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The Burning Girl


You’d think it wouldn’t bother me now. The Burneses moved away long ago. Two years have passed. But still, I can’t lie in the sun on the boulders at the quarry’s edge, or dangle my toes in the cold, clear water, or hear the other girls singing, without being aware the whole time that Cassie is gone. And then I want to say something—but you can’t, you know. It’s like she never existed.

So either I don’t go out there in the first place, or I end up coming straight home, dropping my bike on the back lawn with its wheels still spinning, and banging the screen door so loudly that my mother startles each time, and bustles through to the kitchen and looks at me, her eyes filled with emotions that I glimpse one after the other—love, fear, frustration, disappointment, but love, mostly. She usually says only one word—“Thirsty?”—with a question mark, and that word is the bridge from there to here, and I either say “Yep” or “Nope” and she either pours me water from the jug in the fridge or she doesn’t. We take it from there, we move on.

In this way the days pass and will keep passing—wasn’t it Cassie herself who used to say, “It’s all just a question of time passing”?—and we’ll get to the end of this summer, the way we got to the end of the last one, the way we got through all that happened over two years ago now. Each day puts a little more distance between now and then, so I can believe—I have to believe—that someday I’ll look back and “then” will be a speck on the horizon.

It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means. Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are. I can begin when Cassie and I were best friends; or I can begin when we weren’t anymore; or I can begin at the dark end and tell it all backward.

There’s no beginning “before,” though: Cassie and I met at nursery school, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know her, when I didn’t pick her sleek white head out of a crowd and know exactly where she was in a room, and think of her, some ways, as mine. Cassie was tiny, with bones like a bird. She was always the smallest girl in the class, and the span of her ankle was the span of my wrist. She had shiny, white-blond hair, almost albino she was so fair, her skin translucent and a little pink. But you’d be wrong to mistake her size and pallor for frailty. All you had to do was to look into her eyes—still blue eyes that turned gray in dark weather, like the water in the quarry—and you could see that she was tough. Strong, I guess, is a better word. Although of course in the end she wasn’t strong enough. But even when we were small, she had a quality about her, a what-the-hell, an “I’m not chicken, are you?” sort of way.

According to my mother, and to Cassie’s mother, Bev, Cassie and I became friends in the second week of nursery when we were four years old. That was always the story, though I can’t tell now whether I remember it, or have just been told so many times that I invented the memory. I was playing with a group of kids in the sandbox, and Cassie stood in the middle of the playground, hands at her sides like a zombie, staring at everything, not apparently nervous, but totally detached. I left my friends to come touch her elbow, and I said—so I was told—“Hey, come build a castle with me?” And she broke into that rare, broad smile of hers, a famous smile, made all the better when she was bigger by the Georgia Jagger gap between her front teeth. She came with me back to the sandbox. “And that,” my mother always said, “was that.”

When you’re in nursery school, you don’t think too much about it. Both only children, we said that the other was the sister we never had. Nobody could mistake us for blood relations—I was as tall for my age and as big-boned as Cassie was small, and my hair is dark and curly. But we shared our blue eyes. “Look at our eyes,” we’d say, “we’re secret sisters.” I knew her house and her bedroom as well as I knew my own. Cassie lived with her mother on a dead-end side road off Route 29 at the entrance to town, in a newish subdivision built in the ’90s, when the economy was good. A perfect little Cape house on the outside, it looked as though it had been picked up from somewhere else and plopped on its modest plot of land: a white house with red shutters, dormer windows, a long, sloping dark roof, and a careful skirt of lawn out front, a little skimpy and each year more weedy, until it was more crabgrass and clover than lawn, and a funny white picket fence, just a U of fence, with a gate at the front walk, but it didn’t go all the way around the house—an ornamental fence, I guess you’d call it. Just beyond the fence and behind the house spread nature unadulterated, rampant Queen Anne’s lace and maple saplings, eager acacias and elders reaching for the sky, and beyond this first wildness, the dark northeastern forest, not twenty feet from the back of the house, a constant reminder that the trees and hawks and deer and bears—we saw a mother and her cubs on the tarmac of the cul-de-sac one time, on their way to check out the garbage cans—had been there long before humans showed up, and would surely be there long after.

The word that comes to mind is “encroaching”: it felt like the forest was encroaching on the Burneses’ house, although in truth of course it was the other way around: the developers had made humans encroach upon nature. Houses stood on either side of the Burneses’, bigger models than theirs, plain cedar shingles rather than white, surrounded by swollen hungry bushes. The family on one side, the Aucoins, kept two German shepherds, often outside, that terrified us when we were small. Cassie always claimed one of the Aucoins’ houseguests had had a hole bitten out of his butt by the bitch, Lottie, but this couldn’t have been right, I realize now, or the Aucoins would’ve had to have Lottie put down. Cassie liked a good story, and it wasn’t so important that it be strictly true.

Cassie’s mother, Bev, was a nurse, but not a regular nurse in a hospital. She worked in hospice care and every day she drove in her burgundy Civic full of files and equipment to the homes of the dying, to make sure they were comfortable, or as comfortable as they could be. My father, who isn’t religious—who won’t even go to church at Christmas with my mother and me—said that Bev did “God’s work.”

Bev was always cheerful—or almost always, except when she wasn’t—and matter-of-fact about her job. Devoutly Christian, she didn’t get teary about her clients dying—she always said “passing”—and she spoke as though she was helping them to prepare for a mysterious but possibly amazing trip, rather than helping them to prepare for a hole in the ground.

Bev had big, soft breasts and a broad behind. She wore long, flowy printed skirts that swirled when she walked. Only her delicate hands and feet reminded me of Cassie. Bev’s greatest vanity was her hands: her fingernails were always perfectly manicured, oval and filed and painted pretty colors like hard candies. That and her hair, a sweetsmelling honey-colored cloud. When you hugged Bev, you smelled her hair.

My mother was not at all like Bev, just as my house is not at all like Cassie’s. And I have a father, and in that sense we were always different. For a long time, Cassie liked being at our house because she could pretend that we really were secret sisters, that my family was her family too.

My parents settled in Royston not long after my father finished school, before I was born. When they moved into our house it must have seemed as vast as a castle: a ramshackle hundred-and-fifty-year-old Victorian with five bedrooms, a wraparound porch, and a building behind that used to be stables. Not fancy, just old. The kitchen is older than my mother—a 1950s kitchen, with white cupboards that don’t close all the way and black-and-white checkerboard lino—and when the furnace kicks in, it sounds like a cruise ship.

My father is a dentist, and he has his office in the stables. On the big lawn, a shield-shaped shingle announces dr. richard robinson, dentist, dds, facs in black capitals. It squeaks when it’s windy. When he goes to work, he walks a hundred feet out the back door. On the other hand, when someone has a toothache at ten o’clock at night, they know just where to find him. Tracy Mann, the hygienist, comes in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and dad’s assistant, Anne Boudreaux, has been there every weekday since I can remember. She’s about the same age as my parents but seems older, maybe because she wears a lot of makeup. She has a dark mole on her upper lip like Marilyn Monroe, but on Anne it isn’t what you’d call sexy.

My mother is a freelance journalist, a vagueness that seems to mean she can be a journalist when it suits her. She writes restaurant and movie reviews for the Essex County Gazette, and for the past few years she’s written a literary blog that has a following, including an adult English class in Tokyo that writes very polite comments. The third floor of our house is her office—my friend Karen’s dad did the renovation when I was in first grade. Karen moved to Minneapolis when we were nine.

My room is next to the bathroom on the middle floor, facing to the side, with a view toward the Saghafis’ next door. They put in an aboveground pool a few summers ago, and I hear their kids splashing around all season long. As soon as it’s warm enough to keep my window wide open, they’re out there. The Saghafis said we should feel free to come over and use the pool anytime, but I don’t anymore, because their kids are an awkward amount younger than I am, and always in the water.

I did, though, the first summer they had it. My father called the pool “an eyesore,” but my mother said, “let people have their fun.” She said I should take them up on their open invitation, that we’d seem standoffish if we didn’t. I went almost every day with Cassie, that summer. I’d just turned twelve: the summer before seventh grade. The Saghafi kids, still too young to swim without their mom’s supervision, weren’t around nearly as much then, and Cassie and I spent entire afternoons swimming and tanning and talking, then swimming and tanning and talking some more, with great deliberation, as though we followed to the letter a complicated recipe.

If I could go back, I’d write it all down: the secrets we told each other and the plans we made. The songs we listened to, even, when we turned up her iPod so it sounded like a scratchy transistor radio: “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, and that hit Rihanna made with Eminem, so catchy but creepy when you actually listened to the words. “Stand there and watch me burn . . .” My mother changed the station when it came on in the car, shaking her head and saying “Girls, I’m sorry, but as a feminist, I object.”

Reprinted from The Burning Girl by Claire Messud. Copyright ©2017 by Claire Messud. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Burning Girl
by by Claire Messud

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393356051
  • ISBN-13: 9780393356052