Sometimes Veronica thought it was a shame that JD hadn’t lived to see the twenty-first century. So much here he would have liked, especially the cynicism, the nihilism, the relentless tearing down of anything good. Mother Teresa: a monster who kept children in deliberate poverty to promote her agenda. Bill Cosby: A rapist. Captain Kirk: Shilling for a stupid website.
Then she thought that it was fitting that JD hadn’t lived to see the twenty-first century, because it proved what a damn fool he’d been. If he’d waited, he’d have seen massacres beyond his imagining, even mass suicides, and none of it had made a difference. There was no act big enough to shatter the complacency of the smug rich folks of Ohio, at least not in the right way.
There were only little acts and little people.
“Do you think,” JD said, staring up at the night sky spread over them like the looming threat of the SATs, “that there are intelligent aliens out there?”
Veronica stretched, feeling the roughness of the shingles through the blanket JD had brought for stargazing on her roof. “If there are, they’re probably intelligent enough to stay away here.”
He laughed. She loved being able to make him laugh. They had so much in common, but JD was willing to wear his morbid sense of humor like his leather jacket: using it to stand out. JD’s laughter was confirmation that she hadn’t given up every part of herself to being part of the Heathers.
She’d even given up her name, and done it happily. Though Heather Chandler had all but told her it was the price of entry—‘we’re like a girl group, but with better hair’—and though Heather had clearly believed that this was the kind of subtle lesson that would confirm Veronica in her place, Veronica liked knowing that none of what the Heathers did was done in her name. It was a sort of deniability. Someone else, a Heather, sneered and preened and expected the lesser beings to move out of the way, and the lesser beings did so. Nothing about that had to touch Veronica.
Except that it did, and JD’s ability to see her through the Heathers was a welcome reminder that there was, after all, a Veronica.
Beside her, JD stirred, taking another swig from the bottle of wine he’d brought—straight from his dad’s collection, he’d said. “Want some more?” he asked, noticing her attention.
Veronica had found it stronger and less sweet than a wine cooler, not really to her taste. She could pretend sophistication with JD, but that would make her no different than the rest of them. “I don’t think I’m a wine drinker,” she said instead.
He shrugged, not at all condescendingly. “I’m happy to drink it all, as long as I don’t have to drink alone.”
She reached out and took his free hand. It was warm and dry, and she felt as brilliant and distant from the rest of Sherwood, Ohio as any of the stars above. “Nobody should have to do any of this alone.”
Betty Finn worked for Google, and she got Veronica tickets to weird art happenings in San Francisco. Veronica’s salary didn’t go far in the city, so it was her primary entertainment, other than things she downloaded from the internet. People expected lawyers to be hesitant about that sort of thing, but Veronica didn’t have much patience for artificial barriers; also Veronica didn’t have much cash.
She could hear JD mocking her every time she remembered him: ‘What is a public interest lawyer? How could there even be one public interest? Or is that just how lawyers say: I like getting in other people’s business?’ Each word coming out in that slow, gravelly, laughing-at-the-both-of-us voice, like pepper and syrup, like the rough scrape of a cat’s tongue. Sometimes, when she was fucking someone and it just wasn’t working, she closed her eyes and listened to him talk, and that invariably did the job. Invariably.
Now that he was dead, it was easy for JD to be perfect.
“I’ve never,” she said, feeling about twelve years old, except also about twenty, because she was ready, she was so ready, to go beyond what they’d already done. She wanted to make the nakedness mean something more.
“We don’t have to,” he said, which was what convinced her that they did. Westerberg guys thought that the point of third base was to get their fingers wet before pushing your head down; JD had taken his time, until she shivered and buried her head in his shoulder, and only then had he encouraged her to reciprocate.
The first time was terrible, despite his best efforts. But he’d paid attention, and the second time, he slowed down. And he used his mouth, which she barely knew was a possibility. After she jerked and groaned and generally made a fool of herself, she let him wrap her hand around his dick—such a strange word, it didn’t seem right for JD, but there was nothing both ironic and elegant that fit instead—and get him off. He held her and she cried, a little.
He rubbed his thumb across her cheek, pushing a sweaty strand of hair away from her face, and he didn’t ask if she was okay. Instead, he smiled at her, that special smile that was for her and no one else even when they were in the cafeteria. A little twisted, but hers.
Veronica was never going to be a good person. Maybe other people could come back from killing someone else, repent or whatever. She wanted to do good, but not to be good. Being good, in her experience, involved too much hypocrisy.
Also, since she wasn’t a good person, it wasn’t wrong to pretend to be one of their more forgettable classmates (one of the stoners) and friend Heather Duke and Heather McNamara on Facebook. Heather Duke mostly crossposted from Instagram, carefully posed selfies and pictures of her #blessed meals. Heather McNamara (now Schilling) posted about funny things her family or her dog had done, interspersed with squishy inspirational quotes superimposed over pictures of beaches. Sometimes the quotes were superimposed over pictures of flowers instead.
“That’s not normal,” Betty said, one time when she came over and saw the page Veronica (that is, ‘Alex’) had forgotten to close down. “Ronnie, is there something—?”
Veronica loved Betty, but, as with her parents, that love was predicated on mutual agreement to ignore particular characteristics. The fact that Veronica had never really left that high school basement was one of them, as was the fact that Betty told her coworkers that she was an orphan and Veronica was the one who updated the Finns at Christmastime about how Betty was doing and dodged the handsy ‘hugs’ of that one creepy Finn uncle. “You know me,” she said, “I wanted to know how they were doing, without any drama.”
“Because faking a Facebook profile is so undramatic,” Betty said.
“It’s not like Alex is going to out me.”
“I probably shouldn’t ask, but: how can you be sure?”
Veronica patted Betty’s shoulder comfortingly. “Don’t worry. She’s not dead, or even in jail. She married a guy who’s really into living off the grid. They don’t have a phone.” She met Betty’s bemused stare with her own. “You learn a lot from the alumni newsletter.”
Betty scrunched her nose in distaste. “I’ll let you take care of that. So, Korean fusion or nouvelle Ethiopienne tonight?”
Veronica would’ve thought that Google’s chefs provided enough variety that they could have some good old-fashioned steaks, but Betty was the one with the money. Golden Rule and all that.
“Tell me more about how you got to be a Heather,” JD said.
Veronica would have preferred to hear him talk, but she knew that was just the sort of soppy nonsense that would get JD’s raised eyebrow. “I looked around school, and I saw who did what to whom. I didn’t want anyone else making decisions about what would happen to me.”
“And that meant being one of them?”
She’d said these things to herself, but never out loud. “I could have stayed on the sidelines. A brain, but not a target. But have you seen the looks on their faces? They know. Overlooked isn’t the same as safe.”
“If there are going to be guns no matter what, you want to be on the side that pulls the trigger, not the side looking down the barrel.”
Weird analogy, Veronica thought, except that the first time she’d met JD he’d pulled a gun. The weird wasn’t in the analogy. “Sure. And it’s preparation, right? These are the best years of our lives, according to the authority figures. It’s all downhill from here. So why not start on top?”
“You know, in an avalanche, the rocks that start out on the top don’t stay there. They end up crushed beneath everything else.”
Veronica smiled. “Somehow I can’t see that happening to Heather McNamara.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “I can.” His fingers ran down the inside of her forearm. “But there must have been something specific. Like a mafia initiation.”
She grimaced. “Heather Chandler wanted to get back at this guy who wouldn’t move his seat in her math class. I told her she should write a letter using his name and address to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons and that one weird church near the Piggly Wiggly saying ‘I’ve never believed in God but now I’m questioning, can you help?’ I heard they got visits for months, and his parents ended up sending him to Catholic school.”
JD nodded. “Truly, righteous vengeance.”
“That’s just what I thought,” she said. She hadn’t said it, though. Heather Chandler wouldn’t have appreciated it and Heather McNamara would have felt dumb for not understanding. “Did you get kicked out of your previous schools for jokes like you pulled in the caf?”
“I never brought a gun to school before,” he said. “I wanted to enter with a bang, as it were.”
“As it were.”
“Before that, the most disruptive thing I ever did was copy a bunch of letters to Penthouse, then put the paper back into the copy machine the other side up, so all the tests came out with ‘Dear Penthouse, I never thought this would happen to me …’ on them. Turns out, they kick you out for that. Because guns are one thing, but God forbid teenagers learn that sex exists.”
Veronica giggled and thought about reaching over to touch him. But she wanted to talk more first.
“What’s the worst prank you ever pulled?” he asked.
“I’m embarrassed,” she admitted, and brought her hands up to hide her eyes, though when she peeked JD was staring at her breasts instead, so it was kind of a worthless enterprise. “I’m not all that proud of it, but it involved laxatives and M&M brownies.”
“So what you’re saying is, it was a shitty thing to do.”
She whacked him across the chest. “That was unworthy of you.” She sighed. “Anyway, if it hadn’t been that, it would’ve been something worse. You don’t spit into the wind, and you don’t get in Heather’s way.”
“Mmm.” He’d turned on his side, and he took her hand in both of his, cradling it like she was in need of protection. “Cogitation has produced regret, but in the moment, did you feel the power of it? You set the wheels in motion. Vladimir Lenin said that the fundamental question in politics was ‘kto, kvo,’ which means ‘who does what to whom?’”
“Don’t let anyone else hear you talking like that. They’ll think you’re a Commie.”
“I take it that’s worse than being a faggot?”
“Hardly,” Veronica said, though she was fairly sure that there were more homosexual kids at Westerberg than Communist ones. “Anyway, no, it didn’t feel good at the time. She looked at me like… like she was afraid of me. She wasn’t even angry, not really. Like she couldn’t afford to be angry, because she knew she couldn’t get back at me.”
“You should have gone ahead and put her out of her misery.”
Veronica chuckled uneasily.
“Think about it. What’s her life like? Going to school where everyone thinks she’s a victim, and because they think it, they make it true. It would’ve been kinder to smother her.”
“Maybe I’m just not that nice,” Veronica said. She didn’t say, ‘I know what you mean. I know that anger went inward instead of outward. I know she wears long-sleeved shirts and jeans even when it’s too hot for them. I know I’m probably not responsible for everything that makes her cut, but some of those scars are mine.’ How could she speak that kind of shame, even to JD?
She could say anything to him—but that didn’t mean she wanted to be the kind of person who said those things.
It was much easier to tweak, to tilt in JD’s direction. Not that much different from how she’d nipped and tucked at herself to become a Heather.
JD had chosen not to correct her mix-up, but she had mixed the drink that killed Heather Chandler. She’d been willing to concoct the poison, because of the full-body shiver of enjoyment at the thought of hurting the girl who’d threatened to make all her efforts worthless. Even if she hadn’t known, at some level, which ‘remedy’ she was bringing—and most days she was sure she hadn’t, completely sure—she’d nonetheless showed him that murder could be as satisfying as embarrassment. And that the targets were less likely to complain to the authorities as a result.
Don’t ever start a fire you don’t know how to put out. That was what her boss always said about why you shouldn’t ever ask a witness a question whose answer you didn’t already know. For Veronica, it was a lot more than a courtroom rule.
Big Fun was having a reunion tour, opening for Duran Duran. Betty got the two of them tickets.
On a whim, Veronica opened an email—in her own name!—and invited Heather McNamara. Betty was cool with the idea; Heather McNamara had always been a follower, and without a Duke or a Chandler behind her, she could be perfectly nice to Betty.
Veronica wasn’t terribly surprised when the answer came back less than a minute later. “OMG!!!!! Can I bring Charlie?”
“Can she bring Charlie?” she asked Betty.
“Sure, of course.” Betty typed out further instructions to the Google minion whose job it was to service her every need, because Betty Finn’s time was too valuable to waste buying tickets online.
Charlie was Sir not-appearing-in-this-picture, because he was always traveling for his incredibly successful consulting business, though Heather did post the pictures he sent from time to time. Veronica wondered whether Charlie was really doing all that traveling just for business, or whether there was some Heather- and child-free partying involved too. Heather never expressed any doubts, and used a soft filter to make her kids’ tomato sauce-smeared faces look even more adorable when messy.
The night before the concert, Betty and Veronica met the Schillings at SFO.
Heather looked exactly the same—still that Lisa Kudrow high-strung blonde prettiness. She exited the security area in the company of a beautiful Asian Indian woman. “Veronica!” she called, waving her arm.
Veronica hadn’t known until that moment whether her smile would be real or fake. It turned out to be real. Underneath everything, Heather McNamara—now Schilling—was not a bad sort, just malleable.
They hugged. “Veronica, this is Charlie,” she said, indicating the woman who hadn’t left Heather’s side.
Veronica blinked a few times while Betty said how nice it was to meet Charlie and Charlie said something meaningless back. The first five things she thought of would all have come out either racist or homophobic, or both, and probably were racist or homophobic or both. But come on! Heather still lived in Sherwood, and Heather was a stay-at-home mom (Veronica had had to look up what SAHM meant to understand Heather’s posts). Heather’s wholesome yoga memeing wasn’t supposed to go hand in hand with a subversive yet normative lesbian marriage to a woman whose surname Veronica really couldn’t ask about without seeming super racist.
At the restaurant, Betty and Charlie bonded over some obscure consulting jargon while Heather quizzed Veronica about her fabulous life in the big city. Veronica didn’t get a chance to ask many questions, but in fairness she didn’t try very hard, and one thing that hadn’t changed was Heather McNamara’s need to fill silences.
At last, though, she formulated what she wanted to ask, and waited for her opportunity. “So, about you,” she said, pushing her plate away from her. “How do you make it work? I mean, Charlie must have been a bit of a shock to the system in Sherwood.”
“Sure, it was hard,” Heather said, picking at the last of her saag paneer. (At least Veronica could say she hadn’t picked the restaurant in a misguided attempt to make Charlie feel welcome, right?) “The kids still hear things at school, even after all these years. But we talk it over, and I hope—I have faith—it makes them stronger.”
Veronica nodded, but Heather wasn’t done. “Like you, how you stood up for yourself. I never did—but they will. I have to admit, when it was worst, I sometimes pretended I was you. I asked myself, ‘what would Veronica say?’ Not that I had the courage to go ahead and say it, but even thinking something really bitchy helped.”
Veronica took another long drink of her wine. The thought of herself as a role model—as a role model for Heather McNamara, apparently not-at-all-closeted, interracially married Heather McNamara—barely made sense to her. Heather had been relying on an image of Veronica that Veronica had abandoned for herself long ago. And had made that image work, it seemed. Heather had made it out of high school, out of the roles of villain and victim both. Nothing like what Veronica had, in her arrogance and her own left-behindness, imagined. Maybe those photos Heather posted had been carefully edited and tagged but there was a person behind them, a reality, not all beautiful but not rotten either.
“By the way,” she said to Charlie when they were washing their hands together in the restaurant’s bathroom, “if you hurt her I’ll kill you.” Charlie smiled, in the way you smile at your wife’s old friend who seems overinvested in your relationship, given that she and your wife haven’t talked in years. The smile faltered after a moment. Veronica couldn’t begin to speculate what had shown on her face.
Betty took her self-driving car home, but Veronica hopped in the Uber with Heather and Charlie, not willing to let Heather go just yet. On the drive, they talked about the city (expensive), Westerberg High (not quite as trapped in amber as Veronica had thought), childcare (also expensive), and Charlie’s job (impressive). Charlie was charmingly embarrassed by how much Heather was talking her up.
At their hotel, Veronica asked the driver to wait as she walked them inside. “This concert is going to be so very,” Heather said, with a twist in her smile that she must have developed over the past few decades. “And I haven’t even started to tell you about everyone else from high school!”
Impulsively, Veronica reached out and grabbed Heather in a hug, all awkward elbows and squished-out breath. When she let Heather go, she made sure to take Heather’s hands, so that she didn’t go far. “I think,” she said, “I should tell you about my Facebook account.”