Authors: Sara Shepard
For my mother, Mindy Shepard
Brooklyn, New York,
Behind you was a poster for the DQ Butterscotch Sundae, and next to you were the gleaming, shuddering machines that dispensed the ice cream. Mark catapulted over the counter and gave you a big hug. âHere she is,' he said, clapping his hands on your shoulders. You looked familiar. It was probably that I'd seen you around-at a picnic, in the halls at school, in the bleachers, in the aisles of Charles Kupka's Drugs,
The Finest Apothecary in Western Pennsylvania
. You smiled at me and extended your hand, so formal. âHello,' you said. You smiled with all your teeth. âHello,' you said again.
You lived down the street from Mark. When you were little, you stole tomatoes from his garden. He used to chase you with a garden hoe with his eyes closed, chopping and chopping. But then, a month or so ago, Mark was up on a ladder, touching up the eaves of his house with white paint, and a bee came and scared him and he fell off. When he opened his eyes, flat on his back on the grass with the wind knocked out of him, the ladder still tilted against the roof, you were standing there with your wavy blonde hair and your milkmaid face and your wide, vine-ripened mouth.
âI realized I loved her right then,' Mark told me. He had been dying to introduce you to me for a while, but I'd been working so much that summer and had hardly been around.
I don't know what made me go into Dairy Queen alone the next time, knowing what I knew. Mark had been my best friend since third grade, when we were both punished for sticking chewing gum to the underside of our desks. Perhaps it was because you said hello twice. Perhaps it was because Mark joked, that first time, âNow, don't go stealing her away, Rich. She's mine.' I don't know why he said that-I'd never stolen anything from Mark in my life. But maybe it got into my head, started whirring around. Maybe it was your dove-gray eyes, the way your hands were chapped and red from the Dairy Queen freezers, the way you swayed a little, winsome and uncertain, when you dispensed the ice cream into the pale yellow cone. The first time I went in alone, you pretended to forget my name. All you said was, âYou're Mark's friend, right?' The second time I came in, you said, âIt's freezing. All this snow, in October. You seriously want ice cream?' The fifth you told me bits and pieces about your life.
You told me that you and Mark were secretly engaged. He wanted to get married as soon as you graduated-you were a grade behind us, so it was still a whole year away. You sat on the steel sink in Dairy Queen's back room, surrounded by ice cream mix, boxes of rainbow sprinkles and glamour shots of the Buster Bar and the whorish, frothy DQ Float-
Go ahead and splurge! Get it with TabÂ®!
You told me how afraid you were, that you weren't sure if Mark was the guy you were supposed to marry, how you thought love was supposed to hit you like a spark and you weren't sure that had happened. âBut I'm a good person,' you always said when we pressed against the shelves of the walk-in, your lips tasting like caramel syrup. âI still do chores and
everything.' âIt's me, I'm the terrible one,' was what I always said next. I wanted you to be blameless, pure. âHe's my best friend. I'm the bad person here.' I touched the six freckles clustered together by your right eye, a constellation. I even gave the freckle-cluster a name, though I can't remember it now. That's probably a side-effect of what I've been through-so many precious memories have been yanked away forever.
The eighth time I told you everything about me. That winter, I took you to the old, abandoned drift mine, one of my favorite spots in all of Cobalt. We looked into the black, gaping mouth in the side of the hill to avoid staring at each other. You shivered and said coal mining had to be the scariest job in the world, trekking into those dark, uncertain caves. âI'm sure miners get used to it,' I replied, but you shook your head and said you couldn't see how. I told you that my father looked perfect on the outside, but he hardly ever ate dinner with us anymore. I couldn't remember the last time we'd had a conversation. It was always sports on TV, or long hours at work, or time spent at the new golf club closer to Pittsburgh. He wanted me to play golf, too-he got me a membership to the country club a few Christmases before. âGolf is a good skill for your future,' he said gruffly, ignoring my lack of enthusiasm. âI'm grooming you for better things.' The only thing I'd wanted that year was a set of encyclopedias, but my father said I could just use the encyclopedias at school. When new encyclopedias showed up on our doorstep a few weeks later, my father frowned, thinking it was a mistake. âIt's not,' my mother said quickly. She'd gotten last year's set at a discount from a door-to-door salesman, practically for free. When my father turned his back, she winked at me. I read those encyclopedias cover to cover, starting with A and ending with Z. I loved M; it was so thick. There were so many fascinating things in M.
Myelin. Mummification. Melanoma.
I told you about the scholarship to Penn State-first that I'd applied, next that I'd been interviewed, and that I was waiting to hear if I got it. âYou will,' you assured me. âBut that means you'll leave me.' I told you I'd never leave you. I told you I'd take you to college with me. âI'll pack you in my suitcase.' I took your small, tan hand and said, âI'll marry you right now.' I said I'd go get my minister's license so I could marry us myself. You took a whack at me-you liked to slap the air when things were funny-and said we would need witnesses. I said, âHow about this mine? It could be our witness.' The coal was as silent and solemn as God. You looked away then. âYou know we can't,' you said. We were quiet for a while after that.
Then there was the party at Jeff's house. I had gotten there late, so we met in the hall, me holding an empty cup, on my way to the keg, you holding a sleeve of Ritz crackers. I couldn't wait to show you the letter I'd received that very day, the one I hadn't shown my family or anyone else yet. It had Pennsylvania State University's prowling lion logo on the top. I unfolded it, thinking you'd be proud of me, but your expression clouded. And then you told me-you just blurted it out, two words. I said, âAre you sure?' And you said, âYes.' And then I was talking and not thinking, or perhaps thinking too much and talking to avoid saying what I was thinking. Just as your eyes started to fill, Mark approached. We straightened up fast. âWhat are you two talking about?' Mark asked, swaying, his breath acrid and hot, so wasted and not even an hour into the party. He touched your boob right there in front of everyone, his beer sloshing over the lip of the cup.
Mark took your arm and you turned away. Jimi Hendrix came on the stereo. I walked over to the plate of cruditÃ©s on Jeff's parents' kitchen table, but they tasted like sawdust. When the song ended, you found me again. âMark wants to go, you said. But he'sâ¦'
You looked at Mark, swaying in the doorway. It was obvious what you were asking-you'd just gotten your permit but didn't feel comfortable driving Mark's car yet. This was usually a treat for us-Mark would drink too much at a party, and I'd drive you both home, dropping him off first, making sure he got into his house, sometimes even guiding him to his bedroom. Then you and I would drive for hours, rolling slowly across the bridge, along the winding roads to the woods, past the junkyard and lot of abandoned tires. Talking about everything and nothing, simply being together.
But we both knew there would be no after-hours drive that night. Looking back, if only I'd have ushered Mark into the back bedroom so he could lie down for a while. If only I'd have breathed, put things in perspective. I should have taken your hands and said, âI'm sorry. This is great.' Instead, I rolled my eyes and said, âGive me the keys.' On the way to the car, you said loudly to Mark that you didn't want to run away and get married anymore, that you wanted to do it right here. You wanted to invite all of Cobalt. Mark threw himself into the backseat, groaning, and you got in the front, next to me. When you stared at me, imploring, I should have stared back, but I gunned the engine hard, gritting my teeth as Mark made a gagging sound. What you'd said in the house throbbed inside of me. The words paraded in front of my eyes, obscuring my vision.
I started down the slick, twisting road. One minute, it was peaceful, dark. The next, there he was, paused right in front of us, blinking in the moonlight. I saw his antlers first, then his broad, brown chest. You screamed. My foot fumbled for the brake. I met the animal's wet, shiny eyes, and then there was that groan of metal. Things were white and chrome and loud and then quiet. Leaves fluttered to the ground. I came to with my head on the steering
wheel. I saw your rose-petal hand first, folded neatly in your lap. The glass from the shattered windshield, shimmering on the dashboard and Naugahyde seats, looked like thousands of diamonds. I thought that I could mount a shard in a gold band and give it to you.
âHello?' I cried out. No one answered.
I saw you once after that. The hospital walls were a sterile green. You were in a gown with faded blue flowers all over it, something you never would've worn in real life. I was afraid to touch you. Plenty of other people were there to do it for me. They did all kinds of things to you, tubes in places, bags in others, needles in veins, tape covering up half of you, a metal cage around your head. Did they find tiny Ritz cracker crumbs in your mouth when they tried to breathe for you? Did they remark on the strawberry smell of your hair? What did they do with your charm bracelet? Where did they put your diaphanous, paisley-printed blouse, the one that hid so much?
They say I should write letters to everyone, even those that are difficult to write, even to those to whom letters cannot be sent. But my hands feel like they're being pulled toward the center of the earth, like they have extra gravitational properties. My thoughts plod like dinosaurs. I've had so much done to me in the past few years, so much prodding, so much electricity jolted into my head; and so much of it, I fear, hasn't really helped. But through it all, I have never forgotten you, nor have I forgotten the secret you and I share forever. I hope you know that I am desperate to always remember. I hope you know I'll cling to everything about you as hard as I can. Although, I guess you don't know anything, now. I guess you don't.
She'd been away for just a few days when a biology substitute told my class the most important and wonderful piece of information I'd ever heard.
And then he was pulled out of the classroom forever.
Before this, Mr Rice had been invisible. The blazers he wore to Peninsula Upper School-one of the finest schools in the Brooklyn Heights-to-Park Slope radius, to quote the promotional materials-were never wrinkled, and he always combed his thin, wheat-colored hair into wet-looking lines. There was nothing extracurricular in any of his previous lessons, and with his droning monotone, he made the processes of cell division and photosynthesis and the intricate innards of a paramecium seem far less fascinating than they truly were. But on this particular day, Mr Rice drew a double helix on the board, tapped it with his piece of chalk and said, âEveryone, this is what your whole life is all about. It's all you need to know about anything.'
The class fell silent. âDNA makes up everything inside of you,' he boomed. âIt determines what you look like and how you think, if you're going to get sick and whether you're smart or stupid. All you need to know about yourself is right
here in this little molecule. Everything about your future, everything about your past. Nothing else matters, and you can't change it. It's passed down, directly, from your parents. You can't escape your parents and your parents can't escape you, as hard as either of you might try. You're tethered to them for life.'
Everyone murmured. Jennifer Lake raised her hand, then put it back down quickly. âEven the DNA that may not code for anything,' Mr Rice went on, his voice swooping up and down, the way a hawk climbs and dives. âThe stuff that's called junk DNA. It
code for something-something
. It codes for the secrets, stuff we never admit to anyone. Once we crack its code, we'll have the answers to everything, but right now, I think the only beings that understand junk DNA's secrets are the aliens.'
Mr Rice turned and drew a dish-shaped spaceship on the board. An eggplant-headed alien peeked out the top, and Mr Rice etched a dotted line beaming right to the helix of DNA. The sweat on his forehead reminded me of the beads of water that gathered on the outside of a plastic bottle on a hot day. A couple of boys at the back coughed insults into their fists. But Mr Rice's words echoed in my mind.
This is what your whole life is about. You can't escape your parents and your parents can't escape you.
Before this, our school's principal had missed every other instance of unorthodox teaching, so it was something of a surprise when his face appeared outside the classroom door. Then there was a knock. âEverything okay, Mr Rice?' He stuck his head in. His eyes glided to the slapdash spaceship on the chalkboard.
I stared at the spaceship, too. There were so many things I worried about. I'd always been a worrier-my father said worrying was in our blood. Just one week before, one of my most pressing worries had been that I would drop my set of
keys to the apartment onto the subway tracks. I was so obsessed with the precarious danger of it, I flirted with the idea of pitching the keys down there willingly, just to know what would happen. But if I did, I would have to sit on the stoop in front of our apartment building, keyless, until my mother returned home from work. I didn't want to imagine what she would say, the pinched, disappointed shape her face would take.
I used to worry about the lone gray hairs I often saw sprouting from my mother's head, terrified that she was showing signs of advanced and debilitating age. When she started to shut herself in the bathroom for hours at a time, talking quietly on the phone, I worried that she was hiding a horrible sickness from the rest of us. I pictured a devastating disease ripping her apart, her skin peeling off in curls, her heart blackening. When we received a catalogue from the Vitamin Shoppe in the mail, I put it by her plate at breakfast, convinced its glossy pages contained a miracle pill. But she pushed the catalogue aside. My father absently flipped through it instead, commenting on the high price of spirulina tablets and chromium picolinate diet pills. In all my what-if scenarios, I never envisioned my father physically ill. The dark hours he spent under the covers were due to something different, not sickness.
What had happened to my family a few days before this was something else entirely-something far bigger than anything I'd even dared to consider. But Mr Rice's words made me think that maybe I didn't have to worry about it after all.
The substitute's shoulders slumped as he walked into the hall with the principal. As soon as the door shut, one of the fist-coughing boys snorted, âWhat a
.' Someone threw a balled-up piece of notebook paper at the alien spaceship. One by one, like dominoes falling over, everyone began to talk, to forget. I was the only one who didn't laugh.
The following day, when my father told me that Claire Ryan and her mother were coming over to visit in a few minutes, I was struck dumb. Just because I was friends with someone a couple years ago didn't mean we liked each other now. I thought my father understood this.
âClaire?' I shrieked. âAre you sure? Why?'
âHer mother wants to talk to me, that's why,' my father explained. âAnd she's bringing Claire because she thought it would be nice for you two to see each other again.'
The doorbell rang. I looked at my father. He was wearing plaid slippers and had the same Pfizer t-shirt he'd been wearing for days. Our house had magazines piled by the fireplace, empty soda bottles on the coffee table, and a crooked, undecorated Christmas tree in the corner, needles all over the floor. It was amazing how messy things could get in just two weeks.
When my father opened the door, Mrs Ryan looked right-perhaps a bit thinner, a little ragged, her blonde hair not as smoothly blow-dried as it used to be-but Claire was different entirely. Her eyes were the same, those blue-green eyes everyone used to be so jealous of. As was her thick blonde hair, the hair she used to toss over her shoulder so effortlessly, and her pretty, bow-shaped mouth, the mouth every boy wanted to kiss. But her cheeks were puffy. The rest of her body was, too.
I couldn't stop staring. Look at the way her t-shirt clung to her arms! Look at the pink flesh around her neck! I actually gasped, although I tried to pass it off as a hiccup, hitting my chest for effect like I was working something down my esophagus. Everyone knew Claire was back from Paris and her parents were divorcing, but no one knew
Mrs Ryan looked at me. âHi, Summer. It's so nice to see you again.'
She pushed Claire forward. âSay hi, Claire.'
âHi,' Claire mumbled.
âHow was France?' my father cried. âYou two look great.
He didn't even notice how different Claire looked. My mother wouldn't miss something like this.
My father asked me to take Claire to the roof to show her the view of the city, as if Claire hadn't seen it thousands of times before. Although her view wasn't from this side of the river anymore-what everyone also knew was that Mr Ryan was retaining his apartment on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights, near us, and Mrs Ryan and Claire were renting a place in a mysterious Manhattan neighborhood called Alphabet City.
âGo on,' my father said, making a shooing motion with his hands.
When we reached the roof, Claire looked at the buildings across the East River. Back when we hung out a lot, we had names for each of the buildings we could see from my apartment-the tall pointy one was Lester, the squat one on the harbor was Fred, and the twin towers were Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, the only two characters on the show worth caring about. I glanced at Scooby-Doo-One World Trade-and counted twenty-two flights from the top and three windows over. My mother's office. I'd never been inside it, but I was certain there was an official-looking name plaque on her desk,
The room was still dark. I squinted hard, willing the light to come on.
Claire ran her finger along the edge of the charcoal grill. There was rust on it, but we used to cook out on the roof a lot. All four of us, my mother, father, my brother Steven and me, we would come up here and point at the boats and buildings and eat hamburgers. My father used to bring up a boom box and put on a bunch of old jazz tapes, even though my mother preferred music that, as she put it,
âactually made sense.' When it was time to eat, my dad turned his back and whipped up a condiment that he said was his Aunt Stella's Famous Special Sauce. Once, I remarked that it tasted like nothing but mayo and ketchup mixed, and my mother snorted. âStella probably got the idea from Burger King,' she said with a laugh. My father chewed his burger. âStella's a good woman,' he said stiffly, not that it was in question.
Later, my mother and I would watch the boats on the East River through binoculars, making up stories about some of the yachters. The man in the sailboat named
still lived on his parents' estate. The man in the yacht with a naked woman figurehead had made his fortune by patenting the long plastic wand used to separate one person's groceries from another on the belt-how else could a man with such a tacky comb-over own a boat that big? When it was Steven's turn with the binoculars, he always aimed them at the buildings across the water, watching the people still in their offices, working. âWhat do you think they're doing in there?' he asked out loud on more than one occasion. âI bet they're doing math,' my mother or I always suggested, struggling to remain straight-faced. Steven's love of math was an ongoing joke between my mother and me; we were convinced that he slept with his graphing calculator under his pillow.
Claire's belt was fastened on the very last notch. âSo my new neighborhood is weird,' she informed me, as if we'd been talking every day. As if I knew everything about her-which I kind of did. âLast night, I saw a man dressed as a woman.'
âHow did you know?'
âI looked at his arms.'
I'd never been to her new neighborhood before, this mythical
When kids at our school traveled into Manhattan, they went to SoHo to shop, or to the Upper East
or West Sides to visit grandparents. No one ventured into the East Village, and definitely not to the avenues with the letters.
The Staten Island ferry chugged away from the west side of the island, spewing a contrast of black oil and crisp white waves behind it. âSo.' Claire tapped the top of the grille. âWhat's new with you?'
âNot much.' I kept my eyes on the ferry. âSame old, same old.'
Claire curled her hand around a rusted spatula. âI heard about your mom.'
A hot fist knotted in my throat. What did everyone know about
Before I could reply, a noise interrupted us. Claire's mother clomped up to the roof. My father followed. âTime to go,' Mrs Ryan announced.
Claire crossed her arms over her chest. âWe just got here.'
Mrs Ryan gave her a tight smile. âWe have a lot of things to do today.'
have a lot of things to do. I don't.'
âWell, you have to come with me.' Mrs Ryan's expression didn't falter.
âI can ride the train by myself.'
âSeriously. Time to go.'
Claire put her head down. âFuck off.'
My father's eyes widened. Mine did, too. I'd never heard Claire swear.
Mrs Ryan swallowed, then stood up straighter. âFine.' She turned around stiffly and started back down the stairs. My dad and I stood there, waiting to see if Claire would move. She didn't. My father looked blank. He wasn't good at dealing with things like this.
Claire sighed. âUnbelievable,' she eventually said, and stood up. The doorway down from the roof to our apartment suddenly looked too narrow for her to fit through.
My father and I walked them to the door. We watched them out the window as they marched toward the subway, not talking, not touching. The wind blew, shaking the plastic bags caught in the trees.
âDid Claire ask you anything about it?' my father murmured out of the corner of his mouth.
I shrugged. âIt's none of her business.'
I wanted to add.
âClaire's your best friend.'
. Two years ago. For like a second.'
He jingled loose change in his pockets. âIt's okay to talk about it, you know.'
âI don't need to talk about it. There's nothing
He looked at me desperately. The jingling stopped.
,' I repeated.
He pressed his thumbs into his eye sockets, breathed out through his mouth, and made a funny
noise, like a train pulling into the last station stop and easing on its brakes. Then, he patted my arm, sighed, and went into the kitchen to turn on the TV.
Claire was born one year, one month, and one day before I was. When we were friends for like a second two summers ago, she liked to remind me of this when she held me down and tickled me: âI am one year, one month, and one day older than you,' she would say, âso I have full tickling privileges.'
She was going into ninth grade and I was going into eighth. We were forced to be around each other a lot that summer because our mothers, who both worked in the events department of Mandrake & Hester, a high-end private bank, had become best friends and rented a share on Long Beach Island. When my mother told me about it, I panicked. Spend eight
weeks at the beach with a girl I didn't know? I didn't even like the ocean. And I wasn't very comfortable with strangers.
My mother wanted me to like Claire-and even more, for Claire to like me-and at the beach, it didn't seem that hard. Claire's long, ash-blonde hair became knotted and caked with sand, and her full, pretty lips were constantly coated with Zinc. She wore ratty t-shirts and cut-offs, and she roughhoused, tackling me into the surf. She indulged my need to spy on our mothers, who liked to sunbathe on the beach and read magazines. We had a foolproof system: the lifeguard stand was on a mound by the dunes, and all we had to do was duck behind where the lifeguards hung their towels and our mothers had no idea we were there. They talked about chauvinistic men at the office, places they wished they could visit, the new male teacher at their ballet studio in Tribeca. I waited to see if my mother would talk about me-maybe in a bragging way, hopefully not in an irritated way-but she never did.