An excerpt from The Cultivationists

By the time of the Dreadfulwater Murders in 2006, Malabar had been an atheist nine years, since the start of first grade, when it came to light that she alone in that den of hicklings hadn’t left Echota all summer long. Other kids, stupid ones, had been to Disney World and the beach. She could have fibbed, but she was caught off-guard and cried. Ask God for what you want, urged Mrs. Pyle, and Malabar did, until her mother heard her doing it and said, “Your friends have other kinds of families. Separate bedrooms isn’t cheap in a hotel.” Humiliated, Malabar never prayed again, in fact turned hard against religion, which made her a hypocrite to spend the evening before Kermit died sulking in her room and asking the sky for someone to be proud of her.

I’m lucky to have a genius for a daughter, this person would tell Malabar. What will you study, what will you be? Instead of shuffling off alone, she would sit with this person discussing neuroscience, quote to her what she’d memorized from MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences webpage. “Our research includes exploring the perception, thinking and behavior of people; investigating the development of the brain and of human cognitive capacities; uncovering the rules governing thought; and most importantly, discovering how the brain gives rise to the mind.” The person’s eyes would shine at her ambition. She wouldn’t warn aloud that the person’s own defective brain had led her to her course of study. The person’s existence would obviate the desire for the person, in which case Malabar might plan to be a doctor or an engineer.

She booted up her computer, which Kermit had bought her that summer. It had been teaching her about some obscure facets of her favorite subject. In books, for instance, she would never have learned of the Lillelids, a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses slaughtered by teenage Satanists nearby. Having fled their conservative Christian families, those kids got accosted at a highway rest area by the Lillelids. “Do you know God?” that family asked perversely before they journeyed to the sky to know Him themselves.

That was the story that led her to violentkids.com, where America’s children were surveyed about their feelings.

The questions at Violent Kids—How do you feel about your parents? Do you feel your teachers understand you?—made Malabar feel twice as violent as prior to having read them. Apparently, violent children felt rather than thought. It was as if no adults anywhere remembered their childhoods. Life was believed to have grown safe, so whenever a few people got shot somewhere, parents across the nation flocked to violentkids.com while in the meantime no one even asked about her day. It was the sort of vexing disparity that as a neuroscientist she would diagnose: serial killers themselves, easy to understand, and the more elusive case of distant, disaffected guardians who made theater out of safety. For now Malabar devised the most disturbing feelings possible—e.g. “If my teachers understood me, they’d wear bulletproof vests”—and heard back from a forensic psychologist at UT-Knoxville.

“My name is Dr. Gretchen Tillman,” the woman’s letter read. “I want to assure you you can trust me. Why do you feel anger toward your teachers?”

This was in September. Malabar had spent seven consecutive evenings alone. Clearly her parents weren’t part of the safety problem. She supposed her feelings were incoherent and illogical. Later in her career she would probe her own mind to learn why she had told this Gretchen Tillman that it was mainly her English teacher, Delilah Gant, who was the trouble. “I’m the smartest student in her class,” wrote Malabar, “but Mrs. Gant won’t even look me in the eye.”

What are your parents like? asked the next missive, at which time Malabar shifted gears and created [email protected], from which address she explained that he, Link Mantooth, had penned that disturbing letter.

“I can’t keep myself from telling the most sinister lies sometimes,” she wrote as Link. “Can you help me quit ratcheting things up notch after notch?”

She began also a new correspondence as herself, writing emails that demonstrated her to be a bright and harmless girl whereas Link was a fearful menace. She drew the story out day by day. “You have precocious prose; how I’d love to hear your voice,” wrote Gretchen Tillman. The doctor’s research looked at how Smoky Mountain English shaped local patterns of thought. Speech was like handwriting, Dr. Tillman explained, in that aspects of it were undisguisable. “I’ve found what I call ‘dark twinges’ in the dialects of certain Appalachian coves,” she said, “and I’ll spend my sabbatical studying the one where Terrence Mathers from Archaeology went missing in ‘91.”

To believe that youth had changed was idiocy, thought Malabar. Had kids in the Children’s Crusade been peaceful and calm? Did Dr. Tillman think the genome was mutating? The serial murderer Ted Bundy hadn’t been able to grasp why his crimes were upsetting: “There are so many people,” he’d said, as if to suggest that the ones he’d killed were a drop in the bucket. It had appalled the girls’ parents. Malabar’s genius lay in seeing both points of view. The families were full of grief; desire was hard to muffle. What her own body had begun to want was frightening. At the football games six boys would doff their shirts to display C-H-I-E-F-S on their chests, a letter on each boy, their girlfriends swooning at the sight, and if Malabar Gant came up in conversation, they covered their ears to expel her from mind.

“Dear Dr. Tillman, I wish you’d tell me how to become a forensic psychologist like you. There’s pent-up anger in these hills; boys with no outlet for their aggression turn on one another, and I’d like to help.”

In the locker hall some boys had brushed against her, felt her breasts and mumbled sorry, but she didn’t feel attractive. Genius meant 99% of people ignored you and you ignored them back. Take Link: he showed up to the treehouse only out of sympathy, and never tried to kiss her no matter what she did or said. His punishment she doled out in tiny pieces to the only other person who was aware of it. “Dear Dr. Tillman,” she wrote on Link’s birthday, “would it trouble you for a fourteen-year-old to get drunk? There’s nothing on your site about alcohol, but it seems to me that sober kids are less violent.”

She’d felt certain that would pique the doctor’s interest, but tonight as the aroma of Bolognese sauce wafted down the hall LinkMantooth92 had no new email. She checked the spam folder, then the inbox again and finally the spam folder again. Nothing. “No one cares,” she said aloud, hoping her mother heard her through the wall. Delilah didn’t, so Malabar took Massacre at Jonestown to the kitchen and found her mother stirring ground beef in a skillet.

“Have you heard from your father?”

Ignoring Delilah’s question, she sat down to read. Yet again strangers to their dynamic might have perceived her as needing a slap. Her silence derived from the phrase your father; Delilah knew better than that. Malabar tried to lose herself in Jonestown’s descent into a dictatorship. The colonists were voting on revolutionary suicide when Kermit walked in. Delilah was carrying a saucepan to the table; she set it down in front of Malabar, who looked up from her book to see a gash in Kermit’s knee, full of gravel, blood smeared below each rock.

“Pasta, because—you’re bleeding!”

“I was attacked by Obie’s dog,” said Kermit, unzipping his jersey halfway, “and now I mean to have it killed.”

“That seems drastic,” said Delilah. “Meat?”

“Obie attacks me, now you feed me,” he replied, zipping the jersey back up. Delilah presented him with a plate heaping with meat sauce.

“I had some energy.”

“Congratulations.”

As Malabar served herself, she pictured her friend’s reaction to Bonnie’s death, in league with a rather stupid lie she’d told him. It had made her feel unhinged and ugly: rather the opposite of genius. “Should I stop seeing Link?” she asked now, hoping for a yes, which might help her lay off him.

“I’ve got no interest in that kid,” said Kermit, eating from his plate as he leaned against the counter. “The issue’s Obie. Fool wouldn’t even tell me sorry.”

“You spoke to him?”

“This could have ruined my state championship.”

“So you went to his porch.”

“What would you have done?”

“Hard for me to say.”

They sat down to the table. Delilah sipped from a can of Fresca. Kermit devoured a slice of garlic bread. It was their first shared dinner in months. Although Malabar knew it was solipsistic to wonder if the meal resulted directly from her earlier frustration, she let herself hope someone might ask about her day as she watched her parents working away at their food. Whereas she curled her noodles onto a spoon like mannered people on TV, Delilah cut hers with a knife and Kermit slurped his whole. “We sprayed for aphids today in Covenant Cove,” he said at one point. As she waited for him to elaborate, she thought, Dear Dr. Tillman, my father cares more about aphids than about me. It wasn’t an exaggeration; for five whole minutes, until she gave up and went to her room, no evidence arose to the contrary.

Finding no new email, she read a chapter of her book and listened through the wall to Delilah and Kermit. Neither of them was talking, not about her nor about anything. They didn’t like each other enough to speak. She rechecked both email accounts. Outside, fireflies were glowing below the perch of her uncle Emmett’s trailer. He wasn’t the sort of relative you could go visit whenever you got lonely. Beside his brothers Kermit was a model of kind normality, yet even he had never so much as hugged her. If he weren’t here at home, she would be on the couch waiting for his return. “Dad, you’re back.” “Dad, I heard you in here.” “Dad, it would be nice to ride with you. We could get me a bigger bike.” Always ready with these words, Malabar always swallowed them. If she feared Kermit, it was a fear that he would keep on leaving her alone. She’d lied to Link hoping for his pity. Instead he’d been unnerved. Her silence from then on troubled him more, and now he fancied himself her savior. It felt so good that she kept upping the ante. She lay within reach of the keyboard, waiting for the Children of God to drink their Kool-Aid. It was taking forever. Dear Dr. Tillman, she thought, when suddenly in a burst of capability she went outside to find her mother.

Pen in her left hand, Fresca in her right, Delilah sat in a front-porch Adirondack chair grading papers under a bulb orbited by moths. It occurred to her that Delilah had seemed drunk all evening yet there was no liquor or wine. As she formulated a query into this problem, her mother said, “I need to be alone,” without looking up.

For a third time Malabar conjured in mind some stranger witnessing invisibly nearby. He would think, You wretch, nothing is wrong with needing aloneness. If he could witness her impulse toward her mother, he would swoop onstage and whisk Delilah off to moral safety, somewhere tranquil where the stranger and she would catch their breath while Malabar imploded at her failure to convey what was so wrong. It grew in her now, that rage, sending her back inside screaming in mind “I need the opposite” downstairs to Kermit’s door, where she put an ear to that wood slab and heard a bike race.

It was a DVD from his collection. “Incredible demonstration of assault I don’t think I’ve ever seen in the Tour,” said a British sportscaster, over whose voice she heard Kermit say “Yeah,” followed by a pause.

“Never tried,” he went on to say. “Yes, sir. Yes.”

This was unmistakably Kermit calling someone sir. “I’d come over,” he said as the cyclists summited a windy mountain. “I mean, okay. When you’re not busy.”

It pleased her to realize that whatever Kermit had planned, the other person didn’t want it. He—the sir—was telling Kermit to get lost. Still, even as Malabar smiled, she didn’t feel betrayed. If anything, aloofness made sudden sense. There was the beguiling new chance that it wasn’t personal. There was the possibility he was talking to the mirror, ear to the door. “Hello,” she whispered to no answer, which was when the beguiling chance died and she began to feel more exquisitely sorry for herself than ever.

She went back upstairs and skimmed through the cult’s final White Night. All the illogic, all the urgent millenarian paranoia, reminded her of Obie’s sermon. She wanted to talk to Link about it: be nice to him, try to help him, but he didn’t have a phone.

Christian girls who got lonely could just slit their wrists; the curse of genius was to suffer no delusions of an afterlife.

If she went online, she would only lie; she needed to use her voice. She had no siblings, cousins, grandparents, or friends. Her uncles were both creeps. She thought, All summer I’ve been lying to Link; maybe he in turn is lying about his phone. It was a thought as desperate as what she did next: pick up the receiver and dial 287, Echota’s lone exchange, followed by four randomly chosen digits.

Her heart beat rapidly through the first two rings. After a third ring she heard a click. She bit her lip and was about to hang up when an old woman’s hello quivered with an inimitable mountain cadence.

Dark twinges, she thought, wishing she could record the voice for Dr. Tillman.

“Hello?” said the woman again. “This is Addie Breeden.”

“I must have the wrong number,” she said carefully, with no trace of mountain twang.

“I know your voice. You’re Georgia Jenkins.”

This mention of the running back’s girlfriend took Malabar aback. Georgia Jenkins was a hick who talked like trash. Malabar had modeled her accent on adults from Sesame Street.

“No, but she goes to school with me.”

“She’s a rotten egg if they ever was.”

“Can people be rotten eggs?” asked Malabar, feeling friendlier now.

“If it’s what they’re born to. About one in ten’s no good, is why I had nine. You might know them. What’s your name?”

This time Malabar did hang up. Certain things followed when Echotans heard the name Gant, things about her uncle Emmett and things about her uncle Dwight. Even things about Kermit. It made her suffocate. No wonder there were so many Breedens, she thought, marveling at her discovery. There was Doyle Breeden who’d shoved a girl into the quarry, and his brother Dwayne who’d pushed their brother Colin out of the school bus. There was Abiah, Jr., at military school and Dustin in juvie lockup and Flann in Iraq. In sixth grade, when Dustin had dropped his pants in front of the girls, only Malabar had stayed put by the balance beam. That was what got the ball rolling. The other kids realized it was weird how she made A’s without even studying, how she did math in her head instead of on paper. It began to circulate that she was a witch. When they covered the Salem trials, the idea hit its peak, but then it receded again and they went to high school and now she was having to teach her peers all over again that she was a bad egg.

She listened awhile for the basement door. Delilah’s snores were purring through the wall as she placed the keyboard in her lap and wrote, ON ABUSE, by Malabar Gant:

      The absence of affection is equally harmful to a child as abuse. Take the case of kids locked in cellars. Quite often children are found imprisoned in cellars, having been trapped there for years. They never learn to speak; they’re pale, malnourished, no one loves them, and the best thing would be to…

      She paused. Seeking a manner of expressing that her misfortune ranked with the cellar children’s, she imagined Kermit on a group ride bragging to his cyclist buddies: “Trying to drive my daughter to suicide.”

“How do you do it?”

“Simple—do nothing at all. Don’t touch her. Don’t talk to her. Don’t hug her. Above all else don’t look her in the eye.” And they toasted to their infinitude of power, and she stabbed them in her mind until she was convicted of insanity.

ON LONGING:

A common belief at Echota High held that intelligence was inversely proportional to sex drive. If you got honor roll effortlessly, if you aced pre-calculus while others struggled with algebra, you weren’t worth looking at. If on top of all that your mom was the English teacher, you were probably asexual. This wasn’t ungrounded. The smarter you were, the more complex your desires. It was lonely in the top percentiles. The only ones who understood you were decades older. Kermit, who wasn’t her real father, was thirty-seven. She was fifteen. If all she wanted from him was warmth, affection, friendship, what was she so ashamed of?

Whatever it was, it kept her awake for hours, until finally the hour, minute, and second hands of her wall clock converged below the three. At that moment she took her pulse. One hundred and thirty-six. Sick of this bullshit, she sat upright. Unable to scream, she did the closest thing: she signed into Gmail as Link and typed, “Dear Dr. Tillman,” followed by an account of Obie’s sermon.

“He climbs a lighthouse he built himself, nowhere near water, and preaches about the end of the world. He wants the sun to freeze. He calls me a messiah”—this much was true, at least from Link’s perspective—“and it’s making me feel deranged. I can’t take it. Next time it happens, I’ll carry an M16 into school and shoot a bunch of people, just to show Obie how I feel.”

Before clicking send, Malabar double-checked that the M16 was really a gun. For all the biographies she read of murderers, she knew nothing about firearms, but it turned out to be an assault rifle. Geniuses retained more than they realized. She measured her pulse. It had subsided. Lying back down, she gazed up at a cluster of old glow-in-the-dark stars glued to her ceiling, which she’d fastened there herself after seeing some on TV. When Kermit and Delilah had been kids, there’d been no stars like that. To feel self-pity over their failure to have bought any was pathetically abject. She was getting scared of the way she thought. Every serial killer built up to a nadir of self-sorriness in adolescence over some silly little thing. Bundy had been baffled that other people wanted friends; Dahmer had felt hollow after he touched another boy. But those things weren’t silly. She let out a cry: she was like them but less serious, less charismatic, more timid and more afraid.

It was almost enough to make her pray. And there were so many things to pray for: the huge unnameable ones as well as the little ones she’d been wanting throughout the day, but she’d been an atheist for five years. If there was a God, he would laugh at her. Told you so, He’d chant, which was the most unbearable thought of all. So she turned on her lamp to finish her book. Out the window she saw a fracture of periwinkle light above Miggs Ridge. Without a prayer, she bore witness to the Children of God as they drank their way into the beyond.