Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
We pull into the parking lot of the A-
Diner. “You ready?” he says, and turns off the engine.
“This is my surprise?” I ask, looking into the diner. There’s a man drinking coffee at a booth, and a bored waitress reading a newspaper behind the counter. I’m trying not to feel disappointed.
Asher, on the other hand, is radiating excitement.
“Come on,” he says.
We walk up the stairs into the A-
. Asher holds open the door. I step in and immediately smell French fries and coffee. The waitress looks up from the paper.
So does the man in the booth.
I haven’t seen him in two years. I’ve never seen him with a beard before. It’s almost completely gray. “Dad?” I say.
“Hey, Champ,” he says, standing up.
“Merry Christmas, Lily,” says Asher.
This is not happening. This is not my life anymore
. But there is Asher, and there is my dad, like potassium and water. Any second now, there will be an explosion.
Everything starts to spin around me, and I look in panic, first at Dad, and then at Asher.
What the fuck?
I want to ask him. Of all the things you could have given me, you brought me to see the one person I hate most in the entire world.
FIVE MINUTES LATER,
I’m on a park bench across from Town Hall, snow settling in my hair. The single traffic light in town blinks yellow.
I pull out my phone and stare at it for a full minute. What I want is to talk to somebody who
me. Which is who, if it’s not Asher?
My mother, but I can’t tell her
I could call Maya, I guess, but I know she’ll just take Asher’s side. It’s what she always does.
So I sit, shipwrecked on the park bench with the snow coming down on the glowing glass of my phone until it goes dark.
The last time I saw my father was at a fencing match—two years
ago, I guess. I was down on the piste with my sword pointed toward the foilist from Hartshorn Academy. Thirty seconds into the match I flèched my competition with an ear-piercing yell. And the kid from Hartshorn
and ran back to his bench. Everyone in the field house laughed, applauded. The ref gave me the point.
Then, from the bleachers, I heard that voice. It had been four years. But I knew who it was without even looking. And that he was drunk. I remembered what it was like to have him in my life, what it was like to spend so much time so incredibly scared. On any given day, you never knew which dad was going to show up. Sometimes there was the nice one, the one who called me “Champ.”
Then there was the other one.
That’s my kid!
I dropped my foil and ran.
The snow is gathering in my hair and my teeth are chattering from the cold, but I feel like I’m being incinerated from the inside. From inside Town Hall, I hear people applauding.
“Lily.” I glance up to see Asher. He looks like he’s been shot with a bow and arrow. My first thought is
“I don’t really want to talk to you,” I tell him, and I get up and start walking away.
“Lily, wait,” he says, and he grabs my arm.
“Let go of me.”
“Please. Let me explain.” His pretty face is pale and scared now. “
He’s gripping me
. I can tell without even checking that I’m going to wind up with a bruise. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“I was trying to do something nice for you.”
“You thought it would be nice to stage a reunion for me with the person who ruined my life? Why would you think I’d
“Because I know what it’s like. Not having a father.”
Anger flickers in Asher’s eyes, but is quickly banked. “It
lucky, Lily. Not for me. It was like having a giant black hole in the middle of everything.”
“I would rather have had a giant black hole in the middle of everything than to have that
” I tell him.
“You don’t mean that.”
know what I mean? You weren’t there!”
I start to move away, but he grabs me by the arm again. “You’re right, I wasn’t,” he says. “I was
. Without my own father. And I thought maybe if I couldn’t fix that for me, I could fix it for you.”
I look him hard in the eye. “You,” I say slowly, “can get your fucking hand off my arm.”
I twist out of his grasp and start walking through the snow. It’s five miles to the house, but I will walk a hundred if it means I can stop having this conversation.
“Don’t you think he deserves a second chance?” Asher calls.
“No,” I snap.
“Lily,” Asher says. “You gave
Again, I stop in my tracks. The snow is coming down harder now. “Maybe that was my first mistake,” I say, and head toward the trail that leads through the dark woods to my house.
FIVE DAYS LATER,
I wake up sick. Correction:
sick. It’s my third day home from school. I can hardly remember Monday and Tuesday because I spent both days trying to avoid Asher and everyone else at Adams High. Whatever I’ve come down with started the night I walked through the woods, and keeps getting worse.
Although to be honest it is hard for me to separate how crappy I feel from being sick from how crappy I feel about Asher.
I don’t even know how in the living
he found my father. Social media? A private detective? Obsessing over it makes me crazy. What if Dad is still around here? What’s to keep him from coming over and knocking on our door? It’d be easy enough for him to find us. It’s a small town.
The bruise I got from where Asher grabbed me is greenish blue. Yesterday, when I told Mom I wanted to stay home, she looked at it and said,
Lily. Talk to me.
But what could I tell her? I didn’t have the words.
If that boy is hurting you, you have to tell me.
I opened my mouth, but instead I just started crying. So Mom put her arms around me and held me and we just sat like that for a long time.
He did hurt me, Mom,
But not like you think.
I’D ALMOST FORGOTTEN
that today’s the day I find out about the early decision from Oberlin. To be honest, all I want to do is sleep. At lunchtime, Mom comes in to check on me again. She’s not wearing her Forest Service uniform, which means she’s taken the day off to take care of me. She carries a mug of tea, which she puts down on my nightstand before placing a hand on my forehead. “You’re hot,” she says.
I take the tea and sip it. It is Irish breakfast, my favorite, although I wish that we had some of Olivia’s honey.
If I’m breaking up with Asher, that means I’m breaking up with his mom, too, I guess? Which is sad, because I really liked her. Once Olivia called me a
although clearly she didn’t know the mythology. In England pixies were thought to be children who’d died before being baptized.
She sits down on the edge of the bed. “You look terrible.”
“You’re supposed to love me unconditionally,” I say, but my voice is basically a croak.
My mother’s long braid swings down over her right shoulder. “Maybe we should take you to a doctor.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I just want to sleep.”
“Lily.” She clenches and unclenches her jaw. “I didn’t move us all the way across the country for you to be afraid of some”—she’s searching for the word—“boy.”
I roll over and close my eyes. “I’m not afraid of him. I’m afraid of me.”
“What are you afraid of?” she says.
How can I tell her? Mom, who’s done everything in the universe for me, who’s moved us twice, who got herself a job in New
Hampshire just so we could start over again? “I’m just afraid—” I say. “It’s not enough to make me happy.”
She thinks this over. “Some people,” she says gently, “have to fight for that harder than others.”
I think she is talking about me, but after a second I realize Mom is describing herself. She hasn’t really dated anyone since we left Seattle seven years ago. She doesn’t have friends she goes out for coffee or wine with. I feel bad for her sitting behind a desk at the forest headquarters in Campton, while all the teams that answer to her get to go out into the wild. I think Mom’s the kind of person who gets lonelier in an office with other people than when she’s on the Appalachian Trail by herself.
She stands, pausing at the bedroom door. “Don’t forget your tea,” Mom says, as her cellphone rings. She starts walking down the hall.
It feels like ages since we moved cross-country. Was it really just August when we shouted every time we crossed a state line? Nevada, the Sagebrush State. Utah, the Beehive State. Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois: Cornhusker, Hawkeye, the Land of Lincoln. The cornfields of Indiana, how they went on and on for days. The campus of Oberlin. Niagara Falls.
We crossed the Connecticut River late that same day. New Hampshire, the Granite State.
I had thought,
. I felt myself grow lighter as I read the sign:
Welcome to New Hampshire: Live free or die
Like it’s that easy.
MIDAFTERNOON. ANOTHER KNOCK.
Mom, with a thermometer and more tea: Lapsang souchong this time—the first black tea in history.
I pull the thermometer out of my mouth. “Mom,” I say. “I need to tell you something.”
There’s a dramatic pause and then Boris waddles into the room. He walks over to my bed, spins around three times, then collapses on the floor with a groan.
“It’s Dad. He’s
. In Adams.” I get this far and then I can’t tell her any more.
“I know. I talked to him this morning.”
“I don’t want him here!” I burst out.
“Don’t worry. He flew back to Seattle yesterday.”
I heave a sigh of relief. Only now do I realize how much I’ve been dreading him suddenly showing up at the house. Maybe that’s what’s been making me sick—the fear of Dad swooping in to wreck everything again.
Mom inserts the thermometer into my mouth again. “He told me Asher was the one who contacted him, and invited him out here. I don’t know what that boy was thinking.”
“That was the big Christmas gift. A
.” I speak around the thermometer.
“Lily, can you just not talk for one minute?” She looks pointedly at my lips, which I clamp around the thermometer.
She is quiet for a long beat. Finally she says, “We don’t know anyone as well as we think we do. Especially the people we love.”
Finally the thermometer beeps. “So am I supposed to forgive him?” I ask, as she squints to read my temperature.
Mom says, “A hundred point eight. I’m calling the doctor.” She stands up.
My phone pings and I know who it is even without looking. This will be the latest in the series of texts I’ve been getting from Asher begging me to talk to him.
“Should I text him back?” I ask Mom. I haven’t responded to him once. I’ve barely written to Maya.
“Why don’t you wait till you feel better,” Mom says, “before you make any decisions.”
DR. MADDEN SAYS
I need rest and ibuprofen. If I’m still sick tomorrow, or if my temperature spikes, I should come in. Mom heads to CVS to get Advil while I sit with a banging headache and a phone still blowing up from Asher.
Aren’t you going to answer me? At all?
I don’t write back.
I don’t write back.
Lily, promise me you won’t hurt yourself again. Just promise me that.
I don’t write back.
I get a text from Maya:
Do u want me to get your homework or anything from yr locker?
Im all set with HW thx just need sleep.
The next one from Maya reads:
I need 2 talk Asher is flipping OUT what happened
I don’t write back.
I give up and check the Oberlin site. They still haven’t updated my admission status.
I’m also applying to Berklee, and the Curtis Institute, and the Manhattan School of Music, and the Peabody. If I don’t get into Oberlin I’ll survive, I know that. But there was something about that campus. I could imagine myself there, the green quads, the buildings with their red-tile roofs. For the first time, I could really see my future.
I go downstairs, planning to kill time by practicing. Our home is very New England: all raw wood and exposed timbers and fireplaces. The only thing missing is a moose head on the wall.
I like it—but sometimes I miss the bay.
I sit down by the fireplace and get my cello out of the case. Drawing my bow across the strings, I close my eyes, and imagine waves crescendoing toward the shore.
Then I play the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 and go where that music takes me. The first time I played cello, it felt like holding the body of a woman in my arms. Even as a little kid, I thought,
Who is she?
And the obvious answer: the person I’d eventually grow up to be.
My fingers know this piece so well they move without my even thinking about it consciously. There are times when it’s like the cello is playing me, when I’m the instrument and the music is pouring through my blood.
I remember the mist rising up from the water when we stood by Niagara Falls. The guide talked about people going over the falls in barrels. One kid who fell into the river north of the falls was washed downstream. He didn’t even know he was about to go over Niagara Falls until he was already past the edge and hurtling downward.
According to our guide, he lived.
IT’S NOT A
long piece, the Bach No. 1, maybe four minutes tops, but when I finally lift my bow I feel like I’ve been gone a long time. My head doesn’t hurt quite as much, and I’m hungry. I decide to make myself lunch when I hear the sound of someone whistling outside.
I throw open the front door, and a blast of cold air rushes in. In the front yard is Dirk, who is the co-captain of the hockey team.