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Authors: Lili Anolik

Dark Rooms

BOOK: Dark Rooms
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Dedication

To my brother, John

Epigraph

“The trouble with innocence,” Mrs. Gansevoort went on, endeavoring to make a fine point, while reaching with her fingertips to touch a prospective blossom, “is that it provides its own sole protection against the depredations of nature; and nature—God, for that matter, the grand texts notwithstanding—has never shown much liking for it. Nature favors the bright eye! the sharp tooth! the cunning few! Nature is a tyrant queen. Make a mistake with her, and she cuts off your head.”

—
LULU INCOGNITO

I think all families are creepy in a way.

—
DIANE ARBUS

Contents

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Part I

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Part II

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Part III

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Part IV

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

Prologue

The first time I saw Nica after she died was at Jamie Amory's Fourth of July party. I'd slipped into the study, dark and cool and strictly off-limits, was crossing the carpet to get to the liquor cabinet, when I felt someone behind me. I paused, flesh prickling. Slowly I began to turn. A set of doors, French. On the other side of the glass, a girl. I didn't run, didn't move, didn't even breathe, just stood there looking, looking, this girl so familiar: straight black hair, narrow nose, scarlet bloom of mouth, top lip nearly as fat as bottom. My skin recognized her before I did, rippling once then tightening on the bones.

My sister, Nica.

I was surprised to see her. Stunned. Yet a small part of me, the dark, secret, hidden part that didn't listen to reason, was not. I'd known she was going to be at this party all along, had known without knowing I knew, in a way that had nothing to do with my eyes or ears, with what I could sense with my body. That's why I'd crashed, wasn't it? To greet her, take her around, show her to everyone who'd lost
faith, given up, bought into the lie that dead means gone? I reached out to touch her as she reached out to touch me, the tips of our fingers meeting on the pane, misting it a little. I began to fill, nearly to bursting. She seemed just as full, mouth open, stretching wide, laughter I could almost hear spilling out.

Almost but not quite.

The doors were old-fashioned: two clear rectangles framed in wrought iron. At the center was a latch, small and black. I seized it. Twisted, rattled, jerked. Unbudging, as if set in cement. I let go, tried again with a different grip. Hand slipping on slick metal, my body lurched forward, right temple smashing into glass.

I staggered back, a hurt in my head that made me throb, a jolt in my blood that shocked me mad, a ringing in my ears that turned me dizzy. I looked around for something to throw. A chair, maybe. But the only chair in the room was overstuffed leather, arms wooden and elaborately carved—too heavy even to lift.

I looked back at Nica, took a step toward her to I don't know what. Plead, I suppose, beg her to stay. And as I did, she leaned into me. Her eyes were hot, our mouths close, almost touching, our breaths intermingling if not for the pane.

Again I pulled on the latch and again the latch refused to yield. As I continued to pull and pull, hard as I could, so hard it felt like I was wrenching my fingers from their sockets, I watched her expression changing, dimming, her features going limp, listless. I'd lost her, I realized. She'd wander off, leave me alone, this time probably for good. It was already too late. Inside me something crumpled, and I let my head fall against the iron bar running down the door's middle, my whole weight slumping behind it.

Suddenly, a giving sensation followed by a tumbling one, forward and then over. At first I was frightened, no ground under my feet. But as the stationary objects rushed away—the French doors, the short balcony outside the French doors, the rail, waist-height and rounded
and shining—so too did the fear. I felt exhilarated, thrilled, as if I were in one of those dreams where I have the power of flight, am amazed at how easy it is. All it takes is faith. Trust in my heart I can fly and I can fly, nothing to it. Air streaked past me, singing in my ears, whistling through my body, emptying it out, blowing it clean, purifying me, making me perfect. I was soaring, streaking, gliding, hurtling, harder and harder, faster and—

A burst of electric white. A pain like my face had exploded.

Time passed. For long seconds I lay on the ground, breathing dirt, spine quivering, teeth vibrating, vision doubled and knocked out of focus. No plan was in my head, no thought. I felt broken, everything on me soft, dented, my brow already swelling, battered tissues gorging themselves on blood, skin split and streaming.

Around me a breeze stirred, picked up. I waited for a lull. Then, neck trembling, eyes loose and lolling, I dug my fingers into the soil and slowly, very slowly, raised myself onto my elbows. I turned. Directly above me, on the second story of the house, was a pair of open doors, the twin panels spread like wings, the latch at the center swinging lightly back and forth.

I looked around. Nica was nowhere in sight. Had she jumped from the little balcony? Gotten fed up, ditched me like I thought she would? Or had she fallen from the little balcony, knocked off it when I went careening through those doors? Was she lying on the ground someplace, hurt, maybe unconscious? Or, I wondered, my gaze turning to the pool, illuminated only by the moon, the lights surrounding it doused to discourage partygoers from cooling off with a swim, had she landed in the water? Panic cutting through the pain, I stuck my hands and knees beneath me and crawled over to the edge.

Sure enough, there she was, at the bottom. The most obvious damage had been done to her face, which looked smashed in and puffed up at the same time. She wasn't moving, was perhaps too stunned to, but her eyes were open and seeking mine. Now it was she
who needed my help. I'd give it to her. Of course I would. Just as I was about to take the plunge, though, a drop of blood trickled down the bridge of my nose, dangling for a second at the tip, then falling. When it hit the water, Nica's face broke apart in a series of shivery concentric ripples, and that's the moment I realized.

For a long time I stayed there, crouched at the lip of the pool, peering into the black water, my own dim reflection wavering on top. I brought myself into focus as best I could: a translucent shadow, visible but invisible too, a lonely little ghost haunting itself.

Light suddenly flooded the room behind me and above me. Turning into it, I shielded my eyes.

“Grace,” someone said. “Grace.”

Part I
Chapter 1

The last time I saw Nica before she died was on the way back from the tennis courts of Chandler Academy, the private boarding and day school in Hartford, Connecticut, where we were both students and our parents were both teachers. It was a Friday in April, a few minutes past five o'clock. Practice had just ended.

Nica was in front of me, walking fast, head down, racket bag rhythmically slapping her hip. Her skirt was pleated and short, rolled at the waist to make it shorter still. As she bent to retrieve a fallen sweatband, I glimpsed an underside of thigh, tan and smooth-muscled, a flash of cotton, too, hot pink like a lick of flame. I called her name once, then again. She didn't turn around, though, until I put my hand on her arm.

Stopping, she stared at me, eyes slow-focusing in her head. “Oh,” she said, “I didn't know it was you.”

“Who else would I be?”

“Good question.” With a blink, she turned, started walking again.
“Mr. Schaeffer said he was going to stick around, run drills for anyone who wanted to work on overheads.”

“Yeah?” I said, struggling to keep pace.

“I figured you'd want to.”

I was the team's number one player. Had beaten out Nica for the spot. As far as mechanics went, she was the superior. Her strokes were sharper, crisper, cleaner, landed deeper in the court and with greater penetration. But I was a little faster and a lot more willing to scrap. If the rally became extended, she'd almost always go for the kill shot, hit something with verve and ambition that sailed just past the baseline; whereas I'd push the ball back to the center of the court, wait for my opponent to make the mistake. Basically, I was better at tennis the same way I was better at school, which is to say, I wasn't. I was just a grinder and a grubber. She had too much style to do either.

“My overhead doesn't need work,” I said, the breeziness of my words undercut by my strained tone.

She nodded distractedly.

I came clean. “Actually, I pulled a muscle a little bit hitting serves. Thought I'd give it a break.”

This time she didn't bother to nod, and for a while we walked in silence.

Trying again, I said, “So, are you going to that party tonight with Maddie?”

“Unh-uh.”

“I thought I heard you say you were.”

She looked at me. “You were listening to our conversation?”

I shrugged: an admission.

When she was quiet, I snuck a sideways glance at her, scanning her expression to see if she was mad. She didn't appear to be, though, just thoughtful, eyes downcast, fixed on the moving patch of ground in front of her. Since her mind was so obviously elsewhere, I watched
her more openly than I normally would have dared. She looked different lately, beautiful as always but sloppily so, uncared for—hair in a crooked ponytail, feet slip-sliding in untied sneakers, lips chapped and swollen.

At last she said, “I only told Maddie that to get her off my back.”

And that's when I understood. It wasn't me Nica had been trying to avoid. “Maddie was bugging you?”

“Wouldn't take no. You know how she is.”

I wanted to shake my head, say,
How?
But instead I lied, nodded. That familiar feeling of disconnectedness, the sense that people were mysterious to me in a way they weren't to each other, descended. Before it could turn into full-on depression, I shook it off. Said, “If you're going to be home tonight, I could help you with your French paper. I know it's due Monday and—”


Donnez-moi un
break, okay?”

“What do you mean?” I said, surprised. “Why?”

“Because I'm not going to be home tonight.”

I half laughed. Of course she wasn't going to be. Of course she wasn't.

“And neither should you,” she added.

“But I always go to bed early the night before a match. You know that. And tomorrow's is a big one.”

We'd reached Houghton Gymnasium by this time, were standing at the rear of the building, a few feet from the entranceway to the girls' locker room. It was private here, and the late sun was mild. I tilted my head back to feel its warmth. A faint breeze was on the air, and when it blew, I could hear the clink of rope against metal flagpole. Nica turned to me. Slowly she lifted her right hand, brought it to her left nipple, then shook it rapidly back and forth: titty hard-on. Titty hard-on was a favorite gesture of hers and Maddie's. It was meant to convey excitement—sexual—but, coupled as it always was
with blanked-out eyes and a bored expression, was actually meant to convey the opposite of excitement—of any kind. So, basically, it was a put-down.

BOOK: Dark Rooms
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