Grief Map

The Exene Chronicles

Camille A. Collins


Kindred Books • Release Date: September 25, 2018

Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-05-9 • Ebook ISBN: 978-1-948559-06-5

Brain Mill Press offers The Exene Chronicles in ebook and trade paperback editions. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.

“It is a pleasure to discover—or perhaps that should be uncover—a first book by a new writer. Collins has bravely and with courage given us a coming-of-age story that we will enjoy sharing with our teenage sons and daughters. And we look forward to the next book.”

—Poet Nikki Giovanni


"Camille Collins has a voice like water. There is lush music in her debut novel—each word flows with purpose and beauty. In the big sea of young adult literature, The Exene Chronicles casts a powerful net and takes us in—heart and all."

—Kwame Alexander, Newberry medalist and New York Times best-selling author of Rebound


"Camille Collins has written a wonderfully bold and sensual coming-of-age novel. There is an intensity and beauty to the writing with a remarkably compelling voice. Certain books we read in adolescence stay with us for life. The Exene Chronicles is such a book."

—Patty Dann, author of Mermaids and The Butterfly Hours

Lia is fourteen and losing her best friend. When things don’t seem like they could get any worse, Ryan disappears.

Lia is one of only a handful of black kids in Coronado, her San Diego suburb. The only person she feels she can talk to is punk rock high priestess and frontwoman to a legendary LA band, Exene Cervenka. Reeling from Ryan’s disappearance, Lia writes letters and poems to Exene every day. She can relate to Exene—but if they were to ever meet, would Exene be able to relate to her? With Exene and her band’s searing soundtrack as her chief inspiration, Lia dives head-first into a dark and spiky counterculture rife with confrontation, shifting alliances, and unsettling insights into what Ryan was doing and what might have happened to her.

Set against the backdrop of the 1980s heyday of LA punk rock, The Exene Chronicles sings of the coming of a new age for all girls in America who have been disenfranchised by the spaces they identified as their own. With lyrical prose and an unrelenting moral center, Camille A. Collins liberates the punk in all of us.


Camille Collins has an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has been the recipient of the Short Fiction Prize from the South Carolina Arts Commission, and her writing has appeared in The Twisted Vine, a literary journal of Western New Mexico University. She likes writing about music and has contributed features and reviews to Afropunk and BUST.  She lives in New York City.

AN EXCERPT from The Exene Chronicles by Camille A. Collins

© Camille A. Collins, 2018


“Let’s go back for a moment to this Neil. You say he lives in Imperial Beach?”

Lia had not imagined that the police made house calls. She’d envisioned a more chilling scene. She imagined being escorted into a sparse chamber with a metal table and chairs to be questioned for hours under a harsh light.

Propped between her parents on the sofa, she felt like a child. The officer’s skin was an odd combination of beige and orange tones from excessive parlor tanning. In his early forties, his flesh was spread generously over his massive frame. All the while, as he sat on the sofa opposite the Payne family, Lia’s eyes kept drifting to his lavishly dense fingers. It seemed to her that they were fingers suffering from misuse. Hands not meant for pulling pistol triggers or handcuffing undocumented workers, but thick, soft tools, better suited to more tactile pursuits, like kneading dough or chiseling the alphabet onto baby’s blocks.

For Lia, nothing the police officer said could redeem the situation from its patent absurdity. A meeting taken at the police station would have made the dilemma seem even more real. As it was, Lia could only fume quietly, furious with Ryan for leaving her holding the bag—for getting her into trouble while she suddenly slipped behind a curtain of mystery. Perhaps it was normal for a girl, not yet fifteen, to approach the situation with a certain, stubborn obtuseness—for in the sage retrospect of a few hours, Lia had come to realize the grim fears she’d felt after initially being told about Ryan were nothing but hyperbole, paranoia.

Hadn’t there been a kidnapping? A small child spirited away just the previous summer from the park just blocks away? No. Lia shook the thought from her head. It was totally different with little kids. Who would try and make off with Ryan? Ryan, who was mistaken in restaurants and shopping malls for a grown woman (department store clerks often asked if she wanted to establish a line of credit).

Lia hadn’t thought either, that police officers, like secretaries, scribbled notes onto little blocks of paper. He looked absurd, perched on the edge of the sofa, his thighs nearly bursting like the Incredible Hulk’s through the close weft of his beige trousers.

“So, this Neil, you ever been over to his place, with Ryan?”

“No.” Lia shook her head resolutely. The penetration of her parent’s eyes, both sets upon her, was both subtle and intense, so that their collective, boring gaze swelled to a thin murmur—their unrelenting stares actually made a sound, like the low, throaty growl of some forest-dwelling rodent.

“You sure now?” The police officer gently nudged her towards a confession. Lacking even the slightest measure of Ryan’s defiance, Lia easily capitulated.

“Well, now that I think of it, I might have been there for a little while, but only one time for sure.”

Lia’s mother gasped and looked sharply at the officer. “You mean this man had these girls over to his house? Good Lord. Officer, how old did you say he was?”

Lia wished she could stuff a wad of paper towels inside her mother’s throat. The officer had already said Neil was nineteen. Yet, turning to face Lia’s father, Greg, Dorothea Payne was still incredulous. “I can’t believe anyone so bold. Someone that age keeping company with girls just out of middle school!”

Lia writhed in her spot, her mother’s words like knives, stabbing her repeatedly. By attacking Neil, her mother indirectly made her feel filthy. They’d only watched Starsky and Hutch and a re-run of Dallas and eaten tacos. That was all. Besides, he was Ryan’s boyfriend, not hers.

“Um,” the police officer paused to mull over this fact.

“Where did you, or Ryan, say you met this fellow, Neil?”

“I didn’t meet him anywhere. Ryan did!” Lia blurted her words at the officer angrily. She could feel the penetration of her mother’s eyes, glaring with the suggestion that Lia change her tone. She couldn’t win. At once her mother suspected the worse and yet she had to speak respectfully as the officer insinuated things with his probing questions.

“Okay Lia, you’re doing great. I’ve just got one more question. This may be a little uncomfortable for you, but it’s important.”

Here, the officer paused to moisten his lips with a rapid flick of his tongue. Lia couldn’t be certain of what the officer would ask next, but she had an idea and thus could feel herself cringing as he began to speak.

“Did Neil ever touch you or speak to you in a sexual way? Did he ever try to coax you into any sort of sexual act, either he or any of his friends?”

This time, it may have been Lia who gasped audibly, or at least she thought she had. Never had she been so humiliated. Her parents at either side staring silently, impatiently awaiting her answer.

“No! Never!” This time, she felt her impertinent tone completely justified, and didn’t care whether her mother liked it or not. Lia refused to lift her gaze to entertain her mother’s possible glare, or worse yet, an irritating look of relief spread across her face.

“You sure now? There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if he tried anything. It wouldn’t be your fault…” With the officer adding to her humiliation with every syllable he uttered, Lia spoke no words, but only responded with a firm look that said she had nothing more to offer on the subject.

“All righty.” The officer stood on his feet in a surprisingly agile motion. “With these types of situations, the first week or so is crucial. I hate to be the one to sound grim, but beyond that, it might be weeks or months before we ever figure out what’s happened. Anyway, here’s my card.” The officer bent to look Lia in the eye and offer her a plastic smile. “Please give me a call if you think of any new information that might help us locate your friend, okay?”

Lia—perched on the sofa, tearing tissue in her hands, still shaken by the officer’s questions and angry that Ryan had abandoned her—felt winded, as though someone had taken a fist to her stomach. She watched though, as her father thanked the officer for his time, and extended his large brown hand for a handshake. It seemed the officer, who had been quite patient and friendly in questioning her, grasped her father’s hand with reluctance.

At the open front door, the officer halted, and as he turned towards Greg Payne. Lia thought for sure that his once open and friendly face had become clouded with an intense look—of fear or malevolence, perhaps. He couldn’t be certain if he was just shielding his eyes from a stream of sunlight angling through the door or what, because for some reason his expression had changed, his eyes narrowed down to thin slots where one might fit a coin.

“So, you folks own or rent?” The officer blocked the doorway, unwilling to move until his question was answered.

“Beg pardon?” Lia could see that her father was surprised by the officer’s question and that his jaw hardened then, taking on the tell-tale clench that suggested his irritation.

“Just curious how long you folks have been here.”

“About two years now.” Lia noted that her father strained to keep his upbeat tone.

“Two years, eh. How long do you plan to stay?”

Lia couldn’t understand what was happening—the faint shifts in the atmosphere in the Payne living room were real, yet surreal at the same time. She was surprised that the same officer now sounded rude, like one of those surfers who came to class stoned without so much as a notebook and were quick to smart off to the teacher.

“Well, I don’t know. I’d say we’re pretty happy, pretty well settled right now.” Lia’s father spoke loudly, in a formal tone. It was the voice he reserved for important telephone calls and tactful quarrels with restaurant managers when there was some discrepancy with the bill.

To Greg Payne’s reply, the officer only snorted with open incredulity, as he carried his hulking frame down the porch steps.

Lia worried about the possibility of further proceedings, if in time she’d be asked to testify under oath, or take a lie detector test. She felt burdened by the woe of unspoken truths, for when asked about Neil’s friends, she’d purposefully neglected to mention the sailor Keith, a man (had he been twenty or twenty-one? She couldn’t remember) whom she’d kissed and wished was available to spirit her away just as Neil had taken off in his Camaro with Ryan on so many balmy summer nights.

It seemed to Lia that if they’d only stop wasting time with questioning and talk, they’d find Ryan: watching television at the condo at the Cays with Neil, their faces fixed in expressions of wry defiance or sprawled out together on those white patio chairs next to the pool, lulled to sleep by the heat of the afternoon sun.



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