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The Lovely Bones, Page 2

Alice Sebold

  “Susie! Susie!” I heard my mother calling. “Dinner is ready.”

  He was inside me. He was grunting.

  “We’re having string beans and lamb.”

  I was the mortar, he was the pestle.

  “Your brother has a new finger painting, and I made apple crumb cake.”

  Mr. Harvey made me lie still underneath him and listen to the beating of his heart and the beating of mine. How mine skipped like a rabbit, and how his thudded, a hammer against cloth. We lay there with our bodies touching, and, as I shook, a powerful knowledge took hold. He had done this thing to me and I had lived. That was all. I was still breathing. I heard his heart. I smelled his breath. The dark earth surrounding us smelled like what it was, moist dirt where worms and animals lived their daily lives. I could have yelled for hours.

  I knew he was going to kill me. I did not realize then that I was an animal already dying.

  “Why don’t you get up?” Mr. Harvey said as he rolled to the side and then crouched over me.

  His voice was gentle, encouraging, a lover’s voice on a late morning. A suggestion, not a command.

  I could not move. I could not get up.

  When I would not—was it only that, only that I would not follow his suggestion?—he leaned to the side and felt, over his head, across the ledge where his razor and shaving cream sat. He brought back a knife. Unsheathed, it smiled at me, curving up in a grin.

  He took the hat from my mouth.

  “Tell me you love me,” he said.

  Gently, I did.

  The end came anyway.


  When I first entered heaven I thought everyone saw what I saw. That in everyone’s heaven there were soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin. That all the buildings were like suburban northeast high schools built in the 1960s. Large, squat buildings spread out on dismally landscaped sandy lots, with overhangs and open spaces to make them feel modern. My favorite part was how the colored blocks were turquoise and orange, just like the blocks in Fairfax High. Sometimes, on Earth, I had made my father drive me by Fairfax High so I could imagine myself there.

  Following the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades of middle school, high school would have been a fresh start. When I got to Fairfax High I would insist on being called Suzanne. I would wear my hair feathered or up in a bun. I would have a body that the boys wanted and the girls envied, but I’d be so nice on top of it all that they would feel too guilty to do anything but worship me. I liked to think of myself—having reached a sort of queenly status—as protecting misfit kids in the cafeteria. When someone taunted Clive Saunders for walking like a girl, I would deliver swift vengeance with my foot to the taunter’s less-protected parts. When the boys teased Phoebe Hart for her sizable breasts, I would give a speech on why boob jokes weren’t funny. I had to forget that I too had made lists in the margins of my notebook when Phoebe walked by: Winnebagos, Hoo-has, Johnny Yellows. At the end of my reveries, I sat in the back of the car as my father drove. I was beyond reproach. I would overtake high school in a matter of days, not years, or, inexplicably, earn an Oscar for Best Actress during my junior year.

  These were my dreams on Earth.

  After a few days in heaven, I realized that the javelin-throwers and the shot-putters and the boys who played basketball on the cracked blacktop were all in their own version of heaven. Theirs just fit with mine—didn’t duplicate it precisely, but had a lot of the same things going on inside.

  I met Holly, who became my roommate, on the third day. She was sitting on the swing set. (I didn’t question that a high school had swing sets: that’s what made it heaven. And no flat-benched swings—only bucket seats made out of hard black rubber that cradled you and that you could bounce in a bit before swinging.) Holly sat reading a book in a weird alphabet that I associated with the pork-fried rice my father brought home from Hop Fat Kitchen, a place Buckley loved the name of, loved so much he yelled “Hop Fat!” at the top of his lungs. Now I know Vietnamese, and I know that Vietnamese is not what Herman Jade, who owned Hop Fat, was, and that Herman Jade was not Herman Jade’s real name but one he adopted when he came to the U.S. from China. Holly taught me all this.

  “Hi,” I said. “My name is Susie.”

  Later she would tell me she picked her name from a movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But that day it rolled right off her tongue.

  “I’m Holly,” she said. Because she wanted no trace of an accent in her heaven, she had none.

  I stared at her black hair. It was shiny like the promises in magazines. “How long have you been here?” I asked.

  “Three days.”

  “Me too.”

  I sat down on the swing next to her and twisted my body around and around to tie up the chains. Then I let go and spun until I stopped.

  “Do you like it here?” she asked.


  “Me either.”

  So it began.

  We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams. There were no teachers in the school. We never had to go inside except for art class for me and jazz band for Holly. The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.

  And our heavens expanded as our relationship grew. We wanted many of the same things.

  Franny, my intake counselor, became our guide. Franny was old enough to be our mother—mid-forties—and it took Holly and me a while to figure out that this had been something we wanted: our mothers.

  In Franny’s heaven, she served and was rewarded by results and gratitude. On Earth she had been a social worker for the homeless and destitute. She worked out of a church named Saint Mary’s that served meals to women and children only, and she did everything there from manning the phones to swatting the roaches—karate-chop style. She was shot in the face by a man looking for his wife.

  Franny walked over to Holly and me on the fifth day. She handed us two Dixie Cups of lime Kool-Aid and we drank. “I’m here to help,” she said.

  I looked into her small blue eyes surrounded by laugh lines and told her the truth. “We’re bored.”

  Holly was busy trying to reach her tongue out far enough to see if it had turned green.

  “What do you want?” Franny asked.

  “I don’t know,” I said.

  “All you have to do is desire it, and if you desire it enough and understand why—really know—it will come.”

  It seemed so simple and it was. That’s how Holly and I got our duplex.

  I hated our split-level on Earth. I hated my parents’ furniture, and how our house looked out onto another house and another house and another—an echo of sameness riding up over the hill. Our duplex looked out onto a park, and in the distance, just close enough to know we weren’t alone, but not too close, we could see the lights of other houses.

  Eventually I began to desire more. What I found strange was how much I desired to know what I had not known on Earth. I wanted to be allowed to grow up.

  “People grow up by living,” I said to Franny. “I want to live.”

  “That’s out,” she said.

  “Can we at least watch the living?” asked Holly.

  “You already do,” she said.

  “I think she means whole lives,” I said, “from beginning to end, to see how they did it. To know the secrets. Then we can pretend better.”

  “You won’t experience it,” Franny clarified.

  “Thank you, Brain Central,” I said, but our heavens began to grow.

  There was the high school still, all the Fairfax architecture, but now there were roads leading out.

  “Walk the paths,” Franny said, “and you’ll find what you need.”

  So that’s when Holly and I set out. Our heaven had an ice cream shop where, when you asked for peppermint stick ice cream, no one ever said, “It’s seasonal”; it had a newspaper where our pictures appeared a lot and made us look important; it had real men
in it and beautiful women too, because Holly and I were devoted to fashion magazines. Sometimes Holly seemed like she wasn’t paying attention, and other times she was gone when I went looking for her. That was when she went to a part of heaven we didn’t share. I missed her then, but it was an odd sort of missing because by then I knew the meaning of forever.

  I could not have what I wanted most: Mr. Harvey dead and me living. Heaven wasn’t perfect. But I came to believe that if I watched closely, and desired, I might change the lives of those I loved on Earth.

  My father was the one who took the phone call on December ninth. It was the beginning of the end. He gave the police my blood type, had to describe the lightness of my skin. They asked him if I had any identifying features. He began to describe my face in detail, getting lost in it. Detective Fenerman let him go on, the next news too horrible to interrupt with. But then he said it: “Mr. Salmon, we have found only a body part.”

  My father stood in the kitchen and a sickening shiver overtook him. How could he tell that to Abigail?

  “So you can’t be certain that she’s dead?” he asked.

  “Nothing is ever certain,” Len Fenerman said.

  That was the line my father said to my mother: “Nothing is ever certain.”

  For three nights he hadn’t known how to touch my mother or what to say. Before, they had never found themselves broken together. Usually, it was one needing the other but not both needing each other, and so there had been a way, by touching, to borrow from the stronger one’s strength. And they had never understood, as they did now, what the word horror meant.

  “Nothing is ever certain,” my mother said, clinging to it as he had hoped she might.

  My mother had been the one who knew the meaning of each charm on my bracelet—where we had gotten it and why I liked it. She made a meticulous list of what I’d carried and worn. If found miles away and in isolation along a road, these clues might lead a policeman there to link it to my death.

  In my mind I had wavered between the bittersweet joy of seeing my mother name all the things I carried and loved and her futile hope that these things mattered. That a stranger who found a cartoon character eraser or a rock star button would report it to the police.

  After Len’s phone call, my father reached out his hand and the two of them sat in the bed together, staring straight in front of them. My mother numbly clinging to this list of things, my father feeling as if he were entering a dark tunnel. At some point, it began to rain. I could feel them both thinking the same thing then, but neither of them said it. That I was out there somewhere, in the rain. That they hoped I was safe. That I was dry somewhere, and warm.

  Neither of them knew who fell asleep first; their bones aching with exhaustion, they drifted off and woke guiltily at the same time. The rain, which had changed several times as the temperature dropped, was now hail, and the sound of it, of small stones of ice hitting the roof above them, woke them together.

  They did not speak. They looked at each other in the small light cast from the lamp left on across the room. My mother began to cry, and my father held her, wiped her tears with the pad of his thumbs as they crested her cheekbones, and kissed her very gently on the eyes.

  I looked away from them then, as they touched. I moved my eyes into the cornfield, seeing if there was anything that in the morning the police might find. The hail bent the stalks and drove all the animals into their holes. Not so deep beneath the earth were the warrens of the wild rabbits I loved, the bunnies that ate the vegetables and flowers in the neighborhood nearby and that sometimes, unwittingly, brought poison home to their dens. Then, inside the earth and so far away from the man or woman who had laced a garden with toxic bait, an entire family of rabbits would curl into themselves and die.

  On the morning of the tenth, my father poured the Scotch down the kitchen sink. Lindsey asked him why.

  “I’m afraid I might drink it,” he said.

  “What was the phone call?” my sister asked.

  “What phone call?”

  “I heard you say that thing you always say about Susie’s smile. About stars exploding.”

  “Did I say that?”

  “You got kind of goofy. It was a cop, wasn’t it?”

  “No lies?”

  “No lies,” Lindsey agreed.

  “They found a body part. It might be Susie’s.”

  It was a hard sock in the stomach. “What?”

  “Nothing is ever certain,” my father tried.

  Lindsey sat down at the kitchen table. “I’m going to be sick,” she said.


  “Dad, I want you to tell me what it was. Which body part, and then I’m going to need to throw up.”

  My father got down a large metal mixing bowl. He brought it to the table and placed it near Lindsey before sitting down.

  “Okay,” she said. “Tell me.”

  “It was an elbow. The Gilberts’ dog found it.”

  He held her hand and then she threw up, as she had promised, into the shiny silver bowl.

  Later that morning the weather cleared, and not too far from my house the police roped off the cornfield and began their search. The rain, sleet, snow, and hail melting and mixing had left the ground sodden; still, there was an obvious area where the earth had been freshly manipulated. They began there and dug.

  In places, the lab later found, there was a dense concentration of my blood mixed with the dirt, but at the time, the police grew more and more frustrated, plying the cold wet ground and looking for girl.

  Along the border of the soccer field, a few of my neighbors kept a respectful distance from the police tape, wondering at the men dressed in heavy blue parkas wielding shovels and rakes like medical tools.

  My father and mother remained at home. Lindsey stayed in her room. Buckley was nearby at his friend Nate’s house, where he spent a lot of time these days. They had told him I was on an extended sleepover at Clarissa’s.

  I knew where my body was but I could not tell them. I watched and waited to see what they would see. And then, like a thunderbolt, late in the afternoon, a policeman held up his earth-caked fist and shouted.

  “Over here!” he said, and the other officers ran to surround him.

  The neighbors had gone home except for Mrs. Stead. After conferring around the discovering policeman, Detective Fenerman broke their dark huddle and approached her.

  “Mrs. Stead?” he said over the tape that separated them.


  “You have a child in the school?”


  “Could you come with me, please?”

  A young officer led Mrs. Stead under the police tape and over the bumpy, churned-up cornfield to where the rest of the men stood.

  “Mrs. Stead,” Len Fenerman said, “does this look familiar?” He held up a paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. “Do they read this at the school?”

  “Yes,” she said, her face draining of color as she said the small word.

  “Do you mind if I ask you…” he began.

  “Ninth grade,” she said, looking into Len Fenerman’s slate blue eyes. “Susie’s grade.” She was a therapist and relied on her ability to hear bad news and discuss rationally the difficult details of her patients’ lives, but she found herself leaning into the young policeman who had led her over. I could feel her wishing that she had gone home when the other neighbors had left, wishing that she was in the living room with her husband, or out in the backyard with her son.

  “Who teaches the class?”

  “Mrs. Dewitt,” Mrs. Stead said. “The kids find it a real relief after Othello.”


  “Yes,” she said, her knowledge of the school suddenly very important right now—all the policemen listening. “Mrs. Dewitt likes to modulate her reading list, and she does a big push right before Christmas with Shakespeare. Then she passes out Harper Lee as a reward. If Susie was carrying around To Kill a Mockingbird it means s
he must have turned in her paper on Othello already.”

  All of this checked out.

  The police made calls. I watched the circle widen. Mrs. Dewitt had my paper. Eventually, she sent it back to my parents, unmarked, through the mail. “Thought you would want to have this,” Mrs. Dewitt had written on a note attached to it. “I’m so very very sorry.” Lindsey inherited the paper because it was too painful for my mother to read. “The Ostracized: One Man Alone,” I had called it. Lindsey had suggested “The Ostracized,” and I made up the other half. My sister punched three holes down the side of it and fastened each carefully handwritten page into an empty notebook. She put it in her closet under her Barbie case and the box that held her perfect-condition Raggedy Ann and Andy that I’d envied.

  Detective Fenerman called my parents. They had found a schoolbook, they believed, that might have been given to me that last day.

  “But it could be anyone’s,” my father said to my mother as they began another restless vigil. “Or she could have dropped it along the way.”

  Evidence was mounting, but they refused to believe.

  Two days later, on December twelfth, the police found my notes from Mr. Botte’s class. Animals had carried off the notebook from its original burial site—the dirt did not match the surrounding samples, but the graph paper, with its scribbled theories that I could never understand but still dutifully recorded, had been found when a cat knocked down a crow’s nest. Shreds of the paper were laced among the leaves and twigs. The police unbraided the graph paper, along with strips of another kind of paper, thinner and brittle, that had no lines.

  The girl who lived in the house where the tree stood recognized some of the handwriting. It was not my writing, but the writing of the boy who had a crush on me: Ray Singh. On his mother’s special rice paper Ray had written me a love note, which I never read. He had tucked it into my notebook during our Wednesday lab. His hand was distinct. When the officers came they had to piece together the scraps of my biology notebook and of Ray Singh’s love note.