An excerpt from Eileen Merriman's Pieces of You, a Young Adult novel centred on Rebecca, a teen who is the victim of a sexual assault after a party in a city she has just moved to. This passage is from the moment that Becs meets the boy-next-door at a dinner party at her home.
from Chapter 3
An hour and a half. I sat at the far end of the table from the three boys, all talking and laughing so loud it made my ears hurt. Dad got into a conversation with them about tennis, then they moved on to rugby. So boring.
Mum and Amanda were discussing schools. I learned that Amanda was a teacher, and that Cory would be in the year above me at my new school. That made me feel even more nervous.
I swallowed the rest of my bread roll so fast it lodged in my chest like a rock, and offered to do the dishes.
‘I’ll come help you,’ Amanda offered.
‘No need.’ I started gathering plates as fast as I could. All except for Cory’s, because he had spent most of the meal talking and waving his fork around, rather than eating. He looked up, though, and smiled.
‘Sorry, I’m a slow eater.’ His smile was slightly crooked, maybe because of the small scar running up into his bottom lip.
‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll come back for yours.’
‘I’ll bring it in,’ he said, scratching his shoulder through the hole in his t-shirt. ‘Soon.’
‘It’s an imaginary hole,’ I said, then flushed, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want him to know I’d been eavesdropping on him and his mum.
Cory frowned. ‘Imaginary?’ Then his face cleared, and he laughed. ‘Oh, you heard that? My mum gets stressed out over the weirdest things.’
I smiled and shrugged.
‘It’s a cool t-shirt.’ It was red, with a series of seven shadowy figures in stages of evolution, starting with an ape and ending with Darth Vader holding a light sabre.
‘I’ll tell her you said that,’ Cory said, his smile so big I could see dimples and a small gap between his teeth. I didn’t remember ever noticing anyone’s smile that much before.
I had just finished loading up the dishwasher when I heard the thwack of a tennis ball against wood. When I looked out of the window, I saw that everyone else was playing cricket on the lawn. They had balanced beer cans on top of a backwards-facing barbecue chair to use as bails.
Mum beckoned at me to come out. Pretending I hadn’t seen her, I moved away from the window and then wandered down the stairs to my bedroom. Escape at last.
I flopped onto my bed and opened my book. That morning I’d found it at the library in the ‘damaged items for sale’ pile. It was pretty old, but I hadn’t been able to find anything better. All the good books were always out.
I didn’t mean to read for long, but it was one of those books where you had to read one more chapter, then one more. The light in my room turned from lemon to mandarin. The chatter and laughter of the others drifted through my open window. It sounded far away, like a television left on low.
Then I heard feet scuffing over floorboards. They stopped outside my room. When I looked up, Cory was leaning against the door-frame, tossing a tennis ball in the air. He had grass stains on his knees and semi-circles of sweat under his arms.
I sat up, panic strafing through my belly.
‘If you’re looking for the bathroom, then it’s the last door on your left.’ Voices and laughter drifted through my open window. I could hear them — but would they hear me?
Cory rolled the ball around his long fingers.
‘What are you reading?’
‘The Outsiders.’ More laughter. I shuffled back against the wall.
Cory’s face brightened. ‘That’s a good book.’ I hadn’t expected him to have heard of it, let alone read it. My heart began to slow. I held the book up.
‘It’s really old.’ The spine was falling apart, and some of the pages had been stuck in with Sellotape.
Cory took a step towards me. ‘S. E. Hinton started writing that when she was only fifteen.’
‘Did she?’ I looked back down at the book. ‘No wonder.’
‘It’s like she can see inside your head, right?’ I felt the bed sink beside me, and my heart sped up again. ‘Mum’s an English teacher. She’s got, like, a million books.’
I raised an eyebrow, trying to look casual.
‘A million?’ Cory was close enough that I could smell the fresh tang of his sweat, mixed with the musky scent of deodorant and sun-sweetened grass. It was giving me the strangest feeling in the pit of my stomach.
‘More like a couple of hundred, I s’pose.’ Cory flopped back on the bed, so his head was touching the wall and his legs were dangling over the edge of the mattress.
I looked towards the door, which was wide open, and then back at Cory.
‘Have you read 1984?’ Cory asked, obviously totally oblivious to my discomfort. ‘No.’ I drew my knees up to my chest. ‘I’ve heard of it, though.’
‘It’s one of the best books ever. And The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, have you read that?’ He was talking really fast, the words spilling out of his mouth like he couldn’t keep them all inside his head.
‘I have,’ I said, and all of a sudden it was like a phosphorus flare went off inside me. ‘It was amazing. Do you think the person who wrote it had Asperger’s too?’
‘I dunno. Maybe.’ Cory’s eyes were closed, his hands behind his head. I kept sneaking looks at him. I wanted to ask him why his skin was so beautifully brown when the rest of his family was pale, like me. ‘And The Catcher in the Rye, have you read that?’
‘No. Is it good?’
Cory sat up, a dark lock of hair flopping over his eyes.
‘Oh my God.’ He took his smartphone out of his pocket and brought up the Safari icon. ‘Here. This is the book. It sells two hundred and fifty thousand copies a year. No. Wait.’ He held up a hand. ‘Wait here.’
‘I wasn’t going anywhere,’ I muttered, but he was already jogging down the hall. I wondered where he was going, or if he’d come back. Maybe he’d forget all about me as soon as he got back outside.
I tried to read my book again, but all of a sudden I couldn’t concentrate. What if he got home and forgot about me?
I wondered if the guy with the white-blond hair had forgotten about me yet. If only I could forget about him.
‘Here.’ Cory reappeared in the doorway, a stack of books under his arm. He sat on the end of my bed and passed them to me, one by one.
‘The Catcher in the Rye — read that one first, you’ll love it. And here’s 1984. And F. Scott Fitzgerald — have you heard of him?’
I shook my head.
Cory crossed his ankle over his knee. The soles of his feet were thickened, like leather, and very dirty.
‘He wrote The Great Gatsby. But he also wrote Tender is the Night, which I liked even better.’ He handed me a chunky hardback book with a red cover. ‘He used to hang out with Ernest Hemingway. Have you heard of him?’
‘Of course.’ The words came out sharper than I intended. Perhaps because I didn’t want to admit that maybe I wasn’t as well read as I’d thought. I’d never met anyone who read more than I did before, especially a boy. It was kind of overwhelming. Cory was kind of overwhelming. ‘The Old Man and the Sea, right?’
‘Yeah, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ Cory put his hand to his head. ‘And A Farewell to Arms — God, that’s one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Do you want that one, too?’
I smiled. ‘No, I think I’ve got enough to start with. Thanks.’
‘So, you found something to talk about after all,’ said a voice from the doorway.
My father’s cheeks were ruddy with sun and alcohol. I wanted to glare at him, but I didn’t want Cory to see me glaring at him, so I shrugged and looked back down at the books.
‘Thanks,’ I repeated. ‘These look really good.’
‘You don’t have to read them all,’ Cory said, and when I looked back at him, his skin was flushed, too. He stood up. ‘Thanks for inviting us over, Will. See you later, Becs.’
‘See you,’ I said, not even bothering to try to correct him. No one ever called me Becs. But somehow, with Cory, it was OK. It made me feel as if he’d noticed me, in a good way. Maybe he even liked me. But then, maybe I was wrong, just as I had been a month ago.
Cute name. It suits you.
I ran my finger up the inside of my shorts and pressed on the scab on my thigh. I pressed on it until my eyes started to water, but it wasn’t enough.
Just a little tease.
I snatched my MP3 player off my desk, then shoved my earphones in and pressed play. I listened to Kurt Cobain sing ‘About a Girl’ and ‘Lithium’, but it didn’t work. The guy with the white-blond hair was still stuck in my head.
Reproduced with permission from Pieces of You by Eileen Merriman.
Published by Penguin Random House NZ. Text © Eileen Merriman, 2017.
NB: This chapter concludes with a self-harm scene which we have not reproduced here. Pieces of You covers some heavy emotional and psychological trauma, with themes including self-harm and sexual assault. The Sapling will publish a review later this month.
Pieces of You
by Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin Random House