The death of us, p.1
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       The Death of Us, p.1

           Alice Kuipers
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The Death of Us

  The Death of Us



  For Shatille, who is bright, brilliant and beautiful

  Table of Contents















  About the Author

  Also from Alice Kuipers



  About the Publisher




  I lean against a tree at the back of the yard, the night around me like black water. I check my pockets for cigarettes but I’m out. Xander’s party is going strong—beer, hot dogs, parents away.

  Xander surfaces from the house. Prairie-dog slim and tall. Fast too. He makes sure people have beers, joins the group of guys near me. I drift over. Listen in. They’re talking about girls. About Ivy. Sure, they all want her. Blonde, sexy. Flips her hair over her shoulder when she wants me to kiss her. She’s just out of reach. Just something. The girl everyone watches on a stage. Can’t help it.

  One of the guys, Greg, asks, “So Ivy’s coming?”

  Xander says, “She’s bringing Callie.”

  “Callie’s hot too. Not like Ivy, but worth it.” Hankering for details from me, he adds, “Man, I bet Ivy’s wild.”

  There’s a scream inside the house. A girl—Angel I think her name is, long black hair, not angelic from what I’ve heard—stumbles out. She’s holding up her phone, yelling my name. “Kurt!”

  Xander grabs her before she can get to me.

  Slick-sheen sweat over Angel’s cheeks. She waves her phone. “There’s been an accident. Look, Dustin sent this. He didn’t realize … but look.”

  I’m closer now. Too close. On her phone is a photo of the main traffic bridge, but something’s wrong. A section of the barrier is missing. I let out a low whistle. “Man, someone hit that hard.”

  She flicks to the next image. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

  Then I see why she’s so stressed out. Police and firefighters are pulling a car out of the river. The car is smashed up but not beyond recognition.

  It’s Ivy’s car.

  My stomach roils.

  It’s Ivy’s car.

  Angel is frantic.

  Oh man, I think. Callie.



  We arrive at the edge of Edenville. Kevin has oldperson music playing from his phone through the car stereo, his hand is on Mom’s leg and the two of them are singing. I stare out the window and hum along. The sun is shining and the wide road is an invitation. The houses in this neighbourhood are quaint, wooden, totally charming.

  Soon Kevin pulls into the alleyway at the back of his house. Same house, same muddy alleyway, same everything. The memories rush back. Three years since we lived here and everything’s exactly the same.

  Except me. I’m different.

  Mom turns back to me with a sunny smile. “You okay?”

  “Sure, why wouldn’t I be?”

  She nuzzles into Kevin. There’s honestly no way to be nice about it. He’s gross. Balding, eager, too fat in the cheeks, in the tummy, in the butt.

  “Up we go,” he says. He’s always saying things that don’t make any sense. Up where? Mom thinks listening to a man is important. Maybe one day one of her boyfriends will say something worth listening to. I smile at my own joke and open the car door, glancing at Callie’s house, two yards over. I remember arriving here the first time, seeing her sitting in the tree, legs dangling. Her red hair held up with a pen. She scowled at me like an angry cat.

  “What are you up to?” I asked her.

  “Nothing.” She chewed her thumbnail.

  I said, “Come down and show me around. I’m new.”

  She narrowed her eyes, weighed me up in that way she has and scrambled down the tree. Three years ago feels like three minutes.

  Kevin and Mom are giggling together, getting out of the car. He swoops her into his arms and they do the honeymoon thing—over the threshold, him hauling around his prize, her laughing throatily.

  My heart flies back to Kansas—Dorothy-style. I’m wrapped up in Diego and it’s me laughing throatily against his chest, him kissing me, then kissing me harder.

  I linger on an image of Diego jumping off the stage and lightly tapping the ends of his drumsticks down my chest. Hell yeah, Ivy. But we’re not in Kansas anymore. I smooth my hair and brush imaginary dust from my white shirtdress. I’m going to see if Callie still lives here—shiny-penny Callie in the bank account of my life.


  I get it, I do. They have a baby now and they’ve done their part: what a successful, balanced teenager they’ve created.

  I don’t take drugs. Check.

  I don’t drink. Check.

  I don’t go to wild parties. Check.

  Okay, I have a couple extra piercings in my right ear that Mom hates. And I’ve dyed my hair black, which Dad moans about. And he definitely can’t understand why the dark-blue nail polish, with one green nail on the fourth finger of each hand. I’ve told him there’s nothing to understand.

  Still, I keep my room tidy. Check.

  I get my homework in on time. Check.

  I’ll get into any university I want, probably. Check.

  I’m perfectly bone-crushingly normal. Check. Check. Check.

  If only I didn’t feel like I do right now around my parents, we could all just get along like we used to.

  I slump over the kitchen table. Mom has Cosmo strapped to her in the sling and she’s doing that foot-shift thing that mothers do. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, baby swaying. He’s staring up at her, she’s staring down at him. Mother and child, mother and child, and I shouldn’t care, really, but there’s this jagged feeling in my chest that I can’t make go away. I’m pretty sure I should be delighted with a baby in the house; I truly thought I would be. Babies are cute. And he is cute. I know I should be over it. I’m sixteen and I should be able to deal with my mom having a new baby.

  I pick at my nail polish, flip through my phone. Rebecca’s put up a hilarious video of her holding a doll. “BABY!” her voice-over yells. I snort.

  Mom glances over. “What’s that?”

  “Doesn’t matter.”

  “Could you turn it down? Cosmo’s just about to fall asleep. I might, actually, get some work done today.”

  The video replays so Rebecca’s voice comes through loud, loud, loud. “BABY! BABY! BABY!”

  “Callie, turn it down. Anyway, you shouldn’t be using the phone at the table.”

  There’s no one at the table with me. The phone rule doesn’t apply, surely, when I’m the only one sitting here. But Mom looks too exhausted for me to bother arguing. I slide the phone away obediently. Seems the only time Mom has anything to say to me now, we’re talking either about Cosmo or about things I should be doing differently.

  Silky light tumbles all over the cluttered living room, catching on the colourful baby seat, packets of diapers, toys and musical instruments. Mom’s latest picture-book manuscript is spread over the bench by the window. Her glorious illustrations come alive in the sun.

  She sees me looking. “Nearly done. I just have to go over these pages now he’s sleeping.” She strokes the baby’s head tenderly. “Then we’re going to see the twins for coffee at three. Want to come?”

  “And hang out with a bunch of babies? No thanks.”

  “Okay, Callie. Well, don’t waste your day. You’ve had weeks off alread
y and you still haven’t got a job.”

  “I’ve tried.”

  “You haven’t been to any of the hotels yet, like I suggested.”

  “I have. I told you, I went yesterday. It’s not as easy as you think, Mom. I’ve dropped off my resumés in, like, loads of places. No one’s calling.”

  “Come on, Callie. You shouldn’t need me to tell you this—use a little initiative. Go back to the same places. Offer to come anytime they need. Make yourself available. You need a job—”

  “It’s like you want me out of the house.”

  “Honey, that’s not it at all.”

  Dad comes into the room and heads straight for her. He’s a bearded guy with glasses and a selection of similarly checked shirts and blue jeans, and he’s the owner of a big booming voice. He has a love of beautiful things, theatre, Greek epics and my mother. He kisses her hard on the mouth, sweeping her backward in his arms. She laughs and swats him away.

  “Honey, you’re squashing the baby.”

  Cosmo gurgles. Mom pretends to be mad at Dad for waking him, rolling her eyes, sighing, but she isn’t really mad. I know I should be grateful, or whatever, that my parents are so obsessed with each other. I reach for my phone and read a couple stupid posts. Mom starts singing to Cosmo. I imagine she sang the same songs to me a thousand years ago.

  Dad interrupts my pity party. “Busy day, Calliope?”

  I shake my head and lean back in my seat, wiping the toast crumbs from my mouth. “I’m just finishing edits on my article. Then, I dunno.”

  “What’s Rebecca doing?”

  “I told you already. She’s away with her dad, camping.”

  “So you can’t message each other a million times a day?” He feigns horror by widening his eyes.

  “She has Internet.”

  “In the bush? Good lord, what’s the world coming to?”

  “It doesn’t work all the time.”

  “What about your other friends. Oh, what’s her name?” He snaps his fingers. “The flower girl.”

  “You mean Dahlia?”

  “That’s the one.”

  “Europe with Liona until school starts. Tilly and family are away too.”

  “I know. They’re at their cabin? See? I listen.” He hooks a thumb in his belt-loop. “Did you read Bonjour Tristesse again yet?”

  Every summer I reread it. As the sun falls through the window like this and the smell of sunscreen and cut grass sneaks through the open door, I find myself wanting to experience the story of Cecile growing up all over again. The first time I read it, when I was thirteen, the darkness of how Cecile manipulates her father’s girlfriends, the mess of it, the suicide, all of it, made me feel more alive. Françoise Sagan wrote the novel when she was only eighteen—two years older than I am now. Each year I read it and hope that maybe, maybe this will be the year I actually start to write fiction. My phone buzzes in my hand.

  The text is from Kurt Hartnett: Done the piece?

  He’s the editor of Flat Earth Theory, the school zine. He’s lining it up for the start of the school year, and he wants an article on the name of our team: Redmen. Is it heinous and racist, or a tradition? It’s interesting to figure out how to write the piece in a balanced way. The three people I interviewed got het up as soon as they started talking.

  I have the article in front of me, printed out, while I noodle through with last-minute edits. I snap a photo of it and send the image to him with the words Just about done. I lean back a little farther, the front legs of my chair off the wooden floor.

  “Careful not to fall, Callie,” Mom says.

  She’s barely looking at me. How does she know?

  Kurt texts: Now, now, now!

  I orient the chair so its four feet are back on the ground and reply: Take it easy!

  —Wanna meet 2mr 2 talk it over?

  —mebbe. Let’s see if I finish it first. U know I wanna get it perfect.

  About four hours later, my copy of Bonjour Tristesse lies open on the couch. I’ve been eating a peach over the kitchen sink, the juice dripping down my chin, my fingers sticky, the peach perfectly sweet and delicious. As I wash my hands, I’m busy thinking about the day ahead: I might wander to the gallery and talk to Kurt, who works there, about the article. I might try and catch Tilly online, or even Dahlia, whatever time zone she’s in, although Mom’ll give me a hard time for chatting with friends, since I haven’t got around to dropping off my resumé anywhere yet today. Instead, I got caught up with the article; changing one line made me change another, and then another. I suppose I could go and do the resumé thing now.

  Mom is upstairs, cooing at Cosmo. Dad went out a while ago: he has an office at the university. I mention Dad because when the front door swings open, I assume it’s him. I don’t even look up.

  “Callie, you do still live here!”

  I almost choke.

  “It’s been forever,” she cries as I turn to face her.

  I’m unable to speak because Ivy Foulds has skimmed across my hallway, past the kitchen counter that juts into our open-plan space, and grabbed me in a huge perfume-saturated hug. She smells just like she used to, vanilla with a hint of something deeper, a dark forest. Her hair is messy in my face and for a long moment I have to swallow the lump in my throat. I hug her hard. She’s light-boned, fragile but strong, like a bird.

  She pulls away and takes a good look at me. “Black hair? Cute. So? Did you, like, miss me so much? Can you believe I’m back? Uh, did you have a baby or something? What’s with all the kiddie toys?”

  “M-my baby brother … Cosmo,” I manage to stammer.

  She’s standing less than a foot away. When we were thirteen, she was pretty. Now she’s stunning, her platinum-blonde hair flat-ironed, her grey eyes the same silvery snakeskin pattern I always envied, her skin tanned and flawless, long arms and legs poking from a white shirtdress that looks expensive. I’m still shorter than her, chubbier than her, and I’m wearing my most comfortable, most untrendy black leggings and oversize tee.

  “We got back, like, uh, now. I came straight over; the door was open. Oh, I hoped you’d be here! Callie, we’re going to have so much fun. We’re going to rule Grade Eleven, just like we planned, remember?”

  I remember, I want to say. I remember how much it hurt when you left and didn’t say goodbye. I lean against the counter.

  She says, “You wanna know what happened, right? I bet you wondered. Did you, like, stalk me online?”

  “Um …”

  “I’m not easy to find. I know. So retro, it’s cool.” She lowers her voice conspiratorially. “See, I’m not under my real name. I’m Kansas Pearl.”

  “I did look for you, course.”

  “There’s so much I have to tell you. But first, you. How are you? How’s everything? Baby brother? Where is he?”

  “Upstairs. Wanna meet him?”

  “Or you could come to Kevin’s house and unpack with me. Remember? That’s what we did last time.”

  “Your mom’s back with Kevin?”

  “Seems he’s running things at the potash mine now. Big shot. Bought me this dress.” She widens her arms to show it off.

  “I’ve seen him around. He never said … Not that he’d think to tell me, I guess.”

  “So, will you come?”

  “Unpack? Sure. Let me tell Mom.”

  “I can’t believe you’re still here,” she says. “You look great. Beautiful, as always.”

  I laugh off her compliment. “Yeah, yeah.”

  “I really missed you.” She reaches for my hand and squeezes it.

  I squeeze back. “I came over with flowers the day after. Kevin answered the door and told me you’d gone.”

  “And now I’m here.”

  “You are.” I find myself smiling.

  She drops my hand. “It wasn’t up to me, you know.”

  “I bet.” Cosmo starts yelling upstairs. I say, “I’ll text Mom later. She probably won’t even notice. Come on, didn’t you sa
y you had unpacking to do?”




  Xander gets into his car and I slide into the passenger seat. He mutters, “Go, go.”

  People are streaming out like rats. One of the cheerleaders takes flash photo after flash photo of Xander’s car. A gruesome online montage will follow. Sick. A group of girls press around Angel, gasping, crying. Stop, I want to shout, but I yell at Xander instead.

  “Get moving, would you?”

  Xander says nothing. He turns his key, hits the accelerator.

  Outside, the quarterback rounds people up. Get them away. Good. Then I’m calculating the distance from the bridge to the river, the impact, the speed of the car. Party forgotten.

  Xander doesn’t speak. He’s the guy you want beside you when you’re stuck in a lifeboat. The guy you want with you when your plane crashes in the Amazon and everyone else is dead.

  That word. Solid. Final. A flat, dull word punctuated at either end by the tongue. I’ve spoken out loud. Dead.

  Xander says, “Come on, man. Give me something.” His phone beeps. “Yep,” he says, reading the text. He chucks the phone between us. I read the message: St Mary’s Hosp. It’s from that ER friend of his.

  Xander takes a left too sharply, tense. Speeds through a red light and crosses the other bridge, the narrower one. I don’t want to look at the main bridge, the one the car went off, but I crane my neck. The flash of police lights. Boats below. Four of them. I imagine her under water, struggling to breathe, trapped in the car’s metal embrace.

  Callie would like that image. Man, would she ever.

  Xander hustles down a residential street at seventy K. Too fast. But go faster. Hurry. He’s making a right on Main, past Callie’s house. I see through the window, although I wish I hadn’t, her baby brother, Cosmo. Held in someone’s arms. Screaming.



  “Still messy?” says Callie.

  “Who, me?” We’re in my bedroom, unpacking my clothes and trying to fit everything into a space that’s still plastered with posters of boy bands we used to adore. Stuff is all over, clothes piled everywhere, magazines, my brand-new laptop—thanks, Kevin—eReader, old photographs. There’s one of me and Callie. I hold it up.

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