“Let her go. I’ll stay.”
There are some decisions you can never unmake. You can only atone for them—or try to. During her senior year of college, Clare Michaels takes a spring break trip to Florida with three other girls, including her best friend, Lee. She’s hoping for adventure and a few stories to share back at school. Instead, a string of bad choices leads to a horrific encounter, and Lee offers herself up so that Clare can escape.
In the weeks and months that follow that fateful incident, Lee, once so dynamic and ambitious, flounders and withdraws. Clare was the only person to whom she’d ever confided about her troubled past. For Clare, that role felt like an honor—until it became a burden. Now she’s trying to make amends for her momentary selfishness by taking care of Lee—just as she’s been taking care of her high-strung mother, whose bestselling novel has been both windfall and curse. Years pass, circumstances change, and contact between Clare and Lee ebbs and flows, but the events of that night in Florida are impossible to escape. They keep dragging Clare back—forcing her to confront what really happened, and her part in it, in hopes of untangling guilt from loyalty and earning forgiveness at last . . .
“I'll Stay is a heart-pounding, addictive portrait of how one split-second choice can twist our whole lives—and how the patterns of our lives lead us to those choices. A smart, compassionate, psychological spellbinder of a book—with one of the scariest scenes you'll read anywhere that'll stay with you forever!”
--Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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We were lost and it was my fault. Again. Less than an hour ago, I was driving north on I-95 instead of south toward Daytona. Finally, I'd gotten off at the right exit but somehow I'd taken a wrong turn, and now we were idling at a stop sign in a dark intersection in a crappy neighborhood with boarded-up buildings and tiny houses with sagging porches and chain-link fences.
I glanced at Lee, sitting next to me in the passenger seat, and then in the rearview mirror. Sarah and Ducky were in the back seat, still talking about the preppy University of Georgia Sigma Chis we'd left at the bar two hours ago. I licked my sunburned lips. Lee looked out the side window. Someone, probably Ducky, opened a beer can and the sound of the pop and fizz seemed to linger in the car.
Why was I so turned around? I'd always thought of myself as being good with directions. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. Maybe I'd start driving and somehow find Eighty-Sixth Street, and I could pretend that I knew where I was all along. I glanced in the mirror again. If I said that I was lost, I'd have to listen to the grief that Sarah would undoubtedly hurl at me. Clare, you've been all over the country and yet you can't get us to a stupid house in Daytona Beach? And Ducky, who had once again had more to drink than the rest of us, would repeat everything Sarah said.
But mostly I didn't want to tell Lee and not because I was worried about grief. Or insults. Quite the opposite. She'd protect me, maybe make an excuse for me, and I was so tired of those things from her that I could scream. I rubbed my temples with my thumb and fingers. If we didn't find this house soon, if we didn't get a place to sleep, maybe a shower, maybe something else to eat, too, I didn't know what I was going to do. I couldn't stay up all night again tonight.
Sarah grabbed my headrest and pulled herself forward. "Oh, my God. What are you doing? Why are we stopped?"
"We're lost!" Ducky shrieked.
"Again?" Sarah asked. "But I told Donny we'd be there an hour ago! What if he left? I'm not sleeping in this car again tonight."
We planned to crash with Donny, Sarah's friend from high school who now lived here in Daytona. He'd been her school's drug dealer. Not bad drugs, she'd said, just regular drugs like pot. And maybe speed, she wasn't sure. But it was only for one night. Then tomorrow we'd make our way to Fort Lauderdale, where we'd stay with friends from our sorority house before heading back north to school on Saturday.
Because of money already spent on the Outer Banks condo we abandoned yesterday, after four days of cold and rain, this was the best we could do. Now we all agreed that we had to be careful and make sure our limited funds lasted the rest of vacation.
"Relax." Lee flipped the switch and bright, bold light flooded the car. She reached for the map and opened it on her lap.
I glanced at Ducky, sitting forward in her seat, her trademark pearls dangling under her chin and her pink sweatshirt just a shade too bright in the car light. She grinned at me, her big blue eyes squinting, and then took a long drink from her beer.
Sarah, whose curly red hair had exploded into a bird's nest with the sudden humidity, barked, "Who would've ever guessed that you were so bad with directions, Clare. I mean, what the hell?"
"It's hard to see in the dark and rain." I shifted in my seat. Sand was stuck to the bottom of my thighs, under my fingernails, between my toes, and the back of my neck was sunburned from when I fell asleep on the beach today.
When Lee turned to me, I frowned and looked away. Our car — a blue Ford Thunderbird that Lee had named "The Travelodge" and that Sarah's mom let us borrow for the week — was filled with empty Miller Lite and Tab cans, Egg McMuffin wrappers, suitcases, wet towels, backpacks, bathing suits, sleeping bags, pillows, a giant gallon tub of extra crunchy peanut butter, and a large box of two hundred and fifty Fig Newtons that we'd taken from our sorority house commissary before we left.
"Maybe we should've stayed in North Carolina." Sarah sighed. "Even if it was too cold and that condo smelled like cat urine and old people."
"It's not my fault that my aunt's place smelled so bad," Ducky said.
Sarah sighed again. "No one's blaming you —"
"But we couldn't stay there!" Ducky said. "It was going to rain for the rest of the week! I need a tan. We gotta have tans for the end of our senior year."
I couldn't have cared less about tans. I turned off the interior light and stepped on the gas, throwing Ducky and Sarah, gasping, back into their seats. Lee gripped the dashboard with both hands. Water from the puddles slapped the passenger side window as I turned the corner and kept going.
Lee made a circle on the foggy windshield. Then she leaned over and made a circle for me, too, and now I could see a bit better. She said, "You should turn here."
I didn't want to turn. I didn't want her to be right. I was still angry about what had happened at the bar, and I wanted her to feel this. She and I had sat in the stairwell of our house too many nights to number, talking about our families. She knew I didn't like people knowing who my mother was. Yet today she introduced me to the Sigma Chis as, "The famous Eleanor Michaels's daughter."
We came to a dead end. Ducky and Sarah groaned.
"Oh, my God, Clare, you're the worst driver!" Ducky said.
"Shut the fuck up!" Lee yelled. "She's doing the best she can!"
Ducky sunk back in her seat. Lee frowned and flipped on the light again. As she tucked her long black hair behind her ears and studied the map, I felt something flip in my stomach. I knew why she did what she did today. Despite sticking up for me just now, she was angry, too. Because I'd pulled away these last couple of months.
But it was our senior year. I didn't want to be so intense. I didn't want to talk endlessly — I was the only person she'd ever confided in — about how upset she was with her aunt's arrest or what might happen if she didn't get the film internship in New York. And I especially didn't want to keep talking about our friendship.
I rubbed my temples again. For years Lee had been the kind of friend I'd never had. Trustworthy. Earnest. Interesting. And not at all like many of my junior high and high school friends who sucked up to me because of my mother. Where were they all now? I didn't know. I'd flitted from group to group in high school — one foot in, one foot out — so that it was easy to just fall away once I left for college.
I glanced at Lee. Not since junior high had I had a best friend. Lee and I had been nearly inseparable these last four years. But I knew she didn't have the thoughts I'd had lately. That sometimes I didn't want to be around her. That I didn't want to share an apartment with her after we graduated, as we'd loosely planned.
Cool sweat broke out across my upper lip.
"I'm so sick of this car," Sarah said.
"I'm so sick of it, too," Ducky echoed.
"I think we should go back the way we came." Lee reached up and switched off the light. I nodded — defeated — and turned the car around. As we approached the intersection where a few minutes ago Lee had told me to turn, I sped up and whipped the car around the corner. One block up we saw the sign. Eighty-Sixth Street. I turned and slowed until we pulled up to number twenty- seven. Finally.
"Yea! We're here! Thank God, because we're out of beer. Oh, that rhymed." Ducky laughed, cleaned a small space on her window with her fingers and looked out. "It's kinda small, though. What do you think, Clare? Lee?"
Lee stared at the house. "Something doesn't feel quite right."
"You aren't going to talk about that bullshit karma crap again, are you?" Sarah asked. "You did it, Clare. You got us here. That's what matters."
Lee nodded and said, "Good job, captain."
I cringed. I hadn't done a damn thing. She'd gotten us here. Anger boiled up to my cheeks. Stop trying to placate me!
"Maybe this isn't even it." Ducky hiccupped. "Are you sure this is it?"
We stared at the house.
"That's what Donny told me," Sarah said. "Come on. Let's go."
No one moved.
We were parked in front of one of the tiniest, most rundown houses I'd ever seen. It was one level with a wide, full-length window next to the door. On the other side, a single light bulb shone across a yard that was framed with a chain- link fence, broken in several sections. A long piece of gutter hung off the roof. A small kiddie pool was turned on its side and propped against the house under the light. The entire house and yard, which seemed smaller than the kitchen in our sorority house, was just like the dozens of houses that stretched down the street.
I rolled down my window. The rain had slowed to a trickle and the wind had stopped. Under the lone streetlight I watched steam rise from the cement and vanish into the shadows. The cool air smelled heavy and fetid and I shivered.
"The neighborhood looks kinda, I don't know, not that great," Lee said.
"I don't think it looks that bad," I said.
Lee glanced at me.
Ducky sighed. "We coulda stayed at the bar with the Sigma Chis, you know."
"The Bible salesmen! That still cracks me up." Sarah laughed and shoved Lee who'd come up with the nickname when we spotted the Sigma Chis in the bar. Dressed in matching beige khaki shorts, Lacoste polo shirts turned up at the collars, brown Top-Siders, and each with coiffed hair — in different shades of blond — the five looked as if they'd leaped off the pages of the Preppy Handbook. "I'm still surprised they talked to us. We looked like hell. We still do."
We were dressed in gym shorts and sweatshirts over bathing suits, layers of dried saltwater, sweat, and baby oil on our skin. After driving all night, we spent the day on the beach. We had no idea what we were doing next until Sarah remembered that Donny was living in Daytona and called him from a pay phone. Before starting to his house, we decided to stop at the bar to have only one beer — we really did have to ration our money — that turned into four or five once we met the Sigma Chis.
None of us had ever done anything like this. Changed plans midweek. Gotten in the car and just taken off. It felt exciting, decadent and reckless, leaving our lovely, if geriatric, Outer Banks condo and living out of The Travelodge.
"Well, I thought they were cute," Ducky said. "And nice. Right? I mean, they paid for everything. When was the last time boys at our school offered to do that?"
"They were boring," Sarah said. "And who dresses like that?"
Lee suddenly turned to them. "The question is, did they plan to dress alike? Or because they live together they just naturally became like each other?"
"Wait, is this conversation going to require me to think?" Ducky asked.
"A girl in my film class is working on this." Lee's voice sped up, as it always did when she talked about films. "There's a theory that women who live together begin having synchronized periods."
Sarah, a biology major who planned to go to medical school, nodded. "That makes sense because it's biological. But how is dressing alike biological?"
"Well, we live together and we don't dress alike." Ducky was the preppiest among us; she rarely went anywhere without her pearls and a pink or blue headband. "Maybe because we're not a typical sorority? We're not skinny and snobby and we have, you know, a lot of variety in our house?"
"We have little variety," Lee said. "There's barely any individualism in the Greek system. It breeds status quo."
"God, Lee, can you be a little more depressing?" My voice was angrier than I meant it to be. I wasn't in the mood for a dissertation on the limitations of Greek life. From the beginning of our pledgeship four years ago, Lee and I had been ambivalent; while fun it had also felt, at times, too exclusive, too one- dimensional, too trite. But this was something we talked about, just the two of us, and I didn't want to sound condescending in front of Sarah and Ducky. They loved the Greek experience, every bit of it, and I loved them for this even if I couldn't completely join in.
"I'm not trying to be," Lee mumbled as she dropped her chin to her chest. I felt her mood darken — my God, I bet I could feel this a mile away — and squeezed the steering wheel so hard that my fingers throbbed. Stop being so gloomy, I wanted to scream. I eased my hand off the steering wheel and rubbed my temples again. Either we needed to keep drinking or go to sleep but this in-between state was killing me.
We startled when a car, headlights blazing, crept up from behind, edged past us, and then slowly turned the corner. From somewhere in the distance a door slammed. A man yelled. A dog barked. And yet the houses around us were dark. No one was out on the street, either. I shivered again as cool, tropical air blew into the car and glanced at Lee, who was frowning as she stared at the house.
Ducky began chewing on a fingernail. Sarah rubbed her chin. I felt a heaviness settle over the car although I wasn't sure why.
"I think there's a light behind the blinds," Lee said. "Do you see it?"
"I don't see anything," Sarah said. Ducky echoed her.
I squinted and couldn't see it, either.
"Well." Ducky tipped her beer can to her mouth but it was empty. She dropped it on the floor. "I just think we shoulda stayed with the Sigma Chis."
"Oh, my God," Sarah said. "Will you stop? I'm so fucking sick of hearing about the Sigma Chis. Sure, we could have stayed and continued to eat their food and drink their beer. But then what? Huh? Where were we going to sleep?"
Lee turned again to look at Ducky. "And if they'd continued to pay for us, did that mean we'd owe them something in return?"
"Not me." Ducky's voice was fast and certain. "We didn't even know them."
"Oh, God, what if they'd lured us into the bathroom, one by one, and had their way with us? The horror!" Sarah threw herself across the middle seat, empty Fig Newton wrappers and beer cans crunching beneath her.
Ducky rolled over her bottom lip into a pout.
"She's kidding," I said. "Except for their preppy clothes, those guys were like the boys we know from school. I hardly think we had anything to worry about."
We turned to the house again. The light bulb next to the door flickered and sputtered but stayed on.
"Wait, Clare, look, it's Ben's pool, under the light," Sarah said.
I squinted. Blue with pink smiley fish, the pool was exactly like the one Ben bought at Target last year. He kept it in his living room and used it to hold his baseball gear. Last spring when the weather got so hot, he put it outside and filled it with water. My own private pool, he'd joked.
I saw his face in my mind, the dimple in his chin and those squinty green eyes, and felt something warm in my chest. I first noticed him in my history class last year. I liked how confident he was and that unlike others he never made fun of our awkward professor. At first we hung out as friends. Recently it had turned into something else although I wasn't sure what it was, even if we'd begun sleeping together. I liked that we were in the same state now — the baseball team spent spring breaks training down the coast — although our worlds couldn't be more opposite. Most likely he was asleep in a dry, warm bed after a hard day of wind sprints and batting practice. Tonight I was sleeping in a house the size of a box.
I felt a twinge of nausea — because of exhaustion or nerves or maybe just the beer and fried mozzarella and tomato sauce — and said, "Maybe one of us should go to the door first."
But no one moved.
Then suddenly someone inside the house rolled up the blind and opened the window. Light from the house poured into the yard. We saw a few legs and torsos and heard music. Bad Company. In the beginning, I believed every word that you said; Now that you're gone, my world is in shreds.
Ducky sat forward, her voice an octave higher. "Look, he's having a party!"
"God, we're ridiculous. I'll go." When Sarah opened the door, empty beer cans spilled (ping, ping, ping!) onto the street. Lee rolled down her window. And then we watched as Sarah opened the gate, stopped on the step, and knocked. The door flew open and a tall guy, barefoot and in striped parachute pants and an open flannel shirt, his chest bare, stood in the light of the doorway. He had long, curly black hair and a huge smile. Sarah jumped into his arms, laughing, talking, laughing.
"Look! See? Everything's fine! This is going to be so fun." Ducky pushed open the car door and ran up the sidewalk toward Sarah.
Excerpted from "I'll Stay"
Copyright © 2018 Karen Day.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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