LEE was just six the first time she stole something. Deposited by her mother at a birthday party to socialize with kids she barely knew and hardly liked, she secreted herself in the bedroom closet of the birthday girl’s parents during a game of hide-and-seek. Lee was a tiny child, mostly silent and near-invisible anyway, so hiding was easy, and the game was a good chance to be alone. She stayed in the closet a very long time—lingering well after the other kids had moved on to other games—and, while there, she discovered a box covered in faded green velvet and tied with old twine. Something inside rattled when she shook the box. Lee didn’t intend to open it, but then her finger caught in the loop of the bow and the twine just kind of fell loose.
Inside the box was a stack of yellowing letters held together by more twine, a painted iron toy steamship, an old wooden pipe, and the source of the rattling: a small glass bottle with something trapped inside. Lee crouched there, listening to the shrieks of the other kids and holding the bottle up to what dim shafts of light came in through the slats, trying to guess what was inside. When she heard her mother calling her name, she panicked-stuffing the bottle in her pocket, then pushing the box back below the pile of sweaters where she'd found it. As Lee followed her mother through the house and out to the car, she realized it was late, well after dark, and all the other kids' parents had come and gone. Her mother held the back door open as she climbed in, and Lee's father turned to her from the front seat and gave her one of his smiles, the smile he used when he'd screwed up, and handed her a partially eaten chocolate bar. "Did you have a nice time, honey?" he asked her, but Lee's answer was caught in the slam of her mother's door. They were silent the whole ride home. That night Lee tented herself beneath her covers with a flashlight, then took the object out and examined it again. The bottle was blue glass clouded with age. Lee felt a twang of guilt at having taken something that was not hers. But when it rattled in her hand, a surge of pleasure ran down her spine. She had to hold the bottle up to the light to see the tiny silver die inside.
When Lee would come home after school, her mother would be at work, but her father was usually there. Sometimes he'd be in the driveway, working on his old Dodge Dart, its hood up, and he'd let her sit up on the fender, her feet dangling into the engine compartment as she'd hold the carburetor or distributor in her hands and he'd explain what all the parts were. When it was running, he'd sometimes take her out for a drive and even let her sit in his lap and steer on the byroad straightaways.
Often when she'd come home, the house would be full of her father's friends, people from the local music scene and the occasional semifamous bassist or ex-drummer from this or that band passing through whom Lee was too young to recognize. Her father worked an irregular schedule, inspecting and repairing hospital x-ray ma chines, but really he was a singer-songwriter and musician. He put out a self-titled album with an indie label a year before Lee was born, and sometimes he was invited onstage to perform on a song during some band's show, but he never made a living off of any of it. His friends all said he could have been another Elliott Smith, if only his life had gone a little differently.
Her father had a disarming smile that softened any room he entered, and people naturally gravitated to him, the center of some subtle magnetic force. Lee loved coming home to a crowded living room, where she could sit in a corner unnoticed and listen to the stories. She loved watching her father especially, seated in his usual spot at the end of the sofa, staring down at his socks as someone would be telling some tale of loss or excess. And she loved watching others watch him, as her father would inevitably look up, smile from the corner of his mouth, and deadpan some line that Lee rarely understood beyond the fact that it would set everyone else in the room off laughing.
As though through some unspoken understanding, the visitors always left a good half hour before her mother, a nurse, returned home. By which time her father would (with Lee's help) have the errant glasses collected and washed and put away, and some semblance of dinner going. On one occasion they'd missed a few glasses that had been set down in a planter, and her mom had taken her aside and asked if anyone had been over. Seeing no reason to lie, Lee told her yes, a few of dad's friends were here.
"What were they doing?"
"Just hanging out and drinking grapefruit juice and talking."
As soon as Lee said this, her mom's jaw set, and she walked to the kitchen and placed the two glasses on the counter above the dish washer. Lee understood that it was for her father to find—a simple, direct message that her mom knew.
They argued that night, Lee could hear it from her room, and she never understood what could have been so bad about drinking juice with your friends or why her mom was always so wound up and angry. Her father wasn't around in the morning and didn't come back for several days, but this brief vanishing act was something he did all the time, and Lee was used to it.
Lee was seven when her father left for good, disappearing without a word. She simply came home from school one day to a house that felt different. Lee looked around without landing on anything until she went into her parents' bedroom and saw that all her father's stuff was gone, emptied from the drawers and the closet and the top of the dresser. The bathroom was clear of his things as well.
He'd taken more than he usually did, but Lee still expected him to return after a few days. When five days passed, then a week, she asked her mom.
Her mom looked down at her dispassionately. "He might come back tomorrow, or he might never come back. I can't tell you which. I think you'd better just get used to it."
"Where did he go this time?'' "I wish I knew."
Her mom said nothing more about it, though as the days, then weeks, and then months passed and it seemed finally clear that her father wasn't coming home or even sending a letter, Lee could see her mother crumble, bit by bit, from the inside. Some nights Lee could hear crying behind the closed door of their bedroom, until she didn't anymore; but by then her mother seemed emptied out entirely. Lee liked to listen to her father's CD sometimes when she came home from school, before her mother got off work. It was sad and funny at the same time, scratchy and full of longing, and Lee liked the way she felt when she listened to it. One day she came home to find it gone.
At eight she stole a glossy black paintbrush from the desk drawer of Mrs. Choi, her pretty English teacher, who used it to keep her hair bunned. At nine Lee slipped things from the backpacks of her peers: pencil cases and charm bracelets and sticker books. At ten she made a game of trying to steal one thing from each of the kids in her class: pens and mittens and colored Nalgene drinking bottles, never any thing of real value. She kept her swag in a box in her closet, and sometimes she would lay it all out on the floor of her room. It was the only way she used any of it. Lee didn't consider any of the kids friends. It wasn't that they teased her or ostracized her or thought her weird, but none of them seemed to see her, either. Holding these objects in her hands allowed her to imagine something like closeness.
Her mom was a palimpsest. She had erased herself a layer at a time, until only the dim outline of who she was remained. Every now and then the mom Lee knew would emerge to celebrate her daughter's birthday or Christmas, and she made sure the bills were paid and that food was on the table, but mostly she was gone. Lee hated her for her slow retreat into herself, for leaving Lee behind. Her mom's hours at the hospital kept Lee from seeing her much anyway, but even when she was around, Lee felt she could almost see through her.
So when she told Lee, now twelve, that she was bringing a friend home for dinner, Lee didn't know what to think. Steve was the opposite of her father. He wore a white linen tunic and crisp linen pants and white canvas slip-on shoes. Around his neck was a leather cord tied around a pale crystal. His hands were soft when he shook Lee's, and when he saw her looking at one of the half-dozen braided colored leather bracelets he wore on his wrist, he took one off and gave it to her. Lee smiled thank you and put it in her pocket. Over dinner he asked her a few bland questions about school, wiping his hands and the corners of his mouth after every bite.
He came by more and more frequently and sometimes stayed over. Steve didn't talk much, and when he did, it was often in whispers to Lee's mom. He moved in so stealthily that Lee didn't realize he had until she noticed he'd set up a small meditation area in the corner of the living room, with a floor pillow, a mandala on the wall, and a small bowl of incense. Lee would often come home to the smell of that incense, Steve facing the wall with his back to her. He asked her to join him one time, and she did, but Lee didn't understand what he wanted her to do. How was she supposed to empty her mind when it was constantly filling back up?
At thirteen Lee stuffed a vintage Misfits T-shirt into her backpack because she had seen a girl in the store admiring it. When she wore it to school, a boy mumbled "Cool shirt" as he passed, which left a ringing in her ears. The next day she dropped the folded shirt on the cafeteria table in front of the boy. The gesture had taken every ounce of nerve she could muster, and she felt dizzy with it as she walked away. He never said another word to her, but the day after, another boy gave her ten bucks to get one for him, and a business was born.
Soon she was regularly taking orders from her classmates, any thing from jeans to jewelry to CDs. She'd hit the boutiques and department stores on Walnut Street in downtown Philly, shop small and steal big, then sell the stuff for a third the price. The money—loose change and wadded bills-she pushed into a hole in her father's old guitar case. Lee's tastes were simple—jeans and hoodies and Chuck Taylors—and so she had little to spend the money on. It wasn't about the money. Stealing scratched a locationless, tingling itch in her.
At fourteen she stole a stack of blank birth certificates from the hospital where her mother worked, along with a stamp of the hospital's seal. She laid the sheets out on her roof, exposing them to several days of sunlight, and aged them with coffee grounds until they looked like they'd been sitting in a drawer for twenty years. Then she sold them to her classmates for a hundred dollars apiece so that they could use them to obtain fake IDs at the DMV. This earned her the attention of Edie Oswald. Pale and athletic, tall without being gawky, Edie had a face that looked as though it had been carved from marble by some Renaissance genius. She carried herself with the ease and insouciance bestowed by a life of privilege and was the only girl in school who could dress like a 1960s socialite one day, an early-'80s punk the next, and get away with it.
"Can I bum one?" Edie asked.
Lee was standing against the wall outside the gym where no one ever came, the remains of a sandwich on the ground by her feet. She fished a cigarette from her pack and handed it to Edie, then helped light it with her own.
"I've been looking all over school for you. For a while I thought you might be one of those gone kids."
Over the past few months seven kids from the Philadelphia area—two from their school—had simply disappeared without a trace. One of them showed up again a few weeks later, a fifteen-year-old boy from a foster home in the suburbs, but he was still gone. His eyes were engorged and depthless, and it was as though his consciousness had been scooped out—he'd lost the ability to communicate and responded only to simple commands. Lee hadn't known any of them, but she knew Edie did; one of them had run with her crowd.
"So this is your spot, huh?" Edie looked around the patch of dirty grass and wrappers and cigarette butts as though it were Lee's living room.
The buzz of Edie's recognition left Lee mute. To be seen by Edie Oswald was to suddenly exist.
Edie pointed to a bit of graffiti, a cartoon stick figure with a cock rammed through its mouth and out the back of its head. "That one of yours?"
Lee took this opportunity to stare into Edie's unblinking green eyes. Edie had a jagged black bob and a mouth that was always turned up at one corner as though perennially on the verge of amusement. Lee understood she was supposed to say something clever back, but the moment for that had passed, and now there was just awkwardness.
They stared out across the football field. Lee watched a kid arc out for a long pass and stretch his arms, only to have the ball drop through his hands. Edie wasn't the kind of girl who needed to go trawling for friends, so Lee knew the score: within a minute or so Edie would ask her for something. She began counting in her head: one, two, three, four, five ...
"I hear you can get things," Edie said.
Five. The girl was to the point, Lee had to give her that. She looked down at her cigarette.
"So how's it work?" Edie flicked her cigarette away. "You take orders or what?"
Edie asked for a green cashmere sweater with abalone buttons from Bloomingdale's. She even had a picture, and Lee couldn't help but be a little thrilled when Edie texted it to her-they now had each other's numbers on their phones. Edie probably had hundreds of numbers on hers, but not Lee. Lee now had twelve.
What Lee didn't expect was that a few days later, after she had delivered the sweater, Edie would invite her over to her house after school. They ended up drinking from Edie's parents' liquor cabinet and gossiping about the kids in school Lee only ever watched from afar. Edie asked Lee things no one had ever thought to ask her—about what she wanted to do after high school, where in the world she most wanted to visit, what kind of man her father was—and Lee realized she didn't know how to answer these simple questions. She had never talked to anyone about her father and did not know how to start. She asked Edie about hers, and Edie lit up when she spoke of him: what an important man he was and all the places he took her. She talked about where she wanted to go to college, and when she asked Lee about it, it was as though Edie were asking what pro basketball team Lee wanted to play for. Lee was silent. Edie drunkenly put one finger to the mole above Lee's lip and seemed about to say something, then just giggled.
This is what it must be like, Lee thought as she walked home, drunk on Edie's attention even more than the booze, to have a friend.
They began hanging out more and more after that, and Edie was careful to ask Lee for things only occasionally, insisting on paying her even when Lee would refuse her money. Lee took notice of Edie's taste, and she couldn't help stealing for her the more-than-occasional gift. Her feelings for Edie were as formless as a weather pattern. All Lee knew was that she tingled under Edie's attention and sometimes placed herself in Edie's path after school in the hope that Edie would collect her. With this friendship came an acceptance into Edie's crowd, and before long Lee found herself invited to parties and out to clubs.
For the first time she went to a school dance. She gave Edie the combination to her locker, because it was near the gym and accessible, and Edie stashed a few booze-filled bottles of Coke there earlier in the day. Drunk and emboldened, Lee even danced, awkwardly bouncing around with the kids in Edie's crowd—her crowd now, too, Lee reminded herself—listening in as they gossiped and gave each other shit about who was fucking whom behind whose back and who'd pissed on whose toothbrush. But for Lee the highlight of the dance took place in the bathroom with Edie, as they sat up high by the windows and shared a joint. When she was with Edie, it was as if Lee were the only person on Earth; Edie focused in so totally, with such sincere interest, that Lee felt herself seen in a way she never had before.
"What do you think of Danny Poole?" Edie asked her.
She hadn't much noticed this boy from Edie's crowd, except that sometimes Lee would feel herself being stared at, though he always looked away when she turned. Lee tried to see him through Edie's virescent eyes.
"He likes you," Edie said.
"He told you that?"
"I can tell. You want to go out with me and Deke sometime? The four of us could have some fun."
Deke was Edie's boyfriend. He dressed like a headbanger and played guitar in a metal band but drove his parents' Infiniti and wore four-hundred-dollar boots. Lee felt as though she'd been chosen. "Sure," she said. Why not.
"Cool. I'll set it up." Then Edie reached into her purse and took out a folded Kleenex. She unwrapped it, revealing two powder-filled gel caps. Edie held them out until Lee took one. She waited for Edie to go first, then swallowed the one in her hand.
"What did we just take?"
"Molly-olly-oxen-free!" Edie trilled.
Lee had never taken Ecstasy before. "What's it feel like?"
"You're about to find out." Edie hopped down from the window, and Lee followed her back into the dance.
Lee didn't remember much about that first time; it just got swallowed up with all the other times. She did remember dancing in a way that felt as fluid as a river. She remembered a sensation of pure joy, and she remembered the people all having auras, trembling out lines that she kept trying to touch. Mostly she remembered going home with Edie that night, sharing Edie's bed and the feel of Edie's skin against hers, Edie's fingers tickling up and down her back, Edie's eyes on her own.
"Why'd you choose me?" Lee asked her, the drug making all questions suddenly possible. "You can have ... you can hang out with anyone in school you want. Your crowd, they wouldn't have anything to do with me if you hadn't taken me in."
Edie eyes were softening with sleep, but when she opened them wide again, Lee thought she could see herself reflected in the pupils. "You want to know what's special about you."
It made her feel stupid to hear it phrased that way, but yes, Lee supposed that is what she wanted to know.
Edie was silent for a moment. "When I was nine, I found a little baby bird. It couldn't have been more than a week old, but it had all its feathers and it was walking around in drunken little circles on the sidewalk. So I bundled it up in my jacket and took it home, made a nest in a cardboard box, and fed it seeds and ladybugs and Cheerios. It was the first thing I woke up to every morning, and every day after school I rushed home to take care of it."
"You think I need rescuing?" Lee asked.
Edie looked at her with a mix of affection and pity. "The first time I saw you, I wanted to bundle you up and take you home with me. You're so pretty, a beautiful little bird, but you look so lost, Lee-anyone with a heart would want to do the same."
Lee thought about how to take this. She wanted to be seen, especially by Edie, as strong and capable of handling herself, but the drug was making her so velvety inside, it was hard not to smile. "What happened to the bird?" she asked.
But Edie was already asleep.
Lee was used to being invisible, she had been her whole life, so it wasn't easy to know what to do with the spotlight, even if she was only taking up the diffuse edge of the light shined on Edie. The drugs helped. White powders and blue pills and yellow pills, little red plasticky stars, mossy purplish weed laced with crystals, things snorted and smoked and ingested. Stimulants and sedatives and entactogens and dissociatives and psychotropics and hallucinogens. Things that made her at once open up into the world and sink so deeply inside herself that she grew scared she'd never find her way out. Meth made her jerk and flop on the inside like a windup mechanical toy. Ecstasy made her oozy with love. Ketamine made her float. Oxy wrapped her in a warm, steamy blanket. Soon enough she was trading stolen goods for drugs, and soon after that for drugs in bulk, which she sold to the kids in her crowd.
Danny Poole turned out to be a nice boy, shy but thoughtful. He played drums in Deke's band. Lee could tell that he mistook her dis connection for shyness like his own and saw an affinity where there wasn't one. But she liked having him around all the same, and for several months they went to movies together and got drunk together and had clumsy, gawky sex that turned sweet with time.
Lee honestly didn't know what to feel when he broke up with her, in a long handwritten letter, which he made sure to point out was blurry with his tears. The letter detailed how much he cared about her, how he even thought he might love
her (at least that is what Lee thought she could read within the big blue smudge), but that they were just too similar—"too shy together and too silent together"—and that he felt as alone with her as he did by himself.
Lee couldn't bring herself to feel much of anything, though she missed those nights they would sit together in his room, wordlessly playing some drinking game until they were buzzed enough to fumble toward each other.
Life went on, and Lee remained the go-to girl for drugs and stolen merchandise. All the money she made she stuffed into the hole in the guitar case, until it became too full to squeeze in another wad. And so, for the first time in nearly four years, she opened it. The money fell out onto her bed in a big green pile of bills: crumpled bills, folded bills, rolled bills, wadded bills, a geological strata of bills—the smaller denominations, from when she'd just started out, at the bot tom; the larger ones layering the top. The pile had an earthy, fungal smell. To get the money back into the case, she sorted the bills and flattened them and bundled them, counting as she did, feeling her hands grow a filmy layer of dry mold. By the end she had just over twenty thousand dollars, an amount of money Lee could hardly fathom. She began to feel like getting out was really possible; that she might actually make something of her life. College, maybe, some thing she and her mother had never even discussed.
Lee was apprehended for shoplifting at sixteen, pinched in a Nordstrom by an undercover security guard she'd marked but had taken for oblivious. He led her by the arm through the store, the evidence—one crumpled teal cashmere cardigan—draped casually over his shoulder. She felt the eyes of the shoppers on her in a way they never had been before, and burned with shame.
The store security called her mother and involved the police as well, and though they did not press charges, the police made her aware that the incident would remain on her record and that a second arrest would entail real consequences. Lee promised that she had never stolen before and would never do it again. Her mother didn't speak to her at all except to ask her, in the parking lot on the way to the car, what the hell she wanted with a sweater like that? Did Lee think they were country club people?
The second time she was caught came only a month later, and the police threatened to throw the book at her, chuck her into a juvenile detention center and see how she fared with a little structure in her life. Her mother had begged them to give Lee another chance, had described the disappearance of Lee's father and how tough the years had been on both of them.
Lee's mother wasn't happy to have to do the whole song and dance for the officers of the Philadelphia Police Department, and on the way home she made it clear just how long was the limb she had gone out on for her. Lee soon stopped listening, wondering if her mom had meant any of what she'd said about Lee's father.
Lee was curfewed for the rest of the semester, and she kept her hands clean. She stopped stealing, stopped doing drugs, stopped partying. She worried that Edie might no longer want to be her friend, but this wasn't the thing that cracked their friendship.
They were sharing a table at a cafe downtown, talking vaguely about college, when a tall young man wearing some sort of vintage military uniform, a few dull medals peppering his chest, sat with them and asked for a cigarette. He had short black hair, severe avian features, and intense, sunken eyes. He put the cigarette behind one ear and chatted easily with them, talking music mostly. He performed a little puppet dance on the table using two spoons and a napkin, his eyes on Lee the whole time. "You know, you remind me of some one," he told her.
Lee pulled a cigarette out for herself before realizing she couldn't smoke here. "Oh, yeah? Who?"
"Someone very special. What did you say your name was?"
"Her name's Lee. Lee Cuddy."
Lee gave Edie a dirty look, but Edie just grinned back.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Lee." One of his spidery hands flipped open an old canvas shoulder bag and pulled out a stack of fliers. He handed them one each. "Why don't you two come to a little party we're throwing this Friday." He pulled a small black notebook from the bag and wrote something in it. "Go to this Web address on here and type in the code on the bottom. It will give you a time and a place to meet one of my associates. She'll take you there." When he turned to leave, Lee could see a large star shaved into the back of his head. She watched him hop onto an antique bicycle and ride off.
"Do you know what this is?" Edie said, gaping down at the flier in disbelief.
The flier was on thick cardboard stock, about the size of a greeting card, and it had an old black-and-white photo that looked like an aerial shot of some just-excavated ancient city. TO RAISE DUST was typed in, by manual typewriter, at the top, and SOCIETE ANONYME was printed at the bottom. Below that it read ADMIT ONE. There was a date, September 3—this coming Friday—but no street address. Only a Web address, followed a different six-digit code on each flier.
"Isn't that your birthday?" Edie said.
It was. Lee was turning seventeen.
"Well, happy fucking birthday. This is an invitation to an S.A. party." Edie looked around the cafe and slid her flier quickly into her bag, as though someone might try to take it away from her.
"What's an essay party?"
"Dude. These things are legendary. They're underground events thrown in an old missile silo outside the city limits. I've been trying to get into one for months. The thing is, you can't just buy a ticket; you have to wait for one to come to you."
Lee handed Edie her flier. "Give it to someone else. You know I can't go."
"What are you talking about? That guy was totally into you."
"So sneak out. Your mom doesn't even have to know you're gone."
It was true; she could probably get away with it. But Lee liked that she was no longer doing drugs or staying out nights drinking. She was thinking more clearly, and her grades were moving back up.
Edie seemed to take Lee's pause as answer enough. "Fine," she snapped, grabbing the flier from Lee's hand. "I'll ask Claire."
Edie really knew how to stick it where it hurt. Claire Faver had been Edie's best friend before Lee came along, and Claire's animosity toward Lee was barely concealed.
Lee spent her birthday at home, sharing a dishwater-colored cake that tasted of socks with her mom and Steve. "We noticed some links you left up on the computer." Steve took a bite of cake and closed his eyes with pleasure. "Looks like you've been researching colleges?"
Lee took a mouthful of cake and shrugged. She tried to get a view out the window, but Steve's face was in the way.
"College is expensive, you know. That means debt."
Lee forced the cake down. "I can get financial aid. Scholarships." Steve nodded. "Financial aid is complicated. And scholarships take really good grades. Maybe if you had thought of that a few years ago ..."
Steve had no idea what Lee's grades were. She'd kept them up, despite everything. She felt like grabbing last year's report cards and shoving them into his smug face.
"... but anyway, we think college is a fine idea."
Lee looked at her mother. "You do?"
"Sure we do," Steve said, waiting until she looked at him before continuing. "But we also think that a year or two of real life under your belt would do you some good. Most kids waste college because they're not mature enough to handle it yet. And after a year or two you might find that it's not really for you anyway. I never went to college. Did you know that?"
Lee looked down at her hands. She had bent the fork nearly in half.
"It's true. And look at me. I love what I do. My business is booming. And I could use a smart, energetic assistant soon."
Lee knew he was waiting for her to look up, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
"Julia and I talked about this. She's on board, too." Steve looked at Lee's mom, who was trying to smile. "Anyway, just give it some thought. Oh, and happy birthday." He handed her a bright red box with a sheaf of loose papers inside. She didn't take it, and he set it down in front of her.
"It's for a Buddhist liturgy," he said. "These are sutras. You sit with them in the morning and chant them, aloud or silently. Like this." He opened the box and read aloud from the first page: "Shelter is the foundation for all you will set out to do. Shelter is the milk and honey of daily life. Shelter is the doorway to liberation." He cast a smile at her. "Happy birthday from your mother and me."
"I'm going for a walk," Lee said.
"Just be sure you're home by dinner." Steve carefully placed the paper back in the box and closed it. "Curfew doesn't go on hold for your birthday."
Lee left the house for Edie's. It was a long walk but still early. Edie wouldn't have left yet for the party. Puck her curfew. When she got to Edie's, a medieval-looking two-story stone Tudor with elaborately manicured hedges, she made her way around to the back, to Edie's room on the first floor. Peering through the window, she could see Edie from behind, applying makeup in a mirror. Lee was about to tap on the glass when she spotted a pair of oxblood Doc Martens in the mirror, attached to a pair of stockinged legs on Edie's bed. Lee couldn't see the rest of the person, but she didn't need to to know it was Claire. When her eyes shifted back, she could see Edie staring at her in the mirror. Then Edie returned her attention to her own face, and Lee knew she'd been dismissed.
On her way home, hurting in a way she hadn't let herself feel in years, Lee began to notice a man following her. Edie had often complained about unwanted advances from strange men—in cafes, on the subway, walking down the street—but Lee rarely had that problem. The man was heavyset and a little hulking and was not at all subtle about stalking her, especially considering his attire: an old-fashioned tailcoat with brass buttons over a tight black waistcoat, black trousers, and a black bow tie. He looked ridiculous, like an English butler lost in the city. Lee quickened her pace, ducked down into a subway station, walked through it, and came out at the other end. She thought she'd lost him, but then he was right in front of her, blocking her way. Lee felt frozen in place. "What do you want?" she said.
He said nothing. When she looked into his eyes, she could see that his irises were weirdly misshapen. He shuffled in place, smiling at her, and there was something childlike about him. Lee was suddenly more curious than afraid. Then she noticed a black box in his hand, about the size of a cigar case. He clumsily flipped it open, and a lens on a bellows popped out. He raised it to his chest and snapped a picture of her. Then he bowed slightly, turned, and walked away. Lee wanted to tell someone about the encounter, to confirm the weirdness of it, but there was no one to tell.
The following Monday at school Claire and Edie spent the day huddled together, whispering and laughing and sharing glances. A door had been shut in her face. The one time she found Edie without Claire, she asked her about the party, but Edie just shook her head and laughed, then went back to texting.
The prospect of college, and with it the prospect of reinventing her self, had become something more than a distant, formless hope. She began looking into programs, researching college towns. Edie had slowly opened the door to Lee again, and Lee spent every day after school at Edie's house, where they leaned against each other on Edie's bed and fantasized about disappearing. They began making plans, which were vague at first but solidified as they discussed which schools offered the brightest fields of hope and possibility and plain old American fun. Lee persuaded Edie to look out of state—New York or California or some small town where they could rent a house together and bicycle to class.
Edie wanted to study psychology, and Lee considered that as well, until she happened upon a photo in a National Geographic
magazine. The article was about the discovery of a buried Assyrian city, which was being carefully unearthed, and in the photo a young woman in boots, khaki shorts, and a green cotton shirt squatted low as she brushed dirt from the head of a statue. The woman had a scarf wrapped around her black hair, and her clothes and tanned skin were dusted in red earth. She worked solo. Lee knew immediately that she wanted to be that woman. She tore the photo from the magazine, put it into her pocket, and brought it out again in the seclusion of her room that night. She tacked it to the wall above her bed and fell asleep wondering what it would take to become an archaeologist.
As she turned down requests from the kids at school and stopped dealing drugs, Lee found herself growing invisible again by degrees. Her new friends, the kids in Edie's crowd, had always found Lee to be a little off, too distant and inside herself to ever be one of them. They tolerated her when she was dealing and stealing for them, but she no longer sensed the eyes of the other kids on her as she'd walk the halls, no longer felt the twitchy anxiety of some boy nearby trying to get his nerve up to ask her for something.
Edie persuaded Lee to introduce her old dealer to Edie's boy friend, Deke, and Deke became the new go-to guy. The itch to steal never went away—in fact, it got worse—but Lee refused to scratch it, and after a while it became like a phantom limb.
Claire seemed pleased with Lee's fall from favor with their crowd, and even warmed to her some, until one day Claire just didn't show up at school anymore. Poof, gone, just like those other kids. When Lee asked Edie about it, Edie looked around the quad as if she'd only now noticed. "Maybe she finally ran off with that skinny indie bassist dude," she said. "She was always threatening to."
Then two detectives came by the school one day to interview her friends, and Edie took Lee aside and made her promise not to tell them about the S.A. party she and Claire had gone to.
"Why?" asked Lee. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"It doesn't. It doesn't have anything to do with anything. But if my father finds out I went, he'll kill me. And if the police find out about it, you can bet my father will, too."
Lee promised, but it didn't matter. The detectives never asked her anything anyway.
Lee was seated by herself on the bleachers with a sandwich and a short list of colleges. She had narrowed it to four, and Edie was supposed to narrow hers to four, and together they were to agree to a first choice, then a second and a third. Lee had a 3.7 GPA and had scored a 2100 on a practice SAT test. Edie had money and connections. If they didn't shoot too high, they were sure to get into one of them together, and they had made a pact to choose only a school that accepted them both. Lee saw Edie approaching from across the field, hugging herself against the wind. Edie skulked up the bleachers, her big eyes moist and smeared in mascara. She snatched the cigarette from Lee's mouth and sat beside her.
"What's wrong?" Lee asked.
Edie took a drag and handed the cigarette back to Lee, sniffling as she gazed out across the empty football field. Despite the chilly October air Edie wore only a short skirt and a tight-fitting cardigan.
Lee pulled a sweatshirt from her bag and held it out, but Edie ignored it, taking the cigarette back. "I really fucked it up this time." Edie Oswald. Golden girl. Touched by angels. Nothing ever went wrong for Edie. How bad could it be?
"I got scared. I panicked. I'm sorry, Lee."
Something in the distance spooked Edie, and she stood up and inhaled from the cigarette, then made her way down the bleachers. She turned. "My father will help you, I swear. I'm really sorry."
Lee leaned forward and squinted. An amorphous blob across the field resolved itself into three separate figures as they approached. Lee recognized Mrs. Bartlett, the school principal, followed by two uniforms of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Copyright © 2017 by Augustus Rose. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.