Authors: Gregg Olsen
Dinner: My turn, spaghetti?
Days at this school: 155.
Texts from Caleb: 15 so far.
Plan: Find a way to tell him the truth.
MY NAME IS RYLEE AND I AM A LIAR, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT I WAS RAISED TO BE.
I hear the water running in the bathroom sink and I know my mother will bitch at me for leaving it on. Even though I didn’t. I just got home from school. Mom has been critical of me, while praising my little brother, Hayden—despite the fact he doesn’t do much to deserve it. If he remembers to flush the toilet after a late-night pee, she practically does handstands the next morning. Mom has always been harder on me. She says that it’s because I have so much potential. Which really means that whatever I’ve actually done so far has disappointed her.
Mom’s been homeschooling Hayden since kindergarten. I could be homeschooled too, but I don’t want to be. I want to fit in with other people. I don’t want to be the loser at the mall who has no social skills, and doesn’t know what’s in and what isn’t. How to wear my hair or whatever. You really can’t learn all you need to know from TV or your Twitter feed, and contrary to what most people think: that all kids my age do is hang out online—it’s not true for all of us. Not for me at least. I’m a watcher. I’m an observer. I like being out in the real world, mostly because my home life has always been so fake.
Not completely awful. Just totally fake.
I’m a sophomore at South Kitsap High School, in a rinky-dink town on Puget Sound, a ferry ride from Seattle. While I don’t know for sure if I’m fifteen or sixteen—it’s complicated—I do know that for the first time in a long time, I feel that I actually fit in somewhere. That’s no small feat. We’ve moved fourteen times. I think. It’s been so many times that I’ve lost track. But here in Port Orchard, no one asks any awkward questions about where we lived before because people come and go around here all the time. Across the inlet that fronts our town is the naval shipyard, a row of gray hulls in various states of disrepair. Moms and dads arrive in the naval ships or go out to the Pacific on their way to the nearest war. Kids come later and stay in crummy housing near the shipyard or the submarine base a little farther north. In a way, all the moving around that other people do makes me feel as if I actually am part of something stable.
Figure that one out and win a prize.
I hear Hayden squawking in another part of the house as I twist the knob to turn off the water. I look down at the toilet bowl, the water the color of sunshine, and I drop the lever and the whirlpool sucks down my little brother’s pee.
I glance at myself in the large oval mirror hanging above the sink. I have never been what I’d call pretty. Not ugly either. Just average. Sometimes I wish that I had a big hairy mole on my chin or something that could distinguish me from the other girls who lurk in the halls at school with pleading eyes and awesomely heavy eyeliner that makes them look more glamorous than I am, at least at that particular moment. At my last school, I adopted a kind of Goth persona and really piled on the mascara. I’m talking about two extra coats of the blackest I could find. I catch myself smiling in the mirror, remembering. My dad—stepdad, really—thought I looked kind of slutty, but I told him that’s what I needed to look like in order to blend in. My whole life has been about blending in, being invisible. And I just hate it. My hair is brown now—not chestnut, not auburn, just a nondescript brown, the color of the bark of the dead tree behind the house. I think my real hair color could be blond, but it has been dyed so many times I have forgotten what shade it really is.
“Rylee!” Hayden calls from somewhere in the house. The kitchen, I think. He probably wants me to fix him a chicken potpie or something as an afterschool snack. I keep telling him that he actually needs to go to school to have a real afterschool snack. I mean, look, he’s here all day with a refrigerator and microwave at his disposal. He could have whatever he wants, when he wants it—the only undisputed benefit of being homeschooled.
I swipe a strand of my finally-past-my-shoulder brown hair behind my right ear and imagine what I might look like if I had short hair again. Mom says that longer hair gives me more options, but the options that she provides only make me look like an unstyled country singer. But I’m not exactly Taylor Swift and, well, I can’t sing anyway.
I turn toward the sound of my brother’s irritating and agitated voice.
Hayden seems louder and more urgent than normal, but it doesn’t alarm me. He’s always screaming about something. Screaming seems to be his way of ensuring that no matter what he says, it gets an immediate response.
I pull my hair from behind my ear.
“Coming, Hayden,” I call as I leave the bathroom for the kitchen. The hall is dark and I flip the switch, but the lights don’t go on.
. The fuse has blown in this particular house practically on a weekly basis ever since we moved in.
. That’s funny. That’s the word that I always use. I don’t think I’ve ever said the word “home” in reference to any place I’ve ever lived. I roll my eyes. I hate being the one forced to go into the dank, dark garage to get to the breaker box. There is always something in the way and it takes forever to get to that stupid box. I wish Hayden were more self-sufficient. But it’s always down to me to get stuff fixed around here.
Hayden is on the other side of the kitchen next to the dinette set that Mom got from some guy on Craigslist two weeks ago. My dad was completely pissed off about it. He didn’t think it was a good idea to answer an ad online and actually go to a stranger’s house to make the purchase. But Mom dismissed it all.
“I don’t want to live like a bottled insect,” she had said.
I remember thinking of that disgusting tequila with the worm swirling around in the bottom of the bottle, but I was pretty sure Mom was speaking metaphorically, not literally.
“We have rules,” Dad shot back. “And we have them for a reason.” Dad is always like that—curt, direct, to the point. I have memories of when he wasn’t quite so … so exact, so I know that somewhere behind his edicts and rules, he is a man who still knows how to smile.
Hayden is on the floor hunched over and when he looks up I notice two things. First, he’s crying. That isn’t unusual. Seems like he always cries whenever he doesn’t get his way. I never get my way. The second thing I observe is so puzzling that it really doesn’t compute. It’s like my brain is stuck on a search engine to nowhere. I can’t quite grasp it.
His white T-shirt is soaked in red.
Break a jar of raspberry jam?
I think, though that possibility is so unlikely I can barely dismiss it from my mind before the grim reality of what is in front of my brother hits me. Hard. It is like a sledgehammer to the back of my skull. I lurch closer and Hayden looks up at me with the most frightened eyes I’ve ever seen.
He speaks in that scream-volume of his, though I’m inches from his mouth.
“Rylee! I think he’s dead.”
I throw myself down on the floor next to my brother and look at the blank eyes of my dad, staring into space. The room begins to turn as I try to grasp what has happened in our kitchen. Everything is spinning. I think for a second that this is what it must feel like to be really, really drunk. I push Hayden away and press my hands against Dad’s face, then his neck. He is wearing a powder-blue shirt, gray trousers and a red tie. No, not a tie. It is a slash of blood that has emptied from the top of his chest, drained down his shirt, pooling on to the travertine floor—the floor that Mom had gushed about when we first moved into this house on Salmonberry Avenue. The black handle of a knife sticks out of his chest.
I don’t cry. Hayden is crying enough for the both of us. I spin around. In my heart I knew that a day like this was always in the offing, that somehow darkness would come after my family. I knew that our life away from others, our life blending into the background of the world, could be undone by someone. Fear and the possibility that something like this was always there, has been what kept us together. It was also a barrier. It was what held us away from everyone that we ever pretended to know.
“Where’s Mom?” I ask in almost a whisper.
Hayden has rolled his body into a ball, and is rocking back and forth like one of those weighted blow-up clown figures that give me the creeps. His light blond hair is compressed above his ears where his small hands clamp the side of his head as he tries to shut out everything. He’s done that before. We all cope in ways that we can. Yet, as awful as this moment is, this isn’t the time for shutting out the world. My heart is nearly heaving from my chest, but I do everything I can to offer him some reassurance. Despite the fact that our father is a bloody mess, we can survive.
we do the right things—and if we do them right away.
I lean closer and tug at his shoulder so that he will look up at me once more.
. “You have to get a grip on yourself, Hayden,” I say, trying not to betray my real emotions. I continue to speak in a low whisper. I don’t want anyone other than Hayden to hear.
My brother relaxes his hands, but doesn’t remove them from his head. He looks at me. His blue eyes now look green with terror. He is small for his age, and he looks even smaller now. He’s seven, but he could pass for five, though he never needed to. Age isn’t crucial in homeschooling like it has been for me in public schools.
Hayden starts to speak, his words tumbling from trembling lips. He is nearly inaudible, but I catch each empty word. “Mom wasn’t here,” he whispers. “I was outside. I came in to use the bathroom and I heard something.”
I grab his other shoulder and twist him around so that we are eye to eye. “What did you hear?”
I have his attention now.
“Voices, Rylee,” he says. “Yelling. A crash. Should we call 911?”
Hayden’s eyes leave mine as they wander over our father and the knife that’s planted like a stake in his chest. My brother is distracted by it and I need him to focus.
“Talk to me,” I say, looking at him.
He doesn’t say another word.
“Talk,” I repeat.
Again nothing. His eyes are fixated on the blade.
I reach over and yank out the knife. It makes a kind of sound that I will never be able to fully describe. It is almost musical as it slides from our father’s ribcage and out of the gash in his chest. Not a pretty sound. But not all music is pretty. I know that from listening to my mother’s CD collection on long car trips as we moved from place to place. I wipe the blade’s handle with a kitchen towel that I retrieve from the counter. I don’t want my fingerprints on the handle. I lay the knife gently on my father’s chest. I don’t know where else to put it.