Try it before you buy it! Read the first 3 chapters from This is Where the World Ends by Amy Zhang –– on sale March 22nd!
We fell in love with Amy Zhang’s beautiful debut, Falling Into Place, and now we can’t wait for her second book, This Is Where the World Ends. Using a nonlinear writing style and dual narrators, it’s a heart-wrenching novel about best friends on a collision course with the real world.
Once Upon a Time
Everything ends. This is obvious. This is the easy part. This is what I believe in: the inevitable, the catastrophe, the apocalypse.
What’s harder is trying to figure out when it all began to collapse. I would argue that it has always been going to shit, but this is when we finally began to notice:
On the last day of summer before senior year, Janie Vivian moved away. We sat at our desks facing each other through windows thrown open. A bookshelf was balanced between the sills, but she didn’t crawl over. She didn’t cry, either. She was thinking, hard. That was worse.
“You could always just move in with me,” I said. I wasn’t quite joking.
She didn’t answer. She sat still except for her fingers, which hadn’t stopped rubbing her favorite rock from the Metaphor since her parents had told her to pack up her room. Her thumb was black from all the marker ink on it.
The new house was on the other side of town and much bigger. The back was almost entirely windows, and she could see the quarry and the top of the Metaphor from her room. Her grandpa had finally died, which meant that they finally had money again. It was everything her mother wanted. These were the things she had told me in pieces. She rarely talked about it, and I didn’t ask. I hadn’t seen the new house yet, and I never wanted to.
“It’s going to be okay.” She said it slowly. Her thumb rubbed circles on the rock, smudging the writing. Behind her, the room was empty. She was leaving the desk and the shelves because her parents had bought her new ones.
Downstairs, her dad shouted her name again.
It was humid. I shifted, and there was sweat on my desk in the shape of my forearms. It had been the hottest day of the year. Janie had said it was a sign.
“This isn’t it,” she said. She was glaring at me. “I know what you’re going to say, and this isn’t it.”
“I wasn’t going to say that,” I said. “I was going to say that I’ll see you in English tomorrow.”
“No, you weren’t.”
She was right. I wasn’t.
“It’s just across town,” she said, and she was still glaring, but not at me. She was rubbing her thumb raw. “That’s nothing. Nothing’s going to change, okay? Okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, but she wasn’t listening.
Her name came again in a singsong. “Jaaaaaaaaanie!”
Her mom. Janie’s fist went white.
“It’s not really even across town,” I said. “Really, it’s just down the road.”
She reached into her pocket for a new rock, a clean one. She pulled out a marker, scribbled something in tiny letters, and then she opened her top drawer and dropped the rock in. She always did that. She trailed rocks behind her.
She stood. She stared at me. Her hair was frizzing from the heat, and her pockets bulged with stones.
“You and me,” she said. “You and me, Micah Carter.”
Then she reached for the board between our windows. She pulled it back into her room, and I thought, This is it. Our eyes met, and she said, “More than anything,” before she banged the window shut between us.
“More than everything,” I said, but of course she couldn’t hear me. I felt a ripple in the air; the window closing made the only breeze we’d had in days. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes again, she was leaving. Her journal was tucked under her arm and her hair was swinging, and she didn’t slam the door as she always did—she closed it with her fingertips, and everything was still. The world had already begun to end.
When I wake up in the hospital and they ask me what happened, that’s what I tell them. It’s the last thing I remember.
People are here for smoke inhalation and alcohol poisoning. A lot of people have burns. A lot of the burns are bad. At least one person sprained an ankle, and a few people have broken fingers.
That’s what the nurses say, but they don’t tell me what happened. They just keep saying there was an accident. Every time they leave, Dewey flips off the door. Dewey never fucking leaves. He brought the new Metatron and my Xbox, and he sits there and shoots Nazi zombies at full volume while my head explodes.
“Look, man,” he says again. “You were an idiot. That’s not an accident. You got too shit-faced and you’re goddamn lucky you didn’t drown in your own puke.”
He’s lying. His fingers twitch. Cigarettes strain against his front pocket. The nurse told him he’d have to leave if he tried to smoke in here again.
I feel like shit. The doctors didn’t pump my stomach because they were too busy sewing my scalp together, which split open. No one has told me how the hell that happened yet. I’m still nauseous enough to be clutching the bedpan, but the real pain is deeper, somewhere around the place where my brain stem meets my spine. It hurts my eyes when I stare at my phone, but I keep staring. Janie has to text back soon.
“Dude, stop texting and grab a controller.” Dewey brought my extra. It’s the shitty one that my dog chewed up before he died. “Listen to me. You’re keeping the bench warm in T-ball, and she’s in the major leagues. You got it?”
Dewey is an asshole. Some people are musicians or dreamers; Dewey is an asshole. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day and wears his collars popped up and he does shit like play video games with the volume all the way up while you’re in the hospital. He’s my best friend because we are the only two inhabitants of the ninth circle of social hell. We didn’t have options.
“My point is, you’re not getting to any bases. You’re not in the same league.” His voice shakes. His avatar gets filled with bullet holes.
“What?” I ask. “What’s wrong?”
Dewey swallows. He won’t look at me. He puts the controller down. A nurse comes in. He picks the controller up again.
“How’re you doing, love?” she asks as she tries to fluff my pillows.
“Is Janie here?” I ask her. “Is she okay?”
“You just worry about yourself for now, all right?” she says. Her voice is honey, and I swallow quickly so I don’t puke. “Doctor’s going to come check you again soon. All right?”
He’ll check me everywhere and say things like “selective retrograde amnesia.” I’ll try not to puke in his direction and splatter his coat anyway.
The nurse checks the IV in my arm before moving away and closing the door.
“Do you know who else is here?” I ask Dewey.
His eyes are fixed on the screen.
“Is Janie here?”
He shoots a Nazi zombie in the head. “I already told you,” he says. “No, I don’t know who the fuck is here, Micah.”
“But weren’t you there last night?”
“No, I wasn’t. Stop asking me.”
Dewey’s avatar ducks behind a crumbling wall. His avatar is bleeding from its leg but still walks fine. His supplies are low. The zombies are coming. They surround him. He sighs. “Oh, fuck it.”
He jumps out from behind the wall and his avatar fills with bullets. He goes down like a rock. A jingle plays. Game over. World fucked.
“Apocalypse music,” I say.
Dewey starts a new game. “What?”
“Nothing,” I say. Nothing. I don’t know what’s coming out of my mouth. No, wait. It’s more vomit. It tastes like vodka I don’t remember drinking.
“Shit, man,” Dewey says, pausing the game and leaning away. “Jesus. You’re disgusting. I fucking told you not to go last night, I—”
He swallows again. “Go back to sleep,” he says eventually.
I guess I listen. My eyes are closed, but I don’t really remember closing them. Nurses come and go, and doctors, and policemen. I guess I must open my eyes to see them, but I don’t remember that either.
Janie declared an apocalypse.
She declared an apocalypse and told me I could pick the music. The leaves were the color of her hair and she stood on top of a mountain of rocks. She was laughing. Her fists were full of stones and she was stuffing them into her pockets.
“So what do you think?” she asks me. Her eyes are two shades brighter than ice, bluer than normal. “Everything needs a good soundtrack, Micah. The apocalypse most of all.”
I don’t remember what I said.
I don’t remember if it happened at all.
The Journal of Janie Vivian
Once upon a time, a little girl built a house out of Skarpie markers. They were cheaper than the name brand and much more permanent—you had to shed a whole layer of skin to get rid of it. She sat on the floor of her house and drew on her arms until her parents huffed and puffed that markers were for paper, not skin. Besides, they told her, she would get ink poisoning.
So the little girl put her markers in her pocket and went on to build a house of matches. She shook them out of their boxes and watched them burn closer to her fingertips. She made wishes and blew them out. She stacked them in little rickety stacks and imagined them going up in flames, because she thought it’d be beautiful. She stacked the matches higher and higher until her teachers huffed and puffed that little girls shouldn’t play with dangerous things. Besides, they told her, it was against school rules.
So the little girl put her matches in her pocket and went on to build a house out of rocks. Her parents and her teachers and the whole town huffed and puffed, but no one could knock this house down and no one could keep her away. She named the house of rocks the Metaphor and spent every moment she could there with a boy who never huffed and never puffed. She always kept a marker and a match and at least five rocks in her pocket: the marker to write, the match to wish and burn, and the rock to keep her grounded.
And they all lived happily ever after, probably.
When we were seven, I set Micah on fire. Mom always tells the story on our birthday when we blow out the candles together because she thinks it’s cute, but it totally isn’t because I was making a wish and his hair got in the way and I never got my Skip-It. Lesson learned: bad things happen to good people.
(I mean me, not Micah. He was hardly even burned. And I really, really, really wanted a Skip-It. Piper and Carrie and the other girls brought theirs to recess every day even though they weren’t supposed to, and I never even got one.)
So, to recap: bad things happen to good people, and that’s not fair. Bad things should happen to bad people, like Caleb Matthers.
Cue mustache twirling!
My pockets are full of stones. I drew runes for silence and speed and courage all over my arms and I’ve wished for luck on two matches. Usually I only light one before ninja missions, but one isn’t enough for tonight.
I park my car on the next street over and run through the Gherricks’ yard to our old street, and kick over the for sale sign in front of my house before stopping at the door. It’s blue, not electric like I’d wanted, but still navy, because we painted it back when my parents acknowledged that I was capable of forming opinions. Not that I’m bitter!
Wait, that isn’t even a little bit true. I’m totally bitter. I am brimming with resentment and teen angst.
(And I fucking hate the new house.)
I try my key, but it turns out my parents have already changed the lock. I roll my eyes and hope God will convey the message to my parents, and go to the side of the house. Thankfully, the workmen haven’t discovered the loose basement window yet, but it still takes me awhile to coax open the rusted hinges. It’s Sneak-Out Route Number Seven, and I don’t use it often because of the seasonal spider nest. But you know. Desperate times.
I tumble into the basement and get a face full of carpet, which is still moldy from the flooding last fall. It’s all empty—and I go up the stairs and it still smells like the Wonderfully Happy Vivian Family, like scotch and the kind of perfume they spray on supermarket flowers to make them smell brighter than they really do, and dust. I think that’s a good way to describe us: our house smelled like dust even before we moved out.
I light a match to get me up the stairs and to my room because the house is all kinds of creepy without furniture, and I wish for perfection before I open the door, so all I smell is smoke. I take a breath and burst through, eyes forward, so that the only things I see are the desk and the window and the bookshelf, and not how empty the room is. I open the window and frown at the screen.
Kicking it out is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.
The noise it makes brings Micah to his window, and the fury that rises in me is sharp and everything, because this is how it should always be. Us, at our two windows, no screen, sneaking out of the house and driving without headlights just to get over here.
“Janie?” he asks. “Um, what? Are you supposed to be in there?”
I ignore that and slide the shelf across and he holds the other end by habit. I get on my knees and somersault over before I can make a better decision. For a second I’m unsteady and crooked and wondering if I will survive a two-story fall, and a second later I’m tumbling into Micah’s room and he’s saying “Shit!” on repeat and everything, everything is exquisitely funny.
“Oh my god,” I gasp through laughing. “Micah Carter, it is an honor to be alive with you.”
But he just yawns and starts to fall back into bed, and—I do not freaking think so.
So I pounce. I land with my knees on either side of him and he yelps and my hair is in his face and we are tangled in his blankets, and his eyes are the first thing I remember understanding.
For a moment all I want to do is turn off the lights and sleep in a bed with him in it, like we used to when we were little—climbing through the window and falling asleep together. I know the sound of his breathing better than any lullaby in the world.
Instead, I put my knee on his chest and say, “You’re welcome.”
He is still gasping. “What,” he says, “what the hell for?”
I push my knee down harder. “For not killing you,” I explain. “Benji told me that you can kill someone like this. Jump on their chest and land with your knee, break the sternum, et cetera. I just saved your life.”
Benji Arken is going into the navy. He is an asshole. Racist and misogynistic and homophobic, but he is cute, occasionally even funny, and he was a damn good kisser. And he knows how to kill people, which was not why we broke up. We broke up because he didn’t shower between basketball practice and when he came to my house.
“Janie,” Micah said, and he was looking up at me and his eyes were wide and his pupils were dark and widening, and—
I climb off the bed and drag him up with me. “Come on,” I say. “I told you midnight. Why aren’t you dressed? Where’s your mask?”
“Dude, I have a calc test tomorrow,” he says, rubbing his eyes and yawning with too much effort to be genuine.
“Dude, I have the same calc test. Stop whining.” I throw open his closet and grab our emergency sheet rope (escape route number nine) and one of his (too) many black T-shirts from a wrinkled stack. I toss the T-shirt at his face. He doesn’t catch it.
“Where are we going?”
I blink, and I see the scene from his eyes. No, not his eyes. Camera lens. The Janie and Micah Show.
Me, standing by the wide, wide window staring at the wide, wide world, eyes closed and arms spread. Him, by the bed, pulling the T-shirt over just his face and tying it into a ninja mask, complaining that it makes his glasses fog over but fingers tapping, because we both knew. We could both feel it. The . . . the suspension. Something is going to happen.
Come on, Micah. Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend, just this one night, that nothing is wrong. That nothing has changed.
Janie and Micah. Micah and Janie.
Can you feel it? I can feel it, like we’re swinging and caught at the top of the arc, and we’re not falling but our stomachs are. The butterflies are going crazy, reacting a thousand times more violently than they ever will again. They’re fluttering up and up, and now they’re caught in my ribs and throat and head, and they’re so alive because they’re flirting with something so much more interesting. They’re flirting with life itself.
I pull the bookshelf into his room and tie the sheets to his bedpost, and I hold on tight and throw my leg out the window before I whirl around to meet his eyes—whoosh, shampoo commercial hair. Eyes glittering, light dimming, and just my voice, siren to sailor: “Come, my fellow ninja. We’re going on an adventure.”
Exit Janie, end scene.
“Wait, Micah! Micah. We have to take your car. I’m out of gas.”
It started small. I think we made a plate of cookies and left them on Michael Wong’s front porch because his girlfriend had dumped him on the first day of freshman year. His mom made him throw them out because she thought they might have had pot in them (which obviously they didn’t, or I would have kept them for myself), but it was the thought that counted. After that it was cliché: raking someone’s leaves, leaving heads-up pennies on the sidewalks by the elementary school, putting an extra quarter in parking meters.
And then: sophomore year. We were stupid and invincible. We thought we were everything, and we started getting adventurous. There was the whole library fiasco, and I guess it snowballed from there. We started wearing masks. We started thinking bigger, brighter, like there was nothing in the world the two of us together couldn’t do, and sometimes I still think we were right.
Because we are freaking badasses.
We have a hit list, and we are damn creative. We are Justice. We do right, and we reward the deserving. There was the time we sneaked into the petting zoo and protested animal captivity and the time we hid lollipops all over Grant MacFarther’s house and the time we hung Christmas ornaments in Jade Bastian’s car in July. And there were other nights too. Quiet ones, just us, Micah and me, me and Micah. Swimming in the quarry. Shadow tag in the parking lot by the baby wipe factory. A reenactment of Les Mis in the rain. Stars and stars, night after night, secrets spilled in a world too big for sleep.
Micah is taking forever.
I sit on the hood of his car, and when he finally appears—through the door, what the hell? He knows doors are against the rules—I smack the top of his car and yell, “Driver!”
He only says, “You can’t call driver, it’s my car. And get off. I just washed it.”
“As if you care,” I say, but when I climb back onto the ground, he dusts my footprints from the paint. I put my hand in my pocket and squeeze my rocks and wonder if there is a word for the marks you get on your palm when you squeeze something so hard that the skin is on the verge of ripping.
“Micah Carter,” I say, and he does look up, right at me. And his eyes are the same green-gray-brown that they always have been, and he still has eleven freckles (two on the left cheek, nine on the right), and his glasses are in their perpetual state of sliding down his nose, and this is my Micah August Carter. This is the boy who climbed onto his roof when we were five to hear the wind better. This is the boy who, due to a small miscommunication, donated blood during my appendectomy even though he thought it would kill him. This is the boy who is both my impulse control and my very best ideas.
If we can get through tonight, everything will go back to normal. We will be us. He will stop ditching me for Dewey most weekends and I will stop moping in my stupid new house every night. I will drag him into the night, every night. We won’t have to worry about going to college and growing apart and forgetting each other in favor of bland significant others, because this is real and always and forever.
He turns away and gets into the driver’s seat, and I glare at him for a solid ten seconds before I stomp to the other side. Pick the battles, win the war.
We don’t back out of the driveway, we tear. His engine shreds the sky. We’re going to get caught before we start. “Oh my god, we’re going to wake your dad. Micah. I just started my Common App. I don’t want to write that I have a felony.”
This is a little bit of a lie, which I feel a little bit terrible about. Micah and I swore in fourth grade never to lie to each other about the important things, and maybe lying about starting the Common App is a small thing, but not planning to go to college right away is a much bigger one. I did start an application, just less one for college and more one to volunteer in Nepal for women’s rights. I want to rebuild orphanages and teach English and sex ed. Not that I know much about rebuilding orphanages or teaching, but I’ll figure it out, and I’ll hike and take pictures and draw and buy souvenirs in open markets. I’ll fill my journal so full of paint and gesso and charcoal and color and Skarpie and words and stories that it won’t close. I want to explore. I want to go far, far away.
“Felony?” He sounds annoyed, which makes me annoyed. “Janie, you said this would be fast.”
“It will be,” I say. “Felony was hyperbolic. If anything, it’ll be a misdemeanor, and only if we’re caught. I can’t believe you’re done with college apps. That’s ridiculous. They’re not due for months. And—turn turn, MICAH, TURN,” I scream and the wheels scream and I think the mailbox was already on the ground, I don’t think we knocked it over, but we don’t stick around to figure it out. “Okay, next left, second house on your right. Got it?”
“I get it, I’m not an idiot.”
“No, left, MICAH. Left! LEFT!”
Update: we are not dead, and Micah still doesn’t know left from right.
He finally pulls to a stop on the wrong side of the road, and I’m laughing and I can’t stop, because, God—
“I miss you,” I say, accidentally/not accidentally out loud. Miss, present tense. I’m sitting here and I can still feel distance between us, just folded and crumpled and tangled. Our soul has stretch marks.
Wanted: stretch mark cream for the soul. The stuff that actually works, not the telemarketing crap.
Micah gets all blushy and awkward, but I don’t say anything about it because we don’t have time. We have a mission tonight. Eyes on the prize. I half kick open the car door—badassery—and jump onto the sidewalk.
Micah gets out too and squints at the house. “Where are we?”
“Carrie Lang’s. Come on. I put the helium tank in your trunk already.”
“But—how did you get into my car? I finally got the lock fixed.”
Oh, please. What a silly question. I pull my lockpick from my back pocket and flash it at him. It was two bucks on Amazon, so of course I got one. I think there’s a criminal streak in me. I think it’s wide.
But I’m using it for good, see? I’m doing—something. Anything. I’m tired of watching, and waiting, and expecting things to work out. It never works out. It never works unless you demand.
So here I am, demanding.
He’s chewing on his lip all uncertain-like, and I tap my foot on the curb until he sighs and comes to stand next to me.
“Ready?” I ask him.
We pop open the trunk, and I hop in and struggle with the helium tank. Thank god for Party City. Micah sighs, and then he climbs in with me and opens the package of balloons, and when our eyes meet, my smile lights up the entire world.
Carrie Lang is one of my best friends, I think. She called me both times she lost her virginity and if that doesn’t constitute a place on the best friend tier, I don’t know what does. She is blond and tall and pretty and cartoonishly in love with Caleb Matthers, or at least she will be until she finds out that he cheated on her with Suey Park.
She likes rain and British actors and balloons, and though I can’t get her the first two, I am going to fill her yard with the third.
So that’s what we do, Micah and I. We sit in the back of his car and fill balloons, and I see us as a photograph, snapped through the back window, zoomed out, long exposure. I don’t tell him that Caleb Matthers is the real reason we are really here, that he is cheating on Carrie and I know because Suey Park was wearing his boxers and I saw them while we were changing for gym.
Caleb is allergic to latex—not, like, deathly, but he’ll definitely break out in hives. Everywhere. Mwahahaha.
Like I said, the world isn’t always fair, and sometimes we have to help it along. Bad things should happen to bad people, but I leave out the details with Micah. I love him more than anything, but our soul is so strained right now that it doesn’t make sense to pull it even tauter with unnecessary detail.
It’s easier like this, just to be us. It’s easier like this to see how beautiful the earth and life and we are. We are stars and the purple-red-blue sky is the background. We are streamers and ribbons tied to trees and balloons that dance in the wind. We are shadows, the too-sharp angle of his nose and the frizzy strands of hair falling into my face. We breathe in the helium and sing show tunes to each other in unrecognizable voices.
“Janie,” he says as we finish up, “I missed you too.”
There is nothing special about Waldo. It is a shitty town in the middle of a shitty state. There’s snow for most of the year and corn when there’s not. No one ever comes. No one ever leaves.
It is known for having the deepest quarry in Iowa.
It is known for having a nationally ranked wrestling team.
It is known for Janie Vivian.
They take turns telling me. Dewey, the nurses, the doctor, even my dad when he visits for a few minutes between his shifts.
My brain is liquid. They press and press information, but my brain is liquid. They touch the surface and it ripples and then it goes blank again. This is the most frustrating part. I feel it when my brain goes blank, until I forget that too.
What I remember, what they tell me enough times, is this:
There was a party.
There was a bonfire, and it got out of control.
Janie’s house burned down.
There were a lot of people at her house when it burned down, because there was a party.
But Janie wasn’t one of them.
They don’t tell me where she was, though, or where she is.
Or maybe they do.
I don’t know.
I sleep a lot. Dewey is usually there when I wake up. He’s the one who tells me that my dad is working another shift to pay for the hospital. He’s the one who tells me the most about the fire. He must be. He’s always there. For a characteristically shitty friend, he’s suddenly very dependable. It must be because of the Xbox.
“What happened to Janie?” I ask him. It’s a Saturday. I think. I’ve been in the hospital for a week. My head has stopped hurting enough that I can eat solid food again.
Dewey was leaning forward to shoot, but he flinches and misses. “What?”
“I said, what happened—”
“I heard you,” he says, and pauses the game. “You asked what happened.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“You’ve never asked that before.”
I reply to the ceiling. It is almost white, almost smooth, almost more interesting than the video game Dewey has been playing on repeat because he beat all the levels two days ago. “So answer the goddamn question.”
He stares at me. I don’t think Dewey has ever really looked at me before. “Usually you just ask where she is.”
Where. Where is Janie Vivian. The world tilts; I might fall off the bed. I’ve stopped puking, but I might start again. I might. “She’s gone, isn’t she?”
Dewey doesn’t say anything.
“So what happened? Where’d she go?”
For a moment it seems like he might tell me the truth; I look at him and he looks at me. His eyes are almost black. Then he looks away and says, “She went away.”
“She—she’s doing a volunteer trip. In Nepal.”
I stare at him. “What?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“But why? Why Nepal?”
He shrugs. “She just couldn’t be in Waldo anymore, I guess.”
“But why didn’t she stay and tell me?” The pain is growing. The pain is growing larger.
Dewey meets my eyes again. His eyes are almost black, but not quite. But no, Dewey’s eyes are blue. They’ve always been blue.
But for a moment I thought they were black, the pupils so big that they eclipsed the iris.
The world is nearly sideways.
Dewey presses play again.
The doctor comes later to ask if I’m ready to go.
“Where?” I ask him.
He’s balding; his chest hair puffs out from the top of his coat. I don’t remember his name yet. He always keeps one hand in his pocket and never stops clicking his pen.
“Home, Micah,” he says. His smile is wide and false. “You get to go home.”
He checks my head and asks me about my new glasses. I remember that these glasses are new, but not what happened to the old ones. He tells me that I’m doing just fine, and leaves.
Dewey watches the door close. “He’s told you that every time.”
“Told me what?”
He sighs. “That you’re leaving tomorrow, dumbass.”
“Oh,” I say, and try to remember that. “Okay. But I don’t remember how many times he’s come.”
Dewey snorts and goes back to Metatron. “That’s what he said.”
On Sunday, Dewey packs up the Xbox.
On Sunday, I am finally allowed to wear normal clothes again. My dad brought them last night, but I was asleep, or I forgot he was here.
On Sunday, the police come.
There are two of them. One is fat and one is less fat. They introduce themselves, but they only do it once, and I forget their names as soon as they say them.
One sits and one stands. They ask Dewey to leave, and he doesn’t. His fingers twitch for a cigarette and he remains sitting, so one of the police officers has to stand. He glares at them and asks them why the hell they’re here.
“We’ve talked to everyone from the fire,” says the less fat one, who is sitting. “It’s just procedure, nothing to worry about.”
“He’s completely fu—I mean, he’s messed up in the head,” Dewey says. His hand keeps going to his pocket for a cigarette and coming back empty. “You can’t talk to him like this. There’s no way this is okay.”
“The doctors cleared him,” says the fatter one. His voice is low and firm. “It’s just a few standard questions, Jonathan.”
“That’s not my name,” Dewey snaps, though it is.
“Dewey, just go,” I say. They’re hurting my head.
He glares at me. “Shut up, Micah. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I know what I’m saying,” I say, slowly, so it’s not a lie. “I want you to go.”
He glares at me for another second, and then stalks out of the room. He has his phone in his hand and he’s dialing. I think I hear him say my dad’s name before he slams the door behind him.
There’s a beat of silence. Then the fatter one says, “How are you feeling, Micah?”
That’s probably the best answer I give them. They keep asking questions. If I want water. What I knew about the quarry. Why I was there so often. If I always went with Janie. If she was ever sad. If she ever cried. How well I knew her.
“Better than anyone,” I tell them.
The less fat one pulls out a notepad. “Is that right, son?”
He doesn’t believe me.
“Better than anyone,” I repeat.
The fatter one watches me. “Are you sure about that, Micah? We’ve talked to just about the entire school, and I don’t think anyone would back you up on that.”
“Better than anyone.”
“They all say that no one ever saw the two of you interact. Ever.”
That’s true. I remember that. We decided that in middle school. Before that, maybe. I can’t really remember, but not because of my head injury. It’s just been a long time.
I have been trying to figure it all out while staring at the ceiling, but it’s hard because I’m still forgetting. I forget that my dad is working three shifts now to pay for the hospital bills and that’s why he’s never here. I forget that I am eighteen now. I forget that it’s November. I keep trying and trying to remember, but all I can think of is Janie closing her door with her fingertips and the wind from the window and how that was really it.
“It was easier,” I tell the policemen.
The less fat detective writes something down. “Why’s that?”
I shrug. Shrugging doesn’t uncover my ass anymore, because I have a real shirt now. Hah. “You said you talked to everyone at school. Can’t you figure it out?”
They watch me. I watch them back. Neither of them have answers.
“What happened?” I ask them.
They don’t answer. They just keep asking questions. About that night. About what happened before the bonfire. If I was with her. If I knew she was planning a bonfire. If I know why there was another fire by the quarry. If I drank that night. If I knew beforehand that her parents would be out of town that weekend.
I don’t know why they’re talking to me at all.
I don’t remember.
“Her parents,” I repeat when they ask me about them. “Her parents don’t like me.”
“Why’s that?” the less fat one asks again.
“They just don’t. Janie’s parents. She didn’t like them, did you know that? Have you talked to them?”
They nod. Their lips are tight and they do not speak more than they have to. I don’t like them. I don’t like either of them, but they are going to find out what happened. Because Janie is gone. Janie Vivian is gone.
I repeat this to myself, in my head and out loud, and try to keep breathing as the world keeps tilting sideways. We are nearly upside down.
“Do you know why she went?” I ask them. “Why did she go to Nepal?”
“What?” the less fat one says.
“That’s right,” the fatter one says. He’s giving the other one a look like a warning. “Nepal.”
“Why’s she there?”
They look at each other, the policemen.
“Why’d her parents let her? They would never let her. What about school?” School. “She’s doing her senior project on fairy tales.” Out loud, deliberate. Sudden, because that’s how the memory comes and goes. Papers by the Metaphor, my voice and hers. Feathers. Scissors. Senior projects. We are seniors, because Janie moved the day before senior year. Her hands with chipping nails, her voice laughing because. Because her parents wanted her to do her project on American economics. Her eyes were pale that day. Her hair was everywhere.
Fairy-tale miracles. And I chose religious apocalypses.
She had laughed when I told her, because we didn’t even plan this. We balance the world, accidentally.
And now it’s tilting. It’s tilting and tilting.
I look up, or down, maybe. The policemen are still watching.
“Her parents are crazy,” I say. “They got half the library banned. Did you know that? Sophomore year, I remember all of that. Janie wanted to read Mrs. Dalloway, and Virginia Woolf was a lesbian. And they didn’t want Janie to become a lesbian. Her uncle’s on the school board, and her parents made him ban half the library.”
“I remember that,” says the less fat one. “A few years ago, right?”
“Sophomore year,” I say. “And she crawled into my room one night and we took my dad’s car and went to Goodwill. We bought books—she had a list of banned books. She left them in the trunk and the next morning we went to school early and she set up a library in her locker.”
I don’t tell them how she made me tie a black T-shirt around my face like a ninja mask. I don’t tell them how I didn’t do much more than watch her. I don’t tell them how she looked, her hair falling out onto her shoulders and freckles sharp. I don’t tell them how I loved her, how I loved her apocalyptically. I don’t tell them how she stole her dad’s credit card, or how she took his favorite book from his bedside and burned it while I watched.
It’s a good snapshot of us. Representative. Janie, furious and full of ideas. Me, following.
“You drove to Goodwill as sophomores?” asks the police officer.
“Janie drove,” I say. “Janie had her permit.”
“Right,” the fatter one says. He is cautious now, slow. I am talking too fast, using my hands too much. I take a breath while he says, “That’s right. It’s all right.”
The less fat one keeps scribbling.
I might be getting her into trouble.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I say to them. “Especially not her parents. Especially not her dad. Janie and her dad don’t like each other. Does he know about Nepal? He would never let her go to Nepal.”
They still do not look at me.
“Who else have you talked to?” I ask them.
The less fat one narrows his eyes. “Just about the whole school, kid.”
“The whole school?” That’s a lot of people. “Huh.”
“But we’d like to talk to you again in particular, Micah,” says the bigger one. “And a couple more people too.”
“Some of Janie’s friends. Piper. Wes, Ander.” He watches me too closely. “Did you know them?”
“Not really,” I tell them. “Janie likes Ander, so I hate him on principle.”
“I should hope she likes him,” the bigger one says. He’s trying to smile, he’s trying to lighten the mood, but we’re in a fucking hospital and my head is broken. “They were—they are dating.”
“Are they?” No one told me that. Or maybe they did. I shouldn’t be surprised. So they’re dating—Janie always gets her way.
They do not ask me why I hate Ander on principle, but it’s because I am in love with her and always have been. Maybe I already told them. I don’t know.
My head hurts.
“I know, kid, and I’m sorry about that. We’ll be on our way soon enough,” says the less fat one, and sure enough, he’s putting his notepad away. I said that out loud; I thought I was getting better about telling the difference. “You just rest up, kid.”
“There was a fire,” I say suddenly, and they pause on their way to the door. “A bonfire.”
“There was,” says the fatter one.
My hands. My fingers aren’t bandaged. None of me, except my head.
“A lot of people were burned,” I say slowly.
They policemen look at each other.
“Am I burned?”
The less fat detective twitches; he wants to reach for the notepad, but the other one stops him. “Were you at the party, Micah?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I can’t, I can’t remember.
“Okay, okay, son,” the fatter detective says. His voice is calm again. His hands are up. I take a breath. “Get some rest. We’ll talk soon.”
Waldo doesn’t have many parties. There aren’t really any colleges around, so no one knows how to throw one. People drink in their basements after prom and blast music in earbuds so their parents won’t wake up upstairs. Waldo doesn’t have big parties, parties people talk about, parties people go to. Parties everyone goes to.
But Janie did.
There was a party and a bonfire.
There was a party and a bonfire at Janie’s new house. I remember, suddenly, as we leave the hospital and the sun hurts my eyes.
The fire was enormous.
I think about this as Dewey drives me home. I thought my dad would have to pick me up, but I’m eighteen. I am an adult. I keep forgetting. I wish I remembered our birthday. Janie must have done something crazy for our eighteenth birthday.
At one point, I ask Dewey why he’s doing all this, and he says my dad is paying him. That makes a little more sense, except of course that my dad has no money.
There was a party and a bonfire and the bonfire was enormous.
I repeat that to myself as Dewey bumps along roads that no amount of construction can smooth. They’re still trying, though. They’re always trying. At the corner of our neighborhood is another tractor laying down pebbles along the shoulders.
Janie loved those pebbles.
She left them anywhere.
I wonder if the police know.
I wonder if I should tell them.
The Journal of Janie Vivian
Once upon a time, a girl and a boy went to the forest without their parents. They walked until they found a tree wide as the sky, a cemetery full of flowers, and best of all, a mountain of stones better than any witch’s house of candy, because it was theirs. Back at home, there were parents who told them to fatten up or skinny down, who said that they must save money for school and study and stop believing in fairy world. But at the mountain of stones, it was only the two of them, and that was enough.
Sometimes they got lost. Sometimes they didn’t want to be found. But it was a big forest and a bigger world, and whenever they went anywhere without each other, they left trails of stones that led all the way back to each other.
Because they loved each other with the biggest love of all.
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