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I EASED OPEN MY BEDROOM DOOR TO CHECK THAT THE HALLWAY was empty. When I was sure that it was, I shouldered my purse and closed the door behind me quietly, then took the stairs down to the kitchen two at a time. It was nine a.m., we were leaving for the lake house in three hours, and I was running away.
The kitchen counter was covered with my mother’s plentiful to-do lists, bags packed with groceries and supplies, and a box filled with my father’s orange prescription bottles. I tried to ignore these as I headed across the kitchen, aiming for the back door. Though I hadn’t snuck out in years, I had a feeling that it would be just like riding a bicycle—which, come to think of it, I also hadn’t done in years. But I’d woken up that morning in a cold sweat, my heart hammering, and every impulse I had telling me to leave, that things would be better if I were somewhere—anywhere—else.
“Taylor?” I froze, and turned around to see Gelsey, my twelve-year-old sister, standing at the other end of the kitchen. Even though she was still wearing her pajamas, an ancient set decorated with glittery pointe shoes, her hair was up in a perfect bun.
“What?” I asked, taking a step away from the door, trying to look as nonchalant as possible.
She frowned at me, eyes resting on my purse before traveling back to my face. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said. I leaned against the wall in what I hoped was a casual manner, even though I didn’t think I’d ever leaned against a wall in my life. “What do you want?”
“I can’t find my iPod. Did you take it?”
“No,” I said shortly, resisting the urge to tell her that I wouldn’t have touched her iPod, as it was filled solely with ballet music and the terrible band she was obsessed with, The Bentley Boys, three brothers with perfectly windswept bangs and dubious musical gifts. “Go ask Mom.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, still looking at me suspiciously. Then she pivoted on her toe and stomped out of the kitchen, yelling as she went. “Mom!”
I crossed the rest of the kitchen and had just reached for the back door when it swung open, making me jump back. My older brother, Warren, was struggling through it, laden with a bakery box and a tray of to-go coffees. “Morning,” he said.
“Hi,” I muttered, looking longingly past him to the outside, wishing that I’d tried to make my escape five minutes earlier—or, even better, had just used the front door.
“Mom sent me for coffee and bagels,” he said, as he set both on the counter. “You like sesame, right?”
I hated sesame—in fact, Warren was the only one of us who liked them—but I wasn’t going to point that out now. “Sure,” I said quickly. “Great.”
Warren selected one of the coffees and took a sip. Even though at nineteen he was only two years older than me, he was dressed, as usual, in khakis and a polo shirt, as though he might at any moment be called upon to chair a board meeting or play a round of golf. “Where is everyone?” he asked after a moment.
“No idea,” I said, hoping that he’d go investigate for himself. He nodded and took another sip, as though he had all the time in the world. “I think I heard Mom upstairs,” I said after it became clear that my brother intended to while away the morning sipping coffee and staring into space.
“I’ll tell her I’m back,” he said, setting his coffee down, just as I’d hoped he would. Warren headed toward the door, then stopped and turned back to me. “Is he up yet?”
I shrugged. “Not sure,” I said, trying to keep my voice light, like this was just a routine question. But only few weeks ago, the idea of my father still being asleep at this hour—or for that matter, still home—would have been unthinkable.
Warren nodded again and headed out of the kitchen. As soon as he was gone, I bolted for the door.
I hurried down our driveway and, when I made it to the sidewalk, let out a long breath. Then I started speed-walking down Greenleaf Road as quickly as possible. I probably should have taken a car, but some things were just habit, and the last time I’d snuck out, I’d been years away from getting my license.
I could feel myself start to calm down the farther I walked. The rational part of my brain was telling me that I’d have to go back at some point, but I didn’t want to listen to the rational part of my brain right now. I just wanted to pretend that this day—this whole summer—wasn’t going to have to happen, something that got easier the more distance I put between myself and the house. I’d been walking for a while and had just started to dig in my bag for my sunglasses when I heard a metal jangling sound and looked up.
My heart sank a little as I saw Connie from the white house across the street, walking her dog and waving at me. She was around my parents’ age, and I’d known her last name at some point, but couldn’t recall it now. I dropped my sunglass case in my bag next to what I now saw was Gelsey’s iPod (whoops), which I must have grabbed thinking it was mine. There was no avoiding Connie without blatantly ignoring her or turning and running into the woods. And I had a feeling either of these options was behavior that might make it back to my mother immediately. I sighed and made myself smile at her as she got closer.
“Taylor, hi!” she called, smiling wide at me. Her dog, a big, dumb-looking golden retriever, strained against his leash toward me, panting, tail wagging. I looked at him and took a small step away. We’d never had a dog, so though I liked them in theory, I hadn’t had all that much experience with them. And even though I watched the reality show Top Dog much more than someone who didn’t actually own a dog should, this didn’t help when confronted with one in the real world.
“Hi, Connie,” I said, already starting to edge away, hoping she’d get the hint. “Nice to see you!”
“You too,” she replied automatically, but I saw her smile fade a little as her eyes traveled over my face and outfit. “You’re looking a bit different today,” she said. “Very… relaxed.”
Since Connie normally saw me in my Stanwich Academy uniform—white blouse and itchy plaid skirt—I had no doubt I looked different now, as I’d pretty much just rolled out of bed, not even bothering to brush my hair, and was wearing flip-flops, cutoffs, and a much-washed white T-shirt that read LAKE PHOENIX SWIM TEAM. The shirt technically wasn’t mine, but I’d appropriated it so many years ago that I now just thought of it as my property.
“I guess so,” I said to Connie, making sure to keep a smile on my face. “Well…”
“Any big plans for the summer?” she asked brightly, apparently completely unaware that I was trying to end this conversation. The dog, maybe realizing this was going to take a while, flopped down at her feet, resting his head on his paws.
“Not really,” I said, hoping that might be the end of it. But she continued to look at me, eyebrows raised, so I stifled a sigh and went on. “We’re actually leaving today to spend the summer at our lake house.”
“Oh, wonderful!” she gushed. “That sounds lovely. Whereabouts is it?”
“It’s in the Poconos,” I said. She frowned, as though trying to place the name, and I added, “The Pocono Mountains. In Pennsylvania?”
“Oh, right,” she said, nodding, though I could tell from her expression that she still had no idea what I was talking about, which wasn’t actually that unexpected. Some of my friends’ families had summer houses, but they tended to be in places like Nantucket or Cape Cod. Nobody else I knew had a summer house in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.
“Well,” Connie said, still smiling brightly. “A lake house! That should be nice.”
I nodded, not really trusting myself to answer, since I didn’t want to go back to Lake Phoenix. I so didn’t want to go back that I had snuck out of the house with practically no plan and no supplies except my sister’s iPod, rather than face going there.
“So,” Connie said, tugging on the dog’s leash, causing him to lumber to his feet, “be sure to say hello to your mother and father for me! I hope they’re both doing well, and—” She stopped suddenly, her eyes widening and cheeks reddening slightly. I recognized the signs immediately, even though I’d only been seeing them for three weeks. She had Remembered.
It was something that I had no idea how to handle, but as an unexpected upside, it was something that seemed to be working in my favor. Somehow, overnight, everyone in school seemed to know, and my teachers had been informed, though why or by whom, I’d never been sure. But it was the only explanation for the fact that I’d aced all my finals, even in classes like Trig, which I’d been dangerously close to getting a C in. And if that wasn’t enough proof, when my English teacher had passed out our exams, she’d set mine down on my desk and rested her hand on it for just a minute, causing me to look up at her.
“I know that studying must be hard for you right now,” she’d murmured, as though the entire class wasn’t listening, ears straining for every syllable. “So just do your best, all right, Taylor?”
And I’d bitten my lip and done the Brave Nod, aware the whole time that I was pretending, acting the way I knew she expected me to act. And sure enough, I’d gotten an A on the test, even though I’d only skimmed the end of The Great Gatsby.
Everything had changed. Or, more accurately, everything was going to change. But nothing had really changed yet. And it made the condolences odd—as if people were saying how sorry they were that my house had burned down when it was still intact but with an ember smoking nearby, waiting.
“I will,” I said quickly, saving Connie from having to stammer through one of the well-meaning speeches I was already sick of hearing—or even worse, telling me about some friend of a friend who had been miraculously cured through acupuncture/meditation/tofu, and had we considered that? “Thank you.”
“Take care,” she said, putting more meaning in those words than they usually had, as she reached out and patted me on the shoulder. I could see the pity in her eyes, but also the fear—that slight distancing, because if something like this was happening to my family, it could happen to hers.
“You too,” I said, trying to keep a smile on my face until she had waved again and headed down the street, dog leading the way. I continued in the opposite direction, but my escape no longer felt like it was going to make things better. What was the point of trying to run away if people were going to insist on reminding you of what you were running from? Though I hadn’t felt the need to do it for a while now, running away had been something I’d done with real frequency when I was younger. It had all started when I was five, and I had gotten upset that my mother was paying attention only to baby Gelsey, and Warren, as usual, wouldn’t let me play with him. I’d stomped outside, and then had seen the driveway, and the wider world beyond it, beckoning. I had started walking down the street, mostly just wondering how long it would take for someone to realize I was even gone. I was soon found and brought home, of course, but that had begun the pattern, and running away became my preferred method of dealing with anything that upset me. It got to be such a routine that when I used to announce from the doorway, tearfully, that I was leaving home forever and ever, my mother would just nod, barely looking at me, telling me only to make sure to be back in time for dinner.
I had just pulled out Gelsey’s iPod—willing to suffer through even the Bentley Boys if it meant a distraction from my thoughts—when I heard the low rumble of the sports car behind me.
It occurred to me that I must have been gone longer than I’d realized as I turned around, knowing what I would see. My father was behind the wheel of his low-slung silver car, smiling at me. “Hi, kid,” he said through the open passenger-side window. “Want a ride?”
Knowing that there was no point in even pretending any longer, I pulled open the passenger side door and got in. My dad looked across at me and raised his eyebrows. “So what’s the news?” he asked, his traditional greeting.
I shrugged and looked down at the gray floor mats, still pristine, even though he’d had the car for a year. “I just, you know, felt like a walk.”
My dad nodded. “Of course,” he said, his voice overly serious, as though he completely believed me. But we both knew what I’d really been doing—it had usually been my father who would come and find me. He always seemed to know where I would be, and rather than bringing me right home, if it wasn’t too late, we would go out for ice cream instead, after I’d promise not to tell my mother.
I buckled my seat belt, and to my surprise, my dad didn’t turn the car around, but instead kept driving, turning onto the road that would take us downtown. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“I thought we could use some breakfast,” he said, glancing over at me as he pulled to a stop at a red. “For some reason, all the bagels in the house seem to be sesame.”
I smiled at that, and when we arrived, followed my dad into Stanwich Deli. Since the deli was packed, I hung back and let him order. As my eyes roamed over the shop, I noticed Amy Curry standing toward the front of the line, holding hands with a tall, cute guy wearing a Colorado College T-shirt. I didn’t know her well—she’d moved with her mother and brother down the street from us last summer—but she smiled and waved at me, and I waved back.
When my dad made it to the front of the line, I watched him rattling off our order, saying something that made the counter guy laugh. To look at my father, you wouldn’t be able to tell that anything was truly wrong. He was a little thinner, his skin tone just slightly yellow. But I was trying not to see this as I watched him drop some change into the tip jar. I was trying not to see how tired he looked, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. But most of all, I was trying not to think about the fact that we had been told, by experts who knew these things, that he had approximately three months left to live.