I'm the Girl excerpt (cont'd)
continued from part four
When Nora James shows up at my door a week and a half later, her sister’s death is on her, everywhere.
I’m not used to seeing her so undone. Nora is a girl who lingers in the corners of your mind, a mean kind of pretty, bordering on unapproachable. If she looks like she has time for you, it’s likely a trick of the light, but when it’s not and she means it—nothing more important could happen to you. At least not in the halls of Ketchum High. She was one of the most popular girls before she graduated. Captain of the volleyball team. She’s tall, lean up and down, with strong shoulders, skin taut around muscular arms and legs that call attention to how hard she trains. She’s always been so sure of herself, but she seems so small to me now. Her chin-length black hair is tied into a baby ponytail that reveals her undercut but doesn’t hide the tangled, unwashed state of it. Her pointed face is pale white, dark circles under her wide hazel eyes.
“Watt says you don’t remember most of it,” Nora says—as close to “hello” as I’m getting, I guess. “But I want to know what you do. Show me where you found her.”
“You know where I found her.” Everyone does.
“Show me where you found her,” she repeats. “And tell me everything.”
She drives us to the road. I tell her I can’t be out long.
“Why? Where else you got to be?”
I don’t answer. Before she showed, I was making myself sick waiting on Tyler to come back from the mall, the modeling agency. I begged him not to go, told him to forget about it. He wasn’t going to get his money back so let me see about Aspera, and it was the wrong thing to say. I keep thinking of the flash of worry I saw in his eyes before he left, the possibility of coming home empty-handed too great for him to ignore.
I keep thinking about how I’d rather him come home empty-handed.
“Should Sheriff Watt be telling you what I do and don’t remember?” I ask Nora, but now it’s her turn not to answer. “How’s your dad?”
She keeps to her silence. All she’s got is her dad. Motherless, her and me. Nora’s mom left when she was thirteen. It was one of those hard leavings too. The kind that doesn’t call. Doesn’t check in. The kind that makes you wonder if you ever had a mother. I can’t help but wonder if I got the better deal, mine six feet underground. I glance at Nora’s hands on the steering wheel, fingers clutched around it so tight, it looks like they could snap it in half. The fervor of those first few days following the discovery of Ashley’s body has settled into an uneasy, open wound. Tyler drove down that road right after, said there was yellow tape everywhere, reporters and cameras, a little wooden cross planted in the ground, people laying flowers when all they really wanted was to gawk. It rained that first night, he told me. Whatever evidence they didn’t gather, washed away. I want to tell Nora that; that where she thinks she’s taking me now is gone, just like her sister.
The funeral’s soon.
“How are you?”
She gives me a withering look and I wonder what my mother would make of the two of us in a car together. She was no fan of the Jameses, especially Justin, who, like every cop at the sheriff ’s department, is welcome to enjoy Aspera’s golf course as thanks for doing his job. They only care about their own, and that’s not us. But that’s what my mom felt about anyone higher up the food chain—which to her eye was everyone. And it wasn’t always true.
Because when I was thirteen, Nora invited me to her birthday party.
I almost want to remind her about that now, tell her how circular all this is, how fated it’s starting to feel, but I don’t think she’d want to hear it.
I turn to the window and the closer we get to familiar things, the more my body rebels against this whole idea. My pulse races and my palms sweat, my throat tightening, my lungs constricting. I try to remind myself I won’t—can’t—discover Ashley there a second time, but the moment we step out of the car and face the woods, I feel like I could. I look up at the sky, wincing at the glare, and hope against a headache because every day since, there’s been one, bad ones. Doc Abrams said it’s normal—the consequence of bashing my skull off the ground. If Nora’s noting these little signs of my distress, she doesn’t care. Unlike her sister, I’m here to feel them.
I point down the road behind us.
“Back there. That’s where I got hit.”
“You see the license plate? The driver?”
I shake my head. “I blacked out.”
“And then what?”
“When I woke up, my bike was gone. And there were footprints around me.”
“He do anything to you?”
“. . . What do you mean?”
I know what she means.
“You know what I mean.”
“He just took my bike,” I say. “I got up, walked, and then I got here and I saw—”
The woods there, empty now. The sun seems to stop at the edge of the road, marked by a pile of withering bouquets and water-soaked votives set in front of that small cross, a pink ribbon tied around it. Pink. I stare past it, into the darkness, and I have no idea how I ever saw that flash of color in the first place, and again, I have that thought about the way the universe is working, but I still don’t say it aloud.
“What did you see?”
“Nora, I don’t—”
I lead her down the ditch and into the woods. It’s an easier trip this time. At first, the sameness of the area, the lack of Ashley as its marker, makes me worried I won’t find the exact spot she lay, but that moment of discovery is burned in me and it stops me in my tracks. I let out a slow breath.
“Was it there?” She nods a little off center to where her sister was.
I shake my head, pointing.
When I turn to her, there are tears in her eyes. A light breeze pulls my hair from my face and rustles the leaves in the trees. And then, the faint trilling of birds I can’t see, singing their sweet songs to one another. I think of Ashley out here alone, the world moving around her, without her, and it makes me dizzy enough that I sit down where she lay in the end anyway. I stare at the gaps of sky through the trees. A whole world in front of her wide-open eyes, as unreachable to her as she to it.
“Just like that?”
“Show me how it looked.”
“I need to see it.”
She presses her hands against her eyes.
“Just do it, okay? Maybe you’ll remember something.”
I do as she’s asked. I lie on the ground, tilting my head back, my chin pointed stiffly upward. I turn my right leg toward my left and I pin my right arm beside myself, realizing how uncomfortable a position it all actually is. My sore body protests it. Nora makes her way to me, standing over me while I complete the pose. I rest my left arm against my chest, feeling the added weight of my cast, and let my fingers reach for my throat. I swallow, feel the jump of movement there, and it’s suddenly obscene, to have all this.
Hey, kid. You all right?
Nora takes me in.
“You think it means anything, he put her like that?” Her voice splinters. “Does it feel like it means anything?”
“I don’t know.” I pause. “It feels uncomfortable.”
“She was raped.”
I close my eyes. “I know.”
“She was drugged first. Died of an overdose while he was raping her, they think.” My stomach turns. She touches the crook of my elbow. “There was an injection bruise there.”
She was thirteen.
“She was messed up so bad, my dad can’t even get out of bed, and he’s seen a lot.” I open my eyes and she’s above me, blocking what little view there is of the sky, her expression cold, and more than that—angry. “And you couldn’t even get a look at the guy driving the car.”
Nora reaches her hand out to help me up and I slap it away. I try to get to my feet, first on my bad arm, which elicits a pained yelp, but I’m successful the second time, fumbling away from her with what little dignity I can muster.
She calls after me, “Avis, hey—Avis,” and I flip her off over my shoulder, nauseous and sweaty, dirt and grass and leaves stuck to my clothes. I make my way to the road, the ghost of my escape on me—but this time no one’s pulling up to help.
“It’s not your fault.” Nora emerges behind me.
“I don’t need you to tell me that.”
“But do you know what it means?”
I turn to her, holding out my arms.
“What does it mean?”
“It means he’s anyone. It means he’s still out there. It means I’m going to find him. I’m gonna find the fucker that did that to my little sister.”
“And then what?”
“What do you think?”
I don’t know what to say to her, and the way she’s looking at me wants me to say something.
“It was Cleo Hayes picked you up, right?” she asks after a minute, and I nod. “What do you think your mom would think of that?”
“I’m sure she’d just be glad I was okay.”
But I’m not. Not really.
“Let’s get out of here,” she says. “Since you can’t be out long.”
In the car, Nora seems steadier, surer of herself. An evolution of grief taking place before my very eyes, like she just needed to say out loud to someone what she planned to do. I feel like less of myself in the exchange, some part of me still out there in the woods because I saw the question when she stood over me; if there was some way, some world, where this could have happened to Ashley and me with the roles reversed. I’m tired, the kind of bone-deep fatigue that comes with healing. The sun sears my eyes through the windshield.
I pull the visor down. Nora asks what my problem is.
“You,” I tell her.
This excerpt of I’m the Girl will continue in Courtney Summers’s July 1st newsletter. I’m the Girl is now available for request on NetGalley.
Cracked Up to Be is $2.99 all June, at all etailers. Find yours. This edition includes updated text and an introduction by me.
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JUNE 2nd 7 PM EST | Zoom, hosted by Briars and Brambles Books
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