So. Okay. . . this is . . .
Okay. I . . . this is kind of creepy, Detective Pendleton. I‘m sorry. Bob. You said I should call you Bob, like we‘re old friends or something. I guess that considering the first time we met was after the fire and then again just yesterday when you came to the hospital to see my mom . . . well, that might be true. That we‘re friends, I mean. Only, you know, that first time? When I was eight? I was unconscious and on a ventilator and had already died twice. So I really don‘t think meeting that way counts.
Anyway. . .
You want me to tell the truth.
The truth is . . . I am so cold. I should be dead. Maybe I am.
That would be okay.
You know what I was just thinking, Bob? Tell is such an interesting word. There are so many meanings. There‘s telling, like spinning a tale, making up stories. I‘m good at that.
Of course, in that kind of telling, there is another tell, as in telling the difference between night and day, girl and boy, fact and dream. If you ask me, this is related to a gambler‘s tell. You know, how something a player does or says tells the other players that he‘s bluffing? David Mamet did this great movie, House of Games, all about that. Yeah, I know Mamet. Don‘t be so surprised. When you spend four months on a psych ward and then the rest of the year at home in exile, you watch a lot of movies.
Anyway, you know what I liked best about that film? The bad girl; the shrink who shoots her lover, that con man who sets her up. Because, in the end, she gets away with it and forgives herself.
Wish I could do that.
So, Bob, I can tell. I can tell plenty. But the truth? I don‘t know what that is. I thought I knew until this afternoon, but now. . . . Even if I tell my version of the truth, then what? I‘ll go back to being the old me? Well, what kind of future is that?
Because let me tell you about the old me, Bob, the beta-version of Jenna Lord.
Here‘s how Beta-Jenna thinks: They let me go, and I’ll cut. Walk out of this room and into the waiting arms of Psycho-Dad—and I’ll cut. Together, we’ll visit my crispy critter of a mother, who’s a drunk and wants only the best for me—and I’ll cut.
Yeah. Going back to being Beta-Jenna makes the truth just so attractive.
Well, the year I was fifteen completely sucked. Considering I‘ve died twice, that‘s really saying something. I was a month shy of sweet sixteen when I started my sophomore year at Turing, this science-techie school just outside Milwaukee for brainiacs, which I‘m supposed to be. Skipped a grade, tested out of classes, yada, yada. It goes without saying that I‘m a straight-A-plus student, a quiet kid, sort of a loser, and the kind of girl no one would ever suspect.
Okay, other stuff, other stuff . . .
Well, my cell phone is pink. I‘m a very careful driver. I‘ve never kissed a boy, which feels . . . wrong. Because I am sweet sixteen, the age when a girl is supposed to find her prince and settle down.
I used to pretend I was Ariel. I had the doll and a blue gown for dress-up, like in the movie. I was wearing the dress the night we first met, Bob, although you probably don‘t remember that because by then, I‘d died a couple of times; the dress was only so much ash; and there was kind of a lot going on.
I don‘t remember much about the fire, the one that swallowed Grandpa‘s house eight years ago. I do recall cowering behind the boiler and listening to Grandpa crashing around the kitchen. Then, there was the angry sputter of an argument and, later, the thud as Grandpa MacAllister passed out, a lit cigarette still pinched between his fingers and two more smoldering on the sill over the kitchen sink. That‘s where they said the fire started, you remember, Bob? How those lacy curtains, soaked in vodka because Grandpa knocked over the bottle when he blacked out, must‘ve caught with a whump?
The next is a jumble: the churn of black smoke; the spiking scream of the alarm; the hiss and crackle of orange flames. But I do remember the fear icing my whole body, freezing me in place.
And then I remember Matt, my older brother, frantically shouting my name. His voice was a lifeline, a hook that set in my heart, and I grabbed on tight, swarming up the cellar stairs in a swirl of pale blue petticoat as Matt forced the door. But the fire was greedy. Its orange fingers snagged my dress which died in a sizzling shriek.
And then I was screaming because the fire was eating my back and Matt was dodging flames, running with me in his arms, but the front door was still so far away and then . . .
I heard my mother, screeching, wild, fighting with the EMTs: Don’t you dare . . .
When they shocked me to life, I blazed back into this huge supernova. Fire hot enough to fry skin and melt fat ignites pain, too: constant and agonizing and so bad you can‘t die fast enough. I wanted to scream at the doctors to stop, stop, but I was mute. The fire had scorched my lungs and boiled my voice. A tube snaked down my throat, pushing in and then sucking out the air from my lungs. So, there was no way to tell anyone what I wanted. Wouldn‘t have done any good anyway because no one will let a kid die. They think they‘re doing you this big favor keeping you going because you‘ve got your whole life ahead.
Well, news flash, Bob: Not. Necessarily.
Because you think there‘s only one kind of pain? That pain is pain is pain?
Uh, that would be no.
There‘s blood-pain. There‘s knife-pain. There‘s bang-your-funny-bone-pain.
And then there is the pain of fire, molten and alive: the swirl of flames streaming over rotten wood and na**d flesh. That pain moves when you move; it mutters between every breath; it spikes your ears; it rips. You think pain can‘t be any more horrible than that.
Until you discover that the well is bottomless. There‘s always more. A different kind of pain, maybe, but more and much, much worse.
But that would be getting ahead of myself.
Pain‘s not all I remember, of course. There were bright lights. The beep of monitors.
Needles and tubes. Lots of faces . . . God, now that I think of it, they brought me to this same ER. Maybe these are the same doctors, but I don‘t know because I faded in and out. I do recall that everyone, every face, was grim, like they‘d read this story before and knew the end wasn‘t pretty.
Later, the doctors said how lucky I was that my mom and Matt had decided to pick me up from Grandpa‘s early. Lucky to be alive. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
Yeah, that‘s me, Bob. I‘m just so, so lucky.
I‘m beating around the bush. I know I am. I don‘t want to tell this story, Bob, and you know why? Because this is a fairy tale with teeth and claws, and here‘s what completely sucks: you‘re going to want black and white, Bob, right and wrong. I‘m not sure I can give that to you. That‘s the problem with the truth. Sometimes the truth is ambiguous, or a really bad cliché.
But this is the truth, Bob: I‘m a liar.
I am lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief—and a killer.
And my reality—my story—begins with Mr. Anderson.
Of course, the library doors were locked.
Score another point for Psycho-Dad, who got impatient when I reminded him to double-check and make sure the school librarian would be there to let me in. ―Stop worrying about it,‖ he‘d said the night before. ―I talked to the school last week. They said there was no problem.‖
Well, wrong-o there, Dad.
Turing High was one of those Psycho-Dad command decisions, same as us moving to a new McMansion ninety miles north of Milwaukee after my stint on the psych ward. Or was that my breakdown? No, no, it was my ―little episode,‖ Psycho-Dadspeak for my stay in the place where the nuts feed the squirrels. My father always called it a ― little episode,‖
as if my life was a sitcom and we could simply channel-surf right on past.
We were in Rebecca‘s office when he first floated the idea in March, and although I hadn‘t known it then, I‘d only see my therapist twice more: another linchpin in Psycho-Dad‘s clean-slate campaign.
―Turing makes sense,‖ he‘d said. ―Jenna‘s a bright, sensitive girl. She‘s just had a . .
. little episode, that‘s all. When she was on the, ah . . .‖
―Ward?‖ I prompted. I was sprawled in my usual spot, a plump, brown leather armchair. ―Unit?‖
Dad‘s lips set in this line above his chin, a fissure in granite. I never talked to my father like that at home, not unless I wanted Psycho-Dad to pay a visit. Of course, the go-to for that is he‘s a shock trauma plastic surgeon and and screws his nurse and has temper tantrums because he‘s just under so much stress. Not that we talk about the blow-outs or the affairs. All that‘s no one‘s business. It‘s a family matter. You know what I‘m talking about, Bob.
But Rebecca‘s office was my turf. Dad had to behave himself. Doctors are very sensitive about their reputations in front of other doctors, even if the other doc is a shrink and the lowest form of life because all docs know that the med students who become psychiatrists were always pretty squirrely to begin with, the ones who went all girly around blood and guts. Rebecca being a girll. . . well, that was proof.
―Yes,‖ he said. ―Your teacher there said you were light-years ahead of the other kids.‖
This was true, though that wasn‘t saying much. In the four months I‘d been an inpatient, there were only two kids who stayed long enough to need more than their regular homework delivered. One was eleven and manic half the time—when he wasn‘t in the quiet room, threatening to blow up the joint, that is. The other girl was seventeen, had gotten pregnant, and then started throwing up to stay thin. The baby finally starved, and she miscarried. Only she couldn‘t—wouldn‘t—stop puking. I think there was only one week where she wasn‘t walking around with a feeding tube taped to her nose, and a psych tech within arm‘s reach.
―I‘ve had a long talk with the principal and guidance counselor at Turing,‖ Dad was saying. ―They‘ve assured me that they are accustomed to dealing with kids who‘ve had . . .