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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Seventh Mansion

A Novel

Maryse Meijer

FSG Originals


Back to school. Glossy red brick, high ceilings. Fresh beige paint on the doors. Someone flicking a cigarette in Xie’s path as he comes up the steps, hood up. The cigarette hits his knee. Little spray of ash. Fucking psycho. He doesn’t look to see who said it. Picks up the butt, puts it in the trash. Locks his bike to the rack, the small of his back damp with sweat, too warm for the hoodie but he wears it anyway, every day, the same with his sneakers, no longer white at the toes, canvas showing holes at the sides. Too late to meet with FKK, the girls already in class so he checks his schedule, slides into the back of homeroom. Even the teacher’s eyes on him. Ratty pants and black hair and bright white patch on his bag that says Take Nothing, Leave Everything. Smell of linoleum, Lysol, chalk. Mountains beyond the windows. The teacher hands out some papers; he doesn’t look at them. Knee jumping beneath his desk. Shuffle to another class. Pants falling off hips. Didn’t you get enough to eat where you’re from. Something wet shoved down the back of his hoodie. Laughter. He goes to the bathroom, shakes raw hamburger from his clothes. Squiggles of meat on the floor. Tiny spot of blood. He scrubs himself with a damp paper towel, picks up the meat, folds it into the trash. Back in class, English, Mr. Matthews again. Xie opens his notebook. Last year he handed in an essay written in pencil: Meat is Murder. Matthews was furious. Why haven’t you formatted this per my directions? Long silence. Xie fingering the strap on his bag. Computers are toxic and they waste electricity. Was this acceptable at your school in California? No. Then why would you think it’s acceptable here? Xie didn’t answer. Well. No college anywhere is going to accept essays written in pencil. Handing the paper back. I’ll give you until tomorrow to turn it in according to the format specified in the syllabus. Next time it will be an automatic F. Xie got the F, then another, then another, until his father convinced the school to let Xie turn in handwritten homework, citing some doctor’s note from years before that said computer screens made Xie’s dyslexia worse. It didn’t matter. He cut as much class as he could get away with, reading in the bathroom, sleeping in the grass beneath the bleachers. Doing just enough work to keep from getting expelled but this is new, the cigarette butt, the meat; at worst last year he had been ignored, little cocoon of silence, fuck with no one and no one will fuck with you; but they all know, now, about the summer, about the farm, about Moore. He can still feel the hamburger on his skin, flesh against flesh; he shifts, folding his arm around his notebook, smudged skull beneath his thumb. Crown of leaves. Drop of water against the bone. At lunch he checks his bike: both tires slashed straight through to the rims. Wincing as he rubs his thumb over the torn rubber. Leni jogging up to him. Hey, we missed you this morning, where were you? Late, he says, and she sees the bike, flinches. Holy shit, she says, pink hair cut jagged to her chin, pale lips stretched across her slight overbite as she frowns, looking over his shoulder to see who’s watching. Nobody. Do you want to go to the principal? He waves his hand. Nah, it’s okay. They make their way to the parking lot. Jo already on the wall, hair shaved at the sides, plaid pants ripped at the thigh, sucking water from a Nalgene bottle as she checks her phone. Hey whores, she says. Leni hoists herself up on the wall, skinny ass next to Jo’s heavy one. Someone messed with Xie’s bike, Leni says. Jo grunts, unsurprised. I told you, you should’ve let me drive you. Xie shrugs, leaning against the wall. Eats trail mix from the pocket of his hoodie. They threw meat at me. Jo chokes out a laugh. They what? Hamburger, he says. Like, a pound of it. Raw. Faint unhappy smile. Disgusting motherfuckers, Jo mutters, shaking her head. A swig of water. Was it organic, at least? Leni elbows her. It’s not funny. Opening a pack of chips, frowning as she chews. I think we should tell someone. Jo snorts. Like anyone gives two shits about his bike. What are they going to do, call the police? We could, Leni insists. Jo rolls her eyes. Xie chews a handful of nuts. Wind blowing his hair into his face. Last year, on his first day, he’d stood in this same place, eating cold oatmeal from a thermos, when they’d walked up to him, Jo’s hand out: We’re FKK. They never explained the origin or meaning of that name; he thought it might be some dyslexic abbreviation of fuck. We saw you reading Frances Lappé, Leni had said. Are you vegan? He’d just nodded, speechless, as they took their places beside him, the same places they occupy now. The mountains gray beyond the lot. Jo rips a peanut butter sandwich into pieces. Gonna rain, she says, eye on the horizon. First fat drop plump on the hood of a white SUV. The bell rings. They slide off the wall. Tuck their trash in the bin. Xie goes up the steps. James Moore’s eyes on his back. Big banner on the brick: Welcome Back.

* * *

They had parked Jo’s car in the lot of an abandoned Waffle House and walked on foot, 1:00 a.m., to the Moore farm. Head to toe in black. Heavy gloves. Knit masks tight and hot on their heads. At the base of the mountains hardly any houses. No light on at the Moores’; easy to slip to the back, skinning beneath the windows. Do they have guns? Leni whispered. Of course they have guns, Jo scoffed, they all have fucking guns. Leni rolling in her lips, half a step back. Looking over her shoulder. Jo stopped at the gate, bolt cutters poised. Look, do you want to do this or what? It was Leni who’d sat in class with James Moore while his uncle gave a presentation about genetics and mink farming, highlighting their own fur production at a facility only fifteen miles from the school; Leni who’d cried while describing the picture of Ryan Moore and his nephew beside a pile of fresh silver pelts; Leni who said they should do something about it. But it was Jo who had thought of this—no petitions, no letters, no protest. Direct action. Do you? Jo asked again. No, I do, Leni said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. I’m fine. Sorry. Jo glancing at Xie; he looked back, adjusting his gloves, pure acid in his gut. They cut through the chain. Slither of metal against metal. Behind the gate a huge concrete lot covered in straw and shit. God, Leni breathed. Whisper of fur in the dark. Slow steps closer. The mink curled in mesh-wire cells no more than ten inches wide, stacked on row after row of wooden platforms stretching a hundred feet or more to the back of the farm. They’d seen the aerial maps, had known what to expect, but it stopped them anyway, for a moment, to see in the flesh just how many animals there were. Jo put her hand against the front of a cage; the mink shifted inside, hissing. Smooth shine of eyes. Hi, babies, Jo whispered. We’re not here to hurt you. Slow hard press against the metal clips at the top of the box and the door sprang open, nearly hitting her chin. Come on, she said, reaching for the mink, go! The mink hurtled up the arm of her glove before leaping to the ground, scattering straw, claws against concrete. Xie and Leni running, each to the head of a row, snapping back the clips. Even through the gloves you could feel how soft those bodies were. Silver ghosts swarming beneath the gate. Xie’s hands so fast on the clips, trying to balance speed against silence. Sneakers slipping on straw, on shit, breath wet in the mask. He couldn’t see the girls but he heard them, felt them, moving in the same rhythm, the three of them a single machine. In the last row a mother and her babies, five or six, teeth bared; they would not leave their cage and Xie shook it, hard, trying to rattle them free, stifling a shout as one leapt at his face, the cage rocked free of its stand. He fumbled to right it but it fell, too loud. Fuck. Jo pointing to her watch, eight minutes up, Leni already sprinting to the road and Jo following but at the gate Xie stopped, turning to make sure they’d emptied every row, flashlight jumping in the dark. Faint scent of fur and the most. Beautiful sight. Pockets of night in the open mouths of the cages. The barn a black shadow against the mountains. Breeze stirring the straw. The almost alien sensation of joy: We did it. And then he was down, cheek straight to the concrete, Moore’s hard breath in his ear. Don’t move, motherfucker. Spit of blood catching in the black hairs of Xie’s mask, rattle of air and groan. Pain somewhere in the distance, waiting for him to feel it, but he felt nothing. Run, he thought, closing his eyes. Run. Run.

Copyright © 2020 by Maryse Meijer