Image

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be obtained from the Library of Congress.

ISBN 978-1-4197-2864-8
eISBN 978-1-68335-249-5

Text copyright © 2018 Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison
Illustrations copyright © 2018 Kimberly Glyder
Book design by Alyssa Nassner

Published in 2018 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.

Amulet Books and Amulet Paperbacks are registered trademarks of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Amulet Books are available at special discounts when purchased in quantity for premiums and promotions as well as fund-raising or educational use. Special editions can also be created to specification. For details, contact specialsales@abramsbooks.com or the address below.

images
ABRAMS The Art of Books
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
abramsbooks.com

Image

For Vermont College of Fine Arts—the place that brought us together and the people who’ve helped us grow

LAUREN

The Hardest Goodbye

There’s nothing harder than saying goodbye to Ryan.

It was hard enough back in August, when Mom and Dad first took him to his new school. Back then, I knew I’d miss him. And I was afraid that this fancy therapeutic boarding school way far away in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, wasn’t the right place for him, even though Ry said he wanted to go, and Mom and Dad kept gushing about what a wonderful opportunity it was, and his old occupational therapist, Jenna, said you couldn’t find a better school for a teen on the autism spectrum.

But saying goodbye today, at the end of Family Weekend? This was worse. Way, way worse. Because now that I’ve seen the place for myself and seen how Ryan is there, I’m not just afraid it isn’t right. Now I know it’s not.

It was awful. Really, it was. Not the kind of awful that would be obvious right away, if you weren’t paying close attention. It’s actually sort of beautiful, with purple-gray mountains in the distance and a long, winding driveway and super-green hills. The buildings are all new, with big windows and soft lights, and there are pretty wood stables with brown and black and reddish horses, and vegetable gardens with neat rows of kale and broccoli and beets.

But it’s awful for Ryan.

Ryan’s happiest at home, where he has his own calming corner set up in the basement, and his own, always-tuned piano in the living room, and his own fish tank to take care of.

At the school, they let him set up his keyboard and a teeny-tiny fish tank in his room . . . but still. It’s nothing like the calming corner at home, which took ages to get just right. And he has to take piano lessons for his “arts component” even though he likes to play his way, just hearing the notes in his head, not reading music.

And he’s supposed to help take care of horses and vegetables even though he doesn’t like getting dirty. Horses and vegetables aren’t “therapeutic” at all, when it comes to Ry. That’s why he got so upset yesterday when he was taking us around to see the stables and gardens. This know-it-all occupational therapist named Scott said maybe Ryan needed some alone time in his room, since Family Weekend can be a big stressor for students who have just gotten used to their school routine. As if we were the reason he got overwhelmed. When really we’re the ones who know how to help him the best.

I was sure Mom and Dad saw how wrong it all was, too. I was sure they were going to say something this morning, when we all went back to Ryan’s room after breakfast. About how it was good that we’d given it a try, but this wasn’t working, so we should just take Ryan home.

They looked at each other for an extra long time, and then Dad gave a tiny little nod, like he was telling Mom it was time. Time to say it.

Mom’s eyes were a little teary, as if maybe she felt bad about how wrong they’d been to think Piedmont was a good idea in the first place. But then she reached into her giant bag and pulled out two wrapped, rectangular presents—one big and one little—and handed them to Ryan.

“What are these for?” Ryan asked.

“Dad and I wanted you to have something special,” she said. She gave Ryan a wobbly smile, and her voice was way too cheerful. “For being so brave and independent.”

“We’re proud of you, buddy,” Dad added. “Go on. Open them.”

So Ryan tore the paper off the big one, and he let out a happy yell when he saw what it was: a MacBook Air. Then he opened the other one and yelled out again. The newest iPhone.

He yanked the computer out of its box first, and Dad recited the stats he’d learned at the Apple store, about how fast the processing speed was and how quickly YouTube videos were going to load.

I lowered myself down to sit on the edge of Ryan’s school bed, which has a boring gray comforter because the bed’s too small for the green one from home, and I tried to understand what was happening.

It’s not like Mom and Dad have never bought us anything nice before. And Ry had told us a hundred times when the new iPhone was coming out, so it wasn’t a secret that he wanted one. But they’d gotten him a phone and a laptop, when it wasn’t even a holiday?

And once he opened his presents, we didn’t talk about the smelly horses and muddy vegetable gardens, or how Scott the OT is nowhere near as nice as Jenna, Ry’s OT at home. We only talked about the apps Ryan wanted to download and a new music program he was going to set up on the computer.

Which was Mom and Dad’s plan, probably. To distract Ryan with these shiny new electronics to make it easier when we left.

When it was time for us to go, Ryan walked us to our rental car. Dad said goodbye first. He leaned in close to whisper something I couldn’t hear, and then he kissed Ry on the forehead. Then Mom clasped Ry’s hand and rested her head on his shoulder for just a second, since he’s taller than she is now. “I love you so much,” she told him. “We’ll miss you so much, honey.”

When she pulled away, tears were streaming down her face. For a fraction of a second, I felt sorry for her, but she’s the one who decided it was a good idea for Ryan to go to this terrible school, where he obviously doesn’t belong. She and Dad both did.

Then Ry pressed his palm to mine, the way we always do instead of hugging.

“Bye, La,” he said.

“Bye, Ry Guy,” I said back, and I couldn’t help it. I cried, too. It was too much, knowing he was about to go back into those too-new buildings with all of those people who think they understand him so much better than we do just because they’re autism experts, when we’re Ryan experts.

“I’m okay, La-La,” Ryan told me. “I’m happy.”

But I don’t believe he’s really happy. I mean, happy for a minute, because of Mom and Dad’s guilt gifts? Maybe. But for-real happy? There’s just no way.

The thing about Ry is, sometimes he goes along with things that make him feel awful because he wants to make other people feel good, and then it all gets to be too much, and he melts down. Like how he came along to Visiting Day at my camp over the summer and went to lunch in the loud cafeteria with fluorescent lights and then came into my crowded cabin that stank of Addie Lester’s peach body lotion. Noises and lights and smells are so intense for him that he probably felt like someone was scratching their fingernails down a blackboard one millimeter from his eardrum while shining a giant searchlight straight into his eyes and squirting skunk spray up his nostrils. But he did it all because he thought it was important to me.

So now he might just be sticking out boarding school because he thinks it’s important to Mom and Dad. And there’ll be nobody around but Scott the Smug OT to comfort him when it’s all too much to stick out.

“You sure you’re okay?” I asked him. “You don’t want to come home?”

He tapped his fingertips against mine, twice, and then took his hand away. “I’m going to go to a good college,” he said. “I’m going to learn so much.”

That’s what convinced him that the Piedmont Therapeutic Boarding School was a good idea. Mom took him to the University of Pennsylvania a lot last year to see lectures and tour the archaeology museum. He wants to go there for college someday, so he can listen to all the history and science lectures he wants and visit the Egyptian exhibit anytime. Mom says, now that Ry’s fourteen, they’ve hit their homeschooling limit, and he needs real professionals to push him so he can “reach his academic potential.”

But she could hire tutors who could challenge him in subjects that she can’t. And then he could learn enough to get ready for college and still live at home with us. In what universe is dumping him at Piedmont better than that?

And . . . OK. Here is the very worst thing. Now that we’ve just left him at his school with the shiny new electronics that won’t fix anything and horses I know he doesn’t want to clean up after and gross kale plants I know he doesn’t want to water and piano lessons I know he must hate, there’s a terrible, terrible thought that I can’t push away any longer:

What if it’s not that Mom and Ry reached the limit of how much he could learn with her homeschooling him?

What if Mom and Dad have reached their Ryan limit, and they’ve decided our lives would be easier without him?

SIERRA

Out of Body

Mom hugs me hard,

says she’ll be home soon.

Her eyes swollen,

she whispers,

“Don’t worry,

my baby girl.”

She doesn’t say goodbye,

so I don’t either.

As one cop car

takes her away,

my heart stays stuck

in the spot

she left behind

my body

steps into another cop car

a lady cop plugs in the address.

Even as she walks me

to Cassidy’s front door,

my heart stays frozen.

It might never leave

that parking lot.

Not Until

“Happy birthday, hon,”

Cassidy’s mom, Lena,

my mom’s best friend,

pulls me in.

The smell of her day-drinking

wakes me up.

As a rule: She allows herself just one

before the bus comes to deliver:

Cassidy,

the twins,

and then the older girls

Michelle,

Dawn,

all back home.

Lena and I walk together to the bus stop.

“Something I know about your mom is, she loves you more than anything.”

I don’t want to cry anymore, so I focus

on stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk.

If she loves me so much, why didn’t she listen to me?

Why doesn’t she ever listen to me?

I want to ask.

Cassidy and her sisters bound off the bus.

At first, Cassidy’s not surprised to see me.

Not until she sees my face.

And all my tears

painted there.

Won’t Fit

Lena tells Cassidy’s oldest sister, Dawn, to run to the mini-mart.

She sticks candles in my favorite kind of Tastykake.

A puffy pink Snowball.

Thirteen candles won’t fit.

Lena settles on three.

They all sing happy birthday to me,

but just hearing the song makes me feel

swollen,

sick.

Counting

Mom uses her one phone call

to ask for bail money

from Lena.

I count what’s in my wallet.

$11.

Mom uses her one phone call

to ask Lena

to keep me

until she can get out.

My fingers, uncrossed, cross.

Promises

“It’ll be fun, you can sleep next to me.”

Cassidy smiles,

showing her crisscrossed teeth,

tapping the bed next to her.

“Michelle sleeps there,” I say.

Usually, on sleepovers, we just drag

sleeping bags into their den.

“We’ll make her sleep with the twins!”

she giggles.

Mischief creeping in

to her yellow-green eyes.

Trying to laugh with her feels like trying to believe

Mom

every time she says

she will get sober

things will be different.

A new apartment.

A new pet.

A new job.

 

“It will be so fun,” I laugh with Cassidy, toss a pillow at her.

Getting Ready

The morning,

menthol in hand,

one twin on her lap,

cereal bowls crowding the table,

Lena tells me—

She doesn’t have bail money.

Or enough to keep me

long.

But she says—the arrest was just for

disorderly conduct & resisting arrest.

Usually those sentences

are

short.

“Unless—”

Something passes over her face,

but she drags her cigarette,

stuffs it back down.

I want to ask her if she knows where I’ll go.

But, instead, I get ready for school.

Borrow Michelle’s clothes, tiny Cassidy’s too small for me.

Close my eyes, see Mom handing me lunch money.

Tell myself she will make bail from someone else.

She will get me back.

She has to.

Practice problems in my head.

It’s Wednesday, and there’s a big math test.

Moving Sideways

Lena drives us to school,

to make sure I’m OK.

Walks us in.

From the car to school,

Cassidy whispers:

she will convince her mom to keep me as long as I need,

she will snag a mattress from her neighbor,

she will start saving some of her food for me.

I nod at all her plans.

But when we get to school,

instead of letting me go forward

to math for my test,

the school counselor

is there waiting for me.

And someone else I don’t know.

A heavyset woman with glasses.

Moving me sideways.

They need to speak to me

right away.

Lena clasps my hand

I have no choice but          to follow.

LAUREN

What Really Matters

I followed Mom and Dad through the Asheville airport, barely looking up. Without Ryan, nobody pointed out which planes were Airbus A320s or Boeing 767s. Mom made a big thing of taking the middle seat on the plane and giving me the window. With only three of us, we fit on one side of the aisle. No need to split up two and two.

I tried to talk to Mom and Dad once the plane took off. I told them all the ways the school is wrong for Ryan, and at first, I thought I was getting through to them. Mom looked like she might start crying again, and even Dad blinked too many times and kept twisting his wedding ring around and around on his finger, as if he might crack, too, if he didn’t focus all his attention on that shiny gold band.

But then Dad laced his big fingers through Mom’s thinner ones, and Mom reached over to squeeze my hand, too.

“We know this is so hard, honey,” she said. “But this is going to be so good for Ryan.”

And then Dad started in with his lawyer routine. Laying out all the evidence in favor of Piedmont in his calm, definite voice.

“Piedmont has autistic adults on the board who consult on all their therapies,” he said. “It’s so much more progressive than the Keller School was. So much more tuned in to what Ryan needs.”

And, OK, Piedmont’s not as bad as Keller, the school near our house for kids with learning differences where Ryan went the year before last. At Keller, they tried to force him to make eye contact and stop stimming, which is what it’s called when he rubs the fabric of his T-shirts and flicks his fingers to calm himself down when things are hard. When he went there, he was quiet and sad and had more meltdowns than he’d ever had before, until Mom and Dad pulled him out and found Jenna, who appreciates all the things he’s good at and doesn’t try to change him.

But just because Piedmont’s better than Keller was, that doesn’t make it right.

“We’re so lucky we can afford this kind of opportunity for Ryan,” Dad added.

Then Mom chimed in. “And you know Ry wants to be around other teens he can relate to.”

Which he did say before he left in August. But then he barely even talked to any other students the entire time we were there.

“Sweetheart, you know this is what we decided as a family,” Dad said.

As if I had any choice in the matter. As if my vote counts at all.

The flight attendant walked by and smiled as she looked at us. Mom, Dad, and me, holding one another’s hands as we sat on one side of the aisle while Ryan was back in North Carolina, all alone. The flight attendant probably assumed we were a happy family of three. She didn’t have any idea at all. The whole thing was just so wrong.

So I yanked my hand out of Mom’s grip and turned toward the window, watching the North Carolina mountains fade into the distance as the plane took us farther and farther away from Ry.

Back at home this morning, there were two rectangular presents at my place at the kitchen table—one big, one little. I didn’t have to open them up to know what they were.

“We’re proud of you, too, Laur,” Dad said. “We know none of this is easy.”

But somehow fancy new stuff is supposed to help?

“Now you have the same phone Audrey does!” Mom said. “And a fast new computer for your schoolwork.”

They were both looking at me, their faces so cheerful. So sure that—poof!—a new phone and laptop would make me forget how terrible it was to leave Ry.

I left the presents where they were and grabbed a bagel.

“I’m ready to go to school,” I told Mom. “Can you take me now?”

She’d said I could go late, since we hadn’t gotten home from North Carolina until after ten. But I had no desire to stay in our too-clean, too-quiet, Ryan-free house with that terrible thought blaring louder and longer in my head, like when Ryan pushes one of the pedals on the piano to make a note ring out.

I missed the bus, but Mom dropped me off before advisory was over. I took a seat next to Audrey, who turned to a new piece of loose-leaf in her science binder and scribbled a note. How was the school? You feel better now??

I pressed my top and bottom teeth together, hard, so I wouldn’t scream. Audrey’s just so completely sure that my parents are right. That going to Piedmont’s this amazing, exciting opportunity and it’s just so completely awesome that Ryan can do it.

I didn’t write her a note back, because there wasn’t any point. When Ryan first left, I tried to tell her why I was worried, but she didn’t listen at all. She kept saying, “Didn’t Ryan say he wanted to go?” and, “Look, the website says they have a concert piano!” and, “I bet once you see it for yourself when you visit, you’ll feel better about everything.”

And that was wrong, wrong, wrong. I don’t feel better at all.

Ms. Meadows stopped what she was saying to the group and smiled at me. “Morning, Lauren. We’re just going over how we’ll choose our student government rep.”

Audrey pointed to her note with the top of her pen, and I managed a shrug.

“I can only nominate one student to be a representative, and it’s a big responsibility,” Ms. Meadows said. “But raise your hand if you’re interested, and I’ll talk to each of you over the next couple of days before I make my recommendation.”

Audrey glanced at me as her hand shot up. We’d both done student government in sixth grade, but we weren’t in the same advisory then. Ms. Meadows couldn’t choose both of us now.

Three other kids raised their hands, too, but I kept mine down. Audrey’s dark brown eyes went from nervous to confused, and then she stuck out her chin. That’s what she does when she’s annoyed.

We always used to go for all the same things, Audrey and me. Sometimes I think she isn’t sure something’s worth having if I don’t want it, too. It’s just . . . student government was important to me last year, but all we did was plan the themes for dances and organize bake sales so we could pay for real DJs instead of having high school students do it. Everybody got so worked up choosing between an outer space theme or a winter wonderland, but nothing we did really mattered.

“Terrific,” Ms. Meadows said after she’d written down names. “And I’m also hoping one of you might be willing to be our Worship and Ministry rep.”

Everyone looked down at their desks. Nobody ever volunteered for Worship and Ministry. Nobody Audrey and I were friends with, anyway.

“Mr. Ellis is advising this year, and he has a lot of exciting ideas! He wants to have the first meeting during lunch today.”

Mr. Ellis teaches history, and he’s new and young and funny. That was a good start but probably not enough to convince anybody, and Ms. Meadows knew it.

“It’s a very important job,” she went on. “This semester we’re focusing on the Quaker testimony of simplicity, and the Worship and Ministry group will help us figure out how to make simplicity meaningful.”

“Simplicity!” Max Sherman pumped his fist. “Woo-hoo, my favorite SPICE!”

The other guys all laughed.

SPICES is the word we learned back in lower school to remember the Quaker ideas we’re all supposed to follow, since we go to a Quaker school. Simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship.

“Does that mean you’re volunteering, Max?” Ms. Meadows asked.

Max shook his head so hard, I was surprised his Phillies hat didn’t go flying. “No way. Sorry.”

Ms. Meadows sighed. “Well, I won’t force anyone. But if any of you change your mind . . .”

I thought of those two rectangular boxes waiting for me on the kitchen table at home. Somebody needed to teach my parents about simplicity.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

Audrey’s mouth fell halfway open.

“Thank you, Lauren,” Ms. Meadows said. “I’m sure Mr. Ellis will be thrilled to have you.”

Then she changed the subject right away, probably so I couldn’t take it back.

On the way out of advisory, Audrey cornered me. “Worship and Ministry club? Really? What’s going on with you today? Are you OK?” She tapped the toe of one of her brand-new gray lace-up boots against the floor, waiting for me to answer.

But I had no idea what to say to any of those questions, so I shrugged again and headed to first period.

There should have been twelve kids in Worship and Ministry. One kid per advisory, three advisories per grade, four grades in middle school: fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. But only four people had signed up. Me, another seventh grader named Mariah, and two guys: Jake, who’s in eighth grade, and Gordy, who’s in sixth.

I took the seat next to Mariah. Her bangs are dyed neon blue, and she was wearing a T-shirt with a rip down the back and safety pins holding it together. I’ve gone to school with Mariah since kindergarten, but I’ve barely talked to her since, like, second grade.

“I like your hair,” I told her.

Plenty of people tint the ends of their hair pink or red or purple or just dye streaks in the front, but nobody else in our grade has hair as bright as Mariah’s. The first day of school, Audrey whispered that Mariah looked like a Smurf and that she could be pretty if she’d stop trying so hard to look weird. But what’s wrong with trying to be a little bit different?

Mr. Ellis started the meeting. “I want to thank you all for giving up your lunchtime. I hear we have some Worship and Ministry veterans here.” He paused to look at Jake and Mariah. “And some new volunteers, too. We’ve got a big job, people. Let’s get going.”

He started by asking us all what we thought of when we heard the word simplicity. I was sitting the closest to him, so I was up first.

I thought of that shiny new laptop. The shiny new phone. Audrey’s shiny new boots. The shiny new cars that my parents drive and that all my friends’ parents do, too.

“Um . . . I guess simplicity means not getting too wrapped up in material possessions. Like, not thinking that the most important thing in the world is whether you have the newest iPhone or brand-new shoes and clothes when that stuff maybe makes you feel good for a little while, but there are so many people who don’t even have the things they need.”

I was thinking about how Ryan’s old occupational therapist, Jenna, works with people who can pay for their treatments, like us, and other families who can’t. I used to go with Mom to pick Ry up from OT sometimes, and one time, he and two other kids were playing Jenga together. One of them was a girl with a puffy ponytail and oversized sweats. She looked about my age, and she was kneeling in front of the game, rocking back and forth. I could see in her face how hard she was fighting to keep herself calm. But then Ryan took a turn, and he must have taken the block she wanted to move, because she got upset and kept slamming her fists against the floor.

The girl wasn’t there the next time Ryan had a social skills session, so I asked Jenna where she was.

“Hailey?” Jenna said. “Unfortunately, some of my clients can’t come as often as Ryan. Some of their parents have to work multiple jobs, and they just can’t get here more than once every week or two.”

“But you do sessions at people’s houses,” I said, because she came to our house a lot. She helped us get the calming space in the basement just right, with low lighting and Ryan’s fish tank to take care of and his keyboard to play.

Jenna and Mom exchanged a look.

“Lauren, honey, you know every kid on the spectrum is different. And every family is different, too,” Mom said.

I thought that’s all I was going to get, but then Jenna said, “The truth is, sessions are expensive. Insurance doesn’t always cover the kind of therapy I do, and I have to charge even more when I go into families’ homes.”

Now everybody was still looking at me, in case I wasn’t done talking about simplicity, and I was getting worked up remembering what Jenna had told me, because how unfair is that? That Ryan could have better treatment than other people just because Mom and Dad could pay for it and Mom didn’t have to work? And if sessions at people’s houses cost more than sessions at the OT center, I can’t even imagine how much they’re paying for Ryan to live at Piedmont, where they have OTs around all the time.

We’re so lucky we can afford this opportunity for Ryan. That’s what Mom and Dad had told me on the plane.

“I just think people at our school . . . we could really do something good,” I said. “So many of us have so much. We could really help people who don’t have enough.”

Mr. Ellis smiled. “You’re so right, Lauren. It sounds like you have a strong sense of social responsibility. With that kind of passion, we can really make a difference.”

If Mr. Ellis says I’m right, then I must be. He did the Peace Corps for two years and then taught in a poor school in Northeast Philly before he came here. And Mariah, Jake, and Gordy all nodded like it was really something special, what I’d said.

In that moment, I felt better than I had in ages—since before Ryan went away.

And that’s when I got the idea.

SIERRA

Crowding