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Authors: Justina Chen

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #General, #Marriage & Divorce, #Girls & Women, #Juvenile Fiction / Girls - Women, #Juvenile Fiction / Family - Marriage & Divorce, #Juvenile Fiction / Family / General

Return to Me

BOOK: Return to Me

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Table of Contents

Copyright Page

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For Baba,
Dr. Robert T. N. Chen,
my father,
who is rooted in
Integrity and all that is
Right and True.

And for Tyler and Sofia,
believe in Love.
I do.

Part One

For the most part things never get built the way they were drawn.

Maya Lin, artist and architect

Chapter One

f you believed my so-called psychic of a grandmother, she predicted that I would almost die. Her eerie, creepy forewarning made no difference at all. I was seven. I still jumped into the murky lake. I still dropped to its mossy bottom. I still almost drowned. Moments before Dad saved me, my arms had become blurry fronds far, far in front of me, as if I had already faded into a ghost.

Ever since that brush with death, I’ve hated fairy tales where spindles could be murder weapons, a bride could be killed for opening a locked door, and women in my family supposedly could see the future. What good was a sixth sense if life itself could derail your best-laid plans? Like after spring break in my senior year. That’s when I almost drowned again—only this time, in disbelief.

“We’re moving with you,” Mom had announced without
looking up from her massive, post-vacation to-do list at the kitchen table.

“You mean moving me, right?” I gulped, breathing hard as I tried desperately to safeguard my future.

Why bother? Once Mom made up her mind, not one miracle or oracle could change it.

Case in point: her answer, “No,
moving, too.” She tucked a strand of flat-ironed hair back into its designated spot behind her ear, then drew an emphatic tick on her list. No doubt Mom was checking off yet another item: Destroy daughter’s college experience.

“You can’t come with me to Columbia!”

“Rebecca Kaye Muir, this move is great for your dad’s career.” Mom’s voice had shot over mine, bullet to bull’s-eye, in a tone designed to quell any teenage uprising. Her blue-eyed glare included my younger brother, Reid. He had dared to groan when it registered that Dad was quitting what must be every boy’s dream job: head honcho of a new game company. For about three weeks, Reid and I limped around our house like the living dead, my brother too listless to read a single one of his fantasy novels, and me too disappointed to enjoy the final laid-back weeks of high school.

None of this alarmed or deterred Mom, though. Life according to my mother’s accounting followed a simple principle: A bigger opportunity was a better opportunity. And Dad’s deliciously high-powered job offer represented a welcome end to his start-up-business nonsense.

So now, two days before my family exodus for the East
Coast, my dad and I were enjoying one final campout in my treehouse. Our once-a-summer tradition had begun when we moved to Lewis Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride from Seattle. The only change in our fifteen-year tradition had been to swap our old, dark tent for a newly built treehouse when I turned ten.

I woke this morning to Dad waving the remains of our half-eaten bag of Cheetos under my nose. “Breakfast?” he asked, crunching a cheese curl noisily in my ear.

“Thanks,” I said, and grabbed one, even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. Only then did I gaze up into the cloud-filled skylight. Last night, stargazing was as much an act of futility as imagining some semblance of independence at college in two months. It was all too easy to picture my mom “dropping in” for a visit because she was “in the neighborhood.” Before I knew it, she’d be color-coding my future roommate’s binders and rearranging my closet into ready-made outfits. The overcast night sky had flattened into a slate of mourning-dove gray. I rolled onto my side to face Dad. “I’m going to miss this place.”

“Trust me, you’ll be so busy at college, you won’t even think twice about any of this,” he said, waving one arm as if to brush away my treehouse, my home, and my life as I had always known it.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, I agreed with Dad, but on the topic of my treehouse, we disagreed. It probably sounds stupid, but we hadn’t even moved and I was already homesick for this tiny nest that housed all my architecture books and sketchbooks. The bunting I had sewn and strung above the windows with my favorite paint swatches. The photos of me flanked by all
my male cousins and uncles. And best of all, the models I’d constructed at the summer camp I attended two years ago through the architecture school at the University of Washington—the birdhouse, artist studio, and modern shack. These were the projects that made me fall in love hard and fast with architecture the same way I fell for Jackson.


My heart contracted at the thought of breaking up with him in a few hours. Like everyone says, long-distance relationships are impossible, especially in college. Still, I couldn’t even think about ending it with Jackson without tearing up.

Not now. Not yet.

I cleared my throat to ward off the threat of tears and managed a wry smile for my father. “No offense, but I would have been more excited if I was going to college by myself.”

“None taken.” Dad smiled indulgently at me, his gentle brown eyes crinkling at the corners. Other than a few strands of gray along his temples, at forty-five he looked virtually the same as the broad-shouldered high school football star he’d been. Days ago, Mom had removed the photos of Dad’s good old days from his man-cave office and mummified them in biodegradable newsprint for the cross-country move. My treehouse was one of the last rooms to be dismantled today, according to her well-executed moving plan. Dad continued, “I totally understand that a fresh start is something we all need at one point or another. But you know how your mom gets.”

We both rolled our eyes, then grinned at each other even as irritation burned my throat. Dad was right; it’d take an
apocalyptic disaster to change a single detail once Mom had charted his new corporate career, my college decision, our family move.

“At least I talked your mom into moving to New Jersey instead of New York. That’ll give you some breathing room, right?” Dad said, crumpling the empty bag of Cheetos before tossing it carelessly onto the floor from the warmth of his sleeping bag.

“You have no idea how much I appreciate that,” I said fervently, only now eating my cheese curl.

The clock my grandpa George had given me when I was recuperating from my near drowning ticked loudly in the silence that followed my crunching. As I listened to the faint drumbeat of time, I recalled how one of the fairy houses I had woven from twigs had blown off Grandpa’s houseboat deck and into the lake. Dad alone was with me, and he had said, “Just let it go.”

But I had jumped into the murky green water, so completely focused on rescuing my creation that I forgot I couldn’t swim, forgot my grandmother’s prediction.

“Dad!” I had screamed before I drifted downward. He reached me fast, diving into the deep to grab me.

An idea began to form now, and Dad was once again the one I sought to rescue me. I sat up in my sleeping bag. There just might be a way to salvage the beginning of my college experience. Dad had rented a temporary apartment in Manhattan two months ago to start his job while Reid and I finished school here. That apartment was going to be empty, conveniently and blissfully empty. Why not live in Dad’s apartment in
New York rather than in our New Jersey house until freshman orientation?

“Hey, Dad,” I said, throwing off my sleeping bag, “could I crash in your apartment before school starts, since you’ll be with Mom and Reid anyway?”

“Well, you know how your mom gets when people change her plans.” Dad’s voice was hushed as though Mom could overhear what we were discussing, even though she was back in the main house and well out of earshot. “Her and her lists.”

That quiet, confidential tone reminded me of how it had always been: Dad and me, conspiring against Mom. Dad allowing me to leap off a whirling merry-go-round even though I had fallen from it the day before. Dad buying me an enormous ice cream cone a half hour before dinner. And like a refrain in our duet of rebellion, Dad would say with a puckish grin,
Just don’t tell Mom.

“Yeah,” I said, even as I felt the sting of disappointment. “Mom and her lists.”

“Look, New Jersey won’t be so bad for a few weeks.” He grabbed the iPhone that he had left by his pillow, to check a chiming alarm. “In fact, while I’m thinking about it, there’s an architect there that Uncle Adam’s been using for a couple of his new development projects. I’ll bet you could still score a great summer internship with him—Sam Stone.”

“Sam Stone?” My voice went squeaky with enthusiasm. Shadowing an architect famous for his mammoth, cutting-edge corporate campuses—the kind Dad’s family built, the kind I
wrote about designing in my college applications—was nothing short of an oasis in this desert of a summer. “Really?”

Dad laughed. “Sound good?”

“Sounds awesome,” I said, grinning back at him.

“Great! I’ll set you up.”

I had no doubt that Dad would follow through. After all, when he moved to Manhattan without us, he had promised, “I’ll be flying back every other weekend, even if it’s hard for me.” Dad climbed out of his sleeping bag and stretched so strenuously, I actually heard his spine crack. He winced and rubbed his lower back. “I’m getting old.”

“Come on. You’re going to be one of the youngest dads at college.”

“College.” He shook his head while ambling to the door. “I can’t believe I’ve got a kid in college.” Bending down, he hoisted his duffel bag easily onto his shoulder and wedged his hand into the front pocket of his now-wrinkled chinos. “Okay, kiddo, gotta catch my flight.”

“Wait, you’re leaving?” I said, surprised. “I thought you were flying out with us tomorrow night.”

Dad rubbed the stubble on his cheeks with the back of his hand. “I’ve got a ton of work. And since your mom’s got this under control, I thought I’d take an earlier flight home and get ready for you guys.”

Home? Since when did New York become home to Dad? Still, he was right. Mom had this move—just as she had all our vacations and summer programs and school schedules—graphed
out in nice, neat schedules of deadlines and deliverables. No wonder Dad had already escaped to Manhattan. The same freeing effect of living three thousand miles away from my mother was why I’d chosen Columbia over UW, my decision made in March, before I met Jackson.

We passed the moving truck dominating the driveway and made our way to Dad’s rental car out in the street, miraculously without attracting Mom’s attention. A week from today, our belongings would be trucked to the other side of the country. Thanks to Mom’s efficiency, Dad’s car had been shipped eight weeks ago so that he had transportation upon arrival. Now Dad slid into the rental and rolled down the window. “Hey, your college experience is still going to be great.”

“How can you say that?”

Dad adjusted the rearview mirror. “I’ll tell you what: Why don’t I use miles to fly Jackson out for a visit after school starts?”

“What?” I blinked at him, uncomprehending. “I thought you said long-distance relationships are impossible to maintain.”

He held up both hands defensively. “Hey, all I’m saying now is… they
hard. But you never know.”

Astonished, I wanted to ask Dad to repeat this unexpected manna of parental approval. Before, on the topic of Jackson, my parents had serenaded me with all the reasons to break up, harmonizing perfectly with Dad’s melodic “A little freedom in college is a good thing” and Mom’s drumbeat about “Jackson’s lack of plans” and “Look where that lackadaisical attitude landed your grandpa George.”

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