Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: New Excerpt
By Crime HQJuly 27, 2021
“I promised fifty times already,” I said, looking down over the whole green world. “As soon as we get on the highway, I’ll tell you the longest, weirdest story.”
“With a mad doggy who rips off a kid’s face, okay, Saski? A naughty kid. A bad kid like a bad guy.” The wind tufted our hair, but offered no relief from the sun.
“I know, bud. A mad doggy and a bad kid.”
“Pinky promise.” You lifted your tiny finger in front of me. You wobbled on the banister, then dropped your hand to steady yourself. Below your feet lay four stories of air.
“You shouldn’t sit up there.”
“Daddy lets me.”
“Last I checked, this is Grandmother’s house.”
You stuck out your tongue. You stayed put. Below us, Daddy stalked out the front door. He tossed our backpacks in the trunk and searched the lengthy drive for Grandmother’s Mercedes.
“Whatcha looking at?” you said.
Daddy swiveled his head to scan the lawns. “Shh.” I pulled you off the railing. I brought you back to the other side of the widow’s walk, to the solid floorboards.
“Oww.” I put my finger to my lips. You quieted. Only four, and you already knew too much. I crept back to the railing on all fours, pressing my face against the white balusters just as Daddy gave up his search. When he went back inside, Mother’s voice hammered up the stairs to meet us: “—dare you speak to me that way?”
I crept to the door and closed it, quiet, like a fairy. When I turned back, your little finger was hovering right in front of me. “It’s not a promise if you don’t pinky promise.”
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s kind of like, maybe a lie.”
“It’s not a lie.”
“You could say no way, when we get on the highway. You could change your mind.”
“I won’t say no way. I already said, I’m going to tell the story. I said it a million times.” But I had hoped that by the highway you’d be sleeping. I would make myself quiet. Mother would turn over her shoulder and her eyes would grow soft and she’d coo, “Look, William, how sweet,” and Daddy would see us in the rearview mirror, and put his hand on her knee. The argument would fly right out the window, at least until the city.
“Saski? Please?” You were addicted to stories, especially the ones you told me so that I could tell them back to you. You would keep whining until I agreed. So fine, I clasped the chubby caterpillar of your pinky with my own. Satisfied, you broke away. “Where’s Topsy?”
Maybe the bunny had tumbled onto the roof that stretched below and away from us, on all four sides. But those long ears, that matted pelt, the sewed-on expression that seemed to change depending on your mood, were nowhere to be found. I bumped my head on the railing before spotting him back on the other side of the widow’s walk, under your sweatshirt. I grabbed him out. I shoved him at you. “Open your stupid eyes.” The sun was a dull throb. The city would be so much hotter. You stuck out your lower lip and fought back tears. I drew you close. I whispered apologies.
We were supposed to stay at Grandmother’s another month. Do you remember? We called our visits to her home “Connecticut.” What we meant was the green waft of cut grass, the digestive scent of Grandmother’s horehound candies, the burst of Miriam’s fresh lemonade. Grandmother and Daddy loathed each other, and Mother was willing to take either side, so the weekends, when he was up from the city, devolved into cruel, drunken affairs. But Monday through Thursday, when it was just you and me and Mother and Grandmother (and Miriam, although we were to “keep out of Miriam’s hair,” to which you replied, “But she doesn’t really have much hair,” which earned you twenty minutes in the mudroom), those sweet summer days were as close to bliss as we knew.
Weekdays began with breakfasts on the sunporch, where we wielded silver cups engraved with Mother’s first name, from when she was a girl. The evenings began at four thirty, when we’d wake Mother and wash our faces and change into what Grandmother called “proper clothes” for cocktail hour on the flagstone patio: silvery martinis for the adults (except Miriam), and, for us, cordial glasses with chilled tomato juice and lemon moons. In between, the long days—the many rooms for hide-and-seek, the swimming pool on hot afternoons, the widow’s walk for spying—shimmered our minds away from New York, so that by the time we returned to our “real life” at the end of August, the fug of hot dog cart water and the horns bleating up Park, and even, yes, Daddy in his wool suit, seemed to belong to a foreign land. By then, the only world we knew was Grandmother’s grand, white, shuttered house, the lawns sprawling out to meet hedges and fields and woods, and the people the place turned us into: “orfangs” (your word) with British accents; or pirates lying in wait under the bay laurel hedge; or a superhero who could blast villains (you) and a bad guy who ate children in one gulp (me).
But Daddy and Grandmother and Mother had dipped their toes into the topic of the stock market at cocktail hour on a Saturday evening (which meant Miriam was with her family), which meant Daddy was bartending (he made doubles), which meant he started bragging while Mother heated up the casserole, and Grandmother’s tongue was loosened enough to call him a greedy fool, which made Mother leave the casserole in the oven and lurch toward Grandmother to say all she had to do to find one of those was look in the fucking mirror. They moved into the parlor. We scavenged a dinner of fairy toast. I turned off the oven and made you tiptoe up the stairs. I tucked us into bed. You said I’d forgotten to brush your teeth. I told you we were punishing them with cavities. Do you remember how that made you giggle? Do you remember you conked out in three minutes flat? Eventually, Grandmother turned off her hearing aid and retired to her wing. By the time she left for church, Mother and Daddy had been fighting so long that what was left of the casserole was clumps of cheese and shards of ceramic littering the kitchen floor. But we never could have imagined Daddy would punish us, too, and make us leave a whole month early, and before Grandmother returned.
The sound of breaking glass carried up from a window below. The light was shafting through the Devil’s Ramble—that glade of Japanese maples leading into the woods just beyond the southern lawn—with a quality Grandmother had described as “the gloaming,” even though it was a July morning of full sun. I wanted to investigate, but we’d have to get through the adults.
“May I please have Topsy?” You had climbed up on to the railing again. Solemn. Teetering.
“I just gave him to you.”
Your lower lip quivered. You pointed to the roof below us, where Topsy lay sprawled across a shingle, out of reach.
I sighed long and hard. You began to bawl. Now they’d find us for sure. “I’ll get him, okay? But you have to shut up.”
You nodded, snuffling in your next cry. I lay down. I reached out my arm. There was no way. I sat back up and rubbed my bicep, sore from being pinched between the wood. “I’ll have to get a broom so I can reach.”
You swiveled on the railing, and hopped back onto the decking. You crouched beside me. “Don’t leave.”
“What did you expect? Throwing him like that.”
“I didn’t mean to. I can get him myself.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Don’t be mad.”
“I’ll only be mad if you try to get him yourself. It’s dangerous, okay?”
Was that wind through the tops of the trees, or Grandmother’s tires? Eventually they’d find us up here. But what could I do? What could Grandmother, even if she came back in time to intercept us? I wanted to belong in an idea of Connecticut that didn’t exist, for the moment at least. If only we could fly down to the Devil’s Ramble, shot through with beautiful sun in a way that made me ache, and now a gentle breeze, which flurried the Japanese maples and the colorful rags tied to their branches. I’d thought for sure Miriam would have snipped the rags off by now; relics of a tie-dye activity Mother had organized. Of everyone in our family, even you, Mother was either the most fun or the least, depending. You’d told me once that Daddy was never fun, but if I scrunched my eyes shut, I could summon up the sound of his laughter, which I hadn’t heard since you were born.
The magic light on the ramble switched off. A passing cloud? No. It was as though the place itself had had a bad thought. Even if we could slip down through the whole house, and across the lawn unnoticed, eventually we’d be found. Even if we weren’t in trouble, we’d have to bear more glasses of whiskey thrown against the mantelpiece, and Mother sobbing in the pink bedroom. Better to return to macadam heat, hobbled pigeons, and the dusty penthouse Daddy called ours although it was still in Grandmother’s name.
“You stay right here. Both feet on the deck.”
“I want to come.”
“Well, you can’t. I’ll be back once I find the broom, and I’ll get Topsy for you, and we’ll be happy, right?”
You didn’t look convinced.
“Or I could leave him there forever.”
“Then you have to let me go.” It was your turn to sigh. “Saski, don’t forget you pinky promised. When we get on the highway, you have to tell me that story.” You rustled in your pocket for something vital, a blue scrap of construction paper, crudely scissored, covered in capital letters in random order. It was folded around a black feather, fringed at the end in brilliant gold. The feather fluttered on to my shoe. I bent to pick it up. I tickled your neck with the feather’s gold tip. You smiled.
“I drawed this for you, Saski. It tells the mean doggy part of the story. I drawed the words so you can tell it the right way. You can’t read it. You don’t know the code. Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”
“I’ll be back in a flash.”
“Why’s Superman always a good guy?”
I opened the door. “Don’t climb on the banister.”
“Can’t good guys be bad guys, too?”
Inside the house, Mother let out a scream.
The feather must have sailed from my fingers as I slipped into the house, but I really can’t recall. I’ve gone back again and again, too many times to count, but that part of the story is always just gone, like the feather itself, the first things lost in an endless list; although one might say that the story gained is something left in return.
Excerpted from FIERCE LITTLE THING by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Copyright © 2021 by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.
About Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore:
Saskia was a damaged, lonely teenager when she arrived at the lakeside commune called Home. She was entranced by the tang of sourdough starter; the midnight call of the loons; the triumph of foraging wild mushrooms from the forest floor. But most of all she was taken with Abraham, Home’s charismatic leader, the North Star to Saskia and the four other teens who lived there, her best and only friends.
Two decades later, Saskia is shuttered in her Connecticut estate, estranged from the others. Her carefully walled life is torn open by threatening letters. Unless she and her former friends return to the land in rural Maine, the terrible thing they did as teenagers—their last-ditch attempt to save Home—will be revealed.
From vastly different lives, the five return to confront their blackmailer and reckon with the horror that split them apart. How far will they go to bury their secret forever?
New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s Fierce Little Thing is a mesmerizing story of friendship and its reckonings.