And if that isn't enough to deal with, mere days after moving cross-country, Reb's dad drops shocking, life-changing news. With her mother and brother overwhelmed and confused, Reb is left alone to pick up the pieces of her former life. But how can she do that when everything can change in an instant? How can she trust her "perfect" boyfriend when her own dad let her down? Reb started the year knowing exactly what her future would hold, but now that her world has turned upside down, will she discover what she really wants?
Justina Chen, the acclaimed author of North of Beautiful, has created a moving and powerful novel about the struggles that arise from betrayal, the uncertainty of life after high school, and the joy that ultimately comes from discovering what's truly in your heart.
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Return to Me
By Justina Chen
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Justina Chen
All right reserved.
For the most part things never get built the way they were drawn.
—Maya Lin, artist and architect
If you believed my so-called psychic of a grandmother, she predicted that I would almost die. Her eerie, creepy forewarning made no difference at all. I was seven. I still jumped into the murky lake. I still dropped to its mossy bottom. I still almost drowned. Moments before Dad saved me, my arms had become blurry fronds far, far in front of me, as if I had already faded into a ghost.
Ever since that brush with death, I’ve hated fairy tales where spindles could be murder weapons, a bride could be killed for opening a locked door, and women in my family supposedly could see the future. What good was a sixth sense if life itself could derail your best-laid plans? Like after spring break in my senior year. That’s when I almost drowned again—only this time, in disbelief.
“We’re moving with you,” Mom had announced without looking up from her massive, post-vacation to-do list at the kitchen table.
“You mean moving me, right?” I gulped, breathing hard as I tried desperately to safeguard my future.
Why bother? Once Mom made up her mind, not one miracle or oracle could change it.
Case in point: her answer, “No, we’re moving, too.” She tucked a strand of flat-ironed hair back into its designated spot behind her ear, then drew an emphatic tick on her list. No doubt Mom was checking off yet another item: Destroy daughter’s college experience.
“You can’t come with me to Columbia!”
“Rebecca Kaye Muir, this move is great for your dad’s career.” Mom’s voice had shot over mine, bullet to bull’s-eye, in a tone designed to quell any teenage uprising. Her blue-eyed glare included my younger brother, Reid. He had dared to groan when it registered that Dad was quitting what must be every boy’s dream job: head honcho of a new game company. For about three weeks, Reid and I limped around our house like the living dead, my brother too listless to read a single one of his fantasy novels, and me too disappointed to enjoy the final laid-back weeks of high school.
None of this alarmed or deterred Mom, though. Life according to my mother’s accounting followed a simple principle: A bigger opportunity was a better opportunity. And Dad’s deliciously high-powered job offer represented a welcome end to his start-up-business nonsense.
So now, two days before my family exodus for the East Coast, my dad and I were enjoying one final campout in my treehouse. Our once-a-summer tradition had begun when we moved to Lewis Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride from Seattle. The only change in our fifteen-year tradition had been to swap our old, dark tent for a newly built treehouse when I turned ten.
I woke this morning to Dad waving the remains of our half-eaten bag of Cheetos under my nose. “Breakfast?” he asked, crunching a cheese curl noisily in my ear.
“Thanks,” I said, and grabbed one, even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. Only then did I gaze up into the cloud-filled skylight. Last night, stargazing was as much an act of futility as imagining some semblance of independence at college in two months. It was all too easy to picture my mom “dropping in” for a visit because she was “in the neighborhood.” Before I knew it, she’d be color-coding my future roommate’s binders and rearranging my closet into ready-made outfits. The overcast night sky had flattened into a slate of mourning-dove gray. I rolled onto my side to face Dad. “I’m going to miss this place.”
“Trust me, you’ll be so busy at college, you won’t even think twice about any of this,” he said, waving one arm as if to brush away my treehouse, my home, and my life as I had always known it.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I agreed with Dad, but on the topic of my treehouse, we disagreed. It probably sounds stupid, but we hadn’t even moved and I was already homesick for this tiny nest that housed all my architecture books and sketchbooks. The bunting I had sewn and strung above the windows with my favorite paint swatches. The photos of me flanked by all my male cousins and uncles. And best of all, the models I’d constructed at the summer camp I attended two years ago through the architecture school at the University of Washington—the birdhouse, artist studio, and modern shack. These were the projects that made me fall in love hard and fast with architecture the same way I fell for Jackson.
My heart contracted at the thought of breaking up with him in a few hours. Like everyone says, long-distance relationships are impossible, especially in college. Still, I couldn’t even think about ending it with Jackson without tearing up.
Not now. Not yet.
I cleared my throat to ward off the threat of tears and managed a wry smile for my father. “No offense, but I would have been more excited if I was going to college by myself.”
“None taken.” Dad smiled indulgently at me, his gentle brown eyes crinkling at the corners. Other than a few strands of gray along his temples, at forty-five he looked virtually the same as the broad-shouldered high school football star he’d been. Days ago, Mom had removed the photos of Dad’s good old days from his man-cave office and mummified them in biodegradable newsprint for the cross-country move. My treehouse was one of the last rooms to be dismantled today, according to her well-executed moving plan. Dad continued, “I totally understand that a fresh start is something we all need at one point or another. But you know how your mom gets.”
We both rolled our eyes, then grinned at each other even as irritation burned my throat. Dad was right; it’d take an apocalyptic disaster to change a single detail once Mom had charted his new corporate career, my college decision, our family move.
“At least I talked your mom into moving to New Jersey instead of New York. That’ll give you some breathing room, right?” Dad said, crumpling the empty bag of Cheetos before tossing it carelessly onto the floor from the warmth of his sleeping bag.
“You have no idea how much I appreciate that,” I said fervently, only now eating my cheese curl.
The clock my grandpa George had given me when I was recuperating from my near drowning ticked loudly in the silence that followed my crunching. As I listened to the faint drumbeat of time, I recalled how one of the fairy houses I had woven from twigs had blown off Grandpa’s houseboat deck and into the lake. Dad alone was with me, and he had said, “Just let it go.”
But I had jumped into the murky green water, so completely focused on rescuing my creation that I forgot I couldn’t swim, forgot my grandmother’s prediction.
“Dad!” I had screamed before I drifted downward. He reached me fast, diving into the deep to grab me.
An idea began to form now, and Dad was once again the one I sought to rescue me. I sat up in my sleeping bag. There just might be a way to salvage the beginning of my college experience. Dad had rented a temporary apartment in Manhattan two months ago to start his job while Reid and I finished school here. That apartment was going to be empty, conveniently and blissfully empty. Why not live in Dad’s apartment in New York rather than in our New Jersey house until freshman orientation?
“Hey, Dad,” I said, throwing off my sleeping bag, “could I crash in your apartment before school starts, since you’ll be with Mom and Reid anyway?”
“Well, you know how your mom gets when people change her plans.” Dad’s voice was hushed as though Mom could overhear what we were discussing, even though she was back in the main house and well out of earshot. “Her and her lists.”
That quiet, confidential tone reminded me of how it had always been: Dad and me, conspiring against Mom. Dad allowing me to leap off a whirling merry-go-round even though I had fallen from it the day before. Dad buying me an enormous ice cream cone a half hour before dinner. And like a refrain in our duet of rebellion, Dad would say with a puckish grin, Just don’t tell Mom.
“Yeah,” I said, even as I felt the sting of disappointment. “Mom and her lists.”
“Look, New Jersey won’t be so bad for a few weeks.” He grabbed the iPhone that he had left by his pillow, to check a chiming alarm. “In fact, while I’m thinking about it, there’s an architect there that Uncle Adam’s been using for a couple of his new development projects. I’ll bet you could still score a great summer internship with him—Sam Stone.”
“Sam Stone?” My voice went squeaky with enthusiasm. Shadowing an architect famous for his mammoth, cutting-edge corporate campuses—the kind Dad’s family built, the kind I wrote about designing in my college applications—was nothing short of an oasis in this desert of a summer. “Really?”
Dad laughed. “Sound good?”
“Sounds awesome,” I said, grinning back at him.
“Great! I’ll set you up.”
I had no doubt that Dad would follow through. After all, when he moved to Manhattan without us, he had promised, “I’ll be flying back every other weekend, even if it’s hard for me.” Dad climbed out of his sleeping bag and stretched so strenuously, I actually heard his spine crack. He winced and rubbed his lower back. “I’m getting old.”
“Come on. You’re going to be one of the youngest dads at college.”
“College.” He shook his head while ambling to the door. “I can’t believe I’ve got a kid in college.” Bending down, he hoisted his duffel bag easily onto his shoulder and wedged his hand into the front pocket of his now-wrinkled chinos. “Okay, kiddo, gotta catch my flight.”
“Wait, you’re leaving?” I said, surprised. “I thought you were flying out with us tomorrow night.”
Dad rubbed the stubble on his cheeks with the back of his hand. “I’ve got a ton of work. And since your mom’s got this under control, I thought I’d take an earlier flight home and get ready for you guys.”
Home? Since when did New York become home to Dad? Still, he was right. Mom had this move—just as she had all our vacations and summer programs and school schedules—graphed out in nice, neat schedules of deadlines and deliverables. No wonder Dad had already escaped to Manhattan. The same freeing effect of living three thousand miles away from my mother was why I’d chosen Columbia over UW, my decision made in March, before I met Jackson.
We passed the moving truck dominating the driveway and made our way to Dad’s rental car out in the street, miraculously without attracting Mom’s attention. A week from today, our belongings would be trucked to the other side of the country. Thanks to Mom’s efficiency, Dad’s car had been shipped eight weeks ago so that he had transportation upon arrival. Now Dad slid into the rental and rolled down the window. “Hey, your college experience is still going to be great.”
“How can you say that?”
Dad adjusted the rearview mirror. “I’ll tell you what: Why don’t I use miles to fly Jackson out for a visit after school starts?”
“What?” I blinked at him, uncomprehending. “I thought you said long-distance relationships are impossible to maintain.”
He held up both hands defensively. “Hey, all I’m saying now is… they are hard. But you never know.”
Astonished, I wanted to ask Dad to repeat this unexpected manna of parental approval. Before, on the topic of Jackson, my parents had serenaded me with all the reasons to break up, harmonizing perfectly with Dad’s melodic “A little freedom in college is a good thing” and Mom’s drumbeat about “Jackson’s lack of plans” and “Look where that lackadaisical attitude landed your grandpa George.”
“Dad, I was going to break up with Jackson today.”
“Think about what’ll make you happy. That’s all that really matters.”
Dad and I smiled at each other, back in sync as coconspirators. Right as I was about to thank Dad for his offer, I heard a hard, racking, shuddering wail. A wheezing intake of breath so pained, it sounded as if a woman was suffocating. I recognized this prickling down my neck, this deep-gut knowing, even if I had refused to acknowledge it in years.
“What’s up?” Dad asked, concerned.
As always, I gritted my teeth against the gathering vision—now I saw a wood door, gnarled and knotted; now I felt the old-growth fir, worn smooth like resignation. I forced a placid smile. “Nothing,” I lied brightly, even as I commanded myself to stop dreaming the way I have at these first telltale signs of a premonition, squelching them the way I’d learned to these last eleven years. But before I could spit out hasty sentences, spoken fast and loud to drown that whispered voice, there it was: Do not move to New Jersey.
I swallowed hard, nauseated from battling this overwhelming sense of foreboding.
As though Dad guessed I was having a vision, he said, “See you in two days,” then reversed out of the driveway, all haste and hurry now. Visions, miracles, predictions—none of these Dad believed. Not against-the-odds company turnarounds and certainly not near-death experiences, not even when the paramedics told him after my close call in the lake, “It’s a miracle that your daughter’s still alive.”
Even though my stomach was roiling and a cold sweat beaded my forehead, I sprinted after my father. Gravel kicked up on my calves, pinpricks of pain. Urgency I couldn’t explain propelled me forward. “Dad, wait!”
But Dad’s car roared away. All that remained was a tuft of putrid smoke from his exhaust, then silence. The same silence in my hospital room that followed Grandma Stesha’s accusation aimed at my father: “How could you let Reb swim after I warned you that she would drown?” The same silence after I admitted to my parents, “I dreamed it, too.” The same silence after Dad abruptly left that antiseptic room with a disgusted snort. As the door clicked shut behind him, my mother glared at my grandmother, blaming her.
“Reb!” I could practically feel Mom’s frustration mount from inside our soon-to-be-emptied house. “Where are you?”
Dad had the right idea. If Mom wanted this move, she could orchestrate the entire project down to how boxes were packed, the way they were labeled, the treehouse she was about to strip, the lives she disrupted. I pressed my hand hard to my chest to imprison every wail, every doubt, and every premonition deep inside me.
Unexpectedly, as though in answer to my SOS-save-me-from-my-mother plea, I heard a familiar rumble down the road.
Sometimes I felt like I was dating two guys: Jackson and his car. I’m serious. The 1965 Mustang, a gift from Jackson’s parents for his seventeenth birthday, doubled as a nice bribe to sweeten the move to Seattle in the beginning of his junior year. When he drove, we went one speed: sexy. If I closed my eyes when I was riding shotgun, I could smell the prairie grass of Jackson’s Iowa even though we never ventured much farther than Vancouver to the north and Portland to the south. Three hours either way was our bubbled universe, and that bubble was about to burst the next day.
I looked away from the window and back at Jackson, who was staring at me intensely. That smoldering instant reminded me of my first good look at him four months ago, in March. There we were, on our separate spring breaks, sharing the same air space in a hotel lobby. There he was, barrel-chested and wide-shouldered, more sturdy than stocky, and his legs… The words highly defined barely described his muscle-man quads and calves. And here we were, together ever since.
“You’re quiet,” Jackson said, placing one hand atop mine as we idled at the stop sign at my neighborhood crossroad.
The conversation I’d been dodging for weeks stirred between us like a caged animal slamming against the metal slats for its freedom. I heard Mom now, chiming with annoying clockwork that it was time to break up. But Dad’s voice—the voice of inspirational business speeches that could rally game developers who’d been coding around the clock for weeks—lured me with the tantalizing thought that long-distance love could be worth the work and worth the wait. So why not try?
Before Jackson shifted the car back into gear, he looked at me hard, as though searching for something that had already gone missing. I still wasn’t used to his attention. Boys rarely spared me a flyby glance. After all, at five foot nothing with mousy brown hair, I wasn’t anything special—unlike my best friends Shana, with criminally long legs, and Ginny, whose exotic looks had caught the fleeting attention of a casting agent when she was nine.
“So… I have something I want you to see, Rebel.”
I swallowed and looked away from him so I wouldn’t break into tears. Only Jackson used that nickname, as though it were his personal password to me. How he had known that I had never felt like my father’s Rebecca or everyone else’s Reb, I could never quite understand. Even if that nickname belonged to a wild girl who did whatever she pleased, I secretly reveled every time Jackson used it.
Damn it, why had I chosen Columbia when UW was right here, a stone’s throw to Viewridge Prep, where Jackson was enrolled for another year?
“Trust me?” asked Jackson, his warm hand settling on my thigh as I curled on my side in the passenger seat, leaning toward him.
All I could do was nod. Yes, I trusted him. Yes, let’s hurtle straight past these next endless months, straight past Manhattan. Yes, aim for the future, and never, never, never stop.
Finally, after driving through the dense, green heart of Lewis Island, navigating down winding streets I’d never seen before and, frankly, never needed to see, Jackson parked on the side of the potholed road. He killed the engine, then pushed his door open. Cold air surged inside, a tangible reminder that while the rest of the country sweltered, summer had yet to come to Seattle.
“It’s freezing out there,” I said. “Polar bears would protest.”
He leaned toward me, eyebrows cocked up: For real? Then he said, “You’re going to have to toughen up if you want to survive the East Coast winters with me, Rebel.”
Forget the “Rebel.” It was the “with me” that warmed me now and made me seriously consider what Dad had offered: his tacit approval if I chose to stay with Jackson over Mom’s wishes. That “with me” convinced me to open the door and follow him outside. The wind rushed me, furious, and I staggered back.
“Okay, cold,” I gasped.
Jackson was rounding the hood of the car, already sliding out of his leather jacket. “You aren’t going to last five minutes in winter.”
“No,” I said when he handed me his coat. “I don’t want you to be cold, too.”
“I’m a guy. I never get cold.”
“Tell that to Shackleton.”
“You’re a nut,” he said, and tugged me to his chest, wrapping his jacket around me like wings. I burrowed in, inhaled deeply, and smelled sweet saltiness. Call me odd, but deodorant is overrated on Jackson. After a long bike ride, he smells like a guy who can take on the world. I stood on my tiptoes and kissed his neck and felt his question beneath my lips: “Did I tell you that I like my women smart?”
“Women?” I said, pulling back and stabbing my finger in his chest. “As in plural?” Stab. “As in a stable of women?” Stab, stab. “As in a plethora of women?”
“You must be warmer now,” he said, rubbing his chest.
After days of rain, the air smelled clean and moist. The clouds parted, revealing the sun. The warmth felt good on my face.
“This,” I said, stretching my arms sunward, “is almost better than being kissed.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said, challenged the way I knew he’d be. He kissed me the way I wanted: long and lingering and very, very thorough. The sweet urgency of his lips, the slow stroke of his tongue along mine, made me wobble, unbalanced. That kiss-induced tippiness only made Jackson grin wickedly at me, confident that nothing bettered his kiss. He grabbed my hand and led me down a paved path, fringed on either side with purple-flowered vinca and feathery ferns.
“Close your eyes,” Jackson said.
It was too much work to stay crabby after a kiss like that—even after a drive that had lasted an eternity during what I might add, yet again, was One of Our Last Hours Together.
Finally, he let me open my eyes at the edge of a small pond I never knew existed, lined with tall, striated reeds and nestled within a ring of trees. In the middle of the pond floated a tiny dock, sized for two people, complete with crank and steering wheel. Two ropes connected the dock to the shoreline, and Jackson began winching the dock toward us.
“What is this place?” I asked, my voice quiet, as though I knew this was a special space.
“A bird-watcher’s sanctuary.” He opened the gate and waved me aboard. “Your dock awaits.”
“Are we allowed here?”
“Remember? It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Anyway, my dad’s listing it on Monday. So think of it as us providing some quality control to maintain my dad’s carefully cultivated reputation as the leading waterfront real estate agent in the Pacific Northwest.” Jackson lifted his eyebrows. “So, my badass girlfriend, what do you say?”
“You had me at badass,” I said before I sashayed onto the dock, glancing over my shoulder with the sultriest look I could muster.
Mission accomplished. Jackson cleared his throat. I gave silent thanks to Shana for making Ginny and me practice a billion expressions and struts for her photo shoots.
Jackson navigated us to the center of the pond, and once there, I gasped because I finally understood why he had brought me here—not to see this dock or admire the birds. Hidden among the trees was a tiny house, all wood and windows and built upon stilts.
“This is so you,” he said, standing behind me with his arms wrapped around me.
“It’s what a treehouse wants to be when it grows up,” I said, leaning against him.
“I still don’t see why you want to build corporate offices.”
I sighed. We’d had this conversation countless times before. No matter how often I tried to explain that commercial work was a lot more financially prudent than residential work and that Dad’s family was expecting me to be the resident architect in their real estate development business, I knew Jackson wouldn’t understand. He was forever pointing out that Dad hadn’t worked at the family firm since he was in business school.
So now I gestured to the pint-size house and said, “I’ve got to see it.”
“First, we should talk,” Jackson countered.
Just like that, I forgot about the house; such was the power of those three dreaded words: We should talk. If you have good news, do you preface it with “We should talk”? No. You say, “Guess what?” Or, “You won’t believe this!” We should talk is what doctors say when they’re about to break it to you that you have a few months to live. It’s what a boyfriend says when he’s about to tell you that your romance had a shelf life that expired yesterday. But now I wasn’t so sure anymore that I needed, or wanted, to break up.
“How can I talk? My teeth are chattering,” I answered with a cheeky smile to buy time while I thought.
Jackson looked at me long and hard, as though he could hear me weigh the sure risks of staying together versus the unsure rewards of attempting and failing. Then he said, “Everybody says long-distance relationships are impossible. That it’s totally stupid to try.”
Wasn’t that what Ginny and Shana—who both had a lot more experience in the Guy Department than I did, with their endless buffet of boys—had been telling me for the last month?
“But is it so stupid?” Jackson asked gruffly.
Here I was, alone at an unfamiliar crossroads in an unfamiliar neighborhood of a serious relationship. To the west was here, now, Seattle, the impossibilities of long distance. To the east was the future, New York, and being prudent and practical about my future plans, which had never included going off to college with a high school boyfriend. And through it all, like an aria of abandonment, I heard the crying again, the high-pitched heartbreak. On the verge of throwing up, I only managed to keep my arms at my sides instead of clenched over my stomach.
“What?” Jackson asked, watching me carefully, as if he sensed my crazy, conflicted emotions.
Part of me wanted to tell Jackson now about the inconsolable weeping, the inkling that something horrible would happen with this move. But tell him now and he would think I was an official nutcase. I’d be yet one more casualty of my family curse: Every woman on my mother’s side has ended life alone, all spinsters. That is, except Mom. Case in point: Consider Grandpa George, the portrait of loyalty, who was there for every one of my performances and play-offs. Even he bolted when Grandma Stesha heeded her “calling” to lead tours of woo-woo weirdness to inexplicable rock formations and purported fairy circles around the world. Not even Mom faulted Grandpa for the divorce when she was about to set off for college.
But then there was Mom’s overriding “why bother?” attitude about Jackson, a boy who didn’t have a short list of colleges. The only college decision he had made was to refuse to consider the Naval Academy, which his dad was pushing him to attend. And even louder, I heard Grandma Stesha’s conviction about our family curse: No man was capable of staying at our sides, not when generations of our women could predict their heart wounds, prophesy their futures, see through their lies.
So, as usual, I stamped on the sparks of my foreboding and spoke in a torrent of words, forcing them out so fast I staved off any vision: “I’m afraid it’s not going to work out. I mean, it was hard enough to see you as it was—and this was with us living an hour from each other. So how’re we going to keep close with three time zones and three thousand miles separating us? How?”
“Skype, text, IM. You name it, we’ll try it.”
I knew what he was suggesting—we buck conventional wisdom and prove the improbable: Eighteen-year-old kids can fall in love, forever love. Jackson leaned down then to kiss me, a tender pledge: I will be true.
Resisting that was impossible. I threw my arms around Jackson and pressed close, my chest against his, missing him badly. His hand cupped my neck and he kissed me, imprinting his lips on mine.
Just then my phone chimed. Without looking at the screen, I knew it was Mom, with her impeccably timed interruption at the faintest hint of arousal, no different from the night of my first date with Jackson. I knew she was going to remind me that it was time to come home, time to step back into the antiseptic life she had orchestrated for me, which meant clearing our damned home of dust balls and clearing my life of Jackson. I ignored the phone and deepened our kiss, as if I could truly lose myself. It was Jackson who stepped away, breathing hard.
“Not yet,” I moaned.
The phone chirped insistently. I sighed, irritated at my mom—even if, in some small way that I refused to inspect too carefully, I felt a tiny bit of relief at this reprieve from having the breakup talk with Jackson. Dad’s unexpected approval had thrown my decision off kilter.
Jackson raked his fingers through his hair, looking frustrated before he managed a wry grin. He was always so Zen, my Jackson. For now he pulled me close, leaned his forehead against mine, and whispered, “Thanksgiving, and you’ll be back. November isn’t that long away, Rebel.”
I nodded and leaned against him but didn’t tell him about the plane tickets Dad had offered. Jackson’s fingers combed through my hair, making my scalp tingle with pleasure. The feeling almost made me want to grow my hair out, if it meant having his fingers for a few moments longer, that gentle downward pull, that melting along my spine.
Maybe I should tell Jackson, Yes. Why not try?
The phone rang again.
“Geez! What’s her deal?” I groused, frustrated.
“Well, your mom was the one who asked me to come early so we could hang out together.”
“It’s a surprise….”
So we climbed back into Jackson’s car and drove home, my hand in his until he needed to shift the gear. Only then did Jackson move my hand to rest on his thigh, and squeeze me gently, as though he wanted me to feel him even as he let me go.
As soon as Jackson pulled into my driveway, my two very best friends skipped down the front steps, waving at us. Six years ago, our mother-daughter book club was formed—Bookster Babes, so called because all our names were inspired by literature. Ginny for Virginia Woolf. Mine from the gothic novel Rebecca. And Shana from a torrid seventies romance novel, which the three of us surreptitiously read, graphic sex scenes and all. Now whenever Shana falls for a guy, Ginny and I tease her, “Yeah, but is he ‘Ohhhhh, Ruark!’ ”
Over the last six years, we’ve held a Bed & Bookfest celebration, always at my home on Lewis Island, always once a season, always overnight. We have never skipped a single meeting. And apparently, we weren’t going to miss this last one.
“Surprise,” Jackson said, and leaned over to kiss me a moment before my girlfriends yanked me out of his car. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to drive me to the airport.”
His look—Are you crazy?—melted me.
“Okay, Jackson, she’s all ours now,” announced Shana, sweeping her hair out of her eyes to mock-glower at him. He laughed, a sound that made me prematurely homesick for him. I was glad we’d have until tomorrow to say good-bye. Whether it was our final good-bye, my girlfriends wanted to know as soon as we stumbled through my treehouse door, leaving our moms in the main house until the evening book discussion.
“Hurry,” said Shana, slinging her pink sleeping bag onto the floor. “We have got to talk.”
“Not another talk,” I groaned as I wedged my sleeping bag between hers and Ginny’s. Then, following Shana’s lead, I flopped onto my stomach.
“Oh, good.” She brushed her long bangs out of her wide blue eyes to study me approvingly. “You broke it off with Jackson. What’d you say?”
“We didn’t break it off exactly.” I hid my face on my arms so I wouldn’t see Shana and her five feet seven of long, lean disapproval. If left to her, Jackson would have been dispensed with weeks ago in a swift, clean text. Her formidable time-management skills were acquired not from juggling homework, like the rest of us, but from juggling boys. It wasn’t unheard of for her to log a six-mile run early on Saturday morning with one boy, study with another at ten, and cap the day off with a late-night movie with a third. After her record five-boy day, Shana had called me up to complain: “That was exhausting. There’s only so much flirting you can do before you realize you just can’t have another tongue in your mouth.”
“Shana! Gross!” I had protested.
But she was adamant. “It’s true.”
“Well, why not?” Shana demanded now. “It so does not make sense to stay together. You’re going to meet a ton of guys in New York. And the minute you’re gone, girls are going to pounce on him.”
“Nice, Shana. Really nice.” Ginny reached down from her perch on the window seat to squeeze my hand. Her glossy brown hair striated with light streaks fell over hazel eyes that tilted at the corners, and I could completely understand why my mom marveled over how beautiful mixed-race kids were whenever she saw Ginny.
“What? He goes to my high school, not yours. I see the way girls look at him. And she should know that they’re so going to make their move.” Shana pointed her finger at me before crawling into her sleeping bag. The pitfall of being so thin (not that I would know) is being perpetually cold. “Look, wouldn’t you rather know?”
There it was, the question Grandma Stesha had put to my mom in my hospital room when I nearly drowned, and again two years ago before she left to launch her tour of fairy sites in Scotland: “But, Betsy darling. Isn’t it better to know?”
Maybe I wanted to celebrate my inner ostrich and bury my head and forget how frightening it had been to know at seven that I might drown. Maybe I didn’t want to know what was going to happen in the future any more than my mother did when she tucked me tight in the hospital bed after my near death. As though she didn’t trust me to escape fate or tempt curse, she had ordered me, “Stop dreaming.”
And so I did.
The story Shana was spinning now of Jackson cheating on me was my nightmare. The rare times the women in my family—Grandma Stesha and her three sisters, Mom and her two—gathered, the conversations were filled with stories lamenting their shared curse: Not a single one aside from my mother had a soul mate. That was not a future I wanted to inherit.
“Do you guys ever get the feeling… that something’s not right?” I asked tentatively.
An uncomfortable frown flitted across Ginny’s face, a look she wore the rare times I broached the topic of my maternal line’s purported sixth sense. “You’re just having moving jitters,” she said, zipping her sleeping bag to her chin with one efficient tug. “That’s all.”
“You mean something not right, like, with Jackson?” Shana nodded sagely, as though I had finally seen the light. “I mean, you’re only eighteen. You’re starting college and, let’s face it, that means it’s fishing season. Besides, we’re way too young to be this serious about anyone, even during college.” She flipped onto her side, propping her chin on her hand. “It’s not like you’re going to marry him.”
That echo of Mom was eerie: You’re way too young. Irritation snaked up my skin. Why was everyone ringing my wedding bells when I hadn’t even slept with Jackson?
I asked, “Why are you so sure I should break up with him?”
“Because first,” Shana responded, now sitting up cocooned in her sleeping bag, “your mom might have gotten married because she was knocked up at twenty-four. But most people don’t. And if they do, they grow out of each other. And, hello, you’re going to college; Jackson’s got another year left in high school. What are you going to talk about? Prom?”
Those remarks might have stung once, except for two things: Shana was right. There were my parents, superstars in their careers. Dad, a producer at his first game company in San Francisco, and Mom, a publicist at a start-up cell phone company in Seattle. All of that derailed with the two pink lines on the pregnancy test that was me. And second, Shana had given this rant for female independence a million times.
I stage-whispered to Ginny, “Watch out. She’s about to invoke the head shave.” Together, Ginny and I intoned: “We’ll shave your head if you get married before you’re thirty-five. Go see the world.”
“Well, my parents are right. That’s what we should do. See the world before we settle down.” Shana grinned before whipping out her camera to take a candid shot of us. “But I plan to shoot the world.”
Ever since her father gave Shana her first camera when she turned five, she’d vowed to make her living somehow with her photography, like her father wished he could but didn’t dare. She couldn’t understand his hesitation any more than mine to commit to the same kind of risky livelihood with treehouses. The last thing I wanted was to incite that particular monologue now, so I stayed quiet while she lowered her camera to check the photograph. If I thought she’d forgotten her train of thought, I was wrong. Shana continued without looking up from her camera, “So tell him that you want to have an open relationship. That way, if you want to date other guys, you can.”
“Other guys? I didn’t even want to date Jackson, remember?” I said, flipping over to my back to stare at the moody sky.
Ginny smirked as she stood up, hands on her hips. “Uh, yeah, because you totally obsessed about that for two weeks.” Her voice grew high as she swung her hips in time to each point: “I can’t date The Boy! The Boy’s a grade younger than me. The Boy lives an hour away. The Boy mountain bikes. Who the hell mountain bikes? I don’t.”
“I said that?”
Both of them nodded.
Shana actually threw her sleeping bag off, frustration overheating. “Come on, it’s totally crazy to orient your entire life toward a guy who might be around for another month. Two, tops. Especially when he’s come out and said that he won’t go to a college just because it’s near you. And—”
I interrupted, waving my arms at Shana. “Hello? I’m not orienting my life toward him. I’m starting college away from him. That’s the whole point. Right, Ginny?”
Ginny shifted uneasily on the window seat. “Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I just wonder what the whole point of trying is, especially when it’s hard. Look what happened to my parents….”
A year after we formed the Bookster Babes, Ginny’s father had been diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer. “Does everyone think kids are dumb?” Ginny had asked me the morning after one of our Bed & Bookfests while we were drawing. Her paper was covered with angry girls with grim lines for mouths; mine, with a series of Gothic treehouses. “I can hear what the doctors say about Dad.”
“You should go home today. He’s going to die soon,” I had pronounced, speaking without realizing it until Ginny slashed an angry crayon line across my drawing. Even then, I barely recalled what I had intoned like an oracle, the words pouring out of me without thought.
“Take it back,” she hissed.
But it was too late.
Two days afterward, as if my prophecy had cursed her father, he was dead. Ever since, I have been afraid of uttering aloud a single feeling, the slightest inkling, in case my visions were even more potent than my grandmother believed.
Ginny broke our silence now by plunking down a plate of thick brownies she’d snuck in without us noticing. “It’s time for chocolate.”
Of the three of us, only Ginny could cook a gourmet meal, but her baking went unrivaled. Not even the best bakeries around town could touch her pastries. Still, Dad thought she was wasting her life going to the Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson Valley rather than a “real” college: “That’s called a retirement activity, not a retirement plan.” I had to agree. Baking was as practical as me building treehouses for a living or staying with my high school boyfriend.
“Can you taste the coconut and curry?” Ginny asked with an eager expression.
I nodded my head, surprised at the heat and texture on my tongue. “Yeah.”
The unexpected flavor of Ginny’s brownie filled me with tearful yearnings. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to miss out on a single moment of life with my friends. It wasn’t only Jackson who I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to say good-bye to my friends or my home, my sanctuary, my history. Lewis Island was everything I had ever known, the only place I’d ever lived.
The morning’s anguished cry rang clear in my head. Part of me wanted to say something to my girlfriends; part of me wanted to know what was causing that animal wail. But I swatted away the real danger of probing too deeply and focused on the bittersweet dessert instead.
Being the first girl in four generations of Muir men had its perks. Those lumberjacks who felled the ancient Northwest forests became Seattle’s first real estate developers. They spawned an industry. They spawned a fortune. They spawned boys. So when Dad’s father died fifteen years ago, he bequeathed the Lewis Island property into my parents’ care under the condition that I inherit it on the day of my marriage. My dad told me later that my grandfather had his heart set on seeing me—his sole granddaughter—wed in this cottage, the one he had built as a weekend love nest for himself and my grandmother. Not a single person in the Muir family contested my inheritance or our move here immediately after my grandfather died.
The next morning when I awoke a few minutes before six, for one lazy second I considered rolling over, burrowing into my sleeping bag. But I wanted to say good-bye to my home in private. So I crept around my friends, grabbed my denim jacket off the door hook, and slid into my sneakers on the welcome mat outside.
As I set off for the beach, I cast a backward glance at my treehouse and swallowed hard. As frivolous as treehouses were, I loved this treasure box, barely visible in the forest unless you knew where to look. There was something whimsical and secretive about small spaces, however impractical they were. And this treehouse was my heart realized into four walls: snug, safe, and hidden.
Back when I was ten, my parents sold the very last of Mom’s stock options from her job at Synergy to remodel the cottage. The architectural drawings enthralled me—long scrolls of paper detailing the front and back elevations of the house. Our architect, Peter Nakamura, wore a never-changing uniform of formfitting black T-shirt and relaxed black jeans. His one accessory, the black Moleskine notebook he always carried. One morning after meeting with my parents, he had strolled to the coffee table where I was sketching my own architectural drawing of a treehouse. No sweet Snow White cottage, mine was a modern shack whose inspiration came from the eco-friendly houses in the book Peter had just published.
Peter folded his long body next to me on the floor and studied my drawings. “What do you like about this?”
“It’s outside and magical.”
My answer must have satisfied Peter, because he spoke to me like I was a colleague, his callused finger tracing the roofline. “You know, if we changed the pitch of the roof, we could put in a bigger picture window so you’d really feel like you’re outside.” A few days later, Peter gave me my own Moleskine notebook and a paper scroll: my treehouse rendered as real architectural plans.
Drops of morning dew dampened my sneakers as I followed the grassy path toward the healing garden that Mom had been testing to surprise Ginny’s dad for his convalescence, but never had the chance to plant in his yard. The closer I got to the beach, the more I could breathe. Weird, I know, since I’d almost drowned and swimming made me nervous.
At five foot one and typically dressed in jewel-toned polo shirts, Mom was a human hummingbird, flitting among her beloved plants and her myriad projects. So I was astonished to spot her lounging on the rickety, weather-faded bench facing the Puget Sound, a mug of tea in her hand, her knees tucked up under her chin.
“I’m going to miss this place,” Mom said softly without looking up, almost as if she had been expecting me.
“Then why are you moving? I don’t get it,” I said, as annoyance swept away the calming effect of the water along with my intention to thank her for inviting the Bookster Babes over last night.
Only then did Mom wrench around toward me to respond hotly, “Because, Reb, family is made up of all the hundreds of daily moments. Not the big ta-da family trips to Italy. It’s this.” She gestured between us before widening her arms to encompass the beach, the property, my treehouse. “That’s why we’re moving, okay? Not just to be with you, but to be with your father. To support him.”
Fine. I was going to leave her to her grouching, but instead I shot back, “Then how about you all move, and I stay here and go to UW?”
Mom guessed the role Jackson played in derailing me from wanting to attend one of the best undergraduate architectural programs in the country. She shook her head with so much vehemence that her naturally curly brown hair, flat-ironed into submission, whipped like a moon-shaped mezzaluna knife around her shoulders. “First of all,” she lectured me yet again, “this is the time in your life to be totally selfish and focus on yourself. You’ve got this amazing opportunity where you get to invent yourself. And second, I didn’t raise you to be that kind of girl who’d give up your dream to stay with a boy you just met.”
Even though I’d never admit it to Mom, I hated the image of being That Kind of Girl, too, who would shunt aside her goals and shutter her ambitions for a guy. But I had to admit: The temptation shimmered enticingly. Columbia was an inconvenient eternity away from Jackson.
“I’m not putting away my dream. I can still study architecture here,” I said, staring grimly at the receding tide.
“The graduate classes you could take at Columbia are way better than at UW,” Mom countered, and set her mug between us. “Besides, your dad asked me to set up an informational interview for you with Sam Stone, and I already made the call. He wants to see you in a few days.”
Even though the internship had been Dad’s idea, now I burned with irritation at Mom. Here she was again, intervening as always the moment she sensed me teetering off my preordained path dictated by her from my birth. That path included Columbia, where I’d crash as many graduate courses in architecture as I could to fast-track a master’s degree. Then on to Muir & Sons Development, where I’d be the first and only girl in Dad’s family ever to be employed.
“Dad told me it’d be okay to stay together with Jackson,” I said over the shriek of a seagull out in the bay. As anger at my mom coalesced, so did my conviction that this might actually make sense. “He said some long-distance relationships are worth the work.”
Mom stood so abruptly that the blanket fell from her lap. Instead of picking the mocha-brown cashmere blanket off the damp grass, she sidestepped it and headed for the gate to the beach. Beyond that rusting gate, a misshapen barrier of a log, gnarled and sea-soaked, lay across the slick boat ramp. That didn’t deter Mom. She leaped over it to the rock-laden beach.
“Mom, what’re you doing?” I asked, following her down to the exposed shore. The tide was lower than I had ever seen—so shallow, the receding water nearly beached the moored sailboats.
With unerring precision, Mom plucked a stone from the wet sand: a perfect circle, free of barnacles. When dry, the shocking fern green would dull to a mottled brown. Mom handed that Cinderella stone to me.
“Make a wish,” she said.
“But it’s yours.”
“I found it for you.”
What I wanted to wish for wasn’t reprieve from my family’s move; we were too far gone for that, with the house packed and our belongings journeying to New Jersey. What I wanted, needed, was reassurance that Jackson and I would work out. My heart contracted painfully, already missing him even though I knew he was driving me to the airport for our red-eye tonight. But just this once, I wished Mom would tap into the sixth sense Grandma Stesha insisted we both had and assure me I was doing the right thing with Jackson. Just once, I wanted her to tell me with absolute confidence, Sweetheart, everything is going to work out fine.
Who was I kidding? If I dismissed the notion of my having a sixth sense, Mom denied its existence in anyone altogether, most especially the family legend that we were descended from psychics and mystics. She practically derided Grandma Stesha’s tours to sacred sites whenever anyone asked. In their dismissiveness of the unknown, my parents were united.
Ignoring me, crouched low to the sand, Mom sifted through the wet stones, rejecting one after another. Usually she was so mindful of the water, especially since my near drowning. But now, her back to the waves, she used both hands to shove aside a large, bulbous rock.
“Mom, geez, you’re going to cut yourself,” I said, alarmed at her frenetic searching, and held out the stone she had given me. “Here, take this one.”
“No,” she said almost angrily, “that’s yours.”
“Okay…” I said, shoving my wishing stone into the pocket of my denim jacket.
I wanted to leave but couldn’t. Stay. Mom shoved aside another enormous rock. Both of us screamed when a sea snake, no longer than a foot, with a dangerous yellow stripe down its back, slithered out. Mom recoiled so abruptly, she lost her balance and fell atop the sharp rocks as a wave swept the snake away.
“Mom, you okay?”
The water crept to the shore, lapping at our feet, mine safe in my sneakers, Mom’s exposed in her flip-flops. As the water drew back, I spotted the perfect wishing rock for her, egg-shaped and striated gray-green. Most importantly, a thin white line ran around the top third. That rare circlet, according to Grandma Stesha, was a good luck sign: a halo. I plunged my hand into the icy water to snag it for my mother.
Suddenly, against the soothing backdrop of the surf, I could hear the sobs again. The sound of inconsolable heartbreak. My heart raced in frantic beats. The premonition that something would go horribly wrong if we left here was almost unbearable. For the first time, I felt compelled to tell Mom about one of my feelings. Confess about the weeping I kept hearing. Ask for her interpretation because surely I was wrong.
Fiercely, Mom shook her head, a sharp, cutting movement, the same as the one at the hospital so many years ago: Don’t dream. I could have been seven again, swamped with panic from my vision, needing to confide in someone. Only this time it was Mom who was leaving because of what I had seen, not Dad.
“Okay, let’s go,” she said sharply, turning her back on me, my premonition, and the beach.
“Mom, wait,” I said, holding the wishing rock out to her.
“We’ve got a ton to do,” she said, not seeing the stone offering, “and regardless of what your dad thinks, I can’t do it all on my own.”
I retracted my hand. “He would have stayed if you had just said something!”
Mom’s lips pursed as if she were swallowing a mouthful of sour doubt. She marched to the bench, grabbed the blanket off the lawn, and swept up a clipboard I hadn’t noticed. A paper lined with a long list of things yet to be done fluttered in the breeze, a white flag of defeat. “The movers are coming in fifteen minutes to pack your treehouse and bedroom. You need to make sure everything’s ready for them. Pronto.”
As Mom charged up the path with a last bark—“Come on, Reb! I mean it. You’ve got to pack!”—I drew back my arm and threw the egg stone I had found for her and wished her life would be as upended as mine was now.
Excerpted from Return to Me by Justina Chen Copyright © 2013 by Justina Chen. Excerpted by permission.
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