Perfect Escapeby Jennifer Brown
Kendra has always felt overshadowed by her older brother, Grayson, whose OCD forces him to live a life of carefully coordinated routines. The only way Kendra can stand out next to Grayson is to be perfect, and she has perfection down to an art -- until a cheating scandal threatens her flawless reputation.
Behind the wheel of her car, with Grayson asleep beside
Kendra has always felt overshadowed by her older brother, Grayson, whose OCD forces him to live a life of carefully coordinated routines. The only way Kendra can stand out next to Grayson is to be perfect, and she has perfection down to an art -- until a cheating scandal threatens her flawless reputation.
Behind the wheel of her car, with Grayson asleep beside her, Kendra decides to drive away from it all -- with enough distance, maybe she'll be able to figure everything out. But even in the midst of the road trip's flat tires, gas-station food stops, and detours to quirky roadside attractions, eventually Kendra must stop running and come to terms with herself, her brother, and her past.
With undeniable grace and humor, acclaimed author Jennifer Brown explores OCD, the pressure for perfection, and the emotional highs and lows of a complex sibling relationship.
Brown paints an unflinching, nuanced portrait of siblings in a family overwhelmed by serious illness....Readers will enjoy the trip."VOYA"
[A] road-trip novel with momentum and realistic characters that will have many teen readers hitching a ride."School Library Journal"
The stark honesty of Kendra's feelings about living with a brother with a mental illness will touch readers, but it is Grayson's responses that really set this apart as an unflinching and heartbreaking portrayal of the complexities of such a relationship."The Bulletin"
Kendra's struggle to face her mistakes will resonate with many young adult readers...intelligent and compassionate."Library Media Connection
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)
- Age Range:
- 12 - 17 Years
Read an Excerpt
By Brown, Jennifer
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Brown, Jennifer
All right reserved.
I was six the first time we found Grayson at the quarry. Dad and I had just gotten back from my peewee soccer game, and Mom had met us at the front door, car keys dangling from one hand.
“We won!” I crowed, hopping past her. “And Ashley’s mom brought fish crackers!”
But Mom didn’t answer. Instead, she muttered something to Dad, whose eyebrows knit together. He turned and peered out the front door into the rapidly approaching night, then stepped outside, cupped his mouth with his hands, and started yelling my brother’s name—“Grayson! Graaayson!”—while Mom shrugged into her coat, not even acknowledging that I had gone on to tell her all about the goal I’d scored and the goalie with the freckles who’d gotten a bloody nose when Imogene Sparks accidentally fell on top of her.
Nobody told me what was going on. All I knew was our next-door neighbor Tammy came over and fixed me a cheese sandwich for dinner. We played checkers over and over, and she stroked my braids out with her fingers and didn’t make me take a bath so I could go to school with braid-waves the next day.
“Where did Mom and Dad go, anyway?” I asked. “King me.”
She shrugged. “To get Grayson. Your move.”
“Where is he?” I jumped one of her checkers and picked it up, tucking it into the lap bowl created by my nightgown.
Tammy hesitated the tiniest bit. Her eyes flicked toward the front door, and for a second I thought I might have seen the same worried crease between her eyebrows that I’d seen between Dad’s. But she smiled and slid her checker across the board. “They didn’t say,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll be back soon. Your turn.”
It wasn’t until the next morning when Mom was brushing my hair for school—using the smoothing brush, which destroyed my waves—that I asked again.
“Ouch. Mom, where did you guys go last night? Ow.”
Unlike Tammy, Mom didn’t hesitate one bit—just kept pulling the brush through my hair, all business. “Newman Quarry,” she said, as if this were something they did every evening. “The place off the highway, with all the rocks.” She pulled particularly hard on a knot at the base of my neck, and I sucked my breath in through my teeth. Staticky strands of my hair were floating outward, following the brush; the whole thing was a fuzz-mess. “I really wish Tammy’d given you a bath last night,” she muttered. “You’re frizzed.”
I frowned. “Why did you go there?” I asked.
She set the brush on the counter, wet her hands in the sink, and smoothed them over my hair, meeting my eyes in the mirror. She sighed, then moved her palms down to my shoulders and patted them lightly. “Your brother is having some difficulties, Kendra. Go get your backpack now. The bus will be coming.”
I left the room, my scalp feeling heat-pricked and pulsating, wondering what Mom had meant by “having difficulties” and what that had to do with my parents’ going to Newman Quarry the night before in the dark.
But that was eleven years ago. Grayson had been to the quarry hundreds of times since then. Sometimes several times a day, walking three miles down the highway in that precise way of his, muttering under his breath, his fingers hooked like claws while he calculated whatever it was he was calculating.
And we’d all had to go fetch him at one time or another. Stand at the top of the pit and call his name out, knowing he wouldn’t answer. Stumble down the rock beds, trying not to lose our footing, trying not to get too many pebbles in our shoes, trying not to get angry. Still calling his name, stupidly. “Grayson! Come on! Mom and Dad are going to be mad if you miss therapy again. Grayson! Graaayson! I know you hear me!”
And we’d all had to try to make him leave the quarry before he was “finished.” Which always meant tears for someone. Usually everyone.
I’d been to the bottom of that quarry hundreds of times, starting when I was seven and my parents began sending me over the fence to fetch him, always framing it as “an adventure.”
But it didn’t feel like an adventure. It felt like a chore. He never wanted to leave. I’d end up doing just about anything to get him out of there. Push him. Pull him. Yell at him. Make promises to him.
I’m not finished, Kendra. I have to count them.
But you have therapy. And there are billions. Come on, just go with me, okay, Gray?
No! I can’t! Uh-uh-uh!
Okay, Grayson, okay, okay. Here. I’ll help you. I’ll count the ones in this pile, okay? Don’t cry. We’ll count them together….
We all knew what Grayson’s “difficulties” were. Grayson’s difficulties dominated his life. And Mom’s and Dad’s.
Sometimes, like when Zoe left, it felt like especially mine.
Nobody warned me he’d be coming home today.
I got home from school, dropped my backpack on the floor, and read a text from Shani as I walked into the kitchen.
Then screamed when I bumped face-first into a bony chest. Before my brain could catch up with my reflexes, my phone-wielding hand reached out and punched at the chest with a hollow thump.
“Ouch! Nice to see you, too.” My brother, whom I hadn’t seen in months, was rubbing the spot where I’d just hit him. He was impossibly skinny, his hair greasy and flopping in his extremely pale face. He always looked like this when he got home from treatment. Probably I should’ve been used to it, but it’s hard to get accustomed to living with someone who looks like an extra in a zombie movie.
“You scared the crap out of me, Grayson. Jeez!”
“I gathered that much when you hit me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, pushing past him and heading for the refrigerator, my breath still coming in quick bursts. “Automatic reaction when I think I’m going to be murdered in my kitchen. It is good to see you. I just…” The phone vibrated in my hand, and I glanced at it. Another text from Shani. Major boyfriend issues. “I didn’t know you were getting released today. Where’s Mom?” I grabbed a slice of cheese out of the refrigerator and unwrapped it, closing the fridge door with my hip, my heartbeat beginning to slow.
“Neither did I. They told me this morning. And the store. She’ll be right back.”
I tossed the cellophane into the trash, thinking it would have been nice to have gotten some warning, and began folding the cheese slice into little squares, peeling the top square off and shoving it into my mouth. Grayson stood awkwardly in the doorway, staring intently at my hands, his lips moving.
I knew what he was thinking. With Grayson, everything had to be so perfectly lined up. Even if it wasn’t his. He was bothered by how I was folding that cheese slice into uneven squares, and I knew by looking at him that he wanted to take a ruler to it before I ate it. I chewed self-consciously, wishing he would stop looking at me like that. Didn’t Mom send him to these treatment places to make him stop looking at people like that? “So why the sudden release? Are you better?” I asked, pulling out a chair and sitting. “I mean, is the OCD, you know…?” I trailed off. I didn’t know how to finish the question.
I opened Shani’s text, pretending that seeing Grayson back in our kitchen was no big deal and that this was a question people asked each other all the time. Pretending he hadn’t been in that resident facility Mom had found—the one that was supposed to cure him of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, his depression, the billion anxiety disorders he had, and God knows what else.
Pretending that things hadn’t been weird between us ever since his quirks had slowly evolved into full-blown mental illness. Pretending that I could once again overlook his rituals and worries as I had done when we were kids. I wished I could. But the older we got—the worse he got—the harder it was to pretend that he was normal, like the rest of us. People noticed. I noticed. It was impossible not to notice.
How do you not notice someone’s mental illness when the whole family constantly revolves around it?
“Yeah, I think so. I guess. Whatever” was his answer. He was probably thinking the same thing I was thinking: What exactly is better?
“That’s good,” I said, and I really meant it, though I wasn’t sure if I meant that it was good for him or good for me. Probably a little of both.
There was an awkward silence between us, during which he shifted from foot to foot, mumbling numbers under his breath and knocking the wood frame of the door softly with one knuckle while I stared intently at my phone, as though Shani had written me an engrossing novel.
This was the way it’d been for the past three years.
We couldn’t move. We were both trapped by whatever ritual he was struggling with at the moment. Prisoners of the great Obsessive-Compulsive Oppressor.
Who was I kidding? This was the way it’d been for our whole lives.
This is what it’s like living with a mentally ill person: everyone afraid to move. Everyone afraid to speak. You don’t say certain words like suicide or crazy, and you do everything in your power to keep the good milliseconds lasting as long as they possibly can. And you don’t rush into anything at all, because rushing feels like courting disaster, and you don’t even know what that disaster is, because it’s never the same disaster twice. A ruined birthday? A scene at a restaurant? Police cars in the driveway in the middle of the night? All of the above?
And you don’t ask for attention.
And you get used to it when you don’t get any.
And you try really, really hard to forget that not getting attention hurts and that this person—this muttering, shadow-eyed, scabbed patient—was once your hero and best friend in the world. Back when he was just a “weird kid.”
And you try to remember that you still love him, even if some days you can’t exactly pinpoint why.
After what seemed like forever, he finally moved out of the doorway, and I could hear his steps, slow and rhythmic, on the floorboards leading to his bedroom. He made it in one try, which meant he must have been feeling better.
Before Mom sent him out to Camp Cure Me, or whatever this one was called, it could sometimes take him two hours to walk from the kitchen to his bedroom, his cries of frustration piercing the hallway. Mom’s voice trying to soothe whatever broken part of him told him he couldn’t put his foot down until he’d counted every grain in the wood beneath it. Her sobs creeping through the bedroom walls at night. That feeling of fullness behind my eyes all the damn time. And the feeling of resentment that I tried to stuff away because when someone can’t even walk through his home normally, resenting him somehow feels mean. Not to mention pointless. Resenting Grayson wasn’t going to cure him.
After he was gone, I sat at the table for a few more minutes, taking in deep, even breaths and pressing my forehead into my palms. I could smell the cheese on my fingers, and it made the taste in the back of my throat go sour. I knew I should’ve been happy that he was back, but all I could think was, Things have been so calm around here without him.
I also thought about the night, two months or so before he left, when things had seemed so good. He’d seemed relaxed… or at least relaxed for Grayson. Mom and Dad were really happy, and we’d all spent the evening watching TV together, which hadn’t happened in months. We joked with one another. Mom made popcorn. I fell asleep on the couch.
At some point, Grayson had brought in his old alarm clock—the kind that buzzes—set it to go off about thirty seconds later, and propped it right next to my ear. Then sat back and waited for it to go off. When it did, I was so startled and confused, I almost fell off the couch. Grayson laughed until his whole face was red and he was holding his belly and gasping for breath. Mom and Dad, still curled up together on the other couch, were giggling as well.
“Kendra, get up!” he’d said, trying to look serious but gasping too hard to pull it off. “You’re late for school!”
I’d punched him in the arm but had laughed, too, because even I had to admit that his prank was a good one. “Paybacks, bro, paybacks,” I said sleepily.
The next morning, he’d refused to get out of bed. Said the air was filled with toxins and he couldn’t breathe them in or he’d get cancer. And he’d been that way since. I never got the chance to prank him back. He would’ve been way too anxious to find the humor in it.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I hoped for another evening like the one we’d had before he went away. Only I hoped it would last longer this time.
I sat there until I heard the garage door rumble to life, and then I got up in a hurry, pushing the chair back with my legs, and headed upstairs to my room. I didn’t want to deal with Mom right now. She would be in that on-edge place again. No softness. No smile. Forever the woman who had yanked that brush through my hair, saying earnestly, Your brother’s having some difficulties, Kendra, only not finishing the sentence: and you’ve got to make up for them. You’ve got to be the child with no difficulties at all.
Subject: He’s ba-ack!
So G is back. Seems better. A little jittery and def way too skinny, but better. I can’t help but wonder, though… how many times can a person do the treatment thing and come back not any better? I mean, what’s the point of going? Will he ever get better, or will he be like this forever? It sounds brutal, and you know I’ll never give up hope, but… Well, sometimes my life seems like… a lot… when G’s around. You know better than anyone what I mean.
Listen, Zo. Neither one of us has heard anything from you in a long time. And I’m cool with it. Your dad gave you loads of trouble when you moved, and you’re probably super busy with Bible study or something. ;-) But I haven’t heard from you in like six months and… I don’t know… I guess I think it could really help G if you said hey sometime.
I hit the “send” key and sat back against the headboard, scooching so my pillow was right in the small of my back, and commenced staring at my laptop screen. My phone vibrated on the dresser, but I didn’t want to get up. Shani would have to wait.
Wait for what? For me to stare at my empty inbox, expecting Zoe’s reply to pop up? Like that was going to happen. I’d said it’d been six months since she’d replied to any of my e-mails, but it felt longer. Maybe it had been longer. Maybe it had been longer than I’d even want to admit to myself. God, had it been a year?
The phone buzzed again. I ignored it again. I guess that, in a nutshell, was the difference between Shani and Zoe. I liked Shani. Called her my BFF when I was feeling it. Hung out with her and had sleepovers at her house. Shared pizza and locker space and gas money with her.
But she wasn’t my best friend. She wasn’t Zoe.
Zoe and I had grown up together. Literally. My birthday was July 31 and hers, August 1. Our moms were next-door neighbors and best friends and, once upon a time, did everything together. Including pregnancy. They had morning sickness together, ate loads of greasy food together, talked about epidurals and episiotomies and all that gross-out stuff together, and even went into labor on the same day. But since my mom had already had one baby, I came quicker. Or at least that’s how Mom put it.
Zoe and I bonded in the hospital nursery and didn’t stop until all the craziness between our parents went down and her family moved away three years ago. As if moving could erase what had happened between Zoe and Grayson. As if moving could kill a lifelong friendship.
In a lot of ways, I blamed Zoe’s parents for how much worse Grayson became. When Zoe was around, he was a lot more relaxed. She understood him. She didn’t make him feel weird. She didn’t make him feel anxious about feeling anxious. She didn’t expect him to ever be anything other than what or who he was. She was better than me in that respect. Because, after she left, I had all kinds of expectations about him, none of them anything he could ever live up to.
I also blamed Zoe’s parents for the fact that I lost my two best friends for no good reason. But everyone was too busy worrying about Grayson to care about that.
After Zoe’s parents left, taking her with them, Grayson’s anxiety went through the roof. His OCD spun out of control, like nothing any of us had ever seen before. He could barely function, and all he could think about was rocks and counting and germs and weird stuff that had kind of always been there, but not nearly as bad. Before, he’d been a kid who did some obsessive stuff. Afterward, he was just plain obsessive. And it was totally their fault. It’s not like what Grayson did was that bad. He was in love with their daughter. So what?
The last time I saw Zoe, she was streaking out the back of her parents’ minivan toward my yard, where I was standing, unabashedly watching, hoping that her parents would see how they were breaking my heart, too, and maybe change their minds. Her parents were occupied talking to a guy in coveralls, a moving van rumbling in idle at the curb.
“Here, Ken, take this,” Zoe had said, her face slick with tears and her nose plugged. She shoved a tiny rectangular piece of paper into my palm—her school photo, with her new address scrawled across the back. “I’ll write as soon as I set up a secret e-mail, okay?”
Her dad had noticed her standing in our yard and began shouting for her. “Zoe! Get in the van. We’re leaving.”
“Okay,” I whispered, nodding, my own chin quivering.
“Zoe! Dammit, get off that lawn!”
Zoe glanced back at the minivan, where both of her parents were staring daggers out the windshield at us, and then quickly wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug. Almost immediately the minivan horn blared, and I could feel her shoulders jump and tense. “Don’t forget me,” she whispered. “And don’t let Grayson forget me.”
“Never,” I whispered back. “Don’t forget us, either, okay?”
“I couldn’t if I tried,” she said, and then turned and ran for the van, which had begun pulling away from the curb before she even had the back door all the way shut. I watched as it pulled past our house, Zoe’s parents’ faces grim and eyes set firmly on the road ahead.
Just after the car passed our driveway, Zoe turned around in her seat, staring at me through the back window. Slowly she held up one hand, her fingers slightly curled in, and waved. I held up mine in return.
And when the van turned the corner and out of sight, I sat on the curb and cried, remembering a million days playing with our dolls under a sheet stretched across Zoe’s picnic table. A million afternoons spent painting each other’s fingernails, because neither of us was good with our left hand. A million sleepovers. A million board games. A million times we’d promised to go to college together and see the world together and be best friends forever and ever. And even though we had all of that… it still wasn’t enough.
My dad had sat on the curb next to me, and I’d leaned into him.
“Maybe you’ll see her again someday,” he’d said, putting his arm around my shoulder and pulling me in. “You never know.”
I’d shaken my head pitifully. “They’re moving to California. That’s so far away. I’ll never see her again.”
Dad seemed to consider this, then patted my head and said, “The world gets a lot smaller the older you get. Never say never.” And he’d gotten up and gone inside the house to help Mom coax Grayson into a bath, a process that could take hours on a high-stress day like that one.
And I’d stayed on the curb and felt sorry for myself, staring at Zoe’s photo and sniffling, repeating under my breath, I won’t forget you, Zo. Never say never.
My phone buzzed again, jarring me out of my memory, but this time it kept buzzing—not a text but an incoming call. I groaned and set the laptop next to my pillow, then got up and grabbed the phone off my dresser. Shani and her guy problems.
But when I looked, the caller ID displayed a number I didn’t recognize. “Hello?”
“Kendra? It’s Bryn.”
I paused. Why would Bryn Mallom be calling me? Other than in Advanced Calculus class, we never talked. Ever. Bryn was one of those girls you talked to only when you absolutely had to. Her arms were always bug-bitten and her clothes dirty and out of style. She was chunky, and she was always in trouble for something. When we were growing up, the boys called her Bryn Bubblebutt, and Ryan Addleson once made her cry when he told the class that his dad had arrested her mom for drunk driving the night before. Probably being picked on didn’t do wonders for her personality, but on top of being an easy target, Bryn was kind of a bitch, so people didn’t feel very bad when they were mean to her. And almost all of us avoided talking to her at all costs.
But lately I’d had reasons to talk to Bryn. And they weren’t good reasons.
“I got your number from Shani,” she said. “We need to talk.”
I squeezed my eyes shut and massaged the bridge of my nose with two fingers. I’d have to remember to thank Shani for sharing my number with the most obnoxious girl on earth. “Um, I’m kind of in the middle of something, Bryn,” I said. “Can we talk in calc tom—”
“It’s important,” she said. “It’s about the calc final.”
“What about it?” I asked, thinking, I should never have started talking to Bryn in the first place. That’s where I went wrong. Nothing good ever comes from hanging out with Bryn Mallom. “We’ve still got three weeks.”
“I heard Mrs. Reading talking to Mr. Floodsay about it today when I was picking up my tardy slip. They know.”
My heart thrummed, one time, hard, in my chest. I swallowed, but it felt like a wad of peanut butter was lodged in my throat. I swallowed again, my mind reeling for something to say, and could almost instantly feel cold sweat prick up across the backs of my shoulders. My eyes landed on my laptop screen, which was still pulled up to my e-mail account. No new messages.
“Hello? Are you there?”
“Yeah,” I said at last. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, Bryn.”
“Uh, yeah, actually, there is, Kendra. Mr. Floodsay said something about searching lockers tomorrow, starting with Chub’s. I don’t know about you, but I find that kinda worrisome.”
“So?” Bryn’s sarcastic voice was really rubbing me the wrong way. “Chub’s not dumb. I seriously doubt he’s leaving evidence in his locker.” Coming out of my mouth, the words sounded so sure, but in my mind I was freaking out. The truth was Chub was just dumb enough to totally leave evidence in his locker.
“I hope you’re right,” she said, then sighed, her breath barreling into the phone. “But you’re probably not. They’re going to figure it out. And when they do, we’re all in really big trouble. Especially you.”
After my conversation with Bryn, I went downstairs to feel out what Mom knew. Surely if the school had figured something out, they would have called Mom immediately, so if I went downstairs and she was happily making a Welcome Home, Grayson dinner, I’d know Bryn was just being her typical dramatic self and I was safe. If I went downstairs and Mom was canceling my college savings account, I’d know the shit had, as they say, hit the fan. And hard.
She was doing neither. Instead, she was sitting on the couch cross-legged, a book open in her lap and earphones clamped down over her head. She smiled and waved at me with her pencil when I walked by, then announced in a slow, measured voice, “Dov’é il bagno?”
My heart slowed down. I wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs. If she was calmly practicing her Italian, there was a good chance I was safe. I peeked into the kitchen and saw a pot of something bubbling on the stove, and Grayson sitting at the table, lining up coins in neat little rows in front of him—one of his two favorite pastimes (the other being looking at, talking about, arranging, gathering, and basically knowing everything there is to know about rocks).
“How long’s she been doing that?” he asked. He slid a nickel into the “nickel line.”
“It’s one of her New Year’s resolutions,” I said, leaning my hip against the doorframe and watching his hands. Fffp! A quarter in its spot. Fffp! Fffp! Two dimes, smooth as butter.
I couldn’t count how many times I’d watched Grayson do this. When I was little, I used to wait until he was finished and then run up beside him and brush my hand through the lines just to mess them up. It made him cry and his face always got beet-red and I thought it was funny. But by the time we were ten and thirteen and he was spending sometimes four hours a day lining up his coins and pulling out wads of his own hair in frustration because he couldn’t get them perfect, it wasn’t funny anymore. I spent a lot of those nights sitting next to him with a ruler in my hand, helping him move coins such minuscule degrees I couldn’t even see the movement. Is this good, Gray? Does this make you happy?
“She’s learning Italian,” I continued. “Dad told her he’ll take her anywhere in the world she wants to go for their twenty-fifth anniversary next year. I guess she wants to go to Italy.”
“They’re going away next year?” he asked. Fffp! Fffp! Fffp!
“That’s the plan,” I said. “I’ll be away at college and you’ll be…” I trailed off when his eyes lifted to meet mine, his curled fingers frozen over the coins.
He’d be… what? Cured? Living on his own? Not likely. He’d still be there, moving pennies around on the kitchen table and muttering about feldspars and micas and pyroxenes. And there was no way Mom would feel comfortable leaving for a week, with the thought of Grayson being locked in a compulsion and unable to leave the bathtub or get a drink of water or get out of bed. We locked eyes for a moment, all the things we hadn’t talked about since Zoe left fluttering between us like dark and dusty moths.
We used to talk about everything. Nothing went unshared. So why couldn’t we talk about this? Why did we pretend that his illness didn’t exist? Was it because we were both still reeling over what happened with Zoe? Was it because I was too resentful to let him in again? Or had we just given up?
He shrugged, looked back down, and said, “Doesn’t matter,” and my whole body froze at the weird, defeated tone of his voice.
“Sure it matters,” I said, trying to sound light, trying to protect him, as I had since I could remember, from the humiliation of being himself. The guy who blamed himself for driving a whole family of best friends away. The guy who made my parents cry. The guy who interrupted all our lives and couldn’t just hop in the car to grab a burger, ever. The guy who held us all hostage, without even meaning to. I knew he hated being that guy, even as his brain forced him to keep doing it. “I’m sure they’ll figure something out. I’ll come home from college that week or something. We’ll have the place to ourselves. It’ll be like old times. I’ll make the pizzas; you’ll choose the movies.” The only thing missing will be Zoe, I almost finished, but decided against it, knowing what even the mention of Zoe’s name did to Grayson’s anxiety level. Like the time I’d asked him if he’d heard from her and he’d spent the rest of the night picking up the phone hundreds of times to make sure the dial tone was working.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.” But he was only looking at his coins, switching two pennies for reasons that would never make sense to anyone but him, and leaning close to the table to gaze at them from a different angle. Fffp. Gaze. Fffp.
“You still like jalapeños and cream cheese on your pizza?”
He shrugged. “They don’t serve much of that in treatment.”
I took a breath. Tried again. “Remember that time you and Brock ate that superlarge with triple jalapeños and then Brock drank that entire two-liter of root beer and you and his mom ended up having to take him to the ER because his stomach was burning so bad?”
Grayson didn’t look up from his coins, but his mouth twitched into a smile. “That was pretty funny. I kept telling him I could see an alien head moving around under the front of his hospital gown.”
We were both smiling now. “And when they brought you home, Dad gave Brock an ice pack and told him to brace himself for the pizza’s reappearance in the morning.”
Grayson laughed out loud. “I forgot about that.”
Mom’s voice floated in from the other room: “Paria Inglese?”
I shifted uncomfortably as the moment turned back to awkward, and when the urge to dash over and swipe my hand across the table where Grayson sat got to be too much, I turned and went back up to my bedroom.
Between Bryn’s phone call and Grayson’s sad coin arranging and my fear of what awaited me at school, not to mention never getting a response from Zoe, I could no more sleep than run a marathon in my bathrobe. Instead, I sat up through the night, listening to Dad close the house up, the soft bumps and creaks of everyone moving around in their bedrooms. Then I just lay there in the silence, until the sky began to lighten again, staring out the window and wondering what I would do if Bryn was right and Chub had been stupid enough to store evidence in his locker.
And the thought must have etched itself into my brain, because morning had come and I’d gone through all the motions of getting myself to school, yet there I was, sitting in Hunka (short for Hunka Junka, the name Shani and I had lovingly given the blue-and-rust Oldsmobile I’d inherited when my grandfather died) in the school parking lot, still wondering. But I knew that even if I sat there and thought about it for the next twenty-four hours, I’d never come up with a good answer. If Chub left evidence in his locker, I was busted. Plain and simple.
The first bell had rung, and then the second. But still my legs didn’t want to move. I was so afraid of what awaited me in that school.
But I finally told myself that the last thing I needed was a tardy, because then I’d have to stop by the attendance office on my way in, and Mrs. Reading’s office was next to it, which meant Mrs. Reading was usually hanging around right inside, and she would probably take one look at my guilty face and call district security to haul me off to juvie or something.
God, irrational, I know, but I was in an irrational place.
Before the third bell rang, I took two deep breaths, exhaled them with a “You can do this, Kendra,” and pulled myself out of Hunka, yanking my backpack by one strap and dragging it along behind me.
There was hardly anyone going into the building now. Almost everybody was already inside, getting last-minute stuff out of the lockers and reporting to first period. I wondered if the others knew. If Bryn had called any of them last night as well. If I wasn’t the only one walking in on leaden legs with a brainful of knotted black squiggles.
I pushed through the front doors and stood on the rug inside the school vestibule. My mouth tasted salty, and my palms felt slick, and I could feel every nerve ending in the bottoms of my feet.
This is it, I thought. This is where I find out how bad it really is. Either everything will be cool… or I might actually die of fear. And then I had the thought Is this what Grayson feels like all the time? That made me wish I’d gotten out the ruler and helped him with his coins last night.
But I had only a second to feel it before panic set in completely: Chub Hartley, his wide face pale and quivering, was standing between Mrs. Reading and Mr. Floodsay in the attendance-office vestibule.
Mr. Floodsay was talking, animatedly waving a sheaf of papers in his hand, frowning so hard his glasses weren’t even touching the bridge of his nose. I wanted to keep walking. Willed my feet to move. But I was rooted to my spot, barely even registering it when Artie Morris hit me in the back with the door and shoved past me, saying, “Get out of the doorway, ’tard.”
All I could do was watch. And suppose. And worry. And watch and suppose and worry some more. And then some more. A loop of awful.
And when Mr. Floodsay put his hand on Chub’s back and turned, guiding Chub into Mrs. Reading’s office, I knew it was only a matter of time before all the horrible stuff I had worried about would come true.
Here are the things I thought about during what would probably be the longest day of my life:
I really hated Chub Hartley for how stupid he was. But I hated myself for being even more stupid than Chub Hartley.
If God somehow got me out of this, I would do something huge, like… I don’t know… like put out one of those statues of the Virgin Mary on my front lawn and garden around it, like my friend Lia’s family does. Or build a wing on a church someday. Or maybe even both.
If Chub somehow kept me from getting in trouble, I would hang out at his house a few times, like he was always asking me to do, regardless of how stupid he was and how much he smelled like mildew. But I wouldn’t go to prom with him, no matter how many times he asked. There was a limit to grace.
I sat through my classes, feeling jumpy and like my palms were vibrating and my eyeballs sweating. My knee pumped up and down nervously under my desk, and I bit my nails. Every time a classroom door opened or a teacher said my name, things got gray and grainy, and I had to remind myself to take a breath.
In calc, everyone was eyeing me. Darian poked me in the back with his pencil eraser when Mr. Floodsay turned his back to us, but I refused to turn around to see what he wanted. I had a pretty good feeling I knew what it was anyway. He wanted what three-fourths of the students in that class (and half of the students in the third-period class, and all but one student in the seventh-period class) wanted: for me to tell them everything was going to be all right, which I, at the moment, could definitely not do.
By the time I got to lunch, I was adding nausea and ringing ears to my list of stress maladies.
Things were only made worse when Bryn stopped by my table, setting her tray down on top of my hand. Her face was set in hard lines.
“Chub got sent home,” she said. “Word is he’s expelled.”
I pulled my hand out from under her tray and used my forefinger to push it toward the edge of the table. “I’m eating,” I said by way of response. (I wasn’t. I was moving my orange chicken and rice around on the tray and trying to keep from hurling under the table.)
Bryn’s eyes went slitty, and she cocked her head to one side. “Well, while you eat, think about this: If they sent Chub home, it’s probably because he gave them all the information they wanted.”
I picked up my fork and stabbed a piece of chicken nonchalantly, hoping Bryn would just go away… like a dissipating fart. Which, now that I thought about it, was the best possible way a person could describe Bryn Mallom. “Or he gave them none,” I said, shoving the chicken into my mouth and chewing, despite the protests of my stomach. I offered her a confident smile, even though on the inside I was thinking, Oh, God! He told them everything!
Fortunately, Shani and Lia showed up then, carrying fruit plates and biscuits—an odd combination, even for Shani, who liked barbecue sauce on her waffles and easily had the weirdest eating habits of anyone I’d ever known. They set their trays on the table, glaring at Bryn as they slid into their chairs.
Bryn glanced at them, her face losing some of its cockiness now that we weren’t alone. Shani and Lia really didn’t have much of anything to do with Bryn, ever, but Lia’s boyfriend was Ryan Addleson, and even after all the years since Bryn’s mom’s DUI, Bryn was still afraid of him.
She picked up her tray and swayed a little, looking as if she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to stay or leave or fall through the floor. Finally, she tossed her hair over one shoulder, turned her back on Shani and Lia, and pursed her lips at me.
“Just so you know,” she hissed, “I’m not Chub, and I don’t have a crush on you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Go away, Bryn,” I said, and poked another piece of rubbery orange chicken into my mouth. Shani and Lia both snickered. My tongue felt fat and mutinous.
But everything on the inside of me said I probably really could use Bryn on my side.
After Bryn left, Shani leaned across the table. “So it’s true that Chub got expelled?” she whispered. “Skylar Tomason was sketchy on the details, but she was saying this morning that by tomorrow half the school is going to be expelled.”
Lia was nodding furiously as she poked a strawberry into her mouth. “I heard it, too, in French. Somebody was saying the school called the cops.”
“The cops?” I said, looking at Lia amusedly. Even I wasn’t scared enough to believe the police would get involved. “Who said that?”
She shook her head and swallowed. “I don’t know. I just heard it.”
“That’s kind of stupid,” Shani said, biting into a biscuit. “Unless it’s, like, drugs or something. Chub Hartley is hardly a drug dealer.” I looked down at my orange chicken and wished I had their appetites. But the two pieces I’d eaten for show with Bryn were sloshing around in my stomach disagreeably as it was. I set my fork down.
“I can’t help it,” Lia said. “It’s just what I heard. And I heard that a lot of really smart students are caught up in it.”
You have no idea, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud. I’d never told Shani and Lia what I’d been up to, mainly because they didn’t have calc and it didn’t really seem like that big of a deal when it started, and by the time it escalated into something way big, I didn’t know how to bring it up with them. I would’ve told Zoe about it, but then again Zoe wasn’t answering my e-mails.
Also, Zoe never expected me to be perfect.
But listening to Bryn and then to all the rumors, my earlier thoughts that maybe God or Chub would save me were looking more ridiculous by the moment. I was going to be caught. And then everything I’d worked so hard for would be over.
I took a long sip of my soda, and when I looked up again, Shani was staring at me hard, her fork holding a cube of pineapple an inch or so in front of her lips.
“What?” I asked, attempting a lighthearted laugh to offset my cheeks, which felt like they must have been giving off steam, they were so hot. “Do I have a sesame seed in my teeth or something?”
“You sick?” she asked. “You look weird.”
“She’s right,” Lia said. “And you’re not eating.”
I pasted on a smile, my mind racing to come up with an explanation. Anything to throw them off the current conversation. “Grayson’s back,” I said, offering up my brother as an excuse for why things weren’t right with me, a tool I’d learned to use to get out of sticky situations since I was about seven. Of course, most of the time it wasn’t an excuse. Brothers like Grayson tended to ruin a lot of school days. And birthday parties. And Christmases (especially Christmases). And good moods.
“Oh,” Shani said, turning back to her lunch. “Is he still nutso?”
Lia smirked. “Yeah, does he still count his cereal?”
“Did he bring home any of the little green germ monsters who lived in his closet at Camp Crazypants?”
Over the years, I’d vented to Lia and Shani about Grayson more times than I could count. And, sure, I’d made some pretty snide remarks about him behind his back. Sometimes it was the only way to keep from blowing up at him at home. Sometimes it was just a way to clear my own mind. Sometimes it was just a way to break the tension and get a laugh.
But even though I know they only thought it was okay because I’d done it so many times before, I kind of hated it when Shani and Lia made fun of him. I could do it because he was my brother and I was the one who had to deal with him. When they said mean things about him, it just felt mean. But I tried not to act upset by it. I didn’t need that battle on top of everything else.
And I guess some part of me believed he deserved it in a way. Like, people wouldn’t make fun of him if he’d simply act normal every once in a while. If he’d just be the Grayson who played CSI with Zoe and me down in the creek behind Zoe’s house. Or the Grayson who ate superlarge jalapeño-and-cream-cheese pizzas with Brock and who stuck an alarm clock under my ear.
But, honestly, I didn’t think that Grayson even existed anymore. I hadn’t seen that Grayson in so long. That Grayson had fallen into the black hole Zoe left behind. For three years he’d been scrabbling at the sides of that hole—sometimes coming oh-so-close to getting out—but he always fell back in. It was like watching someone you love be buried alive.
I waved my hand dismissively at Shani’s and Lia’s questions. “I haven’t really talked to him since he came back,” I said. “I’ve mostly been avoiding everyone.”
“Speaking of avoiding,” Lia said, holding up her left hand to block that she was pointing to something at the far end of the cafeteria with the fork in her right hand. Both Shani and I looked toward the doors, where Tyson, Shani’s belligerent boyfriend, was entering with his muscles-for-brains crowd of friends, including Tommy, my jerk ex-boyfriend.
Shani made a face. “Whatever. Idiots.”
“You guys still fighting?” I asked.
“Hello, check your texts every now and then,” Shani answered, wadding up her napkin disgustedly and tossing it onto her plate. “Ew. I can’t look at him. I just lost my appetite.”
“They broke up last night,” Lia said. “Again.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Duh. Because you don’t read your texts, like, ever.” Shani glared at me and then took a deep breath, her face softening. “Don’t worry about it. I know you’ve got family issues right now.”
I let out a puff of air. “When don’t I?” I murmured, even though I knew that my “family issues” were the least of my worries. For a change, my life wasn’t being dominated by Grayson’s problems. But it was just easier… and safer… to let my friends believe that was what was going on with me.
All three of us were silent for a minute—Lia scraping the last bits of fruit from her plate, Shani tearing little pieces off her napkin and dropping them into her soda can, and me gazing at the muscles-for-brains gang. Three of them—including Tommy and Tyson—could be in big trouble, too, if Bryn was right.
When Tyson caught my gaze and nodded in my direction, his face serious and determined, my hands seized the sides of my tray.
“I should go,” I said. “I’ve got to turn in a paper.”
And before either of my friends could say a word, I was gone. My uneaten orange chicken and rice were at the bottom of the giant gray wastebasket by the kitchen conveyor belt, and the two pieces I had eaten were floating in the toilet water of stall three in the science hallway before Tyson could even get to our table.
It happened right after the final bell rang. I rounded the corner by the library, my plan being to grab my jacket and get the hell out of Dodge and put an end to this rotten day. Go home. Try to eat something. Get some sleep, hopefully. Figure out how I was going to get through tomorrow. How I was going to stay under the radar.
But Mrs. McKinley, my English teacher, was pegging something to the bulletin board by the library entrance and caught me.
“Oh, hey, Kendra,” she said around a mouthful of thumbtacks (“Oh, fey, Fendra!”). She pulled them out and dropped them into a pocket on the side of her flowy brown skirt, which looked as though it had come straight out of the back of a Volkswagen bus. “I was going to talk to you about tonight’s NHS meeting.”
“Oh,” I said, inwardly cursing. I’d totally forgotten about this month’s National Honor Society meeting, which couldn’t be at a worse time.
“I was thinking,” Mrs. McKinley continued, which must have meant that my fear wasn’t visible on my face, “as head of the community outreach committee, maybe you should do a little presentation at tonight’s meeting about your plans for the rest of spring semester. Nothing fancy or formal, of course, but I know you have that program with the preschoolers coming up and—”
“I can’t,” I blurted out. And then I tried to paste on my best goody-two-shoes smile. “I’m sorry, Mrs. McKinley, but…” I paused, feeling a brief pang of guilt for using my brother twice in one day, but then figured I had nothing else. I couldn’t tell her I had to stay away from the school because I might find myself in huge trouble by morning. For the first time, I realized that if I was found out, I would definitely be kicked out of National Honor Society. Worse, Mrs. McKinley would know what I’d done and would be so disappointed in me. And she wouldn’t be the only one. Probably the whole world would be disappointed in me. The thought made tears spring to my eyes, but I cleared my throat and said, “My brother came home from treatment yesterday, and I want to be home for him tonight. I’m going to miss the meeting.”
Her face fell momentarily, but then she smiled understandingly. Mrs. McKinley had had Grayson for American lit his sophomore year. She used to let him file papers for her in the back of the room while she was lecturing; filing calmed him. Anything regimented calmed him.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll have Alison Wells do it, then.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“And tell Grayson I said hello and I hope he’s feeling better.”
I nodded and moved around her, heading for the science hallway, where my locker was.
The crowd in the hallways had thinned out. Locker doors were slamming, and the squeak of the west entrance opening over and over again filled the air. I turned the corner, looked toward my locker, and stopped dead in my tracks.
There, at my locker, was the custodian everyone called Black Lung, his giant key ring jingling and clanging, metal against metal. He poked a key into my combination dial and pulled the door open, then stepped back.
Mrs. Reading, who had been standing behind him, stepped forward and began pulling things off the shelves, letting them drop with echoing slaps onto the floor. Mr. Floodsay, down on one knee, sifted through my stuff as it landed.
For a minute, it was as if nothing existed in this world but those three people and the slap, slap, slap of my books and notebooks on the tile. Everything else just sort of faded away—the squeak of the west entrance door, the chatter of people on their cell phones, the metallic rattle of lockers shutting, and the shuffle of feet going up and down the stairways.
My arms hung slack at my sides, and my mouth opened as I tried to catch my breath. Someone had sold me out. Chub, probably. Or maybe Bryn. Could’ve been anyone, really. I knew they wouldn’t find anything—I wasn’t that stupid—but the fact that they were even looking meant I had reason to worry. Okay, to panic.
This is it, my mind kept repeating. This is where you get busted. All they have to do is turn their heads and they’ll see you here. You’ll get dragged into Mrs. Reading’s office, and it’ll be all over.
But before any of them could turn their heads, I was suddenly slammed back into reality. Literally. By Bryn, who came barreling out of the ladies’ room so fast she rammed into me, knocking me backward onto my butt with a resounding “Oof!”
Bryn had also fallen to a knee, and she glanced back at me over her shoulder while she got up, glaring at me reproachfully. Neither one of us said anything. We didn’t need to.
I told you so, her eyes said.
I know, mine said back. I know you did.
She got up and raced for the west entrance. I heard the door squeak, and then it was just me and maybe six other students in the hallway.
I couldn’t face them. No way. I was one of Mrs. Reading’s “star pupils.” Whenever she wanted to make an example of how well her school was doing, she’d inevitably turn to Macy Nastrom, Ralph Storius, and me.
Facing Mrs. Reading right now would somehow be worse than facing Mom and Dad. Because Mrs. Reading had never seen me do anything wrong before. She would be more than shocked and angry—she would be confused.
Hell, I was confused. How had I even gotten into a mess this big?
I scrambled to my feet, as quickly as Bryn had done, ignoring the sore spot on my butt where it had struck the tile, then darted back around the corner and down the stairs to the lower science hallway. I took the U of hallways as fast as I could without running, and plowed my way through half a dozen cheerleaders up the stairs at the other end of the school.
And then I really did start to run. Right out the east entrance, around the front of the building, and over to the side where Hunka waited for me. I was barely in the seat before I had the car started and was speeding away from the school.
I didn’t realize until I was out of the parking lot and halfway down the highway that I’d left my backpack on.
I pulled over on the side of the outer road and parked. Not next to the highway, of course. If you parked on the highway side of the quarry and a cop drove by and saw your car, he’d come get you and threaten you with trespassing (“This time I mean it, you two. I won’t come out here again!”).
But if you took the outer road around to the far side of the quarry, where the road was nestled between the enormous piles of rock and a grassy, untouched hill, nobody would bother you. You could leave your car there, climb the tall chain-link fence, and drop to the edge of the pit on the other side with nobody ever being the wiser.
I’d done it enough times with Grayson to know.
When we were little and the quarry owners threatened to sue my parents if they had to come out one more time to unlock the gate after hours so we could retrieve my counting brother, my parents began parking on the secluded side of the outer road and lifting me so I could climb over the fence instead. I was nimble, and they knew Grayson would come with me, even if they didn’t know what it took for me to get him to leave.
As soon as my feet hit the ground on the other side of the fence, I’d always stand at the top of the pit, feeling like the queen of the world, hearing the swish of unseen cars on the highway and feeling the chalky breeze blow my bangs around on my forehead. I’d stand there and close my eyes, inhaling the earthy scent of the quarry, tinged with motor oil and exhaust emanating from the bulldozers padlocked in their sheds, and for that brief period of time, I totally understood my brother. We were one, both of us wanting to capture the perfection and beauty of the earth’s crust around us—both in our unique ways. There was something exciting about the quarry for both of us. I wanted to own it, to master it; Grayson wanted to dissolve into it.
My parents would let me stand there for a minute before they’d begin hissing at me to find my brother.
Only then would I open my eyes and begin searching the piles of rocks for a familiar scrap of clothing or the glint of the dying sunlight off a pair of glasses somewhere deep in the shadows below.
And the spell would be broken. I was no longer queen of the quarry. I was the parent, tugging on his shirt and promising him things if he would come up to the top with me; my older brother was the child.
For me, Newman Quarry always felt like broken spells and frustration and harsh, ugly reality. Our family’s personal hiding place.
Which, I guess, was why it made so much sense for me to go there, even though I never had gone on my own before. My backpack was still strapped on and pinned between my back and the driver’s seat, the image of Mr. Floodsay rifling through my writing journal and history books fresh in my mind.
I don’t think I was intentionally going there. Probably, had you asked me, I would have told you I was going home. And then, when I passed the turnoff into my neighborhood, I might have said I was “going for a drive.”
I don’t even think I realized I was pulling off the highway onto the outer road until I’d rolled around to the hilly side of the quarry, my tires crackling on the dirt, which got rockier and rockier as the road became more secluded. I hit a pothole and Hunka’s glove compartment door dropped open. I reached over without even thinking—Hunka’s glove box opened on its own a hundred times a week—and closed it.
I pulled off the road, right in the same spot where my parents had parked the minivan a million times before.
And I sat there. I squeezed my eyes shut, hard, then opened them wide. No tears. Just… numbness.
Weird. I was expecting tears. Expected my eyes, like Bryn’s, to be tired and swollen and red, maybe a hitch in my breath as I berated myself over and over again for how stupid I’d been. I expected… something, at least.
I unsnapped my seat belt, leaned forward, and shimmied out of my backpack, tossing it into the backseat. I reached into my front pocket and palmed my cell phone, which had buzzed three times while I was driving. I glanced at the screen—it was Shani—and then tossed it, too, into the backseat with my backpack. Then I opened the driver’s door and got out.
For a few minutes I stood, my fingers laced through the holes in the chain link, resting my face against the inside of my right elbow, which hung at face level.
“What now?” I breathed into the hollow of my chest. Here I was, three weeks before finals… four weeks before graduation… and I was about to lose everything. “What do I do now?”
No answer came to me, but the gooseflesh that popped out on my arms spurred me to action anyway. Ignoring the spring chill creeping in around me, I moved my fingers from the holes they were in to holes much higher, gripped tightly, stuffed a toe into a hole at about knee height, and leaped up, pulling myself most of the way to the top of the fence in one motion.
Even though it’d been months since I’d last been here, the climb was like second nature to me. Fingers here, toes there. Watch the sharp, clipped edges of the fence at the top. Swing over the right leg, balance, swing over the left leg, balance, and then push off. But not too far—you didn’t want to tumble, ass over teakettle, as my dad always used to say, down the quarry wall.
Excerpted from Perfect Escape by Brown, Jennifer Copyright © 2012 by Brown, Jennifer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jennifer Brown writes and lives in the Kansas City, Missouri, area with her family. She is the author of Bitter End and Hate List, which received three starred reviews and was selected as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a VOYA Perfect Ten, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
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