Haunted at 17: Featured Story #4


Thank you so much for reading the Haunted at 17 blog series to celebrate the publication of my new novel, 17 & Gone! To mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, I asked some authors I know to join me in answering this question: What haunted YOU at 17? They answered, and now it’s your turn. 

Today’s featured Haunted at 17 story is by Courtney Leigh. Read on to see what opened her eyes and haunted her when she was 17 years old…

Guest post by Courtney Leigh

(Courtney at 17, in the black dress.)
(Courtney at 17, in the black dress.)

When I was 17, I was haunted by the girl living beneath my skin.

Up until then I didn’t know she was there. I thought I was everything I appeared to be. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fresh-faced, top-ten-percent cheerleader, thespian, band nerd, and tennis player. I loved my family, hated breaking the rules, had the best and most beautiful friends. With only 90 students in my graduating class, “small town” almost isn’t small enough to describe it. We were sequestered, secluded, and protected somehow from that harsh, unforgiving rest of the world. I lived next to a creek which connected to a river, and my brother, my sister, and I would traipse up and down the shallow liquid lengths for fun in the summer. We worked with our parents in a 2-acre “yard” almost every weekend when the weather allowed. The land we lived on had been in the family for hundreds of years. It still is. I could breathe in the wholesomeness. I could feel it under my hands and on my face and in my bones. It was so warm and soft and easy.

That’s what I remember most, how easy it was. It was the simplest thing, the simplest truth for us to say, “I can’t believe we live here. We are so lucky to have this place—this town and these people. Things are good here. Things are deep down good here.” I believed it for a long time. Longer than I like to admit. Sometimes, even now, I feel a deep burning shame for how long I let myself believe these things.

Luckily for me, there was the other girl, the one under my skin. She had ears under my ears that heard other things. Her ears heard the quiet, unsaid words. The way no one protested at the use of racial slurs. The way no one argued when a boy in my computer literacy class said there are no important women in history. Her ears heard the silent existence of varsity athletes hazing the freshmen, domestic abuse next door, child molestation in our school system.

The girl had eyes under my eyes. She saw the way her friend’s boyfriend pushed her out of his truck or yanked her by the wrist and then how her friend wouldn’t break up with him. She saw that there were no black students in the hallway, nor any Asians. She saw how the white students rarely acknowledged the brown ones and vice versa. Her eyes didn’t always understand what they saw, but they did see.

Every Sunday I went to mass with my mom. This girl went, too. Her heart beat beneath my heart, and when the priest said homosexuality was wrong, there was a hitch inside this girl inside me. Slowly I began to notice her more and more. Soon she couldn’t keep as quiet or as still. One day she got her voice under my voice, and she said, We have to leave. We have to go somewhere else and be someone else. I didn’t know why she said this or why she sounded so sad when she did. Because I was happy. I was lucky. Everything was good. And yet she said this and I had to listen. Seventeen was the year I quit volleyball. It was when I dropped out of math. When I cut my silky golden strands up to my ears and dyed them almost black. I kept my thoughts more and more secret, twining them with hers. I turned inward, toward the girl under my skin. Until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Until I was so brittle that I needed to pick and peel away at everything the girl beneath my skin heard and saw and felt. Seventeen was the year I began to molt.

Not soon after, I left my too-small town. The girl who’d been living under my skin blossomed and grew and strove. It took her, now me, a long time to forgive the place I grew up in. Now, the only girl that haunts me is the one I could have been, that shining golden girl, the one who didn’t listen or see or feel the truth around her.

Follow Courtney Leigh at @CourtLeighLove.


Don’t miss all the posts in the Haunted at 17 series, in which YA authors revealed what haunted them at 17… (Thank you to these generous authors for taking the time to write these stories and be a part of this!)


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