Authors: Helene Dunbar
Tags: #teen, #teenlit, #teen lit, #teen novel, #teen fiction, #fiction, #ya, #ya novel, #ya fiction, #young adult, #young adult fiction, #young adult novel, #ptsd, #post traumatic stress disorder
I pull it open, hoping it won't squeak.
The stacks of envelopes in the drawer are too new to be hers. Every single one of them is from a law firm downtown.
They've been opened. I scan one of the letters. Something about child support payments for Jordan.
And there's an address.
I wonder if I survived the river so that I could save Jordan. My brother.
Sticking the letter into my jeans pocket, I take it back to Kevin's room. The fact that I'm wearing almost every shirt I brought here isn't keeping me from shivering.
I pull out the letter and DeSilva's card.
I hold them close to my chest and rock back and forth on the floor, watching the red numbers on the clock change, one after another after another after another.
Waiting for morning.
Mr. Brooks is always in his office before homeroom. He says it's the quietest part of the day. When he was teaching middle school, there were full weeks that he'd find me on his beat-up old couch every morning, waiting for him.
Sometimes we'd talk. Sometimes I'd just sit there. He always let me be the one to decide.
I don't remember the last time I did that.
His door is open and, as usual, he's stretched out on his couch reading some dog-eared paperback. He smiles when I come in and goes back to his book.
I set my bag down and stumble over my feet as I make my way to the rocking chair.
The chair has a perfect view of Mr. Brooks' letter-filled wall. There's stuff from old students and collages of photos detailing his years of teaching. You wouldn't think it would be relaxing to look at, but it is.
It would be easy to sit here until class, but that isn't what I came here for. When I start to doze off, I force myself over to the air hockey table and push the puck back and forth.
Mr. Brooks is suddenly next to me. “Do you want to play?”
I nod. He closes the door and fires up the machine.
Mr. Brooks always plays to win. He says that kids need to learn to be graceful losers as well as graceful winners. He doesn't believe in mercy rules.
I like that about him.
He always wipes the floor with me in foosball; I can't get my hands to do that many things at once. But usually I can beat him at air hockey. Today he scores three straight goals against me. My reactions are sluggish. I always seem to be moving the wrong way in response to his shots.
I don't really care about beating Mr. Brooks. I just don't know how my father could have lied to me about The Night Before.
. I beat the mallet into the side of the table.
Then again, maybe he's telling the truth and I'm just crazy and making everything up, like hearing Mom's voice.
. The mallet hits again, harder this time.
Maybe I was always nuts and that's why Mom tried to kill me. Who would want a crazy kid anyhow?
Mr. Brooks covers my hand with his own and gently pries the mallet away from me. He guides me over to the couch. I sit in the corner of it and pull my legs up to my chest. Mr. Brooks doesn't care if we put our shoes on the cushions. This couch is already like a hundred years old.
I run a hand through my hair. It's damp. My hands are shaking.
Mr. Brooks sits on the arm and says my name, but nothing more. I came here to talk to him, but I don't know where to start. Anything I say is going to sound demented, so I just spew out all the words at once. “How do you know if something you remember really happened or if you're making it up?” My thumb starts up, so I shove my whole hand under the cushion, where it wraps around a nickel.
He answers carefully, like he always does. It's one of the ways you know he's really thinking about what you've asked. “If you remember something, it probably did happen. Maybe not exactly as you picture it, though. Memories are like that sometimes.”
Mr. Brooks rarely answers a question in a way that just gives you an answer. I think he likes to make you figure it out on your own.
I like that about him, too.
So I think that means there was a Night Before. But what if my father didn't really want to take us to California? What if it was some grown-up joke I didn't understand when I was ten?
Still, Mom was crying and there was the knife; I know I saw the knife. There's no way I could have made that up.
“What is it?” he asks.
I let go of the nickel, leaving it there for someone else to find, and pull my hand out from the cushion.
“How do you know if you're crazy?”
Mr. Brooks pauses, and I'm pretty sure he's going to tell me that I am and that I shouldn't move because he's going to call the counseling office. Or that someone from the hospital will come and get me.
“I'm going to guess that if you're thinking straight enough to ask the question, it's a safe bet you're okay.” He pulls on my sleeve. “You aren't crazy, Gordie. You know that. Well, not any more than the rest of us, anyhow.”
I take a really deep breath and try to relax.
“Do you want to tell me what's bothering you?” he asks.
“I have a little brother,” I blurt out. I know, I know, I know I shouldn't say anything to anybody, but Mr. Brooks always seems to know what to do, and I'm hoping he can tell me now.
He cocks his head. “You do?”
I nod. I'm just about to tell him that I think my asshole father is hurting Jordan when Sarah comes flying in through the door with a paper in her hand.
She stops and smiles when she sees me. I have to hold onto the cushions to keep from launching myself over to her.
“Sorry I missed the deadline yesterday, Mr. Brooks. Here's my paper,” she says without taking her eyes off me.
Hmm â¦ ” He takes it from her and I feel all the blood rush to my face. “Thanks, Sarah. See you in class.”
We kind of stare at each other for a minute before she leaves. My eyes stay glued to the doorway until I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Sarah Miller? That's why you've been so distracted in class lately?”
I cross my arms in front of me. Have I been distracted in class? I've tried really hard to pay attention, but with all this stuff about my father and all the spins â¦
“Yeah. I mean, no. I'm sorry,” I squeak out.
He puts his hand on my shoulder and smiles. “It's okay. That's â¦ interesting.” He gets up and walks to his desk and sits down, which is strange because I'm not sure I've ever seen him use that chair. He's usually on the couch, or playing a game, or sitting on top of the desk.
Just as he sits, someone else bursts through the door.
This time it isn't Sarah, but a junior girl with a paint-
covered skirt and long disheveled hair. She looks like she was playing paintball and forgot to change clothes. I think it's possible she might need to talk to Mr. Brooks even worse than I do.
I start to get up, but Mr. Brooks waves me back down.
“Lizzie,” he says with a sigh. “Do I even want to know what happened to you this time?”
“This is the second time in a week that those f â¦ ” She glances at me and shrugs.
I'm surprised to find that something in her half smile says
, something says that she gets it, and I wonder if maybe we could be friends or something one day. Assuming I don't get locked up or have my brain fried in some hospital.
The girl pushes down her painted skirt and says, “I'll just come back,” and then we're alone again.
Mr. Brooks rolls his eyes and lines a couple of pens up on his desk. “So, what were you saying?”
I know he isn't going to let this go, but now I'm kind of regretting that I said anything about Jordan, so I just shrug and stare down at my shoes.
He doesn't say anything for a minute and then sighs. He's good at waiting for me to want to tell him stuff, instead of trying to pull it out of me like Kevin.
“Well,” he finally says, “I have a secret of my own that I need to talk to you about.”
I look up at him and my heart flutters. I wish he didn't have something to say if it's going to make him look so serious, like a typical teacher.
“I'm taking a sabbatical next year. I'm going to do some studying of my own, in theaters in England.”
Mr. Brooks is head of our drama club, so I guess this makes sense, but â¦ “For the whole year?”
He smiles and leans forward. “Yeah. I leave a week after graduation.”
I get up and walk over to the window. He has this cool feeder that suctions onto the window and it's always crowded with hungry birds and the occasional squirrel.
The room is silent. My head is silent. Not in a good way. I just feel empty and confused. Mr. Brooks was there from the beginning. He's the only one who ever treated me like I wasn't some nutcase.
I know I need to tell him to have a nice time, that I'll see him when he gets back. That's what normal people would do, right? But my heart is pounding and I'm stuck here watching the birds crack the little seeds with their sharp beaks.
His shadow fills the window as he comes up behind me. “I have email, you know. You can always write me. Or even call, if you need to.”
I lean my forehead against the cool glass. A couple of the birds fly away and then come back to finish eating. I'm jealous of how birds get over being frightened so quickly. I want to get over it too; it's just that everything feels like it's changing at once. And sure, some of it is good, but I don't know why bad stuff needs to happen at the same time.
I turn, but my eyes are stuck on the ground. I don't want him to know how upset I am. Even though I'm sure he already does.
“Sounds fun,” I say as I grab my backpack and head toward the door. “I have to go. I have to â¦ ” I don't know what I have to do except not make an ass out of myself in front of Mr. Brooks, which is all well and good until I walk right into the air hockey table.
“Crap,” I say, kicking it, which just makes my foot hurt.
“You're going to give that table a complex if you keep beating it up,” he says.
I feel like a total idiot. “Sorry,” I mumble again. I let my bag slip down my shoulder and lean against the table.
Mr. Brook leans next to me. “You're going to be okay. This is all good, right? I mean, finding out you have a brother, and Sarah Miller?”
“It's just â¦ I don't know â¦ confusing.”
“All of it or just the part about Sarah?”
I snap the band against my wrist a couple of times. Something about seeing Sarah and having Mr. Brooks say he's leaving makes it hard to talk about Jordan again. “All of it, I guess. But Sarah â¦ yeah. That too.”
“It isn't you, you know. Relationships are always confusing. Girls are confusing.” He laughs. “Take it slowly and you'll be fine. Just be yourself.”
“Like I have any choice.” I think I just say it in my head, but then I realize I've said it out loud.
“From the look on her face, she obviously likes you. What are you afraid of?” Mr. Brooks' question flies around the room like one of the birds at the feeder. I could make him a list of a hundred things that scare me, but I know he's asking for something more specific.
I shrug and snap the band on my wrist again a few times. This whole conversation is making me edgy and I know there's still enough time before the first bell that I'm not going to be able to escape it. “You're leaving.”
“You have other people you can talk to, Gordie. You have Kevin and Jim, and now Sarah.”
“It's different though. I can't talk to Jim like this, and Kevin â¦ that's just different. Sarah â¦ that's really different.”
“You can always talk to someone else,” he says softly. He knows how I feel about the whole idea of talking to someone who is just paid to listen, someone who doesn't get me at all.
“That didn't work out so well last time.”
“You aren't ten anymore. I think you'd find it a completely different experience at fifteen.”
I really want to just lose it and tell him he can't go, that I'm not sure how to do this growing-up thing. That everything with Kevin is changing and I don't know how long Sarah is going to stick around; she always seems to be talking about leaving. And Mr. Brooks has always been there for me to count on, and now that I think about it, I'm terrified of being left alone by all of them.
I would have said all of that when I was ten.
I know better than to say it now, but I think maybe I was better off when I was just a stupid kid.
I drag my sleeve across my eyes to make sure that I'm not crying like I really want to.
“Just think about it, okay?” he asks.
My bag feels a lot heavier when I pick it up to leave.
Mr. Brooks leans over and clasps my shoulder. “You're going to be fine.”
I wish “fine” didn't seem to mean “alone,” the way that everyone says it.
“Watch where you're going, freak.”
I've almost walked into Cody, and now he's standing in front of me, his usual smug expression plastered onto his face. This is the last thing I'm up for.
“Sorry.” I move to step around him.
“You sure are,” he says.
Normally, I'd walk away and figure I got off light. But there's a powder keg of pissed-off inside me and Cody's just lit it. I let my backpack drop to the floor and try to imagine what Kevin would do.
“You're graduating in a few months, right?” I ask. “I mean, you aren't going to be held back again or anything?”
His smirk narrows into a straight line. “Why, honey? You gonna miss me?”
I try to remember everything Kevin ever tried to teach me about fighting. Action is better than reaction. Throw a punch with your body, not just with your arm. Keep your thumb out of your fist or you'll break it.
I wish I'd actually tried it out and not kept it as just a bunch of words. I take a deep breath and tighten my fists. Maybe I am nuts, but, at the moment, I don't really care.
“Yeah, we're all going to miss you keeping the penalty box warm and leaving us short-handed,” I say. “In fact, why don't you stick around because really, we'd love to miss the playoffs again and I'm not sure we can do that without you.”
He's such a moron that I can see him trying to figure out my insult.
“You know what I don't get?” He takes a step forward and I fight every urge I have to back up.
“What?” I ask, although I could write a book about everything Cody didn't get.
“Why haven't you just gotten over it? I mean, your mom was probably nuts too, right? So at least you didn't have to deal with her. I think she did you a favor.”
I don't even take a breath before I move to punch him. But like a blur, Cody is jerked away and Kevin has him pushed up against the lockers.
“You have a death wish, Bowman?” Kevin asks, his face about an inch from Cody's.
Cody looks at me and then at Kevin. “Hey man, your whacked-out brother started it.”
Kevin pulls Cody's shirt up so that it rests, wrapped around his fist, just under Cody's neck. “Yeah. Sure he did, you piece of â¦ ”
“Mr. Allen, do we have a problem here?” Mr. Brooks appears out of nowhere and stares down at Kevin.
My brother takes a step back and lets go of Cody, but I can see the anger still pouring off of him, and I still feel it churning inside me. “No,” he says. “Everything is just fine.”
I stare at Mr. Brooks, hoping he can feel how badly I need Kevin not to get hauled off to the principal's office.
But when Cody straightens himself out and stalks off, everyone takes a breath at the same time.
“Watch yourself, Kevin,” Mr. Brooks warns, and then gives me a little nod before he leaves.
Kevin leans against the locker and looks at me like he's never seen me before. “Did you really start that?”
I swallow hard to try to contain my anger. Try to focus on what I need to do. “I'm going to go see him. Jordan. I found his address.”
“I know you want to.” Kevin pauses and takes a deep breath. “Sarah and I were just talking, Ice, and maybe this isn't the best way to handle things.”
“What do you mean?” I'm not sure what's freaking me out moreâthat they've been talking, or that they agree on something.
His mouth tightens. “What are you going to do? Ride in there like the cavalry and kidnap him?”
The urge to slug something returns. But I see Sarah coming down the hall and work on letting my fist relax.
“No.” I draw a sharp intake of breath and let my words flow out as I release it. “No. I need to talk to him. I need to make sure â¦ I just need to see him. Then I'm going to let DeSilva know what my father is doing to him.”
Sarah comes over and puts her hand on my arm. “Can't you just tell Jim now?” she asks. “Or a teacher or someone?”
I want to tell her I will, because that's what she wants to hear. I want to do whatever she wants me to. But if I'm right, I can't leave Jordan there one more day than I have to. And there's no way I'm telling anyone that. Not her, not Kevin. And if they wouldn't understand, then there's no chance of Jim or Mr. Brooks getting it.
No one is going to get why
have to do this.
I can't do nothing. Not again.
And the idea that maybe it
my father who's the crazy one is starting to take over my head. And if that's true, then maybe I'm imagining it all.
I need to be sure. I need to be sure of everything.
Kevin must be able to tell that a bunch of stuff is rattling through my head because he says, “I don't like this. I don't want you to get hurt, Ice. This kid is nothing to you. He isn't your problem.”
Without thinking, I do something I've never, ever done before. Just like he did with Cody, I grab the front of Kevin's shirt, push him into the wall, and get right up into his face. “
How. Can. You. Say. That?
You, of all people?
Sarah gasps and Kevin's eyes cloud over. I tense up, bracing for the punch. I'd almost welcome it. But then Kevin spins away, slamming his hand into the locker hard enough to draw the attention of half the kids in the hall.
When he turns back to me, his eyes are sharp as daggers.
“Fuck, Ice. You trying to grow up to be like your dad?”
I don't say it's more likely that I'm turning into
. I'm too busy feeling each of his words as they slice through my skin, each syllable sharper than any blade.
I want a fight, but this hurts worse than any blow ever could.
Maybe my father is crazy. But what does that make me, aside from the kid who inherited it?
“Wait. Gordie, wait.”
Sarah's voice chases me as I storm out of school and across the parking lot. At first I think I'm imagining it, but then she's right there, matching me step for step.
“Stop. Please,” she pleads as first bell goes off.
What else can I do? I stop like I've walked into a brick wall.
She reaches out to touch my shoulder. I can't help it when I jerk away from her.
“Are you angry with me?” she asks. She's upset, and I hate that I'm the cause of it.
“No,” I say, but I don't think she believes me. My hand is clenched again and I can't open it. The muscles don't loosen when I try to massage it so I let it fall, limp and useless, to my side.
“Gordie, I'm worried about you.”
A part of me wants to put my arms around her and lay my head on her shoulder. But I can't get Jordan's eyes out of my head and I won't let anything, not even Sarah worrying about me, keep me from doing the right thing this time.
“Go back to school, Sarah. I don't want you to get in trouble,” I say. I force myself to walk away.
She runs up again and grabs my sleeve. “I want to help you.”
I look into brown eyes that seem like they can see right through me, like Kevin's can. “I know,” I whisper.
She takes the backpack from my shoulder and puts it down on the ground. Her arms circle around me. I'm surrounded by lilacs and warmth as she breathes into my ear, “Then let me.”
I give myself a few seconds to enjoy being so close to her before I pull away. It takes me a minute to get my hand into my pocket, but when I do, I tug the crumpled letter out.
She takes it from me and stares at it for a long time. “Is this his address?”
“Won't he be in school now?”
It's like I'm standing on the wall at Jim's. Do I go over, or do I stay put? Do I tell Sarah the truth, or do I keep my unspoken promise to Kevin never to talk about what my father used to do to him? I need to give her an explanation but I can't do that without â¦ without â¦
“I don't think so,” I say crossing a line I never thought I'd cross. “When things were really bad, and he thought it would show, my father made Mom keep Kevin home from school. There's only so many bruises you can hide from the teachers.” The expression on her face changes as the meaning behind my words sinks in and I silently pray that Kevin isn't going to hate me for telling her this.
But I'm pretty sure he will.
“You're just going to talk to him, right?”
For some reason the question sounds different coming from her than from my brother.
“I could come with you,” she says, glancing back at the school.
My heart races. I want her to come with me so badly. But she already skipped first period yesterday because of me, and I really don't want her to get into trouble.
Also, what if my father is there? What if Jordan is fine and it's all in my head? What if I'm nuts and she decides she doesn't want anything to do with me?
I take her hand and squeeze it.
“I'll be okay,” I say.
She nods, but I'm pretty sure neither of us thinks that's true.