Skip to Main Content

What does it mean when you thought you knew someone? What does it mean when that person is your new boyfriend? Courtney Summers meets Deb Caletti in this page-turning suspense story of what it is to face hard truths about yourself and others, and how to find strength when you need it most.

Sixteen-year-old Erica Walker is a webcomic artist who wants to fit in at her affluent new high school. Seventeen-year-old Thomas VanBrackel is an aspiring songwriter and reluctant lacrosse goalie who wants out from under his father’s thumb. After their electric first kiss at Saturday’s lacrosse match, Erica and Thomas are both elated to see where their new relationship could take them.

The next morning, however, following a drunken house party, Erica wakes up half-clothed, and discovers words and names drawn in Sharpie in intimate places on her body—names belonging to Thomas’s lacrosse friends, including the boyfriend of Erica’s best friend. Devastated, Erica convinces herself Thomas wasn’t involved in this horrific so-called “prank”…until she discovers Thomas’s name on her skin, too.

Told in alternating viewpoints, Erica seeks to uncover what happened while battling to keep evidence of her humiliation from leaking out, as Thomas grapples with his actions and who he thought he was. Woven throughout, illustrated graphic novel interstitials depict Erica’s alter ego superhero, Erica Strange, whose courage just might help Erica come through to the other side.

1. Erica ERICA
I DON’T SEE THEM AT first—the names—because my eyes are closed, and my eyes don’t seem to want to open.

A groan escapes me as I lie here, overheating in my own sweat. Then the nausea hits. Not a wave, like some people would describe. This is a semitruck of vomit hurtling downhill, brake lines cut. I try to peel my eyelids apart, but my lashes feel glued together.

Unease scratches at me. Something about…

The party.

What happened last night? With me, with Thomas? I don’t even remember making it back to Caylee’s house. Actually, I don’t remember much past… what, the fireworks? Yeah, there were definitely fireworks in Zac’s backyard. Thomas and me. A bonfire. Did we… kiss again?

Pressing my palms to my eyes, I try to force answers, but the effort drives splinters through my brain. I flip the pillow over and ease my cheek against its cool side. God, why did I drink so much? I can only hope Caylee didn’t have to take care of me. Or worse—Thomas.

What did I do?

I sigh. Caylee. She’ll have aspirin and answers.

When I drag my eyes open, I expect to see the purple walls of Caylee’s room. But the gray walls that surround me are a slap in the face.

Terror dawns: This is not Caylee’s room.

My eyes rake the space, but no matter where I look, the images don’t make sense.

On the far wall, a Lakers basketball player occupies a poster, the top left corner peeling. A flat-screen TV sits on a dresser that spews clothes. Red plastic cups, a deck of playing cards, litter the floor.

My stomach plummets ten stories when I spot what’s draped over the desk chair—a guy’s blue-and-white varsity jacket, the kind all the jocks wear at Bay City Prep. Like the one Thomas has but never wears that I borrowed once.

The smell of the room hits me. A masculine scent, but somehow wrong, like heavy cologne mixed with something sour. I sit up quickly—too quickly—and tug the sheets closer. My vision blurs as dizzying heat rips through me.

There are bruises on my arm. No, not bruises. I look again, seeing the dark marks running up the inside of both arms for what they are.

Words.

Dozens of them, scrawled out in angry black marker.

The first word to register is here. As I stare, trying to find meaning in it, I realize it’s part of a sentence. Twisting my arm, I read the phrase stretching from upper elbow to mid-forearm: Ricky was here.

Ricky? From Spanish class? Thomas’s lacrosse team? Why would he…?

Something closes in my throat.

Thrashing at the sheets, I scramble to my feet, then sway and have to steady myself against the bed. The need to vomit overwhelms me, but it’s shoved down by the horror of what I’m seeing. Covering my arms, from palms to shoulders, are words and graphic pictures scribbled in black marker.

My skirt is gone. Marker spirals down both legs. The words Erica Walker is a sluuut and whore stare up at me—black tattoos inked onto my skin. Next to a sketch of an exploding penis, another name stretches across my right foot: Forest Stevens.

Forest? But he’s so nice, so funny. Thomas’s best friend.

Why would they do this? Why would anyone do this?

I lift my sweat-soaked shirt. Writing extends across my stomach and all over both thighs. Then I see my underwear. The lace looks faded.

No, they’re inside out.

Who took them off? Thomas? Me? Someone else?

Oh my god, Oh My God, OH MY GOD.

Was I…? Did they…? They wouldn’t have…

Rape.

…done that to me, right?

No. Ricky and Forest wouldn’t. I know them.

And it doesn’t feel like I’ve been… violated like that. Because I would know. I could tell.

Right?

Leave. Now.

Frantic, I kick through cups and clothes until I find my jean skirt in a crumpled pile. I grab then drop it. It’s damp. Using my fingernails, I bring the skirt a few inches closer to my face and sniff. The stench of stale beer assaults my nose. Not pee… or worse.

Questions hurtle through my mind. Where the hell is Caylee? Where was she last night? She was supposed to have my back….

And Thomas.

Where was he while Ricky and Forest—his friends, his teammates—wrote on me? Did they take off my clothes?

Oh my god. I have to get out of here.

Having no choice, I pull on the wet skirt, cringing as the damp fabric clings to my thighs. I tuck in my shirt and notice my bra is missing—the pink push-up I bought, just in case Thomas and I… Where is it? I scan the room, but it’s nowhere.

And my boots. Where are my boots? I can’t leave without them. They’re my favorite.

Then, from across the room, I see it—an image sliced from a nightmare. My reflection in a mirror.

I once saw a photography art exhibit here in Los Angeles on the life of drug abusers, full of haunted-looking meth addicts. Only this time, the disturbing face is mine. Erica Walker: Exposed. Writing dominates every length of my bare arms and full thighs—black insults floating on a sea of pale, milky skin. My boobs hang heavy under a lacy shirt, pink nipples nearly visible without a bra. Matted black curls frizz around my head. My eyes look like a raccoon’s, smeared with mascara and eyeliner, the whites bloodshot and dull.

To think I’d felt so sexy last night.

I spot it then, stuck inside the frame of the mirror. The photograph shows two faces I’d recognize anywhere since Caylee has the same picture taped inside her locker. Caylee and Zac—her, blonde and tiny and beautiful; him, a pasty-white Hulk. I find the letterman, flipping it over to reveal the name embroidered on the back: BOYD.

Zac Boyd. I’m in Zac’s room.

This can’t be happening. This is bad. Worse. Zac and I didn’t… We couldn’t have. I would never do that. He’s Caylee’s boyfriend. And I’m with Thomas.

At least, I think I am?

I need to talk to Caylee. I need to figure out what the hell happened last night.

My gaze snags on a Sharpie, half-hidden by bedsheets.

They drew on me, hands so close.

My knees buckle. I fall hard against the bed and close my eyes to block out the words, the names, branded across my body, but too late. They’re etched on my brain: Ricky.Forest.Erica.Slut.Whore.

This isn’t happening.

Panic blooms in my chest.

From downstairs, the sound of male laughter rips through me. My head snaps to the door.

I can’t find my boots. My favorite boots.

But I have to leave. Now.

I rush for the door, bare feet avoiding scattered clothes and textbooks. A playing card sticks to my foot—a six of spades. I shake it free.

At the top of the stairs, I pause to listen, taking in the first floor below me. Zac Boyd’s living room looks like a massacre. Upended red cups sit in pools of sticky liquid. Jackets, single shoes, and blankets are heaped in mounds. Shoved against the far wall, the glass coffee table rests on its side, a large crack down the middle.

Male voices filter in from the kitchen.

“Ah man. My shit hurts so bad right now, I can’t even tell you.”

Oh my god. Zac.

“Was it the keg stand or getting dropped on top of it?”

Ricky? His name on my arm.

Laughter erupts, maybe four voices in all, including Forest’s distinct guffaw.

Forest’s name on my foot. I shift my gaze to the stairs.

“Well, at least I wasn’t as drunk as Erica,” Zac says.

“You mean ‘Mouth’?” Ricky. More laughter.

Did they just call me “Mouth”?

“Her tits were hot, man.”

My face scorches. They saw me topless. They all saw me topless.

“Like fucking melons, man.” Zac. “How’d she manage to keep those things under wraps all this time?”

“Well, they came out to play last night, that’s for sure.” Stallion. Chris “Stallion.” But he’s in love with Jasmine, treats her like a queen. They’ve been together forever.

Below, the guys explode in more laughter: Zac, Ricky, Forest, Stallion.

Shame pierces me. What the hell happened?

Downstairs, a toilet flushes and a door opens, then footsteps lead toward the kitchen.

“Tommy VanB! He lives!” Ricky shouts. “We thought you’d died in there, man.”

“Naw, man,” Thomas replies.

My heart stops. Thomas is still here? Downstairs with them?

Thomas VanBrackel: the guy I’ve had a crush on since my first week here, who tripped over his backpack the first time he saw me. Who sits behind me in Spanish class, took me stargazing at the beach. Who played me a song he wrote just for me, bought me the Edward Gorey poster I have in my locker. The guy I watched make the winning save in yesterday’s lacrosse match, who kissed me for the first time in the parking lot where anyone could see before asking me to be his girlfriend. His girlfriend. Thomas—the very last memory I have of last night.

At the party, we’d stood next to each other by the bonfire, watching as Zac and Stallion and Tina lit off firework after firework. Tina was trying like always to be one of the guys. They’d wanted Thomas to join in, but Thomas had turned them down, choosing to stay with me instead. He’d looked so gorgeous, blue eyes reflecting the firelight, smile bright and playful. Standing that close to him, I could smell his deodorant mixed with fire smoke, feel his body heat radiating through his T-shirt—the silly one with the narwhal he’d worn just to make me smile. Then, laughing, he’d given me a piggyback ride inside Zac’s house and we’d… gone upstairs, I think…

And after that? Blank canvas. A void.

I’d been all jumbled nerves and frantic energy last night, calming myself with every sip from the water bottle in my purse, the one I’d filled with vodka at Caylee’s a few days back. I’d wanted Thomas to kiss me in front of his friends again so everyone would know we were official.

And now? What happened between hanging out with Thomas, and his friends seeing me naked? Why would they write their names on me? What if Thomas’s name…?

But Thomas wouldn’t. He would never do that.

Not Thomas.

So where was he when everything happened? And he’s in there now, in the kitchen with them.

“We were just discussing your girlfriend, VanBrackel,” Zac says. “Wonder when she’ll wake up.”

“Maybe we should go check on her,” Ricky replies.

I clap a hand over my mouth to choke off the sob welling up. I can’t let them find me here. But there’s nowhere to go!

Clutching the rail for support, I ease down the staircase, but my foot collides with a red cup, knocking it over. I freeze mid-step, watching in terror as the cup bumps down the stairs, splashing pale liquid onto the wall and carpet. The cup comes to rest on the wooden landing below with a tiny thump.

Oh god.

I jump at the sound of glass breaking in the kitchen.

“Dude, Thomas. What the hell?”

“Someone’s got butterfingers.”

Their laughs trail me as I hurry down the stairs and to the front door, avoiding the kitchen at all costs. Trembling, I twist the knob and slip outside.

God, not Thomas. Not. Thomas.

Bright sunlight sears my vision. I rush from the house as something inside me cracks and the tears begin to fall.
No credit line needed

Cassie Gustafson hails from Northern California and majored in words, earning a dual-BA in comparative literature and Spanish at University of California at Santa Barbara, an MA in English literature at Cal State Fullerton, and an MFA in writing for young adults at Hollins University. Before finding her way to writing, she served high tea at a five-star B&B, tended plants in a lavender greenhouse, and nannied and taught preschool. Cassie enjoys ping-ponging around the globe with her adventurous pilot husband and their fluffy black kitty. Depending on the day, you may find her working on her next novel or toppling over in a yoga class somewhere. Cassie’s work has garnered the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, the Shirley Henn Creative Writing Award, and the Ruth Landers Glass Scholarship. Visit her at CassieGustafson.com.

From self-publishing to some of the biggest book publishers in the world, Emma Vieceli loves telling stories with pictures and believes that comics should be by anyone, about anything, for everyone. Currently the writer for comic book Life Is Strange, she is perhaps better known as an artist, and her recent work includes Olivia TwistAlex RiderThe Adventures of SupergirlDoctor WhoJem & the Hologramsthe New York Times bestselling Vampire Academy graphic novel series, Back to the Future, and Avalon Chronicles. She cocreates the critically acclaimed independent web series, BREAKS with Malin Ryden, cowriting and “comicking” (art/tone/letters). Alongside comics, she worked on the A&E television series, Bates Motel, providing the sketchbook found by Norman Bates, and as an artist with tinyrebel on their Doctor Who Infinity games.

"This all-too-believable book will open eyes and start conversations about sexual assault, toxic masculinity, and victim shaming."

– Publishers Weekly

With heart, art, and a whole lot of emotion, Cassie Gustafson crafts a searing debut, taking place in the aftermath of an event that changes the lives of both main characters forever. 

 

– Rachel Strolle, Teen Services Coordinator, Glenside Public Library District