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Return to Me
By Justina Chen
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of A Blind Spot for Boys
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For the most part things never get built the way they were drawn.
—Maya Lin, artist and architect
If you believed my so-called psychic of a grandmother, she predicted that I would almost die. Her eerie, creepy forewarning made no difference at all. I was seven. I still jumped into the murky lake. I still dropped to its mossy bottom. I still almost drowned. Moments before Dad saved me, my arms had become blurry fronds far, far in front of me, as if I had already faded into a ghost.
Ever since that brush with death, I've hated fairy tales where spindles could be murder weapons, a bride could be killed for opening a locked door, and women in my family supposedly could see the future. What good was a sixth sense if life itself could derail your best-laid plans? Like after spring break in my senior year. That's when I almost drowned again—only this time, in disbelief.
"We're moving with you," Mom had announced without looking up from her massive, post-vacation to-do list at the kitchen table.
"You mean moving me, right?" I gulped, breathing hard as I tried desperately to safeguard my future.
Why bother? Once Mom made up her mind, not one miracle or oracle could change it.
Case in point: her answer, "No, we're moving, too." She tucked a strand of flat-ironed hair back into its designated spot behind her ear, then drew an emphatic tick on her list. No doubt Mom was checking off yet another item: Destroy daughter's college experience.
"You can't come with me to Columbia!"
"Rebecca Kaye Muir, this move is great for your dad's career." Mom's voice had shot over mine, bullet to bull's-eye, in a tone designed to quell any teenage uprising. Her blue-eyed glare included my younger brother, Reid. He had dared to groan when it registered that Dad was quitting what must be every boy's dream job: head honcho of a new game company. For about three weeks, Reid and I limped around our house like the living dead, my brother too listless to read a single one of his fantasy novels, and me too disappointed to enjoy the final laid-back weeks of high school.
None of this alarmed or deterred Mom, though. Life according to my mother's accounting followed a simple principle: A bigger opportunity was a better opportunity. And Dad's deliciously high-powered job offer represented a welcome end to his start-up-business nonsense.
So now, two days before my family exodus for the East Coast, my dad and I were enjoying one final campout in my treehouse. Our once-a-summer tradition had begun when we moved to Lewis Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride from Seattle. The only change in our fifteen-year tradition had been to swap our old, dark tent for a newly built treehouse when I turned ten.
I woke this morning to Dad waving the remains of our half-eaten bag of Cheetos under my nose. "Breakfast?" he asked, crunching a cheese curl noisily in my ear.
"Thanks," I said, and grabbed one, even though I wasn't particularly hungry. Only then did I gaze up into the cloud-filled skylight. Last night, stargazing was as much an act of futility as imagining some semblance of independence at college in two months. It was all too easy to picture my mom "dropping in" for a visit because she was "in the neighborhood." Before I knew it, she'd be color-coding my future roommate's binders and rearranging my closet into ready-made outfits. The overcast night sky had flattened into a slate of mourning-dove gray. I rolled onto my side to face Dad. "I'm going to miss this place."
"Trust me, you'll be so busy at college, you won't even think twice about any of this," he said, waving one arm as if to brush away my treehouse, my home, and my life as I had always known it.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I agreed with Dad, but on the topic of my treehouse, we disagreed. It probably sounds stupid, but we hadn't even moved and I was already homesick for this tiny nest that housed all my architecture books and sketchbooks. The bunting I had sewn and strung above the windows with my favorite paint swatches. The photos of me flanked by all my male cousins and uncles. And best of all, the models I'd constructed at the summer camp I attended two years ago through the architecture school at the University of Washington—the birdhouse, artist studio, and modern shack. These were the projects that made me fall in love hard and fast with architecture the same way I fell for Jackson.
My heart contracted at the thought of breaking up with him in a few hours. Like everyone says, long-distance relationships are impossible, especially in college. Still, I couldn't even think about ending it with Jackson without tearing up.
Not now. Not yet.
I cleared my throat to ward off the threat of tears and managed a wry smile for my father. "No offense, but I would have been more excited if I was going to college by myself."
"None taken." Dad smiled indulgently at me, his gentle brown eyes crinkling at the corners. Other than a few strands of gray along his temples, at forty-five he looked virtually the same as the broad-shouldered high school football star he'd been. Days ago, Mom had removed the photos of Dad's good old days from his man-cave office and mummified them in biodegradable newsprint for the cross-country move. My treehouse was one of the last rooms to be dismantled today, according to her well-executed moving plan. Dad continued, "I totally understand that a fresh start is something we all need at one point or another. But you know how your mom gets."
We both rolled our eyes, then grinned at each other even as irritation burned my throat. Dad was right; it'd take an apocalyptic disaster to change a single detail once Mom had charted his new corporate career, my college decision, our family move.
"At least I talked your mom into moving to New Jersey instead of New York. That'll give you some breathing room, right?" Dad said, crumpling the empty bag of Cheetos before tossing it carelessly onto the floor from the warmth of his sleeping bag.
"You have no idea how much I appreciate that," I said fervently, only now eating my cheese curl.
The clock my grandpa George had given me when I was recuperating from my near drowning ticked loudly in the silence that followed my crunching. As I listened to the faint drumbeat of time, I recalled how one of the fairy houses I had woven from twigs had blown off Grandpa's houseboat deck and into the lake. Dad alone was with me, and he had said, "Just let it go."
But I had jumped into the murky green water, so completely focused on rescuing my creation that I forgot I couldn't swim, forgot my grandmother's prediction.
"Dad!" I had screamed before I drifted downward. He reached me fast, diving into the deep to grab me.
An idea began to form now, and Dad was once again the one I sought to rescue me. I sat up in my sleeping bag. There just might be a way to salvage the beginning of my college experience. Dad had rented a temporary apartment in Manhattan two months ago to start his job while Reid and I finished school here. That apartment was going to be empty, conveniently and blissfully empty. Why not live in Dad's apartment in New York rather than in our New Jersey house until freshman orientation?
"Hey, Dad," I said, throwing off my sleeping bag, "could I crash in your apartment before school starts, since you'll be with Mom and Reid anyway?"
"Well, you know how your mom gets when people change her plans." Dad's voice was hushed as though Mom could overhear what we were discussing, even though she was back in the main house and well out of earshot. "Her and her lists."
That quiet, confidential tone reminded me of how it had always been: Dad and me, conspiring against Mom. Dad allowing me to leap off a whirling merry-go-round even though I had fallen from it the day before. Dad buying me an enormous ice cream cone a half hour before dinner. And like a refrain in our duet of rebellion, Dad would say with a puckish grin, Just don't tell Mom.
"Yeah," I said, even as I felt the sting of disappointment. "Mom and her lists."
"Look, New Jersey won't be so bad for a few weeks." He grabbed the iPhone that he had left by his pillow, to check a chiming alarm. "In fact, while I'm thinking about it, there's an architect there that Uncle Adam's been using for a couple of his new development projects. I'll bet you could still score a great summer internship with him—Sam Stone."
"Sam Stone?" My voice went squeaky with enthusiasm. Shadowing an architect famous for his mammoth, cutting-edge corporate campuses—the kind Dad's family built, the kind I wrote about designing in my college applications—was nothing short of an oasis in this desert of a summer. "Really?"
Dad laughed. "Sound good?"
"Sounds awesome," I said, grinning back at him.
"Great! I'll set you up."
I had no doubt that Dad would follow through. After all, when he moved to Manhattan without us, he had promised, "I'll be flying back every other weekend, even if it's hard for me." Dad climbed out of his sleeping bag and stretched so strenuously, I actually heard his spine crack. He winced and rubbed his lower back. "I'm getting old."
"Come on. You're going to be one of the youngest dads at college."
"College." He shook his head while ambling to the door. "I can't believe I've got a kid in college." Bending down, he hoisted his duffel bag easily onto his shoulder and wedged his hand into the front pocket of his now-wrinkled chinos. "Okay, kiddo, gotta catch my flight."
"Wait, you're leaving?" I said, surprised. "I thought you were flying out with us tomorrow night."
Dad rubbed the stubble on his cheeks with the back of his hand. "I've got a ton of work. And since your mom's got this under control, I thought I'd take an earlier flight home and get ready for you guys."
Home? Since when did New York become home to Dad? Still, he was right. Mom had this move—just as she had all our vacations and summer programs and school schedules—graphed out in nice, neat schedules of deadlines and deliverables. No wonder Dad had already escaped to Manhattan. The same freeing effect of living three thousand miles away from my mother was why I'd chosen Columbia over UW, my decision made in March, before I met Jackson.
We passed the moving truck dominating the driveway and made our way to Dad's rental car out in the street, miraculously without attracting Mom's attention. A week from today, our belongings would be trucked to the other side of the country. Thanks to Mom's efficiency, Dad's car had been shipped eight weeks ago so that he had transportation upon arrival. Now Dad slid into the rental and rolled down the window. "Hey, your college experience is still going to be great."
"How can you say that?"
Dad adjusted the rearview mirror. "I'll tell you what: Why don't I use miles to fly Jackson out for a visit after school starts?"
"What?" I blinked at him, uncomprehending. "I thought you said long-distance relationships are impossible to maintain."
He held up both hands defensively. "Hey, all I'm saying now is… they are hard. But you never know."
Astonished, I wanted to ask Dad to repeat this unexpected manna of parental approval. Before, on the topic of Jackson, my parents had serenaded me with all the reasons to break up, harmonizing perfectly with Dad's melodic "A little freedom in college is a good thing" and Mom's drumbeat about "Jackson's lack of plans" and "Look where that lackadaisical attitude landed your grandpa George."
"Dad, I was going to break up with Jackson today."
"Think about what'll make you happy. That's all that really matters."
Dad and I smiled at each other, back in sync as coconspirators. Right as I was about to thank Dad for his offer, I heard a hard, racking, shuddering wail. A wheezing intake of breath so pained, it sounded as if a woman was suffocating. I recognized this prickling down my neck, this deep-gut knowing, even if I had refused to acknowledge it in years.
"What's up?" Dad asked, concerned.
As always, I gritted my teeth against the gathering vision—now I saw a wood door, gnarled and knotted; now I felt the old-growth fir, worn smooth like resignation. I forced a placid smile. "Nothing," I lied brightly, even as I commanded myself to stop dreaming the way I have at these first telltale signs of a premonition, squelching them the way I'd learned to these last eleven years. But before I could spit out hasty sentences, spoken fast and loud to drown that whispered voice, there it was: Do not move to New Jersey.
I swallowed hard, nauseated from battling this overwhelming sense of foreboding.
As though Dad guessed I was having a vision, he said, "See you in two days," then reversed out of the driveway, all haste and hurry now. Visions, miracles, predictions—none of these Dad believed. Not against-the-odds company turnarounds and certainly not near-death experiences, not even when the paramedics told him after my close call in the lake, "It's a miracle that your daughter's still alive."
Even though my stomach was roiling and a cold sweat beaded my forehead, I sprinted after my father. Gravel kicked up on my calves, pinpricks of pain. Urgency I couldn't explain propelled me forward. "Dad, wait!"
But Dad's car roared away. All that remained was a tuft of putrid smoke from his exhaust, then silence. The same silence in my hospital room that followed Grandma Stesha's accusation aimed at my father: "How could you let Reb swim after I warned you that she would drown?" The same silence after I admitted to my parents, "I dreamed it, too." The same silence after Dad abruptly left that antiseptic room with a disgusted snort. As the door clicked shut behind him, my mother glared at my grandmother, blaming her.
"Reb!" I could practically feel Mom's frustration mount from inside our soon-to-be-emptied house. "Where are you?"
Dad had the right idea. If Mom wanted this move, she could orchestrate the entire project down to how boxes were packed, the way they were labeled, the treehouse she was about to strip, the lives she disrupted. I pressed my hand hard to my chest to imprison every wail, every doubt, and every premonition deep inside me.
Unexpectedly, as though in answer to my SOS-save-me-from-my-mother plea, I heard a familiar rumble down the road.
Sometimes I felt like I was dating two guys: Jackson and his car. I'm serious. The 1965 Mustang, a gift from Jackson's parents for his seventeenth birthday, doubled as a nice bribe to sweeten the move to Seattle in the beginning of his junior year. When he drove, we went one speed: sexy. If I closed my eyes when I was riding shotgun, I could smell the prairie grass of Jackson's Iowa even though we never ventured much farther than Vancouver to the north and Portland to the south. Three hours either way was our bubbled universe, and that bubble was about to burst the next day.
I looked away from the window and back at Jackson, who was staring at me intensely. That smoldering instant reminded me of my first good look at him four months ago, in March. There we were, on our separate spring breaks, sharing the same air space in a hotel lobby. There he was, barrel-chested and wide-shouldered, more sturdy than stocky, and his legs… The words highly defined barely described his muscle-man quads and calves. And here we were, together ever since.
"You're quiet," Jackson said, placing one hand atop mine as we idled at the stop sign at my neighborhood crossroad.
The conversation I'd been dodging for weeks stirred between us like a caged animal slamming against the metal slats for its freedom. I heard Mom now, chiming with annoying clockwork that it was time to break up. But Dad's voice—the voice of inspirational business speeches that could rally game developers who'd been coding around the clock for weeks—lured me with the tantalizing thought that long-distance love could be worth the work and worth the wait. So why not try?
Before Jackson shifted the car back into gear, he looked at me hard, as though searching for something that had already gone missing. I still wasn't used to his attention. Boys rarely spared me a flyby glance. After all, at five foot nothing with mousy brown hair, I wasn't anything special—unlike my best friends Shana, with criminally long legs, and Ginny, whose exotic looks had caught the fleeting attention of a casting agent when she was nine.
"So… I have something I want you to see, Rebel."
I swallowed and looked away from him so I wouldn't break into tears. Only Jackson used that nickname, as though it were his personal password to me. How he had known that I had never felt like my father's Rebecca or everyone else's Reb, I could never quite understand. Even if that nickname belonged to a wild girl who did whatever she pleased, I secretly reveled every time Jackson used it.
Damn it, why had I chosen Columbia when UW was right here, a stone's throw to Viewridge Prep, where Jackson was enrolled for another year?
"Trust me?" asked Jackson, his warm hand settling on my thigh as I curled on my side in the passenger seat, leaning toward him.
All I could do was nod. Yes, I trusted him. Yes, let's hurtle straight past these next endless months, straight past Manhattan. Yes, aim for the future, and never, never, never stop.
Finally, after driving through the dense, green heart of Lewis Island, navigating down winding streets I'd never seen before and, frankly, never needed to see, Jackson parked on the side of the potholed road. He killed the engine, then pushed his door open. Cold air surged inside, a tangible reminder that while the rest of the country sweltered, summer had yet to come to Seattle.
"It's freezing out there," I said. "Polar bears would protest."
He leaned toward me, eyebrows cocked up: For real? Then he said, "You're going to have to toughen up if you want to survive the East Coast winters with me, Rebel."
Forget the "Rebel." It was the "with me" that warmed me now and made me seriously consider what Dad had offered: his tacit approval if I chose to stay with Jackson over Mom's wishes. That "with me" convinced me to open the door and follow him outside. The wind rushed me, furious, and I staggered back.
"Okay, cold," I gasped.
Jackson was rounding the hood of the car, already sliding out of his leather jacket. "You aren't going to last five minutes in winter."
"No," I said when he handed me his coat. "I don't want you to be cold, too."
"I'm a guy. I never get cold."
"Tell that to Shackleton."
"You're a nut," he said, and tugged me to his chest, wrapping his jacket around me like wings. I burrowed in, inhaled deeply, and smelled sweet saltiness. Call me odd, but deodorant is overrated on Jackson. After a long bike ride, he smells like a guy who can take on the world. I stood on my tiptoes and kissed his neck and felt his question beneath my lips: "Did I tell you that I like my women smart?"
"Women?" I said, pulling back and stabbing my finger in his chest. "As in plural?" Stab. "As in a stable of women?" Stab, stab. "As in a plethora of women?"
"You must be warmer now," he said, rubbing his chest.
After days of rain, the air smelled clean and moist. The clouds parted, revealing the sun. The warmth felt good on my face.
"This," I said, stretching my arms sunward, "is almost better than being kissed."
"Oh, yeah?" he said, challenged the way I knew he'd be. He kissed me the way I wanted: long and lingering and very, very thorough. The sweet urgency of his lips, the slow stroke of his tongue along mine, made me wobble, unbalanced. That kiss-induced tippiness only made Jackson grin wickedly at me, confident that nothing bettered his kiss. He grabbed my hand and led me down a paved path, fringed on either side with purple-flowered vinca and feathery ferns.
"Close your eyes," Jackson said.
It was too much work to stay crabby after a kiss like that—even after a drive that had lasted an eternity during what I might add, yet again, was One of Our Last Hours Together.
Finally, he let me open my eyes at the edge of a small pond I never knew existed, lined with tall, striated reeds and nestled within a ring of trees. In the middle of the pond floated a tiny dock, sized for two people, complete with crank and steering wheel. Two ropes connected the dock to the shoreline, and Jackson began winching the dock toward us.
"What is this place?" I asked, my voice quiet, as though I knew this was a special space.
"A bird-watcher's sanctuary." He opened the gate and waved me aboard. "Your dock awaits."
"Are we allowed here?"
"Remember? It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Anyway, my dad's listing it on Monday. So think of it as us providing some quality control to maintain my dad's carefully cultivated reputation as the leading waterfront real estate agent in the Pacific Northwest." Jackson lifted his eyebrows. "So, my badass girlfriend, what do you say?"
"You had me at badass," I said before I sashayed onto the dock, glancing over my shoulder with the sultriest look I could muster.
Mission accomplished. Jackson cleared his throat. I gave silent thanks to Shana for making Ginny and me practice a billion expressions and struts for her photo shoots.
Jackson navigated us to the center of the pond, and once there, I gasped because I finally understood why he had brought me here—not to see this dock or admire the birds. Hidden among the trees was a tiny house, all wood and windows and built upon stilts.
"This is so you," he said, standing behind me with his arms wrapped around me.
"It's what a treehouse wants to be when it grows up," I said, leaning against him.
"I still don't see why you want to build corporate offices."
I sighed. We'd had this conversation countless times before. No matter how often I tried to explain that commercial work was a lot more financially prudent than residential work and that Dad's family was expecting me to be the resident architect in their real estate development business, I knew Jackson wouldn't understand. He was forever pointing out that Dad hadn't worked at the family firm since he was in business school.
So now I gestured to the pint-size house and said, "I've got to see it."
"First, we should talk," Jackson countered.
Just like that, I forgot about the house; such was the power of those three dreaded words: We should talk. If you have good news, do you preface it with "We should talk"? No. You say, "Guess what?" Or, "You won't believe this!" We should talk is what doctors say when they're about to break it to you that you have a few months to live. It's what a boyfriend says when he's about to tell you that your romance had a shelf life that expired yesterday. But now I wasn't so sure anymore that I needed, or wanted, to break up.
"How can I talk? My teeth are chattering," I answered with a cheeky smile to buy time while I thought.
Jackson looked at me long and hard, as though he could hear me weigh the sure risks of staying together versus the unsure rewards of attempting and failing. Then he said, "Everybody says long-distance relationships are impossible. That it's totally stupid to try."
Wasn't that what Ginny and Shana—who both had a lot more experience in the Guy Department than I did, with their endless buffet of boys—had been telling me for the last month?
"But is it so stupid?" Jackson asked gruffly.
Here I was, alone at an unfamiliar crossroads in an unfamiliar neighborhood of a serious relationship. To the west was here, now, Seattle, the impossibilities of long distance. To the east was the future, New York, and being prudent and practical about my future plans, which had never included going off to college with a high school boyfriend. And through it all, like an aria of abandonment, I heard the crying again, the high-pitched heartbreak. On the verge of throwing up, I only managed to keep my arms at my sides instead of clenched over my stomach.
"What?" Jackson asked, watching me carefully, as if he sensed my crazy, conflicted emotions.
Part of me wanted to tell Jackson now about the inconsolable weeping, the inkling that something horrible would happen with this move. But tell him now and he would think I was an official nutcase. I'd be yet one more casualty of my family curse: Every woman on my mother's side has ended life alone, all spinsters. That is, except Mom. Case in point: Consider Grandpa George, the portrait of loyalty, who was there for every one of my performances and play-offs. Even he bolted when Grandma Stesha heeded her "calling" to lead tours of woo-woo weirdness to inexplicable rock formations and purported fairy circles around the world. Not even Mom faulted Grandpa for the divorce when she was about to set off for college.
But then there was Mom's overriding "why bother?" attitude about Jackson, a boy who didn't have a short list of colleges. The only college decision he had made was to refuse to consider the Naval Academy, which his dad was pushing him to attend. And even louder, I heard Grandma Stesha's conviction about our family curse: No man was capable of staying at our sides, not when generations of our women could predict their heart wounds, prophesy their futures, see through their lies.
So, as usual, I stamped on the sparks of my foreboding and spoke in a torrent of words, forcing them out so fast I staved off any vision: "I'm afraid it's not going to work out. I mean, it was hard enough to see you as it was—and this was with us living an hour from each other. So how're we going to keep close with three time zones and three thousand miles separating us? How?"
"Skype, text, IM. You name it, we'll try it."
I knew what he was suggesting—we buck conventional wisdom and prove the improbable: Eighteen-year-old kids can fall in love, forever love. Jackson leaned down then to kiss me, a tender pledge: I will be true.
Resisting that was impossible. I threw my arms around Jackson and pressed close, my chest against his, missing him badly. His hand cupped my neck and he kissed me, imprinting his lips on mine.
- "The author sensitively writes of the heartbreak involved in a betrayal of family without skipping any of the more gritty parts. Readers will feel the characters' pain as they are carried along with the engaging plot line."—School Library Journal
- "Chen (North of Beautiful) delivers an uplifting story of a teen whose sixth sense proves to be a blessing, not the curse she thinks...Celebrating the healing power of positive environments (exemplified by Reb's passion for tree houses and other special spaces that can foster healing), Chen's novel has a soothing aura that grows stronger as family members reunite and their hopes are realized."—Publishers Weekly
- "I loved it! It's the best book you've written so far. Definitely my favorite one yet."—Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust and Book Crush
- On Sale
- Jul 15, 2014
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers