Authors: Simmone Howell
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FOR MARK AND WILLEFORD
HE SONG “WISHING WELL”
by the Millionaires (Decca, 1966) was as rare as it was weird, and my dad named his record shop after it. The guy who produced it, Joe Meek, was famously bonkers. He had occult leanings and Svengali issues. He heard voices, but he also heard music in a way that no one else did. Just a few years after his greatest success, Meek killed his landlady, then himself, and for a long time his tapes were locked away in a tea chest. Dad had “Wishing Well” on a compilation. He didn't like to admit to this (compilations are cheating), but it meant I got to hear it. The song was poppy and bent. It sounded like it was recorded underwater or on the moon. Dad used to say the only reason he even opened up in the morning was on the slim chance that someone would sell the single in. Every other week he'd get that hopeful, pathetic look. “It's coming,” he'd say. “I can feel it in my waters. You'll see, kids. Everything comes in eventually.”
And Gully and I would go, “Yes, Dad,” but we never believed it would actually happen.
This is the story of how it did.
It's also the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it's about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff.
But first the specsâas Gully would say.
It was just Dad and me and Gully living in the flat above the shop on Blessington Street, St. Kilda. We, the Martin family, were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects. Dad was addicted to beer and bootlegs. Gully had “social difficulties” that manifested in his wearing a pig-snout mask 24/7. I was surface-clean, but underneath a weird hormonal stew was simmering. My defects weren't the kind you could see just from looking. Later I would decide they were symptoms of Nancy Cole.
At the time all this happened I'd known Nancy three months. She was nineteen and sharp as knives. I was fifteen and fumbling. We met when Dad hired her to clean the shop and the flat. I remember her walking into my room with the vacuum hose slung around her neck, sloppy and insolent like a bad boyfriend's arm. She opened her mouth and all this stuff poured out. Did I know that sharks could switch off half their brains? That the average person farted fourteen times a day? That deep in the suburbs middle-aged couples were having sex dressed as plush toys? And I, who never said anything much to anyone, said, “Bullshit!” Soon enough we were gasbagging and lollygagging, and the
dishes didn't even get a look in. Dad had to let her go, but she kept coming around. Nancy's laughâand I can still hear itâwas an unexpected heehaw that went totally against her glamazon appearance. “You're all right, kid.”
“Kid,” that was what she called me. Or “little sister,” or “girlfriend,” or “dollbaby,” or “monkeyface.” Sometimes she even used my nameâSkylark, Skyâall in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back, lightly scratching itches I didn't even know I had.
UP ABOVE THE WEIRD
NE HOT NIGHT NEAR
the end of November, Nancy and I were up on the roof. We'd eaten our tea al fresco (Mutha's microwave roast); washed it down with some of Dad's homebrewânicknamed Old Dunlops because it tasted like tires and made me stupid after two sipsâand now we were talking about weird ways to die.
Nancy went first. “Year nine. Richard Skidmore. Killed by a piano.”
“Bullshit!” I called.
“Truth. His dad was a removalist. Richard was helping him one day when a piano slid off the truck and squashed him. All the girls were in love with him after that. They wore his picture around their necks and called themselves âthe Girlfriends of Richard.' The crazy thing is, he was nothing before that. He had pimples and he played clarinet, and he wasn't even that good at it.”
She took another swig of Dunlops and mock-shivered. “Your turn.”
Nancy's “your turns” made me nervous. Her “what
elses” were even worse. I could never match her. My weird deaths were fictional. All my stories had soft edges.
I told her about the book I was reading.
“In the first chapter Freddie Frenger Junior, the âblithe psychopath,' breaks a Hare Krishna's finger when he tries to give him a flower at the airport. And the Krishna guy dies
“Truth. Think about it. When you stub your toe, it
, and that's just a stub. Imagine a clean breakÂ .Â .Â .” I grabbed her finger and fake-wrenched it. Nancy let me hang on to it for longer than I needed to make my point.
The roof was my favorite place. It wasn't a roof garden or anything grand. It was more like a perch for stargazers or suicides. We had everything we needed up there: fairy lights and cushions and vintage opera glasses for people-watching. We had the portable record player and records my mum left behind: psycho-sweet ballads by guys with cleft chins, domestic pop by ladies in lounging pajamas.
Nancy put on Dusty Springfield doing “Spooky,” so cool and mysterious and infinite. Nancy sang along, trucking her feet and wheeling her arms. After a while she stopped.
“She looks sad. Why does she look so sad?”
At first I thought she was talking about Dusty,
but then I saw where she was staring. The poster had appeared the week before on the wall opposite the shop. It was a stencil of a girl's face, three feet high below a concrete sky. She had black hair and eyes. Her lips were slightly parted, and three fat black tears trailed down her cheek.
“I'll bet she's an actress or a model.”
Nancy nodded. “I'm going to ask Ray. He'll know.”
Ray was Nancy's landlord. He was fortysomething and worked for the council with a sideline selling books on a blanket near the Sunday market. He called himself an anthropologist, or as Nancy put it, “He likes to watch.” According to Nancy, his at-home attire consisted of a faded kimono that was so short you could see his tackle.
Nancy tapped a cigarette out of her packet. She moved on to her second-favorite subjectâHer Great Escape.
“There's this village in Wales that got swept into the sea in the thirteenth century. I'm going there. I've nearly got enough money now.”
“How can you go there if it's underwater?”
“Did I tell you about the chapel made of human bones? Czechoslovakia. And the hotel made of ice? Finland. I don't want to see the world, kid. I want to see the weird.”
“Uh-huh.” I bit my lip. I didn't want to think about Nancy leaving. Sometimes I would look at her
and almost forget to stop. She had hair the color of orange-blossom honey. It fell in perfect waves around her shoulders. My hair was short and dark and nothing. My look was nothing too. I didn't have to wear a bra, and for that I was grateful. As far as I was concerned, the less stuff I had sticking out and drawing attention to me, the better.
Night fell soft as a shrug. I was starting to crash. Even the palm trees looked tired, like showgirls standing around waiting for their pay. Nancy went back to her plate. She popped a carrot in her mouth and grimaced before spitting it over the rail. She held a potato as if to launch it. “Do I dare?”
“Be my guest.”
She pitched the spud. We watched it bounce off the meat-shop awning and splatter on some guy's shoulder. He stopped and looked up. We ducked back, laughing. Nancy found the opera glasses and checked him out.
I took a closer look. The guy she'd hit was tall and thinâmaybe seventeen. He had black-rimmed glasses and messy hair and vinyl patches on the elbows of his jacket.
Nancy clucked. “He's gone into your dad's shop. What if he robs it?”
“He won't get much.”
Below us the sign for Bill's Wishing Well creaked in the breeze. The only people who crossed the threshold were vinyl tragics, weirdos, and wayward tourists. I wondered which category the guy fit into.
Just then Nancy's phone blared so loud it made me jump. She moved away murmuring and came back humming. “That's Federico. I've gotta go.”
“Which one's Federico?”
“Long hair, slight lisp, magic dick.”
“Don't tell me.”
But she did anyway. “You know, like those inflatable dudes outside Crazy John's that jerk every which way?” She rocketed around.
“Is it a date or an assignation?” I couldn't remember the difference.
“It's a date,” Nancy said.
I tried to act jaded. I stole her stance, her slang, her style. “So go, lam, am-scray.” My smile was unshakable even as I was being ditched.