My Life Undecided
By Jessica Brody
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Jessica Brody
All rights reserved.
Charred to a Crisp
The police station smells like burnt toast. As if someone popped a piece of sourdough in the toaster oven and forgot about it. Or maybe the flecks of smoky odor are just lingering in my nostrils from the fire. Rebellious stowaways clinging to the inside of my respiratory system like an annoying guest who refuses to leave long after the party is over.
And trust me, the party is way over.
I don't know how much the firefighters were able to salvage of the house. When I was taken away in the police car, the flames were still relentlessly devouring the place.
It feels like I've been in this stuffy little room forever. I think it's the break room because there's a table in the corner with a pot of coffee resting on a rusty electric warmer and every five minutes some cop comes in, pours himself a Styrofoam cupful, and gives me one of those "Boy, did you screw up" raises of his eyebrows.
There's absolutely nothing to do in here. Nothing to read and nothing to watch except the clock on the wall. And trust me, that thing has got to be broken. I swear it only ticks every five seconds.
There's a fat, balding man who keeps popping his head in to tell me that he's "working everything out," and that I "shouldn't be worried." He's supposedly a social worker who's been assigned to my case. And all I can think is Great, now I'm a case.
I keep waiting for them to bring Shayne in. At least then I'd have someone to talk to. She was right next to me when the cops showed up ... and the fire trucks, and the ambulances, and the news vans. Her last words to me before I was handcuffed and taken away were "Don't worry, Brooks, we're in this together."
But for the last six hours, there doesn't seem to be anyone in this but me. Oh, and Phil, the way-too-happy-to-be-here-so-early-in-the-morning "social worker." I figure they're probably holding Shayne in another room. They always do that in the movies. Separate the criminals to see which one will talk first. Well, if they think I'm going to rat out my best friend, they've got another think coming.
I mean, the whole thing was initially her idea. But I'm the one who said yes. I'm the one who got us into the house. I'm the one who turned on the stove ...
Fortunately, it wasn't my house. It wasn't anyone's house, in fact. That was the brilliance of it all. Or at least, that was supposed to be the brilliance of it all. It's funny how the word "brilliance" can take on a whole new meaning when you're sitting in a police station at seven in the morning.
Also a bitch.
Because according to Phil, the fact that it wasn't my house may not necessarily be a good thing. It's all so confusing and overwhelming. Everyone's been throwing around words like "trespassing," "arson," "jail time," and "underage drinking," and I have no idea what any of it means. Well, apart from the underage drinking. That one, unfortunately, I'm pretty familiar with. Especially now that the spiked punch is starting to wear off and the hangover is settling in. Believe me, it's not making this situation any better. I really wish I liked the taste of coffee right about now. Even that stale pot on the table over there is starting to look better than this tornado of a headache that's brewing above my temples. I try to sleep by resting my head down on the table, but the hard surface of the wood only exacerbates the throbbing. Would it kill them to bring me a Tylenol? Or a tranquilizer?
The door squeaks open again a little after ten a.m. and just when I think I'm about to get another disappointing glare from one of Colorado's finest, the uniformed officer with the name "Banks" engraved into his badge looks down at the clipboard in his hands, then up at me, and says, "Brooklyn Pierce?"
I nod, my pounding head still cradled in my hands. "Yes?"
I pray he's going to tell me that I'm going home. Or that Shayne is in the other room waiting to see me. Or that the get-out-of-jail-free fairy has come to wave her magic wand and spring me from this place.
But he doesn't say any of these things. Instead his forehead crumples and he studies my face with this confounded expression, as if he's trying to remember the capital of some obscure Central American country. "There's no chance that you're Baby Brooklyn, is there? That little girl who fell down the mine shaft all those years ago?"
Fantastic, I think with a groan. Just what I need right now. A reputation for making headlines.
"Yes, that was me."
Officer Banks raises his eyebrows, seemingly impressed at my celebrity status. "Wow. No kidding? So what was it like down there? Were you scared?"
"I don't remember," I reply through gritted teeth. "I was two."
He seems to be oblivious to my displeased tone because he just keeps on talking. "How did you end up down there again? Chased a rabbit or something?"
"Lizard," I mumble.
"I bet you regret that decision, huh?" Banks remarks with a chuckle that grates on my nerves. "Not the smartest thing in the world, was it?"
"Is there something you wanted to tell me?" I nod hopefully toward his clipboard.
"Oh, right," he replies, snapping himself back into the moment. "Good news. Looks like you're going home."
I jump up from my chair and rush toward him, feeling like I want to wrap my arms around his portly middle and squeeze him. Obviously, I restrain myself.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" I exclaim. It's about freaking time they let me out of this hellhole.
I think about my soft, comfy bed, my fluffy white pillow, my clean, cotton pajamas. Fresh underwear. Toothpaste and mouth-wash. All the things you take for granted until you're stuck in a place like this for six hours straight.
But my relief is short-lived. Because the next words out of his mouth are the scariest ones I've heard all night. Scarier than "arson," scarier than "trespassing," even scarier than "jail time."
Officer Banks drops his clipboard down against his thigh and offers me a sympathetic wink. "Your parents are here."
Friends Don't Let Friends Make Fajitas
It's not like I didn't consider the parental factor in this equation. I've just purposely been choosing not to think about it. Preferring to live in a world (if only imaginary) where parents simply don't exist.
They have a word for that, you know? It's called "denial."
"They were able to get on an early flight out of Boston," the officer tells me as he opens the door and leads me through a series of hallways.
Boston. It all started with Boston, Massachusetts. Or as my perfect, prudent, would-never-burn-a-house-down older sister would be quick to correct, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Home of Harvard University. A school for people who make good decisions in their lives. Decisions that don't end in police stations that smell like overcooked Pop-Tarts.
In other words, a school for people like Isabelle Pierce.
And at the beginning of every October there's a weekend especially dedicated to the proud parents of these outstanding, would-never-burn-a-house-down kinds of people. It's called "Family Weekend." But it may just as well have been called "Parents' Weekend," because as an official member of the "family," I don't remember receiving an invitation. Not that I would have gone. Not that I would have even thought about going. Especially when I learned that "Family Weekend" is also called "Brooklyn Gets the Entire House to Herself Weekend." Although, I imagine that over time, both titles will be thrown out completely and replaced with just "The Weekend Brooklyn Burned Down a Model Home."
A day we can all eventually look back on and share a good laugh about.
I blame Izzy. If she hadn't gotten into such a prestigious, stuck-up school to begin with, my parents never would have left for the weekend and I never would have even been given the opportunity to say yes to Shayne's (at one time) genius idea. If my sister had just been a huge screwup like me, she'd probably be living at home, attending some lame-ass community college in downtown Denver, and none of this would have happened. I'd be asleep in my bed right now, soaking up the last few blessed hours of the weekend, instead of here, walking the last few steps to my execution.
"YOU BURNED DOWN MY MODEL HOME?!"
My mother clearly sees me before I see her and she doesn't waste any time.
"How could you do something like that?" she roars before I have even stepped both feet into the lobby.
"Camille." My father places a tender hand on her shoulder. "We promised we'd handle this rationally."
"That was at 35,000 feet," my mom growls back. "This is the lobby of the Parker Police Department. Rationality is completely out of the question right now."
"It was an accident, I swear," I try, but my dad shushes me with a look that says "If you want to live, you'll be quiet."
"An accident?" my mom thunders. "An accident! And I suppose sneaking into my office, stealing my keys, and throwing a raver in the model home of my biggest development project to date was an accident, too?!"
I'm pretty sure my mom means "rager," but I'm smart enough to refrain from correcting her. Probably the first wise decision I've made in a while.
Officer Banks clears his throat and we turn to look at him. Surprisingly, he doesn't appear to be all that uncomfortable standing in the middle of our family spat. I suppose he sees this kind of thing constantly. After all, it's not like the police in this town have anything better to do than break up teenage "ravers." Parker, Colorado, isn't exactly crime-infested. Last year they caught a college student selling weed out of the back of his mom's SUV and people are still talking about what a scandal it was. Unfortunately that doesn't bode well for my plan to forget this whole thing ever happened.
"Why don't we discuss this when we get home," my dad suggests, giving the officer an apologetic nod.
Without another word, my mom wheels around and storms out the door. I can almost see the smoke trailing behind her.
* * *
"We'll have to call Bob," my dad says as he steers the car onto Highway 83. The bright mid-morning sun blinds me after I've been cooped up in that police station all night. My mom is staring vacantly out the passenger-side window. Actually, her expression only looks vacant. I know her well enough to know that emptiness is the last thing on her mind. It's that look she gets when she feels like someone has betrayed her. A disconcerting mix of anger, sadness, and "what did I do to deserve this?" It's enough to make you vomit up guilt.
"Who's Bob?" I have the courage to ask. It's the first thing I've said since we left the station. My mom, surprisingly enough, still hasn't uttered a word.
"Our family lawyer," my dad responds.
"Oh," I mumble feebly, feeling dejected and emotionally drained. But what I really want to ask is "We have a family lawyer?" Funny how I never knew that before today. I guess it's because we never really needed him until now. Or I suppose I should say ... until me.
"Hopefully he can fight the arson charge," my dad thinks aloud. "The trespassing is going to be a tough one to deny, though. You were the only one with access to the key to the model. And the underage drinking charge is a wash. Your blood alcohol level was off the chart when they brought you in. We're lucky no one got hurt at this thing. We could have been slapped with a serious lawsuit on top of everything else."
There are a million emotions I'm feeling right now, but "lucky" certainly isn't one of them.
My dad navigates the labyrinth of streets in our subdivision until we're parked in our garage. Before the engine is even turned off, my mom unbuckles her seat belt, opens the door, and stomps into the house. Sometimes I think her silence is worse than her yelling. And right about now, I almost wish she'd go back to screaming at me. At least then I'd know what she's thinking.
My dad, on the other hand, is composed. Collected. His usual balanced self. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen him lose his cool in my lifetime. People are always saying that my mom and dad complement each other perfectly. Like a balloon tied to a rock. I never really understood what they meant until now.
"What does arson mean?" I ask my dad, clicking off my seat belt but staying firmly planted in the seat. Despite my previous impatience to get home, right now I'm in no rush to go inside.
My dad takes a deep breath. "It means they think you set the fire on purpose."
I can feel the panic rise up in my throat. "But I didn't!" I screech. "I swear I didn't!"
My dad glances at me in the rearview mirror. Despite the disappointment that's evident on his face, there are small traces of compassion there, too. "I know, Brooks," he says, an unsettling edge to his usually warm tone. "And that's why we need a lawyer."
Technically, it was me who started the fire. But I'm not lying when I say it was an accident. I may be decisionally challenged but I'm no pyro. I just thought the party would be that much better if we had fajitas. Granted, I wasn't exactly in my right mind when I came to this conclusion. And I think I've proved once and for all that drinking spiked punch and cooking fajitas simply don't mix. Especially when the "fresh vegetables" you use to cook them turn out to be made of plastic, like so many things found in a model home. Needless to say, the "green peppers" and "tomatoes" started to burn pretty quickly and the elegant fabric napkins that I used to remove the charred props from the pan turned out to be more flammable than I'd anticipated. The next thing I knew, a hundred drunk teenagers were running around the house screaming "Fire!" and then I ended up in handcuffs.
It wasn't supposed to be like that, though.
It was supposed to be the party of the century ... of the millennium. An event that would guarantee me a place on the map. A spot in the Parker High School hall of fame. At least that's what Shayne had promised me.
Oh God, Shayne. I hope she's not still at the police station. I'm sure her parents would have come to get her hours ago. Wouldn't they?
I trudge into the house, snatch the phone from the cradle in the kitchen, and carry it upstairs with me. I haven't yet informed my parents that I'll be needing a new cell phone because mine is buried under a pile of charred rubble in the middle of an uninhabited multimillion-dollar subdivision. Somehow, it didn't seem like the right moment to start making demands.
I close my bedroom door and dial Shayne's number. It rings twice and then goes to voice mail so I leave a hurried and rather frantic message.
"Shayne," I breathe into the phone, "I didn't see you at the police station. I hope you're okay. I just wanted to let you know that I'm fine. Well, for the most part. I'm home now. But it looks like I have to go to court on Monday morning. Lame, right? I'm so sorry. This whole thing totally sucks. I just hope you're not in too much trouble. Anyway, call me and we can talk about everything. Oh, and I lost my cell phone in the fire so you'll have to call me at home. Okay. Bye."
I hang up and toss the phone onto my desk.
Please let her be okay.
I feel wretched. About everything. About Shayne. About my looming court date tomorrow morning. About the model home — or what used to be a model home. Landing this new subdivision project was supposed to be my mother's big break as a real estate developer. It was supposed to be her company's "golden ticket" to glory.
I guess I'm not the only person who fell off the map tonight.
When I finally collapse onto my bed, I'm tormented by the thoughts and images swirling around in my head. Fire and regret. Sirens and remorse. Uniformed police officers and their disapproving stares. As exhausted as I am, sleep is virtually impossible. And as heavy as my eyelids feel, they stay open for the rest of the morning.
My guilt keeps me awake.
Shayne says ponytails are lazy. You can wear them to the gym and you can wear them when you're lounging around your house, but if you show up at school with your hair stuffed in a rubber band all it says to the world is "I was too tired to try this morning."
She's big on appearances. Perceptions are key. Your representation to society dictates what people think of you. And given that everyone thinks the world of Shayne, it's hard not to take notes when she dishes out her valuable nuggets of advice. I mean, if there were ever a representation of perfection and poise, it would be Shayne.
I don't want to get out of bed on Monday morning and face the music, but I can hear Shayne's voice in my head, reminding me that there are no days off in the world of perception. No sick days. No allotted vacation. Keeping up appearances is a full-time job. Because when you're fortunate enough to be welcomed into Shayne's exclusive company, people look at you differently. Or I guess I should say they look at you constantly. For as long as we've been friends, I can't remember ever not having an audience. Shayne is like a local celebrity. People take notice of everything she does. And when you're standing right next to her, they take notice of you, too. (Continues...)
Excerpted from My Life Undecided by Jessica Brody. Copyright © 2011 Jessica Brody. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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