This week Booktrope releases my debut novel Please, Pretty Lights on Amazon and bookstores will be able to order through Ingram. I have been given permission to leak the first few pages. I hope you enjoy.
SoHo, New York City, December 21, 2004
Back to the wall, Via shuffled through the candy cane wilderness, careful not to displace piles of presents or disturb crystal angels. It was so close. Branches prickled against her chin and neck as she stretched into the corner. Needles latched onto her green St. Anne Elementary School sweater. After months of waiting and wondering, there it was—white with a gold bow. She reached out. Her fingertips grazed the paper, the tag. It would have her name on it.
“No peeking,” her mother called from the kitchen. “Cookies are almost ready. Come and help.”
Guilt settled in and crowded out her naughty curiosity. Mama’s feathery voice lingered in the air and mingled with the smell of gingersnaps.
The front door slammed shut. Her body tensed against the wall as it recognized the rumble of her father’s approach. Her arm retreated to the safety of her side. The hardwood floor vibrated his location in the foyer. He wasn’t supposed to be home from the country yet. He needed his rest.
“Ingrid!”he yelled. “Violetta!”
He called her Violetta when he was angry. When he was happy, he said she was the heartbeat of the universe. Now that she was eleven, she wasn’t a little kid anymore, but she still called him Daddy. He made her promise she would always call him Daddy.
His voice was muffled. The floor was still. He must have stopped to check the front bedrooms, but for how long? That tummy pain was back, the one that burned from the inside out; the one Dr. Peyton said fifth graders shouldn’t have. Being the daughter of Joseph Antonio Rabbotino wasn’t easy. Kids at school called her Rabbit and were never allowed to come over and play.
The floor trembled more and more. He must be standing nearby, maybe next to the piano, she thought. She couldn’t see past the tree’s festive colors and prayed he couldn’t either. She had promised to be a good girl.
Her mother’s voice rushed over from the kitchen. It was shrill. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Put that down. You’re not yourself right now.”
Put what down? Via wondered. Sometimes he brought home presents or pets.
“You think I’m crazy?” He let out a harsh laugh she had never heard before. “You think you can drug me and leave me in Connecticut to rot?”
A bell near her elbow began to jingle. Don’t be a spaz, she told herself. She had to stop shaking; she just had to. Being invisible meant being silent, so she leaned to the right and smothered it. Her other arm met up with something pointy.
“But, you wanted to go, remember?” Her mother was talking really fast. “Dr. Goldman said you should rest, give the new meds some time.”
Daddy had a lot of doctors. Daddy took a lot of pills.
“I know what you think of me,” he said. “That the critics are right. That I’ll never paint again.”
“It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay,” her mother insisted. “But you’ve been drinking. We’ve gotten through this before. Remember?”
“Why do you do this to me?” he asked. “Evil little actress. Acting like you love me.”
“I do. You know I do.”
“Please, put that down. We’ll call Dr. Goldman.”
“You sent me away. Do you know what it was like there? Knowing you betrayed me? All you had to do was love me, but you’ve ruined me!”
“No, you wanted to go. You needed to rest. Please remember. Please.”
“Where’s my Violetta?”
“Still at school.”
“She should be home by now—home with us. We should be together now. She hiding under her bed again?” His words turned and trailed back toward the front bedrooms. “Violetta! Come when I call you!”
“Mama?” She called through the branches.
Her mother didn’t seem surprised at all to hear her. “Shh,” she said, faint but firm. It was not her normal ‘shh.’ Something was wrong.
Her father’s voice was already growing louder again. “Violetta!”
“I’m right here,” she tried to say. She decided that she would come out; then he would be angry with her, not her mother. But a strange sound surrounded her, like baby birds and chimes. It seemed to come through the Christmas tree lights. She blinked. They were such pretty lights—colors she had never seen before. Buzzing into a haze around her, they were mesmerizing.
Shh, it’s all okay, the lights told her, but not in words.
She felt their meaning in her teeth and bones.
Come and play with us, they urged. Come play pretend.
They flurried about. She tried to speak, but they settled against her tongue like candy-coated snow. They loved her. She watched them spin and shine and gleam and glow. They were everything she needed in that moment, and so she relaxed into the soft aura of Christmas.
Her mother was screaming, “She’s not here! She’s not here!”
The purest colors were born and danced within reflections of those who had come before. You’re not here, they echoed. You’re with us. They snuggled in and tucked themselves around her. Be still, they insisted. This isn’t real. She knew they were right. Nothing was real. She was everywhere and nowhere at all, safe between worlds. Her mother’s golden wall clock started to ding its hourly announcement—once, twice.
“You did this,” her father said.
A third ding.
“You made me do this.”
Mama’s voice fluttered. “Remember who you are.”
A loud noise exploded throughout the apartment. Ornaments rattled and slipped from their homes, and Via with them. Her hands came up to cover her ears, but his voice soon rode the wave of ringing and broke on through.
“Why?” he cried. “Why did you make me do this?”
Another explosion ripped away the space around her. She sank down overcome by the bells ringing around her. Why? Why were the bells so loud? It was a gun, she realized. The sound vibrating through her was gunfire. Her shoulder came to rest against the edge of the big box—white with a gold bow. Air came into her lungs in notches, each tighter than the last. She didn’t know what to do. Her trembling hand grasped a branch with a candy cane hanging from it. She began to pull it back.
Don’t look, the pretty lights warned her. It’s not real. It’s not her.
But it was too late. She had already peered past the angels—and through to the other side.
Mouth open, heart lost, she released the branch and it sprang back into place. Its candy cane held strong. The pretty lights spoke no more, but hummed and tingled. The murmur of their adoration grew faint and she began to panic. She curled up into herself, tight and small, desperate to disappear back into their protection.
“Please, pretty lights. Please don’t go.”
She blinked and the lights were just lights. The floors roared. New voices overtook the fading bells. People were yelling. People were coming. An alarm shrieked overhead. The taste of gingersnap dust burnt through the air.
“Please, pretty lights,” she called out again, even though she knew they were gone.