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Authors: Claire Zulkey

An Off Year

BOOK: An Off Year
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A member of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi -110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa • Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Claire Zulkey
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
CIP Data is available.
Published in the United States by Dutton Books,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
eISBN : 978-1-101-14024-6

To my husband, Steve Delahoyde.
I would have dedicated this to you even if you hadn't told me to.
I raised the key
and hesitated. Something wasn't right. I turned around. “You know, actually, I think I'm just going to go back home with you,” I told my dad, who was still trying to decipher the campus map.
“Yeah. I'm not going to stay here tonight.”
He blinked and folded up the map. Incorrectly. “Wait, I'm confused. Are you saying you want to get a hotel for the night or something?”
“No. We're going home. Now.”
“We?” he said. “You mean as in ‘not just me'? The two of us?”
“That's right,” I said.
“What?” he asked again.
A dry erase board with a marker clipped to it was stuck to the door. I picked up the marker and wrote to the girl who would have been my roommate: “Molly, sorry, I won't be here after all. Have a good year. Sincerely, Cecily.” The ink was a happy fuchsia color, fun for a fun girls' dorm room. Oh well.
I took a deep breath and faced Dad, preparing to be screamed at, ready to be told that there was no way in hell I was going home with him. This was new territory for us: I'd never really done anything like this, so I had no idea how he'd react. I was going to stand my ground, though, and keep calmly repeating my plan: I was not going to college today. I wasn't sure why this was the plan, but this was the plan, and I was sticking to it. If he didn't let me back in the car with him, I was prepared to walk back to Chicago. It would take many days, but I was wearing a comfortable pair of Chuck Taylors. I felt a little bit giddy. And also a little like I was going to throw up.
Dad stood for a moment, not looking angry, but pensive, like he was looking for the right word in the crossword puzzle. Across the hall, a mother and her daughter, both redheads, screamed at each other about how to put together the dresser they had bought at Target.
He looked down at the map in his hand for a moment, as if it might give us some information. I was dying to refold it for him. “Um, may I ask why?”
I shrugged and shook my head. “It's just . . . it's not . . . I can't. I just seriously can't.” I was having a hard time making a complete sentence. My brain had a perfectly articulated argument, but it hadn't reached my mouth yet. I paused for a second and willed it to flow out, but it obviously hadn't totally formed. So I shrugged.
Dad fixed his bluish-gray eyes on me, but I couldn't really look him in the eye because of the glare of the irritating fluorescent hallway lights off his glasses. “Cecily . . . are you sure? You don't want to sleep on it?”
“No. I'm absolutely sure.”
“You—” Dad started to say something but stopped, and for some reason gazed down at the horrible industrial carpeting under our feet that I didn't intend to look at for much longer. It was chocolate brown with flecks of yellow in it, probably to hide years of embedded dirt. Dad adjusted his glasses, ran a hand through the short, still mostly dark curls on his head, then put his hand in his pocket and took out the car keys. “All right.” He hesitated for a second.
Here it comes,
I thought. “If you're sure, then. Do you want to go home now or get some lunch?” he asked.
“We can get lunch on the way.” I was making decisive judgment calls all over the place.
We walked back to the car, past crowds of kids and parents rushing through the halls and the parking lot with boxes and trash bags full of clothes, all hugging and crying and yelling at one another. We got back in the car and drove west, putting Gambier, Ohio, behind us, stopping at an Arby's in Indiana to eat. I had a roast beef sandwich. I offered to drive at one point, but Dad just shook his head. It was pretty awkward, but I'd been through worse. I ignored the silence in the car and drowned out the questions in my head by reading each billboard we saw and imagining what they'd sound like if read in different accents.
We didn't say anything until we got home many hours later. We drove back into Chicago, got off the expressway, and headed east, turning onto our little street, which stretched along a short Lake Michigan beach. The sun began to set over the backyards—it was barely starting to rise when we left.
“Cecily, what about your stuff?” asked Dad as I closed the car door and headed to the house from the garage. My head hurt from watching the miles of cookie-cutter homes that bordered the highway on the drive back. I was glad to be back in our solid old redbrick house where things felt right again.
“I'll get it in a bit,” I said.
“So you're bringing it all in?”
“What else am I going to do with it?” I asked. Meaning,
No, in case you're wondering, we're not going back tomorrow.
When we walked in, my brother, Josh, stood in the kitchen cutting a sandwich in half on top of a paper napkin. Our cleaning lady, Yolanda, had come while we were gone, and the room smelled like Fantastik. Josh was leaving for school in a few days himself, to start his junior year in Madison.
“Hi,” he said, glancing toward us, and then did an actual double take, the kind you usually only see in the movies. “Wait. Aren't you supposed to not be here?” he asked me. Dad didn't say anything, just put his keys away in a drawer and went to the refrigerator to get a pop, so I would have to do the talking.
“I didn't want to go,” I said, as if I had walked out of a movie I didn't like. Superhero, our black regal-looking-but-often-silly Belgian shepherd, ran up to me, and I got down on my knees for hugs. “Hello, Mister Man!” I cried. Here was a perfectly good reason not to go to college: my dog wouldn't have it.
“Why?” Josh asked, taking a big mouthful of his sandwich, leaning against the counter in his mesh gym shorts and flip-flops, getting crumbs on the formerly perfect white linoleum.
“Is that roast beef?” I asked.
“I had roast beef, too. Arby's.”
“Nice. But why didn't you want to go? What's going on?”
I shrugged and retied my ponytail. The heat and humidity and general excitement of the day had styled the shorter curls around my head into a mini 'fro. Josh widened his eyes, looking at Dad and then back at me. It was that I-see-something-serious-is-going-on-but-I'll-get-the-details-later face. I tried to catch his eye, but he examined the ceiling, his eyebrows almost disappearing under his dark mop of hair. With nothing else to say, I started upstairs to my room, then suddenly realized that I had no idea what I would do when I got there. I was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. But it felt like it was the only choice. I had to pretend to know what I was doing for a little while—until I actually did.
“Cecily,” Dad said before I reached the landing. I turned around and looked down at him. “Somebody is going to have to unload the car.” He sounded normal, like he was asking me to get groceries out of the trunk after a trip to the Jewel.
“I'll do it in a little bit,” I said. I scrambled upstairs before I could hear Dad and Josh talking about me.
In the hall, I ran into my older sister, Germaine. Not literally, although we had spent the summer purposefully bumping shoulders when we walked past each other from our rooms on opposite ends of the hall, an unsubtle reminder that the house wasn't big enough for the two of us. Germaine had graduated from college just a few months earlier and was living at home, sort of looking for a job, sort of not. Germaine and I had never been great friends. I had hoped that being away at college would mellow her out, but instead she got even more irritable than she was before she left. She seemed to hate being at home with us; she usually sequestered herself in her room or went out with her boyfriend, or sat at the computer listening to bitter pseudofeminist pop through headphones while she e-mailed her friends about how much her life sucked. I didn't know why she didn't just leave.
Our household was sort of divided up into Team Mom and Team Dad. Germaine was on Team Mom; she looked like her (dirty blond hair, squinty blue eyes) and, like Mom, didn't really want to be around us. Josh and I, meanwhile, had Dad's dark curly hair and gray (sometimes blue or greenish) eyes. I put up with Germaine because I had to; I believed she was the negative energy in the house. Mom was sort of no energy; she hadn't lived at home since she and Dad divorced when I was eleven.
“What are you doing here?” Germaine asked. She smelled like coconuts and magazine perfume samples, which probably meant she had been tanning earlier. She flipped some long blond hair over her shoulder. She'd gotten her hair done recently, too. Busy day.
“What are
doing here?”
“I live here,” she said. “You're supposed to be in school.”
“Surprise!” I said, heading into my room. “They decided I was so brilliant they just automatically graduated me.” She snorted and went downstairs to get the whole story. I shut the door and lay down on the hot-pink carpet that I loathed and yet spent an inordinate amount of time on. My mother had cruelly picked it out and had it installed for me one summer while I was away at camp. I'm not sure why she thought I'd like the color of pink Lava lamps, but it was also insanely soft, so I tried to pretend it was actually magenta so I wouldn't throw up when I was in the room. After pulling out my ponytail holder so that my hair spread out around my head in a tangle on the floor, I stretched out on my back and watched the fading sunlight slant by on the butter-colored walls. My mind raced with terrifying worries about what was going to come next, yet my body felt calm and peaceful, which was extra confusing.
BOOK: An Off Year
5.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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