“Look,” says the detective. He stares down at the girl huddled on the gurney. Despite a half dozen blankets, the poor kid is still shaking as badly as when they pulled her from the water an hour ago. Another ten, fifteen minutes in that lake, Bob Pendleton thinks, and she might not have made it either. “Just tell the truth. The truth can’t hurt.”
She says nothing. Christmas Muzak dribbles from an overhead speaker which, considering they’re in an ER, he finds obscene in the most irrational way. His wife keeps telling him he’s too sensitive to be a cop. “Jenna?”
Silence. Her eyes stare at something he can’t see, but he was there when the rescue divers came up. So he imagines she’s looking at something pretty terrible, a real nightmare. Her face is so white that her lips, ripe and dusky blue, look like dead worms, and her hair drags in limp, gray ropes. Still, Pendleton can see that she’s very pretty and, considering what she’s been through over the years and now, damned gutsy. She’s got the kind of ethereal, unselfconscious beauty some young girls possess that breaks your heart. Or theirs.
“Jenna.” He covers one of her hands with his own. Her skin is cold and pale as glass. At his touch, a tremor ripples through her face. Her gaze wanders and he ducks down, so he can grab her eyes with his. “Honey?”
“Am I . . . Am I under . . . under arrest?” These are the first words she’s spoken since he took her from the divers and insisted on carrying her, half-frozen and shuddering, to the ambulance. Her voice is halting and strange. “Am I . . . g-g-going to j-j-jail?”
“No, no.” He gives her hand a gentle squeeze. “Of course not. You didn’t do anything wrong. It was an accident.”
“Which part?” she says.
Pendleton frowns. “I don’t understand.”
“Which part is accidental?” Her eyes, a stunning, brilliant sea-green, shimmer, and a tear dribbles down one cheek. “Before or after?”
“Before or after what?” he asks, but she only shakes her head. “Look, Jenna, I have to know what happened.” He pauses. “Don’t you understand? You’re the victim here.”
She says nothing.
“Look, here’s what we’ll do.” Pendleton fishes a tiny digital recorder from his pocket. The recorder is no larger than a pack of gum. He shows her the buttons and the display and what the different numbers mean—numbers for folders, letters for files: “Like chapters in a book. I hear you like books.”
“And movies,” she whispers. “I . . . I like movies.”
“Okay, so scenes instead of chapters. Same idea. You talk into that, much as you want. The nurses said you’ll be here a while, so I’ll check back in a couple hours, how’s that?”
She studies the recorder and then nods. “Okay.”
“Good girl.” Patting her hand, Pendleton turns to go then pauses at the door. Beyond this room and in the larger trauma bay, there is chaos and urgency and motion: doctors in green scrubs, the reek of antiseptic scrub and dying flesh and cooling blood, the chatter of metal against metal, the bleep of monitors and an inarticulate babble of people talking over one another. He hears a high mosquito whine and the doctor’s crisp bark: “Clear!”
And then, there is . . . nothing.
And more … nothing.
When he looks at her again, he can tell that she hears the silence, too. He says, “There’s no one left to tell this but you. So I need the story, Jenna. I need the truth.”
The grief in her green eyes slips then hardens and, for an instant, Pendleton sees the woman she has become and has no right being, not at sixteen. A hot needle of shame pricks his chest, as if he’s barged into her bedroom without knocking, and he almost looks away.
“Right,” she says. “Like the two are the same thing.”
So. Okay…this is …
Okay. I . . . this is kind of creepy, Detective Pendleton. I’m sorry. Bob. You said I should call you Bob, like we’re old friends or something. I guess that considering the first time we met was after the fire and then again just yesterday when you came to the hospital to see my mom . . . well, that might be true. That we’re friends, I mean. Only, you know, that first time? When I was eight? I was unconscious and on a ventilator and had already died twice. So I really don’t think meeting that way counts.
You want me to tell the truth.
The truth is . . . I am so cold. I should be dead. Maybe I am.
That would be okay.
You know what I was just thinking, Bob? Tell is such an interesting word. There are so many meanings. There’s telling, like spinning a tale, making up stories. I’m good at that.
Of course, in that kind of telling, there is another tell, as in telling the difference between night and day, girl and boy, fact and dream. If you ask me, this is related to a gambler’s tell. You know, how something a player does or says tells the other players that he’s bluffing? David Mamet did this great movie, House of Games, all about that. Yeah, I know Mamet. Don’t be so surprised. When you spend four months on a psych ward and then the rest of the year at home in exile, you watch a lot of movies.
Anyway, you know what I liked best about that film? The bad girl; the shrink who shoots her lover, that con man who sets her up. Because, in the end, she gets away with it and forgives herself.
Wish I could do that.
So, Bob, I can tell. I can tell plenty. But the truth? I don’t know what that is. I thought I knew until this afternoon, but now…. Even if I tell my version of the truth, then what? I’ll go back to being the old me? Well, what kind of future is that?
Because let me tell you about the old me, Bob, the beta-version of Jenna Lord. Here’s how Beta-Jenna thinks: They let me go, and I’ll cut. Walk out of this room and into the waiting arms of Psycho-Dad—and I’ll cut. Together, we’ll visit my crispy critter of a mother, who’s a drunk and wants only the best for me—and I’ll cut.
Yeah. Going back to being Beta-Jenna makes the truth just so attractive.
Well, the year I was fifteen completely sucked. Considering I’ve died twice, that’s really saying something. I was a month shy of sweet sixteen when I started my sophomore year at Turing, this science-techie school just outside Milwaukee for brainiacs, which I’m supposed to be. Skipped a grade, tested out of classes, yada, yada. It goes without saying that I’m a straight-A-plus student, a quiet kid, sort of a loser, and the kind of girl no one would ever suspect.
Okay, other stuff, other stuff . . .
Well, my cell phone is pink. I’m a very careful driver. I’ve never kissed a boy, which feels . . . wrong. Because I am sweet sixteen, the age when a girl is supposed to find her prince and settle down.
I used to pretend I was Ariel. I had the doll and a blue gown for dress-up, like in the movie. I was wearing the dress the night we first met, Bob, although you probably don’t remember that because by then, I’d died a couple of times; the dress was only so much ash; and there was kind of a lot going on.
I don’t remember much about the fire, the one that swallowed Grandpa’s house eight years ago. I do recall cowering behind the boiler and listening to Grandpa crashing around the kitchen. Then, there was the angry sputter of an argument and, later, the thud as Grandpa MacAllister passed out, a lit cigarette still pinched between his fingers and two more smoldering on the sill over the kitchen sink. That’s where they said the fire started, you remember, Bob? How those lacy curtains, soaked in vodka because Grandpa knocked over the bottle when he blacked out, must’ve caught with a whump?
The next is a jumble: the churn of black smoke; the spiking scream of the alarm; the hiss and crackle of orange flames. But I do remember the fear icing my whole body, freezing me in place.
And then I remember Matt, my older brother, frantically shouting my name. His voice was a lifeline, a hook that set in my heart, and I grabbed on tight, swarming up the cellar stairs in a swirl of pale blue petticoat as Matt forced the door. But the fire was greedy. Its orange fingers snagged my dress which died in a sizzling shriek.
And then I was screaming because the fire was eating my back and Matt was dodging flames, running with me in his arms, but the front door was still so far away and then . . .
I heard my mother, screeching, wild, fighting with the EMTs: Don’t you dare …
When they shocked me to life, I blazed back into this huge supernova. Fire hot enough to fry skin and melt fat ignites pain, too: constant and agonizing and so bad you can’t die fast enough. I wanted to scream at the doctors to stop, stop, but I was mute. The fire had scorched my lungs and boiled my voice. A tube snaked down my throat, pushing in and then sucking out the air from my lungs. So, there was no way to tell anyone what I wanted. Wouldn’t have done any good anyway because no one will let a kid die. They think they’re doing you this big favor keeping you going because you’ve got your whole life ahead.
Well, news flash, Bob: Not. Necessarily.
Because you think there’s only one kind of pain? That pain is pain is pain?
Uh, that would be no.
There’s blood-pain. There’s knife-pain. There’s bang-your-funny-bone-pain.
And then there is the pain of fire, molten and alive: the swirl of flames streaming over rotten wood and naked flesh. That pain moves when you move; it mutters between every breath; it spikes your ears; it rips. You think pain can’t be any more horrible than that.
Until you discover that the well is bottomless. There’s always more. A different kind of pain, maybe, but more and much, much worse.
But that would be getting ahead of myself.
Pain’s not all I remember, of course. There were bright lights. The beep of monitors. Needles and tubes. Lots of faces . . . God, now that I think of it, they brought me to this same ER. Maybe these are the same doctors, but I don’t know because I faded in and out. I do recall that everyone, every face, was grim, like they’d read this story before and knew the end wasn’t pretty.
Later, the doctors said how lucky I was that my mom and Matt had decided to pick me up from Grandpa’s early. Lucky to be alive. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
Yeah, that’s me, Bob. I’m just so, so lucky.
I’m beating around the bush. I know I am. I don’t want to tell this story, Bob, and you know why? Because this is a fairy tale with teeth and claws, and here’s what completely sucks: you’re going to want black and white, Bob, right and wrong. I’m not sure I can give that to you. That’s the problem with the truth. Sometimes the truth is ambiguous, or a really bad cliché.
But this is the truth, Bob: I’m a liar.
I am lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief—and a killer.
And my reality—my story—begins with Mr. Anderson.
Excerpted from Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J Bick. Copyright © 2013 by Ilsa J Bick
First published 2013 by St Martin’s Press, New York. First published in Great Britain 2013 by Macmillan. This edition published 2013 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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