My new novel, 17 & Gone, is now out in stores (!!!), and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, I’ve asked some authors I know to join me in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17? Here’s the last official post in the series (but stay tuned for next week—when I’ll be sharing some of YOUR posts here on this site!), with Bennett Madison revealing what haunted him at 17 years old…
Guest post by Bennett Madison
The most prominent feature of the suburban Maryland skyline—if one can even consider the suburbs to have a skyline—is the Mormon Temple in Kensington. From the Beltway, driving west away from DC and toward the outer suburbs, it appears out of nowhere, its beveled marble towers and golden spires unfolding upward like something in a pop-up book and towering over the trees that line the highway.
No matter how many times you’ve seen it, it is always a surprise. At night, it is lit up and iridescent but even in the sunlight it stutters against blue sky with a hazy, ghostly glow that seems to come from somewhere else.
The temple recalls a lot of things. It looks enough like the Emerald City that, for years, the words SURRENDER DOROTHY were spray-painted on the overpass that revealed itself along with the temple as you rounded a curve in the road. Growing up, classmates’ mean parents would try to trick them by telling them it was Disney World. That always struck me as underselling its magic—even a little kid knows that Disney World isn’t actually very enchanted at all.
For me, the temple was a ghost palace. It was a place that existed only on the horizon, something that I could never touch. It was a symbol of leaving home and of returning, and most of all, of being in-between.
When I was seventeen, I spent a lot of time on the highway. My father took the Metro to work and allowed me mostly-unlimited use of his old, gray Honda Civic hatchback and so I drove. With homework to do and things to be worried about, I was promiscuous in offering friends rides and thought nothing of spending hours in heavy gridlock ferrying them way out into the strange outer rings of the suburbs: Olney, Gaithersburg, Poolesville. Katie and Zarah and Emily could often be found riding shotgun, their bare feet pressed up against the windshield as they sang along with me to whatever mix tape I’d popped in the cassette player.
Other times the passenger seat was empty and I was off to meet up with guys my friends had never heard of. There was a fireman in Rockville; there was this one guy who lived in a cemetery out in Frederick. I’d drive out to them and then we’d go somewhere else: the movies, the mall, a parking lot.
More frequently, I would just be in my car alone, meeting no one. With no destination in mind, I’d pull out of the school parking lot, turn the music up and hit the beltway. I would travel to obscure fast food restaurants way out 270 or, when traffic was light and I could speed, I’d curl over to Virginia only to get off at any old exit, then turn around and go somewhere else, always hoping, somehow, that I’d find myself in a place where I was lost.
As far as I traveled, the Mormon Temple was always either right ahead or somewhere just over my shoulder.
Washington is, of course, full of landmarks. Even the pretty ones are dull and over-familiar and a little oppressive. They’re monuments to bureaucracy, to the city’s proud lack of poetry. The Mormon Temple, though, never gets blown up in movies; it’s not on any postcards except maybe Mormon ones. Even people who pass it every day mostly ignore it.
It is anonymous and forgotten. It is always a mystery. What is it. Where does it come from. What is it trying to tell you?
At nights on the road, looping for hours in a solitary race with myself, I would fantasize about having an endless gas tank. About being able to take an exit—any exit—and drive and drive and drive into darkness, never stopping or settling on any new place. In my car, I was a lonely endlessness shooting out into a future that felt terrifyingly blank. I was everywhere and nowhere. Then, just when I thought I’d managed to leave everything behind, I’d be startled by the sight of the temple in the distance, reminding me that, for now, I couldn’t untether myself completely.
The next day, I’d be back in school, where I was reminded at every moment of the fact that I was an irredeemable fuck-up with no prospects at all.
Seen on the left, the temple was the thing that held me in this place. On the right, on a clear day with no traffic, it was the thing urging me to leave. It seemed to tell me that even on the beltway, which is after all, only a circle that always leads you back to exactly where you started, there was always someplace else to go, unreachable maybe, but out there somewhere.
Non-Mormons aren’t allowed past the temple’s visitor center, and I’ve never even made it that far. While I’ve seen it hundreds of times from the road, I have a hard time imagining what it looks like from the parking lot, or even wrapping my head around the idea that it occupies an actual physical space in the world. The Mormon Temple doesn’t belong to me. I will never enter it. I like it that way. I prefer to keep it what it’s always been: an abstraction cast in moon rock, an unknowable elsewhere that, when I was seventeen, was just five minutes from home.
Bennett Madison is the author of several books for teenagers, including The Blonde of the Joke (HarperTeen 2009) and September Girls (HarperTeen 2013). He has also written a few other books and some other things here and there. He grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, went to Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Find him online at bennett-madison.com.
Follow @bennettmadison on Twitter.
Don’t miss the other posts in the series, in which YA authors revealed what haunted them at 17. Here are all the official Haunted at 17 posts… (Thank you to the generous authors for taking the time to write them and be a part of this!)
- Libba Bray: Haunted at 17
- Gayle Forman: Haunted at 17
- Steve Brezenoff: Haunted at 17—visit his blog to read his post!
- Stephanie Kuehnert: Haunted at 17—visit her blog to read her post!
- Jo Knowles: Haunted at 17—visit her blog to read her post!
- Carrie Ryan: Haunted at 17
- Melissa Walker: Haunted at 17
- Jon Skovron: Haunted at 17—visit his blog to read his post!
- Kat Rosenfield: Haunted at 17
- Gwenda Bond: Haunted at 17—visit her blog to read her post!
- Malinda Lo: Haunted at 17—visit her blog to read her post!
- Robin Wasserman: Haunted at 17
- Adele Griffin: Haunted at 17
- Nina LaCour: Haunted at 17
- Andrea Cremer: Haunted at 17
- And me… my own Haunted at 17 story
But wait. I’m not done yet!
…Do YOU Have a Haunted at 17 Story You’d Like to Share Here?
Feel inspired and want to share what haunted you at 17? If you write a post on your blog, leave a link or tweet it to me. I’ll send you some 17 & Gone swag if you’d like it, and I’ll be listing all the posts in a round-up next week.
Even better, I’ll be featuring five of your Haunted at 17 stories here in full next week. So if you don’t have a blog—or even if you’d already posted yours and want to include it here—email your story me.
And remember: You don’t have to be a writer to take part in this. All you have to be is someone who was once 17.
Want to win a signed hardcover of 17 & Gone, some swag, and a signed hardcover of Imaginary Girls to keep it company? Every commenter on this Haunted at 17 post will be entered to win. You can also enter by filling out this entry form.
The giveaway is international. Closes 11:59 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 28. Two winners will be chosen.
17 & GONE NEWS:
- If you’ll be in New York City for the NYC Teen Author Festival, come see me and get a signed copy of the book! Full schedule here—look out for me TONIGHT, Saturday, March 23 at McNally Jackson or Sunday, March 24 at Books of Wonder!
- Lost at Midnight Reviews is being truly amazing and is hosting a whole week featuring 17 & Gone. Go see what bloggers are saying about the book—and keep an eye out for a special giveaway for Lost at Midnight readers!
- If you’ve pre-ordered 17 & Gone or plan to buy it this week (thank you so much for your support! it means the world to me!) and can’t be in New York City to get it signed, I have a way to sign your book from afar. Leave a comment on this photo on my Facebook author page and I may just mail you a signed and personalized bookplate.