Maybe he was finally going to give someone the happy ending they deserved, in a book about a cult.
Or maybe Dave was barking up the wrong tree.
“It will be honest,” Gus told him. “But it won’t be New Eden. It won’t be you. It will—hopefully—be a place you can imagine existing, characters you believe could be real.” He paused, thinking. “And if we’re lucky, maybe it will help someone. To feel known and understood, like their story matters.”
Gus glanced at me so fast I almost missed it. My stomach somersaulted as I realized he was quoting me, something I’d said that night we’d made our deal, and I didn’t think he was teasing me. I thought he meant it.
“But even if not,” he went on, focusing on Dave, “just knowing you told it might help you.”
Dave pulled at a stray thread peeling out of the hole in the knee of his jeans. “I know that. I just had to make sure my ma understood. She still feels bad. Like she could’ve maybe talked my dad out of staying, gotten him to leave with us. He’d still be alive, she thinks.”
“And you?” Gus asked.
Dave scrunched up his lips. “Do you believe in fate, Augustus?”
Gus hid his grimace at the name. “I think some things are … inevitable.”
Dave slumped forward, tugged on his hat bill. “Used to sleepwalk as a kid. Real bad habit. Scary stuff. Once, before we went to New Eden, my mom found me standing at the edge of our apartment’s pool with a butter knife in my hand. Naked. I didn’t even sleep naked.
“Two weeks before we joined New Eden, we’d been at a park, just Ma and me, when a storm started up. She always liked the rain, so we stayed out too long. Thunder got going. Big, scary clashes. So we started running home. There was a chain-link fence around the park, and when we reached it, she yelled for me to wait. She wasn’t sure how lightning worked but she figured it was a bad idea to let her six-year-old grab a fistful of metal. She wrapped her hand in her shirt and opened the gate for me.
“We got all the way home. We were on the front steps when it happened. A crack like a giant ax had hit the world. Honest to God, I thought the sun was crashing into Earth. That’s how bright the light was.”
“What light?” Gus said.
“The bolt of lightning that hit me,” Dave said. “We weren’t religious people, Augustus. Especially not my dad. But that scared Ma. She decided to make a change. We went to church that next week—the strictest one she could find—and on our way out, someone handed her a flier. NEW EDEN, it said. God is inviting you to a new beginning. Will you answer?”
Gus was writing notes, nodding as he went. “So she took that as a sign?”
“She thought God had saved my life,” Dave said. “Just to get her attention. A week later we were moving into the compound, and Dad went along with it. He didn’t believe, but he considered a child’s ‘spiritual upbringing’ to be the job of the mother. I don’t know what got him. What changed his mind. But over the next two years he got in deeper than Ma ever had. And then, one night, she woke up in our trailer with a bad feeling. There was a storm raging outside and she peeked her head into the living room where I slept and the fold-out was empty, just a bunch of rumpled blankets.
“She tried to wake my dad, but he slept like a rock. So she went out into the storm. Found me standing there, naked as can be, in the middle of the woods, lightning touching down around me like falling fireworks. And you know what happened next?”
Dave looked at me, paused. “It hit the trailer. The whole thing went up in flames. That was the first fire at New Eden, and it wasn’t a bad one, not like the one that killed my dad. They got that first one out before it could do much damage. But my mom took me out of there the next day.”
“She took it as another sign?” Gus confirmed.
“See, here’s the thing,” Dave said. “My mom believes in fate, in destiny—in the divine hand of God. But not so much that there’s no room to blame herself for what happened to my dad. She was the one who brought us there. And she was the one who took me out. She didn’t tell him, because she knew he was in too deep. He wouldn’t have just refused to leave—he would’ve atoned for us.”
“Atoned?” I said.
“Lingo,” Dave explained. “It’s a confession on someone else’s behalf. They didn’t want us to think of it as reporting, keeping tabs on your neighbors. It was ‘atoning.’ It was making the selfless sacrifice of putting a wedge in your own relationship with a person in order to save them from sin. Deep down she knew that if she told Dad she wanted out, we both would’ve been punished. She would’ve gotten at least two weeks in isolation. I would’ve been beaten, then stuck with another family until her ‘wavering faith had been restored.’ They said they didn’t like the violence. That it was their own sacrifice to discipline us out of love. But you could always tell the ones who did.
“She knew all that. So fated or not, my mom saw the future. She couldn’t have saved him. But she did what she had to do to save me.”
Gus was silent, thoughtful. Lost in thought, he looked suddenly younger, a little softer. I felt a rush of anger low in my stomach. Why didn’t someone save you? I thought. Why didn’t someone scoop you up and run you out in the middle of the night?
I knew it was complicated. I knew there must’ve been reasons, but it still sent a pang through me. It wasn’t the story I would’ve written for him. Not at all.
GUS SHUT THE door behind Dave with a quiet click and turned to face me. For a moment we said nothing, both exhausted from the four-hour interview. We just looked at each other.
He leaned against the door. “Hey,” he said finally.
“Hey,” I answered.
A wisp of smile sneaked up the corner of his mouth. “It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah.” I shifted between my feet. “You too.”
He straightened and went toward the walnut sideboard in the corner, pulling two crystal highball glasses from below and setting them beside the careful arrangement of dark liquor bottles. “Want a drink?”
Of course I wanted a drink. I’d just heard a harrowing tale of a child beaten for imaginary crimes, and aside from that, I was alone with Gus for the first time since our kiss. Even from across the room, the heat in the house felt like a stand-in for our tension. For the thorny jumble of feelings today had stirred up in me. Anger with all the broken parents, heartache that they too must’ve felt like kids—helpless, unsure how to make the right decisions, terrified of making the wrong ones. I felt sick for Dave and what he’d been through, sad for my mother and how lost I knew she must feel without Dad, and still, even with all that, being in the same room as Gus made me feel a little warm and heavy, like from across the room he was still a physical force pressing into me.
I heard the soft clink of ice against the glasses. (He kept ice in a bucket on a tray with his liquor? How Moneyed Connecticutian of him.)
I wanted answers about Pete, and about Gus’s parents and his marriage, but those were the sorts of tidbits a person had to offer up, and Gus hadn’t. He hadn’t even let me into his house until one of his research subjects had shown up here unannounced. Not that he’d been in my house either, but my house wasn’t a part of me. It wasn’t even really mine—it was just baggage. Gus’s house was his home.