Check out All Our Pretty Songs, the debut novel from Sarah McCarry, available July 30th from St. Martin’s Press.
In the lush and magical Pacific Northwest live two best friends who grew up like sisters: charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora, and the devoted, watchful narrator. Each of them is incomplete without the other. But their unbreakable bond is challenged when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them.
“His music is like nothing I have ever heard. It is like the ocean surging, the wind that blows across the open water, the far call of gulls.”
Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all.
When Aurora and I were little girls we slit open our palms in the room where her father died, pressed our hands together. Palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss. We were clumsy with the knife and cut too deep, and the blood ran down our arms and fell in fat red droplets to the floor. We both still have the scars, matching white slashes, and if you push aside the rug in that room you can see where the blood left a stain.
When we were fourteen, Aurora almost died, too. We were drinking Maia’s bourbon and watching a movie. I fell asleep, woke with a start when the credits began. Aurora wasn’t there. I wandered the whole house looking for her before I thought to go outside. She was lying facedown in the grass, her skin cold, her face in a puddle of her own vomit. When the paramedics came, they said if I had found her any later there would have been nothing they could have done. “What were you thinking?” I asked her, when she woke up in the hospital with tubes coming out of her nose. Even like that she was beautiful.
“I thought I could see him if I got far enough toward the other side,” she said. I didn’t have to ask who she meant.
“Aurora,” I said, and then I didn’t know what to say after that. She looked at me and her eyes were very old.
“I guess it runs in the family,” she said. Only much later did it occur to me I hadn’t even thought to call either of our mothers. It was the hospital that called Maia. She’d shown up disheveled and confused, and she held my hand in the hospital room while Aurora slept. “I’m so sorry, baby,” she’d whispered, over and over again, until finally I asked her to stop. I’d told the paramedics I was Aurora’s sister. I never told Cass about it at all.
After that I tried not to get drunk around Aurora. One of us would always have to know when to stop, and I understood after that night that it was never going to be her. One of us had to learn how to say no, figure a way out, count the exits. It was up to me to keep her safe. There was no one else who could.
“Come over,” Aurora says. “Jack’s here.” I’m trying to draw him again and it’s not working. When the phone rang I thought I would jump straight out of my skin.
“Jack’s at your house?”
“Uh-huh. Want me to pick you up?”
“Why is Jack at your house?”
“You’re right. We should go somewhere. You want pho?”
I give up. “Yeah, sure.”
I could change my clothes but that would be weird, because he has only ever seen me in the same clothes. So if I changed them it would be obvious I changed them for him. But maybe he wouldn’t know, since he’s only seen me twice. But even if he doesn’t know, Aurora will, and if she knows I changed my clothes she will know it is more than liking him. She’ll know how much I like him, that I really, really like him, and if he is already hers and not mine I don’t want her to know. I take off my shirt and stare at myself in the mirror over the dresser. I look like myself with no shirt. Pale soft belly, pale soft breasts in the worn-thin sports bra I wear to hide them, broad shoulders heavy with muscle. I put the shirt back on. Maybe I need a different shirt. But all my shirts look the same. From the back I look like a boy. From the front, too, if I am being honest with myself. Oh my god, I think, stricken. What if my entire life I have looked like a hideously ugly boy and everyone loves me too much to tell me. My face in the mirror is filled with panic. Maybe Jack prefers girls who look like girls. Maybe Jack was confused when he came and got me at the market, was hoping I would lead him to Aurora, with her sylph’s body and veil of white hair. Maybe kissing me was a pit stop on the way to the finish line. Maybe they are having sex, like, right now. Maybe even if they are he will still have sex with me. But what if I need a different shirt. If there were something in my room I could hit myself over the head with, I would do that. Before this week I had only two worries: Don’t let Aurora kill herself, and don’t let Cass find out how messed up Aurora is. Now the spectrum of things to be anxious about has exploded into a full-scale rainbow.
I hear Aurora’s honk in the street below my window and I grab my bag and run downstairs. I forgot to leave a note for Cass, but I can call her if we’re out late. Jack turns around in the passenger seat of the car as I climb into the backseat and gives me a long, greedy kiss. “Gross,” Aurora says peaceably as she drives. When Jack lets me go I’m breathless and flustered.
“Hi,” I say, running my hands down my jeans. “What were you guys up to?” Aurora meets my eyes in the rearview mirror and winks. Jack winds one long arm behind his seat, brushes his fingers against my knee. I am mortified by the effect this gesture has on me, stare resolutely out the window, try to gather some semblance of dignity as a rich glow spreads between my legs. Maybe Aurora will pull the car over right now and go for a walk. A really long walk. Maybe Jack will take off all his clothes.
“I want pho,” Aurora says, her raspy voice reeling me back to a world where everyone is wearing clothes and having an ordinary conversation about dinner. If Raoul could see inside my head right now he would die laughing. I send him a psychic message. Raoul. Help. Is. This. Normal.
“What’s pho?” Jack asks.
“Oh my god,” Aurora says. “How do you not know this glory? Noodles in broth with cow parts. And they bring you a cream puff with your order.”
“What kind of cow parts,” Jack says.
“Like all the parts. You can get tofu and vegetable if you’re going to be a baby.”
“I just like to know what parts, before I make a commitment.”
I’m quiet as they banter. Aurora’s playing Aphex Twin, the ambient stuff, pulsing and spooky. The streetlights flash by. There is this sense of expectation that fills the car, like before everything was one way, and now everything is going to be another. We’re driving into the night where everything begins. Jack touches my knee again and I take his hand. He rubs one thumb across my knuckles, and if I weren’t sitting down already I’d fall over. “Let’s go to California,” I say.
“Now?” Aurora’s excited. I can see her perk up. “We should get coffee first.”
“I’m supposed to work tomorrow night,” Jack says.
“Quit.” Aurora bounces in her seat. “I’ll drive. It’s only eight hours to the border. We can wake up on the beach.”
“They have a beach in this state, too,” Jack points out.
“It’s not the same beach.”
“It’s the same ocean.”
“In California you can sleep on the beach without freezing to death,” I say.
“Even in the winter,” Aurora adds. “In Southern California.”
“We could call your work and say we kidnapped you,” I offer. “We’re holding you for ransom.”
“I think they might just fire me.”
“That works fine,” Aurora says. “Because then you wouldn’t have to worry about your job.” We’re at the pho place now. She circles the block a few times, finds a parking spot down the street. Jack unfolds himself from the car. I get out, and he pulls me to him again. “Hey, you,” he says into my ear.
“Get a room!” Aurora yells. “Or I’ll eat your fucking noodles!”
Inside, we order soup. The waiter is even younger than we are. He brings us cream puffs in paper wrappers. Aurora tears hers in half, licks out the cream at the center. “You got some on your nose,” Jack says, and leans forward to wipe it away with his thumb. Aurora beams at him. I tear apart basil and cilantro and heap them on my noodles, stir in plum sauce, don’t look up until he leans back in his seat again. Aurora dumps in half the bottle of chili sauce, gets to work with her chopsticks. She always eats like it’s her last meal. I try to be dainty for Jack’s benefit, but I am not graceful under the best of circumstances, and I give up quickly. Aurora sings under her breath, a line about driving down the coast at night. It’s from one of her dad’s songs.
Without warning I’m seized by happiness so huge I want to jump up and hug them both. This is my life, I think, these are my friends. Jack is a mystery, but he’s my mystery, smiling at me now like we both know a secret that’s too good to keep to ourselves. There’s Aurora, shoveling noodles into her mouth, licking chili sauce off her fingers: the most beautiful girl in the world, but also the funniest and the most generous and the easiest to love. The air is that kind of warm where you feel like you’re floating, and I’m full and my Vietnamese iced coffee is thick and sweet but not too sweet, and Jack is holding my hand under the table. Everyone in the restaurant keeps turning to look at us. Summer is happening, and our whole lives are in front of us, and here we are, making a circle out of love.
Later, Aurora drives us back to her house. I call Cass and tell her I’m sleeping over. “Okay,” she says, yawning into the phone. “See you in the morning. Tell Aurora I’ll do her chart this week if she wants.” Aurora is privately dubious when it comes to Cass’s magical powers, but she takes Cass’s astrological advice like it’s straight gospel. I’m more skeptical. Getting life advice from your mom is always a bad call anyway, even if technically it’s coming from space rocks.
Aurora wants to watch The Abyss. We pile into her bed like puppies. I stretch out between the two of them and they curl into me, Jack’s arm around my shoulders, Aurora’s head on my chest. I run my fingers through her hair and she dozes until the alien tongue of water makes its way through the cabin to say hello. That’s her favorite part. When Coffey shuts the hatch on it and it collapses in a giant wave, she turns her face up to Jack. “I like you,” she says sleepily. “You can stay. But if you fuck with my sister, I’ll slit your throat in your sleep.”
“Stay frosty,” he says, and she opens her eyes wide.
“Wow,” she says to me. “This one, you must keep.” I hug them closer. We fall asleep like that in her big soft bed, tangled up in one another, and when the white light of morning wakes me I can’t tell where my body ends and their bodies begin.
When Jack leaves in the afternoon Aurora makes us Cup O’ Noodles and milkshakes—about all she can manage in the kitchen—and we go back to bed. She flips through channels until she finds an X-Files marathon. “Wicked,” she says.
“Oh my god,” I say, “this one is so scary.” It’s the episode where Mulder and Scully are in the woods. They hike in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a timber crew and end up trapped in a cabin with a dying generator and an ecoterrorist. At night, clouds of minuscule bugs come down out of the sky and mummify anyone who strays outside the circle of the cabin’s light. I’ve never seen alien bugs when I’m hiking, but it’s not an entirely inaccurate portrayal of the peninsula. I love it out there, but those woods aren’t what I would call friendly.
“This one rules so hard,” Aurora says, slurping noodles.
“My baby girls.” Maia’s standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
“Hi, Maia,” Aurora says, without looking away from the TV.
“Who spent the night?”
“Oh,” I say, “sorry, we should have asked.” It makes me feel better to pretend sometimes that Maia is a normal parent, a functional human with concerns like those of other humans with offspring. Is my daughter home safe, is my daughter fed, is my daughter opening the door of our house to strange men. Et cetera.
“You know I don’t care,” Maia says, coming over to sit on the edge of Aurora’s bed. “I like to meet your friends.”
“Ssssssh,” Aurora says. It’s a tense scene. Mulder and Scully and the ecoterrorist stare at the sole remaining light bulb flickering dimly in the cabin. The edges of the dark teem with bugs. The generator coughs.
“When was the last time you ate real food?” Maia asks.
“The last time you bought some,” Aurora snaps.
Maia presses a hand to her chest, pretending to have been shot, and rolls her eyes. She’s looking pretty good today. Black hair washed and glossy, eyes bright. More or less dressed: ragged flannel shirt that’s way too big for her and must have been Aurora’s dad’s, leggings, Converse. You can mistake her for a teenager until you look in her eyes.
The episode cuts to a commercial. Aurora sucks noodles into her mouth, chugs the last of the salty broth. Cass once made me read the list of ingredients on a Cup O’ Noodles aloud. “I want you to picture that inside your body,” she’d said. I chew contentedly on a salty cube of rehydrated carrot. Mmmmmm.
“So who was that?”
“This boy I’m kind of seeing,” I say. “I think.” Blushing. Like a teenager. Which I am. But still.
“Her boyfriend,” Aurora amends.
“He is not my boyfriend.”
“He is definitely your boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a goddamn boyfriend!”
“Is he dreamy?” Maia asks.
“He’s a musician.”
Maia laughs. “Does Cass know?”
“Yeah. She’s kind of not stoked.”
“I’m sure. Where’d you meet him? A show?”
“Here, actually. At Aurora’s party. He played in the yard.”
“You had a party?” Aurora’s watching a commercial for tampons as if it’s the most fascinating thing she’s ever seen.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a party?”
“You were at the party, Maia,” I say cautiously. “We talked. Remember?”
“Was I?” She doesn’t seem surprised. “Aurora, which party was it?”
Aurora doesn’t answer. She chews on the edge of her Styrofoam cup, pats around next to her for her cigarettes without moving her eyes from the screen. “You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here,” Maia adds. Aurora rolls her eyes, an unconscious echo of Maia, but doesn’t answer. I never tell Aurora, because she goes from placid to enraged in the space of a single sentence, but they’re so alike it’s comical sometimes.
“It was just a few people,” I say, although this isn’t at all true. “You probably weren’t downstairs for very long.” I fight the urge to reach over and push up one sleeve of Maia’s flannel shirt, check for red lines tracking down her brown skin. It’s not like there’s anything I can do. Aurora finds her cigarettes, sticks one in her mouth, lights it without looking away from the television.
“Baby,” Maia says, and takes it out of her mouth. “Come on.”
“Jesus,” Aurora mutters, throwing herself back into the pillows with an exaggerated sigh. Maia stretches like a cat. You can still see it in her, the magic Aurora’s inherited, that tangible haze of sex and glamour. Even the drugs and sadness haven’t ravaged it out of her. She clambers over me and burrows between us. Aurora makes an annoyed noise but relents, puts an arm around Maia’s shoulders. The commercials end and we’re back to the forest. Mulder and Scully are going to make a run for it. Rain pours down. The road out of the woods is a mess of mud and water. The bugs gather. I know how it ends, but I still hold my breath.
“Do they make it?” Maia asks.
“Oh my god,” Aurora says. “Seriously. Shut up.”
All Our Pretty Songs © Sarah McCarry 2013