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With thought-provoking prose, Suzanne Phillips explores the psyche of Cameron, a bullied freshman who ultimately does the unthinkable: he kills another student. As she did with Chloe Doe, Suzanne has found a way to make this seemingly dark story ultimately redemptive. But she also dares readers to look at the behavior that provokes violence as having the potential to be as dangerous as the violence itself.
It’s Suzanne’s hope that Burn will inspire readers to take a precautionary stance against bullying rather than waiting to react to it.
Copyright © 2008 by Suzanne Phillips
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: November 2008
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Book design by Alison Impey
I am blessed with the world's best editors. Thank you to Nancy Conescu and Harriet Wilson for their unrelenting support.
Thank you, also, to Jerri Borkert and Tamra Winchell, my first readers, for their thoughtful criticism.
Cameron's mother's new family thing is that you have to tell her everything you did with your day. Last night at dinner he made up an entire Scout meeting. That wasn't hard. He knew they were going to work on slipknots and plan community service. He told his mother he thought he would put in some volunteer hours with Parks and Recreation. He likes being outside. He thought his mother would buy it, not suggest he work at the old folks' home.
"They really need someone to come in and talk to the seniors. Read them books. That kind of thing," his mother pressed.
"Or change their diapers," his younger brother, Robbie, said, and would have laughed until he choked on his chicken, but Randy, their mother's boyfriend, gave him something to think about: "You want to help him, Robbie? You're going to need some volunteer hours for Boy Scouts."
Robbie stuffed his mouth full so he didn't have to answer.
Their mother leaned closer, tapped the table to get Cameron's attention.
"What do you think?" she asked.
She smiled, but when Cameron didn't return it, the corners of her lips fell flat. She'd looked like that a lot, when she was still married to Cameron's father. Unhappy. Disappointed. Afraid.
Cameron's stomach twisted into a fierce knot, and he hated that. She was counting on him to come through for her. She didn't want to worry about him. If it was possible, she'd tuck him into one of her envelopes — bills, coupons, Cameron — and then flit around the house, her office, the grocery store, thinking everything was okay. But it wasn't.
He was mad all the time. Felt it burning beneath his skin. He probably had a higher body temperature just thinking about school, Rich Patterson and his jock punks, and his father, whom Cameron still wanted to hate but couldn't.
His mother's fingers drummed on his forearm. Cameron shook himself out of his thoughts, tried to push down the fire smoldering inside him.
"We're supposed to look for something that'll be a good fit," he told her. Really, the key word was challenging. At the last Scout meeting Cameron actually had attended, they were told to find a new interest, something that would make them think and test their abilities. But talking was something Cameron wasn't good at. At all. Even talking to his mom was getting hard.
"Cameron, I want you to do something that puts you with people," his mom said. "You spend too much time alone."
"I'm never alone," Cameron protested. "I go to school with a thousand other kids." None of them were friends. None of them were anything like Cameron. They all belonged. They were players or gamers or geeks. And Cameron didn't fit with any of them. He was a runner. Too bad sports were ruined for him. His grades weren't good enough now to even try out for the track team. "I don't even have my own bedroom," he finished.
"You had more friends last year," she pointed out.
That was before ninth grade happened to him. The first week wasn't so bad; he blended in. He and his buddy Steve had two classes together (science and Spanish); they ate lunch, checking out each table in the cafeteria for the hottest girl. Steve went for legs; Cameron liked the girls who wore too-small T-shirts and put lip gloss on, even in the middle of class.
But everything changed when he went to sports orientation. His whole body clenched like a fist just thinking about it. They held the orientation at night and his mom was late getting home from work, so they were late — just a minute or two — getting to the gym. Cameron didn't like walking into a meeting already in progress, didn't like being the only thing for people to look at, but he didn't have a choice. He was almost to the empty spot in the bleachers, his mom right behind him, when the coach with the microphone tried to direct them to the girls' gym. Cameron felt his whole body explode with fire. Spontaneous combustion.
He wanted to blame his mom (most of the boys had their fathers with them), but he knew it was his hair, which he had grown out over the summer and was streaked blond by the sun, and his body, which was too small and thin for a guy in high school.
Cameron turned and faced the coach, his whole body stunned and refusing to find cover. The coach stuttered an apology, making the whole thing worse. Then Cameron scrambled into the bleachers and tried to hide.
But it didn't end there. The next day, Rich Patterson, a junior and an offensive lineman on the varsity football team, found him. Cameron was walking upstairs for first period when an arm, all bunched-up muscle, curled around his neck and pulled him to a stop.
"Looky here, guys — it's Cameron Diaz."
And that's what everyone called him now.
The third week of school, Cameron found his name carved into the bathroom wall: CAMERON DIAZ LOVES STEVE FINELLI. Cameron stared at it while his stomach crawled up his throat. He stared at it until everything turned red, like he had looked at the sun until his eyes fried. He didn't try to scratch it out; he couldn't move. The tardy bell rang but didn't shatter his paralysis. It was the first time he had skipped class. For three days he worried about other guys seeing it — seeing it and laughing and thinking he was gay.
He didn't tell Steve about it, but someone did. Steve stopped having lunch with him — stopped going to the cafeteria, period. And he found somewhere else to sit in class, clear across the room. When Cameron called him at home, Steve hissed, "I'm no fag, Grady. Stay away from me," and hung up.
So Cameron went back into the bathroom, a nail he brought from home in his pocket, and was going to scratch out their names, but someone already had. And in black marker someone else had written FAGS with an arrow pointing toward where the names had been.
Cameron was ruined the first week of school. His mom didn't understand: in high school there were no second chances.
"I told you, high school is different." You could actually turn invisible there, but never when you wanted to.
"Not that different. Everyone makes friends the same way. You find someone who likes to do the things you like and, presto, you're friends."
"That's not how it happens. Not now." Not ever.
"You could have joined football with Steven."
"I'm not good at it."
"How do you know?"
"I weigh a hundred pounds. I'd be roadkill before halftime."
His mother's face got that look of concern, where her nose scrunched up and her eyebrows became one big bird of prey. Cameron didn't like the look, mostly because it made him feel bad, heavy in the chest and like his Adam's apple was too big for his throat.
"Then what do you want to do?" she asked.
"I want you to have something you like to do," she insisted. "And people you like to do it with. Friends are important."
"Because you had a whole bunch of friends in high school?"
"No, because I didn't have any," she said. "Well, I had one friend. One good friend, but that didn't happen until tenth grade. High school can be a lonely place, Cameron."
His mother's fingers swirled around the edge of the salad bowl. She only did that when she was nervous.
Cameron could deal with lonely, but the kids he went to school with, the kids who ran the school, were brutal. They roved in packs, flushing the vulnerable out of their shells, cornering them, and taunting or beating on them. Every time he walked through the doors, it was like crossing into enemy camp. He watched his back, spent as little time as he could in the halls, and tried to get through the day without using the bathroom. He stayed away from places where ambush was easy.
"Cameron?" his mom prompted.
"I'm not lonely."
"Well, you have Scouts," she said, picking up her fork. "I guess that's enough. For now. But I want you to do your volunteer hours communing with something other than trees. Seniors are mostly forgotten. I doubt anyone else in the troop will think to volunteer there."
No kidding. "What would we talk about?"
"Laxatives," Robbie suggested, and chuckled.
Randy ignored him. "You could read them the newspaper," he said, dropping his napkin on the table and giving Cameron his full attention.
Cameron didn't look at him; he felt his skin get tight, like he was standing in hot water. It's not that he didn't like Randy Stewart. He just didn't feel comfortable around him. His mother was always breaking up with the guy and Cameron didn't know if he was supposed to like him or not. So he never spent more time with him than he had to. Never talked to him unless Randy started the conversation.
"I don't read the newspaper," Cameron said. He put enough 'mind your own business' into his tone that he hoped Randy would pick up on it.
He did. He smiled at Cameron like any offense was forgiven and suggested, "You can start with the sports page. That'd be painless."
Probably. If he stayed with it. If he started going back to Scouts regularly. It wouldn't be too bad, reading about baseball and March Madness. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at Randy.
"Maybe," Cameron said.
"You'll ask?" his mother pressed.
Cameron cuts through the woods on his way home. It's faster and there's enough space between the trees and rocks that he can push his bike through. He knows these woods like he knows his backyard. When he was a little kid he built a fort here, he and his friends. They smuggled chips and sodas from their houses and sat out here telling made-up monster stories and trading baseball cards. But that was a long time ago.
Cameron finds a boulder with a flat surface, lets his bike drop into the grass, and opens the plastic wrap around the package Mrs. Murdock gave him. Banana-nut muffins. They're still warm and Cameron lowers his face and breathes in the sweet steam. He sits down, plucks the nuts from the tops of each muffin, and tosses them into the brush for the squirrels. Then he eats the muffins, all three.
Mrs. Murdock bakes while Cameron is working in her yard. She moves around her kitchen, slow but determined, and he tries real hard not to look at the window where she sometimes stops and peers out at him. Mrs. Murdock treats him like she would her grandson, if she had one. He wishes she did. Cameron doesn't want to disappoint her, but he knows he will. He doesn't know how to make people happy. He was assigned to Mrs. Murdock by his Scout leader. The project was supposed to last four weeks and end in February; it's March 11th.
Cameron put in his community service hours, but Mrs. Murdock's yard was a jungle and it took weeks just to cut back the overgrown bushes and trim the trees. Today, he put new boards in her fence and mowed her lawn and she spoke to him about turning over a small patch of dirt in the back corner for a garden. So he supposes he'll be back next Sunday, too. And that's how he spent his afternoon.
He doesn't want to tell his mother about it. She doesn't know Cameron is still working on Mrs. Murdock's yard. She'll want to know why, when the job was finished weeks ago, and Cameron has nothing to tell her. Even he isn't sure why he returns, except that whenever he thinks about not going back, he sees Mrs. Murdock's face all bunched up with worry and he thinks about her shuffling around in her house all alone. She once told him that she had outlived all of her friends and Cameron thinks that's a pretty sad place to be. Anyway, if he tells his mom this, she'll get all teary on him. He can do without that.
He finishes the last muffin, stands up and brushes the crumbs from his shirt. He knocks the dirt from his jeans. He looks himself over for any other signs of what he's been up to. Evidence. Randy is a cop and sometimes Cameron feels like the guy can figure him out, know everything that's in his mind, just from looking at him a piece at a time.
Cameron takes the book of matches from his sock and stashes it under a rock. He checks every pocket, twice, then moves through the trees, pushing his bike. From the edge of the woods he looks at his house. There's a light on in the kitchen window, his mother's minivan is parked in front of the garage, and the garbage cans have been moved to the curb. That's his job. His mother must have had Robbie do it because it was getting dark. That means he has to load the dishwasher, unless his mother is going out with Randy tonight. Then Cameron will make Robbie do it, and give him enough grief that he won't tell.
Cameron stands a moment longer, looking at his house like he doesn't live there. It seems normal, like all the other houses in his neighborhood, with bikes in the driveway and the windows lit up. Maybe it's just he who's different. He doesn't feel like he belongs in this house; he doesn't even feel comfortable inside his own skin. Most of the time, he feels like he could swallow a stone and it'd keep on going. Bottomless. Empty.
His mother is in the kitchen, washing lettuce in the sink, when Cameron walks in.
"You're home," Cameron says, wishing he could say something more. He used to hug her when he came home. But he's fourteen now, a freshman in high school. And anyway, he doesn't feel like something more.
"Home for a quick dinner." Cameron's mother looks over her shoulder at him. "I have to fill in for a few hours tonight — make up for my time off."
His mother went with Randy to Philadelphia last weekend. A friend of hers stayed overnight with Cameron and Robbie.
"You've been gone awhile," she says. "What have you been up to?" She places the lettuce on paper towel to drain, then catches him again with her gaze.
Cameron shrugs his shoulders. "Nothing. What's for dinner?"
"Salad for me and Randy. You and Robbie are having mac and cheese and ham sandwiches." She presses the lettuce between the pieces of paper towel. Her eyes never leave him and he feels like he's pinned to the wall. "You okay?"
He doesn't like his mother looking at him like maybe he needs shock therapy.
He walks past her, scuffing his shoes on the tile floor because she hates when he does that and he hates that she worries so much about him but doesn't have a clue. He notices that she waits a full five seconds longer than usual to tell him to pick up his feet.
"They are up," he calls back to her, letting his foot streak across the floor one last time.
Robbie is lying on his bed with the TV remote on his stomach. Cameron snatches it as he passes, changes the channel from Animal Planet to ESPN, and then reaches under his pillow for his stash of candy bars.
"Hey! I was watching that." Robbie lunges toward the remote, but Cameron holds it out of reach.
"You're too old for Mr. Rogers," Cameron says.
"Sharks, dufus," Robbie says. "I was watching a program about sharks."
"Don't you get enough of that at school?"
"This is homework."
Robbie makes another move for the remote and Cameron raises his leg, plants his foot square in Robbie's chest, and pushes him backward. Not hard. Just enough to put his brother on his butt, in the center of his bed.
Robbie's hands curl into fists.
"Turn it back on," Robbie says.
"Or what? You gonna tell Mom?"
Robbie's face turns pink, even his ears.
"Nice blush," Cameron says, knowing it'll make Robbie angrier and that he won't do anything about it. "Don't forget your lipstick."
Robbie is in the seventh grade and is an inch taller than Cameron. He weighs more, too. Robbie takes after their father — he has shoulders to grow into. But he's not a bully. He doesn't lose his temper. Robbie is Cameron's opposite: no matter how many times Cameron plucks at his Achilles heel, his brother doesn't respond. Cameron hates that. Hates his brother's self-control.
He hates that he doesn't have more of it himself.
"I might tell her that you never made it to Scouts," Robbie says. "That was a nice story you made up last night."
"How do you know I wasn't at Scouts?"
"I was at Danny's, working on our science project in his garage. I saw you ride by. Where did you go?"
Cameron thinks about this. He was on his way to Keegan's. He likes hanging out in front of the liquor store. Sometimes, if he's there long enough, some guy will toss him a can of beer from his six-pack. Once, an old guy let him drink from his bottle of Jim Beam. Cameron drank so much that he couldn't feel the ground under his feet the whole way home. But he had to hide in the garage until he could feel his feet again, and then swallow enough mouthwash so his mother wouldn't know what he was up to. She never even guessed, just looked at him a long time across the dinner table, then said, "Did you get your homework done?"
So much for parental control.
"Where did you go?" Robbie repeats.
" 'Where did you go?' " Cameron parrots.
Cameron shakes his head, begins unwrapping a candy bar like it's a banana. He takes a bite and rolls it around in his mouth.
"You ever heard of fun, Robbie?" Cameron asks. "It's something that has nothing to do with school. Nope, you can't find it anywhere near a place full of books and peckerheads."
Robbie's mouth, a lot like their mother's, dips like a half-moon.
"They still picking on you at school?"
Cameron feels his skin burn and all over again he hates that his brother will never know anything about being the underdog. Robbie is too big to ever be messed with like Cameron is.
Cameron pushes himself up until he's sitting on the edge of his bed. He rolls his shoulders back, feels his chest lift, his arms grow, and looks at Robbie to see if he understands.
No. Robbie's face is soft, full of concern. Most of the time when Cameron looks at his brother he sees his father. Then Robbie ruins it; he puts a look on his face so different from anything his father ever shot their way that Cameron can't mistake them. He feels his body loosen. Just like that. He can go from pure fight to nothing in ten seconds.
"What do you know about it?" Cameron asks.
"Just what Danny's brother told me. He said you must have a hard time getting up in the morning when you know you're going to get a beating."
"Arthur is an ass. He got his ass kicked just last week."
"He says that's why he knows life must suck for you. It only happened to him once. He says it's every day for you."
Cameron sits up, holds out his arms, turns his face so Robbie can see both sides.
"You see any bruises?"
Robbie looks him over, his brown eyes slow and full of doubt.
"I guess Arthur doesn't know everything then."
Robbie shrugs and lets the conversation go. "You gonna turn my show back on?"
"Well, since you asked so nice . . ."
Cameron aims the remote at the TV and turns back to Animal Planet and the great white shark that's devouring a seal.
In his mind, Cameron plucks the seal from the mouth of Jaws and shoves a squirming Rich Patterson down the great white's throat. It's more Patterson than anyone else beating on him. And not every day. Sometimes it's a hit and run, or Patterson puts him in a headlock and drags him down the hall talking crap. Sometimes Patterson is already pissed and his fists are heavier and he tells Cameron, "I want you to feel this tomorrow, girly-boy."
Anyway, he doesn't know what to do about it.
Robbie turns back to the TV and Cameron rolls over, rummaging deep between the mattress and box spring for his Ziploc bag of matches. Most of them he got from restaurants — IHOP, Friendly's, The Green Café. He has one from 7-Eleven, another from a gas station, and an entire box of souvenir matches he bought on a class trip to a museum in Philadelphia. He takes the book from 7-Eleven and rips off a stick, then strikes it against the flint. It flares to life.
Cameron loves watching the flame jump as it sucks up pure, clean air and spreads down the cardboard. When the flame touches his fingertips, Cameron closes his mouth and breathes evenly through his nose. He watches his thumbnail turn black and smells the acid burn of human flesh as the flame ignites the tip of his nail. When he feels the first lick of fire against the pad of his thumb, he raises it to his mouth and squashes it against his tongue. He loves that. The burn. The smell and the burn.
The pain screams out of him like a tornado; he feels alive and happy to be. Lately, the only thing that makes him feel like one of the living is fire, and what it does to his body.
"You're not supposed to play with matches," Robbie says without turning to look at Cameron. He has a spiral notebook perched on his knees and is writing down facts from his show.
Cameron pulls another match from the book and strikes it into life. "You gonna add that to your rat list?"
"I don't have a list."
"Well you better start writing some of this down," Cameron suggests, lofting the match through the air, aiming for Robbie's back. "You'll forget something."
The match falls onto the mattress, snuffing out. Cameron lights another one.
"Did you hear me?" Cameron says.
He puts more wind behind this match, but it falls short of the mark. When Robbie shifts on the bed, the match slips under his leg.
"I'm not interested in the things you do."
"Yes you are. You worship me."
Robbie looks at him over his shoulder. "You're crazy."
"That's the way it works," Cameron tells him, holding up the lit match, letting Robbie watch the flame glide down the paper and melt his thumbnail. "All little brothers worship their older brothers."
"Someone forgot to tell me." The flame grows larger and Robbie leans close and blows it out. "You're dangerous," he says.
"Ah. The respect I was looking for."
Cameron smiles, watches the way his brother's face puckers into a frown, and likes it. He worries Robbie — scares him just a little. Exactly what a big brother's supposed to do.
Cameron lights another match and lobs it. It catches on Robbie's flannel shirt. He waits until a swirl of gray smoke rises up from Robbie's back and then says, "Little brother, you're on fire."
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers