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How She Died, How I Lived
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Girl in Pieces meets The Way I Used to Be in this poignant and thought-provoking novel about a girl who must overcome her survivor’s guilt after a fellow classmate is brutally murdered.
I was one of five. The five girls Kyle texted that day. The girls it could have been. Only Jamie–beautiful, saintly Jamie–was kind enough to respond. And it got her killed.
On the eve of Kyle’s sentencing a year after Jamie’s death, all the other “chosen ones” are coping in various ways. But our tenacious narrator is full of anger, stuck somewhere between the horrifying past and the unknown future as she tries to piece together why she gets to live, while Jamie is dead.
Now she finds herself drawn to Charlie, Jamie’s boyfriend–knowing all the while that their relationship will always be haunted by what-ifs and why-nots. Is hope possible in the face of such violence? Is forgiveness? How do you go on living when you know it could have been you instead?
Wednesday, July 11—
a year and two months ago
Want to hang this afternoon?
I poked a straw into my sno-cone. It didn’t usually come with a straw but the cute old guy who worked at the Hawaiian Chill said he kept them on hand just for me.
What day was it? Tuesday? No, Wednesday. Because Sander wasn’t coming back from his eternal camping trip until Friday, and that was still two days away. Two more days of Sander-less summer in the hick town we call home. I stretched out on a lounge chair, pulled the straw out of my Blue Coconut, and sucked the icy sweetness from the end.
The sun was too bright; the pool, too dead. Monica and Andie would usually be here with me, but Monica was at a church retreat all week and Andie had to help her mom clean out their garage.
So today it was just me and the Anonymous Annoying Family. In the shade of a yellow-striped umbrella, below a sky-blue straw hat, Mrs. Annoying drowsed. Her ten-year-old twins were playing some game where they shouted movie quotes and vaulted off the diving board.
The lifeguard on duty—a bony guy with ostrich eyes and a silver lip ring—gazed blindly from his perch.
Annoying Boy #1: “It’s so FLUFFY!”
Annoying Boy #2: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Annoying Boy #1: “To infinity and beyond!”
I looked back at my phone. Kyle Paxson was a little funny, and not the ha-ha kind. He had my number from Algebra I, back when I was a freshman and he was a senior. But even as a freshman, it didn’t take me long to figure out Kyle was a guy best ignored. Harmless enough, but weird.
“Luke, I’m your father!” Boy #2 hollered, but instead of jumping off the board, this time he grabbed a towel from the edge of the pool and whipped it at Boy #1.
“Let it go!” yelped Boy #1, who did a sassy sort of shuffle, kicking his legs to avoid the towel’s snap.
“I’m Batman!” Boy #2 growled.
I checked my phone. Kyle again.
I have some good stuff.
Of course he had stuff.
The idea of getting high was tempting. It was, like I said, summer… and hot… and dead.
I usually didn’t partake; it made my mind feel like it was covered with felt and Sander said he didn’t like the way I acted. But Sander wasn’t around. Maybe I should do it, I thought. Like practice for college or whatever comes next.
I had started to type Ok, where—when another text came in.
Heading home early. Need my honey girl.
I took a quick selfie of me in my bathing suit with quirked-up lips—an inside joke—and sent it to Sander.
Grabbing my towel, I skipped out to the parking lot and was on my way.
The rest of my life
The Worst Thing
I guess I have Simon Alexander “Sander” Rushford III to thank. He is, in the final analysis, a two-timing jerk. But he saved my life.
A year ago at Stonehenge Pool, I never finished answering Kyle’s text. Instead, I zipped home to shave my armpits and lather my hair with green tea shampoo.
It was Jamie, not me, who answered one of Kyle’s texts to a few random girls that afternoon. Jamie who drove her new Ford Escape to Moser Field on the other side of town.
While she was turning onto the park’s gravel drive, I was slipping a royal-blue sundress over my head, my towel-dried hair dampening the neckline as it slid past. While she was sitting next to Kyle on the vinyl tablecloth he’d pulled from the trunk of his car, I was bounding downstairs, car keys jiggling in my hand. While she was listening to Kyle complain about how his grandma was always riding his ass, I was on the futon in Sander’s basement—Sander’s tongue down my throat, his unwashed woodsy smell pressed against me.
While her pink paisley tank top and jean shorts were stripped from her body. While he beat. While he pried open her mouth to put himself in first, then his fist, then a crowbar. While he choked and kicked her. Wrapped her in the tablecloth. Stomped her head.
I was alive in the dank basement air, Sander’s sweat and pine against my skin.
I was kissing, nipping, thinking about the part in an old time-travel movie I saw, where a guy messes with the past and the family photograph he carries in his wallet starts to turn transparent. That’s how I felt with Sander’s mouth on me. A few more kisses and I’d be completely gone.
I was alive and no one was kicking me. No one squeezed my neck until my throat was raw and breathless and the vomit that surged from my stomach seeped back down my esophagus because it had nowhere else to go. I was alive and running my hands across Sander’s shoulders, down his muscled chest. I was alive, breathing hot air on his neck.
Alive and breathing.
And after, while Jamie’s mom called first her phone, then her friends, then the police—I lay there under the weight of Sander’s outstretched arm, an open pizza box on the floor beside us as he snored pepperoni breath, and I stared at the shifty-eyed cat clock on the wall. Its long black tail swung back and forth, back and forth, a pendulum counting down the empty seconds of my life.
So thanks, Sander Rushford. As it turns out, making me think you loved me while two-timing me with Gemma Cook was not the worst thing you could have done.
I was one of five. The five girls Kyle texted that day. The girls it could have been.
Me. Lindsey Barrow. Taylor Avril. Blair Mattern. Jamie Strand.
The plan was as simple as it was heartless. Draw one of us out to the relative seclusion of Moser Field. Rape one of us. Kill one of us. Take the car. Take the credit cards. Get out of town. It didn’t matter who he killed, he told the cops, any one of us would do.
It was, Kyle said, really about the car. He needed one to leave Midland. This place was making him crazy. All the other stuff, like the part where he bashed Jamie’s head to a pulp—he said that was just a way to get the car.
He had problems, he told them.
But here’s the thing. He also had a car of his own. An old piece-of-crap junker, sure. But it would have driven him, quite literally, out of town.
Maybe it wasn’t nice enough. Like he’d made a list.
Girls Who Drive Nice Cars.
He’d noticed my new VW when I saw him by chance at the Hardee’s a month or so before the murder. My parents had gotten me a Bug for my seventeenth birthday and it still had that new-car glow. Metallic blue with fancy spoked hubcaps and a sunroof. I loved that car. Named it Pony because it was like getting a pony. That special.
I still love it, in a way. But I can’t really, can I? Any love I had for it has been tainted by my hatred for Kyle.
And not that mealymouthed ooh-I-hate-hipster-tattoos or I-hate-the-way-the-morning-show-guy-on-the-radio-laughs-like-he’s-spewing-Jell-O or I-hate-the-mind-numbing-Muzak-they-play-in-bathrooms-at-the-mall.
I’m talking full-throttle, rage-on, red-eyed hate.
When they asked him why he’d targeted Jamie Strand, Kyle told them, “She was just unfortunate.” Like it had nothing to do with him. Luck of the draw. The way the cookie crumbles.
But if it was a car he truly wanted—my Pony, Lindsey’s Toyota, Jamie’s shiny new Ford Escape—if it was, as he said, not “personal,” then why didn’t he just steal one?
Are we supposed to believe he never heard of hot-wiring? Or pocketing someone’s keys? He could have tied one of us up. Left us abandoned on the roadside while he drove away. But no, he had to rape. Had to kill.
Some people say he was obsessed with Jamie. Some say that he was obsessed with sex. But nobody, nobody, says he was obsessed with cars.
Did he think that would somehow make it all right?
I bashed her head so hard that her skull cracked in three places. But it wasn’t personal. I just needed her car.
Kyle texted all of us that day. All the same message. Want to hang this afternoon? Followed by something just for us—an offer of pot or money or dinner out or, in Jamie’s case, a desperate request for “someone to talk to.”
And Jamie was the only one nice enough to give him the time.
She was always nice. Such a sweet girl, they said at her funeral. An angel. Born for sweetness.
She was born, in fact, with one leg shorter than the other, so she shuffled when she walked. Jamie knew what it was to feel other people’s eyes on her—that hum of pity like a stupid song that gets stuck in your head. It might have made some girls bitter. But not Jamie. She laughed before anyone else could laugh at her. She reached out to anyone who didn’t fit in. A sweet girl whose sweetness killed her.
No, that’s not right.
It wasn’t her sweetness. It was Kyle.
When it first happened, talk of Kyle and Jamie was everywhere. How he’d been fired from his job at Advance Auto the week before the murder. Stuff about Kyle’s nutty grandma. Or Jamie’s heartbroken boyfriend. They said Kyle acted weird that July, bragging about how he was going to surprise everyone, do something big. They said Jamie’s mother walked the aisles of the Kroger in her bathrobe the day after the funeral.
They said and they said. So much noise. A cloud of gnats that descended on the town.
But weeks passed, seasons. And the talk was swatted away.
So, now, after almost a year of no news, is it wrong there’s a dead space in my stomach when Kyle’s broad face appears on the front page again? This time with a shaved head, thick black-frame glasses.
Why couldn’t they just lock him away and be done with it? But what we get is GRAND JURY TO HEAR KYLE PAXSON CAPITAL MURDER CASE.
Which is stupid because he already said he’s guilty.
Even so, it could take months.
I lift a clot of mushy green beans from my tray and let the fork drop with a clatter.
I am in the cafeteria of Midland High, five minutes late for my fifth-period psychology class. The hall is mainly empty now, but I still don’t want to go out there. I know where it leads. To windowless rooms, uncomfortable desks, droning voices.
All the same, I stand, shoulder my backpack, and walk over to dump my tray.
I know Lindsey’s silvery voice without turning around.
I didn’t notice her come in. She eats third-shift lunch, so I only see her in the cafeteria when I’m running late.
“Yeah.” I don’t have to ask what she’s talking about.
Kyle, of course. Now that he’s back in the news, the gnats have descended again. Not that Lindsey is a gnat. Her long brown bangs swoop in front of her face and she blows them away. “It’s horrible.”
She walks with me down the hall. Since she’s wearing a navy-blue pencil skirt, like a slinky secretary from a 1940s movie, her stride is shorter than usual, constrained by her hem. I shorten my steps to match hers. The clack of her heels on the hallway tile is so much louder than it needs to be.
“They’re doing another vigil. This Sunday,” she says. “Mark was putting up flyers.”
That would be Mark Lee, official neat freak of Midland High. Of course he’s the one organizing the vigil. He’s the best friend of Charlie Hunt, the dead girl’s brokenhearted boyfriend—and in Mark’s role as best friend, he’s taken to organizing Charlie, too.
Charlie and Jamie had seemed perfect for each other. Both good-looking, both nice in that sunshiny, pay-it-forward way. He was tall. Smart. She was sweet and friendly. When Jamie’s parents got divorced, she moved with her mom into a small brick ranch beside the two-story white colonial where the Hunts lived. Jamie was six at the time; Charlie was four. Literally the boy next door.
People say they grew up in each other’s kitchens. They played together, lost teeth together, and in middle school, when it was time for girlfriends and boyfriends, they picked each other. It never mattered that Jamie was two grades ahead of us. They were the sort of people who could cross that line.
Only now, Charlie isn’t so sunshine anymore. I see him in both of my classes at the end of the day, sixth-period English and seventh-period gym. He’s thinner, shoulders hunched, and he doesn’t smile in that far-off way he had. Or talk.
Or do anything, really.
When Coach Flanagan sends us out for laps, Charlie takes off like a fox with dogs on his tail. He is fast. And graceful. But his running is painful to watch, at least for me. It’s like I see what’s really chasing him. And it’s not dogs.
“Exhibit A,” says Lindsey, pointing to a yellow flyer on the wall outside my psych class. MEMORIAL GATHERING—SUNDAY—7 PM—MIDLAND STADIUM is printed in big block letters at the top, and below is a photo of Jamie: pretty, heart-shaped face; dark, wavy, shoulder-length hair; hopeful eyes. Below that, in a fancy font, SHE LEFT A TRAIL OF BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES EVERYWHERE SHE WENT.
“Hey.” Lindsey holds me back before I go into psych. “So all this”—she circles her hand in the direction of the flyer—“it’s not sending you back, is it?”
She scrunches her face, genuinely sad for me. Disappointed, even. “Oh, honey.” Then she leans in and gives me a hug.
Lindsey feels warm, like a biscuit. Her hair has a sweet strawberry smell. And despite myself, I give in to the hug.
“What was that for?” I ask when she releases me.
“Nothing.” Her face brightens to a grin. “For you! Being you.” She pushes her bangs back, and I see that the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “Call me, okay?”
“Yeah,” I say.
Just then, a burly guy comes out of psych and barges past us with a bathroom pass. Before the door closes, I half wave to Lindsey and slip into class, walking stiffly to keep my sneakers from squeaking.
“Before we can understand what’s considered abnormal, we have to define normal,” says Ms. Ramano.
Some might consider Ms. Ramano abnormal. Abnormally short. Abnormally round. She is almost disc-shaped, like the mirrored face-powder cases women carry in their purses. A face-powder case with legs. But she’s spunky, and I like her. Plus, she lets me off for being late with nothing more than a stern look. Normal is definitely overrated.
“So once we have a norm defined,” she says, “deviant psychology asks how individuals find themselves outside that norm. As with all things, there are various theories.”
She scrawls on the whiteboard:
Norm/Psychoanalytic Theory/Cognitive Development Theory
Her words roll into one another—“a diseased mind, inappropriate learning, improper conditioning, the absence of appropriate role models”—and I think about Kyle. Is it his diseased mind that’s to blame? I mean, of course it is, right? His mind would have to be diseased for him to do what he did. But is that the whole story?
He grew up like most everybody else in Midland, if not in the same neighborhood as me and Jamie, at least in the same kind. There aren’t too many options. There’s Longhorn Place with its old fancy brick homes in shady yards on wide, winding streets north of Main. There’s Emerald Heights with massive McMansions carved into the narrow hillsides surrounding town. There’s the Bottoms by the river, where all the poor people live. Then there’s everybody else living side by side in split-levels and ranches and the occasional two-story with porch. The names of the neighborhoods change, but the neighborhoods don’t. Kyle lived near Center Park with his grandmother in a smallish frame house with yellow siding, two purple-leafed trees in the front yard, and a garden plot out back. It was the kind of house I imagined might have doilies on the coffee table and dusty African violets lining the windowsill. It could have easily been down the street from me, but wasn’t.
But that’s just the house. He said he had problems with his grandma. I’m not sure if he even knew his mom. And according to the gnats, his dad shot himself when Kyle was four. So yeah, that’s pretty messed up. But does it mean he gets to grow up and beat some girl to death—for her car, of all things? Really?
And then for him to be so nonchalant about it. Like it was just another thing he had to check off his list before he headed out of town “on his quest.” That’s how he talked about it in the papers, like he was destined for some epic journey. He’d packed her SUV with clothes, deodorant, drugs, a couple bags of potato chips, a box of cereal, a laptop, and $188 in cash. But he was found a day later not thirty miles from home.
It’s like he got stuck somewhere in his mind, the way he had in algebra class. Did Jamie die because leaving town was a word problem Kyle couldn’t figure out?
Ms. Ramano draws a big red circle on the whiteboard and writes HUMAN MOTIVATION inside. “You have to consider what’s behind it all, an individual’s motivation. What is driving this person—a basic motive like hunger, or a secondary motive, something they aspire to be, for example?”
She turns to us: “What is driving you? Right here, right now, what do you want?”
What do I want? God, what a question. Who knows…
I want to be alive. And to be okay with being alive. To not wake up in the morning and have my first thought be of Jamie; to not lie down at night and have my last thought be of Kyle. I want Jamie to be alive, too. I want to read the paper without the urge to set it on fire in the kitchen sink. I don’t want to flinch when I see the shadow of Kyle’s soft jaw on every broad, bland face I pass. I want to jog down the street, barefaced, without thinking once about what a crowbar can be used for.
I want my life back. Or someone’s life. A new life, maybe.
I want a different past.
I wonder if I would have given him my car if he’d asked me.
In my fantasies sometimes, that’s what I do. Sander doesn’t text. Jamie’s safe at home. It’s me at Moser Field. We smoke together. Kyle tells me his life is a shithole. That he has to leave town. I say, “Take my car. You can have it.” I hand him the keys. Then I run off into the woods at the edge of the field, and he doesn’t follow.
In gym, I watch Charlie Hunt. He is wearing a gray sweatshirt, hood up, shoulders slumped, face down. I don’t think he’s been sleeping. His eyes, what I can see of them, have the slightly bruised look of overripe fruit. Beside him, Mark Lee is crisp by comparison, washed and polished. He probably irons his sweatpants. The kind of guy who puts the “butt” in “button-down.”
Even so, Charlie—the Charlie from before—used to outshine Mark. He used to outshine pretty much everyone. Before, Charlie had a smile that made people feel like at any moment something amazing might happen. Supernova.
Now his face is the pocked surface of a distant moon.
Anyone who didn’t know the two of them might wonder why someone as clean-cut as Mark would hang out with such a… I don’t want to say loser, but it’s probably what someone would think.
For warm-up, Coach takes us up to the practice field and has us run laps. Like usual, Charlie bolts. I don’t know what gets into me, but I take off, too, fast, determined to catch up with him. My feet make an obstinate thwuk-thwuk-thwuk on the track. I’m a good runner, and though he is, too, I’m gaining. Yeah, he had a head start, but he’s running alone, while I am running against him.
As we round a bend, I push myself harder. I don’t have a plan for what will happen once I catch up, but for whatever reason, I’m determined to run beside him.
At the end of the first lap, he is only a few paces ahead. I put my legs and lungs into it, pounding the track, breathing loud, and then I am by his side. I adjust my pace, matching my steps to his. At first, he doesn’t notice me, but after a few seconds of my meeting him step for step, he looks over—not even for a half second, just a glance, but enough to show he’s noticed. Then he speeds up.
Now he is running against me.
I surge forward. My lungs are burning, but it’s a good burn and I drive through it. I no longer want to run beside him. I want to beat him. I want his sleepy eyes to widen at the sight of me as I blow past. I want this, whatever this is, to wake him up.
I imagine we are in a cornfield. The two of us sprinting down the narrow, rutted rows. The wind, the sun at our backs. In my mind, I see myself not just running, but flying, my feet never hitting ground. I slice into the air in front of me, pumping my legs, deepening my breath. Harder. Faster. I run like I was born for this, like I lived for this alone.
The next day in English, Charlie looks at me like I’m some kind of freak. Not blatantly, but enough for me to hear the blip-blip-blip of his freak-dar go off.
I squinch one eye at him like I think he’s the freak.
“All right now.” Mr. Campbell’s southern drawl booms out over the tops of our heads. His hands, which are surprisingly small for a grown man, rub down each side of his cheek, stroking his cropped beard like it’s an exotic and well-loved pet. He is a plaid-shirt-and-crisp-dark-jeans type of teacher, but today he is wearing a thin black tie with the plaid. I’m pretty sure his shaggy chestnut hair teleported onto his head directly from 1982.
“Time for Poem of the Week.” He claps his hands once, enthusiastically. “Clarissa, you’re up.”
Each Wednesday, one of us—a different victim each week—has to stand in front of the class and read a poem. Whatever poem we choose, as long as there’s no bad language. We set it up beforehand with Mr. Campbell and he makes copies for the class. As he passes out the papers, Clarissa Coleson shuffles up and slouches in front of his desk. Her bangs, which aren’t really bangs but a big hunk of brown hair with a dyed pink streak, blur out her face. She pushes them aside, but when she looks down at her paper, the hair falls again, drawing a pink-and-brown curtain between her and the rest of the world.
“So, this is Emily Dickinson,” she mutters. “‘Hope is the thing with feathers…’”
I read the page with Clarissa:
…That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
“Good,” says Mr. Campbell when she finishes reading, even though Clarissa mumbled half the words. “So, what’s your question?”
It’s mid-September, only the second one we’ve done of these, but still we know the drill. The presenter has to ask the class a question about the poem after reading. It’s part of the whole Public Shaming event. And worse, it can’t be vague, like “What do you think about this poem?” or “What part did you like?” Half the time I don’t think even the poets knew what they were talking about, so how are we supposed to know some specific question to ask? When we asked Mr. Campbell about the question part, he said, “Point to a single line, or a single word, and ask about that.”
And that’s what Clarissa does. “It’s about the crumb at the end. In the poem, hope is a bird, right, and it sings even in the cold or the storm or whatever. But it doesn’t ask for anything, not even a crumb. But I don’t get that. I mean, hope isn’t like that.”
Mr. Campbell raises his eyebrows. “Tell me more.”
Clarissa has already returned to her seat. She folds her arms over her chest and stares at her desk like it has the answer. “Hope,” she finally says. “It asks for a lot. You have to put yourself out there to hope. And then sometimes it all goes bad anyway.”
“Excellent question!” says Mr. Campbell, even though I don’t think it was technically a question. “So what does hope ask of us? What is required for us to have hope?”
Mr. Campbell looks expectantly around the room, which is suddenly full of crickets. He paces the trail between the wall and his desk.
Paige Sanchez, because she has a huge crush on Mr. Campbell that everyone except Mr. Campbell finds embarrassing, finally pipes up. “Um, it asks us to believe something even if we can’t know it for sure?”
“Right! And why should we do that? Why do we hope, even when we can’t know something for sure? Even when there’s no logical reason?” Mr. Campbell asks.
I always thought teachers were supposed to have an answer in mind before they ask a question, but I’m pretty sure Mr. Campbell is winging it. I mean, how could he know the answer to that question? Is there even an answer?
Doe-eyed, Paige stares at Mr. Campbell and chews a fingernail. Russell Soto tosses a crumple of paper across three rows to make a perfect swish in the trash can by the door.
“Why do we hope?” Mr. Campbell asks again.
As it turns out, there is an answer to the question and Nick Richert has it. “Because we’re stupid.”
* "The writing grabs readers and never lets go. Crockett delves deep into the heart of grief and pain through her narrator, who is witty and vulnerable, making this a quick but heartrending read. An outstanding debut."—School Library Journal, starred review
"One of my absolute favorite books of 2018! An unforgettable and unputdownable read."—Shelf Awareness
"Crockett has crafted dynamic characters that will stick with readers long after the book is closed."—Booklist
"The narrative voice is highly credible as it canvasses the fluctuating range of emotional highs and lows, the sine curve of fear and empowerment, and the fully realized ethical dilemmas that follow a trauma that hits far too close to home."—BCCB
"[How She Died, How She Lived] authentically portrays the real feelings of someone who survives a tragedy. Recommended for readers of realistic fiction and those who have lost someone close to them in a senseless crime."—VOYA
- On Sale
- Nov 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers