Authors: Stacie Ramey
I don't have to think. I know. We were at the Cape. We'd gone up with Dad early. Two hours in the car with Dad in the best mood I'd seen him in forever. Leah sat up front, of course. She was wearing the new gold bracelet Dad had given her for being the youngest Robert Frost High School dance captain. It was this really
heavy hearts/kissing hearts
thing, and I knew it cost a fortune. I stretched out in back, headphones in, watching a movie on my tablet. I was thirteen. Leah was fifteen. Just turned.
We got to the house, and I let all the air in my lungs go out, just to make room for more Cape air. The breeze blew and the trees rustled. “Race ya.” Leah bolted out of the car.
“Put the food away before you head to the beach,” Dad called from his bedroom, where he'd wheeled his suitcase.
“What's got him so happy?” I asked Leah.
“Who cares? Just roll with it.”
It was early in the season. The weekend before Memorial Day. The kids on the beach were wearing sweatshirts, but Leah stripped to her bathing suit.
“You're not serious. It's gotta be freezing.”
“So what? It only hurts for a minute.” She pointed to the water. “Besides, it's easier when you do it with someone.”
Dr. Applegate's voice cuts through the mist. “Look around you. What colors do you see? Try to remember it all.”
We were standing on the beach. The rocks were gray and blueâshimmery water, inky black in parts, and navy in others. Sea foam and sand and the sun overhead. Leah stood at the edge of the water. It slapped against her legs, and she held her hand out. Leah was a dancer. Her body was used to pain. The icy water would feel like knives to me, but to her, it was relief.
“Come on, I'll give you the blue dress. The one you like.”
I stayed still in the sun on the sand. I let it bake on me and make me feel warm and loved. “You were going to give me that one anyway.”
“Okay, then I'll give you the Kate Spade purse with all the colors to go with it.”
I took my sweatshirt off. “How bad is it?”
“Not bad at all.”
“Liar.” I inched closer. Just the spray on my feet was too much. I shrieked and ran away.
She laughed so hard. I remember thinking she had the best laugh. She wrapped her arms around me and started dragging me to the water. “A deal's a deal.” I shrieked the whole way in, screaming with each spanking of the waves against my skin.
“Don't you love it now?” she lowered herself so that the water was up her neck.
“Now that my body is numb, yeah.”
“Numb is way better than feeling most times anyway.”
The water splashed against us, and we bobbed up and down with the waves. Then we rode some in toward the shore, like Dad had taught us when we were little. Finally, we straggled onto the beach, exhausted and freezing. I wrapped up in my towel, and she put her arm around me. “You wanna know a secret?” she asked.
“I think I'm in love.”
“Who this week?”
“It's a secret, but it's real. Not like those stupid throwaway guys, you know?”
“Because I feel it. And because when I'm with him, I'm myself. I don't have to keep proving myself. Being me is good enough.”
I looked at her. Leah feeling like she wasn't good enough? That thought blew my mind. I felt this immediate gratitude for whoever this guy was whom she loved. The one that Leah let fix her. “Wow. That sounds amazing.”
“I'm thinking of giving up dancing.”
I put my hand over my mouth. “Oh my God, Dad is going to freak!”
She laughed. “I know. But I'm so tired. And I just want to be. You know? I want to be left alone.”
We walked back to the house.
“When are you going to tell them?”
“Maybe this weekend.” She looked nervous but also kind of excited. I remember I thought she was so brave, and I wanted to be like her. “That's the point.”
“I don't want to end up like they are, with the wrong person. I want to love and be loved and have that be the most important thing. Because this kind of love I'm talking about, it possesses you.”
“That doesn't sound good.”
“No, I'm not explaining it right. It's that nothing matters other than being with this person. Even the things you thought were important aren't. Every second you aren't with this person is like being slowly suffocated.”
She put her hands around my neck and faked-choked me till we both almost fell over laughing.
I remember thinking my sister really trusted me to tell me this before she told my parents. Even if she didn't say who, I'd know soon anyway. Everyone would when they saw what she gave up to be with him. Whoever he was.
When we turned the corner, we saw two extra cars in the driveway. Two was wrong. Even one extra car was. Mom wasn't supposed to be here till tomorrow.
Dr. Applegate interrupts again. “You there, Allie? You see how it started?”
“And you know why you started the plan? What made you?”
I open my eyes and looked at Dr. Applegate head-on. “Love.”
Her eyes look at me like she totally gets me. She nods. “Okay, Allie, time's up.”
â¢ â¢ â¢
Thankfully Mom doesn't feel the need to fill the ride back from Dr. Applegate's office with conversation. It isn't till we pull into the driveway that she asks, “You want Chinese food for dinner? I could run and get you lo mein.” Mom unlocks the front door. “Just let me grab the coupon book.”
I'm just about to answer when I see him standing thereâDad. In the hallway. When did he get here? And more importantly, why?
“David?” Mom asks. “Did you tell me you'd be coming over?”
“I saw what you did in your room.” His face is tight and worn, as if commanding this platoon is killing him. “Come here, Allie. We need to talk.”
My whole body wants to turn and run out the front door. Sophie stands next to me, not wanting to commit until I do. My little soldier.
“Let's find out what this is about.” Mom walks into the living room, allowing him to take a seat in his spot. It burns me that he still gets to have one after he left us. Just like it burns me that he still has a key to the house.
“We need to talk about the paintings.”
First pain. Then heat. Then hate. How could he? The paintings are mine. They have no right.
“I think your paintings are keeping you out of your studioâ¦”
“Let me finish. We could store them somewhere.”
“Just until you're ready to see them again.” He holds his hands in front of him, two twin stop signs like he's negotiating with a crazy person. Like he's trying to talk me off the ledge. “Then we'll bring them back.”
Playing Dad is like playing poker against the house. I can't win. He holds all the cards except the ones he deals to meâthe losing ones. Then he smiles as he collects his chips. And I sit here, alone, wishing like mad for a little backup. Not the Mom
folding her hand so she can get this over with and get back to her pills
backup either. I need my sister.
And then it hits me. Maybe I do hold some of the cards.
“If you take my paintings, I'll stop doing art altogether. You can't make me. If you touch them, I swear, my painting days will be done.”
Dad turns greenish grayâcamo colors. He didn't have a sound battle plan. I turn and walk up the stairs. They can talk about this all they want. I'm out.
He can't make me paint. I've finally got him. But in reality it's not much of a threat. It's not as if I'm creating much anyway. Just like that, the wind goes out of my sails. I open my backpack and take out my new artillery. My Delsym. Piper said I had to find my art. Leah too. I open the top and take a big gulp. Then another one. Then I close the bottle and put it away.
As I wait for the cough medicine to kick in, I open my backpack and look at my books. I need to face my homework; it's building up already.
Twenty-five minutes later I hear Mom come up the stairs, but I act like I don't.
“I'm sorry about that.” She deposits the quart of lo mein and a pair of chopsticks on my desk.
I don't look at her. She doesn't deserve it.
“Your paintings are safe.” Mom puts the key to my studio on my desk. “But go see for yourself if you like.” She walks away, her steps sounding more confident than she has in years.
I close my books and look out my window. My studio sits waiting. I know she's baiting me, egging me on, but also, maybe she's right. I have to face them someday, don't I?
I walk down the stairs. My legs feeling like jelly and the aftereffects of the drugs from earlier are still in my systemâmaybe fueling my bravery a little. But it's not like Mom faces things head-on either. I grab a flashlight from the kitchen drawer and play with the pink Converse sneaker on the key chain. The key feels good in my hands, like it's missed me.
I open the mudroom door, ignore the chill that hits me, and make my way to my studio. I head down the path, the flashlight shining ahead, though I could walk there with my eyes closed. When I get to the door, I stop. Do I really want to do this?
I put my key in the lock and jiggle the door. The door swells and sticks when it's damp, and it's been a very wet summer. I push the door open. Stale air hits me. The light from the moon shines in the room, making the sheets over the paintings look like ghosts.
I walk toward one, my hand stopping just short of pulling the sheet off, exposing it for what it is, when I hear Leah.
“Hey,” she says. She's behind me, pressed against the wall, dressed in her black skinny jeans and Sean's school jersey, also black. When she steps in front of the window, the moonlight bounces off her soft, blond hair, making it glow. I can't help feeling like someone punched the air out of me as I look at her. My fingers go to my mouth. I want to believe she's really here so badly. I want to. I want to. I want to.
She puts her arm around me and pulls me away from the paintings. She nods toward the covered canvases. “Maybe we should start with something else first. Something easier. Like the montage on my computer.”
“The one I'm not in?” I ask, trying to keep my voice from sounding whiny.
“You're on my computer,” she says. “It's not like you're not on there at all.”
My eyes trail down her arm that's draped over meâthe one that can't really be there. I don't trust my voice, but it's the only one I have. “It's not the same.”
She covers my hand with hers, which is more energy than flesh. She turns my hand over, exposing the screen of my cell phone. I watch as she navigates till she gets on the Internet and her Dropbox. She opens a photo album with her and me in it. Our fingers stretch a photo till it fills the face of my phone. We were modeling her clothes and posing. I wore the red mini; she wore the blue one. It was two weeks before the party. She let me try on her life that day and then, at the party, her friends.
“Remember these?” she asks. Leah looks at me. “You were always with me. Even when I didn't act like that.”
I don't want to argue with herâit doesn't seem right to argue with a ghostâbut she's wrong. I'm not with her, not the way I wanted to be. I was always in a back file. Never up frontâlike she was for me.
“You don't understand. Everything had to be perfect,” she says. “I was doing what you do, Allie. I was painting a picture. That's all.”
“And I messed that up?”
“No. You just weren't part of that particularâ¦composition.”
Since when did she use art terms in conversation? I turn away.
“Give me your cell again.” She puts her hand out.
“Just give it to me.”
Part of me waits for it to drop on the floorâproof that she's not here with meâbut it doesn't. She pushes the buttons to unlock my phone since she knows the password. Because she set it. She holds up the face for me to see. My wallpaper, a picture of Emery and me on the first day of school. “See, I'm not on yours.”
“But you're the wallpaper on my phone. Just the two of us, remember?”
I do. She took it three days before she killed herself. Three days. I blink back tears. How could everything have been so normal three days before? How could she have been so normal?
“Remember the picture? Our picture?”
Of course I remember. I remember every single time Leah decided to be nice to me. It was a close-up of me and her, arms around each other, her telling me something funny, me laughing.
“Then show me. Where's your phone?” I ask.
My phone vibrates in her hands. “Hey, who's Nick?”
I put my hand out. Just like her to read my messages. No boundaries. Except when it came to her secrets. Hers were important. Not mine. I shake my head. I am so stupid.
“I feel so out of your life,” she says.
She is, because she left it.
“But I'm back now, and I want to stay as long as I can.”
As long as she can? She just got here and she's already talking about leaving? Anger blazes through me. “We had a deal. You were supposed to tell me.”
“I didn't want you involved. I wanted you safe. And if you'd kept quiet, if you'd just kept your head, they'd never have known you were supposed to be involved.”
Is she kidding? I fire my words at her, launch them like missiles. “A pact. It was a suicide pact. That means we agreed we wouldn't do it without talking with the other one. You were never supposed to do it without me.”
“I changed my mind.”
She sighs. “You wouldn't understand.”