Perfect Escape


By Jennifer Brown

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Kendra has always felt overshadowed by her older brother, Grayson, whose OCD forces him to live a life of carefully coordinated routines. To Kendra, the only way she can stand out next to Grayson is to be perfect, and she has perfection down to an art — until a cheating scandal threatens her flawless reputation.

Behind the wheel of her car, with Grayson asleep beside her, Kendra decides to drive away from it all — with enough distance, maybe she’ll be able to figure everything out. But even in the midst of the road trip’s flat tires, gas-station food stops, and detours to quirky roadside attractions, eventually Kendra must stop running and come to terms with herself, her brother, and her past.


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I was six the first time we found Grayson at the quarry. Dad and I had just gotten back from my peewee soccer game, and Mom had met us at the front door, car keys dangling from one hand.

"We won!" I crowed, hopping past her. "And Ashley's mom brought fish crackers!"

But Mom didn't answer. Instead, she muttered something to Dad, whose eyebrows knit together. He turned and peered out the front door into the rapidly approaching night, then stepped outside, cupped his mouth with his hands, and started yelling my brother's name—"Grayson! Graaayson!"—while Mom shrugged into her coat, not even acknowledging that I had gone on to tell her all about the goal I'd scored and the goalie with the freckles who'd gotten a bloody nose when Imogene Sparks accidentally fell on top of her.

Nobody told me what was going on. All I knew was our next-door neighbor Tammy came over and fixed me a cheese sandwich for dinner. We played checkers over and over, and she stroked my braids out with her fingers and didn't make me take a bath so I could go to school with braid-waves the next day.

"Where did Mom and Dad go, anyway?" I asked. "King me."

She shrugged. "To get Grayson. Your move."

"Where is he?" I jumped one of her checkers and picked it up, tucking it into the lap bowl created by my nightgown.

Tammy hesitated the tiniest bit. Her eyes flicked toward the front door, and for a second I thought I might have seen the same worried crease between her eyebrows that I'd seen between Dad's. But she smiled and slid her checker across the board. "They didn't say," she said. "I'm sure they'll be back soon. Your turn."

It wasn't until the next morning when Mom was brushing my hair for school—using the smoothing brush, which destroyed my waves—that I asked again.

"Ouch. Mom, where did you guys go last night? Ow."

Unlike Tammy, Mom didn't hesitate one bit—just kept pulling the brush through my hair, all business. "Newman Quarry," she said, as if this were something they did every evening. "The place off the highway, with all the rocks." She pulled particularly hard on a knot at the base of my neck, and I sucked my breath in through my teeth. Staticky strands of my hair were floating outward, following the brush; the whole thing was a fuzz-mess. "I really wish Tammy'd given you a bath last night," she muttered. "You're frizzed."

I frowned. "Why did you go there?" I asked.

She set the brush on the counter, wet her hands in the sink, and smoothed them over my hair, meeting my eyes in the mirror. She sighed, then moved her palms down to my shoulders and patted them lightly. "Your brother is having some difficulties, Kendra. Go get your backpack now. The bus will be coming."

I left the room, my scalp feeling heat-pricked and pulsating, wondering what Mom had meant by "having difficulties" and what that had to do with my parents' going to Newman Quarry the night before in the dark.

But that was eleven years ago. Grayson had been to the quarry hundreds of times since then. Sometimes several times a day, walking three miles down the highway in that precise way of his, muttering under his breath, his fingers hooked like claws while he calculated whatever it was he was calculating.

And we'd all had to go fetch him at one time or another. Stand at the top of the pit and call his name out, knowing he wouldn't answer. Stumble down the rock beds, trying not to lose our footing, trying not to get too many pebbles in our shoes, trying not to get angry. Still calling his name, stupidly. "Grayson! Come on! Mom and Dad are going to be mad if you miss therapy again. Grayson! Graaayson! I know you hear me!"

And we'd all had to try to make him leave the quarry before he was "finished." Which always meant tears for someone. Usually everyone.

I'd been to the bottom of that quarry hundreds of times, starting when I was seven and my parents began sending me over the fence to fetch him, always framing it as "an adventure."

But it didn't feel like an adventure. It felt like a chore. He never wanted to leave. I'd end up doing just about anything to get him out of there. Push him. Pull him. Yell at him. Make promises to him.

I'm not finished, Kendra. I have to count them.

But you have therapy. And there are billions. Come on, just go with me, okay, Gray?

No! I can't! Uh-uh-uh!

Okay, Grayson, okay, okay. Here. I'll help you. I'll count the ones in this pile, okay? Don't cry. We'll count them together….

We all knew what Grayson's "difficulties" were. Grayson's difficulties dominated his life. And Mom's and Dad's.

And mine.

Sometimes, like when Zoe left, it felt like especially mine.


Nobody warned me he'd be coming home today.

I got home from school, dropped my backpack on the floor, and read a text from Shani as I walked into the kitchen.

Then screamed when I bumped face-first into a bony chest. Before my brain could catch up with my reflexes, my phone-wielding hand reached out and punched at the chest with a hollow thump.

"Ouch! Nice to see you, too." My brother, whom I hadn't seen in months, was rubbing the spot where I'd just hit him. He was impossibly skinny, his hair greasy and flopping in his extremely pale face. He always looked like this when he got home from treatment. Probably I should've been used to it, but it's hard to get accustomed to living with someone who looks like an extra in a zombie movie.

"You scared the crap out of me, Grayson. Jeez!"

"I gathered that much when you hit me."

"I'm sorry," I said, pushing past him and heading for the refrigerator, my breath still coming in quick bursts. "Automatic reaction when I think I'm going to be murdered in my kitchen. It is good to see you. I just…" The phone vibrated in my hand, and I glanced at it. Another text from Shani. Major boyfriend issues. "I didn't know you were getting released today. Where's Mom?" I grabbed a slice of cheese out of the refrigerator and unwrapped it, closing the fridge door with my hip, my heartbeat beginning to slow.

"Neither did I. They told me this morning. And the store. She'll be right back."

I tossed the cellophane into the trash, thinking it would have been nice to have gotten some warning, and began folding the cheese slice into little squares, peeling the top square off and shoving it into my mouth. Grayson stood awkwardly in the doorway, staring intently at my hands, his lips moving.

I knew what he was thinking. With Grayson, everything had to be so perfectly lined up. Even if it wasn't his. He was bothered by how I was folding that cheese slice into uneven squares, and I knew by looking at him that he wanted to take a ruler to it before I ate it. I chewed self-consciously, wishing he would stop looking at me like that. Didn't Mom send him to these treatment places to make him stop looking at people like that? "So why the sudden release? Are you better?" I asked, pulling out a chair and sitting. "I mean, is the OCD, you know…?" I trailed off. I didn't know how to finish the question.

I opened Shani's text, pretending that seeing Grayson back in our kitchen was no big deal and that this was a question people asked each other all the time. Pretending he hadn't been in that resident facility Mom had found—the one that was supposed to cure him of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, his depression, the billion anxiety disorders he had, and God knows what else.

Pretending that things hadn't been weird between us ever since his quirks had slowly evolved into full-blown mental illness. Pretending that I could once again overlook his rituals and worries as I had done when we were kids. I wished I could. But the older we got—the worse he got—the harder it was to pretend that he was normal, like the rest of us. People noticed. I noticed. It was impossible not to notice.

How do you not notice someone's mental illness when the whole family constantly revolves around it?

"Yeah, I think so. I guess. Whatever" was his answer. He was probably thinking the same thing I was thinking: What exactly is better?

"That's good," I said, and I really meant it, though I wasn't sure if I meant that it was good for him or good for me. Probably a little of both.

There was an awkward silence between us, during which he shifted from foot to foot, mumbling numbers under his breath and knocking the wood frame of the door softly with one knuckle while I stared intently at my phone, as though Shani had written me an engrossing novel.

This was the way it'd been for the past three years.

We couldn't move. We were both trapped by whatever ritual he was struggling with at the moment. Prisoners of the great Obsessive-Compulsive Oppressor.

Who was I kidding? This was the way it'd been for our whole lives.

This is what it's like living with a mentally ill person: everyone afraid to move. Everyone afraid to speak. You don't say certain words like suicide or crazy, and you do everything in your power to keep the good milliseconds lasting as long as they possibly can. And you don't rush into anything at all, because rushing feels like courting disaster, and you don't even know what that disaster is, because it's never the same disaster twice. A ruined birthday? A scene at a restaurant? Police cars in the driveway in the middle of the night? All of the above?

And you don't ask for attention.

And you get used to it when you don't get any.

And you try really, really hard to forget that not getting attention hurts and that this person—this muttering, shadow-eyed, scabbed patient—was once your hero and best friend in the world. Back when he was just a "weird kid."

And you try to remember that you still love him, even if some days you can't exactly pinpoint why.

After what seemed like forever, he finally moved out of the doorway, and I could hear his steps, slow and rhythmic, on the floorboards leading to his bedroom. He made it in one try, which meant he must have been feeling better.

Before Mom sent him out to Camp Cure Me, or whatever this one was called, it could sometimes take him two hours to walk from the kitchen to his bedroom, his cries of frustration piercing the hallway. Mom's voice trying to soothe whatever broken part of him told him he couldn't put his foot down until he'd counted every grain in the wood beneath it. Her sobs creeping through the bedroom walls at night. That feeling of fullness behind my eyes all the damn time. And the feeling of resentment that I tried to stuff away because when someone can't even walk through his home normally, resenting him somehow feels mean. Not to mention pointless. Resenting Grayson wasn't going to cure him.

After he was gone, I sat at the table for a few more minutes, taking in deep, even breaths and pressing my forehead into my palms. I could smell the cheese on my fingers, and it made the taste in the back of my throat go sour. I knew I should've been happy that he was back, but all I could think was, Things have been so calm around here without him.

I also thought about the night, two months or so before he left, when things had seemed so good. He'd seemed relaxed… or at least relaxed for Grayson. Mom and Dad were really happy, and we'd all spent the evening watching TV together, which hadn't happened in months. We joked with one another. Mom made popcorn. I fell asleep on the couch.

At some point, Grayson had brought in his old alarm clock—the kind that buzzes—set it to go off about thirty seconds later, and propped it right next to my ear. Then sat back and waited for it to go off. When it did, I was so startled and confused, I almost fell off the couch. Grayson laughed until his whole face was red and he was holding his belly and gasping for breath. Mom and Dad, still curled up together on the other couch, were giggling as well.

"Kendra, get up!" he'd said, trying to look serious but gasping too hard to pull it off. "You're late for school!"

I'd punched him in the arm but had laughed, too, because even I had to admit that his prank was a good one. "Paybacks, bro, paybacks," I said sleepily.

The next morning, he'd refused to get out of bed. Said the air was filled with toxins and he couldn't breathe them in or he'd get cancer. And he'd been that way since. I never got the chance to prank him back. He would've been way too anxious to find the humor in it.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I hoped for another evening like the one we'd had before he went away. Only I hoped it would last longer this time.

I sat there until I heard the garage door rumble to life, and then I got up in a hurry, pushing the chair back with my legs, and headed upstairs to my room. I didn't want to deal with Mom right now. She would be in that on-edge place again. No softness. No smile. Forever the woman who had yanked that brush through my hair, saying earnestly, Your brother's having some difficulties, Kendra, only not finishing the sentence: and you've got to make up for them. You've got to be the child with no difficulties at all.




Subject: He's ba-ack!

Hey, Zo!

So G is back. Seems better. A little jittery and def way too skinny, but better. I can't help but wonder, though… how many times can a person do the treatment thing and come back not any better? I mean, what's the point of going? Will he ever get better, or will he be like this forever? It sounds brutal, and you know I'll never give up hope, but… Well, sometimes my life seems like… a lot… when G's around. You know better than anyone what I mean.

Listen, Zo. Neither one of us has heard anything from you in a long time. And I'm cool with it. Your dad gave you loads of trouble when you moved, and you're probably super busy with Bible study or something.;-) But I haven't heard from you in like six months and… I don't know… I guess I think it could really help G if you said hey sometime.


I hit the "send" key and sat back against the headboard, scooching so my pillow was right in the small of my back, and commenced staring at my laptop screen. My phone vibrated on the dresser, but I didn't want to get up. Shani would have to wait.

Wait for what? For me to stare at my empty inbox, expecting Zoe's reply to pop up? Like that was going to happen. I'd said it'd been six months since she'd replied to any of my e-mails, but it felt longer. Maybe it had been longer. Maybe it had been longer than I'd even want to admit to myself. God, had it been a year?

The phone buzzed again. I ignored it again. I guess that, in a nutshell, was the difference between Shani and Zoe. I liked Shani. Called her my BFF when I was feeling it. Hung out with her and had sleepovers at her house. Shared pizza and locker space and gas money with her.

But she wasn't my best friend. She wasn't Zoe.

Zoe and I had grown up together. Literally. My birthday was July 31 and hers, August 1. Our moms were next-door neighbors and best friends and, once upon a time, did everything together. Including pregnancy. They had morning sickness together, ate loads of greasy food together, talked about epidurals and episiotomies and all that gross-out stuff together, and even went into labor on the same day. But since my mom had already had one baby, I came quicker. Or at least that's how Mom put it.

Zoe and I bonded in the hospital nursery and didn't stop until all the craziness between our parents went down and her family moved away three years ago. As if moving could erase what had happened between Zoe and Grayson. As if moving could kill a lifelong friendship.

In a lot of ways, I blamed Zoe's parents for how much worse Grayson became. When Zoe was around, he was a lot more relaxed. She understood him. She didn't make him feel weird. She didn't make him feel anxious about feeling anxious. She didn't expect him to ever be anything other than what or who he was. She was better than me in that respect. Because, after she left, I had all kinds of expectations about him, none of them anything he could ever live up to.

I also blamed Zoe's parents for the fact that I lost my two best friends for no good reason. But everyone was too busy worrying about Grayson to care about that.

After Zoe's parents left, taking her with them, Grayson's anxiety went through the roof. His OCD spun out of control, like nothing any of us had ever seen before. He could barely function, and all he could think about was rocks and counting and germs and weird stuff that had kind of always been there, but not nearly as bad. Before, he'd been a kid who did some obsessive stuff. Afterward, he was just plain obsessive. And it was totally their fault. It's not like what Grayson did was that bad. He was in love with their daughter. So what?

The last time I saw Zoe, she was streaking out the back of her parents' minivan toward my yard, where I was standing, unabashedly watching, hoping that her parents would see how they were breaking my heart, too, and maybe change their minds. Her parents were occupied talking to a guy in coveralls, a moving van rumbling in idle at the curb.

"Here, Ken, take this," Zoe had said, her face slick with tears and her nose plugged. She shoved a tiny rectangular piece of paper into my palm—her school photo, with her new address scrawled across the back. "I'll write as soon as I set up a secret e-mail, okay?"

Her dad had noticed her standing in our yard and began shouting for her. "Zoe! Get in the van. We're leaving."

"Okay," I whispered, nodding, my own chin quivering.

"Zoe! Dammit, get off that lawn!"

Zoe glanced back at the minivan, where both of her parents were staring daggers out the windshield at us, and then quickly wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug. Almost immediately the minivan horn blared, and I could feel her shoulders jump and tense. "Don't forget me," she whispered. "And don't let Grayson forget me."

"Never," I whispered back. "Don't forget us, either, okay?"

"I couldn't if I tried," she said, and then turned and ran for the van, which had begun pulling away from the curb before she even had the back door all the way shut. I watched as it pulled past our house, Zoe's parents' faces grim and eyes set firmly on the road ahead.

Just after the car passed our driveway, Zoe turned around in her seat, staring at me through the back window. Slowly she held up one hand, her fingers slightly curled in, and waved. I held up mine in return.

And when the van turned the corner and out of sight, I sat on the curb and cried, remembering a million days playing with our dolls under a sheet stretched across Zoe's picnic table. A million afternoons spent painting each other's fingernails, because neither of us was good with our left hand. A million sleepovers. A million board games. A million times we'd promised to go to college together and see the world together and be best friends forever and ever. And even though we had all of that… it still wasn't enough.

My dad had sat on the curb next to me, and I'd leaned into him.

"Maybe you'll see her again someday," he'd said, putting his arm around my shoulder and pulling me in. "You never know."

I'd shaken my head pitifully. "They're moving to California. That's so far away. I'll never see her again."

Dad seemed to consider this, then patted my head and said, "The world gets a lot smaller the older you get. Never say never." And he'd gotten up and gone inside the house to help Mom coax Grayson into a bath, a process that could take hours on a high-stress day like that one.

And I'd stayed on the curb and felt sorry for myself, staring at Zoe's photo and sniffling, repeating under my breath, I won't forget you, Zo. Never say never.

My phone buzzed again, jarring me out of my memory, but this time it kept buzzing—not a text but an incoming call. I groaned and set the laptop next to my pillow, then got up and grabbed the phone off my dresser. Shani and her guy problems.

But when I looked, the caller ID displayed a number I didn't recognize. "Hello?"

"Kendra? It's Bryn."

I paused. Why would Bryn Mallom be calling me? Other than in Advanced Calculus class, we never talked. Ever. Bryn was one of those girls you talked to only when you absolutely had to. Her arms were always bug-bitten and her clothes dirty and out of style. She was chunky, and she was always in trouble for something. When we were growing up, the boys called her Bryn Bubblebutt, and Ryan Addleson once made her cry when he told the class that his dad had arrested her mom for drunk driving the night before. Probably being picked on didn't do wonders for her personality, but on top of being an easy target, Bryn was kind of a bitch, so people didn't feel very bad when they were mean to her. And almost all of us avoided talking to her at all costs.

But lately I'd had reasons to talk to Bryn. And they weren't good reasons.

"I got your number from Shani," she said. "We need to talk."

I squeezed my eyes shut and massaged the bridge of my nose with two fingers. I'd have to remember to thank Shani for sharing my number with the most obnoxious girl on earth. "Um, I'm kind of in the middle of something, Bryn," I said. "Can we talk in calc tom—"

"It's important," she said. "It's about the calc final."

"What about it?" I asked, thinking, I should never have started talking to Bryn in the first place. That's where I went wrong. Nothing good ever comes from hanging out with Bryn Mallom. "We've still got three weeks."

"I heard Mrs. Reading talking to Mr. Floodsay about it today when I was picking up my tardy slip. They know."

My heart thrummed, one time, hard, in my chest. I swallowed, but it felt like a wad of peanut butter was lodged in my throat. I swallowed again, my mind reeling for something to say, and could almost instantly feel cold sweat prick up across the backs of my shoulders. My eyes landed on my laptop screen, which was still pulled up to my e-mail account. No new messages.

"Hello? Are you there?"

"Yeah," I said at last. "I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, Bryn."

"Uh, yeah, actually, there is, Kendra. Mr. Floodsay said something about searching lockers tomorrow, starting with Chub's. I don't know about you, but I find that kinda worrisome."

"So?" Bryn's sarcastic voice was really rubbing me the wrong way. "Chub's not dumb. I seriously doubt he's leaving evidence in his locker." Coming out of my mouth, the words sounded so sure, but in my mind I was freaking out. The truth was Chub was just dumb enough to totally leave evidence in his locker.

"I hope you're right," she said, then sighed, her breath barreling into the phone. "But you're probably not. They're going to figure it out. And when they do, we're all in really big trouble. Especially you."


After my conversation with Bryn, I went downstairs to feel out what Mom knew. Surely if the school had figured something out, they would have called Mom immediately, so if I went downstairs and she was happily making a Welcome Home, Grayson dinner, I'd know Bryn was just being her typical dramatic self and I was safe. If I went downstairs and Mom was canceling my college savings account, I'd know the shit had, as they say, hit the fan. And hard.

She was doing neither. Instead, she was sitting on the couch cross-legged, a book open in her lap and earphones clamped down over her head. She smiled and waved at me with her pencil when I walked by, then announced in a slow, measured voice, "Dov'é il bagno?"

My heart slowed down. I wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs. If she was calmly practicing her Italian, there was a good chance I was safe. I peeked into the kitchen and saw a pot of something bubbling on the stove, and Grayson sitting at the table, lining up coins in neat little rows in front of him—one of his two favorite pastimes (the other being looking at, talking about, arranging, gathering, and basically knowing everything there is to know about rocks).

"How long's she been doing that?" he asked. He slid a nickel into the "nickel line."

"It's one of her New Year's resolutions," I said, leaning my hip against the doorframe and watching his hands. Fffp! A quarter in its spot. Fffp! Fffp! Two dimes, smooth as butter.

I couldn't count how many times I'd watched Grayson do this. When I was little, I used to wait until he was finished and then run up beside him and brush my hand through the lines just to mess them up. It made him cry and his face always got beet-red and I thought it was funny. But by the time we were ten and thirteen and he was spending sometimes four hours a day lining up his coins and pulling out wads of his own hair in frustration because he couldn't get them perfect, it wasn't funny anymore. I spent a lot of those nights sitting next to him with a ruler in my hand, helping him move coins such minuscule degrees I couldn't even see the movement. Is this good, Gray? Does this make you happy?

"She's learning Italian," I continued. "Dad told her he'll take her anywhere in the world she wants to go for their twenty-fifth anniversary next year. I guess she wants to go to Italy."

"They're going away next year?" he asked. Fffp! Fffp! Fffp!

"That's the plan," I said. "I'll be away at college and you'll be…" I trailed off when his eyes lifted to meet mine, his curled fingers frozen over the coins.

He'd be… what? Cured? Living on his own? Not likely. He'd still be there, moving pennies around on the kitchen table and muttering about feldspars and micas and pyroxenes. And there was no way Mom would feel comfortable leaving for a week, with the thought of Grayson being locked in a compulsion and unable to leave the bathtub or get a drink of water or get out of bed. We locked eyes for a moment, all the things we hadn't talked about since Zoe left fluttering between us like dark and dusty moths.

We used to talk about everything. Nothing went unshared. So why couldn't we talk about this? Why did we pretend that his illness didn't exist? Was it because we were both still reeling over what happened with Zoe? Was it because I was too resentful to let him in again? Or had we just given up?

He shrugged, looked back down, and said, "Doesn't matter," and my whole body froze at the weird, defeated tone of his voice.


  • * "Brown skillfully navigates the emotional complexities and psychological minefields of her characters and their relationship, treating OCD with delicacy without losing sight of the big picture."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "Brown paints an unflinching, nuanced portrait of siblings in a family overwhelmed by serious illness....Readers will enjoy the trip."—VOYA
  • "[A] road-trip novel with momentum and realistic characters that will have many teen readers hitching a ride."—School Library Journal
  • "The stark honesty of Kendra's feelings about living with a brother with a mental illness will touch readers, but it is Grayson's responses that really set this apart as an unflinching and heartbreaking portrayal of the complexities of such a relationship."—The Bulletin
  • "Kendra's struggle to face her mistakes will resonate with many young adult readers...intelligent and compassionate."—Library Media Connection

On Sale
Apr 16, 2013
Page Count
384 pages

Jennifer Brown

About the Author

Jennifer Brown writes and lives in the Kansas City, Missouri area with her family. She is the author of Hate List, Torn Away, Thousand Words, Perfect Escape, and Bitter End.

Learn more about this author