Give me your hand, p.1
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       Give Me Your Hand, p.1

           Megan Abbott
 
Give Me Your Hand


  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Title

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Prologue

  I. THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  II. NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  THEN

  NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  III. NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  NOW

  Ten Years Later

  THEN

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Also by Megan Abbott

  Discover More Megan Abbott

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Copyright © 2018 by Megan Abbott

  Author photograph by Drew Reilly

  Cover design by Julianna Lee; art by Mat Collishaw

  Cover copyright © 2018 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Little, Brown and Company

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  First ebook edition: July 2018

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  ISBN 978-0-316-54728-4

  E3-20180608-NF-DA

  For Jack Pendarvis

  Prologue

  I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together.

  We are bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race.

  Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators.

  Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place.

  It’s that powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else.

  Sometimes it feels like Diane is a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood.

  On occasional nights, stumbling to the bathroom after a bad dream, a Diane dream, I avoid the mirror, averting my eyes, leaving the light off, some primitive part of my half-asleep brain certain that if I looked, she might be there. (Cover your mirrors after dark, my great-grandma used to say. Or they trap the dreamer’s wandering soul.)

  So, even though I haven’t seen her in years, it isn’t truly a surprise when Diane appears at the Severin Lab, my workplace, the building in which I spend most of my waking life. Of all the labs in all the world, she had to walk into mine. And everything begins again.

  The strangest part is how little we actually know about each other. Not our birthdays, our favorite songs, who made our hearts beat faster, or didn’t. We were friends, if Diane is friends with anyone, only for a few months and long ago.

  But we do know the one thing no one else in the world knows about the other.

  The only important thing.

  I.

  The world is blood-hot and personal.

  —Sylvia Plath

  THEN

  This was twelve years ago. We were seventeen, Diane and me, and for the eight or nine months of our senior year, we shared an energy that crackled in both of us, a drive, a hunger, a singing ambition.

  Then, one night, everything broke.

  We were at my house, my mom’s cramped, Lysol-laden house, thick with rescue animals, and absent all privacy. None of the doors fully shut, swollen wood in cheap frames, accordion doors off their tracks. But she told me anyway.

  When it started, we were sitting at either end of my twin bed doing our Hamlet study questions, Diane with her meticulous handwriting and tidy nails, wearing one of her dozen soft-as-lamb sweaters—a girl so refined she could even get a holiday job at the perfume counter at the fancy department store. She always came here to study, even though the house she lived in with her grandfather was three times the size of ours.

  Here we were, so tightly quartered we could hear my mom already creeping to bed, the slith-slith of her slippers.

  Things felt off from the start. Each time I read out a question (“What is Hamlet’s central crisis?”), Diane would look at me blankly. Each time, the same distracted look, stroking the locket around her neck as if it were a genie’s bottle.

  “Diane,” I said, crossing my legs, the narrow mattress undulating with every move, scrunched pillows, spiral notebooks tilting, our cross-country letter jackets and itchy scarves swarmed around our legs, “is this about what happened in class today?”

  Because something had happened: Ms. Cameron had asked Diane to read aloud Claudius’s speech—the best in the whole play—but Diane, pale as Hamlet’s ghost himself, refused to open her book, arms folded and eyes blinking. When she did finally submit, the words came slow as pine sap, as that cough syrup my mom used to give me that tasted like the inside of a dying tree. Diane, Diane, are you okay?

  “Nothing happened,” Diane insisted now, turning sideways, her long blond bangs hanging like a gilt chandelier over that beauty-queen face of hers. “You know, none of these characters are real.”

  It was hard to argue with that, and I wondered if we should just drop it. But there was something hovering behind Diane’s eyes. Diane, who’d never shared a private thought with me that wasn’t about chemistry or college scholarships or the fairness of the ionic-compound question on the last exam.

  I admit it: I wanted to know.

  “Kit,” Diane said, gripping her little Signet Hamlet in her hand now, the gold Jesus ring from her grandfather gleaming, “did you mean what you said in class? About Claudius having no conscience?”

  I could feel something happening, something heavy in the room, a heat shuddering off Diane, her neck pink and pink spots at her temples.

  “Sure,” I said. “He kills his own brother to get what he wants. Which means he just has no morals.”

  For a moment, neither of us said anything, the air in the room pressing our faces with thickish fingers. And what was that buzzing? The halogen bulb? The chugging old laptop the PTA gave all the students who couldn’t afford computers? Or was it like that time I found Sadie, our scruffed-up lap cat, under the porch, covered in flies?

  “Kit,” she said, her voice quiet and even, “do you think it could happen in real life?”

  “What?”

  “Fo
r someone to have no conscience.”

  “Yes,” I said so quickly I surprised myself. I believed it, utterly.

  Diane didn’t say anything, and her hand wrapped tight around that delicate locket, tugging it down, leaving a red ring on her long white neck.

  “Diane,” I said, “what is it?”

  We sat a moment, the buzzing still buzzing and my feet nearly asleep from stillness.

  “Did someone do something to you?” I said. “Did someone hurt you?”

  I’d wondered about it before, many times. I’d known her only a few months and Diane was so quiet, so private, not like any of the rest of us. Private in all the body ways, taking her gym shirt off only behind her locker door. And in how she dressed, like a virgin princess.

  Or maybe I assumed that of everyone. It seemed like everyone had sad stories if you scratched deep enough.

  “No one did anything to me. I’m talking about something I did,” she said, eyes lowered. “I’m talking about myself.”

  “What did you do?” I couldn’t imagine Diane doing anything that wasn’t careful and correct.

  “I can’t say it out loud. I’ve never said it.”

  With anyone else I knew, I could think of a million possibilities. Stole a sweater from the mall, cheated on a test, rolled on molly all through the school day, too much Baileys and three furtive blow jobs before the party was over. But not Diane.

  “Did you crash your granddad’s truck?”

  “No.”

  A sinking feeling began. A feeling of circling something dark.

  “Are you pregnant?” I asked, even though it seemed impossible.

  “No,” she said. And I heard something click-click in her throat, or mine.

  She looked up at me, those golden lashes batting fiercely, but her voice even and calm: “It’s so much worse.”

  Smart never mattered much until you, Diane.

  I’d always gotten good grades, maybe good enough to get a scholarship at City Tech. But I wasn’t thinking even that far ahead, much less as far as you.

  You had a plan for yourself, for what you wanted to be, and you weren’t taking any chances. You were relentless. Everything had to be perfect, fingernails precise little half-moons; those goldenrod mechanical pencils you used, the erasers always untouched. Your answers were always right. Every time. Teachers used your tests for the answer keys.

  What I didn’t know then was that all that perfection, held so tightly, can be a shield, either to keep something out or to keep something in. To hide it.

  And your ambition was itself a gift—to us both—but also some dark evidence.

  “Mom,” I said, “she’s so serious. She works all the time. She gets up at five to run and then do an hour’s homework before school.”

  “Good for her.”

  “She’s learning German on her headphones while she runs. She says she’s going to be a scientist and work for the government.”

  These were things I didn’t think real people did.

  “We used to call them grinds,” my mom said, smiling. “But good for her.”

  “Mom, I just…” A yearning inside me I couldn’t explain, to know things, to be bigger, to care more. I’d never felt it before Diane, but now it was there, humming inside. And my mom seemed to sense it, eyes resting on me as I twisted my hands together, trying to explain.

  “Well,” she said, “you’re the smartest person I know.”

  Diane, after you told me your secret, I’d lie awake at night, staring at the light on my phone.

  I’d think about you. Picture you closing your books at last, scattering eraser rubbings (you had to erase sometimes, didn’t you?) into the trash. Scrubbing your face. Brushing your hair until it gleamed moonlight.

  I wondered if you thought about what you’d done all the time, like I now did.

  Did you rest when you finally shut your eyes?

  Or was that the worst moment? The time when you thought of what you’d done, and how, maybe worse still, you’d gotten away with it. When you get away with something it’s yours only, forever. Heavy and irremediable.

  Sometimes I wondered: Why did you pick me? Attach yourself to me on your first day at our school? Was I the nicest, the friendliest? The easiest, the smartest, second-smartest to you?

  Or was it mere chance, the two of us landing side by side at cross-country, legs bent, at the gate? The two of us in chem lab, elbows on the slab, working the math of it all?

  Or was it me who picked you?

  NOW

  The halls are quiet, soothing.

  I always try to get there at least an hour before the others, if I can. Sometimes, I skip the elevator, slow and halting. Take the stairs two at a time, coffee splashing up my wrist and arm, trying to beat the clock, beat the relentless ambition of the other postdocs and near-postdocs.

  Dr. Severin probably won’t be in for hours, her schedule mysterious and unpredictable, but we swipe security key cards to get in, so she’ll know I’m here. Somehow, I think she’d know anyway. The hardest worker I’ve ever seen—that’s how all my past advisers always described me. I want her to know too, and the card is proof.

  In the fourteen months I’ve been working at the Severin Lab, I’ve been the first to arrive every day but two, once after being sideswiped by a pickup truck en route and once when I was stuck in the elevator and the lab tech with the sequoia-thick arms had to pry the doors open.

  But today, it’s more important than ever to be first.

  In the custodian’s wheeled trash can, I spot the plastic cups from the day before, champagne foam dried to fine powder.

  I smile a little just thinking about it. A nervous smile.

  We’d been summoned to the conference room at five o’clock for the announcement we’d all been waiting for. It was delivered by Dr. Severin in her usual dispassionate tone.

  “We’ve received news,” she said, back of her hand smoothing the skunk swoop in her black mane. “Our NIH grant application was successful. Planning will begin immediately.”

  As if by magic, Dr. Severin’s assistant arrived with a jumbo bottle of California’s finest and a sleeve of plastic flutes.

  We all tried to match Dr. Severin’s cool, but it was a losing battle. Me with my dumb grin. Zell’s face Swedish-fish red. Juwon, unable to stop rocking back on his heels. Even Maxim, reserved and watchful and the most senior of us all, looked like he might weep with joy. We’d all been waiting so long. I can’t pretend my heart didn’t lift like a fist in my chest.

  There were toasts, tongue-tied. Here’s to snagging that last fleck of fat on the federal budget!

  After one twitchy-mouthed sip of Barefoot Bubbly, Dr. Severin made her excuses and we all drifted back to work, keeping our excitement to ourselves.

  I imagined Dr. Severin going home, popping open a bottle of real French champagne with her lover, whoever that was, sliding off her expensive shoes, and tasting sweet victory from one of those special glasses shaped like Marie Antoinette’s breast.

  For us, it had been different, all of us heading home to our various postgrad shoeboxes, eating microwaved burritos, hovering over our laptops. All night, we’d engaged in a group-text crop-dust, the announcement like a starter’s pistol firing. The news was the best we could hope for. But now came the big decision: Who among us would be chosen for the research team?

  The rumor is there will be only three of us on the grant. Someone saw the staff line on the proposed budget. It’s a collaboration with Neuropsych, which will eat up most of the funds, leaving room for only three postdocs out of a pool of nine. Inside, we were all surely thinking the same thing: It should be me. All of us toiling years in the lab, our necks permanently crooked over microscopes, our faces cadaverous from never seeing the sun. We all felt we’d put our time in, and we all shared one thought: This chance should be mine. All of us, the rest of the day, watching one another over our slide trays, through our Erlenmeyers, our clamped columns of ether. This is mine. I thought it, a l
ot.

  Eh, Alex, the newest among us, teased, who really wants to spend two years delving into the dark heart of PMDD?

  We all do, I said. And you know it.

  Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, that’s the subject of the study. A set of symptoms with no agreed-upon cause. Some kind of catastrophic monthly dance between hormones and the feeling and thinking parts of the brain. Striking every month, it’s like PMS only much, much worse. Debilitating mood swings, uncontrollable rage. Abnormal signaling among cells, that’s what scientists only recently discovered. An intrinsic difference in the way these women respond to sex hormones. After decades of doubt about whether it even existed, now science has proven PMDD is not only real, it’s part of the genetic makeup. The women can’t help it, are slaves to it.

  Behind their hands, behind their smirks, some of the postdocs call it Hatchet PMS. Medusa Menses. They’re all men except me, and they can’t even talk about it without twisting their mouths or ducking their heads or making Carrie or Lizzie Borden jokes.

  But they all want in on the grant. It’s the sexy one, maybe a career-maker. I’ve been waiting for it, working for it so long.

  It’s not even seven a.m. when I ride up in the elevator. With the grant news strumming through my head all night, I couldn’t fall asleep and finally gave up trying.

  The minute I step off the elevator, I notice the smell.

  Hot, sharp, scalding, it gets stronger as I head down the long, frigid hallway, its browning ceiling tiles and peeling plaster, the mausoleum feel.

  At first I think it’s some unholy mix of Cheese Nips and the off-brand champagne. But the smell coming from the animal unit is too powerful, powerful enough to feel like a warning.

  “Don’t go in the feed room,” a low voice calls out, and it’s Serge, my favorite fellow early-lurker, fluttering like a skipper moth down the hallway toward the colony room.

  Serge is the head lab tech: tall, Russian, with a severe jaw and black eyes. Quiet and fastidious and always a little sad. Alex calls him the Cat because he moves so silently—slow, stealthy, his feet never making any sound. Once, over tea in the break room, he told me he took ballet until he was fourteen and his father got a good look at the dance belt he was supposed to wear. He informed me it was time to start looking like a man.

 
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