By Robin Roe
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This “gripping and moving” story of two foster brothers sharply examines the impact of loss, grief, and abuse (Emma Donohgue, bestselling author of Room) — and celebrates the power of friendship.
When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he’s got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn’t easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can’t complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian — the foster brother he hasn’t seen in five years.
Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He’s still kind hearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what’s really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives.
First-time novelist Robin Roe relied on life experience when writing this exquisite, gripping story featuring two lionhearted characters.
Copyright © 2017 Robin Roe
Cover design by Elizabeth Casal
Designed by Marci Senders
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
For my mother, who taught me to give and love with all my heart
In memory of Jamie, the beautiful little boy who reminds me:
we are more than what we can see
THERE IS A room in this school that no one knows about but me. If I could teleport, I’d be there now. Maybe if I just concentrate—
“Julian.” Mr. Pearce says my name sharp enough to make me flinch. “You’re less than a month into high school, and you’ve missed your English class six times.”
I’m sure I’ve missed more than that, but I guess no one realized I was gone.
The principal leans forward, two fists wrapped around his tall, twisted cane. It has a little creature carved at the top, and I’ve heard other kids talk about it, wondering if it’s a gnome or troll or a tiny replica of Mr. Pearce himself. This close, I can see the resemblance.
“Look at me!” he shouts.
I’m not sure why people want you to look at them when they’re angry with you. That’s when you want to look away the most. But when I do what he says, the windowless office seems to shrink, and I shrink along with it. A microscopic boy underneath Mr. Pearce’s gaze.
“It’d be a lot easier for you to look someone in the eye if you got a haircut.” He glares harder when I start pushing my hair out of my face. “Why haven’t you been going to class?”
“I…” I clear my throat. “I don’t like it.”
“What was that?”
People are always telling me to repeat myself or speak up. The main reason I don’t like English is because Miss Cross makes everyone read out loud, and when it’s my turn, I stumble over my words, and she tells me I’m too quiet.
Knowing this, I pitch my voice a little louder. “I don’t like it.”
Mr. Pearce lifts two gray brows, looking completely stunned. “Do you really think not liking a class is reason not to go?”
“I…” For everyone else, talking just seems to come naturally. When someone says something, they automatically know what to say back. But for me it’s as if the pathway between brain and mouth is damaged, like a rare form of paralysis. I can’t speak, so instead I fiddle with the plastic tip of my shoelace.
“Answer my question! Is not liking a class a good reason not to go?”
I know what I think, but people don’t want you to say what you think. They want you to say what they think. And knowing what that is isn’t easy.
The principal rolls his eyes. “Look at me, young man.”
I look up into his flushed face. He grimaces, and I wonder if his knee or back is hurting him the way they always seem to be. “I’m sorry,” I tell him, and his whole face softens.
Then all of a sudden, his bushy brows come together, and he slaps open a file folder with my name on it. “I should call your parents.”
My shoelace slips from my frozen fingers.
His lips curl into a smile. “You know what does my heart good?”
I manage to shake my head.
“Seeing that particular look of fear cross a student’s face when I say I’m going to call home.” He lifts the phone to his ear. He and his little wooden monster watch me as the seconds tick by. Then slowly, he pulls the phone away. “I suppose I don’t have to call…if you promise that I’ll never see you in here again.”
“Then get to class.”
Out in the hall, I try to breathe, but I’m still shaky the way you’d be if you were nearly clipped by a speeding car but you leaped out of the way at the very last second.
When I enter Child Development, all the girls lift their heads like a herd of deer sensing danger. Then, the second they see me, they look away as if I was never there at all.
Since I’m late, I have to stand in front while Miss Carlisle glares at my tardy slip. Even though no one is looking at me, I can’t stop thinking that my hair is too long and my jeans are too short and my shirt is too small and everything I’m wearing is ugly and worn.
“I already marked you absent.” Miss Carlisle sighs. She’s probably even older than Mr. Pearce, with hair that might have once been blond and eyes that might have once been bright blue before she faded like a photograph. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
I know the new online attendance system is stressful for her, because she tells us almost every day. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s fine.” She slumps, her posture weary. “I’ll take care of it.”
As I’m heading to my seat in the back, the only other boy in class, Jared, waves to get my attention. “I’ll see you on the bus today, right?” he says.
I don’t answer.
Miss Carlisle announces that we have to complete the assignments in groups, so everyone shouts the names of the people they want, and they pull their desks into circles.
I’m probably the only person in the school who hates it when the teacher lets us choose our own groups. I lower my head to my desk and close my eyes. I used to think that if I concentrated, I could make myself disappear. I don’t exactly believe that anymore, but sometimes I still have to try.
“Julian,” Miss Carlisle says, “you are really pushing it today. Find a group.” I glance around at the ones that have formed, a tight anxious knot in my stomach. “Just join the group closest to you.”
Closest to me is Kristin, a girl who looks a little bit like a goldfish with her orange hair and bulging eyes. She sends me a bruising glare, and I feel like I’m wearing a defective invisibility cloak—a device that works perfectly until I do something stupid.
I met Kristin at the beginning of school this year. In first period, she tapped my shoulder and asked if I was reading an Elian Mariner book. I nodded, wary, because no one ever starts conversations with me. But when she asked what it was about, my words just spilled out. Yes, it was an Elian Mariner book, probably my favorite in the entire series. Kristin kept nodding and asking questions, and she said her sister loved those books. Then she added, “My sister’s seven.”
When everyone around us started laughing, I hid the book in my backpack. It wasn’t until my next class that I noticed it was missing. Then in sixth period, I was returning from sharpening my pencil, and there it was, sitting on my chair.
I opened it to find that every illustration had been desecrated with black Sharpie. Drawings of penises were jutting up from Elian’s pants, and floating penises were pointed at his mouth. Eyes stinging, I looked up to find the entire class watching me. I caught Kristin’s fish eyes in the crowd, then she fell headfirst into her desk, shaking with laughter.
“Julian!” Miss Carlisle calls out now. “Move.”
I quickly drag my desk to join the girls.
“So, Violet, Jen,” Kristin says, “should we split things up?”
I pretend not to notice that she’s excluding me and open my textbook.
“Okay,” Violet answers. “Julian, did you want to—”
“I want a good grade on this,” Kristin interrupts her. “Let’s just divide it between us.”
Violet doesn’t answer, and I keep pretending I can’t hear.
After the final bell, it looks like someone kicked over a beehive. Kids are swarming and flying in a thousand different directions. There’s a sudden explosion of noise—talking and cell phones beeping. But I stand frozen at the top of the steps just outside the school.
My father is leaning against a tall tree across the street.
When I was little, my mother was usually the one who picked me up, but every now and then Dad would get off early and surprise me. Instead of joining the pickup line of cars, he’d meet me on foot. His hands were always blotted with ink, like a child’s after finger painting, and he’d say, It’s too nice a day not to walk. He’d say that even if it was raining.
But of course the man across the street isn’t actually my father. It’s just some trick of the sunlight filtering through the branches on a jogger who stopped to catch his breath.
I stand here, heavy now.
So heavy that the tall steps become a mountain to climb down. So heavy that it takes a while to summon the energy to start the long walk home.
Ten blocks from school, I start to shiver. Autumn is here, but it seems too soon. Almost like I skipped over the last three months because there are certain things that are supposed to happen every summer.
I’m supposed to go to the beach with my parents. We’re supposed to see fireworks and buy sparklers and find seashells. I’m supposed to stay up late and sit on the front porch eating popsicles while my mother plays the guitar and my father draws. Then as he’s tucking me into bed, he’s supposed to ask, How many stars?
On a great day I’m supposed to say nine or ten. But if it was amazing, the best day I ever had, I’m supposed to cheat and say something like ten thousand stars.
But we didn’t get to see fireworks or eat popsicles or do any summer things, and I have this ache inside, like how you might feel if you slept through Christmas.
The same heaviness I felt after school reappears the minute I walk inside the empty house. Every inch of it is dark, glossy, and neat. Every piece of furniture is strategic. Every color is coordinated by someone trained to do it. It’s exactly the sort of house I thought I wanted…until I got it.
I enter my room with its polished wood floors, desert-brown walls, and heavy furniture. My eyes are pulled to the only thing out of place—the big steel trunk at the foot of the bed. My parents got it for me to take to camp the summer I turned nine. They told me I was brave to go off on my own, but I got so homesick I couldn’t even make it through the first night.
I drop my backpack to the floor and lift the trunk’s heavy lid. My heart squeezes as I look down at all the things I love: photo albums and Elian Mariner books and my mother’s green spiral notebook. I leave that untouched for today and fish around for my own notebook. I flip a few pages, then pick up where I left off.
It’s hours later when I drop my pen at the sound of a car pulling into the garage. It’s after eight o’clock, but sometimes my uncle gets home even later. And sometimes, if he has to go meet with clients in other cities, he doesn’t come home at all.
I watch my bedroom door, the way the light from the hall shines around the perimeter like an entryway to another dimension. I listen for the sound of him climbing the stairs to his office, because even when he’s home, he’s usually working.
Instead, I see a shadow fall beneath my door.
I close my eyes, but I can’t teleport, and I can’t disappear.
My uncle Russell once told me he used to be so tall and willowy that when his high school theater put on A Christmas Carol, he was asked to play the grim reaper. I’ve tried to picture it, but it’s hard to imagine he was ever frail.
Russell doesn’t speak, just lifts the conch that sits on top of my dresser and turns it slowly in his hands. His fingers are long and thin like stretched putty.
“Getting homework done?” he finally asks.
“Yes,” I answer, and immediately feel guilty. It’s late and he’s just getting home from work, still neatly dressed with a tie around his neck, while I haven’t even opened my backpack yet.
He returns the conch to its place, then takes the notebook from my hands. He squints at it, turning it upside down, then sideways, then right side up again. He does this sometimes, a sort of joke about my terrible handwriting.
“What is this?” he asks.
“A book report.”
He gives me a sharp look, and I’m afraid he can tell I’m lying. I peek up at the deep fault lines in his forehead and under his eyes, trying to read him. Some nights when he comes home, usually after he’s been gone for a few days, he can seem drowsy, relaxed, almost like he just finished a big meal.
Other nights it’s as if there’s something moving just beneath his skin, something crawling and scratching to get out. On those nights it would be better to hear his office door shut. Lonely and locked out, but still better.
His mouth twists to the side in an almost smile. “You misspelled sinister.” He drops my notebook to the floor. “Come into the kitchen.”
I follow him to the other room, where he opens a take-out container. He stands at the black granite countertop, slicing his steak with a sharp knife and eating dripping red bites. The house is quiet except for the distant metal thumping of the water heater, like the sound the dryer makes if you leave coins in your pocket.
“Your principal called me today.” Russell’s voice is deep, calm, and steady, but his words prompt a heavy thumping in my chest. Mr. Pearce said he wouldn’t call if I promised to go to class, and I’d promised.
For just a second the image of my father standing to meet me outside the school flickers behind my eyes.
“Are you listening to me?”
I nod hastily, ashamed. I don’t work hard enough. Not like Russell, who works harder than anyone I know. He’s had to ever since his dad died when he was seventeen. Again I try to picture a young, frail Russell, but I can’t.
He slices the steak and takes another red bite. “How long have you lived here?”
My stomach goes cold, like I’ve swallowed winter. He’s going to kick me out. I’ve pulled this one too many times, and he’s done. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“In all that time, what’s the only thing I’ve asked of you? What’s our only agreement?”
“That you can trust me.”
“And?” He takes another bite.
“You can trust me to do the right thing.”
“You won’t have to look into what I’m doing.”
“I don’t ask too much of you, do I?” All the feeling that’s not in his voice starts jumping in the vein in his neck.
“I understand your…limitations. I don’t expect A’s from you. I don’t even expect B’s. But sitting in a classroom isn’t too difficult, is it?”
“I don’t like getting called by your school. I want to be able to trust you.”
“I’m sorry.” I really am.
He sets the knife next to the clean bone. “Go get it.”
SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS going to happen.
I usually wake up with that feeling at the bottom of my chest. It’s as if I’m blind and there’s something right beside me, and I could get away from it if only I could see. It’s a vague but gnawing idea that’s followed me into fourth period. The more I try to shake it off, the more it consumes me.
I realize I’ve zoned out when I notice my Art teacher, Miss Hooper, standing above me with a yellow paper square that reads: TO DR. WHITLOCK’S OFFICE.
The best part about finally getting into high school was that those meetings with the school psychologist were over. Then I found out the lady from my old middle school is working here now.
“Take your things,” Miss Hooper says, so I grab my backpack and step out into the hall.
I spin around.
And the moment seems to slow.
It’s as if I’m standing still and the world is whipping past like a car down a dark street. And for just a second, headlights shine right on me. That’s what it’s like—standing frozen in the dark, then seeing him. Adam Blake. Leaning against the brick wall, somehow managing to look relaxed while fidgeting.
For just a second I feel a burst of pure happiness. I’ve always wondered what I’d say if I saw him again. Then it occurs to me that there’s nothing to say, except maybe I’m sorry, and my happiness falls away.
He breaks into a grin. I glance around to find who he’s smiling at, but no one is there.
“It’s me,” he says. “Adam.”
I don’t know why he’s telling me his name. Even if I didn’t already know, I’d know. I’ve only been in this school for a little while, but I’ve heard his name a hundred times, mostly from girls who are in love with him. Their fascination with him is a little confusing. He isn’t neat the way my mom told me a boy should look when she used to brush my hair in the morning. His brown hair is sloppy, as if he tried to comb it in one direction, got bored, and combed it in the other, then switched five more times.
He’s taller than me, but not all that big—nothing like the huge blond boy he’s always with—and I thought girls liked boys who were really tall and strong. He doesn’t even act the way popular guys should act. The boys in my grade walk a certain way, almost stomping as if they’re angry, but Adam speeds everywhere like he’s running late. I’ve seen him trip over his own feet more than once, but he just smiles and keeps going.
That’s another thing. Boys don’t smile a lot. I’m not sure if they’re unhappy or if they’re just pretending to be unhappy. But Adam always looks…kind. And kind and clumsy isn’t cool. But in this school, I guess it is.
As Adam watches me expectantly, the anxiety in my stomach grows. Not knowing what to say is nothing new for me, but not knowing what to say to him feels a million times worse.
“I can’t believe it’s you,” he says.
Suddenly he lunges forward, and I leap back. He halts, looking confused, and now I’m really embarrassed. It’s Adam, and if he’s lunging forward with open arms, it’s probably just to hug me. But even so, the embarrassment and pain are all too much.
I see a split second of surprise on his face as I spin around, then I race down the hall, in the opposite direction of Dr. Whitlock’s office.
Once I’m out of Adam’s sight, I slow down so I don’t get stopped by a teacher. I take a deep breath, turning over the crumpled yellow note in my hand. Soon Dr. Whitlock will realize I’m not coming. If she tells Mr. Pearce, he’ll call Russell again, then Russell will want to know what I’ve been doing to get sent to her in the first place.
But if I do go to her office, Dr. Whitlock will stare into my eyes and ask embarrassing questions I can’t answer, and my stomach will hurt. Afterward, she might call Russell just to tell him I’m seeing her again.
I stop, sick with indecision.
There’s no good choice.
And with every passing second, it’s more likely she’s telling Mr. Pearce.
I should turn back, but I can’t seem to force my feet in that direction. At the moment, the certainty of seeing Dr. Whitlock is worse than the possibility of facing Russell. I know I won’t feel that way if it comes to it. I’ll tell myself how stupid I was to risk it. But I guess I am stupid, because I’ve already made up my mind.
I skip the English Hall, because those teachers always stand at their doors like a neighborhood watch, and I head down the Science Hall. The air is thick with a sickening chemical odor, the smell of something being dissected. At the end of the corridor, I turn the corner and freeze. Mr. Pearce is standing there, bent over his crooked cane. Whether he’s angry or just in pain I don’t know.
I duck into the alcove with the water fountains and wait. I count to sixty, then peek around the corner. He looks up, glaring right at me.
I duck back, and now I can hear the clacking of his cane. I press myself against the wall, trying not to wince out loud. Mr. Pearce and his goblin are getting closer. Clack. Clack. CLACK.
Then he limps past me, as if he has no peripheral vision at all.
I wait until he disappears from view before running past the gym into the wide-open lobby in front of the auditorium. I slip inside the theater and let the heavy door fall closed behind me.
This is the scariest part of the whole journey. If I get caught, I’ll definitely be in trouble, because there’s no logical reason for me to be here. That thought spurs me to run until my toes hit the stage.
I climb the stairs, then slip behind the curtain. Back here it’s even darker, and it smells like dust and candle wax. For a moment the air seems to thicken, as if something is standing right behind me.
I hold my breath and stretch out my arms like I’m blind. I keep stumbling until my hands close over what I was looking for—the black iron ladder bolted to the wall. I climb until, finally, there’s light streaming in through the dirty attic window.
The attic is massive, with countless trunks and cardboard boxes overflowing with hats and plastic swords. In one corner there’s a giant papier-mâché dragon with a glittering red eye.
The first time I came up here, I was so afraid someone might discover me any minute that I spent the whole period pacing. But then I found the passageway.
Behind the old armoire I locate the two crooked boards dangling from their nails like fence posts. I push them to one side to see the room beyond this one. In the crawl space between the attic and my secret room, the floorboards are crisscrossed, and there are a couple of feet of dark void where there is no floor at all. I have to jump.
And now I’m standing in my room. The walls and floors are much darker and smell older here. It’s empty and just big enough for me to lie down in one direction but not the other. There’s one window, round like a porthole on Elian’s ship, where I can look down at the courtyard where no one ever goes.
In my room that feeling, the one that sits at the bottom of my chest, practically disappears. I can see all four corners, and no one knows this place exists but me.
When the bell rings for lunch, I sit and pull the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an Elian Mariner book from my backpack. This story is one of my favorites. Sometimes Elian just goes on adventures, but sometimes he saves people. In this one he saves an entire planet.
WHEN I WAS a sophomore, Principal Pearce read some study on the inverse correlation between temperature and academic performance, and there was no turning back. He cranked the AC so high that even if it’s scorching out, inside we have to dress for a Siberian winter. The cafeteria’s the only room in the school that was spared his policy of Freezing Us Into Learning, so the second I walk in, I start tearing off clothes.
At the same time I twist my body sideways, winding through the dangerously crowded room. My friends and I have to cram into a table that shouldn’t seat more than ten, which means finding a chair’s like a game of Twister. When you combine the sudden heat, stripping, and intertwining limbs, lunch is basically soft-core-porn-time.
I manage to squeeze in next to Emerald, and our thighs press together. As usual, her reddish-blondish-brownish hair is up and twisted into a complicated style most girls would save for prom. Her eyes lock onto mine—so blue I’d figure she was wearing contacts if I hadn’t known her since the fifth grade.
“Hi.” I smile, kind of mesmerized by her, like always. She looks like a 1950s starlet with her perfectly painted red lips, pale skin, and the mole on her cheek—basically way too glamorous to be sitting here eating greasy french fries out of a Styrofoam container. There are about a million things I want to say to her right now, but I’m distracted.
"Emotion courses through every sentence of this novel, whether it is love, compassion, or bone-chilling cruelty. A triumphant story about the power of friendship and of truly being seen."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A page-turner with a lot of compassion."—Booklist (starred review)
A remarkably gripping and moving tale of a life saved--in more than one way--by the power of friendship."—Emma Donoghue, best-selling author of Room
"As inspiring as it is heartbreaking, A List of Cages is a hero story you will never forget."—Tamara Ireland Stone, best-selling author of Every Last Word
"A poignant, hopeful story about loss, grief, abuse, and the transformative power of friendship."—Amber Smith, New York Times best-selling author of The Way I Used to Be
"Written with honesty and compassion, this book will resonate with a wide range of readers."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"This is Roe's first novel, and it's impressive. Julian's and Adam's perspectives alternate . . . moments of beauty and humor interspersed with scenes of abuse and violence."—The New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Jan 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers