The summer i turned pret.., p.17
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       The Summer I Turned Pretty, p.17

           Jenny Han
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  I walked over to him and sat on the edge of the bed with my back pushed up against the wall. "I'm sorry," I began. I'd been practicing what I would say, how I would say it, so he would know how sorry I was. For everything. But then I started to cry and ruined it.

  He reached over and kneaded my shoulder awkwardly. He could not look at me, which in a way was easier. "It's not fair," I said, and then I began to weep.

  Jeremiah said, "I've been thinking about it all summer, how this is probably the last one. This is her favorite place, you know. I wanted it to be perfect for her, but Conrad went and ruined everything. He took off. My mom's so worried, and that's the last thing she needs, to be worrying about Conrad. He's the most selfish person I know, besides my dad."

  He's hurting too, I thought, but I didn't say it out loud because it wouldn't help anything. So I just said, "I wish I had known. If I had been paying attention, it would have been different."

  Jeremiah shook his head. "She didn't want you to know.

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  She didn't want any of us to know. She wanted it to be like this, so we pretended. For her. But I wish I could have told you. It might have been easier or something." He wiped his eyes with his T-shirt collar, and I could see him trying so hard to keep it together, to be the strong one.

  I reached for him, to hug him, and he shuddered, and something seemed to break inside of him. He began to cry, really cry, but quietly. We cried together, our shoulders shaking and shuddering with the weight of all of it. We cried like that for a long time. When we stopped, he let go of me and wiped his nose.

  "Scoot over," I said.

  He scooted closer to the wall, and I stretched my legs out next to him. "I'm sleeping in here, okay," I said, but it wasn't a question.

  Jeremiah nodded and we slept like that, in our clothes on top of the comforter. Even though we were older, it felt just the same. We slept face-to-face, the way we used to.

  I woke up early the next morning clinging to the side of the bed. Jeremiah was sprawled out and snoring. I covered him with my side of the comforter, so he was tucked in like with a sleeping bag. Then I left.

  I headed back to my room, and I had my hand on the doorknob when I heard Conrad's voice. "Goood morning," he said. I knew right away he'd seen me leave Jeremiah's room.

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  Slowly I turned around. And there he was. He was standing there in last night's clothes, just like me. He looked rumpled, and he swayed just slightly. He looked like he was going to throw up.

  "Are you drunk?"

  He shrugged like he couldn't care less, but his shoulders were tense and rigid. Snidely he said, "Aren't you supposed to be nice to me now? Like the way you were for Jere last night?"

  I opened my mouth to defend myself, to say that nothing had happened, that all we'd done was cry ourselves to sleep. But I didn't want to. Conrad didn't deserve to know anything. "You're the most selfish person I ever met," I said slowly and deliberately. I let each word puncture the air. I had never wanted to hurt somebody so bad in my whole life. "I can't believe I ever thought I loved you."

  His face turned white. He opened and then closed his mouth. And then he did it again. I'd never seen him at a loss for words before.

  I walked back to my room. It was the first time I'd ever gotten the last word with Conrad. I had done it. I had finally let him go. It felt like freedom, but freedom bought at some bloody, terrible price. It didn't feel good. Did I even have a right to say those things to him, with him hurting the way he was? Did I have any rights to him at all? He was in pain, and so was I.

  When I got back into bed, I got under the covers and

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  cried some more, and here I was thinking I didn't have any more tears left. Everything was wrong.

  How could it be that I had spent this whole summer worrying about boys, swimming, and getting tan, while Susannah was sick? How could that be? The thought of life without Susannah felt impossible. It was inconceivable; I couldn't even picture it. I couldn't imagine what it would be like for Jeremiah and Conrad. She was their mother.

  Later that morning I didn't get out of bed. I slept until eleven, and then I just stayed there. I was afraid to go downstairs and face Susannah and have her see that I knew.

  Around noon my mother bustled into my room without even knocking. "Rise and shine," she said, surveying my mess. She picked up a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and folded them against her chest.

  "I'm not ready to get out of bed yet," I told her, turning over. I felt mad at her, like I had been tricked. She should have told me. She should have warned me. My whole life, I had never known my mother to lie. But she had. All those times when they'd supposedly been shopping, or at the museum, on day trips--they hadn't been any of those places. They'd been at hospitals, with doctors. I saw that now. I just wished I had seen it before.

  My mother walked over to me and sat on the edge of my bed. She scratched my back, and her fingernails felt

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  good against my skin. "You have to get out of bed, Belly," she said softly. "You're still alive and so is Susannah. You have to be strong for her. She needs you."

  Her words made sense. If Susannah needed me, then that was something I could do. "I can do that," I said, turning around to look at her. "I just don't get how Mr. Fisher can leave her all alone like this when she needs him most."

  She looked away, out the window, and then back down at me. "This is the way Beck wants things to be. And Adam is who he is." She cradled my cheek in her hand. "It's not up to us to decide."

  Susannah was in the kitchen making blueberry muffins. She was leaning up against the counter, stirring batter in a big metal mixing bowl. She was wearing another one of her cotton housedresses, and I realized she'd been wearing them all summer, because they were loose. They hid how thin her arms were, the way her collarbone jutted up against her skin.

  She hadn't seen me yet, and I was tempted to run away before she did. But I didn't. I couldn't.

  "Good morning, Susannah," I said, and my voice sounded high and false, not like my own.

  She looked up at me and smiled. "It's past noon. I don't think it counts as morning anymore."

  "Good afternoon, then." I lingered by the door.

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  "Are you mad at me too?" she asked me lightly. Her eyes were worried, though.

  "I could never be mad at you," I told her, coming up behind her and putting my arms around her stomach. I tucked my head in the space between her neck and her shoulder. She smelled like flowers.

  She said, still in her light voice, "You'll look after him, won't you?"

  "Who?"

  I could feel her cheeks form into a smile. "You know who."

  "Yes," I whispered, still holding on tight. "Good," she said, sighing. "He needs you." I didn't ask who "he" was. I didn't need to. "Susannah?" "Hmm?"

  "Promise me something." "Anything."

  "Promise me you'll never leave." "I promise," she said without hesitation. I let out a breath, and then I let go. "Can I help you with the muffins?" "Yes, please."

  I helped her make a streusel topping with brown sugar and butter and oats. We took the muffins out of the oven too early, because we couldn't stand to wait, and we ate them while they were still steaming hot and gooey in the

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  middle. I ate three. Sitting with her, watching her butter her muffin, it felt like she'd be there forever.

  Somehow we got around to talking about proms and dances. Susannah loved to talk about anything girly; she said I was the only person she could talk to about those kinds of things. My mother certainly wouldn't, and neither would Conrad and Jeremiah. Only me, her pretend-daughter.

  She said, "Make sure you send me pictures of you at your first big dance."

  I hadn't gone to any of my school's homecomings or proms yet. No one had asked me, and I hadn't really felt like it. The one person I wanted to go with didn't go to my school. I told her, "I will. I'll wear that dress you bought me last summ
er."

  "What dress?"

  "The one from that mall, the purple one that you and Mom fought over that time. Remember, you put it in my suitcase?"

  She frowned, confused. "I didn't buy you that dress. Laurel would've had a fit." Then her face cleared, and she smiled. "Your mother must have gone back and bought it for you."

  "My mother?" My mother would never.

  "That's your mother. So like her."

  "But she never said . . ." My voice trailed off. I hadn't even considered the possibility that it had been my mother who'd bought it for me.

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  "She wouldn't. She's not like that." Susannah reached across the table and grabbed my hand. "You're the luckiest girl in the world to have her for a mother. Know that."

  The sky was gray, and there was a chill in the air. It would rain soon.

  It was so misty out that it took me a minute to find him. I finally did, about half a mile down. It always came back to the beach. He was sitting, his knees close to his chest. He didn't look at me when I sat down next to him. He just stared out at the ocean.

  His eyes were these bleak and empty abysses, like sockets. There was nothing there. The boy I thought I knew so well was gone. He looked so lost sitting there. I felt that old lurch, that gravitational pull, that desire to inhabit him--like wherever he was in this world, I would know where to find him, and I would do it. I would find him and take him home. I would take care of him, just like Susannah wanted.

  I spoke first. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. I wish I had known--"

  "Please stop talking," he said.

  "I'm sorry," I whispered, starting to get up. I was always saying the wrong thing.

  "Don't leave," Conrad said, and his shoulders collapsed. His face did too. He hid it in his hands, and he was five years old again, we both were.

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  "I'm so pissed at her," he said, each word coming out of him like a gust of concentrated air. He bowed his head, his shoulders broken and bent. He was finally crying.

  I watched him silently. I felt like I was intruding on a private moment, one he'd never let me see if he weren't grieving. The old Conrad liked to be in control.

  The old pull, the tide drawing me back in. I kept getting caught in this current--first love, I mean. First love kept making me come back to this, to him. He still took my breath away, just being near him. I had been lying to myself the night before, thinking I was free, thinking I had let him go. It didn't matter what he said or did, I'd never let him go.

  I wondered if it was possible to take someone's pain away with a kiss. Because that was what I wanted to do, take all of his sadness and pour it out of him, comfort him, make the boy I knew come back. I reached out and touched the back of his neck. He jerked forward, the slightest motion, but I didn't take my hand away. I let it rest there, stroking the back of his hair, and then I cupped the back of his head, moved it toward me, and kissed him. Tentatively at first, and then he started kissing me back, and we were kissing each other. His lips were warm and needy. He needed me. My mind went pure blinding white, and the only thought I had was, I'm kissing Conrad Fisher, and he's kissing me back. Susannah was dying, and I was kissing Conrad.

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  He was the one to break away. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice raw and scratchy.

  I touched my lips with the backs of my fingers. "For what?" I couldn't seem to catch my breath.

  "It can't happen like this." He stopped, then started again. "I do think about you. You know that. I just can't . .. Can you .. . Can you just be here with me?"

  I nodded. I was afraid to open my mouth.

  I took his hand and squeezed it, and it felt like the most right thing I had done in a long time. We sat there in the sand, holding hands like it was something we'd been doing all along. It started to rain, soft at first. The first raindrops hit the sand, and the grains beaded up, rolled away.

  It started to come down harder, and I wanted to get up and go back to the house, but I could tell Conrad didn't. So I sat there with him, holding his hand and saying nothing. Everything else felt really far away; it was just us.

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  chapter forty - four

  Toward the end of summer everything slowed down, and it started to feel ready to be done. It was like with snow days. We once had this great big blizzard, and we didn't go to school for two whole weeks. After a while you just wanted to get out of the house, even if that meant school. Being at the summer house felt like that. Even paradise could be suffocating. You could only sit on the beach doing nothing so many times before you felt ready to go. I felt it a week before we left, every time. And then of course, when the time came, I was never ready to leave. I wanted to stay forever. It was a total catch-22, like a contradiction in terms. Because as soon as we were in the car, driving away, all I wanted to do was jump out and run back to the house.

  Cam called me twice. Both times I didn't answer. I let it go to voice mail. The first time he called, he didn't leave

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  a message. The second time he said, "Hey, it's Cam. . . . I hope I get to see you before we both leave. But if not, then, well, it was really nice hanging out with you. So, yeah. Call me back, if you want."

  I didn't know what to say to him. I loved Conrad and I probably always would. I would spend my whole life loving him one way or another. Maybe I would get married, maybe I would have a family, but it wouldn't matter, because a piece of my heart, the piece where summer lived, would always be Conrad's. How did I say those things to Cam? How did I tell him that there was a piece saved for him, too? He was the first boy to tell me I was beautiful. That had to count for something. But there was no way for me to say any of those things to him. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I just left it alone. I didn't call him back.

  With Jeremiah it was easier. And by that I mean he went easy on me. He let me off the hook. He pretended like it hadn't happened, like we hadn't said any of those things down in the rec room. He went on telling jokes and calling me Belly Button and just being Jeremiah.

  I finally understood Conrad. I mean, I understood what he meant when he said he couldn't deal with any of it--with me. I couldn't either. All I wanted to do was spend every single second at the house, with Susannah. To soak up the last drop of summer and pretend it was like all the summers that had come before it. That was all I wanted.

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  chapter forty -five

  I hated the last day before we left, because it was cleanup day, and when we were kids, we weren't allowed to go to the beach at all, in case we brought in more sand. We washed all the sheets and swept up the sand, made sure all the boogie boards and floats were in the basement, cleaned out the fridge and packed sandwiches for the drive home. My mother was at the helm of this day. She was the one who insisted everything be just so. "So it's all ready for next summer," she'd say. What she didn't know was that Susannah had cleaners come in after we left and before we came back.

  I caught Susannah calling them once, scheduling an appointment. She covered the phone with one hand and whispered guiltily, "Don't tell your mom, okay, Belly?"

  I nodded. It was like a secret between us, and I liked

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  that. My mother actually liked to clean and didn't believe in housekeepers or maids or in other people doing what she considered our work. She'd say, "Would you ask someone else to brush your teeth for you, or lace up your shoes, just because you could? "The answer was no.

  "Don't worry too much about the sand," Susannah would whisper when she'd see me going over the kitchen floor with a broom for the third time. I would keep sweeping anyway. I knew what my mother would say if she felt any grains on her feet.

  That night for dinner we ate everything that was left in the fridge. That was the tradition. My mother heated up two frozen pizzas, reheated lo mein and fried rice, made a salad out of pale celery and tomatoes. There was clam chowder too, and half a rack of ribs, plus Susannah's potato salad from more than a week before
. It was a smorgasbord of old food that no one felt like eating.

  But we did. We sat around the kitchen table picking off of foil-covered plates. Conrad kept sneaking looks at me, and every time I looked back, he looked away. I'm right here, I wanted to tell him. I'm still here.

  We were all pretty quiet until Jeremiah broke the silence like breaking the top of a crème brulee. He said, "This potato salad tastes like bad breath."

  "I think that would be your upper lip," Conrad said.

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  We all laughed, and it felt like a relief. For it to be okay to laugh. To be something other than sad.

  Then Conrad said, "This rib has mold on it," and we all started to laugh again. It felt like I hadn't laughed in a long time.

  My mother rolled her eyes. "Would it kill you to eat a little mold? Just scrape it off. Give it to me. I'll eat it."

  Conrad put his hands up in surrender, and then he stabbed the rib with his fork and dropped it on my mother's plate ceremoniously. "Enjoy it, Laurel."

  "I swear, you spoil these boys, Beck,'' my mother said, and everything felt normal, like any other last night. "Belly was raised on leftovers, weren't you, bean?"

  "I was," I agreed. "I was a neglected child who was fed only old food that nobody else wanted."

  My mother suppressed a smile and pushed the potato salad toward me.

  "I do spoil them," Susannah said, touching Conrad's shoulder, Jeremiah's cheek. "They're angels. Why shouldn't I?"

  The two boys looked at each other from across the table for a second. Then Conrad said, "I'm an angel. I would say Jere's more of a cherub." He reached out and tousled Jeremiah's hair roughly.

  Jeremiah swatted his hand away. "He's no angel. He's the devil," he said. It was like the fight had been erased. With boys it was like that; they fought and then it was over.

 
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