Authors: Stephanie Kuehn
ALSO BY STEPHANIE KUEHN
CHARM & STRANGE
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2014 by Stephanie Kuehn. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Designed by Anna Gorovoy
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
ISBN 978-1-250-04459-4 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4668-4305-9 (e-book)
St. Martin's Griffin books may be purchased for educational, business, or promotional use. For information on bulk purchases, please contact Macmillan Corporate and Premium Sales Department at 1-800-221-7945, extension 5442, or write [email protected]
First Edition: June 2014
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For every truth best left a lie.
My phone is ringing.
The phone keeps ringing. Or not ringing reallyâthe Monk song I have programmed is what's playing, and the notes, the beat, sound sort of sad, sort of mournful, against the bleak-black December night. I groan and fumble around in the sheets. I like to be prepared, so I sleep with my phone beneath my pillow just in case someone calls. No one ever does, of course.
Except for now.
More fumbling, but my fingers find the phone at last. I slide it out and hold it in front of my face. My eyes are bleary and my brain slow, but what I'm seeing on the touch screen finally registers:
“Hello?” I say.
Nothing. I hear nothing.
“Who is this?”
No response, but I press the phone closer to my ear. No one speaks, but I hear something. I do. Short feral bursts of noise. Organic. Like a faint sobbing.
“Hey,” I say a little louder than before. I want to make sure that I'm heard. “I know you're there. Who're you trying to reach?”
Still no answer, and nothing keeps happening, the way nothing sometimes does. The phone line remains open, and I remain listening. The human sounds fade. They're replaced by a howling wind. The muffled blare of a horn.
I lay my head against my pillow and look up at the ceiling, shadowy and dark. Outside the house, rain falls softly. This is December in California. The phone beeps that its battery is low, but I don't move. Instead I close my eyes, and on the backs of my lids, I picture places where the wind might be blowing.
The ragged edge of the world.
I still don't move.
I fall asleep with the phone against my ear.
“Jamie,” Angie says to me at breakfast the next morning. “We thought you should hear it from us first.”
“Hear what, Mom?” I ask. I call Angie Mom because that's what she likes and because it's so rarely the thought that counts. That's dishonest on my part, I know, but if I had to pick one quality to define me, it's thisâI can't stand to hurt other people's feelings. Not saying what I mean is sometimes the best way I know how to be kind.
From the other side of the kitchen, Angie's husband Malcolm straightens his silk tie and pours coffee into his stainless steel travel mug. He only drinks the organic free trade stuff, which is expensive as hell, but, hey, Malcolm can definitely afford it. He even grinds the beans at home. Like it's some kind of virtue.
“It's your sister,” he says.
I stiffen. “My sister?”
“What about her?”
“She's been released.”
My hands go ice-cold the way they always do when I'm taken by surprise.
This is not a good thing.
“Are you okay?” Angie asks as my fork clatters to the hardwood floor. Maple syrup dots the front of my T-shirt and jeans on the way down.
“But I thoughtâ”
“We thought the same thing.” Malcolm fits the lid just right onto his mug.
He hasn't noticed my hands yet. They're completely numb now and useless. I look down at my food, cut-up whole-grain waffles that I can no longer eat, and sort of jam my arms into my lap. It can take hours to get feeling back, a whole day evenâsome kind of nerve thing that even the big-shot doctors down at Stanford can't figure out after years of rigorous and invasive testing. I shake my head and try to keep breathing. This is so not what I needed.
Not when I have a full day of classes, including AP physics and digital arts.
Not when I play piano in the school jazz band and we have our winter performance tonight at the civic auditorium in downtown Danville.
Not when Jenny Lacouture and I are supposed to hang out together at lunch and I've been trying for weeks to get up the nerve to ask her out on a real date.
Just notÂ â¦ not
My throat goes dry.
the one who called last night?
“She wasn't supposed to get out until June,” I say, and I instantly regret my tone. This isn't Angie and Malcolm's fault. This is not what they want, either. God knows.
“Your hands,” Angie says. “I'll call your doctor.”
“No, don't. Please. I can do that myself.”
Her lips tighten to a line. “I'll get your gloves, then.”
I give what I hope is a grateful nod, and as Angie hustles from the room, there's still a spring in her step. Taking care of me is what she does best.
I turn and look back at Malcolm. His gray hair. His stoic face. That damn silk tie.
“She got out early,” he says, and I can sense he feels just as helpless as I do. “Two weeks ago. Good behavior or overcrowding or something.”
“Why didn't someone tell us?”
“Cate's nineteen now. No one has to tell us anything.”
“Then how'd you find out?”
Angie sweeps back in. She's preceded by the smell of gardenias, which is the perfume she always wears and the one that always gives me a headache. She's waving a pair of my dumb gloves around, but there's a look that passes between her and Malcolmâone forged from wide eyes and knowing nods. It's the one they share when they think I can't handle things and the one that means they're keeping secrets. I feel the urge to call them on it, to demand an answer, but I don't want to upset them, either. Not upsetting people is sort of the modus operandi around here.
After Cate, it's a welcome change.
“Where is she?” I ask.
“Far away,” Angie says. She picks up my left hand and forces on the first leather shearling-lined glove. My fingers bend every which way with the effort. It's sort of sickening to watch, but I let her do it. Everyone says heat is good for circulation, only I've never been able to tell that it helps any.
“Far away,” I echo, as Angie straightens up and brushes hair from my eyes. It used to be blond, my hair, but now it's aged into the same light brown as hers. Like a chameleon's trickâfamilial camouflage.
“She's got no reason to come back here, James. None. We've seen the last of her.”
I nod again. This is a sentiment I'd like to believe, but I don't. There are things I know about my sister that no one else does. Bad things. Things I can't say. Not without hurting Angie and Malcolm or causing them grief, and I don't have it in me to do that. So instead, I lift my chin and smile warmly at my adoptive parents. This is good, reassuring. My actions send the message that I'm fine, totally fine.
I'm not fine, of course. Not even close.
But like I said, it's so rarely the thought that counts.
The last night I saw Cate, she was drunk. Or on drugs. Or just plain crazy.
Take your pick.
I snuck into her room on the eve of her sentencing. It was close to midnight. None of her lights were on, but a full moon spilled a silvery wash across the floorboards, the far wall.
I huddled at the foot of her bed, like a rodent in sawdust.
I was scared.
“You shouldn't be here,” she told me.
My chest hiccupped, once, twice. I was filled not only with fear, but that unbearable sting of sadness and grief: I was losing my sister. In truth, she'd been lost for some time now, but I didn't want her to go. Only she'd caused so much pain, she didn't deserve to stay.
I knew that.
And it made me sad.
Forcing down the lump rising in my throat, I whispered, “Why'd you do it?”
Cate snorted. “Oh, so you think I did it now, do you? You think I'm guilty?”
“Well, I guessÂ â¦ well, you pleaded guilty, didn't you? That's what the judge said.”
“Fuck you, Jamie! Just fuck you! You're like all the rest of them!”
“Shhh!” Her anger scraped my nerves. “Stop screaming, all right!”
My sister leaped from her bed and spun herself toward the window. She wore hardly anything the way she always did. Just panties and some sheer top. I turned away and didn't look. I didn't dare. I was fourteen. She was sixteen. I
“If you didn't do it, then who did?” I asked, my face still staring at the wall. Actually I was staring at a poster of Anne Parillaud from
La Femme Nikita.
It was hard not to. Those lips. Those eyes.
From across the room, I heard the sharp
and hiss of a butane lighter. The sound chilled me. It set my hands tingling. It reminded me of my own secret. The one I'd vowed not to tell, but knew I'd never forget. Cate took a deep inhale of whatever it was she was smoking, then blew it all back into the night like a promise. “Oh, right, little brother. You're real good, you know that?”
“Good at what?” I asked.
She laughed loudly, her throaty voice deeper and more cutting than it'd ever been. “Acting like you don't know anything.”
After breakfast, Angie drops me off at school. I hate it. The being dropped off, that is, not school. I got my real license last month when I turned seventeen, no more provisional, and the Henrys gave me my own car to mark the occasion. That's nice, I know. Beyond nice. I have a good life with them and I try to remember that.
The car they bought me is a Jeep, black, this year's model, and I'm kind of in love with it. It's got a moon roof. Satellite radio. Leather seats and trim. Way more than I ever could've dreamed of. So much so, I feel a little like an impostor behind the wheel. But I've taken to calling the Jeep Dr. No, which pleases me in ways I wouldn't confess to under torture. The only thing I worry about is having one of my nerve attacks while I'm driving. I'd probably fly off the road and into a tree if that happened. None of my doctors seem particularly concerned, though. I haven't had an episode this bad in over a year and they signed off on my papers for the DMV and everything. Maybe that'll change now. I don't know. Maybe I just worry more than other people.
Today, obviously, Dr. No's been left sleeping in the Henrys' three-car garage on the other side of town, and instead of parking myself in the student lot and walking to class like everyone else, I'm getting helped out of Angie's Volvo and dumped onto the front lawn of Sayrebrook Academy like an invalid. People are staring and everything, which I resent, but what can you do?
Somehow we're running late and I have to sprint through the halls to get to first period English on time. Angie heads to the main office to explain what's going on with my hands. She'll also let them know I'm going to need an aide for the day, which won't be too big a deal. Sayrebrook's an elite school. It costs like twenty grand a year to go here so they're usually pretty accommodating when I need extra help. But I always feel awful for asking. Even though it doesn't have anything to do with
my family doesn't have the greatest reputation around here.