.
“It doesn’t make a difference. Sometimes feelings aren’t logical, but that doesn’t make them any less real,” she says knowingly.
Her note pad sleeps in her ample lap like a cat, and she flicks her retractable pen absentmindedly in, out, in, out. I imagine snapping the pen in half, the ink spurting from its plastic vein and running down my forearms.
“Sometimes I think she’s not really dead – she’s just hiding out somewhere, sworn to secrecy.”
Up goes Dr. Macy’s eyebrow, again.
“What if she witnessed a murder and the FBI whisked her into the Witness Protection Program?”
Dr. Macy regards me with wide eyes, like I’ve grown a leg out of my head and the toes are wiggling.
“I’m just saying it’s a possibility,” I finish in a huff, rolling my eyes and crossing my arms.
Her face softens slightly when she realizes I’m not kidding.
“Of course you imagine Holly alive and well. Wishful thinking can be a great comfort. Thinking of her as alive is a way to cheat death and the feelings that accompany death. It’s completely understandable.”
I shrug, stare out her office window. A tiny zebra-tailed lizard blinks back from a gnarled branch, its black-and-white tail weaving to and fro, mimicking a rattlesnake’s rattle.
Everyone has their armor.
I shift my vision to the corner of the ceiling, where, if I stare hard enough, the whole world goes white and blurry.
“What do you think about what I said? Mickey?”
What do I think, really? I think life is stranger than fiction sometimes and crazier things have happened to people.
Like those two neighbors on the news last week – they’d lived next door to each other all their lives, both of them adopted into families as infants, their original parents unknown, only to find out they’re actually SISTERS.
Or, how about the man who discovered the face of Jesus Christ seared into his English muffin? Stranger things have happened. That’s all I’m saying.
I sense Dr. Macy’s antennae popping up – ping-ping. I hear her shift in her seat; inhale, then release the air in a rush. My craziness is showing, like the hem of a slip or the flash of a bra strap. Inside I smile, as I turn back to her.
“You saw the truck.” Dr. Macy peers at me over her glasses. “How could Holly still be alive outside the band-aid of wishful thinking? Witness Protection? Really, Mickey?”
I know she’s right. I did see the truck, the mangled moan of metal, the hub caps missing, the vehicle barely recognizable — only by the plates — and by the paint: the scraped off, smoke-charred mint green paint. I couldn’t explain to my parents or Dr. Macy why I had to look – and look again – and not just twice, but six (maybe seven or more) times.
“Why do you keep going back to look at the truck?”
I press my back into the overstuffed chair as if the stuffing might give way to a tiny door only I can tumble through. Her office boasts a jungle of hanging plants and a collection of Van Gogh paintings crowd the mint green walls, perched above overflowing bookcases. I recognize three paintings by name: Starry Night, Sunflowers, and The Old Tower in the Fields. If a person didn’t mind being in a shrink’s office, they’d notice it had the homey feel of a library in a mansion on the moor — like straight out of a Bronte novel.
“Maybe it’s a morbid teenager thing, like the girls in the 1800′s who starved themselves because they thought they were saints,” I offer, although it sounds like something I made up on the spot.
Dr. Macy taps her foot.
“I don’t know for sure,” I say, fidgeting in my seat. “I think it’s because I need to make sure it’s real.”
At last, I’m being honest.
“What? The car accident? Holly’s death?”
“Both,” I say, avoiding her gaze.
Dr. Macy lets the silence build, louder and louder until it whooshes in my ears. Finally, when I can’t stand it any longer, she breaks it.
“Is that why you starve yourself? Because you want to be a saint?”
“I wasn’t talking about me.”
“Are you sure? Because I think that’s your thing, Mick.” Her eyes bore into mine like a desert woodpecker. “I think that’s your own unhealthy way of coping, of doing penance. Losing weight won’t undo losing Holly, you know. Neither will being a saint. No one’s perfect. Think about it, toots.”
I have. I did. Could be worse, I tell myself. Otherwise, the damage doesn’t show on the outside.
“Starvation isn’t a language. You need to find the words,” Dr. Macy adds, wanting to hug me, I can feel it, and I wouldn’t want her to – I would shatter into a million worthless pieces.
“Your mom says you have no friends left. No friends at all? How could that be true?”
As if I was that great, or something. My gaze flits to her bookcase jammed with books. I read the spines one by one inside my head, counting the syllables of the words in each until the whooshing subsides.
“Who do you talk to?” Dr. Macy prods, her words swirling around me like autumn leaves.
“People,” I lie, feeling like a loser. “Do we have to keep talking about this?”
“Oh, c’mon, Mickey. Just let me tell you what I’m leaving you. It’s not like talking about something makes it happen, right?”
Holly could be such a pest.
I didn’t answer right away; I was too busy watching the way her dirty-blonde hair swooshed across one eye, always looking like a girl out of a magazine without lifting a finger.
“Why do you keep talking about it,” I finally said, exasperated. “You’re certifiable, you know that?”
Holly blew the hair off her face, groaning.
“Now, go knock on wood or something. I’m not kidding, Hols.”
And I wasn’t.
Her dark mahogany sleigh bed was made of wood.
“Go knock on your headboard,” I said.
Holly crossed her eyes, giggling.
“Knock on it!”
My voice raised an octave or two, like my mother’s when she’s scared.
We were hanging out in Holly’s sun-filled bedroom leafing through Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, before she’d pulled me from my reading trance to talk her death talk, again.
“I won’t knock on anything, Mickey. You’re too damn superstitious.”
“And you’re not superstitious enough. Fine, then. I don’t want to talk about your death anymore, ever.” I rifled through my magazine, making a big display of ignoring her.
“Fine,” she said in her pouting voice. “But after I tell you what I’m leaving you. Then I won’t bring it up again.”
Holly smiled her most winning smile, the one that worked magic on the hormonal punks on the corner.
“Yeah, you won’t bring it up today. But you know you’ll bring it up eventually.”
She tossed her magazine on the floor and stood on the bed, cradling Smiley Jones to her chest, and bounced up and down, up and down, ignoring my protests.
“First of all, you have to take Smiley Jones. I know you love him as much as I do, and you’re the only one who can give him all the attention he deserves.”
She held out the devilish, four pound Yorkshire terrier to seal the deal, but I shook my head; no way was I going to let the conversation be that real. We were going to be old grannies in rocking chairs, together.
“Okay, okay. Let’s see what else. You’ll have to have my jewelry, of course. And my diaries and journals – but you have to promise not to read them. Just keep them somewhere safe, where no one else can find them. Especially not my parents.”
Resigned, I nodded my head, yes. She knew she could count on me. She gestured toward her walk-in closet.
“And you’d have to take my clothes, especially the designer ones. No need for my chubby cousin to try to squeeze into them, especially when you and I are the same size.”
That was true at the time. We were both a size six, and a natural size six. However, Holly’s parents, unlike mine, loved to buy her expensive clothes. I have to admit, if Holly hadn’t been my best friend, I might’ve been a little jealous of her wardrobe.
Holly aborted her jumping to sit on the edge of the bed, ticking off her possessions one by one, but I’d stopped paying attention by then. Smiley Jones, lying on his back on her white, pink-flowered comforter, first wiggled to the left, then to the right, barking at the air and wagging his stub of a tail.
He was ridiculous.
We laughed those deep belly laughs that, once started, carried a person off in waves of laughter until their stomach muscles were screaming, or someone unexpectedly snorted, which brought on fresh waves.
I loved the waves.
As I tell Dr. Macy about that afternoon, she smiles in places and nods her understanding at my annoyance with Holly, in others.
“I’d call that a premonitory moment for sure,” she says, uncrossing her legs to re-cross them at the ankle; thick ankles that muffin-top over her tight, low-heeled pumps.
I look up into her eyes, a dark, hypnotic amber, which scrutinize mine, a shy, watery blue.
“You think she knew what was going to happen to her?” My small voice scratches out the words like a frightened mouse scurrying across a hardwood floor.
Once again, I think of my secret, clamped deep inside like an irritating grain of sand destined to develop into a monster, not a pearl.
“I don’t know. Maybe. What do you think?”
That’s the thing – I’m not thinking. Not now and definitely not then.