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THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO by Hu n t l ey Fi t z p a t r i c k

DIAL BOOKS an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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Chapter One I’ve been summoned to see the Nowhere Man. He’s at his desk when I step inside the gray cave of his office, his back turned. “Uh, Pop?” He holds up his hand, keeps scribbling on a blue-lined pad. Standard operating procedure. I flick my eyes around the room: the mantel, the carpet, the bookshelves, the window; try to find a comfortable place to land. No dice. Ma’s fond of “cute”—teddy bears in seasonal outfits and pillows with little sayings and shit she gets on QVC. They’re everywhere. Except here, a room spliced out of John Grisham, all leather-bound, only muted light through the shades. August heat outdoors, but no hint of that allowed here. I face the rear of Pop’s neck, hunch further into the gray, granite-hard sofa, rub my eyes, sink back on my elbows. On his desk, three pictures of Nan, my twin, at various ages—poofy red curls, missing teeth, then baring them in braces. Always worried eyes. Two more of her on the wall, straightened hair, expensive white smile, plus a framed news-

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paper clipping of her after delivering a speech at this summer’s Stony Bay Fourth of July thing. No pics of me. Were there ever? Can’t remember. In the bad old days, I always got high before a father/son office visit. Clear my throat. Crack my knuckles. “Pop? You asked to see me?” He actually startles. “Tim?” “Yep.” Swiveling the chair, he looks at me. His eyes, like Nan’s and my own, are gray. Match his hair. Match his office. “So,” he says. I wait. Try not to scope out the bottle of Macallan on the . . . what do you call it. Sidebar? Sideboard? Generally, Ma brings in the ice in the little silver bucket thing ten minutes after he gets home from work, six p.m., synched up like those weird-ass cuckoo clock people who pop out of their tiny wooden doors, dead on schedule when the clock strikes, so Pop can have the first of his two scotches ready to go. Today must be special. It’s only three o’clock and there’s the bucket, oozing cool sweat like I am. Even when I was little I knew he’d leave the second drink half-finished. So I could slurp down the last of the scotchy ice water without him knowing while he was washing his hands before dinner. Can’t remember when I started doing that, but it was well before my balls dropped. “Ma said you wanted to talk.” He brushes some invisible whatever from his knee, like his attention’s already gone. “Did she say why?” 2

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I clear my throat again. “Because I’m moving out? Planning to do that. Today.” Ten minutes ago, ideally. His eyes return to mine. “Do you think this is the best choice for you?” Classic Nowhere Man. Moving out was hardly my choice. His ultimatum, in fact. The only “best choice” I’ve made lately was to stop drinking. Etc. But Pop likes to tack and turn, and no matter that this was his order, he can shove that rudder over without even looking and make me feel like shit. “I asked you a question, Tim.” “It’s fine. It’s a good idea.” Pop steeples his fingers, sets his chin on them, my chin, cleft and all. “How long has it been since you got kicked out of Ellery Prep?” “Uh. Eight months.” Early December. Hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase from Thanksgiving break. “Since then you’ve had how many jobs?” Maybe he doesn’t remember. I fudge it. “Um. Three.” “Seven,” Pop corrects. Damn. “How many of those were you fired from?” “I still have the one at—” He pivots in his chair, halfway back to his desk, frowns down at his cell phone. “How many?” “Well, I quit the senator’s office, so really only five.” Pop twists back around, lowers the phone, studies me over his reading glasses. “I’m very clear on the fact that you left that job. You say ‘only’ like it’s something to brag about. Fired 3

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from five out of seven jobs since February. Kicked out of three schools . . . Do you know that I’ve never been let go from a job in my life? Never gotten a bad performance review? A grade lower than a B? Neither has your sister.” Right. Perfect old Nano. “My grades were always good,” I say. My eyes stray again to the Macallan. Need something to do with my hands. Rolling a joint would be good. “Exactly,” Pop says. He jerks from the chair, nearly as angular and almost as tall as me, drops his glasses on the desk with a clatter, runs his hands quickly through his short hair, then focuses on scooping out ice and measuring scotch. I catch a musky, iodine-y whiff of it, and man, it smells good. “You’re not stupid, Tim. But you sure act that way.” Yo-kay . . . He’s barely spoken to me all summer. Now he’s on my nuts? But I should try. I drag my eyes off the caramelcolored liquid in his glass and back to his face. “Pop. Dad. I know I’m not the son you would have . . . special ordered—” “Would you like a drink?” He sloshes more scotch into another glass, uncharacteristically careless, sets it out on the Columbia University coaster on the side table next to the couch, slides it toward me. He tips his own glass to his lips, then places it neatly on his coaster, almost completely chugged. Well, this is fucked up. “Uh, look.” My throat’s so tight, my voice comes out weird—husky, then high-pitched. “I haven’t had a drink or anything like that since the end of June, so that’s, uh, fifty-nine 4

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days, but who’s counting. I’m doing my best. And I’ll—” Pop has steepled his hands and is scrutinizing the fish tank against the wall. I’m boring him. “And I’ll keep doin’ it . . .” I trail off. There’s a long pause. During which I have no idea what he’s thinking. Only that my best friend is on his way over, and my Jetta in the driveway is seeming more and more like a getaway car. “Four months,” Pop says, in this, like, flat voice, like he’s reading it off a piece of paper. Since he’s turned back to look down at his desk, it’s possible. “Um . . . yes . . . What?” “I’m giving you four months from today to pull your life together. You’ll be eighteen in December. A man. After that, unless I see you acting like one—in every way—I’m cutting off your allowance, I’ll no longer pay your health and car insurance, and I’ll transfer your college fund into your sister’s.” Not as though there was ever a welcome mat under me, but whatever the fuck was there has been yanked out and I’m slammed down hard on my ass. Wait . . . what? A man by December. Like, poof, snap, shazam. Like there’s some expiration date on . . . where I am now. “But—” I start. He checks his Seiko, hitting a button, maybe starting the countdown. “Today is August twenty-fourth. That gives you until just before Christmas.” “But—” 5

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He holds up his hand, like he’s slapping the off button on my words. It’s ultimatum number two or nothing. No clue what to say anyway, but it doesn’t matter, because the conversation is over. We’re done here. Unfold my legs, yank myself to my feet, and I head for the door on autopilot. Can’t get out of the room fast enough. For either of us, apparently. Ho, ho, ho to you too, Pop.

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Chapter Two “You’re really doing this?” I’m shoving the last of my clothes into a cardboard box when my ma comes in, without knocking, because she never does. Risky as hell when you have a horny seventeen-year-old son. She hovers in the doorway, wearing a pink shirt and this denim skirt with—what are those? Crabs?—sewn all over it. “Just following orders, Ma.” I cram flip-flops into the stuffed box, push down on them hard. “Pop’s wish is my command.” She takes a step back like I’ve slapped her. I guess it’s my tone. I’ve been sober nearly two months, but I have yet to go cold turkey on assholicism. Ha. “You had so much I never had, Timothy . . .” Away we go. “. . . private school, swimming lessons, tennis camp . . .” Yep, I’m an alcoholic high school dropout, but check out my backhand! She shakes out the wrinkles in a blue blazer, one quick motion, flapping it into the air with an abrasive crack. “What are you going to do—keep working at that hardware store? Going to those meetings?” She says “hardware store” like “strip club” and “going to

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those meetings” like “making those sex tapes.” “It’s a good job. And I need those meetings.” Ma’s hands start smoothing my stack of folded clothes. Blue veins stand out on her freckled, pale arms. “I don’t see what strangers can do for you that your own family can’t.” I open my mouth to say: “I know you don’t. That’s why I need the strangers.” Or: “Uncle Sean sure could have used those strangers.” But we don’t talk about that, or him. I shove a pair of possibly too-small loafers in the box and go over to give her a hug. She pats my back, quick and sharp, and pulls away. “Cheer up, Ma. Nan’ll definitely get into Columbia. Only one of your children is a fuck-up.” “Language, Tim.” “Sorry. My bad. Cock-up.” “That,” she says, “is even worse.” Okeydokey. Whatever. My bedroom door flies open—again no knock. “Some girl who sounds like she has laryngitis is on the phone for you, Tim,” Nan says, eyeing my packing job. “God, everything’s going to be all wrinkly.” “I don’t care—” But she’s already dumped the cardboard box onto my bed. “Where’s your suitcase?” She starts dividing stuff into piles. “The blue plaid one with your monogram?” “No clue.” “I’ll check the basement,” Ma says, looking relieved to have a reason to head for the door. “This girl, Timothy? Should I bring you the phone?” 8

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I can’t think of any girl I have a thing to say to. Except Alice Garrett. Who definitely would not be calling me. “Tell her I’m not home.” Permanently. Nan’s folding things rapidly, piling up my shirts in order of style. I reach out to still her hands. “Forget it. Not important.” She looks up. Shit, she’s crying. We Masons cry easily. Curse of the Irish (one of ’em). I loop one elbow around her neck, thump her on the back a little too hard. She starts coughing, chokes, gives a weak laugh. “You can come visit me, Nano. Any time you need to . . . escape . . . or whatever.” “Please. It won’t be the same,” Nan says, then blows her nose on the hem of my shirt. It won’t. No more staying up till nearly dawn, watching old Steve McQueen movies because I think he’s badass and Nan thinks he’s hot. No Twizzlers and Twix and shit appearing in my room like magic because Nan knows massive sugar infusions are the only sure cure for drug addiction. “Lucky for you. No more covering my lame ass when I stay out all night, no more getting creative with excuses when I don’t show for something, no more me bumming money off you constantly.” Now she’s wiping her eyes with my shirt. I haul it off, hand it to her. “Something to remember me by.” She actually folds that, then stares at the neat little square, all sad-faced. “Sometimes it’s like I’m missing everyone I ever met. I actually even miss Daniel. I miss Samantha.” “Daniel was a pompous prickface and a crap boyfriend. 9

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Samantha, your actual best friend, is ten blocks and ten minutes away—shorter if you text her.” She blows that off, hunkers down, pulling knobbly knees to her chest and lowering her forehead so her hair sweeps forward to cover her blotchy face. Nan and I are both ginger, but she got all the freckles, everywhere, while mine are only across my nose. She looks up at me with that face she does, all pathetic and quivery. I hate that face. It always wins. “You’ll be fine, Nan.” I tap my temple. “You’re just as smart as me. Much less messed up. At least as far as most people know.” Nan twitches back. We lock eyes. The elephant in the room lies bleeding out on the floor between us. Then she looks away, gets busy picking up another T-shirt to fold expertly, like the only thing that matters in the world is for the sleeves to align. “Not really,” she says in a subdued voice. Not taking the bait there either, I guess. I grope around the quilt on my bed, locate my cigs, light one, and take a deep drag. I know it’s all kinds of bad for me, but God, how does anyone get through the day without smoking? Setting the smoldering butt down in the ashtray, I tap her on the back again, gently this time. “Hey now. Don’t stress. You know Pop. He wants to add it up and get a positive bottom line. Job. High school diploma. College-bound. Check, check, check. It only has to look good. I can pull that off.” Don’t know if this is cheering my sister up, but as I talk, the squirming fireball in my stomach cools and settles. Fake it. That I can do. 10

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Mom pops her head into the room. “That Garrett boy’s here. Heavens, put on a shirt, Tim.” She digs in a bureau drawer and thrusts a Camp Wyoda T-shirt I thought I’d ditched years ago at me. Nan leaps up, knuckling away her tears, pulling at her own shirt, wiping her palms on her shorts. She has a zillion twitchy habits—biting her nails, twisting her hair, tapping her pencils. I could always get by on a fake ID, a calm face, and a smile. My sister could look guilty saying her prayers. Feet on the stairs, staccato knock on the door—the one person who knocks!—and Jase comes in, swipes back his damp hair with the heel of one hand. “Shit, man. We haven’t even started loading and you’re already sweating?” “Ran here,” he says, hands planted hard his on kneecaps. He glances up. “Hey, Nan.” Nan, who has turned her back, gives a quick, jerky nod. When she twists around to tumble more neatly balled socks into my cardboard box, her eyes stray to Jase, up, slowly down. He’s the guy girls always look at twice. “You ran here? It’s like five miles from your house! Are you nuts?” “Three, and nah.” Jase braces his forearm against the wall, bending his leg, holding his ankle, stretching out. “Seriously out of shape after sitting around the store all summer. Even after three weeks of training camp, I’m nowhere near up to speed.” “You don’t seem out of shape,” Nan says, then shakes her head so her hair slips forward over her face. “Don’t leave without telling me, Tim.” She scoots out the door. 11

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“You set?” Jase looks around the room, oblivious to my sister’s hormone spike. “Uh . . . I guess.” I look around too, frickin’ blank. All I can think to take is my clamshell ashtray. “The clothes, anyway. I suck at packing.” “Toothbrush?” Jase suggests mildly. “Razor. Books, maybe? Sports stuff.” “My lacrosse stick from Ellery Prep? Don’t think I’ll need it.” I tap out another cigarette. “Bike? Skateboard? Swim gear?” Jase glances over at me, smile flashing in the flare of my lighter. Mom barges back in so fast, the door knocks against the wall. An umbrella and a huge yellow slicker are draped over one arm, an iron in one hand. “You’ll want these. Should I pack you blankets? What happened to that nice boy you were going to move in with, anyway?” “Didn’t work out.” As in: That nice boy, my AA buddy Connell, relapsed on both booze and crack, called me all slurry and screwed up, full of blurry suck-ass excuses, so he’s obviously out. The garage apartment is my best option. “Is there even any heat in that ratty place?” “Jesus God, Ma. You haven’t even seen the frickin’—” “It’s pretty reliable,” Jase says, not even wincing. “It was my brother’s, and Joel likes his comforts.” “All right. I’ll . . . leave you two boys to—carry on.” She pauses, runs her hand through her hair, showing half an inch of gray roots beneath the red. “Don’t forget to take the stenciled paper Aunt Nancy sent in case you need to write thankyou notes.” 12

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“Wouldn’t dream of it, Ma. Uh, forgetting, I mean.” Jase bows his head, smiling, then shoulders the cardboard box. “What about pillows?” she says. “You can tuck those right under the other arm, can’t you, a big strapping boy like you?” Christ. He obediently raises an elbow and she rams two pillows into his armpit. “I’ll throw all this in the Jetta. Take your time, Tim.” I scan the room one last time. Tacked to the corkboard over my desk is a sheet of paper with the words THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO scrawled in red marker at the top. One of the few days last fall I remember clearly—hanging with a bunch of my (loser) friends at Ellery out by the boathouse where they stowed the kayaks (and the stoners). We came up with our antidote to those stupid yearbook lists: Most likely to be a millionaire by twenty-five. Most likely to star in her own reality show. Most likely to get an NFL contract. Don’t know why I kept the thing.

I pop the list off the wall, fold it carefully, jam it into my back pocket. Nan emerges as soon as Jase, who’s been waiting for me in the foyer, opens the creaky front door to head out. “Tim,” she whispers, cool hand wrapping around my forearm. “Don’t vanish.” As if when I leave our house I’ll evaporate like fog rising off the river. Maybe I will. By the time we pull into the Garretts’ driveway, I’ve burned through three cigarettes, hitting up the car lighter for the next 13

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before I’ve chucked the last. If I could have smoked all of them at once, I would’ve. “You should kick those,” Jase says, looking out the window, not pinning me with some accusatory face. I make to hurl the final butt, then stop myself. Yeah, toss it next to little Patsy’s Cozy Coupe and four-yearold George’s midget baby blue bike with training wheels. Plus, George thinks I’ve quit. “Can’t,” I tell him. “Tried. Besides, I’ve already given up drinking, drugs, and sex. Gotta have a few vices or I’d be too perfect.” Jase snorts. “Sex? Don’t think you have to give that up.” He opens the passenger-side door, starts to slide out. “The way I did it, I do. Gotta stop messing with any chick with a pulse.” Now Jase looks uncomfortable. “That was an addiction too?” he asks, half in, half out the door, nudging the pile of old newspapers on the passenger side with the toe of one Converse. “Not in the sense that I, like, had to have it, or whatever. It was just . . another way to blow stuff off. Numb out.” He nods like he gets it, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. Gotta explain. “I’d get wasted at parties. Hook up with girls I didn’t like or even know. It was never all that great.” “Guess not”—he slides out completely—“if you’re with someone you don’t even like or know. Might be different if you were sober and actually cared.” “Yeah, well.” I light up one last cigarette. “Don’t hold your breath.” 14

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Chapter Three “There is,” I say through my teeth, “an owl in the freezer. Can any of you guys explain this to me?” Three of my younger brothers stare back at me. Blank walls. My younger sister doesn’t look up from texting. I repeat the question. “Harry put it there,” Duff says. “Duff told me to,” Harry says. George, my youngest brother, cranes his neck. “What kind of owl? Is it dead? Is it white like Hedwig?” I poke at the rock-solid owl, which is wrapped in a frosty freezer bag. “Very dead. Not white. And someone ate all the frozen waffles and put the box back in empty again.” They all shrug, as if this is as much of an unsolvable mystery as the owl. “Let’s try again. Why is this owl in the freezer?” “Harry’s going to bring it in for show-and-tell when school starts,” Duff says. “Sanjay Sapati brought in a seal skull last year. This is way better. You can still see its eyeballs. They’re only a little rotted.” Harry stirs his oatmeal, frowning down at what I’ve tried to pass off as a fun “breakfast for lunch” occasion. He upturns

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the spoon, shakes it, but the glob of cereal sticks, thick as paste, stubborn as my brother. Harry holds the spoon out toward me, accusingly. “You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” I say to him. “But I do. I do get upset. This is nasty, Alice.” “Just eat it,” I say, clinging to patience with all my fingernails. This is all temporary. Just until Dad gets a bit better, until Mom doesn’t have to be in three places at once. “It’s healthy,” I add, but I have to agree with my seven-year-old brother. We’re way overdue for a grocery run. The fridge has nothing but eggs, applesauce, and ketchup, the cabinet is bare of anything but Joel’s protein-enhanced oatmeal. And the only thing in the freezer is . . . a dead bird. “We can’t have an owl in here, guys.” I scramble for Mom’s reasonable tone. “It’ll make the ice cream taste bad.” “Can we have ice cream instead of this?” Harry pushes, sticking his spoon into the oatmeal, where it pokes out like a gravestone on a gray hill. I try to sell it as “the kind of porridge the Three Bears ate,” but George and Harry are skeptical, Duff, at eleven, is too old for all that, and Andy wrinkles her nose and says, “I’ll eat later. I’m too nervous now anyway.” “It’s lame to be nervous about Kyle Comstock,” Duff says. “He’s a boob.” “Boooooob,” Patsy repeats from her high chair, the eighteenmonth-old copycat. “You don’t understand anything,” Andy says, leaving the kitchen, no doubt to try on yet another outfit before sailing camp awards. Six hours away from now. 16

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“Who cares what she wears? It’s the stupid sailing awards,” Duff grumbles. “This stuff is vomitous, Alice. It’s like gruel. Like what they make Oliver Twist eat.” “He wanted more,” I point out. “He was starving,” Duff counters. “Look, stop arguing and eat the damn stuff.” George’s eyes go big. “Mommy doesn’t say that word. Daddy says not to.” “Well, they aren’t here, are they?” George looks mournfully down at his oatmeal, poking at it with his spoon like he might find Mom and Dad in there. “Sorry, Georgie,” I say repentantly. “How about some eggs, guys?” “No!” they all say at once. They’ve had my eggs before. Since Mom has been spending a lot of time at either doctors’ appointments for herself or doctor and physical therapy consults for Dad, they’ve suffered through the full range of my limited culinary talents. “I’ll get rid of the owl if you give us money to eat breakfast in town,” Duff says. “Alice, look!” Andy says despairingly, “I knew this wouldn’t fit.” She hovers in the doorway in the sundress I loaned her, the front sagging. “When do I get off the itty-bitty-titty committee? You did before you were even thirteen.” She sounds accusatory, like I used up the last available bigger chest size in the family. “Titty committee?” Duff starts laughing. “Who’s on that? I bet Joel is. And Tim.” “You are so immature that listening to you actually makes me younger,” Andy tells him. “Alice, help! I love this dress. You 17

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never lend it to me. I’m going to die if I can’t wear it.” She looks wildly around the kitchen. “Do I stuff it? With what?” “Breadcrumbs?” Duff is still cracking up. “Oatmeal? Owl feathers?” I point the oatmeal spoon at her. “Never stuff. Own your size.” “I want to wear this dress.” Andy scowls at me. “It’s perfect. Except it doesn’t fit. There. Do you have anything else? That’s flatter?” “Did you ask Samantha?” I glare at Duff, who is shoving several kitchen sponges down his shirt. Harry, who doesn’t get what’s going on—I hope—but is happy to join in on tormenting Andy, is wadding up some diapers from Patsy’s clean stack and following suit. My brother’s girlfriend has much more patience than I do. Maybe because Samantha only has one sibling to deal with. “She’s helping her mom take her sister to college—she probably won’t be back till tonight. Alice! What do I do?” My jaw clenches at the mere mention of Grace Reed, Sam’s mom, the closest thing our family has to a nemesis. Or maybe it’s the owl. God. Get me out of here. “I’m hungry,” Harry says. “I’m starving here. I’ll be dead by night.” “It takes three weeks to starve,” George tells him, his air of authority undermined by his hot cocoa mustache. “Ughhh. No one cares!” Andy storms away. “She’s got the hormones going on,” Duff confides to Harry. Ever since hearing it from my mother, my little brothers treat “hormones” like a contagious disease. My cell phone vibrates on the cluttered counter. Brad again. I ignore it, start banging open cabinets. “Look, guys, we’re out of everything, got it? We can’t go shopping until we get this week’s 18

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take-home from the store, and no one has time to go anyway. I’m not giving you money. So it’s oatmeal or empty stomachs. Unless you want peanut butter on toast.” “Not again,” Duff groans, shoving away from the table and stalking out of the kitchen. “Gross,” Harry says, doing the same, after accidentally knocking over his orange juice—and ignoring it. How does Mom stand this? I pinch the muscles at the base of my neck, hard, close my eyes. Push away the most treacherous thought of all: Why does Mom stand this? George is still doggedly trying to eat a spoonful of oatmeal, one rolled oat at a time. “Don’t bother, G. You still like peanut butter, right?” Breathing out a long sigh, world-weary at four, George rests his freckled cheek against his hand, watching me with a focus that reminds me of Jase. “You can make diamonds out of peanut butter. I readed about it.” “Read,” I say automatically, replenishing the raisins I’d sprinkled on the tray of Patsy’s high chair. “Yucks a dis,” she says, picking each raisin up with a delicate pincer grip and dropping it off the side of the high chair. “Do you think we could make diamonds out of this peanut butter?” George asks hopefully as I open the jar of Jif. “I wish, Georgie,” I say, looking at the empty cabinet over the window, and then noticing a dark blue Jetta pull into our driveway, the door kick open, a tall figure climb out, the sun hitting his rusty hair, lighting it like a match. Fabulous. Exactly what we need for the flammable family mix. Tim Mason. The human equivalent of C-4. 19

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•˚•˚

We walk up the creaky garage stairs and Jase hauls a key out of his pocket, unlocks the door, flips on the lights. I brush past him and drop my cardboard box on the ground. Joel’s old apartment is low-ceilinged and decorated with milk crate bookcases, ugly couch, mini-fridge, microwave, denim beanbag chair with Sox logo, walls covered in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and all that—tits everywhere—and a gigantic iron weight rack with a shit-ton of weights. “This is where Joel took all those au pairs? I thought he had better game than this massive cliché.” Jase grimaces. “Welcome to Bootytown. Supposedly the nannies never minded because they expected it of American boys. Want me to help yank ’em down?” “Nah, I can always count body parts if I have trouble sleeping.” After a brief scope-out of the apartment, during which he makes a face and empties a few trash cans, he asks, “This gonna work for you?” “Absolutely.” I reach into my pocket, pull out the lined paper list I snatched off my bulletin board, and slap it on the refrigerator, adios-ing a babe in hot pink spandex. Jase scans my sign, shakes his head. “Mase . . . you know you can come on over anytime.” “I’ve been to boarding school, Garrett. Not like I’m afraid of the dark.” “Don’t be a dick,” he says mildly. He points in the direction of the bathroom. “The plumbing backs up sometimes. If the plunger doesn’t work, text, I can fix it. I repeat, you’re always 20

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welcome to head to our house. Or join me on the pre-dawn job. I gotta pick up Samantha now. She ended up not going to Vermont. Ride along?” “With the perfect high school sweethearts? Nah. I think I’ll stay and see if I can break the plunger. Then I’ll text you.” He flips me off, grins, and leaves. Time to get my ass to a meeting. Better that than alone with a ton of airbrushed boobs and my unfiltered thoughts.

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Chapter Four When I walk up the Garretts’ overgrown lawn after the meeting—which only partially took the edge off—the first thing I see is Jase’s older sister, Alice, tanning in the front yard. In a bikini. Shockwave scarlet. Straps untied. Olive skin. Toenails painted the color of fireballs. Can I say there are few things on earth that cheer me up more than Alice Garrett in a bikini? Except Alice without a bikini. Which I’ve never seen, but I’ve a hell of an imagination. She’s almost asleep, in a tiny blue-and-green lawn chair, her head and her long, always-morphing hair (brown with blond streaks right now) flopping heavily to one side, curling shorter in the late-summer heat. Because I’m unscrupulous, I flop down on the grass next to her and take a good long look. Oh, Alice. After a few seconds, she opens her eyes, squints, flips her hand to her forehead to block the sun, stares at me.

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“Now,” I tell her, “would be an excellent time to avoid unsightly tan lines. I stand ready to assist.” “Now,” she says, with that killer smile, “would be an even better time to avoid lame come-ons.” “Aw, Alice, I swear I’ll be there to soothe your regret for wasting time once you realize I’ve been right for you all along.” “Tim, I’d chew you up and spit you out.” She slants forward, yanks the straps of her bikini behind her neck, ties them, and settles back. God. I almost can’t breathe. But I can talk. I can always talk. “We could progress to that, Alice. But maybe we start with some gentle nibbling?” Alice shuts her eyes, opens them again, and gives me an indecipherable look. “Why don’t I scare you?” she asks. “You do. You’re scary as hell,” I assure her. “But that works for me. Completely.” She’s about to say something, but the family van pulls in just then, even more battered than usual. The right front fender has flaking paint. They’ve tried to put some rust primer around the sliding back door. The side looks like it’s been keyed. Both hubcap covers on this side are missing. Alice starts to get up, but I rest my hand on a smooth, brown shoulder, press her down. “On it.” She squints up at me, head cocked to the side, rubs her bottom lip with her finger. Then settles back in the chair. “Thanks.”

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Mrs. Garrett, wearing a bright blue beach cover-up type thing and a wigged-out face, climbs out of the van. “Everything okay?” I ask, sort of a joke since there’s nothing but ear-melting screeching when I slide open the side door. Patsy, George, and Harry are all red-faced and sweaty. Patsy’s mouth is open in a huge O and she’s a sobbing mess. George also looks teary-eyed. Harry’s more like pissed off. “I’m not a baby,” he announces to me. “Clear on that, man.” Though he’s wearing bathing trunks with little red fire hats on them. “She”—he jabs a sandy finger at his mom—“made us leave the beach.” “Patsy’s naptime, Harry. You know this. You can swim in the big pool for a while. Maybe we can get a cone at Castle’s after the sailing awards.” “Pools aren’t cool,” Harry moans. “We left before the icecream truck, Mommy. They have Spider-Man Bomb Pops.” He stalks up the steps, his angry scrawny back all hunched over his skinny, little-dude legs. The screen door slams behind him. “Whoa,” I say. “Child abuse.” Mrs. Garrett laughs. “I’m the meanest mom in the world. I have it on good authority.” Then she glances at George and leans into me, smelling like coconut sunscreen. At first I think she’s sniff-checking my breath, because that’s why adults ever get this close. Instead she whispers, “Don’t mention asteroids.” Not my go-to conversation starter, so all good there. But George is clutching a copy of Newsweek, his shoulders heaving. Patsy’s still shrieking. Mrs. Garrett looks back and forth between them, like, who to triage first. 24

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“I’ll take Screaming Mimi here,” I offer. Mrs. Garrett shoots me a grateful smile and flicks open Patsy’s car seat. Good thing, since I know dick about car seats. As soon as she’s freed, Patsy looks up at me and her sobs dry up, like that. She still does that hic-hic-hic thing, but reaches out both hands for me. “Hon,” she says. Hic-hic-hic. I don’t get why, but this kid loves me crazy much. I pick her up and her sweaty little hands settle on my cheeks, patting them gently, never mind the stubble. “Oh Hon,” she says, all loving and shit, giving me her cute/ scary grin with her pointy incisors, like a baby vampire. Mrs. Garrett smiles, swinging George out of the car onto her hip. He snuggles his head into her neck, magazine still rumpled in his clammy fingers. “You’ll make a good dad, Tim. Someday in the far distant future.” To cover a sudden embarrassing rush of . . . whatever . . . from the consoling weight of her hand on my back, I answer, “You better believe it. No the hell way am I adding knocking up some girl to my list of crimes and misdemeanors.” The minute it’s out of my mouth I get that I’m an ass. Mrs. Garrett still looks pretty frickin’ young and her oldest kid is twenty-two. Could be she got knocked up and had to get married. Also, probably? Knocking up? Not a phrase you should use with parents. “Always good to have a plan,” she answers, unfazed. She carries George into the house, leaving me with Patsy, 25

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who tips her teary, soft cheek against my own, nuzzling. Alice still has her eyes closed and is evidently removing herself from this scene every way but physically. “Hon,” Patsy says again, slanting back to plant a sloppy kiss on my shoulder, checking me out from under her dew-droppy eyelashes. “Boob?” “Sorry, kid, can’t help you there.” I avoid looking at Alice, who has again untied the top strings of her bikini. She yawns, stretches. The top edges down a little lower. No tan lines. I close my eyes for a second. Pats grabs my ear, as if that’s a cool substitute for a boob. Could be. What do I know about babies? Or toddlers, or whatever you are when you’re one and a half. Could be it’s all about holding on to something and doesn’t matter much what you grab. I, of all people, get that.

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GWEN CASTLE’S BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER , Cassidy Somers,

MUCH LOVE FOR MY LIFE NEXT DOOR: YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2013 List Best First Book Finalist for the RITA Awards “One of the best books I read this past year.” —Kristan Higgins, New York Times bestselling author “On par with authors such as Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti.” —SLJ H “Movingly captures the intensity of first love [and] the corrupting

forces of power.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

W H AT I T H O U G H T WA S T R U E

is slumming it as a yard boy on her Nantucket-esque island this summer. He’s a rich kid from across the bridge in Stony Bay, and she hails from a family of fishermen and housecleaners who keep the island’s summer people happy. Gwen worries a life of cleaning houses will be her fate too, but just when it looks like she’ll never escape her past—or the island—Gwen’s dad gives her some shocking advice. Sparks fly and secret histories unspool as Gwen spends a gorgeous, restless summer struggling to resolve what she thought was true—about the place she lives, the people she loves, and even herself—with what really is.

FROM THE AUTHOR OF MY LIFE NEXT DOOR

Fit z p a t ric k

From the author of MY LIFE NEXT DOOR comes a push-me-pull-me summer romance, full of expectation and regret, humor and hard questions.

APRIL 2014

NATIONAL MARKETING PLAN • Extensive ARC distribution and blogger outreach • Major online consumer advertising campaign • Online promotion and social media outreach • Promotion at all national school and library conferences

Cover photo © 2014 plainpicture/Image Source • Cover design by Vanessa Han

DIAL

H u n t l e y Fi t z p a t r i c k

WHAT I THOUGHT WAS TRUE


< For you, John, for more than twenty years of your love, faith, and friendship. For all the moments when I despaired of Cass or Gwen or Nic, and you said softly, â&#x20AC;&#x153;I like them.â&#x20AC;? For all those distracted hours of mine when you picked up the slack. Picking up groceries, taking kids to ballet . . . those things never show up in romantic novels. But they should. For you, K, A, R, J, D, and C, the Fitzpatrick six . . . who love books and beaches and summer. What I know is true? You are the best things that have ever happened to me.

=

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Chapter One Nothing like a carful of boys to completely change my mood. There’s a muffled expletive from inside Castle’s Ice Cream, so I know Dad’s spotted them too. A gang of high school boys tops his list of Least Favorite Customers—they eat a ton, they want it now, and they never tip. Or so he claims. At first, I barely pay attention. I’m carrying a tray of wobbly root beer floats, foil-wrapped burgers, and a greasy Everest’s worth of fried scallops toward table four out front. In a few weeks, I’ll be in the rhythm of work. Balancing all this and more will be no big deal. But school got out three days ago, Castle’s reopened full-time last week, the sun is dazzling, the early summer air is sticky with salt, and I have only a few more minutes left in my shift. My mind is already at the beach. So I don’t look up to see who just drove in until I hear a couple of whistles. And my name. I glance back. A convertible is parked, slanted, taking up two spaces. Sure enough, Spence Channing, who was driving, shakes his hair from his eyes and grins at me. Trevor Sharpe and Jimmy Pieretti are piling out, laughing. I whip off my Castle’s

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hat, with its spiky gold crown, and push it into the pocket of my apron. “Got a special for us, Gwen?” Spence calls. “Take a number,” I call back. There’s a predictable chorus of ooo’s from some of the boys. I set the tray down at table four, add soda cans and napkins from my front pockets, give them a speedy, practiced smile, then pause by the table where my brother is waiting for me, dreamily dragging French fries through ketchup. But then I hear, “Hey, Cass, look who’s here! Ready to serve.” And the last boy in the car, who had been concealed behind Jimmy’s wide torso, climbs out. His eyes snag on mine. The seconds unwind, thin, taut, transparent as a fishing line cast far, far, far out. I jolt up, grab my brother’s hand. “Let’s get home, Em.” Emory pulls away. “Not done,” he says firmly. “Not done.” I can see his leg muscles tighten into his “I am a rock, I am an island” stance. His hands flick back and forth, wiping my urgency away. This is my cue to take a breath, step back. Hurrying Em, pushing him, tends to end in disaster. Instead, I’m grabbing his ketchup-wilted paper plate, untying my apron, calling to Dad, “Gotta get home, can we do this take-out?” “Not done,” Emory repeats, yanking his hand from mine. “Gwennie, no.” “Gettin’ slammed,” Dad calls out the service window, over the sizzle of the grill. “Wrap it yourself, pal.” He tosses a few pieces of foil through the window, adding several packets of ketchup, Emory’s favorite. 2

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“Still eating.” Emory sits firmly back down at the picnic table. “We’ll watch a movie,” I tell him, wrapping his food. “Ice cream.” Dad glances sharply out the take-out window. He may be brusque with Em from time to time, but he doesn’t like it when I am. “Ice cream here.” My brother points at the large painting of a double-decker cone adorning one of the fake turrets. Yes, Castle’s is built to look like a castle. I pull him to the truck anyway and don’t look back, not even when I hear a voice call, “Hey, Gwen. Have a sec?” I turn the key in Mom’s battered Bronco, pressing hard on the gas. The engine revs deafeningly. But not loud enough to drown out another voice, laughing, “She has lots of secs! As we know.” Dad, thank God, has ducked away from the service window and is bent over the grill. Maybe he didn’t hear any of that. I gun the car again; jerk forward, only to find the wheels spinning, caught in the deeper sand of the parking lot. At last the truck lurches, kicks into a fast reverse. I squeal out onto the blazing blacktop of Ocean Lane, grateful the road is empty. Two miles down, I pull over to the side, fold my arms to the top of the steering wheel, rest my forehead on them, take deep breaths. Emory ducks his head to peep at me, brown eyes searching, then resignedly opens the foil and continues eating his limp, ketchup-soggy fries. In another year, I’ll graduate. I can go someplace else. I can 3

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leave those boys—this whole past year—far behind in the rearview mirror. I pull in another deep breath. We’re close to the water now, and the breeze spills over me soft and briny, secure and familiar. This is why everyone comes here. For the air, for the beaches, for the peace. Somehow I’ve wedged the car right in front of the big white-and-green painted sign that marks the official separation between town and island, where the bridge from Stony Bay stops and Seashell Island begins. The sign’s been here as long as I can remember and the paint has flaked off its loopy cursive writing in most places, but the promises are grooved deep. Heaven by the water. Best-kept little secret in New England. Tiny hidden jewel cradled by the rocky Connecticut coast.

Seashell Island, where I’ve lived all my life, is called all those things and more. And all I want to do is leave it behind.

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Chapter Two “Kryptite the only thing,” Emory tells me, very seriously, the next afternoon. He shakes his dark hair—arrow straight like Dad’s—out of his eyes. “The only, only thing can stop him.” “Kryptonite,” I say. “That’s right. Yup, otherwise, he’s unstoppable.” “Not much Kryptite here,” he assures me. “So all okay.” He resumes drawing, bearing down hard on his red Magic Marker. He’s sprawled on his stomach on the floor, comic book laid out next to his pad. The summer light slants through our kitchen/living room window, brightening the paper as he scribbles color onto his hero’s cape. I’m lying on the couch in a drowsy haze after taking Em into White Bay for speech class earlier. “Good job,” I say, gesturing to his pad. “I like the shooting stars in the background.” Emory tilts his chin at me, forehead crinkling, so I suspect they aren’t stars. But he doesn’t correct me, just keeps on drawing. An entire day after running into the boys at Castle’s, I’m still wanting a do-over. Why did I let them get to me this time? I should have laughed; flipped them off. Not very classy, but 5

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I’m not supposed to be the classy one here. I should have said, “Well, Spence, we all know that with you, it wouldn’t take more than a sec.” But I couldn’t have said that. Not with Cassidy Somers there. The other boys don’t matter much. But Cass . . . Kryptonite. An hour or so later, our rattly screen door snaps open and in comes Mom, her dark curly hair frizzing from the heat the way mine always does. She’s followed wearily by Fabio, our ancient, half-blind Labrador mix. He immediately keels over on his side, tongue lolling out. Mom hurries to push his bowl of water closer to him with one foot while reaching into our refrigerator for a Diet Coke. “Did you think about it some more, honey?” she asks me, after taking a long swallow. Caffeinated diet soda, not blood, must run through her veins. I spring up, and the old orange-and-burgundy plaid sofa lets out an agonized groan. Right, I should be making decisions about what to do this summer, not obsessing about the ones I made yesterday—or in March. “Careful!” Mom calls, waving her free hand at the couch. “Respect the Myrtle.” Emory, now scribbling in Superman’s dark hair, heavyhanded on the black marker, offers his throaty giggle at the face I make. “Mom. We got Myrtle from Bert and Earl's Bargain Basement. Myrtle has three legs and no working springs. Getting off Myrtle makes me feel like I need a forklift. Respect. Really?” 6

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“Everything deserves respect,” Mom says mildly, plopping onto Myrtle with a sigh. After a second, she crinkles her nose and reaches under the cushion, extracting one of my cousin Nic’s ratty, nasty sweatshirts. A banana peel. One of her own battered romance novels. “Myrtle has lived a long, hard life in a short time.” She swats me with the gross sweatshirt, smiling. “So? What do you think—about Mrs. Ellington?” Helping Mrs. Ellington. The possible summer job Mom heard about this morning, meaning I wouldn’t have to keep working at Dad’s again. Which I’ve faithfully done every year since I was twelve. Illegal for anyone else, but allowed for Nic and me, since we’re family. After five years, for sure, I could use a change from scooping sherbet, frying clams, and slapping together grilled cheese sandwiches. More than that . . . if I’m not handling Dad’s at night, I can help Vivien on catering gigs. “Is it for the whole summer?” I plop down, stretch back gingerly. If you hit her the wrong way, Myrtle lists like the Titanic before its final dive. Mom unlaces the shabby sneakers she wears to work, kicks one off, stretching out her toes with a groan. She has daisies delicately painted on her big-toenails, no doubt the work of Vivien, the Picasso of pedicures. On cue, Emory leaves the room in search of her slippers. He would have gotten her the Coke if she hadn’t beaten him to it. “Through August,” she confirms, after another long draw of soda. “She fell off a ladder last week, twisted her ankle, got a concussion. It’s not a nursing job,” she assures me hastily. “They’ve got someone coming in nights for that. Henry  .  .  .  the family  .  .  .  just wants to make sure someone’s looking out for 7

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her—that she’s getting exercise, eating—not wandering off to the beach by herself. She’s nearly ninety.” Mom shakes her head as if she can’t believe it. Me neither. Mrs. Ellington always seemed timeless to me, like a character from one of those old books Grandpa brings home from yard sales, with her crisp New England accent, straight back, strong opinions. I remember her snapping back to some summer person who asked “What’s wrong with him?” about Em: “Not as much as is wrong with you.” When Nic and I used to go along with Mom on jobs, back when we were little, Mrs. E. gave us frosted sugar cookies and homemade lemonade, and let us sway in the hammock on her porch while Mom marched around the house with her vacuum cleaner and mop. But .  .  . it would be an island job. A working-for-thesummer-people job. And I’ve promised myself I won’t do that. Rubbing her eyes with thumb and forefinger, Mom polishes off her soda and plunks the can down with a tinny clink. More tendrils of hair snake out of her ponytail, clinging in little coils to her damp, flushed cheeks. “What would the hours be, again?” I ask. “That’s the best part! Nine to four. You’d get her breakfast, fix lunch—she naps in the afternoon, so you’d have time free. Her son wants someone to start on Monday. It’s three times what your dad can pay. For a lot less work. A good deal, Gwen.” She lays out this trump card cautiously, sliding the “you need to do this” carefully underneath the “you want to do this.” Whatever Nic and I can pull in during the summer helps during the Seashell dead zone, the long, slow months when most of the houses close up for the season—when Mom has 8

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fewer regulars, Dad shuts down Castle’s and does odd jobs until spring, and Em’s bills keep coming. “What about her own family?” I ask. Mom hitches a shoulder, up, down, casual. “According to Henry, they won’t be there. He does something on Wall Street, is super-busy. The boys are grown now—Henry says they don’t want to spend their whole summer on a sleepy island with their grandma the way they did when they were younger.” I make a face. I may have my own thoughts about how small and quiet Seashell can be, but I live here. I’m allowed. “Not even to help their own grandmother?” “Who knows what goes on in families, hon. Other people’s stories.” Are their own. I know this by heart. Emory bounces back into the room with Mom’s fuzzy slippers—a matted furry green one and a red, both for the left foot. Reaching out for Mom’s leg, he pulls off the remaining sneaker, rubs her instep. “Thanks, bunny rabbit,” Mom says as he carefully positions one slipper, repeating the routine on the other foot. “What do you say, Gwen?” Mom leans into me, nudging my knee with hers. “I’d have afternoons and nights free—every night?” I ask, as though this is some key point. As if I have a hoppin’ social life and a devoted boyfriend. “Every night,” Mom assures me, kindly not asking “What’s it matter, Gwen?” Every night free. Guaranteed. Working for Dad, I usually 9

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wind up covering the shifts no one else wants—Fridays and Saturdays till closing. With all that time open, I can have a real summer, do the beach bonfires and the cookouts. Hang out with Vivie and Nic, swim down at the creek as the sun sets, the most beautiful time there. No school, no tutoring to do, no waking up at 4:30 to time for the swim team, none of those boys . . . Running into them yesterday at Castle’s was . . . yuck. Out at Mrs. E.’s, the farthest house on Seashell, I’d never have to see them. I can practically smell my freedom—salty breezes, green sun-warm sea-grass, hot fresh breezes blowing over the wet rocks, waves splashing, white foam against the dark curl of water. “I’ll do it.” It’s an island job. But only for one summer. For one family. It’s not what Mom did, starting to clean houses with my Vovó, her mother, the year she turned fifteen to make money for college, still cleaning them (no college) all this time later. It’s not what Dad did either, taking over the family business at eighteen because his father had a heart attack at the grill. It’s just temporary. Not a life decision. “Hon . . . did your dad pay you for your days yet? We’re running a little behind.” Mom brushes some crumbs off the couch without meeting my eyes. “Nothing to worry about, but—” “He said he’d get it to me later in the week,” I answer absently. Em has moved from Mom’s feet to mine, not nearly as sore, but I’m not about to turn him down. 10

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Mom stands, opens the fridge. “Lean Cuisine, South Beach, or good old Stouffer’s tonight? Your choice.” Gag on Lean Cuisine and South Beach. She stabs the plastic top of a frozen entrée with her fork, but before she can shove it into the microwave, Grandpa Ben saunters in, his usual load of contraband slung over his shoulder, Santa Claus style. If Santa were into handing out seafood. He pushes one of Nic’s sweat-stiffened bandannas to the side of the counter, unloading the lobsters into the sink with a clatter of hard shells and clicking claws. “Um, dois, três, quatro. That one there must be five pounds at least.” Excited, he runs his hands through his wild white hair, a Portuguese Albert Einstein. “Papai. We can’t possibly eat all those.” Despite her protest, Mom immediately starts filling one of our huge lobster pots with water from the sink. “Again I ask, how long will it be until you get caught? And when you go to jail, you help us how?” Grandpa’s fishing license lapsed several years ago, but he goes out with the boats whenever the spirit moves him. His array of illegal lobster traps still spans the waters off our island. Grandpa Ben glares at Mom’s plastic tray, shaking his head. “Your grandfather Fernando did not live to be one hundred and two on”—he flips the box over, checking the ingredients—“potassium benzoate.” “No,” Mom tells him, shoving the tray back into the freezer. “Fernando lived to one-oh-two because he drank so much Vinho Verde, he was pickled.” Muttering under his breath, Grandpa Ben disappears into the room he shares with Nic and Em, emerging in his at-home 11

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mode—shirt off, undershirt and worn plaid bathrobe on, carrying Emory’s Superman pajamas. “Into these, faster than a speeding bullet,” he says to Emory, who giggles his raspy laugh and races around the room, arms outstretched Man-of-Steel style. “No flying until you’re in your suit,” Grandpa says. Em skids to a halt in front of him, patiently allowing Grandpa Ben to strip off his shirt and shorts and wrestle the pajamas on. Then he cuddles next to me on Myrtle as Grandpa fires up a Fred Astaire DVD. Our living room’s so small it barely accommodates the enormous plasma-screen TV Grandpa won last year at a bingo tournament at church. I’m pretty sure he cheated. The state-ofthe-art screen always looks so out of place on the wall between a cedar-wood crucifix and the wedding picture of my grandmother. She’s uncharacteristically serious in black and white, with the bud vase underneath that Grandpa never forgets to fill every day. It’s a big picture, one of those ones where the eyes seem to follow you. I can never meet hers. Lush, romantic music fills the room, along with Fred Astaire’s cracked tenor voice. “Where Ginger?” Emory asks, pointing at the screen. Grandpa Ben’s put on Funny Face, which has Audrey Hepburn, not Ginger Rogers. “She’ll be here in a minute,” Grandpa tells him, his usual answer, waiting for Emory to love the music and the dancing so much that he doesn’t care who does it.

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Em chews his lip, and his foot begins twitching back and forth. My eight-year-old brother is not autistic. He’s not anything they’ve mapped genetically. He’s just Emory. No diagnosis, no chart, no map at all. Some hard things come easy to him, and some basic things he struggles with. I wrap my arms around his waist, his skinny ribs, rest my chin on his shoulder, feeling his dark flyaway hair lift to tickle my cheek, inhaling his sunwarm, little-boy scent. “This is the one with the funny song, remember? The sunny funny-face song?” At last Em settles, snuggled with his favorite stuffed animal, Hideout the hermit crab, in his arms. Grandpa Ben won him at some fair when Emory was two, and he’s been Em’s favorite ever since. I nudge aside Fabio, go outside to the front steps, because I just can’t watch Audrey Hepburn being waifish and wistful. At nearly five eleven, nobody, no matter how nearsighted, will ever say I’m waifish. Squinting out over the island, over the roofs of the low, split-level houses across from ours—Hoop’s squat gray ranch, Pam’s dirty shingled white house, Viv’s pale green house with the red wood shutters that don’t match—I can just barely catch the dazzle of the end-of-day sun off the water. I lean back on my elbows, shut my eyes, and take a deep breath of the warm, briny air. Which reeks. My eyes pop open. A pair of my cousin’s workout sneakers are inches from my nose. Yuck. Eau de sweaty eighteen-yearold boy. I elbow them off the porch, onto the grass.

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The screen door bangs open. Mom slides down next to me, a carton of ice cream in one hand, spoon in the other. “Want some? I’ll even get you your own spoon.” “Nah, I’m fine.” I offer a smile. Pretty sure she doesn’t buy it. “That your appetizer, Mom?” “Ice cream,” she says. “Appetizer, main course, dessert. So flexible.” She digs around for the chunks of peanut butter ripple, and then pauses to brush my hair back from my forehead. “Anything we need to talk about? You’ve been quiet the past day or so.” It’s ironic. Mom spends most of her spare time reading romance novels about people who take their clothes off a lot. She explained the facts of life to a stunned and horrified Nic and me by demonstrating with a Barbie and a G.I. Joe. She took me to the gynecologist for the Pill when I was fifteen—“It’s good for your complexion,” she insisted, when I sputtered that it wasn’t necessary, “and your future.” We can talk about physical stuff—she’s made sure of that—but only in the abstract . . . Now I want to rest my head onto her soft, freckled shoulder and tell her everything about the boys in the car. But I don’t want her knowing that anyone sees me like that. That I’ve given anyone a reason. “I’m fine,” I repeat. She spoons up more ice cream, face absorbed. After a moment, Fabio noses his way through the screen door, staggers up to Mom, and sets his chin on her thigh, rolling his eyes at her beseechingly. “Don’t,” I tell her. Though I know she will. Sure enough, Mom scrapes out a chunk, tapping the spoon on the deck. 14

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Fabio drops his inches-from-death act and slurps it up, then resumes his hopeful post, drooling on Mom’s leg. After a while, she says, “Maybe you could walk down to the Ellingtons’”—she wags the spoon toward Low Road—“say hiya to Mrs. E.” “Wait. What? Like a job interview? Now?” I look down at my fraying cut-offs and T-shirt, back at Mom. Then I run inside and come back with my familiar green-and-pink mascara tube. I unscrew it, flicking the wand rapidly over my eyelashes. “You don’t need that,” Mom says for the millionth time, nonetheless handing me her spoon so I can check for smudges in the reflection. “No. I pretty much told her you’d take the job. It’s a good one. But I don’t know how many other people already know about it. And such good pay. Just get there, ground floor, remind her who you are. She’s always liked you.” This is why, three minutes later, I’m toeing on my flip-flops when Grandpa Ben hurries out, his shock of curly white hair tousled. “Gwen! Take this! Tell Mrs. E. they are from Bennie para a rosa da ilha, for the Rose of the Island. Mando lagostas e amor. I send her lobsters and love.” I look down at the moist paper sack encased in Grandpa’s faded rope-mesh bag, from which a pair of lobster antennae wave menacingly. “Grandpa. It’s a job interview. Sort of. I can’t show up with shellfish. Especially alive.” Grandpa Ben blows out his breath impatiently. “Rose loves lobsters. Lobster salad. Always, she loved that. Amor verdadeiro.” He beams at me. “True love or not, these are a long way from lobster salad.” 15

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One of the lobsters is missing a front claw but still snapping scarily at me with its other one. “You cook them, you chill them, you make the special sauce for her to eat tomorrow.” Grandpa Ben thrusts the bag at me. “Rose always loved the lagostas.” He’s aged in the years since Vovó died, more so since Dad moved out and he moved in. Before then, he seemed as unchanging as the figureheads on a whaling ship, roughly hewn, strong, brown as oak. But his face seems to sag tonight, and I can’t stand to say no to those eager chocolate eyes. So I bundle the mesh sack onto my wrist and head down the steps. At nearly six o’clock the early summer sun is still high in the sky, the water beyond the houses bottomless bright blue, glinting silver with reflected light. There’s just a bit of a breeze, and, now that I’m out of range of Nic’s shoes, the air smells like cut grass and seaweed, mingled with the mellow scent of the wild thyme that grows everywhere on the island. That’s about all we have here. Wild thyme, a seasonal community of shingled mansions, a nature preserve dedicated to the piping plovers, and the rest of us—the people who mow the lawns and fix and paint and clean the houses. We all live in East Woods, the “bad” part of Seashell. Ha. Not many people would say that exists on the island. We get woods at our back and can only squint at the ocean; they get the full view of the sea—sand tumbling all the way out to the water—from their front windows, and big rambling green lawns in back. Eighty houses, thirty of them year-round, the rest open from Memorial through Columbus Day. In the winter it’s like we

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year-rounders own the island, but every spring we have to give it back. I’m halfway down Beach Road, past Hooper’s house, past Vivien’s, heading for Low Road and Mrs. Ellington, when I hear the low clattery thrum of a double lawn mower. It gets louder as I walk down the road closer to the water. The rumble builds, booming as I turn onto Low Road, where the biggest beachfront houses are. The maintenance shack on Seashell— the Field House—has these huge old stand-up mowers, with blades big enough to cut six-foot-wide swaths in everyone’s yard. As I pass the Coles’ house, the sound stutters to a halt. And so do I.

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Chapter Three At first I just have to stare, the way you do when confronted with a natural wonder. Niagara Falls. The Grand Canyon. Okay, I’ve never been to either, but I can imagine. This summer’s yard boy has climbed off the mower and is standing with his back to me, looking up at Old Mrs. Partridge, who’s bellowing at him from her porch, making imperious sweeping gestures from left to right. “Why can’t you folks ever get this?” shouts Old Mrs. Partridge. She’s rich, deaf, and Mom’s number one candidate for undetectable poison. Not only are all the people who work for her in any capacity “you people,” most of the other island residents are too. “I’ll work on it,” the yard boy says, adding after a slight pause, “ma’am.” “You won’t just work on it, you’ll do it right. Do I make myself clear, Jose?” “Yes.” Again the pause. “Ma’am.” Old Mrs. Partridge looks up, her mouth so tight she could

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bite a quarter in half. “You—” She jabs her bamboo cane out at me. “Maria! Come tell this boy how I like my lawn mowed.” Oh hell no. I take a few steps backward on the road, my eyes straying irresistibly to the yard boy. He’s turned to the side, rubbing his forehead, a gesture I recognize from Mom (Old Mrs. Partridge can get a migraine going in no time). He’s in shorts, shirtless . . . broad shoulders, lean waist, tumble of blond hair bright in the sun, nice arms accentuated by the bend of his elbow. The least likely “Jose” in the world. Cassidy Somers. Oh, I should keep backing away now instead of what I actually do, which is freeze to the spot. But I cannot help myself. Again. Snagging the shirt draped over the handlebars of the lawn mower, Cass wipes his face, starts to mop under his arms, then glances up and sees me. His eyes widen, he lowers the shirt, then seems to change his mind, quickly hauling it over his head. His eyes meet mine, warily. “Go on!” Mrs. Partridge snaps. “Tell him. How Things Are Done. You’ve been around here long enough. You know how I like my lawn. Explain to Jose here that he can’t just mow it in this haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion.” I feel the sharp edge of a claw nudge under my arm and slide Grandpa Ben’s bag to the ground behind me. This is bad enough without lobsters. “Well, Jose,” I say firmly. “Mrs. Partridge likes her lawn to be mowed very evenly. Horizontally.”

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“Horizontally?” he repeats, tipping his head at me slightly, the smallest of smiles tugging the corner of his mouth. Cass. Let’s not go there.

“That’s right,” I say. “Jose.” He leans back against the mower, head still cocked to the side. Old Mrs. Partridge has caught sight of Marco, the head maintenance guy on the island, making his final rounds with the garbage truck, and temporarily deserts us to bully him instead, railing about some hurricane that’ll never make it this far up the coast. “You’re the yard boy on island this summer?” I blurt out. “Wouldn’t you be better off—I don’t know, caddying at the country club?” Cass lifts two fingers to his forehead, saluting sardonically. “This year’s flunky, at your service. I prefer yard man. But apparently I don’t get a choice. My first name has also been changed against my will.” “You’re all Jose to Mrs. Partridge. Unless you’re a girl. Then you’re Maria.” He folds his arms, leans back slightly, frowning. “Flexible of her.” I’ve barely spoken a word to Cass since those spring parties. Slipped around him in school, sat far away in classes and assemblies, shrugged off conversations. Easy when he’s part of a crowd—that crowd—striding down the hallways at Stony Bay High like they own it all, or at Castle’s yesterday. Not so simple when it’s only Cass. He’s squinting at me now, absently rubbing his bottom lip with his thumb. I’m close enough to breathe in the salty 20

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ocean-scent of him, the faint trace of chlorine. Suddenly that cold spring day is vivid in my mind, closer than yesterday. Don’t think about it. And definitely not about his lips.

He ducks his head to see my eyes. I don’t know what mine show, so I direct my gaze at his legs. Strong calves, lightly dusted with springing blond hair. I’m more conscious of the ways he’s changed since we were kids even than the ways I have. Good God. Stop it. I shift my gaze to the limitless blue of the sky, acutely aware of every sound—the sighing ocean, the hum of the bees in the beach plum bushes, the distant heartbeat throb of a speedboat. He shifts from one leg to the other, clears his throat. “I was wondering when I’d run into you,” he offers, just as I ask, “Why are you here?” Cass is not an islander. His family owns a boat-building business on the mainland, Somers Sails, one of the biggest on the East Coast. He does not have to put up with the summer people. Not like us—the actual Joses and Marias. He shrugs. “Dad got me the job.” He leans down, brushing grass cuttings off the back of his leg. “Supposed to make a man of me. School of hard knocks and all that.” “Yup, we poor folk make up in maturity what we lack in money.” A flash of embarrassment crosses his face, as if he’s suddenly remembered that, while we both go to Stony Bay High, I don’t have a membership at the Bath and Tennis Club. “Well . . .” he says finally, “it’s not a cubicle, anyway.” His sweeping gesture takes in the gleaming ocean and the swath of emerald-green lawn. “Can’t top the view.” 21

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I nod, try to picture him in an office. I’m most familiar with him near the water, poised to dive into the school pool or, that one summer, hurling himself off the Abenaki dock into the ocean, somersaulting in the air before crashing into the blueblack water. After a second I realize I’m still nodding away at him like an idiot. I stop, shove my hands in my pockets so violently I widen the hole in the bottom of one and a dime drops out onto the grass. I edge my foot forward, cover it. Done with browbeating Marco, Old Mrs. Partridge tramps back up the stone path, points at Cass with a witchy finger. “Is this break time? Did I say this was break time? What are you doing, lolly-gagging around? Next thing I know you’ll be expecting a tuna sandwich. You, Maria, finish explaining How Things Are Done and let Jose get to work.” She stomps back into the house. I step away a few paces. Cass reaches out a hand as if to stop me, then drops it. Silence again. Go, I tell myself. Just turn around and go. Cass clears his throat, clenches and unclenches his hand, then stretches out his fingers. “Uh . . .” He points. “I think . . . your bag is crawling.” I turn. Lobster A is making a break for it across the lawn, trailing the mesh bag and Lobster B behind. I run after it, hunched low, snatch up the bag, and suddenly words are spilling from my mouth as freely and helplessly as that dime from my pocket. “Oh I’ve got this job interview, sort of . . . thing, with Mrs. Ellington—down island.” I wave vaguely toward Low Road. “My grandfather knows her and wants me to make lobster salad for her.” I shake the lobsters back into the bag. 22

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“Which means I have to, like, boil these suckers. I know I’m a disgrace to seven generations of Portuguese fishermen, but putting something alive into boiling water? I’m not— It’s just— I mean, what a way to go—” I look up at Cass, expressionless except for one slightly raised eyebrow, and clamp my mouth shut at last. “See you around,” I call over my shoulder, hurrying away. Nonchalant. Suave. But really, are there any nonchalant, suave good-byes that involve unruly crustaceans? Not to mention that the Good Ship Pretense of Nonchalance sailed several blatherings ago. “Will I?” Cass calls after me. I pick up my pace but can’t resist a quick reverse look at him. He just stands there, arms still folded, watching me scurry off like some hard-shelled creature scrabbling over the seafloor. Except without the handy armor.

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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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The Boy Most Likely To, What I Thought Was True & My Life Next Door excerpts by Huntley Fitzpatrick  

Order WHAT I THOUGHT WAS TRUE: http://bit.ly/WhatIThoughtWasTrue Gwen Castle's Biggest Mistake Ever, Cassidy Somers, is slumming it as...