Try it before you buy it! Read the prologue and first four chapters from THE OUTLIERS the new, young adult thriller from Kimberly McCreight, author of Reconstructing Amelia.
The Outliers is the first book in a fast-paced teen series where one girl learns that in a world of intrigue, betrayal, and deeply buried secrets, it is vital to trust your instincts. The book is already getting some major buzz and promises to be one of the year’s most gripping, YA thrillers!
You could take our word for it, or see for yourself! Keep scrolling to read the first four chapters now before the book goes on sale May 3, 2016!
Why are the bad things always so much easier to believe? It shouldn’t be that way. But it is, every single time. You’re too sensitive and too worried, they say. You care too much about all the wrong things. One little whisper in your ear and the words tumble through your head like you’re the one who thought them first. Hear them enough and pretty soon they’re etched on the surface of your heart.
But right now, I’ve got to forget all the ways I’ve come to accept that I am broken. As I sit here in this cold, dark room, deep in the pitch-black woods, staring into this lying stranger’s eyes, I need to think the opposite about myself. I need to believe that I am a person I have never known myself to be. That in my deepest, darkest, most useless corners lies a secret. One that just might end up being the thing that saves me. That saves us.
Because there is a lot that I still don’t understand about what’s going on. So much, actually. But I do know this: despite all the fear in this woman’s eyes, we need to convince her to help us. Because our lives depend on it. And on us getting out that door.
My dad’s phone vibrates loudly, shimmying a little across our worn dining room table. He reaches forward and switches it off.
“Sorry about that.” He smiles as he runs a hand over his thick salt-and-pepper hair, pushes his square black glasses up his nose. They’re hipster glasses, but that’s not why he bought them. With my dad, any hipness is entirely accidental. “I thought it was off. It shouldn’t have even been on the table.”
It’s a rule: no phones in the dining room. It’s always been the rule, even if no one ever really listened—not my mom, not my twin brother, Gideon, not me. But that was before. Things are divided up that way now: Before. After. And in the dark and terrible middle lies my mom’s accident four months ago. In the after, the no-phone rule is so much more important to my dad. Lots of little things are. Sometimes, it feels like he’s trying to rebuild our lives out of matchsticks. And I do love him for that. But loving someone isn’t the same thing as understanding them. Which is okay, I guess, because my dad doesn’t understand me either. He never really has. With my mom gone, sometimes I think no one ever will.
My dad can’t change who he is though—a hard-core nerd-scientist who lives entirely in his head. Since the accident, he does say “I love you” way more than he ever used to and is constantly patting me and Gideon on the back like we’re soldiers marching off to war. But all of it is weird and awkward. And it just makes me feel worse, for all of us.
The real problem is that he hasn’t had a lot of practice with warm and fuzzy. My mom’s heart was always big enough for the both of them. Not that she was soft. She couldn’t have been the kind of photographer she was—all those countries, all that war—if she hadn’t been tough as hell. But for my mom, feelings existed in only one form: magnified. And this applied to her own feelings: she bawled every time she read one of my or Gideon’s homemade welcome home cards. And how she felt about everyone else’s feelings: she always seemed to know if Gideon or I were upset before we’d even stepped in the door.
It was that crazy sixth sense of hers that got my dad so interested in emotional intelligence, EI for short. He’s a research scientist and professor at the university, and one tiny part of EI is pretty much all he’s ever studied. It isn’t the kind of thing he’ll ever get rich from. But Dr. Benjamin Lang cares about science, not money.
And there is one legitimate upside to my dad being the Tin Man. He didn’t fall apart after the accident. Only once did he start to lose it—on the phone with Dr. Simons, his best friend/only friend/mentor/surrogate dad. And even then, he yanked himself back from the edge pretty fast. Still, sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t trade my dad totally losing it for a hug so hard I can’t breathe. For a look in his eyes that says he understands how ruined I am. Because he is, too.
“You can answer your phone,” I say. “I don’t care.”
“You might not care, but I do.” My dad takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes in a way that makes him look so old. It tears the hole in the bottom of my stomach open a little wider. “Something has to matter, Wylie, or nothing will.”
It’s one of his favorite sayings.
I shrug. “Okay, whatever.”
“Have you thought any more about what Dr. Shepard said in your phone session today?” he asks, trying to sound casual. “About starting back for the half days?”
For sure he’s been waiting to talk about this one thing since we sat down. Me ditching the home tutor and finishing up my junior year at Newton Regional High School is my dad’s favorite subject. If we ever aren’t talking about it, that’s because he’s biting his tongue in half trying to keep his mouth shut.
My dad is afraid if I don’t go back to regular school soon, I might never. My therapist, Dr. Shepard, and he are on exactly the same page in this regard. They are perfectly aligned in most things, probably because the two of them have been exchanging emails. I said they could after the accident. My dad was really worried about me, and I wanted to seem all cool and cooperative and extra sane. But their private chitchat has never actually been okay with me, especially not now that they’re both on team get-Wylie-back-into-regular-school. I don’t think it’s helped that Dr. Shepard and I had to switch to phone appointments three weeks ago because I can’t get myself to leave the house anymore. It kind of proves her point that me avoiding school is just the tip of a very dark iceberg.
Dr. Shepard barely signed off on the home tutor in the first place. Because she knows that my problems with regular school didn’t start that day four months ago, when my mom’s car spun across a sheet of ice and got sliced in two.
“I’m concerned about where this might lead, Wylie,” Dr. Shepard said in our last face-to-face session. “Opting out of school is counterproductive. Giving in to your panic makes it worse. That remains true even in the midst of your very legitimate grief.”
Dr. Shepard shifted in her big red armchair, which she always looked so perfect and petite sitting in, like Alice in Wonderland shrunk down to nothing. I’d been seeing Dr. Shepard on and off—mostly on—for almost six years, since middle school. Sometimes I still wondered whether she really was a therapist at all, someone that small and young and pretty. But she had made me better over the years with her special therapy cocktail—breathing exercises, thought tricks, and lots and lots of talking. By the time high school started, I was just a regular kid on the nervous side of normal. That is, until my mom’s accident cracked me open and out oozed my rotten core.
“Technically, I’m not opting out of school, just the school building.” I forced a smile that made Dr. Shepard’s perfectly tweezed eyebrows pull tight. “Besides, it’s not like I didn’t try to stay in school.”
In point of fact, I’d only missed two actual days of school—the day after my mom’s accident and the day of her funeral. I even had my dad call ahead to be sure no one treated me weird when I went back right away. Because that was my plan: to pretend nothing had happened. And for a while—a whole week maybe—it worked. Then that Monday morning came—one week, one day, and fourteen hours after the funeral—and I started throwing up and throwing up. It went on for hours. I didn’t stop until they gave me antinausea medicine in the ER. My dad was so freaked that by the time we were leaving the hospital, he had agreed to the home tutor. I think he would have agreed to anything if there was a chance it might make me okay.
But how could I ever be okay again without my mom around to help me see the bright side? My bright side. “You’re just sensitive, Wylie,” she’d always said. “The world needs sensitive people.” And somehow I had believed her.
Maybe my mom had just been in denial. After all, her mom—my grandmother—had died sad and alone and in a psychiatric hospital. Maybe my mom didn’t want to believe I was history repeating itself. Or maybe she honestly thought there was nothing wrong with me. Someday she might have told me. Now I’ll never know for sure.
I look down at my plate, avoiding my dad’s stare as I push some perfectly cooked asparagus into a sculpted mound of couscous. In a rough patch, my appetite is always the first to go. And since the accident, life is basically one long rough patch. But it’s too bad I’m not hungry. My dad’s cooking is one of the few things we have going for us—he was always the family chef.
“You said I could decide when I was ready to go back to school,” I say finally, even though I’m already sure that I will never be ready, willing, or able to return to Newton Regional High School. But there is no reason to break that to my dad, at least not yet.
“When you go back to school is up to you.” He’s trying to sound laid-back, but he hasn’t touched his food either. And that little vein in his forehead is standing out. “But I don’t love you bumping around alone in this house day after day. It makes me feel—it’s not good for you to be by yourself so much of the time.”
“I enjoy my own company.” I shrug. “That’s healthy, isn’t it? Come on, you’re the psychologist. High self-esteem and all that.”
It’s crazy how much less convincing my smile feels each time I force it. Probably because part of me knows it might be better if I finally lost this argument. If I was forced, kicking and screaming, back inside Newton Regional High School.
“Come on, Wylie.” My dad eyeballs me, crosses his arms. “Just because you like yourself doesn’t mean that—”
There’s a loud knock at our front door then. It makes us both jump. Please, not Gideon—that’s what I think, instantly. Because the last time an unexpected knock came, one of us was ripped away. And Gideon—my opposite twin, my mom used to joke, for how insanely different we are, including that Gideon is a science and history whiz and I’m all about math and English—is the only one of us left who’s not at home.
“Who’s that?” I ask, trying to ignore the wild beating of my heart.
“Nothing to worry about, I’m sure,” my dad says. But he has no idea who’s at the door, or whether there might be something to worry about. That’s obvious. “Someone probably selling something.”
“No one sells things door-to-door anymore, Dad.” But he’s already tossed his napkin on the table and started through the living room toward the front door.
He’s got the door open by the time I round the corner.
“Karen.” He sounds relieved. But only for a second. “What are you—what’s wrong?”
When I can finally see past him, there’s Cassie’s mom, Karen, standing on our porch. Despite the sickly yellow glow of our energy-efficient outdoor bulbs, Karen looks coiffed as always—her brown shoulder-length hair perfectly smooth, a bright-green scarf knotted neatly above her tailored, white wool coat. It’s the beginning of May, but we’re locked deep in one of those mean Boston cold snaps.
“I’m sorry to just show up like this.” Karen’s voice is all high and squeaky. And she’s panting a little, her breath puffing out in a cloud. “But I called a couple times and no one answered, and then I was driving around looking for her when I saw your light on and I guess—God, I’ve looked everywhere.” When she crosses her arms and takes a step closer, I notice her feet. They’re completely bare.
“Looked everywhere for who—” My dad has caught sight of her feet, too. “Karen, what happened to your shoes? Come inside.” When she doesn’t move, he reaches out and tugs her forward, gently. “You must be freezing. Come, come.”
“I can’t find Cassie.” Karen’s voice cracks hard as she steps inside. “Can you—I hate to ask, Ben. But can you help?”
In the living room, my dad guides Karen to a nearby chair. She drops down, body stiff, face frozen. Nothing at all like I’ve ever seen her. Because it’s more than Karen’s clothes that are always perfect. She is always perfect, too. “The Plague of Perfect,” Cassie actually calls her—so thin and so pretty, always with a smile and never a hair out of place. And thin. It’s worth saying that twice. Because according to Cassie, someone’s weight matters to Karen twice as much as anything else. And that could be true. Karen’s always been nice to me, but there is something about the way she talks to Cassie, a sharp edge buried inside her smooth voice. Like she loves her daughter, but maybe doesn’t like her very much.
“Wylie, can you get Karen a glass of water?”
My dad is staring at me. He’s worried about this—whatever it is—upsetting me. The last thing I need is to be more upset; it’s not a totally unfair point. So he’s dismissing me for my own good. As if keeping me from the room could ever keep me from worrying about Cassie now. I’ve already heard too much.
“Water would be great,” Karen says, but like she couldn’t want anything less. She’s just following my dad’s lead. “Thank you.”
“Wylie,” my dad presses when I stay put, staring at the carpet.
I have to be careful. If I seem like I’m losing it, he’ll make me go upstairs for good. He might even tell Karen to leave before I find out what’s going on. And I need to know. Even after everything that’s happened between Cassie and me, even though this isn’t exactly my first-ever Cassie-related emergency, I still care about what happens to her. I always will.
But I can tell by the look on my dad’s face. He wants to wrap this up ASAP and send Karen on her way. He’ll do that, too, no matter how much he likes Karen and Cassie. Since the accident, he’s drawn a lot of new lines in the sand—with my grandparents, teachers, doctors, neighbors. Anything to protect us. More me, it’s true. Gideon has always been the “more resilient” one. That’s what people say when they think I’m not listening. Or if they’re my grandmother—my dad’s mom—they say it to my face. She cornered me at the house right after my mom’s funeral and told me all about how I should really try to be more like Gideon. And right after that, my dad asked her never to visit again.
The truth is, my grandmother never liked me. I remind her too much of my mom, who she also never liked. But she was right about Gideon. He does bounce back a lot more easily than me. He always has. Feelings, especially the bad ones, roll right off him— probably something having to do with that huge computer brain of his—while on me they get stuck, forever trapped in a gooey, inescapable mess. Don’t get me wrong, Gideon’s definitely been sad. He misses our mom, but he’s mostly stoic like my dad.
I’ve always been more like our mom. Except if her feelings were cranked up to full volume, mine blew out the speakers a long time ago.
“Okay, water, fine,” I say to my dad, who’s still eyeballing me. “I’m going.”
Cassie and I became friends in a bathroom. Hiding in the bathroom of Samuel F. Smith Memorial Middle School, to be exact. It was December of sixth grade and I’d headed to the bathroom, planning to crouch up on a toilet through all of homeroom if I had to. It didn’t occur to me that someone else might have the same idea when I banged hard on the door to the last stall.
“Ow!” came a yelp when the not-locked door swung back and banged into someone. “What the hell!”
“Oh, sorry.” My face flushed. “I didn’t see any feet.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of the whole point.” The girl sounded pissed. When she finally opened the door, she looked it, too. Cassie—the new girl, or newish girl—was squatting up on the toilet, fully clothed, just like I had planned on doing myself. She stared at me for a minute, then rolled her eyes as she shifted to the side, freeing up some of the seat for me. “Well, don’t just stand there. Come on. Before someone sees you.”
Cassie and I knew of each other—our school wasn’t that big—but we weren’t friends. Cassie still didn’t really have any friends. And I felt bad about the way some kids picked on her. It was her snug sweatpants or her short, knotted curls or the fact that she was bigger than the other girls—both her boobs and her belly. No one cut Cassie a break because she was a sports star either. She might have single-handedly made our soccer team decent for the first time that fall, but all they cared about was that she didn’t look the part. But it wasn’t like I could be Cassie’s defender or something. Especially not anymore. I was barely hanging on myself.
“So what brings you to the bowl of shame?” Cassie asked once our knees were touching over the open water of the toilet.
There was no way I was going to tell her anything. Except then suddenly, all I wanted was to tell her everything.
“All my friends hate me,” I began. “And they’re all in my homeroom.”
“Why do they hate you?” Cassie asked. I was glad she hadn’t tried to talk me out of it straight off the bat. People love to talk you out of your bad feelings. (Believe me, I am an expert in this phenomenon.) Instead, she just seemed curious. “What happened?”
And so I told her all about how Maia, Stephanie, Brooke, and I had been a foursome since we were eight years old, but lately it had felt like the rest of them were in on some joke that was mostly about me. I’d still been hoping it was my imagination, though, right up until that Saturday night at the sleepover when they started interrogating me about my therapist. Maia’s mom volunteered in the school office and must have seen the note about me having to leave early for my first appointment with Dr. Shepard. And then had apparently decided to tell Maia, which I still couldn’t believe.
“Come on, Wylie. Tell us,” they’d chanted.
I was sweating already when the room began to spin. And then, it had happened.
“I didn’t even realize I’d thrown up until after I heard the screams,” I said to Cassie. And I could still hear them ringing in my ears: “Oh my God!!” “Ew!!!”
“Oh, that sucks,” Cassie said. Like what I’d told her was important, but not really that alarming. “My basketball coach showed me his stuff yesterday. You know, Mr. Pritzer. He drove me home after practice and then he just whipped it out. And more unfortunately, he’s also my homeroom teacher.”
And she said it like her getting flashed wasn’t so terrible either, just kind of unfortunate.
“Oh,” I said, because I couldn’t think of what else to say. It made me so embarrassed just imagining Mr. Pritzer doing that. “Ew.”
“Yeah, ew.” Cassie frowned and nodded. Now she looked sad.
“Did you tell your parents?”
“My mom won’t believe me.” Cassie shrugged. “That’s what happens when you lie a lot.”
“I believe you,” I said. And I did.
“Thanks.” Cassie smiled. “And I’m sorry you lost all your friends.” She nodded, pressing her lips together. “Good thing you’ve got a new one now.”
Out in the kitchen, I move fast, not waiting for the tap to run cold before sloppily filling a glass of water for Karen. The truth is, I’ve been waiting for a long time for “the big one” to happen where Cassie is concerned. Rescuing her has always been a thing—playing human shield so she didn’t get beat up for talking shit about some huge eighth grader, bringing money down to the Rite Aid so she didn’t get reported for shoplifting a lipstick (Cassie doesn’t even wear lipstick). Harmless, stupid kid stuff.
This fall, though, things did take a dark turn. Cassie’s drinking was the biggest problem. And it wasn’t just how much (five or six beers in a single night?) or how often (two or three times a week?) that got me worried. That was kind of excessive for anyone, but for someone with Cassie’s genes, it was a total disaster. Once upon a time, she said herself that she should never drink. She loved her dad, but the last thing she wanted was to end up like him.
But then it was like Cassie decided to forget about all the promises she’d made to herself. And boy, did she not like me reminding her. By a couple of months into this year, our junior year, she was unraveling so fast it was making me dizzy. But the more worried I got, the angrier she became.
Luckily, Karen is still talking when I finally get back out to the living room. I might still catch the details that matter.
“Yeah, so . . .” She glances up at me and then clears her throat before going on. “I came home to see Cassie after school and she wasn’t there.”
The glass is definitely warm as I hand it to Karen. When she takes it, she doesn’t seem to notice. But she does finally notice my hair. I see the split second it happens. In her defense, Karen recovers pretty well, steadies her eyes before looking all the way shocked. Instead, she takes a sip of that bathtub water and smiles at me.
“Couldn’t Cassie just still be out then?” my dad asks. “It’s only dinnertime.”
“She was supposed to be home,” Karen says firmly. “She was grounded this whole week. Because she—well, I don’t even want to tell you what she called me.” And there it is. The tone. The I-hate-Cassie-a-little-bit, maybe even more than she hates me. “I told her if she wasn’t home, I really was going to call this boarding school I’d been looking into—you know, one of those therapeutic ones. And no, I’m not proud of that threat. That we’ve sunk as low as me shipping her off. But we have; that’s the reality. Anyway, I also found this.”
Karen fishes something out of her pocket and hands it to my dad. It’s Cassie’s ID bracelet.
“She hasn’t taken that bracelet off since the day I gave it to her three years ago.” Karen’s eyes fill with tears. “I didn’t even really mean it about that stupid school. I was just so worried. And angry. That’s the truth. I was angry, too.”
My dad looks down quizzically at the bracelet looped over his fingers, then at Karen again. “Maybe it fell off,” he says, his voice lifting like it’s a question.
“I found it on my pillow, Ben,” Karen says. “And it wasn’t there this morning. So Cassie must have come back at some point and left again. It was meant as a sign—like a ‘screw you, I’m out of here.’ I know it.” Karen turns to me then. “You haven’t heard from her, have you, Wylie?”
Back when things were still okay between us, Cassie and I wouldn’t have gone more than an hour without at least texting. But that’s not true anymore. I shake my head. “I haven’t talked to her in a while.”
It’s been a week at least, maybe longer. Being at home, it’s easy to lose track of the exact number of days. But it’s the longest stretch since the accident that we’ve gone without talking. It was bound to happen eventually: we couldn’t be pretend-friends forever. Because that’s all we were really doing when Cassie came back after the accident: pretending.
The accident happened in January, but Cassie and I had stopped talking the first time right after Thanksgiving. Nearly two long months, which, let’s face it, might as well be a lifetime when you’re sixteen. But the morning after the accident, Cassie had just showed up on our doorstep. My eyes had been burning so badly from crying that I’d thought I was seeing things. It wasn’t until Cassie had helped me change out of the clothes I’d been dressed in for two days that I began to believe she was real. And it wasn’t until after she’d pulled my hair out of its ragged, twisted bun, brushed it smooth, and braided it tight—like she was arming me for battle—that I knew how badly I needed her to stay.
I don’t know what Cassie told Karen about our best-friend breakup and our temporary get-back-together. And it ended anyway a few weeks ago. But I can bet it’s not much. The two of them aren’t exactly close. And it’s not like the reasons we stopped talking reflect so well on Cassie.
“You haven’t talked to Cassie in a while?” my dad asks, surprised.
My mom knew about my falling-out with Cassie back when it first happened. Apparently, she never told my dad. It is possible that I asked her not to—I don’t remember. But I do remember what my mom said when I told her that Cassie and I weren’t friends anymore. We were lying side by side on her bed, and when I was done talking, she said, “I would always want to be your friend.”
I shrug. “I think the last text I got from Cassie was last week? Maybe on Tuesday.”
“Last week?” my dad asks, eyebrows all scrunched low.
The truth was, I really wasn’t sure. But it was the following Thursday now. And it was definitely at least a week since we’d spoken.
“Oh, that long.” Karen is more disappointed than surprised. “I noticed that the two of you hadn’t been talking as much, but I didn’t realize . . .” She shakes her head. “I called the police, but of course because Cassie’s sixteen and we’ve been fighting they didn’t seem in a big rush to go after her. They filed a report and are going to check the local hospitals, but they’re not going to start combing the woods or anything. They’ll send a car out looking, but not until the morning.” Karen presses her fingertips against her temples and rocks her head back and forth. “Morning. That’s twelve hours from now. Who knows who Cassie will be with or what shape she’ll be in by then? Think of all the horrible—Ben, I can’t wait until morning. Not with the way she and I left things.”
I’m surprised that Karen seems to know even partly how out of control Cassie has gotten. But then, without me to help cover for her, Cassie was bound to get busted eventually. And this scenario Karen has in her head—Cassie well on her way to passed out somewhere—isn’t crazy. Even at this hour, just before seven p.m., it’s possible.
“Nooners,” the kids at Newton Regional called them. Apparently getting totally wasted in the middle of the day was what all the cool kids were doing these days. The last time I rushed out to help Cassie was back in November, and it was only four or five in the afternoon. I had taken a cab to pick her up at a party at Max Russell’s house, because she was way too drunk to get home on her own. Lucky for her, my mom had been traveling, my dad had been, like always, working at his campus lab on his study, and Gideon was still at school, working late on his Intel Science Competition application. I slipped out and we slipped back in with no one ever the wiser, Cassie bumping into walls as she swayed. After, I held her hair back over the toilet when she threw up again and again. And later I called Karen to say she had a migraine and wanted to stay the night.
I told Cassie the next morning that she needed to stop drinking or something terrible would happen. But by then I wasn’t her only friend. I was just the one telling her the things she didn’t want to hear.
“Are you okay, Wylie?” My dad is staring at me. And he’s been staring at me for who knows how long. I realize then why. I’m pressed up against the back wall of the living room like I’m trying to escape through the plaster. “Why don’t you sit down?”
“I’m fine,” I say. But I do not sound fine.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” Karen looks at me, seems again like she might cry. “The last thing all of you need is my, is our—” She forces a wobbly smile, looks even closer to falling apart. I stare down. If I see her really start to lose it, I will too. “Cassie will be fine, Wylie, I’m sure. The police are probably right that I’m overreacting. I can have a bit of a short fuse for this kind of . . .”
She doesn’t finish her sentence. Because of Cassie’s dad, Vince, that’s what she means. Cassie’s parents were already divorced when we met, but Cassie told me all about life with Vince. He was never a quiet drunk. Fights with neighbors at summer barbecues, calling home to be rescued from whatever latest bar he’d been tossed out of. But the final straw for Karen had been the second DUI, the one where he’d crashed his car into a mailbox downtown. And now she’s as afraid of Vince’s history repeating itself in Cassie as I have been. When I glance up from the carpet, my dad is still looking at me.
“I’m fine,” I say again, but too loud. “I just want to help find Cassie.”
“Wylie, of course you want to help,” my dad starts. “But right now, I don’t think you—”
“Please,” I say, willing my voice to sound determined, not desperate. Desperate is not my friend. “I need to do this.”
And I do. I don’t realize how badly until the words are out of my mouth. Partly because I want to prove to myself that I can. But also, I do feel guilty. I didn’t agree with the things Cassie was doing, was scared about what might happen to her if she didn’t stop. But maybe I should have made sure that she knew I’d always love her no matter what mistakes she made.
“It was so selfish of me to come here.” Karen rests her forehead against her hand. “After everything all of you have been through—I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
My dad’s eyes are on mine. Narrowed, like he’s assessing some tricky quadratic equation. Finally, he takes a deep breath.
“No, Wylie is right. We want to help. We need to,” he says. And my heart soars. Maybe he can hear me after all. Maybe he does understand a little bit of something. He turns back to Karen. “Let’s back up. What exactly happened this morning between you and Cassie?”
Karen crosses her arms and looks away. “Well, we were rushing around getting ready, and she and I were snapping at each other as usual, because she wouldn’t get out of bed. She’s missed the bus five times in the last two weeks. And I had to be somewhere this morning and I couldn’t—” Her voice tightens as she pulls a crumpled tissue out of her pocket. “Anyway, I totally lost my patience. I—I screamed at her, Ben. Completely let her have it. And she called me the most horrible word. One that I won’t repeat. A word that I have never in my life said out loud. But there was Cassie calling me that.” Her voice catches again as she stares down at her fingers, twisting the bunched tissue between them. “So I told her I was finally going to call that boarding school and have them cart her away. So they could scare some sense into her. I said it just like that too: ‘cart’ and ‘scare.’”
My dad nods like he knows exactly what Karen means. Like he’s yelled the exact same kind of thing at me countless times. But the only time I can remember him ever yelling at me about anything was one Fourth of July at Albemarle Field when I was barefoot at the fireworks and almost stepped on a broken chunk of bottle.
“The worst part is that what started it—my big rush—wasn’t even about a work meeting or an open house or a prospective client. Nothing I needed to do to put food on our table. Nothing that actually mattered.” Karen looks up, toward the ceiling. Like she’s searching for an answer up there. “It was a yoga class. That’s why I lost it.” She looks at my dad like maybe he can explain her own awfulness. “I fought Vince through the entire divorce for Cassie to live with me, so I could be there for her, and now—I am so selfish.”
Karen drops her face in her hands and rocks it back and forth. I can’t tell if she’s crying, but I really wish she wouldn’t. Because I am worried about Cassie. But not that worried. Ironic that I—of all people—would ever be less worried than anyone else. Makes me feel like maybe I’m in denial. Whatever it is could definitely be bad. And would any of the people Cassie hangs out with these days really call for help if she needed it? Would they stay to make sure she didn’t vomit in her sleep, that no one took advantage of her while she was passed out cold? No. The answer on all fronts is no. What they would worry about most in any given situation would be covering their own asses.
“Karen, you can’t do this to yourself. No one is perfect.” My dad steps toward her and leans in like he might actually put a hand on her back. But he crosses his arms instead. “Was Cassie absent from school?”
“There was no message from them. But I guess—” Karen twists her tissue some more. “Cassie could have deleted it when she came back to leave the bracelet. She did that a couple weeks ago when she skipped school. I was going to change the school contact number to my cell, but I forgot.”
Cassie’s been skipping school, too? These days there is so much about her I don’t know.
“Why don’t you try texting her now, Wylie?” my dad suggests. “Maybe hearing from you—you never know.”
Maybe she’s just not answering Karen. He doesn’t say that, but he’s thinking it. And after Karen threatened her with that boarding school boot camp, Cassie might never talk to her again. But then if she’s avoiding her mom, she’ll probably avoid me, too, for the exact same reason: we both make her feel bad about herself.
“Okay, but I don’t know. . . .” I pull my phone out of my sweatshirt pocket and type, Cassie, where r u? Your mom is freaking. I wait and wait, but she doesn’t write back. Finally, I hold up my phone. “It can take her a minute to respond.”
Actually, it never does. Or never did. The Cassie I knew lived with her phone in her hand. Like it was a badge of honor to respond to every tweet or text or photo within seconds. Or maybe it was more of a life vest. Because the skinnier and drunker and more popular Cassie got, the more desperate she seemed to keep herself afloat.
“Can you think of anywhere Cassie might be, Wylie?” Karen asks. “Or anyone she could be with?”
“You tried Maia and those guys?” I ask, hating the feel of her name in my mouth.
The Rainbow Coalition: Stephanie, Brooke, and Maia—still best friends after all these years. All except me. They started calling themselves the Rainbow Coalition freshman year because of their array of hair colors. (And they seemed not to care that their all being white made their nickname totally offensive.) More beautiful than ever, they’d also gotten much cooler. By junior year, Maia, Brooke, and Stephanie had clawed their way to the top of the Newton Regional High School popularity pile. Cassie had always hated the Rainbow Coalition for what they’d done to me, right up until they reached down and invited her to climb up and join the pile.
“Maia and those girls.” Karen rolls her eyes. “I honestly don’t know what Cassie sees in them.”
They make her feel important, I want to say. In a way you never did. But then, I’m hardly one to talk. At the beginning, Cassie tried to hide how proud she was that she’d been invited to join the Rainbow Coalition at one of their “hangouts.” Not “parties,” because that would be “so basic.” (And yes, they actually talk like that.) She pretended that she was doing it for research purposes only. It was at the very first Rainbow Coalition “hangout” that Cassie met Jasper. And after that, she seemed to care a whole lot less about pretending anything.
It was exciting for her. I did get that part. But I also thought Cassie would get over it pretty fast, that she’d come to her senses. Instead, she just got more and more drunk at more and more parties. More than once, I played back to her what she had always told me about her dad: that she never wanted to end up like him. I told her again and again that, as her friend, I was worried. But what did she need me for when all I did was make her feel bad about herself? She had the Rainbow Coalition to fill her days and, at night, she was falling in love, hard. I could see it, but I was trying hard to pretend it wasn’t happening.
Because I already knew that Jasper Salt wasn’t a solution for Cassie. He was just another problem. And sure enough, pretty soon there he was, grabbing Cassie’s hand and leaping with her right on down the drain.
“You know, Jasper really is a good person, Wylie,” Cassie had started in the Monday after Thanksgiving. “You need to get to know him.”
We were eating lunch at Naidre’s, the one coffee shop near school where upperclassmen were allowed to go off campus. Soup and a sandwich for me, a dry bagel for Cassie, which she was busy tearing into small pieces and rearranging on her plate so it seemed like she was eating.
We’d only been together five minutes—after not seeing each other for four days—and already we were back in a fight.
But if I was honest, things had been off between us ever since Cassie came home from fitness summer camp at the end of August. “Fat camp,” Cassie had called it when her mother had forced her to go the summer before eighth grade. But this time had been Cassie’s idea. Even though it was hard to see how she had any more weight to lose. When she got home, she was absolutely skeletal, a comparison that delighted her.
It wasn’t just the weight loss, either. Cassie also had new hair, longer and blown straight, and stylish clothes. It was hard to believe she was the same person who’d hunched over that toilet with me all those years ago. I wasn’t surprised weeks later when the Rainbow Coalition had come knocking or even that somebody like Jasper—popular, good-looking, an athlete (and an asshole)—had noticed Cassie. I just couldn’t believe how happy she’d been when they did.
“I know everything about Jasper that I need to know,” I said, then burned my mouth on my tomato soup.
Rumor was he had knocked some senior out with a single punch his freshman year. In one version, Jasper had broken the kid’s nose. I still couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t in jail, much less still in school. But I hadn’t liked Jasper even before I’d heard about that punch, and maybe some of those reasons were shallow—his body-hugging T-shirts, his swagger, and his stupid, put-on surfer lingo. But I also had proof that he was an actual asshole. I had Tasha.
Tasha was our age but seemed way younger. She hugged people without warning and laughed way too loud, always wearing pink or red with a matching headband. Like a giant Valentine’s Day card. But no one was ever mean to Tasha; that would have been cruel. No one except for Jasper, that is. A couple of weeks after he and Cassie started hanging out—the beginning of October—I saw Jasper talking to Tasha down at the end of an empty hall. They were too far away to hear, but there was no mistaking Tasha rushing back my way in tears. But when I told Cassie about it afterward, she just said Jasper would never do something mean to Tasha. Which meant, I guess, that I was lying.
“Jasper might not be perfect, but he’s had a really hard life. You should cut him a break,” Cassie went on now, readjusting her bagel scraps. “It’s just him and his mom, who’s totally selfish, and his older brother, who’s a huge asshole. And his dad’s in jail,” she added defensively, but also kind of smugly. Like Jasper’s dad being a criminal was somehow proof that he was a good person.
“In jail for what?”
“I don’t know,” she snapped.
“Cassie, what if it’s something really bad?”
“Just because Jasper’s father did something doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him. It’s actually really messed up that you would even think that.” Cassie shook her head and crossed her arms. The worst part was that she was right: it was pretty awful that my mind had jumped there. “Besides, Jasper understands me. That matters more than his stupid dad.”
I felt a flash of heat in my chest. So here it was, the real truth: Jasper understood her and I did not. Not anymore.
“But which you, Cassie?” I snapped. “You have so many faces these days, how can he even keep track?”
Cassie stared at me, mouth hanging open. And then she started gathering her things.
“What are you doing?” I asked, my heart beating hard. She was supposed to get angry. We were supposed to have a fight. She wasn’t supposed to disappear.
“I’m leaving,” Cassie said quietly. “That’s what normal people do when someone is awful to them. And in case you’re confused, Wylie”—she motioned to herself—“this is normal. And you are awful.”
“Anyway, I did speak to Maia and the other girls,” Karen goes on. “They said they last saw Cassie in school today, though none of them could seem to remember exactly when.”
“Have you talked to Jasper?” I ask, trying not to sound like I’ve already decided that he is—in spirit if not in fact—100 percent responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened to Cassie.
Karen nods. “He exchanged texts with Cassie when she was on the bus on her way to school, but that’s the last time he heard from her. At least, supposedly.” She squints at me. “You don’t like Jasper, do you?”
“I don’t really know him, so I’m not sure my opinion means anything,” I say, even though I think just the opposite.
“You’re Cassie’s oldest friend,” Karen says. “Her only real friend, as far as I’m concerned. Your opinion means everything. You don’t think he would hurt her, do you?”
Do I think that Jasper would actually do something to Cassie? No. I think many bad things about Jasper, but I have no reason to think that. I do not think that.
“I don’t know,” I say, being vague on purpose. But I can’t even half accuse Jasper of something that serious just because I don’t like him. “No, I mean. I don’t think so.”
“And Vince hasn’t heard from her either?” my dad asks.
“Vince,” Karen huffs. “He’s hanging out with some new ‘girlfriend’ in the Florida Keys. Last I heard he was going to try to get his private detective’s license. Ridiculous.”
Cassie might actually call her dad. She’s crazy about Vince, despite everything. They email and text all the time. It’s their distaste for Karen that unites them.
“You should probably try to reach him, just in case,” my dad suggests gently. Then he heads over to the counter, picks up his wallet, and peers at the little hooks on the wall where we hang our keys. “And you and I can go out looking for her ourselves.”
Karen nods as she looks down at her fingers, still working them open and closed around the mostly shredded tissue.
“Vince is going to blame me, you know. Like if I wasn’t such a hateable hardass, Cassie would still be—” Karen clamps her hand over her mouth when her voice cuts out. “And he’ll be right. That’s the worst part. Vince has problems, but he and Cassie—” She shakes her head. “They always connected. Maybe if I—”
“Nothing is that simple. Not with kids, not with anything,” my dad says as he finally finds his keys in a drawer. “Come on, let’s stop back at your place first. Make sure there’s no sign of Cassie there. We’ll call Vince on the way. I’ll even talk to him if you want.” My dad steps toward the front door but pauses when he notices Karen’s feet. “Oh, wait, your shoes.”
“That’s okay,” she says with an embarrassed wave of her hand. Even now, trying to reclaim some small scrap of perfect. “I’ll be fine. I drove here this ridiculous way. I can get back home.”
“What if we end up having to stop someplace else? No, no, you need shoes. You can borrow a pair of Hope’s.”
Hope’s? So casually, too, like he didn’t just offer Karen a sheet of my skin. Of course, it’s not like we can give Karen a pair of my spare shoes. After one recent panic-fueled anti-hoarding episode after the funeral, I only have one pair of shoes left. The ones I’m wearing. But it’s the way my dad said it: like it would be nothing to give away all my mom’s things.
Sometimes I wonder if my dad had stopped loving my mom even before she died. I have other evidence to support this theory: their fights, namely. After an entire life of basically never a mean word between them, they had suddenly been at each other constantly in the weeks before the accident. And not really loving her would definitely explain why he hasn’t seemed nearly as broken up as me.
Don’t do it, I think as he moves toward the steps for her shoes. I will never forgive you if you do. Luckily, he stops when his phone buzzes in his hand.
He looks down at it. “I’m sorry, but this is Dr. Simons.” Saved by my dad’s only friend: Dr. Simons. The one person he will always drop everything for. That never bothered me before. But right now, it is seriously pissing me off. “Can you take Karen upstairs, Wylie? See if there’s something of your mom’s that will fit her?”
I just glare at him.
“Are you okay?” he asks when I still don’t move. His face is tight.
“Yeah,” I say finally, because he’ll probably use me being angry as more proof that we shouldn’t be helping Karen. “I’m awesome.”
the whole way upstairs, I try to think of an excuse not to give Karen the shoes. One that doesn’t seem crazy. One that my mom would approve of. Because my mom would want me to give Karen whatever she needs. You can do it, she’d say if she was here. I know you can.
Soon enough, Karen is behind me in my parents’ room as I stand frozen in front of their closet. We’re only lending them, I remind myself as I pull open the closet door and crouch down in front of my mom’s side. I close my eyes and try not to take in her smell as I feel around blindly for her shoes. Finally, my hands land on what I think are a pair of low dress boots that my mom only wore once or twice. But I feel sick when I open my eyes and see what I’ve pulled out instead. My mom’s old Doc Martens, the ones she loved so much she had the heels replaced twice.
“I know Cassie misses you,” Karen says while I’m still bent over my mom’s Doc Martens like an animal protecting its last meal. “Because I still know how she really feels. Even if she thinks I don’t. And I know that right now, Cassie’s totally lost and what she needs is a good friend. A friend like you.”
Karen comes over and kneels next to me. I feel her look from me to the boots and back again. Then she leans forward and reaches into the closet herself. A second later, she pulls out a pair of bright-white, brand-new tennis shoes. The ones that my grandmother—my dad’s mom—gave to my mom years ago, probably because my mom always hated tennis.
“What about these instead?” Karen asks.
Yes, I would say if I wasn’t so afraid my voice would crack. Those would be much, much better.
“Do you think Cassie at least knows how much I love her?” Karen asks, rocking back to sitting, her eyes still on the sneakers. “Because things haven’t been easy between us lately. Let’s face it, they’ve never been easy. And I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I could have done so many things, so much better. But I was always trying. And I really do love her. She knows that, right?”
Cassie has called her mom so many awful things—selfish, self-involved, fat-shaming, judgmental, superficial. But the thing that Cassie said most often was that she didn’t think Karen loved her. Not in the way a mom should.
“Yeah,” I say, before I wait too long and it sounds like the lie that it is. “Cassie knows that, definitely.”
“Thank God.” Karen sounds so relieved that it kind of breaks my heart. “That’s really—that’s good.”
Karen puts the sneakers down, then reaches over to take my hand in hers, rubbing my knuckles in a mom-ish way that makes my throat squeeze tight. Her other hand moves to the hacked remains of my wavy brown hair, her fingers drifting away before they reach its most jagged ends.
The night before, I’d glimpsed myself in the hallway mirror and for a second—one fucked-up second—I thought I was her. My mom. That she was there, warm and alive and well again. With my hair longer, I was starting to look exactly like her. And last night I needed not to. I needed to know I’d never again mistake myself for her. Never again would I believe for one awfully beautiful moment that she had come home.
So I grabbed the scissors and leaned over the bathroom sink to cut my hair. So that it, that I, looked nothing like her. I nailed the different part. That’s for sure. I’d been avoiding mirrors ever since, but I could tell it was bad from the freaked-out look that had passed over my dad’s face when he first saw me. Even worse was the way Gideon—always up for making me feel bad—didn’t say a word.
When I look up at Karen, she smiles, her eyes glistening as she wraps a hand gently around my head and pulls it to her. And I’m pretty sure it’s because she needs to be holding someone. Even more, maybe, than I need to be held. She strokes my hair. Don’t cry, I tell myself as my eyes start to burn. Please don’t cry.
“You’re going to be okay, you know,” she whispers. “Not now, but someday.”
When Karen and I get back downstairs, my dad is just hanging up the phone. But instead of putting it down or shoving it in a pocket, he keeps it gripped in his hand, so tight his fingers are white at the edges. Something is wrong. Something new. Something bad on top of whatever is wrong with Cassie.
“What did Dr. Simons want?” I ask, because it was the conversation with him that freaked my dad out, apparently.
Dr. Simons was my dad’s professor at Stanford. He’s a psychologist and a professor like my dad, but he studies peer pressure, not EI. Similar enough, I guess. And he has no family of his own anymore, so my dad is like his surrogate son. He’s always off teaching in this place or that—England, Australia, Hong Kong—which is why we haven’t seen him since we were super-little kids. Lack of geographical proximity is probably part of what my dad likes about Dr. Simons. They are as close as two people, forever thousands of miles apart, can possibly be.
“He was just calling back to answer a question, something about my new data.” My dad waves a hand: nothing for you to worry about. And I so want to find that believable. But it is not. At all. My dad forces a bigger, even less convincing smile as he turns to Karen. “We ready? Wylie, just be sure to lock up once we’re gone, okay?” He says it casually, like it’s an ordinary, everyday request.
“Lock up?” I ask.
My dad has never thought to lock a door in his entire life. If it hadn’t been for my mom, he would have left for our annual two-week vacation on the Cape with our front door hanging wide open.
“Wylie, please,” my dad snaps, like he’s fed up with me and my obsessing, and fair enough, I guess. “Just lock the door. Until we know what’s happened to Cassie, I just—we should exercise all due care.”
That explanation would be a lot more believable if he didn’t look so freaked out. He hasn’t looked this spooked in ages. Not since the day the first baby came.
We were at the breakfast table a couple of days after Halloween when my mom found the first one. It was sitting there on our front porch when she went out to get the newspaper.
“I guess they get points for creativity,” my mom said as she came inside, holding up a plastic baby doll. Her nose crinkled as she peered at the red splattered all over it, which one could only hope was paint. “Much more vivid than the usual emails. I guess that’s the price you pay for page one. I should probably call Elaine and see if she got one, too.”
Elaine was the journalist my mom had been working with on a story about an alleged coalition bombing in the Middle East. It had run that day on the front page of the Sunday Times, and it was my mom’s photographs of a bombed-out school that had stolen the show. She had always gotten her fair share of hate mail. A couple of times even left at our house. But nothing like a plastic baby.
“Why are you even touching that!” my dad shouted. And so loud. “Put it back outside!”
“It’s not contagious, honey.” My mom smiled her beautiful, mischievous smile and raised an eyebrow. She was going to let the shouting go, apparently. She’d been doing that a lot lately—letting everything with my dad go—but I could tell she was starting to get annoyed. “You’ve got to keep your sense of humor, Ben. You know that.”
And my dad did used to have a sense of humor. He used to be really, really funny, actually. In a way, that was even funnier, because of his whole stiff science-guy thing. But these days, he was so wound up. First, because he’d been working around the clock at the university trying to finish his study, then I guess his results were kind of disappointing. It wasn’t going to be officially published until February, but it was already finished. The icing on the cake, though, was him having to fire his favorite postdoc, Dr. Caton, because—according to my dad—he’d let “personal bias cloud his judgment.” Whatever that meant. We’d never met Dr. Caton—my dad wasn’t big on socializing—but from the day he hired him, he’d talked about the very young Dr. Caton (twenty-four and already with a PhD) like some kind of precious, unearthed jewel. I didn’t care, but it drove Gideon—our other resident science-boy wonder—totally crazy. He was delighted when Dr. Caton got the ax.
My mom shrugged as she stepped over to pick up her half-eaten toast. She took another bite, the doll still gripped in her other hand, then placed the toast back down delicately, brushing the crumbs from her fingers as she walked back toward the foyer with the baby. She opened our front door and calmly tossed the doll outside. We all heard it go thud, thud, thud down the front steps. Gideon and I giggled. So did my mom. My dad did not. Instead, he headed for the phone.
“Who are you calling?” my mom asked.
“The police,” he said, like this should have been self-evident.
“Come on, Ben,” my mom said, crossing over to where he was standing. “I can give you one definite. You calling the police is the kind of thing they want. It is all about attention.”
“I can’t deal with this, Hope,” my dad said quietly, sadly almost, as my mom took the phone from him and hung it up. Then she wrapped her arms around him and whispered something in his ear.
“You don’t have to deal with it,” she said as they separated, but loud enough that it seemed like she might be saying it for our, or maybe just my benefit. And weirdly, she did not even seem mad at my dad for making something that had happened to her all about him. “That’s why you have me.”
After my dad and Karen are gone, I sit on the living room couch in the dark, staring out our large bay window overlooking Walnut Hill Road, waiting for the lights from Gideon’s ride home from track practice. Neither of us has our Junior Operator License yet, though we’ve both been legally allowed to for months. Nothing like your mom dying in a car accident to kill your thirst for the open road. Gideon will probably get his license eventually. But I already know that I never will.
I peer again down the road for any sign of headlights. What is taking Gideon so long? He should have been home—well, just a few minutes ago, but still. Tonight, a few minutes feel like hours. It’s weird to be waiting on Gideon. His company is so prickly lately. But right now, I’d choose anything over being alone.
I did lock all the doors after my dad and Karen left, then checked them twice. And then a third time. Because you don’t have to tell me twice to worry. And then when I was done checking the locks, I checked anything and everything else that could even potentially jump out, burn up, or otherwise turn on me.
I’ve also checked my phone a dozen times for an answer to one of my texts to Cassie. I’ve sent four so far, and called her twice. But there’s been nothing. I would have sent more texts, but each one that goes unanswered makes me feel worse. Makes me more worried that this time, Cassie has finally gotten herself sunk into something so dark and deep that I won’t be able to yank her back out, no matter how hard I try.
“Why are all the lights off?”
A voice behind me. When I spin around, heart racing, there’s Gideon, coat and backpack still on. He’s wearing loose-fitting jeans, his blond, shaggy hair damp against his forehead as he chews on what’s left of a Twizzler.
“Why did you do that, Gideon!”
“First of all, calm down.” He takes another bite. “Second of all, do what?”
“Sneak up on me, you stupid jerk!”
“Um, wow.” He holds up his hands like I’m pointing a gun at him, the half-chewed Twizzler flopping around in his fingers. He loves to point out whenever I’m acting nuts. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much most of the time lately.
And Gideon thinks it’s unfair that he gets less attention for being more normal. Like with the home tutor, for instance. Gideon is an insanely smart kid (though even he would admit I could easily crush him on any math test anywhere, any day), but he hates school even after moving to Stanton Prep so they could better accommodate his über-genius science needs. He thinks he should get to opt out, too. But my dad had shut him down so fast, it had made my head spin.
“Did Stephen drive you home?” I look back out the window. Did I somehow miss the car? Am I now not seeing things right? “I didn’t see him.”
“We came the back way. We stopped at Duffy’s for fries with some of the other guys.” He shrugs: hanging out like all the normal kids with lots of friends do. That’s what the shrug says. He so bad wants to be that kid. But I know that only Stephen is Gideon’s friend, sort of, and that the rest of the guys on the track team mostly put up with him because he’s willing to run everyone’s most-hated race, the two-mile, without complaining. Friends have never come so easily for Gideon, maybe because of how smart he is. Maybe just because of how he is period. “I came in the back door.”
“You should go take a shower.” I turn back to the window. I want him to go, leave me alone, not pick a fight. Not tonight.
“Who died and left you in charge?” When I look back at him, he puts a hand over his mouth and opens his eyes wide in fake shock. “Oh snap. Get it? Who died? You gotta admit, that was pretty funny.” I scowl at him. Gideon always tries to make jokes about our mom being gone. It makes him feel better. And it makes me feel worse. My mom was right, we really are opposite twins. Forever repelling each other, like the wrong sides of a magnet. “Come on, it was.”
“It wasn’t funny.”
“Fine, whatever.” Gideon shrugs again as he turns toward the stairs. Does he actually look hurt? It’s so hard to tell with him, but I know there’s a heart in there somewhere. And these days I know he’s just trying to survive. We both are. “When is Dad going to be back? I have to ask him something about my chem homework.”
Having exhausted all of Stanton Prep’s AP offerings, Gideon now takes science classes at Boston College. I don’t know if he really likes science or if it’s just a way to get closer to our dad. If so, it’s not the worst call. One surefire way to get more attention from our dad is to somehow get mixed in with his work. I wouldn’t say our dad loves his research more than us, but sometimes it does feel like we’re neck and neck.
“I don’t know, maybe a couple hours,” I say.
I should have been more vague. Since the accident, our dad never goes out that long. It’s only going to lead to more questions. And I don’t want to talk to Gideon about Cassie. He’ll end up saying something rude. Gideon has never liked her. Or, more precisely, he has always really liked her, but Cassie never gave him the time of day. So he decided to hate her instead. Right now, I can’t take him insulting her down to a more manageable size. Or worse, trying to make me worry more just for the fun of it.
“A couple hours? Where did he go?”
“To help Karen.”
“Help her with what?”
Ugh. Too late. He’s already too interested. “She doesn’t know where Cassie is.” I shrug. No big deal.
For a split second, Gideon almost looks worried for real. But then his mouth pulls down into his fake-thoughtful frown. “Huh. Now I get it,” he says.
I hate it, but I’m going to have no choice but to play his game. “Get what, Gideon?”
“Why Cassie was acting all freaky when she came by here,” he says, like I should know what he’s talking about. “I mean, I don’t know exactly why. But it makes sense that she’d be acting weird if she was about to take off.”
“Wait, Cassie came here?” My heart skips a beat. “When?”
Gideon rubs his chin, then looks up at the ceiling. “Um, I think it was—let’s see.” He counts on his fingers like he’s measuring the days or even weeks. “Yesterday. Yup, that’s it, in the afternoon.”
“Yesterday?” I say, trying not to get mad. Gideon wants to get under my skin, that’s the whole point. “Why didn’t you tell me she was here?”
“She didn’t want me to.” He shrugs. “She just wanted to drop off the note.”
“What note, Gideon?” I’m up off the couch now. “You didn’t give me any note.”
“Huh,” he says again, nodding. Like he’s confused, even though he obviously isn’t. Then he starts patting around his sweatshirt pockets and digging in his jeans. “Ah, here it is.” He pulls out a folded page and holds it up into the air, pulling it farther away when I grab for it. “Oh wait, now I remember why I didn’t give it to you. I knocked on the bathroom door to tell you about it, and you yelled, ‘Go away, jerk!’”
He’s right. I did that. Screamed it, actually. Since the accident, my anxiety has been back with such Technicolor vengeance that each day is mostly a thing I survive. But some are even crappier than others. And yesterday was one of the super-crap ones. By the time I got into the shower, hoping it would help me calm down, all I wanted to do was scream—at myself, at the world. I definitely couldn’t deal with Gideon. If I thought apologizing to him wouldn’t just make things worse, I would have. And I am kind of sorry. Deep down, Gideon doesn’t mean to be a jerk. But the sweet part of him is buried so deep these days, it won’t be able to keep the rest of Gideon from kicking me when I’m down.
“Give me the note, Gideon. Please.”
He lifts his hand and the note even higher in the air. I’ve always been on the tall side, but Gideon is pushing six feet. There’s no way I can grab it. “Maybe I should read it,” he says. “You two aren’t even really friends anymore. Probably because Cassie got tired of everything being all about you and your problems all the time.”
“Gideon, if you don’t give me that note, I’m going to tell Dad I saw you smoking pot with Stephen the other day.”
It’s true—out in our small square of a backyard, next to the shed. From the look of it, it was Gideon’s first time. He’s got his issues, but drugs aren’t one of them. But even if it was just a one-off, I’ll still use it if I have to. The color has gone out of Gideon’s face. And there’s this look in his eyes. Like now he really, really hates me. I want not to care. But I do. I always do.
“Whatever,” he says finally, throwing Cassie’s note at me. It hits the wall over my head and drops to the floor. “But if I was stuck with a messed-up best friend like you, I’d run away, too.”
And with that, Gideon turns and walks out of the living room, headed for the steps. I wait until he’s gone before I pick up the note.
I’m sorry, it reads in Cassie’s bubbly letters. You were right. About everything. I just wasn’t ready to hear it. But I’m ready now. For whatever happens. Xoxo C
For whatever happens? I read the words again, my fingers gripping the paper. My heart is thumping in my chest. I do not like the sound of that—like Cassie has made peace with something. Like people do before they—Cassie wouldn’t do something to herself, would she? No, I don’t think so. In the past few months, I’ve thought about putting an end to things, an end to me. But Cassie is not like me. She’s like a giant rubber ball. She always bounces back. It’s basically what defines her as a human being. She’s just out having one too many Smirnoff Watermelon Ices again. She has to be.
My stomach twists tighter as I read the words again. What was I “right” about, exactly? That Cassie needed to stop drinking, put on some weight, take better care of herself? That Jasper wasn’t a person she should trust? That he would hurt her eventually? I don’t want to be right about any of those things anymore. Not when me being right could mean something awful for Cassie.
I pick up my phone to send Cassie yet another text. It might be worth saying I’m sorry, too. I was right to try to get her to stop drinking. I had good reason to be worried. But maybe I did mix that up with other things that didn’t matter nearly as much, like the Rainbow Coalition and Jasper.
Just got your note. I’m sorry, too. I should have been a better friend. Come home. Please. Whatever is going on, we’ll fix it together.
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