Critically acclaimed author Maggie Thrash’s second novel in the Strange Truth series blends crackling suspense, subversive humor, and biting social commentary to become the “definition of a page-turner” (John Corey Whaley).
Only at Winship Academy would an evening science expo turn into a criminal fiasco. First, there’s the anonymous boy in the girls’ bathroom handing out drugs to anyone with the secret password. Then the student body president is maimed in a horrifying and tragic accident—but was it an accident or an attack?
Benny Flax and Virginia Leeds are right at the center of it all. And so is the headmaster’s son, Calvin Harker, an oddball poet whose interest in Virginia sets off alarm bells for Benny. As the case bleeds from Winship Academy to the surrounding city, the deep fault lines of racial tension in Atlanta’s history reveal explosive hatred still simmering under the city’s surface.
Once again, Maggie Thrash (author of Honor Girl) delivers a uniquely compelling, thought-provoking, and entirely riveting story.
About the Author
Maggie Thrash grew up in the South. She is the author of the graphic memoir Honor Girl (a Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominee). Strange Truth and Strange Lies were inspired by her experiences at an exclusive prep school in Atlanta, where everyone had secrets.
Read an Excerpt
Yasmin Astarabadi’s house, 6:00 p.m.
Yasmin Astarabadi’s entire body buzzed with megalomaniacal glee. Zaire Bollo was gone. According to Virginia Leeds, who was supposedly there when it happened, she’d run off to Spain and was never coming back. Of course, Virginia was an insane pathological liar and normally Yasmin wouldn’t pay attention to anything that girl said, but an entire week had gone by with no sign of Zaire at all. Then a truck had pulled up to the Boarders and hauled all Zaire’s stuff away—her gold-and-black wardrobe from Milan, her mountains of books, her imported stationery and tins of tea—everything. She was gone.
Carefully, and with great reverence, Yasmin removed Zaire’s photo from the large bulletin board on her bedroom wall. A web of ribbons came away with it, leading to index cards with words like “SATs,” “Governor’s List,” “Summa Cum Laude,” “clubs,” and “yearbook” typed in color-coded ink. She placed the photo faceup in the trash can. The next time she threw away some chewed gum or a Kleenex with a dead bug in it, she wanted it to land right on Zaire’s annoying, haughty face.
“Another one bites the fucking dust,” she said, delighted by her own corniness. She repositioned the remaining photos on the board, moving each one up a position, like horses in a race: Calvin Harker now at number one, herself at number two, Benny Flax lagging slightly behind her at number three, and DeAndre Bell behind him at a distant fourth. Now that Zaire was gone from the board, its quotient of physical beauty had dipped severely, Yasmin couldn’t help but notice. DeAndre was arguably handsome, but his smarmy, politician’s perma-grin ruined him in Yasmin’s eyes. As for the rest of them, Calvin Harker was lean and grim and ghoulish. Benny Flax was okay-looking, but dopey and distinctly hopeless. And if Yasmin contributed any beauty to the group, it certainly wasn’t evident to her. They were three ugly nerds.
Whatever, she thought. Beautiful people were stupid. That was a literal fact. Their brains developed differently, growing larger in the areas dedicated to reinforcing self-worth through the affirmation of others. It’s what made people think it was valuable to spend thirty-five minutes on their hair in the morning. That was thirty-five minutes Yasmin could be spending reading Sun Tzu or researching political internships. Time management was the key to life. Yasmin considered any moment in which she was not actively engaged in the advancement of her goals to be a quantifiable loss.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the top students in their class were all minorities in some way. The white kids at Winship didn’t bother competing academically. They would get whatever they wanted in life whether they had the grades to back it up or not; their fourth-generation country club connections were the only currency they needed. Yasmin felt sorry for them. They would never know the powerful, ecstatic satisfaction that she felt at having to work hard to distinguish herself.
Yasmin gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror. She didn’t like her outfit. On non-uniform occasions at Winship, you had basically one option unless you wanted to look like a freak: a cardigan set (color of your choice) with a short black skirt. In the spring and summer you could wear floral, but obviously not past Labor Day. Preppy outfits were always designed to exhibit—never overshadow—the assumed natural radiance of their wearer. On Yasmin, they looked average and drab, but she didn’t second-guess her choice. Being different just wasn’t worth the hubbub.
She gathered up the materials for her high-voltage electric arc. Tonight was the science expo, which excited Yasmin more than any football game or dance. Academic events were basically popularity contests of the brain. And now that Zaire was gone, Yasmin had a shot at actually winning.
She took a last glance at her newly organized bulletin board. Calvin Harker would be tough to beat. He was almost two years older than everyone else in the sophomore class. He’d had to drop out of school for ten months because he had heart cancer or a brain tumor or something. By all rights he should have been a junior. It wasn’t fair.
At least Benny Flax wouldn’t be a problem. He was smart and had great grades, but his heart wasn’t in the race. All he cared about was his little baby club about Blue’s Clues or whatever it was. What a waste of a good mind.
DeAndre made her nervous. His grades weren’t a huge threat, but he was the student body president, which would carry a lot of weight with the cocksuckers at Harvard. She knew for a fact that every decent college had been sniffing around him since ninth grade, when he’d taken the football team to state.
Whatever, she thought again. The word was her talisman. With it she’d surmounted the indignities of ninth grade, which had included an assault of acne and the realization that high school didn’t magically make boys interesting—they were the same annoying dipshits they’d been in middle school, only bigger, and if Yasmin ever wanted to have sex with one of them she’d have to dramatically lower her standards. Not that sex was even a remote priority for Yasmin. The only climax that mattered to her was making it to the top of the class—that gleaming, perfect pinnacle—where she’d grin down at everyone she’d crushed to get there.
Outside the gym, 6:30 p.m.
Benny felt like an imposter. He always did on these occasions.
It was the clothes—khaki pants, blue blazer, tie. The outfit wasn’t mandatory, technically, but it’s what every guy would be wearing. It wasn’t what he’d planned to wear. He’d planned to wear his dad’s gray wool suit, which had been hanging in the closet since the accident, immaculate and untouched. It was still in the plastic bag from the dry cleaners. The crease in the trousers was as perfect as if it had been ironed yesterday, not eighteen months ago. Seeing it, Benny had stopped. He wasn’t really going to wear this, was he? This was a man’s suit, and he was just a kid. What if it didn’t fit? What if he messed it up or spilled punch on it? What if his dad needed it? That last question was ridiculous, Benny knew. Benny’s dad had severe brain damage from a plane crash and wouldn’t be needing a suit tonight or possibly ever again. But still, what if he suddenly felt better and wanted to go out for a nice dinner in his suit, and when he went to the closet it was gone and the shock sent his brain back into its foggy maze? The idea was ludicrous, but as soon as it had germinated in Benny’s mind, he knew he wouldn’t be touching that suit.
He sat on the curb outside the gym, waiting for Virginia Leeds to appear. They were going to the science expo together. It was not a date, as if that needed to be established. He’d never heard of anyone going to a science expo as a date. He wasn’t exactly sure why they were going together at all. Ostensibly it was for Mystery Club, but really it was just a habit they’d developed of meeting each other places—in the hall after assemblies, by the apple stand during break, in the cafeteria if they had the same lunch period. They’d report any unusual observations—usually there weren’t many—then they’d go their separate ways.
Benny had founded Mystery Club on the basic philosophy that mysteries were everywhere, and that the greatest advantage in solving one was to Be There. Be watching, be a witness. Don’t wait for mysteries to come to you, because they won’t. Benny had learned this quickly enough. When he’d first created the club, he’d expected to be barraged with inquiries: Who started that rumor that I tongue-kissed a dog? Who put a bag of peanuts on the peanut allergy table in the cafeteria? Weird things were always happening at Winship, but people seemed too self-absorbed to care. Except for Virginia. Virginia cared—cared too much maybe. She was obsessed with other people’s business and always had been. Sometimes Benny wondered if she’d only joined Mystery Club as an excuse to spy on people.
Benny twisted around and saw her approaching. She was wearing a soft black sweater and a gold skirt that Benny recognized as having belonged to Zaire Bollo. It looked expensive, and was short enough to glue anyone’s eyes to her legs. It was definitely inappropriate for an academic event that was mostly a spectacle for parents. Benny’s own mother was already inside, examining every tenth grader’s project to assess the competition.
Benny was about to stand up, knowing there was no way Virginia could sit on a street curb in that skirt without flashing the entire world. But Virginia either didn’t know or didn’t care. She plunked down next to him, immediately scooching away a bit, apparently having misjudged how close to him she’d landed. Benny stared ahead. Just because her underwear was probably showing didn’t mean he had to look. In fact, it was his duty not to.
“You look like a calculator salesman,” Virginia said.
“I look the same as everyone,” Benny said, nodding toward a very athletic, sandy-haired boy climbing out of a blue Mazda who was wearing the same combination of khakis and blue blazer as him.
“Oh yeah, you’re clearly twins separated at birth.”
Benny gritted his teeth. Virginia always managed to blithely zero in on whatever anyone was insecure about and broadcast it to the world. Did she do it on purpose? Benny didn’t know. Perhaps she’d enjoy it if Benny pointed out that she was wearing Zaire Bollo’s designer cast-offs and her underwear was showing. At least I didn’t steal my outfit from a murderer, he imagined saying back. But he knew he wouldn’t. It might feel good for a second, but then Virginia would get that crinkled, hurt look on her face, and Benny would be consumed by guilt for days.
Clothes, clothes, clothes, he thought dismally. These events always revolved around clothes. Winship was a uniform school, which meant that on the occasions when people had free reign to wear what they wanted, it became a matter of intense public display and scrutiny. The irony was that everyone ended up dressing the same as one another anyway, but as a collective decision rather than a mandate from above, which seemed to be an important distinction.
Virginia was picking at a large scab on her knee. She’d been picking at it all week. It was never going to heal at this rate, and the skin around the scab was red and infected. Benny was about to say as much when she sat up abruptly and began digging through a small brown bag that didn’t match her outfit at all.
“So, um, I got you something.” Virginia handed him a small velvet box. Benny examined it warily.
“What is it?” he asked. The last time she’d gotten him a present, it was a bracelet with the letters W.W.B.D.? (What Would Benny Do?) sewn onto it, with a matching one for herself. It had been touching but embarrassing.
“Just open it,” Virginia insisted.
He snapped open the box. Inside was a silver ring. He turned the ring over in his palm and saw that it was composed of a pair of dials, one engraved with letters and the other engraved with numbers. It looked expensive.
“It’s a decoder ring,” he said. “Wow, thank you.”
“I got us both one!” She held up a second ring. “For writing messages. You’re always complaining about the notes I leave on your locker, so . . .” Her voice trailed off, and Benny saw that her cheeks were bright red.
Benny had always found Virginia somewhat irritating-looking: her heart-shaped face prone to flushing, her blank staring eyes, her Afro of blond curls. But in the warm evening light, her features seemed to morph slightly, her face at some middle point between an awkward, chunky cherub and a Renaissance angel. It was an undeniable flash of . . . cuteness. Benny didn’t like the word—it evoked ponies and puppies and cupcakes—but there it was.
“You need to learn to control that,” he said, a little louder than he’d meant to.
“Control what?” Virginia said, turning her face away.
“Your cheeks. You’re blushing. If you want to be a great detective, no one should ever be able to tell what you’re thinking.”
“Oh yeah?” Virginia snapped, looking at him suddenly. “What am I thinking?”
Now Benny was the one blushing. “I . . . I don’t know. I’m just saying . . .” He stared down at the decoder ring, pretending to be fascinated by the dials. He could sense that Virginia was glaring at him. Seconds passed.
“So, what’s your project?” Virginia asked, back to picking her scab.
“A study of anomalous recoveries from neurological damage. What’s yours?”
“ ‘Trees of Georgia.’ I dunno. I suck at science.”
Virginia’s wouldn’t even be the worst project, Benny knew. The science expo was mandatory for all students. Winship’s science program had recently been called “lacking” in the Guide to Southern Prep and Boarding Schools, a slander the administration was obsessed with correcting. But by making the expo mandatory, the result was that people who had no business contributing clogged up the works for the people who were serious. Still, Benny tried not to be bothered. He believed in inclusivity and that everyone deserved a chance. But at the same time, he couldn’t help noticing that the chance seemed to be wasted on 99 percent of humanity.
He stood up. “I better go set up my booth. See you later.”
“Um, thanks for the ring.” Benny made a small show of sliding it onto his finger.
“You’re welcome,” Virginia said back, not looking up from her scab.
Benny lingered a second, then gave up. He’d screwed up the moment somehow, and now it was over.
Booth 43, 7:15 p.m.
DeAndre’s project was the classic volcano. Classic was his thing. He’d seen all the Cary Grant movies as a kid and thought, with profound awe, That’s who I want to be. Cary Grant encompassed everything suave and cool. He was the ultimate leading man, and DeAndre channeled him in all things. Would Cary Grant go overboard with his science project? Nah, he’d do the bare minimum, but do it perfectly. Would Cary Grant be upset that the entire school was laughing at his uncle? Nah, Cary Grant would grin and brush it off. He’d probably laugh, too!
It was hard to keep grinning, though. The thing with his uncle was getting out of control. His whole family had come up from Lakewood Heights to see the science expo, even though he’d practically begged them not to. His mom had seen Winship before, and she knew how to be cool, but the rest of his family had predictably freaked when they’d seen the facilities—the soaring brick buildings, floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the football field and the river, shining tile floors, bathrooms bigger than their entire house, with automatic toilet-seat covers and mild-smelling foaming soap instead of the standard antibacterial pink goo. It was bad enough that they’d wandered around with their mouths hanging open like they were touring the White House. But then his uncle Jeffrey saw the spread at the refreshments table and exclaimed with loud glee, “They got real ham biscuits!” which had taken approximately five seconds to become a school-wide joke. Ten years from now, people would probably still be ribbing each other and saying, “They got real ham biscuits!” long after DeAndre was gone and the joke’s origin was forgotten.
Be glad to have contributed to the school’s history, he told himself. Cary Grant was always buoyant in these situations. He wouldn’t let an embarrassing uncle get him down. And if Uncle Jeffrey thought it was weird that about three different kids had come up and asked him if he’d seen that there were real ham biscuits at the refreshments table, he didn’t show it. In fact, he seemed delighted that Winship students were such attentive hosts. He slapped their shoulders congenially and said to each one, “You fuckin’ bet I did!”
The three judges appeared, and DeAndre got ready to make the volcano erupt. A group of students, mostly girls, were hovering nearby, obviously less interested in his volcano than in gawking at his family. DeAndre pretended not to realize this and greeted them warmly.
“Hey, guys! Come on in!” He was good at bringing people together. As the student body president, it was pretty much his job. A few weeks ago when everyone thought Brittany Montague was dead, it was DeAndre who had stepped up to organize the candlelight vigil, while everyone else was dissolving into despair.
“Come watch!” he said again to the girls.
“Um, okay!” They came forward, everyone smiling now. If you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice back, he thought happily. It was the simplest truth in the world. Why didn’t people get it? Sure, it could be hard sometimes. Kids at Winship weren’t known for welcoming outsiders. But if you were nice, and you weren’t a huge nerd, life at Winship could be pretty all right.
He poured vinegar into the crater and the papier-mâché mountain overflowed with burbling lava. His parents clapped and his little sister shrieked adorably.
“Great job, D!” Mr. Rashid said. “Wow. What a crowd-pleaser!”
Two girls were whispering to each other next to the volcano. “Omigod, did you hear about Virginia and Skylar?” DeAndre wiped up the table with a paper towel, trying not to look like he was listening. Gossip was in poor taste, but it was important to know what was going on in the lives of his constituents. But then Uncle Jeffrey appeared with a heaping plate from the refreshments table.
“You gotta get some of this shit, D!”
“I sure will, Uncle J,” he said, and by then the girls had left.
“Death. Death. Black band leader of endless night.”
DeAndre rolled his eyes. It was Calvin Harker again, in the booth across the row. Apparently his project was on morbid poetry or something.
“Hot spewing magma hardens to igneous rock. The blaze of life snuffed by ash.”
Oh god, please don’t drag me into this, DeAndre pleaded in his mind. Calvin used to be fairly normal, despite being freakishly tall and also the headmaster’s son, which was a serious social hurdle. But lately it was like he’d given up completely. DeAndre prided himself on never being cliquish or rude, but people like Calvin got on his nerves.
I can’t help you if you insist on being weird.
“No fire is eternal. Even the sun will burn out, our planet left an icy, forgotten globe.”
Booth 29, 7:30 p.m.
Why is everyone so willing to be boring?
It was a question Virginia asked herself almost every single day. Why did anyone do homework? Or wear navy? Or date the same person for three years? The other day in Ethics class, they’d gone around the room saying what everyone wanted to be when they grew up, and Corny Davenport said, “A real estate agent, just like my mom!” It was pretty much the most depressing thing Virginia had ever heard.
She’d been looking forward to the science expo all day. In her mind she’d conflated it with a dance somehow, imagining dim lighting and the promise of romance, except with science projects everywhere. Only now was she realizing how non-conducive to romance the science expo environment was. The gym’s fluorescent lights assaulted every corner. It was loud, and the roving panel of judges were making everyone uptight. This was going to be as boring as school, wasn’t it? Except worse, because at least at school you didn’t normally have to be around a hundred million parents.
On the “Trees of Georgia” poster she’d made, several of the dried, crumbling leaves had fallen down, and another was lopsided. She’d known it wasn’t a great project, but now it seemed actually pathetic. As she looked around, some of the other projects seemed barely even related to science. A group of juniors were doing a project on The Fast and the Furious that was just pictures of exploding cars and Vin Diesel quotes. And Trevor Cheek had a project called, simply, “Hunting,” which was showing off all the heads of deer he’d killed. If Virginia had known you could just do whatever you wanted, she would have done a project on classic cocktails, or Body Language of the Rich and Powerful.
In the booth next to her, Yasmin Astarabadi was erecting an immense pair of metal wires, one of which kept drooping perilously toward her. Virginia leaned away, not wanting her outfit to get stabbed. It felt different, wearing expensive clothes. It made her more conscious of her posture and of potentially ruinous stabbing wires. She’d never cared about perfect clothes before, but she loved this outfit and would probably literally cry if anything happened to it. You couldn’t find clothes like this in Atlanta. All of Zaire Bollo’s clothes had come from Paris and London and Milan. And back to Paris and London and Milan they’d gone after Zaire failed to return from fall break—except this one particular outfit, which Virginia had swiped from her closet and intended to wear as often as possible until she grew up into a person who bought clothes like this all the time.
“What is that?” she asked Yasmin, who was bending the wire back into place.
“A high-voltage traveling arc,” Yasmin said, not looking up from her weird equipment.
“What does that mean?”
Yasmin sighed impatiently and gave a long answer involving the words “cathode voltage drop” and “heated ionized air.” Virginia wished she hadn’t asked.
On the other side of her, Lindsay Bean had a project called “Pudding Inventions,” which seemed to involve making pudding out of the grossest flavors imaginable, like seaweed and diet popcorn and lobster. Sophat Tiang and Skylar Jones, the biggest stoners in school, had wandered over to sample them. Virginia tried to look busy putting the falling leaves back on her pathetic poster. Skylar acted like she wasn’t even there.
Hello? Virginia thought, getting annoyed. Skylar always ignored her as if they hadn’t totally had a thing last year. Not a huge thing, but enough of a thing that she deserved some respect from him. She’d only liked him because he seemed different from everyone else at Winship. He wore sandals, and a hemp necklace, and had once said, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” which Virginia had found unbelievably clever until someone told her it was a famous quote.
“Is it going to explode?” Skylar was asking Lindsay. He was grinning and pointing at a cylinder full of white frothy substance.
Lindsay giggled. “Maybe!”
“It looks like jizz. I think it wants to be released.” Skylar and Sophat laughed. Skylar reached across the table and rubbed the cylinder up and down obscenely.
“Skylar, stop. Skylar! Don’t!” Lindsay squealed. Virginia considered giving Skylar a shove to make him quit, but then decided it was better to remain aloof from his gross immaturity. Lindsay could fend for herself. But then, as she was turning back to her leaf poster, she heard a squishing noise and felt a hot thick liquid all over her neck.
“Ew!” She touched her shoulder and her fingers came away sticky with a white, fishy-smelling goo. Skylar and Sophat were slapping each other’s backs and laughing hysterically.
“Skylar, you moron!” Virginia hissed at him.
“Was it good for you, too?” he said, grinning hugely.
Virginia turned to Lindsay and pointed to the nasty white smear covering half her sweater. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s lobster paste.”
Skylar laughed even harder. “What can I say?”
Virginia grabbed a paper towel from Lindsay’s table and started dabbing at the ugly splotch. She felt angry tears sting her eyes. Does lobster paste stain? She felt like kicking Skylar in the balls, but what if she didn’t kick hard enough and accidentally gave him a boner or something? It was just impossible, trying to get the upper hand with boys.
Skylar and Sophat had moved on to poking Yasmin’s gigantic metal wires. Yasmin was ignoring them and messing with a transformer box. Nerds like Yasmin were used to this kind of thing, Virginia figured. They just conducted their lives as best they could amid constant disruptions from people who couldn’t build anything of their own, so they tore everyone else down. She couldn’t decide which side of the dynamic was more pathetic. Virginia grabbed more paper towels and started toward the bathroom, dabbing at herself.
“Wait!” Skylar shouted at her, suddenly not laughing anymore. “Are you going to the bathroom?”
Virginia paused. Why did Skylar care if she went to the bathroom or not? Was he going to invite himself along? She glanced at Yasmin, who was giving her a blank, weirdly hostile look, as if to her, she and Skylar and Sophat were all the same. I’m not with them, Virginia wanted to tell her.
“You don’t wanna go in there,” Skylar was saying, his face serious. Sophat and Yasmin looked from him to her, like something was about to happen.
Virginia narrowed her eyes. “Why, did you do something gross?”
“No,” Skylar said. “Just trust me, dude. Don’t go in there.”
Virginia tossed her hair and kept walking. You couldn’t take anything that loser said seriously. But then, the second she crossed into the hall, she sensed a shift in the air. It was quieter, and brighter. The hum of four hundred voices was instantly muted. Without daylight streaming through the windows, the fluorescent lights gave the white walls an eerie glow. A group of girls was huddled by the water fountain, talking in urgent whispers. They looked like paint swatches, each with a different vibrantly colored cardigan set. Virginia walked past them and was almost at the bathroom door when she heard her name.
“Virginia,” one of them was whispering. “Virginia, don’t go in there.”
Booth 33, 7:30 p.m.
Benny stood surrounded by brains. His project was called “Mind Over Matter,” and it was a case study of brain-damaged patients who had “miraculously” overcome incredibly grim prognoses.
Mrs. Flax was not happy. Benny had been vague about the topic of his project, knowing she would disapprove. Some of his own father’s brain scans were mixed among the ones he’d copied from neurological textbooks, and he knew his mother would recognize them. The unique purple splotch representing the damaged area of his cerebrum was distinct. To Benny it resembled a ghost leaning forward against a brutal wind. Mrs. Flax had never expressed precisely what she found objectionable about Benny’s interest in his father’s recovery. But he’d gotten used to a certain expression on her face: a vague, tired sneer, the face of someone exhausted from dealing with a child who insists on being stupid.
Benny read his concluding thoughts from an index card: “In summation, ‘medical miracles’ do not exist. This concept is left over from our superstitious past. Advancements in medical science will prove that every ‘miracle’ has a logical explanation.”
No one clapped. His audience included his mother—who had not looked him in the eye once—and the three judges scribbling on their reports. A steady stream of students had walked past, but none seemed to have found fifty pictures of brains sufficiently intriguing to stop and listen. One of the judges, Mr. Rashid, shook Benny’s hand.
“Thank you, Benny. Would you make sure everyone in AP Science has the judging schedule?”
He dropped a stack of papers on the table with a thump, and Benny frowned at them. He wasn’t even the teacher’s assistant, but people just assumed—in a way that felt vaguely anti-Semitic yet annoyingly accurate—that Benny could be always tasked with the business side of things while everyone else goofed off.
“Thanks, Scooby.” Benny felt his stomach lurch. Had his mom heard that? He was too afraid to look at her and see. Scooby. When were people going to stop calling him that? It was against his philosophy to solve mysteries for personal glory, and it was against his nature to brag. The result was that no one at Winship knew that Mystery Club, mere weeks before, had rooted out a murderer among them: Zaire Bollo. For a brief, ecstatic moment, the experience had confirmed everything Benny believed about mystery solving—that it expanded the mind, that it made the world a better place, not merely through justice but through knowledge. But then Zaire had fled, and the moment had passed, and the world didn’t seem particularly better; it seemed the same. Same world, same Scooby.
“This must have used a hell of a lot of printer ink,” Mr. Rashid was saying, gesturing toward the many pictures of brains.
Benny felt annoyed. He’d spent over a month working on this project, and all Mr. Rashid could say was that he must have used a lot of printer ink?
“Sure did,” he managed.
“Well, you make sure you get those schedules around. Everyone’s project needs to get fair time. That’s crucial. It’s the American way. Everyone gets their fifteen minutes.”
“Okay, Mr. Rashid.”
It was absurd, Benny being placed in charge of making sure a bunch of spoiled rich kids got their fifteen minutes. All of life was their fifteen minutes! Winship was the most moneyed school in Atlanta, with only a handful of students there on scholarship. Benny was one of them, a fact he was never allowed to forget.
Mr. Rashid and the other judges left, and Benny’s mom announced that she was going to read a magazine in the library. Benny watched her go. He wished the judges had been more complimentary. He’d been counting on impressing her tonight. He sat down in his chair, feeling gloomy and defeated. The decoder ring on his finger was slightly irritating. The metal was thick and substantial, not some cheap thing you’d find in a cereal box. Decoder rings weren’t actually very useful—they relied on a Caesar code, which was pretty much the most crackable code ever created. It would have been more practical if Virginia had just gotten herself a cell phone. In their last case, her weird lack of one had been a constant impediment. But Benny believed in personal freedom and didn’t want to embarrass her by bringing it up. He didn’t know exactly what Virginia’s deal was. He knew she was from Florida, or at least went there on vacation a lot. She’d mentioned a stepfather in Cuba once, but it seemed like something she’d made up to sound exotic. Benny didn’t feel comfortable prying into her home life, which was probably dysfunctional. All the boarding students had dysfunctional home lives; it’s why they didn’t live at home.
Benny wandered through the maze of booths, passing out the judging schedules and trying to pick out the obvious winners. He’d assumed he’d be in contention, but based on Mr. Rashid’s lackluster response, he wasn’t sure now. Some of the projects were ludicrous. There was one project on tanning salons, and another on which was better, chicken wings or pizza. Trevor Cheek had all his grotesque murdered deer heads displayed, which maybe could have worked if the presentation were about taxidermy, but it was just Trevor telling self-mythologizing hunting stories.
Benny located Calvin Harker’s booth. Calvin was usually serious competition; he always won almost every academic prize in their grade. But when Benny got to his booth, there was no one there. It was just a table with a bunch of facts printed out on plain paper.
• Every five seconds a child dies of hunger. One just died while you were reading this sentence.
• Tsunamis kill thousands in a single wave.
• Every other day, a coconut falls on someone’s head and they die.
• 41 percent of the people in this gym will die of cancer.
Benny leafed through the pieces of paper. Calvin’s project seemed to be a collection of random and depressing ways people could die. It certainly didn’t look like an award-winning presentation.
• A woman in Ireland beat breast cancer four times before dying from a cow falling through her roof.
• A man who had just received a miracle kidney transplant was discharged from the hospital and was immediately hit by a truck and killed.
What the hell is this? Benny knew Calvin fairly well; the two of them were always being thrown together. There seemed to be a persistent expectation that they should be best friends, since they were both loners who got good grades. But the friendship never managed to bloom. Admittedly, Benny was a little jealous of Calvin’s undisputed status as the smartest guy in school. But beyond that, there was just something weird about Calvin that Benny could never quite connect with.
At the bottom of the pile, the last paper read:
So what is the point of living, you ask.
Benny flipped back through the papers, wondering if he’d read them out of order. But there didn’t seem to be an answer.
The whole thing gave him a chilling feeling, like Calvin was about to run out with a machine gun and shoot up the gym. Benny tried to shrug the thought away. That sort of thing didn’t happen at private schools. And besides, Calvin was on track to be valedictorian—not exactly the profile of a mass shooter. But Benny still found himself backing away from Calvin’s booth as if a coconut were about to drop from the sky and smash his head. It wasn’t even the weirdest project in the expo, but it was definitely the creepiest.
So what is the point of living, you ask.
The lobby, 7:50 p.m.
“Don’t go in there.”
Virginia whirled around. She squinted at the trio of girls huddled down the hall. In the fluorescent light, the paint-bucket colors of their sweaters looked drained. They stared at her. It was Constance Bouchelle and her friends Yu Yan and Beth. The three of them were always together, attached at the hip in a way that Virginia found annoying and childish. This wasn’t third grade anymore; it was time to start acting independent. And they did that thing Virginia truly hated, where they bogusly assigned themselves unique personas (Constance was “the smart one,” Yu Yan was “the cool one,” Beth “the crazy one”) when in reality they were interchangeable in every way.
“Why not?” Virginia said. “What’s going on?”
“There’s a guy in there,” Yu Yan whispered, scandalized.
Virginia rolled her eyes. Winship was so behind the times. She’d heard of schools that had unisex bathrooms where no one even batted an eye. “So what?” she said, trying to sound like she went into bathrooms with guys in them all the time.
“He’s giving away drugs!” Constance hissed.
Virginia felt her heart beat a little faster. “Really?” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. Virginia knew Constance—she loved drama and would dangle this over her all night if she knew how badly Virginia wanted to hear more.
“Ew, what is that?” Constance asked, pointing to the white smear on Virginia’s sweater.
“It’s lobster paste.”
“Well, it’s all over you.”
“Thanks for noticing.”
Virginia looked past Constance to Yu Yan and Beth, who were snickering behind their hands. “Hey. Do y’all know who it is? The guy in there? Is it one of Skylar’s friends?”
“No one knows,” Beth breathed dramatically. Constance shot her a look.
“No one knows?” Virginia repeated. How had a dude just walked into the girls’ room without anyone noticing?
“He locked himself in a stall, and he won’t tell anyone his name. But supposedly if you know the secret password, he’ll give you drugs.”
“What’s the password?” Virginia demanded. “Come on, tell me.”
“Jesus, we don’t know!” Constance said, stepping in front of Beth. “Do we look like the kind of girls who know secret passwords for free drugs?”
Virginia smirked. “You wish you did.” She turned and started walking toward the bathroom.
“What are you doing?” Yu Yan whispered.
“I’m going in there.”
Wherever you go, something might happen, she told herself. Don’t just be a detective: be a witness. They were Benny’s words. His number one rule for solving mysteries was to Be There. For Benny, it was about wanting to be his own witness and not rely on anyone else. For Virginia, it was something different. She had her own reasons, though she wasn’t exactly sure what those reasons were anymore. She’d thought it was about wanting to be mysterious, wanting to know secret things. But ever since the insanity with Zaire Bollo, she and Benny had more secrets than anyone—yet she felt the same. Maybe she just needed more.
She pushed the door open with her foot. Someone had left the water running. That was the only sound. Virginia stepped inside, and the door whooshed closed behind her. She went over to the sink and turned off the faucet. Then it was silent.
She could see his feet under the stall: a pair of plain black loafers and gray wool slacks, the kind with a neat crease running down the front of each leg. A drug dealer who irons his pants? The thought made Virginia very conscious of her own legs and feet—the small tear in her stockings and her shitty pleather flats from Target. If she could see his feet, he could probably see hers.
Virginia suddenly couldn’t remember what her plan was. She had a plan, right? Surely she hadn’t just charged into a spooky, ill-lit bathroom containing an anonymous drug dealer with absolutely zero plan. She’d had a vague notion that she would simply stalk up to the occupied stall, stick her head under the door, and demand that the interloper identify and explain himself. Suddenly that idea seemed foolish. And possibly dangerous.
“Hello?” she said. She’d meant to sound confident, but her voice was barely above a whisper.
There was a pause, and then she heard a voice come from inside the stall: “Do you know the password?” It was a low voice. Purposely low, Virginia thought, like a subtle disguise. He’s worried about being recognized, she realized. That meant he wasn’t a stranger. He could be someone she actually knew. This possibility didn’t comfort her. It made a chill run down both her arms.
“Do you know the password?” the voice repeated in the same low, even tone.
Virginia held her breath. What could it be? Benny could probably guess it, she thought, annoyed at herself for barging in here without getting him first.
“No,” she finally said. Maybe it was a trick, she figured, and “no” actually was the password. But part of her hoped it wasn’t. It was one thing to be daring, it was another to be accepting unknown substances in the girls’ room at night. She’d be expelled in a second if she got caught.
“Wrong,” the voice growled.
Virginia stood motionless for a moment, hovering between disappointment and relief. Then she ran out the door as fast as she could.
Booth 40, 7:54 p.m.
“On her sweater. Apparently she’s, like, a secret cum queen.”
“Omigod. Secret’s out now!”
Both girls giggled hysterically behind their hands.
Benny froze, pretending to listen to a ninth grader’s presentation about the ripening process of bananas. It was the second group of girls he’d heard talking about Virginia. The story seemed to be that she’d hooked up with Skylar Jones and he’d . . . released himself all over her, and that she was walking around with it on her sweater for the world to see. He doubted it was true. Was it possibly true? If he thought about it, he didn’t really know Virginia that well. He was aware that she and Skylar had been a thing for like five seconds in ninth grade, but as far as he understood, she basically hated him now. But moments like these always highlighted just how clueless he truly was. Maybe they were back together; maybe they were sexually active. The thought dumbfounded him, forming a wall of white noise between him and the world in front of his face.
Stop being immature, he told himself. It probably wasn’t true, and even if it was, whatever. Virginia could take care of herself. Except actually that was up for debate. She repeatedly showed poor judgment, doing dumb things like getting into cars with murder suspects. But she’d managed to survive this far. It was her life.
“Bullets don’t kill; velocity kills.”
Benny halted, as if the word “kill” had been screamed rather than spoken mildly by junior classman Craig Beaver. Benny looked over. A small group of students and teachers was gathered around his booth. Benny knew Craig a little. He was a scrawny and energetic guy who was usually the first in any situation to make an infantile fart joke. But he was smarter than people realized, despite having an immature sense of humor, which he’d probably developed as a defense mechanism from having such a dumb name.
“Watch,” Craig was saying. “What happens if I throw this bullet at you?” He held up a small bullet with a gleaming brass shell and threw it at the head of one of his friends, who hammily pretended to have been shot.
“I’m dead! I’m dead! Tell Brittany Montague I love her!”
“Shut up, Jake,” Craig said, laughing. “As you can see, Jake will live another day to be rejected by Brittany Montague. But what if I’d shot this bullet at him from a 92 FS Fusion Beretta? Traveling at four hundred and sixty miles per second, this lil bullet would have ripped through his skull and exploded his brain and we’d all be shitting ourselves.” He looked at the parents. “Pardon me. Pooping ourselves.”
Benny wondered if it was actually legal to throw bullets at people in a school building. The rules were different for private schools. That was the whole point. Winn Davis kept a gun in his car and everyone knew it. Sometimes he even brought it to class. Winn Davis got away with everything; he was the unofficial school mascot, trotted out as a Best-All-Around type because he was handsome yet approachable, played football yet never date-raped, and managed to get B grades while most of the other jocks were flunking. Benny knew more about Winn than most people did; he probably knew more about Winn than Winn knew about himself. The guy was a dim bulb with hidden rage; what was dangerous was that he hid it from himself.
Just then, as if summoned by Benny’s thoughts, there he was—Winn Davis. Benny caught only a glimpse of him, past the gym entrance, darting between two rows of booths. Benny kept staring at the hall, though it was empty now. There was something weird about Winn coming out of that door, and it took Benny a minute to realize what it was: it was the door to the girls’ bathroom. Maybe it wouldn’t have seemed that weird if Corny Davenport, his girlfriend, had come sneaking out after him, giggling and adjusting her dress. But she hadn’t; Winn was alone. Benny started to get up to follow him, but he had already disappeared, lost in the crowd.
At that second, Benny felt a hand grab his arm. He almost jumped.
“Benny. You have to come with me right now.”
The lobby, 8:08 p.m.
“He’s right in there,” Virginia said, pointing to the girls’ bathroom door. She waited for Benny’s reaction, but he was just staring at her boob. It was kind of shocking (Benny wasn’t usually the slobbering-over-boobs type) until she remembered the gross white stain on her sweater.
“Ugh, it’s lobster paste. Whatever. So this guy wouldn’t tell anyone his name, but if you said the password, supposedly he’d give you free drugs. It was scary, I’m telling you. And his pants were ironed. I could see them under the door. Isn’t that weird? A pants-ironing drug dealer?”
“Hm . . . ,” Benny said, not seeming as excited as Virginia wanted him to be. Benny was so annoying sometimes. It was like he only cared about a mystery if he found it himself.
“Hello? Why are you spacing out?” Virginia demanded. “Maybe I should be Mystery Club president, and you should be, like, Mystery Club gaping bystander.”
“Okay, okay, no need to be insulting,” Benny said. “I just saw Winn Davis sneaking out of the girls’ room. Maybe it was him?”
Virginia shook her head. “No way!”
“Because Winn Davis is a football trophy come to life. He doesn’t have weird secret passwords for drugs. And besides, whoever he is, he’s still in there.”
“I saw him two seconds ago. His feet anyway.”
“Well . . .” Benny stood there thinking for a second. “I guess . . . you stay here and stake out the bathroom. He can’t stay in there forever. I’m going to find Winn.”
“What do I do if the guy comes out?”
“Just . . . observe.”
Virginia rolled her eyes. Benny’s reaction to everything was to observe it. He’d probably observe a stampede of elephants and get trampled to death rather than move.
Benny left, and Virginia was alone in the lobby. Constance and her friends were gone, probably to go write in their diaries about the scary man in the bathroom. She frowned at the white splotch on her sweater, which was ruined now. Some of the gunk had even hardened in her hair, making a small blond icicle. Part of her genuinely wanted to cry. Who knew when she’d ever have a sweater this nice again. It was her own fault, she knew, for wearing grown-up clothes around a bunch of high school infants. But it still didn’t seem fair.
Get over it, she told herself. There was a mysterious drug dealer in the bathroom, and it wasn’t Winn Davis, no matter what Benny said. Winn Davis was a boring lug-head with no imagination. And whoever this guy was, she knew one thing about him: he was interesting.
Booth 40, 8:15 p.m.
Lobster paste. Lobster paste. The words repeated themselves in his mind. What the hell was lobster paste? There was no way it could actually be Skylar’s . . . fluid, unless he had a medical condition. There was just too much of it. It was even in her hair!
He took out his phone and googled “lobster paste.” A paté formed from puréed lobster meat used in cooking. Then he googled “lobster paste, sex.” But as soon as the results loaded, he jabbed the search window closed. Get a grip, he commanded himself, shoving the phone into his pocket.
He scanned the gym for Winn’s distinct halo of golden hair. In the back of his mind, Benny wasn’t entirely buying the situation. A drug dealer in the girls’ room? At Winship? Winship was a booze school—even Benny knew that. There were outliers like Skylar and Sophat, but for the most part, drugs were not a part of the upper-crust social scene. And Virginia didn’t have the strongest relationship with reality—was this whole scenario one of her flights of fancy?
Benny walked up and down the rows, trying not to draw attention to himself, as if anyone ever paid attention to him anyway. He passed DeAndre Bell’s booth (a papier-mâché volcano—was this fourth grade?) and heard the loud, jovial voice of Trevor Cheek’s dad.
“Hail to the chief!” he boomed.
“Hail to the chief!” DeAndre boomed back. Someone instantly materialized with a camera, and Mr. Cheek slapped his arm around DeAndre’s shoulders to pose for a photo. Benny had witnessed this little bit of theater between them before. DeAndre was the student body president, and Mr. Cheek was the president of the Board of Trustees. Mr. Cheek had a particular fondness for DeAndre, Benny had noticed. Something about it made Benny uncomfortable. Part of it was the twinge of envy he felt that DeAndre had managed to fit in so well at Winship. But it wasn’t just that. Mr. Cheek was a gigantic man, and his thick, hairy hand gripped DeAndre’s slim shoulder proprietarily, sinisterly, as if to say, This black boy is MINE. DeAndre had run against (and defeated) Mr. Cheek’s own son in the school election last spring, making their chumminess even weirder. But if DeAndre was uncomfortable, he didn’t show it. His grin was as wide and beaming as Mr. Cheek’s, and they laughed loudly together for the camera.
Focus, Benny told himself, looking around for Winn’s golden head. The hum of a gym full of people was starting to feel mind-numbing. He turned the corner and walked down the next row, weaving through the slow-moving clumps of students and parents. He saw the judges oohing and ahhing over the little ninth grader’s presentation of the ripening process of bananas. That dumb banana project was probably going to win, wasn’t it? Normally Benny wasn’t competitive—knowledge was its own reward—but for once he’d hoped to get a little recognition, if only for his mother to see.
“Trevor, you’re squashing it. Trevor! Give it back.”
Benny turned and saw Trevor Cheek with a banana in his hand. He was squeezing it, causing the fruit to ooze out like pus. His face looked twitchy and odd. Something about it made Benny want to steer clear of him.
A flash of blond hair and blue letter jacket appeared and then disappeared amid the crowd. It was Winn. Benny left the banana booth and followed him, but got stalled by a group of people gathered around a project involving taste-testing Coke versus Pepsi. Benny squeezed past them, walking as fast as he could without bumping into people. The blond figure turned the corner. But just as Benny was about to catch up, the lights overhead flickered. There was a brilliant purple streak of light, like neon lightning. It flickered out suddenly, leaving the gym in total blackness. A roar filled Benny’s ears.
It was the sound of a hundred people screaming.
The lobby, 8:15 p.m.
Virginia stared at the bathroom door, trying not to even blink. Whoever was in there had to come out at some point, and she was going to catch him. She tried to remember every detail of his feet. Brown shoes. Or were they black? Boys’ shoes all looked the same. The ironed pants should have been a giveaway, but it seemed like about one in four boys in the gym had ironed pants. All the teachers did—maybe it was a teacher! The thought made her heart race. Maybe it was someone’s dad ! Or maybe it was a girl, dressed up in boys’ pants and shoes. That would explain the cartoonishly low voice, and the fact that no one had seen a guy entering the girls’ room.
Oh my god. She wished she’d thought of this back in the bathroom. Benny never asked Virginia what she thought; it was like he viewed her mind as just an empty receptacle for his own thoughts instead of a living brain that actually produced thoughts of its own. Virginia was used to it, but it was still annoying.
Virginia shifted from one foot to the other. It was starting to get boring, standing there like a statue staring at a bathroom door. She leaned against the wall, wishing the guy would come out already. Then she saw a flash of light in the corner of her eye—a weird purple bolt coming from inside the gym. Instinctively, Virginia turned her head. In an instant, the entire building went black.
Virginia turned around. She couldn’t see anything. Someone elbowed her in the back. There were shouts in the darkness. Then Virginia heard a grunt, and a loud crash, and then a scream like she’d never heard before. It sounded like someone having their guts ripped out. A single wild, gurgling howl of pain. The sound was so horrifying it made Virginia want to tear off her own ears.
Then the lights flickered on. Virginia looked around. The purple light appeared again for a single second—a neon ladder in the air that quickly evaporated. Near her, a crowd of people were jumping back, as if to avoid a snaking live wire. They were screaming.
“What’s happening?” she shouted. She crouched down and elbowed through the crowd, shoving herself in the middle of the gym. She heard Benny’s voice in her mind: Be There.
What she saw made her stagger backward.
The breath left her chest.
“DEANDRE!” a girl next to her was howling. “IT’S DEANDRE!”
Between two tables, amid a circle of horrified, frozen bystanders, DeAndre Bell was sputtering on the floor as blood spurted from his chest. He was pinned down by an enormous pair of antlers. A deer—a gigantic, monstrous stag—was bent over him in a deadly pose.
Virginia gasped a breath. Deer attack people? For some reason, in the moment, that was the most shocking part. Deer aren’t supposed to attack people. Then DeAndre’s chest convulsed grotesquely, and a fountain of blood spewed out. Virginia jumped, screaming. Everyone around her was screaming too. Parents yanked their children away, covering their eyes. DeAndre moaned loudly.
“Call 911!” Virginia yelled. She couldn’t believe she was the first to say it. “Jesus Christ, he’s dying!”
There was a guttural retching sound next to Virginia. Someone’s mom had pulled out a cell phone, but then started throwing up directly on it before managing to dial a single digit. Virginia reached out and grabbed the phone from the tiny woman, trying not to gag. Touching it as little as possible, she wiped the phone on the woman’s back, leaving a brown, repulsive smear on the perfect cream-colored silk blazer. Then she swiped the phone open and dialed 911.
The operator, a woman, had a calm and even voice, which made Virginia feel calm. She explained that a boy at Winship Academy had been attacked by a deer and was bleeding to death in the gym. The operator asked if the deer was still on the loose. That’s when Virginia noticed the stag’s feet, which were sticking up stiffly in the air and were attached to a wooden board with wheels.
“No, it’s dead,” she said. “It’s long dead.”
The conversation lasted less than a minute. When it was over, Virginia dropped the cell phone and found herself staring at DeAndre, who lay motionless and covered in blood. People were screaming all around her, but the sound of their hysterical voices faded into a dull hum. She felt woozy. Mere feet away, before her eyes, the life was slipping from a human being’s grip. Only DeAndre’s eyes—still blinking—showed that he was hanging on. His line of vision met the dead, sightless eyes of the stag. The two seemed to stare at each other as if in a battle of wills: will to kill versus will to live. Virginia wished everyone would shut up. Let him die in peace, she thought.
Then everything went black again.
The lobby, 8:24 p.m.
There was pandemonium all around. Benny couldn’t figure out what was going on. One second he’d been about to catch up with Winn Davis, and the next it was pitch-black, and then people were yelling and everyone was being herded from the gym out the side and back doors.
“What’s happening?” he asked the first person he saw. It was Yasmin Astarabadi. Her arms were full of papers and science equipment as if she were fleeing a burning laboratory.
“I dunno. Some kind of animal attack?” Then she hurried away.
A group of sobbing girls passed by, and Benny stepped in front of them. “What’s happening?” he asked again. But they just kept crying and ignored him.
He turned around, searching for someone reasonable-looking to ask. He saw Mr. Rashid trying to gather a group of ninth graders together. “Please be calm, everybody. Remain in one place until your parents can locate you.”
“What’s going on?” Benny asked him, shouting over the din.
“Please be calm,” he repeated, not really looking at Benny.
“I am calm.”
Across the lobby a girl howled in tears, “WHAT’S GOING ON?” and Mr. Rashid rushed to attend to her. Benny felt a jab of annoyance. He’d asked the exact same question, except in a normal tone of voice instead of freaking out, and Mr. Rashid had completely ignored him. Meanwhile, this hysterical girl was getting fussed over by three teachers, including Mr. Rashid, plus the school nurse. How were they supposed to grow into rational, levelheaded adults if hysterical behavior got validated at every turn?
“Everyone out of the way! Everyone outside!” a man’s voice shouted.
What is happening? Benny thought. He ducked behind a column, trying not to get funneled outside with everyone else. He wanted to stay as close to the scene as possible.
“Out! Everyone out! Everyone on the courtyard, now!”
Benny watched as the sea of confused students, teachers, and parents poured out of the lobby into the darkness outside. There was the sound of a siren, but it wasn’t getting closer, it was getting farther away. Its tone grew distorted and eerie.
Within minutes, everything was quiet. His heart pounding, Benny darted across the lobby and peered into the gym, which was now empty and too silent. He saw evidence of some kind of crash. Several of the exhibits were knocked down and stuff was strewn everywhere on the floor. In the center of the disarray, a massive dead animal was lying in a pool of blood. It was a deer. Its antlers had been sawed off. The sight chilled Benny to the core. It wasn’t just the visceral shock of seeing so much blood; it was the animal’s eyes, which were frozen in an expression of utter anguish. Not the anguish of the dead, but of the maimed. Its once-great antlers mutilated into pitiful stubs.
Benny felt his lip trembling, and he stamped his foot. It was a habit from childhood, stamping his foot in frustration whenever he felt like he was about to cry.
Then he noticed that the deer was attached to a board with wheels. It’s taxidermied, he realized. It wasn’t the deer’s blood. So whose was it? A person’s? Benny felt slightly sick, imagining that much blood seeping from someone’s body.
A pair of long, red smears led away from the puddle. Someone had obviously been dragged away from the scene. A small shoe had been left behind, like a grisly Cinderella story. It was ugly fake leather, dotted with sparkling plastic jewels meant to distract from the cheapness of the material. It was covered in blood.
I know that shoe.
It was Virginia’s.
The football field, 8:30 p.m.
“I love you. I love you.”
Why had the words been so hard to say before now? He loved her. She was so nice, and so pretty, and she loved him and he loved her. He wanted to say it five thousand times.
“I love you too!” Corny squealed. The sound of her laugh made Winn feel like he was going insane. He kissed her lips and wished the kiss could last five thousand years.
“Let me feel your skin. Oh my god.” He reached under her pink sweater. Her skin was so soft it was unbelievable. It was like being five years old and touching a kitten. It was like going back in time, before his hands had grown into the rough hands of a man. He lay down on the grass and pulled Corny down next to him.
“What’s gotten into you?” Corny giggled. It was dark, and Winn wished he had a flashlight so he could see her smile. He ached to see her smile. To see her face, her eyes, her lips, her breasts.
“Come here, sugarplum.” Sugarplum. It was a gay word, but it felt good coming out of his mouth. He made a mental note to call her sugarplum for the rest of their lives. He kissed her, pressing himself against her with a pure desire he hadn’t felt since they first started dating in eighth grade, back when Corny could just look at him and he’d have a boner for three days.
“I love you,” he breathed into her hair.
“Oh my god. I so totally love you too, Winn.”
She loves me. She loves me. Nothing else would ever matter again. Why had he been so scared before? Corny had told him she loved him about a million times before, but Winn had never said it back. Corny had never pressured him or made him feel bad about it, but he’d known that the day would come he’d have to say it back, and he’d dreaded that day with a dread that made his stomach hurt. But now that day was here, and it was amazing; there was nothing to dread or fear. A wall had come down between himself and his own heart. This is exactly what I needed, he thought ecstatically, inhaling the peachy scent of Corny’s hair.
Winn had been feeling stressed for weeks. He didn’t know why. It was like being smothered by a dark, random cloud. He was tired all the time; food tasted like shit; he sucked balls at football practice; Corny irritated him when she was around, but when she wasn’t, he felt so lonely he couldn’t stand it. He could barely even jerk off anymore without wishing he could disappear into oblivion afterward.
Then tonight Trevor Cheek had told him there was a random guy in the girls’ bathroom, and he had some drugs or whatever, and he was just giving them away for free if you had the secret password. And the password was either “blue pill” or “red pill,” which seemed sort of gay.
“It’s from The Matrix!” Trevor had said. But it still seemed gay. And besides, Winn wasn’t interested in drugs, and he hadn’t thought Trevor was either. Drugs were for white trash and smelly hippies like Skylar Jones. Couldn’t they just get a beer? But Trevor kept saying they had to do it, and suddenly Winn didn’t care if drugs were trashy. The science expo was suffocating—everyone’s projects made him feel like an underachieving moron. He needed to get out of there. So whatever, he did it.
Trevor had called “red.” So Winn took “blue.” He didn’t know if there was supposed to be a difference. He’d felt like the hugest idiot standing in the girls’ room saying “blue pill” to a mystery dude who wouldn’t show his face. But it was worth it. For the first time in weeks—in years—he felt like a real person. He felt actually alive, being alone with Corny right now on the empty football field. She was so beautiful. He needed to fuck her immediately.
“Wait, get a condom!” Corny squealed.
“No. I want to have a baby.” He surprised himself saying it, but as soon as he did, he knew that he meant it. He wanted to have a baby. He wanted a little baby girl who looked exactly like Corny, and they would call her Little Corny, and they’d live in a cabin in the mountains, and Winn would take care of his little Cornys and protect them till the end of time.
“Winn! You’re so silly.”
“I’m serious! Please let me cum in you and have a baby,” Winn begged.
“Um . . . okay!” Corny giggled, and Winn kissed her ferociously. She belonged to him forever. He wanted to mix his DNA with hers, and create a new tiny life that would glue them together forever.
“I love you,” he repeated. “I love you.”
Her body felt like heaven. Love was heaven.
The middle school basketball court, 8:45 p.m.
Virginia found herself lying on a rickety gurney with a thick pillow under her head. Some lady handed her an Advil, and Virginia washed it down with a swig of Gatorade. She rubbed her temples, feeling drained and disoriented. A boy was crying softly on the bleachers. A family was sitting together, the mom giving the daughter a back rub and the son playing a game on his phone. Everyone else was either sitting quietly or lying down on yoga mats. Apparently the middle school basketball court had been designated the recuperative area for overwhelmed people. At least it was quiet and the lights were low. She didn’t know how she’d gotten there. Someone must have wheeled her in while she was unconscious.
Five people had fainted, including Virginia. Five people! The number irritated her. If she was going to faint, she wanted to be the only one. She didn’t want to be one of five people. It made her feel average and lame. And what was Benny going to think? She’d been at the very center of the action and passed out like a dainty maiden in need of smelling salts.
She sat up, but then the image of blood spewing out of DeAndre’s chest hit her like a baseball bat to the head, and she lay back down on the gurney.
Get a grip, she ordered herself. She didn’t want to be a wimp. But she couldn’t bring herself to sit up again.
“Can I ask you something?”
Virginia turned her head. Someone was sitting in shadow on the bleachers. She couldn’t tell who it was. Then he stood up, his body elongating as if in slow motion, getting taller and taller until he finally reached his full, looming height.
“Oh, hey, Calvin,” she said. “Sure.”
He paused, apparently wording the question in his mind. “Did you see it happen?”
Virginia groaned. “Ugh, yeah. It was horrible. . . . Did you faint too?”
Calvin shook his head. “Nah. I just needed a place to calm down. It’s a zoo out there.”
Virginia closed her eyes. She was glad she was in here, then. She lifted her head and took another sip of Gatorade.
“Is DeAndre dead?” she whispered, not wanting anyone to overhear and start weeping or something.
Calvin shrugged. “No one knows yet. I think they took him in an ambulance. . . . I like your outfit.”
“Hm? Oh, thank you.” She pinched her sweater. “It’s cashmere. Too bad it’s ruined.” She scowled at the huge white stain.
“The stain is my favorite part. It’s like . . . you were too beautiful, so they had to throw garbage at you. To bring you down to their level.”
Whoa. Virginia gawked at him. Where the hell did that come from? Calvin Harker was someone she could barely remember having ever talked to. They knew each other, but only because everyone in a small school knew each other. She struggled for something to say. She couldn’t say “thank you,” because she’d just said that five seconds ago. And besides, “thank you” wasn’t exactly a sufficient response to the most amazing compliment she’d ever heard in her life. Before she could think of anything, Calvin said, “Can I sit with you?”
“Um, yeah. Sure.” Virginia scooched over a bit, unsure of how to situate herself. Calvin half sat, half stood at the very edge of the gurney, making a small gesture with his hands to suggest she should stay lying down. Virginia tried to relax. But this was weird. Did Calvin Harker like her? How incredibly random was that? She looked at him, trying to figure out how she felt about it. She couldn’t decide if he was good-looking or not. He was certainly . . . interesting-looking. His features were all slightly distorted, the result of some congenital disease; Virginia couldn’t remember what it was called. Something related to aliens, because in middle school everyone called him Martian Boy. But then he’d gotten a heart transplant and spent a year in the hospital, and people stopped making fun of him after that.
“Can I show you a poem?”
Virginia blinked. “Sure. . . .” She liked that Calvin asked her permission before doing anything. It made her feel important. He handed her a folded piece of paper. Virginia took it, almost afraid to open it.
If the poem is good, I’ll like him. If it’s bad, I won’t.
She opened it.
The fountain, 8:55 p.m.
“Mom, I’m fine. I’m fine.” Yasmin squirmed out of her mother’s death grip of a hug. All around her, mothers were hugging their kids and people were crying and looking for one another and asking what was going on. The splashing water from the fountain, usually so peaceful, seemed overly loud and contributed to the stress of the environment. Yasmin wanted to go home, but a policewoman in a tight ponytail was interviewing everyone and asking what they’d seen. Yasmin barely knew what she’d seen. She knew what she hadn’t seen, which was the freaking judges. She’d been robbed of her fifteen minutes by a deer that had apparently killed DeAndre Bell.
Supposedly, it was moments like these that made people realize what really mattered in life. What was a science expo prize worth when DeAndre Bell was now dead?
Everything. To Yasmin, it was still worth everything. People died every single day. It was literally the only thing you could count on in life, which is exactly why you couldn’t waste a single moment being distracted from your goals. Yasmin had to stay focused. Except her brain was reeling—she’d never personally known someone who’d died before, especially not someone young. Even last month when the whole school had thought Brittany was dead for five seconds, it hadn’t hit Yasmin personally. Brittany Montague was so unreal—so perfect, so blond, so far out of Yasmin’s social orbit. But Yasmin had almost all her classes with DeAndre. They were doing a Civics project together! Yasmin felt ill. She thought about her Civics project, and then thought about DeAndre being dead. Then her Civics project, then DeAndre being dead.
Am I losing my mind? Maybe I’m not processing this, she thought. DeAndre is dead. DeAndre is dead. DeAndre is dead.
She waited for the reality to hit her. But it was too scary to let her feelings in. It was like her brain had short-circuited and wouldn’t give her emotions any space. She just wanted to go home and take a shower and watch True Blood in her room. Yasmin hardly ever allowed herself to watch TV—it was a waste of time—but this whole day was fucked, and she didn’t have the energy to salvage it. She just wanted to throw it in the garbage and move on.
Yasmin’s mom was saying something about the dog-faced policewoman wanting to talk to her. She always spoke Persian when she was upset, even though she knew Yasmin only understood about half of it.
“No one talks to her without Bruce,” her dad said. “He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”
Bruce Sherazi was the family lawyer, whom Yasmin’s father dragged into everything. Mr. Astarabadi understood America. He understood that rewards weren’t given to the good-hearted; they were given to the mercilessly litigious.
“There was a purple light,” the policewoman was saying. She had a tight ponytail and a face that indeed resembled a Schnauzer. “That was your project, Yasmin?”
Yasmin scowled at her. A purple light? People were such morons.
“We think your project caused the power outage,” the officer said. “You need to answer some questions.”
“Is this a homicide investigation?” Mr. Astarabadi asked, his Persian accent almost imperceptible.
“I’m unable to give information at this time.”
“Daddy, I want to go home,” Yasmin whined. She pouted at her dad, knowing he couldn’t resist her puppy-dog eyes.
Mr. Astarabadi looked at her, deciding. Then he produced an immaculate, cream-colored business card from his Yves Saint Laurent wallet and handed it to the policewoman.
“You will not contact my daughter,” he said, hardly making eye contact. It was his signature power move, making people feel like they barely registered with him. “Everything goes through me.”
Five minutes later the Astarabadi family was cruising down Peachtree Street toward their Italian-inspired manse in Brookhaven. Riding in the Lexus always felt smooth and deluxe. Yasmin rolled down the window and stuck her head out like a little kid. The autumn air was crisp and cool, and made her feel better. She realized she hadn’t been fully breathing for the last twenty minutes, as if avoiding inhaling the fact of DeAndre’s death. She didn’t want to think about it. So she focused on herself, because everything else was too overwhelming. DeAndre was gone, but she was still here.
She was alive.
The courtyard, 9:00 p.m.
Benny asked every adult he could find if they had seen Virginia Leeds. Most of them didn’t know who she was, which made Benny want to throttle them. Virginia Leeds! he wanted to yell. She’s been at this school for five years. But he knew from experience that if you weren’t in their country-club crowd, it was like you didn’t exist. Weaving through the hubbub, he heard DeAndre’s name about a hundred times, but not once did he hear Virginia’s. Finally he found a teacher who said there were some people with the EMTs on the middle school basketball court.
The hallway to the gym was ill-lit. This wasn’t an area were people were supposed to be tonight. The doors to the basketball court opened, and a pair of men came out—one man, actually, and a boy. The leather soles of their shoes echoed on the tile floor. It was Headmaster Harker and his son. It was always strange to see the two side by side. They were both unnaturally tall; they had the same thin, grim faces; the same vivid green eyes and pale skin. They resembled a pair of vampires: the headmaster an old-school Dracula with white-streaked hair receding sharply at the temples; Calvin his young and hungry scion. The headmaster led him sternly down the hall, a long, white hand gripping his shoulder.
As they passed each other, Calvin shot Benny a long, pained look:
Benny stopped. But the headmaster and Calvin kept walking, and Calvin didn’t look back at him. They turned the dark corner and were gone.
Benny entered the gym. It was dark around the edges, the basketball court lit up in the center. The school nurse was fluttering around, attending to a small collection of students and parents. There, sitting up on a gurney, was Virginia. Benny half walked, half ran over to her.
“Virginia, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. . . . You’re okay?” He looked down at her shoeless foot. Her stocking had blood on it.
“Ugh, I fainted,” Virginia said, rolling her eyes. “Did you see what happened?”
“No,” Benny said. “I saw the blood . . .”
“It was awful. People were, like, throwing their guts up. It was me who called 911.” She smiled, obviously expecting to be praised.
“Well, who else was there? What happened? The deer was on wheels; obviously someone pushed it.”
“Um . . . I don’t know. It was really chaotic. The lights were out, and then they came back on. Someone’s mom was next to me . . . and that girl with ten thousand freckles . . .”
“Think hard. Close your eyes and see the scene in your mind.”
Virginia closed her eyes. Then she shuddered. “God, all I can see is blood everywhere.”
Benny tried not to get frustrated. Of course Virginia had no choice but to jump in and call 911. It was the right thing to do. But he wished she could have stepped back and observed the scene. Who knew the number of details she’d missed.
“Have you seen Trevor Cheek anywhere?” Virginia asked. “It must have been his deer. He had that idiotic project.”
“No,” Benny said. “I’ve just been looking for you. I saw your shoe in the blood. . . . I was worried.” A feeling of dejection washed over him. Virginia’s testimony was useless, and he’d spent the last critical half hour looking all over for her instead of gathering information. Everyone was probably leaving by now. The gym doors had been locked and draped with DO NOT ENTER tape. The scene was dead.
“What should we do?” Virginia hopped off the gurney and then touched her head, seeming dizzy.
“You should go home,” Benny said. “I mean, to your room. Do you want a ride to the Boarders?”
“No, I’ll walk,” she said, to Benny’s relief. His mother tended to be less than subtle about her distaste for the yellow-haired, leg-showing shiksa in Benny’s life, and he wasn’t eager to be stuck in a car with them for any length of time.
“We’ll talk tomorrow. . . . At morning assembly? Assuming school isn’t canceled.”
“Okay! See ya.” Virginia waved tiredly. Benny noticed a piece of paper folded in her hand. He almost asked her what it was, but then decided not to. He didn’t want to seem nosy. Which was ironic because Virginia was the nosiest person on the planet and would not likely have paid him the same courtesy.
They parted ways at the gym doors. Benny watched her walk away, her shoeless left foot splattered with blood. That was so Virginia, to just leave on a pair of blood-splattered stockings; a normal person would have ripped them off immediately. She really creeped him out sometimes.
Benny stood there until she was gone, postponing the moment when he’d have to go to the library and find his mom and explain that there’d been an accident, and that the prizes wouldn’t be handed out tonight after all. Mrs. Flax was impervious to the chaos of life, and expected everyone else to be as well. It was unacceptable to be impaled by a taxidermied deer in the middle of a science expo. She’d look at Benny like it was somehow his fault.
He leaned against the wall, trying to organize his mind. A deer. A student body president. A drug dealer in the bathroom, something Benny had almost forgotten about in the pandemonium. Two football players (Trevor Cheek and Winn Davis—three if you counted DeAndre). This was going to be tricky. He’d been on the wrong side of the gym when it happened. He’d have to depend on other people for the facts, which he hated doing. Other people were flaky and unreliable and stupid. But it was his own fault—he’d failed to fulfill the number one tenet of his own club: above all else, Be There.
Benny’s house, 10:30 p.m.
He couldn’t stop seeing the deer’s face. Its agony was imprinted on his mind: mouth open in a mute scream, eyes searing with futile rage. Benny was a logical person; he didn’t believe in New Age mumbo jumbo. But he couldn’t help feeling that some spiritual crime had been committed when they sawed off that deer’s antlers, leaving the stiff carcass on the floor like a piece of garbage. It seemed you could be anything in this world—a person, a deer—and life would find a way to mar your dignity.
Stop thinking about it. He shook the image of the deer from his mind. He took out his many printouts of brains and spread them on the dining room table, feeling calmed by the array. One good thing had come out of the disastrous evening: the judges hadn’t gotten around to announcing the winners, so at least Benny was spared the embarrassment of being passed over in front of his mother.
“THANK YOU FOR BEIN’ A FRIEEEND!”
Benny’s grandma was watching The Golden Girls in the next room, with Mr. Flax next to her in a large leather easy chair. You’d think he was watching too, but if you looked closely, you’d see that his eyes were fixed at a point slightly below the TV.
“Can you put on the news for him?” Benny asked his grandma.
“It’s good for his mind to hear happy people chatting! Who wants to hear a bunch of sad news. Not us!” She patted her son-in-law’s knee. Benny gritted his teeth. In no universe was it good for anyone’s mind to watch The Golden Girls. He looked back to his array of brains, wishing his dad could have seen his project tonight. He would have appreciated it. He would have thought it was brilliant. And they would have gone to the kosher diner in Midtown together and ordered steaks and discussed Benny’s bright and promising future.
Stop, he told himself. This had been happening more and more lately—Benny romanticizing his dad and indulging in unrealistic fantasies about how magical his life would be if the plane crash had never happened, if the test flight for the AeroStream V4 Spinetail—his father’s baby—had successfully landed. But truthfully, before the accident, Mr. Flax had been a remote and somber workaholic who was rarely around. In all likelihood he wouldn’t have gone to the science expo at all, and if he had, it would have been for fifteen minutes and he would have been distracted the whole time. The evening would probably have ended the exact same way: Benny alone and vaguely depressed, the sounds of gabbling old ladies blaring from the TV to mock him. Life’s dismal plan trudged on, unaffected by whatever accidents happened along the way.
Except Tank would still be here.
Benny was good at mental compartmentalization—stowing some thoughts deep in the recesses of his consciousness, where they had few opportunities to surface. Probably a psychologist would say it was unhealthy, but Benny didn’t know how else he was supposed to survive in his own mind. If he had to think about Tank every day, he’d never get out of bed in the morning.
Benny went to his room and shut the door. Then he pulled out last year’s yearbook and flipped to the index in the back: Bell, DeAndre. The list of pages featuring DeAndre took up five entire lines. He started going through them one by one: his class portrait, various club pictures, student government, candids from the spring formal. In each photo DeAndre had the same exact pose: a wide “Mentos: the Freshmaker” smile, his arm draped chummily around whoever happened to be standing next to him. Benny couldn’t quite picture DeAndre’s face without his signature grin; he certainly couldn’t picture it contorted in horrible pain.
He flipped to the C’s: Cheek, Trevor. Trevor had famously run for student body president last spring as a joke. His platform had been “School sucks, but I don’t!” Trevor was a buffoon who loved making a mockery of anything anyone took seriously. Benny remembered him giving up on his speech halfway through and spending the rest of his allotted ten minutes leading the assembly hall in a thumping chant of “TRE-VOR, TRE-VOR, TRE-VOR!” People liked that stuff but not in their school president. In the end, DeAndre had won the election. This was particularly impressive considering that DeAndre was only a sophomore while Trevor was a junior; it was rare for underclassmen to achieve the coveted title of student body president. Trevor had made a dumb spectacle of claiming the election was rigged and threatening to “succeed from the Union,” which everyone laughed about even though it really wasn’t funny considering the historical context. But even DeAndre had laughed, and soon the joke lost steam and died.
Now Benny wondered: Was it possible Trevor actually cared about student government? Enough to kill his opponent? Trevor was from an old Southern plantation family; he bragged about it all the time. Maybe he was secretly infuriated that a black student—possibly descended from slaves—had taken a leadership role Trevor felt entitled to. Maybe his “joke” platform had disguised serious ambition. Benny considered it, then shook his head. It was an interesting idea but one that failed to light. If Trevor had really wanted the position, he could have had it. He could have taken his speech seriously, and maybe even asked his dad (the president of the Board) to pull some strings for him. Besides, there wasn’t much that Trevor would gain from DeAndre vacating his seat. Trevor wasn’t the next in line; the vice president was, and that was Yasmin Astarabadi. If Trevor had pushed the deer, his motive hadn’t been ambition but revenge. Which seemed a little dramatic.
Benny closed the yearbook. He knew he should get some sleep. He’d been reading a lot lately on how lack of sleep affected mental cognition. A series of tests on sleep-deprived people showed that without sufficient sleep, the body would siphon energy from the brain to power corporeal functions, which shut down creative thought like a zombie. To Benny, this was a reminder that the human capability for brilliance was a gift, not a given; the body would take any opportunity to become a mindless animal again.
He changed into his pajamas and turned out the light. As soon as he closed his eyes, the image of the deer assaulted his mind. Stop! he ordered himself. If he wanted to solve mysteries, it would involve seeing disturbing things from time to time. It was part of the job. He couldn’t wince and shudder his way though a case like a weenie.
Dewdrop, let me cleanse in your brief sweet waters . . . These dark hands of life. It was a four-hundred-year-old Matsuo Bashō haiku that Benny found relaxing. Half of Bashō’s poems were about dew: pearls of dew, chrysanthemum’s dew, dew that cleansed, dew that symbolized the swiftly evaporating beauty of life. It seemed like such an ancient thing, dew. Yet it was a simple function of nature that not even the stamping foot of suburbia could obstruct. Benny made a mental note to take a moment in the morning to reach down and touch the dew of the grass in the front lawn. Had he ever intentionally, meaningfully, touched a dewdrop? Suddenly it was clear that this was what his life was missing: a daily touch of dew. . . .
And then he was asleep, his resolution to touch some dew relegated to the realm of midnight flights of fancy that by the morning are forgotten.
The Boarders, 1:02 a.m.
(is an illusion)
The day has seized you and me
Its grip will never tire
All are prisoners of time
Even the stars
Virginia lay in her bed reading the words for the five hundredth time. She wasn’t sure exactly what they meant, but that didn’t matter. Obviously it wouldn’t be a poem if it were just a bunch of normal sentences saying stuff.
She loved it. If a better poem existed, she couldn’t think of it off the top of her head. Granted, she never paid much attention in English class, which was just a boring lady insisting that some boring old book was important. But this was actually important.
She jumped out of bed and crept down the dark hall to the common room. After eleven o’clock they were supposed to stay in their rooms. But gradually every boarding student came to the independent realization that they had been abandoned. The house mom, Mrs. Morehouse, appeared less and less frequently, making up for long stretches of absence with spit-spraying, Miss Trunchbull–esque tirades whenever she randomly appeared. But other than that, the Boarders was always quiet, especially at night. Every semester fewer overnight students returned, leaving the house increasingly deserted. At this point less than half the rooms were filled. The room across from Virginia’s had been Zaire Bollo’s; now it was just another set of beige walls containing a bare mattress and empty drawers. The room would remain vacant forever. The Boarders was famously haunted, and it was known that territory ceded to the ghost would never be restored to the living.
She turned on a lamp, half expecting to find Gottfried the German exchange student sprawled out on the sofa. Gottfried was an insomniac and hung out in the common room at all hours eating junk food and staring at the ceiling fan. He wasn’t there now, though Virginia wished he was. It was spooky being alone in the common room. Huge, curtainless windows exposed her to the outside world, the black silhouettes of trees and the ill-lit street ideal for lurkers. She considered turning off the lamp to make herself less visible, but the idea of sitting alone in the dark was even creepier.
The ancient desktop computer hummed awake. She pulled up the browser and typed in “best poetry.” A list of the “10 Best Poems” popped up, and she scanned them. They seemed to be mostly about farms and walking in the woods and describing daffodils. Boring! Virginia thought, excited by the confirmation that Calvin’s poem was better.
She logged into her Winship e-mail account. Her plan was to send Calvin a short but intriguing e-mail and see how he responded. She still wasn’t 100 percent sure she liked him, but she didn’t want him to get taken by some other girl either. Her in-box was a slew of junk that she deleted without reading: inspirational Christian forwards by the Montague twins (and more from Chrissie White, who copied whatever the twins did); gobbledygook from her mother’s personal accountant in Boca Raton (why was Virginia always cc’d on this crap?); repeated memos from Mrs. Jewel, the new upper-school principal who had made it her mission to stop the girls from wearing their skirts so short (“Expose your minds, ladies, not your panties!!!”), and reminders to vote for Homecoming King and Queen.
Then she noticed an e-mail from an address she didn’t recognize. She opened it.
Subject: Your the boss
I can’t use this with my network. The whole point is their supposed to be virgins. But if u want to work with me we can expand. ($$$) Obviously i am shit at this, need a camera man (or GIRL, haha). Let me know cutie
The message wasn’t signed, and at first Virginia was confused. She didn’t know anyone who called her “cutie.” Then her heart slammed in her chest. It was Min-Jun, the guy from Mr. Choi’s sordid jazz band/cheerleader porn ring. He was one of the creepiest people Virginia had ever met. Why was he contacting her? Was he a complete moron? The police had picked him up at the bonfire a few weeks ago after he’d gotten into a bloody fistfight with Winn Davis. They’d let him go, and as far as she and Benny understood, the guy’s low-rent production company, Locker Room Wildcats, was over, and remained a secret. They’d both figured Min-Jun’s brush with the law was enough to scare him off the Winship campus forever. Evidently they’d been wrong.
At the bottom of the e-mail there was a file attached. She hit download and watched the little wheel spin. Finally the file opened, and Virginia winced and held her hand up preemptively, in case it was a penis or something gross. Then she lowered her hand. The image was grainy, of a dark field lit by a single, faraway stadium light. Two people were rolling around on the short-clipped grass. Not rolling, really—undulating. It was people having sex! And Virginia knew immediately who they were.
She looked over her shoulder to make sure she was still alone. Then she turned back at the screen. Corny Davenport’s huge, overflowing boob was pressed under Winn’s chest. Half their clothes were strewn around them, and their bodies were tangled and intertwined. Virginia had walked in on Chrissie White having sex once, and it had been completely gross and disturbing. She’d only witnessed about two seconds of it, but the image was burned into her brain: a guy in plaid boxers pounding Chrissie like a pumpjack while she lay there motionless with her mouth gaping open. It had been pretty much the least romantic scene in history. But what Corny and Winn were doing was nothing like that. They moved together rhythmically, Winn touching Corny’s head like it was a precious artifact. He was on top of her, but seemed considerate of her smaller body, careful not to crush it with his manly weight. Corny’s soft, naked legs pointed gracefully toward the black sky. The image of them was so intimate that it felt wrong to be watching. But Virginia couldn’t look away. They were gorgeous.
Then a new message appeared in her in-box. It was from mjtheman. Virginia stiffened. The timing was freaky, like he knew she was online. Maybe he did know! Obviously he’d been skulking around campus taking videos of people. For all she knew, he was outside watching her right now. She glanced out the window, but all she could see was her own scared-looking reflection.
Be cool, she commanded herself. If he was watching, she didn’t want him to see her acting scared. She sat up straighter, taking a deep breath.
Subject: Your the boss
if u don’t want a piece of the business, i need that $400 back. No joke
Now her heart was truly pounding. The four hundred dollars was gone. She’d spent it on the palladium silver decoder rings, which now seemed like a completely stupid and childish thing to have done. Why won’t this loser leave me alone? True, she’d basically stolen four hundred dollars from him, but after everything that went down at the bonfire (getting pummeled by Winn and then picked up by the police), she hadn’t expected him to be crazy enough to try to get it back. Maybe she could return the rings? She dismissed the idea immediately. The idea of explaining it to Benny, and Benny looking at her like she was an utter fool—no way. She could just call the police and give them Min-Jun’s name, but that felt like the reaction of a little kid. It definitely wasn’t what Benny would do.
She glanced down at her wrist. W.W.B.D.? Benny hated the police; Virginia didn’t know exactly why—something involving a dog a long time ago? All she knew was that if two paths diverged in life, and one path was to ask for help and the other was to take care of the thing himself, Benny would choose the second one. It was one of the few things she and Benny actually agreed on: you can’t count on anyone besides yourself.
She looked out the window again, half expecting to see Min-Jun waving hello to her. But there was only the reflection of herself looking like her own ghost, white-faced and semitransparent against the backdrop of dark trees outside.
Another message appeared. Virginia was tempted to just delete it. But she opened it and scanned it quickly. It contained two lines:
btw your legs looked amazing tonight
Virginia yanked the power cable out of the wall. The light from the lamp and the computer screen went black. Virginia froze in the darkness for a minute, barely breathing.
It was him. Min-Jun was the drug dealer in the bathroom. Virginia felt a shiver, realizing he’d been looking at her legs under the stall door. What did he think he was doing? Had he switched from porn to drugs? Or were the drugs a ruse, and he was just in there to spy on girls while they peed?
Wait, she thought. Min-Jun with ironed pants? She couldn’t picture it. Unless he’d done it on purpose to divert suspicion. But she couldn’t picture him doing that, either. He struck her as fairly . . . lazy.
Christ, calm down. She refused to be scared by that creepy loser. She got that Locker Room Wildcats was extra gross and illegal because high schoolers were underage. But somehow she still found the whole thing more insulting than scary. Virginia didn’t think of herself as underage. She didn’t think of herself as a child. She was fifteen years old and had been taking care of herself since the eighth grade. Winn and Corny weren’t children. They were sexual beings who obviously enjoyed having sex with each other. They weren’t playing house; they were . . . fucking. The thought was unbearably exciting but also filled Virginia with queasiness. It was a private thing that she shouldn’t have seen.
Virginia was annoyed now that she’d killed the computer before writing her e-mail to Calvin. It would take five minutes for the old geezer to boot up again, and she couldn’t deal with sitting exposed in front of that window anymore. She got up and snuck back to her room, locking the deadbolt from Home Depot that Benny had especially installed on her door.
She got in bed with her purple cat-shaped pillow named Puffy that she’d had since she was ten, feeling increasingly stupid for letting Min-Jun’s e-mails freak her out. She’d handle the money situation; it wasn’t a big deal. And she wasn’t some baby who ran and hid from an e-mail. Now that she was safe under the covers, Min-Jun’s words took on a different flavor—a flattering one. Min-Jun was a creep, but still—out of all the girls at Winship, he’d noticed her.