The Unfortunates: New Excerpt
By Kim Liggett
The Unfortunates by Bram Stoker Award-winner Kim Liggett is a haunting tale of privilege, guilt, and redemption, perfect for fans of Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars.
When 17-year-old senator’s son Grant Tavish is involved in a fatal accident, all he wants to do is face the consequences of what he’s done. But those consequences never come, even if headlines of “affluenza” do. The truth soon becomes clear: due to his father’s connections, Grant is going to get away with murder.
As a family tradition approaches, a cave excursion on the Appalachian Trail, Grant seizes the opportunity to take justice into his own hands by staging an accident and never coming back. But before he has a chance to enact his plans, the cave system collapses, trapping him miles beneath the surface with four other teens from much less fortunate circumstances. As they struggle to survive, they share their innermost secrets and fears, and just when it seems they might be on track to finding a way out, they realize…
There’s something else down there.
And it’s hunting them.
“GRANT Franklin Tavish the fifth?” the burly nurse calls into the waiting room.
Everyone around me bursts out laughing.
“That’s gotta be this kid.” The guy across from me leans back in the bright-orange molded-plastic chair, spreading his legs farther than I thought humanly possible.
“What’d you do?” The old man next to me nudges my elbow. “Get caught sneaking into your daddy’s liquor cabinet? Smoke a little weed under the bleachers?”
I let out an exasperated sigh, like this is the worst day of my life, but the truth is, I like it here. For twenty minutes a week, I get to live in reality. This is where I belong. Somewhere worse really, but things like that don’t happen to Tavishes.
As I’m walking toward the door with a tiny window lined with security wire, a guy from the far side of the room says, “Hey, wait a minute. I know you…”
I pause, waiting for him to say it. Aching for him to call me out for what I really am.
“Aren’t you the senator’s son … the one from the news? The one who—”
“That’s enough,” the nurse says, ushering me through the door. “He’s here … just the same as you clowns.”
I follow him down the dingy hall, which reeks of piss and bleach, to door number three. There’s a metal sink, metal toilet, metal walls. The fluorescent lights ping as if in the throes of death.
“You know the drill,” the nurse says as he makes note of the time and the serial number off the plastic cup before handing it over.
Unbuckling my belt, I drop my khakis and boxers to my ankles and pull up my dress shirt and tie. It’s humiliating, but that’s kind of the whole point.
“Hope you drank your fresh-squeezed OJ this morning,” he says as he snaps on a pair of latex gloves. “I can’t be standing here for ten minutes singing you ‘Tinkle, Tinkle, Little Star.’”
I roll back my shoulders, trying to relax.
The first time I came in here it took me six minutes to even squeeze out a drop. They made me go back to the waiting room and drink a liter of water before they let me try again. But I’ve been practicing at home. I realize how ridiculous that sounds. Even taking a drug test, I have to strive to be the best. It’s ingrained.
I close my eyes, thinking of class three rapids, rain pouring out of the copper gutters outside my bedroom window, the surf hitting the sand at our beach house—but then the sound of screeching tires and hot oil dripping onto freezing pavement slips over my senses.
“You don’t remember anything,” our lawyer whispers in my ear.
“Think we’ve got enough,” the nurse says, staring down at the overflowing cup.
“Sorry.” I flinch, sloshing it over the sides.
He takes it from me, secures the lid, and unlocks the tiny metal door in the wall, sliding it through.
“I wonder what happens to all those plastic cups,” I say, trying to shake off the memory. “Maybe in a few hundred years they’ll dig it up, think it’s some precious family heirloom.”
He looks up at me with one raised eyebrow. “You think too much, kid.”
If he only knew.
As I’m washing my hands, he flips through my chart. “I see this is your last time.” He juts out his bottom lip and bobs his head. “Final court date on Monday. If this comes back negative, you get a clean slate.”
“Best justice money can buy,” I mutter as I put my hands under the wheezing dryer.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” I say as I straighten my tie in the smudged book-size mirror.
I want to tell him there’s nothing about my slate that could ever be clean, not after what I did, but I can’t risk it. Not now. Not when I’m this close.
Instead, I crack a smile. The one that says, Don’t worry. I’m all good now.
The one I’ve practiced to perfection.
THE walk from the ugly, squat redbrick building to the awaiting black sedan feels like I’m trudging against a strong current. Sometimes I wonder if you can see it on me. If someone took my photo, would it show up on the negative? The death hanging all around me?
“Don’t dawdle,” my mother says as I open the door.
She’s in the back, perched on the edge of the seat, probably applying her tenth coat of nude lipstick. It’s her tic, what she does when she’s uncomfortable. I don’t get nude lipstick. If you’re going to wear the same shade as your lips, what’s the point? But I don’t feel like provoking her. Not today.
It seems funny to me that I have no idea what she looks like without makeup, without the expensive dress suits. I wonder if I’d even recognize her in holey sweats and a T-shirt, her perfect bob pulled into some dirty scrunchie. The thought makes me laugh.
“You find this amusing?” She snaps her compact shut. “I’ll never understand why you insisted on taking care of this downtown. Dr. Wilson would’ve been more than happy to collect it from the house. I’m sure the judge would’ve—”
“I think we’ve asked enough favors.” I settle back in my seat. “Besides, this is nothing compared to—”
“I’m fully aware.” She cuts me off, clutching her purse tight to her chest as some guy in an oversize army surplus coat approaches the car, staring into the tinted windows. “Can we go now, please?” my mother asks, her voice tighter than the lid of my piss cup.
Without a word, Marvin slowly pulls the car out of the lot.
I catch his eyes in the rearview mirror. I wonder what he thinks of us. What he tells his family when he goes home at night. If he even has a family. He’s been driving my mother around for the past couple of years. He probably knows her better than any of us. I rarely see them speak, but he seems to anticipate her every need. Little things, like handing her a tissue before she even sneezes. Knowing if she’s hot or cold.
My mother demands excellence from everyone around her, but she holds herself to the same standard, so it’s hard not to respect that. People think my dad’s the one with all the power, but it’s really her, pulling the strings. She would’ve been an amazing politician. Sharp. Strategic. Ambitious. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must’ve been for her—saddled with three kids, losing one, stifling all that unmet potential in order to help my father’s star rise, to help us become all the things she never had the opportunity to be. But behind that pleasant smile, she’s a force to be reckoned with. When I was a kid, I used to wonder if she was even human.
“Marvin will pick you up after school. I understand you have a few errands, but I need you home as soon as possible for your portrait sitting. I’ll be tied up with the photographer from Richmond Life. They’re coming out to the house to capture the tulips. Family dinner is at seven thirty sharp. Your father will want to go over the plans for your trip, so you should…”
I smile. Nod on cue. But I’ve completely tuned her out now. Most people avoid silence because it leaves them with their thoughts. I used to be like that. But I don’t want to forget what happened. I don’t deserve that kind of peace.
After the “incident,” when my mother came to the hospital, her eyes full of tears, she leaned over and hugged me. I couldn’t remember the last time that happened. I wrapped my arms around her and wept like a baby. All I needed in that moment was to feel loved … to feel safe … to be forgiven.
But then she whispered in my ear …
Not I love you.
Not I’m glad that you’re okay.
She whispered, “How could you do this to me?”
It felt like a sucker punch. Even thinking about it now brings that sour taste to the back of my throat. I’d never felt so despised in all my life.
In my mother’s eyes, it’s like we’re all just props to be moved around as she sees fit. And I went off script, in the biggest way possible. Sometimes I wonder if it would’ve been easier for her if I’d just died that night. She’s never said as much, but I feel it every time she looks at me.
The thing is, I know she loves me. I know she only wants what she believes is best for me. But she doesn’t have a clue. All she wants to do is bury it, like she buries everything else. It’s kind of ironic that it took all this to make me realize she’s just a human being.
Without thinking, I reach over the divider and take her hand in mine, squeezing tight.
She’s so caught off guard that she stammers. I’ve never heard my mother stammer before.
“W-well … how nice.” She quickly pulls her hand out from under mine and gives it a pat before applying another coat of nude lipstick.
AS soon as we pull up to St. Augustine, I get out as quickly as possible. It’s not that I’m embarrassed my mother has to take me to school—I’m well beyond that now—and I’m more than happy to be rid of the bodyguards. It’s just that sometimes, ever since the “incident,” when I’m in a confined space like that, it feels like I can’t breathe … like I’m choking under the weight of it all.
I see a flash in my peripheral, nothing more than a passing shadow, but it gets my full attention. It’s been months, the media has surely moved on by now, but lately I’ve had the distinct feeling that I’m being followed, watched. Sometimes I even hear a whisper. As I stare into the parking lot, I quiet myself, listen closely, and then quickly realize how insane this is. I know I’m probably just being paranoid, but I can’t afford to have any interference at this point.
“Hey! Grant!” Bennett and Parker flag me over.
As I walk across the impossibly green lawn, watching them hold court, I can’t believe I was ever one of them. Three months ago, we were all inseparable, and now they seem like an entirely different species.
They’re not bad people. I mean, they do their Habitat for Humanity vacations, drink free-trade coffee, go to Christ Episcopal on Sundays—all the things people like us are supposed to do. They could’ve easily frozen me out after the incident, but that’s not how we’re raised. These are the same people I’m expected to build my entire future around. There will be golf trips, duck hunting trips, vacations with our wives, where we can all pretend we’re still in high school and reminisce about how these were the best years of our lives … until eventually we believe it.
It’s pounded into us from birth that the kids you come up with—from prep school, camp, lacrosse, college—those are your people. The only ones you can trust. They don’t need money. They don’t need a leg up. They’re from the same families who’ve held on to their wealth through wars, depression, the collapse of industry. In Richmond, we stick to our own and close ranks when things get sticky. But it’s more than that. I think they know it could’ve been any one of them that night.
But it wasn’t.
It was me.
“Are you pumped for break?” Parker passes me the Hacky Sack. I kick it back on pure instinct. “Sally’s parents are in Europe.” He grins. “It’s going to be sick.”
“Can’t,” I say as I set down my bag and pull on my blazer. “I’ve got the trail this week. Four nights. I’m leaving tomorrow, coming back Sunday.”
“You’re still doing that?” Bennett winces. “I thought…”
“You thought what?” I ask, eager for even a glimmer of honesty, a moment of recognition for what happened.
“No … I just … That’s not really your thing.” He shrugs, trying to keep it casual, but I can tell he’s worried. “I didn’t think your dad was still making you do that … that you’d be up for it.”
“Come on.” Parker clamps his hand over my shoulder. “Of course he’s up for it. It’s a Tavish tradition. Man against the elements. Time to get on with life, right?”
I look down at his hand on my shoulder, his signet ring glistening in the bright morning sun, and I want to knock it off, but I can’t. I just have to hold it together for a little longer. “Right,” I answer through clenched teeth.
“It’s better than my old man,” Parker says with a forced laugh. “He’s obsessed with me pledging Skulls. Legacy. What are you going to do.”
“I don’t know. What are you going to do?” Bennett replies, completely deadpan.
“You’re just jealous.” Parker shakes his head. “You wouldn’t be riding me if you saw the girls they get over there.”
Bennett’s eyes flash toward me, but I pretend not to notice. “I have one word for you,” he says as he checks his cuff links. “Hazing. Have fun getting your balls shaved by a bunch of posers.”
“Shut up.” Parker beams the Hacky Sack at him.
But I can tell by the way he’s laughing, the way the tips of his ears are turning red, that he’s secretly jonesing for it. He can’t wait to have his balls shaved by a bunch of posers, because that’s what his dad did, and his dad before that. He’s been preparing for this moment his whole life.
Catherine walks across campus with Lewis. She’s holding his hand, smiling up at him, just like she used to with me, but I can see the tension in her neck, the vein that always gives her away.
It reminds me of our first day back after Christmas break, after the incident. She picked me up and, instead of talking about what happened, seeing if I was okay, she turned up the stereo, singing along to her favorite Taylor Swift song. Which was apparently our song. As we pulled in the lot, she smoothed her hair down and touched up her lipstick—just like my mother.
And that’s when it hit me. Getting out of the car with me, smiling, holding my hand—this was damage control. Plain and simple.
I’d seen my parents do it a number of times. Like when my dad’s name surfaced on that call girl’s list, they marched hand in hand from the front door to the gates, presenting a united front as the cameras flashed all around them. And I suppose I could’ve easily played my dad’s role—poured all of my attention into her, the humbled man—but I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t do that to me.
As they stand at the edge of the brick courtyard, I watch her bouncing on the tips of her toes a few times, all to draw the eye, that hundred-watt smile, meant to make you feel like you’re looking into the sun. I see through all that now. I wonder if she even knows she’s doing it or if it’s just part of her DNA.
It’s funny how you think you know someone, but all I really know about her are the adorable little things she wanted me to know. I’m not saying it was all fake. We had our moments. And I care about her. I genuinely want her to be happy. But I think Catherine loved the idea of me—the name, the life we’d share, our three kids, the lab. She probably had our lives planned since Cotillion. We’d both go to GW, get married right after college, get a brownstone in Arlington. I’d work in the capital, she’d help me climb the political ladder. She never asked me what I wanted. No one did. But to be fair, I never told them, either. I was just as caught up in all this as the rest of them.
Looking at her now with Lewis, it makes me realize how interchangeable I was—all of us, really. Old money, Social Register, Greenbrier at Christmas, summers on the shore. We’re all just carbon copies of our parents. And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why we were in such a hurry to step into their shoes.
As soon as she lets go of Lewis’s hand and starts walking over, I look away, but it’s too late.
“Incoming.” Bennett nudges me.
I can feel everyone staring, waiting for some kind of drama, but they’re wasting their energy.
“Can I talk to you for a sec?” Catherine asks, tucking a silky strand of honey-colored hair behind her ear.
“Sure,” I say as I reluctantly pull away from the group.
When everyone’s out of earshot, she says, “I just want to make sure you’re okay with this.”
“With what?” I put my hands in my pockets. Hands give away so much.
“Me … and Lewis.” She glances back at him, standing there like a nob, holding her purse. “It just kind of happened.”
I know exactly how it just kind of happened, but the last thing I want to do is embarrass her.
“I think it’s perfect.”
“Perfect?” A tight smile stretches across her glossy pink lips.
“That you found each other.” I look off toward the woods, wishing I were anywhere but here, in this moment.
“Well, I guess that’s it then,” she says as she plays with the pearl on her necklace, the one my mother picked out for her sweet sixteen.
I start to walk away, but when I think about the trail trip, what this means, I turn back. “You know it’s not your fault, right?”
Flustered by my break in protocol, she blurts, “I would’ve stood by you. No matter what. I wanted to, but—”
“We’re all good.” I nod. “It’s time to … move on.”
That phrase usually infuriates me. But this time I mean it.
Copyright © 2018 Kim Liggett.