I was already an anxious driver when Ivy was in the passenger seat, coaching me through lane changes and turns, but now that I was alone, I crept along the highway at fifteen miles per hour, gripping the steering wheel with slick palms. I winced every time a semi whooshed past, sending a tsunami in its wake. I kept glancing in the rearview mirror, expecting to see red and blue lights spinning behind me any second.
Spud was essentially a police magnet. Given our mom’s fear of the authorities, you would’ve expected her to do everything in her power to avoid drawing their attention. But it simply wasn’t in her nature to blend in. She’d plastered her ancient VW van with hippie bumper stickers—COEXIST and Visualize Whirled Peas!—and hand-painted it with a wraparound forest scene. Worst of all: the biodiesel that it ran on smelled like old French fries. Hence the nickname.
When Mom got pulled over for speeding last summer, the police discovered an ounce of pot in Spud’s glove compartment. Mom swore to us that it belonged to Bryan, but she refused to narc on her boyfriend—gem that he was—and so her license was suspended for six months. Since we’d just moved eight miles outside of town, Ivy was forced to become our chauffeur by default: taking Mom to work, me to school, and running all of our errands.
WELCOME TO CASCADE, POPULATION 8, 474, a sign informed me as I crossed back into “city” limits. Minus four, I thought with a pang. Even though Cascade was just a faded old mining settlement that tourists zipped through on their way to go skiing in the mountains, I missed living here.
Up until last year, we lived within easy walking distance of school, in a ranch house that belonged to our grandma, who helped to raise us after our dad took off when we were still in diapers. But when Grandma died of cancer in the spring, Mom had to sell her house to pay the medical bills, and the money that was left over barely covered the Airstream and a small clearing of land, right before the entrance to Chinook State Park.
“The edge of heaven,” Mom liked to call it, having skimmed some book on the power of positive thinking. She was determined to see our downsizing as an “opportunity” rather than a loss. But her version of positive thinking often meant turning a blind eye to obvious problems. Such as: the redwoods surrounding the trailer were prone to come crashing down in storms, and any one of them could have crushed the Airstream like a soda can.
Today, as usual, a steady downpour obliterated the sky. Having lived my whole life in Oregon, you’d think I would have gotten used to the omnipresent rain, but it still had the power to infect my mood, which was already dire. Sometimes, I wondered why we hadn’t all evolved to sprout gills. A deer leapt across the road and I slammed on the brakes, my pulse going haywire as it scampered into the trees.
By the time I got to school, the only parking spots left were as far as possible from the low stucco building that had been painted Crayola purple, our hideous school color. The bell had already rung, and the halls were thinning out as kids hurried to class. I was pretty sure that Ivy had PE first period on Fridays, so I sprinted to the gym, pressing my face to the window in the door. I watched as a dodge ball game began, hoping she would appear, but finally I had to give up, a dull ache in my stomach.
“How nice of you to honor us with an appearance, Laurel,” Ms. Owen said as I slipped into English after the last morning announcement. I muttered an apology, keeping my head down to avoid her look of perennial disappointment in me.
The only empty desk was in the back row, next to a new kid. With just four hundred students—most of whom I’d known since kindergarten—any recent arrival at Cascade High was bound to stick out, and this guy was particularly noticeable among the thick-necked jocks dominating our social scene (or lack thereof).
I’d seen him around the halls, but never in this class before. He looked at least seventeen, so I wondered why he’d been transferred into sophomore English two months into the semester. Maybe he wasn’t that bright, which would have been only fair, considering how he scored in the looks department. He was tall and lean, with olive skin and a mess of dark brown hair that flopped in his eyes and over the tops of his ears, like it hadn’t met scissors in months. He wore jeans so faded they were almost white, a black T-shirt washed to a tissue paper thinness, and a hoodie the color of the storm clouds brewing outside the windows.
As I slung off my backpack, I managed to knock his copy of Frankenstein off his desk. Flustered, I bent down to pick it up, noticing that instead of the school-issued paperback, he had a hardback with a dark brown leather cover and gilt-edged pages. It reminded me of the first editions I’d seen behind a glass case at a used bookstore in Portland, and fantasized about collecting someday, if I made it as a famous novelist.
“Sorry,” I mumbled as I handed it back. “Nice book. Is it an antique?” I bit my lip. “I hope I didn’t hurt it.”
“It is old, but don’t worry about it,” he said under his breath. “Books were made to last back then.”
Ms. Owen cleared her throat, crossing her arms over the prow of her bosom. “You two back there! Laurel, and—what did you say your name was?”
“Jasper,” he said. “Jasper Blake.”
“Save the sweet nothings for after class, please.”
As the other kids tittered, I felt my cheeks get red and blotchy—an unfortunate sideeffect of redheadedness. I pulled out my paperback Frankenstein, trying to tune in, but my mind kept veering back to Ivy.
Where is she?
“Peyton, can you read for us?” Ms. Owen said. “Chapter Five. Page 102.”
Seated in front of me, Peyton Andersen’s white blonde hair was ironed so straight, it was like every strand had an invisible weight at its end. I could see that her pencil case contained nothing but nail polish in about twelve different shades. Peyton was the head Skittle, a nickname Ivy and I had made up for these two sophomore girls who acted like conjoined twins, always wearing the same skimpy outfit in different fruity colors. The Skittles lived to make my life miserable, but only if I was by myself, since even they couldn’t fail to recognize that Ivy had them lapped in the cool department, with actual talent that money couldn’t buy.
Peyton read the passage in which the monster comes to life, managing to make it sound as riveting as a grocery list. While she droned on and on, Ms. Owen paced the aisles. She had on a tapestry vest and Birkenstocks, her gray hair pulled into a bun, but she only dressed the part of a kind grandma. Behind her glasses, her gaze was pure steel.
“Laurel?” She came to a sudden stop, looming over me. “What motivates the monster to kill?”
“Uh, because he’s a monster,” I said. “I mean, that’s what monsters do, right?”
“Did you do the reading?” she asked, sounding weary.
I nodded, looking down. I’d just gotten started when Bryan swaggered out of the shower yesterday. We’d been alone in the trailer when he oh-so-casually let his towel drop. I’d shut myself in the bedroomette, where Ivy found me later, still shaking. This was what triggered the blow-up. My eyes prickled at the thought of how she stood up for me. But if Ms. Owen noticed that I was upset, it didn’t seem to move her one bit.
“So that’s your in-depth analysis?”she said “He’s monstrous because he’s a monster?”
I tried to remember the movie but came up blank. “Um….”
“He just needs a date.” Beside me, Jasper spoke up without raising his voice.
“Excuse me?” Ms. Owen said.
“He’s lonely,” Jasper continued. “All he wants is a girlfriend, and Victor Frankenstein—the only person who can make him one—refuses. Seems like that would be enough to make anyone mad.”
A few kids cracked up, but Ms. Owen was nodding for a change. “That’s right,” she said, turning back to me. “The power of a great writer like Mary Shelley is knowing that for characters to be convincing—even in a fantasy story—their motivation has to be clear, so that their actions make senseIt’s not the spark of electricity that brings him to life. That’s just a conceit.”
At this word—conceit—my stomach churned. This was exactly what she’d labeled my last story, when she ripped it to shreds. I’d been naïvely excited when she gave us a creative alternative to our first paper, believing her when she urged us to “write the kind of story you like to read.” Yeah right. The prompt was to create a character who wants something they can’t have, and so I wrote about this girl who falls for a boy who turns everything he touches to stone. In the end, she decides she’d rather turn to stone than remain untouched by him.
English has always been my best subject—my only reliable A—so I was taken aback when Ms. Owen handed “Heart of Stone” back covered in so much red ink that I could hardly make out my words anymore. I’d attempted to flee after class, but she’d cornered me before I could get away.
“It’s a clever idea,” she’d said, somehow managing to make even the word ‘clever’ sound like an insult, “but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief because the characters never fully came alive for me. I mean who is this girl really?” she’d interrogated me. “What does she see in this boy, aside from the sparkle of his ‘ultraviolet eyes?’” This last part she put in finger quotes, lest I miss the sarcasm. “And what about him?” she persisted. “If everything he touches turns to stone, then how does he eat?”
“I don’t know,” I’d mumbled. “I mean, it’s supposed to be a fantasy.”
“Well without real characters, the conceit falls flat.”
The saddest part was how proud I’d felt, after staying up all night—typing the whole thing up on Mom’s old turquoise typewriter—when I’d read it out loud to Ivy and she pronounced it my best work ever.
As Ms. Owen continued to hover over me, I silently willed her to move on, but she was like a pit bull that can’t let go once its jaws are locked on its prey. “If you’re serious about becoming a writer,” she said, “then I suggest you spend more time thinking about what makes people tick. Study the people around you, and see if you can use your observations to create more realistic characters.”
My vision filmed over and I tried not to blink, knowing that would make the tears fall. Normally I wouldn’t have broken down like this in English, but I didn’t know how much more I could take today.
Everyone was staring at me.
Except for Jasper.
He seemed to be gazing at some point at the front of the classroom, oddly focused, although there was nothing in particular to see there.
Then I smelled it: very faint at first, but unmistakable.
Behind Ms. Owen, a curlicue of smoke rose from the garbage can. Something crackled very quietly, like a twig snapping in the woods. Then a flame shot up over the rim. Half the class screamed, not so much in fear as in delight that something was happening for a change. As the flame whooshed up, Ms. Owen scuttled backwards, as if hoping to use the students in the front row as a buffer between herself and the fire.
People leaped to their feet. Stu Sheers smashed the glass on the fire alarm and the air filled with the pealing of the bell. Everyone rushed out the door, pushing and shoving. Ms. Owen yelled at us to hurry and I grabbed my backpack. Only Jasper didn’t move. When I left the room, he was still pinned in his chair, staring at that blaze as if he didn’t want to get an inch closer to it.