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Authors: Julie Murphy

Side Effects May Vary

BOOK: Side Effects May Vary
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of HarperCollins Publishers

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To Mom for giving me this beautiful life, and to Ian for sharing it with me.




f ever my parents gave me a religion, it was the gospel of honesty. Babies don't come from storks, and my mom never dared to tell me that a flu shot would hurt her more than it would me. But even though we lived by the truth, there were some things I would never know how to say out loud. What I hadn't said for the last year was:
I miss Harvey.
I couldn't say it out loud, but that didn't stop it from being true. In the collection of my memories there was no specific moment that I was most fond of, a moment that so defined this whisper of loss. Still, every time I thought of simple things like eating pizza on Friday night, Harvey was there. And now, he was not.

“Let's get out of here,” someone whispered in my ear, tickling the hair at my neck. For the briefest moment, I wondered if it was Harvey.

I didn't turn, but flicked my eyes up to see the corner of Luke's lips in the reflection of the magnetic mirror on my locker door.

“I've got bio,” I said, answering his silent question.

“I've got an idea.”

I smiled and his arms twisted around my waist, like he'd won me. I shook my head. “It's our first test review of the year. I can't miss it.”

Luke pulled me to face him and slammed my locker door shut. “This weekend's our one year. I'm going to be out of town with the team, so I thought we could do something today. Please,” he begged, his grin widening. It was true. One month into my sophomore year marked one year with Luke. Dropping his chin down into my shoulder, his lips pressed against my hair, he said, “Come on, Alice. Don't be like this. I said I was sorry. Laurel's trying to get to you. You know it's not true.”

Laurel, a senior and Luke's ex-girlfriend, had cornered me in the bathroom three days ago.
He's a cheater,
she said.
If you're not sleeping with him, I can guarantee you that other girls are
. I'd skipped gym to ask Luke about it. He looked at me like he was about to cry; I couldn't tell if it was because he was scared of losing me or getting caught. I wanted to believe him.

Luke was a junior and a year older than me. There were a lot of reasons why we'd started dating. I liked the way he nibbled on his knuckles when he was thinking and how he trimmed his hair every week—a blond fuzz that felt good against the tips of my fingers. He was funny, but only when he didn't mean to be. He didn't lie, not even when he'd gotten my birthday confused. My mom didn't like him. And Celeste—who was more enemy than friend and always foolish enough to want anything of mine—had a thing for him.

Tracing circles on the small of my back, he said, “You know homecoming's in a few weeks, right?”

Luke was one of the junior class representatives for homecoming court, and I'd teased him about it relentlessly. “Yeah, my mom was going to take me to buy a dress this weekend. Unless you decided to take some other girl.”

He sighed. “Let me know what color dress you get. I'll pick up a tie to match.”

I nodded, smiling into his shoulder.

My mom was supposed to take me dress shopping. She never thought Luke was smart enough to date her daughter, and she wasn't too appreciative of his popular jock status either. Actually, at home, my parents simply referred to him as “bro.” Really, neither of them was a fan of any boys who weren't Harvey. But when I'd told Mom about homecoming, she'd immediately volunteered to take me to the designer outlet mall on the way to Alton—the best shopping in a thirty-mile radius.

I watched the crowd of students brush past as Luke stayed there with his lips on my neck, trying to arouse something, but all I felt was the ache for Harvey whirring in my chest.

He almost didn't see me. His head bobbed above most of the crowd, his brown hair curling at his neck, long overdue for a haircut. Every time I saw Harvey, he was taller and broader than I'd remembered. Still, though, I saw the little boy with eyes too big for his face, who I'd bossed around since I could string together enough words to make a sentence. Our moms had always been best friends in a way that felt more like family. We'd grown up together because we didn't have much of a choice in the matter. There was never that horrible getting-to-know-you phase most everyone had to go through.

Then we'd drifted. High school did that to you, turned you into pieces of driftwood. And the parts of you that you'd tried to keep in one piece became the property of the wind and the water, sending those dear pieces everywhere you were not. He'd gone right; I'd gone left.

“Cut the PDA!” called Coach Wolfen as he jogged past us through the door of the teachers' lounge.

Harvey turned back and saw me there, pressed up against Luke. I couldn't be sure—but his shoulders seemed to fall a little before he turned back in the other direction. There was this part of me that liked seeing that.

Luke groaned. “Yeah, yeah.”

My eyes searched past Luke, but Harvey was already gone. “Let's go.”


Once we'd cleared the school parking lot, Luke asked, “Cool if we go to your place?”

“Yeah.” Both my parents were at work.

As he drove along my street, Luke turned down the music. “You go in,” he said. “I'll leave the car around the corner and meet you back here.” He slid the gearshift into park.

I unbuckled my seat belt, but before I opened the car door, he reached for my hand, his grip loose at first, then tightening. He leaned over and studied my face, his brow wrinkled like he wanted to see every detail of me, like he might find some kind of answer he'd been searching for. Luke touched his hand to my cheek and kissed me. I leaned into him, his hands traveling a familiar path through my hair.

“I brought condoms,” he whispered. “Maybe we could go to your room?”

My back stiffened a little. I wasn't the type of girl who wanted to plan out her first time with candles and rose petals or any of that. But, I don't know. I didn't expect it to happen right that moment, on a Tuesday afternoon while my parents were at work. It felt weird to think about having sex in my bedroom, the room that still had the floral border I'd begged my parents for in second grade.

I closed my eyes for a moment, unable to concentrate, like focusing my eyes on anything would make me pass out.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine,” I said. “Just got dizzy for a second.”

He pulled my hands in, holding them inside of his. “Don't be nervous.”

I nodded. “I'll wait for you by the front door.”

On the porch, I patted my pockets. My keys. They were in my backpack, in Luke's car. He'd already driven off. I walked around the side of the house and through the gate to the backyard. The back door might be unlocked. My mom was weird about leaving spare keys out. She'd rather me go to a neighbor's house or call Harvey's mom, Natalie, but my dad was horrible about locking the back door.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move from behind the blinds of my parents' bedroom.

Maybe it was instinct or whatever, but I hit the ground. Rising into a squat, I peeked over the bushes. I waited for the figure to pass again. There hadn't been any cars in the driveway. My heart slapped against my chest and my breath quickened.

He wore a button-up shirt and boxers and dress socks. I covered my mouth, so as not to make a sound. What kind of pervert breaks into other people's homes and gets undressed? I reached for my cell phone, but it was in Luke's car with my keys.

Then I saw my mom. She pulled the duvet cover at the end of the bed, straightening the edges. She wore the same navy blue pencil skirt I'd seen her in that morning and her bra, which was a total mom bra: beige with a floral pattern and no padding. The man. He looked a little bit younger than her, but I could see his light brown hair fading into white at his ears.

I'd heard in class once that our society has become so accustomed to violence that when we actually do witness real gore and brutality, we're unable to differentiate between what's real and what's not. This was how that moment felt for me. Truth and fiction were one big blur. I'd seen infidelity on television and in movies. I'd seen it so many times. This exact scenario. Daytime affair while the other spouse was at work, a working relationship gone too far. My breaths came fast and hitched, unable to catch their rhythm. I curled my fingers into fists to stop them from trembling.

Who was this man? Maybe he had a family. He and my mom might work together. Or he could be her client. This could be a one-time thing. Or it might not. This might be the beginning. She could be leaving us for him. Anger slipped through my veins.

He held my mom's hips and kissed her shoulder before zipping up the back of her skirt. The pale stretch marks across her belly shone against her skin. She had a little pooch, but it didn't look like she was bothered by it even though it always made her groan in fitting rooms.

She looked happy.

I wanted to be angry. But I was sad. Sad that she couldn't feel that way with us—me and Dad. It was like she was cheating on
of us inside
home. I wish I had better, smarter words, but all I wanted was to throw a rock through the window and scream,
Fuck you, Mom.

The fence creaked.

“Hey,” said Luke. “What's going on?” He was trying to be nice, but I could see that he was anxious. Like a little boy whose baseball game was about to get rained out. He craned his neck. “Is someone in your house? Is that your . . . wait, that's not your dad, is—”

I stood and pushed back on his shoulders. I wouldn't let him know about this. No one could know about this. “It's no one. Just some cleaning people that come once a month. Let's go. What about your house?”

“My mom doesn't work, remember?” He dug his car keys out of his front pocket. “What about Craven's Park?”

I felt sick, like physically sick. “Can you take me back to school?”

He sighed. “Fine. Let's go.”

I followed Luke down the sidewalk back to his car, maintaining the distance between us. I wanted to feel bad for leading him on and letting him think that we might finally do it. But now, all I could think of was my mom smiling, happy. Broken families were such a commonality, almost to the point of being cliché. I think I went to school with more kids who had stepmoms and stepdads than I did with kids whose biological parents were still married. Infidelity. Divorce. That was the new normal. But just because it was normal didn't make the cut any less deep.

Luke stopped a few steps ahead of me. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Did something happen back there?”

“I'm good. Just can't get in without my key.” I stood at his passenger side door. “Let's go park somewhere.”

“It's fine,” he said. “We don't have to.”

In a way, he seemed almost relieved.

“You're sure you're okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Come on. But I'm not doing it with you in the back of your car, just so you know.”

I expected him to laugh, but he didn't.

There was no way I could go back to school and sit in a goddamn classroom, not while this silent avalanche slid down on my world. In the back of Luke's car, I closed my eyes and let his hands roam as I wished for a problem—a distraction—so big it would blanket me and my parents and everyone I loved most in an all-consuming darkness.

About a month later, I got the big distraction I'd hoped for. I was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Cancer. I had fucking cancer.

BOOK: Side Effects May Vary
2.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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