“Do you want to come?”
Alice Parrie is looking down, smiling. It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting beneath a tree, alone, absorbed in a book.
“Sorry.” I shade my eyes and look up. “Come where?”
Alice hands me a piece of paper.
I take it and read. It’s a brightly colored photocopy of an invitation to Alice’s eighteenth birthday party. Come one and come all!! Bring your friends!!
it reads. Free champagne! Free food!
Only someone as popular and as self- assured as Alice would issue such an invitation; anyone more ordinary would feel as if she was begging for guests. Why me?
I wonder. I know of Alice, everyone knows of Alice, but I’ve never spoken to her before. She is one of those girls— beautiful, popular, impossible to miss.
I fold the invitation in half and nod. “I’ll try. It sounds like fun,” I lie.
Alice looks at me for a few seconds. Then she sighs and plonks herself down next to me, so close that one of her knees rests heavily against mine.
“You will not.” She grins.
I feel my cheeks begin to color. Even though my entire life can sometimes feel like a façade, a wall of secrets, I’m not good at lying. I look down at my lap. “Probably not.”
“But I want you to come, Katherine,” she says. “It’d really mean a lot to me.”
I’m surprised that Alice even knows my name, but it’s even more surprising—in fact, quite unbelievable—that she wants me to come to her party. I’m practically unknown at Drummond High and have no close friends. I come and go quietly, alone, and get on with my studies. I try to avoid bringing attention to myself. I do well enough, but my grades aren’t exceptional. I play no sport, have joined no clubs. And though I know I can’t do this forever—live my entire life as a shadow—for now it’s okay. I’m hiding, I know that, I’m being a coward, but right now I need to be invisible, to be the kind of person who arouses no curiosity in others. That way they never need to know who I really am, or what has happened.
I close my book and start to pack away my lunch things.
“Wait.” Alice puts her hand on my knee. I look at her as coldly as I can, and she withdraws it. “I’m serious. I really do want you to come. And I think what you said to Dan last week was fantastic. I really wish I could think of things like that to say, but I never can. I’m just not quick enough. You know, I never would have thought about that woman’s feelings like that. Not until I heard you tell Dan off. I mean, you were great, what you said was just so right, and you really showed him up to be the moron that he is.”
I know immediately what Alice is referring to—the one and only time I’d let my guard down, momentarily forgotten myself. I don’t often confront people anymore. In fact, it’s something I try very hard to avoid. But the way Dan Johnson and his friends had behaved two weeks ago had disgusted me so much that I couldn’t help myself. We had a guest speaker talking about career planning and college admissions. Sure, the speech was boring, we’d heard it all a billion times before, and the speaker was nervous and stuttered and hesitated and talked in confusing circles, only becoming worse as the crowd became noisier, more restless. Dan Johnson and his group of creepy friends had spotted their opportunity. They were so cruel and deliberately disruptive that the woman ended up leaving in humiliated tears. When it was all over, I stood behind Dan in the hallway and tapped him on the shoulder.
Dan turned around with a smug, self- satisfied look on his face, clearly anticipating some kind of approbation for his behavior.
“Did it ever occur to you,” I started, my voice surprisingly strong, fueled by anger, “how much you’ve hurt that woman? This is her life, Daniel, her career, her professional reputation. Your pathetic cry for attention means a whole lot of humiliation for her. I feel sorry for you, Daniel. You must be very sad and small inside to need to hurt someone like that, someone you don’t even know.”
“You were amazing,” Alice continues. “And to be honest, I was totally surprised. I mean, I think everyone was. No one speaks to Dan like that.” She shakes her head. “No one.”
Well, I do,
I think. At least the real me does.
“It was admirable. Courageous.”
And it’s that word that does it: courageous.
I so want to be courageous. I so want the coward in me to be obliterated and smashed and destroyed that I can no longer resist Alice.
I stand up and hook my bag over my shoulder. “Okay,” I say, surprising myself. “Okay, I’ll come.”
Alice insists that we get ready for the party together. She picks me up in her car, a battered old Volkswagen, shortly after lunch on the day of the party and takes me to her place. She lives alone, she tells me as she speeds along, weaving in and out of lanes, in a onebedroom apartment in the inner city. I’m surprised by this, astonished really. I’d imagined that someone like Alice would live in a comfortable house in the suburbs with her devoted parents. I’d imagined her being spoiled, pampered, coddled (just as I used to be), and the fact that she lives alone makes her suddenly seem more interesting, more complicated than I’ve given her credit for. It’s clear that Alice and I have more in common than I’d imagined.
I want to ask her a million questions: Where are her parents? How does she afford her own apartment? Is she ever afraid? Is she lonely? But I keep quiet. I have secrets of my own. I’ve learned that asking questions only puts me at risk of being interrogated myself. It is safer not to be too curious about others, safer not to ask.
Her apartment is in a square, very ordinary- looking brick building. The stairwell is dark and uninviting, but when we get to her apartment, breathless after jogging up four flights of stairs, she opens the door to a room full of color and warmth.
The walls are a deep burnt orange and are decorated with large, bright abstract paintings. Two enormous, soft- looking couches are draped with burgundy fabric and strewn with colorful African cushions. Unlit candles cover every horizontal surface.
“Voilà! My humble abode.” Alice tugs me inside and watches my face expectantly as I look around the room. “What do you think? I did it all myself, you know. You should have seen it when I moved in, so boring and plain. It’s amazing what a bit of color can do to a room, isn’t it? A little creativity and some bright paint is all you really need.”
“This is so cool,” I say. And I can’t help but feel a little envious. Alice’s space is so funky, so much younger than the modern, minimalist apartment I live in.
“Really? You really like it?”
“Yes.” I laugh. “I really do.”
“I’m so glad. I want you to like it as much as I do because I plan for us to spend a lot of time together. And I can see us spending a lot of time right here, in this room, talking and talking and talking, sharing our precious secrets deep into the night.”
I’ve heard that charming, powerful people have the knack of making you feel as though you’re the only person in the world, and now I know exactly what that means. I’m not quite sure what she does, or how she does it—another person would have come across as overly eager; obsequious, even—but when Alice gives me her attention like that, I feel golden, warm with the certainty that I’m fully understood.
For a brief, insane moment, I imagine telling her my secret. I picture it all clearly. Me and Alice in this room—both a little tipsy, both giggly and happy and ever so slightly self- conscious with the feeling you have when you’ve made a new friend, a special friend—I put my hand on her knee so that she is still and quiet, so that she knows I’m about to say something important, and then I tell her. I tell her quickly, without pausing, without meeting her eyes. And when I’ve finished, she is warm and forgiving and understanding, as I hoped she’d be. She hugs me. Everything is all right and I am lighter for having told. I am free.
But this is all just a dream. A crazy fantasy. I tell her nothing.
I’m wearing my usual jeans and boots and shirt, and I’ve brought some makeup with me to put on before we go to the party, but Alice insists that I wear a dress. Her closet is bursting with them, in all sorts of colors and lengths and styles. There must be at least a hundred, and some still have tags. I wonder where she gets the money, how she affords so many clothes, and I’m tempted, once again, to ask.
“I have a bit of a clothing habit.” She grins.
“Really?” I joke. “I would never have known.”
Alice reaches into the closet and starts pulling out dresses. She tosses them on the bed.
“Here. Choose one. I haven’t even worn most of these.” She holds up a blue one. “You like?”
The dress is pretty, but I’ve already spotted the one I’d really like to wear. It’s red and patterned in paisley, a wraparound dress with a tie waist, made from some kind of stretchy fabric. It looks like something my mother might have worn in the 1970s and would go nicely with the tall boots I’m wearing.
Alice is watching me. She laughs and pulls out the red dress.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” She presses it against herself and looks in the mirror. “Expensive, too. It’s a Pakbelle and Kanon. You have good taste.”
“It’s beautiful. But why don’t you wear it tonight? It’s still got the tag on it, you’ve never even worn it. You were probably saving it—”
“Nope. I’m wearing something else. Something special.” Alice holds it up in front of me. “Try it on.”
The dress fits perfectly and, as I suspected, goes well with my boots. The red flatters my dark skin and hair, and I smile at Alice happily in the reflection of the mirror. I’m excited now, glad that I agreed to come.
Alice goes to the kitchen and takes a bottle from her fridge. It’s champagne. It’s pink.
“Yum,” she says, kissing the bottle. “My one true love.”
She opens the bottle, aiming the cork at the ceiling, and, without asking if I want any, pours us each a glass. She takes hers into the bathroom to shower and dress, and when she’s gone I lift my glass and take a tiny sip. I haven’t had alcohol since the night my family was destroyed. Not a drop. But then, I haven’t enjoyed myself with a friend since that night, either, and so I tip the glass up to my mouth again and let myself enjoy the feel of the bubbles against my lips, on my tongue. I let another small mouthful slide down my throat and imagine that I can feel the effect instantly, the alcohol rushing through my veins, making my lips tingle, my head spin. The champagne is sweet and easy to drink, like a cordial, and I have to force myself not to swallow it all too quickly.
I savor each mouthful, enjoying the way my body relaxes more and more as I drink. When the glass is empty I am happier, lighter, almost carefree—a normal seventeen- year- old
—and I curl up on Alice’s colorful sofa and giggle at nothing at all. And I’m still just sitting there, smiling, enjoying the comfortable heaviness of my body, when Alice returns to the room.
“Wow. Alice. You look . . .” I shrug, unable to find an adequate word. “You look stunning!”
She lifts her arms and spins on her toes. “Why, thank you, Miss Katherine.” She’s pleased.
Alice is beautiful, strikingly beautiful. She is tall, with generous breasts and long, shapely legs, and her face is a picture of perfection: her eyes a deep and glorious blue, her skin golden and luminous.
I’m not exactly ugly, but beside Alice I feel completely unremarkable. While we’re waiting for our taxi, Alice takes our empty glasses to the kitchen and refills them with champagne. As I stand up to get my glass, my head spins a little. It’s not an unpleasant feeling—in fact, I feel easy and loose and relaxed. And this feeling, this light- headed happiness, this sense that the world is a benign and friendly place, is suddenly very familiar and I realize just how much this feeling terrifies me. It’s the trick that alcohol plays with your mind—enticing you to let your guard down, to trust the world to look after you— but I know that this feeling of safety is only a dangerous illusion. Alcohol encourages you to take risks that you wouldn’t normally; alcohol means you make stupid choices. And more than anyone, I know how devastating the consequences of a single bad choice can be. I live with those consequences every day.
I accept the glass but I only pretend to sip it, barely letting the liquid wet my lips, and when the taxi arrives I pour the rest of it down the sink.
Alice has rented the ballroom at the top of the Lion Hotel. It is huge and grand, with enormous windows and magnificent views of the city. There are white balloons, white tablecloths, a band. There are caterers polishing champagne glasses, and platters of expensivelooking finger food. And because it’s a private party, nobody asks us for ID when Alice gets us each a glass of champagne.
“This is fantastic.” I look at Alice curiously. “Did your parents do all this for you?”
“No.” Alice snorts dismissively. “They wouldn’t know how to host a barbecue, let alone something like this.”
“Do they live in the city?” I ask.
“Who?” She frowns.
“No. No, they don’t, thank God. They live north of here.” I wonder how Alice can afford to live here in the city, how she pays her rent. I had assumed that her parents supported her, but that now seems unlikely.
“Anyway,” I say. “It’s very nice of you to throw a big party like this for your friends. I don’t think I could ever be so generous. I’d rather spend the money on myself. A trip around the world or something cool like that.”
“Generous? You think so?” Alice shrugs. “Not really. I love parties. Particularly when they’re all about me. I couldn’t think of anything better. And, anyway, I’m not interested in traveling.”
“I don’t know anyone there; nobody knows me. What would be the point?”
“Oh.” I laugh. I wonder if she’s joking. “I can think of a few good things about it. Swimming in the Mediterranean, seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty . . . and not knowing anyone. Imagine how liberating that must be.” I notice that Alice is looking at me skeptically. “Are you really not tempted by that?”
“Nah. I like it here. I like my friends. I love my life. Why would I want to leave?”
“Because—” I am going to tell her of my intense curiosity about the rest of the world, the fascination I have with different languages and ways of living, with the history of the human race, but we are interrupted by the arrival of her first guests.
“Alice, Alice!” they cry, and she is suddenly surrounded by people, some I recognize from school, older people I’ve never seen before. Some are dressed very formally, in long dresses and suits and ties, others are dressed casually, in jeans and T-shirts, but they all have one thing in common: they all want a piece of Alice, a moment of her time; they want to be the focus of her attention, make her laugh. They all, without exception, want her to like them.
And Alice is the perfect hostess. She makes all her guests feel welcome and comfortable, but for some reason it’s me that she chooses to spend most of the evening with. She keeps her arm linked through mine, drags me from group to group, and involves me in every conversation. We dance together and gossip about what different people are wearing, who they are flirting with, who seems to be attracted to whom. I have a wonderful time. It’s more fun than I’ve had in years. And while I’m there I don’t think of my sister once, nor of my devastated parents. I dance and laugh and flirt. I forget, temporarily, about the night I realized the awful truth about myself. I forget all about the night I discovered the shameful, grubby coward at the core of my soul. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Beautiful Malice by Elizabeth James. Copyright © 2010 by Rebecca James. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.