By Sara Zarr
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When Cameron suddenly reappears, they are both confronted with memories of their shared past and the drastically different paths their lives have taken.
From National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr, Sweethearts is a story about the power of memory, the bond of friendship, and the quiet resilience of our childhood hearts.
Table of Contents
A Preview of What We Lost
A Preview of The Lucy Variations
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SOME MEMORIES ARE SLIPPERY.
There are things I want to remember about Cameron Quick that I can't entirely, like the pajamas he wore when he used to sleep over, and his favorite cereal, or how it felt to hold his hand as we walked home from school in third grade. I want to remember exactly how we became friends in the first place, a definite starting line that I can visit again and again. He's a story I want to know from page one.
My brain doesn't seem to work that way. Most specific things about Cameron are fuzzy — the day we met, how we got so close, exact words we said to each other. There are only moments, snapshots, pieces of the puzzle. Once in a while I feel them right in my hand, real as the present, but usually it's more like I'm grasping for vapor. I understand that you can never have the whole picture; inevitably, there's stuff you don't know, can't know. But when it comes to Cameron I always want more than I have, would like to be able to take hold of at least one or two more pieces, if only because I'm convinced there are parts of myself hidden inside them.
Other memories stick, no matter how much you wish they wouldn't. They're like a song you hate but can't ever get completely out of your head, and this song becomes the background noise of your entire life, snippets of lyrics and lines of music floating up and then receding, a crazy kind of tide that never stops.
The memory of my ninth birthday is that way. Sometimes it's in pieces. Sometimes it's an endless loop, from start to finish. But it's always there.
I do have more memories of Cameron, things I know for sure, good and bad. Like:
The time we both got pulled out of class during the lice check and the whole rest of the year other kids called us the Cootie Twins.
The way he always got in trouble with our second-grade teacher, Mr. Duke, for not paying attention, for not sitting still, for having chronically untied shoes.
How us being together all the time made us a bigger target, the whole of our exile being greater than the sum of our outcast parts. How we didn't care because we had each other.
The three days Cameron didn't speak — to me or anyone else — after he missed a Tuesday of school and came back with his wrist in a cast. He still walked home with me, still sat next to me on the outside bench at lunch, a cheese sandwich in his good hand and between us the free cartons of milk we both got because of being low income. But he didn't say a word the rest of the week. I'd ask him questions and he'd shake his head no, or nod yes, or just look at me with big eyes. When we saw each other again on Monday, he acted like everything was normal.
I remember that Cameron made me feel special, protected and watched over, loved. If Matt Bradshaw came around at recess to call me fat and smelly, Cameron would fight him, usually ending up in the principal's office. When Jordana imitated my lisp or called me Fattifer, he stole her lunch and threw it away. One snowy day that my mom didn't get the laundry out of the apartment dryer in time I ended up walking to school in sneakers and no socks. Cameron took off his and gave them to me to wear. They were still warm from his feet.
And there was the ring.
Right before the summer between second and third grade I was in the back of my mom's brown Geo Prism, which was parked in front of the ugly building where we rented a one-bedroom apartment. Mom had gone inside to trade her Village Inn uniform for her nursing school scrubs before taking me to the babysitter. I remember that I had a library book about possums and I liked the way they walked on mossy logs and peered out from holes in trees and how their paws looked like little human hands. I tried saying it without a lisp. Possum, I whispered, putting my tongue behind my teeth the way I'd learned in speech therapy. Mossy possum paws. I'd be ready next time Jordana pointed to Sam Simpson and said, "Who's that, Fattifer? I can't remember his name." She made me nervous, and it came out Tham Thimthon no matter how much I'd practice at home.
I didn't want to think about Jordana, so I opened my lunch box where I knew there was a plastic bag half full of crackers that I'd taken from a first-grader's lunch when she wasn't looking. Stealing food was a bad habit, more of a compulsion really, and not only did I want a snack but also I needed to destroy the evidence, a process I enjoyed: holding the crackers in my mouth and feeling the hard, salty crunchiness dissolve into a slightly sweet mush. When I reached in my lunch box to get them, I found a small white cardboard box that I knew for a fact had not been there at lunch.
I slipped the lid off the box and lifted up a small square of cotton to see a ring with a silvery band and sparkly blue stone. Underneath the ring was a piece of paper that had been folded, folded, folded, and folded again to fit the box. I opened it. It was a drawing of a house with a fence around it, and a tree. Pencil-line rays from a round sun beamed down on two stick figures holding hands. Beneath the picture in a messy second-grade scrawl, it read:
I love you.
From Cameron Quick.
My mom got back in the car then, tossing her books onto the passenger seat and slamming the door. I watched her eyes in the rearview mirror as she asked, "Whatcha got there, kiddo?"
I closed my hand around the ring. "Nothing."
Other things I knew about Cameron:
He did crazy stuff sometimes, like tell everyone he was going to walk home from school without touching the cement. Five or six kids followed us the day he said that, watching while Cameron jumped from hoods of cars to fence posts to grassy parking strips until the space between the hood of the car he was on and a bus stop bench was too far and he missed, spraining his ankle. Retard, they all said, laughing. Stupid retard.
There was another time he stopped talking. He didn't come to school the day after my birthday, and then when he did come back, he was dead quiet for days. I felt like maybe he was mad at me, that somehow none of it would have happened if I hadn't been there and I wanted to ask him what his dad did after I left but I could never get the words out. In the end, we didn't say anything about what happened that day, to each other or anyone else.
The one thing you'd think I'd really remember is the biggest blank of all — the beginning of fifth grade, when he spent a whole week at our apartment. It was just him, me, and my mom, and I don't recall much other than that he was there and that I didn't feel alone for one second. We went to school together, came home together, ate all our meals together, watched TV together. It was like I had a real family.
A couple months later, he missed another day of school. I figured he'd come back; he always did. Then he didn't come the next day, or the next day. I thought about what happened on my birthday and was afraid to ask anyone where Cameron might be until not knowing felt worse than knowing and I couldn't stand it anymore. Finally I asked our teacher, Mrs. Jameson, about him, and she said, Oh, well, he's moved, didn't you know that?
He moved, honey. Now go sit down so we can have current events.
I sat at my desk and let tears drip onto my notepaper while Jordana flicked staples at me every time Mrs. Jameson turned her back. Baby, she hissed. Big fat baby. What Jordana didn't understand was that she couldn't hurt me. Nothing could hurt me as much as knowing Cameron was gone and hadn't said good-bye.
Over the next couple of weeks I imagined all sorts of explanations, like maybe he'd moved to a place without phones. Africa, I thought, looking at the sepia-bumpy map of the world Mrs. Jameson kept in the corner. Maybe he was on a boat on the Indian Ocean. Or in an Alaskan snow cave, wearing beaver pelts and eating whale meat. He'd be back, I thought, to tell me all about it.
Soon I lost my only other potential friend, a girl named Gretchen who was new that year and had found herself eating lunch with me every day — and Cameron, when he was there — the way new kids would before they figured out who the outcasts were.
I'm glad Cameron moved, she said one day. He was weird.
No he wasn't.
Yes, he was. I didn't like him hanging around us. She picked up her cafeteria fork, prissy and delicate, with a sideways glance toward Jordana, trying to impress her.
You don't know anything about Cameron, I said to Gretchen. So don't act like you do.
Sor-ry. I didn't know he was your boyfriend. She looked at her lunch tray. Did you take my brownie?
You want to be friends with Jordana? Go ahead.
I'd picked up my food and walked off to sit alone. Later I took Gretchen's brownie out of my jacket pocket, picked the lint off, and ate that, too. She did get in with Jordana and her friends, and told them all Cameron was my boyfriend and we were both crazy and gross and he'd probably grow up to be a school shooter. The next couple of months, I was alone every single day at school, alone at home while my mom worked, alone alone alone, wondering where Cameron had gone and what I was supposed to do without him. The times Mom was home to tuck me in I'd ask her where she thought he was. Every time I asked, she'd get very quiet until she'd finally say, I don't know, honey. I just don't know.
Then one day at recess Matt Bradshaw told me that Cameron had died. The story was that he and his family had ended up in San Jose, California, where he always got into fights at his new school. That wasn't hard to believe, given the way he'd fought Matt more than once and stuck up for me with Jordana. Matt said Cam's enemies dared him to jump off the school roof, and he did. They said his jump cleared the school yard and he landed in the street. A car was coming; it ran over him. End of story. Jordana and Matt made a point of telling me about how Cameron's brains got smeared all over the road.
You're lying, I'd said to Matt. You're a liar.
Jordana shook her head. No, he's not. My mom saw it on the news. Everybody knows. She looked around to the kids who were gathering around us now. Right?
A few of them nodded. One said, Yeah. Ask Mrs. Jameson. We knew a long time ago, but she told us not to tell you because she knew you'd cry, like you always do.
It would explain why he hadn't written to me.
And he's going to hell, Matt said. The outer darkness. Forever.
The world around me got fuzzy. The last thing I saw was the grainy image of Jordana pointing while she said, Watch out, everyone, Fattifer is going to faint. And I did. When I opened my eyes they were all standing around me, Matt laughing, Jordana curious, Gretchen looking a little bit frightened.
My elbow had hit the ground hard. My knee was bleeding. I started to cry, in front of them all, and no one offered to help me up or asked if I was all right or went to get an adult. Finally the yard monitor came over to see what everyone was staring at. I remember looking up at him for help, and all he said was, "Wipe your nose," pulling me up by my hurt elbow and escorting me into the school building, where they asked and asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't talk. I cried uncontrollably until someone finally called my mother and she left work to pick me up.
I asked her if it was true.
She said, I'm sorry, Jennifer, and sat with me, rubbing my back and bringing me cookie dough ice cream. Nothing she could say or do or give me to eat made me feel any better. I told her I was never going to school again. I told her in the best words I could at the time that I couldn't imagine my life without Cameron Quick, without that one person who knew me, without the way he saw me and made me see myself.
She said not to worry, I still had her. As if having her had anything to do with anything. I'd always had her, I wanted to say, and what good had it done me? She told me I could take two days off of school but no more, that I'd just have to try harder to make some new friends. I rolled away from her then and didn't say one more word about it.
That night I held an imaginary funeral for Cameron in my mind, with giant bouquets of flowers and big cakes and piles of little sandwiches and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing. He rested, peaceful, in his coffin, hands folded in front of him. Then I closed the lid, because it hurt too much not to, and Cameron and all my memories of him were lowered into the ground. And somehow I knew that if I was going to survive, the person I was had to be buried with him.
BIRTHDAYS ARE HARD FOR ME, AND HAVE BEEN EVER SINCE my ninth. For obvious reasons. While other kids looked forward to the attention and the presents and the feeling of being one year closer to growing up, I always wished that October eighteenth could be wiped off the calendar, permanently.
My seventeenth birthday was no exception.
In the moments between waking up and opening my eyes, I forgot what day it was. I ran through my usual morning checklist: what I would wear, which books I needed to take to school, options for breakfast, possible hairstyles and time requirements for executing them. I didn't need to look at the clock on my nightstand to see what time it was — I always woke up at the same time, my need for routine humming even at a cellular level. It would be six, give or take five minutes. I opened my eyes to double-check anyway; no point in taking a chance. Then I saw it — a pink envelope resting against the clock, with my name in my mom's handwriting and her signature doodle of a smiley face inside a heart and hand-drawn birthday balloons.
I turned my head and closed my eyes again.
Life needed a fast-forward button. Because there were days you just didn't want to have to live through, not again, but they kept coming around and you were powerless to stop time or speed it up or do anything to keep from having to face it.
I couldn't blame my mom for the card or the smiley face; she was just doing what mothers do. It's not like she knew what the day really meant to me. I'd never told.
And anyway, things were different now. I was different. Eight years had gone by and Jennifer Harris was as dead as Cameron Quick. It had been relatively easy to kill her off. I'd learned to stop reacting to anything Jordana and Matt said or did, instead counting in my head or saying the Pledge of Allegiance backward to make my face blank (. . . all for justice and liberty with indivisible God . . .). I'd started to always make sure I had clean clothes for myself even if that meant going down to the scary apartment laundry room by myself at ten at night while Mom was in class or working. I used three extra sheets of fabric softener to make sure I smelled right. I practiced my speech therapy until there was no hint of my lisp — Sam Simpson. Sam Simpson. Sam Simpson. When I was alone and bored and wanted to eat, just to chew something and have company, I switched from cookies and crackers to pickles, carrots, my fingernails, even little pieces of paper. I stopped stealing and only sometimes hid food.
Right before seventh grade, my mom married Alan and we moved and I was in a new school district where there would be no Jordana. I changed my name to Jenna so that no one else could come up with Fattifer as a nickname, and so that I could stop hearing it in my head. The resurrected me, Jenna Vaughn, lived in a nice house in the Avenues and had friends and a loving stepfather and a wardrobe in a normal size. She smelled like vanilla spice body oil and kept her hair conditioned and her cuticles trimmed.
Jenna Vaughn had made it. I had made it. It was my last year of high school and no one had ever found me out. I even had a boyfriend, Ethan, who picked me up for school every day and liked to snuggle and was only sometimes impatient with me.
The problem was that Jennifer Harris didn't always cooperate, and there were still days I could hear her scratching at the coffin lid, particularly on her — my — birthday. Like my seventeenth.
I got out of bed and gave myself a pep talk.
It's just a day, I thought as I loaded my backpack with books in exactly the order I'd need them. Just a date. A box on the calendar. A page in TV Guide. It didn't have to mean anything I didn't want it to mean. There was this one night around eighth grade when I was up late doing toning exercises, and I saw a motivational speaker on TV who said that the past only had whatever power you gave it; life was what you made it and if you wanted something different from what you had, it was up to you to make it happen. That seemed right — I'd made Jenna Vaughn happen, hadn't I? I reminded myself of that now. If I had the power to make myself into a new person, I could make my birthday into something new, too.
That was easy to think. My body told me a different story as I did my hair. October eighteenth was a thing I could feel in my stomach and fingers and at the back of my neck, an all-over sort of feeling that convinced me the motivational speaker was wrong. Life was mostly made up of things you couldn't control, full of surprises, and they weren't always good. Life wasn't what you made it. You were what life made you.
Mom and Alan called me into the kitchen to blow out the candle in my birthday omelet. I knew they wanted a leisurely breakfast around the table, familial celebration, bonding, etc., but priority one was pulling myself together before school, before Ethan showed up. No one wants an anxious, depressed girlfriend — especially not Ethan, who always preferred me when I was funny and in a good mood. And no one wants to hang around with a person who can't enjoy her birthday. I knew I was expected to be happy, happy, happy. Be happy, I thought. Just . . . be happy.
I set my flattening iron down and smiled at myself in the mirror that hung over my dresser. I'd read in a magazine that the very act of smiling stimulates endorphins, which rush in and make you feel better even when you're faking it. I smiled harder and waited for the good feelings to kick in.
There was a present on the front seat of Ethan's car, a Gap box tied with a white ribbon. "Happy birthday, Jenna," Ethan said, leaning over to kiss me, his lips cool from the iced chai he stopped for every morning. I opened the box and pulled out an orange sweater with a cream-colored stripe down the arms.
"Thank you. I love it."
"I know," he said, pulling away from the curb. "That's what you said when you handed it to me at the store and told me to get it for your birthday."
"I'm sorry," I said, holding the sweater in my lap. I knew he was just teasing, but I wanted to be the kind of person who could enjoy surprises. I wanted to be as spontaneous and free as everyone else seemed to be and not feel all the time like if I didn't follow some kind of specific map of daily life, disaster would be right there waiting. "I just . . . really liked it."
"And wanted to make sure you got it," he said, smiling. "So basically you're greedy."
I laughed. He laughed. We were on course. One thing I'd learned during my transformation from Jennifer Harris to Jenna Vaughn was that given a choice between being around someone who cried easily and someone who laughed all the time, people always take the laugher. So I'd taught myself to say the funny things that popped into my head and laugh at all the jokes. I had them all fooled into believing I was normal and well-adjusted, a rock of sensibility who could always be counted on to have a positive attitude.
We drove past Liberty Park and I pictured Ethan's car as a silver dot on the life map, zipping right along where it should. If you zoomed in you'd see that it was a cold and bright and fresh October day, the kind of day that, for most people, sang with a certain kind of hopefulness. I closed my eyes and willed myself into it, reminded myself that the girl in the car on the map in the hopeful day was me.
"Jenna? Hello?" Ethan poked my thigh. "Did you hear what I just said? About the play-reading committee?"
"You're meeting today after school and you can't give me a ride home. I know."
"What's the matter?" He gave me his patented Ethan look, one eyebrow cocked over mocha eyes that were always half hidden by light brown hair. It was a look that made freshman girls swoon and still made my own stomach twist pleasantly.
I flexed my endorphin-producing muscles into a smile. "Nothing."
At school, he walked me to my locker, which Katy and Steph had decorated with peach-colored wrapping paper and gold ribbon. I projected a reasonable facsimile of surprised glee, even though Katy and Steph weren't actually there and couldn't see me. It would be good practice for later, when I knew everyone in homeroom would sing "Happy Birthday" and Mr. Moran would make me stand in front and get handshakes and hugs from a receiving line made up of the whole senior class — all sixteen of us. We were the first graduating class of Jones Hall, a small charter school for kids who were too smart or too creative — or too non-Mormon, even though no one ever said it — to cope in the regular Salt Lake City schools. The birthday parade was one of the little traditions Mr. Moran had started with us our freshman year.
I gathered up the cards from my locker and Ethan put his arm around my shoulders, bumping against me as he walked his bouncy walk in his signature red high-tops, hair flopping cutely over one side of his face. I experienced a moment of contentment then, the kind I'd have every so often when I felt completely like Jenna Vaughn and truly believed that she was me and I was her.
Ethan and I were on our third month of official couplehood, which had started with an end-of-summer accidental date at the main library. "Hey, Jenna, what are you doing here?" "Checking out books, oddly enough." "Believe it or not, so am I!" It was hard to believe I had a boyfriend at all, let alone the kind of boyfriend other girls wanted. But he was mine; he'd picked me. Me, Jennifer Harris.
Actually, he'd picked Jenna Vaughn.
Ethan didn't know anything about the fat girl, the Cootie Twin, the loner and reject. The only person who had ever picked Jennifer Harris was Cameron Quick, and sometimes when I was with Ethan I felt the smallest twinge of guilt, like being with him was a betrayal. The one thing that could never die or be buried was my loyalty to Cameron for everything he'd done for me and what we'd been through together, even if that loyalty was to a ghost.
By lunch, the work of being the birthday version of Jenna Vaughn started to wear on me. I'd been smiling all morning at the Happy Birthdays and the hugs and compliments while Jennifer Harris dogged me. I kept looking over my shoulder for I don't know what, and hearing Cameron's dad's voice: Where do you think you're going?
"Jenna. J.V.? I asked what your parents got you." Katy was jiggling her legs the way she always did. It shook the whole table and drove us crazy, but we generally didn't say anything. All of us were at Jones for some kind of Issue, which made us pretty tolerant. For Katy, it was ADHD and some anger management stuff that we really tried not to tease her about. Steph had a learning disability that went undiagnosed until eighth grade, when she was already too far behind to catch up in a regular school; also she had a habit of "dating" every boy in school, which could cause problems. Ethan was some kind of creative genius and everything bored him. As for me, even after making some good progress in junior high, teachers complained I lived too much in my head instead of the real world and Mom thought the smaller class size at Jones would help me stay focused.
I answered Katy: "Nothing yet."
"What do you think they're going to get you?"
"I don't know." I knew this would not be an acceptable answer to Katy, especially since I'd in no way tried to make it witty.
She let her skinny, freckled arms fall on the table with an exasperated thwack. "Can't you take a guess?"
"Katy," Steph said, "she just said she doesn't know. Maybe she wants to be surprised."
Ethan laughed. "No. She definitely doesn't want to be surprised. She hates surprises."
"Oh, yeah? I've got a surprise right here." Gil Guerrero leaped onto the cafeteria bench and began to belt out "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from The Sound of Music. Everyone turned and stared with slightly horrified and annoyed expressions — Jones Hall might have been special, but it wasn't exactly the set of Fame. We were still in Utah, after all. I buried my head in my hands and laughed because that's what you're supposed to do when you are being affectionately humiliated by friends — or so I'd observed in movies and TV.
"Gil," Steph said, "is that really necessary?" I peeked through my fingers. Steph was licking frosting off a cupcake in her shamelessly sexy way, gazing up at Gil, who had stopped singing and was now staring at her. "And are you looking down my shirt?" she asked him.
He jumped down off the bench. "No."
Steph changed the subject to the play-reading committee. With the attention safely off me, I tuned them out to eat my lunch: half a sandwich, a low-fat yogurt, and a small peanut butter cookie. I slid the cookie over to Ethan, guilty about the cheese in my omelet that morning. I'd spent too many hours hiking the hills of the Avenues, running up City Creek Canyon, and doing late-night crunches to let one pound of Fattifer back into my life. I smashed up the last quarter of my sandwich and stuffed it in my lunch bag. Even though the day was nearly half over and nothing bad had happened, it couldn't hurt to hurry it along. "Let's go to trig early," I told Katy. "Maybe we'll actually learn something."
WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING?
I turn to see him, Cameron's dad. He is tall, a lot taller than my mom and most of the teachers at school, and has Cameron's big eyes.
I recognize you, he says, studying me with a smile. You're Cam's little girlfriend. He's got a picture of you in his room.
He sounds nicer now. Maybe he's just a regular dad, maybe what I heard him saying to Cameron before wasn't really mean, maybe it was like a joke. I don't know how fathers are. Mine's been gone since I was two years old. Maybe they are like this — a little scary and big but mostly teasing.
But then he says: I guess my little guy is a chubby chaser, huh? Well at least he's not a fairy.
Praise for Sara Zarr:* "Zarr has established herself as an author who must not be missed."—VOYA on How to Save a Life, starred review
- "Impossible to put down...stays with you long after you've finished reading it."—John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, on Story of a Girl
- * "Zarr's writing is remarkable."—Booklist on Sweethearts, starred review
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers