The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

_*_ 1 _*_

It started in detention. No surprise there, right?

Detention was invented by the same idiots who dreamed up the time-out corner. Does being forced to sit in time-out ever make little kids stop putting cats in the dishwasher or drawing on white walls with purple marker? Of course not. It teaches them to be sneaky and guarantees that when they get to high school they’ll love detention because it’s a great place to sleep.

I was too angry for a detention nap. The zombie rulers were forcing me to write “I will not be disrespectful to Mr. Diaz” five hundred times. With a pen, on paper, which ruled out a copy/paste solution.

Was I going to do it?


I turned the page in Slaughterhouse Five, a forbidden book at Belmont because we were too young to read about soldiers swearing and bombs dropping and bodies blowing up and war sucking.

Belmont High—Preparing Our Children for the Nifty World of 1915!

I turned another page, held the book close to my face and squinted. Half of the lights in the windowless room didn’t work. Budget cuts, the teachers said. A plot to make us go blind, according to the kids on the bus.

Someone in the back row giggled.

The detention monitor, Mr. Randolph, lifted his orc-like head and scanned the room for the offender.

“Enough of that,” he said. He rose from his chair and pointed at me. “You’re supposed to be writing, missy.”

I turned another page. I didn’t belong in detention, I didn’t belong in this school, and I did not give a crap about the Stalinist rules of underpaid orcs.

Two rows over, the girl wearing a pink winter jacket, its fake-fur-edged hood pulled up, turned her head to watch me, eyes blank, mouth mechanically gnawing a wad of gum.

“Did you hear me?” the orc called.

I muttered forbidden gerunds. (You know, the words that end in “ing”? The -ings that we’re not supposed to say? Don’t ask me why, none of it makes sense.)

“What did you say?” he brayed.

“I said my name isn’t ‘missy.’” I folded the corner of the page. “You can call me Ms. Kincain or Hayley. I respond to both.”

He stared. The girl stopped chewing. Around the room, zombies and freaks raised their heads, awakened by the smell of potential combat.

“Mr. Diaz is going to hear about that attitude, missy,” the orc said. “He’s stopping by at the end of the period to collect your assignment.”

the impossible knife of memory I swore under my breath. The girl in the jacket blew a lopsided bubble and popped it with her teeth. I tore a sheet of paper out of a notebook, found a pencil, and decided that this, too, would be a day not to remember.

_*_ 2 _*_

A quick lesson.

There are two kinds of people in this world:

1. zombies

2. freaks

Only two. Anyone who tells you different is lying. That person is a lying zombie. Do not listen to zombies. Run for your freaking life.

Another lesson: everyone is born a freak.

That surprised you, didn’t it? That’s because they’ve been sucking on your brain. Their poison is making you think that freaks are bad. Dangerous. Damaged. Again— don’t listen. Run.

Every newborn baby, wet and hungry and screaming, is a fresh-hatched freak who wants to have a good time and make the world a better place. If that baby is lucky enough to be born into a family—

(Note: “family” does NOT only mean a biological unit composed of people who share genetic markers or legal bonds, headed by a heterosexual-mated pair. Family is much, much more than that. Because we’re not living in 1915, y’k now.)

—lucky enough to be born into a family that has a grown-up who will love that baby every single day and make sure it gets fed and has clothes and books and adventures, then no matter what else happens, the baby freak will grow into a kid freak and then into a teen freak.

That’s when it gets complicated.

Because most teenagers wind up in high school. And high school is where the zombification process becomes deadly. At least, that had been my experience, both from long-distance observation, and now, up close and personal for twenty-four days, at Belmont.

Where was I?

Right. Detention.

By the time the bell rang, I had written “Correcting a teacher’s mistake is not a sign of disrespect” one hundred and nine times.

_*_ 3 _*_

Between the attitude chat (lecture) by Mr. Diaz after detention and my stupid locker, I missed the late bus.

There was no point in calling my dad.

I had four miles to walk. I’d done it before, but I didn’t like it. I swallowed hard and started down the sidewalks of the neighborhood closest to school, my chin up, fake smile waiting in case an old guy at his mailbox waved at me, or a mom unloading groceries from her van checked me out. My earbuds were in, but I wasn’t playing music. I needed to hear the world, but didn’t want the world to know I was listening.

Fifteen minutes later, the safe little houses turned into strip malls and then a couple of used-car lots and then what they call “downtown” around here. I did a quick scan left and right every couple of steps: abandoned mattress store; house with boarded-up windows; newspapers covering a drunk or drugged or dead homeless body that reeked, but was not a threat. A tire store. Liquor store. Bodega with bars on the windows. Two empty lots with fields of gravel and grass and broken furniture and limp condoms and cigarette butts. Storefront church with a cross outlined in blue neon. Two guys leaned against the church.

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