Authors: Sara Shepard
âSo,' I muttered. âBiology?'
Claire shrugged. âSure, if you want.'
âSo what's the deal? Didn't you take it last year?'
âYeah. But I totally sucked at it.'
But you used to be so good at everything
, I wanted to say.
I looked around my room and realized there was nowhere for us both to sit. This probably would've made more sense at the kitchen table. Finally, I pulled my chair over to the bed, and Claire sat down. I plopped on the bed, pulled my biology book out of my bag, and opened it. âHow far behind are you?'
âI got lost around cells and genetics.' Claire sat very upright in the chair, her hands folded in her lap.
âBecause it was in French?' I asked.
Because you're fat?
I pictured fat clogging up her brain, impairing her memory.
I flipped to the start of the genetics chapter. Claire leaned over and tapped a drawing of a tightly wound coil of DNA. âI heard a Peninsula sub freaked out about genetics on Monday.'
I raised an eyebrow. âKind of. I was in the class.'
âIt was this guy, Mr Rice. He was subbing for Mrs Hewes
-she's on maternity leave. He told us that DNA is magnetic. We're stuck with our parents, and they're stuck with us, whether we like it or not. DNA can explain everything we do, except we're too stupid to understand that yet. Only the aliens can understand it.'
âAliens?' Claire giggled. âEven my teachers in France weren't that messed up.'
âHe didn't seem messed up, really.' I clutched a pillow close to my chest, curling away from Claire. âMaybe our school is just being narrow-minded.'
Claire stared at me. âYou
âI just think it's an interesting theory. I don't believe the part about the aliens.'
She shifted positions, moving closer. âSo why do you think it's interesting?' Her tone of voice was curious but delicate. It was the same voice she'd used when we were friends, as if I were the most fascinating person in the world.
After a thoughtful moment, Claire added, âIs it because you like the idea of everything happening for a reason? Or that, if you looked hard enough, you'd be able to understand why people do the stuff that they do? Like why they go away without telling you where they're going?'
If she said one more thing, I would punch her puffy face. I would point out that she wasn't one to talk-she'd found her mother fooling around with that young Frenchman, after all. I pictured Claire throwing open the double doors to her parents' bedroom, seeing Mrs Ryan and the
baker tangled in bed together, the sheets on the floor. The baker was wearing a black beret and nothing else. The soles of his bare feet were dirty, and so were his hands.
Claire pressed her lips together coyly. Even in her current state, she could be her old self with me-the one who always said,
It's okay. You can tell me. I'll still like you.
But she didn't like me in the end, did she? She didn't let me into her
world; there was something horribly wrong with me. Maybe it was an obvious thing, something a lot of people saw.
Still, I thought about the thing bumping around inside of me. The thing I was afraid to admit, even to myself. Part of me wanted to tell her. Part of me needed someone to tell.
âDo you remember when we used to roll down the hill in the park?' Claire asked quietly.
I bit my lip hard, startled. âWe used to have races.'
âRolling races.' Claire made a small smile. âThat was fun.'
âAnd we used to play a lot of Monopoly,' I said, as if just recalling.
âYou were always the guy on the horse.'
âAnd you were always the shoe.'
âAnd I used to tickle you.' Claire giggled.
âI hated that.'
âC'mon. It was so much fun.' Claire looked thoughtful, then wily, almost like she was considering tickling me right then. She moved toward me. In anticipation, I moved back on the bed and jerked my foot away quickly, sideswiping the softness of her stomach. It felt substantial andâ¦
Claire jumped back and crossed her arms over the spot on her stomach that I'd kicked. I tucked my foot underneath the bed skirt. âSorry.'
âI was just getting my highlighter,' Claire mumbled. It had fallen on the floor; she reached down for it. At that moment, the holiday tree came on. It was on a timer, playing a different Christmas song every fifteen minutes. This time, it was Perry Como singing âMistletoe and Holly'. Claire and I both jumped.
The mood changed fast, from light to awkward. Claire sat back down and we went through the rest of the biology chapter on genetics and then I took her through cells. She got it right away, which made me wonder if she'd really failed biology at all. I duly explained mitochondria, the
nucleus and vacuoles, evolution and natural selection, the chemical composition of proteins and carbohydrates. I left out fats on purpose. Claire pretended not to notice.
When my father was young, he was in a car accident. He and his friends were driving home from a party, and they were going down a twisty road and hit a deer. This was when my father lived in western Pennsylvania.
It felt like a story I'd learned in history class, repeated again and again each year. My father's friend's name was Mark, and Mark's girlfriend's name was Kay. Kay was sitting in the front passenger seat. The car crashed in such a way that her side was crumpled, but Mark and my father were unharmed. My father got out of the car and saw the deer, dead and bloody on the ground. Then he ran over to Kay's side and took one look at her and passed out. He woke up later in the hospital. Kay was in a coma. Later, she died.
My father brought it up at the oddest of times. The last time he talked about it, we were walking into the Village Vanguard jazz club-I was the only one in the family who would go there with him. âI basically saw the girlfriend of my best friend die,' he whispered, just as an older black man hobbled onstage to the piano. âSometimes I think about how different my life would have been if that accident hadn't happened.'
Different how? He wouldn't have gone to Penn State or met my mother? He had been a senior, and my mother had been a freshman. They'd met in line at one of the university's dining halls. But my mother paid my father no attention. Even though he was handsome, he had a strange accent. He was from a part of Pennsylvania that people from the Philadelphia area shunned.
My father won my mother over with persistence. There were gaps in the story; next, it jumped to the part about my
mom getting pregnant with Steven. My father was in med school by then. He'd gotten an offer to intern at the NYU Downtown Hospital. My mother, who was fascinated with New York, dropped out of her sophomore year of college, moved to New York with my father, and had Steven.
I once asked my mom if she and dad would've been friends in high school. âProbably,' my dad said right away. âI was well liked back then.'
Behind her hand, my mother shook her head. When my father left the room, she said, âWe grew up in very different places.'
My father was a collector. He collected fossils, bugs preserved in blobs of amber, ships in bottles, and snow globes. âI like things that are trapped,' he explained. âToo many things leave us forever.' He even had a way of trapping memories-every time we got a ticket from a parking garage, he wrote a few details about where we'd parked and where we'd been and what we'd seen on the back of the stub. He did this with drycleaning slips, movie-ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, throwing it all in a big leather box at the foot of the bed. âAll of these things are important,' he said. âWe'll want to be reminded of it later.' He'd been doing it the whole time I'd been alive.
Sometimes, when my father spent whole weekends in bed, I crawled in with him, and we watched cartoons. My father laughed at them as much as I did. When I got out of bed, he stayed, but I still thought I'd accomplished something. âMom thinks you're being lazy,' I said to him once, not that long ago. âI'm not lazy,' he answered, âI'm just sad.'
He got sad a lot. Once, my father started crying in a line at the movie theater, putting his face in his hands and shaking. My mother made him go around the corner to an alley because everyone was staring at us, wondering what was wrong. I thought I should go after him, but my mother grabbed my arm. âDon't,' she said. âHe'll be fine.'
âWhat's he crying about?' I asked.
My mother just shrugged and rolled her eyes. âIt's so embarrassing,' she hissed. âI don't know why he can't just pull himself together. But it's like he can't help it.'
I wanted her to explain. What was so embarrassing? Crying? Feeling? Should I be angry at him, too? The movie posters blurred in front of my eyes. When it was our turn to buy tickets, we bought three, one for me, one for my mother, and one for my father. We waited for him to return from the alley, and then we went in the theater together.
Last Friday, when I came home from school, I found my father sitting at the kitchen table, looking at an envelope. His name was written on the front in my mother's handwriting. She'd made the
very big, but the letters got smaller and smaller, descending into almost nothing. The
at the end wasn't much bigger than a pencil point.
âWhat's that?' I asked.
âNothing.' He covered it up with his hand.
We went to the ice cream parlor on the Promenade despite it being early December and cold. My father, well over six feet tall, towered over everyone else in the little shop. He was wearing the black wool overcoat my mother had bought for him. His face was clean-shaven, his thick, light brown hair combed off his forehead. He bought me an espresso milkshake, which I loved, even though they made me twitch. We sat in a little booth in the back, and he ate a whole scoop of butter pecan before he told me that Mom had gone on a work trip. She'd probably be back in a week or so; in the meantime, could I help him keep the house clean?
I said sure, no problem. I'd been helping keep the house clean for the past few months anyway, ever since my mother's job had become more demanding. But I could tell there was something more. It was so easy to tell when my father was lying-his cheeks got very pink, and it looked
like he was literally holding something in, like a sneeze. âOkay, okay, Mom isn't on a trip,' he blurted out, as if I'd harshly interrogated him. âShe's gone.'
His facial features seemed scrambled, like those tile puzzles where you have to move the pieces around to make a coherent picture. âWhat do you mean, gone?' I asked.
He blotted his eyes with his sticky ice cream cone napkin. âShe wrote a letter. But it wasn't very clear.'
I felt an uneasy stab and let out a whimper. âNo, Summer, please don't cry,' he said desperately. âI don't know what to do.'
He bent over until his head touched the top of the table. His shoulders shook up and down. A few minutes went by, and he didn't stop. âDad?' I touched his shoulder. âCome on.'
âI just don't know why this happened,' he blubbered.
By this time, a horrible feeling was sloshing through me. I thought of the things I'd done wrong, all my shortcomings. This could be because of me. Because of something I wasn't.
But I couldn't have my father sitting in the ice cream shop, bawling. âDad.' I took him underneath the arm and pulled him up. âShe's probably justâ¦overworked. I saw it on
People in this country get only ten days of vacation, but people in Europe get thirty. She probably went somewhere where there aren't any ringing phones.' It poured from inside me. When I finished, I reviewed what I'd just said, not sure if it made any sense.
He raised his chin. Some old ladies in the next booth over were staring. âDo you think?' my father asked, his face red and wet.
âYes.' I said it so confidently, I almost convinced myself.
My father ran his hand over his hair. âJesus, Summer.' He bumped into me, hugging my head to his. âI'm sorry I just did that. That's the last thing you want to see, huh? Your crazy old dad, losing it in the ice cream parlor?'
âIt's fine,' I said.
He looked at me, nodding. âYou're right. She's on a trip.'
âShe's on a trip,' I whispered back.
It wasn't much to hold onto, but I held onto it anyway.
Another weekend passed. Another Monday, another Tuesday. Her mail, a week and a half's worth by now, teetered unopened on the hall table. None of us dared to move it. Moving it might mean one of us had come to a conclusion, a decision. So the pile continued to grow unabated, her name on every credit card offer, every magazine, every catalogue for shoes or clothes or home decor.
Tuesday night, I woke up to the moon gawking at me through the window. It was so large and round and perfectly centered in my windowpane, for a moment it felt like the moon was all mine.
When I went downstairs to get a glass of juice, the boxes of Christmas cards my mother had bought right after Halloween were on the table, as was my mother's Kelly-green address book. The cards were on heavy card stock, and the envelopes were foil lined.
Earlier today, Claire had come over for biology tutoring. A week had passed since Claire had returned from France, but I hadn't seen her at school except for that first day. I wanted to ask her about it, but it didn't seem like something I should bring up in front of my dad, who sat at the kitchen
table with us, staring at this very same box of Christmas cards.
âHow does one write a Christmas card?' he muttered. âAnd there are
two hundred and fifty
people on this list. I don't even
two hundred and fifty people.'
Finally, he threw down his pen and stood up. âWhat about the cards?' I called.
âI have no idea what to say,' he answered flatly. His bedroom door slammed.
I straightened my biology notes and looked at Claire, hoping my cheeks weren't burning. âI'm sure my mother will do them when she gets back.'
Claire's eyes bulged. A clear, obvious thought slid across her face.
' I snapped. Claire looked down.
When I shifted my books, Claire cleared her throat. âI saw you getting coffee for all those girls last week.'
I bristled. âSo?'
Claire traced over a star on her notebook, not following the lines. It devolved from a star to a scribble. âIt shouldn't be your job to get coffee for everyone. You shouldn't be their errand girl.'
I clicked my pen on and off, gripped with anger. The girls I got coffee for were the same girls Claire used to be friends with-the girls, in fact, from the back of the bus. I
to get coffee for them. It was not like they were holding me at gunpoint.
Claire looked up at me, her gaze unwavering. There was such a sage look in her eye, as if she could see straight through my skin. It made me think of a recurring dream I sometimes had, the one where I had no outer covering. Everyone was able to see right through me to my organs and inside my brain, aware of what I was thinking and feeling at all times. I was called a Visible, and I had to go to a special school
with the rest of the Visibles. My mother, disappointed, showed me her high school yearbook and told me that
wasn't a Visible when she was my age. It always catapulted me from sleep, causing me to run to the mirror and stare hard at my whole body, making sure my skin was still opaque.
The digital clock on the microwave clicked now from 2:59 to 3:00. I pulled a Christmas card out of the box and held it in my hands for a long time. The pen cap unscrewed easily. I could do them. I had good handwriting. There weren't that many, really.
My father's eyes were squinty slits. He had tied the belt of his robe in a messy knot around his waist.
âI'm doing the Christmas cards.' I made a flourished squiggle on a piece of scrap paper. My mother always used excellent pens for Christmas cards and other correspondence. Fluid ink, fine-tipped, with a gold handle.
My father sat down next to me at the table, watching as I addressed the first one. It was to a Dr and Mrs Myron Finkelstein. I had no idea who they were. I decided I would just sign my mother and my father's names and not include any sort of holiday greeting. I wrote out their address, slid the card in the envelope, and licked it to seal.
âYou don't have to do that,' my father said quietly.
âI'm sure Mom will appreciate it once she comes back.'
âSummer,' my father began. His voice sounded funny, as if there were hands wrapped around his neck. âSummerâ¦Mrs Ryan and I were talking. Aboutâ¦this.'
I stopped writing out the address for Dr Melissa Hailey and looked at him sharply, almost punishingly. âWhy did you tell
âMrs Ryan and I are kind of in the same position.'
âNo, you're not.'
He folded his hands on the table. I shut my eyes, hoping
that he wouldn't say anything else. Finally, I heard him sigh. âWe'll do shifts. You work for a half-hour, and then I'll work on them for another half-hour. We'll get done faster that way.'
I watched as he walked to the living room and stretched out on the couch. The light of the Christmas tree cast pale yellow light over his cheeks, making him look like a kid. Across the harbor, the buildings' lights twinkled sweetly.
I scratched out all the envelopes, trying to keep my handwriting as neat as possible, listening to the kitchen clock ticking. I signed my parents' names on every card. Their names looked so nice together,
Richard and Meredith Davis
. It was so melodic. My father said that when they started dating, there was no one else in the world except for the two of them. She was so beautiful, he said, the kind of beautiful that knocked you down. They walked hand in hand down a street, whispering things to each other, pausing under streetlights to kiss. They fed each other bites of food and talked in the rain for hours. My father made up songs for her. My mother bought him cashmere sweaters. They were the only people each of them had ever loved.
Love like that didn't die. Love like that didn't write a letter and leave.
I tried to envision the love of my life, but there was no one at school who even came close. So he'd have to be new, from somewhere else. He'd come up to me while I was at my locker, put his arms around me and say, âSummer Davis, forget about all of them. Forget about everything. I'm here for you. I'm all you'll ever need. Never let me get away.'
And I wouldn't. I'd know something good when it was there. Just as my mother should. We were right in front of her, after all. We were here.
The next morning, I teetered through the double doors that led from the courtyard to the school hallways, balancing four cups of hot coffee wedged into a corrugated cardboard holder. A bunch of guys shoved their way in front of me, and I didn't catch the door before it closed. It knocked against my legs, tipping me sideways. I watched helplessly as the coffees dislodged from the carrier and fell to the ground, their plastic lids popping off, the coffee slowly glugging into the cracks in the sidewalk. Steam waltzed through the chilly air.
Students stepped daintily around the spilled coffee, barely noticing. I peered into the hall; the girls in my French class were leaning against the water fountains, waiting for me where they always did. By the looks on their faces, I was pretty sure they'd seen the coffee spill, too.
They were tall and straight-haired and pink-cheeked, with perfectly manicured fingernails and bra straps that didn't fall down off their shoulders to mid-arm. Ever since Claire joined them at the back of the bus, I'd watched them with envy.
Summer should have more girlfriends,
my mother had whispered to my father in the kitchen.
Does it really matter?
my father had replied. But yes,
it mattered. It mattered more than he would ever understand. That we were talking, that I was getting them coffee; it all seemed like such a step in the right direction.
The coffee trickled into the sewer grate. The girls' eyes narrowed, their mouths went slack. I turned back to the coffee cart, thinking. I had lunch money in my wallet, but it wasn't like I was eating much lunch these days. I could use it to get the girls new coffees, gratis
to make up for my mistake
But when I looked over my shoulder to see if they'd like this plan, I saw the girls had turned for the stairs, laughing and wrapping their arms around their shoulders. Slowly, more and more students separated me from them, and after
just a few moments, I couldn't see them at all. Something occurred to me, then: What if my mother chose this moment to walk into school, this moment to see me? I was alone. As usual. There was as much chance of her seeing this as there was of her seeing something good. It wasn't as if I had any control.
The bell started to ring, but I didn't move. I wasn't sure I
move. As the courtyard cleared out, a janitor emerged from a utility closet, carrying an empty red bucket. He met my eye. âDon't you need to get to class?' he asked, motioning for the door.
He was an older man, with long gray tufts sprouting out of his oversized ears. There was a name stitched over the right breast of his blue jumpsuit.
I liked his functional black shoes, the gold class ring he wore on his right hand.
âIf a woman takes off from her family without really saying where she's going, she's coming back, right?' I blurted out before I could stop myself.
Stan blinked his watery blue eyes, just a few feet away. âSorry?'
âI mean, she left all her clothes here. And her shoes and her bags and her cat.' I swallowed. âShe left a lot ofâ¦
He didn't say anything, just gave me a sad smile and turned for the double doors. By then, the courtyard was completely empty. I'd never lingered in the courtyard after the bell had rung; I always thought a police officer would appear, pushing everyone where they belonged. I looked around, then took a few careful steps toward the wrought-iron gate. It wasn't locked. When I pushed on it, the gate creaked open easily. No one noticed.
So I left.
And still nothing happened. The gate made no noise when I shut it again. The cars on Lincoln Street swished by, oblivious. To my left, eventually, was the park. I started walking.
I walked up Lincoln and took a right on Eighth Avenue, looking right and left. It didn't take long before I realized who I was looking for. But she wasn't there. She wasn't anywhere I thought she'd be.
Snow began to swirl down. My backpack jostled against my lower back, and my toes prickled with the cold, shielded only by a thin strip of flimsy loafer leather. People streamed past, none of them her. I walked under the Grand Army Plaza arch and crossed the street to the park.
I stopped, my heart speeding up. But it was Claire Ryan across the road, standing at the park's entrance. She was smoking a cigarette. Her red jacket and jeans were enormous.
I crossed the street slowly, in a daze. âWhat are you doing here?' Claire demanded.
doing here?' I shot back.
She shrugged, turning her palms to the sky. âI don't know. It's snowing.'
An old man in a shiny red jogging suit stamped through the thin layer of snow. A runner stooped to tie his shoe. He was wearing shorts. It was 30Â°F out. âYou don't go to school,' I pointed out to Claire, as if solving a mystery, even though, in hindsight, it was painfully obvious.
âYeah.' Claire looked down. âSo?'
âSo, wait. You get off the train and, instead of coming to school, you come up here?'
âUh huh.' She sucked so hard on the cigarette, it crackled.
I blinked furiously. âAnd the office hasn't called your parents?'
The smoke mixed with the falling snowflakes. âThat's something I missed about you,' she said. âYou're always worrying about that stuff.'
âThey might have called. My mother hasn't said anything.
Or maybe they haven't. Perhaps I'm invisible. Although, I'm not sure
I could be invisible.' She let out a bitter laugh, spreading out her arms, showing off her size. I recoiled, shocked by her candidness.
We were quiet for a moment, breathing out cottony puffs. Then Claire said, âDo you remember when we had that Mega Man tournament at the beach? You did that victory dance?'
âI don't know. Sort of.'
Claire pushed her sneaker into the dried grass. âI guess life isn't so simple anymore.'
I stiffened. âWhat you mean?'
Claire looked at me out of the corner of her eye. My mind started to churn. It was odd that Claire wasn't pushing to know why I'd left school
She knew I was too anal and ruleabiding to ditch, that something must have been really wrong. And yet she hadn't asked.
The realization trickled in. I looked at her sharply, enraged. âWhatever you think you know isn't true.'
Claire stepped back, startled.
âAnd anyway, you shouldn't talk.' The words spilled out before I could harness them. âI know about that French guy and your mom.'
Claire's mouth made a small o.
âI know about her affair,' I went on. âShe ruined a perfectly good marriage.'
Claire slowly shook her head, then ran her hands through her hair. It took her a while to respond. âMy mom didn't have an affair with anyone,' she said, speaking into her chest. âIt was my father. He had an affair with a girl. Like, a teenager. She was barely older than me. But my mother's too proud to take his money, which is why we're basically living in a crack house.'
A garbage truck circling Grand Army Plaza blew its horn. Another runner passed, making crisp footprints in the dusting
of snow. I thought about how Mrs Ryan had looked so crumpled and defeated at our house the other day. But I didn't want Mrs Ryan to be the victim. She couldn't be.
Mrs Ryan and I are kind of in the same position
, my father had told me last night, when I was starting on the Christmas cards.
âWhy did he do that?' I managed.