On a random summer night, while scaling a building like any other, the three happen to peer into an empty apartment and glimpse an older man with what looks like a dead girl. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues that escalates through the underground world of hospital confinement, off-the-grid sports, and forbidden love. Allie, who can never see the light of day, discovers she's the lone key to stopping a human monster.
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About the Author
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A. in English, Rockford College, 1973
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Dark Stars
Don’t move and don’t scream too loud, no matter what you see,” Juliet told Rob and me. “Promise? On pain of death?”
“I promise,” I said readily.
Rob shot me a furious glance. I forced myself to shrug with a chilly deadpan.
What else was I supposed to do?
Juliet was a force of nature. I could ask her why we might scream. I might as well chew on air. She wouldn’t tell us. She was my best friend—in fact, aside from Rob, my only real friend—and the sum total of what I truly knew about her would have filled a teaspoon. She’d probably spent two hundred days at my house, and I’d spent another hundred at hers. None of that mattered. Still, I was always guessing at how headstrong she was and how unattainably different . . . and we were about to see that proved all over again.
Rob shivered in the Washington Wizards team jacket his father had given him. It was meant to be comforting, to include Rob in the real world. Rob was a natural athlete, especially when it came to basketball, but couldn’t play because of what he had, what we were. He could never be exposed even to the lights in a gym during a real game. The jacket was one of thirty or so. His dad stockpiled them, being a sporting-goods buyer. They were actually a kind of mockery. But Rob’s dad was such a sweetie that he would never have realized that. So Rob dutifully rotated among the Bucks, the Bulls, the Pacers, the Pistons, and yes . . . even the Wizards.
I was wearing my leather coat and two layers of scarves. It was April 8, but Iron Harbor didn’t know it was technically spring. At two in the morning, in the brick passageway between the Smile Doctors dentistry and Gitchee Gumee Pizza, we could see our breath every time we spoke. The temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing.
“I’m going to die,” I said. “And be cryogenized. Standing
“Such a weenie,” Juliet said.
She didn’t seem to feel the cold. Ever. In a black bodysuit that made Rob stare and a black turtleneck sweater that gathered at her knees, Juliet braided up her waist-length dark blond hair and looped it into an elastic band. Along the left
side of her face, from her cheekbone to her lip, she’d stenciled in iridescent face paint a line of blue stars that glowed in the faint light from the street corner.
Face paint! For a Tuesday night among the Nothings of Nowheresville, Minnesota. For the excellent true adventures of three people who had absolutely no lives.
“I’ve been called a lot of things,” I said. “But never—”
“A weenie? Consider yourself called,” Juliet interrupted with a wicked laugh. “In fact, I have called you a weenie myself.”
She had, in fact: the previous summer, when I balked at breaking into Valerie Meyercheck’s house again. After all, it was the third time. Valerie spent about ten days a year in Iron Harbor and the rest of the time whirling among her houses in Switzerland, Paris and Lake Forest. I’d finally followed Juliet inside, but I did not try on any clothes. Juliet took two sweaters, two of countless heather cashmere cardigans.
Juliet insisted (and I believed her): no one who had a hundred color-coded sweaters could be sure if the moths had eaten some, or if the dear old family servant Valerie probably called “Mammy” had given them away to the poor.
Maybe I was a weenie.
Of course, none of us could trump what Henry LeBecque had called Juliet last fall, though we should have seen it coming for years: “A wannabe vampire.” As if she’d chosen to live the way we did. First off, how could any guy with a pulse dump Juliet, no matter what her limitations? Henry said he couldn’t stand being with a girl who basically had to go home every morning and sleep in her coffin.
He paid for it, though, a month later. Just before Halloween, the former librarian, Mrs. Taylor, died at ninety. Torch Mountain Home Cemetery also happens to be a place where a lot of kids like to drink. Nobody was thinking about the fact that they would dig old Mrs. Taylor’s grave before they actually buried her, and cover it with a piece of canvas and a blanket of sod. Henry never knew what hit him. His
“friends” (loyal allies that they were) took off when they heard Henry scream and tumble into a black hole. He was lucky to have had his cell phone so he could call his parents to explain to them how he ended up alone in the deep bottom of a new grave in the snow on Halloween night. He was a weenie.
“Don’t look yet!” Juliet called back. “I have to go through this mentally before it happens.”
Biting my tongue, I watched Juliet stretch, an old habit from her days as a competitive skier. She patted her hands over her clothing, to make sure nothing was sticking out or unbuttoned. She checked her shoes to make sure the laces were tied. Then she ran off into the darkness.
Rob nudged me as we heard Juliet’s light step on the fire escape, far down the cobbled passageway. The metal was old and rusty and probably a decade out of code. Most public things moved about forty years behind schedule in Iron Harbor. Who would know better than we? People were careless enough not to lock their doors. Many didn’t even bother, for the convenience of the only three teenagers who would be out all night, whose parents either were fine with what we did, or never bothered to stop us. Who dared to try to keep us out?
There was no fire escape, roof terrace, restaurant back entrance, abandoned cabin, deck door on a lakeside mansion, no unused boat, construction site, or gated park that Rob, Juliet and I didn’t know about—even before we all got our driver’s licenses the past winter. The three of us had been born within four weeks of each other. What were the odds? January was obviously a very good month for freaks. Now the streets of Iron Harbor—all twenty of them, plus the resorts in the hills around the tiny town—belonged to us.
“What do you think she’s doing?” Rob said.
He noticed me shivering and pulled me close to him.
My heart skittered. I resisted the urge to say: Hold me tighter. My fingers flickered at the level of my chest in the ASL sign for “I want”: the one we taught my little sister to use to ask for food when she was two and spoke only baby Chinese. But Rob didn’t see. He never saw. My sign language was from me to myself, a sort of prayer, like the way people cross their fingers behind their backs when they tell a lie.
It wasn’t a lie, though. It was the central truth of my socalled emotional life. For the past three years, Rob’s touch could brand itself in a way I would be able to feel the next morning when I lay in bed, as though I’d been bruised and there was a sort of pleasurable agony in probing the injury. Rob could pull the pin on my emotions just like that, and then leave me on fire as he walked away. He had no idea, of course. Worse: it was the effect he wanted to have on Juliet, and never would.
He hunched down on his heels and started poking at the mortar between the cobblestones. We waited.
One, one thousand. Two, one thousand. Three, one thousand. . . .
You can think a lot in three seconds, I’d learned from being in an MRI machine.
My mother knew how I felt about Rob. I never told her. I didn’t have to. My mother should have been a clairvoyant on TV and made us all rich. (“I see an older man, very handsome, a thick head of hair. He’s with a baby. He wants you to know they’re both happy.”) People would have believed her. She could see through walls and straight into my skull. And phones? She could name the person at the other end of the call by the tone of my voice or who I was texting by the number of keystrokes.
A telling example of how my mom operates: about six months ago I got dressed for the night and came down for dinner. There, at my place at our butcher block table, was this little pink bag. In the bag was a year’s supply of birth control pills.
“Well,” I said. “Uh, thanks. I was hoping for a digital camera for my next birthday. Which isn’t for quite some time. What’s the occasion?”
“Just in case,” my mother said.
My little sister, Angela, who’d just turned nine, started laughing so hard that milk came out her nose. I’d bet that Mom had sat her down beforehand with a matter-of-fact “Allie’s a young woman now,” and “sexual feelings are a part of every young woman’s process of maturity.” Having been adopted at the age of the three by a single mom (who happened to have an older biological daughter with a lifethreatening disease), Angie was disturbingly wise beyond her years. Either that or just disturbed.
“I hope these have a really long, uh, shelf life or whatever, because I don’t have acne and Mr. Right isn’t anywhere around,” I said. “Or even Mr. Wrong, for that matter.”
“I was thinking about Rob Dorn,” Mom said.
“So have I, but he thinks about Juliet.”
“Are they . . . ?” Angela put her fork down. Spaghetti sauce was way too volatile a condiment for this conversation.
“Most certainly negatori,” I said. “Rob has the same chance with Juliet as Howard.” (This in reference to a custodian of indeterminate age, who had worked at the hospital
and clinic since shortly before time began. All of us knew Howard because he never seemed to really leave. Any time any of us had ever been there, he was either pushing the big rubber dumpster through the halls or lying down inside it, singing some of his favorite religious hits.)
“I just thought you should have them,” Mom said.
“Isn’t this the kind of thing you’re supposed to find hidden away somewhere? Then start crying and saying your little girl is all grown up?”
My mother sighed. “That would be conventional,” she
Even now, I couldn’t tell if she would be happy if I actually took the birth control pills or if I didn’t. So I kept them in my underwear drawer. I was the one who almost cried whenever I saw them, because I knew I was the last person on
earth who would ever need them. . . .
Juliet’s voice came in from above like a mortar shell.
“Live once!” she shouted. “Ready?”
“For a year now,” Rob muttered. “What stupid thing is she doing?”
“She’s okay,” I said, and I called softly, “Ready, Juliet!”
“She doesn’t have a light,” he pointed out.
“You don’t know that. She could have had it in a fanny pack under her sweater.”
Until recently, my little sister actually assumed that people with XP could see better in the dark, like cats. Which is absurd: on average, we probably see worse. A lot of people with XP damage their eyes with light when they’re little before they even know they have it. Rob and Juliet and I kept miners’ headlamps and little Maglites in our backpacks if we had to pick a lock or peer down a ravine or around a dark corner.
“Are you right where I left you?” Juliet called, very far away. “You have to watch every second of this. You’re my witnesses!”
I called back, “We’re right here!”
One of the things you learn pretty quickly if you live your life at night is that—unless you’re literally standing on someone’s front porch—you can pretty much be as loud as you want. No one will hear you or see you. Definitely, no one will care. We had Juliet’s dad to thank in part for our freedom, of course. Tommy Sirocco was one of the Iron County sheriff’s deputies, and he worked the midnight shift solely because his family’s life was set up around his daughter. Whenever he spotted Rob’s Jeep, Officer Sirocco would quietly turn his squad car away to give us privacy.
I heard a shuffling and loud scraping above. Rob tensed. Juliet was making her way across the flat graveled roof of Gitchee Gumee Pizza. The Indian name for Lake Superior is Gitchee Gumee; that wasn’t just something Longfellow made up for a poem. (Hiawatha was real, too, by the way.) The second floor of Gitchee Pizza housed the apartment of its owner and founder, Gideon Brave Bear—also a genuine Indian, a Bois Forte Chippewa; he got pissed if you used the term “Native American.” Every kid in town ate at least one meal a week at Gitchee. Fortunately, in addition to being a very good purveyor of pizza, Gideon was also a very stereotypical drunk. He wouldn’t have heard Juliet if she had been up there setting off fireworks.
We heard the scraping again, and then a few short taps.
“Juliet!” Rob cried out. “What the hell?”
Then Juliet jumped.
For a shattering instant, I thought I was a witness to my best friend’s death: a spectacular original suicide, for an audience. It was just the kind of stunt Juliet would pull. My mind slowed to syrup as I waited for her body to hit the ground between Rob and me. Juliet had always sworn she would die her own way. Not in some bed in the darkened living room of her house or hooked up to an IV in a sterile hospital . . . or after an overdose with a note pinned to her pillow, which is how many lives end for people like us.
But this wasn’t death. This was life. The moment Juliet launched herself from the roof, she became a whirling constellation. I couldn’t see her face. A long line of glow-in-thedark blue stars, outlined in silver, soared out above our heads between the buildings, wheeling in space, completing a full circle. Then the stars were gone. She’d already landed on the opposite roof—hooting in her victory dance—when my brain caught up to my eyeballs.
Juliet Sirocco had just traversed a twelve-foot gap, twenty feet off the ground . . . while performing a front flip in mid-air. She must have shed her sweater on the roof. That explained the feverish swirl of glowing stars. She’d stenciled them on her bodysuit, all up one leg and one arm, as well as her face. Rob fumbled for the switch on his Maglite. The faint beam flickered over the roof. Juliet was punching the air and grinning down at us. I broke my promise, because I screamed. I couldn’t help it. The word exploded from deep inside: “Amazing!”
“Shut up, Allie!” Rob hissed.
“What? That was pretty amazing.”
“She could have been killed!”
I had to laugh. “What else is new?”
Chapter 2: The Sandbox
The three of us met in the sandbox. In the sandbox, at night.
You think of a happy child. That child is playing in the sun. She’s picking flowers in a field with the sun’s rays painting threads of platinum in her hair. She’s running with a kite, her chubby legs just a little tanned with the balmy blessings of midsummer. Think about it: even the Sesame Street theme song begins with the words, “Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away.”
That sunny day would kill us.
We were happy children, I suppose, but we ran to the swings to play when kids our age were listening to bedtime stories. In the hospital, I’d once overheard a toddler telling his parents he’d seen ghosts in the Iron Harbor playgrounds, the ghosts of children. I remember I was afraid to speak to the nurse after that because I thought I might cry. We hadn’t come back from the dead, but we did live in a parallel universe. It was our own country, the night country. We lived there with our parents, many of whom chose to be Persephone and abide in the netherworld for the sake of love.
We also had each other.
I couldn’t even remember a time before the three of us were friends. So I knew from those playground days that Juliet would never stop. She was always the first to dive naked into Ghost Lake, black water so cold that it would freeze the blood in your veins. She was the first one to get a set of lock picks so that we could steal a joint from the back room of the guy who hand-loomed ugly ponchos for tourists. We got the
weed but we only had one toke apiece. If you have XP, you really can’t smoke. Heat damage risk is huge. You can, however, drink. Juliet helped us celebrate the New Year last year by sneaking into the hot tub of a famous New York talk show host’s ski chalet, drinking the champagne we’d lifted from one of the twelve cases of Veuve Clicquot in his wine cellar.
But there was a flipside to Juliet’s adventurousness, the side that haunted Rob and me. She was the only one who took off, for weeks at a time, alone, away from us. First she had a legitimate reason: for four years, from ages eleven to fifteen, she managed to ski competitively. Sunlight be damned, she hurtled down the slopes swathed like a mummy in oversized goggles. But then, a year and a half ago, she’d suddenly stopped. Yet the disappearances continued. Like every month or so, for a few days or a week, we wouldn’t hear from her beyond a text saying C U Soon.
She always came back though. That was the silent mantra I repeated to myself whenever the absences seemed to reach the breaking point. Juliet always comes back.