“The first time, you can’t believe how much it hurts.”
Deenie’s legs are shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hands hot on her thighs.
Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.
“I heard you might want to throw up even,” one says. “I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle.”
“It just kind of burns,” says another. “You’re sore for a few days. They say by the third time, you don’t even feel it.”
I’m next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it’ll be me.
If only she’d gotten it over with a year ago. But she’d heard about how much it hurt and no one else had done it yet, at least not anyone she knew.
Now she’s one of the last ones.
When Lise comes out, her face puckered, holding on to her stomach, she won’t say a word, just sits there with her hand over her mouth.
“It’s nothing to be scared of,” Gabby says, looking at Deenie. “I’m not afraid.”
And she takes Deenie’s hand and grips it, fingers digging into palm, their clasped hands pressing down so Deenie’s legs stop shaking, so she feels okay.
“We’re in it together,” Gabby adds, making Deenie look in her eyes, black and unflinching.
“Right,” Deenie says, nodding. “How bad can it be?” The door opens.
“Deenie Nash,” a voice calls out.
Four minutes later, her thigh stinging, she’s done. It’s over.
Walking back out, shoes catching on the carpet, legs heavy as iron, she feels light-headed, a little drunk.
All the girls look at her, Gabby’s face grave and expectant. “It’s nothing,” Deenie says, grinning. “It’s just . . . nothing.”
At first, Lise’s desk chair just seemed to be rocking. Deenie’s eyes were on it, watching the motion. The rocking of it made her feel a little sick. It reminded her of something.
She wondered if Lise was nervous about the quiz.
The night before, Deenie had prepared a long time, bringing her laptop under her covers, lying there for hours, staring at equations.
She wasn’t sure it was studying, exactly, but it made her feel better, her eyes dry from screen glare, fingers tapping her lower lip. There was an uncomfortable smell from somewhere in her clothes, musky and foreign. She wanted to shower, but her dad might hear and wonder.
Two hours before, she’d been at work, dropping dough balls in a machine and punching them out into square pans slick with oil. Lise and Gabby had come by and ordered the fat pizza sticks, even though Deenie warned them not to. Showed them the plastic tub of melted butter that sat all day by the hot ovens. Showed them how the oven workers stroked the sticks with the butter from that tub and how it looked like soap or old cheese.
As they left, oil-bottomed paper sacks in their hands, she wished she were going with them, wherever they were going. She was glad to see them together. Gabby and Lise were Deenie’s best friends but never really seemed easy with just each other.
By the ovens, Sean Lurie clocked in late. Wielding his long iron grippers like swords, he started teasing her. About the fancy-girl arc of her hand when she’d grab a dough ball, like she was holding a kitten. The way, he said, her tongue stuck out slightly when she stretched the dough.
“Like my little sister,” he teased, “with her Play-Doh.”
He was a senior at Star-of-the-Sea, shaggy black hair, very tall. He never wore his hat, much less the hairnet, and he had a way of smiling lopsided that made her tie her apron strings tighter, made her adjust her cap.
The heat from the ovens made his skin glow.
She didn’t even mind all the sweat. The sweat was part of it.
Like her brother after hockey, his dark hair wet and face sheened over— she’d tease him about it, but it was a look of aliveness you wanted to be around.
How it happened that two hours later she was in Sean Lurie’s car, and a half hour after that they were parked on Montrose, deep in Binnorie Woods, she couldn’t say for sure.
She always heard you looked different, after.
But only the first time, said Gabby, who’d done it just twice herself. To make you remember it, I guess. Deenie had wondered how you could ever forget.
You look in the mirror after, Gabby said, and it’s not even you.
Except Deenie had never really believed it. It seemed like one of those things they told you to make you wait forever for something everyone else was doing anyway. They didn’t want you to be part of the club.
And yet, looking in the bathroom mirror after she got home, she’d realized Gabby was right.
It was partly the eyes— something narrow there, something less bright— but mostly it was the mouth, which looked tender, bruised, and now forever open.
Her hands hooked on the sink ledge, her eyes resting on her dad’s aftershave in the deep green bottle, the same kind he’d used all her life. He’d been on a date too, she realized.
Then, remembering: she hadn’t really been on a date.
Now, in class, all these thoughts thudding around, it was hard to concentrate, and even harder given the rocking in Lise’s chair, her whole desk vibrating.
“Lise,” Mrs. Chalmers called out. “You’re bothering everyone else.”
“It’s happening, it’s happening” came a low snarl from Lise’s delicate pink mouth. “Uh-uh-uh.”
Her hands flying up, she grabbed her throat, her body jolting to one side.
Then, in one swoop — as if one of the football players had taken his meaty forearm and hurled it— her desk overturned, clattering to the floor.
And with it Lise. Her head twisting, slamming into the tiles, her bright red face turned up, mouth teeming with froth.
“Lise,” sighed Mrs. Chalmers, too far in front to see. “What is your problem?”
* * *
Standing at his locker, late for class, Eli Nash looked at the text for a long time, and at the photo that had come with it. A girl’s bare midriff.
Eli, for you xxxx!
He didn’t recognize the number.
It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten one of these, but they always surprised him. He tried to imagine what she was thinking, this faceless girl. Purple nails touching the tops of her panties, purple too, with large white polka dots.
He had no idea who it was.
Did she want him to text her back, invite her over? To sneak her into his bedroom and nudge her shaky, pliant legs apart until he was through?
A few times he’d done just that. Told them to come by, smuggled them to his room. The last one, a sophomore everyone called Shawty, cried after.
She admitted to drinking four beers before she came on account of nervousness, and even still, had she put her legs where she should? Should she have made more noise?
Secretly, he’d wished she’d made less noise.
Since then, he could only ever think about his sister, one wall away. And how he hoped Deenie never did things like this. With guys like him.
So now, when he got these texts, he didn’t reply.
Except sometimes he felt kind of lonely.
The night before, his friends at a party, he’d stayed home. He imagined maybe a family night of bad TV and board games moldy from the basement. But Deenie wasn’t around, and his dad had his own plans.
“Who is she?” he’d asked, seeing his father wearing his date sweater, the charcoal V-neck of a serious man.
“A nice woman, very smart,” he said. “I hope I can keep up.”
“You will,” Eli said. His dad was the smartest teacher in the school and the smartest guy Eli knew.
After one of those times sneaking a girl out of his room, Eli had gotten caught, sort of. In the upstairs hallway, his dad nearly bumped into her as she hitched her tank-top strap up her shoulder. He’d looked at Eli and then at the girl and she’d looked at him and smiled like the prom queen she was.
“Hey, Mr. Nash,” she cheeped. “Guess what? I got an eighty-five in Chem Two this year.”
“Great, Britt,” he said, his eyes not focusing on hers. “I always knew you could do better. Glad to hear you’re doing me proud.”
After, Eli shut his door and turned his music as loud as he could and hoped his dad wouldn’t come talk to him.
He never did.
* * *
Dryden was the cloudiest city in the state, the sky white for much of the year and the rest of the time a kind of molten gray broken up by bright bolts of mysterious sun.
Tom Nash had lived here for twenty years, had moved with Georgia the summer after they’d finished their teaching certificates, and she’d gotten a job starting up the district’s new special-education office.
Like many long-term transplants, he had the uncomplicated pride of a self-proclaimed native, but with the renewing wonder a native never has.
In the deep white empty of February when his students would get that morose look, their faces slightly green like the moss that lined all their basements, he’d tell them that Dryden was special. That he had grown up in Yuma, Arizona, the sunniest city in the United States, and that he’d never really looked up until he went away to summer camp and realized the sky was there after all and filled with mystery.
For Dryden kids, of course, there was no mystery to any of it. They didn’t realize how much it had shaped them, how it had let them retain, long past childhood fairy tales, the opportunity to experience forces beyond their understanding. The way weather tumbled through the town, striking it with hail, lightning, sudden bursts of both clouds and sun, like no other place Tom had ever been. Some days, the winter wind moving fast across the lake’s warm waters, the sun unaccountably piercing everything, students came to school, faces slicked in ice, looking stunned and radiant. As if saying: I’m sixteen and bored and indifferent to life, but my eyes are suddenly open, for a second, to this.
The first year he and Georgia lived here, Dryden had been this puzzle to them both. Coming home at night, the haze of the streetlamps, shaking off the damp, they would look around, their once-copper skin gleaming white, and marvel over it.
Pregnant with Eli and her body changing already, giving her this unearthly beauty, Georgia decided Dryden wasn’t a real place at all but some misty idea of a town. A suburban Brigadoon, she called it.
Eventually— though it felt like suddenly to him— something changed.
One afternoon two years ago, he came home and found her at the dining-room table drinking scotch from a jam jar.
Living here, she said, is like living at the bottom of an old man’s shoe.
Then she looked at him as if hoping he could say something to make it not feel true.
But he couldn’t think of a thing to say.
It wasn’t long after that he found out about the affair, a year along by then, and that she was pregnant. She miscarried three days later and he took her to the hospital, the blood slipping down her leg, her hands tight on him.
Now he saw her maybe four times a year. She’d moved all the way to Merrivale, where Eli and Deenie spent one weekend a month and a full ten days each summer, after which they came back tan and blooming and consumed by guilt the moment they saw him.
In his middle-of-the-night bad thoughts, he now felt sure he’d never really understood his wife, or any woman maybe.
Whenever he thought he understood Deenie, she seemed to change.
Dad, I don’t listen to that kind of music. Dad, I never go to the mall anymore.
Lately, even her face looked different, her baby-doll mouth gone. The daddy’s girl who used to climb his leg, face turned up to his. Who sat in his leather reading chair for hours, head bent over his own childhood books on Greek mythology, then Tudor kings, anything.
“I’m taking the bus,” she’d said that very morning, halfway out the door, those spindle legs of hers swiveling in her sneakers.
“I can drive you,” he’d said. “You’re so early.”
Deenie hadn’t beaten him to breakfast since she was ten, back when she was trying to be grown-up and would make him toaster waffles, with extra syrup he’d be tugging from the roof of his mouth all day.
Eli off to hockey practice at six a.m., Tom liked these drives alone with Deenie, the only time he could peek into the murky teen-girl-ness in her head. And get occasional smiles from her, make bad jokes about her music.
A few times, after dates like the one he’d had the night before— a substitute teacher divorced three months who’d spent most of dinner talking about her dying cat— driving to school with Deenie was the thing that roused him from bed in the morning.
But not this morning.
“I have a test to study for,” she’d said, not even turning her head as she pushed through the door.
Sometimes, during those same bleak middle-of-the-nights, he held secret fears he never said aloud. Demons had come in the dark, come with the famous Dryden fog that rolled through the town, and taken possession of his lovely, smart, kindhearted wife. And next they’d come for his daughter too.
Deenie couldn’t get the look on Lise’s face out of her head.
Her eyes had shot open seconds after she fell.
“Why am I here?” she whispered, blinking ferociously, back arched on the floor, her legs turned in funny ways, her skirt flown up to her waist, and Mrs. Chalmers shouting in the hallway for help.
It had taken two boys and Mr. Banasiak from across the hall to get her to her feet.
Deenie watched them steer her down the hall, her head resting on Billy Gaughan’s linebacker shoulder, her long hair thick with floor dust.
“Deenie, no,” Mrs. Chalmers said, taking her firmly by the shoulders. “You stay here.”
But Deenie didn’t want to stay. Didn’t want to join the thrusting clutches of girls whispering behind their lockers, the boys watching Lise turn the corner, her skirt hitched high in the back, her legs bare despite the cold weather, the neon flare of her underpants.
After, ducking into the girls’ room, Deenie saw she was still bleeding a little from the night before. When she walked it felt weird, like parts of her insides had shifted. She could never have ridden to school with her dad. What if he saw? She felt like everyone could see. That they knew what she’d done.
As it was happening, it had hurt a lot, and then a sharp look of surprise on Sean Lurie’s face when he realized. When she couldn’t hide what she was, and wasn’t, what she had clearly never done before — thinking of it made her cover her face now, her hand cold and one pinkie shaking.
You should have told me, he’d said.
Told you what.
Swinging open the lavatory door, she began walking quickly down the teeming hall.
“Deenie, I heard something.” It was Gabby, sneaking up behind her in her sparkled low-riders. They never made any noise. “About you.”
Gabby’s face seemed filled with fresh knowledge, but there was no way she could know. Sean Lurie went to Star-of-the-Sea. People couldn’t know.
“Did you hear what just happened to Lise?” Deenie countered, pivoting to look at her. “I was there. I saw it.”
Gabby’s eyebrows lifted and she held her books to her chest. “What do you mean? What do you mean?” she repeated. “Tell me everything.”
At first they wouldn’t let her into the nurse’s office.
“Deenie, her mother isn’t even here yet,” snipped Mrs. Harris, the head of something called facilities operations.
“My dad asked me to check on her,” Deenie lied, Gabby nodding next to her.
The ruse worked, though not for Gabby, who, lacking my-father-is-a-teacher privileges, was dispatched immediately to second period.
“Find out everything,” Gabby whispered as Mrs. Harris waved her out.
The nurse’s office door was ajar and Deenie could hear Lise calling her name. Everyone could hear, teachers stopping at their mailboxes.
“Deenie,” Lise cried out. “What did I do? Did I do something? Who saw?”
Peering in the open door, Deenie saw Lise keeling over on the exam table, her lips ribboned with drying froth, one shoe hanging from her foot. She wasn’t wearing any tights, her legs goose-quilled and whiter than the paper sheet.
“She . . . she bit me.” Nurse Tammy was holding her own forearm, which looked wet. She hadn’t been working there long, and rumor was, a senior athlete with a sore knee had scored two Tylenol with codeines from her on her very first day.
“Deenie!” Head whipping around, Lise gripped the table edge beneath her thighs, and Nurse Tammy rushed forward, trying to help her.
“Deenie,” she repeated. “What happened to me? Is everyone talking about it? Did they see what I did?”
Outside the nurse’s office, Mrs. Harris was arguing with someone about something, the assistant principal’s stern jock voice joining in.
“No one saw,” Deenie said. “No way. Are you okay?”
But Lise couldn’t seem to focus, her hands doing some kind of strange wobbling thing in front of her, like she was conducting an invisible concert.
“I . . . I . . .” she stuttered, her eyes panicked. “Are they laughing at me?”
Deenie wanted to say something reassuring. Lise’s mother, vaguely hysterical under the best of circumstances, would be here any second, and she wanted to help while she could.
“No one’s laughing. Everyone saw your Hello Kitty undies, though,” Deenie tried, smiling. “Watch the boys come now.”
As Deenie walked out, a coolness began to sink into her. The feeling that something was wrong with Lise, but the wrongness was large and without reference. She’d seen Lise with a hangover, with mono. She’d seen girlfriends throw up behind the loading dock after football games and faint in gym class, their bodies loaded with diet pills and cigarettes. She’d seen Gabby black out in the girls’ room after she gave blood. But those times never felt like this.
Lying on the floor, her mouth open, tongue lolling, Lise hadn’t seemed like a girl at all.
It must have been a trick of the light, she told herself.
But looking down at Lise, lips stretched wide, Deenie thought, for one second, that she saw something hanging inside Lise’s mouth, something black, like a bat flapping.
* * *
“Mr. Nash,” piped Brooke Campos, “can I go to the nurse’s office? I’m feeling upset.”
“What are you upset about, Brooke,” Tom replied. There was fidgeting in a dozen seats. Something had happened, and he could see everyone was looking for an advantage in it.
“It’s about Lise. I saw it go down and it’s a lot to take in.”
Two jocks in the back stifled braying laughs. They seemed to go to class solely in the hopes of hearing accidental (or were they?) double entendres from girls like Brooke, girls eternally tanned and bursting from T-shirts so tight they inched up their stomachs all day.
“What about Lise?” Tom asked, setting his chalk down. He’d known Lise Daniels since she was ten years old and first started coming to the house, hovering around Deenie, following her from room to room. Sometimes he swore he could hear her panting like a puppy. That was back when she was a chubby little elfin girl, before that robin’s-breast belly of hers disappeared, and, seemingly overnight, she became overwhelmingly pretty, with big fawn eyes, her mouth forever open.
He never really had a sense of her, knew only that she played the flute, had perpetually skinned knees from soccer, and appeared ever out of place alongside his own brilliant, complicated little girl and her even more complicated friend Gabby.
Four years ago, Gabby’s father, blasted on cocaine, had taken a claw hammer to his wife’s Acura. When Gabby’s mother tried to stop him, his hammer caught her on the downswing, tearing a hole clean through her face and down her throat.
Gabby’s mother recovered, though now all the kids at the community college where she taught called her Scarface behind her back.
Her father had served a seven-month sentence and was now selling real estate in the next county and making occasional, unwelcome reappearances.
In the school’s hallways, Tom could see it: Gabby carried the glamour of experience, like a dark queen with a bloody train trailing behind her.
It was hard to fathom girls like that walking the same corridors as girls like Brooke Campos, thumbs callused from incessant texting, or even girls like downy-cheeked Lise.
“Mr. Nash,” Brooke said, rolling the tip of her pen around in her mouth like it hurt to think about, “it’s so traumatic.”
He tried again. “So what is it that happened to Lise?”
“She had a grand male in Algebra Two,” Brooke announced, eyes popping.
The jocks broke into a fresh round of laughter.
“A grand mal?” he asked, squinting. “A seizure?”
Up front, frantic grade-grubber Jaymie Hurwich squirmed painfully in her seat, hand raised.
“It’s true, Mr. Nash,” she told him. “I didn’t see it, but I heard her mouth was frothing like a dog’s. I had a dog that happened to once.” She paused. “Mr. Nash, he died.”
A hard knock in his chest in spite of himself, he looked at Brooke, at all of them.
He was trying to think of something to say.
“So . . .” Brooke said, rising tentatively in her seat, “can I see the nurse now?”
After second period, he found Deenie buried in her locker nearly to her waist, hunting for something.
“Honey, what happened with Lise?” he asked, hand on her back.
She turned slowly, one arm still rooted inside.
“I don’t know, Dad.”
For a second, she wouldn’t look up at him, her eyes darting at the passing kids.
“But you saw it?”
“Dad,” she said, giving him that look that had made his chest ache since she was four years old. “I don’t want to talk now.”
Now meaning here: Not at school, Da-ad.
Meaning he had to just let her go, watch her dark ponytail swinging down the hall, head dipped furtively, that red hoodie hunching up her neck, helping her hide.
Excerpted from The Fever by Megan Abbott. Copyright © 2014 by Megan Abbott.
First published 2014 by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York.
First published in the UK in paperback 2014 by Picador. This edition published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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