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I met Madison at a fancy girls’ school hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. A hundred or so years ago, maybe even longer, all the men who had managed to make enough money in such a barren landscape decided that they needed a school to prepare their daughters for the eventuality of marrying some other rich man, moving up in life, until no one remembered a time when they were anything other than exemplary. They brought some British guy to Tennessee, and he ran it like some school for princesses, and soon other rich men from other barren landscapes sent their daughters. And then, after this happened enough times, rich people in real cities, like New York or Chicago started hearing about this school and started sending their own daughters. And, like anything, if you can catch that kind of good luck, it holds for centuries.
I grew up in the valley of that mountain, just poor enough that I could imagine a way out. I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god had assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated my mother before returning to his home atop a mountain. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned. Maybe he was some alderman in town, and I’d seen him all my life without knowing it. But I preferred to think he was dead, that he wholly was incapable of saving me from my unhappiness.
The school, the Iron Mountain Girls Preparatory School, offered one or two full scholarships each year to girls in the valley who showed promise. And, though it might be hard to believe now, I showed a fucking lot of promise. I had spent my childhood gritting my teeth and smashing everything to bits in the name of excellence. I taught myself to read at three years old, matching the storybooks that came with records to the words the narrator spoke through the little record player speaker. When I was eight, my mother put me in charge of our finances, the weekly budgeting from the envelopes of cash that she brought home at night. I made straight A’s. At first, it was purely out of an instinctual desire to be superlative, as if I suspected that I was a superhero and was merely testing the limits of my powers. But once teachers started to tell me about Iron Mountain and the scholarship, information that my mother could not have cared less about, I redirected my efforts. I didn’t know that the school was just some ribbon that rich girls obtained on their way to a destined future. I thought it was a training ground for Amazons. I made other students cry at the spelling bee. I plagiarized scientific studies and dumbed them down just enough to win county science fairs. I memorized poems about Harlem and awkwardly recited them to my mom’s boyfriends, who thought I was some weird demon speaking in tongues. I played point guard on the boys’ traveling basketball team because there wasn’t one for girls. I made people in my town, whether they were poor or middle-class, especially upper-middle-class, feel good, like I was something they could agree on, a sterling representative of this little backwoods county. I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.
I got the scholarship, and some of my teachers even raised enough money to help cover expenses for books and food, since my mother told me flat out that she couldn’t afford any of it. When it was time to start school, I put on some ugly-ass jumper, the only nice thing I owned, and my mother dropped me off with a duffel bag filled with my things, including three changes of the school’s uniform, black skirts and white blouses. Other parents were there in their BMWs and cars so fancy I didn’t know the names of them. “God, look at this place,” my mom said, heavy metal on the radio, fidgeting with an unlit cigarette because I asked her not to smoke so it wouldn’t get it my hair. “Lillian, this is going to sound so mean, but you don’t belong here. It don’t mean they’re better than you. It just means you’re gonna have a rough go of it here.”
“It’s a good opportunity,” I told her.
“You got shit, I understand that,” she said, as patient as she’d ever been with me, though the engine was still idling. “You got shit and I know that you want better than shit. But you’re going from shit to gold, and it’s going to be real tough to handle that. I hope you make it.”
I didn’t get angry with her. I knew that my mom loved me, though maybe not in ways that were obvious, that other people would understand. She wanted me to be okay, at least that. But I also knew that my mom didn’t exactly like me. I weirded her out. I cramped her style. It was fine with me. I didn’t hate her for that. Or maybe I did, but I was a teenager. I hated everyone.
She pushed in the car’s cigarette lighter and while she waited for it to fire up, she kissed me softly and gave me a hug. “You can come back home anytime, sweetie,” she said, but I imagined that I’d kill myself if I had to do that. I got out of the car, and she drove off. As I walked to my dorm, I realized that the other girls didn’t even look at me, and I could tell that it wasn’t out of meanness. I don’t think they even saw me; their eyes had been trained since birth to recognize importance. I wasn’t that.
I don’t think they even saw me; their eyes had been trained since birth to recognize importance. I wasn’t that.
And then I found Madison in my room, the room we were going to share. All the information that I had on her was provided in a brief letter during the summer, informing me that my roommate would be Madison Billings and that she was from Atlanta, Georgia. Chet, one of my mom’s ex-boyfriends who still hung around the house when she wasn’t dating someone else, saw the letter and said, “I bet she’s from the Billings Department Stores. That’s Atlanta, too. That’s big money.”
“How would you know, Chet?” I asked. I didn’t mind Chet so much. He was goofy, which was better than the alternative. He had a tattoo of Betty Boop on his forearm.
“You gotta pick up on little clues,” he told me. He drove a forklift. “Information is power.”
Madison had shoulder-length blonde hair and was wearing a yellow summer dress with hundreds of little orange goldfish printed on it. She was wearing flip-flops, model-tall, and even from the door, I could tell that the soles of her feet would be so fucking soft. She had a perfect nose, blue eyes, enough freckles to look wholesome without looking like God blasted her with bad skin. The whole room smelled of jasmine. She’d already arranged the room, had chosen the bed furthest from the door. When she saw me, she smiled like we were friends. “Are you Lillian?” she asked, and I could only nod. I felt like a kid on The Bozo Show in my shitty jumper.
“I’m Madison,” she told me. “It’s nice to meet you.” She held out her hand, her nails painted a faint pink, the nose of a bunny rabbit. “I’m Lillian,” I said, and I shook her hand. I’d never shaken the hand of someone my own age. “They told me that you’re a scholarship kid,” she then informed me, though there wasn’t any judgment in her voice. She seemed to just want to make it clear that she knew.
“Why did they tell you that?” I asked her, my face reddening.
“I don’t know. They told me, though. Maybe they wanted to make sure that I’d be polite about it.”
“Well, okay, I guess,” I said. I felt like I was forty, fifty steps behind Madison and the school was already making it harder for me to catch up.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” she told me. “I prefer it. Rich girls are the worst.”
“Are you not a rich girl?” I asked, hopeful.
“I’m a rich girl,” she said. “But I’m not like most rich girls. I think that’s why they put me with you.”
“Well, good,” I said. I was sweating so hard.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “Why did you want to come to this place?”
“I don’t know. It’s a good school, right?” I said. Madison had a kind of directness that I’d not experienced before, where shit that would get her killed somehow seemed okay because her eyes were so blue and she didn’t seem to be joking.
“Yeah, I guess. But, like, what do you want to get out of this place?” she asked.
“Can I put down my bag?” I asked. I touched my face and sweat was beading up and starting to trickle down my neck. She gently took my bag from me and then placed it on the floor. Then she gestured to the bed, unmade, and I sat on it. She sat beside me, closer than I’d prefer.
“What do you want to be?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. Jesus, I don’t know,” I said. I thought Madison was going to kiss me.
“My parents want me to get amazing grades and go to Vanderbilt and then marry some university president and have beautiful babies. My dad was so specific. We’d love it if you married a university president. But I’m not doing that.”
“Why not?” I said. If the university president was sexy, I’d jump right into the life that Madison’s parents imagined for her.
“I want to be powerful. I want to be the person who makes big things happen, where people owe me so many favors that they can never pay me back. I want to be so important that if I fuck up, I’ll never get punished.”
She looked psychotic as she said this; I wanted to make out with her. She flipped her hair in such a way that it could only have been instinctual, evolution. “I feel like I can tell you this.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you’re poor, right? But you’re here? You want power, too.”
“I just want to go to college, to get out of here,” I said, but I felt like maybe she was right. I’d learn to want all stuff that she said. I could go for power.
“I think we’ll be friends,” she said. “I hope so, at least.”
“God,” I said, trying to keep my whole body from convulsing, “I hope so, too.” ●
Excerpted from the book Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson. Copyright © 2019 by Kevin Wilson. Published on October 29, 2019, by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Kevin Wilson is the author of two collections, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award, and Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine (Ecco, 2018), and three novels, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2011), Perfect Little World (Ecco, 2017) and Nothing to See Here (Ecco, 2019). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, A Public Space, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology as well as The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012. He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Rivendell, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his sons, Griff and Patch, where he is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Sewanee: The University of the South.