None of the Regular Rules
Ages 12 & up
E-book Exclusive: December 2012
BUY FOR $2.99 ON KINDLE OR AT BN.COM or anywhere else ebooks are sold!
“How much does a keg weigh, anyway?” Ella Ambrose stared out my open bedroom window at two thick, wet strips of matted-down grass that made a zigzag pattern across my neighbor’s yard. I squeezed in beside her to peek outside. The rain had finally stopped and slivers of clear, sapphire sky ripped through the gray horizon across the lake.
The roar of a riding lawn mower cut through the silence of the early evening as my neighbor Johnny Rush drove straight through the middle of a clump of overgrown raspberry bushes. He ducked under a thick vine and laughed—a short, loud burst of a laugh—when the thorny branch snagged his stocking cap off his head, holding it hostage in midair as the lawn mower lurched on through sodden grass.
Johnny had attached an old Radio Flyer to the back of the mower with rope. A keg was nestled inside a pile of blankets in the wagon bed. Ella blurted out, “Couldn’t his friends just help him carry it? Does he really need to hitch up that busted old wagon every time he throws a kegger?”
Grace Cutler leaned over both of us for a better view. Her strawberry-scented curls tickled my bare shoulder. “Ooh, Johnny’s hair’s gotten really long this summer. I haven’t seen him without a hat since school let out last year. He’s even hotter, if that’s possible.”
“A keg must weigh at least fifty pounds, right?” I asked, trying to count in my head as I watched Johnny goof off on the lawn below. I hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to lift kegs, but they seemed awfully heavy. At my dad’s last birthday party, I’d been lucky enough to witness my uncle Mitch swaying into the keg before he pretended to mount it (super-gross, I know). It had stayed upright. That’s saying something—Mitch is not a slim dude. “But I guess the mower isn’t just for the beer. It’s also Johnny’s drunk-girl limo. Think about how long that walk from the beach must feel when you’re completely wasted. The view from the wagon is probably pretty spectacular when you’re half-passed-out and spinning.”
We continued to stare out the window, watching as Johnny drove his lawn mower in figure eights, slowly weaving his way back to his hat. A few of his friends assisted from across the lawn, cheering when Johnny made a sharp turn and accidentally tipped the wagon. The keg rolled out onto the grass and I heard someone shout, “Idiot!” But Johnny just laughed and hopped off the mower to put his makeshift beer tractor back together again.
“Is he really an idiot?” Grace asked innocently, narrowing her eyes to try to see who else was over at Johnny’s house. “He was in AP English last year, wasn’t he?”
“Beats me,” I said, trying to pull myself away from the window. But I was fascinated, watching Johnny. The fascination waned when I realized he’d seen me snooping. It was too late to pull the curtains or flee to the floor. I’d have to pretend I’d been admiring the mosaic sky and not playing Peeping Tom with my neighbor.
Johnny waved, then yelled, “Hey, Sophie—you guys want to come by tonight?”
I shook my head no, fully aware that Johnny probably couldn’t see my head shake. The houses in our neighborhood were set far apart, minimansions on wide-spaced, sloping lawns that all led down to the lakefront. Three smaller houses could have fit in the space between Johnny’s and mine. We weren’t even neighbors, really. A few years ago, my family had moved less than two miles from our old neighborhood—where I’d lived around the corner from Grace and just three blocks from Ella—but it felt like a different universe. Here, by the lake, neighbors didn’t share sugar. We ignored each other, preferring to hide behind the invisible fences between our yards. Or behind a thin window screen, watching from above like some sort of creep as our neighbors had parties. For example.
Ella nudged me, and I realized I still hadn’t said anything. Johnny was staring up at my bedroom window, hand in his hair, waiting for some answer. “No, it’s okay. Thanks for the invite, though.” I declined out of habit. Johnny had invited me before, but his parties were intimidating and I knew I’d feel out of place. That was enough to keep me away. No one ever got hurt being overly cautious.
Johnny pushed his overgrown hair away from his face, then tucked his hands into the pockets of his baggy carpenter pants. “You sure? You’re welcome to join.”
“It’s okay,” I said, more quietly this time. “Have fun.” Then I stepped away from the window so I wouldn’t be tempted.
“Why not go, Sophie?” Ella asked as I settled into the sofa that stretched across one wall of my room. The couch was too short for my lanky frame, so I draped one leg over the edge and wiggled my foot in midair. “You’ve got to be curious.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, a little.”
“It could be one of his last parties ever,” Ella singsonged. “A bunch of people from his class have already left for college, and the rest of last year’s seniors are going to take off soon. Once they’re all out of here, that’s the end of Johnny Rush’s famous lawn-mower keggers.”
“Finally,” I said in a fake snooty English voice. “We’ll finally get a bit of peace in this neighborhood. That Rush boy is simply out of control.”
Grace pulled her eyebrows together, concerned. She looked like that a lot. Grace was often very serious about not-such-serious stuff. Her incredible focus had earned her straight As and the captainship of all her sports for this year, but she sort of had a hard time loosening up. “He’s not that bad, is he?” Ella and I looked at each other and laughed. Grace was great, but always a step behind on jokes. She was so literal. “At least he’s nice. Isn’t it sweet that he invited you?”
“Yeah, Grace, it’s really sweet. But it’s not like I’d ever actually go. He’s just trying to make nice so I’ll keep my parents from calling the cops.” I wasn’t sure if this was actually true, but I couldn’t figure out why else someone like Johnny would invite someone like me to his parties. It’s not like we had any mutual friends or hung around in the same circles or had anything in common. Johnny and I had exchanged nothing more than generic nods in the hallways at school since I’d moved to this house. I’d been silently crushing on him from afar for the last few years, but I’d never even really spoken to him. He was the most lusted-after guy at our school, and always had some beautiful girlfriend. Totally out of my league. Besides, there were things you did in life, and things you didn’t do that you maybe wanted to do, and Johnny’s parties were the latter. It was just too scary.
Ella swung her legs up onto the window seat and settled in to watch Johnny and his friends again. I watched her, watching him. “Might I remind you that he invited us?” Ella said, in the special tone of voice she usually reserved for Grace in her especially naive moments. “Should I ask him to mail you an invitation next time, or perhaps he could leave a little note with the butler? Is a shouted invite through an open window not welcoming enough for Miss Sophie?”
“Yes, actually,” I said, grinning. “If he could leave a little note with the butler, it would be divine.”
Grace looked from me to Ella, then shook her head. “Wait…you have a butler? When did you get a butler?” Ella and I both cracked up. “What did I miss?” Grace whined.
“Oh, Gracie,” I said, pulling her onto the couch with me. I squeezed her into a hug, but she pushed away and swatted at me. “You’re so cute.”
“Don’t Gracie me,” she muttered. “Even though I am cute.”
“It is a miracle you’ve survived as long as you have in high school,” Ella said, rolling her eyes. “How are you so smart, yet so dumb?”
“That’s completely offensive,” Grace said harshly. She was the one person I knew who could speak to Ella with the tone of voice she’d just used and not get frozen out. Ella was tough, but Grace—deep down, and only around us—was a lot tougher. Thankfully, the three of us had also known each other long enough that a little teasing didn’t actually hurt anyone else’s feelings. We’d never even really fought, since someone always started laughing before it got too serious.
My best friends and I had gone down totally different tracks when high school started—Ella had found her home in the artsy yearbook crowd, Grace was the popular joiner, and I drifted and kept to myself more than I maybe should. But somehow, our friendship had survived. I think we still clicked in part because we were all so different. When the three of us were together, Ella could take off her rebel hat, Grace didn’t have to live up to her student council president campaign-poster promises, and I…well, I guess I could just be me without anyone judging. I’d be lost without these girls.
Grace glared at Ella. “I am, most assuredly, not dumb and you know that perfectly well, Ella.” She stood up and brushed at her chinos, pulling her spiraled hair back into a loose ponytail. “Neither one of you is allowed to make fun of me for being naive. I may be gullible and sometimes—sometimes—a little ditzy, but at least I know what I want out of life, and I’m going for it. Every. Single. Day.”
“We’re not a scholarship committee,” I muttered. “Geez. Lay off on the empowerment speeches, will you?”
“Yeah, I like being a directionless moron,” Ella chirped. “It suits me.” It sounded like she was joking when she said stuff like that, but it actually was the truth. I wished I had the same joie de vivre or je ne sais quoi or whatever French term would best describe Ella’s attitude about life after senior year, but I was significantly more freaked out about my future. And the present.
I could hear the sounds of more people arriving next door. Hopefully no one would puke in our driveway this time. That had been known to happen before, but my dim and clueless parents blamed an animal. They thought some sort of wild animal had barfed up corn and strawberry wine coolers.
“Well, we’ve got to do something,” Grace said finally. “I’m going to go crazy if we just sit in your room all night, doing nothing.” Grace was beyond ready for senior year to start. She began to get seriously antsy in August every year, and didn’t really unwind again until mid-June.
“I’m happy here,” I said with a weak smile. “Inertia, you know? A body at rest likes to stay at rest.” Even as I said it, I realized how lame that sounded. But guilt wasn’t going to get me off the couch.
“I think I just saw someone throw up behind Johnny’s garage,” Ella said, stirring. “And it’s only six o’clock. If we’re not going to Johnny’s party, I don’t want to watch his party. It’s seriously pitiful. Want to do a little joyriding in your new wheels, Soph?”
“Okay,” I agreed. I’d just inherited my aunt Suzy’s car, which had been stuck in my grandparents’ old barn for the last ten years. The car was heinous and made funny noises when I turned right, but it was all mine—and, more importantly, it had been Suzy’s until she died. As the baby of my mom’s family, Suzy had been more like an older sister to me. Driving around in her car made me feel connected to her in a way I hadn’t in a long time.
“It’s a real looker,” I reminded them. “A luscious tan Toyota, circa 1995—my aunt had impeccable taste.” I joked about it, but my aunt truly had loved her car. She’d saved for several years and had bought it only a few months before the accident that killed her. The car was brutally ugly, but she’d adored it and everything it stood for. Suzy had always told me that her car represented freedom. She had bragged about how it was going to take her places, how it would set her free. My carefree aunt had often talked about things like that, things I hadn’t understood when I was eight. Things I was beginning to understand now.
“It’s a car,” Ella said, shrugging. “You have a car. I don’t care what color it is, or even if it farts when you start it. It gets us from point A to point B, point B being anywhere other than here.” She peered out the window as someone screamed down below. “Okay, now someone is peeing on the raspberries. Let’s go.”
“Tonight’s goal, as always, is to find Sophie a date.” Grace squirmed in the front seat of the car next to me, full of energy. She jiggled her leg and opened and closed her window. Nervous energy. East Central’s sports teams didn’t start practice until the first day of school, and Grace didn’t do well when she couldn’t get her restlessness out on the field or the court or the track (the venue changed, depending on the season). So she got her energy out by planning things for everyone else. “Good plan?”
“A fine plan.” I pulled the car out of my driveway and headed uphill. “The catch is, we have to go up the hill in search of guys. Actually, we’ll have to experiment with what happens if we only go straight or left, because my car makes rude noises when I turn right. Any objections?”
“So we’re just going to go left all night?” Grace asked, pulling her eyebrows together. “Where are we going to end up?”
“You sound a little scared, Gracie,” Ella teased from the backseat. “Don’t like the idea of an unknown destination, eh?”
Grace waved her arm in the air dismissively. “Go left. Knock yourselves out.” She pulled out her cell phone and sighed happily.
“How is good ol’ Ian?” Ella asked. It was obvious Grace was cooing over a text from her perfectly polished, white-toothed, uptight boyfriend. “Is he ready for a super-duper first day of school?”
I shot her a warning glance as we drove past the grocery store and a gas station. Ella thought Ian was a dweeb of epic proportions, and I sort of agreed, but she was supposed to keep that opinion locked away. It seemed like he made Grace happy, and I didn’t want to see our happy threesome split up because Ella couldn’t keep her opinion about Ian to herself. “He could have come out with us tonight, Grace.”
“Oh, no, it’s okay. He didn’t want to intrude.”
“What a sweetheart,” Ella said. “If only I had a boyfriend just like adorable Ian.”
Grace sighed happily again, either pointedly ignoring or blissfully unaware of Ella’s sarcasm. Sometimes it was hard to tell if Grace feigned naivety to keep conflict to a minimum. Ella could be a real turd a lot of the time. “I know. I wish we could find someone perfect for both of you. Unless you’re ready to actually start talking to Peter Martinson again this year, El? I think you should.”
“You will?” I asked. Ella had been in love with the same jerky guy forever. She and Peter Martinson had kissed, once, way back in seventh grade, and she had been trying to figure out a way to finagle a do-over ever since. Ella firmly believed that she and Peter were made for each other, but that nothing else had ever happened between them because she’d kissed like a leech. Whatever that means. I think nothing else ever happened between them because they’d be a strange couple and had nothing in common, but there was no convincing her of that. “When?”
“I will. Sometime. Eventually.” Ella stared out the window. “But at the moment we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you. After all, tonight’s goal is to find you a date. A man date.”
The road hit a T, and I had to turn. I went left again, heading onto the beaten-down old road that slowly wound around the far side of the golf course. I knew it would wrap us around so we’d be headed back downhill eventually. It was a gorgeous evening, we had the windows down, and we weren’t really in any hurry to get anywhere in particular. I reveled in the fact that I owned a car and could drive anywhere I wanted, with no end point in mind. “I’m all about finding me a date,” I said as the wind whipped at my ponytail and pulled pieces loose around my face. “But please don’t say ‘man’ like that. It sounds like I’m trying to hook up with someone’s dad. Man implies old, bald guy.”
“Gross.” Grace giggled beside me. “Sophie, I wish you and Sean were still together.” She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed, as though she was comforting me through a difficult breakup.
“I don’t,” I said, and meant it. “Sean acted like an eleven-year-old, and his mouth was always cold.”
“His mouth was always cold?” Ella blurted out. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “I mean, kissing him reminded me of drinking a milkshake. Even after we’d been kissing for, like, five minutes, his mouth still seemed cold and slippery. It was like his spit failed to keep pace with the rest of his body heat.”
Ella and Grace both said “ew,” but it was true. I’d dated slippery-lipped Sean Holton for a month and a half at the end of junior year, and his chilly spit was only part of the problem. He was also completely shallow, and we never had anything to talk about. Mostly, we just hung out when a bunch of people got together on the beach or at someone’s house. He was a boyfriend of convenience and circumstance more than someone I would have actually sought out and kept around for a meaningful amount of time. I don’t think he necessarily adored me either, but it was nice to have someone to kiss. Until I realized he was sort of a waste of time. Why bother, when it wasn’t going to go anywhere?
There were a few guys I’d hung out with since high school had started—none for more than a few weeks or months—that were like Sean. Guys who were fine enough, who seemed fun and even were fun…at first. But no one was worth any significant time investment.
“Sadly, the pool of potential is smaller this year,” Grace reminded me. “You’ll either have to dip into the underclass boys, or take another look at our class now that everyone older than us is taking off for college.”
“Well, at least Ella still has Peter,” I said sweetly, grinning back at Ella. “There’s always seventh-grade crushes to fall back on.”
As I drove on, I thought about how people had always said senior year was when we’d see tides shift (a cheesy term, but I swear I’d heard that—verbatim—from someone). I’d assumed that meant we were supposed to evolve and live out all our unfulfilled childhood dreams so we could head out into the world with no regrets. Oh, The Places You’ll Go, and all that.
But so far it all felt exactly the same. Same conversations. Same lame jeans I’d been wearing since freshman year. I was pretty sure that when school started in a few days, I’d find the same mole on the back of Brennan Donnelly’s overly large head, always nodding and bobbing right in front of me in half my classes.
“…remember, there are plenty of other fish in the sea!” Grace was saying, when I tuned back into the conversation they were still having about Peter Martinson. I peeked in the rearview mirror just in time to see Ella roll her eyes.
Suddenly, the car lurched and there was a loud boom. A rock or a funny pothole or—God forbid—a small mammal with sharp horns attacked my tire and pulled my fancy new car out of my control for a few seconds. Something thunked and the car screeched out a banshee scream as it lilted to the right. I slammed on the brakes and we came to a sudden stop on the rocky shoulder. “Crap.” I put the car in park and unbuckled my seat belt.
“What was that noise?” Grace asked, peeking out from between her fingers to see if someone or something had landed on the hood of the car. “Did your car just scream at us?”
“I told you, it doesn’t like to go right,” I grumbled.
“Did we pop a tire?” Ella asked, opening her door. She and I both climbed out of the car to inspect for damage. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. This car really is a beauty, eh?”
“I have a spare,” I said. “My Grandpa kept the car well stocked. And this isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere. The golf course is right there—someone might come by eventually. Or we can walk back to a busier road.”
Ella and I wandered around to Grace’s side of the car. The front passenger tire was, indeed, flat. I didn’t see any dead animals, which was a relief. I’d never been big on blood—or anything else that suggested danger. “Who knows how to change it?” Grace climbed out of her seat and stood next to us, all three of us in a line looking at the flattened front tire. The doors of the car stood open, gaping, and everything was silent.
No one said anything.
“Please tell me one of you has done this before?” I put my hands on my hips and faced my friends. “Grace?”
“Nuh-uh,” she said. “I can look it up on my phone, or call Ian, if you want.”
“Don’t call Ian,” Ella said sharply. “I’m sure we can figure this out. We’re smart girls. It can’t be that hard to change a tire.”
I nodded. “Maybe there’s something in the car manual? A visual step-by-step, or at least some tips?”
“Yeah, you guys look for the manual and get the tire out,” Grace said, all business. “I’ll try to find a little how-to video on my phone.” She sat in the gravel on the side of the road and pulled out her phone. “I only have one bar, so it’s going to take a while to load something.”
Ella settled in on the car’s hood while I dug through the glove box, searching for the car’s manual. I knew I had a spare tire in the trunk, but I wasn’t sure what else I needed and I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t pull the car apart when we began to disassemble things. It had been mostly parked in a garage for ten years, after all. It was probably rotting from lack of use.
When I found the little booklet in the glove compartment, I realized it was sort of a miracle that the car’s manual was even still in the glove box. The car was older than I was.
I sat next to Ella on the warm front hood and quickly searched for the section on tires. As I flipped to the back of the book, a piece of paper fluttered out of the manual and fell into my lap. Ella looked over my shoulder.
“What is that?” she asked, her smooth hair tickling my cheek as she leaned in close.
I scanned the paper, realizing it hadn’t been attached to the manual. It was handwritten, a piece of lined notebook paper filled with faded ink. The handwriting was small and scratchy, and I immediately recognized it as my aunt Suzy’s. I stared at it, stunned.
After she died, my grandparents got rid of or put away just about everything of Suzy’s almost immediately. It was their way of moving on, my mom had explained at the time. I remember how angry I was at the time that they’d been so eager to erase her, to chuck everything so unceremoniously and hide any remaining memories of her away in a box in the attic. Sometimes now it seemed as though she’d never been part of the family at all. No one ever talked about her. She had always just been a warning to us all—don’t be too careless or stupid, don’t push boundaries. The unspoken last part of that lesson was, “or you’ll die.”
Though my grandparents had purged almost everything, they decided to keep her car, but only out of practicality. In the ten years Suzy had been gone, they’d used it as an extra set of wheels that they could pull out of the garage when one of my mom’s six other siblings came into town to visit.
I was eight when she’d died, only ten years younger than Suzy, but not yet old enough to realize she was being erased. Otherwise I would have fought to keep something for myself, anything more than a picture that would remind me of her. But all I had were memories and a few fading photographs, and I’d never dared to ask for more. We were a family that didn’t talk about difficult things, and so it was taboo to talk about her.
But now I had found some sort of list.
Grace looked up from her phone. “This is taking forever. There’s no way I’m going to get a video to load. I think I better try to find a blog or something.” She furrowed her brow. “Any luck over there? What did you find?”
I waved her over. “Look,” I said quietly, scanning the paper. “This was tucked inside the car manual.”
Grace squinted at the paper. “What is it?”
“It’s some sort of list,” Ella said, her bony shoulder pressing against my side as she leaned into me. “Like a list of dares or something. From 2002!”
“ ‘Number one,’ ” I read, finally getting my eyes to focus on the paper. “ ‘Jump off Hanging Rock.’ ” The jumping spot at Hanging Rock jutted forty feet out over the swimming hole, and you had to get your toes right up to the very edge before jumping in order to clear the branches that hung out from the cliffside below. The water at the bottom was near freezing most of the year.
“Look at this one,” Grace said, blissfully unaware that the list was making me feel sick…especially the last thing on the list, which I had just noticed and was now trying hard to ignore. “ ‘Number four: Get invited to one of Seth’s parties…and actually go.’ ” She looked at me pointedly. “Huh. Sounds like Sophie and Johnny Rush.” I tried to smile.
“ ‘Number ten,’ ” Ella said, pointing. “ ‘Confess my crush and kiss X.’ Who do you think X is?”
“Ooh,” Grace cooed. “He’s a man of mystery.”
I cleared my throat and said, “A boy of mystery. Remember, ‘man’ makes it sound like he’s a baldy.”
Ella snorted. “Maybe he is a baldy. Maybe he has a beard.”
“I doubt it,” I said, knowing my aunt would never have gone for a guy with a beard. She always got on my dad’s case for his fugly mustache, and she hated my grandpa’s goatee.
“So what do you think this is?” Ella asked. “Some kind of bucket list? A list of goals? Dares?”
I swallowed, my throat suddenly thick with tears that were suddenly just there. “Maybe.”
“Or secrets. Maybe they’re someone’s secrets? Things they’ve done, and they wrote them down?” Grace drummed the tips of her fingers together, excited about the prospect of being privy to secrets without having to pry. She wasn’t a big gossip herself, but loved when gossip accidentally fell in her lap.
“It’s Suzy’s list,” I said numbly. I stared at the list without seeing the details. “My aunt’s. She died in 2002.”
“Oh my God,” Grace said. “Of course it is.” Grace and Ella knew about Suzy. We were already friends when she’d died, and they’d come to the funeral, sitting quietly at the back of the church while I squeezed into the front with my extended family. They’d played a big part in me getting over the loss, but Suzy hadn’t been someone we talked about much since. I pretended I’d gotten over it—I thought I had gotten over it—but I suddenly wasn’t so sure.
“You okay?” Ella asked, her hand touching my knee.
“Yeah,” I said casually. “It’s just a little weird, you know?”
Ella nodded. I scanned the rest of the list, realizing a lot of the things on it sounded a little too familiar. Many of the things on the list were things I’d always wanted to do—things it seemed everyone else at our high school did—but that I hadn’t ever bothered to actually do. I was always disappointed that nothing ever changed in my life, but I never actually went to the effort to do anything about it.
“Let me see it,” Ella said, pulling the list onto her lap. She looked at me when she said, “It’s really sad, actually.”
I nodded. She’d hit on exactly what I’d been thinking. It seemed like these were all things Suzy had wanted to do in her senior year. But she hadn’t been able to finish. And the list had been lost and forgotten for all these years.
Ella and I looked at each other. “Nothing is crossed out,” I noted. “Do you think she just forgot about it, or do you think she didn’t get a chance to finish before the accident?” I was relieved when neither of my friends answered. I didn’t really want to think about the answer. And I was still pointedly ignoring the last thing on the list, since I knew she’d at least attempted it. I folded the list in half. “Anyway,” I continued, after a pause. “The important thing is that it’s Suzy’s list. She had a list of goals or dares or whatever, and this is it.” I held the folded paper in my lap.
“Do you guys have a list?” Ella finally asked, to break the silence. She looked from me to Grace. “Everyone has one, right?”
“You have a bunch of secret dares stored up inside?” Grace asked, crinkling her forehead. “Like what?”
“Like kissing Peter Martinson again,” I offered up, on Ella’s behalf.
“Yeah, I guess Peter counts. Other than that…I don’t know,” Ella said slowly. “There’s just stuff, pushed away in the back of my mind that I sort of always hope I’ll have the nerve to do. Like, I’ve always wished I could turn myself into a prep to see what it felt like to blend in, for once.”
Grace and I both laughed. “You should!” Grace giggled. “You’d be a cute prep. You can borrow my pearls.”
Ella took the list out of my hand, and then looked at Grace and me. “Don’t you guys have some stuff, too? Things you wish you could do?”
Of course there were things, but I’d never let myself dwell on them. If I did, it would be depressing. I didn’t need to write up a list of reasons I should be disappointed in myself. My mom probably had a hearty list of my failures already jotted down and notarized—we were good at judgment in my family—and I bet she would happily provide me with a copy if I asked for it. There was a reason I never went after all that much…it was too easy to fail and let my parents and everyone else down.
Grace bit her thumbnail nervously. She’d been a nail-biter since I met her in first grade, but had managed to confine the chewing to just her left thumb by the time we hit high school. That thumb looked like beavers had attacked it, though the rest of her hand was pristine. It was all about control, and Grace had plenty of it. “I know I’ve never wanted to do this first thing on the list—jump off Hanging Rock,” Grace said finally. “My mom would kill me.”
“If you didn’t die in the process,” I muttered. They both shot me looks. “I’ve sort of always wanted to jump off Hanging Rock,” I admitted. “But it scares the crap out of me.”
“You have?” Grace asked, sitting up. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wish I could.” I wished I was the kind of person who did that sort of thing, but the idea of actually jumping off Hanging Rock made me want to hurl. I was deathly afraid of heights, and even more afraid of general danger. Some might call me a coward. Those some might be right.
I lay back on the hood of my busted-up car again and stared up into the sky. I could have lain there for hours, watching the sky in its captivating stillness, but that wasn’t going to get my car out of the ditch and back on the road again. Neither, I worried, was I. “I guess now I wish I could figure out how to change a tire?”
Grace and Ella both laughed. Then Grace whooped, grabbing the list from me and waving it around in the air. “Number two! Learn how to change a tire. It’s fate.”
“You guys?” I said suddenly, sitting up so my elbows were resting on the hood of the car. I tilted my chin up so my ponytail swung in the air behind me. I squinted into the darkening sky and said, “What if we used her list?”
“Like, as a tool for changing the tire?” Grace asked. “How is it going to help? It’s just a regular old piece of paper.”
Ella laughed out loud before saying, “I think Sophie’s suggesting that we use the things on Suzy’s list. Take this list of dares or dreams or whatever they are, and do them.”
I nodded. “Yeah. We could fulfill Suzy’s destiny—live out her last wishes, sort of. We would need to revise the list a little bit—change up names, fiddle with things to fit our own lives.” I got jazzed as I carried on. “We can introduce some modifications, but keep the spirit of the list and finish it with her. For her. To live the life she would have, if she’d lived.” Maybe figuring my own life out would be easier if I was pretending to live out a part of someone else’s.
As I looked at my friends, I started to get really excited. Suzy’s dares and dreams could kick-start senior year with some fresh ideas, a little new excitement, a bit of the something I needed to get my life in motion. My aunt’s car was like a genie, granting me wishes I didn’t even know I’d asked for.
“Something’s got to change, you guys.” I said quickly. “I just feel like nothing ever happens, you know? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my life, exactly, but it’s like—I don’t know—I haven’t evolved or something.”
“So fix it. The world is your oyster,” Grace chirped enthusiastically. I groaned. She patted her hand nervously on the hood of my car. “No, really!”
“That phrase is on the poster in Mrs. Sims’s office,” Ella said. “You can’t believe everything you read on the guidance counselor’s wall.” When Ella said it, I could suddenly see the poster, hanging on the wall behind Mrs. Sims’s desk. There was a picture of a person inside an oyster shell that was painted to look like the earth.
“So what if it’s on Mrs. Sims’s wall?” Grace demanded. “The sentiment is true. Life is what you make of it.”
“Yeah, and I’ve made nothing of mine,” I grumbled. I stared down at the paper that represented my aunt’s unfinished life. Fate had dropped a chance to change into my lap.
“So do this, then,” Ella said with a smile.
Grace nodded reluctantly. “It could be fun.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling optimistic, even as the last thing on the list stared me down and scared the hell out of me. I started to say something, but Ella cut in.
“A few of these are a little out there,” she said, studying the list. “ ‘Borrow a motorcycle’…that means steal, right? ‘Dine and dash.’ And this one—” She pointed. “ ‘Make them envy me, for once.’ Was Suzy a little bitter?”
“I don’t know,” I said with a shrug. “Never with me. But she was always more of a rebel than anyone else in the family. Though that isn’t saying much.”
“What about that last one?” Grace asked, peering over Ella’s shoulder at the list. “ ‘Number sixteen: Eat dessert on top of the water tower.’ Is that even something that’s possible?” she asked, wide eyed.
I nodded and took the list. “People do it all the time—climb up the water tower, I mean. Still. Even though that’s how Suzy died.”
Grace gasped. “Oh my god, Sophie, I didn’t even think about that!”
I bit my lip. “It’s okay.” I stared into my lap, watching the words on the list swirl as tears sprang into my eyes. “It was an accident, not your fault. And it’s not like we’ve talked about it much since then.” I didn’t have a lot of details about that night. But from the little my family had told me, and the little I’d since learned on my own, Suzy had been climbing up the water tower on the night a big storm had rolled in. Apparently bad weather had come in fast and ultimately turned into an ice storm. She slipped from the top of the tower and plummeted to her death.
Ella narrowed her eyes at me and said, “So she died doing something on this list.”
I looked at her and lied. “We don’t know that.”
Ella squinted. “We kind of do. It’s right here. Number sixteen. Is it just me, or does it seem a little stupid to talk about trying to do the stuff on this list when your aunt died doing one of these things?”
I shrugged. It was a fair point. But suddenly the list felt essential, somehow. Like the missing piece I’d been waiting for. “Maybe it is stupid. But I still want to try to do the other things on her list. It feels like something I have to do. For her.” For me, I added silently.
“What if we act like number sixteen isn’t there?” Ella suggested. “Keep it from feeling morbid?”
“Sure,” I agreed, even though I really couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. It was. But that didn’t mean the whole list was worthless.
We all sat, processing, for a few minutes. I wanted to feel the pressure of trying something new—of risking something before we were thrown out into the world with a bunch of strangers and all of the security of home stripped away. By fulfilling Suzy’s dares, my friends and I could practice stepping out of our comfort zones with each other to fall back on. I was intimidated by the list, sure, but I knew there had to be some reason I’d found it. “Will you do it with me?”
My friends glanced at each other. Ella leaned up against me. “We’re with you, Soph.” Her eyes sparkled. “But you know, there are obviously some things that can’t or shouldn’t actually be done by all of us, like…” She scanned the list. “Like number nine: Confess a crush and kiss X.” She smiled sheepishly. “We can’t all kiss X. That’s just sort of skanky.”
“I’m not kissing anyone but Ian!” Grace said, knocking her fist on the hood of the car. The minitantrum made Ella and me burst out laughing.
“Calm down, Grace.” Ella rubbed her head. “Obviously, I’m kissing X, where X equals Peter Martinson. Fair?”
“Fair,” I grinned.
“Maybe…” Ella added sheepishly.
I folded the list up and stuck it in my back pocket. Then I scooted off the hood and faced my friends expectantly. “Okay. Let’s start with number two and go from there.” I clapped my hands, my body bubbling up tiny bits of excitement at the challenge that lay before us. “So who’s pumped about learning how to change a tire?”
“I’m proud of you,” my dad said at dinner the next night. He stabbed a piece of pork and stuffed it into his mouth before charging on. “You could just as easily have called Triple A, but my girl changed a tire all on her own. That’s what I call initiative!” Dad laughed, his huge, embarrassing guffaw of a laugh that made me cringe when we were at home and made me want to melt into a puddle of invisibility in public.
I didn’t realize we had Triple A, or I probably would have called someone. Then I remembered the list in my pocket, and comforted myself with the knowledge that we’d already completed one of the things on it. Calling Triple A to bail you out was not on Suzy’s list—figuring out how to change a tire was. After nearly an hour, my friends and I had managed to find and assemble the jack. It was rusty and there was something sticky and black that covered most of it. There were no instructions on how it worked, so we’d fussed and fiddled for far too long, playing with all the parts and trying to figure out where, exactly, it was supposed to connect to the car. Luckily, the spare tire was clean, but also small looking—so small, in fact, that I wondered if it was just a toy tire put inside the trunk as a joke. I felt ridiculous driving home, but we’d made it.
“Are you ready for your first day of school?” My mom rushed past the table. She didn’t stop to hear my answer, just bustled along, gathering up papers she’d scattered around the house for the past week as she prepped for her night class. “I have to get my butt in gear,” she said, still not realizing I hadn’t answered. “Class starts in twenty minutes, and I need to make copies of the syllabus.”
“You could just post it online,” I suggested. “Save a tree.”
She stopped for a nanosecond and pointed at me. “You’re right. Sophie, you’re a lifesaver.” She lifted her hands in the air and wiggled her arms. “Digital age!” she sang. She stopped singing and whooping long enough to hover over the table and stab a large slice of pork tenderloin, taking bites off it like a child might eat cotton candy. “Will people actually look at it if it’s only online?”
I shrugged. “How motivated are your students this semester?”
“Haven’t met them, but I can safely say: probably not very,” she laughed bitterly. “This class is always full of morons.” Mom was always quick to judge. “Let’s keep that between ourselves, shall we?” She popped the last bit of pork in her mouth, shoved her things into an old diaper bag that she still used as a purse, and planted kisses on the top of my head and my dad’s head.
“Good luck,” Dad boomed. “You look sharp, Sylvia.”
“Thanks, Matt.” Mom smiled. “Can you see the Popsicle stain on my blouse?”
Neither Dad nor I actually looked (we knew you could see it—whatever she’d spilled, you always could see it), but we both answered without hesitation. “Nope.”
“Not at all.”
“Excellent. Can one of you clear my plate? I’ll just make some toast later. God, I hate Tuesdays.”
“And Thursdays, and Saturday mornings,” I muttered.
She flew out the door. Dad and I sat silently for a while, chewing the overcooked pork. I could hear the fridge motor in the kitchen, switching on and off, and noticed that my dad’s jaw clicked on every fifth or sixth chew. I looked at him, trying to figure out something to say about something, but could come up with nothing.
My dad and I had very little in common. He’d always preferred my brother, and my mom had always been mine—especially after Suzy died, my mom had felt this pressing need to protect me. And when Shane went off to college, Dad had sort of stepped back and disappeared (as much as someone that loud can disappear). What had been infrequent family outings became even more infrequent mother-daughter dates. I’m fairly sure my dad would have loved to just move into the dorm with Shane, if that sort of thing wasn’t frowned upon.
My mom had picked up a second job right after my brother left, to help pay for college and fulfill some unfulfilled something, blah blah. She worked in human resources at the energy company, but that wasn’t enough to challenge her, she said. So she’d found a gig teaching management classes at our local community college. She had gotten her MBA online when I was in middle school, and the teaching gig had come out of that. So now she worked full time, plus two nights and a weekend day.
“Do you want to take a look at the tire tonight?” I asked finally, standing up to dump my dishes in the dishwasher. “Help me get a real tire back on? I don’t really want the spare to come flying off while I’m driving to school tomorrow.”
Dad laughed again, and I wished—not for the first time—that he had a volume knob. “Of course. You’re a smart girl—successful at everything you do. I know how careful you are, so I’m sure it’s on there nice and snug.” He could have easily given me a thumbs-up when he said that and it wouldn’t have been out of place. “But sure, dear, I’ll get a real tire back on there in a jiff.”
“Thanks.” I drifted off. Dad didn’t ask where I was going, and I didn’t tell him. There wasn’t really any reason to worry with me, since I never got into any kind of trouble.
I decided to head down to the lake to sit by the water and relax. I still really missed my old neighborhood, which was within easier walking and biking distance of just about everything, but this house had the benefit of being on the lake. I loved that I could just wander through the backyard and stumble down the steep, dirt-crusted hill that led to the water.
I kicked at the grass as I walked through my backyard. It had gotten long and was lush and green, because of all the end-of-summer rain. My bare feet would be stained green, that color that only exists in summer, a color I’d long ago decided was the most perfect shade on earth and it was a shame they hadn’t named a crayon for it.
Just before the lawn fell away, ending suddenly where erosion had ripped away the edge of the grass, there was a small garden that had been left by our house’s previous owners. None of my family were big gardeners, so we’d left the plot untended. Weeds had grown up, choking the asparagus that had just appeared—ta da!—the first summer we lived in the house.
Nothing good had come up since that year, but I’d only recently noticed that a pumpkin vine had appeared this year where none had been before. I crouched down to check on the five fruits that had been growing for the past few weeks. Every time I pushed the leaves aside, I was delighted to find the orange treasures hidden underneath, secretly growing and thriving despite my family’s complete negligence. The plant had picked our garden to move into, and had somehow made it, in the worst possible conditions.
“They’re getting big. Dibs on that one.”
I jumped up. I hadn’t realized anyone was behind me, and the sound of a familiar voice startled me. “What?”
My neighbor, Johnny Rush, thrust his hands in his pockets and gestured with his chin. “That wrinkled one. I want it.”
“Okay,” I said, and started to walk away. Frankly, Johnny Rush seriously intimidated me up close. Before he graduated, Johnny was the most charming guy at East Central. And he was dating Mackenzie Gardner, who was as gorgeous as she was powerful. I wasn’t sure why he and I were suddenly having a random conversation about pumpkins in my backyard.
“What are you up to?” he asked, trailing along behind me.
“Nothing?” I answered, not quite sure why I sounded defensive. It was my yard. He’d crept up on me. But I felt like I was on the spot. I got like this a lot when I was in unfamiliar situations. At school, in classes I was fine—school was something I could study for and I always knew that if I was volunteering to speak, I knew the answer. I was comfortable around the people closest to me, but everyone else was iffy. “Looking for the Great Pumpkin, I guess.”
“It’s not here. What you’ve got here is a pumpkin patch full of stowaways.”
I gave him a funny look.
“Did you plant those big guys?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Then they’re stowaways. Crept into your garden from who knows where and made a home for themselves. Squatters.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Why would you?” he said, grinning. “They’re pretty cool.”
He stood there, looking at me like he was expecting me to say something more. I wasn’t sure what.
The only thing I could think of to say was, “Haven’t you left for school yet?”
His eyes flickered down to the ground, just for a moment, and then he said, “No, not yet.”
“I guess most of your friends are gone by now?”
“A bunch of people left, yeah. Just about everyone takes off sometime in the next few weeks. I have time for one more party, probably.”
“Excellent,” I said. Then I thought about Suzy’s list, and remembered that I was supposed to go to this one. I looked away, then slowly began the slide down toward the lake. Johnny followed after me, and the pebbles that his feet dislodged shot into the backs of my legs. “What are you doing?” I turned and looked up at him, sliding down the embankment behind me.
“Are you sneaking down to the lake to pee or something?”
“So why all the privacy?” He lifted his eyebrows. “Let’s hang out.”
I turned and continued down the steep path. He was following me. I guess he was bored.
Johnny hopped off the path when he was still about three feet above the beach, and his shoes made a loud crunching sound when they landed on the rocks.
I waited for him to say something more. But he just plunked down, grabbed a few rocks, and began skipping them. We sat in companionable silence for a while. I perched on my favorite rock, a big striped one that jutted out into the water. I loved the way this specific rock changed colors when it got wet. I got up and picked a piece of long grass, the kind with a little tuft on the top, and dipped it in the water. I began to draw lines and shapes on my rock, watching as the rock morphed from dull gray to black and red with sparkly bluish tones slicing through it in places.
A few times, I opened my mouth to say something, but was at a loss for words. Eventually, Johnny said, “How’s your brother?”
“No, the other brother.”
It was a stupid thing to say, but I laughed anyway. “He’s fine.”
“Does he get home much?”
“He did,” I said, thinking about how much I missed having my brother at home. When Shane had been around, we’d done things as a family. When we were still a foursome, everything was more relaxed. But since he’d gone to college and eventually stopped coming home for summers, I was anxious more often. I spent too much time worrying about where I was going to go next, what would happen to me after high school. I tried not to obsess, but it was getting increasingly hard not to wonder.
When my brother had been around (and Suzy before him), none of the future stuff had seemed to matter as much. My dad always approached conversations about my future with this annoying optimism that made me freak out just a little more every time he patted me on the back and expressed his confidence in what would become of me. I didn’t even have answers for myself, and that was what worried me. “Not enough anymore.”
“You’re not loving the only-child life?”
“Not so much,” I said, continuing to trace patterns on the rock until every free space around me was wet and filled with shimmering colors. Then I stretched my feet out in front of me and wiggled my grass-green toes. When I looked up, Johnny was watching me and I immediately grew self-conscious.
He knew it. I could tell. The silly grin gave him away. “Don’t you like your parents doting on you, giving you gifts and special time?”
“It doesn’t exactly work like that,” I said, trying to shift focus. “Is that how things work at your house? You have sisters, right?” I was pretty sure Johnny had two sisters who were a few years older than he was—maybe a year or two younger than Shane, but I couldn’t really remember. I seemed to remember them being around when we first moved into the house, but then they were gone.
“Twin sisters. They’re high achievers.”
“Not really,” he said. “I don’t exactly measure up. One’s finishing up at Yale, the other one’s at Columbia. I applied for Madison, and that’s it.”
“Madison is a good school,” I said. In fact, the University of Wisconsin was one of the schools I was considering for next year. I liked the idea of getting lost in the grandness of a giant school, being able to duck and weave into the fabric of people around me with no one keeping a close eye on my every move.
“It’s not Yale,” Johnny said archly, putting his finger in the air. “Madison is not Columbia. Therefore it’s not a real school and it was not a valid choice.” He paused and muttered. “Doesn’t really matter, at this point. The time for that argument has passed.” He threw a few more rocks into the lazy waves, then turned one over in his hand, considering it. Eventually he walked over and handed the rock to me. “This is a good one.” He glanced at the rock I was sitting on, then reached his hand out and traced one of the red lines that ran along the surface.
I let the small black stone he’d handed to me rest in my open palm, marveling at its perfect oval shape. It had a vein of yellowish green running through the center. It was one of the prettiest rocks I’d ever seen on the beach.
When I turned to say something, to thank him for the bizarre gift, I realized Johnny was gone. He was scrambling back up the hillside, without another word.
© Erin Soderberg Downing
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