Read an Excerpt
By Alyson Noël
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Alyson Noël
All rights reserved.
They say there are five stages of grief:
Up until last year I didn't know there were lists like that. I had no idea people actually kept track of these things. But still, even if I had known, I never would've guessed that just a few days before my fourteenth birthday I'd be stuck in stage one.
But then you never think that kind of bad news will knock on your door. Because those kinds of stories, the kind that involve a stone-faced newscaster interrupting your favorite TV show to report a crucial piece of "late breaking news," are always about someone else's unfortunate family. They're never supposed to be about yours.
But what made it even worse is that I was the first to know.
Well, after the cops.
And, of course, Zoë.
Not to mention the freak who was responsible for the whole mess in the first place.
And even though they didn't exactly say anything other than "May we please speak to your parents?" It was the regret on those two detectives' faces, the defeat in their weary eyes, that pretty much gave it all away.
It was after school and I was home alone, trying to keep to my standard cookie-eating, TV-watching, homework-avoiding routine, even though I really couldn't concentrate on any of it. I mean, normally at 4:10 P.M. both my parents would still be at work, my sister, Zoë, would be out with her boyfriend, and I would be sitting cross-legged on the floor, wedged between the couch and the coffee table, dunking Oreos into a tall glass of cold milk until my teeth were all black, the milk was all sopped up, and my stomach was all swollen and queasy.
So I guess in a way I was just trying to emulate all of that, go through the motions, and pretend everything was normal. That my parents weren't really out searching for Zoë, and that I wasn't already in denial long before I had good reason to be.
But now, almost a year later, I can honestly say that I'm able to check off stages one through three, and am settling into stage five. Though sometimes, in the early morning hours, when the house is quiet and my parents are still asleep, I find myself regressing toward four. Especially now that September's here, putting us just days away from the one-year anniversary of the last time Zoë shimmied up the big oak tree, climbed onto my balcony, and came in through my unlocked french doors.
I remember rolling over and squinting against the morning light, watching as she pressed her index finger to her smiling lips, her short red nail like the bottom of an upside-down exclamation point, as she performed her exaggerated, cartoon-ish, stealth tiptoe through my room, out my door, and down the hall.
Sometimes now, when I think back on that day, I add a whole new scene. One where, instead of turning over and falling back to sleep, I say something important, something meaningful, something that would've let her know, beyond all doubt, just how much I loved and admired her.
But the truth is, I didn't say anything.
I mean, how was I supposed to know that was the last time I'd ever see her?CHAPTER 2
When the woman at the funeral home, the one in the long floral dress, with the frizzy french braid, asked for a picture of Zoë, my mom dropped her head in her hands and sobbed so hysterically that my dad pulled her close, clenched his jaw, and nodded firmly, as though he was already working on it.
I stared at the toe of my black Converse sneaker, noticing how the fabric was wearing thin, and wondering what that lady could possibly need a picture for. I guess it seemed like a weird request, considering how pretty much everywhere you looked in our town you'd see a picture of Zoë. And since my sister was always so elusive and hard to pin down in life, it seemed like I actually saw more of her after her disappearance than I had when she lived down the hall.
First there were the two "missing person" flyers taped to just about every available surface. One a stiff, grainy, black-and-white grabbed in a panic and copied from last year's yearbook. The other, one of Zoë's more recent headshots, depicting her as beautiful, loose, and happy, more like the sister I knew, that also included a generous reward for anyone with any information, no questions asked.
And then, as the days ticked by, her face started appearing just about everywhere — in newspapers, magazines, and nationally televised news reports. Even the makeshift memorial, built by well-wishers and propped up in front of our house, contained so many candles, poems, stuffed animals, angels, and photos of Zoë that it threatened to take over the entire street until my dad enlisted a neighbor's help and hauled it all away.
The funny thing was, Zoë had always dreamed of being a model, an actress, someone famous and admired by all. She longed for the day when she could escape our small, boring town, and go somewhere glamorous, like L.A., or New York, just someplace exciting and far from here. And so, while we were out searching, while we were busy smothering our doubt with hope, I played this kind of game in my head where I pretended that all of this was great exposure for Zoë and her future as a famous person. Like it was the ultimate casting call. And I spent those long, empty, thankless moments imagining how excited she'd be when she finally came home and saw her face plastered all across the nation.
But then later, in the mortuary, as I watched my parents make the world's most depressing arrangements, encouraged into credit card debt by the man in the stark black suit who guided them toward the most luxurious casket, the most abundant flowers, and the whitest doves — sparing no expense at her memory — I sat wide-eyed, realizing the lucrative business of loss, while wondering if my mom got the irony behind Zoë's ambition and the woman's request, and if that's why she was crying so hard.
But then, I guess there were millions of reasons to cry that day. So it's not like I had to go searching for The One.
I didn't know why that woman wanted a photo, but I doubted my dad, grief stricken and distracted, would ever remember to give her one. So after they'd signed away their savings and were headed out the door, I reached into my old blue nylon wallet, the one with the surf brand sticker still partially stuck to the front, its edges frayed and curled all around, and retrieved the photo Zoë had given me just a few weeks before, the one that showcased her large dark eyes, generous smile, high cheekbones, and long wavy, dark hair. The one she'd planned to send to the big New York and L.A. agencies.
"Here," I said, pressing it into the woman's soft, round hand, watching as she did the quick intake of breath I was so used to seeing when confronted with an image of Zoë for the very first time.
She looked at me and smiled, the fine lines around her blue eyes merging together until almost joining as one. "I'll be doing her makeup, and I want to get it just right. So, thank you —" She left that last part dangling, looking embarrassed that she knew all about my loss, but didn't know my name.
"Echo." I smiled. "My name is Echo. And you can keep the picture. Zoë would've liked that." Then I ran outside to catch up with my parents.CHAPTER 3
Zoë and Echo are Greek names, even though we're not at all Greek. Zoë means life, and Echo, well, I know you know what it means, so I'll just say that it's also a nymph who pined away for some guy named Narcissus until nothing was left but her voice. Which is something, by the way, that I would never do. You know, fade away over some guy. I mean, not even Chess Williams, the cutest guy in my class since fourth grade, is worth crumbling for. Anyway, it's basically a Greek mythology thing, and I guess that's why we got names like that. Nothing to do with nationality, and everything to do with academics.
My parents are big on academics. Which I guess is why they're both professors. And, knowing I'll risk looking like a total brainiac nerd, I'll just go ahead and admit, right now and for the record, that I'm pretty big on academics too. But Zoë? Zoë hated all that. She was beautiful, and wild, and too busy getting into trouble and sneaking out of the house to ever slow down long enough to actually finish a book. Yet she was so sweet about it, and had such uncontained enthusiasm (for everything but homework), that no one ever held a grudge or judged her too harshly.
"Life is too exhilarating to read about! You gotta get out there and live it!" she'd say, just moments before sneaking onto my balcony and down the old oak tree, as I lay in bed reading one of my numerous library-issued novels.
But I'm nothing like Zoë. I'm average, not beautiful. I mean, my hair is medium brown and kind of limp, not rich and wavy like hers. And where she had amazing dark eyes with extra-thick long lashes, mine are light hazel, which may sound nice on paper, but believe me, they're far more functional than special. And my body, well, I'm really, really hoping that the years between fourteen and sixteen will be as kind and generous to me as they were to her (though so far, I'm a couple weeks shy of fifteen and there's nothing to report). And I've definitely never been in any kind of trouble. Well, at least not the serious kind. I mean, so far my biggest offense is returning a library book two weeks late because I liked it so much I decided to read it again.
But Zoë? Well, let's just say that had she actually made it home that day, she would've been in for it big time.
"Echo?" my mom calls from the bottom of the stairs. "I'm leaving. Are you sure you don't need a ride?"
"Nope. Have a good day." I peek around my bedroom door, catching a quick glimpse of her as she heads outside before locking all three dead bolts, even though I'll be leaving in less than two minutes.
But that's how we live now, overly cautious, verging on completely paranoid. And it took a solid fifty-five minutes of carefully argued debate, during last night's meatloaf, steamed asparagus, and garlic mashed potatoes dinner to get both of my parents to let me walk to school, as opposed to getting door-to-door service from one of them.
And it's not like I'm going it alone or anything, since all I have to do is go halfway down the block to my best friend Abby's, before we both stop on the corner to pick up our other best friend, Jenay.
Though I guess it's pretty much a miracle my mom decided to go back to teaching in the first place. I mean, right after everything happened she took a sabbatical so she could stay home and "look after me." I guess my parents blamed themselves for what happened. Thinking that their busy, working lives didn't allow for the kind of constant vigilance required to protect us.
But really, how much can you actually protect someone before it turns into imprisonment? Because just a few months into it, that's exactly how I started to feel, like a prisoner in my own home. I mean, at first I thought it would be nice to spend more time with my mom, especially after what we'd all just been through, but it didn't take long before she started acting more like a warden. And all she required of me was to go to school, come straight home, not to talk too much, and never to venture past the front door without:
A valid reason and detailed explanation containing all of the whos, hows, whys, and wheres & an approximately exact ETA and ETD.
But none of that would've been so bad if I hadn't been so lonely. I mean, Abby and Jenay didn't come over nearly as much as you'd think. Mostly because their parents wouldn't let them, always mumbling some excuse about our family "needing our space during our difficult time." But I knew that wasn't the reason.
It's like when something really horrible and tragic happens, pretty much everyone starts giving you these sad, regretful looks as they slowly back away. Like our tragedy was contagious. Like our once warm and inviting home was now a place of darkness and doom, where extreme caution was clearly warranted.
So basically, all last year, when I wasn't at school, I was pretty much alone. I mean, my mom mostly stayed curled up on the couch, clad in her old blue terry cloth robe, staring blankly at the TV, tears pouring down her cheeks, while my dad lingered at work, staying later and later, and only rarely making it home before my bedtime.
And the weekends? Well, that's when they argued. Hurling accusations back and forth like blows in a boxing match, never tiring of their need to prove, once and for all, just who was more responsible for what happened to Zoë.
I used to think that tragedy brought people closer. But now, from everything I've experienced, I know it pretty much tears them apart.
Then again, all of that happened before my mom started taking her "happy pills," which enabled her to get off the couch, out of her robe, and back to work. The fighting stopped too. Only to be replaced with a flood of formality and excessive politeness, like we're all just strangers on a cruise ship, forced to eat our meals together, and act like we're interested.
And even though on the surface we seem to be doing better, the truth is my dad still "works" late, and my mom's eyes are more vacant than ever.
And as much as I miss Zoë, as much as my heart aches, as much as I'd do anything in the world just to get her back, there are times when I actually hate her too. Because this is what she's done to me. This is what she's left me with. Two broken, deeply suspicious, hollowed-out shells for parents, and the morbid curiosity of everyone I encounter.
* * *
Tucking my hair behind my ears, I grab my backpack, run down the stairs, lock all three locks, and head toward Abby's. But before I'm even halfway there, I see her heading toward me.
"Hey," she says, her long black ponytail swinging from side to side as her face breaks into a smile, exposing the blue metal braces she can't wait to get off, as her brown eyes squint against the sun.
"Am I late?" I ask, glancing at my watch, then back at her.
"I'm early. Aaron's driving me crazy, so I bailed," she says, shaking her head and rolling her eyes as we head toward the corner where we'll pick up Jenay. Abby's brother Aaron is two years younger and pretty much the bane of her otherwise extremely orderly existence.
"What's up with Aaron?" I ask.
"What isn't up with Aaron?" She shakes her head again. "He bugs me so bad, sometimes I wish he'd just disappear, never to return. Then I'd have some peace. I mean, just this morning —" Suddenly she stops walking, stops talking, and just stands there, gaping at me, her mouth hanging open, her brown eyes full of sorry and regret. "Oh God, I didn't mean —"
"It's okay," I say quickly, forcing my face to smile. "Seriously. So you were eating breakfast and ..." I loop my arm through hers, leading her toward the corner, and hopefully away from her guilt. Everyone is always apologizing to me now, and sometimes I wonder if it will ever stop.
"And there's Jenay," she says, deftly changing the subject. "Omigod, are those —? Oh man, she is so lucky! How did she talk her stepmom into buying those jeans? How?"
"Hey, you guys," Jenay says, leaning in to give each of us a hug.
But Abby's strictly business, determined to gather the facts. "I need details," she says. "How did you get those? What did you do? And will it work on my mom too?" she asks, slowly circling Jenay, her eyes coming to rest on those telltale designer back pockets, the ones with the gold embroidery that makes the whole $220 price tag seem worth it.
"Well, if you promise to get straight As, babysit my little brother every Saturday night for the rest of your life, and remain a virgin until you're old and gray, then maybe she'll get you a pair too." Jenay laughs.
"Call me when you've got that whole potty training thing handled. The last thing I need is another squirt in the eye," Abby says, maneuvering herself into the center, looping her arms through ours, and leading us toward school.
Since Abby, Jenay, and I don't share any classes, this is the last time we'll see each other until the ten-minute break between second and third periods. Which, even though technically it's only two hours away, I have to admit that right now it feels like forever.
"Okay, so everyone remembers where to go, right?" Abby asks, having deemed herself our group leader sometime back in early elementary school, when Jenay and I were too oblivious to argue or engage in any kind of power struggle.
Excerpted from Saving Zoë by Alyson Noël. Copyright © 2007 Alyson Noël. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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