Read Tell me a secret Online

Authors: Holly Cupala

Tell me a secret

Holly CupalaTell Me a Secret

ForEzri, my helpLyra, my songand Shiraz, my love

Contents

One

It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl.

Two

Coming home after almost three months was like walking into…

Three

Things could have been different if Delaney had chosen Brielle…

Four

When Delaney picked me up to go to Chop Suey,…

Five

Two days later, summer officially ended and I started life…

Six

My mother couldn’t control the weather in Seattle, but she…

Seven

“Miranda, what’s the holdup?”

Eight

Milo’s party got off the ground now that Delaney was…

Nine

Essence didn’t come to school today, but her legend lived…

Ten

When I came home, the house was eerily quiet. Usually…

Eleven

After dinner there was nothing for me to do but…

Twelve

Delaney didn’t call me back. Suddenly she had a million…

Thirteen

Before she spent her days and nights with Andre, Xanda…

Fourteen

More and more, I spent my free time either in…

Fifteen

After Miz Wrent’s visit, I expected my mom to champion…

Sixteen

After Ty Belkin’s moment of truth, questions and answers blurred…

Seventeen

Mom usually puttered around in the morning with Dad already…

Eighteen

The last weeks of October found everyone at school humming…

Nineteen

That’s how I ended up at Dylan’s Halloween party, sneaking…

Twenty

I remember the day Dad brought him home.

Twenty-One

Where my pregnancy made a mere ripple in the Elna…

Twenty-Two

My parents wasted no time setting me on the path…

Twenty-Three

Throughout November, I performed a bevy of soul-sucking tasks for…

Twenty-Four

“I don’t think I’ll be here for Thanksgiving,” I announced…

Twenty-Five

I climbed into Shelley’s SUV and saw a whole new…

Twenty-Six

Elna Mead scheduled the Winter Ball for the last weekend…

Twenty-Seven

A few minutes later, I pulled into the church parking…

Twenty-Eight

“What,” my mom hissed, “is going on here?” She looked…

Twenty-Nine

Montage opening night was sure to be a packed house…

Thirty

Mom drove with her eyes straight ahead, boring into the…

Thirty-One

The Impala had cleaned up nicely since the crash that…

Thirty-Two

“It was Christmas Eve, remember?” It seemed absurd, standing by…

Thirty-Three

“You sure you don’t want me to take you home?”

Thirty-Four

The darkness gathering around me and Xanda felt close, warm,…

Thirty-Five

A pinch on my backside awakened me, pulling me out…

Thirty-Six

Once I hit SEND, it was too late to go…

Thirty-Seven

“I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry,” I kept saying, as if chanting the words would…

Thirty-Eight

Shelley wiped her forehead as if pressing that mountain out…

Thirty-Nine

Shelley came back with DaShawn—the day after Christmas, and the…

Forty

I spent the next couple of weeks living at the…

Forty-One

Lexi went from the ventilator to the incubator, upgraded out…

Forty-Two

“Hey, what are you doing here?” a voice roared in…

Forty-Three

After Xanda stormed out on Christmas Eve with Andre in…

Forty-Four

The bus wound through the hills of our neighborhood as…

Forty-Five

I became an older sister the day I turned eighteen.

 

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

One

It’s tough, living in the shadow of a dead girl. It’s like living at the foot of a mountain blocking out the sun, and no one ever thinks to say, “Damn, that mountain is big.” Or, “Wonder what’s on the other side?” It’s just something we live with, so big we hardly notice it’s there. Not even when it’s crushing us under its terrible weight.

No one mentions my sister. If they do, it’s mentioning her by omission, relief that I am nothing likeher. I am the good sister. Thank God.

To speak of my sister…there’s nothing more sacrilegious. Alexandra, Andra, Alex. Xanda—who was, and is, and is to come. To speak her name is my family’s purest form of blasphemy.

To think of Xanda is to conjure up a person out of phasewith the rest of us. Gym socks and Mary Janes. Lipstick always slightly outside the lines, as if she were just the victim of a mad, messy kiss. Laddered stockings with dresses that were decidedly un-churchy. Sloppy in a way that was somehow repulsive and delectable at the same time. Repulsive to my parents. Delectable to me.

At ten, I was practicing her pout in the mirror. By twelve, I was trying on her clothes (in secret, of course), thrilled with the way her shorts hugged my cheeks and made my underpants seem obsolete. Xanda was seventeen. She didn’t wear underpants.

One day she caught me in her boots and safety-pin dress, the one she had painstakingly assembled like rock-star chain mail. I was so scared I poked a pin through the end of my pinky. I imagined her taking off one of her stilettos and plunging it into my heart.

But Xanda didn’t skewer me. Instead, she threw back her head and laughed a dazzling, tonsil-baring laugh, then smothered me in a hug. She had that sour, sharp smell, and I knew she had been with Andre—Andre, of the sultry voice and skin the shade of coffee with milk.Café con leche, as he put it. Sweet and dangerous. A bit of a con, said Andre. A bit of a letch, said my sister.

After she bandaged my finger, Xanda insisted I try on the matching safety-pin leg warmers. They hung like chains around my ankles.Clump, clump, drag.With a heavy grasp, she steered us both toward the full-length mirror onthe back of her bedroom door. The metal of the safety pins shimmered down my straight, twelve-year-old hips. Xanda stood behind me, the glow of the bedroom window lighting up the pale chaos of her hair in a halo. She shimmered, too, but in a different kind of way. Her sheer white dress fluttered around her, a ghost trapped behind my chain-link figure. When she smiled, she looked like an unholy angel.

She studied my face with one eye closed, like an artist sizing up a canvas. “You know what?” she said. “I don’t think you should be Mandy anymore.”

“Should I be Miranda now?” I asked.

“No, I was thinking more like…Rand. Rand is so much cooler than Mandy. Kind of edgy. Don’t you think?”

I tested the name in my mouth. Rand. Rand would wear a safety-pin dress. Rand could probably go without underpants now and then. Rand sounded almost like Xanda. I liked it.

“Do you want to know a secret?” I whispered to the sister in the mirror.

“Tell me,” she whispered back. “Tell me, and I’ll tell you one.”

I cupped my hands around her ear. You never knew when our mother would turn a corner, shattering the most perfect moment with a well-placed shard of disapproval. Andre’s scent lingered in Xanda’s hair, filling my head and fueling my passionate announcement: “I want to be like you!”

Xanda staggered backward, the smile on her face slipping first into a grimace and then into a beaming hiccup. She threw her arms around me and rocked back and forth. Her body heaved with silent giggles until I nearly suffocated in her clutch. I laughed, too, at my own ridiculousness. It wasn’t until she pulled away that I realized she was crying.

“You don’t want to be like me.” She swiped at the tears, smearing her left eye just enough to match her right. A bitter laugh gurgled up. “You’d be better off being like Mom than me.”

The front door slammed—Mom returning from the church drama committee, or praying for Xanda’s soul. The safety pins closed in on me like a thorny noose. My eyes met Xanda’s in the mirror: panic in mine, resolve in hers. She pushed past me and out the door, where Mom saw her see-through dress and immediately began the usual tirade.Dressed like a streetwalker…playing with fire…don’t you see what you’re doing to your life?

I winced, knowing I could never stand up to the words my mother threw so easily at my sister. “That’s just it, Mom,” she countered. “It’s my life, not yours.”

Then it dawned on me: Xanda was buying me time. After wrestling with the pins, I escaped with only a few scratches through the secret passageway Dad had built between our bedrooms, her words burning in my heart.Tell me, and I’ll tell you one.

Xanda never did tell me her secret, though I thought Icould guess. I could see it in her eyes the last time she left. I knew, from the suitcase bursting with her clothes found in Andre’s car when they tried to escape Seattle forever.

“It was that boy,” my mother told me the night she died. “It was that Andre’s fault, for his drinking.” And Dad’s, for bringing him into our lives.

In the five years after Xanda died, each of my parents disappeared behind a locked door,NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY—Mom into drama and the prayer chain, Dad into his construction business. I was left to wonder, what role did Xanda fill that I could not? What secret did she keep? And what path could I take to find it?

Any choice could lead to something irrevocable, as my boyfriend, Kamran, would say. I had to tread carefully.

I first saw Kamran checking out my labyrinth drawings in the Elna Mead Junior Class Art Exhibition last February. A guy I’d never seen before hovered right next to the display glass, drinking in the lines of my mazes as though he were trying to navigate them.

He wasn’t much taller than me, with metal-rimmed glasses, combat boots, casually holding a motorcycle helmet. He stood there at some point nearly every day, absorbing the images and making notes in a small notebook. I would find it odd if he wasn’t so hot.

Essence was my spy and confidante, back when we were still friends. Before Delaney Pratt changed everything.

“Yup, he’s still there,” Essence said, plopping her booksdown next to me in chem class. “Do you think he’s a freak or something?”

“No,” I said. “I think he’s cute. I haven’t seen him before. Do you think he’s a transfer student? Ooh, maybe he’s from Germany or Israel or something. He looks kind of Euro, you know?” And a little bit ofcon leche, I hoped.

“No idea. Maybe Eli knows.”

Eli was Essence’s new squeeze—actually, her first-ever squeeze. She had been spending an inordinate amount of time getting to know him and his tonsils, so I didn’t see her much anymore outside of chem lab. They met in Drama, where Essence was honing her stage skills while I drifted deeper into preparing for art school—and checked out art-appreciating hotties.

Eli was not impressed with our sleuthing. “Are you blind? That’s Kamran Ziyal. He’s been around since second grade.” Eli was haughty in that “I’m infinitely smarter than you” kind of way, which Essence thought was adorable. “Too cool to come down and mingle with the rest of us,” he declared. “He’s busy trying to get into aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.” Perfect—a stone’s throw away from my choice, Baird School of Fine Arts, in Boston.

I was too shy to say anything to this mysterious Kamran until the day I caught him holding a pencil and sheet of paper up to the glass—copying my work.

“Hey,” I said, my outrage overcoming the tongue that had been tied up for weeks. “You can’t copy that! It’s mine!”I sounded like a twelve-year-old, but I didn’t care. If Mr. MIT Astronaut Man was going to copy my art, I wasn’t above making a twelve-year-old stink.

He shifted his weight toward me, turning the full power of those olive eyes onto my face. I opened my mouth to shout something—anything—and he smiled a kind of cocky half-smile, knocking the rules of communication right out of my head.

White teeth…nice lips…eyelashes…I could no longer make sense of any of them. Except that they were talking to me. Well, the lips were talking to me. The eyes were looking at me in the same way they’d been looking at my art for the last month—searching for something beyond this dimension.

“I wasn’t copying, I was making a sketch of it for the poem I’ve been writing about your art. I wanted to remember it.”

The boy wrote poetry. About my art. I thought I was going to pass out.

“I’m studying hyperspace—you know, wormholes, which are kind of like labyrinths, only instead of traversing a landscape, they can traverse space and time, and possibly even an infinite number of galaxies. So I wanted to write about them. Your art inspired me.”

Okay, make that hyperventilate, here in hyperspace, with the cute boy who writes poetry.

“Oh…oh,” I stuttered. “So you write about wormholes.Labyrinths. I mean…labyrinths are my passion.” They hadbeen, ever since Xanda died.

He smiled even wider. “I can see that. I like labyrinths, too.”

I was hooked, enough to keep checking for mystery-man Kamran lurking around my art and hopefully thinking about me as much as I was thinking about him.

When the display came down, I was afraid he would disappear.

 

Everything about last year seemed irrevocable now—the intersection of Kamran and me. Meeting Delaney. Losing Essence. The choices we made, the last time I saw them all.

I would not have chosen to spend the summer before my senior year working at Evergreen New Creation Camp teaching art. “After all,” said my mother, “you can’t be a teacher if you don’t start acquiring some experience.”Make art, Mom, not teach art. But it was pointless to remind her when she had already made up her mind.Money in the bank,Dad would say. You never knew when you’d need it.

It was as if they already knew what I’d done and had devised the perfect purgatory. They couldn’t have chosen much worse than nine weeks at the church kiddie camp, eighty miles outside of Seattle. Nine weeks. Nine hundred kids. At least nine different behavioral disorders. And while I was painting crosses and rainbows and getting sick from the heat and collective prepubescent body odor, Kamran took classes and worked two jobs, Delaney jetted off to Amsterdam, and Essence would probably go to theater camp like she had everysummer since fourth grade.

I returned home the week before school to life as usual in the Mathison house: Mom the drama queen, Dad the absentee, and me…a seventeen-year-old with too many secrets—and a mountain of my own, threatening to blow.


Page 2

Two

Coming home after almost three months was like walking into someone else’s house, all dressed up to look like ours. Same shiny wood floors speeding through the entry and into a bright, sunny kitchen; same white trim on white paneling; same whispered challenge to find a speck of dust or trace of actual humans living there—except for my own reflection in the mirror as soon as I crossed the threshold.

I looked at my face to see if anything had changed, if my secret was written there for anyone to read. But it wasn’t. Grimy with camp dirt, bedraggled, tired—three sessions of summer campers left the only signs.

“Wait until you read my script, Mandy,” my mom was saying as she pushed her way through the front door, dragginga summer’s worth of my clothes on wheels. “I am so close—I was hoping to finish before you got home but ran out of time. You know how these things go. So much to do around here.”

“I know,” I said. It was all coming back to me. The notes. The scripts. The to-do lists. The never-ending cadre of people to impress.

All the way home, Mom had talked about her new script for this year’s Christmas montage.Almost finished, can’t wait to get your opinion, will be the best one yet, Mom went on. I wouldn’t be seeing much of Dad—nothing new about that. The summer remodeling season wasn’t over, then there would be the interior remodeling season, then set-building season, then the winter remodeling season. As if I needed an explanation after years of Dad never being home. I kept waiting for some sign of quiet rebellion, some indication he might one day break free and boogie. Either that, or ditch us for good.

“And the best part,” she continued, brushing the hair out of my face and then wiping her hands on her skirt, “is what I’ve been writing for you—” A pause, for maximum effect. “—thestarring role.”

Once, there was a time when I might have been thrilled to hear those words spoken to me and not to my sister. We each had our parts to play in the perfect family drama: Mom, the director; Xanda, the actor; Dad, the builder; me, the backdrop. I had painted more sets than I could remember—living rooms, war zones, hospital corridors. Only once had I acted in one of Mom’s plays—the year Xanda died.

 

“God, Mom, you don’t have to force everybody into your lame-ass play,” Xanda had said when Mom announced I would be the daughter of a traumatized soldier, the lead role originally meant for Xanda. Onstage, she could be the kind of daughter my mom wanted—the kind I already was, if only my parents would notice. But this year, Xanda refused the part.

“I’m not forcing you,” Mom said. “I was asking Mandy.”

“So you’re forcing Rand instead. Do you even realize what a control freak you are?”

I stood there, trying to shift myself into part of the wall. They were like the angel and the devil, arguing over my soul. Good Mandy, Bad Rand. Or was it Bad Mandy, Good Rand?

“Mandy,”said Mom, her teeth clenched as the word pried its way out. “I’m not forcing you, am I?” The question uncloaked me.

Xanda turned to me expectantly. “Well?” she demanded. “Doyouwant to be in the show?”

“I—I guess so.”

Mom looked smug. Xanda looked utterly defeated. I felt like a traitor.

“Congratulations,” Xanda sniped. “It looks like you’ve successfully created your own puppet government.”

 

It didn’t occur to me until much later that the role Mom offered had never been about me—only about getting to Xanda. I wondered what my mom had in mind now.

I smiled wearily. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll be upstairs.”

“You must be exhausted from the trip. Take a shower first though, huh? I just washed everything.” She rolled my suitcase down the hall with two fingers, checking the floor for skid marks as she went.

I could hear her unzipping and sorting as I climbed the stairs, the squishy carpet familiar under my feet. I passed frame after frame of my drawings and paintings—all labyrinths. The same labyrinths that had brought Kamran and me together.

 

After the junior class art exhibit came down, a note tumbled out of my locker, written in tiny staccato handwriting:Meet me under the plum tree.

I read the note over and over, floating through the rest of my classes like plum blossoms. When the last bell rang, I found Kamran there, his helmet in one hand and a second one in the other, motorcycle standing by.

“I have a surprise for you. Hop on.” Before I had a chance to ask where we were going, he fitted the helmet onto my head and slung on his own, then strapped our bags to the back. He mounted the bike and I wrapped myself around him, drinking in his musky smell with the faintest hint of sour-sweet.

As we wound our way through the streets, I couldn’t stop thinking about my body against his or the warmth I felt through every layer. We crested Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where the past met the present in a violent tumble ofbrownstones and mansions, transients and transplants, infinite varieties of colors and art and self-expression. We nearly collided with pedestrians, odors exotic and taboo, and a thousand visual feasts.

“That’s my parents’ restaurant,” he shouted, pointing to Café Shiraz, a hole-in-the-wall place with cinnamon and garlic scents emanating from the open door.

“Is that where we’re going?”

“Later, maybe.”

“Where, then?”

He grasped my hand with his nimble and smooth one. “Ask no questions, I tell no lies.”

Commercial buildings blurred into brick apartments then towering evergreens near Cornish College of the Arts. He turned into the campus parking lot and led me through the heavy doors and stained glass to the current art exhibit: Travels through Space and Time.

Later, over kebabs and hummus and his mom’s famous stuffed figs, we talked about light sources and vanishing points, MIT and Baird. He told me about his parents leaving everything to come here and start a restaurant, I told him about my parents disappearing into their work. I asked about physics. He asked about art. I stopped short of telling him about Xanda.

The office and basement were lit when we pulled up to my house—each of my parents in separate domains. Kamran and I sat on the curb under the rhododendrons, exactly the place where Andre parked his green Impala and Xanda disappeared into the night. We watched the sky turn from gray-gold togray-plum, an echo of the paintings we’d seen at Cornish as we wandered the corridors, hand in hand. He was so close, I could feel the roughness of his jacket brushing up against my skin.

“So you never told me about your poetry.”

“Ah, right.” He grinned. “You mean when I was copying your artwork.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. So where is this so-called poem, inspired by my labyrinths?”

“Oh, that.” He ran his fingers through rumpled hair, olive eyes squinting through dark, dark lashes. “You don’t really want to see that.”

“Oh, but I do.” I felt out of my depth. Xanda would have pulled him close, felt the skin under his T-shirt, his waistband…for me, it was enough to be touching his sleeve.

He rummaged through a folder in his pack for a sheet of graph paper swirled over with that same tight handwriting. Sentences began in one corner and spread out like branches in a tree.

He held it aloft. “I don’t know if I want you to see this—it’s not actually a poem. Well, sort of. It’s more like…strings of possibility.” He sat down next to me, tracing his finger over the lines. “It’s all the things that could bring a person to this point—”

“A person?”

“W-well, two people.” Leaning over his shoulder, I caught only fragments:She follows a path, a labyrinth…A landscape of mystery beneath her lines…A girl seeking shadows, past andfuture…What secret she seeks, unfolding lies…

The sentences curled away from each other until I reached the top, the one that nearly stretched off the page:…paths cross, time stops…then she and I would meet.

Those sentences uncloaked me, the same way I felt when he lost himself in my mazes—like he already knew me. The thought both excited and terrified.

“To what point?” I asked, my voice unsteady. I could almost taste the figs lingering on his breath.

Then our lips met in our own mad, messy kiss, tender and fruity, pomegranate fireworks, his hands cupping my face and mine warm under his jacket, noses bumping and chins tilting until he pulled away, the two of us existing in a moment of perfection.

It was then that I knew I could tell him anything—about Xanda, the labyrinths. Someday I might even tell him about Andre.

 

Need to talk, Kamran’s text had said. We’d barely spoken since I left in July, only a few clipped conversations and a backlog of unanswered messages—his and mine. I would have to tell him when I saw him. It would be his secret, too.

I shut myself in the bathroom. Stripping down had become a ritual at camp: hoping, checking, nothing. Delaney once said, “I don’t worry too much if I only miss one.” What if I’d missed two?

If it doesn’t happen today,I thought,I’ll take a test. But I’d have to see Kamran first.Be wrong.

Downstairs, my mom typed away on her laptop. “…Then the narrator, he’ll be telling the backstory at this point, drumming up sympathy for the grand finale, the final moment when she reveals…oh, yes!” The sound of her whispering lines had exactly the same effect as a cheese grater on the back of my neck.

“Mom, can I use the car? I’ve gotta run some errands.” Kamran would probably be at Big Boss now, or at his parents’ restaurant.

“Okay, honey,” she said distractedly. “Pick up a new toothbrush, will you? After two months at camp, yours is probably disgusting.”

“Sure.” The drugstore was already on my list.

“Oh, I forgot to mention—Delaney called,” Mom sang as I reached the front door. “Back from her trip to Amsterdam?” She sure did like that Delaney girl. I would have to call her when I got back.

A half hour later, I steered around the massive Big Boss parking lot. A woman with a toddler rolled a cart piled high with diapers to an SUV while the car in front of me flipped on a blinker.

“Come on,” I muttered, swinging wide with the Lexus.

That’s when I saw him, looking not quite like himself in the red Big Boss vest and chasing down stray shopping carts, but entirely like the person whose body and soul had touched mine. I didn’t even realize how much I’d missed him until now.

Only he wasn’t alone.

He was with her. Delaney. Wearing a matching vest, hipspeeking out over her jeans as she slapped him on the butt.

The ground started sliding out from under me.

He laughed.

Collided a cart into hers.

Sent everything reeling, fissures cracking until I could no longer stand the pressure of my body, certain to implode at any moment.

I peeled out of the parking lot before either of them could spot me. There was a drugstore to find, a toothbrush to buy.

Not to mention a pregnancy test.

Three

Things could have been different if Delaney had chosen Brielle Peterson to show her around school last spring instead of me.

She landed in my first-period class in the empty seat next to me, a left-handed desk relegated to the back corner of the room. While the teacher droned on about world events and our role in them, I decorated my notes with an epic, convoluted network of lines and swirls.

“Psst.” The new girl leaned over her desk to get a closer look. “What are you drawing?”

“Just…drawing,” I mumbled. In fact, I was trying to remember the exact shape of the poem Kamran had shown me, the words curling from one branch to the next. She sat back again, scrutinizing her iPhone.

I’d heard about Delaney Pratt. Getting the boot from View Ridge Prep gave her instant mystique, especially at Elna Mead, home to a small army of punkalikes who were collectively spellbound by her hoarse laugh, street style, and ability to attract the attention of any straight male in the vicinity. Rumors swirled around her. Her dad was a Boeing exec, so whatever she’d done to get kicked out had to be huge.

When the bell rang, the teacher reached out for Brielle, junior-class president and leader of tomorrow. Delaney stood next to me, her hair falling in ripples over a shredded silk jacket, coiling around her limbs like nubby snakes. Something about her seemed terribly, wonderfully familiar.

The rest of the class scurried out the door while Brielle sized her up. As I gathered my book and papers, Brielle was saying, “Sure, I’d be happy to show her around.”

Delaney’s footsteps slowed. “Oh, thanks, but I already found someone to give me the tour.” To me, she whispered, “What’s your name again?”

“Rand.” The teacher shrugged. Brielle rolled her eyes and stalked out.

“God,thank you.” Delaney was rifling through her oversized bag as we walked out together.

“So, um, I guess I can show you to your next class. Do you have a list?”

She found her keys next to a pack of Marlboros and put a cigarette behind her ear and the keys between her teeth. “Not likely,” she muttered. She started toward the parking lot as the last of the students trickled into their classrooms,leaving me standing in the hall. “Coming?”

Essence would be waiting in chem but would forget all about me once she landed in drama with Eli. Kamran would be waiting for me after the last bell rang.

“Sure,” I said, just before I caught up.

We wound our way around Lake Washington Boulevard in Delaney’s Audi through a corridor of eight-foot laurels. A few sweeping estates spilled down the hill to the edge of the lake, just the sort of property my mom would have traded an eye for. Delaney’s dad owned one of them.

In the granite-and-steel kitchen, Delaney poured herself a drink. She took one look at me and laughed. “If you think this is wild, you should meet my big brother, Dylan. He throws the most outrageous Halloween parties—come October, I’ll take you. It’ll crack open your universe.” She took a gulp of her milky amber concoction. “Want some?”

“Won’t your dad notice?”

She snorted. “I’d have to throw myself off a bridge for my dad to notice.”

I knew exactly what she meant.

 

After my trip to Big Boss, I couldn’t face my mom alone. I couldn’t face anyone. I drove around numbly until I found a random drugstore to buy the test. And, of course, the toothbrush. But no amount of brushing could scrub away the hurt and panic I was feeling.

Kamran called twice that week, but I didn’t trust myself to talk to him. Not now.

When I got home from the drug store, I’d hidden the test in the secret passage between Xanda’s and my rooms. No one would look for it there.

What if he was only calling to break up with me? Telling him now would be like playing a trump card but losing the game. He had towantto fly away with me, like Andre did with Xanda. I could tell him then. I would take the test and we could figure out what to do together.

After his third message, I called back.

“You’re home.” Just hearing the crack in his voice threatened to break my resolve.

My throat caught with the words I wanted to say.I miss you. And I drew a breath to say them when he cut in.

“I need to talk to you…” He trailed off as a girl’s laughter crackled in the background.

“Who’s that?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

“I’m at work.” Static whirled like a wind tunnel. “Hey, I can’t really talk now. I’m trying to cram in hours before Monday. But I can call you later, or—”

Another voice muttered in the background, something starting with “Dude…”

“I need to talk to you, too. When can I see you?”

Kamran came back on the line. “A bunch of us are going to Chop Suey tonight.”

“A bunch of us?”

“Yeah. Me, Delaney…”

“Delaney? Back from Amsterdam?”

“Yeah. About that…”

I knew all about that. While I finger painted and kept middle graders from sneaking off into the woods, Kamran spent the summer loading family reunion–sized bags of pretzels and motor oil with Delaney. Maybe he was wooing her with descriptions of the space-time continuum. Maybe she had caught him in the sphinx’s gaze of her perfect chest. Maybe I should stop before I drove myself crazy.

“…she didn’t go to Amsterdam.”

“Really.”

“Her dad found out about us crashing at his cabin, so he canceled her trip, made her get a job—”

“That’s what she said?” I felt myself shaking. “And neither one of you told me?”

Pause. “Wait a second. Why are you getting all worried about this?”

“Maybe because you didn’t mention it?”

“I didn’t mention it because…” He stopped himself. “You’re right. I should have said something. I figured Delaney would have told you.”

I knew what he would say—I was being insecure. Why did I worry so much? What did I think Delaney had that I didn’t? Wasn’t she supposed to be my friend?

“You don’t evenknowher,” I said hoarsely. Maybe I didn’t either.

“You don’t have to come tonight,” he said. “I just thought…” The static went quiet again until I could hear the sound of his breath.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you there.”


Page 3

Four

When Delaney picked me up to go to Chop Suey, she wasn’t alone.

“You remember Chloe, right? From the French crowd?” I remembered Chloe, the quiet one who always seemed to be turning up next to someone, the serial sidekick. She sat in the front seat of Delaney’s Audi. Since when were we hanging out with Chloe?

“Who’s meeting us again?” I asked as I climbed into the backseat.

Delaney turned around and grinned. “Just us and Milo and”—she added in a sultry voice—“lover-man Kamran.” Chloe giggled.

I felt my face burning. Did Kamran tell her? Maybe whilethey were stocking the condom shelf at Big Boss? I touched the test in the bottom of my purse, still there waiting for me.

“And maybe Dylan, if he’s around.” Dylan, Delaney’s infamous older brother, managed Chop Suey. He would let us in for shows and stuff, as long as we laid low and didn’t try to get drinks. We didn’t need them, anyway—Delaney always brought her own. I’d seen Dylan before but never actually met him. I’d even been to his house.

“You didn’t invite Essence, did you?”

“Of course not.” A year ago, it would have been me and Essence going out, or more likely hunkering down with cheese puffs, salsa, andInto the Woods. A year ago, I could have told Essence the truth. Now I couldn’t even ask Delaney about Amsterdam.

She sped around the network of streets, chattering with Chloe, until we reached the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was awkward, with Chloe there. She had one history with Delaney, I had another. I shifted in my seat, tugging at the bra which had suddenly become too tight.

“So,” I said slowly, “Kamran told me about Amsterdam.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Delaney snorted. “My dad found out about our party at the cabin and canceled the trip. It sucked—I had to work the whole summer. It would have been so much more fun if you were here.” Chloe nodded, which both comforted and annoyed me.

A tiny constriction in my body relaxed.

I wanted to believe her. I did believe her. I just wantedeverything to go back to the way it was.

Outside the club, the guys were waiting. Delaney’s party buddy, Milo, was half class clown and half class pothead; everybody liked him for one reason or another.

Then there was Kamran. The same messy, dark hair and olive-colored eyes…but different, somehow, like that night three months ago had never happened. His clothes were different—black and rumpled, like he had borrowed them from someone else. When I saw him, I couldn’t even look him in the eye, I was trembling so much. Had he missed me as much as I’d missed him? Did he think about what had happened at the cabin as much as I did?

Then he smiled his beautiful smile, and I wondered if all of my worries had been for nothing. He held out his arm for me to tuck myself under, enveloping me into a hug.

“Are you okay?” he murmured into my ear.

“I’m just glad to see you.” I squeezed, smelling the scent of lingering pomegranates.

“I’m sorry we didn’t talk much. I’ve been working a lot.” And then came the pat. Like a friend hug.Pat, pat, paton my back, then release.

Delaney led the way into the booming club. Dylan or not, she would have made it in. She flirted with the bouncer, holding his eye contact as the rest of us trickled through. When Kamran passed, Delaney smacked him lightly on the shoulder. “You look smokin’, brotha!” Kamran gave her a friendly jab, leaving me the last one out in the chill night air.

A wall of smoke and live bass hit me. Delaney lit one up, exhaling a lazy cloud. Chloe followed suit, and even she looked mysterious in the half-light of the club.

Kamran settled behind me, close but not too close. A vast gap had come between us in time and space. I wasn’t sure how to cross it. “Miranda,” he said. He never called me Mandy or Rand, always Miranda. “It’s good to see you. You look pretty.”

Did he have as much to say to me as I did to him? And how would I tell him?

“You said we need to talk.”

His face darkened. “Yeah, but not right now. Too loud to talk here anyway.”

He wrapped his arms around my ribs. I winced at the swelling in my chest and pulled away. “Okay, but we haven’t even seen each other since…I mean, I want to spend time with you.”I want things to go back.

“We’re spending time together now, right?” He smiled. “You’re so serious about everything, Miranda.” I followed his gaze out to the dance floor, where Delaney’s laughter wafted over the music. “Why can’t you be more like Delaney? Lighten up. Have a little confidence in yourself.”

“Right,” I said. “Confidence. No problem.” A little confidence, coming right up.

They all got sodas, and Delaney reached into her bag for a flask. I got orange juice. Anything bubbly would make me hurl.

“OJ and rum?” Delaney asked.

“I heard it was good.”

Delaney shrugged. I flipped the flask and pretended to pour. Nobody noticed my thumb over the opening.

“Is your brother here?”

“Dylan? Nah. They said he cut out early. So he can’t get in trouble for us being here—too bad. I think you’d like him.”

The melody was intoxicating. Delaney snaked her way around the dance floor, and the rest of us followed in her wake. We had heard this band Gravity Echo before, a blend of indie electronic and a mournful exotic thread winding its way through the beat. Delaney shimmered like a mythical creature, her top reflecting the black lights and silhouetting her ribs and shoulders. She undulated to the beat. Next to her, my dancing would be the old middle-school step-touch. I imagined myself as a belly dancer caught in the music, shushing the idea away.

A ball of pain settled in my stomach, and my heart picked up. This was supposed to be my deadline—by the time I saw him—but the cramp gave me hope. “Be right back,” I said to no one in particular.

The band’s tunes beat against the walls of the bathroom, echoing the pounding in my head. My white patch of cotton panty blinked up at me in the black light.

Somewhere, I had taken a wrong turn and landed in the wrong life. Any moment I would find my way back. With any luck, I wouldn’t have to wear this bra when I got there.

If nothing happens by the time school starts, I’ll take the test then. Two more days.

I teetered out of the bathroom and headed toward the dance floor, trying to remember exactly when I would normally get tipsy. “Heeey,” I practiced, lurching to the left. But the act dropped the second Delaney sidled up to Kamran. The dull ache in the pit of my stomach became a burn.

Red lights flashed over the crowd, and I could see her wiry frame shadowed by his taller one. Both of them had their hands in the air, her backside swaying against him. They parted, laughing, neither one of them seeing me on the sidelines. It was nothing, Kamran would say. They were playing around. Still, it should have been my backside.

Delaney caught my gaze and put her hand over her mouth in an embarrassed giggle. She sashayed over and crushed me in a hug. I could smell the rum and smoke on her breath.I will not throw up here.

“Sssno big deal!” she said, giggling. She hugged me harder, and I bit my lip. “I just wanted you to know, Rand, that you—you are my best friend. You and Chloe are my best friends in the whole world, you know that? You and Chloe and Kamran. I love you guys. You’re all the best. Oh yeah, and Milo’s okay, too,” she said, spotting him dancing close to us. He smiled a lazy Milo smile and nodded his head when she draped herself around his neck and swayed to the curling beat of the music. Chloe, who had been dancing with him, caught my gaze. A flicker passed between us, then it was gone.

We always stayed at Delaney’s dad’s house when we went out—he wouldn’t think twice about us coming in smelling like drunken ashtrays. Not that he was a bad parent—he just exhibited an unusual amount of disinterest in his daughter’s nocturnal activities. None of us could argue with that.

We parted ways with the boys at the club, but not before they gave each of us a good-bye hug and Kamran put his lips to my forehead, a warm spark. But nothing compared to the lightning conducted through my spine when Kamran wrapped his arms around Delaney and dipped—closeness cultivated by weeks of togetherness at Big Boss.

On the way to Delaney’s, we got into the “poor me” routine. This was our game, mine and Essence’s, the one I made up to tease her about her never-ending stream of complaints. It was annoying, but at least she could laugh at herself. Never mind the pang of guilt I felt playing it with Delaney and now Chloe.

Delaney started: “I am so drunk, I am going to be completely sick all over the floor when I get home and my dad might finally kill me, if I haven’t already died. Poor me!”

Chloe and I echoed, “Poor Delaney!”

Next, Chloe: “Nobody danced with me all night. Or at least, nobody cute. Just some dorky guy with a boy band T-shirt. Oh, and Milo. Poor me!”

“Poor Chloe!”

Then me.

I could say any number of things.

Like, “I miss my sister.”

Or, “My best friend is moving in on my boyfriend.”

Or the worst: “I haven’t had a period in two months, and I’m scared out of my mind.”

Delaney and Chloe were waiting.

Finally, I said, “My bra is too tight and my head is killing me. Poor me.”

Five

Two days later, summer officially ended and I started life as a senior at Elna Mead High School. Kamran was taking AP Virtually Everything—calculus, computer science, physics, econ, U.S. history, and the English class we shared. I had AP art plus a couple of classes with Delaney. She had French with Chloe, where they learned to conspire in not one but two languages. Essence and I didn’t cross paths at all. But with two thousand students, five hundred seniors, eighty classrooms, ten bathrooms…I was bound to run into her sooner or later.

Returning to these corridors after a whole summer had the same effect as coming home—displacement, like I was walking around in someone else’s life. All day my mind had beentraveling through timelines, possible outcomes.Yes. No. If no, then nothing would change. If yes, then another set of choices would branch out before me.

Posters lined the bulletin boards, advertising various activities and clubs. Online Gamers. Geography Club. Mock Trials.THE WINTER BALL COMMITTEE NEEDS YOU!

Right outside the theater hung a flyer for this year’s musical tryouts:Guys and Dolls, Essence’s favorite show. She knew every one of Adelaide’s songs.Iknew every one of Adelaide’s songs, after she made me listen to the Broadway recording a hundred and fifty times. If I wanted to avoid Essence, all I had to do was stay away from the theater. She would know just by looking at me that something was wrong—ten years of friendship couldn’t disappear that easily.

The test rattled in the bottom of my satchel. There was no way I could take it at home—not with my mother waiting to zap rebellion like bacteria. What would she do if she found out?

She wouldn’t. The consequences were too horrible to imagine.

I was so wired that I didn’t even notice Kamran hovering by my locker. He wore beat-up jeans and a hoodie with his hair tousled, a new and unfamiliar version of him.

“Miranda,” he said. “You’re off in space.”

His smile made me flicker.I could tell him now, before I even take the test.

Kamran balanced two jobs, AP classes, homework, practice tests, spent every lunch period in the library, all to fulfillhis dream—which may or may not include me. If I told him, what would he do?

If I haven’t gotten it by art class.

“Yeah, just thinking about classes and stuff. How I’m going to fit everything in.”

It had to be a mistake. Any second my body would return from its trip through hormonal haywire and the hall would quit spinning. I reached out for Kamran’s arm.

“You okay?” he asked. Of course he was concerned. Because before the cabin trip, before he met Delaney, we had a deep, tangled connection. Was it possible to go back?

“We should hang out later,” I said. “I’ve got…we haven’t really had a chance to be together since…”

“Yeah, about that—I can’t meet after school today. I’m studying to retake the SATs, plus I’ve been trying to hook up with this MIT graduate who does student interviews…” He trailed off. “But you’re right, we should hang out. We haven’t really had a chance to talk all summer.”

I said nothing, but my disappointment must have shown on my face. “What about lunch? School just started—you can’t have homework yet?”

“Aren’t you going to hang out with Delaney?”

That’s how it had been all last spring—my life divided into two separate trajectories: getting to know Kamran and spiraling further into a friendship with Delaney.

With Kamran, I had my owncon leche. When he wasn’t working one of his jobs or studying for one of the manyentrance exams for MIT, we explored Seattle together, talking about time and space and possibilities, where wormholes and labyrinths collide. I told him about Xanda, but never about the way she died. It was too personal, too secret.It was that Andre,even though I didn’t want it to be. Afterward, sitting under the rhododendrons, I would taste the fruit on his lips and the spice in his skin.

With Delaney, I became more than just an actor in someone else’s script, the good daughter holding the weight of the family. Delaney led the way as my sister would have. She broke through closed doors into impenetrable circles, while Essence slipped further into my past. Any attempt to reconcile them resulted in a paradox—Essence the old friend, Delaney the new, with the old me and the new wrestling for control.

All this time, Delaney and Kamran never met. Somehow I knew if they crossed, my future would never be the same. And they didn’t, until that night at the beginning of July, after school got out and we were all going out to party at Delaney’s cabin, and Delaney pestered me about bringing along “that hottie,” and Kamran accused me of shutting him out. In the end, I had no choice but to let the two halves of my life meet.

Everything changed that night.

Then a few days later, my parents packed me up for nine weeks at the kiddie camp, just like nothing had happened.

Delaney’s ears must have been burning at the sound of her name—she came out of nowhere to pounce on Kamran and me at my locker. “So where are we going for lunch? BroadwayGrill? Bauhaus?” A slow grin spread across her face. “Café Shiraz?”

I glanced at Kamran. Had he taken her to his parents’ restaurant or just told her about it?

“I can’t—gotta study.”

“During lunch period?” She turned to me. “Is that where you were hiding him all last year?”

Kamran laughed, showing off the tiny gap between his teeth and looking like he’d get a perfect score on a purity test. People like Delaney, like my sister, could do anything, say anything, and everyone still loved them. People like me just looked paranoid.

“Fine, then. I guess I’ll see ya later,” she said to no one in particular, sauntering away and disappearing into the stream.

I could hardly wait for my last period art class.

 

AP art was like coming back into myself, in a room I knew well. The bank of windows, paint-splattered sinks, drawers of possibilities, all of it seemed to sigh that yes, I belonged here. I found a seat by the window, nodding at familiar faces.

Our teacher, Mrs. Crooker, had a legendary personality at Elna Mead. There were the fat years and the lean years. In the fat years, she was in an excellent mood, letting us do whatever we wanted and usually working on some wild, colorful thing herself. In the lean years, she subsisted on diet sodas and 800 calories a day and morphed into a grouchy tyrant. In the lean years, she had patience as long as an oil pastel and gaveassignments involving rigid architectural perspective and golden means. No cubism or impressionism in the lean years. My labyrinths barely slid under the radar as a loving tribute to Escher and da Vinci.

Thankfully, this was a fat year. She was already munching cheerfully on a package of molasses cookies.

Our first assignment was to create a double-sided collage of ourselves—one side our external selves, the other our secret, inner lives. “I want you to reach deep and come up with something fresh. It doesn’t have to be good. I want it to be true. Have fun with it.”

“No labyrinths this year,” Mrs. Crooker said as she swept past me in a tiered cotton skirt. “I picked this assignment especially for you.”

She proceeded to dump a shoebox full of magazine clippings, photocopies, engravings, fabric swatches, and handmade paper onto a table in the center of the room. “Have at it.”

Students got up tentatively at first, then faster as they realized their true selves might be lurking somewhere in that pile of scraps. I held back, waiting, until a tiny black-and-white engraving of a medieval pregnant woman fluttered to the floor—the cap binding her hair in strange contrast to the way she gently held her belly.

There was no way I would be taking that piece.

Instead, I grabbed my stuff and dashed to the front desk.

“Somewhere to go?” The last of the molasses cookie poppedinto Mrs. Crooker’s mouth while she thumbed through her sketchbook, and I suddenly realized I was starving. Again.

“I’m not feeling so good. Could I get a hall pass?”

Her eyes never strayed from the book as she handed me a pass. “I want you to do this assignment at some point, Rand. You’re not going to get away from faces this year.”

I shrugged and made tracks for the nearest bathroom.

My hands trembled as I opened the package, so much that I almost dropped it onto the tiny beige floor tiles. I stripped the foil down to just the white plastic stick.

Place the absorbent tip in your urine stream for five seconds only,commanded the instructions.One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

After two perilous minutes, I peered at the little window. One pinkish-purple line was strong. I looked closer for a second line—so faint it seemed to shadow the first. I read the directions again, to be sure.Lines may not be the same strength of color, it taunted.Over 99% accurate, proclaimed the bold letters. And as I watched, the line darkened to a grim pink. My stomach was the first to respond.


Page 4

Six

My mother couldn’t control the weather in Seattle, but she could predict it. She picked one of the last sunny Sunday afternoons to keep us in a dim, hundred-year-old church for Christmas montage tryouts. The only hope streamed in through the enormous stained-glass windows, painting shards of colored light across the pews.

Mom wore her hair in a ponytail with a pen tucked behind her ear, looking like the hip director in a white tee and Editor pants. Everything was drawn on, from her eyebrows and plum-colored eyes to her mouth, as if a perfect exterior could mask a woman capable of spawning one hellion after another.

Everybody showed up to read for various parts, but Momalready had her people staked out. Mrs. Hayes, the Kindly Old Woman (sorry, Mrs. Vandermar). Mr. Arthur would play the wise father. And I would be good old Brenda, the female lead. Which made it kind of sad that Essence showed up with “I wanna be Brenda” written all over her face. Even sadder, she deserved it.

Essence’s bedroom had always been lined with show posters where she had played a chorus bird or a maid or, more recently, the lead’s best friend or mother. Delaney was right. She wasn’t lead material. She was chunky, whiny, on the underside of pretty. Just right for comic relief.Someone who’s holding you back,Delaney had said.

Essence stayed after church to help set up for auditions, and I realized I was part of this bizarre love triangle: Essence wanting my mother’s attention and my mother wanting mine. If only Essence was my mother’s daughter, then everybody might be happy.

“How was your summer?” I asked.

“Fine.”

We were in the same spot where we’d met in second grade, the day Xanda showed up at the Mother’s Day fashion show in a dress identical to mine and Mom’s, only hers was shredded and paired with biker boots. We landed on the front page of theSeattle Times’“Arts and Living” section under the headlinePRETEEN PUNK FASHIONISTA CRASHES CHURCH FUNDRAISER—the succubus, the church lady, and me. A new girl stood by in awe—about my age, with freckles and a tan from someplacefar removed from the Northwest. She and her mom wore long, crinkled skirts and peasant blouses with strands of clay beads. Definitely not from Seattle.

The girl came up to me after the show, bubbling over with smiles and excitement. “That was your sister?” I nodded. I could hardly believe it myself.

Before long, we were inseparable, even if my sister found her annoying and my mom found her undesirable—Essence’s family fell in easily with Seattleites militant about fair trade, growing their own organic food, and recycling everything from plastics to clothing—exactly what my mom found distasteful about the Northwest. When her mom joined the prayer chain, mine made sure she was on the opposite end. Still, Essence tried out for every one of my mom’s plays without fail.

Apparently some things hadn’t changed.

“Honey,” my mom called from upstage, “could you read some of this script? I’m trying to see if it will be a good section for the tryouts.” Which was weird, because clearly she had already put painstaking thought into every detail. My reading would be of no consequence.

Essence jumped to my mother’s side. “I could read, Mrs. Mathison,” she gushed. “I think your work is amazing. In fact—”

My mom barely gave her a glance. “All right, Essence. How about you read for the father.”

“The father?” Essence’s smile faltered. “Um, okay, Mrs.Mathison. But I’d really like to try out for the part of—”

“Mandy, you read for the part of Brenda.” Essence looked like she wanted to take my mother right up to the baptismal waters and introduce her to some redemption. But she took the script.

The two of us got up on the stage, towering over the pews. I tried not to think about performance night, when they would be filled and each line I spoke would be a nail pounding into my throat. I never wanted to be on this stage again.

So the two of us read while my mother blocked out the scene with masking tape. Essence made a better father than I made a Brenda. I would have told her if she hadn’t been giving me the nastiest look she could muster—prim, exaggerated, almost cartoonish. At that moment I could see her exactly the way Delaney did. Part of me hated myself for it.

When others started showing up, my mother waved us down. “Don’t want to let any cats out of the bag,” she sang. If any cats were going to escape, I was hoping to be the first.

“All right,” Mom said in a loud, competent voice, “I want to keep this fairly simple. We’ll do leads first, then the supporting cast so I can get an idea of whose talent is suited for what.” This was the control-freak dream—everyone looking to her to tell them what to do. Everyone but me. She started handing out a stack of script excerpts, and then dumped the remainder in my lap. “Mandy, help me out here.”

As I passed out the scripts, I couldn’t help but glance overthe paragraphs she had typed up for the tryouts: Brenda discusses faith with her father and newly cancered mother as they prepare to face the future together.

Barf. Her completely transparent vision for our family. Even worse, Brenda was probably some weird fusion of Xanda and me: the prodigal girl coming home.

When I finished handing out the scripts, I parked myself in the back of the room with my sketchbook while my mother directed three of the readers. Essence and her hissys’s kept floating into my ears as she paced back and forth, reciting the lines in a stage mumble. Her voice reached that pitch that never used to bother me until Delaney pointed it out.

The stained glass, lit by the late-afternoon sun, found its way into my sketchbook. My lines tried to trace the shape of Jesus in the stained glass—focus on faces, my art teacher would say—but the pieces kept fragmenting and recombining into a spidery lair.

A blue patch of light stretched across my sketch and I smiled, remembering how Xanda and I used to draw pictures of the minister and choir. We would sit with Essence as far back from the minister as we could get away with.

Even at twelve my drawings were smooth, balanced, carefully rendered. Xanda’s were angular and dramatic, with dark lines and unexpected details. Like the eyes of the soloist, one of them bigger than the other, or the too-loose blouse on the Elder after her mastectomy. Essence drew them as stick figures, acting out their secret sins on a stage and sending Xandaand me into snorts of laughter.

One Sunday Xanda and I sat in the very back pew while the minister preached on the deadliest of the deadlies: pride, vanity, and envy.

“Let’s draw them,” Xanda whispered to me. I thought of what pride would look like, a jowly old guy in a smoking jacket. Vanity was a tall, beautiful woman with a face like a mask. Envy was a treasure-hoarding dragon, dainty and diabolical. As I sketched in the dragon’s face, I gave her eyebrows like mine, my turtle necklace around its scaly neck.

Xanda drew them as cliffs and valleys, irrevocably linked—pride as a mountain, envy a valley, hating its lowness and longing to reach, overtake, conquer. She drew vanity as a volcano with an abyss at its core.

Xanda took my drawings and eyed them critically. Hers said everything I wanted to say, the giddiness of pride and the void of envy. I waited for her to shred mine, tell me how they didn’t measure up. The sticky pout of her mouth could go either way—dazzling smile or frown or even a spontaneous combustion.

A giggle erupted, causing one sour lady to purse her lips with a gigantic “Shhhh.”

Xanda’s hand flew to her mouth. “Did you realize this dragon looks like Mom?”

I could see it—the brows we shared, the heavy-lidded eyes. The dragon was not me, it was Mom.

“And Mr. Pride here looks like her, too,” she whisper-laughed. We giggled together at the paradox of our mother, both pride and envy, the mountain and the valley.

 

“Well, I think that’s a wrap,” my mom said now as she approached me. Everyone else was already chatting in groups, with Essence scooping up empty latte cups and leftover scripts. Her thoughts were written on her face: Maybe this time she would get the part.

Mom peered over my shoulder onto my sketchbook, eyeing my drawing of spiderwebbed Jesus. I had given him stained-glass scales and a sweeping tail.

“I’ll never understand the way you see things, Mandy,” she sighed. “You take a beautiful drawing and turn it into something hideous.”

“It’s just a drawing, Mom,” I replied, closing the sketchbook. “So how did the tryouts go?”

“Well, let’s say I saw what I needed to see.” She smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “I’ll be posting the results next Sunday. This is going to be fabulous!”

A flash of Brenda the Bad popped into my head: hair tightly bound, holding her belly, monologuing about redemption. Not the Brenda my mother had in mind.

On the way out of the sanctuary, I snapped a phone pic of stained-glass Jesus. I would finish my drawing later.

Seven

“Miranda, what’s the holdup?”

The next weekend, Delaney and Chloe were in my room getting ready for Milo’s first party of the year. One more tour through my closet didn’t produce anything but a paint-splattered T-shirt and a couple of skirts I knew would be too tight.

“Whatever possessed you to wear that?” Delaney asked me, giving my yoga pants and tee a withering look. I wondered if Delaney would be able to see right through me the way Xanda always could.

I shrugged. I didn’t tell her my regular clothes had started to hurt, and the pressure made me want to hurl. Hoodies and fat jeans were my new uniform.

“Oh, whatever,” Delaney said. “I know you’ve got some great stuff—”

“—that has somehow made it into your closet,” I countered. Chloe snickered and held up an abandoned slip dress.

Delaney dropped her mascara into her purse and rolled her eyes. “Stand aside.”

While she rummaged in my closet, I dove back into the bowl of cheese puffs. I couldn’t get enough of them these days, now that my nausea had mostly morphed into a relentless, terrifying hunger.

“Don’t you have a red bra someplace? I could swear…aha! Here it is.” A wide-necked red top and bra flew out, landing in a heap.

“Wait. A. Second. Oh, my God!” Then came the sound of a million pennies sliding into each other. The veins in my throat closed. “You have to let me wear this!”

I knew what she’d found even before she emerged from the depths, the tinkling of metal on metal as clear as the day I’d first put it on. Chloe sat up with interest.

“This is magnificent!” Delaney held the safety-pin dress in triumph as she emerged from the closet. “Where did you find this? Did youmakeit?”

“Put it back.”

“Oh, please, you can’t just hide this—”

“Put it back!” As soon as the words escaped, I wanted to suck them back in. Chloe looked shocked.

“Of course.The sister.I should have guessed.” Delaneyhanded me the dress, letting the chains slip through her fingers. “Though you should wear it sometime. It would look amazing.”

We finally came up with outfits—me in a plaid skirt and shiny boots, a Lolita for the new millennium. Xanda would be proud—not that I could say it. Not after Delaney stopped me in front of everyone last spring and said, “You keep talking about your dead sister. It’s creeping me out.”

As I looked in the mirror, I admired my new body benefits. Chest, even hips. More and more, I saw my sister. My waist, on the other hand, seemed to be a thing of the past. Any day now, Delaney would gently suggest I lay off the puffs.

I wanted to tell them. I was dying to tell them. Chloe might be a shoulder to cry on, and Delaney—Delaney would know what to do. “Wait, I have something to tell you.” Chloe looked at me with her round brown eyes, and Delaney looked up before carefully applying another layer of eyeliner. “What?”

But saying the words would make it too real. I wasn’t ready for that yet. Instead, I pointed to my clock. “It’s nine already. We’d better go!”

At the end of a long road of dilapidated dwellings sat the shack Milo shared with his brother. The shack had been the site of many an Elna Mead party. Delaney and I had been here plenty last spring—she and Milo became fast friends after she was kicked out of View Ridge Prep. Tyvek sheets served as curtains—bachelor decorating at its best. Even the walls and shaggy brown carpet were permeated with the odor of onetoo many parties. My mother would be appalled.

Crammed inside the house was every person under eighteen I knew, bodies crushed like cigarettes and pulsing to the beat of a ginormous stereo. As I looked around the room, lit up by a red bulb in the corner, faces slowed down into grotesque laughter and shouts of greeting. Everyone was glad to see us—the leggy one, the curvy one, and the one who could stop Elna Mead traffic. I reached inside myself and pulled out “party girl,” modeled after Delaney and Xanda herself. I smiled at the faces around me, calling out loudly and giggling. The real me floated up to the corner of the room.

“Hey, hey, hey, look who’s here,” called Milo, raising a frothing plastic cup in greeting and sloshing half of it onto the carpet. He spotted the bottles we carried. “Even better—keg’s in the back.”

“Salut! Comment ça va?”Delaney declared to a group smoking ultrathins and sipping cups of Two Buck Chuck. They had already commandeered a couch whose right side had long ago ceased keeping up with the left. “Here,” she said to me, handing me the bottle of Sapphire. “Take this back for me?” Chloe handed hers over, too, and they both wove their way to the couch tovoulez-vouswith the French contingency.

The bartender’s back was turned when I approached, mixing cheap vodka with orange juice. But I knew that form. I even remembered the white shirt I could never get her to wear because she thought it was too revealing. “Just chill, be there in a second.” The voice crackled like Styrofoam.

How Essence ended up at this party, I didn’t know—then again, she had found her way to Delaney’s cabin last July. At least this time, Delaney wouldn’t think I invited her.

I set the bottles down on the counter with a clunk. “Here.” Essence spun, fresh drink in hand with a sprig of mint peeking out.

“No, thanks,” I said. “Just juice.”

“Oh, it’s you. Get your own.”

“Whatever,” Delaney said behind me. The two of them bristled for a moment. Then Delaney laughed, as if Essence’s defiance wasn’t even worth registering. “Sorry,” Essence mumbled, so that even her extra layer of chub seemed deflated. She poured me a glass of OJ.

You can’t buy that kind of power. Essence, God help her, had dared to cross it.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Delaney had laughed. It was last spring, after I’d been spending more and more time with Delaney and less and less with Essence. “She thinks I’d try to stealEli? As in,Autoerotic Eli?”

I blushed, remembering I had come up with that brilliant moniker myself. “Well, you do flirt a lot, but Essence thinks…” I stopped, feeling annoyed. It was getting easier to blame Essence for a lot of things.

That was the day Delaney took me to her brother Dylan’s house for the first time.

Delaney wound her car around traffic circles and hillswhile everyone else was slaving over fifth period. She parked across from a house that looked like the last holdout in the war on weeds, badly in need of a paint job. The porch door hung open with a note stuffed into it saying,BBL, needed Stuff—D.

“Crap.” Delaney shoved the doorknob. We spilled into the living room, a weird combination of IKEA and abandoned-on-the-sidewalk decorating. We sat down next to the picture window to watch for Dylan.

“Come on, Rand. I can’t help it if Eli thinks I’m hot. It’s not like I’mdoinganything to get his attention—are you kidding? And I don’t mean to be bitchy here, but if you’re comparing me and Essence…well…”

“I know.” I backpedaled. The insult to Essence didn’t even really register. “You’re right. It’s just…this is her first boyfriend.”

“I can’t help that,” Delaney said callously, switching from interest in the window to hunting through a hunk of her hair for split ends. “I don’t know why you hang out with her anyway. All of her whining is rubbing off on you.”

“We have a history,” I said. I didn’t tell her the whole truth—Essence was woven into our family like another sister, stripped away thread by thread since I had met Delaney.

She located an elusive split end and plucked the entire hair right out, as if its very imperfect existence was offensive to her. “People are starting to notice you, Rand.Guysare noticing you.”

I blushed. “Really?” I thought of my sister, whose presencecommanded attention in ways I never could. The same way Delaney did.

Her smile was encouraging. “Yes, really! You hadn’t noticed?”

“Well…” The truth was, I had. At parties, clubs, places that had once been closed to me—as long as I was still with Essence.

“Essence is exactly what you said—your history,” she said gently. “Maybe it’s time to leave history behind you and see what the future holds. Besides,” she added lightly, “I’m tired of sharing you.”

Essence and I weren’t even really friends anymore. Different interests, different friends. She was embroiled with Eli and drifting further into the drama crowd, and I had Kamran on my horizon. She probably wouldn’t even miss me, and if she did, we were still partners in chem lab, and I still saw her at church and in Mom’s drama productions. The logic of it only magnified the swell of happiness I felt at being chosen by Delaney.

And though she hadn’t come right out and said it, Delaney was giving me an ultimatum: her or me.

Delaney hopped up. “I’m sick of talking about Essence. Let’s get a beer.”

I followed her to the fridge, collaged with rent checks, naughty magnets, and tiny black-and-white fragments of poetry.

Then I saw it.

The photograph.

Xanda.

A picture of my sister, Andre, and a guy who had to be Delaney’s brother, Dylan—mouths open in exaggerated laughter, piled haphazardly on the couch where I’d just been sitting. Xanda, who looked as alive in that photograph as the day she walked out our door. Heavy-lidded eyes like mine, the same age I was right now. It could have been me in that picture. And strangely, Andre could have been Kamran.

And suddenly the choice between Essence and Delaney became much simpler.

“I can’t wait to bring you to one of Dylan’s parties,” Delaney was saying as she poked around in the fridge. “They’re unreal. And my brother would think you’re completely hot.” She got a sly grin on her face. “But then, you’ve been hanging out with a hottie of your own these days. What’s his name again?”


Page 5

Eight

Milo’s party got off the ground now that Delaney was here. She balanced the French group on one side and the skaters on the other while Chloe learned the finer points of beer chugging from Milo himself. Kamran had said he was going to stop by. I craned my neck looking for him and checked my cell phone for missed calls.

“Looking for Kamran?” Delaney shouted over the boom of the stereo. “He’s not coming.”

I felt a thud in my chest. “How do you know?”

“What?” she shouted.

“Why not?” I said, with more force.

“He called me a couple of hours ago—said he had to go in to work and wasn’t going to make it.” She shrugged. Mydisappointment must have registered on my face, because she gave me a quick air kiss and a grin. “It’s okay, Rand! We’ll live without him!” All I could do was gape at her smiling face. I tasted a trace of acid and knew what was coming next.

“Be right back,” I mumbled.

“’Kay, honey.” And she was yanked away while Milo held a shot aloft and ordered, “Here, your turn!” amid more laughter and shouting.

I had to push past the drama crowd, entrenched in one of the bedrooms, to get to the bathroom, a creepy little space with doors on either side and only a couple of rickety hooks to keep the crowd from crashing in. The smell, the close quarters, the idea of thousands of germs festering on the toilet seat, were too much for me. I hurled just as one of the hooks gave way and the door swung open. Essence was standing there, her eyes wide as beer mugs. “Oops,” she blurted. She clamped her hand over her mouth, trying to hold back the hoots of laughter exploding out of her.

Everyone gathered to see what was so funny, and the real me—lurking at a safe distance—pounded back into my brain with a crack.

I heaved my way out of the bathroom right up to Essence, who was holding her sides with one hand and a huge cup of beer with the other. Her body bounced with laughter, the cup teetering in her hand. The shame drowned out any memory of our old friendship. I pushed past, giving her elbow a slosh, and the group scattered to avoid the cascading liquid.

The laughter shifted to Essence, beer penetrating her too-white, too-tight shirt and dripping down her legs.

“Oh my God, look at the cross-your-hearter on those mothers!” someone shouted, maybe Milo. “Hey, everybody, wet T-shirt contest in the bedroom! Saaa-weeet!”

The anger burning in my throat settled back down into a dull ache as Delaney burst on scene, followed by half the house. Essence’s eyes locked with mine.

“Rand’s had a little too much to drink,” Delaney said, taking my hand and trying to steer me to the door. But she couldn’t resist a giggle when she saw the fabric clinging to Essence’s skin and the grandma pattern of her bra.

“She’s had orange juice!” Essence shrieked, but no one was listening. It was a victory, though it felt more like I had slammed a door and locked it behind me.

Delaney dragged me outside with Chloe not far behind. The cool air couldn’t chill me to the bone any more than Delaney’s look. “What the hell happened?” she demanded. Chloe stopped giggling on the spot.

I held up my glass of orange juice, my feeble excuse. Her fists were on her hips, her head swinging back and forth.

“I know you weren’t drinking anything, so what’s going on?”

Chloe stared at me with a mixture of curiosity, admiration, and horror. Both of us were holding our breath, waiting to see what would happen.

If only Kamran were here. If only he had called me instead of Delaney.

I crumbled right there on the porch, which rattled with music and the wild laughter still echoing in the bedroom. Something drastic was in order. Tears sprang from nowhere, and I couldn’t stop them.

Chloe put her arms around me and Delaney followed suit. Here, swallowed up in their friendship, I almost felt safe.

“I need you guys so much right now,” I sobbed. “I’m so scared.”

Delaney and Chloe held me tighter. “Just tell us what’s the matter so we can help,” said Delaney.

Chloe echoed, “We’ll always be here for you.” We sank down on the front steps together, ignoring the cigarette butts and bottle caps.

“I’ve taken two tests now.” It felt exciting to say, because I hadn’t even let myself feel the realness of it until the words tumbled out of my mouth. A bubble of happiness floated up, followed by a rush of tears. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, God,” Delaney said. “Have you told Kamran yet?”

I shook my head. “And you can’t tell him!”

“What are you going to do?” Chloe asked. She was crying, too. Delaney, though, looked thoughtful. “I can go with you,” she said.

“You mean to the doctor? I haven’t even thought that far ahead.”

“I mean to the clinic. You’re going to get rid of it, aren’t you?”

A million thoughts spun through my head at once. Iwanted to say yes. I wanted to scream no. I wanted to follow Delaney’s lead and let her take care of everything. I wanted Kamran back. And a baby. His baby. Because without a baby, I knew where things were headed.But with a baby?There was really only one hope left.

“I don’t know,” I blurted out. “Maybe not. I mean, we’re planning to be together, both of us going to school, and having a life together and everything…I guess maybe we’ll just get married sooner.” I ended lamely.Married. It came out of nowhere. But then, I felt a tiny triumph, seeing the look of shock on Delaney’s face. Maybe they had a past together at Big Boss, but he and I had a future. Chloe gasped and put her hand over her mouth, shivering.

Thunk. A car door slammed on the side of the house, and all three of us jumped. Essence’s car—a clunky yellow hatch-back—rolled past on the gravel road, spitting rocks. Her eyes met mine through the window, and she smiled darkly.

My God. I hoped she hadn’t heard.

Nine

Essence didn’t come to school today, but her legend lived on. She was no longer Essence, but the far nobler creature, Cross Your Heart. Milo spread the gospel far and wide. “Cross Your Heart! It was fan-freakin’-awesome!” I heard people talking who hadn’t even been there.

Which was good, because it meant nobody would be talking about me.

Delaney knew. Chloe knew. And then there was Essence.

She hadn’t even looked in my direction at church. Mom didn’t notice my puffy eyes—or the shapeless, drooping excuse for my Sunday best. She was too busy posting the results of the Christmas montage tryouts and the rehearsal schedule beginning in a few weeks. Dad didn’t seem to notice me at all. Hesat at the back of the sanctuary and snuck out early to work on his latest job. I kept my eyes on stained-glass Jesus, hoping he could find it in his heart to forgive me.

I kept calling Kamran, but he must have already gone to Big Boss. The line went straight to voicemail, the same greeting since always: “Kamran. Hey. Speak.” Was Delaney still working there? He’d probably talked to her ten times by now, severely testing her vow of silence.

I didn’t leave a message.

In English class on Monday, Kamran came in at the last minute and was the first to leave. Not once did we make eye contact. When I touched his arm as the bell rang, he jumped back like I’d slapped him. He said nothing, only threw his pack over his shoulder and disappeared around a corner.

Delaney swept me into the bathroom before my last class. She looked sparkling, her hair loose and framing her face. Last time I checked, I looked like I’d swallowed a dead cat. “I just saw Kamran. He seems pretty upset…,” she began.

The dread swirling around me all day settled into a giant lump in my chest. “You told him?”

“Of course not, but Essence…I think she heard us talking…”

I’d seen Essence with a few people from the drama crowd, surrounding her and looking as menacing as if they were the Jets and I was a Shark. I’d never seen her look that mean before. Would Essence have told him?

Delaney pulled lip gloss out of her bag and handed it tome. “I could talk to him for you. We hung out a lot over the summer…”

My face must have given me away, because she stopped and took my hand. “Rand, I just want you to know, whatever happens, I’ll be there.” She looked so sincere when she said it, I suddenly felt an avalanche of guilt for every suspicion I’d ever had.

“Thanks,” I said.

I had choices to make about this pregnancy, every one leading to something final. When to tell Kamran? Abort or keep? I knew I couldn’t tell my parents. If Xanda couldn’t help me, Delaney would be the next best thing.

AP art found us practicing medieval perspective—except for me. I was banned from doing anything remotely resembling labyrinths. “Try portraits,” Mrs. Crooker had said. “It would be a good exercise for you. Loosen you up. Besides, you will need to show your breadth if you want to get into Baird.”

My assignment was to draw the student next to me. After I blocked in the head shape, the features, the hands holding the pencil, I zeroed in on the paper beneath—spiraling through a medieval city, along corridors, down staircases, into my own private path to the spider’s nest. When the teacher dropped by, she rolled her eyes in exasperation. I lingered after class, finishing the ever-shrinking path in my drawing. Maybe I could avoid the inevitable.

I had to tell him myself, before someone else did.

I found Kamran after the final bell rang—not at my locker, but at Delaney’s. The two of them were cozied up like two old friends, laughing; not at all like they were feeling the weight of the future.

When she spotted me, Delaney’s smile shifted from coy to the kind of smile she might give to someone dying—pity, mixed with a tinge of survivor guilt. Kamran’s gaze followed me darkly.

“Hi, sweetie,” Delaney cooed, putting her arm around me. “How are you feeling?”

I muttered, “Like crap.”

“Come with me, I’ve got just the thing,” she said, steering me toward the bathroom. “I got a new—”

“I don’t want to come with you. I need to talk to Kamran.” She looked surprised and a little hurt.

“Oh, okay. Do you—”

“Delaney, don’t,” Kamran snapped suddenly. “This isn’t something you can fix.”

Fix. Oh, God.

He grabbed his pack and stormed past me, leaving Delaney to scurry off with a “You guys have some stuff to work out, I guess. I’ve gotta find Chloe before she has a panic attack.” As if I wasn’t having one right here in front of her.

I followed Kamran out to his motorcycle, where he had already put on his helmet and revved the engine. A piece of tape covered the tear in the seat where I was always scratching my leg last spring. It curled upward, like a Band-Aid thatjust needed to be ripped off.

I straddled the front wheel. “Kamran,” I shouted over the rumble. Who cared if people were staring. “Kamran, we have to talk!”

He tore the helmet from his head while the engine still growled.

“Yeah, you’ve been doing a lot of talking, it sounds like. Only not to me.” I’d never heard him use this tone before. Usually he was totally unflappable. Now his voice rose to an alarming volume.

People were curious. They gathered, though not close enough to be a target for a hurtling helmet, should he decide to throw it. Students sitting in their cars discreetly rolled their windows down a crack.

“Kamran, I tried to call you. I’ve been trying to reach you all summer, and you didn’t return half my calls.”

“I was busy. I was working. And you call me a thousand times just to ‘hear my voice,’ so it’s hard to know which calls are the important ones.”

A few people snorted. Even teachers were watching now, stopped by their cars.

“I tried to call you yesterday,” I said. “I tried all day, and you never called back.”

“You called to inform me we were getting married? Like you told your friends and God knows who else Saturday night? When, exactly, is that supposed to happen? When I’m at MIT?”

A group of Hacky Sackers stopped Hackying, except for one disinterested dude who kicked the bag up and down with the cadence of a time bomb.

“Oh,” he laughed, so that his jaw tilted up and I could see his neck constricting, “and here’s the best part.”

Oh, God, he already knew.Please don’t say it.Not here in front of everyone.

“No,” he said, “We’re not going to go there. I’m not going to do this anymore. In fact, I was going to tell you this summer if it wasn’t for the last time…forget it.”

“Wait a second.” I was still straddling the front wheel as he backed out. “Wait a second. Is this…Are you breaking up with me?” It was me, the skaters, the basketball players trickling out of the gym, waiting on the edge of a razor to hear his reply.

His eyes flashed sadness—and fear. “You lied to them,” he said, his voice barely rising above the bike. “I can’t believe you lied.” He said the last part almost to himself.

“You didn’t even tell me…it’s like you did it on purpose.” He broke off, for the first time seeming to notice we had an audience. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to get to work.” He shoved his helmet back on his head and revved once more.

“But wait—you didn’t give me a chance—” My words drowned as he sped off, and I was left to stand in the parking space alone.I didn’t even have a chance to tell you myself.

No one else wanted to hear the news, either. As soon as he left, the lurkers dispersed.

“Dude, that was harsh,” one of the Hacky Sackers said before kicking the bag across the circle.

Maybe my mom was right. Maybe I did take something beautiful and turn it into something ugly. Maybe what was supposed to be beautiful in another timeline had somehow turned rancid in this one.

I glanced at the double doors of the school’s main entrance. Delaney stood there, watching.

Ten

When I came home, the house was eerily quiet. Usually I could count on Mom chatting to herself as she wrote, or on the phone with the prayer chain. Silence meant she was probably at the church getting ready for the first rehearsal. Which meant I could grieve my own private grief.

My stomach—ravenously empty about every half hour now—protested too much for me to consider life’s complex and looming problems. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, starvation came before sorrow.

I padded up the stairs to my room with a tuna sandwich, balancing my plate on one hand and my broken heart on the other.

Nothing I knew about Xanda prepared me for this. She leftno roadmap for rejection, no secret blog. No notes on dealing with decimation. I had tried to pour Kamran into myself, filling those tunnels of despair left over from Xanda with tendrils of hopefulness, the way being with Andre seemed to fill my sister with a kind of tempered steel. Now that Kamran had forcibly ripped them out, I was reeling from emptiness. Imminent total collapse.

Just before I bit into the sandwich, Mom stormed through my door—white face exploding with pink. I’d seen this face before.

“No tuna!” she shrieked, slapping the sandwich out of my hand and sending it splattering onto the front of my dresser.

Before I could recover, she spun on her heel and fled to her bedroom—an old script for Xanda, but a new one for me.

I could only hear faint, muffled crying on the other side of the door. Maybe my dad had finally had enough. Maybe someone on the prayer chain was dying of a tuna-inflicted coma. The tightness rose in my chest when I considered anything else.

Like the reel of a bad movie, I saw Essence slinking around the corner at the party and tearing off in her yellow hatch-back. First Kamran, then my mom.Oh, God. Let it be anything but that.

“Mom,” I said, my voice quavering. “Mom, are you okay?” For a moment I considered fleeing before I could find out, but the door opened, revealing her towering, trembling figure.

“I got a call from the prayer chain,” she said in an evenvoice, belying the loose hairs she flicked away with a fist.

The prayer chain. Essence. Whose mom could set the entire chain in motion before the news reached my mom.

“I thought we could trust you,” my mom spat. “I should have known something like this would happen, sooner or later.”

It’s not like I hadn’t heard these words before—they were just never directed at me. “What do you mean?”

“Everyone is praying for us, for ourfamily. For you and your”—she glanced down contemptuously at my nearly flat belly—“yourcondition.” The words looked like poison in her mouth. “Everyone is talking about it.”

Of course they were. Divine humiliation. I could think of nothing worse.

“Who is the father?” she demanded.

“What do you mean, who is the father? It’s Kamran!” My parents had barely crossed paths with Kamran, but they knew about him. They knew his name, knew I spent time with him, knew he was headed for MIT. “Why would you think it would be anybody else?”

“Well, I didn’t know. If you’re having sex, God knows who you’re having it with.”

She took my silence as confirmation.

“How many people are you having sex with, Miranda?”

I’m not even having sex,I thought miserably.

“I had hoped after everything your sister put us through, you would learn something. That’s why we sent you away forthe summer, because we thought…well, apparently, it was stupid for us to think we could keep you from screwing the first boy who looked at you.”

She grabbed her forehead as though it were paining her to even look in my direction. “Right now you’re as dead to me as your sister.”

I don’t even remember the gasp escaping, or running down the hall and out the door.

I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, over the hill and down to Madison Park’s playground and picnic tables, empty in the late September cold and covered with bird crap. The restaurant on the dock showed signs of opening, but I had left my money at home. She never even told me why I couldn’t eat tuna.

My feet found the trail, joining the few joggers who braved the heavy, pre-rain air. Little did they know they were jogging past the worst day of my life.

I made my way around the trail for hours—or at least, it felt like hours—until the chill, darkness, and an insatiable desire for a piece of toast forced me home. Dad might even be there by now, although I knew it was useless to look for salvation from him.

Mom would have already related the gory details. At the Hanson job or the Travertoli job or the City of Seattle job, he would get a call. He would listen, and then say he needed to work a few more hours. There was no way he would take the blame this time. He didn’t even know Kamran.

The house seemed deserted—every light off, except for a faint glow. Dad’s truck was in the driveway. I guess that was good news. At least they would be talking. My delinquency might be enough to put them on the same floor.

I tiptoed in, hoping to reach my room undetected. Maybe some Easter candy lingered, some marshmallows from camp. A pasta necklace from second grade.

The glow came from the dining room, where I could hear forks clinking against china, glass tapping the cherrywood of the table. A voice—my dad’s—murmured a low cadence.

I had barely seen my dad since I came home from camp, so I’d forgotten the musky smell surrounding him when he’d been on the job. The way the dust settled in his hair, the cracks of his hands, the weave of his shirt.

My mom’s voice interrupted at an urgent pitch. I heard my name.

They weren’t talking. They were praying.

My stomach reminded me of the looming threat of starvation. After a finalamen, I made my way to the table where a plate of food had been set for me. Peas, chicken, rice. No toast. I bowed my head quickly for appearances, though my prayer was more of thehelp mevariety.

“It’s nice of you to join us, Mandy,” Mom said. I braced myself for yelling—maybe, if this had been Xanda, there would have been. I glanced at my dad for some kind of support, but he was busy counting his peas.

“Mom—,” I started to say, but she cut me off.

“The only thing to do is to put it up for adoption.” I half expected her to suggest abortion—I’d thought of it myself. But not now that everyone knew. Sometimes it was hard to tell her true religion—the one where God was involved, or the one where everyone looked good.

“Adoption,” I repeated, considering the idea for the first time.But it’s mine.The decision is mine. She wanted everything hidden; my dad wanted nothing more than to avoid conflict. What did I want?

“And starting tomorrow, you’re not going to have anything to do with that boy.”That boy. Like Andre. Though not at all in the ways I’d hoped. “As of tomorrow, the only places you’ll be are school, church, and home.”

“But Mom, what about my application—” Six empty slots still stood in my portfolio. Without them, I might as well kiss Baird good-bye.

“You can do art at home. And for that matter, we’re going to have to seriously reconsider whether you’re even going to art school.” I opened my mouth to protest, but I only seemed to be swallowing dust. “As for your friends, you aren’t going anywhere. As for Kamran…”

She continued the diatribe of what I would and wouldn’t be allowed to do. An image flashed through my mind of Xanda’s suitcase, bursting at the seams, found in the trunk of Andre’s Impala. The safety-pin dress spilled out like a chain-link fence.

My dad scarfed down his peas and rice until Mom wassilent. “I forgot to mention,” he said quietly, “I need to go over some plans for tomorrow’s job. I’ll be in the basement if anyone needs me.” He got up and brushed off the seat, just in case he had left any dust.


Page 6

Eleven

After dinner there was nothing for me to do but hide in my room. I tried dialing Delaney’s cell. She picked up on the fourth ring, right before I was about to hang up. The speaker caught the tail end of laughter, cut it off with a breathy, “Hello?”

I caught a snippet of a male voice, then everything but the white noise stopped, right there with my heartbeat. “Rand?”

I could hardly hold the phone. “Delaney,” I said. “Is Kamran there with you?”

“Kamran? No, honey. Why would you think that? You must have heard the radio.”

I knew what I heard, and it wasn’t KEXP 90.3.

“What’s up?” she continued.

I was silent.

“Hey, listen, Rand,” she said cheerily. “I can’t talk now, but can I call you when I get home?”

I moved my mouth, but no sound came out. If it did, it might bring the house down on me.

“Okay, Rand,” she continued, “I’ll call you when I get home. I saw you guys out there in the parking lot. Hope everything’s okay.”

Click.

Kamran’s words still echoed in my head.You called to inform me we were getting married? When, exactly, is that supposed to happen? When I’m at MIT?But we had talked about it—the two of us moving to Boston, going to school, being together, having a life. When he wasn’t focused on tests and applications. When I wasn’t filling my portfolio. When I wasn’t partying with Delaney and grasping at memories of my sister. When I imagined our future. Was I the only one?

I thought about calling Chloe—unwitting party to my secrets, grafted friend. Already she’d been emailing me angel wishes and personality tests without actually writing a word. She would probably unload her cutesy best friend–ness on me, tell me everything would be okay and that she would be there for me, too. As I lay there on my bed thinking about her and Delaney, I got more and more angry. For all I knew, she was in on it, watching Kamran and Delaney flirting all summer and never saying a word.

Then there was the person I’d always talked to, intertwined with my family for more than half our lives andnow separated by a span of mixed emotions. No, I definitely couldn’t call Essence.

I needed to talk to someone, and Xanda wasn’t around to meet me at midnight, right after she had been out with Andre and smelling of dampness and leaves and French fries and skin. All I had was a safety-pin dress.

Mom retreated to the bedroom and anesthetized herself with her scripts. Maybe she’d change her Brenda character from the prodigal daughter to the prodigalpregnantdaughter. I would look the part in a few months.

“What are you doing?” she demanded when I tried to slip into the office, as if Kamran lurked outside and we were going to have sex right there.

“Homework.”

“You’d better be.” And she went back to her steady drip of imaginary characters.

The internet window popped open and I plugged in my search. The results for “teen pregnant dumped completely screwed” didn’t look promising. On the BabyCenter website, the question of the day cheerfully asked, “My pregnancy test showed positive. Am I pregnant, or could it be something else?”

I plugged the date of my last period into the little due date calculator, though I couldn’t even really remember anymore. Right when school got out. The week after, maybe. Definitely before the cabin trip. If my guess was right, I was fifteen weeks—almost four months—pregnant. Fifteen out of forty.

I reached for the snack I’d raided from the kitchen, some crackers and an apple. I followed the thread, where people gave advice, suggested courses of action, and offered varying levels of medical-babble. The “community” section promised boards for every possible fertility contingency. I couldn’t help it—I was sucked in.

I clicked through some links to the list of bulletin boards—advice for dads, grief and loss, first-time pregnancy, teen pregnancy. Foods to avoid, like tuna. I wondered how my mom knew. Questions like, “My chest hurts. Is this normal?” populated the board in a limitless spiral of subjects under discussion. There didn’t seem to be one for my situation: how could I go back to before everything began?

The Teen Pregnancy section was mostly filled with fourteen-year-olds panicking about what to do when their parents found out. I already had enough panic in my life.

But there was something appealing about the First-Time Moms section. They were newlyweds, or trying for so long they’d almost given up, or surprised by babies completely disrupting their lives. What they had in common, though, wasn’t fear or resentment. More like joy. They had handles like “babyfairy” and “soon2Bmom” and “stacy+one.” They wrote about morning sickness and tests and ultrasounds and their spouses, putting in smiley faces and baby meters to show their growth. Babyfairy was the fantasy-philiac. Soon2Bmom was the executive. FemmeNikita stood out as the leader, or at least the most outspoken, who wrote stuff like, “This is themost fun I’ve had since sperm met egg.”

After an hour reading through their posts, they felt like friends. They made pregnancy seem like fun, even freedom. Out in the ether, I could make things the way I wanted them to be. The way I hoped they still could.

I didn’t sign up, but I had already thought of the perfect screen name:

XandasAngel.

Twelve

Delaney didn’t call me back. Suddenly she had a million errands to run and couldn’t look me in the eye, except to stop after our History class and say, “I heard about you and Kamran. We’ll have a chocolate night soon, okay? Gotta run now—French is kicking my ass this year.À bientôt!” Chloe’s communiqués were limited to cute quotes and warnings to add an ICE—in case of emergency—number to my cell phone. Not that I had any idea who that might be.

I didn’t have to worry anymore about everyone finding out, because now they knew. Between my parking-lot fight with Kamran, my so-called friends, and Essence’s big mouth, the information spread like a virus. Instead of “Did you see Cross Your Heart today?” it was, “Did you see that wickedfight?” and “I heard she got pregnant on purpose.”

Kamran could avoid me everywhere but English—we existed in separate, parallel universes. But his anger was palpable, impenetrable. I had to wonder if I’d seen the fear at all.

At lunch I headed to the library or computer lab, reading up on the halcyon pregnancies of FemmeNikita—aka Nik—and her peers. In that world, Kamran still loved me. Keeping the baby meant keeping hope.

Things at home might have seemed normal if I were Xanda—the dark looks, the disapproval.

I should have known the second I saw the sleek, black car in the driveway that something was very, very wrong.

Mom rose to her feet when I entered the house, and so did a strange woman, coiffed and stiff as our living-room cushions. Brenda the Good would stay and greet the visitor, maybe even offer her some ladyfingers. Before my fall from grace, I would have done that, too. Now, what was the point?

“Mandy, I’d like you to meet—”

“—MizWrent,” the woman cut in as she held out a hand shiny with moisturizer. My mom took a sip of tea. The two of them seemed to have formed an uneasy alliance.

Miz Wrent spoke. “Your mother has been telling me all about you, Mandy.”

“Rand,” I said. I felt my body start to slide into a state of panic—imminent hypoglycemia. In case of emergency, carry snacks. Even better: Pack a suitcase.

“Can I get you something to eat?” I asked, hoping mypoliteness veiled my desperation. “A cookie or a sandwich?” She declined. My body growled in protest.

“No, I’m here to ask you a few questions before we start the pro—”

My mom cut in. “Miz Wrent is here from Social Services. She wants to help you make some decisions.” Miz Wrent looked like there was a lot more she’d like to say, but instead she turned to me with a waxy smile.

“Are you sure I can’t get you a snack?”

“No, no,” she began, then suddenly the light bulb turned on. “Oh, but you must be starving. Get yourself something before we get started.”

As I slapped together a sandwich, the two of them whispered. I strained to hear.

“Ms. Mathison—”

“Call me Hillary.”

“Hillary. Does she know who the father is?”

“Yes.”

“And will he want to be involved in this process?”

“Not if we can help it,” my mother snorted.He will if I can,I said to myself as I dumped a glob of raspberry jam in the center of the peanut-buttered bread.

Miz Wrent’s voice shifted. “It’s a shame, seeing what a lovely home you could—” Then she stopped herself. Shifted back. When she spoke again, it was all business. “Has she been having any problems so far?”

“Oh, no,” my mom responded, as if she even knew. “Ifonly we could all weather pregnancy as easily as a teenager. Do you have children?” I didn’t catch the response, but they laughed conspiratorially. I wished I could wring my mom’s stupid, haughty neck.

“What is her due date?” asked Miz Wrent as she recovered from the shared joke.

Yeah, Mom, tell her about the date.I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to see her squirm. But Mom evaded—damage control was her specialty. “Mandy, tell Miz Wrent about your pregnancy.”

“I’m not exactly sure.” I made a show of counting. “Beginning of summer…nine months, right? June…July…this spring, maybe?” Who said I wasn’t an actress?

Miz Wrent shored herself up. “Not exactly sure? Hasn’t your doctor given you a due date?”

“I haven’t been to a doctor,” I said innocently.

“You haven’t been to a doctor yet?” she demanded, giving my mom the “what kind of mother are you?” look. I couldn’t help but feel a little smug.

“We haven’t found the right doctor yet,” my mom said, convincingly enough for a Tony. Behind the triumph, though, was a note of panic. Miz Wrent looked doubtful.

I smiled shyly. “Maybe you have a recommendation?”

“Of course. I’ll leave you some information when I give you the paperwork I’d like you to fill out. Now.” She gave my mom an unsure look. “I need to ask Rand some questions. Do you have any medical conditions—STDs, high blood pressure,diabetes—that could complicate delivery or endanger the health of the baby?”

“No, I’ve never—”

“Have you taken any drugs or alcohol since becoming pregnant?”

“No!”

My mother leaned forward, gobbling up my words as soon as they left my mouth.

“Would you be interested in meeting the parents in an open relationship, or would you prefer your information to be classified?”

I was turning a dangerous corner, about to step into a covered pit. “Why are you asking me all of this? What do you mean, meet the parents?”

The pieces slammed into my head like a puzzle of broken glass.The only thing to do is put it up for adoption.

I couldn’t believe my mother had done this. I hated her. I wished I could kill her. And more than anything, I wished for Xanda’s help. She had left me to grope in the darkness by myself.

Miz Wrent’s relentless gears ground to a halt. “Excuse me, Ms. Mathison. You led me to believe your daughter wanted to give this baby up for adoption.”

Adoption. I could see the path stretched out before me. I couldn’t turn back now that they knew. There would be no art, no escape if I crossed this threshold and took what they offered. My parents would tighten the chains until I couldno longer breathe. Like they did to Xanda. The only escape would be death.

If I said no? I could pack that suitcase and plan that escape and maybe, just maybe, Kamran would come. If I said no, there was still a chance for everything to change.

“I’m keeping it!” I shouted, upsetting the teacups. “You can’t force me to give it up. I won’t!”

Miz Wrent never did leave a doctor recommendation.

Thirteen

Before she spent her days and nights with Andre, Xanda and I would climb out the bathroom window to the side roof under Mom and Dad’s bedroom window. Xanda would smoke while I drank one of Mom’s contraband diet sodas. She dangled her feet over the edge, flicking her ashes into the garden below. I sat as close to the house as possible, always afraid of falling off. There we would listen to our parents’ latest strategies for keeping Xanda in line.

Now I availed myself of the next best thing: hiding in the bathroom with the window cracked.

They were arguing. Or rather, Mom was yelling, and Dad was listening. Their voices were like jackhammers—my name, said over and over.Mandy…Mandy…Mandy.

They were arguing about me. More precisely, what to do with me. The options were limited.

“We could send her to stay with my parents,” Dad was saying.

“Oh, no we won’t,” seethed my mother, as if he had suggested parading me around with a big redA. “You want her spending time with your sister? The one who can’t keep a job and is still living with your parents in atrailer?” I knew the next part by heart: I didn’t have to see Dad wince to know it happened.

“Well, if my parents aren’t right, then how about yours? They could—”

“You can’t be serious!” she countered. “I can’t send a pregnant girl to go live with my family….” She was as ashamed to send me to the white collars as she was to send me to the white trash.

“Fine,” said Dad.

“There’s only one thing to do. We’ll stick it out, let her finish the school year, and then after it’s all over, maybe we can move—”

Move?We didn’t move because of Xanda, but they would move because ofme?

“Hillary, we are not moving.”

But Mom was not listening. “After this is all over, we could move back to Connecticut, or we could go to New Jersey…”

“Hillary.”

“…Nobody there would know, and then we could send her…”

“Hillary!”

Silence. Then: “What? You would let her ruin our lives here? Ruin everything we have worked for?”

You have worked for,I wanted him to say. The status, the money, the house on the hill. It was all about her, the rest of us be damned.

But he said nothing. A groan of disgust came from my mother. “I am not going to let you ruin everything again.I won’t.” I thought she was finished. Then, in a much smaller voice, she said, “I’ve done everything different with Mandy. Where did I go wrong?”

Her words trailed away from the window, footsteps stomping into the hall before I could escape. I was trapped there in the dark, with only a night-light to guide me.

“Mandy?” The shrillness startled me. “Are you in there?”

What would Xanda do?I thought in a panic. Under other circumstances it might be funny, like I should have a WWXD bracelet on my wrist or tattooed around my ring finger.

I flushed.

Silence, for my mother, spoke volumes. It stretched out between us like hairs pulled from my head. She could control me with a few strands.

“Just going to the bathroom, Mom. Sorry I woke you up.”

“Hmmmf,” she said through the door. “Well, I’m going back to bed, then.” Her feet shuffled away. The door of their bedroom shut.

As I crept down the hallway, their bedroom door sprangopen and my mom pounced.

“Your father and I have decided something.” As if Dad had anything at all to do with it. “Since you have decided tokeepthis baby,” she said with something clearly resembling revulsion, “you are going to stay in school until you have it. After that, we’ll decide what to do.”

“Um, okay,” I said.

“Butdon’t be surprisedif we decide to move after the baby is born. In fact”—she looked down at my stomach—“you might think about starting to pack now.” With that, she spun around and left me standing in the hallway with a slam.

She still had me caught by the hair, her hands straining to keep control.

What would Xanda do?That wasn’t hard.

She would cut the hair off.


Page 7

Fourteen

More and more, I spent my free time either in the art room or in the computer lab. Mrs. Crooker had pulled me aside after class one day and said, “Whatever happens,you finish school.” Even the lab tech must have heard by now, but he still only nodded sympathetically when I told him I was researching teen pregnancy for a class project. Which meant I could spend as much time as I wanted reading the BabyCenter boards.

According to the profile I submitted (code name XandasAngel), I lived in Seattle with my husband, was twenty-one years old and finishing my fine arts degree. Most of the other mommies had ultrasounds by now, and for all they knew, I was no different.

The morning after my parents’ argument, I found a piece of paper slipped under my door in my dad’s handwriting. “You’ll probably need this to make a doctor’s appointment. Love, Dad.” The note was wrapped around an insurance card. The hormones raging through me now made it impossible to hold back tears. It would have been even better if he’d offered to go with me. The last thing I wanted was to go with Mom.

Hard to explain, but when I visited the board, all the stuff that sucked in my life seemed to go away. Kamran and I were happy together, Delaney was a loyal friend, I was following my dreams, and we were excited about the baby on the way.

When I posted, I introduced myself, my new life, and my most pressing pregnancy complaints: namely, weird cravings and the dreaded fat stage. Nik, “FemmeNikita,” said, “Don’t worry, honey, relief is only a few weeks away. You’ll be doing the happy dance before you know it.” I didn’t see myself dancing any time soon. Besides, dancing made me think of Kamran and Delaney. I wished I could tell the other mommies about it, or at least Nik. For some reason I thought she would understand.

The tech was out and the lab closed, so I headed for the library to catch up with my new circle of friends. Nik was telling everyone about feeling the first kick, since none of the rest of us had experienced it.

Reading about Nik’s baby made it even more obvious: I needed to tell the other moms the truth. I opened a new window and began to type the whole story—Xanda, Kamran,Delaney. I was just about to send it when I heard a familiar giggle around the corner.

“That was a pretty harsh way for you to dump her,” said the voice. Delaney. “I feel kind of sorry for her.”

“I wasn’t trying to be harsh.” Kamran. I should have known he would be here, in between studying for the latest practice test, AP exams, and interviews. But I hadn’t expected Delaney.

“You should have heard her, though, talking about you guys planning to get married right after school. I mean, for all you know, it’s not even your baby. Did you actuallydo itwith her?”

Kamran was silent.

“Oh,no, youdidn’t. Last summer? At mycabin?”

More silence. I could imagine him nodding gravely, maybe even with his head in his hands.

“But there were other guys, right? I mean, was she just trying to trap you? I would, if I had that family. Have you ever met them?”

Kamran spoke. “She’s gotta deal with her stuff. I was always telling her.”

Is that what he thought of everything I’d shared with him about Xanda? Stuff I had to deal with?

“I know, right?” Delaney agreed. “For the longest time all she talked about was her dead sister.” One of them took a bite of something and the faint scent of pomegranates wafted through the bookshelves.

“She’s been through a lot,” Kamran said.

“Yeah, but she tried to drag the rest of us through it with her. I swear, she imitated me. I want a friend, not a doppelganger.”

Outrage washed through me. Is that why she liked Chloe?

“I should have told her at the beginning of the summer. Stupid of me. I never should have let this get out of hand, and now…”

“You’re not stupid. You’re a nice guy. Nice guys do the right thing.” Another giggle and the sound of a chair scooting. “So…what do you think’s in your future now, Mr. Nice Guy?”

I looked back at the long letter of truth I had typed to the BabyCenter girls, waiting for me to hitSEND. As long as I didn’t, I could pretend none of this was happening—at least to them.

I logged off the computer and slipped out of the library without a sound.

I nearly collided with a few people from the drama crowd, though Essence wasn’t with them. I put my head down and walked the other way.

 

It was fairly easy for me to avoid Essence these days—we hadn’t planned our schedule together like we had every other year. But it was impossible to avoid her on Sundays.

Mom didn’t say a word to me or Dad on the way to church. She hadn’t said much since Miz Wrent’s unceremoniousdeparture. Instead, she spent every waking moment at her laptop—a new script, or maybe a memoir entitledHumiliation: A Chronicle of Motherhood. I had always wanted to be like Xanda, and now I was. I just didn’t know it would involve this much guilt.

“So what have you been working on?” I asked my mom.

Dad glanced toward her for a split second. Mom continued to stare straight ahead, zooming toward the church at uncharacteristically high speeds. “I’ve made some changes to the Christmas montage.”

I could see it already—if I wasn’t sorry enough in real life, she’d make sure I would be onstage. No amount of repentance in real life would be enough. “What did you change?”

“You’ll see.” Then she turned her conversation toward my dad and the sets—how to construct the perfect alternate universe.

We arrived to a chorus of drama groupies whose whispers halted when we approached. I was stuck lugging in the box of new scripts. Mr. Warren (aka “Kindly Old Man”) stepped in and said, “You shouldn’t be carrying that.” My mother didn’t so much as bat an eyelash.

Essence was among the groupies. I was betting she couldn’t wait for this moment.

If the rest of them were waiting around to witness the carnage, they obviously didn’t know my mother. She took the stage with her usual, enviable composure. “All right,” she said as she handed out the new scripts, “we’ve got some majorchanges in the works. I’m posting a new cast list as of today. Essence?”

“Yes, Mrs. Mathison?”

“You are taking over the part of Brenda.”

Essence smiled. They deserved each other. “Absolutely. I already know Brenda’s lines! I willbeBrenda. Brenda and I will be one. So does that mean Miranda’s taking my part?”

“No…”

Thank you, God.

“…Claire will be taking over for you.” Claire, a fourteen-year-old with perma-grin, squealed with happiness. “Mandy is going to be working on sets with her dad.”

Essence snickered as she read over her script.

So that was it. I was demoted back down to set designer, a job I’d performed for half my life and even kind of liked.

Except for the first time since Xanda died, I’d had my own part in the play. For the first time, however briefly, the daughter my mom noticed was me.

Fifteen

After Miz Wrent’s visit, I expected my mom to champion my health care, but all she said was, “If you’re adult enough to get yourself into this, you’re adult enough to handle the consequences.”

It wasn’t so difficult to see a doctor—just a quick web search and a phone call. I almost told Kamran in English class, where I watched the back of his neck the way I had a thousand times on the back of his motorcycle. But I couldn’t. He gave me one look. Still angry. Scared. Maybe sad, too. Then he was gone.

When I arrived at the hospital, they gave me some paperwork and I handed them my insurance card. The nurse at the desk was horrified when she saw the date of my last period.

“June? And this is your first visit?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, honey. I’ll try to squeeze you in for an ultrasound today, too. We’ll see how far along you really are.” She handed me a water bottle. “Drink this.”

The ob-gyn turned out to be this long-haired hippielike woman, only her sweater was pink with hearts embroidered on it. She had a kind face with bright blue eyes. After asking me a bunch of questions about my family medical history, she began asking questions about the pregnancy. I didn’t know why, but I found myself pushing down the burning in my tear ducts. All of these things, from the moment I found out to the present, spilled out of my mouth and into the tiny hospital room.

She asked when I had my last period. Right at the end of junior year, though I couldn’t remember the exact day.

I did remember the night the baby began, every detail. The way Kamran looked in the firelight. The way Delaney laughed and then paused to see who was watching her. Maybe we’d still be together, if that night had never happened.

 

Twenty of us went out to Delaney’s dad’s cabin for Fourth of July weekend: me, Kamran, Delaney, Milo, a few skaters, a few freshly graduated seniors, Chloe from French class, a few on the fringes of the popular crowd, and one unwelcome camper who somehow got the memo. That being Essence.

“Did you invite her?” Delaney growled.

“No, of course not. I have no idea how she found out.” I knew it wasn’t rational, but somehow it made sense to blame Essence. Because blame was so loud, it could drown out the softer, more insistent voice.Shame.

After taking the ferry across Puget Sound, Delaney led us up the path to her dad’s waterfront cabin a mile or so from the docks. We reached the beach as the sun sank over the other side of the island. The boys grabbed some lighter fluid and sprayed the fire pit while I embraced the role of Delaney’s partner in crime: “Milo and Ty, get some sticks from that grove over there.” “Lin and Chloe, go get the booze.” I felt powerful until I noticed Delaney standing off to the side, sharing a private joke with Kamran.

“Delaney!” She leaped to my side and smiled sheepishly. Once she was there, my mind went blank.Stop flirting,I wanted to say.

Kamran’s face was unreadable. I knew what he would have said—they were just getting to know each other, the two best friends I’d always kept apart.

As we stoked the fire, Milo passed around a plastic cup of soda and something else to make us all feel a bit warmer in the cool, early summer air. After I had a few sips of Milo’s concoction and the boys ran out of bottle rockets, I began to relax.

“What do we do now?” giggled Delaney after we’d made a circle around the bonfire. She tilted her head to one side and beamed—I thought—in Kamran’s general direction. “There’salways Spin the Bottle,” she suggested coyly, “or Truth or Dare, or I Never, or—”

“I Never,” I spoke up. Then I could have kicked myself. Was I that worried? I looked around the circle of faces, flickering golden in the firelight. They were laughing, drinking, talking, none of them paying much attention to me.

“I Never is good,” Delaney said. “Everybody know how to play? Someone says ‘I never…I dunno…screwed a purple dinosaur in the jungle.’ If you have done it, you drink. Got it?” Murmurs of agreement followed.

The couples among us snuggled together. I knew after the game we would all stagger off to separate corners of the cabin, some of us with someone and some of us not. Kamran sat next to me, but we weren’t touching. That was the way he liked it—no public displays of affection. He didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable. “You know I love you,” he would say. “Why do I have to prove it in front of everybody?”

“Who goes first?” someone asked.

Someone else said, “It was your idea, Delaney, why don’t you go first.”

Delaney sat to my left. That meant I would go last—plenty of time to formulate my statement. But I already knew exactly what I would say.

“I never…,” she drawled, smiling at the circle. I could see her eyes narrow as she located a target. “I never did it with Ty Belkin.” Three girls sipped, each glaring at the other two. Ty stretched out his arms and grinned.

 

“We calculate the due date from the first day of your last period. That would put your due date around…” The ob-gyn paused. “March twenty-sixth, give or take a day. You’re just beyond eighteen weeks now.” March 26. Xanda’s birthday. I thought it would be around the same time, but I didn’t know it would be exactly that day. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling Xanda had something to do with this baby, that she had given me a secret gift.XandasAngel.

“Have you felt any movement yet?”

“No.” I thought of Nik, telling all of us about her baby’s flutter. “Is that normal?”

“You can start feeling it any time between sixteen and twenty-two weeks, but most first timers don’t feel it until maybe twenty.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Some women describe it as champagne bubbles,” she told me. Then, giving me an appraising look, said, “Or soda-pop bubbles. Or, it can feel like a light tapping—like butterfly wings. The best time to feel it is at night, when babies are most active. Try lying on your back and waiting to see what happens. Would you like to hear the heartbeat now?”

I nodded. She helped me hop up on the table and pressed the end of a Doppler instrument into my flesh. It immediately emitted a static echo. Faintly, a deep, rhythmic thud emerged. I could feel my heart pounding, the sound echoing like a shadow. “Is that the baby?”

“No, that’s you. I haven’t found the baby yet.” The knob rolled toward my hip, and the deep echo of my heart faded away. Another sound layered on top of it at a higher pitch—a smaller, fasterblip blip blipunderscored by the low, background thud.

“That’s the baby. The heart sounds nice and strong.”

“And fast!” I strained to commit the sound to memory. The digital screen read 150 beats per minute, now 156, now 148.

The ob-gyn smiled, adjusting the instrument. “Hello, baby!” she said to my stomach, and for the first time I realized it could hear me. “We can’t wait to meet you.”

The thought of it brought tears to my eyes. Happy tears, and tears of utter alarm.


Page 8

Sixteen

After Ty Belkin’s moment of truth, questions and answers blurred together until Delaney elbowed me merrily and said, “Hey, Rand, yooou’ve been dumped, haven’t you? Drink!”

Huh? Was she talking about middle school? Did everyone else know something I didn’t? Kamran raised an eyebrow.

Essence caught my eye from across the circle. An image of her ex–Siamese twin (Eli, attached at the tonsils) flashed before me: drama geek, smartier than thou, whose sole fashion statement consisted of badly fitted khakis and rugby shirts faded from washing out his pungent body odor. I couldn’t believe Essence didn’t notice. But I guess you could forgive a lot of things when you’re the center of somebody’s universe. As if Delaney would want to stealhim.

As the game rippled around the circle and each person spoke their clever I Nevers, I stared at Essence, the contempt building in my throat. She didn’t drink once, even though I knew she should.

The game stopped with her. She raised her head, eyes searing across the circle. For a moment, they flickered toward me with something else. Regret. Or sympathy. Then she looked straight at Delaney.

“I never tried to steal someone’s boyfriend,” she intoned, like a prophet of doom. The crowd burst out laughing, most of all Delaney. She looked stunning—hair caught up in two messy pigtails, gray eyes, movie-star cheekbones. She turned to me, inviting me to share in the joke, and for a moment I basked in the glow of her reassurance. Her gaze slipped past mine. I turned to see Kamran staring back, grinning. Then Delaney took a drink. A long drink. I had to get out of there. I had to pee.

 

Next stop: ultrasound, a room shrouded in warm darkness. I thought I was going to die, I had to go so badly—more and more the state of affairs these days, now that the baby was bigger. “Sorry, but we need a full bladder to see the baby,” explained the ob-gyn.

The technician squirted some warm goo on my tummy and plopped the scanner right in the middle of it. She rolled it around, casting light and shadows into the connecting monitor. The white and black form mesmerized me, constantlymorphing and completely foreign, like shadows and faces in a charcoal drawing. Finally a row of lines came into focus, a web of five long pips splaying into a recognizable shape.

“That’s a hand,” said the tech.

It was as though the hand unlocked the door. Suddenly I was able to make out an arm, then two arms. She showed me feet and legs, then back up to investigate a face emerging from the shadows.

“Do you want to know what you’re having?” asked the tech.

“You can tell already?”

She laughed. “Do you have a sense of whether it’s a boy or a girl?”

“No,” I said, though I had a hope.

She rolled the scanner up to my belly button, and a U-shaped blob appeared on the screen. My heart slowed at the sight of the round shapes.

 

After Essence’s I Never, I stumbled through the trees toward the cabin. Nettles snaked up and made itchy marks on my bare skin. My white shorts and tee, which looked so hot when I put them on, were now dusted with a layer of soot and the telltale imprint of my butt cheeks on the ground. So much for trying to keep Kamran’s attention.

Well, what would Xanda do? For one thing, she would make the most of being dirty. She would be dirrrty. Grrr. “Grrr,” I said aloud, then laughed at myself, as if Xanda were right therelistening. “Okay,” I panted, standing up straighter and putting my hand on my hip. “Let’s try this again. Grrrrr!”

“Grrr, yourself,” a low voice said out of the darkness. I could see Kamran’s shape, lit up from behind by the moon through the forest canopy. His dark hair, grungy red tee, and worn jeans, just as dirty as mine and looking all the more delectable because of it, made me want to tattoo myself into his heart. We were alone. The campfire crowd hummed down the hill, laughter stretching out into blurry hoots.

So what if they were laughing at me, or if they weren’t? Kamran had come.

“What happened back there?” he asked softly. Softly enough for me to wonder if I was imagining everything.

The choice spread out before me like threads in a labyrinth, here in this black forest. I could tell him the truth, my fears and insecurities laid out for him to dissect and dismiss. That road was well-traveled, and I knew exactly where it would lead. He could deny it all he liked, but I could see it clearly, even in the firelight.

Worse, he could confirm my fear—that in one moment, she’d captured his heart and stolen him away.

Or I could take another path, traveled by others but undiscovered by us. Delaney would have done it long ago, and she would have him wrapped around her finger. Here, with him looking at me like that, my “Grrr” still echoing in the moist heat and making me feel dirrrty and sexy and maybe even confident. Here we could discover a new path, past thispresent uncertainty and into a certain future. I could do that. I could take the chance. I could be more like Delaney in order to be more like me. In order not to lose him, I could take the first step.

A Roman candle went off in the distance. I took a step toward him, drawing his hands onto my hips where the skin touched my shorts.

I put my lips to his lips and sealed our trajectory: the undiscovered it was.

 

“Well, it looks like you’re having a girl,” the tech said, peering into the white shadows.

“A girl? How can you tell?”

She pointed to the screen. “Here is the bottom, where the legs come up, and then the three little lines in the middle. The three lines indicate girl parts.”

I was in shock. “What would it look like if it was a boy?”

“A couple of big, round blobs,” she laughed. “I don’t know how people can mistake it.”

I asked her to check again, just to be sure. But I knew already. I knew it all along.

“Do you have a name picked out yet?” asked the tech.

“Yes. Her name is Alexandra. But I’m going to call her Lexi.”

Seventeen

Mom usually puttered around in the morning with Dad already gone, escaping the knot of our family tie. I came down starving, famished from an entire nine hours of producing another being. Even a fresh wave of condemnation wasn’t enough to keep me from breakfast.

But the house was already empty. At least it seemed to be, when I came into the kitchen for my new obsession: grapefruit with oatmeal.Meat for boys, fruit for girls, the old wives’ tales said. The BabyCenter women divided into two camps: those who were finding out and those who wanted a surprise.

When I posted Lexi’s picture on the boards, Nik said, “You think you and Kamran are happy now, wait until that baby comes.”

That’s when she told us about her miscarriage. It was a year ago September. “She was my baby girl,” Nik told us, even though it was too early to tell, only twelve weeks. “Her name would have been Lashaya.”

Now that I had seen Lexi, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose her. Xanda was a preemie, but no one in my family had ever had a miscarriage that I knew of. Ididknow that if happiness was still possible, it would be because of her.

“What would you do if you lost Micah James?” I asked Nik.

“Faith manages” was all she would say.

A thud came from behind the basement door, and seconds later my dad came up into the kitchen. He looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

“Oh, Rand. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were still here.” He held a toolbox awkwardly, as if trying to hide behind it.

I held up the oatmeal canister. “How come you’re still here?”

Dad shrugged. “Half the crew called in sick, we’re behind schedule on the Cumberland project…” He ran a hand through his hair, releasing particles into the air as if we were bathed in spotlights. “Hey,” he said. “Why don’t I make us some pancakes?”

Pancakes were Xanda’s favorite. As he mixed the batter and I got out the griddle, memories surrounded me—of how Dad used to make a big breakfast every Saturday with Mom and Xanda and me. Before he brought Andre into our livesand changed everything.

“So,” he said as I carefully poured a syrup path through my pancake. “I’m starting to think about a design for the montage set. Your mom said you’d be painting this year.”

“Yeah.” He took a huge bite and waited for me to say more. He’d spread the batter thin, the way Xanda liked them. I wondered if he was trying to communicate in some special language for the grieving and forgotten. I wanted to ask him about Xanda, about Andre. I wanted to tell him about the girl. Lexi. Now was my chance to pour out my heart.

A shrill ring shattered the silence—his cell phone, with a call from his crew, the Cumberlands, Mom, it didn’t matter. He stepped out of the room to answer while I scarfed down the rest of the pancake and folded up a second one to take with me. I had to get to school.

These days I avoided Kamran at all costs, even though I couldn’t avoid him in English. I had no hope of focusing on the racial implications inTo Kill a Mockingbirdor illusions and reality inHamletwith the back of his head in front of me. From that vantage, it was impossible to tell what he might be thinking—only that he darted out of the room the moment the bell rang, leaving the scent of figs and terror in his wake. Sooner or later, we would have to talk.

While I worked in the art room during lunch, my crazy art teacher stopped in now and then to check on my Baird application—due December 1, a little over a month away.

I had everything ready except for my final six slides, four ofthem freestyle pieces meant to reflect my personal aesthetic, the theme I would pursue if accepted into their art program. It wouldn’t take a critic to see that every piece explored the same question: Could I retrace the turns of my sister’s life and get to the very heart? Now there was a new question: Was keeping Lexi a terrible mistake?

And then there were the portraits. “You need at least two in there,” Mrs. Crooker harped. “What is it about faces that sends you spiraling into those labyrinths?” I didn’t tell her there would be only one person to draw. And that was impossible. Her face was always changing in my mind. The only photograph I knew of her was on Dylan’s refrigerator—my mom must have destroyed all the rest.

The piece I worked on now was a charcoal drawing, since I’d been banned from toxic-fumed paint. I was starting to like charcoal, the graininess of it and the stark contrasts, for its similarity to the picture I now had of Lexi. The darks and lights emerged as I sketched lines, weaving in and out less like the sharp angles of my previous work and more like the curves and knots of how I imagined wormholes would be. Trails through time and space. Ways to capture the past.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Kamran had said when he first explained hyperspace to me, when I barely knew him. We had just spent three hours in the Sci-Fi Museum, where admiring Captain Kirk’s chair and Robert Heinlein’s original manuscripts was like sharing a religious experience. I could see exactly why my art spoke to him.

“You can’t relive the past, because time is always splitting out from events—like infinite branches of a tree. Whatever choices you make affect the future.”

I nodded my head like I understood, but he already knew me too well. Maybe that was one reason why I liked him—my masks didn’t work. He only wanted the real thing.

“Okay, fine,” I said. “If time is like a tree branch, why can’t you go back to a specific point and change things?” I hadn’t yet told him about Xanda. “Wouldn’t it be possible, I mean, if you found the precise moment time shifted, the exact moment? Like the butterfly—”

“Right, right, like the butterfly and the tsunami—and if you could only trace back to the butterfly, you could—”

“Exactly!”

“No. You can’t.” His words stopped me, bumping into the fears I’d had since the beginning. He would think I was stupid. Unworthy. One day he would trade me in for a better model—someone more exciting, more clever. Like Delaney. “You can’t do that,” he was saying, “because it’s impossible to go back to the same moment. You can’t delete the time in between. It’s like a branch trying to grow back into itself.”

“Like a loop,” I said.

“Yes! So I guess,theoretically,you could go to the same moment in time and space, but you would have experienced all of the time in between.”

I could live with that—going back to the moment everything changed for Xanda, the point in time that would send hercrashing to her death. I could trace back through the shards of memories, each scratching the surface of Xanda until she walked out the door forever.

“Nice,” Mrs. Crooker commented over my shoulder. “Trying to break out of the labyrinth, I see.”

As I worked with the charcoal, smudging it into a shadow of sky, a white shape had emerged—a bird taking flight. I abandoned the lines and focused on the bird, shaping it into a creature flying free, like the day Xanda tried to fly with Andre. Like I still hoped to with Kamran.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was possible to change the present, if only I could pinpoint the exact moment everything had spun out of control.

That night, I sketched a picture of Xanda—what she might look like now, if she had lived to her twenty-second birthday. It didn’t take long to start drawing labyrinths again. The curls of her hair spread out like Medusa’s snakes—into her forehead, winding all the way into her mind and places I couldn’t follow.

Unless all of this was some cosmic accident, I knew what that bird meant.

Somehow, through time and space and maybe even death, Xanda had reached across and offered me an escape.

Eighteen

The last weeks of October found everyone at school humming with party plans. Most of the jocks would be at Meghan McCaullay’s house, sacrificing their brain cells to the great beer god and playing mix-’n’-match macking. The Goths would try to sneak into the Capitol Hill club Chains for a night of clove smoking and cauldronlike cocktails. There would be smaller parties, and parties too minor to make the radar, where people like Essence and the drama crowd would spend the evening bobbing for apples and wishing they had been invited to something better.

And then there was Dylan’s bash.

“Wehaveto go to Dylan’s Halloween party next year,” Delaney had told me last spring. “It’s an Elna Mead legend.He’s been throwing them since, like,hisjunior year. You have to know him or one of his housemates to get in—but you’ll be with me.”

When I asked her about the party before class, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think he’s having one this year—I was thinking about going to visit my mom in L.A. What are you doing?”

Apparently Milo didn’t get the top secret memo, because now he stood in the hall with a stack of party flyers, handing them out with a lazy smile to any reasonably attractive female. “Heeeey, see you there?”

A pack of sophomore girls took the flyer, not realizing they had received one of the school’s most coveted invitations. They giggled, rolling their eyes as they bustled by and let the paper flutter to the ground. I snatched it up, slipping it into one of my folders, completely unnoticed. It was like I no longer existed.

Or worse, too much of me existed, trying to negotiate the halls looking anything but sexy in my stretchiest jeans, worn low around my hips and under the small bump that had emerged, and a long tee getting shorter by the day.

I deliberately avoided looking at myself in the mirror, afraid of the unstoppable new me. Even my face, once taut and oval, puffed with what Nik had politely termed “water weight gain.”

“It started out under my chin and took over,” she complained on the chat board. “Water weight doesn’t capture it—Ithink I’m carrying around a spare hot water heater.”

It made me feel better to chat with the girls, hearing all of their pregnancy complaints. My stories were becoming increasingly outrageous as I tried to give the impression of a married college student. Kamran rubbed my back when it ached and went on cherry-chunk ice cream runs whenever I needed it. My parents were thrilled about the pregnancy and had offered to watch the baby while I finished school. I told them I was at the University of Washington instead of Baird, since the last thing I needed was to get caught by someone who actually lived there. Nik lived in the Northwest, too, and gave me her cell number, but I didn’t call. I could imagine what she would sound like, though. Funny, matter-of-fact, never scared to tell the truth. Maybe she wouldn’t hate me because I was.

“What are you doing for Halloween?” was the Question of the Day when I logged on.

Stacy+one was going to a party as a Mummy-to-be. Soon2Bmom and her husband would be Homer and Marge—only she would be Homer, compete with doughnuts and Duff while her husband teetered around in a green dress and blue wig. Babyfairy was sewing a knocked-up Maid Marian costume to go with her husband’s Robin Hood, and Starr69 was hosting a party at her place and dressing up as Earth Mother.Nik, what are you going to wear?I posted.

 

FEMMENIKITA: Surely you jest, XandasAngel. If I went asanything, it would be as The Blob. Or I could go as a Killer Tomato.

XANDASANGEL: A killer tomato would be cool.

FEMMENIKITA: I should post a reminder to myself to never leave home dressed as a Gigantic Red Fruit. Mother-in-law already tried that when she gave me the most hideous red maternity shirt, size XXL. Do you think she was trying to tell me something?

 

I thought it was best to be diplomatic, not having any idea what Nik looked like.

 

XANDASANGEL: Maybe it would look cute.

FEMMENIKITA: That’s easy for you to say. You’re probably one of those obnoxiously pixielike college girls that look completely normal until you turn sideways.

 

Which was mostly true, I had to admit, except for the ubiquitous layer of water transforming me from Barbie to the Pillsbury Dough Girl. And the college part.

 

FEMMENIKITA: Maybe I should go as Where’s Waldo, only instead of Waldo, it will be Where’s Micah James? Can you find him under all my junk in the trunk? LOL. So what are you and Husband-Who-Can-Do-No-Wrong doing?

 

A party of course, like any other college student. It didn’toccur to me that this lie would be the one to get me into trouble.

 

FEMMENIKITA: You owe us pictures. No more of this phantom college student stuff. Everyone at that party is going to have a cell phone with a camera. We’re not speaking to you again unless you give us a picture. No excuses.

XANDASANGEL: I’ll try.

 

I kept telling myself I wanted to go to that party because I needed to get a picture for Nik. But it was more than that.

In art class, I pulled Milo’s flyer out for a closer inspection. Delaney’s initials were scrawled in the corner with a red pen—the key to opening Dylan’s door.

Underneath the address and time, the scrabbled shape of a black crow stood out in relief against the white half sheet, an inversion of the white bird in my drawing.

Like a sign left by Xanda, bidding me to follow.


Page 9

Nineteen

That’s how I ended up at Dylan’s Halloween party, sneaking out after my parents disappeared for the night. My mission: to get a photo of Kamran and myself, whatever the cost. And maybe something more.

I looked like a cross between Boris and Natasha in Dad’s trench and Xanda’s raven-haired wig. I found it deep in the passage between our bedrooms, where I had once found Xanda’s safety-pin dress. I would have worn it if it fit. Dylan would have recognized me on the spot.

As I fought through the man-eating ivy bordering Dylan’s yard, a flash from out of nowhere sent a rush through my veins—a white-faced ghoul bared his teeth in a drunken grin, made more ghoulish by the porch’s yellow light bulb. He tookmy invitation and tossed it into a pile on the grass.

A cluster of assorted witches, vampires, aliens, and leather-clad anorexics too cool for costumes mobbed the rickety porch staircase, exchanging smoke like kisses. Their eyes followed me with smirks of contempt. As I disappeared into the house, I heard one of them say, “Isn’t that MirandaMathison? What happened toher?” followed by, “Xanda’ssister? Oh, my God.”

The same house where Delaney had brought me long ago was now shrouded in darkness and crowded with people. I recognized some of them, juniors and seniors from Elna Mead, a few Elna Mead graduates and people I’d seen at Chop Suey. The smell—a mixture of alcohol and incense—reminded me of Xanda’s hair.

I wove through the living room. When I reached the kitchen, I realized what had drawn me there. Another layer of notes, pictures, and magnets covered the fridge like a palimpsest, but I saw my sister’s face peeking out from the cobbled patchwork. With the party whirling around me, I carefully rearranged the layers and slipped the photo into my pocket.

It was crazy, I realized, to hope to see Kamran apart from Delaney. Maybe they were off in some bedroom together, or lurking behind one of the sea of rubber masks. The cell phone swung in my other pocket like a pendulum.

Then I saw Kamran, gazing out over the crowd. Spidery arms sprouted from his shoulders and fangs from his teeth. His eyes didn’t rest on me, didn’t recognize me under my disguise, though we were standing only a few feet from each other.

I could speak to him—tell him about Lexi, about Delaney’s lies. Or if I couldn’t speak, I could at least capture him on film. I turned on my phone’s camera, held it at arm’s length, carefully covered my face with the long, black hair, stepping backward until I sensed his nearness.

Someone squealed as the camera clicked.

Across the room, a group of Q-tips—out of the box and wreaking havoc—laughed boisterously. Their tall, cottony heads knocked against each other. I couldn’t help but smile.

I retreated to a corner with my phone and found myself looking at a tiny picture of me, Kamran, and a fly leaping into the spider’s arms the moment the picture snapped. I didn’t need to worry about Kamran seeing me. He was too busy devouring Delaney.

One of the Q-tips trilled a bit more loudly than the others at the center of the group. I would have recognized Essence anywhere, even with her head swathed in white and wearing faded blue scrubs.

“What’s she doing here?” I muttered, mostly to myself.

“They’re cool,” said a laid-back voice, as if I had been talking to him all along. And I found myself face-to-face with Dylan, our illustrious host, dressed as himself: black tee and beat-up jeans, looking exactly like Delaney but tall and muscular. And all hotness.

“You’re Dylan.”

“Wait a second.” He narrowed his eyes, searching my face. “Don’t I know you?”

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, crossing this threshold. The house was probably full of people who knew Xanda. Even Andre could be here.

“Yes,” I said, blushing. “Well, sort of. I hang out with…well, I used to hang out with Delaney sometimes.”

“Oh, right. Right.” He was still staring, unsatisfied, looking through the long black hair for a hint of the real me. “But there’s something else. Did we used to…” He got a sheepish smile on his face. Then he noticed the slight bulge of my belly, and the smile dropped instantly.

“You know my sister. Or, you knew my sister. Xanda Mathison.”

This was unexpected, I could tell. His questioning look transformed into shock and something deeper. Fear? Anger? Then the laid-back expression returned—a door slamming in my face.

“I knew your sister. She was a bitch, what she did to Andre.”

It was that Andre’s fault. I knew it, even if I didn’t want to.

“What are you talking about?” I countered. In a flash, I could picture with crystal clarity the second she walked out the door: the look on her face, Andre putting his arm around her to protect her from my mother’s screaming, only to cause her death an hour later. The secret she would never tell me, lost.

“Shit. Never mind. You probably don’t even know. You were a kid.”

“I know enough,” I said. The crowd around us was getting closer and louder in the dark room, threatening to suffocate me. “I know he was drinking and his driving killed her.”

It still hurt to say it. It felt impossible to reconcile what my parents told me with what I knew of Andre. He brought me stuffed animals and candy bars and didn’t call me “Blandy” or “Brat” or any of the other names Xanda had officially dubbed me. None of Xanda’s boyfriends had ever been like that.

“Damn it.” Dylan was looking away, anywhere but at me. “I don’t even want to get into this with you.” He muttered something I couldn’t quite hear over the din of the party. An unholy trio of witches pushed past us, saturating the air with the fresh, gritty odor of cigarettes. Dylan leaned in closer to me to shout into my ear, “I’ll tell you this: Things didn’t go down the way you think. With Andre. Ask your parents. Hell, don’t ask your parents. They’ve been lying to you all along. You should just askhim. He should be here any minute.”

A sparkling green fairy followed in the witches’ wake, standing on her tiptoes to look over the crowd. She squealed Dylan’s name, spreading her arms low and wide and pressing her hand into my stomach to clear the way for giving him a flirtatious smack.

It might have been temporary insanity, but all I could think about was protecting Lexi from the hand pushing into me and the mountain of anger rumbling and choking me with its force—at Dylan, for not telling me what the hell he was talking about. At my parents, for the secrets they were keeping.At Xanda, for dying, and for leaving me with the fallout. At Andre, for whatever he did or didn’t do to make it so. And most especially at the fairy. The blood pounded in my brain, my stomach still grinding from the smoke and churning with this new threat, and the rage bubbled over with one, singular thought in my mind:How. Dare. You.

And it probably was insanity, when I caught sight of Delaney standing on a chair and hugging Kamran to her hip. I forced all of the strength and rage into shoving that fairy away from Lexi. She fell backward into the crowd, as if she were an extension of Dylan, my parents, Andre, and Delaney, who shouted, “Oh my God, Rand!” as the fairy flailed her arms, caught by Hellboy and aFight Clubreject, guys I thought I recognized from our algebra class last year but who suddenly looked a lot bigger and meaner. They helped the little fairy to her feet and I saw who it was behind the green sparkles and wings: Chloe, looking shocked and wounded and like I hadn’t shoved her body but her soul.

I stupidly wanted to explain to Dylan that I hadn’t meant to spoil his party or cause a scene. That I wasn’t this person who would push someone—a friend—virtually unprovoked. And he must have seen this in my eyes, a hesitation, so he yelled, “Get out! Just get out!” while Chloe leaned on him for support and looked at me with those sad, brown eyes. Several of the Q-tips tittered, “Catfight!” while two of them batted their heads together like swords. Delaney pushed through the crowd to get to Chloe—or maybe to kill me—and was saying,“You had better start running now,” with Kamran’s face as unreadable as a black hole. Dylan’s voice bit at my heels, “You’re as crazy as your sister!” As I pushed my way through the crowd, I knew if I didn’t escaperight now,I would never find my way again.

Eyes of my classmates followed me out of the house, a thousand darts of condemnation. I had shoved Chloe, the most harmless person in the universe. I wouldn’t have blamed Delaney for chasing me out the door and taking me out. Chloe was crying.

And I thought I was going to fall down the stairs, or somebody was going to push me, when a cloaked figure moved into the space between me and the concrete below, and I was grateful for a warm body who would keep me and Lexi from pitching to our deaths on Dylan’s sidewalk. When he looked up, those eyes connected with mine and a chill of recognition shot through me like a lightning rod in my spine.

“Andre,” I said.

“Yeah. Do I know you?”

Oh, God, he didn’t recognize me. He couldn’t see Xanda in my face, or the grief he’d etched with his own hand.

Or did he?

I didn’t respond. My mouth was already numb. I pushed past him, past the boy I still couldn’t shake from my memory, away from the party and into the night.

Twenty

I remember the day Dad brought him home.

Dad never brought workers by the house. You couldn’t trust those boys, Mom said, with their leering eyes and hands that were never clean, wandering into the bathrooms or the office or the bedroom and leaving a trail of construction dust, taking God knows what. Jewelry. Bank statements. Your daughter’s virginity, if you let them.

I guess Dad thought Andre was different. Maybe that’s why he brought him across the threshold and into the orbit of our family. Close enough to touch our things. Touch us.

He was seventeen, I think, when he started working for Dad. They stopped by the house on the way to some job in our neighborhood. Dad wanted to grab a ginger ale and a nailgun. Andre had to use the bathroom.

I saw him first.

And I never would have told Xanda, but I loved him first, too.

Two men’s voices murmured downstairs. A door slammed shut. Rattling in the kitchen. Mom was out, having left us with strict instructions to finish our homework before she got home. Of course I was the dutiful one, wrestling with a research paper and word problems. Xanda was busy with an old copy ofJanemagazine, dissecting anything with DIY potential and rifling through her supplies. “A star’s got to have style,” she’d say.

Xanda wasn’t talking to me again. In my twelve years, I had learned to live with her ups and downs.

Another slam, and curiosity got the better of me. I crept to the balcony Dad had designed to overlook the hall opening into the kitchen and family room.

And there he was—young enough to be a possibility, but old enough to be a complete enigma.

He was standing around with Dad, drinking soda in the kitchen.It was a hot day, Dad protested later.I couldn’t just leave him in the truck.

The boy was almost as tall as Dad, but with a wiry, slim build. The better to reach into tight corners, said Dad. The better to evade the border guards, Mom would say. His skin was creamy, but with a layer of brownness from working outside. Black hair, with a curious tint of blue in the light. Wearing boots and torn-up jeans with a chain stretching from pocketto waist, a well-worn T-shirt featuring a cartoon piece of toast chasing a pat of butter. Odd.

Oddly appealing. Especially when his face turned toward mine and he smiled a huge, bright smile, pretty much stopping my twelve-year-old heart. No one smiled at me like that, like I was the only girl in the universe—or at least the house…until his eyes traveled upward, beyond me. I hadn’t heard Xanda sneak up. She stood there on the landing, spellbound, as entranced as I was by this mystery Dad brought into our midst. She put her hand on my shoulder, like she needed me to keep her standing. Her hand was shaking. Maybe if I had been closer to him, I might have seen if he was shaking, too.

I was suddenly conscious of the dirty socks I was wearing, and how visible they were under my too-short pants. I was always growing out of my clothes—too tall and skinny to wear Xanda’s old ones instead of the dorky ones Mom bought for me. Xanda wore her white peasant blouse, shredded and reconstructed to skim her shape, a skirt that used to be Mom’s, but completely transformed into Xanda’s signature antistyle, with striped knee-highs. She looked fabulous.

“This is Andre,” said my dad, clearly oblivious to the triangle of electricity quickly becoming a line between them.

It was always like this, because Xanda couldn’t help but be Xanda, and people couldn’t help but be stopped in their tracks by her. This boy, I couldn’t blame him. He was about to become the latest in a long string, caught in her irresistible gravity and crushed by its weight. But then something happened.

The boy turned his gaze back to me, and he smiled. An inclusive, charming smile, like the line of electricity between them had opened up. There was room for both of us in that smile.

Then the moment was over, as soon as Dad took a final gulp and slapped Andre on the back. “Let’s hit the road.”

In a flash, Xanda was doing what I could only imagine, running down the stairs to waylay them with some pretense—anything that would keep the blue-hued boy from walking away forever. I leaned over the rail to watch. As Xanda would say,Watch and learn.

“Are you working on the Hanson project?” she asked Dad. The Hanson house was just over the ridge, on the view side of the hill. Trey Hanson was in the class above mine and was well known for torturing small animals and me, until Xanda threatened to kick his ass last summer if he didn’t leave me alone. He never bothered me again.

“Yup,” said Dad. “We’re installing the hardwood today. You two girls want to come help? I think I’ve got an extra mallet around.”

“Uh, no thanks, just wondered. How late you gonna be there?”

“I’ll be home for dinner. Can you order pizza or something before your mom gets home? Or,” he said, raising his voice to me, “we could get Mandy to cook again. That spaghetti you made last night was pretty good.” I blushed at the compliment. Maybe someday I’d be making spaghetti for Andre, too.

They left, and I headed back to my homework whileXanda went to her room. Her lock snapped shut, but through the passage, I could hear her singing her favorite Splashdown song.

And later that night, after the sun had set, I looked out my window and saw Xanda slip through the shadows in a swishy red halter dress, her hair whipping behind her as she hurried to meet her date—and maybe her destiny.

Every night after, she slipped out to meet the boy, Andre, at the end of our block. I came to recognize the rumble of his green Impala as the days grew shorter and the nights colder, and Mom dove deeper into the Christmas montage and Dad into his work. The only thing left was me, trying to hold all of them together.

 

The office light was on when I drove up our street. Mom working late, or maybe Dad settling some accounts. The bars on the office window—left over from when it was still Xanda’s bedroom—were white in the daylight, practically unobtrusive. In the dark, it looked like an eye with great, rigid lashes. By the time they installed the bars, it had been far too late.

It felt strange to be seeing the house as Xanda so often did, on the night my life might have been swapped for hers.

Nik would say you had to walk in someone else’s shoes to understand the path they were on. My mother thought my path should be straight. She couldn’t begin to imagine me following the turns of Xanda’s life.

If I really wanted to walk Xanda’s road, I would have shimmied up the maple tree and the trellis, but I doubted theywould bear my weight now. Lexi had been in enough danger already this evening, so I opted for the front door.

I was crossing into my bedroom when light flooded the hallway. It was Mom, with her hair down and dressed in her nightgown.

“Hi, honey,” she yawned, sleep overtaking the usual hard edges of her voice.

“You’re probably wondering why I was out.” I hadn’t prepared anything. Even in her nightgown, my mom could detonate at any moment.

But the impact never came. In the glow from Xanda’s old bedroom, my mother looked almost vulnerable, like someone I could trust. “No, I’m not,” she sighed. And I could feel my guard beginning to drop.

I stood on the edge of telling her everything, and asking what really happened to Xanda.

Until she spoke.

“I went through this with your sister, and now I’m going through it with you.” Her eyes were sharpened, like splintered glass. “To tell you the truth, this time maybe I’d rather not know.”

She left me there, speechless. Alone with my memories of the party, Andre, and another dead end.


Page 10

Twenty-one

Where my pregnancy made a mere ripple in the Elna Mead ecosystem, the fallout from Dylan’s party turned out to be massive. Suddenly I was a one-woman episode ofGirls Gone Wild—first my pregnancy, then my shocking attempt to trap Kamran, then my brutal treatment of Chloe, who at five-foot-two stood a full six inches shorter than me and couldn’t possibly stand up to my bullying.

I felt even worse when I found Chloe’s email in my in-box the next morning—“This is Friendship Week, and I’m glad you’re my friend!” Sent right before the Halloween party.

Ty Belkin bumped me in the hall and apologized loudly: “Oops. Sorry, Rand. I thought you were Chloe.” Pretty soon everybody was bumping me with the same excuse—exceptfor freshmen, who gave me a wide berth and were content whisperingI heard she’s psycho, andI heard her sister was psycho, too.

Delaney was in her element, relating the scandal to a fresh wave of disciples: “I had no idea she waslikethat. But then I should have known—even her best friend Essence doesn’t talk to her anymore. I mean, I feel sorry for her, after her sister died and everything. But still.” Chloe stood by, basking in the avalanche of sympathy. Kamran looked pained, my existence a glitch in the pattern of his life.

Even Essence’s status rose among the general populace—no longer Cross Your Heart, she was now Victim with the Inside Scoop. People who never would have noticed Essence before were lining up to get the story. She tried to catch my attention as I strode past—to rub it in or to offer pity? I didn’t need either one.

With French fries and root-beer milk shakes, I bribed Mrs. Crooker to write passes for my other classes, supposedly to finish my portfolio. I still had to face period after period of art students, but at least she kept them too busy to bother me. Maybe she had heard. Maybe she felt sorry for me. Maybe she remembered my sister and hoped I wouldn’t end up the same way.

So my parents’ ultimatum might have seemed like a blessing—if it hadn’t come attached to a curse.

Ever since my mom caught me after the Halloween party, I’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bars on mywindow, grounded for life, cutting off all communication…any one of them might have been better than having to go to the first montage rehearsal and watch Essence arrive with a carload of the drama crowd, laughing and then going serious when she saw me. Her lines echoed in my head as if they were mine, only she played the good daughter while my mom nodded her head in approval.

At least when I got home, I could hide in my room to work on my drawings. I had tucked the stolen picture of Xanda into my sketchbook, sandwiched between the labyrinths as a reference for my portraits. It was a window. A clue.

Mom and I were driving home from practice the week after the party when she cleared her throat. “Your dad and I have been talking…”

I braced for impact.

“…and we’ve decided to enroll you in the work-study program at school. Your dad has arranged for a paid internship at First Washington Credit Union doing some accounting…”

“Accounting?”This was so out of left field, I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing.

“It’s a great program,” my mom continued. “You go to the work-study class right after your lunch period, then you go to the bank for training every day. On Fridays, you’ll go straight from work to rehearsals. You start next week.”

“But I have my art class in the afternoons!”

Mom sighed, infinitely patient. “I know this isn’t what you want, Mandy. But the reality is, what you want is no longerpossible. We’re trying to help you. You’re having a baby. You should be grateful we’re not kicking you out.”

“But abank?” This conversation was only going downhill. “What about art school? I thought you said you wanted me to be a teacher.”

Her voice dripped with cold, common sense. “I’m sorry, Miranda, but you’ve got to be practical, and you can’t afford to spend four years in school plus a teaching-prep program—because you’re having a baby now. We’re not going to be there to pick up the pieces. You can still do your art when you’re not working.” She snorted, “Or taking care of the baby, which is going to be a lot more work than you—”

“ButMom—”

“Art school would be fine if you had a few years to play around before settling into your career, but you don’t have that luxury anymore.”

“I’m notplaying around. I’m serious about my art.” She didn’t understand. It’s what I was meant to do.

“You’ve made some poor decisions”—we pulled into the driveway at a crazy angle, and the car stopped with a jerk—“and your father and I are trying to help you get back on track. If you’re going to keep this baby, we’re not going to be able to support your art school plans.”

What?

Shock and outrage flooded me, but all I could seem to do was squeak out a whine. “Why not? What difference does it make?”

“It makes a big difference. First, you’re going to expect us to pay for college. Then you’re going to expectmeto take care of the baby. Next thing you know, you’re going to be off doing God knows what with your artist boyfriends and getting yourself killed—”

Like Xanda.

“—then where will this baby be? Without a motherorfather, and we get stuck with the bill?” Her voice rose to a familiar tone. She slammed the car into park. “If you have any shred of unselfishness, you’ll give this baby up to a family who is capable of caring for it. If you keep it, you’re condemning it to a life of misery. I can’t believe you would be that selfish.”

You mean condemningyou, I thought.

“On the other hand, if you give up the baby, you could still pursue your art.” Under her breath, she added, “We can only hope you will decide to pursue a more stable career later.”

I couldn’t believe this was happening. Was she really trying to force me to give up Lexi?How did Xanda and I ever come out of you?I wanted to scream. All she cared about was looking perfect. Even if I said the words, I knew she wouldn’t hear them.

“You can either keep the baby or go to art school. The choice is yours.”

I couldn’t wait to find Nik online. I didn’t even care about keeping up my college-student story. She could know everything there was to know about me, every hideous truth I’d ever tried to hide.Ugly or not, Nik, here I come.

I hadn’t seen her online since before Halloween. Maybe she was visiting her stepson, who lived a few hours away. She was bound to be back by now.

I logged on to the BabyCenter board, and a feeling of dread swept over me. Entry after entry began, “Nik, I am so sorry.” Or, “Nik, I can’t believe this happened to you.” The chat room was silent.

I scrolled back through the day’s posts and found hers, posted by FemmeNikita at 9:32 this morning:

I’m writing to tell all of you how much it has meant to me to have your friendship and support through this sweetest time of my life.

Last week, I started cramping and bleeding. My husband rushed me to the hospital, where I delivered our baby at twenty-three weeks, too early for him to survive. Even at less than a pound, he was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. We named him Micah James. I won’t forget his tiny fingers and toes, or the way he fit in the palm of my husband’s hand. I have never seen my husband weep as he wept over our little boy.

Our hearts are broken. But faith always manages. I won’t be posting anymore on this board, as it is painful to hear about your pregnancies when we have lost one so precious to us. I hold you all in my heart and wish you joy.

 

Faith. The future. A life without Micah James.

My own crisis suddenly seemed so small.

That night I lay in bed, the images of Lexi replaying in my mind like a window into another world. I tried to recapturethe wonder of her profile—tiny chin, nub of nose, round skull with two hemispheres of brain beneath. Ten fingers, ten toes, a spine rippling with tiny bones. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.

I lay on my back like the ob-gyn said, waiting to feel a flutter.

I had nearly slipped into unconsciousness when I did feel something, like a bubble popping. A gurgle. I wondered if it was just gas. I poked my belly where I felt it and waited.

The bubble popped again, a tap of recognition.

Nineteen weeks after we had started this journey together, Lexi and I shared our first communiqué—a secret Morse code between passenger and host.

Twenty-two

My parents wasted no time setting me on the path to banking glory. I completely bypassed the application and interview process for my cushy new job at First Washington Credit Union, filing and processing checks in the secretarial dungeon and occasionally filling in for a teller.

No doubt they expected the job to be so terrible, I’d make the call to Social Services myself—and I might have, if I hadn’t just read about Nik and felt Lexi for the first time. I wasn’t about to lose her or my dream.Money in the bank,as Dad would say. Lexi and I would need it.

I’d been in the credit union a thousand times before, but it’s funny how you notice details when your cell door is about to slam and lock—like the carpet coming undone in the middleof the room, or the slightly mismatched square by the loans desk. Or the scowl on the loan officer’s face under a mop of fat dreadlocks as she watched my mom and me walk through the revolving doors. Carefully she extricated herself from the desk and shambled toward us. She shot a glance toward one of the tellers, who immediately hustled to the loans desk. The others rearranged themselves to fill the gap like the Von Trapp Family tellers.

I struggled to arrange my new shirt and pants.

As usual, I had gone through my closet about fifty times yesterday. Desperate and close to tears, I’d crawled into the passage to check Xanda’s boxes for something—babydoll dress? Poncho? Anything. I nearly crashed into my mother as she came into the office, my face a red, puffy dam.

“What’s this about?”

Just pick something,I thought. Instead, I sniffed, “Nothing.” We did a little dance in the hall, her capturing and me trying to escape.

“I was looking for something in…the passage.”

“Why do you want to get into Xanda’s things?” Her eyes narrowed as she took me in—red eyes, skanked-out hair, my low jeans and the hem of my sweater grazing my newly outed, and extremely touchy, belly button. The light of dawn spread across her face.

“I see. Well, I guess we’re just going to have to go shopping then.”

She smiled—like this was a peace offering, after tradingart school for banking hell.

A half hour and a rainstorm later, we were cruising through the mall in search of The Well-Heeled Mother. Though it could have been The Well-Heeled Grandmother. When I started to look through a rack of cute sheer tops, Mom steered me to the “much more practical” round of striped button-ups and stretchy black slacks.

The salesgirl, perky and looking ready to pop herself, sidled up to my mom. “We’ve got some great new winter arrivals. Are you the lucky mama?”

“No,” glowered Mom.

The clue gun missed, and the girl turned to me. “You?”

I nodded.

Back to Mom: “So you must be the proud grandmother. Is this your first?”

“Yes.”Though she looked anything but proud, with me hunting through a rack of enormous, tent-shaped tops.

“Congratulations! Let me show you our basics—great for work, or”—the salesgirl shot an unsure look at me—“er, school, or…whatever.”

Before I could say “muumuu,” I had a stack of clothes in a dressing room with two “bellies”—pillows I could strap around myself to see what I might look like in a few more months. I put on one of the shirts—a red one, like Nik’s Killer Tomato shirt.

She wouldn’t be needing it now.

After hours of mother-daughter retail bonding, we finallyemerged with a nonrefundable bag of the most unflattering clothes I would ever wear. But at least I wouldhavesomething to wear, Mom reminded me.

We had almost escaped the mall when I spotted an Elna Mead group at the sushi bar next to Guess. They hadn’t spotted me, probably because I looked like a well-heeled grandmother now.

And that’s when Essence’s voice said brightly, “Hi, Rand. Hi, Mrs. Mathison.”

My mom stopped dead in her tracks, and I had no choice but to follow suit. It was still pouring down rain, and she was the one holding the keys.

“What are you doing here?” Essence asked. Like we weren’t allowed to go to the mall or something.

“Just out to do some shopping,” Mom said, waving our bag.

“Wow, you’re gettinghuge.” Exactly the kind of observation I could always count on from Essence.

“I’m not huge,” I muttered. “I’m almost five months pregnant.”

“She didn’t mean anything, Mandy,” my mother growled. Mom defending Essence—that was a first. Must be their chummy new relationship, now that Essence had stepped into the role of Brenda the Perfect. “She’s tired,” Mom explained. “Pregnancy, schoolwork…”

“Yeah,” I cut in, “and starting tomorrow, I have that job you got for me since I can’t go to art school anymore.”

Even Essence was taken aback. “You’re not going to art school?” Of anyone, she would understand exactly what art school meant to me.

“No, becausesomebodyhas to support this baby,” I parroted, “and it won’t be a starving artist.” I could see my mom getting increasingly uncomfortable with this line of conversation. Essence was right. Revenge could be fun. “Besides,” I added, “even art school isn’t worth giving up the baby.”

“So,” Mom said, giving me the death stare, “Essence. About that Cornish recommendation letter—I’ll get it to you in the next few days. You’ve made some really incredible strides as an actor this year. I’ve been really impressed.”

I was too stunned to respond.A letter of recommendation? For Cornish College of the Arts?Essence went back to gushing, completely oblivious to my mom’s conversation coup.

Essence was prattling about theGuys and Dollstryouts coming up, but I was somewhere between hurt and rage. Did she spill my secret just to get brownie points? This was about getting on my mom’s good side? Suddenly my memory shifted, the details in sharp relief—like her car spinning out of Milo’s driveway, a phone call away from ruining my life.

 

So now, as the dread-head bank manager woman ambled toward me, some of that meekness stuck with me as I tugged my pants and shirt into place, unconsciously smoothing the tummy that had gone from fat to pregnant in one, unexpected pop.

The woman finally reached us and locked eyes with me. “Shelley Jones. Manager. Follow me,” she said.

“Well, I can’t stay,” my mom twittered, “I have to get to—”

“Oh,” Shelley Jones said, “I’m sorry. Are you working here, too? I was under the impression it was only your daughter.”

Whoa. I was instantly impressed. And the tiniest bit terrified.

“Well,” said my mother. She looked more flustered than I had ever seen her. “I’ll be back to pick you up at six, then.”

“Make it six forty-five. We don’t leave when the customers do.”

“Oh. Of course. Six forty-five, then.” And my mom was out the door, leaving me to face Shelley alone. I followed her timidly to a windowed office in the back corner of the building. Plum-colored metal blinds fit floor to ceiling in the windows, sealed as if for an interrogation. She closed the solid wood door behind me and shuffled around the desk to an office chair clearly designed to accommodate her considerable weight.

“Wow, that was incredible—”

“So, you’re the pregnant girl I had to hire. Mandy.”

“Rand.”

“Rand. Apparently I’m supposed to reform you.” I was still standing there, unsure whether to stand or sit. She gave me the once-over, lingering for a moment on my newly striped belly.

“What would you rather be doing besides banking? And don’t tell me hanging out with your boyfriend, because I reallydon’t want to hear about that.”

I knew I looked like the village idiot, staring with my mouth open, but I really had no idea how to respond. I mean, I’d never been around anybody so…direct before. My family didn’t operate that way.

Shelley leaned her head in closer. “I asked you a question. Are you impaired in some way that you are unable to answer my question?” She was completely deadpan as she said this, her eyes round and huge.

“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I mean, no, I don’t have a boyfriend. Not anymore.”

“Of course not. So now that the boyfriend is no longer in the picture, and you graduate this year, what were you planning to do?”

“Art,” I said, proud of myself for finally forming a straight answer. “I mean, I’m an artist.”

“So banking is the worst thing your parents could think of to punish you for being pregnant.”

That pretty much summed it up, didn’t it? So I simply said, “Yes.” And then I kind of felt bad for my parents and added, “Though they just want me to be able to support the baby since I decided to keep it.”

She raised one eyebrow, the effect near petrifying. “And what made you decide to keep it?”

I thought about telling her about Xanda, about the path I’d been tracing, how this baby would be the bird, the escape, the thing to change everything. But instead I blurted, “It was myparents. My parents wanted me to give it up. I wanted to keep her from the beginning.”

“So you got pregnant on purpose?” Again, the deadpan face. I didn’t think I could get used to this.

“No!” That, I was sure about. “No, it just happened. It was an accident.”

“Right,” she said, like she didn’t quite believe me. “So. Back to banking. Can I assume you are planning to dedicate yourself to learning the banking trade? Or are you going to be daydreaming about art and babies all day long?”

Of course I would be thinking about art and my baby. But I would try. That was all she could expect from me. “I’ll do my best,” I said.

The rest of the afternoon, Shelley Jones dedicated herself to teaching me the fine art of banking grunt work.

Advertising Download Read Online
Other books
cursed be the child by castle, mort
taste of romance by darlene panzera
lock no. 1 by georges simenon
sure fire by jack higgins
taste of tenderloin by gene o'neill
we are not in pakistan by shauna singh baldwin