Nothing’s changed. I was gone for three months, I’ve been home for three more, and still, everything here is exactly the same as it was before I left.
“You guys going to Megan’s party next week?” Sam asks. My gaze travels around the circle as everyone nods. Of course they’re going. Summer is almost over and Megan’s parents are loaded and never home, a combination that pretty much guarantees copious opportunities to drink and hook up.
“What about you?” Sam points at me with his chin. “You in, Coop?”
“Can’t,” I say, avoiding his eyes. “I’ll be out of town.” I tip my head back and down my Gatorade. The eight of us have been skating around Lafayette Park for the last hour and I’m parched.
“Again?” He reaches in for a handful of Doritos and then passes the bag around. “You missed her last party, and that was epic.” Everyone nods again. Ryan parrots Sam with a “Seriously epic.”
I look away as I shrug it off. “I hate to miss it, but I promised my mom I’d go see my grandmother before school starts.” I feel a little guilty about these back-to-back lies: I probably wouldn’t go to Megan’s party, even if I was sticking around, and my mom has no idea that I’m going to see my grandmother.
Sam clears his throat and looks around the circle. “Who’s got the chips?” Drew takes a big handful and everyone keeps the bag moving until it eventually makes its way back to Sam. “You sure there isn’t another reason you’re leaving town?” he asks. The crunching stops as all the guys turn and look at us, waiting for me to reply.
I lean back on my skateboard. “Like what?” My heart starts racing, but I force myself to stay still. To look cool and unfazed. I push Anna out of my mind, hoping that will make me look more convincing.
A smile tugs at the corners of Sam’s mouth. I can feel the rest of the guys shifting in place around us. Sam suddenly reaches into the bag and chucks a chip at my head, and I duck out of the way as it flies past me. “I’m just giving you shit,” he says, and everyone laughs as the crunching sounds return. Ryan pulls his phone from his pocket and checks the screen. “Break’s over.” He stands up, pops his board into his hand, and takes off for the flat cement area surrounded by no skateboarding signs. He’s right. We’ve probably got another ten minutes before one of the neighbors calls the cops.
Everyone else takes off, but Sam and I hang behind. I hold the chip bag out to him, and just as he’s about to take it, I tip my head back and shake the rest of the crumbs into my mouth. “Here.” I hand it to him.
“You suck,” he says, but he’s smiling as he takes the empty bag from me and stuffs it into his backpack. I can see him staring at me out of the corner of my eye, but then he shakes his head hard and looks away. “So,” he says, intentionally making his voice sound lighter. “Lindsey and I ran into her at the movies the other night.”
“Her?” I wipe the grease and chip dust from my mouth with my shirtsleeve. “Her who?”
He looks at me like he can’t believe I’d ask. “Megan.” Then he adds, “Hot Megan.”
“The one who throws all the parties?”
“Yes, that Megan. How many hot Megans do you know?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. At least”—I count on my fingers— “four.” He rolls his eyes.
“Well, I don’t know about the other three, but this one asked about you. Again. She told me to make sure I bring you to her party this time.” He looks at me expectantly, as if I should leap up off the ground and hurry home to rearrange my flight. Instead, I stand up slowly and reach for my board. “Sorry, I would, but—”
“I know,” he says. “Your grandma. In Illinois. Who’s sick.”
Sam stands up too, and steps hard on the end of his board so it flips into his hand. “Look, you’ve managed to avoid her all summer, but when school starts next week, you won’t have a choice. The way I see it, there is only one reason you wouldn’t ask Megan out.”
“Because she’s kind of . . . vacuous?” She’s a junior, a year younger than all of us, and I haven’t spoken to her long enough to know if this is true or not. But I feel compelled to steer Sam away from his “one reason.”
He looks back at me. “If you really don’t like her, I get it. But she’s Lindsey’s friend, you know? The four of us could go out sometime. It might be fun.” My mind flashes on an image of Anna, Emma, Justin, and me, walking into a movie theater, my arm draped over Anna’s shoulder and Emma’s arm threaded through Justin’s. I already have a “four of us.” Or at least, I did.
I run my hand through my hair. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
I won’t, but hopefully I put enough sincerity in my voice to make him think I will.
“Don’t think about it. Just ask her out. Because, seriously, she’s nice and really cool and, in my humble opinion, not at all vacuous. And Lindsey likes her,” he adds, knowing that could be a selling point.
The rest of the guys come back to grab their stuff and I’m relieved. They mutter good-byes and start down the path that leads to the bottom of the hill. Sam follows them, but then stops and looks back at me. “You coming?”
“I’m going to grab a coffee,” I say, gesturing toward the Fillmore Street shops in the opposite direction. He gives me a quick “See ya” and takes off with everyone else as I head the other way.
When they’re out of sight, I double back to the bench overlooking the bay and watch the sailboats skim across the water. Nothing’s changed, but everything’s different now. Because Anna sat here once, right next to me, and handed me a letter that told me I’d meet her someday. I wish she’d warned me that once I had, I wouldn’t quite know how to be here without her.
When I reach our house at the top of the hill, I open the front door and toss my skateboard and backpack on the floor in the foyer next to the giant houseplant. I’m heading upstairs to my room when I hear something strange coming from the kitchen. It sounds like chopping. And . . . singing. Dad shouldn’t be home from work yet and Mom had a planning meeting for one of her fund-raisers tonight. I turn around and head for the kitchen, and that’s where I find my sister, Brooke. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she’s standing at the island, surrounded by vegetables. She’s now humming under her breath as she brings her knife down hard and slides it through a bundle of asparagus. “What on earth are you doing?” I ask, and she looks up wearing a smile and gives me a little wave with the knife. She goes back to chopping as I walk around the kitchen, staring at the mountain of fresh produce, assessing the situation.
“I thought I’d make stir fry for dinner,” she says proudly. I stand next to her, leaning back against the counter. “Since when do you know how to make stir fry?”
She shrugs and continues chopping. “I don’t. I’m practicing for my new dorm-food-free life. Caroline texted me earlier and right this minute, as we speak, she is lugging boxes from her Prius into our new apartment. Shona will be there tomorrow.” She looks over at me. “One of us is going to need to know how to cook.”
Brooke sets the knife on the cutting board, then gathers up the asparagus and drops it into a bowl. Then she brushes her hands together. “In a few more days I’ll be back in Boulder, done with the dorms forever and settling into my new room.” She looks right into my eyes. “And I’ll be living with people I actually like again. Cool roommates. Like I had in Chicago.”
Brooke and I have spent most of our summer talking about the three months I spent in 1995 Evanston while she was stuck in 1994 Chicago. She told me about the two roommates she found through the Sun-Times and the loft they shared in Wrigleyville. How she spent her days waiting tables at a local restaurant and her evenings watching live music at the local clubs. Her roommates liked everything, from jazz to punk, and they saw it all. Even folk night every Tuesday, where a heavyset woman sat on a wooden stool with her acoustic guitar, playing old songs like “American Pie” and “ Leaving on a Jet Plane” to a packed house that sang along. As I suspected she would, Brooke settled in just fine. And like me, she would have been happy to stay where she was a lot longer.
But one Sunday afternoon, she and her roommates were hanging out on the rooftop deck, enjoying the sun and reading the paper, when one of them spotted a story about the city’s plans to demolish the Chicago Stadium. Brooke’s ears perked up. She hadn’t been back in over two months—not since the night the two of us lost each other.
That afternoon she took an El train and two buses to the stadium. It was closed, but she walked around, peeking through the windows, trying to get a better view, and remembering how she watched me disappear before her eyes while Pearl Jam played on stage.
She made it all the way to the back entrance before she felt the stabbing pain in her stomach, and less than a minute later she was doubled over, screaming and squeezing her eyes shut. When she opened them again, she was crouched down in the same position, but the Chicago Stadium was gone, her Chicago roommates were gone, and she was alone in my room in San Francisco in the exact spot we originally left from. “So . . .” Brooke reaches for the broccoli and goes back to chopping. “Are you still going to see Anna?”
There’s no one else home, but I still take a paranoid glance around the kitchen before I answer. “Yeah. She gets back from her exchange on Saturday. I thought I’d go on Wednesday. Give her a few days to see her friends and get settled post-Mexico.”
“And what are you going to tell Mom?”
I shrug. “I already told her: I’m going on a climbing trip with Sam.”
Now it’s Brooke’s turn to scan the room and verify that we’re still alone. “You know,” she says quietly, “you’d make things a lot easier on yourself if you’d just go to Evanston and return back here as if you never left.”
I stare at her but she doesn’t look up. “And do three whole days over again? If I do those days over, I’m pretty sure that means you do, too. You really want to do over three entire days of your life?”
“That depends,” she says. “If I got another speeding ticket, that’d be a plus. But if I met some amazing guy and you wiped him out, I’d never forgive you.” Brooke glances up and shoots me a grin. “Not that I’d remember any of this.”
“Well, I have no idea what I’d wipe out the second time around. So, if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to stick with the climbing thing.”
Brooke clears her throat. “Of course, you could also make it easier on yourself by just telling Mom and Dad where you’re going.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
Brooke knows everything, but I’ve said very little to my parents about my time in Evanston. Surprisingly, they barely asked any questions, not even about my grandmother, Maggie. They just sat me down in the living room and told me that the traveling needed to stop immediately. That it’s far too dangerous, and I don’t have control over it. And that it’s time I started “living in the present,” as Mom put it. “Like a normal person.” I don’t think Dad agreed completely, but he sat by her side and nodded anyway.
That was three months ago. I don’t even want to think about how furious Mom would be if she found out about all the concerts Brooke and I have traveled to this summer. Or that I went to 1995 La Paz last week. Or that, say, Anna Greene exists. “I have an idea.” Brooke elbows me and says, “Take me with you,” like it’s no big deal.
“No way, Brooke.” She gives me a pleading look, as if that will have an impact on my decision.
“No,” I repeat, this time with a little more weight in my voice. “Besides, you’d blow my cover. Climbing trips require camping.” I raise my eyebrows and stare at her. “Mom and Dad would never believe you’d go camping.”
“I can camp!” She crosses her arms, tapping her manicured fingernails against her skin. “I can camp,” she repeats. I look at her sideways.
Then she brings her hands to her hips and looks me straight on. “Look, I’m your sister,” she says, her tone serious, “and she’s your girlfriend, and it’s not like you can bring her here, you know . . . ever. And you’re definitely not going to bring Mom and Dad there. So you might as well have the whole ‘meet the parents’ moment with me.”
“Please . . .” She presses her palms together in front of her. “You know she wants to meet me.” She looks at me out of the corner of her eye and shoots me the look she reserves for moments when she knows she’s right. And she is. When I brought Anna to present-day San Francisco, she got knocked back right away. She would love to know the people in my world the same way I know the ones in hers, but she never will. I take off for the refrigerator but I can feel Brooke’s eyes boring into my back. Eventually she gives up and heads for the stove, and the room fills with the sound of sizzling oil. “Brooke?” I say, and she takes a quick look over her shoulder at me. She doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s listening. “If anything comes up“Again?” she asks., will you cover for me?”
“Yes,” I say. “Again.”
I see her nod. “Of course.” Things get quiet for a while, and then she adds, “What are you going to do with the Jeep?” “What do you mean?”
“You can’t leave it in the garage if they think you’re going camping. They know Sam doesn’t have a car.”
“Hmm. Good point.” If I park the Jeep on a random street or in a parking lot somewhere, it will definitely get towed. I can’t leave it at Sam’s house without coming up with some complicated excuse. I can’t believe that the Jeep didn’t even occur to me.
“You know my friend Kathryn?” Brooke asks.
“She didn’t need her car at school, and her parents didn’t want it taking up room in the driveway, so they rented a garage.” There’s a long pause. “They found it on Craigslist.” “Thanks,” I say, making a mental note to hit the website after dinner.
“See? You kind of need me.” Brooke doesn’t turn around, but I think I hear smug satisfaction in her voice. Until she looks over her shoulder wearing a disheartened half smile, and there isn’t a trace of smugness in her expression. She just looks sad.
“Hey, what were you humming earlier?”
She thinks about it for half a second. “Coldplay.” I pull my phone out of my pocket and do some speedy research. “Munich? In two thousand two? Looks like a small club.”
Her head whips around and she lets out a squeal. “Really?” she asks. Her hands are clenched into fists by her sides, and when I nod, she dances back and forth in place. She turns the dial on the stove so the blue flame disappears underneath the burner and looks around the kitchen. “Mom and Dad are going to be so pissed when they come home to this mess.” “Yeah, but they’ll never remember it.” This we’ll do over. Messing with multiple days feels dangerous. Going back a few hours in time so we don’t have to tell Mom and Dad we were in Munich for a Coldplay concert feels like a perk I should capitalize on. “When we get back, you can pick right up where you left off. We’ll have dinner and pretend we’re a happy family.”
“We are a happy family.”
“Trust me,” I say as I navigate over to the club’s website, “That’s only because they’re so glad you’re back home, they’ve temporarily forgotten that they’re furious at me for losing you in the first place. As soon as you’re back at school, the three of us will be our usual bickering selves again.” I click around until I find an interior view, and I pan and zoom on the best photo I can find. I have no way of knowing if it looked like this back in 2002, but chances are, even if they’ve done a remodel or two, the bathrooms are still in the same spot.
“Okay, we’re set.” I steal a glance at the clock on the microwave and by the time I turn around again, Brooke’s standing in front of me, arms extended.
She looks down, assessing her outfit. “Am I good?” she asks, referring to her jeans, a plain-looking shirt, and a pair of flip-flops. I’m not so sure about flip-flops in March, but I don’t want to waste time waiting for her to pick something else. “Yeah. You’re good.” As soon as I take her hands, she grips mine hard and gives her arms a nervous shake like she always does. Then she squeezes her eyes shut.
I close mine, and we’re gone.
On Wednesday afternoon, I pack up the Jeep with all my camping and climbing equipment, and then do one last check of the stuff that actually matters. The white plastic container is sitting on the front seat, and inside I’ve stored everything I’ll need when I return: a dozen plastic bottles of water, a Starbucks Doubleshot, and a Red Bull six-pack.
The music’s on loud and I’m so lost in my thoughts, I jump when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I slam the cover closed and flip around to find Mom with her hand over her mouth, looking amused. “Sorry!” She yells so she can be heard over the music. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s okay. Hold on.” I lean in through the open window to turn down the volume.
“How’s the packing going?” She glances from the hood of the car to the back cargo area, now filled to the brim with camping gear and colorful ropes. The soft top is already off and secured in place.
“Fine. I think I have everything.”
“Good . . . that’s good.” She stands there, nodding and smiling, like she’s gathering the nerve to say something else. She distributes her weight onto both feet and roots herself in place. “What?” The tone of my voice makes it pretty clear that I don’t really want to know.
“Is there any chance I can get you to change your mind about this camping trip?” She folds her arms across her chest.
“It’s just that . . . Brooke is going back to Boulder this weekend and then you’ll be starting your senior year, and these are the last few days we have together as a family.”
I want to tell her that we’ve had a whole summer and we haven’t done anything “together as a family” with a single second of it. I’m not sure what makes her think this is the week to start, other than the fact that I’m leaving town and she doesn’t want me to.
“It’ll be fine, Mom. I want to go climbing with my friends,”
I say, smashing my sleeping bag deep into the back of the Jeep so it won’t blow away when I start driving. “It’s only for a few days. I’ll be back by Friday.” That part’s true, so I turn around when I say it.
“You won’t have any cell phone coverage?”
“Probably not. You know how it is out there. You can try, but it’s really spotty.” Yeah. Mainly because my cell phone will be in the glove compartment of the Jeep, locked in a clowncar- sized garage I found on Craigslist yesterday.
“You’re not traveling, are you?” she asks, her forehead creased.
I freeze, then force my expression to look relaxed. “You told me not to travel.”
“Yes. I did.”
I shrug and look straight into her eyes. “And that’s why I’m packing up my car to go camping.” Is that a lie? Technically it’s not, but I’m pretty sure Mom wouldn’t see it the same way. She stares at me and I wait. I don’t know if I just said the right thing or the wrong thing, or something so in between the two that she can’t quite figure out what to do with it.
She looks worried and, God, I wish she wouldn’t be. If only she’d relax and trust that I have this whole thing under control, I could tell her everything—about Maggie and Anna and the Greenes. And then she’d know exactly where I’m going and when I’ll be back and what’s inside the box on the passenger seat that she keeps eyeing but hasn’t asked about.
“Be careful, okay?”
“I always am.” I kiss her on the cheek. “You worry too much, Mom.” I want to say more, but I don’t.
I can tell from the look on her face that she has a lot more to say too, but instead, she just gives me a somber-looking smile and says, “You make it pretty hard not to, sweetie,” and leaves it at that.
When I push the door open, the little cluster of bells bangs against the glass and a guy standing over at the New in Paperback table turns around and gives me a quick glance. I step inside and look around. I’ve never seen the bookstore so crowded.
I walk down the main aisle, looking for Anna between the bookshelves. I’m halfway through the store when I see her behind the counter. She’s ringing up a customer, so I keep a bit of a distance and wait, and try to ignore my heart smacking against my rib cage.
Her hair is longer than I remember it, and it occurs to me that every time I saw her in La Paz over the summer she was wearing it up in a clip or a ponytail. It’s even curlier now, and I feel the familiar urge to pull on one of those strands so I can watch it spring back into place. What’s different about her?
She looks tanned and happy and . . . somehow even more beautiful than before.
She’s making small talk with the customer, fingers flying as she punches numbers into the register, and then she takes his credit card and runs it through some loud contraption and hands his card back to him. And that’s when she sees me. I just smile. I watch as her expression changes, morphing into this perfect mix of surprise and relief.
Anna looks back at the customer and pushes the overstuffed bag in his direction. “Here you go,” she says with giddiness that the moment doesn’t call for. Her eyes keep darting in my direction.
“Thanks,” he says.
“Any time. Have a good quarter.”
Instead of reaching for the bag, he rests one hip against the counter and watches her, like he’s expecting her to say something else. I wonder if he thinks that smile is for him. He is standing right in front of her, after all. But I can tell from this vantage point that she’s not looking at him, she’s looking past him. Anna has lots of different smiles, but the one she’s wearing right now is one she reserves for me.
“Bye,” she says, pushing the bag across the counter again, this time with more force, and he must get the message because he grabs it with both hands and heads for the front door. She starts heading in my direction. “Shoot,” the guy says, “I almost forgot.” He turns around and struts back to the counter, and Anna returns to her spot behind the register, looking official again.
I watch her, picturing that surprised look she wore on her face just a moment ago. I think about how nice it would be to see it one more time.
No one’s ever in the Travel section, so I take a chance. Ducking back behind the shelves, I hide from her view and close my eyes. I picture the row on the opposite side of the store, and when I open them, I’m standing in it. I take my backpack off and set it down by my feet.
I can still hear her voice at the counter but now I’m too far away to make out what she’s saying. I stare down at the shelf marked with the word mexico, remembering the night I came in here last April.
I should have been studying, but couldn’t stop thinking about her. All day, I’d been looking for a chance to get her alone so I could tell her the second part of my secret, but I never found one. So before I could change my mind, I fed my arms into the sleeves of my jacket and walked to the bookstore. Her face completely lit up when she saw me walk in, and all I wanted to do was kiss her. Instead, I told her I was there to pick up a book on Mexico. She led me over here to the Travel section.
At first, we talked about our assignment, but then she stopped me in midsentence and said, “I want to hear the rest of the second thing.” When I looked in her eyes, I knew she meant it. And so I told her everything. That I was born in 1995. That I’m seventeen in 2012. That I wasn’t supposed to be here. That I could visit, but I couldn’t stay. And then, against my better judgment, I finally did what I’d wanted to do since the day I met her. I came up on my knees and I kissed her, no longer caring about my rules or where and when I was supposed to be. Just as I was about to pull away like I knew I should, I felt her hands on my back, drawing me in until we were pressed against the bookcase and there was nowhere else for us to go but closer to each other. I kissed her harder.
The bells on the door jingle, snapping me back to reality.
“Bennett?” I hear Anna call from across the room. I duck around the corner and press my chest into the end of the shelving unit, keeping my eyes fixed on the aisle and waiting for her to walk by. I don’t see or hear her, so I stay silent as I listen for breathing and wait for her to come into view.
I’m just about to take a step forward when I feel her hands grip my sides. I jump.
“Gotcha,” she whispers in my ear. Her forehead falls against the back of my neck and her arms wrap around me. I can feel her breathing.
“That’s an understatement,” I say, bringing her hands to my face, kissing her fingers.
“I didn’t see where you went,” she says.
“Yeah.” I let out a small laugh. “Remember? I do that.”
“Just to mess with me.” I can hear the eye roll in her voice.
“Just to mess with you.”
“Maybe you should start thinking about doing more with this little talent of yours than surprising your girlfriend.”
“Say that last part again.”
She laughs. Squeezes me harder. “Surprising your girlfriend.”
I smile. “I like the way that sounds.” I loosen her grip on my waist and turn around. Her whole face is lit up so bright, I swear we could turn off all the lights in the bookstore and still see each other perfectly.
“Hi.” I twist a strand of her curls around my finger.
“Hi.” She reaches up and musses my hair. “You’re here,” she says, but something in her voice makes her sound unsure.
“I’m here.” I bring my hands to her cheeks. “I’ve missed you like crazy.” She presses her lips together and gives me the slightest nod, and before she can say anything I tip her head back and kiss her, softly, slowly, savoring the feeling of being here in this room with her again. I kiss her harder. And just like that first night, she kisses me back, pulling me into her, like she still wants me here and still trusts me with her heart, even though she probably knows by now that she shouldn’t.