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An Exclusive First Look Inside Emma Cline's 'The Girls'

Read an excerpt from Cline's mesmerizing debut novel about about teenage girls in a free love commune cult in 1969.

by Emma Cline
Jun 9 2016, 3:00pm

This story appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

They burned a car that night in celebration, and the flames were hot and jumpy and I laughed out loud, for no reason—the hills were so dark against the sky and no one from my real life knew where I was and it was the solstice, and who cared if it wasn't actually the solstice? I had distant thoughts of my mother, houndish nips of worry, but she'd assume I was at Connie's. Where else would I be? She couldn't conceive of this kind of place even existing, and even if she could, even if by some miracle she showed up, she wouldn't be able to recognize me. Suzanne's dress was too big, and it often slipped off my shoulders, but pretty soon I wasn't as quick to pull the sleeves back up. I liked the exposure, the way I could pretend I didn't care, and how I actually started not to care, even when I accidentally flashed most of a breast as I hitched up the sleeves. Some stunned, blissed-out boy—a painted crescent moon on his face—grinned at me like I'd always been there among them.

The feast was not a feast at all. Bloated cream puffs sweating in a bowl until someone fed them to the dogs. A plastic container of Cool Whip, green beans boiled to structureless gray, augmented by the winnings of some dumpster. Twelve forks clattered in a giant pot—everyone took turns scooping out a watery vegetal pabulum, the mash of potatoes and ketchup and onion-soup packets. There was a single watermelon, rind patterned like a snake, but no one could find a knife. Finally Guy cracked it open violently on the corner of a table. The kids descended on the pulpy mess like rats.

It was nothing like the feast I'd been imagining. The distance made me feel a little sad. But it was only sad in the old world, I reminded myself, where people stayed cowed by the bitter medicine of their lives. Where money kept everyone slaves, where they buttoned their shirts up to the neck, strangling any love they had inside themselves. How often I replayed this moment again and again, until it gained a meaningful pitch: when Suzanne nudged me so I knew the man walking toward the fire was Russell. My first thought was shock—he'd looked young as he approached, but then I saw he was at least a decade older than Suzanne. Maybe even as old as my mother. Dressed in dirty Wranglers and a buckskin shirt, though his feet were bare—how strange that was, how they all walked barefoot through the weeds and the dog shit as if nothing were there. A girl got to her knees beside him, touching his leg. It took me a moment to remember the girl's name—my brain was sludgy from the drugs—but then I had it, Helen, the girl from the bus with her pigtails, her baby voice. Helen smiled up at him, enacting some ritual I didn't understand.

I knew Helen had sex with this man. Suzanne did, too. I experimented with that thought, imagining the man hunched over Suzanne's milky body. Closing his hand on her breast. I knew only how to dream about boys like Peter, the unformed muscles under their skin, the patchy hair they tended along their jaws. Maybe I would sleep with Russell. I tried on the thought. Sex was still colored by the girls in my father's magazines, everything glossy and dry. About beholding. The people at the ranch seemed beyond that, loving one another indiscriminately, with the purity and optimism of children.

The man held up his hands and boomed out a greeting: The group surged and twitched like a Greek chorus. At moments like that, I could believe Russell was already famous. He seemed to swim through a denser atmosphere than the rest of us. He walked among the group, giving benedictions: a hand on a shoulder, a word whispered in an ear. The party was still going, but everyone was now aimed at him, their faces turned expectantly, as if following the arc of the sun. When Russell reached Suzanne and me, he stopped and looked in my eyes.

"You're here," he said. Like he'd been waiting for me. Like I was late.

All photos by Bridget Collins

I'd never heard another voice like his—full and slow, never hesitating.

His fingers pressed into my back in a not unpleasant way. He wasn't much taller than me, but he was strong and compact, pressurized. The hair haloed around his head was coarsened by oil and dirt into a boggy mass. His eyes didn't seem to water, or waver, or flick away. The way the girls had spoken of him finally made sense. How he took me in, like he wanted to see all the way through.

"Eve," Russell said when Suzanne introduced me. "The first woman."

I was nervous I'd say the wrong thing, expose the error of my presence. "It's Evelyn, really."

"Names are important, aren't they?" Russell said. "And I don't see any snake in you."

Even this mild approval relieved me.

"What do you think of our solstice celebration, Evie?" he said. "Our spot?"

All the while his hand was pulsing a message on my back I couldn't decode. I slivered a glance at Suzanne, aware that the sky had darkened without me noticing, the night gliding deeper. I felt drowsy from the fire and the dope. I hadn't eaten and there was an empty throb in my stomach. Was he saying my name a lot? I couldn't tell. Suzanne's whole body was directed at Russell, her hand moving uneasy in her hair.

I told Russell I liked it here. Other meaningless, nervous remarks, but even so, he was getting other information from me. And I never did lose that feeling. Even after. That Russell could read my thoughts as easily as taking a book from a shelf.

When I smiled, he tilted my chin up with his hand. "You're an actress," he said. His eyes were like hot oil, and I let myself feel like Suzanne, the kind of girl a man would startle at, would want to touch. "Yeah, that's it. I see it. You gotta be standing on a cliff and looking out to sea."

I told him I wasn't an actress, but my grandmother was.

"Right on," he said. As soon as I said her name, he was even more attentive. "I picked that up right off. You look like her."

Later I'd read about how Russell sought the famous and semi-famous and hangers-on, people he could court and wring for resources, whose cars he could borrow and houses he could live in. How pleased he must have been at my arrival, not even needing to be coaxed. Russell reached out to draw Suzanne closer. When I caught her eye, she seemed to retreat. I hadn't thought, until that moment, that she might be nervous about me and Russell. A new feeling of power flexed within me, a quick tightening of ribbon so unfamiliar I didn't recognize it.

"And you'll be in charge of our Evie," Russell said to Suzanne. "Won't you?"

Neither looked at me. The air between them crisscrossed with symbols. Russell held my hand for a moment, his eyes avalanching over me.

"Later, Evie," he said.

Then a few whispered words to Suzanne. She rejoined me with a new air of briskness.

"Russell says you can stick around, if you want," she said.

I felt how energized she was by seeing Russell. Alert with renewed authority, studying me as she spoke. I didn't know if the jump I felt was fear or interest. My grandmother had told me about getting movie roles—how quickly she was plucked from a group. "That's the difference," she'd told me. "All the other girls thought the director was making the choice. But it was really me telling the director, in my secret way, that the part was mine."

I wanted that—a sourceless, toneless wave carried from me to Russell. To Suzanne, to all of them. I wanted this world without end.

The night began to show ragged edges. Roos was naked from the waist up, her heavy breasts flushed from the heat. Falling into long silences. A black dog trotted into the darkness. Suzanne had disappeared to find more grass. I kept searching for her, but I'd get distracted by the flash and shuffle, the strangers who danced by and smiled at me with blunt kindness.

Little things should have upset me. Some girl burned herself, raising a ripple of skin along her arm, and stared down at the scorch with idle curiosity. The outhouse with its shit stench and cryptic drawings, walls papered in pages torn from porno mags. Guy describing the warm entrails of the pigs he'd gutted on his parents' farm in Kansas.

"They knew what was coming," he said to a rapt audience. "They'd smile when I brought food and flip out when I had the knife."

He adjusted his big belt buckle, cackling something I couldn't hear. But it was the solstice, I explained to myself, pagan mutterings, and whatever disturbance I felt was just a failure to understand the place. And there was so much else to notice and favor—the silly music from the jukebox. The silver guitar that caught the light, the melted Cool Whip dripping from someone's finger. The numinous and fanatic faces of the others.

Time was confusing on the ranch: There were no clocks, no watches, and hours or minutes seemed arbitrary, whole days pouring into nothing. I don't know how much time passed. How long I was waiting for Suzanne to return before I heard his voice. Right next to my ear, whispering my name.

"Evie."

I turned, and there he was. I twisted with happiness: Russell had remembered me, he'd found me in the crowd. Had maybe even been looking for me. He took my hand in his, working the palm, my fingers. I was beaming, indeterminate; I wanted to love everything.

The trailer he brought me to was larger than any of the other rooms, the bed covered with a shaggy blanket that I'd realize later was actually a fur coat. It was the only nice thing in the room—the floor matted with clothes, empty cans of soda, and beer glinting among the detritus. A peculiar smell in the air, a cut of fermentation. I was being willfully naïve, I suppose, pretending like I didn't know what was happening. But part of me really didn't. Or didn't fully dwell on the facts: It was suddenly difficult to remember how I'd gotten there. That lurching bus ride, the cheap sugar of the wine. Where had I left my bike?

Russell was watching me intently. Tilting his head when I looked away, forcing me to catch his eyes. He brushed my hair behind my ear, letting his fingers fall to my neck. His fingernails uncut so I felt the ridge of them.

I laughed, but it was uneasy. "Is Suzanne gonna be here soon?" I said.

He'd told me, back at the fire, that Suzanne was coming, too, though maybe that was only something I wished.

"Suzanne's just fine," Russell said. "I wanna talk about you right now, Evie."

My thoughts slowed to the pace of drifting snow. Russell spoke slowly and with seriousness, but he made me feel as though he had been waiting all night for the chance to hear what I had to say. How different this was from Connie's bedroom, listening to records from some other world we'd never be a part of, songs that just reinforced our own static misery. Peter seemed drained to me, too. Peter, who was just a boy, who ate oleo on white bread for dinner.

This was real, Russell's gaze, and the flattered sickness in me was so pleasurable, I could barely keep hold of it.

"Shy Evie," he said. Smiling. "You're a smart girl. You see a lot with those eyes, don't you?"

He thought I was smart. I grabbed on to it like proof. I wasn't lost. I could hear the party outside. A fly buzzed in the corner, hitting the walls of the trailer.

"I'm like you," Russell went on. "I was so smart when I was young, so smart that of course they told me I was dumb." He let out a fractured laugh. "They taught me the word 'dumb.' They taught me those words, then they told me that's what I was." When Russell smiled, his face soaked with a joy that seemed foreign to me. I knew I'd never felt that good. Even as a child I'd been unhappy—I saw, suddenly, how obvious that was.

As he talked, I hugged myself with my arms. It all started making sense to me, what Russell was saying, in the drippy way things could make sense. How drugs patch-worked simple, banal thoughts into phrases that seemed filled with importance. My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for causalities, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius.

"There's something in you," he said. "Some part that's real sad. And you know what? That really makes me sad. They've tried to ruin this beautiful, special girl. They've made her sad. Just because they are."

I felt the press of tears.

The undercooked look of his dick, clutched in his hand: I wondered where Suzanne was. My throat tightened.

"But they didn't ruin you, Evie. Cause here you are. Our special Evie. And you can let all that old shit float away."

He sat back on the mattress with the dirty soles of his bare feet on the fur coat, a strange calm in his face. He would wait as long as it took.

I don't remember what I said at that point, just that I chattered nervously. School, Connie, the hollow nonsense of a young girl. My gaze slid around the trailer, fingers nipping at the fabric of Suzanne's dress. Eyes coursing the fleur-de-lis pattern of the filthy bedspread. I remember that Russell smiled, patiently, waiting for me to lose energy. And I did. The trailer silent except for my own breathing and Russell shifting on the mattress.

"I can help you," he said. "But you have to want it."

His eyes fixed on mine.

"Do you want it, Evie?"

The words slit with scientific desire.

"You'll like this," Russell murmured. Opening his arms to me. "Come here."

I edged toward him, sitting on the mattress. Struggling to complete the full circuit of comprehension. I knew it was coming, but it still surprised me. How he took down his pants, exposing his short, hairy legs, his penis in his fist. The hesitant catch in my gaze—he watched me watching him.

"Look at me," he said. His voice was smooth, even while his hand worked furiously. "Evie," he said, "Evie."

The undercooked look of his dick, clutched in his hand: I wondered where Suzanne was. My throat tightened. It confused me at first, that it was all Russell wanted. To stroke himself. I sat there, trying to impose sense on the situation. I transmuted Russell's behavior into proof of his good intentions. Russell was just trying to be close, to break down my hang-ups from the old world.

"We can make each other feel good," he said. "You don't have to be sad."

I flinched when he pushed my head toward his lap. A singe of clumsy fear filled me. He was good at not seeming angry when I reared away. The indulgent look he gave me, like I was a skittish horse.

"I'm not trying to hurt you, Evie." Holding out his hand again. The strobe of my heart going fast. "I just want to be close to you. And don't you want me to feel good? I want you to feel good."

When he came, he gasped, wetly. The salt damp of semen in my mouth, the alarming swell. He held me there, bucking. How had I gotten here, in the trailer, found myself in the dark woods without any crumbs to follow home, but then Russell's hands were in my hair, and his arms were around me, pulling me up, and he said my name with intention and surety so it sounded strange to me, but smooth, too, valuable, like some other, better Evie. Was I supposed to cry? I didn't know. I was crowded with idiot trivia. A red sweater I had lent Connie and never gotten back. Whether Suzanne was looking for me or not. A curious thrill behind my eyes.

Russell handed me a bottle of Coke. The soda was tepid and flat, but I drank the whole thing. As intoxicating as champagne.

Excerpt from Emma Cline's debut novel, The Girls, on sale June 14.© 2016 by Emma Cline. To be published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Read an interview with Emma Cline on i-D.