Title: Whisper of Death
Author: Christopher Pike
Published: Dec. 1991
Tagline: They returned home to a dead world . . . .
Description: All the people had vanished.
Roxanne and Pepper are a teenage couple with problems. They leave their small town for a weekend to try and solve them. They don’t really succeed, and when they return home they find their town empty.
They call other towns.
They find the whole world empty.
But eventually they discover three other kids their age who are still alive in the town. They cannot imagine why the five of them seem to be the only ones left of the entire human race. They have only one thing in common. They were each directly or indirectly involved in the death of Betty Sue – the plain, shy girl who committed suicide only a short time ago. Betty Sue – the quiet, brilliant girl who wrote short stories about each of them. Stories of hate, of revenge, of death in a dead world.
It makes them wonder who Betty Sue really was.
Or what Betty Sue was.
Pepper. Jesus Christ, Pike, what’s with the names? I can’t wait til I get to Road to Nowhere (and end up with the Ozzy song stuck in my head the entire time I recap it, I just know it) with its characters, Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn. Fuck me, these names.
So, I was ten years old when this book came out, and I know I didn’t read it that early. I’m not sure exactly when I did read it, though. I was probably 13 or 14, I’d guess. I’ve never known quite what to make of this story. It’s one of those books that makes me feel dumb because I can’t quite figure out its full meaning. Interestingly, the first time I read this, I was still firmly entrenched in my mother’s anti-abortion beliefs (hell, the woman dragged me to an anti-abortion protest when I was ten – getting flipped off by motorists going by on the highway was, um, an experience) and this book read as pro-choice to me then. Now that my whole ideology has pretty much flipped, this book reads more anti-abortion to me now. I’m not sure Pike himself knew where he stood, since the message of this book seems a bit . . . muddled?
I think this is also the book where I got the wild idea that Christopher Pike was really Stephen King writing under another pen name. I know better now, of course, but there really did seem to be similarities in the styles and substance.
Also, if you couldn’t tell from the above paragraphs, content warning for abortion, of both the doctor-approved kind and the more DIY kind. (One of the things I thought I vividly remembered about this book was a coat-hanger abortion. Turns out that’s not actually in here, it’s just alluded to, and that might not even technically be what’s being alluded to. Memory is weird.) Heads up for suicide and rape discussion, as well.
We open with our protagonist, eighteen-year-old Roxanne Wells (Roxxxxxxaaaanne, oh hi, Sting!) writing the story we’re reading, telling us that she sits alone in a dead world, with the wind blowing hot and dry. It’s a pretty good opening line. Honestly, as much as I generally want people to just leave me the fuck alone, if I actually were alone in the world, it would pretty much be my worst nightmare. This book is terrifying for that alone, if nothing else.
Rox doesn’t know where to start her story, but she wants to start from a place of love and hope, so she starts with Pepper, her boyfriend. Given name: Paul Pointzel. She doesn’t know where the nickname “Pepper” came from, so we don’t get to know, either. Dammit, Pike, I don’t want to care about something this trivial, but I do. Either tell us the origin of the nickname, or make it his given name and explain that his parents were weird.
Anyhow, Rox and Pepper (which I’m already well on my way to typo-ing as “Peeper” at least half the time) met at their high school in Salem, Arizona. He was “new to the area, but not that new,” meaning he’d been in town for about a year before he and Rox had their meet-cute where he asks her for a cigarette. She tells him she doesn’t smoke, he tells her he’s seen her smoke in the park, and she replies that those weren’t cigarettes. LOL 420 BLAZE IT! Rox gets loaded once in a blue moon (and on Tuesdays), and Pepper reveals that he’s a beer man, himself.
Rox is sassy and almost mean to Pepper, which I can kinda identify with. I used to claim that I flirted through aggressive antagonism. Whether that was true of me or not, it seems to be true of Roxanne. Pepper almost gives up on talking to Rox, but she switches up and plays nice, and they end up going out on their first date on the following Tuesday, because that’s the only night besides Sunday that Rox doesn’t work. She has a job as a seamstress, and the word “seamstress” always makes me think of the Discworld novels. In those stories, “seamstress” had somehow become code for sex worker, and it led to some confusion when an actual seamstress came to town. RIP, Terry Pratchett.
They go to a movie and then dinner, and then steal (borrow?) a telescope from the school and haul it out to the reservoir on Pepper’s motorcycle. Mmkay. Pepper sure knows how to show a girl a good time.
They don’t have sex that first night, Rox tells us. They go out again on Friday, back to the reservoir for some skinny-dipping, and she lets him touch the boobies, but they don’t make love. Something about the phrase “make love” makes me want to throw rocks at people who use it, and Rox uses it a lot in this book. Urgh.
Rox lives with her dad, who is a trucker who’s always on the road, and Pepper lives with his aunt and uncle on a farm across town. They end up in the barn after a date one night (because Pepper wants to show her his horse, Shadowfax, named after Gandalf’s horse in Lord of the Rings. I . . . I want to see this horsey!), and Rox almost impales herself on a pitchfork in the hayloft. Despite this, she loses her virginity (after “a thorough inspection by Dr. Pepper” – was that supposed to make me snort my generic Dr. Pepper beverage out my nose? Because I did that, as well as rolling my eyes til it hurt), after asking Pepper if it’s his first time, too. He hesitates just a little too long before telling her it is. I’m not virgin-shaming, but at eighteen, I wouldn’t expect a guy to be a virgin. It’s perfectly fine if he is; I just wouldn’t expect it.
Apparently the sex is amazing. Okay. I mean, my first time wasn’t anything even remotely close to amazing, but good for you, Ms. Fictional-Character-Written-by-a-Man. They don’t use protection, because teenagers are idiots, and two weeks later Rox suspects she’s pregnant. Really? Two weeks later? I’ve never been pregnant, but that seems a little quick to suspect anything. Especially since her suspicion has nothing to do with a missed period or anything, it’s just . . . a feeling. Like something inside her had died. So, you know, nothing sinister here.
She waits another two weeks, then buys a pregnancy test in a nearby town for fifteen bucks. For real? I’ve bought them for like $4. Damn. Anyway, she’s sure as shit knocked up all right. She throws up, then calls a doctor in the same nearby town she bought the test in. The doctor has her take another test to confirm she is indeed preggers, then asks her if she knows her options. He tells her there’s a family planning clinic in Foster (presumably another nearby-ish town) and he can call and make an appointment for her if she wants. Of course, we all know he’s talking about abortion. Rox is vehemently opposed to the idea, and the doc encourages her to think about what she wants to do and not let anyone make the choice for her.
Rox drives home and realizes that since her best friend moved to Florida, she doesn’t have any other close friends to talk to. Oh, hon, I get it. So she goes to Pepper’s work and asks him if he wants the good news or the bad news first.
He hesitated. “The good news.”
“The bad news.”
Excuse me while I dive into this David Bowie/Labyrinth hole for a minute.
Anyway, Pepper is less than thrilled, and Rox is upset and apologizes for screwing up. (Was that a pun, Pike?) Roxanne, honey, no. Pepper has equal responsibility here. Pepper should have covered his pecker! Pepper says they’ll get through it together, and Rox asks what they should call her, because she’s convinced the fetus will be a girl. She suggests Pebbles, like in the Flintstones, so they’ll be Rox and Pebbles. This is why you don’t let teenagers name things, guys. Pepper gets serious and asks if she really wants to keep the baby. She says she does, and after some pushing, Pepper admits that he doesn’t. Rox is heartbroken, and agrees to an abortion in order to keep her boyfriend, which is probably not the best reason to abort. She knows that there is no love left in her words when she says that she’ll get rid of it and life will go on.
Well, goddamn. All of that was chapter one. With the way Pike throws you into things, it’s easy to forget that that was basically all exposition.
Chapter two starts with Rox ruminating over the abortion debate in America, which has always puzzled her. She somehow agrees with both sides – nobody should take away someone’s right to choose, but no one should kill an unborn infant – and claims that both sides are equally wrong. She could say that both sides are equally right as well, but won’t. It’s a paradox that she doesn’t believe can be solved. Okay, look. I can understand this confusion and waffling back and forth, because I spent much of my life with these same kind of thoughts. But, first, a fetus is not an infant. Hell, at this point in Rox’s pregnancy, it’s not even a fetus, it’s a mass of cells called a blastocyst. But I digress. While it’s perfectly fine for the character to have these conflicting thoughts, it reads more like the author’s indecisiveness, and that shit is annoying. Anyway. Keep abortion safe and legal, y’all.
There’s a passage in here about how Rox does things that only hurt herself, but now there’s a baby in her that could drive her boyfriend away and make her work and slave for the next eighteen years, and she could hurt it, she could kill it. Oh, lord. The doctor told her it won’t feel a thing, because without consciousness, there could be no agony. Friendly reminder that at this point the blastocyst doesn’t resemble anything but a glob of tissue and the brain hasn’t even started to form yet. So yeah, definitely no consciousness there yet, Roxanne.
Doc makes an appointment for Rox at the clinic in Foster on Saturday, at 5:30 in the fucking morning, say what?! Rox and Pepper decide to drive there on Friday night and stay at a motel, and the whole time Rox tells us she feels like she’s driving to her death. Prophetic, and also, if you don’t want to abort the pregnancy, then don’t, Rox. You shouldn’t let anyone pressure you one way or the other.
They get to the clinic and Rox fills out some paperwork, giving some false information so this won’t follow her around or anything. Then out of nowhere, we get her thinking that if it was Pepper filling it out, she would have to help him because he did even worse in school than she did, and then consoling herself by thinking their child would probably be retarded so this was for the best. Goddammit, Roxanne. First of all, your poor study habits have nothing to do with your potential child’s IQ. Second, fuck off with the attitude that, what, disabled people are better off never being born? What the fuck, Pike, this is too gross on too many levels.
Anyway. Rox goes with the doctor, telling Pepper she loves him. He still hasn’t said it back, and seems really uncomfortable when she says it to him, so this is definitely the guy you want to ignore your own desires for. The doc runs an IV and gives Rox some shots, then leaves and comes back fifteen minutes later when she’s good and numb. He begins the procedure, but almost immediately stops, mutters something, and runs from the room. Rox feels strange and floaty, and tells us her guts felt like liquid. For some reason, she starts thinking of Betty Sue McCormick, a girl who had recently killed herself by dousing herself in gasoline at an abandoned gas station and lighting herself (and pretty much everything else in the area) on fire. Rox thinks it’s strange that she would think of Betty Sue since she barely knew her, but hey, we gotta bring the weird witch-girl event-catalyst into the story somehow, right?
Much like me, Rox begins to question her reasons for getting an abortion, and comes to the conclusion that doing it to keep her boyfriend isn’t a good enough reason. She doesn’t think the doctor got very far in the procedure, she doesn’t see any blood, so she gets up and gets dressed. When she starts to leave the room, she suddenly gets dizzy and has to take a minute to steady herself. Urgh, that’s probably not good. The hall elongates on her like in a nightmare dream sequence, and she has to close her eyes until it goes back to normal. When she comes out to the reception area, the receptionist is gone. Pepper is there, surprised that Rox is done so quickly, and she insists on driving, telling him she didn’t go through with it and she doesn’t want to argue about it when he protests that she can’t drive because she just had an operation. I mean, she was just hallucinating some stereotypical horror movie imagery, so maybe let Pepper go ahead and drive, you know?
They start driving home, east through the desert (the deserted desert), and Pepper wants to talk. Rox says they should talk, but he’s not going to change her mind. She’ll take sole responsibility for their daughter and not sue him for child support if he doesn’t want to help out, but she’s keeping their child. Pepper says he’ll be there for her, and still wants to know why Rox is so convinced it’s a girl, and she still doesn’t know. Then he falls asleep, because fucking dudes can sleep through anything.
As the sun starts coming up (right in Rox’s eyes, so that’s fun), she spots a hitchhiker with long red hair, wearing a long black cape. She thinks it’s a girl, but she can’t be sure. Then the hitchhiker disappears, and Rox thinks she must have seen the car coming and ducked behind a stand of cacti by the road. Must be one of those hitchhikers who like to play hide-and-seek with cars instead of getting rides in them. Also, Rox mentions that she usually picks up hitchhikers. Oh, honey. You are just a mess of bad judgment, aren’t you.
An hour later, Rox comes across the gas station five miles from Salem, and decides to stop because she’s down to her last half gallon of gas. At first I read this as “half-tank” and wondered why she thought she needed to stop to fill up, then I realized what it actually says. Sorry, does anyone have a gas gauge that measures the amount in actual gallons? This isn’t something I’ve ever run into. Also, if you’re down to your last half gallon, your fuel light has probably been on for like the entire return trip and the needle is below the E. Every car I’ve had, even when the fuel light has been on for miles and miles, I almost always still have a couple gallons left in the tank. I can’t imagine running it down to half a gallon. Holy shit. (Sorry. Just happy to go on a tangent that has nothing to do with abortion!)
The clinic has all their money, so Rox has to scrounge around to find a five dollar bill in her pocket. Hey, remember when you could get like five gallons of gas for a five? Anyone? Rox gets four point three gallons, so close enough, I guess. (I remember one glorious summer when I was a driving teenager, gas went down to 75 cents a gallon. That, folks, is what freedom is made of.) This gas station is apparently the walk-up-to-a-man-in-a-booth variety rather than the convenience store variety, but there’s no one in the booth when Rox goes up to pay. She thinks maybe they went to the bathroom or something, but the cash register is lying wide open. She runs back to the car and wakes Pepper up, convinced the place is being robbed, and he checks it out while she stays in the car. He doesn’t find anyone around, and refuses to leave the five dollars on the counter when Rox tries to hand it to him to pay for the gas. I mean, what’s a little petty theft, right? Hell, why not grab some cash out of the register while you’re at it, since no one is around? Guys, I just realized I really hate Pepper.
They’re both creeped out by the place, but neither can pinpoint why. Pepper thinks it’s just because it’s deserted, but Rox wants to know why it’s deserted. This is probably around the same time I would start getting creeped out, too. She drives to Pepper’s place and drops him off, still without seeing another human being out and about anywhere. He doesn’t kiss her goodbye, and insists he just wants to get some sleep when she asks if he wants to get together later. She apologizes for not going through with the abortion, and he says he hopes they won’t both be sorry. Babies havin’ babies, y’all.
When Rox gets to her house, it’s empty because her dad is out of town on a run, but the emptiness feels different somehow. She puts on a pot of coffee and turns on the radio, but only gets static. Ditto the TV. The phone has a dial tone, but nobody answers when she dials them, including Pepper, a friend from school, the local 24-hour supermarket (ngl, I never would have thought to call them), or her bff who moved to Florida – although she does get an answering machine on that one. She runs outside and starts banging on her neighbor’s door. They have two hyperactive kids and a dog that “barked at its own barking,” which makes me laugh because I’ve known dogs like that. But there’s no sound from them now, and no one around at any of the other houses Rox knocks at as she makes her way to the center of town and starts screaming. She collapses to cry in the town square, and after a while Pepper shows up and asks her where everyone is. A very apt question, indeed, Pepper.
He tells Rox his story – got home, couldn’t find Aunt and Uncle, creepy feeling, made a few unanswered phone calls, walked to town and met up with Rox. Enthralling stuff. They go back and forth trying to figure out what’s happened and if they’re really alone, and if so, is it the whole world that’s deserted or just the town, or what? Pepper wants to drive to Foster and call people from there, which . . . what, exactly, kind of logic is that? Rox’s knee-jerk reaction is that she doesn’t want to go back there ever again. She makes the comment that first she went for an abortion, then she ended up in the twilight zone. I mean, fair enough. Also, this book has the word “abortion” in it more than any other Point Horror/Fear Street/insert teen horror series here books combined. Props to Pike for treating young adults as actual young adults, I suppose. (Also, I’m a little wary of the search engine searches that are going to (inadvertently?) bring people to this recap.)
They decide to make some more calls to try to reach someone, anyone, but instead of going to one of their houses, they break into Mike’s Electronic Repair. Sorry, Mike. Hope you know how to repair windows, too. They call Information, the operator, and Rox’s grandma in Portland before giving up. Pepper yells at Rox to call someone else because they’re not alone, dammit, when a voice from behind them tells them that yes, they are.
The voice is Stan Reese, who, Rox tells us, is a short, chubby, intellectual eighteen-year-old whom she knows fairly well. Well enough to go hard on fat-shaming him to us. Because of course the smart kid is fat and has glasses. No conventionally hot person was ever smart, too! Anyway, Rox is so happy to see another person that she hugs him so hard she knocks his glasses askew. He’s sorry that it only took the end of the world for Roxanne to give him a hug, and Pepper wants to know what the fuck he means by the end of the world? Was there a nuclear war or something? Like, dude, pretty sure you’d know about that if there was. Maybe he’s just a big REM fan?
Stan says that no, there’s been no nuclear war that he’s aware of, it just seems like everyone in the world disappeared. He has a short-wave radio he talks to people around the world on, and he hasn’t been able to get hold of anyone, anywhere. His parents’ bed was unmade, like they disappeared while they were sleeping, because his mother has never left a bed unmade. They consider and dismiss the ideas of both EMP attack and toxic spill and subsequent evacuation. Listen, I know we have to show the characters puzzling this all out, but I’ve read enough stories like this at this point in my life that I’m just impatient to get to the story, you know? Yes, everyone’s gone; I’m already on board with the setup, let’s just get fucking to it, okay?
They discuss leaving town, but Stan points out that they should look for people in town, and asks them what other people would have done upon waking up to find no one around. They figure everyone would go through the same steps they did (if that’s true, how come they haven’t heard or seen anyone else screaming their way through the center of town?) and then steal a car and a sack of money before leaving town. Okay. I don’t see why you need money when there’s no one left in the world, but I suppose old habits die hard. Personally, I’m stockpiling bottle caps to use as currency after the apocalypse.
Off to the bank they go!
There’s no one at the first bank they check, so they go across the street to the only other bank in town. Even though they had stormed into the first bank like they were fucking bulletproof immortals, they decide to be cautious at this one, because . . . reasons? Pepper yells in and gets no response, then pulls the door open and immediately gets shot at. Rox gets grazed in the leg, because it’s just been that sort of day. But hey, at least someone else is still alive in town, right?!
The boys are on one side of the entrance, and Rox is on the other. The mystery shooter fires a couple more rounds at them when the boys try to get over to Rox, and they’re like Fuck this, let’s go. Finally it occurs to Mystery Shooter to call out and ask who’s there. Seriously, motherfucker?! You couldn’t ask that before you started shooting? Turns out it’s good ol’ wannabe badass Helter Skater, aka Helter Skelter. Because that’s a timely reference and not at all the most pointless aka ever. Jesus, these names, Pike.
Pepper storms in, ready to tear Helter’s head off, and Helter is standing by the vault with bundles of cash in his pockets. He’s apparently blown the vault open with his rifle, and I call bullshit. One of the buildings I clean is a bank, so I’ve got a pretty good look at a bank vault, and no way a rifle is “blowing the lock off” of it. That makes it sound like it’s padlocked or something. What the fuck. Anyway, Helter tells them to calm the fuck down, if he wanted to hit them, they’d be dead. At which point Rox points to her bleeding leg and asks why she’s not dead, then. Look, as much as she annoys me at times, sometimes Rox is awesome.
They try to make nice, and Stan steps forward and takes the rifle out of Helter’s hands, but leaves the .45 in his belt. Not sure if gay panic or fear of getting punched. Hell, maybe Stan was afraid of accidentally shooting Helter’s dick off. I want to get in early on pointing out what a bad idea it is to stick a revolver down your pants, okay? Foreshadowing?
They walk to the drugstore next door (Helter offers Rox a piggyback ride if she can’t walk, which actually comes off kind of sweet rather than creepy; she turns him down but Stan asks if he can have one instead, wtf Stan) and Pepper bandages up Rox’s leg. When they’re done with that, they rejoin the group and everyone rehashes their “oh shit we’re all alone in the world” stories, and then a beautiful girl named Leslie Belle walks in wearing pajamas and no shoes and asks for aspirin.
Our description of Leslie is about what you’d expect from a male author writing a female viewpoint. Leslie is beautiful and talented and the kind of girl that girls like Rox are supposed to hate. Um, according to whom, Pike? Male-written media portrayals? She goes on to tell us that Leslie is a nice person whom Rox can’t bring herself to not like (you know, even though she’s supposed to), and that she has “bones and teeth that spelled sun and fun, and a body that made most guys think party time.” I . . . I don’t even know what the fuck that first part is supposed to mean, and as for the second bit . . . that is not how girls describe other girls. What the fuck is happening right now?
Leslie takes some Tylenol then asks if somebody wants to talk or should she just start screaming? Hahaha, I kind of love Leslie right here. That’s the sort of thing I would love to say in that situation, when in reality I would probably just hug myself, rock back and forth, and say “what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck” a lot. She starts crying, Pepper hugs her, Rox tries not to be too jealous. Helter thinks this is the perfect time to mention what a fox Leslie is, and Stan suggests they go get ice cream because he thinks better when he’s eating. You remember, because he’s fat? Pike really wants to drive that point home.
They break into the Baskin-Robbins, and Stan grabs a 5-gallon tub and goes to work on it, eating straight out of the tub with a spoon. Helter, Rox tells us, doesn’t even bother with a spoon, and I’m very confused about how you eat ice cream with no utensils. Hmm. Anyway, Leslie and Helter tell us their stories, second verse same as the first. Helter wants to go to LA because he thinks there will be more survivors there, and Stan clearly disagrees, although he’s keeping his cards close to his chest. Also, probably having a hard time going into his theories with his mouth stuffed full of rocky road. Just throwing that out there since it’s been half a page since Pike reminded us how fat Stan is.
Stan questions the hell out of Rox and Pepper since they were the only ones awake when whatever happened, happened. Well, correction: Rox was awake. She avoids announcing her aborted abortion, but says they were driving back from Foster, and mentions the hitchhiker, this time saying she was wearing a long black coat rather than a cape. I would call the article of clothing shown on the book cover a “cloak,” actually, but maybe that’s just me. Stan is very interested in the hitchhiker and asks Rox if she looked like anyone she knew. Fuck, Stan, just spit it out already; you’ve obviously got a cockamamie theory!
So, skipping forward to Stan’s theory: there’s a connection between the five of them, nothing happened to the rest of the world; something happened to them; there’s no other life out there, not even animals or bacteria, and it’s possible they are in another dimension. Okay, I guess we’re going to take even more time before we get to Betty Sue. Sigh.
Leslie suddenly gets the idea they’re all dreaming and tries to pinch herself awake. It goes about how you’d expect it to.
Stan doesn’t think they’re in danger, because if there’s nothing, then nothing can hurt them. Mmhmm. Is this like Odysseus telling the cyclops his name is “no one,” so that when he blinded him, the cyclops told his friends that No One had attacked him? Yes, nothing can hurt you! Ahh, word play.
Stan makes Rox describe the hitchhiker again, and thinks it’s odd that she had red hair. Rox points out that she herself has red hair, and Stan says yeah, but not bright red! So, was the hitchhiker actually just a giant Raggedy Ann doll? Because that would be terrifying. Anyway, now we finally get to Stan suggesting that the hitchhiker was really Betty Sue. About fucking time, and also LOL whut isn’t she D-E-D dead? Yep, dead four weeks. So, she died shortly after Rox and Pepper fucked and got knocked up. I’m desperately trying to keep track of the Betty Sue/Rox pregnancy timeline, because I have a theory, and I’m trying so hard to make any kind of sense out of the finer details of this story.
So. Helter calls Betty Sue a suicidal weirdo, then a few paragraphs later, calls her a bitch. Sort your shit, Helter. Stan says she wasn’t a bitch; she was his friend. I mean, the two aren’t really mutually exclusive, but I’m all for sticking up for your friend. Pepper thinks she was an unusual girl, and Leslie agrees but refuses to talk about her, even though she grew up practically next door to her. Rox didn’t really know her.
So far, solid A+ logic on her being the connection between them.
No one (no, not that no one) wants to talk about her except Stan, who goes so far as to suggest Betty Sue might not really be dead, since there wasn’t much of her found after the fire. Pepper is especially opposed to the idea of talking about Betty Sue, which makes Rox go “Hmmmm,” because supposedly Pepper didn’t really know her, either. Oh, honey. They be fuckin.
Stan wants to know how many of them liked Betty Sue, and when no one answers, he wants to know who hated her. Well, Helter pipes up calling her a bitch again, so there’s that. Leslie says she didn’t hate her, but she was spooky, then declines to elaborate. Dammit, Leslie, I’m at an embarrassingly high word count already, and we’re only 70 pages into a 180-page book. One of y’all better start moving this thing along. Or teach me to be more succinct and have fewer opinions about the source material. One or the other.
Stan wants to try to find Betty Sue, but agrees to Leslie’s suggestion that they drive around blaring the car horn to look for other people. He thinks they should go to Betty Sue’s house because they might find something there, and Rox can tell he’s keeping something from them and hopes it’s nothing bad. Oh, girl. Do you not know what type of book you’re in?
Unsurprisingly, they don’t find anyone else in town, and head over to Betty Sue’s house after an hour. Leslie doesn’t want to go inside, and when asked if she and Betty Sue had a falling out, she says it was something like that. Leslie, I liked you at first, but this cryptic bullshit is annoying as fuck. Stop it.
Inside, the house is a Jesus freak’s wet dream. Portraits of bleeding saints and Jesus everywhere. This might be one of the reasons for my teenage theory of Christopher Pike really being Stephen King – Carrie’s mom would be right at home in this house. Betty Sue’s room is nothing like the rest of the house, and Stan reveals that the last time he was here was the day she died, and that she seemed happy. They find her diary and some loose notebook pages on the desk, so of course what better way to pass the time than to read the dead girl’s diary!
Stan flips open to a random page, and it’s telling us about Leslie’s tenth birthday. So. Betty Sue has had the same diary for at least eight years? Is that what you’re telling me, Pike? I had many, many diaries between the ages of ten and eighteen, but Betty Sue has only had this one? Okay, cool story.
Anyhow. Betty Sue tells her diary that Leslie is turning ten, so now they’re both ten, and Fat Freddy will make Leslie’s birthday wish come true. He always does. Well, all right, I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about.
Leslie refuses to answer any of the group’s questions about just who the fuck Fat Freddy is, but this is the first image that comes up on Google Images:
Probably not what Pike was going for, but it’s just out there enough to amuse the hell outta me. Probably not the guy you want granting wishes to ten-year-old girls, though.
A later diary entry is about boys, how they’re starting to look good to Betty Sue, although her mom tells her (they’re all going to laugh at you I can see your dirty pillows) that boys aren’t as nice as they look and most of them are bad. Hey, where’s the lie, right? Betty Sue thinks Sam Douglas isn’t bad because he talks to her and calls her by her full name, unlike Steve Kinder, who always calls her just “Betty” to annoy her. She thinks she would like to make Sam kiss her and wonders if he would if she made him. Oh, boy. Does Betty Sue need to take a consent class?
Stan tells those who don’t know that Steve Kinder moved to Colorado when they were twelve and died of cancer shortly after. So, I guess he should have called Betty Sue by her preferred name.
The next diary entry is Betty Sue talking about how unhappy she is with Leslie, because she made Leslie what she is but now she’s out kissing Sam and Betty Sue wants to write harsh words that will hurt her. Then she talks about a dream where a dead man she thinks lived in England is having his hand eaten by a rat. She thinks there’s lots of fog there, and she likes fog even though she’s never seen it. Well. Okay then.
Leslie tells them that Sam was her first boyfriend, he moved away too, and something probably happened to him because “it usually did.”
I’m just full-on going to quote the next diary entry, because my god is it bizarre:
I think dark thoughts and feel warm. I write in the unlighted chamber of my existence. I turn as I walk alone, and I imagine I see Fat Freddy following me. But he left when I changed into a young woman and dreamed of sin. He was too fat for my tastes and I had him for supper because he thought he was bigger than the god who created him.
I’m going to bed now. I’m going to dream now. I’m still hungry.
What. The. Fuck.
Okay, so Fat Freddy: some sort of familiar? Or . . . some sort of tulpa Betty Sue created to do her bidding, then disposed of when she realized she was the one with the power? That would fit with him being the one making Leslie’s wish come true when they were ten, but Betty Sue destroying him, her creation, when she was older and realized the power came from her, right? I wonder how much of this Pike actually thought out, and how much of it doesn’t actually go beyond “Well, this sounds creepy, jot it down!”
Whatever the case, Leslie begs them to stop reading because things won’t get any better. But Rox sees Pepper’s name on the next page that’s flipped to, and has to read it. It’s initially about Helter and how she went for a ride with him in his car and he nearly killed a boy on a bike. He would have killed him if Betty Sue let him, and she thinks maybe she should have let him, because he would look good in prison and she’s growing tired of him. However, he thinks something wicked for her (not sure that phrasing sounds right, but okay) and she wants to find out what it is. Oh. Oh, honey. No. Pretty sure you don’t, okay? Then she says that Pepper called her and she thinks he wants to kiss her, and she thinks she will let him because he has a nicer mouth than Helter and his nails are clean. So, Betty Sue has interesting standards.
Pepper rips the diary away and insists they stop reading it, then insists he never kissed Betty Sue and only went out with her once, a long time ago. Then Helter jumps on the “I only went out with her once” train, too, and none of us believe either of you, mmkay? Then Stan wants to read the loose papers, which look like short stories, and Leslie seems terrified of reading any story Betty Sue wrote. Listen, Leslie, you’re not the one who has to figure out how to recap these weirdo “stories.” If anyone should be afraid right now, it’s me.
The first story is titled “Lati Ball Puts on a Mask.” Good God, y’all. It’s like the revenge stories I used to write when I was twelve. Except mine didn’t have the odd rhyme scheme Betty Sue’s do. So, Lati Ball dresses for a costume party, puts on a mask, and nobody recognizes her. A cake is brought out with twelve candles on it, and presented to Lati, who didn’t even realize it was her birthday. Before she cuts the cake, she makes a wish to “always be the best, better than the rest,” then blows out the candles and sets her face on fire, burning the mask to her face, resulting in her looking like death. Not Death as in the Grim Reaper, apparently, but lowercase “d” death. Cool.
Leslie loses her shit, because the story was obviously about her, and grabs all the papers, runs to the kitchen, and lights them on fire using the stove’s gas burners. Um, Leslie, are you sure it’s a good idea to play with fire after what happened to your analog in that story? You do? Oh, well, all right then. She only gets the chance to burn the Lati Ball story and the diary before a whole brawl ensues in the kitchen, eventually leading to Leslie running outside to tear up the other stories after poking Pepper in the eye. The group sends Rox out to stop her, but she really doesn’t give much of a fuck. Leslie starts babbling that they’re safe now that the stories are gone, then Stan comes out and wants to know why Rox didn’t stop her. Uh, because she don’t give a fuck. She’s more interested in Betty Sue’s real life experiences, leading to Pepper protesting again that he only went out with her once. Yeah, okay. Someone better throw some water on your pants, because they are on fire.
When Stan asks Leslie why she destroyed the stories, she looks at him like he’s an idiot and tells him that he was Betty Sue’s friend too, he knew what she was. He still asks her why the story freaked her out so much. Look, either Stan is lying to us about how much he knows, or he really is being deliberately obtuse. Either way, he needs to knock it the fuck off.
Leslie insists she’s going to go to LA, and tries to charm Pepper into coming with her. Leslie. No. He declines, so she invites Helter instead. That’s bad for reasons that haven’t been revealed yet, besides the fact that he’s just a lecherous scumbag in general. But of course he agrees. Stan insists that she needs to tell them what she thinks is going on here, they need to work together to figure it out. She refuses, and when Stan asks her why the stories scared her so much, she just tells him he’ll find out.
Well, thank you, Leslie. That was super helpful.
At some point Leslie changes out of her pajamas into street clothes and procures a cigarette while fueling up a Bronco she and Helter “borrowed,” even though Rox has never seen her smoke before. I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, Rox tells Pepper and Stan that she’s adjusted to being the only people left alive, but there’s one thing that’s making her want to scream – there’s this strange dead girl with interesting friends like Fat Freddy, who hexed every boy who didn’t want to kiss her, whom Rox might have seen hitchhiking that morning, and seemed to have a big, bad effect on everyone who knew her, but nobody will tell Rox just what the ever-loving fuck is going on. I mean, fair enough.
Stan tells her he doesn’t know what’s going on, either, and maybe they should start screaming together. Oh, fuck off, Stan. You know a hell of a lot more than anyone else around here, you disingenuous shithead. Rox also points this out, sadly without calling him a disingenuous shithead, and Stan admits that he had a dream the night Betty Sue died that mirrored their current predicament. He was all alone in town, sand blowing everywhere, but feeling like he was being watched. Then he woke up and discovered Betty Sue was dead.
Rox asks if Betty Sue really was a witch, and Stan is surprised, saying no, she was a writer. Pepper scoffs at that, and Stan protests that her other writing is really good, and that Lati Ball story was a strange outlier. Pike does this a lot – tells us a character is a really good writer, but the only examples he gives us are absolutely atrocious. Wait til we get to some of his other books where this happens, y’all. (Remember Me 2, I’m looking at you . . . )
They agree that the Lati Ball story had a strange cadence to it, almost like a chant. Okay, yeah. Or bizarro Dr. Seuss. Rox wants to know what was so special about Betty Sue, and what she has to do with their predicament. Stan says that he was Betty Sue’s friend, but she never went out with him because he’s a nerd and girls don’t want to date nerds. That would come as a hell of a surprise to all my nerd friends and their significant others, but sure. Let’s perpetuate that stereotype, shall we? Stan thinks that Betty Sue was truly brilliant, and that her words had power. Again he tells us what a genius writer she was, and this time I’m the one who scoffs, since no one else does.
Stan asks them again about their business in Foster, and Rox admits they weren’t visiting friends, but that it was private business. Stan claims he understands if they don’t want to talk about it, but continues to pry. Stan. Your actions aren’t matching your words there, buddy. Rox asks him about the last time he saw Betty Sue, and he hesitates, then asks for her understanding, but we get interrupted by Leslie and Helter’s imminent departure. Helter comes by to say farewell, and mentions that he never would have got “a piece” like Leslie if there were other people around. Oh my God, do not let that poor girl go off with this creep, wtf!
Stan is preoccupied and asks them not to go just yet, because something’s wrong that he can’t put his finger on. Oh, is it maybe that the girl who you all just read a story about getting burned alive is filling up a gas tank while smoking? Is that maybe it?
You probably won’t be surprised to find out that as she’s hanging up the gas nozzle, Leslie coughs the cigarette out of her mouth, causing it to land by all the gas she’s been splashing around everywhere, igniting it and blowing the Bronco and herself to kingdom come. Stan tackles Helter out of the way before the pump and the underground tanks go up, because he’s smart enough to see that was about to happen. I mean, he wasn’t smart enough to tell Leslie not to smoke around gas pumps, but sure. Stan is a motherfuckin’ genius. Such a genius that he has to tell us that “Lati Ball blew out her candles,” just in case the rest of us aren’t as smart as him.
Half an hour later, our intrepid survivors are sitting in the town square. Stan pages through the charred remains of Betty Sue’s diary while Rox tries to figure out how to mourn Leslie – a girl she liked but didn’t know well. Stan can only make out some of the writing in the diary, but says he’s more interested in the short stories. He points out that Leslie’s death was analogous to the story, and Rox claims not to see it, even though she does. Well, denial is the first stage of grief, so . . .
Stan asks if anyone knew Leslie when she was young, and Helter jumps in. Apparently this creep who’s been mourning Leslie by crying and repeating “she was so beautiful” over and over (because that’s the real tragedy, obviously), used to throw rocks at her because she was an ugly kid. Helter, the way you’ve been described doesn’t give me the impression that you’re exactly Chris Hemsworth yourself, so maybe don’t, okay? Even Stan mentions that she wasn’t as cute as she was later on. This ends with the suggestion that Leslie became pretty because of something Betty Sue did. Well, yeah, that’s what the diary said. Stan remembers Leslie suddenly turning gorgeous when she was fourteen, more so than puberty can account for. I was under the impression that puberty is the awkward stage, not the hot stage, guys.
Everyone is dubious, to say the least, but Stan is really pushing the angle that Betty Sue had the power to make things happen. How much longer are we going to lean on this before accepting it? Pike, your readers are already on board; figure out how to get your characters there faster. Anyway, Stan mentions that sometimes he would suddenly get the urge to go see Betty Sue even though he didn’t want to because she scared him a little, and she’d be waiting for him when he got there, claiming she called him to her. Cool. Seriously, can we move this along, Pike?
Stan’s big scary story about Betty Sue is that one day he went over while she was collecting butterflies in jars. She would sing a song that seemed to draw them to her, then trap them. There were air holes punched in the lids, but she would leave them out in the sun so the butterflies died of the heat. Then she told Stan that butterflies were dumb, and thought they could fly outside of the glass because they could see the world outside and didn’t realize they were trapped, and oh bee-tee-dubs, people are a lot like butterflies, aren’t they? This book is somehow infuriatingly cryptic and also ridiculously unsubtle. I’m not sure how Pike pulls that off.
Stan spends a page breaking down the Lati Ball/Leslie Belle parallels, explaining the obvious to us, and telling us that Leslie didn’t smoke; she was only smoking today because she had to. Yup. Helter says he hopes Betty Sue didn’t write a story about him. First of all, considering what you did to her, understandable. Second, of course she fucking wrote a story about you, you idiot; why else would you be here?
Rox debates the veracity of Stan’s claims in her head, thinking that he’s turned Betty Sue into some sort of Jedi Knight who went over to the Dark Side. Listen, I know Pike is more of a Trekkie (as am I), but the word you’re looking for is Sith, Pike. Sith.
Stan talks everyone into searching for the ripped up pieces of Betty Sue’s stories, and I can’t help thinking it must not be very windy there. If that happened where I live, forget it. Those papers would have been gone in half a second. Pepper asks Stan what Betty Sue did for him, and Stan says he hopes nothing. Cue Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately.”
They head back over to Betty Sue’s place, and I guess the wind was blowing earlier, but has calmed down now. They move through the backyards of Betty Sue’s neighborhood (I’m guessing it’s nowhere near as benign as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) collecting scraps of paper, and Rox thinks she spots a figure with red hair inside Leslie’s house. Instead of telling anyone what she saw, she goes inside the house to investigate alone.
Inside, Rox doesn’t find anyone, but keeps thinking she sees flashes of red and black from the corner of her eye, so she finally screams and brings everyone running. Rox thinks this means Betty Sue is still alive; Helter wants to shoot her if they find her; Stan wants to search for her without violence, and Pepper . . . exists.
Helter runs off and they hear a gunshot, but he’s just shot the wall, claiming he almost got her. Pepper only saw a red and black blur, and Helter claims that’s her. Anyone curious why Helter is so het up to kill her? No? Oh. Helter keeps thinking he sees her and runs off with Pepper to try to shoot her. Cool. Boys will be boys? While they’re running around ignoring basic firearm safety, Rox asks Stan why he thinks Betty Sue wrote them into this dead world, and he tells her that they all must have done something to piss her off. Except, why is Rox there, then, since she didn’t really know her? Hmm.
Stan tapes together a story about Helter, but says that first he wants to tell Rox something about Helter and Betty Sue’s “relationship”: he thinks Helter raped her. After reading parts of her diary, he’s sure he’s correct.
And Rox’s first question – this bitch’s very first question – is, “Are you sure she didn’t make him do it?”
. . .
. . .
Goddammit. Cue five full minutes of angry sputtering from me. BRB.
Stan. Stan. This motherfucker, instead of telling Rox what a capital-K-cunt she’s being, fucking nods wisely and tells her that now she’s starting to think like him. I . . . need to build a time machine to go back and prevent Pike from writing these lines, because what the actual fuck. He thinks that Betty Sue taunted him toward “the act,” but his actions caught her off guard, since the diary entries he was able to piece together were very angry in tone. Rox says that she must not be all powerful since she couldn’t control him, and Stan says that she couldn’t control the butterflies, either, until she put them in her jars. Very astute, Stan, now fuck off.
(Aside: I fucking hate these stories suggesting that women want to be raped; that we entice men into it. Fuck off with that shit. Anyone here read Bentley Little’s The Vanishing? Male monsters who rape human women who “enjoy” it; female monsters who lure human men into raping them and appear to enjoy it even while protesting . . . this book was where I gave up on Bentley Little, whose work I had previously mostly enjoyed. Anyway, this trope can die in a fire, kthanxbai. End aside.)
So, Stan and Rox read the story about Helter, titled “Holt Skater Takes a Walk.” Oh, my god, these stories. Make it stop. The basic premise is this: Holt Skater, who doesn’t like working and toiling in the mud and soil, goes for a walk on a tall wall. The wall goes on and on with no way down, and there are thorn bushes below, so he turns around to go back, but the wall keeps narrowing until it’s razor-thin and he falls, one leg on each side, and gets sliced in half. Lovely.
Stan feels the need to tell us, “Helter Skelter. Holt Skater.” Thank you, Stan. I thought both that we had already established this was Helter’s story, and also that his name actually is Helter Skater. I feel Betty Sue put very little effort into this one, to the point of not even bothering to change Helter’s surname. Fucking lazy.
They think that Helter’s story was the second one in the stack on Betty Sue’s desk, and determine to keep an eye on Helter to keep him safe. Um, he’s a rapist. Let him get sliced in half for all I care. Why do you care about a rapist, Rox and Stan? I mean, I know y’all are in this thing together, but seriously fuck that guy.
Rox asks if Betty Sue mentioned Pepper anywhere else in the diary, and Stan says yes but she needs to ask Pepper about it. Fine, Stan. Let’s draw this out some more, I suppose. They go catch up to the other boys, and are told that they haven’t been able to catch Betty Sue because she’s too slippery, but they think she ran into the school. There are footprints in the sand (there are only one set of prints because this was when Jesus was carrying her, obviously) leading around the school, and Rox suspects they’re being led into a trap. The tracks split in two directions (Jesus set her down), and Rox doesn’t know how she did it, but is convinced it means Betty Sue is alive. Because a dead girl doing all this is just one step too far for Rox.
Stan and Pepper follow one set of tracks around the gym, while Rox insists on going with Helter to follow the other set to the showers. Because letting the only girl in the group go off with the known rapist is a wonderful idea. Christ, Pike, what are you doing. They faff about a bit, then Helter wants to go off investigating on his own, because he doesn’t want Rox to get hurt. He tells her that he hurt Betty Sue once, and now she wants to hurt him. Rox tells him that Betty Sue made him hurt her. asdfjkl;!!!!!
Helter the Rapist heads off into the equipment locker, and Rox drifts into the showers, where she remembers her one and only encounter with Betty Sue. She was in the showers one day after gym class. Betty Sue wasn’t in her gym class normally, but she was that day for whatever reason. Rox and Betty Sue were the last two girls in the showers, and we get a nice little bit of Gay Panic when Rox tells us that she didn’t want Betty Sue to think she was queer or anything (um, that’s not your word to use, okay Rox?) but she couldn’t help staring at her and noticing how skeletal she looked. Anyway, Betty Sue walked by and handed her a bar of soap that was carved into the shape of a crying baby. Rox had known Pepper for a week at this point and was already pregnant although she obviously didn’t know it yet. Betty Sue would be dead in less than a week. So there’s part of the timeline I’m trying to keep track of. Groovy.
Rox went to find Betty Sue to ask her where she got the soap, and instead finds her in front of a mirror, drawing a jar around the reflection of her stomach with a bar of soap dyed red. Rox wonders now what Betty Sue was filling that jar with. I have a couple ideas about this that are either very obvious or very out there.
Rox hears Helter screaming and shooting the rifle, and runs to where he is shooting wildly at a mirror, where he mistook his reflection for Betty Sue. He runs out of bullets in the rifle, so tosses it aside and reaches for the .45 shoved down his pants. Hey, remember earlier when I was talking about what a bad idea that was, and how Helter was in danger of shooting his dick off? Well . . . yeah. That happened. So, the rapist shoots himself in the dick. Ahhh, poetic justice.
Oh, wait, are we supposed to feel bad about this? Because I can’t stop laughing about it. I’m one hundred percent here for rapists getting shot in the dick. Hell, even Robocop was on board with shooting rapists in the dick. If it’s good enough for Robocop . . .
The shots and screaming bring Stan and Pepper running, and Helter begs them to kill him because he’s going to die anyway and he doesn’t want to live like this anyway. Nah, I’m fine with letting him suffer. The boys think they can patch him up, but he appeals to Rox, who runs the other guys out so she can put Helter out of his misery. She asks him if Betty Sue was really that strange to be with, and he tells her that she had a way of worming into his head, and he went out with her because she would. Because she would do anything. Rox asks if he raped her, and he says he guesses he did; she was inside his head that night and he just wanted her out. Because that makes sense somehow? Man, fuck this. Then he says he wishes he had killed her, and Rox agrees. Double fuck this.
Rox shoots him in the head, then tells us she never thought she could kill someone, but then she remembers that she went for an abortion just that morning and it must have prepared her. Yes, because having a common medical procedure is exactly the same thing as shooting someone in the head. Fucking hell.
Rox closed her eyes before she pulled the trigger, and she keeps them closed until she gets outside. She changes into a shirt that’s not stained with a rapist’s blood, and our survivors go on to search for more pieces of torn up stories throughout the darkening town. So, this shit’s been going on for what now, almost twelve hours or so? It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but for all I know, Betty Sue is speeding time up. Or Pike doesn’t know how long it takes to do things. One or the other.
They search and find the pieces of two stories rather than three. Pepper jokes that he hopes he’s the one who got left out, and Rox tells him seriously that she hopes he did. By this time it’s full dark, and there are no stars. Rox wonders if Betty Sue wrote them out of the universe because she knew how much Rox likes them. Stan pieces together his own story, “Soda Radar Goes to Sleep.”
In this story, Soda Radar is court jester to Queen Beetle. He tells her stories while she sews with her needles, but his stories have “no rhyme, no sense of time. And that is the worst of crimes.” Well, sorry, Queen Beetle. Guess we’re not all as wonderful at rhyming and cadence as you are. So she sends him out to the woods to think up a good story, and if he doesn’t come up with one, she’s going to tickle him with a feather. Oh, the horror. So he thinks he’ll tell her an old story, one she’s never heard and will think is his, and he tells her the story of Salt and Pepper and the plate of late dinner. He thinks she is pleased with his story, but she tells him his story is not new, but old, and it’s time he was sold, and then makes him stab himself to death with her needles.
So, I suppose Stan’s crime was that he told Betty Sue about Rox and Pepper? Do I have that right? Because Stan sure as hell never confirms this, but he does say that he used to think of Betty Sue as his queen. So . . . she’s a killer queen? Gunpowder, gelatin? Dynamite with a laser beam? Guaranteed to blow your mind? Anytime?
Stan runs off to the drugstore for some aspirin, and these idiots let him go off alone despite his story being one of forced suicide. Way to go, you idiot children. Rox and Pepper argue as he tries to tape together the last story. He says Rox hasn’t been very nice to him today, and she counters that he hasn’t been very nice either, and anyway, she knows he’s been lying about his relationship to Betty Sue. He finally admits to going out with her a few times and kissing her, but denies fucking her or seeing her after he and Rox got together. Rox believes him, then goes to check on Stan in the drugstore.
Stan is sitting on the counter in the dark, with a newspaper across his lap. It’s the front page of tomorrow’s paper, with a headline about five local teens found dead – Leslie in her garage after her gas tank exploded while she was filling it with extra gas from a can and smoking; Helter from shooting himself in the dick in the girls’ showers at the school; Stan from slitting his wrists in his bed at home; and Pepper – and here the article cuts off, with the rest of the paper blank.
Rox tells him she won’t let him near his bedroom, and he says it’s too bad cuz he’s pretty sleepy. They settle in for some more real talk about Betty Sue, and Stan reveals that she called him to her the day she died, and revealed that she was pregnant. He didn’t know who the father was, but he thought that the father knew about the pregnancy. Betty Sue told him that she had to get rid of it that day, and that she’d already started. This was the part that I always remembered as her giving herself a coat hanger abortion, and maybe that’s what’s being alluded to, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe when she drew the jar around her stomach in the mirror, she was transferring the baby/fetus/blastocyst/whatever over to Rox. Roxanne was already a few days (?) pregnant at that point, but interestingly enough, according to the Mayo Clinic, conception doesn’t take place until two weeks after the fucking that made it happen. Which I find interesting, not only because of this weird-ass shit with Betty Sue, but also because it was two weeks after the fucking that Rox knew she was pregnant because it felt like something inside her died. I don’t know; I’m just throwing shit out here and trying to see what sticks, since these are the infuriatingly cryptic bits of the story.
Anyhow, Stan wanted to take Betty Sue to the hospital because she was hemorrhaging internally and there were “stains on her – I don’t even want to say it.” Oh, Stan. Put your big boy panties on and use your words, why don’t you. Betty Sue wasn’t scared – she was happy, said she had an exciting evening planned, and that she was going to make herself invincible so no one could hurt her, and come back in style.
I’m . . . sure that’s nothing to worry about.
Betty Sue had Stan get her pictures of our dwindling band of survivors. No comment on why she couldn’t snip them out of the yearbook herself, somehow it makes more sense for Stan, who was on the yearbook staff, to procure them for her. She also told him that her butterfly jar could be any size she wanted, and then Stan asks if Rox went for an abortion this morning. Well. He quickly assures her that Pepper didn’t tell him; Betty Sue had said there was another like her, and she’d use this other to screw tight the lid on the jar. Rox protests that she left before the procedure really got started. Rox feels a sudden cold liquidy feeling in her intestines, even though she’s felt no ill effects since returning to town.
Rox tries to get Stan to leave the drugstore with her, but he refuses and she realizes he’s slit his wrists and is bleeding out. He says he had to, he had to do everything Betty Sue wanted him to, then asks Rox to put him in his bed when he’s dead. He tells Rox he always had a crush on her, she tells him ditto (no Ghosting!), then he dies.
Rox meets back up with Pepper, who wants to leave town and doesn’t want to take the time to take Stan home. She tells him she’s putting Stan in his bed with or without his help. But first, of course, they have to read the story about them. It’s called “Salt and Pepper for Supper.” Well, that’s not ominous.
In this story, Salt and Pepper are a happy couple, but they’re really only spices with flavor and a few miserable vices. Fat Freddy (oh, this motherfucker’s back now? I thought she ate him) brings them before Queen Beetle, who knows Pepper – he kissed her once, then left and never wrote her a letter. Seriously, Pike? You rhymed Pepper with letter? At least I tried to rhyme Pepper and pecker, shit. Pepper is too afraid to tell Salt it was all his fault, but they stay when Queen Beetle invites them to dinner. She puts them on her plate and threatens to cut them, then tells Salt that “it is not simply hate. It is much more honorable, it is fate.” I mean, she’s trying to be reborn through Roxanne, so . . . yeah. Salt becomes so angry with Pepper that she shoves him onto the queen’s fork, where he dies like a foolish dork.
Awesome. Rox asks Pepper if it is all his fault, and he plays dumb. Still holding on to that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” story, I see. They get in the car and try to drive out of town, heading for LA or Beverly Hills or basically anywhere but here. They run into a sand storm and have to keep slowing down until they finally have no choice but to turn back. These foolish dorks actually thought Betty Sue would let them leave town? Ah-hahaha NO.
They go to Pepper’s place and decide to spend the night in the barn. You know, the barn, where the pitchforks live? Great plan. Rox asks him again if he slept with Betty Sue; he denies it again. She screams at him that he fucked (she says “screwed” but recappers gonna editorialize) Betty Sue and got her pregnant, and he finally breaks down crying and admits it. He claims he doesn’t know why he did it; he didn’t care for her at all. Pepper, that doesn’t make it better, mmkay? He admits to fucking Betty Sue before he and Rox got together, and once after. Rox nods, then pushes him off the hayloft. Of course the pitchfork is in the hay below, and of course he fucking lands on it.
As Pepper dies, he tells Rox that she was his “first and only one,” and Rox accepts this as him not lying to her, really. I mean, he definitely fucked before you, girl, but the whole concept of virginity is highly overrated. However, he still lied about the specific thing you were asking him about. Not to mention he was never sure he loved you, so make of this what you will.
He finally tells her he loves her, then dies. I’m just . . . not much for deathbed declarations, I guess.
Rox buries him in the hay, then walks through town, ending up at Betty Sue’s house, where she sits down to write the story we’re reading. She reaches the end, then hears someone come in behind her. It’s Betty Sue, who indicates she is to keep writing. Rox asks her if they’re dead, and Betty Sue tells her they’re born dead, and it’s only a matter of time before they realize it. Then she goes on to explain that she was the one in Rox’s womb; Rox was pregnant with her.
Rox is somehow less confused than I am, and asks Betty Sue if she came back to kill her. Yup, but Rox had to kill her first. Her choice opened the door and sealed the lid. Rox protests that she stopped the abortion, and Betty Sue asks if she’s sure. Suddenly the ice is back in Rox’s guts, and she says she’s sure because she thought of Betty Sue in that moment and how she threw her life away. Betty Sue says she thought of her in that moment because she was with her. I mean, sure, if you were the mass of unconscious cells in her uterus, I guess.
Rox wants to know why she wants to kill her, and Betty Sue tells her that she was there the night she and Pepper were together, and it broke her heart because she loved him. She thinks she lost her mind that night. So, wait. If that’s how she found out about them, what did Stan do to her? What was the point of that story? Someone please explain things to me like I’m five, okay?
Betty Sue starts going hard on the anti-abortion line of “what would the world be like if this child had never been born,” but she’s talking about herself, since this is her world. This world would be nothing if she hadn’t been born. She wrote Rox’s story but let her finish it, but it wasn’t true until today, when she was able to trap them all in her jar. She is the author; she is the storyteller; she is all there is. She might be God, or the devil, but in the end it doesn’t even matter. She’s Queen Beetle, and Rox stopped the abortion too late. Betty Sue pulls out a knitting needle and holds it to Rox’s side while telling her that she’s hemorrhaging on the table right now, and the doctor is afraid he’s going to lose her. And he’s right.
As soon as she hears this, Rox’s insides shudder with cold. Betty Sue tells her if she stops writing she’ll stab her with the needle, and Rox says she can’t keep writing. Betty Sue agrees, telling her that Rox had only one story to tell, while she has millions. Then she stabs her in the belly, and the last thing Rox sees are her eyes, filled with both cruelty and compassion.
Oh, but wait! There’s an epilogue!
Pepper’s point of view in the waiting room at the family clinic. He’s thinking about what bad luck it was to have knocked up two girls in two months. Uh. No? If you used a condom and it broke both times, that’s bad luck. What you did is straight-up stupidity, you tool. He thinks about the day Betty Sue told him she was pregnant – the same day she killed herself. He’d asked her what her plans were, and she’d laughed and told him not to worry – Salt wasn’t going to live to a ripe old age. Salt is definitely Roxanne, right? Just checking, because he was asking about her pregnancy, and she essentially responded by telling him his girlfriend is going to die? Cool. Anyway, he doesn’t even know why he fucked Betty Sue, especially the second time, because being with her was like snuggling with a maggot. Lovely. Wonder if Hallmark makes a card with that sentiment attached to it. Oh, also he thinks her suicide was probably for the best, as their child probably would have grown up to be a serial killer. If that child is actually somehow Betty Sue reborn, then he’s not entirely wrong, I guess.
The doctors start running by and they tell Pepper there’s a complication with Rox’s procedure. This makes Pepper remember something else Betty Sue told him – that his seed was like a disease, a catching disease that she might cough and give to someone else, and that person might die. Interesting. Gives weight to the idea that Betty Sue transferred her pregnancy (of . . . herself?) over to Rox. Anyway, Pepper thinks he’ll die if Roxanne dies, and we’re told that he never knew how right he was.
Back to Rox in the procedure room. For some storytelling reason, we’ve switched to third person instead of being in her head in first person like we were before. Something is going wrong with the abortion; she’s bleeding way too much. The doctor tells her she can’t be a hemophiliac since that only affects males. Um, guess again. It’s rarer in women, but not impossible. I mean, this is a disease named Betty Sue, but even so. Get yo facts straight.
The doctors work on Rox, trying to save her life and stop the bleeding, and she hears Betty Sue whisper to her that she can get up and go home, and basically relive everything we just read all over again. And again. And again. So instead, she gets up while the doctors are still working on her (soon-to-be) lifeless body, and heads down the hallway that elongates like it did in the beginning of the story. She knows if she tries to leave with Pepper, Betty Sue will just torture the five of them over and over, so she walks down the hallway, into the light, where there were many bright colors and rich sounds.
Back to Pepper. He heard Roxanne scream and went into the operating room to see what was going on, just in time to see the doctors pull a sheet over her face. Hey, sorry son, your girlfriend’s dead, better luck next time. He leaves, driving into the sunrise, and spots a hitchhiker with red hair and a black cape. Oh, so it’s back to being a cape now, huh? Who is this bitch, Darkwing Duck? He doesn’t want to stop, but he does anyway. She looks familiar, even though he’s sure he’s never seen her before. Hmm. So, does this version of Betty Sue not look like the one he fucked, or is she rewriting his memory of her? She tells him she’s heading to Salem, and introduces herself as Beetle. She leaves the Queen part out, though, because that would be weird. She pulls a cigarette, two bullet shells, an open razor, and a fork out of her bag, then thanks him for picking her up and offers to cook him dinner. He declines, and she pokes him in the side with the fork (!!!) and asks again. He declines again, and she says she’s sure she can change his mind.
And we fade out with them driving toward Salem.
Nostalgia Glasses Off
Every time I read this book, I come away with more questions. I think what happened is this: Betty Sue was able to transfer a part of herself via her pregnancy over to Roxanne when she was drawing that jar in soap around her stomach in the mirror and giving Rox the carved soap-baby as a sort of symbol. I have no idea why Roxanne going through with the abortion was a necessary step if Betty Sue was looking to be reborn via Rox’s pregnancy. Unless her goal was always just to die, and trap them all there in her Salem-jar to fuck with for all eternity, and she didn’t give a rat’s ass about traditional rebirth.
And what was Stan’s crime? He mentions at one point that because he was Betty Sue’s friend, he knew her secrets and things about her and she didn’t like that, and I can see the merit in that. But if that was the case, why was his story primarily about him telling the queen the story of Salt and Pepper?
And I’m not even going to go too deep into the weird pro-life/pro-choice debate that seems to be going on in this book. Betty Sue talks about how the world is a different place with every child that doesn’t get to be born, but she herself did something to abort her own pregnancy. If Pike was trying to go with a “sanctity of life” theme here, he chose a really strange way to go about it. I mean, if an evil witch-girl is trying to be reborn through your womb, I’d say abortion is probably the right move. Pike’s apparently saying that was what got them into this situation, and whether baby Betty Sue doesn’t exist because Rox aborted her, or because she died on the table, taking the pregnancy with her, doesn’t seem to matter. They’re going to keep going in this circle that makes my brain hurt. What would have happened if Rox had decided to keep the baby? We wouldn’t have a story until the kid grew up and started fucking shit up? Or would the story end up a rip-off of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child?
Don’t get me wrong, I really like this book. For all its flaws, I find it intriguing as hell. I like cyclical stories, and stories about the power of words, and stories about strange witch girls making shit happen. I just wish Pike had pulled back on over-explaining the obvious points and put that into explaining the overly-cryptic shit. Hell, I’m not even convinced that Betty Sue really existed at this point; she could have simply written herself into all of their memories. And Fat Freddy? What was he? Probably unimportant in the long run, but still curious. Was this story incestuous, since if Rox was Betty Sue’s mother, Pepper would be her father, and she fucked him? I don’t necessarily think so. I think Betty Sue wasn’t Roxanne’s child until she did whatever she did to transfer herself into Rox’s pregnancy, after she’d been with Pepper. But with the weird reality-warping, time-bending stuff going on, who knows. Maybe Pike. Has anyone asked him just what the fuck is going on in this story?
I would be curious to see what happens back in Salem with no Roxanne and the physical addition of Betty Sue. Would that shed some light on the story, or muddy the waters even more?