Lauren Oliver is the author of the best-selling young adult (YA) series “Delirium,” set in a dystopian world where love is considered an illness.
But for her latest book, “Panic,” Oliver moves to present day, and her setting — the fictional town of Carp, New York — is all too real: a small, struggling town beset with economic woes and methamphetamine use.
Every summer, the graduating high school seniors are caught up in “Panic” — a high-stakes game where teens participate in increasingly risky challenges for a cash prize.
Though the book has echoes of Suzanne Collin’s “The Hunger Games,” Lauren Oliver tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that she was more inspired by the Grimm fairy tale “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was”
“I started thinking about what would make some people capable of withstanding fear and embracing it, even, and what makes other people avoid fear at all costs,” Oliver said.
Note: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Book Excerpt: ‘Panic’
By Lauren Oliver
Saturday, June 18
The water was so cold it took Heather’s breath away as she fought past the kids crowding the beach and standing in the shallows, waving towels and homemade signs, cheering and calling up to the remaining jumpers.
She took a deep breath and went under. The sound of voices, of shouting and laughter, was immediately muted.
Only one voice stayed with her.
I didn’t mean for it to happen.
Those eyes; the long lashes, the mole under his right eyebrow.
There’s just something about her.
Something about her. Which meant: Nothing about you. She’d been planning to tell him she loved him tonight.
The cold was thunderous, a buzzing rush through her body. Her denim shorts felt as though they’d been weighted with stones. Fortunately, years of braving the creek and racing the quarry with Bishop had made Heather Nill a strong swimmer.
The water was threaded with bodies, twisting and kicking, splashing, treading water—the jumpers, and the people who had joined their celebratory swim, sloshing into the quarry still clothed, carrying beer cans and joints. She could hear a distant rhythm, a faint drumming, and she let it move her through the water—without thought, without fear.
That’s what Panic was all about: no fear.
She broke the surface for air and saw that she’d already crossed the short stretch of water and reached the opposite shore: an ugly pile of misshapen rocks, slick with black and green moss, piled together like an ancient collection of Legos. Pitted with fissures and crevices, they shouldered up toward the sky, ballooning out over the water.
Thirty-one people had already jumped—all of them Heather’s friends and former classmates. Only a small knot of people remained at the top of the ridge—the jagged, rocky lip of shoreline jutting forty feet into the air on the north side of the quarry, like a massive tooth biting its way out of the ground.
It was too dark to see them. The flashlights and the bonfire only illuminated the shoreline and a few feet of the inky dark water, and the faces of the people who had jumped, still bobbing in the water, triumphant, too happy to feel the cold, taunting the other competitors. The top of the ridge was a shaggy mass of black, where the trees were encroaching on the rock, or the rock was getting slowly pulled into the woods, one or the other.
But Heather knew who they were. All the competitors had to announce themselves once they reached the top of the ridge, and then Diggin Rodgers, this year’s sportscaster, parroted back the names into the megaphone, which he had borrowed from his older brother, a cop.
Three people had yet to jump: Merl Tracey, Derek Klieg, and Natalie Velez. Nat.
Heather’s best friend.
Heather wedged her fingers in a fissure in the rocks and pulled. Earlier, and in years past, she had watched all the other gamers scrabbling up the ridge like giant, waterlogged insects. Every year, people raced to be the first to jump, even though it didn’t earn any extra points. It was a pride thing.
She banged her knee, hard, against a sharp elbow of rock. When she looked down, she could see a bit of dark blood streaking her kneecap. Weirdly, she didn’t feel any pain. And though everyone was still cheering and shouting, it sounded distant.
Matt’s words drowned out all the voices.
Look, it’s just not working. There’s something about her. We can still be friends
There’s something about her.
We can still be friends
The air was cool. The wind had picked up, singing through the old trees, sending deep groans up from the woods—but she wasn’t cold anymore. Her heart was beating hard in her throat. She found another handhold in the rock, braced her legs on the slick moss, lifted and levered, as she had watched the gamers do, every summer since eighth grade.
Dimly, she was aware of Diggin’s voice, distorted by the megaphone.
“Late in the game . . . a new competitor . . .”
But half his words got whipped away by the wind.
Up, up, up, ignoring the ache in her fingers and legs, trying to stick to the left side of the ridge, where the rocks, driven hard at angles into one another, formed a wide and jutting lip of stone, easy to navigate.
Suddenly a dark shape, a person, rocketed past her. She almost slipped. At the last second, she worked her feet more firmly onto the narrow ledge, dug hard with her fingers to steady herself. A huge cheer went up, and Heather’s first thought was: Natalie.
But then Diggin boomed out, “And he’s in, ladies and gentlemen! Merl Tracey, our thirty-second gamer, is in!”
Almost at the top now. She risked a glance behind her and saw a steep slope of jagged rock, the dark water breaking at the base of the ridge. It suddenly seemed a million miles away.
For a second the fog cleared from her head, the anger and the hurt were blown away, and she wanted to crawl back down the rock, back to the safety of the beach, where Bishop was waiting. They could go to Dot’s for late-night waffles, extra butter, extra whipped cream. They could drive around with all the windows open, listening to the rising hum of the crickets, or sit together on the hood of his car and talk about nothing.
But it was too late. Matt’s voice came whispering back, and she kept climbing.
No one knows who invented Panic, or when it first began. There are different theories. Some blame the shuttering of the paper factory, which overnight placed 40 percent of the adult population of Carp, New York, on unemployment. Mike Dickinson, who infamously got arrested for dealing on the very same night he was named prom king, and now changes brake pads at the Jiffy Lube on Route 22, likes to take credit; that’s why he still goes to Opening Jump, seven years after graduating.
None of these stories is correct, however. Panic began as so many things do in Carp, a poor town of twelve thousand people in the middle of nowhere: because it was summer, and there was nothing else to do.
The rules are simple. The day after graduation is Opening Jump, and the game goes all through summer. After the final challenge, the winner takes the pot.
Everyone at Carp High pays into the pot, no exceptions. Fees are a dollar a day, for every day that school is in session, from September through June. People who refuse to pony up the cash receive reminders that go from gentle to persuasive: vandalized locker, shattered windows, shattered face.
It’s only fair. Anyone who wants to play has a chance to win. That’s another rule: all seniors, but only seniors, are eligible, and must announce their intention to compete by participating in the Jump, the first of the challenges. Sometimes as many as forty kids enter.
There is only ever one winner.
Two judges plan the game, name the challenges, deliver instructions, award and deduct points. They are selected by the judges of the previous year, in strict secrecy. No one, in the whole history of Panic, has ever confessed to being one.
There have been suspicions, of course—rumors and speculation. Carp is a small town, and judges get paid. How did Myra Campbell, who always stole lunch from the school cafeteria because there was no food at home, suddenly afford her used Honda? She said an uncle had died. But no one had ever heard of Myra’s uncle—no one, really, had ever thought about Myra, until she came rolling in with the windows down, smoking a cigarette, with the sun so bright on the windshield, it almost completely obscured the smile on her face.
Two judges, picked in secret, sworn to secrecy, working together. It must be this way. Otherwise they’d be subject to bribes, and possibly to threats. That’s why there are two—to make sure that things stay balanced, to reduce the possibility that one will cheat, and give out information, leak hints.
If the players know what to expect, then they can prepare. And that isn’t fair at all.
It’s partly the unexpectedness, the never-knowing, that starts to get to them, and weeds them out, one by one.
The pot usually amounts to just over $50,000, after fees are deducted and the judges—whoever they are—take their cut. Four years ago, Tommy O’Hare took his winnings, bought two items out of hock, one of them a lemon-yellow Ford, drove straight to Vegas, and bet it all on black.
The next year, Lauren Davis bought herself new teeth and a new pair of tits and moved to New York City. She returned to Carp two Christmases later, stayed just long enough to show off a new purse and an even newer nose, and then blew back to the city. Rumors floated back: she was dating the ex-producer of some reality TV weight-loss show; she was becoming a Victoria’s Secret model, though no one has ever seen her in a catalog. (And many of the boys have looked.)
Conrad Spurlock went into the manufacture of methamphetamines—his father’s line of business—and poured the money into a new shed on Mallory Road, after their last place burned straight to the ground. But Sean McManus used the money to go to college; he’s thinking of becoming a doctor.
In seven years of playing, there have been three deaths—four including Tommy O’Hare, who shot himself with the second thing he’d bought at the pawn shop, after his number came up red.
You see? Even the winner of Panic is afraid of something.
So: back to the day after graduation, the opening day of Panic, the day of the Jump.
Rewind back to the beach, but pause a few hours before Heather stood on the ridge, suddenly petrified, afraid to jump.
Turn the camera slightly. We’re not quite there. Almost, though.
No one on the beach was cheering for Dodge Mason—no one would cheer for him either, no matter how far he got.
It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the win.
And Dodge had a secret—he knew something about Panic, knew more about it, probably, than any of the other people on the beach.
Actually, he had two secrets.
Dodge liked secrets. They fueled him, gave him a sense of power. When he was little, he’d even fantasized that he had his own secret world, a private place of shadows, where he could curl up and hide. Even now—on Dayna’s bad days, when the pain came roaring back and she started to cry, when his mom hosed the place down with Febreze and invited over her newest Piece of Shit date, and late at night Dodge could hear the bed frame hitting the wall, like a punch in the stomach every time—he thought about sinking into that dark space, cool and private.
Everyone at school thought Dodge was a pussy. He knew that. He looked like a pussy. He’d always been tall and skinny— angles and corners, his mom said, just like his father. As far as he knew, the angles—and the dark skin—were the only things he had in common with his dad, a Dominican roofer his mom had been with for one hot second back in Miami. Dodge could never even remember his name. Roberto. Or Rodrigo. Some shit like that.
Back when they’d first gotten stuck in Carp (that’s how he always thought about it—getting stuck—he, Dayna, and his mom were just like empty plastic bags skipping across the country on fitful bits of wind, occasionally getting snagged around a telephone pole or under the tires of some semi, pinned in place for a bit), he’d been beat up three times: once by Greg O’Hare, then by Zev Keller, and then by Greg O’Hare again, just to make sure that Dodge knew the rules. And Dodge hadn’t swung back, not once.
He’d had worse before.
And that was Dodge’s second secret, and the source of his power.
He wasn’t afraid. He just didn’t care.
And that was very, very different.
The sky was streaked with red and purple and orange. It reminded Dodge of an enormous bruise, or a picture taken of the inside of a body. It was still an hour or so before sunset and before the pot, and then the Jump, would be announced.
Dodge cracked a beer. His first and only. He didn’t want to be buzzed, and didn’t need to be either. But it had been a hot day, and he’d come straight from Home Depot, and he was thirsty.
The crowd had only just started to assemble. Periodically, Dodge heard the muffled slamming of a car door, a shout of greeting from the woods, the distant blare of music. Whippoorwill Road was a quarter mile away; kids were just starting to emerge from the path, fighting their way through the thick underbrush, swatting at hanging moss and creeper vines, carting coolers and blankets and bottles and iPod speakers, staking out patches of sand.
School was done—for good, forever. He took a deep breath. Of all the places he had lived—Chicago, DC, Dallas, Richmond, Ohio, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, New Orleans—New York smelled the best. Like growth and change, things turning over and becoming other things.
Ray Hanrahan and his friends had arrived first. That was unsurprising. Even though competitors weren’t officially announced until the moment of the Jump, Ray had been bragging for months that he was going to take home the pot, just like his brother had two years earlier.
Luke had won, just barely, in the last round of Panic. Luke had walked away with fifty grand. The other driver hadn’t walked away at all. If the doctors were right, she’d never walk again.
Dodge flipped a coin in his palm, made it disappear, then reappear easily between his fingers. In fourth grade, his mom’s boyfriend—he couldn’t remember which one—had bought him a book about magic tricks. They’d been living in Oklahoma that year, a shithole in a flat bowl in the middle of the country, where the sun singed the ground to dirt and the grass to gray, and he’d spent a whole summer teaching himself how to pull coins from someone’s ear and slip a card into his pocket so quickly, it was unnoticeable.
It had started as a way to pass the time but had become a kind of obsession. There was something elegant about it: how people saw without seeing, how the mind filled in what it expected, how the eyes betrayed you.
Panic, he knew, was one big magic trick. The judges were the magicians; the rest of them were just a dumb, gaping audience.
Mike Dickinson came next, along with two friends, all of them visibly drunk. The Dick’s hair had started to thin, and patches of his scalp were visible when he bent down to deposit his cooler on the beach. His friends were carrying a half-rotted lifeguard chair between them: the throne, where Diggin, the announcer, would sit during the event.
Dodge heard a high whine. He smacked unthinkingly, catching the mosquito just as it started to feed, smearing a bit of black on his bare calf. He hated mosquitoes. Spiders, too, although he liked other insects, found them fascinating. Like humans, in a way—stupid and sometimes vicious, blinded by need.
The sky was deepening; the light was fading and so were the colors, swirling away behind the line of trees beyond the ridge, as though someone had pulled the plug.
Heather Nill was next on the beach, followed by Nat Velez, and lastly, Bishop Marks, trotting happily after them like an overgrown sheepdog. Even from a distance, Dodge could tell both girls were on edge. Heather had done something with her hair. He wasn’t sure what, but it wasn’t wrestled into its usual ponytail, and it even looked like she might have straightened it. And he wasn’t sure, but he thought she might be wearing makeup.
He debated getting up and going over to say hi. Heather was cool. He liked how tall she was, how tough, too, in her own way. He liked her broad shoulders and the way she walked, straight-backed, even though he was sure she would have liked to be a few inches shorter—could tell from the way she wore only flats and sneakers with worn-down soles. But if he got up, he’d have to talk to Natalie—and even looking at Nat from across the beach made his stomach seize up, like he’d been kicked. Nat wasn’t exactly mean to him— not like some of the other kids at school—but she wasn’t exactly nice, either, and that bothered him more than anything else. She usually smiled vaguely when she caught him talking to Heather, and as her eyes skated past him, through him, he knew that she would never, ever, actually look at him. Once, at the homecoming bonfire last year, she’d even called him Dave.
He’d gone just because he was hoping to see her. And then, in the crowd, he had spotted her; had moved toward her, buzzed from the noise and the heat and the shot of whiskey he’d taken in the parking lot, intending to talk to her, really talk to her, for the first time. Just as he was reaching out to touch her elbow, she had taken a step backward, onto his foot.
“Oops! Sorry, Dave,” she’d said, giggling. Her breath smelled like vanilla and vodka. And his stomach had opened up, and his guts went straight onto his shoes.
There were only 107 people in their graduating class, out of the 150 who’d started at Carp High freshman year. And she didn’t even know his name.
So he stayed where he was, working his toes into the ground, waiting for the dark, waiting for the whistle to blow and for the games to begin.
He was going to win Panic.
He was going to do it for Dayna.
He was going to do it for revenge.
“Testing, Testing. One, two, three.” That was Diggin, testing the megaphone.
The old quarry off Whippoorwill Road, empty since the late 1800s, had been flooded in the fifties to make a swimming hole. On the south side was the beach: a narrow strip of sand and stone, supposedly off-limits after dark, but rarely used before then; a dump of cigarette butts, crushed beer cans, empty Baggies, and sometimes, disgustingly, condoms, scattered limply on the ground like tubular jellyfish. Tonight, it was crowded—packed with blankets and beach chairs, heavy with the smell of mosquito repellent and booze.
Heather closed her eyes and inhaled. This was the smell of Panic—the smell of summer. At the edge of the water, there was a sudden explosion of color and sound, shrieks of laughter. Firecrackers. In the quick glare of red and green light, Heather saw Kaitlin Frost and Shayna Lambert laughing, doubled over, while Patrick Culbert tried to get a few more flares to light.
It was weird. Graduation had been only yesterday—Heather had bailed on the ceremony, since Krista, her mom, wouldn’t show, and there was no point in pretending there was some big glory in floating through four years of mandated classes. But already she felt years and years away from high school, like it had all been one long, unmemorable dream. Maybe, she thought, it was because people didn’t change. All the days had simply blurred together and would now be suctioned away into the past.
Nothing ever happened in Carp. There were no surprises. Diggin’s voice echoed over the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement: school’s out for summer.”
It was starting. Everyone cheered. There was another pop-pop-pop, a burst of firecrackers. They were in the middle of the woods, five miles from the nearest house. They could make all the noise they wanted.
They could scream. No one would hear them.
Heather knew she should say something encouraging to Nat—Heather and Bishop were there for Natalie, to give her moral support. Bishop had even made a poster: Go Nat, he had written. Next to the words, he had drawn a huge stick figure—Natalie could tell it was supposed to be her, because the stick figure was wearing a pink sweatshirt—standing on a pile of money.
“How come Nat’s not wearing any pants?” Heather had asked.
“Maybe she lost them during the Jump,” Bishop said. He turned, grinning, to Nat. Whenever he smiled like that, his eyes went from syrup brown to honey colored. “Drawing was never my thing.”
Heather didn’t like to talk about Matt in front of Bishop. She couldn’t stand the way he rolled his eyes when she brought him up, like she’d just switched the radio to a bad pop station. But finally she couldn’t help it. “He’s still not here.” Heather spoke in a low voice, so only Nat would hear her. “Sorry, Nat. I know this isn’t the time—I mean, we came for you—”
“It’s okay.” Nat reached out and squeezed Heather’s hand with both of her own. She pulled a weird face—like someone had just made her chug a limeade. “Look. Matt doesn’t deserve you. Okay? You can do better than Matt.”
Heather half laughed. “You’re my best friend, Nat,” she said. “You aren’t supposed to lie to me.”
Nat shook her head. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon. The game’s about to start.”
Heather checked her phone again, for the millionth time. Nothing. She’d powered it down several times and rebooted it, just to make sure it was working.
Diggin’s voice boomed out again: “The rules of Panic are simple. Anyone can enter. But only one person will win.” Diggin announced the pot.
Heather felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach. $67,000. That had to be the biggest pot ever. The crowd began to buzz—the number ran through them like an electric current, jumping from lip to lip. Shit, man, you’d have to be crazy not to play. Nat looked as though she’d just taken a large spoonful of ice cream.
Diggin plunged on, ignoring the noise, and explained the rules—a half-dozen events, spaced throughout the summer, conducted under conditions of strictest privacy; eliminations after every round; individual challenges for each contestant who made it past the halfway mark—but nobody was listening. It was the same speech as always. Heather had been watching Panic since she was in eighth grade. She could have made the speech herself.
That number—67,000—wrapped itself around her heart and squeezed. Without meaning to, she thought of all she could do with the money; she thought of how far she could go, what she could buy, how long she could live. How many miles away from Carp she could get.
But no. She couldn’t leave Matt. Matt had said he loved her. He was her plan. The grip on her heart eased a little, and she found she could breathe again.
Next to Heather, Natalie shimmied out of her jean shorts and kicked off her shoes. “Can you believe it?” she said. She took off her shirt, shivering in the wind. Heather couldn’t believe she’d insisted on that ridiculous bikini, which would fly off as soon as she hit the water. Natalie had only laughed. Maybe, she’d joked, that would earn her extra points.
That was Natalie: stubborn. Vain, too. Heather still couldn’t understand why she’d even chosen to play. Nat was afraid of everything.
Someone—probably Billy Wallace—whistled. “Nice ass, Velez.”
Nat ignored him, but Heather could tell she had heard and was pretending not to be pleased. Heather wondered what Billy Wallace would say if she tried to wear a scrap of fabric like that. Whoa. Look at the size of that thing! Do you need a permit to carry that thing around, Heather?
But Matt loved her. Matt thought she was pretty.
The noise on the beach swelled, grew to a roar: hoots and screams, people waving homemade banners and flags, firecrackers exploding like a smattering of gunfire, and she knew it was time. The whistle would blow.
Panic was about to begin.
Just then Heather saw him. The crowd parted temporarily; she could see him, smiling, talking to someone; then the crowd shifted and she lost sight of him. “He’s here. Nat, he’s here.”
“What?” Nat wasn’t paying attention anymore.
Heather’s voice dried up in her throat. Because the crowd had opened again, just as she’d started moving toward him, as though directed by gravity—relief welling in her chest, a chance to make things right, a chance to do things right, for once—and in that second she had seen that he was speaking to Delaney O’Brien.
Not just speaking. Whispering.
And then: kissing.
The whistle blew—sharp and thin in the sudden silence, like the cry of an alien bird.
Heather reached the top of the ridge just as Derek Klieg got a running start and hurled himself into the air, body contorted, shouting. A few seconds later, a cheer went up as he hit.
Natalie was crouching a few feet away from the edge, her face pale; for a second, Heather thought she heard her counting. Then Nat turned and blinked repeatedly, as though trying to bring Heather’s face into focus. She opened her mouth and closed it again.
Heather’s heart was beating hard and high. “Hey, Nat,” she said, just as Natalie straightened up.
“What the hell are you doing?” Natalie spat out.
Now Heather registered everything, all at once: the ache in her hands and thighs, the pain in her fingers, the sharp bite of the wind. Natalie looked furious. She was shaking, although that might have been the cold.
“I’m going to jump,” Heather said, realizing, as she said it, how stupid it sounded—how stupid it was. All of a sudden, she thought she might puke.
I’ll be cheering for you, Heather had said to Natalie. The guilt was there, throbbing alongside the nausea. But Matt’s voice was bigger than everything. Matt’s voice, and underneath it a vision of the water stains above her bed; the dull thud of music from the park; the smell of weed and cigarettes; the sounds of laughter, and later, someone screaming, You dumb piece of . . .
“You can’t jump,” Nat said, still staring. “I’m jumping.”
“We’ll jump together,” Heather said.
Natalie took two steps forward. Heather noticed she was balling her fists almost rhythmically. Squeeze, relax. Squeeze, relax. Three times.
“Why are you doing this?” The question was almost a whisper.
Heather couldn’t answer. She didn’t even know, not exactly. All she knew—all she could feel—was that this was her last chance.
So she just said, “I’m going to jump now. Before I chicken out.”
When she turned toward the water, Natalie reached for Heather, as if to pull her back. But she didn’t.
Heather felt as though the rock underneath her had begun to move, bucking like a horse. She had a sudden terror that she was going to lose her balance and go tumbling down the rocky slope, cracking her head in the shallows.
She took small, halting steps forward, and still reached the edge far too quickly.
“Announce yourself!” Diggin boomed out.
Below Heather, the water, black as oil, was still churning with bodies. She wanted to shout down—move, move, I’m going to hit you—but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones.
And suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but Chris Heinz, who four years ago drank a fifth of vodka before doing the Jump, and lost his footing. The sound his head made as it cracked against the rock was delicate, almost like an egg breaking. She remembered the way everyone ran through the woods; the image of his body, broken and limp, lying half submerged in the water.
“Say your name!” Diggin prompted again, and the crowd picked up the chant: Name, name, name.
She opened her mouth. “Heather,” she croaked out. “Heather Nill.” Her voice broke, got whipped back by the wind.
The chant was still going: Name, name, name, name. Then: Jump, jump, jump, jump.
Her insides were white; filled with snow. Her mouth tasted a little like puke. She took a deep breath. She closed her eyes.
Excerpted from the book PANIC by Lauren Oliver. Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Oliver. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins.