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Lit Thursday

The Newest Book From the Lenny Imprint Is Here

Read an excerpt from Caroline Kepnes's Providence.

 Providence cover

Chloe and I talked about death once. I told her I thought you just die, that’s it, and she said she thinks you transform into something, maybe not a bunny, but something. We were both wrong. Death is monotony. A walk in the woods. There is no way to know how long I’ve been doing this. Mr. Blair lags behind me and it’s always Monday morning in late November, the gray cold, the dead leaves on the ground, shimmying in the sky on their way down. I don’t know where we’re going, and though we never stop walking, we never get anywhere.

And I miss her. I miss her.

But I can’t cry. There’s no crying in these woods. There’s no food because there’s no hunger. There is no yawning, no sleep, there are no leg cramps or sunsets or Fluffernutter frappes. There’s no world in our world, it’s just me and him. He goads me when I slow down, when he knows I’m thinking about her, when I’m slipping. Come on, Jon, steady as she goes.

I can’t speak. I have no voice. He does though, muttering about leaves, life. I start to wish I would die so I wouldn’t have to miss her but I’m already dead. And this is hell because the leaves have teeth and sometimes they nick me and there is no blood, only pain.

You screwed up, Jon. You had your chance and you missed it.

I look up at the blank canvas of sky, the threat of snow, the crackling hiss that never bottoms out. I wish snow would fall in lumps, making me deaf.

You wouldn’t be here if you’d told her how you feel, Jon. You know it, you do.

I try to turn my head, I try to talk, but the leaves on the ground flare up, they glow bright green and the electricity seeps through veins in the leaves into me, my veins.

Don’t turn around, Jon. I told you there is no going back. You should know by now.

But then, everything stops. The leaves hang in the air, as if someone hit pause on the screen of our world. My legs don’t move. There is no walking, no talking. I’m choking. My ribs are crushing, cracking. I can’t breathe. My throat is full. Marshmallow Fluff. I drop to the floor of the dead forest and my windpipe is closing and the sky is hardening, turning to concrete, whitening and stiffening. I didn’t want this world but now I’m losing it, the whiteout inside of me, outside.

And then there is nothing.

***

And then I see red. A deep red in my mind that thwarts everything else, darker than blood, pain.

I don’t know where I am or what happened. But I must be alive because this is the worst pain I’ve ever known, the searing, pulsing red of my throat. Slowly the rest of the world comes into focus. The twisted sheets in my hand. The hospital bed beneath my body.

But I’m not in a hospital. I am in a narrow room. The ceiling and walls are concrete, windowless slabs. A halogen lightbulb sizzles near my head and there are dozens of houseplants, ferns like you see at Kmart.

I don’t know what this place is, this musty underground, but it feels like a basement. I start to think about the last day I remember, the last thing I remember. The woods. Pedro shivering. And then the sub. Roger Blair. He took me.

He took me and here I am. My body on this bed. The pain in my throat. And I realize. A breathing tube. He put a breathing tube in me.

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But why? How?

I tear the top sheet off and to my shock I am in normal clothes, jock things, track pants and a hoodie. But this isn’t the body I know. This body is too big and this can’t be right, this can’t be me. My hands are a man’s hands, not a boy’s hands, Pedro would drown in them now. Pedro. My legs are long, too long for my body. My chest is wide, muscled. I don’t fit in my skin and for a minute I’m not sure this is my skin. Maybe he extracted my soul and shoved it into a dead body. But I know I’m being stupid. I’m me. My left index finger curves like it’s trying to get away from my hand. There is hair on my arms. I’m just more of a man now. A coughing man, a tall man, a Brawny paper towel man who could unscrew the lightbulb in the ceiling fan in our living room — my parents, where are they? — and I sit up in the bed.

I pull at the muscles — they’re hard, they’re not mine, they can’t be mine — but they are mine, under my skin, attached to me, holding me, containing me. How is this possible? How long has it been? And then—

Chloe. The wanting is a scream deep inside of me.

I remember this thing about life, about feelings, that they are fleeting, they go away whether or not you want them to. I sit and I breathe and I let the shock ooze out of me. I need a clear head, a calm head. I need to get out of here.

There’s a nightstand by the bed and it feels like he left things here for me, that sicko. There’s a tall glass of water — don’t drink it, Jon — but I sip the water because I’m still me, because my throat burns and I don’t have the willpower to resist. There’s a battered little book and I pick that up too. The Dunwich Horror by H. P. Lovecraft. Eerie green tentacles spread over the front of the book.

It’s pretty beat-up. If you brought this back to our library at school, Mrs. Wyman would ream you for it. I open the book. It’s tiny, less than a hundred pages. I stop on Mr. Blair’s favorite parts, the things he underlined.

Wilber Whateley was born at 5 a.m. . . . deformed, unattractive . . . dogs abhorred the boy . . . Yew grows . . . an’ that grows faster . . .

The most important words aren’t in the story, they’re on the other side of the front cover in a letter from Mr. Blair to me. I know his handwriting from school.

The most important words aren’t in the story, they’re on the other side of the front cover in a letter from Mr. Blair to me. I know his handwriting from school.

Jon,

You were in a medically induced coma. You are fine. You are free. Free to do as you wish, but a few words of advice from your old teacher . . .

Time moves forward. You should too. You have power, power that will present itself to you slowly, so as not to overwhelm you. Take it in stride.

You’re special, Jon. You always have been. But going forward, you’ll find that being special is a good thing. We did good work down here, Jon, and it will be interesting to see the way things play out.

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You’re welcome, Jon.
R.B.

The words blur before my eyes. We did good work down here. No we didn’t. There is no we, you sicko. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t remember anything. How long have I been down here? I didn’t like Mr. Blair then and I don’t like him now. My head aches and my hands quiver, trying to build a bridge between the then and now of it.

Back then, he was a weirdo with a frizzy mullet. He was always eating yogurt and licking the lids in front of the whole class. He was always trying to be my friend, he’d look at me sometimes, in front of everyone, like I was a teacher, like I wasn’t a kid. Do you believe these idiots, Jon? People laughed because nobody wants to be buddies with the sub. When Carrig superglued my hands to my desk, Mr. Blair said I could run circles around that moron. I remember thinking that he was making it all worse by standing up for me. There’s nothing worse than the wrong person being on your side.

You have power, power that will present itself to you slowly, so as not to overwhelm you.

What the hell does that mean?

Back then, he was the weirdest sub, hands down. He called us pussies, you care so much what other people think, you let your peers know that you care, waste your energy collecting approval from strangers. The next time we had him, we were scared of him, he called us delicate flowers, didn’t your mothers teach you about the difference between sticks, stones, and words? No matter what he did he always came back, even after the time he spit at Carrig. You’ll never be anything, you khaki little shit. Nobody told the principal. You don’t tattle on a sub; you just go to your next class. I never made fun of Mr. Blair. But here I am.

We did good work down here, Jon.

I throw The Dunwich Horror at the wall. I wish he didn’t write anything in the book, I wish there was no letter, I wish it could be simpler, that some bully freak kidnapped me and locked me up, me against him. But the thing about the book, the letter, now he’s made me a part of something. I can’t leave the book here for someone else to find. It’s mine now, like it or not, my fucking Horror.

I shove it in my back pocket. You’re welcome, Jon.

There are brand-new sneakers by the door, Nikes, socks too. It’s a shock, to be tying up laces, blinking and crouching. I am surprised that I can move, that I can run up the stairs. I must be over six feet tall and I take two steps at a time. I was never this strong, this big, and I spin a globe in my mind. I could be anywhere in the world. Siberia. Tennessee. I’m not even a little bit out of breath when I reach the top of the stairs and my throat is less sore now than it was before. I open the door and step into a black box of a room where the walls are covered in old calendars. There’s something familiar about it, a scent that tells me I’m not in Siberia.

I open another door and it’s brighter in here, this is an empty shop and the storefront windows are plastered with aging yellow Telegraphs. Home. I hear Muzak. There are stronger smells now. Mustard and cinnamon, things you put on pretzels. And then it hits me.

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I am in the mall. The mall.

It’s almost as bad as the book in my back pocket, the impossible lameness of it all, that I get kidnapped by a sub and shoved in the basement of the mall. The mall. I stare down at my large body. This whole time I was down here, however long it was—We did good work down here, Jon—this whole time while I was asleep, everyone I know was up here, on top of me, buying stuff on sale and returning it and stealing gum, trying out lacrosse sticks in the back room on that puke-green carpet at Rolling Jack’s. They were going to Tenley’s, to the movies, giving hickeys and getting hickeys. They were here. And I was here. The mall.

The mall.

I don’t know why I expected to be far away, but I did. Something extraordinary has happened and it feels like the journey home should be more dramatic, like years have passed and people should be zooming around in jet packs.

The Dunkin’ Donuts is still here, the same as ever, always with new items, this time they’re pushing Snickerdoodle Croissant Donuts. An old man sits at a table with a glazed cruller and a Telegraph. When he finishes his doughnut and stands to go, he leaves the paper behind.

It’s scary but I have to do it. I have to know what year it is, and I look at the top corner of the page and there it is. The number blinks out at me, unfathomable. Four years. Four years. I lost four years of my life. Roger Blair took them from me. He stole the one thing you can’t get back. Time.

My hands shake as I turn the pages of the paper. I see coupons for restaurants I know, restaurants I don’t know.

And then I’m on the move. For a while I just walk, the way old people do in malls. I have to get my head together before I go back to my life. I make decisions without meaning to make decisions.

I will tell them the truth. I woke up in the basement, I don’t remember a single thing.

But I will never tell anyone about The Dunwich Horror.

I will never tell anyone about his letter.

I tuck the evil little book into the waistband of my pants and I go into the old Radio Shack. Now it’s called Meditations. Wind chimes are tinkling and fountains are gurgling and a happy hippie greets me at the register. She says of course I can use the phone. I remember my mom’s number and I’m dialing and my fingers are big, too big, and the woman squints.

“Wait a minute,” she says. “Are you . . . are you . . . Jon Bronson?”

Excerpted from Providence by Caroline Kepnes. Copyright © 2018 by Caroline Kepnes. Excerpted by permission of Lenny, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.