About the Author
Ingrid Sundberg holds an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University. She grew up in Maine, but now lives in sunny California where she misses the colors of autumn. All We Left Behind is her first novel. Find Ingrid online at IngridSundberg.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
All We Left Behind Marion
The sun parts the trees like lips, golden with half shadows and secrets. Dusk arches over the dirt road ahead, and I double-check the Post-it on my dash. It tells me to drive straight for another six miles out of town through this patchwork of New England trees. But the leaves are flamed orange-gold and so thick I can’t imagine there’s a lake, much less a lake house and a party, somewhere behind them.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” I ask Lilith, who bares her teeth in the mirror of my passenger-seat visor. Her red mouth fills the whole frame.
“Of course it is,” Lilith practically snorts, tossing lipstick into her purse and fishing out a silver flask. She opens the cap and gulps back whatever’s inside it, smearing red over the rim. “There is only one way, Marion!” Lilith bellows, rolling down the window and leaning into the wind. “Forward, my friend. Forward, into your future!”
The sun winks ominously through the trees, nearly set. The thin fabric of Lilith’s tank top stretches over her cleavage, and I can’t help but think about all the things Lilith knows. All the guys she’s been with and the secrets her body understands, the same way a firefly knows to glow when night arrives, turning on in the dark.
“Marion, it’s senior year!” Lilith hoots, nudging me as she leans out the window. “We’re going to have the best year ever!” She laughs and her hair whips wildly, catching whispers of sun. And even though the trees angle in dark ahead of us, I can’t help but smile and roll down my window with her. Because Lilith is so free, and so alive, and so radiant, that I know I’d follow her anywhere, for just a hint of that freedom.
* * *
At the end of the road the treetops open up to unveil the lake, and the final winks of gold shine over the mountain. It makes me forget we live near Boston, or that droves of tourists descend upon our small coastal town of Emerson in the summertime. It reminds me that once this land was nothing but virgin forest.
I park near the salt grass and Lilith drums her fingers on the dashboard, nodding to the bonfire by the shore. Two dozen kids from school already surround the flames, drinking and laughing.
“Let the mayhem begin!” Lilith says dramatically, checking her cleavage in the mirror and fluffing her hair like she’s about to go onstage. My stomach grumbles from hunger or nerves, and I pull a McIntosh apple from my purse.
“Appetizer?” I offer, and Lilith looks at me like I’m holding a frog.
“Damn, Mar-i-doodle! You got a fruit stand in there?”
“Maybe,” I shoot back, nodding to her flask. “You got a liquor store in yours?”
“Touché!” She grabs my apple and takes a dramatic bite, then shoves her flask in my hand. “Appetizers it is.” She motions for me to drink.
I take a swig and the liquid is sweet, but then it hits my throat and burns. “Jesus!” I spit the rest out the window. “What is that!?”
“Sorry.” Lilith laughs. “Okay, maybe you do need to eat before you drink.” She hands me back the apple in exchange for her flask. “Finish that, fruit-girl, and remind me to find you some bread.”
Cold air shoots up my skirt as we walk toward the lake, wind kissing my thighs. I grip the apple and tug at the fabric’s hem.
“Be cool,” Lilith says, dropping an arm over my shoulders and playing with the blond hair that flows down my back. “You got this.”
She eyes my hands before throwing back another drink, and I’m not sure what she thinks I’ve got, only she’s already skipping ahead through the reeds and motioning for me to follow. She heads for the bonfire, and from my angle the flames spark around her, wild and snapping.
Always on fire.
I hang by the water’s edge as Lilith skips from one person to the next. She mentioned this party was exclusive, which sounded cool before, but now that we’re here, it really means I don’t know anyone. I don’t even see the drama kids Lilith normally hangs out with. I could be mad at her for not introducing me, but I know better. Lilith bounces from person to person like a manic jumping bean, and I’d rather be a wallflower than get dragged around like a forgotten puppy. She’ll find me when she’s done. She always does.
The heat of the bonfire is surprising. It puffs up my skin like the flesh of a marshmallow. After lingering awhile I discover there’s an invisible line around the fire. A heat line. On one side it’s too hot to stand and on the other side it’s too cold. The flames crackle, whispering secrets to the girls standing close to the blaze with their tan legs and low-cut shirts. They dig their toes into the sand, and the soccer players touch their elbows and waists and hair. I move closer to the fire but the heat feels like Lilith’s breath, hot on my neck.
“What if you give yourself a deadline?” Lilith asked the other night, her brown hair lying against my white comforter in dark waves. “Like Halloween or Thanksgiving?”
“To find a boyfriend?” I shifted uncomfortably beside her.
She laughed. “He doesn’t have to be your boyfriend.”
I stared at the ceiling. I’d painted it sapphire a few years ago, but you could still see the outlines of the glow-in-the-dark stars and unicorn stickers beneath.
“Maybe I want a boyfriend,” I threw back at her, and she rolled onto her elbow to face me.
“You’re misunderstanding. I don’t mean go out and screw the next guy that comes along. I mean . . .” She placed her index finger on my shoulder and started to draw swirls through the cotton of my shirt. She did that when she was thinking, as if the contact helped her to figure out what she meant to say. “It’s not a promise you’re making to me. It’s a promise you’re making to yourself. It’s a promise to your body. Does that make sense?”
“Not really,” I breathed. Lilith knew how to use her hands. She knew what boys wanted. What to do with them.
Her fingers hit my collarbone and goose bumps frilled over me. Cold then hot. Hot, forcing me to stare at the ceiling so she couldn’t see all the things I couldn’t tell her.
“You make the promise to yourself, Marion,” Lilith said, her fingers tracing the hem of my skin. “Listen to your body.”
Lilith dug her toes into the stretch of muscle above my ankle and I could tell she was tired. After ten years of sleepovers, I know the crook of Lilith’s neck. I know the way her elbow bends. Those toes meant she was ready for bed. Or maybe she was just tired of rehashing this conversation.
“So, how does it work?” I asked, spreading my blond hair over the pillow. I needed a map. Wanting to lose your virginity and losing it are two very different things. “If he’s not my boyfriend? What are the rules?”
“There aren’t any rules, Marion.” Lilith rolled onto her side and began to braid my hair. “You trust your instincts. Let him take the lead. Your body knows what to do.”
“But what if I don’t?”
“You will.” Her fingers moved effortlessly, her hands weaving the braid without even looking. “Your body knows things, Marion. Things you can’t even imagine.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Her words were like fog, untouchable and everywhere.
“Don’t think about it,” Lilith encouraged, eyeing my silence. “Just have fun.”
“Easy peasy!” Her voice got high, like maybe that was a lie, and I fixed my gaze outside on the empty sky, imagining it full of fireflies. “Hell, Mar-i-doodle, you’re hot,” Lilith continued. “So, it’s not like it’s going to be hard.”
“Right.” I nodded, wanting to believe her.
“Damn right!” she insisted, before sitting up dramatically and putting on her most obnoxious Catholic-nun voice. “Of course, you should always remember,” she started, wagging her finger in the air. “Your body is a temple. You shouldn’t defile it with one of those dirty, dirty boys. You should cherish it and keep your beautiful flower intact for your wedding day!”
I grabbed a pillow and smacked her in the face. We both doubled over laughing.
“You know, Marion . . . ,” Lilith said quietly, as our laughter subsided and the smell of pine trees drifted in from the open window.
“You can . . .” She shook her head, her voice light and dismissive, and I thought maybe I could hear the paint peeling back to expose those plastic stars. “Like if you’re working up to it and, I dunno, you’re not into it or whatever . . . You know you can say no, right?”
My toes dug into the bedspread, squishy as mud.
“Of course I know that,” I said quickly, shaking my head like she was crazy. “Who doesn’t know that?”
“Sure,” Lilith agreed, but then her eyes flicked to me like she wasn’t sure I meant it. I pushed back the comforter and crawled underneath, ignoring the icy draft at the base of my sheets.
“Good night, Lilith,” I said softly.
“Good night, Marion,” she said, turning off the light, but in the dark I could still hear her voice echoing in my head. Your body knows things, it whispered as I stared up at my ceiling of sapphire-drowned stars. Things you can’t even imagine.
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