Mindy McGinnis is an author we can always count on for visceral, real stories, and her latest novel, Heroine, is no exception. We simply could not put this book down, because even though its subject matter could get pretty gut-wrenchingly difficult to read, it’s a story that needs to be told.
And, of course, Mindy tells it so well. Heroine follows high school athlete Mickey Catalan who, after a car accident, ends up taking prescription medication to help with the pain of her injury. But as her dependence on pain medication increases, she finds herself spiraling into addiction. The book offers a master class in what we love about the contemporary genre: the ability to personalize real-life issues without sensationalizing them. It’s just a powerful, unforgettable read that we are thrilled to share with you.
Scroll down to start reading Heroine now and get your first look.
When I wake up, all my friends are dead.
I don’t know when they stopped breathing, or how long I slept while they dropped off one by one. Josie’s basement is a windowless place where time does not matter, the lights set low. She’s sprawled across a couch, lips gone gray underneath the plumping lip gloss she uses to cover the fact that she’s started shredding them with her teeth, devouring herself with need when there’s no needle in reach.
I try to get up, my hip refusing to carry me in the pivotal moment when I rise. I bump into the coffee table, sending a syringe rolling onto the floor.
“Josie?” I say, putting my fingers to her wrist.
I don’t know how to find a pulse, don’t know what fingers I’m supposed to be using or if I’m touching her in the right place. I try the side of her neck, but get nothing, her skin cool.
It’s expensive skin, the kind that’s never had too much sun or been too dry. Josie’s never had calluses on her palms like mine, and she paid to have the one scar on her body lasered away. Me, I’m a map of pain, needle pricks you could connect all over my skin to make constellations named things like Agony and Writhing Woman, all of them converging to form a supernova at my hip, one that pulses and breathes, on the verge of imploding into a black hole.
Even the fingernails I’m pressing against Josie’s throat have dirt under them, tiny grains I’ve carried with me since this afternoon from behind home plate. I can still feel the sun on my back from where it baked in, now trying to seep out, escape the darkness of this cave and the dead inside it.
I am thinking the same.
I check Derrick and Luther, but they’re gone. I curl my fingers with Luther’s, our knuckle bones near each other one last time, the closest we’ll ever get to a conversation about us, and what that word could have meant. I sneak up the stairs as if afraid I will wake them, the dose in my blood keeping me calm as I go out the back door. In the yard I move under the cover of trees that I doubt Josie ever climbed as a child, though I would have taught her how if I’d known her then. Instead I met her later, and the only thing she learned from me is how to find a vein.
I start my car but keep the lights off as I back out of the driveway, not turning them on until I’m out of the cul-de-sac. It’s dark and I’m driving exactly the speed limit, because I am a good girl. I am a student athlete and the catcher for an undefeated softball team and a senior who needs to get a good night’s sleep before her last league game.
I did not just watch my friends die.
I did not leave their bodies cooling in a basement.
I am not an addict.
accident: a sudden and unexpected event, usually of unfortunate character
A car crash does not happen in slow motion, like in the movies. It happens like this:
I’m talking to Carolina about the guy she likes, picking apart everything he said to her, every inch of body language that has been displayed for her benefit. I’m breaking it down for her, because while she’s beautiful and smart and tough and perfect, she’s also the only Puerto Rican for about a hundred miles and doesn’t think it’s possible that the quarterback would be into her instead of some white girl.
“Last week he said something funny at lunch and everybody busted out laughing, but you were the one he looked at,” I tell Carolina.
“So?” she says, hands curled around the pizza boxes on her lap.
“So out of our entire table of football players and cheerleaders, Aaron looks at the softball pitcher to see if she thinks he’s funny,” I say, braking for a turn that can be nasty on freezing nights, like this one.
“He is funny,” she concedes, spinning her class ring on her finger. “I think I even saw your lips twitch.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But I’m not the one he likes.”
“People like you,” Carolina insists, an old conversation that we’ve been having ever since I befriended the only other girl at recess who didn’t have someone to play with. We were two loners then: her the kid whose skin wasn’t the same color as everyone else’s, me the one who never knew quite what to say, hesitating a little too long whenever I was asked to join in. The novelty of Carolina’s race wore off, her smile overcoming any reservation the other kids had.
Me, I don’t smile much.
“Like is a strong word,” I tell her.
“Fine,” she says, reaching for her phone to change the music. “But they’re definitely in awe of you, and that counts for something.”
That’s no lie. My classmates have been in awe of me ever since a badly aimed kickball sent our gym teacher to his knees in second grade. But that admiration never warmed into friendship, just high fives and first pick in gym class.
I’ll take it.
“The team loves you.” Carolina isn’t letting it go.
The team does love me. We’ve spent our summers together: sweat-soaked hair tucked behind our ears, wet towels on our necks when the Ohio afternoons shot past one hundred degrees. We grew up that way, backwoods girls knocking down bigger—and supposedly better—teams until even the city paper started sending out reporters to cover us, dirty kids with Capri Suns in our hands, arms draped over each other’s shoulders.
We love each other, yeah. Even if most of the time they don’t know what to make of their catcher, and our conversations tend to focus on one thing only.
“Maybe if you tried talking to them about something other than softball,” Carolina wonders aloud, her thoughts following mine, like always.
I consider that for a second. “I guess I could talk to them about basketball.”
My friend busts out laughing. “Ay, Dios mío,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. “I’ll know you’re putting effort into it when you start talking to them about volleyball.”
“Volleyball,” I say, rolling my eyes, which brings another peal of laughter from Carolina, her head thrown back, neck highlighted way too much by the oncoming car that’s brighting us. I flick my lights at them.
Then I’m not driving a car anymore.
I’m lying in a field, surrounded by frost and glass and corn stubble and the constant tick-tick-tick of a motor cooling. I stare at the sky, trying to figure out what just happened.
There’s been a car accident, and I was in it. Actually, I seem to have sailed over it, out and above, to land facedown in snow and dirt, both of which are in my mouth. I don’t understand, but I do know that Carolina was beside me and now she’s not. Which means she’s still in there somewhere, with exploded airbags and twisted metal and broken glass and all the things that make my car suddenly converge into sharp edges and crushing weight, a trap I escaped.
I’m going to save her, going to make it still matter that Aaron most definitely is into her, and probably won’t be shy about it after this. I’m going to stand up and get my friend, pull her out of the wreckage, and see her in one piece, because that’s the only allowable ending to this. I’m going to do these things, but when I try to come to my feet, I collapse.
My legs have a job, and have always done it without question, so I can’t get my head around the fact that I’ve lost the ability to stand up. I spit out a mouthful of snow—the first snow, one my grandfather would have called a sugar snow, the perfect time to go tap the maple trees for their syrup. It doesn’t taste like sugar though; it tastes like blood and dirt.
I try to get up again, and there’s panic in my movement this time, more urgency rather than just a learned behavior—the art of standing. I’ve got one leg underneath me and am considering the other when the lights approach, red and blue mixing into purple as they slice across the field. It makes everything oddly beautiful and accentuates the lazy spin of my tires, treads pointing to the sky. Glass sprays from the passenger window, glistening like snow as Carolina kicks at it, and then crawls out, screaming my name.
I’m balancing on one knee, teeth gritted so tightly in concentration I can’t answer her. I get up on one leg and tell the other to follow, but it simply won’t. I go over again, my bad leg at an odd angle from my hip, one that shouldn’t be possible.
My bad leg . . . why would I call it that?
It’s not a good thought, one that seems to float separately from the world I just came from, the warm interior of my car, music playing from Carolina’s phone, and the smell of the pizza. I don’t know how I went from there to here, from somewhere I was happy to a place where I can’t stand up.
“Mickey!” Carolina calls again, and this time I answer. She comes to my side, backlit by swirls of light, the chaos that we are so intimately a part of removed from us for the moment. It’s quiet out here where I landed, which is a good thing because I don’t have the strength to be loud.
“Mickey?” She says my name again, this time as a question.
Carolina kneels and I notice she’s holding one arm like a baby, cradling it to her chest with the other, like it needs to be taken care of.
“Your arm,” I say, but she shakes her head.
“Your leg,” she says, and I shake my head too, because we both want to believe we still live in a world where we’re whole. No one can tell us otherwise. Not yet.
A beam of clean, white light breaks toward us, a paramedic shouting when he spots us.
“Ladies?” he calls. “Are you injured?”
Carolina wipes a tear from her face as she looks down at me. She takes a deep breath and it hitches, stuck in her lungs, refusing to release.
“Yes,” she calls back.
And just like that, everything changes.
communicate: to make known information, thoughts, or feelings to another
I’m not good with words.
They don’t come to me fast and strong, like they do for Carolina, who switches effortlessly between Spanish and English, choosing whichever suits her meaning best. She can do that, plus inflect emotion into whatever she’s saying, her body moving with her voice to the extent that when we were kids I always knew what she was saying, even if I didn’t recognize the words. Now I’m close to fluent in Spanish, years spent around the Galarza dinner table giving me a mastery of my best friend’s first language, as well as my own.
In my mind I know what I want to say in either language, but even though the space between my brain and my mouth is a short one, the words never get there. Just like on the playground, the pure joy at being asked to join with the other kids never made it to my lips. So they would walk away, whatever I was going to say coming out moments too late.
It’s like that now, with nurses and doctors hovering over me, the strobes of emergency vehicles replaced with the harsh glare of hospital lights. They’re asking questions—What happened? Where does it hurt? Can you tell us your name? And, as always, I’ve got nothing. I stare at them, willing the words to make the journey to my mouth so that I can communicate. But when they finally do, what pops out isn’t an answer for them. Instead it’s a question of my own, the only one that matters.
“Is Carolina okay?”
Two nurses glance at each other, one of them running a scissors up the leg of my jeans, shredding what’s left of the bloody denim.
“Carolina Galarza,” I repeat. “She came in with me. Her arm . . .”
I trail off, thankful for once that my thoughts don’t make the leap out into public without first being examined. The truth is that Carolina probably is okay, according to their metric of the word. These people deal with ripped skin and exposed organs, patients who roll into the emergency room already dead, or halfway there. I can’t expect them to understand that the arm she was cradling is supposed to take us to state in the spring, flinging fastballs from the mound that most girls in the county can’t get a bat around quick enough to touch.
And if that doesn’t happen, nothing is okay.
“Galarza?” a male voice behind me repeats. The medics put a brace on my head and neck before they loaded me into the ambulance, so I can’t turn to see him. But we’ve definitely got a connection, because the next thing he says is, “The pitcher?”
“Yeah.” I grab onto this word, spoken in a language I know. The language of sports. “Five no-hitters last season,” I add, pride for my friend seeping out of me as fast as my blood is. We’re moving now, the lights above going past in a series of bright rectangles.
“You play too?” He’s still talking, and the other nurses have fallen silent, letting this conversation happen since these are the only words I can find right now.
“Catcher,” I say.
“Shit,” he says. “You’re Mickey Catalan?”
I’m used to it by now. Pretty much everyone in our town knows each other, but with the softball girls it goes past our names and faces to our jersey numbers and stats. I’ve got a weekly engagement with Big Ed at the market for a Monday-morning analysis of our team’s performance, and it’s not unusual to have long conversations with people who stop me while I’m getting gas to ask about our last game. I don’t always know their names but I can usually place their faces.
Like, Guy Who Always Brings His Wiener Dog, and Woman with Victoria’s Secret Umbrella, and Elderly Couple in Matching Scooters. Now I can add Emergency Room Nurse to that list, if I ever get a glimpse of his face.
“Yeah, I’m Mickey Catalan,” I say, addressing a spot of perforated ceiling tile above my head.
He doesn’t answer, and I know why.
Our first-string pitcher just walked into the ER cradling her throwing arm, followed by the catcher, who wasn’t walking at all. They might as well skip the X-ray entirely, because I saw, even though the medics did their best to distract me.
I saw my hip, the whole thing, exposed to the snow and dirt and all kinds of stuff that the insides of people aren’t ever supposed to touch. I don’t have to be a doctor to know that it wasn’t right, the pieces of me that work together separated, bones that knit to each other in the womb no longer touching.
There’s one word I learned a long time ago that never had trouble making it to my mouth, one I’ve relied on enough to get a formal warning from the umpire last season. I say it now, with feeling.
trauma: a wound or injury directly produced by causes external to the body
I wake up somewhere else. I know I’m not in the local hospital because the ceiling doesn’t have water stains, and the lights aren’t bare fluorescents. I try to talk, but everything has dried together—my tongue to the roof of my mouth, my lips to each other. I finally put enough energy into it, the girl who once deadlifted the quarterback focusing all her might into opening her mouth.
My lips come apart with a dry smacking sound and I suck in air, rib cage protesting, everything groaning into motion like a car with a half-dead battery during a deep freeze.
“Thirsty?” someone asks.
I nod, and a nurse puts a cup in front of me. I raise my arm to take it but she shoos me away, putting the straw in my mouth, like I’m a baby. I’m not too proud though, not right now. Not with no idea what’s under these hospital sheets or where I am or why I can’t feel my right leg at all. The nurse turns away and I risk a glance.
It’s still there. I swallow what’s left of my last drink of water, letting it wash the tears that were threatening to overflow back down my throat, ice water mixing with warm salt.
“Why can’t I feel my leg?” I ask, while the nurse wraps a blood pressure cuff around my arm. She takes a second, noting my vitals and writing them onto a chart before answering.
“You just came out of surgery,” she says. “You’ll be groggy from the anesthesia. Swelling can interfere with feeling as well, and you have quite a bit.”
I’ll say. I might have been relieved when I saw that there was still a shape beneath my sheet where my leg is supposed to be, but the fact that it’s twice the size of my other one can’t be good.
I want to ask when it will be normal again, when I’ll be able to walk, how Carolina is doing, why my mom and dad aren’t here, and where is here, anyway? I want to ask all these things, but they’re backed up, tripping over each other in my head. They must show in my face though, because the nurse puts her hand on my arm and smiles at me.
“Your surgeon will be in to talk to you soon,” she says.
My surgeon. Someone whose face I haven’t seen and whose name I don’t know but who’s been wrist-deep in my body, and is intimately familiar with parts of me I haven’t even seen. Except for that one glance, which I could have lived without.
“When?” I ask.
She’s saved from answering when a man walks in, his green scrubs telling me this is the guy I’m waiting on. He introduces himself as Dr. Singh, then takes my chart from the nurse.
“Catalan,” he says. “That Italian?”
“I don’t know,” I say, partly because it’s true, partly because it’s the last thing I care about right now.
“Catalan . . . Catalan . . . ,” he repeats, sitting on the rolling chair. “Seems like I’ve heard the name.”
“My mom’s an ob-gyn,” I tell him, realizing I must not be too far from home if she’s delivered babies in this hospital.
“Annette Catalan?” I’ve got his attention now, his eyes on me instead of a chart about me. “You’re her daughter?”
“Well, I’m adopted,” I say. Mom told me a long time ago I don’t have to say it like it’s a bad thing, or even say it at all. But I’ve always felt like I need to explain how I’m the daughter of a small, cheery blonde.
“Where is my mom?” I ask, and he looks to the nurse.
“On the way,” she says.
“You were flown in to Mercy General from county,” Dr. Singh says. “With injuries like yours it’s important that surgery happens as quickly as possible to improve your chances of recovery. I’m sorry that your mom couldn’t be here—”
“Recovery?” I repeat, interrupting him to grab onto that word. “How long? Softball conditioning starts in March.”
“Well, let’s see . . .” His eyes are back on the chart again, but I know he’s stalling.
I may not show my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see everyone else’s. I know Dr. Singh isn’t going to tell me anything I want to hear, just as surely as I know that Aaron is in love with Carolina, and has probably called her twenty times already. I can picture her clumsily texting with her left hand, propped up in a hospital bed like mine. I wonder if there’s a doctor with her as well, and if he’s pulling X-rays out of a folder, illustrations in the story about how her life just changed.
“You sustained serious damage to your right hip,” Dr. Singh says, holding them up to the light.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen my bones. I can still spot the fracture on my right femur from when Royalwood’s catcher—who is built like a brick shithouse—landed on me when I slid into home during summer league when I was twelve. I heard the crack on impact, but the ump called me safe. I lay in the dirt for a second, relishing the cheering before everyone realized I wasn’t getting up.
My coccyx is crooked from being broken twice, once when I fell off Nancy Waggoner’s horse, and again when it was my turn to be taken out at the plate by a runner. I held on to the ball even though I had literally broken my ass, and she was out. We won that game, too, and all the girls signed the doughnut pillow I had to sit on for a month.
But those old injuries are nothing compared to this.
“We put three screws in your hip,” my surgeon says, but he hardly needs to explain. I can see them, denser than my bones, so clearly defined that the threading even stands out. I grit my teeth together, remembering the time I helped Dad put up drywall, particles flying in my face as I drilled in screws. How much bone dust is on the floor of that operating room? How much of me was left behind when I was wheeled out, and can my leg still work with what remains?
I want to ask but I don’t get the chance because Mom comes barreling in. She’s wearing pajamas and her hair is a disaster, but she plucks the X-rays from Dr. Singh’s hand like someone with authority, holding them up to the light.
I didn’t cry when I landed in the field, mouth full of blood. I didn’t cry when they separated me from Carolina, or when I saw the meat of my leg, red and raw underneath the antiseptic lights of the ambulance. I didn’t cry when I woke up lost and alone, wondering if I was still in one piece.
But I cry now. I cry when Mom’s face falls at the sight of those screws, her mouth turning down the way it did last year right before she told me about the divorce. I cry because the pain has begun, a fiery hand clasping onto my hip that burns right through whatever they gave me to stop it. The nurse notices and puts a button in my hand, curling my fingers around it.
“For the pain,” she says.
I push it. I push it until the pain is dull and the room is fuzzy. I push it until I can’t tell Mom’s voice from the doctor’s. I push it until I’m floating and can’t hear words like options, therapy, and graft. I push it because I can’t be here right now, and that button is the only way I can leave.