You Know What You Have To Do (Excerpt)

In an interesting turn for YA, meet Maggie in You Know What You Have to Do by Bonnie Shimko, out know from Amazon Children’s Publishers:

This quirky, appealing YA novel turns formulaic teen fiction on its head as funny, fiesty fifteen year-old Mary Magdeline (otherwise known as Maggie) suddenly faces more than the usual typical YA concerns: a voice in her head that is telling her to kill people. Not just kill anyone– each time it’s someone who has done something terrible to someone Maggie knows. She tries to resist the voice, yet in each case her action rights a wrong, saving the life of the person who had been mistreated, or making that person’s life better.

 

You know what you have to do.

 

I will always carry the guilt for what I’ve done. Most days the memories sleep in a dark corner of my mind, but sometimes they wake up and remind me of what a vile person I am. My shrink, Dr. Scott, thinks I’m just anxious and that with therapy I’ll be as good as new. I don’t even know what good as new feels like because the bad thoughts have been in me forever.

You’d never know from looking at me, though. I’m over there—the tall, skinny, strawberry-blond girl with glasses sitting at the loser table in the Allenburg High School cafeteria. My name is Mary-Magdalene Feigenbaum. No, really. I’m serious. My mother is what you might call a little weird. Plus, she’s a professional worrier, so when I was born, she put a lot of thought into what she should call me.

Number one: she wanted people to sit up and take notice when I tell them who I am. She scored A plus on that one. Two: she thinks hyphenated names are highbrow. She must not have thought about Patty-Ann Thurston, the full-grown woman who pedals around town on her gigantic blue tricycle and lifts her shirt for anybody who’ll buy her a soda—“A-Peek-for-a-Pepsi Patty” is what the creeps call her. Three: my mother’s afraid of death and thinks the religious types have the best chance of getting into heaven since they can unload their sins before they croak. And even though she hasn’t seen the inside of a church since I’ve known her, she chose the name of the most heavy-duty saint she could think of and slapped it on me, which I’m pretty sure is child abuse. Just thinking about it makes my head hurt.

My mother calls me Mary-Magdalene—no exceptions! Most adults call me Mary. My stepfather calls me Mare. The kids at school and my shrink call me Maggie—which is okay for now. But in three years, when I’m eighteen, I’m going to change my name to Alexandra. I think it has a very nice ring to it. A girl could wear a name like that anywhere—even to work as a zoo veterinarian after she graduates from Cornell.

“Let’s get outta here,” Abigail Flute says as she stuffs her napkin and straw paper into the milk carton on her tray which is still piled high with mystery casserole and anemic-looking string beans. “I have to get my essay from my locker before English.”

“I have to get mine, too,” I reply. I grab what’s left of my bag lunch, toss it in the trash can on the way out of the cafeteria, and follow Abigail to the sophomore lockers.

Abigail’s been my best friend since eighth grade when her family moved to Allenburg—really my only friend, if you don’t count Lester Pint, the class genius who lives at the end of my street, follows me around like a hungry kitten, and slips love notes through the ventilation slots of my locker. Lester’s okay, I just wish he didn’t like me in a girlfriend way. I’ve known him forever, and he’s more like a brother to me than anything. I don’t have the heart to tell him to cool it, though, because I know he’d be crushed.

Abigail’s father is the high school principal and her mother teaches math, so Abigail has a double dose of misery to deal with. On top of that, she has to wear a retainer that makes her look like a frog and talk weird. It’s funny, though—she doesn’t even seem to realize that she’s a geek. Or maybe she just doesn’t care. Anyway, nobody picks on her because of who her parents are. I don’t care that I’m a geek either. In fact, I don’t want to be popular, so we’re both pretty much invisible, which is fine with me. The fewer people I get close to the better.

***

I love you once. I love you twice. I love you more than cats love mice. As I shove Lester Pint’s latest note in my pants pocket, I think how his poems turned silly and upbeat as soon as his father died. His mother came alive, too, and now spends most of her time working in her flower garden instead of hiding behind closed drapes. Word around town was that Mr. Pint pummeled her even worse than he did his son.

Earlier this year, Lester was standing with me by the school fence until it was time to go in. When I asked him why he looked so angry, he told me how his father, a semifamous artist, had tied his cocker spaniel puppy up in a burlap bag and tossed it into their swimming pool because it had chewed a package
of expensive new brushes the UPS guy left on their front step. I thought Lester was making it up, but when I saw the tears in his eyes, I knew he was telling the truth. Then I heard mumbl-ing in my head, and it startled me. I covered my ears and tried to will it away. Until that moment, the only bad thoughts I’d
had were how I’d like to yell at Mr. Burdock, our history teacher, for giving us so much homework and then actually tell him how lame his stupid comb-over looks and that it would take more than three strands of hair to camouflage his bald head.

But when Lester told me how his father spent most of his time in his studio behind their house drinking himself into a stupor and then beating his mother to a pulp, a stabbing pain pierced my brain and then a real voice came—a man’s voice—one I’d never heard before. Not scary or mean—more low and patient, like a loving father explaining something important to a daughter. And that voice said, You know what you have to do.

“No, I don’t!” I answered in my mind. “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

There’s no reason to get upset, the voice replied, gentle. I’ll explain everything step by step—

***

The police investigation ruled it an accident when Mr. Pint’s
studio went up in flames on Halloween night with him passed out cold on the floor inside. They figured he’d dropped a cigarette and started the fire himself.

But they were wrong. After Lester and I had walked home from a party that night at school, he went inside and I continued down the street toward my house. I was nearly there when the pain in my head returned and so did the voice. Haven’t you for-gotten something? it asked in a singsong tone.

“I don’t want to do this,” I answered, my voice trembling. “I just want to go home.”

We planned all this yesterday, the guy in my head said. That creep is abusing your friend and his mother. When I didn’t say anything, he continued. And just think of Lester’s innocent little puppy. A man that vicious shouldn’t be allowed to live. The guy’s voice turned supercalm. Only you can make things right.

The pain in my head had gotten so bad, I could hardly stand it, but I circled around to the back of Lester’s house. Then I entered Mr. Pint’s studio, stepped over his passed-out body, and lit the mess of oily rags he was lying next to with my mother’s lighter. The voice had told me to take it from her purse before I left for the party. As soon as the flames started, I hightailed it out of there, and the headache disappeared.

I often wonder if Mr. Pint woke up and tried to escape like Lester’s poor little puppy must have. Just the thought of it makes me feel sick to my stomach.

***

“Get your essay and let’s go,” Abigail says, tapping me on the shoulder. “We’re gonna be late. I said your name a million times. It’s like you were in a trance or something. Didn’t you hear me?”

I hadn’t heard a thing. “Sorry,” I say, then point to the paper I’m holding. “I’m just a little nervous about reading this thing to the class.”

“I love your stories,” Abigail says on our way to English. “I don’t know how you come up with all that creepy stuff. You must be related to Stephen King or something.”


They’ve already eaten his head and are ready to go for the rest.

 

Roxie?” I yell when I get home from school. Roxie’s my mother, but she has this weird idea that if I call her by her first name, people will think we’re sisters, which is pretty dumb because we’ve lived in Allenburg, New York, population next to nothing, since before I was born.

Everybody knows I’m the bastard memento a red-headed jackass named Lonnie Kraft left behind after he got tired of my mother’s affection and moved on to a new girlfriend. And everybody knows that Lonnie Kraft now lives ten miles west of here, put away behind the maximum-security bars of the Clinton Correctional Facility for bludgeoning his mother to death with a meat pounder because she cooked his eggs wrong.

“Roxie!” I yell again. Maybe she’s downstairs with my stepfather, Harry Feigenbaum. Harry’s an undertaker, and we live on the second floor of the funeral home.

“I’m down here in the office,” Roxie yells back. “Come on. I’ll drive you to your appointment.”

The appointment she’s talking about is with my shrink. She sends me to see Dr. Scott every other Monday because of my nightmares and the screaming that wakes the whole house. I go just to shut her up and because I think maybe it’ll quiet the voice in my head that tells me to kill people, even though I keep that part to myself. So far, nothing. The nightmares still come, and Roxie’s losing patience with Dr. Scott. I guess she figured I’d be a quick fix. As far as she’s concerned, a kid with a normal family couldn’t be too screwed up. Yeah, right. Maybe her family was normal, but she must have forgotten about the nut job who donated half of my DNA.

“Little hustle,” Roxie says as I’m heading toward the back step of the funeral home where she’s waiting. “I have a hair appointment after I drop you off, and I don’t want to be late.”

As I come toward her, she gives me her you-are-such-a-disappointment face. “How many times have I told you to stand up straight?” she nags. “You look like a pretzel when you’re all stooped over like that.” Before I can react, she nearly yanks my shoulders out of their sockets as she forces them back. “There, that’s better.” I slouch even more than before just to see her fume. “Have it your way.” She sighs. “You’ll never get a boyfriend looking like that.”

“Good!” I say, cocky. “I don’t want one.” This is not exactly true. There’s this new boy in school, Jacob Hauser. He doesn’t say much to anybody, but I’ve caught him staring at me a few times in history class. Once he even smiled and I smiled back.

“Of course you want a boyfriend,” Roxie says as we head for the garage. “Every girl does.”

“Not me. I have a girl friend. That’s all I want.”

I knew that would stop her short. She grabs my arm, and her eyes get as round as moons. “What are you talking about? Are you telling me that you’re a lesbian?”

I’m loving this. “Maybe. I’m not sure.”

“How can you not be sure about a thing like that?” Her face has actually gone white, and her mouth is stretched out long like a bright red gummy worm.

“And this is when you decided to drop the bomb on me—when we don’t have time to discuss it?” She’s breathing so hard, I think she might have a heart attack.

“Roxie, I’m just messing with you. I was talking about Abigail.”

She smacks her hand over her chest and purses her lips tight. “Sometimes I think you want to kill me with your nonsense.”

My breath catches in my throat. I don’t want to kill my mother; but if it happens, it won’t be nonsense that makes me do it.

Now Roxie’s got a cigarette in her mouth. She’s trying to light it with the pack of matches she took from her purse, but the wind keeps blowing out the flame. “Damn!” she says, dropping another dead match on the driveway. “Are you sure you haven’t seen my lighter?”

“I’m sure,” I lie. “I’ve told you that a million times. Why would I need a lighter, anyway? I don’t smoke.” I add a little venom to the word I to remind her that she’s the one with the dirty habit. Maybe this will get the attention off me.

“Well, I can’t understand how it could have just disappeared like that.” She’s talking more to herself now than to me. “And it was so expensive: sterling silver with my initials and all. Harry bought it for me at Tiffany’s when we all went to New York City for Christmas—the year you turned twelve. That was such a good time. Why, we even went to see . . .”

While she’s taking her little trip down Memory Lane, I think about the night I murdered Mr. Pint and why the guy in my head told me to take Roxie’s lighter. He said that way I wouldn’t leave any evidence, such as a partly burned match that might have a fingerprint on it. But the plan backfired. When the flames jumped toward my face, it freaked me out and I dropped the lighter—complete with Roxie’s initials and my fingerprints. I worried for days that the police would find it and arrest me. Then everybody would know what a horrible person I am. But when Mr. Pint’s death was ruled an accident, Mrs. Pint had what was left of the shed demolished and hauled away in the back of a dump truck, lighter and all.

“Wasn’t that fun?” Roxie’s looking at me with excitement in her eyes. I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“Wasn’t what fun?”

“When we went to Radio City Music Hall. Wasn’t that fun?”

“Yes,” I say, nostalgic now myself. “Lots of fun.” I wish things were as uncomplicated as they were back then.

We start walking again. It’s hot for June, and Roxie’s all dolled up in yellow capri pants and a matching sleeveless top with sequins sewn along the neckline—both way too tight—and a pair of gold high-heel espadrilles that make her walk as if she’s balancing on a tightrope. Roxie loves anything froufrou—the flashier the better. Probably because her life is so dull. She stops and looks as though she’s trying to think. “Not that I have anything against lesbians,” she says, all gooey sweet. “My best friend in high school was one.”

“Who was that?”

“Eleanor West. I told you about her.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Of course I did. She was the girl who had the affair with the shop teacher, Mr. Traynor, in her senior year and got kicked out of school just before graduation.”

“I thought you said she was a lesbian.”

“She was for a while, but then she got mixed up with Mr. Traynor.”

“Well, then—”

“Oh, never mind. I guess she didn’t know what she was. Let’s just go.”

Roxie’s brand-new cherry-red Mustang convertible is parked between the hearse and the long, black mourners’ car, which makes her car look even snazzier.

“Careful of the paint!” she snaps as I open the door.

“I’m always careful of the paint,” I say, just as snippy. “I’d never want to put a scratch on your perfect baby.”

She ignores my sarcasm and cranks the key in the ignition. I grab my armrest because I know what’s coming next. She shifts, lets out the clutch then puts her foot on the gas. The car leaps backward and stalls. Roxie spews a river of curses. I look over and roll my eyes.

When she doesn’t react, I say, “Why didn’t you just get an automatic?” Even though I know the answer.

“Stick shifts go with convertibles,” she says, as if any moron would know that. “Besides, they’re sexier.”

Oh, brother, I think. Poor Roxie. I glance over at her floozied-up self and feel kind of sorry for her. She has all the right equipment to look sexy, pretty even. She just overdoes everything—like she’s a coloring-book woman who got scribbled on by a toddler. She hasn’t changed her style since her high school graduation photo—the one where the gown hid the fact that she was pregnant with me, which is why she ended up marrying Harry Feigenbaum and why, a lot of times, she treats me like I’m an inconvenience. I guess I’d resent me, too, if I had to marry an older man I didn’t love just so I could feed a kid I didn’t want.

After a few more tries, Roxie gets the car to cooperate, and we head for Carson Street to Dr. Scott’s house, where he has his office.

As I’m getting out of the car, Roxie lowers her sunglasses to peek over at me. “Just tell him what’s bothering you, and let’s get this over with.” Her voice softens a little. “Okay? Whatever it is can’t be that bad.”

I don’t answer.

“Okay?” she repeats. “Just tell him your true thoughts. The nightmares’ll go away, and we’ll all get a good night’s sleep.”

I still don’t answer, just slam the door and start walking toward the house.

I can hear her sigh ten feet away. “For God’s sake, Mary-Magdalene. It’s not like you murdered somebody. Just tell him what teenage crap is bugging you and put an end to it!” A few complaints from the transmission, and she peels off down the street.

Her words landed heavy in my gut, and I know there’s nothing a therapist or anybody else can do that will fix me. You do not kill a man in cold blood and then talk your way out of it. The only thing you can do is try to live with the guilt.

“How’s things, Maggie?” Dr. Scott says when he answers the door. I get a little zing in my heart every time I see him. He’s exactly what I would come up with if I had to describe the perfect man: tall, thin, blondish hair, eyes the color of dark polished wood, and a smile that shows teeth so white he could be in a Crest commercial.

After Mr. Pint died, Ms. Diggs, the school counselor, called Roxie to say that I should probably see a professional because I was having more trouble than normal getting over the death of my friend’s father. Ms. Diggs figured it was because I lived in a funeral parlor, and the tragedy made home a scary place. Maybe a psychologist could help me realize that sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault. Just because Lester lost a parent doesn’t mean I will. Ms. Diggs might be better suited for a different job: a fortune-teller in a circus, maybe. But she’s the one who recommended Dr. Scott, so she’s okay in my book.

“Any improvement with the nightmares?” Dr. Scott asks as we enter his office. He motions for me to sit on the couch, takes a seat across from me in a green leather armchair, crosses his long legs, and gets his notebook and pen ready.

I sit up straight, pull my T-shirt down tight to draw attention to the fact that my front is fully formed, since that’s all I have going for me in the grown-up-woman department. “Yeah, they’re almost gone,” I lie. I hate talking about my crazies. I’d much rather discuss him. Like how come he isn’t married and what does he do in this great big old house when he’s not listening to people bellyache about their problems and does he have a girlfriend? When I see him around town, he’s always alone.

His look turns serious. “Your mom called and said they’re getting worse.”

Rats! Why can’t Roxie stay out of this? The last thing I want is for Dr. Scott to think I’m nuts. “I guess I’ve had a couple,” I say, sheepish.

“She said it’s at least twice a week.” He keeps his voice calm and acts as if having screaming fits in the middle of the night is as common as mud.

“Maybe.” I shrug. “I just don’t remember.” I remember all right, every single, horrible detail about that night in Mr. Pint’s studio.

He taps the notebook with his pen. “Since we’ve been working together for almost six months and we haven’t made much headway just talking, I was thinking we might try something new.”

“Like what?” I hope he doesn’t want to hypnotize me so I’ll spill my guts.

“You’ve probably heard of the Rorschach test.”

“No, but I hate tests. I’m terrible at them.” That’s not true, because the only subject I’m dense in is math. The rest of the stuff is pretty easy. “I don’t really want to take a test.” I let out a laugh that sounds as fake as it is. “I get enough of those in school.” I wonder how old he is . . . twenty-eight, maybe. That’s not too much older than me—a May-September relationship.

“It’s also called the inkblot test. It’s just a bunch of pictures. I’ll show them to you, and you’ll tell me what you see.” He smiles. “I don’t put a lot of stock in it; but you’re a hard nut to crack, so it’s worth a try.”

“Oh, okay,” I say. “That doesn’t sound so bad.” I know what the inkblot test is. Everybody does. They use it to see how messed-up weird you really are.

“Well, then. Why don’t we give it a try?” He reaches for a stack of big white cards on the table next to him.

I scooch around a little on the couch and take in a big breath like I’m getting ready to do my best. If we were married, we could sit together on this couch and watch movies on TV. I wonder if he likes popcorn—the microwave kind with butter. Of course, I’d let him decide how much salt to put on.

He hands me a card and says, “What does that look like?”

It looks like two buzzards holding down a man in a black coat. They’ve already eaten his head and are ready to go for the rest. I keep my face plain and say in a regular voice, “I see a couple of birds at a feeder, and they’re singing to each other. I think they’re in love.”

Dr. Scott writes my answer on his pad, then hands me the next card. “How about this one?”

It’s a boy holding a dead puppy. The boy is crying. “I see two little kids playing patty-cake.”

More writing. Another card. “And this?”

Twin girls lighting a sleeping man on fire. “Two ladies stirring pudding in a pot. And there’s a butterfly in the middle—a pretty one.”

“How about here?”

Mr. Pint’s charred body coming toward me with his arms out in front of him ready to strangle me. I try to slow my breathing and smile a little but I can feel my mouth twitching, and a trickle of sweat is making its way down the middle of my back. “I don’t see anything. It just looks like spilled ink.”

Lots of writing this time—probably that I’m a big, fat fake. “Okay, I think that’s enough,” Dr. Scott says, a little impatient. He takes the card from my hand, puts it with the ones he didn’t use, and leans back in his chair. “How about we discuss you and your mom?”

It feels good to have the attention off me. My shoulders relax. “What about her?”

“Well, every time I’ve brought her up, you’ve never had much to say.”

I shrug. “There isn’t really much to say. She’s just . . . I don’t know . . . a mother.”

“How ’bout we try it?” he persists.

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything you want to tell me.”

Boy, could I give him an earful. Instead, I give her a break. “She cleans a lot.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know. She just thinks everything’s dirty, so she cleans.” I don’t add that she warns me a million times a day not to sit on public toilets or drink from water fountains. And I certainly don’t tell him about how lately the voice in my head has been saying that she was a slut when she was in high school. That she had sex with any boy who smiled at her. The guy in my head talks with a north-country twang, so I know he’s from around here.

“She’s worried about germs, then,” Dr. Scott says, while scribbling on his pad.

This is the first time I’ve thought about it, but maybe all that cleaning is her way of trying to wash away her past. Then I wonder what Lonnie Kraft’s voice sounds like. He grew up in the next town. Does he have a north-country twang? Is he the one who’s putting bad thoughts in my head? I’ve seen movies where stuff like that happens. I have his blood running through my veins. Maybe that’s all it takes.

“Maggie?” Dr. Scott’s leaning forward in his chair, looking at me with concerned eyes. He reaches over to touch my hand, and when he does, the cuff of his shirt slides back. He has the perfect amount of hair on his arm: medium.

“Yes?”

“I spoke to you several times, and you didn’t answer. What were you thinking about?”

“Just all the homework I have. Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

“You know, Maggie,” Dr. Scott says in a sympathetic tone, “it seems very hard for you to let your real feelings out one-on-one. I was thinking that you might benefit from group therapy. Maybe if you saw how other people opened up, it would be easier for you.”

Not in a million years! “I don’t want to discuss my personal life with a bunch of other kids.”

“You wouldn’t have to say a thing, just listen. And actually, the group I’m thinking of putting you in is mostly adults, but they all have things they’re afraid of.”

He didn’t add “just like you,” but I know that’s what he meant.

“Join in about their problems if you feel like it. It might prime the pump and then we can go back to individual sessions.”

“So I won’t have to say anything?”

“Not a word.”

“Do I have to give my name?”

“You can make one up.”

“But they’ll know who I am. This town is so small.”

“I doubt it. This group is bused down from Folsom Falls. They don’t have a therapist there, so I’m it.”

Folsom Falls is about an hour north of Allenburg, and I don’t know anybody there. Besides, that’d sure beat sitting here week after week trying to act not crazy so Dr. Scott will like me. Plus, I’d still be able to see him, and Roxie would think I’m trying to get a grip on my teenage crap. “I guess it’d be okay.”

***

As usual, Roxie’s late picking me up. I’m on Dr. Scott’s front step when she arrives and honks the horn, even though she can see me. “Come on, Mary-Magdalene. We have to get you to swim practice.”

I love to swim. That’s where I get a chance to shine. Nobody can catch me in the breaststroke, and I’m second best in the butterfly. When I’m in the water, my real life floats away, and my stubborn brain leaves me alone.

“How was your session?” Roxie asks as soon as I’m in the car.

“Good. It was good. Dr. Scott’s putting me with a group from now on, so I guess he thinks I’m almost cured.”

“That’s great!” Roxie says with a genuine smile. “I knew it wasn’t very serious.”

“Nah,” I say. “Not serious at all.”

 

You Know What You Have To Do © Bonnie Shimko 2013

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