Trying to sort our your next summer read? Then we humbly suggest you add With Malice by Eileen Cook to your list – and to convince you, we have the first chapter here for you to read!
In With Malice, Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room and she can’t remember the last six weeks of her life, including the accident that killed her best friend – only what if the accident wasn’t an accident?
With Malice is available now from HMH Books for Young Readers.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
I’m not a morning person. Understatement.
My hand couldn’t seem to muster the energy to turn off the alarm. It picked at the covers. The blanket felt wrong. Scratchy. Thin.
This isn’t my bed.
The realization made me uneasy. I must have crashed somewhere else. I hoped I’d remembered to call my mom. I felt a ripple of worry. If not, I was going to be in deep shit for not coming home. She was already mad about .º.º.
My brain was blank. I couldn’t remember why she was ticked at me. I remembered fighting about it. I’d slammed my door, and Mom threatened if I did that again, she’d take it off the hinges, but the reason why we’d argued was gone.
It felt like the reason was right at the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t pin it down. Every time I tried to concentrate, it slipped away.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Most annoying alarm ever. It sounded only half awake, a slow quiet beeping, just loud enough to make it impossible to ignore. All I wanted was to go back to sleep.
I was exhausted. Even my skin was tired, like I was stretched too thin.
I swallowed and winced at how dry my throat was. I don’t remember partying last night. What the hell did I drink? My stomach did a slow barrel roll. I made myself concentrate on not throwing up. Simone must have talked me into doing shots. She was the captain of bad decisions. I told myself I wasn’t scared, but it was weird that I couldn’t remember. What if someone had slipped me something? My mom had sent me an article on roofies, and I’d rolled my eyes, thinking she worried about stuff that was never going to happen, but now it didn’t seem so stupid.
Don’t freak out. You’re fine. Just figure out where you are.
I forced my eyes open. They felt gritty, like I’d rolled them in sand before popping them into my skull. It was too bright in the room. It was hard to make anything out clearly. There was a window with the blinds up and bright sunshine blasting in. Like it was afternoon instead of early morning.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
I turned my head to see the alarm, but as soon as I moved, there was a shot of pain, sharp, like a dental drill, driving into my brain. I moaned and my vision blurred.
I blinked and realized it wasn’t a clock. It was some kind of machine. Plastic tubing connected it to me, pooling over the rail of the bed, leading to a needle that was stuck to the back of my hand with clear medical tape that made my skin look wrinkled and old.
I was in a hospital.
My heart skipped a few beats. Something bad had happened. Hospital bad.
“Are you going to stay with us this time?”
I turned very slowly, trying to avoid a repeat of the pain in my head. A woman leaned over. She was wearing bright yellow scrubs. A stethoscope draped around her neck. It looked almost like a.º.º.º. The word skipped out of my head. Gone. I tried to focus, it was like a .º.º. serpent. That wasn’t the right word, but I couldn’t think of it. Thinking about it was making my headache worse. I opened my mouth to ask her what the right word was, but nothing came out. My heart raced and I clenched my hands into fists over and over.
“Just relax,” she said. She pressed the back of her cool hand to my forehead. “You’re okay.”
I could tell nothing about this situation was okay, but I didn’t want to be difficult. She seemed really nice. You could tell by her eyes. That’s one of my abilities. To judge someone’s character by their eyes. The window to the soul, as Big Bill Shakespeare would say. I wrote an essay on that quote last year and won a writing contest from the school district. It had only a fifty-buck award, along with a certificate “suitable for framing.” I acted like it was no big deal, but I was actually really proud.
“.º.º.º. you are?”
I blinked. I’d missed what she said. She was going to think I was rude. She stared at me, waiting for an answer. I swallowed again. I would have sold my soul for one of those cold, sweaty bottles of Dasani from the vending machine by the gym.
“Okay, let’s try something else. Do you know your name?” she asked.
Was she kidding? Did I know my name. Didn’t she know who she was talking to? National Merit Scholar. Perfect score in Ms. Harmer’s chemistry class, first time in school history. State debate champion and an almost certain shoo-in for our class valedictorian, as long as Eugene Choo didn’t pull ahead. Not that I’m rooting for the guy to fail, but if he got an occasional 89 instead of 100 on a paper, I wouldn’t weep a thousand tears.
Know my own name? This one I got.
“Jill,” I croaked. My voice sounded like I smoked a few packs a day and gargled with
She smiled widely and I felt the absurd rush of pride I always experienced when I got a question right. I really had to work on my need to be such a pleaser. You’d think I wouldn’t always need validation. Simone’s always on me for that.
Simone was going to freak when she heard I was in the hospital. She’d bring me new PJs from Pink so I didn’t have to wear this disgusting hospital gown that probably was last worn by some incontinent old man. Or someone who died in it.
Simone would also bring a stack of her favorite trashy magazines. She’d make me move over so she could sit on the edge of the bed, and we’d take a photo she could put online. Things would be better when she got here. Simone had that effect on people. She’d make this an adventure. My throat seized, and I was suddenly sure I was about to start crying. I wanted her there so badly my chest ached.
“I’m going to get the doctor,” the nurse said. “A lot of people are going to be glad to see you back with us.”
I started to nod, but the pain came again when I moved my head so I stopped. I closed my eyes when she left the room. It was good to be back.
I just wished I knew where I’d been.
There was a sharp prick of pain in my foot. My eyes snapped open. A guy in a white lab coat stood at the end of my bed. Before I could say anything, he jabbed the arch of my foot with a large pin.
“Do you feel that?” He reached for my foot and I pulled it away. Back off, Dr. Mengele.
He smiled and laughed. He was a happy sadist. “Looks like you felt it. Do you remember meeting me?” He moved closer so he was standing at the side of the bed. His hair was curly and stuck up like dandelion fluff. He looked a bit like a clown, or somebody’s goofy Uncle Dwight, who could be counted on to make lame jokes and wear one of those holiday sweaters with a reindeer on the front to Christmas dinner in a nonironic kind of way.
Creep alert. I shook my head slowly. I’d never seen this guy before in my life. The sheets tangled underneath me as I scootched to the far side of the bed.
“We’ve met a couple of times. I’m Dr. Ruckman.” He stared down at me.
“Hi,” I said. My voice still didn’t sound like my own. “Where’s my m-m-mom?” The words snagged in my throat, forcing me to push them out. I couldn’t understand why my mom wasn’t there. Normally my problem was getting rid of my mom. I’d never been in the hospital before. Well, once in second grade. I fell off the— Dammit. Now I can’t think of what they’re called. The ladder thing, suspended above the playground. Lion bars? No. Elephant bars. That’s not it either, but that’s like it. You swing across them. I’d had to get stitches, but I’d never stayed in the hospital before. Maybe she didn’t even know I was here. She could be sitting up, waiting for me to come home, getting worried. Guilt bloomed in my chest. I didn’t want her to worry.
“Your mom went down to get some coffee. She was here all night, hoping you’d wake back up,” he said.
All night? I’d only closed my eyes for a second. The light in the room was different. I turned; it was dark outside the window, the sky just starting to lighten to a dark purple bruise blue at the horizon. Sunrise. Where the hell had the rest of yesterday gone? Panic rippled through my stomach, threatening to take over.
“You think you’re up for trying something to drink?” the doctor asked. He reached for the plastic pitcher on the table.
My mouth watered. I’d never wanted anything that badly. There were crack addicts who were less needy. I nodded.
The doctor pressed a button and the bed cranked up a bit higher. I was barely sitting up and it still made me lightheaded. He guided the straw between my lips. I wanted to tell him I could do it, but I wasn’t actually sure I could. I took a sip of the water and almost cried at how good it tasted. I tried to take another, but he pulled the glass away.
“Let’s take it easy. See how that sits for a minute or two,” Dr. Ruckman said. “Can you do something else for me? Can you raise your right hand?”
I reached up with my right hand and wiped my mouth. I cringed. My lips had moved beyond chapped. It was like I’d run them through a cheese grater. Jesus, when is the last time I used some lip balm?
“Where’s the—” My brain scrambled to find the right word. “Health professional who was here. The, uh, caregiver.” That wasn’t right. “RN!” I spat out, but that wasn’t what I meant to say either.
“The nurse?” Dr. Ruckman suggested.
“Nurse,” I repeated. Nurse.
“Tish works evenings. She’ll be back at three. She’ll be glad to hear you’re more alert.” The doctor was scribbling something on a chart.
I licked my disgusting mouth. I bet when Tish came on she’d find me some ChapStick. She looked like the kind of person who would have an extra tube in her bag, along with gum, Kleenex, or an Advil if you had a headache. I felt like crying, but I wasn’t sure if it was because everything hurt, because I wanted more water so badly, or because I was scared and didn’t know why.
“Do you know what day it is?” Dr. Ruckman asked.
I opened my mouth to answer and then closed it. What day was it? They must have given me some kind of painkiller that was messing with my head. “Tuesday?” I could tell from his look I’d gotten it wrong. “Wednesday?” A buzzing sound filled my ears, like my head was full of angry bees. I wanted to get out of the bed and run away, but I suspected my legs wouldn’t carry me far.
“Take a deep breath. You’re okay,” Dr. Ruckman said. He patted my shoulder like I was a puppy who was at risk of peeing on the rug because someone had set off a bunch of firecrackers.
I shrugged off his hand. Clearly I wasn’t okay. I didn’t even know what day it was. The door squeaked as it opened, and when I looked over, I knew I was in really bad shape. My parents were there.
Both of them.
I hadn’t seen them together in same room in years. They hated each other. They didn’t even try and pretend to get along “for the sake of the child.” Now they were standing side by side.
My mom gasped when she saw me sitting up in bed.
“Mommy,” I said, and started to cry. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d called her Mommy, but it had slipped out. It felt so good to see her, like she could still make everything better by giving me a kiss. She pushed past Dr. Ruckman and pulled me to her chest. Her familiar smell, a Jo Malone perfume, a mix of lavender and amber, filled my head, and I buried my face in her sweater, crying harder.
“Shhh, baby. You’re okay,” she mumbled into my hair. I could feel the moist heat from her breath, and I wanted to crawl out of the bed and into her lap like I was six and afraid of something under the bed. She started to gently pry my fingers off her cardigan. “You need to calm down, Jill. It’s not good for you to be worked up.” She held my right hand sandwiched between hers.
“Hey, kiddo,” Dad said. He squeezed my foot. I could see him swallowing over and over, like he was about to start crying himself. There was no sign of his new wife and the replacements. My stepbrothers. Twins, no less. My stepmom insisted on dressing them alike, as if they’d just popped off a Ralph Lauren billboard. When they were around, I acted like I couldn’t tell them apart. Mostly because I knew it drove her nuts.
I took a hitching breath and tried to pull myself together. Mom passed me a tissue, and I wiped my nose. Dad pulled a chair closer to the bed for her, and she sat next to me, all without letting go of my hand. He stood right behind her.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You were in a car accident,” Mom said. Her lower lip shook.
I waited for her words to wake something up in me, but there was still nothing, just a void.
“Do you remember the accident, Jill?” Dr. Ruckman had his pen poised over the chart.
They stared at me intently. “I think so,” I lied. How could I not remember? An accident so serious I’d ended up in a hospital. No way was I admitting the huge gap in my memory. “I remember tires squealing and glass breaking,” I added, figuring that was general enough to cover all the bases.
Mom squeezed my hand. Her expression was brittle. The accident must have been really bad. I hoped the car wasn’t totaled. My dad wasn’t exactly generous with child support, and she didn’t make that much at her job. She loved that stupid Mercedes, even though it was ten years old.
“What’s the last thing you remember well?” Dr. Ruckman clicked his ballpoint pen. On off, on off, on off. It was making my headache worse.
I fished about, trying to remember something that stood out clearly. Then it came to me in a flash. “I remember being over at Simone’s. Tara was there too. We were celebrating the end of the play. We did Grease. Simone was Sandy.” It was all really vivid. I felt the band of tension around my chest loosen as the memories flooded in. The feel of the worn corduroy sofa in her family rec room. Simone standing on the cracked faux leather ottoman singing “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” at the top of her lungs while doing a bump-and-grind number. Tara and me laughing so hard I’d been sure I’d pee my pants. “We sold out all of the performances. Everyone came.” I glanced over at my dad. “Almost everyone.”
He looked away. The show had run for four nights, and he couldn’t manage to make a single one. The replacements had a cold.
Simone, Tara, and I had lounged around, dissecting everyone else’s performance. I left out the part about how we toasted our victory with some of Simone’s dad’s beer that we stole from the fridge in the garage. I was almost sure I had planned to spend the night. I remembered wearing sweats. My stomach clenched. I wouldn’t have driven drunk. I was capable of doing stupid things, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have done anything that dumb.
“How long have I been out?”
“Your accident was just over three days ago, Thursday. This is Sunday morning,” Dr. Ruckman said. “What you’re experiencing is retrograde amnesia. It means you forgot not only the accident, but some time before and after too. It’s pretty common with head injuries. That’s also why you’re having some trouble with word finding. It’s called aphasia. I would expect both of these to get better with some time. Do you remember the ambulance?”
“No,” I said.
“How about the flight?”
I blinked. I could understand the words he was saying, but it was almost as if he were speaking a different language. They must have flown me to a bigger hospital, maybe in Detroit. There was a sense that I did remember something about flying, but when I reached for it, it skittered out of reach. Like a spider bolting for a corner. Gone.
“It’s okay if you don’t recall. You’ve been in and out since you were brought here. Your Glasgow scale score—that’s how we measure the impact of a head injury—was pretty low, but you’ve been doing well, coming up and out of it.”
“What’s a perfect score?” I asked.
“Fifteen,” he said.
“What am I?”
“Today I’d say you were a fourteen or fifteen.” Dr. Ruckman smiled.
I smiled back, relieved. Nailed it. I needed an accounting of what else was wrong with me. “My leg’s messed up,” I said, stating the obvious, since it was hanging from a sling suspended above the bed.
Dr. Ruckman lightly tapped my knee. “You’ve fractured your left femur. When you were admitted, we used external fixation to keep things stable, but now that you’re doing better, we’re going to schedule you for surgery, and they’ll put in some pins.”
“Oh.” My stomach sank through the bed. This was bad. I was supposed to leave in a couple of weeks. Surgery and pins sounded serious. I’d been planning for the trip forever. “Can I still go to Italy?”
My parents exchanged a look. A thick fog of tension filled the room Oh, shit. My heart felt like a hummingbird trapped in my chest. They had to let me go.
“I can see a doctor over there,” I said. “And I’ll do whatever exercises I need to. Or I could use a wheelchair,” I suggested, knowing there was no way a school trip was going to let me go in a chair.
“Sweetheart,” Mom said.
“I’ll do anything,” I pleaded. “Don’t say no now. I might be better in a day or two, and we can decide then.”
“The trip is over,” my dad said.
“Keith,” Mom said, her voice tense.
“But—that’s not fair,” I said. “You can’t decide now. I haven’t even had the surgery yet. I might be okay—”
“No,” my dad cut me off. “I mean you already went. The car accident was in Italy.”
It felt as if someone had ripped the air out of my lungs. I’d been in Italy, and I couldn’t remember a thing. It was one thing to miss some memories, but I’d blacked out the entire trip. That couldn’t be possible.
“Sweetheart?” Mom patted my hand. A wave of clammy sweat broke out across my forehead and down my back.
“This is a lot for Jill to take in. We might want to give her some time,” Dr. Ruckman suggested.
“No, I need to know,” I said. The beeping from my monitor picked up speed.
“Don’t be upset,” Mom said.
My mouth fell open. Was she kidding?
Dr. Ruckman picked up a syringe and injected something into the tubing that led to my arm.
“Hey,” I protested.
“Why don’t you rest for a bit, and we can talk more later.” Dr. Ruckman patted my arm.
I wanted to yank away from his touch and tell him to keep his patronizing tone to himself, but my head began to fill with thick bubbles, and it seemed I could feel the cold medicine sliding into my veins, traveling through my body. I could almost trace its progress. I sank back down on the pillows.
Mom squeezed my hand. “You’re going to be okay, Jill.”
“That’s right,” Dad added. “You’re going to be just fine.”
They smiled, but I had the sense they were trying to convince themselves more than me.