The statewide Gifted Symposium takes place each summer, and invites gifted kids from seventh to ninth grade to get together for a four-week retreat. Samuel attends the retreat, though he is less of a brain and more artistic—his hero is his brother Hal, who recently dropped out of high school and now runs a bike shop out near the sinkhole. Ruth Connors is invited to the symposium as well, and as she pulls up in her father’s car, she spots Lindsey right away. On her nametag, instead of “Salmon,” Lindsey has filled her last name in with a simple fish symbol, hoping that the new kids she’ll meet at the symposium won’t immediately recognize her as the sister of the dead girl. She and Samuel have been quietly dating since Christmas, but are demure about their relationship.
As Ruth, Samuel, and Lindsey all converge at the Gifted Symposium, they are all entering a new environment—the first place they have all been in a long time that does not exist in the shadow of Susie’s death. Lindsey takes full advantage of this distance, attempting to hide who she is and what has happened to her and her family and focus only on herself, her relationship, and being a normal teenage girl for once.
The following morning, in the dining hall, Ruth and Lindsey run into one another at breakfast. Ruth knowingly asks Lindsey what the fish on her nametag stands for, and then introduces herself. Lindsey introduces herself as just “Lindsey,” and Ruth asks Lindsey if her last name is Salmon. Lindsey replies, “please don’t,” and Ruth, who had been purposefully needling Lindsey, is suddenly filled with the painful understanding of what it must be like to have someone look at you and not be able to imagine anything other than “a girl covered in blood.”
Ruth knows Lindsey, but Lindsey barely knows Ruth, and is trying her best to distance herself from anything and anyone from Norristown apart from Samuel. Lindsey’s pitiful “please don’t” mirrors the desperate cries Susie made to Mr. Harvey while she was being raped, a device Sebold seems to be using to underscore the fact that Lindsey is an unwilling participant in the grief of her family and others around her—and thus indirectly another victim of Harvey’s crime.
As the weeks go on, Lindsey and Samuel find themselves—unchaperoned and alone in the heat of summer—consumed by lust for one another. They often sneak away from the group to kiss in the woods. They have not yet had sex—Samuel wants for everything to be perfect, but Lindsey simply wants to get it over with. Meanwhile, the lonely Ruth writes obsessively in her journal about Lindsey and Samuel’s relationship. Susie notes that Ruth writes everything down—her experience of having Susie’s soul pass by her, her subsequent dreams about Susie, the imagined interactions she wishes the two of them could have. Ruth struggles to figure out and understand her own sexuality and her desire for women—she writes in her journal that it is not so much that she wants to have sex with other women as that she wants to “disappear inside of them forever [and] hide.”
At the Gifted Symposium, Lindsey, Samuel, and Ruth find themselves alone and largely unsupervised. While Lindsey and Samuel explore their sexuality together and flirt with how far they are prepared to go, Ruth explores her own sexuality in isolation. Her obsession with women is both sexual and not-sexual. She wants to know how other women think, feel, and live, but this obsessive, compulsive need to spend time “inside” of other women’s lives reads as sexual and thus serves to confuse Ruth and those around her.
The last week of the symposium always concludes in a camp-wide competition to create a final project. Though the competition has not yet been announced, the kids all know that it will be a contest to build a superior mouse trap. Samuel begins preparing early, collecting orthodontic rubber bands from kids with braces for his design, while Lindsey nicks tinfoil from the camp cook for hers. Lindsey and Samuel talk together about how they don’t want to actually have to kill the mice. Samuel tells Lindsey that one of his friends, Artie, is building small coffins for the mice—Artie supposedly had a crush on Susie, and has asked Samuel a lot of questions about Lindsey, and how she’s holding up.
Even at the Gifted Symposium, which was at first a welcome respite from the atmosphere of crushing grief and overfamiliarity in Norristown, Lindsey cannot escape death—it is everywhere. As her time at the symposium goes on she finds it is harder and harder to shake her true identity, and the cracks in her armor begin to reveal themselves as camp draws to a close.
Susie, meanwhile, has spent less of her time in heaven watching from the gazebo, as she can see Earth when she walks through the fields of her heaven. If she walks too far, the landscape changes, and she realizes that she has left the boundaries of her heaven when a throbbing headache descends upon her. As the months have gone by, Susie has begun to wonder what the word “heaven” truly means—she wants to know where her grandparents are, and how she can reunite with them. Franny tells her that she can have that kind of heaven if she wants—she will, however, have to stop asking why she was killed, and cease her investigation of “the vacuum left by [her] loss.” Only in giving up Earth can Susie be free. Susie thinks that this proposition seems impossible.
As Lindsey attempts to escape the world of her grief, Susie leans more heavily on hers. She is so consumed by her own sense of injustice and longing for life back on Earth that she cannot even imagine coming to a place of peace and acceptance. The struggle Susie endures to “move on” from her own death mirrors the struggle her family is having—Susie and her family both want to move on and also fear what moving on means.
On one of the last nights of camp, Ruth creeps into Lindsey’s dorm. She tells Lindsey that she has just had a dream about Susie, and apologizes for the “incident” in the dining hall. Ruth crawls into Lindsey’s bed and tells her about the dream—she was inside the earth, and could feel Susie walking over her in the cornfield. As she called for Susie, her mouth filled with dirt. Lindsey confesses that she never dreams about her sister. Ruth asks Lindsey if she is in love with Samuel, and Lindsey answers that she is; Ruth asks Lindsey if she misses Susie, and Lindsey answers: “More than anyone will ever know.”
Ruth and Lindsey share this tender moment of connection despite having been at odds all summer. While Lindsey is trying to move away from her grief and obsession with Susie, Ruth is leaning into hers—this creates a tension between them, but in this moment, Lindsey reveals that despite all her efforts to appear tough and removed, she still longs for Susie deeply—just like Ruth does.
At the last minute, the theme of the competition changes. The kids at the symposium consider the fliers that have sprung up overnight around the camp: “CAN YOU GET AWAY WITH CRIME? HOW TO COMMIT THE PERFECT MURDER.” As Lindsey arrives at breakfast, she is oblivious to the fliers, and joins the food line. Artie comes up to her and introduces himself, then gently announces that they have changed the nature of the competition: it is now about how to commit the perfect murder.
As the competition changes to one of an even darker, more death-centric nature, it becomes clear to Lindsey that she will never be able to escape the constant reminders of her sister’s death that infiltrate her daily life.
Word spreads quickly through the symposium: Lindsey’s sister is Susie Salmon, the dead girl. Children chatter about how being stabbed to death is “cool,” and consider Susie Salmon “famous.” Nervously, children throughout the camp list people they know who have died, but none know anyone other than Susie who was murdered.
Lindsey cannot hide from the truth of who she is. In being so close to her sister’s death she has become a proxy for other people’s anxieties about death—and this is a role she will, she fears, have to play for the rest of her life.
Lindsey and Samuel, having left the breakfast tent, huddle together under a rowboat down by the lake. Lindsey tells Samuel that she’s okay; she knows that Artie was just trying to help her. As they lie together under the boat, Samuel becomes aroused, and Lindsey announces that she is ready to have sex. Susie watches, with admiration and jealousy, as Lindsey loses her virginity. In the walls of her own sex, Susie says, there is only “horror and blood;” in the walls of her sister’s, there are “windows.” Susie remarks that “How to Commit the Perfect Murder” is a frequently-played game in heaven. Susie always chooses an icicle, because the murder weapon melts away.
As Susie watches Lindsey and Samuel lose their virginities and have a positive, consensual sexual experience, she is excited but also deeply jealous. Susie dreamed of sex and romance while she was alive, but was cruelly and violently forced to offer up her own body in fulfilment of one man’s dark will. Lindsey, however, gets to choose to have sex with the person she loves, and the experience opens up new things for her, whereas Susie’s violent and torturous experience with sex was the last thing she ever knew.