In this debut novel a budding teenage journalist at an elite prep school and her enigmatic science teacher each separately attempt to track down a secret society that may hold damning evidence about a shadowy tragedy in the school's and the teacher's.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
May 07, 2012
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Excerpt from The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
These pressure-loving microbes live in the ocean depths under extreme hydrostatic pressure. They exist not in spite of the ocean's crushing weight, but because of it. Without this pressure to fight against, they would perish.
--Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth's Mysterious Biology
THE DAYS WERE already growing shorter, prodding us toward summer's end, when my mother and I left Boston for the sequestered town of Nye. She hummed to the radio and I sat strapped into the passenger seat, like a convict being shuttled between prisons. In the last six months my Beacon Hill neighborhood had shrunk to the size of a single room: Dr. Patrick's office, with its greasy magazines and hieroglyphic water stains. The vast landscape that opened before us now wasn't any more comforting. The mountainous peaks resembled teeth. The road stretched between them like a black tongue. And here we were, in our small vehicle, speeding toward that awful mouth.
From the maps and photographs I had uncovered at the Boston Public Library, I knew that Nye would be a nest of gloomy woods sunk into one of these mountains. The mountain had no name, which troubled me. Even the word "Nye" sounded like a negation, an absence, a place conflicted about its own existence.
My mother (Ivy League MRS recipient and full-time philanthropy board member) was unimpressed by this detail. In fact, she was chipper as a Today Show host. "Isn't it exciting, Iris! Starting high school on a new foot?"
"You want to replace my biological foot with a prosthetic one?"
"Don't give me that clich� nonsense."
You mean anti-clich� nonsense, I thought, and switched the station to NPR. I tried to let the familiar voices soothe me, but every mile brought us closer to the hunching mountains, those hills overlapping like the folds of a thick curtain, hiding Nye from sight.
The official reason for my family's move was professional. My father (savvy businessman, befuddled parent) was opening a second Berkshires resort for tourists who liked to experience nature while they had their leg hair singed off with lasers and their eyelashes dyed. The unofficial reason we were leaving Boston, however, was Dr. Patrick. I'd started seeing him six months before, after my mother found me arguing emphatically with the wall. Well, all she saw was the wall, but I was having a conference with my spiritual mentor, Edward R. Murrow. (And, yes, I knew he'd been dead for forty-seven years, but why should a person limit her interlocutors to the living?) And because there was no "What to Do When Your Daughter Talks to Dead Journalists" chapter in the myriad self-help books my mom had been reading, she shipped me straight off to the good doctor.
After rooting around inside my head for a while, Dr. Patrick decided I was in the "gray area for developing depression and anxiety." ("Gray area" was a clich�, I complained to Murrow. If Patrick was going to worry his patients with ominous diagnoses, he could at least do so with less tired nouns and verbs.) Of course, the announcement of my encroaching mental collapse sent my parents into nuclear-winter mode. It wasn't healthy, they fretted, for a fourteen-year-old to spend her time writing rough drafts of her Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech, or to show a greater interest in nationally renowned media personalities than in boys, or to make imaginary friends instead of real ones. I'd had a "very difficult year" (hardly breaking news to this reporter), and I needed a chance to heal. So off we went to my very own Magic Mountain.
I'd been watching the trees flash by for hours now, hypnotized by the endless thicket of forest, when our car rounded a bend and hurled us toward a wall of rock. I gripped the seat, bracing for the crash, but the road skirted the rock face by inches and swept us into the mountains. Their shadows engulfed our car like nets and hauled us in. Soon we were ascending a series of slopes, each steeper and more densely wooded than the one before it. Whoever built these roads had confused a highway with a roller coaster, and my stomach twisted with the wrenching turns and precipitous climbs. The leaves shivered, reminding me of my best friend, Dalia, bare-armed and shaking in the late-fall wind. I don't remember why she'd run outside on that particular occasion, only that her father was forced to carry her back into the house.
"Roll up the window, sweetie," my mother said, and the picture of Dalia dissolved in a blur. I stared in the side mirror, watching as the trees swallowed the road. The seat belt held me like a straitjacket.
In the late afternoon we turned onto Church Street. After our long ascent toward Nye, we were suddenly plunging downward as though into the pit of a canyon. Tall, turreted Victorians rose to the left and right, narrow and sharp as spikes. They reminded me of oversize dollhouses in various stages of decay and abandonment. My mother kept her foot on the brake, the car sliding around each turn. And just when I swore we were going to fall into some sinkhole and never be heard from again, we stopped. There before us were three stories of creamy, upper-middle-class, Colonial largesse, complete with wraparound porch and swing. This home belonged to my father's friend Elliott Morgan, and we'd be living here while the house my parents had bought underwent renovations. Mr. Morgan was in my father's final club at Harvard (i.e., mated to him for life), and as he was currently in London researching a book on long-winded British writers, he'd offered us his family manse. A small team of movers who'd come ahead with my father scurried back and forth through the open front door.
I unfastened myself and went to inspect an enormous oak tree standing sentry at the yard's edge. The tree was gnarled with branches that rose above my head in endless chutes and ladders. I felt an urge to shimmy up the trunk and burrow into the leaves. Instead, I went looking for my bedroom. I was to live in the space previously occupied by the Morgans' only child, Lily, now grown and departed from the Commonwealth. "It makes perfect sense," my mother said when she first announced the decision. Perfect sense to sleep in another girl's bed, study at her desk, pee in her toilet? Or maybe we were doppelgangers, since I was a flower (Iris) and she was a flower (Lily). Of course, Lilies were no competition for Irises. Iris was the goddess of dawn and helped the Dionysian masses wake up hangover free. Lilies, on the other hand, reeked of death. Even in new bloom, their sweetness smelled rotten.
I'd never met Lily, but I knew (excellent eavesdropper being part of my growing reporter's skill set) that she had suffered some awful tragedy as a teenager. The parents Dupont refused to provide specifics when I questioned them, worried as they were about my fragile emotional state. "It's in the past," my mother said.
Anyway, I knew Lily's room when I found it. From the carpet to the flowered wallpaper to the matching bedspread, it was colored like a powder puff. I eyed the pink dust ruffle that skipped across the bed frame and the lacy pink pillows. Not only did Lily appear to have a princess complex, but her room looked like it hadn't been touched in years. Most parents turned childhood bedrooms into home offices when their kids left for college, unless a child died young. But Lily was alive and well, my parents said--a health worker in Africa.
I walked by the boxes the movers had left on the carpet and checked out the view. Church Street rose slick and black uphill, sweet for sledding as long as I minded the oak tree at the bottom. Beside the window sat a desk with a monstrous computer and a corded telephone. They seemed like relics from a distant past.
"Iris!" my father's voice boomed from the first floor. "Iris, are you in the house?"
I opened Lily's closet. Had the movers already unpacked the navy blue and maroon uniforms from my new school? No--these were Lily's old clothes, still on their hangers after a decade. Bizarre people, these Morgans. I pushed her uniforms back to make room for mine.
Nye has two school choices for families concerned with academic rigor and social prestige: Mariana Academy and Blessed Sacrament. And because Mariana has been scandal central in recent years (the New England parental grapevine travels at broadband speed), I was sure I'd be packed off to Blessed Sacrament faster than you can say Jesus Christ Superstar. Luckily, Mr. Morgan stepped in from across the pond to make a pitch for Mariana's academic superiority. As the school's former headmaster, he refused to hear of me going anywhere else.
The absence of dictatorial nuns was a bonus, but Mariana's uniform wasn't much better than the one at BS. Sartorial brainwashing, I told my mother, and she countered by producing a New York Times Sunday Styles article about the "hot private school trend" of accessorizing. I explained that a so-called trend in a major national newspaper these days consisted of no more than three people (usually the reporter's friends) doing the same thing at the same time. And in any case I had my own kind of accessories: a smartphone with digital recorder, a reporter's notebook, and ballpoints.
"Iris! Sweetie, are you all right?" My mother had joined my father in the search effort.
I started opening boxes. I found a picture of my junior high newspaper staff and then a photograph of Dalia. She stood in the snow, her lips red as though stained with cherry juice.
"We were calling you, Iris!" I turned to see my parents in the doorway. My mother looked at me with concern. My father looked at my mother with concern. And I wished the door were closed so I wouldn't have to look at either of them.
"I heard you loud and clear," I said, infusing the clich� with ample sarcasm. My mother didn't notice, though, because she was looking at the picture of Dalia in my hands. I put the picture down, and my mother glanced up, her eyes damp. My father put his hand on her back and led her away. When they left, I found my Edward R. Murrow poster and hung it on Lily's wall. The poster showed Murrow beside a British taxi, the suave tilt of his fedora casting a shadow over his left eye, an unlit cigarette propped between two gloved fingers. Moments after the photo was taken, he would have zoomed off to report the action of the day. But for this one moment he stood frozen, his shrewd face ready to greet me whenever I walked into the room.
The next morning, I woke up inside the cotton-candy cyclone of Lily's pink sheets. Sun streamed through the window, illuminating just how little unpacking I'd accomplished the previous night. The problem was Lily's stuff. Glossy magazines lined the shelves along with stacks of CDs including the likes of Pink Floyd, the Ramones, and some heavy metal-type album hand-labeled Sacrificial Lamb. I wondered if Lily was schizo, because frilly room + hipster culture + metalhead = Total Confusion. There was only one empty shelf in the whole room: directly across from the bed and bearing a single book, its cover facing out like a bookstore staff pick.
I climbed out of bed and pulled the book down. The dark blue cover bore an ornate faded script: Marvelous Species: Investigating Earth's Mysterious Biology. I gently opened the flap, and the book released a puff of dust. Coughing, I turned to the title page and read the inscription: To Lily, marvel of my life. Justin.
A boyfriend, I thought, swallowing a pebble of bitterness. But there was no reason to feel competitive. Just because I was living in Lily's room didn't mean I had to be her equal in all things. Not to mention the fact that my journalistic ambitions gave me little time for boys.
I replaced the book and moved on to Lily's dresser. Was I supposed to pretend my underwear wasn't sharing a drawer with somebody else's? I fingered a plain cotton bra (34A) and a pair of cotton undies (size Small). I was smaller than her, but my breasts were a lot larger--so there! Only then I felt guilty; Murrow would not approve of petty snooping.
Later that day, my parents drove me to school for the pre-frosh ice cream social. The buildings on Mariana's campus were 150 years old, according to my new-student packet, and they loomed before us like a nineteenth-century castle upon the English moors. The majestic green fields and Gothic edifices (stone arches, ribbed vaults, and what looked like a couple of flying buttresses) were beautiful, but I felt a pang of paranoia. The place screamed asylum more than school.
We passed through the iron gates and parked outside Charles Prisom Hall. This was a fortress in its own right, and I imagined a dungeon below it, naughty students shackled to the walls. According to my packet, Prisom Hall included the main office, a refectory, and classrooms. But instead of bustling life, stillness prevailed: if I yelled, the walls would not only swallow my voice, but steal it from me.
Beside Prisom Hall sat Mariana Quarters, home to the library, Admissions, the Diversity Center, and the Development Suite. (What in God's name were they "developing," and why did the activity require multiple rooms? It was enough to make a reporter shudder.) The final building was Henry Prisom Gymnasium, its synthetic tennis bubble a glaring aesthetic anachronism. These three structures, as well as the adjacent lower/middle school campus, were connected by a maze of slate walkways that bisected and intersected at the buildings like rivulets. According to my campus map the walkways stretched even farther, beyond the soccer goalposts, past the archery range, and into the woods that lined the school's eastern rim. Eventually they pooled together, dead-ending at a single dormitory.
"Known colloquially as the Outpost," the student packet read, "this former dorm houses the occasional visiting sports team. Our students relish scaring their opponents with ghost stories about the Outpost's historied halls." Talk about overselling a place. But the immediate buildings objected. We are all historied, their stone fa�ades seemed to say, and who are you to dispute it?
Suddenly a girl rushed by me, so close she brushed my sleeve, and jumped into an embrace with her friend, who was coming from the opposite direction. Their thin arms and long hair entangled, and laughter spilled from their mouths. Dalia and I used to laugh so hard we worried that our stomachs would explode. My nose twitched, the precursor of tears. Keep it together, Dupont, I thought, and put on Edward Murrow's See It Now stare, an expression that said, Back off.
My parents were getting back into the car. "See you in an hour!" my mother called. My father waved too, but he looked relieved, as though the car were suddenly lighter without my emotional burdens. The two girls had skipped off. I was stranded. What would Ed Murrow do, I wondered, and turning around, spotted a pale, skinny man not ten feet away. He had a sharp, devilish chin and a burst of flame-colored hair, and though he resembled an awkward schoolboy all the way down to the hands stuffed in khaki pockets, his expression of displeasure and intelligence suggested a serious adult. He scanned the crowd, shaking his head. He was upset. Here was a potential friend, I thought, someone who felt as out of place as I did. I shuffled a few feet closer. "Are you all right?" I asked.
The man snapped his head in my direction. "Excuse me?" His voice was inexplicably indignant.
I steeled myself against his scowl (now clearly directed at me) and reminded myself that it was a reporter's prerogative to address total strangers. "I didn't mean to pry," I said.
"Oh, but you did. The empirical evidence of prying is quite clear."
The man fixed his blue eyes on me, and I had the feeling that they were zooming in like camera lenses. I shrunk into myself. The way he stared at me, his unblinking eyes sliding over my face like some kind of retinal scanner, reminded me too much of Dr. Patrick. I shuddered at the thought of this stranger navigating my cerebral topography. I wanted to run away, vaporize if possible, but I couldn't move.
Then the man blinked. Now he was an ordinary person with a bored expression. "Shouldn't you be off chatting with your friends?" He nodded toward the ice cream tent. I detected more than a little disdain in his voice, as though to have friends among this crowd was the worst of all options.
I considered responding that I didn't have any friends here, but I didn't want to provoke him. "Sorry to bother you," I mumbled, and hurried away without looking back.
The line in the ice cream tent was long, which was good, because it gave me something to do. I wondered what kind of ice cream Edward Murrow liked but decided he probably wasn't a dessert person. I wondered about Lily Morgan's pre-frosh social. As the headmaster's daughter, she must have had people flocking to her, if only to ingratiate themselves with her father. I imagined Lily as a girl whose life was a string of parties, dances, and dates. And at least one person had been genuinely in love with her. Lily, marvel of my life.
At the front of the ice cream queue, the scooper--an older student who looked like he'd rather be spending his last days of summer freedom playing violent video games--handed over my cone and nodded for me to scram. I peeled away from the line and was again stranded alone. I edged through the tent until I found an empty spot from which to scan the crowd. The groups of students seemed to break apart and reconstitute in new configurations every few seconds. It was dizzying to watch. There was just a single person who wasn't moving: the red-haired stranger. His gaze zigzagged through the crowd, but when he found me, his eyes slammed into mine. He shook his head like I'd disappointed him--like I owed him something. This made no sense, but I felt rattled anyway.
When a student moved in between the stranger and me, I ducked into the crowd and tunneled through, moving away from his skinny body and red hair. Then I turned and fled. I spent the rest of the hour in the girls' bathroom, eating my ice cream in slow bites, waiting for my parents' return.