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Little & Lion
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A stunning novel on love, identity, loss, and redemption.
When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she’s isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (as well as her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.
But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.
“Little and Lion is beautifully insightful, honest, and compassionate. Brandy’s ability to find larger meaning in small moments is nothing short of dazzling.” — Nicola Yoon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Everything, Everything
It's bizarre to be so nervous about seeing the person who knows me best, but the past year hasn't been so kind to Lionel and me.
I'm standing outside LAX on a sun-soaked afternoon in early June when my brother's navy-blue sedan screeches to a halt a few feet away. Part of me doesn't mind that he's thirty minutes late, because I needed time to get used to the idea of being back home. But now he's here and my heart is thumping like it's going to jump out of my mouth and there's nowhere to go.
Lionel bolts from the car and barely looks at me before he starts rummaging around in the trunk, shoving aside a plastic crate filled with used books to make room for my luggage. "I am so sorry," he mutters. "The freeway was a nightmare."
There really is no such thing as traffic back in Avalon, Massachusetts. People don't honk their horns. They put up with totally inconsiderate shit, like neighbors stopping their Volvos and Saabs in the middle of tree-lined streets to chat with friends, clogging up the road so no one else can pass. L.A. drivers would honk until their horns went dead while flipping them off and threatening murder—and I have missed that.
Lionel hoists my bags into the trunk, slams it closed, and turns to give me a quick hug. But it feels perfunctory and that makes me stiffen in his arms and I wonder why we're acting like strangers. I relax a bit when I notice he smells so much like he is supposed to smell, like the coziness of our house and the mustiness of his car, which is always filled with hiking shoes and old books. I'm almost overwhelmed with the reality of actually being home and standing next to Lionel. For a while now—not just a weekend or a few days clustered around a hectic holiday. I'm home for the summer.
"Good to see you, Little," he says, pulling away as he tugs one of the black dreadlocks that hang to the middle of my back.
That name never sounded so good. My brother calls me Suzette only when he's feeling anxious, and I'm relieved that he seems so calm right now.
I smile and pretend like I'm not examining every single inch of him for changes. "Yeah? I don't look too East Coast–y?" I glance down at his thumbs. Before, they were shredded, the sides of them forever bitten and spotted with red. Now they are smooth and the skin is clean, and I think that's a good thing, too.
He squints at me, blinks, shakes his head. "Nah. They haven't broken you yet. You—when the hell did you get that?"
My fingers automatically go up to the tiny gold hoop on my face. It's a septum piercing, "badass but still classy" according to the girl who put the needle through my nose at the only tattoo parlor in Avalon.
"Do you like it?"
He leans closer, his eyes glued to the jewelry. "Yeah. Never pictured it on you, but I dig it. Does Nadine know?"
Nadine doesn't know. She's my mother and she's been with Lionel's father, Saul, since I was six and Lion was seven; we merged households two years later. Lionel and I have called each other brother and sister since then, and that surprises some people at first, because he's white and I'm black. But we've been built-in best friends for practically our entire lives, until last fall—when boarding school separated the inseparable.
"Let's move it along, people!" a sturdy man wearing a fluorescent vest booms, gesturing toward the cars backed up in the lanes surrounding us.
We hustle to our respective sides of the car, and a few seconds later, Lionel successfully steers us out of the throng of airport traffic amid a cacophony of honking horns and hissing shuttle brakes.
"The parents are waiting for us," he says. "But I'm starving. Are you starving? Want to sneak off and grab a bite first?"
What I want is to go straight to my bed and collapse into a deep sleep for about twelve hours. But all I've had today is a pack of peanuts and two cans of cherry cola, and as soon as he mentions my favorite taco truck, I forget about my jet lag.
People back East would ask what I missed the most about California, and I never quite knew where to start. Of course I missed my family. It's never cool to say so, but even the little things I used to hate, like the way Saul hums Barry Manilow songs while he makes breakfast—I would've killed for that on the really bad days. I missed the towering palm trees that look a little ratty during the day and majestic against the inky skyline after the sun drops. I missed the blistering sunshine and the horrific traffic and the way nobody here gives a shit about what anyone else is up to because there are too many better things to be doing with your time.
"How are you?" I ask, looking over at Lion.
His dark red hair is in need of a cut, but he looks good. Healthy. His blue eyes are focused, and I feel like I am looking at the version of Lionel I truly know. The Lionel I've missed.
"Good," he says, shrugging as if the question isn't loaded. "Just finished this incredible article in the New Yorker. You read this week's issue?"
As if I am him, who has subscribed to the New Yorker since he was thirteen and saves the old issues in neat stacks at the back of his closet.
I shake my head. "It's no fun reading them if I'm not stealing yours."
He takes his hand off the steering wheel to flick my shoulder, and I grin. I needed that almost more than his hug.
"Besides, I don't really have time to read for fun anymore." A year ago I wouldn't have been able to fathom making such a statement.
Lionel turns left onto La Cienega and clutches at the front of his T-shirt. "Surely you jest."
Living in the same house, it was hard not to be a big reader, with Lionel's overflowing bookshelves and frequent trips to libraries and bookstores. But reading didn't relax me when I was at Dinsmore Hall. It mostly reminded me that my brother was no longer a few hundred feet away if I wanted to discuss the story I was into. I tried texting but it wasn't the same, with the three-hour time difference.
He sent me off with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest last fall and… well, I put it on the top shelf of my closet after the first night, away from my other books. Lion meant it as a joke, as a way to let me know he still had a sense of humor about what was happening to him, but I didn't find it very funny or comforting.
"You really haven't been reading?"
"I know." I sigh. "I fully expect to be disowned."
He looks over and smirks. "Heavily judged but not disowned. Classes still tough?"
"Kind of. They were time-consuming, mostly."
And I did miss the unofficial book club I had with my brother, but I stopped having time for it less because of the studying and more because of a girl named Iris.
"Well, it's good you're here. Now things can go back to normal," he says.
Normal. But which is the normal Lionel, the old or the new? I wouldn't know anymore, considering how little I've been able to see him over the past year. It wasn't my choice to go away, and the guilt of not being here for him is almost debilitating. I want to remind him of that every second, even though I know he's aware I didn't want to leave him.
He pauses, not looking at me. "Are you glad to be back?"
"Yeah, I guess.…" I stick my arm out the window to feel the California sun on my skin. "I mean, yes, but you know how you can get used to something, even if you don't like it all that much?"
"Yeah, Little," he says in a voice that holds too much weight. "I know."
The car is silent, save for the softest notes of indie rock playing in the background. I turn to my window and zone out as we make our way from the west side of the city to the east, thinking about what I have to do now that I'm home. Hug DeeDee. Find out how Lionel has really been doing, because as much as I want to believe he's as well as he seems, deep down I don't think he is. Figure out if I want to go back to Massachusetts and face the mess I left or fight to stay here, where things are another kind of difficult.
My mouth starts watering the closer we get to the taco truck, and I'm prepared to ride around for a while, looking for parking, but then the most magical thing that can happen in L.A. occurs—we find an empty spot just two parking meters down. Lionel whips into the space and we bolt from the car to follow the intoxicating fragrance of marinated meat, fresh tortillas, and spices down the sidewalk. The ever-present line that curls around the front of the truck is discouraging but only reinforces how delicious the food is—definitely worth the wait.
Lionel orders our usual, and we barely make it back to his car before I'm digging into the bag, pulling out a foil-wrapped chorizo taco from the quartet squeezed inside. Lionel divvies up the wedges of limes and sliced radishes between us, and we lean against the back bumper to eat. Or, more accurately, I moan with appreciation as Lionel inhales carne asada and rolls his eyes.
"Don't look at me like that." I lick spicy-sweet salsa from the corner of my mouth because wiping it with a napkin is a waste. "I've been deprived of good Mexican food for months."
"Yeah, but you get all that cool New England shit." Lion tips back his bottle of pineapple soda, identical to the one resting by my feet. He swallows. "Chowder and lobster rolls and—"
"And it's no comparison. Give me this over lobster any day."
My mother texts as we're finishing up our first tacos, asking if we're on our way back. Part of me wants to run right home and fold myself into her arms and never let go. But the part of me that remembers how helpless and angry and sad I felt when she told me last summer that I had to go away resurfaces in that moment.
Lionel watches as I balance the phone on my knees and clumsily text with my left hand, trying not to smear food on the screen. "This about her?" When I look up, he's pointing at my nose ring.
"Why does it have to be about anything? Why can't I just like jewelry?"
"I don't know… I never thought you were into piercings or whatever." Lionel starts in on his shrimp taco. "It's kind of front and center."
"People were getting things pierced." I shrug. "I guess I gave in to peer pressure. Do you hate it or something?"
By people I mean my roommate, Iris, and she didn't pressure me. We got tired of studying one day and took a walk in downtown Avalon and then we were upstairs in the piercing loft, watching the blue-haired girl snap on a pair of rubber gloves. Iris held my hand so I'd have something to grab on to when it hurt. It was the perfect distraction, because at first I couldn't stop thinking about how soft her palm felt against mine—until the needle pierced through the middle of my nose with a sharp prick and I felt like I was going to sneeze my face off.
"I don't hate it, Little. It's just different."
I don't like the way he doesn't look at me as he says the word different.
"Yeah, well. So am I."
My eyes sting as Lionel swings the car onto our street, and I tell myself I'm just tired, but fuck, I missed this place. I blink almost violently as our olive-green Victorian comes into view, with its fish-scale shingles and maroon trim and the turret at the top that houses my bedroom. We live in a historic district of L.A., the streets of our neighborhood lined with all types of gorgeous Victorian and Craftsman houses, but I swear, ours gets the most lingering looks when people drive or walk by. It's been six months since I was home, and now I'm the one who can't tear her eyes away.
Our parents are sitting close together on the wooden swing that hangs from the porch, but they pop right up when we pull into the drive. Saul comes bounding down first, his big arms engulfing me before I've even emerged from the car. "We missed you so much, kiddo."
"Missed you, too." I kind of can't wait to hear him humming "Copacabana" over fried eggs.
He gives me one last squeeze and pulls back, and I smile as I take in his strawberry-blond hair that's silvered at the temples, and the creases of laugh lines around his mouth. He has Lionel's same oceanic blue eyes, the ones that convey every ounce of emotion.
Father and son scoop up my bags and take them inside, leaving me alone with my mother. She looks pretty in wide-legged linen pants and a white top that contrasts perfectly with her warm brown skin and short Afro dyed the color of dark cherries. She notices my new piece of jewelry—her eyebrows rise slightly as her gaze sweeps over me—but she doesn't say anything about it.
Her eyes are wet as she blinks at me, as she smooths a palm softly over the side of my face. "Oh, sweet pea, I really missed you."
"I missed you, too," I say, folding myself into her hug.
I spent the first few weeks at school seething through the phone calls from her and Saul, but the longer I was there, the more my anger faded, until it mostly manifested on the days I particularly missed home and my brother.
I know she really thought she did what was best for all of us by sending me away.
I know how easy it is to believe you're doing the right thing if you say it to yourself often enough.
I wake at six thirty the morning after I return. Every part of me is exhausted and I still can't escape the East Coast.
I blink at the rounded, soft gray wall of my bedroom, confused for a moment. I've always loved it up here, with the gauzy white curtains fluttering in front of big windows and the twinkle lights woven along the tops of them. And I missed the worn purple armchair, the one my mother has had since college and passed on to me years ago. My room is cozy, but today—well, I feel strange waking up in a turret. I used to think it was cool to sleep in a tower, but now it seems a little childish, like I never stopped playing princess.
Not to mention it felt even stranger falling asleep in a room by myself after so many months. It took me weeks to get used to sleeping across the room from Iris first semester… which is funny, considering everything that's happened.
I stretch from my toes to my fingertips, yawn until I see stars, then lie back and listen. The house is quiet. I curl my phone into my palm and walk down the short staircase that descends from my room, stopping at the middle-level bathroom. I peek into the shower to find my shampoo and conditioner sitting in the same spot where I left them at the end of winter break, back when Lionel seemed better—no frenzied footsteps heard through his door at two in the morning when I got up to use the bathroom, no trays of untouched food sitting outside his room at all hours of the day—but still not quite himself.
I pause on my way downstairs and press my ear to the door to see if I can hear him flipping the pages of the New Yorker or maybe an old novel by his new literary crush. All I hear is the soft whir of the fan he uses for white noise. He's asleep, like any other normal person on summer break.
In the kitchen I fill the robin's-egg-blue kettle with fresh water and turn on the flame under it. I keep waiting for light to peek over the mountaintops in the distance, but the sky remains hazy and gray and then I remember June Gloom. The sun won't be out until lunchtime, at least.
The whole world seems to be asleep. It's even too early for Mrs. Maldonado to be kneeling in her garden next door, obsessively checking her tomato plants for aphids. I should probably enjoy the silence, but it makes me uncomfortable in the same way I didn't feel right lying up in my room.
I bring my old yellow mug out to the front porch along with a spoon and a plastic bear filled with honey, then settle into the porch swing and rock back and forth, carefully, so I won't spill hot tea all over my legs. I started drinking tea in New England because that's what all the girls in my dorm drank, and it was always easier to do what they wanted than stick out even more than I already did.
I bring the yellow mug up to my lips to blow on my tea at the same time footsteps pound down our front walk, followed by a voice that's too loud for this morning.
"Shit!" The hot liquid scalds my upper lip, the tender, soft skin on the underside. The heat goes straight north to my nose, and I touch gingerly around my ring, still amazed that I haven't managed to accidentally rip it out in the few months I've had it.
"Hey, sorry. Didn't mean to scare you." Emil Choi is standing in front of our porch. "You okay?"
He's the son of my mother's best friend. His long brown legs stick out from a pair of gray running shorts, and the sneakers on his feet are scuffed and worn. He's already run at least a couple of miles if he's come from his house in Silver Lake, but he's barely broken a sweat.
"Hey, Emil. Yeah, I'll live." I go back to sucking on my lip.
"Heard you were coming back," he says, his nonchalance overpowering the air like a blast of cheap cologne. "When'd you get in?"
He knows exactly when I got in—our moms talk every day—but I decide to humor him. Because it's too early to be so bored and there's no one else to talk to and, well. Emil isn't so bad on the eyes. His mother is black and his father is Korean and he is the perfect combination of them, with his creamy brown skin and dark, serious eyes.
"Yesterday. Are you always up so early?"
He shrugs and plants his foot on the bottom step of the porch, leaning forward in a lunge. "It's better when not a lot of people are out. I have the sidewalks to myself."
"I can't believe you do this on purpose." I take a tiny sip of tea, keeping my eyes on him the whole time so there are no more surprises. But there is one more—the new shapes behind his ears. Hearing aids. Those are definitely new.
"I hated running at first." He scratches his head where thick black curls are beginning to crop up. "But then I kind of started to hate it less. Now I can't live without it."
I squeeze more honey into my mug. "That's fucked up."
"Never said it wasn't." Emil grins and I give him a small smile back. "What are you doing up so early?"
"Jet lag." I scoot back into the corner of the swing, suddenly self-conscious that I'm wearing my pajamas. They're just cotton shorts and one of Mom's old Wellesley T-shirts, but I feel exposed. I'm not even wearing a bra. And I want to ask about the hearing aids, but I don't know how.
Emil and I didn't exactly grow up as close as our mothers are. They've joked about us ending up together since we were babies, but I've always kept a safe distance. We were in the same crowd of bookish, artsy kids before I went away, but it would seem too easy to date Emil. I don't want my mother handpicking my boyfriend. And anyway, I'm not so sure Emil—or any other guy—is my type these days.
"So… DeeDee's tomorrow?" He's kind of hopping in place from foot to foot now, and when I give him a strange look, he says, "Gotta keep my heart rate up."
"Are you going?" DeeDee has been texting me about my welcome-back party for the past two weeks, and she was so excited I would've felt bad asking her to cancel it. I'd rather spend a night alone with her, rehashing all the stories that were too important not to text about immediately but that are better told in person, even if it's a retelling.
"Yeah, of course," Emil says. "I mean, I was planning on it. I could give you a ride if you want? We live so close and I'm already going that way, so—"
"Sure." He looks surprised at how quickly I agreed to it, and I guess I am, too.
I've always known my friendship with Emil could be more if I wanted it to be, and it's getting harder to ignore how much cuter I find him the older we get. I've never let myself give in to it because there would be no real surprises with Emil. I know everything there is to know about him.
But the summer already feels so uncertain, not knowing if I'll stay here or go back to Massachusetts at the end of August, so I figure it can't hurt to let my guard down for a few weeks. Besides, I haven't seen any of my old friends in months and I don't want to show up alone, even if they're all there to see me. I'm not much for entrances—grand, fashionably late, or otherwise.
"Okay, well… cool." Emil starts jogging backward, unable to hide the smile creeping up on his face. "Pick you up around seven tomorrow?"
I nod and, for a moment, let myself enjoy that I can make him smile like that. "Later, Emil."
He gives a wave and I watch his wiry frame jog away, and when he glances back over his shoulder, I am still looking in his direction.
My stomach hurts when Mom tells me to wear my nice dress.
We're going to her boyfriend's house for dinner, and it's just him and Lionel. And Mom never tells me what to wear. She lets me pick out all my own clothes when we go school shopping.
She's laid out the dress on my bed with a pair of tights. I eye it like there might be a firecracker hiding underneath.
"Because Saul is cooking us dinner tonight and we should look nice for it." She kisses the top of my head before she leaves my room.
I sit on the end of my bed for a while, staring at the dress and feeling like something big is about to change.
Lionel opens the door to their house without looking up, his face covered by a thick book.
Mom smiles when he doesn't say anything and lightly clears her throat. "Hello, Lionel."
"Hi," he mumbles, and steps aside, his freckled hand wrapped around the book like a claw. I can't read the title.
I don't say hi to him as we pass. Our parents have been dating for almost two years now, and he's not always very nice to me. Mostly he doesn't say a whole lot. He's always reading, and he never wants to talk about the books, like he thinks I'm too dumb to understand them. He's only a year older than me.
Saul walks out from the kitchen. There's a dish towel hanging from his belt loop and flour on his nose. He kisses my mom on the lips and it still makes me feel funny, but not as much as the first time I saw it.
He gives me a big hug like every time I see him, but I think it lasts longer this time. Saul is always nice, and he doesn't talk to me like other grown-ups—when he asks me questions, I feel like he really wants to know the answer. And he always asks lots of questions. Not like Lionel.
"You have flour on your nose," I say when we pull away.
"You're a true friend, Suzette." He gives Mom a fake frown. "Your mother didn't even tell me."
"Maybe I thought it was cute," she says, and I giggle as he makes a big show of wiping at his nose.
From behind his book, Lionel's muffled voice says, "When's dinner? I'm starving."
Saul made lasagna and, like always, he serves Mom and me first before he moves over to Lionel.
"More, please," Lionel says, his head bowed. He's looking down at his lap, not even trying to hide the book sitting there.
Saul sighs. He scoops more lasagna onto Lionel's plate. "Son, put that away for now."
"Why? I can hear everything you're saying."
Saul gently puts a hand on his shoulder. "We're trying to have a nice dinner, and it's rude to read at the table when we have guests."
Lionel sighs now, and I know the look in his eyes. It's the same feeling I had when Mom told me to wear a nice dress. Why is everything so special all of a sudden? He slams the book closed, stabs his fork into his pasta, and starts eating without waiting for Saul to finish serving himself.
Mom and Saul keep giving each other looks. They mean something, but I don't know what. I try to catch Lionel's eye to see if he notices, but he's staring down at his plate and hasn't said a word since he put his book away.
Finally, after Saul has passed around the bread basket for the second time, he taps his water glass with his fork and says, "Kids, Nadine and I have an announcement."
My heart starts to beat fast. I want to know what he's going to say, but at the same time, I wish we could skip this part of the night.
Mom gives me a soft smile and looks back and forth between Lionel and me when she says, "We've decided to move in together. We're all going to live in the same house."
Lionel's fork falls to his plate with a clang. "So you're getting married?"
"No, we're not," says Saul. "We love each other very much, but we've both been married before and… we think it's best if we focus on one thing at a time."
"I don't want to move." Lionel's voice is flat. His blue eyes are darker than normal as he glares down at his plate like he wants to throw it against the wall.
"We're all going to move," Saul says. "Into a new place—new to all of us. Because we love both of you very much, too, and we want everyone to be happy."
Mom tilts her head as she looks at me. "What do you think, Suzette?"
I shrug, not quite looking at her or Saul but at a spot between them on the table. "I don't know. It's okay, I guess."
I don't think it's the answer she wants, but it's better than Lionel's. I'm not lying. It's not good or bad, just okay. I don't remember my dad. He died when I was three. And I like Saul, but I don't know what it's like to live with anyone besides Mom.
They bring out champagne for them and a bottle of sparkling apple juice for Lionel and me. We clink our glasses together, and I smile to match Mom's and Saul's faces. Lionel doesn't.
Kirkus Best Book of the Year
Buzzfeed Best Book of the YearBustle.com Best Book of the YearVulture Best Book of the YearSeventeen Magazine Best Book of the Year
Praise for Little & Lion:"Little and Lion is beautifully insightful, honest, and compassionate. Brandy's ability to find larger meaning in small moments is nothing short of dazzling."—National Book Award Finalist and #1 New York Times bestselling author Nicola Yoon
"Brandy Colbert further establishes herself as one of contemporary YA's biggest talents in this thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of identity, loyalty, and what it means to live with integrity. Little & Lion is a stunningly good novel."—Kiersten White, New York Times bestselling author of And I Darken
"On the surface, this is a great book that beautifully navigates the elaborate landscapes of sexual orientation and mental health issues. But as I read on, I found myself deeply connected with Suzette, who is gorgeously depicted in all her complexities. This is a book and a protagonist I will long remember."—Bill Konigsberg, award-winning author of Openly Straight and Honestly Ben
"Brandy Colbert takes us on an emotional and gorgeous journey with a protagonist who is trying to figure out where she fits in with her family as well as in the world. A book full of overwhelming love and courage."—Sara Farizan, author of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
* "This superbly written novel teems with meaningful depth, which is perfectly balanced by romance and the languorous freedom of summer."—Booklist, starred review
* "A moving, diverse exploration of the challenges of growing up and the complicated nature of loyalty."—School Library Journal, starred review
* "Colbert sensitively confronts misconceptions about mental illness, bisexuality, and intersectional identity....A vibrantly depicted Los Angeles."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* "From the threads of love and romance, to redefining family life, readers of all walks of life will find an entry point to this title."—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review
"A moving and well-realized examination of secrecy, trust, and intimacy."—Publishers Weekly
" Hand [Little & Lion] to readers who like thoughtful, edgy stories with no easy answers."—VOYA
"With compelling honesty, Colbert portrays Suzette's evolving understanding of her sexuality, Lionel's longing for self-sufficiency alongside the challenges of his mental illness, and the difficulty of shifting familial relationships."—Horn Book
- On Sale
- Aug 8, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers