The Fever

by Megan Abbott

Hardcover, 303 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $26 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Fever
Author
Megan Abbott

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

NPR Summary

A small town comes unraveled after a young teen has a frightening, unexplained seizure in her high school class and rumors of a hazardous illness quickly move through the school and the community, spreading hysteria and destroying friendships and families.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Fever

Before

The first time, you can't believe how much it hurts."

Deenie's legs are shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hands hot on her thighs.

Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.

"I heard you might want to throw up even," one says. "I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle."

"It just kind of burns," says another. "You're sore for a few days. They say by the third time, you don't even feel it."

I'm next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it'll be me.

If only she'd gotten it over with a year ago. But she'd heard about how much it hurt and no one else had done it yet, at least not anyone she knew.

Now she's one of the last ones.

When Lise comes out, her face puckered, holding on to her stomach, she won't say a word, just sits there with her hand over her mouth.

"It's nothing to be scared of," Gabby says, looking at Deenie. "I'm not afraid."

And she takes Deenie's hand and grips it, fingers digging into palm, their clasped hands pressing down so Deenie's legs stop shaking, so she feels okay.

"We're in it together," Gabby adds, making Deenie look in her eyes, black and unflinching.

"Right," Deenie says, nodding. "How bad can it be?"

The door opens.

"Deenie Nash," a voice calls out.

Four minutes later, her thigh stinging, she's done. It's over.

Walking back out, shoes catching on the carpet, legs heavy as iron, she feels light-headed, a little drunk.

All the girls look at her, Gabby's face grave and expectant.

"It's nothing," Deenie says, grinning. "It's just . . . nothing."

1

T U E S D A Y

At first, Lise's desk chair just seemed to be rocking. Deenie's eyes were on it, watching the motion. The rocking of it made her feel a little sick. It reminded her of something.

She wondered if Lise was nervous about the quiz.

The night before, Deenie had prepared a long time, bringing her laptop under her covers, lying there for hours, staring at equations.

She wasn't sure it was studying, exactly, but it made her feel better, her eyes dry from screen glare, fingers tapping her lower lip. There was an uncomfortable smell from somewhere in her clothes, musky and foreign. She wanted to shower, but her dad might hear and wonder.

Two hours before, she'd been at work, dropping dough balls in a machine and punching them out into square pans slick with oil. Lise and Gabby had come by and ordered the fat pizza sticks, even though Deenie warned them not to. Showed them the plastic tub of melted butter that sat all day by the hot ovens. Showed them how the oven workers stroked the sticks with the butter from that tub and how it looked like soap or old cheese.

As they left, oil-bottomed paper sacks in their hands, she wished she were going with them, wherever they were going. She was glad to see them together. Gabby and Lise were Deenie's best friends but never really seemed easy with just each other.

By the ovens, Sean Lurie clocked in late. Wielding his long iron grippers like swords, he started teasing her. About the fancy-girl arc of her hand when she'd grab a dough ball, like she was holding a kitten. The way, he said, her tongue stuck out slightly when she stretched the dough.

"Like my little sister," he teased, "with her Play-Doh."

He was a senior at Star-of-the-Sea, shaggy black hair, very tall. He never wore his hat, much less the hairnet, and he had a way of smiling lopsided that made her tie her apron strings tighter, made her adjust her cap.

She didn't even mind all the sweat. The sweat was part of it.

Like her brother after hockey, his dark hair wet and face sheened over — she'd tease him about it, but it was a look of aliveness you wanted to be around.

The heat from the ovens made his skin glow.

How it happened that two hours later she was in Sean Lurie's car, and a half hour after that they were parked on Montrose, deep in Binnorie Woods, she couldn't say for sure.

She always heard you looked different, after.

But only the first time, said Gabby, who'd done it just twice herself. To make you remember it, I guess. Deenie had wondered how you could ever forget.

You look in the mirror after, Gabby said, and it's not even you.

Except Deenie had never really believed it. It seemed like one of those things they told you to make you wait forever for something everyone else was doing anyway. They didn't want you to be part of the club.

And yet, looking in the bathroom mirror after she got home, she'd realized Gabby was right.

It was partly the eyes — something narrow there, something less bright — but mostly it was the mouth, which looked tender, bruised, and now forever open.

Her hands hooked on the sink ledge, her eyes resting on her dad's aftershave in the deep green bottle, the same kind he'd used all her life. He'd been on a date too, she realized.

Then, remembering: she hadn't really been on a date.

Now, in class, all these thoughts thudding around, it was hard to concentrate, and even harder given the rocking in Lise's chair, her whole desk vibrating.

"Lise," Mrs. Chalmers called out. "You're bothering everyone else."

"It's happening, it's happening" came a low snarl from Lise's delicate pink mouth. "Uh-uh-uh."

Her hands flying up, she grabbed her throat, her body jolting to one side.

Then, in one swoop — as if one of the football players had taken his meaty forearm and hurled it — her desk overturned, clattering to the floor.

And with it Lise. Her head twisting, slamming into the tiles, her bright red face turned up, mouth teeming with froth.

"Lise," sighed Mrs. Chalmers, too far in front to see. "What is your problem?"

* * *

Standing at his locker, late for class, Eli Nash looked at the text for a long time, and at the photo that had come with it. A girl's bare midriff.

Eli, for you xxxx!

He didn't recognize the number.

It wasn't the first time he'd gotten one of these, but they always surprised him. He tried to imagine what she was thinking, this faceless girl. Purple nails touching the tops of her panties, purple too, with large white polka dots.

He had no idea who it was.

Did she want him to text her back, invite her over? To sneak her into his bedroom and nudge her shaky, pliant legs apart until he was through?

A few times he'd done just that. Told them to come by, smuggled them to his room. The last one, a sophomore everyone called Shawty, cried after.

She admitted to drinking four beers before she came on account of nervousness, and even still, had she put her legs where she should? Should she have made more noise? Secretly, he'd wished she'd made less noise. Since then, he could only ever think about his sister, one wall away. And how he hoped Deenie never did things like this. With guys like him.

So now, when he got these texts, he didn't reply.

Except sometimes he felt kind of lonely.

The night before, his friends at a party, he'd stayed home. He imagined maybe a family night of bad TV and board games moldy from the basement. But Deenie wasn't around, and his dad had his own plans.

"Who is she?" he'd asked, seeing his father wearing his date sweater, the charcoal V-neck of a serious man.

"A nice woman, very smart," he said. "I hope I can keep up."

"You will," Eli said. His dad was the smartest teacher in the school and the smartest guy Eli knew.

After one of those times sneaking a girl out of his room, Eli had gotten caught, sort of. In the upstairs hallway, his dad nearly bumped into her as she hitched her tank-top strap up her shoulder. He'd looked at Eli and then at the girl and she'd looked at him and smiled like the prom queen she was.

"Hey, Mr. Nash," she cheeped. "Guess what? I got an eighty-five in Chem Two this year."

"Great, Britt," he said, his eyes not focusing on hers. "I always knew you could do better. Glad to hear you're doing me proud."

After, Eli shut his door and turned his music as loud as he could and hoped his dad wouldn't come talk to him.

He never did.

* * *

Dryden was the cloudiest city in the state, the sky white for much of the year and the rest of the time a kind of molten gray broken up by bright bolts of mysterious sun.

Tom Nash had lived here for twenty years, had moved with Georgia the summer after they'd finished their teaching certificates, and she'd gotten a job starting up the district's new special-education office.

Like many long-term transplants, he had the uncomplicated pride of a self-proclaimed native, but with the renewing wonder a native never has.

In the deep white empty of February when his students would get that morose look, their faces slightly green like the moss that lined all their basements, he'd tell them that Dryden was special. That he had grown up in Yuma, Arizona, the sunniest city in the United States, and that he'd never really looked up until he went away to summer camp and realized the sky was there after all and filled with mystery.

For Dryden kids, of course, there was no mystery to any of it. They didn't realize how much it had shaped them, how it had let them retain, long past childhood fairy tales, the opportunity to experience forces beyond their understanding. The way weather tumbled through the town, striking it with hail, lightning, sudden bursts of both clouds and sun, like no other place Tom had ever been. Some days, the winter wind moving fast across the lake's warm waters, the sun unaccountably piercing everything, students came to school, faces slicked in ice, looking stunned and radiant. As if saying: I'm sixteen and bored and indifferent to life, but my eyes are

suddenly open, for a second, to this.

The first year he and Georgia lived here, Dryden had been this puzzle to them both. Coming home at night, the haze of the streetlamps, shaking off the damp, they would look around, their once-copper skin gleaming white, and marvel over it.

Pregnant with Eli and her body changing already, giving her this unearthly beauty, Georgia decided Dryden wasn't a real place at all but some misty idea of a town. A suburban Brigadoon, she called it.

Eventually — though it felt like suddenly to him — something changed.

One afternoon two years ago, he came home and found her at the dining-room table drinking scotch from a jam jar.

Living here, she said, is like living at the bottom of an old man's shoe. Then she looked at him as if hoping he could say something to make it not feel true.

But he couldn't think of a thing to say.

It wasn't long after that he found out about the affair, a year along by then, and that she was pregnant. She miscarried three days later and he took her to the hospital, the blood slipping down her leg, her hands tight on him.

Now he saw her maybe four times a year. She'd moved all the way to Merrivale, where Eli and Deenie spent one weekend a month and a full ten days each summer, after which they came back tan and blooming and consumed by guilt the moment they saw him.

In his middle-of-the-night bad thoughts, he now felt sure he'd never really understood his wife, or any woman maybe.

Whenever he thought he understood Deenie, she seemed to change.

Dad, I don't listen to that kind of music.

Dad, I never go to the mall anymore.

Lately, even her face looked different, her baby-doll mouth gone. The daddy's girl who used to climb his leg, face turned up to his. Who sat in his leather reading chair for hours, head bent over his own childhood books on Greek mythology, then Tudor

kings, anything.

"I'm taking the bus," she'd said that very morning, halfway out the door, those spindle legs of hers swiveling in her sneakers.

"I can drive you," he'd said. "You're so early."

Deenie hadn't beaten him to breakfast since she was ten, back when she was trying to be grown-up and would make him toaster waffles, with extra syrup he'd be tugging from the roof of his mouth all day.

Eli off to hockey practice at six a.m., Tom liked these drives alone with Deenie, the only time he could peek into the murky teen-girl-ness in her head. And get occasional smiles from her, make bad jokes about her music.

A few times, after dates like the one he'd had the night before — a substitute teacher divorced three months who'd spent most of dinner talking about her dying cat — driving to school with Deenie was the thing that roused him from bed in the morning.

But not this morning.

"I have a test to study for," she'd said, not even turning her head as she pushed through the door.

Sometimes, during those same bleak middle-of-the-nights, he held secret fears he never said aloud. Demons had come in the dark, come with the famous Dryden fog that rolled through the town, and taken possession of his lovely, smart, kindhearted wife. And next they'd come for his daughter too.

Copyright Megan Abbott, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.