Sunday, March 1, 2015

Excerpt: Dark Rooms

Here we have an excerpt from a book that comes out on Tuesday, Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik. 

Here's a description of the book:

The Secret History meets Sharp Objects in this stunning debut about murder and glamour set in the ambiguous and claustrophobic world of an exclusive New England prep school.

Death sets the plot in motion: the murder of Nica Baker, beautiful, wild, enigmatic, and only sixteen. The crime is solved, and quickly—a lonely classmate, unrequited love, a suicide note confession—but memory and instinct won’t allow Nica’s older sister, Grace, to accept the case as closed.
Dropping out of college and living at home, working at the moneyed and progressive private high school in Hartford, Connecticut, from which she recently graduated, Grace becomes increasingly obsessed with identifying and punishing the real killer.

Compulsively readable, Lili Anolik’s debut novel combines the verbal dexterity of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topic in Calamity Physics and the haunting atmospherics and hairpin plot twists of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me.

The last time I saw Nica before she died was on the way back from the tennis courts of Chandler Academy, the private boarding and day school in Hartford, Connecticut, where we were both students and our parents were both teachers. It was a Friday in April, a few minutes past five o’clock. Practice had just ended. 
Nica was in front of me, walking fast, head down, racquet bag rhythmically slapping her hip. Her skirt was pleated and short, rolled at the waist to make it shorter still. As she bent to retrieve a fallen sweatband, I glimpsed an underside of thigh, tan and smooth-muscled, a flash of cotton, too, hot pink like a lick of flame. I called her name once, then again. She didn’t turn around, though, until I put my hand on her arm. 
Stopping, she stared at me, eyes slow-focusing in her head.  
“Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know it was you.” 
“Who else would I be?” 
“Good question.” With a blink, she turned, started walking again. “Mr. Schaeffer said he was going to stick around, run drills for anyone who wanted to work on overheads.” 
“Yeah?” I said, struggling to keep pace. 
“I figured you’d want to.” 
I was the team’s number one player. Had beaten out Nica for the spot. As far as mechanics went, she was the superior. Her strokes were sharper, crisper, cleaner, landed deeper in the court and with greater penetration. But I was a little faster and a lot more willing to scrap. If the rally became extended, she’d almost always go for the kill-shot, hit something with verve and ambition that sailed just past the baseline; whereas I’d push the ball back to the center of the court, wait for my opponent to make the mistake. Basically, I was better at tennis the same way I was better at school, which is to say, I wasn’t. I was just a grinder and a grubber. She had too much style to do either. 
“My overhead doesn’t need work,” I said, the breeziness of my words undercut by my strained tone. 
She nodded distractedly. 
“Actually, I pulled a muscle a little bit hitting serves. Thought I’d give it a break.” 
This time she didn’t bother to nod, and for a while we walked in silence. 
Trying again, I said, “So, are you going to that party tonight with Maddie?” 
“I thought I heard you say you were.” 
She looked at me. “You were listening to our conversation?” 
I shrugged: an admission. 
When she was quiet, I snuck a sideways glance at her, scanning her expression to see if she was mad. She didn’t appear to be, though, just thoughtful, eyes downcast, fixed on the moving patch of ground in front of her. Since her mind was so obviously elsewhere, I watched her more openly than I normally would have dared. She looked different lately, beautiful as always but sloppily so, uncared for—hair in a crooked ponytail, feet slip-sliding in untied sneakers, lips chapped and swollen. 
At last she said, “I only told Maddie that to get her off my back.” 
And that’s when I understood. It wasn’t me Nica had been trying to avoid. “Maddie was bugging you?” 
“Wouldn’t take no. You know how she is.” 
No, I wanted to say, how? but instead I lied, nodded. That familiar feeling of disconnectedness, the sense that people were mysterious to me in a way they weren’t to each other, descended. Before it could turn into full-on depression, I shook it off. Said, “If you’re going to be home tonight, I could help you with your French paper. I know it’s due Monday and—” 
Donnez-moi un break, okay?” 
“What do you mean?” I said, surprised. “Why?” 
“Because I’m not going to be home tonight.” 
I half laughed. Of course she wasn’t going to be. Of course she wasn’t. 
“And neither should you,” she added. 
“But I always go to bed early the night before a match. You know that. And tomorrow’s is a big one.” 
We’d reached Houghton Gymnasium by this time, were standing at the rear of the building, a few feet from the entranceway to the girls’ locker room. It was private here, and the late sun was mild. I tilted my head back to feel its warmth. A faint breeze was on the air, and when it blew, I could hear the clink of rope against metal flagpole. Nica turned to me. Slowly she lifted her right hand, brought it to her left nipple, then shook it rapidly back and forth: titty hard-on. Titty hard-on was a favorite gesture of hers and Maddie’s. It was meant to convey excitement—sexual—but, coupled as it always was with blanked-out eyes and a bored expression, was actually meant to convey the opposite of excitement—of any kind. So, basically, it was a put-down. 
“What’s that for?” I asked, hurt. 
“You’re already in college, Grace. Have been since forever.” 
Not since forever. Since mid-December. I’d applied early decision to Williams. Nica, a junior, would apply to colleges next year. “So?” 
“So you have no excuse for being well-rested anymore. Maddie invited you to the party, too, you know.” 
Trying to act casual, as if my interest was low, “Maddie said that? She said I was invited?” 
“She implied it. Same thing.” 
It wasn’t. Not remotely. I flattened the corners of my mouth to show Nica I wasn’t fooled, but otherwise let it go. Then I said, “If you’re not going to the party with Maddie, where are you going? 
“Hot date?” 
She smirked. 
“Guess you and Jamie are giving it another shot, huh?” Jamie was Jamie Amory, Nica’s boyfriend of two years, her ex-boyfriend of two months. 
I tried not to look relieved when she said, irritated, “How many times do I have to tell you? Jamie and I are over." 
“So, it’s a mystery man.” 
That smirk again. 
“Not that much of a mystery. I know he likes to brand his girls.” 
It was a shot in the dark, but it hit. Nica’s jaw dropped. “How?” 
“X-ray vision,” I said. And when she just looked at me, “I was brushing my teeth this morning. You came out of the shower in a towel. You reached up to open the medicine cabinet. I saw your armpit.” The tattoo inside her armpit, specifically. An arrow, bloody-tipped. 
Groaning, she said, “I’m going to have to throw out every bathing suit, tank top, and sleeveless dress I own now, aren’t I?” 
“Or stop shaving under your arms.” 
I wanted to ask her who the guy was, but I didn’t want her to tell me only because I’d asked. I looked at her. She was staring off into the distance, worrying a shred of dry skin on her lip with her front tooth, like she was making up her mind about something. There was a shard of gold in her left iris, which, in certain lights and at certain angles, turned the eye from dark hazel to pure green. That was happening now. 
Finally, her gaze came back to me. “I probably won’t be in till late tonight. Can you cover for me with Mom and Dad? Tell them I’m staying over at Maddie’s?” 
“The depends. Will you answer my questions when you get home?" 
She held up her hand, three fingers raised: scout’s honor. 
I pretended to think it over. “Fine,” I said, with a sigh. 
She nodded her thanks, then opened the side pocket of her racquet bag, pulled out her cigarettes, her zebra-striped Bic. 
“Come on, Nica, we’re still at school,” I said, peering around anxiously as she lit up. 
She exhaled. “Relax. We’re alone. Want one?” 
I made a scoffing noise, a show of waving away her miniscule smoke cloud. “Those things are going to kill you, you know.” 
She considered what I’d said, then shrugged. “Like I want to live forever.” 
She started laughing. And a second later, to my surprise, I did, too.

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