Looking for one of those completely absorbing reads that refuses to let you go? Then don’t miss HERE SO FAR AWAY by Hadley Dyer! This gut-wrenching novel transports you to a small town where one girl named George thinks she has her senior year all figured out—until her life is turned upside down by a falling out with her best friend and a new stranger who arrives in town and shares her affinity for sarcastic banter.
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Life’s a bad writer, my father used to say. I think he meant that most of us would write our lives differently, given the chance. If I could choose one year to rewrite, it’d be my senior year of high school, and I’d probably start with that first shack party. Or I might go even further back and make Sid stay in the valley. I always wondered how it would have worked out if the five of us had stayed together. Who knows, maybe Sid could have been the one to stop me from making such a mess of things.
Sid left early on an August morning. He came out of the house wearing his Eddie Murphy costume from the previous Halloween: leather pants, leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up, gold chain, no shirt. Natalie and I cracked up because we knew he was trying to keep us from getting emotional, Lisa burst into tears for the very same reason, and Bill blurted out that there wouldn’t be black kids at our school anymore, since Sid had been the only one.
Lisa was so mad at Bill for ruining the moment, she hardly spoke to him for a week. The freeze-out might have lasted longer, but somebody’s grandmother died, god bless her, leaving a ramshackle saltbox overlooking the bay that was perfect for a shack party. Most of her stuff had been moved out already, but there were still a few chairs and whatnot, and the taps ran and toilets flushed, which made it a five-star. When I arrived, half our school was packed into the little house, and two different Skid Row songs were blaring from competing ghetto blasters.
Lisa’s boyfriend, Keith. We didn’t know each other well enough yet for him to be calling me that, but he had a joint in his hand and probably knew where Lisa was, so I smiled and pushed my way over to the staircase where he was sprawled.
“I’d offer you this, but Lisa says you’re insane when you’re high,” he said. “You punch people or what?”
“Only until they’re unconscious. Where’s Lise?”
“Living room. Hey, Joshua’s back in town, if you’re looking for some action.”
I fluttered my eyelashes at him. “But Joshua and I aren’t married.”
Keith sat up and leaned toward me, and I could see how bloodshot his eyes were already. “Why do girls always have to be in love to have sex?”
He was too stoned to be having this conversation with his girlfriend’s best friend, and I said so.
“I’m just asking.”
A flash of Lisa’s red hair in the next room. Keith had red hair too, and neither of them seemed to know how much the twin vibe creeped everyone out.
“No offense,” I said, giving his cheek a pat as I turned to leave, “but most of you suck at the sex part, so there’s nothing else in it for us.”
I crowd-paddled to the living room past town boys, farm boys, mountain boys. A bunch of them were measuring their heads with a TV cable. “One more year,” I said when I reached Lisa.
She didn’t have to ask what I meant, just handed me a sticky bottle of Long Island Iced Tea and a plastic cup. “A wise man once said, if you can’t make it better, you can at least make it blurry.”
“Which wise man was that?”
The sound of peeing from the other side of a closed door answered, so loud it seemed to be hitting the bowl from a very great height.
The door swung open. Bill was only five eight with sneakers on and had a way of walking with minimal bounce, a gliding slouch across a room. Back then he was slightly overweight and this side of slovenly, but he had honey-colored curls that no girl could resist touching and absolutely nothing embarrassed him. He was the opposite of Lisa, who was small but ridiculously strong, with huge, kinky red hair that was moussed, diffused, straightened, and sprayed to sculpture-like perfection. She carried herself so confidently, yet would be mortified by the badly timed squeak of a vinyl seat.
Bill held out a china mug with a picture of Prince Charles and Princess Di on it for me to slosh in some booze. “What?”
“Did you find that in the bathroom?” Lisa said. “You don’t even know what it was used for.”
“Let’s toast,” I said quickly, before Bill could bug Lisa with a crude joke. “To Nat and her brave battle with the Double Dragon.” (She was locked in her bathroom for the night after eating a funky pizza slice.) “To Sid and his tight leather pants—especially the leather pants. To a bitchin’ senior year. And to the five of us being together again next year, somewhere far from here.”
Lisa waved her cup vaguely toward us. “Yeah, Nat, Sid, cheers. Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“No,” I said, using the neck of the bottle to guide her cup into a more upright position.
“I do. But, George, he’s not looking at me.”
I twisted around and saw Joshua Spring angling himself into the living room.
The history here is that Joshua Spring was in love with me and had always been in love with me. It started on the first day of first grade when he trailed Lisa and me into the schoolyard at lunchtime. I reckoned he had one of two possible agendas: showing us his bird, as Dougie O’Donnell and Patrick O’Connor had done when they cornered us at recess, or stealing my Han Solo action figure. Instead, he took a plastic ring with a heart-shaped sapphire from his pocket and pressed it into my hand. Then he bolted, leaving a trail of big muddy footprints to his hiding place behind the hippo slide.
You can see under a slide, right? The only reason his head seemed to disappear into the hippo’s nostril was because he was so tall for his age. We decided that Joshua Spring was too dumb to pay any more attention to and ignored him until he moved away a few months later, after his parents split up. Every time he came back to visit his dad, he was several inches taller—and still in love with me. It was like a sickness, and by the time we got to high school, I think he kind of hated me for it.
Now here he was, hanging out with a bunch of stoned jocks, including Keith, Lisa’s boyfriend and Joshua’s default best friend whenever he came back to town. Joshua was another half foot taller since I’d last seen him, easily six three, and he was genuinely, astoundingly hot. He had a jaw, for Christ’s sake. Most of the boys at our school didn’t have jaws yet, especially the jocks, with their baby fat and thick jowls. Their faces just sort of slid into their necks. And from that look Joshua gave me before turning away, I knew that however old I got, even when I was eighty and my boobs were dangling by my ankles like old-timey Christmas stockings filled with one orange apiece, Joshua would be there waiting for me. Hotly.
“He has a girlfriend,” Bill said.
Lisa stared at him. “Impossible.”
“Who? He just moved back.”
“Back back?” I said. “Permanently?”
“Christina with the face,” Bill said.
“Can’t be serious,” Lisa said. “Keith hasn’t said anything about it. If they are together—ish—technically, you can’t become boyfriend-girlfriend in only a week, and—”
“Dude,” Bill said. “When’s the last time George talked to that guy? Him looking this way doesn’t mean they’re hooking up.”
I shrugged. Because Joshua was now standing in front of a crumbling fireplace that had a mirror built into the mantel, and I knew that he could see me behind him, and he was watching me watching him watching me.
I was leaning against a sideboard in the dining room, drinking directly from the bottle of Long Island Iced Tea, when Joshua finally made his move.
“Where are Lisa and Keith?” he asked. Super-laid-back. As though he hadn’t been giving me lingering looks for an hour.
I nodded toward the corner, where they’d stacked themselves on a kitchen stool. “Brother-sister quality time.”
“I’m never going to get used to that.” He took the bottle from me, sniffed it. “Jesus. It’s like plane fuel. What did you cut it with? Tap water?”
“You want some of this home brew instead?”
I knew one thing about the Spring family’s home brew: no one tried it twice.
“That would be a good nickname,” he said. “Home brew.” His hair was bronze colored, his skin a similar shade from his summer tan. “I guess that’s stupid.” He handed the bottle back.
“No, it’s just, you’re the most uniformly colored person I’ve ever seen.”
“I know. I’m like a big beige crayon.”
“Not beige. Camel? Bile?”
If you want to get a hot boy to headlock you, and I’m not saying I did, that’s how you do it.
“Hey! Stop putting the moves on my guy!” Christina yelled from the kitchen.
I didn’t know much about Christina Veinot: eleventh grade, popular, probably one of the Veinot Dairy Veinots from Veinot, a little ferrety in the face. But I could tell she was only partly joking and magnificently sloshed, center of gravity up in her head, makeup running, hair wet against her T-shirt. Bill had started a game of bobbing for beer caps in the corroded sink.
“We were fighting over you,” I said. “You’re so pretty.”
Joshua and I were reclining against the sideboard now. His arm felt hot against mine. I knew we looked good together, my dark Irish coloring contrasting with his beach boy glow. Lisa and Keith were grinning at us with unabashed glee.
Christina seemed to be contemplating a comeback as she stood there, head bobbling around. Then she threw her arms up and screamed, “Whoo-hooo!” which made everyone else scream, “Whoo-hooo!” and that was a shack party. That really was the best we could come up with when we all put our heads together and decided to have a good time.
“Whoo-hooo,” said Joshua, raising his bottle of home brew. His mouth grazed my hair as he leaned over and murmured, “You want to get out of here?”
“What about . . .” I nodded toward Christina.
“Oh, we’re not . . . We’re just hanging out.”
I glanced at my watch. An hour left before curfew. If I couldn’t find someone to drive me home for midnight, I’d be facing the Sergeant. Or would I? My father was—well, let’s say, under the weather. Maybe he wouldn’t be waiting up.
“I’ve had only a few sips of this,” Joshua said. “I’ll get you home on time. Promise.”
We drove to the shore, where we lit a fire and huddled together against the cold wind coming off the bay and ignored time passing. Yeah, he said something mildly ignorant about Kuwait and, yeah, something that might have been racist about Saddam Hussein, and yeah, okay, we ran out of things to say about two minutes after that, but he was sweet and he was gorgeous and he smelled like woodsmoke and strawberry gum and boy, and he looked at me like I was the only girl there had ever been.
Which is when I began to worry that he’d heard about my slutty period in eleventh grade. Nothing serious, a bit with the whooring, as Lisa put it: three guys at East Riverview, our rival high school. I’d wanted to lose my virginity with minimal fuss. Not that I wouldn’t have preferred it to be with a special someone who could make it beautiful and meaningful and full of harps and fireworks, but since there was no special someone, and not much chance of one appearing out of the fog, I wanted to get it over with. That led to crashing some parties on the other side of the county line and meeting Leon, whose most winning quality was that he was someone I didn’t have to see every day. And that led to a couple of bonus boys to confirm that the problem with sex wasn’t Leon’s undescended testicle but that sex was overrated. At least, sex with guys from East Riverview.
The new moon was bright in the sky as Joshua pulled me close. I’d made out with lots of boys, but hadn’t felt anything like real love, not since Han Solo. I’d convinced myself I wasn’t built for it, that I’d never understand a ballad. Now it was like every line of our story had been writing us to this moment by the sea, the formerly heartless girl in the arms of the perfect guy, who had been in front of her the whole time.
Soft at first, it was a whisper of a kiss, like a strawberry secret.
And then: like getting rammed with a deli-sized bologna.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, after audibly desuctioning my very wet mouth from his and dabbing it with my jacket sleeve. “I’m still hung up on Leon.”
The name just slipped out.
“You don’t know him.”
“The guy from East Riverview?”
“Um . . .”
“The guy who used to go to basketball games dressed like a woodchuck?”
I’d forgotten about that. Leon had been East Riverview’s mascot in junior high. Or was it that East Riverview didn’t have an official mascot but he came to the games dressed as a woodchuck anyway? Even after they asked him to stop.
“Different Leon,” I said. “I’m sorry, I think you got the wrong idea.”
He was swallowing a lot. Oh, he was going to cry. Oh, he was crying, tears running down his cheeks, ragged breaths. He sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I started casting around for a piece of driftwood so I could do the humane thing.
He was up and running, his giant footprints a good six, seven feet apart in the sand. After I smothered the fire, I found him in his car, face buried in his arms against the steering wheel. He mumbled something that sounded like “Just get in.”
We sped down into the valley much too fast, gravel pummeling the car like bullets. “I love this car,” Joshua said. “I love this car. I’m going to frickin’ die in this car.”
“We’re in this car!”
He swerved severely and I screamed. “Rabbit,” he said.
We didn’t speak again until he pulled up in front of my house. “Joshua . . .” The light in my parents’ bedroom snapped off. “Let’s pretend this never happened. I promise not to tell anyone if you don’t, okay?”
He tried to smile, eyes glistening with a fresh tide of woe that he was barely holding back.
“Okay, good. We’re going to have the best year. You’ll see.”
I made the mistake of deciding the phlegmy sound was Joshua Spring agreeing with me.
“Leon,” Lisa said. “Of the thin lips. And one ball. Really.”
We were having tea with Bill and Natalie in our usual booth at the Grunt, an old-school diner with blueberry-colored walls and mismatched dishes from every decade but the one we were in. Nat was leaning on Lisa, still fragile after her bout of food poisoning, which hadn’t stopped Bill from ordering a jumbo root beer float and hoovering it down in front of her. Not that Nat ever looked sturdy. She was skinny, white blond, and tree-limbed, all long bones and sharp corners.
Lisa eased her off and scooted out from behind the table to come around to my side. She began sniffing me like a police dog searching for clues: down my hairline, along my cheekbone, around my ear, up again. She always knew when I was holding out on her, and she loved inventing new ways to make me crack. I did not flinch, I did not flinch, I did not flinch—until her tongue darted out and flicked my nose.
“Ugch,” I said, palming her face away. “Alright.”
“I’m not hung up on Leon.”
Bill pawed a paper napkin out of the dispenser and passed it to me. “Keep licking. See what else she says.”
Lisa slid back into the booth beside Nat. “First of all, I can’t believe you thought anyone would buy that. And second—me and you, Keith and Joshua, two best friends dating two best friends? Don’t you get how perfect that would be?”
“You could date us,” Bill said, indicating himself and Nat.
I didn’t like it when Lisa called us best friends in front of the others, though it was true. You might think of your friends in tiers, but you don’t have to remind them of it.
“You’re my fourth–best friend at best,” Nat said to Bill, lowering her head to the table.
He wagged his straw at her like he was erasing what she’d said. “On the bright side, George has just become the big fish that every guy in school wants to haul into his boat, if you know what I mean. If you don’t know what I mean, I mean this bitch, right here, is now so ungettable that everyone wants to get her. And if you don’t know what I mean by get—”
“We got it,” Nat said. “While I was sitting on a toilet with a bucket on my lap, George was rejecting the hot new guy—and it only made her more popular! Bravo, life!”
Bill and I weren’t doing a good job of holding our faces in check. In fairness, it wasn’t always clear when Nat was trying to be funny.
Lisa glowered at us and stroked Nat’s hair. “You shouldn’t have led Joshua on if you weren’t interested,” she said. “Keith is so pissed.”
“How did I lead him on? By standing next to him at a party? Letting him drive me home?”
“Leaving his girlfriend behind without a ride, kissing him . . .”
I’d been betting that Joshua wouldn’t tell Keith any of it, never mind the kissing part, and I could see Lisa was doubly pissed that I hadn’t told her myself.
“You said she wasn’t his girlfriend. He said she wasn’t his girlfriend.”
“Duh. He lied,” Bill said.
I guess I knew that, but I didn’t have to admit it.
“Well, that is news to me. Also, technically? He kissed me. Which was . . . it was . . .”
Lisa was giving me the eyebrow, not blinking, not getting it.
Sid would have. Bill did. “Bad breath? Biter? Did he lick around the outside of your mouth?”
Nat propped her head up on her arm to look across the table at him. “You really have to break up with Tracy.”
“Not Tracy. Remember Becky, the cocker spaniel from hockey camp? My mouth, my nose, my ears.” He leaned over until his face was nearly touching mine. “So, what was it, little snake darts? Nasty hiss-hiss coming at you? Hiss-hissssssss—”
I shook him by the shirt collar until he was all hissed out. “Anaconda tongue, you jackass.”
“That’s it?” Lisa said. “Oh—phew!”
“No phew,” I said. “How did we get to phew?”
“You can rehabilitate a bad kisser.”
“Hell no,” Bill said. “You can take mediocre to okay, and you can get from okay to some approximation of the fundamentals of good, but you’ll never get from bad all the way to good. Right, Nat?”
“If you ain’t got no rhythm, ain’t no one gonna teach you to dance.”
“Geo-or-or-orge,” Lisa groaned. “We’re talking about a love story more than a decade in the making. Are you going to walk away because of one bad kiss?”
In a word: “Yup.”
“That’s cold-blooded, even for you.”
“But good news for the Face,” Nat said. “Who, by the way, is coming over.”
I twisted the soreness from my morning run out of my back and glanced behind us. Christina was leaving three tables of Elevens, who all watched as she strode toward us. She was a tiny thing—pipe-cleaner legs, dirty-blond hair down to her waist, razor cheekbones. She could cut a person. Would. And I had sort-of stolen her sort-of boyfriend in front of half the school. That was a big shack party.
We were starting senior year as the reigning popular group, as you define it at a country high school. We’d inherited it. In eleventh grade, pre-Keith, Lisa had dated a senior, captain of the basketball team, and the rest of us got pulled along with her. They graduated, we got bumped up, she dumped the old captain for the new captain, simple as that. We were set to be the most benevolent and boring ruling class of any high school ever. We weren’t bullies, didn’t get up in anyone’s face. People liked us. We spent most of our time doing exactly what we were doing at that moment—making each other laugh and/or ganging up on someone for their own good—and we collectively gave only enough of a crap about where we stood not to give it up.
But the new Elevens cared. They were a large group, slitty-
eyed girls and thickheaded boys. Always posturing, always too loud, always lip-curling, slow-moving, filling as much space as possible. They could not wait until we were out of the way.
I wasn’t worried about what this Joshua stuff might mean for us, but I could sense Lisa’s nerves the way she could sniff a lie as I exhaled it. She was, after all, my top-tier friend, and she’d been looking forward to senior year since kindergarten, when she started transforming herself from a frizzy-haired bundle of ugly duckling into the second coming of Molly Ringwald, Breakfast Club edition. Plus, she and Keith had gotten caught between me and the Tongue and the Face. So when Christina stopped at our table and said, loudly enough to be heard by her friends, “What’s wrong, George? Sex injury?”—I wasn’t having it.
I stood up so I was towering over her and stretched my back again, nice and easy. “Yeah,” I said, “but, baby, I’m good to go again if you are.”
It wasn’t one of my better lines, but in the pause that followed, I learned something about Christina Veinot: she wasn’t up for a quick comeback. That left her with pretending to laugh or being humorless and earnest, and her group didn’t do earnest. They learned that from us. She went with a small head shake and faint smile, like we were a couple of gal pals exchanging quips. “Well, say hi to Joshua for me,” she said, the hardness gathering again behind her eyes.
It didn’t take much—just a fragment of movement, just the suggestion of a step in her direction. “George!” Lisa said.
But I was already sitting down, having gotten what I wanted from the Face.
“You have no filter,” Nat said as we watched Christina retreat to the ladies’ room.
Bill finished noisily vacuuming up the last of his float. “George has no . . . Dude, you’ve never had a period that I did not know about.”
“Not having a filter means you say everything,” Lisa said. “George will say anything.”
That’s what made them a little afraid of me, the Elevens, what made me the enforcer of our group. The girl version. I mean, I was wearing a delicately beaded yellow cardigan over my Tito Jackson T-shirt.
“Only to the Elevens,” I said.
I dreamt all night about eating wet, sour sausages, and when I woke up, with a start, realized I’d forgotten to brush my teeth. I did remember to wear my running clothes to bed, the surest way to get my arse out the door on a Sunday morning, but the gloomy sky outside my bedroom window was begging me to burrow deeper into the covers.
I leaned in the doorway of my parents’ room. The Sergeant was sitting up in bed wearing an old RCMP training depot T-shirt, his reading glasses, and a skirt of newspapers.
“You can’t get out of bed to yell at your beloved daughter?”
He glared as he swung his leg out from under the covers and thunked it on top of the papers. The skin sewn over the place where his foot used to be was chafed and purple, angry-looking. A double row of black stitches circled his leg, just below his calf.
“You can’t put a nice sock on your stump for your beloved daughter?”
“My cast fell off,” Dad said. “Now, if you’re all wrung out of concern, go over to the dresser and get that stack of bills and the checks and a pen. And my cigarettes.”
In my defense, had I said something more sympathetic, Dad would have batted it away. We were alike in that respect, two cats who only wanted to crawl under the bed and be left to suffer alone. He didn’t seem to be in pain, though who could tell? For weeks he’d walked on a foot that was dying before he would admit where the smell was coming from.
“How does a cast fall off?” I asked as I collected everything. “Were you dancing the shimmy?”
“The swelling went down all of a sudden. I was taking a whiz when I felt it slip. It was grab it or graffiti the wall. I protected the wall.”
“Had to be a hero.”
“Your mother’s fond of that wall.”
I placed his things on the bedside table and took in the leg situation. Though the skin was irritated, the stump itself had a surprisingly soft look. It was flattish across the bottom with rounded edges, like a Nerf baseball bat. “Dad,” I said casually, lest a cat claw shoot out from under the bed, “do you think it’s okay for it to be out in the open like that already?” He’d been home from the hospital for just over a week.
“We’re waiting for the doctor to call back and say whether the local ER can put on a new one or we have to drive into the city.” He pointed to the end of the bed. “Sit. We’re overdue for a discussion.”
For the past thirty-two hours I’d been nursing a false hope that for once Dad would let something slide, as though they’d removed his personality with his foot. “If this is about Friday night, I missed curfew by five minutes, max,” I said, perching on Mum’s side, which was tucked in already, her slippers neatly aligned with her bedside table.
“It was twelve twenty-seven and that was not Lisa’s car. You think things are going lax around here because I’m short an appendage?”
My eyes drifted back to the stump then to the crusted-over cut on Dad’s forehead. He’d fallen getting out of bed a couple of nights earlier, having forgotten the foot wasn’t there anymore. It was hard to fathom how you could fail to remember such a thing, even while groggy on meds, even for a second.
“Joshua Spring drove me home.”
“Ah, the Springs. I had to pull his mother over twice for driving under the influence.”
“Just because his mother—look, he drove me because Lisa has a one-o’clock curfew, like a normal person. He has a girlfriend.”
Mum appeared in the doorway, carrying a stack of linens. “His father had a wife, but that didn’t stop him from getting frisky with the dental hygienist,” she said. “Oh, Paul, I can pay those bills. You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I’m sitting. Aren’t you supposed to be going somewhere with those sheets?”
Mum looked down at the linens in her arms. “I am.”
When she’d gone, Dad said, “I’m giving you Abe. As soon as I can talk your mother into taking the Honda.”
I almost rolled off the bed. Borrowing my parents’ cars required heavy negotiations unless I was driving to work, and Abe was Mum’s baby, a secondhand 1975 Lincoln Continental Town Car. It was a ridiculous vehicle—tan colored, size of a small apartment, impossible to park—but Mum was convinced it was safer than Dad’s little Honda, even though she was always clipping things with that wide-ass hood.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t know what to say?”
“I mean, thanks. Really, thanks.”
“Well, let’s face it, kiddo. You’ll be doing a lot more of the driving while I’m laid up, helping your mother and brother. It’s only fair. But no more missing curfew. You have a car and no excuses. And hear me now: no bringing babies into this house.”
“Wha— Where would I get a baby?”
“You get pregnant, you’re on your own. I’m not your aunt Joanna, running a day care for her offspring’s offspring.”
“Oh my god, Dad!” The unexpected sight of the empty cast lying on a chair in the corner of the room brought my voice down a few octaves. “I was only a half hour late.”
And my slutty phase was ten months ago, thank you, not to be revisited.
“Kids your age, on the brink of being sprung from high school, they decide the world has nothing left to teach them. This is your idiot year. You’ll never be stupider in your life.” He lit a cigarette. “Do me a favor and fetch that ashtray from the guest room before the rest of me gets incinerated.”
I paused at the door. “Is that what the hospital did with your foot?”
“No, they mounted it on the wall.”
Before his surgery, the only place my father was allowed to smoke was in the basement with the door closed. There wasn’t supposed to be an after location.
Mum was making up the bed in the guest room. “Did you know that Dad is smoking in— Who’s coming over?”
“No one,” she said. “I’m moving in here for a while.”
“Because your father is smoking in our bedroom. Don’t fuss about it, hey. The doctor doesn’t want him quitting just yet.”
“I’m pretty sure he said that smoking could damage his blood vessels. Oh, and kill him.”
“And later he said he’d never seen someone go through a more violent withdrawing than your father when he was in the hospital. Now. George.”
Now period George period meant Pay attention.
“Dad’s got pain enough. We’re not putting him through detoxivacation”—not a typo; this is how my mother talks—“at the same time. Soon he’ll be able to make it down to the rec room, and then maybe he’ll be in a mood to quit.”
Mum raked a hand through her hair, which was dark and wavy like mine but coarser and aggressively pruned into a no-nonsense, silver-streaked cap. Her attention had drifted to the window. “Should have done something different in the garden this year. One day I’ll rip the whole thing out and start over.” She sighed. “I say that every year.”
Down the hallway, a loud thud. “George!” Dad bellowed.
“Go on, see what he dropped,” Mum said. She handed me the gigantic spleen-like ashtray I made for Dad in first grade. “And give him this before he gets ashes on the bed. I’ll be there in a sec.”
My younger brother, Matthew, was lying unconscious on the carpet of my parents’ bedroom. “Did he see the stump?” I asked Dad, nudging Matty with my toe.
“What do you think?”
“I think he might have seen a stump.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Mum said, pushing past me into the bedroom. “Did he faint, Paul? What are you two doing, just watching him?”
“Here, put him on the bed with me,” Dad said, clearing away the newspapers.
“I don’t think bringing him closer to it is going to help.”
“It’s what they call exposure, Marlene. He has to confront his fears. What would you rather, drag him all the way to his own bed?”
When Matthew came around, next to Dad—who’d tucked his leg back under the covers—he was the yellowy pale of raw chicken. At fifteen, my brother had a Victorian constitution that was unlike anyone else’s in our gene pool. He passed out at the sight of blood. He’d been known to pass out at the thought of blood. Or vomit. Or mucus. Or earwax. Or hair in his food. He fainted at the hospital watching Dad get prepped for surgery. Later, in the cafeteria, remembering Dad getting prepped for surgery, his pupils one-eightied and he slid gently under the table.
“Did you dream?” I asked him. Matthew had once said that being out for a minute or two was like being asleep for hours, with vivid dreams, sometimes nightmares.
He shook his head and pointed in the direction of Dad’s leg. “Are you going to take it out again?” he asked.
“I’m not cruel,” said Dad. “Don’t mean it ain’t there. Aw, son, don’t start crying now.”
“I can’t help it. It’s so unfair.”
“What is? The partitioning of my foot and myself?”
He looked at Dad incredulously. “A pebble.”
My father cut his toe on a sharp pebble at the beach. He didn’t notice it at first because the feeling in his feet wasn’t great from the diabetes, ignored the cut when he did find it, ignored the infection that developed in the cut, ignored the gangrene-like symptoms that spread from the infection, and then faster than you can say transtibial amputation, the doctor was telling him the whole foot and ankle had to go.
This was the first time his bad habits had seriously caught up to him. He’d been living like he was on a campaign to do himself in as quickly as possible without using a traceable weapon. Smoking? Check. Buttered donuts? Check. Exercise? Please. And he got away with it too. He passed every health test those Royal Canadian Mounted Police threw at him, year after year. You’d think getting diabetes would have smartened him up, except, so what? Have your slice of pie, or three, since Mum’s already shoving a needle of insulin into you. On the days he’d let her, that is, because he didn’t like the side effects and often couldn’t be bothered. Then he gave himself a teensy cut.
“Fair is for sports and the application of the law and not much else,” Dad said. “Life’s a bad writer, son. So this is what’s happening. I’m going to pay the bills. Your mother is going to drive me to one hospital or another—”
“Local,” Mum said. “I called the doctor again. But we’ll have to go into the city Friday afternoon.”
“I’m paying the bills. Your mother is driving me to the local ER. George is getting ready for work. And you, son, you will practice the tuba, as you always do, get ahead on your recommended reading list for school, as you always do, moonwalk through high school, graduate at the top of your class, and save us all.”
That my father talked like this about Matthew all the time, that Matthew didn’t even have a curfew because he was too reliable and socially awkward to need one, had gnawed at me forever, but for once I didn’t care. Because a Friday afternoon trip to the city meant my parents would stay over with Aunt Joanna and her offspring and her offspring’s offspring so Mum wouldn’t have to drive home in the dark. And there was already talk of a shack party next week, and I desperately needed to kiss someone to replace the memory of Joshua Spring’s tongue. And I now had a car.
After I polished all the windows and threw open the wooden shutters to let in the sun that was burning off the rain clouds, I stood on the steps of the hundred-year-old lighthouse, took a cigarette pack out of my pocket, and thought about the day when my friends and I would move far away from the valley, with its pastoral, old-world charm and soul-sucking tedium.
There wasn’t a drop of water to be seen: the north mountain stood between the lighthouse and the bay. Farmland stretched in all directions, across the valley and up the slopes. It was as though the lighthouse had gotten lost on its way to the ocean, or maybe took one look at the eighty miles of volcanic range blocking its path and given up. In fact, it had been brought inland from a tiny island that was eroding. Some historian types had it taken apart and moved it to this fallow plot, then put it back together again with the help of the East Riverview shop classes. I was the keeper, the only staff member, with volunteers from the heritage society filling in the gaps.
I pulled smoke deep into my weary lungs and held it for as long as I could stand it. I’d gone overboard on my morning run, the kind of workout that turns you uniformly red from the neck up, ears and all, and you’re still dewy with sweat when you get out of the shower. I was trying to run off the seven pounds that I’d gained over the summer—the corner pockets of flesh that had appeared on the insides and outsides of my thighs, which my scrawny brother was too happy to remind me about every chance he got. I was also trying to run off the sting of what Lisa had said at the Grunt, but her words ricocheted back at me with every step: cold-blooded, cold-blooded, cold-blooded. Even for you.
It hadn’t pricked at the time, but was slowly working down like a splinter, past Joshua, past all the other disappointments with all the other boys, to a more sensitive place. Because the truth was, I didn’t miss Sid and it had been worrying me. I mean, I did, but not the way I thought I would, the way you were supposed to miss someone you’d been hanging out with since seventh grade. I missed him like my favorite TV shows in the summertime. Sure, it was better when he was around, but I knew we’d be together again, and I could go a whole day, even two, without thinking about him. I didn’t say this to the others, just nodded like a robot when they talked about missing Sid and said, “So much.”
I’d called Nat from work to ask if she thought I was cold-blooded. You had to be certain you wanted the answer when you asked her about these things because she always left you a bit clenched. “You don’t do big feelings,” she’d said. “You hate ballads, sappy movies. The last time I saw you cry, you’d caught your hand in a car door.”
“I have feelings. You’re the one who always pokes me with your bony elbows if I try to hug you.”
“Yeah, but you never lose your head. You probably need to if you’re going to fall in love.” She sighed. “Anyway, that’s what I told Lisa when she called to talk about you.”
“What did she say?”
“She said you don’t want to be a member of a club that will have you as a member. Woody Allen.”
“Woody Allen quoting Groucho Marx.”
“Point being, if Joshua didn’t like you, you’d be all over him. You just like the chase. Oh, and Bill said—she called Bill too—he said that’s true, but no one would think it was a big deal if you were a guy and we should lay the hell off.”
The closest farm stood on a ridge above the lighthouse, and through a stream of exhaled smoke, I could see a man winding his way down from it. He drifted in one direction, then the other, occasionally ducking into the tall grass. Was he searching for something or hiding from it? I scanned the fields, but the only unusual sight was him.
As I watched this silent film, I thought again about what Nat had said. Was that my thing, catch and release? Or was I too sane for love, if that’s even possible? I took another drag from my cigarette and forced myself to remember the kiss and the moments leading up to it. Maybe Lisa was right; maybe it hadn’t been so bad. Maybe I should give Joshua another— I gagged as the memory of his tongue reached the back of my throat.
Sputtering smoke, I saw the man was close now, approaching the lighthouse through the waves of grass. He was almost severe-looking, dark and angular, but an overgrown haircut and beard softened the edges, as did the rosy sunburn across his nose. Slightly taller than I was, midtwenties, I guessed, with an expression that was somewhere between concerned and amused.
He was not from the valley—that I could tell at a glance. A flare shot through my chest. It felt like fear, but it wasn’t fear.
“Light,” I said. By which I meant Lighthouse is open, if you happen to be interested in touring this lovingly restored local landmark, but light was all I managed to croak out.
“Life?” he said.
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “I am choking on life.”
“Sounds like a line from my high school diary.”
The cute response would have been Best thing I ever read, but I was reminded of something Sid said when he heard I used to fantasize about being the fourth Pointer Sister: “Sometimes you don’t meet a person a minute too soon.” I stubbed out my cigarette. “Sorry.”
“Sadly, that is true,” he said mildly. “Do you work here?”
“Did you want a tour of this lovingly restored local landmark?”
“Actually . . . I was wondering if you’d seen a pig.”
Don’t ask me why; just my smart-ass reflex.
“More like, in the last twenty minutes. I’m after one that’s gone AWOL.”
His voice was a little raspy, like the feeling of running your hand along a plane of unfinished wood.
“Ah. No, sorry.”
“Man, I don’t want to sound paranoid, but I think he’s hiding,” he said, scanning the fields. “I usually have to sneak up on him.”
I resisted the urge to ask how often he lost this pig, and instead offered to take him to the top of the lighthouse to see if we could spot it from the lantern room.
The lighthouse had a narrow, three-story wooden tower attached to an octagonal-shaped building that housed the old diaphone fog signal. From a distance, it reminded me of a lady in a bright white dress with an extravagant bustle. The heritage society had restored the interior to its original condition and then some: hand-woven rugs, wrought-iron banister, grandfather clock, an adorable potbellied stove in the keeper’s quarters.
“This is impressive,” he said as we climbed the curved metal stairs, our footsteps echoing through the tower, and it was, especially up in the lantern room, where the sun blazed in as it set between the mountains.
“Behold—the hay,” I said, tapping one of the diamond-
shaped windowpanes. “Very dangerous at night. Not to mention the potatoes. The apples. Over yonder, the corn.”
I was aiming for witty and had landed somewhere closer to Lisa’s father after a couple of wine coolers. So I was grateful when he said: “Have you ever lost a vessel?”
“I crash them into the corn all the time.”
“I think I’ve heard your siren song. That’s home, the farmhouse on the ridge.”
“And you live there with this pig?” I asked.
“Why do you sound surprised? Don’t I look like a local?”
“Uh . . . yup.”
“Damn, I thought I was pulling it off. How did you know? Is it the threads?” He was wearing a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans, Converse, and the leather-brimmed lighthouse keeper’s hat that he’d plucked from its hook downstairs.
“I dunno, you can just tell. You don’t have an accent.”
“Neither do you.”
“I live in town.” Like our village was so much more sophisticated than the surrounds. “We have a traffic light,” I added in the poshest voice I could muster.
“I think you’re saying I couldn’t even pass for a townie. Out of curiosity, where would you guess I’m from?”
I pretended to give him the once-over, but really, what did I know? I’d never been anywhere. “Hard to say.”
“If you had to guess—”
“I come from away?”
“My nan would say you’re a Come From Away. But then, she also thought Catholicism was a cult.”
He leaned in. “Isn’t it?”
Yes, I liked him. I liked how he played along with my late grandmother’s casual bigotry, how talking to him was like a good tennis rally, how he purred with energy that made it seem like he was moving even when he was not moving. He was cool yet curiously eager to blend into a place where bean sprouts were still considered ethnic food, and his absurdly blue eyes were as round and bright as a toddler’s. And so when I spotted the pig trotting from one cluster of trees to another, I did not say anything quite as helpful as There’s the pig. I said: “Where are you from?”
“Out west originally, but I’ve lived all over. And now I’m here.”
He didn’t offer a reason why. Did people like him just decide one day to become people like us? The only Come From Aways I knew were the parents of Doug O’Donnell, former first-grade flasher, present senior-class stoner.
“That was a trick question,” I said, “if you’re not from anywhere.”
“Afraid so. Tell me, Captain—”
“Tell me, Keeper, what would happen if I flipped that switch over there?”
“You’d turn on the lantern. . . .”
He flashed a mischievous smile and glided toward it, his eyes never leaving mine. I waited until he had his hand on the switch.
“. . . and blind us. You have to flip it and run.”
The switch was for a small lightbulb on the ceiling. The real lantern switch was wired down to the service room, but you had to leave the lighthouse to see the effect, and I wasn’t ready to let him go yet.
He slumped. “If you can’t play with the big toy, what do people do for fun around here?”
“Depends on what you mean by fun. Shunning outsiders?”
“Talking is nice.” He took off the cap and handed it to me, and I felt the flare in my chest again. “How about Long Fellows? Is that a good place?”
I shrugged, made a noncommittal so-so face. Did he think I was old enough to get into a bar? Bill claimed I could pass for nineteen, the drinking age Down East. He was always trying to get me to pick up liquor for him, but when your dad’s a cop, you know how to measure risk. I drank, but not too much, stayed away from drugs, although that was more because my friends couldn’t stand to be around me when I was high.
How old was he anyway, this Come From Away? Twenty-five? He wasn’t nearly as tall as Joshua or as stocky as Bill, but he was more present than any boy I knew, more substantial somehow, and as I watched his shirt pull about the roundness of his shoulders as he leaned against the window frame, I thought—
You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
“Are you worried about something?” he said.
“Poetry. I read some great stuff in your high school diary.”
He grinned. “Are you a poet?”
“God, no. Do I look like a poet?”
He studied me. “As a matter of fact, you do.”
I kissed him. Stepped through the beam of sunlight that had turned the lantern lens into a giant gold jewel and kissed him. Even as I felt his whiskers against my skin, his lips on mine, his tongue, blessedly, nowhere, it seemed impossible that I was doing what I was doing, but from his startled look when we pulled away, I knew that I had.
I also remembered that I’d been smoking and probably had potbelly-stove mouth.
“Sorry, I needed to replace a bad sensory memory,” I said.
My heart was thudding so hard it felt like my shirt was moving.
“How bad is bad?”
“It made me hate being a mammal.”
Now he was laughing. “Oh man, did you tell the guy?”
“Of course not!”
“So, he’s still out there, thinking he’s okay? What if he goes his whole life and no one tells him? Wouldn’t you want to know? I’d want to know. At least, I think I’d want to know.”
I had a feeling he thought that if he kept talking we wouldn’t have to deal with the question of what happens next. I didn’t even know his name. He was a complete stranger, a grown-up. And yet I had a hankering to do something insane—more insane than kissing him—to grab him, climb him, bite him till he bled.
“Oh, there he is! The pig!” And with that, the stranger sprinted down the perilously steep staircase.
I couldn’t see anything piglike, near the trees or anywhere else, was sure he was trying to escape me, that I had literally repelled him back up the mountain. But as I stepped out of the lighthouse to watch him bounding through the fields after the invisible pig, he turned, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted, “See you at Long Fellows!”
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