KEY TO A DIRT PALACE

She sits with Wallace in her mechanical engineering class. They've never been close, only ever truly interacting through Veronica, but she knows him. If she shelters with him, no-one else can notice her. She was always so easy ignore, and she used to hate that – why was she not worthy of their attention? Did she do something wrong?

But now, she welcomes the feeling, the invisibility. If strangers – walking without history – don't look at her, she can't see her own past-induced insanity reflected in her eyes. She knows she's being stupid and selfish with how she bandages herself, away from the world, but she can't help it. She was too nondescript for this.

And now she isn't. Because of him. She never wanted to be this girl; wrapped so tightly in a boy he can shred her to pieces by being something else. She once watched a movie with her mother; an old film where a lady had been betrayed by her husband, and committed suicide after. Mac ranted at her mother for at least half an hour after that movie; and the woman had just blinked at told her it was made in 1947.

Mac laughs when she thinks about that day now.

"Hey, you okay?" Wallace asks, snapping her out of her reverie. They speak in pleasantries; he doesn't see her. He observes through a heavy Veronica filtered lens; and she's grateful.

"Fine," she answers and soon the class is ending. They leave and he's talking to her; but the words float in and out of her mind. She responds automatically; unthinking, and watching the world whirl ahead of them. There is a boy typing frantically into his laptop (CASSIDY), a girl complaining about her brother and step-mom (CASSIDY), and a boy who has a shy, flirtatious smile when he looks at her (CASSIDYCASSIDYCASSIDY). Mac barely contains a gasp and tries to fall behind Wallace; he looks at her with concern.

"You sure you're okay?" he asks for a second time, and she nods.

"Yeah. I was just... that guy, he was looking at me funny," she dismisses, and Wallace looks sympathetic. He gently squeezes her arm, but it stings like barbed wire.

Wallace gives the guy a dirty look, and Mac knows he's paranoid. Everyone is on a campus with a serial rapist is; judging anyone who looks at a girl the wrong way, just for a second. Mac guesses she should be paranoid too, but it breezes around her like everything else outside of the pain.


She heads back to her dorm room then, and finds Parker. Her roommate makes easy, vapid talk that fills the awkward white silence in her ears. Mac's grateful for that.

She smiles at Parker and makes dry replies; she pretends not to notice when Parker pulls on her wig. Mac suddenly thinks Parker looks much too small for her body.

She does sometimes think about what happened to Parker. On her more morbid days, she takes it back to Cassidy. How he had stolen her clothes and her innocence; she should consider herself lucky to have escaped with what she did. He could have pressed her against the wall; held down her struggling hands and covered her screaming mouth; pumped his semen into her and marked her forever his. Or maybe he couldn't, given how she had invited him before, and it didn't work. She would have let him stain her, but it froze in his body.

And Veronica had asked, after finding Mac naked and alone and crying. Wrapped a towel around her, and asked point blank in dead compassion: did he rape you?

Mac answered no. The naive part of her wanted to say; he wouldn't do that, he loves me! She didn't, however, because if she did she would have to laugh with the ridiculousness of it, and she didn't know how to do that at that moment. Veronica had then held her as she cried and stared at a dark red patch on the sidewalk. Mac thought she had seen something like tears frozen in her best friend's face, but she didn't ask questions. She didn't know how.

In reality, she is debating the effect of Fashion Magazines on young girls' self-esteem with Parker, and she kind of wishes she didn't have this cavern in her that her thoughts could hide in when people's talk tried to flush them out. Parker's wig now looks like a synthetic monster, and the room feels too small. Mac has always appreciated Parker. Mac could not say a thing on Parker's normal days; when she tried desperately to pretend to be unbroken; jerking mechanically in a deranged parody of the girl she once was. Mac could be there when Parker got too damn tired; casting the wig off and sobbing until her eyes almost bled. Parker up, Parker down, and it's almost like being a little girl playing dolls again.

But now she feels choked and she can't say why; the dorm room musk has filled with death and sperm. She gives a half-smile – best she can muster – and she runs, Cassidy's teeth snapping at her.


There's only really one place to go. Cassidy always said he hated the beach; given he was the palest person in human history, she wasn't that surprised. She goes there because he can't follow her; and the sunlight is a little bit of a comfort. She dips her feet in the ocean current, and hears laughter.

She is being mocked from afar, by a gaggle of girls led by Madison Sinclair – didn't she leave town? - of all people. They mock her for her pudgy curves; her unfashionable clothes; the jokes crawl under her skin and she thinks like she can't seem to stop herself doing. By all rights, she should be Madison. Only a dumb mix-up made it otherwise. Madison wasn't the kind of girl Cassidy would ever pick; bitchy and beloved. Mac feels like she's been robbed, which makes sense because she has. Madison took her name or her body; Cassidy took her innocence and identity; it's all a Cindy Sinclair disappearing act she did not agree to.

That swirl of self-righteousness drives her into the water; she regrets it almost immediately, because the it is ice-cold and tastes like blood. Cassidy couldn't follow her here, but nothing was said of them – they are trapped in the ocean; she knows that. A little bit of liquid flows into her mouth; she tastes salt and soot. She knows Peter Ferrer's parents had him cremated (mostly because his face was warped beyond recognition on a pile of rocks), and it's all so specific it drives her up to the surface. She needs air because there's a bubble of laughter pushing through her throat, and she's not going to drown in her boyfriend's kills.

She emerges and it comes out as a tiny giggle; disappointing vibration hidden in her shivering. She wants to cry, but she doesn't want to admit that even here, Cassidy is still chewing on her neck – so she pulls herself out of the water, and never looks back to see her other self laughing.


Her sessions with her therapist are always on Thursdays; she scarcely sees the point, but she takes pride in trying. He asks questions and she answers; he asks her to open up and she feels disgusting. There are termites crawling on the inside of her skull; she can't let him put his fingers in them.

Yet he tries. He persists and persists and she always comes for another round because she doesn't know what else to do. She feels twisted, tormented; and no matter how he tries he cannot hammer the bends out of her.

Maybe he can cut her in two; the Gordian Knot of her subconscious. He pushes until she breaks and the words flow out of her mouth like lava: "I miss him."

The pain is a relief.

Because dear lord; does she miss him. He was her first boyfriend and her first love and he noticed her and took her to these weird foreign movies no-one else would ever get and clasped her hand for most of the winter carnival and humiliated his brother with her and wanted to be asked to the Sadie Hawkins dance and ohgodohgodohgod, why can't he just come back?

The therapist smiles at her compassionately, adjusting his wire frame glasses. He says: "I think we've made real improvement, Cindy."

And it's true. He does think they've made real improvement. He does think he's talking to Cindy. Mac just feels like she's sinking deeper into the void, but somehow the words to say that get stuck in her jaw. So she says nothing. She lets him feel like he's made a breakthrough; she goes there on Thursdays, and he talks like she doesn't hate Cassidy for what he did to her.


She flickers her fingers over her keyboard; a well-rehearsed, subconscious motion. Her mother always half-judged her for her overuse of the computer; saying she'd get eye problems. Not that it mattered, or ever happened.

She never wrote much by hand; Cassidy didn't either. They were mechanical typists; until she found those notebooks. Poems.

They weren't about her, despite some romantic fantasy she could indulge. She can't remember them sounding like they were. She didn't read them very carefully; he said they were about nothing. She believed him like the fool she always was; always eager to accept each falsehood he laid on her. She did not think about the poems; maybe, felt a little disappointed they weren't about her.

She furiously types on her laptop; sound of slamming keys shutting out wounded thoughts. Rhythm and rhyme of a psychopath, spinning in her head and making her sick. She wants off, over, away from this Cassidy Casablancas Carnival. She pauses for a second, and checks what she has written in her essay:

December muck sweeps through clean streets obliterating perfect picket fence homes filthy rubber knives...

She closes the window in a panic. She's lost a lot of genuine work, but she doesn't really care. She can't right her essay now, and her eyes pour over her desktop, floating toward the home drive and its directories. In a masochistic state; she flutters her mouse to her podcasts and soon she hears a voice; Ahoy Mateys indeed.

She has always kept her recordings of the show because they are funny and she will not let Cassidy take yet another thing from her. She listens to them; when it won't hurt too much, or will hurt specifically too much. She smiles at the mockery of a dead boy; tries to hear it with the ears she used to use. Tries not to see a politician's smile behind every dirty joke.


She storms through Neptune town; blitzes and stills when she finds the Neptune Grand. She didn't mean to come here, or maybe she did. It doesn't truly matter, but she likes to pretend it does.

She finds she's staring at an odd brown patch; they say that was once Beaver, but it doesn't feel real. She quirks a half-smile, and kneels before the pavement. She acknowledges that the crowds are starting, but she doesn't care. Tenderly, she runs her forefinger over that-which-was Cassidy; a caress to a wicked spirit. She feels like laughing; she feels free.

Then she strikes.

She punches the pavement in a blaze; strikes blameless brown concrete again and again and again until there is red pouring from her knuckles, onto the hard surface and she feels satisfied. It should be red. It should look bruised and bloodied and the world should have stopped turning when Cassidy Casablancas went hop, skip, jump.

She feels tears welling, but she can't – won't – let them fall because she is better than that. Taking back something while she blood-lets. Neptune proper stares like she's crazy, and she probably is; but there are firm hands picking her up, turning her around to face him. He stills her like a calm pond, and she finds herself staring at blue eyes that remind her of an ocean gaping to swallow; carnivorous.

"Jesus, Ghost World," says Dick, a little bit of a grin (but more of a grimace) in his voice. "You sure know how to make a scene when you want to."

She doesn't answer because she doesn't really know what to say for herself; much less to him. He's not dragging her into the building and elevator; but she feels shackled. She rides her pathetic thrill of Cassidy's death as he rides her up to the penthouse; quiet under a million empty jokes.

She hasn't been here for maybe five months by now (she's proud of herself for not keeping count) and she's vaguely irritated that it hasn't changed. She feels like the building should be clad in black and red; mourning.

Dick pours her into the penthouse and sits her down on the couch; the fabric is comfortable, in a deadly way. He flounders into his bathroom, momentarily letting her forget he exists. Why she's here. Why is she here?

He returns with a bandage for her hand broken under her rage; she remembers a literal reason. She bites her lip not to laugh at the irony – Dick as the sensitive brother to take care; sweet eager Beaver the monster – because she's laughing too much and each chuckle is taking another decimal point of her sanity. She thinks she's down to at least thirty-five percent now.

Dick wraps her carelessly; she hisses in pain but he doesn't bother apologizing. She is thankful. He collapses on the couch after her, no words between them. She hears the sound of a ocean tides that lie and say they're calm; she crawls closer, fascinated and repulsed by the noise. She finds she has her ear pressed to his chest, and he neither resists nor encourages. A guttural moan escapes her lips and something in her collapses under the weight of a thousand unshed tears.

Then she's on his lap; knee either side and not a thought to the removal of clothing – she wants to be covered. He's still like a corpse when she presses her lips to his; biting and snapping like a piranha. Cassidy would be so disappointed, her sarcasm adds.

Then she's rocking; sliding herself into some higher plane where she isn't this girl anymore. She gloats a little in her power; in the feel of Dick's cock growing hard under her weight. She's wet and hot and god-like; wound up tight like a guitar string someone wants to pluck into oblivion. It takes her a few seconds to register that Dick's frame has sprung back to life; worse, he's pushing her away and whispering tiny, pathetic 'no's.

She crawls off in a petulant hysteria; mind caught on Veronica's question, too blunt for offense. Dick looks at her darkly; not panic but grief and rage, seasoned with a hefty deal of unwanted lust. She's panting and her dams are flowing; giggles and tears sliding from her mouth and eyes. She is a mess and she knows it; she hears Cassidy's poetry screaming at her:

Ashen to a core of frozen work counting/each molecule of your further derangement/lips and legs twisted in a knot of broken/clocks to become options; key to a dirt palace!

She remembers the winter carnival and they had spoken foolishly; Dick spilling jocular venom into a broken boy's face. She looks away, because the tide is deafening. The air is sticky and suffocating with ghosts; she needs to flee.

It didn't work last time, but she pretends it did, because if it didn't she knows there's nowhere left to go.


She settles herself under the twilight sun; on the edge of tears, but somehow they're caught in her flesh. The purple sky and unborn stars seem like a surrender; yet she wards them against his memory anyway. She doesn't know what else to do; doesn't know how to let him back in.

"Fuck him," she says aloud, and then she laughs. "Fuck him!" she screams it, and throws her head back in thunderous amusement.

"Fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him fuck him!"

She breathes long and deep and hard, only vaguely acknowledging there is another girl on the beach. She feels worn; beaten. She wants to fall asleep, but when she lets her eyes close there's a million grains of sand trapped behind, scarring her corneas and forming a Beaver-shaped monster. It's not fair.

Mac grabs at the grains she lies on, digging into her flesh. She feels dirty, and wants to wash herself in the current – but she can't taste the blood again. She can speak of the after; but there wasn't a before for her. People said things like forgiveness or forgetting; acceptance, survival, recovery; why weren't they for her? Which one of those was embedded with cellphone and baseball fragments in Ed Doyle's body?

She feels footsteps from behind her; she does not have the energy to wipe them away. The other girl sits in front of her, and Mac snorts at how she, yet again, is staring at a reflection. Madison's unbroken visage looks at her with a cool, foreign sympathy; a connection they stole from one another.

"Are you okay?"

Mac begins to sob onto the sand. Her mirror just sits there, agape.