Authors: Marie Rutkoski
This book is dedicated to dear friends:
Becky Rosenthal, Dave Elfving, and Donna Freitas
Knowing what I know now, I’d say my foster mother had her reasons for throwing a kitchen knife at me. It flashed across her faux-wood-paneled living room, straight toward a fairly vital body part of mine, yet didn’t touch me one eensy bit. Instead it struck the fish tank with a great kerRRRASH, like in a comic book, though whether I get to be the hero or the villain remains to be seen. The water gushed, and silvery black striped fish flopped all over the ratty shag carpet. I liked those angelfish, but I let them die their airless deaths and ran out of there, fast.
Conn was right behind me. I heard him chasing me down.
Other girls might have been afraid of their knife-wielding foster mother. Me, I was more afraid of Conn, and most afraid of myself.
But this isn’t the story of how Marsha smashed her precious fish tank, though that little episode certainly played its part. This is the story of how I met Conn, got arrested, and discovered the truth about myself.
My first day back at Lakebrook High seemed innocent enough. I walked toward the beginning of my junior year in a fine spirit, scuffing my combat boots along the hot pavement. I was happy for a simple reason. For once, I wouldn’t be the new girl, and I had friends. Sometimes being able to scrape a hard red chair up to a lunch table with the handful of people who accepted me was all I wanted. It was my second year at the same school. It was a personal record.
Little did I know that someone would try to take this and so much else away from me.
I liked Lakebrook. Sure, suburbia is soulless, but Lakebrook is a thirty-minute train ride from Chicago, with its skyscraping steel and wide pavements that feel like freedom. And, very important, Marsha had agreed to renew my stay with her for another year. This decision might have been inspired by the money the state sent to keep me clothed and fed. I wasn’t complaining. Marsha was a little kooky, but she was also the only foster parent who hadn’t gotten rid of me at the first opportunity.
I followed the yellow buses wheezing their way into the Lakebrook High parking lot and watched students swarm by the entrances. The air was heavy with the tarry smell of fresh asphalt as I walked up to my little clan.
Jims waggled a pack of Slim Jims—hence the nickname—stuck one tube of beef jerky in his mouth, and offered the rest to me. “Want some?”
“Um, gross,” I said. “Vegetarian here, remember?”
“I thought maybe you’d come to your senses over the summer.”
Lily lit a cigarette, inhaled, exhaled, and passed it to me, lipsticky pink. “Want some?”
I rolled my eyes. I hate, hate, hate smoke, and Lily knows it.
“Want some of this, then?” Raphael rested one finger on his chest in deliberate imitation of the Spanish soap operas we watched at his house. He looked the part of a lead: cinnamon skin, wavy dark hair. But the gesture was a joke. A bluff.
I stared him down. “Why do you all insist on giving me things I don’t want?”
Raphael pretended to look wounded, Lily shrugged, and Jims said, holding his Slim Jim like a cigar, Groucho Marks style: “Because no one knows the square root of pi, because a stegosaurus is no match for a tyrannosaurus, because we always tease the ones we love, and you, Sunshine, we love. Some things are universally true.”
Lily tilted her head, inspecting me. “Darcy doesn’t look like sunshine. More as if someone drew her with pen and ink. Straight black lines. Pale features.”
“I was using irony,” Jims said. “It’s
to be inappropriate. The opposite of what you expect. You know, like getting hit by an ambulance. Or like a hot dog vendor drowning in a vat of ketchup.”
“Your mind lives in strange places,” I told him.
“True. But you all enjoy visiting.”
“I also enjoy a jaunt through a haunted house once a year, come Halloween.”
Lily tapped her Hello Kitty watch. “Ten minutes till the bell. Time to get down to business.”
Raphael reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a folded white card. “Here’s mine.”
We passed around our schedules, except for Jims, who, being a senior, shared no classes with the rest of us. I was taking Art II and Biology with Lily and Pre-Calc with Raphael. PE, European History, and AP English were wide, vast deserts with nobody.
Right before the bell, when the noise of hundreds of people laughing, talking, squealing, and bickering had swelled into waves, I felt the back of my neck prickle. I was being watched. I knew this even before I slowly turned around, knew it like I knew I had ten fingers and ten toes.
There was a boy standing in the shadow of an oak tree. His stance seemed easy, even lazy. But his expression was electric, tense, taut as a corded wire I could tightrope-walk across.
He was dressed simply. Jeans and a white T-shirt. If he intended to blend in, he utterly failed. His beauty wasn’t my type, but it was undeniable. A cool, angular face. Hair the color of golden wheat, shorn brutally short. Lips so defined they could have been carved by a deft knife.
He lifted his chin a little, acknowledging that I had caught him mid-stare. A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth. Some might have interpreted this as flirtation. I knew better. It was a warning. The smirk of a gunslinger in one of those old orange-brown westerns, as if tumbleweeds were skittering down the parking lot between us and he was daring me to fire the first shot.
Anxiety twisted in my stomach. I had no idea why I had caught his attention. But whatever the reason, it meant trouble.
The bell shrilled. I yanked my gaze away. With my friends at my side, I merged into the river of bodies that flowed through the school doors. I left him behind, whoever he was.
“Well, that was interesting,” Raphael muttered with a sidelong glance, making clear that my staring contest with the stranger hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“You all right, Darcy?” said Jims. “You look like James Bond’s martini.”
Lily raised one thin eyebrow.
“Shaken,” I told her. “Not stirred.”
“You seem plenty stirred to me.”
“Actually,” Raphael said, “you
I tugged Lily away from the boys. “We’re going to be late.”
We took the flight of stairs up to the art department. She paused before we entered the classroom. “Did you know that guy?”
“Because he acted like he knew
I almost asked Lily if she’d noticed the hostility lurking in every line of his body, then got paranoid I’d sound paranoid. I shrugged, so Lily dropped the subject and opened the door.
I breathed in the familiar smell of the art room. It helped calm me: Conté crayons, wet clay, spilled acrylics.
I had met Lily here last year, in Art I. For months, I had watched her out of the corner of my eye, curious that someone so quiet would dress in such a riot of color. Lily was a kaleidoscope that shifted every day into a new pinwheel pattern. She wore striped tights, red Chinese flats, blue nail polish. Her hair might be green. The next time I saw her, pink. She kept to herself, tucked into a corner of the classroom, her materials spread around her table like a protective wall.
We were working on our self-portrait projects when everything changed.
Mr. Linden had said we could choose our own medium. I peeked at Lily and wasn’t surprised to see her with a set of watercolors. Me, I kept scrapping whatever I tried. I had crumpled yet another sheet of paper into a ball when I heard the sound of a fallen glass and something spilling. I glanced over and saw water flooding onto Lily’s self-portrait. She kept her head down, shoulders stiff. A purple mascara tear ran down her cheek. Then she lifted her face and looked at me.
I smiled. It was a small smile of sympathy, and anything but spontaneous. It took several seconds for me to do it, which may not sound like a long time, but in my head I spent an eternity screwing up the courage to make my mouth muscles work.
Lily stood, crossed the room to my table, and said, “Etchboard.”
I blinked. It took me a moment to realize she was offering advice—
advice. Before she had returned to her seat, I had snatched some etchboard and India ink from the supply closet. I started to work again on my self-portrait, and by the end of the period I had something that didn’t look like a total waste of energy. And I had my first friend at Lakebrook High.
Now Lily and I shared a table in Art II. We sat quickly. I was eager for class to begin. I was eager for anything to distract me.
Mr. Linden liked to perch on a stool by a podium. He began speaking softly, and everyone settled into silence. “You will have one project in Art II.” He stood and walked to the blackboard, a piece of chalk gripped in his stubby fingers. “Here it is.”
Do Whatever You Want.
God, I loved Art.
So I should have gotten busy right away, spinning ideas about my Whatever I Wanted. Instead, the image of that boy’s face slipped into my mind.
He acted like he knew you,
Lily had said.
Was that possible?
There was so much I didn’t know about my own past, so much I didn’t remember. And then there were the many towns I had blown through like a scraggly leaf. Maybe I had met him, somewhere, sometime.
I felt jittery again. Fizzy, crackly. I glanced down and saw a stylus clenched in my hand.
It had never occurred to me before that a stylus could be used as a weapon. But it could. Easily. It was long and thin—more or less a pen-sized needle with a wicked point.
This was the tool I had used last year for my self-portrait. Etchboard is heavy white, glossy paper. I had painted over the entire surface of one sheet with India ink. The wet ink gleamed—black as my eyes, black as my long hair. When it had dried, I scraped at it with my stylus, revealing the white paper below. Listening to the
of the tool, I watched the features of my face emerge. A ghost, rising out of the night.
Etchboard art works not by adding color but by taking it away. Lily, even though she didn’t know me then, had chosen well.
I was abandoned outside a Chicago firehouse when I was five years old. I had no memory of whatever my life was like before that morning—only of the rosy dawn, the frigid cold, the weary face of the firefighter who found me, and how the social worker in charge of my case handed me a styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. I didn’t even know my own name. “Darcy Jones” is what the social worker chose to scribble on my file. I guess “Jones” is proof of her total lack of imagination. As for “Darcy,” well, she named me after her black cat.
. I made myself drop the stylus to the table.
You’re acting crazy,
I told myself.
Loony, loopy, mad as a hatter
. So a boy had stared at me. It didn’t happen often, but it wasn’t earth-shattering either. It was stupid to feel vulnerable. And if I had met him before and had forgotten, no big deal.