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B E F O R E H A N N A H L E F T,

she asked if I was sure I’d be okay.

She had already waited an hour past when the doors were closed for winter break, until everyone but the custodians were gone. She had folded a load of laundry, written an email, searched her massive psychology textbook for answers to the final exam questions to see if she had gotten them right. She had run out of ways to fill time, so when I said, “Yes, I’ll be fine,” she had nothing left to do except try to believe me. I helped her carry a bag downstairs. She gave me a hug, tight and official, and said, “We’ll be back from my aunt’s on the twenty-eighth. Take the train down and we’ll go to shows.” I said yes, not knowing if I meant it. When I returned

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to our room, I found she’d snuck a sealed envelope onto my pillow. And now I’m alone in the building, staring at my name written in Hannah’s pretty cursive, trying to not let this tiny object undo me. I have a thing about envelopes, I guess. I don’t want to open it. I don’t really even want to touch it, but I keep telling myself that it will only be something nice. A Christmas card. Maybe with a special message inside, maybe with nothing but a signature. Whatever it is, it will be harmless. The dorms are closed for the monthlong semester break, but my adviser helped me arrange to stay here. The administration wasn’t happy about it. Don’t you have any family? they kept asking. What about friends you can stay with? This is where I live now, I told them. Where I will live until I graduate. Eventually, they surrendered. A note from the Residential Services Manager appeared under my door a couple days ago, saying the groundskeeper would be here throughout the holiday, giving me his contact information. Anything at all, she wrote. Contact him if you need anything at all. Things I need: The California sunshine. A more convincing smile. Without everyone’s voices, the TVs in their rooms, the faucets running and toilets flushing, the hums and dings of the microwaves, the footsteps and the doors slamming— without all of the sounds of living—this building is a new 2

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and strange place. I’ve been here for three months, but I hadn’t noticed the sound of the heater until now. It clicks on: a gust of warmth. I’m alone tonight. Tomorrow, Mabel will arrive and stay for three days, and then I’ll be alone again until the middle of January. “If I were spending a month alone,” Hannah said yesterday, “I would start a meditation practice. It’s clinically proven to lower blood pressure and boost brain activity. It even helps your immune system.” A few minutes later she pulled a book out of her backpack. “I saw this in the bookstore the other day. You can read it first if you want.” She tossed it on my bed. An essay collection on solitude. I know why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway two weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in—a stunned and feral stranger—and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me. Only an hour in, and already the first temptation: the warmth of my blankets and bed, my pillows and the fake-fur throw Hannah’s mom left here after a weekend visit. They’re all saying, Climb in. No one will know if you stay in bed all day. No one will know if you wear the same sweatpants for the entire month, if you eat every meal in front of television shows and use T-shirts as napkins. Go ahead and listen to that same song on repeat until its sound turns to nothing and you sleep the winter away. 3

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I only have Mabel’s visit to get through, and then all this could be mine. I could scroll through Twitter until my vision blurs and then collapse on my bed like an Oscar Wilde character. I could score myself a bottle of whiskey (though I promised Gramps I wouldn’t) and let it make me glow, let all the room’s edges go soft, let the memories out of their cages. Maybe I would hear him sing again, if all else went quiet. But this is what Hannah’s trying to save me from. The collection of essays is indigo. Paperback. I open to the epigraph, a quote by Wendell Berry: “In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.” My particular circle of the human has fled the biting cold for the houses of their parents, for crackling fireplaces or tropical destinations where they will pose in bikinis and Santa hats to wish their friends a Merry Christmas. I will do my best to trust Mr. Berry and see their absence as an opportunity. The first essay is on nature, by a writer I’ve never heard of who spends pages describing a lake. For the first time in a long time, I relax into a description of setting. He describes ripples, the glint of light against water, tiny pebbles on the shore. He moves on to buoyancy and weightlessness; these are things I understand. I would brave the cold outside if I had a key to the indoor pool. If I could begin and end each day of this solitary month by swimming laps, I would feel so

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much better. But I can’t. So I read on. He’s suggesting that we think about nature as a way to be alone. He says lakes and forests reside in our minds. Close your eyes, he says, and go there. I close my eyes. The heater clicks off. I wait to see what will fill me. Slowly it comes: Sand. Beach grass and beach glass. Gulls and sanderlings. The sound and then—faster—the sight of waves crashing in, pulling back, disappearing into ocean and sky. I open my eyes. It’s too much. The moon is a bright sliver out my window. My desk lamp, shining on a piece of scratch paper, is the only light on in all one hundred rooms of this building. I’m making a list, for after Mabel leaves. read the NYT online each morning buy groceries make soup ride the bus to the shopping district/library/café read about solitude meditate watch documentaries listen to podcasts find new music . . .

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I fill the electric kettle in the bathroom sink and then make myself Top Ramen. While eating, I download an audiobook on meditation for beginners. I press play. My mind wanders. Later, I try to sleep, but the thoughts keep coming. Everything’s swirling together: Hannah, talking about meditation and Broadway shows. The groundskeeper, and if I will need something from him. Mabel, somehow arriving here, where I live now, somehow making herself a part of my life again. I don’t even know how I will form the word hello. I don’t know what I will do with my face: if I will be able to smile, or even if I should. And through all of this is the heater, clicking on and off, louder and louder the more tired I become. I turn on my bedside lamp and pick up the book of essays. I could try the exercise again and stay on solid ground this time. I remember redwood trees so monumental it took five of us, fully grown with arms outstretched, to encircle just one of them. Beneath the trees were ferns and flowers and damp, black dirt. But I don’t trust my mind to stay in that redwood grove, and right now, outside and covered in snow, are trees I’ve never wrapped my arms around. In this place, my history only goes three months back. I’ll start here. I climb out of bed and pull a pair of sweats over my

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leggings, a bulky sweater over my turtleneck. I drag my desk chair to my door, and then down the hall to the elevator, where I push the button for the top floor. Once the elevator doors open, I carry the chair to the huge, arched window of the tower, where it’s always quiet, even when the dorm is full. There I sit with my palms on my knees, my feet flat on the carpet. Outside is the moon, the contours of trees, the buildings of the campus, the lights that dot the path. All of this is my home now, and it will still be my home after Mabel leaves. I’m taking in the stillness of that, the sharp truth of it. My eyes are burning, my throat is tight. If only I had something to take the edge off the loneliness. If only lonely were a more accurate word. It should sound much less pretty. Better to face this now, though, so that it doesn’t take me by surprise later, so that I don’t find myself paralyzed and unable to feel my way back to myself. I breathe in. I breathe out. I keep my eyes open to these new trees. I know where I am, and what it means to be here. I know Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not. I know that I am always alone, even when surrounded by people, so I let the emptiness in. The sky is the darkest blue, each star clear and bright. My palms are warm on my legs. There are many ways of

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being alone. That’s something I know to be true. I breathe in (stars and sky). I breathe out (snow and trees). There are many ways of being alone, and the last time wasn’t like this. Morning feels different. I slept until almost ten, when I heard the g­ round­skeeper’s truck on the drive below my room, clearing the snow. I’m showered and dressed now; my window lets in daylight. I choose a playlist and plug Hannah’s speakers into my computer. Soon an acoustic guitar strum fills the room, followed by a woman’s voice. Electric kettle in hand, I prop open my door on the way to the bathroom sink. The song follows me around the corner. I leave the bathroom door open, too. As long as I’m their only inhabitant, I should make these spaces feel more like mine. Water fills the kettle. I look at my reflection while I wait. I try to smile in the way I should when Mabel arrives. A smile that conveys as much welcome as regret. A smile with meaning behind it, one that says all I need to say to her so I don’t have to form the right words. I shut off the faucet. Back in my room, I plug in the kettle and pick up my yellow bowl from where it rests, tipped over to dry, from last night. I pour in granola and the rest of the milk from the tiny fridge wedged between Hannah’s desk and mine. I’ll be drinking my breakfast tea black this morning. 8

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In seven and a half hours, Mabel will arrive. I cross to the doorway to see the room as she’ll see it. Thankfully, Hannah’s brought some color into it, but it only takes a moment to notice the contrast between her side and mine. Other than my plant and the bowls, even my desk is bare. I sold back all of last semester’s textbooks two days ago, and I don’t really want her to see the book on solitude. I slip it into my closet—there’s plenty of room—and when I turn back, I’m faced with the worst part of all: my bulletin board without a single thing on it. I may not be able to do much about my smile, but I can do something about this. I’ve been in enough other dorm rooms to know what to do. I’ve spent plenty of time looking at Hannah’s wall. I need quotes from songs and books and celebrities. I need photographs and souvenirs, concert ticket stubs, evidences of inside jokes. Most of these are things I don’t have, but I can do my best with pens and paper and the printer Hannah and I share. There’s a song Hannah and I have been listening to in the mornings. I write the chorus from memory in purple pen, and then cut the paper in a square around the words. I spend a long time online choosing a picture of the moon. Keaton, who lives two doors down, has been teaching us all about crystals. She has a collection on her windowsill, always sparkling with light. I find the blog of a woman 9

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named Josephine who explains the healing properties of gemstones and how to use them. I find images of pyrite (for protection), hematite (for grounding), jade (for serenity). Our color printer clicks and whirrs. I regret selling my textbooks back so soon. I had sticky notes and faint pencil scrawls on so many of the pages. In history we learned about the Arts and Crafts movement, and there were all these ideas I liked. I search for William Morris, read essay after essay, trying to find my favorite of his quotes. I copy a few of them down, using a different color pen for each. I print them out, too, in various fonts, in case they’ll look better typed. I search for a redwood tree that resembles my memories and end up watching a minidocumentary on redwood ecosystems, in which I learn that during the summertime California redwoods gather most of their water from the fog, and that they provide homes to clouded salamanders, who have no lungs and breathe through their skin. I press print on a picture of a clouded salamander on bright green moss, and once the printer stops, I think I have enough. I borrow a handful of Hannah’s pushpins and arrange everything I’ve printed and written, and then step back and look. Everything is too crisp, too new. Each paper is the same white. It doesn’t matter that the quotes are interesting and pictures are pretty. It looks desperate. And now it’s almost three already and I’ve wasted these 10

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hours and it’s becoming difficult to breathe because six thirty is no longer far in the future. Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them. I don’t know how her Los Angeles life is. She doesn’t know Hannah’s name or what classes I’ve taken or if I’ve been sleeping. But she will only have to take one look at my face to know how I’m doing. I take everything off my bulletin board and carry the papers down the hall to the bathroom in the other wing, where I scatter them into the trash. There will be no way to fool her. The elevator doors open but I don’t step inside. I don’t know why I’ve never worried about the elevators before. Now, in the daylight, so close to Mabel’s arrival, I realize that if they were to break, if I were to get stuck inside alone, and if my phone weren’t able to get service, and no one was on the other end of the call button, I would be trapped for a long time before the groundskeeper might think to check on me. Days, at least. Mabel would arrive and no one would let her in. She would pound at the door and not even I would hear her. Eventually, she would get back in her cab and wait at the airport until she found a flight to take her home. 11

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She would think it was almost predictable. That I would disappoint her. That I would refuse to be seen. So I watch as the doors close again and then I head to the stairs. The cab I called waits outside, engine idling, and I make a crushed ice trail from the dorm lobby, thankful for Hannah’s spare pair of boots, which are only a tiny bit small and which she forced on me when the first snow fell. (“You have no idea,” she told me.) The cab driver steps out to open my door. I nod my thanks. “Where to?” he asks, once we’re both inside with the heat going strong, breathing the stale cologne-and-coffee air. “Stop and Shop,” I say. My first words in twenty-four hours. The fluorescent grocery-store lights, all the shoppers and their carts, the crying babies, the Christmas music—it would be too much if I didn’t know exactly what to buy. But the shopping part is easy. Microwave popcorn with extra butter flavor. Thin stick pretzels. Milk chocolate truffles. Instant hot chocolate. Grapefruit-flavored sparkling water. When I climb back into the cab, I have three heavy bags full of food, enough to last us a week even though she’ll only be here three days. The communal kitchen is on the second floor. I live on the third and I’ve never used it. I think of it as the place girls 12

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in clubs bake brownies for movie nights, or a gathering spot for groups of friends who feel like cooking an occasional dinner as a break from the dining hall. I open the refrigerator to discover it empty. It must have been cleaned out for the break. Instructions tell us to label all of our items with our initials, room number, and date. Even though I’m the only one here, I reach for the Sharpie and masking tape. Soon, food labeled as mine fills two of the three shelves. Upstairs in my room, I assemble the snacks on Hannah’s desk. It looks abundant, just as I’d hoped. And then my phone buzzes with a text. I’m here. It isn’t even six o’clock yet—I should still have a half hour at least—and I can’t help but torture myself by scrolling up to see all of the texts Mabel sent before this one. Asking if I’m okay. Saying she’s thinking of me. Wondering where the fuck am I, whether I’m angry, if we can talk, if she can visit, if I miss her. Remember Nebraska? one of them says, a reference to a plan we never intended to keep. They go on and on, a series of unanswered messages that seize me with guilt, until I’m snapped out of it by the phone ringing in my hand. I startle, answer it. “Hey,” she says. It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice since everything happened. “I’m downstairs and it’s fucking freezing. Let me in?” 13

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And then I am at the lobby door. We are separated by only a sheet of glass and my shaking hand as I reach to turn the lock. I touch the metal and pause to look at her. She’s blowing into her hands to warm them. She’s faced away from me. And then she turns and our eyes meet and I don’t know how I ever thought I’d be able to smile. I can barely turn the latch. “I don’t know how anyone can live anywhere this cold,” she says as I pull open the door and she steps inside. It’s freezing down here, too. I say, “My room is warmer.” I reach for one of her bags carefully, so our fingers don’t touch. I’m grateful for the weight of it as we ride the elevator up. The walk down the hallway is silent and then we get to my door, and once inside she sets down her suitcase, shrugs off her coat. Here is Mabel, in my room, three thousand miles away from what used to be home. She sees the snacks I bought. Each one of them, something she loves. “So,” she says. “I guess it’s okay that I came.”

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M A B E L I S F I N A L L Y WA R M E N O U G H .

She tosses her hat

onto Hannah’s bed, unwraps her red-and-yellow scarf. I flinch at the familiarity of them. All of my clothes are new. “I’d make you give me a tour, but there’s no way I’m going back out there,” she says. “Yeah, sorry about that,” I say, still fixed to her scarf and hat. Are they as soft as they used to be? “You’re apologizing for the weather?” Her eyebrows are raised, her tone is teasing, but when I can’t think of anything witty to say back, her question hovers in the room, a reminder of the apology she’s really come for. Three thousand miles is a long way to travel to hear someone say she’s sorry. “So what are your professors like?” Thankfully, I manage to tell her about my history

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professor, who swears during lessons, rides a motorcycle, and seems much more like someone you’d meet at a bar than in a lecture hall. This topic doesn’t make me a gifted conversationalist, but at least it makes me adequate. “At first I kept thinking all my professors were celibate,” I say. She laughs. I made her laugh. “But then I met this guy and he shattered the illusion.” “What building is his class in? We can do a window tour.” Her back is to me as she peers out at my school. I take a moment too long before joining her. Mabel. In New York. In my room. Outside, the snow covers the ground and the benches, the hood of the groundskeeper’s truck, and the trees. Lights on the pathways glow even though nobody’s here. It looks even emptier this way. So much light and only stillness. “Over there.” I point across the night to the furthermost building, barely lit up. “And where’s your lit class?” “Right here.” I point to the building next to us. “What else are you taking?” I show her the gym where I swim laps every morning and try, unsuccessfully, to master the butterfly stroke. I swim late at night, too, but I don’t tell her that. The pool is always eighty degrees. Diving in feels like plunging into nothing, 16

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not the icy shock I’ve known forever. No waves cold enough to numb me or strong enough to pull me under. At night the pool is quiet, and I swim laps and then just float, watching the ceiling or closing my eyes, all the sounds foggy and distant, the lifeguard keeping watch. It helps me get calm when the panic starts. But when it’s too late at night and the pool is closed and I can’t stop my thoughts, it’s Hannah who can steady me. “I just read the most interesting thing,” she’ll say from her bed, her textbook resting in her lap. And then she reads to me about honeybees, about deciduous trees, about evolution. It takes me a while, usually, to be able to listen. But when I do, I discover the secrets of pollination, that honeybees’ wings beat two hundred times per second. That trees shed their leaves not according to season, but according to rainfall. That before all of us there was something else. Eventually, something will take our place. I learn that I am a tiny piece of a miraculous world. I make myself understand, again, that I am in a dorm room at a college. That what happened has happened. It’s over. Doubt pushes in, but I use our twin beds and desks and closets, the four walls around us, the girls who neighbor us on both sides and the ones who neighbor them, the whole building and the campus and the state of New York to fend doubt off. 17

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We are what’s real, I tell myself as I fall asleep. Then, at six a.m., when the pool opens, I go swimming. A movement calls me back. Mabel, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Where’s the dining hall?” she asks. “You can’t see it from this window, but it’s across the courtyard in the back.” “What’s it like?” “Decent.” “I mean the people. The scene.” “Pretty mellow. I usually sit with Hannah and her friends.” “Hannah?” “My roommate. Do you see the building with the pointy roof? Behind those trees?” She nods. “That’s where my anthropology class is. It’s probably my favorite.” “Really? Not lit?” I nod. “Because of the professors?” “No, they’re both good,” I say. “Everything in lit is just too . . . ambiguous, I guess.” “But that’s what you like. All the differences in interpretation.” Is that true? I can’t remember.

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I shrug. “But you’re still an English major.” “No, I’m undeclared now,” I say. “But I’m pretty sure I’m going to switch to Natural Sciences.” I think I see a flash of annoyance cross her face, but then she smiles at me. “Bathroom?” she asks. “Follow me.” I lead her around the corner, then return to my room. Three days suddenly feels so long. Unfathomable, all the minutes Mabel and I will need to fill. But then I see her scarf on the bed, her hat next to it. I pick them up. They’re even softer than I remembered and they smell like the rosewater Mabel and her mom spray everywhere. On themselves and in their cars. In all the bright rooms of their house. I hold on to them and keep holding even when I hear Mabel’s footsteps approach. I breathe in the rose, the earthiness of Mabel’s skin, all the hours we spent in her house. Three days will never be enough. “I have to call my parents,” Mabel says from the doorway. I set down her things. If she noticed me holding them, she isn’t going to acknowledge it. “I texted them from the airport, but they’re so nervous about this. They kept giving me tips about driving in the snow. I kept saying, ‘I’m not going to be the one driving.’”

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She puts her phone to her ear, but even from across the room I can hear when they answer, both Ana’s voice and Javier’s, exuberant and relieved. The briefest fantasy: Mabel appears at the doorway, catches sight of me. She sits next to me on the bed, takes the hat, and sets it down. Takes the scarf from my hands and wraps it around my neck. Takes my hands and warms them in hers. “Yes,” she says, “the plane was fine. . . . I don’t know, it was pretty big. . . . No, they didn’t serve food.” She looks at me. “Yes,” she says. “Marin’s right here.” Will they ask to talk to me? “I have to go check on something,” I tell her. “Say hi for me.” I slip out the door and down the stairs to the kitchen. I open the refrigerator. Everything is exactly as I left it, neatly labeled and arranged. We could make ravioli and garlic bread, quesadillas with beans and rice on the side, vegetable soup, a spinach salad with dried cranberries and blue cheese, or chili with corn bread. I spend long enough away that by the time I get back Mabel has hung up.

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Bev says when she’s onstage she feels the world holding its breath for her. She feels electric, louder than a thousand wailing sirens, more powerful than God. “I thought you didn’t believe in God,” I say. She says, “Okay. More powerful than the universe, then.” Bev is the lead singer of a band called The Disenchant­ ments. They aren’t very good, but they play so loud the speakers crackle and the bass makes your bones tremble. And they look amazing. It’s almost 3:00 a.m. I am so tired I can barely stand, but I have to stand anyway and go out onto the living room couch so Bev can fall asleep. Even though we’ve been best

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friends since we were nine, she’s a girl and I’m a guy, and there are certain rules neither of us is powerful enough to challenge. “We need to pay for those tickets,” I say. Bev nods. “I mean, really soon, you know?” “Yeah.” “Like, tomorrow.” “Okay,” she says. “Good night.” She’s getting the way she gets sometimes, all faraway and quiet, so I say, “You’re tired; okay, I’m going.” I head to the door, but then I remember something and can’t help myself: “I read today that the Stockholm Archipelago has more than twenty-four thousand islands. Isn’t that rad? I can’t wait.” She kicks the comforter to the foot of my bed, pulls the sheet over her shoulder. “There’s also this amusement park that’s right in the middle of the city. An old cool one,” I add, “with one of those swing rides that lift over the water.” I turn off the light and step into the doorway. I can almost picture Bev and me, circling through the sky with islands all around us. Suddenly the room I’ve lived in all my life with its wood floors and high ceiling and single, skinny window feels smaller than it ever has before. Then, Bev’s voice through the dark: “Don’t forget about the tour. That comes first.” 4

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“I know,” I say. And then, “We’re almost free.” “Yeah,” Bev says. “Almost.”

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In the morning, Bev walks out of the bathroom in her cutoff shorts and the Smokey the Bear T-shirt we got in seventhgrade summer camp, to the kitchen, where my dad and I are eating cereal and reading the Chronicle. She rumples my dad’s hair and says, “Morning, Tom,” then opens the junk drawer and takes out a pair of scissors. She shuffles back to the bathroom. Dad looks at me from over the Bay Area section. “My son, going on tour.” He gets a little misty-eyed. I say, “What about, ‘My son, graduating high school.’ Probably a little more important.” “That, too,” he says, nodding. “This is a big day. A very big day. Your mother called when you were in the shower. She’ll call again a little later.” I check my watch. It’s 7:15 here, nine hours later in Paris. “Bev, we have to go soon,” I call into the bathroom. “Yeah, I’m just finishing something,” she calls back. “You can come in if you want.” I push open the door to find Bev with scissors raised and waves of blond hair drifting to the floor. I grab my toothbrush. “What is this?” I ask. “A symbolic gesture?” 5

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She chops off a long piece by her ear. “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s just something I felt like doing.” Sitting on the edge of the bathtub, I brush my teeth and watch her cut until her hair is as short as a guy’s and the tile floor is covered. I go to the sink to spit and she puts the scissors down, steps back, and studies herself. She kind of looks like a movie star and she kind of looks like one of those punk-rock homeless kids who panhandle on Haight Street. In any case, she looks incredible. “Rad,” I say. She cocks her head. “You think?” “Um, yeah.” I lean over the sink to rinse my mouth, and when I stand up again, there we are, standing side by side. Bev’s hair is barely a shade lighter than mine, and now almost the same length. Matching blue eyes, a similar darkness under them. “We didn’t get much sleep,” I say to her reflection. “We rarely do,” she says to mine. The phone rings in the other room. “I’ll sweep up,” she says, “and then we can go.” Dad comes into the bathroom with the phone, so now the three of us are crammed into the smallest room in the house. “Whoa, check you out,” he says to Bev, and Bev laughs, and Dad nods his approval and hands me the phone.

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“Bonjour, mon chéri,” Mom says to me from 5,567 miles away. The distance between San Francisco and Paris is one of the many facts I’ve picked up from Bev’s and my nights up late researching Europe. Like the number of islands in the Stock­holm Archipelago. Like the fact that in Amsterdam, there are more bicycles than there are people, and Holland supplies seventy percent of the world’s bacon, which is not really something I need to know considering that I’m a vegetarian. “Comment vas-tu?” “I’m good,” I say, propping the phone on my shoulder and taking my place at my dad’s desk. “I’m just about to pay for our tickets.” “C’est fantastique! I can’t wait to see you.” When she switches to English, she sounds more like herself. “I wish I could be there to see you off on your last day.” “I know,” I say. “It’s okay.” “We’ll celebrate for days when you and Bev get here.” “Sounds good.” “Ready?” Bev calls. “I’ve gotta go,” I tell Mom. “Good luck,” she says. “Je t’adore. Call from the road if you can.” Dad hands me my sketchbook as I’m hanging up, and I stick it in my backpack and say, “It’s almost like she’s forgetting how to speak English.”

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The Disenchantments

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He laughs, runs a hand through his gray-brown hair, and says, “Guess her language classes are working.” And then Bev and I are out the door into the San Fran­ cisco morning, rushing past the produce markets and welldressed strangers, catching the F train up Market Street just before it glides away.

The school day is a collection of moments—five good-byes from teachers; a free period spent retrieving my drawings from the airy studio; lunch from the taco stand, our mouths full, asking, Can you believe this is the last time we’ll all eat tacos on this street corner together? All of us answering, No, no. After school I lean against the building and look at the sea of rainbow-haired teenagers. Everyone is out on the lawn with portfolios and instruments and sculptures, signing yearbooks and playing music, setting down backpacks and kicking off shoes as though now that we’re free we’ve decided to stay here forever. I’m sketching Bev, who sits a few feet away from me practicing the verse of a new song while Meg plucks the strings of her bass guitar. Nearby, a group of ninth-grade girls watches them rehearse. One of the girls wears a Disenchantments shirt that we made for their first show. Bev and Meg came up with the concept—a close-up of a girl’s eyes with dark makeup and a tear starting to fall—and they had me draw it for them. I used Bev as a model and the first 8

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sketch turned out perfectly, and they had it printed in silver on these fitted black T-shirts that sold out the first night. It’s rare to hear Bev without a microphone, so I listen hard. She’s working out the vocal melody. One second she’s low and throaty, and the next she’s doing this badass breathy thing. Her head is turned away from me, and I’m sketching her neck, realizing that I’ve never seen it this exposed. Her hair has never been so short. “Hey,” someone says, and then this guy Craig sits down next to me. “So first the tour, and then Europe?” I nod. “We’ll be around here for a few days in between, though.” “That’s so cool,” he says. “I respect that. You’re doing something different, you know? You’re getting out there.” Even though this is San Francisco’s arts high school and people probably expect us all to go off and do unexpected and interesting things, everyone except Bev and me is going to college. When I told the college counselor our plan, she looked pained and asked me if I was sure, but I told her that, yeah, I was completely sure, had been completely sure since the summer after eighth grade when Bev and I found Bande á part in my parents’ DVD collection and watched it three times in a row. The counselor was worried but I didn’t let her get to me. Instead I told her about some Dutch guy who spent a fortune on a single tulip bulb, and how now there are tulip fields just thirty miles outside Amsterdam. “Picture it,” I told her, “fields of tulips.”

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The Disenchantments

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She softened a little, took off her glasses. “I’ve seen them,” she said. “You have? Were they great?” She nodded, and I swear she got a little emotional. “See?” I said. “This is what I’m talking about. If I had asked about, like, Biology 101 you probably wouldn’t even remember it.” “I’m not crying about tulips.” “Yeah, but you’re crying about the experience, right? Maybe not the tulips themselves, but whatever was happening when you saw the tulips, or the person who saw them with you. And the tulips were probably part of it.” “Yes,” she said. “They were part of it,” and then she cleared her throat and put her glasses back on and said, “Colby, going to college is incredibly important.” Eventually she gave up, and word quickly spread around campus that Bev and I were actually doing it. Leaving together after graduation. Going to Europe. And everyone wanted to talk about it, about where we were going to go and where we were going to stay, and how amazing it sounded and how they wished that they were going, too. Now, just a couple weeks before we leave, I glance up from my drawing toward Craig and say, “Remind me what school you chose?” Craig was in my art history class last semester. We didn’t talk that often, but he’s pretty cool. “Stanford,” he says. 10

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“Wow,” I say. “Yeah, well. We’re all off to college like a flock of fucking sheep, man, but not you.” Most people who hear about the plan think that Bev and I aren’t ever going to go to college, that we’re just going to bum around Europe forever. That isn’t really what we have in mind, though. We want to spend a year there, getting to know Paris, traveling to Amsterdam and Stockholm and maybe even Oslo or Helsinki. Lately I’ve been dreaming about bodies of water: the Seine, the canals in Amsterdam, the Archipelago. Bev and me on trains, moving from one new place to the next. And then whenever we’re done, whenever we’re ready, we’re going to come home and go to college. I explained this to the college counselor and I explained it to my parents, but I don’t explain it all to Craig. I just nod and say, “To each his own,” and draw the curve of Bev’s neck where it meets her shoulders.

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Part 1 THE VASTNESS


Chapter One Five texts are waiting for me when I get out of my English final. One is from Charlotte saying she finished early and decided to meet up with our boss, so she’ll see me at Toby’s house later. One is from Toby, saying, 7 p.m.: Don’t forget! And three are from Morgan. I don’t read those yet. I head off campus and a few blocks over to where I parked my car in an attempt to avoid the daily after-school gridlock. But of course the driver’s side lock won’t unlock when I turn the key, so I have to go around the passenger side and open the door and climb across the seat to pull up the other lock and shut the passenger door and go around to the driver’s side again—and by the time I’m through with that twenty-second process, the cars are already backed up at the light. So I inch into the road and pull out my phone and read what Morgan wrote. You okay? R u coming to set later? I miss you. I don’t write back. I am going straight to set, but not to see her. I need to measure the space between a piano and a bookshelf to see if the music stand I found on Abbot Kinney Boulevard yesterday will make things look too crowded. The music stand is beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that if it doesn’t fit I will find a new bookshelf, or rearrange the furniture entirely, because this is exactly what I would have in my practice room if I knew how to play an instrument. And if I


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Everything Leads to You could afford a nine-hundred-dollar music stand. As the light turns and I roll my car through the intersection, I’m trying to ignore Morgan’s texts and think only of the music stand. This music stand is a miracle. It’s exactly what I didn’t even know I was looking for. The part that holds the sheet music is this perfect oxidized green. When I texted my boss a picture of the stand she wrote back, Fucking amazing!!!! An expletive and four exclamation marks. And when I texted Morgan to tell her that this was the last time I would allow myself to get dumped by her, that breaking up and getting back together six times was already insane, and there was absolutely no way I would take her back a seventh, she replied with, I don’t know what to do! Indecisive and only mildly emphatic. So typical. But the music stand, the music stand. Turning right onto La Cienega, my phone rings and it’s Charlotte. “You need to come here,” she says. “Where?” “Ginger took me to an estate sale.” “A good one?” “You just have to come.” “Someone famous?” “Yes,” she says. “Sounds fun but I need to measure for that music stand.” “Emi,” she says. “Trust me. You need to come here now.” So I scribble down the address, make a U-turn, and head toward the Hollywood Hills. I drive up Sunset and roll down all the windows, partly because the air-conditioning doesn’t


Nina LaCour work and it’s ninety degrees, but mostly because I’m driving past palm trees and hundreds of beauty parlors and taco trucks and doughnut shops and clothing stores and nightclubs, and I like to take it all in and think about how Los Angeles is the best place in the world. I turn when my phone tells me to turn and start ascending the hills, where the roads become narrower and the houses more expensive. I keep going, higher than I’ve ever gone, until the houses are not only way bigger and nicer than the already big, nice houses below them, but also farther apart. And, finally, I turn into a driveway that I’m pretty sure has never before encountered a beat-up hatchback with locks that don’t work. I park under the branches of old, gorgeous trees that are full and green in spite of the arrival of summer, step out of my car, lean against the bumper, and take a look at this house. My job has taken me to a lot of ridiculously nice houses, but this one stands out. It’s older and grander, but there’s more to it than that. It just feels different. More significant. I’m not thinking about Morgan and thinking instead about who might have owned this house. It was probably someone old, which is good, because an estate sale means someone has died, and it’s sad to dig through thirty-year-old people’s stuff and think about the futures they could have had. The double front doors swing open and Charlotte steps into the sun. Her jeans are rolled up at the ankles and her blond hair is in pigtails, and her face is part serious, part elated. “Guess,” she says. I try to think of who has died in the last couple of weeks. My first thought is our physics teacher’s grandmother, but I

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Everything Leads to You seriously doubt she would have lived in a house like this one. Then I think of someone else, but I don’t say anything because the thought is crazy. This death is huge. Front-page huge. Every-time-I-turn-on-the-radio huge. But then—there’s this house, which is clearly an important house, and old, beautiful trees, and Charlotte’s mouth, which is twitching under the tremendous effort of not smiling. Plus it isn’t swarming with people, which means this is some kind of preview that Ginger got invited to because she’s a famous production designer and she always gets called to these things first. “Holy shit,” I say. And Charlotte starts nodding. “You’re not serious.” Her hands fly to her face because she’s giddy with the delirious laughter of someone who has spent the last hour in the house of a man who was arguably the most emblematic actor in American cinema. Clyde Jones. Icon of the American Western. She leans against the house, doubles over, slides onto the marble landing. I let her have one of her rare hysterical fits of laughter as I take it all in. I can’t think of enough expletives to perfectly capture this moment. I would need a year’s worth of exclamation points. So I just stare, openmouthed, thinking of the man who used to live here. Charlotte’s hysterics die down, and soon she is standing, composed again, back to her super-brilliant, future museum-studies-major self.


Nina LaCour “Come in,” she says. I pause in the colossal doorway. Outside is bright and hot, a beautiful Los Angeles day. Inside it’s darker. I can feel the air-conditioning escaping. Even though this is an amazing opportunity that will never come again, I don’t know if I should go any farther. The thing is this: My brother, Toby, and I talk all the time about what movies do. They speak to our desires, which are never small. They allow us to escape and to dream and to gaze into eyes that are impossibly beautiful and huge. When you live in LA and work in the movies, you experience the collapse of some of that fantasy. You know that the eyes glow like that because of lights placed at a specific angle, and you see the actresses up close and, yes, they are beautiful, but they are human size and imperfect like the rest of us. This, though, is different. Because even if you know a little bit too much about how movies are made, there are always things you don’t know. You can hold on to the myth surrounding the actors; you can get swept up in the story. Clyde Jones belongs in the Old West. He belongs under the stars, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to the wind. In A Long Time Till Tomorrow he lived in a log cabin. In Lowlands he lived out of a green pickup truck, sleeping by the side of the road a couple hours at a time, searching for a woman from his past. Clyde Jones is the savior. The good, uncomplicated man. The perfect cowboy. But as soon as I walk through this doorway he will be an actor who spent his life in a Los Angeles mansion. The ultimate collapse of the fantasy.

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Everything Leads to You “Em?” Charlotte says. She steps to the left, gesturing that I should follow, and I can’t help myself. A moment later I’m in Clyde Jones’s foyer, the doors shut behind me, gazing at one of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever beheld: a low-hanging chandelier, geometric and silver and shining. Clyde Jones was no cowboy, but his aesthetic sensibilities were amazing. I’m still dying over Clyde’s house when Ginger strides past me. “Oh, good, Emi, you made it.” Charlotte and I follow her into the living room. “Yeah,” I say, standing under the high white-beamed ceiling, next to what I can only assume is a pair of original Swan chairs positioned under a huge pastoral landscape with a clear sky as endless as the skies in his films. “It’s probably better that I don’t go to the studio today.” “These glasses,” Ginger says, pointing, and Charlotte walks over to a shiny minibar and takes a tray of highball glasses. “Why should you avoid the studio? Oh, let me guess: Morgan.” “She broke up with me.” “Again?” “Something about not being tied down. Life’s vast possibilities.” “‘Life’s vast possibilities.’ Such bullshit,” Charlotte says, setting the glasses next to a group of other beautiful objects that Ginger must have already chosen. I say, “Yeah,” but only because that’s what Charlotte needs me to say. Charlotte is the kind of friend who automatically hates everyone who has ever done me wrong. The first time


Nina LaCour Morgan broke up with me and we got back together, Charlotte tried her best to get over it and be nice to Morgan. But somewhere around the third time, Charlotte got rude. Stopped saying hi. Stopped smiling around her. By now, Charlotte can’t even hear Morgan’s name without clenching her jaw. Ginger shoots me a sympathetic look. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “I’m done with movie people.” And then we all laugh, because really. What a ridiculous thing to say.

~ When Ginger is finished choosing what she wants, she lets Charlotte and me explore for a while and see if there’s anything we want to buy. We find ourselves in Clyde’s study, which has to be the size of my brother’s entire apartment. It has high ceilings supported by thick wooden beams and an entire wall of windows with doors that slide open to the land in back. Of all the rooms, this one feels the most Western. There’s an enormous rustic table that he must have used as a desk and a collection of leather chairs arranged in a semicircle facing a cavernous fireplace. Shelves line the entirety of one of the side walls, and covering the shelves are hundreds of awards including four Oscars, along with objects from his films: cowboy hats and guns and silver belt buckles. Most people our age don’t know or care very much about Clyde. His career is long over. His roles were rarely sophisticated or smart; there isn’t much to recommend him to my generation. But my brother has eclectic tastes, and when he loves something, it becomes nearly impossible not to

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love it along with him. So over the years I became infatuated with the moment that Clyde appears on the horizon or in the saloon or riding through tall grass toward the woman he loves. Standing in his study now feels both unexpected and inevitable. And, more than those things, it feels  meaningful. Like all of Clyde’s arrivals. Like, without knowing it, everything I’ve done has been building toward this moment. ”Are you all right?” Charlotte asks me. I just nod, because how could I describe this feeling in a way that would make sense? There is no logic behind it. I pick up one of the belt buckles. It’s heavier than I thought it would be, and more beautiful up close: the smooth silhouette of a bucking horse with a rough mountain and waning moon in the background. “I’m going to see how much they’re asking for this,” I say. Charlotte cocks her head. “You’re choosing a belt buckle?” “It’s for Toby,” I say, and Charlotte blushes because she’s been in love with my brother forever. Reminded, I check my phone and see that we’re supposed to meet up with him in just under two hours. Charlotte’s flipping through records. She pulls out a Patsy Cline album. “I can’t get over this,” she says. “Clyde Jones used to sit on these chairs and listen to this record.” We find Ginger signing a credit card slip for over twenty thousand dollars, which might explain why, when we show the estate sale man the belt buckle and Patsy Cline record, he beams at us and says, “My gift to you.”


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“Charlotte, will you get Harrison on the phone?” Charlotte does, and hands the phone to the man to arrange a pickup, and then we are back in Clyde’s hot driveway, out of his house forever.

~ Toby lives in a classic LA courtyard apartment, like the one in David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive, which chooses to focus on the darker side of the movie business, and also the one in Melrose Place, which was a nineties TV show set in West Hollywood that my dad lectures about in his Pop Culture of Los Angeles course at UCLA. Toby’s courtyard has a tidy green lawn and a pretty fountain, and from the side of his cottage you can see a tiny strip of the ocean. We walk in, and there is his stuff, packed, waiting by the door. A set of matching suitcases that look so grown up. He hugs us both. Me first and long, Charlotte next and quicker. Then he stands and faces us, my tan brother with his crooked smile and black hair that’s always in his eyes. I feel sad, and then I push the sadness away because of what we have to tell him. “Toby,” I say. “We spent the afternoon in Clyde Jones’s house.” “You’re shitting me,” he says, his eyes wide. “No,” Charlotte says. “Not at all.” “His house was full of the most amazing—” I start, but Toby puts his hands over his ears. “Dont’tellmedon’ttellmedon’ttellme,” he says. “Okay,” I say.


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“The collapse of the fantasy,” he says. I know, I mouth, all exaggerated so he can read my lips. “I love Clyde Jones,” he says, dropping his hands. I nod. “Not another word on the subject,” I say. “But I do have something for you. Close your eyes.” My brother does as told and holds out his hands. I pretend I don’t notice Charlotte staring at him, and place the belt buckle in his cupped palms. He opens his eyes. Doesn’t say anything. I wonder whether I chose the wrong object, and then I realize that tears are starting. “Oh, please,” I say. “Holy. Shit.” He blinks rapidly to compose himself. Then he rushes to his bookshelf of DVDs and pulls one out. He’s mumbling to himself as he turns on his TV and waits for the chapter selection to appear on the screen. “Saloon door . . . I’m a man of the law but that don’t make me honest . . . Round these parts . . . Yes!” He’s found the scene, and we all squeeze onto my parents’ old sofa, me in the middle acting as a buffer for the sexual tension between my brother and my best friend. Toby presses play and turns up the volume. I recognize it as The Strangers, but I’ve only seen it a couple times so I’ve forgotten a lot of what’s happening. The scene begins with a shot of a saloon door. We hear the voices of the people inside but the camera doesn’t turn to them. When one person matters so much, all you can do is wait for his arrival. And then boots appear at the bottom of the door, a hat above it. The doors burst open and there stands Clyde Jones. The screen fills with a close-up of his young, knowing


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face, shaded by a cowboy hat. He scans the saloon until he sees the sheriff, drinking at a table with one of the bad guys. The camera shifts to his cowboy boots as they stomp across the worn wooden floor toward the sheriff and his buddy, who both spring up from the table and draw their guns as soon as they see Clyde. Unfazed, Clyde deadpans, “I thought you were a man of the law.” Sheriff: “I’m a man of the law but that don’t make me honest.” The bad cowboy doesn’t say anything, but looks borderline maniacal as he points the gun at Clyde. Then Clyde says, “Round these parts, lawlessness is a disease. I have a funny suspicion I know how to cure it.” The camera moves down to his holster, and Toby shouts, “Look!” and presses pause. There’s the belt buckle: the horse, that hill, the moon. Charlotte says, “That’s amazing!” I say, “Toby. I am seriously worried about you. Of all the Clyde Jones movies and all the belt buckles, how did you know that this buckle was in this scene of this movie?” But Toby is doing a dance around his living room, ignoring me, reveling in the glory of his new possession. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he chants. After a while Toby calms down enough that we can watch the rest of the movie, which goes by quickly. Clyde kills all the bad guys. Gets the girl. The end. “Okay,” Toby says. “I asked you both here for a reason. Come to the table.”


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I’m trying to hold on to the good feeling of the last hour, but the truth is I’m getting sad again. Toby is about to leave for two months to scout around Europe for this film that starts shooting soon. It’s stupid of me—it’s only two months, and it’s a huge promotion for him—but Toby and I spend a lot of time together so it feels like a big deal. Plus he’s going to miss my graduation, which I shouldn’t care about because I’ve been over high school for a long time. But I do care just a little bit. Toby opens the door to the patio off the kitchen and the night air floods in. He pours us some iced tea he gets from an Ethiopian place around the corner. The people there know him and sell it to him in a plastic pitcher that he takes back and gets refilled every couple days. They don’t do it for anyone else, only Toby. When we’re seated at the round kitchen table, he says, “So, you know how I put up that ad to sublet my place? Well, I got all these responses. People were willing to spend mad cash to live here for two months.” “Sure,” I say. Because it’s obvious. His place is small but super adorable. It’s this happy mix of Mom and Dad’s old worn-in furniture and castoffs from sets I’ve worked on and things we picked up from Beverly Hills yard sales, where rich people sell their expensive stuff for cheap. It’s just a few blocks from Abbot Kinney, and a few blocks more from the beach. “Yeah,” he says. “So it was seeming like it was gonna work. But then I had a better idea.” He takes a sip of his tea. Ice clinks. Charlotte leans forward in her chair. But me, I sit back. I know my brother, the master of good ideas, is waiting for the right moment to reveal his latest plan.


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Finally, he says, “I’m letting you guys have it.” “Whaaaat?” I say. Charlotte and I turn to each other, as if to confirm that we both just heard the same thing. We shake our heads in wonder. And then I can’t help it, I think of the third time Morgan broke up with me, when her reason was that I was younger (only three years!) and lived with my parents. Would it make a difference to her whether I lived here instead? Or is this time really about the vastness or whatever? Charlotte says, “Are you serious?” And Toby grins and says, “Completely. It’s my graduation present to both of you. But there’s a condition.” “Of course,” I say, but he ignores me. “I want you to do something with the place. Something epic. And I don’t mean throw a party. I mean, something great has to take place here while I’m gone.” “Like what?” I ask. I’m a little worried, but excited, too. Toby’s the kind of person whose greatness makes other people want to rise to any occasion. Everything he does is somehow larger than life, which is how he worked his way from a summer job as one of the parking staff to a full-time job as the location manager’s assistant. And then, last month, at the age of twenty-two, he became the youngest location scout in the studio’s recent history. “That’s all I’m gonna say on the subject,” he says. “The rest is up to you.” We try asking more questions but when we do he just sits back and smiles. So the conversation shifts to The Agency, the film he’s scouting for. I get to design a room for it, too, which will be my biggest job yet. It’s a huge-budget movie with a young ensemble cast—Charlie Hayden and Emma Perez and


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Justin Stark—all the really big young actors. It’s a spy adventure, but the room I’m designing is for one of the girls when she’s still supposed to be in high school, before they all become spies and start traveling around the world. It’s probably going to be a stupid movie, but I’m thrilled about it anyway. A few weeks ago, Toby and I got to go to a party with the director and the whole cast and crew. I hung out with these stars whose faces are on posters all across the world. That’s just one example of the kinds of things I get to do because of Toby. Too soon, a knock comes on Toby’s door—what is now for two months my door—and the film studio driver sweeps his suitcases into the trunk and then sweeps up my brother, too. Toby dangles the keys out the window, then looks out at me and says, “Epic.” The car pulls away and we wave and then it turns a corner and is gone. And Charlotte and I are left on the curb outside the apartment. I sit down on the still-warm concrete. “Epic,” I say. “We’ll think of something,” Charlotte says, sitting next to me. We sit in silence for a while, listening to the neighbors. They talk and laugh, and soon some music starts. I’m trying to push away the heavy feeling that’s descending now, that has been so often lately, but I’m having trouble. A few months ago it seemed like high school was going to last forever, like our college planning was for a distant and indistinct future. I could hang out with Charlotte without feeling a good-bye looming, take for granted every spur-of-the-moment plan with


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my brother, sneak out at night to drive up to Laurel Canyon with Morgan and lie under blankets in the back of her truck without worrying that it would be the last time. But now the University of Michigan is taking my best friend from me in just over two months, and my brother is off to Europe tonight and who knows where else after that. Morgan is free to kiss any girl she wants. I expected graduation to feel like freedom, but instead I’m finding myself a little bit lost. My phone buzzes. Why didn’t you come to work? I hide Morgan’s name on the screen and ignore Charlotte’s questioning look. “Hey, we should listen to that record you got,” I say, and Charlotte says, “Nice way to avoid the question,” and I say, “Patsy Cline sounds like a perfect way to end the evening,” which is a total lie. I don’t know why Charlotte likes that kind of music. But I fake enthusiasm as she takes the record out of its sleeve and places it on Toby’s record player and lowers the needle. We lie on Toby’s fluffy white rug (I got it from a pristine Beverly Hills yard sale for Toby’s twenty-first birthday, along with some etched cocktail glasses) and listen to Patsy sing her heart out. Each song lasts approximately one minute so we just listen as song after song plays. Truthfully? I actually like it. I mean, the heartbreak! Patsy knew what she was singing about, that’s for sure. It’s like she knows I have a phone in my pocket with texts from a girl who I wish more than anything really loved me. Patsy is telling me that she understands how hard it is not to text Morgan back. She might even be saying Dignity is overrated. You know what trumps dignity? Kissing.


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And I might be sending silent promises to Patsy that go something like Next time Charlotte gets up to go to the bathroom I’ll just send a quick text. Just a short one. “That was such a good song,” Charlotte says. “Oh,” I say. “Yeah.” But I kind of missed it because Patsy and I were otherwise engaged and I swear that song only lasted six seconds. “I wonder who wrote it,” she says, standing and stretching and making her way to the album cover resting against a speaker. This is probably my moment. She’ll look at the song list and get her answer and then she’ll head to the bathroom and I will write something really short like Let’s talk tomorrow or I still love you. “Hank Cochran and Jimmy Key,” she says. “I love those lines ‘If still loving you means I’m weak, then I’m weak.’” “Wow,” I say. It’s like Patsy is giving me permission to give in to how I feel. “Are the lyrics printed?” I ask, sitting up. “Yeah, here.” Charlotte steps over and hands me the record sleeve, and as I take it something flutters out. I pick it up off the rug. “An envelope.” I check to see if it’s sealed. It is. I turn it over and read the front. “‘In the event of my death, hand-deliver to Caroline Maddox of 726 Ruby Avenue, Apartment F. Long Beach, California.’” “What? ” Charlotte says. “Oh my God,” I say. “Do you think Clyde wrote that?” We study the handwriting for a long time. It’s that old-guy handwriting, cursive and kind of shaky, but neat. Considering that 1) Clyde lived alone, and 2) this record belonged to


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Clyde, and 3) Clyde was an old man who probably had oldman handwriting, we decide that the answer to my question is Definitively Yes. The feeling I had in Clyde’s study comes back. The envelope in my hand is important. This moment is important. I don’t know why, but I know that it’s true. “We should go there now,” I say. “To Long Beach? We should probably let the estate sale manager know, don’t you think? Should we really be the ones to do this?” I shake my head. “I don’t want to give it to someone else,” I say. “This might sound crazy but remember when you asked me if I was doing okay earlier?” “Yeah.” “I just had this feeling that, I don’t know, that there was something important about me being there, in Clyde Jones’s house. Beyond the fact that it was just amazing luck.” “Like fate?” she asks. “Maybe,” I say. “I don’t know. Maybe fate. It felt like it.” Charlotte studies my face. “Let’s just try,” I say. “Well, it’s after ten. It would be almost eleven by the time we got there,” Charlotte says. “We can’t go tonight.” I know as well as Charlotte that we can’t just show up on someone’s doorstep at eleven with an envelope from a dead man. “My physics final is at twelve thirty,” I say. “Yours?” “Twelve thirty,” she says. “I can’t go after because I have to get that music stand and


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then get to set. I guess we’ll have to go in the morning.” Charlotte nods, and we get out our phones to see how long it will take us to get to Long Beach. Without traffic, it would take forty minutes, but there is always traffic, especially on a weekday morning, which means it could take well over an hour, and we need to leave time for Caroline Maddox to tell us her life story, and we have to make sure we get back before our finals start, which means we have to leave . . . “Before seven?” I say. “Yeah,” Charlotte says. We are less than thrilled, but whatever. We are going to hand-deliver a letter from a late iconic actor to a mysterious woman named Caroline.


Chapter Two We get on the road at 6:55, glasses full of Toby’s iced tea because it was either that or some homemade kombucha that neither of us was brave enough to try. Toby does yoga, eats lots of raw foods. It’s one of the areas in life where we diverge, which is probably good since we’re alike in almost every other way: a love for the movies, a love for girls, an energy level other people sometimes find difficult to tolerate for extended periods of time. Charlotte and I spend a while in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405. I allow Charlotte twenty minutes of public radio, and then when I am thoroughly newsed-out I turn on The Knife, because I am a firm believer that important moments in life are best with a sound track, and this will undoubtedly be one of those moments. “Who do you think she is?” I ask, switching into the right lane. Charlotte’s holding Clyde’s envelope, studying Caroline’s carefully written name. “Maybe an ex-girlfriend?” she says. “She’ll probably be old.” I try to think of other possibilities, but Clyde Jones is famous for being a bit of a recluse. He had some high-profile affairs when he was young, but that’s ancient history, and it’s common knowledge that he died without a single family member. With relatives out of the question, I can’t think of many good answers. We exit the freeway onto Ruby Avenue. “I’m getting nervous,” I say. Charlotte nods.


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“What if it’s traumatic for her? Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to do this before our finals. What if Caroline needs us or she passes out from shock or something?” “I doubt that will happen,” Charlotte says. Neither of us has been on Ruby Avenue, so we don’t know what to expect. But we do know that as we get closer to the address it becomes clear that whoever Caroline Maddox is, she doesn’t live the same kind of life Clyde did. Number 726 is one of those sad apartment buildings that look like motels, two stories with the doors lined up in rows. We park on the street and look at the apartment through the rolled-up window of my car. “Maybe she’ll be someone he didn’t know that well. Like a waitress from a restaurant he went to a lot. Or maybe he had a daughter no one knew about. From an affair or something.” “Yeah, maybe,” Charlotte says. We get out of the car. After climbing the black metal stairs to the second story and knocking on the door of apartment F, I whisper, “Is it okay for us to ask what’s inside? Like, to have her open it in front of us?” Charlotte shakes her head no. “Then how will we ever know? Will we follow up with her?” “Shhh,” she says, and the door opens to a shirtless man, holding a baby on his hip. “Hello,” Charlotte says, professional but friendly. “Is Caroline home by any chance?”


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The guy looks from Charlotte to me, shifts his baby to the other hip. He has longish hair, a shell necklace. A surfer who ended up miles from the beach. “Sorry,” he says. “No Caroline here.” Charlotte looks at the address on the envelope. “This is 726, right?” “Yeah. Apartment F. Just three of us, though. Little June, myself, my wife, Amy.” “Do you mind my asking how long you’ve lived here?” Charlotte asks. “About three years.” “Do you know if a Caroline lived here before you?” He shakes his head. “I think a dude named Raymond did. We get his mail sometimes.” I turn to Charlotte. “Maybe she left a forwarding address with the landlord.” She turns to the surfer. “Does the manager live in the building?” He nods. “Hold on,” he says, disappears for a moment, and returns without the baby. He slides on flip-flops and joins us outside. “It’s hard to describe. I’ll lead you there.” We follow him down the stairs. “Awesome weather,” he says. I say, “Well, yeah. It is LA.” “True,” he says. We walk along a path on the side of the building until we reach a detached cottage. He knocks on the door. We wait. Nothing. “Hmm,” he says. “Frank and Edie. They’re old. Almost always home. Must be grocery day.”


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He pulls a phone out of his pocket. “I can give you their number,” he says, scrolling through names, and Charlotte enters it into her phone.

~ Walking back to the car, I say, “If we can’t find Caroline, are we allowed to open the envelope?” “We should really try to find her.” “I know. But if we don’t.” “Maybe,” she says. “Probably.” I hand Charlotte my keys and she unlocks her side, gets in, leans over and unlocks mine. I start the car and look at the time. “We could have slept an extra hour,” Charlotte says. “Let’s call the managers now,” I say. “Maybe they were sleeping.” But she calls and gets their machine. “Good morning,” she says. “My name is Charlotte Young. I’m trying to get in touch with a former tenant of yours. I’m hoping you might have some forwarding information. If you could call me back, I would appreciate it.” She leaves her number and hangs up. Sometimes she sounds so professional that I can’t believe the girl talking is also my best friend. At work, as long as I do my job well I don’t have to talk like an adult because I’m one of the creatives. But Charlotte helps with logistics and phone calls and scheduling and making sure people show up when they are supposed to. “I hope they call back,” I say, noticing a brief ebb in the traffic and making a U-turn in the middle of the block.


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“I’ll follow up if they don’t,” Charlotte says. “But if we can’t reach them, and we can’t find Caroline, then we’ll open the letter,” I say. “Right?” “Maybe,” she says. “But we’re really going to try to find Caroline.”

~ After my physics final and my Abbot Kinney stop, I drive to the studio, a little nauseous. Heartbreak is awful. Really awful. I wish I could listen to sad songs alone in my car until I felt over her. But I can’t even talk about it with Charlotte, and I have to finish designing the room I’m working on now, even though I know Morgan will be on set with her sleeves pushed up and her tight jeans on and her short hair all messy and perfect. I pull into the studio entrance and the guard waves me through, and I roll past Morgan’s vintage blue truck and into an open spot a few cars away, trying not to think of the first time I sat in the soft, upholstered passenger’s seat and all the times that followed that one. Morgan is off in a far corner of the set, but I see her first and then she’s all I see. Filling everything. I’m carrying the music stand and I set it down in the room, but even though I’m looking at it and running my hand along its smooth wooden base, I can barely register that it’s here. Ginger says something and I say something back. She laughs and I fake-laugh and then I move a picture frame over a couple inches and immediately move it back. And then Morgan is next to me asking if I got her texts, touching me on the waist in the way that makes my stomach feel like a rag someone is squeezing.


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I nod. Yes. I got them. “I miss you,” she says. I don’t say anything back because we’ve done this so many times before and I promised myself that I wouldn’t do it again. She can’t break up with me and then act like she’s the one who’s hurt. All I want is to flirt with her on set, to ride around in her cute truck talking all day, and dance with her at parties and lay poolside at her apartment and kiss. All the things we used to do. All the things we could be doing now if she weren’t busy wondering if the world holds better things for her than me. “Your shirt’s cute,” she says, but I don’t say anything, just lean over to smooth down the edge of the colorful, patterned rug we’re standing on. This morning I tried on seven outfits before deciding on these cute green shorts and this kind of revealing, strappy white tank top. I thought it looked summery and fun and, I’ll admit, really good on me. But now I think I should have worn something I always wear so that Morgan wouldn’t notice it was different and thus I wouldn’t appear to be trying to look different. I bend down to adjust the rug again, and it really does look good, the way the green in the music stand brings out the colors in the pattern, and I’m finding myself actually able to think of something other than her until she says, “Emi, are you not talking to me?” And I stand up and say, “No, no, that’s not it.” Because it isn’t. I’m not trying to be childish or standoffish. I’m not trying to be mean. But I can’t tell her that I’m not talking because I’m afraid that I’ll cry if I do. The humiliation


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of being broken up with six times is brutal. And really, there might not be much worse than being at work with all of the people whose respect you want to earn while your first real love tells you you look pretty because she wants you to feel a little less crushed by the fact that she doesn’t love you back. I force a smile and say, “Check out this stand. Isn’t it perfect?” knowing that she’ll like it almost as much as I do. “Yeah,” she says. “The whole room looks really, really good.” I take a step back and look at it. Morgan’s right. The room is supposed to be the basement practice space for a teenage-band geek named Kira. She doesn’t have a big part in the movie, but there’s an important scene that takes place in this room, and it’s the first set I’ve designed on my own. I started with actual kid stuff. Trophies from thrift stores that I polished to make seem only a couple years old. Concert posters of a couple popular bands whose members play trumpets, which this character plays. So much sheet music that it’s spilling off shelves, piled on every available surface. All of these normal things, but then a few extravagances, because this is the movies. A white bubble chandelier that lets out this beautiful soft light; a really shiny, really expensive trumpet; a handwoven rug. And now, the music stand. I feel overwhelmingly proud of myself for pulling this off, and completely in love with the movie business. “So now you’re just waiting on the sofa?” I turn to the last empty wall where the sofa will go, and nod. “Any leads?”


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I shake my head. No. “It needs to be perfect,” I say. Early in the movie, Kira loses her virginity. She loses it to a guy who doesn’t love her, but she doesn’t know that in the moment. They have sex, not in her bedroom, but on a sofa in this practice room, the room that I am dressing, and I know that the scene will be disturbing because the secret is out to everyone except Kira that the guy isn’t worth losing anything to. I’ve been trying to track down the sofa since I got the assignment. I know what I want. I know that it’s going to be a vivid green, a soft material. The scene will be painful but the sofa will comfort her. It needs to be worn-in and look a little dated because it’s the basement practice room; it’s where the cast-off furniture goes after it’s been replaced by newer and better things. But it also needs to be special enough to have been saved. From across the studio, a guy calls to Morgan, asking her a question about plaster. Morgan is a scenic, which means that she builds the decorative elements of the sets before people like me come along and fill them. She can turn clean, white walls into the crumbling sides of a castle. She can turn an indoor space into a garden. She’s an artist. It hurts to be this close to her. “I have to go help him,” she tells me. “But maybe we can grab dinner later. Talk. I’ll check back in before I’m off?” I nod. She walks away. Then I text Charlotte: Intervention needed.


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Luckily, Charlotte’s on the lot, working a couple buildings over. She tells me to meet her in the parking lot at exactly six o’clock.

~ After a couple hours of tinkering with my room and helping some of the set dressers, I say good-bye to Ginger (who tells me for the twentieth time how great everything looks) and find Morgan outside with her hands covered in plaster. I tell her, “Charlotte needs my help, so I’m not going to be able to have dinner. We’re in the middle of this really crazy mystery.” I wait for her to ask what it is. I get ready to say, We’re trying to fulfill Clyde Jones’s dying wish, for the awe to register on her face. But she just says, “No problem. Another time.” Another time. A period, not a question mark. As if it’s such a sure thing that I will say yes. I back my car up alongside Charlotte’s so that, with our driver’s side windows open, we can talk to each other without getting out. “Thanks,” I say. “Anytime I can save you from making yet another terrible mistake with that girl please let me know,” she says. Which is a little harsh, but something I probably deserve. “Did the old people call you?” I ask. “No. I wanted to wait for you before trying again.” I hop out of my car and cross around to hers. She puts her phone on speaker and dials. It rings. We wait. And wait. And then an old man’s loud voice says hello.


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“Hi,” Charlotte says. “I’m sorry to bother you. I left you a message this morning. My name is—” “Hey, Edie!” the man yells. “It’s that girl from this morning! Calling us back!” Charlotte and I widen our eyes in amusement. “Now,” Frank says. “I couldn’t quite make out your phone number in the message. Yes! The girl from this morning! Let me see if I can find what I wrote down. Tell me the number again?” Charlotte tells him. “Oh,” he says. “Two-four-three. I thought you said, ‘Twooh-three.’” “Actually, it is two-oh-three.” “Two-four-three, yes.” “Actually—” “And your name one more time, my dear?” “Charlotte Young. I was wondering if you had any information—” “Yes, dear! We had the number wrong! And her name is Charlotte!” I’m trying my hardest not to laugh but I can see Charlotte becoming serious. She switches off the speakerphone and holds it to her ear. “Frank? Sir?” she asks. “Will you be home for a little while? I have some questions that might be better to ask in person.” I wait. “Okay. Yes. Hello, Edie. My name is Charlotte. Charlotte. Yes, it’s nice to talk to you, too.”

~


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Frank and Edie are waiting for us on their porch when we arrive in Charlotte’s car. It took us a little over an hour to get there and I wonder whether they’ve been waiting this whole time, frozen in positions of expectancy. “Now, which one of you is Charlotte?” Frank says. “Don’t answer!” Edie says. “Don’t say a word, girls. I am an excellent judge of people. Let me guess.” She peers at us. Her hair is a purple poof, like cotton candy. I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be brown or if she’s getting wild in her old age. “You,” she says to me. “Are Charlotte.” I shake my head. “Emi,” I say, and hold out my hand. She scoffs, says, “You look like a Charlotte,” but her eyes have this fun glimmer. Frank towers over her, surveying us through thick glasses. “Come on in, girls,” he says. “Come on in.” Inside, we sit on a plastic-covered maroon sofa with People magazines stacked up beside us, cookies and lemonade arranged on the coffee table. This elderly couple having us into their living room, serving us snacks with the fan blasting and the screen door flapping open and shut—it’s so sweet, almost enough to take my mind off Morgan. “I hope you like gingersnaps,” Edie says. She thrusts a finger toward Frank. “He got ginger cookies. I said I wanted plain.” “They didn’t have plain.” “How could they not have plain?” “You were with me, dear,” he says. “Lemon. Oreo. Maple. Ginger. No plain.”


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She shakes her head. “Crap,” she says. She lifts a cookie and eats it. “Crap,” she says again. And then she takes another. “Do you live in the neighborhood?” Frank asks us. “I live in Westwood,” Charlotte says. “Santa Monica,” I say. “Santa Monica!” Edie says. “Our son, Tommy, lives in Santa Monica. You may know him. Tommy Drury?” I shake my head. “No,” I say. “He doesn’t sound familiar.” “He’s a lovely boy,” Edie says. “He just turned sixty!” Frank says. “He’s not a boy!” “He’s my boy. Do you shop at the Vons on Wilshire?” “Um,” I say. “I guess. I mean, my parents do.” “It’s a good Vons,” Frank says. “A nice deli section,” Edie agrees. “But too crowded.” Charlotte compliments them on the lemonade (“Straight out of the box!” Edie confides) and then says, “We’re looking for a former tenant of yours. Caroline Maddox.” “Who?” Frank turns to Edie, and it’s only then that I notice his hearing aids. “Caroline Maddox,” Edie shouts. “Oh yes, Caroline.” Frank nods. “You remember her?” Charlotte asks. “Yes, of course!” Edie says. “She was a very nice girl. Very nice. But she had troubles. The drugs and the men and that baby.” She shakes her head. “What a shame.” Frank says, “Yes, yes. You girls must have noticed that the hedges around the path are all overgrown.” He says it so apologetically. “Caroline, she used to take care of those for us. It


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was years ago and I worked during the days and dealt with apartment business at night. Caroline, she helped us with some of the chores.” “For reduced rent,” Edie adds. “Do you know where she is?” Charlotte asks. “Or where she moved to after she left the apartment?” “Oh, dear,” Edie says. “Oh, dear,” Frank echoes. “I hate to say it, but Caroline died.” “When?” Charlotte asks. Frank shakes his head. “I’m terrible with dates,” he says. “I know,” Edie says. “It was October of 1995. I remember because the Dodgers lost in the playoffs. Those Braves beat them Three to nothing. Three to zip. Terrible! I remember thinking, What could be worse than this? And then, just a few days later, we found Caroline in the apartment.” Frank looks off to the side, eyes glassy, and Edie picks up a cookie but doesn’t eat it. We sit quietly for a little while, and then Edie begins gossiping about celebrities. I tell her about our jobs in the movies and she is impressed, especially with The Agency, which she’s already been reading about even though shooting doesn’t begin for a few months. But Charlotte stays quiet, and I can understand why. Here we were expecting to find Caroline, a living person, who would take this envelope from us and hopefully tell us about what was inside and who she was to Clyde. But instead we discover that Caroline is a dead woman. And it’s unsettling, somehow, that whatever Clyde wanted to give to her was never, and never will be, received.


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~ It’s dark by the time we get back in the car. Charlotte sighs. “I guess we did all we could.” “So we’re going to open it?” She nods, but doesn’t reach for her bag. I find it on the backseat and fish out the envelope. It’s so thin. And I realize something that I hadn’t really registered before: It’s old, yellowing. I wonder how old. Old enough, I guess, for Caroline to die and someone named Raymond to move in and move out, and then for the surfer’s family to follow. Maybe even older than that. Charlotte takes the keys from her lap and very carefully rips open the envelope. Dear Caroline, I confess it was optimistic of me to think our lunch might transform a lifetime of estrangement into some kind of relationship. I don’t think, however, that it was optimistic to think it could have been some kind of beginning, even if it was the beginning of something meager. A casual hello now and then. An acquaintanceship. But I’ve been trying to reach you for several months. My letters have been returned. What few phone numbers I can find for you are all outdated. I’m not disregarding the possibility of a change of heart, but, for now at least, I’m giving up. There were things I wanted to tell you that afternoon that I couldn’t bring myself to say. I told myself it was because I expected it to be Me and You, and instead it


Nina LaCour was Me and You and Lenny. So I found myself in the company of two strangers instead of only one. However, that might have only been an excuse. You are my only child and I was never a father to you. I don’t know how a father is supposed to say heartfelt things or express regret or give a compliment. So, here it goes, on paper, which feels far less daunting. I was unaware of your existence when you were born. After I learned about you, I had intentions of being a good father. To put it plainly, your mother made that impossible. She would not accept my money. She would not consider a friendship. I spent a decade trying to make amends with her but the truth is that I had very little to say. We both had our reasons for what happened that night and in the few weeks that followed. I won’t presume to know hers, but in my defense, I did not make any promises or intentionally lead her on. She had what many people crave, a few minutes in the spotlight on the arm of someone famous. She did not ever know me and I did not ever know her. I would like to think that we each received something we needed in a specific period of time in our lives, but I fear that your mother’s reaction to my repeated gestures spoke otherwise. It may seem unfair of me to speak this way of a woman who is no longer in this world to defend herself. I don’t wish to be cruel. Another thing I wanted to do (but didn’t) was offer you my condolences. And I wanted

35


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Everything Leads to You to say that I know what it’s like to be an orphan. It’s possible that you feel alone in the world. I know a little bit about that, too. I suppose I thought we might bond over our specific tragedies, but instead I told you about my dogs and the weather, and you stared at your eggs and never touched them. You are my only child. I wanted you to know a few things about me. It is true that I always wear a cowboy hat, but I am not the stoic, humorless man that I so often played. I try my best to enjoy life. I enjoy hiking through the hills behind my home. I have loved deeply, but had hopes of a different kind of love. There is a bank account in your name at the Northern West Credit Union. Please visit them and ask for Terrence Webber. He will give you access to the account. If you do not want the money, please give it to Ava. It may seem crass to give you so much. Please don’t think of it as an attempt to buy your love or forgiveness. Despite the idealistic notion that money is of little importance, money can open doors. I hope, my daughter (if you’ll allow me to call you that this once), that doors will open for you all your life. My regards, Clyde

“So you were right,” Charlotte says. “Caroline Maddox was his daughter.”


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“What tragedy,” I say. “So bitter,” Charlotte says. “So regretful.” Charlotte nods. “It’s like he wants to tell her everything but it hardly adds up to anything.” “I know. I wear cowboy hats? I enjoy hiking?” I pick up the letter again. His handwriting is careful and shaky and everything is neat, like he wrote multiple drafts. “Who’s Lenny? Who’s Ava?” Charlotte shakes her head. “I don’t know.” At the end of the block, a couple men step out of a liquor store, shouting into the night. They laugh, slide into their car, pull away. “He didn’t even know that she died,” I say. We head back to the studio to pick up my car, and then we caravan to Toby’s apartment, where our parents told us we could stay again tonight, and where we intend to stay for as long as Toby’s away. Driving alone, I can’t but help thinking of how today is just so sad. Toby’s gone, Morgan doesn’t love me, Clyde Jones had a daughter named Caroline who tended Frank and Edie’s garden and had problems with men and drugs and never got her father’s letter or all that money that might have helped her. And I was sure that all of this would mean something for me, too. That something had to come of wandering through Clyde’s house, of our accidental discovery. But now it’s just something else that has come to an end.


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And it’s only later, after watching Lowlands, with the warm breeze coming through the kitchen door and our glasses half full of Toby’s Ethiopian tea, that Charlotte says, “What was it Edie said? The drugs and the men and that baby? Could Ava be Clyde’s granddaughter?”


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1 I watch drops of water fall from the ends of my hair. They streak down my towel, puddle on the sofa cushion. My heart pounds so hard I can feel it in my ears. “Sweetheart. Listen.” Mom says Ingrid’s name and I start to hum, not the melody to a song, just one drawn-out note. I know it makes me seem crazy, I know it won’t make anything change, but it’s better than crying, it’s better than screaming, it’s better than listening to what they’re telling me. Something is smashing my chest—an anchor, gravity. Soon I’ll cave in on myself. I stumble upstairs and yank on the jeans and tank top I wore yesterday. Then I’m out the door, up the street, around the corner to the bus stop. Dad calls my name but I don’t shout back. Instead, I step onto the bus just as its doors are shutting. I find a seat in the back and ride away, through Los Cerros and through the next town, until I’m on an unfamiliar street, and

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that’s where I get off. I sit on the bench at the bus stop, try to slow my breathing. The light here is different, bluer. A smiling mom with a baby in a stroller glides past me. A tree branch moves in the breeze. I try to be as light as air. But my hands are wild, they need to move, so I pick at a piece of the bench where the wood is splintering. I break a short nail on my right hand even shorter, but I manage to pull off a small piece of wood. I drop it into my cupped palm and pry off another. All last night, I listened to a recording of my voice reciting biology facts on repeat. It plays back in my head now, a sound track for catastrophe, and drowns everything out. If a brown-eyed man and a brown-eyed woman have a child, the child will probably have brown eyes. But if both the father and the mother have a gene for blue eyes, it’s possible that their child could have blue eyes. An old guy in a snowflake cardigan sits next to me. My hand is now half full of wooden strips. I feel him watching but I can’t stop. I want to say, What are you staring at? It’s hot, it’s June, and you’re wearing a Christmas sweater. “Do you need help, darling?” the old guy asks. His mustache is wispy and white. Without looking from the bench, I shake my head. No. He takes a cell phone from his pocket. “Would you like to use my phone?” My heart beats off rhythm and it makes me cough. “May I call your mother?” Ingrid has blond hair. She has blue eyes, which means that even though her father’s eyes are brown, he must have a recessive blueeye gene. A bus nears. The old guy stands, wavers. “Darling,” he says. He lifts his hand as if he’s going to pat my shoulder, but changes his mind. My left hand is all the way full of wood now, and it’s starting

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to spill over. I am not a darling. I am a girl ready to explode into nothing. The old guy backs away, boards the bus, vanishes from sight. The cars pass in front of me. One blur of color after another. Sometimes they stop at the light or for someone to cross the street, but they always go away eventually. I think I’ll live here, stay like this forever, pick away at the bench until it’s a pile of splinters on the sidewalk. Forget what it feels like to care about anyone. A bus rolls up but I wave it past. A few minutes later, two little girls peer at me from the backseat of a blue car—one is blond and fair; one is brunette, darker. Colored barrettes decorate their hair. It isn’t impossible that they’re sisters, but it’s unlikely. Their heads tilt to see me better. They stare hard. When the light changes to green, they reach their small hands out the rolled-down window and wave so hard and fast that it looks like birds have bloomed from their wrists. Sometime later, my dad pulls up. He leans to the passenger side and pushes the door open. The smell of leather. Thin, cold, airconditioned air. I climb in. Let him take me home.

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2 I sleep through the next day. Each time I go to the bathroom, I try not to look in the mirror. Once, I catch my reflection: it looks like I’ve been punched in both eyes.

3 I can’t talk about the day that follows that.

4 We wind up Highway 1 at a crawl because Dad is a cautious driver and he’s terrified of heights. Below us to one side are rocks and

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ocean; to the other, dense trees and signs welcoming us to towns with populations of eighty-four. Mom has brought her entire classical CD collection, and now we’re on Beethoven. It’s “Für Elise,” which she always plays on her piano. Fingers dance softly across her lap.

On the outskirts of a small town, we pull off the road to eat lunch. We sit on an old quilt. Mom and Dad look at me and I look at the worn fabric, the hand-sewn stitches. “There are things you should know,” Mom says. I listen for the cars passing by, and the waves, and the crinkling of paper sandwich wrappers. Still, some of their words make it through: clinically depressed; medication; since she was nine years old. The ocean is far below us, but the waves crash so loudly, sound close enough to drown us. “Caitlin?” Dad says. Mom touches my knee. “Sweetheart?” she asks. “Are you listening?”

At night, we stay in a cabin with bunk beds and walls made of tree trunks split open. I brush my teeth with my back to the mirror, climb up the ladder to the top bunk, and pretend to fall asleep. My parents creak through the cabin, turning on and off the faucet, flushing the toilet, unzipping their duffel bags. I pull my legs to my chest, try to inhabit as little space as possible. The room goes dark. I open my eyes to the tree-trunk wall. Once I learned that trees grow from the inside out. A circle of wood for each year. I count them with my fingers. “This will be good for her,” Dad says softly. “I hope so.”

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“At least it will get her away from home. It’s quiet here.” Mom whispers, “She’s hardly spoken for days.” I hold still and stop counting. I wait to hear more, but minutes pass, and then the whistle of Dad’s snore begins, followed by Mom’s even breaths. My hands lose track of the years. It’s too dark to start over. At three or four in the morning, I jolt awake. I fix my eyes to constellations that have been painted on the ceiling. I try not to blink for too long because when I do I see Ingrid’s face, eyes shut and lips still. I mouth biology facts to keep my head clear. There are two stages of meiosis and then four daughter cells are produced, I whisper almost silently, careful not to wake my parents up. Each of the daughter cells has half the chromosomes of the parent cells. Outside, a car passes. Light sweeps over the ceiling, across the stars. I repeat the facts until all the words cram together. Twostagesofmeiosisandthenfourdaughtercellsareproducedeachdaughtercellhashalfthechromosomesoftheparentcellstwostagesofmeiosis . . . Pretty soon I start to smile. It sounds funnier and funnier each time I say it. And then I have to grab my pillow and bury my face so my parents don’t wake to the sound of me laughing myself to sleep.

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5 On a hot morning in July, Dad rents a car because he has to go back to work. But Mom and I stay in Northern California like it’s the only place we’ve heard of. I sit in front and navigate, keeping us within the invisible boundaries on the map—no farther north than a few miles into Oregon, no farther south than Chico. We spend the summer wandering through caves and forests, surviving crooked roads, and eating grilled-cheese sandwiches at roadside restaurants. We only talk about the things right in front of us—the

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redwoods, the waitresses, the strength of our iced teas. One night, we discover a tiny old movie theater in the middle of nowhere. We see a children’s movie because it’s the only thing playing, and pay more attention to the kids laughing and yelling than we do to the screen. Twice, we strap flashlights to our heads and grope through lava caves in Lassen National Park. Mom trips and shrieks. Her voice echoes forever. I start dreaming about the cardigan man. In the middle of the forest, he drifts toward me in a tux with a red bow tie. Darling, he says, and holds out his phone. I know Ingrid’s on the other end, waiting for me to talk to her. As I reach for it, I notice—surrounding me are green trees, brown earth, but I am in black-and-white. In the mornings, Mom lets me drink coffee and says, “Honey, you’re pale.”

6 And then, out of nowhere, September comes. We have to go back.

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1 It is 3 a.m. Not the most logical time to take a photograph without lights or a flash or high-speed film, but here I am anyway, perched on the hood of the boxy gray car I should be able to drive by now, camera tilted to the sky, hoping to catch the moon before a cloud moves across it. I snap frame after frame at slow shutter speeds until the moon is gone and the sky is black. My car creaks as I slide off, moans when I open the door and climb into the back. I push down the lock and curl up across the cloth seats. I have five hours to get okay. Fifteen minutes go by. I’m pulling the fake fur from the front seat covers even though I love them. I can’t stop my fingers; white tufts are falling everywhere. By four-thirty I’ve thrown several thrashing fits, given myself a headache, put my fist in my mouth and screamed. I need to get the pressure out of my body somehow so I can finally fall asleep.

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In the house, my bedroom light clicks on. Then the light in the kitchen. The door swings open and my mom appears, clutching the collar of her robe. I reach between the seats and over to my flashers, click them twice, watch her shuffle back inside. I have one frame left, so through the windshield I take a picture of the dark house with its two lit-up rooms. I’ll title it: My House at 5:23 a.m. Maybe I’ll look at it one day when my head isn’t pounding and try to make sense of why, for every night since I got home, I’ve locked myself in a cold car just a few steps outside my warm house, where my parents are so worried they can’t sleep, either. Sometime around six I start dreaming. My dad wakes me with his knuckles tapping my window. I open my eyes to the morning light. He’s in his suit already. “Looks like there’s been a blizzard in here,” he says. The backs of the seat covers are furless. My hand aches.

2 I walk the long way to school, my new schedule folded into the smallest square and stuffed deep in my pocket. I pass the strip mall; the Safeway and its sprawling parking lot; the lot of land for sale where the bowling alley was before the town decided bowling wasn’t important, and leveled it. On a Friday night two years ago, I darted onto one of the lanes and took a picture of Ingrid sending a heavy red ball toward me. It rushed between my feet as I stood there, one foot in each gutter. The owner yelled at us and kicked us out but later on forgave us. I have the photograph on my closet door: a blur of red, Ingrid’s eyes fierce and determined. Behind her: lights, strangers, rows of bowling shoes. I stop at a corner to read the headlines through the glass of a newspaper box. Something must be going on in the world: floods, medical breakthroughs, war? But this morning, like most morn-

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ings, all the Los Cerros Tribune has to offer me is local politics and hot weather. As soon as I can, I get away from the street because I don’t want anyone to see me and pull over to offer a ride. They would probably want to talk about Ingrid and I would just stare at my hands like an idiot. Or they wouldn’t want to talk about Ingrid and instead there would be a long silence that would get heavier and heavier. On the trail between the condos comes the sound of wheels on gravel, and then Taylor Riley is next to me on his skateboard, looking so much taller than before. He doesn’t say anything. I watch my shoes kick up dirt. He rolls past me, then waits for me to catch up. He does this over and over, saying nothing, not even looking at me. His hair is sun-bleached and his skin is tanned and freckled. He could play a version himself on a sitcom—the most popular boy in school, oblivious to his own perfection. His TV self would trade his skateboard for a football jacket. Instead of sitting around looking bored, he would win trophies. He’d be driving to school in some expensive car with a smiling homecoming queen in the passenger seat, not following a narrow dirt path alongside a quiet, sullen girl. The path ends and spills us out onto the sidewalk. A block away, everyone is pulling into the high school parking lot. I want to turn and run back home. “Hey, sorry about Ingrid,” Taylor says. Automatically, I say, “Thanks.” Car after car passes us and turns into the parking lot. All the girls are squealing and hugging as if it’s been years since they’ve laid eyes on one another. The guys are slamming their hands down on one another’s backs, which I guess is supposed to mean something nice. I try not to look at them. Taylor and I face each other, each of us looking at his skateboard standing still on the ground. A car door slams. Footsteps. Alicia McIntosh collides into me with her arms open.

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“Caitlin,” she whispers. Her perfume is strong and flowery. I try not to choke. She takes a step back, holds me by the elbows. She’s wearing tight jeans and a yellow tank top with queen written in blue sequins across her chest. Her red hair skims the tops of her shoulders. “You are so strong,” she says, “to come back to school. If I were you I would be . . . I don’t know. I’d still be hiding in bed, I guess, with the blankets pulled up over my head.” She stares at me with a look that’s supposed to be meaningful. Her big green eyes stretch even bigger. In my one semester of drama, the teacher taught us that if a person keeps her eyes open long enough, she’ll start to cry. I wonder if Alicia has forgotten that we were in the same class. She keeps squeezing my elbows and finally a small tear trickles over her freckles. Alicia, I want to say. Someday you will win an Oscar. Instead I say, “Thanks.” She nods, wrinkling her forehead and squeezing out one last tear. Her focus snaps away from me to something in the distance. Her crew is walking toward us. They’re all wearing different versions of the same tank top. They say, princess, angel, and spoiled. I guess Alicia is the leader this year. I should feel lucky that her hands are cutting off my circulation. “I’m going to make you late to class. But please remember. If you ever need anything, you can call me. I know we haven’t hung out in a while, but we used to be really good friends. I’m here for you. Day or night.” I can’t imagine ever being Alicia’s friend. Not because we’re so different now, but because it’s impossible to think of a time before high school. Before photography and finals and the pressure of college. Before Ingrid. I remember Alicia as a little kid, hands on her hips in the sandbox, informing all the other kids that she was the only unicorn. And I remember a girl with brown braided hair

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and pastel corduroys galloping on the blacktop imagining she was a horse, and I know that girl was me, but it feels distant, like someone else’s memory. Now she gives my elbows one last squeeze and sets me free. “Taylor,” she says. “Are you coming?” “Yeah, just a minute.” “We’re going to be late.” “Go ahead.” She rolls her eyes. Her friends arrive and she leads them toward the English hall. Taylor clears his throat. He glances at me, then back to his skateboard. “So I hope you don’t think this is a rude question or anything, but how did she do it?” My knees buckle. I think, If a brown-eyed man and a brown-eyed woman have a child, the child will probably have brown eyes. The main entrance is ahead of us, the soccer field to the left. I stick my hand in my pocket and touch my schedule. Like the last two years, I have photography first period. I will my legs to work again and, miraculously, they do. I step onto the grass, away from Taylor, and mumble, “I have to go.” I picture Ms. Delani waiting for me, rising from her chair when I walk into the classroom, pushing past the other students until she gets to me. When I imagine her touching my arm, I am flooded with relief.

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3 I haven’t talked to Ms. Delani since everything happened. Maybe she’ll excuse herself from the rest of the class and lead me to her back office, where we’ll sit together and talk about how fucked life is. She won’t ask if I’m okay because she’ll already know that for us Are you okay? is an impossible question. She’ll spend the period talking to the class about how sad this year is going to be. In

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honor of Ingrid, the first project will be about loss and everyone will know, even before I turn in my photograph, that mine will be the most heartbreaking. I filter through the door with the rest of the kids. The classroom is brighter than I remember, and colder. Ms. Delani stands at her desk, looking as perfect and beautiful as she must every day, in crisply ironed slacks and a black sleeveless sweater. Ingrid and I used to try to picture her doing real-people stuff, like taking the garbage out and shaving her armpits. We called her by her first name whenever we were alone. Imagine Veena, Ingrid would say, in sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt, getting up at one o’clock in the afternoon with a hangover. I would try to picture it, but it was useless; instead I saw her in silk pajamas, drinking espresso in a sunny kitchen. A few kids are already scattered around the classroom. Ms. Delani glances toward the door as I walk in, then away, quickly, like a flash went off so brightly it hurt. I wait in the doorway for a second to give her a chance to look again, but she doesn’t move. Maybe she’s waiting for me to go up to her? People start gathering behind me, so I take a few steps toward her and pause by the shelves of art books in the front, trying to figure out what to do. There’s no way she hasn’t seen me. Everyone’s streaming in around me, and Ms. Delani is saying hi and smiling and ignoring me standing just a few feet from her. I have no idea what’s happening, but being surrounded by everyone feels a little like drowning, so I walk right in front of her and hover there. “Hi,” I say. She glances at me through the red-rimmed glasses that frame her dark eyes. “Welcome back.” But she sounds so absent, like I’m someone she vaguely knows. I stumble to the table where I sat last year, open my notebook, and act like I’m reading something really interesting. Maybe she’s

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waiting until everyone sits down and class officially starts before she says anything about Ingrid. The last people come in and I pretend not to notice that the seat next to me, Ingrid’s old seat, stays empty. The bell rings. Ms. Delani scans the class. I wait for her to look over here, to smile or nod or anything, but it seems like the room ends just to the right of me. She smiles at everybody else, but I, apparently, do not exist. It’s obvious she doesn’t want me here, and I have no idea what to do. I would get my stuff together and leave, but I’d have nowhere to go. I want to crawl under the table and hide there until everyone is gone. The walls are covered with our final projects from last year. Ingrid is the only one who got three of her pictures up. They’re all next to one another, in the front of the classroom, right in the center. One is a landscape—two slopes, covered in rocks and thorny bushes, with a creek running crookedly through them. One is a still life of a cracked vase. And one is of me. The lighting is really intense and I’m making a strange expression, like a grimace. I’m not looking at the camera. In the darkroom, when Ingrid made a print of it for the first time, we stood back and watched the image of me appear on the wet paper, and Ingrid said, This is so you, it’s so you. And I said, Oh God, it is, even though I hardly recognized myself. I watched shadows form beneath my eyes, an unfamiliar curve darken at the corner of my mouth. It was a harder version of me, a grittier version. Soon I was staring at a face that looked completely unfamiliar, nothing like a girl who grew up in a rich suburb with loving parents and her own bathroom. Maybe it was a premonition or something, because as I look at it now, it makes more sense. At first I can’t find any of my pictures, but then I spot one. Ms. Delani must really hate it to have pinned it up where it is, in the only dark corner of the entire room, above a heater that juts out

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of the wall and blocks part of it from view. Ingrid was amazing at art—she could draw and paint anything and make it look even better than it was—but I thought we were both good at photography. When I took the picture I was sure it would be amazing. Ingrid and I were taking the BART train to see her older brother, who lives in San Francisco. It was a long ride because we live so far out in the suburbs. When we were passing through Oakland, there was some sort of delay, and for a while the train we were on sat still on the tracks. The engine stopped humming. People shifted in their seats, settled into waiting. I looked out the window, across the freeway, to where the sky looked so vibrantly blue over sad little run-down houses and industrial buildings. I took the picture. But I guess the colors were the beautiful part. In black-and-white it’s just sad, and Ms. Delani is probably right—who wants to look at that? But it’s still so embarrassing to have it stuck in a corner. There are a million pictures up there, but right now I feel like there’s a neon sign around mine. I try to think of some way to sneak it off the wall. All through class, Ms. Delani smiles while she’s talking about the high expectations she has of her advanced students, smiles so hard her cheeks must hurt. The ancient clock on the wall behind me ticks so slowly. I stare at it for a few seconds, wishing the period over, and notice all the cubbies in the back of the room. I never got to empty mine last year because I missed the final week of school. Ms. Delani writes review terms on the board—aperture, light meter, shutter speed. I start getting all fidgety, thinking of all the things I have in my cubby. I know I have some old photos, and I think there might be a few of Ingrid. I glance at the clock again, and the minute hand has hardly moved. I should wait until class is over, but I just don’t really care about being polite right now. Ms. Delani isn’t exactly being polite. So I scoot my chair back, ignore the sound of metal scraping against linoleum, and stand up. A couple people turn to see what’s going on, but when they realize it’s me they turn back fast, as if accidental eye contact could

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be deadly. Ms. Delani just keeps talking like everything’s normal, like she isn’t completely ignoring the fact that Ingrid’s not here. She doesn’t even pause when I walk over to my cubby and start pulling pictures out. Because I’m feeling so daring, I don’t go straight back to my seat. Instead, I take my time sorting through a bunch of old pictures I’d forgotten about. Some of Ingrid’s are mixed in, the ones I wanted copies of, and I look through them until I find my favorite—a hill with grass on it and little wildflowers, blue sky. It must be the most peaceful picture in the world. It’s the setting of a fairy tale, it’s somewhere that can’t exist anymore. I turn around, all these photographs of my old life in my hands, and I get a sudden urge to scream. I can see myself doing it, screaming so loudly that Ms. Delani’s perfect glasses shatter, all the photographs fly off the wall, everyone in the class goes deaf. She would have to look at me then. But instead I walk back to my seat and lay my head down on the cold desk. When the bell rings, everyone gets up and leaves. Ms. Delani says good-bye to some people, but not to invisible me.

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4 This is what I can’t stop thinking about this morning: Freshman year. First period. I sat next to a girl I hadn’t seen before. She was scribbling in a journal, drawing all these curvy designs. When I sat down next to her she glanced up at me and smiled. I liked the earrings she was wearing. They were red and looked like buttons. We had spent the morning crammed in the gym with the whole school listening to the principal, Mr. Nelson, give us a pep talk. Mr. Nelson had this round face, small mouth, enormous eyes. He was balding and what was left of his hair was kind of tufty. If it’s possible for a person to look like an owl, then that’s what he looked like. I had felt lost, the gym seemed colossal, even the kids from my old

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middle school looked like strangers. Now we were in photography class, and even though I had never taken a film photograph or really even learned anything about art, I felt so much more comfortable in Ms. Delani’s classroom than I had felt a few minutes before. Ms. Delani called the first name off her roster and continued down the list, making notes and taking forever. I saw the girl rip a page out of her journal and write something. She pushed it closer to me. It said, Four years of this shit? Dear lord save us. I grabbed her pen and tried to think of something cool to say. I was the new me. Braver. I had on these glass bracelets that chimed when I moved my arm. I wrote, If you had to make out with any guy in the school who would it be? Immediately, she wrote, Principal Nelson, of course. He’s such a hottie! When I read it I had to laugh. I tried to make it sound like I was coughing and Ms. Delani looked up from her roster to tell us that in her mind we were all adults now, and didn’t have to ask for permission to go out into the hall if we needed a drink of water or to use the restroom. So I did. I walked out, feeling how straight my hair was, how great my pants fit, how nice my bracelets sounded. I bent down and I drank the cold drinking-fountain water and I felt like, This is it. My life is starting. And when I got back to my seat there was a new note that said, I’m Ingrid. I’m Caitlin, I wrote back. And then we were friends. It was that easy.

5 I have English with Mr. Robertson last period. When I walk in he doesn’t give me any fake looks. He just nods at me, smiles and says, “Welcome back, Caitlin.”

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Henry Lucas, who is possibly the most popular guy in the junior class, and also probably the meanest, sits in the far back corner, ignoring a couple of Alicia’s followers. Angel flicks her pink, manicured nails through his black hair and spoiled says, “So you’re gonna have a thing on Friday, right?” Henry’s always having parties because his parents own a realestate company and are constantly out of town, speaking at conventions and getting richer. When they are around, they throw fund-raisers that my parents try to avoid. Their faces are all over billboards and parents’-club newsletters—his mom in her crisp black suits and his dad with his golf clubs and smug grin. Now spoiled is tugging at Henry’s hair, too. Henry stares straight ahead with an annoyed smirk, but doesn’t tell them to stop. I choose a seat across the room from them, up front by the door. Mr. Robertson starts to take roll. “Matthew Livingston?” “Here.” “Valerie Watson?” “Present!” Angel chirps. “Dylan Schuster?” It’s a name I don’t recognize. No one answers. Mr. Robertson looks up. “No Dylan Schuster?” The door opens in front of me and a girl pokes her head in. Her face isn’t familiar and this school is small enough that everyone looks familiar. Her hair is the darkest brown, almost black, and messy, much messier than the tousled look that a lot of the girls are going for. It makes her look like she’s been electrocuted. She has black eyeliner smudged around quick eyes that dart across the room and back again. She looks as though she’s deciding whether to come in or stay out. “Dylan Schuster?” Mr. Robertson asks again. The new girl looks at him and her eyes widen.

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“Wow,” she says. “You’re good.” He laughs and she strides in, a messenger bag slung over her shoulder, a cup of coffee in her hand. Her thin T-shirt has been torn down one side and safety-pinned back together. Her jeans are the tightest I’ve ever seen, and she is so tall and so skinny. Her boots thump, thump, thump to the back of the classroom. I don’t turn around to watch her, but I picture her choosing the back corner seat. I picture her slouching. When Mr. Robertson finishes taking roll, he walks up and down the rows of desks, telling us about all the things we’ll learn this year.

6 I’m alone in the science building, standing on its green, scuffedup floors, inhaling the musty air. Taylor and the rest of the popular kids have all probably claimed lockers in the English hall. Last year, Ingrid and I chose ours in the foreign-language building, right next to English, still visible but without as much school spirit. The science hall is no one’s first choice. It’s out of the way of everything but science classes, completely off the social radar. I wish it could stay empty forever. It feels wrong to shut a lock around something that only has air inside. I consider waiting until I have something worthy of locking up, but this is a prize: it’s the northernmost locker in the northernmost building of Vista High. If I walked out the door now, I would be on the sidewalk. If I crossed the street, I wouldn’t be here anymore. And maybe it’s the idea of escaping that makes me realize the perfect thing to make this locker my own. I don’t have any tape, so I bite off half a piece of gum and chew it for a second, take it out of my mouth, and stick it to the back of Ingrid’s hill photo. The locker has a dulled, scratched-up rectangular mirror inside. I am careful not to make eye contact with myself, but I can’t help catching a glimpse of straight brown hair,

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a few freckles. My face is hazy, narrower than it used to be. I press the picture over the mirror and I’m gone. What’s left is this pretty, calm place. Someone leans against the lockers next to me. Dylan. Her hair is even messier up close. Strands stick out all around her face. “Hey,” she says. “Hi.” She stares at me for so long that I start to wonder if I look weird, if there’s ink on my forehead or something. Then she gives me this smile that’s hard to pin down. It’s sort of amused, but not in a bad way. Before she leaves, she rummages in the bag she’s carrying and slams her lock onto the empty locker next to mine. She stomps away and I’m alone again. I shut the door slowly, listen to the hinges groan. When I close my lock around the handle, it makes a neat, soft click and claim it as mine.

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7 I’m just a few steps off campus when Mom pulls over in her Volvo station wagon. She leans out the window and yells, “Caitlin!” as if I might not have noticed my own mother pulling over, like the car she’s been driving all my life and the peace is patriotic bumper sticker didn’t tip me off. I do this awkward skip-walk to the car while all the other kids drive past me to meet up at Starbucks or the mall. I toss my backpack onto the passenger’s seat and follow it inside. “Why aren’t you at work?” I ask, slouching so I won’t be so conspicuous. Mom has the most presidential name ever—Margaret CarterMadison—and even though all she runs is a small elementary school, people are always clamoring for her time. It’s amazing the things she has to deal with—parents who are obsessed with their six-year-olds’ social development; Mrs. Smith, who’s this warped

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fifth-grade teacher who insists dinosaurs never existed; occasional lice epidemics—sometimes I don’t understand how she can handle the pressure of it all. Somehow, though, she always manages to stay calm. She has a voice that’s a little quieter than most people’s, so you have to pay closer attention when you listen to her, and instead of sitting in the audience during the little kids’ productions, trying to look interested, she plays the piano for them. She gets all excited, even though the songs are the same every year. She’s not answering my question, so I say, “I thought if you left Riverbank Elementary before seven p.m. the results would be disastrous.” “Well, it’s your first day back,” she says, sounding a little too cheerful. “And that means what exactly?” “I thought we’d go to our Japanese place. You’ve just begun the second half of your high school career. We should celebrate.” I get kind of squirmy when she says that. I don’t know why she’s trying so hard. I mean, our Japanese place? We haven’t been there since I was a kid. We used to go sometimes back before she became a principal and started working all the time, when I could still order the children’s special bento box. I don’t know how to respond, so I open up the glove compartment and dig around in it, just for something to do. Tic Tacs. A pair of old sunglasses. The car manual. I pop a Tic Tac in my mouth and offer her one. She accepts. I keep eating them, one by one, crushing them to minty dust between my teeth. By the time we pull up to the restaurant, I’ve finished them. I toss the empty see-through box back into the glove compartment before I get out. It’s that slow, in-between time—too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Mom and I are the only customers, which is something I hate. Whenever there are no other customers in a restaurant, I can’t stop thinking that if we weren’t here, the waiters would prob-

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ably be eating or talking on the phone or turning the music up, so I feel like we’re ruining what should be their downtime. I especially hate it when they hover in a corner, waiting to refill the water glasses. That really depresses me. The whole time we’re looking at our menus, and ordering, and pouring green tea from a hot metal pot into tiny cups, I can feel Mom preparing to say something. I don’t know how I know exactly, it’s just this feeling I get. She keeps looking at me and smiling. “Who did you eat lunch with at school?” I pick up the tiny cup and start to take a sip. Too hot. I set it down and stare at the wet circle it made on the paper place mat. “Guess,” I say. She doesn’t. I trace the circle with my finger. “Come on. It’s obvious.” “Not to me.” I roll my eyes. “Obviously, I ate with no one.” Mom’s cheery mood disintegrates. “Caitlin,” she says. She says my name all the time, but this is different. It’s all disappointed-sounding, like I had a choice, like there were a million kids lined up to eat with me and I was like, Sorry, I’d rather eat by myself. “What?” I snap, and she doesn’t say anything else. After about two seconds of waiting, the waiter comes with our food. I stare into the enormous bento box I ordered, heaped with tempura and chicken teriyaki and California rolls, and part of me wishes I could still get the kids’ box. It has everything that this one does, just smaller portions. I eat one tempura carrot, and feel full. “My friend Margie at work suggested a very good therapist. Her daughter enjoys working with her.” “What’s wrong with Margie’s daughter?” “Nothing is wrong with her. Like you, she’s just going through a difficult time right now.”

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“Oh,” I say, all sarcastic. “A difficult time.” Mom sips her tea. I bite into a California roll and soy sauce dribbles down my chin. I swat it away with my napkin and hope the waiter isn’t standing somewhere watching us. “I’m not going to see some therapist,” I mutter. Mom looks, sadly, into her rice bowl. I wish I knew what she was thinking. We don’t say much after that, and I feel kind of bad about it, but I don’t know why she had to bring that up. She can’t expect me to go along with every suggestion she makes just because she’s taking me out to eat.

8 Friday-night dinner, I sit at the table with Mom and Dad and eat in silence. Dad asks questions about my first week back at school in the cheerful tone Mom has been using for days. I give him oneword answers, stab pasta with my fork. Soon they start talking to each other and I tune them out. When I can’t sit there any longer I get up, push the leftover food into the sink, and stick my plate in the dishwasher. I climb into the backseat of my car and put my knees up against the seat covers I ruined. I was supposed to have gotten my license three months ago, but instead of making three-point turns, I was watching my best friend’s casket lower into the ground. Now I can’t seem to call the DMV to schedule a new appointment. This car is so old it only has a tape player. I only own one tape. Fortunately, it’s a good one. Ingrid’s brother, Davey, made it for my birthday one year. It has all these indie bands on it that I had never heard of. The songs kind of blend together, but they’re all so great. I reach up, turn the key in the ignition, and a boy’s voice wails through the speakers. A few minutes later my dad comes out to the car.

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“Do you have any homework? If you get it done now, you’ll be able to enjoy the weekend.” “No,” I lie. He lifts my backpack into the air. “I brought you this just in case.” After a while I pull out my math book and some paper. The tape turns itself over. There’s the sound of a quiet guitar; a woman’s voice starts and then a man’s joins her. It sounds pretty. I try to do my math, but I don’t have a calculator in the car. All of a sudden I want the phone to ring. I picture my mom coming out with the cordless and handing it to me when I roll the window down. I would stretch out on the seat. And listen. And talk. I would come up with something interesting to say. But the only person who ever called me was Ingrid, so I know it will never happen. I reach up and turn the music as loud as it can go. The whole car shakes and it sounds like I’m tuned to a radio station that doesn’t come in clearly. I push everything off the backseat and lie down. Through the moon roof, the sky darkens. I imagine that the phone is propped on the seat, right next to my ear. So what was Veena wearing the first day? Ingrid asks. I didn’t notice. Of course you noticed. I bet it was something new. She acted like she didn’t know me. I wasn’t exactly paying attention to her clothes. Imagine her cleaning out her cat’s litter box. Did you hear what I said? All week long, she acted like she hates me. Oh my God, I know: imagine her finding moldy leftovers in her refrigerator. I don’t feel like it. How was it without me? Did you hide out in the library at lunch with all the nerds? Actually, I ate with Alicia McIntosh. She brought me a tank top

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that said charity and told me that if I promised to wear it every day she would let me follow her around and stand in the cafeteria line to buy her Diet Cokes. Did you miss me? Why are you asking? I want to know. It’s obvious. I want to hear you say it. It’ll make me feel good. Fuck you. Come on. Just say it. Mom appears right outside my window. She waves at me from six inches away. I don’t move. She points at her watch, which means that it’s late and she wants me inside. I don’t sit up. I just close my eyes, wish her away from the car. I’m not ready. Wailing Boy is back on—I’ve been in here for ninety minutes— and I squeeze my eyes shut tighter and listen to him. His guitar gets urgent, his voice trembles. I can feel it: his heart is broken.

9 The next morning, my dad knocks on my car window to wake me up. I snuck back out in the middle of the night and slept here. “I have a surprise for you,” he says, beaming, voice muffled by the glass. “It’s around the side.” “What is it?” I’m so tired I can hardly talk. “Come see,” he says, real singsongy. I unlock my door and step out into the daylight. I need to brush my teeth. Dad covers my eyes with his hand and leads me around to the other side of my car. Beneath my thin slipper soles, I can feel the pebbles of the driveway, the stepping-stones that run through the grass alongside the house, and, finally, the grass itself. We’re in the backyard. Our actual house isn’t anything special. Like most

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of the houses in Los Cerros, it’s big and new and plain, but I love our yard. There’s a path that weaves around all the vegetables and flowers and on the weekends my parents spend hours out here in the dirt, gardening. The best part is that if you stand on the path and look away from the house, you can’t even see where the yard ends. It stretches on and on for acres. It’s hilly and there are a bunch of ancient oak trees. He uncovers my eyes, and sweeps his arm out toward a huge pile of wood lying on the brick patio that separates the house from the garden. It’s cut in thick planks that are at least ten feet long. Dad’s standing there in front of the gigantic messy pile, smiling all proud like he just bought me a beach house in Fiji and a private jet to get me there. “Wood,” I say, confused. “It’s all sanded already. I got you a top-of-the-line saw, too. That should be coming on Monday.” “What am I supposed to do with it?” He shrugs. “I have no idea,” he says. “You’re the expert.” My parents have this crazy idea that I’m good at building things just because once I went to this arts-and-crafts summer camp and made a little wooden stepladder that actually turned out okay. “That was like a million years ago,” I remind my dad. “I was twelve.” “I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it again soon.” “This is a lot of wood.” “There’s plenty more when you need it. I don’t want you to feel limited.” All I can do is nod my head up and down, up and down. I mean, I know what’s going on. I hear my parents talking about me, sounding all worried. I know that this is supposed to be some alternative to therapy. Dad thinks it’s a really great gift that will take my mind off my screwed-up life. He stands there, looking hopeful, waiting for me to react. Finally,

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I walk over to the pile and run my fingers across a piece on the top. I knock on it with my knuckles. I can feel him watching me. I look up and force a smile. “Great,” he says, all final, like something has been decided. “Yeah,” I say back, like I understand.

10 The first day Ingrid and I ditched was gray and cold. We left at lunch and I was sure someone would catch us, but no one did. Once we were safely out of view, we started walking up this hill to where the condos are all jammed up against one another; windows look into neighbors’ living rooms. It was so quiet. The diner or the mall? Ingrid asked. Too many people at the mall. I kicked at some rocks on the path and watched the dust rise. When we got to the top of the hill, Ingrid ran into the middle of an empty street. She turned to face me, wavy hair blown across her face, arms lifted until they stuck straight out at her sides. She started twirling. Her red skirt billowed. The wind blew harder and she spun so fast she was a blur. When she stopped she crouched over. Oh my God. She laughed. Oh my God, my head. She tried to walk back over to me, stumbled, and laughed harder. You’re such a nerd, I said. A middle-aged woman came toward us from between two condos and my stomach tightened. But she just walked by us, didn’t even say anything. We were at the top of this hill and we didn’t have anywhere to go. I turned around. Look, I said. Below us was our school, a collection of rectangular boxes. Even though we knew that the kids were studying for tests and kissing and worrying about one another, in that moment they were so small—only colorful specks moving around.

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This feels good, Ingrid said. The day was gloomy, so I got this idea. I said, I bet there’s no one at the park. And I was right. When we got there, the field where little kids usually ran around was empty. No one was sliding on the slide or dangling from the monkey bars. We made sure that there wasn’t anyone at the sandbox and then Ingrid put her hands on my shoulders. You, my friend, she said, are a genius. She ran over to the swings and I followed her. I sat on the rubber seat, and started to pump really hard with my legs. We were both going so high, moving through the air together, shouting our conversation because of the wind and because we didn’t have to worry about anyone listening. We got so high that I thought any second one of us might go all the way around. Ingrid had her camera around her neck and she clutched it to her chest with one arm so it wouldn’t fly off. The clouds were low and heavy and dark. Then the sky turned this bright gray and it started to rain. Ingrid snapped a photograph of me swinging before she tucked the camera under her jacket, but if she ever developed it, she never showed it to me. Soon it was pouring. The cold felt good, and we kept swinging until our hair and our clothes were drenched, laughing, talking about something that I can never remember, even though I try.

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11 Ms. Delani stands in front of us, her smile tight across her face. “Today,” she says. “I’m going to hold short conferences with each of you to establish your personal artistic goals for the semester.” She scans the room, probably wondering if any of us are worth her precious time. In her other life, she’s a real artist. Once Ingrid and I went to this tiny gallery in the city for one of her openings. We were the only students who showed up—she hadn’t mentioned

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it to many people. Everyone there was dressed up, and there were a couple bottles of champagne and a platter of grapes and some Brie. We had spent the whole BART ride trying to predict what her art would be like. When she caught sight of us in the gallery, she touched the arm of the man she’d been talking to and came up to us. She gave us these quick, firm hugs, so casually, like she’d hugged us a million times before. She introduced us as two of her most promising students, and Ingrid and I showed off for her, dropping names of the famous photographers she had taught in class. All her photographs were of the same things: doll parts scattered over brightly colored fabric. Porcelain arms and legs and middles, but mostly heads. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but I hadn’t been expecting that. They were beautiful, but kind of unsettling at the same time. After being there and seeing her drink champagne and talk with this low voice to a bunch of impressed people, I could just feel how lame we all must have seemed to her. All of us except Ingrid, who was actually talented. Like last year, we had an assignment to photograph something that was meaningful to us. I guess she expected us to turn in pictures of really profound things—I can’t even think of what—because when she started coming by our desks to see what we came up with and saw a jock’s picture of his baseball glove lying on the grass, and a girl’s pom-pom against the gym floor, she just about lost it. That smile vanished. She walked back to her desk and put her head in her hands and didn’t speak for the rest of the class. She looks more optimistic today, calling kids over to her desk, one by one. I’m in the far right corner, alone, of course. She starts with Akiko, who is sitting in the front left of the room. I assume that she hopes she’ll run out of time before my turn comes. I lay my head on my desk and shut my eyes. Forty minutes later I wake up. Everything is muffled, but it only seems like that because I’m disoriented and kind of embarrassed that I actually fell asleep.

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When I lift my head and see that nothing new is happening, that everyone is still sitting together at their tables and Ms. Delani is meeting with Matt, I just close my eyes again and listen to people talking. Meghan and Katie are writing notes to each other and whispering, Oh my God! and No he did not! Dustin and James are talking in low voices about some new skate park. I hear Katie saying, all importantly, “Henry’s mom is the real estate agent who was showing the house they bought, and she told Henry that the family was nice but just not the kind of people who belong in our community.” “I heard she’s a lesbian,” Meghan says. To judge by her tone, she might as well be saying, I hear she digs garbage from trash cans and eats it. “I heard that, too,” Lulu whispers. “I heard she got kicked out of her old school for making out with a girl in the bathroom.” I realize they’re talking about Dylan, and for some reason it really pisses me off. “Excuse me, but some of us are trying to sleep,” I say, glaring at them. They look at me, then at each other. They stop talking for a moment. Meghan runs her hand down one side of her neatly combed brown hair. Katie buttons a pearl button on her sweater. They look like miniatures of their mothers. “Caitlin?” Ms. Delani says. She’s scanning the classroom, like she called my name off a random list and she doesn’t know who I am. “I’m over here,” I tell her. “Will you come to my desk, please?” I look at the clock. There aren’t even two minutes left. I get up and walk to her desk. She has a folder of my photographs from last year and she’s looking at them through her little glasses. She sighs, tucks some of her straight black hair behind her ear. “You definitely need to work on your use of color this semester. Look at this one,” she says, but I don’t.

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I look straight at her face. She doesn’t even notice. “Do you see how there is no contrast here? If we were to convert this image to black-and-white, you would see that all these colors would be the same value of gray. It has a dulling effect.” I keep looking at her and she keeps looking at my photo. Last year she wasn’t like this. She may have paid more attention to Ingrid, but she talked to me, too. She sifts through the stack. “Your compositions are sometimes good, but . . .” She shakes her head. “Even they need quite a bit of work.” I want to say, Fuck you, Veena. They were obviously okay with you last year, because you gave me an A. But I don’t say anything. I’m just waiting for her to look up at me so she can see me glaring. The bell rings. She looks up at the clock, back at the stack, and says, “Okay?” “Okay, what?” “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I shake my head. “But what are my goals?” I ask. I just want her to look at me. “Color,” she says, staring at my pictures. “Composition.” I’m about to ask her what she means, how I can just get better, where I should start. But she’s already turned and walking to her back office. The door shuts.

12 I’m headed up to the science building, holding a cold slice of greasy pizza. On my way through the quad I see Jayson Michaels. There are only a few black kids at our school, so he stands out. Plus he’s really popular—track star, runs the mile in 4:20 flat. We went to the same junior high and had homeroom together in sixth grade, and the only thing that I really remember about it was that when we were discussing segregation the teacher randomly asked Jay-

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son how he felt about it. She asked him right there in the middle of everyone. As if a sixth grader who had lived his whole life in this practically all-white town would feel like being a spokesperson for Black America. And anyway, what a dumb question. What’s he gonna say? Well, actually, I feel pretty good about it. It’s pretty uplifting that people like me couldn’t get served in restaurants or use public bathrooms. Now he takes a step toward me. I haven’t seen him this close for years. His eyes are lighter brown than I remember. His face is smooth and he has a nick on his right cheek, at the jaw. I can’t remember a single thing that Jayson and I ever said to each other. Still, I know these personal things about him because he told Ingrid and she told me. Like he has a sister who’s in college, who he talks to on the phone a lot. And he lives with his dad alone. He loves to run because it makes him forget about everything else. When he trains, he listens to old groups like the Jackson Five. Now he looks at me like he knows me. And I get this feeling. It’s like my head suddenly gets lighter, fills up with air. I want to talk. Jayson opens his mouth. Then he closes it. Then he opens it again. “Hi,” he says. It’s the saddest hi I’ve ever heard. We hesitate, but it only lasts a moment. Then we keep walking, away from each other.

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13 It’s the weekend again, and even though I know I should be building something with the wood that’s been waiting in the backyard all week, all I want to do is lie on my bed and listen to music. I keep getting these songs in my head that I want to put on, but I have to get up to change tracks because I can’t find the remote to my stereo. After I’ve done this about twenty times, I finally decide

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to just look for it. It isn’t buried under the covers. It isn’t under all the clothes piled on top of my chest of drawers, or sitting on top of my CDs or my desk. I get down on the carpet to look under my bed. I stick my arm under and feel around, find a couple mismatched socks, a progress report from school that I hid from my parents last year, and something I don’t recognize—hard and flat and dusty. I pull it out, thinking maybe it’s a yearbook from elementary school, and then I see it and my heart stops. Worn pages, bird painted on the blue cover in Wite-Out. Ingrid’s journal. For some reason, I feel afraid. It’s like I’m split down the middle and one half of me wants to open it more than I’ve ever wanted to do anything. The other half is so scared. I can’t stop shaking. Did it get kicked under the bed one night by accident? Did she hide it? She carried it with her everywhere. I know this sounds stupid, but I felt kind of jealous of it. Whenever I had to figure something out or vent, I would just call her up, so I couldn’t understand why she needed to have this book that was so private. But here it is, in my hands, and I’m holding it like it’s some alive thing. I stare at it in my hands forever, just feeling its weight, looking at the place where one Wite-Out wing is starting to flake off. Then, once my hands are steadied, I open to the first page. It’s a drawing of her face—yellow hair; blue eyes; small, crooked smile. She’s looking straight ahead. Birds fly across the background. She drew them blurry, to show movement, and across the top she wrote, Me on a Sunday Morning. I turn the page. As I read, I can hear Ingrid’s voice, hushed and fast, like she’s telling me secrets.

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