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GH For all the invisible girls and for my readers, for seeing me

GHGH

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CHAPTER

1 “WOULD THE defendant please rise.” This wasn’t an actual question, even though it sounded like one. I’d noticed that the first time we’d all been assembled here, in this way. Instead, it was a command, an order. The “please” was just for show. My brother stood up. Beside me, my mom tensed, sucking in a breath. Like the way they tell you to inhale before an X-ray so they can see more, get it all. My father stared straight forward, as always, his face impossible to read. The judge was talking again, but I couldn’t seem to listen. Instead, I looked over to the tall windows, the trees blowing back and forth outside. It was early August; school started in three weeks. It felt like I had spent the entire summer in this very room, maybe in this same seat, but I knew that wasn’t the case. Time just seemed to stop here. But maybe, for people like Peyton, that was exactly the point. It was only when my mother gasped, bending forward to grab the bench in front of us, that I realized the sentence had been announced. I looked up at my brother. He’d been

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known for his fearlessness all the way back to when we were kids playing in the woods behind our house. But the day those older boys had challenged him to walk across that wide, gaping sinkhole on a skinny branch and he did it, his ears had been bright red. He was scared. Then and now. There was a bang of the gavel, and we were dismissed. The attorneys turned to my brother, one leaning in close to speak while the other put a hand on his back. People were getting up, filing out, and I could feel their eyes on us as I swallowed hard and focused on my hands in my lap. Beside me, my mother was sobbing. “Sydney?” Ames said. “You okay?” I couldn’t answer, so I just nodded. “Let’s go,” my father said, getting to his feet. He took my mom’s arm, then gestured for me to walk ahead of them, up to where the lawyers and Peyton were. “I have to go to the ladies’ room,” I said. My mom, her eyes red, just looked at me. As if this, after all that had happened, was the thing that she simply could not bear. “It’s okay,” Ames said. “I’ll take her.” My father nodded, clapping him on the shoulder as we passed. Out in the courthouse lobby, I could see people pushing the doors open, out into the light outside, and I wished more than anything that I was among them. Ames put his arm around me as we walked. “I’ll wait for you here,” he said when we reached the ladies’ room. “Okay?”

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Inside, the light was bright, unforgiving, as I walked to the sinks and looked at myself in the mirror there. My face was pale, my eyes dark, flat, and empty. A stall door behind me opened and a girl came out. She was about my height, but smaller, slighter. As she stepped up beside me, I saw she had blonde hair, plaited in a messy braid that hung over one shoulder, a few wisps framing her face, and she wore a summer dress, cowboy boots, and a denim jacket. I felt her look at me as I washed my hands once, then twice, before grabbing a towel and turning to the door. I pushed it open, and there was Ames, directly across the hallway, leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest. When he saw me, he stood up taller, taking a step forward. I hesitated, stopping, and the girl, also leaving, bumped into my back. “Oh! Sorry!” she said. “No,” I told her, turning around. “It was . . . my fault.” She looked at me for a second, then past my shoulder, at Ames. I watched her green eyes take him in, this stranger, for a long moment before turning her attention back to me. I had never seen her before. But with a single look at her face, I knew exactly what she was thinking. You okay? I was used to being invisible. People rarely saw me, and if they did, they never looked close. I wasn’t shiny and charming like my brother, stunning and graceful like my mother, or smart and dynamic like my friends. That’s the thing, though. You always think you want to be noticed. Until you are.

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The girl was still watching me, waiting for an answer to the question she hadn’t even said aloud. And maybe I would have answered it. But then I felt a hand on my elbow. Ames. “Sydney? You ready?” I didn’t reply to this, either. Somehow we were heading toward the lobby, where my parents were now standing with the lawyers. As we walked, I kept glancing behind me, trying to see that girl, but could not in the shifting crowd of people pressing into the courtroom. Once we were clear of them, though, I looked back one last time and was surprised to find her right where I’d left her. Her eyes were still on me, like she’d never lost sight of me at all.

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THE FIRST thing you saw when you walked into our house was a portrait of my brother. It hung directly across from the huge glass door, right above a wood credenza and the Chinese vase where my father stored his umbrellas. You’d be forgiven if you never noticed either of these things, though. Once you saw Peyton, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Though we shared the same looks (dark hair, olive skin, brown, almost black, eyes) he somehow carried them totally differently. I was average, kind of cute. But Peyton—the second in our house, with my father Peyton the first—was gorgeous. I’d heard him compared to everything from movie idols of long before my time to fictional characters tromping across Scottish moors. I was pretty sure my brother was unaware as a child of the attention he received in supermarkets or post office lines. I wondered how it had felt when he’d suddenly understood the effect his looks had on people, women especially. Like discovering a superpower, both thrilling and daunting, all at once. Before all that, though, he was just my brother. Three years older, blue King Combat sheets on his bed in contrast

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to my pink Fairy Foo ones. I basically worshipped him. How could I not? He was the king of Truth or Dare (he always went with the latter, naturally), the fastest runner in the neighborhood, and the only person I’d ever seen who could stand, balanced, on the handlebars of a rolling bicycle. But his greatest talent, to me, was disappearing. We played a lot of hide-and-seek as kids, and Peyton took it seriously. Ducking behind the first chair spotted in a room, or choosing the obvious broom closet? Those were for amateurs. My brother would fold himself beneath the cabinet under the bathroom sink, flatten completely under a bedspread, climb up the shower stall to spread across the ceiling, somehow holding himself there. Whenever I asked him for his secrets, he’d just smile. “You just have to find the invisible place,” he told me. Only he could see it, though. We practiced wrestling moves in front of cartoons on weekend mornings, fought over whom the dog loved more (just guess), and spent the hours after school we weren’t in activities (soccer for him, gymnastics for me) exploring the undeveloped green space behind our neighborhood. This is how my brother still appears to me whenever I think of him: walking ahead of me on a crisp day, a stick in his hand, through the dappled fall colors of the woods. Even when I was nervous we’d get lost, Peyton never was. That fearlessness again. A flat landscape never appealed to him. He always needed something to push up against. When things got bad with Peyton, I always wished we were back there, still walking. Like we hadn’t reached where we were going yet,

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and there was still a chance it might be somewhere else. I was in sixth grade when things began to change. Until then, we had both been on the lower campus of Perkins Day, the private school we’d attended since kindergarten. That year, though, he moved to Upper School. Within a couple of weeks, he’d started hanging out with a bunch of juniors and seniors. They treated him like a mascot, daring him to do stupid stuff like lifting Popsicles from the cafeteria line or climbing into a car trunk to sneak off campus for lunch. This was when Peyton’s legend began in earnest. He was bigger than life, bigger than our lives. Meanwhile, when I didn’t have gymnastics, I was now riding the bus home solo, then eating my snack alone at the kitchen island. I had my own friends, of course, but most of them were highly scheduled, never around on weekday afternoons due to various activities. This was typical of our neighborhood, the Arbors, where the average household could support any extracurricular activity from Mandarin lessons to Irish dancing and everything in between. Financially, my family was about average for the area. My father, who started his career in the military before going to law school, had made his money in corporate conflict resolution. He was the guy called when a company had a problem—threat of a lawsuit, serious issues between employees, questionable practices about to be brought to light—and needed it worked out. It was no wonder I grew up believing there was no problem my father couldn’t solve. For much of my life, I’d never seen any proof otherwise.

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If Dad was the general, my mom was the chief operating officer. Unlike some parents, who approached parenting as a tag-team sport, in our family the duties were very clearly divided. My father handled the bills, house, and yard upkeep, and my mom dealt with everything else. Julie Stanford was That Mother, the one who read every parenting book and stocked her minivan with enough snacks and sports equipment for every kid in the neighborhood. Like my dad, if my mom did something, she did it right. Which was why it was all the more surprising when, eventually, things went wrong anyway. The trouble with Peyton started in the winter of his tenth grade year. One afternoon I was watching TV in the living room with a bowl of popcorn when the doorbell rang. When I looked outside, I saw a police car in the driveway. “Mom?” I called upstairs. She was in her office, which was basically command central for our entire house. My dad called it the War Room. “Someone’s here.” I don’t know why I didn’t tell her it was the police. It just seemed saying it might make it real, and I wasn’t sure what was out there yet. “Sydney, you are perfectly capable of answering the door,” she replied, but sure enough, a beat later I heard her coming down the stairs. I kept my eyes on the TV, where the characters from my favorite reality show, Big New York, were in the midst of yet another dinner party catfight. The Big franchise had been part of my afternoon ritual since Peyton had started high

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school, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Rich women being petty and pretty, I’d heard it described, and that summed it up. There were about six different shows—Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago among them—enough so that I could easily watch two every day to fill the time between when I got home and dinner. I was so involved in the show, it was like they were my friends, and I often found myself talking back to the TV as if they could hear me, or thinking about their issues and problems even when I wasn’t watching. It was a weird kind of loneliness, feeling that some of my closest friends didn’t actually know I existed. But without them, the house felt so empty, even with my mom there, which made me feel empty in a way I’d grown to dread the moment I stepped off the bus after school. My own life felt flat and sad too much of the time; it was reassuring, somehow, to lose myself in someone else’s. So I was watching Rosalie, the former actress, accuse Ayre, the model, of being a bully, when everything in our family’s life shifted. One minute the door was shut and things were fine. The next, it was open and there was Peyton, a police officer beside him. “Ma’am,” the cop said as my mother stepped back, putting a hand to her chest. “Is this your son?” This was what I would remember later. This one question, the answer a no-brainer, and yet still one my parents, and Mom especially, would grapple with from that point on. Starting that day, when Peyton got caught smoking pot in the Perkins Day parking lot with his friends, my brother

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began a transformation into someone we didn’t always recognize. There would be other visits from the authorities, trips to the police station, and, eventually, court dates and rehab stays. But it was this first one that stayed in my mind, crisp in detail. The bowl of popcorn, warm in my lap. Rosalie’s sharp voice. And my mom, stepping back to let my brother inside. As the cop led him down the hallway to the kitchen, my brother looked at me. His ears were bright red. Because he hadn’t had any pot on his person, Perkins Day decided to handle the infraction itself, with a suspension and volunteer hours doing tutoring at the Lower School. The story—especially the part about how Peyton was the only one who ran, forcing the cops to chase him down—made the rounds, with how far he’d gotten (a block, five, a mile) growing with each telling. My mom cried. My dad, furious, grounded him for a full month. Things didn’t go back to the way they had been, though. Peyton came home and went to his room, staying there until dinner. He served his time, swore he’d learned his lesson. Three months later, he got busted for breaking and entering. There’s a weird thing that happens when something goes from a one-time thing to a habit. Like the problem is no longer just a temporary houseguest but has actually moved in. After that, we fell into a routine. My brother accepted his punishment and my parents slowly relaxed, accepting as fact their various theories about why this would never happen again. Then Peyton would get busted—for drugs, shoplifting, reckless driving—and we’d all go back down

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the rabbit hole of charges, lawyers, court, and sentences. After his first shoplifting arrest, when the cops found pot during his pat-down, Peyton went to rehab. He returned with a thirty-day chip on his key chain and interest in playing guitar thanks to his roommate at Evergreen Care Center. My parents paid for lessons and made plans to outfit part of the basement as a small studio so he could record his original compositions. The work was halfway done when the school found a small amount of pills in his locker. He got suspended for three weeks, during which time he was supposed to be staying home, getting tutored and preparing for his court date. Two days before he was due to go back to school, I was awakened out of a deep sleep by the rumbling of the garage door opening. I looked out the window to see my dad’s car backing onto our street. My clock said three fifteen a.m. I got up and went out into the hallway, which was dark and quiet, then padded down the stairs. A light was on in the kitchen. There I found my mother, in her pajamas and a U sweatshirt, making a pot of coffee. When she saw me, she just shook her head. “Go back to sleep,” she told me. “I’ll fill you in tomorrow.” By the next morning, my brother had been bailed out, charged yet again with breaking and entering, this time with added counts of trespassing and resisting arrest. The previous evening, after my parents had gone to bed, he’d snuck out of his room, walked up our road, then climbed the fence around the Villa, the biggest house in the Arbors. He found

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an unlocked window and wriggled through, then poked around for only a few minutes before the cops arrived, alerted by the silent alarm. When they came in, he bolted out the back door. They tackled him on the pool deck, leaving huge, bloody scrapes across his face. Amazingly, my mother seemed more upset about this than anything else. “It just seems like we might have a case,” she said to my dad later that morning. She was dressed now, all business: they had a meeting with Peyton’s lawyer at nine a.m. sharp. “I mean, did you see those wounds? What about police brutality?” “Julie, he was running from them,” my dad replied in a tired voice. “Yes, I understand that. But I also understand that he is still a minor, and force was not necessary. There was a fence. It’s not like he was going anywhere.” But he was, I thought, although I knew better than to say this aloud. The more Peyton got into trouble, the more my mom seemed desperate to blame anyone and everyone else. The school was out to get him. The cops were too rough. But my brother was no innocent: all you had to do was look at the facts. Although sometimes, I felt like I was the only one who could see them. By the next day at school, word had spread, and I was getting side-eyed all over the hallways. It was decided that Peyton would withdraw from Perkins Day and finish high school elsewhere, although opinions differed on whether it was the school or my parents who made this choice.

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I was lucky to have my friends, who rallied around me, letting people know that I was not my brother, despite our shared looks and last name. Jenn, whom I’d known since our days at Trinity Church Preschool, was especially protective. Her dad had had his own tangles with the law, back in college. “He was always honest about it, that it was just experimentation,” she told me as we sat in the cafeteria at lunch. “He paid his debt to society, and now look, he’s a CEO, totally successful. Peyton will be, too. This, too, shall pass.” Jenn always sounded like this, older than she was, mostly because her parents had had her in their forties and treated her like a little adult. She even looked like a grown-up, with her sensible haircut, glasses, and comfortable footwear. At times it was strange, like she’d skipped childhood altogether, even when she was in it. But now, I was reassured. I wanted to believe her. To believe anything. Peyton received three months in jail and a fine. That was the first time we were all in court together. His lawyer, Sawyer Ambrose, whose ads were on bus stops all over town (NEED A LAW YER? CALL ON SAW YER!),

maintained that it was

crucial for the jury to see us sitting behind my brother like the loyal, tight family we were. Also present was my brother’s new best friend, a guy he’d met in the Narcotics Anonymous group he was required to attend. Ames was a year older than Peyton, tall with shaggy hair and a loping walk, and had gotten busted for dealing pot a year earlier. He’d served six months and stayed out of

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trouble ever since, setting the kind of example everyone agreed my brother needed. They drank a lot of coffee drinks together, played video games, and studied, Peyton with his books from the alternative school where he’d landed, Ames for the classes he was taking in hospitality management at Lakeview Tech. They planned that Peyton would do the same once he got his diploma, and together they’d go work at one resort or another. My mom loved this idea, and already had all the paperwork necessary to make it happen: it sat in its own labeled envelope on her desk. There was just the little matter of the jail thing to get out of the way first. My brother ended up serving seven weeks at the county lockup. I was not permitted to see him, but my mother visited every time it was allowed. Meanwhile, Ames remained; it seemed like he was always parked at our kitchen table with a coffee drink, ducking out occasionally to the garage to smoke cigarettes, using a sand-bucket ashtray my mom (who abhorred the habit) put out there just for him. Sometimes he showed up with his girlfriend, Marla, a manicurist with blonde hair, big blue eyes, and a shyness so prevalent she rarely spoke. If you addressed her, she got super nervous, like a small dog too tightly wound and always shaking. I knew Ames was a comfort to my mom. But something about him made me uneasy. Like how I’d catch him watching me over the rim of his coffee cup, following my movements with his dark eyes. Or how he always found a way to touch me—squeezing my shoulder, brushing against my arm—when he said hello. It wasn’t like he’d ever done any-

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thing to me, so I felt like it had to be my problem. Plus, he had a girlfriend. All he wanted, he told me again and again, was to take care of me the way Peyton would. “It was the one thing he asked me the day he went in,” he told me soon after my brother was gone. We were in the kitchen, and my mom had stepped out to take a phone call, leaving us alone. “He said, ‘Look out for Sydney, man. I’m counting on you.’” I wasn’t sure what to say to this. First of all, it didn’t sound like Peyton, who’d barely given me the time of day in the months before he’d gone away. Plus, even before that, he’d never been the protective type. But Ames knew my brother well, and the truth was that I no longer did. So I had to take his word for it. “Well,” I said, feeling like I should offer something, “um, thanks.” “No problem.” He gave me another one of those long looks. “It’s the least I can do.” When Peyton was released, he was still quiet, but more engaged, helping out more around the house and being present in a way he hadn’t been in the previous months. Sometimes, after he got home from school, he’d even watch TV with me. He could only stand Big New York or Miami for short periods, though, before getting disgusted with every single character. “That’s Ayre,” I’d try to explain as the gaunt, heavily nipped-and-tucked one-time Playmate had yet another meltdown. “She and Rosalie, the actress? They’re, like, always at each other.”

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Peyton said nothing, only rolling his eyes. He had little patience for anything, I was noticing. “You pick something,” I’d say, pushing the remote at him. “Seriously, I don’t care what we watch.” But it never worked. It was like he could alight next to me for just so long before having to move on to checking e-mail, strumming his guitar, or getting something to eat. His fidgeting kept increasing, and it made me nervous. I saw my mom notice it as well. Like some kind of internal energy had lost its outlet and was just building up, day after day, until he found a new one. He got his diploma in June, in a small ceremony with only eight classmates, most of whom had also been kicked out of their previous schools. We all attended, Ames and Marla included, and went out to dinner afterward at Luna Blu, one of our favorite restaurants. There, over their famous fried pickle appetizer, we toasted my brother with our soft drinks before my parents presented him with his graduation gift: two round-trip tickets to Jacksonville, Florida, so he and Ames could check out a well-known hospitality course there. My mom had even made them an appointment with the school’s director, as well as set up a private tour. Of course. “This is great,” my brother said, looking down at the tickets. “Seriously. Thanks, Mom and Dad.” My mother smiled, tears pricking her eyes, as my dad reached over, clapping Peyton on the shoulder. We were sitting outside on the patio, tiny fairy lights strung up over-

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head, and we’d just had a great meal together. The moment seemed so far away from the year we’d had, like everything in the fall and before it was just a bad dream. The next day, my mom sat down with me to talk about my hopes for college. Finally, I was the project. It was my turn. That fall, I started tenth grade at Perkins Day. My own transition to Upper School the year before had been as unremarkable as my brother’s had been eventful. Jenn and I made friends with a new girl, Meredith, who’d moved to Lakeview to train at the U’s gymnastics facility. She was small and all muscle, with the best posture I’d ever seen, not to mention the perkiest ponytail. She’d been training for competition since she was six. I’d never met anyone so driven and disciplined, and she basically spent every hour she wasn’t at school in the gym. Together, we three formed an easy friendship, as we all felt a little older than our classmates: Jenn because of her upbringing, Meredith because of her sport, and me because of everything that had happened in the last year. My brother’s legend, for better or worse, still preceded me. But my choice of friends—and the fact that we avoided all parties and illegal extracurriculars even as our classmates experimented—made it clear we were very different. With Peyton working as a valet at a local hotel and taking his hospitality classes with Ames at Lakeview Tech, my dad doing more traveling, and my mom returning to her volunteer projects, I often had the house entirely to myself after school. I started to feel that sadness again, creeping up each afternoon as the sun went down. I tried to fill it with Big

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New York or Miami, watching back-to-back-to-back episodes until my eyes were bleary. Even so, I always felt a rush of relief when I heard the garage door opening, signaling someone’s return and the shift to dinner and nighttime, when I wouldn’t be by myself anymore. Then, the day after Valentine’s Day, my brother left his job at the regular time, a little after ten p.m. Instead of coming home, however, he went to visit an old friend from Perkins Day. There, he drank several beers, took a few shots, and ignored the repeated calls from my mother until his voice mail was full. At two a.m., he left his friend’s apartment, got into his car, and headed home. At the same time, a fifteen-year-old boy named David Ibarra got onto his bike to ride the short distance back to his house from his cousin’s, where he’d fallen asleep on the couch while playing video games. He was taking a right from Dombey Street onto Pike Avenue when my brother hit him head-on. I was awakened that day by the sound of my mother screaming. It was a primal, awful sound, one I had never heard before. For the first time I understood what it really meant to feel your blood run cold. I ran out of my room and down the stairs, then stopped just outside the kitchen, suddenly realizing I wasn’t sure I was ready for what was happening in there. But then my mom was wailing, and I made myself go in. She was on her knees, her head bowed, my father crouching in front of her, his hands gripping her shoulders. The sound she was making was so awful, worse than an animal in pain. My first thought was that my brother was dead.

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“Julie,” my dad was saying. “Breathe, honey. Breathe.” My mom shook her head. Her face was white. Seeing my strong, capable mother this way was one of the scariest things I’d ever endured. I just wanted it to stop. So I made myself speak. “Mom?” My father turned, seeing me. “Sydney, go upstairs. I’ll be there in a minute.” I went. I didn’t know what else to do. Then I sat on my bed and waited. Right then, it felt like time did stop, in that five minutes or fifteen, or however long it was. Finally, my father appeared in the doorway. The first thing I noticed was how wrinkled his shirt was, twisted in places, like someone had been grabbing at it. Later, I’d remember this more than anything else. That plaid print, all disjointed. “There’s been an accident,” he said. His voice sounded raw. “Your brother hurt someone.” Later, I’d think back to these words and realize how telling they really were. Your brother hurt someone. It was like a metaphor, with a literal meaning and so many others. David Ibarra was the victim here. But he was not the only one hurt. Peyton was at the police station, where they’d taken him after a Breathalyzer test had confirmed his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. But the DUI was the least of his problems. As he was still on probation, there would be no leniency this time and no bail, at least at first. My father called Sawyer Ambrose, then changed his shirt and left to meet him at the station. My mom went to her room and shut

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the door. I went to school, because I didn’t know what else to do. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Jenn asked me at my locker right after homeroom. “You seem weird.” “I’m fine,” I told her, shoving a book in my bag. “Just tired.” I didn’t know why I wasn’t telling her. It was like this was too big; I didn’t want to give it any air to breathe. Plus, people would know soon enough. I started getting texts that evening, around dinnertime. First Jenn, then Meredith, then a few other friends. I turned my phone off, picturing the word spreading, like drops of food coloring slowly taking over a glass of water. My mother was still in her room, my dad gone, so I made myself some macaroni and cheese, which I ate at the kitchen counter, standing up. Then I went to my room, where I lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, until I heard the familiar sound of the garage door opening. This time, though, it didn’t make me feel better. A few minutes later, I heard a knock on my door, and then my dad came in. He looked so tired, with bags under his eyes, like he’d aged ten years since I’d seen him last. “I’m worried about Mom,” I blurted out before he could say anything. I hadn’t even been planning to say this; it was like someone else spoke in my voice. “I know. She’ll be okay. Did you eat?” “Yeah.” He looked at me for a minute, then crossed the room, sitting down on the edge of my bed. My dad was not the

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touchy-feely type, never had been. He was a shoulder-clapper, a master of the quick, three-back-pat hug. It was my mom who was always pulling me into her lap, brushing a hand over my hair, squeezing me tight. But now, on this weirdest and scariest of days, my father wrapped his arms around me. I hugged him back, holding on for dear life, and we stayed like that for what felt like a long time. There was so much ahead of us, both awfully familiar and, even worse, brand-new. My brother would never be the same. I’d never have another day when I didn’t think of David Ibarra at least once. My mom would fight on, but she had lost something. I’d never again be able to look at her and not see it missing. So many nevers. But in that moment, I just held my dad and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to make time stop again. It didn’t.

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h H ER E T H E Y CO M E. “—or I promise you, we’ll turn right around and go back to Paterson!” the woman behind the wheel of the burgundy minivan was shouting as it pulled up beside me. She had her head turned towards the backseat, where I could see three kids, two boys and a girl, staring back at her. A vein in her neck was bulging, looking not unlike the interstate, thick and unmissable, on the map held by the man in the passenger seat beside her. “I am serious. I have had it.” The kids didn’t say anything. After a moment of glaring at them, she turned to look at me. She had on big sunglasses with bedazzled frames. A large fountain drink, the straw tinged with lipstick, was parked between her legs. “Welcome to the beach,” I said to her, in my best Colby Realty employee voice. “May I—” “The directions on your Web site are garbage,” she informed me. Behind her, I saw one of the kids frog-punch another, who emitted a stifled shriek. “We’ve gotten lost three times since getting off the interstate.” “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I replied. “If you’d like to give

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me your name, I’ll grab you your keys and get you on the way to your rental.” “Webster,” she told me. I turned, reaching into the small rattan bin that held all the envelopes for that day’s check-ins. Miller, Tubman, Simone, Wallace . . . Webster. “Heron’s Call,” I read off the envelope, before opening it to make sure the keys were both in it. “That’s a great property.” In reply, she stuck out her hand. I gave the envelope to her, along with her complimentary beach bag full of all the free stuff—Colby Realty pen, giveaway postcard, area guide, and cheap drink cooler—that I knew the cleaning crew would most likely find untouched when they checked out. “Have a great week,” I told her. “Enjoy the beach!” Now she gave me a wry smile, although it was hard to tell if she was truly thankful or just felt sorry for me. After all, I was standing in a glorified sandbox in the middle of a parking lot, with three cars lined up behind her, most likely full of people in the exact same kind of mood. When the final stop on a trip is paradise, being the second to last is no picnic. Not that I had time to really think about this as they pulled away, signal already blinking for their turn onto the main road. It was three ten, and the next car, a blue sedan with one of those carriers on top, was waiting. I kicked what sand I could out of my shoes and took a deep breath. “Welcome to the beach,” I said, as they pulled up beside me. “Name, please?” 

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“Well,” my sister Margo said when I came into the office, sweat-soaked and depleted, two hours later. “How did it go?” “I have sand in my shoes,” I told her, going straight to the water cooler, where I filled up a cup, downed it, and then did the same with two more. “You’re at the beach, Emaline,” she pointed out. “No, I’m at the office,” I replied, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. “The beach is two miles away. People will get to the sand soon enough. I don’t see why we have to have it here, too.” “Because,” she replied, in the cool voice of someone who had spent the day in air-conditioning, “we are one of the first impressions our visitors get of Colby. We want them to feel that the moment they turn into our parking lot, they are officially on vacation.” “What does that have to do with me standing in a sandbox?” “It’s not a sandbox,” she said, and I rolled my eyes, because that’s exactly what it was, and we both knew it. “It’s a sandbar, and it’s meant to evoke the majesty of the coast.” I didn’t even know what to say to this. Ever since Margo had graduated from East U the year before with a double degree in hospitality and business, she’d been insufferable. Or more insufferable, actually. My family had owned Colby Realty for over fifty years; our grandparents started it right after they got married. We’d been doing just fine, thank you, before Margo and her sandbox or sandbar, or whatever. But she was the first one in our family so far to get a college degree, so she got to do whatever she wanted.

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Which was why, a few weeks earlier, she had this sandbox/ Tiki Hut/whatever it was made and put it in our office parking lot. About four feet by four feet, with waist-high walls, it was like a wooden tollbooth, with a truckload of playground sand dumped in and around it for good measure. Nobody questioned the need for this except me. Then again, no one else had to work in it. I heard a snicker, muffled, and looked over. Sure enough, it was my grandmother, behind her own desk, making a phone call. She winked at me and I couldn’t help but smile. “Don’t forget about the VIP rounds,” Margo called out, as I headed in that direction, chucking my cup in the trash on the way. “You need to start promptly at five thirty. And doublecheck the fruit and cheese platters before you deliver them. Amber did them and you know how she is.” Amber was my other sister. She was in hair school, worked for the realty company only under duress, and expressed her annoyance by doing everything in as slipshod a way as possible. “Ten-four,” I replied, and Margo exhaled, annoyed. She’d told me ten times that it sounded so unprofessional, like trucker talk. Which was exactly why I kept saying it. My grandmother’s office was right at the front of the building, with a big window looking out onto the main road, now packed with beach traffic. She was still on the phone but waved me in when she saw me in her doorway. “Well, yes, Roger, I sympathize, believe me,” she was saying as I pushed some brochures aside to sit down in the chair opposite her desk. It was messy as always, piled with papers,

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file folders, and several open packs of Rolos. She always misplaced one after opening it, only to do the same with the next, and the one after that. “But the bottom line is, in rental houses, door handles get a lot of use. Especially back door handles that lead to the beach. We can fix them as much as possible, but sometimes you just have to replace the hardware.” Roger said something, his voice booming from the receiver. My grandmother helped herself to a Rolo, then extended the pack to me. I shook my head. “The report I received was that the handle fell off, inside, after the door was locked. The guests couldn’t get back in. That’s when they called us.” A pause. Then she said, “Well, I’m sure they could have climbed in through a window. But when you’re paying five grand for a week, you can claim certain privileges.” As Roger responded, she chewed her Rolo. The candy wasn’t the best habit, but it was better than cigarettes, which she had smoked up until about six years earlier. My mother claimed that when she was a kid, a constant cloud had hung in this office, like its own personal weather system. Weirdly enough, even after multiple cleanings, new curtains and carpet, you could still smell the smoke. It’s faint, but it was there. “Of course. It’s always something when you’re a landlord,” she said now, leaning back in her chair and rubbing her neck. “We’ll take care of it and send the bill. All right?” Roger started to say something else. “Great! Thanks for the call.” She hung up, shaking her head. Behind her, another minivan was pulling into our parking lot. “Some people,” she said, popping out another Rolo, “should just not own beach houses.”

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This is one of her favorite mantras, running a close second to “Some people should just not rent beach houses.” I’ve often told her we should have it needlepointed and framed, not that we could hang it up anywhere in this office. “Another busted handle?” I asked. “Third one this week. You know how it goes. It’s the beginning of the season. That means wear and tear.” She started digging around on her desk, knocking papers to the floor. “How did check-in go?” “Fine,” I said. “Only two early birds, and both their places were already cleaned.” “And you’re doing the vips today?” I smiled. The VIP package was another one of Margo’s recent brainstorms. For an added charge, people who were renting what we called our Beach Palaces—the fanciest properties, with elevators and pools and all the amenities— got a welcome spread of cheese and fruit, along with a bottle of wine. Margo first pitched the idea at the Friday Morning Meeting, another thing she’d instituted, which basically forced us all to sit around the conference table once a week to say everything we’d normally discuss while actually working. That day, she’d handed out a printed agenda, with bullet points, one of which said “VIP Treatment.” My grandmother, squinting at it without her glasses, said, “What’s a vip?” To Margo’s annoyance, it stuck, and now the rest of us refused to call it anything else. “Just leaving now,” I told her. “Any special instructions?” She finally found the sheet she’d been looking for and scanned it quickly. “Dune’s Dream is a good regular client,”

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she said. “Bon Voyage is new, as is Casa Blu. And whoever’s in Sand Dollars is there for two months.” “Months?” I said. “Seriously?” Sand Dollars was one of our priciest properties, a big house way out on the Tip, the very edge of town. Just a week would break most budgets. “Yep. So make sure they get a good platter. All right?” I nodded, then got to my feet. I was just about to the door when she said, “And Emaline?” “Yes?” “You looked pretty cute in that sandbox this afternoon. Brought back memories.” I smiled, just as Margo yelled from outside, “It’s a sandbar, Grandmother!” Down the hallway in the back storage room, I collected the four platters Amber had assembled earlier. Sure enough, the cheese and fruit were all jumbled up, as if thrown from a distance. After spending a good fifteen minutes making them presentable, I took them out to my car, which was about a million degrees even though I parked in the shade. All I could do was pile them on the passenger seat, point every A/C vent in their direction, and hope for the best. At the first house, Dune’s Dream, no one answered even after I rang the bell and paged them from the outside intercom. I walked around the extensive deck, peering down. There was a group of people around the pool below, as well as a couple walking down the long boardwalk to the beach. I tried the door—unlocked—and stepped inside. “Hello?” I called out in a friendly voice. “Colby Realty,

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VIP delivery?” When you had to come into people’s houses— even if they’d only just moved in, and then just for the week— you learned not only to announce yourself but to do so loudly and repeatedly. All it took was catching one person unaware and partially clothed to bang this lesson home. Yes, people were supposed to let it all hang out on vacation. But that didn’t mean I wanted to see it. “Colby Realty? VIP delivery?” Silence. Quickly, I moved up to the third-floor kitchen, where the views were spectacular. On the speckled granite island, I arranged the platter, chilled bottle of wine, and a handwritten card welcoming them to Colby and reminding them to contact us if they needed anything at all. Then it was on to the next house. At Bon Voyage, the door was locked, the guests most likely out for an early dinner. I set up the platter and wine in the kitchen, where the blender was still plugged in, the carafe in the sink smelling of something sweet and tropical. It was always so weird to come into these houses once people were actually staying there, especially if I’d just been in the same morning to check after the cleaners. The entire energy was different, like the difference between something being off and on. At Casa Blu, the door was answered by a short woman with a deep tan, wearing a bikini that was, honestly, not really age appropriate. This was not to say I knew how old she was as much as that, even at eighteen, I wouldn’t have attempted the same skimpy pink number. There was a white sheen of sunscreen on her face, a beer in a bright yellow cozy in her free hand.

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“Colby Realty, VIP delivery,” I said. “I have a welcome gift for you?” She took a sip of her beer. “Great,” she said, in a flat, nasal tone. “Come on in.” I followed her up to the next level, trying not to look at her bikini bottom, which was riding up, up, up as we climbed the stairs. “Is it the stripper?” someone called out as I stepped onto the landing. It was another woman around the same age, midforties, maybe, wearing a bikini top, a flowy skirt, and a thick, gold braided necklace. When she saw me, she laughed. “Guess not!” “It’s something from the rental place,” Pink Bikini explained to her and a third woman in a shorty bathrobe holding a wine glass, her hair in a messy topknot, who were looking down from the deck at something below. “A welcome gift.” “Oh,” the bathrobe woman said. “I thought this was our present.” There was a burst of laughter as the woman who let me in walked over to join them, looking as well. I arranged my platter and bottle, put up the card, and was about to leave discreetly when I heard one of them say, “Wouldn’t you just love to take a big bite of that, Elinor?” “Mmmm,” she replied. “I say we dump dirt in the pool, so he has to come back tomorrow.” “And the next day!” Flowy Skirt said. Then they all laughed again, clinking their glasses. “Enjoy your stay,” I called out as I left, but of course they didn’t hear me. Halfway down the stairs to the front door, I glanced out one of the big windows, spotting the object of

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their ogling: a tall, very tan guy with curly blond hair, shirtless, wielding a long, awfully phallic looking pool brush. I could hear them still whooping as I went out the door, easing it shut behind me. Back in the car, I pulled my hair up in a ponytail, secured it with one of the elastics hanging around my gearshift, and sat for a moment in the driveway, watching the waves. I had one more stop and plenty of time, so I was still there when the pool guy let himself out of the fence and headed back to his truck, parked beside me. “Hey,” I called out, as he climbed up into the open bed, coiling a couple of hoses. “You could make some big money this week, if your morals are loose enough and you like older women.” He grinned, flashing white teeth. “Think so?” “They’d devour you, given the chance.” Another smile as he hopped down, shutting the tailgate, and came over to my open window. He leaned down on it, so his head was level with mine. “Not my type,” he told me. “Plus, I’m already taken.” “Lucky girl,” I said. “You should tell her that. I think she takes me for granted.” I made a face. “I think it’s mutual.” He leaned in and kissed me. I could taste the tiny bit of sweat above his lip. As he pulled back, I said, “You’re not kidding anyone, you know. You are fully capable of wearing a shirt when you work.” “It’s hot out here!” he told me, but I just rolled my eyes,

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cranking my engine. Ever since he’d taken up running and got all cut, you couldn’t keep a top on the boy. This was not the first house that had noticed. “So we still on for tonight?” “What’s tonight?” “Emaline.” He shook his head. “Don’t even try to act like you’ve forgotten.” I thought hard. Nothing. Then he hummed the first few bars of “Here Comes the Bride,” and I groaned. “Oh, right. The cookout thing.” “The shower-slash-barbecue,” he corrected me. “Otherwise known as my mother’s full-time obsession for the last two months?” Oops. In my defense, however, this was the third of four showers that were being held in preparation for the wedding of Luke’s sister Brooke. Ever since she’d gotten engaged the previous fall, it had been all wedding all the time at his house. Since I spent much of my time there, it was like being forced into an immersion program for a language I had no interest in learning. Plus, since Luke and I had been together since ninth grade, there was also the issue of everyone making jokes about how we’d be next, and his parents should go ahead and get a two-for-one deal. Ha, ha. “Seven o’clock,” Luke said now, kissing my forehead. “See you then. I’ll be the one with the shirt on.” I smiled, shifting into reverse. Then it was back down the long driveway, onto the main road, and up to the end of the Tip, to Sand Dollars. This was one of the newer houses we managed, and

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probably the nicest. Eight bedrooms, ten and a half baths, pool and hot tub, private boardwalk to the beach, screening room downstairs with real theater seats and surround sound. It was so new, in fact, that only a couple of weeks ago there had still been a Porta-John outside, the contractor rushing to finish the last inspections before the season began. While they did punch-list and turnkey stuff, Margo and I had been putting away all the utensils and dishes the decorator had bought at Park Mart, bags and bags of which had been left in the garage. It was the oddest thing, furnishing a whole house all at once. There was no history to anything. All rental houses feel anonymous, but this one was where I’d felt it the most. So much so that even with the pretty view, it always kind of gave me the creeps. I liked a little past to things. As I came up the drive, there was a lot of activity. A white van with tinted windows and an SUV were parked out front, the van’s back doors open. Inside, I could see stacks of Rubbermaid bins and cardboard boxes, clearly in the process of being unloaded. I got out of my car, collecting the VIP stuff. As I started up the stairs to the front door, it opened, and two guys about my age came out. Within seconds, we recognized each other. “Emaline,” Rick Mason, our former class president, called out to me. Behind him was Trent Dobash, who played football. The three of us were not friends, but our school was so small you knew everyone, whether you liked it or not. “Fancy meeting you here.” “You’re renting this place?” I was shocked.

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“I wish,” he scoffed. “We were just down surfing and got offered a hundred each to unload this stuff.” “Oh,” I said, as they passed me, moving down to the open van. “Right. What’s in the boxes?” “No idea,” he replied, lifting one of the bins out and handing it to Trent. “Could be drugs or firearms. I don’t care as long as I get my money.” This was exactly the kind of sentiment that had made Rick such a lousy class president. Then again, his only competition had been a girl who recently moved from California whom everyone hated, so it wasn’t like we had a lot of options. Inside the open front door, another guy was moving around in the huge living room, organizing the stuff that had already been brought in. He, however, was not from here, something I discerned with one glance. First, he had on Oyster jeans— dark wash, with the signature O on the back pockets—which I hadn’t even known they made for guys. Second, he had a knit cap pulled down over his ears, even though it was early June. It was like pulling teeth to get Luke or any of his friends to wear anything but shorts, regardless of the temperature: beach guys don’t do winter wear, even in winter. I knocked, but he didn’t hear me, too busy opening up one of the bins. I tried again, this time adding, “Colby Realty? VIP delivery?” He turned, taking in the wine and the cheese. “Great,” he replied, all business. “Just put it anywhere.” I walked over to the kitchen, where a couple of weeks ago I had been pulling price tags off spatulas and colanders, and arranged the tray, wine, and my card. I was just turning to

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leave when I caught a flutter of movement out of the corner of my eye. Then the yelling began. “I don’t care what time it is, I needed that delivery today! It’s what I arranged and therefore what I expected and I won’t accept anything else!” At first, the source of this was just a blur. A beat later, though, it slowed enough for me to make out a woman wearing black jeans, a short-sleeved black sweater, and ballet flats. She had hair so blonde it was almost white, and a cell phone was clamped to her ear. “I ordered four tables, I want four tables. They should be here in the next hour and my account is to be adjusted accordingly for their lateness. I am spending too much money to put up with this bullshit!” I looked at the guy in the Oyster jeans, still busy with the bins across the room, who appeared to not even be fazed by this. I, however, was transfixed, the way you are whenever you see crazy people up close. You just can’t look away, even when you know you should. “No, that’s not going to work for me. No. No. Today, or forget the entire thing.” Now that she was standing still, I noted the set of her jaw, as well as the angular way her cheek and collar bones protruded. She was downright prickly, like one of those predator plants you see in deserts. “Fine. I’ll expect my deposit to be refunded on my card by tomorrow morning or you’ll be hearing from my attorney. Goodbye.” She jabbed at the phone, turning it off. Then, as I watched, she threw it across the room, where it crashed against the wall that just had just been painted on Memorial Day weekend, leaving a black mark. Holy shit.

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“Idiots,” she announced, her voice loud even in this big room. “Prestige Party Rental my ass. I knew the minute we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line it would be like working in the third world.” Now, the guy looked at her, then at me, which of course made her finally notice me as well. “Who is this?” she snapped. “From the realty place,” he told her. “VIP something or other.” She looked mystified, so I pointed at the wine and cheese. “A welcome gift,” I said. “From Colby Realty.” “It would have been better if you’d brought tables,” she grumbled, walking over to the platter and lifting the wrap. After peering down at it, she ate a grape, then shook her head. “Honestly, Theo, I’m already wondering if this was a mistake. What was I thinking?” “We’ll find another place to rent tables,” he told her, in a voice that made it clear he was used to these kinds of tirades. He’d already picked up her phone, which he was now checking for damage. The wall, like me, was ignored. “Where? This place is backwoods. There’s probably not another one for a hundred miles. God, I need a drink.” She picked up the wine I had brought, squinting at the bottle. “Cheap and Australian. Of course.” I watched her as she started pulling open drawers, obviously looking for a corkscrew. I let her look in all the wrong places, just out of spite, before I finally moved over to the wet bar by the pantry to get it. “Here.” I handed it to her, then grabbed the pen and paper we always left with the housekeeping card. “Prestige has

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a habit of screwing up orders. You should call Everything Island. They’re open until eight.” I wrote down the number, then pushed it towards her. She just looked at it, then at me. She didn’t pick it up. As I started towards the stairs, where Rick and Trent were banging up with another load, neither of the renters said anything. I was used to that. As far as they were concerned, this was their place now, with me as much scenery as the water. But when I spotted a price tag still on a little wicker basket by the door, I stopped and pulled it off anyway.

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HOW WE GOT HERE Two hundred years ago, America found itself at a crossroads. With sickness and famine came economic turmoil, and with economic turmoil came the looming threat from across the Pacific—China and her allies. The rich and the poor temporarily forgot their fight with each other and united to defend themselves. They failed. The West Coast and all the land west of the Rockies fell to the Easterners, though the Americans were able to stop their advance in the mountains. Peace was restored, but a wary peace. America’s arsenal of weapons was surrendered and destroyed, her access to most of the world’s oil completely cut off. Fortunately, a forward-thinking scientist named Jacob Landry introduced the Cherenkov lantern that very year, which no less than changed the world. In the coming years, Jacob Landry emerged as the voice of reason and stability, promising a new way of life whereby the wealthy could protect their own and gently spur the underclass into productivity. And then there was war. Rather than North against the South, it was each city against itself, each state against itself, all led by the Uprisen against the hastily cobbled 1

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together but fierce resistance. After two years of destructive and bitter warfare, the Uprisen were victorious. The boundaries of race and gender and religion fell away as class became the most important delineator in society.

2

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When I woke in the morning, it was spring. Spring came like that now, like a thief tiptoeing through the frost, saving its first warm breaths for early May mornings. I’d fallen asleep under my silk canopy, my fingers wedged inside The Once and Future King, a dim blue lantern still unhooded beside my bed. Elinor, my lady’s maid, came in to open the curtains and lay out my clothes. “Good morning, Miss Madeline,” she said. “Good morning.” My dreams had been wistful and restless and filled with the faraway hopes of people long since dead and returned to dust. I stood and walked to the window, where I could see the stark branches of the trees weeping with melting ice. “Shall I prepare the ivory lace for the debut tomorrow night?” Elinor asked. “Your mother says you must dress to make a match.” She would. It was always about marriage with her. It was always about marriage with all the mothers; it was the gentry way. As late as last year, I’d been allowed to beg off dances and dinners, but since I’d turned seventeen last February my 3

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mother had stopped letting me neglect my social obligations. “The ivory will be fine, Elinor. Thank you.” After Elinor had buttoned up my day dress—a flowing gown the blue of glacial ice—I took my book downstairs to find a quiet place to finish it and then practice my speech to Father. I planned to avoid the morning room, where my mother was hosting a breakfast tea for her friends, but when I heard my name as I passed the doorway, I couldn’t help stopping to listen. “Does Madeline know?” a woman asked. “Please,” said a scornful voice that I recognized as belonging to Addison Westoff, one of the richest women in the city and my mother’s childhood friend. “Why would any of our children care about scandals old enough to be in a museum?” “But is it true?” the first woman asked. “Christine Dana is coming back to Kansas City?” “What does it matter?” Addison asked. “Even if she is, she’s a harmless widow. Olivia has done the one thing Christine could never do and that’s give the Landry line an heir.” “Madeline,” I heard someone whisper and then a low chuckle. My cheeks burned. I crept away from the door and continued down the hall. Maybe I’d take a walk outside. The cold air would be bracing, and I would be well away from the gossiping women. I traded my slippers for boots and slipped on my woolen coat. My steps echoed through the empty ballroom as I made 4

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my way to the windowed doors that led out to the patio and the grounds. I crunched through the snow into the rose garden, where gardeners were wheeling out the solar-powered heaters to speed the melting that was already under way. Father was talking to one of them about laying a fresh layer of crushed gravel on the path as I approached. The gardener doffed his hat. “Good morning, miss.” “Good morning,” I said. “Preparing for the growing season?” “That I am, miss, although I’m a bit worried about what we can grow with the winters lasting longer and longer,” he replied. “Our plants need to be modified to grow faster.” Father was squinting at the ceiling of clouds, rolling and leaden and promising rain, but I knew his mind was on the various farms we owned. The crops on those farms, like the roses and ferns in our garden, had evolved to grow in the weather of the twenty-first century, not in our new world of snow and ice. Every year, the yields grew smaller and smaller. “I’ll be at it now, if you’ll excuse me.” The gardener replaced his hat and made to leave, but then stopped and turned. “And mind your pretty gray cat, if you will. There’s a big brown tom that’s taken a fancy to her whenever she steps out for a walk. I wouldn’t want you to have a litter of brown kittens running about, spoiling that pretty thing’s pedigree.” I smiled. “I don’t believe any tomcat is a match for my Mor5

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gana. You should have seen my arms the last time I tried to give her a bath.” “If you say so, Miss Landry,” he said, shaking his head. He excused himself and rejoined the other gardeners. Father put his hands behind his back and regarded me. “Well, Madeline?” “Well, what?” “You come forward so intently. I assume you have something to discuss?” “Yes, Father.” It was like him, to know just what I was thinking. He usually knew what people were thinking, which was what made him such a shrewd leader among the gentry. It was also what made him such an intimidating father. He started walking and I stayed beside him, wondering how best to bring up the subject of my education. “Have you finished reading John Locke?” he asked. I nodded. “And?” “I find his argument for the ownership of property convincing enough, but he writes that it is only an individual’s labor that gives him the right to own land. What does that mean for our land? I do no labor here, yet I’m to own it.” Father ran his gloved fingers along an icy bramble bush. “If we were not here to direct the labor, this estate and all of our forests and farms would be less productive. We’re adding value by applying our wisdom.” 6

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I considered this, doubtful. I didn’t know many people who’d equate “applying wisdom” with pulling up stumps or plowing or herding cows from pasture to pasture in the roiling summer heat. He spoke again. “But I agree with you that Locke’s argument can only be carried so far. Next, you must read Edmund Burke. Your six times great-grandfather Jacob Landry was a keen admirer of Burke.” Father had stopped and was examining one of the bushes, where rot had taken half the branches. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to speak before I lost my nerve, before Father went inside to his study and this private moment in the slushy beauty was lost. “Father, my history teacher told us about the time before the Last War, when America was still the United States and the West Coast still belonged to us and not to the Eastern Empire.” I’d prepared my speech with an appeal to history, since Father’s own justifications were usually couched in terms of historical perspective. My father talked about the Last War and the birth of the gentry like it was more central to our being than the air we breathed. To him, the Last War was more important than the American Revolution or the Civil War. Referencing it would show that I’d done my research, thought about this carefully—even if I was technically citing the period before my ancestor had led America from chaos to order. 7

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I glanced over at Father. He continued looking over the branches. I continued. “When men and women dated whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted, regardless of money or class. Back then, everyone had been able to attend school, and everyone had an opportunity to study at the university, to choose their own way in life. I want to go to the university,” I said this last part quickly, nervous but determined. “I graduated from the academy two weeks ago, and soon it will be time for me to submit my application if I want to go. And I do want to go.” “Indeed.” Father’s voice held nothing—no affirmation, no condemnation. I pushed ahead, trying to hold onto the optimism I felt this morning. “I know it’s unusual for an heir to spend any length of time studying, but I want a university education and I know I would be good at it.” “Is the education you receive here not sufficient?” The coldness in his voice was a warning, but I chose to ignore it. “You know I value everything that you teach me, but I want to learn more. I want to learn more about history and philosophy and about land and business—I know it will make me a better owner of Landry Park, when the time comes.” There. He could hardly argue against something that would help the estate. “It’s not possible.” He straightened and brushed the ice from 8

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his gloves. “You know the rules. Eldest children inherit, marry, and carry on the family name. Younger gentry children may attend a college and take a degree, but the eldest child has a duty to her family. And you are not only my eldest child, Madeline, you are my only child. How do you expect to pursue your studies and fulfill your duty to this estate?” The estate. Always the estate. Three stories of gray stone and large windows with a tower in the middle jutting up above it all, built by my ancestors after the Last War. The Palladian mansion sat on a sprawl of wide lawns and tumbledown gardens, scented by bobbing flowers and tossed with a breeze that whipped up from the Missouri River. From the copper-roofed observatory in the tower, one could take in the entire city by day, and at night, planets and stars and galaxies far overhead. “But I don’t want to marry,” I told him, trying to keep my chin from quivering. “Not yet, at least. I could marry after the university. I know the Landry will says the heir must be married by their twenty-first birthday, and I wouldn’t be finished with my studies by then, but if you could just change the will—” He pulled my hands into his iron grip, the leather of his gloves cool and wet on my bare fingers. “That rule is in place for a reason, Madeline. The business of family must come first. You must be settled and ready to perpetuate the family name in the flush of your youth—when you have your health and energy to ensure a viable heir.” 9

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The sounds of the melting garden filled my wounded silence until he finally spoke again. “I didn’t want to marry at your age either. But we have an obligation to the family and to the land. I married to help the estate, and so will you.” I ducked my head so that he wouldn’t see my eyes shining with tears. I needed to be strong. Stoic. But despite my determination, a tear slipped down my cheek. “I will not marry you to an ogre,” he said gently. “But I will respect you by handing you the same expectations of honor and duty that my father handed to me. You are a Landry, Madeline. It’s our obligation to uphold the standards of the gentry, to light the way as an example for our peers. Don’t you remember our ancestor’s words?” How could I forget? They echoed down through history. Order, elegance, prosperity. The three ideals that governed our world. “But wouldn’t I be able to be ordered, elegant, and prosperous with a degree?” He shook his head. “You’re an heir, not a scholar.” I let go of a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding and tried to gather my composure. But before I could say anything more, Father gave my hands a squeeze and left me standing in the frozen garden.

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Wilder House was smaller than Landry Park, a simple brick affair with a courtyard in the middle and a modest grove of trees out back. The interior was clean and well-appointed— full of shining chandeliers and antique furniture, smelling of beeswax and lemon—but slightly cramped. The ballroom seethed with people, jostling one another for space, the older ladies fighting one another for the wooden-backed chairs that lined the room. Twinkling lights glimmered in every corner, all powered by the small, silent nuclear charge in the basement. In addition to the nuclear electric lights, candles flickered in candelabras and chandeliers and on the tables, long white tapers in gleaming silver candlesticks. They were quite lovely, even if they did increase the risk of singed gowns in such a crowded room. We were here for Marianne Wilder’s debut, the ball that would ordain her entrance into the world of courtship and marriage, and yet another opportunity for gentry girls and boys to be put on display for one another. Another night wasted. Jamie might be here, I comforted myself. Jamie Campbell-Smith was one of the people who knew me 11

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best in the world—a very distant cousin, brought over from England by my uncle Arthur Lawrence, who was sponsoring his education as a doctor. Since Jamie’s family was middle class and without land, he would probably never marry within the gentry, even with his connection to the Lawrences. Of course, there was another reason he’d never marry here: a young man back home, but only I knew about that. I plucked at the skirt of my bisque-colored dress. It was silk like all of my gowns—like all of my mother’s. Silk, along with plum wine, opium, and jade, were near to impossible to get from the Eastern Empire, since trading was practically nonexistent. But for a steep price, we wealthy could wriggle around these restrictions. Mother sidled by, cradling a glass of champagne. “Smile, Madeline. You look so sullen just standing there.” “I’m waiting for Jamie.” It wasn’t entirely true—what I really wanted was to avoid the callow blandishments of the Lawrence boys, who were constantly sniffing around Landry Park, as if it was a dinner about to be served. But it wasn’t entirely untrue either. Jamie was kind and genuine, which made him worth about ten of the gentry boys here tonight. Not for the first time, Mother raised her eyebrows at the mention of his name. “You know you can’t marry him, Madeline. Not as poor as he is. Landry Park needs money and lots of it.” “I don’t want to marry him!” I protested too loudly. A group 12

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of men nearby turned in my direction. I lowered my voice. “We’re just friends.” And Jamie wasn’t interested in marriage anyway. At least, not with me or any other girl. Besides, we were related. With a small group like the gentry it was difficult to avoid some degree of intermarriage, but I could never regard Jamie as anything more than family. Mother nodded. “Good. We do not need any rumors of marriage surrounding you when David Dana arrives.” “David who?” I asked. “Christine Dana’s son,” Mother said, sipping her drink. “His father left him millions of dollars after his death, but their estate in Georgia reverted back to David’s cousin. So he’s rich and without any land to speak of. Plus, he’s taking an officer’s commission in a few months.” Her eyes sparkled. Another gentry bachelor. Wonderful. “We need to meet him before anybody else,” she continued, and I forced myself to pay attention. “Especially with Addison on the prowl. She wants David for her daughter, Cara, and mark my words, she’ll do whatever it takes. She would not hesitate for a second to invent a romance between you and your cousin Jamie.” I sighed, but she didn’t hear, since she was already waving and moving toward some of her friends, her small frame disappearing in the crush of people. The Wilders may have had a small ballroom, but it certainly met the gentry standards for quality and opulence. 13

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The floor and artwork had been flown in from a palace in France two hundred years ago, right after the Last War when the gentry and their estates were formed. All the Kansas City families were here, and the women wore their most splendid gowns—all low-cut bodices and seed pearls and filmy skirts that released the smell of jasmine when they moved. Thankfully, Jane Osbourne arrived and came to stand beside me, offering a smile but no idle conversation. Jane was an eldest daughter, and therefore an heir like myself, and was well read and sensible and just as quietly reluctant to participate in the marketplace of privileged marriage. We frequently found ourselves together in these types of situations—wallflower heiresses. We shared a plate of strawberries in companionable silence while the other guests danced and chatted around us. A group of laughing people came in from the patio outside. I craned my neck to try to see if Jamie was one of them but, at that moment, a booming voice announced Marianne’s entry. Two heralds in green costumed livery blew into gleaming trumpets as the doors to the ballroom opened. Preceded by her parents, Marianne Wilder and Mark Everly walked arm in arm, the skirt of her kelly green gown brushing against his legs. Her dark skin was striking against his white tuxedo, her long braids swept up behind a tiara set with emeralds. She was followed by another couple, the debut equivalent of a maid of honor and a best man, both of whom 14

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looked distinctly unhappy to be paired together. Usually the rest of the family followed the debutante and her escort into the ballroom, but only Marianne’s parents and grandparents trailed beaming behind her. Her older brother, Philip, was absent. I could hear a few disappointed girls murmuring behind me. Though the Wilder estate wasn’t large, the family owned several lucrative orchards out west, and Philip still hadn’t found a wife. For most of the single girls in the room, the math was easy. “Let all men and women find a partner for the first dance!” a voice announced. People scrambled around—shuffling boys, giggling girls, hopeful young men and women trying to find the dance partner who would spark their own debuts—or if they had debuted already and not gotten engaged, hoping to win a proposal by the end of the ball. Jane—very pretty and too polite to refuse—was snatched up by one of the Lyons boys right away. “Looking for a partner?” a gentle voice said next to me. “Jamie!” I breathed a sigh of relief. Smiling, he led me out onto the floor, where we lined up in rows facing one another. He bowed—glossy black curls bobbing—I curtsied, and we touched hands. I had to reach upward because he was so tall. “See, how could you think of leaving all this fun behind?” Jamie said as we circled each other. “There is no dancing at the university. I should know.” 15

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“Dancing is only as fun as your partner,” I pointed out as we stepped forward in the line, turned, and traded partners. My new partner was short, acne-riddled, and wasted no time in trying to squeeze my bottom when he slid his arm around my waist. He had terrible breath. When I got back to Jamie, he conceded my point. “Maybe you would be happier cloistered in the university libraries. But how could you live without Landry Park? Even for just a few years?” I didn’t respond right away. To my parents, I’d offered up a defiant answer, but Father could see through my uncertainty, and I knew Jamie would, too. “I ask myself that question every day,” I finally said. “And?” “Every day the answer is different.” The music ended, and I curtsied again. He offered an arm to lead me off the floor while the band struck up a reel, and as he did, a terrible noise, sharp and shrill like a rabbit about to be slaughtered, came through the open patio doors, piercing through the merry strings of the violins. The band stopped and people looked around, as if expecting the screamer to materialize underneath the chandelier or by the buffet. “What was that?” I asked Jamie. “It sounded like a girl.” “Maybe it was an animal,” he said. But then there was another scream. The room rippled in panic. People began to yell and shove 16

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their way to the doors, and Arthur Lawrence rumbled for someone to call the police. I saw my father push his way outside, calling for a lantern. Marianne Wilder’s father and our neighbor William Glaize followed him. Jamie gave me a look and made for the doors. “I’m coming, too,” I insisted. A small set of doors opened onto a flagged patio. Our breath came out in steamy clouds in the chill air, and I immediately regretted not getting my pelisse from the coatroom before I came outside. Jamie shifted his weight from foot to foot as the cold damp from the stones crept through the thin cardboard on the bottom of his shoes. Seeing my shivers, he shrugged off his jacket and handed it to me. “It came from the grove,” Mr. Wilder said. His butler scurried out with two Cherenkov lanterns that emitted a vivid blue light. Leaded glass allowed the glow of the radioactive material to shine out steadily, while the rest of the water-filled case was made of a lightweight polymer that blocked radiation, which made the lantern completely safe to handle. It was these Cherenkov lanterns that built the Landry fortune over two centuries ago. Father took a light and we walked toward the grove, the bobbing blue lights from the lanterns making swinging arcs along the path. “It could just be an animal,” Mr. Wilder suggested. “It must be. Nothing like this has ever happened on our property.” 17

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“Things are changing,” Father said brusquely. Mr. Glaize nodded. “I heard they’ve been having trouble with the Rootless in St. Louis. My cousin found his entire stable of horses dead the other week. Almost hundreds of thousands of gentry dollars, lost in a single day.” “But surely there is no evidence that the Rootless did that,” Mr. Wilder huffed, trying to keep up with my father’s long strides. “The horses could have taken ill?” “And in Dallas, that terrible penthouse fire,” Mr. Glaize added. “The old man who lived there almost lost his life. As it is, his hands are so badly burned that he’ll never be able to feed himself again.” Father said nothing, but the tense set of his shoulders spoke volumes. Based on the amount of time he’d spent on his wall screen in his study recently, I guessed that none of this was news to him. He’d always been extremely attentive to the actions of the Rootless. As the caste in charge of handling the nuclear material that powered our lives, they were both vital to the gentry way of life and an ever-present liability. The grove spanned no more than a half-acre, and the thick carpet of pine needles kept the undergrowth to a minimum. “It should be easy to find someone, if there’s anyone out here.” Father held his lantern high, the blue light turning his red hair purple. “Madeline, stay with me. Gentleman, shall we spread out?” 18

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My slippers crunched on the frosted needles. A small brook ran midway through the grove, and I could hear its trickling ebullience from several yards away. Jamie and my father were both walking too quickly for me to keep pace easily. “Wait!” I said, but a high wind whistling through the trees and the noise of the stream drowned me out. I suddenly felt uncomfortable in the dark, even with the lanterns bobbing in the distance and the Wilder House lit up like a festival behind me. I started jogging and then running to catch up, paying no attention to where I put my feet, just looking ahead to Father’s bluish figure. My breath came in cloudy pants, and a sharp pain stitched itself in my side. Just before I reached the stream, my foot caught a tree root, black and invisible, and I fell hard. What little breath I had left was knocked from my chest. I looked up, hoping that the men had heard me, but instead I saw a girl in a ball gown, her green eyes gleaming in the frozen darkness.

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It was the shouts that caught my attention. I had been looking over the menu for tonight’s dinner— roast goose and lobster—when I heard the noise come from outside, where the gardeners had been rolling heavy solar heaters into place and shoveling snow off the wide gravel walks. Curious, I went through the ballroom to the patio doors, hoping to find the source of the commotion. For the first time in the month since I’d stood up to my father at Liberty Park, the estate bustled with activity. On my way through the ballroom, I passed servants carrying fresh bundles of flowers, neatly pressed linens, crates of long white candles for the candelabras and chandeliers. I made a quick mental note of the progress as I walked, trying to calculate how much more still needed to be done. The dinner my uncle and I were hosting tonight was to welcome the Rootless and the gentry together, to try to demonstrate goodwill on both sides. How well the Rootless would adapt to sharing a table with their oppressors remained to be seen, but I felt hopeful that tonight would be a turning point. Tonight was important. 1

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The men were gesturing emphatically to one another, and I could hear them arguing even before I opened the glass doors that led outside. A rush of cold damp air hit me, cutting through the filmy silk dress I wore. “What’s going on?” The frigid air made my voice unusually sharp. I took a breath and changed my tone to something softer, more polite. “I heard the shouts. Is everything okay?” One of the men, the head gardener, touched his hat respectfully. “Good afternoon, Miss Landry. There’s really nothing going on here, just an unexpected complication.” But I’d already stepped out onto the patio, shivering, snow soaking through my thin slippers, and now I could see what the men were concerned about: an ugly red stain in the snow, right on top of where the platinum atomic symbol was inlaid into the stone. “We were clearing off the patio,” he said, “and we noticed a heap of snow in the middle. We started shoveling and found this.” “It looks like blood,” someone said. “It looks like a lot of blood,” another added. I came forward to examine the stain more closely. It did indeed look like blood, a vivid crimson that eerily matched the color of my hair. Darker in the middle and surrounded by bright splatters, the stain was large and deep. When a gardener used his shovel to scrape away a section, the snowmelt lingered in scarlet puddles on the patio.

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The wind picked up again, ruffling my hair, and the scent of something metallic and salty blew with it. “Do you think this means that someone is hurt? Have any of the servants reported injuries?” I asked. The head gardener shook his head. “None of the staff has been hurt. And it would be difficult to hide a wound that produced that much blood.” “Could it have been an animal?” I asked. “Maybe a fox or a wild dog cornered something.” I felt a flutter of fear as I thought of my cat, Morgana, who habitually wandered outside. “But then where’s the rest of it? No carcass, no bones. Not even a trail showing where it had been dragged off.” The gardener shook his head, and I relaxed a little. “No. Whatever bled here was carried off and then great pains were taken to cover the blood back up. A person did this, Miss Landry.” I took quick stock of the patio. Four gardeners, two solar heaters, and assorted shovels, spades, and ice picks. Muddy bootprints were everywhere, mostly leading from the south side of the property where they’d been clearing the garden, and one leading from the east side, where the gardening shed abutted the carriage house. Ignoring the head gardener’s noise of protest, I walked around the blood and down the steps, the snow scraping against my bare legs as I sank in up to my knees. At the bottom, I could see no footprints other than those that clearly belonged to the gardeners. There was no

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disturbed snow on the lawn, no trace of blood anywhere else. It was as if whatever—no, whomever—had bled into the snow had then simply vanished. I trudged back up to the gardeners. “How long since the patio’s last been cleared?” I asked. “The night of your debut,” the head gardener said. That made sense. That was the night before I’d confronted Father and everything had changed. “So it’s been a month,” I said. “Could this have been here since then and no one noticed?” He shook his head. “Someone would have seen it, surely. And besides, it snowed last night, and the snow piled on top of the stain was freshly disturbed. It must have happened today.” The thought made me intensely uncomfortable. Mere hours ago, someone had spilled what appeared to be torrents of blood right outside the ballroom of the most important estate in the entire city, and no one had noticed. Had someone been mutilated? Killed? Please let no one have been hurt, I begged the fading sky. Please, please, please, no more, no more blood, no more pain. I thought back to my father, bloodied and hands knotting in pain, when he’d been rescued from the Rootless mob at Liberty Park. And along with the thought came a stab of fear—a rapier prick of fear really—sharp and small and gone in an instant. “Should we tell your uncle?” the gardener asked. 4

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I shook off the images of violence and savagery that crowded at the edges of my mind. “I’ll get him,” I said. I left the gardeners shuffling uncomfortably and went back inside to find my uncle, my slippers leaving wet footprints on the floor. I hated having to disturb Jack with anything tonight. The events at Liberty Park, along with the shocking and painful revelation that Jack was actually my father’s assumed-dead brother, had left the city in chaos and had naturally left the gentry uneasy. There was so much work to be done and tonight was a new beginning. He needed to focus and prepare as much as possible. And, if I admitted it to myself, there was another reason I felt reluctant to tell him about the mysterious discovery. Something had been different about him in the past four weeks, a fanaticism that nestled inside his rumbling words. It made me wary, but we were so close to achieving all that we’d worked for, so close to actual change, that I felt reluctant to give the small anxieties in my mind any credence. Jack was in my father’s study when I found him. He was reading, as he often did these days, having been deprived of access to books when he lived in the Rootless ghetto. He snapped the book shut when he saw me. “Madeline. How are the preparations for the dinner coming along?” For a moment, his resemblance to Father was overwhelming, and something tightened in my chest. “There’s something on the patio you need to see,” I said. 5

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He got to his feet, leaving his cane leaning against the desk. We walked back through the ballroom, where servants rolled tables laden with fresh flowers and empty silver platters in from the kitchen elevator. Savory scents and sweet smells wafted up from downstairs, and already Crawford, the butler, was laying out bottles of wine from the cellar. The sun was dipping low outside. I would have to go upstairs soon to change and have Elinor fix my hair. Jack opened the doors and we both stepped outside, me wishing that I would have thought to get a cloak and him showing no sign that he even noticed the cold. The creases in his face deepened as his eyes lit upon the blood, and they grew deeper and deeper as he interviewed the gardeners, listening to the same answers I had heard not five minutes ago. “Should we alert the constables?” I asked when he finished. He stared at the western horizon, where oranges and pinks and purples mingled together and glanced off the sparkling snow. “The guests will be here in a couple of hours. And we’re not even sure that a crime has been committed.” “But surely the police could identify it as blood for certain? And maybe there’s somebody in the city who’s been hurt and the constables are looking for any possible leads, and—” Jack held up a hand. “I’m not ignoring this, Madeline. But we have important work to do here tonight and I don’t want it interrupted by something that’s probably inconsequential.” “They could come and take a couple of pictures, maybe a 6

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sample and then leave,” I insisted. “In and out before the party even starts.” Jack met my gaze, determined gray eyes on determined gray eyes, and I managed to keep the eye contact until he finally exhaled and shrugged. “Fine. We’ll call the constables. But I will make it clear that they need to be quick. My people will not take kindly to seeing the police roaming the estate, not after all the violence of the past year.” “I understand,” I said. “And thank you.” He nodded at me. “Finish clearing everything else,” he told the men. “But save the patio until after the constables have looked at it.” He looked at me one last time before leaving. One by one, the men filed off the patio, grabbing their shovels and picks. I stood there for a minute longer, my breath steaming, absorbed by the bloody snow. It seemed like a portent, like a warning out of a fairy tale, but for what? Things couldn’t be better right now. The Rootless and the gentry would meet tonight, converse and mingle and actually learn about one another. My father had been removed from power. And David—my cheeks warmed as I thought of Captain David Dana and his bright blue eyes and sharp smile. And I had David. Things were good. I went upstairs, where I found Morgana curled into a silver ball on my bed. I rubbed behind her ears for a moment, glad to see her alive and clearly unharmed, and then started to change for dinner. 7

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Elinor had already laid out my gown, a flowing chiffon of mint green with a wide sash and a short train. I wanted something understated, something that wouldn’t seem too opulent to the Rootless, but also something that wouldn’t seem cheap or boring to the gentry, who already didn’t trust me after what happened in Liberty Park. I wanted to show them that I was still a Landry, that I still had a foot in their world, and that trying to help the Rootless didn’t negate any of that. As Elinor pinned up my hair, sliding antique hairpins into the mass of waves with almost unnerving focus, I watched the blue lights of the constables’ cars flash across the windows. I wondered what they would make of the stain, and if they would try to analyze the blood or search for someone who was missing or hurt, and if they could find any other clues as to who did it. I tried to shake the worries and fears out of my thoughts, but they clung to me like wet leaves, cold and unwelcome. What if someone was truly hurt? What if they were still hurting? Stop, I told myself. I was overreacting, on edge from the violent events this winter. Jack seemed to think it was nothing, and if that wasn’t the case, then the constables would be able to help. I had to focus on making tonight a success. With a murmured thanks to Elinor, I rose from my vanity and went downstairs. The evening was beginning, whether I was ready for it or not.

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Jack and I stood in the foyer to welcome the guests, my gown affording very little protection from the gusts of freezing air that circled through the house whenever the front doors opened. The Rootless contingent was the first to arrive, and I felt some dismay at their small number—less than twenty in all. “So few,” I murmured to Jack as they filed in through the door, looking uncomfortable and wary. “Did we invite more?” “I invited them all,” Jack said. He licked his lips as he looked down at the floor. “I am sure the reasons for refusal are varied.” There was something he wasn’t saying. Rather than ask, I waited—a tactic I’d learned from my father. “Many of them feel that we should not move forward with a formalized agreement with the gentry,” Jack finally said, and his quiet voice made it plain that this was a difficult admission for him. “Only a handful see the wisdom in working together. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that I’ve had a gentry agenda all along, being both a Landry and a son of the Uprisen.” 9

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The Uprisen was the small influential group within the gentry that set legal policy and government agendas behind the scenes; only the oldest and wealthiest families counted themselves members. My ancestor Jacob Landry had been the founder of the Uprisen, and my entire life I’d been groomed to take a seat at the table with the other eleven families. So had Jack—before he’d faked his own death and forged a new place for himself among the Rootless. “Things were easier when my identity was unknown,” he said. “I can imagine.” The group finished coming in, and we greeted them, me signaling to the servants to circulate among the guests with hors d’oeuvres and small flutes of champagne, which the Rootless seemed reluctant to take. Instead, they clustered together at the far end of the foyer, looking to Jack for reassurance. A scowling man with slouching shoulders and darting eyes hung near the back. I was surprised to see him: Smith, the angry revolutionary who had once yanked me through a window by my hair. Jack had helped the other Rootless find gentry-style clothes, tuxedos for the men and gowns for the women, but Smith had refused. He still defiantly wore his Rootless clothes, patched brown pants and a tattered gray shirt. He, of all the Rootless, was the most resistant to working with the gentry. Why had he even come? 10

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Eyeing Smith, I moved across the marble floor to speak with the Rootless, to encourage them to make themselves at home. Most of them smiled at me, most of them shook my hand and thanked me for standing up for them in Liberty Park, but not him. He moved right past me as if I didn’t even exist. “I thought there was going to be dinner,” Smith said to Jack, glancing around the foyer with barely contained revulsion. “It’s traditional for guests to mill in the foyer before dinner starts,” Jack said pleasantly. “It gives a chance for conversation.” What Jack didn’t mention was that he didn’t want anybody to see the constables packing up their things and leaving the patio. Better to keep the guests safely ensconced until he was certain that they had gone. Smith walked closer, but he didn’t bother lowering his voice. “You’re turning into one of them,” he said. “Why are we even here? Alexander Landry has been driven out and you have control. Can’t you force the Uprisen to change?” “Not without a fight,” I broke in. “If you push them, there will be more violence, maybe even war—” “A war that we would win,” Smith said over me. “—And that war would only hurt your own people and your own cause,” I continued. “She’s right,” Jack said. “After all, without Alexander to lead them, the gentry may feel it’s in their best interest to negotiate. We have our proposals, our demands. We will ask for the 11

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gentry to switch to a safer power source—wind or solar—and they will see the irrefutable logic in that.” His voice did not ring with confidence, and Smith’s curling lip indicated that he noticed this. “At the very least,” Jack amended, “we try this first.” I turned to Jack. I didn’t like the way he said try this first, as if this attempt at diplomacy was something to be scratched off a list, a perfunctory task to attempt before moving on to the real solution. And I worried that for people like Smith, the real solution would always be one of rubble and ashes. Of blood. But before I could say anything else, he stepped close to Jack and said, “The time for negotiation was two centuries ago. I don’t want their money or their handouts. I want a world where the gentry are no more. Now, do you have the spine to see a plan through or not?” “Smith, now’s not the time.” “No, it wouldn’t be. Not in front of your new friends,” Smith snarled. He stalked off and Jack cleared his throat. “He can be a little hotheaded,” he said mildly. “A little?” The door opened once more and I turned, hoping to see David, and only barely masking my disappointment when I saw it wasn’t him. The Wilder family looked faintly uncomfortable with the Rootless nearby, but when Jack stuck out 12

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his hand, Mr. Wilder shook it, only hesitating a moment. I beamed at him. The stigma against touching the skin of a Rootless person was so strong that I’m embarrassed to say it had once prevented me from helping a very sick girl. If someone as important as Clarence Wilder was willing to shake hands with the leader of the Rootless, that was a very good sign. Mr. Wilder looked up and met Jack’s gaze as he shook hands. “Thank you for inviting us,” he said. His gaze slid over Jack and me, and I knew he was remembering the countless times he’d shaken hands with my father, the times he’d kissed my mother’s cheek and patted my head. Landry Park without my parents—especially my father—was still a strange thing to the gentry. It was still a strange thing to me. “It’s good to see you again, Clarence.” Jack’s familiarity was surprising to me, but it shouldn’t be—after all, he’d been the heir to Landry Park once, and men like Mr. Wilder used to be his peers. Philip, the Wilders’ son and heir, gave me a tight hug. He smelled like fresh laundry with just a whiff of Scotch. Although I’m not a demonstrative person, I hugged him back. We’d spent a lot of time together over the last year when our fathers had taught us how to run our estates, and I liked to imagine that we were friends. “Where’s your sister?” I asked him. Marianne wasn’t the type to miss a party. 13

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“She’s coming later, but she’s probably still off with Mark Everly. We were both planning on going over to his house this morning, but I ended up staying home instead—he’s got a cold and I wasn’t interested in catching it.” “So he won’t be here tonight?” “Marianne will have to come alone; what a hardship.” He rolled his eyes, but his voice softened when he added, “We’re expecting an engagement any day now. Speaking of missing guests, where’s Captain Dana? And Miss Westoff?” “Cara is upstairs with my cousin Ewan. They’ll be down any moment. And Captain Dana will be here shortly.” I hope. Philip straightened his cuffs, silver links gleaming against the white fabric, the fabric striking against his dark skin. “So, the idea is that we’re supposed to mingle with these people?” “The idea is to find common ground,” I said. “They’re the same as us. They just don’t want to live in fear or pain any longer. I think we can all relate.” Philip’s mouth quirked. “I guess. But what do I even talk about with them?” “Use your natural charm. There are two girls our age over there.” “Now that is common ground.” He winked at me and then whisked a couple of champagne flutes off a silver tray, walking over and presenting them to the young Rootless women. They accepted with giggles. When Jane Osbourne came in, I didn’t wait for her to walk 14

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over to greet me. I met her right at the door, unable to keep a smile from my face. Jane’s mother was one of the Uprisen, and Jane and I had been close friends since we were girls. She was one of the few sensible people I could number among my acquaintances, and she and I had spent many dances and dinners in quiet conversation while the others socialized and drank. She gave me a warm hug and looked around the room. “I can’t believe you managed to get Rootless and gentry together in the same room.” Her genial expression flickered as she caught sight of Philip charming the Rootless girls. Jane has feelings for Philip, I realized, and then my heart squeezed a little for her. Philip was a charmer and a flirt. I knew a little of what it was like to love someone like that. “I asked him to be a gentry ambassador,” I said, recognizing that look. Philip was a bit of a flirt, but he was talking to those girls at my behest, so I felt partly responsible for Jane’s discomfort. “Oh, of course,” Jane said, equanimity restored in an instant. “I’m glad to see that at least a few of the guests are off to a friendly start.” “Please, help yourself to some drinks and food. I’m on greeting duty.” Jane nodded, her dark curls bouncing gracefully against her long neck. Philip better notice what he’s missing, I thought as she walked off with her parents. I liked him, but Jane was undoubtedly the best girl in this city. More gentry arrived, but still no David. I discreetly pulled 15

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my tablet out of my deep dress pocket and checked to see if he’d called or messaged. He hadn’t. The other families managed a modicum of politeness, but when they entered the house, Arthur Lawrence and his three oldest boys refused to shake Jack’s hand. I felt heat rise to my cheeks—the Lawrences were cousins on my mother’s side, and I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of their rudeness. “Mr. Landry,” Uncle Lawrence said. “Here you are. Alive. Shaming the gentry just as you did as a boy.” “And here you are, Arthur,” Jack rumbled, “as old and as blind as ever.” Uncle Lawrence gave a thin-lipped smile. He was indeed old, but that didn’t make him any less formidable. His spine was still straight, his eyes still clear, and his words still sharp. Even the ebony and silver walking stick he carried was more for show than for use. His boys—Tarleton and Frank—sauntered past without a word. The heir, Stuart, stopped briefly in front of me but didn’t bow or kiss my hand or any of the other conventional greetings. “So you’re with them now?” he said, jerking his head toward the clump of Rootless. Thankfully, he kept his voice low. “I heard about what happened in the park. How you let them take your father and hurt him. “I’ll tell you what. I promise if you marry me, I’ll forgive all this.” He gestured to Jack and the Rootless in the foyer. “I’ll even move here to Landry Park.” 16

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It was no secret that Uncle Lawrence wanted one of his boys to marry me, to bring the power of Landry Park into his vast empire of wealth and land. What I wanted to tell Stuart was that if all went to plan, the estates would no longer be the seat of all the money and influence and that the Landry name would no longer be a byword for unadulterated control. That marrying me would be pointless, because the game of acquiring good gentry blood and more money would be finished. “I’d rather hang myself,” is what I said instead. Stuart snorted incredulously. “I can’t believe we’re related.” You took the words right out of my mouth. Harry Westoff was the last to arrive and he arrived alone. His wife had flown off somewhere warm and sunny, and now that half the city knew that she had been the one who so brutally beat Cara—her own daughter—almost a year ago, it seemed like she would stay there indefinitely. Scandals may burn themselves out eventually, but the word was that the constables had officially charged Addison with assault, and that she would be arrested if she returned. Despite being thoroughly under the gentry’s thumb, the police did still carry out the letter of the law occasionally, especially when the evidence was so irrefutable . . . and when the victim was also gentry. Mr. Westoff greeted Jack in his usual half-polite, halfcondescending way and shook his hand, but I noticed that both men had white knuckles and red palms by the end of the hand­ shake. “I take it my daughter is here with your son?” he asked Jack. 17

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Jack nodded that it was so. “And dear Madeline,” Mr. Westoff said, coming over to me and kissing my hand. “How wonderful for you to host us all here . . . together. I bet your father must be so proud.” His barbs found no purchase in me. I had thrown away any hope of Father’s approval when I stood by Jack. I heard a throat being cleared dramatically and looked up to see Cara gliding gracefully down the stairs, her pale pink dress whispering against the marble as she walked. Next to her, Ewan looked strong and handsome in a pressed tuxedo. With his red hair and pale skin, he looked as much a Landry as I did. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before, that I had never guessed we were related. “Hello, Papa,” Cara said, dismounting the stairs and coming toward us. Ewan stayed next to her, his hand on the small of her back, a detail Mr. Westoff didn’t miss. “Did you miss me?” “Ah, Cara. One always misses what is dear to the heart.” Cara batted her long eyelashes, her face folding into an expression of saccharine adoration. “I am so happy to hear that I am still so important to you, Papa.” “Hello, Mr. Landry,” Mr. Westoff said to my cousin. His voice was the model of politeness, but he didn’t extend a hand to shake, and neither did Ewan. They met eyes and Ewan lifted his chin slightly, as if to signify that he wasn’t about to kowtow to his girlfriend’s father. Mr. Westoff smiled. “How interesting. Like looking at the 18

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dark side of the moon. You look and act exactly like a Landry but the—” here he made a motion indicating the healing sores peeping out from Ewan’s hairline “—kind of ruins the effect. If you’ll excuse me, sweeting.” He made a short bow and went to join my uncle Lawrence, who was currently scowling at the Rootless side of the room. “So,” Cara said, acting as if the tense exchange with her father hadn’t occurred. “Your party is off to a great start.” I wanted to protest, but she was right. So far, Philip was the only one brave enough to cross the wide expanse of empty marble that separated the murmuring gentry and the Rootless. An uneasiness permeated the air, a tension rife with misunderstanding and prejudice. We needed to move into the ballroom and start the buffet. Plenty of food and drinks would help people loosen up and start talking. “I should go make sure everything is ready,” I said, more to myself than to Cara, thinking of the dark bloodstain and the constables. “Good idea. In the meantime, I’ll do your job for you and get these people talking.” Cara grabbed Ewan’s hand and looped his arm through hers. Together, they strode out into the crowd, Cara loudly greeting the other Uprisen heirs and Ewan nodding at his people on the far side of the foyer. “Looks like Cara Westoff knows how to work a room,” Jack said quietly. “She always has,” I conceded. Jack raised an eyebrow at 19

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me and I realized that I sounded overly critical. I cleared my throat and tried again. “If anyone can coax these people into conversation, it would be her. In the meantime, I’m going to pop into the ballroom and see if we’re ready to begin.” “Please make sure the constables have finished their business. Our guests are uncertain enough without the police poking around.” I started to leave, but then I turned back to my uncle. “Do you think maybe we could invite everyone to see the library and some of the other rooms? Many of them have never been inside the house before, and maybe an informal tour would help set them at ease, give them something to talk about.” Jack nodded. “Marvelous idea.” He strode over to the Rootless, offering to show them around in his booming voice. I saw Philip offer his arms to the two girls who, despite their pale skin and air of weakness, were very pretty. I noticed Jane glancing in their direction and then quickly away. Cara saw Philip joining Jack and announced that she and her friends were accompanying them for the tour. And like that, the younger gentry were intermingled with the group of Rootless, awkwardly to be sure, but Cara and Ewan made such a compelling pair that it was hard not to feel inspired. Only the gentry adults were left in the foyer, holding their drinks and staring at the large, jostling group going down the hall. Satisfied that the mood was improving, I slipped out of the foyer to make my way down to the kitchens. 20

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Downstairs, the rich smells of roasting meat and melted butter hung heavy in the air, and the cooks were busy whipping up bowls of desserts and rolling out pastry dough. After getting our head cook Martha’s assurances that the food was ready to be carried up, I went upstairs through the butler’s staircase and peeked into the ballroom. Tables were already laden with cold fruit and piles of rolls, croissants, and small cakes. The kitchen maids had brought up chafing dishes of whipped potatoes, creamy soups, and dark, roasted asparagus. Rolls of sushi were laid out in unnervingly precise rows, dollops of wasabi and ginger ringing the edges. I felt a wave of pride. This was the first large dinner I had ever planned by myself, and it was all coming together. I strode over to the doors, where there was no sign of the constables or their blue-lit cars and where the patio had dutifully been cleared by the gardeners. Only the slickness on the platinum symbol betrayed the presence of snow not an hour ago, but otherwise everything looked dry and warm thanks to the solar heaters. I went through the butler’s entrance again, but this time I stayed on the first floor, making my way to the main hallway to meet up with the others and tell Jack that we were ready. And then I felt my waist seized from behind.

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Chapter 1 Devorah August 28, 5 pm

T

here’s a story my mother tells about the night my grandmother got lifted up by the wind. After the first time I heard it, when

I was about four, I would demand it constantly, sometimes every night. And so my mother would crouch beside my bed and tell it over and over: How the sky darkened over the beach house where she was honeymooning with her new husband, my zeidy. How the winds blew so hard that their clothes flew off the line, the freshly laundered shirts swirling in the air like a flight of doves. How my grandmother, Deborah, ran down the wooden steps to the beach to collect them, and how, moments later, my zeidy saw her rise up, her skirt billowing under her like a parachute, and float ten feet before falling into a heap in the dunes. According to the story she ran back up to the house laughing and told him that she had finally learned how to fly.

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2

Una LaMarche Storms like this always make me think of her. From my white-knuckled perch on this sticky gray hospital wait-

ing room seat, I can see rain hitting the window in violent sheets, as if someone has turned on a fire hose and then left it to whip and twist on the sidewalk like an angry snake. It’s another hurricane, and a bad one—the kind that sends people to the supermarket in a frenzy to buy up all the batteries and bottled water, or out of the city completely, piling into cars to escape in bumper-to-bumper traffic to the musty futons of their luckier, inland relatives. Just this morning my oldest brother, Isaac the Know-it-all (not his given name, but might as well be), informed us that the mayor had begun to issue evacuation orders in the zones closest to the rivers, that the bridges and tunnels are already shutting down, and that the subways will stop running tonight. In fact, there’s a television about ten feet from me, bolted into the wall above the sparse rack of coffee-stained magazines, that’s proving Isaac right. It’s tuned to a barely audible static, but I can still hear news anchors rattling off updates and lists of precautions in their calming, accentless voices. I desperately want to know what’s happening, to see it for myself from some other angle than this suffocating, antiseptic room I’m trapped in, but I can’t—I won’t—bring myself to look up at the screen. To break the rules now would surely bring bad luck, which I can’t afford on a day that has already brought so much. About an hour ago they turned off the air conditioning in the waiting rooms, to preserve power for the patients, and without the drone of the fans I can hear every tiny sound as if it’s coming through a loudspeaker. Across from me, on an identical bank of scratched plastic chairs, two preteen girls in tank tops and jean shorts are tapping furiously on phones despite the sign hanging above their heads

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that expressly forbids it. Their bare legs squeak sweatily against the seats as they shift, pulling their brown knees up to their chests and revealing rows of bright toenails in flip-flops worn down so much they look as thin as film in some places. They have a short, muscular maybe-much-older-brother-maybe-very-young-father who has been intermittently wandering back to check on them, wiping sweat from his furrowed brow and assuring them that someone named Crystal is “killing it,” but otherwise their eyes stay trained on their tiny screens, and I wonder idly if they even notice I’m there. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, I think—Zeidy’s favorite admonishment when he catches one of us daydreaming, delivered with a wink and a tug on the earlobe—and feel an uncontrollable giggle rising in my throat. I curl my fingers more tightly around my chair and look past the girls, back to my window, which is now being reinforced with fat Xs of thick red duct tape by a janitor in a mud-colored jumpsuit. He finishes just as a tremendous gust of wind claps against the side of the building, sending the lights flickering and the nurses rushing every which way to check on the medical equipment, and for a minute I can’t breathe. Finally, my lungs release and the sharp, hot air comes rushing in and I squeeze my eyes shut and start reciting chapter 20 of Psalms, the prayer for times of trouble, as fast as I can. From the sudden break in button-pushing I can tell that the cell phone girls are looking at me, but for now I don’t care. Only one thing matters tonight, and that is to keep Rose and the baby safe. My sister wasn’t due until October, but her water broke this morning—seven weeks early on the last Thursday of a recordbreakingly hot August—as I was helping her inventory plastic utensils at our family’s paper goods store, which is my penance from June through September for not having anywhere better to be, like

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4

Una LaMarche

school or camp or a Birthright Israel tour. Maybe the baby was just trying to cure the mind-numbing boredom of counting variety packs of forks, but he-or-she gave us a terrible scare. Rose screamed and turned white, I fell and knocked over two cases of bar mitzvah– themed cake plates, and my hands were shaking so badly I had to get Daniel, who works at the bakery next door, to call first a taxi and then Rose’s husband, Jacob. And as if it wasn’t dramatic enough that Rose went into spontaneous labor two months too soon, this mis­ fortune also happened to fall on the one day that both of our parents were upstate in Monsey visiting my aunt Varda, who recently had a bunionectomy but doesn’t have anyone to take care of her since her husband died last year (they don’t have any kids, but we don’t talk about that; my mother, who bore seven children by the age of thirty-two and would have happily had more if she hadn’t suffered a prolapse after my youngest sister, Miri, refers to infertility as her sister’s “curse”). My mother is understandably beside herself with worry, but there’s no getting into the city tonight since the bridges and tunnels are shutting down, and so, as the next eldest daughter, I am the one who has to hold court at the hospital, making sure my sister is well taken care of. Well, me and Jacob. But he’s not much help, unsurprisingly. As if on cue, my brother-in-law comes stomping around the corner, returning from the cafeteria clutching a paper cup of coffee. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s too flustered to remember that I asked him to get me a ginger ale. His pale skin is flushed and damp, sweat is literally dripping from the borderline where his fedora meets his forehead, and his reddish-brown beard, which perfectly matches his dark, thickly lashed doe eyes, is curling from the heat. Jacob is sort of cute—when they were first introduced, Rose

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breathlessly announced to me and our sisters that he looked just like someone named Josh Groban—but right now he looks small and tired, shriveled inside his heavy suit. I want to tell him to take off his hat and jacket, to go splash some water on his face, but I know better. Jacob was raised in an extremely strict Hasidic family and prides himself on his piety. Compared to him, even I can’t measure up. And I get straight As, always dress properly, never break curfew, and am so unfailingly obedient that my best friend, Shoshana, likes to joke that I should change my initials from DFB—Devorah Frayda Blum—to FFB, short for “frum from birth,” which is basically the Yiddish equivalent of “hopeless goody two-shoes.” My parents, of course, are thrilled with the virtuous daughter they’ve raised, but as their expectations rise, mine lower. Because the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. And as it rages outside I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the eye of the storm. “Devorah!” Jacob groans, in the sour tone he always uses when he says my name. “What are you still doing out here? Why aren’t you in the room with her?” Then he flops into a chair two seats away from mine. “Stay inside,” the news crackles. “Watch for signs of disturbance.” I’ve been disturbed by Jacob ever since I met him. And I don’t mean that he’s evil or sick or anything, because he’s not—he’s not interesting enough to be either of those things. It’s just that he’s so . . . morally superior. He’s a member of the Shomrim, which is only a volunteer neighborhood-watch group that’ll pretty much take anyone, but to hear Jacob talk about it you would think he was a police lieutenant. He talks down to everyone except my father, and even though they’re married he treats Rose with only marginally

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6

Una LaMarche

less disgust than he reserves for me. Ever since they were matched up by the shadchan last year, my sister has been a different person. Growing up, she had a wild side. She was the one who stored fashion magazines in her school notebooks and used Scotch Tape to imperceptibly raise her hemline when our neighbors’ cute son came over for Shabbos dinner. She’s always been the family peacemaker—and in a family of ten, counting Zeidy, voices are raised, oh, about every five seconds—but she was never meek until she met Jacob. Now sometimes I sit and watch them, him with his stern looks, her with her head bowed reverently, and wish I could speak up for her. Tonight I guess I am her voice, in a way, but the awful circumstances rob the role of any satisfaction. “She’s sleeping,” I say finally, trying to keep my voice even. “She needs to rest. When she wakes up they’re going to give her Pitocin if she hasn’t dilated.” Jacob bristles; I know he is against the use of any drugs, but since Rose’s delivery is premature it’s out of his hands. So far he has been nothing but cold to the doctor, a tall redheaded woman with kind, crinkly brown eyes behind bright turquoise-framed glasses (which Jacob says brands her “a hippie idiot” but which I think are pretty) and the incredibly goyim last name of MacManus. In keeping with the luck of the day, Rose’s midwife, not expecting any complications like this, is on vacation in Seattle until next week. “The baby is stable so far,” I assure him. “But the doctor says they need to get him out by midnight.” Part of me can’t help but feel angry at Jacob for not knowing this already—if it were my husband, I would want him by my side the whole time, holding my hand. Of course I know it’s not allowed; since Rose started bleeding after her water broke, she’s now subject to the laws of yoledet,

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which means that Jacob can’t be with her for the birth. But still, he could act like he cares at least a little. “Him? It’s a boy?” Jacob breaks into a wide grin, looking for a split second like the nineteen-year-old rabbinical student he is, and not the cranky old man he seems hell-bent on becoming. “Oh, no . . .” I stare down at my shoes, studying the flares of fluorescent light reflected in the shiny black leather. “I’m sorry. I just chose a pronoun at random. We don’t know yet.” Jacob’s smile disappears, and he takes a gulp of coffee. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he snaps. I hope for the baby’s sake that he is a boy. I can’t imagine having to grow up with Jacob for a father. He’d probably make me wear skirts down to my ankles, or maybe a bag over my head. This time I can’t suppress the giggle, and he glares at me. “I’m sorry,” I say again once I’ve recovered. “But I’m scared, too.” For a second Jacob’s eyes soften, and I allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, this could turn into some kind of bonding moment for us (something that, despite my dislike of him, I’ve prayed for many times). I know that the laws of yichud mean that we wouldn’t even be allowed to sit together talking if the cell phone girls and the janitor and the doctors and nurses weren’t around to keep watch. But being the only witnesses to Rose’s premature labor, on the night of a crazy storm, might just be the kind of seismic event that could bring two very different people together . . . right? I look up at my brother-in-law hopefully, practicing my very best compassionate smile, when his face darkens and he makes a short, sharp clucking sound with his tongue.

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8

Una LaMarche “I’m not scared, I’m tired,” he mutters, and pulls his hat down

over his eyes. So much for that. Jacob is snoring softly by the time the night nurse comes over to tell me that Rose is awake and asking for me. I get up and feel the sweat pooling under my tights, running down the backs of my knees. Just a few minutes ago the cell phone girls left, their bare thighs unsticking from the plastic seats with a series of satisfying thwacking noises. What I wouldn’t give to feel the air against my bare skin right now. What I wouldn’t give to make those thwacks. But for me, that’s as silly a fantasy as planning a vacation to the moon, so I banish the thought from my head as I peek into Rose’s room, stomping my feet a little to get the blood moving in my legs again. My skirt—a lightweight summer wool that actually seemed pretty stylish when we bought it at Macy’s in May, before my mother made the tailor on Troy Avenue let it out by three inches until it billowed around me like a Hefty bag—feels like it weighs ten pounds, and even though I know it’s horrible, I feel a little bit jealous when I see Rose reclining in her paper hospital gown, the long, thick hair of her dark brunette wig arranged prettily on the pillow, chewing on an ice cube. I wonder if she would let me have one to stick in my blouse. “How are you?” I ask, squeezing her free hand. It’s cool and bloodless, although the monitor assures me that her pulse is seventyone beats per minute. Rose smiles weakly and rubs her belly, which rises like a boulder under the thin white sheet. It’s not at all uncommon for Lubavitch girls to be married and have babies at eighteen, but now that it’s my own sister it feels much too soon. That will be me in two years, and I know there’s no way I’ll be ready for any of that, no matter how many times my mother likes to tell me that I’d be surprised how quickly the heart can change. Rose and Jacob

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met just twice before they got engaged. Their wedding was eleven months ago. First comes marriage, then comes love goes the schoolyard nursery rhyme in my neighborhood. “I’m okay,” Rose says. “But hungry.” She leans forward conspiratorially. “Want to sneak me some M&M’s from the vending machine?” I know she’s kidding; she’s not allowed to eat, and even if she were, our father doesn’t consider M&M’s acceptably kosher. I’m glad that my sister is letting a bit of her old self shine through— I’m sure she never lets her husband see her eyebrows raised like this, or the flash of delighted mischief winking in her cheeks like dimples—but she knows that when it comes to contraband, I am the wrong person to ask for help. My allergy to rule-breaking is a running joke, so much so that my younger brother Amos likes to pester me with hypothetical questions every Saturday: “Devorah, what if you won a billion dollars and you had to claim it today, but you could only get it if you used the blender?” “Shhh,” I say. “Don’t let Jacob hear you!” I wanted to make her laugh, but instead Rose’s face tenses, and her chin quivers. “He already thinks it’s my fault,” she says. “What?!” I shut the door, just in case, and crouch beside her. “Why? That’s crazy.” “Last week I was shopping for elastic to sew to the waists of my skirts,” she explains, her clear gray eyes narrowing with worry. “And I saw the most beautiful pale pink cashmere yarn. I thought maybe, if the baby was a girl, I could make her a sweater, so I bought a skein. It was expensive, but I just had to have it. I don’t know what came over me, Dev, it was like a spell.” “Or hormones,” I say gently, trying to lighten the mood. Rose just looks away.

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Una LaMarche “I couldn’t wait to show Jacob,” she continues, “even though I

knew he would call it extravagant. But as soon as he saw it he told me I was tempting the evil eye buying anything for the baby.” Her hands flutter to her face, and she bursts into tears. On the monitor, her pulse ticks up to eighty-five beats per minute. “No,” I say softly, trying to quiet the pious, nagging voice inside my head that shares Jacob’s superstition. I take my sister’s face in my hands and force her to meet my eyes, trying to mimic our mother’s go-to gesture when she wants to both soothe us and snap us out of whatever we’re complaining about. “You didn’t actually knit the sweater, did you?” Rose shakes her head, biting her lip like a child. “See?” I wipe her tears away with my thumbs. “That yarn could be for anything. A scarf, a bath towel. A new prayer shawl for Jacob.” Now she is smiling through the tears. “Besides, the Talmud says the evil eye can affect you only if you worry about it. It’s like an animal. It can smell fear.” I say this breezily, as if I never worry about the evil eye, when both of us know better. There’s an awkward silence, punctuated by the blips and beeps of the fetal monitor. “What’s it like outside?” Rose finally asks, rubbing the gooseflesh on her arms. I can tell she feels embarrassed having so much skin exposed, but at the hospital, regardless of their beliefs, people are just bodies—bodies that the doctors need quick and easy access to. I want to ask her what it feels like to be seen like that, but I know now’s not the time. After all, asking about the weather is pretty much the universal code for “Let’s please change the subject.” “It’s kind of . . . biblical,” I say with a laugh. Rose smirks, her lips straddling the line between amusement and admonition. “Don’t be silly, it’s not Sodom and Gomorrah,” she chides,

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adopting her big-sister voice again. “It’s just science. Two air masses converging over water.” Did I say Isaac was the know-it-all? Rose is, too. In fact, no Blum can resist correcting someone when they’re wrong. It’s like our family sport. “Well, I wish you could see it,” I say. “It looks like the world is about to end.” Just then, the lights flicker again, and Rose gasps, clutching her belly in pain and looking at me with wide eyes. “I can’t do this. I’m not ready!” she cries, breathing quickly through clenched teeth. I wish I could say something to convince her otherwise, but the truth is, I’m not ready for any of this either. I want my mom. I don’t want to be in this hospital in the middle of this hurricane; I just want to be home in my bed reading a book and eating crackers spread thickly with salted butter. I want Rose to still be glowing and pregnant and waiting for her due date, not sweaty and scared and about to deliver a baby destined for the incubator. I will the right words to come, but they don’t, so I just let my sister crush my hand as I watch the yellow lines of the monitor spike higher and higher, finally ebbing after thirty seconds. A minute later, they leap again, and Rose lets loose a guttural wail. I frantically slam the call button with my free palm. “I’m so sorry,” Dr. MacManus says with a sigh as she pushes through the door just as Rose relaxes, spent and shaking, onto the pillow. “The ER is understaffed, and it’s a madhouse. This weather makes people do crazy things. I just relocated the shoulder of a kid who tried to jump his skateboard across a fallen tree.” She pulls on a pair of plastic gloves and slides a chair to the foot of the bed. “Now, how are we doing? I see contractions have started.” I nod. “A minute apart, thirty seconds each so far.” “And they’re getting longer,” Rose moans.

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your body’s doing what it’s meant to do, and you won’t need to be induced.” She ducks under Rose’s gown for a few uncomfortable seconds and emerges with a beaming smile. “You’re eight centimeters dilated, my dear. The good news is, this baby is coming fast. The bad news is, you may have to name it Hurricane.” This joke is lost on Rose. What color there was left drains from her face as I press my lips together, my eyes tearing equally from joy, terror, and the hysterical possibility of being the aunt of someone named Hurricane Kleinman. “Can you call Mom and Dad?” Rose asks. I look to Dr. MacManus for permission, halfway hoping she won’t let me. When I called them from the nurses’ station a few hours ago, the woman manning the desk, who had highlighter-color hair and eyebrows plucked so thin they were almost invisible, seemed to take an instant dislike to me. “What are you, Amish?” she asked when it took me a minute to figure out how to dial without accidentally paging the whole Labor and Delivery floor. Then she crossed her arms and stood there listening to the entire conversation, signaling me to wrap it up after only ten seconds. Unfortunately, the doctor nods and sends me packing, although not without a prescription for my problem. “If Anne-Marie gives you any trouble, just bring her an Entenmann’s donut from the vending machine,” she calls over her shoulder as I reach the door. I walk carefully back to the waiting room, where I am relieved to find that the cell phone girls are back and are amusing themselves by taking surreptitious photos of Jacob, who’s splayed out like a starfish across two chairs with his jaw hanging open. I consider flashing them a thumbs-up but think better of it. I was raised

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to believe that G-d is always watching. . . . I just hope he can’t hear my thoughts, too. I round the corner to the vending machines, fishing in my pocket for the two crumpled dollar bills I know I have left over from the cab fare. I get the Entenmann’s donut, and then, on a whim, shove in another bill and push D7 for a package of M&M’s. My pulse races, and I glance both ways to make sure no one is looking as I scoop my forbidden treif from the shallow dispenser and hide them in my pocket, concealing the telltale bulge with one hand. I’ll try to sneak them to Rose later, after the baby comes. And if she balks, I can always say it was just an inside joke. The phone call with my parents goes surprisingly well, and not just because Anne-Marie did, indeed, accept my donut bribe in exchange for five uninterrupted minutes. I call my mother’s cell phone, and as we talk she repeats everything I say back to my father and, I guess, to my aunt Varda, who is a captive audience without the use of that one foot. This is the first Blum grandchild, and a preemie at that, so there are heightened anxieties and literally dozens of questions: Is Rose warm enough? Too warm? Why did they turn off the air conditioning in such a heat wave? What are the chances that the power will go out, and if I don’t know, why don’t I ask someone? Does the doctor know what she’s doing? What’s the baby’s heart rate? Is she saying the right psalms? Did we remember to bring the mezuzah? I answer as quickly and calmly as possible. “She’s having regular contractions, and she’s almost fully dilated, so there’s no time for drugs,” I report. “She’s having regular contractions, and she’s almost fully

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dilated, so no drugs,” my mother parrots. “That’s good.” I hear my father mutter something. “Tell Rose that mindfulness during birth is a gift from Hashem,” she tells me. “What else should I tell her? To . . . you know, get her through it?” There’s silence on the other end of the phone, and then the clinking of ice cubes. My mother, a teetotaler except for the odd sip of wine at religious ceremonies, must be on her fifth or sixth iced coffee (on a normal day, when the sky is not falling, she averages three). “Tell her she can do it,” she finally says, kindly but commandingly. Maybe because she’s raised seven kids, Mom is unflappable, the very antithesis of the nervous Jewish mother. “Tell her to pray. If she can’t pray, whisper them into her ear.” There are sounds of shifting and footsteps, and my mother lowers her voice to the dulcet whisper she used to use for lullabies. “Tell her I know that it hurts, but that she’s going to get her girl, and that every second of labor will be worth it.” Only after she hangs up do I realize that my mother had to leave the room to deliver this message. My father would never agree. In our culture, boys are the exalted ones, who become scholars and get to learn the secrets of the Torah. Boys are the unspoken preference. On my way back from the nurses’ station, I decide to wake Jacob so that he can daven—recite the liturgical prayers—during delivery. I like him better unconscious, but Rose and the baby need him awake. Two hours later, my sister is still pushing, amazingly with her wig still in place, although I’ve been surreptitiously lifting it at the seams to let some air in. Now there is a small, quiet army of other doctors

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and nurses waiting at the foot of the bed to examine the baby once it’s born. Dr. MacManus has assured us that Rose will be able to see and hopefully touch the baby, but then he or she will have to be taken to the neonatal intensive care unit right away. I can’t decide which of the new doctors I like less: the ones peering between Rose’s legs or the ones looking off into the middle distance like they would rather be doing Sudoku. “I can see your baby’s head, Rose,” Dr. MacManus says. Rose looks up at me, groggy from the pain and exertion. “It has a head,” she whispers, and I try not to laugh. “I think we can get this baby out in the next three pushes,” the doctor continues, “but I need your help. I need you to give me everything you’ve got. I need you to commit to this with everything that you are, okay?” Rose nods weakly. Everything that you are. I wonder if my sister knows everything that she is. I don’t think I do. About me, I mean. That seems like a huge secret to unlock, the type of thing that’s only revealed when you’re passing through to the afterlife. Or maybe when life is passing through you, like it is for Rose, right now. I wish Mom was here. She’s been through this. She would know exactly what to do. “ONE,” Dr. MacManus says as a powerful contraction climbs on the monitor and Rose screams, gritting her teeth and shutting her eyes and squeezing my fingers so hard I have to stifle my own yell. And I know that this is not the best moment for me to have a philosophical crisis, but I can’t get the doctor’s words out of my head. Everything that this child is starts right now. The country, the city, the neighborhood, the block, the house—every detail of where babies are born begins to set their path in life, begins to shape them into who they’ll be. A newborn doesn’t choose its family, its race, its

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religion, its gender, or even its name. So much is already decided. So much is already written. “TWO!” the doctor chants. The NICU team is putting their gloves on, ready to transfer my niece-or-nephew into what looks like a glass lasagna pan, where he-or-she will have suctioning and eyedrops and a breathing tube inserted and heart monitors applied to his-or-her perfect, brand-new tissue-paper skin. I know that these things are medically necessary given the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel sad that this is how our baby will enter the world: prodded by strangers, poked with instruments. Stay inside, baby, I think. Watch for signs of disturbance. Wait for this storm to pass. Of course, it’s too late for that. “THREE!” Dr. MacManus says, and before I know it there’s a rush of carnation pink and Rose lets out a noise like she’s been sucker punched, and a thin, reedy baby wail cuts through the robotic thrum of the machines. My eyes fill with tears; I am suddenly overcome—verklempt, Zeidy would say, although that’s an ugly word for what this is, this beautiful, open, grateful, terrified feeling, like every nerve ending has come to the surface of my skin and been lit like Fourth of July sparklers. I want to stand up and burst into applause—people do it for all kinds of lesser miracles: when a pilot lands a plane, when a preschooler bangs tunelessly on a piano; when sweaty men manage to throw a ball into a metal hoop, so why not now? Why not for this miracle? There is life in this room. A new life. And I saw it happen. “It’s a girl.” Dr. MacManus smiles, holding up the tiny, squalling thing, and just before she’s taken away I see that her miniature fists are balled at the sides of her face like a boxer. She’s a fighter, my niece. At least, I hope so. She’ll have to be.

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Chapter 2 Jaxon

August 28, 6:50 pm

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’ve never been in an ER before, unless I count the ones on TV. It’s kind of crazy, me growing up sixteen years in Crown Heights

and never seeing the inside of a hospital. And not because of guns or gangs or anything, either—the neighborhood has become so gentrified that I’m more likely to get hit by an artisanal gluten-free scone than a bullet, let’s be real—but because the drivers speed down Bedford like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto, and the bikers are even worse. People have to jump out of the way if they want to live. There’s this one delivery dude from Good Taste Chinese (don’t believe the hype; the name’s a ploy) who I swear needs to be in one of those countless Fast & Furious movies, he’s that badass. But I haven’t been run over by the Good Taste driver—not yet, anyway. Tonight I’m strictly on Good Samaritan duty. My best

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friend, Ryan, almost broke his neck hopping a tree on his skateboard. It was to impress a girl, as most stupid stunts are. Her name is Polly. She and Ryan and me met in homeroom freshman year, in the H-I-Js (I’m Hunte, he’s Hendrick, she’s Jadhav). But then Polly—I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a perv, but she, um, grew. Sophomore year she got curvy and popular and started doing things like joining the step team and chairing dance committees, and we just kind of stopped seeing her. But it was over for me; I was smitten. I mean, a girl who can recite the periodic table of elements in order from memory and bhangra dance like her hips are spring-loaded? It’s the hot nerd jackpot. I just couldn’t manage to talk to her or do anything remotely cool in her presence. It doesn’t help that my only real hobby is kickboxing, which I do alone in my basement with a red punching bag and can’t show off unless I want to start a fistfight. Ryan, to his credit, is my boy and has tried to help me get Polly’s attention. But he’s the kind of guy who has a natural confidence even though he’s about the same height as my thirteen-year-old twin sisters. And I just . . . don’t. When it comes to girls, I choke. And when it comes to Polly? I completely crash and burn. Like today. School doesn’t start until next week, but today the rising juniors were supposed to go in to get their schedules and new ID photos taken. A lot of kids didn’t go because of the hurricane, but my mom’s hard line with anything school-related is that unless the building is literally locked or she’s in a coma, I’m going (and if the threatened coma ever happened, you can bet my dad would send me anyway). The Asian kids at Brooklyn Tech are under a lot of pressure from their families to do well, and it’s taken as a given, like “Oh yeah, Korean parents are crazy.” Well, West Indian parents don’t get

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stereotyped as much, but they’re just as intense. Maybe back on the island everyone’s dancing to Bobby McFerrin and smoking jays and getting shells braided into their hair like in some cruise brochure, but a first-generation kid in the U.S. cannot catch a break. Especially the oldest and only son. So I took an empty, dripping subway car to Nevins Street only to find that the photographer had canceled. I was one of about a hundred students who showed up. Ryan was there, too—his parents are hippies and probably wouldn’t care except he lives two blocks from school, which takes him thirty seconds on his skateboard—and lo and behold so was Polly, whose dad drove her all the way from Jackson Heights. (Mr. Jadhav seems scary like my mom when it comes to academics, but my grades are even better than Polly’s. I wonder how Indian parents feel about Caribbean boys asking their daughters out. . . .) Getting my schedule took about two seconds, and then Ryan and I went to claim new lockers on the third floor, the junior hallway. I chose 915, the farthest locker on the left in the annex by the computer lab, since I’m left-handed and I don’t need another incident like the time I accidentally gave Jenny Ye a black eye with my elbow, and Ryan took 913. He was so excited that his skateboard fit perfectly in his locker that he almost didn’t take it home, but then stupidly I reminded him that we wouldn’t be back until Tuesday, so he stuck it under his arm and we went downstairs, taking the north staircase to the DeKalb Avenue exit, which is where we ran into Polly, which is why we stopped, which is how we saw the tree. It’s crazy how one tiny decision can spin out and change the course of your whole day. Like right now, instead of setting the table and making sure that Edna and Ameerah aren’t copying off each other’s homework

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and Tricia’s not in some neighbor’s yard getting into trouble, and Joy hasn’t gotten into Dad’s cutlass collection to play pirates again, I’m sitting between a biker-looking dude with a bloody bandage that makes his entire right hand look like a red Q-tip, and a little boy with neon-green snot crusting his nose so bad that he has to breathe through his mouth. On second thought, maybe this is an improvement. “Okay,” yells a flustered-looking doctor with bright blue glasses, ducking out from under a curtained-off room and checking her clipboard. “Who’s here with Tony Hawkins?” I still can’t believe Ryan was stupid enough to give them his fake ID so there’d be no way the hospital could call his parents. It’s a good idea in theory (if you’re into risk-taking, which I’m not), but I know for a fact that Ryan has never once used that ID successfully, probably because in the photo he looks like he’s ten. Luckily the ER was so crowded when we got here that the nurses barely glanced at us. I stand up, not sure what to say. I finally settle on “Uh, me?” Yeah, I’m about as smooth as chunky peanut butter. “We relocated your friend’s shoulder,” the doctor tells me hurriedly after I wade through the crowd, trying not to step on anyone’s open wounds. “Good news is the joint was subluxed, so we were able to pop it back into place fairly easily. There isn’t any cartilage or nerve damage as far as I can tell, so he won’t need surgery.” She leads me over to the curtain and pulls it back to reveal Ryan with one arm in a sling, texting with his left hand. “What did I say, Evil Knievel?” she says, sighing. “No cell phones!” Ryan smiles sheepishly and drops it in his lap. “The bad news,” the doctor continues, “is that he cannot use his arm for at least seventy-two hours, and then he needs to see an orthopedist to get a rehabilitation assessment.”

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She looks at me pointedly. “I’m holding you responsible for that, because I don’t trust him as far as he can jump over a tree stump.” I wait until she leaves and then burst out laughing. “She burned you, man!” Ryan shrugs. “I could’ve made it if it wasn’t raining.” “Bullshit,” I say. “You’re lucky it was only this bad. And how are you planning to explain that sling to your parents, Tony?” “Easy,” he says with a smile. “I’m staying at your house tonight, which is what I already told them anyway.” I feel my jaw tense. I told my parents I was staying for dinner at Ryan’s house. I hate lying to them anyway, and now I’m going to have to do it again, make some excuse as to why we decided to travel two and a half miles through a dangerous hurricane to get home when they think I’m safe and sound in Fort Greene, eating Mrs. Hendrick’s quinoa salad and playing video games. The fluorescent lights above Ryan’s bed flicker, sending chills down my spine. “You’ll still have the sling on tomorrow,” I point out, hoping I can get him to change his mind. But Ryan shakes his head, beaming. He’s already got everything figured out, like always. “I’ll ditch the sling, say I fell off my board coming home on Eastern Parkway and felt something pop, and then I’ll go to the orthopedist next week per Dr. Ginger’s orders.” He grins and raises his good hand for a high five, while I fight the powerful urge to slap him in the face. “Whatever, man,” I grumble, turning away. In the next room, I can hear someone getting stitches, making little ah sounds every time the needle goes in. “What, you’re mad at me?” Ryan asks incredulously. “This was your idea.”

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everything literally?” If we were on Judge Judy or something, Ryan could probably get me on a technicality. I did say, “Why don’t you go jump that tree?” but only because he kept egging me to do it. In front of Polly. I try to mimic the way my dad stares me down when he’s disappointed in me, eyes half-lidded, nostrils flared. It scares me straight each and every time. “Don’t you remember me running after you, trying to stop you?” I ask. Ryan shrugs again. “I thought you were showing off.” “Yeah, running into traffic is my signature move when there’s a cute girl nearby,” I joke. “Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t mean to ruin your game.” “No game to ruin, my friend.” “But on the plus side, Mr. Jadhav hates you now, so you’ve got bad-boy cred.” I have to laugh; this is true. Polly’s dad happened to arrive at the curb to pick her up just as Ryan was making his swanlike descent onto the sidewalk, which was convenient as far as rides to the hospital go, but not so convenient in terms of my chances with his daughter. “Do you know these boys?” he kept asking Polly angrily on the drive over, as if we were two homeless crackheads she found on the street. I don’t think she looked up from her lap the whole time. It was brutal. “You’re right,” I say to Ryan. “I should be thanking you.” I reach out and bat his stupid cowlick off his forehead, the closest I can bring myself to a show of affection right now. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go call my mom and lie for you—again. Meet me outside in five minutes.” I push through the curtain, reaching into the pocket of my jeans

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for my cell, and am almost at the exit when I feel my stomach slosh and realize I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a bank of elevators and decide to hop down to the cafeteria for a muffin or something before facing my mother’s third degree. Like I said, it’s crazy how one tiny decision can spin out and change everything.

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Chapter 1 Looking back, none of this would have happened if I’d brought lip gloss the night of the Homecoming Dance. Bee Franklin was the first person to notice that my lips were all naked and indecent. We were standing outside of our school, Grove Academy. It was late October, and the night was surprisingly cool; in Pine Grove, Alabama, where I live, it’s not unheard of to have a hot Halloween. But that night felt like fall, complete with that nice smoky smell in the air. I was super relieved that it was cold, because my jacket was wool, and there was nothing more tragic than a girl sweating in wool. I was wearing the jacket over a knee-length pink sheath dress. If I was going to be crowned Homecoming Queen tonight—and that seemed like a lock—I was going to do it looking as classy as possible in my demure pink dress and pearls. “Are you nervous?” Bee asked as I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. Like me, Bee was in pink, but her dress was closer to magenta and the bodice was covered in tiny sequins that winked and shivered in the parking lot lights. Or maybe

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that was just Bee. Unlike me, she hadn’t worn a jacket.

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Our dates, Brandon and Ryan, were off searching for a parking place. They had been annoyed that Bee and I had insisted on not showing up until the thirty minutes before the crowning, but there was no way I was going to risk getting punch spilled on me or my makeup sliding off my face (not to mention the sweatiness! See above, re: wool jacket) before I had that sparkly tiara on my head. I planned on looking fierce in the yearbook pictures. “Of course I’m not nervous,” I told Bee. And it was true, I wasn’t. Okay, maybe I was a little bit anxious . . . Bee gave an exaggerated eye roll. “Seriously? Harper Jane Price, you have not been able to successfully lie to me since the Second-Grade Barbie Incident. Admit that you’re freaking out.” She held up one hand, pinching her thumb and forefinger together. “Maybe a leeeeeetle bit?” Laughing, I caught her hand and pulled it down. “Not even a ‘leeeeeetle bit.’ It’s just Homecoming.” “Yeah, but you’re going to get all queenly tonight. I think that warrants some nerves. Or are you saving them for Cotillion?” Just the word sent all the nerves Bee could have wanted jittering through my system, but before I could admit that, her dark eyes suddenly went wide. “Omigod! Harper! Your lips!” “What?” I asked, raising a hand to them. “They’re nekkid,” she said. “You are totally gloss-less!” “Who’s ‘nekkid’?” I looked up to see the boys walking toward us. The orange lights played up the red in Ryan’s hair, and he was grinning, his 1S

hands in his pockets. I felt that same little flutter in my stomach

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that I’d been feeling since the first day I saw Ryan Bradshaw, way

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back in the third grade. It had taken me six years from that day to make him my boyfriend, but looking at him now, I had to admit, it had been worth the wait. “My lips,” I said. “I must’ve wiped off all my gloss at the ­restaurant.” “Well, damn,” he said, throwing his arm around my shoulders. “I’d hoped for something a little more exciting. Of course, no lip gloss means I can safely do this.” He lowered his head and kissed me, albeit pretty chastely. PDA is vile, and Ryan, being my Perfect Boyfriend, knows how I feel about it. “Hope you girls are happy,” Brandon said when we broke apart. He had both of his arms wrapped around Bee from behind, his hands clasped right under her . . . um, abundant assets. Bee was so tall that Brandon’s chin barely cleared her shoulder. “We had to park way down the effing road.” Okay, I should probably mention right here that Brandon used the real word, but this is my story, so I’m cleaning it up a little. Besides, if I honestly quoted Brandon, this thing would look like a Cops transcript. “Don’t say that word!” I snapped. Brandon rolled his eyes. “What the hell, Harper, are you, like, the language police?” I pressed my lips together. “I just think that the F-word should be saved for dire occasions. And having to park a hundred yards from the gym is not a dire occasion.” “So sorry, Your Highness,” Brandon said, scowling as Bee el-

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bowed him in the ribs.

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“Easy, dude,” Ryan said, shooting Brandon a warning look. Ignoring Brandon, I turned to Bee. “Do you have any lip gloss? I completely spaced on bringing any.” “My girl forgot makeup?” Ryan asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Man, you are stressed about this Queen thing.” “No, I’m not,” I said immediately, even though, hello, I clearly was. But I didn’t like when people used the “S-word” around me. After all, a big part of my reputation at the Grove was my ability to handle anything and everything. Ryan raised his hands in apology. “Okay, okay, sorry. But, I mean, this is obviously pretty important to you, or you wouldn’t have spent over a grand on that outfit.” He smiled again, shaking his head so his hair fell over his eyes. “I really hope your tastes get cheaper if we get married.” “I hear that, man,” Brandon said, lifting his hand to high-five Ryan. “Chicks gonna break us.” Bee rolled her eyes again, but I didn’t know whether it was at the guys or the fact that my outfit was over a thousand dollars  (yes, I know that’s a completely ridiculous amount for a ­seventeen-year-old girl to spend on a Homecoming dress, but, hey, I can wear it, like, a million times provided I don’t gain five pounds. Or at least that was how I rationalized it to my mom.) “Here.” Bee thrust a tube into my hand. I held it up to read the name on the bottom. “  ‘Salmon Fantasy’?” “That’s close to the shade you wear.” Bee’s long blond hair was 1S

woven into a fishtail braid, and she tossed it over her shoulder as

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she handed me the lip gloss.

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“I wear ‘Coral Shimmer.’ That is very different.” Bee made a face that said, “I am only tolerating you because we’ve been best friends since we were five,” but I kept going, drawing myself up to my full height with mock imperiousness, “And Salmon Fantasy has to be the grossest beauty product name ever. Who has fantasies about salmon?” “People who screw fish,” Brandon offered, completely cracking himself up. Ryan didn’t laugh, but I saw the corners of his mouth twitching. “So witty, Bran,” I muttered, and this time, when Bee rolled her eyes, I had no doubt that it was at the guys. “Look,” she said to me, “it’s either Salmon Fantasy or naked lips. Your choice.” I sighed and clutched the tube of lip gloss. “Okay,” I said, “but I’m gonna have to find a bathroom.” If it had been my Coral Shimmer, I could have put it on without a mirror, but there was no way I was slapping on a new shade sight unseen. Ryan pulled open the gym door, and I ducked under his arm to walk into the gym. As soon as I did, I could hear the opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s not a dance until someone plays that song. The gym looked great, and my chest tightened with pride. I know everyone, even Ryan, thinks I’m crazy to do all the stuff I do at school, but I honestly love the place. I love its redbrick buildings, and the chapel bells that ring to signal class changes. I love that both my parents went here, and their parents before them. So yeah, maybe I do stretch myself a little thin, but it’s completely worth it. The Grove is a happy place to go to school,

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and I liked to think my good example was the reason for that.

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And it meant that when people thought of the name “Price” at Grove Academy, they’d think of all the good things I’d done for the school, and not . . . other stuff. Instead, I focused on the decorations. I’m SGA president—the first-ever junior to be elected to the position, I should add—so Homecoming activities are technically my responsibility. But ­tonight, I’d delegated all of the decorating to my protégée, sophomore class president, Lucy McCarroll. My only contribution had been to ban crepe streamers and balloon arches. Can you say tacky? Lucy had done a great job. The walls were covered in a silky, shimmery purple material and there were colored lights pulsating with the music. Looking over at the punch table, I saw that she’d even brought in a little fountain with several bistro tables clustered around it. I scanned the crowd until I saw Lucy, and when I caught her eye, I gave her the thumbs-up, and mouthed, “Nice!” “Harper!” I heard someone cry. I turned around to see Amanda and Abigail Foster headed my way. They were identical twins, but relatively easy to tell apart since Amanda always wore her long brown hair up, and Abigail wore hers down. Tonight, both were wearing green dresses with spaghetti straps, but  Amanda’s was hunter green while Abigail’s was closer to ­seafoam. The twins were on the cheerleading squad with me and Bee, and Abi and I worked together on SGA. Right behind them was 1S

Mary Beth Riley, wobbling on her high heels. Next to me, Bee

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blew out a long breath before muttering, “Maybe no one will notice if she wears tennis shoes under her dress.” Despite Bee’s low tone, Mary Beth heard her. “I’m working on it,” she said, glaring at Bee. “I’ll get better by Cotillion.” Since “Riley” came right after “Price” alphabetically, Mary Beth would be following me down the giant staircase at Magnolia House, the mansion where Cotillion was held every year. So far, we’d only had two practices, but Mary Beth had tripped and nearly fallen directly on top of me both times. Which was why I’d suggested she start wearing the heels every day. “Speaking of that,” Amanda said, laying a hand on my arm. Even under her makeup, I could see the constellation of freckles arcing across her nose. That was another way to tell the twins apart; Abi’s nose was freckle free. “We got an e-mail from Miss Saylor right before we left for the dance. She wants to schedule another practice Monday afternoon.” I bit back a sigh. I had a Future Business Leaders of America meeting Monday after school, so that would have to be moved. Maybe Tuesday? No, Tuesday was cheerleading practice, and Wednesday was SGA. Still, when Saylor Stark told you there was going to be an extra Cotillion practice, you went. All the other stuff could wait. “I’m so sick of practice,” Mary Beth groaned, tipping her head back. As she did, her dark red hair fell back from her ears, revealing silver hoops that were way too big. Ugh. “It’s Cotillion. We 1S

wear a white dress. We walk down some stairs, we drink some

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punch and dance with our dads. And then we all pat ourselves on the back and pretend we did it just to raise money for charity,  and that it’s not stupid and old-fashioned and totally self-­ indulgent.” “Mary Beth!” Amanda gasped, while Abigail glanced around like Miss Saylor was going to swoop out of the rafters. Bee’s huge eyes went even bigger, and her mouth opened and closed several times, but no sounds came out. “It is not!” I heard someone practically shriek. Then I realized it was me. I took a deep breath through my nose and did my best to make my voice calm as I continued. “I just mean . . . Mary Beth, Cotillion is a lot more than wearing a white dress and dancing with your dad. It’s tradition. It’s when we make the transition from girls to women. It’s . . . important.” Mary Beth chewed her lip and studied me for a moment. “Okay, maybe.” Then she shrugged and gave a tiny smile. “But we’ll see how you feel when I’m ‘transitioning’ into a heap at the bottom of those stairs.” “You’ll do fine,” I told her, hoping I sounded more convinced than I felt. I’d spent months preparing for my Homecoming coronation, but Cotillion? I’d been getting ready for that since I was four years old and Mom had shown me and my older sister, Leigh-Anne, her Cotillion dress. I still remembered the smooth feel of the silk under my hands. It had been her grandmother’s dress, Mom had told us, and one day, Leigh-Anne and I would wear it, too. 1S R

Two years ago, Leigh-Anne had, but for my Cotillion, I’d be wearing a dress Mom and I had bought last summer in Mobile.

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“Babe!” I heard Ryan call from behind me. As I turned to smile at him, I heard one of the girls sigh. Probably Mary Beth. And I had to admit, striding toward us, his auburn hair flopping over his forehead, shoulders back, hands in his pockets, Ryan was completely sigh-worthy. I held my hand out to him as he approached, and he slipped it easily into his own. “Ladies,” Ryan said, nodding at Amanda, Abigail, and Mary Beth. “Let me guess. Y’all are . . . plotting world domination?” Mary Beth giggled, which had the unfortunate effect of making her wobble even more. Abigail had to grab her elbow to keep her from falling over. “No,” Amanda told him, deadly serious. “We’re talking about Cotillion.” “Ah, world domination, Cotillion. Same difference,” Ryan replied with an easy grin, and this time, all three girls giggled, even Amanda. Turning his attention to me, Ryan raised his eyebrows. “So are we just going to stand around and listen to this band butcher Lynyrd Skynyrd or are we going to dance?” “Yeah,” Brandon said, coming up next to Ryan and grabbing Bee around the waist. “Let’s go turn this mother out.” He pulled her out onto the dance floor, where he immediately flopped on his belly and started doing the worm. I watched Bee dance awkwardly around him and wondered for the millionth time why she wasted her time with that goofball. My own much less goofy boyfriend took my hand and started

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pulling me toward Bee and Brandon, but I pulled it back and held

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up the lip gloss. “I’ll be right back!” I shouted over the music, and he nodded before heading for the refreshment table. I glanced over my shoulder as I walked into the gym lobby and was treated to the sight of Brandon and one of the other ­basketball players doing that weird fish-catching dance move. With each other. Since we’d gotten there so late, most everyone who was coming to the dance was already inside the gym, but there were a few stragglers coming in the main gym lobby doors. Two teachers, Mrs. Delacroix and Mr. Schmidt, were also in the lobby, undoubtedly doing “purse and pocket checks.” Grove Academy was really strict about that sort of thing now. Two years ago, a few kids smuggled in a little bottle of liquor at prom and, later that night, got into a car accident. My sister— I cut that thought off. Not tonight. It was strange to be in the school at night. The only light in the lobby came from a display case full of “participation” trophies with Ryan’s name on them. The Grove was excellent in academics, but famously crappy at sports, even against other tiny schools. I know that sounds like sacrilege in the South, but just like any other expensive private school, Grove Academy was way more invested in SAT scores than any scoreboard. We left the football championships to the giant public school across town, Lee High. I’ve been up at school at night a few times, and it’s always creepy. I guess it’s the quiet. I’m used to the halls being deafen1S

ing, so the sound of my heels clicking on the linoleum seemed

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freakishly loud. In fact, they almost echoed, making me feel like there was someone behind me. I hurried out of the lobby and turned the corner into the ­En­glish hall, so I didn’t see the guy in front of me until it was too late. “Oh!” I exclaimed as we bumped shoulders. “Sorry!” Then I realized who I’d bumped into, and immediately regretted my apologetic tone. If I’d known it was David Stark, I would have tried to hit him harder, or maybe stepped on his foot with the spiky heel of my new shoes for good measure. I did my best to smile at him, though, even as I realized my stomach was jumping all over the place. He must have scared me more than I’d thought. David scowled at me over the rims of his ridiculous hipster glasses—the kind with the thick black rims. I hate those. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century. There are fashionable options for eyewear. “Watch where you’re going,” he said. Then his lips twisted in a smirk. “Or could you not see through all that mascara?” I would’ve loved nothing more than to tell him to kiss my ass, but one of the responsibilities of being a student leader at the Grove is being polite to everyone, even if they are a douchebag who wrote not one, but three incredibly unflattering articles in the school paper about what a terrible job you’re doing as SGA president. And you especially needed to be polite to said douchebag when 1S

he happened to be the nephew of Saylor Stark, president of the

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Pine Grove Junior League; head of the Pine Grove Betterment Society; chairwoman of the Grove Academy School Board; and, most importantly, organizer of Pine Grove’s Annual Cotillion. So I forced myself to smile even bigger at David. “Nope, just in a hurry,” I said. “Are you, uh . . . are you here for the dance?” He snorted. “Um, no. I’d rather slam my testicles in a locker door. I have some work to do for the paper.” I tried to keep my expression blank, but I have one of those faces that shows every single thing that goes through my mind. Apparently this time was no exception, because David laughed. “Don’t worry, Pres, nothing about you this time.” If ever there were a time to confront David about the mean things he’s written about me, this was it. Of course, those articles hadn’t exactly mentioned me by name. I seriously doubt Mrs. Laurent, the newspaper advisor, would let him slam me directly. But they’d basically said that the “current administration” is more concerned with dances and parades than the real issues facing the Grove’s students, and that under the “current administration,” the SGA has gotten all cliquey, leaving out the majority of the student body. To which I say, um, hello? Not my fault if people don’t attempt to get involved in their own school. And as for the “real issues” facing the Grove’s students? The kids who go here all come from super nice households that can afford to send their kids here. We’re not exactly plagued with social problems, you know? Which you’d think David would get. He’d lived in Pine Grove 1S

practically his whole life, and not only that, he lived with his

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Aunt Saylor in one of the nicest houses in town.

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Or maybe David’s issues had nothing to do with “social injustice” at the Grove and everything to do with the fact that he and I had loathed each other since kindergarten. Heck, even before that. Mom says he’s the only baby I ever bit in daycare. But before I could reply, the music stopped in the gym. I checked my watch and saw that it was a quarter till ten. Crap. David gave another one of those mean laughs. “Go ahead, Harper,” he said, sliding his messenger bag from one hip to the other. I know. A messenger bag. And those glasses. And he was wearing a stupid argyle sweater and Converse high-tops. Practically every other boy at the Grove lived in khakis and buttondowns. I wasn’t sure David Stark owned any pants other than jeans that were too small. “Only a few more minutes until your coronation,” he said, running a hand through his sandy blond hair, making it stand up even more than usual. “I’m sure you’d hate to miss everyone’s felicitations.” David had beaten me in the final round of our sixth-grade spelling bee with that word and now, all these years later, he still tried to drop it into conversation whenever he could. Counting to ten in my head, I reminded myself of what Mom always said whenever I complained about David Stark: “His parents died when he was just a little bitty thing. Saylor’s done her best with him, but still, something like that is bound to make anyone act ugly.” Since he was a tragic orphan, I made myself say “Have a nice night” through clenched teeth as I turned to head to the nearest

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bathroom.

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He just shrugged and started walking backward down the hall, toward the computer lab. “You might wanna put some lipstick on,” he called after me. “Yeah, thanks,” I muttered, but he was already gone. God, what a jerk, I thought, pushing the bathroom door open. If my shoes had sounded loud in the gym lobby, it was nothing compared to how they sounded in the bathroom. Like the dress, they were a little ridiculous, more for their height than their cost. I’m 5'4", but I was tottering around 5'8" on those bad boys. Looking in the mirror, I saw why Bee had been so horrified by my naked lips. My skin is pale, so without lip gloss, my lips had kind of disappeared into my face. But other than that, I looked good. Great, even. The makeup lady at Dillard’s had done a fabulous job of playing up my big green eyes, easily my best feature, and my dark hair was pulled back from my face, tumbling down my back in soft waves and setting off my high cheekbones. Yeah, I know it’s vain. But being pretty is currency, not just at the Grove, but in life. Sure, I wasn’t staggeringly beautiful like my sister, Leigh-Anne, had been, but— No. Not going there. I unscrewed the tube of Salmon Fantasy, shuddered again at the name, and started applying. It wasn’t as pretty as my Coral Shimmer, but it would do. I had just slathered on the second coat when the bathroom door flew open, banging against the tile wall so loudly that I jumped. 1S R

And scrawled a line of Salmon Fantasy from the corner of my mouth nearly to my ear.

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“Oh, dammit!” I cried, stamping my foot. “Brandon, what—” I don’t know why I thought it must be Brandon. Probably because it seemed like the sort of moron thing he’d do, trying to scare me. But it wasn’t Brandon. It was Mr. Hall, one of the school ­janitors. He stood in the doorway for a second, staring at me like he didn’t know who—or what—I was. “Oh my God, Mr. Hall,” I said, pressing a hand to my chest. “You scared me to death!” He just stared at me with this wild look in his eyes before turning around and slamming the bathroom door shut. And then I heard a sound that made my stomach drop. It was the loud click of a dead bolt being thrown. Mr. Hall, the tubby janitor, had just locked us in the bathroom.

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Chapter 2 Okay. Okay, I can handle this, I thought, even as panic started clawing through my chest. “Mr. Hall,” I started, my voice high and shaky. He just waved his hand at me and pressed his ear to the door. I don’t know what he heard, but whatever it was made him turn and sag against the wall. And that’s when I noticed the blood dripping on his shoes. “Mr. Hall!” I cried, running toward him. My heels slid on the slick tile floor, so I kicked them off. I got to Mr. Hall just as he slumped to the ground. His face was pale, and it looked all weird and waxy, like he was a dummy instead of a person. I could see beads of sweat on his forehead and under his nose. His breath was coming out in short gasps, and there was a dark red stain spreading across his expansive belly. There was no doubt in my mind that he was dying. I knelt down next to him, my blood rushing loudly in my ears. “It’s gonna be okay, Mr. Hall, I’ll go get someone, everything is 1S

gonna be fine.”

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But just as I reached for the dead bolt, he reached out and grabbed my ankle, pulling me down so hard that I landed on my butt with a shriek. Mr. Hall was shaking his head frantically. “Don’t,” he gurgled. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, like he was trying to calm down. “Don’t,” he said again, and this time, his voice was a little stronger. “Don’t open that door, okay. Just . . . just help me get to my feet.” I looked down at him. Mr. Hall was pretty substantial, and I didn’t think there was any way I was lifting him off that floor. But somehow, by slipping my arms under his and bracing myself against the wall, I got him up and propped against the door of one of the bathroom stalls. Once he was up, I said, “Look, Mr. Hall, I really think I should get help. I don’t even have a cell phone with me, and you”—I looked down at the sticky red circle on his stomach—“you look really hurt, and I think we should call 911, and—” But he wasn’t listening to me. Instead, he opened his shirt. I braced myself for a wound on his stomach, but I wasn’t prepared to see what looked like a bloodstained pillow. With a grunt, Mr. Hall tugged at something on his back, and the pillow slid from his stomach to land soundlessly on the floor. Now I could see the gash, and it was just as bad as I’d thought it would be, but my brain was still reeling from the whole “Mr. Hall isn’t fat, he just wears a fake belly” thing. Why would Mr. Hall pretend to be fat? Was it a disguise? Why would a janitor 1S

need a disguise?

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But before I could ask him any of this, Mr. Hall groaned and slid to the floor again, his eyes fluttering closed. I sank with him, my arm still behind his back. “Mr. Hall!” I cried. When he didn’t respond, I reached out with my free hand and slapped his cheek with enough force to make his head rock to the side. He opened his eyes, but it was like he couldn’t see me. “Mr. Hall, what is going on?” I asked, the acoustics of the bathroom turning my question into an echoing shriek. I was shaking, and suddenly realized how cold I was. I remembered from Anatomy and Physiology that this was what going into shock felt like, and I had to fight against the blackness that was creeping over my eyes. I couldn’t faint. I wouldn’t faint. Mr. Hall turned his head and looked at me, then really looked at me. Blood was still pulsing out of the gash that curved from under his khaki slacks around to his navel, but not as much now. Most of it seemed to be in a big puddle under him. “What . . . what’s . . . your name?” he asked in a series of soft gasps. “Harper,” I answered, tears pooling in my eyes, and bile rushing up my throat. “Harper Price.” He nodded and smiled a little. I’d never really looked at Mr. Hall before. He was younger than I’d thought he was, and his eyes were dark brown. They were beautiful, actually. “Harper Price. You . . . run this place. Kids talk. Protect . . .” Mr. Hall trailed off and his eyes closed. I slapped him again, and his eyes sprang open. He smiled that weird little smile 1S

again.

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“You’re a tough one,” he murmured.

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“Mr. Hall, please,” I said, shifting to get my arm free. “What happened to you? Why can’t we open the door?” “Look after him, okay?” he said, his eyes looking glazed again. “Make sure he’s . . . he’s safe.” “Who?” I asked, but I wasn’t even sure he was actually talking to me. I’ve heard that when people are dying, their brains fire off all sorts of weird things. He could have been talking to his mom, or his wife, if he had one. Suddenly there was a loud rattle at the door. I gave a thin scream, and Mr. Hall grabbed at the stall door like he was trying to pull himself up. “He’s coming,” Mr. Hall gasped. “Who?” I yelled. I felt like I had stepped into a nightmare. Five minutes ago my main concern had been whether Salmon Fantasy would clash with my pink dress. Now I was cradling a dying man on the bathroom floor while some crazy person pounded on the door. Mr. Hall managed to get himself into a sitting position, and for one second, I thought we might actually be okay. Like, maybe the wound that had soaked through that pillow wasn’t so bad. Or maybe this whole thing was an elaborate prank. But Mr. Hall wasn’t going to be okay. There was a white line all around his lips, which were starting to look blue, and his breaths were getting shallower and shorter. He swung his head to look at me, and there was such sadness in his eyes that the tears finally spilled over my cheeks. “I’m so sorry for this, Harper,” he said, his voice the strongest it had

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sounded since he’d run into the bathroom.

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I thought he meant he was sorry for dying and leaving me at the mercy of whatever was on the other side of that door. But then he took a really deep breath, lurched forward, grabbed my face, and covered my lips with his. My hands reached up to pry his fingers from my cheeks, but for a guy who had barely been able to talk a few seconds ago, his grip was surprisingly strong. And it hurt. I was making these muffled shrieks because I was afraid to open my mouth to scream. Then I felt something cold—so cold that it brought even more tears to my eyes—flow into my mouth and down my throat, and I went very still. He wasn’t trying to kiss me; it was like he was blowing something into me, this icy air that made my lungs sting like jogging in January. Tears were streaming down my face, and I let go of his hands, my arms falling to my sides. By now, my chest was burning like I’d been underwater for too long, and that gray fog was hovering around the edge of my vision again. As the gray spread, I thought of my sister, Leigh-Anne, and how hard it was going to be on my parents if I died, too. I don’t know if it was that thought, or the fact that being found dead in the bathroom underneath a janitor was not how I wanted people at the Grove to remember me, but suddenly I felt this surge of strength. The gray disappeared as adrenaline shot through my system, and I wrapped my fingers around Mr. Hall’s 1S

wrists and yanked with everything I had.

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And just like that, he was off me. I took a deep breath. Never had I felt so happy to breathe in slightly stinky bathroom air. For a long time, I just sat there against the stall door, shaking and gasping. I could still hear whatever was on the other side rattling, but it seemed far away for some reason, like it wasn’t even connected to me. I guess it only took about thirty seconds for me to catch my breath, but it felt like forever. I looked down at Mr. Hall. Lying on his back, his eyes staring at nothing, it was pretty clear that he was dead. Just as I was taking that in, the rattling at the door stopped. The burn in my chest had faded to a tingle, and there was this jumping feeling inside my stomach, like I’d swallowed a whole bunch of Pop Rocks. My arms and legs felt heavy, and my head was all spinny. Slowly, I stood up, careful to keep my feet out of the puddle of blood that continued to spread under Mr. Hall. I glanced down at my legs and saw that my panty hose were surprisingly run-free, despite everything that had just happened. What had just happened? I forced myself to look at Mr. Hall again. The gash in his stomach was horrible, and big, and sure, it looked like a wound from some sort of medieval sword or something, but that was impossible, right? He probably just hurt himself on some scary janitor equipment. I mean, the floor waxer didn’t look like it could slice 1S

somebody open, but it’s not like I’d ever inspected it for danger.

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The more I thought about it, the more comforting the idea seemed. It was certainly better than thinking there was a swordwielding maniac on the other side of the door. It had just been a rogue piece of machinery. A blade or a belt or something had snapped and cut Mr. Hall open, and that had been the rattling at the door. He hadn’t had time to unplug it, and it was probably spinning down the hall right now. I’d get out of here, and I’d go find a teacher and tell him or her, and everything would be fine. I looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was almost as white as Mr. Hall’s, making the Salmon Fantasy look cheap and too bright. “It’s going to be fine,” I told my reflection. “Everything is fine.” I walked to the door, and as I did, I had to step over that weird pillow thing Mr. Hall had strapped to his body. Oh, right. That. Why did Mr. Hall have a fake belly? My brain felt like it was in a blender as I tried to think up a plausible explanation, hopefully one that would tie in with my possessed machinery idea. Okay, Mr. Hall was younger than I’d thought. And cuter. Why would he be wearing a disguise? Was he in the witness protection program? A deadbeat dad hiding out from paying child support? And there was something else. Something weird about him. I looked back at his body, bracing myself against throwing up or fainting, but I didn’t feel anything except that tingle in my chest. 1S R

It was something about his face, something that had just felt odd when he’d . . . kissed me? Blown on me? Whatever.

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I crept back to him, still careful about the blood, then I reached down and touched his beard. My dad and granddad both have beards, and neither of theirs felt like this one. Sliding my finger around the edge of his beard, just under his left ear, I saw why. It was a fake. It was a pretty good one, and it was glued on super tight, but it was still a fake. Then I glanced up at his balding head and saw a fine stubble covering the bare half-moon of his scalp. So Mr. Hall hadn’t been fat, or bearded, or balding. “Oh, this is some bullshit,” I whispered. That’s when I knew I was seriously freaked out. I never curse out loud, not even in private. It’s just not ladylike. There was no theory I could come up with to explain any of that, no matter how CSI: Pine Grove I was trying to be. No, the best thing to do was to get the heck out of the bathroom and find a teacher, or a cop, or an exorcist. I’d take anyone at this point. I hurried to the door before realizing I’d left Bee’s lip gloss in the sink. My brain was still scrambled, and despite the dead body at my feet, all I could think was that Bee loved that ugly stuff, and I had to grab it before it was, like, confiscated for evidence or something. So I ran back to the sink. It’s funny to think about now, because even though that lip gloss had gotten me into this whole mess, that same lip gloss ­totally saved my life. If I hadn’t gone back for it, I would have been at the door when it exploded into two pieces and slammed 1S

into the row of stalls with the force of a small bomb.

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And if that hadn’t flattened me like a pancake, I still would

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have been directly in the path of the man who came running in with a long, curved blade—a scimitar, I was pretty sure I remembered from World History II with Dr. DuPont—held out in front of him. So thanks to Bee’s lip gloss, I was standing frozen by the sink when the sword-wielding maniac came in and my life stopped making even the littlest bit of sense. In all the dust from the door flying off, it took the man a minute to realize I was there. He had his back to me as he knelt by Mr. Hall’s body. I watched, still as a statue, as he reached into Mr. Hall’s pockets, but I guess he didn’t find what he was looking for because he stood up really fast and muttered the F-word. I couldn’t hold it against him, though. This did seem like a dire situation. Then he turned around, and I’m sure the look of total confusion on his face was reflected on mine. “Harper?” “Dr. DuPont?” I didn’t get much time to wonder why my history teacher had just killed a janitor, even though I had this whole joke forming about how Dr. DuPont must really hate when his trash cans aren’t emptied—you know, to make him see me as a person and not just a potential shish kabob. I learned that in the self-defense class Mom and I went to at the church last spring. But that joke dried right up in my mouth, because Dr. DuPont crossed the bathroom in two strides, and put his sword against 1S

my neck.

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Final Pass

MASTER SET - Final Pass

For girls and their BFFs, their besties, their sisters, their soul mates. For girls creating mayhem, saving the world, doing their best, figuring it out. This one is for y’all.

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Final Pass

MASTER SET - Final Pass

Chapter 1 “This is going to be a total disaster. You know that, right?” There are times when having a boyfriend who can tell the future is great. And then there are times like this. Rolling my eyes, I flipped down the visor to check my makeup in the little mirror. “Is that your Oracle self talking, or your concerned boyfie self?” David laughed at that, twisting in the driver’s seat to look at me. His sandy blond hair was its usual wreck, his blue eyes bright behind his glasses. “Seriously, you have got to stop calling me that.” The visor smacked back into place with a snap as I smiled at him. “But you are an Oracle,” I said with mock innocence, and now it was his turn to roll his eyes. “You know which term I was objecting to.” The windows in David’s car were down, letting in the breeze as well as the faint smell of beer and the pounding bass coming from inside the Sigma Kappa Nu fraternity house across the

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street. It was getting late, and there were a million places I would rather have been, but I had a job to do tonight. Still, I could mix a little business with pleasure. Leaning over the seat, I tipped my face up so he could kiss me. “It’ll only take a sec,” I promised once we parted. “And besides, this is what we’re supposed to be doing.” David’s lips were a thin line, and there was a little wrinkle between his brows. “If you’re sure,” he said, and I paused, hand on the latch. “What do you mean?” David pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “This whole changing-the-future thing. Sometimes I wonder . . . like, what if you can’t change the future, Pres? What if you’re only delaying it a little while?” My hand fell away from the door as I thought about that, but before I could answer, a loud bang from the front of the car had us both jumping. Two dark-haired guys in polo shirts and pastel shorts chortled as they walked past, their faces washed out in the glow of the headlights. “Nice car, asshat!” one of them shouted before they did some kind of fist-bumping move that made me want to bump my fist, too. Right into their faces. At my side, David heaved a huge sigh. “Well, if we’re supposed to be fighting evil, I’m not sure guys like that qualify.” He turned to look at me, one corner of his mouth lifting and mak1S

ing a dimple appear in his cheek. “Although I am a little more

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excited about watching you pound them into a pulp now.”

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I settled back into my seat, fussing with my hair. “Hopefully there won’t be any need for that. I’m going to get in there, get the twins, and get out. And you won’t be watching anything, since you need to stay in the car.” David scowled. “Pres—” “No.” I turned back to him, the streetlight overhead outlining him in orange. “There’s no way those guys will let you in. Because you’re . . .” Wearing an argyle sweater and lime-green shoes, I thought to myself. “A guy.” He was going to argue again, I could tell. That V between his eyes was getting deeper and his knee was jiggling, so I hurried. “You’ve already done the Oracle thing, so let me do the Paladin thing, and then we can get the heck out of here as quickly as possible, okay?” Not even David Stark could argue with that, so he gave a terse nod and leaned back in his seat. “Okay. But please make it fast. This place is already starting to have a bad influence on me. I feel the need to buy polo shirts and shorts. Maybe some Man Sandals.” Grinning, I unbuckled my seat belt. “Anything but Man Sandals! Although, not gonna lie, a polo shirt wouldn’t be a bad addition to your wardrobe.” David made a face at me and tugged at the hem of his sweater. “This is a classic,” he informed me, and I leaned over to give him one more quick kiss. “Sure it is.”

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Across the street, a group of boys came stumbling out the

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front door of the redbrick Sigma Kappa Nu house, one of them breaking away to puke in the azalea bushes. Charming. “Abigail and Amanda, the things I do for you,” I muttered as I got out of the car, shutting the door behind me. Pushing my shoulders back, I did the best I could to saunter across the lawn, projecting confidence while also trying not to draw too much attention to myself. That’s why I’d picked this dress. Should things get . . . out of hand, “girl in a black dress” wasn’t all that memorable of a description. The door to the frat house was hanging open as I approached, thanks to the puking guy and his friends, so I was able to slip inside unnoticed. If the bass had been pounding from outside, it was like a physical presence in the house, rattling my teeth and starting an immediate headache behind my eyes. And the smell . . . Beer, boy, old pizza, and carpet that probably hadn’t been cleaned since they’d built this place back in the sixties. Ugh. Frats were the worst. But I was here on a mission, and I switched my purse from one shoulder to the other as I scanned the crowd, looking for Abigail and Amanda’s twin blond heads. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are some fraternities worth hanging out with, but Sigma Kappa Nu was not one of them. 1S

These were, on the whole, big dumb party boys, and I was not

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into that. At all.

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But back in October, I’d killed my history teacher with a shoe, and everything had changed. It turned out I was a Paladin, a kind of superpowered warrior, charged with protecting the Oracle, aka David Stark, aka my new boyfriend. Being an Oracle meant that David could see the future, which obviously made him a pretty valuable commodity to a lot of people. And not good people, either. The Ephors were a group of men who had owned Oracles for years, using their visions to get ahead in the world. To predict the outcome of everything from wars to financial investments. Because David was a male Oracle, the Ephors had wanted to kill him— the only other male Oracle had been nowhere near as powerful as the traditional female ones, plus he’d become super unstable. But David had been rescued by his first Paladin, a guy named Christopher Hall, and by his Mage, Saylor Stark. I hadn’t exactly done a bang-up job of protecting David at first—people had died, including Saylor, and David had undergone a spell that gave him stronger powers than ever. Not only did he have much clearer visions, but also, he’d been able to make Paladins, giving the same powers I had to a group of girls at Cotillion. Oh, and did I mention my ex, Ryan, was our new Mage? So, yeah, complicated, but we were all trying to make the best of things. That’s part of why I was here, walking carefully among plastic cups and Ping-Pong balls, dodging puddles of beer. Before she’d died, Saylor had told me there was a possibility of David becoming a danger to himself, that the world-changing, super-

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intense visions would “burn him up.”

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Ryan and I had only helped him have two of those big types of visions. The first one, in the newspaper room at our school, had started a fire in a trash can, and short-circuited every computer in there. The second had resulted in David staying home for nearly a week, his eyes glowing brightly, his head aching. After that, I decided we should start small. Besides, it’s like my mom always says: Charity begins at home. What better way to use David’s powers than to check on the futures of friends and family, and see if there was anything I could do to help them should those futures turn out not so great? So far, we’d kept my Aunt May from accidentally using salt instead of sugar in a batch of brownies for the Junior League bake sale (an act that would have gotten her kicked out of Junior League), and we’d saved David’s friend Chie from forgetting to save the final copy of The Grove News to her hard drive. And now Abigail. Her future would take a hard left turn tonight when she met some douche-y frat brother named Spencer. They’d date for the rest of Abi’s high school career, then she’d marry him instead of going to college. From there, David hadn’t been able to see much more, only that Abi’s future with Spencer felt “sad,” and would lead to her and her twin, Amanda, becoming estranged. Saving people from future earthquakes or volcanoes seemed daunting—not to mention almost impossible to get people to believe—but keeping a friend from falling for the wrong guy? Oh, that I could handle. 1S

Provided I could find Abigail, of course. A set of French doors

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opened into a big backyard, and I headed in that direction,

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hoping to see the twins. As I kicked a crumpled Bud Light can out of my path, my phone vibrated. Pulling it out of my purse, I saw it was a text from David. “This is how I feel about fraternities right now.” Underneath was a picture of him pulling the worst face—nose wrinkled, mouth turned down in a huge frown, eyes narrowed. I smiled, unsure of what was funnier: the picture itself or the idea of David Stark taking a selfie. “Goofball,” I texted back before sliding my phone into my purse and stepping outside. A giant keg had become a sort of fountain in the middle of the yard. Two boys were holding another guy up by his legs so he could attempt the dreaded keg stand, and I sighed, wondering what the appeal of these dudes even was. And then, thank God, I saw two identical blond heads close together by a cluster of coolers. “Abigail! Amanda!” I called, making my way over to them. That involved stepping over more beer cans, and at least two unconscious dudes, and I frowned. Ew. The twins both raised their eyebrows at me, surprised. “Harper? What are you doing here?” Abi asked. She wore her signature fishtail braid loose and over one shoulder, while Amanda’s hair was pulled back from her face with two little clips. They were both wearing red dresses, so I was glad the hair made it easy to tell them apart. I gave them my sternest look, propping my hands on my hips. “I should ask the two of you that. Now come on. We’re 1S

leaving.” This is a secret I learned from cheerleading and SGA. If you

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act like you’re in the right, people will fall in line without really questioning. I’d never bothered to come up with an excuse as to why I was looking for the two of them at Sigma Kappa Nu, and it wasn’t like I could say, “My boyfriend has psychic powers, so tonight I’m saving one of you from a terrible future.” Instead, I relied on two years of being their head cheerleader to make Abi and Amanda follow me. And it worked. They both studied me for a minute. Abi screwed up her mouth like she might argue, but Amanda shrugged and took her twin’s arm with a muttered “I’m over this place anyway.” I made my way toward the French doors, pleased. That had gone so much easier than I’d— A figure suddenly reared up in front of me. “Whoa, whoa, little lady, what’s the rush?” The guy who blocked the doorway looked a lot like my exboyfriend, Ryan. Tall, nicely built, reddish hair that was just a little too long. But while Ryan’s smile was charming, this guy’s was smarmy, and I was not in the mood to deal with him right now. “We’re leaving,” I said, smiling but saying the words firmly enough for him to know I meant business. “My friends are ready to go.” “No, I’m not,” Abi said, one strap of her red dress sliding off her shoulder. Amanda kind of shook her head, too. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for Ryan and his mind-­ 1S

control powers right about now. But all I had were my powers

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of persuasion, which I thought were still pretty great.

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“This place is super gross, Abi,” I told her, gesturing around at the crushed cups on the lawn, the stained couches inside, the random depressions knocked into the walls by heads or fists, “and if your parents knew you were here, they’d die. Heck, you’re not even related to me, and I kind of want to die. Now let’s go.” But Frat-enstein over here was still looming in the doorway, arms braced on either side of the frame, a red plastic cup in one hand. “‘Super gross’?” he repeated. He pressed a meaty paw over the Greek letters on his shirt, and his blurry eyes tried to focus on me. His cheeks were red, and his nose was kind of shiny. Honestly, what did Abi even see in a guy like this? “Sigma Kappa Nu is the best frat on campus.” I snorted. “Please. Alpha Epsilon is the best frat on campus. You guys are the biggest frat on campus, and that’s because there’s so many of you without the grades to get into decent fraternities. Now get out of our way.” He was blinking down at me, like my words were taking a while to penetrate the haze of beer and dumb that clearly clouded his mind. Then, finally, he slurred, “You’re super gross.” “Zing,” I muttered, turning back to Abigail and Amanda with eyebrows raised. “Can we please go now?” Amanda nodded this time, thank God, but Abi was still chewing her lower lip and looking at the guy. “It’s not even eleven,” she said, fiddling with the end of her braid. Now the guy was looking back at her, blinking, and, ugh, this was going to be harder than I thought. “I mean, we could stay for a little while.” 1S

Biting back a sigh, I made myself smile at Abi. “No, we can’t.

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Now kindly get out of our way . . .”

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“Spencer,” the guy offered with a flick of his hair. “And I think your pretty friend is right—she could stay for a while.” There was no real danger here, but everything in me ached to go super Paladin on Spencer’s fratty butt. And then, thankfully, he gave me the chance. His hand came down on my shoulder, hard enough that I actually winced. “Hey, there—” was as much as he got out before my fingers curled around his hand, holding him in place while my other hand shot out, heel of my palm smacking him solidly in the solar plexus. He let out a whoosh of air that smelled like stale beer and sour apple Jolly Ranchers, making me wrinkle my nose even as I hooked my foot around his ankle and sent him crashing to the ground. The dude was built like a tree, so he went down hard, and I didn’t give him the chance to get up again. Still clutching his hand, I pressed my shoe to his chest and slid my fingers down to circle his wrist. I only had to pull the littlest bit before he whimpered. And, I mean, I didn’t want to break his wrist or anything. I just wanted to scare him a little bit. It occurred to me that once upon a time I could do that with a mere icy smile or an eye roll. These days, things were a lot more . . . physical. “When a lady says she’s ready to leave,” I told him, applying pressure, “she is ready to leave. And you do not get in her way. Is that clear?” When he didn’t answer, I gave another little tug that had 1S

him nodding frantically. “Right, yes. I’m sorry, I—I won’t do it

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again.”

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I tossed his hand down, dusting my palms on the back of my skirt. “I would hope not.” Lifting my head to the twins, I saw them watching me with mouths agape. Luckily, most of the party was still outside, so only a couple of guys—also dressed in the maroon and blue of Sigma Kappa Nu—saw me with Spencer, and they were so drunk that they barely noticed me. I glanced back at the twins. “Self-defense class,” I told them with a little shrug. “Now can we please go?” Spencer was sitting up now, holding his wrist and watching me with wary eyes, but I saw Abi hesitate before following me out of the room, and I wasn’t sure if I’d done my job here tonight or not. “You’re not the boss of us, Harper,” Abi said once we were out of the frat house and marching down the front steps toward the street. She’d grabbed her cardigan off the back of a chair on the way out, and was shoving her arms into it, scowling. Then why are you following me? I thought. What I said was, “I’m just looking out for you. That’s what friends do.” “Abi’s right,” Amanda said, and they both stopped there at the edge of the yard. “We’ve all known you were a control freak, but this is kind of nuts.” I stopped then, turning to glance between them, wishing their words didn’t . . . bug. It was too close to what David had said when I’d first come up with this idea. “People have to live their lives, Harper,” he’d said.

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But, as I’d reminded him, what was the point of having

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superpowers, superpowers he could actually use now—safely— if we didn’t, you know, use them? “Ladies,” David said with a little wave, and they both scowled at him. “What is he doing here?” Abi asked, and I rolled my eyes. “He’s my boyfriend. He drove me here, obvs.” The twins were looking at David’s car like it might give them a disease, and while I was irritated, I couldn’t really blame them. David’s Dodge was a total clunker, full of dents and dings and scratched paint, and . . . the truth was, I might have done some of that damage myself during a car chase last fall, but the point was that it barely looked drivable. I didn’t know why David insisted on hanging on to that thing. He still had his aunt’s car, and while Saylor’s Cadillac was of the old-lady variety, it certainly wasn’t in danger of having its engine drop out. Abi opened the back door, delicately kicking a stack of books off the backseat and onto the floor. David winced as the books fell, and the corners of his mouth jerked down as he cut his eyes at me. However, when Amanda tossed his ratty messenger bag out of the way, he twisted to look into the backseat. “Hey,” he started, and then he winced. I wondered if Amanda had pushed his bag onto something and broken it—there was no end to the random stuff in David’s backseat—but then I felt my own chest seize up in pain, and knew we were in for something way worse. 1S

A vision.

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But those didn’t just pop up the way they used to. David’s

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powers were under control now. Thing was, David didn’t know that me and Ryan were using the wards to keep his powers under control. But it was for his own good. The smaller visions didn’t leave him sick and shaking. Or looking so scary. “What the hell?” one of the twins squawked from the backseat, and David fumbled with his door handle, shaking his head. “David,” I said, reaching across the car to grab his arm. Fingers closing around the handle, David shoved the door open, spilling out into the street.

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Chapter 2 I was already out of my seat and moving around to him, barely paying attention to the twins, who were climbing out of the backseat. David fell to his knees, hands pressed to his head. Golden light poured out of his eyes, so bright it hurt to look at, and from behind me, I heard one of the twins make a sound somewhere between a gasp and a breathy scream. “What is wrong with him?” There was a part of my mind already on the phone with Ryan, asking him to work his mind-wipe mojo on the twins ASAP, but for right now, David was the only thing that mattered. I didn’t know if it was my Paladin powers or the way I felt about him that made my chest hurt, but I knelt down next to him, taking his hand. His skin was clammy, but he grabbed my hand tight, fingers curling around my palm. “It’s all right,” I heard myself say, even though the power coming from him was making my teeth 1S

ache. I’d only seen him like this once, the night of Cotillion.

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Right now, light in his eyes, body vibrating, he looked a lot less

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like my boyfriend, and a lot more like a powerful supernatural creature. Which, I had to remind myself, was exactly what he was. But still, he shouldn’t have been having visions like this, not anymore. “We have to go,” he said, his voice sounding deeper and echoing slightly, like there were two people talking. “Now. We need to go to them.” I’d never known cold sweat was a thing people could actually feel, but that’s exactly what popped out on my forehead. I held his hand tighter. “Where?” I asked. “Is Bee there?” David’s head swung toward me, and I flinched at the glare. My best friend had gone missing the night of Cotillion, kidnapped by Blythe and taken who knew where. Of everything that had happened that night, even Saylor’s death, losing Bee had been the worst. I couldn’t stop feeling like I’d failed her. “Bee’s at cheerleading camp.” Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that the twins were still frowning at us. Well, Amanda was. Abi was just staring at David, shocked. “Seriously, what is wrong with him?” Abi asked, and I winced. “It’s nothing,” I said, lifting my and David’s joined hands to look at his wrist. I never wore a watch, but David always did, so I checked it now. It was nearly eleven, and I’d promised my parents I’d be home by midnight. David’s vision was already fading. I could feel the power draining out of him, and his breathing was starting to slow, the

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light in his eyes going dim. “Pres?” he croaked, and while there

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was still a little echo, he sounded more like himself than like the Oracle. Sucking in a deep breath through my nose, I forced myself to think. First things first, I needed to get the twins home and dealt with. I could worry about my parents and where David was meant to be taking me once Abi and Amanda were handled. “Okay,” I said, overly bright, as I clapped my hands together and rose to my feet. “Everybody back in the car.” David stood, too, lurching for the driver’s side, but I caught his arm and steered him back toward the passenger seat. The twins stood there, arms folded over their chests. “What the hell was that, Harper?” Amanda asked, and Abi echoed, “The. Hell.” It had been a long night already, and I had a feeling it was about to get a lot longer. I shook my head, shooing the twins back toward the car. “I’ll explain later,” I promised, even though I had no intention of doing anything of the sort. What I did plan on doing was calling Ryan. Even though last year I spearheaded the Campaign Against Texting and Driving—I signed a pledge and everything—I was already starting the car when I pulled up Ryan’s number and texted, “Meet me at the twins’ house. 911.” “Harper,” David said, his voice low and rough. “We don’t have time. We have to go now.” I didn’t take my eyes off the road to look at him, but I did drop my phone in the change tray under the radio, reaching out to put my hand on his knee. 1S R

“It’s okay,” I said, even though my heart and mind were racing at a million miles an hour.

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I had no idea what was going on, but I did know that to handle it, we had to ditch the Not-So-Wonder Twins and hope to God that Ryan had gotten my text, since he didn’t seem in any hurry to reply. But when we pulled up in the driveway, Ryan was leaning against his car outside the twins’ house. “What’s he doing here?” Abi said from the backseat. “Don’t know!” I chirped, throwing the car into park. “Stay here,” I told David firmly, pointing at him in case he wasn’t clear how serious I was. He gave a weak nod and waved his hand, still slumped against the door panel. Maybe this will make me sound like a terrible person, but seeing him like that, much as it worried me, also made me feel kind of . . . relieved. Vindicated, even. This was what Ryan and I were protecting him from, this kind of pain. I knew it had bummed David out that his visions weren’t as big as he’d hoped, but surely he could understand that a little disappointment was better than this. I started to open the car door, but before I could, Ryan was suddenly there in the open window, folding his arms on the door, chin resting on his forearms. As always, he looked like he’d just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, auburn hair curling over his brow, hazel eyes kind of sleepy and lazy, his T-shirt showing off the results of plenty of time in the gym. I could practically feel the twins swoon in the backseat. Ryan used to make me swoon once, too, but now I frowned and waved him back from the door so I could get out of the

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car.

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“What’s the emergency?” he asked once we were on the lawn, and I glanced over my shoulder at the car. “David had a vision, and the twins saw,” I said in a whispered rush. “So now I need you to do your Mage thing and wipe their memories, okay?” By now, the twins were getting out of the backseat, muttering to each other. I heard David’s name, and also mine, along with a few words that, were I not so concerned with other things right now, I would have lit into them for. Honestly. “What kind of vision?” Ryan asked, his brow wrinkling. “About what?” “It doesn’t matter right now,” I told him, already making to move back to the car. “Do the mind wipe, and—” Ryan caught my elbow before I could rush back to David. “It seems like it matters. It’s Oracle stuff, which means I’m involved, too. Harper, if he’s having visions without us, after all that we did, that’s . . . that’s kind of an issue.” That was true, but right now, I needed him to erase the twins’ memories of tonight so I could get back to David. Luckily, at that minute, the twins wandered up, and I saw Ryan’s eyes flick to them. “We’ll talk later!” I called, both to Ryan and to Amanda and Abigail, before hurrying back across the lawn. David was out of the car, moving to the driver’s seat, and I stopped him with a “Whoa whoa whoa. What do you think you’re doing?” 1S

Under the street lamps, he was looking a little bit better, but

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not much. There were still shadows underneath his eyes, and he was moving gingerly, like something inside him was broken. But his jaw was set when he looked at me, fingers on the door handle. “I’m driving.” I put my hands on my hips, shifting my weight to one foot. “Um, okay, except you’re not?” Now was not exactly the time to be arguing over who had control of the car, but I was not about to let a guy who looked like his brain might actually start leaking out of his ears get behind the wheel. But David wasn’t budging. “You heard what it—what I—said. I’ll lead the way.” Behind me, I could hear the low murmur of voices as Ryan talked to the twins, but I ignored that, focusing on David with my arms crossed tightly. The twins’ street was quiet, the lawns almost identical green squares, glowing in the security lights. Azalea bushes lined the brick walls, and every yard had either dogwood trees or magnolias planted smack-dab in the middle of the grass. “Right, but you could, like, lead the way by telling me where we’re going. Like a GPS.” David’s eyes blinked behind his glasses, and he shook his head slightly. “Pres, for once, can’t I be in charge of some aspect of this whole thing? I’m telling you, I need to drive us there. I’m fine now”—the slight trembling of his hand seemed to make that a lie, but whatever—“so please get in the car.” I thought about arguing with him again, but David was right;

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I did tend to put myself in charge of all of these things, but how could I not? Wasn’t that my responsibility now that Saylor was gone? But then I thought again of his visions, and the lies I’d told. Couldn’t I give him this one thing? Dropping my head, I pinched the bridge of my nose between my fingers. “David—” I started, and he dropped his head, trying to meet my eyes. “Trust me, Pres,” he said. “Please.” The twins were walking toward their house, and Ryan gave me a thumbs-up, so I figured that was settled, thank goodness. But then Ryan walked over to us and grinned. “So,” he said, opening the door to the backseat. “Where are we headed?”

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Chapter 3 “It’s not that I don’t want you to come,” I explained for what had to be the third time in five miles. “But David and I have this.” From the backseat, Ryan snorted, and when I glanced over my shoulder, he was sitting back, his arms folded, legs spread wide. I’d always hated when he sat like that, taking up too much space, but there wasn’t anything I could say to him. That was a Boyfriend Complaint, and Ryan wasn’t my boyfriend anymore. Of course, what he was now, I couldn’t even explain. We’d never been friends, exactly, so saying we were didn’t feel true. Maybe we were coworkers. Which was part of why I didn’t want Ryan on this little expedition. He’d never liked the idea of not telling David about how we were limiting his visions, and I was worried that all of the weirdness of tonight was going to make him feel worse, maybe even give him the urge to confess. “The other day you were bitching—sorry, complaining,” Ryan amended, catching my look, “that I wasn’t doing enough Mage stuff.” He spread his big hands wide. “Isn’t this Mage stuff?”

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I looked back over at David. His hands were clenched tightly

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around the steering wheel, eyes on the dark road in front of us. We were driving out of town, in the opposite direction from the college where we’d been earlier, and the houses were starting to be few and far between. I caught Ryan’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “When I said I wanted you to do more Mage stuff, I meant I wanted you to check on the wards Saylor made.” David’s “aunt” had put up all kinds of magical protection charms over Pine Grove to keep the Ephors from finding him, and we’d told David that they needed to be charged up from time to time. “And,” I added, twisting in my seat, “I think you may want to add wards farther out.” “Sure thing. Should I go ahead and cover the whole state?” Ryan asked, and I rolled my eyes. “No,” David said. “No more wards.” Surprised, I twisted in my seat, the seat belt digging into my hip. “What do you mean ‘no more wards’?” David shook his head, but didn’t look at me. “I think the wards are screwing up my visions.” I could hear Ryan shift in the backseat, and willed him not to say anything. Luckily, he didn’t, and David continued. “I mean, I had those two big ones, right? The thing about the earthquake in Peru, and then the one about that senator lady Harper likes becoming president. But then . . . nothing. For months now.” He was talking faster now, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. “So maybe all the wards Saylor put up to protect me are, like, 1S

getting in the way of that.”

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I tried not to squirm in my seat since it wasn’t Saylor’s wards getting in his way. “And now,” David added, “the most important thing I’ve been able to see is that your friend will marry a douche someday. Not earth-shattering stuff.” “Which friend and which douche?” Ryan asked, leaning forward, but I ignored him. “I happen to think that kind of thing is important, David.” And I did. Sort of. He did look over then, eyebrows drawing close together over the rims of his glasses. We’d started to move out of the city now, fields to either side of the road, and only the occasional streetlight. The green glow from the dashboard lights played over David’s high cheekbones, making his eyes look slightly sunken in. “I mean, your friends are important,” David said, even though I was pretty sure he didn’t actually think that. There was something weird in his voice. “But bigger-picture stuff? Stuff that might actually help .  .  . I don’t know, the world? At least more people than a handful of your friends. Tonight, for the first time in months, I had a strong vision, a clear one that I didn’t need any help with. And it was a big one.” He glanced over at me. “I saw the Ephors, Pres.” My heart thudded heavily in my chest. “What?” He nodded and reached over to squeeze my hand. “The Ephors,” he repeated, eyes still on the road. It was probably just the reflection of streetlights, but it looked like his eyes were 1S

glowing again, and I swallowed hard.

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“Although why they’ve decided to set up shop all the way out here, I don’t know,” he said, and I jerked my hand back. “Wait, we’re going to see them? That’s where you’re taking us?” “That seems like information we should’ve had from the start,” Ryan commented, and when I caught his eye in the rearview mirror, he was frowning, auburn hair hanging low on his forehead. “If I’d told you, would you have come?” David asked, turning to glance at me. Now I could tell his eyes weren’t glowing after all, but I didn’t feel much better. “Yes,” I told him quickly. “But, you know, with . . . weapons. Grenades, maybe.” David shook his head and turned down a dirt road, the car thumping over bumps and ruts. “There’s nothing out here,” Ryan offered, leaning up between us. He had his elbows propped on his spread knees, his hazel eyes scanning the road in front of us, the fields of tall grass on either side. “Me and some of the guys used to come out here to drink beer.” “When was that?” I asked, but now it was his turn to ignore me apparently. “There used to be a house,” he told David. “Big ol’ Gone with the Wind–type place. My grandmother had a painting of it over her mantel. Apparently it was kinda famous or something, but it burned down back in the seventies. All that was left was a chim1S

ney. And we threw enough cans at it that I’m not sure much of

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“What a fabulous use of time,” I muttered, and I think Ryan would have had a comment for that had the car not taken a curve in the road right then. David brought the car to a shuddering halt. “A house like that?” he asked, and Ryan gave a slow nod. The house in front of us looked a lot like Magnolia House back in town, but while that was just a reproduction of a fancy antebellum home, this seemed to be the real thing. White columns rose from the front porch to a wraparound balcony above, and tall windows, bracketed by dark shutters, stood on either side of the massive front door. Lights glowed in those windows, throwing out long rectangles of gold on the neatly manicured lawn. “Maybe someone built a new place,” Ryan suggested, but his voice was faint. “In the . . . three weeks since I was out here.” “This is the place,” David said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “I feel it, don’t you?” I did. I wasn’t sure how exactly, but I definitely did. I don’t know what I was expecting the Ephor headquarters—if that’s what this place was—to look like. I mean, they were an ancient society that started in Greece, made up of people who wanted to control the world, so I don’t think I was too far off in imagining that they’d do business in something like a temple, or at least an old building made of stone. It looked like they’d decided to restore some of the local architecture instead. So I thought I could be forgiven for doubting David. “Are you sure?” 1S

David was still staring at the house, his wrists draped over

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the steering wheel. “Yeah,” he said at last. “That’s the place.”

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As the three of us got out of the car, it was all I could do not to shiver. The house might not have looked magical, but it sure as heck felt like it. I couldn’t see any obvious markings, like the wards Saylor had put up around town, but power pulsed off the building in a steady beat that I could almost feel coming up through the soles of my feet. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my teeth ache. “That’s intense,” David said, and I glanced at him. Reaching over, I threaded my fingers with his, squeezing. “Do you have any kind of plan here? Are we just marching in, or . . .” David squeezed my hand back. “No plan,” he said. “I have to be here. That’s all I know. It’s like . . . remember when you told me that if I’m in danger, you can’t do anything except save me?” I nodded. That was part of the Oracle/Paladin bond. Even if an orphanage staffed by kittens was on fire right next to him, I couldn’t do anything but save David. So, yeah, I understood how mystical compulsions could make you do things that weren’t good for you, but I still didn’t like it. I made myself smile at David. “We got this,” I said, even though I had no idea what “this” was. But David and I had handled The Weird before and gotten through it. We could do it again. Turning his head, he smiled down at me. Well, his lips lifted in something that I think was supposed to be a smile, but he was either too tired or too freaked out to give it his best shot. 1S

I’d take it.

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From behind me, I thought I heard Ryan blow out a long breath, but I kept my eyes on the house, waiting for . . . I didn’t even know what. The three of us approached the building cautiously, like we were afraid we’d be rushed at any second. My Paladin senses weren’t tingling, so that probably wasn’t going to happen, but I still didn’t want to take any chances. The porch steps didn’t even creak under our feet although the potted ferns by the door rustled slightly in the night wind. Other than that, there was no sign of movement, nothing happening behind the windows or door, and we all stood there for a moment. I didn’t see an intercom button or anything like that, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to knock. Kick down the door, maybe? Before I could do either of those things, the door slowly swung open. “Cool,” Ryan said from behind me. “I was starting to think this crap wasn’t creepy enough.” David snorted, and when he cut his eyes at Ryan, he looked better. Less pale, for sure. Sharper, almost. “Sorry we got you involved in a Scooby-Doo mystery.” That made Ryan smile a little bit, and he shoved his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. “That is what’s happening, isn’t it? Which obviously makes you Shaggy.” He nodded at David, whose smirk turned into a grin. “Then you’re Fred,” he told Ryan. “And Pres here”—he 1S

bumped me with an elbow—“is for sure Daphne.”

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“For sure,” Ryan agreed, and I rolled my eyes at both of them. “Okay, if y’all are done being boys, can we please go in and see what the heck is going on here?” We walked inside. The house smelled nice, like furniture polish and expensive candles, with a hint of something warm and spicy underneath. Tea, maybe. And it certainly didn’t look like a lair of evil. Overhead, a chandelier sparkled, and the wooden stairs gleamed. There were vases of fresh flowers on long, narrow tables, and pretty artwork dotted the walls. It looked like the inside of a lot of these old houses: The outside might be all vintage and historical, but there was clearly some twenty-firstcentury interior decorating going on. “Maybe we died?” David suggested. “And ended up in Harper’s version of heaven?” “Well, the Ephors have good taste, even if they are evil.” I turned in a small circle on one of the lush rugs, glancing up. The house was quiet, but people had to be here. Bee might be here. I’d gotten so used to my Paladin senses kicking in when they needed to that it was weird to feel so . . . blank. I couldn’t get a read on anything, and not for the first time, I wondered if there was some kind of magic blocking my powers. “If they’re evil, why are we here?” Ryan asked, and I had to admit it was a good question. We’d spent last semester trying to hide David from the Ephors, and now we were walking into their . . . house? Headquarters? For a meeting? Still, that didn’t keep me from scanning 1S

the room for objects that could be used as weapons. There were

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several pretty hefty candlesticks on the mantel over the enormous fireplace. Those would work. I turned to ask David more about his vision, but he was studying one of the paintings on the wall. “Whoa,” he murmured softly, and I followed his gaze. “Whoa,” I echoed. The painting depicted a girl in a flowing white gown, her body floating in midair, her eyes bright and golden. On either side of her stood a man, one in armor, the other in a white robe, and kneeling all around the three of them were shadowy figures, their hands outstretched toward the girl. The paint seemed to glow, and I fought the urge to run my fingers over the canvas. “The Oracle Speaks,” a voice said from behind us, and David, Ryan, and I jumped, then whirled around. A man was standing there, but I had no idea where he’d come from. I hadn’t heard his footsteps approach or a door open. He was maybe forty or so, and handsome in the same old-world, expensive way the house was. Blond hair, high cheekbones, really nice suit. Like the house, power seemed to radiate from him, and I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. But his smile was perfectly pleasant as he gestured toward the painting. “That’s what this particular work of art is called. Felt appropriate to hang here.” “You’re an Ephor,” David said quietly, his hands clenching into fists at his side, and the man gave a slight bow. “I am. My name is Alexander. And you are the Oracle and, I 1S

take it, you are his intrepid Paladin and Mage,” he said, nodding

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to me and Ryan. There was a slight lilt to his words, an accent I couldn’t quite place. “So good of you to come.” He was acting like he’d invited us here, like we were expected, and I wasn’t sure why, but that gave me all of the creeps. Still, although I waited for my Paladin senses to kick in and tell me this guy was bad news, there was nothing. Magic, sure, a hint of power, yes, but none of the chest-tightening, muscletensing sickness I felt when David was in danger. The Ephors had always been the greatest threat to David, so why wasn’t I in attack mode? It suddenly occurred to me that they might be doing something to override my Paladin powers. Could they do that? After all, they’d somehow managed to break through the wards so that David could have an all-consuming vision. For probably the thousandth time, I wished Saylor were here to tell me what was going on. “I’m so pleased to have you here,” Alexander said, still smiling that bland smile, one hand extended toward a dim hallway off to the side. “Now, if you’ll come with me—” I was about to interject that we were staying right where we were, but before I could, David stepped forward, looked at Alexander, and said, “You people took a girl last year. Bee Franklin. I want you to tell me where she is.”

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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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Everything Leads to You

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?”


TITLE: 

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U.S. $17.99 | CAN $19.99

© Nancy Lambert

lives her life in translation. She speaks High School, College, Friends, Boyfriends, Break-ups, and even the language of Beautiful Girls. But none of these is her native tongue. And Love? The most foreign language of all. So when being fluent in True Love becomes the only way to avert a sure catastrophe, Josie is forced to examine her feelings for the boy who says he loves her, the sister she loves but doesn’t always like, and the best friend who hasn’t said a word—at least not in a language Josie understands.

is an Ohio-dwelling, unabashedly Styxloving, full-time writer who enjoys a variety of hobbies, excluding role-playing, sticky things, and karaoke. She lives in New Albany, near Columbus, with her husband. Visit her at ErinMcCahan.com, on Twitter @ErinMcCahan, and on Facebook at AuthorErinMcCahan.

“A story that’s as funny, off-beat, and warm-hearted as its heroine . . . I was wowed.” —HUNTLEY FITZPATRICK, author of My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True

ISBN 978-0-8037-4051-8

Jacket art © 2014 by Julia Kuo Jacket design by Vanessa Han Printed in the USA

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Insightful, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, this is an irrepressible love story about sisters, friends, boys, and how it feels to find someone, at last, who speaks your language.

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FINISH: SCUFF FREE MATTE

1/23/14 12:08 PM


C h a pt e r O n e

There must be a way to figure this out. I contemplate the possible formulae lying on Stu’s bed, staring at the ceiling but seeing only x’s and y’s and parentheses and question marks. Across the room, Stu sits with his back to me at his keyboard, playing an occasional combination of chords and pausing to write or erase musical hieroglyphics in a notebook. “It can’t be done,” I say. “There are too many variables.” “That’s what I’ve been saying,” he says. “But I have to know.” “I think you can live without knowing this. I know I can.” I sit up, adjust my glasses, and notice a loose thread in the brick-red stripe of his serape-style blanket. “You need to fix this before it comes undone,” I say. “Fix what?” I tell him. “Just yank it,” he says. “I’m not yanking it.”

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“Then ignore it.” “You realize I can never sleep under this blanket with this thread as it is. The thought of it would plague me all night.” “Were you going to?” he asks, looking over his shoulder at me. “Well, I’m not going to now.” “Suggesting you were going to at some point?” “Suggesting no matter where I sleep in the future, it will not be under this blanket.” “I was not aware our friendship included sleepovers,” he says. “Will we be doing each other’s hair as well?” “Yes. I long to see you in an up-do.” “Okay, listen to this,” he says, and proceeds to play, to perfection, the gorgeously trilling introduction of one of the greatest songs of all time, “Come Sail Away.” (Words and music by Dennis DeYoung, former lead singer of Styx and now a composer, Broadway performer, and all-around superlative human being. I believe in his spare time he rescues stranded motorists across the country, chases purse-snatchers, and donates blood and plasma until the Red Cross temporarily bans him for his own good. Somewhere in his closet there must be a cape.) Then Stu sings—and only Stu, as far as my listening experience extends, could do Dennis DeYoung justice, which is the highest compliment I can pay to any singing person. Stu sings in a couple of choirs and is so musically 2

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gifted that our high school choir director often consults him on arrangements for musicals and ensembles. I have a mere average singing voice myself, and the utter inability to play any instrument. I took piano lessons when I was nine for the longest six months of my life. The whole thing made no sense to me, and my teacher refused to answer my list of why questions. Why assign fingers to keys? Why include a tie? Why do you need a damper pedal; why not just not play that note? Why won’t you teach me how to tune this thing? Why are there no blue pianos? No, really, why are there no blue pianos? She and I were very happy the day my parents let me quit. Just before the tempo of “Come Sail Away” increases, Stu stops singing and breaks into a classical version of the piece, somewhere between a minuet and a concerto, as if Johann Sebastian Himself had composed it. If I were not watching him with my own eyes, I would swear that more than one pianist was playing. After only one and a half minutes or so, Stu stops and turns on the bench to face me. “That’s as far as I’ve gotten,” he says. “I like it.” “I aim to please,” he says as Sophie shouts from across the hall, “That’s not how it goes!” “That’s how I say it goes!” Stu shouts back. “That’s because you are just too freakishly weird!” “And you are a fluffy poodle!” 3

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“Freak!” “Fifi!” “Enough,” their mom says as she leans into Stu’s room. “Josie, are you staying for dinner?” she asks me. “Thanks, Auntie Pat, but I can’t. Kate’s coming over tonight, and I finally get to grill her about Boyfriend of the Moment, who, by the way, none of us has met yet.” “Grill her? Josie,” Auntie Pat says. “I have to. It’s for her own good.” “Her own good?” Stu and his mom ask simultaneously, which entertains Auntie Pat far more than it does Stu. “Yes. I need to find out if there’s anything wrong with him, which there probably is, which I say for three reasons.” Auntie Pat arches her eyebrows at me, skeptical but waiting, something Stu does at times too. “One”—I hold up my index finger for emphasis—“there’s something wrong with all her boyfriends. Two”—second finger up—“she’s been going out with him for four months and hasn’t brought him around, so she’s probably hiding something. And three, which is related to one, Kate did not receive an ounce of the discernment Maggie got,” I say of our older sister, “when it comes to picking guys who are right for her.” “And you did?” Stu asks. I cringe, thinking back to homecoming, before I say, “Well, I’m better at picking for Kate than Kate is for 4

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herself. You know what it is? I’m not blinded by love the way she is. I take a much more logical approach.” “You have never liked any of her boyfriends,” Stu says. “My opinion is informed by the guy.” “Uh-huh. Tell us again what was wrong with the last one.” “Corn,” I say. “Corn?” Auntie Pat asks. “Corn,” Stu says. “The guy ate only corn, meat, and chocolate,” I tell Auntie Pat. “See, this is where Kate fails the discernment test. She likes to cook. She also eats loads of cruciferous vegetables. And it would be impossible to cook long-term for a grown man who doesn’t eat any. Therefore, logically, he was not a good match for Kate. I knew they’d break up. All I did was suggest it a little earlier than she was prepared for.” “Cruciferous,” Stu says. “Not tuberous?” “Those too.” “How about legumes?” “You get my point.” “What is her boyfriend’s name?” Auntie Pat asks. “Geoff with a g, three f’s, and a silent p.” Pgeofff. “Well, then I hope for Kate’s sake that Geoff-witha-g enjoys a variety of vegetables,” she says. “I plan on finding out tonight,” I say. And when Aunt­ie Pat turns to leave, I stop her with: “Did you know there’s a thread coming loose here?” 5

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“Show me,” she says, coming close as I point. “Yes, I see. Just yank it.” Stu shrugs. “That’s what I said.” “I can’t. What if it doesn’t come out in one try but gets longer? What if it puckers? What if it tears the whole—” “Here.” Auntie Pat reaches over me and snaps the thread off as I wince. “All fixed,” she says, and shoots me a quick smile before leaving the room. I look at my watch. Nearly five thirty. “I have to go.” I hop off the bed, twist my ankle right under me, and crash to the floor. Stu grins wickedly as he plays the first few chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Buhm-buhm-buhm-buhmmmmm “Dennis DeYoung would have helped me up,” I say as I rise, pink but uninjured, and straighten my glasses. “Stu Wagemaker thinks you’re a klutz.” “Oh, hey.” I stop in the door. “Jen Auerbach told me today she thinks she likes you.” “She doesn’t know?” I shrug. “She likes lots of guys at present. But, in your case, it doesn’t matter since I told her to stay away from you.” “Oh, really. Why is that?” “You mean in addition to your going out with Sarah Selman at the moment?” “Yeah, in addition to that.” 6

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“I told her you’re the love-’em-and-leave-’em type.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “No,” he says clearly. “I’m not.” “Yes you are!” Sophie calls. “See?” “You’re both wrong,” he says, and plays a few light notes on the keyboard. “Sarah is your third girlfriend this calendar year. And it’s only March.” “It’s the twenty-fifth,” he protests. “And the last Tuesday of the month, no less.” “Still a Tuesday in only the third month of the year. That’s a girlfriend a month, so far.” I hold up three fingers for emphasis. “Need I say more?” “No, because you’re wrong, and I’d hate for you to keep embarrassing yourself.” “I’m not wrong,” I say, which is confirmed by Sophie. “She’s not wrong!” “Gotta go,” I say. I call out a good-bye to Sophie and pause in the kitchen to pet Moses, the Wagemakers’ seventeen-pound cat, who is just allowing me to touch him again after I stepped on his tail last week. Twice.

Sophie is the love-’em-and-leave-’em type too. She and Stu have identical blond hair, long limbs, symmetrical 7

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faces, and easy smiles. Stu writes music. Sophie paints— bright collages when she’s happy, bleak landscapes when she’s not. Having known both of them all my life, though, I can say that Sophie, apart from her love life, is much less complicated. Not a fluffy poodle, but also breezily unconcerned with matters that neither interest nor affect her. No one will ever accuse Sophie of over-thinking, which I, as an inveterate (my dad says incorrigible) overthinker, admire. I don’t know how she does it. I find her completely fascinating. Auntie Pat says she and Stu bicker because they’re so close in age. Thirteen months. Stu’s sixteen. Sophie’s fifteen, three months older than I am even though I’m a year ahead of her in school. I skipped second grade, making me a junior at the moment—like Stu. Auntie Pat predicts by the time Stu and Sophie are thirty and twenty-nine, well involved in their own families and careers and living in separate states, they’ll get along rather well. My parents have owned our house across the street from the Wagemakers for nearly twenty-two years, which is at least how long Kate and our oldest sister, Maggie, have been calling them Auntie Pat and Uncle Ken. For this reason, everyone at school thinks Stu and Sophie are my cousins. We let them. It’s easier to per-

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petuate the rumor than to explain the intricacies of so close a relationship that isn’t family but should be.

I leave the Wagemakers’ house and cross the street. It’s damp and cold, like the air, from typical late March rain. My thoughts return to the dilemma that had taken me out of Sophie’s room, where I had listened, fascinated by her enthusiasm, to her latest break-up drama that included the description “cheese-sniffing rat bastard,” and into Stu’s room, where I tried to create a formula Stu called impossible. But he must be wrong. There should be—there has to be—some way for me to conclusively determine if I, in all my fifteen-point-four years of life, have eaten an entire rat.

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C h a pt e r T wo

I can determine the average size of a rat. That’s easy. What I cannot determine is the consistency with which they fall into vats at meat-processing plants or the number of times I have eaten processed meats from the plants where rats have accidentally become part of the product, coupled with the frequency with which my mother has bought certain brands from certain stores. And this is all based on the assumption that rats do fall into these vats and find their way into hot dogs and hamburgers I’ve eaten. So it appears Stu was right. There are too many variables, and I’ll just have to live without knowing. Or guess. But I hate guessing, also estimations, and much prefer the precision of mathematical formulae and exact translations. Math is a language, and I like languages. Look at all the foreign words I’ve used just today: hieroglyphics: Greek serape: Spanish ensemble: French concerto: Italian

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minuet: French hamburger: German Pgeofff: Josie The single greatest word, of all languages in the world, is teepee. Comes from the Sioux. I could be born into a family of French-speaking goat herders in the Swiss Alps and still know immediately what a teepee is the moment I hear the word. No confusion. Perfect clarity. It is the epitome of lingual greatness. Teepee. If only every language were as clear as Sioux.

I enter the kitchen through the back door and am alone there long enough to deduce tonight’s dinner. Mother has arranged an easy culinary formula for me with limited variables. Based on the juxtaposition of ground beef, an onion, and fresh tomatoes in the refrigerator, and red beans and spices on the counter, I conclude we’re having chili. (Possibly with trace amounts of rat. I’ll never know.) Neither of my parents gets home until six most nights. Chili needs to simmer, so I promptly get to work as sous chef, trained and frequently employed by my sisters and mother. I have barely placed the appropriate pot on the stove when Kate breezes through the back door, holding her cell phone like a walkie-talkie. “No,” she says into it, setting her purse and briefcase 11

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down, “I’ve got to be in Cincinnati on Tuesday and Dayton on Wednesday, and Thursday I’m in a training meeting most of the day, so I could only fit you in on Monday or Friday.” She shoots me a smile, blows me a kiss, points at the phone, tosses both hands up, rolls her eyes at herself, makes me smile, and points, questioningly, at the pot. “Chili,” I say. “No,” she says into her phone. “I’ve been to his office three times, and he kept me waiting over an hour each time, and I won’t apologize for finding my time as important as his,” she says as she shoulder-presses the phone to her ear and pulls the meat and the onion—I grab the tomatoes—out of the fridge. “And he still won’t switch from Squat-in-Lederhosen,” or something like that. She names some drug I’ve never heard of and pours some olive oil into the pot, and then I follow her pantomimes to get dinner started. She hangs up after the onion is browned and all the tomatoes have been thoroughly diced. “Well,” she says, beaming another smile at me. “Hello.” Then I get a real kiss from her and ask her how many pounds of processed meat she thinks she’s eaten in her life. Kate’s a drug rep—a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company—so she’s forever visiting doctors in their offices and in hospitals to hawk the latest treatment for baldness or vaginal dryness. 12

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She keeps me supplied with pads of paper and pens, all bearing the names and fancy logos of prescription drugs. My favorite was a four- by six-inch pad with large blue letters at the top—CYLAXIPRO: One daily dose to reduce herpes outbreaks. I asked Mother to write my school absence excuses on that, but she refused. I wrote last year’s birthday thank-you note to Uncle Vic and Aunt Toot on it. They sent me ten dollars in a card with a monkey on it, and I felt genuinely grateful for both and said so. But then I had to use Mother-approved stationery to write them a note of apology for the references I made in my original note to genital herpes and the part Kate plays in preventing its spread. Since then, most of my pens and pads of paper have borne the names of allergy and cholesterol-lowering meds.

Today, Mother arrives home before Dad. She teaches four days a week at The Ohio State University’s College of Nursing, which is about thirty minutes from our house in the old suburb of Bexley. Yet it seems, somehow, closer than Kate’s condo, a mere fifteen minutes away in downtown Columbus, which has felt like a world away ever since she moved out. Especially since she comes for dinner less and less frequently, depending on work and boyfriends who only eat corn or have maladies she refuses to disclose. 13

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By seven thirty—a dinnertime my dad calls cosmopolitan but never with a straight face—we four Sheridans are seated at the kitchen table, where Kate appears too entirely happy over chili. It’s good, but not blissful. “I’m just thinking about Geoff,” she says when Mother tells her she looks happy. “I was thinking about him earlier,” I say, “and I bet we were not thinking the same things.” “Josie,” she says, adding a cheery little tsk, “you are going to love him.” “When do we get to meet him?” “Well,” she says, shooting eager looks in Mother and Dad’s direction, “I was hoping to bring him over Friday. For dinner? Maybe a big family dinner?” Special Family Dinner, in the Sheridan language, is Mother and Dad, Maggie and her husband, Ross, and Kate and me. We fill a room with height and words, making our number seem more than six. For just a second, Mother and Dad share a look, a curious little nod too, which Kate misses entirely. “That will be nice,” Mother says. “Any special requests for dinner?” “Spaghetti,” Kate and I say in happy unison, since spaghetti has long been our family’s preference for any and all special occasions that don’t require a giant animal carcass on display. It doesn’t signify exceptional dining to most people, but then most people haven’t tried my mother’s homemade sauce. Auntie Pat wants her to 14

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market it, and Mother accepts the compliment each time with only the slightest trace of satisfaction visible on her face. For such an exhibition, its roots must run deep. By the end of dinner, where we were endlessly entertained by lists of Pgeofff’s vague but extraordinary qualities—gorgeous, brilliant, interesting, brilliant, gorgeous—plans for this coming Friday’s Special Family Dinner are set. “Are you staying over tonight?” Dad asks Kate, checking his watch against the clock in the kitchen, which means—in our private Sheridan language—stay or leave, but now is the appropriate time to decide. “She’s staying,” I answer for her, and I grab her hand and say, “Come on,” and we run up to my room. I hop on my bed, fold my legs underneath me, straighten my glasses, and say, “Now tell me everything you haven’t told Mother and Dad about Pgeofff.” “I’ve already told you everything.” Kate is rummaging through my pajama drawer. She pulls out two nightshirts—both of which she gave me—and I point to the blue one, leaving the burgundy one for her. “Does he eat green vegetables?” “Geoff has very sophisticated taste in food,” she says as she starts to peel off the layers of her suit. “And, yes, I’ve cooked for him, and, yes, he likes it. We cook together frequently.” She thinks a moment. “Yes, we do seem to cook together a lot.” “That’s not a euphemism for sex, is it?” 15

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“Josie! No.” “Because it could be, but I’d prefer it if it weren’t.” “Stop. Geoff and I cook together. With pots and pans. And he likes and appreciates the meals we make.” “Well, I’m inclined to like him,” I say, emphasis on inclined. “I’m not worried at all,” she says. “Did I tell you he’s brilliant?” “Couple times.” She pops into the bathroom and emerges minutes later in my nightshirt, looking like she just got home from cheering at a professional football game. Even at this hour, her hair is nearly perfect. I fool absentmindedly with my ponytail for a few seconds before she grabs the brush off my dresser and orders me to turn around. I promptly obey. She slips the band off my hair and starts brushing as I take off my glasses and place them safely on the nightstand. Kate’s brushing my hair is my first memory. I was three and a half. She was almost fourteen, and we talked about birds. I wanted to know why they didn’t freeze to death in the winter and drop with loud clunks into the yard. Kate said angels flew down from heaven and used their wings to keep birds warm, but she had no answer when I asked why birds’ wings don’t keep their own bodies warm. “I imagine you want to grill me now about Geoff,” she says, and I bristle at my predictability. 16

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“No,” I say. “But I am going to grill him.” “Josie,” she laughs. “You should warn him before Friday that I have a list of thirty-seven questions I need to ask him.” “Only thirty-seven? Why not an even forty?” “Because the number of questions has nothing to do with the questions themselves. I have as many as I need.” “Are you serious?” “I am.” “Give me an example.” I twist around to face her. “For example, if he gives up his seat every day on the bus to a pregnant woman but then discovers she’s not pregnant but faking it to trick her boyfriend into marrying her, would he still give up his seat to her? Also, would he tell the boyfriend?” “Is that one question or two?” she asks. “One,” I say, “with two parts.” “Hmm,” she says. “It’s a good question.” She twists my head around to continue brushing. “You should ask him that. I can’t wait to hear his answer. It’s going to be brilliant,” she says as I simultaneously mouth the word. I’m glad I’m facing away, since I feel my lip starting to curl. “What are his faults?” I ask. “He doesn’t have any.” “That’s impossible, and you know it.” “Well, then, I haven’t noticed any because everything else about him is so wonderful.” 17

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“So you could say you’re blind to his faults?” I ask. “Happily. That’s what happens when you’re in love. You overlook the unimportant things. Satisfied?” she asks as she sets the hairbrush down and climbs into bed. “No, because I need to know how you’re defining unimportant.” “What do you mean how I’m defining it?” I turn out the lights. “Unimportant like staying up too late reading,” I say, slipping into my side of the bed, “or unimportant like large hairy facial moles and compulsive nose-picking?” “Compulsive— Josie.” She giggles some. “No.” “Hunchback? Troll hair?” “Neither.” “Tertiary syphilis?” “Good night, Josie,” Kate says, kissing me quickly before turning over. “Unnatural interest in ventriloquism?” “No.” “Uncontrollable watery stool? Diapers? Does he wear adult diapers? Or does he wear adult diapers but doesn’t really need them? See, that would be something important you shouldn’t overlook, don’t you think?” Kate pulls her pillow over her head, and I grin and snuggle a little closer. How can Stu accuse me of not liking any of Kate’s boyfriends when each one provides me with moments like these? I hope she’s never single again.

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C h a pt e r Th r e e

Jen Auerbach bounces herself against my locker after school today and launches into a conversation well past its starting point. Her wide, dark brown eyes seem to smile even when she does not, making her look as if she’s about to hear not good but great news. I’m always a little sorry when I don’t have it to give to her. “That far from my face,” Jen says. “I’m telling you he was that far from my face.” She holds her thumb and index finger two inches apart. “Oh, he smelled soooooo good. Why is it that great-looking guys just smell good, no matter how they smell, you know? I mean, it’s like, if he smelled like day-old pizza grease, I would be thinking oh, I want pizza with him. Now. Right now.” I mentally shift into Jen’s natural language and realize she’s talking about Josh Brandstetter, best-looking guy in our class and Jen’s current chemistry lab partner, chosen by random name-draw back in January. She said she tried to look like she didn’t care when he pulled her name out of a large beaker, but it’s next to impossible for Jen Auerbach to look indifferent about anything.

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I’ve been friends with Jen since seventh grade. We’re the tall girls in school. Jen, Emmy Newall, and a couple others who play volleyball. I, thanks to my maternal DNA, am the tallest on the team but not the best. Jen and Emmy are. They already have my vote as next year’s cocaptains. “What were you doing?” I ask. “In lab?” “I don’t know. Some stupid whatever, but it was great because we had to be this close”—she shows me her thumb and index finger again—“to read the results.” “You don’t even know what they were, do you?” “I have no idea. I just copied what he wrote down. I was too busy smelling how good he smelled.” “Who smells good?” Emmy Newall asks, inserting herself into our space and conversation. “Josh Brandstetter,” Jen says. “What does he smell like?” “Day-old pizza grease,” I say, making Jen smile as Emmy, wrinkling her nose at the thought, asks, “You think that smells good?” “No. It was a joke,” I say. “I don’t get it,” she says, and Jen explains in a rapid, abbreviated manner, which Emmy unenthusiastically calls cool at the end. I grab my stuff for track practice. Emmy runs track too, so she’s waiting to walk down to the locker room with me. “Oh, hey, Jen,” I say, shutting my locker. “I can’t meet you at Easton on Friday.” 20

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Easton Town Center is the fancy indoor/outdoor mall-hangout for half the city under thirty. Usually, I find it a kaleidoscopic maze of fluorescent light and pounding music and endless strangers, interspersed with moments of happy refuge when my friends and I reenergize with sodas and soft pretzels in the food court. And I like the recap in Jen’s car on the way home when everyone assesses the outing so I know exactly how much fun I had. “You’re going to Easton Friday, and you didn’t ask me?” Emmy, trying to liberate a strand of hair from her lip gloss, asks Jen. “Thanks a lot.” “Check your phone,” Jen says. “I asked you like a week ago. We’re all going.” All to Jen is all, most of, part of, or one friend from the volleyball team. “Why aren’t you?” Emmy asks me. “My sister’s bringing her boyfriend over for dinner, and I haven’t met him yet, so I have to be there.” “So can’t you just meet him and then come?” Emmy asks. “Just tell your parents you have plans. I’ll even pick you up if you want,” she offers, sounding irritated. “No. I want to be there. She says she’s in love with him, so I need to spend some time there to check him out,” I say, and Jen further defends me to Emmy with: “You know how Josie is about her sisters.” “I know how she is about her whole family. It’s completely bizarre,” Emmy says in a tone I dislike. But she 21

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has only a small repertoire of tones and none of them is particularly pleasant, so it’s easy to ignore—or at least re-interpret—some of the things she says. There’s a lot more to meaning than just words. And sometimes, as in Emmy’s case, there’s a lot less.

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Chapter One The Garretts were forbidden from the start. But that’s not why they were important. We were standing in our yard that day ten years ago when their battered sedan pulled up to the low-slung shingled house next door, close behind the moving van. “Oh no,” Mom sighed, arms falling to her sides. “I hoped we could have avoided this.” “This—what?” my big sister called from down the driveway. She was eight and already restless with Mom’s chore of the day, planting jonquil bulbs in our front garden. Walking quickly to the picket fence that divided our house from the one next door, she perched on her tiptoes to peer at the new neighbors. I pressed my face to the gap in the slats, watching in amazement as two parents and five children spilled from the sedan, like a clown car at the circus. “This kind of thing.” Mom gestured toward the car with the trowel, twisting her silvery blond hair into a coil with the other hand. “There’s one in every neighborhood. The family that never mows their lawn. Has toys scattered everywhere. The ones who never plant flowers, or do and let them die. The messy family who lowers real estate values. Here they are. Right 1

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next door. You’ve got that bulb wrong side up, Samantha.” I switched the bulb around, scooting my knees in the dirt to get closer to the fence, my eyes never leaving the father as he swung a baby from a car seat while a curly-haired toddler climbed his back. “They look nice,” I said. I remember there was a silence then, and I looked up at my mother. She was shaking her head at me, a strange expression on her face. “Nice isn’t the point here, Samantha. You’re seven years old. You need to understand what’s important. Five children. Good God. Just like your father’s family. Insanity.” She shook her head again, rolling her eyes heavenward. I moved closer to Tracy and edged a fleck of white paint off the fence with my thumbnail. My sister looked at me with the same warning face she used when she was watching TV and I walked up to ask her a question. “He’s cute,” she said, squinting over the fence again. I looked over to see an older boy unfold himself from the back of the car, baseball mitt in hand, reaching back to haul out a cardboard box full of sports gear. Even then, Tracy liked to deflect, to forget how hard our mother found being a parent. Our dad had walked away without even a good-bye, leaving Mom with a one-year-old, a baby on the way, a lot of disillusionment, and, luckily, her trust fund from her parents. As the years proved, our new neighbors, the Garretts, were exactly what Mom predicted. Their lawn got mowed sporadically at best. Their Christmas lights stayed hung till Easter. 2

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Their backyard was a hodgepodge of an in-ground pool and a trampoline and a swing set and monkey bars. Periodically, Mrs. Garrett would make an effort to plant something seasonal, chrysanthemums in September, impatiens in June, only to leave it to gasp and wither away as she tended to something more important, like her five children. They became eight children over the years. All approximately three years apart. “My unsafe zone,” I overheard Mrs. Garrett explain one day at the supermarket when Mrs. Mason commented on her burgeoning belly, “is twenty-two months. That’s when they suddenly aren’t babies anymore. I love babies so much.” Mrs. Mason had raised her eyebrows and smiled, then turned away with compressed lips and a baffled shake of her head. But Mrs. Garrett seemed to ignore it, happy in herself and content with her chaotic family. Five boys and three girls by the time I turned seventeen. Joel, Alice, Jase, Andy, Duff, Harry, George, and Patsy. In the ten years since the Garretts moved next door, Mom hardly ever looked out the side windows of our house without huffing an impatient breath. Too many kids on the trampoline. Bikes abandoned on the lawn. Another pink or blue balloon tied to the mailbox, waving haphazardly in the breeze. Loud basketball games. Music blaring while Alice and her friends tanned. The bigger boys washing cars and spraying each other with hoses. If not those, it was Mrs. Garrett, calmly breastfeeding on the front steps, or sitting there on Mr. Garrett’s lap, for all the world to see. “It’s indecent,” Mom would say, watching. 3

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“It’s legal,” Tracy, future lawyer, always countered, flipping back her platinum hair. She’d station herself next to Mom, inspecting the Garretts out the big side window of the kitchen. “The courts have made it absolutely legal to breast-feed wherever you want. Her own front steps are definitely fair game.” “But why? Why do it at all when there are bottles and formula? And if you must, why not inside?” “She’s watching the other kids, Mom. It’s what she’s supposed to do,” I’d sometimes point out, making my stand next to Tracy. Mom would sigh, shake her head, and extract the vacuum cleaner from the closet as if it were a Valium. The lullaby of my childhood was my mom running the vacuum cleaner, making perfectly symmetrical lines in our beige living room carpet. The lines somehow seemed important to her, so essential that she’d turn on the machine as Tracy and I were eating breakfast, then slowly follow us to the door as we pulled on our coats and backpacks. Then she’d back up, eliminating our trail of footprints, and her own, until we were outside. Finally, she’d rest the vacuum cleaner carefully behind one of our porch columns only to drag it back in that night when she got home from work. It was clear from the start that we were not to play with the Garretts. After bringing over the obligatory “welcome to the neighborhood” lasagna, my mother did her best to be very unwelcoming. She responded to Mrs. Garrett’s smiling greetings with cool nods. She rebuffed Mr. Garrett’s offers to mow,

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sweep up leaves, or shovel snow with a terse “We have a service, thanks all the same.” Finally, the Garretts stopped trying. Though they lived right next door and one kid or another might pedal past me as I watered Mom’s flowers, it was easy not to run into them. Their kids went to the local public schools. Tracy and I attended Hodges, the only private school in our small Connecticut town. One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time. Outside my bedroom window, there’s a small flat section of the roof with a tiny fence around it. Not really a balcony, more like a ledge. It’s in between two peaked gables, shielded from both the front and backyard, and it faces the right side of the Garretts’ house. Even before they came, it was my place to sit and think. But afterward, it was my place to dream. I’d climb out after bedtime, look through the lit windows, and see Mrs. Garrett doing the dishes, one of the younger kids sitting on the counter next to her. Or Mr. Garrett wrestling with the older boys in the living room. Or the lights going on where the baby must sleep, the figure of Mr. or Mrs. Garrett pacing back and forth, rubbing a tiny back. It was like watching a silent movie, one so different from the life I lived. Over the years, I got more daring. I’d sometimes watch during the day, after school, hunched back against the side of the rough gable, trying to figure out which Garrett matched each name I heard called out the screen door. It was tricky because

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they all had wavy brown hair, olive skin, and sinewy builds, like a breed all their own. Joel was the easiest to identify—the oldest and the most athletic. His picture often appeared in local papers for various sports accomplishments—I knew it in black and white. Alice, next in line, dyed her hair outlandish colors and wore clothes that provoked commentary from Mrs. Garrett, so I had her down as well. George and Patsy were the littlest ones. The middle three boys, Jase, Duff, and Harry .  .  . I couldn’t get them straight. I was pretty sure that Jase was the oldest of the three, but did that mean he was the tallest? Duff was supposed to be the smart one, competing in various chess competitions and spelling bees, but he didn’t wear glasses or give off any obvious brainiac signals. Harry was constantly in trouble—“Harry! How could you?” was the refrain. And Andy, the middle girl, always seemed to be missing, her name called longest to come to the dinner table or pile into the car: “Annnnnnnnndeeeeeeeeee!” From my hidden perch, I’d peer out at the yard, trying to locate Andy, figure out Harry’s latest escapade, or see what outrageous outfit Alice was wearing. The Garretts were my bedtime story, long before I ever thought I’d be part of the story myself.

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Chapter Two On the first sweltering hot night in June, I’m home alone, trying to enjoy the quiet but finding myself moving from room to room, unable to settle. Tracy’s out with Flip, yet another blond tennis player in her unending series of boyfriends. I can’t reach my best friend, Nan, who’s been completely distracted by her boyfriend, Daniel, since school ended last week and he graduated. There’s nothing on TV I want to see, no place in town I feel like going. I’ve tried sitting out on the porch, but at low tide the humid air is overpowering, muddy-scented from the breeze off the river. So I’m sitting in our vaulted living room, crunching the ice left over from my seltzer, skimming through Tracy’s stack of In Touch magazines. Suddenly I hear a loud, continuous buzzing sound. As it goes on and on I look around, alarmed, trying to identify it. The dryer? The smoke detector? Finally, I realize it’s the doorbell, buzzing and buzzing, on and on and on. I hurry to open the door, expecting—sigh—one of Tracy’s exes, daring after too many strawberry daiquiris at the country club, come to win her back. Instead, I see my mother, pressed against the doorbell, getting the daylights kissed out of her by some man. When I throw 7

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the door open, they half stumble, then he braces his hand on the jamb and just keeps kissing away. So I stand there, feeling stupid, arms folded, my thin nightgown shifting slightly in the thick air. All around me are summer voices. The lap of the shore far away, the roar of a motorcycle coming up the street, the shhhh of the wind in the dogwood trees. None of those, and certainly not my presence, stop my mom or this guy. Not even when the motorcycle backfires as it peels into the Garretts’ driveway, which usually drives Mom crazy. Finally, they come up for air, and she turns to me with an awkward laugh. “Samantha. Goodness! You startled me.” She’s flustered, her voice high and girlish. Not the authoritative “this is how it will be” voice she typically uses at home or the syrup-mixed-with-steel one she wields on the job. Five years ago, Mom went into politics. Tracy and I didn’t take it seriously at first—we’d hardly known Mom to vote. But she came home one day from a rally charged up and determined to be state senator. She ran, and she won, and our lives changed entirely. We were proud of her. Of course we were. But instead of making breakfast and sifting through our book bags to be sure our homework was done, Mom left home at five o’clock in the morning and headed to Hartford “before the traffic kicks in.” She stayed late for commissions and special sessions. Weekends weren’t about Tracy’s gymnastics practices or my swim meets. They were for boning up on upcoming votes, staying for special sessions, or attending local events. Tracy pulled every bad-teenager trick in the book. She played with 8

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drugs and drinking, she shoplifted, she slept with too many boys. I read piles of books, registered Democratic in my mind (Mom’s Republican), and spent more time than usual watching the Garretts. So now tonight, I stand here, stunned into immobility by the unexpected and prolonged PDA, until Mom finally lets go of the guy. He turns to me and I gasp. After a man leaves you, pregnant and with a toddler, you don’t keep his picture on the mantel. We have only a few photographs of our dad, and they’re all in Tracy’s room. Still I recognize him—the curve of his jaw, the dimples, the shiny wheat-blond hair and broad shoulders. This man has all those things. “Dad?” Mom’s expression morphs from dreamy bedazzlement to utter shock, as though I’ve cursed. The guy shifts away from Mom, extends his hand to me. As he moves into the light of the living room, I realize he’s much younger than my father would be now. “Hi there, darlin’. I’m the newest—and most enthusiastic—member of your mom’s reelection campaign.” Enthusiastic? I’ll say.

He takes my hand and shakes it, seemingly without my participation. “This is Clay Tucker,” Mom says, in the reverent tone one might use for Vincent van Gogh or Abraham Lincoln. She turns and gives me a reproving look, no doubt for the “Dad” comment, but quickly recovers. “Clay’s worked on national campaigns. I’m very lucky he’s agreed to help me out.” 9

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In what capacity? I wonder as she fluffs her hair in a gesture

that can’t possibly be anything but flirtatious. Mom? “So, Clay,” she continues. “I told you Samantha was a big girl.” I blink. I’m five two. In heels. “Big girl” is a stretch. Then I get it. She means old. Old for someone as young as her to have. “Clay was mighty surprised to find I had a teenager.” My mother tucks a wayward strand of newly fluffed hair behind her ear. “He says I look like one myself.” I wonder if she’s mentioned Tracy, or if she’s going to keep her on the down-low for a while. “You’re as beautiful as your mother,” he says to me, “so now I believe it.” He has the kind of Southern accent that makes you think of melting butter on biscuits, and porch swings. Clay looks around the living room. “What a terrific room,” he says. “Just invites a man to put his feet up after a long hard day.” Mom beams. She’s proud of our house, renovates rooms all the time, tweaking the already perfect. He walks around slowly, examining the gigantic paintings of landscapes on the white, white walls, taking in the so-puffy-you-can’t-sit-on-it beige couch and the immense armchairs, finally settling into the one in front of the fireplace. I’m shocked. I check Mom’s face. Her dates always stop at the door. In fact, she’s barely dated at all. But Mom doesn’t do her usual thing, glance at her watch, say, “Oh, goodness, look at the time,” and politely shove him out the door. Instead, she gives that little girlish laugh again, toys with a pearl earring, and says, “I’ll just make coffee.”

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She whirls toward the kitchen, but before she can take a step, Clay Tucker comes up to me, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Seems to me,” he says, “you’re the kind of girl who’d make the coffee herself and let her mama relax.” My face heats and I take an involuntary step back. Fact is, I usually do make tea for Mom when she comes in late. It’s sort of a ritual. But no one has ever told me to do it. Part of me thinks I must have misheard. I met this guy, like, two seconds ago. The other part instantly feels chagrined, the way I do at school when I’ve forgotten to do the extra credit math problem, or at home when I shove my newly laundered clothes into a drawer unfolded. I stand there, struggling for a response, and come up blank. Finally I nod, turn, and go to the kitchen. As I measure out coffee grounds, I can hear murmurs and low laughter coming from the living room. Who is this guy? Has Tracy met him? Guess not, if I’m the big girl. And anyway, Tracy’s been off cheering Flip on at his tennis matches since they graduated last week. The rest of the time, they’re parked in his convertible in our driveway, bucket seats down, while Mom’s still at work. “Coffee ready yet, sweetie?” Mom calls. “Clay here could use a pick-me-up. He’s been working like a hound dog helping me out.” Hound dog? I pour freshly brewed coffee into cups, put them on a tray, find cream, sugar, napkins, and stalk back into the living room. “That’s fine for me, sweetheart, but Clay takes his in a big ol’ mug. Right, Clay?”

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“That’s right,” he says with a broad smile, holding the teacup out to me. “The biggest you got, Samantha. I run on caffeine. It’s a weakness.” He winks. Returning from the kitchen a second time, I plunk the mug down in front of Clay. Mom says, “You’re going to love Samantha, Clay. Such a smart girl. This past year she took all AP classes. A pluses in every one. She was on the yearbook staff, the school newspaper, used to be on the swim team . . . A star, my girl.” Mom gives me her real smile, the one that goes all the way to her eyes. I start to smile back. “Like mother, like daughter,” Clay says, and my mom’s eyes slide back to his face and stay there, transfixed. They exchange a private look and Mom goes over and perches on the armrest of his chair. I wonder for a second if I’m still in the room. Clearly, I’m dismissed. Fine. I’m saved from the distinct possibility I’ll lose control and pour Clay’s still-hot coffee from his big ol’ mug onto his lap. Or pour something really cold on Mom. Pick up, pick up, I beg the other end of the phone. Finally there’s

a click, but it’s not Nan. It’s Tim. “Mason residence,” he says. “If you’re Daniel, Nan’s out with another guy. With a bigger dick.” “I’m not Daniel,” I tell him. “But is she really? The out part?” “Nah, of course not. Nan? She’s lucky she’s got Daniel, and that’s pretty fucking sad.” “Where is she?” “Around somewhere,” Tim offers helpfully. “I’m in my room. Have you ever wondered what purpose the hair on your toes serves?” Tim’s stoned. As usual. I close my eyes. “Can I speak to her now?” 12

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Tim says he’ll get her, but ten minutes later I’m still waiting. He probably forgot he’d even answered the phone. I hang up and lie on my bed for a moment, staring at the ceiling fan. Then I open my window and climb out. As usual, most of the lights are on at the Garretts’. Including the ones in the driveway, where Alice, some of her underdressed friends, and a few of the Garrett boys are playing basketball. There may be some boyfriends thrown in there too. It’s hard to tell, they’re all jumping around so much, music cranked loud on the iPod speakers perched on the front steps. I’m no good at basketball, but it looks like fun. I peer in the living room window and see Mr. and Mrs. Garrett. She’s leaning on the back of his chair, arms folded, looking down at him while he points out something in a magazine. The light in their bedroom, where the baby sleeps, is still on, even though it’s so late. I wonder if Patsy’s afraid of the dark. Then suddenly, I hear a voice, right near me. Right below me. “Hey.” Startled, I almost lose my balance. Then I feel a steadying hand on my ankle and hear a rustling sound, as someone, some guy, climbs up the trellis and onto the roof, my own secret place. “Hey,” he says again, sitting down next to me as though he knows me well. “Need rescuing?”

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Chapter Three I stare at this boy. He’s obviously a Garrett, and not Joel, but which one? Up close, in the light spilling from my bedroom, he looks different from most of the Garretts—rangier, leaner, his wavy hair a lighter brown, already with those streaks of blond some brunettes get in the summer. “Why would I need rescuing? This is my house, my roof.” “I don’t know. It just hit me, seeing you there, that you might be Rapunzel. The princess in the tower thing. All that long blond hair and . . . well . . .” “And you’d be?” I know I’m going to laugh if he says “the prince.” Instead he answers “Jase Garrett,” reaching for my hand to shake it, as though we’re at a college interview rather than randomly sitting together on my roof at night. “Samantha Reed.” I settle my hand into his, automatically polite, despite the bizarre circumstances. “A very princess-y name,” he answers approvingly, turning his head to smile at me. He has very white teeth. “I’m no princess.” He gives me a considering look. “You say that emphatically. Is this something important I should know about you?” 14

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This whole conversation is surreal. The fact that Jase Garrett should know, or need to know, anything about me at all is illogical. But instead of telling him that, I find myself confiding, “Well, for example, a second ago I wanted to do bodily harm to someone I’d only just met.” Jase takes a long time to answer, as though weighing his thoughts and his words. “We-ell,” he responds finally. “I imagine a lot of princesses have felt that way . . . arranged marriages and all that. Who could know who you’d get stuck with? But . . . is this person you want to injure me? ’Cause I can take a hint. You can ask me to leave your roof rather than break my kneecaps.” He stretches out his legs, folding his arms behind his head, oh-so-comfortable in what is oh-so-not his territory. Despite this, I find myself telling him all about Clay Tucker. Maybe it’s because Tracy’s not home and Mom’s acting like a stranger. Maybe it’s because Tim is a waste and Nan is MIA. Maybe it’s something about Jase himself, the way he sits there calmly, waiting to hear the story, as though the hang-ups of some random girl are of interest to him. At any rate, I tell him. After I finish, there’s a pause. Finally, out of the half dark, his profile illuminated by the light from my window, he says, “Well, Samantha . . . you were introduced to this guy. It went downhill from there. That might make it justifiable homicide. From time to time, I’ve wanted to kill people I knew even less well . . . strangers in supermarkets.” Am I on my roof with a psychopath? As I start to edge away, he continues. “Those people who walk up to my mom all the time, when she’s with our whole crowd, and say, ‘You know, 15

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there are ways to prevent this.’ As if having a big family was like, I don’t know, a forest fire, and they’re Smokey Bear. The ones who tell my dad about vasectomies and the high cost of college as if he has no clue about any of that. More than once I’ve wanted to punch them.” Wow. I’ve never met a boy, at a school or anywhere, who cut through the small talk so quickly. “It’s a good idea to keep your eye on the guys who think they know the one true path,” Jase says reflectively. “They might just mow you down if you’re in their way.” I remember all my own mother’s vasectomy and college comments. “I’m sorry,” I say. Jase shifts, looking surprised. “Well, Mom says to pity them, feel sorry for anyone who thinks what they think is right should be some universal law.” “What does your dad say?” “He and I are on the same page there. So’s the rest of the family. Mom’s our pacifist.” He smiles. A whoop of laughter sounds from the basketball court. I look over to see some boy grab some girl around the waist, whirling her around, then lowering her and clenching her to him. “Why aren’t you down there?” I ask. He looks at me a long time, again as though considering what to say. Finally: “You tell me, Samantha.” Then he stands up, stretches, says good night, and climbs back down the trellis.

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Chapter Four In the morning light, brushing my teeth, doing my same old morning routine, looking at my same old face in the mirror— blond hair, blue eyes, freckles, nothing special—it’s easy to believe that it was a dream that I sat out in the darkness in my nightgown talking feelings with a stranger—a Garrett, no less. During breakfast, I ask Mom where she met Clay Tucker, which gets me nowhere as she, preoccupied with vacuuming her way out the door, answers only, “At a political event.” Since that’s pretty much all she goes to anymore, it hardly narrows things down. I corner Tracy in the kitchen as she applies waterproof mascara in the mirror over our wet bar, prepping for a day at the beach with Flip, and tell her all about last night. Except the Jase-on-theroof part. “What’s the big deal?” she responds, leaning closer to her reflection. “Mom’s finally found someone who turns her on. If he can help the campaign, so much the better. You know how wiggy she already is about November.” She slides her mascara’ed eyes to mine. “Is this all about you and your fear of intimacy?” I hate it when Tracy pulls that self-help, psychoanalytic gar17

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bage on me. Ever since her rebellious phase resulted in a year of therapy, she feels qualified to hang out her own shingle. “No, it’s about Mom,” I insist. “She wasn’t herself. If you’d been here, you’d have seen.” Tracy throws open her hands, the gesture taking in our completely updated kitchen, connected to our massive living room and the vast foyer. They’re all too big for three people, too grand, and make God knows what kind of statement. Our house is probably three times the size of the Garretts’. And there are ten of them. “Why would I be here?” she asks. “What is there for any of us here?” I want to say “I’m here.” But I see her point. Our house contains all that’s high-end and high-tech and shiny clean. And three people who would rather be somewhere else. Mom likes routines. This means we have certain meals on certain nights—soup and salad on Monday, pasta on Tuesday, steak on Wednesday—you get the idea. She keeps charts of our school activities on the wall, even if she doesn’t actually have time to attend them, and makes sure we don’t have too much unaccounted-for time during the summer. Some of her routines have fallen by the wayside since she got elected. Some have been amped up. Friday dinners at the Stony Bay Bath and Tennis Club remain sacrosanct. The Stony Bay Bath and Tennis Club is the kind of building everyone in town would think was tacky if “everyone” didn’t want to belong to it. It was built fifteen years ago but looks like a Tudor castle. It’s in the hills above town, so there’s a great view of the river and the sound from both the Olympic and the 18

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Lagoon pools. Mom loves the B&T. She’s even on the board of directors. Which means that, thanks to swim team, I was roped into lifeguarding there last summer and am signed up again this year, twice a week starting next Monday. That’s two whole days at the B&T, plus Friday dinners. And so, because today is a Friday, here we all are, Tracy, Flip, and me, walking through the imposing oak doors behind Mom. Despite Tracy and Flip’s eternal quest for the gold in the PDA Olympics, Mom loves Flip. Maybe it’s because his dad runs the biggest business in Stony Bay. For whatever reason, since Flip and Tracy started dating six months ago, he always gets to come along for Friday night hornpipe dinner. Lucky guy. We have our usual table, underneath a gigantic painting of a whaling ship surrounded by enormous whales, stabbed by harpoons but still able to chomp on a few unlucky sailors. “We need to outline our summer plans,” Mom says when the bread basket comes. “Get a handle on it all.” “Moth-er! We’ve been through this. I’m going to the Vineyard. Flip has a sweet job teaching tennis for a bunch of families, and I’ve got a house with my friends, and I’m gonna waitress at the Salt Air Smithy. The rental starts up this week. It’s all planned.” Mom slides her cloth napkin off her plate and unfolds it. “You’ve broached this, Tracy, yes. But I haven’t agreed to it.” “This is my summer to have fun. I’ve earned that,” Tracy says, leaning over her plate for her water glass. “Right, Flip?” Flip has wisely attacked the bread basket, slathering his roll with maple butter, and can’t answer. 19

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“I don’t need to be accountable to colleges anymore. I’m in at Middlebury. I don’t need to prove a thing.” “Working hard and doing well are only about proving something?” Mom arches her eyebrows. “Flip?” Tracy says again. He’s still finding his roll fascinating, adding even more butter as he continues to chew. Mom focuses her attention on me. “So, Samantha. I want to be sure you’re all set for the summer. Your Breakfast Ahoy job is how many mornings a week?” She gives the waiter pouring our ice water her charm-the-public smile. “Three, Mom.” “Then there are the two days of lifeguarding.” A little crease crimps her forehead. “That leaves you three afternoons free. Plus the weekends. Hmm.” I watch her split a Parker House roll and butter it, knowing she won’t eat it. It’s just something she does to concentrate. “Mom! Samantha’s seventeen! God!” Tracy says. “Let her have some free time.” As she’s saying this, a shadow falls on the table and we all look up. It’s Clay Tucker. “Grace”—he kisses one cheek, the other, then pulls out the chair next to Mom, flipping it around to straddle it—“and the rest of your lovely family. I didn’t realize you had a son.” Tracy and Mom hasten to correct this misapprehension as the waiter arrives with the menu. Kind of unnecessary to even offer one, since the B&T has had the same Friday night prix fixe dinner menu since dinosaurs roamed the earth in madras and boat shoes. “I was just saying to Tracy that she should choose something 20

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more goal-oriented for the summer,” Mom says, handing her buttered roll to Clay. “Something more directed than having fun on the Vineyard.” He drapes his arms over the back of the chair and looks at Tracy, head cocked. “I think a nice summer away from home might be just the ticket for your Tracy, Grace—good prep for going away to college. And it gives you more room to focus on the campaign.” Mom scans his face for a moment, then appears to find some invisible signal there. “Well, then.” She concedes, “Maybe I’ve been too hasty, Tracy. If you can give me the names, numbers, and addresses of these girls you’re sharing a house with, and your hours at work.” “Gracie.” Clay Tucker chuckles, voice low and amused. “This is parenthood. Not politics. We don’t need the street addresses.” Mom smiles at him, a flush fanning over her cheekbones. “You’re right. Here I am, getting all het up about the wrong things.” Het up? Since when does my mother use a phrase like that? Before my eyes, she’s turning into Scarlett O’Hara. Is this going to help her win in Connecticut? I slide my phone out of my pocket under the table and text Nan: Mom kidnapped by aliens. Pleez advise. Guess what? Nan types back, ignoring this. I won the Laslo for Literature prize! I get my essay on Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield into the CT State Lit for High School Students Journal!!!!! Daniel got his essay in last year and he says it totally helped him ace MIT!!! Columbia, here I come!

I remember that essay. Nan sweated over it, and I thought 21

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the topic was such a strange choice because I know she hates Catcher in the Rye—“All that swearing. And he’s crazy.” Gr8t! I respond as Mom reaches out for my phone, snapping it shut and tucking it into her purse. “Samantha, Mary Mason called me today about Tim.” She takes a deliberate sip of water and glances at me, eyebrows lifted again. This can’t be good. “About Tim” is always code for “disaster” these days. “She wants me to pull some strings to get him a lifeguard job here. Apparently, the job at Hot Dog Haven didn’t work out.” Right. Because if you have trouble putting ketchup and mustard on a hot dog, you should totally move on to saving lives. “The other lifeguard job is available at the club now that they’re opening the Lagoon pool. What do you think?” Uh, catastrophe? Tim and lifesaving are not exactly a natural combo. I know he can swim well—he was on the team at Hodges before he got expelled—but . . . “What?” she asks impatiently as I worry my lip between my teeth. When I’m lifeguarding, I barely take my eyes off the pool for a second. I imagine Tim sitting in that lifeguard chair and wince. But I’ve been fudging what he’s up to—to his parents, to my mom for years now. . . . “Mom, he’s kind of—distracted these days. I don’t think—” “I know.” Her voice is impatient. “That’s the point, Samantha—why something like this would be good for him. He’d need to focus, get out in the sun and the fresh air. Above all, 22

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it will look good on his college applications. I’m going to sponsor him.” She reaches for her own cell, giving me her end-of-conversation nod. “So,” Clay says, smiling at me, Tracy, and Flip. “You guys mind if your mom and I talk shop?” “Talk away,” Tracy says airily. Clay plunges right in. “I’ve been looking at this guy’s specs, this Ben Christopher you’re running against this time, Grace. And here’s what I’m thinking: You need to be more relatable.” Is that a word?

Mom squints at him as though he’s speaking a foreign language, so maybe not. “Ben Christopher.” Clay outlines: “Grew up in Bridgeport, poor family, prep school on an ABC scholarship, built his own company manufacturing solar panels, getting the green vote there.” He pauses to butter the other half of Mom’s roll and takes a big bite. “He’s got that man-of-the-people thing going on. You, honey, can seem a little stiff. Chilly.” Another bite of roll, more chewing. “I know differently, but . . .” Ew. I glance over at Tracy, expecting her to be as grossed out by this as I am, but she’s preoccupied by Flip, intertwining their hands. “What do I do, then?” A furrow forms between Mom’s eyebrows. I’ve never heard her ask anyone for advice. She doesn’t even find it easy to ask for directions when we’re completely lost. “Relax.” Clay puts his hand on her forearm, squeezes it. “We just show what’s there. The softer side of Grace.” Sounds like a laundry detergent ad.

He shoves his hand into his pocket and extracts something, 23

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holding it up for us to see. One of Mom’s old campaign flyers. “See, here’s what I’m talkin’ about. Your campaign slogan last time. Grace Reed:Working for the Common Weal. That’s just awful, darlin’.” Mom says defensively, “I did win, Clay.” I’m a little impressed that he’s being so blunt with her. Tracy and I came in for our fair share of teasing at school about that campaign slogan. “You did”—he gives her a swift grin—“which is a tribute to your charm and skill. But ‘weal’? Gimme a break. Am I right, girls? Flip?” Flip grunts around his third bread roll, casting a longing glance toward the door. I don’t blame him for wanting to escape. “The last person who used that in a political campaign was John Adams. Or maybe Alexander Hamilton. Like I say, you need to be more relatable, be who people are looking for. More families, young families, are moving into our state all the time. That’s your hidden treasure. You’re not going to get the common-man vote. Ben Christopher’s got that locked. So here’s my idea: Grace Reed works hard for your family because family is her focus. What do you think?” At this point the waiter arrives with our appetizers. He doesn’t miss a beat about Clay being at the table, making me wonder if this was planned all along. “My, this looks mighty good,” Clay Tucker says as the waiter tucks a big bowl of chowder in front of him. “Now, some would say we Southerners wouldn’t know how to appreciate this kind of thing. But I like to appreciate what’s in front of me. And this”—he tips his spoon at my mother, flashing a grin at the rest of us—“is delicious.” I get the feeling I’ll be seeing a lot of Clay Tucker. 24

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#YaSummerLove Sampler  

Everyone deserves the love romance their heart desires. Read samples of SAINT ANYTHING, THE MOON AND MORE, LIKE NO OTHER, LANDRY PARK AND JU...

#YaSummerLove Sampler  

Everyone deserves the love romance their heart desires. Read samples of SAINT ANYTHING, THE MOON AND MORE, LIKE NO OTHER, LANDRY PARK AND JU...