Ambitious, talented fourteen-year-old honors student Juliet is poised for success at her Southern California high school. However, she soon finds herself on an increasingly frightening spiral of drug use, self-harm, and mental illness that lands her in a remote therapeutic boarding school, where she must ultimately find the inner strength to survive.
OTHER BAD THINGS WE LIKED TO DO
Nicole’s neighborhood was construction sites and dirt lots, a new development for rich people who wanted custom houses and lots of land. Theirs was one of the first finished. We would tell her mom we’d be out riding bikes. I’d take Nicole’s brother’s, too small and neon orange, and we rode them to the construction sites. Once we got there, we hid the bikes, just in case her mom tried to find us.
The houses were in all stages of construction. Some were nothing more than beams, which were useless. Others were further along, encircled in catwalks and ladders. Those we climbed. The more the houses were finished, the better. Sometimes we scratched things on the walls with nails, started little fires with wood scraps.
One day Nicole’s parents told us they were going to Orange County, to buy antique furniture and go to a party. They wouldn’t be home until late. The only problem was we didn’t have any alcohol or pot, not even cigarettes. In the liquor cabinet, there was just one bottle of expensive-looking whiskey and a few bottles of wine, all unopened. In the garage, there was a big 24-pack of Zima, mostly full. We figured we could drink two each.
Nicole filled her backpack with the Zimas, and we rode down to our new favorite house, which had everything finished except for the carpet and paint. The sun was pouring in the floor-to-ceiling windows, greenhouse hot. We could only stand it long enough for one Zima. We took the rest back home.
“Maybe we should look in your parents’ closet,” I suggested. Nicole didn’t understand why I wanted to look in there, but she got excited as soon as we opened the doors. Even though they’d just moved in, the closet was perfect already—big fancy organizers holding all of Nicole’s mom’s shoes, her dad’s ties and cuff links, tiny lights hidden throughout that switched on when you opened the door. There was a stepstool that matched the shelves, the kind you might find in some rich person’s private library. Nicole stood on it, grabbing a big leather bin on the top shelf, which she handed to me. I sat it on the ground. There were some scarves and a wooden box inside it. Inside the wooden box was a gun.
It looked fancy, cushioned by black velvet. Nicole told me it was an old police revolver. It was loaded. We decided to go behind her house and shoot at birds.
The whole time I was expecting the gun to go off by accident. Nothing happened. Nicole held the gun gingerly, her finger away from the trigger, the nozzle pointed away from us.
We got to a clearing in the brush. It was late afternoon and the shadows of the sagebrushes were long, fuzzy nests of spiderwebs in the branches. There were a couple birds out there, little brown sparrows, pecking the dirt. I thought we would talk about it first, that Nicole would show me how to shoot the gun. But she just cocked it, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
The shot rang out over the emptiness, so loud it made the brush quiver and my ears ring. She missed. The birds flew off. But it didn’t matter. She looked so cool with it in her hand, feet spread wide, arms out, just like they do in the movies.
She handed me the gun, but told me I had to wait until some birds flew back because there were only six rounds in the chamber. I hadn’t shot a gun before. It was heavy and cold. I held it in front of me like Nicole, in order to get the feel of it. I put my finger on the trigger. I felt dangerous, like Charlie’s Angels.
We waited for the birds to come back. In between we sat on the sand and drank another Zima. When we finished, there were still no birds so we decided to move somewhere else. We walked around until we heard cooing in the bushes. “Shhh!” Nicole said, and we crept toward them. In a clearing, there were two doves with big bellies, and soft brown feathers and eyes.
They seemed so sweet and stupid, but I spread my feet apart, cocked the barrel, squinted until one of them was square in the middle of my sight. It seemed silly to aim at something so helpless. I pulled the trigger. The noise of the shot was so loud it throbbed in my skull.
I assumed I would miss.
I was wrong.
I could tell Nicole was saying something because her mouth was moving, but my ears were ringing too loud to hear, her face smudged into an inky thumbprint. I felt something sick creep through my bones, dark and thick and making me nauseous. It was growing.
I didn’t want to look but it seemed like I had to, so I walked over to the bird. I kneeled over it, silently, like I was saying a prayer. It didn’t even look like a bird anymore, just a splat of feathers and blood and squishy guts. I touched the mess with my fingers. It was slippery and warm. I brought my finger to my forehead and anointed myself with the blood. I told myself this was why the bird had died, to save me. It would erase the malignance swelling in my brain. It would make me good now.
GIFTED AND TALENTED
Everyone said Ms. Novak’s Honors English class was the hardest in the school. If you did well there, you’d be fine at the toughest college—good practice because I wanted to go to UC Berkeley, maybe Columbia. Our first major project was making magazines that showcased different aspects of life from the time of Madame Bovary. I paired off with Kelly Parish, who was funny and in all my honors classes, and we decided to make a fashion magazine. Her mom dropped us off at the library, the big one downtown, which smelled like dusty books and piss. I read about women improving their complexion through arsenic and belladonna, while Kelly read about death by corset, each of us leaving with a giant stack of books. I held them in my arms, sniffing their old-book smell the whole drive home.
That weekend, I didn’t go to Nicole’s house on Friday like usual, and I didn’t go to any parties, or even answer the phone, because I was locked in my room. I barely slept. Instead, I spent the weekend taking notes on the books, then rewriting them in my neatest handwriting until they were alphabetized by subject. I painted watercolor illustrations, measuring precisely with a ruler to ensure they were perfectly to scale. I borrowed my father’s neon-bubbled level, making sure my printed-out text was perfectly aligned. It felt something like fate as I worked, a divine guidance enveloping my hand, zapping everything into place, as cleanly and neatly as Tetris. I saw the magazine in the future, when I was famous for whatever type of art I’d be famous for, spotlighted behind glass in a museum, proof of my early genius.
I had nightmares about Ms. Novak hating it, making fun of my writing and illustrations, smashing my future of prestige and genius. But when we got it back, her handwriting looped across the pages, spelling out words like Wonderful!, words like Brilliant! She gave us an A+. She never gave anyone an A+. I walked out of the classroom that day, blanketed in gold: perfect, shining, chosen.
BUT THEN I STARTED HAVING PROBLEMS SLEEPING
My eyes were always red, like I had pink eye or dust in them. My bones ached hot, a feeling of perpetual fever. I was desperate for sleep, devoting hours to just staring at the ceiling, but was never able to drift off until one or three or five. After a couple hours, my heart woke me up, beating against my chest too fast and insistent, and I’d be left feeling cursed by this change to my body.
One morning, very early. My room was still mostly dark, but there were little trails of light beaming from the cracks in the curtains. They shot through the air in pale rainbows, and it was like being trapped in a prism.
I sat up in bed. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. There was something wrong with my face. My eyes, my mouth, my nose—they were gone. In their place, there was now a bird. Its wings shuddered, in a way that seemed like it was dying. I raised my hand to my face. I touched where the bird was and I felt no feathers, just my nose. In the mirror I didn’t see my hand or that finger, just the sooty mark of a claw.
I WAS AT A PARTY
I didn’t want to be there but I also didn’t want to leave. I was sitting in a corner of the backyard, drinking beer that had gone flat and warm from a plastic cup. I lit and smoked cigarette after cigarette. I had gone to the party with Nicole and a couple other girls she’d made friends with in her classes. We’d done coke together as soon as we got there, and then I left to smoke and hadn’t seen them since. But I hadn’t bothered to look for them either.
There were some guys out in the backyard too, guys I didn’t know but had seen before. They were doing dumb shit and laughing too loud. Either too drunk or pretending to be. Every once in a while they’d give me a look. I didn’t know what they were thinking. I didn’t know if they thought I was cute or crazy. At one point, I thought one of them said something to me, it sounded vaguely like “Hey you.” I didn’t want them to come over so I just glared. I didn’t care if they thought I was crazy. I didn’t have feelings anymore. It was like something metal had replaced my insides. Everything was steely and flat.
Eventually, the boys left me alone. I guess they’d given up, either trying to talk to me or talk shit about me. I felt safe enough to stare at them now. I didn’t want anything from them, they were just something for me to look at that wasn’t the backyard or a plant, and I was bored. Now that I was looking at them full on, I could see something coming out of their chests, from their hearts, like glow-in-the-dark string. At first I thought it was just a special effect. They were tied up in each other, going back and forth, twisting thicker and then thinner and then they’d get thick again. A girl came out onto the patio. She ran to the side and vomited in the bushes. She had the strings too, hers pale and flimsy, but they reached into the boys’ and when the ends met up each strand grew stronger. The boys were laughing. She finished puking and went back inside, the strings trailing and knotted behind her.
After a while Nicole came out to find me, and she had the glowing strings too. Hers were greenish and especially beautiful. I watched them tangle up with the dumb boys’ as she walked past them, as she walked toward me. I looked down to see if mine would come out, but nothing happened. There was only darkness in front of my chest. Someone had severed the wires.
Go get Juliet The Maniac from Melville House.