I’ve started writing the wrong book. I’ve got projects I need to be working on — projects that are pressing and important and exciting — but I can’t stop thinking about this one. I can’t stop thinking about the story of Ethan and Piper and Cory, who broke into the wrong house and thought they could outsmart someone who had nothing to lose. I can’t stop thinking about them, so I’m writing them, a little at a time, when no one is looking and I think I can get away with it.
(They couldn’t get away with what they did. But they’re just characters in a story, right? And I’m a writer, so maybe I can get away with it. Maybe it’ll all turn out okay for all of us.)
Anyway. Here’s chapter one.
Thursday night is therapy night for Ethan Kurlansky and Piper Durham and Cory Jefferson. Normally they’re the only ones in the church basement where they have therapy night, so they have to open up a new folding chair for the drop-in, but no introductions are made. Everyone already knows who Ethan and Piper and Cory are; they don’t care about anyone but each other, and they don’t care about anything except what happened to them, and trying to remember it.
Cory Jefferson is a hunched-over curled-up boy with bones too long for his body and a jaw you could use to shovel the ashes out of a fireplace. His chest has the caved-in look that comes with growing tall before you can grow wide, and his hair is long enough to want cutting but not long enough to look like it’s long on purpose. His hoodie sleeves have holes in them, and the bottoms of his jeans are frayed from walking, and all his fingers are missing, cut off at the bottom knuckle a year ago on a night he can’t remember no matter how many Thursdays he spends looking back and forth between Piper and Ethan.
“I think we should go back,” Piper says. She’s chewing on her thumb, and Cory is staring at her thumb while she chews on it, probably because that used to be his nervous tic. Piper used to nag him about it.
Piper Durham has a spine as straight as a plumb-line dropped down a well. Her dark hair falls past her shoulders, less straight than it used to be, and with a few strands of white that weren’t there before. She’s thin enough to look hollow, and pale enough to look scared. She wears large black sunglasses with scratched-up lenses. She wears them because they cover up the holes where her eyes used to be, back before the night a year ago that she can’t remember no matter how many Thursdays she spends chewing on her thumb.
“That’s a bad idea,” Cory snaps. “That’s the worst bad idea I’ve ever heard, and every time you bring it up you sound stupider.”
“I don’t hear either of you coming up with something smarter,” Piper snaps back, and then she immediately closes her mouth. She’s biting her tongue, literally biting it, you can see her doing it, and then she flinches again and stops doing that, because biting her tongue is even worse than what she said.
Ethan’s hands rise from his lap. After a silent moment, Cory translates for him, so Piper can hear. “Ethan says it’s okay. He says not to worry about it. He says he’s used to people saying stuff like that.”
“Sorry,” Piper whispers.
Across from her, in his own folding chair, Ethan signs it’s okay again. Cory doesn’t translate this time, and the decision not to translate is a hateful one. He watches with narrowed eyes as Piper, who can’t see Ethan’s hands and will never see them again, returns to chewing on her thumb.
Ethan rests his square-fingered hands on his crossed legs and sits back in his chair, his every movement controlled. Some would call him poised. Some would call him that. He wears dark jeans, like always, and a button-down shirt, like always. His fingernails are short and clean, and his sandy-blonde hair is short and clean, and his shoes are polished and his clothes are pressed. He wears a clear plastic face mask to help heal the skin grafts on his face — his face, which was cut away from his skull in one tidy sheet. He does not speak because he has not had a tongue for a year, not since the night he lost his face, which is a night he can not remember no matter how many Thursdays he spends watching Cory and Piper hate each other.
“So,” says the fourth person, the interloper, the walk-in with the bright green eyes and the long, pretty piano fingers and the scattering of freckles across her long, thin nose. “What are we talking about?”
Cory doesn’t look at her, and neither does Ethan. Both of them have glanced her way several times since she sat down, but their eyes slide off her like water off wax, and they seem to have decided that she’s best ignored. Piper, however, turns her face toward the new voice.
“Who are you? Guys, who is that?” She sounds more irritated than anything else: this isn’t meant to be a shared time, isn’t even an official therapy session so much as a time the three of them set aside to try to remember what horrible thing happened to them a year before, when they lost so much of themselves.
“I’m so sorry,” the fourth girl says, not sounding the least bit sorry. “I heard there was group therapy here on Thursday nights. Someone told me —”
“Who told you?” Cory interrupts, looking directly at her at long last. “Who the fuck is telling people about —” he stops short, blinking at her bright green eyes and her freckled nose. She bats her lashes at him, and he looks away, shaking his head.
Ethan’s hands flash, signing to Cory fast. The uninvited guest watches him, and she lets out a little laugh like mice in the eaves of an abandoned house. “No,” she says. “I’m not here to ‘fuck with you.’” Ethan’s hands go quiet for a moment, and then he begins signing again, slower and smoother this time, modulating his tone now that he knows the stranger can understand him.
What do you want? he asks.
“Nothing at all,” the stranger says. She runs her long fingers through her hair, which is cut in a blunt bob the color of well-oiled walnut paneling. Ethan’s eyes linger on that hair, and although his face is unreadable behind the plastic mask, the girl smiles at the flash of almost-recognition she sees in his eyes. “I’m so sorry if I’ve intruded,” she says. “I’m so sorry if I’m an uninvited presence here.”
At the words uninvited presence, Piper’s head tilts.
All three of them are so close. They’re on the cusp of it, of grasping the thing they’ve spent the past year trying to understand. All three of them look hungry and afraid and the girl’s smile as she watches them is as warm as the stones of a hearth.
“Please,” she says. “Please don’t let me intrude. I’ll see myself out.”
She stands up from her folding chair and walks out of the church basement, her footfalls heavy on the stairs. She pauses at the top of the stairwell, just before the door, all of her out of sight save her feet. Cory and Ethan watch, waiting for her to turn around and say something, explain herself, tell them why she looks the way she does.
Those long seconds feel like a joke she hasn’t made, like a laugh she won’t explain. She stands there long enough to let her silence become an uninvited presence in the room. Then, she opens the door and walks out, leaving Ethan Kurlansky and Piper Durham and Cory Jefferson behind to try to remember the thing that happened to them on that terrible night one year before.
My name is Clara Everett, and I know what happened to them. I would tell them, if they would only ask me. I would tell everyone.
But nobody ever asks me anything.